Visit New Jewish Wisdom at Tikkun Magazine. read more
Message from the Rabbi
When Moses hears God's voice coming to him from the Burning Bush
(Exodus, III) he faces a difficult choice--whether to believe that
voice that tells him that the greatest empire that had ever existed
till that time (Pharoah's Egypt) can be successfully challenged, or his
"common sense" which tells him that it cannot. He has all kinds of
practical reasons for why it would be silly for him to think he could
play the role as champion of transformation. Yet there is something
else coming to him, a voice of HOPE, a voice that tells him that the
way things are is not the only way things can be. And when he chooses
to follow that voice, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I Shall Be whom I Shall Be,
the voice of possibility, the voice that says that the world is not
stuck, that oppression is not inevitable, he sets the course for
Judaism forever. To be a Jew is to testify to the possibility of Hope,
to see that the bush, though burning, is not consumed, that "common
sense" is overrated and often completely mistaken, that there is a
Power in the universe that makes for the possibility of transformation
form that which is to that which ought to be, YHVH, adonie, God. Ever
since, we have been the great purveyors of hope for liberation in the
world. We have been spiritual progressives, insisting that the world
could move forward toward a goal of greater love and compassion and
peace and social justice and generosity, even in the face of defeats
and tragic lapses and backsteps on the part of the human race.
The elections of 2006 were a significant victory for hope, and a powerful endorsement of the work that spiritual progressives have been doing these past two years. By educating the public about the ways that the Religious Right was actually distorting the best aspects of the religious and spiritual inheritance of humanity, we managed to convince many religious and spiritual people to rethink their politics, as well as persuade many secular people to overcome their cynicism and start to vote. Dr. Robert P. Jones, Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for American Values in Public Life reports that the so-called ³God gap²‹the twenty-point advantage Republicans have held for a decade among Americans who attend religious services once a week or more‹has been virtually cut in half, down from twenty-two points in 2004 to twelve points in 2006, according to the National Election Pool (NEP) exit polls covering U.S. House races nationwide.
Liberals and progressives have grounds for hope. Yet in a society that has so systematically driven social hope underground and reduced it to personal lifestyle (hope for ³success² in making money, accumulating goods, sex, sports, lottery, vacations, and family life), people¹s willingness to open to the possibility of a better society, much less to saving the planet from war and environmental disaster, is extremely tenuous.
Unfortunately, the Democrats may once again undermine this moment of hope‹and the result will be a return to the cynicism and despair that have paralyzed so many Americans for the past twelve years. Because of so many previous betrayals, most Americans have a limited capacity to sustain hope without having at least some national leadership willing to articulate and validate the importance of the enthusiasm that they momentarily feel. If, instead, what they get back from the liberal and progressive leadership is a technocratic politics as usual, they will quickly retreat to a disinterest in politics that will leave the Democrats without the energized political base that they need to accomplish the overly cautious program articulated by Nancy Pelosi immediately following the November elections.
What most people in liberal and progressive politics don¹t¹ seem to understand is that social hope is the primary and fundamental necessity not only for winning an electoral victory, but for making it possible to transform election victories into sustainable programs.
For many liberals and progressives, politics has looked increasingly glum ever since the Clinton administration‹coming to power on the foundation of a politics of meaning that spoke about the need for ending the selfishness and materialism of American society‹abandoned those ideas and presented a health-care plan that was designed to be centrist, yet played to the self-serving interests of insurance companies and health-care profiteers and ended up being such a bureaucratic monstrosity that few of us could enthusiastically support or even understand it, leading many people to abandon the Democrats for a right-wing Congress in 1994.
The disillusionment was not about Clinton himself, who continued to embody a promise of something transcendent‹a vision that there could be more to life than the spiritual and emotional deadness that his actual policies reflected. The failure of the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1993 and 1994 to pass any kind of health plan, and its willingness to bicker about which Congressional committees would get credit for any plan that got passed, reminded Americans just how petty the struggles for power could be among Democrats. What died with Clinton¹s health plan was a sense that there was a possibility of people transcending the ethos of selfishness and narcissism promoted by Presidents Reagan and Bush.
