Among the many obvious and disturbing similarities between the United States today and Germany of the 1930s is one that I have not heard mentioned yet. No, I was not there when the first torture camp was installed in a neighborhood called Ilvers Gehoffen in the liberal city of Erfurt in early 1933. I can't tell you what the people in the hundreds of apartments that surrounded the camp were thinking as they buried their heads in pillows those hot summer nights to mute the sound of screams. But a few years ago I stood in the vacant lot where the camp once was, looked up at those windows, and wondered. And from those same windows, so many decades later, many people looked down on me with worried faces.
The torture camp was located next to a movie theatre. People were going out and having a good time on Saturday night with the knowledge of what was happening in the old warehouse and yard right next door since, after all, they could see and hear it from their windows.
In that time and place, which we look at through the wrong end of binoculars, people decided that the affairs of the state were distracting them from what you might call an inner life. A kind of internal vacuum sucked them out of reality. The way Wilhelm Reich tells it, people began to feel that the government and its doings were best left to the experts. One was, after all, primarily responsible for oneself. Qualified people were paid to take care of society. I guess it's always a comfort to let mommy and daddy handle the complicated problems.
America comes at life from another perspective: we gratify ourselves first and deal with everyone else second. I once worked aboard a ship, as the cook. During my basic orientation the third mate explained to me, "The captain eats first and best." That's America, only we don't say the words.
This self-centered frame of reference extends along a spectrum from the supermarkets to the yoga studios. On one end we have the people who respond to a crisis only when it hits home. My favorite moments in “Fahrenheit 9/11” were the interviews with people in that little town who thought Arab terrorists might blow up their local tire joint or Super K-Mart. "You can't really trust anyone," the mechanic said. Remember?
On the other end is a massive constituency that has for decades made being self-conscious an ongoing avocation. This constituency has its own spectrum, starting with the Beatniks and the Hippies, who were followed by the Back to the Earth people of the 1970s to the Human Potential Movement's students and teachers to the New Age, and onward to the many offshoots and crossovers that today exist. There are communities for everything from tantric sex to co-processing to therapy training. Ammachi, an Indian saint/guru, has a huge following in the States. And so on. I lump all of this together because it's all based on the idea of finding oneself, or rather, the idea of oneself.
These movements or groups or ideas have a presence in every town I've ever lived in (admittedly, mostly on America's East or West coasts). Among them are a vast number of individuals who strive for, and often succeed at attaining, spiritual awareness, self-awareness, inner awareness, or self-actualization.
Given the amount of time and resources that have gone into self-development, and the deeply immoral conduct, war crimes, and torture being reported in the news every night, one would expect to hear from the vast numbers of the self-aware. But the numbers and voices seem thin.
When I look at the mainstream left and read my favorite news pages and commentators, I see that there is next to no inclusion of what I can only call the “spiritual piece” of the discussion. In the tradition of the Enlightenment, religion is purged from the whole discussion of government and politics, as it should be. But also purged is the entire cosmic viewpoint and the idea that opposing war really is about changing something within ourselves. It's as if saying anything about the bigger picture, or taking inner responsibility, negates all the rational grounds for wanting an orderly, peaceful society.
And when I look at most spiritual movements, I see individuals and groups who are not in their political power. I see a lot of willful looking away. Some are so repulsed by the news that they cannot stand five minutes of political discourse. I meet people who mean well but have absolutely no historical bearings. I hear the dubious argument the we must not focus on politics lest we run the risk of increasing it. I hear that it's all an illusion. (A Course in Miracles teaches specifically this; any student will recognize this: “God did not create that war [or stolen election], so it is not real.”)
So one side views everything requiring change as being external; the other sees everything meaningful as being internal.
There are valid arguments for not immersing one's life entirely in politics—and usually, when the time comes, those arguments go out the window and one just gets busy. But there are no good arguments for refusing to be aware, or for refusing to consider that any of this has something to do with you. And right now, awareness, being informed, and taking personal responsibility are the most urgently needed forms of activism.
I do see progress: the supposedly political and the supposedly spiritual are beginning to merge in some places. More people understand that war is a result of projecting unprocessed shadow material onto the world. There are some churches and spiritual organizations that are encouraging people to take personal responsibility, communities that are openly renouncing murder. I hear that some congregations in Atlanta are going from church services to the streets every Sunday. There is the utterly amazing work of Starhawk, a Pagan leader who, along with her affinity group, is openly willing to defy authority.
But from where I sit—reading the Internet all day, talking to who I can, and even living in the capital of an anti-war country—this voice seems subdued. I get the feeling people are choosing not to speak up, or act up, in order to keep their hands clean, to remain theoretically pure. In reality, it's more about laziness and the desire not to burden one's mind. People ignore the problem because they can. And they ignore the problem because to not do so means stirring the pot. Taking a position or even becoming informed can upset a group of friends that has on some level defined itself by having a good time and tuning out the worries of the planet.
It is still okay to take yoga class; that is self-improvement. It is still okay to be spiritual; that's in line with non-threatening activity. But having allowed our lives be about ourselves for so long, having searched for our spirits and our true beliefs, it's time to look back out at the world, and do something about what we see that is based on who we are. We need to find our bodies, deal with our feelings, address our problems, and realize that we exist outside the neat pecking order of our social groups. More to the point, we need to find our passion, our spark, our sense of raging spirit. I know: it can feel strange to make that switch, and under so many layers, it's a lot easier said than done. There is the necessity to endure some inner conflict, and some outer conflict. Vitality often threatens people who don't embrace it. But it's not so hard to muster, actually. You just need to stay awake. Doing what is right is not about doing the right thing, it's about doing what is real, and you can only do what is real when you come from your center and be real.
Otherwise, how different are we than the people of Ilvers Gehoffen, going to the movies on Saturday night?
I leave you with a few words from the American activist Granny D., from her most recent public appearance.
"Let our neighbors, who have voted another way or not at all, see what we are made of and what we are willing to do for love, for life, for justice. Only a few more of them need step forward to our side for love and life and justice to win. They will not step forward if we are not full of courage and grace and beauty and most of all love. We will inspire them with awe. For, from this time forward, our courage must rise to end the war and the coming wars, to end the destruction of our land and its people, and of our planet and its life. With love in our hearts, with a vision before us of a better America made visible in our own lives, we will do what history demands of us now. And so say us all."