Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Liberal Drift of History

Just before the elections, an email friend wrote:  It would be wonderful to get the country back from government.”    In his campaign, Howard Dean used the slogan “Take back America.”  What do people mean by such slogans?  And why do they work, or are perceived to work, in political campaigns?  Superficially, I suspect the tea partiers and republicans mean, Take the government back from the democrats.  I suspect Dean meant, Take America back from the Republicans.   But that’s not what they say, so there must be something emotionally deeper, likely down in the brain’s unconscious amygdala, motivating both the utterances and public response to them.

I wanted Dean to mean, Take America’s government away from the greedy, earth-and-spirit destroying rich whose driving motive is obscene profit.  I am mad as hell at the influences in government that protect the rich and their profits at the expense of basic economic needs of the middle class and poor and at the expense of the environment—the earth, our home.  In such a climate “free-market” seems a travesty of the promises in our constitution. 

A member of the middle class, I watch the value of my meager life savings dwindle as a result of free-market greed.  My yearly retirement income equals about 12% of the $250,000 income per year suggested as the cut-off point for extending tax cuts, and my working income as a teacher never exceeded 15% of it.  All together, my assets, which include my home, add up to much less than $250,000.  Fortunately, I am healthy without any chronic diseases requiring major monthly expenses, but still my Medicare deductibles and co-pays shave away from my savings once or twice a year.  72 years old, I fear my own descent into poverty as well as that of my children and grandchildren, a descent into the kind of poverty I knew as a child growing up.   There were times then when the lack of money to buy a bag of flour would reduce my mother to tears.  Rage and fear about this kind of thing drive my response to so many of the political campaign tactics and slogans.

Paradoxically, my present financial situation is so much better than it was for most of my working life when I earned annually less than 8% of $250,000.  Then, I was mostly broke at the end of each pay period, had no savings, was often making monthly payments on a car or minimum payments on bank loans or credit card debt, and rented my home.  Yet I felt lucky then to have all my basic needs for shelter, food, clean water, warmth during our long cold winters in Northern Maine, and health insurance, with even enough for a car payment and a movie or dinner out occasionally.  What more do any of us need?  And even as I child I never felt hungry.  When there was no bread, there were always potatoes my father grew and shelves of canned food in the cellar, deer and partridge in the woods, fish in the river, and in the summer a garden of fresh vegetables and plentiful wild edibles, all of this within walking distance.     

My fears about poverty are irrational.  Yet now, making and having more money, I feel less secure than I did then.   Being more secure, I put distance between myself and basic needs.  I feel anxious about preserving and extending my small wealth, which makes me feel that I understand the passions that drive the rich.  Once we get even a small way beyond meeting our essential needs, if we are not careful and self reflective enough, money becomes more important than any other consideration, and because the rich can buy power and influence politics and policies, their anxieties become public anxieties, infecting even the poor.  By policy and legislation, we are squandering our public wealth and resources in the name of “security,” raging with suspicion against our neighbors, and struggling to destroy phantom fears.       

My personal experience is but a microcosmic example.  I don’t believe my response is very different from most voters of the right or of the left.  We all fear losing our assets and what we believe to be our financial security, we all rage against the powers we believe to be responsible, and we all vote out of our anxieties.  I asked my friend what he meant by his use of the slogan, “get the country back from government.”   He didn’t talk about his personal situation nor his amygdaline responses, but what he did talk about does not seem so very different from my concerns.  He talked about government spending, corruption, national debt, and what they have done to social security.  I also am concerned about these issues.  The important differences between us are not the issues but rather conflicting beliefs about who is responsible for our distress and what to do about it.  He blames government.  But as a representative republic whose citizens vote democratically for those who make up government, government is us, people like him and me who choose to vote.  Or is it? 

Corporations are now permitted by Supreme Court decision to increase their influence- buying without limit by virtue of having the same constitutional rights to free expression as individuals.  Poor individuals have no means to buy such influence and thus do not have opportunity equal to the rich.  This feeds my fire to take America back from the greedy rich.  Back to what?  To the practice of the promises of the constitution?  The original constitution was written by rich male landowners and excluded women, slaves, Native Americans and other minorities, and the multitude of wage workers too poor to own land.  The framers excluded far more of the country’s residents than they included. But the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights promised equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all and inspired struggles to achieve the promises and possibilities that continue to this day. 

Progress proceeds painful step by painful step.  I wouldn’t mind taking the government back to the soothing tone of Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats of the early 40s and his efforts to achieve social justice and save the poor from disaster.  Or how about taking America back to Republican values of the 50s such as President Eisenhower who said “Peace is the climate of freedom,” and warned us about the growth of a military-industrial complex, and initiated important civil rights legislation; and values such as Margaret Chase-Smith’s courageous stand against McCarthy’s fear-mongering attacks on communism.  I would like to regain the best of the 60s spirit of optimism, possibility, commitment, and freedom I felt often during that Aquarian age.  When President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” I was 21 years old, witnessing my first presidential campaign as a voting adult, and casting it for all the democrats on the ballot against prevailing values of my right wing family of origin because he meant to me greater progress toward freedom and justice for all.   I am not a fan of either Reagan or George W. Bush.  I believe Reagan’s practice of trickle-down economics and deregulation began processes that eventually led to financial debacles that Bush’s presidency harvested, but even Reagan managed to accomplish some important peace initiatives with Gorbachev.  I believe Bush should have been impeached for dragging us into our current wars,  But in using Condaleeza Rice as secretary of State, he helped to champion equal opportunity for all, and now we have our first self-identified black President. 

The right, in spite of itself, moves with the “liberal drift of history” that I can witness in my own lifetime, moves in spite of aggressive reactionary fights to slow the drift or halt it, in spite of the evidence of this recent election that we are increasingly governed by forces of buying and spending that value profit for the rich over the promises made by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  There is no rational or ethical reason to deny that promise.  We are all racial, religious, and ethnic mongrels.  Furthermore, we are all cousins going back to a single evolutionary Lucy.  We are all in the same DNA family.  In my late middle age, a maternal aunt “confessed” to me—her blue-eyed, blonde-haired, pale-skinned niece— that her paternal grandmother was Native American.  Suddenly, I understood where my brown-eyed, tan-skinned brother and cousins came from.   This aunt herself had a set of fraternal twins: one dark, one fair.  And I understood, too, how shame of such an ancestry prevented me from knowing any of my grandfather’s relatives or knowing anything about them until it became, via that liberal drift of history, not only acceptable, but also a source of pride to claim our complete heritage. 

We live now in a global culture that demands we find a way to peacefully resolve our conflicts with one another if we are to have a future at all.   Going back to the past for a visit is instructive and useful, but we cannot live there.  History moves only forward.  And so I want to nudge that erratic liberal drift into the future, resist the forces that would make “liberal” (or “conservative” either for that matter) a dirty word.  I have joined in the fray of local politics, marched in rallies for health care, and committed to teach a class in writing about issues of peace and justice.  I make phone calls, write letters, and start this blog.  I mean to influence in whatever small way I can the people and policies that govern us and to exercise regularly my resolve to help improve health for all people, creatures, earth, air, and water.  As the documents of both democracy and republicanism promise, I will claim some ownership in the government that maddens me.  I invite you to join me if you aren’t already there, and if you are ahead of me, please help me find the way. 

© 2010 by Alice Bolstridge.  All rights reserved.
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