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Expanding the Circle

THE CITY COUNCIL CHAMBERS WERE PACKED. Along the back wall, middle and high school students stood in silence, holding large placards with quotations from the Bill of Rights and the founding fathers. People carrying small American flags filled row upon row of seats.

Three women had been working for months with the national Bill of Rights Defense Committee to convince the Bainbridge Island City Council to take on the USA Patriot Act. No one knew whether the council would support a resolution that instructs city employees, including city police, to refuse to carry out portions of the Patriot Act that violate the Constitution.

One after another, islanders came to the podium, all but one calling on the council to take a stand. Then members of the council had their turn. Some spoke about the resolution's technicalities and some about its principles. But the most dramatic moment came when an older council member with short grey hair began his remarks by saying he would speak for those who could not speak for themselves. As he fought back tears, he explained that his words were for those who had given their lives in battle to protect our freedoms. These, he said, are freedoms we should not so easily give up.

The vote was unanimous. The crowd was on its feet. A city council that had been divided over local issues was unified in taking a stand for American civil liberties, becoming the 117th local government in the U.S. to challenge the Patriot Act (more have done so since). The young people were ecstatic—they had witnessed the power of ordinary people, including themselves. And they had seen that those quotations from the Bill of Rights, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson still have meaning.

Is the tide turning?
This scene is just one of the many that suggest that democracy is still very much alive in the United States. It may also be an omen of things to come in 2004, when the American people will have to decide if they want four more years of the radical, right-wing agenda that has dominated the nation's capital since the Supreme Court stopped the Florida vote count.

In the months leading up to the publication date for this issue of YES! I have traveled to Chicago, New York, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington, DC. I've spoken to leaders of progressive organizations, elected officials, people of all races, young and old. The message I heard time and again is that each has specific passions and interests, but changing the balance of power in Washington, DC, is a top priority that unifies them all.

This suggests we may be at a moment of both enormous opportunity and danger. The danger is a consolidation of the rightist agenda of military build-up (including militarization of space and a new generation of nuclear weapons designed for offensive use, rather than deterrence); appointments of ideologically driven judges who will serve for life; further concentration of corporate power over food, media, public services, and government; continued neglect of the environment, and a stagnating economy, as decisions are based, not on sound public policy, but on an extremist ideology.

When I taught in China some years ago, my students told me of a giant dam, built during the “Great Leap Forward,” a time in the early days of the Mao Tse Tung government when leaders expected everyone to go all out for economic development. The problem was, no matter how pure the ideology, no matter how devoted the people who built the dam (by hand), there was no water. The engineers were not consulted; they were the ones who might take a position contrary to party ideology. Similarly, ideology now seems to rule at the White House, and all who question the “intelligence” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the “science” of oil industry studies on global warming, or the “economics” that promotes putting extra billions in the hands of the richest Americans are punished, ridiculed, or excluded. That this is a recipe for poor governance and reckless acts abroad is becoming evident.

But the extreme policies also can unite us as the Patriot Act did on Bainbridge Island. Frustrations with these policies are bringing religious leadership into partnership with peace and social justice groups as happened in the Win Without War coalition (see page 38). Labor unions are making common cause with environmental advocates in a bold initiative to achieve energy independence through renewable electricity and energy efficiency (see page 41) and with immigrants targeted by the Department of Homeland Security (see page 33). The National Rifle Association has joined with Common Cause to get Congress to override the June 2nd Federal Communications Commission ruling allowing massive consolidation of media ownership (see page 21).

A new vision
Pollsters tell us that majorities of Americans do not approve of many of the policies coming out of Washington, DC. Given the choice between a tax cut or achieving universal health care, 81 percent would rather get the health care; 71 percent would like to see us invest in renewable energy resources and energy conservation; and just 33 percent think that regulation of big business does more harm than good. (See sidebar on page 15).

With the economy continuing to stagnate and jobs disappearing (especially those paying enough to support a family), many Americans are looking for an alternative. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership has served up warmed-over Republicanism in the last years, and especially in the disastrous 2002 election. Writer Ruy Teixeira, suggests in a May 2003 Washington Monthly article that the 2002 Democratic turnout was low in part because Democrats had no real agenda to offer. “Democrats are learning,” he wrote, “that ‘No ideas don't beat bad ideas.'”

