Whiteness and Me

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine Section, Emily Bazelon argues that “White people are noticing something new: their own Whiteness.” “The Trump era,” she says, “has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgement of whiteness as a real and alarming force.”  For over a century, Black Americans like WEB Dubois, James Weldon, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been alerting us to this ‘force.’  At the risk of great over simplification, let me summarize their argument:  Racism has not only damaged people of color; it has also served the purpose for White Americans of externalizing and disguising our own racial self-loathing.

As far as anyone can tell, I am a White Man, a member of the dominant group in our society.  In that “role” I have participated in and, therefore, perpetuated an oppressive and racist society.  Yet I am equally clear that I don’t identify as a White Man. Where, then, do I stand and what is my responsibility?  And what is yours?

These are hard and possibly harsh questions, and you may ask: Why now?  Why would a 76 year old man be asking them?  Haven’t I done what I can do in the political world?  Haven’t I come to terms with my legion of failures and insufficiencies?

Here’s why: I think that old age is a time of reckoning, a time to put my life into perspective—including a moral perspective—in order to live peacefully, to get right with myself for this last phase.

For me, few aspects of life remain painfully up in the air and demanding of intense scrutiny.  I ask myself, for instance, “Have I been a decent and trustworthy person?  Have I been kind and generous enough?  Have I been a good enough husband and father?”  While I readily acknowledge that  I am deeply flawed and I could spend hours enumerate my shortcomings, I have mostly come to terms with them. I can say, in a way that is internally comfortable: “I have limitations, but I have been good enough.”

There are areas where I am less certain but still not tormented.  For instance, in the age of Me Too, I need to determine whether I’ve been respectful and loving enough to women and girls—my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my friends, my students, my patients. I think I have but I know that I have also fallen down along the way.  My conclusion?  I have done as well as I could, but thankfully I am still learning.  I can change.  I think this experience of learning saves me from coming up against an implacable moral wall.  As a result, I am generally comfortable with the incompleteness.

Political engagement is an arena in which I have come up short.  I think right, talk right, but act too little.  I don’t see myself changing much.  My reckoning in this arena has required me to find ways to forgive myself for my limitations.

Now back to race and racism.  The first premise of Whiteness Studies that Bazelon features seems to be the inescapability of our skin color.  I get this idea and I partly yield to it.  But I also object in much the same way that people of color object.  They have been grouped as Black by others — by Whites — despite the great variety of origins, cultures, personalities, and, yes, skin colors.  What could be worse than other people defining who you are, no less defining you as lesser beings?  Whites have been able to do this because of their economic and cultural dominance.  As the dominant group, they see themselves as the norm and as the arbiter of what is normal and good.  White people suffer far, far less by being defined by others but I still object to both “White” (“Critical Studies” theorists) and “Black” people telling me I am White, with all the dark connotations that Whiteness now implies.

Yes, I have been ‘privileged’ because my skin color lets me pass as a member of the dominant race. As a result, I have gone to good schools and found professional success; all along, I have believed that my success was purely my own, without a cultural boost.  As an adult, I have lived in prosperous communities with excellent schools that virtually guaranteed that my children would find success, and they have.  Though I am aware of their privilege, too, I couldn’t help believe that they succeeded on their merits.

I have never believed that people of color have equal opportunity, and I have voted for every politician and every policy that seeks to change the social and economic status quo.  In that limited sense, I have given voice to these values, but I have neither refused the fruits of Whiteness nor devoted enough of my life to fighting inequality and racism.  In that sense, I have participated in and therefore supported, an unjust and racist society.

This support has been particularly hard to swallow because the values of equality and diversity were at the center of my upbringing.  I was raised to fight them in myself and others.  When my parents described people, they would begin by noting that they were either “Left” or “Right,” long before they would get to whether they were kind or interesting or good looking.  Left was good and emphasized diversity.  Many of the books I read and records I listened to as a child were little more than sermons about the virtues of diversity.  Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans still brings me to tears when it insists that all people, Black and White, Italian, Irish, and Jewish, must gather in common cause.  There is hardly a personal or political theme that moves me like this one does.

