Satori in Brooklyn: Our Shared Spaces

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A few days ago a friend told me she was worried about my rage. "You seem upset a lot," she said.

Another friend told me the same thing after seeing my photos of a protest march. This friend says I need to "relax" about Donald Trump, Mike Pence, stolen seats on the US Supreme Court, the global resurgence of white nationalism and fascism, atrocities in Yemen and Gaza, abuse of immigrants and refugees, corrupt hyper-capitalism, environmental ruin. I'm letting it get to me, he says.

I'm glad my friends are concerned about my state of mind. But I'm having a hard time these days figuring out how to respond to people who worry about my level of rage, because I don't think the rage I'm expressing is my rage at all.

This is the world's rage. I hear it loud and clear all around me — here in New York City, and all over America and all over the world. I am a writer, and I am a political activist, and so I write about this rage and go to protests. Maybe some of my friends are confused about what it is that writers and activists do ... because telling either a writer or an activist not to express rage in 2018 is like telling a baseball player not to swing at a fastball. Huh? It's our job. This is what we were put on this earth to do.

When I write about the major problems around the world in 2018, I'm not thinking about my own personal feelings at all. Rather, I'm trying to dwell within a shared space, a place of community. But these shared, social spaces themselves have shriveled and sickened as a result of the political fiascos of the last couple of decades. Confusion, cynicism, paranoia and hopelessness have especially come to define the public mood in the United States, which was still reeling from the shock of the Al Qaeda attacks in 2001 and the disaster of Bush's Iraq War of 2003 when the fiscal crash of 2007/2008 happened, hurtling us eventually towards the racist kakistocracy of Donald Trump. Do we ever stop to mourn the common trust that has been lost within the various societies that enrich and sustain us? I don't think we do. It's hard to mourn and fight at the same time. Instead, we channel this unconscious sense of loss into feelings of anger, dislike, refusal, disgust.

We miss the point of the moment of crisis we are in when we only think about how politics affects each of us as individuals. Similarly, my own friends miss the point when they presume that my words of anger and acts of protest are rooted in my own private concerns as a solitary individual. "You're still pissed off about Merrick Garland's stolen seat?" a friend asked me yesterday, in a mocking voice. I tried to explain to him that the phrase "pissed off" doesn't fit the nature of the circumstance we are talking about. "Our country is in a constitutional crisis," I responded. "It's really not about my personal feelings at all."

Would anybody honestly think that I — me, the individual named Marc Eliot Stein, the guy who runs this blog — am concerned about the total collapse of coherent government in the United States ... only because of how it personally affects me? It's a ridiculous idea, and yet many people never manage to look past the level of personal gain when they think or talk about either their own politics or the politics that surrounds them.

We habitually resort to the first person singular, as if the first person singular is all that matters. "The only thing I care about is my bank account." This is a tiresome cliche, and yet many of my fellow citizens are so stuck in a selfish Ayn Rand mindset that they will never manage to transcend this cliche. This small-mindedness leads to a solipsistic blindness, to a complete failure to understand what is happening around us even as things get rapidly worse.

The habitual American obsession with selfish benefit can be seen in the way we judge and evaluate public figures who have power over us, and in the way we deal (or don't deal) with urgent controversies. I mentioned Merrick Garland and the Supreme Court above because right now Trump and his Republican appeasers are trying to defraud the American people by fast-tracking the placement of right-wing extremist Brett Kavanaugh on the top court, even though Kavanaugh's positions do not reflect the will of the majority of Americans. Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court represents a severe threat to the shared values of our free society — and yet the public discussion about Kavanaugh has been banal and feckless. Journalists chirp about whether or not "he has the votes", rather than reporting about the damage his deciding vote will do. Among my own friends, there is a shrugging nonchalance, and a pointless focus on the question of whether or not the individual person named Brett Kavanaugh is a good guy or a bad guy.

This last question really misses the point. A Supreme Court judge has a lot of power over our lives, and the particular personality of a judge has nothing to do with anything. When we the people object to Kavanaugh's lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, we are not objecting to Kavanaugh's personality. We are taking a stand abvout the future of our country, about decisions the Supreme Court will decide that will affect our children and our children's children. We are asking why a so-called "President" who is clearly unfit for office after being elected with a second-place victory should have the power to nominate to the Supreme Court a partisan judge, vetted by shadowy Republican donors, whose actions on the court will be noxious to the majority of voters. We are asking why our Constitution allows the Republican Party to weaponize antiquated rules and procedures like the Senate's responsibility to approve Supreme Court votes. The Senate is a highly unequal representation of American voters, and in fact the 51-49 approval count that is expected for the poisonous "Judge Kavanaugh" taking represents only 30% of the American population. This is because small states have the same representation as large states. Shouldn't a Supreme Court justice be approved by a Congressional body that actually represents the American voters? And what are the American people supposed to think about the fact that this 30% of Senatorial votes that will put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court undercounts city dwellers and minorities? Why should the American people allow the Trump administration and the Republican Party to commit this act of government malfeasance?

