Posted by: exiwp | August 9, 1986

The Left Wing of Christmas (1986)

By Fred Newman

“The Left Wing of Christmas” was first presented at the Fifth Annual Politics and Psychology Conference of the Institute for Social Therapy and Research on December 5, 1986, at Columbia University in New York City. Each year at the Politics and Psychology Conference, the Institute addresses a critical psychological issue in the building of the progressive political movement in the United States. This year, the day-long event included video clips of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and excerpts from Frank Capra films “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the following talk by Dr. Newman.

I grew up in a home which was very dedicated to debate, dialogue, fighting, screaming and hollering, a home in which endless fights took place some progressive, others less so. But one of the rules that I remember, growing up in the Bronx in my family, was that there were a few issues that you should never try to talk about because they were loaded. They were dangerous. Religion and morality were either one or two of those, depending on how you connect religion and morality.

So tonight we’re trying to do something which I think is really hard to do: To talk about morality without offending some people. It actually might be hard to talk about morality without offending all people. On the other hand, it is—and obviously this is a moral assertion—enormously important that we find a way to talk about morality. I think that it is profoundly unfortunate that the community of peoples who are most progressive, who have been most hurt, most oppressed, most kept out and excluded in this society, have not had, for some time now, a way of talking and of sharing thoughts, ideas and practices about morality. The tragic and frightening fact is that the issue of morality is in the hands of the most neo-reactionary elements of our country. The Swaggarts and the Falwells and the Robertsons talk about morality all the time. What I hope to have us begin, or mildly advance tonight, is our capacity as people who have in common a dedication to decency, equality, freedom, and to ending some of the most outrageous conditions that still exist in American society, to find a way to have a dialogue about a progressive morality. This dialogue, in my opinion, is critical to inform a progressive practice, a moral social vision. It is not simply a contingent or unimportant element of progressive political action. A progressive, moral social vision is fundamental to the practice of a proper and healthful and growthful therapy. There are those who still persist in thinking that therapy is to be understood in the manner of quantum physics, as though it is a pure, objective, rule-governed science. It’s nothing of the sort, and those who claim that are simply looking to raise their prices, to put it candidly and straightforwardly. Science sells these days.

I want to begin by looking at a film collage. I think it’s a wonderful collage, and I’m eager to share this with you. It was put together by Judy Penzer, Jeff Williamson, Jan Wooten and myself. I don’t want to say a great deal about it because I think it’s culturally improper to tell you how to look at something that you’re about to see, so we’ll let the collage say what it says. I did, however, want to begin, just to give you a sense of how I’m going to be talking about some things tonight, by reading a quote. This is the entirety of a new preface to a book called John Brown, written by W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois says:

“A full century has passed since John Brown started in America the Civil War which abolished legal slavery in the United States and began the emancipation of the Negro race from the domination of white Europe and North America. John Brown in Kansas met murder with murder and tried in Virginia to arm slaves so that they might resist and escape slavery. Ever since his violent murder of the border ruffians who were trying to force slavery on Kansas, and his attempt to seize the armory at Harper’s Ferry so as to arm the slaves, there has been bitter debate as to how far force and violence can bring peace and goodwill. This is a question that can never be completely answered for all circumstances and for all times. It is quite possible that time and searching conscience could have brought the emancipation of the slaves of the South without the catastrophe of war, murder and destruction; but that is by no means certain, it is quite possible that, in time, public opinion of an abolitionist North could have forced the whole nation to embrace freedom for all men, but that certain/v was not true before the American Civil War. On the other hand, it was true that the violence which John Brown led made Kansas a free state—that the flight of the fugitive slaves was the beginning of abolition, and the plan of John Brown to put arms in their hands could have hastened it. Although John Brown ‘s plan failed at the time, it was actually arms and tools in the hands of a half million Negroes that won the Civil War.”

What we are going to see here occurred many, many years later, but is very much related to this quite extraordinary quote. Let’s watch the collage.

