xxxx Approaching Our National Crisis from Two Directions xxxx
For well over a decade now, America has been mired in a dangerous crisis. This crisis poses perhaps the most profound threat to the basic nature and spirit of America that this nation has ever faced, with the possible exception of the decade leading up to the Civil War a century and a half ago.
Here’s one way of glimpsing this crisis.
In our era, there has been a dangerous shift in the power of various elements in the American system. Over the past decade-plus, in terms of the forces determining the course of our nation:
** The power of greed has increased.
** The power of the lie has increased.
** The power of blind rage has increased.
** The power of the spirit of conflict has increased.
** The power of the lust to dominate has increased.
(I’ve been chronicling these developments for a decade now, and could abundantly document them here. But I am addressing here those readers for whom all these assertions ring true, and do not need them to be substantiated before we can proceed.)
These adverse shifts have already inflicted significant damage on the United States as a civilization, and especially as a polity:
** Our public discourse — our capacity as a nation and a people to discuss issues constructively — has degenerated.
** Plutocracy – the rule of the billionaires and of the mighty corporate system – has gained ground.
** Our ability to use the instruments of government, bequeathed us by our Founders, to navigate our way wisely and constructively through the challenges we face has declined precipitously. (And these unmet challenges includes the potentially catastrophic threat of climate disruption.)
These forms of degradation have called into serious question our ability, as a nation, to maintain a democracy based on those basic values that inspired our founders.
A Rip Van Winkle who woke up now after, say, a quarter-century slumber would be incredulous to witness what happens almost daily now in the American political arena. Of all the possible scenarios one might have envisioned a generation ago, the one that has actually unfolded would be far down toward the bottom end, where the worst-case possibilities dwell.
This is far from American politics as usual. Much that we have seen has been unprecedented in our national history.
** Unprecedented that we have seen a program of torture, coming from the very White House.
** Unprecedented that we have seen a major American party turn their backs on science — and more generally on the norms of responsible ways of knowing — in the face of the most serious alarms being raised by an entire scientific field, from all over the world.
** Unprecedented that even as the American and global economies were on the edge of an abyss, that same major American political party decided that its top priority would be to make a new president fail– even though the failure of the president would inevitably mean the failure of the nation, and suffering for tens of millions of Americans.
The list of shocking developments of the “who would have believed?” variety could easily be expanded.
(For an expansion of the idea that the conduct in recent times of this major American political party — the Republicans — has been unprecedented, see these pieces in the …… pp. )
So much of what we have lately seen is so extraordinary — and so destructive — that hardly any American would have seen it coming. It’s one thing not to have seen it coming, but it’s far more troubling that even now all too few Americans yet recognize the “it” that has come.
And that blindness, too, is part of the problem. This crisis is the product not only of the destructive force that has gained power and that is systematically inflicting great damage on the nation, but also of the failure of the rest of the American body politic to comprehend the gravity of the threat and to respond accordingly.
This two-sidedness of our national crisis — the destructive force and the blindness to it — leads here to the two-sided nature of this book: in part, this book sounds a call to action, a call to battle against this destructive force; but in part also, this book provides a picture of how destructive (and constructive) forces arise and operate in civilized societies, and how some kinds of “blindness” can provide a force of destruction an opening to gain greater power.
The hope behind this book is that an understanding of the deep forces at work in our civilization will fortify our ability to take action to turn back the force that is degrading the prospects for our children and grandchildren.
xxxx The Two-Sided, Asymmetrical Dynamic at the Heart of America’s Crisis xxxx
For years, unusually high percentages of Americans have told pollsters that they feel the nation is “heading” in the wrong direction. These big majorities have certainly been correct in their concern, but one can draw only limited comfort from this widespread recognition that SOMETHING has gone awry.
Many of those people, one may assume, are people whose sense of the “wrongness” of the nation’s direction” includes such things as the supposed threat of “sharia law” being imposed on the nation, or the danger that our nation is speedily heading down the road to socialism, or the travesty of a man illegitimately occupying the presidency because of his having been born in Kenya, or the issue of climate change being engineered through a scientific hoax as a means of assaulting American capitalism, or that a war is being waged against Christmas, etc. etc.
Those people’s concerns — all based on falsehood — will do nothing to move toward the “right direction.” Indeed, these concerns are an important manifestation of the force that’s driving America in the wrong direction. And those people are not the intended audience for this book.
The people who align themselves with the right, and who act politically on the basis of a false picture of the world being peddled by the force that’s taken over the once-conservative Republican Party, are important. Many of them are good people. And America will never be truly healthy until a goodly number of those good people are giving their support to a force that better represents their better angels.
But the necessary transformations will not begin with them. The right-wing system is so rigid and doctrinaire, so well organized to prevent challenges from within, that it will change only under the impact of strong force from beyond its boundaries.
The lack of such a strong force thus far during the years of this crisis points to another profound problem in the American body politic. The grotesque developments on the right are imperiling this nation only because they have arisen in combination with a serious defect on the leftward side of America’s political divide. In this era, what I am calling here “Liberal America” has seriously failed the nation.
The rescuing of America, I will argue, must begin on the liberal side of our broken polity. Making the necessary transformations in Liberal America can provide the impetus to turn around the whole destructive dynamic that is now degrading the nation.
It is, therefore, to my fellow liberals (or progressives, as some prefer) that I wish to speak in this work.
Which brings us to the first iteration of the two-sided dynamic at the heart of America’s present profound national crisis:
** The political right — and its political arm, the Republican Party — has become an extraordinarily destructive force in the American body politic.
** Meanwhile, the political left, taken as a whole — and its political arm, the Democratic Party — has shown extraordinary weakness in the face of the threat posed to the nation by that destructive force.
