Snakes and Samaritans

A lawyer once asked Jesus of Nazareth what one must do to be on the path of righteousness. Jesus answered with two challenges: first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer responded, as lawyers tend to do, with a meticulous question about particular definitions, asking Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” This happened to be one of the most important clarifying questions in world history. To answer it, Jesus launched into a parable, one which two millennia later, is perhaps his most beloved: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s how it goes (paraphrased from Luke 10:25-37):

There’s a man walking on a road to Jericho. He’s attacked by robbers, stripped of clothes and left for dead. One guy walks passed him. Another guy walks passed him. Everybody walks passed him… except for one guy, the Good Samaritan, who, instead of walking passed him, walked up to him, bandaged him up, took him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. He gave the innkeeper money to look after him and said he would be back to check on him.

Jesus ended his parable with a question for the lawyer: “Who was being the most neighborly to the stranger?” The lawyer responded, “The one who had mercy on him… the one who entered into his troubles.” Then Jesus advised: “Go and do likewise.”

In his speech this week marking a hundred days in office, Donald Trump read from the lyrics of a song, “The Snake,” a riff he had perfected in his 2016 campaign stump speech. Here’s how the song goes:

“On her way to work one morning, down the path alongside the lake, a tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake. His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew; ‘Oh well,’ she cried, ‘I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you.’ ‘Take me in tender woman; take me in, for heaven’s sake; take me in, tender woman,’ sighed the snake. She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk and laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk. She hurried home from work that night and, soon as she arrived, she found that pretty snake she’d taken to had been revived. She clutched him to her bosom: ‘you’re so beautiful,’ she cried. ‘But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died.’ She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight. Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite. ‘I saved you,” cried the woman. ‘And you’ve bitten me, but why? You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.’ ‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin.‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’”

The message of Trump’s parable is not just opposed to Jesus’ parable– it is, in fact, the direct inverse of it. Jesus’ lesson is that we should turn the strangers we encounter into neighbors by reaching out a helping hand. Trump’s lesson is that to help a stranger is foolish, for people from outside groups possess certain inherently dangerous qualities, just like animals.

With his parable, Trump is not only failing to practice tenderness– he is actively condemning it. As Pope Francis explained in his TED talk this past week, tenderness “is the love that comes close and becomes real.” To be tender is “to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other… to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.” It is to be “on the same level as the other,” lowering ourselves, as God has, so that we can best speak “the real, concrete language of love.” Loving one another, acknowledging one another, listening to one another, humbling ourselves to care for one another… this is what Trump is rejecting when he mocks the tender-hearted.

Francis reminds us that “tenderness is not weakness… it is fortitude.” Tenderness is the path that “the strongest, most courageous men and women” choose. To be unable to practice tenderness is, in fact, a sure sign of weakness. And when power is bestowed on men who are too weak to practice tenderness, Francis warns, bad things happen.

A weak man can be neighborly to those who are exactly like him. A weak people can hold together a nation where everybody looks and thinks and acts the same.

But the challenge and promise of America is that we don’t look and think and act the same. To be held together as a nation, we need to do the hard work of turning strangers into neighbors. To do this work, we need to be strong… strong enough to practice tenderness. This is the work of mercy that makes a country what it is: not the thickening of its outlines, but the deepening of its solidarity. We are fortified as a country by our open hearts, not our closed borders.

If I die from a snake bite, so be it. We’re all going to die some day. We can’t control how or when it happens, no matter how much security we have. What we can control is how we live while we are alive. And I would rather die as a neighbor than live as a stranger.

Freedom, Participation and Solidarity

Freedom is participation in power. If we are unable to influence the social forces that affect our lives, we are not free.

But here’s the hard part: one cannot easily participate in power alone. Sustained participation — the seed of sustained freedom — requires solidarity: folks who are different being in it together.

Where solidarity erodes, participation withers and freedom dims. You can see it across the country today. Where there isn’t solidarity among neighbors, their public problems fester unchallenged, and erupt around town in the silent suffering of “personal” issues. Where there isn’t solidarity among citizens, their governments become distant and corrupted, and a tyranny of inertia leads to perpetual disappointment and popular cynicism. And where there isn’t solidarity among workers, the profit machine hums along maniacally indifferent to important human needs, and the labor and dignity of the humans who maintain it are routinely disrespected. Less solidarity means less participation means less freedom.

Ralph Nader often explains that political rights are worth nothing without remedies, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities. By the first half of this dictum, he means that a right does not mean much if you do not have a venue in which to claim that your right was breached and the possibility of a formal remedy to that breach. For example, the right to free speech means nothing if you do not have a court system in which you can claim your right to speak was breached and have a chance at the force of the courts coming to the defense of your speech.

