A Movie Warning to American Voters

In the hit movie Captain America: Civil War, no spoiler alert is required. The title alone tells the story line: the Avengers are bitterly divided. Instead of fighting together against the forces of terror that have been let loose in the world, they are fighting each other. Instead of combating the growing evil that threatens America, they are destroying themselves.

“It’s just a story,” Hollywood insiders are fond of saying. But is it?

Like the superheroes in the movie, each candidate claims that he or she will save us from the scourge of ISIS. They each argue passionately that they are The One who will arrive on their white horse and protect the homeland. They argue that they know best, then bludgeon each other, desperately trying to destroy their rivals in the name of safety and freedom. But as every military strategist since Sun Tzu knows, they are missing the crucial element in self-defense. They are forgetting the adage: “Divided we fall, united we stand.”

Clearly neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton will solve the deeper problem that America is divided against itself. Like Captain America (played by Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clinton and Trump are leading rival factions that want to save America. But as we prepare to witness internecine warfare for the remainder of 2016, and possibly beyond, we are failing to focus effectively on the “bad guys” (to use Donald Trump’s favorite catch-all phrase). Instead of developing a clear long-term national security strategy that our allies can join, we are in danger of ricocheting like a pinball between invasion and retreat — and back again.

For a brief shining moment, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, it seemed that a common enemy might bring us together. Instead, we have managed to become even more divided.

  • Within days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, attention shifted from homeless people and submerged neighborhoods to attacking President George W. Bush for being an incompetent and uncaring crisis manager.  
  • While the economy eventually recovered from the 2008 financial crisis in 2008, charges and countercharges continue to be hurled, with each party blaming the other for causing the economic calamity.
  • With delicate nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran underway in early 2015, the spectacle of American foreign policy in hyper-partisan disarray undermined our nation’s authority and credibility.
  • More recently, presidential candidates bitterly accused each other of taking the nation into unnecessary wars and impugned the judgment — and sometimes the character — of both President Bush and President Obama.

Today we Americans can’t summon enough political will to build a major airport or fix our bridges. We can’t pass health care reform without a rebellion on Capitol Hill. We can’t negotiate a federal budget without the threat of government shutdowns. We can’t even mount a defense against the Zika-virus mosquito without political bickering. Like the superheroes on the screen, our enemies are exploiting our weakness. In fact, we become our own worst enemy.

Terrorists know that, for the remainder of this year, and perhaps longer, this geopolitical superpower — like the cinematic superheroes— will be in a political battle with itself. ISIS leaders do not have to be political scientists or experts in American culture to know that it will be hard, if not impossible, for this country’s leadership to take effective action against a foreign enemy.  

The greatest military power on earth obviously has the capability of containing and ultimately eliminating a small, poorly organized caliphate of young hoodlums masquerading as devout Muslims. But that is true only if we are united. We have the proven skills and tools for having a national conversation and for reaching common ground. But we need to use them — and soon. 

Of course fierce disagreement is a vital part of being a democracy. But so is collaborative decision-making. When an issue is a matter of life and death, can we raise the level of our political discourse and actually dialogue, deliberate and reach a coherent and sustainable decision? When our security depends on it, can we finally put country before party?

The moral of the movie could not be clearer. A bruising battle between Clinton and Trump, followed by another era of divided government, will not make us safer. Only a reunited America will.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation and a former screenwriter, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.

Are Our Candidates Bringing Out the Best - or the Worst?

Can presidential candidates who bring out the worst in each other bring out the best in America?

This question has been on my mind long before the dirty name-calling on the 2016 campaign. A quarter of a century ago, when eight candidates were competing for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, I asked Pat Riley, then the successful basketball coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, which one he favored.

“I wouldn’t put any one of them on my team,” he said firmly.

“Why not?” I asked him.

“I make my players sign a covenant to bring out the best in every other person on the team,” he explained. “These guys are doing just the opposite.”

Every four years, we witness the same dispiriting display of American politicians dragging each other into the gutter. This year we are witnessing once again some remarkably talented diverse men, and one extremely experienced woman, making each other look as bad as possible. Sadly, after a few brief shining moments early in the campaign, it has been a long descent into mutually assured destruction.

Is this inevitable? Is this just “politics?” Or is it a path to national decline?
Reasonable observers of American politics differ on this question. Some believe that animosity, personal attacks and counterattacks, deception and falsehood, and hundreds of millions in negative advertising is not only what we should expect but is actually good for America. These “realists” argue that politics is hardball and that candidates must show how they differ from each other and that exposing the others’ weaknesses is a vital part of the electoral process.
Others, often called “idealists,” maintain that our political culture is dangerously toxic. They believe that reasonable, thoughtful dialogue has virtually disappeared, and that we have become so politically paralyzed. Instead of celebrating the abrasive tactics and ugly attacks, they view them as a sign of a nation that has lost its way.

