Sunday, February 14, 2021

A Second Civil War?

 

 

I believe the Second Amendment, whatever the Founders meant by it, was never meant to result in a nation with more guns than there are people, and that it is common sense to license gun ownership in the same way we require a license to drive. You may believe that the Second Amendment is a fundamental bulwark against tyranny and reject any limits upon weapons.

 

You may believe that abortion is murder but capital punishment is not. I believe that abortion is serious and tragic, but still it is better that it be safe, legal and rare. I believe capital punishment is cruel and unusual and has been too capriciously and unjustly applied.

 

I believe that the scientific method, posing a hypothesis and testing it to see if it is true, indicates we are in the midst of a human-caused global climate emergency that will take a new level of cooperation among all the nations in the world. You may believe that the science of climate shows inconsistencies and that warming and cooling are natural cycles independent of human activity.

 

You may believe that wearing a mask during a pandemic is an intolerable encroachment on your freedom. I believe that freedom includes willingness to give up smaller freedoms for the greater freedom of the common good.

 

I believe that Donald Trump was the laziest, most self-serving and dangerously demagogic president in the history of our country, whose final tweet on January 7th (“Remember this day forever!”) nailed his responsibility for the Capitol riot—or at least for not trying to stop it; you may believe he was authentic, tough-talking, good for our pocketbooks, and actually won re-election.

 

You may believe that Black Lives Matter is an incendiary and exclusionist movement. I believe that what Blacks have suffered here through slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, and unfair treatment in housing, education, business and the law makes race the central theme of American politics and the ultimate measure of our failure as a country so far—and also of our future success if whites can finally acknowledge their privilege.

 

I believe that structural racism built into our culture by our history infects all our institutions, including the police, and deep police reform is required—not defunding, but more funding for training and mission clarification. You may believe that the police are only trying to do an almost impossible job as best they can and deserve uncritical praise for keeping us safe from extremists on both the left and the right.

 

You may believe that easy voting methods such as mail-in ballots will lead to fraud and put the Republican Party at a disadvantage. I believe not only that current technology can make voting convenient and safe from fraud but also that voting in national elections should be required.

 

I believe that the U.S. Senate as currently structured is flawed, paralyzed, and a hotbed of the rankest hypocrisy and corruption by special interests. You may believe that a few powerful senators are holding the line so that the nation gets the judges it needs to hold the line against widespread cultural decadence.

 

You may believe that Rush Limbaugh is a beacon of light in a gathering darkness of chaos and change. I believe that it was a travesty for a sneering hatemonger to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 

I believe that nuclear weapons, far from keeping us safe, are a useless abomination and our country ought to lead the world in negotiating them out of existence. You may believe that nuclear weapons are an efficient way to prevent further war and the more we possess the stronger we are.

 

You may believe that because living expenses are different in different parts of the country, a universal minimum wage doesn’t make sense.

I believe that a national $15. minimum wage is the very least we can do for millions of people struggling to make ends meet. We can even subsidize it to make life easier for small business owners—for example with money we save by not renewing our nuclear arsenal.

 

I believe that sustainable energy is already proving how it will reinvigorate capitalism, put more people to work, and mitigate climate change all at once. You may believe that plans like the Green New Deal will result in unwanted “socialist” government control and the loss of jobs and profits in the fossil fuel sector.

 

You may believe that I am going to burn in eternal hell fire because I believe Jesus was a profound teacher, but don’t believe that I must believe in him to be “saved.” I believe that the Universe is in itself a dynamic, intelligent, unfolding process in which we humans are still trying to find our place, to figure out what it means to be mature and loving, and to learn to work together in harmony with each other and the system which produced us. I believe that all the great religions have more in common than not, first of all the Golden Rule.

 

Yes, such disagreements indicate a wide gap, even separate realities. But are they worth the agony and futility of a second Civil War? Are we wholly defined merely by our opinions? The great Sufic poet Rumi said: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Kate Johnson, a Buddhist teacher, writes: “The Buddha said that friendship is the whole of holy life. To accomplish it, we need only overcome our fear of reaching out to one another.”

