Activism in the New Story


The following originally appeared on The New and Ancient Story. 

“The spirits of the land could now support us”

One of the most triggering sentences of The More Beautiful World… was, “Let us be wary of any revolution that isn’t threaded with an element of play, celebration, mystery, and humor. If it is primarily a grim struggle, then it may be no revolution at all.” 

People find this naïve. Play and celebration seem a bit frivolous in the face of a relentless world-destroying machine that recognizes no logic but the logic of force. We need to get serious and, not waste our time in escapist play. And celebration – shouldn’t that wait until we have something to celebrate?

I think it is quite the opposite. If we turn the revolution into a contest of force, then we will surely lose against an opponent that far outmatches us. Worse, even if we win, we strengthen the sponsoring world-story that turns us into another version of the enemy we just defeated. It is the story that holds us as Cartesian separate selves manipulating an external reality through force. Just as civilization has sought to conquer the Other (nature), so now do we seek to overcome another Other through the same basic methods. It is as Philip K. Dick wrote: “To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement. This is a paradox: whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby, it becomes its enemies.”

There is another way. It is more effective and not less in creating change, although one must sacrifice the ego satisfaction of dominating a defeated enemy. I received the following example of this other way recently from Daniel Schreiber, of the remarkable Starseed community near Byron Bay, Australia. It offers a glimpse of the power available from even a last-minute shift from force to play.

When I first moved to Byron Bay 22 years ago, I was friendly with a ‘mob’ of activists that ran the world’s first successful forest protest. There were strange ideas in the community about conservation which I have now resolved but at the time were intriguing. The ‘us versus them’ played out with all its polarities and dynamics and even though there were victories, the ‘beast’ seemed relentless, well funded and had all manner of social , legal and political levers to tilt the playing field. I have come to realize that if one is an activist and has an emotional investment in an outcome then the challenge is against oneself and it is impossible to ‘win’, and yet if one can protest without an emotional investment in the outcome, you always win.

I recently participated in a successful anti fracking protest that lasted over two months and engaged as many as 8 thousand of our small Byron community! Our lush camp had a 4 berth cappuccino machine, massage, sacred fire, media centre, full kitchen feeding a core of 200 each day and more. We held off the miners for ages with many tactics including drone video media production, barriers, towers, 24/7 vigils, writing lawful notices to politicians, police and company directors, training commonwealth public officials and preparing for a showdown where the government decided to send 800 heavily armed police to break up the camp! This huge mission was planned and publicized and hotels booked as tensions rose in anticipation of the onslaught. Three days before the arrival of the troops, we heard that all four news channels would be filming from air which would then go out world wide as if this were a full scale ‘war’. Our camp had planned a strategy to confront the troops and we waited. I came up with an idea to paint a giant aboriginal art piece on the landscape that would be seen from the helicopters and would indeed be ‘newsworthy’ along with a ceremony that would be led by the local indigenous mob that would engage 500 of us with clap sticks , huge smoky fires, all the men painted in white ochre and the leader playing didgeridoo for three days straight! There was no precedent for police to break up an Originee ceremony and so I pitched this novel idea to the Originee elder women who had become quite depressed as the conflict approached. They had seen this all before and it always ended the same… all the blackfellas arrested along with many white fella supporters, and the miners getting their way. The elder women immediately became animated and excited as they looked at the drawings of a proposed 150ft long Goanna and a 350 ft rainbow serpent and started adding dots, Pleiades star system and hand prints. The battle now seemed like a giant fun performance and ceremony and got the energy moving. We were given permission to access the sacred ochre pits to get tons of white ochre to begin line marking the giant art piece and I left camp and headed home that evening to get art supplies … excited. 

The next morning, we got a call from camp to say the government had called the conflict off and was going to be investigating the company for corruption! I arrived back at camp to a giant party and as my friend Mike and I arrived, the elder women grabbed us and whisked us off to an elder meeting that was taking place. An elder auntie grabbed me and looked me in the eye and said that the reason that the conflict was called off was because we had engaged in art and ceremony, and she asked for a copy of the diagram to keep for her children so they would remember that day and how to deal with these ‘whitefella’ situations. She explained that as soon as we had switched gears from confronting the armed force to art and ceremony, the spirits of the land could now support us and were grateful that we had ‘remembered’ this tactic in time to avoid confrontation! I learned an amazing lesson that day about solving a crises using higher frequency ‘technology’ of the heart. A great opportunity to unite our community and instead of confrontation, offer the gift of shared creative path.

Two phrases of this story have stuck in my mind. First, “If you can protest without an emotional investment in the outcome, you always win.” What he means here is not to suggest that we cease caring about the land, water, and communities we seek to protect. Rather, he is warning against attachment to being the winners or the losers of the conflict. When that attachment is present, the outcome will be influenced by the playing out of psychological dramas, because the events of our lives unfold in reflection of our own shadows, fears, unresolved inner conflicts, and so on. To take a rather simplistic example, if the protestors carry the unconscious motivation of wanting to know themselves as right, valiant, and praiseworthy, then losing the battle and going to jail might be more gratifying than winning. (I’m not saying this motivation is ever primary in a protestor, but sometimes there does seem to be a theme of “here we righteous are gathered on the side of Good.”) 

Dan is describing an attitude of service and trust. We serve an end but we don’t know how it will be attained, and we recognize as well that an even better outcome than the envisioned end is possible as well. Dan is offering an example of using playful means in the spirit of protest, and beyond that, suggesting that we act from a spirit of play as well. In the spirit of play we do not dictate the outcome to the other players. The game itself takes on a life of its own. 

The second phrase that leapt out at me was, “She explained that as soon as we had switched gears from confronting the armed force to art and ceremony, the spirits of the land could now support us and were grateful that we had ‘remembered’ this tactic in time to avoid confrontation!” The spirits of the land cannot work if we ourselves insist on being in charge of the situation. Their ways are not our ways. The tactics of play, humor, and ceremony give the land spirits an opening in which to operate. 

I think for these tactics to be effective, they cannot be merely tactics. The paradigm of force can surreptitiously creep back in, in the form of, “We were just having an innocent celebration and look what those nasty police did anyway!” If there is anything of this victim or martyr agenda, then the emotional attachment Dan warns of will be present, and the tactic will not work. The celebration cannot happen in the expectation or the perverse hope that it will be crushed. That would be the paradigm of force – shaming the enemy and arousing the bystanders into indignantly rising up against them. The celebration, the play, has to be real, drawing from a perception of the world in which celebration and play come naturally. Isn’t that the world we want to create?

Image by Jacob Charlie, courtesy of Creative Commons license.