Liz Theoharis – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 21 Apr 2021 05:45:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.17 Can America finally kick the Habit? – “The Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World” https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/greatest-purveyor-violence.html Mon, 05 Apr 2021 04:02:01 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197054 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Fifty-four years ago, standing at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his now-famous “Beyond Vietnam” sermon. For the first time in public, he expressed in vehement terms his opposition to the American war in Vietnam. He saw clearly that a foreign policy defined by aggression hurt the poor and dispossessed across the planet. But it did more than that. It also drained this country of its moral vitality and the financial resources needed to fight poverty at home. On that early spring day, exactly one year before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” a statement that should ring some bells in April 2021.

In his sermon, Dr. King openly wrestled with a thorny problem: how to advance nonviolent struggle among a generation of Black youth whose government had delivered little but pain and empty promises. He told the parishioners of Riverside Church that his years of work, both in the South and the North, had opened his eyes to why, as a practitioner of nonviolence, he had to speak out against violence everywhere — not just in the U.S. — if he expected people to take him at his word. As he explained that day:

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems… But they asked, and rightly so, ‘what about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

A Global Pandemic Cries Out for Global Cooperation

In 2020, the planet was swept up in a devastating pandemic. Millions died, tens of millions suffered. It was a moment, in Reverend King’s spirit, that would have been ideal for imagining new global approaches to America’s ongoing wars of the past century. It would similarly have been the perfect moment to begin imagining global cooperative approaches to public health, growing debt and desperation, and intellectual property rights. This especially given that the Covid-19 vaccines had been patented for mega-profits and were available only to some on this suffering planet of ours, a world vulnerable to a common enemy in which the fault lines in any country threaten the safety of many others.

Internationally, at the worst moment imaginable, U.S.-backed institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund continued to demand billions of dollars in debt payments from impoverished countries in the Global South, only forgiving them when their governments fell into step behind the U.S. and Europe, as Sudan has recently done. Moreover, Washington had a golden opportunity when the search for a Covid-19 vaccine threatened to change patent laws and force pharmaceutical companies to work with low-income nations. Instead, the U.S. government backed exclusive deals with Big Pharma, ensuring that vaccine apartheid would become rampant in this country, as well as across the rest of the world. By late March, 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered had gone to people in wealthy or middle-income countries, with vaccine equity within those countries being a concern as well.

Another menacing development is the thematically anti-Chinese legislation being developed in Congress right now. Three weeks ago, just as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was nearly across the finish line, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was quietly laying the groundwork for another major legislative package focused on further inflaming a rising cold war with China. For Republicans, legislative action on China is in theory an absolute bullseye, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear that his support for Schumer’s bill will only come if it includes a large increase — once again — in “defense” spending.

The timing and tenor of this debate, steeped as it is in Sinophobia, economic brinkmanship, and military hawkishness, is more than troublesome. Just a few weeks ago, eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were gunned down in Atlanta by a man plagued by his own toxic mix of religious extremism, white supremacy, and sexism. This followed a year in which there were close to 4,000 documented anti-Asian hate incidents in this country, fueled by a president who blamed the Chinese for Covid-19 and regularly used racist nicknames for the pandemic like the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.”

In addition, an aggressive and potentially militarized anti-China bill is irresponsible when tens of thousands continue to contract the virus daily here at home and we are only beginning to understand the long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. At a time when there are 140 million poor or low-income people in this country, a fully revived and funded war not against China but against poverty should be seen as both a moral responsibility and a material necessity. At least now, poverty seems to be getting some attention in the pandemic era, but how sad that it took the disastrous toll of Covid-19 on American jobs, housing, and nutrition to put poverty on the national agenda. Now that it’s there, though, we can’t allow it to be sidelined by short-sighted preparations for a new cold war that could get hot.

Cruel Manipulation of the Poor

An inhumane approach to foreign policy and especially wars in distant lands was only half of the spiritual death that Dr. King warned about back in 1967: the other half was how the militarization of this society and a distortion of its moral priorities had brought war and immiseration home. That was what he meant in his sermon when spoke about the “cruel manipulation of the poor.”

In 1967, King saw how American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam “on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.” That hell was being created both in the Agent Orange-saturated lands of Vietnam and Laos and, in a different fashion, in so many poor and abandoned communities in the United States.

Dr. King mourned the “brutal solidarity” of disproportionately poor Black, Brown, and white Americans fighting together against the poor in Vietnam, only to return to a nation parts of which were still committed to inequality, discrimination, and racism (despite the struggle and advances of the Civil Rights movement) and remarkably blind to their suffering. In those last years of the 1960s, he watched as the promise of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was betrayed by massive investments in what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had first dubbed a “military-industrial complex,” and in a reactionary narrative, which would only become more emboldened in the years to come, that blamed the poor for their poverty.

Sadly, the decades to follow would, in so many ways, affirm his fears. And yet — to note a spark of hope amid the pandemic gloom — the last year has finally awakened an earnest concern on the part of some in the government to revive the spiritual health of the nation by committing in significant ways to the material health of the poor.

Indeed, ARPA’s investments in poor and low-income communities should be celebrated, but the question remains: Why is the Biden administration’s Covid-19 legislation so historic and rare? Why is it so unprecedented for the U.S. to invest $1.9 trillion in our own people in a country that, in these last years, has squandered 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon? How is it that we’ve become so steeped in a militarized economy that we don’t bat an eye when politicians propose more funding for the military, even as they say spending on human welfare is irresponsible and unaffordable?

In the lead-up to the passage of ARPA, stalwart old guard Republicans attacked the legislation. In an op-ed for the National Review, Senator Marco Rubio denounced increased welfare spending as “not pro-family” and repeated the tired myth that welfare, by supposedly creating dependency, actually breaks up the nuclear family. So immersed was Rubio in his disdain for the poor that he punctuated his piece with this nonsensical claim: “If pulling families out of poverty were as simple as handing moms and dads a check, we would have solved poverty a long time ago.” Is it really necessary to affirm in 2021 that more money in people’s pockets actually does mean less poverty?


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Meanwhile, longtime senior Democratic economic adviser and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers argued that the Covid-19 bill was the “least responsible” policy in four decades. He had, of course, long been a champion of the austerity policies that helped lead to enormous increases in inequality and poverty in this country. (Many other economists dispute his claim.) It’s telling as well that members of the Biden Administration have distanced themselves from him.

Pro-austerity and anti-poor economic policies promoted by influential figures like Rubio and Summers are, in part, what’s kept America in a spiritual death spiral since the days of Dr. King. A country now constantly haunted by death has long been consumed by violence and crisis. Sometimes, it’s the literal physical violence of another mass shooting, driven by rage, hate, and desperation, or the further militarization of the border, or the use of militarized police violence to clear the most vulnerable from homeless encampments. Other times it’s policy violence, whether involving punitive work requirements for food stamps or the refusal to expand Medicaid and make healthcare available and affordable to all. And always, in the background, as Dr. King would certainly have noted, if he were giving his sermon today, is the violence of America’s never-ending wars that have eaten so many trillion dollars and killed and displaced so many people in distant lands.

Of particular concern today is the potential death of democracy that the insurrection of January 6th at the Capitol seemed so ominously to signal. I will never forget listening to a long-time organizer in Flint, Michigan, explain that “before they took away our water, they had to take away our democracy.”

This was true in the fight for racial justice, welfare, and decent wages during the days of Dr. King and it’s no less true in our many human rights struggles today. After all, since 2020, at least 45 states have introduced voter suppression bills, with the recent one in Georgia being only the most egregious and publicized. Such legislation is being proposed and passed by extremist politicians who understand that limiting access to the ballot through racism and a demonization of the poor is the surest way to prevent real and lasting change.

A Moral Revolution of Values

Immediately after cautioning about the spiritual death of the nation in that classic sermon of his, Dr. King made an abrupt and hopeful turn, reminding his audience that a moral revolution of values was urgently needed and that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

As both a preacher and theologian, he was acutely aware of the story of Jesus. After all, Dr. King, like the Jesus of the Bible, knew that a transformation of society in the image of peace would involve a full-scale reordering of priorities, dependent on a willingness to reject a politics of death and embrace one of life.

For that to happen, however, society would need to be flipped right side up and that, in Jesus’s time, in Dr. King’s, or in our own, represents a herculean task, one never likely to happen based on the goodwill of those in power. It requires the collective efforts of a movement of people committed to saving the heart and soul of their society.

In this moment following Easter Sunday 2021, 53 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., may we listen to his concerns and honor his enduring hopes by committing ourselves to building exactly such a movement here and now.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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Whose Rights Matter in Pandemic America? Not Those of Poor Americans, That’s For Sure https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/pandemic-america-americans.html Wed, 17 Feb 2021 05:01:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196189 By Liz Theoharis | –

( Tomdispatch.com ) – In June 1990, future South African President Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress only months after being released from 27 years in a South African apartheid prison. He reminded the political leadership of the United States that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanise them.”

Three decades later, Congress would do well to finally heed that warning. In a moment of unprecedented crisis, when 140 million people in the richest country on the planet are poor or low-income, when tens of millions of them are on the verge of eviction and millions more have lost their healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, at a moment when Congress and the president are debating the next Covid-19 relief package, isn’t it finally time for human rights and guarantees to become the standard for any such set of policies?

I was introduced to the idea of using a human rights framework to address racism and poverty when I got involved in the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union. From poor and dispossessed leaders building a human-rights-at-home movement, I learned about the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). I came to understand how the concept of inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant that all people should be guaranteed the right to jobs that pay living wages, an adequate standard of living, public education, and the ability to thrive (not just barely survive).

