Silencing A King, Twice

“America was legally an apartheid state in living memory.”

——The New York Times, April 2, 2018

by now everyone who wants to has had something to say on this 50th anniversary of the murder of a man of the people, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Not only have we heard what a civil rights champion he was, but some have tried to make it clear he was more than that. He stood strongly against the Vietnam War. He stood strongly for those whose lives were pigmented with poverty, that most awful of colors found on the palette of laissez-faire economics. In fact, he was in Memphis fifty Image result for sanitation workers’ strikeyears ago to support striking sanitation workers, unionism being a good way to escape poverty. Those city workers were low-paid, had no health insurance, weren’t paid overtime, and weren’t entitled to workers’ compensation. Dr. King was on their side.

King was silenced by a convicted felon who had escaped from the Missouri penitentiary the previous year. The felon hated King and admired Hitler, and one of his lawyers, who was eventually convicted in 1980 for the bombing of a black church in 1958, was a white supremacist and life-long member of the Ku Klux Klan. The felon’s family said he wanted to kill Dr. King. He did. That murder was the first silencing. The second was to come.

The New York Times editorialized a few days ago about King’s “moral clarity” in calling America to “Be true to what you said on paper.” The editorial continued:

As Dr. King knew well, the history of voting in the United States was, and is, in large part the history of white people in power devising endless ways to keep black people from casting a ballot.

It’s been true all along, from the complete disenfranchisement of slavery to the effective silencing of the Jim Crow era up to now, when a welter of clever and at times subtle laws operates to make it harder for minorities to get to the polls, and to have an equal voice — or any voice at all — in the choice of our representatives and policies.

Most white folks think that the voting rights issue has been settled by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which did have a huge positive effect on black registration and voting. However, as the Times points out, the Act “still requires frequent care and tending by the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court.” And we know the reactionaries on the Court are a problem:

Unfortunately, the court’s conservative majority has severely weakened the protections the law was intended to provide. The biggest blow came in a 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, the five conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., gutted the heart of the act, which identified several states with long histories of voting discrimination, most in the South, and required them to get federal permission before changing their voting laws. While that remedy may have been a necessary response to 1960s-era racism, the chief justice wrote, “things have changed dramatically.”

Clearly things haven’t changed dramatically. We now have Tr-mp and what the Times says is “the resurgence of overt racism and white nationalism that has followed, with no meaningful pushback from the president [sic].” And we have a concerted effort by Republicans all over parts of the country under their control to make it harder for people of color to vote:

Poll taxes and literacy tests have given way to voter-ID laws, cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration, polling place closings, voter-roll purges, racially discriminatory redistricting and felon disenfranchisement laws — most of which, though justified on race-neutral grounds, harm minority voters more.

This represents the second silencing of Dr. King. He believed that black votes could “transform the entire country.” Apparently, Republicans do too.

Those of us who believe in an inclusive democracy have to speak for a silenced Dr. King. And, oddly, the most noise we could possibly make is by voting every single Republican—every last one of them—out of office.


The Strangest MLK Day Of All

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

—Barack Obama, February 5, 2008

few Americans today know how deeply Martin Luther King, Jr., thought about the issues of his time and how to confront them. He had an intellectual’s curiosity about the world he experienced and, more important, about the world so many poor blacks—and whites—experienced in front of his eyes.

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker tweeted today:

A good day to read MLK’s fascinating My Pilgrimage To Nonviolence. He learned from Enlightenment thinkers, rejected Marx, Nietzsche, and traditional Christianity, embraced a complex human nature, & of course Gandhi’s nonviolence (not the same as pacifism).

I took Pinker’s advice and read the piece. You should too. It was fascinating. Even if you disagree with some of King’s conclusions or his theological defenses, you will see just how lucky we were to have had this man among us during the tumultuous 1960s, when it was, until the election of Tr-mp, most recently possible to imagine our democratic experiment failing, or at least turning out much worse than it did.

I want to focus on two passages from the work Pinker cited. King greatly admired Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous American theologian and intellectual who was born right here in Missouri. Niebuhr’s thinking, King said, helped the future civil rights icon

to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism. While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.

In so many ways, “the glaring reality of collective evil” is still with us today, not just with issues of race and bigotry, but with issues of economic justice and the exploitation or neglect of large segments of our population—citizens, quasi-citizens, and non-citizens. But I want to move on to another passage, this one critical of Niebuhr, that is even more relevant to our present condition:

My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.

I ask you to read that passage more than once. It is the heart of Dr. King’s strategy for confronting the “collective evil” he saw. He talks about a “true” pacifism that is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.” Agree or disagree with that philosophical position, but at least acknowledge that it proved to be a relatively effective way to bring about the “transformation and change of heart” that King desired. Our country did change for the better because of non-violent actions like the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and other acts of courage.

