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Churches to the Rescue

My late husband, Henry Pratt and I, had quite an effective political partnership: I would participate in (or found) in a grass roots group and he would advise us from his store of knowledge about “interest group politics,” which was his specialty as a Professor of Political Science.

Although Henry has been gone almost 24 years, things that I learned from him keep cropping up in my columns for the European-based online magazine, Impakter.com.

This latest one, however, is straight from the horse’s mouth, based on two books he wrote about what happens when faith groups join together in concerted political action.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO RACHEL MADDOW

Come back in time with me to the middle of World War II, where I was growing up safely (one would think) in New York City.  But, no, we lived one street over from 86th, where the Nazi bund, though outlawed, still had its adherents. My brother and I were walking home – aged about 7 and 9, and we must have seen a rally where people were raising their arms in the heil Hitler salute.   We tried it on our parents and were soundly scolded.   As the war dragged on, that encounter left me terrified of Nazis because I thought the war included our own neighborhood.

Meanwhile, here in the Detroit Metro area, Charles Lindbergh, a pro-Hitler America Firster who practiced Nazi eugenics by establishing an (Aryan) bigamist family in Germany, was given asylum during WWII at Cranbrook; Henry Ford was promulgating the (fake conspiracy theory) about the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, delighted that Hitler was using it to persecute Jews; and, in Royal Oak Father Coughlin was pouring his hate for the Jewish race over the radio and from the pulpit of his Shrine of the Little Fascist in Royal Oak.

‘Rachel Maddow has just published a book about that era –  PREQUEL (subtitled “An American Fight Against Fascism”) covering the rise of American Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s and 1940s.  “Looking at this story in aggregate is a shock to our usual thinking about this historical period,” writes reviewer Kathleen Belew, “It’s an era that, as Maddow notes, is ordinarily remembered as a time when Americans unified against fascist threats.. . . most of us don’t know that the politics of the era were far more divisive than Greatest Generation mythologies would have us believe.”         

        

Rachel Maddow is a very accomplished public intellectual, with an hour of political commentary that, until recently, appeared every night on MSNBC. She has a Ph.D. in politics from Oxford, does brilliant research, and talks very fast. Besides starring in the Rachel Maddow show, she writes history books about things that happened before and have been neglected or shoved under the rug, but which have important implications for what is going on at the present moment.         

On the day after Thanksgiving 2023, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes (who has the MSNBC talk show before hers) sat down for a live taping at City Hall in NY for his podcast, “Why is This Happening?” Against the background of Rachel’s discoveries about American Fascism, they discuss its reappearance in our country and what it means, for our lives now. Their theme is that it is going to be weird, frightening and difficult year, when we will have to come to terms with “the existential threat that the rising tide of autocracy in America poses for our continuing to live in a democracy.”

Chris Hayes points out the “incredible ridiculous tension in American rhetoric” people use about our democracy, as if democracy were inevitable, a permanent fixture in our country, no longer challenged.   Instead, he sees our whole history as an ongoing “Pitched battle” between people trying to get ourselves included in the precepts of the Declaration of the Independence and the Constitution and those who want to replace democracy with the efficiencies of authoritarianism   At every point in American history there has beden this tension between “Dominion, rule by some group or person” vs all of us working to do things together. “ Or, as Rachel chimes in “Being in a 250 year old democracy is hard, and there are not very many left in the world, deciding things together. ”

What to do? Well, here’s The Gospel According to Rachel Maddow

 “This is going to be a weird year.  This is going to be a very difficult, frightening year. It doesn’t come to every generation, but it has come to us this time, this year. . . .“We must engage with terrible ideas and defeat them with better ideas.” Surprisingly, however, Rachel’s core advice is not intellectual: we can’t defeat their ideas with other ideas or policies with other policies when so much emotional inter-party demonization is going on; just sending up a Fox pundit against a MSNBC pundit isn’t going to get us anywhere.