Today, Congress is being driven to respond to a crisis that has this country in its grip with a $1.9 trillion relief package. The lesson of history, however, is that such measures, when they align with the basic demands of justice, should not be piecemeal or temporary. They should not be opportunities accessible only to some but rather guarantees of promise and possibility for everyone. Plagues and pandemics are not simply storms to be weathered before a return to what passes for normal. Americans should not be fooled into thinking that the very policies and measures that left this world of ours a wreckage of inequality, racism, and poverty will now lift us out of this mess. Instead, our political leaders would do well to follow the principle of “Everybody In, Nobody Out.”

Matthew Rycroft of the United Kingdom Mission to the U.N. offered a warning to the Security Council appropriate to this pandemic moment:

“How a society treats its most vulnerable — whether children, the infirm or the elderly — is always the measure of its humanity. Even more so during instability and conflict. When a society begins to disregard the vulnerable and their rights, instability and conflict will only grow.”

The Right Not to Be Poor

In 1948, after two bloody world wars punctuated by the Great Depression, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saw a need to safeguard basic rights and a minimum standard of living for people worldwide. The nations of the U.N., according to human rights scholar Paul Gordon Lauren,

“came to regard the economic and social hardship suffered during the course of the Depression as contributing greatly to the rise of fascist regimes, the emergence of severe global competition, and ultimately to the outbreak of war itself… They believed that poverty, misery, unemployment, and depressed standards of living anywhere in an age of a global economy and a technological shrinking of the world bred instability elsewhere and thereby threatened peace.”

At the time, the American government, ascendant on the international stage, saw some value in the framework of human rights, even if its actions at home and abroad didn’t match up to it. In reality, that same government was putting significant effort into separating political and civil rights from economic rights. It was using every tool in its toolbox from racism to Cold War paranoia to vilify the very idea of economic rights, let alone the interlocking nature of injustice and the need for wholistic remedies.

Social movements suffered from this ideological assault, as Black organizers in the 1950s and 1960s were blocked from the very idea of universal human (including economic) rights and pushed to focus more narrowly on the terrain of “civil rights,” as historian Carol Anderson has so vividly described in her book Eyes Off the Prize. Nearly two decades after the release of the UDHR, even on the heels of major civil rights victories, leaders of the Black freedom movement recognized that too much remained unchanged and a deeper fight was needed.

It was in this context that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and others began to articulate the necessity for a broad movement of the nation’s poor across racial lines. In 1967, a year before he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, he wrote:

“We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights. The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year [$20 trillion in 2020], it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education, and enough money to provide basic necessities for one’s family.”

While the language of human rights is still with us today, the old battle lines remain stubbornly drawn as economic rights are cast as impractical and unenforceable and civil rights reduced to statements of unity, while voting rights, immigrant rights, and indigenous rights are mercilessly abridged. The focus, at best, becomes the mitigation of poverty and racism, not their abolition, while the fundamental principles of human rights laid out in the UDHR — universality, equality, and indivisibility — are eternally undercut.

Sometimes economic rights are championed but their exercise drastically narrowed. For instance, a universal right to housing becomes the right to due process in eviction hearings; the right to health or food becomes the right to access certain welfare benefits. The result? Universal economic rights become limited opportunities offered, at best, to a limited population of the poor. In the process, attention is refocused on the individual lives and choices of the poor, rather than on the system that produces their poverty or what could transform it. And sadly enough, it becomes ever easier to ignore what should be the most fundamental of human rights, the right not to be poor.

How to Build Back Better

Recently, the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris announced that, three years after Trump withdrew the country from the U.N. Human Rights Council, it would rejoin as an observer, with the goal of eventually being voted back to full membership. That move, like Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, as well as his intention to reengage with UNESCO and the Iran nuclear deal, undoubtedly reflects his interest in refortifying America’s international position in the post-Trump era. If he really wants to be an international leader and not just an observer when it comes to human rights, however, undoing the nightmare of the Trump years will only be part of the job that lies ahead.

There will be the continuing fight to ensure that Covid-19 relief is not disastrously watered down by false arguments about balanced budgets and deficits. The costs of inaction — a still-soaring death toll of 480,000 and counting and an estimated 460,000 extra deaths over the next decade thanks to pandemic-related unemployment and its costs — far outweigh the price of decisive action now. The deficits that should truly concern Americans are those in people’s paychecks, the lack of food in their refrigerators, and the grim unemployment numbers that make life a misery. Biden and the Democratic leadership have the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress. Now is the time to move immediately on life-saving measures like raising the minimum wage to $15 (including for tipped workers).

And genuine Covid-19 relief that buoyed our beleaguered nation long enough for vaccines to be widely distributed would just be a start. After all, before the pandemic hit, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health estimated that 250,000 Americans were dying annually from rising hunger, homelessness, and inequality, conditions that have only deepened over the last year. If the recovery from the 2007-2008 Great Recession is any indication, expect difficult years ahead, even when the pandemic eases. After all, that proved to be a low-wage recovery that disproportionately shifted women and people of color into temporary and precarious jobs. Not surprisingly then, in the decade after that recession, savings were spent down and household debt was on the rise — and only then did Covid-19 hit.



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Shouldn’t the administration’s response to this crisis and the underlying fissures in our society (so badly exacerbated in the Trump years) be held to a genuine human-rights standard? In December, the Poor People’s Campaign, which I co-chair, released a set of 14 policy priorities for Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, including not just temporary protections meant to weather the present storm, but permanent guarantees around jobs and income, housing, healthcare, and so much else. Such building blocks for a vibrant democracy and a life free of poverty should be treated as inalienable human rights. Grassroots organizers — whether the Nonviolent Medicaid Army fighting for healthcare as a human right, the Border Network for Human Rights struggling for a just immigration system, or the Homes Guarantee project demanding housing as a right, not a commodity — have been making this point for years.

A new social contract built on human rights requires a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy and rampant American militarism as well. President Biden’s recent decision to scale back engagement in the human-rights catastrophe in Yemen is encouraging, though its results remain to be seen. It’s obviously time as well to end this country’s twenty-first-century forever wars, as well as the suffocating economic sanctions imposed on countries like Venezuela and Iran.

It’s morally indefensible that the U.S. spends 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon and that it has more than 800 military bases around the world; that the Pentagon itself is a giant greenhouse-gas emitter; and that this country is not only the largest arms dealer on the planet by far, but continues to “export” weapons of war to our police departments nationwide through the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Washington’s eternally militarized posture has led to countless human rights violations abroad, while only adding to a loss of human rights at home, as vital resources continue to be siphoned from our schools and hospitals into the military.

A governing agenda that wishes to protect the right not to be poor would at some point also have to reckon with a system that, even amid a pandemic, produced record numbers of billionaires. Last year, as unemployment rates reached historic heights, America’s billionaires gained more than $1 trillion in wealth.

America’s celebrity culture tracks the day-to-day life of the richest men on the planet like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and celebrates the charitable Covid-19 fighting spirit of people like Bill Gates. His big donations shouldn’t, however, distract us from the fact that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men, including Gates, could buy vaccines for every person on the planet.

Intellectual Property Rights in a Pandemic World

As 2020 was ending and the world awaited the arrival of multiple Covid-19 vaccines, India and South Africa made an urgent proposal to the World Trade Organization. They requested that it temporarily suspend intellectual property rights to ensure that all nations could access and produce vaccines and other medical technologies like ventilators, masks, and protective gear. Dozens of other countries came forward to support that proposal, but a few powerful, patent-holding countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union rejected and ultimately quashed it.

On January 18, 2021, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world was “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” because of the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries. Indeed, a new report estimates that at least 85 countries — mostly in Africa and parts of Asia — won’t have widespread coverage until late 2022 or even 2023, if ever. Meanwhile, vaccine hoarding among rich countries has already reached a fever pitch. And this global reality is being replayed in terms of vaccine distribution within the richest countries as well. In the United States, early evidence suggests that the wealthy are already getting significantly more vaccinations than the poor and people of color, even though Covid-19 rates are far higher in poor communities.

While all of this may have been predictable, it wasn’t inevitable. The WHO has cautioned that a “me-first” approach to the vaccines leads to shortages, hoarding, and the pushing-up of prices. And although the profits from this intellectual property are private, the six front-running vaccine candidates have had a total of over $12 billion of taxpayer and public money poured into them.

Intellectual property rights and exclusive vaccine contracts with Big Pharma aren’t the only reasons why Covid-19 is morphing ever more distinctly into a poor people’s pandemic. They are, however, barriers to a universal and equitable response to a virus that has exposed the world’s fragile interconnectedness. With a deadly novel virus on the loose and mutating, at a moment when access to a vaccine may be the difference between life and death, profit over people remains a hegemonic principle. And horrifyingly enough, changes in intellectual property policies over the last few decades may have done even more to increase inequality on this planet than tax cuts for the wealthy.

In the last year, we Americans have battled Covid-19 largely through the same world of trickle-down economics and “austerity” for the poor that was such a reality of the prepandemic world. The Trump administration’s response to the disease was a bitter mixture of triage, denial, and greed. The sins of our leaders will leave deep and lasting wounds, but there is, at least, a lesson to be learned from all the suffering, if we’re brave enough to take it in: life should come before profit, human rights before property rights. Amen.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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MLK Marched nonviolently on DC with the Disadvantaged for the Vote: Trump’s armed militia Flew First Class with Privilege to suppress the vote https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/nonviolently-washington-disadvantaged.html Mon, 18 Jan 2021 05:01:12 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195611 By Liz Theoharis | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – 2020 will go down as the deadliest year in American history, significantly due to the devastation delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, count in nearly two trillion dollars in damage from climate events (many caused by, or heightened by, intensifying global warming), a surge of incidents of police violence inflicted on Black and Native peoples, and millions more Americans joining the ranks of the poor even as small numbers of billionaires soared ever further into the financial heavens. And it’s already obvious that 2021 is likely to prove another harrowing year.

