Monday, October 29, 2007

On Complicity

I've been dabbling this week in Thomas Merton's Raids On the Unspeakable, a brief collection of essays in which Merton the contemplative Trappist meets Merton the worldly activist to speak to our contemporary condition. I say dabbling because one does not simply breeze through a collection of Merton essays. One reads and rereads, and having gained new capacity to understand, reads again. One takes numerous trips to the well and the water always refreshes.

One essay, in particular feels extraordinarily apt this week. This is his Letter to an Innocent Bystander, in which Merton contests the notion of innocence in our time, asks what it means, exactly, to stand by, and calls for an open-ended resistance to the powers that dehumanize and objectify while presenting themselves not only as that which must be, but also as that which "we have been waiting for."

Within this, he deals with themes of guilt, complicity, and cooptation. He calls us to a true kind of innocence; that of the child, who, regardless of what others around around him say, is willing to recognize what he sees and say it aloud: the emperor has no clothes.

He begins with the idea of waiting, helplessly, convinced that there is nothing to be done. This, for me, brings to mind all of those who, having embraced the allure of the instrumental logic of cost-benefit analysis, have resigned themselves to the inevitability of deepening inequality, war, racism, and injustice. We can't do anything about that, they say, but we can build x units of housing to get x number of visible homeless people off the street. They piously acknowledge that these deeper causes are the real issue — and genuflect reverently in their direction as often as necessary — without ever confronting the problem of what a deeper, more authentic, activism would entail. Meanwhile, they enjoy the benefits of complicity while they "clean up" the signs of deepening poverty.

There is a complacency here, that, when properly considered, brings one smack against the problem of one's own guilt. To know of injustice and not act, whether out of resignation or despair or a belief in one's own powerlessness, all amounts to the same thing: a complicity in perpetuating the very injustice we claim to abhor.
"Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irritation and doubt, while "they" fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables "them" to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes. Our guilt, our deep resentment, do nothing to preserve us from a shameful fate. On the contrary, our resentment is what fits us most perfectly to be "their" instruments. How can we claim that our inertia is innocent? It is the source of our guilt."
In Merton's system, there are three inter-related groupings: "We," who he calls, apologetically, the intellectuals; "They," those who count us, dehumanize us, and technocratically work toward our mutual annihilation, and "The Others," who depend on us, upon whom we depend, and from whom we should not set ourselves too much apart. Our own clarity, he points out, rests largely upon our ability to correctly identify those who are "They."
"We must identify them wherever "they" may appear, even though they may rise up in the midst of ourselves, or even among "the others." We must be able to recognize them by what they are and not rest satisfied with what is said about them, by others or by themselves or above all by one of us. ... It is to their obvious interest to bribe us to give them a new name. ... We must not let our vanity provide "them" with false passports. ... we must make sure they do not, once again, convince us it is "they" we have been waiting for."
Merton dwells upon the allure of despair. "Despair, indeed, seems very respectable, until one remembers that this is only the preparation to accept "their" next formula, which will explain, and exploit, our emptiness."

This is the uncomfortable question that I have asked. Who among us are "they," and what right do "we" have to a despair that the bigger issues are somehow beyond our ability to affect? Merton cautions against an embrace of radical formulas and easy answers, but calls us to clarity on our own condition, and toward an exploration of possibility that is rooted in radical optimism and hope. Anything less, I think, is beneath us as beings who yearn toward the absolute.

Finally, there is this:
"It is true that as intellectuals we ought to stand on our own feet — but one cannot learn to do this until he has first recognized to what extent he requires the support of the others. And it is our business to support one another against "them," not to be supported by "them" and used to crush "the others.

"They," of course have never really been in any position to support anyone. "They" need us. but not our strength. They do not want us strong, but weak. It is our emptiness "they" need, as a justification of their own emptiness. That is why their support comes always, and only, in the form of bribes. We are nourished in order that we may continue to sleep. We are paid to keep quiet, or to say things that do not disturb the unruffled surface of the emptiness from which, in due time, the spark and the blast must leap out and release, in all men, the explosion."


Trevor said...

Raids on the Unspeakable is an amazing book.

Bill said...

Hmmm, Merton. Must be in the air. I am reading King (as in MLK Jr.). We have some guides whose words have been left to shelves too long. These words live. Thanks for the reminder.