It’s the Humans, *Stupid*

Remembering the late Fred Branfman's lifetime of revolutionary political activism.

"It's inconceivable to most people that the existing order of things is itself the source of most of society's problems." — John Michael Greer

Does personal mental health have anything to do with creating healthy social change?  The late Fred Branfman thought so and I do too.  

AlterNet readers might be familiar with Fred because much of the writing he did late in his life was published here.  In part it was because of those articles that my wife Mary Anne Barnett and I made a pilgrimage to Budapest, Hungary to attend a memorial conversation to honor his life.  I say conversation because that’s what it was,  as opposed to a traditional memorial “service.”

The last several years of Fred’s life were mostly spent in Budapest together with his wife Zsuzsa Beres and a wide circle of friends.  Though we were there only a few days,  it’s easy to see why Fred was attracted both to Zsuzsa and Budapest.  She is lively and challenging and so is the city.  

Budapest captures the twentieth century Big Three “isms” in a powerful and fascinating way.  Fascism,  communism and capitalism have all had their turn with it.  These days Budapest is also the scene of many efforts to find some kind of system that escapes the horrors of all three.  

Many people know of Fred because of the remarkable role he played in the anti-war movement.  I first met him in Laos in 1970 on my way to Hanoi as a member of an antiwar delegation.  Fred was already doing everything he could to alert the world to the brutal and then secret bombing campaign the US was waging in Laos.  It was Fred who listened to the stories of refugees making their way to Vientiane,  the Laotian capital,  to escape the bombs and agent orange raining down upon them.  His book, Voices From The Plain Of Jars—Life Under An Air War was first published in 1972 and republished in 2010.  

If informing the world of the most extensive bombing of civilians in the history of the world was all Fred had ever done it would have been plenty.  Indeed that was the main point made in obituaries that appeared in the New York Times,  The Economist,  Counterpunch,  The Washington Post and other media outlets around the world. Fred maintained a lifelong interest in Laos.  He relentlessly denounced the whitewashing of Henry Kissinger and others directly engaged in the war crimes committed against the Laotians—not to mention the Vietnamese and the Cambodians.

Fred was not, however,  just about Laos.  Among other things, in the course of his life he was also a pioneering advocate for solar power and other clean energy policies.  But he became disenchanted with the policy fights of liberal established parties and advocacy groups.  He spent many years pursuing personal transformation.  In a remarkable AlterNet essay on death he explained it this way:

In the summer of 1990, I was directing Rebuild America, a think tank whose advisors included Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and semiconductor inventor Robert Noyce, with Gov. Bill Clinton just having agreed to join as well. At 3am one night, I noticed a small fear of death arising, that I automatically pushed away, and said to myself "Let it come!" I was plunged into the most painful experience of my life, as I felt I was disintegrating, followed by the most ecstatic moments I have ever known. The next morning I quit a sterile full-time politics that was burning me out, and embarked on a spiritual and psychological journey. After a time, I gradually returned to the world of social and political action, enriched and refreshed by my spiritual and psychological explorations.

The reason this resonates with me is that a lifetime of political activism has brought me to a similar place.  Whether we call ourselves revolutionary,  radical,  progressive, liberal or whatever,  we are trapped in a certain,  pardon the expression, paradigm of social change.  Essentially it is a model of trying to amass sufficient political power to cause other people to change their behavior.  The idea is that bad people and/or bad policies and/or bad institutions are responsible for things we don’t like such as poverty, racism,  sexism,  or environmental danger.  We then define victory as getting “them” to behave differently.  

While this is the dominant approach to making social change,  it is not the only one.  In work-in-progress terms,  there is already  an alternative. A widely accepted term to describe it derives from Gandhi and others.  The word is satyagraha, sometimes translated as ”be the change.”  It is the idea that change starts with and emanates from oneself.  It is also compatible with the approach of making the better world as we go.  Every minute we spend trying to “fix” capitalism is a minute we are not spending building a different kind of economy and a different kind of culture altogether.  Be the change also informs the distinction between “protest” organizing and “visionary” organizing.  

To be sure, some sort of personal transformation is involved in becoming any kind of political activist.  That’s because a major focus on political or social activism  is not the default position of most humans.  Rather,  the struggle to survive,  get-by,  or prosper, regardless of the socio/economic system in which you find yourself,  is challenge enough.  Hence to engage in trying to effect social change requires,  at the very least,  a realignment of how we manage our time.  Instead of just consuming entertainment,  medicating with various drugs,  playing a sport,  being a workaholic or whatever, activists read and write about politics and economics,  go to meetings attend demonstrations and so on.

Those who turn to violence as a means of affecting or preventing social change take it to another level.  It’s relevant to point out here that what is now called PTSD affects both the “winning and the “losing” survivors in any violent conflict.  (This is true even if one side of the conflict is non-violent.  India’s Gandhi-led struggle for independence and the US civil rights movement are examples.) In every case,  the resulting trauma then becomes a part of the recurring social sickness of society.  War invariably begets more war.  Violence begets more violence.  Abused children become abusive parents.  

