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Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



By Our Dreams Will You Know Us: Impeachment Edition

Aug23

by: on August 23rd, 2018 | No Comments »

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote the poet Delmore Schwartz. What do our dreams reveal about our responsibilities to the body politic?

Everyone I know is ecstatic that two individuals have been definitively revealed as guilty of serious criminal action in direct service to the Present Occupant of the White House. As Michael Cohen’s attorney said, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

The New York Times editorial sums it up nicely and links to the relevant details. Many experts are weighing in to say the grounds for impeachment have been met. There is powerful organizing to impeach this shameful excuse for a president: By The People is well worth following and supporting. You can find a recording of their latest online orientation on Facebook Live.

Impeachment is my dream. Or better yet, the speedier option of a Nixon-style resignation to avoid a long impeachment process. Frank Bruni dreams of Melania Trump as an undercover heroine.

What’s your dream?

This question of our dreams against the depredations of the state has engaged me for decades, ever since I read Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, which braided personal and collective politics in an exciting way, new and complex and deep. The main character, Anna Wulf, works with the British Communist Party. In one of the four notebooks that make up the bulk of the novel, she records a dream she has heard recounted by fellow communists. Here’s how I summarized it in “Our Dreams and the President’s,” an essay published almost exactly 13 years ago (it’s short and I have an idea you may want to read the whole thing):

In The Golden Notebook, her masterpiece of disillusionment, Doris Lessing wrote about the dream of a fellow stalwart of the British Communist Party. The book was published half a dozen years after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations to the 20th party congress in 1956 of Stalin’s terrible crimes. In the party worker’s fantasy, he goes to Russia, and is called from his hotel to see Comrade Stalin at the Kremlin. The Stalin he meets is a modest and humble man who asks for news of the British labor movement. The visitor, flattered beyond bearing, does his best. Stalin responds with kindly and helpful advice, then returns to his ceaseless labors.

I thought of this yesterday when a friend called long-distance to share her dream, that George Bush had been awakened from his complacency by the events following Hurricane Katrina, and had declared his intention to make t’shuvah (to use the Hebrew term), to turn away from distortion toward healing, to make things right.

I have no love for George Bush, but evidently even he has some shred of conscience, having been moved by our national shame to speak out against this president’s policies.

The point is that even with respect to someone as clueless and corruptible as Bush, people were able to dream of awakening and redemption. Of course, these dreams—whether of Stalin or Bush—did not come true. But it says a great deal about how things have changed that I have not heard a single person share the fantasy that the Present Occupant of the White House will awaken to the harm of his actions and enter the process of t’shuvah—redemption, repentance, reorientation—to transform his presidency.

As he seems unredeemable, even in dreams the body politic has to expel him. Impeachment or resignation are the sweet dreams. All the rest are nightmares.

In Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The legacy of our collective history weighs heavily in this moment: an Electoral College put in place to prevent direct democracy and protect slavery states; a money-driven electoral system that supports victory by the highest bidder; a Republican Party that enriches the wealthiest and treats the planet as expendable as it actively campaigns to suppress voting by people of color; a Democratic Party that seeks funding from fossil-fuel corporations, reinforcing our shameful corpocracy…. I’ll stop there. This system doesn’t allow us to impeach a president for willful stupidity, nauseating cupidity, or the other crimes of character so evident in every day’s news coverage. Even if it did, the foundation of honor among thieves is fear of exposing oneself, and I don’t see too many of the elected officials benefiting from the current system willing to risk their own cozy turpitude by speaking out.

So it’s up to We The People. We still have absolute power to break the chain of causality, stepping off this undemocratic, mercenary, and venal path. For some reason, I stopped asking the three questions that for years were my watchword. I think it’s time to revive them:

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?

As the people who finally drew the line and made the dream of impeachment real.

“Politician,” performed by Los Lobos.

When Two Truths Collide, Part Two: Can You See Yourself as The Accused?

