Digging In and Digging Deep
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · November, 2006
[Remarks to the first in a series of “Last Sunday” community gatherings in Austin, TX, November 26, 2006.]
We billed Last Sunday as a place for people to come together to explore the intersections of the political, artistic, and spiritual. The idea came out of conversations among friends: Eliza Gilkyson, a singer/songwriter with interests in politics and spirituality; Jim Rigby, a minister who has a knack for stirring up trouble, theologically and politically; and me, a professor involved in a variety of political groups.
There are lots of organizations and movements taking up issues that we care about. Last Sunday was designed not to compete with those, but to create a different kind of space, where people could bring all aspects of themselves for conversation and connection. The name plays off the “First Thursday” tradition on South Congress Avenue, with perhaps an invocation of the Last Supper for some, though I want to be clear that none of us has any messianic inclinations.
We hope people will not only listen to what comes from the stage, but connect with friends and allies in the hall. We hope that existing progressive projects will be strengthened and that new ideas will emerge from those conversations.
So, there’s no hidden agenda tonight. We’re not recruiting or selling anything. Like so many, we’re just hungry for that conversation, that connection, that sense of community.
Okay, but what is Last Sunday really about?
All the conversations that Eliza, Jim, and I had in planning this gathering eventually came back to a core point: Hard times are on the way, coming sooner than most of us expected, and we’re not ready for them.
We started with the recognition that for all its affluence and military power, the United States is in many ways a society in collapse. On all fronts — politically, economically, culturally and most important, ecologically — we are in trouble. We live in an increasingly callous culture that exploits sexuality and glorifies violence; embedded in a house-of-cards economy built on orgiastic consumption, deepening personal and collective debt, and an artificially inflated dollar; at the end of an imperial era that is grinding to a disastrous demise — and, as if that weren’t enough, looming behind all those crises is the recognition of the consequences of humans too-long ignoring the unraveling ecological fabric that makes life possible.
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the worse news: In this country, we do not have the cultural, economic, or political institutions in place to deal with these cascading crises.
Here’s the even worse news: We don’t have a lot of time left to build the institutions we need.
If one agrees with this view of the world to any degree, it seems to me there are two options for those of us with privilege.
1. We can seal ourselves off in gated communities (at the personal and/or the national level) with the highest walls and sharpest razor wire we can afford, hunker down with what we have acquired, and hope that somehow the collapse will be far enough off (in time and/or geography) that it won’t touch us. Or,
2. We can get to work on making the human connections necessary to build the institutions we need to deal with what some call “the great correction” that is coming.
To some that may sound overly dramatic, maybe even alarmist. But for many of us, the alarms have already gone off, and this kind of analysis resonates in our hearts and our heads. It feels like what is happening, and it’s consistent with what we know about the world. Even with that conviction, it’s difficult to say all this in public, to risk being ridiculed as histrionic or hysterical. But that naming of the crisis is, I believe, one of the most creative acts we can undertake today. In 1957, Albert Camus explained:
“To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing.”
That is the simple goal of Last Sunday — to offer some space for that creative activity, which has to begin in conversation, together, in a world that is not very forgiving.
Beyond cynicism to stubborn hope, authentically
When I talk about the crises we face — especially when I argue that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are likely to be part of meaningful solutions — people often accuse me of being cynical. So, let’s deal with that up front.
I am not cynical. I am hopeful, realistically. After all, if I were cynical, I wouldn’t do the political work that I do. As a privileged person, if I were cynical, I would avoid politics and enjoy the rather comfortable life I have without questioning it.
I once was cynical, but I changed. And I,d like to say a bit about how that happened.
When I was younger, I looked around and saw a world in pretty awful shape — war, poverty, racism, sexism, and on and on. It was hard to be upbeat living at the end of the 20th century, one of the most brutal and bloody centuries in human history. As I came of age in the 1970s, it seemed to me these problems were the product of inherent human depravity that I took to be immutable. Given that analysis, I was cynical, which allowed me not to think much about why I was so privileged and to be smug and self-satisfied in my passivity and inaction.
But something started to shift in me in 1988, when I went to graduate school and had a chance to learn more about how the world works. I started to study and realized that the world was far worse off than I had ever imagined, that the suffering was deeper, and that the problems were rooted in powerful institutions not easily dislodged.
That’s when I stopped being cynical and began to feel hopeful.
Now, that may seem counterintuitive. How did a deepening sense of the scale and scope of injustice and suffering make me hopeful? Because I started to understand that the problems of the world were not simply the product of an inherently evil and stupid human nature, though we can all be evil and stupid at times. Instead, I started to think about how systems and structures of power shape us and channel our behavior. I came to realize that the authority structures that so bend our lives are powerful and deeply entrenched. I also realized that most of the channels that the dominant culture offers us for working to make the world a better place are themselves deeply embedded in those authority structures, so that often the solutions become part of the problem. I realized that the analysis and action that could save us has to be more radical than I ever could have imagined, at a time when the culture is more depoliticized and right-wing than ever.
So, at the moment I realized the depth of the problem and the forces stacked against justice, I got hopeful. I think I saw the monster more clearly, but in that I also saw that the monster could be challenged and changed.
