Hillary vs. Bernie: What Liberals Need to Know

I have been a longtime admirer of Mrs. Clinton, and who wouldn’t be? Strong, principled, experienced, and smart as hell, Hillary Rodham Clinton has broken through many barriers for women, showing us that the sky’s the limit. Or almost the limit: she is trying to break through the last glass ceiling, trying to become commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in the world, a country that has not yet had a female president or prime minister. She has the knowledge of five people, knows America and the world inside and out, knows the common people (given her own middle class roots and her activism for underprivileged children) as well as those at the top. Many hate her simply because she is a woman, and an ambitious one; she has endured invective that no man could ever possibly endure.

However, there are those who raise a legitimate criticism: Madam Secretary is disliked not due to her gender, but due to her links to power. Again, we must distinguish here that this criticism is not about her being a woman who desires to be politically powerful. Rather, it is that she is allied with the forces that possess tremendous power in this country, power that is simply inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans. Those who dislike her say that she is part of the establishment, the 1%, makes tremendous amounts of money and receives tremendous amounts of money to support her campaign from questionable and influential sources. Objectively, one cannot deny these facts.

This is what provides strength to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, someone else whom I admire greatly. Senator Sanders has truly led a life of simplicity and commitment to public service. Originally an independent “democratic socialist,” he has a long track record of taking concrete action to help the common man and woman, and fighting for social justice. Sanders runs, unhypocritcally, on a platform of transparency and sincerity. One cannot deny that his campaign has been a grassroots one, with his claim that the average contribution made to his campaign is merely $27 and that he does not accept money from super PACs. His ideas for helping the middle class – and all non-wealthy Americans in general – are extremely necessary, sane, and in line with the rest of the civilized industrial world. It is very reassuring to know that we have a politician who is really working for us, and is willing to take on Wall Street and the institutions that really work to our disadvantage. Sanders gives visibility to “the rest of us,” the honest, decent, hard working people who want a better society and who despise a system that favors financial corruption in the hands of a few.

But the question is, can such a “man of the people” (who until recently flew economy class) really succeed without big money behind him? I believe the answer is that liberals who have made it to the top usually have one foot in the corporate or mainstream/establishment door. Being a grass roots activist alone will not enable someone to have the power necessary to make large-scale social change. It is one of the “dirty” secrets of our country that even the most liberal-minded social activists need to realize. Or perhaps it is not so dirty, but a necessary and resigned acceptance of how the structures in American society work.

There are many noteworthy examples of people who have had one foot in each door. Rachel Maddow was very leftist and involved in LGBT and women’s issues, even writing a thesis on AIDS, then became a Rhodes Scholar and journalist, accepting the opportunities offered to her by Air America and then corporate giant MSNBC. A Stanford friend who developed a program to send medical supplies to Bosnia during the time of war later worked in corporate finance. Another friend who is works in bonds and is one of the 1% had worked for a feminist think tank in college. We can also look at our politicians. Barack Obama grew up in developing country Indonesia, and was a community organizer in Chicago in his earlier days. Al Gore has straddled both high-level politics and environmental activism. So has California Governor Jerry Brown. Even the most wholesome of nonprofits receive funding from corporate sources.

Even Bernie Sanders has contributions behind him from Apple, Amazon.com, and the U.S. Navy, according to opensecrets.org. Also noteworthy is the fact that Sanders implicitly acknowledges that he accepts money from PACs, just not super PACs. A super PAC not approved by him called Billionaires for Bernie formed last year, though it seems to have dissipated. Certainly, there are millionaires and billionaires who do support Sanders’s vision; some might find this hypocritical, while others find it commendable. And the Washington Post recently reported that the average contribution made to his campaign is slightly over $27.

This is in no way meant to speak ill of Sanders, who is a very commendable politician. Rather, it is to remind liberals that even our most honest politicians do have to work with big money. Also of note, liberals need to know that the Ivy League and elite schools train students to be able to contribute to the community in a sincere way, understand poverty and disadvantage (many students come from such backgrounds themselves), but are inescapably allied with the establishment and its institutions of politics and corporations. Many liberals are quick to tar and feather anybody who works in finance or corporate America. While these people are often worthy of great scorn and even punishment, too many white-collar criminals get away unpunished, and our tax system favors the ultra rich, there are still many commendable individuals in these fields. Though I personally wish the system and structures would change, I would encourage liberals to understand how the country works and not to make sweeping generalizations or dismiss everyone in the establishment. Study economics, finance, and political science, even law. Don’t be blind to how things really work, and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to climb to power while maintaining a liberal agenda.

As we wait on the edges of our seats to see who the Democratic candidate will be, at least we can talk about Sanders’s greatest accomplishment so far: bringing national visibility to- and discussion of social issues and ordinary people’s contempt for the establishment that takes advantage of them.

Either way, be it Hillary or Bernie, we will be in good hands.

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Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.