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The Discomfort Zone
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

"ONCE IN each of the last three centuries America has faced a time of trial, a time of testing so severe that...the existence of our nation has been called in question...the spiritual glue that had bound the nation together in previous years had simply collapsed."
-- Robert Bellah, sociologist
IN THIS TIME of turmoil and change, stepping back far enough to recognize the forest for the trees is imperative. Getting a sense of the big picture allows us to realize we're taking a trip toward something and it's a bit of a thrill ride; not the hurtling toward a cliff, white-knuckled, sitting helplessly in the back of the bus experience we think it is.

Seems to me that fearsome bus trip is what we've been doing for almost eight years, with the maniacal driver smirking and wearing little cowboy boots. We're in a different place, now. This is where somebody pulls the e-brake; this is where it gets good. Something big is happening here: take a deep breath and allow yourself to get excited.

Politically it has been a hectic week, and one that has both the Republicans and the Democrats frothing at the mouth, rhetorically-speaking. General Wesley Clark was on Face the Nation last weekend and mentioned that John McCain's military service and POW status didn't necessarily provide him any extraordinary talent at foreign policy or credibility as a presidential candidate.

Since Mr. McCain's policies do not reflect any progressive change; in fact, they appear to simply extend Bush's tenure by another four years, patriotism is the entire bulk of his platform. He has mentioned a time or two that leaving Iraq would be a repeat of our defeat in Vietnam, echoing the conservative (and largely delusional) viewpoint that we were on the brink of winning in Southeast Asia when the Godless hippy sentiment drove a stake through the heart of the war effort. All hell has broken loose in the McCain camp and flag waving is upon us again.

Coincidentally, Barack Obama gave a speech on patriotism this week -- one written and planned several weeks in advance -- that was the antithesis of the howl of reaction from the Right that Clark's comments produced. It was nuanced, which means it actually had some depth, something we don't expect from leadership anymore. In it, Obama asserted that patriotism is a love of country which finds expression in many different ways. The conservative party has insisted on a more narrow definition, one consisting of wearing flag pins and never ever criticizing or questioning the government. Obama delivered his speech at the home of Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri, and quoted another favorite son, Samuel Clemens, or as he was known to the reading public, Mark Twain: "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."

The chasm between those two trains of thought are huge, and they define one of the major differences between the conservative movement and the liberal, or progressive. The larger this cartoon-like illustration can be drawn, the more clearly we can see our choices. Conservatives by definition, conserve; they constrict, they solidify and they dig in to preserve what was and keep what they have. They are not futurists -- but liberals are. Progressives are interested in moving ahead, expanding the possibilities for positive change and extending populist liberties to include everyone. In a perfect world, the two trains of thought balance one another; in our current world, out of kilter, the extremism of the Right has held sway too long and created a rogue government, along with a polarized population given to excessive response.

The split between the parties was clearly evident back in the 60s and early 70s, in what was defined as culture wars. Nothing is so poignant as pictures of the pinched faces of young men in protective gear facing their contemporaries with picket signs and fists raised, at ... say ... Kent State.
Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
Face-offs such as these were happening everywhere, although the deaths at Kent were shocking and took protest to a new, and darker, level. Lines were drawn back then between kids who went into the military and kids who refused to do so; who, instead, protested service to what they viewed as an outrageous geopolitical folly and murderous power-mongering. Each side saw patriotism in different ways -- and it caused a rift in that generation that is still driving the conversation today. You will hear its echo in any speech given by John McCain, and you will sense its continuing polarization in any conversation about politics. We're staring down the ultimate baggage of the Boomers, plus some.

It seems ridiculous that we're still dealing with wounding from forty years ago, but there is method in this cosmic madness. The spiritual movement sees a correlation between that early split with mindless authority and calls it a first wave of enlightenment; a goad for those who took their activism and anti-authoritarianism into a search for a larger philosophy; a bigger concept of God, if you will: a bigger vision of life, itself. It's right and fair that the common threads weave back together at this point in history, to inform us and to move us forward into a paradigm shift.

The 60s was the beginning of our thrill ride; the beginning of change, a rewriting of patriotism and a shift in what Norman Lear has called America's civil religion; you will find the transcript of a fascinating speech he made defining this matter here. Who we Americans believe ourselves to be is the defining notion of our civil religion -- with our national mythology in tatters today, we are in an edit of what that means, a re-write of our essential self. And that brings us to the topic of religion, which Americans seem unable to side-step and which Pluto in Sagittarius has been transforming in our own back yards for more than a decade.

