On wishing Donald Trump well [American politics #6]

Ted Grimsrud—October 7, 2020

It’s an interesting thought experiment for compassionate people to wonder how to feel about the COVID-19 sickness of Donald Trump. In a recent New York Times essay, “Wish a President Well Who Doesn’t Wish You Well,” Bret Stephens—perhaps the most reliably rightwing Times columnist but a self-described opponent of Trump—gives a list of reasons to wish Trump well.

The gist of Stephens’s argument is that while certainly Trump is a terrible president and a terrible person who has revealed himself to be thoroughly non-compassionate, he still deserves our well wishes. Stephens basically echoes Michelle Obama’s famous directive: “When they go low, we go high.” His last sentence: “We wish him well because it’s the right thing to do. It’s more than reason enough.”

Not wishing Trump well?

As someone who seeks to be compassionate myself, I find Stephens’s argument pretty persuasive. But I can imagine a counterargument. One could say, we wish Trump himself ill because we feel compassion toward all the people he will hurt the longer he remains in power. The sooner he is gone the better. Or, one could say we wish Trump ill because his demise as a consequence of his own recklessness and disregard for needed COVID-19 safety measures (a recklessness and disregard that has had disastrous consequences in our nation that only continue to accelerate) would only be his just desserts. Trump’s demise would reinforce for all of us the need to pursue strategies that enhance all of our safety and wellbeing.

Continue reading “On wishing Donald Trump well [American politics #6]”

The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2020

At this stage in my life, especially during our new era of social distancing, I am more an observer than active participant in American politics. Even from a bit of a remove, though, I have experienced this year, 2020, as an emotional roller coaster. It has made me think of the old ABC Sports show, “Wide World of Sports,” and its iconic opening with brief glimpses of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

The ups and the downs

I was thrilled when Bernie Sanders won the Nevada primary, looked to be the leader in the race for the Democratic nomination, and appeared to be showing that a candidate advocating for policies such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal actually could realistically hope to be elected to the presidency. Then, all too quickly, came the triple whammy of Joe Biden snatching victory from the jaws of defeat versus Sanders, the emergence and shocking spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Donald Trump continuing his descent into unfathomable presidential malfeasance and incompetence. Trump’s failures were made all the more devastating in face of our need for a constructive governmental response to the pandemic.

More recently, though, I have again been thrilled with the emergence of what seems like one of the most radical popular uprising in our nation’s history—a direct challenge to the ever-strengthening hold of militarized policing and an empowering of the victims of our nation’s centuries-old plague of white supremacy.

So, it has been and continues to be an emotional yo-yo. It’s quite a time for political junkies—and for everyone else who is interested in what is going to become of our society. In all this, there is always a tension for me, what I will call a “pacifist ache.” I felt even in the height of my hopefulness about Bernie’s chances, and I feel it even when I am most hopeful about our current uprising. It has to do with lack of interest in pacifism (by which I mean the conviction that all of life is precious which leads to a rejection of war and other forms of lethal violence). Of course, this is not surprising. Pacifism has almost always been ignored or dismissed in American politics. Still, it’s too bad. I have spent a lot of time over the past 45 years imagining how a pacifist sensibility could help things out a lot in our society. Continue reading “The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]”

Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

Ted Grimsrud—June 29, 2020

People in this country have greatly differing deep-seated views of the very meaning of the story of the US. I suspect these differences make achieving healing amidst our current crises extremely difficult. This is true especially as related to what the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois in 1900 looked ahead foresightedly to call the problem of the 20th century—the problem of the color line (from The Souls of Black Folk). This problem clearly remains one of the main problems of the 21st century, and it affects all our other crises.

