John Steiner: From Israel, Call for Politics of Heroism versus Hope

John Steiner

Phi Beta Iota:  The full combination of pieces is strongly recommended as  a total read.  The contributing author whose work has been forwarded by Brother John makes a fundamental ethical and intellectual mistake, assuming that there is a significant difference between the Democratic and Republican parties.  Not so.  This is not an either/or choice between two evils.  True heroism demands a “neither” choice, and a demand for an Electoral Reform Summit in time to open November 2012 to all eight qualified parties, not just the two-party tyranny that fronts for those it has corrupted (business does not corrupt government — government shakes down business when it chooses to be corrupt).  Learn more about imminent possibilities demanding only public intelligence and public integrity, at

Dear Friend,

Below please find “From A ‘Politics of Hope’ To A ‘Politics of Heroism’,” recently published by Tikkun (see their spring issue on Occupy — It is an attempt to describe the politics that will be required, likely for the rest of our lives, if human civilization and American democracy are to be saved.

The very real possibility that the Republicans could take the Presidency, House and Senate in 2012 – if the European economic crisis and Chinese slowdown harms the U.S. economy and swing voters understandably conclude Obama just means more of the same – makes electoral politics a top priority for the next 5 months. A Republican sweep, combined with our absurdly politicized “Supreme Court”, will vastly increase unprecedented postwar  suffering as U.S. elites continue to destroy the economy and safety net, cause climate catastrophe, and pursue an insane  “counterrorism” policy that increases the likelihood of future 9/11s  and domestic police-state measures in response.

At the same time, however, an Obama victory will  clearly at best merely slow down U.S. elites’ destruction of America and human civilization. It is long past time to shed the illusion that electoral politics can rescue us and to understand that the U.S. and world can only be saved if millions realize that they must engage in mass grassroots politics not out of hopes for short-term results but because, like Howard Zinn, they find they cannot live with themselves if they do not.

And that means me. And you.

A friend recently asked whether hope wasn’t a better basis for action than despair. I responded, half tongue in cheek, that “I think it is a trap to ‘hope’ for significant results in the foreseeable future. I might even go so far as to say that ‘despair’ is a much better basis for action than ‘hope’. If you are motivated by despair you will rarely be disappointed and keep on going. If you are motivated by ‘hope’ you will usually be disappointed and much more likely to drop out or get burned out. Maybe we need to really feel our despair more, not less.” Ideally, of course, we would be motivated by both our despair and our love for justice and our fellow suffering humans.

We each face a basic decision of how much more we can take till we throw ourselves into the political fray. Like many I know, I personally have had other priorities than politics for much of the past few decades. But  at this point I don’t see an alternative to increased  political engagement if we are to save our nation and world. I believe a broad-based movement is necessary and support everything from Occupy and Codepink* to trying to elect sane and decent people to the House and Senate. We can each make a contribution to weakening elite and increasing popular power according to our inclinations and abilities. No one course of action will save us. But it seems to me that without vastly increased grassroots political action we can say goodbye to all our beliefs, dreams and yes, hopes, for our nation, world and all those who will follow us.


*For a moving example of the ”Politics of Heroism”,  check out Medea Benjamin’s recent courageous  confrontation <> (at 24 minutes, 49 seconds) with U.S. “Counterterrorism” Chief John Brennan who, with David Petraeus, is directing the largest secret police assassination project in history in the 1.8 billion strong Muslim world. This “counter-terrorism”  policy <>  is not only illegal but has dramatically weakened U.S. national security: it has vastly strengthened U.S. enemies, enormously weakened U.S. allies, exponentially increased the ranks of potential suicide bombers, caused hundreds of millions of Muslims to regard the U.S. as their “enemy”, and vastly increased the likelihood of nuclear materials falling into terrorist hands and more domestic 9/11s. It is the greatest strategic disaster in American history. Brennan’s and Petraeus are thus endangering not protecting America. Their policies pose not only a threat to those they unilaterally execute without proof or trial, but you, me and every one we care about and love.



