Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: lessons in time of empire

More and more people see the United States as an empire in decline. It is over-stretching itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasing its trade debt astronomically, and unable to even pretend to take care of its own poor citizens after a hurricane. These conditions have created a teachable moment to help bring a new consciousness to the United States. There are two different approaches to how we do that. Imagine a man crossing a high, rickety bridge. A woman on the other side is helping him across. “Don’t look down!’ she yells. Immediately, as you can guess, he steals a glance down. Terror seizes him. Rather than continuing across the chasm, he freezes.

Now imagine that same situation. Instead of telling him what not to do, she says, “Keep your eyes on me.” He hears the words and follows them. He makes it safely across.

It is a basic lesson for trained emergency rescuers and national guard: focus people on the positive behavior. “Keep your eyes on me. . . .Keep breathing.” The same lesson we should use in the midst of political despair. Like the emergency rescuer, we should call forth the behaviors that will help us navigate across the chasm of despair into a culture of deep democracy and friendliness to the needy.

So if we are to follow that advice and “Keep your eyes on me,” where do we focus our attention? I want to suggest four areas for us to give our attention. These can help keep our minds and souls from being gripped by terror:

•    Keep our eyes on social movements outside of the US, especially the Global South: For decades the United States government has undermined people’s justice movements around the world. As its influence is reduced, more social movements will be able to win, especially in the global south. This is a great place to seek hopefulness.

•    Focus on community self-sustainability: When 9/11 happened, New York City people turned out to comfort each other. People’s natural response was to support each other; strangers helped each other find food and family. This showed itself in New Orleans where people supported each other, despite the government’s undermining of communities. Since the government and media will not acknowledge that community support, we have to name it and support its emergence.

•    Watch for new coalitions of resistance: Local community organizing is hard when the empire is becoming more paranoid. When the empire was economically stronger, the “pie” was getting larger, and it could more easily afford to make slight increases in the unfairly small piece of the pie it gave blacks, or poor people, or women. Now, fighting for a bigger slice will be harder. On the other hand, this will force us into new coalitions to increase people power. Service Employees International Union which works across international borders or the diverse groups protesting the war are just some examples.

•    Come to terms with being in an empire – it’s healthier for our psychology: For a long time many naive people inside the US thought of our country as the bastion of freedom and democracy. Even the more cynical people could not always come to terms with the scope of the US empire – or the way that living in the empire warps our own perspective. As this process unfolds, we’ll have more chances for people to step outside of imperialistic thinking. For example, US activists will have more opportunity to learn from our fellow activists (like at the World Social Forum). This is healthy for us.

As we collectively move across the rickety bridge, we can follow the words of the rescuers who model offering to people the positive behavior. In the words of the African-American spiritual, let us remember to “Keep your eyes on the prize.”

About Lee McLenon

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