"I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists." Chris Hedges
A lecture by Chris Hedges from October of 2013 is transcribed in full below, taken from the original video. While originally titled "The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies," we've renamed it - for the purposes of this site and this page - "Embrace Your Sublime Madness." With his usual force and clarity, Hedges summarizes the peril already noted in the previous pages of this site. More importantly, he offers this clear and compelling case for action - that we must refuse to be paralyzed by our reality:
"I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat, and they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight which, in the face of the overwhelming forces arrayed against us, requires us to embrace sublime madness, defined in acts of rebellion – the embers of life – an intrinsic meaning that lies outside the certainty of success. We must, at once, grasp our reality, and then refuse to allow that reality to paralyze us. We must make an absurd leap of faith. We must believe, despite the empirical evidence around us, that the good always draws to it the good. We do not know where acts of goodness go – the Buddhists call it ‘karma’ – but in these acts we make visible a better world. ... No matter how bleak things get, we always have a choice in life. We can choose to be rebels or slaves, and that choice is one the corporate state is powerless to take from us. And to rebel, even if we fail, is to succeed. We must become a threat to the security and surveillance state and its corporate overlords, and we cannot become a threat if we do not engage in actions that actively obstruct power."
The twin perils highlighted on this site cry out for action. A new revolution, the next revolution, a revolution that must rapidly become global in scale, will not emerge from the bankrupt institutions that themselves created the current conditions of peril. To be successful, it must arise in those who can embrace their own sublime madness.
On This Page This page - and the many subpages it will spawn - is devoted to the resistance that must emerge if we hope to avoid the calamities awaiting us. At the top of this site we hoped "you will come to share our deep conviction that there must be a better way - that together we must find a new way forward," and we asked that you "consider the perilous situation described on this site, and decide what you will demand of yourself, and (only then) what you will demand of your government - wherever on this pale blue dot you may be."
It is now time for each of us to find - and to embrace - our own version of sublime madness...
Embrace Your Sublime Madness
written and presented by Chris Hedges...
Perhaps the most prescient portrait of the American character, and our ultimate fate as a species, is found in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
Melville in his novel makes our murderous obsessions, blinding hubris, violent impulses, moral cowardice and lust for self destruction visible in his chronicle of a doomed whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle, what William Shakespeare was to Elizabethan England, or Feydor Dostoyevsky to Tsarist Russia.
In Moby Dick, our country is given shape in the form of a ship, The Pequod, named after the Pequot Indian tribe exterminated in 1638 by the Puritans and their native American allies. The ship's 30-man crew (there were 30 states in the Union when Melville wrote the novel) is a mixture of races and creeds. The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which in a previous encounter maimed the ship's captain, Ahab, by dismembering one of his legs.
The maniacal quest, much like that of a civilization dependent on fossil fuel and the profits of global speculators, assures the Pequod's destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed, just as many of us know that our civilization and our ecosystem cannot stand the continued assault by corporate capitalism:
"But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions from himself." Ishmael says in Moby Dick. "And much this way it was with me. I said nothing and tried to think nothing."
How much longer can a financial system that depends on the Federal Reserve to purchase $85 billion in U.S. Treasury Bonds each month - much of it worthless subprime mortgages - survive? How much more money (we are now at $15 - $20 trillion) can be looted from the U.S. Treasury by big banks and the Wall Street firms before the financial system again implodes? How much longer can wages be driven down and suppressed, while interest rates which can soar to 30%, cripple us with debt peonage?
The ecosystem is, at the same time, swiftly disintegrating. Scientists from the International Program on the State of the Ocean, issued a new report that warned that the oceans are changing faster than anticipated and are increasingly becoming inhospitable to life. The excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean seas. This is compounded, the report noted, by increased levels of de-oxygenation from nutrient runoffs from farming and climate change. The scientists call these affects a "deadly trio" that, when combined, are creating changes in the seas that in their words are "unprecedented in the planet's history".
