“Cast your whole vote,
Not a strip of paper merely. “
Since the election, I have been living in a quandary.
The root of my quandary is my affirmation of these spiritual truths as applied to “political” events:
- Ecology, the fullest expression of our science, teaches that if any species exerts total control over any eco-system — tries to gobble up all the nourishment in sight — it destroys the eco-system – and itself.
- Torah teaches that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, and that we must grant the earth its rhythmic rest — or suffer disastrous floods, famines, exile.
- Democracy is an experiment in increasing interhuman compassion, community, and cooperation.
- Ecologic sanity is an experiment in increasing interspecies compassion, community, and cooperation.
It seems to me that our recent election, dominated by huge gobs of money in the service of generating even huger gobs of money, marginalized both democracy and eco-sanity.
Part of me wants to believe that politics is always a game of waves — –— that a wave of attacks on democracy today will bring a wave of creative affirmations of democracy tomorrow. That the defeat of pro-democracy candidates (even in states where pro-democratic referenda won big) was an accident of abysmally low voter turnout (the lowest percentage since 1942), and that the progressive movement will recover in 2016.
On the other hand, part of me believes that at this moment in US history the whole system is broken, because extreme inequality of wealth and the dominant power of global corporations has smashed all the organs intended to protect and advance democracy.
And this part of me believes that this brokenness is driving not only America but all our planet into an enormous crash – a dead end where we cannot wait for the next wave of the old system, but instead must give birth to something entirely new. Beyond the kinds of elections we have now, beyond the economic structure built on fossil fuels during the past 250 years.
Not backward into feudalism but forward into new forms of eco-democratic community.
From the first perspective, what needs to happens next is more grass-roots organizing of the well-worn style, combined with a much bolder, clearer progressive populist message. The People vs. Wall Street.
From the second perspective, the meaning of this last election was taught 165 years ago in the midst of a growing crisis over slavery: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” – (Henry David Thoreau, “On Civil Disobedience”)
Which answer to my quandary is “right”?
To get beyond my quandary – OUR quandary! – let’s start from basics:
Both our spiritual/religious traditions and the findings of modern science teach that community, connection, cooperation – in that dangerous four-letter word, LOVE –- are required for human beings and our planet to be healthy and life-giving.
It’s true that Control — in Buber’s language, I-It as distinct from I-Thou — is a necessary part of life. But when Control becomes so overwhelming that community, compassion, are erased –- disaster follows.
Triumphalism, like the “triumphs” of Pharaoh in enslaving people and the very earth his country lived in, becomes self-destructive.
Mentioning Pharaoh reminds us of an historical as well as moral truth:When Control becomes overwhelming, it self-destructs and a new form of society is born.
- When the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Empires over-reached, shattering the societies of early Western Semitic tribes, the new social form we know as Torah was born.
- When the Roman Empire over-reached, it shattered Biblical Judaism – so that Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism and (a little later) Islam were born.
- Now the machinery of Modernity has over-reached, and all the classic social forms of the last millennia have been shattered. Something new needs to be born. Is being born.
For Control and Power to limit themselves so as not to over-reach –- is elementary wisdom, even simple sanity.
But this election was a triumph for the practice of insisting on Total Triumph — Big Money, Big Corporations, choking Earth’s atmosphere, heating Earth’s oceans, depriving the poor, the young, the Black, the Brown of the right to vote while giving the rich millions of extra votes in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on elections.
More important –— this election was a defeat for defeatists. Defeat for those who refused to stand up against these policies of Top-Down Power. Defeat for a President and a Party that has practiced preemptive surrender to Big Money since it took office in 2009. Defeat for those “liberals” who whimpered about Obamacare instead of proclaiming its undeniable though limited success.
By their timidity they were thinking to appeal to “moderates” — but instead they convinced these moderates that even the timidly progressive President and Party must be a failure.
Many of these same defeatists will behave as if 2016 can be won by the same defeatism that lost in 2014. They will point to mechanics: more Republicans up for grabs in the Senate, a respected woman candidate for President who is a pro-Wall Street “moderate,” more turn-out in a Presidential year.
But even their best efforts will be given to lessen disaster. The basic structure – enormous inequality in wealth, free use of that wealth in politics, the purchase of the Supreme Court by anti-democratic forces — will remain the same, and because of their own defeatism they will remain defeated, prisoners within it.
Even if they “win” the 2016 election, their “winning” will really conceal a more basic defeat — as it did for Obama in 2012.
Preventing the worst is still desirable. Resistance to the worst attacks on democracy could begin right now:
- Obama could call a special session of the present Congress, where the Democratic Party still has a majority in the Senate, and push through the confirmation of dozens of pro-women, pro-racial-equality, pro-civil-liberties, pro-worker, pro-Earth Federal judges who will sit for life.
