Can’t help but comment on the recent elections and our situation today. It may seem incongruous for a blog on spirituality and monastic values to discuss this, but there is also a good reason for it. For one thing, politics, for all its nastiness and grubiness, is not not-religious. It touches on profound religious values and themes. But even with that, consider as an analogy some great work of art, like Raphael’s “School of Athens,” or Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” or Degas’ ballerinas, etc. On the one hand each is situated in some historical moment and concrete place and all the nitty-gritty of that situation can be found on the canvas; on the other hand that work of art also transcends its historical situation and opens up on a vast horizon with timeless values. So it is with our current political/economic/social/cultural situation. Those of us on the monastic path prefer to fix our gaze on a transcendent horizon, but we are also at the same time inserted into a particular historical situation with its own nitty-gritty stuff that may call for some choices. If we look at all of this with the right eyes, we too may find that which transcends the nitty-gritty of our history–but we do have to explore that with care.
So taking the plunge, let us recall Dickens’ great novel A Tale of Two Cities. In the beginning the narrator tells us, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Indeed, so it is with us at the moment. But you might say ours is a tale of two classes: the top 1% and the “bottom” 99%–some perhaps might want to cut that differently, say, the top 5% and the bottom 95%—however you cut it, a huge percentage of the population is being squeezed, the middle class is being eliminated, jobs have been outsourced, the almighty profit is god of all–this is the “golden calf” which we have shaped and around which we are dancing and which we are worshipping whether we realize it or not. The disparity between the rich and the poor in this country is now the worst it has been in over 80 years–the statistics are there.
Now you would think that there would be some political voices that would address this kind of problem and provide some real solutions, and incidentally take advantage of the situation to be in power for a long time. Nope. Not really. Here also we have “two cities” but it is the “worst of times” in both of them in this case. First of all, the Republicans(aka “conservatives”) have been the party of American business for over a century. That’s ok–in the past they were also for protecting American products and industries from cheap competition from foreigners. Now they are for tax breaks for investors who ship jobs overseas. In the past Republicans were against “foreign entanglements” and against almost all foreign wars. No longer. This Republican Party is NOT the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt(who wanted to conserve the wilderness), Robert Taft, or Dwight Eisenhower. With genuine conservatives one could have a decent debate/discussion about our values and the direction of the country–they have some real good points to bring to the table. Not this present bunch!
By the way, here are some words from Eisenhower in 1953 during the height of the Cold War when there seemed to be so little choice in our situation:
“The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated.
The worst is atomic war.
The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealthand the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms in not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.
This is one of those times in the affairs of nations when the gravest choices must be made, if there is to be a turning toward a just and lasting peace.”
Also, take a look at these words from Eisenhower, from his very last speech as president:
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
The “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that Eisenhower calls for seems to no longer exist. Well-to-do Republicans seem to be driven purely by the profit motive–getting rich at whatever expense to the common good, whether it be their fellow citizens or the environment, etc. Middle-class Republicans seem to be totally unaware how they are being brainwashed into voting against their own self-interest. They are frozen in a kind of irrational fear and anxiety that is very difficult to penetrate or dialogue with. Then there is a huge “middle America” that pretty much calls itself “independent” or swings one way or another from one election to another. These folks are also filled with social/economic fear and anxiety, dumb-downed by the entertainment and infotainment media and very susceptible to voting irrationally. Then, alas, there are the Democrats. While present Republican leadership seems hellaciously greedy, sinister, almost crazy, what really bothers me and a lot of progressive bloggers is the incredible inability of Democrat leadership to confront, challenge, and CLEARLY present an alternative vision of things. In this the Dems and President Obama have failed utterly and they paid for it in this election.
