Following the now-famed Women’s March on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, speculation mounted about whether we were seeing a real “movement” or simply a “moment” of reaction from an outraged electorate. Since that day, there’s been no dearth of citizens speaking up, in town-halls, airports and on city streets. People who never imagined themselves “protestors” have seized the reigns of citizenship suggesting that surely something is galvanizing America. But the question is an important one, does this yet qualify as a movement?
The Civil Rights movement has arguably been America’s most powerful testament to the power of citizenship in action, redefining the politics and consciousness of our deeply divided country in the 1960s. Unlike the civil rights movement that stood for values, (peace, de-segregation and an un-self-righteous faith in the intrinsic value of all Americans), the protests in recent weeks since Trumps election have largely been defined by an “anti-Trump” sentiment. As one among tens of thousands of women at the Women’s March in Oakland, I witnessed impassioned Americans filled with raw conviction, clearly seeking to take a stand. But the mobilization as a whole seemed to lack coherent leadership, values and a message. There was definitely something there, no doubt, but it felt young, like we were cutting our eye-teeth — not what I would call a movement. As the pundits have ventured, I would call upon us to see that we are in a moment – but an important one. A defining moment.
Webster’s describes defining moment as “the time that shows very clearly what something is really about. A time to determine or identify essential qualities or meaning.” Are the essential qualities of what we are about our disdain for Donald Trump, or is there not more? Perhaps this moment invites us (especially white liberals) not just to act, but also to take pause, to reflect, to come together, process our rage, helplessness and grief and, just as important, take stock of what went wrong.
Make no mistake, there is no doubt that work needs to be done — at indivisible meetings, helping immigrants, attending protests — but just as important is the invitation progressive Americans have been given to redefine their citizenship. Theologian and Seminary Professor Walter Brueggeman wrote in his short, but powerful book, Hope Within History, about the importance of this kind of communal reckoning. He writes: “As long as persons experience their pain privately and in isolation, no social power is generated.” When people “cry out” as a community, in public, “that is a revolutionary act…when the cry comes to voice…there is new ability, courage, and will to hope, imagine, design and implement alternative scenarios.” Being open to both our suffering and to seeing our limitations will eventually build the courage, faith and creativity needed to define the unifying principles of a movement for our times, one that can mature from cutting its eye-teeth into something that gives pundits no cause to doubt. Whether enough of us will respond to this invitation, this “defining moment,” is our first question. Whether we will will forge a movement informed by that reckoning, will depend on our ability not just to express what we are against, but to define what we are fighting for.
TAKING PAUSE: CLAIMING OUR CITIZENSHIP
Let’s take pause, then. Really. With much to be done, there is also much to reflect on. Can we afford, after all, to leave the future in the hands of Democratic politicians alone? Politicians are there to support us, but let’s not forget that it’s up to us, America’s citizens, to name what they represent. Can we afford to think that showing up in ever-larger droves next time Trump takes an unconstitutional step forward will be enough? Won’t Democratic gains in office be pyrrhic victories if we don’t engage deeper questions as citizens, questions that bring us squarely in touch with addressing the divisions that have dogged us for decades? CNN had a Sunday morning segment asking “if all the protests were going to translate into votes” in the upcoming swing elections. I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the lack of imagination — in CNN, in us? Is that all they would hope we might accomplish from our masses? More democratic votes? Not that votes don’t matter, clearly they do, but don’t we have more to say than that? Don’t we have more revolution in our pockets to sell than that?
In his recent article in the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch wrote about the critical role civil society will play in containing President Trump’s authoritarian use of power. Importantly, he wasn’t pointing just to the role we play as citizen followers, but to our role as citizen leaders. It starts with each of us.
TAKING PAUSE: THE “PUBLIC PROCESSING OF PAIN”
One way it starts with us is when we each see our role in becoming agents of a transformation in consciousness. Change happens not only through action, but also through changes in ideas and perception, changes of mind, new ways of seeing. After all, whether “they” retain the power or we “get the power back” progress stalls for all of us without a deeper grappling with how we got here. This transformation would be one that ultimately digs deeper to the root of what we have lost as humans, or perhaps towards what needs to be found. “We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse said recently. We need to get back to the base where trust can be found again. This means opening to our stories and, let’s be honest, in these past few weeks they are stories with considerable pain, fear and grief. But it also means opening with humility to our shortcomings, being all-too-human and facing what we have not wanted to see in ourselves.
