(The following was written by a good friend, Michael Johnson, from Austin Texas. He gave me permission to share this with you. I’m inspired by the way it ends with empowering optimism.)
The March on Saturday symbolizes, to me, the beginning of what promises to be a long and difficult fight and one in which victory is far from certain. I fear defeat will mean the end of our great experiment in human freedom, democracy, and equality. Very probably defeat will signal acceleration beyond return of the global upheaval certain if we don’t sufficiently slow climate change. This March begins a movement. And, to borrow from Joe Biden, it is a “Big Fuckin’ Deal”.
Many of us will be visiting with family over the coming holidays, starting this Thanksgiving. How can someone who supports the Occupy movement have a civil conversation with family members who may have a different view of things? How can you be prepared if someone else brings up the topic? I’d like to start the ideas flowing on this with a few thoughts here.
For such a discussion it’s vitally important to set realistic goals about what you want to accomplish. It’s probably impossible to change someone’s mind with a short conversation about facts if they have strong emotions about their beliefs. Don’t even try, this is not about winning debate points awarded by some imaginary judge. What is it about then? I’ll address that later.
Here’s some specific suggestions on what to do and what to avoid doing.
Photo from giaitri59
I was at a recent conversation event with 16 reasonably well informed, educated people who came together to discuss the recent political unrest in the Middle East. One interesting thread in the conversation was that most of the people in the group were at a loss to understand why this was happening now or what started it. We realized that we had no cultural narrative or ideology that would explain what was going on, or how it would turn out. Perhaps there was one evolving narrative that explained some of it in hindsight though. When those in power maintain their power through fear, they can be overthrown by the population when people lose their fear. That loss of fear can spread like wildfire fueled by a combination of being inspired by others, and a belief that they have nothing to lose because of a bleak outlook for their current situation. When a system maintained by fear is teetering on the brink in an increasingly unstable situation, the efforts of single individuals can have a major impact on what happens next. That brings me to my two nominations for the Nobel Peace prize for this year.
This is part two of a series about discussions with right-of-center relatives over the holidays (part one is here). When I was asked if I objected to the Christmas tree in their house, I said “of course not”. I was told that I must not be a true liberal then, since true liberals find Christmas trees objectionable. While my mind was spinning as I tried to come up with a civil response to this, a friend stepped in with the following comment:
“Gee, I know a large number of very liberal people, and not a single one of them finds the idea of Christmas trees objectionable. I personally tend to find myself being very skeptical about sources when they make claims like this that are at odds with what I see around me.”
Perfect! The response kept a civil tone, emphasized personal experiences, wasn’t directly critical of the other person, but instead used personal observations to express skepticism about a news source. (In this case the “news source” was assumed to be a popular right wing radio show, so I’m probably being overly generous using the term “news source”). This seems to be a great way in general to gently but firmly question overgeneralizations and prejuduces at the start of a discussion. The art of civil conversations then becomes finding a productive way to continue the discussion in an open and respectful manner.
All of these “facts” were told to me by various relatives during visits over the holidays. They are moderately conservative good people who mean well and were just attempting to inform the main family liberal (i.e. me) about things I may not have been aware of. Quick Internet searches later in the evening showed that none of these were actually true. I chose not to revisit the arguments with them afterwards in an attempt to correct their mistakes based on my research. That seemed secondary to what was important about the conversations.
I am a strong advocate of our need as a society to develop the ability to have reasonable civil conversations about everything important, including politics and religion. These relatives were reaching out to me in a civil manner with some thoughts about these issues. This was a chance for me to model what civil conversations were like, and to practice my ability to respond appropriately. So how did I respond?
Extending unemployment benefits: $57B. Extending tax cuts: $208. Changing the tone in Washington enough to enable the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: priceless.
Sign from the Rally for Sanity
I’m currently reading the book Common Groundby Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel. Written before the 2008 election, they predicted that the time is coming for a growing public demand for bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Indeed, recent pollsfrom this fall show that an overwhelming 75% of people wanted more bipartisan cooperation. Ihave also written in other postsabout the growing movement of interfaith dialogue and cooperation that I have been witnessing in my community.
Like most people (poll results here), I did not favor extending tax cuts for billionaires, and was initially disappointed that President Obama was willing to do that as part of a package deal involving extended unemployment benefits and other issues. While the deal adds a whopping $850B to the deficit, and Obama did a poor job of selling it to his base and the public in general, I’m beginning to understand that the benefits were greater that I had originally realized. Besides the compassionate extension of the unemployment benefits (whichwere an economic stimulus by the way), its most important benefit may be the change of tone in Washington. Let me explain.
