The Racism/Patriarchy Connection And How We Work To Address Them Both

Until we face it, we can’t heal it.

Maybe it takes two months of restless confinement across a country beset by the stress of a pandemic and the manhandling of a delusional President before the national news headlines finally pay consistent attention. White violence against black people in America is, of course, nothing new. It was woven into the conditions of our country’s birth and lives in us, today, un-reconciled, as our worst legacy. The protests aren’t new, either, but the recent attention in the media, and especially, albeit incrementally, from more white Americans and American businesses might be seen as a bronze lining, at least, rising out of some of the direst months on recent record in American history.

But even amidst the promise that something positive might surface from the heart-wrenching death of George Floyd, something else that’s central to what is happening is not being talked about. Something so obvious, so visible, yet so internalized in most of us that we don’t even think to mention it: that is, that the violence enacted by police officers against black Americans is exclusively perpetrated by white men.

Like racism, which lives in our culture in insidious ways that evade mention, the kind of masculinity that feeds violence against black Americans pivots on a need to dominate and assert superiority in order to protect the underlying, fragility of patriarchal self-esteem. This factor contributing to the violence we are witnessing in America remains largely unconscious and absent from public dialogue.

We talk about violence as a human issue, but, if you look at who perpetrates most violence, all humans are far from equally prone to enact it. In the aftermath of these tragedies, networks stream talk about gun restrictions, the second amendment, Trump supporters debate Democrats on where blame lies for the violence on the front lines of policing; if we are lucky, we hear mention of mental illness, but what is consistently missing in all this framing is that the violence, itself, is bound up with something equally central and visible that’s calling for our attention.

To be clear, what follows is not an anti-male screed polarizing the moral superiority of women against men’s barbaric inferiority. For one, white privilege does not discriminate between white men and women, it infects us all equally. By virtue of growing up white, white women, like me, are raised with the million and one privileges of being white I have the privilege and luxury of taking for granted every daily. Racism is not a white man’s issue, but violent acts with racist overtones may be.

In pointing to men as the violent perpetrators here, I want to be clear that I’m also not claiming women are superior to men because the humbling reality of life and death on this planet is there is no superiority that any of us can claim over one-other. We are all equally, and imperfectly, human. So, in highlighting the role of white men in violence against black Americans, any assumptions here that what I have to say is no more than an anti-male screed would reflect the kind of defensive, insecure reaction white people have when we are told we are racist. If you are a man, or a woman bristling against ‘another feminist rant,’ then reading on now means you are willing to open your mind and heart to be part of the solution.

While white women with white privilege and racist templates, like me, are also police officers, it is the male police officers whose racist indignation and white privilege have crossed the line into violence, yet this is the issue that in reporting on this violence is never directly addressed. It is white men who dominate black men, their knees on their necks, seeking to express their so-called “power” over them. It is also these men, or, rather, sadly, boys, not women or girls, who have been wielding assault rifles on schoolyards and at community gatherings gunning down children in record numbers in the last four years. To be sure, not all men are violent, and yet somehow something we seem to be blind to is allowing us to avoid the reality that almost all the violent perpetrators reported in the news of late are men. Why is no one pointing this out? Why is no one asking what is really going on in men’s lives that’s pushing them, and not other men, in the direction of racist violence?

As a culture, we remain largely asleep to how norms of patriarchal masculinity promote the corruption of men and provide the seedbed for racism and violence.

That said, I am writing a screed against our widespread, unconscious, default, “boys will be boys, blame it on the testosterone, violence is just something that shows up in some errant men’s nature” perception of masculinity. This default is so effectively internalized in us — as men and women, of almost all races, genders, and backgrounds in our patriarchal culture — that even after over a hundred years of feminism, and centuries of white-male on black violence, and after four years of record level, senseless, homicidal assault in our headlines, we continue to debate these issues without mention of the ever-predictable sex of the perpetrators.