This self-honestly around our reactions, our emotions and our limitations is best supported by individuals coming together in community, in Bruggerman’s words in a “public processing of pain.” This kind of work is already happening in people’s living rooms, on Facebook, after meetings over coffee or tea. It is perhaps the single most powerful revolutionary act, if it were to happen en masse, to counteract the deep atomization and alienation that characterizes America’s post-modern, urban culture today, but it is also a baseline necessity for the work of building a community of action. This gathering is also happening in focused ways in forums like “The Work That Reconnects,” developed by Joanna Macy, a long time ecoactivist and Buddhist scholar. The “Work That Reconnects” directly addresses the alienation and isolation, the disconnection from trust in one another, that plagues our postmodern culture. In so doing, it speaks to the widening chasm of public distrust. Macy’s work “helps people transform despair and apathy in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive, collaborative action.”
TAKING PAUSE: LETTING OURSELVES BE MOVED
OK, fair enough, you might say. It’s true, this has been a frightening, enraging, mind-numbing time, but where in God’s name (insert faith of choice) do we start?! It’s overwhelming, after all. What can I do beyond calling my congress person given the scope of the problem? If I slow down to take stock it looks hopeless. Look at FOX TV after all? And CNN totally missed what was really going on! And we tried didn’t we? Can’t we just focus on getting the Democrats back into office? Isn’t it good enough if we just keep showing up at the marches without giving up?
Yes, it is overwhelming, but reflected in one facet in these responses — the hopeless one — is the swift rise in reported cases of depression and anxiety, post election. We could describe this as akin to the freeze response in trauma, a self-evacuating collapse. Another response? Flight in the form of denial, “It’s too much, I’ll step up to a monthly donation to the DNC and hope for the best. Besides, it’s not really that bad, Trump’s just going to shoot himself in the foot, right?” And finally, fight, take to the streets! Hence the record turnout, with damning signs, at protests.
All of these approaches, freeze, fight or flight, are more than legitimate responses to emotional shock. However, they miss a final, especially important, albeit harder option: actually feeling the powerlessness with one another, the overwhelm, the not-knowing, feel it in community, talk about it, cry, rage, ask for help, read things we think will help us understand, share ideas, inspiration, take our critics seriously (did you catch that? more on that later), stay with what is hard until something else opens up to guide the soul of our citizenship. To create a movement, we must start by letting ourselves be moved.
In King’s days, the language of trauma was not part of public discourse, but it isn’t hard to see that those visionaries who changed the world did so because they came together in churches, with tears and love and grief. They found they would rather die than live with the options they’d been given for coping with their pain. With spiritual guidance and in community, they found a path through the traumas of slavery’s legacy, segregation, lynching — all the emotional impacts of the racist shadow of our nation. They also faced their many defeats, humiliating defeats, a century of failure in the face of power. The courage to face what hadn’t worked with a willingness to try again was part of the searingly painful fire from which a phoenix was born. That hard work birthed a change in consciousness. A change that sparked a social revolution.
This is deep work, hard work, and it’s certainly not something that happens overnight. Consciousness, in history’s grand sweep, changes slowly. When the flame gets turned up, as they were in the 60s and are again now, there is a chance for quickening. Admittedly, some of us are better situated in our lives to align with a deep and conscious pause in this higher heat, others, many of us, have demands in our lives, children, pressure-filled jobs, bills, healthcare, relationships, that leave us feeling we can only do so much. No matter who we are, however, we each have the ability to not turn away. Even in the briefest moments, we can open to what is happening, the hardness of it, and let ourselves be touched, let the soul of our citizenship be moved. In time, transformations in consciousness will follow.
TAKING PAUSE: FACING OUR LIMITATIONS
For progressives and democrats, taking pause to meet this defining moment also invites a commitment to self-honestly: facing the reality of our defeat. When it comes to humiliating defeat, many white liberals got the dose of a lifetime on that fateful day Donald Trump won the election. Of course, many veteran activists saw this coming. They’d been tracking it for decades, and minorities in this country didn’t need to see it, it’s what, with various faces, they’ve known their whole lives. But for the vast majority of white, progressive liberals, (no small percentage), Trump’s election hit in a way that shocked to the core.
Perhaps Trump is a great equalizer in this respect — he has given the vast majority of Americans a shared taste of state-sanctioned, mis-use of power. Only if we pause together can we aim to gain leverage from this state we now share, can we come together to be touched by one-another’s sorrows and to ask, where have missed the mark? Where have we missed it both as individual citizens and in the way we have been doing our politics? I read somewhere in the stream of articles that’s crossed my screen, someone who wrote that America got the President we deserved. It could be taken as a punitive comment, but it made me wonder…
Let’s start with the failure to elect Hilary. How the Democratic party failed, Hillary’s campaign failed, we, as citizens, failed to elect her. This is what conservatives have been waiting for us to acknowledge, which may be one reason so many of us have resisted saying it. And yet, we spite ourselves by not facing this, by rejecting the “other side’s” judgments wholesale. We, the party of inclusion, failed to include. We also saw Hilary run on a platform “Better Together,” (she was right), but a slogan that fell on flat ears. Yes, we got the majority vote, but we lost a lot of Democratic votes either to people who didn’t feel met by Hillary or people who didn’t have the ears to hear this tractionless message. Where Hillary’s fault and the Democratic party’s fault ends and begins will hopefully be a reckoning each will undertake in earnest. Meanwhile, we have the power, and the responsibility I would add, as citizens, to ask ourselves what or who have we missed. …And we cannot do this without an honest, hopefully, also, forgiving, self-evaluation.
