Sogyal Rinpoche argues that in the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, “we find the whole of life and death presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos.” The word “bardo,” Sogyal explains, is “commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously, throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.” Bardos are thus moments “charged with potential, when whatever you do has a far-reaching effect.”
This juncture between the end of the Obama years and the beginning of the Trump years is more powerful than we might realize. Though it is certainly a time to organize resistance to what are shaping up to be (as Trump’s cabinet picks indicate) reactionary and repressive policies, it is also a moment of liberation, or at least the possibility of it – and not just from the failed politics and strategies of the Democratic Party.
This bardo, for example, is a moment in which we should unhesitatingly meet the challenge of many of our neighbors’ declared commitment to an alt-democracy, authoritarianism, and white nationalism, by not only abandoning altogether any investments we have in the narrow politics of nationalism and national identity (which are bound up anyway with xenophobia, racism, violent masculinity, greed, and war without end); but also by freeing ourselves into a more expansive and radical sense of identity and kinship.
In this regard, the convergence at Standing Rock is instructive: women and men from around the globe and from all walks of life traversed the boundaries of nation, state and city to stand nonviolently with the Sioux against state and corporate repression and to protect our natural resources. In the process, they prefigured an alternative identity and community, defined in terms of Earth, water, and the fundamental connection we have with one another.
That kind of kinship the violent politics of our nationalism (embraced by both Democrats and Republicans alike) not only deny outright but actively seek to repress. And yet such kinship is what we should pledge allegiance to, now, as the basis from which we battle and create meaningful alternatives to the dystopia offered by Trump and his supporters.
This moment is also the time to accept that other challenge posed by our neighbors: to “make America great again.”
While the slogan is, as many have argued, a promise to secure forever an America frozen within an oppressive past and unsullied by the passage of time (in this regard, “make America great again” is not unlike the slogan on which Alabama Governor George Wallace ran in 1963 – “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), it is also, to a great extent, a call for an American imperial order that will exist in perpetuity.
In other words, “make American great again” is the expressed hope of a people who cannot imagine change, who cannot imagine a post-American imperial future and the necessity of just such a future for global peace. Consequently, many of them are willing to embark upon a repressive and antidemocratic project through the leadership of man who is decidedly authoritarian.
This bardo, then, is the time to free ourselves from any subtle, unspoken attachment we have to a timeless United States, knowing that it keeps us in a permanent posture of war and makes it impossible for us to imagine a just and peaceful alternative global order. Our attachment, in fact, is antithetical to peace since peace demands that we change.
Which brings me to a final point, one inspired by Neal Garber’s argument that “America died on Nov. 8, 2016” and that “whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7.”
America did not die, of course. And it is, absolutely, the same place.
Would it not be wise, then, to sit in this bardo and ask whether the democracy we practice is ultimately an inadequate answer to the question of what it means to be liberated? Might November 8 signify that our democracy is forever scarred by, or designed specifically to produce, the injuries inflicted by colonialism, capitalism, slavery, the repression of women, and the prerogatives of wealthy, propertied white men?
We should not ask these questions lightly, especially since so many of us and our ancestors have warred and died and amended and litigated to make this nation live up to its promise that it is the champion of “liberty, justice, and equality” – that its people are “free.”
But maybe this democracy is, in ways we perhaps cannot see, inherently exclusive, an idea that actually structures injustice and inequality as freedom. Maybe the democracy we have can only be reinvented as an alt-democracy because it is alt, because our constitution was, for most of its existence, a doctrine made intentionally silent about the travesties and injustices upon which it was grounded.
So maybe now is the time for us to ask an entirely different set of questions that not only take us to the heart of what we mean when we talk about being a free people; but that also open us up to grander, more liberating alternatives that our democracy might very well suppress.
As I reflect on and grieve over the recent terrorist attack on the congregants of The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, what comes to my mind over and over again is “spirit murder,” a term Columbia University law professor Patricia J. Williams coined some years back to describe a particularly gruesome murder committed by a white man in the 1960s. Thirty nine times he stabbed his victim, an African American man who was engaged in civil rights work.
“I wondered for a long time,” Williams wrote, “what it was that would not die, what could not be killed by the fourth, fifth, or even tenth knife blow; what sort of thing would not die with the body but lived on in the mind of the murderer.” Williams realized that, whatever lived in this man’s mind, his act was not “merely” an act of “body murder”; it was also “spirit murder.”
When Dylann Storm Roof stood up and announced, before killing nine African American women and men, that “you’re taking over our country and you have to go,” what he announced in no uncertain terms was that he intended to kill not only as many black bodies as he could; he also intended to murder our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, and thus our spirits. For what he saw before and after he walked through the doors of Emanuel, was not a people cowed, subjugated, colonized, and segregated (as his racist paraphernalia taught we should be), but instead the intolerable vision of a people who had taken over, a people of power who were expressing as well as affirming it in a sacred place, a “spiritual refuge” that for centuries often nurtured our souls and reminded us that – regardless of the narratives and systems that were in place to confine, control and even kill us – we were and are always something more, something boundless and unbossed.
Of course, powerful though we may be, the material realities under which most of us live (increasing economic inequality, an oppressive criminal justice system, segregation, miseducation, etc.) make clear that we have not taken over anything – the presidency notwithstanding. Nevertheless, usurpation is what many of our countrymen and women – aching with nostalgia for slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, apartheid, colonialism – see when they look at us through lenses distorted by their hatred, generally, and hatred specifically for Barack Obama and all that he represents.
