Thursday, December 31, 2009

I HATE New Year's Resolutions

Yeah, I said it. And I'll say it again...I hate New Years resolutions!!!

Most of all, I hate what they've become in our culture...a way to mostly look at the superficial qualities of our lives and think that somehow we'll be happier if we change them. Oh, and there are usually tons of products we can buy that will "help" us achieve them, so its now time to pony up.

But there is something even more insidious about how we approach resolutions. For some people (not all), this becomes a time to unleash all of the "shoulds" that have been rolling around in our heads. Most often, these are the shoulds that others in our lives or culture have laid on us as baggage. To resolve to meet those shoulds is usually not only doomed to fail, but negates our own true desires for ourselves.

I'll admit that I come to this issue with a bit of baggage from my past. I haven't hesitated to disclose that for the first 20+ years of my life I was steeped in right wing christian fundamentalism and that it took me over 10 years to shed all of that.

What I remember more than anything growing up is hearing "the rules" about how I was supposed to live my life. And that if I just had enough discipline or willpower, I'd be the "good girl" that God and all of the other adults in my life told me I should be. I tried. As a matter of fact, I tried with every fiber of my being. But ultimately, I always failed in some way. And of course, that failure was a result of my short comings - so then there's the guilt and shame to add to the failure.

But then one day, with the help of some very wise people, I began to realize that I was looking in the wrong direction. In other words, I was looking "out" at what the rules were instead of "in" at who I already was. While absorbing that was eventually a life-changing experience, it didn't come without a price. Here's how poet David Whyte describes it.

Revelation Must Be Terrible

Revelation must be terrible
with no time left to say goodbye.

Imagine the moment staring at
the still waters with only the brief tremor of your body
to say you are leaving everything
and everyone you know behind.

Being far from home is hard,
but you know, at least, we
are exiled together.

When you open your eyes to the world
you are on you own for the first time.

No one is even interested in saving you now

Yep...I was free of the rules, but I was on my own. No daddy, or preacher, or god to tell me what to do. That was a frightening moment. But as I (figuratively) stood there for awhile and began to look inward, I saw something with the potential of authenticity and wholeness that could never be attained in my failed attempts to follow the rules. Discovering who I was and what I wanted (warts and all) eventually became my journey. The downside is not having a fall-back when I one to blame. But the upside is never having to be a victim of anyone else's pressures/expectations. And if I do it right - bending to accommodate others is a choice I make out of love, respect, or perhaps even self-interest. But its my choice.

So I'll not be making any new year's resolutions this year - except to continue to look inward and do a little bit better job of embracing the person that I already am. That's perhaps why this is one of my all-time favorite songs.

And if fits so nicely with the ending to Whyte's poem from above.

and the world steps in to test the calm fluidity
of your body from moment to moment,
as if it believed you could join
its vibrant dance of fire and calmness
and final stillness...

as if you were meant to be exactly where you are,
as if like the dark branch of a desert river
you could flow on without a speck of guilt
and everything - everywhere would still be
just as it should be,
as if your place in the world mattered
and the world could neither speak nor hear the fullness
of its own bitter and beautiful cry without the deep well
of your body resonating in the echo...

knowing that it takes only that one terrible
word to make the circle complete,
revelation must be terrible
knowing you can never hide your voice again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The narrative of disappearance

Years ago I was introduced to a poet by the name of David Whyte. Since then, I have only half-jokingly referred to him as my "spiritual guru."

About once or twice a year, I get a newsletter from Whyte and it always includes an essay from him reflecting deeply about how he sees the world at the moment. Last week the newsletter arrived and I think in it, Whyte speaks to our current situation in a way that goes much deeper than our politics, and yet recognizes the political challenges we're facing.

I would encourage you, if you're interested in this kind of thing, to go read the whole thing at the link in the above paragraph. But here's a portion of it that I think gets to the essence of what he has to say.

Human beings stand at the center of these sometimes swift, sometimes slow, always moving patterns of presence and absence, but rarely intuit their own essence might be revealed and magnified by what is veiled and hidden, or by what has been taken away. Yet this form of subtraction may be the very hallmark of our time. At the present time we are asked to live in companionship with patterns and dynamics that are either disappearing, have not fully emerged or can never be fully named; patterns perhaps already changing into forms for which we have yet no language.

It is tempting, in this limbo time between the traumas of a world once said to be in ceaseless war with terrorism and a not yet fully formed future ideal, to feel righteously lost. Everything seems to be paused and hanging in a mist-wrought, barely moving dance. The world's economic systems, the world's ecological systems, the relations between haves and have-nots, the sovereignty of nation states upon which many millions of individuals have based their identities, all these are taking forms which we cannot quite recognize, and in that movement through form seem to be on the verge of disappearing.<...>

Little wonder then that if we prefer the appearance of stability or clear unobstructed vision we will manufacture fake narratives to replace the complexity, changeability and raw beauty of real ones, especially if the stories we always wanted to be true seem to shimmer and disappear. <...>

It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable. We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it.

I believe that Whyte has captured here the basis for so much of the angst we feel both in the world at large and in this tiny little space of interaction we call the blogosphere. If indeed, we are being asked as humans to give up what we have known as our identity without really being able to see the alternative, it is no wonder that, as Whyte says, so many of us feel the need to rush things and create a fake narrative to ease the strain. The problem he doesn't address is the fierceness with which we need to cling to those narratives because some part of us knows they're not least not yet. And so we fight over whose narrative bears the closest resemblance to reality.

I have no grand answers to the question of what we do with that anxiety. But thinking about it once again reminds me of something Nezua wrote a while ago at The Unapologetic Mexican.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view.<...>

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too.<...>

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.

While discussing this quote in a comment thread at Daily Kos last week, jonimbluefaninWV shared a phrase that captures this position very well - he called it a "state of critical ambivalence." While Nezua finds that his "true eye shines" in that state, I think that for most of us, it is one that is extremely uncomfortable. And yet its where we find ourselves nonetheless. I expect that it is those who can navigate the "skinstripping wind of the next living moment" who will not only survive, but show us the way.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Both Eyes

I have an interesting, but not uncommon eye is near-sighted and one far-sighted. The interesting part of it is that they mostly cancel each other out and give me close to good vision. Since high school, I've been a very poor student of biology - so don't count on me for much insight into the workings of the human eye. But it seems to me like they were built this way - to provide the tension that brings results.

And that reminds me of a little song that I was taught years ago by a trainer in diversity.