- He could end the deportation of all aliens except those who commit violent crimes.
- He could insist that his appointees on the FCC take the simple steps that will make Net Neutrality the law of the land, protecting the Internet from Big Corporate Media and making it possible to keep our new version of the free press in the hands of a people yearning to breathe free. (I wrote this before the President spoke on this issue on Monday. If he can press the FCC to do what he urged, then we can see the first evidence of a stiffening spine. But even that action would mean stopping the bad stuff, not birthing a new reality.)
- He could end the Pentagon’s gifts of war-fighting weaponry to local police departments.
- He could order the NSA and the CIA and the FBI and the Postal Service to end all mass surveillance and restrict their intrusions to those cases where they can get a normal, responsible search warrant from a regular judge.
He may do a few of those things, but certainly not all. In any case, by January it will be up to us – the People, not the White House or the Capitol or the Supreme Court -– to renew democracy and heal the Earth. How?!
I think the answer to my quandary is not Either/Or but Both/And.
Vote, vote, vote, but not with a strip of paper merely. Resist the bad stuff that shatters democracy – and create new communities that are themselves creative. New forms for new democracy .What’s more, make them the SAME communities:
We have a precedent, still alive in memories and in the history taught to youngsters:
In 1964, just as had been true since 1894, Blacks could not vote in Mississippi. In 1964, they invented the Freedom Democratic Party. They registered and voted in churches since they could not register or vote in regular polling places. They elected delegates to the Democratic Party’s National Convention, and made a public spectacle of the Party’s refusal to seat them.
And at the same time, they created Freedom Schools to teach writing and math where the official “public” schools utterly failed Black children, and to teach the truth about those who held power in Mississippi and America, They organized livestock and agricultural co-ops to improve economic prospects in the impoverished Black neighborhoods.
And they won some extraordinary gains for multiracial democracy. Gains that had not been won in the whole of American history.
Now try to swallow a distasteful truth:
Think of yourself, whatever your color, as if you are today a Black in Mississippi in 1964. It’s not fully true, but getting truer. (Today’s equivalents of lynching are the floods, droughts, superstorms, famines, cancers, and respiratory diseases that are already killing people in order to profit Big Oil and Big Coal.)
In the America of 2014, 50 years after Freedom Summer, ALL of us –- even those of us who still can vote — have had our votes shrunken into wizened shadows, powerless.
The vote has been taken away not only from millions of Blacks, Hispanics, young people, old people, poor people, and veterans of prison for nonviolent offenses like smoking marijuana. Even for “voters,” our votes have been diminished by dint of millions of dollars flooding elections and lobbies on behalf of Big Money,
There has never been a more crucial time to hear Thoreau:
“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. ” – Henry David Thoreau, “On Civil Disobedience”
Imagine a new “Freedom Party/Movement.” Imagine churches, synagogues, mosques, temples on days of worship arranging to register to vote those who have been disfranchised. Carefully following the rules to help voters meet the discriminatory restrictions.
What’s more, “registering” those who can’t produce a birth certificate or photo ID. Those who have served prison time for crimes (many invented with a racial bias), but have been forever barred from effective citizenship. Those whose college campuses have been deprived of voter “residence” qualifications.
- Imagine these new “freedom voters” flooding the voting booths on Election Day –- standing in line to vote, and if their votes are rejected, sitting down inside the polling places. Stopping the machinery of fake democracy.
- But not just that. Imagine these same churches, synagogues, mosques, temples sponsoring among their new “freedom voters” communities of cooperation and compassion:
- Food coops connecting with local farmers. And voting.
- Energy coops where people can buy their electricity from wind power, not coal power — and can demand that the public schools and other public buildings do the same. And vote.
- Health centers for those suffering from coal-dust asthma, whose members also do nonviolent direct action at the local lethal coal-power plants.And vote
- Congregational clubs of “Oiloholics not-so-Anonymous” where those who recognize they’ve become addicted to gasoline take action: Biking, car-pooling, demanding public money for public transport. And voting.
- Gathering money to help those suddenly overwhelmed by a climate catastrophe –- and setting aside some of the money to address the causes of climate disaster by helping the poor solarize their homes. And voting.
- Banding together to help the family of a fellow-congregant suddenly afflicted with cancer cope with its urgencies –- and to demand the creation of Medicare for All. And to vote.
In short, intertwining the emotional and spiritual aspects of community with neighborly support and grass-roots change.
Resisting evil and creating good. Creating in the present the future we imagine.
Creating communities of resistance that are also communities of resilience. –
What could The Shalom Centerbe doing to help you, us, create such communities?
Let us know. Write me at Awaskow@theshalomcenter.org
P.S. Just before the election, we sent out a Shalom Report letter drawing on the Torah’s “passage on a king” in Deuteronomy for wisdom about choosing leaders and officials. If you missed it, you can click to