On Being Men: Letter to My Grandsons

Dear Jake, Eli, and Jack,

There are so many things I’d like to share with you.  Some will have meaning now; others are for later as you grow into manhood.  Here’s one.

Did you know that the majority of men in this country prefer Donald Trump to any of the Democratic candidates for the presidency?  For me, that fact feels like the betrayal of the American ideals and, more personally, the values I was brought up with.  Our elected president is dishonest, cruel, bigoted, and corrupt.  He’s a braggart, a misogynist (that means someone who disrespects and probably dislikes women), and a cheat.  I could say more but you get the picture.

Yet men in great numbers keep choosing him.  Instead of just dismissing him and his followers, though, you and I need to ask ourselves as honestly as possible what makes him so attractive to so many.  The temptations to join his crowd are greater than you might think, yet it would sadden me beyond measure if you yielded to them.

I think I can boil down Trump’s appeal to a simple message: people (immigrants, people of color, the “elite” (people who are well educated), and women are taking away our power.  Men must be strong and reject their takeover.

What kind of takeover are we talking about? Here’s how the Trump voters see it: “They” are taking our jobs.  They are taking our culture (this is code, meaning a diverse society that no long puts White men and especially those of northern European ancestry on top).  They are taking our homes—men are no longer the kings of their castles but must share power with their wives.  In other words, White men are no longer the automatic center of American society.  Hoards of immigrants, Black and Brown people, women, and Eastern intellectuals are attacking our traditional ways.

Not only is society changing but we can’t seem to do anything about it.  There is a tidal wave washing over us, overwhelming our efforts to maintain our way of life.  What’s worse is that all of this is happening in spite of us.  We’ve got to stop acting like helpless victims—like women.  We need to take back what rightfully belongs to us.  If we have to do that by bullying, by stealing votes, by keeping those “others” poor and powerless, we will do that.  Thus the big, orange-haired man, bellowing at the rallies, insulting all who oppose him, sneering and snarling at all opposition—that’s who we want to be.
Warriors. Big and strong, our anger released. He makes us feel more like men.

This, of course, is not even close to the kind of man I want you to be.  It’s not who your parents want you to be.  It’s not who you are.  I already see that plainly in you, Jake, at 18.  I can even see it in nine year old Eli and six year old Jack.  Your parents have taught you well.  But let me say a little more about the forces that have brought on this backlash to a century of social progress.

Trump and the White men are right: we have lost some of the power that men have had over the centuries.  Woman now vote.  Women now work out of the home and will soon earn equally with us.  Black and Brown people vote, too, and they are finding good jobs. Immigrants from around the world, people of all colors and nationalities, have entered our country in search of freedom and economic security.  Women and men, often working twice as hard as we do to earn a living for their families, often laboring at jobs that White people don’t even want to do.  I get goose bumps watching them rise.  Isn’t that the American dream?  It sure is mine and I’m happy to share.

And here’s some of the positive sides of change.  In the old days, men had to always seem, even pretend to be strong, even when we felt tired or frightened or depressed.  We couldn’t ask for help.  When I was young, cultural norms warned us not to share our feelings—bad feelings, of course, but even good feelings, like love and delight—for fear of seeming weak. We don’t have to be that way anymore.  We don’t have to act like cartoonish stereotypes of men the way that Trump and his followers do.  We don’t need guns to make us feel strong, to make us feel like men.

We can join together, share work, share feelings, share triumphs and losses, fears and loves.  With each other.  With women and children.  We can be playful and sweet.  Not always rough and tough.  We don’t have to hide behind gruff voices and threats and guns.  We can be obvious.  We can be who we are, each moment, and over the long haul.  You can’t imagine how much more energy comes from breaking the old taboos, from the ability to express all sides of our character.

By tearing down the shell we built to protect us from feeling weak, we are free to love.  To be open and close with our wives, our children, our friends.  And to feel loved.  Something that so-called “real men” rarely feel.  We can let it in and be warmed by it.  Gain confidence through it.  Find ourselves able to love others more because we feel loved.

Maybe the most extraordinary prize for the new men among us is the ability to be close, loving fathers.  We don’t have to hand the job over to mothers.  We can share.  We can begin by holding our babies, by playing with our toddlers, hanging out with our older guys (and girls).  For me, there was no deeper and no more challenging experience than raising my daughter—your mother and aunt—by myself for a while.  It made it so much easier to understand women and children.  And that made me stronger and—pay attention—less self centered.  I had to pay attention to her first.  Not something that many men have had to do.  Not something that came naturally to me, either.  But I learned, and, when you care for your little ones, you will learn too.

