Joe Biden’s Speech

Forgive me if what I’m about to say about democracy seems obvious, but judging from the protests over Joe Biden’s speech about the soul of America, it doesn’t appear to be obvious to everyone. Those protests centered mostly around his accusations of MAGA being “semi-fascist” and his inclusion of military symbols in a “partisan” speech. That his accusations were harsh and divisive and his effort to recruit Democratic votes political is, I think, a fair observation. But, was he wrong, and was it inappropriately partisan?

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Using Despair

I woke up early three days ago and sat outside with my coffee, quietly watching the dawn. As the sun rose, so did my spirits.

My New Year’s goal for 2022 was to find a way to make peace with the reality of looming losses—of the democracy I’ve revered and served and of the health of the ecosystem on which our very lives depend. My frustration and anger was helping no one as I howled at the moon to make things right again, while seeing more clearly by the day that those corrections were not coming, that things were not going to be “right” again. Democracy as we knew it almost certainly will not be restored and the planet will not be spared catastrophic warming. As I began giving voice to these conclusions I could see responsible people worrying about them causing despair.

Brene Brown and others describe despair as a depressing and potentially paralyzing condition that can result from a complete loss of hope that something we desperately need or long for is not going to happen. It feels like a death, the end of belief that things will get better. Whether we rail against it or sink into it, the futility of even trying can leave us bereft and depressed.  

But failed hopes needn’t end there. Despair as a recognition of reality can be a catalyst that liberates us from the exhausting frustration of wanting and working for something that will not happen, from the pain of beating our head against a wall that cannot move. Myths tell us with enough hope anything is possible, but even the most fervent hope must yield to stubborn facts. Insistence on unreality is crazy, and perseverance in the pursuit of the impossible can become pathological. Despair, like disillusionment, can release us from unrealistic expectations that will never be fulfilled. Whether it’s the death of an ideal or the dead-end of a long hard road, it tells us it’s time to stop.

So it was for me when I accepted that the chances of restoring the democratic processes I spent my life working for were somewhere between unlikely and very unlikely. So it was, too, when I realized that global warming would wreak (is wreaking) catastrophic destruction whether we all recycle or not, and that we will not give up the lifestyles we revere and worked so hard to achieve that are accelerating global devastation that can no longer be prevented.

We are naturally repulsed by and rebel against deeply unwanted facts, and resist them with great vigor. That takes work. When the challenges keep coming that resistance is exhausting. It feels good to stop beating one’s head against the wall, but while accepting reality can be comforting it also brings with it a new challenge: if I cannot prevent it, how do I cope and where do I stand in the midst of destruction that includes the likely loss of freedom to authoritarians and literal death for large portions of life on Earth?

In short, how do I reconcile my loss of hope for success with a compelling desire to help, especially when the stakes are so high? How do I hold space for the possibility of solutions when I don’t think there are any?

The answer that dawned on me that morning was love. I will recycle and plant native species because it’s respectful of the Earth and is the right thing to do. That is reason enough and maybe the best reason of all. I will hold a space of compassion for all whose actions are bringing us to these ignoble ends as well as all who will suffer from them because I know I too can be greedy, and selfish, and lazy, and willfully ignorant–I am them and they are me. I will do what I can to protect the planet’s living inhabitants, even as they suffer and die, not because I think I can save them–I don’t, but because I care about them. I will continue to advocate for self-governance and the common good because inaction is not an option and this is what I believe is right and where I choose to put my energy, even if it cannot succeed.  

I see despair now not as an end, but as a transition, a new beginning without the baggage of resentment, failure-anxiety, and anger. Might such a beginning without preconceptions and pressing expectations lead to fresh, creative thinking and unforeseen possibilities? It seems possible. In any event I am grateful for some peace of mind and a softer heart.  

What will I do then?

In their excellent article, Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet, bio ethicists David Schenck and Larry Churchill invite the willing and able to fully grasp and cope with the almost unimaginable state of environmental collapse and consequent disruption virtually assured by the year 2031. They suggest we ask ourselves how and who we want to be in those conditions, and offer helpful guidelines for preparing to be our best selves and for assuming the most constructive roles possible in the midst of chaos. This is not for the faint of heart, and perhaps most of us will wait and react as the crisis unfolds, but those who are better prepared mentally and emotionally could be valuable leaders in the transitions to come. I’m now thinking their advice could be usefully applied to dealing with our collapsing American democracy.

The first of Schenck and Churchill’s six maxims calls for grasping the full scope and reality of the situation. For many Americans the fall of democracy is beyond our ability to imagine. Immigrants, oppressed minorities, and people with ties to countries without or with failed democracies likely have a much more realistic understanding of how fragile democracy is. For many, however, the rise of authoritarianism and fascistic attitudes among the Far Right is a bit concerning but hardly alarming. After all, since the Civil War we’ve enjoyed democratic stability and world-wide admiration as a beacon of democracy. We believe we are exceptional and will overcome all threats to our freedom because we always have. Perhaps that’s still true as to foreign enemies, but we seem blind to the overwhelming threats coming from within, from our own.

