Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June 10th, 2018

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart * How We Come Together

Posted by nliakos on June 10, 2018

by Van Jones ( Ballantine 2017)

I don’t watch CNN much, and I have never seen Van Jones’ show, The Messy Truth. In fact, I had no idea who he was (progressive activist, CNN political contributor, author, attorney, founder/supporter of numerous progressive organizations). However, reading this book has made me curious to know more (if you know when The Messy Truth airs on CNN, please let me know!).  In it, Jones speaks as a progressive, but he speaks to both liberals and conservatives. He believes that both share responsibility for the mess we are in today, and both have the power and the responsibility to fix it. In fact, he says, we need each other, because neither side has the whole answer. He writes, “In the end, the promise of America is liberty and justice for all. My fellow liberals are so focused on justice we too easily forget about liberty. Conservatives can be so committed to liberty that you become blind to cases where injustice curtails freedom. We need each other. We cannot improve this country alone.” He couches the progressive/conservative split as a difference in which values are prioritized. It’s a simple thing, but I had never really thought about it in that way before. I think perhaps he is right. Government can be too big and too intrusive. Regulations can be too onerous than necessary. Not every conservative goal ends in injustice. We do need a balance between the sides; the discussion between them slows down the process and gives everybody a chance to consider all the options and possible consequences of change, and forces everyone to think about and clarify their ideas and their consequences.

Chapters Two and Three are “open letters” to liberals and conservatives, in which Jones speaks first directly to his fellow progressives and then to those on the conservative side. As a lifelong liberal, I read the “Open Letter to Liberals” with interest and introspection, and found Jones’ conclusions to ring true. (Example: Democrats take the African American vote for granted, not bothering to make good on their promises to this group: “The party should dramatically increase its paltry investments in the one community that has backed it unconditionally” [92% of the African American vote generally goes to Democrats.]).

Jones has great compassion for the poor and working-class white voters who have been abandoned by the party that should prioritize their interests–the Democrats. He understands that not all of these voters are racist bigots. He understands how globalization, trade deals, wars, and other decisions made in the interests of the big parties and big business have stolen the ability of many to support their families as they were accustomed to doing by working in factories and mines, for example. But he doesn’t excuse them for supporting Trump despite his offensive statements. He writes, “I understand where [they] are coming from. I hear their pain, and I want to give voice to that. . . . [but] as much as I want liberals to understand where blue-collar families . . . are coming from, I want Trump voters . . . to broaden their political agenda to include real compassion for the pain experienced by Americans who are black and brown. I want them to understand that the impact of their choice has created a living hell for American Muslims living in fear, for Latino workers facing deportation, . . . for Native Americans fighting the imposition of leak-prone pipelines, for those Americans . . . who will face longer prison sentences under the reignited drug war.” He concludes, “Trump’s stoking of racial animosity was one factor, but not the only factor, in his victory. Liberals need to keep that in mind–lest we paint too many people with the wrong brush and push persuadable people deeper into Trump’s arms.”

In Chapter Five, “Prince, Newt, and the Way Forward’, Jones describes some of his personal relationships with people on both sides of the great divide, like his college journalism teacher and mentor, E. Jerald Ogg (a white, conservative Republican), Newt Gingrich (an unlikely friend for a liberal Democrat, but nevertheless), and Prince, the rock star. The part about Prince was especially interesting to me. I was never a fan of his music (probably because I never heard much of it or recognized it as his, and I was surprised at the outpouring of emotion when he died. Jones, who became great friends with Prince, describes how he would donate large amounts of money to many individuals, projects, and causes, but generally anonymously, because he wanted to avoid attention for his generosity; and how Prince stood by him and advised him during a particularly dark time in his life. Jones and Prince together created a program to encourage young African Americans to learn computer coding so that they would have the skills to work in the new 21st century jobs. He writes, “Prince touched people’s lives in countless ways. . . . His music will be his legacy, always and forever, but I will always remember him for his generous commitment to giving back. He notes how people of all races, religions, and ethnicities were among his fans: “Somehow everyone was in on the secret of the purple magic he created, and everyone belonged.” Jones’ words turned Prince from a mere celebrity  into a human being that I think anyone would have admired.

The final chapter is devoted to four ideas to help bring Americans together again:

(1) fixing the justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country, and sometimes spits them out after their sentences are served, deprived of their fundamental rights or any way to make an honest living. Specifically, he recommends keeping disruptive students in school rather than suspending, expelling, or arresting them; eliminating excessive fees and fines; doing away with money bail; decriminalizing addiction and mental illness; not sending people to prison for low level crimes; abolishing mandatory minimum and solitary confinement, increasing access to education and family visits; supporting ex-offenders’ ability to make a living; and restoring their voting rights.

(2) ending the opioid addiction crisis by ending the “detox and die” method; making naloxone  readily available; providing medicine and counseling to incarcerated addicts; requiring insurance companies to cover addiction treatment; training medical professionals to deal with addiction; and treating addiction like the illness it is rather than like criminal behavior.

(3) recognizing that “technology is great for consumers. But it can be bad for workers.” And really training people for work in the tech industry.

(4) Supporting clean technology and cleanup of industrial pollution.

Reading this book renewed my hope that perhaps things can get better again, if we would just respect one another and seek innovative solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

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