My Own Journey
I’ve had three awakenings. I’ll tell you about all of them.
I. AGAINST AUTHORITARIANISM
My first awakening was from religion. I had been brought up to believe in a god; indeed, there was no alternative visible in the culture around me. And then, one day when I was about 10 years old, my older brother showed me a thin magazine from some atheist organization. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe there isn’t a god?” he asked. Startled, I had to answer no, it had never occurred to me; I had never thought about it.
Of course, back in those days, a magazine could only be produced by very serious people, because there were no personal computers. Thus, the mere existence of the magazine gave legitimacy to the question. But I hardly glanced at the magazine, because its contents didn’t matter. What mattered was the question itself.
I wrestled with the question for quite a while. There were all sorts of difficulties involved. For instance, if there actually were a god, he might punish me for not believing in him; he might even punish me just for thinking about the question. That’s what the mainstream culture seemed to suggest. And yet, wouldn’t that be a rather unfair god? Perhaps one not worthy of worship.
For weeks, I thought about the standard logical arguments — about the origin of the universe, the foundation of morality, the logical contradictions in omnipotence, comparison with the Tooth Fairy, the tendency of people to believe what they are told, and so on. I won’t recount the details here.
My parents were not a problem in this. They were mildly religious, but not authoritarian; they said I was free to have whatever beliefs I arrived at. Actually, my parents were Jewish, and that made the investigation easier. Growing up in a household whose religion is different from that of most of society, one can’t help but notice that religion is not what religious people say it is. For instance, there is no correlation between religion and morality.
And so I became an atheist. I felt strange, realizing that I was seeing the world very differently from all the people around me. And I felt greatly relieved, to have removed from me the burden of being constantly watched by a petty and vengeful superman. But that burden was replaced by a slightly smaller one: I was still frequently under the eye of a petty and vengeful society, and I was well aware that this society disapproved of atheism. Turn on the radio or television on any Sunday morning, and you’ll find people shouting about the evil of thinking and questioning, and not simply believing what you are told. I learned to remain inconspicuously silent during any prayers at public events, and for the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school. (Later I would learn to remain silent throughout that whole pledge.)
Gradually I became more confident about my different view of the world, and I felt less need to hide it. Around the age of 16, one of my friends took me to his Sunday School class for a sort of “show-and-tell” event. He introduced me: “Here is a real atheist. I’ll bet you’ve never seen one before.” The teacher asked me, “So you don’t believe in anything?” At the time, I thought she meant, “So you don’t believe in Jesus or Jehovah or Allah or Zeus or Odin or any of those kinds of things?” And so I said “no.”
But years later I realized that her question could have meant something else altogether. If I had been more self-aware. when she asked whether I believed in anything, I could have said “yes, I believe in peace and love and truth.”
II. AGAINST WAR
My second awakening was from around age 17 to 21. In the late 1960s, my friends in high school were smoking pot, and having no ill effects, and so I joined them. And I realized that if the government lied about pot, they could lie about other things. For instance, the Vietnam War.
I didn’t really understand the Vietnam War. But no one did. You could see that from the fact that our society was divided over that war, which means no one had a good clear explanation. But you shouldn’t kill people without a good clear explanation. That was how I felt, though I couldn’t have said it so clearly back then.
And the whole idea of wearing a uniform, and submitting to someone else’s authority, and no longer having a conscience of my own, just didn’t make much sense to me anyway. And at the time, Canada was a safe haven for draft resistors. And so if I had been drafted, I would have fled to Canada without a moment’s hesitation. It didn’t seem to me a particularly bad prospect, since Canada’s culture is not greatly different from our own.
I didn’t figure that out all by myself. I had the help of friends in high school. During our summer vacation, we spent many hot afternoons in someone’s cool basement, reading counterculture comic books and listening to peace songs. We listened to the soundtrack of “Hair” over and over. And Clear Light’s cover of the song “Mr. Blue” is a stunning indictment of authoritarianism, though in those days I didn’t know the word “authoritarianism.” The bumper sticker that said “Question Authority” was popular in those days, but I had no idea what it meant, though it described exactly what I was doing.
