Saturday, February 13, 2016

Wall Street and Income Inequality

Regulating Wall Street is a side-show to the question of economic inequality. More regulation of Wall Street can prevent, we hope, a repetition of the financial crisis of 2008, but it will not, on its own, narrow the gap between the 1% and the rest of us. The difference between "reinstating Glass-Steagall" vs "strengthening Dodd-Frank" does not change life for ordinary Americans. And, sending some Wall Street executives to jail is just a satisfying fantasy.

The steps to start to equalize the income in the country are more basic: strengthening unions, raising the minimum wage, increasing social security benefits, further subsidizing the purchase of health insurance, expanding medicare, lowering the total cost of college education.

And, increasing the taxes on the wealthy and spending that money on public goods, which will indirectly raise the standard of living of the many: better school buildings, better education, better roads and bridges and public parks, better public transit, free, fast, and universal WIFI, efficient electrical grids and updated water and sewage systems, post office banking.

The problem with the financial sector is that it has too much money. Too much money is available for investment through the private capital markets and too little is available for investment through the government for public infrastructure and improvement. We are at the point where capital goes hunting for places to invest, driving the price of equities sky high, while the state is starved and our infrastructure falls apart. More taxes on the wealthy starts to change that imbalance.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Presidents Make Lousy Leaders of Mass Movements

The theory of change that Bernie Sanders advocates is a "political revolution;" he wants increased mass mobilization in favor of broad reformist goals: universal health care, free public college, getting money out of politics, reining in Wall Street. He wants to turn his Presidential campaign into a social movement.

Is leading such mass mobilization something that the President can do well? Can the President go beyond using the "bully pulpit" to advocate for those causes. Sanders has called President Obama a "disappointment," but Obama has not been remiss in making speeches in favor of reforms.

Over the last eight years there has been a significant upsurge in militant social movements. Occupy and Black Lives Matter have put many people in the streets and placed new demands on the table. There has been a steady growth in email/social media based mass mobilizations across a wide range of issues and groups. The social movements are here. Would they be stronger if President Obama had explicitly endorsed them? In all likelihood, that kind of endorsement would have not helped and probably been repelled. Remember the deep suspicion that MoveOn aroused in the Occupy Movement? Occupy was very frightened of being co-opted by the Democratic Party.

The independent social movements are doing fine. Strengthening them is the work of the organizers at the grass roots level, not the President of the United States. No President, not even Bernie Sanders, is going to put a lot of effort into building a social movement that is critical of the President. Nobody is going to join a social movement that is in the tank for the President.

The second problem with the Sanders theory of change is that eventually all efforts at reform come down to legislation and legislation takes compromise and compromise takes flexibility. And legislative negotiation occurs both in public at a symbolic level and at the level of actually writing legislation and spending money. And these levels are intertwined.

One of the things that Obama learned in negotiating with the GOP was that it was a mistake to want something too publicly, or to refuse something too publicly. As soon as something went public, it became both a target of the opposition and a non-negotiable to the public on his side. This is what happened to the public option in the ACA. Once it became clear that it symbolically important to progressive Democrats, it became completely unacceptable to the GOP. And then it became something that 'center' Democrats like Lieberman and Ben Nelson had to oppose because doing so would prove their independence.

Remember the proposal to let 55 year olds buy into Medicare? A perfectly reasonable proposal that would have taken older sicker people out of the insurance pool. Joe Lieberman shot it down because it made the liberals too happy. Who knows, it might have passed if hadn't become a public symbol.

Mass movements cannot fruitfully intervene in legislative negotiation. They will be demoralized by the process. Just as the progressive movement got demoralized by the failure to get the public option included in the ACA.

To be truthful, I don't think Bernie Sanders wants to be President. I think Bernie Sanders wants to lead a political revolution against economic inequality and the corruption of our campaign financing system. For that I wish him every success. And I think that becoming President would be a disaster for his true calling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Trump, Sanders and Reich

Wilhelm Reich 1897-1957,
(not Robert Reich)
As we move forward into TrumpWorld, everyone should familiarize themselves with the general argument made by Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (It's not just his hair that make him pertinent to discussions of Donald Trump.)  Reich analyzed why the German Left failed to stop the rise of Hitler despite the deteriorating living standards of the German people. He concluded that the failure was in the economism of the German Left. They talked about income, wages and living standards, but that appeal was less of interest to the Germans than the stuff of their psychosexual frustrations and fantasies. While the analysis of the latter was of its time, the general holds true. In times of great stress, people do not vote their pocketbook, but their ids.

