Imagining Liberation

I had an email from the thoughtful son of old friends, a young man who was already becoming a mensch when he was a boy.    He asks for contemporary liberation stories for the upcoming seder.   The seder is the Passover meal where we discuss (at the best of the seders) the concept of liberation from all forms of slavery. I’ve been thinking about contemporary liberation stories since I read his note earlier today.

My first thought was the inspiring message delivered by historian Howard Zinn toward the end of his life  when he was honored in France for his great A People’s History of the United States. [1]    Zinn viewed his project as writing a creative history to anticipate a possible future, a fairer, more desirable world, and to disclose those fleeting, often “hidden episodes of the past” when the good in us, our compassion, rose up in a wave to triumph over every one of humanity’s worst impulses.

My second thought was that what we cannot imagine we can never help bring into existence.   This works as well for great, life-saving ideas as well for awful world destroying ones.  Hateful ideas, sadly, seem to have a consistent power all their own to rouse people.   I am imagining a future better, more just, more peaceful than our present.   We have many examples of the world being one way for centuries until a big idea took shape, was afoot in the land, began to influence the beliefs of millions of people.

It was unimaginable to most Americans, in 1795, in 1820, 1850, that slavery, “the Peculiar Institution,” a powerful engine of the American economy that created vast wealth, would ever be outlawed.   Slavery was explicitly protected in the U.S. Constitution, after all.   Abolitionism took many years to rise into a commonly understood cause and later an unstoppable movement.  The pressure to crack the country in two was the result of the clash of the idea that slavery is legal, and good, and that slavery is an intolerable evil in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  An ocean of American blood was spilled to settle the question, and today even the crudest demagogue would hold himself back from publicly advocating slavery.

In 1890 it was unthinkable to Americans that 48 years later child labor would be subject to the limitations of federal law.  Prior to the 1938 law, children could be employed seven days a week, for limitless hours a day, starting as early as dawn, working well into the night, in a mill, a factory, mucking out chimney lines, bringing supplies down into mines, working on assembly lines.   The New Deal legislation that put reasonable restrictions to protect children from childhoods as slave laborers was many decades in the making, after centuries of ordinary, common brutality everybody just thought was the way the world is.  You’re born, they work you all day, every day, you die.  Before that law was written and passed the idea that children needed protection from ruthless employers had to take root, after decades of massive child suffering and millions of hobbled lives.

In 2004, after a disastrous first term, Bush and Cheney were reelected for a second term, carried to victory by millions of “values voters”– people who hated homosexuality more than they loved their own gay kids and were fired up to go to the polls and defeat those godless liberals who advocated some kind of equality for sodomites.   Only 15 years later that wave of aging bigots has no choice but to grimly accept the unthinkable, that gay marriage, and full civil rights for homosexuals, is the law of the land.

My point is that the first step to liberation is a vision of freedom, a picture of the better alternative to the status quo we all accept, an imagining of a better society.   If we don’t have words and images for it, it may be hard to imagine, but imagine it we must, even if the words for it must be diligently sought or even coined. [2]   The driver of this imagining is discontent, it is the precondition for thinking our way out of what is unbearable to us.  What oppresses us the most is also the key to our dream of liberation.   

Not to recognize this leaves us to hide our heads from the most vexing and grotesque aspects of “business as usual.”  I have many friends who no longer watch the news, for fear that Trump’s latest projectile turd will hit them in the face and finally drive them over the deep end.    POTUS is a charlatan, a blowhard, a greedily materialistic compulsive liar whose only “belief” is in “winning” (which does not appear to make the humorless liar happy, in any case).   He is obnoxious, angry, mocking, a hypocrite, a petulant, foolish, combative child with the power to  literally destroy the world. 

I understand why my friends avoid the news.  I try not to judge them for their ostrich poses, though I don’t always succeed.   I keep thinking of that old saw “all evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”    The first condition for imagining a better world, it seems to me, is looking at this world squarely and carefully.   It is imperative to hear the rhymes of history, to know as exactly as possible what we are up against, in all its devilish detail.   The unforeseen is not unforeseeable.   Outcomes can be predicted, we can watch sad fate of our mistreated earth in the regular climate catastrophe that has now become merely part of the news cycle.  The idea that this is bullshit, that one should be a “climate change skeptic” was created in a public relations lab, funded by the fossil fuel industry, the main beneficiaries of this particular extractive mode of making billions.

We need to be vigilant, to watch, to discuss, to find the right actions to take.  It is not hard to dream of a system better than this, where we are subjected to ever more crude cartoon characters making our laws.  We are strong enough to do it, and we have to be, to dream of a better world than this one, run by the worst of us.   And to make that idea a rallying cry.



[1]    Howard Zinn (hear him deliver his short speech, cued up here):

“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a consciousness in my readers, of class conflict, of racial injustice, of sexual inequality and of national arrogance, and I also wanted to bring into light the hidden resistance of the People against the power of the establishment.   

I thought that to omit these acts of resistance, to omit these victories, however limited, by the people of the United States, was to create the idea that power rests only with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth.  I wanted to point out that people who seem to have no power — working people, people of color, women– once they organize and protest and create national movements, they have a power that no government can suppress.

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

more about context to gained from reading good history


[2]  The terms extractive vs. regenerative, for example, can be applied to economic systems, with illuminating results.  An extractive model requires great pollution and eventually exhausts the resource being extracted (think extracting petrol from tar sand).  A regenerative model is based on sustainability and not harming the earth (renewable power and so on).  Which model would you prefer, if you were the Decider?

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