Friday, March 28, 2008

A word from Rabbi Michael Lerner

Sometimes, what I'm feeling is best expressed by others. This is such a case. I commend to you the following (warning: there is a commercial pitch at the end)--

The Obama Phenomenon
by Michael Lerner
from the March/April issue of Tikkun Magazine

The Phenomenon is not Barack Obama. Senator Obama is a masterful organizer and teacher. But this editorial is not about Obama as much as about what he elicits in others, and should not be read as an endorsement of him.

The energy, hopefulness, and excitement that manifests in Obama's campaign has shown up before in the last fifty years, only to quickly be crushed. It was there in the 1960s and 1970s in the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, and the movement for gay liberation. One felt it flowing at rallies and demonstrations at which Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Betty Friedan, Isaac Deutscher, Joan Baez, and Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated their visions. It was there again in Earth Day, in the anti-nuclear movement, and in the movement against the war with the Contras. It was there during the campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988 and the Clintons' campaign in 1992. And it has been there-dare we say it-in the growth of the religious right and the Campus Crusade for Christ.

What is that energy and excitement, and why does it touch people so deeply?

Since Tikkun started in 1986 we've been trying to convince the political leadership of the liberal and progressive forces that they needed to understand this phenomenon and speak to it. Sometimes we've written about it as a hunger for meaning and purpose, and prescribed a "politics of meaning" as the way to respond politically; in the last few years we've written about the need for a spiritual progressive politics to bring this energy into the public sphere.

The phenomenon in question is this: the intense desire of every human being on this planet to overcome and transcend the materialism and selfishness that shape the global economic arrangements and permeate the consciousness of all people, to overcome the looking-out-for-number one consciousness that divides us and the technocratic language that shapes our public institutions and denies us access to our common humanity, and to overcome the alienation from each other that this way of being has created so that we might once again recognize each other as embodiments of God or Spirit (or however you want to talk about the force-field of goodness, generosity, kindness, justice, peace, nonviolence, and care for each other and nature and the entirety of all that is).

We Avert Our Eyes from One Another

Every gesture, every word, every deed, every political act, every interaction with others, every message we give ourselves all combine to either reinforce our separation and estrangement from each other or to reconnect us in a deep way that allows genuine mutual recognition, the seeing and hearing of who we really are, the contact we have with the sacred in ourselves, in each other, and in the world.

We live in a world that is humanly deadening. It's not just the actual murders committed in our name. I picked up the newspaper this morning and read that U.S. forces barged into a home in the village of Door, 100 miles north of Baghdad, and began to fire at the family living there, killing four, including an eleven-year-old girl. Perhaps tomorrow they will issue a statement acknowledging that this was a mistake, as they did today about the killing of nine Iraqi civilians in Iskandariya a few days ago, and the death "under mysterious circumstances" of an Iraqi militiaman who died "in custody after being held for three days on a Baghdad arrest warrant" as a result of a bullet in the head. At some point they'll
acknowledge that the U.S. invasion let loose dynamics that have led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis, and that the "surge" could only be described as "working" because it accelerated the process of some 3 million Iraqis leaving their homes while neighborhoods were being surrounded by concrete walls to provide protection to one ethnic group while the other groups fled to "safety" elsewhere. But today, most Americans remain in a state of zombie-like denial of what this country continues to do.

Nor is the deadening process confined to the various ways we deny our involvement in the world and what is happening therein. For example, our refusal to acknowledge that paying the taxes to keep the war going is part of what makes it possible; and our refusal to acknowledge that the 20,000-30,000 children who die (on average) every single day around the world because of inadequate food and healthcare are directly connected to our global economic system in which we participate daily and which we accept as "inevitable"; and the distance we maintain from those who seek fundamental change, whom we reject as unrealistic.

No, it's not just these large systems of oppression and manipulation that deaden us. It's also our own withdrawn and depressive certainty that nothing much can happen in the world of politics and economics, or even in our interactions with each other. We walk down the streets or ride the buses, subways, or airplanes, averting our eyes from the others who share our circumstances. We are certain that if we start talking to others that they will feel that their privacy has been invaded and will resent it, suspecting that we are out to sell them something or take advantage of them or manipulate them. Instead, as Tikkun associate editor Peter Gabel has so frequently articulated on these pages, we stay inside ourselves, offering ourselves to others only in tightly controlled roles, the dimensions of which have been carefully constructed to ensure that we will not awaken in the others their own hunger for love, friendship, recognition, or aliveness.

