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What Does The Progressive Movement Need?

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First off, a disclosure which probably comes as no surprise — I am indeed one of those socially engaged Buddhists who falls into the “progressive” political camp. But as you’ll know if you’ve read some of the past posts on The Jizo Chronicle, such as this one, I am supportive of pluralism among engaged Buddhist voices.

So — on to the matter at hand. Recently, Ethan Vesely-Flad, editor of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s magazine, invited me to write a short piece to fit in with the theme “Renewing the Movement.” Here’s the background that he gave me:

Many justice activists have been deeply discouraged by the Obama administration’s first 18 months in office.  Conservatives are mobilizing to take back seats in the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and throughout state and local elections this November.  Islamophobia is on the rise through right-wing talk radio and fundamentalist Christian communities, building on New York City’s Park51 development effort by the Cordoba House.  The continuing framework of institutional racism is being hotly debated in the wake of such recent incidents as Shirley Sherrod’s forced resignation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  And no discernible progress has been made on such issues as climate change, immigration reform, and cutting the U.S. military budget.  It’s a very challenging political moment for progressives.

Yet some 15,000 justice activists gathered this June at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit to work to build together a new world.  Tens of thousands will rally in DC on October 2nd for the One Nation: Working Together mobilization for jobs, immigrant rights, and financial reform.  And more than a thousand rallies and actions for addressing the climate crisis will take place in over 135 countries on October 10th.  Action for social change is happening across the world.

The essay I wrote for FOR was intended to respond to these questions (again, from Ethan):

* What do you see as the top priority (or priorities) for the global peace and justice movement today?
* What strategies should the movement use as it campaigns on those issues?
* What examples of creative action and hope do you see that can inspire us?
* What is a moral framework we can provide to our political and community leaders to inspire them to action?
* And should our activism be spiritually centered?  Is there a particular role that faith communities can play in this movement?

So this was my contribution to that issue:

Dialogue Across Differences: Mobilizing a Wider Base

We live in a society that, by all appearances, is characterized by polarization and divisiveness – Tea Party candidates whose platforms are based on fear of the other seem to be gaining ground across the country; subtle and not-so-subtle racism aimed at President Obama, coming from both conservatives and progressives; and the proliferation of biased news outlets like Fox. We are a nation in the throes of toxic hatred.

Or so it seems. As Steve Chapman writes on in an article titled “America Only Seems Polarized”: “Stop watching cable TV news channels and listening to politicians. Using them as a gauge of how divided we are is like using the National Hockey League to estimate the level of violence in America.”

In fact, a 2008 survey from the National Opinion Research Center found that the largest ideological group is moderates, even though extremist voices get the most coverage.

And yet there is some truth in all this. It’s common for many of us to interact only with people who think like us, which stretches the perceived divide further.

I believe that no matter how hard progressives work on issues that are important to us, until we can find ways to build bridges rather than walls and learn how to communicate effectively with the majority of Americans who yearn for more civility in public discourse, we won’t gain much traction.

One of the most important things that the global peace and justice movement can do is to reclaim what it means to be a decent and engaged citizen. One of the ways we can do this is by creating opportunities for dialogue across differences and building relationships with those who may not, at least initially, be on the same political page as us.

For example, I envision a cadre of people trained in mediation and dialogue skills working in places like Arizona to facilitate constructive conversation around issues like immigration. This would take a brave group of people, who themselves are able to hold multiple truths and find ways to bring people together rather than divide them. Some organizations that do this include the Public Conversations Project and the Zen Peacemaker Community with its “Bearing Witness” vigils in places like Rwanda and Auschwitz.

Grounding these dialogues in the wisdom that comes from our faith traditions, guided by principles of love and non-duality, can only help in this effort. More than ever, the faith-based approaches that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., forged are needed for a sustainable path to social transformation that mobilizes a wider base of people. But they need to be combined with more savvy about organizing methods and new media realities.

Organizations like stone circles and The Movement Strategy Center, and foundations such as the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation, are right in the middle of this equation, dedicated to bringing together effective organizing strategies with the deep well of spiritually-based action and transformative practices. I believe this is the future of activism.

How about you? How would you answer those questions? What does the U.S. progressive movement need now?

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

8 responses »

  1. [What does the U.S. progressive movement need now?]

    News coverage.

    Conservatives are able to get their message out — most of which are lies. People think the huge deficits are caused by the stimulus bill. People hate the health care bill because conservatives were able to convince them we’re moving towards socialism.

    But more importantly, we need a strong leader. People love a winner, even if they don’t agree will all his or her policies. What we have right now with Obama is a loser. Someone who isn’t willing to fight for what he believes.

    • I don’t think it helps to talk–or think–about Obama as a “loser.” He has, in fact, “won” a good deal, including a health care bill (imperfect, yes) that eluded his predecessors for decades. Strength, as I see it, is not about the bullying potential. The ability to compromise (yes, I don’t want to either!) is in itself a strength. Fighting for what you believe can indeed be noble; it can equally well be quixotic!

  2. “I am supportive of pluralism among engaged Buddhist voices.”

    Thank you for mentioning that.