In other words, one of our most famous and successful intellectual pundits has realized that neither intellectual argument or punditry, can save democracy.

What seems to have happened to Rachel Maddow is that she nearly killed herself (she puts it that way) doing a show every night of the week until she was threatened by the kind of thing that, in Japan, is called Karoshi – death from overworking. So she cut back, doing only the Monday show, and has moved to a home in the Massachusetts countryside with her wife: “living in rural western New England…it has taught me is that politics is only one thing in any one person’s life.  .There is, I believe, something very important that you can do in your non-political life that can improve your political life: have face to face relationships with people that are everything besides politics. Know all the dimensions of your neighbors”

Her example: ” where I live now, Even committed news junkies also have bears getting into their trash; talk to them about the bears!” Your neighbors may have different political views than yours, but you can try to figure out how to solve your common problem!

My example: There is a couple up my street who have Trump posters all over their lawn at election time.. They also have a pollinator garden and plantings right next to the sidewalk.  On my daily walk, I cross the street to enjoy their garden and in hopes of chatting with them, as they are out there all of the time. Once they know me, I plan to ask them their particular needs that lead to their voting choices.  Following Rachel’s advice, the idea is that once they know me and that I am respect them enough to listen to their views they are more likely to at least listen to mine. .

Rachel adds that another way to resist demonizing people you disagree with politically is getting involved in something that connects you to them, through voluntary associations like PTAs, block clubs, and book groups. 

She also advises keeping humanity in your life by getting back in touch with old friends, repairing broken relationships you may have ended long ago, including family members. That way, so that you aren’t dragging any heavy backage behind you. Also, make new neighborhood friends, especially with elderly folks who you might phone to check in on new and then – but don’t live in your phone and devices. 

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 Deciding things Together

The Gospel According to Chris Hayes: You must use democratic means to fight anti-democratic forces.” Our situation is like getting on a bus with 60 people and asking them all to decide ‘where shall we go?’   Practice decision making with the people you don’t agree with”

This makes me think of Quaker decision-making, which is based on group consensus-seeking. Adam Gopnik has a great article in the New Yorker about Black Quaker Bayard Rustin, who was a lead organizer in the Civil Rights Movement (though he had to stay in the background because he was gay).

As a Quaker, he knew how to “find a way from individual crankiness to a working consensus” and to unite a coalition of fractious groups around a common cause. It was Rustin who, after a visit to India in 1948, brought the non-violent protest methods of Gandhi to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, combining them with his Quaker skills to organize the 1963 March on Washington as well as the Freedom Rides and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Those of us who witnessed that era realized that there was nothing “soft” about the non-violent method: it was militant and tough minded and required extraordinary personal courage. As Gandhi puts it, “It is not nonviolence if we merely love those who love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us. I know how difficult it is to follow this grand law of love. But are not all great and good things difficult to do? Love of the hater is the most difficult of all.”

How About Us?  The kind of conversations we want to have with our opponents are an application of the nonviolence we saw in the civil rights movement to our everyday parlance. First of all, if we demonize those who demonize us, how can we claim ethical superiority? Secondly, as Rachel Maddow points out, ideas are not enough to get through; we need to set the emotional stage for the possibility of communication. When you interrupt or have anger in your voice, for example, you arouse emotions in the other person that wipe out their thinking capacity, substituting opinions for thoughts as everything dissolves beneath waves of antagonism.

So there we are on Chris Hayes’ bus, hoping to get someplace together, but so uselessly cantankerous and tribally unable to cooperate with any group other than our own that we can’t even leave the parking lot. The only way we can reach consensus is to transcend our individual suspicion and elf-protection, to wash off the groupthink glue that congeals us, and to open up our hearts, so that we can take the emotional risks necessary for concerted action.

IT IS TIME TO SAY ENOUGH

The way I remember my friend Esther Broner telling us the story, she was on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai with an inter-faith group including Moslems, Jews, Christians and adherents of the Shinto religion.   When they came near the summit, the men announced that the women were to stay behind while they scaled the summit to pray.

