Where do we go from here?
This fundamental question has taken on an almost desperate urgency since the election of Donald Trump laid bare the profound cleavages dividing the American body politic. For many Americans — myself included — the election marked the first time we had to reckon with a disturbing possibility: that we truly didn’t understand our own country. That perhaps this city on a hill may not actually be the beacon we imagined.
The effort to explain the Trump phenomenon, to learn from those who saw this coming, ultimately challenged my faith in the American Dream: not the broken version that we confront in the 21st century, but the very ideal itself. It has forced me to reconsider how I think large-scale change actually happens, how I think about power, and therefore how I answer the titular question — both for my country and for me personally. I have come to believe both in the necessity and the possibility of what has been called a “just transition.” As the indefatigable Grace Lee Boggs wrote in 1998:
People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative… We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values.
We all recognize the essential truth in her words. How do we get there from here?
Questioning America’s Founding Myths
Sure, the U.S. has problems: what country doesn’t? But I had always assumed that we were in it together, that whatever may divide us at the end of the day our project remained noble: a more perfect union. E pluribus unum. I viewed the American experiment as fundamentally a project of improvement: taking an essential good (as enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights) and making periodic reforms to honor that initial promise.
Of course we have racism: a country founded on the original sins of genocide of Native people and enslavement of Africans brought here against their will must reckon with that legacy.
And yes, we must also acknowledge sexism: women didn’t get the vote until 1920, and it’s difficult to deny that they are still represented in scant proportion at the top of every profession. (Though many of us probably aren’t aware that many women of color didn’t have meaningful access to the ballot until the 1960s or even 1970s!)
And though we may wish to disassociate ourselves from colonialism and the imperial project (that was Europe, not us!), the recent debacle in Iraq shines a light on our unpleasant history abroad. The woeful response to the devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico provides a painful reminder of that enduring legacy to this day.
And yes, while some may decry the “political correctness” amid the seeming proliferation of contemporary identities, any clear-eyed assessment must recognize the enormous obstacles confronting immigrants, undocumented people, LGBTI people, people with disabilities, and others who don’t fit neatly into dominant social and cultural norms.
And sure, though we’re an unapologetically capitalist nation (life, liberty, and property!), we can acknowledge that perhaps corporations wield an undue influence in modern life. And even before we get to a discussion of climate change, we can probably agree that often our focus on economic growth or profit is damaging to the natural environment.
And yet, in the face of these unpleasant realities: that’s not what we’re about…right? We’re about “all men are created equal,” with “unalienable rights” and all that. A force for good in the world, architect of the Marshall Plan, founding member of the United Nations. Right?
The shock of the Trump election forced me to re-evaluate this set of assumptions, and to view facts in a new light. I’ve long been deeply concerned with rising inequality and poverty in America (and abroad), but have tended to focus on policy solutions: better regulations to prevent exploitation, more progressive taxation to ensure that growth is broadly shared. But the facts are stubborn. Depending on how you crunch the numbers, the latest data suggest that somewhere between one-third and half of all Americans are living in or near poverty. That means over 100 million(!) of our fellow residents are struggling to get by. In the richest country in the world.
This is not a story we — those of us with power and privilege — often hear. The metrics we use to measure the health of our economy reinforce a different narrative: the economy is booming! Unemployment is at historic lows! The Dow Jones just hit 26,000!
These metrics obscure reality and deliberately erase the lived experience of most of our fellow residents. The low unemployment rate masks a deeply concerning phenomenon: “Millions of men in the prime of their lives are missing from the labor force.” Focusing on the meteoric rise of the Dow Jones misses a more brutal fact: only half of American adults actually own any stock. A finer point: half of all Americans have nothing at all put away for retirement. Think about that for a moment: the majority of Americans are confronting the prospect of old age with no savings and no real prospect of “retirement,” entirely reliant on a fraying Social Security safety net.
At what point do we have to consider that perhaps these outcomes are not a flaw of the system, but the inevitable result of the system?
In his incisive exploration of the housing affordability crisis in America — which, like all our social ills, disproportionately affects marginalized communities — Matthew Desmond reached the following conclusion:
Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain — this degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic need, this endorsement of pointless suffering — by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.
Reform vs. Transformation
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated the present moment, for he saw the same conditions, and the same contradictions. He delivered a speech grappling with this fundamental question: “where do we go from here?” It is worth quoting at length, for it reminds us of a radical King too often whitewashed from our understanding of his legacy:
As we talk about “Where do we go from here,” we must honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring…
I’m not talking about Communism. What I’m saying to you is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
The opening line references a Movement. Dr. King elsewhere elaborates:
We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society…We have been a reform movement…But after Selma and the voting rights bill we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…we must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…The whole structure of American life must be changed.
