What my mom taught me about politics

There’s a photograph of my mother that I treasure.  She’s in the middle of a crowd of friends, clearly on a protest march.  A poster tells in large gold letters against a black background, that she is marching with the Gray Panthers.  She’s smiling and waving, clearly relishing the moment. I would guess that she was about 75 when the picture was taken.  And it captures the pleasure she took throughout her long life in joining with others to stand for justice and against the cruelty of unhearing power.

This January, there was a march protesting Trump’s already abusive presidency.  Hundreds of thousands stood tall and proud on the Boston Common. There’s a photo of Franny and me, cheering with the crowd, listening to Elizabeth Warren and others articulate the need for economic and educational justice in our country. I liked that picture very much, just as my mother liked her Gray Panther photo.  My mother and I have both loved standing with fellow travelers.  We have kept a flame of hope alive, despite all the discouraging things that we’ve also seen.
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It’s only a few months later.  I’m 75 now; and I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep fueling the kind of hopefulness that my mother and I have shared.  Every day I scour the newspaper, looking for news that will bring down President Trump, even though I imagine that a Pence presidency might be worse.  (He wouldn’t be so incompetent, and he would be better aligned with Congressional Republicans.)  Trump is mean and bigoted and ignorant, and he was elected by American voters.  I ask:  Is this really my president?

Over 150 years ago, Henry Adams, struggling to understand the strange new theory of evolution, wondered: How could it be that Alexander the Great had conquered half the known world by 336 BC while the current leader of the United States of America was Ulysses S. Grant?  I have a comparable query: If, under the leadership of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and two Roosevelts, we have been trying to realize American ideals for almost 250 years, how can we have come to this moment?  And given that we have, how can we still believe in human progress?

I’m not thinking about political theory.  I was wondering about whether I, like my mother, who had endured Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, could sustain my hopes for a better world.  It is possible that Trump will be the last president I will observe closely.  I will be 79 at the end of his current term and 83 if he is re-elected.  This may be the last Congress that I pay attention to, and they are the most ideologically rigid and mean spirited I have known.  And this Supreme Court, already prepared to undermine so many of the civil rights and other progressive laws that have been built over the last century, will only get worse once Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Beyer resign, as undoubtedly they soon will.

I find it exhausting to follow a current political scene that is dominated by the likes of Trump, Kushner and Bannon, McConnell and Ryan, Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Gorsuch.  Yet I read on like an addict, hating each new informational fix but needing it, too, and unable to turn away.  The craving for a moment of hope comes each morning with the newspaper, each evening with Rachel Maddow, and throughout the day on Politico, Slate, and the Washington Post.

The news wears me down.  These days, I sometimes wish I didn’t care so much.  I don’t want Trump to invade my moods, my sense of efficacy, my feeling of pride in having lived a good life.  When I pay attention to this man, with his vulgarity and narcissism and mean-spirited combativeness, this man who represents almost all that I dislike most, I get angry.  I feel futile. I understand that 38% of the people still approve of the job he is doing and seem to prefer him; and I am shocked that the persistent strength of their support may overcome our efforts to overthrow his terrible regime.

As in addiction, I have my momentary highs—the Russian probe is growing; the healthcare bill might not pass; there is hope for a Democratic surge in the 2018 elections.  But the highs are regularly followed by a dispiriting thought: These people are sticking around; they will continue to damage our country.

Then I awaken the next morning, hoping again—or vowing not to watch the news, not to let it dominate my thoughts, promising to rid myself of that addictive, toxic brew.  I have my ways.  I’ll go for a few days avoiding the news.  I’ll focus on the good that’s happening in my family and among my friends.  I’ll meditate and practice not reacting to bad news, fake news, or any other kind of news.