Human beings are capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But they have to feel and believe that what they are doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful. The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up … the problem of heroics is the central one of human life.”
— Ernest Becker, Denial of Death

As (Vaclav) Havel wrote (from) prison, it is crucial to resist ‘resignation, indifference, the hardening of the heart; otherwise one (becomes) ‘entirely absorbed in the problem of his own metabolism.’
— Mark Hertsgaard, Earth Odyssey

Millions of rational Americans will increasingly face a fundamental question in the coming decade: “can I live with myself if I fail to engage politically, however hopeless it may seem,  to try and save both human civilization from global climate change and the U.S. economy and democracy at home.” This means you. This means I. If enough of us decide individually to commit to acting politically, our species will be saved. If not it won’t.

The kind of politics required to save our nation and world is fundamentally different from Barack Obama’s electoral “Politics of Hope”, which seeks to motivate people by the hope of short-term victories.  For today’s assaults on the biosphere needed for human life itself, and a combination of U.S. elites’ economic mismanagement and use of the public’s fear of terrorism to move America ever-closer to becoming a police-state, means that meaningful short-term victories are increasingly unlikely. Only a very different kind of politics, hearkening back to the early days of the Civil Rights and peace movements, what we may call here a “Politics of Heroism”, can save our nation and world. And this politics will depend upon millions of ordinary Americans deciding to commit to sustained political action, on a scale ever greater than the ’60s. It will depend, in short, on each of us. And the interesting part is that those of us who engage it automatically become heroes by doing so – whether or not we succeed.

A “Politics of Heroism” occurs when millions of people come to feel they can no longer live with themselves unless they confront their leaders’ unjust, undemocratic, violent, unfeeling and illegal activities, as when these words of Mario Savio helped galvanize a generation in 1965:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Never before in human history has a generation been given such an opportunity for genuine heroism. The same fate that has made us the first generation to face the growing possibility that we will destroy human civilization by our own hand through climate change and/or nuclear catastrophe has also given us unprecedented opportunities to lead “heroic, timeless and supremely meaningful” lives.

Conscious human beings have always sought to be more than their “metabolism”, to live lives of meaning that transcended their individual lives and creature-deaths.        None before us, however, have had so great an opportunity to become authentic not invented heroes,  to  live lives of supreme not partial, eternal not temporal, universal not limited, self-created not inherited,  meaning.

Humans beings since time immemorial have wished to live on in the genes and fond memories of their offspring and future generations, liberate their societies from oppression, serve their communities, make lasting contributions in their professions and leave behind works of art that would be admired forever. But we are among the first humans  in history who are called to the highest mission of all: saving  all human civilization for millennia to come.

We have clearly arrived at an evolutionary watershed: the first time that  our species is heading toward species-suicide by its own hand. If we act politically to try and save it we will know a heroism that none before us have experienced. Our inner desire to live lives of meaning will be remembered for all time to come, as long as humans in whatever number still walk this earth.

So engrained is the drive for heroism that the mythologist Joseph Campbell found “the Hero’s Journey” a common motif in every human culture since the beginning of recorded time. Every society has honored the famous and everyday heroes who sacrificed themselves for the good of their community.

But the problem of heroics is also central to human life because, as Becker also noted, our desire to be more than our own metabolism has been too often perverted by the false heroics of nationalism, ideology or religion. U.S. nationalism both provided high domestic living standards to millions at a cost of the genocide of Native Americans, slavery of African-Americans,   Hiroshima, and the murder, maiming and making homeless of over 20 million Indochinese and Iraqis alone*. Communist ideology saw the slaughter and imprisonment of tens of millions of Russians and Chinese. No institution has committed more mayhem than organized religion.

But there is no serious downside to an heroic effort today to avert catastrophic climate change. Doing so will not only save hundreds of millions of lives and keep the biosphere livable for all life for all time to come. It will also require a clean energy economic revolution that will lay the basis for a  new wave of economic prosperity, and preserve democracy threatened by inevitable authoritarian responses to economic breakdown.

By definition, a “Politics of Heroism” involves discomfort and risk, and can fail. But it also confers a deep inner meaning and purpose to life which has caused millions over the centuries  to risk their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to engage in it.

We have thus been offered the most sublime human opportunity of all: to participate in an heroic  movement to preserve all human achievement and  make possible its continuation for all human time to come. We need of course to continue working on the many other issues of injustice that plague our time. But this work  will  only ultimately matter if we succeed in saving human civilization itself.

What Is To Be Done

There is a strong case for working for President Obama and Democratic candidates in 2012, given the unthinkable threat to America posed by the possibility of a Republican President, Senate and House. But it is critical to realize that even an Obama victory in 2012 will at best continue the gridlock of the past 4 years, and do little if anything to arrest climate change, the erosion of democracy, or America’s decline.