[NOTE: This is not in any way to deny the passion and hard work of many activists on the liberal side. But if we focus on the overall conduct of the Democratic Party, and of Liberal America generally, in response to the extraordinarily destructiveness of today’s right, what we find has been an almost incomprehensible failure to rise to meet the threat.]
If the big question is, “What has gone wrong in America, and how can it be set right?” this portrayal of the central dynamic of our crisis directs us to ask these big subsidiary questions:
** How are we to understand the rise of this destructiveness on the right? And what will it take to drain away from this force the power to destroy what’s best in America?
** What are the sources of the weakness displayed in our times by Liberal America, and what can change the liberal part of the American body politic into a force capable of fighting and defeating the ugly thing that has taken over the right?
The raison d’être for this book is that I have answers to those questions. And I’ve been aflame with those answers for more than a decade.
xxxx A Crisis of Asymmetry xxxx
It is the right that has become grotesque, as if possessed by a daemonic force of the kind that surfaces in history’s most nightmarish episodes. But it is both sides of our divide that are failing the nation.
But there are not only helpful but also some profoundly unhelpful ways of seeing how both sides (and indeed the entire American cultural system) are implicated in our present crisis.
It is, for example, a complete misunderstanding of our present political dysfunction to see it in terms of the symmetry of “both sides do it.”
What we have is not a pathology of symmetry but one of asymmetry.
Have you heard the one about how we’ve got a problem of “polarization,” with the “extreme right” and the “extreme left” creating our political dysfunction?
Yes, it is true that our politics manifest the brokenness of “polarization,” but it is not at the level of the issues. That is, the problem is not that one side has staked out an extreme position in one direction and the other has taken an equally extreme position in the other direction. In today’s political dynamic, the right has shown that it will not take “yes” for an answer, attacking even proposals that not so long before had been their own.
There is nothing remotely extreme — either in the context of generations of mainstream American policy or in the context of the decisions made by other advanced societies — in the agenda of today’s Democrats. (And I will also be arguing that it is off target to characterize what’s driving the right in terms of its “extremism” on the issues.)
[See …, the opinion piece I published in the Washington Post when I was a candidate for Congress.]
The kind of “polarization” that afflicts the American power system is at a deeper level than the issues. It is with respect to some basic human qualities of the spirit that the two sides have divided, with one side being “all” and other other “none.” The result is that the two sides show imbalance of opposite sorts, and the two sides together lack fundamental areas of overlap.
We have one party (the Republicans), for example, that has insisted on making a fight over EVERYTHING, even when the good of the nation desperately needed for the two sides to work together for the public good. And meanwhile, the other party (the Democrats) has been reluctant to fight over much of ANYTHING, even when the protection of the nation required it to stand and fight.
It is polarization at that level — not at some parallel level of “extremism,” or “unwillingness to compromise,” or indifference to the general good — that has allowed a force of brokenness to attack the foundations of American civilization with a wrecking ball.
[I am NOT maintaining, it should be noted, that there is anything grand about today’s Democratic Party. The rise to prominence of unusually “bad guys,” does not, unfortunately, imply the rise on the other side of especially “good guys.” What I would say about the Democratic Party is that — other than in its weakness and blindness and weakness in dealing with this thing that has arisen on the right — it is a NORMAL major American political party. It is the usual mixture of constructive and self-serving that, over the course of American history, has sufficed for a record of national progress that constitutes one of civilization’s more positive stories.]
If the “both sides do it” fallacy comes from the precinct of those mild liberals eager to demonstrate their “fairness” and to be “nice” to the other side, there’s another kind of error of “symmetry” one hears from the more disaffected further to the left. This is the “not a dime’s worth of difference” school of thought. According to this view, the two sides are both so fully corrupt, it makes no sense to differentiate them. Both are feeding out of the same plutocratic troughs, it is said, and some even go so far as to say that the apparent conflicts between the major parties are staged –like some professional wrestling bout — and the two sides are actually in cahoots.
Without going into any depth here in refuting this view, I will just note that while it is true that some of the problems involved in our crisis — such as the role of big money — are not confined to one side, the situation is not identical on both sides. Where the political battles occur, without exception it is always the Republicans who are pushing things in the direction of the interests of the mightiest and the richest, and the Democrats who are pushing toward the interests of the average citizen.
And as for the idea of “staged” battles, to believe that is to believe not only that the actors in our political arena are engaged in a kind of deception that, to my knowledge, would be unprecedented in a liberal democracy, but also that the Democrats have been willing participants in a drama that regularly makes them look weak and ineffectual and results in their being stripped of their power and thrown out of office.
The bleeding across the divide of some of our corruptive tendencies is real, but it is a distraction from the real drama of our times.
So also is a third fallacy I’ve encountered frequently over the past decade: the idea that all the ills we see now in our power system have been around throughout the history of the nation, or at least for generations.
At some level, that is true. But just as we need to look at the asymmetry rather than the symmetry to understand what’s important in this crisis, so also do we need to look at the discontinuities rather than the continuities.
While it is true that we can find the elements of plutocracy, racism, militarism, propaganda, divisiveness, etc. marbled throughout our history, what’s important for us to understand now is how something new has coalesced in the American power system that has dangerously shifted the balance of power between constructive and destructive elements.
Many things are true of our moment in history. I do not claim that this “two-sided dynamic” captures everything worth our knowing. My claim, rather, is that this dynamic points us to the heart of this crisis, one of the most dangerous in our nation’s history.
Even if our political system were as healthy as it has ever been, we — as Americans, and as part of humankind on this planet — would be facing enormous challenges, with the brightness or dimness of our future in doubt.
But with this dynamic working to give the worst elements in our national system the power to determine our nation’s destiny, the most urgent task facing us is to address this particular part of the large, elaborately complex picture of the myriad forces at work in our civilization.
