Keeping the Faith

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun a discussion about politics, usually about Donald Trump and the enabling Senate, only to have friends say: “Please.  No more!  I can’t stand it!  I want to shut out all that noise so I can live my life.”

Often enough, they invoke the privilege—or the earned vulnerabilities—of age to shut off conversation.  Their arguments range from plaintive to enraged.  On the mild side, it might go like this: “I just want some peace in my old age.”  Some are more indignant: “I only have so much time left.  I’ll be damned if I’ll jerk dominate it.”

Almost everyone seems a little taken aback by my passion, and I’ll admit that I lack emotional distance when it comes to the high-jacking of my country by a narcissistic, greedy, ostentatious, ignorant, child who has the compassion of a stone and the inclinations of an autocrat.

My persistence seems to go against the cultural grain.  At my age, my observations and reactions should be leavened by my hard-won perspective.  “This too shall pass,” I should intone.  I should have turned my full attention to philosophical and spiritual pursuits.   Or to amusing myself. I should tend my garden and mind my own business.  What’s wrong with me?

The polling data are clear.  They tell us that, generally, the older you get, the more conservative you get.  Psychologists explain; We draw inward when we age: “…when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are more likely to engage in protective or defensive behaviour.”

But, of course, I’m not a general idea.  I’m an individual and my mother’s son, to boot.  Let me give you just a tiny example of her spirit.  At the age of 87, in the middle stages of dementia, and imprisoned in a “memory unit,” my wife, Franny, said that she had to get home to vote.  “Is that jackass Bush still there?” she snorted.  There was no let up from her.  I loved it when Franny first told me the story and feel buoyed by it now.

In my family, politics defined character.  When my parents described someone, they would first say: “She’s Left” or “She’s Right.”  Not that the person was nice, generous, stingy, smart, talented.  The core of a person’s identity and values could be found in their political views.  If you were Right, you were probably selfish, unwilling to share the national largesse with the majority of people.  If you were Left, you were generous.  This language might have been cryptic to outsiders, but to us it was crystal clear.

I have gained some sophistication over the years, reading extensively in political theory and psychology, working with scores of people, sympathetically practicing therapy with every kind of person, and living through many decades; but, truth be told, just like political researchers tell us, I haven’t wandered very far from the proverbial family tree.

Politics was like religion in my family.  As deeply as some people held their belief in God and the prophets, my family worshiped our nation’s ringing declaration: “We hold these truths to be self evident:  that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”  We were patriots in that very literal way.

Admittedly, we practiced our patriotism in a form that others considered unpatriotic—we were socialists in the 1940’s and 1950’s, during the ‘red baiting’ fury of the McCarthy period.  We never doubted that ours was a truer representation of the American faith.  Others did. We were censored and ostracized.  But the experience of being outsiders simply fortified our commitment to “the Left.”  We would be damned before caving to the convenient and conventional views of the majority, whose interests, we believed, had been appropriated and then discarded by the 1%.

To this day, I have no inclination to grow mellow or to acquiesce to what we then called “the power elite.”  The idea that the Trumps and the Koch brothers and even Democratic-leaning bankers and hedge fund managers should tell us what’s best is no more palatable to me now than it was to my parents.  I’d prefer a rejuvenated labor movement and the continued growth of grass roots activities.

At times of upheaval or before then – when change is in the air – liberals invoke the curative effects of moderation and political centrism. Bill Clinton, for instance, is famous for, downplaying poverty and disparities of wealth, and the increasing corruption of our political system.  He helped to dismantle important parts of the welfare system. Democrats and Republican moderates have long soft-pedaled environmental degradation and other key issues of our time.  In other words, they sacrificed the greatest good of the greatest number for their own victories, and convinced enough people that they were right.   We the American people need to do better.  We need to risk defeat as we aspire to a better world.

There are a slew of contemporary politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC, who will compromise on strategy but won’t readily compromise their core values.  And because of their utter sincerity, and the trustworthiness of their values, they may capture the American imagination more vividly than the appeasers.