And so we deaden ourselves and deaden each other. Each time we avert our eyes, each time we pretend not to see the homeless person, the fellow worker getting into trouble, the neighbor who needs our help, the car stalled on the freeway, and each time we tighten our face and muscles to give to the other the message of "don't go there" where "there" means "don't try to force me to be real with you when I'm scared to do that," we manage to convince the others that nobody gives a damn, that they, too, are alone, and that they would be making a huge mistake to try to break out of their isolation or to think that their own desires for connection are shared by billions of others and are not simply a manifestation of some private inadequacy or pathology.

Recently, some columnists have compared Obama to a rock star because his supporters seem to treat him more like that than like a politician. They are only partially mistaken. What the best and most fulfilling rock concerts of the past several decades have offered one generation is what other multi-generational mega-churches or Super Bowls and World Series' offer to others: a chance to momentarily experience a transcendence of all those feelings of loneliness and alienation, a momentary ability to be part of a "we" that reminds us of what it feels like to be less alone. For a moment we experience a community of shared purpose, and no matter how intellectually, psychologically, or spiritually empty that moment might be, for that moment we get a distorted but, nevertheless, powerful way of reminding ourselves of how much more we could be than when we are alone and scared.

The problem, of course, is that these moments are often based on an us-versus-them vision of the world: our community requires that some other people be the bad guys. As contemporary psychodynamic psychotherapists like to point out, we are often engaged in splitting our own internalized image of ourselves as fundamentally good and decent from another part, which we see as dirty and unacceptable and hence not really part of us at all but rather part of some "evil Other," which in the West, through history, has been the Jew, the Black man, the feminist, the homosexual, the communist, the terrorist, the illegal immigrant, etc.

The Effectiveness of Not Demonizing

Obama's appeal starts from his insistence on not demonizing the Other-the very point from which Tikkun started as a project of the Institute for Labor and Mental Health (ILMH) twenty-two years ago. At ILMH we learned-through conducting an intensive study of working class consciousness-that people moving to the Right politically were not primarily motivated by racism, sexism, and hatred, but by the spiritual crisis in their lives that the Left failed to address and the Right spoke to (albeit with distorted solutions).

Obama avoids detailing his political programs precisely because he knows that in so doing he would shift the discourse from how to break through the fear we have of each other and our "certainty" that we are condemned to be alone and alienated, back to the old discourse about point X or point Y in his health care or environmental program, leaving most people behind in despair. Instead, he confronts that despair straight on.

Obama knows that most people want a very different world, but don't believe it is possible unless someone else makes it happen. He challenges his audience by telling them that there is no one else, that they themselves are the people who must make the world different. To quote Obama from his Super Tuesday speech: "So many of us have been waiting so long for the time when we could finally expect more from our politics, when we could give more of ourselves and feel truly invested in something bigger than a particular candidate or cause. This is it. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

In short, Obama is telling his supporters, we are not in need of some magical leader, not even Obama himself. Rather, what we need is the confidence in ourselves to reclaim the public space, to break down our fears about ourselves and each other, and to recognize that it is only when we move beyond our personal lives and work together for our highest vision that anything substantial will change.

Obama has used his campaign to teach us that we actually can emerge from our frightened, withdrawn state, and enter into a public community and affirm each other's humanity, whether that be through our foreign relations, in our approach to immigration, in our economic lives, or, even, in overcoming the ossified categories of "the Left" and "the Right." And Obama presents himself with a sense of certainty that helps us overcome our own uncertainty-he is determined to win the election because he thinks we can do this if we are willing to "declare that we are with each other."

It is precisely this striving to create a transcendent experience of connection without demonizing the Other that has been the important element in the Obama phenomenon. Although the criticisms of his seeming inability to recognize the depth of the struggles that must be waged against the entrenched powers of global capital are well-founded, the Obama phenomenon promises to accumulate the power to challenge the powerful precisely by rejecting the demonizing of the other and following a path of nonviolence, not only in actions but also in words. This kind of nonviolent communication, a powerful extension of Gandhi's and King's methodology, may actually, in the long run, prove far more effective than pointing out the cruelty and hypocrisy of those who will not challenge the existing systems of militarism and global economic and political domination.