Aug17

by: on August 17th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Something in our body politic is troubling me. I do not think it is possible to have a just society without understanding that every member of society bears the same potential to harm or heal. I do not think we can have just laws and processes without imagining how we would ourselves be treated as either the accuser of wrongdoing or the accused. Yet I hear so many people exempting themselves from these deep truths, advocating positions conditioned on understanding their own virtue as unimpeachable, on seeing themselves as incapable of serious wrongdoing.

The antidote I think we need is perspective, the ability to see our own virtue, accomplishments, or status as subject to change, to braid empathy and imagination with justice.

A few days ago, I wrote about conflicting views of how best to respond to abuse charges leveled against a respected person. As a case-in-point, I explored progressive responses to the charge that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison had abused his former partner, Karen Monahan. Since then Ellison has won the Democratic nomination for state Attorney General. It remains to be seen how whatever unfolds will affect both him and Monahan, but whatever happens, that won’t end the discussion. I could have picked a different example in which any man long regarded as dedicated to equity and justice is publicly charged with abuse. The choice is appallingly plentiful, the debate ongoing.

To reduce the two perspectives I discussed to a few words, I’d characterize them as “Believe Women. Period,” leading to immediate calls for the accused to step down; or “Investigate Before Action,” in which charges are taken seriously, but the call for punishment is conditioned on obtaining full information.

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When Two Truths Collide

Aug14

by: on August 14th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Minnesota holds primary elections today. One of the most prominent candidates is 11-year congressional veteran Rep. Keith Ellison, running for state Attorney General. A few days ago, first the son of a former partner and then the partner herself, Karen Monahan, accused Ellison of “narcissist abuse,” a term that has come into use fairly recently to describe a pattern of emotional manipulation and bullying in which someone pressures another to ignore one’s own needs to satisfy those of the narcissist, for example. Ellison has denied the charge. Here’s a quick recap.

The charges have ignited a passionate debate among progressives. Many people like Ellison, who has taken consistently progressive positions on issues and who, as the first Muslim elected to Congress, has withstood considerable personal attack himself. So the first contested point is whether the good done by someone accused of bad acts ought to weigh in the balance of judgment.

On one side is a civil libertarian argument that counsels bringing the same commitment to the presumption of innocence that shapes legal proceedings to the court of public opinion. The controversy comes with a raft of text messages and tweets made public by Monahan, some of which allude to a damning video which so far, no one has seen. These voices say that no one should be condemned purely on another’s say-so, that false accusations are possible and to avoid harm, all accusations should be investigated before a determination of culpability and punishment can rightfully be made.


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Feared Than Loved

Aug5

by: on August 5th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

I’ve been thinking about love and fear. Love is a strong force in my life, the thing that heals, the thing that opens my heart to give, the thing that greets me each morning as I open my eyes, grateful for another day. As the Song of Songs – the epic liturgical poem of awe and desire – puts it, “love is as strong as death.”

But love’s opposite – fear, the weapon of the unloved – is swirling all around me.

There’s the ambient fear of racism, violence, poverty, and exploitation, so deeply woven into the fabric of most U.S. cities that it becomes normalized. It takes artists to put a frame around the truth, revealing something of its actual dimensions, actual impact. For a clear-eyed glimpse of the daily fear machine in action and the toll it takes, go see the rich, nuanced, deeply affecting movie Blindspotting, just now in theaters.

There’s the fear that rises in relationship to other threats such as climate crisis. The New York Times Magazine’snew issue consists entirely of a controversial piece, already perceptively criticized by knowledgeable writers such as Naomi Klein and Robinson Meyer for downplaying the economic and power relations behind global scorching. Read all, and do your best not to be overcome by fear.

But my main topic today is another type of fear: the fear that arises in response to extreme state actions, the fear that acts as fuel for fascism.


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What Needs Rethinking to Make Another World Possible?

Jul30

by: on July 30th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Knesset members vote on amendments to the proposed Jewish nation-state bill at the Knesset. Image Courtesy of Miriam Alster.

