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Before I became a rabbi, I was a social change activist and a psychotherapist. I had participated in sit-ins for civil rights, had organized teach-ins and demonstrations and nonviolent civil disobedience against the war in Vietnam, and had been involved in the early development of the environmental movement. Yet I felt uncomfortable with the way these movements at times seemed more interested in proving their own righteousness than in finding ways to attract and build an American majority that supports peace and social justice.
In the early 1970s I tried to convince my compatriots to link our movements with a critique of the prevailing tax structure, which placed a huge burden on middle-income working people, and so I proposed a ballot initiative to shift that burden onto the rich. But many of my comrades in the movement felt that the Left shouldn't be pandering to the "white-skin privilege" of white American working people, a decision many came to regret a few years later when a tax revolt led by right-wingers did indeed reduce the tax burden but only by cutting social services for the poor. Then, in 1976, I joined with Jeremy Rifkin in an effort to design a celebration of the country's bicentennial that would focus on what was positive in America's history. But again, I encountered considerable resistance from liberals and progressives whose anger over the war in Vietnam had obscured for them all that deserved to be honored about our past -- the way the American people had successfully separated church and state and had fought against their own economic and political elites to expand democratic rights, to overthrow slavery, to eliminate property requirements for voting, and, more recently, to extend equal rights to women and minorities while empowering working people to organize for a living wage and for health-and-safety standards in the workplace.
As a Jew, I have always been particularly grateful to America for providing my people a safe haven in a world that has too frequently murdered us. I felt blessed to be part of a generation of Jews that could look at this country not as a refuge but as a homeland. For that reason, I wanted the Left to let go of some of its angry rhetoric and its preoccupation with what had yet to be achieved in order to affirm more clearly all that had already been accomplished in America. Having experienced some of that anger myself, I understood the appeal of this dichotomizing between the good guys and the bad guys, but as I grew beyond my own simplistic thinking and began to recognize that we in the social change movements needed more humility and compassion for those with whom we disagreed, I hoped that a movement could emerge that would embrace what was best in America and build a progressive social change movement across class, race, and gender boundaries.
I had hoped that making this case would be easier in post-Vietnam America. The war had been shown to be a disaster, the Nixon presidency had collapsed in disgrace, the Democratic Party had begun to listen to feminists and environmentalists. Surely, I thought, this would be a moment when liberal and progressive forces could consolidate power, end the cold war, and devote America's massive resources to promoting social and economic justice. Unfortunately, though, something different was happening beneath the surface, at least among middle-income Americans. I detected the first inkling of a major shift away from the Democratic Party and the Left on the part of white working males -- ironically, people whose economic interests were far better served by the Left than the Right.
I was puzzled by this phenomenon. So, after completing my PhD in psychology in 1977, I helped found the Institute for Labor and Mental Health to study the psychodynamics of American society. The psychotherapists, union activists, and social theorists who were working at the institute had one question we particularly wanted to answer: why is it that people whose economic interests would lead them to identify with the Left often actually end up voting for the Right?
The answer to that question lies at the heart of this book.
In an effort to discover why working people have increasingly turned to the Right we have spent the past twenty-eight years interviewing middle-income working people in the United States, Canada, England, and Israel. We began by recruiting subjects from the labor movement and by advertising on buses, billboards, and posters. We were seeking people who, apart from the normal tensions everyone faces in the workplace, were not experiencing excessive stress in their lives. In fact, we used standard measures to screen out and refer elsewhere people in need of psychotherapy as well as candidates for marriage or family therapy. We were interested in speaking to people who did not have any particular presenting problem and who would not have agreed to participate had they thought they were going to a therapy session. As part of our program, we ran groups that taught communications skills, stress reduction, and leadership skills. Most of those groups met once a week for a period of eight to ten weeks.
After that initial phase of research, institute researchers conducted follow-up studies using a wide variety of both quantitative and qualitative research instruments. Over two decades we've done phone interviews, one-time in-person interviews, and written questionnaires. In addition, as the political world has changed, we've continued to reassess the results of our observations.
What we have discovered, fundamentally, is that many people need what anthropologist Clifford Geertz once termed a "politics of meaning" and what I now call a spiritual politics -- a spiritual framework that can lend meaning to their lives. They yearn for a purpose-driven life that will allow them to serve something beyond personal goals and economic self-interest. If they don't find this sense of purpose on the Left, they will look for it on the Right.Left Hand of God, The
Excerpted from The Left Hand of God: Healing America's Political and Spiritual Crisis by Michael Lerner
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