These are the kinds of questions I'm trying to ask. I'm concerned about the well-being and stability of a powerful nation — the sick United States of America — whose government is now truly rotten to the core. We the people have a responsibility to demand better leadership, and we are failing in this responsibility. It's absolutely unacceptable that the crooked racist fascist Donald Trump is in a position to affect our own lives. And it's unconscionable that Paul Ryan's pathetic, money-soaked Congress and Mitch McConnell's out-of-touch Senate continue to appease and submit to this wannabe tyrant. These are the kinds of things I'm thinking about.

And yet, a well-meaning friend who thinks I need to "calm down" will say this to me about Donald Trump:

"Look, sometimes life is just really unfair. Sometimes horrible people will have good luck. You can't let it bother you."

This person actually thinks I'm upset about the Trump administration because I am personally offended by the person known as Donald Trump. Maybe this person even thinks I am personally envious of Donald Trump, which couldn't be farther from the truth. (I am sure he lives a nightmarish life, inside that hate-poisoned mind.) How do I make my friend understand that I don't have the slightest interest in the person known as Donald Trump? That I am concerned about the damage his administration is doing: 3000 dead in Puerto Rico due to negligent federal response ... separating refugee children from parents ... pulling out of environmental accords ... sowing seeds of war in the Middle East?

My wish to end the presidency of Donald Trump has absolutely nothing to do with my personal feelings about Donald Trump. This should be obvious — and yet many people are still stuck in the same mindset as my friend, who doesn't seem able to consider vast consequences of government policy but can only evaluate Trump's worth as a person. The damage Trump's regime is doing to our country, meanwhile, doesn't register to my friend at all. Concepts are all just "pie in the sky". This is a weird sort of blindness, unfortunately a common blindness — a blindness to the reality of what holds a society together, even as our society falls apart before our eyes.

I had a moment of satori, a sudden blast of awareness, the other day, in the middle of a late August stroll along the beach at Coney Island. Or, well, let me be honest — I took the subway to Coney Island on a certain day because I was in a horrible mood, and I was specifically hoping for a moment of satori. I'm sure I was thinking of Jack Kerouac's piquant 1966 novel Satori in Paris, in which the author takes his drinking problem to France on a desperate quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Kerouac never actually finds his satori in this ironic late-career novel — and yet isn't it true that when we go on a hunt for satori and find ourselves unable to find it, our sudden realization of the comical vanity of our quest might actually become a moment of satori? I think that's what Kerouac was getting at when he wrote Satori in Paris. And here I was now, barreling through Brooklyn on a southbound Coney Island subway train, hoping a stroll on the boardwalk or beach would produce a spiritual epiphany of some unknown kind. Worth a try, right? If I don't get satori, at least I'll improve my suntan.

Well, I did have a moment of satori out there, as I strolled placidly among the noisy crowds, the amazing Atlantic ocean to the left of me, rackety roller coaster rides and laughing yelling happy families on the boardwalk to my right, lush simmering expanses of beautiful sand yelding gently to the touch of my bare feet. It was the inspiration I had come out to the ocean for. Maybe the world is going to be okay. Yeah, things feel shitty right now all over the world. Wars rage ... capitalists steal ... liars lie. And yet — the pounding, crashing waves of a massive blue ocean. Families together, having fun, everywhere I look. Endless grains of perfect sand, crystallizing existence and conjuring the wisdom of William Blake. Maybe it will all be okay.

I'm going to keep doing what I can to help increase our chances. I'll be participating in the annual World Beyond War conference in Toronto later this month, and am really excited to be spending time with other activists who believe, as I do, that we will not be able to solve the world's other problems until we cure the global disease of rampant militarism, greedy imperialism and for-profit violence. Antiwar activism remains my primary focus, and pacifism continues to represent my core belief.

I've also been participating around New York City in Handmaids protests (yay, Margaret Atwood!), divestment actions and other initiatives with excellent groups like Refuse Fascism and Code Pink. Many of my politically-minded friends are working hard to turn out the vote this November, and I will be voting, even though I am skeptical that either political party is capable of challenging the gigantic level of big-money corruption that dominates the USA today.

It's hard to feel hopeful about any mainstream politician right now, but I do think highly of the work Elizabeth Warren has been doing in calling out systematic corruption and exposing the liars who profit from it. I don't know if the USA should or will ever have another President after the debacle of Donald Trump — hell, I don't even know if the USA should or will continue to exist after the debacle of Donald Trump. But if there is a next President, I think Elizabeth Warren would be the right kind of choice.

Things feel hopeless, but it's important to remember that the future is not defined by the past. We don't know what will happen next, and no laws of nature or political theory or economic theory have determined our path. We are the people — it's up to us.