TAKING STOCK — THE DOWNSIDE OF IDENTITY POLITICS
What about that slogan, “Better Together,” then, which many argued lacked luster and failed to inspire? Hillary was right, we would be better together, but maybe we actually don’t know how to be better together? Maybe in the last 20 years we’ve become too comfortable feeling better apart? I am not the first post-election commentator to point to how we’ve failed at something far more damaging than achieving a partisan victory. We have failed at defining our values in ways that could transcend division. As George Lakoff has powerfully argued following his now 3rd edition of Moral Politics, we on the left have failed to effectively frame, and compellingly express, what, we can, together, believe in.
And here we might take stock of the “progressive,” “liberal,” “democratic,” “left” in the years since King’s march on Washington. King’s movement paved the way for the countless rights movements that followed, movements that emerged under the label “Identity Politics”: Women’s rights, LGBT rights, the rights of endangered species, watersheds and black men. A paradoxical consequence of the ‘victories’ of these movements, however, is the segmenting and a kind of solipsism that got created in their wake. Following the record numbers at the Women’s Marches in January, David Gergen and Martha Pease on CNN reported what they identified as the “one central hurdle for protestors”:
…their effort to draw attention to so many different political priorities.
Even the signs they carried reflected the diversity of their agendas. Some were there advocating for Black Lives Matter movement while others aimed to bring attention to reproductive rights. Some focused on the fight for equal pay and their opposition to the rollback of former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
–CNN: Can Women’s March Make Magic Moment into a Movement – Jan. 22, 2017
Similarly, Matt Kibbe, an early organizer of the Tea Party actions, stated that unlike the tea party that was unified “almost to the person” around the non-partisan principles of “individual freedom, fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited gov’t, it is hard to find a focused, unifying set of issues or principles that connects today’s Democratic protestors. Most seem motivated solely by Donald Trump’s victory in November.” But, based on his assessment of what worked for the Tea Party, Kibbe argues that “being anti-Trump is not enough.” Kibbe, Gergen and Pease all point to how the rise of “identity politics” and “issue based activism” has come with a cost.
This is a core dilemma progressives must face if they hope to change this nation’s fate. After all, many of the interest groups that have mobilized in the last 30 years have so much as defined themselves in terms of what they reject. They exist in opposition to what they wanted freedom from: White. Straight. Men. These movements — and I have been part of several of them, myself — have been led by courageous men and women, but their focus on hailing distinctly different individual rights and causes has come at the expense of a message with collective focus. The result? A condition of division — women against men, blacks against whites, LGBTS against heterosexuals. All of the above against all of the above.
Ultimately, if we scratch the surface of many, (not all, but many), of the progressive political victories of the last 30 years, all too often they have been fueled by some degree of divisiveness, opposition, separation and/or denigration of an oppressive “other”. There is hubris, then, in our enthusiasm to assert our separate, individual rights for a seat at the table: These separate movements, while making gains, have also divided us.
This is not to say that it could have all unfolded differently, but many groups of issue-oriented individuals claiming their rights does not a model for civic society make. When Joanna Macy was asked in a recent interview why she did the work she did, she shared that “I’m doing this work so that when things fall apart, we will not turn on each other.” Macy knows that we pay a price for our divisions. She also knows that the things that unify us will create greater fertilizer for power and transformation than the things that divide and separate.
The acknowledgement our own contribution to the weakness of our movement is a hard pill to swallow — our own “come to Jesus” moment. What we did for our cause was important, but have we not become absorbed with our own issues? Have we hailed them at the exclusion of also seeing the value of others’? Have we lost our way in a culture where we forget the universality of suffering? When did we stop listening? Or is it that we are only now ready to begin really listening? In battling our causes, have we become self-centered in just the ways we think Republicans are? To fight for a truly better world, don’t we need to be able to access parts of ourselves that can see beyond identity, beyond our individual cause?
Speaking to the value of coming together, Sarah Vekasi writes: “There is no superior way to engage in change. We waste precious time fighting over which strategy is the most important, or engaging in something we think we should be doing instead of the thing our heart yearns for. The key is to stay connected and work together.” If this is the key, according to Vekasi, the door it would open is the one that enables our hearts to acknowledge our own suffering but connect, also, to the suffering of others.
