the Torches of America's Soul
By Bernard Weiner, The
happens when individuals or whole societies damage - or even
temporarily lose - their soul, their spiritual anchor, their
sense of themselves as moral entities?
Oh, I know that talking about "soul" and "spirituality"
is anathema to a good share of the Left. Those terms often
are regarded as too new-wavey or are found mostly in the camp
of conservative churchgoers.
But we need to focus on the moral and spiritual aspect in
our politics for a variety of reasons, including helping to
re-balance our own souls amidst all the horrors being perpetrated
by our so-called leaders.
Further, if we in the progressive movement avoid the spiritual
field, we certainly will be crushed in 2004, and the know-nothing
forces of Bush&Co. will have free rein - read: reign - to
carry out further imperial misadventures abroad and police-state-like
constitutional shredding at home. The result will be catastrophe
- to our already shaky economy, to our national treasury (and
treasures: our young men and women sent to patrol the empire),
to the collective soul of America.
The United States is, and likes to think of itself as, a
highly moral country, dedicated to fair play and to the belief
that God takes an interest in our democratic experiment. Americans,
at heart, want to do the right thing.
When our society goes outside the boundaries of decent moral
behavior - as we did with slavery, for example - those lapses
are regarded as aberrations, correctable as we learn more.
We are in another such moment in our history right now, but
we can hope that as more and more citizens learn what's really
going on behind the scenes, and face our political shadow,
the pendulum will begin swinging back the other way - if permitted
to do so.
Using fear and a permanent-war scenario, the Bush Administration
has been able to manipulate the American populace into turning
its spiritual button to the off position. By demonizing and
lying, it has put America's moral sense of itself into a kind
of numbed "pause" mode.
Americans are led to wallow in the fright and negativity
pushed daily by Bush&Co. and its conglomerate-owned mass media.
After months and years of having this negative template laid
on top of our society, it's not difficult to have one's energy
sapped, to sink into a kind of fatalistic torpor, or even,
because the feelings are so intense, to deny that one is having
doubts at all.
The Dark Clouds Gather
The shadow forces in American politics have been in the
ascendancy for more than two years, and many ordinary citizens,
not used to having mean-spirited and mendacious leaders in
control of the country, have been confused as to how to respond.
And so many folks closed down their moral sensibilities. But
there are signs that this is beginning to change.
Normally, you see, America doesn't initiate wars when we
haven't been attacked or are in little danger of being attacked,
or when our vital national interests are not at stake. But,
in this Iraqi case, the American public has been led to feel:
"After 9/11, we need to get those guys, and Saddam is capable
within 45 minutes of sending his drone planes to drop anthrax
on us, or a nuclear bomb" - and more such whoppers. And off
go a quarter-million American troops to the Persian Gulf,
with little or no serious debate. Don't get me wrong. There
are bad-guy terrorists out there who need to be confronted
and captured, but we don't need to become a unilateral bully
abroad - thus enriching the soil in which terrorism grows
- and move into a police-state at home to handle the problem.
And our officials certainly don't need to lie on a massive
scale to dupe us into approving their imperial policies.
Even though it has become clear that the U.S. is in no danger
of an imminent attack from Iraq, and that indeed there were
no weapons of mass destruction worth worrying about, the Rove
propaganda machine has done its work well. More than half
of those polled think we did the right thing, even if no WMDs
are ever discovered.
So. How to combat that moral lethargy, that overwhelming
sense of denial that America maybe, just maybe, might be doing
something wrong, something that violates our normal sense
of ourselves as a righteous, ethical people?
Rather than simply bash away at the bourgeois, religious
middle class for their willingness to go along with whatever
Bush&Co. says and proposes, it might make more sense to try
to reach folks on an idealistic level, where they live and/or
repair to emotionally.
It's key to remind ourselves that we are taking this approach
not only, or even mainly, as a political tactic, but because
it's the right thing to do: to see folks as individuals, with
very real fears and sensitive spots. Think of it as a kind
of holistic political-spiritual practice. Love, in the long
run, always is more powerful than hate and suspicion. Healing
always is more gratifying than destruction.
Learning From Earlier Struggles
During the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s,
the act of reminding white, Bible-reading citizens of their
moral consciences had a great deal to do with eventually bringing
about the required changes in the South and elsewhere.
During the anti-Vietnam War days, many in the clergy - priests,
rabbis, ministers, imams - also were reminding citizens of
the immoral policies that were being carried out in our names;
the spiritual underpinnings of the peace movement served as
soul-bedrock for our actions - even when we protesters sometimes
Millions of us found ourselves denouncing not only our government
but also its ordinary-citizen supporters; we got up into their
faces (often our own parents' faces) and equated them with
baby-killers and worse. In our self-righteousness, it took
us a good while to figure out that such tactics often were
counter-productive, violative of our inner beliefs in peacemaking,
and, in terms of bad P.R., making us the issue rather than
the war. How to exit that path?
