Chanukah and Christmas in the Shadow of Trump
Don’t Let Trump Ruin Your Holidays
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
Don’t let the latest outrageous appointment to his administration of racists and anti-Semites or the oppressive policy “the Donald” plans to implement as soon as he takes office, or the upsurge of hate crimes after the election ruin your opportunity to rejoice at all that is good in our world and in your own life!
How about starting with this to put things in perspective: a very clear and strong majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton–she won the popular vote by over one and half million. So celebrate the fact that the American voting majority preferred her to Trump, and if we lived in a democracy, she would be taking office in January. After Al Gore similarly won the majority and still was not allowed to become president, the Dems could have used the first two years of the Obama presidency, when they controlled both Houses of Congress, to start the process of amending the Constitution to both end the electoral college (added to the Constitution to prevent a majority from eliminating slavery in southern states, and continuing to give American racists disproportionate say in public policy) and to end the role of money in politics (the ESRA–Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would do that, please read it at www.tikkun.org/esra).
And it’s not too late for President Obama to proclaim: “Hillary Clinton is the real president of the majority of Americans, so I’ve asked her to appoint a Cabinet composed on the kinds of people she would have had helping her run the government, so that they can articulate for the American majority the policies and practices the majority voted for. I don’t expect her to subject herself to more of the abuse she suffered from Donald Trump by reentering the public arena as ‘the real President of Americans’ she actually is, but I believe that the platform she and Bernie Sanders worked out together is much closer to what the American public wants than what our very defective electoral college system is planning to give us. I call upon the media, which gave Donald Trump a path to the White House by the free publicity it gave to him in order to defeat many Republican adversaries in the primaries, to now give that same attention to the voices of those who actually would have won the presidency were our democratic system to have already fixed this unjustified holdover from the days when women and people of color and poor whites were not able to vote. It’s a key step toward turning our country into a genuine democracy.”
But I’m not holding my breath. Obama has consistently lacked the courage we needed from a liberal or progressive leader–we need only look at his failure to order an end to the building of yet another oil pipeline, this one threatening the water supplies of Native Americans in North Dakota.
And by the way, that resistance by Native Americans to the pumping of yet more oil that threatens the life support system of our planet is another thing to celebrate this holiday season. Many Native Americans have joined together to form the Standing Rock encampments and demonstrations not only to prevent their own water supply from being destroyed by yet another ill-conceived effort to frack and then pump oil when our world needs instead to have the monies invested in alternative energy sources, but also to explicitly wake the rest of us up to the demand to keep the fossil fuels in the ground or impose a hefty carbon tax on those who use that form of energy.
What is particularly impressive, deserving celebration, is the way that the Native Americans (and the many others who have come to the Standing Rock demonstrations as volunteers) have stood their ground non-violently, refusing to sink to the despicable level of the militarized police who have consistently met the demonstrators with horrific levels of violence. We should take a few minutes at our Christmas and Chanukah dinners to celebrate these Native Americans, descendants of those who welcomed the first American Pilgrims and shared the first Thanksgiving dinner with them (or so the mythology goes), and to pray for the many hundreds of people who have been assaulted and/or wounded by police violence in Standing Rock, and in communities where people of color daily face unjust assaults, arrests, and violence from police and other racists.
Please bring all this to the attention of everyone with whom you are celebrating Christmas and Chanukah, as well as to offer prayers for Sophia Wilansky, a Jewish woman who took part in a nonviolent protest led by the Sioux Nation of Standing Rock, and was severely wounded by a concussion grenade, fired by the police and others hired by the Dakota Pipe-Line companies, that blew apart her left arm. We can give thanks that we still have the freedom to challenge these kinds of brutal assaults and resolve to resist any erosion of that freedom Trump’s new attorney general might have in mind to impose.