I know that victory over Trump and his bigoted authoritarianism is paramount.  But isn’t it possible that those who sincerely stand for values, not just victory, stand a better chance of winning in 2020?

I know that people of my vintage tend towards moderation and what some would call wisdom.  But I don’t believe centrism is wisdom.  I believe that it is wiser and stronger to take a stand.  At this great historical crossroads, much like the times leading up to the Civil War, we will be measured—and need to measure ourselves—by our moral stamina.  So many of the people now in their 70’s stood up for Civil Rights and against the injustice of the Vietnam War.  Even as we worry about the costs of retirement, even as we want quiet and calm, we must stand again.

As I look back over my years and over our history, it is clear to me that wisdom doesn’t always trend towards moderation.  Sometimes it trends towards a stark, clear, and immoderate vision of doing the right thing.  Now is one of those times.

 

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Trump in Prison—Fake News

The latest edition of the Daily Beast shares a picture that Trump passed on to his base.  The picture shows Hilary Clinton, Barak Obama, Robert Mueller, and many other “enemies” huddling behind prison bars.  This infuriated me and released me to publish a brief flight of imagination that I’ve long wanted write:  Imagining Donald Trump in prison.  I hope you like it.

 

Breaking News:  Trump in Prison.  Donald Trump, who was found hiding on his Florida golf course, munching on some French fried potatoes and sipping a giant frozen milk shake, has been arrested today.

At last, justice has been served and he is now behind bars—likely for the remainder of his tawdry life.  Only vegetables will be served in prison.  No television will be permitted.  He will remain in isolation for most of each day, with no one to scream at.  There will be an enforced hour of exercise outdoors with his co-residents.  He is wearing striped prison garb and his head has been shaved.

The crimes are too many to name but let me name a few:

  • Collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election. Of course, collusion is a mild word, and some would argue that the real crime is Treason: conspiring against the American democratic system for personal and political gain.  Finally, prosecutors and Congress agree that he has gone over the edge in committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
  • Obstruction of justice. The instances are innumerable and have become increasingly blatant, beginning by firing James Comey and now offering his former campaign chief, Paul Manefort, a pardon in exchange for withholding the truth about Russian interference.
  • Using the Office of the President to prosecute his political “enemies,” a primary tactic used by all dictators, especially those Trump admires, such as Putin, Saudi Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, Erdogan of Turkey, and Philippine strongman, Duterte, to name a few.
  • Emoluments Using his office to make millions, if not billions of dollars.  This has never been in question.
  • Lying publicly, chronically, despicably about issues that are vital to the American public’s ability to assess policy and vote intelligently.
  • Tax evasion and money laundering. This goes back decades.
  • Assaulting and then paying off women, with whom he had affairs, to make sure they didn’t hurt his presidential campaign.

I’ll stop at these, though it is obvious that we could go on and on.

News sources also indicate that Donald Jr, Ivanka, Jared Kushner, and other members of the Trump clan are soon to join their loving father in the clink.

One fun and galling little addendum: The IRS has discovered that Trump is actually bankrupt.  He has been moving his money around, borrowing to cover debts at an increasing rate, and depending on Deutsche Bank and Russian Oligarchs to keep his organization afloat.  As a result of this discovery, Malania and her young son, Barron, and her parents have fled to the Balkans.  Their current location is unknown.

We regret to add that during Trump’s one hour free from isolation, he has been bullied by inmates who, in a former life, were wrestlers and coal miners.  They have left him bruised and begging for help.  For unstated and maybe unknown reasons, guards failed to break up the fights.  Though, Trump’s use of the N and the K word may have something to do with their reluctance.  Even before we asked, he called that Fake News.

Well folks, that’s it for today’s news from Gotham City.

 

It’s Complicated

Even now, having seen so much in life, after having many expectations confounded or foiled, I still yearn for certainty.  I want a predictable world, so I can determine where and how to dedicate my energies.  But, of course, the years have also tempered my need for certainty and I am equally drawn to life as it is.

