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The Value of What Came Before

“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.'” (Eduardo Galeano)

My husband and I are having dinner at a local farm-sourced, regional-brewers kind of place when I notice the TV set over the bar is playing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, that 1962 cult classic, mental/emotional slugfest between a manipulative Joan Crawford and a deranged Bette Davis. Both of them on the far side of their ingénue years.

When the server—a young woman in her mid-20s—comes to take our order, I ask if she knows the film. She scrutinizes the action on the TV screen and shakes her head. Never heard of it. I give it a strong recommendation. It may be camp, but it’s first-rate camp and it was nominated for five Academy Awards.BEFORE Bette_Davis_and_Joan_Crawford_

This exchange got me thinking about the increasing transcience of culture and knowledge. How what’s happening in the ever-changing nanosecond fills and floods our attention to the exclusion of everything that came before.

The Seduction of Now

It’s very seductive to think of the past as something finished. Over. That it has no connection or relevance to who we are now or where we’re headed. That we can re-invent ourselves at will, without a backward glance, and no price to pay.

Our high-tech world, with its rapid flow of new, disposable “product” and seemingly endless streams of “content” not only encourages this attitude, but practically demands it. When something “brand new” happens every 15 minutes, our attention is sorely taxed just scrambling to keep up. Who has time to reflect? To make connections?

Though each of us has a personal life that begins with our birth and ends with our death, we’re also part of a much larger world with a long and complicated past that affects our little blip on the timeline.

Okay, no one is going to argue that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a force to deepen ones understanding of the world. But an existence composed solely of what’s-happening-now leaves us with no compass to steer by, no yardstick for comparison on serious, larger-than-our-lifetime issues—say, global warming or the worldwide resurgence of nationalist movements. Without an understanding of what “went before,” we might not even realize it is a resurgence. That the current global trend toward nationalism has roots in the European fascist movements of the 1930s and the Jim Crow laws of the American South—the latter going back to the Civil War and that defender of slavery, John BEFORE blind-followers-nationalism- CROP revisedC. Calhoun. That nationalism is not without links to the European conquerors of Columbus’s “new world.” All of it a shorthand for the belief that some people are created more equal than others. That some people don’t even have the right to exist.

Without a sense of how today’s headlines fit in along the timeline of human history, we’re left vulnerable to all who would prey on that ignorance. And they are out there.

In a State of Disconnect: Clueless about History

A quick survey of polls targeting common misconceptions (and just plain ignorance) about history makes for fascinating—if frightening—reading.BEFORE simpsons sky-1-the-simpsons-panel-0f82a41

A 2006 poll by the now defunct McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that one in five Americans could name all five Simpson cartoon family members, but only one in a thousand people could identify all five First Amendment freedoms.

A 2012 ACTA survey revealed that fewer than 20% of college graduates could correctly identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A 2010 survey, cited by The Atlantic, reported more Americans knew that Michael Jackson composed “Beat It” than knew that the Bill of Rights is a body of amendments to the Constitution. And one in three did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to a trial by jury.

Fifty percent of Americans surveyed also suffer severe timeline confusion. They identified the American Revolution as happening after either the Civil War or the War of 1812. And more than a third had no clue at all in which century the American Revolution occurred. One can only hope continued sell-out performances of Hamilton will provide some hints.

BEFORE Puerto rico shirt Rico-696x470In light of the video that went viral this summer—a man harassing a woman for wearing a shirt with the flag of Puerto Rico (“You should not be wearing that in the United States of America!” he shouted repeatedly.)—it’s worth noting that a 2017 poll revealed almost half of Americans don’t know that the people of Puerto Rico are United States citizens.

Perhaps the most shocking—and saddening—statistic I came across was cited on NPR’s All Things Considered: Forty percent of Americans cannot identify what Auschwitz was.

In fact, fewer than half of Americans know that Hitler did not take control of Germany by force, but was democratically elected. We’ll return to this later.

Why Does This Matter? Why Should We Care?

Not knowing what came before, as I said, renders us prey to spin doctors, Russian hackers, unscrupulous politicians, and hucksters of every stripe.

It leaves us vulnerable to the lies of others, told for their own nefarious purposes. 

“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” said then-presidential candidate Trump at a 2015 Birmingham rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of [Muslims] were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

Trump stirred up a lot of anti-immigrant feeling with these words, sowing the seeds of support for his notorious Muslim Ban, but politifact.com gave him a “Pants on Fire” rating for that speech. That’s code for one big fat whopper.BEFORE The-American-Muslim-Creative-Mission_Overcoming-Religious-Polarization

PolitiFact cites a September 17, 2001 Associated Press report that debunked “rumors of rooftop celebrations of the attack by Muslims” in Jersey City. And wildfire rumors of Muslim-Americans cheering the fall of the World Trade Center in Paterson, N.J., turned out to be a nasty lie spawned by chain e-mails and fanned by shock jock Howard Stern.