This is the central fault-line of post-Trump America on the Left, and indeed within the broader global social justice movement: It is the difference between reform and what I will call transformation (“revolution” is a loaded term…but aren’t they all). It is what Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor has called the difference between recognizing the symptoms of inequality, and acknowledging the underlying systems of oppression that create inequality.
I confess that it is deeply disquieting to find myself disabused of long-held conceptions about the country I call home. It shatters the myth I have accepted without question throughout my life: that the American Dream is predicated on a commitment to equal opportunity, to progress. As Robin D.G. Kelley writes:
This theory is an illusion, one liberals continue to hold on to: the belief that we are on the right track, we just need time and patience and a reminder of the ideals upon which the nation was founded.
It is what I have come to think of as the “Oprah fallacy” (and explains why there was such an outpouring of liberal support following her excellent #TimesUp speech at the Golden Globes). As Nicole Aschoff writes:
Oprah is appealing because her stories hide the role of political, economic and social structures in our lives. They make the American dream seem attainable.
It is uncomfortable to consider the possibility that what I have regarded as unfortunate flaws of our system are in fact intentional design elements. As John Biewen concludes in his phenomenal podcast series “Seeing White”:
White supremacy is a feature of the national story, not a bug…The country was built to be a nation by and for white people.
The Truth Will Set You Free
But uncomfortable though it may be, this process of inquiry and understanding for me has also been profoundly liberating. For three reasons.
It is the first time I can hold everything I know to be true about America — and the world — in my head concurrently without cognitive dissonance. My noble view of America’s founding always struggled to reconcile that aspirational promise with the realities enshrined in our texts — the three-fifths compromise, the casual use of the word “men” in the context of being created equal. We know they meant men, and we know they meant white men, and we even know they meant property-owning white men…acknowledging that reality without making excuses for it is liberating. Painful though it is, it allows us to view our founders in a new, more honest light. How else can we think about Thomas Jefferson, a towering statesman…and a slaveowner, one who advocated for the forcible removal of Native people from their land?
Second, recognizing — as black feminists did in the powerful 1974 Combahee River Collective Statement — that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking” points toward the beginning of a solution. It allows us to recognize that others engaged in parallel struggles — women fighting a system of male domination; people of color fighting racism; environmentalists fighting an extractive economy; union workers fighting corporate exploitation — are in fact engaged in the same fight. It begins to illuminate the possibility of a “movement of movements” that brings people together under a common vision for a world without domination, without the imposition of artificial hierarchies predicated on false notions of superiority and inferiority.
Finally, identifying the different systems of domination allows us to situate ourselves in relation to them. In addition to opening up possibilities for solidarity with others, it allows us to see how we ourselves suffer. As Alicia Garza said: “We’re not all being attacked in the same way…but we’re all being attacked.” This has been a particular awakening for me as a man at the top of the privilege pyramid: white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-middle class. I am the exact archetype of what our system was designed to preserve and protect. Yet: I have long found myself chafing at the strictures of archaic gender norms. I resent the commodification of every aspect of our society, and the negative impact that has on our interpersonal relationships. I despise the way we measure success in dollars, the cult of “busyness,” that somehow it is necessary to sacrifice our personal/family life on the altar of professional advancement. I hate that the most valuable professions (childcare workers, schoolteachers, elderly and hospice care) are the least valued (in dollars and esteem). Despite being the prime beneficiary of this society, it is not a society I want to live in.
This is not a very deep revelation, but it is an important one: while it is troubling to find that the ground beneath our feet turns out to be someone else’s neck, it is liberating to find that we’re all being stepped on or held back in some way. It also illuminates a core insight now popularized in the discussion of intersectionality: liberating those most marginalized among us by definition liberates all of us. It’s also vital for building a solidarity movement. For as Australian indigenous activist Lilla Watson said:
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
I’ve thought about this in the context of what it means to be an “ally.” To the extent it’s conceived as an altruistic act (as a husband, as a father, etc.), I find the concept troubling. That’s a good reason to act, but it allows us — those in a position of privilege — off the hook: it doesn’t force us to situate ourselves in the struggle but allows us to stand by as observers, providing support… or more often, indifference. I much prefer the frame of “ally” in the way it’s understood in war: think of the U.S. and the UK in the fight against Nazi Germany. We are standing together to face a common enemy, because that enemy threatens ALL of us. There is no option to relax, or to “choose not to fight” when the enemy is at the gate. Complacency is complicity.