But the forces of reaction and racial angst and racism didn’t disappear. Obviously they are still with us today. And in some ways things seem to be worse now than at anytime since the death of Dr. King. Why? Well, look at what Dr. King’s rational non-violent strategy for confronting evil and changing hearts and minds depended on: “a sense of shame in the opponent.” In order for his approach to work, he counted on the people he was confronting, or at least those in power who tacitly supported such people, to have a sense of shame, an awareness of social responsibility built on a personal moral responsibility. Where, I ask you, is that requisite sense of shame in today’s Republican Party’s leadership or among its members or in the conservative media complex that supports Tr-mp and the Republican Party?

Republicans in Congress, Republican officials around the country, and conservative punditry, with very few exceptions, have constantly defended the indefensible bigotry and tolerated the intolerable ignorance and lied to protect the pathological liar in the White’s House. The latest shithole-gate fiasco is the perfect example. We all know Tr-mp said what he said and meant what he meant. But there has not been one Republican who was in the room, who heard Tr-mp talk trash about immigrants from non-white countries, come forward and confirm what most of us know. Even Lindsey Graham, who got credit from Dick Durbin for confronting Tr-mp in real time about the remarks, won’t just come out and say exactly what happened. All he will say are variations of, “The President and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel.” 

Worse, though, are Senators David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who Tr-mp is now relying on to buttress his desperate lie that he did not say what he said. Perdue and Cotton were both at the meeting, and after the nasty remarks were reported, they issued a joint statement saying they “do not recall” Tr-mp using such language. Just couldn’t remember. By Sunday, though, their tr-mpnesia had been cured. Perdue suddenly remembered that what Dick Durbin had told the world—that Tr-mp indeed used, repeatedly, the shithole comment about some non-Norwegian countries—was “a gross misrepresentation.” Cotton, also cured of his temporary “do not recall” disease, said, “I did not hear that word,” which is the same as calling Dick Durbin a liar, since Cotton made the point that he was the same distance from Tr-mp as Durbin had been.

Perhaps now is the time to remind you about David Perdue’s and Tom Cotton’s pasts. In June of 2016, Perdue was at one of those conservative Christian “Faith & Freedom” events when he suggested those gathered should “pray” for President Obama “like Psalms 109:8 says.” Everyone at that gathering knew what he meant by referencing that scripture. That passage had been often used to suggest death for Obama. Here’s Psalms 109:8-12:

Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour. Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

It is true that Perdue only quoted the first verse in that horrific passage, but his cynical suggestion wasn’t lost on anyone. How do you appeal to a “sense of shame” in someone like that?

And then there’s the particularly shameless Tom Cotton. I will never forget what he did in his 2014 Senate race against Democrat incumbent Mark Pryor, who was a devout Christian and Bible-believer. In a response to a question about the infamous Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby “religious freedom” case, Cotton said:

Barack Obama and Mark Pryor think that faith is something that only happens at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. That’s when we worship but faith is what we live every single day.

Cotton, in true Tr-mp fashion, never apologized for that remark, not to President Obama or to Mark Pryor. Again, I ask you, especially given how Cotton just lied on national television in order to protect Tr-mp, how to you appeal to a sense of shame in someone so morally bankrupt?

Add to all that the many conservatives who have gone on television to defend Tr-mp’s remarks, whether they believe he made them or not. The “Christian” pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church, Robert Jeffress, told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody:

Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.

I remind you: that man is a Baptist minister. Others with no discernible sense of shame include all those right-wing pundits, most of them Christians, who Media Matters quoted in a handy piece the other day. These and other folks on the right demonstrate not only a missing sense of shame, but their responses demonstrate just how little difference there is between their positions and the position of racist David Duke, who said:

Donald Trump questioned Thursday why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway.”Trump spoke Blunt, hard truth that makes PERFECT TRUTH! So, Mr. Prez -ACT ON IT – DON’T CAVE IN !

If you were a Republican or a conservative with a sense of shame, a sense of shame that is necessary if non-violent actions are to remain effective ways of changing hearts and minds, wouldn’t you at least consider Image result for moral compassthe possibility that your moral compass is broken if it points in the same direction as one wielded by a proud white supremacist? Huh?

Finally, on this day I will leave you with words from an interesting writer named Roxane Gay, a Haitian-American born in Omaha, Nebraska. In a piece related to the shithole scandal, which appeared in The New York Times last Friday (“No One Is Coming to Save Us From Tr-mp’s Racism“), she wrote:

Now, in response to the news about the reports of the vile remark, there are people saying “vote” and highlighting the importance of the 2018 midterm elections, as if American democracy is unfettered from interference and corruption. There is a lot of trite rambling about how the president isn’t really reflecting American values when, in fact, he is reflecting the values of many Americans.

That is the depressing part of all this. Even after the civil rights successes in the 1950s and 1960s, even after turning Dr. King into a cultural hero deserving of his own holiday, even after electing Barack Obama president, we are still at a point where vile racist remarks really do reflect the values of many Americans. Just how many Americans, time will tell. But Gay makes a point related to the “the glaring reality of collective evil” Dr. King non-violently opposed:

But the president is not alone in thinking so poorly of the developing world. He didn’t reveal any new racism. He, once again, revealed racism that has been there all along. It is grotesque and we must endure it for another three or seven years, given that the Republicans have a stranglehold on power right now and are more invested in holding onto that power than working for the greater good of all Americans.