The Huffington Post recently ran a headline story about the loneliness and addiction that still plagues many gay Americans in spite of all the progress made under the Obama administration. This is an important story, don’t get me wrong. But loneliness? Isolation? For many, many Americans the rates of depression, anxiety and alienation have been rising for decades in a post-modern, competitive capitalism that breaks down community and pits us firmly against one another. (See Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics). When we look across the political divide, also, the suffering of gay men exists alongside an epidemic of opioid addiction among white men in the mid-west and south, and mounting suicide rates among these men, too. And by the way, the stories of these white men and their suffering don’t get told because “white men” are taught that talking about their suffering isn’t manly, it’s “gay”. I recently had a touching exchange with a Trump voter, who behind restrained tears and gritted teeth insistently said, with a pained cocktail of hurt and pride, “…because conservatives don’t talk about these things!” Now that’s its own reverse straightjacket, as we can see.
Now, here’s the test: if you are gay, (and by the way, I don’t mean to single you out, I am currently married to a man, but was an ardent LGBT activist in the 80s and 90s), can you read this without perceiving it as dismissive of your experience? Can you know the depths of your story, its true dignity and value, know it, know that I care about it, even as I write this? Can you fight for what you believe in and reach out to include different others with similar experiences as allies? Others whom you may have spent decades defining yourself as different from? None of us in this day and age has the corner market on suffering, but many of us, in our efforts as activist to alleviate that suffering, have overlooked the great, compassionate unifier of the Buddha’s first noble truth: Life is suffering. And in capitalist America, with the class divide we face, the environmental catastrophes, white privilege, patriarchy, heterosexism, and so much more, there’s obviously plenty of suffering to go around. Long after all our battles with the establishment, liberation from this truth only starts when our heart begins to open to how everyone, even the white, tea party voter, suffers.
TAKING STOCK: DEFNING OURSELVES AGAINST THE RIGHT
What, the Tea Party Trump Voter? That guy?
Defining ourselves against others has a cost both within the progressive movement and when it comes to our relationship to the “other side.” In the summer of 1964, a year before the Selma-Montgomery March, Martin Luther King, Jr., must have known that reacting to policies, defying orders, or seeking to impeach elected officials wouldn’t change America. A “pro-black” or “anti-white” movement was a death sentence for progress; it would only deepen divisions and contribute to the scourge that King aimed to eradicated. As rhetoric goes, it was divisive and was bound to be an exercise in futility for people who had faced far too much powerlessness already in their lifetimes. The movement for King, would need to hold the vision and express the values of something far greater and more powerful than either “side” could express. King knew that only by approaching the tragic divide in this country with something universal, something that could bind us together in our collective humanity, might there be hope.
So an ‘anti-movement’ not only sews further seeds of division, (its only strategy for winning, by the way, is to dominate the other into submission, a model of power we have earnestly fought against for decades), but it allows us to avoid our “defining moment”, to harken back to Websters: “the essential qualities or meaning, the clear sense of what something [in this case, the Progressive vision for the future] is really about.”
Not unlike the 60s, the underbelly of America’s great divisions is in plain site for us today. The divisions aren’t just American, they are global. They aren’t just global politically, they are global environmentally. In fact, today’s polarizations are arguably just as deep, if not more so, than those King and his fellow civil rights leaders experienced leading up to the 1950s and 60s.
With The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander pointed to the now much more insidious ways our country has failed its black citizens. In a culture steeped in fear, conflictual race relations escalate as our penal system reflects the very divisions King fought to eradicate. Beyond race, citizens, corporations, members of government all hold radically conflicting perspectives on whether or not the planet we share is in grave peril. We are home to fiercely conflicting views on the impact of today’s capitalism on the fate of the American Dream. Also, opposite views on capitalism’s impact on a planet whose FINITE resources it relentlessly extracts to secure its own survival. Culturally, we wake up daily to a national dialogue so filled with hatred and divisiveness, (on both sides of the ideological spectrum), that we have essentially ceased to communicate. This combat is entrenched by a warring media, the corrosion of “truth,” and a defensive stance that values “us” against “them” far more than “we” against any collectively recognized problem — and there are lots of problems to collect around. The electoral college vs. popular vote, the counting of hanging chads (remember that!), reflect a country so tightly divided that our elected officials have been challenged over decades now to make any real cooperative progress.
