Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational. She is known for her provocative, independent voice and her ability to inspire and activate.
Usually, when I open a new book that touches on the socially aware and community-engaged art which has been the through-line of my life, I feel an anticipatory cringe. So often, the work is tendentious in some reactive way, far from my lived experience—more an artifact of someone’s academic resume than a genuine contribution.
Knowing something of his prior work, I was certain there wouldn’t be a single reason to cringe as I read Francois Matarasso’s just-published book, A Restless Art. But I didn’t know how spacious, grounded, illuminating, and original the book would be. If you are at all interested in this phenomenon—art and social change, social practice, community arts, community cultural development, or any of the other monikers in circulation—you owe it to yourself to read this book.
There’s a lot to learn from A Restless Art (you’ll find a precis here), which traces the history (primarily in Europe, foremost in the British Isles) of art-making with people who don’t understand themselves as professional artists. It offers elegant and effective discussions of animating ideas and values, modes of work, ethical challenges, obstacles and possibilities. Diverse and interesting projects are profiled in interstitial color plates. The writing is straightforward and fair-minded, often anticipating and exploring objections before they distract the reader from its central points. I can focus below on just a few themes of key importance. I hope to give you a foretaste that makes you hungry for more.
Participatory art has become normal. Matarasso’s thesis is that participatory art—work that “connects professional and non-professional artists in an act of co-creation”—is now everywhere, having become an accepted and expected part of cultural provision from the spaces of contemporary social practice art to established museums, national theaters, and major concert halls; from educational settings to policymaking; from broadcasting to public spectacle such as opening ceremonies for major public events; from social-service provision to health promotion; and beyond. In a few short pages, he makes the case that participatory art has become a widespread phenomenon in the milieux that formerly walled anything like it off from “fine art,” a domain distinguished by the wide moat it dug between art and life.
This is inarguably true and brilliantly observed throughout the book. And it has set me to thinking about my own proclivity to focus on boundaries and borders rather than the overlapping territories they try to enclose. I’ve long been disturbed by the ease with which “social practice art,” for instance, has drawn resources from foundations, donors, and public sources without acknowledging the decades of community arts practitioners who devised the methods borrowed by social practice. I am still disturbed. Money goes to artists whose authenticating audiences are the museum-goers who visit exhibits of their projects’ documentation, while the remarkable community artists whose work is validated by the communities co-creating it go begging. (I wrote about this here and here, for instance.)
Matarasso writes about these distinctions too, but they don’t stop him from the seeing the larger picture A Restless Art brought into focus for me, which is that participatory art has become so widespread and normal that it constitutes an epochal movement, a watershed in the history of the arts.
Ideas and aims define the territory. Matarasso recognizes two categorical distinctions. The first is between art in general and participatory art (which involves non-professional artists). The second is between participatory art (which expresses what is called the democratization of culture, promoting popular engagement in institutional culture without proposing social transformation) and community art, (which expresses cultural democracy, pursuing social justice in opposition to the dominant order). Methods may be similar, but for community artists and cultural democracy advocates, the questions of why do the work and what the work can accomplish drive the practice. The book’s language is a little different from U.S. conventions, but I like the formulation Matarasso proposes, which subsumes the definition of participatory art, then goes beyond it to assert core values and principles of cultural democracy:
Community art is the creation of art as a human right, by professional and non-professional artists, co-operating as equals, for purposes and to standards they set together, and whose processes, products and outcomes cannot be known in advance.
The normalization of participatory art hasn’t altered the biases of the conventional artworld. Matarasso is eloquent and frank throughout A Restless Art in discussing the habitual and pointless over-evaluation of participatory art. For instance:
[T]he problem is not with evaluation, which is integral to all creative work, but how, by whom and why it is done. The long and costly effort to prove art’s social, economic and intrinsic value is entangled in a political culture concerned with control, not with knowledge, or the wisdom of experience…. [The] culture of planning, targets, monitoring and evaluation gave people an illusion of control in a complex world, whilst absolving them of responsibility for their own judgements. Further, there is too little recognition that this approach may cost far more, in financial and human terms, than the value of the data it produces.
Matarasso describes how the imposition of unsuitable managerial methods pushes participatory art toward a kind of social service, making participatory arts professionals “responsible for how the people they worked with would be changed by the experience. And by changed, what was really meant was improved.” He explains how the conventional artworld embraced participatory art to expand audiences in a rapidly changing world in which the special status of “fine art” is no longer secure. “The paradox,” he writes, “is that, unwilling to accept its loss of authority, it has applied the techniques of cultural democracy to the purpose of cultural democratisation.”
I love the rubric Matarasso derives from this: describing the result “as a kind of conceptual institutionalisation [emphasis mine], which tries to ensure that participatory art happens in ways and within boundaries that are acceptable to those financing it. The issue is not whether those parameters are in themselves good but that they unquestionably form a system of control.”
The U.S. and European stories of community arts differ in many ways. One that stands out for me is funding. Although the work is under-resourced abroad in comparison with actual need and potential, even in its most difficult periods, funding has been much stronger than in this country with its steadily atrophying public sector and bloated private wealth. Here’s one more quote I wish could be read by every arts funder in the U.S.:
Despite the demand for their work, participatory artists remain second-class citizens in the arts funding system. When a choreographer or curator approaches a funding body they can assume a shared belief in the intrinsic value of dance or contemporary art. A participatory artist in the same position can make no such assumption. the professional expertise of actors, musicians, curators, artists and directors is presumed, their judgement about creative matters trusted. Participatory artists can rarely count on similar esteem. This is not about whether or not an individual artist is admired. It is about different ways of valuing art forms. A grant application for participatory art will be expected to show, each time and in advance, the proposed project’s value—its rationale, need, anticipated outputs, outcomes, and legacy. A theory of change or log frame may even be required, as if it were a development project. that would be understandable from a social fund, but this is typically how arts bodies consider participatory work. The limited interest in artistic questions or the applicant’s record of work is one problem, but the real concern is the ingrained mistrust of participatory art’s intrinsic worth. It is simply not regarded by most people in the art system as a body of knowledge equal to music or theatre. So administrators who rarely have firsthand understanding of the field demand advance guarantees of its value to be verified by evaluation (not experience) on completion.
(I had a great time discussing the histories and relationships in the U.S. and U.K. cultural democracy movements with Owen Kelly and Sophie Hope on their podcast: see episode seven and episode eight.)
There is so much more to learn from this book, strengthened by the fact that the author has been a longtime practitioner in and respected researcher of the movement he describes. He has a vast knowledge of the literature and a personal grounding in the experience. It’s a winning combination and a pleasure to read. A Restless Art can be downloaded as a PDF, or you can order a paperback copy.
Revenge or restitution? I’ve been thinking of Paulo Freire’s powerful notion of a thematic universe. He wrote that every epoch is characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites.” This complex, interacting whole—our thematic universe—weaves the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
Conventionally, historians propose a single theme for each epoch: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. But human history isn’t so simple. In each age, a top-down controlling force contests with an irrepressible assertion of human value and human rights, side-by-side with other themes. For example, today the certainties of fundamentalism clash with the certainties of science. The character of each time emerges not from a single winning idea, but from the encounter of opposites.
And our own thematic universe? Revenge or restitution is one of the starkest dialectics. “Dialectical” is kind of a dry word for the interaction of opposing forces, especially today, when that interaction resembles a bloody brawl. The image in my mind’s eye is a beautiful blue-green planet defaced by red wounds, knives always drawn.
When bad acts surface in the public sphere, who are we as a people? Those who can be satisfied only when their opponents are destroyed? Or those whose compass points to healing and repair and away from vengeance?
The United States is Incarceration Nation, with the highest incarceration rates and largest prison population on the planet. African Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. We imprison more young people than any other nation. We have normalized a culture of punishment, adjusting to the cruel and absurd notion that locking people away increases safety, spending more than $30,000 per year per inmate to punish the incarcerated via overcrowding, substandard food, hygiene, and health, offering little or nothing to counter the recidivism such conditions breed. The trend toward prison privatization makes things much worse, cruelty without accountability. And the truth of collective responsibility for this collective transgression is hidden behind a veil of self-regard: the greatest nation on earth.