The scientists wrote that each the Earth's five known mass extinctions was preceded by at least one of these deadly trios. They warned that "The next mass extinction of sea life is already under way, the first such mass extinction in 55 million years."
The University of Hawaii also released a new report saying that the affects of climate change are now inevitable:
"They cannot be stopped. At best, the rate of devastation can be slowed."
The report predicted that over the next 50 years temperature levels will rise to such a degree that human life in many parts of the planet will become unsustainable. Millions upon millions of people will flee as refugees, millions of species will face extinction. Coastal cities such as New York, and even inland cities such as London will become unliveable. Microbes seem set to inherit the Earth.
Yet we, like Ahab and his crew, do not change course. We do not trust our eyes or our brains. We trust in the myth of human progress, the absurd belief that human technology and ingenuity will save us, that somehow, though no-one spells out how, we will all be able to adapt. This myth is abetted by the corporate assault on culture, journalism, education, the arts, and critical thinking. Those who speak the truth are marginalized and ignored, dismissed as pessimists in a culture that prides itself on a child-like optimism at the expense of reality. We have a mania for hope, which our corporate masters lavishly provide across the political and cultural spectrum to keep us passive.
"The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth, intellectually and emotionally, and yet rise up to resist the corporate forces that are destroying us."
Friedrich Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, wrote that only a few people have the fortitude to look into what he calls the "molten pit of human reality". A handful of artists and philosophers, for Nietzsche, are consumed by an insatiable curiosity, a quest for the truth, a desire for meaning, and this sends them down into the bowels of the pit. They get as close as they can before the flames and heat drive them back. This understanding, Nietzsche wrote, comes at a high cost: "Those singed by the fire become burnt children, eternal orphans, in empires of illusion."
Dying civilizations make war on independent intellectual inquiry, art and culture, on the burnt children. The masters of the corporate state do not want us to peer into the pit, or heed the cries of those who have seen what awaits us. The corporate state rather feeds the thirst for illusion, happiness and hope. It peddles the fantasy of endless material progress. It insists - and this is the argument of globalization - that our voyage is unalterable, decreed by natural law. It is part of the march of human progress, and those who challenge this myth are heretics.
Clive Hamilton, in his book Requiem for a Species, Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change describes a kind of dark relief that catastrophic climate change is virtually certain:
"This obliteration of false hopes requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means those we love, including our children, will face insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to collapse, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth intellectually and emotionally, and yet rise up to resist the corporate forces that are destroying us."
The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planet-wide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth, as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in their way. But the game is up. The technological and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury, as well as unrivalled military and economic power for a small global elite, are the forces that now doom us.
The capitalist quest for ceaseless economic expansion has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 States since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the vision and the courage to shut down the engines of global capitalism.
"We only know how to service and maintain a system that is killing us."
Complex civilizations, as many anthropologists have observed, have a habit of ultimately destroying themselves. Joseph Tainter, in The Collapse of Complex Societies, Charles Redman, in Human Impact on Ancient Environments, and Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference is that when we go down this time, the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate, no new resources to plunder. Collapse occurs in complex societies not long after they reach their period of greatest power and prosperity:
"One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence, at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.", Reinhold Niebuhr wrote.
The ancient Mayan, the Sumerians of what is now Southern Iraq, ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, even Easter Island, were destroyed by the mechanisms that once made them prosper. The novel ways these civilizations found to exploit the environment, such as the invention of irrigation systems, eventually created disastrous, unforeseen complications. Ronald Wright calls this "the progress trap":
"The Industrial Revolution created technological civilizations of such complexity, and such dependence on ceaseless exploitation", Wright notes, "that we do not know how to make do with less or reduce our demands on nature. We know only how to service and maintain a system that is now killing us."
This is the evolutionary history of the human race.
