Oppressive systems operate by systemically dehumanizing some for the benefit of others.
I have been mulling over sociologist Alexis Shotwell’s call for the left to adopt a “politics of imperfection and responsibility” as one way to move forward toward action and away from purity. A politics of imperfection asks me to openly acknowledge the ways in which my family and I have benefited and continue to benefit from oppressive systems such as slavery, capitalism, and settler colonialism. This is an ongoing investigation into my own complicity. A politics of responsibility means that as I am complicit in harmful systems, I also possess full agency to do good. This allows me to commit to dismantling these systems and embracing centuries-long legacies of resistance. It means I am accountable in community spaces and do not destroy myself when others call me out on my errors. It means I practice a generosity of spirit and forgiveness towards myself and others. To do all this, I must publicly claim both imperfection and personal responsibility as an activist.
Tapping into our shared humanity
Marginalized people ask that privileged people look at them and see a human being, not a lesser-than being. Oppressive systems operate by systemically dehumanizing some groups for the benefit of others. On the flip side, I believe people with privilege are dehumanized when internalizing their societal supremacy over others. For example, the ethnographic studies that have been conducted to explain the election of Donald Trump have revealed the mass identity crisis in white America. We have seen poor and working class white Americans denounce people of color and diversity efforts because, sadly, they perceive them as threats to their historically established power and access. Rather than base cultural identities solely on power, could we tap into what we all have in common: our humanity, no matter how trampled it is? Black public theologian Christena Cleveland practices envisioning the humanity in those who challenge and attack her. According to her, training herself to cultivate love for her enemies makes it more effective for her to communicate and speak her truth into their hearts. She is as concerned about her well-being as she is about transforming antagonistic people in her life into “liberated oppressors.” Black elder activist Ruby Sales firmly tells her oppressors, with unyielding love in her voice: “You can’t make me hate you.”
These are suggestions that have aided me in navigating toxic environments even among our peers. In testing them out, I try to stay open to new tactics while understanding that I must remain flexible and responsive to the variable stages of justice work. If we as activists do not feel safe in our experimental microcosms of justice and liberation, what can we attempt to replicate across larger society?
Excerpt from Sarah Van Gelder in the same issue of YES! Magazine
One of the final chapters in The Revolution Where You Live is “101 Ways to Reclaim Local Power,” and some of these ideas center on self- and community-care:
1. Create sacred (or at least safe) times and spaces for contemplation and healing.
Take a technology break and turn off the news and shut off the screens. Create times and spaces in your home that are safe and perhaps sacred. It could be a small altar where you place photos of loved ones or sacred objects. Or it could be a safe and sacred space at a conference or gathering, offering anyone who needs it a hiatus, a place to heal and regroup.
2. Acknowledge your elders and ancestors.
Whether they lived years ago or are part of your life today, whether they were movement leaders or relatives, consider what they gave you and what they sacrificed. Post a photo of them on your real or virtual wall. Or write a note to them, sharing your gratitude; this can be a powerful experience, even if addressed to someone who is no longer alive.
3. Thank a young family member or friend.
Take a moment to acknowledge a young person via a letter to the local newspaper, a posting on social media, or a simple in-person acknowledgement: I see you and I thank you.
4. Share your favorite tradition and its meaning.
As you begin looking forward (or not) to the holiday season, instead of dwelling on the stress or food or pile of gifts, ask yourself what makes the season meaningful, what connects you to others and to your culture or spiritual tradition. Arrange to share that with others. Consider discarding the parts of the holiday season that lack meaning. (Your family might thank you!)
5. Gently acknowledge trauma, yours and others’.
Trauma in our society is deep, pervasive, and largely goes unspoken. Simply confronting white supremacy, misogyny, and LGBTQ phobia can be a daily dose of trauma for some. Many carry the wounds of war, racism, street violence, domestic abuse, or sexual assault. Many will struggle their whole lives over childhood abuse. Acknowledge this reality if it is true for you. If someone else names themselves as traumatized, listen without trying to fix it. Just open your heart.
The most eloquent defense of self care that I’ve encountered is from Edward Abbey, author and environmentalist, as quoted in Saving Nature’s Legacy:
Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am—a reluctant enthusiast … a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. … I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.
In these times of uncertainty and trauma, feel the pleasure of being alive. Your resilience is a gift to all the communities you are part of.
Excerpt from Van Jones, in the same issue of Yes! Magazine
…My quarrel with the progressive movement right now is that it seems to be more interested in critiquing the country than governing it.