This is why while Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump may appear to be speaking to the same anger over the decline of the middle class, income stagnation, and the sense that the economy no longer works for the ordinary person, Sanders and Trump voters are motivated differently. If the Sanders strategy for victory is to win over the Trump voter, I think that it will not work.

The Trump voter is drawn to the unaccountable hero; the fantasy of being the winner, the man freed of petty restrictions of 'political correctness' in his speech and actions, unfettered economically, entitled to what is rightfully his, and able to do what he pleases. It is literally a sadistic fantasy -- the thrill of unlimited power to be exercised despite the objections of those on whom it is unleashed. In the American context, this enactment of sadistic power is the lynch mob and the gang rape and the gay bashing. It is also the mass deportation, the carpet bombing, and the use of torture. The appeal of this type of power is more seductive than a bit more economic security, a better pension, less paperwork at the hospital, and confidence that Wall Street is being appropriately regulated.

The Sanders voter shares the surface appearance of being a rebel against the Establishment, but beneath the surface, there is something else going on. The Sanders voter wants a more equal society, and more public goods, which includes better transit, better health care, free public college and more fairness. Like the Trump voter, they are tired of being pushed around by the elite.

But in order for Trump voters to become Sanders voters, they will have to move toward an egalitarianism and empathy for the other that they currently lack. They will have to start moving on beyond their investment in white racism, male chauvinism, heterosexism, transphobia, xenophobia and all that. And that is the hard part. And the more radical the Sanders program is, the harder the journey from Trump to Sanders.

Capitalist ideology believes in "Economic Man," a mythical creature who makes all his decisions rationally on the basis of economic self-interest. Notice that someone like Rand Paul, a libertarian deeply entrenched in the belief in Economic Man, doesn't understand why we would need laws against racial discrimination in public accommodations. He asks "why would anyone want to restrict their customer base?"  "Why wouldn't they want to hire the best person for a job regardless of race?" Because the payoffs and pleasures of racism far outweigh narrow economic self-interest. Trump's invitation to be a part of a Great America again outweighs narrow economic self-interest.

The traditional Left also believes in the myth of Economic Man. The Left asks "Why won't people see that if we all unite across our many differences, we can get a better deal for all of us?"  Who wouldn't want to live in Denmark?  An appeal to better wages and pensions should unite the working class. Well it won't because the payoffs and pleasures of racism, sexism etc. far outweigh narrow economic self-interest.

A Sanders victory in the general is certainly possible, but it will depend on the mobilization of millions of hidden, non-voting, progressives. I don't think that it will come by melding together the votes of Sanders and Trump.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Fruits of Rightwing Demonization

For 24 years now, the right wing in this country has been depending on gender and racial demonization as a way to emotionally bind the public to their program, even though their  program is contrary to most people's interests. Put another way, if people voted their economic interests, the GOP would be tiny. But economic interests are secondary to questions of identity stability and even sexual fantasy. 
This is not a new insight; Wilhelm Reich analyzed the failure of the German left to prevent the rise of Hitler more than  three quarters a century ago. The German Left talked about wages and living standards; the Nazi Party appealed to a sexually repressed population and offered them a domineering, all powerful Father figure. While you can argue about the precise analysis of the unmet emotional needs that the Nazis manipulated, the lessons for the Left are still clear enough. It's stupid to think that it's just the economy.

For forty years, the Right in America said that the problem with American liberalism was that the men were too weak and the women were too strong, or even more bluntly: liberal men were not really men and liberal women were not really women. 

And their Exhibit A has been Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton has been their example of what will happen if gender roles and expectations are allowed to slip and change. Men will become like Bill Clinton: irresponsible, verbose, undisciplined boys. And women will become like Hillary: all-powerful, mean, manipulative Mommy witches, who rule by stealth and cunning. Lady MacBeth. The hidden power behind the throne. 

Everything nasty in every one of the phony scandals assigned to the Clinton was imputed to Hillary. Even Bill's sexual misconduct was eventually hung on her, who 'enabled' it. 

The misogynist Right demanded that she conform to conventional gender roles, and then said that she was faking it when she did. Everything about her was criticized, and then it was said that she was overly conscious of how she looked to others. She was said to be inauthentic and manipulative.