By the second half, he means that remedies will go unused unless there are institutions organized to facilitate their use. For example, if public interest legal groups do not exist to bring free speech cases for those without the time and money to seek remedies when their free speech rights are breached, the remedy of the courts and the right to free speech might as well not exist.

A similar principle applies to solidarity and participation in power. Democratic freedom is worth nothing without venues for participation, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities for solidarity. Being a democracy does not mean much unless you have venues — like routine elections, accessible representatives, comment periods, court systems, referenda, newspapers, open markets, access to capital, a public culture, and public places — through which opportunities for participation are available. But in turn, these venues for participation will go unused unless there are facilities to foster and channel the solidarity of people.

For neighborhood solidarity, that facility is the civic group: the local organization that brings neighbors together in cheer and concern to develop and realize their public sentiments. It’s the PTA and the Lion’s Club, the Girl Scouts and the church committee.

For citizen solidarity, that facility is the grassroots political party: the federated organization that, at its best, engages its members in crafting and advancing a national vision. It’s the district captain that welcomes newly naturalized immigrants into the election process and the state platform committee that puts an exciting new idea to paper.

For worker solidarity, that facility is the union: the workplace organization that brings together workers so as to turn allegedly personal issues — your isolated wage, your isolated injury, your isolated wrongful termination, your isolated incident of sexual harassment, your isolated gripe with the boss for stealing your overtime pay — into communal issues that elicit the respect and response of the whole. It’s the groups of workers who brought us the weekend and compensation for workplace injury, health and safety standards and sexual harassment remedies, sick pay and an end to child labor, parental leave and the eight hour day.

We can see what happens when these facilities are in decline.

With no civic groups, the media takes over and we begin to understand our neighborhood problems only through the lens of abstract fights staged on screens composed by those far away.

With no grassroots political parties, the insiders take over and American party politics becomes a mix of endless visionless fundraising and cynical voter mobilization every other year.

And with no unions, the corporatists take over and the perspectives of workers are erased from public discourse: the value of entrepreneurs pushes out the value of maintainers, the needs of consumers pushes out the needs of producers, and the imperative of more jobs pushes out the imperative of better jobs.

So the next time you hear someone decry the state of the nation — the next time you hear them list off how the media and the politicians and the businessmen have ruined this place — remember two things: that the way we got into this mess is that we stopped supporting and improving the facilities designed to foster solidarity; and that the way we will get out is to revive and reinvigorate them again.

Today, on this Labor Day, let us recommit to worker solidarity, the seed of worker participation, which itself is the seed of worker freedom. And let us be grateful to the unions that have fostered it, and the Americans — like my grandfather, Joe Gubbins, a labor lawyer from Chicago — that worked for and alongside them as they won for us much of the freedom we have today.

In the words of the old labor song:

We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own
While the union makes us strong.
Solidarity Forever.
Solidarity Forever.
Solidarity Forever.

Beware the Merchant of Certainty

We live in uncertain times. Our governing institutions are rusty and corrupted. Our workforce is going through a painful transition from a manufacturing economy to one based on services and information. As our media expands to welcome voices it once unjustly excluded, our national culture is fracturing. While our real-world communities wither, our millions of screens display disparate messages and no moral leader has emerged to break through the white noise and point the way towards national solidarity. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that our politics has left us disoriented and bewildered.

This uncertainty is uncomfortable. The slow and staggered death of old ideas and the fits and starts of new ones, the scripted choruses of outrage and the disappointments of failed prophets can wear a people down. For many, the consequences of our uncertain times spill out beyond the dizzying screenscape to cause real human pain: children imprisoned by fear-mongering policies, livelihoods lost in changing industries, and neighborhoods cored out by corporations that paid the watchmen to look the other way.

This discomfort and pain leaves us susceptible to fear. Specifically, it leaves us susceptible to the fear of what will happen if we do not escape our uncertainty soon, if we do not grasp for some quick and certain resolution to the day’s tough questions.

This fear creates a market for merchants of certainty. Like the cosmetics shills who tell you why you are ugly to sell you makeup, these con men also sell the problem and the solution in the same pitch: why you should be afraid and how you will be protected if you only follow them.

Many a nation have fell victim to this pattern: uncertainty leading to discomfort leading to fear leading to a successful con by a merchant of certainty. When at our best, America is a nation specifically built to avoid this fate. We have baked into our being a democratic faith that places our hopes not in heroic strongmen at the center of power but rather in extraordinary ordinary citizens spread out across the land. Trusting in the strength and kindness and wisdom of our citizens and communities, we have aspired to be an open nation, trading traditional dogmas and central planners for a government and economy and culture that welcome anyone’s participation, no matter their background.

