The young woman walked into the voting booth, turned and closed the curtain. That gesture, instead of making her feel free, as it was intended, intensified her sense of unprotected isolation. She was physically sequestered, but all the influences were in there with her. She knew what was expected of her but had no intention of delivering it. As she reached for the pencil, she felt her hand shaking slightly, and was surprised - she thought it would be easier.
“I can retain neither respect nor affection for government
which has been moving from wrong to wrong
in order to defend its immorality.” Mahatma Gandhi (Letter to the Viceroy, Young India, August 4, 1920)
The Conscience of Rulers
I often wonder if it is possible for any ruling class to be decision makers of conscience - where conscience is the basic ingredient for governing. Not just sometimes, but all the time. Not just as idealistic newcomers, but as honed and seasoned politicians, as well. Does expediency always replace ethics in the end? Does the acceptance into the club begin a spontaneous metamorphosis impossible to countervail? Does the power that comes with that job and that status, corrupt? Is there a point of no return where the magnitude of power is so absolute, that the corruption has reached the foundation of character? The empirical evidence would suggest, yes. And that same evidence would suggest that those who do not succumb are absorbed, made impotent and alienated.
How in the world did we get here?
A past, a history - based on slavery and genocide, misogyny and colonialism, theft and brutality, hatred and white supremacy, unpurged and unhealed, alive and well in the DNA of the present, pulling the reigns, hidden and covert, to stay the same course into the future. Wheeling and dealing, throwing the unpowerful under that eternal bus, in all good conscience, for the agenda of the rich.
Wheeling and Dealing - Scenario 1
The early 1770’s. Two statesmen, standing with their hands meaningfully behind their backs, brows furrowed in deep thought, heads bowed with the weight of decision. A third stands near the door, resolute, obviously angry, ready to walk, if he has to. Either slavery stays or the South is out. He knows it. He has these two hypocritical slave owners in his pocket.
Wheeling and Dealing – Scenario 2
1812. The room is electrified with hot tempers, shouts, passionate arguments and searing opposition. It stinks of sweaty anger. Too soon for war. The people are tired of war. But the first war remains unfulfilled. Britain controls the seas. Britain interrupts our trade. Britain sides with the Indians and hinders our growth westward. The savages refuse assimilation. We must conquer and expand. It is our manifest destiny. We go to war.
Wheeling and Dealing – Scenario 3
Late 1870s. A courtroom filled with Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans, white lawyers, a white judge. A Chinese man sits accused. No papers. Where are they? At home. My client wishes to testify. Are you a Christian? No. Then the Bible oath is null and void. The word of a Chinese carries no weight. Is there a white man to speak in corroboration?
Wheeling and Dealing – Scenario 4
1914. A tent city. Coal miners and their families in unlivable living conditions. Armed for protection against owners’ gangs. A grand strike, union solidarity. Government and mine owners are complicit. Enter strike breakers, enter National Guard. A machine gun opens fire. A battle ensues, a fire set by the Guard. A massacre - defeat. Many dead. Children dead. Suppression. No gains, no justice.
So, what about those very flawed, yet revered heroes of our history? Through their example, is it possible to accept conscience as an absolute criterion for good? Or does it rather become apparent that conscience, despite all its celebration in the halls of ethics, has a great fallibility? If the mind is deeply scripted in preconceived notions, falsehoods and fears, the workings of conscience will be heavily contaminated, and the field becomes ripe for greed and obdurate ambition to take dominion. The delusive, fallacious and fear-based conclusions deemed as “right decisions” are exposed as self-serving pacts with one’s own demons. And in a wily network of manipulation, the collective moral conscience is entrapped.
“Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” Attributed to Chief Seattle (speech of 1854)
The Conscience of Warriors
It was the winter of 1990/91. An old friend (of my husband, and now mine) who had lived in West Berlin since finishing school was getting married. We were invited. So many impressions of what was and what is, and so very different from the Germany of the south that I was used to. I had lived and worked in Berlin before, but that was another time, another era. Now, the “wall” had been razed and the city was in the beginning stages of a metamorphosis – confused, clamorous, tumultuous, in a state of conspicuous rapture. But……not for everyone. Like a faded photograph found in a closed-up box in the attic, I am taken back to the image of Russians soldiers standing at long tables on street corners, selling their equipment, their medals, accessories to their uniforms, anything that would gratify the curious tourist as a souvenir of that most interesting time, anything that would hearten the happy and relieved Berliner that that time was now, once and for all, over…..anything that would bring a price to pay their way home. Looking into those soft, sweet faces, with hopeful eyes that someone would want some trinket from the life that had abandoned them, the conundrum of their situation was not lost on me. Not long before this, they would have stood at their posts. Not long before this, they would have been ordered to shoot anyone who committed a transgression against the established order. And not long before this, in all likelihood, they would have done it. But today…..they were sad, young men trying to get home.