This is About Us, Not About Obama

Surely, one might object, we are giving far too much credit to Obama himself. After all, many on the Left argue, Obama is just a consummate politician, and not one committed to the programs that we all need. Obama voted against the war in Iraq, but he does not advocate the kind of withdrawal that we at Tikkun believe is the necessary precondition for any real healing in that country, namely a total and complete withdrawal not fudged by turning our military into "advisors" who could then stay in the country until it is stabilized. (Our troops are still in Germany and Japan sixty-three years after the end of the Second World War, so we know how hard it is for any government to acknowledge that "stabilization" has been achieved.) Obama does not support a single payer health care program of the sort that the NSP supports, and his ideas on health care have been less plausible than those of Hillary Clinton. Obama has not supported a serious tax on carbon emissions and his environmental programs have not challenged the global corporate polluters and exploiters of the earth, nor is he likely to support the kinds of radical changes in our Western levels of consumption necessary to save the planet from destruction. Obama has not been on the forefront of struggles against poverty and for the empowerment of workers. And Obama does not yet advocate for a Global Marshall Plan or for the Strategy of Generosity that has been central to this magazine and the NSP's approach to transforming the world.

All of the above would be relevant points if we were discussing whether to endorse the candidate Barack Obama. But we are not. We have never endorsed a candidate, despite the many who misperceived our enthusiasm for the language being used by the Clintons during the 1992 campaign and for Hillary Clinton's spontaneous speech when she explicitly endorsed our "politics of meaning" and then invited us to meet with her and strategize together in the White House in 1993. The truth is that even beyond the legal prohibitions that make endorsement impossible for a 501c3, we actually don't see any political party or candidate who fully articulates a spiritual politics of the sort you'll find in our Spiritual Covenant with America at So while some of us may endorse a candidate in 2008 as private citizens, in no way does this extend to an endorsement by the magazine or the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Nor are we surprised to find that members of the NSP differ sharply in who they would endorse.

These Dead Bones Shall Yet Live

What we are talking about is the phenomenon of hope and the coming back to life of the spiritually dead. This is the good news of Spring, with nature blooming; the good news of Passover and its message that no system of slavery or deadness is inevitable because there is a Force in the universe that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be; and the good news of Easter with its message that even the dead can be resurrected, or as our Jewish prophet Ezekiel put it, that "these dead bones shall yet live."

Or to put it another way: no matter how spiritually and emotionally dead the majority of people on the planet may appear to be, no matter how lost in their pursuit of money and fame and sexual conquest and me-first-ism and don't-bother-me-ism, the truth is that the resurrection of the dead is always at hand, always a possibility. Human beings can always be awakened again to choose life, to choose love, to choose kindness, generosity, ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. That capacity of human beings is what it means to have a soul, though in my view it might be better to say that all human beings participate in the soul of the universe, which is the God of the universe.

The big task for spiritual progressives is to keep the Obama phenomenon alive whether or not he becomes the next president of the U.S; either way, the challenge is substantial. In the early days of the Clinton presidency when the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal were describing me as Hillary Clinton's guru, and Bill Clinton was steadily reading Tikkun, Hillary told me a
powerful story that has stayed with me ever after. She told of a meeting that FDR had with leaders of the labor movement who were trying to convince FDR to support the Lehman Act (to grant legal status to union strikes and organizing). After four hours of discussion, FDR summarized this way: "Gentlemen, you have totally convinced me that you are right. Now, go out there into the world and force me to do it" [emphasis mine]. His point, Hillary explained, is that even as president, the forces pushing in the direction of the status quo are potentially overwhelming unless countered by a well-organized popular movement, and she and Bill did not feel that they had enough of a movement behind them to push for their most visionary ideas.

That's why the movement is so very important.

The Living Movements We Need

It matters, however, what kind of movement. The Left and the liberal progressives have not been particularly effective in building a transformative movement in large part because they've been stuck on the level of "policy and program" while ignoring the spiritual hunger for meaning and purpose, for connection and mutual recognition, that we've been talking about in Tikkun all these years.