Two versions of the story of the United States

Let me suggest that, even with all our diversity, we think of two main general perspectives on the United States story that are held by those who oppose racism and see the legacy of slavery in this country as a bad thing. The first perspective sees the United States as foundationally and systemically racist from the beginning down to our present day in spite of scattered attempts to move toward freedom for all. The second perspective sees the United States ultimately as a nation of freedom and justice, in spite of scattered missteps along the way. (I recognize that there are some in the nation who are not all that negative about either racism or slavery; my concern here is with people who would say racism and slavery are bad.)

The term “racism” is complicated—and later in this essay I will probably make it even more complicated. For now, I want to use “racism” in the sense defined by Ibram X. Kendi in his book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (p. 5).

My thoughts about these two perspectives were helped by a recent essay by Masha Gessen, “Why are some journalists afraid of ‘moral clarity’?” (on the New Yorker website, June 24, 2020). Gessen interacts with commentator Andrew Sullivan. She summarizes Sullivan’s description of the first view (which he opposes) that sees the US as “systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start.” In this view, “the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of human beings” were always secondary to the white supremacy project. “The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures.”

The second view (with which Sullivan agrees) tells the story of the United States as “primarily one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever-greater number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice.” This view then assumes a legacy of progress even against racism, witness the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Continue reading “Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]”

Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2020

Since we are in the midst of the turmoil, we don’t yet fully understand just how earthshaking this first half of 2020 will turn out to be. Right now, though, it feels as if we are in the midst of rapid and dramatic events that will change the world as we know it. It’s exciting but also unnerving. I wonder what thoughts those with pacifist convictions might have to offer.

What do I mean by “pacifist convictions”? I think of pacifism as an aspiration to live and think as if nothing matters as much as love. This leads on the one hand, to a commitment to resist domination and injustice, and on the other hand, to a commitment to avoid violence. I don’t think of pacifism as a quest for purity and total consistency so much as holding ahead of us the goals of healing, of justice, of compassion and recognizing, with Gandhi (perhaps our most important theorist of pacifism), that the means of achieving those goals must be consistent with the goals themselves.

This blog post will be the first of many as I try to return to more regular blog activity during our time of upheaval. I am being challenged to revisit my core convictions and try to imagine their relevance to the world I am observing. It’s a good time to try to think one’s thoughts through. Let me reflect on three pacifism-inspired questions: (1) What about the impact of property destruction during the current demonstrations? (2) Is it possible for people seeking change to resist the polarization that seems so pervasive in American society right now? (3) Is it important to raise issues related to our nation’s warism even as we deal with more immediate crises? Continue reading “Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [3]

Ted Grimsrud—May 15, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the up and down of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. Here’s Part I: Sanders Ascendent and Part II: Biden Takes Control.]

Part III: Taking stock

April 14, 2020

How did Trump get elected? [The first of three sections]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this year’s presidential election is the most crisis-surrounded one since 1932. No one knew then what kind of president Franklin Roosevelt would be. He was far from perfect, but he rose to the occasion and helped make things better. I have no hope for such an outcome this year. How should we think about this? Let’s start with the 2016 election.

Barack Obama won the 2012 election fairly comfortably, and most expected Hillary Clinton to follow suite. She did win the popular vote by about 2% but lost in the electoral college. My sense is that two key parts of the electorate that had supported Obama did not give Clinton the same support: (1) some white working class people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump and (2) some younger people who voted for Obama and then didn’t vote for president in 2016 (e.g., supposedly in Michigan the number of people who voted but left the line for president blank was four times higher than Trump’s margin of victory). The numbers didn’t have to be huge, just enough to make a difference. It appears that Trump did not out-perform Mitt Romney (46.1% of the vote compared to Romney’s 47.2%); the difference was that Clinton under-performed Obama, especially among those two groups.

Clinton, it seems, ran a campaign focused more on putting Trump down than on offering a strong, positive vision that would give undecided people a reason to vote for her. She barely campaigned in the key rust belt states that turned the election. She showed inadequate interest in and empathy toward working people (white and black) who had been hurt by the economic crises of 2008-9. She did little to build bridges to Bernie Sanders’s constituencies. Her tone was that “everything is great” in America, something that may have felt tone-deaf to people who struggled to get by. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [3]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—May 2, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. [Here’s Part I: Sanders ascendant]

Part II: Biden takes control

March 11, 2020

The Democratic Party’s presidential primaries have taken a dizzying turn these past couple of weeks. It’s been amazing, really.