The historical truth? Muslim residents of Paterson mounted a banner in that city saying “The Muslim Community Does Not Support Terrorism.”

We fall for solutions that have failed us before.

Trump sold his tax cuts for the rich by promising American workers that with more money in their boss’s pocket, they would benefit from increased wages and bonuses. It was gonna be “beeeeautiful.”

If there’s one thing we should be wise to by this point, it’s the bald-faced lie of trickle-down economics—that when you let the rich keep all their money, out of gratitude they will pass pots of it along to the peons who made them rich in the first place. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, exposed the nonsense of trickle-down more than a hundred years ago in his Cross of Gold speech:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through to those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

The term “trickle-down economics” was coined by American humorist and commentator Will Rogers to ridicule President Hoover’s dismal stimulus efforts to cure a Great Depression many economists feel he played a large hand in creating. Hoover, a BEFORE getting rained on trickle downcheerleader for “rugged individualism,” believed that only the voluntary action of “socially responsible capitalist leaders” (know any?), not government intervention, would restore economic order.

Trickle-down economics failed in the close of the 19th century. It failed in the Great Depression. It failed in the massive tax cuts to the rich known as “Reaganomics” that started an almost 30-year slide into the financial crash of 2008. And it is failing under Trump. A 2018 analysis of Fortune 500 companies reveals that fewer than five percent of workers will get a one-time bonus or wage increase from the Trump tax cuts. If they still have a job. AT&T and General Motors both cut 1,500 jobs. Kimberly-Clark dumped 5,000 workers. It seems that most companies poured virtually all of their tax-break money into stock buybacks, making the richest folks even richer.

Trickle-down economics does one thing and one thing only: It robs from the poor and middle classes, and gives to the rich.

Blinds us from seeing how attacks on others are attacks on all of us.

Recently, I read a piece (sorry, I didn’t copy the link) where psychologists discussed how people tend to mentally catalog only those things they perceive as affecting them directly. For example, if you’re not a union member—a teacher, a nurse, an auto worker—you might think that current efforts to cripple or destroy unions have little to do with you. “Right to work” laws, attacks on overtime pay. But you’d be wrong.

History shows that the advantages labor unions have fought for and won (starting with the right to unionize) have generally benefited all American workers.

Before there were unions, many people worked six, even seven days a week for an average workweek of 61 hours. It was the unions, waging massive (and sometimes bloody) strikes in the late 19th/early 20th centuries that brought us the 8-hour day and the weekend. A half-century of struggle culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. BEFORE striking workers Capture

When unions are strong, the middle class tends to flourish. When they are weakened, as is happening now, income inequality increases for all workers and the purchasing power of the middle and poor classes shrinks. A lot. Benefits disappear, too.

Speaking of benefits, it was the rise of unions in the 1930s and 1940s that we have to thank for employer-sponsored health insurance. When unions used their numerical clout to negotiate health care for their members, many other employers scrambled to stay competitive by offering the same.  By 1950, a majority of employers offered some type of health insurance to their workers. With the current two-pronged effort of the GOP to weaken unions and sabotage the ACA, the future of employer-sponsored healthcare is something to keep on your radar.

In its first national convention (1881), the American Federation of Labor started the ball rolling to end child labor. State after state responded to this call until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act abolished child labor nationwide.

Allows those in power to cheat us of our rights.

If you don’t know the Bill of Rights guarantees you a trial by jury for criminal cases and serious civil cases—and inhibits the court from overturning a jury’s finding—you might be bulldozed by your adversary into waiving your right to a jury trial in exchange for one heard (and ruled on) solely by a judge. This is increasingly a power tactic of corporations who feel juries tend to be sympathetic to individuals claiming damage or loss rather than to the big companies alleged to have screwed them.

It’s easy to take from people what they don’t know is theirs. Remember those 999 people out of 1,000 who could not name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment? BEFORE jury trial attorneyThey are at risk for believing the current propaganda that a press who criticizes the president is un-American. They may fear to speak out because some politician with an agenda says protesting government actions is “illegal.”

Well, here they are, the five freedoms guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment to the Constitution (at the very top of the Bill of Rights):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We are allowed to holler with all our might against those who would violate or destroy our democracy. And we should.

We fail to recognize the signposts of eminent danger when they’re right before us.

Recently, a guest on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes said of the current fight against widespread attacks on voting rights, “The Civil Rights Movement continues. It is eternal.”

Ditto the fight against fascism. Fascism did not end with the surrender of the Nazis any more than white supremacy died with Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation or the passage of the 13th Amendment.  BEFORE hitler nuhremberg laws maxresdefault

I mentioned up-top a poll that found fewer than half of Americans know that Hitler did not take control of Germany by force, but was democratically elected. As Emory University history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, explains, “The Nazis didn’t come into office on January 30, 1933, and decide on a genocide the next day. They slowly broke down a democracy. They destroyed it.”