The truth, I believe, requires a deeper analysis. “Communication” is only a tool for getting things done. So the real question is not: Should we “talk politely” or “talk straight?” The more fundamental question is: Are we going to deal effectively with the challenges facing America — or not?

The good news is that our culture is experiencing a rediscovery of collaboration and problem-solving. Even while the high-profile party candidates with billions of dollars attack each other, evidence abounds that we, the people, know how to cross the divide:

Across the country, the more than two thousand members of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation are supporting a wide range of community processes that are transforming paralysis into progress.

Many local communities have given birth to their own unique “transpartisan” forums. Some, like Tallahassee’s Village Square and Kansas City’s American Public Square, are issue-based. Others, like Boston’s Public Conversations Projects or the California-basedLiving Room Conversations, are more process-oriented. But all have produced significant breakthroughs on a wide range of issues.

In addition, the list of policy areas where Left-Right coalitions have formed is growing rapidly. From reforming the criminal justice system to energy and environment, from internet privacy rights to immigration reform, amazing sets of “strange bedfellows” partnerships have coalesced that are having an impact on policymaking in state capitals and Washington, D.C.

  • Journalists, too, are moving toward change. The Solution Journalism Network, for example, is working with a network of major metropolitan newspapers across the country to focus their resources on problem-solving rather than partisan positioning.
  • Inside the Beltway, many relatively new nonprofit organizations — from the Liberty Coalition to Convergence to the National Institute of Civil Discourse (NICD) — are forging consensus and collaboration.
  • In state legislatures, Next Generation (a project of NICD) is working across the aisle in more than a dozen state legislatures and building cross-party relationships that are reversing the downward slide toward dysfunction.
  • Even on Capitol Hill, dozens of members of the US Congress have joined a “Problem-Solving Caucus (organized by No Labels) that is promoting a set of shared goals called the National Strategic Agenda.

So let’s not become too obsessed with the election coverage that we miss this deeper story. Beneath the divided states of America being whipped into a frenzy by the media, there is a united states of America that is learning how to work through differences and rediscover our common bonds.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.

Originally posted on Huffington Post on 4/08/2016

Whose America Is This?

"This is not my land."
 
The man who said this a few weeks ago is born and bred in America, a megastar, a multimillionaire, and a household name to most Americans and his legions of fans around the world. I have spent more time listening to and watching him on television than I have to some of my own relatives. SO when would this famous man say that the United States of America is "not my land?"  

The fact that comedian Chris Rock, who hosted this year's Academy Awards, would make this statement raises an even deeper question. Who actually thinks that America belongs to them? Whose America is this?
 
Blacks like Chris Rock will say that America is not their land because they still feel like second-rate citizens. As Chris Rock told his Essence magazine interviewer, Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabella Wilkerson, wealth and fame have not changed the color of his skin. He is still stopped often by police, for no other reason than he is a black driving an expensive car.
 
Other minorities, Latino and Asian being the largest, also feel the country does not belong to them. They are still perceived as just that -- "minorities." And even as the percentage of nonwhites grows beyond fifty percent, people of color still feel that they are perceived, and often treated, as if they are interlopers in a nation of European descent.
 
Many women also often feel disenfranchised in the "patriarchal" nation of America. Even though they won the vote generations ago, the power structure is not gender neutral. From corporate boards to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from the gridiron to the Oval Office, men rule the roost. This may be changing, but not fast enough.
 
Although it goes without saying, the LGBTQ community does not feel America belongs to them. The victories of the gay rights movement are too recent, and still too fragile, to have erased generations of discrimination, invisibility and violence. They know American politics and culture is still predominantly in heterosexual hands.
 
Neither the 99 percent nor the 1 percent, for different reasons, feel they own America. As Bernie Sanders has repeatedly hammered home, the 99 percent have been so impoverished while the top 1 percent have been enriched that they feel the country's assets have been stolen from them. Meanwhile, the 1 percent understand math well enough to know that, no matter much money they have to throw around, they cannot out-vote or out-march or out-fox the overwhelming majority of Americans.
 
But what about the classic elite: white heterosexual men? Don't they feel that America is their land?
 
According to many polls and new longevity research, white men also feel disenfranchised and disempowered. The surge of working class white men who support Donald Trump are gravitating to his slogan "Make America great again" because they feel "their" America has been lost. The wound of Obama in the White House will be healed, they hope, when it's occupied by a "good ole boy" once again. As their thunderous applause for Trump's promise to "build a wall" indicates, many of them feel that the country that once belonged to them is in danger of being taken over by outsiders. Many of them feel that the gains of racial minorities, women, gays and other once marginalized groups equal their loss.
 
So is it possible, then, that no group feels confident that America belongs to them?
 
