Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jerry Brown, 1995: theology, politics, civil liberties and corporate Democratic politics

"Theology is more important than politics." - Jerry Brown, 1975

Jerry still reflected that perspective 20 years later in an interview he did with The Progressive in 1995 that was published in their September 1995 issue:

Q: What did you learn from the time you spent in Calcutta with Mother Teresa and on spiritual retreat in Japan?

Brown: True spiritual practice teaches you to overcome your conditioning, your programming. From Zen, I learned how conditioned I was. From Mother Teresa, what it is like to observe the poorest of the poor, and how generous human beings can be.

You can either unselfconsciously follow your program or you can work to transcend it. That's what enlightenment is. That's what the Buddhists call nonattachment and the Jesuits call detachment. The precondition is to free yourself from, as they say, your addictions. In the religious context, they call it your attachments. Saint Ignatius, which I studied as a Jesuit novice, said you have to free yourself from inordinate attachment. Inordinate attachment, that means you crave, you need, you are dependent on desires for material things that distort your capacity for wisdom. If your consciousness is broadened and if you increase your awareness, then your action should follow, because action and consciousness are linked together. Even when we do dumb things, it's because we have a dumb idea in the back of our head. People who live selfish lives or spend their time building little private empires of greed are missing something.

Q: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

Brown: I would say I'm certainly aware of the world of spiritual practice. I've pursued it for many years of my life and I've also neglected it for many years of my life. [my emphasis]
As this quote shows, Jerry's religious views don't imply a theocratic perspective. But it does give him a real intellectual perspective from which to take a critical perspective of politics and society.

One of the biggest reasons people find Jerry's perspective puzzling is that they don't take account of his religious perspective. He actually is more familiar with philosophy and theology and thinks more in those terms of perhaps any major political figure in the US. I assume that people like Sarah Palin are serious about their professed religious convictions. But that's a whole different thing than having a general perspective rooted in reflective theological and spiritual thinking.

This is not something that every Democrat would find reassuring because of the very real concerns today about the commitment of today's Republican Party to Christianist theocratic ideas. But a real advantage it gives to Brown is that he actually understands religion and religious language in a way that other Democratic politicians don't and can reassure voters who may have real (as distinct from propagandist) concerns about the Democrats' alleged lack of respect for religion. He's also far less likely to be conned by the "theocracy lite" approach of the so-called "common ground" anti-abortion zealots than some other Democratic politicians have been.

This response is an example of Brown's intellectual/theological perspective, which basically none of our Pod Pundits today could process in any meaningful way:

Q: what would you'say to those people who doubt your sincerity based upon your background?

Brown: Well, I think that's a good place to start: with great doubt [laughs]. What is it they say--to achieve enlightenment you need great faith, great perseverance, and great doubt. All three working together.
At this point in his career in 1995, Jerry had left his role as head of the California Democratic Party to host a liberal national radio program. At the time of this interview, he had moved to Oakland to promote local community activism. Although he had described himself as a "recovering politician" in this period, he was presumably thinking of running for Oakland Mayor with his move to Oakland.

His interview is worth reading in full, not only for the perspective it gives on Jerry's own history but because he remained critical of the Clinton administration from a liberal/left perspective. Even though I was aware of his position on this, I was a bit jarred to read his harsh words for the civil liberties implications of the anti-terrorism legislation proposed by the Clinton administration in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Today, a suggestion to return to the Clinton administration, pre-Cheney standards of civil liberties would be regard by Republicans and most Democrats as practically a radical step. Here was Jerry's criticism in 1995:

I believe we have to look into our collective condition and we have to say, "Does this square with what we know to be right?" We can look to the Bible, we can look to our experience. How do we treat friends? Is this the standard that we're seeing applied? That's the analysis that's missing. And if we don't do that in some collective way, we're going to see the country continue to move in a fascistic direction.

If your approval ratings go up fifteen points after Oklahoma City where 168 people are killed, how do you think you react to that as a President? Do you care more about your poll ratings, or do you care more about those people whom you never met before? The system is rewarding things that shouldn't be rewarded. There's no reason why the President's polling should go up fifteen points. That is perverse. Just the measurement of that is perverse.

The FBI trots out its wish list and you get several hundred more agents and all the other agents combined are up to 1,000. And they get new powers of surveillance and infiltration. [my emphasis]
I should note here that Jerry, unlike today's Republicans, actually knows what the word "fascism" actually means and doesn't confuse it with every thing else than one might consider bad.

That passage also shows an example of how Jerry can reference the Bible as a source of values relevant to a moral judgment on politics without it sounding self-conscious and to promote what would be a liberal/left position in politics.

This is also a strong statement on the dangers of the loss of civil liberties:

The Supreme Court voted 6-3, with two of Clinton's appointees forming the majority, that if you want to play sports, the school can drug-test you, the state can drug-test you. The most significant part of this is again the tilt toward authority, toward subservience, toward obedience, toward a nation of sheep. You take the child's mind at a vulnerable age and you embed deeply in the consciousness of that child the idea that taking orders is what it's about to be an American. Take your pants down and pee in that little jar and we will send it to a certified laboratory. You won't see it, but you will know, you can believe, that the results will tell us whether you're clean or not. This is the way the state builds totalitarian consciousness. It's what Ivan Illich calls the "symbolic fallout" of the use of technology. The symbolic fallout of drug testing is that the child learns without even being able to debate it that his job is to follow orders even to the point of yielding up bodily fluids to the state to be evaluated by a process that he or she can't understand. That's true disempowerment.
This is an interesting example of how Jerry can draw meaningful distinctions that we just don't hear very much from our broken national press:

Q: Do you fear the far-right agenda?