 


 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Hill We Can Climb Together

 

 

The rhythmic recitation of the poet Amanda Gorman at the inauguration, her words counterpointed by her twirling hands, awoke a pleasant rush of what the Buddhists call sympathetic joy.

 

Even though Biden followed Obama, January 2021 may be even more of a Black lives moment. The primary in South Carolina that resuscitated Biden’s candidacy was followed by the crucial wins of Ossoff and Warnock in Georgia engendered by grueling hard work by Stacey Abrams and her volunteers.

 

As a classic white liberal (I’m even O.K. with calling myself a recovering unconscious white supremacist—there, that wasn’t so hard), I lived through the speeches and the tragic assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. My awakening was slow and remains unfinished. I learned a lot reading Jill Lepore’s history of the United States, “These Truths,” in which race becomes the inescapable theme of our whole national project. Black hopes were dashed in phase after phase of hideous reaction on the part of white people threatened by Black equality.

  

The Black writer who helped me begin to understand race as a white problem was James Baldwin, who urged me to question my white innocence—innocence, a.k.a. denial. The innocence of not being watched in stores, or not being mistaken for a congressional aide when you are the congressperson yourself, or not feeling mortal threat when a policeman stops your car, or not having to give “the talk” to your children about American bias. The innocence of an institutionalized privilege so profound and all-encompassing that it is the invisible taken-for-granted ocean in which we whites swim.

 

The departure of our bigot-in-chief is one more opportunity to confront our racist past and present. Our story is just not a simple feel good tale, like Trump’s anodyne propaganda piece “1776”—a perfect example of what Baldwin meant by white innocence. Instead it is a grand interweaving of love and hope and fear and hypocrisy and unimaginable cruelty. It begins with our founding fathers’ slave ownership at the same time they wrote that all are created equal, and extends forward to the extremist takeover of the Capitol a few weeks ago. When will we whites start to own up to both the light and the shadow, not just the nice bits?

 

“Black Lives Matter” is neither an exclusionary nor even a threatening assertion. To insist that it is confirms our devastating innocence—our denial. As President Kennedy asserted, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable."

 

This is not only a political Black lives moment, but also a moment of flourishing for Black writers and artists. Many new films (“Moonlight,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Thirteenth”), novels, and paintings open a window into the Black soul. Through Black art we whites can peel away a few layers of our own defensiveness if we’re open to it. Here’s a link to the powerful work by the immensely talented artist Kadir Nelson. His image of a Black man and his children on the beach crystallizes the realizable hope for a post-racial society. Amanda Gorman, who wants to be a president as well as a poet, seemed like a Kadir Nelson painting come to vibrant life.

 

At some point in the not-so-distant future, whites will become the racial minority in the United States. Why is that so terrifying to some of us— why must we see it as a win-lose? Black culture, tempered in the fires of slavery and Jim Crow and by myriad forms of rural and urban, Southern and Northern, discrimination, has deeply enriched our national life. In the face of repeated exclusion and abuse, Blacks have chosen to keep faith with the core promises of our Constitution. Their leaders, like the late John Lewis, are therefore in a position to make what Lewis called “good trouble”—holding our collective feet ever closer to the fire of our professed principles. Ms. Gorman will be of legal age to run for president in 2033. If I’m still around, I would joyfully vote to put myself in her capable hands.

 

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Ever-Changing Shape of Love

 

Ongoing events urge us to redefine and refresh that tired old used-up word—love.

 

Love is the only force strong enough to be the unifying energy that ties our broken country back together. Hate can’t do it. Hate and fear have polarized us. We need to choose: we can’t love and hate at the same time.

 

Love is difficult and takes effort. It is easy to love our children, because that is built into us, just as the fear which can lead to hate is built into us. But the consistent, firm love that gives us the patience to set limits on children that will help them grow into good citizens and good parents in their turn—and learn in their turn not to give into hate and fear and exasperated impatience—is not instinctive. It must be learned as we go.