If health care were really, as Clinton started to say in the months before the 1994 midterm election, simply a new ³market-oriented² plan to play to the self-interest of the health care profiteers, if all that counted were ³looking out for number one,² then people who had been attracted to the possibility of a world based on mutual caring‹despite their cynicism and doubts that it could really happen‹felt that they had once again allowed themselves to be humiliated by hoping that something else besides self-interest could be the basis for our public life. Some simply stopped bothering to vote. Others switched to the Republicans, because they had the advantage of being honest about their belief that politics is only about the promotion of individual self-interest (hence the New Right¹s libertarian-influenced call for limited government and the reduction of taxes).
Clinton supporters thought that they were being so clever‹adopting right-wing rhetoric on key issues, but then sneaking through various administrative decisions that would actually implement a progressive politics. Why fight about a world-view, they reasoned, if they could make things happen inside the halls of power? But this was pure illusion. While they were implementing changes inside the U.S. government, America¹s Right was faced with a Left that had no coherent worldview. This is why conservatives were able to build a huge power base without worrying that the shabby ideas that they were advocating would be significantly challenged in the public sphere. Clinton called this ³governing from the Center²‹but there is nothing ³centrist² about letting the marketplace mechanisms replace governmental policies as the way to care for people; it¹s the old right-wing solution, now adopted by the Democrats.
Meanwhile, once the Right took power in 2001, they simply dismantled most of the programs that the Clintonians had put in place. Winning legislative battles must always take second place to winning the minds and hearts of Americans‹because if you don¹t win the minds and hearts, the legislation can quickly be undone after the next election or two.
Bill Clinton was good at looking out for himself, and his charm remains a powerful force, because he remains so very alive, radiating the life energy that made him a sexual being, reminding people of a part of them that aspires to break out of their own confines in some way. But the politics he advocated‹ from trade agreements in which the U.S. benefited by dumping our agricultural products on the Third World, to an assault on welfare, to a test-oriented approach to schooling in order to keep Americans ³number one² in the global economy‹were all variants of the ethos of ³looking out for number one.²
Should it be any wonder, then, that radical individualism is the hegemonic ideology of contemporary American politics? We learned it from Clinton.
Social hope disappeared before 9/11. The Clinton years made Americans passive. Private fantasies (You wish to be a millionaire? You want a life makeover? You want to survive the dog-eat-dog world of ³reality T.V. shows²? ) replaced visions of a society based on justice, peace and generosity.
Yet the vision of narrow self-interest was taken to an extreme by the Bush administration. Using the massive dose of fear generated by 9/11, the Bush administration was able to build upon the ideological failures of the Clinton period.
Had the Democrats built an alternative worldview in the 1990s, they might have been prepared to counter the right-wing extremists who took power in the first years of the twenty-first century. For example, had the Democrats prepared the country for the notion that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet, and that people fighting against us might have reason to be angry at us (even though nothing can or should ever excuse terrorist attacks like that of 9/11), they would have been in a position to resist the pressure for war, which emerged as the only strategy for dealing with ³the war on terrorism.²
Given their lack of an alternative worldview, it¹s no surprise that Democrats nominated John Kerry in 2004 and might nominate another candidate for president in 2008 who has no moral clarity about why the war in Iraq was wrong and why it cannot be won through clever military maneuvers (by us or by any force we replace our military with in Iraq).
No sooner had the Democrats taken the Congress than the debate emerged about what had happened in Iraq and why. Though candidates on the campaign trail reported clearly that it was the war in Iraq that had been decisive in switching ³moderates² and Republicans to the Democratic fold, the inside-the-beltway spin masters and their array of sycophants at newspapers and television stations around the country were unwilling to part with their conventional wisdom. So instead of taking the war seriously, America¹s press joined with establishment Democrats to make it seem as if there had been no mandate on the war, but only a mandate for the much more narrow vision of ³change² that Nancy Pelosi had articulated in the early summer of 2006. The Democrats, she told the world after the victory in November, would focus on making it legal for the government to negotiate for cheaper drugs, providing some expansion of health coverage (not a single-payer universal plan), providing more security for immigrant workers, and raising the minimum wage. All fine, and we support every such move. But they are timid in their own terms, and they totally neglect the war in Iraq.