We continue operating this machine despite zero evidence that the system achieves its stated goals. Most people I know decry the prison-industrial complex; many of them work very hard to change it. But mostly, we Americans seem to see Incarceration Nation as another country, the other side of a border wall. In nurturing and feeding this culture of punishment, we spread an appalling moral corruption. Our official thirst for vengeance isn’t contained by prison walls; it also increasingly contaminates every part of public life.
At the podium for a press conference this past Saturday to discuss the blackface yearbook photo that triggered near-universal demands for his resignation, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia also described blackening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest, mentioning the challenges of removing shoe polish from the face. (Wesley Morris deconstructed the hell out of that gesture in the New York Times; please do read his column.)
Northam’s remarks offer a particularly keen insight into the consciousness formed by white supremacy. No photo of Northam as Michael Jackson has so far surfaced, but his costume for the dance competition included the glove, the penny-loafers, the fedora, perhaps some sparkles. The symbols that said “Michael!” were so ubiquitous and universally understood by that time, Northam’s decision that blackface was needed to complete the impersonation telegraphs a nauseating ease with white supremacy and indifference to its consequences.
That was 35 years ago. Last Saturday was Northam’s opportunity to repent in earnest, whether or not repentance led to forgiveness. Instead, in the place that should have been held by shame, he displayed an utter lack of awareness of the meaning of his acts, and an appalling desire to turn insult into entertaining anecdote.
That is one big reason why he should step down immediately.
Forgiveness and vengeance are both challenges for me. Forgiving someone who has done serious harm requires me to shake off the fear that forgiveness will license that person to repeat the despicable behavior. Calling for revenge requires me to conclude that harming another is justified—but only when I do it, for reasons that satisfy myself. I easily get lost in the nooks and crannies of that dialectic. But I don’t want to stay lost.
I believe in the ever-present potential of repentance and transformation, in the possibility of forgiveness that follows. I have to. The alternative is a world in which no evil deed can be expunged by contrition and restitution, in which each misguided act risks a life-sentence of ostracism. Yet no one is perfect. We all mess up, and everyone with a heart and brain has the potential to learn far more through mistakes than through exercising mastery or repeating what we know to be sure or safe.
I think back to the time I was on the board of a Jewish organization considering charges against a rabbi of serious and repeated sexual misconduct. Understanding the impact censure could have on the rabbi’s future, no one wanted to act precipitously; understanding the impact abuse had on the women who accused him, no one wanted to ignore their call for rebuke and consequences. Spiritual leaders on the board—especially those having come into that status during the sixties and seventies “sexual revolution”—reminded everyone that ours was a “t’shuvah movement.” They meant that the mostly young Jews then seeking to renew and refresh traditional Jewish practice and learning had come to their spiritual path through personal trial and error. They crossed boundaries, including some that should have been respected. Awakening to their errors had animated their movement with the power of t’shuvah—awareness, repentance, reorientation, restitution.
It is a core Jewish teaching that each person is constantly subject to two competing pulls, the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). This is not uniquely Jewish, of course. Gandhi put it this way: “All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavour consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.” But Jewish teaching goes further to suggest that the t’shuvah of a person who is deeply susceptible to temptation, who must struggle hard to defeat those forces, matters more than that of a sage who through spiritual purification is far less subject to the pull of the evil inclination. More healing energy flows into the world if I miss the mark through my own my shame, grief, and restorative action than if I had risen beyond the reach of temptation, never erring at ll. So we want to see the signs of genuine t’shuvah, to honor them for their healing power, and to make room for harmful acts to be converted to acts for the good through four steps: awareness, repentance, reorientation, and restitution.
Like Northam, the rabbi in question did not truly make t’shuvah. He just issued a series of confusing denials, excuses, and dissemblance. It took quite a while, but eventually he was made to step down. Even changing his name did not remove the stink.
True t’shuvah is the easier part of the revenge versus restitution equation. Transgressors understand their wrongdoing, acknowledge it, bear their shame, accept consequences, take concrete steps to right their wrongs. Even extreme turnarounds can be accepted. For instance, late last month Derek Black—brought up in a closed-off and deeply vicious white supremacist context and converted by a remarkably patient Jew into a crusader for equity and justice—joined Dove Kent and Eric K. Ward in a discussion of Antisemitism in America. I’m not hearing an outcry that he should be shunned for his past misdeeds; his subsequent actions ensure that his t’shuvah is seen as sincere.
But what about vengeance? I understand the emotion. I can summon vivid mental images of the pain I have imagined inflicting on personal and public malefactors. I can taste the desire to see them suffer for the anguish they have caused, measure for measure. But I can’t believe in its efficacy, believe that punishment makes things right. I’ve seen too often how those who are severely punished for their transgressions turn around and wreak vengeance on their punishers, how the cycle perpetuates itself without fixing the problem. In the criminal justice sphere, I advocate restorative justice, which actually offers the hope of healing. This is a principle that applies equally to the personal and political.
Today the choice—revenge or restitution?— is being played out in the largest public arena. The most challenging case for me is when a single prior bad act is inflated into grounds for permanent condemnation, which is happening more and more often. I think Al Franken was guilty of juvenile stupidity, for instance, but he paid a price befitting a lifetime of sexual abuse. Our thematic universe is characterized by a culture of politics that equates rape or sexual blackmail with a moment of idiocy, treating them equally as grounds for banishment from civil society. Over and over again, punishment trumps repair.
The current atmosphere of vengeance is being fed by a failure to understand the value of restorative justice. If racist and sexist acts are understood purely as lapses in personal conduct, if transgressors understand their responsibility as beginning and ending with public contrition, punishment appears to be the only remedy that carries consequences. Sadly, though, consequences are there for the punishers too. When we’ve deposed, exiled, locked up, or bankrupted all the perpetrators of past bad acts, will the beloved community remain? Or will the habit of revenge overwhelm the desire for healing?
It’s hard to imagine the actually existing Northam doing what I’m about to suggest, but just try it on as a thought-experiment. Imagine he acknowledged his past harm, expressed his shame without excuse, and committed himself to a concrete program of restorative action, could true justice prevail? Imagine (to suggest just one example among many possibilities) a new curriculum requirement making the study of racism and its impacts a core subject in Virginia high schools and colleges, not a single course but an eight-year stream to promote both historical and self-awareness.
What if the transgressor in question were capable of more awareness and compassion than Northam has shown? What if this thought-experiment happened in real life, if healing action were catalyzed by one man’s racism and the t’shuvah it triggered? Would it be enough?
The path to restitution is open, but it takes two to walk it, the perpetrator and the harmed. The transgressor must convert harmful acts to acts for the good through four steps: awareness, repentance, reorientation, and restitution. So long as the mealy-mouthed pro-forma personal apology/justification is the accepted standard, true t’shuvah is impossible. And the body politic injured by harmful acts? We must not only demand restitution, but sincerely accept healing action in the place of revenge.
The demand must be made explicit. First, drop the default that says bad acts can never be expunged, merely punished. Second, make clear that forgiveness must be earned through all four steps, including true restorative justice and the sacrifice it entails. Third, understand that how we treat transgressors—whether Hollywood execs, governors, or those serving time for criminal acts—is our rehearsal for a world in which collective t’shuvah leads to collective transformation. I can’t know for certain we’ll get there, but I am absolutely positive that without practice, we will not.
I don’t say this is easy. In fact, it is very hard. But I’d really like there to be a blue-green planet left spinning and supporting life for future generations to populate with a gentler thematic universe. So we make the path by walking—or else.
Shemekia Copeland performing a song by J.B. Lenoir, “God’s Word.” (Yes, that’s Charlton Heston in the video, but you can always close your eyes.)
When Starbucks founder Howard Schultz announced a few days ago that he was exploring a 2020 run for President as a “centrist independent,” progressive social media exploded with reasons to reconsider. Op-eds proliferated, people began leafleting Starbucks and protesting at Schultz’s speaking engagements. A chief objection is the reality that Jill Stein, running as the Green Party candidate in 2016, took enough votes from the Democrat to propel the Present Occupant into the White House. Pick a party, many say, and run as hard as you want for the nomination. But don’t sabotage this critical opportunity to defeat the incumbent by pulling votes from the Democratic nominee. Michelle Goldberg did a good job of summing it all up in the New York Times.
