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In his book Be Here Now, Ram Dass recounts a teacher who would utter the occasional aphorism and then leave the room, such as ‘When a pickpocket meets a saint, he sees only his pockets’ (Chapter 9, ‘Ashtanga Yoga’). Expanded, this might be rephrased ‘The needy see only in others what can satisfy their needs.’ As Lampert views Freud and Darwin as being reductionist, this interpretation of the guru’s teaching reduces the idea to something very base.

Ram Dass, when he was learning, had already been a psychotherapist for several years and had some experience in human need. We’re all in need, all in pain, and all fighting battles others can’t see (as one meme that I see often puts it). The trick is to alleviate pain in spite of the perceived worth of the one in pain, the perceived view of whether they deserve it, their ability to express gratitude (indeed in spite of whatever response the recipient gives – it may not be gracious according to your definition), their skin color, their fill-in-any-reason you think you have to think they are unworthy.

Deuteronomy 15:11, There are always poor and needy among us. This is used to excuse any attempt to eradicate poverty as doomed to failure. And it goes hand in hand with that pickpocket quote. Ram Dass uses the quote as an example of a tool for self-reflection. When we talk about neediness, though – food insecurity, homelessness, psychological need (in whatever form that might take), there’s a block to letting the need of others touch us. What are the excuses for not making eye contact with the person begging (or ranting) on the street? I excuse my own haste with the mantra that I’ve got to get somewhere. I’m historically convinced by those in need to give more than I’m comfortable with (I’m not yet ready to tell myself or anyone else to give until it hurts), so I run off before I can give much of anything. I turn away. When I have my act together in the morning, I shovel change into my pocket so that I can at least give that when asked. But that’s barely sandwich money for someone without a roof. The short answer is to see my last post about voting with compassion.

I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in telling myself a short story to excuse not doing something for another person. Some people in need take all the time and energy you might have to give them. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and except for the most banal topics, I wouldn’t give anything of myself for fear of being sucked dry, or tell anyone with the tools to help how much pain I was in for fear of being that emotional squid. Can I stop telling those stories?

The problem with trying to discuss this stuff is that I come off as very very preachy. And hypocritical. I’m historically a selfish person with my time, my energy, and my money. But the source of the change I want to see in the world is that compassion I keep talking about. I have privilege in more ways than I can count. In no particular order, my privilege includes the confidence of the middle-aged white male that I am, residence in a country (The Netherlands) which boasts a pretty robust safety net, gainful employment, and savings and a pension. And I’m trying not to be just those things.

With the new year, I can certainly say, again, that I’ll give more, take less, volunteer at the food bank and so forth. (Last year I made an effort to volunteer, but my Dutch was too lousy. It’s slightly better now. Need to try again.) And I’m surrounded by people who are both privileged and committed to change. I want to do more to eradicate need. I’m only just starting. There are already leaders – part of this blog experiment is to identify the most effective ways to follow.

I’m working up a series of entries around the concept of living compassionately. This is not a new idea, and I’m willing to accept that I’m not the best qualified to preach it, but (in the words of someone better qualified): if not me, who?

Nicked wholesale from Wikipedia:

Radical compassion is a term coined by the philosopher Khen Lampert, in 2003. His theory of radical compassion appeared in Traditions of Compassion: from Religious Duty to Social-Activism (2006). Lampert identifies compassion as a special case of empathy, directed towards the “other’s” distress. Radical compassion is a specific type of general compassion, which includes the inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others. This state of mind, according to Lampert’s theory, is universal, and stands at the root of the historical cry for social change.

“I have noted that compassion, especially in its radical form, manifests itself as an impulse. This manifestation stands in stark opposition to the underlying premises of the Darwinist theories, which regard the survival instinct as determining human behavior, as well to the Freudian logic of the Pleasure Principle, which refutes any supposedly natural tendency on the part of human beings to act against their own interests and proposes viewing such an inclination as the product of cultural conditioning…”

While I’m not sure how much I agree with Lampert’s reduction of both Freud and Darwin, I agree with the basic premise: that there is an imperative to alleviate the pain of others. If I’m reading the summaries correctly, Traditions of Compassion looks at Christian, Buddhist, and modern secular traditions of so-called compassion and finds all of them wanting. The key to Lampert’s philosophy seems to be that the heart of the social contract is the need (and compulsion) to act in the interests of those in pain, distress, or otherwise at a disadvantage.