Why don’t we ask why? Perhaps we don’t take note of the glaring fact that it is always men precisely because we are steeped in a patriarchal culture that normalizes the violent behavior of men, that views it as a reality we must resign ourselves to, that fears the self-reflection that will be forced by such a question, that feels too helpless or too apathetic to change, as is, so often the case with white people and racism. But that resignation, that normalization, is precisely what obscures awareness of the problem, closing out the conscious and creative space for an alternative.

The Gender Revolution And How We Are Still Raising Patriarchal Boys

What do I mean by an alternative? To suggest an alternative to our unconscious defaults around masculinity is to come from a perspective that sees and lives beyond the gender binary, one that has been informed by the movements of courageous groups and individuals that have challenged patriarchal norms, now, for decades. These challenges started over a hundred years ago with the first wave of feminism and have proliferated, with ever greater momentum, in the subsequent unfoldings of gender-queer activism. They were born out of the damage done by a patriarchal culture that, depending on one’s genitals at birth, assigns us to two boxes of mutually exclusive, idealized behavior. Those boxes, and the social norms and shaming that perpetuate them, cut us off, once assigned, from swaths of human potential assigned to the opposite box. This conditioning happens at a great cost, far greater than we realize— for us all.

In a remarkably short time, our era’s post-patriarchal movements have had monumental success in supporting more people in claiming more of themselves and their humanity without shame. They have required courage, compassion, empathy, and no small amount of creativity. However, one area of gender identity that remains starkly untouched by this revolution is the (cis) gendered, heterosexual masculinity that continues to condition most boys. Relatively unchanged is the “man-box” that propagates a self-reliant, tough-man, uncommunicative standard of masculinity, harshly policed by societal shame.

Before another conclusion is drawn, here, that I’m heading towards a bid for the compassionate, condoning of white racist violence, I’m not. What I am suggesting, however, is that if we don’t look more closely at (white) men’s conditioning as a root problem of violence, we won’t succeed in our efforts to work our way out of this truly, horrible mess.

Men Aren’t Bad

It isn’t hard to find ourselves thinking that if the vast majority of violent perpetrators are men, male violence is really about something that just happens with the testosterone thing, right? Aren’t men just more prone to it? It comes with the territory, no? With the long, evolutionary arc of men learning how to stalk down mountain lions. It will always be with us, it’s just the way God designed it. Or, maybe it’s just those few, errant bad men, but not the rest of us. Really, Donald Trump is most to blame for fueling racist rhetoric, setting off already trigger-happy racists.

The trouble with all these perspectives is not so much that they are wrong, but that they all allow us to sidestep a closer look at men and the causes of violence. They all allow us to shirk questions and responsibly as a society for how our culture trains many men through patriarchal masculinity into becoming ticking time bombs, highly susceptible to these, and other influences.

And if that masculine conditioning does play a role, how can we progressives who are advocates of feminism, LGBTQ rights, and living beyond the gender binary continue remaining quiet about the lynch-pin masculinity that holds the whole patriarchal machinery together with such tragic cost?

Men become violent, maliciously violent, when raised in a family or culture that glorifies or hails certain attributes with manliness, hailing them at the expense of a boy’s access to his humanity. When self-reliance, dominance, authority, winning, power, superiority, control, physical invulnerability, and the denial of our all-too-human emotional and physical needs are disciplined into a child — especially when discipline with the use of force and public shaming — a dangerous and volatile machine is built. It is not just the ascription of value to these fixed attributes and to men/boys, but the hiving off of others attributes of human experience that has such traumatic impact. Human qualities including emotions, (other than anger), our inherent inter-dependence, the intrinsic value of our bodies, hearts, partnership, care, need and vulnerability, are all associated in the patriarchal gender binary with women and, tragically, also, with un-manliness. That is where the damage happens.

When boys are raised — as was our President — to believe they should be all-man and, come hell or high water, disavow anything “feminine” in themselves, they learn that to have any worth at all they must disown much of their daily experience.

This learning happens in micro-events overtime where tears are blocked by shame, arms learn not to reach out for help, bodies tighten into impenetrable toughness, and islands of withdrawn silence get created, holing men away, increasingly out of touch, even with themselves.