What the Democratic leadership seems unwilling to pay attention to is what actually happened in the fall of 2006. There was a popular democratic uprising against both parties, as the American people cried out for an end to the war in Iraq.
Please remember that it was not the Democratic Party that put the war on the agenda in September and October. Rather, the candidates of both parties found that they had no choice but to address the war, because while they tried to ³stay on message,² their constituents would have none of it and demanded that they address the war.
To understand the deep significance of this progressive anti-war uprising of 2006, we need to go back to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the period 1975-2005, a sustained offensive had been waged by the political Right to convince Americans that the hope that they momentarily experienced in the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s had really been an illusion. The 1960s were ³really² about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll‹a period of wild self-indulgence. There had been no sudden rise of hope, only a carnival of self-interest and narcissism. Similarly, they argued, the anti-war movement had not been about solidarity with the people of Vietnam whose lives were being valued, but only a self-interest movement on the part of privileged Americans who didn¹t want to end up among the 58,000 dead and hundreds of thousands wounded and for that reason resisted the draft.
The great power of the media and the political Right was the ability to convince people that this was the ³true² account, and even people who had been involved began to misremember their own experience and accept this version of history.
Why? As I describe in much greater detail in my book The Left Hand of God, we have conflicting voices in our heads that pull us both toward hope and toward fear. At any moment when people go for their highest ideals and momentarily overcome their fears, those fears and tendencies toward narrow self-interest have not been eradicated, and are still there. In each of us there is a deep yearning for loving connection and mutual recognition, for a world of meaning and higher purpose, and for a morally and spiritually coherent life and a community within which to live such a life. But there is also a set of voices that tell us that these yearnings are purely our own, and may even represent some level of infantile or adolescent fantasy or even individual pathology, and that to be a realistic and rational adult these yearnings should be repressed and we should learn to be fearful of the others who surround us.
Anyone acting out of idealism is likely to have an element of self-interest and an array of self-doubting voices that tell them not to believe in their own goodness. These messages that we all give to ourselves tell us it is foolish and naive to trust in the idealism of others because every one else is also just out for self-interest. As a result, any social change movement is going to be filled with a range of people with varying levels of commitment, hope and fear. Among those will be: A) people who are deeply committed, willing to take huge steps above the level of self-interest at which most people in the society remain stuck, and yet even these people will remain ambivalent, plagued by self-doubt; B) people who are mostly committed, but who are very, very conflicted; C) people who are only very partially into the movement, but may agree with it on a few issues and want to be helpful, but have not in any way gotten to the point of being willing to take risks for the ideas that they support; and D) people who know that they like being with others when the others are seized by idealism, and so are happy to be in that situation, but haven¹t given much thought to the issues, have never been exposed to a serious presentation of the movement¹s ideas, and in any event are more interested in their own immediate fulfillment than in believing in the possibility of larger social change.
A smart and successful movement must make room for all of these, and take a compassionate attitude toward the various levels of ambivalence. Unfortunately, the movements of the 1960s and early 1970s were not smart in this sense, and allowed a ³political correctness² dynamic to emerge in which people were constantly putting each other down for not being committed enough, not being willing to take enough risks, and still having within their own consciousness elements of ego, self-interest, racism, sexism, homophobia, ³white-skin privilege,² and various other maladies. And, of course, the criticisms were often true. But the point is that they were delivered without compassion, and hence in an extremely destructive way that pushed millions of people away from these social change movements.
