Several weeks ago, I found myself at a retreat center in the woods with 400 strangers, crying, confused, and pissed off. Fortunately no one was paying attention to me. We were all captivated by Van Jones, longtime civil rights activist and current CNN commentator. He was describing the men he’d recently gotten to know who had voted for Obama—twice—then voted for Donald Trump. According to Jones, 70,000 of these voters, who were concentrated in three key states, handed the election to Trump.
The bastards, I thought.
I’m fortunate. My citizenship, whiteness, and financial situation protect me more than many from Trump’s disastrous policies. Yet I am as appalled as anybody over his election—and now presidency—and I have no problem blaming the people who voted for him.
But it is these very men, Jones argued, whom we must not only understand but embrace if the nation is to make real progress. If we are to win the future.
Oof. Intellectually, I agree that empathy is necessary. As the executive director of YES!, I certainly know that we must turn toward, not against, each other. But knowing it and feeling it are two different things.
I’ve been a bridge builder most of my life, and anger has never come easily. But these days, it’s easy to be angry. The more I practice, the easier it gets. I also find it convenient to label people—“racist,” “bigot,” “misogynist”—because then it’s easier to dismiss them. And to be honest, I’ll admit that this behavior gives me a bit of rush. Plus, look at any social media feed: I have plenty of company.
So as I listened to Jones speak, I was not prepared to understand these men. Yet there I was crying for them, crying for all of us. Jones had hit my empathy nerve.
Jones told the story of a man stripped of his dignity and identity and abandoned, struggling for a purpose and a place. It didn’t make things better for him that his pain could never stack up to the big traumas of genocide and slavery that so many others in our country still suffer from. He hurt. And in voting for Trump, he saw a shot—however remote—at regaining his dignity. I couldn’t listen to Jones tell his story and still say I didn’t get it.
Over the following weeks, I saw shades of the men in my own life in Jones’ story, and deeper understanding set in. Shades of my father, a rescue pilot hero who was stripped of his power and purpose when he was diagnosed with massive heart disease and put on disability at 38. Shades of another relative whose family land was confiscated during the Civil War, leading to generations of poverty, anger, and abuse. Both were somehow robbed of their chance to be “great.” I also thought of my own husband, exhausted by the brutality of capitalism and by society’s complex expectations of modern men and confounded by a masculine ideal established in some bygone era.
For me, Jones’ story helped bring into focus how our systems of social dominance—capitalism, racism, and patriarchy—require winners and losers. We’re all steeped in these systems. The win-lose paradigm plays out daily in the subtle and not-so-subtle details of our lives, at work, in the kitchen, in our bank accounts. And the one system with the potential to equalize us—democracy—is kept caged by the winners who want to stay on top. Yet, as so many have experienced, including the men in Jones’ story, a winner today might be a loser tomorrow, and vice versa. The bullied can become the bully.
The only way to really win our future is to win together. Jones described a bird that needs both wings to fly. But the first step is empathy, letting our hearts recognize other people’s pain. It’s a lot more work than being angry, but it’s the only work that’s worth the effort. Because when we understand that we all suffer in these systems of dominance, we can find common purpose: to free our democracy—and ourselves.
Thanks, Van Jones.
Video excerpts of Van Jones’ talk at the Being Fearless conference, October 2017, published with permission of the Omega Institute.
Courts have avoided refereeing between Congress and the president — Trump may change all that
President Donald Trump’s refusal to hand over records to Congress and allow executive branch employees to provide information and testimony to Congress during the impeachment battle is the strongest test yet of legal principles that over the past 200 years have not yet been fully defined by U.S. courts.
It’s not the first test: Struggles over power among the political branches predate our Constitution. The framers chose not to, and probably could not, fully resolve them.
Donald Trump sounds like a complete lunatic because he’s isolated himself in a far-right media bubble
Welcome to another edition of What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s roundup of news items that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or were at least under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and other sundry embarrassments coming out of the current White House.
If you have an older relative who spends way too much time stewing in the conservative media, you may have experienced a moment when you not only disagreed with him, but you realized that you had no earthly clue what he was going on about. Perhaps it was when he started talking about the UN plot to eliminate golf courses and replace paved roads with bicycle paths. Maybe he stopped you in your tracks with a discourse on why flies were attracted to Barack Obama, or complained about the government insisting on referring to Christians as "Easter-worshippers" or expressed outrage over 9/11 hijackers being given leniency by Muslim jurists.
American exceptionalism is killing the planet
Ever since 2007, when I first started writing for TomDispatch, I’ve been arguing against America’s forever wars, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that, despite my more than 60 articles, American blood is still being spilled in war after war across the Greater Middle East and Africa, even as foreign peoples pay a far higher price in lives lost and cities ruined. And I keep asking myself: Why, in this century, is the distinctive feature of America's wars that they never end? Why do our leaders persist in such repetitive folly and the seemingly eternal disasters that go with it?