Shared spaces ... the meaning of society itself, the meaning of action. As we fight on for what we know is right, we must always fight with love, with empathy, with forgiveness. No hatred, no revenge, no violence and no guilt. Our problems are major, and yet our world is big and our future is unwritten, so we are allowed to hope. If you and I disagree, that means we don't understand each other yet.

7 Responses to "Satori in Brooklyn: Our Shared Spaces"

by hepcat on

I’ve been thinking about this post a lot. I think it captures what many like-minded people have felt the last two years in a single word—rage. Rage at the outrages.

It’s a well-timed post for me because I’ve just finished a book by the Dalai Lama that has a lot to say about negative emotions. He says that anger isn’t an unqualified negative as long as it’s driven to some greater good. You seem to have a lot of channels to direct your rage positively, be it writing or activism or volunteering. I think some important questions to ask are, has rage consumed you? Do your conversations default to heated political topics? Has that become your identity?

The only way I've been able to stay sane in political conversations with friends is to be thankful to Donald Trump. Through him I've learned that as soon as anger is introduced into a debate, it's over. I've never convinced anyone of anything by getting angry; nor have I ever been convinced by it. What's far more impressive to me is sounding a calm, dispassionate or even sympathetic tone in the delivery of facts without coming across as patronizing.

I'm thankful to Donald Trump in another way too. He and his ilk have swung the pendulum so hard and far to the right that, by sheer momentum, it can only end with a movement just as far to the left. I think we're seeing this now with the overthrow of some dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. The demographics don't lie -- youth and numbers are on our side.

Anyway, great post as usual.

by Marc Eliot Stein on

Thanks for your feedback, hepcat. You ask a pointed question when you ask "has rage consumed you?". For myself, I'm trying to make sure it doesn't consume me.

I disagree strongly with you, though, that a pendulum swing to the left following Trump would be a good thing. It wouldn't be a good thing. A takeover of a government by extremists is never good for the people. I dread the idea of a left-wing extremist leader who is as ignorant, corrupt and dishonest as Donald Trump. What we need is selfless leadership that is visionary, moderate and attuned to the will of the citizens.

by mnaz on

Marc! You're alive! ...

"What we need is selfless leadership that is visionary, moderate and attuned to the will of the citizens." . . . You mean, kind of like Obama? Or was he too "dyed in the wool?" or too "entrenched in the Machine?" or "too far right?" or "too far left?" or "too socialist?" or, or ... Do we even know what "right," left" or "center" are after, frankly, decades of right-wing propaganda and dishonest smear on so many widespread media networks all over the heartland, which really began to ramp up with the likes of Limbaugh in the late '80s/early '90s? In all of our raging back and forth would we even recognize a visionary attuned to the will of the citizens? Could such a visionary truly advance the will of citizens in such a corporate-controlled "democracy," which only seems to become more sold out as each year, each decade, passes and we childishly bicker among ourselves on various distracting divide-and-conquer smokescreen issues?

by Hepcat on

Ohh I’m not talking about so far left as to be in actual leftist communist territory. I mean to say left enough that it would get us talking about national healthcare, better safety nets, a leaner military...‘extreme’ things like these that will no doubt be objected to with cries of socialism by people who don’t even know what it means.

by Marc Eliot Stein on

Yes, Mnaz, I am surely alive! And it's good to be getting some commenting activity here on Litkicks again! Even though these days the "commenting" is more likely to happen on Facebook or other social networks. Anyway ...

Yes, Mnaz, I do think Barack Obama had the kind of honorable character that is terribly missing with the sociopath Donald Trump. I know many people felt Obama did not do enough against American militarism and Wall Street influence, etc. This may be true, but I also suspect that he did the best he could in a tough job, and that he believed he was making the right decisions at all times. He was not a perfect President, but he had a damn solid character and he sure could inspire people with his example.

Hepcat, just to nitpick - I actually wasn't thinking of "communism" when I mentioned the possibility of a future left-wing extremist who follows Trump's example of immoderation and corruption. I don't think "communism" is a useful label after the disasters of the 20th century, but I do think a socialist economy would be better for the USA than the disaster of hyper-capitalism. What I am concerned about, when I think about the pendulum swinging away from Donald Trump to a different kind of extremist, is the possibility of a left-wing President who lies, steals and proudly displays his lack of morals and character. That would be the left-wing equivalent of Donald Trump, who lies, steals and proudly displays his lack of morals and character.

by mnaz on

My main doubts are twofold:

1) That we the citizenry are to a point where we wouldn't recognize a visionary leader even if he/she stepped up and bit us in the ass, due to a preponderance of noise.

And 2) Our system is far too corrupt(ed) to recognize, let alone give voice to such a leader.

I realize this makes me a cynical, horrible person, so my apologies in advance, but this is pretty much where I'm at.

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