No one left but us

Sam Smith –  The recent election – in which the minimum wage for some workers was raised while the minimum intelligence for some politicians was lowered – illustrates a few points this journal has been trying to make, namely that Americans are more progressive on quite a few issues than their leaders and that choosing the right issues is often a better tool for change than choosing the right candidate. As I noted some time back, the American left can either remain a victim of alternative predators – the right on one hand or the Clintons and Obamas on the other. Or it can take charge of its own future and that of the country by agreeing within itself on clear programs and then – in the manner of abolitionists, populists, socialists, suffragettes, and civil rights activists – take this message to every little corner of the land.  Further, change does not build purely on argument, analysis or power. It requires a common community as well.

On the first point,  the issues on which, according to polls this year, the public leads the politicians of both parties (not to mention much of the major media) are quite extraordinary and include:

  • restoring voting rights to ex-nonviolent offenders
  • opposing racial profiling by police
  • opposing militarization of police has gone too far
  • considering Snowden a whistleblower, not a traitor
  • opposing mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses
  • opposing the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United
  • sporting pot legalization and medical marijuana
  • wanting carbon pollution cut even if it costs more.
  • wanting Americans want GMO foods labelled
  • believing humans cause climate change
  • saying global warming should be a priority
  • believing the economy is unfair to middle class
  • favoring fair pay for women, a higher minimum wage, paid family and medical leave and paid sick days.
  • believing wealth should be more fairly distributed
  • supporting federal spending to help economy
  • believing job creation should be the top priority. Only 33 percent said deficit reduction
  • supporting food stamps
  • opposing using student test scores to evaluate teachers.
  • wanting government to invest more in higher education
  • opposing spending by Super PACs
  • thinking we give too much aid to Israel
  • opposing getting involved in Ukraine
  • favoring normal relations with Cuba
  • believing the Afghan war wasn’t worth it
  • favoring laws prohibiting workplace discrimination against LGBT people
  • backing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally
  • supporting paid vacations
  • overwhelmingly opposed to NSA spying on them
  • Banning Super PACs
  • wanting Social Security spending increased or held steady

Add to this the fact that while Democratic candidates have been losing ground, issues like gay marriage and legalizing marijuana have made considerable progress. This dichotomy, caused in no small part by the legalization of corporate bribery (including Citizens United) that has funded an explosion of perverted television ads, will not soon be resolved. And there is only the smallest chance that the Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders will suddenly explode.

One reason is that Washington has become a capital of explosive dysfunction in which the Democrats serve as the abused children of maniacal Republicans, narcissistic gradocrats from schools of law, business and economics, lecherous lobbyists and a media unable to perceive beyond the lies it is told.

As in any dysfunctional family, playing by its rules gets you nowhere. The trick is to break free physically, mentally and socially to a stage in which the past no longer has tenure.

This is why emphasizing issues over candidates is important.  Obama and Hillary Clinton, for example, are the creations of the very culture we wish to change. We may, wisely, want to vote for them in order to have a better battlefield on which to struggle, but there is no reason to pin any significant hope on their fluid, fatuous fantasies and facades. Our goal is not to support such mirrors of cultural metastasis but to change the environment in which such metastasis spreads.

Strangely, a place where liberals and other Democrats might have learned this lesson is from the right itself. Abortion, gay rights, and immigration didn’t gain such disproportional importance by accident. It was the result of a conscious effort to redefine reality in terms that could demonize Democrats while ignoring all matters – such as rational  economics – that might otherwise drive national debate. And the message of the right included the argument that the Democrats not only had bad values but they wanted to take values away from those who disagree with them.

There is, however, another important factor well described by Rabbi Michael Lerner: the current difference in the role of community within left and right. It hasn’t always been like that and certainly wasn’t, for example,  during the 1960s, but one finds little honor for community in the liberal discourse. And our most popular form of government – the local – is dissed by Democrats in favor a federal rules.

On the other hand, writes Lerner:

When many Americans encounter a different reality in right-wing churches that have specialized in creating supportive communities, they feel much more addressed there than they’ve ever felt in progressive movements that focus on economic entitlements or political rights and sometimes disintegrate due to internal tensions over dynamics of relative privilege (“hey, my group is more oppressed than yours, so I deserve more attention for my pain than you do for yours”) and unproductive feelings of guilt (“who are we to challenge this society when we’ve failed to make our own lives as fulfilling as they ought to be”),

Only rarely do these liberal or progressive movements actually manifest a loving community that seems to care specifically about the people who come to their public talks or gatherings-the experience is more about hearing a good speech than about encountering people who want to know who you are and what you need-precisely what happens in most right-wing churches.