The culture war gave way to the corporate or PR wars in the 80s and 90s that redefined how we spent our money; and that provided fertile ground for Bush's War on Terror, which is basically an inept euphemism, un-winnable proposition and fear strategy. Each succeeding movement has brought us to what we have today: a class war. We have been, and still are, a class-driven country; it's the subtle undercurrent of our American experience. It has been, since our inception. We created this country in defiance of a King, drew a constitution that would prevent our society from becoming a kingdom and, despite that intention, it's been a daily battle to achieve that promise within our human family.
These last years have been particularly discouraging. Think about our military -- what socioeconomic class is fighting Bush's war, do you suppose? It's no coincidence that the war is all but invisible to the American public; our warriors, touted again and again by the Bushes as a volunteer army, as if they willingly chose to fight and die rather than lift themselves out of a socioeconomic situation that provided them little opportunity, are expendable. There hasn't been such a huge gap between the classes since the days of the Robber Barons, and none of that is accidental; our president gave us all a wake-up call when it was reported that, talking to a gathering of his base, he referred to them as the "haves" and the "have mores."

Those of us who are to the left of the democratic base, who have organized to take on the Bush administration's excesses and wake up our neighbors to the danger of a growing fascism (which, like patriotism, is a word and concept that needs demystifying; put simply, it's the combining of corporate, religious and governmental powers under an umbrella of nationalistic fervor and censorship) have gotten used to being little attack dogs, defending our shrinking territory.

The Right put their own guard dogs on point some thirty years ago, developing a complex (and highly successful) plan to take over this nation from its move toward progressivism. It's been a pound puppy free-for-all ever since, with the barks and bites getting more aggressive in these Bush years; sadly, we're even biting one another now: in some cases, shockingly, and seemingly unaware of how counterproductive that is at this critical moment in history.

Barack Obama has given the Left a series of fits in the last week, moving toward the middle in order (or so say the talking heads) to appeal to the Independents and moderate Republicans that are looking for a change in leadership. Nominating candidates within a party and running national campaigns for president are as different as apples and oranges; that's the tried-and-truism.

I'm not going to be an Obama apologist, here; I'm as disturbed about his position on telecom immunity as any other liberal, and I'm probably more of a Constitutional advocate than most people; I had hoped he would change his mind on his proposed vote, but yesterday he addressed his decision with the thousands of protesters that had organized on his web site. Imagine a politician doing that?  When I step back, I sense something else going on -- something bigger, and completely unfamiliar.
For instance, this week AP reported that Obama will expand Bush's faith-based programs. Oh dear God, fellow liberal -- grab yer chest, here comes the big one! Obama quickly clarified his commitment to the separation between church and state, and said he would scrap the Bush definition of this program (that never received Congressional approval), and redraw the proposition to allow churches the opportunity to offer support services to the public under stringent guidelines. Now, to be fair, this isn't a new idea. In the early 20th century, the churches were ALL that provided support to the public, and mostly the liberal churches; the extension of the "brothers keeper" concept was at the heart of progressive religionists.

With the advent of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, government took over the social service duties of the various churches, which were subsequently stalled and began to fail due to the policies of St. Ronnie the Reagan. Bill Clinton finished the job, winnowing welfare down to a shadow of its former self.

In these last decades, the Left has thrown the religious baby out with the bathwater; and, arguably, in these last few years that baby grew horns and teeth and scared us badly. The Democrats have suffered branding as secular (i.e., Godless) in these last political cycles, and lost elections based on an energized evangelical movement; a movement which is now, gratefully, waning: in part because its younger generation has internalized the Christ message of caring for the poor, being respectful to your neighbor and providing responsible stewardship of the planet.
So here we are today, and we're going to do things differently, right? Now we're going to work toward unity. If that's a serious desire, rather than run screaming from any mention of religion, maybe it's time to look at this again. Maybe it's time to start trying to come to some commonality with people of different faiths; they love America no less than we do.

