Dreaming the Radical Transformation of White Society, or Making Existence Into Resistance

Photograph Source: Algeria-SP – CC BY-SA 4.0

Nothing less than a radical transformation of the surrounding white society itself, [African American author William Gardner Smith] concluded, could answer the (black) revolution’s demand for equality “in every sphere – political, economic, social and psychological.”

Adam Shatz, “How does it feel to be a white man?: William Gardner Smith’s Exile in Paris

“…in the struggle to overcome the weight of the past, father figures usually stand in the way of emancipation.”

Arwa Salih, The Stillborn

In a collection of essays by Adam Shatz, Writers and Missionaries: Essays On the Radical Imagination I was introduced to William Gardner Smith. Gardner Smith was among the black writers living in Paris in the 1950’s and 60’s, ex-pats that included Richard Wright and James Baldwin. One of his novels, The Stone Face (1963) was an account of the “Paris massacre of 1961,” an incident I, and many people, I suspect, have never heard of: the mass killing, by French National Police, of 200-300 Algerians living in Paris during the time of the Algerian War. Unpublishable for decades in France, the novel contained one of the few existing eyewitness accounts of that event. Gardner Smith, though like his fellow exiles appreciating the freedom granted them among the white French, was practically alone among the revolutionaries in standing with the Algerians in their anti-colonialist struggle.

This willingness to “bite the hand that was feeding him” indicates a deepening of the man’s commitment to justice that took it beyond the “acceptable.” Just as Dr. King’s calls for ending the war in Vietnam and for economic change indicated a deepening of his understanding of racism and its interdependence with conditions that implicated the powerful and wealthy at the top, Gardner Smith’s support for the Algerians – a kind of anarchist recognition that an injury to one is an injury to all – was headed in the same direction. Not surprisingly, but definitely unusual, Gardner Smith placed the burden for change in the direction of justice where it belongs, upon white people and white society. I interpret this as implying that white people who genuinely want a more just society must be concerned with change that is, to echo MLK, Jr., not just a little reform here and a little there, but a complete (radical) transformation of the institutions of the society of which we are the determiners.

For anyone existing in “normal” Western consciousness such radical change has to strike one as impossible. Meaning, that the illusion we cling to tells us to talk bravely about a better world but confine ourselves, always – in our bid for “sanity,”and to stay on the safe side – to this “actual” one. In fact, though, impossibility is no absolute barrier, as has been demonstrated in all ages by those who free themselves from the tyranny of the possible and join with the dreamers and utopianists! But what’s needed for the impossible task of transforming white liberal society is a dream – a fancy – a counter-illusion so powerful it transforms the dreamer.

My take on this, as my readers know, is that such dreams are not reserved for extraordinary geniuses like Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Jesus or Gandhi. Nor do such dreams necessarily require something of us we feel unready for. Rather, they lead us, step by step, in a process of change that is as much a deepening in imagination as a throwing ourselves against the barriers. Much better if one’s very life, its fruit and its expression, holistically, is the resistance. For that to be the case, if a person’s life is to be animated by meaning, not just “killing time” (i.e., voting for the lesser of two evils!) between birth and death, we have to know the “dream” is life.

Many of Shatz’s excellent essays are centered in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. A poster in a Palestinian refugee camp stating, “Our existence is resistance,” exemplified for the writer how oppression has become a way of life for Palestinians. Turning the idea around, finding meaning for it in our condition as white Westerners, I suggest we need to find the way to exist as the larger beings we are that makes our existence into resistance. For the fact is, as ensouled human beings – people with capacity to be dreamers – we are what is being cleansed under global corporate materialist domination! Turning our existence into resistance will only happen when we think in the way our humanity makes us capable of – from the heart – demanded of us now, by the universe, or by God, or by Love, or by Utopian aspiration, how ever one conceives unitive reality.

