What principle do you hold dearest? What sense of American identity matters most to you? If I put a question— say, What do you stand for?—what answer resounds with total conviction?
My friend and I were at lunch, discussing our usual topic: The Impasse, aka the gulf between what we know of Americans’ capacity for equity, compassion, and justice, and the actuality of so many of the behaviors that represent us in both the public and private spheres. My friend and I are veterans of many progressive movements. We have been heartened by the outpouring of indignation and aspiration in demonstrations by Occupy and other domestic social justice movements.
But we are also deeply impressed by the U.S. establishment’s ability to ignore such things, to promote the decentralization of denial and disdain. The whole world was watching Tahrir Square when a massive show of conscience thrust a wedge between Mubarak and the Egyptian Army; the resulting global outpouring of sympathy and shame opened space for democracy (however imperfect) to emerge. But in the U.S., the powers-that-be are insulated by Americans’ well-established scorn for world opinion, by our propensity to defer to authority. A sex scandal, maybe, but otherwise, what sort of condemnation could possibly shame someone like Scott Walker into stepping down? From deep in The Impasse, it appears that even massive protests can now be disregarded with impugnity.
I told my friend that I keep searching for the key, the issue that could shatter this carapace of denial, reminding us of our better selves, moving us to act from there. Every time I give a talk, I told him, I ask the same three questions:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
After asking them, I say that we can deduce answers from our collective actions: if we have the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate on the planet—if, as I quoted in my previous blog, California has built twenty times as many prisons as colleges in the last 30 years, if it spends six times as much on each prisoner as on each student, then who we are and how we will be remembered is as the Planet’s Biggest Punisher. If you look at corporate welfare, such the legislation extending Bush-era tax cuts (in which the U.S. Treasury lost $225 billion in revenues just from tax breaks specifically tailored to benefit high-income taxpayers), the answer is Robin Hood in Reverse. If you look at war and the associated profits, the answer is Bloodthirsty.
The cynical view is Yeah, so what? One possible conclusion is that these actions indeed express who we truly are, and all the protestations about fairness are nothing more than hypocrisy and self-regard. You could drop a dozen dinosaurs into the gap between our claims to love liberty and justice for all and the injustice meted out to people on account of race, gender, and other differences made into impediments. Maybe we should just give up on a society contaminated with toxic levels of pious phoniness.
But I just can’t make myself go there. None of these policies is the result of a popular referendum. I wasn’t consulted; were you? I can’t imagine a majority of taxpayers saying sure, let’s spend many times more on killing and imprisoning people than on educating them. I can’t imagine a majority of ordinary working people, given the choice, saying of CEO pay that 1980’s 42:1 ratio of CEO’s to average worker’s pay just wasn’t fair to CEOs: let’s raise it to 2011’s ratio of 380:1.
Instead of being the product of citizens’ conscious choices, The Impasse is fed by an internalized sense of powerlessness. These issues are so big and I am so small, we think, what can I do? At lunch, my friend said he was betting on small-D democracy, locally based, to renew a sense of agency and connection, to model the future through mutual support.
He’s right, of course. Lately, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, keeps coming into my mind. “We have all known the long loneliness,” she said, “and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
But I keep returning to the truth that for me, community isn’t geography, it’s the fellowship of common goals, the communion that the spiritual architects of the sixties civil rights movement called “the beloved community.”
The members of that community need a focal point for the upwelling energy that has been invested in Arab Spring-style demonstrations. We need to want a concrete outcome. It needs to plug into our deepest, truest sense of who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to be remembered. It has to affect people of all ages, races, conditions, and orientations. It must offer many creative ways for people to take part through art-making, social networking, policy development, legislative action, direct action. There must be roles for thought-leaders, media makers, rank and file workers, everyone.
I know a lot of smart policy wonks are working on this. The think-tanks and framers are working overtime to find the key that unlocks our power of self-determination. But that doesn’t mean anyone else can’t come up with a better idea. What is your idea? What principle do you hold dearest? What sense of American identity matters most to you? When asked what you stand for, what answer can you proclaim with utter conviction everywhere you go?
For me, it’s fair play and freedom. Equal treatment, equality of opportunity, equal freedom of expression and access to the means of participation in community and society. When I look at The Impasse, here’s what I want to say: Wake up! We are better than this.
I continue to believe that purging the electoral system of private money is the key to everything. If big business and entrenched privilege are deprived of the power to pressure and influence officials with money, the political playing field becomes far more level. I endorse Move to Amend and The Occupied/Saving American Democracy Amendments offered by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ted Deutch, for instance, and others working for that end.
The issue just hasn’t grabbed the popular imagination yet. The fault must be the way it’s being framed, in not yet being able to tell the story with enough force, clarity, and depth to bring it home. It feels like there’s an answer on the tip of my tongue, as if I were reaching for a forgotten name in the instant before it bubbles to the surface of memory. But what is it?
If you could say one thing to your fellow Americans to remind them of their great capacity for fairness and freedom, to sweep aside the self-deluding self-regard and open a window on their own power to bridge The Impasse, what would it be?
The great Joe Louis Walker, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love
I don’t know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.