I’m trying to make room for a progressive idea that can include straight White working class men passionately without displacing our existing commitment to people of color, women of all color, LGBT, Muslims, Native Americans, etc. When you draw your circle too small, you lose elections. When you then try to throw your base under the bus—our Black and Brown base—you lose elections. What you want to do is keep our base at the center but draw the circle bigger to include more people.
And that’s the idea to get out of the trap of: either you throw Black and Brown people under the bus to chase the White guys, or you just leave the White guys out and say we don’t need you. Both of those are pathways to defeat. The pathway to victory is to keep the base at the center but draw the circle bigger to include more people.
Jeffries: Who’s your audience for the book, political leaders or everyone else?
Jones: I’m trying to talk to everybody who’s interested in American politics. And unlike a lot of progressives and liberals, I don’t need people to agree with me for me to feel that it’s a productive exchange. I’m more interested in understanding than agreement. In a democracy you get to disagree.
“We need Republicans, we need conservatives.”
Where I am is very committed to engaging in the conversation and trying to keep the inflammation down. We need Republicans, we need conservatives. I don’t want all of them to become liberals, because liberals—we have our own problems. I want conservatives to stay conservatives and keep voting for Republicans—but they can vote for better Republicans. These clowns they’re voting for now, if I gave them a deal that would be 99 percent help for Republican base and 1 percent for Muslims, these fools in Congress would vote against it.
So they’re voting for very, very bad Republicans and getting pulled by the dirty right into authoritarian, racist, sexist directions that are not necessary for the conservative cause.
I will be an opponent to the conservative call because I am a progressive. But I have enough sense to know the difference between, you know, Paul Ryan and a neo-Nazi.
I’m not going to change my mind talking to a Trump voter about what I believe, and I don’t expect them to change their mind fundamentally. But if they can get a little bit more understanding, and I can get a little bit more understanding at the margins we might be able to find some common ground and get something done.
We’re going to fight over 80 percent of this stuff, but there might be 20 percent—on addiction, or criminal justice or jobs—where we don’t have to fight, and shouldn’t fight.
Jeffries: You mention working with some controversial figures, mainly Newt Gingrich. You talk about your admiration for him, and you mention him wanting to return the republic to its philosophical roots and restore American liberty. That to me kind of sounds like Trump’s Make America Great Again. It’s like asking someone in an abusive relationship to forget their abuse, their past, and let’s just move on. Would Newt Gingrich not be that “bad Republican” or “clown Republican?”
Jones: For people who don’t ever try to pass a bill, just sit around and complain about what’s going on, the stuff I say is probably confusing. So, if you don’t ever do that, then it’s hard to understand how you can cooperate with people who you might disagree with on 10 other issues. I’m trying to pass bills to close prisons and get our people home. So let’s start with that.
The people who are in an abusive relationship are the prisoners who are being abused by guards. The people who are in an abusive relationship are the Dreamers who are being chased out of the country by ICE. The people who are in an abusive relationship are the transgender people who are being driven to suicide in the hundreds by society. I am willing to do anything and work with anybody to end the abuse against them.
“There are problems we can solve without anybody having a change of party affiliation.”
The whole liberal culture has curdled into something it wasn’t supposed to be. How am I supposed to close prisons with no Republicans yet Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, Supreme Court and two-thirds of the state legislatures.
Like, that’s a very basic question that people who tell me I shouldn’t be working with Newt Gingrich can never answer. I’ve never met anyone who said “Van, please, please, get my loved one home but don’t work with any Republicans.’’ Nobody who actually has their life on the line raises these criticisms.
Jeffries: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Jones: That we gotta do a better job. I hope that people who are sick of the crazy and tired of the crazy will welcome at least an attempt to have a sane and hopeful conversation about how to get out of this mess. For me, the takeaway should be that, we can do a lot better. There are problems we can solve without anybody having a change of party affiliation. The dirty right, the rise in violence, racism, and sexism needs to be opposed by all sides. But all sides also need to look in the mirror because you don’t get to a Donald Trump as your president if both parties are healthy and all of our movements are healthy.
There’s something really desperately wrong with the progressive movement and the Democratic party and the mainstream Republican party to wind up in a situation like the one we’re in. And we have to do more than just point fingers at the president at this point. Now, it’s been damn near a year, we should be far enough along in the grieving process to actually do some reflection.
I’ve reformed two police departments. I’ve gotten a racist killer-cop fired. All this stuff people say that should be done, I’ve done. And have come to the conclusion that we have to approach these things with a little bit more sophistication. Because we sometimes wind up ceding what we’re fighting. If you come at it the wrong way, you actually build your opponents’ coalition for them. And then you give authority to people who shouldn’t have it.