In the Pacific Northwest, where I was then teaching, many
of us anti-warriors decided to meet regular folks where they
lived - in churches, at public meetings designed to break
down generational barriers, at political potlucks, at community
picnics, at sporting and social events, in off-campus classes
- and tried to learn more about them, as human beings. In
the process, they learned more about us as human beings, that
we were more than just raggitty longhairs smoking grass and
shouting at the police.
Suddenly, communication lines were open. We weren't so scary
any more, they weren't so stereotyped anymore. We activists
heard their fears and agonies: They didn't really like the
war and all the death and destruction carried out in their
names, but wanted to trust the government, fearing anarchy
if the scruffy anti-war protesters were correct in their denunciations.
And these middle-class folks finally could hear what we were
saying, that the government was lying about a war-policy destined
As more and more body bags arrived back in the States, the
middle-class folks with whom we were talking sensed we were
telling the truth, and many began contacting their elected
officials, or writing letters to the editor, or working for
peace in their churches and schools and so on. A good number
even wound up on the streets with us protesters. Middle-class
pro-war solidarity began crumbling, and the Nixon administration
knew it had to somehow end the conflict.
The Vietnam analogy is not exact, of course. But more and
more, it looks like the U.S. - having alienated its traditional
allies and much of the rest of the world by virtue of its
unilateral, arrogant, bullying approach prior to the war's
start - is now in a 'Nam-like quagmire in Iraq. We have only
the foggiest notion of the sub-rosa cultural forces in play
in that land, and a good share of the population is opposed
to our presence. Forces of opposition are regrouping and,
especially at night, carrying out a guerrilla war against
U.S./U.K. troops, with more bodies being shipped back home
The Lies That Bind
It's now clear to all that the Bush Administration lied
about - or (if you don't want to admit that your government
would falsify on such a massive scale) at the very least grossly
exaggerated - its rationale for speeding to war. Iraq was
a broken nation before "shock&awe" began, with no weaponry
to speak of; the U.S. and U.K. were in no imminent danger
of attack, and neither was anybody else in the vicinity. Iraq
was attacked to provide a demonstration model for the region,
in order for the U.S. to assert its hegemonic control in that
energy-rich area of the world, and as a warning to nations
(and international organizations) around the globe not to
oppose the U.S. lest they bring the wrath of U.S. power down
on their heads.
Ideologues within the U.S. government, seeing that there
was nobody to stand in the way of the lone superpower on the
globe, had concocted a military/foreign policy aimed at preserving
and expanding America's Pax Americana ambitions. [See my "How
We Got Into This Imperial Pickle: A PNAC Primer"].
The upshot of all these recent revelations of Bush Administration
greed and skullduggery, stealth power-mongering, and gross
lying is that the American people have been given the tools
with which to measure their sense of morality and spirituality
against the shadow forces that, for the moment, dominate U.S.
Bush's "re-elect" (sic) numbers are shrinking,
down to 40% in some polls, as the citizenry's blinders are
slowly being removed and their anger and disappointment are
being fired up. The Democrats are beginning, in fits and starts,
to realize that they possess spines and can stand up to Bush
and the GOP when it comes to extremist policies and extremist
judges. (And various Democratic hopefuls for the presidency
are speaking out forcefully, helping to bolster the vocabulary
More and more potentially embarrassing questions
are being asked in the media and Congress about Bush&Co. behavior.
More moderate conservatives are joining forces on occasion
to block Bush initiatives. More mainstream columnists and
editorialists are beginning to display their courage in talking
openly about Bush&Co. scandals and incompetencies. More faith-based
oganizations are starting to see through the hypocrisy and
ersatz "religiosity" of the Administration. Those whose spirituality
derives from nature's balance and beauty are realizing that
Bush&Co. are turning over the environment to the greedy corporate
forces that pollute and destroy.
Those in control of policy in the Bush Administration
may be irredeemable - the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Wolfowitzes,
Perles, Bushes, et al., coked-out on greed and power-lust
- but more lower-level officials are beginning to defect,
whistleblow, leak the awful truth to the press. Whether Foreign
Service officers or intelligence agents or G.O.P. staffers,
their consciences will no longer permit them to shill for
an Administration whose operating principles seem to be proudly
in violation of traditional American morality. (And claiming
that 9/11 changed the rules forever is being seen for what
it is: a catch-all excuse for the ideologues in charge to
do whatever they want.)
Hope On The Horizon
In short, the building blocks are almost in place for serious
impeachment moves and a possible electoral victory in 2004.
