Rev. angel: Yes, that’s the good people not showing up. It wasn’t just white progressives, either; a lot of people of color didn’t show up. And you can talk about policies all you like—but the facts don’t support some of the negative narrative regarding Clinton, Obama, and the Democrats. Take the economy: it’s recovering. Take health insurance: there’s been an increase of 400,000 people signing up for the Affordable Care Act since Trump’s election. There are fewer uninsured Americans now than ever in our history. Twenty million formerly uninsured Americans now have health insurance. And yes, the Affordable Care Act could have been better, but who should take responsibility for that? Obama probably thought that introducing what was essentially Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan was the most politically viable thing he could do. It was a Republican’s plan!
So there’s something bigger going on underneath all of the discussion about this policy or that policy. As you noted, a million other candidates would have gone up in flames had they said just one of the racist, sexist, inflammatory things Trump said during his campaign. And that’s what we have to wonder about. It’s not just that Hillary “didn’t take.”
Not because she’s all of the things people said about her, but because she wasn’t addressing this deep divide that splits us. Trump was addressing it through hate-mongering: it’s all these brown, Muslim, LGBTQ people’s fault. The Democrats didn’t adequately address it because they’re still pandering to white capitalist maleness. They didn’t unify people around an ideal of a different kind of America. I think that until a different kind of America is being spoken about and drawing people into it, we’re going to keep demonizing and distancing ourselves from each other, rather than recognizing that we’re all in the same boat.
This is why I think Obama won despite being black—his ability to envision—embody—a different kind of America. For good reasons he wasn’t able to manifest it in many of the ways he probably could have imagined. But I think we have to begin the conversation by recognizing that the America we typically talk about—the America in history books—the land of liberty and justice for all—never existed. It never existed. But until we recognize that fact, we keep having conversations about a fictitious America—built by white ingenuity and individual hard work—a meritocracy of individualism. How can we get back to something that never existed? In fact, these people want to get back to an America built on cheap slave or immigrant labor, that kept women out of the workforce and out of politics, and that gave all power and glory to white males. Now the cheap labor has been offshored and all these “excess,” illegitimate Americans keep wanting a share of the pie, but the America of equal opportunity that keeps being promised was actually never set up to be that way.
The MOON: How do we come to terms with this divide? I’m part of an email list-serve that frequently has this conversation: Is America its history, or is it its ideals and aspirations?
Rev. angel: It’s its history.
The MOON: Oh. I got that wrong. [Laughs]
Rev. angel: That’s the conversation we need to have: the split between those two visions–are we our past, or our aspirations? People who believe we’re our aspirations got a rude awakening on Nov. 8. The election went to the candidate who thinks we need to go back—to the time when America was great. Except that if you’re a woman, or a person of color, or an immigrant, or Muslim, or gay, the past wasn’t so great.
I think Bernie Sanders in some ways, started that conversation, but he couldn’t connect to people of color. But at least he articulated that the owning class is calling the shots and turning us all against each other, when we need to pull together. He correctly understands that the economy is structured to benefit a relatively few, taunting the rest of the people to fight amongst themselves while dangling the hope that “you too have the potential to get to this great high aspirational place,” but only if you keep the other ones back.
Nevertheless, it’s not about demonizing. It’s not about fearing or hating each other. It’s about asking people to look at their core beliefs about how we should be in relationship as fellow Americans—and then asking whether we have the systems in place to implement those values. I’m saying that we’ve never had the systems in place to create equality for all because that was never the goal of the founding fathers. They were afraid of “the people.” They didn’t trust the poor to not rise up and threaten their wealth. The system we’ve got reflects that. It’s actually working as it was designed to work. The inspirational slogans like “equal opportunity” and “liberty and justice for all” are merely ways to keep us all engaged in supporting this system, instead of rejecting it as not in our interests.