I want also to celebrate this Christmas and Chanukah all those who have stood up, and taken risks, to oppose the racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism which still persists in America (both in the actions of some haters who have now become more visible as they celebrate their new president as a comrade with shared values, and in many of the economic and political institutions of our society).
I’m proud to have been arrested several times for nonviolent participation in demonstrations against all these forms of oppression. Yet even as we celebrate all those who fight against every form of hatred, racism, sexism, etc. and give thanks for their courageous work, we also have to reconsider the way we’ve done that in the past. Martin Luther King jr. had a beautiful way–always putting forward a universalistic vision of “Blacks and Whites together” building a world based on love and nonviolence. But in the past few decades the liberal and progressive world has too often embraced or tolerated an “identity politics” which has at times set one group against another, each feeling that its oppression is worse than anyone else’s, and not emphasizing our common humanity. And while this has greatly weakened the Left (that is, liberal and progressive movements and political parties) it has also made it easier for Rightists to characterize us all as elitists who don’t care for white people and men. When lefties talk about “white skin privilege” or “male privilege” this has often sounded to many whites and many men as though the Left has no understanding of the class structure and the way that most whites and most men have very little power to shape the world in which they live, inherited a world already structured in racist and sexist ways, and perceive themselves as having little power to change it. Yet many people hear the Left as implying or saying explicitly that anyone who is not already on our side must be racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, antiSemitic or just plain stupid.
We at Tikkun magazine and our interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives have consistently critiqued those who make the sweeping assumption that everyone who is on the Right or who voted for Trump was a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc. What the research I conducted through the Institute for Labor and Mental Health (Tikkun’s parent body) revealed is that many working people are in deep pain in their lives, in part because they’ve bought into the dominant ideology of our capitalist society that we live in a meritocracy, so if your income doesn’t match your needs, or if your relationships don’t feel nurturing and you are not getting the respect you deserve, you have no one to blame but yourself.
This self-blaming is one reason many people are desperate for some kind of community that accepts them as they are, and doesn’t see them as “less than” others the way they get to feel all day in the world of work and sometimes also in their own family life. I’ve explained in my book The Left Hand of God–Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right how the dynamics of a competitive marketplace has the ironic consequence of making most people feel that they are really alone, unable to count on others, and desperate for some place where people are not looking at them through the utilitarian framework of “what can YOU do to satisfy MY needs?” but rather accepts them with all their flaws and limitations, and on the other hand also makes them feel that creating a society that truly respects and cares for others is a utopian fantasy and that they had best protect themselves from others by building a wall around themselves and honing the skills of domination and manipulation lest they themselves be dominated.
They find this accepting community either in right-wing ultra-nationalist organizations, or in fundamentalist churches, where everyone inside the community is valued and everyone outside is seen as potential enemy. In this context, people are getting the following message: “You are ok, so stop your self blaming, because the cause of your problems is not you, but is part of the social reality in which e not you live.” This brings deep relief from self-blaming, and earns the Right wing immense gratitude from people who have been feeling bad about themselves. The only hitch? The Right goes on to say, “the reason you are not getting the respect you need, the success you need, even the family stability and love you need, is because there is some Other that the liberals and progressives are giving what you actually deserve.” That Other was Jews in Nazi Germany (along with gays and gypsies), the Chinese in Japan and India, the Japanese in China and Southeast Asia, the Arabs in Israel and the Americans and Israelis in parts of the Muslim world. And in the U.S. that has been Native Americans and African Americans for centuries, and more recently feminists, gays and lesbians, Muslims, immigrants, and now once again Jews.
Please understand what is happening here. People are in deep pain, often a product of the way these “hidden injuries of class” play out in their personal lives, making them feel terrible about themselves. The Right comes along and relieves the self-blaming by directing towards demeaned Others the anger that people had previously directed against themselves. In short, a legitimate pain is being dealt with through an illegitimate and poisonous strategy of other-blaming. The pain is real, the solution offered by the Right is illusory and destructive.