They demonized her. They assigned to her an hidden evil motivation for everything she did. And that demonization narrative was made up of all the fears and insecurities and competitiveness that strong females arouse in the rest of us. 

That Hillary Clinton always has hidden, self-serving, and evil motivations has now become the fixed perception of her. The fact that almost all Americans believe this to be true is the greatest triumph of the rightwing demonization machine. It shows in the polls which say that people agree with Hillary, believe that she is superbly prepared to be President, and many plan to vote for her, but they don't trust her. She's just likeable barely enough. 

Most of the Left side of the spectrum accepts this characterization of her without question. Most on the Left side don't see that what seems like the fact of her character is in fact a conclusion built upon 40 years of misogynistic accusations. She has been successfully demonized, and the Left accepts it as true. And then, the Left says with the straight face of the duped that they have no gender bias against her; they just like the man better.

(A parallel situation would be for someone to say that they have no racial bias against Barack Obama: they just think that he tries to be too cool, speaks too rhetorically, and is too emotionally guarded in his public interactions. They might as well say that they prefer their President to ride a bike rather than play basketball for recreation.)

There could be no greater repudiation in this election cycle of our right wing overlords than to see our way past their demonization of Hillary Clinton -- to humanize her, see her as a human being doing the best she can in the circumstances that were imposed upon her. When you take away the presumption that she is "always and already guilty", what you can see is a very tough, committed, progressive political leader who would make a great President.

Friday, February 05, 2016

One More Thing that UU's Should Have learned

When the first openly GLBT ministers were being considered for settlement, and even when just the first openly GLBT minister was being considered for settlement in a particular church, we learned this: Homophobic people would say this: "You want us to pick a minister just because they are gay."  Or, "I don't want a minister who keeps telling us that they are gay." 

UU's learned that these were defensive deflections to defend old prejudices.

So, why would UU's respond to the exploration of sexism as it affects how people perceive Hillary Clinton with the same accusation, "You think people should vote for her just because she is a woman."

No, I plan to vote for her because she has been a progressive political leader for decades, and because she is personally tougher than almost everyone who has run for President before, because she is great foreign policy experience implementing Obama's post-Neocon policies and yes, because she is a woman, and it is a good thing to blow by that kind of prejudice and exclusion.

I didn't vote for Obama just because he was black. I also didn't ask him to ignore the fact that he was black. GLBT ministers have many ministerial qualities and they are gay, which adds more strength to the mix.

Our theological reflections about our own experience with anti-oppressive work in our own congregation are so weak and shallow that we don't seem to be able to apply what we have learned to the larger arena of national politics. 

The Always and Already Guilty Perps

The narrative about the Clintons, spun now for nearly a quarter century, is always the same. Whatever they are doing, they are up to no good. Give us enough time, give us enough documents, we will be able to prove what they are crooks. Until then, where there is smoke, there must be fire.

The transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street Firms are the new emails. Any document not in the public record must contain the smoking gun, the moment when she condemns Chris Stevens to death in Benghazi, or the moment when gives her quids to and picks up her quos from Wall Street moguls.

I recently re-read Toni Morrison's comments about Bill Clinton as America's first black President. As an aside, she points out the cultural signifiers, the saxophone,  the single mother, the junk food, but her main point is more relevant to us today.  Speaking of the pursuit of the then President, she says,  "The always and already guilty "perp" is being hunted down not by a prosecutor's obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks. " 

"The always and already guilty 'perp".. Morrison points out that what we now call the "criminalization of the black body" was in the process of being applied to Bill Clinton. The Republicans, the media, and eventually the "respectable" Democrats all operated on the assumption that he was "always and already guilty." It was just a matter of time and effort until the evidence was found. It was because Bill Clinton had reached that point where his guilt of something was assumed, and it was up to him to prove his innocence, that Morrison thought him "the first black President."

Hillary is now "the always and already guilty 'perp.'  For Trey Gowdy and the GOP, she is guilty of killing the diplomats at Benghazi. They will find the proof any day now. For the Left, however, a different unproven crime awaits evidence. She is a whore of Wall Street. (Google "Hillary Wall Street Whore" if you think that I am exaggerating the ubiquity of this presumption.)

