We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light
Honest, sensitive, overpowering. His words leapt off the page – etched into my lingering anxieties about the immediate future of humanity, set against the canker which continues to gnaw away at the souls of old empires –actual and imagined. This particular Facebook comment was posted by a friend in California.
A loving family man, smart, a designer of some note. A true visionary. But what struck me was the sense of intense gloom from a human being whom I know to be so unfailingly optimistic about almost everything.
There’s only one dominant emotion in the world today and that is fear, he said. What’s next is my own fear. What do I say to my boys and their sister? What can I do as a father in a storm this big? How do I protect them from hate and the growing risk in front of them?
The despair which triggered such sombre reflections from my friend was the senseless death of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin.
Today America is fuming with anger. There is a sense of apprehension as people take to the streets and turn on each other yet again. In the past year 1,014 people have been shot dead by police in America. African Americans are killed at a lopsided rate in comparison to other groups. In most of these cases, the police are not charged with any wrongdoing.
It is time to face the facts. Deeply ingrained racism still fuels hatred in this deeply-divided nation. After decades of growing inequality and conflict it is clear that racial justice does not exist in what is essentially a police state – one failing to live up to its own self-conceit. This is a state that still deludedly sees itself as exemplary – yet it has become nothing more than a playground bully. A physically intimidating brute with the mind of a narcissist and less courage than the fictional lion on the yellowbrick road.
But my rage extends much further than that. Although America’s descent might offer us a glimpse of our own fate, focusing the spotlight purely on the US or its eccentric President is a distraction. My rage reaches past any one nation, beyond the fraternity of universally-ineffectual leaders, into the deepest recesses of the human condition we have so casually crafted and a citizenry lobotomised by money and materialism.
I am outraged by the persecution and suppression of people based on the colour of their skin, their gender, or religious beliefs. I am outraged by the apocalyptic terror stalking our world, obliterating the simplest of freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. I am outraged at the alleged duplicity levelled at countries like China when those screaming their abuse from the rooftops are poisoned by even worse prejudice and ignorance. And I am outraged by opposition to the slightest of changes to the neoliberal world order from an entrenched global coalition of the military, financial, surveillance, and corporate elite.
I am also infuriated at the way fear has been weaponized by the media, then seized upon by governments to engender dread in a virus, however deadly it may or may not turn out to be, so that societal control and manipulation can be instituted with so little effort.
In the worst case I could find of state-endorsed suppression by fear, Indonesian officials forced social distancing violators to recite verses from the Koran, stay in “haunted” houses and submit to public shaming on social media. Around 340,000 troops across two dozen cities were deployed to oversee enforcement of measures aimed at halting transmission of the disease. But provincial leaders bolstered even these draconian efforts with their own intense crusades. Police in western Bengkulu province, for example, forced offenders to wear placards with pledges to wear masks and keep their distance from others in the future. Images of the wrongdoers were then uploaded to social media to maximise the impact from public shaming. Is this what we have come to as a human family?
In the spring of 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King gave his first major speech on the Vietnam War. In speaking out about the conflict in southeast Asia, the civil rights leader shared his conviction that there comes a time when silence is betrayal. So I write this piece motivated by the need to stand up to bullying, and obliged to speak out rather than to remain silent.
Now is the time to ask a fundamental question: How can any leader, indeed how can any person of moral integrity, remain silent when almost every life-critical system in our society is plagued by racial and gender biases – from healthcare to education, and philanthropy?
As the COVID-19 panic has us cowering in our homes, avoiding routine physical contact, risking hypoxia from the prolonged wearing of masks, increasingly suspicious of others, of authorities, and fearful of tomorrow, it seems the arc of humanity, so long curving towards greater justice and equality, is suddenly trending in another direction. Optimism is fading. Loneliness, anxiety, domestic violence and depression are rampant. And now rioting. In this eclipse, will progress towards a more just society stall?
The greatest fear however emanates from those who fear change itself. A gulf is opening up between those who own the means of production and the billions of under-privileged serfs in that system. The present pandemic has only served to underscore the many flaws endemic within the globalised edifice we refer to as human civilisation.
Common people see a light ahead – a rare chance for regenerative revelations to realise greater economic and social justice. The elite among us fear this light. Though irrational, any kind of societal awakening is a risk and thus labelled communism or a socialist plot. It is a sure sign that control is slowly slipping through their fingers. Their fear is symbolised by notions such as a revitalised commons, cooperative or mutual management structures, permaculture, local currencies, peer-to-peer enterprise, decarbonisation of the economy, and low or zero economic growth. Ideas like these are anathema to the ruling plutocracy. Worse still, they are brusquely dismissed without the kind of analysis that would normally be undertaken.
Not all, but many business owners together with government policy makers, want society to return to normal. They see the COVID-19 purely as a nuisance – an interruption to the economy and to business-as-usual. Most people, however, have caught a glimpse of life that vanished years ago: quiet streets, sunny skies in place of smog and clear water in the streams, more time at home with the family, a chance to read a book, take the dog for a walk on the common, or potter around in the garden perhaps. These people do not want to return to business-as-usual. They favour hitting the reset button – although they mostly know what they do not want rather than appreciating with any great clarity what the new era could look like.
For the time being, however, they prefer this new quality of life to the old one with its daily commute, traffic jams on the freeway, waste and pollution, pointless competition, and the suffocating addiction of buying stuff they do not need. They want to explore life-affirming activities instead of the uninterrupted, monotonous, meaningless slog for material wealth.
So now we have a problem which goes to the core of who we are as humans. Those who have done well from the way things were before may not possess the inclination, nor the creative imagination, to see any advantages in the alternative reality we welcome. They want to keep intact the world they knew – a world that brought them such comfort and delivered so much.
But nobody can be left behind. Consequently there is much work to be done if we are to escape the gravitational pull of materialism in order to create a more bountiful future for all. That means we can no longer hide in the intermediate spaces of apathy and silence. We must stand against past inequities, pointing out greed, self-serving policies and flaws within those systems that no longer serve us all…
A mindful uprising is needed. Peaceful civil disobedience might need to be actioned. We can say no to pointless work, for example. We can refuse to buy goods manufactured with slave labour. We can end our reliance on plastics, and ban toxic substances. We can stop investing in old smokestack industries. Why many of us can even grow our own fruit and vegetables. There are so many life-affirming actions we can take with relative ease.
Naturally, finding viable pathways through our dazed and unstable world will not be easy, particularly while greed and the politics of money continue to define what is important or not, human wellbeing is sacrificed on the altar of economic growth, fewer and fewer of us get to own the means of production, and our passion for perpetual war endures.
Over the past seven or more decades we have been seduced by advertising claiming to cure all our ills. In response we have demanded novelty, celebrated powerful men as they indulged in crimes against society, ignored the cries of nature to curb the use of fossil fuels and chemicals, entertained ourselves with social trivia as opposed to engaging with social movements, and turned from the spiritual to the secular.
But all that is past if we want it to be. So let us speak out. Let us not fear the light. Instead, let us break the silence of complicity. Let us speak with humility, confident in our faith that a better world for more people is achievable. This is our time. Let us act now.