In the first weeks of January alone, Covid-19 deaths have risen to unprecedented levels; record turnout elected Georgia’s first Black and Jewish Senators in a runoff where race-baiting, red-baiting, and voter suppression were still alive and well; and a racist, white nationalist mob swarmed the Capitol emboldened by the president, as well as senators, representatives, and other officials, in an attempt to subvert and possibly take down our democratic system. The January 6th attack on that building was by no means a singular event (in a country where local officials have in recent years been similarly threatened). It did, however, highlight dramatically the growing menace of illiberal and anti-democratic forces building in power. And one thing is guaranteed: its impact will hit the poor and people of color most strikingly. Social media and news reports suggest that, with an emboldened white supremacist movement on the rise, more such attacks are being planned.

Many have claimed that those rioters (and the president’s infamous “base” more generally) were all, in essence, poor, working-class white people. In reality, however, among those who have led such racist attacks are business leaders, executives, and multimillionaires. As author Sarah Smash writes, “’Poor uneducated whites’ are neither the base/majority nor the explanation for Trumpism: stories now abound of middle-class and even affluent white insurrectionists leading and joining the hateful charge at the U.S. Capitol.”

Indeed, it would be better to take a more careful look at the rich and powerful, as the storming of the Capitol on January 6th once again exposes the Make America Great Again movement for the sort of fake populism that has, in these years, served elites all too “richly.” And the more we learn about that coordinated astroturf assault, the more the dark money that lay behind its origins all these years comes to light.

Questions Must Be Raised

Eleven months into the pandemic, we are living through the most unequal recession in modern American history. For the poor and precarious, this last year was a nightmare that dwarfed the 2007-2008 recession. Between March and October, nearly 67 million people lost work. This month alone about 20 million of them are collecting unemployment. By the end of 2020, one in five adults with children reported that, at times, they didn’t have enough to eat, while one in five renters were behind on their payments and faced the threat of eviction during the winter months of a still rampant virus.

At the same time, the wealth of America’s 651 billionaires increased by more than $1 trillion to a total of about $4 trillion. At the start of 2020, Jeff Bezos was the only American with a net worth of more than $100 billion. By the end of the year, he was joined by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk — and just last week Elon Musk passed Bezos as the richest person in the world.

A look at the wealthiest of wealthy Americans reveals a cross-section of industry — from the leaders of tech companies like Amazon and Facebook to the top executives of financial institutions like Berkshire Hathaway and Quicken Loans to those heading retail giants like Walmart and Nike, all of which collectively employ millions of workers. At Amazon, where the median pay is about $35,000 a year, Bezos could have distributed the $71.4 billion he made in the last pandemic year to his own endangered workers and he would still have had well more than $100 billion left.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness put it this way:

“Never before has America seen such an accumulation of wealth in so few hands. As tens of millions of Americans suffer from the health and economic ravages of this pandemic, a few hundred billionaires add to their massive fortunes. Their profits are so immense that America’s billionaires could pay for a major Covid relief bill and still not lose a dime of their pre-virus riches.”

This last point is especially damning since the first and largest Covid-19 relief bill, the CARES Act, handed out billions of dollars worth of benefits to the upper-middle-class, the rich, and corporations. Most of us will only remember the $1,200 checks that went to some of those in need, but the bill also included provisions that favored the already well-off, including higher corporate interest deductions, flexible corporate loss rules, increased charitable tax deductions, and big tax breaks for the super-rich. Other parts of the CARES Act like the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as significant allocations to universities and hospitals, gave generously to large corporations and the wealthiest of institutions.

Direct payments and other measures in that bill did help many everyday people for a short period of time and yet Senate Republicans stonewalled long after those benefits had expired. When they finally relented in December, Mitch McConnell, knowing full well all that he had secured for the rich in the spring, craftily shot down proposed $2,000 checks for individuals as “socialism for the rich,” even though they would have disproportionately benefited low-and-middle-income Americans. Now, as the Biden transition team lays the groundwork for another major relief bill, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already threatened that he would “absolutely not” vote for such $2,000 checks.

Of course, the acceleration of inequality and tepid policy solutions to poverty are hardly unique to the United States. This year, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index recorded a 31% increase in wealth among the 500 richest people in the world, the largest single-year gain in the list’s history. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme projected that the long-term effects of Covid-19 could force 207 million more people across the globe into extreme poverty. That, in turn, would bring the official U.N. count of those making less than two dollars a day to more than a billion, or a little less than one-seventh of the world’s population — and, mind you, that’s at the onset of a decade that promises escalating economic dislocation, mass migration, and climate crisis.

A World of Superfluous Wealth and Deadening Poverty

This week, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office and inherit a crisis that demands bold action. He has already said that on day one he will commit his administration to confronting the pandemic, the recession, systemic racism, and climate change. Four months ago, during an event with the Poor People’s Campaign, he also told an audience of more than a million people that “together we can carry on Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which is based on a simple, moral truth: that we’re all created in the image of God and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” He concluded by promising that “ending poverty will not just be an aspiration, it will be a theory of change to build a new economy that includes everyone.”

For this to be possible, however, the Biden administration will need to reject the supremacy of austerity and the ideology of scarcity. It will instead have to invest in an economy that guarantees health care, housing, food, water, and decent work for all its citizens. This will, of course, require imagining the sort of restructuring of our society that would, no doubt, be the work of a generation or more. But it could at least begin with an honest accounting of the actual abundance so unequally hoarded in the bank accounts, stock, and real estate holdings of this country’s richest people and the coffers of the Pentagon and the industrial complex that engulfs it, followed naturally by a plan to share it all so much more fairly.

On the anniversary of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, had he not been assassinated, would have been 92 years old this January 15th), it is only fitting to share these still timely and prophetic words of his:

“God has left enough (and to spare) in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. And somehow, I believe that God made it all… I believe firmly that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. I don’t think it belongs to Mr. Rockefeller. I don’t think it belongs to Mr. Ford. I think the earth is the Lord’s, and since we didn’t make these things by ourselves, we must share them with each other. And I think this is the only way we are going to solve the basic problems and the restructuring of our society which I think is so desperately needed.”

Exchange Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Ford, and King’s words couldn’t be more timely, could they?

Honoring Dr. King

After all, every January, students, workers, and community members sign up for service projects to celebrate King’s birthday. In fact, MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, when people paint schools, clean up trash, serve lunch to the hungry, and so much more. Over the last few decades, the spirit of volunteerism has become inextricably linked in the American imagination to King’s life and this year will be no exception. Today, amid unprecedented social, political, economic, and health upheaval, and the need to mask and social distance, even President-elect Biden’s inaugural committee is organizing a day of service.

In October 1983, as Congress considered the creation of MLK Day, Meldrim Thompson, Jr., the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, privately pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to veto any such legislation, calling Dr. King a “man of immoral character” with “well established” communist connections. Reagan (in what today would be true Trumpian fashion) replied, “On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them, the perception is reality.”

Reagan’s noxious remarks remind us that Dr. King was once considered a profound threat to the established order. The reality of Dr. King’s radical life has over time been almost unrecognizably smoothed over into an image that, so many years later, even Reagan, even Trump, might applaud. By casting Dr. King as an apolitical champion of charity, however, Americans have whitewashed not just his legacy, but that of the Black freedom struggle he helped lead, which broke Jim Crow, thanks to the most militant kinds of organizing.

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Through a wicked transmutation of history, those with the most money and power in society are now allowed to use his name as a bulwark against the collective action of poor and dispossessed people, propping themselves up instead. Today, with carefully excerpted texts like “everyone can be great, because everyone can serve” as proof, King’s words are all too often manipulated to sanctify a truly superficial response to the burning crises of systemic racism, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and so much more. Yet even a cursory glance at the historical record should remind us all that King represented an incendiary reality in terms of the America of his time (and, sadly, of ours, too) and that there was nothing corporate-friendly about his image.

Fifty-three years ago, in his sermon “Where Do We Go from Here,” he spoke clearly to the question of corporate service, charity, and the kind of truth-telling action he had committed his life to:

“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are the words that must be said.”

On the anniversary of his birth, may others keep asking such questions and remind us, as the Biden era begins, that the Earth does not belong to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or the white supremacists who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. The nation must have the moral courage to carry on the work of Reverend King. After all, the best hope of successfully navigating the crises of 2021 and beyond must involve King’s dream of building a multi-racial fusion movement to reconstruct society from the bottom up.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

Via Tomdispatch.com ]]> The Great American Moonshot: Now we Need a Vaccine for Poverty, Inequality and Racism https://www.juancole.com/2020/12/american-moonshot-inequality.html Mon, 14 Dec 2020 05:01:14 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=194967 ( Tomdispatch.com ) – Martin Luther King, Jr., offered this all-too-relevant comment on his moment in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”:

“The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent.”

King concluded that American society was degrading human life by clinging to old thinking rather than turning to bold, visionary solutions — words that (sadly enough) ring even truer in our day than in his.