The crowd booed when she pointed out it is an artful smear to suggest a transaction without any details of it. As proof, Sanders brought forth the obvious example of the entire GOP field who while funded by the fossil fuel industry denies climate change. Both sides of that transaction are on the public record. There is a quid pro quo. The contributions are made and the candidates repeat a foolish assertion.

But where are both sides of the soul-selling of Hillary Clinton? That she accepts campaign contributions is known. But what did anyone get from it? She has a tough set of proposals for Wall Street regulation; where has she done their will in a criminal way? None of that actually matters though, because she is 'the always and already guilty perp." So much so that other-wise fair-minded progressives repeat the unsubstantiated charge to signify the depth of their radical analysis.

For 25 years, the GOP and the media has worked to shroud the Clintons in cloud of suspicion. The list of disproven charges is extensive, and some were ridiculous, but the effort shows every sign of being successful.

An entire generation of young voters have grown up with the image of the shifty, criminalized Clintons as a fixture in their political environment. Whatever she was doing, she was covering something up. That she appeared personable or charming was obviously a testament to her craftiness. Everything about her is controlled, her inner witch only slipping out when she cackles.

We know from the history of the Obama presidency that the GOP and its noise machine do not consider Democratic presidents to be legitimate. In their mind, a Democratic administration is a danger quirk in the operation of the system. And so they work night and day to delegitimize it.The same thing happened to the Clintons. They are still building a story about the weak and ineffectual Jimmy Carter.  (Twenty years from now, what will be remembered about the Obamas will include a caricature of Michelle Obama, that uppity black woman who wore fabulous clothes, vacationed like royalty, and lectured us about eating our vegetables. And the children of today's millennials will believe it as being somehow true.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

New Leaders: Spiritually Grounded -- Landrum

The staff of MidAmerica Region of the UUA has put out a statement about what the "New Leader" of congregations will need to succeed, and they've begun a series of essays about their bullet points, the first three of which are currently available.  My response to the first point is available here on the Lively Tradition, and this is the second.  It's worth noting that theses are qualities of the new Leader not just the new Minister
2.  Spiritually grounded: Leaders understand what they believe or don’t believe and are aware of their need for connection to something larger than themselves; they are aware that they need to connect with a deeper core that gives them balance, intuition, and commitment.
Back when I was preparing for ministry, the suggestion that a competent minister needs to be spiritually grounded would have been met by me with frustration -- and fear.  As an agnostic humanist, I believed that secretly this meant that people believed I should believe in God.  Many people in our pews react the same way.  It was during my internship with Drew Kennedy, who described "spirituality" as a series of right relationship -- right relationship with self, with friends and family, with society, with the earth, with the cosmos or God -- that I began to be comfortable in using the word "spiritual" to describe myself.

Certainly I think a key aspect of the New Leader is understanding connection with something larger, whether you term this concept "spiritual" or not.  Our isolation as individuals and churches is often a weakness, and seeing ourselves as connected to something larger, be it God or Justice or the Unitarian Universalist movement, strengthens us.  

Our people are thirsty for spirituality.  I've done a lot of writing over the years on blogs, and have had three articles in the UU World, and out of all that writing the one piece that people keep talking to me about and writing me about is the piece about doodling as a spiritual practice.  It was startling to me that this is what people connected to most out of everything I've written, but it spoke to people on this level of a need for spirituality.  

Phil Lund draws from Gil Stafford in listing four techniques from spiritual direction:

  • The Leader as the Steward from Sacred Safety
  • The Leader as Holy Listener
  • The Leader as Advocate of Silence
  • The Leader as Wisdom Teacher
I have no disagreement with these.  I would add the Leader as Advocate of Holy Noise, too.  "Spiritually Grounded" for me is being enhanced by seeing the joy in a baby's cry during worship and the laughter and squeals of children in social hour.  It's also about the noise of voices raised in song or chant.  Many of my most mystical moments in life have been moments of music.  We need time for silence, and we need time for noise, too.

I would also add the Leader as Advocate for Multigenerational Experience.  I remember one moment in college when I saw a parent and child walking across the campus, and I realized that I hadn't seen a child in weeks, maybe months.  It's too easy for all our lives to get so tightly focused inward.  Church is one of the most intergenerational places in our lives.  Our social groups outside of church are often grouped by age, and outside of families, church is one place where the very young and the very old and all those in the middle come together.  As someone in the middle, I value these connections with the youth and the elders in our congregations.  There's a reason the Triple Goddess is not just one of the three but is Maiden, Mother, and Crone.  Seeing our lives in the patterns of the generations connects us with something larger.

