A Soft Tyranny in Mind

A friend called from Boston. She recently completed a round of cancer treatment, successfully. She no longer goes to the hospital for a daily dose of radiation. It’s over. While it was going on she had a routine, and she stuck to it. She deliberately didn’t think much about it. She just did it.

Now she’s thinking about it. How the person she was before is not the person she is after. Some things can’t be lived without also being thought, without some restructuring of a sense of self. Some shift in the division of unthinkable and possible. Some recognition that events out there are more easily dismissed than what remains in here. The unseen is not necessarily unfelt.

We gnawed on politics for awhile. I stepped on and off my soapbox, and when she tried to change the subject and I just couldn’t let it go, she asked a real question: so why do you care? It’s a good, multilayered question, especially as I look around at friends who still seem to be living in a sense of normalcy, able to try on political statements then lay them aside and get on with business as usual. Be honest — does this opinion make me look divisive?

Many of us care for many reasons, but the one at my core: Whenever I hear the Trumpian mantra sit down and shut up” my nerves shudder. The logic is that none of us one needs to speak anymore. The leader, supposedly, now embodies the will of us all. Everyone’s voices folded into one voice. Total. Authoritative. As if all this plurality that makes the U.S. vibrant and innovative can be represented by a single (hu)man. As if the citizen’s job is to watch, adore and applaud. As if enthusiastic white supremacists in the White House are a sign to wait and see.

And here’s the dirty secret: My state of alert is borne out of a lurking fear that I would be all too happy to sit down and shut up. That being let off the hook would be a relief from all this unnerving activity. The uptick in violent intimidation unleashed by the current administration is an easy excuse to sink back into unquestioning loyalty for today’s authority. This is in my well-meant upbringing. This is no longer about external circumstance. I am poking at a structure of mind.

~   ~   ~

A few weeks ago a drone followed me through a parking lot. I guessed it was armed with a camera but not, like the drones we deploy elsewhere in the world, with weapons. I was annoyed, not scared, but being followed even briefly by that whining thing set me thinking — what if it was weaponized? And in that imagined moment of threat, my brain lit up the way it does for a shock-jock news story, like the ones on Fox News that portray all protest as violent agitation. What if I am at risk? Better safe than sorry.

I thought about this on February 18 when I walked with thousands of people through the streets of downtown LA in a peaceful demonstration for immigrants’ rights. No arrests were made. The march was permitted, the police friendly and cooperative. This was not civil disobedience. We were simply exercising our constitutional right. And then a drone approached, hovering over an intersection as the crowd moved through. It dropped lower and lower, then moved slowly toward us, passing overhead, trailing the crowd. Who was watching? Was this citizen journalism, like Digital Smoke Signals documenting Standing Rock? Or was this the FBI capturing faces for a facial recognition program? Have I been indexed? Am I at risk? Maybe I should have stayed home…

Even when we are physically safe, threat can operate in the mind, where it works hard on the imagination. And it’s the imagination that most powerfully prepares us to turn against each other. It grinds ruts in us that activate like trauma, freezing our ability to think. The more frightened I am, the less able I am to respond. The more overwhelmed I feel for my own safety, the less I care about yours.

Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Muslims — all are marked as enemies in Trumpworld, making my white skin a sack of unearned privilege. What do I do with this legacy of immigrant forebears who worked hard and had some luck? What do I do with their hand-me-down patriotism, a mental military operation aimed at guarding the taboos that conserve a perfect, lost past (the loss itself the real perfection)? What do I do with this mind structured for loyalty to this imagined America? What do I do with this mind trained to distrust people who wield power in distant places we see on TV?

I learned to be quiet, clutched by unruly thoughts that keep me busy disciplining myself. Every word, every impulse is checked and triple-checked in a tyranny of self-doubt. The operation is always framed by a vague notion of what it means to be correct—to be in the right. I drop tiny thoughts that feel to me like teaspoons of explosive.

This is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind.

Craving authority is not incompatible with imagining myself creative. I stand perpetually on the threshold—neither in nor out. Poised. This was and is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind. It carefully curates what degree of thought is possible without upsetting the way things are. It sustains the belief that I’m a good person (which sometimes means being good at being bad). Above all, obedience. Above all, the discipline of being nice (this, especially, for the girls). Family first. Fairness, yes. Justice if it’s convenient (but don’t count on it). Keep yourself to yourself. Seek to do no harm, but don’t worry if you do no good.

~ ~ ~

What keeps this in place is the hovering threat of loss, humid with nostalgia. Loss of love. Loss of position. Loss of support. Loss of privilege. Loss of the self I imagine myself to be. So many ways to lose, and they are all at risk where loyalty-without-question structures mind and binds thought. And while I tell myself I can’t, it continues to call—it’s got my number—the ringing in my head, the false front nodding, the chalk outline of empathy, the palpable ghost of my banished self. A grave curiosity pulls me away from my rootstock. (Something I called “trust” turns out to be blind loyalty. Something I called “love” turns out to be brittle dependence.)

Strangely, when I am able to tolerate the threat of loss, I feel lighter but never for long. Next comes the exhaustion and longing for a boa-tight embrace, a single answer, a total voice to replace my stutters, hesitations and half-formed words.

I suspect the silent majority has its fair share of people staring enthusiastically into the future, ready to take up whatever task is offered. Not because they believe in it but because, well, why not? It’s easy to choose what’s given and cash the check. When the order comes, why not seize the land? Arrest the mother? Handcuff the child in airport detention or on the playground? Interrogate a citizen because of his religion? Grab the girl ones? Rough up the brown ones? Shoot the black ones? Why not craft the press release, prepare the paychecks, run the numbers, bind the copies, proofread the report? From the violence that lays its hand on the citizen, immigrant and refugee, a web of small and large actions stretches back into and through the bureaucracy. At some point, I know it reaches me. Even at a distance, I know the metallic taste that comes right before—

In this accelerating stream of events, I struggle to live it and think it at the same time—imperfectly, overwhelmingly. I wake up each morning with complicity on my mind, with the first act of resistance being simply to open my eyes and not look away. There are no lines in the sand, just broad beaches that recede and continue under the surf. Any number of futures are possible, but a soft tyranny in mind, one that suffocates service and care under calls to authority and discipline, can only build rough castles. Cruelty is calling itself patriotism, and we’re all invited to join that party.

I hear the call. I feel its pull. Today, I choose not to go.

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