There’s no doubt about that. The Republican Party is the country’s biggest problem right now. No, it is worse than that. The Republican Party, under Tr-mp and sold out to him, is the country’s biggest existential threat right now. And there are days when it is hard to generate any hope that things will change significantly anytime soon. Roxane Gay captures that feeling:

I am tired of comfortable lies. I have lost patience with the shock supposedly well-meaning people express every time Mr. Trump says or does something terrible but well in character. I don’t have any hope to offer. I am not going to turn this into a teaching moment to justify the existence of millions of Haitian or African or El Salvadoran people because of the gleeful, unchecked racism of a world leader. I am not going to make people feel better about the gilded idea of America that becomes more and more compromised and impoverished with each passing day of the Trump presidency.

This is a painful, uncomfortable moment. Instead of trying to get past this moment, we should sit with it, wrap ourselves in the sorrow, distress and humiliation of it. We need to sit with the discomfort of the president of the United States referring to several countries as “shitholes” during a meeting, a meeting that continued after his comments. No one is coming to save us. Before we can figure out how to save ourselves from this travesty, we need to sit with that, too.

Perhaps today, of all days, is a day to reflect on the fact that no sainted cavalry is coming over the hill to rescue us. The Republican Party is lost and irredeemable. The Democrats are trying but lack any power. Robert Mueller, no matter if he finds the worst, will not find a GOP-controlled legislative branch willing to take action. Roxane Gay is right. No one is coming to save the country.

This one is on us. You and me.

I Was Gonna Write About The Quasi-Scandals In Washington, Then Something More Important Came Up

Morehouse College in Atlanta is an all-male, historically black college that can trace its founding back to 1867, a time when America was trying to put itself back together after racists and racism had torn it apart.

You may have missed it, since most journalists these days are focused on other things, but President Obama actually gave an important, and highly personal, speech on Sunday, a speech addressed to the 500 or so black men who graduated from Morehouse this year, the same college that sent Martin Luther King, Jr., into the world as an educated man with a mission to improve that world.

About Dr. King, the President said,

his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America.  It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience.  It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be.  And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody…was afraid.”

That special college, the President said, is where,

young Martin learned to be unafraid.  And he, in turn, taught others to be unafraid.  And over time, he taught a nation to be unafraid.  And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear and their cynicism and their despair, barriers have come tumbling down, and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as President of these United States of America.

While all that is true enough and powerful enough, it is the example of Dr. King’s willingness “to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be” that has been the theme running through these types of speeches the President has given, when he is obviously speaking to black audiences. “There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves,” Mr. Obama insisted.

Among those things are taking care of “those still left behind.” Quoting social activist and scholar and minister—and former president of Morehouse College—Dr. Benjamin Mays, President Obama said,

Live up to President Mays’s challenge.  Be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.”  And be “willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills.”

The President told these graduates that planning a future that involves making money is okay, that “no one expects you to take a vow of poverty.” But, he added,

it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.

That line, that sentiment, that call to contribute to the well-being of America, is, of course, not just something that only black men graduating from a prestigious liberal arts college in Atlanta need to hear. All of us need to hear it. However, we must not kid ourselves. These particular black men, hearing such a call from President Obama, hear something a little different from what the rest of us might hear.

These men know the poverty around them in black communities. They know the crime that infects places where young men, men not as fortunate as Morehouse graduates, actually live and die. And they have heard the criticism from white conservatives and the alibis from white liberals, the condemnations and the rationalizations from both sides, as they try to explain what is wrong with those communities and how to fix it.

Not often, though, have they heard words like the following, coming as they did from the most powerful man in the world, a man with the credentials, both genetic and experiential, that no other president has ever had:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.  And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself.  Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.  I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.  But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses.   

I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”  Well, we’ve got no time for excuses.  Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not.  Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there.  It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected  hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. 

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was.  Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.  And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them.  And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.

It just wouldn’t do, given our history, for a white man to lecture black men, black men who had just earned college degrees, in such a way. It wouldn’t do. Nor would it do for a white man, even the President of the United States, to related to black men in this way:

Every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by. 

And that’s the point here, isn’t it? Why should it be, here in 21st century America, that such a sentiment is still alive among black folks? Why should black men, or women, still be told to “work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by”? Because, as sad as it is to admit, it still rings true. And as sad as it is to say it, part of the reason is related to the the disorganization and dysfunction of black families in America:

I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made incredible sacrifices for me.  And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you.  But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved.  Didn’t know my dad.  And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me.  I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home — (applause) — where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter.  I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.

It’s hard work that demands your constant attention and frequent sacrifice.  And I promise you, Michelle will tell you I’m not perfect.  She’s got a long list of my imperfections.  Even now, I’m still practicing, I’m still learning, still getting corrected in terms of how to be a fine husband and a good father.  But I will tell you this:  Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility.  

I know that when I am on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any particular legislation I passed; I will not be thinking about a policy I promoted; I will not be thinking about the speech I gave, I will not be thinking the Nobel Prize I received.  I will be thinking about that walk I took with my daughters.  I’ll be thinking about a lazy afternoon with my wife. I’ll be thinking about sitting around the dinner table and seeing them happy and healthy and knowing that they were loved.  And I’ll be thinking about whether I did right by all of them.