Americans are looking for boldness, pragmatism, a way of getting things done that will benefit their families, communities, nation, and even the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., told us: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Or, to use another metaphor, this one from Albert Einstein, our task is to expand our circle of compassion.

American history has grown in part on centuries of struggle to expand this circle of compassion. The founders of the U.S. were mostly white, male property owners, but over the course of our history, the circle has expanded to include women, working people, people of all races, children, and the poor—even former enemies, and eventually, other species.

Each expansion of the circle happened as a result of movements built by men and women of all races, ages, and social classes. Each taught the larger society new values and insights, kept our culture fresh, and deepened the meaning of our democracy. Together, these movements continue to create a foundation for a just, sustainable, and peaceful America.

Each of these movements also had to overcome the resistance of those who benefited from the exclusion of others and who sought to maintain the wealth and power of the few. Their actions point to another powerful force in U.S. history—the development of the economy on the labor of indentured servants, slaves, and underpaid immigrants, and on land taken from Native peoples. Today, we see the World Trade Organization, corporations, and the governments of the wealthy nations collaborating to maintain access to cheap labor, land, and resources worldwide, resulting in economic growth that does more to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few than to improve the prospects for the many.

The results are a growing divide between rich and poor, a declining global environment, and war. It isn't hard to see the disaster that such a world implies. Perhaps the unconscious understanding that such a world is unsustainable explains the popularity of the bestselling “Left Behind” series, the Christ Clone Trilogy, and other novels about the apocalyptic ending of the world.

This dynamic is not only a result of Republican rule—under President Bill Clinton NAFTA was adopted and the WTO strengthened. Neither party has effectively countered the destructiveness of corporate rule and militarism.

The silver lining in the reckless policies coming from Washington, DC, could be the impetus to reassess our direction as a nation. The Iraqi quagmire may awaken us from the illusion that our military strength allows us to act globally with impunity, and we may rejoin the family of nations. The layoffs and downsizing may free us from the belief that the corporate world will look out for our interests, and we can turn our energies to building sustainable, local economies. The Patriot Act may free us from the illusion that democracy can be taken for granted. We may find that millions of people are open now to a fresh direction, based not on pessimism and exclusion, but on the positive, inclusive spirit central to the American tradition. There may be none articulating this vision better than Granny D (Doris Haddock) who, at age 89, walked across the United States to advocate campaign finance reform:

“We are the people who believe in a world of environmental beauty, of happiness and not exploitation, of justice and not oppression and torture. A world safe for children. Government budgets that invest in our smart babies, not smart bombs. We believe in international law and cooperative action.”

What will it take to win?
To fulfill Granny D's vision, we need not only a positive vision to take us into 2004. We need to build the capacity to bring it into existence. Political conversation often turns to the merits of various candidates for public office. But we need to do more than elect progressives or shift power to the Democrats. As the articles in this issue of YES! show, winning means building people power—developing lasting infrastructure that will support policies that benefit the common good and leaders who are accountable to those values. Some of these people already hold public office, like those who took a stand against war in Iraq and for the protection of civil liberties. Winning means supporting these courageous men and women, and getting more of them elected, and then helping them hold firm against the powerful influence of corporate money.

It means building inclusivity into our agenda and inviting diverse leadership from people too often excluded—young people, people of color, women. It means acknowledging the humiliation and despair experienced by those (including the so-called angry white men) who find themselves unwanted in the new global economy, and inviting them to help create a new politics.

It means building our separate movements and organizations, but also unifying at times around mass mobilizations and elections.

Participation in the political process does not require us to sink to dirty politics or reduce our vision to sound bites. As our circle of compassion has expanded, so have our capacities to keep ego from dominating our work, to build movements based in distributed power, to listen deeply to the fears and the hopes of those we are trying to reach, and to choose language that communicates our common humanity and common aspirations.

We can insist on respect for all, even those who indulge in put-downs or ridicule. We can counter the power of big money by giving our time and money. We can make use of assets missing from the rigid, sarcastic, stultifying rhetoric of the far right—our imagination, our creativity, and our joy.

In our politics, we can create the inclusive world we hope to live in. No, we're not going to settle for a world ruled by fear, selfishness, and exclusion. Yes, we have it in us to make 2004 a transformative time.


Sarah Ruth van Gelder is executive editor of YES!

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