Acting for Others, Acting for Ourselves


The air around me is swirling with opinions on “identity politics” and the failure of the Clinton campaign to capture the loyalty of what are variously called “poor whites,” “white working-class voters,” and so on—formulations that join class and race.

Readers have sent me Mark Lilla’s piece in the New York Times (“The End of Identity Liberalism”), bemoaning the “fixation on diversity” and calling for a “post-identity liberalism,” symbolized by his experience of singing the national anthem with a public hall full of multiracial union members.

There have been many rejoinders: I recommend Kathryn Franke’s piece “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again.” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, accurately pinpointing Lilla’s impact as “underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S.”

Franke says that Lilla’s “is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built,” while dismissing the calls for equity from others as a form of selfish whining.

As someone who’s been an activist for my entire adult life, I can second this critique without reservation. Women, for example, have been told to sit down and shut up by every progressive movement, on the grounds that our grievances draw attention away from the “real” issues—until women finally forced open the doors of leadership and began shaping those movements. Can you imagine Black Lives Matter without the leadership of women?

After reading Lilla’s piece, a friend wrote me, imagining the response of an “old white guy” to the list of those his community stands with: “LGBT, disabled, Muslim, Black, Somali. I felt this surge of pride in being here, in this city. And yet—if you were an old white guy from a small town—I hear him asking—‘Where am I on the list of people you will stand with? Am I even on a list someplace? Or am I only on the list liberals keep of those with white privilege?’”

There’s no question that the voters he describes are feeling a sense of loss, nor that Trump’s promise to give their old America back spoke to them. But this pain of loss is compounded of the loss of jobs and homes, actually “corollary damage” of predatory capitalism, but quite successfully blamed on immigrants and others; and the loss of white privilege, in which society consistently defaults to an understanding of their interests as common interests—an automatic hand up, an evergreen benefit of the doubt.

It is right and necessary to promote an understanding of common interest that doesn’t turn on a choice between categories of identity and class, an understanding in which the cross-cutting injuries of a system that serves the few should animate a cross-cutting response that encompasses multiple identities.

But just as the pain of loss is compounded and complex, the argument that turns it into powerful solidarity must be. There is an urgent need to listen deeply and engage with each other, opening dialogues that can shine a light on the real causes of loss instead of the scapegoating that has become our national go-to explanation. In The Culture of Possibility, I recount a joke (adapted for artists, although just substitute “union member,” “Jew,” “Muslim” or “Latino” and it works equally well):

A oil company CEO, a Tea Party member, and artist are sharing a plate of a dozen cookies. The CEO helps himself first, taking 11 of the 12 cookies. Then he turns to the Tea Partier and says, “Watch out! That artist wants a piece of your cookie.”

Action can be consolation, or at least a step toward healing loss, and responding to Trump’s scapegoating by pointing to real causes and their possible remedies can lead to action by those who have until now felt reaction is their only recourse.

But as difficult as it is to imagine, there also needs to be a dialogue that dips into the well of shared spiritual wisdom to reframe loss as the enlargement of compassion too. Consider all of the great spiritual leaders whose journeys were fueled by precisely that realization: Moses’ moment of class suicide, when he killed the sadistic overseer and put himself forever on the side of the oppressed; Siddhartha’s enlightenment when he left the confines of the palace and saw the suffering of the world; Gandhi’s repudiation of the privilege he enjoyed as an attorney trained in London after experiencing the brutal institutionalized racism of South Africa; and so many others.

To the extent that some people are saying either “get over it—your losses are nothing compared to mine” or “we must do all we can to make up for what you have lost,” the opportunity is missed for the much harder but far more rewarding exploration of the notion that something is lost, but something of value is to be gained. If you find this wildly idealistic, then you haven’t taken in the many, many men of my generation who felt a loss of male privilege at the rise of the women’s movement and found a way to embrace true equity. I’d be a fool to say we are living the egalitarian dream, but every day I see evidence of change in attitude, behavior, and values as compared the world I saw in the mid-twentieth century.

I am taking heart now from the actions people are taking that declare solidarity across lines of difference without joining the Lillas of this world to say that one must negate the other.

The day it came out, I signed the ALEPH pledge with a full heart. I also supported MPower Change’s call to reject Kris Kobach, the designer of the U.S.’s first Muslim registry.

This is ally work to be sure, to be guided by the counsel of those most affected. But it is fundamentally also first-voice. The immediate ancestors of many Jews in my generation were annihilated by a system that started with things like registration imposed by an elected government. When Jews were commanded to wear yellow stars, others did not stand with us. They let us be easily singled out and rounded up to the death camps. Coming forward now is an act of solidarity with ourselves.

If Trump takes office with Steve Bannon by his side, I anticipate an intensification of what I have already seen from Trump supporters: racism, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish statements and acts. To pick one small and personal example, when I joined last summer in Bend The Arc’s #WeveSeenThisBefore action commemorating the yahrzeit of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, they tweeted me pictures of lampshades and bars of soap, objects manufactured by Nazis from Jewish flesh. We have already seen videos of Trump supporters gloating over his election with the Nazi salute.

The rabbis who’ve gone to Standing Rock (for example, this Yom Kippur dispatch from The Shalom Center, where I have the privilege of serving as president) have gone in solidarity and also in the recognition of our collective responsibility, as described in the above-linked article: “In Judaism the deepest form of atonement is to change our actions, next best is by doing our best to make sure that when the situation arises again we will act differently; each are accompanied by reparations for the harm we have done.”

In the history of the creation of white supremacy, we see ethnic groups gathered into the category of whiteness as they prove useful to those in power, with certain groups, Jews chief among them, positioned in buffer-zones: granted white-skin privilege when our complexions qualify (of course, there are Jews of many colors), but handy for questioning of loyalty from all sides of the color-line, should that prove useful. When I was young, I knew no right-wing Jews. Now the story is different (although 71% percent of Jews voted for Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center, the highest of any of the religious groups polled), appallingly illustrated by Alan Dershowitz’s defense of Steve Bannon. Jews in Germany were white until they weren’t: a privilege conferred is a privilege that can be withdrawn, no matter how enthusiastically it is embraced, no matter how prominent those foolish enough to believe it cannot.

My message is simple: to embody a way of being in which acting for others is also acting for ourselves, not understood as either/or. I hope you will agree it’s an aspiration worth pursuing.

This is a very different type of music from the links I usually provide: “HaNeshama Lach” sung by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his daughter Neshama, with a heartbreaking story folded inside.

[youtube: video=”UR09iay49t0″]

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