Many years ago Ralph Nader said that the two parties were really one party, that they were simply two branches of the Oligarchy Party–the real rulers of this country, the top 1% and their banks and corporations. I’m beginning to be a believer of that picture. There are, however, some really good progressives within the Dem Party, but mostly they are pushed into ineffectuality(Kucinch), or marginalized, or killed(like Robert Kennedy or Paul Wellstone), or simply voted out like Russ Feingold from Wisconsin or Grayson from Florida. The liberal class within the Dem Party has really failed in the last 40 years or so. Chris Hedges’ book, The Death of the Liberal Class details this historical period very painfully. Note also how the few real radical voices in this country get marginalized in a very deliberate way by the corporate media: Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Staughton Lynd, Howard Zinn, etc. Please read the essay by Chris Hedges’ on truthdig.com about Staughton Lynd: “Heroes for the Beaten.”
The Dems have presented a very incoherent picture. In a sense, the Dems provide an anesthetic while the corporations operate on us. We don’t feel the pain right away until it’s too late. Then we discover an “amputation” has taken place!! Examples and points to be made:
- The Dems were all for unemployment benefits. Nice. But the Dems(during the Clinton era) were also all for NAFTA and outsourcing which allowed the shipping of jobs abroad, the moving of corporate headquarters offshore so corporate taxes cannot be collected, etc. The Dems seem to want to have it both ways.
- When Obama took over in January of ’09, the economy felt like the Titanic. What does he do–he surrounds himself with the banksters, many of the same people who steered the financial world into this mess, and takes THEIR advice to concentrate on the bailing out of Wall Street. And by the way, the Dems were ALL FOR the deregulation of the financial industry when that was proposed in the 90s. For a number of analysts what the Dems did was merely rearrange the furniture on the Titanic. Krugman, Stiglitz and a number of other financial analysts are saying that we are tottering on the edge of a deeper recession than the one of the last years. People are talking about 10% unemployment as the “new normal.”
- Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, an ex-military guy and a real centrist Dem if there ever was one, proposed a wind-fall tax on the big bonuses the Wall Street boys were getting, the ones that got bailed out by the government.
“I couldn’t even get a vote,” Webb says. “And it wasn’t because of the Republicans. I mean they obviously weren’t going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.
“People look up and say, what’s the difference between these two parties? Neither of them is really going to take on Wall Street. If they don’t have the guts to take them on, and they’ve got all these other programs that exclude me, well to hell with them. I’m going to vote for the other people who can at least satisfy me on other issues, like abortion. Screw you guys. I understand that mindset.” The key words here are: take on Wall Street. For some reason the Dems don’t have what it takes to do that. Obama and the Dems did get a LOT of money from the financial industry in 2008. But when Obama took over in Jan. ’09 he had a golden opportunity to challenge the whole establishment because it was totterting and a solid majority of the people were with him. He could have been another FDR–instead we got another Clinton. Either he is politically naïve and weak and a tool of the Oligarchy OR he is part of that Oligarchy. In any case, many years ago Truman said that when people have a choice between a real Republican and a false Republican they will always choose the real Republican. That’s why the Dems got a beating this November–the Democrat message smelled and felt and looked like a kind of Republicanism.
- The health care bill was touted as historic. A friend tells me his health insurance has gone up 10% this year, and will go up another 10% next year. He says what does it matter if they can’t drop him because of a pre-existing condition(new law)–he won’t be able to afford the damn premiums! A couple of good things in the bill, but it was written by the insurance industry to make them happy. We are the only industrial country with a purely for-profit health insurance monopoly. Obama never even tried challenging that. In fact, he cut backroom deals with Big Pharma so that they wouldn’t contest his bill, and in return Medicare cannot negotiate with them on cost of medicine and we can’t get prescriptions filled in Canada–not in any systematic way. So they can charge whatever they want.
- Hope and Change. That was the motto in the Fall of 2008. Look at the “Change” part. What happens when Obama comes in—-a lot more of the same old, same old: backroom deals with corporations, surrounds himself with Washington insiders, “the fox” is guarding the chicken coop in many cases, etc. A lot of liberal Dems are deeply disappointed at the substantial lack of Change.
