Why I’m Supporting Marianne Williamson’s Run for President

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent: Jos. 5:9A, 10-12; Ps. 34:2-7; 2 Cor. 5: 17-21; Lk. 15: 1-3, 11 32.

Recently, two very good friends challenged me about supporting Marianne Williamson’s run for president. “She has no chance,” they objected. “You should be supporting Bernie instead.”

Their remarks coupled with today’s familiar Gospel account of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son have prompted me to explain myself. The parable particularly as re-created by the French Nobel laureate, Andre Gide, is about a person like Marianne Williamson who eventually identified and escaped the oppressive reality we all take as normal. In Gide’s interpretation, Jesus’ parable is like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

So, today I want to describe what we might call the “deep politics” of Marianne Williamson. After all, it’s her spirituality (her deep politics) that first drew me to support her candidacy. Because of her more than 30 years of work as a spiritual teacher, we can know her more deeply than any other presidential candidate. And that’s important. Our interior lives – our thoughts and values – are finally shaped by our relationship with what we consider ultimately important. They are shaped by what some of us term “God.”

So, let me first talk about Marianne’s deep politics and then connect it with Gide’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son.

To begin with, I’m supporting Marianne Williamson because she represents the most radical candidate in the field “of thousands,” as she often jokes. Using the term “radical” here, I’m referring to its etymological meaning which derives from the Latin word radix meaning “root.”

Alone in the crowded field of Democratic candidates Marianne puts her finger on what’s really ailing our nation. It’s not primarily an economic or military problem. No, at root, it’s a deeply spiritual malady. Yes, ours is a spiritual problem!

The problem is that rather than “free and brave,” we’re all scared out of our wits. We subscribe to values that are 180 degrees opposed to those identified as ultimate by all the world’s great wisdom traditions – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheistic. At their deepest level, all of those traditions converge identifying compassion rather than fear as the supreme human value.

Ms. Williamson says it clearly: fear (which is the opposite of compassion) has us captive. Fear has us identifying Russians, Chinese, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBT community members, poor people in general, and even (at our borders) children and babies as somehow our enemies fundamentally unlike us and threatening us at every turn.

None of that is true, Marianne says. It’s quite the opposite. All of us have far more in common than anything that can possibly separate us. In fact – as she puts it – “There is really only one of us here.” We are not only sisters and brothers, we are really a single person. What I do to you, I do to myself.

That’s really the authentic teaching of Jesus, isn’t it? That’s the meaning of his words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We must love our neighbor because our neighbor is our self.

As Williamson explains, that conviction is what moved the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights campaigners and many who brought the Vietnam War to an end. It’s no accident, she says, that so many of the abolitionists and suffragettes were Quakers, that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher, and that anti-war activists like the Berrigan brothers were Catholic priests. Those are the great heroes of the land we call “America.” Like Marianne herself, they all recognized our fundamentally spiritual nature.

So, none of us should say all of this is too idealistic. Instead, we should realize that, in effect, Marianne Williamson is challenging Americans to live up to their faith claims. After all, 70% of us claim to be Christian. Then there are the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists I already mentioned, as well as atheists and those claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” As I said, all of those traditions, at their most profound level, converge in calls to liberty, equality, and fraternity.

And that brings me to Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son and its connection with Marianne Williamson’s deep politics. In what I’m about to say, I’m taking my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about JesusThere, Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

Crossan asks, what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and leaving home for good?

Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there. (Are you hearing overtones of Plato’s parable?)

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him.

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable returns me to Marianne Williamson, and how in these pivotal times she has followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable and calls the rest of us to go over the wall with her – to escape Plato’s cave and pass into the “other world” that is possible if only we take seriously the spiritual teachings of the world’s great traditions. Making that transition, she says, means becoming economically literate, re-learning American history, and internalizing what used to be called “Civics.”

So, don’t expect Ms. Williamson to directly invoke her spirituality during her presidential campaign. She’s won’t stump as some kind of preacher or moralist like Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee. Unlike those other two, Marianne is no come-lately to political analysis and policy recommendations. In fact, twenty years ago in her prescientHealing the Soul of America, she predicted the crisis we’re now experiencing in the person of Donald Trump. No, Williamson will stick to her policy positions – Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, college-debt forgiveness, raising the minimum wage, drastically reducing the inflated military budget, making reparations for slavery, and establishing a cabinet-level secretariat for children and youth.