Cancer, for example, has been a great teacher.  Both Franny and I seem to have survived ours, but our ideas about mortality and old age have had to be revised.  Child rearing has provided another classroom.  I love how my children have turned out but I can no longer deny that other children, raised in ways I didn’t agree with—arrogant as that was—have turned out wonderfully, too.  The political arena has also proved humbling.  The socialism of my youth, for instance, has yielded to a preference for mixed economic systems, with public ownership and individual incentives intertwined.

At any moment, I might argue vociferously for the ‘right way’ to do things but then I step back and conclude that, first of all, there are probably many ways to succeed and, second, the way I choose will probably be influenced, moderated, changed by choices others make. Solitary and binary thinking, an emphasis on right and wrong, hasn’t gotten me very far in this complicated world of ours.

Once again, last Tuesday’s elections put me to a test.  I had warned that these were the most consequential elections in a century.  They would either check the powers of Trump and his Congressional enablers or they could set free neo-fascist forces with the potential to take down our democracy.  The Democrats took the House and, with so many of my fellow Americans, I sighed in relief.  But that night and the next morning I also struggled to understand the results and to find comfort in them.  We won! Phew.  We lost the Senate!  Damn!  But didn’t we expect that?  Isn’t it enough to have regained some power?  There was more relief than triumph in victory, and is sat alongside the sorrow and anger and fear that partial victory might not be enough.

A week later, though, I feel clearer, better.  We may have won enough to protect our nation.  We may have fired up a grassroots movement that will win big in 2020.  People may be coming together.  A new period of progressive politics may emerge in response to Trump, McConnell and the Freedom Caucus.  A wave of common ground, a collective feeling joined to optimism, has emerged and may have gained enough momentum to continue.  Even a temperamental absolutist like me can cheer.

But there is a deeply ingrained part of me that still yearns for moral certainty, for a less compromised ground to stand on.  With that thought in mind, the very next day, Franny and I attended a lecture at the Harvard Law School entitled Identity, Faith, and Public Responsibility.  The question was this: How do values inform your decisions, particularly in heated, complex public arenas.  The lecturer was Jack Lew, formerly United States Secretary of the Treasury, White House Chief of Staff under President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources under President Clinton.  An accomplished man, to say the least.

Lew, a tall, thin, neatly dressed man, with a pleasant face and a surprisingly unassuming manner, talked at length about how religion—he’s an Orthodox Jew—informed and influenced his work.  He quoted the Talmud, the Torah, and Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings passed down from Rabbi to Rabbi over the centuries, to demonstrate the values he brought to key decisions during the US-Iran nuclear deliberations and the Clinton public welfare reforms.

I was eager to learn how a clearly religious man could navigate the roiling world of national and international politics and still be true to a clear cut set of values.  But, to be honest, I didn’t feel that I learned much during this part of the lecture.  He frustrated me by continually backing off the direct application of values.  In instance after instance, Lew said, in effect, “it’s complicated.”  He recalled his disapproval of Clinton’s withdrawing funds from the safety net for new immigrants, but assuaged his conscience because the funds did support programs for working mothers.

Over and again, he compromised: losing a bit to gain a lot; or losing a lot to gain at least something.  But—and this was his point—he never participated in decisions that centrally, and as a net result of considered analysis, contradicted his values; and he always struggled to bring decisions closer to them.  In a way, Jack Lew seemed like exactly the kind of insider I’ve been skeptical about for my entire life.  A good guy who compromises too much in order to maintain his position.

But the more I listened, the more I began to sense at least a partial answer to my wish to feel more comfortable with complexity.  I was drawn to the openness and integrity with which he struggled with problems that challenged his values.  Every time he was asked a provocative question, Lew hesitated, thought, then said something like this: Here is where I began—the bedrock of his values—and here is where I questioned myself and my ability to hold them tight.  When decisions seemed particularly fraught, he questioned whether he should resign.  In my job, he said, I had to represent the interests of my country but sometimes feared that my values and my country’s interest could diverge.  Even at such a precipice, Lew struggled to bring decisions close enough so that he could live with, even affirm, them.

