A Little Chat About the Weather
For the past year, I have felt inclined to apologize to various friends and family members for "being so political," and lately this has struck me as an almost alarming development in my thinking. As a former public high school teacher, I know better than most the anti-intellectual climate in which we live. There is a subtle and amorphous pressure out there to pretend that history does not matter, that words and ideas are no more than dust, an irritant to the eyes. I'll allow that we tend to see only the things that reinforce what we already believe. I know it's not cool to get worked up about anything, and we sure don't want to be boring. So I've found myself apologizing, which means the Borg has claimed more of me than I thought. The Matrix, it seems, is operating at full capacity.
Most people are just now starting to pay attention to the upcoming election and its ramifications. I realize I'm out there on the edge with my fears about the future and the entrenchment of fascism in America. "You're so paranoid," says a relative. "You don't really believe that stuff, do you?" asks my brother, a devotee of Rush Limbaugh. "Oh, people always think the world's about to end," says a friend, with a dismissive wave of the hand. Somehow, every time I hear a comment like this, I expect it to be followed by "Now, watch this drive."
A professor once pointed out to me that people fall into two categories in how they respond to the world: they either augment or diminish what they see. I knew right away I was an augmenter, meaning that I tend to add everything up and join disparate scraps into cohesive wholes. The professor was a diminisher, in that he tended to separate information into discrete categories and to downplay, instead of seek, connections. Given this admittedly simple frame of reference, it was easy for me to see how I became Chicken Little.
A series of moments in my life, seemingly unrelated, had organized themselves in my mind as a narrative. My dad left when I was two, and in his place grew the impression that my brother and I had failed to hold his interest. The Bible that I got at my graduation from nursery school had pictures, and from them I learned that God was something to do with the clouds. Every thunderstorm became a message, a flaming arrow directed at my sense of safety from invisible forces. At six, without any overt instruction from my tribe, I found myself conscious of the fact that I was scared of the kids in my class with brown skin or deformed hands. I was molested at eight. By the time I was ten, I had lived at least ten different addresses. My mom remarried and a sister was born, relegating my brother and me to the margins of the new arrangement. I was a quick study in the position of powerlessness and obedient silence.
Feminism gave me language to describe my experiences. Feminism did not make me angry, but it helped me put words to the rage I felt when my Old World great-grandmother insisted that my brother was superior by virtue of his gender; it fine-tuned the dissonance between what was said and what was done to anyone who was unwhite and unwhole; it revealed the ease with which my needs and fears were discounted by the people who were meant to be my champions in the world. By the time I was nineteen, I was constitutionally unable to go back to willing acquiescence with the status quo. I could suddenly see very clearly the parameters of my experience as outlined by history. All the tools used to malign my intelligence clattered into plain view on the floor, like knives from an assassin's trenchcoat. Language did matter. Thoughts were powerful things. I could choose to be ground by great wheel of our culture--or not--but I could never expect to be loved for being wise to the choice.
The spheres of the personal and political are not separate in my mind. I take what happened in the 2000 "election" very personally. Once again, an outcry was smothered in the name of preserving the richest, whitest, most macho guy's place on the totem pole. We are encouraged to believe that "God" put him there. According to the script, we are to fall in line behind Dear Leader and trust that he's looking out for us. This is no time for questions or troubling facts. "We are at war" has become the new American mantra, and it seems to justify all levels of ignorance, to dry up all channels of discourse. I can say from experience that when you lack the means to accurately describe what is happening, you can be destroyed without so much as a whimper of protest. I look around and I see accumulating evidence. You, perhaps, see unrelated random events that, in sum, change nothing. Maybe I'm wrong, but lacking armies or hegemonic will with which to enforce my world view, I can afford to be wrong. These days, I certainly hope to be.
In my own zig-zag toward political consciousness, I have come across some quotes from before and after the other wars in which arrogance, racism, and the limits of our tolerance for self-determination were tested. Each one seems particularly relevant now, as I scan the political landscape and scramble to hold up my little bit of the sky. Each is instructive in its own way.
Benjamin Franklin: "They that can give up essential liberties to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Abraham Lincoln, at the start of the Mexican-American War: "Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion...and you allow him to make war at pleasure...If today he should choose to say that he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us,' but he would say to you, 'Be silent: I see it if you don't.'"
Abraham Lincoln, at the end of the Civil War: "With malice toward none; with clarity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."
Adolf Hitler, before he invaded Poland: "The victor will not be asked afterwards whether he told the truth or not. In starting and waging a war, it is not right that matters, but victory."
Hermann Göring, Nazi propagandist, at his trial in Nuremburg: "Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell [the people] that they're being attacked, denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
And last, lest you mistakenly believe I'm a pessimist, my all-time favorite by Mohandas K. Ghandi, the "Great Soul" (Mahatma) who led India to her independence from Great Britain:
"When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it. Always."