Saturday, August 29, 2015

Forgive Me, Father, For I Have Sinned


by Oren Jacobson

Last January I had the opportunity to travel to Pittsburgh, a city that is a model for American reinvention, and lead a weekend-long training with a group of young progressives. The weekend was the kickoff to a fellowship program designed to prepare emerging leaders to be a force for positive change in the community.

As part of the program we run each year we start the process with self-exploration. We ask our fellows to explore their own strengths, weaknesses, skills, passions, and values in an effort to the craft their own vision for their future. It’s the first step in creating a plan of action that is followed by developing the skills needed to execute that plan.

On the final day, during the final session, we turned our attention to how our values, and the values of others, manifest themselves in our politics and policies. Within the discussion an anti-LGBT bill being pushed in another state was brought up. One of the fellows quickly and passionately attacked the bill, and in strong terms attacked the legislator who sponsored it. She was eloquent and clear. The entire room, myself included, nodded along in agreement.

“Is that what you think,” I challenged, “or how you feel?”

She looked at me puzzled for a moment.

“Is your opinion derived from data or something you feel in your gut?” I rephrased. I wasn’t playing devil’s advocate on her position but rather its origin in the hopes of broadening the discussion.

“It’s what I KNOW to be true,” she expressed after a brief pause for reflection.

“And what do you imagine the state legislator who sponsored this bill KNOWS to be true?”

“The exact opposite,” she replied softly as she began to imagine what this other person’s perspective might be.

The legislator pushing that bill knew that homosexuality was a sin just as much as we know it’s not. We know the real sin is to restrict the rights of others. To not truly love thy neighbor. The bill itself was driven by someone’s values however off base those values are to us. The demonization of others, though, while making us feel moral and righteous does little else.

“Progress is won not by having the loudest voice, or by the most poignant attack, but through the power of moral truth. Those who are persuadable don’t hear the argument when we yell or call each other names,” I suggested as I proceeded to challenge them to consider a more constructive approach moving forward.

I believe that it isn’t enough for progressives to use the political process to improve our communities, but that we as progressives have the obligation to approach politics differently.

I view it as the responsibility of my generation to change the way in which we engage politically. To not only have discussions, but to create the space for those dialogues to be more healthy and productive. This is a core belief of mine. A personal value which I hold dear. A naive hope, perhaps, that those who fight to reform our system of government, and the tone by which we politic, shall win the future.

Have you ever seen two people in a fight? When one person begins to throw a punch what happens? The second person immediately pulls their hands to their face and leans back to protect themselves. In most cases that is followed by a counter punch. The same happens in our political discourse. We eliminate the space for the conversations that build trust even if they don’t build agreement.

At their worst our current leaders sow the seeds of division amongst us and at their best take advantage of divisions that exist. Rather than seeking first to understand, then to be understood, we approach our politics in a talk at you fashion. We discount your point and immediately hit you back. When you punch the only response is to defend and counter.

Several weeks ago I wrote a post about Donald Trump when his rise in the polls coincided with his inflammatory rhetoric about Mexicans. In that post I went on, after examining the GOP’s approach to comprehensive immigration reform, to suggest that Trump’s rise said more about the base of the Republican Party than about Trump himself. In doing so I called the GOP base a hyper-nationalistic, xenophobic group.

I’ve reflected a lot since writing that post and admit to feeling a little torn about it now. On the one hand I feel like we have to aggressively call out bigotry. On the other I feel that in casting a xenophobic net on the entire GOP base I compromised my own standards and in doing so failed to live up to the challenge I proposed in Pittsburgh.

Let me be clear. I believe that where intolerance exists it should be called out and we must protect and defend those who are targeted. You cannot passively defend equality or justice and the ONLY justifiable intolerance is of the intolerant. Additionally, I will not suggest that any who have tasted the bitter pill of oppression approach the fight in any way other than what feels right to them. No person has a right to tell another how to feel or what response is appropriate, especially in the face of long standing injustice.

Let me further state that I believe that some portion of the GOP base is indeed xenophobic and I am not recanting that. But, I also know plenty of decent people who consider themselves conservative, or are simply registered Republicans, and have demonstrated personally over the years that they are filled with love, not hate. Their opposition to certain policies alone doesn’t make them bigots even if we believe the only non-political reason to oppose immigration reform is on xenophobic or nativist grounds.

Nonetheless, the Republican Party knowingly include these people in their political tent. In doing so the Party, and all who vote for it, give backing to the policies and sentiments that oppress others. For that it should rightfully be criticized. That these people hold sway on the process is obvious and sad. Major candidates are proposing changing the constitution’s protection of birthright citizenship, openly using derogatory terms like “anchor baby," and refusing to rule out the deportation of the children of undocumented immigrants who were born here and are constitutionally considered citizens under the 14th Amendment (start 9:35 into this video). Is there an explanation for this trend besides feeling a political need to play to the fear of others that exists inside a strong vocal faction of the base? Clearly not.

However, Donald Trump’s rise isn’t simply about a group of intolerant people. It’s clear now that the appeal exceeds that. He is attractive to many people including some Democrats I know. People are just tired of politics and politicians in general. His lack of caution exudes authenticity in an era of poll-tested politicians afraid to make mistakes and taps into a broader anger with Washington. That perceived authenticity, and anger, is pulling people in. They are attracted to him in spite of what he says in many cases, not necessarily because of it.

What does all of this mean? Will he last? I don’t know. What I do know is by casting a net that was wider than the reality of the issue I failed to uphold my own standards. In doing so I became momentarily blind to a broader truth about his appeal. A truth that speaks to how some Americans feel about their political system, and its leaders, even if they disagree with Trump’s positions and rhetoric.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

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