In late October as the coronavirus pandemic raged, the Economic Policy Institute released a study showing that it isn’t just morally right but an economic necessity to deal with poverty in this country and fast. “If America does not address what’s happening with visionary social and economic policy,” as that study put it, “the health and well-being of the nation are at stake. What we need is long-term economic policy that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, rejects decades of austerity, and builds strong social programs that lift society from below.”

Even as, almost two months later, we remain trapped in an unprecedented crisis of spreading illness, there is increasingly clear evidence that, were those in power to make other choices, we would no longer need to live burdened by the social ills of old. Oddly enough, because of the Covid-19 crisis, we’re being reminded (or at least should be reminded) that, in reality, solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our day are readily at hand if those issues were prioritized and the attention and resources of society directed toward them. In a moment overflowing with lessons, one of the least discussed is that scarcity is a lie, a political invention used to cover up vast reserves of capital and technology facilitating the enrichment of the few and justifying the pain and dispossession of so many others. Our present reality could perhaps best be described as mass abandonment amid abundance.

Indeed, the myth of scarcity, like other neoliberal fantasies, is regularly ignored when politically expedient and conjured up when the rich and powerful need help. The pandemic has been no exception. Over the last nine months, the wealth of American billionaires has actually increased by a third to nearly $4 trillion, even as tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment and more evictions loom than ever before in U.S. history. Now, politicians in Washington are haggling over a “compromise” relief bill that offers little in the way of actual relief, especially for those suffering the most.

At the same time, with the health of everyone, not just the poor and marginalized, at risk, the government has proven itself remarkably capable of mobilizing the necessary resources for decisive and historic action when it comes to producing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. That the same could be done when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and abolishing poverty should be obvious, if only the nation saw that, too, as a crisis worthy of attention.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

In 1918, with an influenza pandemic raging in the United States, cities closed down and doctors prescribed painkillers like aspirin as a national debate (remarkably similar to the present one) raged over the necessity of quarantine and masks. At that time, the country simply had to wait for those who were infected to die or develop immunity. Before it was over (in a far less populous land), at least 675,000 Americans perished, more than in every one of our wars since the Civil War combined.

A century later, when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded this March, the country ground to a similar terrifying halt, but under different conditions: for one thing, the shutdown was accompanied by the promise that the government would invest billions of dollars in a potentially successful vaccine produced far faster than any ever before. Nine months later, after the Trump administration had funneled those billions into research and had guaranteed the manufacture and purchase of viable vaccines (radically reducing the business risk to pharmaceutical companies in the process), it appears that we are indeed there. Last month, multiple companies released trial data for just such vaccines that seem to be nearly 95% effective; and Great Britain has, in fact, just rolled out the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with the U.S. not far behind. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use.

A long list of grave questions remains when it comes to the oversight of, and accountability of, those private companies that now hold the health of the world in their hands. Already, the British government has granted Pfizer, which stands to earn billions by beating the competition to market, legal indemnity from any complications that may arise from its vaccine, and the Trump administration has made similar agreements. Much also remains uncertain when it comes to how American-produced vaccines will be fairly distributed, here and across the world, and whether they will be safe, effective, and free. (I recently signed onto a public letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for a “people’s vaccine.”)

Still, it does seem that the historic speed with which this novel virus could eventually be curbed by just such a vaccine (or set of them) is likely to prove astonishing. Historically, on average, successful vaccines have taken 10 to 14 years to develop. Until now, the fastest effective one ever produced was the mumps vaccine and that took four years. Nearly as remarkable is how so many people have received the news of the coming of those coronavirus vaccines as if it were the norm. If anything, in a time of constant, rapid technological revolution, there’s a noticeable impatience, stoked by Donald Trump and others, that it’s taken this long.

The Covid-19 vaccine experience does show one thing, however — what can be done when the resources of this country are marshalled to immediately address a crisis-level issue. Imagine if the same approach were taken when it came to systemic racism, climate change, or the poverty that has only deepened in the midst of the pandemic crisis. Indeed, if the political will were there, Americans could clearly tackle massive problems like hunger and homelessness no less effectively than developing a vaccine, instead of spending millions of dollars on cruel attempts to drive the homeless away by redesigning park benches and other urban architecture to repel those with nowhere to stay. After all, in cities like San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people.

Although the politics of austerity generally reign supreme on both sides of the aisle in Congress (especially when it comes to antipoverty programs like welfare), it’s also true that public spending is regularly and abundantly martialed to solve issues that affect certain parts of society — namely, the private sector and the military. From subsidies to major companies like big agriculture to critical R&D expenditures for Silicon Valley to public university research that benefits private industry, funding from the state is often the invisible backbone of American business operations and advances. Likewise, spending on the military makes up more than half of the federal discretionary budget, funding everything from the 800 American military bases that circle the planet to expensive and risky new technologies and war machines.

Lessons from the Pandemic

Back in March, the writer Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic as “a portal.” She was perhaps suggesting that the widespread suffering caused by Covid-19 could open a doorway into a future in which we humans might begin to treat ourselves and the planet with greater devotion. In another sense, however, the pandemic has also been a portal into our past, a way of showing us the conditions that have laid the groundwork not just for the devastation that now consumes us but for possibly far worse to come.

No one could have expected this exact crisis at this exact moment in exactly this way. Yet, before Covid-19, society was already teetering under the weight of poverty and inequality, and a sober look at history offers clues as to why the United States now has the highest Covid-19 case tally and death toll in the world. Too many have died because our country’s preexisting conditions of systemic injustice have gone untreated for so long and those in power never seem to learn the applicable lesson of this moment: pandemics spread along the fissures of society, both exposing them more and deepening them further.

Before Covid-19, there were already 140 million people in this country who were poor or a $400 emergency — one job loss, accident, illness, or storm — away from poverty. Across America that meant close to 80 million people were uninsured or underinsured, 60 million people had zero (zero!) wealth other than the value of a family car, more than a million people were defaulting on federal student loans annually, and more than 62 million workers were making less than $15 an hour, with more than two million in Florida alone making only $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. And that’s just to begin down a nightmarish list.

For Pamela Sue Rush and about 1.5 million other people, it meant a lack of access to piped water and sewage systems. Before Pamela, who is Black, contracted Covid-19 and died in July, she lived in a mobile home in Lowndes County, Alabama, where human waste festered in her backyard because she didn’t have proper plumbing, and in a state that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid, and in a country that has no federal guarantee of either healthcare or clean water. Covid-19 may have been the immediate cause of her death, but the underlying one was racism and poverty.

During these pandemic months, a popular notion has been that the virus is a great equalizer because everyone is susceptible. Yet the human and economic toll has been anything but equal across society. It will take more time to find out just what the mortality rate among the poor has been, but it’s already clear that those of us with compromised immune systems, disproportionately poor and people of color, are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, and early reports suggest that poorer counties have higher death rates. An unsurprising but alarming new study found that more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases are associated with the lifting of eviction moratoriums, forcing people out of the safety of their homes; such numbers will only worsen this winter as evictions continue, if such moratoriums aren’t extended into the new year.

Beyond the toll of the virus itself, the economic fallout has been devastating for the poor. Between six and eight million people have fallen below the federal poverty line since March (although that measure is an old and broken standard). The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher. The last 38 weeks have seen unemployment claims greater than the worst week of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Some economists are now talking about a possible quick bounce back once the virus is controlled and yet the long-term damage is only beginning to reveal itself. After all, 10 years after the Great Recession, a time when little in the way of long-term relief was provided, the majority of workers had still not recovered from it. That this crisis is already significantly deeper and wider should give us pause as we consider what the next decade will look like if this country doesn’t alter its bleak course.

The fissures in our society were vast before Covid-19 hit and they’ve only broadened. A vaccine will address the most visible of them, but we as a nation will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis until we learn the most important lesson this moment can teach: that our yet-to-be-United States will only heal as a society when every person’s needs are met. In a pandemic, one person without food, water, healthcare, or housing puts everyone at risk. The same is, in fact, true in non-pandemic times, for a society riven by poverty and deprivation will always be unstable and vulnerable.

Martin Luther King once told a crowd in St. Louis that “we must learn to live as brothers or perish together as fools.” Today, the balance is tipping perilously toward the latter category, as Congress painfully debates a thoroughly anemic relief bill that promises little for most Americans and sets a dangerous precedent for the coming months. In a recent letter to Joe Manchin, the self-proclaimed “centrist” senator from West Virginia, Reverend William Barber II (my co-chair on the Poor People’s Campaign) wrote:

“I am ashamed of this nation. I know you want to do the right thing, and Republicans are tying your hands, but please don’t call this a ‘centrist plan.’ It’s more cynical than centrist. It’s damn near criminal that millions are hurting, billionaires are getting richer, sick people are dying, poverty is expanding, and the Senate can’t do the right thing.”

Indeed, the most important things to note in the coming stimulus bill are these: it protects corporations (that have not protected their workers) from any accountability or legal responsibility; it continues to bail out the rich, not the rest of us, with no provisions for stimulus checks and insufficient funding to states and municipalities; it lowers unemployment benefits to $300 per week (based on wages of $7.50 an hour) rather than $600 per week (based on $15 an hour); it is not only significantly less than the nation needs, but less than what was on offer months ago. The cynicism of this relief bill lies in the way it diminishes life for political gain and corporate profit and in the false contention that this is the most that’s available to us, the best the nation can do.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

Call it a cruel stroke of history that Congress should be deliberating on the welfare of millions only a few weeks before Christmas, especially since so many of the key players call themselves “Christians.” This holiday season and the winter beyond it promise to be a long, dark portal to who knows where, as temperatures drop, Covid-19 cases continue to rise, and poverty and homelessness are transformed into so many more death certificates. The timing of Congress’s new “relief” bill is particularly wicked if, as a Christian, you were to remember the details of Jesus’s birth in that manger in Bethlehem.

