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.”

 

 

Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.

Newsflash: The 2032 Triumph of Obama’s People’s Crusade.

Newsflash: Sixteen years after he left office, former President Barak Obama has been awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize, this time for leading a People’s Crusade to stem the tide of climate destruction and authoritarian governments throughout the world.  As people begin to trust the victory, joyous, raucous celebrations have begun on the streets of New York, Paris, London, Moscow, and even Beijing.

Most people expected Obama to take a break after eight exhausting years as president.  He had fought valiantly, if a little too gently, against the irascible and relentless opposition of right wing legislators and a Supreme Court determined to undermine decades of movement towards the civil and economic rights of working people and people of color.  Instead, he began the People’s Crusade that has crowned his heroic struggle against tyranny and small-mindedness.

It would take books to describe how Mr. Obama turned the seemingly unstoppable and increasingly reactionary Trump—Putin-Le Pen locomotive.  But here is a very brief synopsis of how the little train, begun in 2017 grew into a powerful engine of social transformation.

Immediately after turning the White House over to Donald Trump, Obama moved to Akron, Ohio and began to organize—his first and greatest skill.  He organized what was left of the unions and the social justice organizations housed in nonprofits. He organized Black people, White people, Brown, Red, and Yellow people in common cause: the need for jobs, housing, rights, and hope. There was a vacancy and he ran for Mayor and won handily.  This was his new pulpit and he immediately turned things around by creating food, job, and child-care collectives, and housing starts. All of these created jobs.  Harking back to the New Deal and Keynesian economics, Obama insisted that sufficient taxes would eventually flow from good jobs. Within a couple of years, the Akron economy proved him right.

This became Barak Obama’s talking points in Ohio, where, in 2020, he won a Congressional seat, and around the country.  In his campaign, he dropped some of his celebrated civil tone.  He stopped trying to please everyone.  He grew more urgent and insistent, and he emphasized the need of poor, working class, and middle class people to unite against the 1% and their dominance.  It has been a long time—since the 1940’s really, that the anger of disenfranchised Americans has been educated and built into a powerful collective force.  The spirit of FDR spoke through him.  The betrayal of Democrats, the Republican, and the banks, who gathered power and fortune to themselves, became the core of Obama’s new narrative.

As he traveled the country, Obama brought small and medium-sized business owners into a growing coalition.  They, too, understand that more income for the lower and middle classes meant more income for them.  He brought in the universities, not in the spirit of the sixties, which left out and alienated the working classes, in common cause—and to help articulate the new agenda: higher wages, more jobs, health care for all, voters rights, affirmation of immigration, and a strong but conservative foreign policy, neither isolationist nor aggressively pushing the American agenda onto other nations, but resolute in defense of our shores and our strategic interests.   Within a year—say 2021—there was a great stirring in the country.  Everyone could feel it.  At last, a cause and a leader the great masses of Americans could unite behind.

By 2024, Obama and a burgeoning group of charismatic and diverse young leaders had won the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a majority of state legislatures.  Now they could get to work. Now they could reverse all the voting rights restrictions, the cripplingly low taxation, the nasty culture of us against them.  The People’s Crusade began to represent an overwhelming majority.  There was less and less need to demonize “them.”

It wasn’t just the brilliance of Obama and his allies that won the fight.  It was also the utterly self-destructive fury of the Republicans that brought them down.  There were the tax cuts that left the poor poorer, the sick sicker, the homeless and the drug addicted even more destitute.  It was the three wars, the two in the Middle East and one in South America, that bankrupted the country.  Each of the wars had been begun with an insult that President Trump could not ignore.  Angry words followed angry words—and led to retribution, with Trump believing that his bullying ways could translate to international relations.  And, like all wars since Vietnam, we couldn’t win those wars.

Aided by social unrest and European economic collapse, the American economy was on bring of a disaster comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  At the same time, China and Russia grew stronger.  Together, they organized Asian-centered trade deals that Americans, at first invited, refused to join. Even in decline, America under Trump believed in its general entitlement, and its special mission of world dominance.  America and the West grew more isolated, less able to dominate through economic power and more dependent on its bullying threats and its weaponry.  The brittleness of that stance was the most frightening of all.

Most Americans had never liked or even trusted Trump in the first place.  He had represented an opportunity to protest the growing disenfranchisement they felt.  But once the thrill of protest began to wane, Trump’s ruinous domestic and out-of-control foreign policies became evident to all.   An alternative awaited: impeachment.  Once the Republicans joined the uproar—he wasn’t helping their cause either—impeachment was easily accomplished.  Trump’s narcissistic and thuggish imitation of Putin’s enrichment of his own business empire provided an easy target.

In 2019, Mike Pence, the guy the Tea Party establishment wanted all along, became president.  He kept his ego out of foreign affairs, providing a show of strength and stability, but he continued to implemented the Tea Party’s nativist, misogynistic, and bellicose attack on fifty years of progressive political accomplishments with a quiet fury.   Never popular with the majority of Americans, Pence began to look slick and inept.   Once again, Paul Ryan tried to step into the breach with a disguised version of Pence-Trump policies, but within months of what the Tea Party saw as Ryan’s presumption and perfidy, he was assassinated by a White Supremacist.