I had mixed feelings when I first heard about Rabbi Lerner’s proposal to save Obama’s presidency by running a primary challenge against him by a candidate who is a strong advocate of progressive policies. I definitely agree that if President Obama signs an extension to the Bush’s tax cuts for billionaires, many people would be emotionally tempted to view that as the “last straw” and end their support for Obama. Why can’t the Democrats simply and repeatedly call it like it is on this issue – borrowing $700 billion from our children and grandchildren to give to rich people over the next few years? According to a recent poll, only 26% of Americans (and only 46% of Republicans) actually support this tax cut for billionaires.
But I digress, so let’s get back to running a primary challenge against Obama from the left. Didn’t Ted Kennedy try that when he mounted a primary challenge against President Carter in 1980? Carter ended up losing the general election to Ronald Reagan that year, and while I doubt that Kennedy’s challenge caused that, there was a general gut feeling that it was a contributing factor.
I can’t endorse Rabbi Lerner’s proposal here, but after giving it some more thought I decided that there is some merit to his idea. The merit is not necessarily for the reasons emphasized in Rabbi Lerner’s article, or as a winning election strategy for the Democrats, but because of the way it would change the public debate about ideas and policy
Although there are many great signs from John Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” one of my favorite ones has the following text:
Image from Rrenner
I HATE TAXES
But I like: Roads,
Firemen, some cops,
the Coast Guard,
various TLA’s, etc.
So I pay them anyway.
(In this context I’m guessing that TLA’s refers to “Three-Letter Acronyms”)
During this Thanksgiving season, that sign caused me to reflect on the old complaint – “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if we actually got our money’s worth from them.” Are the benefits we get from our taxes really worth what we pay?
Time for a little reflection on my life. I wake up each weekday morning and drive to work on well maintained roads, to a nice job that is only possible because we have a suitably regulated economy that is comparatively free of corruption. I received a great education thanks in large part to subsidies from various state and local governments. My family and I have access to great medical care should we need it, and we have a virtually unlimited bounty of food available at incredibly cheap prices. Most importantly and too often overlooked, we live with a sense of physical security and safety that must be incomprehensible to large segments of the world’s population.
Much of this wonderful life style is the result of the hard work of many private individuals, but it would not be possible at all if it wasn’t for the collective government work and services enabled by the taxes we pay. Is the life style I enjoy worth the taxes I pay? I’m not advocating for a large tax increase here, but when I compare my situation to what it could be in other circumstances, I can’t help but conclude that my life style and my family’s safety would be a bargain at three times the cost. For that I am grateful.
As I discussed in a previous post, I recently moved to Austin Texas and started sampling some of the local community events here. This past week I attended my second meeting of the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM). The meeting was organized as a collection of small table discussion groups. The topics for the evening were the Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in NY City, and how to respond to the fear of Islam surfacing in our society.
First, some general observations about the people I talked to there. Many of them were not presently part of any religious church or organization. They attended this interfaith dialogue because they felt a longing for the warmth and sharing that took place at an event like this. Several people mentioned that they viewed participating in this type of respectful interfaith dialogue as a very meaningful spiritual practice for them.
Many people felt that the emotional controversy over the Islamic Cultural Center is starting to wane. Any news story has a natural lifetime for remaining on the front pages before starting to fade from the public interest. This story, however, seemed fade away faster than one would expect given the strong emotions surrounding it. Why might that be happening?
AAIM Meeting in Austin
I recently moved from New York state to Austin Texas. So far, the people I’ve meet in Austin have done a very poor job of playing the roles depicted by the standard red state stereotypes. As an example, let me tell you about a recent interfaith event I attend here.
The Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM) organized an event to discuss the fear generated by the controversy over the Cordoba Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero in NYC. Most of the people at our discussion table proclaimed outrage that what is basically a zoning board decision for lower Manhattan has been turned into a national issue, and is being exploited for political (or ratings) gains by stoking the flames of fear and anger. “That is evil” stated a Jewish women at our table. Two Muslims who joined our conversation both agreed that the Islamic cultural center doesn’t actually qualify as a mosque by the traditional standards of that term.
There was no sign of fear of “the other” in that room, no sign of intolerance. To me, this is an example of religion at it’s best – bringing people together in a spirit of mutual respect and tollerance.
The leader of the AAIM, Tom Spencer, once asked an interfaith gathering what do all major religions have in common? One person yelled out “a belief in God”. Tom responded that Buddhism had no such belief, and it certainly counts as one of the world’s major religions. After some thought, the group agreed on the response “They try to make you a better person”. The evidence I saw in that room certainly supported the notion that, at least for these people, their religion did help make them better people.