How Bernie’s Courage Forces Us to Find Our Own

Someone who lives a principled life can invoke inspiration or guilt and sometimes both simultaneously.

As media clips and evidence of vintage Bernie Sanders project to many of our eyes and ears for the first time his lifelong commitment to the quality of life of working people, fairness and integrity in governance and markets, and allegiance to the fundamental rights of the discriminated, it’s not surprising that in addition to the tens of thousands gathering in public spaces out of inspiration, there are also many of us gathering (often in online spaces) out of guilt.

It would be hard to have lived as much of a life of consistency to values and beliefs as Sanders. Even the Saturday Night Live parody of him, a la “I own one pair of underwear. That’s it. Some of these billionaires have three, four pairs,” is not that far off from his actual repudiation of materialism and keeping up with the Joneses lifestyle. Talking to reporters in Iowa, he clarified that while the SNL underwear joke was not reality, it is true that as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he owned one suit. When he was elected to Senate, he upped it to a few more, he said.

That’s almost impossible for our realty-tv-fabulous-wealth-selfie-obsessed culture to understand, let alone believe.

His no nonsense, no frills lifestyle feeds seamlessly his political and economic platform.

“Educating your workforce? That’s not revolutionary. That’s common sense,” he explained with characteristic collected assuredness to a crowd, of estimates ranging from 27,000-49,000, in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan this week.

In a city whose politics are known for being heavily influenced by hawkish Israeli lobbying, he’s remained committed, in just about every public appearance, including the nationally televised Brooklyn Democratic Debate last night, to his view that Israeli aggression against Palestinians has been disproportionate and unacceptable, and that this view does not conflict with his opinion that Israel has a right to defend itself, and to exist.

His courage has inspired many more than we even know. That’s probably because even when people express that transfer of courage, those quotes don’t make it to the final published story. And reception of and support for his courage is erased by major outlets. When I voted in this poll today, it showed Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly winning last night’s debate:

njcom poll who won bklyn debate 15 apr 2016.jpg

Nonetheless, The Washington Post, for example, concludes Hillary won, seemingly based on the tweets of people who follow it.

It’s understandable that a media industry controlled by a small, wealthy elite, the same elite who fund Sander’s democratic opponent, would pull out the stops – intentionally and subconsciously, I presume – to stop the kind of infinite courage loop Sanders is inspiring.

Just like fear, courage is contagious. As Gloria Steinem once said, “whenever one person stands up and says, ‘wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people to do the same.”

That is what Sanders is doing. He’s helping us to stand up and say, hey, this is wrong. Violence is wrong, domestically and abroad. Corruption is wrong. Division amongst ourselves is wrong. His courage is contagious and his integrity feeds its staying power.

That is an extremely frightening prospect to anyone realizing or feeling guilt for their own participation in the frauds Sanders exposes. In studying the psychology of corruption, I’ve concluded that fear, shame and guilt, more than potential pecuniary loss, fuels the oppression of the whistleblower.

Even those of us not on the top of the 1% pyramid are being confronted with a dose of moral correction.

We may feel guilty that we haven’t done as much as he did with his means. We may feel guilty if we’ve never taken a public stance on an unpopular issue. We may feel guilty if we realize our complacence is part of the problem Sanders is shining a spotlight on.

I’ve decided to stay home in the US for this election season, putting on hold overseas anti-corruption work. We have plenty of corruption to address in the US.

Transparency International annually publishes a corruption perception index, which tends to highlight African and other non-Western nations highly on corruption perceptions. This benchmark has always annoyed me because it is abused so easily to spin common beliefs about who is corrupt, rather than who thinks they are corrupt, as it may intend.

We Americans don’t tend to perceive ourselves as corrupt. We launder our corruption in legality in many ways, and draft our legislation in terms of the corrupt practices of others.

I’ve said more than once that Nigerians are some of the most honest people I’ve met. Though the country regularly makes headlines for various illicit outflows of public assets out of the treasury, my moments in Abuja were characterized by the openness by which society labeled and called out official corruption and massive theft.

I’ve saved for continuing inspiration a 2014 tweet from a friend, Nigerian lawyer and author Elnathan John (Born On a Tuesday):


It forced me to reflect if comfortable Americans could do the same.

Luckily, the comfy class is now being assisted by a growing class of courageous working Americans who are simply refusing to be quiet any longer, and by a slew of reports on corporate tax dodging, offshore (and onshore) vehicles for tax avoidance, and the realities of our oligarchic levels of money in politics.

Instead of succumbing to guilt, let’s at least be open enough to say we can be better, now. We can admit that while no one is perfect, and we should never endow martyrdom on any public servant, Bernie Sanders is a pretty principled, consistent, honorable citizen. With his historical and current practice of courage, he represents, in many ways, the best of what we can be, and, that’s why he should be president.


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