Calling for an inner revolution

A few are content with the status quo. Others argue that we need a socio-economic revolution, and even a violent overthrow of the government, to cure the deep rot in our society. But violence begets never-ending vicious cycles, and we are too far from shore to be tacking back and forth. We need a peaceful, inner revolution encompassing a great turning and a great commitment such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King practiced and taught.

The commitment is to understand the way of politics, American and world history, and the political process. A commitment to help build democratic societies. To seek political truth just as one seeks enlightenment; and to communicate this truth as best you can. A commitment to know oneself and to change oneself. These commitments to an inner revolution, a revolution in human consciousness, should be like a religion––but one devoid of dogmas and superstitions–– meant to forever break the vicious cycles of war and other forms of great violence.

Why make these commitments? Because a person needs to participate fully as a human being in the historical process, the confluence of innumerable conditions and circumstances, among which is each one’s own existence. We owe it to the world from which we sprang. Americans have a special responsibility because of the disproportionate damage we inflict on the planet as well as the influence we exert all over the globe thanks to our nation’s economic, military, and cultural hegemony.

Is this hard to do? Yes, but no harder than the future that we now face, where individuals may continue to possess their instinct for survival, but the collective appears largely on a run toward extinction. 

Certain societies have experienced an inner revolution. In Tibet, for example, such a slow revolution resulted, at least until the Chinese take over in 1949, in a tradition of non-violence, optimism and unconditional compassion that began 2,500 years earlier. Around that time, a period that Arnold Toynbee calls the Axial Age, towering figures had parallel experiences that were pivotal to Eurasian civilizations. The Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Socrates, Confucius, and Lao Tzu experienced inner revolutions. Our time is ripe for similar pivotal experiences, comparable leaders, and the corresponding teachings to the multitudes.

In modern times, the Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community, for instance, place strong emphasis on the great turning for all societies. It is incumbent on other communities––religious or not–– to also focus on its essential themes. According to visionary Joanna Macy, these concern replacing the current subordination to empires with an earth community based on sustainable, just, and caring social arrangements. In 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development formulated the so-called Earth Charter, which embodies this vision, to guide the transition to sustainable development. A great number of international organizations, religious institutions, political bodies, universities, and others have endorsed it. 

How can we promote the goals of the Earth Charter and help bring about the great turning? The answer is complex and depends on each person’s unique position in society. My focus here is the third of the four pillars of the Earth Charter: to build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful. Ultimately, democracy is the best antidote to war and the best caldron of human progress. War is typically waged by older, privileged minorities in power, but fought on the battlefields by the powerless, young and poor. War is the antithesis of the great turning; it is typically an expression of imperial impulses, results in great damage to the earth, depletes our resources, and harms innocents more than the armies.

To build democratic societies around the world is a daunting task. Just as we must first build a truly democratic society at home before we can preach it to others, we must positively change ourselves before we can positively change the world. Democracy is not something we can impose even as the most powerful military and economic empire in history. We can only set an example that starts with an inner revolution. Good old-fashioned consciousness-raising is necessary to implement the Earth Charter, and every person with a raised consciousness needs to stand up and be counted. We cannot let falsehoods and wrong thinking go unchallenged. Our voices need to be heard even louder than those with retrograde and destructive tendencies.

For this inner revolution to triumph, we must understand and practice truth. Often, we are blind to the truth in the political arena because our government, the media, and special interests hide or distort it. If we cannot tell the truth, we cannot act on it. As George Orwell said, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