So be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up.  If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along — those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you.  You’ve got to be engaged on the barbershops, on the basketball court, at church, spend time and energy and presence to give people opportunities and a chance.  Pull them up, expose them, support their dreams.  Don’t put them down. 

We’ve got to teach them just like what we have to learn, what it means to be a man…

He insisted that, “as you do these things, do them not just for yourself,” or for only “the African American community,” because,

I want you to set your sights higher.  At the turn of the last century, W.E.B. DuBois spoke about the “talented tenth” — a class of highly educated, socially conscious leaders in the black community.  But it’s not just the African American community that needs you.  The country needs you.  The world needs you. 

The world needs them, the President declared, because,

many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination.  And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share.  Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back.  Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share.  Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith.  Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work — she knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need.  If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple.  It should give you the ability to connect.  It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers. 

And I will tell you, Class of 2013, whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy — the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had — because there but for the grace of God, go I — I might have been in their shoes.  I might have been in prison.  I might have been unemployed.  I might not have been able to support a family.  And that motivates me.  

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody.  Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world.  To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is — it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough. 

Yes, I know there was criticism of President Obama’s remarks. And I’m sure there will be more. But if he can’t say these things to newly-educated black men, if he can’t challenge an elite group of black graduates to do more for their communities and country than just “get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car — and never look back,” or if he can’t tell them to “be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up,” then who can?

What Day Is It? Depends On Where You Live

Today, of course, is not only the Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday, it is also Inauguration Day for the country’s first African-American president, now serving his second term.

Here’s how Google, our national unifier, is celebrating today:

google shot

Oh, and in some places in the South, today is also the day to celebrate a traitor:

Nothing, I suppose, shows how divided we are as Americans better than the sign above and the cult of Robert E. Lee it represents.

Almost three years ago I wrote:

I have always wondered why it is that so many people considered Robert E. Lee a hero, this disloyal Union officer who betrayed his country, who owned slaves and led men into battle to preserve the right of white men to buy and sell black families like cattle.

It is true that only a handful of states are involved in the travesty of mixing up a tribute to an African-American civil rights activist, who was shot and killed in the tumultuous 1960s, with a celebration of a man who turned against his own country and began shooting and killing Americans in the 1860s.

But as John Judis reminded us recently,

to a surprising extent, the Civil War divisions endure, and even supersede in this case the partisan divisions between Republicans and Democrats. 

Judis was talking about the recent fiscal cliff vote and how it broke down:

All in all, 85 Republicans voted for the Senate resolution and 151 voted against it. The opposition was centered in the Old South. Southern Republicans opposed the measure by 83 to 10. The delegations from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina were unanimously opposed.

The deadly strain of rebellion that caused Southerners to turn against their country those many years ago is not the same as what we find manifested in that fiscal cliff vote or in the picture above, that’s for sure. But it is certainly related to it.

And it is still doing harm to the country.


Hope, Optimism, And The Democratic Party

After years of living in the conservative Republican wilderness, I proudly admit to being a partisan Democrat these days.

Saturday night here in Joplin, I was privileged to hear the Missouri State Treasurer, Clint Zweifel, speak at a local Democratic Party fundraiser.  What I was most impressed by was Zweifel’s theme of optimism. He had the unmitigated cheekiness and cheeriness to say that Democrats were, uh, optimists.

Well, it is easy these days not to be optimistic, to be sure.  The economy is sputtering, our capitalist system is sickly, Tea Party Republicans have made it impossible to govern the country responsibly, and—let’s face it—many people believe Democrats will lose control of the entire government next year.

But  Mr. Zweifel is right, of course. Democrats are the optimists, and the Democratic Party, with all its flaws, is the clichéd party of hope, and that hope is generated by a simple fact, as Harry Truman once said:

…the Democratic Party is the people’s party, and the Republican Party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.

The people’s party.  If that isn’t optimistic, then what could be in this democracy of ours?

Mr. Obama said on Sunday, honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings.  He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain.  He tells us that we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few generations removed from similar hardships.  (Applause.)

To say that we are bound together as one people, and must constantly strive to see ourselves in one another, is not to argue for a false unity that papers over our differences and ratifies an unjust status quo.  As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as “divisive.”  They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing.  Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all; that aligning our reality with our ideals often requires the speaking of uncomfortable truths and the creative tension of non-violent protest.

Some uncomfortable truths need to be spoken to Americans, and Mr. Obama, lately finding his voice, has begun to speak them, even as some “creative tension” emerges from the Occupy Wall Street protests. Spoken of Dr. King, but really reflecting Obama’s vision, the President said:

If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company’s union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain.  He would want us to know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other’s love for this country — (applause) — with the knowledge that in this democracy, government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another.

As I have pointed out a thousand times, the worst sin of Tea Party Republicans has been the demonization of government, which really is the demonization of “our common commitments to one another,” of “We the People.” And because the Democratic Party is the party of the people, as Truman said so long ago, that is why Democrats are, and must be, optimists.