As the collapse becomes increasingly palpable, if human history is any guide, we, like past societies in distress, will see many retreat into what anthropologists call "crisis cults". The powerlessness felt in the face of economic and ecological chaos will unleash further collective delusions, a belief for example, that God or gods will come back to Earth and save us - the Christian Right embodies the escapism of crisis cults. These cults will perform absurd rituals - in our case, Christian - to make it all go away. Believers will be entranced by magical thinking. Our bankers, corporate boards, politicians, television personalities, and generals hold up seductive images of unrivalled wealth and power. Like Ahab and his crew, these images spur us towards self annihilation: "All my means are sane," Ahab says, "my motive, and my object mad." Melville, who had been a sailor clipper ships and whalers, was aware that the wealth of industrialized societies was violently seized from the wretched of the Earth. All the authority figures on the ship are white men. The hard dirty work is the task of the poor, mostly men of colour. Melville saw how European plundering of indigenous cultures from the 16th to the 19th century, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives, enriched Europe and the United States. The Spanish conquest of the Americas set in motion 5 centuries of reckless economic and environmental plunder.
Karl Marx and Adam Smith each attributed the huge influx of wealth from the Americas as having been made possible by the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism. The Industrial Revolution equipped technologically advanced states with refined weapons systems, turning us into the most efficient killers on the planet.
Ahab, when he first appears on the quarterdeck, after being in his cabin for the first few days of the voyage, holds up an extravagant gold coin and promises it to the crewman who first spots the white whale. He knows that the permanent constitutional condition of the manufactured man is sordidness, and he plays to this sordidness. The whale becomes like everything in the capitalist world, a commodity, a source of personal profit. A murderous greed, one that Starbuck denounces as blasphemous, immediately grips the crew - Ahab's obsession infects the ship. Ahab conducts a dark mass - a Eucharist, of violence and blood - on the deck. He orders the crew to circle around him. He makes them drink from a flagon, that passed from man to man, “filled with draughts hot as Satan’s hoof.” Ahab tells the harpooners to cross their lances before him. The Captain grasps the harpoons and anoints the ship’s harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, his three pagan kinsmen. He orders them to detach the iron sections of their harpoons and fill the sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter. “Drink, ye harpooners, drink and swear ye men that man, the deathful whaleboat’s crew, ‘Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death.’”
And with the crew bonded to him in his infernal quest, he knows that Starbuck is helpless amid the general hurricane. “Starbuck now is mine,” Ahab says. “He cannot oppose me now without rebellion.” “The honest eye of Starbuck,” Melville writes, “fell downward.”
The ship, described by Melville as a hearse, was painted black. It was adorned with gruesome trophies of the hunt, festooned with the huge teeth and bones of Sperm Whales. “It was,” Melville writes, “a cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chaste bones of her enemies.” The fires used to melt the whale blubber at night turned the Pequod into a “red hell.”
And we live now on our own hearse, our own raging fires leaping up from our oil refineries and the explosions of our ordinance across the Middle East, bespeak our lust for blood and profit. And in our mad pursuit we ignore the suffering of those who impede our hunt, just as Ahab does when he refuses to help the captain of a passing ship who is frantically searching for his son who has fallen overboard. Ahab is not solely reliant on the heated rhetoric of persuasion. He oversees a terrifying internal security force on the ship – the five dusky phantoms that seem fresh-formed out of air – Ahab’s secret, private, whale-boat crew, his private mercenaries keeps the rest of the ship in abject submission; the art of propaganda, and the use of brutal coercion and fear, the familiar tools of tyranny. And our lives are as circumscribed as the lives of the crew on Melville’s ship. The novel, in essence, is the chronical of the last days of a civilization.
Mutiny was the only salvation for The Pequod's crew. It is [today] our only salvation, but moral cowardice turns us into hostages.
