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.

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