But that pain gets compounded when liberals and progressives dismiss everyone on the Right or among Trump supporters as racist, sexist, etc. That blaming and shaming is one reason why people who 8 years ago voted for Obama, or even this past Spring hoped that Bernie Sanders would get the Democratic nomination and they would have supported him, but this November voted for Trump. They voted for a racist and sexist this time, and for some who voted for Trump it was precisely this that attracted them. But for many others, including 53% of white women who voted for Trump, it wasn’t the racism or sexism that attracted them to Trump, but his ability to articulate the intense anger and outrage that they had been feeling for many years and never had anyone who liberated them to really express it. And this latter group, which could still be reached by an empathic and compassionate progressive world, instead finds themselves demeaned by the Left, told that their sole motivation is that they are either haters or stupid—and this demeaning makes them even more loyal to the Right no matter how crazy its policies appear to be.
No, I’m not suggesting that you celebrate this reality. But yes, we can celebrate that there are many people who could still be won back to a progressive agenda in the next 4 to 8 years if we can help build a liberal and progressive movement that would approach these people not as enemies and not as dummies, but as decent people who deserve respect even when we disagree with the choices they have been making.
To build such a movement, we have to approach with sensitivity and compassion those on the Left who have made this mistake of demeaning all Trump voters instead of recognizing the possibility that while some of them are in fact racist, sexist, bullying jerks, a lot of others are decent people with ideas that need to be respectfully addressed and challenged.
Yet we also need compassion for those on the Left who are following this path. These lefties are often people who have themselves been sexually abused, or demeaned as women or gays or lesbians or people of color. Their life experience has been one which led them to the Left, and their outrage at the continuation and momentary triumph of racist and sexist forces in America deserves to be treated with respect. We need more people in our society to be outraged at every form of oppression and prejudice. This outrage is a form of righteous indignation that many of us at Tikkun share fully. But there is a big difference between being outraged at oppression and prejudice and being outraged at the human beings who express or participate in oppresssive behaviors that manifest prejudice or vote for people who express those prejudices, and being outraged at the people themselves who carry mistaken ideas. In fact, the Left often devours its own members by discovering that each of us may still have remnants of sexism, racism or homophobia within ourselves, and then spends its energy dissing each other!!! We should not be throwing verbal stones at anyone else, because we ourselves, all of us, are participating in a society which, compared to many places on this planet, gives “privilege” to all Americans regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation. Focusing on privilege in this way is a gift to the ruling elites–they can always remind us to also feel guilty and hence disempower us to struggle against the system and the way it enshrines racism, sexism, etc. Don’t fall into their trap–encouraging us to feel bad about ourselves is very disempowering, and can be applied to people of color and other groups that are oppressed here but privileged in regard to some other parts of the world’s population. This is a path that leads movements to destroy themselves.
And yet, here is another thing to celebrate on Christmas and during Chanukah: it is possible for us to recognize that our anger at the various forms of oppression is correct, our indignation righteous, but shaming blaming, and emphasizing how bad or distorted we or others are is not necessarily smart as a strategy. We need to validate the feelings of outrage at racism, sexism, and every other form of oppression–and fight against racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, and/or antiSemitic policies and practices, the spreading of distorted views of others, the public or private demeaning of others.
AND then, we need to develop a strategy in which we reach out to people who voted for Trump with compassion, not because they have a “right” to demand that of us, but because we have a need to win in our struggle to heal and transform our society, and to win we need to sometimes let go of being “right” and instead start to figure out how to be “smart.” And demeaning the others, asking them to listen as we tell them how privileged they are, lecture them on their white skin privilege or their male privilege, has proved to be a destructive strategy which neither changes the others nor helps us succeed.