* * *

One of the things that I find most interesting about this collage and about this topic—indeed one of the things that makes it so enormously difficult to address—is the endless convolutions and contradictions which run throughout the attempt to formulate a progressive social morality applicable to this society in which we live. For example, so much of what is articulated in this collage is profoundly moving to me, and I’m sure to you, but even within the attempts of so extraordinary and significant a leader as Dr. King, even in the films of Frank Capra, the director perhaps most associated with a progressive social vision, at least for the white working class, there are profound contradictions. There’s Abraham Lincoln, a powerful symbol of the common man, a symbol of what is supposed to be most good and positive and righteous about this country and its history. Lincoln, as we all know, was not particularly dedicated to the emancipation of the Afro-American people. As a matter of fact, Lincoln—by his own account—regarded that freeing as but a means to an end. And the end in question, of course, was the preservation of the Union.

I urge you to read a book by Gore Vidal called Lincoln, which is a marvelous piece of work. Lincoln was fundamentally dedicated to the ideal of preserving the Union. To be sure, part of that commitment was to a moral ideal, though no small part of that ideal had to do with Lincoln’s commitment to keeping together this particular society in order to benefit social elements, economic classes which have never been particularly responsive to or concerned with the kinds of values that are expressed in this clip using Mr. Lincoln as the symbol. Very, very confusing!

I’m currently teaching a class on Frank Capra’s films; I think they’re very beautiful films which express a very decent social vision. But they embody an interesting conflict or contradiction. And it gets expressed in an interesting way that a lot of people never thought about. It always turns out, in Capra’s films, that the reward for decency, for doing the right thing, and for being good, is money. This message is an amalgam of what is both best and most progressive, in some sense, about the American social vision, and what is most backward. Because the Capra films, particularly the most political films, those which are most dedicated to espousing a social vision, essentially make the statement that this is a land, a country, a society in which ultimately the decency of the common person, of the broad mass of people, can somehow or other persuade the most enlightened elements of wealth to join forces in a moral struggle against the least enlightened elements of wealth. That’s the actual social vision. In fact, it is fundamental to the American social vision, to the American morality, to the exceptionalist morality of our society, to suggest that there is, after all, a dollar and cents payoff for decency. I mean, it wouldn’t be America if there weren’t. Why would you do it if there weren’t? Shouldn’t it work out that way? Contradictions. Conflicts.

During the recent gubernatorial campaign of Dr. Lenora Fulani, I did a radio interview with a station in central New York State. There were telephone calls from listeners and we talked about various issues. It was fascinating. One person got on the phone, whose name was Sam. Sam said, “Dr. Newman, before we begin I want to ask you a question. This is a little test. Do you mind taking a test?” And I said “No, I don’t mind taking a test.” “This is kind of an association test,” he said. “I’m going to give you two words, and you pick out the one that you feel closest to. The two words are equality and freedom. Which one do you relate to most of all?” I said “Well, I relate primarily, though not exclusively, to equality.” And he said “Ah ha! I knew it! I knew who you were! I knew what you were about! I know your value system. You underestimate the significance of freedom. You don’t really stand for freedom. You don’t know that freedom is the fundamental value of this society—that we must fight and die for freedom!”

And he launched into something which I think had just come off a Jimmy Swaggart lecture. So I said to him about 20 minutes later when he gave me a chance to talk, “I believe in equality. I’ll tell you why. Because frankly I think you can have a whole bunch of freedom, or what you’re calling freedom, and not have any equality.” I don’t think freedom gives you equality. As a matter of fact, I don’t think you can have freedom without equality. The concept of freedom, in the absence of equality, is essentially the voice of a privileged morality. So the contradiction again that runs through our history is this contradiction, this conflict between freedom and equality. Freedom is identified as fundamental in the attempt to project a distinctly American social vision, in an attempt to articulate an American value system, an American morality. Freedom has been elevated to a level of fundamentality, not on behalf of the broad mass of American people, but on behalf of those who control much of what we have in this country, including morality. Morality has been commodified in America the way everything else has. It’s something that is bought and sold in the marketplace.

