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 least, 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.

 

 

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Values: Finding Your Way Between Constancy and Change

I’ve held a set of core values constant throughout my life – for example, the importance of social justice and the need to do more than talk about it.  There is nothing ephemeral about these values.  They are at the central to my being. They are how I know myself and how others know me.  They connect me to my parents and probably to their parents; to my wife and my children; and to my friends and colleagues; they are evident in my past, and present, and hopefully my future as well.

At the same time, the world and I keep changing, and often these changes challenge the viability and applicability of my core values. There are times when the idea that “all are created equal”—and will be given equal opportunity to thrive—seems alive, reflecting positive, forward-moving cultural and political transformations that we have made. There are other times when these ideals seem like distant, almost childlike, dreams.  These different perspectives don’t rest only on the “evidence” of  social change at any given moment.  They are also responsive to my own moods and my perception of how well I am able stay the course of my cherished values, what adaptations I need and can make.

Ultimately, there is a tension between constancy and change.  How much can we change without losing integrity, an enduring sense of who we are in the world, and how much can we stay who we have been without becoming rigid.

Oddly, constancy and change are essential allies to one another.  All species, the human one, too, must adapt to environmental change in order to maintain their stable identity.  Trees adapt to soil and wind changes.  Frogs, wolves, and insects change in response to their contexts.  In biological parlance, morphostasis (change) serves homeoststasis (stability). We change in order to attempt to remain essentially the same. So it is with people and their social context.

During the last month, I have begun a series of interviews with elders (at least 70 years +) who have sustained their efforts over many years on behalf of what we can roughly call social justice.  They still serve as leaders in their communities.  I’d like to begin sharing some observations about how they have managed to keep the faith.

There are many strategies that people build in order to navigate between their values and their lived experience – in the language above, between the demands to stay constant and to change.  Let’s consider these three:  Some resist change and build a stable world that supports the constancy of their values.  Others deepen their inner convictions in order to neutralize changes in the world that might contradict those convictions.  A third group acknowledges and credits the changes “out there,” and develops new strategies to meet a changing world.  All three approaches serve the stability of the values.

Stability in time and space. Some of the elders have created what looks like a timeless universe.  I met a Boston couple, for instance, who began their muscular community activism half a century ago, and continue to this day at the center of a strong  civic association.  They have retained many of the same friends, associates—and maybe even the same adversaries.  For example, those who would “gentrify” their neighborhoods by bringing ungainly buildings and outside businesses into residential areas and forcing out the more vulnerable older members.  The couple live in the same house and others know where to find them.  When I ask if they have had to change over the years, they say, simply, “No.” They like who they are and they still fit in their milieu.  From my perspective, I see admirable a wonderful power and efficacy in their stable ways.

Deepening inner conviction to fight outer change.  When the world is more than usually challenging to our values, when it seems that social justice will be subverted at every turn, as it is under the current Republican reign, it is easy to doubt, to wonder if we can hold onto those values.  One strategy for doing so is to insulate our convictions.  We do that in two ways: first, by not measuring their successful application day by day; second, by deepening them so that they can remain almost untouched by current affairs.

In the past, the goals of social justice seemed good, important, but now they take on an emotional urgency and depth that is closer to religious experience.  With this kind of transformation, our relationship to the values changes from ‘doing good’ to a ‘calling,’ a way to live and work that defines us at the well of our being.  A extreme illustration of that kind of change might be John Brown, an abolitionist, who became so convinced that social and political change would not happen through normal processes that he became what, today, we would call a terrorist.

Generally, though, faced with great odds to realizing social justice, we adopt a more faith-based feeling and attitude.  We will continue to act for social justice even if we fail for the moment.  We will act because we “must.”  We are internally comforted by what feels like a certainty that may once have depended on practical accomplishments but now looks and feels more like hope, and faith.

For the religious-minded, God has chosen their path and they are servants of God’s plan.  Prayer and the company of other congregants help them see the plan clearly and return to it when they have strayed.  Secular believers often see social necessities and practical plans with greater force and clarity.  “This is where we must go.  These are the programs we must build.”  Some see that pathway with a passion that might look to outsiders very much like religious belief.