Lew seems to live comfortably with partial victories, which, after all, are the messy basis of democratic governance.  Not in a lazy way — not without first testing how far he could move off his particular values — but with great, hard won, self-awareness.  That awareness, along with his humility and his willingness to struggle, every time, to achieve the best under the circumstances—maybe that’s what I admire most in him.

At this point in my life, finding truth and comfort in complexity and ambiguity is the Holy Grail.  I will never get to that zero place of Buddhism and postmodern philosophy.  I will never think that ideas and values are just illusions, mere human creations.  Policies and particular values remain at the bedrock of my spirit.  There are some truths for me — like the importance of kindness; like those great political truths trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence that feel “self-evident.”  But I know this: Those truths can be interpreted and pursued in many ways, and I need to loosen up and acknowledge those alternatives — and the people who argue for them.

I have vowed to practice the kind of humility I found in Lew:  his capacity to hold his ideals clearly and to strive towards their realization even as he knows that they won’t be fully achieved in any pure sense, taking comfort in the effort and in the partial solutions.

After listening skeptically and, at first, rejecting Lew’s compromising ways, I may have discovered a model, a hero and a goal.

 

 

 

 

The Most Consequential Election Since 1932

Today may be engaged in the most consequential election in recent history: at least since 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to reverse the devastation of the Great Depression; and maybe since 1860, when we chose Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves and to save the Union.

After visiting Hungary, David Leonhardt of the New York Times, observed that he’s hard pressed to distinguish Orban’s quiet dictatorship from the current Trump and Republican regime.  By taking control of the press, Parliament, and the judiciary, Orban has eliminated systematic opposition.  Isn’t Trump trying to do the same.

If the Republicans consolidate their majorities in both Houses of Congress, this is the likely outcome: building a judiciary ever more sympathetic to the interests of rich men and antagonistic to the rights of women and people of color; increasing tax breaks for the rich, leading to the financial decline of the poor and middle class; normalizing gun violence; dismantling or, at least, weakening of social security, affordable health care, educational opportunity, and further institutionalizing racism by such means as mass incarceration and the disenfranchisement of young people of color.  Victory will embolden Republicans to extend their control into future by making it harder for people of color to vote.

Like Orban, Republicans won’t require active military interference—though it might be there in the background, as it is on the Texas border—or violent revolution, as in the emergence of European, Soviet, and Chinese autocratic regimes.  The Republicans will have been voted in.

If the Democrats win the House, they will be able to check movement towards an authoritarian state.  The ability of the House to subpoena Trump and his allies and to support an even more robust Mueller investigation may bring him down.  Turning the tide of local elections—State and Federal—may allow Democrats to dismantle gerrymandering and other methods of limiting and slanting the vote towards the Republican minority.  Victory may mark a turning point away from Tea Party populism and nationalism, and accelerate the fight against “dark money” and the ability of American Oligarchs to exercise their power from behind their velvet curtains.

A Democratic triumph may prove the turning point for people of color, finally taking their full place in American leadership.  And victory may catapult women into power so that fifty years from now we look back on 2018 and say: Why didn’t we figure out how to more fully empower women, with their more collaborative and non-violent ways, until that fateful year.

 

Preparing for Fascism

Do me a favor: convince me that I’m being an alarmist?

During an interview about his book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale Professor, Jason Stanley, was asked if the American government was fascist.  “I would never say it in an interview,” he responded.  “It would be too dangerous.  In other words, by the time the people in power have instituted fascism, it’s too late to call it that.”

But the time may be near.  Ironically, it is during periods of uncertainty—not knowing, for instance, if a hurricane will really strike, whether an authoritarian leader will execute a coup—that it is hardest to know what to do.  It is tempting to deny the potential calamity.  Those who insist it is coming look like alarmists.  Sometimes, though, the “threat” is transformed into a reality before we know it, before we stop calling it a threat.  We who have watched environmental degradation called a threat long after it is wreaking actual damage know this danger all too well.