I want to repeat something Mr. Obama said on Sunday:

To say that we are bound together as one people, and must constantly strive to see ourselves in one another, is not to argue for a false unity that papers over our differences and ratifies an unjust status quo.  As was true 50 years ago, as has been true throughout human history, those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as “divisive.” 

That is the message Obama should be bringing to Americans, as we move into the 2012 election season. We can’t pretend there are no differences between one side and the other because to do so is an admission that things can’t change and get better. 

Out of fear of being called “divisive,” we can’t pretend that extremist Republicans in Congress have done no harm to the country.  And we can’t pretend that turning over the White House and the entire government to Republicans next year won’t have harmful consequences.

The 1948 election in many important ways is relevant to the one awaiting us next year.  Harry Truman faced certain defeat, as is well-known. But he didn’t talk about “false unity that papers over our differences and ratifies an unjust status quo.” He told the truth about Republicans, including their responsibility for the worst economic crisis in our history, the Great Depression. In his nomination acceptance speech, he said:

The situation in 1932 was due to the policies of the Republican Party control of the Government of the United States. The Republican Party, as I said a while ago, favors the privileged few and not the common everyday man. Ever since its inception, that party has been under the control of special privilege; and they have completely proved it in the 80th Congress. They proved it by the things they did to the people, and not for them. They proved it by the things they failed to do.

The things they failed to do.”  Mr. Obama ought to put that in every speech he utters from now until November 2012. Republicans have, indeed, failed to do anything to help mitigate the second-worst economic crisis in our history, a crisis also largely “due to the policies of the Republican Party control of the Government of the United States.”

I don’t care if it vexes every political pundit on cable television, Mr. Obama needs to remind the country how we got into the mess we’re in, and “the things Republicans have failed to do” to help fix it.

As he faces pessimism about his party’s chances to win next year, the President can take comfort from the fact that Mr. Truman overcame a noisy fracture in his own party—including a nasty fight with southern conservative Democrats over, what else, civil rights—and shocked the world with his victory over heavily favored Republican Thomas Dewey.

Following that note of unexpected triumph, I want to end with Truman’s unapologetic defense of his party’s raison d’être from his 1948 speech accepting the nomination:

In 1932 we were attacking the citadel of special privilege and greed. We were fighting to drive the money changers from the temple. Today, in 1948, we are now the defenders of the stronghold of democracy and of equal opportunity, the haven of the ordinary people of this land and not of the favored classes or the powerful few.

Optimism. Pure optimism.

Liberals And The Will To Try

Globe blogger and first-class thinker Jim Wheeler wrote an excellent piece on racial colorblindness, tribalism, the Civil Rights movement, and Martin Luther King. Most of the comments on the piece were thoughtful and enlightening, but I felt it necessary to chime in with the liberal view, which I expressed on his blog this way:

Yes, quotas may be abhorrent, but doesn’t Affirmative Action involve more than quotas in hiring? What about before hiring? What about education? Shouldn’t those who have historically not started out “even in life” (your expression) be given certain advantages in order to see that the score is somewhat evened?

Things like slightly lower admissions requirements and on top of that remedial help to get them up to the standards of the particular school they have entered? Wouldn’t that be beneficial in the long run? Sort of like the GI bill for blacks, but with an extra kick?

Now, since I am a liberal and since liberalism in contemporary America has been distorted and mocked and turned into a cartoon by conservative blowhards on radio and television, I am used to folks ignoring the actual arguments one makes and focusing instead on the source of those arguments.  And I think a mild case of that genetic fallacy materialized in the discussion on Jim’s blog.  Here’s my latest response:

To all:

I want to clear up just some things about my position, which has been criticized here.

1. My original point was that lowering standards slightly on admission requirements—on admission requirements—might help.  I did not suggest any lowering of academic standards or reducing the scholastic rigor in any particular school.  That is an important distinction, as PiedType’s slippery-slope argument, based on something I did not claim, demonstrates:

Lowering standards to accommodate poor students compromises the quality of education for everyone. It serves no one — and certainly not the future of the nation — to keep promoting illiterate, failing students from year to year and eventually graduate them.

You see how a simple misunderstanding or misapprehension of what I said led to “promoting illiterate, failing students“?  I was merely proposing,

a) that the way we evaluate students in order to admit them to certain schools might be part of a solution.  The admissions standards are somewhat arbitrary anyway—who’s to say what the correct standards are?—and it is not promoting illiteracy or lower academic standards to so accommodate members of an ethnic group that has been a victim of systemic, historical discrimination.  And I suggested,

b) that when such students are accepted into those schools, provide them with remedial help to get them “up to the standards of the particular school.” “Up to the standards,” I remind you. That’s what I argued, not what some of you seem to have thought I argued.

2.  It seems to me that it doesn’t do much good to acknowledge the existence of cumulative disadvantage among black folks and then not propose doing anything about it.  Say what you want about liberals and liberalism, at least liberals have actually proposed a remedy for fixing a historical problem.  Anson’s remedy is MERIT, MERIT, MERIT, without actually addressing the underlying and lingering problems in the black community, some of which, but not all of which, have historical antecedents.

