Thursday, September 28, 2017

Civility is not our biggest problem

While colleagues posted their sermons about the political dangers we're in, about the re-appearance of Charlottesville-level racism/anti-semitism, or about kneeling NFL players and Black Lives Matter, the rabbi where I go gave us a sermon on civility.

He didn't use that word. He talked about how the fabric of our political culture has been torn, and how we have to put it together, not just by sewing it, but by reweaving it, His example was a member of the congregation who was a Hillary supporter living next door to a Trump supporter, but even though they disagreed about politics they had each other's garage-door codes and this one gave a eulogy at the funeral of the other one. This was held up as a model of how we should behave, and the rabbi suggested a series of coffees with him that we should attend with someone with whom we disagree politically.

Where to start? The example given is of two middle-aged, middle-class white guys who live next to each other in privileged Johnson County. This isn't a very wide sample, to say the least. The framing posits politics as rather a hobby, or an identity marker, and not really that important in the scheme of things – or, not as important as neighborliness.

But for some people, politics really matters. Let's take the examples that I used before: Trump really is tearing the country apart, and there really are people who either don't care about that or are okay with it as long as their team is winning. There really are black people getting killed by police almost every day. There really is a resurgence of the hard right in this country. These things will not be addressed by coffee shop tete a tetes. What they will be addressed by is people organizing to oppose them. But even the idea that they should be opposed is not found in this framework.

I personally don't think the problem is civility. Or maybe it is, but in the other direction – the need for (white) people to get along with each other has meant that the political window has been moved farther and farther right with hardly a fight – lest we be accused of incivility – with all the problems that this has caused, including the horrible mess we're in now.

I am not suggesting that we would be better off if the two Johnson County men were at each other's throats. Everybody has to decide in each situation how much politics to inject into each relationship. But I think of many churches or small towns I've visited where people don't speak up for justice for fear of rocking the boat. That's how injustice continues – or gets worse. To suggest that this is a model for the re-weaving of the social fabric is, I think, both false and ill-advised.

The world is burning – in some cases, quite literally. I would hope that that, rather than manners, would be worth discussing on Rosh Hashanah morning.






Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Book Review: In Search of the Lost Chord

In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea 
by Danny Goldberg 
Akashic Books 


Some years ago I did a review for Jewish Currents of a three-volume study of Jews in the creative arts. The chapter on the Jewish contribution to rock music was written by Danny Goldberg, and I found it the most annoying chapter in the book. He basically said, “I’m not just going to give you a list of who in rock music is Jewish” and then proceeded to do just that. It read like a laundry list.

I have a longstanding interest in the Sixties, including hippie culture, so when I heard Goldberg interviewed on Raghu Markus’ podcast about his new book, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea I went and got it. After about 30 pages of his comprehensive chronology style, I was remembering what annoyed me about his writing the first time.

However, the book grew on me. What felt in 15 pages lazy and superficial, in 300 pages felt well-researched and wide-ranging. Goldberg basically takes the chronology of events in 1967 and give brief accounts of them: the people involved, the process that led to them, how they were covered in the press, how they affected the people involved, etc. Often this is covered in one paragraph; for more significant events more space is given, but no account lasts more than a couple of pages.  


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Some thoughts on antisemitism

On August 11, far right activists marched by torchlight through Charlottesville, Virginia. Their action, which was explicitly antisemitic, threatened worshipers at the small synagogue there that my brother and his family belonged to until very recently. Far-rightists marching by torchlight past a synagogue has traumatic historical resonances for any Jew. It led to a spate of “why do they hate us?” articles and a reminder from even the most progressive Jews that antisemitism is not a thing of the past.

And yet - I'm in my mid-50s and I can safely say that antisemitism has never played a major role in my life. There have been maybe half-a-dozen incidents of name-calling, but that's pretty much it. I have never lost a job opportunity or an apartment because of it, never been excluded from a social event or public accommodation, never been targeted by police. Even today, when I travel around parts of Kansas with few or no Jews and am explicitly political, there's remarkably little anti-Jewish feeling, and what there is, is oblique. (People's personal hatreds don't matter so much as long as they're too embarrassed to share them publicly and have no power over the lives of those they hate.) I have never feared to wear a kippah in public. Most rightwing political and religious figures in Kansas are Israelphilic, which, whatever it may be, is not traditional Jew-hatred.