[NOTE: When I speak of the nightmares toward which we may be heading, I do not mean to say that the worst-case scenario is the most probable outcome. What I would claim, rather, is that the likelihood of such outcomes is large enough that prudence and responsibility require us to exert ourselves to prevent it.]
xxxx The Extraordinary Pattern of Destructiveness in Today’s Republican Party xxxx
It’s time, as a necessary step in seeing more clearly WHAT WE ARE UP AGAINST, to put some flesh on the assertion that an extraordinarily destructive force has taken over the right.
We tend to see the world in bits and pieces. But, by virtue of the amazingly dense web of causes and effects, our world is one in which — to exaggerate only slightly — everything is connected to everything else. It has been my life’s work to “see things whole,” i.e. to attempt to discern the patterns in the complex world in which we live. And since my early twenties (which is some forty-five years ago), I have been particularly interested in those patterns that reveal the forces that we — as Americans and as humankind — need to contain if we are to have a better world.
Here are some of the patterns that emerge from a decade-long study of the force that has taken over the once-respectable Republican Party.
In the conduct of the Republican Party, over the past more than a decade, the picture that emerges is of
A force that’s insatiable in its lust for power and wealth.
Even though we have the greatest income inequality that we’ve had in living memory, this force works continually to widen that gap still further. All their budgetary proposals take from average Americans to give more to those who already have the most. As they have protected those who have tripled their share of our national income, they have cut food stamps to the most vulnerable Americans at a time when jobs are scarce and even the middle class is struggling.
In the realm of political power, this force has given us a Supreme Court that’s handed down that disgraceful decision in CITIZENS UNITED, making it still easier for the nation’s widening inequalities of wealth to be translated into inequalities of political power. With our government put up for auction, “All men are created equal” gets swamped by the Almighty Dollar. The Republicans have been working to turn our government from one “by the people” into one dominated by those giant so-called “persons” that make up the corporate world.
A force that makes a fight over everything.
When Barack Obama came to the presidency with the intent to restore cooperation to our political system, he reached out by proposing Republican ideas as solutions to important national problems. But the Republicans have turned politics into a form of warfare, so insistent upon conflict that they fought even against their own ideas.
What Republicans had once proposed as cap and trade, now they denounced as socialism. The idea of an individual mandate for health insurance – an idea originally put forward by Republicans in the Senate — they now declared to be unconstitutional. And once it was picked up by the Democrats, a sensible idea Republicans had originally conceived and embraced became mischaracterized as “death panels.”
A force that is consistently dishonest.
It lied us into the Iraq war. It lied about torture. It lied about where the Democratic president was born. Lied about their (lack of interest) in getting Americans back to work in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Lied about their caring about the deficit. About Benghazi. About the IRS “scandal.” A list that could go on for pages.
These are not a random set of patterns. Historically, there is a name that we in Western civilization have traditionally given to something that:
• Preys upon the vulnerable.
Think food stamps, voter ID, torture, voter suppression.
• Divides people against each other.
In the deepest recession in generations, this force has proved unwilling to address the issue of jobs, on which Americans are agreed, and focuses us instead on abortion on which, as the Republicans well know, our divisions have proved deep and irreconcilable.
• Tramples on hard-won structures of justice and good order.
After giving us a president who usurped powers denied by the Constitution, this force then manifested itself in an opposition party that violated tradition in its use of the filibuster to grab power, that cast aside long-standing political norms on how the debt-ceiling is handled, that subverted the foundations of our democracy by delegitimizing the president and disenfranchising voters.
• Sacrifices the greater good for selfish advantage (well beyond the usual, flawed norm of democratic politics).
As the disruption of the climate becomes ever more visibly a threat to the future of our children and even of the health of life on earth, this force has embracing the spirit of the Koch Brothers, rather than the warnings of 97 percent of scientists who know the most about the earth’s climate system, disabling our nation from dealing responsibly to what may be the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced.
• Deceives and manipulates in order to exploit those that support it.
It persuades millions of Americans to be one-issue voters – on abortion, or on the gun issue – distracting them with matters that in no way impede the ability of this force to rob Americans of their birthright as citizens in a democratic society. It pretends to be conservative, while violating our traditions as no conservative would. It pretends to be patriotic while willingly damaging the nation for partisan advantage.
It is necessary to put the pieces together and see the phenomenon whole.
Each of these categories of action represents a pattern: in each case, dozens or even hundreds of facts could be adduced to reveal what in the law is called a consistent pattern of conduct.
But then there is the important next step: to see the pattern that is formed by this set of patterns. What do all these reprehensible tendencies have in common?
Even more important, for getting to the heart of the challenge that we face, as Americans, there is the question: What is it that expresses itself in all these ways?
(To which might be added the question: Why is this question not at the center of our national discourse, or even, really, asked at all?)
xxxx America’s Compromised Immune System xxxx
In the body, it is a key part of the job of our immune system that it recognize what is foreign to our bodies and then work to disable it from doing us harm.
In a healthy democratic polity, the same thing applies. That so much of the conduct of the Republican Party has been unprecedented suggests that something foreign to the body politic has arisen– either something alien, or something breaking out of its customary bounds. That should trigger an alarm that mobilizes elements from the rest of the system to protect the integrity and health of the whole.
The Founders of our American system attempted to set up an “immune system” that would work to defend the integrity of the nation from the attack of a “foreign” element of this sort. The framers of our Constitution were well aware of the ways that a corrupting and destructive power might arise to subvert the governmental structure of liberty and self-government that they’d established. So they set up a system in which the means exist to mobilize the rest of the body politic — the other actors within the power system, the free press disseminating the wider public, and the public itself, armed with knowledge about the threat — to contain and remove a destructive power that might arise.