In fact, these threats have been longstanding. As Nancy MacLean explains in her book, Democracy in Chains, Libertarians and oligarchs have always thought of Constitutional “liberty” as their personal freedom to acquire and hold as much wealth and power as they want without regard or responsibility for others or for a common good. They have been working for at least half a century to neutralize the power of the governed to make rules that would limit or restrain that liberty—rules like anti-trust laws, consumer protections, rights to unionize, environmental regulations, and taxes, inaccurately calling those rules “Socialism.” Leaders among those Libertarians have been planning and funding think tanks and political organizations (like the Tea Party, the Heritage Foundation, and Federalist Society) for decades to build an infrastructure aimed at convincing Americans the federal government is their enemy, and at limiting the ability of citizens to govern for public benefit at what they see as their expense. After decades of failure and limited success, they finally found themselves with an unprincipled transactional president who cared not a whit about people or democracy and would make any deal that gave him profile, power, and profit.

With that opportunity, a coalition of interest groups, including the Republican Party, willing to trade the norms of democratic process for their own causes, came into its own.

Exploiting divisive culture issues like abortion and immigration, Libertarians and Republicans have been working to convince Americans the nation was under threat from values like immigration, gun restrictions, separation of church and state, legal abortion, Social Security, universal health care, and more that most Americans actually support. They justified authoritarian political tactics (like denying Obama a Supreme Court appointment and pushing their own in the last weeks of Trump’s presidency) to pack the the federal judiciary with individuals specifically chosen by the Federalist Society to pursue their agenda of dismantling the power of federal government. By promising to end abortion, they recruited sincere and passionate Americans to support their means and ends and built a reliable lobby for their antidemocratic agenda within the Third Branch of government, the one least accountable to voters and least susceptible to public pressure. (Ironically, Libertarians usually object in principle to governments making laws interfering with personal choice!)

To true democracy lovers, it has been a shocking mystery that so many of our fellow Americans do not see or do not care about the damage they’ve been doing with their win-at-any-cost pursuit of single interests. Of course, if they don’t really believe in democracy and the restraint, discipline, and sacrifice it requires, why wouldn’t the Republican Party leadership seek, and the Party faithful welcome, permanent political dominance; and who could blame a career power broker like Mitch McConnell for doing whatever it takes to wear the crown in a one party government. Why wouldn’t sincere and passionate pro-lifers ignore the collateral damage of a reckless, immoral president who was handing them the chance to finally achieve their long-sought goal? Why wouldn’t the Christian Right support Supreme Court appointments and rulings to put their religious beliefs on top of all others’, and why would white men who feel their privileged status eroding seriously challenge the rise of white supremacy? Once we abandon the promise of equality and the commitment to Liberty for all, when we no longer agree to sharing the responsibility for self-governance with all citizens, when the goal becomes winning for ourselves at everyone else’s expense, the foundation for democracy is gone.

It’s hard to see how this ends well. The oligarchs and corporations will probably finish taking the country’s resources for themselves. It’s likely Republicans will use their new state laws, which the new Supreme Court almost certainly will endorse or ignore, to elect whom they want no matter what the popular vote. Or, maybe they will simply appoint senators and direct state electoral votes for presidents without the need for potentially embarrassing public elections. Maybe there will be violence this November if losing Republicans cry fraud or when Republicans overrule election outcomes. What will the country’s majority do when it’s clear the democracy compact is over, or when those in power use the levers of government to oppose the “resistance” or to “put down violent protests.” What happens if blue states stop paying taxes to Washington or when people stop following Supreme Court rulings? What will I do in those circumstances?

As with the global warming crisis, it’s very hard to imagine these scenarios, but they become more likely by the day and with every new Supreme Court decision. It’s time for all of us to be thinking about the unimaginable choices in front of us. Unlike the climate disaster, our political disaster is not yet absolutely inevitable, but it’s getting very close. 

Guns

Re-posted from April, 2018

America’s gun debate is framed too narrowly to be helpful. Advocacy for gun legislation isn’t only about preventing school shootings, nor does it seek to circumvent the 2nd Amendment. Legislation does more than command or prohibit behavior, it formally declares social priorities, what is acceptable to a society and what isn’t. Laws reflect, and in myriad ways shape our social values. Focusing on the cultural implications of gun legislation, or lack of it, provides a deeper and more productive focus for a national conversation.

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Children of the Earth


Whence came the false and fatal notion; the one insisting
You are not me and we are not the past and future, as if the
Atoms I’ve collected are not borrowed from Ghengis Kahn or Gandhi or the
Dinosaurs or the stars!

What recent god was it that granted us dominion over everything, handed
Us the food chain we’re atop like a menu from an infinite kitchen with
All selections comped?

Who exactly said the privilege of the fittest is to dominate rather than
Serve and nurture those myriad others on whom
Our fitness rests?

Children of God, perhaps, but certainly we are children of the Earth,
Matter and energy neither created nor destroyed, swimming in an
Interdependent ecosystem teeming with diversity we cannot see,
Suicidally denying this biological and social reality that
Governs our collective fate.

Protecting Democracy: The Role of Voters

Last month I wrote to urge Americans to value and protect our democracy as a precious gift from our forebears. Today I suggest honoring voters as a way to do that.

First, I should confess a bias: As a lawyer and lifelong public servant, I am an avid admirer of our Constitutional Democracy, and value good governance down to my marrow. That should not make me partisan, but I acknowledge that to some it might. That’s a problem.

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