THE BLOG
11/28/2016 04:54 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2017

Year Zero: Reflections From Cambodia On Hatred, Blame, And U.S. Politics

I came to Cambodia mostly to see the temples -- the towering, serene faces of Bayon, the stone-swallowing tree roots at Banteay Kdei, the high regal towers of Angkor Wat. But I knew, in coming to this place, that there would be other things that I would feel too.

Three million people lost their lives during the horror that was the Cambodian genocide, which happened in my lifetime, from 1975 - 1979. These people were victims of global circumstance, of deluded ideology, of the shifting balance of cold war politics, perhaps -- as Spalding Gray put it -- of an 'invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like... Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America.'

But in truth they were victims -- most of all -- of a story. A story that had been deliberately told and retold to the poor Cambodian villagers who would one day be the perpetrators of the genocide. This story was used to recruit rural Cambodians to the Khmer Rouge cause, to rile them up, to create enough fervor to whip the otherwise placid populace into a tidal wave of hate. It was not a new story, nor has its dark appeal died out since.

The story told to the rural poor was this -- that all of their problems and all of their sufferings were because of elite intellectuals in the big cities. That immigrants -- in this case Vietnamese and Chinese -- were taking the wealth that was theirs by right. That people of a different color -- in this case the lighter skinned ones -- were outsiders and had no place in Cambodia.

So powerful was the anti-intellectualist, xenophobic frenzy that Pol Pot incited in his followers that by the time the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, anyone deemed to be an intellectual was killed on sight. If you were wearing glasses, it meant you were an intellectual. If you were lighter skinned, it meant you were a foreigner. Everyone who fit the description was executed.

It hard to fathom such blinding hate, unleashed towards people that the perpetrators had only heard stories about. For most rural Cambodians had never actually met or interacted with a Vietnamese person, or a city dweller. Such was the power of the story that was told to them, that it could cause them to hate that which they had never had any direct experience with. And when the wave crashed in Phnom Penh, Year Zero was declared, and Cambodia would never be the same again.

I reflect on this now, in the midst of the unsettling aftershock of a Presidential election in the United States whose victor rose to power on the wave of an eerily similar story.

I remember the first time I heard shock-jock radio. I remember how strange it made me feel. I could feel disgust at the message. But I could also feel the power of it. There is a distinct energy that comes with blame. It gives people who have been drifting listlessly somewhere to point their rudders. It is a convenient balm for all of our inadequacies and failings. It lets us perpetuate the illusion that it's not us, its them. And how nice that feels. Whether you are a leftist or a centrist or a Bernie Bro or a Trump supporter, it is far easier to point the finger than to look deeply at ourselves.

The internet makes it very, very easy for all of us to fall victim to the story. How easy, to sit behind a screen -- without any actual interaction with the object of our ire -- and lob insults at one another based on things we've read, links we've clicked on, stories we've heard. How easy to say that every single Muslim is a terrorist. How convenient, that 50 million plus Trump supporters are all -- every single one of them -- misogynist racists. What a thing, to disagree yet not have to sit in the same room with the person we disagree with -- to see how pain is graven in their face, to feel what forces in their lives have shaped them, to seek to understand their story, their fears, their hopes from a place free from blame.

Hatred from a distance. This is what happened in Cambodia. It is what is happening in the United States.

Aren't we better than this? Have we become so caught up in the story that we cannot even remember that we are all first and foremost human beings?

I wonder how many of the people who are now shouting white power slogans and 'Hail Trump' have ever actually had a negative experience with a black person. How many, were they actually to sit down with the object of their hate over dinner would not find common ground over which to break bread? My feeling is that the vast majority of the hatred that is currently circulating the United States has its foundation in fabricated story rather than true experience. Much of it would dissolve with true conversation over time.

Former white supremacist Derek Black recently wrote in the New York Times about his reformation. It came when the people around him were able to let go of the stories they had heard about people like him and to actually start interacting with him as a human being. He transformed through listening and through being heard.

This path is available to all of us. We can seek to understand. Or we can keep telling ourselves the same old story -- it's them.

Cambodian Buddhist tradition has a lot to say about the dangers of over-identification with the stories we tell ourselves. In any situation, the story has importance, but only insomuch as it is a vehicle for us to be more present, to be more kind, and to examine ourselves deeper. The story as the sum total of our identity, the story as vehicle for victimhood -- this leads us nowhere. If the net result of the stories we are telling ourselves is to conclude -- "the problem is them," then that is not a story based in truth.

We in America -- right, left, and center -- have the responsibility to find a way beyond finger pointing. We have to find a way past obstructionism. If the level of advancement of our leaders is that they can only blame and obstruct then we must find new leaders. If we would not tolerate such behavior from our children, we should not make role models of those adults who do it loudest. We have to be more than inflammatory internet commentary. When we use twitter to deride the ridiculousness of others, reveling in such battles with gleeful proclamations of 'so-and-so (who is inevitably on my side) WON the internet today!' are we really seeking to move past divisiveness, or are we wallowing in it? Fundamentally, each of us must cultivate a spirit of relentless inquiry into the stories that we ourselves fall victim to, that we unconsciously perpetuate and believe -- the stories that divide us, the stories that lead to hate.

For members of the media, this could and should be a time of deep reckoning. Stories are deeply powerful. Stories change minds and hearts. They shape history. We owe it to our children to tell stories that do not fan the flames of fear unnecessarily. To encourage others to hate that which they have never had any direct experience with is wrong. The story that intellect is the problem, that immigration is the problem, that diversity is the problem, is quite simply a lie. It is the exact same story Pol Pot told. And it is a sad fact that no people that tell it regularly, with such fervor and venom, emerge free of scars.

Traveling through the villages of Cambodia, you see the simplicity of people going about their daily lives. You see joy and tranquility. You also find -- if you pause to discuss things a little deeper -- scars that may never heal.

The tranquility that comes after the storm often begs the question -- what were we so riled up about back then? What were we so afraid of? What had we convinced ourselves of? I think in years to come, we will look back at this period in American history and ask ourselves the same thing.

Provided, of course, that we have the courage and foresight now to liberate ourselves from some very harmful stories.