The attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of so many others in Arizona has elicited a number of policy suggestions, from gun control to private protection for elected officials, to banning incitement to violence on websites either directly or more subtly (e.g., Sarah Palin’s putting a bull’s-eye target on Giffords’ congressional district to indicate how important it would be to remove her from the Congress).
On the other hand, we hear endless pleas to recognize that the assassin was a lonely and disturbed person whose choice of Hitler’s Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books reflects his own troubled soul, not his affinity to the “hatred of the Other” that has manifested in anti-immigrant movements that have spread from Arizona to many other states and in the United States and has taken the form of anti-Islam, discrimination against Latinos, and the more extreme right-wing groups that preach hatred toward Jews.
The problem with this debate is that the explanatory frame is too superficial and seeks to discredit rather than to analyze. I fell into this myself in the immediate aftermath of the murders and attempted assassination. I wrote an op-ed pointing to the right wing’s tendency to use violent language and demean liberals and progressives, and its historical tie to anti-Semitism and anti-feminism. Once I heard that the arrested assassin had a connection to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, I reacted from my own childhood pain at realizing that most of my extended family had been murdered by the Nazis. So I pointed to the current violent language used by the right-wing radio hosts and some of the leaders and activists of the Tea Party, and how their discourse helps shape the consciousness of those in pain and provides them with a target.
But the problem really is much deeper, so I’m sorry I put forward an analysis that was so dominated by my own righteous indignation that it may have obscured a deeper analysis, and mistakenly insinuated that all Arizonans were responsible for the racism in the current policies toward immigrants and that all people on the Right embrace the hate rhetoric of some of their most extremely popular hate addicts like Glenn Beck, or the ignorance of history that led Sarah Palin to label as “blood libel” the criticisms directed at her. Some people even thought that in mentioning that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish that I was somehow suggesting that I would care less if she were not — so I also apologize for being sloppy enough to allow that interpretation — very far from my intent, since I believe that all people are equally created in God’s image, and for that reason I’ve been an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians (though also a critic of Hamas’ violence against Israeli civilians).
I apologize again, as much for the tone of anger as for the content of that kind of generalization. And although Michael Bader has made a persuasive case that we must challenge media that pretends that use of threats of violence comes as much from the Left as the Right (see his piece here), I was very happy that President Obama’s call for tolerance and mutual respect seemed to be getting a good response across the political spectrum (and only wish that his call to avoid violence was adopted by his own administration in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and around the world — apparently unaware that if you train your own population to go kill people around the world, some will come home with a love of guns and a certainty that violence and toughness are the ways to deal with problems).
So here is the analytic key to understanding what we must do:
We live in a society in which the fundamental framework of meaning to life has broken down as the ethos of selfishness, materialism, looking out for number one, and “making it” at all costs, endemic to the capitalist order and a part of all previous class based or patriarchal societies. People increasingly see each other through the framework of “what can YOU do to advance my interests, pleasures, or desires?” People are valued by the capitalist order to the extent that we can help the elites of wealth and power increase their wealth and power. When we no longer can, we find ourselves unemployed and desperate to survive economically, socially ostracized, and lonely.
No wonder, then, that so many people decide that the only rational behavior is to maximize their own advantage and pursue their own self-interest without regard to the consequences for others. In so doing, we mis-recognize each other, and are in turn mis-recognized by everyone else. Instead of being seen as the embodiment of a sacred or holy or God energy (what religious people call “being created in God’s image”), we are seen as beings whose primary value is based on whether we can fulfill someone else’s agenda. And in that sense, we are not recognized for who we most really and deeply are! This mis-recognition makes us feel lonely and misunderstood by almost everyone.
When surrounded by people who only see you in these narrow utilitarian or instrumental terms, many people feel lonely (even inside their own families) and devalued. Of course, this plays out differently for different people. Some will simply become depressed and withdrawn. Others seek comfort in alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity, or promiscuous consumption of material things. Still others will seek the momentary experience of solidarity with someone at a football or baseball game when their team is winning, or in a religious or political movement that affirms their value but demeans everyone outside their side, or even in the fantasized community they access through Facebook or other online adventures.
