An enthusiastic reader wrote to ask me questions about what makes me tick, “Are you trying to make people think? To make them think a certain way? Do you just enjoy the writing?”

All of the above, but on the second question, yes I am a man with a mission. I am a missionary. I’m trying to put a leash on those Godawful narrow-minded right wing, Sarah Palin, Tea Partying, manipulative tricks we all use, me included.

Before my current missionary work, I was your basic idealistic left wing activist moving from issue to issue looking for leverage. I lived for six years on The Farm, the world’s largest hippie commune whose mission statement was “We’re out to save the world.” I ran water development projects for villages in Guatemala. I researched and wrote for Food First and Ashoka Foundation, Fecundity Fund and GBS Foundation. I co-founded 20/20 Vision, a D.C. based peace/environmental organization that lasted for 28 years. I ran the public affairs department for The Body Shop International, invited by its legendary environmentalist founder, Anita Roddick to help “radicalize the company.” I designed political campaigns for Ben and Jerry’s. I was on a mission.

Throughout my 20-year first career as an activist, I had a sense that progressivism would just keep on progressing. Sure there would be bumps in the road, but the overwhelming trend would be toward less dogma and more pragmatism, less fear-mongering and more freedom, less waste and more efficient resource management.

In my naiveté, I thought the US was free and clear from the lure of fascism, and I didn’t foresee the Republican Party becoming the sneering, ranting know-it-all crazy uncle who won’t stop bullying folks into submission at the family dinner.

I didn’t foresee that while he ranted, rallying the nation’s natural-born ranters to his side, the family’s goose would be cooked. In the 80’s there were a few big causes. Now there are so many it is hard to know where to the leverage is.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup



But I know where. I’m a man with a mission at home and abroad, a mission that pertains as much to our daily personal interactions as our global negotiations, a mission to curb a tendency not just in Republicans, but in all of us. Of all the problems we face, here’s the biggest:

We humans tend to translate “ouch” into “you’re bad,” “I want” into “you owe me,” “I’m uncomfortable” into “It’s all your fault,” “I’m disappointed” into “You’re evil.” In hundreds of ways, specific and vague, forceful and gentle we instantly, automatically, sanctimoniously, self-servingly, and selectively summon moral principles to support our personal preferences.

There’s no reason to expect us to be any different. We’re all born as babies and babies have to whine to get attention. For newborns, crying is survival. And there’s no reason to assume that, just by growing up into our meager human power of reason, whining would disappear.

We are what you’d get when you cross strong feelings with modest powers of abstract reasoning. You’d get abstract reasoning tripping all over itself in a desperate lurch to support our strong feelings.

The Republican Party didn’t start out as the “Always Right” Wing. Buried in the party’s history are a few laudably well-reasoned and substantive principles. Chief among them was a strong commitment to the rational design of a well functioning Republic, a hierarchical hybrid form of government in which individuals, states and the country as a whole share power.

Ironically, Edmund Burke, the father of conservativism was on a mission like mine. In reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution he argued that abstract ideas and political theories are dangerously likely to be ill-conceived and self-serving and therefore rarely better guides to the design of governments than the weather-tested systems already in place.

None of that seems to matter much to the party anymore. Republicanism seems to have dropped substance and set a new goal of cornering the market on the smug self-certainty. No matter what you believe, whether you’re for government controlling people’s personal and religious lives, or eliminating government, whether you’re for ending deficit spending or spending more on the military, no matter whether you demand more government support, less government, or both–blood-from-a-stone hand-outs without taxation, so long as you feel one hundred percent certain you know what’s best for the country, you’re a welcome member.

The Republicans aren’t likely to corner the market on sanctimoniously self-serving self-certainty. It’s a birthright shared by us all. Any of us, free to think, share and stand up for our opinions will find that the first opinions we form will be ones that affirm us. We tend to agree with ourselves.

We liberal and left leaning types tend to distinguish ourselves from the boorish neo-conservatives by our particular political opinions, and by our commitment to high principles. I watch us in action though and realize that opinions and principles aren’t the point so much as how we form them. In a pinch we’ll use the same cheap, smug, rationalizing moralizing tricks that Sarah Palin uses.

No political, spiritual or moral philosophy seems to constrain the natural human temptation to bloviate on one’s own behalf. You’ll do it from the left’s tent or the right’s tent. The Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists all do it.

So, I say the heck with those missions. On my mission, I want to go straight to the source of our worldly woes.

I’m not worried about people who think too much, I’m worried about people who can’t think beyond whatever feels good to think. I’m worried about people who assume their wishful thinking is rational. Those people will be the death of us. And I’m one of them.

When a girlfriend leaves me, when a company fires me, when a band dumps me, when my brother calls me to task, an instinct overtakes me. I feel myself reaching back into my quiver of moral arrows for one pointy enough to fell my new mortal enemy. I don’t care where I got the arrow, or whether the same pointy moral point would fell me too if it weren’t for my double-standards. All I care is if I can hit the target and make it stick. I’m tempted to use any trick in the book, and arrow at hand, and there’s always one at hand. I, Jeremy Sherman, am as tempted as anyone to fight dirty.

I am Sarah Palin.

Well if that’s the case, what’s the mission?

I want us all to say it. “I am Sarah Palin.” I want all of us to recognize the problem. In us. In me and in you personally. And then I want all of us to each work on ways to put a muzzle on it.

Let me be specific. When a problem arises, say between me and you, there’s the problem and then there are some questions. I call them the youmeus questions:

Who is to blame? Is the source of the problem in you, me or us?

Who should change? Is the solution to the problem in you, me or us?

The Sarah Palin way is to package final answers to the youmeus questions right into the description of the problem: “I’m feeling disappointed and I’m 100% certain you are to blame and you better change.”

I want us to get better at separating the problem from the questions. I want us to say something more like “I think there’s a problem and together, let’s try to figure out the source and the problem and who is to change.”

I don’t expect us to be that reasonable really. Impulse is hard to control. But it certainly can’t and won’t be controlled if we don’t even notice the problem, if we assume other people have the problem but not us, or if we assume our self-righteous indignation is a virtue. If we agree with ourselves and then agree with ourselves that agreeing with ourselves is justified, the layers of self-serving self-protection just get thicker and thicker and there’s no getting through.

Think of the perpetrators of truly evil acts—Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot. Aren’t they just an extreme version of that sanctimonious self-serving certainty? If you say “how dare you compare me to them?” I say, there’s that old sanctimoniousness. I wouldn’t put it past any of us to have a smidgen of what they’ve got, and collectively, if we pool our sanctimoniousness, we’ll lose humanity’s one great chance at success.

The tyrants decided they had thought enough. They had figured out what’s right. They had internalized it so perfectly there never again be a reason to self-question, self-monitor or self-doubt. For the greater good, they were going to implement their vision at whatever cost to others. And that potential is in all of us.

Only by admitting that we’ve all got a Sarah Palin in us, are we likely to get any kind of handle on it. I don’t expect miracles. Still, I employ the five minute rule. I can reach for the arrow, I can string my bow. I can even let it rip, but sometime within, say five minutes to a week, I had better be able to pull back to the youmeus questions, and show a little self-restraint.