After all, he was born a homeless refugee to an unmarried teenage mother and had to flee to Egypt with his family as a baby because the ruling authorities already deemed that this poor Palestinian Jewish boy would grow up to be a threat to the established order of injustice. But the powers and principalities of his day were never the only ones who mattered. There were always those who recognized in his birth that, to right the wrongs of society, to protect the lives of countless innocent victims, another way was possible, if society started with the poor and marginalized, not with those already full to the brim.

It’s too bad that some of the congressional representatives who call themselves Christian are so unwilling to take a moment to consider the homeless revolutionary who was long ago sent to lead a moral movement from below. They should remember that the story of Christmas celebrates the birth of a poor, brown-skinned leader who, in the Gospel of Luke, is born to “scatter those who are proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, but lift up the humble. He fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty.”

In a time when more children are on the brink of being born into poverty, homelessness, and state-sanctioned violence, rather than, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “compress our abundance into the overfed mouths” of the wealthy and corporations, Americans would do well to recognize that scarcity could vanish and that it’s time to address systemic inequality.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

via Tomdispatch.com

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The Other America: The New Politics of the Poor in Joe Biden’s (and Mitch McConnell’s) USA https://www.juancole.com/2020/11/america-politics-mcconnells.html Wed, 18 Nov 2020 05:01:39 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=194481 ( Tomdispatch.com) – In the two weeks since Election 2020, the country has oscillated between joy and anger, hope and dread in an era of polarization sharpened by the forces of racism, nativism, and hate. Still, truth be told, though the divisive tone of this moment may only be sharpening, division in the United States of America is not a new phenomenon.

Over the past days, I’ve found myself returning to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1967, just a year before his own assassination, gave a speech prophetically entitled “The Other America” in which he vividly described a reality that feels all too of this moment rather than that one:

“There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful… and overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits…

“But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

In Dr. King’s day, that other America was, for a time, laid bare to the nation through mass social unrest and political change, through the bold actions of the freedom fighters who won the Voting Rights Act and then just kept on fighting, as well as governmental programs like the “War on Poverty.” And yet, despite the significant gains then, for many decades since, inequality in this country has been on the rise to previously unimaginable levels, while poverty remained locked in and largely ignored.

Today, in the early winter of an uncurbed pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it, there are 140 million poor or low-income Americans, disproportionately people of color, but reaching into every community in this country: 24 million Blacks, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asians, two million Native peoples, and 66 million whites. More than a third of the potential electorate, in other words, has been relegated to poverty and precariousness and yet how little of the political discourse in recent elections was directed at those who were poor or one storm, fire, job loss, eviction, or healthcare crisis away from poverty and economic chaos. In the distorted mirror of public policy, those 140 million people have remained essentially invisible. As in the 1960s and other times in our history, however, the poor are no longer waiting for recognition from Washington. Instead, every indication is that they’re beginning to organize themselves, taking decisive action to alter the scales of political power.

For years, I’ve traveled this country, working to build a movement to end poverty. In a nation that has so often boasted about being the wealthiest and freest in history, I’ve regularly witnessed painful divisions caused by hunger, homelessness, sickness, degradation, and so much more. In Lowndes County, Alabama, for instance, I organized with people who lived day in, day out with raw sewage in their yards and dangerous mold in their homes. On Apache land in Oak Flats, Arizona, I stood with native leaders struggling to cope with generations of loss and plunder, most recently at the hands of a multinational copper mining company. In Gray’s Harbor, Washington, I visited millennials living in homeless encampments under constant siege by militia groups and the police. And the list, sadly, only goes on.

As the future administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris heads for the White House (no matter the recalcitrant loser still ensconced there), the rest of us must equip ourselves with both courage and caution, living as we do in a divided nation, in — to be exact — two very different Americas. Keep in mind that these are not the insulated, readymade Americas of MSNBC and Fox News, of Republicans and Democrats, of conservatives and liberals. All of us live in a land where there are two Americas, one of unimaginable wealth, the other of miserable poverty; an America of the promised good life and one of almost guaranteed premature death.

Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Voters

One enduring narrative from the 2016 election is that poor and low-income voters won Donald Trump the White House, even if the numbers don’t bear it out. Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters who made less than $30,000 a year and by 9 points among voters who made less than $49,999; the median household income of Trump voters then was $72,000.

Four years later, initial estimates suggest that this trend has only intensified: Joe Biden attracted more poor and low-income voters than President Trump both in the aggregate and in key states like Michigan. Trump, on the other hand, gained among voters with annual family incomes of more than $100,000. Last week, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab noted that this “appears to be the biggest demographic shift I’m seeing. And you can tie that to [Trump’s] tax cuts [for the wealthy] and lower regulations.”

In 2016, there were 64 million eligible poor and low-income voters, 32 million of whom did not vote. In 2020, it’s becoming clear that poor and low-income voters helped decide the election’s outcome by opting for a candidate who signaled support for key antipoverty issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding health care, and protecting the environment. In down-ballot races, every congressional member who endorsed Medicare for All won reelection, even in swing states. Imagine then how many dispossessed and disenfranchised voters might have turned out if more candidates had actually been speaking to the most pressing issues of their lives?

Seventy-two percent of Americans said that they would prefer a government-run healthcare plan and more than 70% supported raising the minimum wage, including 62% of Republicans. Even in districts that went for Trump, voters passed ballot measures that, only a few years ago, would have been unheard of. In Mississippi, people voted to decriminalize medical marijuana, while in Florida a referendum for a $15 minimum wage got more votes than either of the two presidential candidates.

If nothing else, Election 2020 revealed a deeply divided nation — two Americas, not one — though that dividing line marked anything but an even or obvious split. A startling number of Americans are trapped in wretched conditions and hungry for a clean break with the status quo. On the other hand, the rampant voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering of the last decade of American politics suggests that extremists from the wealthier America will go to remarkable lengths to undercut the power of those at the bottom of this society. They have proven ready to use every tool and scare tactic of racist division and subterfuge imaginable to stop poor Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and white potential voters from building new and transformative alliances, including a new electorate.

It’s time to move beyond the defeatist myth of the Solid South or even the dulling comfort of a Midwestern “blue wall.” Across the South and the Midwest, there are voter-suppression states still to win, not for a party, but for a fusion movement of the many. The same could be true for the coasts and the Southwest, where there remains a sleeping giant of poor and low-income people yet to be pulled into political action. If this country is ever going to be built back better, to borrow Joe Biden’s campaign pledge, it’s time to turn to its abandoned corners; to, that is, the other America of Martin Luther King that still haunts us, whether we know it or not.

Fusion Politics in the Other America

When Dr. King gave his “Other America” speech, he was preparing for what would become the last political project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. At a time when the nation appeared to be fraying at the seams, he grasped that a giant social leap forward was still possible. In fact, he envisioned a protracted struggle that might catapult this country into a new era of human rights and revolution not through sanguine calls for unity, but via a rousing fusion of poor and dispossessed people from all walks of life. And that, as he imagined it, would also involve a recognition that systemic racism and other forms of hate and prejudice were crucial to the maintenence of the two Americas and had to be challenged head-on.

The idea of such fusion politics echoed earlier chapters of political reckoning and transformation in this country. From the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction into the 1890s, newly emancipated Blacks built unprecedented, if fragile, alliances with poor whites to seize governing power. Across a new South, fusion parties expanded voting rights, access to public education, labor protections, fair taxation, and more. In North Carolina in 1868, for instance, legislators went so far as to rewrite the state constitution to codify for the first time the right of all citizens to “life, liberty, and the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”

For nearly 30 years, I’ve been part of a modern version of fusion organizing, even as I studied earlier examples of it — and this country’s history is rich with them. Indeed, the modern Poor People’s Campaign that I co-chair is itself inspired by such past fusion movements, including the version of politics I was first introduced to by multiracial welfare rights and homeless organizing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Organizations like the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless first grew in response to the neoliberal politics of President Ronald Reagan and his attacks on the poor, especially the Black poor, or, as he put it, “welfare queens.” In response to such myths and deep, divisive cuts, out of shelters and from the streets, poor people began to organize projects of mutual aid and solidarity, including “unions” of the homeless.

By the 1980s, the National Union of the Homeless had been created and had upwards of 30,000 members in 25 cities. Meanwhile, organizers across the country soon escalated their efforts with waves of coordinated and nonviolent takeovers of vacant federally owned buildings at a time when the government had abdicated its responsibility to protect and provide for its poorest citizens. Those poor and homeless leaders also helped the Homeless Union secure guarantees from the federal government both for more subsidized housing and for protections of the right of the homeless to vote.

Today, in the middle of an economic crisis that could, in the end, rival the Great Depression, I’m reminded not just of those moments that first involved me but of the fusion movements of the early 1930s. After all, in those years, shanty towns called “Hoovervilles” — given that Herbert Hoover was still president — cropped up in cities across the country.

Not unlike the tent cities of the Homeless Union and the Welfare Rights Movement in the 1980s and the ones appearing today, those Hoovervilles were where masses of the unemployed and homeless gathered to survive the worst of that depression and strategize on how to resist its misery. Multiracial Unemployed Councils organized and fought for relief for workers without jobs then, preventing thousands of evictions and utility shutoffs.