But instead, much of America has dealt with the extraordinary as if it were normal.
When, in 2012, two prominent and essentially centrist political analysts – Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution – wrote about the Republican Party as an “outlier” in American politics, it was regarded by many as a kind of breakthrough. Ornstein and Mann presented their idea in a book, IT’S WORSE THAN YOU THINK, and more briefly in a Washington Post column, where this passage appears:
[QUOTE: We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.]
It was — in political terms — an important statement, but it is also disturbing that it needed to be said at all let alone that it would be big news that they said it. Disturbing also that our national discourse has nonetheless continued to grant this Republican Party the status of acceptability, even respectability, as if it were a normal political party, when it has clearly become something quite abnormal.
But even so, the word “outlier” hardly does justice to the unprecedented and monstrous nature of what the Republican Party has become. It’s actually a good deal worse than the authors of “It’s Worse than You Think” think.
But the intellectual proclivities in Liberal America apparently prevent people from seeing clearly the nature of what we are up against.
Many don’t see this force because they take in the picture only piece by piece, day by day, issue by issue, news item by news item. If there were something coherent and systemic operating — some “It” that lies behind the many manifestations — it would not become visible through this casual piecemeal picture.
Others, reaching for some organizing generalization, see the problem on the right in terms of how “far right” the Republican Party has moved, how it has become more “extreme,” and dominated by “ultra-conservatives.” But this misses the mark as well: there is nothing truly conservative about today’s Republican Party, and that the real nature of the battle is not really at the level of right-vs.-left.
If “Mr. Conservative” of an earlier era were alive today — Senator Barry Goldwater, whose most famous quotation was a kind of defense of “extremism” — he would feel little kinship with this party: he was a man of integrity, while this party has none.
At a greater level of integration, many thoughtful members of Liberal America hold to the idea that what this crisis is about is “plutocracy,” or “money in politics,” or “corporate takeover” of our government.
Surely, this points to an important dimension of the problem. But there’s a good deal more to the picture than this diagnosis can cover.
This force also has given us torture, given us also a level of dishonesty extraordinary even by the usual standards of politics, a political dynamic in which conflict is consistently chosen over cooperation, and an unprecedented indifference to the public good.
America had an age of plutocracy before – in the late 19th century – and for all its faults and injustices, it was not so pervasively destructive as what now animates the Republican Party.
(See Chapter 2 for discussion of what an unusually “pure case” today’s Republican Party presents, and what an unusual opportunity that provides to understand how destructive forces operate in civilized societies.)
Something bigger and deeper is involved. It is of vital importance that we see that “something,” even if that requires a non-trivial expansion of our worldview.
It is said in baseball that “you can’t hit what you can’t see.” As we have here something that has itself been relentlessly on the attack, hitting at almost everything within reach, it is essential for our future that we are able to hit back. And to do that effectively, we have to be able to see what it is we are up against.
xxxx A Time for the Building of Bridges, and a Time for the Waging of Battle
I had an experience recently at a local Virginia radio station on which I’ve appeared for more than twenty years to discuss politics and other matters. One of the staff members, who supports the Republican Party, came into the studio after a program in which I had denounced the fraud of the “voter fraud” issue: Republican governments in states around the nation have enacted “Voter ID” laws whose ostensible purpose is prevent certain kinds of voter fraud; but every study shows such kinds of fraud to be so rare as to be almost non-existent. It could hardly be clearer that the real purpose is to effectively disenfranchise certain categories of voters that tend to vote against Republicans.
This staff member of the radio station challenged me with the question: would I object if it was Democrats and not Republicans enacting and benefitting from them? I replied along the lines of the old song, “If you don’t know me by now” — in other words, after all these years I would have hoped that he’d know that my basic commitment is to the principles and values I believe in, and that partisanship does not govern my positions. He replied that I am “the most partisan person” he knows, and cited as proof my repeatedly harsh criticisms of the Republican Party of these times.
I think it worth sharing with the intended, more liberal audience for this book how I replied to him: my engaging in “partisan” politics in recent times (as the Democratic nominee for Congress from my overwhelmingly Republican rural district in Virginia) was an episode of but a few years duration. What has been enduring for nearly half a century is my work in understanding and combatting the destructive forces operating in civilized societies. It was in THAT role, I insisted, that I’ve been raising the alarm about what today’s Republican Party has become.
(He was not only unswayed by this rejoinder, but gave no evidence of its even having registered as an idea. I imagine that it served his needs better to dismiss me as a partisan than to confront even the possibility that honest intellectual inquiry might undercut his political assumptions. But I also imagined it possible that his mental map includes no place for someone whose calling and dedication are what I claimed mine to be.)
But I expect that it is not just committed Republicans — and I say this from my years of experience of communicating with mostly liberal audiences about these issues — who will feel uneasy about my harsh characterization of today’s Republican Party. For reasons we will be exploring subsequently, many liberals, upon encountering such a portrait as I just painted above, might wonder if I’m someone who, as a matter of character, gravitates toward conflict– someone inclined to demonize opponents and contribute to political polarization.
My history shows that’s not who I am. In .., I offer a brief account of that history of how, during the 1980s and 1990s, I consistently sought to build bridges, find common ground, and seek a higher wisdom that combines the half-truths held on both sides of our political and moral divides.
But something has changed since then, and it is not I.
In a world that confronts us with many different kinds of challenges, we need more than one tool in our toolbox, more than one way of dealing with our world. There is a time for bridge-building, and there is a time for waging battle.
Wisdom lies not in consistency of approach no matter what, but in the judgment to know when to make peace and when to press the battle.
That which has now arisen on the right only grows stronger — and thus able to wreak more destruction –from the misguided liberal insistence on being “nice” to people swept up in a force of enmity, and on maintaining a “peace” when there is no peace and no peace is possible until this force is defeated.