“Good people letting bad things happen” reflects that many of us have wanted to believe that the system just needed incremental adjustments. We’ve wanted to believe that efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, for example, were exceptions to the rule because we live in “the greatest democracy on Earth.” Progressives too often want to say things like, “Thank God I don’t live in North Carolina,” or other sentiments that reflect their insulation from miscarriages of justice. Unfortunately, that’s another example of elitism; of privilege; of “good people letting bad things happen” because they know they’re not going to have to personally deal with the fall-out. Or maybe they’re even OK with some disenfranchised people not voting because “the Obama coalition” or whatever, doesn’t need them. They thought they could win without them.
And then there are people who are so disenchanted and disenfranchised that they don’t turn out to vote because for decades it hasn’t mattered who won—they were always on the shitty end of the stick. A lot of poor rural whites, in addition to poor blacks, fall in that category.
So some of us play “good cop” in this discussion, thinking we’re better because we don’t sound as hateful as the “bad cops,” but we’re not recognizing ourselves as part of this huge fabric in which we’ve all—along with the natural world—have been reduced to expendables; commodities; resources to be exploited while we’re useful and discarded when we’re not.
The MOON: So how do we have this conversation? It seems far too nuanced and deep for most Facebook postings
Rev. angel: Right. It is. America is having a spiritual crisis in which its identity is on the line. We’re trying to reconcile this spiritual crisis by political means which are short-term, short-sighted, and that don’t make the deep shift in people’s hearts and minds that is necessary for a long-term shift in in what America could be. We have to begin, I believe, by coming to terms that America was never that great for a lot of people. And then we also have to realize that it’s painful for the group of people for whom America has been great to have their values and privilege diminished. We have to call people to a vision that includes everyone and demonizes no one. That’s a spiritual vision…which we will then pressure politicians to implement.
The MOON: Are there any groups calling people to that vision now? What about the leadership at Standing Rock, or Rabbi Lerner’s Network of Spiritual Progressives, or the Occupy Movement?
Rev. angel: I think the leadership of Standing Rock is great and it’s contextualized to that location. I think Rabbi Lerner is great, and he doesn’t resonate with everyone. I think Rev. Barber, who leads “Moral Mondays,” is great, but because of religious differences he can’t speak to everyone. But what’s important about all of them is that they are strong in the values they stand for without denigrating their opposition—those who feel differently.
The purpose of the “Reckoning” webinar was to ask participants to do some soul-searching to identify what their contribution might be. As you recall, I encouraged people not to jump to a conclusion too soon. I think we have a tendency to do that—to do something, anything—rather than abide in the painful feelings of grief, disillusionment, anger, and despair. And I think we have a tendency to point fingers across the divide—to say, look at how horrible those Republicans are—or whatever, rather than look within at the ways we perpetuate the system that privileges us and is unjust for so many others.
We have to recognize that the worldview of other people is understandable given their history and context and what they’ve been brought up to believe. Believing we’re superior to those “ignorant, backwards, deplorables,” or whatever, that we’re in “the right” and they’re in “the wrong,” foments the same split as them believing they’re superior and more entitled to the benefits of being American. We have to recognize that, whatever side we’re on, we’re feeding what I would call “the beast in the machine.” Instead, what we need to do is remind people of their basic goodness and kinship, which allows us to view with compassion the worldview of someone who feels very differently from us. We each have our blind spots. Progressives may be more willing to see the humanity in a Muslim, or a Palestinian, but not in a Kentucky redneck. How could they be so foolish as to want their coal-mining jobs back when the world is reeling from the effects of climate change? Well, to them it’s their livelihood.
Perhaps we could begin the reckoning conversation by acknowledging the togetherness of loss, even while allowing for the truth of our differences. I think in many ways Obama tried to do this, but his hands were tied, and I’m not even sure it’s the conversation for a politician to necessarily be charged with.
The MOON: One thing I really was impressed by during the webinar was the way you received questions and responded to participants who were challenging you. Your equanimity was not ruffled in the slightest. You were able to be present and hear someone challenging you without defensiveness, or impatience, or hostility of any kind. It was actually quite breathtaking. I realized, “Oh my god. That’s the difference doing your spiritual work makes.” But we’re in crisis now, and we don’t have time for everyone to spiritually evolve…if they even wanted to!