And yet Ahab is no simple tyrant. Melville, at the end of the novel, gives us two glimpses into the internal battle between Ahab’s maniacal hubris and his humanity. Ahab, too, has a yearning for love. He harbors regrets over his deformed life. The black cabin boy, Pip, is the only crewmember who evokes any tenderness in the captain. Ahab is aware of this tenderness. He fears its power. Pip functions as the Fool did in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ahab warns Pip of Ahab: “Lad, lad,” says Ahab, “I tell thee, thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him.” A few pages later, untottering Ahab stood forth, "in the clearness of the mourn, lifting his splintered helmet of a brow to the fair girl’s forehead of heaven. From beneath his slouched hat, Ahab dropped a tear into the sea. Nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one drop." Starbuck approaches him. Ahab, for the only time in the book, is vulnerable. He speaks to Starbuck of his forty years on the pitiless sea – the desolation of solitude it has been, why this strife of the chase, why weary and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance, how the richer or better is Ahab now. He thinks of his young wife – “I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck,” – and of his little boy – “About this time, yes, in his noon nap now, the boy vivaciously wakes, sits up in bed, and his mother him of me – of cannibal old me – how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance with him again.”
Ahab’s thirst for dominance, vengeance and destruction, however, overpowers these faint regrets of lost love and thwarted compassion. Hatred wins. “What is it,” Ahab finally asks, “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it? What causening hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me, that against all natural lovings and longings I so keep pushing and crowding and jamming myself on all the time?”
Melville knew that physical courage and moral courage are distinct. One can be brave on a whaling ship or a battle field, yet a coward before human evil. Starbuck elucidates this division. The first mate is tormented by his complicity in what he foresees as Ahab’s impious end: “Starbuck, while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas or winds or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because spiritual terrors which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.” Mutiny was the only salvation for The Pequod’s crew. It is [today] our only salvation, but moral cowardice turns us into hostages.
I am reading, and rereading, the debates among some of the great radical thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries about the mechanisms of social change. These debates were not academic. They were frantic searches for the triggers of revolt. Lenin placed his faith in a violent uprising – a professional, disciplined, revolutionary vanguard freed from moral constraints – and like Marx, in the inevitable emergence of the worker state. Prud’homme insisted that gradual change would be accomplished as enlightened workers took over production, and educated and converted the rest of the proletariat. Bakunin predicted the catastrophic breakdown of the capitalist order, something we are likely to witness in our lifetime, and new autonomous worker federations rising up out of the chaos. Kropotkin, like Prud’homme, believed in an evolutionary process that would hammer out a new society. Emma Goldman, along with Kropotkin, came to be very wary both of the efficacy of violence and the revolutionary potential of the masses: “The mass,” Goldman wrote bitterly toward the end of her life, echoing Marx, “clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first is the first to cry ‘crucify!’ ”
The revolutionists of history counted on a mobilized base of enlightened industrial workers. The building blocks of revolt, they believed, relied on the tool of the general strike – the ability of workers to cripple the mechanisms of production. Strikes could be sustained with the support of political parties, strike funds, and union halls. Workers without these support mechanisms had to replicate the infrastructure of parties and unions if they wanted to put prolonged pressure on the bosses and the state.
The urban poor are in chains, and those chains are being readied for the rest of us.
But now, with the decimation of the U.S. manufacturing base, along with the dismantling of our unions and opposition parties, we will have to search for different instruments of rebellion. We will have to develop a revolutionary theory that is not reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers. Most manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and of those that remain, few are unionized. Our family farms have been destroyed by agri-business – Monsanto, and its Faustian counterparts on Wall Street, rule. They are steadily poisoning our lives and rendering us powerless. The corporate leviathan, which is global, is freed from the constraints of a single nation state or government. Corporations are beyond regulation or control. Politicians are too anemic, or more often too corrupt, to stand in the way of the accelerating corporate destruction. This makes our struggle different from the revolutionary struggles in industrial societies of the past. Our revolt will look more like what erupted in less industrialized Slavic republics – in Russia, Spain, and China – and uprisings led by disenfranchised rural and urban working class and peasantry in the liberation movements that swept through Africa and Latin America. The disposed working poor, along with unemployed college students and graduates, unemployed journalists, lawyers and teachers, along with impoverished artists, will form our movement. And this is why the fight for a higher minimum wage is crucial to uniting service workers with the alienated college educated sons and daughters of the declining middle class. Bakunin, unlike Marx, considered these declasse intellectuals essential for successful revolt.
