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Liberals and Progressives Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity... Are We Ready to Change Directions?

Are we ready to change directions on the economy, the environment, democratizing politics, corporate social responsibility and Middle East peace?
 
 
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Progressives have had four enormous opportunities in the past two years to change the fundamentals of American society and our relationship to the world. We’ve already blown the first and are missing the second, third, and fourth.

The first, of course, was the economic meltdown.

What a moment that could have been for progressives in Congress or the White House to challenge the ideology of “leave it to the marketplace” or “leave it to the states” to work things out. Imagine if President Obama had told Wall Street and the Republicans, “OK, let’s test your theories right now -- let’s just let the marketplace work its wonders as the banks fail.” And had they pleaded for relief, it should have been given on the condition that they enthusiastically and simultaneously back and help implement a single-payer health care plan; the creation of a national bank to fund no-interest loans to people on the verge of losing their homes from deceptive mortgage loan offers and to fund socially useful and environmentally sound new projects to offset unemployment; the funding of a massive new WPA-style full employment program to encourage small businesses and to make sure that everyone who wants to work can use their talents in ways that are societally useful; and the creation of a whole new set of laws restricting banking and investment company operations to make them respond to the needs of the society and not just to the profit motivations of their investors. Well, that chance was blown.

The second opportunity is now being blown by the Obama administration: the Gulf oil spill.

Here is a moment in which the logic of capitalist exploitation of the planet is exposed for everyone to see.

The president should be calling this a national emergency as serious as that of 9/11, and should declare a war on those who are destroying the environment. He should call for a special session of Congress and ask for emergency powers to suspend any corporate activity here or abroad that threatens the planet, under his war powers and as a manifestation of his sworn obligation to protect and defend the United States.

Obama should explain to the American people that we are literally living through what environmentalist Paul Wapner calls “the end of nature” unless we change the fundamentals of how we organize our global economy and our relationship to the planet. Instead of seeing Earth as a resource for human exploitation, we need to think of Earth as our very bodies. We need to think of the damage we do to it as similar to cutting off our own limbs. We need to cultivate in ourselves and each other the capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of All That Is.

That conception should be matched by environmental policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions to 350 parts per million in the next ten years, scrapping “pollute and trade” for a powerful carbon tax, creating a national environmental board that must verify that every product made or sold in the United States is produced, marketed, and sold in an environmentally sound way with an ES (environmentally sound) sticker, eliminating all trade agreements that favor the United States at the expense of local farmers around the world, directing U.S. armies to serve as part of a UN Force with the mandate to prevent the destruction of rain forest and other environmentally vital parts of the globe, and implementing a Global Marshall Plan to eliminate the extremes of poverty and hunger that contribute to some of the poor being willing to cut down the rainforest just so that they can (quite reasonably) feed their own families.

The third opportunity remains: the decision of the Supreme Court in its Citizens United ruling.

In this ruling to overturn constraints on corporate donations to candidates for office, the right-wing majority in the court boldly proclaimed that corporations are persons, that persons’ speech is protected by the first Amendment, and that spending money is a form of speech.

More than 80 percent of U.S. voters oppose that decision and understand that its implementation is likely to end the last vestiges of democratic openness in American society and replace it with corporate advertising manipulation of our consciousness.

The process of undermining democracy and control of elections by the corporations and elites of wealth and power was already quite advanced before this recent Supreme Court decision, so if we confine our attention to overthrowing Citizens United we will not thereby restore real democracy in the United States.

Unfortunately, most progressive and liberal groups are following this mistaken path. They correctly understand that any legislation on the issue of democracy for ordinary people and not for corporations is likely to be overturned by the right-wing court we have at the moment. But then they propose narrowly framed amendments to the constitution that would do little more than return us to the status quo ante.

The ESRA: Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

 For that reason, we at Tikkun and our educational arm, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, will be putting forward a new approach. We are inviting secular progressives and liberals to join with spiritual or religious liberals and progressives at a Strategy Conference in Washington, D.C., June 11-13, to develop a coherent strategy for the Obama years ahead. And a central part of that strategy is a campaign for the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the U.S. Constitution (visit www.spiritualprogressives.org/conference for more info). 

