By John Bell
A few years ago, as we came out of seeing the movie, “Fair Game”, about the G.W. Bush administration’s persecution of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame for exposing the reasons for going to war in Iraq as lies, my wife turned to me and said, “Are you ready to fight?!”
I didn’t know how to answer in the moment. Sure, after that powerful movie, I was feeling angry. I was in awe of Joe Wilson’s courage to tell the truth in the face of massive pressure of the government. I was saddened again by seeing yet another example of corruption, deception, and “evil” at the highest levels of power. But her question just raised other questions. What do you mean by “fight”? What or who do we fight? What is the real “enemy”? Do we fight “for” something or “against” something? The movie was disturbing, and so was her question. In fact, I had restless sleep and bad dreams that night and woke feeling out of sorts. After a morning meditation, a family breakfast, and a long sunny walk in the autumn woods with our dog, my mind is clear enough to begin to answer her question.
Let’s start with the question of whom or what is the “enemy” that requires fighting. On the political, economic level, some say that it is corporate capitalism that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a few which naturally leads to corruption, lack of transparency, and abuses of power. Others identify the enemy as a system of interlocking oppressions—racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on—all tied together by a class system that favors a few and keeps most struggling for basic economic security. The “solution” is to overthrow capitalism and eliminate oppression. Then justice, equality, and freedom will prevail.
If we leave aside for the moment the infinite number of interesting questions about how to accomplish this (steps, tactics, strategies, movements, mass civil disobedience, legal actions, new legislation, organizing methods, guiding principles, vision, leadership, role of electoral politics, ad infinitum!), it is sobering to reflect on the examples of revolutionary social transformations that took place in the last century. The Russian and Chinese revolutions in the first half of the 20th century transformed the political and economic base of their countries, and ended the horrible oppression and brutality of the feudal lords of the day. But soon the formerly oppressed became the new tyrants and created new forms of oppression and brutality, secrecy, concentration of power, and use of military force to suppress dissent. Why? Many reasons have been cited, but in my opinion, two that get to the core of it are worth highlighting.
One is psychological: hurt people tend to act out their hurts on others. A clinical truism is that a bully has been bullied, an abuser has been abused. Unless a person heals from trauma or hurt, he or she usually ends up passing it on, and always back down what might be called the “power line”—those less powerful. When boys who were abused as boys grow into men, and still carry the emotional scars of their abuse, whom do they take those feeling out on? The women and children in their lives. When young white people, in the U.S., abused as children, grow up, whom do they take their stored up anger on? People of color, people down the power line in this system. Thus, early abuses tend to condition people to take their place in the larger systems of oppression that exist.
The people who became the new ruling class and their supporters in Russia and China had experienced social “hurt” under the previous tyranny and had both suffered and committed much violence on the way to achieving political power. There was no widespread or systematic method of healing from these past emotional hurts. So eventually the unhealed confusion, fear, isolation, internalized self-hate from a lifetime of oppression combined with the fresh violence of the revolutionary struggle congealed into rigid ways of acting and feeling, clouded clear thinking, and turned sour. To date, revolutionary struggles have not been able to solve the profound impact of human irrationality. It remains a huge obstacle to sustaining a transformational social breakthrough.
The other core reason why revolutions have so far “failed” to realize their promise is a spiritual or moral one that Buddha identified twenty-six hundred years ago: the source of all suffering is threefold, or the three “poisons” as he called them–greed, ill-will or hatred, and delusion. Delusion means not understanding our interconnectedness and interdependency, not accepting the reality that everything changes, and not understanding that wanting things leads to disappointment, dissatisfaction, and more suffering. Beyond providing for a basic set of human needs for enough food, shelter, clothing, and medical care to live decently, the role of the government or state is not to satisfy people’s endless desires, but to provide the conditions that help individuals transform greed into generosity, ill-will into compassion, and delusion into wisdom.
Adding this lens to the Russian and Chinese revolutions, it is clear that changing the economic system without challenging greed, without promoting generosity, is bound in time to break down into ill-will, hatred, defended interests, and re-create a new form of state-induced suffering.
Newer social transformations have tended in the same direction. The non-violence Indian struggle for independence spawned the horrifically violent Hindu-Muslim war at the birth of the new nation. The Cuban revolution ended one dictatorship, made promising social strides in literacy, health care, and worker empowerment, but has settled into another long dictatorship. The early elation at the end of Apartheid in South Africa has turned to disappointment and squabbling among the new political powers, and a rise in crime and social dissatisfaction as the country’s problems outstrip the resources and political will.
Worldwide, especially in the western countries, we have institutionalized greed, institutionalized ill-will, and institutionalized delusion. This is the root “enemy”.
I am reminded of famous Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly, below, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
So yes, I am ready to fight. I vow to be a warrior for the human spirit. I vow to use all my power, skillful action, and influence in non-violent non-aggressive ways to transform greed into generosity, hatred into compassion, and delusion into the wisdom that we are all in this together, interdependent, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “caught in an inescapable web of mutuality”.
John Bell is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher who lives near Boston, MA, USA. He is a founding staff and former vice president of YouthBuild USA, an international non-profit that provides learning, earning, and leadership opportunities to young people from low-income backgrounds. He is an author, lifelong social justice activist, international trainer facilitator, father and grandfather. His blog is www.beginwithin.info and email is firstname.lastname@example.org.(10)