Long term, though, I will need a deeper solution. Here’s what I’m thinking about.  I will have to let go of the idealism, passed like mother’s milk, from childhood. I will have to admit to myself that we don’t always make progress, and that people aren’t always good…even underneath, in their heart of hearts.  Some may be every bit as selfish, tribal, easily frightened and angry as others are decent and altruistic.  Maybe we won’t find solutions to poverty, addiction, and war.  Maybe we—or I—will have to build my political ideas on a much more realistic foundation.

After all, the Founding Fathers did so.  The Constitutional democracy they constructed, with all of its checks and balances, was built to protect democracy from the profound flaws of our of the human species.  They would probably say that my hope that we would become better and better over time was utopian.  In this light, I can place my hope, not in the President and his programs but in the checks and balances that may preserve the foundations of Constitutional democracy.

I may have to shift my focus, too.  All my life, my emotional well-being has depended a good deal on the state of the nation and the world.  It may be better to shift my attention even more to family and friends, and to the nonprofits and local governments that do good work in communities that are nearby.

However reasonable, these changes would feel as though I am betraying, my mother and myself, abandoning the whole tradition of progressive and idealistic politics that has provided me with a sense of purpose and belonging.  It would feel like I am leaving a far more cynical world behind me.

Upon further reflection, though, I can’t permit myself that level of pessimism.  I might move towards a more realistic perspective but I can’t let go my hope for a better world, even if it comes long after I am alive to see it.

I remind myself that, not too long ago (1992), Francis Fukuyama argued that there are no longer viable alternatives to liberal democratic systems married to a regulated form of free-market capitalism.  Judging by the rise of Trumpian America, Orban in Hungary, Brexit in Britain, and the rebirth of Russian autocracy and imperialism under Putin, Fukuyama was overly optimistic.  The world can turn rapidly.  To me, that also means that it can also turn back in the positive direction, driven by the seeds that people like my mother and others have planted.  Even if I don’t see the fruits of those seeds, they are worth feeding.

For now, then, I’d like to share a Talmudic tale, Honi and the Carob Tree, because it speaks eloquently to this theme.

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree.

Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

 

 

Democracy: “A device that ensures people will be governed no better than they deserve.”

How many articles have you read insisting that we don’t really understand the poor, disenfranchised White people who voted for Donald Trump.  According to their protectors, the White guys have lost and have been belittled so much that their rage and resentment follow almost inevitably.  The primary enemy?  Not the super rich, who this angry, misogynistic cohort actually aspires to be, but the eastern elite: the professionals, the intellectuals, the more modestly rich.  That huge voting block located in Cambridge, New Haven, and New York.  Well, maybe the enemy includes people of color, because, as Arlie Hochschild records, these jonny-come-lately Americans have cut in line, taking a place in American society that they don’t deserve.

During the campaign, Trump promised his aroused base anything they might desire, whether he believed in it or not.  Long ago, H.L. Mencken advised described the Trump strategy: “If a politician found that he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”  It wasn’t that Trump conducted surveys to discover what the people needed or wanted.  The process may have been in reverse.  It was the people “Choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”  He certainly fed them the red meat of anger, and they were buying.

And by the way, the working White guys had some help in their march to victory.  How about all those Black and Latino people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, who would rather join the whining class, claiming that voting won’t help, that the establishment isn’t interested in them, that their lives have no value to the establishment.  Never mind that people of color are rapidly becoming the majority, which could lead to their being the establishment, if only they would organize well enough. What about all those millennials who also whine: it’s just so much harder for us than for other generations.

You have to wonder if the great majority, the people, even want to govern themselves.  I wonder whether the “elite” has grown a little sentimental and unrealistic about the capacity of the majority to govern.  Again, let’s listen to Mencken: democracy, he says, stems from  “A recurrent yet incorrect suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.”  But the most damning skeptic is Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

It seems to me that we mouth our belief in democracy without thinking too much about what it means.  Even those—and there are many—who concede that it is a flawed system but the best we have and the best hedge against tyranny.  There have always been doubters, beginning with the Founding Fathers, who did whatever they could to limit the potential damage of untrammeled democracy.  They created balances of power.  They created the Electoral College.  And they created powerful voter restrictions—no women of Blacks need apply.  In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, there was always the threat of mob rule and the need to protect against it.