To succeed, we need to help those who are not yet on our side be able to actually feel that they can get respect and genuine caring from us, and that they’ll never feel as long as we feel the need to tell them how privileged they are, how evil their ideas, how stupid their concepts. To indulge ourselves in this kind of shaming and blaming is actually a way of abandoning the needs of those who suffer most in our society
I often think of how much I would have wished there had been in Germany in the 1920s, when the Nazi movement was growing but had not yet taken over and abolished democratic processes, a group on the Left that could have thought about what legitimate needs the Nazis were addressing in illegitimate ways, and then sought to address those needs in more healthy ways, in the process winning people away from the fascist agenda. And that is precisely what we need in the U.S. today.
So another thing I invite you to celebrate is this fact: that people, no matter how far gone into ideas that we might find offensive or hurtful, can often be won away to a different way of thinking if they are approached with genuine empathy and a real desire on our part to understand how they have experienced the world. This requires a lot from us–the ability to listen without judgment, to really hear, and to really want to know others’ pain. Both the pain of those on the Left who simply can’t go this path because they are still so stuck in the pain they’ve experienced from racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, antiSemities, etc. and because they are rightly scared (as I am to some extent) by the horrific possibilities that a Trump presidency might bring). But also recognize the pain of those on the Right who have been put down in so many ways by people on the Left (I haven’t even begun in this article to talk of the ways that they have been put down by the religiophobia rampant on the Left that approaches everyone who is religious or spiritual as though they are on a lower level of consciousness than those who have rejected the religious and spiritual world).
So yes, the task is difficult, the path requiring a lot of psychological sophistication and training. By the way, Cat Zavis, executive director of the Network of Spiritual Progressives is offering some of that very training–if you are interested, contact her: email@example.com. But we can still give thanks on Christmas and Chanukah that the possibility of tikkun (the Hebrew word for healing, repair and transformation) is still with us.
In fact, you might find that if you share this analysis with people at your Christmas and Chaunkah celebrations, talk about the idea that people on the Left are beginning to recognize and repent for the ways that we in the liberal and progressive world put others down, made them feel stupid or evil, and that we recognize that as a big mistake, you might be surprised to find people whom you thought were unreachable suddenly willing to listen, particularly if you ask them to share their stories of the parts of their life about which they still feel that they were unsuccessful or failures, or the ways that they felt blamed or put down by people on the Left (maybe even by you personally). It will open up amazing conversations that can be built upon after the holidays as well.
Of course, there is so much more to celebrate. Every day I start my day by walking with my wife around our neighborhood, giving thanks for being alive, conscious, with relatively healthy bodies, and part of this amazingly alive planet Earth. We sing songs and prayers of appreciation for all the amazing realities of this universe, human beings and animals being part of what there is to celebrate, and also so many other aspects of this fantastic planet that sustains us. Try this spiritual practice for 30 minutes each morning–it is life energizing and consciousness refreshing! Try it, alone or partnered, during Chanukah or on Christmas morning before you go to any celebration with other people–it will deepen your experience. And of course, our friends, lovers, partners, spouse, coworkers, and comrades in the struggle for a world of love and generosity also should be celebrated as we give thanks this holiday season.
And if you like this article, help us keep Tikkun alive by making a substantial tax-deductible donation at www.tikkun.org/donate or by sending a check to Tikkun, 2342 Shattuck Ave, #1200, Berkeley, Ca. 94704. Because we have views that critique some versions of political correctness on the Left and on the Right, support both Israelis and Palestinians and critique both sides, and simply refuse any orthodoxy, we rarely get the financial support we need to keep our miniscule staff (2.5 positions) going, and I had to lay myself off in order to have enough money at Tikkun to pay for this tiny staff! If you feel more comfortable giving your credit card on a phone call, call Staci at Tikkun, 510 644 1200 (not on weekends).
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine (www.tikkun.org/subscribe) chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming NSP–Network of Spiritual Progressives, and author of 11 books including The Politics of Meaning. He invites you to tell him what happened if you shared these ideas with others at the Chanukah and Christmas celebrations you attended. RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org