Dr. King…knew that a transformation of society in the image of peace would involve a full-scale reordering of priorities, dependent on a willingness to reject a politics of death and embrace one of life….For that to happen… society would need to be flipped right side up… a herculean task, one never likely to happen based on the goodwill of those in power. It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.
– Liz Theoharis, ‘“The Greatest Purveyor of Violence In the World”…’
Workingclass critical thought and creativity were always the heart and soul of this “rebel band of labor.”…it is not surprising that this One Big Union—which was so much more than a union—attracted, inspired and nurtured so many artists, poets and musicians.
– Franklin Rosemont, The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture
Receiving the news of the conviction of Derek Chauvin at the same time Orin and I are reading Rosemont’s fine book about Joe Hill and the IWW, and Joe’s sham of a trial that ended with his execution by firing squad on November 19, 1915, I have no simple response. Justice was served, but the unjust system with its constitutive tolerance for “banal barbarity” (as NY Times columnist Charles Blow calls it) – remains murderously intact. What would it mean if our collective aim were to be committed, using Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis’s words, “to saving the heart and soul of [our] society” from its “politics of death” and thereby “flipping society right side up?” Where would such an effort start? Most people raised to be responsibly well-behaved in and observant of the norms of white liberal middle class society and electoral politics, like myself, haven’t a clue, which makes this a bizarre and precarious time for liberals.
Gone forever is hegemonic liberal control of the narrative that could keep white middle class people at least nominally convinced of American goodness. Though this loss of hegemony is likely necessary if Americans are to find a truer narrative and a “politics of life,” it is disorienting! The off-balance liberal now must fear not just the passion of far-right fascism from those adhering to the “prosperity gospel.” As well she must shudder at the ego-deflating claims from the radical left, with their impassioned narrative that is antithesis to the cherished American identity now revealed to be rooted in and sustained by 500 years of barbarism in the New World.
Liberal “good guys” on the side of sober reason and logical consistency are out of their element in the realm of passion. They’ve lost their moral credibility except to themselves, precisely due to their (our) antipathy and ambivalence toward passion. Depending, as liberalism does, on prosperity for some (that is, for me and mine) even ifnot for all, and upon faith in the essential goodness of America and salvation-by-progress even as all signs – social, economic, environmental, etc. – point to imminent collapse, its narrative can only produce hypocrisy. Bloodless liberal reality lacks a narrative such as traditionalist native people have that can tell us We Are All One. Only a narrative of interdependence can conjure the necessary passion in liberal hearts either to counter the rightwing “extremists” or to join the oppressed in flipping society right side up.
Faced as we are now with the futility of holding to this narrative of faith in our own unassailable goodness, up to now vindicated by our relative prosperity and the triumphs of technology, we now must see it for what it is: a convenience and a cover-up for our fear of social transformation and its unknowns. Shaken as we naturally are in the terrifying winds of change, and for the last year by the trauma of pandemic, we need to ask, how do people change narratives? For this “herculean task,” we need our passion; we need to save our hearts and our souls!
The Missing Ingredient
Unaccustomed as we are to looking to Hollywood for revolutionary inspiration (for good reason!), it can be instructive to see how the movie industry, as a major shaper of our American context, aids and abets our clinging to the old narrative even when the film makers may have social critique in mind. Orin and I, in our ongoing online pandemic pursuit of old/classic movies for free or nearly free, watched an above-average western directed by Anthony Mann, The Furies (1950). By far the most attractive characters in the drama set in 1870’s New Mexico are Walter Huston’s T.C. Jeffords and his daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck). Not coincidentally, they’re the ones with passion, albeit of the power-seeking ruthless kind. Jeffords is a successful cattle baron who has thrown the “squatters” (those who were there first, i.e., poor Mexicans who’ve been farming the land for generations ) off the land he has bought, paid, and killed for. His daughter, though she defends one squatter family against her father’s wall-building policies, is cut from the same cloth.
The claim of the commons is not made explicit, but to the director’s credit it is there, even though the film’s plot and its entertainment value is based on the passions in the father-daughter drama. Though it noirishly includes critique, the movie doesn’t quite put us on the side of the Mexican “commoners.” Gratifyingly to moral conscience, Jeffords gets his “just desserts” in the end, and as well, we’re clearly meant to see the dynasty established in the last scene as the victory of ruthless capitalism. But in leaving the Mexican others as “others,” their passion unexplored and thus impossible to identify with, the movie, rather than striking a nerve that would ignite the heart’s inclusive vision of justice, leaves us with an intellectually satisfying skepticism. In this way, even a very good movie assists in the social cover-up, aiding and abetting liberal apathy.
Over and over, during 30-plus years of teaching college public speaking classes, I saw how the debaters arguing from the perspective of white aggrievement (now so familiar after Trump’s presidency!) were persuasive for their classmates, while the more carefully constructed liberal arguers, unable to make any emotional appeal, were not. Arguments that stood up for the rights of poor people, for corporations’ duty to clean up the environmental pollution they left behind after decades of amassing profits, for the rights being pushed aside by the USA Patriot Act, for the importance of unions, were noticeably lacking appeals to pathos. And what kind of moral claim can be effective without emotion?