If civilization and America is  to be saved, therefore, millions will need to look beyond the 2012 election and the President’s “Politics of Hope” for short-term results. For if we are motivated by  such hopes, we can become  “hopeless”, “resigned” or “indifferent”  when they do not materialize – as has already occurred with countless young Obama voters who hoped he would change Washington’s sick culture,  make progress on averting climate catastrophe, or limit illegal Executive power.

People who engage in the kind of “Politics of Heroism” that genuinely transforms society – such as the civil rights, anti-apartheid, Eastern European pro-democracy movements – do so in the first instance not out of short-term hopes for external success, but an internal commitment to  freedom, justice and survival. Charles McDew, the impossibly brave head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi in the early 60s, recalls that he and his compatriots did not hope to survive more than a few years, let alone triumph in their lifetimes. They acted not out of  the expectation of short-term results but an internal compulsion to fight for justice and life no matter what the cost.

We need today a similar politics in which millions act to save humanity because each one of us both feels we have no choice but to act, regardless of how hopeful or hopeless short-term prospects for success may appear.

Of course, a “Politics of Heroism” hopes for  results, and ideally is driven by a vision of a better society such as that expressed by the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ call for a Spiritual Covenant with America, Global Marshall Plan, and Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution (ESRA).

And a “Politics of Heroism” is defined by people acting on behalf of both their values and identifiable goals. The standard for such actions should be whether they offer promise of weakening elite power and/or promoting such urgent concrete needs as single-payer health insurance, a carbon tax, breaking up “too big to fail” banks, taxing the wealthy, protecting social programs  vital to those in need, reducing the military budget and so forth.

And if the Sixties has taught us anything, a key need for a “Politics of Heroism” to succeed is to avoid factionalism and  infighting. For such a politics to succeed it will have to be broad-based and embrace efforts ranging from the welcome civil disobedience of Occupy, Code Pink, and anti-Keystone campaigners, to electoral efforts to keep the Republicans from winning the Presidency, Senate and House in 2012.

But while there is much to do, and of course we all hope for short-term results, mere action and hope will not create the movement needed to save humanity. Something far deeper is needed.


While millions of participants will eventually be needed for a new “Politics of Heroism” to succeed, its essential unit is the individual, and the choice she or he can make at any time to engage politically to save his or her society.

No one has better described what this individual choice is about than The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon delivered two months to the day before he was assassinated. After echoing Campbell’s finding that what King called the “Drum Major Instinct” to be “great” is universal – and often perverted – he ended by saying:

“Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral, then I ask myself, `What is it that I would want said?’ If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important.

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice … for peace … for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

Dr. King’s message was that he did not want to be remembered for his external successes. He did not even mention leading the Civil Rights movement or passing the Civil Rights Act. He felt that what mattered was how he had personally chosen to lead his life regardless of results.

When I asked one of my other heroes, Boston University Professor Howard Zinn,  why he still struggled for social justice at age 86 when by his own definition there was little rational hope for success in his lifetime he responded, “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”

We are clearly in the early stages of the worst and most prolonged crisis humanity has ever faced. It can only be met if millions of us, like King and Zinn, decide that we cannot live with ourselves if we do not  act politically to try and avert this crisis. Of course in doing so we will hope to eventually prevail. But such hopes will not be the essential source of the far deeper and personal motivation needed to succeed.


Though the decision to commit politically is a personal one, the need for heroes is directly related to external conditions. The worse they are,  the more heroes are needed and the more is demanded of them. We live in such a time today, as America faces a long-term season of decline in a world threatened by the end of human civilization as we know it. Of course things are not yet as bad as during the 1930s or World War II. But, if present climate and nuclear proliferation trends continue, experts warn they threaten an even greater loss of life and devastation in coming decades. Humanity has never had a greater need for heroes in its history.

The organizing principle of an American “Politics of Heroism” must be to weaken the power of the  U.S. elites to continue leading their nation to economic, foreign policy, domestic and biospheric ruin. What is needed is not only an environmental movement directly focused on climate change.  Any action in the economic, political, national security or social spheres that reduce harmful elite power will contribute to saving civilization. The criterion by which any political action must be judged is whether it significantly moves America and the world in a life-sustaining direction.