All of the movements and campaigns that were mentioned above were originally embodiments of that larger set of spiritual concerns, and they drew their energy precisely from their ability to reconnect to the deep and abiding hunger, often well-hidden below the surface appearance, for a return to life, to the spirit, to God, or however else you choose to express this. When that hunger explodes into life, when people are resurrected from their spiritual death, everything becomes possible. And that itself can be overwhelming, as we can see from reading how scared the people were at Mt. Sinai when God revealed Herself to the people. It feels so much safer if people can find a way to turn that energy into something not quite so revolutionary: into commandments, social programs, rituals, legislation, political platforms, or concrete demands. And there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this as long as one keeps the fires burning inside, the connection to the loving and awesome energy of the God of the universe, or of the power of staying alive to each other and to oneself at every moment.

Unfortunately, what often happens in social change organizations is that the fear becomes so great that it overwhelms the hopefulness and the love, and so they barely keep alive the pale shadow of that hopefulness, and instead try to prove that they are "realistic" by focusing their energies on struggles for this or that specific program, now increasingly out of touch with the underlying desire which led them and their supporters into these struggles in the first place. And without that desire and the contact with the
aliveness that it first evoked, these struggles become deadening and people drop away, and then they are lost. Washington, D.C. and many of our major cities around the country are filled with people who are involved in these liberal or progressive organizations that have lost their fire, and many more who have dropped out because the experience was no longer humanly satisfying or sustainable.

It's not enough to conclude that one should keep the movement alive after the campaign is finished. That was the promise of the McGovern campaign in 1972, the Carter campaign in 1976, the Kennedy campaign in 1980, the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1988, and the Clinton campaign in 1992. This won't happen unless the people work to make it happen during the campaign, right now, in the midst of the struggle. And it must be done in such a way that people are not re-privatized, passivized, and then eventually demobilized. It has to be planned regardless of what happens in the actual horse race for the presidency.

And this year there is a special challenge, because the people who have returned to life and energy are not just in the Obama campaign but in the Clinton campaign, and in the Green party, and in other political parties as well, and they need to be welcomed into an ongoing movement that keeps this energy alive, without facing recriminations for not having backed whoever others think that they should have.

Win or Lose: What Obama Needs to Do Right Now

Obama himself seems to recognize, at times, that what really counts is not the horse race or even who wins the presidency, but the creation of an ongoing movement that will last. Unfortunately, he does not take the next, absolutely necessary step of telling his supporters what they can do to keep the movement going right now and endow it with the energy to last beyond the November elections. So, for example, the people in New York, California, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and all the other states that have voted are implicitly being given the message that there is nothing for them to do right now except to donate more money to the campaigns of their candidates.

Imagine how different that could be if Obama were to ask people to meet weekly in their neighborhoods in small groups to begin to build ongoing projects of social change that would embody their highest ideals. Groups could be organized, for example, around universal health care, environmental sanity, the Global Marshall Plan as the path to homeland security, corporate social responsibility, and electoral reform. If the millions of people who have been touched by the campaigns (and yes, not only by Obama, but by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, etc.) were to begin working now for the changes they want their candidate to bring to the country, then these campaigns would stop resembling horse races and start resembling the building of mass movements and the reclaiming of social space from all those columnists, politicians, and public opinion leaders whose impact historically has been to deaden our hopes and convince us that we should just attend to our own personal lives.

This is where the NSP comes in. We are not of any particular candidacy, and not feeling conflicted about people who didn't back Obama but backed Clinton or even Huckabee or McCain or Nader or whoever. We see the big picture. We know that the key is to keep the hopeful energy alive, regardless of the outcome of the election, because that is the energy that will set the contours for what elected officials do once they have won.

That is the challenge, and for that, we need a way for people to become fully engaged in the electoral arena, and yet to recognize that what moves them is something far bigger than a great speaker and dynamic politician, but rather the goodness within them and within everyone else that has momentarily been allowed to reveal itself through the legitimating framework of an electoral campaign. But far too few people know about the NSP, and unless you help us change that (e.g. by inviting friends to a weekend afternoon or weekday evening gathering at your apartment or house and showing them the NSP video and then discussing with them our program and ideas) people will not know where to go or what to do, and instead will simply be waiting for the next round of the election from September to November, and after November will feel lost and powerless and may even feel that they've been used and tricked once again.