On October of 2016, John McNeil of the Washington Post asked “How Fascist is Donald Trump?”  Then he identified 11 characteristics of Fascism to help us judge whether the danger is imminent or distant.  They are: hyper-nationalism; militarism; glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics; fetishization of youth; fetishization of masculinity; a “leader cult”; a “lost Golden Age” syndrome; self-definition by opposition;mass mobilization and mass party; a hierarchical party structure, which purges the disloyal; and theatricality. Most of these qualities are resonant in President Trump’s rhetoric and actions.

Let me add a few observations.  Trump has persistently, fervently, tried to weaken the checks and balances that are supposed to limit (democratic) presidential power. For instance, he attacks the press.  He now has an embarrassing degree of control over the Republican  Congress.  And, if Brett Kavanaugh, who believes in the immunity of the President from criminal prosecution, becomes a Supreme Court judge, then Trump will further insulate himself from the balance of power the founding fathers specifically erected against tyranny.

The international context further strengthens the possibility of authoritarian rule in the United States by making strong-man rule increasingly normative.  We need only think of Poland, Hungary, and Russia.  Or turn our thoughts to increasingly powerful right wing movements in France, Germany, England, and even Sweden.  Where are the bulwarks against the fall of democracy?

In a New Yorker review of Madeleine Albright’s new book, warning about the potential for fascism, Robin Wright noted this: On a Sunday morning in 2016, Donald Trump retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Asked if he worried about his association with Mussolini’s thinking, Trump was casually unbothered.

We have been warned about the possibility of Fascism by credible sources.  And we may be standing on a precipice, easily tumbled by national crises—like the Reichstag fire that provided Hitler with an excuse to consolidate power, like a little war in Iran, that might “require” even more centralized power in the United States, or like a natural weather disaster that “demands” a larger than usual contingent of the national guard.  These are the kind of events that could plunge us over the line and into a fascist abyss.

Even if the risk is 10%, don’t we have to take it literally, not as some metaphor used to criticize an dangerous presidency?  In other words, if we take seriously the warnings, if we allow ourselves to think the unthinkable, if we believe that Fascism is a real, perhaps imminent possibility, what should we do?

At the least, we must exhaust all democratic options and, in particular, work to turn the House of Representatives now, then state legislatures over the next few election cycles, thus ending the gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to win political dominance, even as minority party.

But, with the possible exception of turning the House this November, these are long-term solutions.  What if we at least hypothesize that the crisis is imminent.  How can we avoid the “pale cast of thought,” the paralysis that empowered the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain, during the last century, and the authoritarian regimes—Russia, Poland, and Hungary, among them—in this century?

If we had already become an authoritarian state, I don’t think that we would have qualms about forming a resistance movement.  Oddly enough, the moral choices grow easier as the enemy grows clearer.

I do appreciate that it is daunting to move from the idea of threat to its realization.   None of us want to consider this until it is absolutely necessary.  It would take a kind of courage that most of us have not been called upon to demonstrate.  We might admire the French Resistance.  We might romanticize the Republican struggle against Franco. We might wish that the Germans and Italians had begun to fight earlier.  But what about us?

I don’t feel very brave and I don’t know what to do.  But I am frightened.  So I am writing this essay to pose the question more strongly than I see it presented in the national mainstream media.  Even progressive venues such as The Daily Beast, Salon, and Politico have been reluctant to name the fascist threat as more than a threat.  To me, that is like saying that environmental degradation threatens our future when we know that it already produced undeniable consequences.

At the very least, we must begin to talk with one another and, possibly, to do so in an organized way.  We can ask what we should do “if.”  We can begin to plan for contingencies.  As Jason Stanley warns, there may come a time when we cannot have these conversations out in the open.  Now we can.

 

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

Everyone I speak to wants to do something to counteract the toxic impact of the Trump presidency and the right wing Republican effort to deprive our government of its ability to serve the great majority of American people.

Almost everyone I meet feels powerless in the face of this challenge.  What can I do? The problem is too big for me.  It’s too far away.  And, of course, it is far away from citizens of Massachusetts, New York, and California, where our Democratic votes hardly seem to count.  Even those of us who are determined to head off to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other places to help in the Congressional races fear that our efforts could be in vain.