But aren’t those what (since Bernie) have become the standard positions of progressive Democrats? Of course, they are. But in Marianne’s case, such positions are grounded in a vision honed and sharpened over more than 30 years of forging connections between her deep spirituality and her deep politics.

And that personal reality, that long-term genuineness is precisely what’s required for our world to abandon the destructive reality of business-as-usual – to go over the wall of our father’s compound, to leave Plato’s Cave.

The very profundity of her “deep politics” is precisely why I’m supporting the candidacy of Marianne Williamson. If you’re similarly intrigued, and want to hear her voice in the Democratic debates, please go here and contribute at least $1.00. She needs 65,000 donors to be included.

Testing Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (6th in a series on critical thinking)

Propaganda Model

Last week in this series on critical thinking, I attempted to connect Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with the work of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Necessary Illusions. There they alleged that the function of the mainstream media (MSM) is and has always been the dissemination of propaganda. It’s purpose is to create a shadow world far removed from reality. In other words, President Trump is largely correct: fake news is the rule, not the exception. So, for instance, is fake history, fake economics, and fake religion.

Chomsky and Herman don’t expect readers of Necessary Illusions to simply accept their allegations. Instead, they propose testing the model’s predictions (enumerated in last week’s posting).  The first step in doing so identifies “paired examples.” These involve similar controversial actions, performed by the United States or its client states on the one hand, and by “designated enemies” on the other.

In Necessary Illusions many such pairings are provided – all of them, of course, taken from the 1980s, when the book was published. Then U.S. involvement in Central American wars (especially in Nicaragua) dominated the news. While historically “dated,” the examples still communicate what the authors mean by paired examples. In addition, even dated case studies can prove useful to research in order to broaden one’s historical knowledge, while at the same time testing the model’s predictions. (More current examples will be suggested below.) Those given by Chomsky and Herman include[1]:

  • Celebration of elections in (client state) El Salvador (widely criticized for their meaninglessness in Europe) vs. media adoption of the U.S. official account that the 1984 elections in (designated enemy) Nicaragua either never occurred or were hopelessly rigged, even though the Nicaraguan elections were praised internationally for their freedom and fairness (66-67).
  • The defense and rationalization of the U.S. downing of the Iranian air bus in 1988, vs. the furor over the earlier Soviet destruction of KAL 007 (34).
  • The lack of comment on Indochinese injuries and fatalities caused by U.S. mines left behind after the Vietnam war, and on the refusal of the United States to supply minefield maps to civilian mine-deactivation squads, vs. the denunciation of the Soviet Union for the civilian casualties caused by their mines in Afghanistan, where they did provide maps to assist mine clearing units (35).
  • Media indignation aroused in 1988 over alleged plans to build chemical weapons factories in Libya, vs. the media’s lack of concern for the extensive civilian casualties in Indochina caused by U.S. chemical warfare there through its use of Agent Orange (38-39).
  • The sympathetic support given Israel for its repeated invasions and bombings in Lebanon even in the absence of immediate provocation, vs. the identification of Nicaraguan “hot pursuit” of Contras across its unmarked border with Honduras as an “invasion” of a sovereign state (54-55).
  • The press position that Soviet provision of MIG fighter planes to Nicaragua would legitimate a U.S. invasion of that country, vs. media acceptance of the threat posed to Nicaragua by U.S. shipment of F-5 fighter planes to neighboring Honduras (55-6).
  • Portrayal of the World Court as the culprit, when the United States was condemned for its support of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986, vs. press astonishment over Iran’s lawlessness when it refused to recognize the Court’s adverse decision during the hostage crisis of 1979 (82).
  • Portrayal of the World Court as the culprit, when the United States was condemned for its support of the Nicaraguan Contras in 1986, vs. press astonishment over Saddam Hussein’s lawlessness when he refused to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction, when it ordered him to cease his occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
  • Press outcry over the genocide of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, vs. its silence about the proportionately larger-scale slaughter in East Timor at the hands of U.S.-backed Indonesian invaders (156).
  • Criticism of Soviet failure to pay its U.N. dues, vs. silence about U.S. debts in the world body (222).
  • Focus on Nicaragua’s alleged failures to live up to the Esquipulas II accords, vs. relative silence about the much worse records of client states, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (239).
  • The extensive media coverage given the 1984 murder of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko in (designated enemy) Poland by policemen who were quickly apprehended, tried, and jailed, vs. the comparatively little space given the murder of 100 prominent Latin American religious martyrs, including the Archbishop of San Salvador and four raped American churchwomen, victims of the U.S.-backed security forces (137, 146-47).

