Fearing the change that has already happened

A piece I wrote in 2011 – wondering if it still holds up to the scrutiny of hindsight given the last decade’s events.

Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know.” Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.” 

In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the “he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama. 

The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements. 

Continue reading “Fearing the change that has already happened”

In summer 2012 I wrote an essay proclaiming that America-the-diverse had prevailed over America-the-white-supremacist. I don’t know any more if that was right. Here’s the essay…

Fearing the Change That Has Already Happened

By Maurice Harris

June 2012

Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know. Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.

In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama.

The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements. Continue reading “In summer 2012 I wrote an essay proclaiming that America-the-diverse had prevailed over America-the-white-supremacist. I don’t know any more if that was right. Here’s the essay…”

2017 = 1933 — yes, no, sort of?

Sort of. Enough to be worried & to be vigilant, organizing. But different enough that it warrants avoiding the mistake of oversimplifying or misreading the situation. Here are my thoughts on what’s similar to Germany in the early ’30s, and what’s emphatically different:

Similar

  • Scapegoating as a staple of the regime’s political strategy.
  • Contempt for democratic institutions and a message of the great leader cutting through the red tape and “getting things done.”
  • Alpha-male posturing and misogyny.
  • “Enforcers” serving the leader, using threats, intimidation, propaganda, lies, public humiliation, harassment, and at times violence to shut down all opposition.
  • Message to the masses that they’ve been humiliated and taken advantage of because of their weakness, and that the great leader is going to make the nation “great again” and that the nation is going to assert its dominance and resume its rightful place as the alpha-male nation in the world.
  • Well-developed instruments of disseminating fake news, lies, stereotypes, fear-mongering, and other kinds of propaganda.
  • Promises of positive economic changes for working class members of the majority culture.
  • Alliance building with other autocrats, strongmen, fascists, and totalitarian leaders.

Different

  • Germany in the 1930’s was sunk in an epic depression with hyper-inflation and massive unemployment. The U.S. never hit that level of economic distress even during the worst of the recent Bush administration’s economic meltdown and its aftermath, and despite the ongoing structural class/wealth/income inequality in this country, things have actually been getting better economically for most Americans, even though it’s been a slow improvement in parts of the country. And the peril and uncertainty that existed for so many working class Germans back then – I’m talking “will we be able to afford the food at the grocery store in 3 months” kind of peril – doesn’t exist for working class people here.
  • Germany had, at the end of WWI, been utterly overrun by Allied troops and much of it had been flattened. Huge numbers of German soldiers had been killed, and huge numbers who returned had PTSD. Germany’s surrender agreement saddled it with huge international debts, and it had been forced to disarm. Much of the rest of the world felt disgust and horror towards defeated Germany, because of its inhumane and shameless conduct towards civilians during WWI. There’s just nothing comparable to that going on here and now in the U.S. We’ve not been invaded or defeated by foreign powers, our infrastructure wasn’t reduced to rubble, and we weren’t forced to sign humiliating surrender agreements that assured that we would have a miserable economy for decades to come. Most of the world admires the U.S. and despite all our faults we actually have continued to represent many of the highest hopes of people all over the globe. In Germany just before Hitler, the vast majority of Germans felt humiliated and oppressed by other nations. In 2016 America, at least half the country, if not more, doesn’t feel that way. Trump has taken the discontent of his followers, which is real, and connect it to a perception of the U.S. being weak and humiliated internationally that is not shared by at least half the population of the country.
  • The U.S. is way, way more racially, ethnically, religiously, and otherwise diverse than Germany was then. Some of its most powerful states, economically and culturally, are already white-minority states or are places with a century or more of a multicultural way of life, beginning way before the term “multicultural” was even coined.
  • This one may sound a bit odd, but the U.S. just twice elected a black / bi-racial president, a champion of a multicultural, religiously tolerant, LGBT positive, eggheadish guy with an Arabic middle name, and his approval ratings are still very strong. Take a look:approval
  • In 1933, Germany’s post-war democracy was less than two decades old, and much of its structure had been imposed upon it by its enemies. The very democratic institutions of Germany were tainted in the public mind with the humiliation of defeat, and with skepticism towards the actual purpose of the institutions, as many Germans believed that their post-war democracy was merely a con designed to keep Germany under the thumb of France, England, and the U.S. Today in this country, I have no doubt that our democracy is in for one of its greatest historical existential threats with the incoming administration. But, the U.S.’s democracy was self-proclaimed 240 years ago, and our society’s mythic story of its origins treats our democratic institutions not only as sacred, but on some level as the essence of who we are as a nation. Also, unlike Germany, the U.S. fought a brutal and horrific Civil War that resulted in a rebirth of the republic, deeply ingraining an American identity of multiracial equality and citizenship.
  • The U.S. Civil Rights movement, which for sure is part of what some Trump voters backlashed against, is nevertheless still the defining series of events in American post-WW2 identity formation. What we know from this election is that a demagogue can win the Electoral College, but not necessarily the popular vote, by running in part against the values of the Civil Rights movement. That’s not insignificant, but at least half the country not only supports the values of the Civil Rights movement, its very understanding of what America is and what it aspires to be are grounded in that movement’s ideals. That’s a formidable force, and it’s a coalition of Americans who’ve experienced the last 8 years as having raised the expectations of our society to be ever more inclusive, ever more equal, and ever more willing to engage cultural change towards those ends. I think it’s safe to assume that many Americans who are part of minority groups, or who are aligned with the Civil Rights values I’m talking about, are going to resent having those achievements treated with contempt by America’s incoming leaders. Having experienced an increase in power, respect, and opportunity over the last 8 years, I believe many of these Americans will respond politically to attempts to reverse those gains. I say that bearing in mind that some in the minority communities of this country were feeling frustrated with the slow pace of progress even in the Obama years. I’m wary of predicting anything anymore, so I won’t. But I do think it’s fair to say that these forces and large blocs of citizens are still big parts of American society, and nothing like that existed in Germany 1933.
  • It’s a bit odd to say, but we still will have Barack Obama. Not as president, but he is still young, and he’s a brilliant political organizer. I have no idea where he’ll put his talents and energies, but I’m pretty certain he’ll put them somewhere. He may step out of the spotlight for a while out of respect for the traditions of the presidency, but he’s already made it clear that he’s still very interested in being a force for change and political organizing. And his civility, dignity, integrity, and ability to read and communicate well in different American sub-cultural frameworks are all still a part of what he brings to the table. Suffice it to say, Hitler’s predecessors in German leadership didn’t leave office with high popular approval ratings, nor did they have the values and talents that Obama does.