So I regret not doing more to further the cause, and I won’t feel right with myself unless or until I have come to terms with my position on racism and, of course slavery —  the worst offense ever perpetuated by this country.  As a country, we have never come close to making amends for it.  And I don’t know how we could fully come to terms.

I have tried, on my own, in a number of ways.  The first and most consistent is to reject my assignment to both the historical, and current, category of The Oppressor.  I do not identify as White, and in fact, I never have.  I have always felt myself an outsider to mainstream American culture.  Bazelon dismisses this way of thinking, saying that people like me prefer to identify ethnically, as Irish, Italian, or Jewish.  But Jewish is not the same.  We have long been a despised tribe.  From earliest memory, I have identified more with people of color than I do with White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), or the newly romanticized working class Whites of West Virginia.  Jews, even atheistic Jews like me, are always at least a little on edge, waiting for the next pogrom, the next murderous attacks, literal or figural.  I have great White friends but, when I hear the word White to describe a people, I do not think of friends.

At 15, I tried to organize my community to charter a bus to Washington, DC to march for Civil Rights.  Not a single person joined me and many simply accused me of being a Communist, which, during their youth, my parents had been.  It was still the McCarthy period.  Red baiting was alive. I was isolated.  So I traveled with the Hempstead kids, on an all Black bus (except for me). I was nervous and exhilarated.  I did not belong but I was in the right place.

It’s not so easy to describe what made that the right place, but let me try.  I stayed true to my values.  It felt risky.  I was learning.  I was appreciated and teased, which felt both good—like I belonged—and bad—like I was an outsider.  Of course, I was both.  I was mostly pleased to be in that complicated place.

During college and graduate school, I continued as an outsider at Harvard, protesting,  sometimes speaking out, but often receding into the background and feeling mostly like I didn’t belong to a culture that still contained about 45% prep school students wearing their perfect tweed jackets, chinos, blue shirts, and rep ties.

In my early 30s, I realized that I was neither an insider nor an outsider.  Yes, I was a White professional, making a decent living, an intellectual, who still played basketball and avidly followed the Celtics and the Red Sox.  But I was also a divorced father and living in a commune with my four year old daughter. I still held political views to the Left of most of the people I knew. I was neither far out nor way in. I was a marginal man.  This realization upset me at first.  The term sounded Kafkaesque.  Then I realized that virtually all of my friends were marginal in similar ways.  And I relaxed. I had found a home.

That realization saved me from a life of discomfort.  I didn’t have to change dramatically.  I didn’t have to torment myself.  Marginality wasn’t the absence of place in our society.  It was a definite place, a place populated by like-minded people, Black, White, and Tan, and a place I wanted to be.  I still do.

In 2006, at the age of 64, I started the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML).  Its mission is to train nonprofit managers to be effective leaders in the service of diversity and social justice.  The majority of its students and faculty are people of color. For the last 10 years of my work life I had the privilege of constantly speaking the language of diversity and justice and urging them into existence.  I was inside the cause, not pushing from the outside.  It felt better than all my successful years of being a psychotherapist and organizational consultant.  At the end of that period, I passed on the INML’s leadership to an immensely talented woman of color and stepped back.

I know how to belittle my work at the INML.  Wasn’t it patronizing, my leading an effort to expand diversity among nonprofit senior staff?  Wasn’t my success rooted in layers of White privilege, including my Harvard pedigree? Although I believe deeply that my colleagues and my students experienced my commitment to them and to this issue as authentic and deeply felt, sometimes I was nudged, slightly, lovingly away from the center of the action. I was called an “ally,” that is, “for” but not entirely “of” the cause.

At the height of my involvement with what is now called the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, I struggled just a little with my self-doubts (“do I belong here?”) and the muted doubts of others—almost all White people.  But by the time I left, I had accepted my status as an ally, my marginality, even within an organization I had founded and built. It told me that I was acceptable, even appreciated, as a marginal man.  Which I am.

So where does this leave me in my moral reckoning on race and racism?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  In a way, I may have returned to that 1956 bus ride to Washington, where I felt equal measures of uneasiness and exhilaration.  I was and am still learning.  I’m OK with my limitations and my status as an Ally. I won’t be excluded.  And I’ll live well enough with the uneasiness that remains.