Its in every one of us
to be wise.
Find your heart
open up both your eyes.
We call all know everything
without ever knowing why.
Its it every one of us
to be wise.

Another great wisdom of the ages is reported to have been penned by one of our great philosophers of the 20th Century, Reinhold Niebuhr.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I've recently been reading up on Niebuhr (but will grant that there are probably many of you who know his writings and teachings better than me), since hearing about a conversation about him between then-Senator Obama and David Brooks back in the spring of 2007.

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”

Niebuhr was a Christian theologian/philosopher who lived from 1892-1971. He began his career as a pastor committed to the social gospel and pacifism. The rise of fascism and the events of WWII caused Niebuhr to question these commitments in a way that holds the tension between "the world as it is" and "the world as we want it to be.' Over the course of the years, it seems that many have adopted what Niebuhr said on one side of this tension or the other. But that, to me, seems to be viewing him with one eye as an escape from the difficulty created by looking at what he said through both.

Interestingly enough, the most cogent description of this tension comes from Wilfred M. McClay who surrounds it with alot of verbiage that I otherwise disregard (how very Niebuhrian!). As someone who doesn't hold to the Christian faith, I find this a powerful statement when I exchange the word "Christian" with "progressive."

Niebuhr dismissed as mere “sentimentality” the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands around the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.

This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.

I would suspect that anyone who has been on the ground floor of working for social change can recognize the reality of getting your hands soiled in the process of challenging existing social relations that are held together by coercion. The dilemmas of real life don't often fit into the neat categories of "good vs evil" that our verbiage can sometimes embrace. And yet, the "other eye" must always stay focused on the ideal in order to maintain a course towards the love ethic of justice and righteousness. Holding that tension is what we are called to do.

You can hear the echos of Niebuhr in Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.<...>

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.

Obama then spends the last half of his speech identifying the other side of the coin...what we must do to maintain our ideals that lead to peace. He ends with this.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.<...>

For if we lose that faith -- if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace -- then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.<...>

Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.

Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he's outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school -- because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child's dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Thorbjørn Jagland, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, also reiterated this tension in his speech yesterday.

The Committee knows that many will weigh his ideals against what he really does, and that should be welcomed. But if the demand is either to fulfil your ideals to the letter, and at once, or to stop having ideals, we are left with a most damaging division between the limits of today's realities and the vision for tomorrow. Then politics becomes pure cynicism. Political leaders must be able to think beyond the often narrow confines of realpolitik. Only in this way can we move the world in the right direction.

I don't share this to defend Obama's decision on Afghanistan. Niebuhr himself was never easily pigeonholed - supporting the Cold War but being adamantly against the US policy in Vietnam and perhaps one of the first in this country to criticize American exceptionalism with its negative impact on our foreign policy. His message seems to be that we have to enter these conversations individually with humility about the limits we all have as humans in an imperfect world with the capacity for real evil.

Some of you might remember this picture of Obama from his days as a community organizer.


Obama not only studied Niebuhr, he was schooled in the thinking of Saul Alinsky who, interestingly enough, required all of his students to read Niebuhr. What all three men share in common is this understanding of the power our idealism must challenge and the risks associated with wielding power in return. And yet, they all also agree that we can't shy away from our ideals. Living with that kind of tension means that our vision is almost never perfect. And yet it is exactly why we have to constantly see the world through both eyes.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Obamas and Children

Sometimes you shape the narrative by simply living your life. As Gandhi said..."Be the change you want to see in the world." It is in that spirit that I have watched the Obamas over the last couple of years and how they interact with and involve children in their lives.

Its become cliche for politicians to talk about valuing children as our future. But I seldom see them given the priority these words imply. That is why the photos I'm about to share speak to me so much more loudly than words. They indicate a lived-out value of children. And they inspire me.

First of all, a few of my favorites from the campaign.





Since moving into the White House, the Obamas have hosted many events for children.

Like the one in February when middle school children were invited to a presentation about Black History Month.


And to plant an organic garden at the White House.


And a Healthy Kids Fair.


And Bring Your Kids to Work Day at the White House.


Of course, there was Halloween.



And who can forget the fun of the White House Easter Egg Roll?



And finally, there was Astronomy Night at the White House.


Did you know that Michelle Obama has started a mentoring program that matches local girls with White House Staffers? She said it was one of her top goals when becoming First Lady.


Back during the transition, we saw the Obamas interest in visiting local schools. That tradition has continued since they moved into the White House.




I think we should make Michelle Obama's title "Hugger-In-Chief."




But then, I don't know what this guy's title should be.



And finally, lest we forget the two children who currently live in the White House, here's a pictorial look at the bending of the moral arc of the universe towards justice.


(Sasha's first day of school in DC)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why I support President Obama

I am one of those people that find myself very torn over President Obama's decision about the escalation in Afghanistan. I know there are a few of us out there. But my concerns go to the strategy's efficacy and, unlike some others here, don't lead me to question his motives, values, intelligence, or capitulation. So that makes me wonder why I don't when others do.

Lately I've been thinking alot about trust and how it does or does not apply to politicians. I think healthy skepticism of elected officials is important to maintain. But just as I would never blindly trust, I can't go to the opposite extreme and assume they are always corrupt and/or lying. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that, in my professional life, I work with several elected officials that I not only trust - but who have become mentors. On a local level, I've gotten to know a few - which is easier to do than with national figures. And while there are some that are certainly corrupt (and a lot more that just aren't playing with a full deck), there are some stand-outs that break the mold and challenge a complete slide to cynicism.

I also find that having been represented for 6 years on a national level by someone like Senator Paul Wellstone (and now Senator Franken), gives me pause when I want to think in general terms - even about national politicians. They aren't all cut out of the same corrupt mold.

All of that leads me to at least keep the door open and requires that I take a look at each elected official without a pre-conceived notion about who they are as human beings. They are as complicated as any group of individuals - both in their ability to display courage and in their weaknesses. For example, as much as I valued and respected Senator Wellstone, he let all of us down at one point by voting for DOMA. No one is perfect - and I know he learned from that experience, which is all we can ask of any fallible human being.

But there's one other important piece of history that informs my evaluation of President Obama. The first Presidential primary where I really got involved heart and soul was in my support for Howard Dean. My initial draw to his campaign was his stance against the Iraq War. At the time, there were no other national candidates speaking out as strongly as he was. But I was troubled by some of his other policy positions. He was not a traditional progressive in many areas.

