A friend and I were discussing Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court. I said the Senate disgraced itself when it denied President Obama his opportunity to appoint a judge to that court. My friend, frustrated, asked, “What difference does it make? Does it matter”?

We struggle to define our American democracy. What do liberty and freedom actually mean? Are all people created equal? Those questions, and perhaps those posed by my friend, are answered by how we choose to use our freedom, wealth and power.

Trump MAGA vendors on the side of the road by Bill CatonThe answers can be found in our policies and our public dialogue. We talk much about culture, specifically American culture and the existential threats it faces from within and abroad. The Republican Party — which cannot win the popular vote in a national election — tells us that these differences in culture will destroy our ideals, our value system. But aren’t all people created equal? Or only native-born white people?

The cultural argument is a ruse. Our society’s problems are driven by public policy. We are in a battle with the super wealthy who want to maintain control of this country for their benefit. And they play on our basest fears, dividing us into issue silos – abortion, religion, guns, taxes, race – so that we never see the big picture and never use our collective power at the polls. This nationalist rhetoric is designed to enlist the poor and under-educated to keep the super-rich in power. Meanwhile those who are enlisted to fight are being pitifully manipulated. After all, they have no power to lose. Their whiteness and American birth mean nothing. The real fight is over wealth. And we the people are losing. The money that shifted to us ordinary folks in the reforms of the 1930s-1960s has been steadily moving back to the rich. The scale has tipped and the money is rushing to answer the call to return home.

Don’t believe our problems are about policy? Look at Alabama. My home state has suffered economically since reconstruction. The power structure used racist fervor to write a constitution designed to create a poor, under-educated working class to provide cheap labor for the power elite.

Here is what these policies designed to divide and control the masses have done to Alabama. A study by Alabama Possible offers insight:

  • It is the sixth poorest state in America;
  • More than 800,000 people – including 250,000 children – live below the poverty line.
  • Alabama’s economy continues to lag behind the nation’s. It’s median household income is $46,309 or $11,308 less than the national median;
  • Poverty impacts every corner of the state. 15 of Alabama’s 67 counties have a poverty rate higher than 25 percent. Another eight counties have a poverty rate higher than 30 percent.
  • Alabama’s median household income for African Americans is $21,165 less than the median income for white families.
  • Alabama’s child food insecurity rate is 22.5 percent.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s public school funding is designed to be unequal, favoring those systems attended by wealthier, predominantly white students.

These policies are all structured to maintain the status quo. And they are not cultural issues.

At a vigil for the temple killings by Bill CatonHowever, we must deal with cultural issues — including the glaring issue of hate speech — that springs from the struggle to retain wealth and power.

My wife and I last week attended a prayer gathering in Birmingham for those who were murdered in the Oct. 27 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn. More than 1,000 attended the inter-denominational gathering at Temple Beth-El. A rabbi lit 11 candles, one for each person who was shot by a gunman spurred to violence by inflammatory nationalist rhetoric.

I smelled the cold, pungent smoke before I could see that the wind had blown out the flame of a candle. The rabbi simply relit the extinguished wick and we continued to pray for the dead.

It matters.

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Image credits: the photos in this story were taken by the author, Bill Caton.