When we bought our new house, a flagpole and the American flag came with it.
Photo by David Beale on Unsplash
The day Roe v. Wade was overturned, we took down the flag. I don’t recognize America anymore. The democracy I grew up in is languishing and I no longer feel our government represents the best interests of people or planet. It certainly isn’t interested in surviving and thriving for any but a select few power-over people who are impotent, incompetent, and emotionally bankrupt, not to mention unbelievably stupid. These times are the logical end stages of capitalism. We are so far astray we have made money into a god and worshiping that god has us all on our knees and many of us face down in the street being murdered. I’m not celebrating. I’m grieving. I’m angry.
The pandemic years and increasing awareness and visibility of systemic racism brought the discussion of freedom into daily discourse. What freedom is. What freedom isn’t.
Freedom is power. People who work for power with others focus on supporting an equitable playing field for all. That means some people need to lose some power and others need to have theirs restored so we all have equal access to resource.
Power, by the way, is not defined by money. We’ve been culturally brainwashed to believe it is, but it’s not. Who benefits from the persistent and relentless narrative insisting it is? Are you benefitting?
People who work for power-over are afraid. Fear breeds hatred. Other words for hatred are racism, homophobia, and bigotry. Power-over people, like any tyrant, fear rebellion, and all their energy goes into controlling information and brutally silencing dissent or discussion.
What we are allowing to take shape is a dystopian world. It’s not a movie we’re going to walk out of in two and a half hours. It’s not a science fiction book. It’s not a role-playing game.
It’s real, and it’s really happening. Just like climate change, it’s not something to scare or depress ourselves with and then, like Scarlett O’Hara, tell ourselves we’ll think about it tomorrow. Tomorrow was yesterday. Climate change and the end of democracy are not far-off footsteps in the night-dark and scary forest. They’re here. They’re now. They’re in our tent with us.
Information (facts), critical thinking, and freedom are restricted.
Citizens worship a figurehead or ideology.
Citizens perceive they are under constant surveillance.
Citizens fear change, new information, or new experience. Anything or anyone different is perceived as a threat to existence. Conformity is paramount. Individuality and dissent are stamped out.
Citizens are stripped of their humanity.
The natural world is raped, poisoned, and distrusted.
Controls force citizens to accept the illusion of a perfect utopian world.
Dystopian controls include corporate, bureaucratic, technological, and philosophical/religious entities.
Welcome to the dawn of dystopia, people. For most of us, freedom is slowly vanishing, but it’s still possible to reclaim it. There are people who see clearly and speak and write the truth. Some of us believe in the common good and in living in service to others, to justice, and to the planet. We can fight. We can refuse to be silenced. We can hold fast to one another and balance the growing hate in the world with our love and righteous anger.
I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts from Toni Morrison:
“The function of freedom is to free somebody else.”
“Freedom is choosing your responsibility. It’s not having no responsibilities; it’s choosing the ones you want.”
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty acknowledging and even honoring differences within a framework of checks and balances so one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?