Saturday, November 6, 2004

The Lesson of Loss

This past Wednesday, many of us learned that tears of rage burn the most. I was among these: I cried, fumed, spat, and despaired--even as I was preparing myself for another day's commute, another day at the office.

Across this nation, there were some 50 million of us in that predicament, and who knows how many more around the world.

As I walked into the building where I work, the need for restraint became clear: some would understand a passing case of the blues, but overt emotionalism would be suspect amid the corporate realm. So I took a deep breath and tightened my inner belt, my soul groaning beneath the tension.

What I found when I came into the office was astonishing: it was like strolling through a funeral parlor at one of its peak periods. But there were no professional mourners here: the anguish was real; there were no crocodile tears amidst this lot. A young man who sits two cubicles off was darkly staring into his blank computer screen, clearly lost in a painful inner struggle. My manager, a forceful Hispanic woman, slowly shook her head, her face streaked with tears. No work was being done. Even the fellows from India--here on temporary "onshore" assignment--were visibly downcast or even distraught. It occurred to me that these guys had the least stake of all in the fate of John Kerry's campaign--indeed, they would seem to benefit more from a Bush victory and the assurance of continued outsourcing of American jobs. Yet they were not thinking about economic issues or any superficial self-interest--they were only aware in that moment of an enormous error, a distortion of judgment on the part of a nation and its government.

At that moment, it began to become clear to me that this is where transformation begins--that indeed, this is what "valueshock" is all about. This victorious administration has lived according to the principle of "shock and awe." What they failed to account for is that shock and awe are usually followed inexorably--after a moment of confusion and despair--by fear, which quickly breeds rage. A cornered cat has the sharpest claws; and there is no better way of assuring noise and even violence among a people than to enforce silence and subjection upon them. This is the lesson of Iraq, which Bush and his entourage continue to ignore at their own peril.

So I began to practice what I teach others to do: I began to ask questions--specifically, about what this loss, this seemingly overwhelming defeat, had to teach me. Here is what I learned.

I discovered, first and perhaps foremost, that dependence upon a group or party, however hopeful its message or promising its potential, cannot lead us out of difficulty. I want to be very clear about what I mean here: this is no diminishment or criticism of John Kerry or his cause. I feel just as strongly now as I did on Tuesday that Kerry would make a fine leader, and perhaps a great president. But maybe there was too much pressure of belief and expectation placed on him--more, indeed, than any man could shoulder. This has nothing to do with Kerry's mettle, but rather with our own error in looking to a party-based or group-oriented solution to problems that we must first address within ourselves, as individuals.

This, of course, runs directly counter to the judgment of the pundits and Wednesday-morning quarterbacks in the press, who declared that the Democratic party was not organized enough, that it did not have that same rigidly-defined self-image that the Republican party has fostered.

I was reminded of Will Rogers' statement, "I am not a member of an organized party--I am a Democrat." For Rogers, this was a point of honor: to be a Democrat, for him, was to be an individual. I think that, in order to survive the next four years, we must follow the import of Rogers' words. We are now under the yoke of a tight-fisted, lockstep cult that violently enforces obedience, that equates dissent with treason, that knows only two shades of human value--"with us" or "against us". This is not a time for a more rigid organization, but for loose and spontaneous social structures; it is not a time for enforced order, but for playfulness, diversity, and a good measure of mayhem. What brought the Democrats to the verge of victory (and according to some, an actual, but stolen victory) was a grassroots-style exuberance and rabble-rousing, marked by persistent acts of ironic questioning and the often hilarious skewering of those stone-grey old white men in Washington. Now, and for the next few years, we simply need to turn it all up a notch or two.

The next lesson I learned as I asked myself about what this defeat had to teach us has to do with fear and cynicism. We're headed into some very dark water, amid which we will meet many challenges and tragedies. But if we approach this darkness in fear and cynicism, we will have simply concretized the attitudes that brought us to this point in the first place. The Neocons sold America a bill of goods that consisted solely of fear: fear of terror, fear of death, fear of being turned into a smoking pool of goo during your next commute to work. Much of the American public, it seems, bought these goods and cast a vote of cynicism, captured in the phrase, "better the devil you know..." This is why I say that so far, the real winner in this election has been none other than Osama. The more we give in to fear and cynicism, and the more of us that do it, the more will OBL's victory become manifest. He, and everything he stands for, took Ohio and Florida--not Bush. Note that the states that still bear the physical and emotional scars of 9/11--NY, NJ, PA, DC--all came down on Kerry's side. So this will be a time of a return to that individualism which gave this nation its first and most vital energy, long before there was a Florida or a Mason-Dixon line (see my earlier piece, "The Declaration of Independents"). We cannot change a government of empire through the formation of an opposing cult or other group ideology--that would be like trying to put out a fire with a bottle of whisky. Our only hope lies in a determined focus on true freedom--not the freedom to make a profit on the death of children or the Donald Rumsfeld idea of freedom (which is more like anarchy)--but the freedom that arises uniquely in each individual who chases out the demons of fear, hatred, and complacency and allows what lies beneath the crust of cultural falsehood to express itself.