It is not the poor who make revolutions. It those who conclude that they will not be able, as they once expected, to rise economically and socially. Service workers and fast food workers know they are trapped, as does the swelling population of college graduates caught in a vice of low paying jobs and obscene amounts of debt. These two groups, once united, will be our primary engines of revolt. Much of the urban poor has been crippled – and in many cases, broken – by a rewriting of laws (especially drug laws) that has permitted courts, probation officers, parole boards, and police, to randomly seize poor people of color – especially African-American men – without just cause and lock them in cages for years. In many of our most impoverished urban centers – “our internal colonies,” as Malcolm X called them – globalization will be difficult. The urban poor are in chains, and those chains are being readied for the rest of us.
Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan examined one hundred years of violent, and non-violent resistance movements in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works. They concluded that non-violent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings. Violent movements work primarily in civil wars, or in ending foreign occupations, they found. Non-violent movements appeal to those within the power structure, especially the police and civil servants, who are cognizant of the corruption and decadence of the power elite, and are willing in the end to abandon them. And we need only one to five percent of the population actively working for the overthrow a system, history has shown, to bring down even the most ruthless totalitarian structures.
Rebellion works on two tracks: building alternative structures, such as public banks to free ourselves from the control, and finding mechanisms to halt the machine. The most important impediment facing us now is not ideological – it is logistical. The security and surveillance state has made its highest priority the breaking of any infrastructure that might spark widespread unrest or revolt. The State knows the tinder is there. It knows that the continued unraveling of the economy, and the effects of climate change, make popular unrest inevitable. It knows that as underemployment and unemployment doom at least a quarter of the U.S. population – perhaps more – to perpetual poverty, and as unemployment benefits are scaled back, as schools close, as the middle-class withers away, as pension funds are looted by hedge fund thieves, and as the government continues to let the fossil fuel industry ravage the planet, the future will increasingly be one of open conflict. The battle against the corporate state, right now, is primarily about building an infrastructure to sustain resistance.
The “State” – in its internal projections – has a vision of the future that is as dystopian as mine. But the State, to protect itself, uses its mechanisms of propaganda to assure us that we can continue to build a society based on limitless growth, profligate consumption, and a dependence on fossil fuel. The mania for hope is fed at the expense of truth. The corporate state, meanwhile, is preparing secretly for the world it knows is actually coming. It is cementing into place a pervasive police state, one that includes the complete evisceration of our most basic civil liberties and the militarization of the internal security apparatus, as well as the wholesale surveillance of the citizenry. Those with the moral courage to expose the security and surveillance apparatus – Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Jeremy Hammond – are criminalized and persecuted. We will be sustained in our revolt, which will require us to confront all systems of power, by the transcendental – chants, work songs, spirituals, the blues, poetry, dance and art, converged under slavery to nourish and sustain the imagination of African-Americans. These were the forces that, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “we had in place of freedom. The oppressed would be the first, for they often know their fate, to admit that, on a rational level, such a notion is absurd. But they also know that it is only through the imagination that they survive.”
Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy forces of oppression, even in the face of near certain defeat, "a sublime madness of the soul."
Jewish inmates in Auschwitz reportedly put God on trial for the Holocaust, and then condemned God to death. This is a rational response to the horror of the Holocaust. A rabbi stood after the verdict to lead the evening prayers – this is the absurdity we must capture. African-Americans and Native-Americans for centuries had little control over their destinies. Forces of bigotry and violence kept them subjugated by whites. Suffering, for the oppressed, was tangible; death was a constant companion; and it was only their imagination – as William Faulkner noted at the end of The Sound and the Fury – that permitted them, unlike the novel’s white Compson family, to endure.
