Michael N. Nagler
Rabbi Michael Lerner’s recent call to the progressive community to run a candidate who would put pressure on President Obama to move back to the agenda he laid out, or rather implied, in his inspiring campaign of November, 2008 puts attention back on the natural, but misleading question of his personal style and positions. We should realize that his rousing success in 2008 was based on political skill, not a concerted attempt to educate the public about the validity of his views. “Hope” and “change” are emotions, not policies, and while you and I may have read into that hope and change what we wanted those stirring words to mean, others were free to take them as meaning something else, and no one was made any wiser during the bruising electoral process. (The last political leader I know of to insist that his followers understood exactly what he was doing, and why, was Gandhi – who never stood for office in free India’s government). The Republicans, smarting from what they perceived as a defeat (in days of yore it might have been accepted as a political decision, not a popularity contest) bent every effort to stonewall his agenda, and despite the enthusiasm that greeted Obama’s 2008 campaign they succeeded handily. The fact is that they can influence the minds of the most voters far more easily than progressives of any stripe. Whatever may have been his failures and miscalculations, therefore, we must take into account that the President – or any of us for that matter – is not playing on a level field.
The field is unbalanced by two potent factors, one so secret that no one talks about it and the other so obvious that no one seems to notice it. It is not fun to talk about the first, but we must: whatever may be the democratic structure of our government —and for my money it’s the best in the world, on paper — there is a criminal element operating within and around it, who will stop at no outrage. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I know enough physics to know that three buildings of the World Trade Center, one of which was not struck by an airplane, did not collapse from the impact or the ensuing fires of 9/11. I am not a conspiracy theorist but I have followed the writings of Jim Douglass and others closely enough to know that JFK was almost certainly not felled by a lone gunman firing three incredibly accurate shots from the Texas Book Depository Building on November 22, 1963. Let’s face it: whatever you and I decide at the ballot box, these people can reverse in the real world. They can carry out the most outrageous crimes with impunity — their own conscience aside.
The vast majority of Republican voters and office-holders are, of course, no part of these cabals and that is not what I am suggesting. Most of them would disagree with the actions of these shadowy operatives as vehemently as we do. Nonetheless they are, simply by the nature of their policies, less of a threat to them than progressives – and consequently less threatened by them. A George Bush need not fear assassination from this quarter, but a Barack Obama does have to live in the shadow of that threat.
There is little an ordinary citizen like you and me can do directly about this political cancer, but there may be a way to affect the general culture that supports it. Think about Rush Limbaugh. This man envenoms the minds of 25-35 million unsophisticated potential voters every day. And he is only one representative of this brand of hate radio that in the long run can be as damaging, if less overtly so, as the radio stations that instigated the Rwandan genocide. But he could not do this in a vacuum: he does it in a climate of incivility, a culture where, to quote a colleague of mine at Berkeley, “we are increasing violence by every means possible.” Every conversation that takes place, every public decision that is made, virtually every thought that is thought inside of us takes place in this toxic environment.
Michael Tomasky recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books that Republicans have the great advantage of being able to speak grandly about “freedom,” “saving America from Socialism” and other exciting themes that are by no means less compelling for being false, while “any sense that the Democrats are now making a coherent argument about what kind of country they want has vaporized.” But this is easy to understand when the majority of us still subscribe to an image of the human being as a bodily object, struggling for survival in a world of ever-diminishing resources. How can you rouse enthusiasm about health care when most of our fellow citizens consciously or unconsciously believe that another’s suffering does not affect them and we are doomed to carry out our private struggle for existence in an unforgiving world? What’s the use of protesting war when most people, however much some of them hate it, believe that war is the only way to protect themselves in a perpetually hostile world?
There is a way, then, that Democrats — or any of us — can start to weigh against the toxicity of our cultural matrix: we can be very bold about the world we believe is possible. However naïve it will sound to some, we can state clearly that, no: we are not finite, material, separate beings acted upon by random forces in a universe without meaning. We are spiritual beings, the manifestations of a consciousness that is unitary throughout the universe, and we have come into being to discover that very unity. Therefore we are not doomed to competition and violence against each other and our natural environment; on the contrary we are destined to create beloved community on a healthy planet. Without this vision, nothing that we intuitively want makes sense: with it, nothing else does.
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