The keys to these hopeful developments lie in:
1. Maintaining the pressure. Bush&Co. cannot be permitted
to select a scapegoat and thus avoid personal responsibility
for the lies told that put American men and women into harm's
way in Iraq, and that continue to get many of them killed.
(Clinton harmed himself and just a few others as a result
of his lying about sex; when Bush lies, people die and our
treasury is depleted. Many religiously-oriented folks were
deeply upset at Clinton's "immorality"; the connection needs
to be emphasized to them that "immoral" behavior can involve
something other than sexual liaisons.)
2. Working to ensure a fair election. Demand of your
local and state election officials that no computer voting
be authorized unless and until it comes with iron-clad ways
of checking the ballots, a verifiable paper-trail to ensure
that nobody can tamper with the vote and get away with it.
Ensure that, unlike Florida in 2000, tens of thousands of
voters cannot be purged from the voting rolls by deliberate
fiat of supporters of one party or the other. Double-check
to make sure that the vote-counting of military personnel
abroad is on the up-and-up, with a verifiable paper trail.
2. Talking up a storm. Contact your neighbors and
associates and friends about what is happening in this country;
write letters to the editor, call talk-show hosts, compose
articles and blogs for the internet, participate in meetings
and political actions, go out and register new voters, etc.
etc. - all these help add to the critical mass necessary for
regime change at home. In short, organize, organize, organize!
3. Connecting with the faithful. Work with your church
or synagogue or mosque to re-fire the moral indignation, to
connect one's religiosity to the soul-work of right action
4. Reversing the suction. Engage in positive, spiritually
uplifting actions as often as you can, so that you can escape
the immoral suction forces pulling one down into the negativity
and fright that pass for policy in the Bush world. Volunteer,
aid a soup kitchen, donate money to good causes, become a
mentor to at-risk kids, choose a candidate and work for the
campaign, immerse yourself in an art project, help oppositional
websites and magazines, etc. etc. In other words, see the
light guiding one forward, rather than the shadows nipping
at your heels. Turn your head away from the propaganda and
lies, and towards the sunshine of hope. Let love rule your
actions; as your heart opens, so do doors of possibility and
5. Joining the political process. Elect Greens or
whomever on local levels, but once the Democrats select their
presidential standard-bearer, do not dwell on the candidate's
shortfalls or where you might disagree with him or her on
a particular issue or two. Remember that the only point
in 2004 is to defeat the Bush juggernaut, so as to move our
country away from extremist politics and back toward civil
compromise and more centrist (and, we can hope, maybe even
some progressive) policies.
Out of love of country, unite behind that Democratic candidate
and work your ass off to get him or her elected, so as to
break the momentum of imperial rule abroad and Constitution-shredding
at home. Don't let yourself be distracted by dirty political
tricks, or whatever terrorist attacks happen, or however many
calls to patriotism in wartime are employed to slow the momentum.
(After the election, if Bush is thrown out of office, then
we can afford the luxury of cleansing that political party
of its more reactionary elements.)
6. Asking the pointed questions. When you talk to
your friends and neighbors and colleagues, focus on questions
that remind them who's benefitting and who's losing in the
current Bush climate. Do they feel more secure in their jobs?
(Several millions have lost theirs since Bush's economic policies
began.) Have their pensions and stock holdings decreased in
value? Do they want to be part of an American empire that
"pre-emptively" attacks other countries, in a reckless disregard
for international law and treaties?
Are they aware that Bush's incompetent "post-war" policies
are endangering our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere?
Isn't it shameful that the Bush Administration, which claims
to care deeply about our soldiers in uniform, is cutting back
funding to veterans? Are they aware of the extremist, ideologically-driven
judges that Bush is appointing? Are they aware of the humungous
deficits being racked up by the Bush Administration, and the
deliberate consequences that flow from that: little money
left over for strapped State budgets, Medicare, Social Security,
meaningful prescription-drug coverage, Head Start, curbing
environmental pollution, bettering education? And so on.
These are just a few ideas to kick-start the discussion.
No doubt, you've got more great suggestions for how to turn
this country around and back to civil politics, compromise,
a genuine concern for the general welfare of all our citizens
and society, not just the elite. Get those ideas out there.
Friends, our beloved nation is at one of those historical
crossroads that will decide our fate. We either defeat the
shadow forces of greed and power-hunger - of negativity and
fear-mongering - and take our country once more into the aura
of light and hope, or we risk losing our individual and societal
soul for a long, long time, with untold damage to the nation,
the world, our moral center. It's choose-up time.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., is a poet and playwright, who has taught
at Western Washington University, San Diego State University,
San Francisco State University. Formerly a writer/editor with
the San Francisco Chronicle, he now co-edits The