Taking all this in, we might argue we are logarithmically more divided, along more axes today than we were when Rosa Parks courageously took her place at the front of the bus. It should be a sobering reminder: whether taking to the streets and town-halls or calling our Congress people, our troubles are far deeper and more complex than Donald Trump alone. We simply can’t afford the illusion that this mess will go away on that great day when Donald Trump eventually leaves the White House. He is a symptom of much, much larger problems. For those of us whose defense of choice is denial, I will repeat: Donald Trump is a symptom of much larger problems.
When we open to the full breath of the division in America — and we owe it to ourselves, our children, our planet and our country to do so — where does it leave us to see that our movement has thus far largely defined itself in reaction to Trump? While we bring our different perspectives on what matters forward, the unifying principle seems to be a shared contempt for this admittedly, erratic, un-stable man, his policies, and the men and women who voted for him. This brings us, I would argue, to another critical stop in our journey of self-reckoning. We are angry, of course, we are appalled, indignant and demanding something different.
We need to have these feelings, we need to engage them in a Bruggeman’s “public processing of pain”, but we would do well to take these feelings into our communities first, where the fruits of this rage can be harvested — not just discharged into to the streets.
TAKING STOCK: WHITE ENTITLEMENT
One thing we might first notice when looking at our anti-Trump rage is that while many white liberals, satisfied with the progress under Obama’s leadership, were caught broadside by Trump’s election, others have felt a strange relief in finally feeling that what’s been seething under the surface in America is now in plain site. Many veteran activists who have been at their causes for decades saw this coming, and, importantly, many people of color have never had to look for it — it’s been a sad staple for them in being American. This is the feeling I got at the Oakland March. Not to diminish any new protestors taking to the streets, but there was a feeling it had of being quite white and entitled — I felt it in myself. I don’t say this to judge where we are, nor to say that there weren’t many people of color there that day, but because we can dig deeper here. When black Americans marched to Montgomery, they did so knowing their lives were at stake. Us, with our “This Pussy Grabs Back” signs — eh, not so much. (I’m not saying there aren’t real victims of sexual assault out there!) For white liberals, our outrage today is a window into the lives of others who have long had the experience of being betrayed by their country. It is prime time to join arms in empathy and see the contours of our entitlement, connecting with the long-held suffering of others. How lucky, in so many ways, that for many white liberals this has been only the first national heartbreak we have felt in our lives.
TAKING STOCK: WHAT WE LOSE WHEN IT’S ALL ABOUT TRUMP
(DISOWNING THE ENEMY WITHIN)
Taking stock of the full iceberg, of which Trump is only a tip, (albeit a symbolically significant one), we can begin to see what we lose when the axis of our mobilizations hinges on “anti-Trump” sentiment. Firstly, we become the very thing we detest on the Right. Secondly,
focusing on Trump distracts us; it takes our energy away from focusing on the better alternative.
There have been many sad moments for progressives in the last four months, but none have been sadder for me than when I’ve seen activists from the Left firing accusations like “bigot!”, “racist!”, “misogynist!” and more, at members of the “other side.” It’s not that I judge the anger and hatred. If we are honest with ourselves, we all have these feelings. It’s that in these moments, instead of using our hatred, it gets discharged in self-destructive, counterproductive ways. It wastes such great potentially revolutionary power! The moment we aim to destroy, we become exactly what the opposition wants to believe we are, we become not only the enemy, but, even, more tragically, our own worst enemy. We crystalize in the mind’s eye as the very thing they reduce us to: hypocrites. Those liberals think they are so high and mighty, so refined (they hated Obama for this, remember?). They act like they are so compassionate towards people who suffer. Look how compassionate they are now? They look more like perpetrators than victims!
Face it, at base, when we put someone in a box and then kick them, we are hypocrites. We are no better than they are when they hurl their slurs “nigger,” “bitch,” and “fag” at us. We’re each saying to one another “you have no right to live!” Not exactly the more perfect union our founding fathers were aiming for! “Yes”, you might say, “but they deserve it, look what they did to us!” And yet then, what are we actually bringing to the playing field that offers anything different? Anything better? (See “This is How War Begins” by Charles Eisenstein for more.)
It’s not hard for many of us to imagine what it’s like to have someone who thinks they are superior attack us for what they perceive as our weakness. In our respective activist roles, many of us stood up to fight exactly that state of affairs. Another tough pill to swallow and sit with: In these moments when we go on attack, we’re doing the same thing to them that they have done to us. And of course the deep irony of the “anti-campaign,” for liberals and progressives in particular, is that we like to see ourselves as the “superior” party — let’s be honest — as “better educated,” “more reflective,” “inclusive” and “more evolved.” Here, then, is perhaps the hardest “pause” to take, the one between our righteous anger and our action. It is the capacity to cultivate discipline here that marks the greatest difference, in my mind, between an activist moment and a powerful, progressive, transformative movement.