Stand by for more – I’m still working on this, but I’m posting it for now incomplete.

What I’ve learned so far as a HRC campaign volunteer in Philly

So, I got a job just outside of Philadelphia, and one small but important reason I’m glad to be a Pennsylvania resident at this time is that I get to vote in a meaningful swing state in the election next month. I’ve also been volunteering with HRC’s campaign, mostly doing voter registration shifts with one of the campaign’s 7 offices in the greater Philly era. (Side note: Trump campaign has 2 offices in the same area.) I’ve also done a little bit of phone banking and participated in my first ever text-a-thon last Wednesday night (more on that later).

hrc7
Two of my co-campaigners registering voters outside a Wal-Mart in NE Philly. On the left is an intern for HRC’s campaign who has been working for a few months. She’s 14 and was the seasoned expert volunteer. Next to her is a retail store manager who decided to respond to her fear of a Trumpocalypse by joining a campaign for the first time in her life.

Doing this work has been inspiring and emotionally grounding for me during a campaign that, thanks to Trump & the accompanying cray cray, has managed to freak out huge portions of the population unlike anything in my lifetime.

First of all, HRC’s ground game – at least as I’ve experienced working with it – is organized, friendly, and fast. Beginning with my initial visit to http://www.hillaryclinton.com and navigating to their very user-friendly web page for volunteering, I’ve been repeatedly impressed.

When I started looking into volunteering, I thought I’d do two things: register voters in Philly, and then fly to Florida to do GOTV the last few days before the election. At the time I was thinking this way the race was pretty much a tie and I figured FL was the place where I could have the most impact. So I followed their interface, which made it very easy for me to input my preferences to do the voter reg in Philly and the GOTV in Florida.

Within a couple days, I’d received calls and emails from the Bustleton Ave HRC campaign office in Philly, which was the one I had selected even though it isn’t the closest one to where I live. (What inspired me was shopping at a Ross in that part of town and seeing the overwhelming diversity of the folks there, and thinking “we should be doing voter reg right here”). I also received a personal email from a campaign office in Orlando, FL, which was the place in FL I had indicated I wanted to work (I’d read that there were large #’s of newly arrived residents from Puerto Rico in Orlando, and because they’re already U.S. citizens, they’re able to vote in FL as soon as they establish residency). The FL person

pa-offices
Source: http://billypenn.com/2016/10/05/hillarys-dominating-trump-in-pennsylvania-from-cash-to-campaign-offices/

warmly encouraged me to come take part in GOTV there. She also asked if I needed a place to stay (!) and whether I might be able to bring a friend along.

