The Positive Power of Thinking The Unthinkable
I woke up with history on my mind. Not the polished history of textbooks but the felt sense of living in the past. In rapid succession, I saw myself in a series of moments, in a series of places I had never lived: Germany in the thirties, Korea under Japanese rule, apartheid South Africa.
The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” but in my vision, I understood that politics can also be war by other means: a conflict between forces driven on one side by the desire to gain power, territory, wealth; and on the other by the will to survive, the will to freedom. In each of the places I saw in my vision, history shows us that the oppressor eventually lost. But before that happened, millions of ordinary citizens were deprived of livelihood and well-being, incarcerated, tortured, exploited as slave labor, exterminated — by other ordinary human beings who somehow grew to accept this as normal, as just another turn of the wheel, and who let it unfold.
Most people I know believe that if those ordinary oppressors — the ones who grew inured to others’ suffering, who perhaps saw it as collateral damage for the greater good, or who simply averted their eyes — could only for even a moment perceive the real impact of their compliance with injustice, they would repent and pursue justice.
The question I am asking today, having so recently awakened from a nightmare of history, is what if that’s not true? What if the enticements to indifference or to the embrace of ethnic cleansing and other such philosophies were more powerfully persuasive in the hearts and minds of a significant number of ordinary Americans? How would accepting that as fact change your perception, strategy, tactics?
I receive many messages and talk often with friends about the spiraling chaos and lacerating trauma being inflicted daily on the body politic by the Present Occupant of the White House and his allies, both those who sin with enthusiasm and those who collude through indifference. Many of my friends and colleagues feel that if we only found the right language and images, we could spark empathy in those who want to build the border wall (to pick one example): show them the hypocrisy of citing national security as a reason to shut down the government…including the Department of Homeland Security! Show them images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph freezing beyond the border wall, unable to reach the manger. And so on.
The truths underlying these ideas are plain to see. First, we know that kindling empathy is necessary to change attitudes that lead to harming others. As every spiritual tradition teaches, seeing others as fully equal to ourselves and as fully deserving of compassion and care is a prerequisite for treating them humanely. As my tradition puts it, “Do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself.” Second, that we human beings, possessing consciousness, have choice, that as we have seen in countless conversion stories, we have the capacity to throw off old beliefs and attitudes and set out on a new path.
Yet, plain and simple, it is a delusion to believe that empathy and compassionate action will reign if only we find the right way to bring the message home. Many things beyond messaging stand in the way.
Consider scapegoating, arguably humanity’s most popular political tactic, attributing one’s own suffering to a vilified out-group, and prescribing control or elimination of that group as the antidote. If you believe an Other prevents your dreams coming true, eliminating the Other is mere necessity.
Consider the seduction of belief in a powerful figure — a father of sorts — who promises to cure all your ills as he shrewdly discredits counter-arguments by dismissing critics as tools of an evil cabal. The desire to be cared for is profound.
Consider a cold calculation of self-interest: I want to prosper and rise, and if I have to split gains with you, I only get half as much, so that’s a no-brainer. Me first!
On grounds such as these, ordinary Germans, ordinary Japanese, ordinary South Africans — who may have loved their children and friends, been kind to animals, given coins to charity, helped old people across the street — allowed other human beings to become merely useful or merely disposable or both, and they did these things day after day for years. These are just the three places that popped up in my vision. The sad truth is that we could start the phrase with “ordinary” and end with the name of any nation in human history, and never be wrong.
For those who feel most strongly called to attempt persuasions to empathy, directing their attention to those who have allied themselves with the Oppressor in Chief, I defer to their freedom of choice. The principle of doing what calls you often leads to giving your best, to investing with energy and conviction, and that seems worthy to me.
But for most of us, I think the task is very simple. First, accept that the adherents of Trumpism have made their choices. Second, recognize how many more of us love freedom, equity, and justice than embrace the delusions of winning advantage by vanquishing the Other. Historically, fascism and totalitarianism have been overturned when the greater number of people whose empathy is not obscured by delusion rise up, make alliances, stand for justice at the ballot-box or in the streets, and though I dread even to contemplate it, in battle. Our challenge now is to gather in the greater number: the ordinary Americans who, while legally qualified to vote, have previously chosen not to; and as many inspiring candidates of integrity — even more than in this past November — as possible.
We are at a crossroads. When I contemplate the wrong path — if too many of us fail to acknowledge the terrible seriousness of this moment and our role in it, if too many of us pour our energy and spirits into converting the minority supporting the Madman in Power instead of embracing, inspiriting, and aiding our natural allies — my fear rises, and the image that comes into my mind is from Yeats’ great poem, “The Second Coming.” He wrote it just after World War I as the Irish war of independence began. By the time he died in 1939, he surely had reason to call it prescient.
More and more, what little confidence I had in predictions weakens. We cannot know the future. It is possible that even as though a minority, the forces of reaction will maintain their hold on political power if the forces of freedom fail to rally. If party politics as usual continue to discourage electoral participation; if an unseemly eagerness to strike deals with the devil convinces potential voters the game is not worth playing; if the relentless drumbeat from the White House, amplified amplified with such obsequious servility by so much of the press, drowns out our message of power to the people.
But the greater possibility is ours to nourish and then to see it flourish: that the many who don’t benefit from this deceitful and corrupt administration, the many who don’t buy its myths, will awaken into healing action. For me, realizing this requires thinking the unthinkable, recognizing that some number of my own neighbors, persuaded by scapegoating, eager to follow the leader, calculating from self-interest, will allow the rights, freedoms, and compassion that enable a humane civil society to be destroyed. That danger is very real. I am putting my hopes for the new year in engaging the many who understand that, and I am by no means the only one. Join us, please. There are countless ways to contribute to the expansion of active democracy in this county, but if you need a few suggestions, check out these I offered back in July.
Gary Clark, Jr. “The Healing.”