Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Context for American Renewal

 "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."
                                                                   —Abraham Lincoln

What’s next for our nation? What kind of shared vision can we the people build? Here are six lenses or “levels” that it may be useful to acknowledge in order to ask such questions, each lens taking in a wider view than the one before, beginning with you and me, and moving outward to domestic politics in the near term, further out to the possibilities of structural reform built upon our founding documents, further still to our nation’s place alongside the 200 or so other political entities on the planet, then to the shared challenges all those countries face together, and finally to the widest lens of all, our place in the unfolding story of history over the long term.

The first level is you and me. Each citizen of a democracy is a walking civic question mark. How open are our minds and hearts to opposing views? We all have biases worth rigorous examination, very much including the writer. How active can we be in fulfilling our basic citizenship responsibilities? Do we believe that individual citizens can make a difference? What is it exactly that makes us Americans? Too many of us have to work more than one job just to make ends meet, and our civic relationship with our country may be limited to voting. Others may have the time to volunteer their services on town boards or commissions. Others may be citizen leaders working on statewide issues or even seeking elected office.

Our own community may feel strong and prosperous, or fraying, or unsafe, or deprived. It is through that lens that we look up from our daily routine and local environment at what might constitute positive change. An immigrant who achieves citizenship in America may feel deeply grateful, in spite of our country’s faults, to be in a place where he is free to work hard to achieve his chosen ends. Minority groups may feel that the deck is stacked and that we still have a long way to go to achieve equality of opportunity. Where we stand as individuals depends upon where we sit.

A second level concerns national current events. Speaking of minorities, our country is in the middle of a crucial demographic change, where whites, hitherto privileged by numbers and racial advantage, are themselves headed toward becoming a minority. Minorities becoming majorities, though a sad sliver of us are fearful enough of this to indulge in murderous rampage, could spark a cultural and political renaissance. Our nation began in slavery. The effort to leave that horrific legacy behind continues to be a major energizer of democratic fairness.

In 2016 we elected a supposedly populist president who tends to shoot from the hip and use racial and ethnic divisions to his own partisan advantage. Is he a one-time phenomenon or a symptom of deeper fault lines in our culture, including corrosive divisions of class?

Stepping back further still, we can assess our institutions through the lens of changes that might vitalize our civic culture. Examples include the issue of money in politics. The Citizens United case legitimized money as a form of speech, giving corporations what some perceive as undue influence. Many think that repeal is necessary to restore one-person-one-vote equity. There is also the issue of the public funding of elections along with shortening the length of active campaigns. And the possible obsolescence of the Electoral College, given that some candidates have achieved the presidency without winning the popular vote.  Ranked choice voting is being tried in a number of states, increasing the civility with which candidates debate each other and strengthening tendencies toward moderation. There is also the possibility, difficult as it may be, of enacting constitutional amendments even on issues as divisive as guns. A minority of our population own millions of assault rifles, a condition that the founding fathers could not have anticipated.

Widening the lens another click, in our brief history the U.S. has rapidly become overwhelmingly powerful in spite of our youthfulness. Our national immaturity has meant we have come to terms neither with our relationship to the indigenous peoples that were here before “us,” nor with our origin story in slavery and racism, the effects of which sadly persist. We have carried this unresolved racism with us into our foreign wars.

America’s dominance over the international scene since the end of World War 2 has involved the exercise of our enormous power to usefully check the reach of totalitarian regimes, especially during a half-century of cold war with the now defunct Soviet Union. Perceiving the world as full of implacable enemies with ruthless ambitions to bury us has been a difficult habit to break after that cold war came to an end. It resulted in our fighting expensive wars with confused motives in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere. We tend to think of ourselves as the exceptional nation, but perhaps we need to take a more objective look at ourselves. The reality is that comparative statistics measuring literacy or the quality of health care demonstrate that we are actually quite far down the pecking order by any number of measures.

Meanwhile American power has projected itself into military bases all over the world—what policy makers call “full spectrum dominance,” another way of saying that the best defense is a good offense. This default assumption of the role of world policeman also came about in part because the hopes for an effective United Nations have so far gone unrealized. Autocratic governments are on the rise, encouraged by citizens uncomfortable with the mass movement of migrants. But there are counter-movements, such as the one we saw in Hong Kong in 2019, peacefully demonstrating for more robust democratic rights. Our country, which began with a radical rebellion against injustice, has been ambivalent about radical rebellion against injustice elsewhere.