- Obama is rightly concerned about the deficit. It is horrendous. So he appoints a Deficit Commission to help him figure out how to manage it and cut it down. But then he appoints several key people to this commission who are staunch enemies of Social Security. What the bleep!!!! Among progressive bloggers this commission becomes known as the “Catfood Commission” because right away its members start talking about having to cut Social Security in order to control the deficit. In other words, poor old people being reduced to eating cheap cat food. Their report is due out in about a month. If it comes out in favor of cuts in Social Security, that would be a travesty. The deficit has nothing to do with SS—hey, whatever happened to that trillion dollars spent in Iraq?? Fortunately, there are many Dem voices in Congress that are already speaking out about not cutting SS. This one has to be watched. The Republicans have a longstanding agenda of trying to dismantle the great programs of the New Deal and SS is one of their chief targets. They want to privatize it so that would pump tons of money into Wall Street and put us all in the control of the Wall Street boys. If Obama compromises with the Republicans on this issue, it will be a bloodbath for the Dems in 2012.
- When FDR came into office, he declared very forcefully about the Republicans: “I welcome their hatred!” When Obama comes in, he talks of working together with the Republicans–even when they say their chief goal is to knock him off!! I mean he IS a community organizer but not a leader of a country in great crisis.
And there are so many more points that could be made. The bottom line is that we ARE in a huge crisis, politically, economically, socially. There are a few interesting historical precedents and my favorite one is actually not often mentioned–the 1850s. The social, economic and political reality of slavery was tearing this country apart. The Dems of that period failed miserably in meeting this crisis and tried to have it both ways. They said, let slavery exist in the South, let it not exist in the North, and let the new states vote on whether they want it or not. This kind of profound incoherence enabled a new party to emerge–ironically enough it was the Republican Party which was formed to meet this crisis and which clearly stood against slavery and against allowing each state to go its own way. The Republicans won the day and saved the Union. It may be that a whole new party will emerge from this mess if the Dems continue to fail. Or maybe the Greens can infiltrate the Dems and take over!! Just like the crazy Republicans did with the Republican Party!
What this present bunch of Dems don’t seem to realize is that what is needed is a totally new vision of our country, a profound and deep rearticulation of our values and direction. The “greed is good” era is coming to an end, one way or another. Dem leadership simply cannot be for making us into “kinder, gentler consumers.” Sure they can prop up the numbers for a while; make it look like we have turned things around, etc. Sure they have a number of decent programs, like extending veterans’ benefits, unemployment benefits, student loan interest being reduced, etc., etc. We will get a few crumbs from the corporate table. But we are in need of something profoundly new if we are really to survive AND thrive as a people. Not just bits and pieces of legislation to prop up this or that segment of the country, but a wholistic vision of the common good in which we all share. (Incidentally, in several of the European countries like Germany and Sweden I believe, students can go to university for free–they even get a living stipend from the government–the nation considers this an investment in its future–what a different vision and approach to our “make it on your own attitude.”)
At this point we should add that given this kind of social crisis, it is actually a good time to be on the monastic path. Monks seem to thrive in all bad historic moments!! One could say that given the deep nature of the crisis the solution is not going to be found in politics–and with this I would readily agree. But the solution does not exclude politics either(nor economics either) and we have to start making some choices. It is good not to get lost in the arguments, but it is also important to see the religious consequences of our political choices. And this brings us to the last point. How many Catholics are turning to vote Republican is distressing. Never mind all the Dem problems alluded to above. The real focus here is abortion. Catholic bishops and pastors are making all elections this one issue. Granted it is a very serious issue and one I fully share with my Catholic tradition–I think abortion is a tragic mistake. But to vote as if that were the ONLY issue is simply wrong, and it leads to bad consequences. Republicans are taking advantage of this and fooling Catholic voters. No Republican ever did anything to reduce abortions–not Reagan, not Bush, none of them. As one commentator put it, they promise Catholics to be against abortion, and what comes out in the end is a tax break for the rich. It is an awful mistake and an outrage that Catholic bishops, pastors and laypeople are aligning themselves with the Republican vision of things–this is leading to so much pain and suffering and misery in our country for so many people, and this is only the beginning.
There is a Taoist hermit living in the Colorado Rockies, somewhere between Durango and Silverton. I wonder what he thinks of our situation. He is lost in a great silence. Afterall, those who know do not speak. The others write blogs!