I am not saying I,m all that optimistic these days — I said hopeful. I think to tell the truth about the world is to recognize the struggle for justice and sustainability is a long one, with no guarantee we will find our way there. Any reasonable strategy has to face honestly the obstacles, and it’s hard to be optimistic about the short-term right now. But it’s good to remember, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
It’s possible to be hopeful for that continued bending, and I am. In part because history teaches us that struggles in the past have been successful, even if not complete. History also teaches us that there have always been people who didn’t give in to cynicism, and those are the folks we honor today. Those people knew that the struggle for justice and sustainability was not just the right thing to do. They realized that the real joy of living is in that struggle, together.
This is the basis for what I would call authentic hope. Authenticity is a tricky concept, but the best definition I’ve ever heard of it comes from my friend Abe Osheroff, who at 90 years old is still engaged in radical political activity, joyfully. Authenticity, Abe told me, is felt in that moment when what you think matches what you say and matches what you do; it’s when you aren’t afraid to say what you think and to act on what you say. We have to struggle for that authenticity, and it is worth struggling for.
The first step in that is thinking. We need to spend some time creating an analysis that can move us forward, creating dangerously, perhaps. Let me offer a few more words from Camus, also from 1957:
“Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.”
A framework for radical politics
When I talk about radical politics, people ask me what I mean by that term, and then they often demand of me a clear plan on how to achieve those goals. Let me answer the latter question first: I don’t have such a plan, and neither does anyone else. The challenges we face are such that anyone who pretends to have a highly developed plan to achieve a just and sustainable world is either a con artist or not very bright.
In other words, I believe we are at a point in human history where the complexity of the task means no one has the capabilities to fashion an alternative in great detail, and that’s okay. We don’t need a utopian vision, based either on old systems or new flights of fancy. We need to be clear on the nature of the struggle and begin to experiment.
That requires understanding the nature of the problem. Before we race ahead to solutions, we have to think more carefully about what we are struggling against. That’s not negative; it’s a supremely creative act, and a prerequisite to moving forward.
What can we say about radical politics in 2006? The first thing is to not be afraid of the world radical. I use it here in the sense of its basic meaning — going to the root, trying to understand the nature of things.
If we look at the problems we,re facing, we have to confront that at both the personal and planetary levels we are surrounded by systems based on a domination/subordination dynamic, which we have to challenge at all levels. There are at least fives places we should be looking to do that: Race and gender/sexuality, capitalism and empire, and the coming ecological collapse.
The first two, race and gender, are often dismissed as mere “identity politics,” and there certainly is a way that “diversity talk” can derail radical politics. But there is no way to talk about progressive social change in this country and the wider world if we don’t confront the pathologies of white supremacy and patriarchy, both of which are woven deeply into the fabric of this society. Such terms may seem old-fashioned, but we live in a world of racialized disparities in wealth and well-being rooted not in the inadequacy of people of color but in white dominance, and a world in which women still face the limitations and threats that come from male dominance.
We also can see that those ideologies of white supremacy and patriarchy are linked to the systems of capitalism and empire, which are rooted in the glorification of a hyper-competitive, violent masculinity and an assertion of a claim of the inherent superiority of Europe and the United States. Capitalism creates a world defined by greed that reduces us to crass maximizers of self-interest, not exactly a recipe for decent living. Empire is the extraction of the wealth of the many to enrich increasingly fewer, not exactly a morally defensible model.
This leaves us in a world in which half the people on the planet live on less than $2 a day. Let that statistic sink in: More than 3 billion people survive — for food, shelter, clothing, education, medical care — on less than any one of us might spend on a fancy cup of coffee in the morning. Those people living at that level of poverty are disproportionately non-white and female. They live mostly in a Third World that has suffered, and continues to suffer, from military and economic domination by the First World, most centrally the United States.
Radical politics says not only that this state of affairs is unjust, but so are the institutions that produce it. And these systems must be changed.
And then there is the question of sustainability. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the expanding dead zone in the Gulf, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity. Look at all that and ask a simple question: Where we are heading? Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. And, of course, there is the undeniable trajectory of rapid climate change.
Add all that up, and it’s not a pretty picture. It’s crucial we realize that there are no technological fixes that will rescue us. We have to go to the root and acknowledge that human attempts to dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves. Here, just as in human relationships, we either abandon the dominance/subordination dynamic or we don’t survive.
To me, that is radical politics — to the root. When I talk like this, I,m often told I need to be realistic. I think I am being realistic. I am realistically assessing the nature of the systems and institutions, which is necessary if we are to make progress toward real justice and sustainability.
We may fail, but we can fail together
One of the most important steps for me in this process has been the recognition that we may fail, that the human species may be an evolutionary dead-end, that our collective life may be in the nature of dramatic tragedy. If that is the case — and no one can know for sure that it isn’t — then at least we can fail together, struggling toward authentic hope, finding the joy in that struggle.
I want to conclude with Camus, not a place one would expect to go for an upbeat ending. In a 1948 talk at a monastery, Camus urged people to “give up empty quarrels” and “pay attention to what unites rather that to what separates us” in the struggle to recover from the horrors of Europe’s barbarism. I take from Camus a sense of how to live the tension between facing honestly the horror and yet remaining engaged. In that same talk, he spoke of “the forces of terror” (forces which exist on “our” side as much as on “theirs”) and the “forces of dialogue” (which also exist everywhere in the world). Where do we place our hopes?
“Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun,” he wrote. “I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought.”
So, back to tonight’s original question: Just what exactly is Last Sunday? Maybe just an expression of faith in the forces of dialogue, a plea for reasonable illusions, a reminder that — no matter what our chances — the battle must be fought.
For more information on: Last Sunday, http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/lastsunday.html.