My political autobiography

It has become a truism: every election is the most important of our lives. Is this any more true of the 2020 presidential election? Of course it is! As we approach what is already shaping up to be another prolonged and contentious primary season, I want to offer an autobiographical preamble to my ongoing commentary and campaign involvement. Our political opinions do not arise in a vacuum, as though the product of purely rational reflection on universal human nature. They are steeped in the circumstances of our upbringing, in our dreams and ideals, in our adventures abroad and the calamities that befall us at home, and in the company we keep and that keeps us. I’m sharing my personal story with the hope that it provides context for my perspective on the 2020 election.

In 1996, I was the ten year old child of divorced middle class parents living in Hollywood, Florida. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton were running against one another for the presidency. I remember waiting in the lunch line at elementary school talking with a friend. He asked me who my parents were going to vote for. I said I wasn’t sure. With a look of sympathetic superiority, he informed me that Clinton was one of Satan’s henchmen and that only Dole could help America realize God’s plan (his parents were evangelical Christians). I should warn my parents right away, he said.

Something felt off about my friend’s opinion, but at that point I had little basis upon which to question his perspective. I didn’t warn my parents, who were and remain largely apolitical (my mom’s Christianity is mostly private, and my dad, an agnostic Jew, lost his 60s idealism waiting out the draft in Mexico). They never spoke to me about politics as a kid. My friend’s warning is one of my first explicitly political memories. I can recall earlier memories of CNN’s coverage of Gulf War 1: being impressed by new laser guided bombs accurate enough to fly into exposed air conditioning vents on building rooftops in Bagdad, being frightened about Saddam’s chemical weapons landing in my backyard and poisoning me and my family, and so on. I was only six, but having already watched my fair share of action movies, I had the vague sense that all this war business seemed awfully theatrical and made for TV. It was an early hint of the way the dominant political order was fabricated and maintained.

But it wasn’t until the 2000 Bush vs Gore election that I really began to feel the uniquely American frenzy first described by de Tocqueville that overtakes our nation during election season (“As the election draws near, intrigues multiply and turmoil spreads…The whole nation descends into a feverish state…“). Though I was just entering high school and still wasn’t old enough to vote, the electoral college fiasco, the recount chaos that unfolded just north of me in Palm Beach, and the Supreme Court finally interceding, all left a lasting impression. I watched George W. Bush’s inauguration and wondered if the country could ever unify behind him. Then, 9/11 happened. The images, emotions, and conversations of that day remain etched in my mind with great clarity. War was upon us, this time much closer to home. I was suspicious of how quickly the country lined up to support their commander-in-chief, and of the rush to seek revenge on the “evil doers.” I was especially struck by images of Bush standing on a pile of rubble in NYC, with his arm around a fire fighter and a bullhorn in the other hand through which he shouted promises of revenge over chants of U-S-A U-S-A!! I can’t say I didn’t feel pangs of patriotism in my chest as I watched this. We were under attack, after all. But again, the way the whole thing seemed staged and made for TV kept me from succumbing to these feelings.

It was in the aftermath of these events that my intense interest in politics began. I enrolled in advanced courses in European and American history at school, and at home began reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. The discrepancy between my history textbooks and Zinn’s People’s History was a stronger hint that in politics, neither truth nor power lies on the surface for all to see. I was still too young to vote when I came to the conclusion that our nation’s “democracy” was more of an ideal than a realized state of affairs.

I started offering my political opinions as editorials editor for The Nova Vue, my high school newspaper. Most of my op-eds were standard liberal takes, anti-Bush and anti-war, pro-gay marriage, etc.; nothing too radical. I watched as Bush went after the Taliban in Afghanistan first, a bombing campaign I didn’t cheer but didn’t protest much, either. Then, with some WMD sleight of hand, Bush worked to convince the nation that a full-scale invasion of Iraq was necessary to bring all the evil doers to justice. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was launched with little protest from anyone in congress or the US press. Having read some of the policy papers from the neoconservative think-tank the Project for a New American Century that propelled Bush into the White House, I knew that the plans to invade Iraq and recolonize the Middle East were put in place long before the 9/11 attacks. I also read about the recent history of the region, how the US installed Saddam Hussein and trained and funded the Taliban and al Qaeda back when they were the enemies of our enemies. I read about the more distant history of British colonial rule and the artificial drawing of the map of Iraq, which somehow was supposed to include Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias within a single national identity. In the run up to war, I began to entertain some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. I don’t know what really happened that day, but it seems clear enough that the official story is suspect. US history is full of false flags, so why should 9/11 be ruled out? I am not a true believer or “9/11 Truther,” but nor can I dismiss or belittle the folks who are. I simply do not know. What I do know is that Americans have a special talent for ignoring history when forming opinions about the present.