The fact that America is in decline is not open to serious dispute. Although all experts agree that the key to economic growth is education and infrastructure, for example, U.S. teachers are being laid off and school performance is declining – even as our roads, ports and bridges rot before our very eyes. As Gus Speth has reported, <>  the U.S. lags not only in education and infrastructure but most other international indicators of societal wellbeing. Even should the economy not fall into a long-term recession or worse, living standards for the many will continue to stagnate or decline until  financial and corporate  incompetence, and greed and focus on short-term profits is ended.

When societies start to decline, nothing is as it once was. What succeeded in the past accelerates decline in the present and future. When the American economy  was growing, for example,  undeserved elite incomes did not necessarily mean less for everyone else. Today they do. When America led the world in manufacturing and middle-class jobs it could afford to run large deficits, pay for both growing social programs and an expanding military. Today it cannot. America is today living on borrowed money and borrowed time, and both are running out. We are presently living in a calm before the worst storm humanity will ever face, a 1930s-like moment when major future threats are clear but most embrace the illusion that they can be avoided.

The reason U.S. decline is not temporary but long-lasting is that it is primarily due to structural and systemic factors, particularly a short-term oriented, fossil-fuel based economy and polity which no longer  raises living standards and increases jobs.

In the past, G.E. created hundreds of thousands of jobs  in America. Today its CEO Jeffrey Immelt, absurdly appointed by Obama to head the U.S. Jobs Council, is featured <>  on 60 Minutes in Brazil bragging about how GE now invests in jobs abroad because that’s where the markets and growth are. He does so because he is part of a short-term oriented economic system, not because he is particularly anti-American.

An Apple Executive tells <>  the N.Y. Times that “we don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” MIT Professor David Autor speaks <>  for corporate America when he says that “generating the conditions that give rise to high rates of employment and wage growth is the domain of policy makers, not individual companies” – ignoring the fact that corporate America spends hundreds of millions on politicians and lobbyists to pass policies  leading to low rates of employment and no wage growth, and are not only not solving America’s problems but making them infinitely worse.

Another MIT professor, Noam Chomsky, notes <>  that the problem is a system which prioritizes short-term profits over such “externalities” as the overall health of the U.S. economy or survival of the species:

“The fundamental reason (for our economic problems) is rooted in market systems. Suppose some CEO says, ‘Okay, I’m going to take into account externalities’. Then he’s out and somebody else is in who will play by the rules. That’s the nature of the institution.”

America is also declining politically because its Unholy Alliance of elites and fundamentalists irrationally denies  climate change and funnels money to the elites despite the overwhelming evidence that living standards have stagnated for decades while the rich have gotten richer by grabbing more income because they can and paying the lowest taxes of any advanced economy.  They market failed U.S. CEOs as “job-creators”, even as the numbers conclusively prove that they have become U.S. “job-exporters” at best,  “job-destroyers”  at their worst. The Unholy Alliance thus constitutes an assault on thought itself, a regression to a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Scientific Revolution mindset in a 21st century when science and reason are more necessary than ever for human survival.

This short-term oriented system, and the Unholy Alliance blocking efforts to change it, have led to civil war in America. Dialogue and compromise between reason and irrational belief have become impossible. There will either be a mass movement of rational Americans which will change the current system or the rich will continually seize more, our national security elites will manufacture more enemies, and the U.S. will continue to move in the direction of a police-state to counter the protests and increased anti-American terrorism that will inevitably result. The top priority is no longer to try to dialogue with the irrational, but to mobilize the rational – those who accept climate science, for example, but are at present going about their business as usual in a kind of trance,  failing to try and save the biosphere upon which all else depends.

Relative decline per se need not be threatening if America declines gracefully. While the U.S. is no more exempt from the laws of decline than the Dutch, Portuguese, German, French and British Empires before it, the  citizens of these nations today live far better than they did at the height of their Empires.

At present, however, the U.S. is headed for violent not graceful decline. To fully understand the need for a new “Politics of Heroism”, one must first understand the deep structural nature of our problems, the kinds of structural solutions which alone can address them, and why today’s electoral system not only fails to solve our systemic problems but is making them worse.


