The Power of the Powerless

In the aftermath of bigotry’s coup d’etat in North Carolina, I am deeply saddened to hear many friends express the sentiment that perhaps it is time for them to leave.  I do not want them to leave.  Nor do I want to leave.  North Carolina is home.  Her universities educated me.  It is here that I discovered the Goddess.  Here that I met my best friend.  I fell in love in this state; and it is in her red clay that my husband and I grow our family’s food.  My children were born in Duke Hospital and have played and laughed and loved from the mountains to the coast.

So no, leaving is not an option for me.  I’m not going to follow the flight response.  Which leaves fight.

Living as we do in Durham County I’m certainly doing the math on a civil war’s outcome.  Perhaps if we take Durham, Orange, Wake, Chatham, Mecklenberg, Watauga and Buncombe Counties and secede?  With our mighty fine land base and excess of fabulous and talented individuals, I think we could do very well for ourselves.

Secession has some support from anarchists and proponents of liberty.  Keith Preston, founder of the American Revolutionary Vanguard, calls it “liberty fostered by decentralized particularism” (1); and he cites the ideas of Voltairine de Cleyre, an early individualist anarchist and pioneer feminist who suggested “an ‘anarchism without adjectives’ whereby society would operate as a collection of voluntary communities independent of ‘one size fits all’ utopian pipe dreams for the remaking of mankind” (1).  Preston also cites contemporary support in the work of left-anarchist, Kirkpatrick Sale, who points to Vermont as a model and determines that: “Peaceful, orderly, popular, democratic, and legal secession would enable a wide variety of governments, amenable to all shades of the anti-authoritarian spectrum, to be established within a modern political context.  Such a wide variety, as I see it, that if you didn’t like the place you were, you could always find a place you liked” (1).

Yet if I’m honest with myself, secession is not really an option either.  I have never believed in separate but equal.  The last thing we need is real walls to replace our societal ones.  And if I am even more honest with myself, I am not willing to go through even a peaceful, democratic and legal uprising over this.  Because if I truly sit with what has happened, I can’t help but to see it as a diversionary tactic employed by a greater power broker than the National Organization for Marriage.  In the end, secession is for me a cop-out, a surrendering white flag in the greater battle that I am beginning to understand is being waged.

I am, however, struggling to define my opponent.  And it’s difficult to fight in the absence of an identifiable enemy.  Shadow boxing at its best.

To a point Preston’s defining of The New Totalitarianism is helpful.  He explains how the idea of political correctness, first engaged in American universities, has now become the ruling paradigm.  He posits that the radicals of the 1960’s in the end have not overthrown the U.S. empire, but rather have taken it over for their own agendas, merging with the “older, pre-existing political, economic and military establishment” (1).  Preston then traces the current ideology of this American ruling class to Marxism and sees it as a “re-application of Marxist theory to cultural matters, where the ‘official victims’ of Western civilization replace the proletariat as the focus of a dualistic struggle for political power” (1).  And he goes on to describe how that ideology plays out:

“1. Militarism, Imperialism and Empire in the guise of ‘human rights,’ ‘democracy,’ modernity, universalism, feminism and other leftist shibboleths.
2. Corporate Mercantilism (or ‘state-capitalism’) under the guise of ‘free trade.’
3. In domestic policy . . . ‘totalitarian humanism’ whereby an all-encompassing and unaccountable bureaucracy peers into every corner of society to make sure no one anywhere, anyplace, anytime ever practices ‘racism, sexism, homophobia,’ smoking, ‘sex abuse’ or other such leftist sins.
4. In the realm of law, a police state ostensibly designed to protect everyone from terrorism, crime, drugs, guns, gangs or some other bogeyman of the month” (1).

Personally, I’m okay with some of the currently held assumptions of the ruling class.  I’m not keen on racism, sexism or homophobia, for instance.  So in some respects, I am Preston’s cultural leftist.  But at a deeper level, I can’t help but to resonate with his ideas.  Because while I hold certain beliefs, I do not wish my views to be force fed to others, at home or abroad.  Each individual is their own authority and entitled to make up their own mind and heart on every issue under the sun.  And where the problem begins for me, as I’ve said countless times, is that place where individual authority becomes righteousness, where belief becomes an action that harms.