Yet while it is easier to see something wrong with our President’s braggadocious masculinity, or with men’s violence in news headlines, when we write this kind of behavior off as the action of errant men, we create what in family therapy is referred to as an ‘identified patient’. We isolate out in one individual a problem that is systemic, and that, on some level, touches the lives of all men. In this way, with patriarchal masculinity, all boys and men are taught they should not have feelings, their bodies should not have any non-sexual needs, and they must never, ever, should never let their self-doubt and vulnerability show.

Especially in highly alpha-patriarchal-male cultural contexts, this arrangement primes the pump for men to project the “un-manly” parts of their all too human experience out onto what then gets deemed as lesser “others.” Hiving off and ejecting parts of their experience creates not only an unstable, disembodied, unconnected, less than human, man. That man is then constantly under threat from his own experience or feels under threat from the “other” he projected it onto. Brittle and prone to cracking, men raised to assume this kind of manhood will avoid the threat of un-manliness and the shame that goes with it at any cost. Patriarchally Conditioned Men + Shame/Humiliation = Violence. We see it in male perpetrators of domestic violence as we do in violence against Black Americans. Verbally, of course, this violence takes the form of bullying and abuse. Physically, it takes the form of … putting a knee on the neck of a defenseless black man.

Until he suffocates.





The Inhumanity of Patriarchal Masculinity

These are some of the very feelings – grief, sadness, helplessness, overwhelm, wanting, despair, that many of us are feeling in America today, that patriarchal men are taught to disavow in order to secure their self-worth. When the stress arising from their own losses and failures rises up in these men’s lives, they feel they have nowhere to go other than emasculation, a total loss of self-worth. Instead, they turn to the reactivity that appears to help them avoid these experiences. In the assertion of physical strength or verbal violence, they are resurrecting the sought-after superiority of “real manhood.”

For black men who have carried the brunt (along with black women) of the projections of so much of what white men and women can’t tolerate in themselves, the problems forged by patriarchal masculinity are even more insidious. This is especially the case since violence against white men carries far greater risk for black men than the reverse risk for white men. Black men are carrying a disproportionate amount of our societal stress and trauma, often making black on black male violence a heart-rending consequence of the crushing burden of both racism and patriarchy experienced by black men.

But because the levers of cultural power still rest in the hands of white people, much of the harm perpetuated in patriarchy is leveraged from that source. When a white, patriarchally-conditioned man feels self-contempt for not living up to the tough, strong, masculine bar set for him, the consequences for others are greater. This, of course, is the situation our country has been in under Trump’s presidency.

It’s no coincidence that Trump is both a racist and the poster-child (yes, he’s largely a child in a man’s body) of narcissistic patriarchal masculinity. Trump likely lost access to his own humanity in the first five years of his life.

Raised by a father, (and later, with violence, in a military academy), who taught him through word and deed never to fail and never to show a lick of vulnerability, and by a mother who taught him he could do no wrong, Trump is the template of the kind of white man preoccupied, incessantly, with projecting out his all-too-human vulnerabilities, identifying “failure” and “weakness” in others. For the righteous, white man to live supreme, then, for him to remain “a man,” someone, either women, immigrants, Democrats, journalists or black and brown people must be forged into the inferior “other” they can dominate. In this way, the patriarchal white man’s own self-hatred gets projected out in his effort to preserve an image of himself as “good” or “righteous,” “a man” worthy of his own existence. Caught between hatred of others and hatred of himself, he is a wrecking ball and it is that kind of masculinity, especially in the White House, that is quite a price of “real manhood” that all of us pay.

Patriarchal Racism

Enter racism, or at least, as I see it, patriarchal masculinity as one of its key tributaries. What better way to reassert superiority than to craft a group of people into the shape of badness, criminality, and inferiority, to reduce them to unintelligent, diminished ‘bodies’ marked with color so that goodness, righteousness, superiority, intelligence and the power to mark others can be self-secured. And, yes, add hormones, pre-existing templates of racism, and stress to the cultural shame and humiliation a man might feel and this cultural conditioning acts like the gasoline on a pre-existing fire.