I miss my optimism.She’s hiding deep in shadow, in a place that has more in common with the Kali Yuga than the messianic era. She’s trying to wedge herself into a future of chaos and oppression in which the old world breaks down, holding onto the hope of rebuilding along lines far more loving and just. I keep hearing this scenario framed as spiritual teaching or political analysis. Either way, the type of encouragement I’m feeling these days says that we are on the bridge between worlds, the old systems crumbling, the new order not yet having taken shape. We are wisely counseled to take heart from history, from those forced to live under the boot of dictatorship who found ways to resist, survive, thrive, and regain freedom. We are wisely counseled to prepare to live through this without forgetting ourselves.

Coaxing my optimism out of hiding, I send her frequent whispers of reassurance. Look at the vast resistance to illegitimate authority and cruel plutocratic policies! Look how far we outnumber those being served by the Present Occupant of the White House, and if only we vote, we will prevail in anything that can be decided by an election! This too shall pass, I tell her, maybe into something surprising and wonderful.

Now I’m starting to get messages in return.”From where I’m hiding,” my optimism tells me, “I see too much certainty about what’s right and true on all sides. If the old order is breaking down, wouldn’t this be a good time to re-examine our ideas about what should take its place? I’m not coming out till that happens.”

She has a point.Consider the action the state of Israel’s right-wing governing coalition took last week, passing a a new law as part of its foundational legislation – kind of a decentralized constitution – establishing Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Civil rights advocates and Arab Israelis (who make up more than 20 percent of its citizenry) quickly condemned the law as apartheid, racism, and the end of democracy. While the law does not explicitly deprive Arab citizens of rights such as voting, it opens the door to even more preferential treatment of Jews. It flies the flag of dis-belonging, of less than, of unwelcome. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading the coalition behind this legislation (even while charged with at least two counts of bribery by the police), has lots of support from the White House.


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Where Is The Exit Out of The Trap?

Jul20

by: on July 20th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Back in the day, I had a quote from Wilhelm Reich* over my desk:

The nature of the trap has no interest whatsoever beyond this one crucial point: WHERE IS THE EXIT OUT OF THE TRAP?

It was the resonant wisdom of this sentence and not the cult of its author that drew me. As a young activist I had already observed progressives’ delight in analyzing the life out of ideas, to fall into bitter conflict over differing interpretations of the causes and effects of social injustice and their remedies, and often to invest more energy in conversation about such things – in the dimensions, decor, origins, textures, and other characteristics of the trap – than in getting out. Reich made the obvious yet often ignored point that “to break out of a prison, one first must confess to being in a prison.” I had already seen how easy it is to normalize captivity with distractions, rationalizations, creature comforts. I posted the quote to remind myself not to succumb.

Today, sick to death of reading minute exegetical analyses of whether or not the Present Occupant of the White House has committed treason, I was reminded of the quote I had written out to post in my line of vision decades earlier.


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Do Unto Yourself: The Power of Reciprocity

Jul17

by: on July 17th, 2018 | Comments Off

How do you treat yourself as compared to your habitual ways of treating others?I’ve been thinking about the dangers of self-exploitation.

I’ve always thought my radar for being exploited was keenly sensitive, even hyper-sensitive. I always attributed this to the way my young self was used by my family, constantly urged and deployed to live for others as I was entitled to no needs and desires of my own. I thought I was over that form of self-punishment, that I could no longer fall unawares into situations that made me feel used. But not long ago, I found myself talking about my own life-choices – particularly my proclivity to stick where I am needed long after it serves me – and the voice of my mother came into my head. “Do it for me,” she said nearly every day, “it will cost you so little and mean so much to me.”

The shock of realization was visceral, the epiphany loud and clear. No one had coerced me. Driving myself, my fuel had been the very same message I’d worked so long to reject. I had been using myself in precisely the same way others had used me long ago.


