Category Archives: Serious

USA 2.0: Towards the #NextRepublic

There’s a certain amount of hand wringing going on regarding the possibility of a new Constitutional Convention.

The concern is understandable. An “Article VConstitutional Convention would indeed open a can of worms, as various individuals, organizations, and interests strive to bend the new system to fit their particular political peculiarities. But nonetheless, it’s a can that needs to be opened.

As I wrote a couple of years ago:

Governments are kinda like [automobiles]. For one reason or another, you have to get a new one every once in a while. They wear out, or break, or some calamity comes along and makes them unusable, or the cost of maintaining them becomes unsustainable…

It’s time to call for the Next American Republic. This one is broken, worn out, obsolete, and too expensive to maintain – and furthermore, it has been vandalized and tampered with, its safety mechanisms and pollution controls deliberately disabled.

Of course, we can’t go to a new government dealer, or even get a certified “pre-owned” Republic for a replacement. We’ll have to build it ourselves. We can use some of the old parts, maybe, the ones that still work – but before we get to that, we have some design work to do.

Rather than try to maintain the status quo, I would like to suggest that we progressives need to create our own parallel efforts for Constitutional reform. There are too many things about our system that desperately need to be upgraded and updated. We are dealing with social, environmental, and economic conditions that the Founders never could have imagined, and we need to change accordingly.

For example, here are some features that I’d like to build into the Next Republic.

  1. Clarify the rights and responsibilities of citizens – not only with regard to firearms ownership, but political participation, taxation, etc.
  2. Create a better system of checks and balances, not only between branches of government (Executive/Legislative/Judicial), but between the Market, the State, and the People. Prevent power from becoming centralized.
  3. Ensure that all levels/classes, not just the wealthy, have meaningful representation in government, and the opportunity to make their concerns heard and acted upon.
  4. Rescind “corporate personhood,” making clear that corporations do not have the same innate “rights” as citizens
  5. Make clear that political donations are not “free speech” and can be regulated; enforce total transparency in political influence (no more “dark money”).
  6. Make true multiparty democracy possible – institute voting reforms such as Instant Runoff or Ranked Choice.
  7. Make Congress and state legislatures more reflective of the population; get rid of “winner take all” systems and institute proportional representation.

That’s just for starters.

It’s not such a big deal, really – many countries have reinvented themselves from time to time.  South Korea is in its Sixth Republic now, France and the Philippines their fifth, Nigeria its fourth. Some historians say that we’ve actually had three or four distinct republics in American history already, though none of them manifested in a complete Constitutional overhaul.

I think the discussion needs to happen. We need to redefine who we are as a nation, and what we think our goals and purpose as a nation should be. We need to make strong cases for progressive reforms. But we also need to make sure that we design a system where people from across the spectrum – from progressives and liberals to conservatives and traditionalists – feel they have a stake.

 

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: GREEN, AND RED, AND WHITE

I’m writing these words on the 17th of March, the day when Chicagoans make their river run green.

So let me ask: Does anyone out there who’s not Irish themselves feel ethnographically challenged, personally offended, or existentially threatened by St Patrick’s Day and its celebration of things Irish? Are you afraid of being overrun by O’Reillys, finding your cold Coors Light replaced by warm, dark Guinness, or being elbowed off your local dance floor by brigades of straight-armed step dancers?

No, of course not. The notion seems absurd on its face now, doesn’t it? (How you might feel about the holiday’s perpetuation of certain stereotypes is a different question entirely.)

But as you may know, it was not ever thus. Irish immigration following the Potato Famine in the mid 1800’s was seen as a scourge, a veritable plague, a calamitous threat to the existing social order. Certain folks were convinced that the waves of Catholic refugees fleeing ecological catastrophe and political mistreatment in their homeland were in fact only the advance troops for a Papal plot to overthrow the United States government, enforce Canon law, and set up a new Vatican in Cincinnati.

It’s some fascinating, if sordid, history, and well worth learning more about. (There’s a good introductory summary on the History Channel’s website. Also see this article from Common Dreams.)

But today is also the 17th of March, 2019. Two days ago, an Australian gunman made the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, run red with blood when he attacked two mosques, killing at least 50 people and injuring dozens more.

There’s a straight line connecting these events. In fact, they’re just different manifestations of the same curious and deadly phenomenon. Nowadays we call it “white supremacy.”

White supremacist philosophy, as I understand it, seems to hinge on a paradox. On the one hand, its adherents believe in the innate genetic superiority of their “race.” In fact, in one of its more bizarre flavors, the so-called “Christian Identity” movement, this supposed superiority is actually ordained by no one less than God Himself.

But somehow, this unassailable primacy, this supernatural endowment, is incredibly fragile and vulnerable. It could all be lost at any time, or so these folks declare, and the great edifices of European civilization could come crashing down around our ears. Only through vigilance – and violence – can the dark tide of multicultural “contamination” be kept at bay.

Never mind that DNA and ethnographic studies now suggest that not only is there no such thing as “racial purity,” the entire concept of “race” as we have previously known it may be completely invalid. To these unfortunate folk, all the advances of humanity are the work of their ancestors, and under constant and pernicious assault by their savage inferiors.

It seems to me that this philosophy is in fact a philosophy of self-loathing and fear. It attempts to defend what does not exist, something that never has existed. It looks back longingly to a illusory past, rather than thinking about how we might all construct a mutually beneficial society together, one that allows us to celebrate both our commonalities and our diversity. It is self defeating – in trying to engender pride, it brings shame upon the very people it supposedly wants to exalt.

