Two weeks ago, I made a foray into writing about my political activist history, by way of starting to consider how to present this aspect of my life in a spiritual memoir.
I received a couple of comments off-site to the effect that I was brave for connecting my activist impulses to having been a survivor of child abuse.
Two readers who knew me thirty years ago took issue with my saying that my project to stop the Christian Right had failed. Both thought I was being ahistorical because politics isn’t a 100% win-or-lose game, and because history doesn’t move forward in a straight, linear line. Very true, and I am taking those comments to heart. Overall, I stand by my conclusion that the project to stop the Right was a failure. Fortunately, I’m no longer in the business of political debate.
What does still interest me is how and why I made politics my central, even exclusive, priority for a big chunk of my life, in ways that were harmful to myself.
I’ve been circling around this issue in some recent posts about coming to terms with being an introvert, about forgiveness, and about, when reviewing the past, asking not so much “what the heck was I thinking?” but, rather, “what was I learning?”
I came into this particular life as a soul with an archetypal background in religion, higher learning and as a “warrior” or fighter of sorts. These are parts of my personality and issues that needed to be resolved over time.
When I first started my project on the Christian Right, in 1983, I was 25, and I had detoured off of a spiritual path. People asked me if I was angry at the Christian Right. It was never personal in the sense that I didn’t think the problem was individual bad actors. I was, in fact, angry about the political-economic system that fostered and relied on right-wing movements. The Christian Right was up to its eyeballs in the US wars in Central America and elsewhere.
The energy of anger is often useful when it fuels a willingness to make sacrifices and take risks in a cause for justice, not for one’s personal aggrandizement. I don’t think I’ll ever stop valuing the rare and skillful use of anger.
What happened to me, though, over time, is that much of my anger just went away.
This, then, became a problem for me in continuing to work within and with and for the secular Left. I just wasn’t angry enough!
Also, about a decade into my work on the Right, I’d had my fill with some of the distortions among the Left. One was the idea that everything would be fine if only the Democrats had control. That was clearly a perverse view given all the damage done by the Clintons in the 1990s. Another distortion was that many on the Left disparage religion. I had to constantly explain that the problem wasn’t “Christians.” The problem was, and is, greed, hatred, and violence.
In the fall of 1995, my second and major book was published. I had spent ten years on the research that was my PhD dissertation which I then edited into Roads to Dominion. To launch this book, I did a reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley. The event had been announced on KPFA radio, and the store was packed. I recognized probably half the faces in the store. The front row was reserved for a few friends.
My views about the Right were by then well-known. I had been writing for years about the symbiotic relationship between the State, i.e. government agencies and actors, and the trajectories of various right-wing forces, who are pro-government and anti-government in some predictable ways. The book pulled together my theory of right-wing movements, and it was a 50-year history.
As I opened up the bookstore talk to questions and answers, there were a few unmemorable comments. Then a woman way in the back of the store yelled out: “Aren’t these people just mentally ill?”
I answered that, no, this had been well studied by social psychologists, and they had found that mental illness cuts across all status groups including political ideology. “There are just as many mentally ill people on the Left as on the Right,” I said.
That went over like a lead balloon.
The woman in the back asked the question again, this time with an aggressive energy that I could feel blasting its way toward the front of the store. No, I repeated, this is not about psychology. It’s about the politics of the Right.
I could hear rumbling at the back of the store as a number of people talked angrily about how people on the right are just plain crazy and why wouldn’t Sara just admit that.
From the side of the room, a man stood up and bellowed: “WHO IS THE ENEMY?” I recognized this person, with his contorted face, as he had been a fixture at left-wing demonstrations.
“Who is the enemy?” I stood there without a good answer. From the sidelines, my then partner whispered, “The enemy is ignorance.” That would have been a good answer, but I didn’t hear him.
I stood there for a moment, looking out at this Berkeley crowd that was turning its rage now at me, and finally, I said: “There is no enemy.”
“There is no enemy.” My friends in the front row smiled because what I had said was simple and true.
The energy from the back of the room grew more hostile. I could hear people mumbling and see them fidgeting in their seats. I ended the talk soon after that, and a number of people came up to me with very aggressive energy, demanding to know why I wouldn’t just say that right-wingers are all bat-shit crazy. The guy from the side of the room came to the front, and it must have looked like he might physically touch me, as my partner jumped up to stand in my personal space.
Twenty years ago, this happened, and I knew right then and there that I had little, if anything more, to say to this kind of an audience. I was shocked but not surprised.
What I really wanted to do was to wrap up my research about the Right and do something else. It would take me several more years to do that. The partner wanted me to continue what he viewed as “our” project indefinitely. He held the purse strings and I was under his implicit and explicit threats to do what he wanted.
I eventually did extricate myself both from that relationship and from further contact with psychologically unwell people on the Left.
There was just no place for me among people bent on hatred and fear of their enemies, real and imagined.
I had written Roads to Dominion — and the same was true with two books after that — with the view that I was writing not for a present-tense audience so much as for readers in the future, so that they would have some good documentation of how right-wing movements had arisen and flourished in the late 20th century. In that respect, my project was not a failure, but a success.
For me what was a success was finding my way out of a long affinity with people who, I concluded, shared my political views but not the truer, more enduring values of the heart.
This came home to me a few years after I had stopped the work on the Right. One day, in 2003, I was standing in my kitchen when I heard a radio news report that TV evangelist Pat Robertson was being treated for prostate cancer.
Robertson is someone I had spent years researching and exposing, as he had been a big fundraiser and promoter of some very sick and violent forces all over the world. He is someone who would have, in a previous time and place, wanted someone like me burned at the stake.
And yet. Hearing that news report, my first thought was this: I hope he’s OK.