“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
– Baptismal speech, Eliot Rosewater in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater
‘Robbers’ [i.e., the parable of the Good Samaritan] usually find secret allies in those who ‘pass by and look the other way.’ There is a certain interplay between those who manipulate and cheat society and those who, while claiming to be detached and impartial critics, live off that system and its benefits…The complaint that ‘everything is broken’ is answered by the claim that ‘it can’t be fixed.’ or ‘what can I do?’ This feeds into disillusionment and despair, and hardly encourages a spirit of solidarity and generosity.
– Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti
One of the most celebrated and revered authors of my lifetime, Kurt Vonnegut famously called for kindness as the needed thing in the world. To me, or to the ‘me’ I was when I first read this in an interview decades ago, in contrast to his witty, ironical, socially critical fiction, his admonition seemed almost simple-minded. Be kind? Like how we behave towards kittens and other adorables? Or was he referring to something truly radical, so radical it was beyond the imaginations of anyone during his time or ours to do anything more than cause us to feel fondly toward old Kurt? Liberal thinker that I was, more comfortable with irony than with the indecent exposure of sincerity, his admonition reassured me he wasn’t merely clever but had a heart with which – thank goodness – he refrained from treacling up his fiction!
I no longer feel as I did then. Having followed through on the assignment I gave myself back in the 1990s, after a personal mental health crisis, I’ve gradually come closer to earth from the lofty liberal perch I occupied back then! No longer so fearful of my feelings, (for which fear of “indecent exposure” is useful cover), I’m willing to defend their validity as guides from “underneath the skin.” Moreover, the relevance of my feelings, I submit, extends out to the systemically unkind world under neoliberal rule that desperately needs the “down to earth,” feeling-based values that can sustain and nurture human life, but which so far we seem intent upon shedding.
Kindness, we can say is less intellectual and less prone to ambiguity than abstract love. It is the animal-soul level felt experience of being included by love (traditionally imagined as Mother’s love). Checking into feelings, you can tell if someone has been kind or mean to you regardless of what they’re saying. Vonnegut was tuned into this level of experience – how one honestly feels, which is different from the words we say in public to each other – and expressed it in several ways. The ironical tone he perfected allowed him to get away with messages that were about as simple and basic as Christian love. (“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”)
In other words, in order to be kind, one must have experienced kindness as natural, as indigenous to the social environment. As wholesome food feeds the integrity of the body, kindness feeds the soul with trust in its feelings. Losing that trust, the world becomes progressively harsher. To this crueler context the liberal world has adapted. It has not gone against the grain to insist on kindness as a fundamental value over profits, and on the unmediated communality in which kindness (or its absence) can be felt, but has allowed those conditions to deteriorate, to be replaced with an iphone.
Perhaps novelists don’t write with an expectation of changing peoples’ hearts, but if Vonnegut harbored such a hope, he was relying on a perspicacity in his readers many of us likely lacked. The sophisticated ironic tone of which he was a master, endearing to the educated class, was way too subtle and distanced to speak unambiguously to hearts conditioned in liberal reality. On the other hand, unlike novelists, preachers (the group to which I more or less belong) are professionally called to stoop to the indecent exposure of a non-subtle, non-ironic message explicitly in order to influence hearts in the direction of love. But preachers too must pick their way carefully in a context that’s obedient to capitalism. Like other public figures – they must follow the crowd and the money, doing the job for which they’re paid, coloring inside the lines drawn for them by their constituents and their organization. Tolerated but discounted by the liberal class, liberal ministers do indisputably good works. But they manage still to be following an implicit rule: “Do good but don’t mention the radical evil of capitalism; that’s a turn-off.” “Be as jokey as possible, but Will Rogers-style, not George Carlin.” Thus Christ’s message of the rule of loving kindness is whitewashed, its radical threat to neoliberal complacency removed.
Only a few preachers – not all of them officially ordained, or even speaking for an established religion – serve the genuinely insurgent, non-deferential creative spirit. So accustomed are we, since the preaching days of Martin Luther King, Jr., to holding low-to-no expectations for church voices “on the left” we can hardly believe our ears when we hear Pope Francis’s social pronouncements, spoken from the very pinnacle of the spiritual mainstream. Preachers that aren’t on the media’s A-list who – like Francis – believe in love’s absolute authority are left, like jazz improvisers, to preach outside the established lines, their indecent exposure making them as discardable in mainstream mediated reality as loving kindness itself.
In an extraordinary way, Rev. King proclaimed Christian love to its full overturning extent, while not only keeping people in the pews but also getting them – all kinds and colors, including white liberals – out on the streets insisting the reign of God’s love begins now, not tomorrow. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement, understandably having no patience to wait for the church to find again its prophetic message, is not explicitly church or love and reconciliation-centered. Perhaps this role, redeeming the inclusivity of love, now falls to those whose vanity assures them “love is fine, but in its time and place.”
For better or worse, revolutionary, bottom-up movements like BLM begin in the felt needs and real experiences of social beings; they begin in the most fundamental soul needs of people, with their different histories and cultures. A preacher who aims at liberal, educated, mainly white hearts, that have weaned themselves off the needs of the soul, has to break through the mighty fortress of liberal vanity – the assumptions and defenses of a privileged group – to reach the heart. Thanks to its privilege, and in order to retain it, the liberal class is conditioned to forget or forsake the needs they share in common with all people, a capacity gained by denying/repressing one’s own painful experiences. This sacrifice is rewarded by inclusion in liberalism’s lifestyle benefits, but it makes liberal “goodness” conditional, tepid and banal.