The contemporary philosopher Ken Wilbur reminds us that "it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." In a situation like the one we're facing now, the question that each of us may need to ask ourselves is, "what is my candle, and where do I point its light?" It will be different--unique--for every one of us; but the light will be the same, and if enough of us continue to cast our light on the demons that have stolen our nation from us, there will, inevitably, be transformation.

So this morning, I ask that we rediscover the Democratic party of which Will Rogers was so justly fond; that each one of us who feels the injustice of what has occurred in this election be inspired to look within, find the candle, and strike a match.

Monday, November 1, 2004

At the End, Remembering How it All Started

Tomorrow morning, November 2, 2004, I'll join many other Americans in getting up as early as possible and heading to the local polling place with a small book and a large coffee. I'll wait in line and see if there's anyone who feels like talking; then I'll wait my turn to make a tiny contribution toward increasing the unemployment rate in Crawford and bringing some early breath of reason and balance to the world order.

Tonight, I am remembering how all this began: how what may have been seen as a dream only a few months ago--that a marginal political figure from Massachusetts could be on the brink of the greatest upset in political history--came to this threshold of realization. It is a reminder of the true substance of a democracy, and the potential that lies, largely untapped still, for the emergence of a truly natural social order.

It began a number of years ago, with an obscure, grassroots organization called, which was formed as an effort to draw America out of the moralistic morass in which it had been trapped after the Monica Lewinsky revelations and the bizarre impeachment hearings against President Clinton. Quietly, this organization attracted interest and followers for its balanced call toward a renewed focus upon the things that matter in political life: advancing the cause of social (and especially racial) equality, making government truly responsive to the needs of the citizens to whom it purportedly belongs, pursuing goals of peace and stability in our nation's international affairs, and building a broad and inclusive foundation of economic prosperity to leave the next generation after us. Moveon, of course, pioneered the use of email and the Internet to advocate for its causes and objectives, and its success spawned a movement that has taken us to this transformative moment in American political history.

Howard Dean appeared, nearly two years ago, to adapt Moveon's methods, approaches, and experience in creating popular and financial backing for his own candidacy. The grassroots movement that his town-hall and online meetings gave rise to, along with his ability to see the vast potential of the Internet in that vein, brought him to the brink of winning the Democratic party's nomination. To all the Dean supporters out there, I offer the following reminder: Howard Dean did not fail. In fact, he succeeded in a way and a degree that few before him have ever succeeded: he completely re-energized the way a political campaign is practiced, and in the process left the smug, hidebound neocons in his progressive dust. History will not care that Dean lost a few primaries or had a meltdown during a press conference in Iowa--it will only note that he transformed the way political candidates connect with voters, and that he attracted millions of once-apathetic citizens into an active sense of involvement and responsibility in the democratic political process.

John Kerry and the Democratic leadership were quick to perceive the value of what organizations like Moveon and candidates like Dean had accomplished; and they were equally quick to build upon that momentum. Kerry's candidacy (especially if it is victorious tomorrow) will be remembered as the first digital Presidential campaign in history. While the Bush propaganda machine focused on inflammatory TV ads, and only relied on cyberspace to give voice to fringe slander groups which spread the kind of lies that wouldn't even make it past the National Enquirer's editorial desk, the Democrats adapted the vision and experience of online groups like Moveon, ACT, and Howard Dean's meetup networks to diffuse a positive, forthright image of themselves and their candidates. This was not the work of a political machine or a closed oligarchy of wonks or advertising executives: this was the creation of an interactive community led by creative people of every stripe and orientation--from Hollywood (led, of course, by Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11, which is appearing on the DISH satellite network online at this very moment) to the arena of popular entertainment (Eminem pre-released his "Mosh" music video online a week before the election) to the world of high finance (while Moore campaigned with college-age "slackers", George Soros spent a month speaking to press clubs and business leaders). But throughout all of this, and informing the spirit and energy of these more famous and well-heeled supporters, were the Moveon bake sales, the telephone parties, and the grassroots gatherings of students, mothers, minorities, and all the anonymous activists whose energy turned a double-digit defeat into a dead heat. All of these people, the luminaries and the anonymous among them, communicated and shared their sense of a transformative opportunity in this nation through the primary medium of the Internet.

John Kerry has shown enough character, principle, intellect, feeling, and pure energy during this campaign to convince me that he is much more than a mere alternative to Bush, Cheney, and Ashcroft: John Kerry represents an opportunity for this nation to begin to right itself in the eyes of the world. He has shown me that he has the potential to be a very good president--perhaps even a great one. As long as he remembers that his success arose from the fact that tens of millions of creative and caring people came together for him in a synergistic groundswell, at a time when he'd been declared soundly beaten by many of the TV pundits and pollsters, he will do well by us. And we will be able to look back gratefully upon the first true President of the 21st century, who was given his mandate to lead by the voice of the people, spoken through the synchronistic energy of the World Wide Web.

So thank you, John Kerry, for listening and for following that voice. Good luck, and may the teaching and helping energies of the Universe be always active within you.