3. Jim, kindly and delicately (which is his normal mode of argumentation) argues, too, against a position I do not hold, and as far as I know, have never expressed. He said,

Your thoughts on this echo my own, Piedtype, which is why I replied to Duane (below) as I did. I know that disappointed him because he is a strong believer in the power of government to fix society. He is a courageous and tireless campaigner for liberal issues here in a part of the country that largely disagrees with him.

Government was a vital force in the Civil Rights movement, but I agree that to expect it to achieve anything like true fairness, in light of human nature as you so well describe it, is unrealistic.

There is in this reply an idea, a friendly but (apologies, Jim) condescending caricature, really, of liberals. It is suggested that we believe, somewhat naively, that government can “fix” society and that we believe government can “achieve” “true fairness.” 

While I believe, like other liberals have said, that our problems are man-made and thus have man-made solutions, I, as one liberal, do not believe that government, and government alone, can fix all of our problems, nor do I “expect” that government will ever achieve true fairness. 

I do believe that it is incumbent upon us, though, to try, both to fix our problems and to achieve widespread fairness in our system.  And the “us” in that statement, in our democratic society, involves our government, the “we the people” in our preamble.

How can we ask of ourselves—of our government—anything less?


The Constitution And Negative Commerce

I finally got around to reading George Will’s column on the federal mandate and health care “muddle,” which appeared in the Globe on Monday.

I wasn’t impressed.

In fact, I detected some (faint) resignation on the part of Will that the whole mandate thingy will survive constitutional scrutiny.

Anyway, most of Will’s column explored the necessity of the mandate to the law (which, like a Tea Party placard-maker, he labels “Obamacare”) and whether it therefore could be constitutionally defended on that basis. But as far as I’m concerned, the following is the crux of the matter, in Willian prose:

Madison’s constitutional architecture for limited government will be vitiated unless the court places some limits on what constitutes commerce eligible for regulation. So the question becomes: Is the inactivity of not buying insurance a commercial activity Congress can proscribe because it has economic consequences?

It occurred to me that behind Will’s argument is an assumption that needs attention.  That assumption  is that commercial inactivity in general is a passive choice that does not equate to commerce as defined by the Constitution and thus can’t be regulated by Congress.

But commercial inactivity is, indeed and often, really a kind of commerce, call it negative commerce, if you will.

Think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 Alabama.  The idea was to execute a crippling boycott of the segregated public transit system, since black riders made up a large majority of passengers.  It worked.  In fact, it was overwhelmingly successful.

Now, the point is that refusing to ride the bus—commercial inactivity—was an act of commerce, even if negative commerce.  The lack of participation had a definite commercial effect.  In fact, it put Montgomery city officials in defensive mode. They fined black taxi drivers for supporting the boycott by charging riders only ten cents, the same as a bus ride would have cost.

The officials also pressured local insurance companies to stop issuing policies on automobiles used in carpools, which had been organized to transport bus boycotters to work.  The officials also used an old ordinance to jail Martin Luther King for “hindering” a bus. Fined $500 and sentenced to serve 386 days, he served two weeks.

That was all due to the effects of commercial inactivity.  And besides the desired effect of ending racial segregation on buses, I haven’t even mentioned the larger effect of leading to an end of Jim Crow in the South.

So, it’s clear that there can be a purpose in commercial inactivity and in the case of health care, those who refuse to purchase health insurance are doing so with a decidedly economic purpose in mind: don’t pay until it’s necessary and pocket the windfall.  It is not merely a case of passivity, of choosing not to purchase something.

And that is where their actions differ from those bus boycotters in Alabama. In 1955 the active goal was to end segregated buses. In 2014 America, the active goal of those who refuse to purchase insurance will be to freeload on those responsible folks who do purchase it. 

Thus, back to Will:

So the question becomes: Is the inactivity of not buying insurance a commercial activity Congress can proscribe because it has economic consequences?

Yes, it is.

Martin Luther King Day, 2011

Martin Luther King was in many ways a conservative. 

He preached a brand of Christianity that at least in words, if not in deeds, most conservative evangelicals could embrace. 

He had no desire to injure or destroy America, despite its injustices to blacks and to the poor, often one and the same. 

He argued for peaceful change within the rules of society, a highly conservative stance. 

But Martin Luther King was also and obviously a liberal. 

And to honor that liberalism on this MLK day, I offer an excerpt from his, “imaginary letter from the pen of the Apostle Paul,” from November of 1956

I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism….

The misuse of Capitalism can…lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept.

You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.

I have often heard Glenn Beck praise Dr. King on his radio and television shows. Other conservatives, too. But I’ve never heard them embrace the sentiments expressed above, through the voice of Paul the Apostle, which were central to King’s activism.

Why not?

For Sale: Albert Pujols Bobbleheads. Cheap. Owner Motivated To Sell.

I had to take a long walk this morning, after seeing a brief glimpse of Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa at Glenn Beck’s memorial to monochrome malcontents.  