Mr. Swaggart deals in the commodity known as morality. He buys it, and he sells it. And what he is fundamentally selling is a particular moral commodity known as “freedom,” and it is not genuine freedom. It is a sham. It is freedom in the absence of equality, which means freedom for those who are sufficiently privileged to exercise it. It means freedom at the expense of those who are not equal. I am always struck by the enormously righteous posture of the American Right Wing. God, the Right Wing has chutzpah! It’s shocking to listen to the chutzpah, the hubris, the full of themselvesness that comes out. You hear them talking about “Right to Life” in these pompous, boastful statements. What are the other positions they hold to? “Kill ‘em in the electric chair! Lock ‘em all up so far as I’m concerned! We’ll defend their right to be born so we can get them locked up!” Be damned if Right To Life is going to mean right to a decent life, the right to a decent job and a decent home and decent health care and decent education. Right to Life is a very bizarre notion, not only of life, but of right. The social position of the Swaggarts and the Schlaflys, the Falwells, the Robertsons and the Reagans, has come to dominate. And we must ask ourselves how that has happened. This might sound a little biased, but we really have to raise the question “How come the good people aren’t talking about and doing something about morality anymore?” How did the business of morality wind up in the hands of the neo fascists? What’s going on around here, anyway? Contradictions.

Here’s another one. This is a big one relative to this issue I just raised. Swaggart makes plain what this contradiction is. He says to all of us, to decent folks all over this country, to Black, Latino and gay communities, communities of working and middle-class people, progressive minded people—I’m talking about tens of millions of people—that if you start talking about a progressive social vision, about equality, then you’re a damn communist! You’re a socialist! You’re not an American! He’ll point out to everybody in public that that is what you’re about if you talk about that stuff. You say, “Wait a second, I just want to put forth a social vision which is rooted in equality and decency. I want to follow Dr. King.” Mr. Swaggart makes plain what’s going to happen to you if you follow Dr. King. You’re going to be labeled a communist, as Dr. King was, and then you’re going to be killed. The moral and political climate of our country at this moment has been, in my opinion, over-determined by the fear made in Washington, D.C. and on which billions have been spent, of those words communism and socialism. Those are the words that we very openly put on “The Left Wing of Christmas.” You take a look at this leaflet and here it is. The Right Wing has got “holiness,” “morality,” “righteousness,” “innocence,” “virtue,” and the Left Wing has got “socialism” on it.

I had brunch with some colleagues the other day, therapists, who are very decent people, though not socialists. Nice people anyhow. We were sitting around having brunch, on a nice pleasant morning, in a nice West Side restaurant, and I said “OK, let me raise a question for you. After the last 10 days of what’s been going down on the front pages of the New York Times—not The National Alliance—what has been made plain, couldn’t be plainer, is that Mr. Reagan is a gunrunner. You may call him a President, but he’s a gunrunner! I don’t even say that critically. I say other things critically. It’s a fact that he’s a gunrunner. He’s in the best tradition of American capitalists—plunderers, robbers, and crooks. Now that that is absolutely plain, don’t you think you have to be a socialist? I’m not even talking about being an activist. I’m not talking about changing your lifestyle; none of that. I’m merely talking about standing up and saying “I think I gotta be a socialist, because I can no longer tolerate a system run by gunrunners!”

I know that there’s kind of a cynical, knee-jerk reaction to what I’m saying. Let’s explore it before it turns into a major twitch. Immediately some portion of the American cynical mind says, “But aren’t socialists bad too?” Let’s deal with that right away. The answer is “yes.” There are terrible socialists; just awful socialists. I could write a book about terrible socialists. And I would, except folks already have. They then said, “Well, if that’s true, then why should I be a socialist?” So I said, “Well, let me try to introduce a moral distinction. My training is in philosophy, so bear with the pedantic quality of this next section. There is a difference between a social arrangement which, when it is working perfectly, is bad; and a social arrangement which is bad because it is running imperfectly; a very important distinction. The problem that I have with how this country runs, as someone whom I like to think is a moral human being, is not simply that it makes mistakes, or that it gets a lot of things wrong, and is oppressive—though it’s all those things, which I find dreadful. My deepest problem is that I firmly believe that exploitation, racism, sexism, and the destruction of human life, human mind and human body, are critical components of the system working at its best, not at its worst.