I’ve been held captive by this way of thinking for too much of my life. It was introduced to me at the age of seven.  My family, driving in our first car, a brand new Studebaker, was passing through the Bowery in lower Manhattan.  When we stopped for a red light, homeless men wiped our windshield.   “What is going on?” I asked my parents.  My dad said, “They have been pushed out of their jobs and have no place to live but the streets.”  I upset, angry, tearful.  “That’s not right.  I feel terrible.” Then my mother turned in her seat, looked me in the eye and said, “Feelings don’t count. Do something!”  The helplessness I felt at that moment has inhibited my political participation ever since.

But I think I misunderstood my mother’s lesson.  Both of my parents eschewed charity, believing that it just took the edge off of poverty.  Fundamental change, like higher minimum wages, universal health insurance, and protecting the rights of working people to organize, would be required to make a substantial and lasting difference.  They didn’t mean that helping individuals was unimportant, but that’s how I understood their lesson.  Since I couldn’t see my way to influencing such major change, I didn’t trust the power of small differences.

It may also be that my experience of the immediate post-World War II world – exuberant and  full of opportunity – reinforced my belief in the possibility, even the likelihood, of large scale change.  During the decades following the war, working people prospered with the help of union organizing and entered the middle class.  Civil rights for Black people, GLBT people, and women expanded steadily, sometimes dramatically.  Health care grew accessible to the majority.  Cures for infectious diseases appeared regularly.  The world was getting better.  Progress was simply a matter of effort.

But just as reforms progressed at scale and speed, so regression could follow with equal force.  I have watched with dismay the long withdrawal of progressive reforms during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Bush, and Trump.  Now it no longer seems possible to think of continual upward motion , of unalloyed progress.

These gigantic national mood swings, far beyond my control, deepened my sense of being an insignificantly small player in an immense universe.  I hated the feeling and, for many years, have sought solace in introspection, reflection, and meditation.  The effort has helped but only in partial way.  My parents would not have had much patience for the substitution of self-healing for social healing.  As it turns out, I have come to agree with them.

Over the years, even as I wrote soulfully in my journal, tried some psychotherapy, practiced psychotherapy, taught others to practice therapy, meditated, and took long journeys into the wilderness in search of inner peace, my parents words retained their strength.  I would complain to Franny that I’m not doing enough.  She would remind me that I was helping scores of patients and, through my students, scores more.  My efforts felt paltry.  Later, my work with nonprofits, an attempt to leverage my skills to reach greater numbers, felt the same way.  I was always counting, and the numbers were always too low.  Was it worth it to help a few if the social and economic systems that led to suffering remained the same?

Lately, I have begun to think it is.  I have come to believe my focus on numbers, the idea that only large scale change makes a difference, has had an oddly dehumanizing effect on me.  It blinds me to the real people with whom I live.  As one sage put it, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

I am not suggesting we jettison idealism and soaring goals.  To be truly human, we must aspire to the heights.  But, simultaneously, and even as we try to overthrow the Trump/Republican hegemony, we also need to establish modest and realizable goals for our nation and ourselves.

Two recent experiences helped to move me in this direction.  The first came from reading the novel Zoo Station, by David Downing. The protagonist, John Russell, is a British journalist living in Berlin in 1938.  The dehumanizing Nazi rule—especially its violence toward Jews—is increasingly absolute and horrifyingly cruel. He hates it but lays low because defiance might lead to his expulsion or worse, and so the loss of his German son and the woman he wants to marry.  When he imagines defying the odds, he tells himself that he can’t do enough anyway. It might be worth the risk if he could help 50 or 100 Jews, but short of that, well, what’s the point?  I have long identified with this kind of reasoning, knowing how it defeats action. But in spite of his calculation, Russell grows attached to a Jewish family and, eventually, decides that saving one family is enough to justify taking risks.  Numbers are abstract, he decides.  Courage is personal.  Action is personal.  By acting, Downing suggests—win or lose—Russell becomes more fully human.