What drew me to the Dean Campaign in the end was his notion of "people power." The more I got involved, the more I saw that this wasn't just a campaign was very real. I think I had been waiting all of my life for a politician to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And Dean was asking alot of all of us - much more than making promises of what he would do for us. me...was what democracy was supposed to be all about.

With the onslaught of attacks from the media, the Republicans, and yes...the Democratic establishment, Howard Dean's campaign ended. I was was my belief that we still lived in a democracy. Perhaps that was hyperbole on my part, but its how I felt at the time. So I not only watched my hero go down in flames, I watched another 4 years of Bushco happen and decided that there was not much sense it trying to change things through electoral politics.

And then I started hearing about Barack Obama. Again, it wasn't his policies that I noticed, it was how he was running his campaign. Early on I read stories like this about Camp Obama. Looked to me like he was following Dean and taking it up a notch. So I was intrigued and got on board. It took some doing to get over my cynicism, but the more I watched the more I saw something that woke up that craving for real democracy - the one where the people could have a say. So I decided to believe again. But it wasn't so much about believing in Obama, it was about believing that perhaps the people could have a voice.

What I've seen since then from Obama is a man who is prepared to lead the people of this country as far as we - the people - are willing to go. He laid it all out to us over 4 years ago in a diary at Daily Kos.

We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice. <...>

And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.<...>

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

The fact of the matter is...I'm wondering if the real question of trust isn't more about how wise it is for someone like President Obama to trust the American people this much. He's calling us to a dialogue with each other that can lead to the kind of sacrifice that's necessary for real change to happen. Where some would prefer that he beat the country over the head with that change, he's asking if enough of us are ready for it. The change we're looking for will not happen unless enough of us are. That's because one man - even the one occupying the White House - can't do this alone. If we want democracy - we have to do it together.

I truly believe that President Obama is willing to take on that challenge. The question that remains is whether or not enough of us are ready to join him in sacrificing over the long haul that will be required. My read on that one is that not enough of us are ready at this point. Too many people still expect him to do it for us. And when you add to that the number of those who prefer their current comfort to the kinds of sacrifices that are required, the coalition for change is not there yet. I suspect that it can/will happen when those of us who are on board quit looking to politicians to do it for us and get busy with our fellow citizens in building the kind of coalitions that demand to be heard.

So in the end, I'm more of a believer in the process - one that is required to revive democracy and a voice for the people. Certainly the policies are important. But absent the kind of engagement in authentic debate and consensus-building by the people, those policies will simply sustain the status quo.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The subtle racism of friends and allies

Have you ever heard a person of color say that they prefer the open racism of conscious bigots to the subtle racism of us do-gooders on the left end of the spectrum?

I remember an African American friend of mine here in Minnesota who years ago would often tell me that she longed for the day she could move back to the south where racism was right up front for everyone to see. I'd shake my head at her and feel completely clueless about why she would think that. After all, I had grown up in East Texas and couldn't get away from all that craziness fast enough.

Over time though, I've come to understand that view a little better. Much of that awareness came from reading in "the diversosphere." I found that people of color express things in blog posts that would never be said in "polite company," but would typically be shared with each other behind closed doors. I will forever be grateful to so many of them for opening their lives and hearts to me and so many other readers.

For example, here is what I think is one of the most powerful posts ever written on the internet about white progressives and racism. Its from Kai, who blogs at Zuky and is titled: The White Liberal Conundrum.

As I've often noted, many white liberals remain oblivious to the depth and breadth of anti-racist work, opting to hide behind the delusion that anyone who votes for Democrats and doesn't have a pointy hood in the closet is "a good guy" in the movement toward greater social justice <...> Some might be surprised to learn that when people of color talk about racism amongst ourselves, white liberals often receive a far harsher skewering than white conservatives or overt racists. Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words. At least the former gives you something to work with, something above-board to engage and argue against; the latter tacitly insists on imposing and maintaining an illusion of non-racist moral purity which provides little to no room for genuine self-examination or racial dialogue.

Countless blogospheric discussions on racism amply demonstrate the manner in which many white liberals start acting victimized and angry if anyone attempts to burst their racism-free bubble, oftentimes inexplicably bringing up non-white friends, lovers, adopted children, relatives, ancestors; dismissing, belittling, or obtusely misreading substantive historically-informed analysis of white supremacism as either "divisive rhetoric" or "flaming"; downplaying racism as an interpersonal social stigma and bad PR, rather than an overarching system of power under which we all live and which has socialized us all; and threatening to walk away from discussion if persons of color do not comform to a narrow white-centered comfort zone. Such people aren't necessarily racists in the hate-crime sense of the word, but they are usually acting out social dynamics created by racism and replicating the racist social relationships they were conditioned since birth to replicate.

Any of that second paragraph sound familiar? Yeah, me too. I've been there, done that. I highly recommend following the link to read the whole diary.

I remember a few years ago asking an on-line friend of color if I ALWAYS needed to take a charge of racism thrown at me seriously. I've been on the receiving end of my share of those kinds of charges and sometimes I've questioned their reliability. She didn't give me a yes or no answer. Instead she said that what I have to do is consider it...fearlessly and honestly.

Over the years as I've tried to heed her advice, I've found that there's so much I don't know and don't understand. That's mostly because I haven't experienced things through the eyes and hearts of people of color. And until I do, applying my experience to their lives leads me to dismiss whole realms of reality...and to racism.

Here's how Nezua put it years ago in a blog post titled The Skin of My Soul.

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access.

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience! How dare you insinuate that you possess knowledge I may have to ask you about in humility! How impertinent of you to even imagine that I cannot, with study and great wisdom and effort, also know what it is like to grow up Brown™ in America! The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach. It is a slap in the face to this line of thought that there exists an area that cannot be known, even to a WHITE person. Gasp.

That's the crux of white privilege...thinking that what we've lived and experienced is a valid way to measure what other people have lived and experienced. And because whiteness has been the default for so long in this culture, many of us are not used to the idea that there's so much that we don't know and need to learn. Until we do - we're likely to hurt people and cause them pain out of our ignorance. I don't imagine that most of us mean to cause that kind of pain...but we do. That's what my friend who longed for the South was trying to tell me I think - that it actually hurts less when it comes from people who openly hate you than it does when it comes from your friends and allies.

A few years ago Donna at The Silence of Our Friends told a story that is both simple and poignant about this kind of pain. It starts off with her explaining that she was once part of a group for Native American women. They were open about who joined - as long as the reasons had integrity. One of the women who joined the group had Native American ancestors way back in her heritage and wanted to learn what she could about them. I'll let Donna pick up the story from there.