She goes on to cite the “steady drumbeat of attacks” that began under Hitler. “First on the press, then on the courts, then on institutions, [the] slow takeover of institutions.”

Sound familiar?

Connecting the Dots  

To have a solid grasp of what came before is to have a richer understanding of what we’re seeing now. A guide to sift truth from lies. A way to answer the always-pertinent question: From whose viewpoint is this coming and what do they stand to gain by pushing this particular agenda? Instead of bouncing from tweet to tweet, history gives us a telescopic lens to pinpoint the connections. And it cannot be said enough: Everything is connected.

The films and books, the music and paintings and theatre of the past have messages for us, too. Not perhaps the kitschy romp of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but there is much worth our attention in the dusty archives of film, the overflowing shelves of the library, in Shakespeare’s plays and John Donne’s poetry.

One book that Americans are rediscovering is a little dystopian novel, 1984.

BEFORE Orwell second one 19845-01

Written 68 years ago by English author George Orwell, it’s been flying off the shelves, as they say, topping the best-seller list at Amazon in January 2017—after Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” to justify Trump’s complete fabrication about the size of his inaugural crowd.

That tells you what happened. It doesn’t tell you why it matters. To do that, I will close with a paragraph from an article written by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker in 2017, “Orwell’s 1984 and Trump’s America”:

“And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.”

To know what came before us is a great gift–enriching, fascinating. It is also a warning.

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I Always Wanted an Orange Kitten

What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open. (Jose Manuel Barroso)

Since college days, my life has been filled with cats. There’s Phoebe, a tortoiseshell cat who napped atop my turntable; StarBaby, a calico who cleaned out the bottom of my yogurt cartons and then lined up the empties in the bathroom; Maggie, a stray I “adopted” from the Boston pizzeria that fed her; Tia Maria, an opinionated, affectionate gray with a “hint of beige”—also mother of Brutus and Jasmine, both brown tigers. And Francesca, a tiny, gray long-haired kitten who was terrified of most everything, but loved Brutus and followed him everywhere.

Most of these cats had been rescued from one kind of immediate-need situation or other. I didn’t set out to choose them. More like our paths crossed serendipitously and I’m a big KITTEN Tia CROPsucker. But when Brutus died at age 17 and Frankie followed four months later, I found myself catless for the first time in 27 years. After the worst of the grief subsided, I knew what I wanted. I wanted an orange kitten. I had always loved that color (too many “Morris the Cat” ads, perhaps), and now I could take myself down to the local animal rescue shelter and pick one out.

Most of the cats at the shelter were, like me, no longer kids. One heartbreaking duo, ages 12 and 14, had belonged to a woman in her nineties who had recently died. I considered them because, obviously, like all aging orphans, they were not going to be most people’s first picks. But then I thought maybe they weren’t really up for life in a house with two teenagers (mine).

“If you’re interested in a kitten, we have four brothers here, eight weeks old,” the shelter attendant said.

And there they were, four little kitties romping about a boxy cage, tumbling over one other, each more heartbreakingly cute than the other. And none of them orange. Not even close. Not even a speck. KITTEN CROP tibby and coosh babies

You know how this story goes. I chose a little gray guy, white-tipped tail, both spunky and sweet. I named him Mercutio on the spot.

Recognizing a pushover when she saw one, the attendant added, “It’s two-for-one month.”

Well, I had my daughter Lauren in tow, and between the two of them there was no way I was leaving that shelter with only one cat. I picked out a frisky black-and-white dude and christened him Tybalt.

So, no orange kitty. And yet, here I am 14 years later with gray Mercutio (Coosh) and black-and-white Tybalt (Tibby), and I know when they leave this world, as all things must, I will feel the kind of pain that just about does you in. Tibby is playful and good-hearted and would let you rub his belly forever. Coosh cuddles up on the bed beside me as I read each night to the strains of Mozart (he’s a big fan).

Two things here strike me: 1) It is in our nature to want particular things, to have definite plans, to map out pathways, goals, and 2) It is in the nature of life to divert most of these desires and plans.

The question is: How do we handle these detours and diversions?

When the Bottom Drops Out

Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes. (Hugh Prather)

Okay, it’s pretty easy to punt one’s desire for an orange kitten. But how do we deal with it when we love what we’re doing, and then the bottom drops out. The company closes. The funding evaporates. Our plans go up in smoke.

