Although Barack Obama’s slogan is “the audacity of hope,” the words have deeper connotations at this moment. One of the most powerful, I think, is the audacity to wake up. In order for the right wing to succeed in its reactionary agenda, the American public had to agree with it. On the surface it wouldn’t seem that people could agree to freeze their incomes, give tax breaks to the least deserving, amass a huge national debt, ignore the rising cost of health care, and various other aspects of the right-wing agenda. To offer their agreement, the public had to vote against its own interest, and doing that required them to be asleep.
What keeps people asleep? Some ingredients are cultural. The dumbing down of America is a real phenomenon. One person out of five believes that the sun revolves around the Earth, and their ignorance is directly related to a failure of education. Half of high school graduates cannot tell you how many Supreme Court justices there are. Overall, pop culture has trumped political culture, so a glib, attractive candidate who makes a nice image on TV reassures more people than a thoughtful intellectual discussing real-life issues. Having drummed “compassionate conservatism” into the mass media, President Bush went on to pass the least compassionate, most right-wing agenda in history without negative consequences to himself for at least six years. He counted on the public remaining asleep.
Now that we are being asked to wake up again, the result could be revolutionary. Looming problems like the national debt, universal health care, and a troubled Social Security system do have real, workable solutions that can be implemented if we don’t postpone them much longer. But the alternative has been ingrained for so long that the political machine hopes to return to runaway spending, social irresponsibility, and pro-war policies controlled by a white male elite. This, despite the fact, as Frank Rich pointed out in his NY Times column, that 40% of Americans born after 1982 come from a family with at least one non-white parent.
Waking up means seeing clearly who we are and what needs to be done. It means not blindly voting against your own interest. That’s audacious enough. But I was struck by the appraisal given by the British journal, The Economist, to my old teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he died on Feb. 5: “Crank? Crackpot? Charlatan? Maybe all three. Yet the maharishi was generally benign. He did not use his money for sinister ends.” Behind the dismissive and personally offensive tone is a cynical attitude that is now widespread. This attitude holds that higher consciousness per se is a fraud, that anyone who encourages others to walk the path of enlightenment is by definition a fraud, hypocrite, and money grubber. (The complete Economist article can be found here)
Let’s leave aside the abysmal ignorance being shown toward the Indian spiritual tradition, which is immense, not just from the Economist but from obituary articles that were more kindly disposed to Maharishi. What is being derided is the highest aspiration of civilized society, which is to go beyond human frailty toward the best in human potential. Those who ridicule such aspirations will find themselves mired in the opposite — a downward spiral into greed, selfishness, corruption, and mindless mass consumerism. The rise of Maharishi stood for a belief in higher aspirations. One is allowed to have any kind of opinion about whether gurus and spiritual teachers have feet of clay. But to adopt the cliche of the guru-as-fraud is mean-spirited and ignorant. The audacity of enlightenment reaches much farther than the audacity of hope, and until we are willing to reassert our right to aspire, America will remain crippled spiritually, the very result the right-wing has sadly achieved.