And it is this gasoline, this easily flammable substance in our midst, that no so few are talking about, the invisible, toxic substrate of patriarchal, so-called “real” masculinity that continues to shape the lives of too many boys and which we still, all too often, take for granted as a given in, and for, men. It is the single greatest factor driving the dominating imperative in Trump’s behavior, seen by many yet rarely mentioned on news panels, (along with his pathological narcissism). This highly volatile substance with such high cultural cost remains sidelined to the discussions of aging feminist academics, rarely addressed in public discourse. We wring our hands about the violence, hoping for legislation or the courts to address it, wondering why it has become so bad… and we overlook what is right in front of us.

To address the continual hurt of racist violence against black people in this country, then, I am arguing that we must address patriarchal standards of masculinity. Conversely, we also can’t champion a world beyond the gender binary and leave this territory of patriarchal masculinity un-touched. And, again, this in not about pity and a forgiving coddling of the white men who perpetrate violence. It is about exposing something that keeps these men in a cage they don’t know how to get out of because our culture, through its very definition of masculinity, throws away the key.

Racism Needs Attention On Its Own Terms

To be clear, in pointing the finger at patriarchal masculinity, I’m not saying it trumps our concerns about racism. Nor am I saying that if we address patriarchal masculinity, it would naturally solve our nation’s racism problem. White privilege and racism make up a twisted, cultural knot weaving ‘white’ and ‘black’ people together in a dysfunctional, inter-dependent, traumatically informed matrix that needs to be recognized and dismantled on its own terms, with all the feeling and healing that involves. For our country to heal its foundational racism, we need to address racism in its blatant and the more insidious forms. All of us who care about this need to risks ways of declaring “THIS MUST STOP!” and we must keep declaring it, as we never have before. We also need to step back and support those we, as white people, have failed to listen to, those we have silenced, or responded to defensively when WE have been asked to stop. We must find ways to tolerate our own shame and refuse to forget that this country’s security, health, integrity, and wellbeing will always be in question if the trauma that separates us from one another in racism is not addressed. If we do not make changes, not simply in our laws and institutions and where we invest our money, but also in our white obliviousness, there will be no change. And yet, I am suggesting here that even this work will only be partial in helping to loosen the grip of inequity, racism, and white on black violence, if we do not also address the root role played by patriarchal masculinity.

Women Aren’t Any More ‘Good’ Than Men

So, as the intersectionalists well know, the situation is complex. I’m not saying it all boils down to racism or to patriarchy, and importantly, I’m also not saying men are more prone to racism or even patriarchy than women. Women, too, can do plenty of harm and white women are hardly immune from racist and sexist cultural conditioning. As white people, after all, whether male or female, we grow up enjoying the spoils of white privilege, spoils greater still for economically privileged white women. Spoils that hinge on, and perpetuate racism. But also, as women, the vast majority of us internalize many troubling patriarchal, cultural norms. We are raised into a distorted dependency on men, men whom we then protect and protect ourselves from, subtly validating the patriarchal myth of masculine, self-reliant strength and invulnerability.

Women who internalize patriarchy enable patriarchy’s “man-box”, often cowing to their sense of privilege, fragility and superiority, too often, also, enabling their emotional arrest.

For many of us, trying to protect men’s self-esteem in some unconscious is the equivalent of protecting ourselves. Plenty of patriarchally-conditioned women, then, weave ourselves into the racist-patriarchal knot alongside our men — an insidious, complex, and troubling reality we must begin by facing squarely.

Much of What Is Now On Offer For Change Won’t Work

In short, we cannot address the issues of violence, and racist violence, without addressing the cultural norms for masculinity that create the need to dominate. Towards this end, ironically, we may need to turn towards the impact of those masculine norms with some spirit, or will, to understand them, yes, empathically, but, at the same time, not for the purpose of dismissing accountability.

Beyond blame and shame as a culture, we need to understand more about patriarchal masculinity so we can work to create alternative paths that allow more men to be more human, less volatile, less dependent on making someone else bad, less prone to preserve for themselves an unrealizable category of “manhood.”