In the eyes of America, I'm white. I know this is so because, inter alia, I never get unduly hassled at traffic stops. Most white Jews can “pass” with no effort at all, and many jettison their Jewish identities completely. It hardly needs to be said that this is an option that American blacks don't have.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Resistance, Resilience, and Love

Remarks delivered under the title “Climate Change and Health” at the Dialog on Sustainability, Kansas State University, July 22, 2017

I'm going to start with 3 suppositions:

The first thing is that the system is broken. I have always considered myself to be in the hope business, but I'm finding it hard to find the way through right now. A joke president, the EPA in the hands of the James Inhofe gang, with a stolen Supreme Court seat, even the modest gains made by the Obama administration rolled back...

It's pretty clear at this stage that climate change is not going to be dealt with on anything like the scale necessary on anything like the timeframe necessary. I don't see away that out current economic and political system is going to, for instance, force Exxon to take billions of gigatons of proven oil reserves off its books. I don't see a way that we're going to justly treat those in other countries who will be made refugees due to flooding, or loss of water or habitat. Any of us could name 10 policies that make perfect sense and that would address the issue but we can't even get the least of them into legislation because opposition from corporations and bought politicians.

The flaw in sustainability thinking is that it's based on the capitalist mindset. Our framing is always, we can have our cake and eat it too: we can continue 3% growth per year but we do it with wind turbines and solar panels! But no, we can't. The earth can't continue to sustain growth at these levels, no matter how we power it. We need to strive not for “sustainable development”, but for de-growth. This is what eco-activist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy calls “the great turning” - from the Industrial Growth Society to Life-Sustaining Society. It's revolutionary, and we have to think of it as such.

But we're reaching a point where it takes too great an act of will to think that everything's all right, or presently may be. Because it's starting to affect us. Jay Antle went to a conference where the city planners of Tuscon Arizona told them they're planning for 20 days of over 120 degrees per year within 20 years.

I'm sure you all saw the kerfuffle about the New York Magazine article about climate's worst case scenario. The biggest blowback came from climate scientists like Michael Mann, who said a) the science behind worst case scenario isn't proven and b) messaging studies show us that dooms-saying doesn't motivate people. But you know what? Screw that. It's not like 20 years of “We can fix this!” messaging has led us anywhere. In 12-step programs it is said that we're only willing to change when we run out of other options. It's called “the gift of desperation.” I think we're at that place in America.

So if corporations aren't going to help us, and government can't help us, and half the country would basically rather see the world destroyed for the sake of their political story, than what do we do? We can either start stocking weaponry and canned goods, or we can develop ways to sustain ourselves, and each other. And the way we do that is through what Joanna Macy calls “the three dimensions of the great turning,” which I'm going to frame as resistance, resilience, and love.

Resistance is addressing and holding back further destruction or that help people thru. It could be anything from soup kitchens to mass demonstrations to the camp at Standing Rock. Actually, a lot of what KIFA does is in this category – we're always trying to stop things from getting worse. Gandhi called this kind of thing “obstructive action.”

This is where a lot of us are right now, and have been for some time, but it's not enough. As Jung put it, “What we resist, persists.” If all we're doing is opposing, then we're not getting anywhere.

Building resilience is our growing edge. It is what Gandhi called “constructive action,” and it's building the ability to care for ourselves and our communities outside of the corporate system. Examples of this are many: community gardens, cooperative businesses, community level energy generation, collaborative living situations, tool libraries – all kinds of things that grow the alternative. We should be spending at least as much time on resilience, on constructive action, as we do on resistance.

You know that during the WWI and WWII there were so-called victory gardens all over the country. There are pictures of state capitols with the lawns under cultivation. That's what we need. Community gardens can't be seen as a hobby, they have to be seen as a necessary part of resilience. Everybody should be taking part in them, and they should basically be everywhere.

Local energy, locally developed transportation options, tool libraries, community level health care

This is also where we educate – about the harms of industrial society, about the necessity of degrowth.

So think of it this way. If our consumption level is here (hand held above head), and our “needs” are met by centralized, industrial, corporate providers, then we're toast. If our consumption levels are here (hand held chest high) and we build local and regional ways to address them, then the amount we have to get from our corporate masters is less, and that builds resilience. That means that limiting consumption, what used to be called “voluntary simplicity,” is a core element of what we're need to accomplish. The less we consume, the less we need to produce, and if making that change on a mass level is really vital if we hope to build a sustainable future.

