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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/4/10

Why I Disagree with Hedges and Nader on Obama

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So then where do I disagree with Hedges? Let me count the ways:

1. Hedges' analysis and particularly the harsh way he expresses it leads to despair and to the "blame game" that has little usefulness in politics. Our difference here is partly the difference between two styles of prophetic leadership: one that rails against injustice, the other that moves beyond the legitimate outrage and seeks to find a way to change the reality. My own work as a social change activist and psychotherapist for forty years has led me to believe that people's ideas and perspective can be changed in fundamental ways, but that requires a mixture of prophetic outrage with genuine compassion and a spirit of generosity and respect for those with whom we disagree (even respect for the humanity of people who are doing or saying things that we feel to be outrageous-though that shouldn't stop us from strongly critiquing those perspectives). In my books over the course of the past twenty years I've shared with tens of thousands of people strategies for how those changes can take place, and they are strategies that are as much a challenge to the Left as to the Right, insisting, as I do, on the importance of psychological and spiritual sensitivity (and acknowledging that I sometimes fail to live up to my own values and deserve criticism as well).

Lets acknowledge that the Democratic Party has been overwhelmingly catering to the interests of America's ruling elites. It has also been a major force for legitimating some of the program of liberals and progressives, particularly in regard to the struggles against some of the more egregious forms of racism, sexism and homopobia in our society, it has fought for the rights of immigrants, it has weakly but nevertheless consistently opposed giving priority to defense spending over social programs. I know that this has not been anything close to what I've wanted. But the party remains a mechanism by which liberal and progressive ideas can be communicated to ordinary Americans, and, if we could get enough of those Americans to actually vote in primary elections, we could get candidates at every level of government who shared a progressive agenda. Yes, we are up against huge odds, because the wealthy will step in to fund the most conservative and corporate-friendly and rich-friendly candidates. But in the final analysis, if enough of us reach out to other people in our own communities and convince them of the need for a spiritual progressive politics, it is we who could win in the primaries and even in the general elections. I know that this is a very difficult route, but primarily difficult because it takes a lot of effort on our part to make it happen. But the Democratic Party could be taken over by people who share the analysis of the spiritual progressives.

I salute liberals who are trying to do this very thing, but I don't believe that they will succeed unless they adopt a language that is more loving, compassionate, and generous than that reflected in the piece that Hedges wrote and which we at Tikkun sent out (albeit explaining that we often send out pieces with which we disagree because the views are ones that don't get a hearing in the mainstream media and deserve to be heard even if we think they are in some important respects mistaken or "off").

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying here: I am not advocating that people follow the strategy of transforming the Democratic Party-I'm only saying that it remains a possibility that could be tried, that groups like the Progressive Democrats of America are trying precisely that and with excellent leadership from the Progressive Caucus of the House of Representatives, and that had Nader type people with more emotional nuance and psychological sophistication and genuine empathy for the American public run in the primaries for the Presidency and the US CONGRESS, and had those people been able to articulate their critique in a language that emphasized the spiritual and ethical dimension and the need for love, generosity, caring for others and provided the kind of alternatives that we have articulated in our Spiritual Covenant with America, including the Generosity Strategy as represented in our Global Marshall Plan (see all this at those people might have become the Senators and Congresspeople from the states where we now have Rahm-Emanuel-chosen Blue Dog Democrats. And one such person might have been the presidential candidate in 2008.

Moreover, it remains the case that the majority of those who vote in communities of color, poverty, or low income still identify with the Democratic Party, and running in that party is a powerful way to communicate to people with whom we cannot ordinarily communicate through the corporate-controlled media that didn't even bother to cover our Strategy Conference in SF two weeks ago, though it was larger and at least as significant as the smaller sized Tea Party gatherings over which the media makes such a fuss.

To leave these people behind and turn one's back on them without having a serious strategy to reach them outside the Democratic Party is not a satisfactory political strategy, no matter how righteous and good it feels to those who have finally said no to the Democrats only to embrace a party of excessive political correctness but also excessive self-involvement and little serious outreach beyond their own fringe.