It was like any friend or neighbor who thinks you are interesting and you think she is interesting and you get along great. I don't know what got up her nose this one day, but we were sitting around discussing current problems on our reservations and things like unemployment came up. She gets a little huffy and chimes in, "Well why don't you just go get a job?" Now the others in the group just stopped talking to her, they knew they got slapped down, but I didn't. I tried to explain that it wasn't that easy and that alot of our reservations are out in the middle of nowhere and you need a car to go into town or maybe even get on a bus and completely leave your home. She didn't hear any of it. She said of course it's easy, you fill out applications and get a job! I tried one more time telling her that cars and gas cost money, that bus fare costs money, that clothes for an interview cost money, the extreme poverty means there is no money, and because of the distance to the nearest city you might be abandoning everything and everyone you know to go somewhere you know is hostile to you. And she dismissed it saying I was just making excuses. She really thought we were either too stupid to think of her simplistic answers ourselves, or too lazy to go and do it. I lost it and gave her hell over it, but her answer to that was that white people don't have to be our friends and listen to anything we say, and yet she did it all this time, and now I was being so rude and ungrateful when she was just trying to help.<...>

I got quiet. I didn't know what to say. I had to stop and ask myself, am I really equal? Am I even human? At that moment in time, I didn't know anymore. Now these kinds of things have happened to me at other times but this one was especially painful because I had been friends with this woman for 2+ years. I didn't see it coming.

Can you feel it?

Certainly this woman demonstrated some ignorance about the employment barriers for Native Americans living on a reservation. But when challenged with that ignorance...the really ugly aspects of her racism arose. "White people don't have to listen and I'm just doing you a favor by doing so. You should be grateful." It reminded me of all the times I silently (but perhaps not so subtly) assumed that I deserved gratitude from people of color for my efforts to engage. Just another layer of my own racism that Donna helped me recognize.

I tell that story to help us be mindful - not as a request to walk on eggshells (which is a whole other problem). Its the subtle things from the people you're supposed to be able trust that often hurt the most. And that's racism too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's your story?

I've always been interested in politics...ever since I was a little girl. I even majored in Political Science for awhile in college - until I succumbed to that age-old "wisdom" that asked, "What kind of job can I get with this major?"

I think my passion for politics comes from the fact that I felt in my bones that all was not right with the world. I had an interest in understanding why that was and trying to make things better. During my childhood, no one ever thought I'd accomplish much (ie, make money), but deep inside I had the feeling that all of those expectations were missing some potential that had yet to be recognized.

Eventually that desire to find out how I could contribute to fixing what's wrong in the world led me to a career in family counseling at a program for runaway youth and then to become the Director of a small non-profit where we work with youth who are starting to get in trouble at home, at school, or with the law. I've been blessed with the reality of living out my dream to change the world - not on a grand scale, but in a very real way right here in my own community. Every day I am humbled and grateful for that opportunity.

Over the last couple of years, those of us in this organization have realized that its not enough for us to continue to try to help heal the wounds of young people (and their families) who are constantly being beaten down and left out by the culture in which we live. We think its time to begin to ask that culture to do what we've been asking youth to do for so long...take responsibility for yourself and change.

That shift has prompted us to expand how we look at things and learn some new skills. One of the people I've been learning from is Marshall Ganz, lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the community organizer who played a major role in developing Camp Obama. Ganz cut his teeth in community organizing by being involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and then with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California.

I recently read an article by Ganz titled Why Stories Matter: The art and craft of social change. In it I think he has some lessons for all of us whether we're organizing in our own community or trying to pass health care reform. In addition, I think he helps us understand more about who Barack Obama is and what he's trying to do.

The initial question Ganz asks is how we motivate people against inertia.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

This certainly puts some context to the idea of "hope." Its not just some nebulous emotion. Its what motivates us to ask questions and learn...the very basics of beginning the process of change.

But as Ganz goes on to say, we can't just walk around telling people to be hopeful. So what do we do?

I find his answer to this question fascinating. But it should come as no surprise given that most every religious and moral leader in history has employed the same strategy. We instill hope by telling stories.

In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts.

Ganz then outlines how our own stories are the root of how we engage others in a movement for change. First of all, we tell the story of self - our journey that is a unique testament to our own challenges, obstacles and crises. Secondly, we tell the story of us - what it is that we share that binds us together. And finally, we tell the story of now - the tension that exists between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. That tension is what calls us to act.

In another article I read by Ganz, the example of a story of self, us and now that he used was Barack Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention (link to youtube, transcript here). If you have a few minutes, watch that speech again with these three elements of story in mind. It gave me a whole new understanding about why that speech launched Obama as the national leader of a movement that eventually led to his Presidency.

Ganz sums up the art and craft of social change this way.

Our goal is to meet this challenge, to seize this hope, and turn it into concrete action. After developing our stories of self, then we work on building relationships, which forms the story of us. From there we turn to strategizing and action, working together to achieve a common purpose, learning to experience hope—that’s the story of now.<...>

Paul Tillich taught us that the work of justice requires power, and for power to become justice requires love. All three are intimately related. We cannot turn our love into justice without engaging power. Justice is not achieved without struggle. It’s not achieved without mobilizing power. Organizing is about mobilizing power.

The power that we need to create change is collective power. We'll realize that power when we tap into the story of self, us and now that leads people from inertia to hope to action.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A republic...if you can keep it

There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.” The brevity of that response should not cause us to under-value its essential meaning: democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health.

I often think about that story - and I especially did during the previous Bush administration. Perhaps no moment demonstrated to me more powerfully how close we came to loosing the republic than what Cheney said when asked to comment on the fact that 2/3 of the people in this country didn't support the war in Iraq.

I believe that the Republicans can afford to be viscous in their attacks because - in their hearts - they don't believe in a democratic republic. And they know that a cynical disengaged public allows them free reign to speak platitudes to their base and smear their enemies in an effort to maintain the real power for themselves. We see this almost every election cycle when their fondest wish is low voter turnout. Its certainly the reason they go after groups like ACORN with such vehemence.

But as the quote above suggests - "democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."

I believe this is part of why Obama often takes the approach that he does. And I'm very grateful to MinistryofTruth who recently re-published Obama's diaries at DailyKos. Because in them, I see Obama laying out the strategy we see now. Here's just a bit of an example.

Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice.<...>

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

As a community organizer, I believe that Obama recognizes that the only way to take on the power structure that fights so ruthlessly against our interests and for the interests that line their own pockets is the power of large numbers of people fighting back TOGETHER.

To do that means having dialogue across our differences and helping people be prepared to make sacrifices. As a country - we have a long way to go on all of that. I'm not sure I always have the faith in the American people that Obama demonstrates. Its just that when I try to think of the alternatives, I'm not left with much of anything that is tolerable.

Our challenge then, is to get more people working with us rather than against us...making the coalition so large that it can't be turned away. But coalition work is hard. No one has been clearer about that than Bernice Johnson Reagon in her speech Coalition Politics: Turning the Century (sorry, I can't find a reprint online).

Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn't look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there.They're not looking for a coalition; they're looking for a home! <...> You don't get a lot of food in a coalition. You don't get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and its different from your home. You can't stay there all the time.<...>

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60's that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we've got to do it with some folk we don't care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.

So I wonder if we're ready for the kind of coalition-building that is required of a democratic republic. I believe that President Obama is inviting us to take on just that kind of challenge. And I also believe that, as Reagon said, it will require us to "vomit over that for a little while."

But the truth is...its a republic, if we can keep it.

How some liberals embrace neocon thinking

Whether it was the USSR during the Cold War or the Axis of Evil during the Bush administration, the failed strategy of the neocons was to try to scare us all into thinking of them as our enemies in order to justify making demands and expecting compliance or going to war. Any talk of diplomacy by those of us on the left was labeled appeasement. Of course, the idea of talking to and treating the opposition with respect was met with cries of naivete.

This has always been infuriating because we know that underneath it all, it is fueled by a deep misunderstanding of human nature, as well as a total lack of comprehension on what diplomacy and negotiation can accomplish.

So I have to wonder why, when we turn from foreign affairs to domestic issues, so many liberals want to embrace the exact same kind of thinking.

Are Republicans all that much more of a threat than the likes of Nikita Khrushchev or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Kim Jong-il? So much so that we should not attempt to even talk to them or try to explore common ground?

To tell you the truth, it amazes me to hear so many liberals throw the exact same language at Obama on domestic issues that we heard for decades from the neocons and imperialists about foreign affairs. It makes me wonder just how deep our values run when we reject their ideology so thoroughly in one sphere and embrace it in another.

Here's what I think: like it or not, we are all in this boat together. Before we go off half-cocked thinking its our job to destroy anyone who gets in the way of what we believe is the truth, it might be helpful to see if we can find a way to increase the number of us who are working in the same direction - even if it means giving up a little of our own ground. THAT's the challenge of any kind of meaningful negotiation...knowing when to accommodate and when to draw the line. But to merely assume that the opposition is evil and therefore not worth the attempt is way too reminiscent of the very things we are trying to change with respect to politics and diplomacy.

I'm no more of an optimist than anyone else in thinking that's all there is to it - either in foreign or domestic affairs. But the truth of it is, we've learned that the neocon way of doing foreign policy leads to nothing but failure at best and death and destruction at worst. And lets not even talk about the blowback it engenders.

Isn't it time that we showed the world and ourselves a different possibility? That, regardless of the Republican's lack of maturity when it comes to governing, we can demonstrate what grown-ups act like? Or does even listening to the opposition qualify as appeasement - as the neocons would like us to believe?

I have to wonder how confident we are in our ideas that we think merely being open to dialogue will somehow corrupt them. And when the Republicans either come up with the same-old, same-old failed policies of the past or simply obstruct, do we take that on as our failure or theirs?

For me, believing in my ideals means doing so no matter where they are applied. I no more see Obama being weak and naive in talking to Republicans than I see him as appeasing by being willing to talk to Iran.

I personally would like to challenge the neocon idea that strength is demonstrated by distancing from the opposition and and waging wars of aggression against them when they don't comply with our wishes.

So what is an alternative kind of strength? I think that AikidoPilgrim defined it beautifully in his diary Obama's Soft Power: a primer on Aikido.

Creating this change requires four things from us

1] We must maintain our own balance while taking theirs
2] We must react fearlessly
3] We must enter into the very center of the conflict
4] We must understand our opponent's intentions in order to achieve resolution

When we follow these four steps for creating change, we don't just change the situation, we change our opponents.

They began the interaction wanting to attack us - believing us to be their enemy. By demonstrating our desire to understand them and by manifesting enough concern for them to make sure they don't get hurt - we change their mind, we change their anger, and we change their role.

I think this concept is not only loaded with wisdom, but is just the kind of alternative our world is in need of today. Its pretty foreign to how we've been taught in this culture to think of conflict and will take some practice and getting used to. But haven't we given the neocon alternative enough of an opportunity to show us what a complete disaster it is?

For Obama - its about the principles

Over the last few days, many have complained about the lack of leadership or clarity from the Obama administration on health care reform. As I've said elsewhere, I think some of our problem is that we are perhaps too attuned to the 24-hour news cycle and find ourselves riding the roller coaster of every new media sound-byte that stirs up the controversy needed for their ratings.

But I also feel that we're still in the process of getting used to a different style of leadership than we are accustomed to in a POTUS - especially after GWB's unitary executive approach. I think that the more that we understand that style, the less we'll be vulnerable to much of the media's efforts to stir up discontent and will be able to keep our "eyes on the prize" of knowing our role in the process as advocates.

'm not prepared to make a historical comparison of the style of governing for different Presidents. But I have been watching Obama and feel pretty certain about what I'm seeing in his approach. That might change a bit over time as we experience wins and losses, but I suspect that the core principles will remain the same.

What it basically comes down to is that Obama is in the business of reforming the ways that our government doesn't work right now. We're in the middle of a HUGE effort on health care reform. But teed up right behind that are issues of energy reform, immigration reform, and education reform. I'm sure there is more to come - but those are the ones the Obama administration has identified as next up.

In this process of reform - what Obama tends to do is identify the overall principles of the various reform efforts he wants to see. From that, he'll propose policies that he thinks address those reforms, but states his openness to other ideas that would meet the principles. That last line is what often gets progressives confused and frustrated.

As an example BooMan wrote about this process as it relates to EFCA a few months ago. He quoted from an interview Obama had with the Washington Post about this issue.

Q: The Employee Free Choice Act <...> Is card check the only solution? Or are you open to considering other solutions that might shorten the time?

Obama: I think I think that is a fair question and a good one.