Perhaps one can excuse Pujols, who ostensibly was being “honored” for his charitable work, for attending the rally.  Maybe with his busy baseball schedule, he doesn’t know Glenn Beck or what he stands for—but wait.  What’s that?  Pujols met Beck and Bill O’Reilly this past June and autographed a bat for Beck?  Huh?

Okay, so maybe there is no excuse for Pujols’ endorsement of Beck and Beckanoia.  Maybe there is no excuse for him to give even a hint of legitimacy to a man who called the President of the United States a racist, and who said Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

And there certainly is no excuse for Tony La Russa’s role in what will at least cost the St. Louis Cardinal’s a couple of bucks due to my decision to never purchase another ticket or another Cardinal-related product, as long as La Russa is around.  And I haven’t made up my mind about Pujols.

La Russa said on Thursday that he was assured the rally wasn’t going to be political in nature.

“I don’t know who’s going to be there, who’s going to accept it. But the gist of the day is not political. I think it’s a really good concept, actually.”

Let’s see.  La Russa doesn’t know Glenn Beck was going to be there?  That Sarah Palin was going to be there?  And he doesn’t know what those two do for a lucrative living? He doesn’t read a damn newspaper or watch a news program?  He had no idea that everything Glenn Beck has done since joining the Republican “News” Channel is political?

That’s complete bullshit.

La Russa has previously shown sympathy for the Tea Party movement and Arizona’s SB 1070 (which, to Pujols’ credit, he has said he opposes), and for him to act like he doesn’t know what it means for him and the biggest star in baseball to attend the Beck rally—under any circumstances—is as disingenuous as it can be. 

Even the name given to the rally, “Re$toring Honor,” reeks with political implications. Whose honor needs restored?  And why?  Oh, I know: America’s honor needs restored because Barack Obama and the Democrats have stolen it! Why, that’s not political at all!

Phony bastards.

Not to mention how sickening it was to see one of the game’s greatest active players, a man of color, stand before a crowd of pale-faced populists on the very day and close to the very spot that Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

And for anyone to compare, as Beck has done, what those pale-faced people think they are going through—because of the election of a black “racist,” Barack Obama—to the injustices that Dr. King was speaking of when he made his 1963 speech is beyond chutzpah, beyond presumptuousness, beyond even decency.

It’s sick.

Dr. King began his speech with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, which he said,

…came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.

Does that sound like anything happening to the thousands of disgruntled whites who gathered, metaphorically prostrate, in front of their demagogue, Glenn Beck?

Or maybe this does:

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Of course, none of the problems Dr. King elegantly outlined can be, even in the wildest hallucinations of Glenn Beck or his sycophantic followers, compared to the kind of problems that allegedly plague the attendees today at the “Re$toring Honor” rally.

And it’s too bad for the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s too bad for Major League Baseball, that Albert Pujols allowed himself to be used as a prop to legitimate such a travesty.

Anyone want to buy a couple of Albert Pujols bobbleheads?

Finite Disappointment, Infinite Hope

President Obama gave a poignant speech yesterday at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, to “call on the memory of one of His noble servants, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Obama said the historic church was the right place to so honor Dr. King because,

here, in a church that rose like the phoenix from the ashes of the civil war; here in a church formed by freed slaves, whose founding pastor had worn the union blue; here in a church from whose pews congregants set out for marches and from whom choir anthems of freedom were heard; from whose sanctuary King himself would sermonize from time to time.

The president highlighted a sermon given in the church by Dr. King in 1956, when he was just 27 years old. The sermon came shortly after a Supreme Court decision to desegregate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, that put an end to a year-long boycott.

…as Dr. King rose to take that pulpit, the future still seemed daunting. It wasn’t clear what would come next for the movement that Dr. King led. It wasn’t clear how we were going to reach the Promised Land. Because segregation was still rife; lynchings still a fact. Yes, the Supreme Court had ruled not only on the Montgomery buses, but also on Brown v. Board of Education. And yet that ruling was defied throughout the South — by schools and by states; they ignored it with impunity. And here in the nation’s capital, the federal government had yet to fully align itself with the laws on its books and the ideals of its founding.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that such things were happening in our country only some 50 years ago, but happening they were. And as Obama pointed out, although there was reason then to be “happy about the boycott being over,” some folks were likely “fighting off some creeping doubts” about whether the civil rights movement “could actually deliver on its promise.”

While acknowledging the doubts, Obama was also quick to acknowledge the progress made by the movement’s “Moses generation“:

We enjoy the fruits of prejudice and bigotry being lifted—slowly, sometimes in fits and starts, but irrevocably—from human hearts. It’s that progress that made it possible for me to be here today; for the good people of this country to elect an African-American the 44th President of the United States of America.

Obama then compared the hopes of those gathered at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in 1956 to the hopes of those who had elected him president:

You know, on the heels of that victory over a year ago, there were some who suggested that somehow we had entered into a post-racial America, all those problems would be solved. There were those who argued that because I had spoke of a need for unity in this country that our nation was somehow entering into a period of post-partisanship. That didn’t work out so well. There was a hope shared by many that life would be better from the moment that I swore that oath.