Shatz reveals many times over how the complexity of that conflict – like the complex situation for the black writers in Paris aware of Algerian oppression by the French – eludes mainstream reporting and western consciousness. Counter-intuitively (and radically) he suggests the left’s own anti-colonialist narrative – its certainty – stands in the way of receiving – hearing – demanding – complex truth. We need, therefore, not to know every true fact in order to counter half-truths. We need to be inside the dream that transforms the dreamer, our actions not guided by carefully protected “sanity,” but by the imaginal utopian reality (expanded narrative) that allows there to be both complexity and the absolute good of Peace.

Staying with the utopianist perspective – practicing uncertainty – is the task I set myself as a writer and in my intimate and communal life; it’s an impossible challenge for which I depend upon receiving help “from the universe” that sustains my dreaming. My married life could be summed up, in a way, as a continuing challenge between egoic (defensive) certainty and the knowing that comes up from the soul like peace, and has little to say for itself (no defense!) except it feels better. And the universe brings help in other ways. The Shatz book, for example, came my way by chance; Orin picked it up at the library for an essay on the French film director Melville. For another, the opera Candide, which I saw at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown last month, served to remind me of Voltaire’s genius, showing the tyranny over imagination that Pangloss’s “best of all possible worlds” faux-philosophy is, explaining every horror of history, every trust-shattering instance of man’s inhumanity to man with its signature cheery optimistic certainty.


More help “from the universe” has come to me through observing how the media flurry following the death of the singer Sinead O’Connor has featured her trauma. For to me, awareness of trauma is key to a culture of transformation. “Ahead of her time,” as now is being said of her, Sinead based her activism, unusually and courageously, in the awareness that responsibility for the childhood abuse she suffered went “all the way to the top,” (i.e., to the pope), thus shattering any convenient conceit of the best of all possible worlds. Furthermore, in his Chris Hedges Report , Hedges focuses on the epidemic of trauma – for its “grave individual, social and political” implications – as he interviews Dr. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.

Trauma and utopianism are inextricably linked. Just as trauma must find its meaning in knowing “this should not have been,” utopianism has to be grounded in knowing the unthinkable is as true as the fairer dream of peace and justice. If the key to social transformation lies with white society, then it’s in the hands of those of us who, given enough luck and affluence, can escape the worst consequences of history. Unconsciously they/we take advantage of racism not by holding racist attitudes but by securing our existence in the one, going economic-political system. In a very large part they/we can do this because the understanding of trauma is so limited, and it is so limited precisely because of the power arrangements that have so effectively shaped western history and civilization and in so doing have traumatized everybody on both sides of the racial line.

But for white people, protected by luck and affluence, if they even try to grasp what PTSD is, it is as something fully regrettable, but inflicted upon others, either through domestic abuse, systemically in racist oppression, or upon soldiers in wartime. Maintaining this objectivity about the deep injury to the soul that trauma is requires denial; it functions precisely like Pangloss’s best of all possible worlds, keeping uncertainty at bay. In this way, objectifying trauma preserves the “impossibility” of transformation. So powerful is denial, that this fact cannot be altered unless/until trauma is experienced personally.

Only through the experience of one’s personal pain, of which, having grown up in “the best of all possible worlds,” they/we remain unaware, or at “best” believe it’s a personal flaw, can individuals take their personal cause that’s also the universal cause of the injured soul, by which we are linked with all other human beings, “all the way to the top.”

More than likely, Sinead O’Connor’s mental pain was exacerbated by her extreme aloneness – having committed only the “wrong” of having acted on behalf of the utopian impossible in the world where everyone who can manage it is still trying to stay in the best of the possible. We can only be on the side of the injured ones by losing our obeisance to the possible and taking up allegiance to the impossible. So now, when the mainstream media is helping us discover how much we actually loved Sinead, when what she could have used when she was alive is a world that is not dedicated to the possible (a world, in other words, that is sane), maybe we can think again?