Here's my basic principal that wages and incomes have flatlined over the last decade. <...>

I think the basic principal of making it easier and fairer for workers who want to join a union, join a union is important. And the basic outline of the Employee Fair Choice are ones that I agree with. But I will certainly listen to all parties involved including from labor and the business community which I know considers this to be the devil incarnate. I will listen to parties involved and see if there are ways that we can bring those parties together and restore some balance.

You know, now if the business community's argument against the Employee Free Choice Act is simply that it will make it easier for people to join unions and we think that is damaging to the economy then they probably won't get too far with me. If their arguments are we think there are more elegant ways of doing this or here are some modifications or tweaks to the general concept that we would like to see. Then I think that's a conversation that not only myself but folks in labor would be willing to have. But, so that's the general approach that I am interested in taking.

The basic principle is to make it "easier and fairer for workers who want to join a union." Any proposals, including EFCA, that promote that, he's interested in hearing about.

Similarly, on the issue of health care reform, Obama has laid out some broad principles for any reform.

* Reduce Costs — Rising health care costs are crushing the budgets of governments, businesses, individuals and families and they must be brought under control
* Guarantee Choice — Every American must have the freedom to choose their plan and doctor – including the choice of a public insurance option
* Ensure Quality Care for All — All Americans must have quality and affordable health care

In submitting his budget, Obama elaborated on the principles.

The Administration believes that comprehensive health reform should:

* Reduce long-term growth of health care costs for businesses and government
* Protect families from bankruptcy or debt because of health care costs
* Guarantee choice of doctors and health plans
* Invest in prevention and wellness
* Improve patient safety and quality of care
* Assure affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans
* Maintain coverage when you change or lose your job
* End barriers to coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions

As he has said many times, he thinks the public option is the best way to address some of these. But he's open to other proposals that might do so.

The benefits of this kind of strategy are twofold as I see it:

1. It marginalizes the Republicans when he invites them to put their ideas on the table and all they have to say is "no."

2. The debate focuses on the strategies. The principles are taken as the playing field on which discussion happens. They are assumed.

I think that a healthy debate about whether or not this is a good approach is very much worth having. And I suspect that over the next few years, we'll have the opportunity to witness its failures and successes.

But I also think that its important to have this kind of big picture in mind when the ugly work of sausage-making legislating is underway.

Hate Unleashed

Last night I watched an interesting segment on Countdown (link to video) where Keith interviewed Melissa Harris-Lacewell. His opening question to her was about whether or not we're seeing racism in this country becoming blatant rather than hidden behind euphemisms.

At one point in the conversation, Melissa talked about the cumulative effect of things like having an African American President, a female Secretary of State and a Latina on the Supreme Court. She goes on to say:

That kind of change in America produces a great deal of anxiety for people who are not quite sure that governing amongst women and brown and black people constitutes real American government.

I think she captures much of what I've been feeling about what's behind the fear we see these wingnuts expressing. As I wrote recently in an essay about The children of 1969, we're now seeing the effects of affirmative action in our halls of power - and particularly the affirmative action that began at Ivy League schools in 1969. The face of power in this country is changing. And that scares some people.

All of that reminded me of a book I read last year by David Jensen titled The Culture of Make Believe. In it, Jensen takes us on his own journey to try to understand the roots of hate and violence in this country - covering everything from the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, sexism, subjugation of worker's rights, and the exploitation of our environment.

Ultimately he finds the common thread in our attempts to objectify everyone and everything. And that, he feels, comes from a sense of entitlement.

I have spent the past several hours now thinking about the notion that masters "shall be entitled to their labor," and at the risk of overstating, it seems to me that entitlement is key to nearly all atrocities, and that any threat to perceived entitlement will provoke hatred.

He then goes on to say that, as long as that entitlement is honored, the hatred becomes transparent and difficult to identify...what Keith referred to in his initial question to Melissa as "hidden behind euphemisms." But once it is challenged - it explodes.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement. <...>

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, "normal," chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

I think this captures very well what we're seeing today. The entitlement enjoyed by our white male patriarchy is being challenged in the halls of power - especially in its most visible manifestation to the whole country, ie, the federal government.

As long as the gains for "others" were held in check so that they could be cordoned off as "identity politics," that entitlement to the ultimate power was maintained. But now we have women and people of color moving into the top seats of power where they are positioned to represent everyone. I believe that this is an ultimate challenge to entitlement and therefore threatens the construct at its roots.

This has unleashed the anxiety - fear - and yes, even the hatred that was shoved under the surface for the past 40 years or more. It was always there - as long as those "others" knew their place and didn't challenge the entitlement too seriously. But the lid has been blown off and we're all getting a pretty good view of the ugly underbelly in the backlash.

It reminds me of something professionals who work in the field of domestic violence have known for a long time...when a woman who has been abused leaves or finds a way to challenge the power of her abuser, it is at that moment that the most serious violence is probable.

In saying all of this, I'm not suggesting that we give in to our own fear and hatred for this kind of thing. As a matter of fact, I think we need to do just the opposite...keep our eyes on the prize and continue moving forward. As Martin Luther King, Jr. counseled so long ago:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Here's hoping that enough of us have seen the light and can embrace these changes rather than fear/hate them. If so, we might deal another death blow to the idea of entitlement.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On giving your opponent a headache

Last week I wrote about some of Al Gioradno's reporting on the ground from Honduras. Namely, I was interested in the fact that coup resisters in Honduras were learning from the Otpur movement in Serbia.

This week, Giordano provides a first-hand account of advice given to the Honduran resisters by Ivan Marovich, the "Serbian resistance veteran who had been invited by local and national anti-coup organizations to share his experiences." Namely, here's his response to a question about how to give your opponent a headache. I think its an amazing lesson for all organizers - no matter what battle is raging.

The whole game is to calculate the next steps, to put the adversary in a position where he can’t react well.<...>

This is what we called a “Dilemma Action.”<...>

So what we wanted to have is a dilemma action in which the opponent is going to regret whatever he does.

The fist thing that we did, when we were still ten people, is we took a big barrel and a baseball bat. We wrote on the barrel: “Money for Milosevic.” It said we’re collecting money for Milosevic’s retirement. If you have money, put in the barrel. If you don’t have money, beat on the barrel. And Milosevic’s photo was on the barrel. So we put it on the street and walked away.