But this American idea – of a strong people and an open nation, of a democratic faith in ordinary citizens – only works if we ceaselessly reject fear. This is why the last President to chart a course out of gravely uncertain times told us that the only thing Americans have to fear is fear, itself.

The latest merchant of certainty is running the same old con: selling us on fear and its antidote in one pitch; telling us we have no voice and that only he can be our voice; telling us we cannot fix the system and that only he can fix the system. He says he ran for President so that “the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves.”

But he’s wrong. We can defend ourselves. We can fix the system. We can have a voice. We can have more faith in our neighbors than he does. We can let that covenant from the Book of Isaiah seep deep down in our souls:

“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”
“Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

We live in uncertain times. But what has made America great has been our ability to muster the strength and openness to hold on through the tension of uncertainty without resorting to the quick and easy fix. What has made America great has been those generations who took the long and hard way out of each moment of uncertainty: those who devoted their lives to solving a tough problem or building a robust system or hosting a difficult conversation or growing a loving community. What has made America great has been our rejection of fear. As this year’s merchant of certainty inches frighteningly closer to sealing his biggest and darkest of deals, I can’t help but think that our only hope — to stop not only today’s menace but tomorrow’s as well — is to make America great again.

Hand on the Plow

We, as citizens, have work to do. It’s work at the same job we have had right from the very beginning: to form a more perfect union. It’s day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, generation-in-generation-out civic work.

It’s not easy work: it always has taken and always will take all of the neighborly love and practical imagination we have in us to keep at it. It needs our sustained focus and routine effort.

We are too often led to believe that some looming threat – be it a foreigninvader or an insurgent demagogue – is what’s going to be our nation’s downfall.

But if we are to end, it will most likely come from something much less dramatic: our failure to sustain the work.

The greatest threat to the work has always been – as Roosevelt warned – fear, itself. It robs us of our greatest resource – each other – and distracts us from the tasks at hand.

Fortunately, the best antidote to fear has always been the work, itself. It turns strangers into neighbors, differences into gifts, and worry into curiosity, which is the seed of caring.

Perhaps the next bomb – from the hand of a terrorist or the mouth of a racist – is the specter that should keep us awake at night.

But perhaps our real specters look more like a trowel ungripped or a stranger unwelcomed; a prisoner unvisited or a neighbor unhoused; a child uninspired or a community unheard. Not the blasting of guns or the chanting of jerks but the withering of gardens, the rusting of gears and the fraying of a tapestry which, as Langston Hughes wrote in his greatest poem, has “All men are created equal” and “No man is good enough to govern another man without his consent” and “Better die free, than to live slaves” woven into its warp and woof.

“To the enemy who would conquer us from without…” Hughes wrote, “We say, NO!”

“To the enemy who would divide and conquer us from within…” Hughes continued, “We say, NO!”

“Freedom! Brotherhood! Democracy! To all the enemies of these great words: We say, NO!”

But after we’re done saying “NO!”, what did Hughes advise?

“A long time ago, an enslaved people heading toward freedom made up a song: “Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!” The plow plowed a new furrow across the field of history. Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, for all America, for all the world. May its branches spread and shelter grow until all races and all peoples know its shade. KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW! HOLD ON!”

The Virtue of Not Being a Genius

I just read this great quote by Lionel Trilling, writing about George Orwell:

“If we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.”

Though Orwell was a Brit, of course, I feel that the “virtue of not being a genius” is one of America’s great virtues. Our nation’s best accomplishments have been achieved by extraordinary ordinary folks remembered much more for their open-hearted devotion and practical creativity than their mental majesty. The Ida B. Wellses and Benjamin Franklins; the Eleanor Roosevelts and Gifford Pinchots in our history weren’t once-in-a-century minds– they were just citizens who had a high estimation of their own significance and an open ear to the challenges calling them.

“He is not a genius,” Trilling wrote of Orwell. “What an encouragement!”

I hope the same for millennial America: that we can be ever better built of, by and for extraordinary ordinary citizens, so that our descendants may say “our ancestors accomplished so much and they were not geniuses… what an encouragement!”

Going to Work Everyday

To remind myself about the importance of work, I keep this clock on my desk with the batteries out so that it is always set to 9:20 PM.

Twenty years ago yesterday at 9:20 PM, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, play stopped and the banner on the B&O Warehouse switched from 2130 to 2131, creating what is (along with the last out of Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS) the greatest moment in modern baseball history: the certification that CalIMG_6639 2 Ripken had broken Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record.
If football is about going to war, with generals from the sidelines commanding their troops to seize land from the other team, baseball is about going to work, with everyone honing their specialized craft, with the front offices crunching the numbers, and with the players needing to perform with consistency, day in and day out, for over a hundred and fifty days a year.