Paired examples with more contemporary relevance might include:

  • The San Bernardino shooting on December 2, 2015 by Muslim, Rizuan Farook and Tashfeen Malik vs. the January 29th, 2017 shooting in a Quebec City mosque by white nationalist and supporter of Donald Trump, Alexandre Bissonette.
  • The U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program announced by President Obama vs. suspicions that Iran might have initiated a program to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • Iran’s nuclear weapons program vs. Israel’s.
  • Monroe Doctrine justifications for U.S. attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s vs. Russian justifications for its invasion of the Ukraine beginning in 2014.
  • Russian and Syrian atrocities in the Battle for Aleppo in 2016 vs. similar acts by the U.S. and Iraq in the Battle for Mosul that same year.
  • Stories on Cuban political prisoners vs. stories on U.S. political prisoners.
  • Islam as an inherently violent religion vs. Christianity as an inherently violent religion.
  • The Jewish Holocaust at the hands of Germans vs. the Native American Holocaust at the hands of European settlers.
  • Alexander Putin as a “murderer” vs. Barack Obama as a “murderer.”

Testing such paired examples involves

  • Locating news reports of both incidents in the mainstream media, e.g. The New York Times.
  • Counting the number of articles devoted to each incident.
  • Measuring the column inches devoted to each
  • Comparing the reporting of each incident, noting:
    • The source-bases of the articles in question and whether they conform to Chomsky’s predictions as earlier described.
    • Whether there are significant language differences in the reports of the “paired examples.”
    • The significance of the differences.
    • How the quality of evidence advanced or demanded in each case differs. (E.g. Is a “smoking gun” required for alleged U.S. crimes, while something less is tolerated as proving the crimes of designated enemies?)
    • Whether conclusions are drawn or implied about evil intent on the part of “designated enemy” leaders, while similar actions by the U.S. or its clients are excused or rationalized.
    • Whether conclusions are drawn or implied about the corruption and unworkability of the “designated enemy’s” system, while similar actions by the U.S. or its clients are explained in terms of exceptional crimes by officials at the lowest level possible.
    • Whether arrests, trials or convictions are accepted as indications that the system in question does work or that it doesn’t.

Conclusion:

Both Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Chomsky’s propaganda model suggest that the problem of fake news has been with us for a long time. Even more importantly: critiquing it goes much deeper than merely analyzing what appears in the newspapers, on television or online. Instead, critical thinking often challenges its practitioners to make a 180 degree turn away from accepting what we’ve been told by beloved parents, teachers, priests, ministers, politicians, other public figures and friends.

No wonder it’s so intimidating to walk through our prison’s open cell door!

(Next week: My own journey from egocentrism towards Cosmo-centrism)

[1] Here all page references are to Chomsky, Noam. Necessary illusions. Toronto, ON: CBC Enterprises, 1990.

Noam Chomsky & Plato’s Allegory: It’s All Fake News (5th in a series on critical thinking)

Plato TV

Last week I reviewed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in an attempt to show that problems of “alternative fact” and “fake news” have been with us a long time.

In their book, Necessary Illusions, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in effect, connect Plato’s parable to contemporary controversy about truth in reporting. The authors do so by explaining what they call the Propaganda Model of information dissemination through ethnocentric political discourse, education, and especially the mainstream media.

For Chomsky and Herman, such information sources create for us an unreal shadow world that fails to take into account the realities of the world’s unseen majority whose lives are shaped by U.S. domination. Besides explaining that theory, the authors offer a way of testing its veracity. This week let me explain the propaganda model and its predictions. Next week I’ll show how to test both.