One of the stunning aspects is how Biden has all of sudden become the presumptive nominee without actually doing anything to earn that status. He has scarcely campaigned and remains the same tepid candidate who was given up for dead just a short time ago.

My sense is that the most powerful factor among Democratic Party voters has been terror at the idea of another Trump term. That extreme fearfulness has been skillfully exploited by the corporate interests. They turned the fearfulness into an anti-Sanders fear (this has included, for months, an endless drumbeat of hostility toward Sanders in the corporate media), so when all the other “moderates” dropped out and left Biden as the only alternative to Sanders, fearful voters turned to him.

The end result, of course, is a terrific victory for the corporate interests—they have their boy in place (though it is a bit unsettling to have the sense that they were close to completely abandoning Biden just weeks ago until it became clear that none of the other candidates had much of a chance; they also seemed to be recognizing his weakness as a candidate). So we are left with a choice—vicious corporatocracy vs. a somewhat kinder, gentler corporatocracy. Of course, this has almost always been our only choice—but for a moment it seemed that this year might be different. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts.]

PART I: Sanders ascendant

January 20, 2020 notes for an unpublished post

I have appreciated Bernie Sanders ever since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, VT, in the 1980s. If I think of him as a presidential candidate in relation to my ideal of what a candidate would be like, I’d rate him only fair to good. But if I think of him in relation to all the serious candidates for president I know anything about in American history, I would rate him exceptionally good. Right now, it is looking as if he has a genuine shot to win both the nomination and the general election. For the first time ever since I began voting, I feel as if we have one candidate that I can support both in terms of my ideals and the pragmatic likelihood of actually being elected.

As a voter, I tend to place a higher priority on the candidate’s fit with my political values than a sense of who would be most electable. With Sanders, though, I don’t feel as if I have to make a choice between these two approaches.

Sanders is not an extremist. Most of his values correspond with what most American people want when they are polled. At the center is universal healthcare, what Sanders calls “Medicare for All.” He also advocates what he’s calling a “Green New Deal” that will thoroughly address that climate crisis and other environmental problems. I appreciate his critique of the domination of big corporations and billionaires that corrupts our political system. He’s less of an imperialist and warist than any of the other Democratic Party candidates.

He energizes young voters, as well as other generally marginalized groups such as Latinos and Muslims. He cares deeply about the needs of black Americans, other working people, and others at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. He’s critical of the retributivist criminal justice system, he supports unions, is more positive toward Palestinians than the other candidates. He is pushing for an increased minimum wage and for much greater access to higher education and assistance for those who have accumulated major debts from their schooling.

I am optimistic that Sanders actually has a greater potential for defeating Trump than the other candidates. He understands that the Democrats need to expand the electorate and provide reasons for many of the scandalously large number of non-voters (especially young people and people of color) to enter the electoral process. At the same time, because of his critiques of free trade and other policies that alienated working people from corporate-friendly Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, he might also be able to attract some of the “Obama/Trump” voters who might have become less positive about our current president. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]”

Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans”

Ted Grimsrud—April 30, 2020

Planet of the Humans, a just-released documentary by Jeff Gibbs with backing by Michael Moore, is a fascinating, challenging, messy, deeply flawed film. It is also free to watch on You Tube for several more weeks. Since it’s free on You Tube, I encourage people to watch it. Some of the questions it raises are real and too often ignored. That said, I do not have the expertise to evaluate many of the explicit and implicit claims in the movie. But even if the film misrepresents many things, the issues it raises are urgent and badly in need of our attention.