Its followers are dangerous to be sure, as the string of white supremacist terrorist attacks loudly attests, but they are relatively few. The folks who are really dangerous, who are the real threat, are the political, religious, and media leaders who cynically manipulate and encourage such beliefs for their own ends.

(PS: Here is an excellent article about the American roots of white nationalism. )

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TOWARDS AMERICAN RECOVERY

(My column for November 2018)

In the past few months, I’ve been trying to make the case that American society in the Age of Trump is very much like an addict – an addict that will soon be confronted with an existential decision: to recover or perish.

So what might that recovery look like?

The genius of the folks who developed “twelve-step” programs for alcoholics and other addicts beginning back in the 1930’s was simple. They saw that in order to recover, the addict couldn’t rely on his or her individual will alone, but needed to find something outside of themselves – they hit upon the term “higher power” – to which they could refer to help guide their decisions.

And the real genius was that they realized that it didn’t much matter exactly what that “higher power” was. It didn’t need to be a deity. In fact, it was better if the addict decided for himself or herself what it was, according to his or her own understanding. This avoided the need to reconcile oneself with someone else’s dogma or theology, and the possibility of destructive disputes or schisms. But th8s “higher power” did need to be something bigger than one’s self… something, in a sense, spiritual.

But if I were to say that the solution to America’s troubles is “spiritual” in nature, I fear that quite a few people would take me exactly the wrong way. The kind of spiritual solution of which I am thinking has absolutely nothing to do with posting monuments to the Ten Commandments, absolutely nothing to do with mandating prayer in the public schools or using the words “In God We Trust” – or, for that matter, with governments using public funds to support religious displays.

It has nothing to do with outward displays of religiosity at all.

It begins instead internally, with a strong dose of humility – a quality in short supply in the American national consciousness. It begins with an acknowledgment, an admission to ourselves that things have gotten out of control. Things are happening that seemingly exceed our ability to cope with them – from gun violence and opioid addiction to inequality and climate change.

To take even this first step would be a huge challenge for the American psyche, even in normal times. It runs completely counter to our treasured national narrative of “can-do” confidence, of “manifest destiny,” of shining cities on a hill.

That’s why this process won’t start – can’t start – until it absolutely has to.

But once it does start… then we will have to find what the term “higher power” means for us as a people. I don’t think that it’s God per se. Rather, it may be the set of values that we have always professed to believe in – things like equality, justice, fairness, freedom, responsibility – but have frequently failed to implement fully.

These qualities are not ours alone, of course. To rededicate ourselves to their service will also mean acknowledging that there is something beyond our own narrow perception of “national self-interest,” and that we are no longer some kind of final authority. Given our historical attitudes towards institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, this will also be a hard pill to swallow… but swallow it we must.

That is, if we wish to recover our collective soul.

Just a Symptom

Mister Trump
Is the lump
That you find
In your breast

His soul
Like that mole
That looks different
From the rest

He’s that thought
In your head
You might be better
Off dead

That rasping in your lung
That strange taste on your tongue
That little twinge in your hip
That small sore on your lip

Just a sign of what’s coming
That something’s wrong with the plumbing
Of a rot deep inside
That a suntan won’t hide

He’s a symptom, that’s all
Just a small warning call
The pride before the fall
It’s okay. Build your wall.

Prayer Against Fascism

Dear Lord, Guiding Spirit, Power beyond and around and within us…
as You know, there is a disease going around
a deep and terrible sickness
it attacks the soul, the mind, and the heart
of individuals, communities, cities, of whole nations
it’s infectious, virulent, easily communicable
spread by word of mouth, by constant exposure to lies
by propaganda’s relentless drumbeat
it feeds on fear, ignorance, and bruised pride
and it makes people do horrible things
sometimes in Your Name

let me not succumb to it

keep my heart open to the Other
keep my mind open to truth and to inquiry
keep my soul free of hatred and fear
grant me the courage to speak out
when I see this disease raise its ugly head
grant me compassion both for its victims
and for those infected by it
keep me free from arrogance and illusions of superiority
grant me humility and acceptance
let me never come to believe
that I have any exclusive answer, any special privilege
or that others are any less worthy than I am in Your sight

Lord, I pray for the humbling of bullies,
of those who abuse their power over others –
I ask for their hearts to be healed,
for the calming of their rage
Grant them empathy and inner peace
Let them find what it means to be human again

Help us to celebrate everything that we are
To fully embrace both our diversity and our unity
To care for each other and your Creation
Let the mighty step down, let the lowly be raised
Help us temper justice with mercy
Help us replace dissension with harmony
Help us overcome this disease, this epidemic we call fascism
with the healing power of love. Amen.

Assignments

Here is my life
As I have to live it
Here is my gift
As I have to give it
Here is my work
As I have to do it
Here is my time
As I have to go through it

Here is the world
As I have to see it
Here is my self
As I have to be it
Here is my house
And I have to clean it
Here is my promise
And I have to mean it

Here is my heart
As I have to show it
Here is my truth
As I have to know it
Here are my feelings
As I have to feel them
Here are my wounds
As I have to heal them

Here is my darkness
That I must bring to light
Here is my struggle
That I have to fight
Here are the things
I don’t yet understand
You are my friends
With whom I can stand

Here is my soul
That I have to show
Here is my God
That I must get to know
These are the tasks
That I have been given
This is my life
I had better start living
This is my life
I had better start living

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.