The Truth is Even Messier

Van Jones’ beautiful new book, Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, is an important masterpiece. Interspersing compelling narratives about his personal life, it calls on liberals and conservatives to more fully respect and understand one another. If they do, he convincingly argues, they can find common ground and make positive improvements on numerous issues, including criminal justice reform, the addiction crisis, training disadvantaged youth for tech jobs, and promoting green jobs in poor rural and urban communities.

He makes a persuasive case that traditional conservative values hold merit, as do liberal values. But elite partisans on both sides have distorted those values with narrow dogmatism. By setting those dogmas aside, a “bottom-up bipartisanship” can counter that neoliberal “top-down bipartisanship” that has caused so much damage in recent decades.

The result has been great frustration and resentment among the white working class, which the Democratic Party has largely ignored and often disrespected. That neglect led to the successful left-populism of Bernie Sanders and the right-populist rhetoric of Donald Trump, which helped him win the White House — aided by what Van calls the “dirty right,” which includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis who, along with Trump, fanned the flames of racism. Van’s “greatest fear” is the growing strength of that dirty right. He calls on true conservatives to denounce those groups forcefully.

According to Van, the way forward to a positive, proactive grassroots movement that unites Americans “across the board” is a patriotic affirmation of core American values: all are created equal, and liberty and justice for all. Conservatives have emphasized liberty. Liberals have focused on justice. Van says we need both.

I agree with what Van has to say in this book, with two exceptions. One problem I have is with his total embrace of “American exceptionalism.” America is no more unique than other nations and it is not unequaled in terms of its positive qualities. The World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, ranks nations. In 2017 the United States ranked 14th overall — only because it was 9th in GDP per person. On every other measure, the U.S. ranked much lower. And its overall score had declined since the previous report. Humility on the world stage is in order.

The book’s most serious flaw, as I see it, is its unequivocal affirmation of the upward-mobility template that is reproduced through our society (and contributes to the mythology of American exceptionalism). That template nurtures hyper-individualism, extreme competition, the desire to dominate “inferiors,” and the willingness to submit to “superiors.” Requiring the poor to climb out of poverty is no way to eliminate the human and social costs that are inflicted by poverty.

That upward-mobility requirement fails to honor the principle of equality that Van highlights. We will not have equal opportunity so long as some people must climb a ladder to make ends meet and others do not. If privileged youth have guaranteed economic security, so should everyone.

Even if we eliminate unfair discrimination, offer compensatory education and training to poor children, and provide community support, as Van recommends, we still will not have equality before the law.

Worse yet, equalizing the opportunity to climb out of poverty will not end poverty so long as the federal government creates unemployment and poverty by limiting the number of living-wage jobs — in order to protect the creditor class from unexpected inflation, which eats away at their assets. The result of that policy is an inadequate number of jobs at the top of those ladders.

Moreover, so long as the goal of upward mobility is to climb higher so you can look down on and dominate those below, we will not have an egalitarian society. Rather we’ll have one based on achieving “superiority.” Van does not address that dominate-or-submit dynamic. Meritocracy — a system in which individuals are rewarded based on ability rather than class privilege — is not democracy.

The notion of having to climb ladders is a zero-sum concept. The assumption is that if you get ahead, I fall behind. A better solution is to affirm another founding American principle: promote the general welfare, which is included in the Preamble to the Constitution. If you thrive, I thrive.

Distributing federal revenue sharing funds to local governments, a conservative principle, to assure everyone a guaranteed living-wage job opportunity would help close the inequality gap. Then those who want to climb a social ladder could do so, but they would not be compelled to do so in order to live decently. A deep commitment to equality and love requires that we do no less.

But Beyond the Messy Truth barely talks about love. It affirms “love of nation,” briefly refers to Christians who embrace love, and asks those who are secular to respect Christians and other spiritual people. But it does not explicitly urge secular people to make a deep commitment to compassion in their daily life.

The book does say, “You can’t lead people you don’t love,” but the next sentence basically reduces love to “respect,” which is the primary theme of the book. It focuses on how political activists need to respect one another, but it does not deal with how all Americans need to respect one another throughout society and nurture collaborative teams whose members treat one another as equals.

The #LoveArmy, Van’s latest project, takes a more comprehensive and profound approach. That project is “a network of people committed to revolutionary love. We grow love + power through education, connection, and action. Together, we are building a nation where everyone matters and every vote counts.” Its core principles affirm:

  • We need each other. Listen with empathy, speak authentically,…
  • We recognize that our challenges are intertwined and that being united is our biggest strength….
  • Learn from mistakes, get better every time….
  • Relationship and community are the foundation of change. Call each other up – not out. Healthy competition has its place but cooperation is more often what we need….
  • Strive to be better. Trust yourself.

That affirmation of love, cooperation, mutual support, and ongoing self-development is powerful and critical.

Beyond the Messy Truth is an extremely valuable contribution that aims to help us “begin to come together, in a new way,” as Van envisions. The book points us in the right direction. Hopefully, the #LoveArmy will help us take more steps down that path toward fundamental social transformation.

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