And of course, I must state the obvious: many activists and thinkers — particularly in communities of color — have been saying this for a long time. I am late to the game, and not by accident: I was taught not to see my own privilege, nor the oppression it depends on. I was privileged to benefit from education at some of our country’s finest public, parochial, and private institutions. Yet at no point did I learn about the Shasta people who originally lived on the land I called home. I made it through nine different Advanced Placement classes in high school without serious exposure to writers or thinkers of color.
This is deliberate. For centering the voices of those most marginalized very quickly exposes some uncomfortable truths. As Dr. King said, it forces us “to ask questions about the whole society.” And here the election of Donald Trump has done many of us a perverse favor: it has ripped the veil from our eyes, allowing us to see what to many has long been apparent. Lady Justice is not blind. The scales are deliberately imbalanced. The sword does not fall on all equally.
But this painful acknowledgment too is liberating: this is not just about Trump. It is not just about America. This will not be solved when Trump goes away. I know I’m not alone in this journey in the post-Trump era, and that I’m following many who have come before. And I know many are in different stages of their own journeys. But I would be surprised if there’s anyone — at least anyone reading this blog — who can read that Boggs quote without a glimmer of recognition. Again:
The survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values.
Yes. We do need a new vision. A new movement.
Toward a “Movement of Movements”
My reading of history — globally and in the U.S. — is that transformative social change results only from broad-based social movements: from bottom-up pressure. The revolution will not be legislated.
We have movements. Many movements. The Movement for Black Lives; Native activists organizing around #NoDAPL and beyond; the Women’s March and #MeToo; the reproductive justice movement; the ongoing fight for LGBTI rights; the immigrants’ rights movement; the climate justice movement; and economic systems-change efforts like the solidarity or cooperative economy movement. The problem is that we don’t yet have an organizing ethos around which to build a unifying “movement of movements.”
This strikes me as the central challenge of our current moment, in the U.S. and globally: how do we build an integrated movement capable of offering — in Sam Adler-Bell’s words — “both a compelling moral vision and a believable strategic agenda for achieving it?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, in two ways. One is through a theoretical question I call the “billion-dollar question” (or if you prefer, the $100 billion question): if you had that kind of money to spend on creating new forms of politics and economics, a new way of living sustainably on this earth, of building a transformative movement of movements…how would you spend it? What broad categories of funding, what organizations, what theory of change?
And the second is more personal and immediately relevant: what should I do, given my various identities, my privilege, my skill-set, my experience…to advance this broader goal? Ijeoma Oluo offers a useful frame:
Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.
The most exciting insight I’ve found in my work over the last year offers a way to resolve this dilemma, and to simultaneously address both questions. Riane Eisler’s contributions enable us to move beyond the unresolvable debates about the primacy of race or gender, or the paralyzing binary of capitalism vs socialism. Instead she suggests that the human enterprise is perennially situated on a spectrum from domination to partnership. The systems we rightly reject — fascism under Hitler, totalitarianism under Stalin — represent extreme examples of domination. So too the various -isms we now fight against: racism, sexism, etc. At their heart each is about creating a hierarchy of superiority/inferiority. She reminds us that it need not be thus, and indeed historically has not been so. Peggy McIntosh reached this insight from a different perspective, concluding: “privilege simply confers dominance.”
This too illuminates the path to liberation: I don’t want to be in a position of dominance. I want solidarity, partnership, cooperation.
Calling on Good Men
I believe Eisler offers a potential unifying frame around which to build a “movement of movements.” But I believe it does something else as well: it offers an entry point for a group thus far largely absent from the social movements described above. And it provides an answer to Oluo’s prompt, and the immediate question: where do I fit in? What should I do?
I want to get men involved. All men, but liberal white men in particular. I want to participate in building a platform — a movement? — to call into action those millions of well-meaning men looking for a way to contribute. This movement — of men interested in supporting a transition from domination to partnership — can lift up the important work being done by our sister movements, and bring their important messages to new audiences. Let me be clear: this work is really difficult, and inherently fraught as we try to navigate the complicated intersections of race, gender, privilege, and oppression. We must recognize that relationships matter, and building trust takes time. As we seek to partner with and elevate the work of our sister movements, Didi Delgado reminds us that we must build intentional feedback loops of mutual accountability.