Liberalism has injured the nation by too often emulating the spirit of Neville Chamberlain when we are up against something that should be confronted in the spirit of Winston Churchill.
Which brings us to the last piece of my assurance that I am not writing here as a partisan: this analysis of our crisis is a critique not only of the “other” in some “Us-vs.-Them” dynamic, but also of the “Us.”
The pathology that jeopardizes the integrity of the United States as a civilized society is not located only on the right, but indeed pervades the entire body politic. (Indeed, as will be discussed in Chapter Eight, even though this crisis is manifest in the political realm, the real roots of this crisis are inseparable from the state of the American culture as a whole.)
xxxx Not Our Finest Hour: Why Is Liberal America Falling So Far Short? xxxx
I said earlier that it is not the ugliness on the right but the failings of Liberal America that I am most eager to engage here. It is to set the stage for that engagement that I’ve presented the portrait of the destructive force on the right. Time now to look more closely at how Liberal America has failed in the face of this crisis to live up to American ideals.
America has confronted kindred battles before, and on those occasions we Americans regard as expressions and embodiments of our finest American ideals, great American leaders have shown the way.
Compare how Liberal America is dealing with this destructive force with what Americans, through their greatest leaders, have done in their finest hours: the nation’s founding, the Civil War, and the World War against fascism.
In all three crises, the leaders we regard as heroes 1) understood the evil they were up against, 2) called it out, and 3) fought for values they held sacred.
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE spends most of its words decrying King George III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” which they saw as working toward “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” The document ended by declaring such a tyrant “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” A just government, our Founders declared, requires “the consent of the governed.” They argued this on the basis of the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
They understood that declaring these rights would require them to fight, which is why they conclude the document by mutually pledging “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
We see the same willingness to fight for sacred values in ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Lincoln rose to the presidency on his opposition to slavery. He framed that opposition in terms of the same values on this basis of which our Founders had declared independence: that “all men are created equal,” and that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”
Lincoln saw the conflict over slavery in fundamentally moral terms: “Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature — opposition to it, in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism.” “If slavery is not wrong,” Lincoln said, “nothing is wrong.”
Lincoln did not want war. But to keep slavery from expanding — and to preserve the Union — he was ready, if necessary, to fight.
If Abraham Lincoln is ranked by historians as our greatest president, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT is ranked second. FDR presided over two great national crises: the Great Depression and World War II. Running for a second term, FDR called out “the forces of selfishness and of lust for power.” In his State of the Union speech after America’s entry into the Second World War, FDR characterized the conflict in terms that Lincoln and the Founders would have recognized: “We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God.” The other side, he said, is fighting to to destroy “this deep belief and create a world… of tyranny and cruelty and serfdom.”
President Roosevelt shrank from neither battle: “I welcome their hatred” he said of anti-democratic forces at home. And against the forces of cruel fascism abroad, he brought the power of the United States to bear as quickly as public opinion and events would allow.
See the evil. Call it out. Press the battle. That’s what America’s heroes have done.
But that theme has been missing, or woefully weak, with President Obama [LINK: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andy-schmookler/-3-calling-out-the-republ_b_5859086.html] and in Liberal America more generally, even though the same basic values are at stake today as in those earlier crises.
The forms of “the consent of the governed” remain. But never in U.S. history have so many been deceived about the true nature of the political force they are supporting. Government based on misinformed consent can hardly be just.
The idea of equality remains, but the Republican Party has labored – the CITIZENS UNITED decision being their most obvious success — to widen inequality of power in our supposedly democratic process. In countless ways, the political force that has arisen on the right has moved this nation toward tyranny and cruelty and serfdom.
Why has Liberal America in these times shown so little of the spirit of America’s heroic forebears?
xxxx The Force Is Not With Us: We Identify with Our Fantasy Heroes. Why Don’t We Emulate Them? xxxx
We can get a clue to the answer to that question by examining the contrast between what we happily enact variously in our fantasy lives and what — though facing essentially the same situation as our fantasy heroes — we fail to do in our contemporary American reality.
Again and again, our popular stories and mythology take us vicariously and gratifyingly through the process of confronting a destructive force. Consider three of the most salient cultural narratives of our time: the films AVATAR, STAR WARS, and LORD OF THE RINGS.
When we watch these films, our identification with our heroes puts us through our paces– evoking the pain and outrage of seeing injustice done and sacred things destroyed, and instilling in our hearts the will to fight the necessary battle to prevail over evil and set things right.
So we all KNOW how to respond to a force like the one that faces us now in America. We know, because we make heroes of Sully in AVATAR, of Luke in STAR WARS, and of Frodo in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. What they do is what we know that someone in that situation SHOULD do.
** The film AVATAR, for example, seen by many millions of us, shows us a rapacious and brutal force. It is a kind of military/industrial complex, ruthless in its willingness to violate the sacred web of life in order to enrich itself. We follow our protagonist, Sully, in switching our allegiance to an entirely different culture of human-like creatures imbued with reverence for the living world that sustains them. We participate in their pain and rage at the despoliation of that world. At the film’s inevitable climax, we identify passionately with the determination of our hero and his companions to fight and win the battle between these two approaches to life. It’s a battle we understand as one of good against evil, fought to protect what is sacred from still further plunder.
** The STAR WARS films have permeated American culture. From the beginning of the series, we were presented with a stark contrast between our underdog individualistic heroes, immersed in the stuff of life, and the dominating, life-denying Empire ruled from the “Death Star.” We feel outrage when the Death Star brutally murders an entire living planet, causing (as the wise Obe Wan Kanobi discerns) “a disturbance in the Force.” In STAR WARS, as in AVATAR, we eagerly follow the movement toward that inevitable climax, the all-out battle between the forces of good and evil. And we are thrilled when Luke – trusting “the Force” – threads his bomb into the core of the Death Star, using the explosive force of the Death Star’s own power source to destroy it.
