Mobs disrupt town meetings. Glenn Beck amplifies a careless remark by a mid-level White House staff member into a threat of a national communist takeover. The right wing spin machine creates a parent revolt over a presidential pep talk to students urging them to study hard and stay in school. Meanwhile, the Party of No blocks action on health care and climate disruption with lies and distortions and declares President Obama’s stimulus package a socialist plot and a failed waste of taxpayer money.
There is a common thread. Each of these media events has diverted attention from Wall Street’s responsibility for crashing the economy, taking trillions of dollars in public bailout money, and then rewarding itself with outlandish bonuses.
The Wall Street corporations funding the front organizations that orchestrate these and other diversions hope we will forget that America’s number one problem is Wall Street—and the overpaid Wall Street casino gamblers who destroyed our economy in a reckless test of the theory that markets can self-regulate and that the unrestrained pursuit of individual greed is beneficial to society.
Wall Street’s greatest fear is that the public might demand Congress and the president shut down the casino. Any issue that shifts attention away from Wall Street and pins the blame for job loss and mortgage foreclosures on President Obama works in its favor.
The right wing media campaign would have us believe that President Obama, not Wall Street, is the nation’s #1 problem. He’s a socialist. He’s an irresponsible spender. He isn’t really patriotic (remember, he didn’t wear a flag pin). America’s lost jobs and the mortgage foreclosures are his doing. Never mind that he was still living in Chicago working as a civil rights lawyer and then an Illinois state senator while Wall Street was putting together the high-risk financial instruments that ultimately brought down the economy.
Every controversy that gains media attention, including such peripheral issues as President Obama’s talk to students and a green jobs advisor who once signed a controversial petition, helps to push Wall Street off the front page and distract the White House, congress, and the public from the real issue.
Because Van Jones, the green jobs advisor who was the object of a withering smear campaign funded by the corporate right, is a valued friend and colleague, I followed the outlandish attack on him with far greater attention than I normally give to the right wing noise machine. I watched in amazement as it elevated him from being a mid-level White House advisor to being one of the most powerful and dangerous players in Washington, the leader of a socialist plot to take over America. Van was a perfect surrogate for Obama, because he is a charismatic black man with a gift for oratory similar to Obama’s—and is an outspoken advocate of social justice and environmental responsibility.
Van’s message is one that I should think any loyal, caring, thoughtful American would celebrate. Yet I watched as Glenn Beck in full red-faced bluster translated a video clip of Van Jones calling on his audience to be more caring in our relationships with one another into a subversive plot to turn America into a socialist state. I was aghast. Would Beck have condemned Jesus as a socialist and cheered those who led him off to his crucifixion?
Much of my academic training is in psychology. As a student, I was fascinated by studies of the psychological dynamics that allowed Hitler to take control of Germany and more generally lead people to enthusiastically support racist, fear-mongering, authoritarian demagogues. There is a general pattern. Successful demagogues provide a message of certainty in uncertain times that turns fear and self-doubt into a sense of purpose, power, and self-worth for people called to join an army of the righteous to rid the world of some real or imagined evil.
Another of my African-American colleagues, Harry Pickens, recently shared with me his compelling assessment of how this dynamic is playing out currently in America.
He notes that most Americans, until quite recently, grew up within a culture that assigned each of us our place in a social hierarchy that placed men over women, whites over people of color, rich people over poor people, and humans over nature. Knowing one's place offered a certain sense of stability and security even for those on the bottom.
Unless one has a secure sense of identity independent of these categories, the breakdown of the hierarchy can introduce extreme uncertainty that is both confusing and threatening, even in times of economic prosperity. The civil rights, women's, and environmental movements all challenged the hierarchy and threatened the established system of authority and identity.
Then came the ultimate shock—a black president whose intelligence, poise, talent, and charisma set him apart even from most of America’s former presidents. With him came the strong, intelligent, beautiful, and charming Michelle, who has the potential, like Hillary Clinton, to be a future presidential candidate in her own right. Horror of horrors. The only thing that might present a greater threat to the old social order than a black male president from a modest class background is the specter of a black female president. For some it has been a shock too great to bear.
That is the backdrop of the withering smear attack on Van, a refreshingly honest and mature voice filled with wisdom and insight into the possibility of America as a strong, caring, environmentally responsible, multiracial nation. Those of us on the progressive side who have transcended our old identities and are psychologically ready to hear and celebrate his message are, in fact, thrilled that the message comes from a black man who is speaking on behalf of all people of every gender, race, and class.
It is sometimes difficult for progressives to understand just how inherently threatening our message can be to those whose sense of identity depends on clinging to their position in the collapsing hierarchy of power and privilege. Even if we call only for a world of love for all people and all beings, skilled propaganda masters of the right easily take our words and spin them in a way that make them feel threatening to their followers. Of course Van's language is not so restrictive, and appropriately so. His honesty without malice or blame is why we love him and look to him as a leader.
We on the progressive side best respond by being strong and centered in the artful manner of Joanna Macy's Shambhala warrior, deflecting the thrusts of the forces of hateful violence in ways that disarm them without responding in kind.
I believe the culture is shifting at a deeper level. Ever more people are awakening to the possibilities of a world beyond the old social ordering, a world that truly fulfills the American ideal of liberty and justice for all, and they are redefining their personal identities accordingly. The shift is only partially visible, however, because those who navigate it are less inclined to respond in kind to the voices of fear and hate and thus get less media attention.
I believe the shift is destined to accelerate, because the brains of all but the most severely psychologically damaged humans are hard-wired to care and connect. Many of those who go along with the culture of hate and fear do so simply because it is their only experience. We best reach them by demonstrating the possibilities of a different way of being and relating.
All the while, we need to maintain a clear focus on Wall Street as the primary source of the economic, social, political, and environmental crises that threaten our long-term security and viability as a nation. To resolve the crises, we must strip Wall Street of its power and bring forth a New Economy designed to serve the needs of people and nature rather than simply profits. Among other things, this requires legislative action to break up the big Wall Street financial institutions, strictly limit financial speculation, and bar corporations from usurping the political rights of persons. We cannot allow Wall Street to succeed in its effort to put the blame on President Obama and divert our attention to a continuing series of diversionary issues.
David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, and president of the People-Centered Development Forum. His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.