Downtown Philadelphia, sometime in the mid 1980’s. Between teaching and rehearsing, I was walking to get food. The streets were blocked off, as if for a parade. Some few people were waiting. So, I waited. I had time. But no celebrational marching bands came, no well-practiced drummers playing complex, coordinated rhythms, no colorful floats and no costumed participants. A rank and file group of Vietnam veterans walked toward us. I watched them, mostly men then, walking almost in slow motion, friends pushing friends in wheelchairs, friends helping friends on crutches, with blind eyes and incomplete limbs, keeping up and enduring the march. My breathing became labored with the weight of their presence and my tears met their sorrow. Here they were, now years later, openly revealing their misshapen thoughts and memories, exposing their broken hearts and souls still in mourning, asking not to be forgotten, asking not to be left alone, asking for our kindness, no matter what they had done.
What is the conscience of the soldier - the one who volunteers out of passion for a cause, the one who takes the long-term job as protector of the body politic, the one who sees no other choice, who volunteers because good housing is available, commodities are affordable, and education is free, or the one who knows he or she needs to grow up, but doesn’t quite know how, so joins the army? And from all these differing inducements, do the principles of the individual converge into a single mindedness of purpose? Does one soldier become all soldiers in a collective conscience united in response to a named threat? Is that collective conscience a (mindless) tool ready to be manipulated by any authority? Is the soldier’s conscience appeased by believing that he or she is a part of a well-oiled machine designed to react quickly as a need arises? And is that enough?
To make war, or not to make war. And with whom, for what reason. To risk life, limb and sanity on an order. To visit irrevocable pain onto……..whomever. To adhere to an inconstant and fluctuating authority. Today a liberal, tomorrow a conservative. Either way, irrelevant. Follow the order, fulfill your duty, keep your eyes front and don’t question.
But you who are trained in obedience and military camaraderie, are you not creatures of thought and compassion, with skills of perception and analysis, because you are human? Are not integrity and wisdom your birthrights because you are human? Is not questioning embedded in your human psyche, questioning until there are no more questions? Are not truth and tranquility your inheritance to claim? You have seen the other side of the coin. What says your conscience?
“I did what my conscience told me I had to do,
and you can’t fail if you do that.” Anita Hill (CBS, 60 Minutes – February 2, 1992)
A single vote of conscience
The election will be soon upon us. And so, it begins – the name-calling and the taking of sides, the shaming and the blaming, the designating of friends and enemies, the establishing of territories, the labeling, the breaking off into factions and the litmus testing. In other words, the bumpy ride is underway, to where we, the electorate, must decide who makes decisions in our name.
We ask our conscience to help us choose but steeped in spoon-fed preconceived notions on the one hand and bound to our nationalistic mythology on the other, we deny our conscience an open field. We accept the demonization of 3rd, 4th, and 5th choices because we are ego-stroked into delegitimatizing all viewpoints but our own, barricading from our conscience thought and compassion, perception and analysis limited to the inner circle, integrity and wisdom bartered for self-importance and self-justification. We stand divided……but divided we cannot stand long.
“Selling out your conscience is like
putting a hole in your soul and watching it
fill up with shame.” Lib Briscoe- from personal experience
Let my conscience be my guide*
Oh, to be resolute of conscience, without question or doubt, to serve no one’s purpose but my own, without falter, in luxurious contentment. To stand amid the shaming, the blaming and the name-calling, unmoved, with steadfast conviction, remembering that suffrage was hard fought and hard won, and to not allow those victories to have been in vain - to trust that inner voice with calm assurance. But how? The divisions are real and the possibility of losing friends and alienating family is undeniable. Trusted relationships are in danger of becoming shaky and strained as disagreements elevate to the questioning of the compatibility of core values – a harrowing challenge to grapple with.
But if the right to vote is sacred, then my right to my vote is sacred. It belongs exclusively to me and my conscience and no one else can ever own it. No political party will ever own my vote. No standing politician and no candidate own my vote, even the ones of my choice. No commentators, no journalists, whether I agree or disagree with them, own my vote. Neither my family nor my friends, not those dear people I deeply love and sincerely respect and revere, own my vote. I own it and will use it as I and my conscience see fit. As I am aware, with that comes grave responsibility, as my conscience constantly reminds me. And I am unsettled and not without fear. But my conscience doesn’t desert me, but remains, sometimes most annoyingly, present.
She demands my courage and makes me work, tugging at my complacency and forcing me to pay attention. When we are connected, she seeks truth and knowledge through deep deliberation with me. She strives to help me see beyond the ego center and take in the multiplicity of the horizon, recognizing myself as only one star in an infinity of others. She joins me to the living spirit that annuls the acts and practices of malevolence and encourages me to embrace the universal love that all dreams of Utopia are based on. She is unwavering.
“There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience” French Proverb
Temptation wrapped its arms around the young woman’s shoulders, and she leaned into it, picturing the fellowship she was giving up, the party she would no longer be invited to. As her eyes focused on the form in front of her, her breathing became shallow. The pencil moved to her choice of conscience and she checked the box. It took a while before she turned and opened the curtain again. How would she tell them, or would she tell them at all? She decided, the first thing she would do, is take a walk.
*Jiminy Cricket, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio