Men Are Not For Burning – print by Leon Golub
Shown at the Ryerson Image Gallery in – Attica USA 1971: Images and sounds of a rebellion.
One of the most incredible works of intellect and human insight I ever came across was the book “Prisons We Choose To Live Inside” by Doris Lessing. So well written and humane that I saw it devoured and savoured even by a friend who swore he ‘didn’t like reading’ and hadn’t for years. Lessing’s ideas about politics and psychology were formed by the sort of a crucible that most modern western radicals can’t even imagine. Persecuted first for anti-racism work (and communism) in Africa before the second world war, later in England, moving well past (and writing as perceptively as Orwell, about the limitations of) Soviet style politics, she made important contributions to feminist thought (and then criticized feminists for reading those contributions in an imbalanced way), studied Sufism under Idries Shah (another author so fascinating that he cannot be put down), and wrote a couple of dozen of the most intelligent and relevant novels of the twentieth century.
Her book “The Good Terrorist” is unsurpassed for explaining how nice well-educated people can be drawn into morally extreme positions. Her science fiction novel “The Sentimental Agents of the Volyen Empire” includes hilarious descriptions of “Undulant rhetoric” the way words can become a disease inside our minds, when they take on a greater urgency and importance than the reality they were meant to describe. Her novel “Briefing For A Descent Into Hell” is probably the most frightening and realistic book I have ever read on the way social collapse feels from inside.
The fact that she learned from first Jung, then the Sufis, is important to me, because I still haven’t encountered any other schools of thought which look more clearly at the particular subjects they never left. Most especially, how many ways we fool ourselves, as individuals and as groups, and how much energy we spend defending ourselves against the growth we might choose instead.
Nothing simple about that stuff – and yet it is a big part of how we each live our lives, and especially, the way we feel about our lives as we live them. I have turned to that tradition of wisdom many times, because there I find inexhaustible understanding which helps me past paralyzing fury.
My first clue about this came when I was a young man who was positively endangered by anger – coming out of years of abuse and neglect, into what looked like inescapable recession and poverty. My reason was unable to step away from the anger – it was too good at proving it was just. What finally did help (a lot) was yoga – which was a much simpler (almost completely non-commercial) thing back then. I went to a few drop-in classes, I read some books, but mostly I just worked at it. Investing that time and care in training my body for well-being bypassed my angry brain completely, and I was astonished to find my mood and hope lifting irresistibly, as my body sent back increasingly powerful signals of readiness, strength, balance and flexibility. Soon I found myself impatient in a good way – for new challenges, connections, learning. Harder training and greater duty.
The connections between the uncountable traditions of Sufism and Yoga are complicated (and controversial), but the frequencies they address are undeniably related.
I should make it clear that I don’t claim to have defeated my anger, only learned tools to wrangle it, and thus brought it back into a scale where it no longer made me afraid of situations that might upset me. Also, I have struggled to wrestle it back into the barn more than once since then. Like an alcoholic, one has to be aware of where one’s head goes wrong most easily and often, stay on it.
Sometimes, observing the harm that a friend is causing themselves with anger feels insulting to them – as if we are refuting their just cause, instead of concerned about their high blood pressure. But if we look at our angry loved ones we see at once – fury cannot itself change the world. What it can do is endanger our health, our creative abilities and our happiness, and thus weaken our overall vitality, as well as the chances for our best gifts and contributions to have lasting impact. All sacrifice, no win.
I was overwhelmed by anger for some time about the election of W. Already massive voter suppression was going on – and there wasn’t a hint of respect for rules and decorum – surely the corruption would stick to the guy and stink to high heaven? But he was re-elected. The tragic (and again anger powered) forever war was formally endorsed by the voters of the nation. I was heartbroken, but I had to step back and apply a very old labour idea which I’ve experienced the truth of, repeatedly – “there are no bad workers, only bad management”. Of course we’ve all worked with incompetents and bullies, the point is that with good management we wouldn’t have had to – they would have acted better or been out the door, instead of empowered to harm and disrupt others. Less commonly appreciated – even a fantastically skilled team of experts can turn into a bunch of shiftless and inattentive whiners when they are steered badly, or not at all.
I’m not saying that the corporate aristocracy should be delivering better representatives into politics, I’m just saying the general public will only accept a reaming for so long, before demanding the jerks in charge be tossed out. Whether or not there are responsible alternates on offer.
As angry as I was at W, everything I have learned about Gore since then has made me depressed or frustrated. Hard to believe that the guy who personally made sure Kyoto targets were watered down to please American industry, even though he already knew his own government would never ratify the treaty, has now rebranded as if he gives a #### about the environment. Truly dazzling BS.
All this suggested that my anger was not about the difference between a full and a nothing, but between two very mediocre and dangerous men, one of whom was far better spoken and adapted to the dominant fix, while the other’s lies were easier to read, and recklessness closer to the surface. Even if the Iraq war had been averted (and there is some newer work suggesting Gore was also prone to arrogant stupidity on that file), there was no way either of the potential occupants of the White House on 9/11 was going to avoid bloody war.
More recently, I really was surprised when Trump won – but I was even more surprised by how determined the left proved, not to learn anything from that super-educational upset. The same folks who will routinely seek a frame of mercy for armed robbers, all of a sudden started pulling a million rabbits out of hats, screaming “See?” Angry accusations created mostly from hatred. Purest bias.