Schultz’s trial balloon is likely to sink under its burden of self-regard, the billionaire’s blithe belief that wealth qualifies him for office. If not, the history and math showing how a Schultz candidacy is likely to re-elect the incumbent are hard to refute. I imagine Schultz will back down, but I also recognize that the surrealism of contemporary American politics can outstrip my imagination.
So what interests me most is not handicapping Schultz’s chances or joining the legions exhorting him not to run, but getting to the root of his absurd ambitions, which is to say the root of our plutocracy and its kudzu-like grip on the body politic.
I can’t think of anything that expresses it better than this quote from Paulo Freire’s masterpiece, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It explains the confidence of those like Schultz who believe their personal wealth and wisdom make them uniquely qualified to save the world. It explains why despite so much evidence to the contrary, they are certain they know better.
“…the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other… Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle.
It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know.
Accordingly, these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”
I have no great love for our current electoral system. It would take all of 30 seconds to come up with something better than our money-ridden, top-down two-party structure, its flaws compounded by the deformations of the Electoral College and bad Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. But Schultz and others who imagine now is the time to experiment with sidestepping the Democratic Party are hugely mistaken. Perhaps wealth insulates them so fully from the consequences of such experiments that empathy falls by the wayside. Four more years of the madmen in the White House may not do irreparable damage to Schultz’s bottom line; it’s impossible to believe he’s given full weight to the damage others are likely to sustain. Either that or he turns out to be the worst type of ideologue, the true believer who accepts the suffering of others as allowable collateral damage in pursuit of a grand idea—in this case, himself as President.
Freire recognizes the importance of the privileged putting themselves on the side of liberation. There are many examples. I wrote in 2015 about the way great spiritual and political leaders may come from wealth and privilege—Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, and many more. But no matter how gifted, such individuals cannot advance freedom and justice unless they commit “class suicide,” dying to the privileged class of their birth—for instance, by taking a step with no return—and thus sacrificing privilege and power in favor of full identification with the oppressed.
Right now, today, how could someone like Howard Schultz—or Michael Bloomberg, who just said that Medicare for All would “bankrupt us for a very long time”—commit class suicide? We are taught that Moses’ moment came when he was moved to kill a brutal overseer abusing a slave and Siddhartha’s eyes were opened when he finally left his father’s palace and saw human suffering. So yes, these billionaire politicians could simply open their eyes—if seeing led to action. A good first step would be to come out in favor of the wealth tax ideas put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, nicely explained in this column by Jamelle Bouie.
The Republican right frames a top tax rate of 70 percent for the wealthiest as highway robbery, but that was actually the rate from the mid-1940s through the 1970s. So rather than advocating unprecedented radical redistribution, present-day economic reformers are simply calling for a return to policies that kept the wealth gap far smaller than today’s egregious reality, where the U.S. gap is worse than almost any other nation in the developed world. (If you like charts, here are a few more depicting growing inequality.)
Freire was right.The spoilers like Schultz who claim to be for the public good but sacrifice nothing to see it enacted, those whose self-importance swamps their often formidable intelligence, are rooted in economic privilege. Ralph Nader’s net worth was close to $4 million in 2000 when he ran against Al Gore; Jill Stein’s and her husband’s net worth totaled almost exactly the same when she ran in 2016.
The possession of wealth does not cancel empathy or disqualify one from leadership any more than poverty always amplifies empathy or promotes leadership. It’s not material conditions that make good leaders, but qualities: the compassion, humility, sense of reality, and commitment to love and justice which every human being has the capacity to cultivate. Tech zillionaire Tom Steyer has no dearth of self-confidence, but I was glad to see him separate himself from the likes of Schultz, putting paid to rumors of his presidential candidacy by announcing he was investing the millions he would have spent campaigning on the Present Occupant’s impeachment instead.
The part of that quote from Freire I love the most says that “The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity.” It’s not hard to break down. The Present Occupant’s many campaign promises to restore manufacturing jobs and otherwise relieve the suffering of working people were 21st-century reenactments of John D. Rockefeller passing out shiny new dimes to everyone he met. The meta-statement each gesture made is this: I’m rich and you’re not. I have the power and you don’t.
In the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides defines eight levels of charity. The Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah, which also means justice or righteousness. The highest is to help someone via a loan, job, or partnership to avoid remaining dependent on others (expressed for instance in the Green New Deal proposal growing in grassroots popularity); the lowest is to give grudgingly (as when Wilbur Ross and other such Republican spokespersons condemned government employees unpaid due to the government shutdown for applying for public assistance or protested against having to pay taxes).
The highest level of tzedakah is class suicide, people with economic and social power turning their backs on the system that upholds their privilege and working for a new order grounded in equity and caring, reducing their own entitlement and specialness as countless others are uplifted.
In 2011 I shared a rabbinic story I’d learned many years before, in which a rabbi visits the town’s richest man to ask for alms for the poor, and is repeatedly refused. Finally, before he turns to leave, the rabbi asks the man to look through the window of his house and say what he sees. The man sees other people, of course, going about their business in the town. Then the rabbi directs the man to gaze into a nearby mirror and report what he sees. “Myself,” the man says. “That’s how it goes,” the rabbi tells him. “The human soul is clear, like glass, allowing us to see truly; but when we cover it with silver, all we can see is ourselves.”
More than twenty years ago, after drawing or painting nearly every day from the time I could hold a crayon, I stopped making visual art. Why? It’s a bit of a story. Something that happened on New Year’s Day made me want to tell it.
My husband’s and my annual new year’s ritual has two parts. Before midnight on December 31, we write down everything we want to leave behind in the year about to end. Then—after blessing the past to remain in the past—we burn the papers to ash. Before New Year’s Day ends, we write down our desires and intentions for the new year, one to a paper. These are rolled into tiny scrolls, each tied with a length of thread and tucked away, not to be read until next January 1.
A gratifying number of our year-old intentions for 2018 bore fruit. But one scroll showed me something remarkable and exciting about my personal year. Last New Year’s Day I was working on a book. On a scroll, I recorded my hopes for its completion and the response I desired.
But mid-year, my dreams took a sharp turn. I’d been feeling stuck. I realized that I’d spent much of my time doing perfectly worthy things that others needed. But I wasn’t learning from them, my growing edge wasn’t engaged. I was shocked to see that I’d fallen into a long-ago pattern of self-exploitation, as I wrote in July.
When I was asked what had excited and stretched me, the answer was clear and simple: in April I made more than three dozen tiny drawings. My husband and I took our annual visit to his family in Hawaii, but we were rained out. No beach days. Tucked alongside a supply of books and papers, I’d brought along a set of brush pens and a packet of small cards inscribed with English and Hebrew words. These were “angel cards,” used in a form of divination and given to us by dear friends.
In Jewish mysticism, angels are messengers between worlds and beings of single intention, in contrast to the infinite complexity and contradiction of human beings. So each card carries a word that could be seen as the name of a singular angel: “spontaneity,” or “love,” or “moderation.” You pose a question using a formula that can vary as you wish: “What angel will support me in _________________?” or (if the idea of angels gives you hives) “What quality will accompany me as I __________________?” There are 64 cards in all, so plenty of potential for interesting juxtapositions. Questions almost always bring words and images that spark fresh thinking. Often, something is illuminated. Surprisingly often a new understanding clicks into place.
Most angel cards come illustrated. But except for the words, these were blank, an invitation to add one’s own images. During many afternoons of unending rain (bringing frightening floods, washouts, and isolation to northern island communities), we drew 64 images, dividing them between us. Here are a couple of my favorites:
The act of drawing—choosing my subject, rendering the outlines, adding the colors and textures—instantly took me back to childhood, when any moment I wasn’t required to be elsewhere found me hunched over a piece of paper, creating a world I vastly preferred to the one I actually inhabited. The first time someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “artist.” I didn’t stop answering that way until the 1990s, when writing became my obsession and delight. At the time, I felt a strong pressure to choose between the two creative practices, and I chose writing.