Getting outside ourselves, being caretakers—not just by paying the bills but, like your fathers, by changing the diapers—will make (modern) men of us all.  And I will be so proud that you are my grandsons.

How to Win the 2020 Elections

Dear Readers

You’ve read my essays and know how upset I have been about the Trump presidency, the way that it veers towards autocracy, criminality, racism, and a crass, childish style.  We have two opportunities to stop the bleeding.  One is proceeding in the legislature: the impeachment process.  The other, which we need to pay even more attention to is the upcoming elections.

Many of us have been searching for a meaningful response.  We send dollars to political campaigns.  We prepare to knock on doors to canvas in neighboring states.  But most of us live in a “blue bubble” and worry that these activities won’t have much effect.  But I believe that there is a way to make a difference: by supporting proven grassroots political organizing.  That is, support for those who support local organizations, particularly those located in the battleground states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

By focusing on county and state elections, the Koch Brothers created a vast, powerful network of grassroots political action, think tanks, PACs, and the like, which fueled and sustained the right wing revolution, originating in the Goldwater defeat, and blossoming in the Tea Party, presidencies of Regan, Bush, and Trump, and Congressional dominance leading to a defiant Republican judiciary.

The last time that Progressives experienced a comparable threat was the 1930’s, when the  horrors of the Great Depression overrode political timidity and paved the way for the powerful programs of the New Deal.  I believe that we may be facing a very different but comparable threat now, particularly as William Barr has added the resources of the Department of Justice to try to punish Trump’s opponents.

To fight off these threats, we must win the 2020 elections, local, state, and federal.  Towards that end, let me introduce you to the Movement Voter Protect (MVP).  They provide financial and consulting support to carefully vetted grassroots organizations in battleground states.  These groups are already in action, battle tested, and enduring.  They don’t dissolve every two or four years.  Like the Koch brothers crusaders, they take the immediate and long view.  I believe that support for the MVP provides a highly leveraged way for us, regular citizens, to make a difference.

Here’s one particularly compelling success noted by MVP : “We know that Maggie Hassan won her slim 2016 victory thanks to the votes in Manchester, Nashua, and Concord among people of color who turned out to support her.  Leading that work were four MVP-supported organizations whose staff and volunteers knocked on 85,000 doors in the summer and fall of 2016.  Hassan’s election – by 1,027 votes – saved Obamacare.”

With my friend, Matt Epstein, I will be holding a fundraiser for MVP, where you can be introduced to MVP organizers.  Please join us on December 5, from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm at Goulston & Storrs, 400 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, MA.   Light eats and drinks will be served

And if you can’t join us, please donate as generously as you can to the MVP Big Five Battleground Fund at https://movement.vote/.

Thanks,

Barry

Changing your mind is a good thing: Advice for Elizabeth Warren

Dear Senator Warren:

I admire your campaign: your policy positions, your spirit, and your insistence on taking the high ground, even as others begin to dig into the dirt.  I don’t worry about the electability question.  It seems to me that, as people grow accustomed to you, as they hear your story and begin to identify more with it, they will vote for you.  Besides, it is vital to lead according to principle, policy and character, and not to primarily follow imagined pathways of voter preference.

I do have one suggestion, though, and I think it will greatly increase the possibility of victory, which, as we all know, is essential.  Trump must be defeated.  I believe that you’d have a much better chance for the presidency if you switched from a single payer health care system to a program that offers both universal coverage and greater choice.  Not necessarily because that is the very best plan but because it seems to be what the American people want.

You can and should say that you still believe that a single payer system is the most effective, efficient and affordable way to deliver health services.  Having affirmed your analysis and values, you now say that you have listened to the American people—those whose choices are paramount—and, so long as every person in this country is covered, you can accept the will of the majority if, when you are president, Congress endorses a plan that combines public and private health care coverage. 

Here’s my reasoning.  First, the objective is more important than the strategy by which you achieve it.  The objective is effective, affordable coverage for all in a way that people accept. Why not be open to any strategy that reflects your objective and gives you the best possibility of both election and positive, if imperfect, legislative action?

Second, this is an opportunity to affirm the will of the people.  That stance moves you further from criticism that you are an Eastern elitist with no feeling for the popular pulse—or compassion for how “regular” people see things.

Third, it is important to learn and to adapt to circumstances, and to be public about your learning.  FDR practiced this approach to great advantage.  He’d try one thing, see if it worked, and set about discovering how it worked and how to make it work better. If the innovative program didn’t work, he’d try something new.  He was an experimenter at a time when the answers weren’t so clear — like now.