I want to recommend to you a book called “Building a Healthy Economy From the Bottom Up” by AnthonyFlaccavento. He enumerates 6 transitions that are necessary to make transformative economic change:
  • on the household level, from dependence to resilience;
  • on the local level, from trickle-down to bottom up;
  • from concentrated wealth to community capital;
  • regional and national networks bringing together localized efforts into larger-scale efforts;
  • developing community supported arts and media;
  • and finally, reshaping public policy by engaging people already mobilized by the prior transitions to reclaim and re-energize our democracy.
We don't have the time to explore these in depth here, but this is the kind of thing that I think we need to do in order to build a future that works for more than the top 10%.

By building these economic alternatives we not only build resilience but we build a constituency for the kind of public policy changes that will enable these transitions to take place. Because of course we're always going to live in a globalized world and if we want to carve out our place in it we're going to have to engage a lot of people. This is the role that advocacy of the type KIFA does – there are many laws which limit our ability to build economic alternatives – everything from the restrictions on third-party power purchasing to banking and investment regulations that privilege institutional investors. Our role is to try to make sure there's room legally to do what we need to do.

And the third category of the Great Turning. Joanna Macy calls it “shift in consciousness.” I'm calling it “love.” Love isn't a feeling – it's an action, a spiritual practice that changes our perception of reality.

What we need is a recognition, not just intellectually but spiritually, in our deepest selves, that we are all in this together, that to use the phrase of Thich Naht Hanh, we inter-are, that not only can't I succeed without you but in fact there is literally no me without you. That means our family, our fellowship, our town, the “stranger”, the people who seem other, and even the earth itself – they not only are entitled to all the same rights and privileges that we are, but they are us. This is not, or not solely, a political path – this is a spiritual path. That element of the work cannot be overlooked.

We live in a reality that's based on an imperative of competition, hyper-individualism and GDP growth that is damaging not only the planet, but us as well. I should probably mention health here: the increased in obesity, in diabetes, in use of psychological medications, in cancer rates, in resistant infections, are all a product of the same dynamics that produce climate change. Our consumer society is sick, we ourselves are physically, mentally, and spiritually sick. Stepping out of consumer capitalism is, in my opinion, the first and best step we can take for renewed health, both of ourselves and of those around us. When people build local resilience and relationships, when we work in cooperation, that's not only a strategy against climate disruption, it's a spiritual path as well. It's the only way to move from climate despair to action that has a chance of making a difference.

What is required is no less than a revolution of values, where we not only change lightbulbs but we change ourselves and our way of seeing the world and each other.

It's a revolution in our minds, in our hearts, in our values, in our communities, in our lives. 

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality... We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.  - Che Guevara 

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Open Letter to Greg Orman

Dear Greg:
I hope you’re doing well. I met Sybil for the first time last week at Starbuck’s; she was there with Cindy Holscher. Meeting her reminded me that I’ve been meaning to reach out to you regarding next year’s gubernatorial election. I hope you will forgive me if I impose on our rather fledgling friendship to offer you a little unsolicited political advice.

I’ve been talking to a lot of folks about this, as you might expect from someone as politics-obsessed as I. I’ll just put it to you right off the bat that for me, the highest priority in Kansas politics right now is making sure Kris Kobach does not become the next governor.

I’m sure I don’t have to enumerate the reasons why. Kobach as governor would be an unmitigated disaster. This year a bipartisan majority began the process of digging out of the Brownback experiment, over the opposition of a misguided but largely checked-out governor. The last word anyone would use to describe Kobach is checked out. His harder-than-hard right policies and his monomanical focus on the “issues” of voter fraud and immigration are exactly what Kansas doesn’t need at this delicate stage - or ever, really. Just when we’re digging out of the hole, a Kobach governorship would kick us back down it, and throw dirt on us besides. 

The problem is that, as things stand right now, in my estimation the path is relatively clear to this disastrous result. I do not believe that there is any Republican who can beat Kobach in a primary: he starts off with 30-35% hardcore support amongst Republicans, universal name recognition, and easy access to a large number of Trump supporters. I don’t think it matters how much the field is split: in a split field his name recognition gives him the advantage; in a 2-person race against Ed O’Malley the almost fanatical regard in which he’s held by all too much of the Republican base would give him the victory. Honestly, I think he would eat Ed O’Malley for breakfast.

