Book Review: Healing the Heart of Democracy

Healing the heart of democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit
by Parker J. Palmer
ISBN: 9780470590805
Two days ago I shared the following Status Update with my friends:
On break- just finished reading “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker J Palmer. A slow read only because of work and my constantly pausing to write out a quote (no highlighting a library book!).
I say
This book is about so much more than just politics. To be expected I guess from the author of “A Hidden Wholeness” and other titles.

Far more than a riff on the suggestion that we must learn how to disagree without being disagreeable; although that is certainly a big part of it. Mr Palmer argues that we must take it farther; in order to build a society that most of us want to live in, we must learn empathy. That is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions / the ability to share someone else’s feelingsSource. Of course it is better if we can also feel sympathy (“the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. / a sympathetic feeling” from the same site). I will do my best to summarize this work without resorting to dropping in a dozen (or more) quotations from its 200 pages.

Palmer started writing it in 2004 and finished it over the following six years. During that time the troubling political landscape in the USA was, to some degree, mirroring “the diminishments that come with age” (page 1) that most of us who live past the age of 50 or so will experience. In the Prelude he discusses coming to terms with the losses and depression he experienced. He found great benefit in the book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

He argues we cannot live in a democratic society without conflict: learning “how to hold conflict inwardly in a manner that converts it into creativity” (page 15) being the foundation of moving forward to create and maintain a democracy that works as well as possible for as many people as possible.

As the title makes clear, he uses imagery of a heart throughout the book. “The heart is where we integrate the intellect with the rest of our facilities” (page 17). Most of us will, over time, experience heart break. And probably more than once. He proposes we must look at how a heart breaks; does it break apart into a thousand pieces or “break open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience“? (page 18) This is about as close as he gets to clearly Buddhist imagery; but the concept of balancing two (apparently) contradictory concepts is really the root of the book- of human existence I would say.

He is not unaware of the dangers of using heart imagery; “reduce the heart to feelings, and you get politics as a dangerous game of emotional manipulation that can in the long run lead to tyrannies of several sorts” (page 54). Indeed he realizes such politics is often being played even now. Already it has reduced the quality of our democracy while on-line distractions and economic troubles are distracting us from the greater risk: “we are so obsessed with our private lives that we are largely oblivious to our public diminishments” (page 102).

With perhaps the ‘Occupy’ movements in mind he asks “what power does a street demonstration have when no one is in the streets to see it?” (page 104) There was minimal (and rarely impartial or ‘balanced’) news coverage of OWS. Even the reporters attempting to provide full details of the recent citizenship activities in Ferguson MO were threatened with arrest if not outright physical harm. Note he is not calling for violence; that is the antithesis of this book. And he argues for more direct and personal action; something parallel to the way that many gay people are successful ‘activists’ by being themselves and interacting with the people in the various communities of their life. Fight the ‘fear of the unknown’ by becoming known. He reintroduces the concept of ‘Circles of Trust‘ – which he also discussed in “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life“. That concept is also the foundation for The Center for Courage & Renewal which Palmer founded in Seattle.

Of course Palmer is aware that “good citizenship is not limited to how we engage with the world of institutional politics. We play the citizen role at every level of our lives” (page 163). And so he also addresses some of the issues that modern corporate structures inflict on our democracy; “when measurable, short-term outcomes become the only or primary standard for assessing our efforts, the upshot is as pathetic as it is predictable: we take on smaller and smaller tasks” (page 193) This, of course, will sound familiar to those who’ve read my recent blog post Corporate Fundamentalism.

I did not mean to give short-shrift to the second half of this great book, but this post has become quite long. I can not recommend this book strongly enough. Anyone who is or wants to be an active participant in their communities will benefit from it.

There is a companion Guide with .pdf files and short video clips available.
Parker J Palmer’s Facebook Page
** The Federal Trade Commission rules require bloggers to clearly identify when they have or will receive compensation. I will receive a small affiliate commission should you make a purchase after following any of the Amazon links in this post.

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Corporate Fundamentalism

Many people will tell you that a company’s sole purpose is to “maximize returns to its owners.” As with most (if not all) fundamentalist approaches that attempt to reduce a complex reality, it eviscerates reality.