How I dodged the draft
I went away to college. At first I had a student deferment. Later, inspired by some LSD, I wrote a brief and honest letter to my draft board. It was something like “Dear Draft Board, I think President Nixon must have had a terrible childhood — why else would he be bombing all those Cambodians?” But I wrote it in crayon on what had been the inside of a children’s breakfast cereal box, because I thought the people on the draft board must lead terribly drab lives and deserved some color to cheer them up. They decided I was crazy, and classified me as 4F (unfit for service); they even phoned my parents to offer condolences. I had not planned, or even hoped for, this wonderful outcome; I simply had been trying to cheer up my draft board. I got off lucky — some more vindictive boards would have drafted my sorry ass right then and there for some perceived disrespect.
At college, I was learning all sorts of things, and not just in the classes. I was excited by unfamiliar things, like Marshall McLuhan’s writings and the Tao. I didn’t fully understand McLuhan or the Tao, but I’m not sure if anyone else did either. After all, the Tao begins with the words, “The Tao that can be written is not the true Tao.”
I became concerned with things that weren’t taught in my classes. The news was full of terrible things — poverty, anger, hatred, ideological disagreements, war, and so on. I couldn’t understand these problems in the complicated detail that was presented in the news, but it was obvious to me that all these problems could be resolved if people would simply cooperate with one another. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t cooperating. The Beatles were singing “all you need is love,” and I was sure they were right. And perhaps I didn’t have the details worked out, but that didn’t matter — if people would just cooperate, they would figure out the details together. That was what I felt, though I couldn’t say it so plainly back then.
I started writing leaflets advocating peace and love, and handing them out on the college campus and on public street corners — but they weren’t very effective. They were just gibberish, because I had never done much writing before; it was just the LSD talking. I would later understand that the message of peace and love has been ineffective for thousands of years. Churches have fought great wars against each other in the name of the Prince of Peace. The Inquisition tortured people in the name of God’s Love. Evidently the words “peace” and “love” are not enough; we need some deeper understanding of those words and of each other.
I was experimenting with psychedelic drugs. They loosened up my assumptions, things I had believed all my life without even being aware of it. I saw amazing things about myself, about human nature, about society. But I didn’t really understand what I saw. It would take me years to put it back into its box, and decades to get it sorted out.
In retrospect, I don’t know whether to recommend psychedelic drugs. Different people will experience different things. It’s a little like pressing a “reset” button and starting your mind over. If you do decide to “take a trip,” I recommend bringing along a wise and caring babysitter — but even then, you may be imprinted and limited by that person’s perceptions.
A single use or a few uses of psychedelic drugs, with proper guidance, can give you new insights about yourself and the world. But repeated use of psychedelic drugs, without guidance, and mixed with reading every philosophy and religion under the sun, at an impressionable age, can make some people crazy. If someone already has problems before they start taking drugs, the drugs may magnify them — e.g., shyness may turn into paranoia. I was shy, and I lacked social skills. I’m not talking about nonconformity or maladjustment — those can be good things — Krishnamurti was right when he said “it is no measure of health, to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” But I gradually became confused, lost, and frightened. I had tried to swallow too much of the universe at once, and it had given me indigestion. I couldn’t understand my own life, and I was not coping with it very well. My experience with insanity may have had this benefit: Having been several very different people, years later I found it easy to understand that different people have different views of the world.
My parents wrote to me that they would not support my wild adventuring — I must either keep up with my classes, or support myself with a job, or come home to live with them. I was in no condition for classes or a job, so I went home.
Have you read “The Last Temptation of Christ,” by Nikos Kazantzakis? In that novel, Jesus’s last temptation was to give up all the struggle for ideals, and simply lead an ordinary life. That is a temptation every political activist must wrestle with. Jesus overcame that temptation, but I succumbed to it. After much arguing with myself, and perhaps some arguing with God, I decided that I was not morally obligated to lead a life that I could not make any sense of, and that did not seem to be at all useful to anyone. It’s hard to believe in yourself when you have no role models.
Looking back on it now, I still don’t know whether I made the right decision. If I had continued with my one-man revolution, would I have died babbling in some gutter? Or would I have figured things out after another year or two, and produced great leaflets, and changed the world? I don’t know. The road less traveled was too hard for me, and so I chose the easier path, and I have forgiven myself for doing so. If it was a mistake, I didn’t know better at the time.
I gave up drugs, moved in with my parents, and transferred to a local college. I put aside politics, philosophy, exotic religions, and other subjective matters that were confusing me. I devoted myself to mathematics, a subject in which I was talented. Mathematics is entirely objective, and offers the certainty and stability that I wanted. Mathematics doesn’t change even if the mathematician goes crazy.