The theologian, James Cone, captures this in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone says that for oppressed blacks, the cross on which Jesus was crucified was a paradoxical religious symbol because “it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first, and the first, last.” Cone continues, “that God could make a way out of no way, and Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk.” Enslaved blacks who first heard the Gospel message seized on the power of the cross – Christ crucified manifest God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life. The transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that, ultimately, in God’s escatological future it would not be defeated by the troubles of this world, no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power – white power – with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.
Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy forces of repression, even in the face of near certain defeat, “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places. This ‘sublime madness,’ as Niebuhr understood, is vital. Without it, truth is obscured. And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. “Liberalism,” Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual, and to little emotional, to be an effective force in history.”
The prophets in the Hebrew bible spoke out of this sublime madness. “The words of the Hebrew prophets,” as Abraham Heschel wrote, “were a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” The prophet, because he or she saw and faced an unpleasant reality, was, Heschel said, “compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his or her heart expected.”
"One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity."
Rebellion is a moral imperative. It is to be carried out regardless of the possibilities of success. It is not for the practical or the timid. It is an act that is performed, in the end, because in times of despair and suffering it affirms life. Primo Levi in his memoir Survival in Auschwitz, tells of teaching Italian to another inmate, Jean Samuel, in exchange for lessons in French. Levy recites to Samuel from memory Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno. It is the story of Ulysses’ final voyage: We cheered but soon that cheering turned to woe For then a whirlwind borne from the strange land Battered our little vessel on the prow
Three times the boat and all the sea were whirled And at the fourth, to please another’s will, the aft tipped in the air The prow went down, until the ocean closed above our bones.
“He has received the message,” Levi writes of his friend and what they shared in Dante. “He has felt that it has to do with him. That it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular.” Levi goes on: “It is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen. That he understand, before it is too late. Tomorrow, he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again.”
It is only those who find the courage to peer into the molten pit, who can minister to the suffering of those around them, they will be infected with this sublime madness. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The only morally reliable people are not those who say ‘this is wrong’ or ‘this should not be done,’ but those who say ‘I can’t.’” They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, “If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.” And this means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong, than to do wrong, no matter what happens around us.
We can surmount despair, not by ignoring reality, but by responding radically to it. And this includes acts of civil disobedience, including jail time. In these acts, we become fully human. “One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt,” Camus wrote. “It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it. Those we must follow now will be as ornery and mad as all prophets. It will call us to lives of steadfast defiance. They will be burnt children.”
“The people noticed that Crazy Horse was queerer than ever,” Black Elk said, in remembering the final days of the wars of western expansion. He went on to say of the great Sioux warrior, “He hardly ever stayed in the camp. People would find him out alone in the cold, and they would ask him to come home with them. He would not come, but sometimes he would tell the people what to do. People wondered if he ate anything at all. Once my father found him out alone like that, and he said to my father, ‘Uncle, you have noticed me the way I act, but do not worry for there are caves and holes for me to live in, and out here the spirits may help me. I am making plans for the good of my people.’”
Homer, Dante, Beethoven, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Joyce, W. H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, and James Baldwin, along with artists such as the sculptor David Smith, the photographer Diane Arbus, and the blues musician Charley Patton, all had this sublime madness. It is this sublime madness that lets one sing as bluesman Ishmon Bracey did in “Hinds County Mississippi”: I been down so long, Lord Down don’t worry me And yet, in the midst of this madness also lies the absurdity and the certainty of divine justice: I fell my hell arisin, arisin every day Someday it will burst this levy And wash the whole world away.
Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and heroines – Prospero, Anthony, Juliet, Rosalind, Hamlet, Cordelia – have this sublime madness. King Lear, once he was stripped of power and forced to live with the persecuted and poor had it. It was only then that he could see. It was only then that he understood that unbridled human lust and hubris led to the suicide of the species. “It will come,” Albany says in the play. “Humanity must perforce prey on itself like monsters of the deep.”
