Brotherhood

April 25, 2017

In the height of the Civil Rights Movement we used “brotherhood” to express our quest for more than tolerance, but for closeness as one human family. I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for that feeling, so I continue to use it but in a gender-neutral way – we are all family, cousins, a part of one community. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Given the waves of hate crimes since the election, I’ve been thinking about brotherhood. This country is built on brotherhood, on sloughing off the ethnic, religious and physical prejudices our ancestors all brought from their old countries. By now those prejudices seem irrelevant. Many of us intermarried and were welcomed in new families. A friend told me that Bahai do it intentionally to bring people into the faith, though he was truly smitten and has a loving marriage. Most of us just happen to fall in love and old prejudices seem quaint and silly.

But brotherhood matters. Many of us watched the shredding of Yugoslavia. An exchange student from Belgrade was living with us, beside herself with grief and anger at the destruction of her country. Some had predicted Yugoslavia would explode once Marshal Tito died. But many intermarried, traveled among Yugoslavia’s regions, and young people, like our visitor, thought of themselves as Yugoslavs. But it came apart, viciously, in a blood bath of what was called “ethnic cleansing.”

Americans like to think America is and will always be ingenious, hardworking, neighborly and welcoming; that’s us – we’re the best. But many of us understand that virtues have to be nurtured, not assumed.

Early in the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt predicted “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft brought people together who had lived geographically, religiously, ethnically or racially segregated lives. As men returned from war, they introduced each other to sisters and friends, integrating families and communities. But the political strains of war in Vietnam ended the draft. Ben Downing recently urged national service on this station but we have nothing that compares with the reach and impact of the draft.

Racial segregation was made much worse by federal officials who required banks to redline cities and suburbs against loans to African-Americans no matter how strong their financial status. That left segregated school districts. Many of us still try to make our schools “great agents of democratization.” But racially homogenous student bodies make integration difficult or meaningless, and courts have made it worse.

Sports and entertainment still reflect integration. I once told Jackie Robinson’s widow how much it meant to grow up rooting for her husband. Black faces have been on national television as long as I can remember. My mother screamed with joy when William Warfield came out on stage and announced he would sing Old Man River. And I’ll never forget the sound of Marion Anderson’s voice when I heard her live. I’ve only caught glimpses of Oprah Winfrey but bless her influence. Familiarity, like minority newscasters and public officials, helps to diffuse prejudice and fear.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League rely on litigation to put racist groups out of business and catalogue hate groups, warning us about their activities and sharing strategies to extend the warm pull of brotherhood.

Other groups try to bring people together, to meet and appreciate each other, like the Interfaith Alliance, individual churches, temples and Muslim Community Centers, who invite people to meetings and festivals. We’ve often broken bread in the Muslim community.

But nothing matches what the draft and schools once did for so many of us. We need better ways to advance peace, justice and brotherhood.

— Most of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 25, 2017.

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Government and Our Trip South

August 1, 2015

Many people in this country believe that the Founding Fathers established our Constitution to get government off of people’s backs. My wife and I just traveled to North Carolina where that idea is big. They expect people to take care of themselves without the help of the nanny state. We are all expected to earn and pay our own way.

We were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Nags Head, and traveled to Ocracoke Island by ferry. It is a lengthy ferry ride, about ten miles as it winds around shoals that would stop and probably destroy the boat. I chatted with one of the crew, an employee of the State of North Carolina, and told him that I hadn’t yet been told how much the trip would cost me. Nothing, he replied. It’s free. We were certainly prepared to pay our way. That’s quite a gift from the State of North Carolina.

Still the good people of North Carolina, and certainly their elected representatives, know that government is nothing but a problem in the way of the people. So imagine our surprise when we stopped at the Ocracoke lighthouse to discover that the feds, those doggoned feds, built the light house in the eighteenth century, before the ink on the Constitution had much time to dry, and rebuilt a sturdier one in 1825 that is still working today to keep ships off the rocks and shoals.

Then we mailed a couple of cards to our granddaughters. You guessed it – we relied on the Postal Service that the feds set up and ran since Ben Franklin, that old self-reliant founding patriot, ran the thing even before the Constitution was written. The old Founders, they certainly knew how to use the government to benefit the people. Guess no one told them they weren’t supposed to.

Daily we checked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the weather service. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but all those private meterologists on every television and radio station are basing their forecasts on weather data collected, analyzed and distributed by the federal weather service. Lawyers by the way, contact the weather service for information about the weather at the time of events being litigated – there’s no need to replicate Lincoln and his famous use of an almanac to get an acquittal for his client. Weather service data are recognized and relied on as authoritative virtually universally.

We drove back on U.S. highways, both in North Carolina and between there and Albany. Yes roads the government built. In good shape too. In fact some of the first roads in the United States were postal roads, built by Uncle Sam.

We had some great dinners. But I sure hope the health department was checking up on those places – it’s pretty darn hard for a traveler to know much about what’s going on in the kitchen. And we have sometimes had some pretty bad experiences despite our best efforts.

I expect MORE from our government, not less.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 11, 2015.


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