In my book, the born-again Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin is as entitled to their opinion as I am entitled to my belief that Love=Love.  I may seek to engage them in discussion, they may pray for me, but neither of us should ever seek to inflict our way of life on the other.  And as I’ve also said countless times, I’ve no clue how my kids will turn out and I want a society that protects them whoever they may be.  Under the current ideology, we have given government access to the most intimate aspects of our lives.  And sometimes the agenda of that government might be in line with our beliefs, but it could as easily express an opposite belief.  The point is that if we allow government to implement policy at the level of intimate, individual decision, it can forever intrude and the harsh flashlight of the night raid could easily be blinding you next — whoever you are.

So yes, I find Preston’s work incredibly useful in starting to blow some defining smoke on the shadowy figure I’m boxing.  But I think he falls short when he stops at decentralized particularism.  And though he touches on it, he doesn’t quite capture strongly enough how neatly we have all — on every point in the political spectrum — been ensnared by a larger net.

For help going further I must invoke the assistance of Václav Havel, the 9th and last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).  In 1978 he wrote an instructive and inspiring piece called The Power of the Powerless (For full impact I strongly encourage a read of the entire English-translated excerpt.)

In this work, Havel describes how power is maintained in a post-totalitarian system.  By this, he does not mean that the system is no longer totalitarian, but rather that it retains its power by a control mechanism that is vastly different than the traditional off-with-your-head totalitarian approach.  Havel is talking about Eastern Europe forty years ago, but his words could as easily identify the America Preston describes with his new-totalitarianism, the America I experience today: “unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity . . . the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures” (2).

Havel’s thesis is that in a post-totalitarian system both those in power and those subject to that power collude to maintain the status quo.  They do so by propping up and hiding behind ideology:

“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves . . . .  It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe” (2).

In North Carolina, for example, Amendment One supporters and opponents both participate in the charade.  One puts a sign up in his front yard that reads “Pro Marriage,” while the other plants a sign that proclaims “Protect NC Families.”  Neither is brave or foolish enough to put up a sign that expresses their true feelings.  I have yet to read a sign on anyone’s lawn that says “Anti-Gay,” nor have I seen a sign that says “Pro-Gay.”

Neither do I ever expect to see a sign expressing their common truth, the same one they share with Havel’s greengrocer: “‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient'” (2).  As Havel explains: “[The greengrocer] would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in his shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction” (2).

After all, there’s nothing really wrong with “Pro Marriage” and certainly we all want to “Protect NC Families.”  Both messages fit nicely into their ideological bedrolls and are politically correct enough to allow us to maintain that level of comfort and societal numbing to which we have all become accustomed.  In North Carolina, the outcome of the Amendment One vote disturbed me, but not in the end because of what it said about how 61% of the population feels about marriage.  I’ve lived in North Carolina for twenty years and the vote as an expression of an ideology with which I’m familiar wasn’t surprising: could have wagered it all on which counties would vote which way and won big.  People were simply playing their roles.

As citizens in this greater play, this larger power dynamic, we are permitted these minor ideological battles.  They are, in fact, encouraged, because they consume us and focus our attention away from the larger ideology ruling from behind the curtain.  We are left bickering over semantics such as a definition of “marriage;” or puzzling out mystery as science, as we could do endlessly trying to answer: “When does life begin?”

Think of all of the ways our attention can be divided.  Pick us apart by race, gender, sexual orientation, age, income, musical taste, religion, eating habits, smoking habits, exercise habits, or our scientific and technological beliefs.  It doesn’t matter what we’re divided over, simply that we are divided.  And it is very, very hard, not to participate in maintaining the division.  I can’t stand by while homosexual friends and family members are degraded and told with whom they may partner; who they may love.  I must participate in the immediate fight.  Neither can my neighbor, a Christian, stand by if she perceives that her way of life is threatened.  Yet, by our participation on either side of the issue, what we are truly saying, each in our own way, is what Havel’s greengrocer said with his “Workers of the world, unite!” sign: “I live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (2).

In America in 2012, the non-conformist that’s squashed isn’t ultimately the homophobic or the homosexual.  Yes, each contingent has won some skirmishes and lost others.  This week in North Carolina, it’s easy to feel that the non-conformity that’s been squashed is homosexuality.  But in San Francisco, is this true?  Doesn’t the non-conforming homophobe in San Francisco feel squashed?  In the end, the homophobe and the homosexual are still both conforming to a greater power dynamic; again, they are playing their roles.