What was I thinking? Three things stand out.
The politics of art. I’d been a lifelong activist, often involving my art work. I created posters and flyers for causes. I helped to organize a kind of union for graphic designers, an alliance for artists working for social justice and peace, other campaigns and movements engaging artists. I did illustrations for an underground newspaper. And when I wasn’t doing these things, I painted portraits of my friends and colleagues, showing and selling a little.
In the politics of the left of the late twentieth century, making paintings was widely considered a trivial, even decadent, practice. It was okay to do community murals and posters, to create work with social utility and community representation in mind. Anything else was likely to be dismissed as bourgeois and self-indulgent. In those days, I lacked the understanding to argue otherwise.
The gallery system. When I started organizing artists in the sixties and seventies, I often used the metaphor of Sleeping Beauty, the artist as passive object kissed into life by the prince, which is to say the curator or critic. (I wrote a little bit about it here nearly a decade ago.) That metaphor landed every time I gave a talk, often with a force that at first surprised me. So many of the young artists I met were brokenhearted from trying. It didn’t feel right that they had to work all night waiting tables to earn not only a meager livelihood, but the right to make art. I didn’t like the constipated way most critics wrote about art, nor the snobberies and power-games artists were expected to ante into, competing to be noticed and rewarded.
I was interested in economic justice, so seeing my paintings on collectors’ walls didn’t strike me as a worthy ambition. It felt like way too much me-me-me and not nearly enough we.
Dominant ideas about artists. A high bar was set for seriousness of intention (although, paradoxically, possessing the requisite seriousness could just as easily be verified with a flamboyant personality as through long hours in the studio). Demonstrating sacrifice was critical: finding your specialty and sticking to it was essential. I disliked being asked to perform either the sacred fool or the anorectic ascetic. I disliked the self-referential framework of contemporary art, sometimes validating work by labeling its artworld influences, other times condemning it for being derivative, situating power everywhere but with the artist.
Everyone knew there was a hierarchy, descending from great artists to merely good to isn’t it time you found some way to make a living? If you didn’t have a chance of being great—by your own judgment or the judgment of others—there was a strong sense it was best to make a quick, clean break.
These three were my thoughts at the time. To my younger self, they added up to a compelling argument to put down my paint brushes when I picked up my pen to write. But no matter how many times I add them up today, I can’t make the sum come out that way it did twenty years ago. I can only marvel that I talked myself into a corner, giving up something that had been a principal source of pleasure, healing, and possibility since childhood. I love to write and have no regrets about taking up that practice. But having succumbed to such flimsy ideas about visual art, that I do regret.
Things have changed. The ideological tests of the left have multiplied, but perhaps the fact there are more of them has weakened their power. The gallery system still has plenty of snobby and terminally ambitious people who make me feel like taking a long break in a decontamination chamber. But they have nothing like the earlier stranglehold on the exchange of art. Today I am by no means the only commentator who has shone light on art’s power to change the story and therefore the world. I doubt the pressures I felt, the mindgames I took part in, are distorting the lives of younger artists to anything like the same degree I experienced, although they are still felt. There are more thought-police in the world, but their power is greatly diminished.
I won’t post images from the projects I am currently working on until they feel ready to share. But I will say that one project includes both drawing and writing, the other focuses on painting, and the headiest cocktail I imbibed this New Year’s Eve was the freedom rushing through my veins as I recognized that the choices I foreclosed years ago remain open to me now. You can be sure that one of the scrolls I hope to unroll in 2020 expresses my desire to have 2019 offer another sip of that intoxicating freedom, and another, and another.
I woke up with history on my mind. Not the polished history of textbooks but the felt sense of living in the past. In rapid succession, I saw myself in a series of moments, in a series of places I had never lived: Germany in the thirties, Korea under Japanese rule, apartheid South Africa.
The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” but in my vision, I understood that politics can also be war by other means: a conflict between forces driven on one side by the desire to gain power, territory, wealth; and on the other by the will to survive, the will to freedom. In each of the places I saw in my vision, history shows us that the oppressor eventually lost. But before that happened, millions of ordinary citizens were deprived of livelihood and well-being, incarcerated, tortured, exploited as slave labor, exterminated—by other ordinary human beings who somehow grew to accept this as normal, as just another turn of the wheel, and who let it unfold.
Most people I know believe that if those ordinary oppressors—the ones who grew inured to others’ suffering, who perhaps saw it as collateral damage for the greater good, or who simply averted their eyes—could only for even a moment perceive the real impact of their compliance with injustice, they would repent and pursue justice.
The question I am asking today, having so recently awakened from a nightmare of history, is what if that’s not true? What if the enticements to indifference or to the embrace of ethnic cleansing and other such philosophies were more powerfully persuasive in the hearts and minds of a significant number of ordinary Americans? How would accepting that as fact change your perception, strategy, tactics?
I receive many messages and talk often with friends about the spiraling chaos and lacerating trauma being inflicted daily on the body politic by the Present Occupant of the White House and his allies, both those who sin with enthusiasm and those who collude through indifference. Many of my friends and colleagues feel that if we only found the right language and images, we could spark empathy in those who want to build the border wall (to pick one example): show them the hypocrisy of citing national security as a reason to shut down the government…including the Department of Homeland Security! Show them images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph freezing beyond the border wall, unable to reach the manger. And so on.
The truths underlying these ideas are plain to see. First, we know that kindling empathy is necessary to change attitudes that lead to harming others. As every spiritual tradition teaches, seeing others as fully equal to ourselves and as fully deserving of compassion and care is a prerequisite for treating them humanely. As my tradition puts it, “Do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself.” Second, that we human beings, possessing consciousness, have choice, that as we have seen in countless conversion stories, we have the capacity to throw off old beliefs and attitudes and set out on a new path.
Yet, plain and simple, it is a delusion to believe that empathy and compassionate action will reign if only we find the right way to bring the message home. Many things beyond messaging stand in the way.
Consider scapegoating, arguably humanity’s most popular political tactic, attributing one’s own suffering to a vilified out-group, and prescribing control or elimination of that group as the antidote. If you believe an Other prevents your dreams coming true, eliminating the Other is mere necessity.
Consider the seduction of belief in a powerful figure—a father of sorts—who promises to cure all your ills as he shrewdly discredits counter-arguments by dismissing critics as tools of an evil cabal. The desire to be cared for is profound.
Consider a cold calculation of self-interest: I want to prosper and rise, and if I have to split gains with you, I only get half as much, so that’s a no-brainer. Me first!
On grounds such as these, ordinary Germans, ordinary Japanese, ordinary South Africans—who may have loved their children and friends, been kind to animals, given coins to charity, helped old people across the street—allowed other human beings to become merely useful or merely disposable or both, and they did these things day after day for years. These are just the three places that popped up in my vision. The sad truth is that we could start the phrase with “ordinary” and end with the name of any nation in human history, and never be wrong.
For those who feel most strongly called to attempt persuasions to empathy, directing their attention to those who have allied themselves with the Oppressor in Chief, I defer to their freedom of choice. The principle of doing what calls you often leads to giving your best, to investing with energy and conviction, and that seems worthy to me.
But for most of us, I think the task is very simple. First, accept that the adherents of Trumpism have made their choices. Second, recognize how many more of us love freedom, equity, and justice than embrace the delusions of winning advantage by vanquishing the Other. Historically, fascism and totalitarianism have been overturned when the greater number of people whose empathy is not obscured by delusion rise up, make alliances, stand for justice at the ballot-box or in the streets, and though I dread even to contemplate it, in battle. Our challenge now is to gather in the greater number: the ordinary Americans who, while legally qualified to vote, have previously chosen not to; and as many inspiring candidates of integrity—even more than in this past November—as possible.
We are at a crossroads. When I contemplate the wrong path—if too many of us fail to acknowledge the terrible seriousness of this moment and our role in it, if too many of us pour our energy and spirits into converting the minority supporting the Madman in Power instead of embracing, inspiriting, and aiding our natural allies—my fear rises, and the image that comes into my mind is from Yeats’ great poem, “The Second Coming.” He wrote it just after World War I as the Irish war of independence began. By the time he died in 1939, he surely had reason to call it prescient.