I was a college freshman at the University of Central Florida when the 2004 primaries wound down and John Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee. I now had my first opportunity to participate in the civic ritual of voting, an exciting experience that was clouded by an inner conflict I’ve since grown all too familiar with: lesser evilism. Kerry, like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and other establishment Democrats, voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002. I preferred him to Bush, of course, but my heart was with the independent party candidate Ralph Nader. But I knew he could not win and that, practically speaking, a vote for Nader was a vote taken from Kerry and given to Bush. The cynical part of me viewed the whole electoral process as merely symbolic anyway, akin to Catholic transubstantiation: through the miracle known as representation, my vote was supposed to allow me to partake in the democratic selection of my nation’s leader. In reality, my vote was but a tiny drop in a giant lake whose damn was ultimately controlled by the Electoral College and the Supreme Court. I remained conflicted until I walked into the polling place on election day. My heart told me Nader, but I didn’t want to throw my vote away and unintentionally assure the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld war machine another term in the Oval Office. I voted for Kerry.

Image result for bush kerry debate handshake

The frustration of lesser evilism, not to mention Bush’s re-election victory, squashed my budding political idealism. I was dumbfounded by my country’s decision. The war propaganda machine was too powerful to subvert: prime time coverage of “shock and awe” bombing campaigns followed by Monday Night Football kept the country in line. The faux debates between the puppets of the corporate duopoly were too carefully curated and narrowly defined for genuine democratic self-governance to be possible. I started turning away from politics and corrupt worldly institutions and instead immersed myself in the study of existentialism, depth psychology, and Eastern spirituality. I read Nietzsche, Alan Watts, Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, and Sri Aurobindo. I became fascinated by the 1960s counterculture, especially Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert/Ram Dass’ experiments with psychedelics. I discovered Terence McKenna’s books and video lectures on YouTube (Leary once called McKenna “the real Tim Leary”). I gave up on the lost cause of American politics and decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

I became convinced that the real revolution would be an inner one, an evolution of consciousness rather than a revolution of political order. Only when people “woke up”–not “woke” to class or racial identities, but to divine identity–would real democracy be possible. I started thinking seriously about selling my car to fund a one-way trip to India where I hoped to meet my guru and live out my days in an ashram exploring the realms of the human unconscious. Allen Ginsberg’s integration of revolutionary politics and psychedelic spirituality was a helpful corrective to my one-sided otherworldliness during this time, but his bodhisattvic commitment to the suffering of this world was not enough to bring me back into earth orbit, much less down onto the ground.

It would take another few years to lure me back into the political fray. The first important influence occurred in 2005. I was invited by Hillel, a Jewish student organization at my university, to travel to Israel for two weeks as part of a “birthright” trip funded entirely by the Israeli government and Jewish-American philanthropists. It wasn’t quite India, but it fed my hunger for spiritual roots and promised a dangerous adventure that the pages of books and the shopping plazas of suburban Orlando could not match. The trip indeed proved to be spiritually nutritious, particularly a pair of mystical experiences, one at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, and another alone under the stars in the Negev desert. My time in Israel also re-ignited my social and political conscience. I had read enough Chomsky to be critical of Israeli militarism and to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people. I was still unprepared for the onslaught of Zionist propaganda that greeted my young tour group at every step of our journey across the tiny but proud nation. They wanted we Americanized Jews to realize that we were part of a sacred tribe, that we belonged in Israel, and that God and history were on our side. The government even offered to help pay for our marriage (to another Jew) and find a house if we moved to the country and accepted citizenship. For anyone under 26, this also meant a year or two of military service in the IDF. The offer stirred a primal desire in me to belong to a people and a place, to feel special, exceptional, chosen. I was tempted, I admit. But the identities of “Jew” and “Israeli” felt too small for me, too fake. And the evils of the occupation weighed too heavily on my heart.

