The Courage of No

The Courage of No

by Merle Hoffman

Children are natural resistance fighters. From the time they realize that they have the agency (if not the power) to push back against parental authority, they begin to use it. They do not discriminate against particular types of authority, but understand organically that all power can, and in some cases must, be resisted.

The creation of the self defines its boundaries in the struggle and the negotiation with others.

©Christine Peloquin; “Hold These Truths”

One could almost say that the process of education consists in the slow, relentless process of learning to assent and to conform. Because institutional power, by definition, seeks survival and expansion, conformity has become a secularly sacred value.

While a certain amount of conformity is necessary for any society to exist and survive (stopping at red lights, for example), in both fundamentalist and fascist societies the very notion of an individual self becomes redefined and authenticated through its immersion in the group ideology. Individualism is rooted out and rote is reinforced.

Whether it is the “yes, sir, no, sir” salutes or the chanting of the leaders’ great words, the teaching of youth to follow lock-step is a goal of every right-wing entity.

The natural obstacle of this coerced uniformity is freethinking and independence, fueled by creativity and imagination of the possible. Critical thinking, doubt and questioning are the enemies of group-think.

In tightly controlled societies, those who are too independent are considered heretics. They are burned at the stake, stoned to death or beheaded for refusing to engage in what seems to be an arbitrary practice, such as declining to marry a husband who is brokered by the family or having sex without permission. In fact, the very meaning of heresy is “an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards.”

How is it, then, that there are those who can resist; those who doubt, question and discover the truths behind manipulated collective reality? Who turn their insights and denial into action, and have the courage to go up against the status quo, sometimes at the cost of their own lives?

Are those who resist able to retain some of that childlike ability to see reality before the weight of accepted definitions closes their eyes and mind? To see through surfaces to the essence of the thing itself, apart from immediate representations? Are they able to recognize the hypocrisy and myopia that are bars to independence and freedom in the same way that a brilliant physicist constructs new scientific theory after observing daily phenomena like an apple falling or a ball rolling?

Piercing Cultural Dead Zones

Or maybe the ability of resisters to stand against oppression has to do with a transcendent kind of love? The kind that was in Che Guevara’s mind when he famously said, “A revolutionary is motivated by true feelings of love.”

While Che was most likely talking about the seriousness of commitment to the Marxist struggle, the general connection between love and revolution came to mind asI read Chris Hedges’ recent book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Can we develop
a self that moves
outward from

In it, the Pulitzer Prize winning author (he brings to his writing a background as both a war journalist and seminarian) presents a scathing critique of the coarsening and deadening of American society, calling it a “necrophiliac” culture. He describes a population so transfixed by media glitz and celebrity that it has lost its independent thinking ability and moral compass. In a grim picture, he paints our society as soulless and commodified, even making a powerful challenge to the pornography industry and referencing dear friend and past On The Issues Magazine writer Andrea Dworkin.

While Hedges does say that resistance is a “moral imperative and sustains a life of meaning,” he strongly believes that power is inherently corrupt. He writes that it is unrealistic to expect good people to rule, echoing the words of Robespierre who notably said during the French Revolution, “no power rules innocently.”

By the time I got to the end of his book, I was in a state of depression. Is there no hope at all? How would Hedges find an answer to this societal death? What Lazarus would rise to call us all to life without shopping and American Idol?

And I was shocked by his conclusion. Hedges ends his dark vision by saying that only love will endure and triumph.

Love? If the world is as bleak as Hedges asserts, how can we expect to love? How can we expect love to bring change? How can we keep or develop a self that moves outward from self-involvement and the anesthetic of the entertainment industry to an authentic way of being?

In my 1991 Dialogue with Ellie Wiesel, I questioned him: “If God’s divinity is expressed through humanity and ultimately through love, and, as you have said many times, ‘Everything died in Auschwitz,’ how can we expect love to save us?”

©Christine Peloquin; “StartInside”

His response was: “My favorite words are ‘and yet.’ Everything died in Auschwitz and yet, yes there are reasons for me to despair, and yet yes there are reasons for me not to believe in God and yet, and yet….”

Love-revolution-death-heroism-freedom-courage: this was my territory and I needed to understand Hedges’ perspective. To that end, I arranged a dialogue with him about the nature of power and sustaining a life of meaning.

“Is it possible to have power without evil?” I asked.

His answer was unflinching: “No.” He continued, “The question is not to get good people to rule — but how to keep people in power from doing evil. The problem with the Left is that it got seduced: it wants power. Social movements are necessary to keep power in check.”

What was his definition of love? He told me when he uses the word “love,” it is a kind of code word for “compassion,” which he defines as “the ability to see the human in the other.” Love, he said, “triumphs over systems,” and is expressed in”petty acts of kindness.”

Keep the Heart Going

These thoughts were in my mind when three longtime leaders from the pro-choice movement contacted me to express their dismay at the Stupak Amendment added to the House version of healthcare reform legislation. If passed into the final law, the amendment will have the effect of clamping down abortion access for women across the country and across economic categories by preventing insurance companies from offering coverage for abortion care.

How can we not despair at seeing women’s reproductive rights bargained away in a proposed exchange for healthcare reform, and watching some of those who we thought were our allies also assent to this shameless ploy? How can we not be filled with grief and frustration when watching the expansion of an earlier loss — the Hyde Amendment in 1976 – and seeing that viewed as a victory by some in national office? How do we keep our own dreams of a better world alive when disillusioned with the world as it is?

As I thought about how to respond to my friends, I realized that women’s freedom is like the phoenix, always rising from the ashes. This is a generational struggle, and the war continues, regardless of the outcome of one particular battle.

“How can we not
despair at seeing
reproductive rights
bargained away”

Perhaps it is our unrealistic expectations of what fighting for a cause actually means that need adjustment. We may not have victory in our lifetimes, but it is the struggle against oppression and the struggle toward freedom that is the achievement. Many victories have been won. Setbacks – and the depression and even despair that can accompany them — are pit stops along the way.

The illusion of the pro-choice movement is that there is one battle that can be won and our struggle will be over for all time, that there will be a final retreat of the desire to exercise power or to control women, that reproductive freedom will, alone among freedoms, stand rock solid without ever facing the pressure of forces that want to contain it.

Several years ago, I did an interview with Petra Kelly, founder of the West German Green Party and an anti-nuclear activist. She said there are “many moments where I more or less fold up, moments when my head says stop but my heart keeps going.”

And that is perhaps where we have to look for courage: to the heart of the actor, the heart of the person. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian writer, politician and theorist of the early 20th century who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, wrote: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Change, reform, freedom — they will not come by intellectual analysis alone. In the end, perhaps Hedges has a point. Social movements and love and compassion and the smallest bit that you do: maybe that is essence of our fight for freedom.

My oldfriend Flo Kennedy used to say, we must “learn to love the struggle.” That is the courage of NO and the kind of love that will sustain a life of meaning.

Merle Hoffman is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of On The Issues Magazine. She is the Founder, President and CEO of CHOICES Women’s Medical Center.

Also see MAHIN HASSIBI: Visionary Ideas, Thinking Out Loud in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Justice for Aung San Suu Kyi: End Male Power Structures by Janet Benshoof in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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