More and more, what little confidence I had in predictions weakens. We cannot know the future. It is possible that even as though a minority, the forces of reaction will maintain their hold on political power if the forces of freedom fail to rally. If party politics as usual continue to discourage electoral participation; if an unseemly eagerness to strike deals with the devil convinces potential voters the game is not worth playing; if the relentless drumbeat from the White House, amplified amplified with such obsequious servility by so much of the press, drowns out our message of power to the people.
But the greater possibility is ours to nourish and then to see it flourish: that the many who don’t benefit from this deceitful and corrupt administration, the many who don’t buy its myths, will awaken into healing action. For me, realizing this requires thinking the unthinkable, recognizing that some number of my own neighbors, persuaded by scapegoating, eager to follow the leader, calculating from self-interest, will allow the rights, freedoms, and compassion that enable a humane civil society to be destroyed. That danger is very real. I am putting my hopes for the new year in engaging the many who understand that, and I am by no means the only one. Join us, please. There are countless ways to contribute to the expansion of active democracy in this county, but if you need a few suggestions, check out these I offered back in July.
In the first part of last night’s dream, I was trapped in a building, but as soon as I began to wake up, I lost that image. What lingered was a swarming crowd, people rushing to join a mass on the horizon, gazes transfixed skyward. Huge fireballs were forming in the blue air, spinning as they fell to earth, landing somewhere out of sight. Voices began to sound, the ordinary tones of TV newsreaders: clear, oddly animated, slightly robotic. They described the scene around me, the completely unprecedented and unexplained rain of enormous fireballs, in exactly the same way they might tell a story about a road accident or a snowstorm.
Then they began to joke in the usual fashion of newsreaders: “Wow! The one that landed on highway 50 must have surprised those commuters.” “A whole ‘nother meaning to ‘hair on fire,’ huh, Ted?” As the inanities rang out, my brain threw out that ancient joke on the idiocy of reportage: “Aside from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”
What came to mind as I emerged from the half-light of the dream was Doris Lessing’s short story, “Report on the Threatened City,” set nearly fifty years ago. It was framed as an alien dispatch, detailing failed attempts to warn the residents of San Francisco about an impending earthquake.
Then I was fully awake, thinking about the October UN report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the federally mandated National Climate Assessment released over Thanksgiving (presumably to bury its dire findings under a soothing blanket of mashed potatoes and gravy). Images surged: families tear-gassed along the border, election tampering and voter suppression, crooks in high places and much, much more. In Lessing’s story, governmental authorities are aware of alien attempts to warn the populace, but write them off as what is now called “fake news.” Ground-level resistance swells, but the result is conflict between camps of opinion, not action to avoid mass extinction.
And of course, nearly a half-century after Lessing’s story, San Francisco still stands.
With friends on Thanksgiving, we took turns around the table sharing whatever we wished—gratitude, if we could summon it, but whatever was true for each of us.
Some were certain that despite both the darkness of the moment, with a madman in the White House and moral cowardice swamping those best-positioned to stop him, despite the glimmers of light shown in recent elections, the worst is yet to come. The human project was spoken of as a failed experiment, the end of human life as a necessary cleansing, hope as a delusion.
Some were certain that the massive resistance and remarkable flowering of alternative visions, that the Great Mystery all of us have experienced but none of us can explain, the resilience, beauty, resourcefulness, and will to live built into the human subject will carry us through. Things will change, but the earth and the life it supports will abide, and fresh possibility will emerge. History justifies hope—action grounded in hope, to be sure, but hope nonetheless.
Some—myself among them—spoke of not-knowing. No matter how dire the predictions, how strongly rooted in scientific research, none of us can foretell the future. The end of life has been predicted many times, and always our challenge has been to live. This time may be different—indeed, it may be the end—but there is no more ground for that certainty than for its opposite, that humankind will be rescued by some remarkable and magical redemption not of our making. No one knows.
It is not my aim to persuade people that their predictions are wrong, that they are betting on the wrong horse, that a different future surely awaits us. I have no interest in debunking the science that points to the great likelihood of disaster. How could I? But likelihood is not certainty, because it cannot be known what healing actions—even what miracles—may follow the alarm that has been sounded. (Please check out the Green New Deal, for instance.)
I have one aim in these times, and that is to demonstrate the power of not-knowing, to stick a pin in the illusion that we can know what has not yet come to pass, and to raise the question of desire in the place of hope. What power will be released in the act of freeing ourselves from the delusion that we can know what has not yet unfolded? What gifts will we be able to bring to the moment if we stop believing our own predictions? Sitting with the awareness of not knowing—of the impossibility of knowing—what do we desire? Beginning with not knowing, how do we move toward our desire?
Hanukkah starts this weekend. During the holiday, we’ll have another chance to be with friends, to go around the circle and ask a generative question. The holiday marks the return of light from the darkness of winter, the miracle of a small amount of oil burning for eight days to light the repair of the temple destroyed by soldiers of the Seleucid Empire a couple of hundred years before the common era. Last Hanukkah’s question was, “What light do you wish to bring into the world?” Some people chose not to answer, refusing to validate what they saw as superstition. Some denounced the idea of bringing light as trivial, counseling us to bring on the fight instead. Most shared their hopes for the Great Awakening we all desire, even those who think to hope for it is foolish.
When I consider what to say this year, I think of shining a light of awakening on the newsreaders in my dream, to be sure, but also the countless voices in waking life who support, intentionally or not, the ordinary lies that insure us to suffering, that normalize absurdity and invite us into complicity with the indifference that perpetuates these delusions.
I am not much of a believer. I’m more given to desires, to questions, to exploration than to certitude. But I do have two convictions: first, that by joining our conscious intentions, speaking them aloud and allowing them to amplify each other, ring out, and spread, we can build energy, influencing actions to the good. Second, that if we align ourselves with the certainty of failure—if we abandon all hope despite the fact that the future cannot be known—we deplete the energy that animates healing. So at this season, I wish each of us the will to embrace not-knowing and spirit to let freedom ring!
In his amazing short essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin wrote that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.” I’m deeply into Rev. Sekou these days. Think about the face of this nation as you listen to “Loving You Is Killing Me.”
Rev. Sekou - Loving You Is Killing Me - 5/5/2017 - Paste Studios, New York, NY - YouTube
Why? To glimpse the seemingly evergreen historical uses of antisemitism if you didn’t grow up like me, constantly reminded by the absence of ancestors and the words of those around you that we are always in jeopardy, that we live here on sufferance, on a provisional tolerance that can always be withdrawn. Read it to glimpse the experience of so many in my generation: the perpetual anticipation of the other boot dropping—on our necks, this time.
Reading this short, informative essay could help some people begin to understand that genocide happened to us in living memory, but not for the first time, not by a longshot. Even now, nearly 75 years after the end of World War II, there are fewer than half the Jews on the planet than had the Holocaust not happened. There are approximately 14 million Jews today; in 1939 there were about 16 million—so we haven’t even recouped the loss. Authoritative estimates say that with normal birth rates and no Holocaust, there would be upwards of 32 million today. Glimpsing history might help readers understand that for those in my generation, when Nazis march in Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” when an assassin opens fire in a synagogue yelling “All Jews must die,” we are reminded that exterminating more than one out of every three of us isn’t enough, not by a longshot. And in a nation that has more guns than people, our fear grows realer every day.
The ordinary antisemitism I grew up with: being chased every year when the Catholic kids got around to the chapter in catechism class that inspired them to punish us for killing Jesus; going to the principal’s office while the entire public school population sang Christmas carols in the auditorium; knowing all the words to all the carols and all the Christian holidays anyway, and never once being asked to show-and-tell something about our own heritage. Learning all the names for Jews my classmates imbibed with their mothers’ milk. Hearing that my father had been beaten for the crime of being Jewish by a man who worked down the street where he and his fellow housepainters kept their brushes and cans and ladders; and that someone had summoned the police, and the policeman made my father shake hands with his assailant. Microaggressions is the wrong word. Try macro.