Let’s face it, democratic institutions have not always provided a barrier against either tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of dictators.  Didn’t the French Revolution lead to The Terror?  Weren’t Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini elected to their positions?  Hasn’t Donald Trump been elected?  And don’t many of us believe that, with the help of an angry citizenry, he may well move our government in an authoritarian direction? Considering his attachment to his hotels, golf courses, neckties, and military men, we may become the largest banana republic the world has ever seen.

Again Mencken enhances our understanding when he says that democracy is “Election by the incompetent many for the appointment by the corrupt few.”  I wonder if the Trump base will even raise an eyebrow to the many ways that Trump financial empire benefits from their newfound power.

Mencken tells us that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  It seems that Prince Donald’s proposed Cabinet of Deplorables portends just that.  Just look at this group:

  • Ben Carson, who thinks that public housing is a Communist plot, will try to dismantle as much affordable housing and neighborhood diversity as he can.
  • Betsy DeVos will do her best to destroy the very educational system that gives the people their best chance to rise above their parents
  • Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions will try to roll back civil rights to the days of the Dixiecrats.
  • Andrew Pudzer, the fast-food exec will be the first Secretary of Labor who advocates fewer jobs and lower pay for the people.
  • Scott Pruitt, the EPA nominee, will do his best to support the fossil fuel industry and get us out of treaties and policies aimed at preserving our environment.
  • Tom Price, HHS, will do his best to take health care from twenty million Americans—children included.

I began this article with some skepticism about the disenfranchised Trump voters, but it’s the “eastern elite’s” acceptance of this perspective that galls me almost as much.  Mea culpa, mea molto culpa, they intone.  Really?  I think we ought to throw the accusations back at the people.  If you don’t like what’s going on, get off your rear ends and work to change it.  Don’t just vent your anger on the establishment, organize, vote, rally.  Get the working man’s and the working women’s issues on the ballot.  And put people into office who will work your will.

I do believe that there is a good chance that the United States is inching closer to the rest of the world’s authoritarian governments.  If this election campaign is a good test, then we are taking that direction not just with the consent but with the urging of the governed, who would rather complain or vent their anger than work together towards strategic solutions for a more just and equitable future.  Unless, of course, you think the Cabinet of Deplorables will take you there.

The Right to Protest

Dear friends,

I don’t know if you follow sports enough to catch the uproar over Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality.  Kaepernick is a football quarterback playing for the San Francisco Forty Niners.  He’s not great but he generates attention because he began his career so quickly and dramatically.  He’s young and earnest and a little impulsive –like  many young people.

During the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick continued to kneel while his teammates stood at attention.  He did so quietly, with little fanfare.  To me, this gesture did not seem very confrontational but the press made a big deal of it..  Gradually, others have either followed his example or tried other ways to stand for the rights of young Black men, like linking arms or raising their right fists the way that Tommy Smith did in the 1968 Olympics.  Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, among an increasing group of people across American, have joined in common cause with the protesters.

But the general reaction to Kkaepernick’s protest has been negative.  Throughout the country, innumerable politicians, business owners and countless others have offered their often heated objections to Kaepernick’s gesture. The public conversation has not focused on police brutality or equal rights.  It has focused, instead, on Kaepernick’s right to protest versus the “disrespect” he has shown to a patriotic American ritual, the National Anthem.  The challenge to his right has been stunning to me, considering all of the abusive, massively disrespectful behavior we see in local, state, and national politics.  Compare Kaepernick’s behavior to Trump and the outrageous, fact-free Birther challenge to Barak Obama’s presidential legitimacy.  And this is but one sign of disrespect to the dignity of our highest office.  Why should Kaepernick be held to a different standard than the politicians.  In fact, his “protest” was relatively respectful.