 

Love is self-reflecting. It admits mistakes and learns from them. It’s no fun to realize we have been wrong or done something hurtful—just as it is no fun to be hurt. Love is about interdependence, the Golden Rule, the reality that I am not the center of the universe, that others and their needs are as real as me and my needs, and that we are all more alike than different. The tragedy of Donald Trump is that he still hasn’t realized these basic elements of being human.

 

Love is non-violent, by definition. Violence can never be loving. Period. Self-defense may be necessary, but it isn’t love, it’s self-defense. The mob in the Capitol hurting and even killing policemen was not defending itself, nor was it defending liberty or democracy. It rationalized its violence on the basis of misinformation about the results of an election that were proven false in ninety court cases.

 

Love does not preoccupy with enemies. If we are loving, we define ourselves by what we are for, not what we are against. If we are sufficiently against something or someone it can mistakenly justify violence. Instead love calls us to be constructive and look for common ground with adversaries as creatively as we can. Hate dehumanizes the other; love identifies with the other.

 

That means inclusivity is part of love. Hate separates into parts; love sees the big picture. To say we are one humanity on one planet is a statement of love–and also a demonstration of how the meaning of love really does evolve over time, because a hundred years ago we had not seen the earth from space. Back then only religious seers were motivated by this aspect of love; now it is accessible to all. Every day the news carries new proof that we’re all in the same boat.

 

So love inevitably puts us in a mode of learning and discovery. We’re in a place we’ve never been before. Love is self-education. What is the truth in any given situation? Love is honest and authentic in its longing for truth. So love overlaps with science—it searches for what works, what leads to life, to goodness, to truth, to beauty.

 

Self-education in love means learning to work cooperatively with other people toward whatever larger goal we can agree is important or even necessary for survival. Many in the U.S. House and Senate have demonstrated over the past weeks, and months and years, that they have much to learn about working together.

 

Love is conservative—it conserves life with responsible care. Love is progressive—it hopes for a better world.

 

Finally, love takes the larger perspective. It is aware that we are here for only an instant in all time, that others before us sacrificed that we could be here, and that we are the gateway to all the future. Love is acceptance of this condition, a willingness not to resist it. As David Attenborough keeps saying, what we do in the next few years will affect the next two thousand years of life on earth. That is a statement of how much we need to discover how to love.

  

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Critical Patriotism

 


 
Jennifer Davis Carey and Winslow Myers

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise. —F. Scott Fitzgerald
 
If our country is going to mature into its next phase, we citizens must hold in our minds two ideas which too many Americans consider opposed: first, that the American democratic experiment is still the last best hope of the world, exceptional, a “city on a hill;” and second, that to fulfill its promise or even to continue to be called a democracy at all, America must push for deep positive changes in its cultural, political, educational, economic, and religious institutions. 
 
Remember Lynne Cheney’s tenure as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, when she advocated aggressively for a more optimistic perspective on America’s past, telling off historians like Howard Zinn for what she considered an overly critical picture of our origins—origins that for Zinn included Columbus’s horrific ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Arawak peoples of the Caribbean. Behind Cheney’s rosy take on U.S. history is the false assumption that the only glue that will hold us together is “my country right or wrong.” 
 
When Senator Sheldon Whitehouse comprehensively laid out the correlation between the millions of dark money being poured into assuring the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett and the 80 recent Supreme Court cases resolved 5-4 for corporate interests, he was performing a profound act of critical patriotism—without abandoning his presumed allegiance to the American spirit of creative entrepreneurship.
 