    You know, I’ve always been one for outreach programs, such as the prison dharma program, perhaps dharma for at risk youths, addiction recovery programs or shelters for those in need. I think activism as a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily need to take on a political aspect, as long as we are making a positive difference within the community. I was working on a post about those, getting a lot of excellent resources from your links side here. 🙂

  3. Interesting question! I think that the progressive movement could use some more bringing-together, like you say, but I also think that polarization and firmness are important tools for change. Too often, frankly, the bringing-together of some groups entails the selling out others, or glossing over significant differences. I don’t think that’s what you mean by your imagined cadre, but it is something I see a Lot here in the Bay Area, with things playing out.

    But at the same time, I have been very hopeful about the cross-pollination of various feminist, anarchist, anti-racist, working-class, revolutionary Marxist, Buddhist, and un/otherwise-affiliated groups here in my little sphere of the world! I know that to some folks that list seems like it’s all on the “extremist” side of the spectrum (except for the Buddhist part maybe), but in coalescing a spectrum of allies it is surprisingly complex, and very significant.

    Here’s to making the things we need!

  4. An interesting post, particularly because everyone — if I understand correctly — seems to think that Buddhism has something to do with being “progressive” or being “politically liberal”?

    I lived in Italy where I joined a Zen Buddhist sangha for a while. Very quickly it became obvious that they practiced Japanese Zen Buddhism because of the Italian-Japanese-Axis-Power connection during WWII. These Buddhists believed that the highest attainment of enlightenment was being in the moment as a fighting samurai. They had all good things to say about Mussolini and about the same fighting spirit of the Japanese during the war. (Talk about having to drop all my ideas and concepts about Buddhism!)

    I then established my own meditation group on a naval base in Italy, where quite a number of people who practiced Buddhism or meditation were registered republicans. And yet, people came to meditate with me in droves. Yes, there were some soldiers who shared with me their violent experiences of having been at the seige of Fallujah in Iraq. (Heartbreaking and courageous at once.) There were also trumpet players, physicians, counselors, teachers, computer contractors — all working for the military, serving their country. Thing is, we never spoke about politics. We sat together — sitting with ‘just this’ where there is no war, no peace, no judgement.

    Upon returning to the States, I’ve turned on the plethora of media outlets that were not available to me in Italy for three years. My first reaction was that each time I looked at the magazines at the grocery store check-out counter (Star/People), each time I listened to a political commentator from Limbaugh to Maddow, each time I read beyond the facts of a NYTimes article — I was breaking the Buddhist precepts. I was judging (these faceless, non-layered “fundamentalists” are bad). I was engaging in gossip (look at what Lohan is doing!). I was engaging in anger (how can THEY do that?). I said to myself — Careful, careful with media (it’s like drugs & alcohol). Careful, careful with politics that don’t have layered faces attached to them. (I now stick with the personal stories reported by NPR.)

    My personal remedy to breaking the precepts by wanting to dip into the media addiction is to “take care” of things in my daily world. Polish my tile, like Bernie Glassman explains in his Infinite Circle. When I find myself in the military, I set up a meditation group and really listen to people who come through with not-knowing. When I find myself in a Third World country, I try to be generous, but also compliment the culture and ask curious questions rather than pitying the people. I keep telling myself to stretch when it comes to ‘just being’ with people. Perhaps I’ll one day sit at a gun show and offer meditation at one of the booths — and allow some people to meditate because they think they will become better sharp shooters. I don’t know. But it seems that Bernie’s message is to let go of media addiction and the liberal/conservative dichotomy within oneself is so vital to our practice and to the world; putting out kindness when someone seems stressed or angry by acknowledging their pain. These are the things that, in my life at least, have turned puddles into mountains.

    In gassho.

  5. Barbara, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    I actually try to debunk the assumption that all engaged Buddhist are, ipso facto, “progressive” or “liberal.” While that’s my personal orientation, I think the real spirit of Buddhism (and therefore engaged Buddhism) is all about staying open, curious, and non-attached to dogma of any kind. That’s why I’ve included posts on this blog from engaged Buddhists who have a different point of view, for example like this post on topics like nuclear disarmament (see )

    Having said that, I also believe that the essential message of the Buddha is about lessening suffering and not causing harm. From my perspective, a lot of stuff that gets generated from super-conservative right-wing politicians (yes, I admit I am labeling here) and others has the tendency to cause harm — bolstering structural violence rather than addressing it, funding aggressive military interventions, perpetuating poverty. I’m not saying that ‘liberals’ have the magic bullet or never cause harm — they do — but to me those are the general effects of the policies created coming from the “Right.” And so that leads me to advocating for policies that could be labeled “progressive.”

  6. I stand so with you about this and I so appreciate your comments. I’m in agreement with you that there are individuals (and I have met them) who do want to do harm to others, who believe greed is good, and who don’t mind destroying our earth for their personal aggrandizment. Questions though: Does that mean you would or would not, therefore, set up a meditation booth at a gun show? And where does that put military physicians, for example, who save lives on both sides of battle trenches and trumpet players who use their music during funerals at Arlington cemetery?


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