On the other hand, the objections that have filled sports pages of newspapers, have, paradoxically, added great fuel to athletes’ desire to protest.  There seems to be a little movement building.  For better or worse, athletes are in the limelight and have some power to influence their fans.  Since so many of these athletes are people of color and have managed to ‘rise’ in one of the arenas most open to them, why shouldn’t they be able to use their success in the service of their values?  Business people certainly do.

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed this issue in his September 16th column.  I found the article smug and misguided and wrote a Letter to the Editor in response.  Given the substantial response that Brooks’ article received, there seems little likelihood that mine will be published.  So I decided to send it to you in the form of a mini-blog post.  This version is slightly changed just in case The Times does publish it. I hope you like it.

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David Brooks’ invocation of American civic religion, “The Uses of Patriotism,” runs much too close to the 1960’s condemnation of Vietnam War protesters.  “Love it or leave it” was the sanctimonious and divisive cry.  Why can’t we love it and protest when our country does not live to its values?  The right to protest is baked into the American tradition and the American Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly, association, and speech.  The Boston Tea Party, a disrespectful protest of British taxation, helped precipitate the Revolutionary War.   In my view, we honor our nation by continuing practices that led to its formation and that guarantee the values on which it stands.

Brooks, himself, notes that “Every significant American reform movement was shaped by” self-criticism.  Protest is self-criticism in protean form.  Should we not have protested slavery when it was sanctioned by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution?  How about the absence of women’s suffrage and discriminatory housing practices that have made it hard for every group of immigrants, from the Irish to the Latinos, to buy their own homes?  Almost all of America’s great social and economic achievements have come on the back of protest.

Every protest is met with resistance and disdain, as though they don’t fit in polite society.  I have written, myself, in favor of a more dignified and restrained presidential politics. (https://barrydym.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/a-call-for-a-more-dignified-and-restrained-presidential-politics/); and I find the current lying, name-calling, and bullying vile.  But, Brooks wants to sanitize protest too much.  He should know that self-criticism is inevitably messy and upsetting; and it does call into question the culture and values of the ruling classes.  In fact, protest, by its nature, arises outside of the halls of power.  It is the means taken by people who lack the institutional power to enact change through formal governmental channels.  In Thursday’s column, Brooks stands with those ruling classes and against the very tradition at whose shrine he asks us to worship.

We must stand with the original Tea Partiers, with the Abolitionists and the Suffragettes, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his call for nonviolent protest, and with all who seek to highlight the need for changes in law and public behavior—even when they are irreverent.  Irreverence towards one set of “values”—standing for the National Anthem—often signals reverence for another set.  In this case, the more hallowed statement of values comes in both the right of free speech and in equal protection under the law, as it is assured by the 14th Amendment.  I believe that we should be proud of young people who speak up in this way.

 

Domesticating Radicals

In response to Mohammad Ali’s death last week, there was an outpouring of grief and adulation for the great man.  Not only was Ali a great athlete, but he great philanthropist and humanitarian.  He was a champion of civil rights and free speech.  At great cost to his career and reputation, he stood firmly on principle in his opposition to an unjust war.  He was known for his smile and his friendships with even the hard-to-love Howard Cossell.

In today’s Sunday Globe, Steven Kinzer, a terrific foreign policy analyst, objected to this one-sided portrait of the great Mohammad Ali: “Don’t mythologize Ali’s rage.”  Kinzer notes how the commemorations have taken the edge off, turning Ali into a kind, grandfatherly, and patriotic soul.  In fact, he was a fierce advocate of social transformation.  He was angry at US racism and the US war against Vietnam, which he objected to on general moral and race-based grounds: killing people of color and drafting disproportionate numbers of African Americans to do so.  I remember that well.

Kinzer then argues that the softening of Ali’s image is nothing new.  Our culture, powerfully abetted by our media, declaws all kinds of radicals.  Think of Father Daniel Berrigan and John Brown. “Activists of earlier generations have suffered the same fate.  Radicals from Thoreau to Paul Robeson to Malcolm X now appear on US postage stamps.  Mark Twain is remembered as a folksy humorist partly because his vivid denunciations of American intervention are absent from most anthologies.”