Our civic culture does not encourage the mingling of patriotism and national self-criticism in a creative dialogue. In recent decades, at least as far back as the Vietnam-era “America: Love it or leave it,” right up to the president’s inability to categorically denounce white supremacy, uncritical and critical love of country have been assumed to be irreconcilable opposites. Witness the outrage when Muhammed Ali said he had no quarrel with the Vietcong. Or when the Dixie Chicks, now the Chicks, were pilloried for saying that they were ashamed to come from the same state as the president who began the second Gulf war.
Or take the police. It’s not an either/or between supporting them or calling out racism in their midst—it’s a both/and. There are many good, professional police officers—and many police departments are enmeshed in racist structures and attitudes. They need help with this like the rest of us. 
 
Whites can learn a lot about love of country from those systemically excluded from that country’s benefits. In the most excruciating holding together of opposites, consider the depth of a Black patriotism forged in the fires of chattel slavery, mass denial of voting rights, lynching and terror, chronically unequal educational resources, red-lining, mass incarceration, and police murder. Consider that it is the movements for the rights of those excluded—African-American, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people—that hold this nation to its espoused values and demand that those values be expressed through laws, policies, and practices.
 
In response to the devastating images of extrajudicial killings of Black people we are amidst a resurgent and evolved civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, that once again demands adherence to proclaimed American values. And as with previous movements many whites have at last put their bodies on the line and accompanied Blacks into the streets in protest. 
 
Yet as has become sadly predictable, white racism has projected onto that simple slogan that galvanizes and summarizes a movement, the assumption of a threatening exclusivity, labelling it identity politics. This assumption ignores the truth that the movement is only one aspect in the work of Blacks toward full inclusivity in the American fabric. It is easy for many to carelessly place the emphasis in the simple slogan “Black Lives Matter” on the word Black rather than on the word Matter. No Black leader claims only Black lives matter, but rather that Black lives must also matter.
 
Those who make inclusivity impossible make identity politics inevitable. Too many white people cannot admit into the same mental space both love of country and the reality of how much they benefit from ingrained concepts of white supremacy enshrined in laws, practices, and assumptions in ways that require some hard rethinking of their identity. 
 
Three out of five whites voted to re-elect Trump. Trying to pin the racist label on all of them will not help the process of national healing post-Trump. But the brittle patriotism of some whites who feel threatened by the looming certainty that they are becoming a minority in our country may have motivated all too many of the white votes he received. Whatever constructive structural changes we may make to our system after he is gone, none will be more important than those that result in racial equity and acknowledgement of entrenched white privilege. Black Lives Matter is nested in a bigger context: Democracy Matters. Black votes were key to defeating Mr. Trump and elevating the first black woman to the vice-presidency. The difficult work of holding in our minds at the same time what our country is and what it might be continues.

Letter to a Judge in Georgia

 

The Honorable Lisa Godbey Wood
c/o Whitney Sharp
801 Gloucester Street, Room 207
Brunswick, GA 31521
 
Dear Judge Wood,
Especially given the amount of Covid 19 in prisons, I was deeply saddened to hear of the harsh sentence you imposed upon Carmen Trotta and Martha Hennessy for their trespass and pouring blood on Trident missiles—but I was equally happy that they got to state their case in open court, because they speak for me and the millions of others who may lack the courage to do what they did.
 
I understand your obligation to exact penalties when laws are broken. However, we are at an inflection point with nuclear weapons. In January, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will assume the full force of international law, having been signed by 122 nations and ratified by the required 50.
 
In other words, enough of the world’s people have realized that these horrible weapons belong in the same category as mines and chemical weapons—too destructive in their effects to function in any practical way to enhance security anywhere on the planet—to enable an international law of prohibition to come into effect.
 
The United States and the other 8 nuclear nations are for the moment on the wrong side of history, but with much more educational work, including that of moral heroes like Trotta and Hennessy, common sense will prevail and bring the nuclear age to an end.
 
Carmen Trotta and Martha Hennessey were not alone in your courtroom as you sentenced them. They represented the hopes of hundreds of millions of citizens in the countries that have signed on to the UN Treaty prohibiting weapons of mass destruction.
 
If more protesters witnessing the evil of nuclear weapons come before your court, I hope you will consider their actions within this new context of international law.
 