In 2008, there was no Democratic presidential primary election in Florida. If there had been, I probably would have voted for Dennis Kucinich. After watching a few Republican primary debates, I decided to temporarily register Republican so that I could vote for the anti-war candidate Ron Paul. Despite the worsening quagmire in Iraq, Paul, Mike Gravel, and Kucinich were the only true anti-war candidates that year. Gravel and Kucinich were largely ignored, but Paul got some attention because of his fundraising success. US foreign policy and the military-industrial complex were the issues that stirred the most passion in me, so his outspoken opinions about the immorality of the Iraq invasion and the “blow back” theory of terrorism got me fired up. I loved seeing him attack US imperialism on the debate stage next to hawks like McCain, Romney, and Huckabee.

Back in the first decade of the 2000s, social media was just beginning to impact political discourse. But it wasn’t yet the main outlet for debate. By 2007, however, I was posting videos on YouTube about politics (and about philosophy and religion). Ron Paul was the first to inspire this sort of engagement. His battle with the US war machine was short-lived. It didn’t take long for me to grow disenchanted with him due some of the less inspiring aspects of his ideology, including his belief in the magical “invisible hand” of the free market and the taint of racism.

In November 2008, as the global economy convulsed, I was just settling in to San Francisco to attend graduate school. I voted for Obama over McCain, of course. I wasn’t entirely convinced he could bring about real change, but his message was way closer to my ideals. I watched the election in a dive bar on Market Street. When Obama won, everyone spilled out onto the street to celebrate. Cars honked enthusiastically as they slowly weaved through the growing crowds. Strangers high-fived and hugged one another. Obama wasn’t as outspoken about it as Paul, Gravel, or Kucinich, but he was against the war resolution in 2002 and promised to withdraw troops as quickly as possible if elected president. His other progressive positions, including his commitments to campaign finance reform and addressing climate change, excited me. I was truly hopeful when he was elected. I thought the system might change.

Alas, Obama became the president of Wall St. bailouts, drone strikes, domestic spying, and oil production booms. His major accomplishment during his first term was the Affordable Care Act, but despite having control of both houses of congress, the Democrats capitulated to the for-profit insurance industry and didn’t even include a public option in the new law. I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt by saying the White House changed him. I believe he went into office with high ideals and that the office killed them. The weight of the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, the US intelligence establishment, corporate lobbying, etc., were too much for him to counter. So he went along with what was expected of him. He still talked smart on TV. He showed genuine emotion in tragic moments. He seems like a good guy. But behind the scenes, he continued the corporate sponsored, imperialistic status quo.

In late 2011, the Occupy movement was born. I didn’t live at the San Francisco or Oakland encampments, but I joined in defending them on several occasions, and participated in marches and direct actions, including a general strike that shut down the Oakland port. I also tried to keep some spiritual perspective on the events: “Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop.”

Occupy raised my awareness of the extreme economic inequality present in the United States and globally. Alongside American foreign policy and militarism, political economy now became one of the most crucial issues for me. Neoliberal capitalism is a religion, a political theology. Opposing it makes one an iconoclast. (Here’s a taste of how I have come to view the importance of political theology with help from process theologian Catherine Keller.)

Lesser evilism prevailed again in 2012 when I voted for Obama over Romney. I needn’t comment on my reasoning, as it should be obvious. I became even more cynical during Obama’s final term, criticizing his allegiance to the military-industrial complex and his support of neoliberal theology. I began to fall back into the somewhat escapist perspective of my late teens, the idea that progressive politics was pointless because real change could only unfold because of transformed human hearts. Obama was the most progressive president I could imagine winning office, and yet even he continued largely to defend and maintain the same old neoliberalism and militarism.

In mid-2015, I decided to take a chance on Bernie Sanders and hitched myself to his presidential campaign. He carried forward the spirit of the Occupy movement by rejecting the entire neoliberal establishment. It was obvious from the start of the 2016 Democratic primary that Hillary Clinton had already been chosen by Democratic power players. Nobody expected Sanders to make a dent. I made calls for him in state primaries all across the country. These phone conversations taught me how little most Americans kept up with the economic and political issues affecting them. It was discouraging. But I also realized the importance of authenticity to capture the attention of those who’d given up on politics. Even in places I thought would be solidly conservative, like West Virginia, people were open-minded. They were also very kind!

