Monday, November 15, 2004

Rarely am I at a loss for words. Yet, I have to acknowledge that President Bush’s re-election left me (and, it seemed, almost everyone I came across) speechless for hours. A heady trip to Harvard Square in the blue state of Massachusetts helped me to regain my voice.

The president’s victory was not what surprised me so much — he is an incumbent wartime president, after all. It was the brilliant way in which conservatives managed to hijack the moral high ground, mainly on the same-sex “marriage” issue that affects so few people. Those ballot initiatives in 11 key states were more than helpful in boosting Mr. Bush’s margin of black voters from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent this time, the Harvard analysts and scholars suggest.

Why weren’t a majority of all voters, especially those who are losing their jobs, more worried about the economy and the impact of poverty? Isn’t poverty a moral issue? Isn’t avarice a moral issue, too? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the poor: These are not the top tenets of the Southern, conservative party.

“When did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American?” asked Jim Wallis, editor of the District-based Sojourners: Christians for Peace and Justice magazine, during last week’s annual meeting of the Monroe E. Trotter Group, a society of black columnists and editorial writers.

During a session asking, “Is there too much God in U.S. politics?” Mr. Wallis, who is white and worked in the South during the civil rights move-ment, said, “Martin Luther King talked about religion in a way that is welcoming, i.e., the beloved community.”

For example, “Thou shall not kill” is a Christian creed.

So, what about war? Mr. Wallis asked rhetorically. Dare we speak of racism, another moral issue?

“Battleground” Americans — who live nowhere near the terrorist battleground — became more fearful of meeting Osama bin Laden at the market than of being able to buy the high-priced produce being sold there. Census Bureau statistics indicate that 1 million more people dropped below the poverty line and more became uninsured in the past four years. Mr. Bush’s “culture of ownership” is a pulp phrase that does not bode well for the working poor.

The Rev. Ray Hammond of Boston, president of the Ten Point Coalition, rightly asked, “What are our obligations in a pluralistic society?” Like others, he suggested that politicians, theologians and the faithful alike will have to reach across the great divide in this country — as evidenced by the 51 percent to 48 percent overall vote split between Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry — to find common ground to forge solutions to contentious issues. Right now, we are just “lobbing bombs” at one another, Mr. Hammond said.

“There is a theology and politics of fear that we must counter with the politics of hope,” Mr. Wallis said.

The Trotter Group listened for days as scholars presented disheartening studies about the inequities and injustices in education, housing, jobs and heath care, resulting in diametrically opposed voting patterns between blacks and whites in America today.

For example, Brandeis University professor Thomas Shapiro, author of “The Hidden Cost of Being African-American” and “Black Wealth/White Wealth,” presented his case studies that indicate that homeownership and home equity are helping to create a “wealth gap” in which blacks’ family wealth is 10 cents for every dollar of whites’, or $8,000 to $80,000.

Back to “a politics of hope.” A most-inspiring moment came from pre-eminent economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He said, “I never think of anything as finished. There can always be corrections and improvements. Let’s never doubt that.”

For liberals who were bold enough to come out of hiding during this past election cycle, take heart.

When I posed a question about the supposed death of liberalism, the 96-year-old Harvard professor and an ambassador during President Kennedy’s administration, said, “Nothing improves liberal democracy in the United States so much as opposition.” Further, “every mistake [of the opposition] will make liberalism and race relations stronger.”

However, the politically astute Mr. Galbraith “didn’t see [Mr. Bush’s victory] coming.” He said Mr. Kerry should have been “more aggressively liberal,” particularly on the issues of the economy. But he doesn’t fully fault Mr. Kerry for his loss. “I hold blame for the American people,” he said.

Mr. Galbraith, who uses a wheelchair, was a towering Democratic Party operative who spearheaded “the war on poverty” and the anti-Vietnam War movement. A prolific writer, he is best known for his books “American Capitalism” and “The Affluent Society,” in which he advocated for government spending to fight unemployment and using more of the nation’s wealth for public services and less for private consumption. He pointed out that the Rockefellers, for example, are remembered not for their oil but for their humanitarian efforts.

“I think we make a mistake if we do not see that the modern focus of power is in the corporate structure,” said the former editor of Fortune magazine. “We still have a grossly unequal distribution of income” in this country.

Words of wisdom, Mr. Galbraith advised: “Those of us who have privilege, such as we have here at Harvard, and those of you who have the privileged roles in the media and have other access to good fortune” must continue to fight for justice and equality.

“That is the nature of liberalism, and nobody should be backwards about his or her responsibility for improving the well-being of others.

“And possibly, we should allow a certain enjoyment, a certain satisfaction, in causing annoyance for those who have it too good.”

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