If Barack Obama had become president at a time of normal politics, with a normal opposition party, there's no telling how much he could have accomplished. On many issues, President Obama has strived to move the country in wise and beneficial directions. He might have become the transformational president he aspired to be, and that many of us hoped for when we elected him in 2008.
But it is his misfortune to be President when our politics is far from normal, and to have faced a Republican opposition more dishonest and destructive than anything ever before seen at center stage of American politics. One of President Obama's top priorities should have been to help the American people see what that party has become so that they would take away its power.
Unfortunately, Barack Obama seems ill-equipped by temperament and character to fight that battle. Too often, the Republicans have been rewarded rather than punished for disgraceful behavior.
At the very outset, when the Republicans set about demonizing the newly elected president, and delegitimizing him with the birther lie, President Obama should have called them out for such disgraceful conduct, which amounts to an assault on the foundations of our democracy. Because he didn't, about a third of the American electorate became permanently unreachable for him.
When the Republicans used a mere Senate rule (the filibuster) to trump the Constitution, making every vote require a super majority, the President should have denounced this unprecedented power-grab. Because he didn't, minority rule replaced majority rule, the election results of 2008 were largely nullified, and more than 400 laws passed by the House died in the Senate.
That got me thinking about the anger of many white men, and why they've lent the force of that anger to the political right.
Imagine you're a white man, particularly in a region where racist ideology and patriarchy have been especially powerful. By virtue of being white instead of black, and male instead of female, you've got higher status than roughly three-quarters of the humanity around you. And if you're straight, not gay, you get to feel even better about yourself.
The feeling of self-worth is a big part of one's overall feeling of well-being.
The straight white man, in the old order, is the embodiment of "born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple."
What if a political force came to take all that away from you?
You are told that black people deserve the same rights and respect as white people. Laws are enacted to compel everyone to act as if that were true.
As if that weren't enough, this same political force -- American liberalism, through its political instrument, the Democratic Party -- declares that women are as good as men, and deserve the same treatment and opportunities.
At this point, the white man has been thrown out of the top quartile of his community and into the general pool.
Summary: In the conduct of today's Republican Party, we can see a pattern of destructiveness. It displays an insatiable lust for power and wealth, an impulse to prey upon the vulnerable, a preference for conflict over cooperation, a persistent dishonesty, and a willingness to sacrifice the greater good for selfish advantage. Putting the pieces together, we see that our national crisis is not just at the political level, but goes deeper to the moral and spiritual levels.
I have a message and a plan to help turn back this force. To succeed, it will need the help of many.
I have a message and a plan to help turn back this force. To succeed, it will need the help of many.
The Republican Party, I have said here, has been taken over by a destructive force. Time now to flesh out more of the picture showing the relentlessly destructive nature of what now animates the Republican Party:
It's a force that's insatiable in its lust for power and wealth.
- Even though we have the greatest income inequality that we've had in living memory, this force works continually to widen that gap still further. All their budgetary proposals would take from average Americans to give more to those who already have the most. As they protect those who have tripled their share of our national income, they cut food stamps to the most vulnerable Americans -- even at a time when jobs are scarce and even the middle class is struggling.
In the realm of political power, this force has given us a Supreme Court that handed down that disgraceful decision in Citizens United, making it still easier for the nation's widening inequalities of wealth to be translated into inequalities of political power. With our government put up for auction, "All men are created equal" gets swamped by the Almighty Dollar. The Republicans have been working to turn our government from one "by the people" into one controlled by those giant so-called "persons" that make up the corporate world.
In America right now there's a battle that needs to be fought and won in our political arena. It's a battle over what kind of country, and what kind of planet, our children and grandchildren will live in.
Although some people like waging battle - some even insist on it - most liberals I've known are capable of living richer, more balanced and fulfilling lives. Most of us liberals would rather lead those better lives than focus on political combat.
But over the past decade or two, while we've been living our fuller, more rounded lives, we with the more humane set of values have been out-organized, out-fought, out-messaged by a relentless force that has taken over the right, and that has
• Turned our politics into a kind of war,
• hollowed out the middle class,
• debased our public discourse,
• brought out the worst in our decent conservative neighbors,
• undermined the rule of law,
• placed our descendants in greater peril of ecological catastrophe,
• embroiled us in needless wars,
• besmirched America's good name in the world,
• driven our economy into a pit,
• and magnified the ability of corporate power to steal our democracy.
The response from Liberal America to this ugly destructive force on the right has been woefully inadequate to protect the nation.
The combination of a destructive force and weak response has created one of the most profound crises in American history. If our nation is going to stop its descent, and to regain the ability to deal constructively with the challenges we face, this dangerous political dynamic must be turned around.
The Democrats' position was that the tax cuts for the 98% should be kept, because the economy was still trying to get up off the mat, but that the tax cuts for the richest 2% should be allowed to expire.
The Republicans' position was that all the Bush tax cuts should be preserved, and they were willing to hold the middle class tax cuts hostage unless they got their way.
Opinion polls showed that the American people overwhelmingly favored the Democrats' position.
But the Democrats avoided the confrontation, waiting until the lame duck session. (At which point, lamentably, Obama caved, not taking a strong stand until later.)