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The Devil Incarnate; the Devil in Us

I have sometimes been accused of having intemperate political views.  With this in mind, I generally try to moderate my passions and to adopt a reasonable tone of voice.  But I identify so closely with America and its values that the possibility of a Trump presidency has strained my resolve. I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I’m frightened and angry, and not just at him or at “those people” who favor him, but also at myself and at all of the liberal and Progressive people who are so appalled yet have allowed this to happen.  So, in this essay, I need to let it rip.  Here goes.

Donald Trump is, without doubt, the Devil incarnate.  He tempts and taunts, seduces and destroys.  He seeks out good people and bad.  But, and this is my main point, he is not an isolated phenomena, crawling out of the dark swamps of con artists and circus performers.  He only succeeds because of the fertile ground within us.  If we look honestly, Trump, holds a mirror up to the worst in ourselves.

First, he reflects our culture’s retreat into self centeredness.  All those gurus, psychologists, and marketing mavens telling us that we, each one of us, is the most important person in the world.  We need to take care of number one.  And, even if we have an altruistic impulse, it won’t be effective, it won’t be authentic, if we don’t take care of ourselves first.  A culture of encouraged narcissism if I ever saw one.  We have swallowed too much of the encouragement.

How do we know that we’re number one.  The polls tell us.  Twitter and Facebook tell us through Notifications and Likes.  People tell us that we’re “awesome.”  Really?  I’ve been good, effective, kind at times but I doubt I’ve often been awesome.  Most tellingly, parents tell their children that they are number one.  They watch and comment on their every move, photograph and film every event, virtually eulogize their children when they graduate from grade school.  Those speeches about the accomplishments of young children are bizarre.

The laser-like focus of parents doesn’t stop there.  They help with term papers and exams.  Sometimes this “support” goes on right up through graduate school.  Food is provided at a distance.  I have heard numbers of university professors talk about parental calls to argue grades.  “This will ruin my child’s life…”  How else could they guarantee that their children get the right start, the competitive edge in life.  How else could they avoid unnecessary pain.  Is there necessary pain in growing up?  I think so but it doesn’t seem to be part of the contemporary agenda. Helicopter parents are there on cell phones at a moment’s notice, trying to help their children avoid an anxious moment.  They guide, criticize, assist.  Everything their children do matters to them.  Everything positive and negative tells their children just how important they are.  Attention tells the story.  No man I have ever observed craves attention more than Donald Trump.  Yet there may be more like him on the way.

Since the children are so important, it is vital that they don’t make mistakes.  If their grades aren’t up to snuff, it must be the teacher’s fault.  If they get hurt, it must be someone else’s fault.  If the perpetrator isn’t obvious, parents and children, together, will find someone to blame.  Taking responsibility for flaws and faults is no part of their Trumpian agenda.

In contemporary society, certainly in contemporary politics, we refuse to admit our mistakes or accept losses.  When confronted, we begin with denial and misdirection.  If that doesn’t work, we attack the critic or we sue the sources of our pain.  We sue those who actually hurt us, and those who might.  For justice sake?  I don’t think so.  To get even, yes; but that’s not justice; it’s vengeance.  To line our pockets.  Sure.  You can earn a good living by suing people.  To intimidate, of course.  Trump’s love affair with litigation and bullying grows right from the ground of our litigious culture.  We have created a litigious society that has more people covering their rear ends than standing courageously for what they believe.

We sue and blame so we don’t have to deal with pain.  Pain is not supposed to be part of the equation for important people.  And when we see pain in others, it makes us uneasy.  To relieve our uneasiness, we blame or isolate them.  We blame victims.  We blame disabled people.  We blame “losers.”  We pump ourselves up by putting others down: immigrants, people of color, the disabled.  This approach seems to be reaching a crescendo in contemporary culture.

We have other ways to pump ourselves up, too.  We build larger and larger houses, wear more fashionable clothes, spend inconceivable amounts on hair “treatments.”  Can you even imagine what Trump pays to keep his hair looking like a horizontal yellow facsimile of his obscene towers.  This is the new gilded age, garish and full of self aggrandizement.  It is very much like the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Vanderbilts and Jay Gould fashioned castles in homage to their egos.  How has it gotten lost that Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump whatever is just a hilarious and exaggerated caricature of the mcmansions  and malls that now fill the American suburbs.