That’s why Cal’s record is the most important in all of American sports: it’s just about a guy who went to work everyday. And not only that: it’s about a guy who went to work everyday with unmatched dignity and commitment; it’s about a guy who went to work everyday at the same factory in which his brother had gone to work; it’s about a guy who went to work everyday because he learned from his father that that’s the honorable thing to do.

calripken2131 (1)And of course, the most important reason 2131 is America’s greatest sports record is because it’s not about Cal Ripken. It’s about the hundreds of millions of Americans who go to work every day in much harder jobs. Cal put it well himself: “[My fans] all had stories, they all had their own streaks, like working for a plant for 31 years and never missing a day. Whoa. Now that’s a streak. We should be celebrating those streaks. That’s work. I just played baseball.”

Laboring daily — going to work — is like breaking bread or praying or caring for the sick: it’s one of those basic and honorable practices that make us human. It takes us outside of ourselves. It brings us together. It has a grace and momentum of its own.

Without a strong Labor movement, calls to go to work everyday — to have our own streaks of committed Labor, like Cal’s — are perverse and cynical, the smarm of bosses misusing this sacred human practice to squeeze more out of us for their own private profit (and often, worse, have us smile while they fleece us).

Labor Day is about recognizing those people — like my grandpa Joe Gubbins, who was a Chicago union lawyer — who have struggled to make sure that this dignity of Labor — this American pride in going to work everyday, like Cal did — is not perverted by the greed of a few. It’s about building workplaces which empower people to go to work everyday with the secure knowledge that their Labor will be respected. It’s about blabor-movementuilding an economy where we can all go to work everyday and be proud of our Labor, because we had a hand in deciding what is done with it, because we had a hand in deciding in how it was treated, because we had a hand in deciding how it was rewarded. It’s about recognizing the centuries-long union struggle that gave us the weekend and compensation for injury; that gave us health and safety standards and sexual harassment protections; that gave us sick pay and an end to child labor; that gave us parental leave and the forty hour workweek.

I want to live in a country where we can talk about the dignity of going to work everyday without rolling our eyes; where streaks like Cal’s and streaks like that of his fan at the plant are both respected: not just with pats on the back, but with serious power and serious paychecks. Our American Labor Movement — and the more democratic workplaces and fairer economy that have come with it — has brought us much closer to that country than we could have ever imagined a century ago. Think of how much closer we will be if we keep supporting it, if we keep building it, if we have the commitment and dignity to ensure we’re not going to be the generation that breaks its magnificent streak.

Who is the serious politician?

This morning on Morning Joe​, Bob Woodward​ called out Joe Scarborough​ for endlessly focusing on Donald Trump​ without ever asking the serious questions, like “Can Trump govern?” This is a common sanctimonious trope of the “serious people” in Washington over the past few weeks: “let’s stop focusing on Trump so we can get back to the ‘serious’ election process with the Trump-copter-Getty-640x480‘serious’ candidates.”

I’m disturbed by Trump as much as the next guy, but let’s get real here: the current process isn’t that serious without him.

When it comes to domestic policy, no candidate would be able to honestly answer that they “can govern” that much better than Trump because domestic policy is, for the most part, controlled by Congress and Congress is fundamentally broken. First, Congress is flooded with corporate lobbyist campaign contributions that distort the legislative process and disconnect the legislative process from the general public sentiment. Second, Congress’ members are so taken by Washington paychecks that over 60% of those from the last Congress that aren’t in this Congress are lobbying their former colleagues for the sake of private interests. Third, Congressional districts are so gerrymandered that in many places, the candidates are choosing their favorite voters instead of the voters choosing their favorite candidates. Finally, politics has become so deadening, available voting technology has become so suppressed, present vehicles for citizen engagement have proven so lackluster that tens millions of Americans do not have their voices heard on election day to hold Congress accountable. Does Woodward want Trump to get out of the way so that he has time to promote one of the only serious candidates, Lawrence Lessig​, who actually has articulated a serious plan to fix Congress? Doubtful.

When it comes to foreign policy, actions by the previous two Presidents have resulted in the deaths of ~150,000 Iraqi civilians (which, at the absolute least, includes ~4,000 children), ~26,000 Afghan civilians, ~200 children in drone strikes, and ~6,000 American troops. Do the serious people in Washington want Trump to get out of the way so that they can bring in Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai to ask the other Republican candidates if these 180,000+ deaths unconnected to 9/11 were all just the cost of ‘defending our freedom’? Do they want Trump to get out of the way so they can finally listen to the folks at The American Conservative​ magazine, who are bravely standing up to their fellow “conservatives” to say “enough is enough!” to the mass-produced, government-issued death that the previous two administrations have rained on Middle Eastern humans without apology? Doubtful.