When my kids moved into the later elementary years, I enrolled in a competitive M.Ed. program at a local university. They only took ten candidates, so I spent the year prior to application substitute teaching and taking undergraduate courses like math for teachers. I was one of 50 applicant finalists interviewed, and I got in. But that was just the beginning. The program was a one-year intensive, and I do mean intensive. I did my practicum in the second semester while carrying a full load of classes and cooking/cleaning/ferrying my two kids to appointments, lessons, and friends. I did my coursework in the wee hours of the morning. I dreamed of sleep.

But then I got hired and taught six-year-olds for several years. First grade—teachers either love it or loathe it. I loved it. Those little guys are my chosen people. Whether we were immersing ourselves to the elbows in papier maché to make tectonic plates that became mountains when shoved together, or compiling lists of words where oa makes the long o sound: coat, goat, boat, float—we were into it. We grooved on observing and recording the life cycle of frogs. Bring a tank of tadpoles into first grade and you’ve got instant joy. Yes, we were happy campers.

And then the Iraq war happened and with it, deep budget cuts in federal aid to public schools. With only two years in the classroom, I was a prime target for staff reduction. This was a serious bummer. I loved teaching. After two years, I felt I was really hitting my stride. KITTEN No-Jobs-300x300

So, what to do? Schools across the state were cutting staff. Getting another teaching job looked about as likely as a lottery win. The director of my M.Ed. program hired me to supervise student teachers in their practicum. I liked the work, but it was part-time for spring semesters only.

In the meantime, my daughter had graduated to studying with a new violin teacher, a faculty member of the music department at yet another local college (we’ve got tons of them) and an international recording artist. As we chatted at the first lesson, it somehow came up that he had come to England from Germany in 1939. Alone. Carrying nothing but his violin and several of his father’s paintings. An 11-year-old kid fleeing the Nazis. My heart turned over. I had to write his story.

I had done a cover feature for the local paper’s weekend magazine several years before, so I called the editor and she was enthusiastic. Over the fall of that year, I interviewed Philipp about his Jewish family’s life under the Nazis, his year as a refugee “orphan” attending a boarding school in the Midlands, and his family’s subsequent reunification in America. The feature ran just days before my M.Ed. director called to ask if I would be supervising the new interns for the upcoming semester.

KITTEN jewish refugee children arriving in LondonTwo roads diverged … in the nanoseconds before I replied, I thought I could make my life writing. I had earned a living from writing before as editor and main content contributor for a monthly business publication. I had completed two novels and was writing a third.

“I’ve decided to try my hand at freelance writing,” I said.

And that was what I did, pitching pieces and writing for magazines. It was the best career “move” I ever made.

 When New Facts Contradict Old Beliefs

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. (Stephen Hawking)

In the early ‘70s when the Watergate storm was reaching a full-blown tempest, the deeply conservative representative from my Michigan district made national headlines with these words: Don’t confuse me with the facts.

Sometimes, when we’ve invested a lot—years, dollars, hope, energy—we’re tempted to don blinders and ear plugs against anything that threatens our status quo and calls for a rethink. KITTEN Darwin 640px-Voyage_of_the_Beagle

Charles Darwin was a creationist when he first visited the Galapagos Islands as part of the HMS Beagle expedition to chart the coastline of South America. In fact, his father had sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge to earn a B.A., as the first step to becoming an Anglican parson.

As a creationist, Darwin believed the particular adaptations of many species were simply proofs of divine design—that each species had been created for its special place in nature. Fixed. Immutable. What he observed in the Galapagos challenged everything he thought he knew.

Faced with a conundrum—sweep under the proverbial rug all questions raised by the variations he’d seen among tortoises and mockingbirds in the Galapagos OR investigate—he investigated. His Journal of Researches suggests it was a slow investigation, and likely painful letting go of old notions, but he could not turn away from the search for what is—for truth. Twenty years of conversations with zoologists and ornithologists KITTEN Charles Darwin the love of all livingfollowed that visit to the Galapagos. Two decades of exhaustive research. When at last he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, Darwin was a true believer in evolution.

 

Frank J. Sulloway wonders aloud, in his article for Smithsonian Magazine, why Darwin was the only person to embrace evolution out of all those exposed to the evidence in the Galapagos. “In the end,” Sulloway writes, “it is perhaps a question of courageous willingness to consider new and unconventional ways of thinking.”

When you Least Expect it: Recognizing the Gift in the Moment Before You

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance. (Harrison Ford)

In the summer after my junior year of college, I did a semester in London, studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre and poetry. I saw 27 plays in six weeks. I lived in a dorm on the edge of Regent’s Park. I reveled in the British Museum, the Tate and National Galleries, the Victoria and Albert, and Kew Gardens. I browsed the wealth of Charing Cross bookshops and enjoyed the camaraderie of the pubs, the remarkable kindness and generosity of the British people. In short, I fell in love with the city. London became and has remained the home of my heart. At the end of that summer, I hated to leave but I had two terms left to finish my degree. I vowed I would someday return for good. KITTEN pub 20131212yeoldewatling

Fast forward to 2007. Knowing that my marriage would bite the dust when my youngest finished high school, I was combing real estate ads for flats in the greater London area. I was going to make the move. Realize my long-cherished dream. Nothing would stop me.