The first article, the pro-democracy clause, of the ESRA proclaims that protection of freedom of speech only applies to human beings, and that money shall not be considered a form of speech. It then goes on to regulate the expenditure of money in elections and to fund national elections, to prohibit anyone from buying time or space in the media during the three months before the election, and to mandate major media to provide equal and free time to major candidates, along with other steps to ensure that differentials in money will no longer be a factor in determining how much of a candidate’s message is communicated to voters.

The second article is the corporate environmental and social responsibility clause. This would require corporations with incomes of over $100 million per year (not smaller companies or “mom and pop” stores) to get a new corporate charter every five years. The charter would only be granted to those that can demonstrate a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility (toward its workers and toward the communities in which it functions) to a jury of ordinary citizens chosen at random (because we already know that regulatory agencies become dominated by representatives of the very corporations that are supposed to be regulating). Employee groups and stakeholder groups from wherever that corporation or its products reach, along with corporate management, would present their information about the level of corporate environmental and social responsibility.

A “positive requirement to enhance human community and environmental sustainability” constitutes article three. Most notable in this article is that it requires any school that receives federal support to teach the skills and capacities necessary to develop a caring society manifesting love, generosity, kindness, joy, celebration, thanksgiving, forgiveness, nonviolence, rational and scientific thinking, awe and wonder at the universe, and the recognition that our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone on the planet and the well-being of the Earth itself. It further mandates the teaching of all knowledge and skills required to assure that all students can contribute to the implementation of policies that enhance the long-term sustainability of Earth.

It will take just as long to pass the shorter more narrowly framed attempts to overthrow Citizens United as it will to pass this broader ESRA version. Yet in the actual struggle for change, the ESRA goes far deeper and is far more likely to stir the enthusiasm of the American people and the activists necessary to carry a campaign for constitutional reform to every corner of the country. What Obama should have learned during the fight for health care reform is that the full weight of corporate power gets mobilized just as heavily for moderate reform as it would for a more appealing, broader, and deeper reform. And the broader reform, precisely because it spells out what we are seeking, is much more likely to generate popular support and to educate people along the way to a vision of a more democratic and more environmentally responsible society.

The fourth opportunity: Israel’s May 31 attack on the Gaza aid flotilla.

Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla has provoked worldwide attention to the unjust blockade of some food, clothing, building materials, and other essentials for the people of Gaza, who are living under extremely oppressive conditions, as well as attention to the more general issue of the Occupation of the West Bank by Israel. This is a perfect moment for progressive forces to push for an international conference of all the relevant stakeholders and countries of the world that helped create Israel in the UN vote of November 1947 to now develop a peace plan that provides security for Israel and full national self-determination for the Palestinian people. It’s the moment for a peace plan that involves a Palestinian state on all of the West Bank and Gaza, that enables the sharing of Jerusalem, and that secures justice for the Palestinian people in the form of massive reparations to Palestinian refugees all around the world. This is the moment for the peoples of the world -- together with the economic, political, and military power of the U.S. -- to impose a solution, and that is what we must publicly call on Obama and the Democratic Party to pursue.

We at the Strategy Conference of Liberals and Progressives next weekend in Washington, D.C., will be holding a memorial service for those killed by the Israeli assault, as well as a prayer service for those hurt or wounded (including Israeli soldiers who were sent by an idiotic and self-destructive Israeli military/political elite to commit this unjustified assault). We will be praying not only for their speedy recovery, but also for the freeing of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas and the freeing of thousands of Palestinian prisoners by Israel. This will take place at a rally across from the White House on Sunday, June 13, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Lafayette Park. 

The suffering of both Palestinian and Israeli peoples will not be brought about by the lame process of negotiations with the United States unwilling to use its power to push Israel. Given the realities of the current Congress, there is no hope that President Obama will exercise the needed leadership by himself, but we could push him into an international framework that gives him the legitimacy to use American power in defense of a rational solution that is fair to both sides. 

This is not the moment for progressives to waste our energies denouncing Israel, though we certainly have reason to be angry at what Israel has been doing for these past 43 years since the 1967 conquest of Palestine—it is the moment for us to put forward a rational plan to once and for all end this conflict. Will we waste this opportunity as well?

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and author of The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right (HarperSanFrancisco, Feb, 2006).