Is it really a surprise that people who so rarely encounter this kind of caring among the people with whom they work or the people whom they see angling for power or sexual conquest in the movies and TV would feel more seen and recognized for having some value in the Right than in much of the Left? Sadly, the cost of belonging to those right-wing churches is this: that they demean or put-down those deemed to be “Other”-those who are not part of their community. These “others” (including feminists, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and increasingly all liberals or progressives) are wrongfully blamed for the ethos of selfishness and breakdown of loving relationships and families. This is ironic because in fact the breakdown of loving relationships is largely a product of the increasing internalization of the utilitarian or instrumental way people have come to view each other, a product of bringing home into personal life, friendships, and marriages the very values that the Right esteems and champions in the competitive economy.

It is the ethos of capitalism that is destructive to loving relationships, families, and caring communities. Yet this is rarely discussed by liberal or progressive organizations, though doing so would start to suggest to people that we actually cared about these issues which are normally described as “personal” but are in fact a perfect example of how the personal is political-because they are so massively impacted by the values that are being instilled in all of us by the workplace, the marketplace of consumption and the media.

Progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party need to develop a Spiritual Covenant that can apply [a] New Bottom Line to every aspect of our society-our economy, our corporations, our educational system, our legal system. In short, a progressive worldview that deeply rejects the way most of our institutions today teach people the values of “looking out for number one” and maximizing one’s own material well being without regard to the consequences for others or for the environment. Armed with an alternative worldview, progressives would have a chance of helping working people stop blaming themselves for their situation, stop blaming some other, and see that it is the whole system that needs a fundamental makeover.

As a rock bottom Seventh Day Agnostic, I don’t care much for words like “spiritual” or “covenant,” but that part’s easy to rewrite. Forget the religious slang and consider the goals of a “network of spiritual progressives” that Lerner helped to form:

Founded in 2005 by Tikkun Editor Michael Lerner, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, and Princeton University Professor Cornel West, the NSP … is not only for members of religious communities but also for people who do not believe in God or do not associate with any religion but do realize the need for a New Bottom Line in our world today.

Here’s what is spiritual: Ethics, aesthetics, love, compassion, creativity, music, altruism, generosity, forgiveness, spontaneity, emergent phenomena, consciousness itself, and any other aspect of reality not subject to empirical verification or measurement.

Many scientists are also spiritual: They understand that the scientific method is appropriate for describing regularities in the natural world, but not for understanding all of reality. Those aspects of reality that cannot be reduced to publicly observable and verifiable behavior we call spiritual.

What Is A Spiritual Progressive?
(Hint:  You don’t have to believe in God or be part of a religion). You are a spiritual progressive if you endorse the New Bottom Line: A New Bottom Line is one that judges the efficiency, rationality, and productivity of our institutions (education, healthcare, legal, etc.), government (and its policies), corporations and even our personal behavior based not on the old bottom line of whether they maximize money and power, but instead assessing them on the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, empathy and compassion, social and economic justice, peace and nonviolence, and environmental sustainability, as well as encourage us to transcend a narrow utilitarian approach to nature and other human beings. You don’t have to believe in God, deny science, or be part of a religion to be a spiritual progressive.

Despite my decidedly aspiritual approach to life, I like this stuff, in part because the last time I lived in an America that was dramatically changing for the better, aka the 1960s and early 1970s, it was a period when issues were far more important than political personalities and the country was awash with alternative communities to which one could belong and in which one could find support. A time when hipsters, preachers, cynics, artists, academics and street activists not only had a plan but a home, and felt at home with one another.

Today, the Democratic Party offers neither a plan nor a home. There are some hopeful models, such as Moral Mondays. And when I meet a new fellow Green Party member, it is to like finding a long lost cousin.

But generally our discussions do not recognize the importance of creating common space and common dreams. The environmentalists take care of the pipeline and the civil libertarians fight NSA and seldom the twain shall meet.

You don’t have to call it spiritual. You can just call it community, fellowship or simply human. But we have been deserted by our leaders in politics, academia, and the media, so it’s up to us to rebuild what America is meant to be about and the communities in which it can happen. There’s no one else to do it.  Just us.

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