The radicalizing, transformative understanding of trauma can come neither collectively nor intellectually for white society – we’re not as a whole an oppressed group – but only individually, by experiencing actual pain and suffering through unearthing the trauma buried in the personal body. I’m not saying, “Yeah, pain, go for it.” I’m suggesting the denial of pain drives the need for certitude that is the obstacle to transformation of white society in the direction of justice and peace. It blocks the larger, utopian truth, the Big Dream that both affirms my trauma and tells me it was not my personal fault nor even, ultimately, my parent’s or other abuser’s fault, but the fault of a God-impostering social structure that prefers its certitudes because that is what serves the interests of the powerful. Left outside of the truth of the inclusive dream, as most people are in liberal secular reality – the loneliness of being on the side of one’s traumatized soul’s truth is overwhelming. Perhaps this was the case for Sinead, whose understanding of utopian brotherhood may, tragically, have been limited by the Catholicism in which she was reared and from which her own blasphemous actions had gotten her banished.


My discussion of the link between trauma and utopianism must take in another element, a psycho-spiritual one. It helps further explain why social transformation thus far has occurred most energetically and effectively at the rightward end of the political spectrum. I refer to the toxic effects of the dominant “archetype of the negative father,” discussed lucidly in Paul Levy’s book Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil. Influenced by Jungian psychology, by First Nation thinker/writer Jack Forbes, and, importantly, by his own experience. Levy reveals the archetype as largely responsible for the pervasive rigidity in western culture, very linked with the origins of trauma in brutality. The toxicity, Levy explains, comes from the “calcification of consciousness due to fear of its own weakness.” Out of weakness the negative father dominates and uses force over others, rather than “participating in a reciprocal, dialectical relationship.”

As well, however, and most importantly, the archetypes are mythic forces functioning in the unconscious of every human being; the father archetype we love to hate is a catalyst for discovering “individual power and authority.” Outright rejection (i.e., “I’ll never be like my old man”) doesn’t work, as we well know from so many instances; such positions of certainty block the soul’s transformational process.

Equally dangerous is the unconscious positive father archetype. In one of Shatz’s essays he looks back at the period of Egypt’s high revolutionary hopes in the 1960’s, hope that was subsequently shattered. Shatz refers to the writer Arwa Salih, who suggested that the breakdown of the radical Egyptian left was due to its attraction to then-President Gamal Abdul Nassar. In a Sinead O’Connor way, she pointed to this attraction being at the same time a disastrous attachment to state power and it was this that caused the failure of the left to transform the Arab world, and the death of Arab hope.

In relation to the archetype what’s called for is neither infantile cancellation nor flag-waving patriotism but conscious relatedness. The importance of the archetypal father figure, potentially dangerous as long as it is unconscious, is its essential role in the transformation of consciousness. The liberal Western world, having rejected patriarchy, sees its remaining task as simply to flush out, prosecute and punish the abusers and to get more women into positions of power. So far, we refuse the transformational task and cannot, therefore, see our own covert kind of hero worship: our blind allegiance to corporate-backed state power.

What else can we call the stubborn faith among liberal Democrats that a hero will arise, and I will not have to give up my 401K? Surely by today in liberal America the absolute bottom of the barrel of that stubborn need for the “hero” (and its attached and equally unconscious allegiance to state power) has been reached! In fact, maybe it is an act of grace that Biden leaves absolutely no possibility of being seen as a hero! There emerges no leader whatsoever to oppose the feared Trump Presidency, answer to the hero-worship needs of those who unconflictedly long for the return of patriarchal order and “the way things used to be!”

The “solution” I offer for our dilemma is undramatic; in fact, it removes the “drama” from the dramas that sell “the news” and puts it back in its proper place in the imagination of individuals living intact, local, interdependent, improvisational lives in community. Existence Is Resistance. Our anthropocenic age demands, not an end to the heroic ideal, but a different location for the heroic, so that meaning can be restored bottom-up. Transformational instead of ideological change suggests only what human beings are uniquely capable of – an act of will informed by the heart.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.