The women looked at each other in consternation but then, resigned to the same-old same-old from men, they took out the knitting and sewing they carried with them.   Esther, however, had other ideas.  She went from one to the other, showing them how to use their wool and the thread to knit themselves together into a weave of women, who then prayed their own prayers and sang their own songs in their own circle, triumphantly.

In honor of Esther, who died in 2011 (may her memory be a blessing) here is my take on the present Hamas-Israeli war:

IT IS TIME TO SAY ENOUGH

It is time to say enough.

Let the Palestinian women come out of the ruins of Gaza and the West Bank enclosures.

Let the Israeli women come out of the ruins of the kibbutzim and towns along the southern border.

Let the women of Tel Aviv arise – Jews and Israeli Arabs together, and march on Jerusalem.

May the women of Jerusalem arise – Israelis and Palestinians alike, and march on the Knesset.

Let all of the women in the West Bank and the Settlements arise to join their sisters in Jerusalem.

Let the women leaders in the Knesset and the women leaders in the Israeli Administration stand before all of the women of Israel and the Palestinian enclaves to proclaim that it is enough, that they are taking over.

May they all throw their heads back and laugh at the abject failure of Netanyahu and his minions. Let them all shout together, “it is enough!” And then let them get to work.

Homo Puppy

I have always assumed that human evolution was brutal, a matter of the survival of the fittest, with only the meanest and strongest among us getting to reproduce.   What do you know?  According to Rutger Bregman in Humankind: a Hopeful History,* it’s not that way at all.  Instead of evolving to be ferocious, we have evolved to be loveable.  Here is a useful outline of Bregman’s theory that we have evolved as Homo Puppy.  

  • “Our brains are smaller than those of some of our predecessors, our teeth and jaws are more childlike and partly because of that we have become great in cooperating: we have become hypersocial learning machines,
  • We are born to learn, connect and play and that makes us strong as a species.
  • The Homo Puppy has an antenna that is continuously tuned to others. We are good in connecting to other people and we enjoy doing it, consciously as well as subconsciously; emotions are leaking out of our bodies all the time, waiting to be picked up by the other puppies.
  • Our minds need contact in the same way as our bodies need food.”

Bregman prefers Rousseau’s theory that we were better off in “a state of nature” to Hobbes’ and Machiavelli’s belief in an existential human nastiness that is only kept in check by a thin veneer of “civilization.” He is skeptical “of the notion that human beings are inherently selfish, or worse, a plague upon the earth.  I’m skeptical when this notion is peddled as ‘realistic,’ and I’m skeptical that there’s no way out.”

He demonstrates the “way out” in historical examples when, instead of acting at our very worst in times of great danger, we act out of community-mindedness, kindness, and mutual cooperation.  Agreeing with Gustave Le Bon’s theory in The Psychology of the Masses that civilized behavior crumbles in the face of catastrophe, Hitler thought he bombing the hell out of their cities would easily undermine British morale.

However, the cooperative behavior of Londoners, accomplished in a mood of mutuality, courage and care for each other in the face of horrific danger, proved the opposite. Nevertheless, both Churchill and Eisenhower bought Le Bon’s argument, though their carpet-bombing of German cities produced the same result of deepening community ties, morale, and solidarity.   (And, then, consider Putin’s “ten-days-and-it’s-over” presumptions about Ukraine).

 William Golding, in his 1954 Lord of the Flies, adheres to belief in our propensity to social evil, a personal bias that Bregman refutes in telling what actually happened when six boarding-school boys survived on an island for a year in 1966: they cared for each other, invented fair rules for dividing up chores, and came up with reasonable punishments for misconduct while devising cooperative methods for hunting, fishing, and gathering fresh water.

