The appeal of the Messiah: a solution to humanity’s collective action problem. The Messiah redeems our world history of sin so we don’t have to. There are many of us who are not ignorant of injustice but choose to ignore it most of the time so that we may go on with our lives. If we didn’t, we would have to devote ourselves completely to fighting for justice rather than just voting for the right electoral candidate periodically, and even then we would likely see only marginal improvements because each of us is only one person and the injustice of the world is epic in scale. Fortunately for our sanity, and unfortunately for the victims of injustice, we can place all our concern and righteousness in a Messiah figure, such as a religious redeemer or a political candidate. The redemptive hero need not even be a person; it can be technologism or any expectation of progress serving to excuse ourselves from the responsibility for working together now to bring about justice. But the best Messiah figure is one who suffers personally, because we know deep down that a price must be paid for our sins – and we want above all not to be the ones who pay.
The allure of the Outsider is strong to we who feel there is something wrong with our country, which is nearly all of us. The promise to cut through the red tape of bureaucracy, to resist the influence of lobbyists, to defy political correctness, to say it like it is, and to act decisively according to what is necessary rather than what is conventional — it seems so simple what must be done and how to do it; all it would take is will power and courage.
But we do not live in a simple country. Our world has a past. It is complicated by history, overdetermined by a complex of factors and forces imbuing every place, every person, every problem with the inner conflicts of all existence leading up to this moment and propelling us into the future. Only on a solid basis of ignorance does the allure of a clean slate, of starting anew, of redemption by an Outsider seem possible. The task is considered too bold and challenging for a mere politician, requiring the vision and daring of a new hero — but that perspective is the illusion of revolution, the impossibility of utopia. To quit and start over from the beginning is the lazy way out and is rarely successful. We need to do the hard, deliberative work of reforming the system from within the system, which unrelentingly requires humility and education to understand the forces in play and how they interact in a historical dynamic, pragmatism and diligence to redirect those forces into a more harmonious equilibrium.
By understanding history, I mean unlearning history as we know it so that we might see the face behind the masks: history not as the story of great individuals overcoming the injustices of their times, but as the intensification of ongoing conflicts among the persistent forces of existence. Confronting the past unmasked, we might understand the world we have been given and even ourselves, for each of us has been born from the world, determined by its history, charged with the dynamism of those forces playing out the processes of domination and submission, conflict and resolution, discord and harmony. The past is not dead. It is your soul.
Problem: Both major candidates for the presidency are intensely unpopular. One is a demagogue fomenting white nationalism. The extreme magnitude of attention lavished upon the latter by the media and public figures only assures an ever widening audience for his message of hate. The other is an inclusive pragmatist who might make history as the first woman to be elected president of the United States or might lose to an unqualified bigot, but is best known for her husband’s sexual intercourses and her damn emails. Meanwhile, one of the most enlightened, redeeming, and skilled presidents of our history, Barack Obama, has been almost powerless to contain the global spread of resentment and violence incited by his predecessor, George W. Bush. In summary, the American presidency and the campaign for election to the office have become far more capable of destruction and distraction than creation and education. Solution: Ban the presidency — and redistribute its disproportionate share of attention to the Congressional, state, and local elections that in aggregage matter far more.
The answer to this last question is ignorance. We unconsciously accept the way of the world as it is given to us. We do not see how it has been distorted to favor the arbitrary victors of history. We do not even discuss the concept of power. It is time for a public discourse of power. It is time for a mapping of power in our everyday lives. It is time to become conscious.
Power is the ability to determine the way of the world, which requires first the ability to identify and understand the forces of power already determining the world. Next, a purpose is needed, a direction for change from the brutality of the past. Finally, crucially: we need the ability to alter, to redirect the forces already determining the world toward our new way.
This last step is most perilous. Revolution is rarely effective, more often reintroducing the same power dynamic in a new form, and only after a period of disruption and violence. The better way is to work from within, to evolve. This way demands epic patience and perspective, and still poses risk: e.g., the wave of ethnic nationalism spreading through the West in reaction to the slow but steady progress of multicultural egalitarianism in recent generations.
And there is no reason to expect an end will be reached, an ideal ever achieved. Let us remember, with Nietzsche, that “every past is worthy to be condemned,” and that includes the future we will bring, which will immediately become a past. Let us, then, make a way of the world that is supple, that is strong but flexible, that is designed to evolve, to condemn itself and improve recursively. This requires understanding specifically how historical power entrenches itself in the present, by what tactics it preserves the status quo, then to de-legitimate these tactics and loosen the constraints by which yesterday dominates today, and finally to embolden and reinforce our capacities for critique, collaboration, and creation, for those are the faculties for remaking the future.