Further Thoughts on Politics and Despair
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Saturday, 19 March 2011 17:42

I don't want to make a habit of using blog posts to respond to comments, but a reply to a recent piece in which I did just that seemed to me to call for a more substantial response than a comment thread can easily contain. So, begging your indulgence once again, here is the exchange: first the commenter's message, and then my answer.

From "Pjerome58:
As much as I admire, and regularly read, Chris Floyd's blog, this response to Pinquot was disturbing in itself.  Politics is more than a toxin to be flushed and "waste managed."  Although I can agree that "politics" in the sense of parliamentary shenanigans is mere shadow boxing, a ruse to make us think that our votes somehow affect the way a nation or state or city is governed, "politics" in the broader sense affects us all the time.  It is nice to contemplate astronomy and musical chords and the origins of cognition, but at the end (and beginning) of the day, everyone eats/works/lives in a world where wars are fought, people are imprisoned, children are deprived of food, women are not safe in their own homes, and on and on.  Particularly for Americans, there is an undeniable responsibility to try to counter the violence and militarism that is stampeding across the globe, to somehow take on the banksters robbing many of us blind, and to pierce the mythology of two-party "politics" in this country.

So what are we to do?  Mr. Floyd seems to be telling us to compartmentalize "politics," that cesspool of human behavior, and get on with life.  That's fine, but now that we know (via Mr. Floyd and many other commentators and some reporters, and through our daily experiences), do we ignore the dark side of life?  I work on behalf of incarcerated people, providing legal assistance and often relieving some of their daily suffering.  It is grueling, often demoralizing, but ultimately more satisfying for me than learning to play the piano or taking up watercolors.  In my spare hours, I often carry a sign in support of Bradley Manning or to end wars fought in my name, try to organize to combat FBI surveillance on my friends, and take up other "political" causes.   And here I can identify with Pinquot's plight in the sense that I often like to think I am making a difference in the bigger world, that my work is changing things, that my political work is important, but then I read about horrors going on in places I have never been and will never likely visit (Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan) and despair.  What's the use?  Why bother?  Sometimes, despair is overwhelming, although I have not yet considered heroin.

So Mr, Floyd, what to do?  Yes, there is much more to life than struggle, but I cannot turn away from it.  I won't turn away from it.  I read a novel every now and then, listen to music daily, try to exercise regularly and all that, but still, there is despair.  I would like a better answer than to simply "treat" the "waste product" that you call politics.

My reply:
First of all, your main objection or concern about my post seems to come down a matter of semantics. I described "politics" in terms of toxic waste; you read that, and said, "Hey, I consider my activist work a form of politics -- and I don't think it's a toxin." It's just a matter of how one defines the term "politics." In my post, I set out -- very early on, and very clearly -- what I meant by "politics." Here is what I said: "Politics -- the machinations of the stunted, damaged souls and third-rate minds who hanker for power."

Ironically, this is very close to your statement: "I can agree that "politics" in the sense of parliamentary shenanigans is mere shadow boxing, a ruse to make us think that our votes somehow affect the way a nation or state or city is governed." Right then, we are in perfect agreement. So what exactly is the problem? I defined "politics" -- a large, amorphous term -- in a specific way for the purposes of the blog post, and set out clearly what I meant by it. I'm surprised that anyone could construe this usage as some kind of devaluation or undermining of activism. 

In any case, here is how you yourself describe the political world, the 'world of power,' as I called it: "a world where wars are fought, people are imprisoned, children are deprived of food, women are not safe in their own homes .... [where] violence and militarism [are] stampeding across the globe ... banksters robbing many of us blind ...."

What is all that, then, if it is not toxic? And yes, we all have to deal with it, every day, in a myriad of ways, short-term and long-term -- and that 'dealing with it' is precisely the "waste management" I was talking about. We have to devise ways to deal with the sewage and trash our bodies and our behaviors produce as we live our daily lives; it is just the same with politics, as we deal with the toxins produced by those who pursue and wield power.