2. Hedges is wrong to characterize all liberals as lacking in emotion or leaving legitimate rage only to the proto-fascists. Here, as in Hedges' critique of the Democratic Party, there is a failure to recognize the efforts of so many very decent and ethically powerful people who have not been fully represented by their leaders. Who does he think turned out in the millions to demonstrate against the War in Iraq-all Greens? No, it was many of these Democrats. It's true that leadership like Nancy Pelosi failed to forcefully represent them, and that Obama is to some extent repeating that failure now and failing to articulate a clear worldview that could rally people and make them understand the alternative to "capitalism is the only option and domination is the only path to security" that underlies the "common wisdom" inside-the-beltway and throughout much of our society, but it is not fair to dismiss the vast majority of Democrats in this way. Doing so will not help us build a powerful anti-war movement again to counter the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and head off wars with Iran or Yemen. Just read the platform of the Democratic Party of California to see that there are voices within the Democratic Party that reflect much of what the secular progressives outside that party are calling for (though definitely not the New Bottom Line that spiritual progressives champion).

Nor is Hedges being fair or accurate when he says: "The timidity of the left exposes its cowardice, lack of a moral compass and mounting political impotence. The left stands for nothing. The damage Obama and the Democrats have done is immense. But the damage liberals do the longer they beg Obama and the Democrats for a few scraps is worse." This is unfair both because it ignores the genuine desire of people on the Left to heal and transform American society, and because it ignores the real dilemma facing those who vote for "the lesser evil"-namely their legitimate concern about the well-being of those who they perceive will be better off under a Democratic President than under a Republican President-particularly the poorest elements in our society. Their conclusion, with which I do not agree but which I believe deserves a complex and respectful response and not the dismissive and disrespectful tone that Hedges shows toward them, is that the suffering of those people will be somewhat less under a Democratic administration than under a Republican Administration, and that things like family leave, lifting the restrictions on providing birth control information in federally funded birth control centers, banning torture like waterboarding in our military bases, and other such steps, small they may be, make a big difference to those who are impacted by them and hence are worth compromising to achieve.

I'm not going to go into my arguments against that position and why I believe that taking the risks of creating an alternative party might be worth it under some circumstances, though in my view such a party would have to be very different from the Greens, and would have to have a commitment to the kind of political strategy I outline in my book The Left Hand of God, and would have to emerge from a movement to transform the Democratic party which, having obtained massive support, would then leave that party to form a spiritual progressive party, but what I will say is that the argument of those who wish to stay in the Democratic Party and make small but significant changes in the life of the most powerless is an argument that deserves respect and a more careful consideration than Hedges gives in this piece that we sent out.

Let me give just one example of what still feels compelling to me about the argument made by those who wish to transform the Democrats rather than abandon them. It's the story of the guy who sees a young child on the beach throwing back into the water some of the thousands of fish who have been swept up onto the beach after a huge tsunami. The many approaches the child and says, "What's the point of throwing those fish back in the water. Unless there is a massive movement of people down on this beach, or unless the government sends a bunch of equipment to quickly push these fish back into the sea, most of them will die. Don't you see that what you are doing can't make any difference?" To which the child responds, "To these fish I'm throwing back, it makes a difference." It is in my view hard to deny that the Democrats in power are doing more to help the poor and the oppressed, or to take steps to preserve the environment, or to take steps to protect workers' rights, than would the Republicans were they in power and than they did when they were in power. Those who argue that "there is no difference" like Nader did in 2000 really do us a disservice. It's one thing to argue that the differences are not significant enough, quite another to pretend that these two parties deliver exactly the same thing in power. It just isn't true.

I'm not convinced by that argument, because I believe that we could in fact make much important changes in this society if even twenty million people were willing to join an alternative party. But they are not convinced now, and to get them to be convinced, we need a strategy that starts with respect for those who disagree with a "leave the Democratic Party" strategy. I didn't feel enough of that respect in this particular writing of Chris Hedges. And what's ironic about that to me is that I know Chris Hedges, and know him to be a person of humility as well as passionate intensity, and so I don't dismiss him but embrace him even as I critique this particular piece. And I sent it out precisely to engender this kind of discussion.