It was the self-destructive perfectionism and lack of compassion for self that opened people to misremembering their own moments of idealism. As a result, they were unable to stand up to or develop a coherent alternative narrative when the ³mainstream² Democrats and Republicans joined with the Right in denigrating the sixties and reducing the whole era to self-interest. So then the very people who had been involved, who had momentarily but powerfully committed themselves to principles of justice and peace and goodness that show the possibilities of human solidarity, suddenly forgot that they had been able to do that, and their self-doubts silenced them. Instead of pointing out, for instance, that the largest anti-war demonstrations took place after the draft had been eliminated, that 50,000 people had been arrested May 1, 1971 in civil disobedience in Washington D.C. when none of them faced the draft, and that the white Civil Rights demonstrators who challenged segregation not only in the South but in its soft-yet-pervasive form in Northern cities were not doing so primarily to advance their own needs, the former activists of the 1960s and 1970s, aware of their own imperfections that the battering from the left-wing political correctness insisted upon, were unable to respond to this external assault from the Right.
Seeking to heal themselves from that battering and from their own self-loathing, taught to focus on their own ³shadow² side a la Jung by their own growing interest in psychotherapy or spiritual growth, many activists of that era became increasingly self-blaming and hence unwilling to acknowledge that there was anything besides self-interest or inner pathology that had previous guided them into radical politics and rebellion against the status quo. And, of course, if it¹s all about self-interest, and if nothing else is really possible, then the only rational thing for people to do is to work out their own best path to advantaging themselves‹so hippie becomes yuppie. Younger people who were not old enough to be involved in the 1960s (if even born) learned the media¹s message: there was no transcendence of self-interest, and the very people who were claiming to change the world ended up being purely self-indulgent middle-class professionals or business people. So much for the possibility of social movements. And then you get Reagan and you get the past twenty-six years of right-wing economics and politics.
Thus, the amazing thing about the antiwar uprising of 2006 was that it will be much harder (though never underestimate the inventiveness of right-wing commentators) to reduce it to the self-interest categories that were used to minimize the idealism of the 1960s and 70s. There is no draft on which to blame domestic opposition to the war. Americans are not being shown killed in large numbers‹the dead and wounded Americans in Iraq are roughly one-twentieth of those killed in Vietnam. The stark reality is that the revulsion to the war is based largely on the killings that it has sparked between Iraqis and the widening understanding that this is a civil war that was provoked by the way the U.S. intervention took place. And the beautiful part of this reaction is that Americans in the 2006 elections showed that they cared about the lives of Iraqis, not just Americans! It was this same caring about others that was the foundation of outrage about Katrina until, as Drier shows in this issue, the media arbitrarily dropped the issue from its attention. The truth is that when Americans are informed about something that is hurting others unnecessarily, and there is something that can be done, they want to do something to end the pain. In short, the abiding secret that is the major foundation for progressive politics is this: Americans have a strong ethical instinct, a fundamental goodness and caring and generosity, that can be tapped whenever they feel safe to show it. Usually that takes a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood or earthquake or mass starvation, but in 2006 they showed it by insisting that their elected representatives end the killing in Iraq.
This is an extremely hopeful moment, precisely because the American people went beyond the contours of ³realistic politics² as it had been presented to them, and insisted upon something more. But those moments of hope are already being denied and downwardly re-imagined by the politicians and spin masters to fit into their pre-existing plans. So instead of Democrats acting like they have a mandate for a new vision of politics, they instead talk as if their mandate is for ³bipartisanship² and ³governing from the Center² and a bunch of other empty ideas that will squelch the moment of hope and disarm the idealism that made this victory possible.
The first and foremost issue is to end the war in Iraq. The media has joined with the Pelosi forces of the Democratic Party to dismiss immediate withdrawal as impractical and ³extreme,² though that is precisely what most antiwar activists have been calling for these past years. The Democratic Party leadership said the same about Vietnam through much of that war.
There is nothing extreme about the plan to have troops removed by June of 2007, a plan detailed by George McGovern in his book with William R. Polk entitled Out of Iraq. The plan is coherent and practicable. The only thing that makes it seem ³extreme² is that the Democrats fear taking a principled stand, and so want to talk about ³repositioning² our troops to the borders of Iraq, ready to be called back the moment the supposedly democratically elected government fails‹which it almost certainly will, because how democratic can elections be when they are held under the supervision of a foreign occupying force?