The poems of Federico Garcia Lorca sustained the republicans fighting the fascists in Spain. Music, dance, drama, art, song, painting, were the fire and drive of all of history’s resistance movements. The rebel units in El Salvador, when I covered the war, always traveled with musicians and theater groups. “Art,” as Emma Goldman pointed out, “has the power to make ideas felt.” Goldman noted that when Andrew Undershaft, a character in George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara, said, “Poverty is the worst of crimes, and all other crimes or virtues beside it,” his impassioned declaration elucidated the cruelty of class warfare more effectively than Shaw’s socialist tracts.
We can choose to be rebels or slaves, and that choice is one the corporate state is powerless to take from us.
The degradation of education into vocational training for the corporate state, the destruction of the humanities, arts and journalism, the hijacking of these disciplines by corporate sponsors, severs the population from understanding self-actualization and transcendence. In aesthetic terms, the corporate state seeks to crush beauty, truth, and imagination, and this is the war waged by all totalitarian systems. “The role of the artist, then, precisely, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest,” James Baldwin wrote, “so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more humane dwelling place.”
“Ultimately the artist and the revolutionary function as they function, and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it, because they are both possessed by a vision that they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it,” Baldwin wrote. “Otherwise they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”
I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat, and they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win, I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight which, in the face of the overwhelming forces arrayed against us, requires us to embrace sublime madness, defined in acts of rebellion – the embers of life – an intrinsic meaning that lies outside the certainty of success. We must, at once, grasp our reality, and then refuse to allow reality to paralyze us. We must make an absurd leap of faith. We must believe, despite the empirical evidence around us, that the good always draws to it the good. We do not know where acts of goodness go – the Buddhists call it ‘karma’ – but in these acts we make visible a better world.
It is time for our own mutiny, for the overthrow of our own Ahabs, for the redirecting of our ship away from certain death back towards life. No matter how bleak things get, we always have a choice in life. We can choose to be rebels or slaves, and that choice is one the corporate state is powerless to take from us. And to rebel, even if we fail, is to succeed. We must become a threat to the security and surveillance state and its corporate overlords, and we cannot become a threat if we do not engage in actions that actively obstruct power.
The Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, who spent most of his adult life in prison, or in exile, knew something of despair. But he knew something, too, of resistance, of that rebellious spirit which must define us in times of oppression if we are to remain fully human. “Any act of resistance, large or small,” he wrote from inside his prison cell, “is its own eternal triumph. Any act of resistance lights up the night sky to remind us why we were created.” Hikmet captured this in his poem “On Living”: Living is no joke. You must live with great seriousness like a squirrel, for example, I mean, expecting nothing above and beyond living, I mean your entire purpose should be living. You must take living seriously, I mean so much so, so terribly that, for example, your hands tied behind your back, your back to the wall or in your fat goggles and white laboratory coat you can die for people, even for people whose faces you have not seen, without anyone forcing you, even though you know the most beautiful, the most real thing is living. I mean you must take living so seriously that, even when you're seventy, for example, you'll plant olive seeds, and not so the trees will remain for the children, but because though you fear death you don't believe in it, I mean because living is more important.
Let's say we're due for serious surgery, I mean there's a chance we might not get up from the white table. Even if it's impossible not to feel sorrow at leaving a little too early we'll still laugh at the Bektashi joke, we'll look out the window to see if it's raining, or impatiently await the latest news.
Let's say we're on the front, for something worth fighting for, let's say. At the very first assault, on that very day we could keel over and die. We'll know this with a strange resentment, but we'll still wonder madly about how this war, which could last years, will end.
Let's say we're in prison and nearly 50, and let's imagine we have 18 more years before the opening of the iron doors. We'll still live with the outside, with its people, its animals, its toil and wind, I mean with the outside beyond the walls. I mean, however and wherever we are we must live as if we will never die.
This earth will grow cold, a star among stars, and one of the smallest too, a gilded granule in blue velvet, I mean, I mean this tremendous world of ours. this earth will grow cold one day, and not like a chunk of ice or a dead cloud– it'll roll like an empty walnut shell endlessly in the pitch black. One must lament this now, must feel this pain now. This is how you must love this earth so you can say "I've lived" . . . Presented by Chris Hedges at Moravian College