Many people don’t believe that; many people believe that it’s basically a good system, and we have to simply keep working to get it to work well. We have to improve it, we have to moralize it. We have to, in the words of Jesse Jackson, be its conscience. He says that of the Democratic Party, but he means that of the nation as a whole. I have, on more than one occasion, pointed out to Reverend Jackson, whom I have supported and will continue to support—if he lets me—that he is too good to be the conscience of the corrupt Democratic Party! The Black community is too good to function as the conscience of a corrupt America. Martin Luther King Jr. was too good to be the conscience of this country. For there is a difference between being the conscience of this country as it has emerged, organized and functioning as moral corruption, and being the conscience of the people of this country. To me that is a vital distinction. Notice the difference, looking at this collage, between the religious appeal of Martin Luther King and the religious appeal of Jimmy Swaggart.

There are so many differences that we could be here for hours pointing them out. I want to point out one that is in my opinion most fundamental. Swaggart’s religious appeal, the Right’s moral appeal, the social vision which dominates in this country to this day, is a religious appeal to authority. It ultimately says that there is an authority which is on high and that has the capacity to see what is true, right, and good. Whenever moralists begin to talk about authority, to paraphrase a famous leftist, hold on to your pocketbook! The authority to which they appeal might be identified as an external authority, a God, a religious figure, a law, etc., but it fundamentally supports a social vision which is authoritarian and ultimately supports those who are in control. You may be assured that these authorities on high are controlled by the authorities on low.

Religion—morality—is simply another commodity. We get a chance to buy it. They profit from it. We’re free to pick out our religions. We can go to the supermarket of morality with a few bucks and pick up our religion. “One of those, two of those, a couple of those this week we’re trying a little of this…” We can go buying some morality. “Don’t you prefer this system? It’s a free country; you can buy whatever morality you like!—unless, of course, you’re a fringe cult-like group. But you have to have some standards after all. Don’t want to carry freedom too far!” But by and large, if you play your cards right, ii you use the supermarket and don’t go to any esoteric shops on the East Side, you can buy morality. You’re free to do that! But there are people who are profiteering off that. There are people who are profiteering off all the other commodities in the store. Until we have a system of equality which is not premised on the perspective that it is proper, and decent, and right to exploit other people, we cannot, in the words of Dr. King, rest.

I’m thinking of a book by a guy named Plato. It was written a number of years ago in a place called Ancient Greece. Plato wrote this book called The Republic. Fascinating book. More people should read it, if you want to know what’s going on these days. The issue is raised: “What is the good and the right?” Plato wrote in dialogue form. It’s kind of a back and forth banter between these ancient Greeks asking different kinds of questions “Well, what if it’s this? What if it’s that? What about this, that?” It gets tedious sometimes; that’s why I think Socrates took the hemlock. There’s a guy in The Republic named Procemicus. He says, I think I’ve got the answer to what good and right is all about.” Socrates says, “Whaddya got?” Procemicus says, “What’s good and what’s right must be what’s in the interest of the strongest. Lots of people might have differences of opinion. You’re going to have different people saying what’s right is what favors them, while other people will think that what’s right is what favors them. There are all these different notions of what people find to be in their own interests. It must be that what’s really right is what’s in the interest of the people who are the strongest.” The strongest must be the people who dictate morality, because, said Procemicus, “if that weren’t true, why would the strongest put up with someone else’s morality?” Not a bad piece of thinking. If this morality were not in the interests of the stronger people, do you think that the stronger people would say, “Oh God, I’m sorry, I’ll put down the thing.” “No!” said Procemicus. “What they’re not going to say is you’re right, but we’re going to do it our way.” That would be very unprincipled. They’re going to say, “That’s not right! Even though millions of people might favor it, that’s not right.” “Why do you say it’s not right?” “Well…” Then they give a bunch of arguments. “But,” said Procemicus, “if you read between the lines, you’ll discover that what they’re saying is that it’s not right because it’s not in the interests of the strongest.” There have been many variations on that old theme, but, in my opinion, when you study actual moral systems, not abstract ones, that argument of Procemicus still has incredible weight. It does appear to be—at least on the face of it—what morality is all about.

