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 was waiting for my lunch today at a San Francisco farmer’s market food truck, I was suddenly roused – by the sounds of a cheering, boisterous crowd – out of the post-Trump election stupor that I had been nursing all morning. When I turned to look in the direction of the noise, I noticed that about one hundred people were gathered in front of a theater close by. I assumed that some play actors had emerged from the theater to address their excited, waiting audience, so I quickly lost interest and returned to my November 9 fog.
Before I could settle into more dark thinking about Tuesday’s election, I was roused again by the noises of the crowd. This time, it was walking in my direction and cheering, “Love Trumps hate” and “Not our president!” It was a crowd of kids – high school students, I assume – who were holding signs and happily disrupting the flow of farmer’s market traffic. As they passed by, two gentlemen not far from where I stood shook their heads. “Hmph!” one said in disbelief. “It’s too late now!” An older woman, probably in her sixties, chimed in and, in an accusing tone, shouted, “you should’ve done something a long time ago!” Another woman, a bit younger, stood by silently watching the kids and fighting back tears.
Contrary to what the gentleman seemed to think, the kids – from what I could discern – were not lost in some fantasy that somehow they could turn back the election of Trump. Nor did they seem like kids who stood on the sideline and waited until it was too late to do anything (and given that they were obviously too young to vote, what was it that the older woman beside me thought that they should have done? What did she do or fail to do?).
In fact, the kids were clear: they would not claim as President of the United States a man who disavowed and demonized their brothers and sisters. It was that simple.
And in their giddiness, in the joy they so obviously felt in protesting this horrendous election, they also made clear that they were having none of our shitty cynicism or crippling despair. Mourn, yes! they seemed to be telling us. But tap into the power of your grief to resist and to organize. If you can’t, at least get out of our way.
If you can’t teach your children well — which, in truth, is to teach them radical hope — then at least be wise enough to let them teach you.