I would describe the film as one person’s account of his struggle to understand the lack of success of the American environmental movement in turning the tide against the destruction of the planet. I think Gibbs is taking the evil of the fossil fuel industry as a given. His focus is on the other side of the equation—the movement to resist the fossil fuel industry and the other forces leading to destruction. Why hasn’t it been more successful? That seems like a valid and important question.

Because it addresses such an important question, the film had my sympathetic attention from the beginning. I found it to be engaging, interesting, and deeply unsettling. Unfortunately, and surprisingly given its association with Michael Moore, the film is utterly lacking in humor (this factor seems to indicate that Moore had little to do with the content of the film). However, sadly, Planet is also pretty superficial, unclear, and slanted. It allows itself to be too vulnerable to the inevitable defensive and hostile criticism from the mainstream environmental movement that it is critical of. So, I will not defend the film. However, I still will encourage people to watch it. I’m glad I did.

Key concerns from the film

There were two main themes that especially captured my attention. The first is the question of how effective “big green energy” (my term) is at actually making a difference. The second is the question of whether the “big green energy” movement is too closely tied with big corporations and the neo-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The film is not nearly as clear and helpful as it could be in addressing these two issues. It seems altogether possible, perhaps easily, to cast doubt on the arguments that are made in the film, especially in relation to the first theme. That seems almost beside the point to me. What I am interested in is how the mainstream environmental movement responds to the questions themselves—not simply a flat rejection of the possibly deeply flawed ways the film brings them up. Continue reading “Hope, Despair and Environmentalism’s Failures: A Response to “Planet of the Humans””

Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery [Civil War #6]

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance. Continue reading “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery [Civil War #6]”

Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda

Ted Grimsrud—June 19, 2019

Escaping war’s long shadow

Past American wars, especially World War II and its long shadow, have played a central role in the expansion and hegemony of our National Security State. The domination of the institutions of militarism and the ideology of necessary violence seem nearly irresistible. The strength of the current moving the American nation state toward the abyss of self-destruction seems overwhelmingly powerful (see Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy).

Until we actually reach the abyss, people who hope for genuine peace on earth will (must!) always hope that the current may be slowed enough that it may be redirected. Such people will devote their best energies to such a redirection. However, I see very little hope that the current toward the abyss will be redirected. This is our paradoxical, almost unbearable, situation: We must redirect our culture (American culture, for sure, but truly all other dominant cultures throughout the world) away from the abyss toward which institutionalized redemptive violence pushes us. But we actually have very little hope of doing so—at least on a large scale.

Creating space to be human

The movement in Central Europe that in the 1970s and 1980s resisted Soviet totalitarianism gives us a crucial image. Activists recognized that large-scale, top-down reform seemed impossible. Violent resistance against the systemic domination of the Communist regimes tended strictly actually to empower the sword-wielding state. So thoughtful resisters, recognizing that acquiescing to the System was intolerable while overthrowing it through direct resistance was impossible, articulated their hopes is exceedingly modest terms.

They spoke simply of creating spaces to be human. In doing so, they self-consciously rejected the story of reality told by the System, but they did not devote their energies to reforming it or ever to overthrowing it through violent direct action. More so, they focused on establishing relatively small spaces where they could build communities, express creativity, and patiently chip away at the portrayal of reality that filled the official media.

As it turned out, these small acts of resistance and counter-culture formation coincided with large-scale crises of legitimacy at the top of the Soviet empire. The System crumbled and major changes happened—though sadly the changes did not go as far as hoped in enabling self-determination and disarmament (for example, the U.S.-led militarization of Western alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization absorbed several of the former Soviet-bloc nations who provided large markets for military hardware).

However, this emphasis on creating spaces to be human remains instructive and inspirational. If it is the case that a top-down transformation for peace is impossible in our current militarized national milieu, the possibilities for small-scale spaces for “being human” in peaceable ways do exist. And we never know what impact cultivating those spaces might have on the bigger picture. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part seven: A pacifist agenda”