Still, the birth of American democratic ideals continues to represent hope for the world. 35 countries have adopted language from our Declaration in their constitutions.

An even wider perspective becomes available by assessing some major changes over the last century that have affected not only America but the world as a whole. Humans have gone into space and brought back photographs of the earth as it looks from the moon, underlining our commonality on a small planet. Global population has risen exponentially, though the rate of rise has begun to slow. There are now 9 billion of us. Feeding everyone will tax our creative capacities to the limit.

Nuclear weapons, now possessed by nine countries, have introduced the potentiality that our species could do itself in entirely at any moment unless nations cooperate to disarm ourselves. America, along with the other nuclear powers,  relies upon a shaky system of security we call deterrence. The nuclear powers have trusted their security to a fantasy: political leaders persist in behaving as if no mistake could ever occur with all the computers and sensing devices and fallible humans attached to the 14,000 presently extant nuclear weapons, forgetting the vulnerability of complex technical systems that led to Chernobyl, Fukushima, or the Challenger disaster. But we humans created deterrence and we can change it. It is past time to get the diplomats and generals of the nine nuclear powers together to share their thoughts on this dilemma of our common global fate. Full realization of possible mass death shared by all could send nuclear weapons into the dustbin of history. The United States is strong enough to lead the way—as it is already obligated to do by non-proliferation treaties.

While there is still far too much violent conflict on earth,  analysts like Stephen Pinker have documented many trends that point to an overall lessening of war and violence. Many non-violent movements have achieved remarkable victories, going back to Gandhi’s Indian independence effort or the American civil rights movement.

Then the biggest challenge of all, the global climate emergency, looms over us, like the nuclear issue an additional reminder of our common fate as a species and requiring a degree of mutual cooperation that so far has seemed almost beyond us.

And yet humans have vastly increased our scientific knowledge. We have learned more about ourselves and our environment in the past century than we have in all previous history. The widest lens of all to examine what might be next for America is the unfolding story of the planet through thousands of years of time made available by recent scientific discovery.

Thus we must even include the perspective of deep time—the reality that over hundreds of millions of years there have been five great extinction events, where the vast majority of species on earth have been utterly swept away. Science tells us with overwhelming evidence that because our human species has been such a success in terms of sheer numbers, we are in the middle of a sixth such event. We have exhausted the soil, filled the ocean with plastics, and raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Civic engagement and education for a renewed America requires a basic understanding of these six levels in their interrelationship.
If short-sighted practicality leads us to neglect wider perspectives because they appear to fly over our day-by-day lives at 30,000 feet, we run the risk of winning the battle but losing the war. We may define the battle in terms of where we are on the political spectrum at the moment and for whom we might vote in 2020, but the war as a whole is unfolding on an infinitely wider scale.

As Americans determine possible reforms and institutional revisions, it is useful to keep all the levels in mind—belief in the power of individual citizens to make a real difference; equality of opportunity for individuals in communities; changes that make the system work more fairly and efficiently on the state and federal level; international initiatives that increase our security by working the diplomatic process with other nations to ramp down nuclear weapons and general military overreach, even as we ramp up what our own nation’s role might be in strengthening the health of the living system upon which all humans depend.

Modern nation states, misunderstanding the interdependence which determines their larger self-interest and unable to reconcile their politics to the unifying truths of universal religious teachings summed up in the Golden Rule, have substituted various political ideologies dependent upon enemy-imaging, reducing the “other” to less than human rather than acting upon the interdependence of all with all. Many of these ideologies have ended in genocide at worst or static totalitarianism at best. 

In terms of nuclear war and climate, narrowly self-interested nationalism has become obsolete, even if nation states have not. Nations are crucial administrative units, let alone discrete containers of priceless cultural diversity. But there are international challenges, first of all maintaining the health of the living system, the oceans and the rain forests, which simply cannot be resolved by individual countries working alone, no matter how powerful or prosperous.

International relations will inevitably have to be based more on the force of law than the law of force, accepting and even celebrating the tension between worldwide cultural diversity and our shared destiny as a species and planet. The United States, far from perfect, yet successful as a pluralistic culture, has the potential to help lead the world into a place where competitiveness will be transcended by the need to cooperate to survive. But why must America often think that in order for us to win, others must lose? Last year Iran suffered terrible flooding. What might it have done for our relationship with that country if we had offered logistical help?