I started to formulate my own idea of radical compassion while watching the run-up to the recent parliamentary elections in the UK. Some of my friends who are able to vote there discussed ‘holding their noses’ and voting conservative for a variety of reasons, the main one being that they didn’t find that the Labour leader could realistically bring the UK out of its current crisis. I don’t fault this reasoning, but it seems to me myopic. The idea of ‘getting Brexit done’ doesn’t contain a plan, for example, for securing the food supply, keeping the peace in Ireland, or maintaining a functioning and affordable health service in light of how many medications and members of staff come from outside of the UK.

One aspect of this compassionate behavior is voting compassionately. My friend RC was accused of treason when campaigning for her preferred not-conservative candidate in this election. Treason for advocating for participating in the democratic process. (The shades of pre-fascist Europe in this exchange don’t escape me.) It won’t escape the reader’s notice that I’m socially liberal in my philosophy, and that when I talk about compassionate voting, my perspective is to vote for candidates who advocate for reducing suffering in whatever form.

My friends who advocated for the conservative candidates may very well project that there is greater long-term good to come out of what those candidates offer and promise and what their track records show they might get done.

I would argue that hunger and need shouldn’t have to wait for the undefined solution of this human-engineered crisis. Yes, I’m shouting at the barn door long after the horses have bolted.

To use another hackneyed metaphor, I know that expecting compassion from politicians is tilting at windmills, and that it’s probably no longer possible for voters to hold their representatives responsible for anything, but I’ll vote for the alleviation of pain rather than its aggravation every time.

There’s a further argument that voting this way can be seen as a kind of enlightened self interest. If we vote for greater access to medicine, we’re voting for a healthier population. (Also true for voting not to make life difficult for the large percentage of National Health Service medical staff who are from outside the UK.) Voting in favour of better primary schools sufficiently staffed with better-paid and -supported teachers so that your country’s children don’t grow up undereducated and resentful of the education system can also be seen as enlightened self interest. If that works for you, run with it, but I would suggest also doing so out of compassion for all the others concerned.

Victory Day is an elegant and worthy conclusion to a fascinating series. It’s been a real ride following this story’s progress since I read an early version of Battle Ground two years ago.The storytelling gets tighter and tighter the farther along we get. There’s always been tension between the twin antagonists, even when one was in London and the other in Edinburgh, but Churcher ratchets it up in this concluding volume. Bex (‘The Face of the Resistance’) and her former trainer, Corporal Ketty, again tell their sides in short alternating chapters.

In some cases, those chapters are less than a page each, and the sequence in which Bex meets Ketty for the first time since False Flag (book 2) is one of the most heart-racing things I’ve read. I give nothing away by indicating that both have guns and shots are fired.

RMC-BG5-VDI especially liked how this book succeeds in making both Bex and Ketty more sympathetic characters than they were before. Bex had become less likable the more she resisted her role in the bigger conflict at play. Ketty, on the other hand, elicits more sympathy from us the more she learns about the nature of the forces for whom she’s working. This is an especially difficult trick for Churcher to have pulled off – the sheer sadism of some of Ketty’s behavior makes her about as likable as a Bond villain. (She pays a pretty stiff price for her redemption in a sequence that’s oddly, and appropriately, parenthetical in her journey.)

While there’s the tension of the two narrators facing each other as everything they’ve worked for comes to fruition or falls apart, depending on how you look at it, there’s a roll call of supporting characters who we experience through the eyes of both of the narrators. It’s really hard to write this without giving spoilers, because when I say Ketty has an interview with Person X, you readers of books 1-4 will say, ‘Well, it’s not necessarily surprising, but wait a sec, how did we get there?’ You just have to drop a few pounds to find out.