I thought that this issue was a perfect battlefield for the Democrats: 1) the people were on their side, and 2) the Republicans' willingness to sacrifice the middle class to serve the rich brought into sharp relief the Republicans' real allegiance to the big money.
But the Democrats were scared. They didn't seem to believe that they could win the argument. So out of fear of losing the elections, they shrunk from the confrontation and lo and behold, they got slaughtered at the polls.
Caution and prudence are good. Being ruled by fear is often a disaster.
Now, President Obama has apparently been persuaded/pressured by Democrats -- specifically, it is said, by vulnerable Democratic candidates for Senate -- to put off taking the presidential action he promised on immigration reform.
Is this the same mistake all over again?
I think my friend is a lot more wholly siding with Israel than I am. But we both agreed that -- in the way the anti-Israel left deals with the moral complexities of the situation in the Middle East - there is a distinct smell of anti-Semitism.
Which led us into some discussion of the mystery of anti-Semitism.
Here are some of my thoughts about it. And as an American Jew born in 1946, and one who has made a life-time study of human brokenness, I've been thinking about anti-Semitism here and there for fifty years, from Erich Fromm and the Authoritarian Personality to Hitler's Willing Executioners and The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.
The extraordinary thing about anti-Semitism is the way it can take so many forms in so many times and places. It's like this indigestible bone in the gullet of much of civilization down through the centuries across much of the planet.
The world is full of inter-group hatreds. The map of them would consist of a great many short lines of such negative engagement. But with the Jews, and only the Jews, it's different.
There are prejudices all over the world, but there is no other people who have been the object of prejudice in so many times and places, getting kicked out of Spain, getting massacred by the hundreds of thousands in 17th century Ukraine, to "The Protocol of the Elders of Zion" being a huge hit TV documentary in Egypt, spreading the long-discredited murder-feeding fraud of that forgery of a tract.
How does that happen in a civilization, or collection of civilizations interacting on one planet?
The book quickly put me in a sweeter and more tender frame of mind and soul. That, in turn, reminded me of how much it has cost me, over the past ten years, to have taken on this force from the dark side of things that's taken over the political right.
How much more I would like to be in that place where what I focus on is the warmth of goodwill and love and compassion where we take care of each other's hearts.
But focusing on that better space is not an option for me.
For starters, I cannot help but pay attention to what's happening in the world around me. At various times over the past nearly 50 years when the pain of what I saw seemed more than I wanted to bear, I've tried to turn my head away. But I could never do it.
For another, I apparently also cannot see what I hold dear being destroyed and not be moved to act to protect it.
So, even as I enjoyed the sweetness of the space that book on kindness brought me to, and recognized the loss that girding myself for battle imposes on me, I understood that I the choice I'm making is the one I simply must make.
Of this image, my friend wrote that he disliked the symbol, found it a turn-off: "It strikes me as more male-chauvinist macho stuff."
It should be said of my friend that when I met him, in 1971, he was recently retired as a major from the United States Marines, where he had pursued a military career. And it should be noted that he has since been an increasingly dedicated opponent of American militarism, a major figure in the organization, Veterans for Peace.
Of course, at some level, my friend is right. This image -- derived from a piece of 18th century statuary found at a palace in Berlin-- is as much emblematic of the "problem of power" as was that previous warrior image (described in Part I) in the ancient rock painting from the Algerian Sahara.
But in another, I think more urgently important sense, I believe my friend's reaction is off the mark. More "urgent" because I believe my friend is missing the tragic, but essential truth of our predicament in America today.
Here's the cover of the book (image on the right).
The subtitle of the book, as you can see, is "The Problem of Power in Social Evolution." And the core idea of the book is that the inevitable lack of regulation of the interactions among human societies, after the breakthrough to civilization, led inevitably to the spread of "the ways of power" (i.e. whatever cultural forms give a society an advantage in the intersocietal struggle for power) throughout the human system.
Here, in that ancient rock painting, we see clearly illustrated that problem of the struggle for power, with the landscape divided between the bold and more numerous pursuers and the harried and fewer pursued. It serves as a good illustration of the point I make at a pivotal juncture in the presentation of this "problem of power": "Imagine a group of tribes," I wrote, "living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace?"
The book designer then made the excellent decision to take one of the attacking group of warriors, rotate him slightly, and put him on the spine of the book as the book's emblematic figure.
This warrior, even by himself, stood as a fitting emblem of the problem I was writing about, the problem of power facing humankind over the millennia of the troubled evolution of civilization.
The first paragraph of a Huffington Post article reads:
Ben Rhodes, the White House's Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications & Speechwriting, said that journalist James Foley's execution at the hands of the Islamic State, the militant group formerly known as ISIS, constituted a terrorist attack.
The spokesman goes on to make a reasonably plausible case for regarding that killing as "a terrorist attack" against the United States. Rhodes notes that ISIS committed this "brutal execution" explicitly because Foley was an American, and declared that this constitutes "an attack on our country, when one of our own is killed like that."
While it is not unreasonable, then, to regard it as a terrorist attack, the important point to note is that this spokesman of the administration has gone out of his way to make that case.
The only explanation I can think of representing the murder of one journalist in this expansive way is that he is making the case -- to the American public, and to Congress -- for regarding this killing as a provocation to which the suitable response is to revive the "war on terror," at least to a degree and with suitable authorization, with ISIS as the enemy.