In Budapest the after effects of the Holocaust and of Soviet rule are especially palpable. There are many reminders in the form of museums,  plaques,  markers and other indicators of what happened.  The haunting House of Terror (yes,  that’s it’s official name) tells the story of what went on in a building that was used first by the fascists then by the communist secret police for detention,  interrogation and torture of “enemies” of the state.  

Up to now,  in the United States,  we mostly refuse to acknowledge in any meaningful way,  past or current,  the brutality of our system toward Indigenous nations and people or the violence of slavery,  Jim Crow or the James Crow of today.  This makes it even more difficult to understand how our personal trauma shapes not only our individual lives but the life of the body politic as well and vice-versa.  

By way of illustrating this point,  in my city of Detroit,  there is a statue commemorating those who participated in the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to Canada.  Nothing however identifies any location where slaves were bought,  sold,  or kept in Detroit itself,  even though for quite some time slavery was common in Detroit as it was in virtually every Northern city that dates back to that era.  Ben Affleck makes news for getting caught at successfully revising his own ancestral slave-owning family history.  Denial rules.  

Is the post Charleston massacre shift on displaying the Confederate flag a sign this willful ignorance might be changing?  Hopefully. Yes.  

Even so,  consider this irony:  it may be easier for whites  to acknowledge some kind of personal damage from the advantages derived from white supremacy,  patriarchy or a socially acceptable sexual identity than it is to understand the traumatizing impact of the norms that are the core “values” of capitalism itself.  I include in that list of the worship of individualism,  competition,  commodities (aka: wanting to have a lot of stuff),  violence, war and guns.  Even those whose lives are successful by these accepted standards—and there are many such people—are damaged in ways that are often hard to grasp because “the fish doesn’t know it is wet,”  as the saying goes.   

The reality is that humans,  animals, plants and life itself—all are damaged and traumatized by the “norms” of capitalism.  Yet, for now at least,  most accept the system.  Many even volunteer themselves or others to defend it violently from opposition,  real or imagined.  Capitalist values are aggressively taught as not just dominant but the most desirable.   They are frequently portrayed as divinely ordained and always as immutable.  The industrial media pundit complex hammers us daily with shallow rationalizations like, “of course, the system isn’t perfect,   but it’s the best we can do.”

Consequently,  people embrace capitalism as the given order of things in the same way they adopt heterosexuality—if they are heterosexual.  In both cases there is no real thought or conscious choice whatsoever.  There can’t be because no alternatives are seen as being “on offer.”  Shibboleths such as capitalism is the only means to freedom and “marriage is between a man and a women” go largely unquestioned for decades or longer.  Until they aren’t.  

During the Fred Branfman memorial conversation Zsuzsa showed us a video.  It was of Fred interviewing psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone.  The topic of the clip was Firestone’s take on the radical views on psychiatry of R.D. Laing.

For those unfamiliar with his work, at the risk of great oversimplification, Laing argued that people deemed by society to be mentally ill were simply more perceptive and more attuned to the cruelties and absurdities of the systems humans have created to achieve what we sometimes call “law and order,” or “civilization.”

As revealed in Fred’s interview with him,  Dr. Firestone,  a long time friend and associate of Laing,  agrees.  The systems we have created so far are crazy and so they make us crazy too in varying degrees at varying times, he says in the interview.  In the face of the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia,  the crimes of Stalin,  500 years of brutally enforced global white supremacy,  the Crusades,  ISIS (best understood in my view as the Ku Klux Klan of the Middle East) and many other examples,  how can anyone seriously argue otherwise?  

Does this mean our species is doomed?  Perhaps.  We may well have already crossed the line into inevitable ecocatastrophe.  If not,  however,  it might just mean that we are on the brink of breakthroughs in which our evolving combined knowledge of economics, politics,  psychology and neuroscience can get us to a better place.  The remarkable shift in attitudes,  policies and practices with regard to sexual orientation is evidence that change is possible.  It is also a good example of the interplay between changing oneself and changing society.  

When courageous gay people defiantly started to be “out” and open about their sexual orientation they were making the change by being the change.  When we try to examine our racism or greed and change our behavior as a result,  we are doing the same thing.  

Is the effort to combine personal and a political transformation something that is only available to relatively affluent white guys?  Not at all.  To borrow one of many great concepts from Grace Lee Boggs this is a time when any of us can and should “grow our souls.”  Every day in Detroit and around the world the poor and the not so poor are engaged in this dual work of personal and political transformation.  

At the very least,  those who would claim to make a better system would do well to understand,  acknowledge and ameliorate the damage we each personally carry from the present one.   The better we do at that,  the more likely it becomes that any “new” world we create won’t be worse than the one we have now.  

So big thanks to Fred,  Zsuzsa and all those who are expanding our understanding of what real change is about.  It starts with changing ourselves.

*I use the word stupid and the strikeout feature for a reason.  All of the systems of politics,  government,  religion and economics created by humans so far have been deeply flawed.  Among the flaws are that all of them require that some humans denigrate some other humans with terms like “stupid.”   

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace—Lessons From The Vietnam Antiwar Movement

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