I want Donald Trump to have to fight for every person he’s got, I’m not gonna let him have a single person easily. I want for progressives in particular to be able to say look, “Not only do we have a better plan for you, we care more about you, we understand you. And by the way, we want you to care about and understand all these other Americans—Muslims, Latino, LGBT, or what have you.’’
And that’s what’s messy, it’s just both sides beating their chests and calling each other names.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.
Lately it seems like every day brings a new bad thing for anyone not invested in white supremacy and capitalism. As the tweet went: “First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals, and scientists and then it was Wednesday.” And every day, I become more convinced that a politics based on purity will let us down. Let me explain.
Saturday, January 28, 2017, was early in the litany of bad. That weekend thousands of people converged on airports around the United States to protest the effects of an executive order imposing a ban on travel from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Trump signed that order on Friday and by Saturday there were refugees as well as people with green cards from these countries arriving at US airports. They were then held in custody and denied access to lawyers. I was at the manifestation at the San Francisco airport. I have been at many protests, encampments, and manifestations over the last twenty years, and this one stands out; it was tremendously moving and powerful.
On the Facebook event page for the protest, someone posted: “So where was this when Obama signed a ban in 2011 against Iraqi’s and again in 2015 when he put a ban on Muslims?? Hypocrisy at its finest!!” Later he clarified that he didn’t actually care about the travel ban (he thought it was a good move for the US to protect its borders and not let anyone in). He was just pointing out the hypocrisy of protesting Trump’s policies without having had an equally explosive and massive resistance to Obama’s policies.
Conservatives, particularly the subspecies whose main political work is trolling people on the Internet, are fond of this line of critique. It can take the form that it did here, calling hypocrisy on people who now are saying something when they did not raise a protest in the past. It also takes the form of pointing out inconsistencies, as when trolls tweeted to a friend that she could not both oppose human-fueled global warming and drive her car. Or it could be arguing that if someone benefits from something they cannot protest it (as when people say that it is impossible to criticize the US military and enjoy the supposed peace that it is supposedly protecting). Conservatives also use this approach in response to people opposing bigots speaking on university campus—if we care about free speech, surely we mean free speech for everyone, and “everyone” definitely includes people who think that (as the T-shirts put it) “Feminism Is Cancer.” Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call “purity politics”: because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives use purity politics to try to close down critique and action.
Recognizing our involvement in and complicity with things we think are wrong, fully understanding the weight of wrongdoing in the history we inherit, or understanding the harms that have come from our failure to act can feel quite awful. The right uses purity politics against the left because we’re the ones who respond to being implicated in doing harm. They’re correct that we are involved in the very things that we want to stop, but they’re wrong to think that being compromised means we should stop protesting. If we stop working against them, terrible things simply continue. If we are to be effective, we who want to have a world in which many beings and ecosystems can flourish, we should reject purity for purely tactical reasons—it demobilizes us.
But we should resist purity politics for deeper reasons, too. Purity has long been the domain of the racist, nativist, and eugenicist right. It has been the technology through which laws about miscegenation were formulated, and it’s still the emotional hinge on which today’s alt-right argues that the white race is dying. Purity of the nation has been the rallying cry for tightening borders against the free movement of people; it is the engine that drives vigilante border patrols and murderous refugee policies. Purity of the species has been the scalpel that forcibly sterilizes disabled people, and that continues to support policy based on the idea that disabled lives are not worth living.
We do better to aim for a politics of imperfection. If we do not fit the mold of perfection—if we’re disabled, sick, young, old, not working, not productive—we are definitely beings who offer care, help, solidarity, and presence to the world. If we’ve failed to help in the past, if things we do are implicated in harm, if we benefit from something that harms others, or if we accord only some people access to a podium, we can still be of benefit to this world. Even people who have harmed others or the world, whose ancestors owned slaves, whose current government is actively pursuing genocidal colonial policies, who regularly make mistakes—even we can be useful.
But how to unfurl a politics that holds our imperfections? I suggest taking up a “politics of responsibility,” a concept from social movement scholar Gary Kinsman. He defines this as involving “those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression.” A politics of responsibility recognizes our relative, shifting, and contingent position in social relations of harm and benefit; it enjoins us to look at how we are shaped by our place in history. We can take responsibility for creating futures that radically diverge from that history, seriously engaging that work based on where we are located, listening well to the people, beings, and ecosystems most vulnerable to devastation.