To begin with, the propaganda model holds that the mainstream media function as vehicles of propaganda intended to “manufacture consent” on the part of our culture’s majority – often described within the cave as “special interests.” The majority includes workers, labor unions, the indigenous, family farmers, women, youth, the elderly, the handicapped, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, etc. The MSM and those they represent seek to secure the latter’s consent for policies favoring what is termed “the national interest.” This, according to propagandists, is the province of corporations, financial institutions and other business elites. Such interests in turn are served not only by the media, but by elected officials, educational institutions, churches, and so on. These latter often represent resistant grassroots movements as threats, since such movements actually seek greater influence on national life.

To control such tendencies, the media in the United States defines the limits of national debate within boundaries set by a two party system of wealthy government officials, by unquestioned patriotism, support for the free market, vilification of designated enemies (e.g. ISIS, Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea . . .) and support for official friends (e.g. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain . . .). Support for such “client states” ignores their objectionable actions that often parallel and even surpass similar acts committed by designated enemies.

None of this means that “liberal” criticism is excluded from the national media. On the contrary, such criticism of either government officials (like Donald Trump) or the corporate elite is common. However, the media never allow serious criticism of either the free enterprise system as such, nor of the American system of government.

Testing this model involves comparing its predictions with specific stories as reported, for instance, in the New York Times often referred to as the nation’s “paper of record.” The predictions include the following:

  • More articles will be devoted to the “atrocities” of designated enemies than to similar actions by the U.S. or its clients.
  • Less space (column inches) will be similarly allocated for reporting the alleged crimes of the U.S. or its clients.
  • In either case, story sources will tend to be American government officials and intellectuals (university professors, think tank experts, conservative churchmen) friendly to U.S. policy.
  • The reporting of “enemy” crimes will devote comparatively little space to the “official explanations” of the governments in question.
  • It will depend more heavily U.S. government spokespersons, on opposition groups within the offending countries concerned and on grassroots accounts.
  • The crimes and “atrocities” of designated enemies will be explained in terms of a corrupt and unworkable system.
  • On questionable evidence or with none at all, the crimes and atrocities of “designated enemies” will be attributed to the highest levels of government.
  • Meanwhile the crimes of the U.S. or its client states will be denied, rationalized or otherwise excused.
  • Incontrovertible proof (a “smoking gun”) will be demanded to prove the “crimes” of the U.S. or its friends.
  • If admitted, these crimes and atrocities will be explained as exceptional deviations by corrupt individuals (at the lowest level possible).
  • The ultimate conclusion drawn from the discovery of crimes along with any resulting trials and convictions will be that the “system works.”

This bias will be revealed not only in the ways noted above, but by differences in language (words, phrases, allusions) employed in writing the articles in question.

Again, next week I’ll show how Chomsky and Herman suggest testing this model and its predictions.

Series on Critical Thinking, Part One: It’s Not What You Think!

Plato's tv cave

This is the first in a series on critical thinking. Its immediate inspiration was the controversy on this blog site sparked by my April 16th entry on the Boston Marathon bombing (see below on this site). Many of the most critical responses showed that their authors did not understand where I was coming from in terms of my own remarks about severity and the “blowback” nature of the tragedy in Boston. I had written that the Boston tragedy was minor compared to the havoc wrought virtually every day in the Muslim world by U.S. drone attacks. Moreover those attacks by U.S. weapons of mass destruction evoked anger and desire for revenge on the parts of their victims. So “Americans,” I suggested, should expect more tragedies like Boston.

In truth, my point of departure was not (as some critics alleged or implied) anti-Americanism or insensitive gloating over the sufferings of the Marathon victims. Far from it, I love the United States; it is my place of birth; I consider myself highly patriotic. Like most people in the world, my heart went out to the dead, maimed and injured in Boylston Square.

However, I am also a teacher of critical thinking and have been for more than 40 years. During that time I’ve developed criteria – 10 of them – for thinking critically about history, politics, economics and religion. For me the essence of critical thought entails the ability to judge oneself (and one’s country) as objectively as possible (i.e. without ego-centrism or ethnocentrism). To that end, the criteria I’ve developed include

1. REFLECT SYSTEMICALLY
2. EXPECT CHALLENGE
3. REJECT NEUTRALITY
4. SUSPECT IDEOLOGY
5. RESPECT HISTORY
6. INSPECT SCIENTIFICALLY
7. QUADRA-SECT VIOLENCE
8. CONNECT WITH YOUR DEEPEST SELF
9. DETECT SILENCES
10. COLLECT CONCLUSIONS

