As the days shorten with the coming of the holiday season many of us find ourselves more reflective and philosophical about our place in society and the possibility of personal salvation. It is a great time of year, but also a hard one for others as its themes of family and giving bring into focus conflicts with the way we, as a nation, treat some of our own citizens and the sense among so many fellow Canadians that they are powerless to influence even their own lives, let alone the fates of others.
Despite the obvious central message of self-sacrifice that lies at the heart of the story of Jesus, his name is used so often to purvey a message that holds this same selflessness in contempt.
In response to the progress of the '50s, '60s and '70s, the right in North America countered with a clever commingling of "individualism" and its antithesis, social conservatism. A toxic yet highly successful dialectical brew which rewards all forms of self-justification and self-indulgence by disguising them in a cloak of "personal freedom" policed by "family values".
For over 25 years worldwide we have witnessed the massive assault by the right on the post-war social compromise. We have seen the dismantling of social programmes and social safety nets with the active participation of centrist and social democratic parties. We have seen the destruction of the political idea of community and the notion that corporations and the wealthy actually owe something to those that they employ and that they sell products to. We have seen the rush to the bottom where jobs are outsourced and political parties of all stripes participate in the game of cutting services, budgets and taxes. We have watched as the corporations of the West turned from production to speculation, and as the disparity in income increased in lockstep with the cutting of the "tax burden" and the reckless and foolhardy deregulation of the economy and undermining of union rights. When the so-called left has had a chance to undo this... they have more often been partially or fully complicit in its execution. We live in a time where the economic platform of the Trudeau Liberals in the '70s would appear almost unimaginably radical now. And, it was not even radical then.
Meanwhile we are confronted by the problems of climate change, a growing and very real undereducated, volatile and angry permanent underclass, the supposed decline of a middle-class that is now at war with itself and that is often one pay cheque away from destitution and that lives under the stress of terrifying debt, and the death of the traditional working-class in the first world. The stations of social stratification are becoming daily more extreme and more disparate and are aided by the media's gleeful vilification of public sector and union workers.
Buoyed by the seemingly endless prosperity of deregulation and the free market, enabled by the usual pillars of apathy, indifference, and middle-class ignorance, this "vision" of the world has predominated for a quarter century of neo-liberal hegemony.
In the background were its underpinnings. The self-help crazes. The Anthony Robbins. The Dr. Phils. The TV preachers and the millions who sought personal healing and satisfaction in materialism, tokenism and, sometimes, evangelism.
We were told we could build a better life for ourselves and others if we ate well, took vitamins, made donations to acceptable causes, felt bad about suffering while realizing that we could not really do much about it.
Adopt a starving child. The song remains the same.
Above all, accept that things are as they are and that while God wants you to do what you can to love your neighbours he never meant the poor, gays and lesbians, the peoples of the third world or even your friend down the street losing their home.
In fact, it is always tough "love". This rightist brand of theological politics, accepted and embraced by large segments of the non-religious, claims that all suffering is self-inflicted. The poor are lazy. Minorities fail not due to oppression but their own inadequacies. Behind every welfare case is a fraud and a limousine. Unions are expressions of privilege and of elitism.
A world of people accepting no responsibility for their own lack of action.
Where has this led us?
To hundreds of thousands of broken lives, to mass poverty through much of the world, to the soulless pursuit of self advancement, no matter the cost.
We have seen the Gilded Age of massive "economic growth" built on the backs of nominal improved general material prosperity but with huge inequality, social instability, a lack of a proper social safety net, a lack of safeguards over banks and corporations, a reckless speculative economy, and an increasing social incohesion before. And it did not end well.
Hopelessness creates a sense of impending apocalypse in the minds of many and desperation breeds anger and hate. Solutions are often found in violent and totalizing ideological fictions. It is as if we are drawn, as moths to flame, to the social apocalypse itself.
We can, however, give ourselves and others a seasonal gift of real magnitude. We can save lives and make the day-to-day of so many much better. We can seek to find a measure of genuine salvation and an end to inner emptiness.
In the final analysis, we exist only as a reflection of our ability to effect the lives of others, for better or worse, and in our yearning, regardless of class, race, ideology or any other indicator, to be remembered, somehow, even if ephemerally or incidentally, as an agent of something of some significance.
This may be our children, our charitable work, our writings or our art.
It may even, in rare cases, be through what we produce, though most of us get lost in the workings of the wider capitalist machine.
But it will always come out in our actions as members of a broader tapestry, a true coalition, a general sorority and fraternity of people standing together, united yet not identical, and pushing, striving, aching for a better future through the ending of injustices, large and small. It will always surface in the backs of committee rooms, on picket lines, in church hall basements and in the countless courageous and largely forgotten moments of personal sacrifice by so many in so many disparate lands.
From those who will no longer sit on the back of the bus to those who will no longer deny their love. From those who stand down tanks with nothing other than their righteous anger to those who rise up in the face of unacceptable oppression. From those who have all too often died in the realization that they did it out of a love for humanity that stirs us all, to those who live to create a real thousand points of light, the thousand points of light that connect us to each other.
Malcolm X or Joe Hill. Rosa Parks or Oscar Schindler. Bishop Romero or The Bandit Queen. Rosa Luxembourg or Harvey Milk.
Jesus Christ, son of God or not, alone on Golgotha and the crucifix.
Chief Teresa Spence.
They all stand as a tribute to the triumph of the human.
And we all can too.
There is, in fact a road to the real spirit of this season. It is the road of re-engagement in politics. It is the road of expanding one's bubble beyond bank account, job, business or balance sheet. It is the road that turns, at long last, away from the embrace of the individual and toward the pursuit of common goals.
The politics and politicians of today tell you that there are only a very few possible outcomes and that "realism" dictates that essentially all points on the spectrum will bring the same basic result.
But this anti-democratic notion of an inevitable future is not true. And it can be stopped. We can stand up for union rights, worker's rights, social ownership of the means of production, public banks, "economic growth" that include everyone, tax increases to pay for programmes, social inclusion and many of these other ideas...and the proof that we can do so lies in the fact that we have, here and elsewhere, done so in our past.
It is never too late to write the future. And it is never too late to turn the tide.
But if we do not, we need to heed James Baldwin's warning:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!
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