I am aware that I’m still not defining my opponent clearly.  And in this endeavor, words do fail.  In this endeavor, the way to reveal the opponent is to start fighting.  And the way to start fighting is to refuse to play.  And this, this is the true non-conformist that the system is designed to squash: the person who stops playing.

In Havel’s story, his greengrocer stops hanging the sign in his window, stops voting in elections he knows are fake, that he knows contain non-choices.  He speaks his true mind, expresses his conscience.  And in so doing, he “steps out of living within the lie.”  The greengrocer’s revolt is the action of living within his own truth.  And when he does he finds that “he has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain.” (2).  By standing in his truth, the greengrocer has pushed societal dialogue beyond the limiting proletariat-bourgeoisie divide of Havel’s 1978 Czechoslovakia.

I am confident that we can do the same in 2012 America, moving our societal dialogue beyond the diversionary division of victim-classes (1).  Yes, for some, I am aware that standing in truth means proclaiming “Anti-Gay” or “Pro-Gay;” and I do not seek to conform or silence either individual.  By all means, be your truth.  I ask only that each stop for a moment and check to make sure their truth is genuinely held and genuinely expressed, not merely the action of propping up or hiding behind ideology.  Because cast in the political arena, these individual truths expressed as ideology could be endlessly divisive.  In my opinion, these individual truths have no place in politics.  They need not our policy; and they divert our attention from the highest intention we could hold for society.  As Havel writes:

“The original and most important sphere of activity, one that predetermines all the others, is simply an attempt to create and support the independent life of society as an articulated expression of living within the truth. In other words, serving truth consistently, purposefully, and articulately, and organizing this service. This is only natural, after all: if living within the truth is an elementary starting point for every attempt made by people to oppose the alienating pressure of the system, if it is the only meaningful basis of any independent act of political import, and if, ultimately, it is also the most intrinsic existential source of the ‘dissident’ attitude, then it is difficult to imagine that even manifest ‘dissent’ could have any other basis than the service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make room for the genuine aims of life” (2).

Society as an “articulated expression of living within the truth.”  It makes my heart sing to think this could be possible, that it is possible.  And that truth need not be a utopian pipe dream: it need not be parceled out into secessionist tracts.  We simply need a different perspective.  We need to move beyond tolerance, the act of accepting others as different.  Tolerance is a sound first step, sure, but I understand it like the “I’m fine” we so often mutter in response to “How are you?”  Okay, not bad, but we can do better; and really, are you fine?  Tolerance is a first step, but it’s time to keep walking.  If we were free to express our truth beyond the victim-class paradigm, what might we articulate?

We could begin by speaking of our physically constraining commonalities, our human truths: that biological need for clean water, a sustainable and nutritious food supply, and shelter.  In so doing, we have what I believe is the best chance at showing the emperor’s nakedness.  And perhaps, when naked, the emperor will have to address the deeper issues facing America nationally and globally, as Noam Chomsky recently identified in an article for Common Dreams: the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, the threat of nuclear war, and the reality of climate change (3).

I know that even here at the end I’ve failed to clearly identify my opponent.  The best I can do at this point is to wager that if I begin to live as the greengrocer, checking in with and articulating a truth that winds through me deeper than American ideology, my opponent will find me.

© Jennifer S. and, 2012.


(1) via The New Totalitarianism by Keith Preston.

(2) via Havel, Power of the Powerless, 1978.

(3) via A Rebellious World or a New Dark Age? | Common Dreams.


3 thoughts on “The Power of the Powerless

    1. Thank you for saying in one sentence what I couldn’t manage to be clear about in hundreds. I agree: the culture war is the diversionary tactic. I see secession as a response (though appealing on the surface) as in the end simply playing into that very diversion. I agree that we won’t ever find a one size fits all utopian answer, but I refuse to accept secession and division as our only recourse, because again, it plays right back into my shadowy opponents’ hands. So where does this leave us? I can’t seem to get further than “be my truth” with the emphasis on a truth that is at a deeper level than one that plays right back into that surface level culture war. Discovered your site last night — thanks for your presence. I’m looking forward to reading and learning.


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