So, in my book, we might as well have the Donald in the race, because he takes time away from his opponents, who are not only tremendously unserious about what America needs right now, but — worse off — are treated too tenderly by a Beltway press that takes them too seriously.

Who then is a serious person in politics right now? I have some ideas about who that might be in the short term (see: Lessig, Lawrence; Sanders, Bernie; Webb, Jim). In the long term, though, it’s the same answer it has always been: YOU. As a hopeful candidate in 2008 once said: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” This today is as true as ever.

Grip your trowels, hit the garden, and start planting, weeding and watering. Citizen action: there isn’t anything in politics more serious than that.

Election 2016: What to Consider

The 2016 election is taking shape. How should we approach it? Here’s my take:

Before thinking about the candidates, we should start by taking the election as an opportunity to think broadly about the state of our nation: First, what are the great national problems of our time? Second, what is our national vision for rising out of those problems?

1a. Problems in Democracy

We can answer the first question by thinking about, to use civic theorist Harry Boyte’s words, both “problems in democracy” and “problems of democracy.”

The major problem *in* democracy is that our economy and earth are in trouble.

Economic inequality — not just between the 1% and the rest of us, but between relatively rich and relatively poor folks (which, as Robert Putnam explains in his great new book ‘Our Kids’, maps roughly to “those whose parents finished college and those whose parents did not”) — is endangering the promise of an inclusive economy, as automation, globalization and plutocratic policies chip away unceasingly at millions of citizens’ livelihoods without adequate replacement. Despite having generated enough per capita wealth to eliminate economic insecurity nationwide, we allow the innovative potential of tens of millions of Americans to be hampered by day-to-day fears for financial survival. A singular focus on ‘creating jobs’ has failed to address the fact that millions *with* jobs are disempowered at their workplaces, resigned to see work as only a paycheck rather than a means to innovate, create, and empower. Although the internet has inspired startup businesses, most dreamers are still shut out. Access to financial resources, regulatory know-how, technical skills, and industry connections are limited to a few. The cutting-edge workplace cultures that blur the line between management and labor through fluid roles, continuous education, and distributed authority are still confined to a few industries. Meanwhile, multinational corporations unceasingly homogenize the economy, not only eradicating regional differences and small businesses, but also crowding out alternative economic forms, such as unionized workplaces, worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and other forms of the commons.

This is all without mentioning that our earth is steadily and dangerously warming and systems of sustainability are being implemented too slowly to stem the crisis.

1b. Problems of Democracy

The major problems *of* democracy are that we have lost our sense of community, integrity and vision.

The bonds of community that sustain our democratic republic are weakening and breaking. People feel increasingly disconnected from their neighbors. Groups that could be organized into empowering networks — workers, customers, interest groups — are instead herded under corporate, media and government bullhorns. National solidarity is increasingly limited to writing checks to those in need as opposed to directly interacting with them in authentic ways: the once-communal labors of caring, teaching, healing, feeding, sheltering, and serving are becoming evermore bureaucratized and hidden from view. Divides of race, class and culture are addressed only through changes in law and mass media, instead of also through authentic interactions with real people in shared projects. We are becoming evermore reliant on technical experts from afar instead of on our own instincts and dialogue with those right next to us. Patriotism, which used to help us care about something bigger than ourselves, has now — after decades of perversion by imperial militarism — become something many roll their eyes at. Most Washington insiders have lost faith in the democratic promise: the promise of the constructive genius of ordinary men and women. Democracy, to these insiders, should not be the co-creation of the nation *by* everyone, but rather the election every few years of a slate of a small cadre of experts to manage the whole operation *for* everyone.

Our public institutions that depend on deep integrity are corrupted by money. Legislatures and administrators meant to depend upon the will of the People alone are bribed by campaign donations. Businesses started to create value for everybody begin to limit their scope to creating value only for customers and then eventually limit their scope more to creating value only for shareholders and then eventually limit their scope even more to creating value for only their elite managers, inventing justification after justification to validate their insatiable appetite for more money. Universities that were created as moral communities of shared uplift come to be seen as only tickets to one’s private success. Our emotions, vulnerabilities and precious cultural touchstones get endlessly converted by marketers and “public relations” consultants into tools to squeeze more money and attention out of us, creating a mass culture whose BS-to-non-BS ratio is becoming untenable for many. The President we elected to change the way Washington works surrounded himself with advisors that have quit public service to receive big payouts from McDonald’s (press secretary Robert Gibbs), Citi (OMB direct Peter Orszag), Uber (campaign director David Plouffe), the British Tories (campaign manager Jim Messina), Amazon (press secretary Jay Carney), leverage buyout firm Warburg Pincus (Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner), and the Keystone Pipeline XL’s TransCanada (White House strategist Anita Dunn). Almost half of all Congresspersons become lobbyists after they stop serving.