In effect, I went back to sleep. For 35 years, I led a middle-class life. House, spouse, two kids, a tenured professorship. Once every four years, I pulled the “D” lever, and never gave politics any thought further than that.
Perhaps the two textbooks that I wrote on advanced mathematics helped a little in preparing me for my later political work. The first book included much topology, a subject that involves reasoning with sentences, not just with formulas. Writing that book, I honed skills of reading, writing, thinking, and rewriting that would carry over, at least in part, to politics and philosophy. And the second book, though mostly consisting of formulas, compared different kinds of logics — classical, constructive, relevant, etc.; the research for that book made me more aware that different people think in different ways.
III. AGAINST THE WHOLE STATUS QUO
The middle class life was the easier path, but not the more satisfying one. Sure, it had its high points — I enjoyed crafting my two books. But my mathematical research was no more than the clever solving of intricate puzzles. And though I tried to inspire my students, really they were trapped in a crazy system, and I was little more than their jailer. As the years went by, I found less and less meaning in my career. I realized that the most important questions in our lives are not mathematical, and the most important ideas cannot be certainties.
In my early fifties, in rapid succession there were several major changes in my life. My parents died; my marriage ended in divorce; my children grew and flew; and I finished a book project. All these changes suddenly gave me a lot more time to think.
Self-awareness comes from surprising places. After my divorce, I turned to online dating sites such as Match Dot Com — but those required me to write a description of myself. Among other things, I wrote: “At some point in the future I want to get more involved in liberal causes.” And then I looked at what I had written, and it seemed awfully wimpy. Why in the future? Why not now?
And so began my political awakening. In 2006 I became active in a couple of local political organizations. We are social animals; it’s much easier to think about new ideas if you have like-minded friends. This time, I was not scared and confused, and I no longer faced Kazantzakis’s temptation.
Among the things that awakened me were George Bush’s lies — because the internet was reaching maturity, because at the time I was a Democrat, because Bush was less skilled at lying than previous presidents, and because his lies were enormous — not just the little lies about sex and money that we’d come to expect from politicians. Bush’s false reasons for attacking Iraq have cost a million lives. And his delaying the truth about global warming may contribute to the deaths of billions of people, or perhaps the extinction of our entire species.
Back then, with a Republican in the White House, it was easy for me to be persuaded that Republicans were the problem, and Democrats were the solution. That idea gradually went away — partly through discussions with my friends in the Green Party, partly through looking at what Obama did as president, and finally through reading David Swanson’s book “War is a Lie,” which makes it clear that all the wars have been based on bipartisan lies.
Timing is crucial. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” the old saying goes — but I think it would be more accurate to say that “when the student is ready, he will notice the teacher who was there all along.”
I think that in the development of many activists, one book is pivotal. After reading that book, suddenly everything starts to make more sense. The activist might even make a nuisance of himself, telling all his friends “read this book, it will open your eyes,” not recognizing that different activists are awakened by different books. It could be something written by Marx, or something written by one of Marx’s followers, or it could be something more modern, like “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, or Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Nowadays it might not even be a book — it might be the film “The Corporation,” or one of the Zeitgeist films, or some event such as the attacks of 9/11/01.
For me, the pivotal writer was the linguist George Lakoff. Politically, Lakoff was merely a Democrat, and I believe he still is, and by now I’ve moved far to the left of that position. But Lakoff had insights into psychology and philosophy that made sense to me and still do. All my life, I had been confused by politics: How could so many people, who sound logical when heard separately, be saying things that are so much in disagreement with each other? And why is there so much correlation between people’s views on seemingly unrelated issues — e.g., why do Republicans agree with each other on many seemingly unrelated matters? Lakoff gave an answer in how we perceive reality, on a level deeper than we usually know how to articulate.
Lakoff’s book “Moral Politics” presents what he calls the “conservative worldview” and the “liberal worldview,” in great depth, side by side for contrast. Each is internally, logically consistent — each view makes sense, in its own fashion — and yet the two views are so completely different in every way that people at the two ends of the spectrum would have to see each other as stupid, crazy, and evil. Here is one simple example: If you believe that the market rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy, that the world is already fair because God has made it so, then it makes sense to always blame the victim, and to never interfere with the market. An opposite view is that it is our duty to change the world, to make it fair. Lakoff talked about the values of not just liberals, but also “progressives,” and at one point he said the core value of progressives is empathy. That’s a lot like the solidarity that socialists talk about.