While that may seem to be a strange proposition to consider, it actually makes sense historically. This land, in fact, does not belong to any of the above groups. White or black, Latino or Asian, gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female -- none were the original "owners" of this continent. We all colluded in taking it from those who had tended the land for millennia.
 
Native Americans, as we now call them, are actually the only ones who have a legitimate claim to this vast continent that majestically spans from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So Chris Rock is not being "unpatriotic" when he utters the truth with his customary candor. He is right: this is not "his land." But what needs to be added: it's not yours or mine either. And, no matter how much real estate he owns, it's certainly not Donald Trump's.
 
We are all visitors here. It's time we admit it, bow in gratitude for the privilege of living on Turtle Island, and humbly ask how, together with its original inhabitants, we can care better for each other -- and for our common home.

(Originally published on Huffington Post 3/16/2016)

Replacing the F-word

While the trash-talking presidential candidates toy with foul language, they are avoiding a word that needs to be said out loud. It's the taboo four-letter F-word: 

FEAR

Now it is true that real, genuine embodied fear is a healthy warning sign of impending danger. But what is happening in America is something quite different. It is a politically manufactured and media magnified fear that exaggerates some threats and minimizes others. And the method for doing so is not secret. It has been known and studied for more than half a century.

Adolf Hitler's second-in-command, Hermann Goering, explained it in detail in his prison cell n Nuremberg, Germany. Speaking to a psychiatrist, he candidly explained that, when a leader wants to use violence or go to war, "it is always a simple matter to drag the people along."

All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

The German people, among the most civilized and well-educated in Europe, committed genocide. Fear reduced them to sheep.

Today this emotion has become an easy excuse for even the craziest ideas. In our "land of the free and home of the brave," fear enables candidates to advocate "carpet bombing" cities, government surveillance of private emails, or banning all refugees who call themselves Muslim. 

Why do candidates get away with calling Mexican immigrants "criminals" and "rapists? Fear.

Why, when our military is larger than the next six countries combined and we want to reduce our national debt, does every candidate favor "rebuilding," which means spending more, on our military? Fear.

But fear not only drives many of the candidates foreign policy proposals; it pervades our communities.

Just remember Tamir Rice, the 12-year old angel-faced boy in Cleveland, Ohio, who was playing with friends outside a recreation center with a toy gun. After an onlooker called 911 to report some kids playing with a "probably fake" gun, police arrived. Within seconds, Tamir Rice lay dead.

As security cameras revealed, when the police officers were only ten feet away from Tamir, he pulled out the toy gun to show the rookie policeman that it was just a toy. But the officer did not shoot him once, or shoot him in the arm. Instead, he shot him twice in the torso. He killed Tamir because, he said, he was afraid.

In Ferguson, Missouri, no doubt Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown seven times, was afraid too. So was officer Erick Gelhaus, who shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez eight times in Santa Rosa, California. (Andy was carrying the same toy gun that Tamir had in his possession.) Even though Gelhaus was an Iraq veteran with ten years experience as gun safety instructor, he too lost control. But he had a compelling defense: he was -- you guessed it -- afraid.

If Tamir and Andy and Michael were the only casualties of the F-word, it would still be a tragedy for those three families and their community. But it is actually a much larger tragedy that affects us all. 

Constant fear, bordering on paranoia, floods our muscles with blood, and starves our brain. The result is a populace that is adrenaline-saturated, muscle-bound and dumbed-down. When the adrenal glands are chronically bombarded with fear-based messages, they wear out. Instead of training ourselves for a decades long geopolitical struggle, our fear-primed populace constantly anticipates another terrorist attack. As the election approach, political parties position themselves to benefit from the "fear factor." And, week after week, news programs exploit the fear by hyping potential threats. 

So before we destroy ourselves with the F-word, let's replace with the F-word with the V-word: Vigilance.

American needs a citizenry that is watchful, agile and smart. If we became more "alert" and "aware," as the dictionary defines vigilance, we will defend ourselves much more effectively. Vigilance will not only prevent more deaths like Tamir Rice, Andy Lopez and Michael Brown. It will let us all breathe more deeply. It will focus our foreign policy and our defense budget on threats, not partisan advantage or contractor's profits. It will enable us to focus on the real threats to our well-being. 

"The only thing we have to fear," said President Roosevelt, "is fear itself." So when candidates stoke your fears -- that your guns will be taken away, your religious freedoms will erode, your children in public schools will be brainwashed, your border will be overrun by terrorists -- be vigilant rather than fearful. If we let ourselves be distracted by bogus dangers, we will miss the real threats.

(originally posted on Huffington Post 2/26/2016)

Let's Stop Getting Drunk on Partisanship

As the various victory parties in Iowa illustrate, being at political rallies today is a wonderful way to get high. Clustering around large numbers of people who think just like we do, and who unanimously support the same political candidate, is like drinking a partisan cocktail. It's the civic equivalent of getting drunk.