What troubles me with some of the responses that I got was that they seemed to think it wrong for us to send out articles with which we disagree. But that has always been Tikkun's policy-including printing in the magazine articles with which we disagree. It's part of our belief that the deepest truth emerges from a marketplace of ideas within which respectful debate and struggling with alternative positions can emerge (credit due to John Stuart Mill). We respect our readers enough to believe that they can hear positions with which we and they may disagree, and struggle with those positions. In fact, I've found that when people don't have that opportunity, be it on the Left, Right or the Center of politics, they end up really not fully understanding their own positions and unable to defend them when critiqued. So for that reason we've always warned our readers: if you want to know OUR position, read our editorials in the magazine, but don't assume that we agree with everything we print or send out.

3. It is wrong to describe Israel as an apartheid society. I abhor Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and we at Tikkun were the leading voice against the Occupation for 22 years until J Street, a much better financed enterprise, took our place in Washington D.C. (and is doing a terrific job of getting the message heard which we and others in similar movements pioneered in the US-though they omit from their message our prophetic Biblically-based insistence not only on the "rights" of Palestinians but also on their fundamental humanity and why a spiritual or religious person must care equally for their wellbeing as the wellbeing of Americans, Jews, Israelis and everyone else on the planet.)

But Apartheid describes the situation that existed in South Africa, not the one that exists inside the pre-67 borders of Israel. In South Africa Blacks did not vote in the election of the prime minister or of the parties who ran the country; in Israel its Palestinian residents in the pre-67 borders do vote and have ten percent of the Knesset populated by Arab representatives (and would have more if the Arabs didn't vote for Labor or other parties). In South Africa Blacks were prohibited from going to the same schools or universities a Blacks, from attending the same movie theatres or swimming on the same beaches; in Israel Arabs go to the same beaches, attend the same university classes, and in most other respects have the same political rights as Israeli Jews. True, they face the same kind of discrimination that Blacks still face in many parts of the US-it's not right and its discriminatory, and its deplorable, but it's not apartheid. Why use a term that can so easily be shot down by the Right-wingers, when what Israel is doing is not that, though arguably worse than apartheid in some important respects?

The answer, I suspect, is that many activists are so frustrated at their failure to have won a majority of Westerners to our critical perspective about the Occupation that they think that if they label Israel with some well known disparaging term, that that will make it easier for Westerners to understand. But that is not a legitimate approach-you can't jump over the difficult task of explaining what is wrong with what Israel is doing by using incendiary language that actually can be refuted. Moreover, you can't really win over Westerners with a simplistic account-because many in the West remember that Israel was created in the wake of eighteen hundred years of global anti-Semitism and a twentieth century genocided that murdered one out of three Jews alive. We at Tikkun do not believe that that suffering is reason to excuse Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but we do believe it is a reason why the world had a right to return those Jews who wished to return to their ancient homeland from which they had been expelled by force, violence and repression, in an instance of global affirmative action which, unfortunately, displaced (in our view, unjustly) hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. This story too is too complicated to try to summarize here, but it must be told with compassion for both sides, recognizing that both sides have a legitimate story to tell, and both sides have been cruel and violent toward the other side (as for example when Jews were climbing out of the crematoria and gas chambers of Europe and Palestinian leadership refused to allow them to enter Palestine because they were Jews, while allowing non-Jews to come to Palestine). Every part of this story has two sides at least, and it doesn't help to label one side the "evil other" and the other "the righteous victim," but to develop a sense of compassion for both sides-if the goal is to seek peace and reconciliation, rather than simply to achieve some rhetorical advance. As one who sometimes falls into this mistake, I understand the frustration felt by all who are outraged at Israeli behavior-and I believe that outrage is legitimate-but I think that the prophetic condemnation is only one part of the story, and we also need to act strategically and with generosity of spirit if we want to change the situation and alleviate the current suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians.

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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)
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