It was really interesting to reread this in its final form, having proofread early drafts of each book. This series takes up the mantle of many other dystopian series of being a warning, not a manual. As times have started to catch up with what was initially a (more) far flung future, some aspects of the books are difficult to read. I’ll be honest: It’s taken me longer to read each book (and not just because Victory Day is about 40% longer than Fighting Back) because I can’t read these things before sleep or in the middle of the night. There’s the page-turning aspect, for certain, but also heartbreaking nearness of what Churcher is confronting. With the UK becoming, it seems, less compassionate and more like the US in how it divides the rich and poor, the idea of a conscripted home force, for example, has almost entered the realm of possibility.

Go over to Taller Books to get the whole set.

Note: I received a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, there was a lot of discussion about the Project for a New American Century. PNAC was a think tank founded a couple of years before (and dissolved in 2006) that agitated for regime change in Iraq, but more generally discussed and promoted ways for the US to maintain its hegemony in the years following what had been dubbed The American Century. Of the 25 signatories to the original PNAC manifesto, 10 (including Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney) went on to high-profile positions in the second Bush administration in part to forward plans to foment war in Iraq and to regain influence lost after the 1991 invasion.

In September, 2000, PNAC released a white paper entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century. Its key passage was one that suggested quickly regaining the influence America needed in the Middle East would require some catastrophic event on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Some have pointed to this as circumstantial evidence that 9/11 was indeed an inside job. While it might have been (and it’s often one impossible thing I believe before breakfast), as a catalyst for the Second Gulf War, it certainly did the trick.

But we didn’t manage to win that war (and in fact didn’t exactly win the war before it either) and the Second Gulf War has become the Perpetual War – Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Mission Accomplished notwithstanding, and despite the fact that large numbers of Papa Bush’s closest advisors were also advising Junior, it was also impossible for the Obama administration to negotiate a withdrawal from the Middle East (or even from Guantanamo Bay) given the various obstructionist forces in both houses of congress for much of his presidency. (Note: I’m not entirely certain Obama wanted to get us out of Iraq very badly, but the man had a lot on his plate if he did.)

Enter Commander ‘Bone-Spurs’ Trump who has no impulse control, is cornered by his own illegal maneuvers, and has Vladimir Putin as a key advisor. Of course what he does won’t be in anybody’s interest but his own (much, as the NYT would remind us, like Clinton’s air strike behavior when impeached in 1998). And now we’re headed for war in Iran, something PNAC and its ideological predecessors and successors have wanted for 40 years.

When we left Bex and Ketty, the protagonists of Rachel Churcher’s Battle Ground series, they were both relatively safe, but Bex’s mother was in Ketty’s clutches down in London.

Bex and her friends, having made it to Scotland to join the Opposition In Exile (OIE), want nothing more than to find a way to attack England’s military government and rescue those who are imprisoned.

At the same time, Ketty is trying to maintain and advance her own career without sacrificing what little integrity she has and without angering the few people who have the power to boot her from the army back to her father.

Separated by several hundred kilometers, Bex and Ketty continue to show a strange doppelgänger nature to their characters. Ketty seems to be the master of her own fate, but knows how tenuous her position is. She remains at the mercy of several military leaders who all have their own agendas. The tension in the story comes from her growing realization that everyone around her seems to know more about her situation than she does.

RMC-fighting-back-blog-tour

Bex, at the same time, isn’t at the mercy of the OIE or the Scottish government, but is under the strict control of both.Her friend Jake, who tries to break this control, finds himself with no freedom at all for much of the story.

In this continuation of Battle Ground, we recognize that Bex is strong and knowledgeable and creative, but still very much a teenager. At the beginning she is unwilling to recognize or bow to the various binds the so-called grownups are in. As the book progresses, she finds her way into the various organizations that have control over her and begins to wield some greater influence. I found this a welcome evolution of her character.

Ketty spends a lot of time still wondering if she’s working for the bad guys, trapped in her situation, but also maintaining her ‘iron fists and steel toecaps’ attitude to the people in her own control.

Churcher does a nice job of setting the reader out at sea with her characters. They tread water, they identify the lifeboats and occasionally realize that the people in the lifeboats are feeding chum to the sharks.

Though it starts a little slowly, the climax of the Fighting Back is (like Darkest Hour), wonderfully cinematic. And as much as I’d like to delve into a proper critique, you just have to read it. Any hints I give would give too much away.

Go over to Taller Books to get all four volumes.

Note: I received a free advance copy of the book for this review.