Besides the fact that most students in my classes were from conservative upstate NY, or that in an earlier era they would mostly not have been “college material,” what was it that had incapacitated them to make appeals to emotion, to in-common human feelings (other than to fear, and to the anger that drives mobs)? Was this because they’d lost their grounding in the basic human aspiration that is not from ego or selfishness, but in the good for all? Left to battle their way in the “marketplace” the ideal of the common good, the dream of the passionate soul, was as strange to them as it has become to our society as a whole. They could not put themselves imaginatively into the “One Big Union” truth because that is not what they, or anyone else they knew, was taught. We had become, though no one exactly intended it, a society in which the trick of survival was not to slow down to let the last one catch up, but to race to the top, not with overt malice, but pragmatically, with charity for none.
Nineteenth-century robber barons of the T.C. Jeffords ilk, though decried by muckrakers, were society’s true heroes, the ones whose personalities were impassioned and therefore interesting. Gradually, without meeting any resistance, this worship of the moneyed class degraded further into worship of money and the celebrity that goes with it! Thus we who were appalled by the Trump presidency may legitimately ask, not how Donald Trump ended up President, but, only, why we’re not flipping society right side up!
Making Peace with Passion
Passion is quintessentially a matter of the heart and soul. The American left, if there is to ever again be a legitimate opposition to the fascist narrative, needs to end its time-honored practice of discounting emotion, and instead, seek after our lost but legitimate passion as if our lives depended on it. Unbeknownst to those of us confined in our materialist rationalist mind-frame the passion that’s been lost, discarded, suppressed or stolen under centuries of colonialism and profiteerism – i.e., passion for the good – is impossible outside the kind of narrative known as religious, that is, irrational and unverifiable. Religious myth is unambiguous: passion comes with testing and trial that must be suffered (that is, undergone) by one who responds to the supernatural call to her or his “destiny,” and thus to “bliss.”
As mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out decades ago in The Power of Myth, not all religious myths exalt suffering as Christianity did. But there are none that suggest transcendence or transformation, i.e., “flipping things right side up,” the prize or the treasure, can be attained “painlessly.” The criteria of suffering, though bad for promotional purposes, isn’t optional! Even the liberal’s finest motive – that is, for justice – can function as a way to avoid the suffering inherent in claiming one’s creative voice and nature. Serving that function, the liberal’s bottom-line grievance – for her missing passion – can be projected onto marginalized, oppressed others whose grievances, as the logical mind can affirm, are justified. Without such “official” backing, her legitimate passion for creative expression is treated like an unwanted immigrant at the border.
Liberal society’s message is that passion is unnecessary; it is illogical and irrational to suffer for any reason. Under this official denial, the real suffering of each person’s suppressed creative soul goes unnoticed according to tacit liberal agreement. Consequently, because we really are supposed to make “art, not war,” the majority of the world’s poor and brown people suffer for our “banal barbarity.” Moreover, in a mysterious way, the passion we decline and discount gets picked up and hurled back at us from our own white kind with the intensity of “the worst.” In our shared denial of the truth of interdependence, white people are true brethren, full of the kind of divisiveness and undying hatred that only siblings vying for scarce love can muster!
To change the narrative, to transform society in the direction of peace and justice, we’ll have to allow into our consciousness the reality we have for so long discounted. How otherwise can we find the passion that comes not from aggrievement, envy, defensiveness, helplessness, or victimhood, except in the creative soul, innately dreaming its Big Dream of interdependence and inclusiveness, expressing itself in song, dance, beauty, true comradeship, and the quickening of joy? Only then, when our responsibility is to the Big Dream of the commons, we might seriously attempt to live “irresponsibly,” irrationally, illogically – that is, revolutionarily.
The narrative for a just world can be told only by changed imaginations, only that is, with a change of heart in the narrator(s). We must look now not to the media pundits and the “really smart” people to recount our narrative, neither to liberal saviors Joe Biden nor Kamala Harris, nor to online influencers that only can buttress the same plutocratic, oligarchic story. The creativity with which each person is gifted is the location of humanly obtainable passion – like solar power, free and available to all; entrance barred to none except by our indifference to our own human need for transcendence and art.
In a society based upon competition, not a commons, those of us seeking an alternative narrative to the one of profiteering and barbarism need particularly to learn to read the false, socially-constructed barriers that have been erected to estrange us from our in-common gift of creativity because of its intrinsic power to dangerously impassion and enthuse those who practice it. Beware of bourgeois condemnation as if passion can only be a mob phenomenon (remember Hitler!) and of corresponding attitudes toward art and art-making. On one hand art is worshiped as “mystique,” an elite preserve requiring its non-artist gatekeepers. On the other, it’s a wildness (passion) against which the non-artist gatekeeper must defend her/himself with superior knowing and intellectual condescension. Though I have not seen it, I understand the Ken Burns documentary about Hemingway manages to erect yet another barrier against the creative commons, conveying the artist’s life more from mass culture’s lens of sexual identity and woundedness than from love for his art or for his anti-fascist politics.
In Utica this week Orin’s group of poetry- practicing friends, the Rag and Bone Shop Poetry Theater, walk this talk, presenting an in-person poetry reading in our small nonprofit arts space (seating pandemically limited to 20), next door to Cafe Domenico. In so doing, we consciously disobey the false “culture” that makes imagination uncommon and the common beneath notice. Like the Wobblies spreading the gospel of resistance through group song, we serve the bottom-up Big Dream of the One Big Union that begins in our own hearts and souls by our expressing them in each others company. This is the counter-cultural work so needed now if we are to restore passion in the desiccated liberal heart and replant our human roots in the flowing waters of imagination, that is, in a culture. This transformation alone changes the guiding narrative to one that is inclusive, interconnective, in-common; that flips society right side up.