So, get this. Back in Philly, when I go out for my first voter reg shift, I have a great time. They pair me with an affable 40-something white guy who it turns out is an osteopathic doctor, is Jewish, and is every bit as extroverted as I am shy. We only registered a couple new voters outside a Shop Rite, but probably 200 people or more saw us with our Hillary gear as we called out “Registered to vote?” to passers-by. We had lots of conversations, which I enjoyed a lot. I’d say about half the people who came by were Black, maybe a quarter Latino, a tenth Asian, and the rest White. Probably 2/3 were women. Occasionally women wearing hijabs came by. Most people who responded to our barkers’ call told us they were already registered. This neighborhood is solid D, so there were only a few Trumpsters, and in fact they were, at least by appearances, young or middle-aged white men.

Ok, so after enjoying my first venture, I re-up and return the following week for another shift. This time they pair me with the two women in the photo above. When we arrive at hrc2the Wal-Mart, we find this guy already there with a clipboard, asking everyone who passes him if they’ve registered. Is he with the Trump campaign? was my first thought, admittedly based on a kind of profiling that I found myself having to actively resist in this toxic and hateful climate (which yes I frankly blame fully on Trump and the GOP’s long years of promoting racist memes and giving succor to extremists). Well, turns out he was also with HRC’s campaign – from another campaign office – a duplication of efforts that I took as a sign of health in the ground game. I mean, you want the left hand to know what the right hand is doing in a campaign, but this is the kind of inadvertent inefficiency that is borne out of having lots of offices, lots of staff, and lots of volunteers. He was a long-time union guy, with a Philly working class accent (“Who sent youz guys?”) The white woman who was part of the crew I showed up with also had a working class Philly accent. The black young woman – a high school frosh – was from the Philly suburbs, her accent and presentation reflecting suburban middle class life. And then there was me, the middle-aged Jewish white guy who has lived a bunch of places.

Continue reading “What I’ve learned so far as a HRC campaign volunteer in Philly”

The Blessings of Diversity within the Jewish Community

This is a d’var (sermon) I gave 11 years ago at my first High Holy Days at the congregation I served for 8 years.

Yom Kippur Sermon 2003 / 5764 – Rabbi Maurice Harris

I would like to begin by saying thank you so very much to everyone in this community for welcoming Melissa and me so warmly. Our first weeks here have been wonderful, and we have quickly realized how fortunate we are to be a part of Temple Beth Israel and part of the Eugene community. We especially feel blessed to have made our way to a place that offers such joyful prayer and music, as well as such rich Torah study and conversation. One of the things that drew us to this congregation was our sense that it was a Jewishly diverse place — a place where we would find many varieties of Jewish life and practice interwoven into a single congregation. We have found that here and we love it.

A rabbi I admire very much, Margaret Holub, teaches that building community is great spiritual work. Committing to be part of a community, approaching differences with appreciation and conflicts with love is at times not easy, but the rewards are great. I feel blessed to be part of a congregation that takes this holy work so seriously and that can teach me so much.

Temple Beth Israel is one of the most Jewishly diverse congregations I’ve ever been a part of, and this ties directly into what I’d like to talk about tonight. The people who make up this congregation come from many different backgrounds, embrace a wide range of religious approaches and practices of Judaism, and include Jews — and many non-Jews — who contribute a wide range of talents and ideas to this community. It is this kind of diversity — the astonishing diversity that is internal to the Jewish community — that I think can be one of our people’s greatest strengths when it is embraced with care and faith by all of us. However, despite its potential blessings, our diversity also causes many Jewish leaders to worry about our future. Let me say a little more about what I mean.who is wise

It has become a cliché to say that the diversity of the United States is what gives it its strength. But you don’t often hear Jews celebrating the growing diversity of the Jewish people. True, sometimes we marvel at the many different countries, languages, and cultures that Jews have lived in, but by and large you don’t hear American and Israeli Jewish leaders saying that what Judaism really needs right now is more divergent opinions, more diverse families, and a greater variety of religious practices. Rather, there is a great fear of how diverse we have become, and on an institutional level Jewish leadership has often responded by establishing organizations or programs that are intended to function like fences – holding back the threat of an imagined great migration of Judaism into a thousand different directions, never to be whole again. The prospect of Jewish religious schisms or of mass assimilation haunt many of our leaders. Continue reading “The Blessings of Diversity within the Jewish Community”