It's a no-brainer that the unity we seek so desperately will not come if one side of a polarized political view wins at the cost of disenfranchising the other; that would simply be rearranging newly-painted deck chairs on the Titanic. It's balance we seek, not a crushing victory, emphasis on the crushing. Now that the extremists are fading into the background, isn't it time to find our commonalities and stop making enemies out of our brothers and sisters?
We have spent so many years baring our teeth at those who would victimize us: both within and beyond our own nation, it's become habitual. We want change, we want transcendence: but we want it exactly as we perceive it and will micromanage that project, snapping and snarling. Is that what change will look like? No, I don't think so. I think this is where we all enter the discomfort zone. This isn't just a project to take America back to her democratic roots, or allow this nation a return to balance; this is a shift in awareness for the entire planet. This is bigger than the sum of its parts.

In this time and place, Barack Obama seems to be the perfect person for the job. Why? Because he's become our national mirror. If you're a lefty and already have buyer's remorse, stop a moment and think about this leap we're taking. In all the voices you hear around you, is there one that ISN'T snapping and snarling? Is there one who has, merely by being himself, poked holes in our dearly held political mythology? Called on us to examine our prejudices?

Obama has had to bear all of our projections about who he will be, reflecting our hopes and fears as no other national figure has in decades. No one candidate is going to fix the world, and no single person will meet all our needs; we're destined to do that all together.

Obama is the only politician I've heard, since Jack Kennedy, call us all to service and pledge to give us opportunity to build from the bottom up. And the reason he confounds us all is because he's speaking to us in a different language from the one we've heard since the 60s, one that pitted us against one another; he's talking conciliation. David Corn, in Mother Jones, puts it this way: "Obama, it's been said, is a post-racial candidate. (Election Day will show if that's true or not.) But he may also be America's first post-60s candidate."

I read a book back in the 90s that spoke to me with the authority of nails on a blackboard; I couldn't put it down but I hated every minute of it. It was called, Fuck, Yes! A Guide to the Happy Acceptance of Everything. (Gets your attention, doesn't it?) It was the story of a guy who has a Divine experience telling him to say yes to everything that came his way, to move from contraction to expansion in every instance, to open himself completely.

He ended up an avatar of sorts, with a following of worshippers. As you might imagine, the tale ended badly because one should at least be discriminating about what a yes might mean, and our hero didn't have the sense God/dess gave a goose.
In my last major relationship, a profound and difficult one, I decided to say, "Fuck, yes" to most everything. I did it because my ego was screaming like a banshee -- I did it to silence that critical, self-absorbed voice. I did it to get over myself. That was a remarkable stage in my life; I learned the difference between who I thought I was and who I actually was. I became aware of what I truly had control over, and what was a useless waste of energy.

I discovered that the grey areas of life were easier to navigate than impaling myself on the black-and-white notions that I entertained in my head. I learned how to wait and see; I learned to trust my heart. Since then, it's been smooth sailing because once you've been that honest with yourself and that nonjudgmental about life, nothing much gets your panties in a twist.

This business of change is not going to be effortless. It's not going to come with party hats and bubbly, looking exactly the way we thought it would. It's going to stretch us, it's going to challenge our perceptions. It's going to grow us and it's going to take work. The first thing we should try is a resounding: Fuck, Yes. Let's see where we're going with Obama before we start picking his eyes out and scattering his bones to the birds. Let's try to hear that voice of conciliation and see if there's anything there for us.

When we voted for John Kerry, all we wanted in a president was someone who would stop the drift of Right-wing mayhem and return us to progressive principles; we've already got that in Obama. What else he can become remains to be seen and depends on our willingness to enter into the new energy that's settling over us all like a blanket of light; asking us as a nation to birth a new civil religion, and to become partner with a world community of nations doing the same thing.

This is no longer the age of the guru. You can feel that in your gut, can't you? There is no higher authority than your own highest vision. Your birthright of personal power is yours for the taking. There is no ashram you need to be in, no special training you need to take to lift you up into wisdom. It's time for us to rethink our anger and need to control, and take a leap of faith. Yes, secular lefties, faith: in the goodness of our intention, the honor of our vision for a new century and our ability to come together to discover one another in a spirit of willingness and respect.
It doesn't exactly feel like the lion lying down with the lamb, but we won't know until we've tried, all of us together. That kind of collaborative energy hasn't had a platform in years. I think that's what FDR meant when he said, "If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships -- the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace." That's the great experiment, this loving your neighbor as yourself. That's the end of snarling, snapping and fighting: it's the beginning of social awareness and hands across the table. It won't be easy, but I'm sure that's what Marian Wright Edelman had in mind, when she handed the responsibility to each one of us and asked us to bare the discomfort of greatness:
"A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back -- but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you."

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