Who Really Crashed the Economy?

And why do we keep blaming the wrong people?

Mobs disrupt town meetings.
Glenn Beck amplifies a careless remark by a mid-level White House staff
member into a threat of a national communist takeover. The right wing
spin machine creates a parent revolt over a presidential pep talk to
students urging them to study hard and stay in school. Meanwhile, the
Party of No blocks action on health care and climate disruption with
lies and distortions and declares President Obama's stimulus package a
socialist plot and a failed waste of taxpayer money.

There is a common thread. Each of these media events has diverted attention from Wall Street's responsibility for crashing the economy, taking trillions of dollars in public bailout money, and then rewarding itself with outlandish bonuses.

The Wall Street corporations funding the front organizations that
orchestrate these and other diversions hope we will forget that
America's number one problem is Wall Street-and the overpaid Wall
Street casino gamblers who destroyed our economy in a reckless test of
the theory that markets can self-regulate and that the unrestrained
pursuit of individual greed is beneficial to society.

Wall Street's greatest fear is that the public might demand Congress
and the president shut down the casino. Any issue that shifts attention
away from Wall Street and pins the blame for job loss and mortgage
foreclosures on President Obama works in its favor.

The right wing media campaign would have us believe that President
Obama, not Wall Street, is the nation's #1 problem. He's a socialist.
He's an irresponsible spender. He isn't really patriotic (remember, he
didn't wear a flag pin). America's lost jobs and the mortgage
foreclosures are his doing. Never mind that he was still living in
Chicago working as a civil rights lawyer and then an Illinois state
senator while Wall Street was putting together the high-risk financial
instruments that ultimately brought down the economy.

Every controversy that gains media attention, including such peripheral issues as President Obama's talk to students and a green jobs
advisor who once signed a controversial petition, helps to push Wall
Street off the front page and distract the White House, congress, and
the public from the real issue.

Because Van Jones,
the green jobs advisor who was the object of a withering smear campaign
funded by the corporate right, is a valued friend and colleague, I
followed the outlandish attack
on him with far greater attention than I normally give to the right
wing noise machine. I watched in amazement as it elevated him from
being a mid-level White House advisor
to being one of the most powerful and dangerous players in Washington,
the leader of a socialist plot to take over America. Van was a perfect
surrogate for Obama, because he is a charismatic black man with a gift
for oratory similar to Obama's-and is an outspoken advocate of social
justice and environmental responsibility.

Van's message is one that I should think any loyal, caring,
thoughtful American would celebrate. Yet I watched as Glenn Beck in
full red-faced bluster translated a video clip of Van Jones calling on
his audience to be more caring in our relationships
with one another into a subversive plot to turn America into a
socialist state. I was aghast. Would Beck have condemned Jesus as a
socialist and cheered those who led him off to his crucifixion?

Much of my academic training is in psychology. As a student, I was
fascinated by studies of the psychological dynamics that allowed Hitler
to take control of Germany and more generally lead people to
enthusiastically support racist, fear-mongering, authoritarian
demagogues. There is a general pattern. Successful demagogues provide a
message of certainty in uncertain times that turns fear and self-doubt
into a sense of purpose, power, and self-worth for people called to
join an army of the righteous to rid the world of some real or imagined

Another of my African-American colleagues, Harry Pickens, recently
shared with me his compelling assessment of how this dynamic is playing
out currently in America.

He notes that most Americans, until quite recently, grew up within a
culture that assigned each of us our place in a social hierarchy that
placed men over women, whites over people of color, rich people over
poor people, and humans over nature. Knowing one's place offered a
certain sense of stability and security even for those on the bottom.

Unless one has a secure sense of identity independent of these
categories, the breakdown of the hierarchy can introduce extreme
uncertainty that is both confusing and threatening, even in times of
economic prosperity. The civil rights, women's, and environmental
movements all challenged the hierarchy and threatened the established
system of authority and identity.

Then came the ultimate shock-a black president whose intelligence,
poise, talent, and charisma set him apart even from most of America's
former presidents. With him came the strong, intelligent, beautiful,
and charming Michelle, who has the potential, like Hillary Clinton, to
be a future presidential candidate in her own right. Horror of horrors.
The only thing that might present a greater threat to the old social
order than a black male president from a modest class background is the
specter of a black female president. For some it has been a shock too
great to bear.

That is the backdrop of the withering smear attack on Van, a refreshingly honest and mature voice filled with wisdom and insight
into the possibility of America as a strong, caring, environmentally
responsible, multiracial nation. Those of us on the progressive side
who have transcended our old identities and are psychologically ready
to hear and celebrate his message are, in fact, thrilled that the
message comes from a black man who is speaking on behalf of all people
of every gender, race, and class.

It is sometimes difficult for progressives to understand just how
inherently threatening our message can be to those whose sense of
identity depends on clinging to their position in the collapsing
hierarchy of power and privilege. Even if we call only for a world of
love for all people and all beings, skilled propaganda masters of the
right easily take our words and spin them in a way that make them feel
threatening to their followers. Of course Van's language is not so
restrictive, and appropriately so. His honesty without malice or blame
is why we love him and look to him as a leader.

We on the progressive side best respond by being strong and centered in the artful manner of Joanna Macy's
Shambhala warrior, deflecting the thrusts of the forces of hateful
violence in ways that disarm them without responding in kind.

I believe the culture is shifting at a deeper level.
Ever more people are awakening to the possibilities of a world beyond
the old social ordering, a world that truly fulfills the American ideal
of liberty and justice for all, and they are redefining their personal
identities accordingly. The shift is only partially visible, however,
because those who navigate it are less inclined to respond in kind to
the voices of fear and hate and thus get less media attention.

I believe the shift is destined to accelerate, because the brains of
all but the most severely psychologically damaged humans are hard-wired to care and connect.
Many of those who go along with the culture of hate and fear do so
simply because it is their only experience. We best reach them by
demonstrating the possibilities of a different way of being and

All the while, we need to maintain a clear focus on Wall Street as
the primary source of the economic, social, political, and
environmental crises that threaten our long-term security and viability
as a nation. To resolve the crises, we must strip Wall Street of its
power and bring forth a New Economy designed to serve the needs of
people and nature rather than simply profits. Among other things, this
requires legislative action to break up the big Wall Street financial
institutions, strictly limit financial speculation, and bar
corporations from usurping the political rights of persons. We cannot
allow Wall Street to succeed in its effort to put the blame on
President Obama and divert our attention to a continuing series of
diversionary issues.

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