Men need to do this work themselves, yes, but those who want it to happen need to believe in it and support it where it exists. And for those who may erroneously think that dismantling patriarchal masculinity is about ‘turning men into women’ or feminizing them, it is not. It is about having a vision for our culture and society for a more robust, purposeful masculinity that provides more opportunities for (cis)men to develop into confident, generous humans in ways that help them love and respect more — and hurt less.

David Tacey, a New Zealander academic and lecturer who has reflected deeply on the journey of forging a post-patriarchal masculinity writes in his book Remaking Men: “We live in a complex time where we (men) have to come to terms with the paradox of men’s power and men’s pain. The ability to sustain this paradox, (the ability for men to be able to become conscious of) the tension between their power and pain, is what constitutes full psychological health in a post-patriarchal world.” Towards this end, I would argue that most of the current solutions our culture holds up in response to racial violence and violence against women, are, in fact, not going to provide an adequate solution:

  • The defensive, conservative ‘solution’ that makes excuses for unacceptable behavior, casting blame elsewhere, sidestepping accountability for racism and racist violence — sidesteps the misuse of power. It clearly does not solve the problem because it fails to acknowledge it.
  • Inversely, the hope that criminal justice and the incarceration of men (white or black), blaming or shaming, will teach them a lesson and solve the problem, is also misguided. Incarceration may be a necessary consequence, but a violent or shaming response to violence only tightens the levers for men, hiving off their pain in ways that promote the violence or self-hatred in the first place.

While real-life consequences for criminal, racist activity are essential, then, they do not solve the problem; they just put it behind bars. And in terms of other punitive solutions like firing people from their jobs or publically vilifying them or calling them racist, this will also not solve the problem. It may name something, declare it appropriately unacceptable in public view, “outing” what has for too long been hidden, but it will fail to be generative without including some viable path in the aftermath for (un)learning, healing and reconciliation.

How We Can Promote Change

Foregrounding Alternatives — Raising Boys Differently — Challenging Norms — Recognizing Role Models

There are ways our culture at large can mobilize the kind of change we need to make fundamental shifts in addressing racial and sexual violence. All of these initiatives, however, require that we first directly name and acknowledge the patriarchy problem — just as we need to acknowledge more thoroughly the racism that exists ubiquitously in our white privilege.

We need the courage and strength of heart to hold in mind that it is not the person, but what that person has been taught, that is killing us, that the crime lies in how they have been tragically led to believe their value depends on defending an ill-construed, shame induced, fragile identity at any cost.

It will then take great courage and stamina, insistance, resilience and creativity, strong faith and conviction, and a huge national push, to start the hard work of acknowledging and dismantling a worldview that lives insidiously in us and that has caused such great distortions around who we are, and can be, as humans for hundreds of thousands of years.

It is no small task, but the good news is that this work is already well on its way. It is our time in human history for it to happen and we not only have momentum, but we are increasingly being shown we have no choice. Towards that end, our actions to address the patriarchy-racism complex might focus on the following:

  1. Challenging norms of patriarchal masculinity with the same dedication that feminist and the LGBTQI movements have brought to those same problematic norms for women and nonbinary persons. We need the kind of cultural challenge — the discussion, debates and activism— that creates space for alternative ways of being a (cis) gendered man, alternatives that allow for more authentically confident, engaged, compassionate, empathic and collaborative men who are able to listen and act with wisdom, maturity, thoughtfulness and a sense of their own goodness as leaders and partners. Similarly, we need to recognize the utter insufficiency of only one masculinity studies graduate program in the United States. Support for the transformation of patriarchal masculinity needs research on where it is and is not happening, and public attention, where it is. Finally, in the media, that means continuing to report on male violence recognizing that it is just that, male violence. We must not erase the masculinity problem in the same ways that both blatant and subtle racism are ignored, dismissed and rendered invisible in our public dialogue.
  2. Beyond incarcerating, we need to create real, inner change and understanding in people who commit racist (and sexist) crimes. We need a movement that seeks to require perpetrators as part of their sentence to engage in sustained, experiential learning about racism and its history. White perpetrators should be required to work with other white people to unpack their white privilege, learning to listen to, and witness, the feelings and words of people of color. They need to be able to see what the alternative looks like. If white perpetrators undergo this training and find themselves willing to become teachers and leaders, themselves, their sentence could be reduced and, on parole, they could serve as role models, receiving supported in taking what they have learned out into community-based education.
  3. Building awareness in men of the human cost of patriarchal masculinity. Educating white perpetrating men about racism, will likely not work — as I have been arguing in this article — unless male perpetrators are supported in learning about the history of patriarchal oppression, most specifically about the ways they have been raised in the straightjacket of patriarchal masculinity. This is not just head-centered learning — it is experiential, it is inter-personal, it is a process and one that, surprisingly, when men are given a safe container to engage, they are much relieved to enter. (See Peggy Orenstein’s latest book, Boys and Sex.) Unpacking the lynch pin of patriarchal masculinity ultimately allows men to have feelings without being told they are weak, it opens the door for empathy, allowing them to recognize their needs and begin to take responsibility for the hurt and scared younger parts of them. Only when that healing journey begins can a man emerge who can take responsibility for the harm he has done, or the harm done in his name. Only the birthing of empathy for their own and, by extension, another’s full humanity, will the tension be occupied between “power and pain,” the heart of a racist perpetrator opened, waking up the will to change.
  4. On a preventative level, we need more initiatives that support the development of healthier masculinity.
  • As a society, we need to foreground a discussion about the way we raise and educate boys. Educational practices that are well underway in many schools today exposing stereotypes of women, LGBTQI’s and people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds should include stereotypes of masculinity. Cis-gendered, white boys need to know there is an alternative, healthier, more robust, resilient, socially engaged and compassionate self-esteem they can experience as boys. More parents of sons need to educate themselves about gender stereotypes, finding ways to themselves not shame and perpetuate the ‘man-box.’ We need to find ways to provide more boys with opportunities that expose them to healthier role modes, rites of passage and healthy mentoring and guidance around their sexuality, their relationship to the natural world, and their physical strength and anger. These cultural forms would allow them to develop a sense of purpose, value and self-responsibility providing a more authentic sense of pride, compassion and access to the fuller range of their human experience.
  • Progressives and LGBTQI/feminist movements must risk an affirmative stand on what we need for partnership with (cis)men. Feminism cannot afford to polarize negatively against men but must start engaging in a positive, collaborative vision for a post-patriarchal masculinity. We who want change must see beyond our anger and use our leadership and newfound power to articulate a vision for what we, affirmatively want, and need. Furthermore, the judgment that cultural initiatives supporting the healthier development of (cis)gendered boys simply promote more heteronormative, boy-scoutish or conservative reifications of the gender binary is short-sighted. The LGBTQI/feminist movements will ultimately suffer from vilifying cis-gendered, heterosexual men without earnestly asking themselves what a healthier, acceptable alternative would look like in those boys and men who gravitate towards that end of the gender/sexuality spectrum. That means making the distinction between men who harm and men who help, men who perpetuate a culture of violence and men who create support, recognition and partnership. It means thinking, constructively, about the health of men, for the purpose of supporting the health of us all. What role do feminists play in partnering with pro-feminist, post-patriarchal men to support better initiatives for boys? Healthy, cultural spaces and opportunities for self-identified (cis)boys to learn how to become better men, after all, support us all.
  • We need to support existing avenues, like the Mankind Project, Gender Equity and Reconciliation International, the Good Men Project, Voice Male Magazine where men are already working on their own post-patriarchal transformation. We need to recognize existing pro-feminist male leaders who have been on their own post-patriarchal growth trajectory. The work of Terry Real is one such example, or of groups like COR, and others, that provide rites of passage experiences for men in their growth towards a more authentic masculinity? There is good work underway, but as a culture, we do not tend to look in its direction.
  • Ironically, it means giving some men more of a voice. Sixty years into feminism, there are more men coming forward who have deepened into a broader understanding of themselves and the legacy of patriarchy. There are more men learning what it is to be in collaborative partnerships with women. We, as feminists, need to recognize that our need as women to foreground our own voices can inadvertently silence these men and their stories. Frequently feeling it is their job now to step back to enable women’s leadership, they do not speak. It is important for women to have space for leadership, yes, but we need to support these men in sharing their stories, men who can speak out courageously against their shame, reaching out this way to other men so the whole mechanism can move. For change to happen, these men need our recognition, our partnership, because we need theirs.
  • Finally, women need to do more of our own work seeing how we get embroiled in patriarchal masculinity in ourselves and in our relationships with the men in our lives in the same subtle ways white privilege embroils us white women in racism. This is complex, deep work, often unraveled as women reconnect with their power through healing their own patriarchal wounds. But, this is work, with all our years of feminism, that we have still not adequately tackled. Our complicity with patriarchy leads us to first place a burden on men by expecting the patriarchal ideal from them, then it often leads us to engage in the emotional labor for men that arrests their growth and maturity. Our mothers learned this from their mothers, and they taught it to us. A multi-generational legacy exists in us that will take attention and focus and healing to change. When we play a role in our families and intimate relationships as men’s exclusive emotional caretakers, mothering them as we are often taught to do, we discourage them from taking the initiative to address their wounds themselves; we short-circuiting their own journey of growth. They will not take the risk to get help from supportive peer-groups or a therapist to find the way own way out of the man-box. For this, they need, themselves, to search for the key our culture stole from them.