After a litany of continued problems with the economy, Obama acknowledged that just as those who welcomed progress in 1956 but had doubts as to whether the promise would be fully realized, in these times “folks are wondering,” Obama said, “where do we go from here?

And the following is Obama at his best:

I understand those feelings. I understand the frustration and sometimes anger that so many folks feel as they struggle to stay afloat. I get letters from folks around the country every day; I read 10 a night out of the 40,000 that we receive. And there are stories of hardship and desperation, in some cases, pleading for help: I need a job. I’m about to lose my home. I don’t have health care — it’s about to cause my family to be bankrupt. Sometimes you get letters from children: My mama or my daddy have lost their jobs, is there something you can do to help?

Ten letters like that a day we read.

So, yes, we’re passing through a hard winter. It’s the hardest in some time. But let’s always remember that, as a people, the American people, we’ve weathered some hard winters before. This country was founded during some harsh winters. The fishermen, the laborers, the craftsmen who made camp at Valley Forge — they weathered a hard winter. The slaves and the freedmen who rode an underground railroad, seeking the light of justice under the cover of night — they weathered a hard winter. The seamstress whose feet were tired, the pastor whose voice echoes through the ages — they weathered some hard winters. It was for them, as it is for us, difficult, in the dead of winter, to sometimes see spring coming. They, too, sometimes felt their hopes deflate. And yet, each season, the frost melts, the cold recedes, the sun reappears. So it was for earlier generations and so it will be for us.

What we need to do is to just ask what lessons we can learn from those earlier generations about how they sustained themselves during those hard winters, how they persevered and prevailed. Let us in this Joshua generation learn how that Moses generation overcame.

Offering “a few thoughts” on how that Moses generation overcame, Obama’s most important political advice was this:

…they understood that as much as our government and our political parties had betrayed them in the past, as much as our nation itself had betrayed its own ideals, government, if aligned with the interests of its people, can be—and must be—a force for good.

So they stayed on the Justice Department. They went into the courts. They pressured Congress, they pressured their President. They didn’t give up on this country. They didn’t give up on government. They didn’t somehow say government was the problem; they said, we’re going to change government, we’re going to make it better. Imperfect as it was, they continued to believe in the promise of democracy; in America’s constant ability to remake itself, to perfect this union.

“They didn’t give up on government. They didn’t somehow say government was the problem; they said, we’re going to change government, we’re going to make it better.”  What one thinks about those statements determines whether one is a liberal or whether one is a conservative.  At one time, I would have, quite vehemently, argued against such statements.  Today, they express an unassailable truth.

In that vein, Obama urged:

Let’s work to change the political system, as imperfect as it is. I know people can feel down about the way things are going sometimes here in Washington. I know it’s tempting to give up on the political process…Progress is possible. Don’t give up on voting. Don’t give up on advocacy. Don’t give up on activism. There are too many needs to be met, too much work to be done. Like Dr. King said, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”

But the president also said that government does have its limits:

Folks can’t simply look to government for all the answers without also looking inside themselves, inside their own homes, for some of the answers.

Progress will only come if we’re willing to promote that ethic of hard work, a sense of responsibility, in our own lives. I’m not talking, by the way, just to the African-American community. Sometimes when I say these things people assume, well, he’s just talking to black people about working hard. No, no, no, no. I’m talking to the American community. Because somewhere along the way, we, as a nation, began to lose touch with some of our core values. You know what I’m talking about. We became enraptured with the false prophets who prophesied an easy path to success, paved with credit cards and home equity loans and get-rich-quick schemes…We forgot what made the bus boycott a success; what made the civil rights movement a success; what made the United States of America a success — that, in this country, there’s no substitute for hard work, no substitute for a job well done, no substitute for being responsible stewards of God’s blessings.

Obama then turned personal:

You know, folks ask me sometimes why I look so calm. They say, all this stuff coming at you, how come you just seem calm? And I have a confession to make here. There are times where I’m not so calm…There are times when progress seems too slow. There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting. There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught, and change is so painfully slow in coming, and I have to confront my own doubts.

But let me tell you — during those times it’s faith that keeps me calm. It’s faith that gives me peace. The same faith that leads a single mother to work two jobs to put a roof over her head when she has doubts. The same faith that keeps an unemployed father to keep on submitting job applications even after he’s been rejected a hundred times. The same faith that says to a teacher even if the first nine children she’s teaching she can’t reach, that that 10th one she’s going to be able to reach. The same faith that breaks the silence of an earthquake’s wake with the sound of prayers and hymns sung by a Haitian community. A faith in things not seen, in better days ahead, in Him who holds the future in the hollow of His hand. A faith that lets us mount up on wings like eagles; lets us run and not be weary; lets us walk and not faint.

I know some non-religious people may not like Obama’s reliance on God;  I know some conservatives may not even believe that he is a “real” Christian.  But no one should doubt that, like Martin Luther King, at the core of this man’s being is a bona fide faith, not only in a higher power, but in the power of progress, in the power of the people.

And today, such faith is worth celebrating.

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