Fourth, it is vital to establish your right to change.  I know that change has become taboo in American politics, that it is considered hypocrisy to begin in one place and end in another.  I know that you will be called a hypocrite or weak.  But you, the working class Oklahoma kid who rose to academic and political prominence, the young Republican who, with time and education, saw the Democratic light—you, of all people, know about change and can say how life-affirming adaptation to new circumstances can be.

Fifth, once elected, you will have a mighty struggle convincing Congress that any health care plan that covers every resident of the United States is a viable idea.  You will be accused of being a socialist, a spendthrift, a starry eyed idealist, and lots more.  You will need to be flexible in negotiations.  All great presidents, from Lincoln to FDR to Lyndon Johnson (before he got caught up in Vietnam) have been great negotiators.  Why not indicate ahead of time that you are so inclined?

That’s it.  I believe that the main policy issue that may currently stand in the way of your election is health care—though there will be a need for more flexibility over time.  Make this change and I think you will be seen as the Champion of the American People — and make us all proud.

 

 

 

Why Shouldn’t We Be President

In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement.  I was 74.  The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort.  And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so.  .  Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.

With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing:  Why did I think it best to pass the torch?

The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task.  It was time for new ideas and new energy.  There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me.  She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences.  Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.

At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice.  In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.

I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t.  Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?

The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think  “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.”  There’s an impossible amount to learn.  Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office.  That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.  You do the math.  “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said.  As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s.  So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.

You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point.  People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age.  Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.  Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.

Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime.  Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.”  “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education.  Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:

“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”

I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership.  Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism.  That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think.  But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives.  It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it?  And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.

What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service?  These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.

I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership.  Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual.  We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive?  Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability.  What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office.  For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office?  That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.

I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability.  Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.

 

If it Looks Like a Duck: Appeasement in America

Franny and I are sipping our morning coffee, reading the Sunday NY Times, pleased as always with our little ritual.  About a half hour into it, however, I come upon Lynne Olson’s review of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Olson notes the “uncomfortable parallels” between this moment in U.S. history and the tumultuous 1930’s in Europe, calling the book “valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom…” As has become all too frequent these days, the news disrupts the morning’s calm.

With Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, Britain tried to avoid war at all costs.  He resisted activities that would tax her “Depression-afflicted economy” or expand her military, so necessary in protecting her increasingly vulnerable empire.  So Chamberlain, a former businessman, convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, “he could convince the Fuhrer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.”  We know how that worked out.

Though the analogy is surely a stretch and the danger not so great, I believe that we may find ourselves in a similar predicament if we fail to bring Donald Trump to heel–and soon.  Key American leaders in the Republican Party enable his anti-democratic campaign.  Many in the Democratic Party promote patience and decorum, acting as though there’s plenty of time to halt the progress of autocracy.  I think we need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  In that sense, those who “slow-walk” the opposition to our president, may, in the light of history, turn out to have been appeasers.

Let’s begin with the signs, and the increasing pace, of Trump’s assault on American democracy.   We have:

  • The assault on the free press
  • The weakening of Congress (or the House of Representatives), by bypassing the Senate’s ability to screen Cabinet Secretaries—they are now almost all “Acting Secretaries,” subject only to Trump’s direction; running roughshod over the House’s oversight capability by blocking and ignoring subpoenas; utilizing “executive privilege” and “executive orders” whenever Congress disagrees.
  • Hijacking of the Department of Justice, bending it to meet the personal needs of the President, thus building a protective shield for the president: through massive numbers of judicial appointments; by destroying, with Barr’s help, the independence of the Department of Justice; through the use of suits to delay and destroy efforts to convict the President.
  • Neutralizing the FBI and the CIA, by bypassing them and impugning their motives and patriotism, just as Hitler did, by criticizing and bypassing his intelligence agencies, and, more sinisterly, by “investigating” them when they threaten Trump’s rule.
  • The threat to extend his term past the date that it is officially completed;
  • Casting his lot, internationally, with other autocrats;
  • Bullying members of his own party with threats, mockery, and accusations;
  • Fueling racial divisions and animosity among white Americans, and assaults on refugees and immigrants, eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This centralization of executive power does not seem to bother enough American citizens. Increasingly, the pollsters and the pundits tell us that Trump’s chances of election—with the help of the anti-democratic process represented by the Electoral College—continue to rise.