Or perhaps what they see and what they hate – what lives in their minds – is our hope, particularly the hope that Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections rekindled in us and that they have tried to kill over and over again through public policies, policing, and propaganda wars waged from the halls of universities to AM radio stations to courts of law.
They see, in other words, the same kind of hope that that civil rights worker no doubt held for the future and which his murderer found absolutely intolerable.
But it is a thing that will not die, this spirit, this hope of ours. “Could we not argue that America is about freedom whether we live it or not?” asked Rev. Clementa Pinckney in 2013. “Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”
Though among the men and women Roof murdered on Wednesday, Rev. Pinckney lives on in spirit, and we will speak his words as we march, struggle, make noise, and move out of our way anything that stands between us and freedom, equality and happiness. And there’s not a bullet in the world that can stop us.
“I will personally do everything I can – as will my entire government – to ensure that anti-Semitism doesn’t have a chance in our country,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in response to an upsurge in German anti-Semitism and to anti-Semitic remarks voiced during recent political rallies in Germany against Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, it is “every German’s duty,” Merkel explained, to take a stand against hatred, and against those who would use “the legitimate criticism of a government” as “a cloak of one’s hatred” toward others. Such people, Merkel stated unequivocally, “misuse our basic rights of freedom of opinion and assembly.”
This is how the leader of “the whole nation” responds to the hateful targeting of its minority citizens.
She or he doesn’t avoid naming the hatred at play. If it’s anti-Semitism, she calls it anti-Semitism. If it’s racism…well, she says it’s racism.
She doesn’t characterize that minority’s experience of hate and violence as merely an issue of their “feeling marginalized and distrustful” or of their belief that “bias is taking place” or of their lack of “confidence” that they are “being treated fairly” (as President Obama said in response to Ferguson, and then to the grand jury decision regarding Eric Garner’s death). Instead, she affirms that their experience is real, that they are truly targets of hate — the fact of which then unquestionably requires a powerful and unambiguous national response.
She doesn’t let her nation off the hook by simply saying that it has a “problem.” No, every citizen, she asserts, actually has an obligation, “a duty” to take a stand against hate and to affirm that the lives of all of the nation’s citizens matter.
She doesn’t leave untroubled the idea that the constitutional commitment to freedom of speech is more sacrosanct than the constitutional commitment to anti-racism — especially given the history that made the latter necessary in the first instance.
And she doesn’t…my goodness. She doesn’t frame her government’s response to hate in narrow terms. No, she asserts that she “will personally” do “everything” that she can, as will the “entire government,” to ensure that the hatred directed at the assailed minority “doesn’t have a chance” in her country.
That is how a President of the whole nation responds.
Buried deep in the trenches of President Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point yesterday sits this little gem, one pundits on the whole are sure to overlook but one I thought deserves our attention: America stands (the president proclaimed) “for the more lasting peace that can only come through opportunity for people everywhere.”
To be sure, this statement is American jingoism at its best, but it made me wonder: had this been President Obama’s opening shot, the first words to float elegantly out of his mouth, what direction would his speech have taken, and just what kind of foreign policy doctrine would have unfolded?
Starting with this gem, it seems to me that he would have actually had to explain more precisely just what he meant. Imagine with me, if you will, that he would have found apropos the words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
The audacity to believe.
Imagine with me further the president speaking from his audacity to believe that any foreign policy worth pursuing is one that starts from the bottom, that is, from the perspective of those who go without one meal a day, let alone three; of those for whom education is a luxury, and a decent education – a dream; of those whose spirits are run down by the greedy, the cynical, the uncaring, the bigoted, the hateful. And of those who face daily the ravages of war, of drone attacks that, with great “certainty,” could have only produced “civilian casualties.”
Such a foreign policy, I imagine, would speak to the terrorism of hunger – would frame it, in fact, as “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad.” It would proclaim the absolute capacity we and “our partners” have to eradicate poverty everywhere. And it would speak to that terrorism because it would pose these questions: what do those on the bottom need in order to live without violence, without hunger? What do they need in order to live full lives, free of domination, inequality, injustice? It would assume that the first order of business with any nation is to ask, are your people doing well? Do they have enough to eat? What can we do to help?
Such a policy would, without hesitation, name nonviolence as its guiding principle – not just peace, but nonviolence, an active, purposeful commitment to real peace at home and abroad. Which means that the policy would presuppose the necessity of disarming our own citizens, of removing assault weapons from our closets and sock drawers, of making sure that violence in Chicago or Santa Barbara would be a thing of the past.
Listen as President Obama re-orders what he referred to in his speech as “elements” of “American leadership.” Instead of offering to us as the “fourth and final element” our “willingness to act on human dignity,” he offers it instead as the first.
From there, of course, he would have to talk forthrightly about Guantanamo, that travesty of justice begun during the Bush II years and shamefully extended into the second term of Obama’s own presidency. “Our own government,” he’d have the audacity to say, “has demonstrated a stunning disrespect for human rights,” and the “force feeding that I have condoned and which I will end today” has fed “instability” as well as “the grievances that fuel violence and terror.” He would admit that it is no longer good enough for him to simply say [as he did in his speech] that “I will continue to push to close GTMO.”
But that’s not the speech or policy that we got from President Obama, whose audacity to hope has never quite translated into audacity. What we got instead is a foreign policy in which “opportunity for people everywhere” is just a passing thought, and “human dignity” is a bookend to a doctrine where “terrorism,” and not the unmet needs of people everywhere, figures as America’s number one threat.