It has always been that way after elections. But it doesn't have to be. The movements that have been generated by Obama, Clinton, McCain, Huckabee, and others could remain alive if we choose to make them such-alive, and able to transcend sectarian political boundaries. We at NSP will do our part to make that happen, but we can't do it without your involvement.

Contact: or .

Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Krauthammer's disrespect

Charles Krauthammer is a real piece of work. Three years ago, I heard him speak at the annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (You may remember last year's conference, following which Bill O'Reilly and other luminaries on the right went ape-shit over statements made by a single panelist--of over 100 in attendance--which seemed to them to have the effect of encouraging high school-age children to experiment with sex and drugs.) Mr. Krauthammer, who was the sole speaker for a plenary, answered a question from a member of the audience, who suggested that perhaps the U.S. was not the best country to be exporting democracy to the Middle East, by reminding the gentleman that the mere fact that he was able to ask such a question of one such as himself was prima facie evidence of how free America truly is. Suddenly feeling myself to be in the presence of a very scary op-ed writer, I scampered to safety outside the building.

Nothing seems to excite the ever-attenuated antennas of the Righteous Right as much as liberals being exposed to free speech without being penalized. Thus it is with Charles Krauthammer, who, in his recent column in the Washington Post titled, ever so modestly, Obama's dereliction, first quotes Obama from his now-famous speech on race:

"There will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church?"

I would imagine that Mr. Krauthammer is not a church-going person, for the next words out of his pen were, "But that is not the question. The question is why didn't he leave that church?" Is Mr. Krauthammer used to hanging around with people who belong to two or more churches? For myself, I know that I wouldn't be caught dead with someone who attended two churches at the same time. Personally, I think that going to one church for the fiery sermons and another for the kicking potluck dinners is more than a little cheesy.

That being as it may, Krauthammer sees Obama's dereliction as continuing to attend Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago given the things that Rev. Wright has said over the past decades, all of which were condensed into one ten-second sound bite so that the conservatives wouldn't exceed their attention span. Krauthammer must have stopped reading (listening?) to Obama's speech soon after the words he quotes above were spoken. He must have missed the part where Obama pointed out that Rev. Wright is no longer the minister there (he recently retired).

But what really got to Krauthammer--and, I suspect conservatives everywhere--was that Obama suggested that some blacks of a certain age might have some justification for their anger at America, while pointing out that some whites, in turn, might feel justified in being distrustful that blacks may take their jobs under affirmative action. Krauthammer seems uninterested in the feelings of his own race toward blacks; but Obama must pay for suggesting that blacks have any justification for feeling slighted by our society. "This contextual analysis of Wright's venom, this extenuation of black hate speech as a product of white racism, is not new. It's the Jesse Jackson politics of racial grievance, expressed in Ivy League diction and Harvard Law nuance. That's why the speech made so many liberal commentators swoon: It bathed them in racial guilt, while flattering their intellectual pretensions. An unbeatable combination."

So, for Krauthammer, the sins of the past must not be placed or placated. They must be swept under the rug. When it comes to guilt, Krauthammer and his fans are not buying. Could this have something to do with the idea that most movement conservatives have that to admit error or fault is to put the lie to the notion that only they have God's eye and ear? Or does it have more to do with Maoist Mother and Fascist Father, who would smack them but good if they ever admitted to stealing a cookie? Think back to the last time a conservative ever admitted that society owed anything to anybody, that they made an "honest mistake", or that people needed to have an honest and open dialogue about a festering issue. What were people of that day wearing, if anything at all?

Dot of the Day: Claiming that American society owes anything to anybody--outside of tax cuts for those who used to be known as the "landed gentry"--will cause your conservative friends to go into denial faster than you can say, George W. Bush.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A response to Oklahoma state Rep. Sally Kern

I posted the following response to an article in the March 11, 2008, Tulsa Worldheadlined "Kern cites support from the GOP". Here's how the story begins:

"OKLAHOMA CITY -- A state lawmaker who declared that homosexuality is a greater threat to the United States than terrorism said Monday that she received a standing ovation from her fellow Republican legislators Monday."