This is not about asking men to provide the answers, or to come deeply schooled in a critique of what bell hooks calls the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” It is about offering men a way to join the fight. Kay Hagan describes the spirit we must embody in that fight in her description of “good men.”
Good men perceive the value of a feminist practice for themselves, and they advocate it not because it’s politically correct, or because they want women to like them, or even because they want women to have equality, but because they understand that male privilege prevents them not only from becoming whole, authentic human beings but also from knowing the truth about the world…They offer proof that men can change.
Yes. Suppose you subscribe to the above. If you’re a man — particularly a white man — where do you go today? There are a number of good organizations engaging men in “feminist practice”; Rob Okun’s Voice Male has consistently chronicled the good work of pro-feminist men’s organizations over the years. Promundo stands out as one of the early organizations doing excellent activism and programming around gender justice; founder Gary Barker also helped launch the MenEngage Alliance, now probably the largest-scale global effort knitting together a broad coalition of aligned organizations. Breakthrough has done innovative work engaging both men and women in challenging rigid gender norms.
An increasing number of individuals and online platforms are also stepping into this void: Michael Kimmel is a leading scholar pioneering the field of “masculinity studies”; Jackson Katz has done important work on media portrayals of men; the Good Men Project provides a platform for re-imagining masculinity; Boston College’s Center for Work and Family does excellent research on fatherhood; Tony Porter’s A Call To Men does the same; Byron Hurt does excellent work in the context of unpacking black masculinity; Justin Baldoni recently launched a new initiative from his platform as a celebrity. Of course there are others. But none see their work through the lens of movement-building. None are engaged in the hard work of organizing to build a movement at scale. Which is why you probably haven’t heard of any of them.
Men: we can do better. On two months’ notice millions of women marched on Washington and around the country. Sure, many of us men joined those marches. But why aren’t we organizing ourselves? In three short months, women in Hollywood banded together in response to #MeToo to launch #TimesUp in solidarity with working class women, creating a legal defense fund for victims of harassment. Where are the Hollywood men?
I suspect part of the answer is that we don’t know what to do. And the magnitude of the challenge feels so great that doing too little feels tantamount to doing nothing. And we’re afraid that if we stand up we’ll be told to sit down. That we’ll screw up, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing. So we’re paralyzed.
But inaction is not an option. Complacency is complicity.
The Way Forward
There is one effort now underway that I think provides a great vehicle: the Poor People’s Campaign, explicitly conceived to carry forward Dr. King’s unfinished work, 50 years later. Co-chaired by Rev. William Barber (an African-American male pastor and former head of the North Carolina NAACP), and Rev. Liz Theoharis (a white female pastor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York), it offers a bold vision that offers huge potential to provide a superstructure within which to build a “movement of movements.” And their principles are great too; the organizers intend to include a stronger gender-justice lens that will soon be reflected there.
This does not obviate the need for a more deliberate effort to get men involved, in my mind. Especially because the men I think are both the biggest obstacle and the biggest potential driver of the change we seek are not likely to see themselves represented in a “poor people’s” campaign, any more than they see themselves represented in the women’s movement. Though my vision for involving men in the movement is broadly inclusive, this particular essay is written for people like me. My fellow liberal white men, those of us Richard Reeves addressed in his provocative Dream Hoarders. Those of us who have the privilege…and the power.
A closing note: the revolution must be funded. This has been the angle of attack I’ve chosen for myself, fraught with contradiction though it is. Dr. King reminds us that charity cannot buy justice (a charge reiterated powerfully at the Aspen Institute — that gathering place of well-intentioned liberal elites — by Anand Giridharadas). Yet, as Vanessa Daniel reminds white people, and white men in particular:
You still hold the keys to the kingdom. You still control the vast majority of the money and nearly all of the decision-making power.
We cannot cannibalize existing resources going — rightfully — to movements led by and for marginalized people. Good news: there are a huge number of wealthy men out there, many of whom share elements of the vision described here. How do we begin to channel those resources toward the urgent work of building a movement? Some are already leading by example: I’m particularly inspired by Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation. What will it take for others to follow Farhad’s lead? How can we help?
This is already far longer than I intended, so I’ll close here. If you made it this far, I invite you to join me: to share your own ideas, to challenge mine, so that together we can find that new and higher synthesis. And if you’re good at art, at storytelling, at music: a special plea. We need more than words to describe the change we seek. What is the story we tell, the narrative we weave, to help people understand both our vision and the process to get from here to there? How do we build what George Monbiot has evocatively called “a politics of belonging?”