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Redemptive Possibilities in the Failed State

…the US is a failed state…. It cannot, and should not, ever be trusted. In fact, its dissolution is the only hope we have for a livable future on earth.

– Kenn Orphan, Trump Was Never the Real Problem

…the fact that circumstances can reduce us to savagery does not negate the moral life. As our empire implodes, and with it social cohesion, as the earth increasingly punishes us for our refusal to honor and protect the systems that give us life…we must face this darkness, not only around us, but within us.

– Chris Hedges, The Politics of Cultural Despair

Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expressions of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.

– Joseph Conrad, An Outpost of Progress

After the chaos of the last election, the words “failed state” are increasingly being applied to the U.S. Given that the failure appears clear to the rest of the world, the problem of our nation can be seen for what it is: simply, “unwillingness to admit powerlessness.” A problem as common as the nearest alcohol, casino, sex, rage or screen addict. In the “failed state” of the individual addict, “hitting bottom” is the only means for authentic hope. The stumbling block – and it’s a big one – is in confessing one’s condition is hopeless.

That simple admission of one’s “failed state” is a profound, even heroic, act that leads to transformational, rather than merely “regime” change. Clearly America, so far removed from the aspirations and principles our nation has identified with for over 300 years – its moral compass tossed overboard, unneeded by those who are steering the ship toward their own mad ends, nor by those who are allowing themselves to sink into “savagery” – needs not regime change but transformation. For individuals, confessing one’s failed state allows the letting go of compulsive hubris that stands in the way of an “other” reality becoming available to consciousness – that is, the larger, metaphysical, interconnected reality which one is, at last, sufficiently humbled to recognize and accept as “redemptive.” This is how one comes to belief out of rigid denial, to life out of death, how one recovers native vitality from the grip of one’s own deadening compulsions.

For the failed state of America, we cannot hope for or expect the humiliating admission of failure to come from the plutocrats and oligarchs that benefit from the dissolution, nor can we wait for heroes who’ll show us how to do this. The fate of the nation rests with individuals prepared to confess their failure and undergo the long postponed transformation into a life that matters ( because it matters to oneself); a special responsibility that rests disproportionately with the enlightened liberal class. We who’ve for so long bypassed our human responsibility to our souls, as if we lived apart, in a godlike realm of “exceptionalism” when in fact we exist in a social reality that depends, historically and presently, upon the disposability of human beings, valued less than our machines, must come to grips with the truth of our failed state.

How many times have we been told by those prophesying ecocide, that we must give up, get past, hope ? I have heard this from Bill McKibben, Derek Jensen, Dahr Jamal, and others. After reading this advice from activists who presumably are following it themselves, I can imagine many people having no idea what it means to give up hope, much less use that giving up transformatively. To “get it,” the advice must be translated at the level of the individual in her immediate life, to admitting the most unthinkable truth in liberal reality: personal failure. Doing this is painful but not unrewarding; it amounts to giving up the wrong hope we cling to against those deepest feelings of worthlessness and “loserdom” that dog us for a lifetime. We escape dreaded loserdom by following neoliberalism’s programs, by struggling for success by any means necessary, no sacrifice too big, no step downward toward further demeanment too debasing (a tweeting President, anyone? Replacing human beings with robots? A “healthcare” system run by Big Pharma and insurance companies?), by placing hope entirely in faith in progress.

One night during the last week of October I was revisited by a familiar dream trope – a takeover of my community by fascists. (No, there’s no punch line: “And then I woke up and it wasn’t a dream!”) Always these dreams convey that blood-chilling nighttime sense of being invaded by a mob unfazed by pleas for pity or appeals to reason. (The 1936 Fritz Lang movie, Fury, with Spencer Tracy, about the lynching of an innocent (white)man pictures this perfectly!) The dream may have been stirred up by the proximity to Election Day or it might have been due to watching author Chris Hedges’ talk at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in neighboring Troy, NY, on YouTube, delivered on-site to a pandemic sanctuary filled with empty seats. Hedges names the reality of Christian Right fascism in terrifying – that is, truthful – terms.

When did I start to fear fascism, as a real potential in benign post-WWII liberal reality? My first inkling came in my childhood home in a working class post-war suburban housing development. There, a radical disconnect existed between the surface relationships and the unspoken life underneath, leaving a silence that my terrified imagination made opportunistic use of. I needed a D.H. Lawrence to explain it and I had none! At 6, I was overwhelmed by nighttime fears that seem to me now to have arisen directly from the unfinished psycho-spiritual business of my parents. Though they didn’t intend cruelty, their very ignorance of the true state of their feelings, indigestible lumps from their childhoods that must be repressed, their efforts to compensate, and to act as if this world were both inevitable and all, took their toll. Not to mention this world had just gone through the completely “indigestible” revelations of the death camps in Europe and the atomic bombing of Japan. Just how do you explain such a potential for monstrousness to children? By 10, I had determined to live without my imagination, as it had only made me a wretched insomniac. I wanted to be, not a freak, but normal like everyone else.

In my case, the jettisoning of imagination, and thus of its enlivening, individuating soul powers, was the consequence not (directly) of the legitimately terrifying world, but of relationships with good, liberal parents that failed me; they were incapable of making me feel existentially safe. To this day, I distinguish between human-caused terrors of the shared world, and the terror-inducing failure of human beings to build and to provide for vulnerable others a sense of safety sufficient to protect inner beings. The former, the real oppression, violence and predatoriness that exists and has existed behind the smiling, anesthetizing, media-botoxed facade of neoliberalism for decades calls for a moral response from all sentient human beings, even from those of us apparently “exempt.” Beyond electoral politics, it calls for transforming the oppressive structures of radical evil under corporate capitalism.