Several months before Trump’s election, I picked up a book with a compelling sub-title that caught my eye, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The author, Arlie Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociologist who was a teacher of mine many years ago, took to Louisiana, a state whose environment has been little short of decimated by the oil industry, to try to understand what she calls the “great paradox” — how the vast majority of voters in that state could be probusiness, antigovernment and anti-EPA. I was pretty confident Hilary would get elected at the time I bought the book, but something in me when I saw the title wanted the opportunity to try to understand these people with world views that, frankly, made no sense to me. She describes her commitment, throughout the research, to climb the “empathy wall” with the goal of seeing the world through these men’s and women’s eyes.
The content of Hochschild’s book is hard. What has happened in Lousiana is heartbreaking and wakes us up to the tremendous privilege that most progressive liberals enjoy in this country. What Hochschild models in her research, though, epitomizes the courage and vision that will be essential to heal our nation. By the end of her research, Hochschild, (a dyed-in-the-wool liberal), had made friends with her research subjects and writes compellingly about their goodness, their commitment to their communities, their ethic of hard work, their honor and trustworthiness, strong and admirable sense of loyalty, their generosity in their Christian communities, their willingness to keep going, year after year, standing by their families in the face of great hardship.
To be sure, these people had views that troubled me, and Hochschild unpacks a lot as she pieces together how they get where they are, but the book invited me to see past the judgments to the people, their fears, anxieties, values, passions. The more I read, the more I came to see through their eyes how entitled, opinionated, self-righteous and selfish we liberals look to them. (Van Jones is one of regrettably few people in the mainstream media who also demonstrates the kind of courage and capacity to see beyond the political platitudes of Liberals and Republicans to the vulnerable heart of the matter. Why is he a relatively solitary voice?). I’m not saying there isn’t white privilege, a strong tendency to judge based on misinformation or a superior attitude with its own right-wing, closed-minded flavor. I’m saying we pay a price when we dish out the same thing we get. Part of the price is our own integrity.
It also occurred to me reading Hochschild’s book how those on the right and the left seem to hold ends of two extremes in terms of respective values and gifts. Many liberals are both comfortable and talented in their self-expression, creativity, innovation, self-assertion, qualities that are arguably less developed in most conservatives. Similarly, many of us (white, at least) liberals have nothing like the strong connections in our extended communities, the tremendous generosity (and faith!) that’s exercised weekly at church gatherings, or the ability to sacrifice self interest for decades at a time. What if we actually showed the ability to express more of their values? What if we placed more value on community? What if we turned down the volume on our individual proclamations? What if we found a way to demonstrate a loyalty to collectively shared values, instead of splintering apart from one another based on self-interest? We wouldn’t exercise these qualities in the same ways and places they do, but we would start to see the merits of a different way and maybe even gain something for ourselves. This sort of openness helps to reduce the polarizations, allows us to begin, if only in small measure, to see the decency in one another. (For a progressive vision steeped in typically conservative values of community generosity, honor, trust, and tradition, see Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein.)
In sum, if we really are the more ‘evolved’ party in American, might it not be incumbent on us to be the leaders in healing this nation? I am reminded of trainings I did as a couples therapist many years ago. We were advised with marriages in deep trouble (which our nation looks a lot like right now, a heavily armored husband and wife on the brink of divorce), to begin working in the session with the partner who was the more motivated, perhaps the one who had a bit more aptitude for empathy. What capacities, then, can we develop so we can learn to hear beneath the platitudes and dug-in judgments of the Right and listen for their fears, their concerns and (shattered?) hopes. Listen to the things they, themselves, have a hard time saying …
I will say that, these days,I have come to welcome any opportunity I get to talk with a Trump voter. We may not agree on 90% of what we talk about, but if we can truly listen to even 10%, (even if I’m the only one doing the listening!), it’s a small step in building a bridge across the divide. I also learn more about the complexity of things, as, almost always if I don’t get too pedantic, do they. I’d go so far as to say that in those moments of connection, I have felt more connected to my love for this country than ever before.
TAKING PAUSE: THE SURPRISING TURN WHERE HATRED MEETS VALUE
There are many who would see this invitation to climb the “empathy wall” as truly naïve. We need power, after all, we’re up against something that needs to be fought with weapons way stronger than love and compassion! I know this view. I’ve had it for years and it resurfaces in the places where I am healed the least. It is the view we have when we still believe that someone else can actually destroy us. It is a view that doesn’t appreciate what love can look like when it is backed by the power of knowing one’s own value. Far from weak, that kind of love is indestructible.