During the early years of the Trump-Pence regimes, militias had grown bigger and bolder but they were almost as disenchanted with the Republicans as they had been with the Democrats.  Their grandiose dreams of power seemed close to realization. Secessionist sentiment in Texas, Alabama, and Idaho went mainstream.  America seemed on the edge of civil war and chaos.

Into this terrible cauldron of violence and lawlessness, came the Obama’s People’s Crusade.  Throughout the states, both Blue and White, growing fear and yearning led to the desire for a leader who would bring them back to the good old days.  Only now it wasn’t the ante-bellum South they sought.  It was the post war years, the late 1940’s and 1950’s when Americans seemed united in their optimistic pursuit of happiness and success, when individuals—though not, of course, African Americans—almost all felt they were on the rise, and that their interests were protected by a stable, powerful government.

Obama and a great swelling coalition of working people, people of color, immigrants, youth, women—and men seeking jobs and dignity—were ready.  They stood as the obvious choice to right the wrongs of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, the Koch bothers.  The Crusade had continued to give voice to this new and not so silent majority, and to win seat after seat in state and federal elections.  By 2028, the Crusade controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency—now held by Julia Perez, forty five, brilliant, and unafraid of taking charge.  The Supreme Court would soon follow.

That brings us back to 2032, the day of celebration.  Not only is this the day of Obama’s Peace Prize but, with a second term coming, Julia Perez now represents the consolidated reign of our first woman as president, and a Latina at that.

 

A Pledge to Renounce Trumpism

The cowardice of Republican politicians who refuse to renounce Donald Trump is appalling.  We know and they know that Trump is both despicable and dangerous.  Yet they are silent.  Some actually cheer for him.  Others hold their nose or avert their eyes.  Some mumble, hoping that their cowardice and hypocrisy go unnoticed.  Some bury their heads in the sand as deeply as they possibly can.

We well know the best placed and most egregious of these cowards, people like Paul Ryan, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell, but there are thousands more.  They know that Trump has gone too far.  They probably know that some of their own radical rhetoric,  disregard for truth telling, and lack of good grace has set the scene for his immoral megalomania.

These Republicans should be repudiated.  The best way to do so is to defeat them.  Mainstream and Progressive Democrats, working together, should leverage this display of moral lassitude into a reversal of the long, Koch Brothers-fueled trend of Republican victories in Congress and throughout local and state constituencies.  These are the victories that make it possible for Republicans to win major government positions even as they lose popular elections.  These victories have permitted them to gerrymander districts to minimize the capacity of people of color and progressives to give full voice to their concerns.

The current conflagration flared because of the contrast between Trump’s crude, defensive bombast and the dignified, principled, and highly articulate way that Khizr and Ghazala Khan—parents of a Muslim solider, who had died in an act of heroism, defending his buddies and his country—had the temerity to criticize him.  With Trump, no criticism goes without a childish insult in return.

But as we know, this is only the latest among innumerable and inexcusable insults hurled by the Republican candidate for the United States Presidency.  We probably don’t need a reminder but here’s a brief one.  He accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists, whores, and violent criminals, even though we know that crime among immigrants is lower than that of ‘native’ Americans.  He proposed monitoring Muslim communities (what some might call a police state), then banning all Muslim visitors, refugees, and immigrants.  He published an anti-Semitic slur by linking Hillary Clinton to the ‘money interest,’ an old Nazi tactic.  He embraced Sadam Hussein’s methods and Putin’s leadership, and invited Putin to help him defeat Clinton.  Treason?  Embracing these immoral dictators is egregious in itself, but even worse is that it points the way to Trump’s leadership preference.  Given the opportunity, Trump might well jettison democracy for strong-armed dictatorship.

Any one of these pronouncements should be enough for all Americans, Republicans in particular, to reject Trump.  For the most part, the Republicans have not, including those like Marco Rubio and John McCain, who he has personally insulted.  The question is: what should we do?  Surely not campaign as usual.  Trump represents a danger, a crisis, and we should respond with enough passion, persistence, and acumen to defeat him and all that he stands for.

I believe that the Trump candidacy offers Democrats and Progressives the keys to the electoral kingdom.  Maybe the presidential contest will devolve into a runaway for Hillary Clinton; and maybe many in congressional and local elections will follow on her coattails.  That would be great.  But I don’t think we should just hope for this kind of vindication.  It is unlikely to happen, and we need to take a much more targeted approach to highlighting the moral and psychological cowardice of Republicans who do not denounce their candidate.

Here is my proposal:  First, we identify every vulnerable office holder or aspirant in local, state, and national elections—those who have not repudiated Trump, that is.  This is how the Conservative activists succeeded following Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater.  Second, we need to “out” them, make very public their failure to disown Donald Trump.  Third, we should require a pledge from the vulnerable candidates that they will not support him.  Fourth, we should hold these candidates and office holders accountable.

Here’s a precedent.  Just before the 2012 elections, Grover Norquist put Republican office holders on the spot with his “taxpayer protection pledge,” threatening to “out” and build opposition to any who failed to sign.  In response, 238 out of 242 House and 41 of 47 Senate Republicans signed.  Some were in agreement, some were just frightened; almost no one dared oppose.

Why can’t we do the same: demand a pledge against racism, autocracy, and vicious political tactics?  Why can’t we publicize those who refuse?  Why can’t we keep a highly visible and running list for those who violate or condone others who violate the our basic human and American rights and values?

Let’s call it the Democracy Protection Pledge.