Brown: I don't know about the far-right agenda. It's the survival agenda of the incumbents that I'm most concerned about. The militias are going in there and calling attention to the dangerous power-grab of the state. What do you have? You have the ACLU and the NRA, two groups that are not viewed by the establishment very seriously. So The New York Times did a piece comparing the militias to the Black Panthers, not ever drawing the conclusion that they both were talking about excess oppressive practices by the government. They drew the conclusion that, well, the Panthers were wacky, and now the militias are wacky. The Panthers committed crimes, but that doesn't mean that they weren't speaking from an authentic community and speaking heroically in many, many instances. And all these militia people are marching around because they think the state has been taken over. If you really look at it, the United States has certainly been submerged in a transnational system where one-person-one-vote or the checks-and-balances as envisioned by the founders in the Federalist Papers barely exist.
Here's one place where I wonder if Brown was taking the problem of far-right extremist politics seriously enough. But in the context, he was pointing to the civil-liberties concerns that concerned him and citing the diversity of criticisms in the same way that Glenn Greenwald often does. I would prefer to see these kinds of analyses be more specific about the distinctive and limited nature of far-right arguments that momentarily overlap with civil-liberties concerns.

But maybe that's not an appropriate criticism of a statement like that in which Jerry was stating that the Black Panthers were reacting to very real problems that the established system was not addressing back in the 1960s. You don't hear many politicians, and especially white politicians, making those kinds of comments in either 1995 or today. (Jerry's no dummy, so he obviously knew that those comments were likely to play better in Oakland than in many other places.)

Brown made a harsh criticism of the Cold War policies that had already in 1995 morphed into the Long War, though that name came from the Cheney era:

Q: What do you think the price is we're paying for all the murder and mayhem committed by the United States abroad?

Brown: I don't know about prices. It's wrong for the people who suffer. If you say human-rights violation, that's an abstract word. If you say castrating somebody, putting a balloon full of water down their throat, or cutting their arms off with electric saws--what they did in El Salvador and Guatemala--horrible, horrible things, cutting heads off, putting them on platters, that was reported by the Jesuit magazine America. Why is the money and prestige of America playing into that? The entire story of Haiti. That was an eye-opener to read. The people who were involved with the murders of Haiti were receiving American intelligence payments. So what is that all about? It appears to be a deeply corrupted form of activity that cannot be good for the American government, is not right morally, it is not good for the country, and it's kept a secret.

If we don't have morality at the top, how do you expect morality at street level? It's not going to work. Clinton had a drive-by shooting in Baghdad. [A 1993 bombing attack.] There was no war, there was no judicial order--not even a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It was just, "Let's send twenty-five Tomahawk missiles toward Baghdad." I believe a half dozen or more landed and eight people were killed. Now what's that? What's the moral label that you affix to that? Does he have a right to kill innocent people to send a message to Saddam Hussein? Those people didn't do anything. It was supposed to be about the alleged plot against [Old Man] Bush. What happened to the alleged plotters? They were not the ones who were killed. It's almost like burning a witch. It reminds me of the short story by Shirley Jackson, The Lottery, in which the town picks one person to be stoned every year. We need a few people to die, just to make an example of them. [my emphasis]
Finally, his criticism of the campaign-financing system and the ability of the wealthy to corrupt the democratic process is even more relevant today. He references his ploy in the 1992 Presidential campaign of setting a $100 limit on individual contributions to his Democratic primary campaign against Bill Clinton. And he ties foreign policy into his observation, which again is informed by a more general sense of morality based in his religious frame of thought:

Every one of these guys--Dole, Gramm--they're playing football, and in the football game of politics, you have to have the big bucks and the 1 percent who own 39 percent of all the assets. That power is the reality, unless you have an agenda for changing that reality, disrupting it, coming up with an alternative for the people to consider. ...

The experience of the $100 limit in the campaign, making fundraising no longer the key to the campaign, gave me a detachment and a separation to observe the incredible dependency of the politician, and therefore the government, on this very narrow band of people at the highest strata of the society. That goes contrary to the notion of a middle-class, almost class-less society, that the American political class likes to pretend we have. So that's on one level, the political.

Then as I read more about covert action, what the intelligence agencies are doing, and what really went on in Vietnam, in Grenada, in Reagan's bombing of Qaddafi, Clinton's bombing in Baghdad, or Bush's intervention in Panama, I realized that there is an immoral, inhuman kind of formula that is being pursued by the government.

And the magnitude of the injustice appears to be increasing. [my emphasis]
These are perspective worth keeping in mind as the Obama administration is again starting to play footsie with the anti-Social Security fiscal hawks, escalates its disastrous war in Afghanistan, backs off on its commitment to counter global warming and proceeds to gut the rule of law by continuing to use the Cheney-Bush military commissions and promoting extreme claims for government secrecy powers and surveillance.


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