A book that had perhaps as profound an effect on me as any is a book by Franz Fanon called Wretched of the Earth. A forward to that book was written by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. I don’t know how many of you have read it; it’s been around for many years and has had profound influence all over the world. It is, in my opinion, an extraordinary moral work. It is a statement of morality. One of the most significant and fundamental things that Fanon says is that, if we are to truly engage a morality that is, in its very essence, progressive, decent and dedicated to equality, we must come to view the world from the vantage point of the oppressed, not the oppressor. And Fanon does an extraordinary thing. He points out that what he is articulating in that statement is not a moral point of view. Try to follow this; it’s very powerful. What he’s saying is that that is a matter of fact. The morality comes later. The precondition for even doing something which justifiably could be called a morality of decency and equality is to force ourselves, not simply in some liberal abstraction, but in the very practice of our lives, to view the world, and our society, from the vantage point of the oppressed.

That is a profoundly old conception, articulated in a profoundly contemporary fashion. It is, if you will, a religious conception that is the very best of the kernel of the major religions all over this world. But those religions—that theology—has to be liberated because it has been used, abused, destroyed and vulgarized so as to create the illusion that Ronald Reagan, for example, sees as the common person does. Ronald Reagan is about as common as the Bechtel Corporation, which built him. He’s a man created in a factory. If we are to begin to create a community which has the capacity to construct a morality of decency and progress, we must recognize that a precondition is to do what we must do to view our world from the vantage point of the oppressed. Think here of Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It makes a similar point. You want to learn how to teach children? You want to deal with illiteracy? If you’re serious about that, and not simply a faker who is looking to pick up a big grant from some national foundation, you can do it. It’s been done in various parts of the world. There are methods to accomplish this namely by viewing the issue of learning, growth, and development from the vantage point of the oppressed. It’s not a Deweyesque trick. It’s not pragmatic bullshit. Rather, it is the transformation of social practice sufficient to make it possible to have a new vision. This is a Christmas story that I’m articulating! This is what it was supposed to be about. This is why people who know that Frank Capra films are propagandistic to their very soul are nonetheless moved profoundly by a vision which is the “Left Wing of Christmas.” This is no small part of why psychiatrists and psychologists make fortunes during December, because people are conflicted with the holiday season. What is the conflict? The conflict is that the whole damn thing is a hoax, and people see it is a hoax! I never met a traditional therapist who wasn’t willing to pick up a buck on a hoax! So we’re talking about a Christmas story, the “Left Wing of Christmas.”

I believe there is, in our history, a social vision that we can grab hold of. Dr. King speaks, in that very famous speech, of a vision of his people which is deeply rooted in the American dream. Many are properly cynical about that. Again, as I mentioned earlier, I think of Lincoln, and I see that Lincoln is not the great emancipator. Nonetheless, there is a social vision which can be captured. A social vision which I believe we can all come to identify with. You may call me innocent and naive, but I still think there is something to this vision of sisterhood and brotherhood. I really do. And I’m pleased to say it. I think there’s something to this business of folks being able to form a community that is dedicated to decent, common values. I believe in that. I suspect that many of you do also.