** In THE LORD OF THE RINGS saga, the simple courage and integrity of Frodo Baggins helps save the world from another representation of the force of evil. We are gratified as our stalwart heroes prevail in the climactic battle against Sauron and the forces of Mordor, forces for which there is no value beyond the lust for power. And it is with relief and deep satisfaction that – once the battle has been won, and with the cauldrons of war-making and dominance no longer threatening to burn up our world — we return to the realm of the Hobbits, a world green with life and well-ordered by human decency and the web of human relationships.
In those imagined worlds, we are capable of perceiving the evil force before our eyes, and responding emotionally with the requisite outrage at the despoliation of the sacred and with determination to protect it by fighting and winning the necessary battle.
But in the real world, in our times, we in Liberal America have acted not at all like our heroes, even though we are in the same basic position as they: facing an evil force that threatens our most sacred values.
** In the imagined world of AVATAR, the destruction is wrought in the quest of the mineral unobtanium, which nicely captures an essential truth about the spirit that has captured today’s Republican Party: it is a spirit for which any sense of “enough” is simply unobtainable when it comes to amassing wealth. Nowhere is this more dramatically demonstrated than with the urgent issue of climate change, where the Republican Party has made it party dogma to deny what 97 percent of climate scientists say is a serious, potentially catastrophic threat that must be addressed, and has consistently blocked our nation’s ability to respond to the challenge. Like the brutal and greedy system in AVATAR — a system willing to destroy the living system of that planet for its own greater enrichment — the Republican Party willingly collaborates with the world’s richest corporations, seeking to protect their short-term profits even at the cost of undermining the integrity of the earth’s biosphere on which we, our children, and our grandchildren depend for our survival.
An evil force is right before our eyes. But Liberal America has failed to risen up powerfully, like Sully, to lead the battle to protect sacred values?
** Like the Empire in the STAR WARS films, today’s Republican Party manifests an ugly (and often sadistic) lust for power. It gave us a presidency that launched a war of choice to extend the hegemony of “the world’s one remaining superpower (and that brought the shame of torture to the highest levels of American government). Even though it was already legally wielding the greatest power on earth, that presidency arrogated still more powers to itself, with unprecedented usurpations of powers contrary to the Constitution, threatening the traditional American systems of checks and balances. Then, when cast from power, this Party gave us an opposition that, in an unprecedented strategy for regaining power for itself, made its top priority to make the president from the other party fail. This, despite the nation’s being beset by several national crises, including the economy teetering on the edge of an abyss, and despite the inescapable reality that if the president failed the nation too would fail, and tens of millions of Americans would suffer.
The spirit of the Death Star is visible before us. But Liberal America not acted like Luke.
** As with the depiction of the forces of evil in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, likewise in America in our times we can see operating a force that seduces and corrupts ordinary people. We can see a kind of “ring” operating through our political and economic systems, bringing out the worst in those under its sway. With their ambition’s inflamed, people decent in their private lives act to further indecent policies. As in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, an insidious force tricks a great many of our fellow citizens into thinking they are serving the good while unwittingly they are serving the opposite–turning the democratic political process into a form of warfare and national policy into an instrument of injustice, abetting a force inimical to their own real interests and deepest values.
To combat this insidious, deceptive force, how many in Liberal America have been willing, like Frodo, to leave our comfortable Hobbit-like niches and rise to the urgent challenge of our dangerous moment?
Yes, we are in basically the same situation as our heroes, but our side in this battle is not imitating their heroic defense of the good we love in our world. Indeed, the battle has been nearly one-sided.
Which returns us to the question of why the weakness. But this time, with a clue:
While the answer has many parts, a central part of it lies in the realm of beliefs– i.e. in the worldview of liberal/intellectual America.
In the fantasy worlds of the movies, we willingly suspend our disbelief in such ancient notions as “the battle between good and evil.”
But when we look at the real world around us, our belief system tells us there is no such thing as an “evil force.” That’s a primitive notion, our sophisticated rational worldview tells us.
The old dictum from the baseball world was cited earlier: You can’t hit what you can’t see. To which I would now add: YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT YOU DON’T BELIEVE CAN EXIST.
xxxx Beliefs that Make Liberal America Weak: Barriers to the Source of Moral and Spiritual Passions xxxx
The issue in America today is this: will constructive or destructive, life-serving or life-degrading forces prevail in shaping this nation’s future?
One cannot say that the battle to decide this question has been going well. And at one level it is not hard to see why: the side of the destructive force is relentlessly pressing the battle while the force that must oppose it shrinks from it.
Indeed, the drama of our times is all too well captured by the line from Yeats: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with a passionate intensity.”
Why this mismatch between the people on the right, inflamed with an insistence on pressing the battle – an insistence that manifests itself, for example, in the repeal of Obamacare more than fifty times – while their counterparts in Liberal America show little appetite for the battle?
Let me begin an answer to that question by noting that, while this battle in America today is being fought in the political arena, the heart of it goes deeper than politics. It is at the moral and spiritual level. The issue in America today is this: will constructive or destructive, life-serving or life-degrading forces prevail in shaping this nation’s future?
Or, as that framing of the issue suggests, in the terms of olden times, the struggle in America today is a “battle between good and evil.” In a battle of this sort, the intensity of the combatants depends on their access to that place in the core of our humanity from which arise our moral and spiritual passions.
The force that has taken over the right has acted as if it recognized fully that power in our democracy can be gained through the “passionate intensity” of people who believe see themselves to be engaged in the battle of good against evil. It has worked assiduously to set aflame millions of people on the right with the determination to defend their sacred values.