The enablement of Trump’s growing power is clearly visible.  Mitch McConnell has been the leader, not allowing discussion of legislation or criticism of the President to even reach the Senate floor.  William Barr, the new Attorney General, has joined McConnell with a passion, distorting the Mueller Report, and serving as Trump’s defense lawyer to thwart efforts to curtail executive power.

Of course, McConnell and Barr have had plenty of support, extending far beyond the Freedom Caucus and the Evangelical right, who will support Trump even when he violates their most sacred tenets.  Think of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Rubio, Cruz, and, above all, Lindsey Graham, who Trump demeaned mercilessly.  At first they saw the evil he could do and condemned him.  Now they are like lap dogs, supporting any agenda he has, even when it waffles back and forth.  Think of all the Republicans who were supposedly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s behavior towards women yet now keep their mild criticism “anonymous,” publicly supporting him down the line.

The case for appeasement is a little harder to make but I believe it is coming into focus.  Let’s start with Robert Mueller, who is neither a politician nor a Democrat, but, a man  with great stores of public and political capital.  I’m writing this essay the day before he is to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.  So much has ridden on his reputation for prosecutorial acumen, courage, and integrity.  Every legal pundit who appears on TV bows low to him.  A man of unchallengeable integrity.  A marine.  A man who will speak truth to power.  The operational words here are “unquestioned” and “unchallengeable.”  Those attitudes have insulated him from the criticism I think he deserves.

Given what we know of his somewhat puritanical attitudes, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller doesn’t deplore Trump’s crass and lawless behavior.  The pundits have that right.  But Mueller’s inability to move beyond the narrowest interpretation of rules is, in my mind, both cowardly and selfish.  He is operating “by-the-book” at the expense of his country’s welfare.  He holds himself to standards that the more powerful Trump does not, and that discrepancy does not seem to influence Mueller’s decisions.  He fails to see or, at least, to act on moral principles that transcend narrow legal interpretation or the letter of the law.  In that sense he is no patriot.  His limited view has turned him into a coward.  And, almost as importantly, the CNN and MSNBC legal commentators who have failed to call him out, seem to me cowardly (or at least blind) as well.  Together, they are the appeasers.

I regret to say that I have begun to see Nancy Pelosi as an appeaser. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, who shared some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Pelosi shares none of Trump’s deplorable values.  And I have long admired her political acumen – her ability to martial Democratic votes for progressive causes.  But I have begun to wonder if, as the top Democrat in the nation—not just in the House—if she is up to today’s challenge.

Her basic strategy of holding the fort until we can vote Trump out in 2020 has a logic to it, and the majority of Americans may agree with her.  Along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers, she believes that she doesn’t have the votes for impeachment—and that a defeat of the Impeachment process would unleash a backlash against the Democratic Partly. Maybe that’s true.  But as we know from the way that Republicans turned on Nixon once the impeachment process began, judging the future by the present may prove a fear-based and overly conservative way to think.  Maybe Pelosi needs to take a risk.

Here’s what I most fear:  That Nancy Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Schumer, may be underestimating the momentum and therefore, underestimating the danger of Trump’s grab for power.  As Chamberlain hoped that he could wait Hitler out, I fear that Pelosi believes that she can wait Trump out.  In other words, Pelosi may be yielding to fear and failing to take the bolder course.  I see this position as appeasement – certainly not in intent, but, perhaps, in effect.

I don’t include the House Committee Chairs—Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, Elijah Cummings, and Richard Neal—in my analysis.  You can feel their pain about being held in check.  It’s clear they would move to impeachment if given the freedom to do so.

Finally, I’d ask: Where is our Churchill? Where is the person who is willing to risk it all to overthrow a tyrant before it is too late?

 

 

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 let that 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 behavior.”

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.

 

Optimism

Temperamentally, I’m an optimist, and have been for most of my life.  On the personal side, I was born with a sense of “can do”—a belief that if you try hard enough and long enough you can overcome any obstacle.  For a long time, this attitude proved a perfect partner to my political perspective.  In politics, I’ve simply believed that the world was growing more just, that the lives of the great majority were steadily improving, even though the pace has often tried my patience. In my mind, setbacks have been temporary regressions.  Over the long haul, I stood with those who proclaimed that “we will overcome.”

Buoyed by the extended civil rights movements for African Americans, women, LGBTQ’s, and people with disabilities, along with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, among other legislative victories, I came to believe with MLK that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  From the thousand foot perspective, I saw a strong, direct line between the Progressive Era to the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, and the future.

