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Issue No. 61 (January 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
novel The Shift:
ohn English’s first novel The Shift (2005) may be the poorest written novel I’ve ever read from cover to cover. Character development is underexplored or nonexistent; all of the dialogue is cast in Mr. English’s own sweet voice; most of the arrows in the professional fiction writer’s quiver (e.g., irony, satire, moral ambiguity) fail to make it to the bowstring.
In his typically overeager, guileless way, Mr. English himself supplies the answer in the Acknowledgements: “The Shift contains our collective dream.”
That it does. If you believe that our Earth and its inhabitants are in trouble; if you believe that the trouble extends to (and in part emanates from) our souls; if you believe that creating a better world means listening to and learning from everyone, and addressing our fundamental problems in creative new ways; then this book expresses many of your dreams.
Your conscious dreams, your subconscious dreams, and even your wet dreams. (Yes, some of them may embarrass you.)
This is our first radical middle political novel. WHO CARES if it fails to live up to literary standards set by Virginia Woolf, or even Tom Clancy?
Besides, the plot pulls you along quite nicely.
Scott Stahl (as in “stall” -- what most of humanity is doing now) is an ordinary person with a good heart. He’s a fortysomething living in suburban Phoenix, Ariz., and when he’s not driving to the mall with his wife Elizabeth (who’s studying to be a teacher now that the kids are in college), he’s running a little engineering company out of their home.
But business is slow, and he’s haunted by the feeling that humanity needs to change its ways. So one night, to amuse himself, he designs a Website announcing a third party -- the “Centrust” party -- and adds a 10-point statement of purpose that we are given to understand is divinely inspired, or is inspired by the living Earth itself; you choose. (What awed me is that the document sounds like it was written by someone who’d been reading my book Radical Middle or working at the New America Foundation.) Then Scott posts the site as a sort of lark and goes to bed.
When he wakes up, so many thousands of people have tried to e-mail the site that it’s crashed. Fortunately, one of the people that does get through is a successful local businessman who produces Web sites for a living . . . and we’re off and running, Scott and the plot and our collective dream.
The Party grows and grows. And so do Scott and Elizabeth, especially after they meet up with an ordinary looking guy named Jack who turns out to be a shaman. Not to mention a John McCain-like Senator who’s prompted to contact Scott because of a dream (all the dreams in this book are understood to be inspired by God or Gaia).
The Party ebbs; the Party flows. Its fortunes are boosted when, a couple of years before the Presidential election, a gaggle of spiritual people begins gathering on an Indian reservation in Utah to pray and perform other spiritual acts on the Party’s behalf.
Even if that makes you uneasy, you've got to admit that the Utah group is a lot more appealing than the Bilderberg group [supposedly all-powerful group of international bankers & power brokers - ed.]. There’s Father Morales, a Catholic priest from El Salvador. There’s Joseph Kindred, the local medicine man. Don’t you love those last names? A young New York Jew studying Kabbala turns up and, not long after, a young Palestinian-Egyptian studying Sufism; they sleep in the same house trailer on the rez.
Meanwhile, a Senator John Breaux-like figure takes a deep breath, comes over to the Centrust Party, and becomes its candidate for President, giving the Party instant mainstream credibility. Then a Christie Whitman-like figure, drummed out of the Environmental Protection Agency, overcomes her lifelong loyalty to the GOP and signs on as the Vice-Presidential candidate. (Need I add that both politicians had been visited by dreams?)
I won’t give away the ending. I’ll only tell you it’s happy-sad, but mostly happy. And a real Centrust Party, inspired by the book (and perhaps other forces as well, I cannot say), is now up and running at www.centrustparty.com.
The learning curve
An unapologetic belief in spiritual forces -- a belief deeply rooted in American tradition -- may provide the most colorful difference between many radical middle social change agents and most earlier political activists. But it’s not the only one. You can detect many others if you compare Mr. English’s novel to landmark political novels from the last two generations, Howard Fast’s The American (1946) and Marge Piercy’s Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970).
Howard Fast was a prominent U.S. Communist Party novelist (until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956), beloved by fellow travelers in the labor movement and naive young idealists such as I was in the distant past. On one level The American is about John Peter Altgeld, a principled Illinois governor who pardoned the anarchist Haymarket rioters in 1893 and maintained a difficult personal relationship with Socialist agitator and Presidential candidate Eugene Debs. On another level it’s about the “inevitable” struggle between working people (whom Altgeld respected and Debs championed) and Big Capital.
Skip ahead one generation. Marge Piercy’s novel Dance the Eagle to Sleep is about a bunch of kick-ass, communal-living young people calling themselves the Indians who strive to foment violent revolution against capitalist Amerika and the power structure that ran it and the pigs (policemen and other dupes of the System) that made it go. During most of the novel they’re hunted or haunted by a variety of pigs.
