25 November 2014

In the Heat of the Night

Less than 12 hours after it came down, many have already responded to the Grand Jury decision about officer Wilson's killing of Michael Brown.  I have not, and there is a reason.

Long ago, before I was thirty but after I was married, there was a moment when I was so filled with anger that words were useless.  In my fury, and my haste to quit the room, I toppled a coat rack which broke when it hit the ground.  Handmade by my father-in-law, and thus very precious to my wife, the sight of it lying in fragments broke me into pieces as well.  I collapsed in tears of regret and shame.

Like Billy Budd, to express deep anger - the profound anger of powerless injustice - often does more harm. It is not revenge at all but a volcanic response to being done wrong and being unable to right it.

This may be the heart of why racial justice has always been part of my life and work.  It started when I was 12 and promoted including Tony, one of the black kids being bused in to school, to be on the safety patrol.  None were and that was wrong, even to a kid like me.  I succeeded.  A week or two after he got his white belt and badge my messy desk caused my teacher to have me cut from the safety patrol.

The irony and proximity has never left me. Those who work for racial justice will not be welcome because true racial justice means everything will change.

In our dogmatically capitalist times, where politics and morality are treated as markets and success is measured by how much more you have than someone else, the reality that racial justice means everything will change means for many that the winners become losers and vice-versa.  Justice is thus a 'zero-sum game,' as we now say, meaning that some have more and some have less and that's just the way things are.

And that's what makes me angry beyond words. If we think this is the way it has to be - some having more justice than others - then America is a lie because America exists 'to establish justice.'  We must believe that everything should change, not only because the way things are now are unjust but because we will be better off as people and a nation if we do this.

Liberty and Justice are not zero-sum games, limited resources, commodities to be bought and sold and traded.  Yet we treat them like they are, and so some get more and some get less.  In America, people of color notably get less, as they have for over 400 years.

It may be that in this case, there was no crime according to law.  I am prepared to see that, but only if others are prepared to say that law is no guarantee of justice.  Injustice is very legal when it comes to marriage for lesbians and gays in Michigan.  Injustice is quite legal when it comes to children getting educated fully.  Injustice is legal where money is speech and poverty is silenced.

We need a better America, the one we pledged allegiance to in school.




07 November 2014

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” – Isaiah 9

A rather long post, following many post election thoughts, and to console my political son who was the second in command for someone who lost her re-election bid by 58 votes.
Although we are less and less Christian as a people, many of us even now recognize and enjoy the tradition that speaks of light after the dark, something we all understand in the northern hemisphere and also a metaphor for hope after despair which is what Isaiah meant after all.
American elections always come within sight of Christmas season, so to my fellow liberals and progressives and Democrats let us recall the words of Isaiah. Yes, there is reason for weeping and gnashing of teeth, and lamentation is understandable but, and let me repeat that word with emphasis – BUT – dismay serves the victor a second victory. Here, then, are some reasons for hope and courage, which are essential especially now.
1. America is a conservative nation, even among liberals. (“I thought you said reasons for hope?”) Yes, this is a reason for hope. By conservative I mean skeptical about government. One hundred fifty years ago Gideon Tucker wrote, “No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session," sometimes attributed to Mark Twain as well, who may have appropriated it somewhere along the line. Suspicion of government is very old among us, well entrenched and even liberals share this notion in some areas. Who of us is not outraged about mass incarceration, police misconduct, civil forfeiture, the Patriot Act? A healthy distrust of power is part of the liberal view as well. In other words, we are not as divided as we may feel.
2. Because we are conservative – skeptical – by nature, people will preserve the status quo long after it has been harmful to them. It is a form of preferring the devil you know, as the saying puts it. I think Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition of conservatives and liberals expresses the heart of the sentiment, “Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”
3. This fact is as old as the country itself. “And accordingly, as all experience hath shown,” writes the Declaration of Independence, “mankind (sic) are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to change the forms to which they are accustomed.” We liberals may decry the folly of those who vote ‘against their own interests,’ but it is an old and well-established fact of social behavior. We should not be surprised when it happens, and rather expect it. As Winston Churchill wryly observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.” And he was a conservative!
4. Therefore, liberal ideas will only be adopted when all else has failed. As a consequence, we should expect to be the minority most of the time. Which clearly means WE SHALL LOSE MORE ELECTIONS THAN WE WIN.
5. But we must not wait until disaster calls us – like firefighters – to the flaming house of democracy. That would be derelict. Though we may not be called upon until the last moment, we may not be absent in the meantime. But what should we do in that meantime, how shall we be ready when the nation needs us?
6. Even the conservative hopes for what the liberal hopes. What is that? “Liberty and Justice for All.” Where liberals have failed is in speaking to that hope in everyone. We have fallen prey to the same devil conservatism serves, fear. Conservatism thrives on fear as this is its basis. Some fears are appropriate, unchecked government power being one. But liberalism is premised on hope, and all people need hope, the light in the darkness, even conservatives; but liberals have lost that voice insofar as it speaks to the nation and not just themselves.
7. That is why dismay is conservatism’s second victory, for by feeling defeated we give up our soul, which is hope. The emotion is legitimate for the moment, as all defeats are hard. It is equally hard not to analyze why we were defeated, forgetting that victory for us is always exceptional and never the norm.
8. Our task is to ask not what went wrong with our strategy and organization, but how we can better speak to the hope. Technique helps win some elections, but ‘without a vision the people perish,’ and it is the liberal vision that people need. Thus the next step is not asking how to get people to vote but making people hungry to vote. We have two years. Here is how.
9. Reclaim our gift as those who believe the future of America is before us (hope) not behind us (fear). We cannot win elections or hearts by trying to compete over whose fears are more dire, or by using its cousin, anger. Fear and anger are the emotional basis of conservatism, after all.
10. Express liberal hope in words every American knows and reveres, ‘liberty and justice for all,’ ‘we the people,’ ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ ‘I have a dream,’ and so on. Our greatest moments as a nation have been moments when liberals were in power.
11. Let go of specific policies and platforms, the techniques of government, and talk only of the people and the nation. Liberalism is larger than government, but right now it has been cornered as mere belief in big government. Let’s then lose the language of government with its programs (which sound like money spent) and laws (which sound like regulations and limits) and speak instead of democracy and liberty, of justice and fairness, of community and responsibility, of all the things everyone values. These are liberal hopes, but not enough people know they are.
12. Finally, rejoice in the victory of our fellow conservative Americans. They are our neighbors and friends and as wrong as we think they may be, we are as likely to wrong as well. And cheer them on because liberal hope extends to all Americans, not just those who think like us. Let’s disappoint those who think us defeated and outcast by drawing the circle of our hope around them as well.