Unfortunately, their passionate intensity has been evoked and directed by lies. The picture of the world they have been sold is almost completely false, and the threats against which they have been mobilized to fight are bogus.
But it is among those who have been seduced by the “worst” of America’s spirits that this “passionate intensity” is to be found.
The last time America faced a crisis of a kindred sort — in the decade leading up to the Civil War — the counterpart of Liberal America eventually rose to the occasion. It was moral and spiritual passion that animated leaders in the rise of the Union against the over-reaching dominance of the Slave Power– leaders like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln. But so far, this time around, nothing has lit a fire in Liberal America like that lit by UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. And Liberal America has not yet raised up a leader like Abraham Lincoln, with moral and spiritual passion deeply integrated into his humanity– passions that fortified his resolve that there was only so far he would bend to keep the peace, but no further.
This change — this weakening — is, I believe, the consequence of an intellectual evolution, a change in worldview from one in which the categories of traditional religion still exerted a dominant influence over how liberal-minded people, generally, conceived of their world to one where that influence had withered away and been replaced by ideas arrived at through reason applied to evidence.
(Let me declare immediately that I am committed to that rational and empirical path of knowledge. What I will try to show in this book is that if one follows that path far enough, one arrives at a different worldview from the one that has crippled Liberal America in this crisis.)
Years of discussing such matters as this with liberal audiences has shown me that much of Liberal America rejects the idea of there being any such thing as “the battle between good and evil.”
To believe in any such “battle,” it would be necessary first to believe in the reality of value. But many operate under the influence of ideas that, over the past century or more, have become embedded in the ethos of rational, intellectual culture. In this worldview, what is real is “objective,” and since values are not to be found “out there” in our universe, they are not really real. Because values are “subjective,” according to this view, they are but matters of opinion. (“What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn’t what I would have done,” a college student of mine once said, “but what they did made sense within their value system, and so it was right for them.”)
For those who see things this way, nothing can therefore be REALLY good or not good, better or worse. Everything just IS, in a value-free reality, with everyone free to decide for themselves what they like based on their opinions and preferences.
Imagine a subculture dominated by a worldview in which “value” is not considered really real – just a matter of opinion, lacking objective validity – and in which the idea of profound “spiritual” forces is considered an antiquated fantasy. And then imagine that subculture is assaulted by a force that, under the guise of being politically “conservative,” is really waging a battle that is fundamentally moral and spiritual in nature.
One can readily imagine how much intensity of moral and spiritual passion people under the influence of such a worldview would bring to a battle such as what we face in our times (or such as was faced by our heroes Sully, Luke, and Frodo).
But, such people will argue, that is the cost of the intellectual integrity– the cost of pursuing truth by rational and empirical means. According to this view, although the false certainties provided by religion can inflame people, we have moved beyond such false certainties into a better-founded set of beliefs. The loss of that flame is the cost of seeing things as they truly are.
But I will argue that these beliefs are not only a source of weakness, but are also mistaken. And for people in our situation, dangerously mistaken.
In the remainder of this book, I will show how many of these old categories that were formerly provided on the basis of the authority of religious doctrine can be meaningfully acquired through the epistemology of applying reason to the evidence. And by “evidence,” I mean not only of our times, but also the evidence of the evolution of life on earth, the evolution of social evolution from the dawn of civilization, and the patterns moving through the American civilization leading up to the drama in which we are participating today.
It is my belief — indeed, it is my personal experience — that the (secular) understanding thus reached can afford a deep connection with the source of those moral and spiritual passions by which the “best” might gain that passionate intensity to turn back the force that now endangers everything we hold dear.
xxxx Is Liberal America Capable of Making the Necessary Changes? xxxx
Time now for a second iteration of that central dynamic that underlies the American crisis of our times:
** The once-respectable Republican Party has become the instrument of something that warrants being called an “evil force.”
** Liberal America has been rendered incapable of protecting the nation from this threat by a defect in its way of understanding, and therefore seeing, the world.
That formulation raises the question: What if the kindling of the necessary fire in Liberal America requires a significant change in the world view — i.e. in the interconnected set of big ideas — that now predominates in the liberal side of the American culture?
If that’s what’s needed, how good would our chances be? Would the people of Liberal America be able — would they be willing — to do the work required to make the necessary changes?
Most people, it seems, abandon the practice of examining their fundamental ideas when they enter adulthood. As children, we tend to accept the worldview of those upon whom we depend and from whom we are learning the basics of what it means to be a human being and member of a culture. Then, in youth, as we individuate — at least in our middle-class, democratic, Anglo-Saxon-based culture — that worldview is subjected to scrutiny, and alternatives are brought forward for consideration. But when the life-cycle brings adult status — with, perhaps, graduation from college, career, marriage, family — even most of those with active minds settle into a set of basic beliefs that are set up on a mental shelf to sit unmolested.
While the passage of years and then decades may bring a slow evolution of outlook, these basic ideas tend to remain intact– at least, so long as the adult life is basically working all right for the person. For most people, it is only when that life hits a time of major crisis that significant adjustment of fundamental ideas becomes possible. Only when the existing framework of the life no longer seems to afford acceptable guarantees does the the door to the consideration of possible new frameworks swing open.
A major crisis of that kind now confronts us in America today, as a nation/society/civilization. The status quo is not working. In the absence of some significant shift, there is a strong chance that we are on course for a nightmarish future — maybe nightmares of a kind of which history affords so many examples (but from which most of us Americans have been thoroughly protected), and maybe nightmares of a kind for which there are not historical precedents.
Will this crisis spark in us the necessary motivation to look deeply into what in our present framework needs to change?
