"The Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
Mike Lofgren, retiring Republican Congressman
The significance of this quote in an election year in the United States is both obvious and easy to miss. On the obvious side of the equation, we have been witnessing a ferocious (and usually dishonorable) battle between a number of competing ideologies: free market solutions vs. those generated by elected democractic officials; private vs. public control of democracy itself; and contentious dogfights about the firewall between religious faith and governance. These are just a few of the battles meant to “fire up” believers on both sides of an ideological divide that has democracy on one side of the equation and ideological attempts to redefine what democracy is on the other side.
But an increasing number of people - regardless of which these or other arguments they may be on - are exhausted by all the fighting. They’re exhausted in the U.S., they’re exhausted in Syria, they’re exhausted in Tibet, they’re exhausted in Greece. People feel like their governments and their private institutions are in a continuous shadow play; one where everybody pretends to be following the rules but one which, in reality, has people in power putting forward supposed “solutions” to problems which can never be taken at face value. Trust in institutions and in individuals continues to disappear. How easy is it to name a politician, a corporate CEO, or a religious figure that people are able to genuinely trust over a period of time? How easy to name a trustworthy organization? The voices of the honorable individuals and organizations who do exist are increasingly being drowned in media tsunamis reporting more corruption, scandal, dishonesty and unethical behavior than they can find space and time in which to do so.
All of this results is a seemingly closed feedback loop in which ongoing cynicism becomes an essential survival strategy, and which makes efforts to create a civil society look increasingly naive. This is what leads to the above-mentioned exhaustion. It's an exhaustion that comes from having the natural human desire to extend good will to others repeatedly taken advantage of. Exhaustion that concludes that those in positions of power will always take advantage of generosity of spirit to manipulate others for their own gain.
When the world is viewed this way, people usually respond in 1 of 4 ways: 1) They cynically withdraw from society altogether; 2) They cynically seek to undermine the powers-that-be through dishonest and sometimes even criminal behavior of their own; 3) They rise up in anger to throw out the established order; and/or 4) They work with like-minded individuals to doggedly repel the injustices being foisted upon the world by the powers-that-be. All 4 of these reponses are being enacted on in the world today, and all 4 reflect different dimensions of both our psychology and our spiritual awareness. How does each of them work, psychologically?
Cynical withdrawal reflects a psychology of despair. The world is viewed as so overwhelmingly difficult that people become hopeless: they seek refuge in isolation, or in their families, or sometimes in like-minded ideologies who emphasize withdrawal by fostering hope in idealized, uptopian solutions. When despair and hopelessness rule the day, people find it difficult to do anything beyond simple survival: the recent data indicating that, on average, 1 person a day in the U.S. armed services is committing suicide is a reflection of this kind of despair. Even the ideology of "protecting democracy and freedom" is no longer convincing enough to ward off the despair that comes from being asked to do awful things in awful circumstances, especially if the person who signs up for such an ideological comittment is vulnerable to begin with.
Cynically engaging in dishonest and even criminal behavior represents a less passive, but still cynical and ultimately hopeless mindset. It’s a way of lashing out against one’s own misfortunes (usually economic), but doing so by attacking the wrong targets. In its extreme forms, it ends up encouraging the most prejudicial side of human nature, as was the case when the Ku Klux Klan was in its heyday. Focusing one’s wrath on the wrong targets shows how backwards human psychology can be when it's ruled by rage. Its’ success depends on an uneducated, segregated population who sees little if any hope for the future. That’s why many people in the U.S. are increasingly concerned that the political gerrymandering of election districts, a process that ensures that groups of people who believe the same thing are clustered together in voting blocs - this will serve to take American society backwards, not forwards, in its' psychological and sociological development. The most important consequence of misdirected anger is a solidification of those already in power, a fact long recognized by political scientists and activists. This further entrenchment of the powers-that-be makes it that much more difficult to have clear and constructive conversations about the future directions of a society.
Rising up in anger against that power is a psychological step in the right direction: it usually focuses on the right target, is not passive, and the longer it continues the more it exposes how deeply injustices have embedded themselves in a society. It’s inspiring when ordinary people in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya say “Enough!” to long-standing oppression. But that inspiration fades quickly: why? Because people seem to have no idea of what they should do next, so the most “organized” force prevails. More often than not, the rage underneath the revolutionary impulse ends up in governing organizations that manifest atrocities equal to or greater than those of the powers just overthrown.
The best 20th century example of this comes from post WWII Russia. The heroic unity shown by the Russians in repelling the German invasion of their country emboldened the ideological commitment people had to the revolutionary fervor they had shown 35 years earlier in ousting the Tsar and beginning their experiment with communist rule. Unfortunately, ideological attachment to communism allowed the regime of Joseph Stalin to parlay Russian patriotism into a regime where he brutally murdered millions of his own people. Infatuation with communism in much of the liberal West, combined with the “realpolitik” of post-WWII leaders such as Roosevelt and Churchill, caused people to turn blind eye to those atrocities for a very long time. Will the Arab spring replace the repression of all-powerful secular dictators with an equally oppressive regime based on ideologically stringent versions of Islam? Who can tell at this stage? The point being made here is that psychologically directing anger at the right target is a start, but it doesn’t go far enough.
That takes us to the fourth option: working with like-minded individuals to repel perceived injustices foisted upon the population by the powers that be. Doing so as ethically and as powerfully as is possible. The shining 20th century examples of this come from two places: India, where Gandhi mobilized millions to end British rule there through non-violent resistance, and the United States, where the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s boldly influenced the political landscape in spite of the fact that black people constituted less than 15% of the population. Both these movements inspired people ethically, which represented a huge psychological leap: people became connected to the better side of their nature.
The psychological leap represented by these two men represented a challenging balancing act for both of them: between the ideologies they believed in (Hinduism for Mahatma Gandhi, Christianity for Dr. King) and the actions they inwardly knew they must take. What attracted - and continues to attract - people to both men, however, was their capacity to transcend ideology - to acknowledge their own inner compass and act on it, separate from a prescribed belief system. Both Gandhi and King, for example, genuinely welcomed people of different faiths. This effort to non-cynically embrace difference was not just political expediency: it elevated both men above the restrictions of the ideologies that had propelled them into the spotlight in the first place. That elevation WAS the psychological advance.
A strong argument can be made that this elevation was temporary. Gandhi’s death brought back Hindu - Muslim ideological warfare almost instantly, and with it thousands of senseless deaths. Dr. King’s efforts continue to be under fire in the U.S., and, for all the advances made (including the election of the first black president), the political achievements of that era are still under siege: from voting rights to rights to access to a decent education.
But the validity of this argument doesn’t undermine the psychological - and spiritual - advance represented by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. Both led movements characterized by the enormous courage of their followers and themselves. Both inspired people to draw on their ethical sense and link it to their actions in the world. Both showed the extraordinary capacity to think beyond their ideological convictions into a more inclusive vision of the future.
Courage, ethics, and inclusion are all components of the psychological advances we need to make as a global society if we’re to confront the avaricious nature of Machiavellian power interests so prevalent in today’s world. Doing so means extending the legacy of Gandhi and King, but that’s more difficult in today’s world. Why? Because of how fine-tuned the instruments of oppression have become.
An exploration of that topic will be the subject of my next post.