Well, my dear non-existent audience, a long winter lies between today and the last time I wrote here. And some beautiful things didn’t make it through. But here we are, anyway. And today, clarity does not seem to be entirely a myth.
One late night, not too long ago, I was sitting awake watching the world out the window in something between panic and wonder, and thought, kind of funny how atheism doesn’t make the sense of the divine go away, and, I should record this. After a strange confluence of events, sleeplessly observing the self-preservation instinct at work in my own thoughts, I figured it might tell me something universal about the human condition.
Well, a lot of things we do and sense and figure out about our own lives can show us broader truths about the general experience of being a human. But we’re not just similar creatures coming from different backgrounds, different experiences, and seeing, through the overlaps in our experiences, how we have the same internal workings. We’re also very different, beings without the same needs or desires, with vastly different ways of communicating, vastly different goals- but for now that’s a side note.
The main thread of this was self-preservation and our social nature. So, I thought, the people I know and organize with are not insane cultists. They’re many things- awesome tenacious radicals, annoying kids with inflated egos, veteran warriors of various civil rights struggles, professionals with strong ethical principles, self-serving political players, beautiful anarchists, middle-of-the-road reformists, otherwise apolitical working-class parents fed up with gentrification and failing schools, artists, academics, drop-out autodidactic wanderers, Marxist union organizers, dear co-conspirators, and a million other things. But what, I asked, if I found myself in a different environment, in a different time or place, where the atmosphere was heavily dogmatic or had some creepy single-ideology shit going on? What if I was living in something more akin to, say, Germany in the era of the RAF, or some other social setting where one could hear the long knives being drawn? What then? Well, the obvious thing to do would be to pack some bags and run like fuck, I guess. But that’s not the point right now.
A long time ago, I wrote something along the lines of, “People become tired, and so they settle down with a system of thought, Christianity, Marxism, biomedical psychiatry, whatever, because it’s so much easier to rest than to always be in motion, looking for the right answer in every individual situation and forever playing hop-to-the-light, hop-to-the-light.” I wouldn’t say the same thing now. Since that time, I’ve gotten to know several people who are Marxists, as well as some open-minded Christians, liberation theologists, shall we say, who don’t care that I’m an atheist but have explained to me what religion means to them personally. So, if I could revise that statement now:
As people trying to do the right thing in the world, we are forever jumping from wheel to wheel, gear to gear, one course of action to another, one tactic to another, on to one as it carries us up, and off to another ascending one when the one we’re on starts to carry us down, forever in motion trying to move towards the light. And beliefs of the above-mentioned ways of thinking- that there is a benevolent creator-being who wants us to love and accept one another, or that conflict is driven by material interests that we have to understand if we want to do anything about it, that we should see each other as part of a brother/sister-hood that transcends national boundaries because the most good will come of us helping each other towards collective liberation- seem perfectly compatible with this dance. (Note: this refers to the ideas of Marxism and Christianity. Biomedical psychiatry, on the other hand, still seems mostly about telling me that everything I feel is a disease and that I deserve to be incarcerated. Fuck. That.)
The dangers of “settling down with a system of thought,” I guess, come into play if someone stops thinking for themselves and starts taking as The Truth the words of a certain preacher, thinker, or revolutionary leader- or even, on the other hand, if you weren’t blindly following someone else’s ideas, but were simply following some ideas of your own that you’d determined to be true at some point in time, but no longer stopped to ask yourself if they still seemed true now, given the reality in front of you. That would just be intellectual laziness.
But maybe I shouldn’t call it laziness. It’s such a derogatory word, and you can’t hate on someone for doing something if they feel that it’s their only option. That’s the thing, right? Take, for example, the Jonestown suicides. We treat them as an anomaly, because, after all, most of us don’t know anyone who’s done such a thing. But the truth is, that could have been any of us. ALL HUMAN BEINGS have a breaking point at which they will accept as sacred truth- not just on an intellectual but an emotional, yes, a religious level- whatever is said by whoever presents themselves as most sympathetic and capable of helping. ANY human being, at some point, will do this, simply because there are needs much more deeply-rooted in the human psyche than the need to make rational sense of things. Fuck, even more than that, the “sympathetic” part isn’t even necessary in all cases. Take this shit far enough, and people will follow abusive bastards if they still fit the “most capable of helping” criteria. People eventually start to succumb to the psychological, maybe biological need to have someone make sense of things for us and tell us what the truth is, to have someone provide a good/evil framework in which we can feel secure that we’re doing the Right Thing, and have someone who Knows The Truth smile at us for it.
