Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Money Talks

We used to live in a Democratic society supported by a Capitalist economy. People knew that one system protected our rights and created our quality of life, and the other protected our wealth and created our standard of living. People used to know the difference and understood that each filled a different need in our culture. Now we live in a Capitalist society where Democracy is tolerated as long as it doesn't interfere with each citizen's right to become a millionaire, either by working up the corporate ladder, trading and investing, or winning the lottery. In such a society where standard of living trumps quality of life, money has become the foundation of every decision we make, it is the touchstone by which we measure our progress, it is the currency we use to express our beliefs.

Since the war began in Iraq, I have withheld my federal income tax as a protest against an illegal and immoral war. It was not good enough for me to say, "Not in my name," without also saying, "Not with my money." In this new society, money is more than just free speech, it is how we vote and I could no more have voluntarily helped pay for this war than I could have voted for George Bush in the last election. In each of the past three years I have given away approximately 30 percent of my gross income (which is not very large to begin with) to organizations that work to assist struggling families, send protective gear to military personel, and support our injured troops when they come home. Even though the IRS eventually catches up with me, I have felt as if I have been consistent in my cause and speaking in the language of our time -- money.

When I first noticed the shift in our societal structure back in the Reagan 1980s, I became disillusioned, frustrated with the change, fighting desperately to change it back, to save our Democracy. Now I see that money has become my vote and I can vote every day. I practice Democracy every time I choose to buy something -- or not buy something. I cast a vote for my beliefs by choosing where I shop and how my money is used. Every day, I am a vocal, voting, active citizen of this great nation just by being deliberate about where my money goes. There is such power in this, if we will only take it.

As the holidays draw near, it might be time to ask just what message you want to send with the money you spend. Every day is election day. How will you vote?

Friday, November 10, 2006

After the Rise

It was an interesting moment. I was elated at the election results, when I saw a photo of the crowd at George Allen's concession speech. There was a young woman in the crowd, young enough that this may have been her first time voting, and she was heartbroken. She looked the way I felt as I stayed up too late and too long two years earlier, watching what felt like the bottom falling away from everything I thought I knew about faith, compassion and our democracy. I felt so sorry for her, knowing the pain, the disbelief -- pondering the question, "How could the rest of America be so wrong?"

The divide we have been living with for the last six years rushed back into what had quickly become my idealized impression of what had happened at the polls this time. Americans have not suddenly snapped to their senses, finally seeing things my way, and now everything I've always dreamed we could be is just over the horizon. We are still a divided nation, only now many of those folks I so vehemently disagreed with on so many important issues are now disillusioned, sad, and lost. I know that feeling and I don't wish it on anyone.

I have always been of the belief that our democracy, though far from perfect, has cared for the needs of most of our people by gently swinging from right to left and back again -- teasing the fringes of total compassion with FDR's New Deal, and the fringes of bootstrap individualism with Reagan's trickle-down economics. I wonder now if these swings have become too extreme, destroying too much hope in the people who live on the side the swing does not favor.

Or maybe it's a good thing that more of us feel disenfranchised. As I wonder if my phone is being tapped or see the suspicious eyes of the police as I leave a free speech zone, maybe I have felt a small piece of what people of color or immigrants feel in our country every day. Is this what it will take for those of us who are privileged to understand what it's like to wonder if we will be caught up in a net of stereotypes and distrust? Will this bring us more compassion, or will it drive us away from each other, each to our own corners, ready to come out fighting for what we think is right?

In the social circles most familiar to me, compromise has become synonymous with surrender, and any talk of finding common ground, a betrayal of our cause, yet I'm seeing a middle ground -- a path that can't be spoken of for fear of losing my standing, my place at the table. Am I moving to the center the way many old friends did back in the 80s, as business and profit replaced the idealism we grew up with in the 60s? Or is it just that I am in my sixth decade of life and have seen too much conflict? There has to be a way to get this huge, dysfunctional, and disparate family that is called our nation to sit down and talk and find their common ground, and agree to disagree.

I am reminded of a story used to describe the difference between heaven and hell. A person dies and sees an angel who first shows them a picture of hell in which there is a great banquet table filled with the most glorious food. All the people there have three-foot long spoons and forks attached to their arms so that their arms cannot bend. Each person is desperately trying to feed themselves. Then the angel reveals the picture of heaven, and surprisingly it is exactly the same -- a great banquet table filled with the most glorious food and all the people there have three-foot long spoons and forks attached to their arms so that their arms cannot bend. Only in heaven, each person is reaching across the table, feeding someone else.