In North America a corporation is a creation of, and at least in theory is subject to the oversight of, we the people as expressed through our duly-elected representatives. It is created to maximize long-term benefit to all its stakeholders. Note that the US Constitution does not directly address corporations, partnerships or any other form of commercial operation. In the Preamble is the phrase “promote the general Welfare, with that last word referring not to a government-run program but rather to “Health, happiness, and good fortune; well-being,
(American Heritage Dictionary). Of course a strict constructionist might chose to read that phrase as permitting corporations to focus on maximizing the ‘good fortune’ of shareholders but the use of ‘general welfare’ suggests a broader reading.

A corporation’s stakeholders include all who potentially benefit (or suffer) from its activities; shareholders, management, other employees, suppliers and customers. But also citizens who never directly interact with the company. People who drive on the same roads the company’s vehicles or suppliers use, as one example. A company that doesn’t contribute its fair share to the cost of structural upkeep is mistreating everyone. A corporation that pays employees such a small wage that people who never shop there have to ‘pick up the tab’ for food assistance and other programmes their employees need to survive is harming the general welfare.

Management of publicly-traded stock companies have replaced maximizing long-term benefits to all stakeholders with a focus on short-term results that impact the company’s share price and their own remuneration. Additional pressure comes from the currently-promoted mythology of the “self-made man.”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

John Donne

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately
Ben Franklin

It is necessary to remind our elected officials that corporations are not, and can never be, ‘people‘ in any sense of the word. They are creations of the State and must be reigned in if we have any hope of promoting the general Welfare. Once the ridiculous and erroneous SCOTUS decision (‘Citizens United’) has been overturned, it will be time to change how corporations are overseen and brought into line with the Constitutional requirement to promote the general Welfare.
Common Cause

At the same time, we must take steps to reign in our addiction to rampant consumerism. And to the degree that we have funds to spend, use them to support local independent businesses.

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gratitude [grat-i-tood, -tyood]
the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful:
He expressed his gratitude to everyone on the staff.

The word has become quite popular of late; I stopped counting the number of Twitter handles that include the word at 36 as I could see there were scads more. Likewise for blog and domain names. Being thankful is a good thing; it may reduce anger and hopelessness, and keep us humble. Yet I have my issues around the word. They weren’t part of my review of Gratitude and Trust by Paul Williams and Tracey Jackson as I wanted to focus on the quality of the book’s content. A ‘must-read’ btw.

Certainly in a ‘big picture’ sense I am grateful. I was an out and proud gay man in Toronto in the 80s and 90s who remains uninfected, I survived being mugged in Toronto and a serious car accident in November of 2000 (18 day hospital stay with mutliple surgeries). I am grateful.

However on a day-to-day basis it is a struggle; I am broke, under-employed and fighting foreclosure. Going to a movie theatre or live performance is beyond my resources, much less going back to Toronto for World Pride last month. My health is not terrible but there are aches and pains. Which of course leads to self-recrimination; so many of the people I knew in Toronto 30 years ago passed long before gout or arthritis could become an annoyance.

And then there’s that whole not wanting to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ attitude of mine.

At the same time, I have an almost visceral response to “being grateful” that seems to stem from a few different sources. First is the far-too-common use of ‘just be grateful for what you have’ in religion, employment and politics as tools to control we, the people. No upsetting the proverbial applecart. Accept your place. There was a time we gay folk were advised to be grateful for whatever crumbs society deigned to permit us. Back when we protested for non-discrimination legislation and the concept of ‘same-sex marriage’ wasn’t a pipe dream, it was a non-existent concept. And when it did become at least a dream there were many who said the time ‘wasn’t right’ to push. Since there is still no national employment non-discrimination protection in the US, perhaps their fears were not without some foundation. Fortunately some souls decided to ignore the nay-sayers. While full marriage equality has yet to arrive in the US of A, it is no longer a pipe dream.

However, I am learning to limit the hold my past has on me, while not forgetting valuable lessons. And so I move forward – in gratitude.

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