And then there are many who find no such compensatory framework for the real pain that they share with so many millions of others. They become lonely and withdrawn and retreat into their own fantasy world, and in more extreme cases become mentally ill or otherwise dysfunctional. It is a huge mistake to imagine that these conditions develop independent of the social order — just ask yourself why the proportion of violence in the US compared to our population is so much greater than that in other advanced industrial societies (clue: it is not in our genes, it is in the way we have organized our society).
We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives have called for a new kind of politics that seeks to build a society based on love, kindness and generosity — we call it “The Caring Society — Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Earth.”
Several of the people who knew the assassin said that they knew that he was acting weird and felt the need to stay away from him. A community college ousted him. No one thought to organize a group of people to reach out to him, to help him out of his isolation or to get him connected to professionals who might treat him. That is just not part of the ethos of a “looking out for number one” society. Too many people have been taught to think “don’t get involved with someone else’s problems — it might get you into trouble in unpredictable ways.”
So many people walk by the homeless, angry at them for having reminded us of the daily suffering caused by an economic system of which we are part but which we do not think we could change without spending a lot more energy than we have, and risking potentially dangerous confrontations with the rich and powerful forces that control our society. We don’t want to get involved with them, not only because doing so may open us to be vulnerable to their suffering, but also because we ourselves don’t feel that we’ve gotten the recognition we deserve for our own suffering, so “why should I spend my time involving myself with these strangers whose suffering would only add to my burden, particularly since I doubt I have the capacity to do much for them?”
Too many people imagine that we can simply turn our back on the suffering of others, or control it through a military, police, and psychiatric system when the daily barrage of media propaganda hasn’t been sufficient to keep the “dangerous others” in line. Yet we are mistaken, because the suffering of others cannot be escaped and manifests in the election of increasingly right-wing politicians, in crime, and in psychotic behavior from people who may someday enter our personal space in a violent way as did the assassin in Tucson! At your local supermarket, or on the highways, or in a movie theatre or coffee shop or in a shopping mall, or where your children go to school! It has already happened in all of these places, and it will get worse!
Or perhaps you imagine you could just stay in your home and never leave, and thus be protected? A far more rational, though by no means easy, way to get lasting protection for yourself and your children or grandchildren is to create the Caring Society. To duck out of this necessity by simply labeling people as psychotic really misses the point of how much the social order we are part of is daily generating bizarre and self- and other-destructive behavior. As someone who was himself a psychologist for twenty years before becoming a rabbi, I can assure you that the absence of these kind of insights in the field of psychology deeply limits the amount of help that psychologists are able to deliver to us when trying to handle the mass psychology of alienation, estrangement and violence.
Creating a caring society would require a new bottom line so that every social and governmental policy, every corporation, every school and university, and even every personal behavior is judged to be rational, productive or efficient not only to the extent that it maximizes money or power, but also to the extent that it maximizes love and caring, kindness and generosity, and ethical and ecological sensitivity, as well as enhances our capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of all that is. Allow yourself to imagine a society based on these principles, teaching them in schools, making them the core of the message of the media, and rewarding the behavior of those who embody this New Bottom Line in their work world and/or in their personal lives. This is the Public Policy that would make a huge reduction in violence in our lives and our society!!!
Two major policy initiatives embody this approach and need your support:
1. The ESRA (Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment) to the U.S. Constitution being introduced into Congress this week on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision. The ESRA aims not only to overturn that decision but also to eliminate all private money in national elections and replace it with public funding. It requires media to supply free and equal time for all major candidates while banning private advertising during the months before the election, and it requires large corporations to get a new corporate charter once every five years — a process that requires them to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility to a jury of ordinary citizens using the new bottom line as their guide for assessing corporate social responsibility. The ESRA also requires teaching the values of caring for each other and for the earth at every grade level in any school receiving public funding directly or indirectly (please read it and ask your elected representatives and your city council and state legislature to endorse it — www.spiritualprogressives.org/ESRA and join our campaign to build public support).