The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were no strangers to the question of value — in themselves, in their actions, and as it related to the nature of power. Living for decades in helplessness, rage and hatred, with the help of their faith and in community, something fierce and determined was created in them that saw beyond domination and submission, fight, flight or freeze. After enough decades of living with the searing emotional costs of racism, the real roots of enslavement revealed themselves in the hatred itself. Not that the hatred was bad, wrong or sinful; quite the contrary. It was that after feeling enough of it, truly surrendering to it and to the deep grief beneath it, compassion arose. Compassion that allows the ability to see hatred as the thing that happens when we feel powerless that others don’t see our value. We are human, we are precious, we have been hurt … and we are no “less than” anyone else because we have been hated. Surrendering to this condition with love reconnects us to our value itself. Reclaimed, it is the seedbed of our strength.
Hatred, as such, is a hallmark of being human, and the love that arises when we let ourselves feel our hate is not a soft love that aims to be nice, or ‘look good.’ It is not, as one spiritual teacher described, an “idiot compassion.” This is a love that actually has a deep understanding of hate at its very foundation. It is also a view that knows that hatred on our “side” and hatred on your “side” is the same thing: all-too-human universal suffering. Blood runs red no matter who you vote for.
Division and defining our very existence against others, creating self-righteous “rights” and “wrongs,” enslaves us all in halls of mirrors reflecting rejection, rejection, rejection. It was in the long pause, the self-reckoning that presaged the Civil Rights movement, when feelings of sheer overwhelm and the hatred and grief beneath them were experienced, that black men and women irrefutably found their value, and in so doing, the values of a movement were born, values that infused that movement’s functioning and its leadership with a love so powerful, so fierce in its commitments, that it eventually crumbled the foundations of our highest seats of power.
What came out of that great reckoning, then, was a “NO” communicated in unequivocal, grounded, visionary, creative, extreme and disciplined ways. It was a “NO,” however, that was fueled by an equal and opposite “YES.” It took time for those leaders to not only fall apart and build themselves up us individuals, as new kinds of citizens, but also to build a strong, disciplined and networked activism that expressed the true value of life.
From this place, the Civil Rights Movement dug deep into the heart and soul of what it meant to be human — it reached below the roots of the status quo and showed the world something powerful because it wasn’t about issues, it wasn’t about identity, it wasn’t about negating. Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi, King saw that “the hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” The Civil Rights Movement had a vision not so much with a political agenda, as an agenda for humanity. It didn’t just change our politicians, it changed human hearts.
When we know our value, deeply, as King did, no one can destroy it. Laws can oppress, corruption can happen, men can make lewd comments, power gets abused, but there is choice about whether we will allow these actions to strip us of our value. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said. Value allows you not to feel threatened, and the security in that, the love one has with that, indisputably, for who one is and what one believes, is strong enough to see into the heart of even one’s worst enemy. This “YES” that exists along side the “NO” doesn’t need to destroy an opponent, but it does need to express, unequivocally, its own indestructible right to existence.
So when we meet with skepticism the idea of a movement of love that values the importance of reaching out to one another in mutual respect, I wonder if it is because we haven’t found our value as a movement yet? Or perhaps in todays climate, as we talk, and cry, and walk, and plan, the seeds are growing, but we have not yet learned to how to name what we are coming to know.
In this article I have tried to extend an invitation to a very personal (and interpersonal) process with a potentially very public outcome. Each one of us who engages this journey, individually, with support from others, will meet with uncertain outcome, uncertain in that we can’t know where the journey into our anger and hate will take us, or who we will discover in ourselves on the other side. It is the harder road to take than fight, flight or freeze because the outcome is unknown. For the same reason, I cannot predict or proscribe where we are heading as a movement in this country, I do not know if we will galvanize into a collective, or how long, if this happens, it will take. King asked, in the early 60s, “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies — or else? The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” Some of us may not feel we are in this dark place. Some may feel we are, but can’t bring ourselves to forgive. It may take more time for our hearts to break, more coming together, war maybe, greater conflict, more coming apart. But one thing I do feel certain about is that for us to create a meaningful movement with the true power to create a more perfect union, the path forward will necessarily be one that takes an inward turn.
CLAIMING OUR VALUES: WHAT, THEN, ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?
As I have suggested at numerous points in this article, the Civil Rights Movement did not depend on the right slogan or strategy, but on the personal commitment of each individual within the movement to connect with a vision and exercise discipline, courage and solidarity in the service of its realization. King inspired a vision that engaged citizens. As with us today, he didn’t know what America would look like on the other side of the transformation: he based it on a dream. But he knew another world was possible. It would depend on each participating citizen in that movement to become something and, in so doing, create something larger than the sum of its parts. While I cannot predict or proscribe the journey for others, I can share in these closing words, the value I have found in these difficult months, value that supports the soul of my citizenship moving forward. It’s a vision that owes its discovery largely to Donald Trump himself.