And then, on a Friday afternoon in July, Ed happened. To riff on Casablanca: Of all the coffee shops, in all the towns, in all the world, he walked into mine. That day, as he was leaving, he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a good weekend. I vaguely recognized him—one of the regulars who was often there when I arrived mid-morning to work on one freelance assignment or another.

Over the next two months, Ed and I started talking. I began arriving earlier. He stayed later. We ran the conversational gamut from silly to serious with total ease, even in our silences. We shared many passions. Travel, books, baseball, progressive politics, cooking, dancing, a fascination with language generally and word play specifically. A love of laughter. We were both freelance writers and editors. He was reading a book on Bletchley Park in World War II. I was writing a book centered on Bletchley Park in World War II. We began going out to lunch and taking long walks together. In between, we e-mailed constantly.

KITTEN Making choices 2 599d83c81900002600dd4ff7The time for filing my divorce was rapidly approaching. With it, the need to start putting things in place to make London happen. From the viewpoint of my plans, it was a most inconvenient time to fall in love, But fall I did. Over my head. Out of my mind. Passionately, joyfully, crazy in love.

London aside, the relationship was not without risks (is there ever a seismic move in life without risks?). Ed was on a transplant list at the time, waiting for a new liver to replace his rapidly failing one. Would a donor liver be available in time to save him? Was I giving up my London dream for a situation that might quickly devolve into a nightmare of hospitals and end in tragedy?

I remember standing in my driveway on a warm September night, summoning all the reasons that following my heart might be foolish. But I kept coming back to the simple truth: I loved him. And then I thought the only true foolishness would be to give up a man who was perfect for me in every way. Who made my heart sing. The liver situation KITTEN 129 Amy & Ed on Sidewalkwas a gamble, yes, but everything in life is a roll of the dice. A seemingly perfectly healthy person can suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm. There are no guarantees. But I knew what I had in that moment. I had Ed and he was the love of my life. Eleven years on, and one successful liver transplant later, he still is.

And now, we visit London annually. He has become quite a fan.

Carpe Diem

At one point or another in my life, I’ve wanted to master the hula hoop, be one of the popular kids, have string-straight hair like Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton, and move to the desert. None of these things happened, thank god, because as it turns out the hula hoop “died”, there’s far more freedom outside the clique, I’ve come to love my wild curls, and I need lots of green in my environment.

We don’t always wind up at the place we started out for. The road curves. Circumstances change. New facts emerge. Unexpected opportunities erupt.

Yes, we don’t always get what we want, but that’s not the end of the world. Sometimes it’s just the beginning.

 

The Idea of Democracy

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation …  shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

 

I hardly know how to begin. As I write this updated intro to a post I ran last year to observe America’s Independence Day, the SCOTUS has ruled to allow Trump’s Muslim Ban, to permit businesses to discriminate against LGBQT folks, and to silence labor. At this hour, America doesn’t much resemble a democracy. With children being kidnapped from their parents by our border agents–families smashed and lives destroyed–America doesn’t feel much like the nation of immigrants the Statue of Liberty celebrates. With Trump complaining that courts and due process are “bothers” he wants to dispose of, America, land of the free, seems to be sliding into a dark abyss. And now we have a seat empty on the Supreme Court, with the very real threat that it will be filled by someone who will further savage our democracy.

And yet, I harbor hope that the millions and millions of Americans taking to the streets to fight these attacks on our freedom, to uphold our most-cherished beliefs will prevail.  Because the idea of democracy, however flawed it has been and still is, is worth all the energy and love we can put into it. Because we who fight are its last, best, and only hope. It has always been so. (June 29, 2018)

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).

The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.

I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:

Civil War: 100

American Revolution: 0

So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.

John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.

For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.

Through the Looking Glass of Time

Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.

Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”

Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. He also noted, “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities.  Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true

Shays Rebellion

heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.

Harvard historian Alex Keyssar notes: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.

Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:

1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.

While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.

2) Almost everything at the hour of its invention is but a poor prototype of what it may become.

Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.

History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.

The Real Gift of the Founders

John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.

“The Declaration of Independence” John Trumbull

When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.

Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.

The Center for American Progress writesThe activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.

The idea of democracy.

No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged

It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.

The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.

Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)

Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.

In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.

Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent #FamiliesBelongTogether actions across the country to stop the horrors at our southern border, the 2017 Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.

The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

The Task Before Us
At Standing Rock Camp

Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on  Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on                                                                                          Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.

We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.

It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.

Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.

I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.

That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.

