By Ibrahim Arsalan
No wine nor drug, barbiturate nor hallucinogenic is quite so intoxicating as the victory of a battle long fought. Yet every high has its “come-down” and now Americans are sobering up to the reality of the last years’ aftermath. We stare across a barren landscape, lorded over by towering monstrosities of our own design; weather through feverish support or muted apathy, we carried the stones of these edifices. And in the words of the man whose words form this article’s title, “It’s winter in America.”
I remember listening to my parents’ Gill Scott Heron albums as a child and trying to envision the bleak and tumultuous reality they must have endured, and I could find no more evocative artist of this reality than he. I could not imagine then, as I realize now, that I would myself live to see such times. An unpopular war with threats of more to come, a faltering economy, crumbling infrastructure – then as the list turns to litany one begins to realize that things are actually worse than in times past, yet somewhat less kinetic. And perhaps that’s the true triumph of the think-tank doctrines; empires never rule the village, so then destroy all the villages. Ever since the construction of the first “American” suburbs during the 50s we have witnessed the gradual yet rapid dismantling of our communities and with them, our democracy. While the very same entities bent upon their destruction have marketed this new way of living as the new American community, we who were unfortunate enough to buy into the ideal have found nothing beyond the comfort of our living rooms; if we still have living rooms at all.
As we approached the winter of our age we shivered at the thought of what falling from such a height as ours would mean, then tricked ourselves into believing it was just the weather and turned the heater up. Then when the bitter reality of the world our government had forged finally stirred us from the warmth our dreams, we did as Americans have always done in times of crisis; we turned to our African population for redemption. This is not without precedence it seems, when we look at the short history of this country an interesting pattern emerges. Starting with the Civil War (it actually begins earlier than that but this example is more readily known) with a failing North employing “Black” regiments, then moving further along in our history to a bewildered America sending Ralph Bunch to negotiate the only time of peace in a newly minted conflict between Israel and Palestine, and marching onward to the present day. There’s something perversely cunning in subjecting a population to unending oppression then tapping the best of its ascendants for the worst of times. It could be considered an ingenious domestic administrative policy if it really resulted from the foresight of statecraft. But like the Black regiments of the Civil War who found themselves subject to the carpetbaggers along side the very whites they’d risked their lives fighting against, or the rapid collapse of Bunch’s hard earned yet tenuous peace, we can find no saviors among men. We needn’t look further than Jesus for the proof of this. Whether you believe the story or not, it is worth noting that despite his divine nature, miracles and acts of love, he failed to save the Hebrews from Roman tyranny, because he failed to save them from themselves. And the very lesson which that story, and countless others whence it derives, seeks to enjoin is the one to which we listen least; a people at war are ultimately at war with themselves. So why then do we always seek out an enemy to chastise and a champion to carry the whip? Then we are stunned when he puts that whip to our backs, or God forbid he actually expects us to wield our own whips.
A year ago when I was telling friends, family, and anyone who’d listen really, that we needed true democratic representation far more than a new President. And only through a broad based democratic dialogue could we steer ourselves from disaster, people looked at me like I’d said something so boring it was offensive. That’s when I’d take a deep breath and just stop speaking. Then suddenly everyone started a popular movement of unprecedented size and scope to achieve what would seem to be the impossible. Then just as suddenly became directionless and confused, scattering their efforts like so much sand before the winds (the Prop. 8 movement is an excellent example of this).
But our last energy’s not yet spent, and the daunting tasks ahead have just begun. Like so many times before we have amazing opportunities for change but exploiting them will require honest dialogue, focused efforts, realistic goals, and most importantly the courage to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat the devil within ourselves. We can’t terrorize every democratic movement to emerge in the Mid-East and not expect terrorism to become the forum of their discourse. We can no longer train, support, and fund terrorists in Latin America while undermining their economies, then scorn the wave of immigrants slaving for a fraction of the resources we’ve stolen from them. We can ill-afford to languish in the mediocrity that embodies or dreamy suburban nightmares and expect this new savior to make everything return to the way it used to be. We have to face the reality that things will never again be as they once were and decide how we wish things to become, before fate becomes the decider. I can’t stress dialogue enough because for all our media, advertisements, contiguous election cycles, town hall style debates, punditry, and countless books about everything from experts who know everything, we’ve yet to actually have an honest dialogue about any of the issues essential to our society.
An interesting lesson is to be found in another of those Abrahamic faiths that’s the latest crazy to sweep the nation. It is said that the Prophet Mohammed lauded one principle above all others, central to a free society, “Ijtihad” (to deliberate). This word, being born from the root word “Jihad” (to struggle), is quintessential to Islamic social-political theory. In fact, this process of dialogue and deliberation is so essential that Muslims were warned they would loose their freedom the moment they lost Ijtihad. According to this social theory it could be said thus: the society of humanity is a macrocosm as the body of humanity is a microcosm. Just as one must struggle with the insecurities and mysteries of the inner self in order to free the self, so too must the society struggle internally with their own failings in order to ensure liberty, security, and harmonious discord with the world without.
So let it be written, so let it be done: As above, so below.