Friday, January 15, 2016

Why we need to spend 2016 participating in the election campaign

One morning while working out on the machines at the gym, I watched a political ad. Without the sound on, I saw some of the most outrageous statements made by Donald Trump, like banning all Muslims, building a wall and throwing out immigrants. It looked like an attack ad.

But by the end, it was clear, it was not. He was using these immoral, undemocratic, un-American claims as his platform. And we know why—because fear is working in his favor.

Fear is a dangerous force. Those who foster fear inflame the basest tendencies of humanity: anger and hatred. Trump’s words have unleashed a destructive force that not even he can control. When he spews unreflective, unrepentant rhetoric, he validates the evil in people’s hearts. Even if he never explicitly encourages violence, his words condone it. Innocent Muslims and immigrants have already been attacked. Who will be next?

Let’s be clear: we cannot pin responsibility on one candidate alone. Trump’s ideas would have no impact without the fertile ground of divisiveness cultivated by others. Irresponsible pundits and candidates have polluted political discourse with toxic statements of their own. While they attempt to distance themselves from his inflammatory speech, their own docile espousal of similar sentiments have made Trump’s words acceptable.

In Jewish tradition, this power of violent destruction has a name and a face, the “Mashchit” (Destroyer). Jewish tradition warns us that this force, once unleashed, cannot discern between the innocent and the guilty. This warning reminds us that the cycle of violence obeys no moral boundaries. This is the force of the 10th plague in the Exodus story (Ex.12:23) that murdered every firstborn Egyptian.

Nina Paley, "Death of the Firstborn Egyptians"

But if the Destroyer is an unstoppable force, how were the Israelite homes spared?  It took a potent sign, the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites, that protected them.

In a time when so many people are overcome by their fears, whether fear of the randomness of terrorism or fear of the pervasiveness of gun violence, how do we prevent a growing cycle of fear, anger, hatred and violence? What will be the blood on the doorposts that will protect us now?

The only way to close the door on the Destroyer is for us to stand together, not apart. It is up to us to create more human connections, not cut ourselves off. Whether we increase diplomacy with other nations or make peace with our neighbors, we put a stop to the cycle of violence. We must be ready to put the proverbial blood on our doorposts, to proclaim that we will not allow the Destroyer to invade our moral universe. That is the stand we must take as this campaign year unfolds.

Every four years, we have an important decision to make, and 2016 is no exception. Sometimes it feels like we keep fighting the same fight over and over again. The first election that got me involved in political work was the year of Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972. I was in high school in the suburbs of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, when my family were ardent supporters of George McGovern and in a sea of Republicans. My high school principal had a 6-foot portrait of Nixon hanging in his office. I remember how isolated we felt, how fearful we were, and yet we held out hope. The 1972 election was a contest between supporters of war and seekers of peace. Of course, McGovern only won one state in that election, and all of you who voted in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts earned my life-long admiration.

I could have walked away from that election dejected. I could have refused to participate in campaigning ever again. And yet, I believed fervently that my participation—even though I wasn’t even old enough to vote—was important. Most important, I learned the importance of making my voice heard despite the overwhelming odds. Despite the outcome, I felt empowered. In a democracy, we need not fear airing our disagreements. That’s the power that impels us to join campaigns. That’s the power that brings us together tonight.

In truth, every election is important. The issues do change, the electorate changes, the world’s economic and political structures change. As the President’s State of the Union demonstrated so starkly, the election of 2016 is a choice between two world-views:  between hope and fear. It is a choice between science and science fiction, between health care and health crisis, between human rights and states’ rights, between rationality and the refusal to compromise. This election is a choice between preparing for the unfolding future and striving in futility to return to a sentimentalized past.

That is how the presidential race, the Congressional and Senate races, have shaped up so far. And it makes the work of each one of us all the more important: to speak out, to register voters, to donate to campaigns and attend rallies, to hold signs and go door-to-door, to join phone banks and drive people to the polls. We need to counter the forces of fear and anger with a message of hope and compassion.

However, I believe that these divisions do not define the American people.
I believe that the American public, on the whole, shares much more in common than the polls would have us believe. I am convinced that there are more like-minded Americans than there are extremists, and we have the power to come together—if we turn out to vote.

The shared values that attracted our own immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents to these shores, that gave us voting rights for women and the 40-hour work-week, the values that brought us together in Depression to build this country and in war to defend it and these shared values unite us more than they divide us.

Everyone here today is committed to the vitality of the American political system, whether we are voters, public servants, or elected officials. Yet even as we gather as Democrats, to support Democratic candidates and to advocate for a Democratic platform, we know that achieving those goals will require that we engage people who are not as passionate as we are, not as loyal to party politics, and many who are have opted out of the system entirely.

There are all kinds of strangers. I’m a stranger to most of you here, and likewise, you are strangers to me. But the fact that we’ve all been invited to this gathering, that we pretty much look the same, come from the same town, more or less, makes us feel comfortable together. Perhaps we will become friends. In this company, we aren’t afraid of strangers.

But in another setting, we might feel very differently. We might be suspicious of the stranger who carries a gun or wears a cap that says “Make America great again.” We are only human, and we need to be just as vigilant about our own prejudices.

I want to share words from 1859, the campaign speech that Abraham Lincoln gave at the Wisconsin State Fair

“From the first appearance of man upon the earth, down to very recent times, the words ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’ were quite or almost, synonymous. Long after civilized nations had defined robbery and murder as high crimes, and had affixed severe punishments to them, when practiced among and upon their own people respectively, it was deemed no offence, but even meritorious, to rob, and murder, and enslave strangers, whether as nations or as individuals. Even yet, this has not totally disappeared. The man of the highest moral cultivation, in spite of all which abstract principle can do, likes him whom he does know, much better than him whom he does not know. To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity, among strangers, as nations, or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization.”

Lincoln held up an ideal that still remains outside our grasp, “To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity,” and yet, in this time of great national divisions, when so much seems on the line, it is imperative that we continue to try to become even more willing to see strangers as human beings. As we seek to promote our candidates, we need to approach strangers with more curiosity about what they think. We need to listen more than we talk. We need to bring people close, not push them away. We need to hear the stories of pain and struggle, of family loyalty and family heartache, of hopes and dreams. That is the hallmark of a democratic system, to engage in respectful conversation. That is the only hope for the future of this country.

When we connect with other people, we have the best chance of joining together with them, and inviting them to join with us.

We need to acknowledge our fears, but not allow them to rule over us. We need to change the conversation, to advocate for truth, compassion, humility, equity, and justice.   

Let me end with a prayer for our country that comes from the Jewish Reconstructioniost prayerbook. Saying a prayer for the country is part our religious heritage::

Sovereign of all peoples, mercifully receive our prayer for our land and its government. Let your blessing pour out on this land and on all officials of this country who are occupied, in good faith, with the public needs. Instruct them from your ancient laws, enable them to understand your principles of justice, so that peace and tranquility, happiness and freedom, might never turn away from our land. Plant among the people of different nationalities and faiths who dwell here, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. Uproot from their hearts all hatred and enmity, all jealousy and vying for supremacy. Fulfill the yearning of all the people of our country to speak proudly in its honor.  May our land be a blessing to all inhabitants of the earth. Cause friendship and freedom to dwell among all peoples, so that we may see the vision of the prophets fulfilled in our lifetime, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Let them learn no longer the ways of war.”

speech delivered to the Ward 6 Democratic Committee of Newton, Mass. 1/14/16