During their own time, these men—in fact, almost anyone who wanted to change our society—were  generally reviled, termed irresponsible, unpatriotic, revolutionary, un-American.  And there were reasons to revile them.  These were passionate people with passionate points of view, many of which were offensive to a great variety of people, even to those who appreciated the advocacy which made them famous.  In this sense, domesticating them not only robs them of the activities we value but also of their complexity.

The media are not alone in transforming fire-breathing radicals into kindly patriots.  Historians do a pretty good job of this, and the clearest product of their efforts is the generation of men who led the American Revolution.  I would be willing to bet that at least ninety percent of people do not even think that the “revolution” part of that phrase means what the dictionary tells it means: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.”  The synonyms Google offers are: “rebellion, revolt, insurrection, mutiny, uprising, rioting, insurgence, seizure of power…”  These are not polite words; applied to any contemporary activities, they would almost surely be condemned by the great, great majority of Americans.

The “gentlemen” who led this revolution were no doubt thoughtful and principled.  They stood for many of the same principles we hold “to be self evident.”  But the differences between them and us are multifold: first and foremost, they were willing to die for these principles, and many explicitly acknowledged that commitment; second, they were bringing a new order into being, trying to shed autocracy for democracy.  They were change agents.  In our attachment, we stand for the status quo, even, I might add, if the actual status quo does not live up to those principles.

It has become a cliché to say that history is written through the eyes of the present.  We might add that it is written to advocate for a particular ideological position in the present, whether it is states rights or federalism, for instance.  So, in fact, we don’t always domesticate historical heroes.  Sometimes, as in the case of John Brown, we play up their violence as a lesson to contemporaries who even think that insurgency is a good idea.  Bottom line, though, consciously and unconsciously, historians distort what they report, either to prove a point or because they are so imbued with contemporary values and viewpoints, that they lack perspective.

Maybe the most glaring instance of historical distortion is the one imposed on judicial decision making by the “Constitutional Originalists.”  Led by Justice Scalia, the Originalists treat the Constitution the way religious fundamentalists treat the bible—as literal truth.  Then they contend that they know the intention of those who authored the Constitution and of the other Founding Fathers.  Really?  How do they know those intentions.  Serious historians have been struggling to understand these intentions for centuries.  They have also disagreed in countless ways.  If they are to be taken at their word, then we simply have to conclude that the Originalists are poor historians, ignorant and obviously biased.

But to avoid being a literalist myself and getting into an argument about what the Founders’ intentions really were, I would like to emphasize the more important point.  The authors were practical revolutionaries, dedicated to change, flexibility, adaptability.  They would never prescribe, in exact terms, how generations hundreds of years hence, should conduct their affairs.  Rather, as Jefferson often argued, each generation must make its own decisions.  It is totally ridiculous to use them in the service of a fundamentalist style conservatism.

Then, too, we might remove the halo from our Founders.  As great a service as they performed, they also solidified the institution of slavery in American society.  They famously “compromised,” trading slavery to induce the South to join the Union.  The importance of the Union has gotten a free pass in our historical telling.  What, we may ask, was so holy about all getting together.  Maybe two nations would have been a successful way to go.  And, as an aside, wouldn’t the whole Progressive urge in America have been better realized without the South?

Finally, I want to add a word about ordinary people like me.  We are like the historians.  We often join in the process of disarming ourselves.  We make fun of ourselves, of our youth, of the fire and passion that made it so engaging, so much fun.  Part of this has to do with perspective—sometimes called wisdom—gained over the years.  But part of it has to do with not making too many waves.  We grow vulnerable with age, and we love to be loved.  By joining in the stories of misbegotten youth, we remove our own claws.  That’s a good thing—sometimes—but sometimes we should keep the fire going.