Last week we attended an immigration-related vigil that my daughter-in-law Rachael, who works for the Newton schools, helped to organize. The husband and father of a Newton family originally from Guatemala, Rigoberto, is now being threatened with deportation—this, after 21 years of living and working here, raising two sons, and being active in their school communities.  His wife, Imelda, also active in the community, has cancer.  His 18 year old has plans to attend college in September, the first in their extended families. The cruelty of this impending family rupture is breathtaking—the result of dehumanizing federal policy that treats people as “illegal”—a stunning concept when you think of it.

How can we change that policy?  How can we stand firm against the Trump immigration steamroller?  It is easy to get disheartened by the challenge.  Not Rachael, and not people like her.  Her main focus is on this one family.  Each family, by itself, is worth the effort.  But you would miss the point if you thought of Rachael as driven “only” by compassion.  The vigil was also a political act meant to galvanize and activate others.  The vigil won’t directly change the world, as I imagined my mother wanted me to do, and were she still alive, would unabashedly instruct her granddaughter-in-law to attempt.  But it makes a statement: Here we stand; we care. I find that position admirable — and for perhaps the first time in my life, enough. These small, seemingly understated actions do change the world, our immediate world, enough to make a difference.  Indeed, as the Talmud notes, “to save one life is to save a whole world.”

As I have grown older, I have been watching them – these local and targeted actions — as carefully as I can.  They are helping to break me out of a prison of self-recrimination that my mother built for me by demanding too much too soon.

As it turns out, I have also been persuaded by my mother’s warning about feelings. They might form the bedrock of protest.  First you have to feel, as Russell and Rachael felt, that injustice to others is injustice to you.  Their oppression becomes yours. That empathic bond makes inaction virtually impossible.  And action, however “small,” to protect the vulnerable, becomes essential.  In the end, it circles back, providing true grist for the self-acceptance so many of us pursue

 

America: A Progressive Elegy

During my recent trip to Berlin, I was struck by how seriously the Germans have taken their own descent into hell during the Nazi period.  Their Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of huge, gray granite blocks is a deeply moving testament to a tragedy they take responsibility for.  It is set right near the Brandenburg  Gate, the symbolic center of the city.  It is unavoidable. The brass “stumble stones” scattered throughout the city, mark thousands of homes where “murdered” Jews had lived and, with each name chiseled into the brass, personalize and publicize Nazi atrocities.  German law outlaws hate speech and Nazism, in any form.

Where, I wondered, is the American equivalent?  A memorial marking the centuries in which we embraced slavery and, subsequently, institutionalized racism?  How do we mark our own soul searching? Where is a memorial to the Native American tribes that we virtually destroyed in our imperialistic quest for more and more territory—what we called our Manifest Destiny?

I’ve had a lifelong romance with America, with its democratic ideals and its welcome to the oppressed peoples of the world.  Even when we faltered, I thought, we were on the way to redemption.  Slavery was followed by emancipation.  When the poor could not find jobs and earn decent wages, we empowered their unions and created programs that set them to work.  When our nativist and isolationist bent threatened to dominate, leaders like FDR found ways to turn our attention outwards to help win the war against Nazi Germany.  In other words, our failures were exceptions, soon to be remedied.

Recently, I’ve seen how naive I’ve been, looking through the lens of one who has prospered in this land, and giving too little weight to the experience of those who haven’t.  The emergence of the Republican Tea Party joined to the corrosive greed and bigotry of the Trump presidency, may have pushed me over the edge.  I now see current trends as deeply rooted in the American tradition. What I had seen as exceptions now seem as foundational as the American ideals I have cherished.

I am not alone in my reconsideration.  For decades now, historians have been unearthing uncomfortable truths and rewriting our narrative.  The differences are far too many and complex to list here but let me name just four areas of contention.  First, slavery was integral to the formation of our “perfect union.” During the Constitutional Convention, Northern states were ‘forced’ to accept slavery as the price of Southern participation.  When I was young, my history books insisted that Reconstruction failed because those terrible carpet baggers tried to impose their greedy capitalist way on the suffering South.  But we did not learn about the KKK terrorists who threatened Blacks and Whites who wanted to actually institutionalize emancipation.  How about now? There are over 2,300,000 Americans in prisons today, a large percentage of them men of color.  Racism has marked our culture from beginning to end.

