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

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