I get super inspired reading and listening to William Barber. The first time I saw him was in a YouTube video of his speech at the 2013 Wild Goose Festival. I thought to myself “This guy is the 21st century Martin Luther King. I have got to see him.” And so I ended up at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina the very next year. And it was great. I rode down with my friend Tom Gaulke, who was the pastor of a small student youth group (there was a pretty broad range of ages in that group, actually) that I ended up joining in the winter of 2013-14. Tom had mentioned that he had been to the Goose before, and I ended up riding down with him and two of his friends from seminary. The Wild Goose scene is heavily tilted towards progressive pastors, and it was like wandering around in a different world for me. The conversations were way different from anything I’d been around before. But the people were just fantastic – its a festival of purposefully inclusive, welcoming, kind, patient folks. Its ridiculous. Everyone is falling over themselves to be nice. Lots of people were deep in the social justice movement too. One guy I met told me he had been down to the protest at the School of the Americas every year for decades. And because its in the South, it turned all of my own prejudices on their head.
Back here in Illinois, things are super messed up, and seem to be getting worse on a daily basis. The ongoing budget stalemate is nightmarish. And the Republican Governor, who has made it his business to break the unions, and maybe also the Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan (who has been the acting political boss of the State for 30 years, more or less) is a classic neoliberal. He says stuff like “…put more resources into the other support networks for our students. Psychological support, counseling support, health support, because the challenges students have to overcome every day in their lives to be able to get in the classroom and study and learn is pretty overwhelming.” That is from a speech he gave yesterday. Sounds great, right? Well, the flip side of that is that he wants to cut corporate taxes and balance the budget, meaning he wants to provide services, but doesn’t want to pay for them. And a lot of the Democrats, from what I understand, basically see the budget as a zero sum game, a competition between individual districts over limited resources. So basically, poor folks in Chicago get screwed. Their children particularly. And I don’t really see any of it working out well. I don’t think Illinois politics is especially corrupt, either. There is a long, long history behind it all – and good reasons why its so messed up. But as far as I can tell, whats happening is that the State is slowly collapsing, and there isn’t a coalition of folks that trust each other well enough to do something about it. The big time establishment Democrats, like Madigan and Rahm Emmanuel, are despised by everyone except the people they directly benefit. And they’re just trying to hang on to their positions. Eventually they’ll be gone, and the whole thing will implode. Business interests will come in to turn the state into a capitalist playground, and democracy will recede. What little trust is left in public institutions will evaporate. Honestly, its a depressing time to live in Illinois. I don’t know if I will live to see it get better.
Anyways, this is why Rev. Barber is such a big deal to me. In him, and in Wild Goose, I see hope for the future. Not hope like “we can win elections” but more like “there is a community of believers” that I can put my faith in. Can there be renewal of democracy in America? I’m not sure I even know what that would look like at this point. Former Minneapolis Fed chair Narayana Kocherlakota writes encouragingly that above average growth is totally possible with the right mix of macroeconomic policy. And that would be great! But judging from Trump’s current popularity, I get the feeling that economic growth isn’t really what people want. If anything, they want a slightly smaller America, preferably with fewer non-anglo-saxons-protestants. Although I get the feeling a lot of folks don’t know what they want.