Here’s a second area where the narrative has changed.  We were told that America was a land of immigrants, a melting pot.  But we were not supposed to form a stew with many ingredients; instead we were supposed to melt and melt until we all became the same: White Anglo Saxon Protestants.  As the signs noted, “No Irish need apply,” at least until they learned to be Americans.  No Southern Europeans, either. Their skin was too dark and they were said to smell of garlic.  We prefer blond, blue-eyed, clean-smelling folks from Northern Europe, the same people Trump prefers today.  And certainly this country has wanted to limit the number of Jews.  During the early years of the Nazi reign, we turned Jews away, turned back boatloads when their only alternative was almost certain death in concentration camps.  The people of the heartland—think of how we use that word—have always wanted their wall.

The third myth concerns our view of the Us as the land of opportunity, the land of unlimited social mobility.  After all, isn’t that why those “huddled masses” have clamored towards our shores.  Maybe this was once so but statistical studies tell us that now “there is considerably more mobility in most other developed economies…This cornerstone of US identity — that if you put in hard work, a better future awaited — long separated the US from other countries in the American imagination. But in practice, that idea is increasingly evading the country’s young people.”   In fact, the richest 1% of Americans owns almost half of our wealth, and they are holding on to it.

The fourth myth, sometimes called “American exceptionalism,” proclaims the United States as a democratic model that nations throughout the world should emulate.  Yet the increasing concentration of American wealth, fed by tax policies and hidden, thanks to the recent Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has led to a concentration of political power.  We have become a plutocracy, where a few wealthy men exercise inordinate power over government policy.  In this plutocracy, the meaning of one man, one vote, is losing its meaning.  And indeed, this is not as new as you might think.  Our Founding Fathers never intended a majoritarian democracy.  They trusted landowners and White men and built political structures like the Electoral College to guard against the “tyranny of the majority.”  They empowered the real Americans—rural and White—by giving them the Senate.  How else do we justify Wyoming, population 573,000, having the same vote as California, population 39,000,000?

I could go on to explain how our country was built to share power only so much but, in the little space I have left, I want to offer a few thoughts about what we can and should do about it.  I have three recommendations.

First, we need to do some soul searching and acknowledge the inherent problems of our democracy, such that the Freedom Caucus, the Alt Right, and Trump, are not exceptions.  They are as American as Progressives are.  In other words, we must remove our veil and begin our reforms from an honest, realistic perspective.  We need to cleanse our mind and spirit in order to build a more just and equal American future.

Second, like Germany, we need to fashion and initiative a process of peace, reconciliation, and reparation.  Once we have searched our own souls, we need to talk honestly, directly with the people we have injured or their descendants and find out how they would build a better world.  I find it humiliating that the Germans could look inside, admit their guilt, and try to build a society where anti-Semitism cannot rise again, while America has undergone no such process for slavery.  As so many great and eloquent African Americans have already insisted, we need to own up to the racism in all of us.  We need to ban hate speech in all of its forms.  And like Germany, which has paid reparations to Israel, we should seriously consider reparation to the descendants of slaves—enough to give them real economic momentum in our society.  To heal our society, we can’t afford not to.

Third, we must rebuild, not tear down, the institutions and laws that guarantee all people have equal access to the educational, economic, and cultural wealth of our nation.  This might start by dismantling barriers, such as:  1) the Electoral College; 2) the practice of gerrymandering; 3) the restrictions on voting.  And it might proceed by reintroducing a much fuller guarantee of voting rights, fair progressive taxation, guaranteed by a government that is actually by, for, and of the people.

Call these suggestions idealistic, pie in the sky, aspirational.  But it looks to me like Trump and his Republican enablers are willing to sacrifice democratic ‘niceties’ in the service of ideological ends, and to avenge their base’s humiliation at the hands of the “elites.”. And it looks to me that they may win if we don’t directly and strongly engage this battle now.