Tacey writes in Remaking Men that “before we remake masculinity, we must unmake it, and understand why it has to fall apart.” I have suggested that part of that understanding has to do with the terrible price we pay as a culture for a model of manhood that is killing us, which is entwined with racism and taking black lives. “In our remaking efforts,” Tacey continues, “we (men) must become self-critical and be careful to distinguish between new and old masculinities, to differentiate the new self-esteem from the old masculinist arrogance, to separate the new happiness from the old complacency, and to tell the difference between human rights and patriarchal privileges.”(Remaking Men) For white men, of course, the charge Tacey lays out is even more essential.

If we want to hope that the wheel of history will turn in these turbulent times in the direction, not of devolution, but of evolution, we will need to acknowledge that a primary cause for the current hurts, heartaches, disruptions and corruptions in our culture, including in the lives of our men, requires facing the way we raise boys and continue to reify patriarchal masculinity. While more headlines and hearts need to tend to the deep wounds of racism in our country, it is also time to raise the bar for men, to believe in, and recognize, alternatives to a failing masculinity, and to call for a more conscious and self-responsible path moving forward.

What If Presidents Were Elected in Pairs — One Democrat, One Republican?

For the benefit of all, an outside the “Man Box” approach would temper self-serving ambitions in those seeking the “highest office.”

There’s really no other way to slice it. Listening to the impeachment hearings is downright depressing. While brief thrills may be had, aghast or indignant, staking out the right-ness of your side, stepping back from it all as an American these days has been plain, old flattening, for everyone I’ve talked to, at least.

I was in this flattening-effect pretty deep when I came across a wild idea that, had the framers somehow baked the Constitutional cake differently, might have helped avert this polarized, impasse. It’s wild, so bear with me — after all, wild can start to look normal in today’s climate…  Continue reading “What If Presidents Were Elected in Pairs — One Democrat, One Republican?”

Mother Love: Raising Children in the New “Church” of Nature

My son was recently assigned “This Land is Your Land” by his piano teacher. Driving home from the lesson with his brother, we sang the chorus together in the car. I delightfully twanged out my best attempt at Guthrie’s classic, 1950s, American-folk voice. “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Redwood Forests to the New York Islands…” It’s great, isn’t it? Like all the best folks songs, it hijacks your heart making it hard to stop once you’ve started.

But I did stop. I caught myself in a moment of discomfort. What does this mean, my land, your land…made for you and me? I felt a twinge of dis-ease imagining my boys with the belief that the land across America was made for them? Continue reading “Mother Love: Raising Children in the New “Church” of Nature”

A “Moment” for our “Movement”: The Work of Creating a More Perfect Union

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. Continue reading “A “Moment” for our “Movement”: The Work of Creating a More Perfect Union”

A “Moment” for our “Movement”: The Work of Creating a More Perfect Union

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.