(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)

The Idea of Democracy

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation …  shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

 

I hardly know how to begin. As I write this updated intro to a post I ran last year to observe America’s Independence Day, the SCOTUS has ruled to allow Trump’s Muslim Ban, to permit businesses to discriminate against LGBQT folks, and to silence labor. At this hour, America doesn’t much resemble a democracy. With children being kidnapped from their parents by our border agents–families smashed and lives destroyed–America doesn’t feel much like the nation of immigrants the Statue of Liberty celebrates. With Trump complaining that courts and due process are “bothers” he wants to dispose of, America, land of the free, seems to be sliding into a dark abyss. And now we have a seat empty on the Supreme Court, with the very real threat that it will be filled by someone who will further savage our democracy.

And yet, I harbor hope that the millions and millions of Americans taking to the streets to fight these attacks on our freedom, to uphold our most-cherished beliefs will prevail.  Because the idea of democracy, however flawed it has been and still is, is worth all the energy and love we can put into it. Because we who fight are its last, best, and only hope. It has always been so. (June 29, 2018)

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).

The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.

I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:

Civil War: 100

American Revolution: 0

So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.

John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.

For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.

Through the Looking Glass of Time

Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.

Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”

Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. He also noted, “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities.  Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true

Shays Rebellion

heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.

Harvard historian Alex Keyssar notes: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.

Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:

1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.

While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.

2) Almost everything at the hour of its invention is but a poor prototype of what it may become.

Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.

History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.

The Real Gift of the Founders

John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.

“The Declaration of Independence” John Trumbull

When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.

Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.

The Center for American Progress writesThe activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.

The idea of democracy.

No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged

It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.

The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.

Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)

Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.

In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.

Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent #FamiliesBelongTogether actions across the country to stop the horrors at our southern border, the 2017 Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.

The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

The Task Before Us
At Standing Rock Camp

Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on  Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on                                                                                          Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.

We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.

It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.

Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.

I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.

That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.

(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)

Got Heart?

Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.     (Helen Keller)

My husband and I were enjoying dinner at a local pub restaurant recently when a woman’s voice pierced the cozy bubble of our conversation.

“I have no social conscience.”

This admission, calmly stated, shocked me profoundly. That there are people who have no social conscience, who feel no concern for the suffering of others, is certainly not news to me. My inbox and the nightly news supply ample examples of cruel indifference:

Credit: PA
  • GOP efforts to pull the plug on children’s health insurance (CHIP).
  • Paul Ryan’s campaign to bankrupt Medicare and privatize Social Security.
  • Police officers gunning down black teens “armed” with nothing but a smartphone.
  • The governor of Michigan leaving Flint residents to drink lead-poisoned water after he changed the city’s supplier to save money—a serious health crisis now in its fifth year.
  • The blind eye the Trump administration turned toward the residents of Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricane disaster—a blind eye that ratcheted up an initial death toll of 17 to a now-staggering 1,000+ by the most conservative counts.
http://www.today.com

Clearly, far too many people don’t give a rip. Our Congress is filled with them.

No, what shocked me about this statement, I have no social conscience, is that someone would admit to such callousness casually, publicly. I turned in my seat as far as I dared to see the speaker: a well-dressed woman in her fifties, eating dinner across from a man whose slack-jawed expression suggested he, too, was startled by her confession.

What is Social Conscience? What is It Not?

What is social conscience?

Collins Dictionary defines it as “the state of being aware of the problems that affect a lot of people in society, such as being poor or having no home, and wanting to do something to help these people.”

Collins appends this arresting note: “The social conscience, or more correctly the social heart, has come to regard the survival of the fittest as a barbarian conception.” Exactly.

http://www.today.com

Wikipedia distinguishes between the personal and the social:

“While our conscience is related to our moral conduct in our day-to-day lives with respect to individuals, social conscience is concerned with the broader institutions of society and the gap that we may perceive between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist [italics are mine].”

So, the person who pays her bills and takes dinner to a neighbor recovering from surgery; who contributes to the local playground used by her children and doesn’t cheat on her taxes—she considers herself an icon of morality.

But she tips her hand when she votes for someone like Georgia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, who among other atrocities, brags “I’ve got a big truck in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.” (Note: You really owe it to yourself to watch his new campaign ad here. It beggars belief.)

Conscience, in this instance, is all about the personal, the tribal. I, me, mine. Totally missing is any feeling of connection to people one doesn’t know, a sense of common humanity.

Which is why we now have children being torn from their parents in alarming numbers by U.S. border control agents. (One would be alarming, but there are HUNDREDS, soon to be thousands.)

People fleeing political violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala arrive at our southern border, having traveled up to several thousand miles, only to have the children they sought to protect snatched from them by border agents and driven off to god knows where. These parents tell beyond-horrific stories of being restrained while a stranger carries off their terrified child. The children old enough to talk, scream, “Mommy! Mommy!” The infants can only sob.