I’m convinced that to overcome the latter, the failure of families and communities to meet the basic human need for recognition, requires that people experience the existential safety their lives have lacked, likely since birth (a taller order yet in this pandemic). That is, for those who are obedient to liberal bourgeois reality, reassuring children of their safety, which requires recognition of the child’s “otherness,” is not high on our “to do” list. The capacity to see others as separate and included, thus assuring them interdependence is real, cannot come from parents who are “faking it,” even if they are very good at it. Only an authentic experience of “Oneness” can provide the necessary, ever-renewable imaginative foundation people need if they are to have the spirit and energy to do the healing, mending work of restoring stable, in-place community out of social ashes.

In other words, a political solution, no matter how sound its progressive, egalitarian ideals, will not stand up against the terror that provides the ground for fascism without a change in our response to nature’s demand to nurture and sustain relationships in which all othernesses (i.e., each soul) feel safe and included, not excepting oneself. Goodness depends upon the custom of protecting hearts. Thus far, liberal reality does not acknowledge this need for the simple basics of human relatedness; it is not part of the liberal program. This is what makes liberals hypocrites, embracing all good liberal causes but anteing up, each election time, to vote for the lesser evil, in the hubristic confidence that evil is imaginary.

The upside of having had a terror-filled childhood for which to this day I’ve discovered no once-for-all redemption, is that, later on, I discovered the magic of creative work, as D.H. did. I learned that imagination tells me what’s real differently from science and rationalism; that, feeling my completeness, to myself, of being whole and sane, that I never enjoyed as a child, is more true than the way the world makes me feel or can ever make me feel. The subjective feeling of equanimity is sufficient for providing a basis for how I will be in the world. It provides an obstacle – call it conscience – against reflexive caving to lesser evilism ( though there’s always potential for faint-heartedness and flip-flopping for those of us raised as liberals).

The hubristic liberal confidence that assumes evil is imaginary and that there’s no place in hell waiting for lesser-evilists, has everything to do with liberalism’s ineffectiveness against fascism. Hedges, from the religious ground he stands on as ordained minister and seminary grad, can legitimately blame mainstream Protestant churches for not calling out the Christian Right’s “prosperity gospel” (i.e, belief that financial and physical well-being are signs of God’s favor, that a “Christian life” will increase one’s material wealth, etc.) as heresy. He’s right; the churches should have risked defending what Jesus actually taught, i.e., looking out for “the least of these.” Because Hedges has chosen, in a confoundingly humble way, the existential limitation of a Christian clergy, not only can he call heresy heresy, he can call out Bernie Sanders for selling out his youthful followers, and the revolutionary goals that had so inspired their natural idealism during his 2016 run for the presidency.

Hedges has a religiously moral conscience rather than a merely liberal one; its basis is not the journalistic amassing of evidence that “proves” the case, but the refusal to deny his moral conscience. His critique of liberal “boutique politics” (his term) gets to the heart of liberalism’s failure to stand up against the radical evil of corporate capitalism. In liberal politics (and liberal spirituality as well, that picks and chooses from the smorgasbord of the world’s spiritual traditions), the evasion is obvious and opportunistic. It allows liberals to bypass the radical moral demand for the conditions necessary for human well-being (i.e., universal healthcare, guaranteed income, free tuition) that would be basis for a worthy “politics of the left.” This demand, not for control, such as biblical fundamentalists seek, but for mutually reciprocal kindness (community interdependence), is that which authentic religious authority authorizes.

Furthermore, the pretense that being free to choose among religious traditions (evolved in cultures not one’s own), or to choose none at all, makes us morally superior to the Christian Right’s slavish devotion to traditional marriage and patriarchal family values, is possibly a greater heresy than theirs. It defies the authority, not of a “straw-man” God, but of the divine human conscience located in every human being. Every lesser-evil vote is evidence for this “heresy.”

We will not deflect fascism’s patriotic, nationalistic certainties and racist hatred by being adamant secular atheists. To counter theirs, we need powerful aspirations. Not any kind of cancel culture, but the humble dream of unified humanity, at peace with others and with the earth, a dream that begins at home in concrete complex enduring relationships. It begins not in caring for the oppressed wretched of the earth, the “losers” whose poverty is undeserved, but in sinking down into the truth of one’s own “failurehood,” granting oneself the opportunity to verify firsthand if and in what way it’s deserved or not!

In my case, I returned to the baleful truth of my failed state recently, when hurt by a reader’s criticism who’d suggested I was inadequately informed. I knew what she meant. Although I wasn’t at all interested in what apparently interests her, she’d stung me; I’d been seen for the illegitimate writer I am.

Years ago I read an interview with a celebrity comedian who, in order to keep his routines connecting with the millennial audience, had to keep himself up on the ever-evolving jargon issuing from computer and social media culture. That was the first time I saw this “keeping oneself updated” as somewhat demeaning, even though I understood it as being necessary if one were aimed for success. You mean, no matter what stage my life is at, and what things I find personally meaningful, I must drop these in order to retain as much audience as I possibly can? At some point, the drive to be unassailably on top of everything and “up” on the “latest” information in order not to fail undermines the authority of the heart that’s based not in fact, but in imagination.

From that “failed state” experience I realized that to be a writer is to perhaps be fearlessly that, no matter my undeniable shortcomings, and the impossibility of their correction in my lifetime. It seems there’s a kind of daring and audacity involved in being a failure that has much creative, as well as subversive, potential in it.

The state of failure, rooted in humility, is freeing to the soul; its possibilities infinite. And now, as the light begins to dawn on many that the state is failed, that is, the system is collapsing, liberal hope in a Democratic savior is a fool’s dream, we failures who got here first may have something to offer!

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