The dysfunctional family we call America

Sam Smith

It is hard to think of a time in modern history when there have been so few prominent figures – in politics, academia, business or the media – who seem worthy of trust, let alone admiration. Yes, there are exceptions – Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, hard hitting non profits, as well as numerous alternative journalists – but we still repeatedly have to face problems such as possibility that we will be asked to choose between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton with over half of Americans not trusting the better alternative of the two.

Or consider the matter of fact manner in which much of the major media treats ethical questions that arise – as though they had only procedural and political content, i.e. what is the best way for major figure Y to handle the possibility that he or she has been caught lying or ignoring the law on some matter. Manipulative skills currently rank well above moral values in the media’s mind.

And then we have the most rapacious business leadership in American history, as well as the most disloyal, given its desire to move jobs, wealth, and business overseas.

And finally we have in the GOP the most reactionary, prejudiced and destructive strong political movement since the secession of the South. And a Democratic Party that seems to have no idea of what to do about it.

The best metaphor for all this may be the dysfunctional family. It, too, can be indifferent to logic, morality, kindness, cooperation, courage and decency. Much of our behavior as victims of the elite mimics the frustrated reactions of familial victims.  We respond with increasing anger, aggressiveness or, on the other hand, apathy and surrender, but in either case with a striking lack of independence from the community that brought us down. And we easily turn on other victims for having failed to save us.

There are other choices. In the past these have included the creation of countercultures such as  beats and punks, in which a new generation declared its cultural independence from the past. Nothing of that scale exists right now.

And we have had efforts such as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements that redefined an era by collectively tossing out old evils in favor of new dreams.

Part of the secret of these past efforts was that you could join without clearance of correctness, and with an understanding that change included the transformation of presently misguided or indifferent hearts. It was what one did now that counted far more than where one once stood.

We live now – thanks to a variety of factors ranging from cellphones to activist group competition for funding and media – in a far more atomized world in which it is easy to ignore or suspect people and groups that once would have naturally been seen as allies. And so we are often dysfunctional even working for change. From right to left, it is increasingly common to diss those who do not share all our presumed virtues and to believe we can define ourselves simply by condemning others. The fact that in this rejected pool are the very people we need to convince or convert is increasingly forgotten or ignored.

It is easy in a dysfunctional family or community to be so used to seeing the mistakes and cruelty of those around us that we fail to see the potential of others and how to share and build upon it. Both right and left suffer from this.  Conservatives contrive  an ever growing hate list of supposed threats to freedom even as they campaign for those actually removing those liberties. Liberals and libertarians fail to unite on issues about which they agree. And both ends of the spectrum define themselves by what and who they dislike.

Part of the trick in changing all this is to understand our past but not to let it rule our present and future. If our only response to the evils of the past is anger and protest, then we have added little to the story. But if we take the past and figure out how to redefine and redraw it for time to come, then we not only defeat the wrongs of the past but start to create a better future. We learn to treat anger and protest as the alarm, and not the ambulance.

Curiously, one useful model has cropped up in some corners of religion, which for too long has been dominated by those who saw their role as the condemnation of those who did not share their particular definition of morality. Now we even have a Pope reviving the spiritual role of good works in lieu of a merely narcissistic parading of presumed virtues. Reverend William Barber’s North Carolina Moral Monday’s movement has demonstrated how ethics and action can be well blended and among those he encouraged is one who just became the first black bishop of the Episcopal church.

By today’s activist standards, Moral Mondays is extraordinary. As In These Times notes, it is a “150-organization NC-NAACP-led coalition that includes such varied groups as NARAL Pro-Choice NC, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, El Pueblo Inc., Muhammad’s Mosque No. 79, Community United Church of Christ, AARP-NC, Common Cause NC and Southerners on New Ground.” It is a “cross-cultural and cross-sector movement.”

But to those who remember Martin Luther King Jr, Saul Alinsky or Jesse Jackson, such approaches are not novel – they’ve just been pushed aside. And you don’t have to get into theoretical arguments to see the problem with this. With blacks consisting of only 12% of the population and liberalism defining about a quarter of the vote, finding and building new allies couldn’t be more fundamental to positive change. Thus, neither Bernie Sanders nor Black Lives Matter can pull it off without new and stronger friends and working with each other is a good place to start.

This is why I’ve argued for the creation of a black-latino-labor alliance pushing for an agenda reached by the consensus of all three components. Its mere existence would not only shake up the establishment, it would force the media to recognize a progressive movement as powerful as those on the right. The agenda might not be ideal to any of those involved, but it is time to enjoy the benefits of what we have in common instead of self destructively picking on our differences.

That we tend towards the latter is, in fact, more of a cultural habit than a political decision. Go back to the 1960s, for example, and you would find folks putting together alliances that would seem strange today. One small example was the origins of the battle against freeways in DC that saved the capital from becoming an east coast Los Angeles. The key original partners in the fight were neither natural allies or presumed activists. They were black and white middle class homeowners. They started an explosion that changed the course of a whole city with an ever growing base of support.  At one rally the platform was shared by a prominent white Georgetown lawyer and black activist Reginald Booker who ran a group called Niggers Incorporated. As I watched them, I knew we were going to win. The city had joined to fight those hurting it.

Part of the secret is to organize by issues, and not ideology. Part is learning how to enjoy the partnership of those with whom you don’t fully agree but do agree on something important right now. Part is judging people by their words and actions today and not by their past behavior or that of their culture or ethnicity. The future can’t be the future without replacing the past.

Like the member of a dysfunctional family who walks away from the anger and misery it has created in order to find and/or build a new life, so all of us can walk away from the American past that is strangling us, and find new friends and ideas that help us move forward, even if differences remain between us. We can grant these allies reciprocal liberty, the same allowance for mistakes that we grant ourselves, and the warmth that comes with common ground.

We must, in short, become like more like what we want to be than what we and others have been in the past.  An image of possibility rather merely more evidence of dysfunction.


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