Ross D. Franklin/AP 2016

Some, maybe most, of these children will never see their parents again. Detention facility operators for non-U.S. citizen kids admit it’s often impossible to locate the parents after the children are taken by agents. This violence happens so quickly, there’s no time (or effort made) to create proper records. An infant can’t even reveal her name. And there’s no real plan for the future of these kids. They are simply regarded as the ‘casualties’ of a war on immigrants. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says of Trump’s new “zero tolerance” policy “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

What Does a World Devoid of Social Conscience Look Like?

In her 2017 book Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean gives us a well-researched look at the people who would transform our democracy into a dog-eat-dog world of predators and prey, devil take the hindmost. At its center is the vision of a man named James Buchanan for whom the 1955 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (calling for the end of segregation in public schools) was the last straw, a government incursion too far in what he believed should be the freedom of the minority (the rich) from the needs and wishes of the common rabble (the majority).

An economist, Buchanan joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1956 where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy. Sounds patriotic, doesn’t it? Very Founding Fathers and all. But its aims were to undo representative democracy and scrub the public from every institution. It is the direct antecedent of today’s far-right, Koch-funded Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange (ALEC), Cato Institute, and dozens of other Orwellian-titled think-tanks and foundations where a democratic name has been purposely selected to disguise the very anti-democratic philosophy of its members.

Buchanan & Friends’ targets include: ending public education; privatizing or eliminating Social Security and Medicare; shutting down the U.S. Postal Service; eliminating the minimum wage and laws against child labor; closing the EPA; cutting off all foreign aid; scrubbing employer-provided pensions; a total nix on rules that would constrain how a person gets wealthy, and a prohibition against taxing that wealth other than for military expenditures.

That is the short list.

So, who will pay for the interstates, highways, and bridges required to transport the goods made in the factories of the rich that increase their wealth?

Far more important, what becomes of the 90% of America’s children who attend public schools if public education is axed? That’s millions and millions of kids.

No public schools, no minimum wage, no prohibitions against child labor. What is the “dream” for this brave new world, devoid of all social conscience? Five-year-olds working for fifty cents an hour? For how many years? Until they die? It certainly eliminates any need to worry about retirement savings, Social Security, or Medicare. I can hear Betsy DeVos and Paul Ryan salivating right now.

The Nazis had an assembly plant buried deep in the Harz Mountains, Mittelwerk, where slave labor—Jews, Communists, homosexuals, Poles, and other Nazi targets—manufactured the weapons used against the Allies. The system was simple. A person was worked day and night in the underground tunnels until they dropped dead. Then they were tossed into an incinerator. As the Nazis liked to point out: Labor was expendable. There were always more where they came from.

Mittelwerk

It should come as no surprise that James Buchanan was the architect of the new constitution for CIA-backed dictator General Pinochet’s authoritarian regime in Chile (1973-1990), a constitution Buchanan liked to brag was unbreachable, a template of the one he hoped to write for America when enough states could be “bought” in elections to demand a rewrite of our constitution. (As of November 2017, 28 GOP-dominated states are calling for an Article 5 constitutional convention to review and rewrite our founding document. Only six more states are needed to begin this process.)

Buchanan died in 2013, but his vision lives on and is well-funded thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, a decision that made it a slam-dunk for dark money to buy politicians. Your representatives are now, in many cases, their representatives.

The Great Divide

The question in all this that really nags at me—has been nagging me as far back as these lines I penned at age 14—is this:

What motivates one man to plant a garden

And another to build a bomb?

The Great Divide between those who care about the welfare of other people on this planet—who believe because we are all human beings, we are all connected—and those who blatantly don’t is a very hot topic these days, judging by the headlines in my Google search. For instance, relative to polls in the 1990s, Business Insider reported, Republicans are now much more likely to say poor people have it easy, while Democrats are less likely to say so.

And people who don’t take a “one-world” view of humanity are much easier about “letting it all hang out” than in recent decades. Perhaps they are feeling empowered by having a nationalist, racist, sexist, homophobic, war-junkie at the helm.

What motivates one man to plant a garden

And another to build a bomb?

Proactiva Open Arms, March 2018

Why do some of us look at news footage of Syrian parents weeping over the dead bodies of their children and, knowing what agonizing trauma it would be to lose our own child, feel their grief? More frighteningly to the point, why do some of us not?

The Great Divide. What is it? Where does it come from? Perhaps the most telling answer to this question was given by Baptist minister and former Republican congressman J.C. Watts while he was campaigning for Senator Rand Paul in 2015:  “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good.”

I think that assessment can be stated more broadly, beyond general party lines that are specific to the U.S., because social conscience or lack of it is a global issue. I would say: The person with a social conscience believes people are intrinsically good and we are all connected, whereas the person without a social conscience believes humanity is basically corrupt and it’s everyone for themselves.