Recently, I spoke with a highly successful and practical business woman.  In retirement, her commitment to human — and especially women’s — rights has only grown stronger.  She calls herself an optimist.  As nonprofit leader and mentor, her job is to pass along her optimism, her belief in social justice, as though from her DNA to the next generation’s DNA.  The image is visceral, almost literal with her.  If you look closely, her internalized feel for the march of history is not so different than a divine plan.  I had long identified with this kind of vision.

Adapting strategies to remain internally stable.  As I have aged, my own commitment to social justice has required more effort; it no longer is carried along without tending, as though by a deep terrestrial stream.  During my early years, that sense of easily hewing to my values was accompanied by a belief that their realization was mostly a matter of destiny, with a little help from committed citizens.  This narrative has been shared by millions of others, beginning with the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century:  The human condition would improve by regulating the otherwise unruly conditions of a laissez-faire economy and greedy capitalists, and by implementing safeguards to protect the health and well-being of common people.  We needed only to devise ways to promote the “greatest good for the greatest number.”

Those beliefs presumed that human beings are essentially good.  Free from social and psychological duress, we would almost invariably act generously towards our fellow human beings.  But that undergirding assumption of mine has been eroded. I have become more skeptical about human nature.  During the last decade or two, I have come to believe, with the Founding Fathers, that human beings are not so benign.  They have good and generous impulses, but they are also greedy and tribal, often pitting their own group against others.  “America First” is only one expression of this inclination.

I see now that people are anxious and defensive about their safety and property; and, when they even imagine others will attack, they attack first.  Where once I lived in the world of Rousseau I have become a disciple of Thomas Hobbes.  Where I believed that the freer the populace, the more generous and peaceful it would become, I now believe in the need for restraints on this rougher human animal that I’ve come to know.  I believe in structure, checks and balances, careful organization—a Constitutional form of government—to guard against our baser impulses and provide room for our better angels to emerge.

In other words, the prime value of justice, learned at my parents’ dinner table, has persisted.  I recognize myself in it.  But, with my darkening world view, I no longer believe in the manifest destiny of social justice.  There is no plan that I see.  There is only our own, unending efforts on behalf of our ideals that will make a difference.  I see that new strategies and structures are essential to putting my values into effect.                          ———————————————————

These are some early forays into making meaning from my interviews and personal musings.  My hope is that they provide a framework that helps you see a little more clearly how you have adapted to current events, and that you will share those efforts with me.  

 

America’s Fourth Revolution

As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.  The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me.  By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes.  In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study.  I’d like to share some of what I learned.

We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy.   Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before.  These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice.  But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there.  I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.

Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776.  As Robeson sings:

In seventy-six the sky was red

Thunder rumbling over head

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.

We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power.  We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law.  By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent.  The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.

There were limitations, though.  Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion.  The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others.  To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers..  These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority.  The Revolution was a monumental  l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.

1860 brought the second revolution.  At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves.  Robeson intones:

Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,

His heart was high and his faith was strong.

But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,

And he went down to his grave to free the slave.

Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have  been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since.  In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.

Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done.  The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow.  The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice.  The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place.  What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority.  Robber barons  like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.

The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal.  The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants.  If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people.  That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.

Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor.  In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson.  The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives.  For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.

Still, much needed and needs to be done.  There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.

What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy.  Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream.  Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people.  The US President-elect  insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government.  New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.

Let me be more direct:  The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build:  liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable.  It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.

We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals.  They may now be our Tories.  We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions.  We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country.  We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy.  We must fight the new property classes.  We must resist a Trump monarchy.  We must fight “bad King George” all over again.

I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed.  And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be.  But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big.  Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans.  The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going?  Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:

Our country’s strong, our country’s young,

And her greatest songs are still unsung.

From her plains and mountains we have sprung,

To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.

We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.

Our song of hope is here again. 

Strong as the people who made it.

For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,

And now you know who I am.

Who are you?

America! America!