 Humankind is structured on a series of similar examples that demonstrate how our puppy-like geniality (manifest in the evolution of our appealingly rounded eyes, our ability to make eye contact with each other, and the distinctly human tendency to blush with shame) result in a complex social wiring enhanced through our development of language and our delight in learning things from each other.

Bergman hypothesizes that their (puppyish) eagerness to trade with and even leave their bands to join others, enhanced by their curiosity and copycat propensities, are the reasons why our hunting and gathering ancestors prevailed.   Although Neanderthals had much bigger brains than ours, our social/linguistic skills and propensity for learning from each other may have been the key to how we lived through the onset of harsher climate conditions.

The problem with civilization is that it brought ownership, then rivalry over what was owned, and then misery for those who owned less or were cut out of owning anything.  Bregman finds operating on a hierarchical power/over rather than the community power/with basis tragically corruptive: People in power “literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude than average,” they cheat and are shameless and loose the capacity to blush. . .Power works like an anaesthetic that makes you insensate to other people” and see them “in a negative light.” 

When sociopathic autocrats call the shots, puppy-like communities can morph into ferocious packs.  By the time a regime’s propaganda machines have done their work on us, along with threats of torture and execution at the least appearance of dissent, it is no wonder that we do what we are told.  Bregman, however, sees the “just following orders” argument, as used at the Eichmann trials, as a short-sighted iteration of the veneer theory; he posits something more (tragically) puppy-like as the motivation which made high level Nazi officials devise, and then carry out, the precise, viciously evil workings of the Holocaust.

Bregman suggests that, though his psychopathic antisemitism was searingly evident, Hitler’s orders were actually so vague that officers like Eichmann chose to act within “a culture of one-upmanship in which increasingly radical Nazis devised increasingly radical measures to get in Hitler’s good graces.” In other words, years and years of the propaganda machine had brainwashed the German military into thinking that killing Jews was an act of personal virtue.  Bregman argues that Hannah Arendt’s understanding of “just obeying orders” has been misinterpreted:   she “was one of those rare philosophers who believe that most people, deep down, are decent. She argued that our need for love and friendship is more human than any inclination towards hate or violence. And when we do choose the path of evil, we feel compelled to hide behind lies and cliches that give us a semblance of virtue.  Eichmann was a prime example:  he’d convinced himself he’d done a good deed, something historic for which he’d be admired by future generations.” In other words, he was so eager to wag his tail for Hitler that he did profoundly evil things in order to please him.  Clearly, homo-puppyness does not always lead to a good outcome:  it can embroil us into a “negative spiral [that] can also factor into deeper societal evils like racism, gang rape, honor killings, support for terrorists and dictatorial regimes, even genocide.” And so, our evolution as tail-waggers has its dark side if we copycat ourselves into conformity with systems of injustice.

During the years of the Weimer Republic, Hitler had replaced the Rule of Law with a despotic antisemitism and diktats against dissent.  As a remedy, the nations that won World War II used the Nuremberg trials to establish international standards to prohibit crimes against humanity, including “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”

Shamefully, both the United States and the USSR left their ongoing crimes against humanity out of the new international formula: “The final version of the charter limited the tribunal’s jurisdiction over crimes against humanity to those committed as part of a war of aggression.” Both the United States—concerned that its “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation not be labeled a crime against humanity, and the Soviet Union, wanted to avoid giving an international court jurisdiction over a government’s treatment of its own citizens.”

The problem for Homo Sapiens today is that, if such self-interested, piecemeal compliance prevents out adhering to environmental covenants like the Paris Agreement, we may not be able to save the human race from global warming. In order to prevail, we will have to undertake an unnaturally swift evolutionary leap to a global homo-puppyhood that accepts the whole planet as our commons.  Is this too much to hope? Or will our devotion to charismatic dictators and their propaganda appeals to a narrow and destructive self-interest lead to a far more tragic outcome?

