And It’s One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

I know people are exhausted with the political dialogue. I am as well. Government is not meant to be this far forward in our lives. It is meant to be the structural framework behind the scenes so we can pursue the individual and shared goals of our lives. These are very unusual times.

Extraordinary times.

But let’s not forget what is at stake. This is not petty bickering or pointless head bashing over immovable viewpoints. I believe we have unveiled competing visions of American purpose and responsibility, and many of the values that separate us seem irreconcilable. Until the millennium I believed Americans had more in common than not when it came to the notion of purpose. Now I have a hard time seeing the glue binding us together.

That’s what I think we’re fighting over and what I think is at stake. That’s why our social media dialogue with each other is increasingly less civil, and that’s causing polar opposites to either stop talking with each other or openly despise each other. Unity for unity’s sake is an unholy compromise and not an option for me. We either have a treasure trove of shared values or we don’t. If we don’t, the divisiveness can’t be mended because morality is at the core of personal definition.

If we don’t agree then we don’t agree. I see little evidence that at the core of national purpose there is broad agreement. It is the purpose of leadership to build consensus out of difference to unite disparate elements in strength. Politics is a different game, and it can be a nasty one. If there are competing visions of America up for grabs, I see little choice but to listen closely and then stand firm on moral imperatives. If we find that we have irreconcilable differences, then there is a reason why.

I have already detailed a laundry list of apparently irreconcilable differences in a previous post. Our lack of consensus around civil rights, gender rights, a woman’s right to choose, economic inequality, healthcare, environmental justice, personal weapons, educational opportunity, and America’s international posture are ripping us apart with little healing on the horizon. Let me take a run at boiling it down to just three things I believe are at the core of our national impasse, sharing my own very personal beliefs:

  1. I believe we live in a global community. I believe that with immense prosperity comes immense responsibility and humility. To put our own national interest entirely first denies the leadership stake we have taken in the world as a result of disproportionate consumption of natural resources and stage time. None of this is incompatible with my love of country.
  2. I believe the highest purpose of government is peaceful prosperity, evidenced by a profound commitment to establishing and maintaining a level playing field. Government rises to admiration in the administration of justice and fairness. I don’t belive the highest purpose of government is a tax cut. I’m not even sure a tax cut makes my top ten, since most of the benefit will go to wealthy people whose lives won’t be changed by it. Tax reform focused on true fairness makes my top ten.
  3. I believe government leadership is about public service. It is selfless. It is in awe of its own responsibility and acts accordingly with intellectual rigor and behavioral reserve. It is not authoritarian or autocratic and does not seek to position itself as uniformly superlative. Exemplary leaders bring out the best in us, not the worst. I don’t believe a big job title is about self-aggrandizement, bullying, sloppy thinking, whim, or egomaniacal hubris.

We seem to be descending into a culture war. We’ve already proven we are capable of a Civil War. Is it absolutely unthinkable that could happen again? Try talking to some people who ardently disagree with you on your deepest convictions. Then you decide if we’ve all learned history’s most vital lessons.

I need to focus on my family and friends, my business, and my dreams, same as you, but I’m being emotionally battered by the scope of this attack on my values. This is where my head is at, and I feel a generational obligation to champion resistance. I admire journalists and the media when they take their job seriously. I am a writer so I am part of the media, and I choose words with discipline and scrutiny. Most professional writers I know do the same, despite the click bait and fake news that tempts hacks. To frame the media as our enemy is purely ignorant and dangerous. Close reading, observation, and listening saves lives and is the cornerstone of cultural achievement.

I’m not willing to cross my own lines for false harmony. I know the same is true for those who vehemently disagree with me and feel their convictions are being violated. This probably will end badly, but it’s always crucial to know what we’re fighting for. In these extraordinary times, it is the soul of our nation.

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Post Title: H/T Country Joe and the Fish

Image: Three Flags by Jasper Johns / Whitney Museum of American Art

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Inequality or Invisibility?

My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.

The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.

Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.

Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.

I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.

Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.

Inequality.

Invisibility.

Unsustainability.

Impossibility.

Calamity.

That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.

There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.

Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.

Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?

Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.

For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.

We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.

Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.