Lastly a note about safety.  It is very important for our churches to be safe places, yes.  I think it's good for us to have strong policies in place for the safety of our children and our adults.  Our congregations need to be places with standards of protection in place.  But we need to know that sometimes that safety will be shattered by forces beyond our control, and when it does we stand or show up on the side of Love.  And while we strive for safety, being a spiritually grounded leader also means being not governed by fear.  We can't let fear for our safety keep us from marching in a Pride parade or hanging a Black Lives Matter banner, any more than we can let fear for our children's safety keep them from going to school or gradually increasing their independence as they grow into adults.  So being a spiritually grounded leader means stewarding safety while balancing fear with the values of independence, justice, and trying bold new ideas, as well. 

More On What We Have Learned

For 45* years now, I have been in white movements and organizations, both political and religious, that have been very anxious because black people took no interest in them. I have favored, in succession, most dead-end strategies to change that fact, and repeated every excuse and rationalization ever offered for their failure.

My experience is not special; almost every white progressive has had the same experiences over and over again. (45 years of experience or 1 year 45 times?) We have assumed a natural alliance between the movements for black liberation and the movements for progressive reform, but it's an assumption, a possibility, but not a fact.

It pains me no end to see Unitarian Universalist leaders enthusiastically endorse Bernie Sanders as he makes the same assumptions that we should know from our own experience are fatal to the cause.

Increasing the political power of working class and middle class people will not bring about an end to systemic racism. Almost every great social reform from the New Deal on has helped working class white people more than African Americans, and often increased the wealth gap between them, as a result. Its painful to see race-neutral reforms be proposed without recognition of that history.

It is not true that curtailing the political power of the billionaires will empower African Americans. Systemic racism has a powerful constituency among white people of all classes. Its painful to see that ignored, or discounted.

It is not true that the character and personal history of a leader will determine the character of those the leader leads, anymore than a fired-up UU anti-racist minister will determine how a particular congregation acts. Its painful to see that ignored.

We know that white movements (and churches) rarely become multiracial by attraction, no matter how shiny they are. Building a cross-racial entity takes very deliberate and race-conscious efforts at building new leadership structures. It is painful to see UU's seem to forget this, and assume that large numbers of black voters will be attracted to Bernie down the road because of his anti-billionaire rhetoric.

Frankly, it is painful to see UU's who support a Sanders campaign that doesn't seen to understand intersectionality at all. The gap between black voters and the Sanders campaign is not because black voters don't understand class politics in the USA; it is because the Sanders campaign doesn't understand the politics of race in the USA.

I am not saying that Clinton is superior to Sanders about these progressive illusions. But I take seriously that it seems that African American voters are more inclined to support her than Sanders. They know their interests and options better than I do.

Now, I am told by some people that I trust, that the Sanders campaign might well overcome these problems. After all, Obama started out as a candidate with a base most in the white progressive movements, and then attracted the enthusiastic support of African American voters. Of course, Obama is black himself. There may also be a generational split among African American voters as there has been among whites Democrats. Time will tell; the great thing about the future is that it has happened yet.

*I am not counting from birth, but from when I graduated from college.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Bernie Sanders Type

I am not saying that Bernie Sanders is a bad guy. If he is the nominee, believe me I will work for him. But if he wins the nomination without the support of African American voters and middle aged women, it won't be worth much, and it won't matter what I do.

I know Bernie by type, because I ,too, am Bernie: a white male radical who has
labored in the vineyards of progressive change in the USA since the days of college. There were quite a few of us. Some of us became academics; some of us went into local politics (like Bernie); some of us became ministers; some of us went into software; some of us became farmers. Some of us were scoundrels,, but most of us were good guys.

But we all had a blind spot. We were powered by our passion and by our analytical ability. We had an analysis. We could get to the core of the problems with our government and economy and we could describe them in crushing detail.

We could explain why half-way measures and milquetoast reforms would never solve them.

We were very, very good at being able to explain how voting for a Democrat wouldn't do any good. (You're welcome, Richard Nixon.)

No, our analysis was that we needed a Revolution. We could not see, though, that our analysis was not anywhere near enough to actually organize anybody.

Our Blind Spot: We thought if we could fit the oppression and exploitation of African Americans, women, gays, and everyone else, into our analysis, those people would see us as their leaders.