High Holiday Season

19 November 2017

blog

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

November heralds the beginning of a traditional high holiday season and the beginning of the end of 2017. Here in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving, that awkwardly homespun holiday that commemorates a mythological warm and fuzzy breaking of bread between early European settlers and the indigenous peoples of a new world. Political and historical issues notwithstanding, each year I try to take the opportunity to give thanks for the gifts of an abundant life in interesting times.

I am grateful to have learned that there is more I do not know than what I have learned so far.

I am thankful to have lived long enough to witness an awakening of people in my country.

In 1968, along with the rest of the country, I wept when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. It was as if hope was killed, and something more than another champion of human and civil rights cut down. Since then, five decades of politics, legislation and public policy have seesawed between support on the one hand for the commons, democracy and justice, and on the other hand an American aristocratic feudalism concentrating power and wealth in the hands of one percent of the country.

To be clear, I don’t believe every wealthy person is consumed with greed. This week more than 400 millionaires and billionaires signed a letter to Congress urging rejection of a landmark tax cut for the wealthy as unnecessary and ill-advised.

However, five decades of war, unequal prosperity, institutionalized poverty and racial and class discrimination finally saw the spark of hope re-ignited with the election of Barak Obama and the rise of Donald Trump, for two very divergent visions of society.

Is it any wonder a population numbed by tragedy, misinformation and social media has slowly awakened and begun to question the validity of our democratic republic?

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

But for much too long most of us have sat out the democratic process, and allowed professional politicians and a small class of wealthy individuals hijack our democracy. President Trump has a solid 35% of the electorate in his corner and the Democratic party is spending millions of dollars to energize their solid 35%. The result is self-evident. Our two-party system, once the forge and anvil on which public policy was hammered out has devolved into a machine for tribalism.

We can no longer afford that state of affairs. One result is a president who lost the popular vote of those who bothered to vote by more than 3 million ballots. Another is the constant bleeding of dollars from partisan supporters who could probably make better use of their resources, while the richest Americans continue to amass wealth once earmarked for the commons and the good of the country.

Thankfully, individuals across the country are starting to say, in the words of Roberto Duran, “No mas!”

In Virginia and in less publicized elections around the country individuals and communities are once again participating in the democratic process. In Ohio, Bryn Bird, a farm and food advocate with the Rural Coalition, easily won election to a Granville Township trustee seat as women of all ilk also won election in other towns, cities, and states.

In Alabama, John Zippert, Director of Programs for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and co-publisher of the Greene County Democrat newspaper gives us a ringside seat at the December special election to fill Senators Sessions’/Strange’s seat.

Because of the nature of computer algorithms and data farming, modern politics has become about energizing “the base.” But increasingly the millions outside those metrics will likely determine the future of politics in Alabama, and in communities across the country in 2017, 2018 and beyond.

The modern Republican and Democratic two-party system has sewn the seeds of their current predicament, and do not seem well positioned or inclined to respond to renewed civic engagement.

Remembering Churchill’s words, we are likely in for a period of messy democratic process, and that is as it should be.

I am thankful that I have lived long enough to see a rebirth of democracy in the U.S.

I subscribe to a number of progressive listservs, and also four or five conservative listservs, the better to understand differing points of view, although I am not able to give them equal time. I find the vitriol on all sides to be counter-productive, and likely a major reason why so many tune out political rhetoric. It has taken me a long time to understand that the values on which I was raised no longer apply. Because of those values, as a child I saw things in terms of black and white, right or wrong.

Today, I am thankful that I now understand that other people can have a different point of view. I am coming to understand that often those views are based on beliefs that are not only different than mine, but also based on “alternative facts.”

The phrase “alternative facts” has made its way into our vocabulary and conversations, and is perhaps the perfect example of what ails our society and our country.

To be clear—”alternative facts” is another way of saying, “lies.”

I am grateful that now in my third trimester of life some things have become much clearer.

For much of it, I experienced my life in a constant state of confusion. The heroes of my youth were exposed to have feet of clay. The institutions I held as almost sacred had policies that seemed unjust. A country I was raised to love perpetuated atrocities in other countries, and yes, in communities within its borders.

Also for much of my life I was frustrated by the slow pace of change.