A genuine critique of liberal vanity is so off-the-table, so social pariah-izing, it can be done only on the basis of obedience to the rule of love that does not contend or blame, but does not waiver in opposing cruelty in all its forms. That is, the eye of compassion looks past liberal vanity and denial to the fear-dominated, repudiated reality of the soul underneath. Only standing in spiritual certainty can one face such fiercely defended unconsciousness (the liberal’s sin). (Am I the only one who hears the love in prophetic author Chris Hedges’ relentless battering of liberal pretensions?)
Good Heavens! – suddenly it occurs to me: Am I writing about loving liberals? Anti-war folksinger Phil Ochs (“Love Me I’m A Liberal”) will turn over in his grave! Busted, I guess. But wait! There’s method in my madness. It is neoliberal conditions (Not Trump!) – that make the ground friendly for fascism. To uproot those conditions depends, simply, upon a change of the liberal heart. Thus, the thankless effort to “tough love” liberals – who lest we forget, since the Enlightenment, is all of us – must be undertaken if the goal is transformation, not mere regime change. For the powerful liberal class to switch its allegiance from the rule of capitalism to the rule of love such a change is individual. It begins within, in the dutiful care, tending, and serving of the creative soul’s absolute need for its voice, that has been repressed. Without knowing their duty to the soul’s imagination, liberals have no choice but to reinforce and condone the same conditions of meanness and cruel inequality they impose on their souls. Where fascism thrives, liberals are not innocent, only without inspiration! Therefore “tough love” starts within our liberal selves, inside those of us who’ve cruelly hardened against our imagination-starved hearts in obedience to the liberal, materialist, class-based, rationalist reality that comprises all we know.
Prior to the above-mentioned personal crisis, I had been well-conditioned by my upbringing in conventional educated liberal bourgeois secular reality. But I was also always at odds with it in a way that left me tense and unsettled, my intense confusion heading me for that disaster that did eventually come, but brought with it unexpected consequences.
Though I did not know it and nobody in the cluelessly rationalist social environment could tell me, my crisis was not reducible to mental illness. Resolution of the crisis would not come with the “divinity” professionalization I attained in my effort to legitimize my existence according to the feminist paradigm (YDS ’79). It came through undergoing the psycho-spiritual crisis that brought with it “transpersonal” verification of my right to exist in my otherness that had so long eluded me. At bottom, such existential crisis is not from gender oppression or gender confusion, but the absence of assurance of fully inclusive love and kindness. In the general meanness and me-firstism that must be mastered for survival in liberal society, leaving people in a near-constant state of anxiety, kindness is a luxury. It is this crisis of our liberal bourgeois society that calls me to advocate sincerely for “fratelli e sorelle tutti.”
Somewhat by chance, certainly against my will, but guided secretly by innermost desire, I had found the reality (Eureka!) most damning to the inevitability of liberal bourgeois society. In order to defend the marvelous truth of “Oneness” I’d experienced (otherwise how could I call it real, and who would care if it were?) I use my creativity to oppose or critique that liberal world – without irony. To critique on behalf of the heart allies me with the long presumed dead – or brain-dead – rule of love, considered relevant, if at all, only to the most simple-minded. So here I am, exposing myself “indecently” in the neoliberal wilderness on behalf of my sentient soul-body that requires kindness as daily bread, not as luxury.
Exacerbated by nine months of pandemic social deprivation, my imagination, particularly at night, too often runs to vivid enactments of fascist takeovers. Such horrific fantasies are perhaps fed by Orin’s habit of conveying to me the divisive hate talk coming from talk radio hosts like Hannity and Limbaugh (broadcasts that should have been shutdown years ago). My fear of fascism, its power to pollute and to infect, has intensified as its expression in society proliferates, and with every action Trump takes to appeal to the lowest impulses of his “base.”
However, I’m clear the radical fascist haters on the political extreme Right are opportunists, not “inventors.” The opportunity they seize is an enormous window left enticingly open for them by the self-satisfied good people on the left who are content believing hate is bad, but will take no steps to oppose hate with love. Love is not a contending belief but an alternative reality that can be felt and entered by any human being. It requires for its attainment a personal transformation (yes, kind of like Scrooge after his 3 ghostly visitations) such that the heart becomes authoritative, its values of relatedness and interdependence supreme, bringing one to say I can perpetrate lesser-evilism no longer.
The fact that few liberals do transform into love activists suggests they are content with the fractious, and meaningless contentiousness of neoliberalism and its radical evil that negates the intrinsic value of human beings. Antifa activism, though admirable, comes too late in the gestation of hate. Only complete obedience to love and relearning all of its attendant behaviors and qualities: forgiveness, reconciliation, loyalty, patience, understanding, wisdom, kindness and healing can make a new soil to replace the fertile ground in which hate grows.
We are as potentially haters as lovers. In order to raise generations who will direct their wills, Samaritan-like, to enact love, not merely speak it, who will assure each human and non-human “other” of her/his value and worth, demands the customs of bottom-up, communal, face-to-face living in place, where love – and its absence – can be felt, conditions which liberal vanity has deemed unnecessary and has abdicated its duty to preserve.
To contain the plague of fascism, not to mention being able to unify to stop a pandemic, or to act on behalf of the earth’s ecosystems, halt global warming, etc., will require abandonment of the liberal project with its thinly disguised supremicism and classism, it’s dressed up hate, its ongoing exploitation, colonialism, destruction of people and cultures. It will demand active, not feigned, practice of the Christian love long forsaken by the educated elites that abandon souls in order to make the world safe for capitalism. And, it will demand art – the kindness of attending to each soul’s need for expression – of everyone.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.