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The Uses of Appropriation

Jul9

by: on July 9th, 2018 | Comments Off

Audre Lorde famously said it, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She went on: “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The essay was based on a 1979 panel presentation responding to a feminist movement dominated by those who opposed sexism but benefited in other ways from the existing social order. She warns a liberationist movement against reproducing the racial, economic, and other privilege-based operating assumptions of the dominant society, lest it fall far short of its potential to catalyze a more loving, just, equitable, and vibrant society.

Sometimes I like to adopt an alien view, to pretend I’m watching from outer space as we humans scurry across the face of the earth, billions of intelligent two-legged ants. What is getting them so excited now? What tools are being wielded with what intentions? And are they shoring up the master’s house or dismantling it?

In our little corner of the planet, my alien self picks up a loud buzz about appropriation. What’s that? In ordinary English the verb can mean many things: to set aside or authorize funds, to seize or steal something. In art worlds, the word has a fairly flat meaning and a heightened one. The flatter version covers things like Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” in which ordinary objects are renamed, repositioned, and exhibited as art. His most famous example was the 1917 Fountain, a porcelain urinal set on a pedestal and signed R. Mutt. Ever since, a huge amount of modern and contemporary visual art has included appropriated elements.

Appropriation is so common in popular music that a new word was chosen to represent it: sampling. There’s a nicely detailed account of Biz Markie’s losing a suit over a sample of “Alone Again,” one of many such cases in the early 90s challenging musicians’ right to use snippets of others’ copyrighted songs without prior permission. Rick James sued MC Hammer for sampling “Superfreak” on his hit, “U Can’t Touch This,” to cite one example among hundreds. The most recent cases turn on uses of as little as two words. But mostly, these are financial transactions having less to do with moral rights and more with getting paid. Reaching a financial settlement is almost always the endgame.

The heightened meaning of “appropriation” is cultural theft. The accusation is frequently made against artists—but also entrepreneurs and corporations—adopting and profiting by something emblematic of a culture not their own. “Cultural appropriation” is the full moniker, but mostly it gets shortened by omitting the first word.


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The Hidden Who Uphold The World

Jun30

by: on June 30th, 2018 | Comments Off

 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, presenting Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend posted on Facebook, sharing the fatigue and demoralization she had been fighting as she sorted through old papers documenting her journey in the last few decades of the progressive movement in this country: the ideas appropriated without credit; the individuals whose own sense of entitlement blinded them to the injuries they inflicted; the surplus ego, the embedded pathways of patriarchy, and more, much more.

She touched my heart in the tender place of my own questioning, and I wrote back:

The challenge of remaining whole amidst the brokenness is formidable. The challenge of holding all these contradictions is fatiguing. It may not be much consolation to be seen as one who helps to shift the energies, inside and out, by speaking these truths, but you are such a one. There is a Jewish legend of the 36 just ones (the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim) who by their existence uphold the world. It is not given to anyone to know who they are, but we are asked to live as if life itself depended on us, as if we were among the 36. Love and honor to you for answering this call, my friend.

You see, her words brought to mind the legend of the 36 Just Ones – The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim in Hebrew – who by their righteousness uphold the existence of the world. In Jewish mysticism, the story goes that if at any time the total number of these pillars of existence were to fall below 36, the world would end, as together they constitute an ironclad argument to the Divine that humanity is worth the trouble.


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The Big Lie

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2018 | 4 Comments »

What is “The Big Lie” and why is the Present Occupant of the White House so committed and adept at deploying it?

When Hitler coined the expression “The Big Lie,” he meant it as an accusation against German Jews, charging them in Mein Kampf with falsely condemning Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff for losing World War I due to his strategic errors in the spring offensive of 1918, after which he was forced to leave his post.

Ludendorff retaliated by working overtime to blame defeat not on losses in battle under his command, but on Jews and Communists, whom he saw as a powerful internal enemies. As history shows, his Big Lie triumphed in the court of public opinion. As World War II ramped up, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the term to characterize the British relationship to public opinion, accusing them of telling a big lie and sticking no matter what.

Mostly, though, we hear the term in relation to Nazi Germany’s own propaganda, as in this characterization of Hitler from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the present-day Central Intelligence Agency) during the war:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.


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