Thankfully, I now realize that change is slow.

The change in my perspective is the result of a couple of major life altering events. First, on July 10, 2017, I celebrated 28 years clean and sober. To be fair, for a great many years the haze of alcohol probably saved my life, and perhaps the lives of others, as my passion for justice and anger at injustice and the slow pace of change could easily have led to tragedy.

I am grateful that in sobriety I have learned to accept differing points of view, and to begin to understand how individuals come to hold those views.

The other major event is that on April 1, 2015, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Thankfully, because of modern medicine, nutrition and exercise the condition is something I can live with—if I can minimize the stress in my life.

And it is the process of handling stress that has helped me to have the patience to read right-wing blogs and listservs. To seek to understand, rather than to condemn.

To be openly honest, it is other people who have guided me in the process. Who have always been there to guide me. It is just that now I am inclined to listen.

For example, a few years ago, when I was working in D.C. and demanding of Congressional staff, “how can your member [of Congress] take food from the mouths of children?” I wasn’t taking a cheap shot at the staffer. I honestly wanted to know why a member of Congress would vote to cut SNAP/food stamp benefits for families in need.

It was after that interaction that a lobbyist took me aside and explained that when she visited a member and posed the same question much more artfully and respectfully that the Congressman picked up a bible and said, “if it’s not in here, the government should not be paying for it.”

It is with a deeper understanding of that anecdote that I now realize how good people can vote for an accused child molester. In an environment polluted by “alternative facts,” when the need to maintain control of the Senate to install Supreme Court justices who can overturn Roe v. Wade is paramount. I don’t agree with the reasoning, alternative facts, or policy—but I can now better understand.

If I—or CFJC—can therefore help others to understand, and then make better plans moving forward, then I believe we will have performed a much needed service.

In the case of SNAP for example. It makes little sense to demonize and thereby possibly energize the opposition. It seems to me a better strategy to clarify the message and enlist more allies—as opposed to concentrating resources and energy “playing to the base.”

Another result of the culture of alternative facts is that we often lose sight of the big picture.

One more example. When I began my work in the nonprofit sector I learned two facts that were integrally related. First, many were able to foresee the enormous transfer of wealth that would occur when the baby boomer (my) generation aged.

The second and at first seemingly unrelated fact was that in philanthropy, there were just 70 family foundations. Today there are over 40,000 family foundations.

How these two facts are related is that the intergenerational transfer of wealth was facilitated by the family foundation process.

Here is why it is important to see the big picture.

That intergenerational transfer of wealth (which is ongoing) is the result of the family foundations, corporate consolidation, public policy and other mechanisms and is largely responsible for the erosion of a once vibrant middle class. Which is also a decline that continues to the present day.

But also today we are witnessing the next step in a massive transfer of wealth and assets.

The Republican tax plan foreshadows a new transfer of wealth, and not just with regard to the inheritance tax.

If the last move—intergenerational transfer of wealth—resulted in the loss of a vibrant middle class, we are now looking at the next step which will be the loss of the commons.

That is the big picture perspective.

Back to gratitude. While not thrilled with the outcome of the last presidential election, nor with the policy changes emanating from the White House, I am grateful that perhaps never have I seen so clearly the elements in play that support the loss of a commons.

And if I can see it, then we should be able to articulate and communicate that bigger picture to a larger audience. Because it is only by so doing can we place the choice to the people of the United States. Do people really want to see mining excavation in the Grand Canyon and other national parks and monuments? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, this Thanksgiving I am grateful that I can have a role to play in helping to change the course of the country.

I am grateful that I am sober, relatively sane, and afforded the opportunity to help communicate a better vision for the direction of the country.

Something else that is also clear is an understanding of how important each person is. That a single person can make such a difference and have such an impact.

I’d like to write more about that next month. But I have gone on long enough in this column and want with a wish that each and every reader a blessed Thanksgiving with friends and/or family.

Again, I ask that you take a moment to contribute what you can today to CFJC to keep this space open for all of us.

As always, please let us know if there is anything we can do to support the work you are doing as an individual, organization or community.

 

Once more, thank you, and all the best.

armando-sig

 

 

 

Armando Nieto
Executive Director

 

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