No one burned a cross in front of our house. We were never carted away on trains. But the message of disbelonging came through clearly, and it could jump out to surprise me in any dark corner of conversation or any headline or any overheard slur. And even though it was more subtle, it rhymed so closely with the stories of our collective past and the element of surprise they all contained, we knew we had to stay awake.
I’m first generation in this country. I was taught by my immigrant forebears—who had trouble distinguishing homegrown uniformed men with guns from the ones who killed my great-grandfather in Vitebsk—to fear the police. I have never called the police in my life, and I doubt I ever will.
I have been a person of the left all my life, believing that neither justice nor mercy can come from special pleading for one’s own. They must be fundamental, universal human rights. Yet my commitment has been tried by the times my experience and history are trivialized by fellow progressives who decide on the basis of the white skin privilege many (but by no means all) of us have—the fact that I will not be stopped for driving or walking while Jewish—that to be a Jew in the USA is more or less the same as being a white Protestant and I ought to get over it, drop my paranoia, focus on real oppression. By the times that stereotypical views of Jews are casually accepted while speaking in similar ways about other identities gets called out, and not necessarily by those whose identities are being disparaged. By the times calling attention to what is actually happening in this country (as I did in this essay in June) has brought charges of exaggeration, of alarmism. By the expectation that I will accept the assurances of those who bloodlines don’t carry the same sensors for impending fascism, that I should relax and trust them to care about what happens to me and my ilk.
Jewish history confers no special virtue or status. Neither does any other. In every group, certain people have amassed the economic power or kissed up to the king hard enough to be crowned exceptions and do the oppressors’ work: for every Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson there is a Sheldon Adelson or Jared Kushner. Persecution is just as equal-opportunity: the appalling frequency with which Christians and Muslims have been threatened or attacked in their houses of worship tells the same story of leaders who peddle death, who use terrible words and actions to draft broken men into their scapegoating strike force, then disclaim the blood that is spilled in their names.
No livable future can emerge from a hierarchy of oppressions. Having compassion for my fear and understanding the very real danger that triggers it in no way limits the compassion I or anyone else can have for your very real history and present-day jeopardy. There is enough empathy to go around. If we make it a competition, we serve those who feast on our division.
May the memories of all those who have died of hatred stoked in high places be a blessing to all who love freedom. And may the fear felt by survivors carrying history in our bones be answered with compassion.
And that is the silver lining. Compassion is one good thing to come out of this: that so many non-Jews are finally speaking up when we are targeted. I don’t have words to say how different this feels from the ordinary run of my experience, and how much I welcome and appreciate it. Let me close with another short piece, this one written by Phyllis Bennis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for the Nation. The title almost says it all: “In Response to Pittsburgh, We Must Come Together as One.” Almost, but not quite. Please read it too.
Prosper Kompaore shared a proverb from his home country of Burkina Faso: “How is it that sky-high termite mounds can be made by such tiny insects?” he asked. The answer, counseling determination, endurance, commitment and plenty of sustenance: “It takes earth and earth and earth…”
It is not given you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors) 2:16
In times of great disappointment, the temptation to just react is powerful. I’m as angry, sad, and scared as anyone. But I also know that in the grip of those feelings, my judgment is impaired. My amygdala wants to fight, flee, or freeze, but my neocortex knows now is the time to rein in the reptile brain, reaching for higher ground.
For me, it all comes down to this: two obstacles stand in the way of our liberation, and both of them can be defeated by self-awareness, will, and most especially, persistence.
The first is what Paulo Freire called “internalization of the oppressor,” taking into ourselves the voice of the powerful who benefit from our subjugation, mistaking that disempowering voice for the voice of truth, unconsciously allowing ourselves to serve the oppressor through our fear, passivity, and pliancy.
The second is the imprint made on our behavior by eons of conditioning, making us prey to impulses that may have once served valid social goals—even survival—but now imperil us.
Let me explain.
How do we experience internalization of the oppressor? Sometimes that’s an easy question—with hard answers. The oppressor’s voice says, “Dial back your dreams: you people haven’t got what it takes; leave the important stuff to your betters!” If after long repetition you believe it, the voice becomes your own and the message seems as self-evident as saying the sky is blue. Generations of girls have taken into themselves the belief that they should downsize their ambitions to fit the dimensions dictated by patriarchy; a large proportion of young people and people of color have taken into themselves the belief that they have no place, no power, in the political process; and even when it comes to something so basic as valuing our own bodies, two generations of “black is beautiful” have been needed to begin to undo the self-loathing the oppressor worked so hard to install in human operating systems.
But often it’s more subtle. I’ve been reading analyses of the anti-Kavanaugh defeat that point out that the Republicans, with massive investment in digital content in the days before the Senate vote, used cleverly edited and framed clips of protests to frighten voters into seeing Kavanaugh as the voice of reason, a bulwark against the mob. Here’s how one person—responding to an individual who’d been door-knocking for progressives in Texas and had been appalled at the backlash the protests had evidently engendered—described it:
[Republicans] used key pieces of digital content (notably edited protest moments, trumps horrifying moment making fun of Dr. Blasey, and the two letters from anonymous dudes accusing Blasey and Swetnick of lying) pushed out to their base with a FLOOD of social proof (mostly bots and trolls but they look pretty real these days) and I’ll just say it again: if we ignore their digital propaganda machine just like we ignored Fox News, we will all continue to suffer the consequences. They were able to massively change public opinion amongst their base and moderates within 3 days.
I have no doubt of the accuracy of this assertion. If it is taken as a call to pursue more powerful digital strategies, fine. But other possible implications of successful Republican manipulation of protest bring internalization of the oppressor into the story. If the right’s shrewd and massively funded distortion of protest images leads to the conclusion that protests are damaging—and therefore leads to less protest—that will gladden the hearts of all who want protestors to sit down, shut up, and leave what used to be democracy in the hands of the wealthy, white, male, power-mad few.
I don’t believe protests alone will turn the tide. It’s clear that a thousand-flowers approach is needed: demonstrations, dialogues, elections, artworks, new narratives, new tactics, and everything else. The most urgent enemy is non-participation, and many approaches are needed to counter that. Just over one-third of those eligible to vote did so in the last midterm election. (There’s some interesting observation and analysis in this piece.)
The Republicans would like to reduce those voting numbers even more, as a low turnout historically benefits elites. Part of the strategy is a steady drumbeat telling progressives that resistance is futile. But look behind the curtain: the same standards are not applied to protest from the right. A few years ago, when Tea Party protestors disrupted, demonstrated, and demanded in decidedly uncivil terms that they be heeded, people like Senator Mitch McConnell played on two fronts. Publicly, he did all he could to defeat electoral threats from the Tea Party. Privately, he heard the call to jump even further rightward and merely replied, “How high?” The Present Occupant of the White House followed this playbook to the presidency. Now Republicans want to spin the opposition to Kavanaugh as a gift to their party.
How do you tell that internalization of the oppressor is acting on you? Ask Cicero’s ancient question—Cui bono? Who benefits?—and if the answer isn’t people of color, women, immigrants, sexual minorities, religious minorities, poor people, and so on, your brain has been carrying water for the opposition.
With the other obstacle to liberation, the impulses and attitudes resident in the deep structures of our minds, persistent awareness—the continuous application of awareness to ourselves with the dogged tenacity of the termite mound-builders—is the only path to understanding and change.
The other day a friend posed a question: what accounts for the widespread male proclivity for violence, including sexual violence? My response was quick and glib: “Testosterone.” A better answer would have been “testosterone unchecked by awareness.” All humans have impulses and responses imprinted in our cognitive processes by evolution and reinforced by custom. We also have the conscious power of the neocortex, enabling us to notice when those urges no longer serve and to adjust our behavior accordingly. The hitch is, awareness runs on will. We have to want it.
Ordinary examples of this deep programming are everywhere. My husband, for reasons both personal and political, would never lift his hand against another person except to defend his life (and that’s hypothetical, as the situation hasn’t arisen in adulthood). But listen to us talking about the difference in our driving styles. He often feels frustrated behind the wheel, frequently passing drivers who are going the speed limit. “When you drive,” I told him, “someone is always in your way.” “How is it for you?” he asked. I explained that it was more like boarding a train or getting in line. I pass slow drivers, but mostly I feel part of a collective enterprise, navigating to our various destinations. I don’t for a moment believe that gender is absolutely determinative. To be sure, there are aggressive women drivers and passive male ones. But the general principle is widespread enough to make it one of those Venus-meets-Mars moments, where a man and a woman glimpse how different their inner worlds can be.