In more recent years, though, and as I’ve aged, a pull towards skepticism and pessimism has challenged my natural inclinations.  I’m not alone.  I know few people who have sustained the faith, as  it were. It’s not a matter of values.  Most of us have held firm in that regard.  But our belief that our ideals will be realized—or realized anywhere near as fully as we had hoped—that has waned.

You might say that we have achieved a “mature realism.”   And that the growth of political moderation has gone hand in glove with our own perceived decline, as though the world was magically growing old with us.

We began to see greater significance in the long periods when social justice has taken a back seat to conservative doctrine, individualism, and corporate greed: during the Reagan, George HW Bush, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton presidencies, for instance.  Even during the presidency of Barack Obama, conservative forces dominating the cabinet helped increase the gap between the rich and poor. And the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited flows of conservative financing into the political system tilted American society towards its own form of oligarchy.

We couldn’t help but notice how the assault on liberal democracy that has been rapidly taking hold throughout Europe, how the Chinese authoritarian system has successfully challenged American world hegemony, how a Russian dictator has, with some effect, declared “war” on our democratic processes, and how futile we have all been in the fight against environmental degradation.

Maybe the arc of the world doesn’t bend towards justice but follows endless historical cycles of optimistic striving and repressive reaction:  democracy and totalitarianism;  equality and class-bound societies; outward and innovative striving and defensive pulling in.  Maybe all of these impulses are true and none ever gets to declare a final victory.

I’m not happy with this kind of “realism,” however convincing it may be at times. I wonder if it has more to do with old age, with my own declining powers than what is happening out there.  And I despise the possibility that my days will end with a Trump presidency, a British Brexit, a Polish and Hungarian descent into modern incarnations of fascism. I hate the idea of a Hobbesian world in which our fear of our neighbors causes us to attack before we are attacked.  All my dreams thrown on the rubbish heap of cruelty and mistrust, in the name of ‘real politic.’

So I live with a good deal of  philosophical tension and search for ways to manage it.  Here’s one way: as we age, some of us focus our eyes on the distant horizon and grow philosophical:  “Oh well, that’s the way the world is.”  This approach feels flat and uninspired.  It’s not me.  Here’s a second approach: some of us withdraw into an entirely personal universe: “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do to influence all that.  And I’ll be gone within a decade or two.  I’ll just pay attention to my personal life.”  That has a comforting feeling and most of us adopt this approach to some extent.  But, for me, it also borders on betrayal.  I don’t buy the idea that we’ve earned our withdrawal.  How could I give up on hopes and ideals that have animated me during my entire life; how could I retreat into a totally selfish universe?

There’s a third way.  Throughout my life, when unsure, I have followed the time-tested adage: “Talk the talk until you can walk the walk.”  Act as though the outcome you want is virtually inevitable and that will give you the strength to make is so.  So we can look for signs of a better future in order to preserve some of our traditional optimism.

And a fourth way: According to Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, you must keep pushing the rock (of just causes) up the hill even if it keeps rolling down when you near the top.  You persist.  You hold out the possibility of success in order to feel true to yourself and your ideals. Trying, even in the face of almost hopeless causes—as the onslaught of Nazism and Communism may have seemed to Camus—is essential to maintaining our integrity.  And, even more importantly, by holding the fort in times of crisis, you prepare for the next wave of idealists.

I think I may see that next wave on the horizon.  In 2018, Millenials supplanted the Baby Boomers as the largest voting age group in the United States.  They are the first post World War II generation to experience diminished economic and social prospects.  Privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for the rich have bitten deeply into public services, leaving pitted roads and ineffective public transportation, unaffordable child care, and a rapidly warming earth.

But the millenials seem to be fighting.  They sing a progressive tale to pollsters: that the shortchanging of Black and Brown people must stop; gay people must have the right to marry; immigrants, who make our country stronger, must be supported not rejected; health care should be every citizen’s right; and climate change is the greatest threat to humankind.

I have been watching the generation’s young turks, people like Alexandria Octavia-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg as they challenge the current order and gather support among the Boomers, as well.  I have no part of me wanting to modulate their message, as many pundits propose, in order to broaden their base.  I think it’s possible that their values as well as their passion and commitment may turn out to be more convincing than moderation.  I think they have a good chance of renewing a progressive wave aimed at fulfilling the ‘self evident’ truths that this country was built on.

As I age, I tell myself more and more to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be, yet here I am, excited once again, by a group of dreamers.  But isn’t dreaming one of life’s real experiences?  Isn’t the attempt to make the world better a real effort?  The current progressive wave may not last forever—it won’t—but while it lasts it is as real and exciting as any other way of relating to the world.  It makes me feel alive and worthwhile.