Respectfully,
Winslow Myers

Monday, June 29, 2020

Militarism


With the horrific police lynching of George Floyd, militarism has been freshly perceived as a universal affliction, a planetary tragedy. In America, young whites and blacks march peacefully together, only to come face to face with nightsticks, pepper spray, and tear gas. In Delhi a Christian father and son are arrested by Hindu police for violating curfew and end up tortured and dead. In places like the Philippines and Brazil, mass extra-judicial police killings continue unabated.

Militarism—the use of overwhelming force as a first resort—rarely works, either as an instrument of domestic control or as an international system of security. It may help power and wealth succeed in temporarily pacifying the unruly poor, but it does nothing to strengthen the web of equal opportunity that lessens the need for control in the first place. It has not built democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan. Chinese militarism cannot contain the desire for freedom in the hearts of the citizens of Hong Kong or Taiwan. Russian militarists, Iranian militarists, Syrian militarists will not be able to control the democratic aspirations of their own citizens. Israeli militarism will never resolve the conflict with Palestine. And on the nuclear level, a militaristic arms race continues unabated, toward an apocalypse that no one wants, a conflagration that will burn millions of men, women and children to ash and leave no victors.

The militarism of international armed forces has much in common with domestic police militarism. Only the scale is different. The extent of America’s global military reach is impossible for the average civilian to comprehend. We have had almost zero debate about what size our military ought to be in a world of limited resources, including open discussion of the strategic usefulness—or uselessness—of nuclear weapons. This just doesn’t come up, even in entire Presidential campaigns, let alone debates. That very silence shouts the extent to which militarism’s infection may have weakened us. Pentagon accountants are apparently unable to plumb the mysterious depths of their own budgets. The juggernaut rolls on, unopposed except by a peace movement which, while robust, remains too small.

No one would argue that soldiers and the police do not sometimes exemplify duty, courage, and sacrifice. But in a more enlightened world, the police would be trained and equipped to put emphasis on tactics that de-escalate violence rather than to use violence to preserve an artificial and unjust “law and order” that only applies to certain people. If the armed forces of nations were motivated by the same spirit of de-escalation and not control or conquest, there would be all the more opportunity for heroic courage. There have been situations, like ending the Bosnian war, where diplomacy backed by military force was essential, just as there have been failures to intervene where loss of life could have been prevented, like the Rwandan genocide. Peacemaking is a high calling, blessed by the sages of the world’s religions.

Mr. Trump, though expressing it with his usual tone-deafness, was onto something when he said that the death of George Floyd was a great day. With that horrific video, something cracked open around the world. The curtain was drawn back upon the naked face of “law and order,” for all to see that it was often crude, selective, malign, corrupt with power for its own sake, systemically unfair. The violent militarism of police forces all across our country unleashed upon mostly peaceful protesters rubbed our noses in something usually more distant and abstract, especially for white people.

Militarism has always been rationalized by the ancient Roman bromide: if you want peace, prepare for war. With the deaths of George Floyd and too many others, this has become a deeply questionable notion. Are the trillions presently pouring into weapons systems like the Lockheed Joint Strike Fighter, or the renewal of our nuclear arsenal, really the best way to strengthen our nation and overcome the perpetuation of racist injustice? Doesn’t our renewed strength lie in diverting some of those bottomless resources into schools, hospitals, Medicare for all, free college for all, mass transit, putting people to work on infrastructure renewal, and conversion to sustainable energy sources? That kind of shift would encompass reparations that would benefit everyone, not just those whom our violent history has deprived of the blessings of liberty. Such movement toward an equal-opportunity society would ultimately make the demanding work of the police far less difficult, as well as making America stronger internationally.