Here's my posted response:

"That Rep. Kern should receive a standing ovation from her fellow Republicans is a graphic example as to why Barack Obama's message of hope and unity is answering such a moral and visionary aching among Americans today. When the party of hate--sadly, that is what the Republicans have become despite their "compassionate" rhetoric--proudly and vociferously embraces language which divides one group of loyal Americans from another by seeking to paint them as the enemy of the people, they are engaging in blatant demagogery. As long as they behave this way, they will constitute a far greater threat to American values than any external enemy and, as such, will be soundly rebuked in November in all those places where equality, freedom, and justice truly are embraced."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Barack Gets Dots

Something truly remarkable happened on Tuesday. Barack Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia that was all the rage on liberal Air America Radio but which was noticed, if at all, by mainstream media only insofar as it advanced the "controversy of the week" concerning his distancing of himself from his longtime pastor and friend, Reverend Wright. What passed beneath the radar screen of the vast majority of Americans was the sea change the speech brought to the political consciousness of our nation. Allow me to quote from the very beginning of the speech to the point where I started to choke up (it's not long):

Remarks of Senator Barack Obama
"A More Perfect Union"
Constitution Center
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the
street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched
America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars;
statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny
and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a
Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished.
It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that
divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the
founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more
years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within
our Constitution - a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of
equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people
liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from
bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights
and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were
Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part -
through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a
civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that
gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

These are only words, yet, they carry far more power to move the hearts and minds of men and women than any resume. They are words we have longed to hear since we were last challenged by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy to harken the promise of "the last, great hope of mankind"--the greatest system of government ever devised by the minds of mankind.

They are words that elucidate the "audacity of hope"--the hope of every child that he will someday be able to reach greater heights of happiness than his parents; of every adult that she can live with the dignity of knowing that America's promise is without question her promise, too; and the hope of every senior that their life will be honored in sickness and in health by a society that truly values all life from cradle to grave.

They are also words that will strike terror in those whose hearts have been hardened by a fear of never having enough--enough wealth, enough power, enough love--to assure their place of prominence in the world. These are the folks who believe that life is a zero-sum game, that when others are enriched, even in the most powerful and richest country in the world, they are necessarily diminished. It is in the minds of a miserable few of these folks that the thought might take root that the solution to all their problems is to quash any dreams of success that might spring forth from such words. It has happened so many times before. Think of a great prophet of the past and with it comes the realization that, for such as these, life is a flame that flashes with a brilliant light and then is extinguished so suddenly as to make the darkness seem eternal.

So, we must take words such as those Sen. Obama spoke on Tuesday, carry them in our hearts, and give them life. They are what keep us going, despite all the ignorance, hate, and foolishness we see about us. They are the gift that keeps on giving and that will guide us toward reawakening the enlightenment of America's beginning and the promise of all humans everywhere.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The mind of the movement conservative

Last Thursday, the US House held a symbolic vote as to whether President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy should be allowed to expire, as they are now scheduled to do, in 2010. The measure passed on a very close vote, with every Republican voting to continue the tax cuts indefinitely.

This degree of solidarity among those on the Political Right seems to me to be becoming more and more common and, at the same time, historically unprecedented. How is it that 200 individuals from different backgrounds and from disparate regions of the country can agree unanimously on anything, including the color of Condoleezza Rice's eyes?

Paul Krugman, in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal, offers an explanation. Over the past forty or so years since Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks have coalesced into a tight-knit movement of ideologues whose loyalty to scripted talking points from a few like-minded think tanks have produced what we know today as movement conservatism. Because movement conservatives are "hard-wired" to be loyal to cultural traditions as well as having a deep sense of loyalty to loyalty itself, they vote as a block for their leader's agenda and, further, for their leader himself. This is why John McCain became the nominee of their party despite being practically written-off last summer and being the bane of the Religious Right--it was "his turn".

How, then, can Democrats hope to ever be unified enough to overcome such loyalty? Everyone knows that trying to organize Democrats is like herding feral cats. For example, a recent USA Today poll indicated that, while 60% of Americans favor setting a timetable for withdrawal of US armed forces from Iraq, they have four different opinions as to the conditions under which the withdrawal should take place. On the other hand, the 40% in the poll who wanted to "stay the course" in Iraq were relatively united on that course of action.

