Monday, January 21, 2008

Nature Hates a Vacuum. Societies Tolerate Them.

It's dicta within the natural sciences that a vacuum is an unnatural state and that any vacuum will be filled instantly if the barriers to it are the least bit penetrable. In the social sciences, by contrast, it's dicta that vacuums (of leadership) can exist for quite some time. Social psychologists call it "pluralistic ignorance." If the customary leaders for a group do not act in the face of an emergency, individuals within a crowd will tend to adhere to the crowd's inaction.

We've been witnesses to this for more than seven years in the U.S. The Democratic Party and the mass media have been collaborators with the Bush regime in a pact that will go down in history as one of the most ignominious ever.

The opportunity - and necessity - for others to step forward to fill the vacuum of moral leadership that has been created by the Democrats and the mass media is great and pressing. When a society confronts a challenge as immense as this - where the very future of the planet may be at stake - it's critical that certain people rise to meet this challenge. They hold the fates of the world in their hands. Too many people are still waiting and hoping, while gnashing their teeth, for others to do what must obviously be done.

On the one hand, it IS frustrating that more have not stepped forward to do what needs to be done. So it is understandable that there are many who have done some things, or even a lot of things, to try to shake things loose politically - demonstrated, organized, spoken out, written, and so on - and have gotten discouraged and fallen back or resorted to blaming the people for their apathy. But what is not sufficiently appreciated here is that this vacuum of moral leadership is a most difficult situation to change. Busting people away from their normal enthrallment by the powers that be is very hard.

The fact remains, too, that a majority of people in this country are insufficiently informed about the gravity and monstrousness of what our government is doing - and this ignorance on their part is a major factor holding them back. (Out of 170 students in my classes this term, only a handful knew that we were torturing people and only a handful had even heard of waterboarding. As some of them have begun to learn otherwise, many of them are now spreading orange to their friends and family and acting concretely to be one of those who refused to remain silent in the face of their government doing unspeakable horrors.)

Our government's monstrous actions - and I mean the entire government, not just the White House, for they all know that we are torturing people daily - means precisely this: those who, no matter how small their number now, take a public stand against these horrors bring to bear immediately on their side the full-force of the moral high ground that they are occupying and claiming. This is no small thing. By stepping forward you are creating an opening for others to follow you and for the vacuum to be filled.

The situation we confront is highly unusual in world history and unprecedented in this country's history - at least since the genocide of the Native Americans and the slave trade of blacks. The only parallel to this in modern history is the Nazis' rise to power in Germany, in a country proud of its cultural traditions. "How could good Germans have remained silent in the face of fascism?" people have wondered ever since. "How could they have stood by while atrocities were committed?"

The answer is all around you in America 2008. The actions of any and all those who step forward now to declare themselves against the Bush regime and against all of the horrid things that this government represents and is doing is in the context of a situation in which the customary political and opinion leaders, with few exceptions, are irremediably bankrupt. The conscience-based actions of people from every walk of life, from the most unknown and humble to the most esteemed, can have and do have, therefore, a magnified effect. A spark in a forest that has just been soaked by torrential rains will not mean much. But a (social) spark in a forest that is bone dry can start a political firestorm. We need a political firestorm today.

We're dealing with two problems: a lack of awareness and pluralistic ignorance. In a situation such as this, the actions of a relatively small number of people can spell all the difference in the world. Even one person who is unknown to the larger society, someone only known to those in their immediate social circles, can make a very substantial difference in their immediate, everyday surroundings. Their actions can spread like a ripple throughout larger circles because the others around them who emulate their actions can act as ambassadors of a different way.

The bullies and moral monsters who we are fight are cowards. There is a reason why they've been dubbed "chicken hawks." There is a reason why they could not and did not anticipate the fierce resistance to their invasion of Iraq: they have a blind spot the size of the Milky Way galaxy when it comes to seeing that people will not just bow down before the might of the ruthless bully but will, in significant numbers, brave the terrorism being meted out to them and fight back.

Our adversaries are only able to get away with what they are doing if those who see most clearly what is going on fail to step into the breach and alter the calculus of everyday life. It doesn't take a lot people to start a seismic change. It starts with one or two people who decide they've had enough and won't be silent anymore.

Into the breach, into the vacuum, go, rush in.

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