Protesters are not only pulling down statues of generals and statesmen because they abetted a racist political system. The statues are also the symbolic embodiment of militarism, in all its hollow mythic glory, a militarism which suffuses our civic culture, visible in the millions of guns we own. Militarism is found in the rhetoric of all those, from the president to Rush Limbaugh, who push a joyless, simplistic us-and-them worldview that tries to negate the existential reality that we are in this together, all challenged to acknowledge our interdependence and steward the life-support system that sustains us. For this great task, militarism is obsolete.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

White Supremacy and World Supremacy

Recently the Equity Leadership Steering Committee associated with an almost entirely white school district in Maine came out with a strong letter asking citizens to acknowledge not just the anodyne “white privilege,” but the actual “white supremacy” pervasive in our nation. Not unexpectedly, they received some kickback. Fortunately the Superintendent of Schools had the courage to back them up.  

Selective listeners heard “you’re accusing me of Klu-Klux-Klan-level racism.” But “white privilege,” compared to “white supremacy,” has the ring of a garden party to which I somehow deserved an invitation. “White supremacy,” enforced by the police and structures too long set in cultural concrete, is closer to the truth. The events of the past two weeks, especially so many young whites demonstrating alongside blacks in the streets, have made it easier for whites to acknowledge the depth of the injustice in which they play an integral part.

We humans are selective listeners. We hear what we want to hear, because it “fits” our mindset. When Donald Trump hears “defund the police,” he thinks “anarchy, chaos, abandonment of law and order.” When the millions of American protestors hear the same phrase, it means “the militarization of the police only brought out their worst tendencies. Reform is a failure. Time to reconceive the police, and put far more funds into social services that meet human needs directly.”

A pervasive paradigm never dies a painless death—in this moment the real deaths of far too many black people. While we’re on the subject of defunding an overmilitarized police corrupted, perhaps from the beginning, by invulnerable power, structural racism, a code of conspiratorial secrecy, and resistance to reform, let’s also remember just how big a paradigm shift we are undergoing in our historical moment—bigger even than racism. Because in this shift, everything is connected.

When Mr. Trump hears “Green New Deal,” he thinks “radical socialism,” where Ocasio-Cortez thinks “new job opportunities and a more sustainable living system; what’s not to like?” Pushed out of the headlines by the pandemic and the police lynching of Mr. Floyd, international challenges like climate change do not abate.

When Donald Trump hears “full spectrum dominance” or “we have more nukes than any other country,” he hears that the “strength” of supremacy enforces law and order internationally as well as domestically. A growing number of the rest of us hear foreboding elements of weakness, decay, misappropriation of limited resources, double standards, and possible nuclear catastrophe.

It isn’t just the police that are overmilitarized; it’s the military itself. Not just in the United States, but the United States is a case in point. The Lockheed F-35 Strike Fighter is expected to cost a trillion dollars over its sixty year lifespan. The plan to renew our nuclear arsenal over ten years will cost us taxpayers 1.6 trillion—leaving aside our futile and unnecessary wars, including the racist one in Vietnam and our indecisive long-running campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine the trillions expended upon bloated military programs and stupid wars that end up diminishing our security repurposed to give everyone in our nation authentic equality of opportunity, equal access to health care, equally well-funded schools.

We, and not just in the U.S. but also in other autocracies like Brazil or Hungary or Russia or China or Iran or Myanmar, are invited to rethink the age-old question of fundamental relationship between the state and the individual citizen. Is the purpose of the state to control, or is it to support human dignity and equal opportunity and clean air and water?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that citizens will create an ideal society and government by “laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The people in the streets yearning for something new and hopeful, not only in the U.S. but all around the world, including Hong Kong, don’t want to be controlled by an intrusive state; they want to be free from the state unless it is repurposed to more effectively champion their needs and rights.

Nuclear weapons, like our over-armed police, are also the expression of a brutal, dysfunctional, obsolete attempt at supremacy and control. Defund and reconceive the police. Defund subsidies for fossil fuels and support alternative energy systems. Defund and reconceive international security by forging new arms agreements which lift the anxiety of being annihilated off our necks. “I can’t breathe” has more than one meaning.