But it's not alcohol we're drinking. It's us-vs-them ideology.

Although my work for the last 20 years has been bridging the gap between Left and Right, I recognize the incredible power of this quick turn-on. Whether I am attending a political event in person or engaging via the media, I feel the high just like everyone else. But frankly, the buzz is wearing off.

Not long ago, for example, I decided to attend a political event featuring Senator Bernie Sanders. As thousands stood in the blazing sun cheering at almost every sentence Senator Bernie Sanders uttered, I suddenly felt like I was chugging tequila. Even when my neocortex reminded me that the policies this "democratic socialist" was advocating would not come to pass, and that the Right would block every move he made, I still felt like I was getting stoned.

Do I really think every Wall Street transaction will be taxed to make university education available free of charge for an entire generation? No way. Do I think the House of Representatives will pass legislation that expands Medicare so that every American citizen has free health care? Not a chance.

But the crowd was so incredibly elated, that I could feel the mood and energy shift. Sanders' fans were getting turned on. The partisan cocktail that keeps the wheel of American politics turning was kicking in.

Across the spectrum, I notice this same understandable yearning for a quick political high. Whether at rallies for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I see a similar collective shift.

What moves our limbic systems so strongly? Being in a sea of righteous believers stimulates the emotional centers of the brain. There is nothing quite like being shoulder to shoulder with thousands of fellow humans being thrilled by the same stimulus. I have witnessed a similar rush at a rousing rock concert or even a deeply moving Catholic Mass. To be in deep communion in a crowd of comrades is up lifting.

As I observed crowds' reactions across the political spectrum, the alcohol content seems to be highest when the candidate sharpens the edge of his or her rhetoric. When it cuts razor-like along the good-evil, right-wrong axis, the crowd erupts.

When Trump claims that a "third Obama administration" under Hillary Clinton would destroy America while a Trump Administration would "make America great again," his followers roar with approval. Conversely, when Clinton says that her policies will unite immigrant families while the Republicans' policies would "tear them apart," her fans shout their support.

Our brains, it seems, are wired to being "right." When we listen to a candidate speak with whom we agree, surrounded by others of like mind, we are among the righteous. We are one of the chosen people. We are on the side of the angels -- part of the army of light that will save the country.

After months of getting high and decades of watching the same cycle repeat, however, I feel a civic hangover. In a country addicted to this elixir of partisanship, how do we ever reach across the aisle and get things done? If we want to reunite America enough so that we can solve some of the tough problems that we face, what "transpartisan" mixture can we offer voters that even can compete with getting drunk on the "hyperpartisan" cocktail?

Without citing the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, it's fair to say that getting sober won't be easy. It starts with admitting that we have a problem, and that we need help. And how many of us, in the collective stupor of an election year binge, are willing to do that?

As this election year unfolds, let's ask ourselves: How do we make working through our differences as electric and exciting as exploiting our differences? How do we get as turned on by cross-partisan problem-solving as by super-partisan mud-slinging? How do we shift from getting drunk to getting sober?

When the fate a single alcoholic is at stake, the outcome matters primarily to the addict himself and his loved ones. But when the political culture of a superpower is at stake, the outcome matters to all of us. We simply can't afford to go on getting drunk on being "right." Our national health and well-being depends on it.

Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America, How We Can Bridge The Partisan Divide.

Follow Mark Gerzon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Mark_Gerzon

When Left and Right Meet

When Left and Right Meet

When Bernie Sanders tires to push Donald Trump supporters, or when Paiute Indians make similar complaints to right-wing ranchers about federally-owned land in Oregon, it makes headlines. No matter how often it happens, we are still surprised when left and right meet.

After all, according to our map, that's impossible. But what if the map is wrong?

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Knight on a White Horse?

Knight on a White Horse?

Now that we have entered 2016, we can count on two certainties: a national election and more terrorism. So it is no surprise that every candidate claims that he — or she — is the knight on a white horse who will save us from ISIS. But as every military strategist since Sun Tzu knows, they are missing the crucial element in self-defense. If we don’t address this vital ingredient in a national security strategy, our ruthless, many-headed terrorist enemies will find our country to be easy prey.

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Pope in the House

Pope in the House

Can you believe it? A Pope in the US Congress, preaching to our senators and representatives.

I can only imagine what’s going through some politicians’ heads. The Pope is up there, flanked by two Catholics, House Speaker John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden. He’s telling all 535 of them about the Golden Rule. And as the pontiff is intoning “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” some of them are thinking:

“Damn straight. My opponent takes out attack ads; I’ll take out attack ads. He gets a superPAC; I’ll get a superPAC. You better believe I’ll do unto others what they do to me!”

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