Lost in the fog, we lack vision of where to go from here: our political parties are abdicating their responsibility to help point the way towards better days, trading that role in for one of co-producing a 24-hour theater of fear and cultural resentment. Our academics laser-focus on tinier and tinier slices of policy analysis to get ahead, instead of helping us see the big picture. Our time has produced few moral leaders to turn to for stories of where we came from, where we could go and how we can get there. The Democratic Party is stuck fighting for tax-and-transfer policies that skim money off the top of a grossly unequal economy to temporarily save the bottom, but have no unified idea of how to work to make the economy less unequal in the first place.

2. A Vision of Where We Should Go

Built into these critiques is a vision of where we should go as a nation.

Regarding the economy, we must both open the economy and strengthen citizens to act in it. To open the economy, we should work on: easing the path to entrepreneurship so that more people have more capital, resources and regulatory acumen to realize their business ideas; making employment resemble entrepreneurship so that, within the context of stable and secure employment, the distinction between being an employee and being your own boss is blurred; preserving and encouraging economic diversity so that homogenization does not close off opportunities for realizing difference; and breaking up monopolies and ending cronyism so that entrenched players do not shut out upstarts. Plus, we should do this all with an eye towards conservation, sustainable development, and a carbon-neutral near future.

To strengthen citizens, we should work on: fortifying economic security so that satisfying one’s immediate needs need not be a barrier to creative participation; decentralizing capital for productive use so that more people have more resources to work with creatively; broadening educational opportunities so that location and age no longer determine one’s access to educational empowerment; promoting empowering pedagogy so that schooling is not for static training but rather for civic and economic entrepreneurship and empowered employment and citizenship; and fighting entrenched discrimination and stigmatization so that arbitrary inhibiting institutions do not stand in the way of the public flourishing of certain groups of citizens.

Regarding community, we should work on: revitalizing local communities; increasing communal self-reliance so economic and cultural power is decentralized throughout the nation; creating participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power by enabling the more routine organization of democratic networks; humanizing the caring economy by supplementing service bureaucracies with widespread participation in direct care for each other; and building programs for national solidarity by bridging divides of race, culture and class through more than just law and mass media.

Regarding integrity, we should, in the short term, work on: driving money out of politics by establishing the public financing of elections through campaign donation vouchers to every citizen every election to replace a plutocratic pre-election fundraising season with a democratic pre-election fundraising season; increasing the level of public shame given to those legislators and administrators who walk through the revolving door and cash in on their access to governmental power; broadening legal options for businesses aiming to move beyond obsession with profit-maximization, such as B-Corps, triple bottom lines, and ESOPS; and supporting the nascent DIY movement that promotes craftsmanship, durability and real needs over the manipulation of conventional marketing.

In the long term, we should support a broad move from a technocratic management aristocracy towards a pluralist membership democracy… in the Founder’s terms, towards a more democratic republic. This will involve working on promoting localism, civic education, the civic infrastructure of public spaces and organizations, and other tools of making citizens, in Harry Boyte’s words, “not mainly spectators of democracy but owners and creators of the democratic way of life, with government as partner.”

I and others have outlined aspects this vision more in depth in The Progressive Alternative intervention document.

3. What Role Does The President Play?

If we believe citizens should be co-creators of the nation, why should we care who the President is?

The spirit behind such as question is right. In the words of one inspirational 2008 presidential candidate: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” (Unfortunately, that same candidate never followed through, governing as a technocratic liberal, failing to continuously activate and engage the broad-based member-driven movement that elected him. We learned the hard way that structural change comes from below, not from a President, no matter how much we like him.)

But, those who want to ignore presidential campaigns completely must acknowledge three things. First, Presidential candidates and the president herself do have the largest platform for laying out a vision for the future of this country. Second, the appointments the President makes — not just to the Supreme Court, but to the entire executive branch — have a serious impact on: what promising initiatives get funded and which get killed (ask a green energy tech firm funded during the Obama administration); what problems get investigated and what get ignored (ask the AIDS activists ignored during the Reagan administration or supported during the Bush administration); and what leaders get raised up and which stay put (ask Robert Reich how famous he would be if he wasn’t appointed Secretary of Labor by the Clinton administration). Finally, the President can block and delay projects with popular support, meaning that the more the President disagrees with your legislative vision, the higher the bar is for you to achieve it.