We are overwhelmed by falsehoods. Advertisers, public officials, agencies of the government at all levels, and elected politicians habitually lie. Trump is by far the champion of all time and largely succeeded at normalizing mendacity. The mainstream media also lie or fail to do their job of unearthing the truth, and often serve as unwitting megaphones for the authorities. Lies have horrendous anti-democratic consequences because they pave the way to war. The Vietnam War, for example, was sold to the American people thanks in part to the lie embodied in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that there had been a second attack on an American destroyer by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in 1964. The Bush administration similarly orchestrated a campaign of misinformation to justify the Iraqi invasion, trying to make us believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Just as in Vietnam, this misadventure had been planned prior to the public justifications. It also did not go well, causing untold deaths, suffering, and destruction in the name of defending freedom and democracy. No lesson was learned from Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, approximately forty percent of Americans continued to believe that Saddam had WMDs even after it had been proven false. And substantial minorities never stopped believing other debunked justifications among the many patent falsehoods propagated by the warmongers, such as “several of the hijackers who attacked the United States on September 11 were Iraqis” or “Saddam helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the United States.” 

Some people will believe anything, and the right wing takes advantage of this fact. Significant percentages of Americans believe things like shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies, and worse, that our climate is warming completely on its own, which is loonier than believing climate is not warming at all. Even before Covid, a 2014 JAMA study showed that 20% of Americans believe that “doctors and government still want to vaccinate children even though they know these vaccines cause autism and other psychological disorders.” The National Science Foundation found that one in four Americans believes that the sun revolves around the Earth, and Scientific American once reported that only 66% of Millennials think the earth is round.

Trump finished his term in office with almost 25,000 documented lies, many of which have taken firm root in the brains of 40 percent or more of the voters, and his cult followers continue to believe the Big Lie that Biden stole the election. QAnon cultists go even further and preach that a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic sexual abusers of children operate a global child sex trafficking ring that conspired against Trump, besides many other bat-crazy conspiracy theories. Recent Gen Z-fueled propaganda holds that birds don’t exist and are really drone replicas installed by the U.S. government to spy on Americans. Hundreds of thousands of young people have joined the movement, wearing Birds Aren’t Real T-shirts, flocking to rallies, spreading the slogan, and demanding that Twitter change its bird logo, even though the whole thing was created explicitly as a parody of QAnon. Because of the lies sown by Trump and his allies in this fertile soil, there’s growing evidence that Republicans are increasingly likely to resort to violence against the government and political opponents.

Falsehoods prosper partly because of a historical undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in American society, which devalues knowledge and reason. This trend propels efforts to denigrate the overwhelming body of science showing the deleterious effects of human-made greenhouse gases and the very notion of climate change, for the benefit of fossil fuel industries. It also undergirds anti-vaxxing and anti-masking. There’s a kind of nativist pride in demonstrating you are ignorant and stupid, and don’t mind if you are brainwashed and manipulated. Heck, some even believe that government should be at the service of the super-rich, who are entitled to become richer by virtue of starting out rich.

Historical or political falsehoods also prosper because masters of political manipulation such as Joseph Goebbels developed effective techniques for brain washing the masses. Nazi-like techniques are documented in Outfoxed, for example, a film showing how Fox News channels serve as echo chambers for their favorite party and politicians––and the inner workings of a coordinated effort to manipulate public opinion and shape the perception of reality. 

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who taught at the University of Berkeley and founded the Rockridge Institute, is the author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, as well as several other books on how language affects our ideas and beliefs. He explains how anti-democratic forces, including some think tanks, foundations, and some in the media, have deliberately used language constructs called “frames” and “memes” to achieve their narrow goals and undermine the will and the interests of democratic majorities, effectively through brain-washing. In the award-winning Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, the distinguished investigative journalist Jane Meyers also meticulously details how right-wing organizations employ brainwashing techniques based on frames and memes while hiding the sources of money for those organizations. They also deploy numerous legal strategies, loopholes, tricks and outright fraud to evade not only taxes, but also society’s scrutiny of the true “vast conspiracy.”

Frames can be described as the aggregate of unconscious connotations of terms, including metaphors. Memes are units of cultural ideas such as catch phrases, beliefs, and fashions. They are weapons for the battles waged by conservative media in their fabricated culture wars. Frames and memes reflect two fundamentally different views of the world resulting from what Lakoff calls “Strict Father” morality and “Nurturant Parent” morality. Conservatives tend to model Strict Father morality in their ideologies, liberals on Nurturant Parent morality.