It’s not just men and it’s not just testosterone, of course. There’s a nurturing impulse that women must be aware of and sometimes correct for lest we invest our loving care in those who would abuse it. And while men are often expected to manifest their aggression in the lives of others, they are also often encouraged to use their strength to care for those weaker than themselves. Think about the touching image of a father kneeling to commune at eye-level with a distressed child; what moves us is evidence of the welcome and positive flipside of the father who beats his child for showing distress.
The rage on Kavanaugh’s face during the hearings, the repulsive sneer while condemning his accusers, exemplifies atavistic, testosterone-fueled impulses unchecked by self-awareness, untouched by the higher workings of the neocortex. His inner radio is tuned to the little man inside his brain telling him he is entitled—it is natural and right—to enact his appetite for sexual and political domination all the way up to the Supreme Court. Nothing has so far impelled this man to ask who is being harmed by his actions, let alone act to heal that harm, and now that he has been rewarded by his fellow oppressors, there’s a very slim chance anything will.
Unless power changes hands to deny oppressors their privilege, thus triggering the awakening of understanding and empathy, I see only one thing that can help us conquer the evolutionary and social programming that fuels the oppressors’ violence, entitlement, and domination. That is mobilizing will, shining the bright light of awareness on our own feelings and actions with the same vigor we must bring to calling others out, and acting on what we see.
Virtually every spiritual practice since the beginning of time has made this a core teaching, although it is sometimes obscured by oppressors’ determination to substitute me-first for the golden rule. Every liberatory practice has made the practice of awareness a core teaching, although it is sometimes obscured by adherents’ impatience to vanquish oppressors. Human cultures are packed with understandings and practices that ally with awareness. We have only to use them.
One of the oppressors’ tactics is to call defeat and counsel surrender at every opportunity, promoting the idea that losing a skirmish means you may as well call off the revolution.
But inner and outer, it’s a lifetime project. Out here in the real world—as opposed to the default world dominated by the oppressors’ incursions into our consciousness—results are always incremental. “It is not given you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” If we are to persist and prevail, that has to be given its full value.
Brett Kavanaugh should never have been confirmed for any judgeship, nor receive approval for his current bid for Supreme Court. My reasons for saying this are simple: charges of sexual assault from three credible witnesses; an increasingly well-documented history of public belligerence, including violence; a mounting body of lies about his own conduct; and an appallingly intemperate performance of outraged entitlement and partisanship before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The arguments against him on these grounds are solid and sufficient to carry the day, judged flatly on the merits. If they fail to do so, it will be on account of a nauseating party-line refusal to care about women’s safety and well-being, compounded by a cocktail of enraged white male entitlement.
The most recent polling makes this clear: 81 percent of black voters are opposed to confirmation, as are 65 percent of Hispanic voters. Across the board, 68 percent of voters support reopening the FBI background check. A full 86 percent of Democrats believe Blasey Ford as opposed to 10 percent of Republicans. (This Quinnipiac University Poll is pretty interesting on the granular level; for instance, white participants with a college degree oppose confirmation in much greater numbers than those without higher-ed credentials.)
But pull those figures apart and you’ll find multiplying questions and stories. Pundits are issuing analyses as fast as they can. Many sound worthy to some degree, but none of them settles my confusion about what it all means. Instead, they echo in my head like koans that never quite resolve:
The women who support Kavanaugh, what are they thinking and feeling? Overall, 37 percent of women—including 45% of white women—say Kavanaugh should be confirmed. Take a moment to consider this: despite his intemperance, despite the testimony of sexual assault, despite his remarkable show of political partisanship—seemingly grounded in the belief he has a right to a seat on the Supreme Court—in a proceeding that demands at least the appearance of neutrality, nearly one out of two white women want to see his nomination approved.
Some of this is being explained as skepticism. I get skepticism. This nation’s history is pockmarked with false accusation: the Salem witch trials, the Red Scare of the Fifties with its different witchhunts, and so on. (And it’s not just this nation. To pick a single example among many, check out the 1930s show trials staged under Stalin to legitimate persecution of his political opponents.) In many times and places, people have made false denunciations as a way to acquire power or profit, dismissing the accused as so much collateral damage in the race for advantage and ambition.
But what advantage do Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick gain by subjecting themselves to reviling, extreme scrutiny, to the barrage of insult and counter-accusation they knew full well would follow from their decisions to go public? Tales are being proffered, of course: they’re committed political operatives, stealthily awaiting the opportunity to bring a right-wing hero down; they’ll make fortunes from their tell-all best-sellers; they are hired performers, and so on. Remarkable charges to believe without a shred of evidence being offered, are they not?
Some of this is being explained along Stepford Wives lines. These women who support Kavanaugh are fundamentalists, we are told, following the edicts of the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, pastors—whose power, and therefore Kavanaugh’s power, the egregious Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina’s power, and by extension, the power of the white male-dominated Republican Party as a whole, cannot be questioned. If this is true, it is terrifying. I cannot prove it untrue, though I believe that every human being possesses the capacity to awaken from the trance of domination, putting choice in the place of compulsion. And I see glimpses of this truth in the headlines, such as this account of the women who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, demanding he not turn away.
Some of this is being framed as white supremacy. If Republicans are the party of white power, and through the distorted lens of racism white power must be retained at all costs, then gender is simply a side-issue. Women’s suffering must be understood as an enduring fact of life; trading one’s independence for the security of a white male protector must be understood as a necessary bargain.
On the other side, the people who are pulling out all the stops, reaching for anything to discredit the nominee, what are they thinking and feeling? The last few days, on progressive sites and discussion lists, I’ve been reading detailed discussions of notations on Kavanaugh’s calendar from student days, centering on whether certain words were code for marijuana, cocaine, or group sex acts. There is tremendous interest in seeing him condemned for underage drinking—drinking to spectacular excess, to be sure, but for some, drinking at all before the legal age. To me, this tactic pulls energy from the real issues, sexual violence and bellicose entitlement. But the people using it say it is necessary to sway those who otherwise find a way to excuse unseemly displays of anger, to excuse sexual assault as a manifestation of boys being boys.
Are there people who find attempted rape more excusable than underage drinking? Let me put it this way: in the Watergate era, I visited with a friend of a friend who was heartbroken that Nixon had been forced out. She could see several ways to justify his illegal behavior, she told me—several types of political necessity defense—but, she said, “I could never excuse his terrible language on the Watergate tapes.”
So perhaps charging Kavanaugh with drug use and alcohol abuse in his youth will succeed in swaying a few. I have an inkling of the desperation behind this, because I feel it. I dread to imagine a Supreme Court with Kavanaugh pulling every decision as far to the right as it will stretch. But I also dread to imagine a progressive future president nominating someone—a person whose closet hides no other skeletons, who fits the highest standards of decorum and nonpartisanship despite ample provocation in confirmation hearings—who drank with buddies in high school, who experimented with drugs (as the standard phrase goes)—and who therefore is deemed unfit, tit for tat. Charge Kavanaugh with lying about sexual assault, about the way he got into Yale, about his role in the Clinton impeachment, and other clearly relevant deceptions. Charging him with drinking way too much in high school, and I fear chickens coming home to roost.
Is this spectacle the last gasp of a dying social order, or a display of enduring state power in the hands of ruthless and amoral profiteers? (I’ve been staring at that last sentence for a while, wondering if it’s over-the-top or a flat description of reality; I am forced to conclude that I’m not exaggerating.) I don’t want to portray the ailments besetting the body politic as some epic battle, evil germs versus good antibodies. But for accuracy’s sake, I must portray it as me versus we, the powerful asserting their will just because they can, and the rest of us be damned.