Nothing so demonstrates U.S. decay than the fact that the obvious structural solutions listed below are today considered “unrealistic” in America while  they have been so successfully implemented in so many  other large nations – from France and Canada’s national health system, to Germany’s advanced manufacturing system,  to Europe’s high gas taxes producing fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction, to China’s winning national strategy to dominate the clean energy economy of the future.

And nothing illustrates the need to transform our political system more than the time it now wastes on either making things worse or proposing positive steps so inadequate as to amount to little more than arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic. While China spends trillions on investments in clean energy knowing that some will fail,  for example, Congress has blocked further investment in solar energy because of one  failed Solyndra loan – thus helping ensure that America will become a second-rate economic power.

A “Politics of Heroism” in America today must go far beyond single-issue causes like the civil rights movement or ending a war. It is only when we fully grasp the full scale of  the crisis we face, and the structural solutions needed to address it, that we can grasp the need for a politics going far beyond the hope for short-term solutions. The crisis we face, and the solutions to it, require at a minimum actions so wide-ranging and deep that they amount to a revolution.

Climate Change

Structural problems:Fossil fuel economies supporting 7 billion people are producing greenhouse gases which threaten the destruction of human civilization in our children’s lifetimes if we don’t move now to avert it, according to the vast majority of climate scientists. Worldwide  greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly increasing even as climate scientists say they must be reduced 25-40% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 to avoid climate catastrophe.

Structural solutions:
A carbon tax, removal of fossil fuel  subsidies,  higher gas prices rebated to consumers,  phasing out coal-fired plants in 10 years, and  decentralizing and localizing production. Overall, a WWII-like mobilization to channel vast amounts of investment now  being wasted on war into transforming humanity’s fossil-fuel economy into one powered by clean energy.

The U.S. Economy

Structural problems: Financial elites’ economic control and focus on short-term profits have vastly accelerated the outflow of capital and jobs abroad, caused the 2008 crash, and threatens new ones;  U.S. manufacturing CEOs  have not only failed vis a vis their competitors, e.g. in autoes,  and exported millions of jobs abroad – they have exported fundamental manufacturing processes to the point where, as Forbes has noted, Amazon couldn’t build a Kindle in the U.S. even if wanted to; they are pursuing automation in the manufacturing and service sectors, guaranteeing indefinitely high U.S. unemployment; so too is unprecedented foreign competition, as U.S. CEOs seek short-term profits by handing over advanced manufacturing technology to the Chinese and others in return for access to their markets; even innovation and information technology, America’s one competitive advantage,  will only benefit the few and see most of the jobs it generates locate abroad. The U.S. is contracting vast debt for consumption, largely of foreign-made products, which will sooner or later cause more financial crises. U.S. CEOs use handpicked Boards to dramatically increase their incomes even as CEO performance has dropped dramatically.

         Structural solutions:  A National Investment Strategy that channels capital into education, infrastructure and the new industries of the future. Doing so requires breaking up and regulating “too big to fail” banks and financial institutions, capitalizing community banks, and using any future debt  for investment rather than to spur consumption of foreign goods. It also requires taxing the wealthy in ways that raise the majority’s living standards and ability to consume U.S.-made goods and services.

U.S. Social Problems

Structural problems: The Unholy Alliance is seeking to cut social programs at the very time elite economic mismanagement is exponentially increasing the numbers of those in need – while also increasing tax breaks for the wealthy, maintaining high military spending,  and promoting a wasteful and inefficient private health insurance program. When even America’s best students graduate college with high debt but cannot find middle-class jobs, and must live with parents whom they will not be able to support when they become ill,  and who will die far sooner than need be  because of cuts in Medicare, it is clear that wholesale changes are needed in America’s social policies.

Structural solutions:
The U.S. needs to expand not cut cost-effective social programs as the numbers of those in need increase due to present elite economic mismanagement. The most important step is to introduce National Health Insurance, which is an economic as well as moral imperative. If America devoted the same percent of GNP to effective national healthcare systems as other advanced nations, it would both have better healthcare and free up enough capital to eliminate the budget deficit. Adjustments need also to be made in Social Security, e.g. taxing the wealthy, but the program itself needs to be expanded not cut. Such social democratic policies need to be funded by cutting the military, ending fossil fuel, nuclear energy and other wasteful subsidies, closing corporate tax loopholes, and taxing the wealthy.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Structural problems: Powerful and unaccountable National Security Managers waste  trillions on short-term military tactics that are weakening not strengthening U.S. national security. Their illegal drone and ground assassination programs in the Muslim world have strengthened U.S. foes and weakened its allies, and  are exponentially increasing not decreasing threats to the U.S. They waste trillions on war while the Chinese spend trillions on dominating  the 21st century world economy – which is the key to military strength.