Meanwhile, in the abandoned fields of the Southern Delta from Arkansas to Mississippi, groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union pioneered the dangerous work of organizing Black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers. When the New Deal coalition bet its future on compromise with white Southern extremists, members of that union were among the last guardians of the rights of poor agrarian workers. Their lonely clarity on the significance of fusion politics in the South stood in stark contrast to the rise of an unmitigated politics of white reaction there.

Today, as top Democrats like Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer claim the legacy of Great Depression-era President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, remember the fusion organizing that helped bring him to power and pushed him to enact change. I’m thinking in particular of the more than 40,000 unemployed veterans of World War I who arrived in Washington D.C. in 1932 to demand the early payment of promised bonuses, previously only considered redeemable after 1945. That Bonus Army, as the veterans called it, collected many of the fraying threads of the American tapestry, making camp, sometimes with wives and children, on seized public land just across the Potomac River from the capital’s federal office buildings, while holding regular nonviolent marches and rallies.

Eventually, President Herbert Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to tear down the camp in a violent fashion. The mistreatment of those poor and war-weary veterans in the process proved to be a lightning rod for the public and so Hoover lost to FDR in the presidential election later that year, setting the stage for a decade defined by militant organizing and major shifts in national policy.

The Mandate of the Poor Today

There are already those in the media and politics who are counseling restraint and a return to the pre-Trump days, as if he were the cause, not the consequence, of a nation desperately divided. This would be nothing less than a disaster, given that the fissures in our democracy so desperately need mending not with nice words but with a new governing contract with the American people.

The battleground states that won Joe Biden the presidency have also been battlegrounds in the most recent war against the poor. In Michigan, hit first and worst by deindustrialization, millions have struggled with a failing water system and a jobs crisis. In Wisconsin, where unions have been under attack for years and austerity has become the norm, both budgets and social welfare policies have been slashed by legislatures. In Pennsylvania, rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate and, even before the pandemic hit, the poorest large city in the country, Philadelphia, had already become a checkerboard of disinvestment and gentrification. In Georgia, 1.3 million renters — 45% of the households in that state — were at risk of eviction this year. And in Arizona, the climate crisis and Covid-19 have ravaged entire communities, including the members of Indigenous nations who recently turned out to vote in record numbers.

The people of these states and 15 more helped elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and count on one thing: with their votes, they were calling for more than just an end to Trumpism. They were demanding that a new era of change begin for the poor and marginalized. The first priority in such an era should, of course, be to pass a comprehensive relief bill to control the pandemic and buoy the millions of Americans now facing a cold, dark winter of deprivation. The House and the Senate have a moral responsibility to get this done as soon as the new administration takes office, if not before (though tell that to Mitch McConnell). The first 100 days of the Biden administration should then be focused, at least in part, on launching a historic investment in securing permanent protections for the poor, including expanded voting rights, universal healthcare, affordable housing, a living wage, and a guaranteed adequate annual income, not to speak of divestment from the war economy and a swift transition to a green economy.

That should be the mandate of our next government. And that’s why we, the overflowing millions, must harness the fusion politics that was so crucial to the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and organize in the best tradition of our predecessors. Real social progress rarely comes slowly and steadily, but in leaps and bounds. The predictable stalemate of the next administration and its Republican opposition can’t be broken by grand speeches in the House or Senate. It can only be broken by a vast social movement capable of awakening the moral imagination of the nation.

It’s time to get to work.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Fixing Our Eyes on American Poverty: How Christian Nationalism Punishes the Poor https://www.juancole.com/2020/09/american-christian-nationalism.html Mon, 28 Sep 2020 04:02:08 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=193508 ( Tomdispatch.com) – On August 26th, during the Republican National Convention, Vice President Mike Pence closed out his acceptance speech with a biblical sleight of hand. Speaking before a crowd at the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, he exclaimed, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.” In doing so, he essentially rewrote a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.”

There’s nothing new, of course, about an American politician melding religion and politics on the campaign trail. Still, Pence’s decision to replace Jesus with the Stars and Stripes raised eyebrows across a range of religious and political persuasions. Indeed, the melding of Old Glory and Christ provided the latest evidence of the rising influence of Christian nationalism in the age of Trump.

It’s no longer hard to find evidence of just how deeply Christian nationalism influences our politics and policymaking. During the pandemic, the Bible has repeatedly been used (and distorted) to justify Covid-19 denialism and government inaction, not to speak of outright repression. In late March, as cities were locking down and public health officials were recommending strict quarantine measures, one of Donald Trump’s first acts was to gather his followers at the White House for what was billed as a “National Day of Prayer” to give Americans the strength to press on through death and difficulty.

Later in the spring, protests against pandemic shutdowns, funded with dark money from the likes of the Koch Brothers, demanded that states reopen for business and social distancing guidelines be loosened. (Forget about masking of any sort.) At them, printed protest signs said things like: “Even Pharaoh Freed Slaves in a Plague” and “Texas will not take the Mark of the Beast.” And even as faith communities struggled admirably to adjust to zoom worship services, as well as remote pastoral care and memorials, President Trump continued to fan the flames of religious division, declaring in-person worship “essential,” no matter that legal experts questioned his authority to do so.

And speaking of his version of Christian nationalism, no one should forget the June spectacle in Lafayette Square near the White House, when Trump had racial-justice protestors tear-gassed so he could stroll to nearby St. John’s Church and pose proudly on its steps displaying a borrowed bible. Though he flashed it to the photographers, who can doubt how little time he’s spent within its pages. (Selling those same pages is another matter entirely. After all, a Bible he signed in the wake of that Lafayette Square event is now on sale for nearly $40,000.)

The Battle for the Bible in American History

To understand how power is wielded in America by wealthy politicians and their coteries of extremists in 2020, you have to consider the role of religion in our national life. An epic battle for the Bible is now underway in a country that has been largely ceded to white evangelical Christian nationalists. Through a well-funded network of churches and nonprofits, universities, and think tanks, and with direct lines to the nation’s highest political officials, they’ve had carte-blanche to set the terms of what passes for religious debate in this country and dictate what morality even means in our society.

Under Trump, such religious nationalism has reached a fever pitch as a reactionary movement that includes technocratic billionaires, televangelists, and armed militias has taken root with a simple enough message: God loves white Christian America, favors small government and big business, and rewards individualism and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the poor, people of color, and immigrants are blamed for society’s problems even as the rich get richer in what’s still the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

The dangers posed by today’s Christian nationalists are all too real, but the battle for the Bible itself is not new in America. In the 1700s and 1800s, slaveholders quoted the book of Philemon and lines from St. Paul’s epistles to claim that slavery was ordained by God. They also ripped the pages of Exodus from bibles they gave to the enslaved. During the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, churches and politicians alike preached a “prosperity gospel” that extolled the virtues of industrial capitalism.

Decades later, segregationists continued to use stray biblical verses to rubberstamp Jim Crow practices, while in the late 1970s the Moral Majority helped to mainstream a new generation of Christian extremists into national politics. In my own youth, I remember politicians quoting Thessalonians in the lead up to the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as proof that God believes in work-requirements for public assistance programs.

Students of religion and history know that, although such theological battles have often tipped disastrously toward the forces of violence, deprivation, and hate, Christian religious thinking has also been a key ingredient in positive social change in this country. Escaped slave Harriet “Moses” Tubman understood the Underground Railroad as a Christian project of liberation, while escaped slave Frederick Douglass fought for abolition through churches across the north in the pre-Civil War years. A century later, near the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained how, to achieve his universal dream of justice, a beloved community of God would be built through a “freedom church of the poor.”

After all, in every chapter of American history, abolitionists, workers, labor organizers, civil rights leaders, and other representatives of the oppressed have struggled for a better nation not just in streets and workplaces, but in the pulpit, too. In the wreckage of the present Trumpian moment, with a fascistic, white nationalism increasingly ascendant, people of conscience would do well to follow suit.

The “Psychological Bird” of Bad Religion

In my book Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, I focus on a reality that has long preoccupied me: how, in this country, the Bible has so often been manipulated to obscure its potentially emancipatory power; in particular, the way in which what theologian Jim Wallis has called the most famous biblical passage on the poor (from the Gospel of Matthew) — “the poor will be always with us” — has been misused.

Since I was a young girl, scarcely a week has passed in which I haven’t heard someone quoting Matthew as an explanation for why poverty is eternal and its mitigation reserved at best for charity or philanthropy (but certainly not for government). The logic of such thinking runs through so many of our religious institutions including what’s now known as “evangelical Christianity,” but also our legislatures, courts, military, schools, and more. It hasn’t just shaped the minds of young Christians but has helped to spiritualize (and cement in place) poverty, while implicitly or even explicitly justifying ever greater inequality in this society.

Today, the idea that poverty is the result of bad behavior, laziness, or sin rather than decisions made by those with power is distinctly ascendant in Donald Trump’s and Mitch McConnell’s Washington. Biblical passages like that one in Matthew have become another ideological tool brandished by reactionaries and the wealthy to deflect attention from this country’s systemic failures.

Consider, for example, the historic development of what’s often known as the “Bible Belt” (or alternatively the “Poverty Belt”). It sweeps across the South, from North Carolina to Mississippi, Tennessee to Alabama, home to poor people of every race. It represents the deepest, most contiguous area of poverty in the United States made possible in part by heretical theology, biblical misinterpretation, and Christian nationalism.