When I shared this with my daughter, she mentioned an observation her dad once made: The divide can also be seen as those who believe there’s enough for everyone versus those who see life as a zero-sum game. “If you get something, I lose something. So piss off and die.”

The Business Insider article also mentioned that decades of research has shown that feeling threatened makes people more conservative. If the Great Divide were that simple, though, every progressive, liberal, and middle-of-the-roader in America would be wearing a John Birch Society button right now because, absolutely, make-no-mistake, we who have a social conscience feel threatened.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss nailed the problem perfectly in his book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! 

“The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! 
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason. 
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. 
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. 
But I think that the most likely reason of all 
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”

But if, Baby, You’re the Bottom, I’m the Top

No one wants to be at the “bottom of the barrel.” And people feeling the threat of that slippery slope can be dangerous. Before the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, the poor whites of the South comforted themselves with a false sense of superiority—at least they were “better” than black people who had to be slaves—but when slavery ended, these people got real nervous. What if freed to reach their true potential, black people turned out to be just as smart, talented, and capable as the smartest, most capable whites? Frightened they might find themselves at the bottom of the bottom, these poor whites became the roots of the Ku Klux Klan.

This fear permeates everything. Happens everywhere. In Michigan, where I grew up, the Upper Peninsula had very few black people but some number of Native Americans. Every slur that is directed toward blacks elsewhere in the U.S. was slung at these Native Americans—dirty, lazy, irresponsible.

Race and ethnicity are the major hammers fearful people throw, but religion can also be a weapon to suppress others, to keep someone else at the bottom of that barrel. The misery that is ISIS was egged on by Al Qaeda to exploit the struggle for supremacy between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Who will be relegated to the bottom?

Question: Why does there have to be a bottom?

Answers I have heard all my life:

Because there’s always been one.

That’s just the way people are.

But people are a lot of ways. They dash into burning buildings to rescue strangers. They save fleeing refugees when their boats capsize at sea. They volunteer at homeless shelters. They place a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard. They understand that if we don’t all work together and take care of each other, we and the planet are doomed.

What Part of “People Don’t Throw People Under the Bus” Isn’t Clear?

Little by little we’ll go,

No matter how far the distance is

 We are not shaken.

Little by little we’ll go

And meet our destination.

 That’s the beginning to a poem written by Joyce Chisale, a Malawian girl who dreams of becoming a doctor (and poet).  Girls in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, are only given free basic education to the age of 13. After that, parents must pay the school fees—$100  USD per term. Joyce’s father makes $40 USD a month, painting, welding, and offloading cargo.

Joyce’s great-uncle stepped up to pay the first two terms of her school fees, but was unable to continue funding her education. He had his own children to provide for. So, Joyce—a student her biology teacher calls “an exceptional girl”—was forced to leave school. She was heartbroken.

© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

And then someone with a social conscience—MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell—in conjunction with a whole lot of people with a social conscience, UNICEF, stepped in to help Joyce realize her dreams. The K.I.N.D Fund was established to provide, among other things, scholarships for girls to go to school. Many hundreds more people with a social conscience have since donated to this fund, and thanks to everyone involved, Joyce and many other girls are continuing their education.  (To see what Joyce is doing now, watch this May 2018 interview with O’Donnell here. It will make your day.)

Thankfully, wonderfully, the gift that is Joyce is being opened. But what about the millions of children around the world who could be “exceptional” if only they weren’t being bombed, shot, and starved?

We throw so many, many people away. Because they are poor or of another race or another religion or another “tribe” or a girl or …  We throw people away. Day after day.

Syria, Feb. 2018: A heavy bombardment kills at least 100 civilians, 20 of them children, in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to be preparing for an imminent ground assault.

According to the Middle East Children’s Alliance, 1,518 Palestinian children were killed by Israel’s occupation forces from the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 up to April 2013. That number means that one Palestinian child was killed by Israel every 3 days for almost 13 years. In the following year, 2014, nearly 600 Palestinian kids were killed.

Headline in The Guardian, January 16, 2018: Yemen war: 5,000 children dead or hurt and 400,000 malnourished, UN says

We throw people away. We throw children away. To lack a social conscience is to be okay with this. To be like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life: “They’re not my children.”

But we cannot afford to look away. The problems we face—environmental chaos, pandemics, undrinkable water, famine, chemical warfare, nuclear threats—will require we ALL work together, that we care for others as ourselves. Indifference, or worse, is not viable. 

“I have no social conscience.”

In that sentence, this one echoes: “I am liberating man from the degrading chimera known as ‘conscience.’” The speaker is Hitler.

Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, do what you can. Now. The world desperately needs you. It has never needed you more.