Mr. Fast’s novel is classic 1930s/popular front, Ms. Piercy’s is classic 1960s/Weather Underground, and Mr. English’s is classic radical middle. Here's why:
Ultimate purpose or goal. Mr. Fast’s ultimate goal was to help give working people the historical knowledge and self-confidence they’d need to elect a socialist government. Ms. Piercy’s goal was to help discredit the ruling class and bourgeois society and inspire The Revolution. Mr. English’s goal is to help bring about a “massive shift in consciousness” en route to a “political and economic shift.”
Ultimate problem and cure. For Mr. Fast, the problem is capitalism and the answer is traditional Marxist socialism. For Ms. Piercy, the problem is capitalism and imperialism and the answer is a witch’s brew of radical feminism, black liberationist theory, and the Maoist notion of perpetual revolution, with a generous dollop of sex stirred in. For Mr. English, the problem is not capitalism at all. “I knew capitalism could be a good thing,” says one of the shamans. The problem is that (a) too many capitalists practice short-term rather than long-term thinking (a problem that can be solved largely through legislation), and (b) too many consumers shop thoughtlessly -- which is why Elizabeth speaks exuberantly of “the power that capitalism affords [conscious consumers] to affect constructive change in our society.’
Problem with “The People.” For Mr. Fast, there is no problem with “The People” (at least, none that liberation from capitalist oppression cannot cure). For Ms. Piercy, the problem is that too many of us at every socioeconomic level have sold out. For Mr. English, the problem is that we are -- very understandably -- “sad,” “discouraged,” “asleep.” It’s as if the entire nation is depressed! But give us something promising and constructive to do and -- we’ll be there!
Politicians. For Mr. Fast, most politicians are ignorant or self-serving -- even the fiery young William Jennings Bryan of the “Cross of Gold” speech is portrayed that way. For Ms. Piercy, they’re even more contemptible than that. For Mr. English, though, many of our politicians feel trapped: “They felt unable to perform the service they were elected to do and desired a significant change.”
Heroes. For Mr. Fast, the hero is The People, the masses (preferably nurtured by role models like Altgeld and led by conscientious firebrands like Debs). There are tear-jerky scenes of demonstrations, riots, funeral marches. For Ms. Piercy, the hero is alienated young people trying to rebuild society from the ground up through free-love communes and resistance to corrupt authority (in practice, virtually all authority). For Mr. English, the hero is people like you and me finally deciding to “do the right thing” and work for the healing of Earth and reconciliation of diverse humanity.
Fundamental social conflict. For Mr. Fast, it’s workers vs. bosses. For Ms. Piercy, it’s principled dropouts vs. all tools of the system, all cogs in the wheel. For Mr. English, it’s all those who define themselves as having enemies vs. all those who define themselves as having no enemies (see esp. p. 85).
Biggest stumbling block. For Mr. Fast, it’s capitalism. For Ms. Piercy, it’s greed, both America’s and Americans’. For Mr. English, it’s F-E-A-R, especially fear of change.
People on the left might look at these three authors -- these three worldviews -- and see a downward slope over time. People on the right might look at them and think, “Same old, same old.”
But I tend to think there’s been a positive evolution in the social change movement over the last 60 years -- from the tradition-bound thinking of the Howard Fasts of the world, to the haplessly idealistic (and embittered) thinking of the Marge Piercys, to genuinely creative and constructive thinking that reacts to the real-world opportunities we’ve been given.
Yeah, on the evidence of these three novels, our collective learning curve is pointing upward.
There are some troubling aspects of Mr. English’s book, and they’re important because they may accurately reflect certain aspects of our “collective dream” c. 2005.
For example, the spiritual perspective is unrelievedly hierarchical. On top there is God and/or the living Earth. Below that are the shamans, people like Jack, people for whom the “membrane” between themselves and “All That Is” (Mr. English’s term) is very thin.
Below that are people of spiritual “knowledge” and “consciousness,” everyone who recognizes that the Earth is sending them signs -- people like Scott and Elizabeth after they’ve done political work for a while. Then below that are people of “conscience,” like the business people and politicians that join the Centrust Party. Finally, down at the bottom, are the vast majority of us, about whom it can fairly be said that we are asleep at the switch.
Is there anything wrong with that picture? Does it really require spiritual training to be close to God? Are we meant to be vassals of nature or co-creators with her? Doesn’t Mr. English’s hierarchy weirdly parallel the Communist Party’s ancient hierarchy of Maximum Leader -- Central Committee -- card-carrying Party members -- fellow travelers -- The Masses?
Another usefully unnerving thing about this book is that the Centrust Party’s national candidates, PR person, and business supporters seem like adults, but many of the Centrust Party ground troops seem like adult children. There’s a very telling scene toward the end where the Senator Breaux character decides to go on television to defend a campaign worker the Democrats publicly exposed as a shaman. This, too, may be a dream of many social change agents -- that a father figure will justify our often unconventional, often seemingly marginal lives to the American people.
So sit back and enjoy the ride. While you won’t confuse this novel with The Great Gatsby, it will give you plenty of food for thought, it will make you smile, and it might even increase your hope quotient. At a time when the best radical middle political nonfiction may strike you as impersonal, overly cerebral, and narrowly public policy oriented, this book is something different; it is something warm.
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