The convergence of poverty and religion in the Bible Belt has a long history, stretching back to the earliest settler-colonists in the slave era. It echoed through the system of Jim Crow that had the region in its grip until the Civil Rights years and the modern political concept of “the solid South” (once Democratic, now Republican). Within its bounds lies a brutal legacy of divide and conquer that, to this day, politicizes the Bible by claiming that poverty results from sins against God and teaches poor white people in particular that, although they may themselves have little or nothing, they are at least “better” than people of color.

At the end of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, Martin Luther King explained the age-old politics of division in the region this way:

“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow… And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man… And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.”

That “psychological bird” was seasoned and cooked in a volatile mix of racist pseudo-science, economic orthodoxy, and bad religion. In fact, it retained its enormous power in large part by using the Bible and a version of Christianity to validate plunder and human suffering on a staggering scale. De jure Jim Crow may no longer exist, but its history haunts America to this day, and the Bible continues to be weaponized to validate anti-poor, white racist political power.

As jobs and opportunity continue to vanish in twenty-first-century America and churches stand among the last truly functional institutions in many communities, the Bible, however interpreted, still influences daily life for millions. How it’s understood and preached affects the political and moral direction of the country. Consider that those Bible Belt states — where Christian nationalism (which regularly displays its own upside-down version of the Bible) now reigns supreme — account for more than 193 electoral college votes and so will play a key role in determining the fate of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in November.

I had my own experience with that version of biblical and theological interpretation and its growing role in our national politics in June 2019 during a hearing of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives. Its subject was poverty in America and the economic realities of struggling families. A racially and geographically diverse group of leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign (of which I’m the co-chair) were invited to testify on those realities. Alongside us that day were two Black pastors invited by Republican congressmen to stand as examples of how faith and hard work is the only recipe for a good and stable life for the impoverished.

We had come to present what we’ve called the Poor People’s Moral Budget, a study showing that the United States does have the money to end poverty, hunger, homelessness, and more, just not the political will to do so. In response, members of the committee turned to the same tired stereotypes about why so many of us in such a wealthy country are poor. Some cited the supposed failure of the 1960s War on Poverty as evidence that programs of social uplift just don’t work, while ignoring the dramatic way politicians had undercut those initiatives in the years that followed. Like those pastors, others replied with tales of their own success rising out of economic hardship via bootstrap individualism and they plugged Christian charity as the way to alleviate poverty. I listened to them all as they essentially promoted a heretical theology that claimed people suffer from poverty largely because they’re estranged from God and lack a deep enough faith in Jesus.

That day, the walls of that House committee room rang with empty words twisting what the Bible actually says about the poor. One Republican representative typically remarked that, although he was familiar with the Bible, he had never found anyplace in it “where Jesus tells Caesar to care for the poor.” Another all-too-typically suggested that Christian charity, not government-sponsored programs, is the key to alleviating poverty.

Someone less familiar with the arguments of such politicians might have been surprised to hear so many of them seeking theological cover. As a biblical scholar and a student of the history of social movements, I know well how religious texts actually instruct us to care for the poor and dispossessed. As a long-time organizer, I’ve learned that those in power now regularly, even desperately, seek to abuse and distort the liberating potential of our religious traditions.

Indeed, in response to that representative, Reverand William Barber, my Poor People’s Campaign co-chair, and I pointed out how interesting it was that he identified himself with Caesar (not necessarily the most flattering comparison imaginable, especially as biblical Christianity polemicizes against Caesar and the Roman empire). Then I detailed for him many of the passages and commandments in the Bible that urge us to organize society around the needs of the poor, forgive debts, pay workers a living wage, rather than favoring either the rich or “Caesar.” That, of course, is indeed the formula of the Trump era (where, in the last six pandemic months, the 643 wealthiest Americans raked in an extra $845 billion, raising their combined wealth by 29%). I also pointed out that the most effective poverty-reduction programs like Head Start are federally funded, neither philanthropic nor a matter of Christian charity.

Good News from the Poor

In the Poor People’s Campaign, we often start our organizing meetings by showing a series of color-coded maps of the country. The first has the states that have passed voter suppression laws since 2013; the next, those with the highest poverty rates; then, those that have not expanded Medicaid but have passed anti-LGBTQ laws. And so it goes. Our final map displays the states densest with self-identified evangelical Protestants.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that those maps overlap almost perfectly, chiefly in the Bible Belt, but also in the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic states, and even in parts of the Northeast and West. The point is to show how inextricably connected the battle for voting rights, healthcare, and other critical resources is to the battle for the Bible. The stakes are measured in the health of the entire nation, because the same politicians who manipulate the Bible and the right to vote to win elections then pass immoral budgets and policies.

When Vice President Pence altered that line from the Book of Hebrews, he was charging headfirst onto that very blood-soaked battlefield with a desecrated Bible in hand. The question is: why should he and other Christian nationalists have the power to define Christianity? If they are so intent on “fixing their eyes on Old Glory,” shouldn’t they also fix their eyes on what Jesus actually said?

The Greek word evangelia, out of which “evangelical” comes, means bringing good news to those made poor by systems of exploitation. The Bible’s good news, also defined as gospel, talks again and again about captives being freed, slaves released, and all who are oppressed being taken care of. It’s said that were you to cut out every one of its pages that mentions poverty, the Bible would fall apart. And when you actually read the words on those pages, you see that the gospel doesn’t talk about the inevitability of poverty or the need for charity, but the responsibilities of the ruling authorities to all people and the possibility of abundance for all.

At a time when 43.5% of Americans are poor or one fire, storm, health-care crisis, pandemic, eviction, or job loss from poverty, it couldn’t be more important for Americans to begin to reckon with this reality and our moral obligation to end it. Instead, politicians pass voter suppression laws, kick kids off food programs, and allow the poisoning of our water, air, and land, while Christian nationalist religious leaders bless such policies and cherry-pick biblical verses to justify them as all-American. Consider such a reality not simply a matter of a religious but a political, economic, and moral crisis that, in the midst of a pandemic, is pushing this country ever closer to the brink of spiritual death.

If America is still worth saving, this is no longer a battle anyone should sit out.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

Via Tomdispatch.com

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A Jubilee Moment? Time to Stop Bankrolling War and the Wealthy https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/jubilee-bankrolling-wealthy.html Wed, 22 Jul 2020 04:01:48 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192165 ( Tomdispatch.com) – The word jubilee comes from the Hebrew “yovel,” meaning a “trumpet blast of liberty.” It was said that, on the day of liberation, the sound of a ram’s horn would ring through the land. These days, I hear the sound of that horn while walking with my kids through the streets of New York City, while protests continue here, even amid a pandemic, as they have since soon after May 25th when a police officer put his knee to George Floyd’s neck and robbed him of his life. I hear it when I speak with homeless leaders defending their encampments amid the nightmare of Covid-19. I hear it when I meet people who are tired, angry, and yet, miraculously enough, finding their political voices for the first time. I hear it when I read escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass’s speech on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.

I also feel Frederick Douglass’s sharp reminder, from that same speech, of the need for eternal vigilance when I learn of the death of leaders in the movement to transform this world of ours — like Pamela Rush, who lived in the Mississippi Delta with raw sewage in her yard and died from Covid-19 complications, the closest hospital being nearly an hour from her home. (She leaves behind a daughter who needs a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine to breathe and a son.) These are, after all, times of staggering danger, but also enormous possibility, moments that should be met with unbridled imagination, absolute seriousness, and the music of those jubilee horns. Above all, in a world distinctly stacked against us, we must believe that we can succeed.

¡Sí, se puede! Yes, we can!

How to Heal America

On June 20th, I distinctly heard that sound of the jubilee horn, when nearly three million people tuned in for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington to express the untold stories, demands, and potential solutions of a growing social movement to a host of injustices. Alongside social media, radio, and TV (in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language), toll-free numbers broadcast the program to homeless encampments and other places abandoned by much of this society long before Covid-19 hit, and 300,000 listeners sent the agenda of the Poor People’s Campaign to their governors and Congress.

Meanwhile, that very day in Tulsa, Oklahoma, President Trump was speaking at a rally in which he trafficked, as he always does, in explicit racism and hate even as he denied the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has induced. Only about 6,000 people sat largely maskless and shoulder to shoulder in that auditorium, which could have held 19,000. They nonetheless seem to have helped spark a surge in coronavirus cases in that city about two weeks later.

Also on June 20th, the Poor People’s Campaign (of which I am a co-chair) launched a “Moral Policy Agenda to Heal America: The Poor People’s Jubilee Platform.” It detailed not just a list of demands, but a blueprint for the moral reconstruction of a society that now looks to be failing fast. It’s meant to remind us all that ending poverty and systemic racism, working to mitigate climate change, and halting this country’s ever-growing militarism, at home and abroad, is not only possible, but that we essentially know what it will take to get us there. Among the policies needed are universal single payer healthcare, quality and free education through college, debt relief, a guaranteed income, the right to a living-wage job, true environmental protections, indigenous and immigrant rights, and an adequate standard of living for all, including the poor, in a country with a Congress and president focused mainly on the rich and on funding the Pentagon at ever more staggering levels.

This Jubilee Platform, as we call it, affirms many of the truths discovered by freedom-fighters across the ages — including the well-kept secret in America that there is actually enough for everyone and that all of us are deserving of our nation’s abundance; that when we lift from the bottom up, everyone rises; that our society desperately needs a moral revolution of values for which we’ll have to depend on the leadership of those most impacted by injustice; and that, as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once suggested, we truly “can force the power structure to say yes when they may be desirous of saying no.”

There Need Be No Poor Among Us

Many people have said that this platform is far too ambitious, that such demands are both politically inconceivable and ridiculously too expensive. Don’t believe them. Instead, believe me that the benefits of investing in life, not death, far outweigh the costs, whatever they may be.