As for the Democrats, I don’t see the one in the current field who can beat Kobach in a general election. Josh Svaty isn’t going to win a Dem primary, and I doubt Carl Brewer can raise enough money. Jim Ward would make it interesting at least -- I might actually go to the state fair to hear that debate. But Jim is undisciplined and Kobach is very disciplined, and that will make a big difference.

Which leads me to you. Rumors are that you are considering jumping into the race. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, and my recommendation is that if you do so, you run as a Democrat.

I know, I know; hear me out.

There are just too many Democrats who wouldn’t vote for you as an Independent. They say, “The only question the press should ask Orman is if he’s trying to help Kobach become governor.” Now, that’s not how I see it, because I don’t think the race without you makes any of the Dems more likely to win. What difference does it make if the Dem gets 20% with you in the race or 40% without you? Kobach still wins. If there are, say, 15-20% of Dem voters who won’t vote for an Independent on principle, in my judgment that just makes the hill too steep to climb.

However, these very people, who say they would not vote for you as an Independent, who say that your entry into the race would guarantee a Kobach victory, when you are posited as a Democratic candidate, say, “I could go for that.” I believe you would be the odds-on favorite for the nomination on Day 1, with the name recognition (and platform) that Svaty doesn’t have and the ability to raise money that Brewer doesn't have. And with the nomination, you’d have every Dem and a large number of Mod Rs on your side. Frankly, It just makes the accounting easier.

Now, of course I am well aware that you have invested a great deal in the idea of being independent of the two parties. You wrote the book, after all. I know It’s very easy for me, who doesn’t hold that issue dear, to advise you to throw it all to the side for the sake of an election. But I would make two points:
  1. For all your belief in the model, there is as yet no proof that it can work. There have been several Independent candidates in Kansas over the past couple of years, and with the exception of your Senate run they haven’t even caused their regular-party opponents to break a sweat. 
  2. It bears repeating: the highest priority in Kansas politics right now is making sure Kris Kobach does not become the next governor. However dearly you hold the principle of independence, it is not as important as making sure Kobach is kept out of power. 

It really comes down to this: As a Democrat, the path for you is clear. As an Independent, it isn’t. And the stakes are just too high. 

And look, if Bernie Sanders can do it, you can do it. I would even be okay with you making air quotes with your fingers every time you say “I’m a Democrat” in public. But what I couldn’t abide is Kobach becoming governor if there’s a way to stop him - a way I believe that only you can provide. 

Thanks for listening.

Best,
Reb Moti.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How Tim Owens Saved Kansas

I want to relate a little story that might otherwise get lost in the historical shuffle.

The first year I was a lobbyist in Kansas was 2012. It was a very eventful year: the Brownback tax "experiment" got underway, and it was also the year Brownback and the Koch's purged the moderate leadership in the state senate - 7 out of 9 moderate GOP Senators were knocked off in Republican primaries. It took years for sanity to return; till this year, in fact.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Barbecue, Hold the Politics

An old friend, a musician, came in from out of town. His band was playing a barbecue festival in south KC, so I went. It was a thing I would never have gone to otherwise; in fact, I had never heard of the event before.

It was something like 77 teams of barbecuers; the band was hosted by one of them and the dressing room was that team's RV (the teams tend to travel to different events, and they stay on the grounds in RVs; non-team members have to be off the grounds by midnight).

These were totally nice guys, in the circumstances. They were very concerned with our comfort, and were generous with their food and their booze. They were guys who like their comforts. They really enjoyed the music and we all had a good time.

While we were sitting in the trailer before the set, two of the guys got to talking about the Roger Waters show at the Sprint Center the previous Friday night. Waters had really reamed out Trump. Tim Finn, the rock writer at the Star, had posted on his Facebook page something to the effect that, “If you went to Waters' show and left because of the politics, you obviously never really listened to Pink Floyd.” So these guys were talking, and they said, “The music was great, but he really dumped on Trump,” and then they turned to my friend and said, “I hope you're going to stay away from politics.” To which he answered, “Of course!”

That's when I realized I was probably surrounded by Trump voters. White guys, probably in the beginnings of middle age, used to having America be for them. I didn't ask them, but if they're mad about Roger Waters' politics they probably weren't wearing pussy hats in January.