Structural solutions: The U.S. needs to focus on a  long-term foreign policy strategy, not short-term military tactics, that seeks to gain allies rather than create enemies. America would be far more secure today had it brought electricity rather than drones to nuclear-armed Pakistan’s population of whom 73% – 130 million people – now regard it as their “enemy.” The military budget must be dramatically reduced. The most immediate priority is to end drone assassination and disband the Joint Special Operations Command, which is currently illegally deploying 75,000 U.S. assassins throughout the world – exponentially increasing anti-U.S. hatred  in return for minimal gains. Dozens of U.S. bases abroad, particularly in Europe, need to be shut down. Nuclear weapons stockpiles need to be eliminated.

U.S. Democracy

Structural problems:U.S. economic elites dominate the political system because politicians depend upon them for campaign contributions and seek lucrative employment with them after leaving public service. Corporate lobbyists gut every serious attempt to regulate criminal and irresponsible corporate behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court has discredited  itself as a serious legal body by allowing corporations to buy elections. Congress has just passed a National Defense Authorization Act which gives the U.S. Executive the right to detain or kill any American citizen without the due process guaranteed by the Constitution. The Patriot Act has given the government unprecedented power to spy on Americans, even as local police forces adopt counter-insurgency military tactics used abroad so as to  control Americans at home.

Structural solutions: Full public financing of both primary and general elections, leading to the election of politicians who serve a majority of Americans, respect the Constitution, and extend not curtail civil liberties.


The importance of implementing these structural solutions – and so many, many more – reveals why our time has such an unprecedented need for everyday political heroes. Among the key imperatives of this new politics are that it be broad-based, long-term and  post-ideological.

         (1) Broad-based: Maintaining Support From The Majority –

The closest thing to an heroic politics right now is the Occupy Movement, groups like Code Pink, and the brave folks who got arrested to try and stop the Keystone XL pipeline. No one of conscience can fail to be moved and inspired by their courage in facing discomfort and police brutality in order to try and change America for the better. They are hopefully the vanguard of a growing movement that will use civil disobedience and action, as well as  words, to wake up Americans to the need for structural change.

The key criterion for their long-term success will be the degree to which they can maintain support from a majority of Americans. This will require a commitment to non-violence similar to that of the civil rights movement, and a willingness to work with far broader forces also committed to transformative change. The greatest danger facing a “Politics of Heroism” is the factionalism, “my way or the highway” and arrogance which saw the youth movements of the Sixties fail to institutionalize their important early breakthroughs. The approach must be “to let a thousand flowers bloom” as long as they both help weaken harmful elite power and maintain public support.

         (2) Long-term: The “Fierce Urgency of Now” vs. Building Organizations That Last

Even the partial listing of structural solutions above makes it clear that it will take many, many years of struggle for a “Politics of Heroism” to prevail. Key will be for those drawn to political struggle  to also have livelihoods and lead balanced lives  – including psychological and spiritual development  – so as to avoid the burnout and dropout that has plagued past movements.. And those who focus more on career, family and personal development will also  need to devote some greater portion of their lives to political action – broadly defined – if civilization is to be saved. There is always a tension between the “fierce urgency of now”  and building institutions and organizations that last. Finding the proper balance between the two in the difficult years to come will be the key to long-term success.

Particularly important will be paying attention to the psychological issues that have destroyed attempts at political organization  and community-building in the past. The early Occupy Movement has taken important steps in this area by trying to avoid elitism, hierarchy, power-grabbing, egomania, and cultivating an ethic of kindness and openness. Much more psychological work will be needed, however, for such an ethos to survive the defeats, repression and frustrations to come – frustrations which have in the past  seen early idealism become movement-destroying bitterness and anger.

(3) Post-ideological: “Leave Your Ideology At The Door”

Today’s postwar “conservative”, “liberal” and “progressive” ideologies in America have developed during a period of economic growth. As America now enters its unprecedented season of decline amidst climate change, however, they are far less relevant. Nothing illustrates the poisonous effect of obsolete ideology more than the fact that a majority of Republicans doubt climate change. Climate change is a scientific issue that has nothing to do with ideology or politics. For a majority of conservatives to doubt it on ideological and political grounds is as childish and irrational as their stated belief that tax cuts for the rich will stimulate economic growth.