A more global meaning emerges for “all men are created equal” when nations consider our profound interdependency with each other and all life, suggesting a new role for the human on Earth beyond the material consumption, growth, and competition that indeed yielded great prosperity in the now receding age of fossil fuels. Our new primary role is not just to steward, but to actively strengthen, the living systems that sustains human and all other life. Political and economic systems worldwide must bend to that imperative, no exceptions.

Young people understand this far more profoundly than those of us who grew up with the unconscious habit of assuming that nature is an infinite resource. They realize that the Earth cries out for us to end not only our wars with each other but also our war with bees and birds and whales and rain forests and coral reefs, the intricate web which has still so much to teach us and give us—if we can stop fraying it and start encouraging it to self-heal.

What will give both teeth and consensus to renewal is a different consciousness of what it means to be human at this moment in our still unfolding story. We can continue to be proud citizens of a given nation, while we also identify with the necessity for an Earth politics and an Earth economics where entrepreneurship is subject to sustaining the whole. America cannot assume it is an exception to this planetary necessity.

Present U.S. polarization, monetized and intensified by mercenary media conglomerates, is already being perceived by many of us as transparently shallow and artificial, given that we citizens share so much more than what divides us. Neither right nor left wants destruction by war or global climate instability. We are ripe for building a shared vision of where we have to go.

What will encourage the practical realization of such a vision? The best single mechanism for getting from here to there, as Thomas Jefferson argued, is education—education leading to agreements based upon principles that more truly reflect our reality as seen through these six lenses.

Will change come bottom-up or top-down? Both, interactively. The macro strength of a nation is a function of the resilience of our thousands of communities. The climate crisis is amenable to a million bottom-up initiatives that will demonstrate our ties with distant peoples like the Marshall Islanders, whose lands are disappearing as the oceans rise.  Each of us can make a difference. And all the more can servant-leaders articulating a coherent vision from their bully pulpits. Political candidates who understand the tremendous entrepreneurial potential of moving to a sustainable energy paradigm will deepen their success. To do well by doing good will be increasingly celebrated.

The first step from here to there is to see, to really see the truth that challenges like omnicidal weapons and the climate emergency have radically changed humanity’s global interdependency. Hurricanes, floods and fires provide their own pressure for change. Can our simple awareness of events on all these levels educate us and our representatives to a more life-affirming redirection of our resources and toward the greater equality of opportunity that will further unleash our creativity?  These lenses through which to look at the prospects for American renewal are not answers, only the context for questions that can begin authentic dialogue.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


The president was quick to label the latest mass shooters cowards. This seems like an oddly careless, even Orwellian, use of the word, because it implies that there is a courageous way, as opposed to a cowardly one, to act out hatred. The late cultural critic Susan Sontag rightfully got herself into hot water when she argued that the 9-11 hijackers were not cowards because they were willing to die for a cause. But killing innocent people randomly in churches, mosques, and malls or by smashing airplanes into buildings seems pretty far outside the uncertain territory between cowardice and courage that most of us occupy.

If we’re honest with ourselves, very few people have gotten through life without moments of cowardice. Even fewer know for certain how they might react in the future when extreme courage is called for. It is easy to pretend that we would rise to the occasion, but sometimes we just don’t. I was sitting in the low bleachers to the left of home plate at a Red Sox game when a foul ball came flying in the direction of myself and partner. Much as my fantasy might have been that I would gallantly interpose myself between her and the ball, I ducked.

As did the president in the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton. He was offered a ripe opportunity to stop kissing the butt of the self-important NRA and lead on the sensible gun safety reforms that more than 80% of the electorate favor. Given this perfect opportunity for a profile in courage, he punted. We got not just retreaded bromides but nauseating hypocrisy. Wasn’t the president who addressed the nation in his patently insincere teleprompter mode the same demagogue who laughed when someone in the audience at one of his rallies shouted that immigrants should be shot?

Courage can be as instinctive as cowardice, as in the case of the inhumanly heroic Kendric Castillo, who died rushing directly at the mass murderer in the Highlands Ranch school shooting.  But raw courage for most of us means being as brave as we can in spite of fear, hesitation, and ambivalence. As the painter Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Sure I’m afraid. I’m afraid all the time. I just never let it stop me.”

Our public spaces have become fearful theaters of war. Supposed leaders prefer to divide the body politic to remain in power and carry on as if prosperity equaled peace. Meanwhile we tolerate the utter shame of spooked kids having to rehearse mass shooter drills in their classrooms.