Of course, most people don't think or talk about politics in the obsessive way that my friends and I do. These guys are just happy to be driving around in RVs, cooking up huge hunks of meat, drinking bourbon and listening to rock music. Life is good; they don't want to be bothered by politics.

My friend actually has progressive politics, but one thing you learn playing frat parties and such is that you give the people what they want. (The band played the Dead's “New Speedway Boogie,” which I pointed out later is actually pretty political, not that anyone would notice.)

One of the most significant conversations coming out of the election has been about the necessity of reaching across cultural lines (to say it that way) to people who feel themselves being left behind in contemporary America, and who had found comfort, or a weapon, in Trump. This has been Bernie Sanders' approach. Of course, the presumption is that this “reaching out” only has to be to white folks. The other side of the argument (often, but not always, coming from African Americans) is that this is kowtowing to the dark racist underbelly of the American electorate. I'm of the dedicated opinion that racial justice and economic justice are deeply intertwined, and also that you can't win an election in the US, even on the state level, without white votes. If white non-progressives are going to be written off from the political equation, there are going to be a lot more Donald Trumps in our future.

So that's it, really. I didn't talk politics with these guys and my friend and I left right after the show. I didn't ask them why Hillary didn't appeal to them or what it would take to make a Left message do so. I didn't ask them what they thought about Trump pulling out the Paris agreement. (Truth be told, I'm assuming their politics based on a random comment.) But those are conversations that I need to have, and with people exactly like them, in order to be effective in my job.

But I also know that the expectation that “we shouldn't talk about politics” (which I've come across plenty in the Jewish community as well) is a luxury that not everyone can afford – in fact, it is itself an indicator of privilege, and as such, must always be questioned. Except at private parties, I guess.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The End of Growing the New American Economy

Jeffrey Sachs is probably the country’s predominant expert on sustainable development. He has written a number of bestselling books on the subject, and also was an adviser to Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race.

Building the New American Economy (Columbia University Press, 2017) is a relatively brief (121 pages) primer for the lay reader on what Sachs thinks we all need to know about the economic problems facing the country, and where we need to go from here. The key idea is found in the introduction: “The keys to success in building the new America [sic] economy can be summarized in three words: smart, fair, and sustainable.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Devil's Bargain

Here’s what’s a somewhat longer and thought out version of what’s been coming out of my mouth the last few times I’ve spoken:
  1. The system is broken.
In 2003 the Bush Administration led us to war based on cooked intelligence. They instituted “enhanced interrogation techniques" (i.e., torture). No one was ever punished except for some extremely small fish at Abu Ghraib. In 2008 the financial system collapsed, due largely to chicanery on Wall Street; the country bailed out the system to the tune of over $1 trillion but again, none of the responsible parties were ever held liable.

In 2016 we had the most absurd election campaign imaginable, which ended with a completely unqualified and temperamentally unsuited celebrity winning the White House. This isn’t the place to detail the perfect storm of factors that led to this result, but it suffices to say that for the second time in 20 years someone entered the presidency who had not won the popular vote.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Brownback Agoniste

Rumors are flying that Sam Brownback is about to get a post in the Trump Administration. As he prepares to leave behind the flaming wreckage his policies have caused in Kansas, it's time for some amateur, armchair politico-psycho-analysis.

It's been interesting, if that's the right word, to see Brownback steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that the tax plan that he forced through in 2012 isn't working. Kansas has a $1bn deficit through the end of 2018, which you would think would speak for itself, but Brownback continues to wait for the magic beans to work, and has a whole staff of people dedicated to putting magnifying glasses to any small piece of good economic news they can find.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Resilience of the White Right

I recently read the book, The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones. He's the CEO of PRRI, a institution in Washington that researches public attitudes toward religion. The book traces the history of political involvement in politics by White Christians and their institutions. He covers the Mainline and Evangelical streams as two parts of the same whole. and sees the same demographic and political pressures facing them both; the two streams are following the same trajectory of waning numbers and influence, with the Mainline about 20 years ahead of evangelical Christianity in terms of timeline.

The two issues he traces in detail are gay marriage and race. He shows how White Christianity was on the wrong side of both of these issues, and that the attitude - and the laws - of the country have moved faster and farther than White Christianity wanted to go.