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.”
John Trudell’s “Wild Seed” performed with Pura Fe.