Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In search of a political revolution

By Diane Silver

I've spent decades working in politics as a political reporter in mainstream media, a blogger in the ungoverned wilds of the blogosphere, a staff member for both a candidate campaign and an issue campaign, and a gay rights activist.

I've come to believe that politics and activism are noble pursuits. They are, after all, the means by which citizens of a democracy move government and society forward. My goal has always been to do what's right, to help people, to make a difference.

For years, though, I've felt a bit lost. Oh, I keep doing the work, but I have this gnawing sense, call it an itch in the stomach, that there is something inherently wrong with the way we're doing things today.

This itch is turning into a knot in the gut and a fear that the way we do politics is creating as many problems as bad laws and corrupt and power hungry politicians.

This fear is not about any political party, activist organization or particular cause. It's about the attitudes held and the activities pursued by people of all political persuasions.

I've mulled this over for quite a while without coming up with many ideas about what a different way of doing politics and activism would look like. Luckily, I don't have to keep mulling this problem alone.

The idea that we need to do something different -- in essence, give birth to a new kind of political revolution -- is gaining steam.

Several new books tackle the issue from a Buddhist perspective. Mindful Politics was published in 2006. The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World came out the same year. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron took on the issue in Practicing Peace in Times of War.

These are by no means the only books on the subject. They are just the ones I know about, and I welcome people's recommendations. I haven't had a chance to read all of those books, so I'll postpone commenting on them for the moment.

Today, though, I was thrilled to stumble upon a new column called "Spiritual Activism" by Carla Goldstein, director of The Women’s Institute at Omega. A longtime participant in politics and activism, Goldstein sets out her basic argument for a new kind of political revolution in her first column. I think she's dead on target with her assessment.

Goldstein writes (and the emphasis is mine):

As a young boomer I learned about activism from the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement—all groups that had to fight for power and rights. I carried that model into my own life as a lawyer and professional advocate, learning to trace a social problem to its source, which always had at its center a villain—a political party, a corporation, an ideology. To me, activism meant organizing with others to fight the villains to fix the problem, the operative word being “fight.”
(R)elationships are central to everything and really matter. Process matters. While an adversarial approach can often be effective in the short-term, in the long-term, we are perpetuating that which we are fighting against. When we are purely adversarial, the very mechanism we use to bring about more peace, compassion and justice, ends up creating the byproduct of fear, insecurity and anger. While the fighting model served an important historic purpose and may still be necessary in some circumstances, we need a new transformational framework that evolves beyond the ancient cycle of anger and war.

Goldstein proposes a list of "emerging principles" to guide this new model of activism. It's almost impossible to understand these principles without reading her longer explanations, but just to get the discussion going, here's her list.

1. Awareness, Compassion and Love
2. Interdependence
3. Empowerment
4. The Means Matter
5. Mindfulness and Presence
6. Paradox and Mystery
7. Seeking Balance
8. Open to Suffering
9. Beyond Proximate Cause
10. Living Our Values

I have one small quibble with Goldstein's approach.

I consider myself a spiritual and religious person, but I wince at Goldstein's use of the term "spiritual." Not only may the term push away potential allies, but it may also be inaccurate. Neither spirituality nor religion are the only paths to this new paradigm for activism. To call this "spiritual activism" is to imply that compassion and emotional maturity come only from one place.

Aside from that minor disagreement, I am thrilled to see Goldstein's entry into this important discussion.

It is long past time for Americans, in particular, to grow up. I fear that if we do not find a new maturity in our public life, then we will not be able to heal our nation.

Without that kind of healing, it may well be impossible to ever safeguard ourselves against terrorists and other dangers to our security, to protect our environment and meet the challenge of global warming, and to bring equality, fairness and economic opportunity to all our citizens.


PHOTO: The sun rises over Lake Ontario to symbolize a new day and a new approach to life in the public square.


carlag said...

Thanks for your comments on my column on Spiritual Activism. I agree with your assessment about the limitations of the phrase "spiritual activism" and its potential to be alienating. There are an infinite number of paths to living with "compassion" and "maturity." To me the essential underlying idea is that we come to appreiciate our interconnectedness and the impact we have on each other and the earth. The knee bone is connected to the shin bone, as they say. Let's build a movement where we recognize the humanity in everyone and that our actions, however small, have impact on the whole. Carla Goldstein

Diane Silver said...

Carla, you wrote:
"Let's build a movement where we recognize the humanity in everyone and that our actions, however small, have impact on the whole."

My only response is to cheer enthusiastically. Thank you for the work you're doing.

As I can take time away from other projects, I plan to comment on your other columns on this topic.

Again, many thanks!

Mousie Cat said...

Michael Lerner, in "Tikkun," and his books, champions including human values in the grand equation of government. What a concept!

The pluses and minuses, the budgets and projections, are based on lots of other things besides the welfare of the citizens. If the measure of a nation is how it treats its poor, then America is a cruel country indeed.

The poor have no money, therefore they have no voice in government. They can't contribute to political campaigns, so they can't be of value to any politician. I favor government-funded political campaigns, and also limiting campaigns to three months, as the Canadians do. I think we would see some changes then.

as long as candidates are beholden to monied interests, we will continue to see more of same. I don't oppose spirituality and buddhism, but I believe "Follow the money" is a better place to start reform.

Michael Caddell said...

My response to your thoughful, provacative post is located at my blog:

Diane Silver said...

Michael, you're link didn't come through right, so here's another try to link to Michael's blog, Fightin' Cock Flyer.

Thanks for the link and the comment, Michael. I'm afraid I'm a bit dense this morning because I'm not certain what you're getting at on your blog. I agree with your comments about the need to fight for civil liberties and to be pro-choice, etc, but are you saying that what Carla Goldstein calls "spiritual activism" is a good idea, bad idea or what?

Many thanks!

Diane Silver said...

Mousie Cat, thanks for your comment. I am also a big fan of Michael Lerner's work and have blogged on his book, The Left Hand of God.

Along with Carla Goldstein and others, Lerner is exploring the path toward a real political revolution.

What may separate Goldstein and Lerner, though, is their subject matter. Lerner appears to be focusing on political goals, while right now it seems as if Goldstein is focusing on political means. I think both are important, but that we have impoverished ourselves by not talking enough about how we do activism and politics. That's why I think Goldstein's work (at least what I can see of it right now) is a good early step toward solving our society's ills.

Mousie, you also said that you believe "follow the money is a better place to start reform." I agree that following the money is key. I also agree with everything else you said about the need for reforming campaigns.

Where I disagree is the idea that we should or can only focus on one thing. As a person who has lived activism and politics, I am committed to figuring out how to do it so that it works and we do succeed in moving this country forward. That involves determining both which issues to tackle and how to do them.

My sneaking suspicion is that an approach such as what Goldstein calls "spiritual activism" is not only good for our own character, but also good for our political goals. In other words, right now I'm wondering if something like "spiritual activism" can turn out to be better politics and more effective then what we've done in the past.

I've been wondering for years now if everything from effective civil rights activism to effective foreign policy and winning what Bush has labeled the War on Terror can only be achieved by taking a different approach.

I hope to have time to blog on that in detail in the next couple of days. Stay tuned!