Here’s Rutger Bregman’s take: “There is no reason to be fatalistic about civil society. We can choose to organize our cities and states in new ways that will benefit everyone. The curse of civilization can be lifted. Will we manage to do so? Can we survive and thrive in the long run? Nobody knows.”   

*Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History.  Little Brown & Co: NY 2019

Moral Harm and the Comfort of Accountability

Since 2016, those of us who love justice and fairness have been floundering in a gloom-inducing mire of injustice and inequity, for which almost none of the principal perpetrators have been held accountable.   This apparent failure of our country’s social contract has left us dizzily boundaryless.  If moral harm involves being psychologically damaged by seeing social wrongs which are loathsome to our sense of what is right and good continuously going unpunished, we have become the walking wounded.

Now, just in time for our battered spirits, here comes the Rule of Law in the form of 30 points of indictment decided upon by a Grand Jury of 23 of former President Trump’s New York City peers.

One of the elements of the moral swamp we have being lost in for the last 7 years is the relentless flogging of everything that is unjust and loathsome by the progressive media we like to watch – MSNBC, in my case, but also CNN and, sometimes, Public Television itself.  It doesn’t matter how scornful the pundits’ tone in reporting it:  continuous streaming of morally disturbing speech and acts rattles our minds almost as badly as watching Fox News.  

For example, on the Friday when the former president announced that he would be indicted the following Tuesday (he wasn’t), MSNBC spun a relentless loop, all weekend long, of his accumulated misbehaviors, unaccountably illustrated by one exceptionally dignified Presidential photograph after another.  Just as we thought that the Rule of Law had guided us to the safe edges of the moral swamp, the (liberal) media’s relentless footage went right on immersing us in moral miasmas of reminiscence.

During the coming months (perhaps years?) as indictments come down and trials drag on for all four offenses, we must find ways to protect ourselves from media driven moral harm.  Some of my friends have turned off their television sets and canceled their newspaper subscriptions. Convinced that a democratic citizenry must be an informed one, I am keeping up with my New York Times and my cable news, skipping Trumpy articles and muting every fulmination from the far right that MSNBC gives space to.   I will only pay attention to news of accountability in analyses and commentary about the heartening workings of our Rule of Law.

Have you found firm paths out of the swamp for yourself?  Tell us about them!

GREEN SWANS ALL OF THE WAY

Like a lot of my friends, I read newspapers and magazines and listen to TV a lot, and I find myself making piles of clippings and notes around a given subject. Every now and then, I figure out a way to amalgamate these into a column for Impakter.Com.

Here is the latest, about the way that progressive environmental interests and businesses are beginning to work together.

https://bit.ly/42jVnoZ

Midterm Worries

I am usually positive and forward-looking about the political scene in America; even in the worst of the Trump years I found that taking action mitigated my dread of the evident fascist evils stalking our land. But, this year, everything is up for grabs: both democracy and the fate of our beloved planet.

With two weeks before the midterm election, here is a little civics lesson and a diary about how my days are going during this particularly perilous political season.

https://bit.ly/3DqNUtJ

Biden’s Successes and Doomerist Assessments

Here’s Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer celebrating one of the many pieces of Democratic Party legislation that have gone through Congress during Biden’s first term. And there we all were in the middle of a very good political summer, flushed with triumph from getting the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law. Why were our newspapers and media full of doom and gloom about Biden’s low popularity and about huge setbacks expected for the November midterms? So, I hauled myself out of the river once again, setting my swim noodle aside to write an Impakter.com column about this odd discrepancy. Here’s what I came up with:

https://impakter.com/president-bidens-successes-doomerist-assessments/

Good Morning America

What did I do this summer? Although I was determined to lollygag as much as possible, Washington went into high gear on climate change legislation, which I have been working on with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby for years. Now, it all came to a head! As folks in Europe seem to want to know what is going on in American politics, here was my blow by blow description of this exciting summer rush to save our beloved planet that I wrote for Impakter.com.

Good Morning America: The Fight Against Climate Change Leaps Forward  – Impakter