4. How Should We Judge Candidates?

Given this assessment of the problems of our time, the necessary vision for the future, and the role of the president, how should we judge the available candidates?

The standard way people recommend to judge candidates is to assess their position on specific issues and see how they align with your own. I think this is misguided: the “hot issues of the day” change rapidly and so does every politician’s positions on them.

Rather, we should try to (1) discern a candidate’s (a) assessment of the problems of today, and (b) vision for the future; and (2) see if their assessment and vision align with our own. Their positions on specific issues may help point the way to their assessment of the problem and vision for the future, but so does many other things: their ways of talking about those positions and issues, their past actions on those issues, the themes they choose to focus on; the groups they interact with; and more.

So, I’m going to be looking for a candidate that acknowledges our closed, broken economy and troubled Earth, as well as our desperate need for more community, integrity and vision. I’m going to be looking for a candidate who: wants to open the economy and strengthen citizens to participate in it; face the reality of our climate change crisis; and care deeply about revitalizing American community, restoring integrity by moving from management to membership and the supremacy of money in politics to the supremacy of people in politics, as well as broadening our vision for the future, beyond tinkering at the edges of broken systems.

In addition to assessing candidate’s visions, we should also see if they have shown in their past the integrity, courage and creativity to stay true to the public interest, have a backbone when it gets hard, and try something truly new to break impasses.

This should all be judged not relative to the other side of the aisle (of course most in your party are going to be better for you than those in the other party!) but relative, at least, to the average politician in your party and, even more, relative to the standards of great leaders in history. We have over 300 million people in this country: we don’t need to settle for “I guess she’s alright.”

On the Charleston shooting

The most important words said yet about what happened in Charleston are from the families themselves, who spoke to the shooter today:

“You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives. And I forgive you.”

“I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

“We are the family that Love built. We have no room for hate.”

These are the words of folks filled with Grace.

These are the words of folks who worked hard to be filled with Grace.

These are the words of folks whose family members were in church on Wednesday, because they knew being a Sunday Christian wasn’t sufficient to be the Grace dealers that God needed them to be.

What should we, their national neighbors — who don’t live in Charleston, who don’t live in South Carolina, who don’t live in the South, who don’t live in skin that puts us at risk of falling victim to this twisted form of hate — do in the wake of this burst of darkness?

I don’t know, but I think we should at the very least start by taking a page out of their Good Book and think about how we can be better vessels of Grace this year; better vessels for a country that needs Grace now more than ever.

The easy thing to do is to take this tragedy and use it to think complacently about how some folks we’ve never met in some community we’ve never lived in, way over there, in that far-off part of the country, are outside of the light.

The easy thing to do is to say racism or violence or darkness are apart from us, the disease of the other side.

The harder thing to do is to admit that we have the disease, too. Our own time and our own attention and our own tax dollars are complicit in the racism of our age. Our own souls are susceptible to the violence of thinking that some group is the cause of all of our problems. Our own moments of darkness are contributing to an environment where some child feels like he needs to shoot someone to feel a part of something.

The harder thing to do is to not just feel something, but to turn that feeling into doing something. No, not to tell someone far away to do something for you, but to do something ourselves: to go forth and listen to someone who is different than us; to go forth and amplify the voice of someone trying to say something; to go forth and help folks find a purpose beyond hate.

This isn’t an easy task, being vessels of Grace.

We might need to put in some extra effort. We might need to put in some extra time. We might need to be together more. We might even need to start going to church on Wednesday.

That’s what the family that Love built did to make sure they had no room for hate.

On the Baltimore Protests

I’m a life-long suburbanite. I’ve lived for 25 years just outside the city. My family chose to live in the suburbs – and I’ll probably choose to live in the suburbs again – because its nice to be out of the city, but nice to be close to the city. You get to have a backyard, but get to go to museums. You get to have quiet nights, but get to go to Baltimore Orioles games every summer without driving too far.

Because I lived in the suburbs, I was blessed to have a good relationship with the criminal justice system. In fact, my interactions with the Falls Church Police Department have been mostly great. One time an old lady drove her car onto my neighbor’s yarcycling_running_falls_churchd and a police officer came by and knew Spanish, so he could talk to her in her native language. He said he was learning Arabic so he could have a better relationship with the Muslim neighborhoods in Greater Falls Church. Our high school resource officer once saw me walk into and accidentally break a side-view mirror on a car and called me over and then talked to me about not being a doofus, said he’d fix the situation and let me go on to class. I felt safe in my town because I knew nothing bad happened in my town and because I could call a police officer to come be brave and help if something did. No one I knew had their father sent to prison. No swat team ever raided my school or my apartment building. No drug user or dealer was locked in a cage for years on end because of their non-violent crimes.