If you like, we can extend the metaphor and say that "politics" -- in the sense of those strange people who crave domination over others seeking office, and the policies and practices they carry out in power -- constitutes the rawest kind of sewage, the highly toxic, sick-making material that taints and degrades anyone who plunges into it and stays there, churning around in partisan fervor, etc. And the efforts that others make to alleviate or mitigate or, yes, even remove the sewage produced by power-seekers are what constitute the "waste management" of this toxic by-product. You might not find the term "waste management" noble enough, and that's a fair point. I think it's a pretty honorable profession myself, but again, this is just semantics. Call it anything you like, come up with some other metaphor. But the realities -- the toxic nature of domination over others and the necessity to deal with it -- remain the same.

You say that I call on people to "compartmentalize politics" and "get on with life." Then you seem to imply that I advocate "ignoring the dark side of life." But when I say clearly that "waste management" is an unavoidable part of life,  how is that "ignoring" the "dark side"? (And how do you square this criticism -- that I advocate ignoring the dark side of life -- with my observation that a sense of the tragic element in life is part of a deeper understanding of reality -- an understanding that "politics" lacks?)

As for "compartmentalizing" aspects of one's life -- so what? Everyone 'compartmentalizes' all manner of things, all day long, if only for moments at a time. That's just an ordinary function of consciousness. But of course our awareness of all the aspects of life permeates our consciousness as a whole; the "dark side" doesn't disappear when we concentrate on something else -- but neither do, say, the beauty and wonder and numinous qualities to be found in life, which I sketched briefly in the post in this way:

...Beyond the thunder and spectacle of this ape-roaring world is another state of reality, emerging from the murk of our baser functions. There is power here, too, but not the heavy, blood-sodden bulk of dominance. Instead, it's a power of radiance, of awareness, connection, breaking through in snaps of heightened perception, moments of encounter and illumination that lift us from the slime.

It takes ten million forms, could be in anything – a rustle of leaves, the tang of salt, a bending blues note, the sweep of shadows on a tin roof, the catch in a voice, the touch of a hand, a line from Sappho or John Clare. Any particular, specific combination of ever-shifting elements, always unrepeatable in its exact effect and always momentary....

And yes, you can add political moments in that catalogue of "moments of encounter and illumination," as I say very clearly in the post, noting that "the greatest moments, the epiphanies ... do happen in politics on rare occasions, one must admit."

So in the main, I have to say that I don't quite get the drift of your message. You seem to feel that I am advocating some kind of quietism, when that is demonstrably not true. You ask me to tell you "what are we to do," when, for what it's worth, I said exactly what I thought we are to do, as plainly as I could, in the very piece you are commenting upon. Such as here:

So do we counsel fatalism, a dark, defeated surrender, a retreat into bitter, curdled quietude? Not a whit. We advocate action, positive action, unstinting action, doing the only thing that human beings can do, ever: Try this, try that, try something else again; discard those approaches that don't work, that wreak havoc, that breed death and cruelty; fight against everything that would draw us down again into our own mud; expect no quarter, no lasting comfort, no true security; offer no last word, no eternal truth, but just keep stumbling, falling, careening, backsliding, crawling toward the broken light.

How much clearer do you want me to be? Should I draw up a list of specific actions we all should take, lay down some doctrinal line that should be enforced on everyone?

But here is the most ironic thing of all: You yourself are already doing exactly what I advocate doing. You say: "I work on behalf of incarcerated people, providing legal assistance and often relieving some of their daily suffering."

You spend your life relieving the daily suffering of human beings in distress -- I honestly believe this is a very noble, even heroic thing to do. It is precisely the kind of action I have advocated and praised and encouraged over and over and over again, year after year after year, in my writing.  You do it on a direct, individual basis -- you help mitigate the suffering of a fellow human being, and in doing so, you set an example for the rest of us on how to fight against those elements of reality -- and of our own psyches -- that would "draw us down again into our own mud."

So why on God's earth are you asking me to tell you what we should do? What I have already plainly said we should do, you are doing. You are doing it in the most real, concrete way possible. You help prisoners, you advocate for Bradley Manning, you march against war, you try to combat government encroachments on liberty, and so on. This is precisely, exactly the way I believe we should "treat" the "'waste product' that [I] call politics." This is precisely what I believe we should do to defy, resist and mitigate the cruelty and brutality and machinations of power.