After all, child poverty already costs our country, at a minimum, an estimated $700 million annually; voter suppression in just one state, Florida, added up to at least $385 million annually in administrative and court costs; failing to adequately address climate change and create a genuine green economy could, in the end, cost an estimated 15.7% of our gross domestic product a year, wiping out the equivalent of $3.3 trillion from our economy — and, if the effects of climate change arrive more quickly than expected, it could be worse. Meanwhile, endless wars, not to speak of the 800 U.S. military bases scattered across the planet, cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars a year without making our country or the world any safer.

Instead of bankrolling war and the military-industrial complex, Americans could swiftly cut $350 billion from the annual Pentagon budget, use it to enhance genuine security at home (particularly during this pandemic), and still have a larger military budget than China, Russia, and Iran combined. The government could raise the federal minimum wage to a living one and experience a ripple effect as that money circulated back through the economy, both faster and further than the billions Congress has given through tax cuts to the already immensely wealthy and corporations. And the U.S. could gain $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on that 1% of Americans, the most powerful corporations, and Wall Street.

Imagine a society that truly began to invest in public infrastructure, creating ever more and better jobs not related to the military-industrial complex, while accelerating a clean energy transition (and the jobs that went with it). Imagine what that would do for our country and the planet. In the process, the United States could provide health care, housing, and education for everyone. In the richest country in the world, there are, in reality, abundant resources, even if for far too long our public policies have funneled far too much to far too few.

Jubilee and Justice

The inclusion of jubilee in that policy platform is not meant as just another rhetorical flourish. It is meant as a rallying cry, a word that captures in the best possible way a future economic and social vision of justice, a political roadmap for our moment, and an expression of the moral heart of movements of the oppressed in this country. Indeed, jubilee has often been invoked as a shorthand for the promise of freedom in this country, from the pre-Civil War abolition movement to today.

On December 28, 1862, on the eve of the moment when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “The Day of Jubilee Comes” that he began this way: “This is scarcely a day for prose. It is a day for poetry and song, a new song.” He then warned, however, that it was unwise “for the friends of freedom to fold their hands and consider their work at an end. The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Two and a half years of death and struggle later, on June 19, 1865, the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, and the enslaved people of that city — the last to do so — learned that they had been emancipated. The memory of that day has since held special meaning for many Black communities, as well as others seeking freedoms of various sorts. Some know it as Juneteenth. Others call it Jubilee Day.

In my 25 years of grassroots anti-poverty organizing, from homeless encampments to welfare offices, we’ve declared jubilee countless times, whether from crushing debt and family separation or inadequate housing and healthcare systems. An understanding of what jubilee means, and the hope it represents, has always been grounded in a study of history and theology.

I’m a minister and teach in a theological seminary, so I couldn’t be more aware that “jubilee” appears throughout the Bible, including in the law codes of Deuteronomy, the most cited Old Testament book. Those codes established a covenant with God in which there was to be an unbroken cycle of jubilee years when debts were cancelled, slaves manumitted, wages finally paid, the poor and hungry given provisions, and farm land allowed to lie fallow (an early form of ecological conservation). Together, those codes served as sacred law and the people were told that, if they were followed, “there need be no poor people among you.”

None of those laws were meant to be about charity, but about the responsibilities of a land and a people. They amounted, in fact, to a call for a radical reconstruction of society. It was no accident, in fact, that the first mention of jubilee came two books earlier in Leviticus in a similar set of liberatory codes handed down by God after the Jewish people had been freed from Egypt. They were to provide a clean break with the hellish world those Jews had just escaped and the first building-blocks of a new, more just one.

What does all this have to do with the United States today? For one thing, even before Covid-19 hit, there were 140 million poor and low-income people in the richest country in the world, the richest country, in fact, in history and one in which inequality has risen to levels not seen in a century. Meanwhile, wages for most workers have been stagnating for decades and, in the Covid-19 moment, historic rates of unemployment hit, along with the threat of a massive wave of evictions amid a widening economic crisis. In addition, over the past few decades, poverty has become an increasingly endemic and permanent fixture of American life.

In that context, it should be obvious that the United States is in dire need of a new vision.

The Day of Jubilee Is Coming

The problems of 2020 clearly demand a jubilee vision for the nation, something that, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, feels more possible now than it has for generations. Reverend William J. Barber II, my Poor People’s Campaign co-chair, often says that we are on the cusp of a Third Reconstruction (after the post-Civil War one and the Civil Rights Movement). In each of those previous periods, monumental social, political, and economic changes were birthed by movements in the midst of insufferable conditions and in the face of regressive governments.

The last few months offer evidence that growing segments of society — if not the Trump administration and various Republican state governments — are willing to imagine bold solutions to issues like poverty and systemic racism and are prepared to organize what could be a new reconstruction to make them a reality. Six months into the pandemic, tens of thousands of Americans are continuing to go on rent strikes and engage in the struggles of low-wage workers and the unemployed demanding both immediate relief and permanent rights to housing and decent work at a living wage.

Those in a revitalizing labor movement are taking increasingly militant action, including the national Strike for Black Lives on July 20th by low-wage workers. Meanwhile, this summer’s racial justice uprisings have awakened one of the largest protest movements in American history, while transforming the conversation on previously untouchable institutions like the police and the military. An unprecedented debate has now opened up about how society spends its resources and why politicians have invested so much money in social control and violence, while gravely underfunding the cornerstones of a healthy society: education and environmental protection, healthcare, housing, infrastructure, and food and water supplies, among other things.

The nation’s misplaced priorities are not only damaging the social fabric, but moving us toward a fundamentally unstable economy in which only the truly wealthy will truly prosper. Beneath the often-detached waves of the stock market is a roiling ocean of troubles: more than 80 million people uninsured or underinsured, for instance, within the most expensive healthcare system among developed countries. In 2019, 137 million Americans faced financial hardship thanks to high medical costs and rising debt. Meanwhile, the Pentagon awarded Boeing roughly the same amount in annual military contracts as it would cost to expand Medicaid in the 14 states that have yet to do so.

In America, scarcity is a myth and nothing more. The money is there to be found and, during a pandemic, it needs to be. Last summer, the Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies released a “moral budget” outlining where this country’s abundant resources have been so disastrously funneled and how they could be redirected toward the rest of us.

Where would such moneys go? Toward making a reality of what the Constitution has always promised: establishing real justice (the right to democracy and equal protection under the law), promoting the general welfare (the right to an adequate standard of living), ensuring domestic tranquility (the right to work with dignity), securing the blessings of liberty (the right to health and a healthy environment), and providing for the common defense (reprioritizing our resources to defend life over profit and our real security over that of the national security state).

To do this, the nation would need to enshrine education, healthcare, housing, and welfare as universal rights; raise wages, while creating new labor standards and encouraging the right to unionize and organize; demilitarize the economy and our communities; protect the vote, not the gerrymander, while investing in democracy, not incipient Trump-style autocracy; forgive debts, rather than improving the ability of banks to collect them; declare climate change a national emergency; and invest in infrastructure while building a fully green economy.

Social movements, especially when first gaining ground, are often told to be “practical,” to make their demands few and modest. It’s worth noting, though, that the same is never asked of the super-rich, of the 1%, certainly not in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 when Wall Street was bailed out to the tune of nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars, nor in the current crisis when Congress’s stimulus package to date has largely amounted to an even greater giveaway program. A jubilee platform is not a proposal to tinker around the edges. It is a plan for reconstruction that hopes to address the pain and hope of millions fighting every day simply for the right to live. The project of reconstructing society around the needs of the poor and dispossessed requires a movement led by those most impacted by the economic and racial disasters of our time.

When We Lift from the Bottom, Everyone Rises

I have been engaged in a movement to reconstruct society led by the poor and dispossessed for more than a quarter of a century. In that time, many have come forward to claim that ending poverty is impossible, that this is as good as it gets, that the costs of addressing inequality are simply too great. Especially in my role as a member of the ordained clergy and a biblical scholar, rarely has a week passed that I haven’t heard someone quote a line from Jesus in the Bible — “the poor will be with you always” — to make the point that humanity has always known poverty to be eternal and that its mitigation is best reserved for charity or philanthropy. Indeed, that biblical passage has become yet another tool wielded by supporters of the wealthy to deflect attention from systemic failures in our country and help them further consolidate their power — to reinforce that social uplift is far too costly to imagine and change of that sort inconceivable.

In a blistering new report on the growing crisis of global poverty, Phillip Alston, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, explained the consequences well: “The overwhelming success of the ideological campaign that supports neoliberal policies is that it has succeeded in convincing people that those in poverty have no one to blame but themselves, while supporting the notion that trickle-down policies will address it.”

We may live in a time that essentializes poverty, but the irony of that line from the Bible on the poor is that Jesus was actually critiquing it (and the rich) by cleverly referencing the law codes of Deuteronomy. In his time, the Roman Empire had created a society rife with suffering and death, as well as its own predatory regime of wealth accumulation. Jesus references perhaps the most powerful prescription for justice in the Old Testament with the message that “there need be no poor people among us” and instructs nations to forgive debts, pay people what they deserve, abolish slavery, and organize society around the needs of the poor. That jubilee passage of his was never actually saying that poverty was inevitable, but that the “poor will be always with us” as long as we cater to the rich rather than build a society that cares for everyone. That’s no less true today.

May we choose another way.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

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Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Juniper Hill Records: “I Believe in The Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington 2020”

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