The president has to know that there are too many assault rifles that are too accessible to too many angry people, and that he himself has stoked that anger—grounds by itself for impeachment and trial. As the columnist Nick Kristof has repeatedly argued, we could make huge inroads into mass shootings if we banned such weapons, adopted universal background checks, and licensed all guns as we license the privilege of owning and driving cars. So far, Mr. McConnell and his Senate colleagues remain in servile lock-step with our boorishly maladroit leader. Their inaction drips with uncountable layers of innocent blood. Cowards.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

We Need to Talk

Big media today is all about monetizing the non-conversation of outrage and division and using them to consolidate power. The Limbaughs and Hannitys have been strategically intensifying ginned-up divisions for decades, encouraging an uncivil public square and shredding a shared vision of national purpose that might otherwise surface. Discourse is cheapened by their model of constant interruption and relentless advocacy of one side of an argument, dismissing opposing views with sneering contempt.

The president fits right in. He is unequipped to make the transition from child of the media to mature includer-in-chief. While his superstardom distracts and divides, corporate forces fueled by dark money—weapons, health insurance, big pharma, fossil fuel interests, the NRA—subvert policies that reliable statistics indicate a majority of the public wants.

Polarization within our own country echoes our fears of the “other” beyond our borders, justifying dehumanization and ultimately war itself. It’s easy to slide into mobocracy, as in the shameful recent “send her back” moment. The left is not immune from its own irrationality in its indiscriminate contempt for the “deplorable” right.

Setting aside the refreshing vigor of the initial Democratic debates, reluctance to bring these underlying conflicts of worldview into the light of vigorous dialogue still occurs on many levels.

One under-mentioned issue is the ongoing threat of nuclear war, a topic which almost disappeared in recent presidential election cycles. Setting aside you and me talking more, why aren’t the generals of the nine nuclear powers in permanent dialogue about an arms race hell-bent for apocalypse? Instead, Russia and America are withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement that worked to greatly lessen superpower tensions.

Leaving the Paris Accords did not help our national conversation about the global climate emergency, nor does the president censoring accurate climate data from government websites.

Add Russian interference in our voting, immigration reform, the epidemics of mass shooting and opioids, the #Me too movement, and achieving health coverage for all, and we have a set of issues crying out for vital dialogue. We’re all Americans, we all want better policy outcomes, and far more unites than divides us. The discipline of inclusion, active listening, and staying open to learning something new isn’t rocket science.

If we give conservatism its due as a prudent understanding that things can always become much worse, and a consequent awareness of the delicate nature of institutions and the need for their careful preservation—including the preservation of the natural world, as in conservation—and if we give progressivism its due as the belief that institutions should be subject to periodic re-evaluation as circumstances evolve—then conservatives and progressives ought to be equally interested in how the other thinks, enabling a vital center.

Bridging the chasm becomes easier when diverse viewpoints encounter each other within a big tent of shared goals. I see this at my local Rotary Club, where men and women firmly on both sides of the political divide work harmoniously toward larger ends such as feeding the hungry or providing help to people who need a hand up to complete professional training. But even in such comfortable settings there is still some inhibition when it comes to open dialogue, a tacit agreement to leave political divergence unaddressed in the name of a brittle accord.

The times are too momentous for us to bite our tongues in the name of a veneer of civility that inhibits the constructive exchange of views. Civility, while necessary, is not sufficient. Civility is a word, like tolerance, which implies a segregated model of live-and-let-live—a kind of self-gerrymandering that foregoes encounters with difference and potential breakthroughs to commonality.

Whether we label ourselves conservative or progressive or something in between, it is hard to envision how we can continue on our present path of racism, militarism, and unsustainability.  Our largest challenges, first among equals the climate emergency, are beyond solution by individual nations. A new level of cooperation is required that requires less America first and more Earth first. Let’s talk about how we can help other nations, even adversaries, with floods or droughts or water deprivation. That kind of action could change our conversation with a country like Iran.

Our Declaration opens with the pursuit of happiness. Hannah Arendt observed that we may have misconstrued its meaning. What it seems to mean to us is shelves of self-help books about how to be happy in the silos of our private lives. What Arendt thought it meant to the founders was the happiness that wells up in society as a whole in the inclusive exercise of its collective responsibility—maybe this happiness begins in the pursuit of conversational climate change.