Listening well, taking responsibility, and acting even though we recognize that we can’t be pure is going to be much harder than disengaging would be. Two poems have helped me think about this. Johnetta Elzie co-founded an organization working to end police violence. Her poem “Where were you” addresses itself to people—largely white women—who participated in the enormous protests march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It asks a lot of questions, and on the surface many of those questions sound like our Facebook troll friend—the last line of the poem ends “We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?” But Elzie’s questions are the opposite of trolling. She is calling her listeners in to responsibility for not having been there, asking us to reflect on how we are placed in history, and then inviting us to step up now. She asks,“What happens tomorrow? Will you march with us when we need you most?” Danny Bryck’s poem “If You Could Go Back” likewise calls us in to a politics of responsibility. Drawing on the fact that many of us in the present believe, looking back, that we would resist fascism, racism, and oppression with every fiber of our being, it points to things that are happening now:
“That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now is when they need you to be brave.”
Let us be imperfect, for we are, but let us be brave too.
From David Korten, Oct 2017
Despite Setbacks, the Democracy Movement Is Gaining Power
The Las Vegas massacre focused national attention once again on the National Rifle Association’s ability to thwart democracy and the desire of an overwhelming majority of Americans, including most gun owners, for stronger rules on gun ownership. Yet, as Frances Moore Lappé and her co-author Adam Eichen make clear in their compelling new book, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want, the NRA is only a bit player in the war against democracy launched by an alliance of the superrich in the 1970s.
Daring Democracy is forthright in documenting the systemic dysfunction that follows from that short-circuiting of our democratic system. It is also hopeful and compelling in its call to citizen action.
Most details in the recent history of the elite’s assault on our national well-being that began in the United States in the 1970s were familiar to me. Yet Lappé and Eichen’s account evoked fresh insights, renewed my sense of hope and possibility, and drove home the truth of their assertion that “to save the democracy we thought we had, we must take our democracy to where it’s never been.”
A functioning democracy is necessary in order for our cause to succeed, be it restoring Earth’s environmental health, eliminating extreme inequality, achieving justice and protecting the rights of people of color and LGBTQ people, eliminating atomic weapons, or ending war. Furthermore, domestic political forces that diminish the lives of all but the richest Americans also block global action to limit abuses of financial power that diminish the lives of billions more people throughout the world.
Though the historic roots of oligarchy run deep, the contemporary elite war against democracy is distinctive in the sophistication of its strategy and the scale of its funding. Lappé and Eichen document in detail the early roles of mega-billionaire clans such as Olin, DeVos, and Koch, soon joined by the Mellon, Scaife, Bradley, and Coors families. Their efforts were inspired and guided by the notorious August 23, 1971, memo written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell, whom President Richard Nixon subsequently appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Claiming that corporate power and the “free enterprise” system were under attack, Powell laid out a detailed strategy to gain control of the institutions of media, law, and economic thought and policy. The all-out war against democracy that followed stripped unions of their power, decimated the American middle class, and rolled back most of the gains millions of workers achieved under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
White workers experience the pain of exclusion that Blacks and Latinos have long endured.
President Donald Trump rode to power by capitalizing on the resentment of the White workers disenfranchised by that war. As inequality grows more aggressively across racial lines, White workers experience the pain of exclusion that Blacks and Latinos have long endured. This creates a foundation for an essential and potentially decisive alliance in the quest for true democracy.
Another distinctive contribution of Daring Democracy is its impressively up-to-date account of the agenda and strategy of an emerging democracy movement accelerated by Trump’s electoral victory. Their review of the movement’s practical and detailed pro-democracy policy agenda includes proven ideas for designing and building public support for initiatives such as public financing of elections, transparency for political donations, automatic voter registration, ranked choice voting, nonpartisan redistricting, a means to overcome the non-representative power of the Electoral College, and restoring voting rights for ex-felons who have served their time.
The final chapters of Daring Democracy tell the post-election story of the democracy movement as Lappé and Eichen have experienced it. At its core is a diverse alliance of citizens with widely varied agendas drawn together by a common awareness that success in their seemingly divergent causes ultimately depends on the vitality of a democracy in which every person has a voice. The alliance is growing in racial, generational, and class diversity and is beginning to transcend traditional political divisions.
Lappé and Eichen make clear that there are no easy victories and wins are rarely permanent. Despite the setbacks, however, awareness of the democracy imperative is spreading and the movement is gaining power.
Daring Democracy is a book deserving of the attention of everyone committed to the dream of a nation and a world that works for all.