As anyone can see, such criteria are not those one ordinarily finds in critical thinking textbooks – at least not those historically employed at Berea College where I taught for more than 36 years. Standard approaches provide tools for analyzing the thinking process itself. They instruct students in logic, common fallacies, and how to evaluate statements, evidence, statistics and information. Diagrams used to illustrate this understanding of critical thinking often look like the following:

critical-thinking

In many ways “thinking about thinking” accurately describes the project pictured above. According to this understanding, thinking critically is about thought processes and their logic. Once articulated and clarified, the new understandings are applied to cases such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration, and war. Without doubt, this understanding of the discipline is valuable and necessary for any serious scholarship or indeed for responsible citizenship.

However, the problem with this kind of thinking is that it can ignore questioning its own “parameters of perception.” It can work within cultural, institutional and ideological premises that largely remain unquestioned. It can proceed quite successfully without seriously questioning or even acknowledging the possibility of alternatives to existing ideologies, laws, institutions, power relationships, and customs. One can think about the Marathon bombing, for instance, without considering the accuracy of one’s accepted historical narrative about the role of the United States in the world or about the “institutional violence” that might have provoked the atrocity.

By way of contrast, critical thinking as explored in this series will address such neglected elements. The operative image here will be Plato’s Cave. Its representation looks like this:

PlatoCave

About 2500 years ago Plato described the human condition as characterized by a tragic absence of critical thought as I’m proposing it here. We live, Plato said, like people in a cave where they’ve been imprisoned all their lives. They remain there chained in a way that prevents them from moving about. They face a wall unable to move even to see directly the others who like them are chained alongside. However the wall the prisoners face is not blank. This is because a fire burns behind the captives and casts their shadows on the wall much as a movie projector would in a dark theater. And that’s their only image of themselves – shadows.

However other shadows appear on the wall as well. They are cast by people walking behind the prisoners along the “roadway” pictured above. The walkers carry statues of all kinds of things – animals, trees, gods . . . . Viewing those shadows, the prisoners think that life is unfolding before them. Moreover, the “wise” among the prisoners – the teachers – become very good at describing the shadows and at predicting the sequence of their appearance. In terms relevant here, their discourses are taken as expressions of “critical thought.” However, their wisdom describes shadows in an artificial world.

Eventually one of the prisoners escapes the cave and discovers the real world and the sun which makes life possible. The escapee returns to the cave to inform the prisoners of this discovery. The escapee’s intention is to introduce real “criticism.” Far from welcoming him, the other prisoners threaten to kill him.

Plato, of course, was writing about his mentor, Socrates whom the citizens of 5th century BCE Athens actually did kill for teaching what I’m calling here “critical thinking.” They interpreted his project as “corrupting the youth,” because it called into question the “doxa” of their day. The Greek term, doxa, referred to the “of course” statements that go unquestioned everywhere. Our culture is full of them: “The United States” is the best country in the world.” Of course it is! “Ours is the highest standard of living.” Of course! “’We’ are good; ‘they’ are evil.” Of course!

The critical thinking I intend to pursue here is about critiquing doxa; it’s about questioning parameters of perception; it’s about escaping the cave.

More specifically, what I intend to expose here attempts to provide tools for subjecting society’s underlying narratives, along with its economic and political structures and ideologies to careful yet easily accessible analysis. Moreover, it starts not from a place of supposed neutrality, but from a place of commitment to a world with room for everyone. Commitment in one form or another is inescapable.

Consequently this approach to critical thought not only analyzes reasons for such commitment; it evaluates as well ideologies that contradict that vision. This approach will be historical and involve examination of “official” and “competing” narratives about the past. It will treat violence as a multi-dimensional phenomenon connected with structures of political economy, the struggle for survival, and police enforcement of “rules of the game” that benefit some and hurt others. The approach centralized here will give key importance to spirituality and the clear articulation of conclusions about the world and the historical patterns at work there.

My approach will also recognize that some of the best and most engaging stimuli for critical thought are can be found in popular culture’s most powerful and engaging medium, Hollywood film, as well as from outstanding documentaries. So most blog entries on this topic will include film illustration.

My hope is that readers will find these Wednesday blog entries interesting and helpful and worthy of their “critical” feedback.