I saw a movie over the weekend that I recommend, especially if you’re a fan of John Cusack and not terribly familiar with the original Grisham novel – Runaway Jury is a nice thriller flick, not especially edge-of-your-seat, but the cast is fantastic. Rachel Weisz has never been a favorite of mine after the disaster that was Enemy at the Gates, but you gotta love Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Jeremy Pivens (who can’t seem to leave Cusack’s side in the movie biz even for a second.) But I digress. Again.
One of the issues in the first ten minutes of the movie is “civic duty.” Cusack’s character Nick Easter is pissed about having to show up and serve on a jury even though he knows it’s his civic duty. I felt the same way about being called earlier this year, although I didn’t try to weasel out of it. I just got lucky.
There are other civic duties that are, I think, more important in today’s society. Yeah, show up for jury duty. Vote. And before you do, get yourself eddimacated.
My informal ongoing class into political history and current events started with the Downing Street Memos. See, when Desert Storm started in '91, I was in college and the best thing I could think of to do was light a big fat peace pipe for George and hope the good vibes made it all the way to Washington.
This time I’m older, maybe a little wiser (that's debatable, of course), and I have access to a lot more history, not to mention several million more points of view. But I’ve gotten held up in my information digging by this pesky (yet ultimately necessary) internal paradigm shift that has expressed itself in what’s known as moral outrage. You may have noticed it recently. Anger, righteous indignation, the need to spit words like “lying neo-con good-for-nothing supply-side-economics-spouting election-rigging oil-soaked warmongering greed-loving bastards” at the top of my cyperspace lungs – those got the upper hand.
But at some point you have to make a choice about your outrage, or you will choke on your own bile, cut off your air supply, and get brain damage. So you can look away from what’s bothering you (or look in the bottom of a bottle or a bong, into cable TV or a cheesy bodice-ripper) and pretend it doesn’t exist. Or you can choose to focus instead on making your immediate environment as peaceful and loving as possible, by expressing love to the people and places you care about. And you can choose to move through the dark tunnel of outrage to the other side, where there’s more light and a little more room to breathe.
Don’t think that there aren’t more tunnels waiting for you. There are. Every time another lie is exposed, every time another senseless war is perpetrated, every time you see a child whacked upside the head by his mom in a grocery store, you’ll go through it.
But let’s try not to get stuck there. When I get angry, my brain tends to shut down. This doesn’t happen to everyone – I know some folks who think better when they’re pissed off. My righteous anger, on the other hand, feels futile – like banging my head repeatedly against a very hard concrete wall. It doesn’t do any good, it just makes my head hurt worse, and it hurts the people around me to see it happening.
So for a while I couldn’t really discuss politics or war or history without becoming so upset and excited and passionate about the subjects that my brain, inevitably, shut down. A bad thing to happen when you’re in the middle of a conversation (or a chess game) with my husband.
Here’s where I give Brian an enormous amount of credit for using his brain. Sometimes people react badly when confronted with ideas that don’t match their own. Sometimes they get upset or overwhelmed – and guess what? Their brains shut down. They stop thinking. Their ability to examine evidence critically and come to a reasoned conclusion about it flies right out the window. Seems like this happens to most everyone at some point, although there are folks who move out of this phase after adolescence.
Brian and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on politics or social issues – but you might be surprised at the values we do share. One of those values is the importance of using your head. Another one is the value of facts and experience in the decision-making process. Here’s where things get tougher – how the hell do you sift out facts from all the spin? How do you pull the information you need from the perceptions of those who report it? Brian and I both share a frustration with the media these days – whether it’s Fox News or CNN or government reports, someone’s spinning something. And forgive me, but I’d prefer my information to be a little more like a rock and less like a top.
Hard to come by these days, though, ain’t it? Tough job – but you gotta do it. As an American, you gotta do it. It’s way past time for the population of this country to wake up to the reality around them – that leaving government, foreign policy, economics, education, and budgeting to Those Who Should Know Best is frankly irresponsible. It’s a dereliction of civic duty. You have to be informed. And sometimes the only way to be informed is to suck up as much journalism, scientific reports, data (which can be spun as easily as cotton candy, by the way), and nonprofit reporting as you can. An orange is still an orange, even if it’s described differently by twenty different people. It’s up to you to figure out what you can about the orange – is it really orange, or more yellow in color? Is it a blood orange, a kumquat, or a navel? Does it taste sweet, or would you rather leave it on the ground to rot? What tree did it come from, by the way? You have to decide what sources you trust, and what sources aren’t even worth your time. (Listen to those folks anyway, though, just to get their piece of the puzzle, strangely shaped as it may be.)
Once you do that, you can discuss the issues with facts at hand, your own pieces of the puzzle. Not to destroy someone else’s argument (or worse, to destroy their character) but to offer those pieces as a gift of knowledge, your own special perception of the world around you. It doesn’t have to be violent. It doesn’t have to be black-or-white. You don’t even have to be right all the time – because if the other party in your conversation offers their own version of the truth and it causes you to re-evaluate your information, so much the better.
Debate over philosophy and dharma has always been an honored tradition among Buddhist monks. Check out the 14th Dalai Lama – he cut his intellectual teeth on active, logical debate in the monastery where he was trained. He couldn’t even become a “simple Buddhist monk” until he could hold his own among his teachers. These people know how to argue without attacking each other, without letting outrage, indignation and righteousness take the place of reason, logic and compassion.
Indignation and righteousness are endemic in the world today. You see it in America – in liberals and conservatives, in pagans and Baptists, in gays and straight people, criminals and law-abiding citizens. You see it all over the globe – in fundamentalist Muslims, in fundamentalist Jews, in environmentalists, conservationists, and the developing capitalists who try to ignore them. I see it in myself almost every day. The problem is when you say “I’m right – and you’re just f*cking wrong. There’s nothing about your perception of the world that can ever be useful to me.” This allows you to disregard the essential humanity and value of whomever disagrees with you – whether it’s someone who has a different set of facts than you, or someone who wants to kill you. The level of disagreement doesn’t really matter once you feel threatened.
It allows me to say, “Dick Cheney, you are one sick manipulating bastard and I hope you die a slow death in the belly of a diseased crocodile living in a stream full of nuclear waste.” It allows Pat Robertson to say, “We should just go ahead and take Chavez out.” It allows George Bush to say “Vast oceans and friendly neighbors are not enough to protect us. A policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety. The only way to defend our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live” and “We will accept nothing less than total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology.” It allows the organization of Al Qaeda, and the organization of the American military, to kill based on their leaders’ views of what is right. All different sides of the same scary pair of dice rolling around the world these days.
All I’m saying is that maybe a way out of the impasse - locally, that is - is to make sure you don’t threaten or attack people you might not agree with. I’m not talking politically – when you’re dealing with larger systems, you have to make larger statements. (I’m all about Cindy Sheehan’s right to protest.) But don’t stay out of discussions, either. Do the research. Add your perception to the mix. Respect your own knowledge and the knowledge that others bring to the table, even if you don’t like it. Practice consensus-building, every day, among people you agree with and those you don’t. Do your freaking civic duty already.
Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world." OK. It's a start.