2. The GMP (Global Marshall Plan), which would replace the strategy of domination as the way to achieve Homeland Security with a strategy of generosity. The GMP would commit the United States to dedicating 1-2 percent of our annual Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to a program to eliminate domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, and inadequate education and inadequate health care. The program would also seek to repair the global environment and enlist all the other advanced industrial countries in this same venture. (Please read it and ask your elected representatives and your city council and state legislature to endorse it at www.spiritualprogressives.org/GMP and join our campaign to build public support.)
Only within a society whose economic and political institutions are reshaped around this new bottom line do we have a chance of dramatically reducing violence and increasing our safety as individuals or our “homeland security” as a society. It’s not enough to have love in our hearts, because the assumptions and consciousness that is shaped by our contemporary schools, media, and daily experience in the world of work dramatically shape the minds of everyone around us in ways that make it near impossible for anyone but the most privileged or the born saints to keep true to the values of love, kindness, generosity, and caring for each other and the earth while we maneuver through daily life and try to make a living.
Anything short of that societal transformation toward the Caring Society is actually utopian and fanciful, and leads to blaming each other or some group or policy option for the irrational behaviors that are tearing our society apart. So, yes of course, gun control would be helpful as would more psychological support services. Yes, the violent discourse of the Right, like the violence that young men are taught to esteem as they are given the option of “serving their country” through the armed services with its legalized murder of Afghans and Iraqis, and the media saturation with violence all contribute to our normalizing individual and social pathology, are not just “background” but infuse the consciousness of everyone with the notion that violence is the “realistic way” to deal with whoever is deemed “the enemy.” Moreover, and please understand this before condemning those who oppose gun control, for millions of young me in this society, the experience of camaraderie that they felt in the Armed Services was the only time in their lives that they got to experience a “we” instead of an isolated “I,” and of course the romanticizing of that experience after they get out and face a society that doesn’t care one whit about them is inextricably associated with the days that they held and were able to use their weapons. Don’t expect them to give that up until a caring society is available in real life and not only in memory.
We Americans shut our eyes to the 12,000-20,000 children under the age of five who die each day (approximately 12 million a year) from hunger or diseases related to malnutrition and inadequate health care facilities around the world. We don’t even count this as violence, though the mal-distribution of wealth and hence of food and health care are part of the system in which we daily participate and to which we pay our taxes and support by our consumerism. We shut our eyes to the suffering of the poor in our own society, not realizing that in so doing or in supporting lower taxes and cuts of government services we are striking out against the poor in violent ways, guaranteeing that they will be thrown from their homes and denied adequate food, shelter, and health care. We refuse to see the structural violence built into the daily operations of the global economic system of which we are a central part and the violence that we do when we vote against those who would provide adequate support for the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden.
Yet we must not forget that all this violence is only a manifestation of the violence to our humanity that occurs daily in a society in which each of us is constantly being devalued and mis-recognized unless we clawed our way to the top of the economic or political ladders to become “successful.” So I understand and sympathize with those on the Right who say, “hey, don’t blame me” because in fact their behaviors are just another part of the cry of pain that so many people feel deeply and have no way of understanding or dealing with. Our society is bursting with the silent screams of tens of millions of people suffering systematic and daily assaults on their dignity, their humanity, and their capacities to be loving, kind, gentle, and generous.
So much unrecognized and pervasive pain! Until we transform this big picture, all the little efforts, all the noble reforms, all the good intentions, will amount to little. Moreover, and this is the point missed by those who say “later we’ll deal with that pain, but first we must defeat the Right and provide jobs and food and shelter,” we will never be in a position to deliver on people’s material needs until we build a movement of the majority of Americans to do that, and we will never succeed in building such a movement until we can effectively address this pervasive pain and provide adequate alternatives to the pain reduction provided by fundamentalist religions, drugs, alcohol, profligate materialism, and politics aimed at blaming some relatively powerless group for all the pain whose origin actually lies in the fundamental ethos of our global economic and political system. And that, more than anything else, is why we need a worldwide tikkun olam (healing, repair and transformation of the world). How to get there is described in the Spiritual Covenant with America that guides Tikkun’s action and education arm: The Network of Spiritual Progressives.