Yes, Trump’s team weaponized social media as best they could – using techniques which went far beyond those employed by Obama, who weaponized it first. Yes, the Russians enjoyed playing wrecker on the cheap – just as Russia and America have screwed with each other continuously for a full century now (and counting). “They are way better at Facebook than us,” is a legitimate accusation (or admission, depending on how you want to look at it), but the idea that new moral lines were crossed ignores a century of mutual troublemaking history. No high ground there at all.
Pee tapes, Trump as Putin’s extorted and obedient agent – this stuff was completely insane and promoted exhaustively without any compelling evidence whatsoever. Emotionally appealing – but crap. Worst of all, it gave him enormous leverage to put a number of negative stories about him which did have truth evidence and detail, into the same category of arbitrary raving. Sort of like the CIA versus the FSB, the left wasn’t as good at creating fake news, and certainly nowhere near as prolific, but their pundits also enjoyed the infotainment ratings a hell of a lot more than their long vanished integrity.
As far as I know, the meaning of language has never been reshaped so rapidly (rabidly?). The way the phrase “conspiracy theorist” is now used as a withering pejorative by the very same people who shared and adored these unhinged conspiracy theories about Trump is beyond bizarre. Not surprising though, tribalism always requires blinders and double-standards, that’s why it can’t unite enemies or be a stable basis for enduring policy. Anything done in the name of one team only will be undone when the tide next changes. Only true common advances will be defended by all (there is no ‘back to outhouses’ movement).
We heard Trump voters were all racist, or all of them were sexist, or ignorant gun-toting backwoods…. etc. Complete spite-fuelled shite. “What people I don’t like are like” arrogance writ large. What Hillary represented was not progress, but a continuation of the plan where the boomers rape the planet and the last one wipes their ass on the very last tree, before flushing the last fresh water down the toilet. Bye-bye, enjoy your cinder, suckers!
The one thing we can safely say about all of Trump’s voters is that all of them were ready for a change – even a nutty and risky one – because that deep dish of screwed-for-life wasn’t working for them anymore. Some did it for a joke, some voted against the old order while holding their noses. Many wished that the Democrats were the team offering the change-guy, and the Republicans had the stiff unlikable straight-man (gender notwithstanding).
Here’s the thing – the election was lost when they chose same-same Hillary. Which percentage was manipulated where, gerrymandering, voter suppression (which Obama ignored, even in his politically safer and more resource-prosperous second term) that is now number of angels on the head of a pin stuff. Avoiding the far more important point – almost anyone else would have done better.
You can’t lose to a person with no experience (or coherence) and still be right. Not in a democracy. They already knew going into it that no other candidate had anything close to her negative approval numbers, if she was the statesperson some claim, she should have put party and country ahead of ego and not even run. Problem is – just like Gore and Bush, once you get past the surface, she is a lot more like Trump than either would like to admit. Power hungry above all, and willing to say anything, even hateful racist and innocent endangering nonsense, to get it. She did that gleefully creepy super-predator hate-spot for votes – and no one ever forced her to lecture against gay marriage. To discover what someone really stands for, you have to look at what they stood for even when it was difficult, not what they reluctantly endorsed only when it looked like certain near-term political doom to resist the tide. Even doing the right thing can be a form of pure moral cowardice.
Anyhow – another close election proves that the first was no fluke – the expected public repudiation of Trumpism absolutely did not happen. Without covid, the guy would have got a second term (and America might conceivably have got its first post-republic ruling dynasty – roughly along the Caligulan model).
Anger at the Russians is warmongering nonsense, anger at people’s behaviour on social media is supportable, but staggeringly futile. Anger about the corporations themselves, and the profit they make from direct social harm is both seething hot and just, and still must be transmuted into a simple ‘general benefit’ argument with no technical language, or it won’t count for anything when it comes to the general public (and thus will probably fall below seeming worth the political capital, for the serious anti-trust legislation which could make a fundamental difference to the genuinely and increasingly societally dangerous memeopolies).
“Never endanger the rescuer or the rescue vehicle” is a practical line from a first aid manual which hit me hard decades ago, and has stayed with me ever since. Works spiritually also. Too often we feel we must represent the missing passion in the world, suffer for the suffering of others, take in the pain that others seem heartless by refusing.
But these lines from the Sufis (Rumi’s father, in this case) also come back to me again and again
“Overly cautious merchants do not prosper, because of their fear of loss. Brave merchants get broken ten times in a row, then rise at the end. Whatever you fear losing, throw it to the thieves following behind your caravan, especially if it’s your faith. Whatever you deeply love, give time to that, and if you’re drawn away, come back as soon as you can.
Fear has two forms. One is a worry about whether the effort is worth it. People caught in this bottleneck between yes and no stay tortured and confused. The second form of fear is for whether you will ever be able to make it to what you love. Let that one dissolve. Keep moving in the adored direction, and unless you’re shown it is absolutely impossible, continue going there.”
Strength requires balance, flexibility and relaxation, using it without all of those will injure us badly. Change that helps (and sticks) is powered by love. (just like real fun, deep purpose and true joy)
Now if only I could find a magic mirror someplace that would speak all this clever stuff back to me in a booming voice with ‘great hall’ reverb, to make me take these gathered compassion lessons more seriously myself, I might just have something really rather useful here, eh?
Here’s a piece with more about Doris Lessing, her great books, and my all time favourite Nobel prize reaction!
The quote from Rumi’s father is lifted from “The Drowned Book” a delicious translation by the always great team of Coleman Barkes and John Moyne (with the greatest of gratitude).