I wanted to be part of a movement. I wished there were a movement. I imagined a movement, the “worldwide progressive movement.” And then I saw Paul Hawken’s 6-minute video, “Blessed Unrest,” which makes it quite clear that there is a worldwide movement, one which I would describe as “progressive,” though Hawken didn’t use that term. It’s a movement that you can’t see unless you know where to look for it, because it doesn’t have a single organization. It’s really many organizations, hundreds of thousands of little organizations, many of them communicating with one another, all devoted to similar causes.
I was also affected by the writings of Paul Waldman, another Democrat. He defined a “progressive” as someone who believes that “we’re all in this together.” That fit in well with my vague understanding of Buddhism: “we are one.” I liked Waldman’s definition a lot, and I went around repeating it to all my friends and telling them how wonderful it was to be a progressive. Some people started referring to me as “the all in this together guy.”
One member of our local peace organization was a libertarian. When he heard the Waldman definition, he said, “but isn’t that socialism?” as though that were a bad thing. And I thought about it for a moment, and said, “why, yes, I suppose it is socialism,” and realized that it wasn’t a bad thing at all. That was the first moment when I began to question capitalism seriously.
It took years for my ideas about economics to develop. Like my earlier introduction to atheism, it wasn’t the reading that mattered, so much as just asking the question that had never occurred to me before, and then thinking about it. I began seeing the world with a new perspective.
The most obvious crime of our economic system is war. Our culture paints wars as morality plays, but it turns out that they’re all lies; we’ve been misled about which forces are “the good guys,” and which are “the bad guys.” We pawns have been used as cannon fodder by a few callous and greedy kings of the military-industrial complex. President Eisenhower even gave a speech about it, but that was not consistent with our culture’s dominant belief system, and so it was quickly forgotten; there is no government-appointed commission studying how to end the military-industrial complex.
War is the most obvious crime, but perhaps not the biggest. The “normal” arrangement of our everyday lives is also a crime, much bigger, but one which we rarely notice or question. We are like slaves who do not know they are slaves, who do not know there is anything unnatural about their way of life, who do not know that a different and better way of life is possible for them. Our society is based not on caring and cooperation, but on competition, domination, subordination, subjugation, control. That’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that we’re not aware of it, as a fish is not aware of being in water. It’s the background assumption not only in our news stories, but even in our entertainment stories. Never is a hint given that any alternative way of life is possible.
We often call it “capitalism,” but that’s just the current manifestation. The fundamental problem is much older. It began 10,000 years ago, with the invention of the word “mine.” But for 200,000 years before that we shared everything of importance, and that’s still our nature, and that’s what we all still yearn for, whether we realize it or not.
It took years for me to grasp the enormity of all this. The whole world is upside down and backwards. Nothing is as it seems, or as it should be. But the truth is not hidden. It’s in the open, in plain view, but only if you know how to focus on it. As Proust said, the real voyage of discovery is not in encountering new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
A great metaphor for our era is the 1999 science fiction film “The Matrix.” In that story, most of the people on the planet are asleep, plugged into a big computer that manufactures a shared dream for them, a dream drastically different from reality. The story revolves around a handful of rebels who are awake. Midway through the story, we see the awakening of the main character, “Neo,” and the process is shocking for him and for us. But of course, the film is only a metaphor. In the film, waking changes what things look like. In our real lives, waking changes what things mean.
My awakening isn’t done: I don’t have all the answers yet. No one does. That’s proved by the fact that we don’t have world peace yet. Sometimes I hear someone saying “if only everyone would listen to me, we’d have world peace.” But to get others to listen to you, first you’ll have to understand those others pretty well. None of us has reached that level of enlightenment yet. We’ll need to figure all of this out together. Join the conversation.
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Latest revisions 4 March 2016. (Original version 2014 Oct 19.) This is a draft of an essay that may eventually appear in a book after a while — several of us activists have been asked to tell about our awakenings. Watch this space for further details. … Here are some links to section headings, for external reference: II. AGAINST WAR and III. AGAINST THE WHOLE STATUS QUO. Also direct link to how I dodged the draft.