But there’s a hard, hard question that goes with that: How much are you willing to inconvenience yourself to help to realize this decent social vision? What risks are we willing to take? During the gubernatorial campaign, Dr. Fulani was accused of being an anti-Semite, a racist, a kook, and generally bad news; a friend of Louis Farrakhan’s, who, just for the record, Dr. Fulani has never met in her life, but what the hell. Friendship’s not what it used to be in this country. These accusations were made by right-wing reactionaries like Dennis Dillon (the Right to Life candidate), Andrew O’Rourke (the Republican candidate), and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith—the same outfit which, in 1972, accused the Socialist Workers Party of being anti-Semitic because of their relatively mild position on the state of Israel. In response to those charges, Governor Mario Cuomo, who was being pressured to exclude Fulani from a televised candidate’s debate, said “I won’t jump so quickly to calling Dr. Fulani an anti-Semite. So I think she has to be included until you people can prove this charge.” “But,” he added rather quickly, “if it turns out that we have proof that she’s an anti-Semite, I will not debate with her or come near her.” Here’s the old liberal. What constitutes proof? Whose proof? Who are the authorities that prove? Who makes these determinations? How wealthy do you have to be to decide who’s a racist and who’s an anti-Semite? Those are important questions. I’ve got no problem in agreeing that Hitler was an anti-Semite. Some people might debate that, but I’m not willing to. But who stands around and has the self righteous chutzpah to identify Dr. Fulani as an anti-Semite? How does that happen? How does that get done? So if we’re going to take seriously this question of morality, we need to raise the question of what is the basis of these “strongers”? Who are these “strongers,” going back to Procemicus? In whose interests are these charges being made?

I want to conclude with one of my favorite quotes. It’s a reference to a statement once made by H.G. Wells. There are a lot of people who have difficulties with this “means ends” stuff. “Well you know, I kind of hear the end you’re talking about and I like it, but gee, what means should we use for it? Shouldn’t we be more careful about the means?” There’s a real “means” fixation around the culture these days. The Right Wing uses it all the time. They say “Oh, these people will use any means. The communists will use any means; they even write it in their books, ‘by any means necessary.” Means, means! H.G. Wells, responding many years ago to people who were first learning the trade of anti-communism, said, “If the ends don’t justify the means, what in the hell does?” Think about that. What else could justify the means? Who are these people anyway? Are they saying that working hard and sweating is a good thing in itself? No! Working folks know that you do that stuff because it has a certain end. It is the ends that justify the means. Now does that mean that I’m this heathen believer in anything goes? No. It means, however, that we must come together as a people, not merely in this room but in this country, and articulate an end. We must articulate a social vision, and we must honestly be willing to articulate it under its right name. And its name is socialism. It’s not the socialism of this country or these people or that place, but it is a socialist vision which must emerge if there is to be a Christmas. Recently I saw a film on Channel 13 in which many Catholics were interviewed in response to the 1984 Bishops’ letter on economic reform. I don’t know if you’ve read that letter. It doesn’t use the word, but what that letter calls for is socialism. You can call it anything you like, but that’s what it calls for. They went around and interviewed Catholics, and you saw the conflictedness of these religious folks, struggling with the fact that this was, as the bishops pointed out, totally consistent with all they had believed in for thousands of years, but in conflict with the social vision of America, l986.

A lot of folks I know say that this is left-wing oratory. That’s not true, though you can believe it if you like. What we’re talking about here, as a matter of faith, is a necessary social development which must come into being if we’re going to move beyond the current level of decadence, of vulgar inequality, that is the dominant and accepted mode of America. That’s what’s going to have to happen. I know that a lot of folks are going to go to it kicking and screaming, as we’ve all gone to lots of things in our lives. But kicking and screaming or not, the choice becomes clearer every day.

Fred Newman, Ph.D., received his degree in Philosophy of Science and Foundations of Mathematics from Stanford University in 1963. He is the founder of Social Therapy and Director of Clinical Training at the Institute for Social Therapy and Research, a member of the Practice Editorial Board, and a member of the Executive Board of the New Alliance Party.

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