Because I lived in the suburbs, hewing to our supreme responsibility to non-violence was easy. I never experienced violence in my house, I never experienced violence in my neighborhood, I never experienced violence in my school, and I knew hardly anyone who was sent off by our government to commit violence in the name of the state. So, when tense situations arose in my life with others, it was easy to suppress anger long enough to remember the common humanity of my opponents, to blame structures instead of individuals, and to see that steady non-violence is always a better strategy than violence.

But back inside those cities — those cities that are the whole reason we live where we live; those cities that give us the baseball teams and art museums and stable jobs; those beating hearts of our metropolis bodies — there’s a different story.

There are neighborhoods that have been economically devastated over the past decades. They witnessed their centers cored out as American manufacturing jobs were transferred by unpatriotic mega-corporations to far-off lands because those firms’ wealthy managers didn’t want to deal with hard-earned American unions, safety and labor standards, and fair wages. When dramatic technological changes revolutionized the workplace, subTRB-BS-md-freddie-gray-p9-furbanites like me had access to well-funded schools and college educations — the keys to the information economy — while many in inner-city neighborhoods didn’t have the same access. They couldn’t drive away to find jobs: the number of urban black fathers with an automobile dropped to less than 1 in 5. When recessions receded for the rest of us, it didn’t for many urban black men: whereas the unemployment rate for white Americans was 5.4 percent last year, it was double that for black Americans. And none of this counts those who did find a job that pays below a living wage, like the millions of urban black folks (among others) suffering under the poverty wage regime of the fast food economy.

Sufficiently devastated, our fellow Americans living in these impoverished neighborhoods soon became easy political punching bags to sell the ultra-expensive, taxpayer-funded, Big Government “War on Drugs.” Despite white and black folks using and selling drugs at similar rates, drug crime became associated in the public consciousness with urban black men, due to a concerted effort by the 1980’s White House to sensationalize crack cocaine and turn drug use into an urban law enforcement issue, as opposed to what it really was: a public health issue. This creation of the mythical “criminalblackman” was beyond successful: when a 1995 study asked participants to envision a drug user and describe what he or she looked like, 95% of respondents pictured a black man, despite black men making up only 15% of current drug users and dealers.

Having successfully created a national subconscious associating black men with drug crime, it’s no surprise that the Drug War began to target urban black neighborhoods. Today, black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug use as white men and 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white men. As a result, despite the fact that less than 15% of the population is black, about half of all who enter prison for a drug conviction are. And once they’re imprisoned, they’re serving longer sentences, resulting in about three quarters of all persons currently imprisoned being a minority. And again, remember, this is all despite the fact that white folks and black folks use and sell drugs at similar rates.

In short, the real state of emergency in Baltimore is this four-decade Long Emergency: an economy that has devastated our inner-city neighbors, a criminal justice system that sends one-third of our black male neighbors to prison at some point in their lifetime, and a political system that makes some of our neighbors’ kids in Baltimore think smashing and throwing is their best way to raise their voice.

As a suburbanite, this is a story I haven’t lived. I don’t know what it’s really like inside there. So, out of humility, I don’t think we suburbanites should be wagging our finger, telling people living that other story what to do.

But what we can and should do is talk amongst ourselves about what those from our own neighborhood should be doing about this Long Emergency. We suburbanites should ask ourselves: what responsibilities do we have to the cities that provide for us our suburbs? Should we drive in during the day, take from them our baseball games and art museums and paychecks, and then drive out at night, thinking nothing of what’s happening in there? Should we ignore the needs of our city’s struggling neighborhoods unless they risk spilling out into our safe havens? Should we deem their streets too “sketchy” to drive through and learn from? Should we let the sensationalist glowing screens tell us about their kids instead of actually meeting them?

Responsibility is the ability to respond. And we in the suburbs have an ability to help respond to the foundational crisis of our cities. If we are going to take from the metropolises we inhabit, we have a responsibility to give to them, too. There are tremendous leaders from these neighborhoods and in these neighborhoods not only helping address the short emergency of this week but helping address the Long Emergency of this era. Instead of wagging our fingers at the protesters, why not lend our whole hands (and, with that, our whole hearts) to such leaders?

In that spirit, I just donated $20 to The Inner Harbor Project which, in their own words, is “a model for social change that identifies teenagers who are leaders among their peers, equips them with research and professional skills, and organizes them to come up with solutions to issues that divide our society on the basis of race, class and culture.” I’ve heard great things about their work: I hope you can donate, too.

It’s the least we can do: support Baltimore inside and outside of the walls of Camden Yards.