As an example that is central to our concerns about the survival of the species as opposed to the preservation of privileges of the super-rich, Lakoff explains that “the conservative view of man’s relationship to nature . . . arises naturally from Strict Father morality [and is] conceptualized and reasoned about in terms of a system of common metaphors that best fit the Strict Father view.”  They include (1) Nature is God’s dominion; (2) Nature is a resource; and (3) Nature is property, among others.

[The first, “stewardness” metaphor,] says that Nature, by God’s authority, is man’s to use for whatever he wants, [although] he should use it sensibly and frugally.

The resource metaphor . . . assumes that whatever is in nature is, and should be part of a human economic system. Its value is not intrinsic but is determined by how useful it is to human beings and how plentiful it is.  [. . . ] Under the property metaphor, nature is up for sale, just like a sofa or a car or a video game.  Things in nature—forests, lakes, volcanoes, canyons—can be put to any use the owner wants, or even destroyed if that is the owner’s wish. The value of nature, in this metaphor, is as a commodity, and it fluctuates with local tastes and market conditions.  In this metaphor, streams, lakes, and valleys have no inherent value, only market value.

Savage capitalism rests on a foundation of Strict Father morality and its corresponding conservative constructs. It is easy to see how such constructs lead to memes such as “drill, baby, drill,” once coined by then-senator John McCain, to a government “regulatory” system where the regulators have been found literally in bed with the oil companies they were supposed to regulate, and to the disturbing notion that national parks and federal preserves should be open to further oil exploration despite the fact we, as a nation, have only five percent of the reserves of a diminishing resource while consuming 25 percent of the world’s current production.

Studies by Lakoff and others demonstrate that frames and memes, along with other brain-washing techniques, can be used not only to affect value judgments, but also the processing of facts. Reality-based, objective facts do not displace many people’s judgments. Judgments displace facts and embrace falsehoods that accord with the frames and memes drilled into our brains. Lakoff’s latest research shows that falsehoods and delusion eventually become hard-wired in our neurons, making it impossible to accept truth and reality, notwithstanding evidence, reason and logic to the contrary. And evolutionary psychology teaches that, as a species, humans have not inherited a genetic advantage from  truth-telling or truth-believing. In fact, consciousness itself appears to be principally a mechanism of deluded self-aggrandizement accomplished through revisionist story-telling. Yet, we must not lie to ourselves or to others, and overcome deadly delusions such as hatred, racism, and all kinds of supremacy. We must understand our genes and go beyond.

How can we escape the effects of propaganda, frames, and memes, distinguish truth from falsity and apply it to promote democratic societies? We must follow through on our commitments. 

We must understand how the issues are being framed for us. We must sift the facts from the misinformation, and not allow ourselves to be manipulated by fear, anger and delusions. We must study assiduously and learn how the world spins. We must actively seek out the truth, investigating different sources and becoming more informed about what goes on in the our country and elsewhere. 

We must practice truth by scrupulously refraining from loose talk, gossip, and second-hand repetition of questionable sources. We must check our facts, and we must learn how to frame the debate so that we can communicate progressive ideas persuasively. We must engage, not leave it up to others. Join a group, or a party. Contribute financially within your ability. Don’t remain silent when it’s time to speak up. Find other ways in accord with your individual situation. All of these acts reverberate over the myriad webs of relations that make up our societies and collectively have the power to remake them.

We should emphasize that the best way to promote democracy is to provide an example, not to impose it by force of arms, and remind politicians that the ends never justify the means. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in Peace is Every Step, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” 

We have seen that democracy is not guaranteed. Trump came close to destroying it, and is not done yet. We must not only repair it, but also work toward strengthening it. 

Amaury Cruz is a lawyer, writer and political activist from Miami Beach. He has a Bachelor’s in Political Science and a Juris Doctor.