I won’t re-hash here what I’ve already written about the 2016 primaries as they unfolded (“Hillary v. Bernie and the Future of American Democracy,” “Democratic Socialism or Corporate Cronyism,” “In defense of other possibilities“). I will just say that it was clear enough to me as the primaries wound down that Clinton was the weaker candidate against Trump. The country was in the midst of a populist uprising and there was no way another (particularly unpopular) neoliberal corporate-funded centrist was going to win. Sanders spoke to the pain of the poor and working class people who didn’t trust Clinton. His authentic populist firebrand was the only antidote to Trumpism.

As recent events in France make clear, the populist uprising continues to unfold. Bernie is older and by no means the perfect candidate. But I have not seen anyone else yet who I believe can (a) win an election against Trump (or a more articulate right wing populist should Mueller’s investigation bring Trump down) and (b) at least begin the political revolution necessary to achieve the economic, social, racial, and ecological justice that this country and the world so desperately needs. Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, and Kamala Harris are possibilities, but I have nagging questions about each of them (Warren has voted for Trump’s military budgets, Gabbard seems to have a homophobia problem, and Harris hasn’t yet proven she is willing to follow through on crucial policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal).

Speculations on Obama’s Brain Initiative

Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), introduces President Obama as the “scientist-in-chief.” Collins’ “BioLogos” theory is a brand of theistic evolution I have to admit I am not all that familiar with. But I do think he is a good choice to head the NIH since he believes in the compatibility of science and religion, as the majority of Americans seem to.

Obama, for his part, does not begin his speech by situating the latest public investment in brain research in the context of human spirituality. That, of course, is a private matter. Rather, he immediately places this government-funded research in its proper economic context (i.e., techno-capitalism). Investing in science is important, he tells us. Why? Because sometimes it leads to important inventions, some of which may eventually make their way to the marketplace in the form of profitable products and services. If we’re really lucky, science might just lead to the creation of more jobs! The goal of this, and any scientific initiative, is not “understanding.” No, it is economic growth!

Not that Obama is entirely blind to the mystery being approached:

“The most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with. There’s this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. The Brain Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think, and how we learn, and how we remember. That knowledge could be–will be–transformative.”

Not to worry, Obama is going to appoint a presidential bio-ethics committee to make sure all the mystery explaining remains “safe” and all the re-programming remains “legal.” No unnecessary risks will be taken. The only necessary risks will be those whose eventual pay-off as techno-scientific capital can be calculated to outweigh any present cost in human life, liberty, and/or happiness.

Am I being too harsh? Surely there are a few people on the ethics board with a conscience… But is a conscience enough? Isn’t some deeper understanding of the interweaving of cosmos, psyche, and spirit also necessary to guide such research? I guess I’m just disappointed that our scientist-in-chief is a materialist who has totally bought in to the techno-capitalist dream of a future artificial earth whose perfection is won through the progress of industry. Obama seems to joke that one day, after we’ve “cracked the code” in the brain, even politics will be made more perfect by techno-science.

“If we knew everything about how the brain worked, presumably my life here would be simpler. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington… we could prescribe something…”

I suspect that human consciousness is a supreme mystery different in kind and not just more difficult in degree than the mere problems routinely solvable by the scientific method. Method cannot approach mystery. I’m not saying that we might not make important and beneficial medical discoveries as a result of investing in brain research. I’m certainly not saying that the brain should not be studied from as many angles as possible. I’m all for scientific inquiry. I’m just trying to air out the ideology I see painted all over Obama’s announcement. In this case it would certainly seem that the pursuit of scientific understanding has been co-opted by techno-capitalism. I must stick this initiative in the “Capitalist Sorcery” file.

I leave you with the words of a man who understood the difference between philosophical mysteries and scientific problems. Here is Alfred North Whitehead on “speculative Reason,” by which he means the human faculty that desires knowledge for its own sake:

“The speculative Reason is in its essence untrammeled by method. Its function is to pierce into the general reasons beyond limited reasons, to understand all methods as coordinated in a nature of things only to be grasped by transcending all method. This infinite ideal is never to be attained by the bounded intelligence of mankind. But what distinguishes men from the animals, some humans from other humans, is the inclusion in their natures, waveringly and dimly, of a disturbing element, which is the flight after the unattainable. This element is that touch of infinity which has goaded races onward, sometimes to their destruction. It is a tropism to the beckoning light–to the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world. Reason which is methodic is content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method. It works in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity. It is the discipline of shrewdness. Reason which is speculative questions the methods, refusing to let them rest. The passionate demand for freedom of thought is a tribute to the deep connection of the speculative Reason with religious intuitions” -pgs. 65-66, The Function of Reason (1929)