Monday, August 29, 2011

The Revolution We Need

I write this from Cape Cod with the winds of Irene rattling the house.

On the way from Richmond last week, Susan and I visited the “Breakers,” the seventy-room summer "cottage" built in 1892 by the Vanderbilts in Newport, Rhode Island. The end of the Gilded Age, symbolized by such remarkable monuments to wealth and power and to a grand vision of America, was hastened by the introduction of personal income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment) under Taft's Republican White House in 1913.

His predecessor and fellow Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, challenged the financial and industrial barons with his antitrust actions. He promised a “square deal” for all Americans and in industrial negotiations he treated union leaders as equals with industry bosses. This trend towards greater equity in society continued through the 1960s.

Driving north we listened to commentaries on the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington. Irene forced postponement the dedication. But the memorial is already provoking conversation about what King might have said about America today. He died as he was launching a Poor People’s Campaign. Surely he would have been shocked and outraged to find a country growing ever more unequal. More than one in five children lives in poverty, the highest rate in two decades.  This is an appalling statistic for the wealthiest country on earth.

But today even talking about disparity provokes accusations of promoting class war. Warren Buffet is called a “socialist” for daring to suggest that people like himself might pay a fair share of taxes.  In the Orwellian-speak of today the “wealthy” must now be termed “job creators.” People receiving welfare are described by right-wing talk show commentators as “parasites,” “moochers,” and “irresponsible animals.”

Where did we develop this disdain for those in poverty? Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dime, reminds us that the working poor are the nation’s true philanthropists: they make it possible for the rest of us to live comfortably. There’s a case to be made that our whole economic system depends on paying people less than what they are worth.  

So far, America has avoided the violent upheavals experienced by several European countries. But we cannot assume that people who are being pushed to their limit will forever remain docile.

We need a revolution of unselfishness. Here’s a great example: the Fresno, California School Superintendent, Larry Powell, has just announced that he will take a pay cut – reducing his annual salary from $250,000 to $31,000. Fresno has extremes of wealth and poverty, and with schools facing painful budget choices, “My wife and I thought, what can we do that might help change the dynamic in my particular area?” Powell told ABC News.   

This kind of revolutionary unselfishness is needed more urgently now than ever.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What to do with our anger?

I was pleasantly surprised by Joe Nocera’s column in the New York Times on August 22.  He apologized. In an earlier column he had compared Tea Party Republicans to terrorists.

Like many of us, Nocera was outraged that those who precipitated the financial crisis are not being prosecuted more vigorously; by the attempts to undermine the Dodd-Frank financial sector reform law; and by the attacks on Elisabeth Warren as she tried to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The final straw was the political brinksmanship over the debt ceiling.

While not backing away from his convictions, Nocera had the grace to apologize for his “intemperate” remarks and to promise that he will refrain from “calling anybody names” in the future.

I share Nocera’s outrage. I’m mad as hell at the damage done by the greed of the banks and that those who were negligent and incompetent in overseeing Wall Street are now lecturing us on credit ratings. And I’m most angry that the poorest and most vulnerable are paying the price for the greed of the rich and powerful.

What do we do with our anger? Experience shows that simply venting our emotions and naming enemies may make us feel better but rarely leads to productive change. 

However much I may deplore their politics, I am certain that most Tea Party activists are true patriots who want the best for this country. Some of them may be misguided idealists, but it’s not for me to question their integrity.  

I once heard William Raspberry, a columnist with the Washington Post, tell a group of community activists that a focus on enemies “diverts time and energy from the search for solutions.”  It’s important to ask ourselves, “If I defeat the enemy in the battle I have engaged, will my problem be nearer to a solution? People respond more favorably to being approaches as potential allies.” 

Approaching enemies as allies. This seems to be the great challenge of our time. Because increasingly in today’s complex and interrelated world we cannot solve our biggest problems without some measure of collaboration and trust with those with whom we disagree.      

Collie and Audrey Burton, two activists in the African American community in Richmond, Virginia, had the courage to build a friendship and then a partnership with Howe Todd, the senior assistant city manager, a white man with whom Collie had clashed on public policy issues and whom they suspected of racial bias. That relationship, and Todd’s new willingness to listen to others in the community, sent ripples though the city and led to countless unexpected partnerships across racial and political lines and to what we now know as Hope in the Cities.  

In 1996, Initiatives of Change convened leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum for an “honest conversation” on race and to launch A Call to Community at the National Press Club. Blacks, whites, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Republicans, and Democrats sat and talked. They had different views about the appropriate role of government, the efficacy of affirmative action plans, even about the nature of the problem itself. But they were united in the belief that through honest conversation, a healing for the nation might begin.

A Call to Community, which was endorsed by mayors across the country, by members of congress from both parties, by leaders of different faiths and national civil rights organizations, concluded with a seven-point framework for partnership and responsibility. It proposed: 
  • Listening carefully and respectfully to each other and to the whole community
  • Bringing people together, not in confrontation but in trust, to tackle the most urgent needs of the community
  • Searching for solutions, focusing on what is right rather than who is right.
  • Building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone.
  • Honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities in everyone, and refusing to stereotype the other group
  • Holding ourselves, communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.
  • Recognizing that the energy for fundamental change requires a moral and spiritual transformation in the human spirit.
Suppose our elected leaders – and those of us who elect them – used these points as benchmarks for our daily interactions. Could it lead to some unexpected and creative steps that would move the country forward?