People walking by read the sign and began banging the barrel. Because of that noise, four more people came. And when they read it everyone started banging the barrel. This made a very loud noise. Finally somebody called the police. The police came and asked, “Who’s barrel is this?” Nobody knew. The police didn’t know what to do.

If the police had left the barrel there, people would keep banging the barrel. If they took the barrel, well, that is not their job. Finally somebody ordered them to take the barrel. We took photos of them and gave them to the media which reported, “POLICE ARREST BARREL.” So whatever they would do, they were going to regret it. And they regretted it because the very next day every town in the country had a barrel in its town square.

This is an example of how you create headaches for the adversary. The system, the regime, they have procedures. They have the way they do things. They don’t rely on creativity. They don’t rely on taking initiative. They totally rely on their procedures and on following orders. They don’t know how to react in certain situations. And that’s when they start making mistakes.

As the saying goes, never interrupt your opponent when he’s making mistakes.

Marovich goes on to describe how the system likes demonstrations - they know how to react to them. So in order to be effective in opposition - a movement needs to develop alternative actions that catch the system off-guard without a procedural playbook.

I can't help but think about what a headache the whole Obama administration has been for the Republicans. They need to oppose the Supreme Court nominee - but in doing so, they alienate most women and Latino voters in the country. They need to hang onto their base - but in doing so, they are required to kow-tow to the Limbaughs of the world and to the birthers. Its been an amazing spectacle to watch.

But now, I wonder if progressives don't need to try and figure out how to give the Max Baucus' and Ben Nelson's of the world a headache. Got any ideas?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What is our alternative to the birthers, teabaggers, astroturphers?

As far as I'm concerned, we've managed to document and understand the reactions we're seeing come from the birthers, teabagers, astroturphers pretty well. We've expressed our outrage and done our best to show the lunacy of their positions.

If, as many of us believe, we are in the midst of the next evolution of the battle against racism and privilege, I begin to wonder what we, as progressives, bring to the table as the antidote to the hate and fear that the wingers are espousing. Certainly we want to see universal health care. But we all know that the battle that is raging is about more than that. So I ask myself what the vision is that we are offering as an alternative and how that vision can ground us in the heat of the battle.

Recently jessical wrote a diary spurring much thought for me about that question.

We are all living with a burden of shame and fear and anger, and in every single moment of your life, in every action, you invite decency and grace, or you invite violence and hate. Sometimes, sometimes, you get the violence and hate anyway. But if you feed it...that is always what you will get. That doesn't make it right or deserved. But if progressivism is about anything to me, it is about the very long fight for human dignity.

I'd guess that most of us would agree that a sense of human dignity for all is a foundational principle/value of progressivism. But if you're like me, believing in human dignity does not always ensure that I treat others in my life accordingly. Since I'm a real believer in the counsel of Gandhi when he said "Be the change you want to see in the world," I think working on that is the foundation of any successful movement for change.

When Obama talks about the "empathy deficit" we face in this country - I believe this is what he's referring to. In order to treat others with a sense of human dignity, we must be able to put ourselves in their shoes and understand their struggles and point of view as much as we possibly can.

A while ago, Nezua at the Unapologetic Mexican, did a series on finding the nexus between all of our "isms" - or our sense of privilege and exceptionalism. In the first installment of that series he found the nexus in our sense of entitlement (another word for privilege) and finds the antidote in humility and gratitude.

And after all, what happens when we remove that sense of entitlement?

We grow humility.

What happens when you nurture a sense of humility in place of entitlement? You place your feet on the same ground as I. You remove racism without really chasing "racism." You remove environmental harm without getting caught up in side arguments. You remove sexism without feeling less-than as a man. You remove road rage. You remove exploitation. You remove rape. And you join with others in the understanding that you are not entitled to a damn thing. Nope. Entitlement is the antithesis of gratitude. And honestly, you are one lucky human.

I think that Lynne Twist identified most powerfully for me the reasons we lack this sense of humility and gratitude in her book The Soul of Money when she talks about the myth of scarcity and the need to replace that with the concept of sufficiency. Here's how she describes the impact of the scarcity model.

Whether we live in resource-poor circumstances or resource-rich ones, even if we're loaded with more money or goods or everything you could possibly dream of wanting or needing, we live with scarcity as an underlying assumption. It is an unquestioned, sometimes even unspoken, defining condition of life. It is not even that we necessarily experience a lack of something, but that scarcity as a chronic sense of inadequacy about life becomes the very place from which we think and act and live in the world. It shapes our deepest sense of ourselves, and becomes the lens through which we experience life...

This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life, and it is deeply embedded in our relationship with money.

In contrast, here's how she talks about sufficiency.

We each have the choice in any setting to step back and let go of the mind-set of scarcity. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don't mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn't two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn't a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn't an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, and a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough...

When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete...

When we let go of the chase for more, and consciously examine and experience the resources we already have, we discover our resources are deeper than we knew or imagined.

It seems to me that, when we can come to the place where we believe we are/have enough, we can find gratitude, humility and empathy for others. In so doing, we can treat everyone with a sense of human dignity and live out the "be the change we want to see in the world." I know its much more of a struggle than just writing those words in a diary. I live that struggle daily and fail way too often.

But when I find myself reacting to the wingers and the havoc they create in both our culture and our politics, I need to at least ground myself in the vision of what I see as the alternative to their message. I find that vision in a sense of gratitude, sufficiency and empathy.

I suspect that many of us have had the experience of trying to talk to the wingers in our families, neighborhoods, and places of employment. In doing so, we know that reasoned arguments don't tend to have much of an impact. I believe that this is because they are operating from a sense of scarcity which breeds fear and overcomes reason. So in closing, I'll share something written by one of my favorite poets, David Whyte. It captures for me what a sense of sufficiency has to offer.

Loaves and Fishes

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

-- David Whyte

Saturday, July 11, 2009

On Moving Forward - Generational Shifts

I would suspect that most generational shifts are hard to recognize when you're in he middle of them. But based on some of my professional experience as well as watching electoral politics in this country, I think we're beginning to see some generational shifts in the African American community that are affecting all of us.

Certainly the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States gives the nation and the world an opportunity to see this new generation of African American leadership at work. As I've tried to watch and capture what that change indicates, I see that Obama has signaled many of the subtleties in speeches he made both on the campaign trail and since he's been in office. 