The ideological struggles over whether or not to cut the budget deficit are similarly misplaced. Massive long-term deficits are harmful, and the real issue is how to cut them – either by slashing help for the needy or having the wealthy pay their fair share, significantly cutting the military, implementing national health insurance and eliminating fossil fuel and other harmful corporate subsidies. Increasing debt for consumption of foreign goods, while preferable to “austerity” in the short-run, will be harmful absent a national investment strategy that produces jobs and growth at home.

Rational adults considering the new and unprecedented challenges  to saving civilization and America over the coming decades need to leave their ideologies at the door and start a new and sensible conversation about the sensible and practical measures need to avoid climate change, maintain decent living standards for the many, preserve American democracy, and help those in need.

Trans-ideological coalitions will both be possible and necessary. At some point, for example, Tea Partiers who properly fear authoritarian government will wake up and realize that Executive seizure of the right to spy on and unilaterally kill or imprison Americans poses a far greater threat to their freedom than Obama’s healthcare bill, which in fact poses no threat at all. Conservatives and liberals may well find themselves working together on  this issue and others, such as breaking the harmful power of large financial institutions.


The importance of developing post-ideological and structural solutions highlights the key problem facing young people today: accepting that they have been profoundly betrayed by their elders and that they are on their own as they try to construct a society in which they, their children,  and democracy can survive.

Our betrayal of our young is ironic, given that the realization by millions of boomers in the Sixties that they had been betrayed by their elders in Vietnam was the spark that created the Sixties movement, for better and for worse.

On the one hand the realization that we were on our own unleashed tremendous creative and political energies which reverberate until today. It spawned giant movements for peace, social justice, women’s rights and the environment. Sexuality was relatively liberated from millennia of hypocrisy and  repression. It led to a creative revolution in the arts. Humanistic psychology experienced its heyday, as did a new spirituality that sought to transcend the divisions perpetrated by traditional religions. If you or a loved one are not today subject to a draft in our elites’ failed and illegal wars, do not have to pay for your parents’ healthcare because of Medicare, are a woman, gay person or member of a minority enjoying rights your grandparents never dreamed of, or can read books and entertain thoughts that your parents could barely imagine, you owe it to the movements of the Sixties.

But on the other hand, the betrayal by our elders plunged my generation into a moral, spiritual and political abyss  from which we have never really emerged. Our anger, initially liberating, came to alienate us from many in the public at large and each other. Only in our 20s, we did not know how to create lasting institutions that could replace those we abhorred. The drugs we took both to spur our creativity and kill our pain eventually took too great a toll. Elitism, sexism, factionalism and power-seeking destroyed many of our own organizations. Those of us who were willing to break with the older generation became fatally divided from those who were not.

The essential problem for today’s youth is to face the fact that they are also on their own, but to use  the energy thereby released to develop their own agendas to save humanity and democracy, without being undone by self-destructive anger and bitterness.

As for we, their elders, the essential question we face is raised starkly by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words above: how do we wish to be remembered? If we dare ask that question, we are likely to find the answer pushing us to re-engage in a new “Politics of Heroism” seeking both justice and human survival.

For Dr. King was right. The measure of our lives will not be the honors we have gained, the wealth. power or fame we have accumulated, or even the good deeds we have done, if human civilization is degraded or destroyed. It will be whether we seized this opportunity to live lives of transcendent meaning, lives that will be measured by how we are remembered generations from now, by people whose faces we will never see, and whose voices we will never hear, but whose existence will bear testimony that how we lived in this time and this place had a supreme meaning.


(*For Indochinese casualties, please see “Dollars and Deaths,” The Congressional Record, May 14, 1975, p. 14262 ; for Iraqi casualties, please see “5 Million Iraqis Killed, Maimed, Tortured, Displaced — Think That Bothers War Boosters Like Christopher Hitchens?”,  Alternet, June 21, 2010. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara estimated that 3.4 Vietnamese were killed, of whom 221,042 were South Vietnamese troops killed by the communists. The other 3 million plus Vietnamese were thus killed by U.S. firepower, as were most of the Laotians and Cambodians killed during the war.)

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