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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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 bends 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.

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.

 

We Cannot perfect the world But We Also Cannot Stop Trying

There are times when problems resist our attempt to resolve them, when they seem too big and too embedded in our cultural fabric to be extirpated.  For those of us imbued with a need to make things better, failing to “heal the world” comes as a terrible blow.  This is a time when I am wrestling with that failure.

I have been so upset with our national politics that I’m unable to do more than glance at the daily headlines.  Pessimism is gaining a foothold.  For the last two years, I have avidly—no, voraciously—followed the news, waiting for Mueller or someone else to take down Trump, believing that eventually the electorate won’t stand for it.  At least the Democrats, I say to myself, can take back the House and curb his evil powers.

Now I fear that I have underestimated Trump, just like I did during the primaries and the general election.  He fights back. He’s dirty and mean and amoral, and he often wins.  The possibility of a Republican victory in the House elections is so depressing that I can’t even read about the Mueller investigation that has sustained my hope.  Worse, I fear that even working at the grassroots level and donating money—playing the long game—will be futile.  Evil could firmly take root.

As I fall into what I hope is a premature grief, I have begun to tell myself stories.  Chiefly that my family will weather the storm.  Our privilege will see us through, even as health care and the entire safety net for the poor is being destroyed, even as racism grows more blatant, even as our values are trampled.

But these thoughts are shameful and I begin looking for ways to pull myself out of this nightmarish vision.  I am looking for a lifeline.  I search for ways to escape the sense of passivity and hopelessness that have begun to crush my spirit.  Above all, I need an attitude change, a way to see the world in a more optimistic or, at leasts, a more energetic way.

There’s always the old saw:  “This too shall pass,” as most evil does.  Periods of growth and exuberance often follow periods of crisis and degradation.  We only have to look at the enormous prosperity and creativity in the West that followed the defeat of Nazism and Stalinism.  This image, this precedent, provides some comfort.  But only a little because it leaves the future vague and so far beyond our control. Much the same can be said of the American experience, where corporate greed and great disparities of wealth have led to a backlash.  The Gilded Age, for example, gave way to the Progressive Era; the New Deal fell to FDR’s New Deal.

But I don’t see any great and charismatic reformers on the horizon.  Even my knowledge of these specific cycles or growth, depression, and growth again seem too far off and reinforce my passivity.  History is not destiny;  and we can’t be sure of that better world will follow a disaster.  And hope is not faith.  It does not speak directly to action; leaving the future to fate is too passive to provide real comfort.

What else can I focus on?  Is it possible, through an act of will, to remind myself of the America I have loved all my life?  This is an America dedicated to a set of ideas:  the natural, inborn rights of human beings; the sovereignty of the people (not kings, not titans of industry); and political equality—the “truths” that we find “self evident.”  These are ideals to live by and to fight for.  They begin to stir my blood again.

In our comfort and security we forget that the colonists put their lives on the line to enshrine these ideals at the center of our laws and our culture.  We forget that the “founding fathers” weren’t just a group of philosophers, hiding out in Philadelphia.   They were revolutionaries who would have been hung if Britain had won the war (a point that is made crystal clear in the inspirational play, Hamilton).  Might there come a time when we will have to do the same?  That’s a frightening prospect and one I hope is never necessary—but it does begin to shake me out of my passivity.

I’m not naïve and, even as I look to American ideals, I know that we have not always lived up to them.  Huge numbers of our ‘citizens’ have been excluded from its benefits.  The racism beneath the Euro-American treatment of people of color has been long standing, and while there have been ebbs and flows in its virulence, though we have made progress since the days of slavery, racism has persisted from the beginning.  African Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved, thrashed, banished, and deprecated across our 300 year history.  Immigrants who do not have the good fortune of being Northern European and Protestant—the Irish of the 19th century, the Jews and Catholics, Italians and Latinxs of the 20th and 21st—have been resisted, rejected, and treated with contempt.  If you read the history of the 1840’s, when James Polk was President, then look at Donald Trump’s antics, you’ll find that attitudes towards Mexicans remain relatively unchanged.

Jill Lepore has just published a brilliant book, These Truths, that covers the sweep of American history; she places racism at its center.  It isn’t just a part of American history, she says.  “It defines us.”  Our traditional history books tell us about the noble battle against ‘bad King George,’ but she shows us that there is a different revolution that preceded the 1776 events that we celebrate.  Slaves and Native Americans mounted continuous revolts against European dominance, arguing just as the Founding Fathers did, “By what right do they rule us?”

This second revolution did not end in 1776.  The fight for the freedom of “the other” has ebbed and flowed, and continues to this day.  We know of this struggle through reports of the Nat Turner “rebellion of 1831; the Civil War, 1860-1865; the founding and spread of the Ku Klux Klan during the days of the Reconstruction and again during the 1920s; and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.  We recognize the struggle through the rise and fall of nativism in the 1840’s, 1900’s, 1920’s, and, of course the current Trump-fueled present.  As a Jew, I especially knew it when America, even as it fought Nazi Germany, refused entry to many of my devastated people preceding and in the midst of the war..

In general the struggle is between those who define America in terms of blood or the ethnic superiority of White Anglo Saxons and those who see national identity as dedication to a set of ideas and ideals.  The former parallels European nationalistic movements such as Fascism and Nazism.  The latter is unique to the United States, Canada and, to be honest, other spinoffs of the British Empire.

Now my blood is boiling.  My passivity is falling away.  I can see that the battle between these two world views is long standing and continuous.  But here’s the important point: only a dreamer would think that the struggle will end.  The power and continuity of the struggle spells a simple lesson for me: We, who believe in the ideals of democracy, must be ready to fight forever.  We won’t “win,” per se.  But we can and must hold off the forces of base nationalism, and we can give the edge to democratic ideas.  In this sense, our loyalty and our energies must be dedicated to the fight.

There is famous Rabbinic injunction that applies here:  “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” I’ve come all the way back to this.

 

 

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.