The End of All Politics

In The End of Racial Politics, I talked about how imagining racial harmony and racial equality today means shedding racial politics in all its forms – liberal, conservative, or other.  I’d like to extend that as far as it will go: Politics is dead. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie-based anti-Establishment movement was arguably more about leveraging lifestyle choices than political choices – “dropping out” of the Establishment culture of war, money, and machines, and testing new creative freedoms through sexuality, drugs, what to think, say, and wear, how to set up alternative living arrangements – but it was still able to use a liberal politics to advance things like racial and gender harmony and to open up things that had been closed. But sometime during the 1980s, “identity politics” reached critical mass in liberal academia, and the long slow death of politics as a tool of social liberation set in. We have now reached a point where politics on the left and right are equally about defining and defending your demographic turf and not about bringing people together. Whether Jon Stewart (whom I generally agree with) on the left or Rush Limbaugh (whom I don’t) on the right, it’s about proving how right you are and how wrong the other side is: us versus them. And the whole vocabulary of racial and gender politics, left and right, has taken on that us versus them mentality. Both sides have become expert at drawing lines in the sand, both now put an equal premium on stifling dissent, and both have long given up the mission of getting people to celebrate each other across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and political preferences. It’s suddenly a long way back to the revolutionary sentiment of 1969, captured by Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.”

Without politics, all we have is the human heart and human imagination. We need a movement outside the scope of the political spectrum that starts with those two capacities. We need to “drop out” of politics, “turn on” the heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other. When you go out into the street today, forget everything you learned about politics, especially if you went to college. Forget about how you’ve been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence. Start relating to each other, regardless of racial, gender, and other divides, with just the human heart and human imagination. Without politics, we might just rediscover the redemptive power of imagining ourselves into the other’s shoes. We might find that it was just those political superstructures, left and right, that each in their own way had us insisting upon differences that prevented us from doing so. Maybe the Age of Aquarius is still dawning. But we have to cast off the entire political spectrum like a snakeskin to get there.

A revolution with no enemies

A recent blogger reminded me of Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.” The blogger (altrrockchick) sees in this the reality-denying naivete of the hippie movement. I respectfully disagree with her well-written analysis.

Don’t get me wrong. At first glance, I see her point. The enemies of hippiedom were vocal and widespread in 1969. But let’s assume for a moment that Shurtleff recognized as well as we do that many people in the “war, money, and machines” Establishment opposed the draft-dodging, bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. Then what could he have meant? He must have meant that this was not a revolution in which one side wins and one side loses, but rather a revolution in human sensibility, which brings everyone along with it. To the cynic, this might sound naïve, but the hippies did not spring from a vacuum; other revolutionary voices prominent in the latter 20th century sounded a similar note. Gandhi repeatedly said the same thing – that those who opposed him were not enemies to be destroyed but good people who needed to be brought round. Mandela thought similarly of even the most brutal racist guards on Robben Island and after decades of trying to “bring them ‘round,” several of those guards became allies and attended his first inauguration. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the same. This is what is meant by a revolutionary movement that “has no enemies.”

Also, it is very likely that Shurtleff has his finger on the pulse of the larger cycles of history. With climate change and resource depletion, the period in human history where economies are measured by growth (i.e., by how rapidly they can churn through natural resources) and where human achievement is measured by how much private property one can amass – this period will of necessity end soon, and it cannot end happily without some fundamental shift in human sensibility. I understand the cynics’ point of view, and understand that reason might be on their side, but it’s still nice – indeed, I’d even say “practical” – to have some idealists in the mix. When it comes to assessing the situation of the day, the cynic has the upper hand. When it comes to envisioning possible futures for ourselves, individually and collectively, and setting our course, I’ll cast my lot with the naïve idealists. We have imagination on our side.

“You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one …”