We have to keep this in mind when dealing with situations less dramatic and more everyday than the occasional cult. Keep in mind, again, that we are all coming from vastly different experiences. Say someone’s in a situation where someone’s helping them, but is also telling them lies. Or maybe not lies- maybe it’s just that the “helper” holds a certain viewpoint very strongly and doesn’t respect other ones. Say person A is suicidally depressed, and person B has a kind of monopoly, say, being the only person who will give A a place to go when the rest of her friends are at work and she needs someone to talk to, or who will help A get access to certain medications that alleviate the depression. But B really thinks A’s problems stem solely from a hormonal/chemical imbalance and that A is best off thinking of herself as a patient/consumer in a mainstream hierarchical help program- this is roughly similar to the situation of several people I know through the Icarus project.
And there might be another possibility that A, in her innermost thoughts, feels might also have validity- that the depression stems not from her brain chemistry but from something traumatic that she lived through, or that identifying as part of a mainstream help program encourages a certain kind of mindset, that might actually be harmful or disempowering. But B is providing something A needs, and doesn’t hold these ideas to have any merit. And we can’t expect A not to form some sort of attachment to B in this situation.
So while I, surrounded by beautiful tenacious radicals, might think otherwise, it’s not really going to do that much good for me to scream at A, “You know B’s wrong! Don’t listen to her! You don’t have a genetic problem!” Because first of all, she might need to believe that B is right in order to be okay with depending on her. And if she accepts that B is wrong, it might not make the situation any better. It might just mean that now she’s morally conflicted about things that she still has to do to keep living, and in a worse relationship with the person who helps her do them. In another situation, if someone insists that they’re right and that someone else has no right to call their statements invalid, that other person could just leave and put the first person in a situation that they can’t deal with.
So what do we do?
We put the truth out there- online, on paper, in zines, in the mainstream media as much as we can- and we also present it to individuals as an option- “Have you considered that things might be like this instead of this? This is the view that tends to get talked about on the news the most, but some people have decided that it’s more helpful to look at it like this/ there’s also a logical argument to be made for saying that it works like this.”
Sometimes people will already be questioning what they’re told, and having an alternative vision articulated to them will help them put the pieces together and state, in concrete terms, why the power structures they’re dealing with are wrong- “See, I knew there was something fucked-up here, but I didn’t know how to put it in a way that these people couldn’t dismiss as nonsense,” they’ll think, “but now… well, yeah, this stuff is true! Thanks, local antigovernment angels!” Er, that’s how it was for me anyway.
Other times it doesn’t work out like that.
So we put the truth out there but we never make help conditional upon anyone accepting our version of reality, our entire social vision, or upon them standing up to or rejecting the presence of people who we feel are being unfair.
We try to make people less dependent on situations where they need the help of people who stifle their viewpoints.
We offer alternatives to make it easier for people to leave or change the nature of such relationships if they want to.
And- above all- we REALIZE what a fucking act of COURAGE it is for people to insist on being respected and to say, to hell with those who try to control them.
Because there are people who will call you crazy, or who will tell you their way is the only way, or say that you’re paranoid or that your expectations are unreasonable when that’s not the case. Who will say that you got yourself into your situation by being a social deviant, and that the only way out is to cooperate- as they reduce you to an object of pity, subject to the alternating faces or contemptuous right-wing hatred or disgusting liberal charity- And standing up to these people isn’t always some beautiful act of personal liberation. Sometimes it leaves you with nothing. Sometimes insisting on your dignity as a human means your social network shuts you out, or the Establishment deems you a hopeless case and you get arrested or go hungry or get evicted, or your wife/husband/”lover” leaves to find someone else they can push around more, or it just means you become even more sickened by people you must still work with to get necessary resources-
And people say Fuck You anyway. Once upon a time some journo wrote some “human interest” piece for some local paper, about a woman I know who, at the time, was homeless, and rather sick. One of the things he wrote, to make it clear to us how he was “dokumenting her plight!!!11” was about how, during the interview, she started coughing uncontrollably, and seemed “not to notice” the stares of the people walking by- as in, aw, poor woman doesn’t realize how-
That’s not what this is about. When you’ve made your way through the dark waters and no one has appeared with a raft, and you have finally made your way ashore, you learn to roll your eyes and disregard the ignorant judgments of people who react with distaste when you speak with a hack and a cough (when speaking with a hack?)- If they have not known the water in their lungs, what are they, to you? You learn to disregard them, if you are not to be cast in the ridiculous role of combat veteran worrying about the opinions of children playing dress-up.
There was much more I wanted to say, but this has gotten quite long by this point, so further reflections will be broken down into future posts. For now, it must be enough to understand that we are not what the enemy says we are, we are not what the enemy does to us, and nor are we the worst things that we’ve ever done in our most trying moments- that, day by day, we witness life, and we learn the roads, we learn loyalty, and how to fight back in defense of the right things, and that, with knowledge, with time, innocence is not lost