Life for movement conservatives is relatively uncomplicated. Right is right and wrong is wrong. They would probably agree with Henry Ford that "history is bunk". It's much easier to make decisions in ignorance of both the errors of the past and the reality on the ground. Always cheer for the home team.

The only way for the Democrats to win against such a unified and unwavering opponent is to overpower them. Barack Obama, as much as I like the man, is wrong if he believes he can extend the hand of friendship to the likes of movement conservatives and expect to have it taken in a spirit of bipartisanship. Negotiation is a noble endeavor but it is a two-way street. How does one negotiate with someone who believes that to compromise is, to quote Grover Norquist, "date rape"? You don't. You can only shout them down by having the votes to muscle past them on every issue.

Here's a really big dot for you: If you're not registered to vote, by all means , do so. If you're registered but haven't voted recently, find the time to vote this year and every year. If you're tired of borrowing from your children to pay for foolish wars today, if you're tired of ignoring science while the planet burns, if you're tired of planned governmental incompetence in the face of natural disasters, and if you're tired of Congressional gridlock in the midst of societal collapse, then, when you do vote, vote for those candidates who will change things.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

E.T.: Eliot's Testosterone

I liked Eliot Spitzer. Of course, I didn't have to work with him on a daily basis, which I understand could be a problem. He was the first governor in US history to introduce legislation that would grant same-gender couples equal rights. That takes balls. He was a tough, uncompromising prosecutor who went after Wall Street tycoons like a bulldog after a rat. That also takes balls. Unfortunately, his balls took him places he shouldn't have been, such as to bed with high-priced call girls. Oh, how precipitously the mighty have fallen.

It's easy to say that power corrupts. That's more-or-less conventional wisdom today. But is it true? Or is there something about American politics that weeds out those personalities less likely to fall prey to the testosterone trap?

Perhaps I should clearly define what I mean by the "testosterone trap". By that term, I mean simply that, in an age of perpetual fear, the very quality in a (male) candidate most likely to assure success is also that most likely to lead to his moral downfall. The evidence for this proposition is overwhelming. Just think of all the successful politicians who, in recent years, have been disgraced (or, at least, embarrassed) by their philandering. I hardly need to list them here.

What is this quality so necessary to political good fortune? To be rather crude about it, it's having bigger balls than your rivals. It's about frat boy behavior, John Wayne's swagger, frequent use of profanity, bluster, bellicosity, and belligerence. Why, even women candidates fall prey to the testosterone trap. Think of Golda Meir; the "Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher; and, now, Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton is even suggesting, implicitly, that she has more "balls" when it comes to standing up to terrorism than her Democratic rival, Barack Obama. (Think of her emphasis on "experience" as a euphemism for "balls". I mean, really, does Hillary have THAT MUCH more experience in foreign policy or homeland security than Barack? Does the image she wants you to have in your mind when you think of her taking that call at 3am conjure up hair curlers and Oil of Olay?)

No one falls into the testosterone trap more whole-heartedly than John McCain. He even takes wife, Cindy, his icon of "I'm a better man than you", with him wherever he goes, like a favorite briefcase. His hair-trigger temper and harrowing grimace make him a fearsome opponent, even to the likes of "Islamic terrorists". No wonder that recent polls show him running well ahead of Hillary and Barack in the category of "most likely to kick the crap out of anybody who messes with the US".

I wonder how Jesus would do in a run for the presidency of our "Christian Nation"? I'm sure that his advisers would tone-down his talk of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies and play up his throwing the money-changers out of the temple. Language like "suffer the little children" would have to go and he would simply have to chuck the passivity and macho up. (I just realized that this makes two days in a row that I have mentioned Jesus; if I'm not careful, some people may get the impression that I'm a Bible-thumper.)