This crisis, it must be noted, is a collective one, not a personal one. That may be fortunate for us individually, but unfortunate for our nation’s destiny. Although many of us are unhappy to see such ugliness and dysfunction displayed almost daily on our national stage, this grotesque drama does not now greatly impact our own individual lives. So, unlike someone whose personal life is on the rocks, we have the option of ignoring the gravity of the crisis, and evading the challenge of making fundamental changes in our ways.
We are not compelled to look. We can pretend it is not there.
Another factor compounds this challenge of galvanizing the motivational force for Liberal America to make the necessary transformations: for us to perceive the gravity of this crisis requires us to look down the road into the future toward which our present course is threatening to take us. For most of us, the immediate impact on ourselves of the current pathology is not enough to raise our alarm. We can be like the man in the joke who, while falling off a hundred-floor skyscraper, is asked as he passes the 50th floor how he is doing, and says, “So far, so good.”
Which then leads to the question: In the face of this crisis — in which the stakes could not be higher, but from which many of us are not suffering directly — how many would be willing, in order to turn our collective future away from the nightmares, to do the necessary work required to make the necessary changes in ourselves? How many have the degree of motivation required to address the sources of our weakness at a time when the nation needs for us to be strong enough to win an essential battle?
It is change at that level that this book will offer. And it is to those who are game to try out a new way of understanding the human world at a deep level that this work is addressed.
xxxx An Integrative Vision xxxx
In the history of our civilization, several important concepts were introduced into our conceptual framework through the worldview of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. It was religion that told us what was of value, and why; what is good and what is not, and why; how the world came to be a battlefield in which forces of good and evil contend with each other; how there is a dimension in our world where “spirit” (or “spirits”) dwell.
Over the course of several centuries, as a more scientific (empirical and logical) approach to knowledge arose in the West, for an important segment of the population of the Western world (including of course the United States), the dominance of the religious framework began to recede.
As with all such transformations of consciousness, the changes of the transformation of approach did not all manifest themselves overnight.
[NOTE: An illustration of how such a “lag time” operates in the transformation of consciousness is provided by the founding of the American Republic. America’s Founders in the late 18th century did not immediately realize (in both senses of the word) all the implications of their radical new liberal and democratic vision of human society– i.e. that vision according to which “All men are created equal,” and government derives its just powers from “the consent of the governed.” In the beginning, the system our founders created restricted the franchise to white men of property, and continued the institution of slavery. But over time, the implications of the new democratic premises imposed themselves, moving the nation toward completing the original “revolution” of thought and values: the franchise was gradually extended to groups originally excluded; Lincoln used “All men are created equal” to attack the moral foundations of slavery; the “Establishment clause” in the first amendment to the Constitution was seen to imply government neutrality not only between religions but between religion and non-religion, etc.]
So it has been with the rise of the new more secular and rational ways of knowing.
With the passage of the generations in America, the residual power of major religious categories (like “good and evil”) continued even among people whose orientation was becoming increasingly “secular.” But at the same time, it diminished over time. I do not know it as a fact, but it is my impression that, over the past half century, the “lag time” regarding the implications the abandonment of the religious framework has more or less expired in much of that segment of the American secular population. In other words, the strength of the categories of thought that religion had installed in people’s understanding has greatly diminished. Many people no longer have an understanding of the world that establishes a solid and prominent place in their thinking for such things as good an evil.
But many of the important vacancies thus created in people’s conceptual framework is unnecessary. Just because it was religion that formerly provided the pathway for people to find a vital reality to ideas of “good” and “evil” does not mean that no other pathways can be found. Leaving behind millennia of established ways of reaching important conclusions may leave a vacuum in a (sub)culture, but that vacuum may represent not a permanent loss but just a new challenge: how can kindred important conclusions be reached along the newly-adopted path.
In Part II, I will attempt to demonstrate that the secular, rational, empirical approach to knowledge can be used to establish the reality of many of those categories.
As indicated before, this will include establishing the reality of “value,” and of a dynamic in human affairs that warrants being called “the battle between good and evil.” (I will also venture to describe a phenomenon that might reasonably be called “spirit” that operates in our world.) For the present political purposes — concerning the crisis in America today — I will be focusing on the reality of a phenomenon that warrants being called an “evil force.” But my ambition here goes well beyond that.
Even if there were no immediate and urgent crisis facing us as a nation, I would feel impelled to share, before I go to my grave, this “integrative vision” of how the human world works. I do not make promises lightly — in nearly sixty-nine years, I’ve never broken a promise — so it is with careful consideration that I hereby promise that I will shortly unfold here an evolutionary perspective on the human story that will provide answers that make at least a good contribution toward answering these questions:
1) What is “the good,” what makes “the good” real, and what makes “the good” good?
2) What is the nature of “evil,” what is its source, and how does it operate in the world?
3) Why has human history contained so much torment and destructiveness?
4) What does the destructiveness in human history reveal — or not reveal — about basic human nature?
5) What do these ways of understanding the nature and workings of evil imply for the destiny of the human creature, for the species that stepped out of the niche in which it evolved biologically into the development — unprecedented in the history of life on this planet — of a non-biologically determined form of life (i.e. into civilization)?
6) How should we understand the central challenge that faces humankind (and that faces the system of life on earth from which our species arose)?
But before unfolding that “integrative vision, let me begin with a clarification of what our quarry is for the immediate purposes of addressing our national crisis. That means starting with a description/definition of the idea of an “evil force” — an idea which I know from long experience that a great many in Liberal America reject as a primitive idea to which nothing real in our world corresponds.
I will proceed now to the larger picture — beyond our immediate national crisis — to explore not only how such a phenomenon DOES exist, but also how it CAN exist.
Ideas about our crisis will be interwoven with that larger picture, but it will be in Part III that what’s gone wrong in America, and how it can be set right, will again become the central focus.
And there the issue at hand will be how to fight against this “evil force” and defeat it.