Where -- in the post in question or throughout all of the millions of words I've blathered out in print and blogosphere -- can you find anything, even the slightest hint, that I advocate that people should "turn away from struggle," or that such activity is worthless, pointless, or that we should set it aside and "get on with life," ignoring the "dark side" in favor of (as you put it with what seems to be a bit of unfortunate sneering) "learning to play the piano or taking up watercolors"? (If you find activism more satisfying that playing the piano, that's fine; but of course, some people find both of them satisfying. So why sneer at them?)

So again, I don't really catch your drift. You say you don't turn away from struggle, but you do "read a novel every now and then, listen to music daily, try to exercise regularly and all that"; how is that any different from what I was writing about? Again, you ask me "what to do?" Well, you are doing all that I would advocate. I don't know what more you want me to tell you.

Unless you want me to tell you how not to despair about horrors going on in other parts of the world -- or somehow convince you that the work you do alleviating human suffering "makes a difference in the bigger world," that it "changes things" and that your "political work is important." I don't know how to answer that. If you don't find relieving some of the daily suffering of prisoners to have sufficient meaning in itself, to be of sufficient importance to do in its own right, then what can I say? I do find such things to have the most utmost importance, the most profound meaning -- whether they "change things" in some ultimate sense or lead to some kind of eventual transformation of society, or not.

"What's the use?" you say you sometimes feel. "Why bother?" Well, I guess the answer to these questions can be found in another question: "Why do you do these things in the first place?" Is it not precisely because you want to alleviate the suffering of individual human beings? Then what more "importance" do you need? Is it worthless or pointless to help someone even if it doesn't change the world, or even if someone else is suffering elsewhere? Should you stop doing it -- should you not help a prisoner, should you not try to stop a war or an atrocity -- just because it won't magically change human nature, and that wars and atrocities and the suffering of prisoners will still go on? Would you refrain from saving an individual child from drowning just because, well, children are always going to drown sometimes no matter what, and even if I save this kid here, some child in Somalia is drowning, so what's the point? Of course you wouldn't say that. But this is exactly the same logic that seems to be animating your despair.

Finally, why do you think you can or should live without despair? Are you really asking me to tell you how to do that? What do you want me to say? That God or Science or the dialectic will make it all work out in the long run? Would that give you comfort? Well, I can't say that, because I don't believe it. I don't believe that a thinking, feeling person can exist in the world as it is without knowing despair. That's part of the tragic element of existence that I was talking about.

But such despair doesn't "overwhelm" me, or make me think that efforts to alleviate the suffering of individual human beings are of no use. Despair exists, and I feel it often and deeply, but it doesn't make me think that those moments of connection, awareness, encounter, radiance and beauty I spoke of above are meaningless. I am not overwhelmed by despair because I believe that reality exists in moments and only in moments, and that at any given time, a moment can be redeemed, can be suffused with profound and, if you like, ultimate meaning, in and of itself. There are many ways of redeeming the moments of existence -- and one way, certainly, is by doing precisely what you are doing in your prison work and activism.

The moment of connection, the moment of helping, the moment of awareness -- each is important in and of itself. Now, it may be that these moments can build upon one another; that one moment of helping or awareness can lead to another. They might serve as an example to others to seek out such moments for themselves. I am sure this is true on an individual level. And I'm not saying that there cannot be, over vast stretches of time, an accumulation of such moments -- and the legacies they leave -- that could lead to greater changes in human nature and society. I don't know if that's true or not, if that's how reality works or not; but precisely because I don't know, I can't discount this latter possibility out of hand.

But again, whether this is possible or not doesn't really matter to me, or leave me overwhelmed. The moments of connection, awareness, numinosity, etc. that occur within Being -- within reality as it is now, as I can comprehend it with my limited understanding  -- these moments are enough for me, they hold sufficient meaning in themselves. I don't require them to be part of some grand cosmic scheme, or some greater march toward progress.

These are the apprehensions and comprehensions of reality that I have come to over many decades of thinking about such things -- and of dealing with the tragedies and joys of life. Of course, these understandings are constantly being refined -- and challenged -- by new knowledge, new experiences, new reflections on the past, and so on. But what I wrote in the post -- and especially in the older passages quoted in that post -- set out as clearly as possible the broad outlines of my thinking on these matters. If you want an "answer" from me, that's all I've got.

If you want a "better answer" -- as well you might -- then you'll need to ask someone else .... or even figure it out for yourself.

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