Here's a new dot for you: when you're all alone with your thoughts and your paper ballot or touch-screen voting machine, ask yourself if what you want in a president is a tough daddy who can beat up your best friend's daddy (along with his own wife and kids) or that other guy--or gal--who bears a slight resemblance disposition-wise to that swishy kid back in high school. Perhaps if we looked for qualities in our leaders similar to those we seek in our lovers, we'd have leaders who don't need so many lovers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Phooey on Brian Williams

In very first post here, I made a moral mistake on the very first word. I said "Shame on Brian Williams". What WAS I thinking? I don't really believe in shame. I shame someone when I make them feel that they are a bad person (or seek to make them feel that way). I really don't want to do that. I don't think that feeling that I am a bad person is at all productive or constructive. From time to time, I may take a person to task for doing or saying something that I think is like shaming someone; that is, making them feel less than a full human being--for example, what Brian did to Rachel Maddow (see my initial post). At other times, I will point out some of the world's outrageousness and why, in my opinion, it is such. I hope to never again shame someone or call them names. (Watch me on the name-calling, will you?)

Here's a new dot for you: If we are to heal the world, we must begin by treating EVERY human being with respect, even our enemies. This is the hardest challenge we will ever face as relational beings. But isn't this exactly what Jesus commanded us to do? Did anyone ever say it would be easy?

PS Don't expect frequent references to Jesus in this blog.

About "what dots?"

What dots? may disappoint you. It will surely disappoint you if what you are looking for is wit, satire, irony, vitriol, rant, gobs of data, quotations, citations, and dissertations. What I will promise to give you is a piece of my mind, for whatever that's worth. I will not attempt to keep you abreast of the latest virtual gossip, so don't come here looking for scoops. What I will attempt to do is to provide you with some "dots"--mileposts for the mind. If you should desire to wander in here, I hope that you will find some raison d'etre: a reason for living. This may sound a bit pretentious. I don't mean it to be. I simply mean that I hope to tie some loose ends together for you, help you to make some sense of this crazy-and-getting-crazier world. If the world makes sense (even darkly), a path out of the morass may manifest itself.

Think of Google Earth. If you zoom in on a location, it just looks like a mass of gray stuff. You can't tell where you are. If you zoom out just far enough to get a point of reference--a "dot", as it were--it seems to make a lot more sense (or reason). I will try to find the best height above the "political earth" to help give it rhyme and reason. I promise to give you...dots. It's up to you to fill in the places between the "dots"--to get from where your head is to where my is. Good luck!

Shame on Brian Williams

The night of the Ohio and Texas primaries, I was watching the returns on MSNBC. Brian Williams hosted. There was a panel of four pundits--two from the left and two from the right--which included Rachel Maddow from Air America Radio. The panelists had just spoken and the camera cut back to Williams. Brian commented on the unique studio setup that evening, one that gave him a frontal view of the four panelists through a glass wall. He then proceeded to say something like, "I'm seeing quite a bit of Rachel Maddow this evening. She's been drinking a lot. I don't know what's in her cup but she's been going after it."

A short while later--by then, apparent that Senator John McCain would be the Republican nominee for president--Brian launched into a brief biography of McCain's war record, emphasizing his toughness and perseverance, then urged his listeners to "keep this in mind between now and the election".

I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing. Having been a regular viewer of the NBC Nightly News, I had come to respect Brian Williams for his warmth and fairness. I was flabbergasted by his apparent misogyny and blatant disregard for the reputation of one of the fastest-rising female commentators in the business. I hardly need to explain to my readers--both of them--the implications of his remarks directed toward Rachel. These were compounded in their egregiousness by his subsequent open endorsement of a partisan candidate for president.

I walked the few feet to my PC and attempted to send an email of complaint to MSNBC/NBC (they are virtually one entity vis-a-vis their websites). However, I was further frustrated by my inability to find a way to do that. Nowhere on the websites could I find a link to an email address, either to the network or to Brian Williams personally. (What is the use of being raging mad and unable to vent? Thus, this blog.)

It seems that Mr. Williams has just driven one more spike into the coffin of the "liberal media bias". If it ever existed--which I don't doubt--it's long-dead now. How I long for the days of Eric Sevareid, Charles Kuralt, and Walter Cronkite. Those were the days when newsmen--and they were all men--were born, not transplanted from the White House press room or failed congressional or presidential campaigns. They were what they were, unvarnished and as honest as the day is long. But they didn't pretend to be unbiased while consorting with the enemy.

Here's a new dot for you: when you're looking for "news", try to get at the truth and not just what might smooth the feathers of General Electric.