A New Movement
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Materialist Perspectives The differences between Democratic progressives and the president over the tax deal the president has made with Republicans is being argued from a materialist perspective. That perspective is real. It matters who gets how much money and how our money is spent. But what is being ignored is that the answer to material policy questions depends on how Americans understand the issues, that is, on how the issues are realized in the brains of our citizens.
A little over three years ago, I found out what was really important to my neighbors. After almost 50 years on the planet, I finally understood what it was that would get them out in the streets, mad as hell, carrying, literally, torches and pitchforks and placards, shutting down traffic as they marched toward the Governor’s Mansion. It was not the sorry state of our public schools. It was not a recent escalation in crime that was creeping into the city’s tonier neighborhoods. It was not the rising levels of poverty and homelessness and hunger , the growing problem of childhood obesity , or the fact that Forbes had ranked Indiana 49th of 50 states in environmental quality .
The release of the Vatican’s new declaration on reform of the world financial system, long in preparation, happened to be published as media interest in the Occupy Wall Street movement was in crescendo.
Have you seen Hard Times: Lost on Long Island ? The film won the Audience Award/Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October. The documentary follows a group of unemployed men and women, ranging in age from their late thirties into their sixties, who are looking for work while living in certain middle class suburbs on Long Island. I had not seen the film during the festival itself, but when I screened it the other day, I realized the true meaning, for me, of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Hard Times is a disturbing film that puts a face to the unemployment crisis in America in a rather effective way. At times, talk radio broadcasts play over footage of the principals as they trundle off to another day of staring down their own obsolescence.
In the 1970s, the CIA appointed a "Team B" to challenge prevailing assumptions about national security. Since then, there have been other Team B exercises to question prevailing views. This is a smart move. An in-group of experts often becomes an echo-chamber, reinforcing their own prejudices and excluding people with different views. If you are inside, you demonstrate your own loyalty by not frontally challenging the top people, no matter how disastrous. This, of course, is the road to foreign policy debacles like Iraq and Vietnam.
What's the worst case, and the best case, that we can imagine for the next two years? Let's look at the economics first. Republicans and the White House both seem determined to make the recession worse by reducing the budget deficit long before the economy is in recovery.
If anything is more overrated than bipartisanship, it is post-partisanship. The Republicans surely get this. They dig in their heels, don't budge, and wait for the Democrats either to fail, or to come to them. But the media are infatuated with the idea that excessive partisanship is a symmetrical problem. If only the Republicans and the Democrats would meet each other halfway, the nation's ills would be solved. It is hard to watch the Sunday talk shows without seeing one interviewer after another demanding, why can't you people just compromise?
"There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them." --Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, French politician (1807-1874). When elected leaders largely ignore a disgrace like the financial collapse of 2008, sooner or later popular protest fills the vacuum.
1. Don't let the media frame this as a defeat of progressives. Had Obama embraced and fought for a progressive agenda, even if he had passed none of it, he would have entered the 2010 elections as the champion of the huge idealism of the American people that was elicited in 2008 and which would have led the Democrats to an electoral sweep in 2010. Being seen as fighting for the needs of ordinary people -- never letting anyone forget for a moment that he had inherited the mess that Republican and pro-corporate Democrats had created, positioning himself as the champion of those who resented the Wall Street and corporate interests -- his popularity would have grown; he could have won a much bigger victory for the Democrats in 2010, and that would have allowed him to actually legislate the policies of a progressive vision.
Shortly before the California Democratic primary in 2008, the San Fransisco Chronicle invited me to write a short article explaining why I, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives , was supporting Barack Obama. Like most other progressive activists, I understood that a president is limited in what s/he can accomplish in limiting the power of America's economic and political elites and in restraining the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and health care profiteers, the oil industry's relentless destruction of the environment, or the selfishness and materialism that had become the hallmark of Wall Street and increasingly the "common sense" that was conveyed by the media and advertising into the consciousness of many Americans.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: American Liberals and Progressive Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity -- or Are We ready to Change DirectionsProgressives have been blessed in the past two years with three significant opportunities to change the fundamentals of American society. We've already blown the first and are missing the second and third. The first, of course, was the economic meltdown. What a moment that could have been for progressives in Congress or the White House to challenge the ideology of "leave it to the marketplace" or "leave it to the states" to work things out.
This past weekend, Occupy Wall Street demonstrations were held in over 951 cities in 82 countries as people around the globe joined in an international day of solidarity against the greed and corruption of the 1%. The media, trying to discredit all the demonstrators, say we don't know what we are for, only what we are against. So I believe there is much to be gained were we to embrace the following 20 second sound bite for "what we are for." We want to replace a society based on selfishness and materialism with a society based on caring for each other and caring for the planet.
When my teacher and mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary Abraham Joshua Heschel told me and others that he had been "praying with his feet" when he participated in the Selma Freedom march in 1965, he confirmed for many a way of overcoming the dichotomy between my religious practice and my radical politics. In many ways, the anti-war movements of the '60s and early '70s of the last century felt like that kind of community prayer. I had that experience again at my various visits to Occupy Oakland, most intensely this past Wednesday, November 2, 2011.