Perhaps the most dramatic was when he gave what we've now come to call the race speech. In it, Obama went wide and deep in laying out his view of the racial tensions that continue to exist in this country. But ultimately, there was a theme that developed about where we need to go. In the midst of acknowledging all of the very real conflicts that exist around racism, he talked about what we need to do to move forward.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. <...>

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American. <...>

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.<...>

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

I heard many of these same themes in Obama's Cairo speech. Again, he laid out the particulars of why the various tensions exist both in the Middle East and with the rest of the world. But he calls on us all to find a way to work together and move forward.

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. And when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

This is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.

The message I hear is that we need to acknowledge the past and the tensions it has brought us. But we also need to find a way to move forward...together. If we're ever going to get beyond the stalemates of the past, it will be because we are able to recognize the stake we have in each other - regardless of our past grievances - and find a way to move forward in addressing our common interests. And this applies to our relationships with other countries as well as to those we have deemed to be "other" here in the U.S.

But I've also noticed that this kind of message is not just coming from Obama. Way back in August 2008, Matt Bai wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine titled Is Obama the End of Black Politics? In it, he examined the generational shifts happening in political leadership within the African American Community.

Black leaders who rose to political power in the years after the civil rights marches came almost entirely from the pulpit and the movement, and they have always defined leadership, in broad terms, as speaking for black Americans. They saw their job, principally, as confronting an inherently racist white establishment, which in terms of sheer career advancement was their only real option anyway.<...>

This newly emerging class of black politicians, however, men (and a few women) closer in age to Obama and Jesse Jr., seek a broader political brief. Comfortable inside the establishment, bred at universities rather than seminaries, they are just as likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it.

One of the emerging African American leaders that Bai profiled was Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He is a fascinating young man who was also interviewed by Bill Moyers back in March 2008. You can watch the video of this interview here (25 minutes). As I recently watched this interview again, I was struck by some of the same themes we've been hearing from Obama.

Well, I don't want us to be an America that is sanitized, homogenized, "deodorized" as a friend of mine says, and forgets about race. The richness of America is that we are diverse. We're not Sweden. We're not Norway. We are a great American experiment. And as soon as we start trying to forget race or turn our back on race, number one, we don't confront the real racial realities that still persist. But, number two, is we miss the great delicious opportunities that exist in America and no where else.

So, I don't want to be a race transcending leader. I want to be deeply understood as a man, as African- American, as a Christian, all that I am. But, ultimately it's a portal to punch through to a deeper and more textured, more nuanced understanding of the beauty and the brilliance of America. So, that involves a difficult conversation -- not a sound bite.<...>

What I'm trying to say is that you can get so caught up in looking for blame. Who's to blame? Is society to blame? Is it white folks to blame? Is it the prisoner himself to blame? But at some point in America, we're going have to get beyond blame and start accepting responsibility.<...>

But, I'm already getting fatigued with the conversation, and feeling that there's a dearth of action. That it may be in vogue right now because of this presidential election to talk about race, to study and to flip it over. But at the end of the day, is it gonna motivate action? We had the courage to deplore the reality in which we live, but will we show the equal courage to do something about it? Not wait. Not point a finger. Not sit and have debates about a divided America. But, to get into the trenches, to roll up your sleeves, to do the hard, difficult work it takes to manifest the greatness of this nation.

Yep...that's what resonated with me...roll up your sleeves and do the hard, difficult work. Its exactly what I'm hearing from the emerging African American leaders in my community. They too are tired of talking about things and arguing over who is to blame for the problems that exist. They just want to get busy working together to fix it. And any partners that are ready to do that are the ones they're looking for.

I think I'll leave it to others to compare and contrast this attitude to previous generations. But as a boomer myself, I think it behooves us to take a look at this and begin to understand what it is these young leaders are saying and where its coming from.

What I hear most of the time is an honoring of what previous generations have accomplished, but also an awareness that the job is not done and that different approaches are necessary for them to take on the tasks that are in front of them today. And while I don't think that we should just abandon all we learned about the struggle and abdicate our role in it today, we need to hear what these young voices are saying and take it to heart.

To close, here's a beautiful piece that was written by a leader from the Civil Rights era reflecting on his experience of Obama's inauguration. I think it captures his recognition of the passing of the torch beautifully. From the Rev. Gordon Stewart, who marched with King in Chicago and experienced race riots in Illinois and Wisconsin:

They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy... and hope... that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Either I do it or it won't get done

I don't know whether the universe conspires to send us messages when we're ready for them or if they're always there and we just notice them when we're ready. All I know is that over the last couple of weeks I've been hearing something that seems to be coming through loud and clear. So I think its time to pay attention.

The message I've been hearing is captured by the title of this diary...either I do it or it won't get done.

This first came through a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of attending a speech by Geoffrey Canada, founder of The Harlem Children's Zone. In case you haven't heard of this initiative, 20 years ago Canada took on 100 blocks of Harlem and made the commitment that he and those he worked with would "do whatever it takes" to help the children in that area grow up healthy and strong. His work has been so acclaimed that communities all over the country are trying to replicate it and Obama has promised to include funding for such initiatives as part of his urban agenda.

Having heard Canada in person before and seen him interviewed on TV, I knew we'd walk away from his presentation both challenged and fired up. He did not disappoint. His speech was rebroadcast yesterday on Minnesota Public Radio so you can go listen to the whole thing if you'd like.

But he started off with a challenge that stuck with me. He said that just as most in this country ignored the few economists who warned us of a coming economic crisis, he feels that no one is listening when he tries to warn us about a crisis with our children. Our policies have been consistent over time..."Don't educate them early - lock them up later." And as we continue those policies, we're not only letting the children down, but we're also bankrupting ourselves and heading towards becoming a second-rate nation.

Canada went on to say that these policies continue because we tend to sit back and think that someone "in charge" has the answers and wait for them to fix it.

If you care about our children - you're going to have to save them. Either you do it or it won't get done.

The second way this message came through for me recently was thanks to a diary by Inky99 where he linked to an article by Derrick Jensen titled Beyond Hope. Jensen uses the word "hope" in a more specific way than some of us might.

I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it.<....>

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work.<...>

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

This seemed to fit so well with what I had been left pondering from Canada's speech...the end of waiting for someone else or something else to fix things. But Jensen takes it even further. He talks about what happens inside of us when we let that kind of hope die.

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore...You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation.<...>

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are.<...>

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.

And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.

In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.

I know that some might have problems with how Jensen has used the word hope - I know that I did. But it made me think...and that's a good thing. I'll still continue to be hopeful that we can do things like create a world that works for all of our children. But the truth is... either I do it or it won't get done.

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