Evidence is piling up, but I don’t always know how to read it. I keep seeing a photo featuring a panorama of appalled female faces behind Kavanaugh’s furious face as he testifies. My friends posted it, saying it portrays a core truth: that the numbers may say nearly half of all white women believe Kavanaugh, facing his lies, they can’t help but be appalled. Appalled the pictured women clearly are, but since most of them turn out to be Kavanaugh allies, evidently not by his performance.
Yet the cries of #MeToo are greatly outnumbering #MeFirst. The Kavanaugh nomination has triggered yet another vast outpouring of personal testimony from women who’ve been raped or otherwise assaulted, many of whom waited decades to come forward. There’s a meme making the rounds. Here’s how one Facebook user put it: “If you believe men who waited decades to accuse priests but not women who waited decades to accuse men, you’re fucking misogynist.” Tons of explanation have been offered for women’s delay, which in the default world must be justified.
Are we stuck in the default world? This is a tipping-point. The 2018 and 2020 elections could tip the delicate balance enabling the Republicans trying to force Kavanaugh on the nation to maintain power. The enormous protests we are now seeing aim to awaken slumbering conscience, to force accountability for abusers. By all measures, there are more potential voters who put we before me, who value women’s safety, a decent judiciary, the public good over the fortunes and power of the wealthy white men who hold the Senate hostage and the donors who own them. Voting isn’t everything. Even with a major shift in Congress, we will still have to contend with a divided country, one in which people have great difficulty comprehending their counterparts on the other side of the values divide. But voting now matters more than ever in my lifetime.
Are we seeing the last gasp of white supremacy or a display of enduring state power in the hands of ruthless and amoral profiteers? Which side of the tipping point are we on?
I saw Michael Moore’s new film on Friday. This is not a review (I liked this, didn’t like that, who cares?), but an extraction of two main points Moore makes in ways that set my heart pounding. See Fahrenheit 11/9 if you can (it’s playing in three different theaters here in Santa Fe, a small city, so I’m guessing you have the opportunity close to hand). But whether or not you do, I am urging—begging—you to consider and share these lessons. How we act on them will make the critical difference between life and death for democracy.
LESSON #1: THE EARLY-WARNING SIGNS OF IMPENDING FASCISM ARE EVERYWHERE. EVERYONE NEEDS TO SEE THEM AND RESPOND.
Moore calls on historians to draw the parallels between our own would-be king and prior aspiring dictators. They began to emerge during the 2016 campaign, when the candidate urged supporters to beat up dissenters at his mass rallies. The footage of white fists pummeling black bodies for the crime of being present is terrifying.
So is the footage of the White House’s Present Occupant floating trial balloons about being re-elected for 16 years or admiring China’s Xi for making it possible to serve as president-for-life. A familiar observation from Marx has history repeating itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Hitler footage is juxtaposed with Trump footage to make this point: his path to power used the same methods as Hitler’s: rigged elections, big lies, the mass hysteria of crowds, bigotry and chauvinism, scapegoating, media manipulation, and more.
My stomach turned at the passage in which Democratic delegates are shown handing their states—in some cases, states in which the Democratic primary in every single county was carried by Bernie Sanders—to Clinton, while delegates who believed in one person/one vote openly weep.
There is ample evidence of corporate elites laboring for decades to prepare the ground for someone like the Present Occupant to take power and complete the coup. For background, I highly recommend the film Heist: Who Stole The American Dream.
I am aware of the sinking feeling that spreads when one stands to speak truth and is treated as a lunatic. I have felt the power of ridicule to silence dissent. I have often said that the U.S. doesn’t need censorship laws, as the practice of self-censorship has made it the most decentralized public policy in this nation’s history. I am not an alarmist. I do not wish to frighten anyone. But I understand the deep truth expressed so well by James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
So this I must say: the time is here—the time is past due—to stand up to intense public pressure to silence oneself for fear of being derided. We are being afforded a glimpse of what is to come if this slow-motion coup remains unchecked. Pick your arena, pick your words, pick your method to suit yourself, but speak out now.
LESSON #2: THE PATH TO REAL DEMOCRACY REMAINS OPEN TO US, BUT THE PRACTICE HAS BEEN SABOTAGED BY GREED, DECEPTION, COLLUSION, INSTITUTIONALIZED BIGOTRY, AND SUBMISSION TO CORPORATOCRACY. LIFE-SAVING MEASURES ARE NEEDED.
Many of the mechanisms of electoral democracy remain intact, and in the current election season, they are being put to good use by candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Andrew Gillum, surprising the Democratic establishment by mobilizing voters who don’t respond to centrist, corporatist politicians.
To me, the present-day Democratic Party is the lesser of two evils—but most critically, the only one of the two that can awaken from a money-induced trance to align with equity, justice, and love.
Democratic politicians have betrayed democracy (though not quite as often or as egregiously as their Republican counterparts), and that has not escaped notice by the electorate. A clear result has been the rejection of voting as a contest of elites by a large percentage of young people and people of color of all ages. Many non-voters are keenly aware of social and environmental injustice, but choose to apply their energies to forms of organizing other than elections.
In Moore’s film, we see then-President Obama fly to Flint, MI, to give a talk in which he stages a demonstration of the safety of local drinking water by taking a sip from a glass. The horrified faces of Flint activists whose children’s lives are being destroyed by ingested lead tell the story more powerfully than words could ever do. We see Flint residents coming to terms with the undeniable truth that to many elected officials and the people who paid for their campaigns, the health, living conditions, and economic status of black and low-income people—from infants to elders—are of no concern.
And yet, it is still essential to vote Democratic as a necessary first step to shift Congressional and local political power away from the right. I do not want to be the person standing on the sidelines as democracy elides to dictatorship, contributing to that disaster by my fastidious interest in the purity of only voting for truly good candidates. Do you want that to be your legacy?
Even more, it is critical to support the candidacies of people like Ocasio-Cortez, Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and Rashida Tlaib (and many others), who have the energy, vision, and values to redeem democracy from its captivity by corporatocracy. There is already a strong majority for progressive values in this country—Fahrenheit 11/9 lists solid polling majorities for gun control, women’s right to choose, and a long list of other progressive positions—as demonstrated by a three million popular-vote majority for Democrats in the last presidential election. The challenge is to turn opinion into action.
How the Present Occupant won that election turns on two things we have the power to change.
First, many states under the current system have “winner-take-all” elections in which minority votes don’t count; the National Popular Vote legislation, well on its way to passing, corrects for this by establishing victory for the winner of the popular vote in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The Electoral College—which was created precisely to protect elites from direct democracy—should be abolished. But that is a longer-term project since it must not only be passed but ratified by the states as a constitutional amendment. In the meantime, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would produce the same result.
Second, far too many people declined to register and vote. It is incumbent on all of us who value true democracy to persuade those who’ve given up on elections (or never took part in the first place) to register and vote despite their reservations. Both voter registration and turnout in the U.S. are low. Failing to register and vote has clear impact: it cedes the election to those who benefit from suppression of voting by young people and people of color.
I’ve heard three main reasons for not voting. One has mostly come from people of color and poor people in communities under great stress, who say that neither party serves their interests, so why support either? The second has come from young activists who came up in alternative movements such as Occupy. Those who tucked away their skepticism and marshaled their hopes one more time to work for Bernie saw their votes dismissed by Democratic ruling elites (i.e., superdelegates); others were too repelled by the corruption of politics-as-usual even to try. The third is related and transcends demographics: without an inspiring candidate of good character to support, without a positive reason to vote, why bother?
It’s not that these points are untrue. It’s that not voting does nothing to change them.
If you didn’t vote in 2016, you voted for Trump. If you don’t vote in 2018 and 2020, you will be voting for fascism.
As I wrote back in July, “I’m not calling for party unity, not while corporate interests remain in control. What we need to do is change that. And to change that, the large number of people who are qualified to vote but never registered need to be brought into the process with massive voter registration campaigns followed by massive GOTV (get out the vote) organizing.” Click that link to find more links to some of the best voter registration and mobilization campaigns.
But don’t leave it all to the campaigns. Do you know someone who cares about liberty and justice but doesn’t vote? Make it your personal aim to persuade that individual otherwise—and beyond that, to persuade that non-voter to recruit friends and family who may feel the same.