Donald Trump, I have suggested, is a symptom, but as a symptom, he reveals a lot about where we are and where we need to go. President Trump is unparalleled, perhaps, in his ability to exemplify patriarchal masculinity and patriarchal capitalism and their limitations. What better man to exemplify these qualities could there be out there? He dominates with his language and actions, priding himself on the pleasure of “beating up” his opponents, he defines himself, unabashedly, around material success alone. He behaves as an island of self-interest and self-reliance, interacting with others only to the extent that their island can serve his own. In these ways, and so many others, Donald Trump is a tragic figure, exemplified by many who have described his rise as the “last gasp of patriarchy.” But if patriarchy is, in fact, taking its last gasp, doesn’t this beg a question? What might emerge on the other side of its demise? What values come forward in the space that offers an alternative to Donald Trump?
As you have learned from this article, I am not confident about a future that rallies for values based in individual rights and identities. I am doubtful, even, whether a “women’s rights” movement will offer a solution if it ultimately defines itself against, or in competition with, men. Rather, I see the future hinging on the growing empowerment of feminine values, (values, importantly, that not all women express as well as some men do). These values are cross-gender, cross-race, cross-national, and cross-partisan. They are the values that have lived in the shadow of competitive, patriarchal (dominating) capitalism and that, in my mind, are begging for an army of lovers to bring them forward. These values invite a return to the safety and nourishment of trusting connection. They envision a world where partnership is cultivated over domination, inter-dependence exposes the myth of self-reliance, a respectful recognition of difference leads us to seek ground for connection, the recognition of the human-ness of vulnerability, and the vulnerability of our planet, leads us to exercise power with thoughtfulness and compassion. Joanna Macy, in her “Work That Reconnects” lists these values as openness, transparency, connectivity, inclusivity, diversity, kindness, service to the welfare of all beings and of the healing of the planet. To reiterate, these values do not represent a future era that diminishes men, nor is it an era necessarily led by women, it is an era that values the very qualities of the feminine that have been eclipsed by a culture that has prized domination over people and nature.
For those who consider it foolish to think we can usher a change in consciousness in such soft and feminine ways, we should remind ourselves that the vast majority of black people living in this nation today were brought here by white people who were quite comfortable with the thought that dark skinned people were the equivalent of animals. As imperfect as race relations are in this country, we can thank the thousands of African-American men and women who in the 1960s forged a path forward against those great odds.
I am also recalling conversations I had with women who attended the March in Washington D.C. “It was amazing,” one said. “Why, what was it?” I asked. “It was just such a powerful, sweet experience with so many other women and their supporters. It was a huge event with mostly strangers but there was so much trust and connection, laughter and sharing stories. Just being there, itself, felt like such a great healing.” Perhaps here is where the eye-teeth are cut, not in the battle for women’s rights, (though our rights are important), or for any other of the important battles that need to be fought, but in the quality of what we bring with us when we gather to defend what we love.
When King and his fellow leaders were ready to wage the kind of peace the nation needed in 1962, they knew they would need to be warriors. But for King, the questions was not “whether we will be extremists” but “what kind of extremists will we be?” His answer? “The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” If we are to move from the hard work of this “defining moment” towards building a “movement,” this simple word “creative” is the next frontier. It points to the need for us to stand up in the ashes of our defeat with something new.
And here, then, we can begin to ask, beyond what we value, how do we express it? How do we express a fierce, extreme-even, commitment to the value of connection? Interdependency? The importance of mutual recognition? How do we exercise this discipline ourselves? How do we become allies, include allies, publicly laud the value of alliance? How do we express our need to rebuild trust and come together in kindness, defining ourselves around shared concerns. What can each of us do in private moments, and in community, to create a more perfect union, not for the protests of 1963, but for ours, in 2017?
As for me, I’m already brainstorming. If your journey lands you here, I’d be much more successful if you join me.
Many thanks to the following authors and individuals to whom I am indebted for surviving and thriving through the past four months of heart-wrenching citizenship:
On understanding the “other side”: Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land; George Lakoff, Moral Politics; Steve Biddulph, Manhood; Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era; Van Jones, CNN commentator.
On feminine consciousness: Rick Tarnas, Passion of the Western Mind: Epilogue; Patricia Krause, Beyond Patriarchy; Riane Eisner, The Power of Partnership.
On spirituality: Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope, Walter Brueggemann, Hope Within History; and my teachers in the Ridhwan School/Diamond Heart.
On love and friendship: my husband, Jon Rubenstein; my mother, Britta Dwyer; and friends Christine Fasano, Claire Ferrari, Angela Jernigan, Lisa Whitehill, Amiel Handelsman, Srina Lynn, Matt Rogers; and to the Trump voters who have been open to sharing their fear with me.