Ending the war is not going to be an easy struggle, even after the 2006 election, given the apparent lack of commitment on the part of the Democratic Party leadership and the prevalent perspective among liberals that the way forward is not to argue against the morality of the war, but instead to try to work ³with² the Bush administration to ³find solutions.² That might make sense if Bush were able to say clearly and unequivocally that the war was now counter-productive. It would be fine if the Democrats were to say, ³Ok, President Bush, you¹ve won the war. It¹s time for you to declare victory, acknowledge that there will be a civil war for years to come unless the people of Iraq decide to end their struggle peacefully, so we are allowing the U.N. to come in and do what it can to conduct a plebiscite about whether the three communities wish to stay together as one country, but in the meantime, we are leaving, having accomplished all that we can possibly accomplish.² If it¹s a face-saving way to leave that Bush is looking for, this is one plausible alternative.
But President Bush may be counting on the lack of backbone of the Democrats. He may easily and, unfortunately, probably correctly, estimate that the Democrats do not have the courage to cut the funding for the war and to refuse to pass any military budget that does not instruct the President to bring the troops home by June 2007. In that case, Bush could essentially thwart the will of the American people and leave some significant military presence there till the beginning of the next president¹s term.
Why would he do such a thing?
There are two answers. One is that he simply believes that in the future as America¹s power declines, he will be remembered as the one president who fought till the end for his vision of a democratic Middle East. Compared with those Democrats whose highest principle is compromise, there is something to admire in a person who stands up for what he believes in. But there is a second and far more ominous reason. Bush and Cheney may be setting up the country for an even more reactionary regime in the not-too-distant-future. Imagining that it can keep a military presence of some sort in Iraq until the next president takes over, the Bush/Cheney wing of the political Right may be able to then blame ³the loss of Iraq² on a liberal/progressive movement that has ³stabbed America and democracy in the back.² It was this kind of rhetoric that accompanied the rise of fascism in Germany after the defeat of German troops in World War I, and it is conceivable that the same path might be followed here by people who are unwilling to go down in history as having lost yet another American war.
All the more reason why we should insist that the end of the war happen under Bush¹s presidency, rather than under the presidency of a liberal or progressive who succeeds him in office. But to win that battle, the anti-war movement needs to change from a movement that is against the status quo, to a movement that has a positive vision of what it is actually for.
There is a tragic flaw in any ³Out Now² strategy. That strategy seems to play at once to idealism and to ³screw the rest of the world, lets just take care of ourselves² America-first-ism that is the opposite of idealism. And that gives the moral high ground to the Right, who can then claim that its ethical concern is with what happens next to the poor people of Iraq abandoned to the vagaries of inter-religious war. And since the fate of Iraq after the U.S. troops leave is likely to be a continuation of the current violence, the Right will have much to point to.
Here is precisely why the liberal and progressive forces need to hear from the spiritual progressives. We must demand of the anti-war movement and of the pro-peace forces inside the Congress that they move beyond ³Out Now² and include as equally central to their public discourse the insistence on the Global Marshall Plan (point No. 7 of our Spiritual Covenant with America, detailed in my book The Left Hand of God). Simply stated, our demand is that the U.S. take the lead (by example, actually doing this ourselves) in taking 5 percent of the GDP for each of the next twenty years and dedicate it to a sophisticated plan (i.e. not just dumping the money into dictatorships or give-aways, but a plan that would work to build the capacities of each society) to end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care, and repair the damage done to the earth¹s environment by 150 years of irresponsible industrialization by both capitalist and socialist nations).
We should make clear that what the Iraq war has done is once and for all prove that superior military might does not generate superior security. On the contrary, our war in Iraq has become the training ground for a new generation of terrorists, a significant number of whom have been recruited in response to the devastation caused by the U.S. in Iraq. The strategy of domination over others as a path to security does not work in the twenty-first century. Instead, we need a strategy of generosity. As the U.S. (and hopefully the other G8 countries) demonstrate that we are capable of giving back, of caring for others not solely because it is in our self-interest, but also because we actually care about the well-being of others (as so many Americans actually do), we will be far more effective in providing homeland security than we will be spending trillions of dollars on our military and on brilliant new technologies to search out and kill people we suspect of being terrorists.
