Today’s talk by UC Berkeley Professor, and former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, was bold in its call for civic action at this time in history when our moral fiber is being rigorously contested. I’ll share his words and ideas through my notes and interpretations, and possibly misinterpretations. Event info available at the San Francisco Foundation site.
Together we can make the concept of community mean something again. But let’s be clear, community has for most of us lost a real meaning. Now, in this election time, we are faced with a moral contest. Do we have responsibility for each other as citizens? Many of us in the filled First Congregational Church of Berkeley nod our heads. Most Americans are not as divided as media makes us out to be, he believes. There were times of greater divisiveness, such as during the Vietnam war, McCarthyism, civil rights and other movements. Now however, due to numerous factors, including so-called advances in technology, most of us don’t talk to or understand each other. We don’t engage with the person right in front of or next to us. Many will only communicate with those who already agree with our views or are members of our tribe. We have become largely segregated. In our segregation we are losing the moral fiber that connected each other as citizens, neighbors and community members in the not so distant past.
Weakening economic conditions have resulted in more fear and anger as families grow further behind in wages and standard of living. Parents become desperate with concern over the well-being of family members. Argumentation is replacing discussion and debate as the normal method of resolving inevitable misunderstandings. Supply side economics again rears its ugly head, even though its past results of making rich richer and poor poorer are well documented, but sadly, just out of our collective memory. In our anger we relate to gladiators and mud wrestlers, whether they are actors or politicians. Angry people are easily swayed by demigods who cast blame on scapegoats rather than look deeply to see the true nature of the problem. Sadly our government is increasingly shown in a negative light. Routine perusal of newspapers bares this out. Without government to protect the rights of people, who will, the corporations?
Yet Reich believes that despite our political views, most would agree on certain foundations of a good, moral society. First, our social contract allow opportunity for all to make the most of oneself, with education or by other means. Second, someone working full-time should not be impoverished. Third, that we do not want an aristocracy. We value equal opportunity and inclusiveness, as our society was founded with these ideals, and protection of diversity. Of course we know that “all men are created equal” was elusive in the past as it still is in today’s reality.
It is the task of faith-based communities to remind people, within and without the congregation, about the gap between our ideals and reality. Actions to resolve this gap must be taken as we cannot otherwise live with a clear conscious doing nothing, then knowingly pass these problems on to our children. How can our religion/spirituality morph into relationships? Creating relationships, community and engaging citizens to see the need for ethics in political discourse, while not easy, is necessary.
The wealthiest among us would do better with less wealth in a robust, healthy society, then having more wealth in a society that is economically dead in the water. Can those in gated communities understand this? These days anyone can go from middle class or even upper middle class to poor quite quickly, with a change of the “free market’s mood”, or a medical emergency. We should look more deeply at those in economic distress and see ourselves as not separate. Their well-being is our well-being. This is where Mr. Romney’s remark suggesting that the 47% who take more than they give is a statement of class warfare. The working poor pay more than their share in income taxes, social security and progressive sales taxes, while not getting the favor of discounted capital gains and so many other privileges. We are truly faced with a central moral question; are we all in this together, as a society? Do we have mutual obligations, responsibilities, as well as rights? Our moral inflection point requires action to be taken to counter the doctrine of radical individualism often promoted by the wealthy and the right. Generations of the past had more of a collective sense of society, shared sacrifice and mutual benefit. The rich paid a much higher share in taxes while banks and financial institutions were regulated under the Glass-Steagall Act and other protections based on clear ethics. Government was largely seen as a friend and ally of the people.
There is no substitute for diligence on the hard daily grind of grassroots, local efforts to help steer and support politician’s election, as well as the passage of legislation and overseeing implementation of programs and policies in Washington, DC. The only way to expand the circle of prosperity is by being politically engaged. Progressives have had success in getting their person elected, then they go home afterward with a false sense of success. They too often fail to support that official’s efforts to pass laws. In the place of citizens, lobbyists come in with their special interests and lots of money. Lots of money to buy influence and power. We must push leaders as hard as possible to do what’s right. We must reach out to those who do not agree with us and help bridge that gap, and create some mutual understanding and empathy. We must speak out for those without a voice. Ultimately, the economy is us. What value do we place in goods, services, jobs, and well-being. (What value do we place in the air, water, land, plants and animals?) Be on guard against cynicism and despair which can ultimately turn to indifference and inaction. “Big money”, it’s said, wants citizens to give up. While working in public health on Indian Reservation I experienced this deep despair and near hopelessness, at times, and it seemed near impossible to turn that hopelessness around.
Professor Reich, speaking without notes, offered much in the way of history and commentary to help me get perspective on our shared economic, moral dilemma. Taking action as a citizen is key, whether a little or a lot. Politics is the applied form of democracy. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has also said that everything we do as citizens has a political nature. Can we find ways to get more engaged? Today I’m writing this piece; more political than my usual spiritual muse. Tomorrow I can write a love letter to the President or other elected official to help them do the right thing. I can study upcoming ballot initiatives with friends to collectively get informed. We can reach out to those nearby, as well as in other states and outside of our circles to help bring about a cultural shift. Love can trump our barriers to action and nurture resilience and hope. We are in this together, and that is an ultimate truth.