Betsy Toll on American Experiment

 

Betsy Toll, Living Earth: Gatherings for Deep Change, Portland, Oregon, www.LivingEarthGatherings.org

Re your first draft: Your point about the fundamental stories within or underlying the language of the political right raises what may be the most critical issue.

It appears to me that a key reason that the radical right story—that those “blessed” by God with advantages and wealth are also equally imbued with and destined for power, and those less blessed are intended to be dependent on, beholden to and subject to the support or abuse of the blessed—the reason this story works so well is that it reflects a primal experience embedded deep in the truth of each human’s personal story. The relationship to power, opportunity, ability and authority that every human being everywhere experiences as infant and child is reflected in the radical right story. The reality of vulnerability, helplessness, lack of skill and knowledge with which we each begin our lives positions us as totally dependent on and at the mercy of those large figures of authority and power in our lives; their superior position, and our complete dependence on them, is beyond question. It is, one could say, God’s design.

[Comment by Kim Corrigan: Being dependent, however, can also mean being safe, cared for and protected -- not just being vulnerable.  If there are some perceived benefits of dependency, then aren't we actually just recreating this power relationship in our adult lives, so as to feel safe and cared for once again?]

That is a truth that is easy to understand, undeniable, indeed, surely the intention of the Creator. When that fundamental Gestalt is repeated and reflected in the creation/morality story that underlies a political philosophy, it makes a story that is pretty hard to beat — at least in a few sentences.

Therein lays the challenge to those who would create an equally powerful, compelling and unassailable alternative story upon which to build a just, compassionate, democratic, loving and bio-centric political movement. Can the new story hold within it our most basic, primary experiences? Can the role of strong and weak be equally compellingly presented as a story of fundamental compassion and love, interdependence, interconnection and grace?

It seems that the radical right story is heard and accepted at a very basic, non-intellectual level, and the new story will have to resonate with equal truth at that same deep level.

Somewhere within the greatness and beauty of sunrises, oceans, and human hearts, there is reason for hope. But it will require unflagging commitment and untiring dedication to the work.  

The strength of language is another very critical piece of this story conundrum for those who would shift the trajectory of our country.
 
The right speaks in very clear, black and white, strong and weak, good and evil polarities. To shift that dialogue to non-polarized language (compassion, interdependence, e.g.) means to shift it into nuance and complexity. It means to shift it from linear to circular, blatant to subtle. And that doesn't click at the same primal, infantile, reptilian brain level where fight or flight, black or white  works. It also doesn't work in a culture reduced to sound-bite intellect and witty one-liners.
 
Not only does the snappy, linear language of good and evil tap our primal experience of "God-given" power and weakness, but in tapping it, it has tremendous capacity to generate fear. That capacity is what gives it its power, as that fear can then be used to manipulate, consolidate power and position, and so on.
 
Interestingly, that linear language is essentially Old Testament language. The radical right, which purports to be Christian, does not venture much into the New Testament for either language or thinking (the Gospels, Jesus) at all. The most profound teachings of the man that Christians call their Christ manage to be entirely missing from the so-called Christian rhetoric.

Thanks so much for your stimulating thoughts, and your contribution to this work.

Posted January 16, 2004