A good place to start the Global Marshall Plan is to take a few countries and let them be the first recipients of this support. I propose those places be: Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, Ja-maica, Bangladesh, Mexico, New Orleans (and other centers of poverty in the US), and South Africa. In each case, we would have to work out a detailed plan for how to get the monies and support into the hands of NGOs and others who would not siphon it off to elites and their friends, to ensure that it went into the building of infrastructure, education and training of the poor, and housing for the poor. For example, in Iraq we would probably have to take one area at a time‹I suggest we start by totally rebuilding Fallujah, and publicly apologize for the terrible crimes committed in our name by the occupying forces (including razing cities to the ground, rapes, torture, etc.). The only troops that might remain would be those protecting the construction of new housing and infrastructure for the Iraqis. This is one example. But to ensure that what we are advocating is not compromised, we must make it clear that our goal is to wipe out poverty in every place on earth within the next twenty years, including the U.S. If OUT NOW were inextricably bound to GLOBAL MARSHALL PLAN NOW, the idealism of the 2006 election could be sustained.
It is the vision that is central. We need to resist all the ³practical² advice that tells us to shrink the vision to what is ³realistic.² The very essence of the Global Marshall Plan is that it breaks the discourse of ³realism² and talks a visionary language. It is a central part of what we at the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) call ³a strategy of generosity,² rejecting a strategy of domination. And, that generosity must be done in ways that are smart. The giving must be environmentally and culturally sensitive, it must be invited by the countries in which it is functioning, and it must not involve a stupid dumping of money as though that were sufficient when it actually is counter-productive. The goal is to empower people to help themselves, not to make them passive recipients of a fund that will run out in twenty years. But that empowerment will be backed by a strategy that builds housing and schools and medical clinics, provides tools and training, and demonstrates that caring for others is not only good for the recipient, but is good for those who give, fulfilling in us our own need for spiritual purpose to our lives. At the same time, we have to build the Global Marshall Plan in ways that allow us to learn from the indigenous wisdom of peoples whom we are helping, recognizing that we often have as much to learn as to give, and that our project is not based on cultural arrogance but on a genuine desire to be part of a process in which we benefit as well as provide.
The Spiritual Covenant with America has eight such planks. Together they constitute a vision of hope, which, were there a political force that consistently fought for them, could sustain the hopefulness of the American people.
How do we expect to get the leadership of our country to start thinking in these terms? The first step is to build support for these ideas within whatever political party you are in. So, for example, if you are a Democrat, a Republican, a Green, or whatever other party, you¹d go to your party, find out how to establish a caucus, or if there are no clear rules, simply announce that you, as a registered member of that party, are creating the Spiritual Caucus.
The first item on the agenda of a Spiritual Caucus within your political party will be the Global Marhsall Plan. We hope that you will attend the state conventions of your political party this year, and run to be a delegate in 2008, and use the opportunities created to advocate for the Global Marshall Plan in particular and the Spiritual Covenant with America in general.
As a first step in bringing this to the attention of the American people, we will be asking people in the spiritual and religious communities to dedicate Saturday, April 14 and Sunday, April 15 to the creation of a Peace Demonstration, Peace Teach-In, or Peace Sabbath dedicated to advocacy for the Global Marshall Plan. We call it Generosity Sunday. Instead of having demonstrations led by angry people who spew words of hatred against the government, we need to have spiritually infused demonstrations in every community in our country, led by people who say not only Out Now, but Global Marshall Plan Now, that is, who have a positive vision of what we are for rather than a purely negative vision of what we are against. I'm hoping that members of Beyt Tikkun will play a significant role in creating such an event in the Bay Area. Please let Adina@tikkun.org know if you wish to be involved in some way.
This is one specific of the general direction for Beyt Tikkun: we are a community of prayer, and one of our highest prayerful goals is to create spiritually meaningful celebrations of Shabbat each week. But we are also about Tikkun Olam. We've joined The Tikkun Community and worked with its project the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and we know that, like Moses, the spiritual life calls upon us to hear the still small voice of Sinai that commands us to go back from our spiritual highs into the world of political and social struggle to heal the world. ---Rabbi Michael Lerner