We are narcissists, loving or trying to love our own image and trying to stay young forever.  We are social, national narcissists.  The social form of narcissism is nativism and racism.  These bigoted extensions of self love are just kissing cousins to America First, American exceptionalism, and making America Great Again.  Never mind that democratic ideals, practically applied, are what really make us great.  Give us a good carpet bombing or a Gucci bag to make us feel strong and beautiful.

Trump believes that sensational gestures, Hollywood come to politics, are what makes the difference in our political life, and we reward him by paying avid attention.  All of us.  Those who love him and those who hate him.  This is nothing but free marketing for him.  It’s a betrayal of American democratic ideals for us.  But we have grown accustomed to sensationalism.  We need it the way others need drugs.  We need our fix of Fox-generated drama.  We thrill with identification or humiliation to the angry crowd screaming to put Hillary in jail or even to kill her.  The media are ecstatic and we are their prey—or their mates.

We have lost the sense of what is real and what is not.   We have learned to watch carnage on TV, as if it is a video game.  We play video games that aren’t very different than the drones that bomb far away villages.  We are numb.  We have lost our sense of agency.  We are so consumed by our own lives that we want someone else to do it for us.  If that means a dictator, so be it.  He’ll be our dictator, like our Jedi.  There are many times when Donald Trump sounds almost exactly like Benito Mussolini.  Some alert journalists have pointed this out but it has not awakened us.  I suspect the image arouses many of his fans.

The Devil, with all of his excitement, has lulled us to sleep.  We are numb to his lies, numb to his reversals, numb to his bigotry, numb to his ignorance, numb to his immaturity and name calling, numb to the vile way he treats people.  We are almost literally in a trance.  Why are we so numb?  Because, the Devil is us.  We don’t want to hear that we are flawed, angry, bigoted, and self-centered.  And I mean all of us, not just the conservative right.

We the people of the United States need to wake up, cast off the Devil’s potions, accept responsibility for what is wrong, begin to redress those wrongs, and thrill to the opportunity to do so.  If we don’t, the Devil within us will win.

 

 

 

 

Personally, I am heartsick about Trump’s momentum in the presidential race. He is insufferable and dangerous.  I would hate to end my life with him as president.  That would feel like a defeat to all that I have stood for in my life: kindness and compassion; equality and pluralism; democracy and collaboration.   I am now seventy four years old;  and I dread entering old age and dying, while a narcissistic, cold-hearted bully and liar is the representative our once-proud nation.

 

Carving out common ground with blue collar White guys

There seems to be a virtual consensus among the journalistic punditry about the heart of the Tea Party: white men who are frightened and angry.  They lash out against any insult or imagined insult.  And, this portrait gets worse as we look down the economic ladder.  Once again, the poorly educated guys have the worst cases of White man’s disease.

But this portrait is drawn from a great distance.  It tells the story about the “other,” who is objectified and diminished in the telling.  There must be exceptions, but virtually every writer I can think of excludes himself or herself from this picture.  I can’t entirely do that.  I don’t share Tea Party opinions and I don’t vote Conservatively.   But I can identify with some of the feelings that drive these men.

We had no money when I was growing up in the Bronx and Levittown.  Later, as a teenager, when I delivered flowers in Manhattan, I would be directed to the ‘service’ entrance—I thought of it as the ‘servants’ entrance—and told to take ours shoes off in order to carry the heavy pots into the Park Avenue apartments.  I felt humiliated and angry.  I felt the same when I was caddying at a fancy golf club.

I  must have been forty years old, and very much a successful professional with a house of my own, before I could walk into a clothing store without worrying that the salesmen would look at me and say “what are you doing here.”  When we were teenagers, friends would borrow their parent’s cars and drive up to Great Neck to gawk like tourists at the “mansions.”  What I felt was not envy but anger.  I wanted to throw rocks.  I didn’t but that desire to get even—for what exactly, I don’t know—was palpable, and it’s not so hard to feel it to this day.

I imagine that many of the people who analyze the White guys come from backgrounds like mine, but they don’t write that way.  They hide whatever identification they might feel.  Maybe identifying ‘down’ would be humiliating.  Maybe it would put them in touch with uncomfortable feelings like raw anger and shame.  So, with some trepidation, I would like to offer my not-so-distant understanding of why the White guys are so angry.

To begin, it they are filled with a feeling of having lost something and entirely unclear whether they will be able to regain a stable and secure place in American society.  The loss of blue collar jobs to Asian factories and the decline in blue collar wages have become the iconic image of the declining White man in America.  But, however important it is to earn a descent living and to support your family, there is more to the economic situation than money.  There is knowing that you can help lift your children out of this depressed life.  There is the stability, emotional as well as economic, that a steady, long-lasting job brings—and takes away when it is gone.

There is also the sense of protection and belonging that came with union membership.  That, too has eroded.  And with it the ability to fight for one’s rights and livelihood.  Everyone can be angry, but if you have a union that “has your back,” as the returning veterans currently say, that focuses your anger through campaigns and gives you a chance to win against all those rich snobs, then the anger isn’t so bad. It can yield positive results.  Organized anger, even though it upsets people in suits, is superior for an individual White men, who now must hold it himself, knowing that he, alone, can’t fight and win the battle for dignity and security.

His declining standing in the family seems equally important and less understood.  With the flight of stable and sufficient income, men can’t easily claim their traditional place at the head of the table.  When women earn almost as much, as much, or more, then the challenge to family leadership is legitimized.  When fifty years of women’s rights activity has entered every marriage, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, then it’s a new game that men have not yet figured out how to win or even how to fight.  Among other things, it’s not clear who the judge or the sheriff is.  Who will resolve the fights?  By what rules?  By all accounts, the women are more adept in this court.  Men are humiliated by their incompetence.  When they are humiliated, they may turn to violence.  But that victory is always horrible to the women, sickening to all, including the children, and at best a pyrrhic victory for the men.

They may retreat to bars, to drugs, to binging on sports, to a kind of despair.  They can’t see a way out of their dilemma.  It’s a dead end.  It looks endless.  They feel defeated.  The more they fall to these despairing activities, the less standing and nurturance they have at home.  The less nurturance, the more they retreat, the more they are alone.  No family to have their back then piles onto the loss of unions and solidarity with other workers.

Family loss may (or may not) be most intense among the poor and working class men, but it is surely not limited to them.  There is a similar sense of displacement among middle class and often enough among well-to-do men.  How many doctors and lawyers, for example, spend long days at work, commanding respect from nurses and administrators, then go home to their families who, after years of the long work hours, feel more neglected than eager to have them.  These professional warriors are not welcomed home, not given their proper place.  So they stay longer at work and become more alienated from families, and so the cycle builds.  This is why they often vacillate  between feelings of alliance and distancing themselves from their working class brethren.

While these immediate losses at work and at home are the most devastating, the cultural changes that surround their personal lives confirm and compound their sense of being left behind.  Take sports, not participatory but couch-based sports.  The players, the heroes, no longer look like them, at least not enough of them do.  They are often Black and Latino.  That’s certainly true in basketball and football.  Not so much true in baseball and hockey, whose popularity has seen a resurgence these days.  Take entertainment.  More and more singers and actors are people of color; and even the White entertainers are too often liberals, who really don’t understand the White guys.  More snobs, like the Wall Street crowd.  Too damn many successful people look and act different.  The class divide has been exacerbated.

The very idea of success is passing the White guys by.  Success is for somebody else.  It looks and talks and dresses like somebody else.  Not even the army offers a redemptive image—not like the heroes of World War II.  The army guys return, often beaten, traumatized, without sufficient support for work and health.  They may be publically lauded as heroes but, if you listen to their stories, that’s not their experience.  Nor can the veterans point the way towards a successful life.  They’re not the road out of the White guys dilemma.  They represent another way that the road out is closed.  Success remains hidden.

I’m no different than the analysts in my dislike for the road taken by these White guys, the votes for Trump, the nativism and racism, the fascination with guns, the domestic violence, the disdain for education.  But I do appreciate what has brought them to this place.  I do understand their attachment to the Trumps and the Tea Party as symptoms, not causes of disaffection in America.  We have to find a way to join forces—with them—to attack the real problems that have disenfranchised them.  It is up to us, too.  If we don’t, if we keep our distance, then we are very much a part of the real problem.

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.