Politics Can Be Fun – Some Encouragement for Earth Day

April 17, 2018

Some people tell me it’s hard to deal with global dangers and dangers to our health that aren’t fun to think about and that feel out of our control as well. How can we deal with it?

Compare those to how we protect our families in other situations. I often feel better thinking about dangers than ignoring them, like when we talked with our children about dangers they faced on their way to school. I remember a colleague asking me to baby sit for his children when I was abroad. They were a British couple and Alistair was explicit – there were people around who snatched and sold children. That was painful to think about. That’s why they had to.

I’m a husband, parent and grandparent. It is my job to think about what could destroy my family and embitter our lives. We all take pride in protecting our families and helping them protect themselves. Part of being a grown-up is to stare danger in the face and deal with it.

Lots of things are well within our ability to advocate for the environment. My wife and I have supported the Union of Concerned Scientists for decades. Joe Donahue introduced us to Bill McKibben’s 360.org. I’m not sure why many people are reluctant to go outside and demonstrate. Years ago, we participated in the first Earth Day, a lovely event we shared with friends in St. Louis – I think we were in Forest Park but my wife remembers it as at Washington University, closer to our place.

Perhaps you participated in the Women’s March, or heard Martin Luther King describe his dream in front of the Lincoln Memorial after the country’s greatest folk singers serenaded us and we linked arms for the march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. A demonstration can literally be a walk in the park with friends.

Some of us have professional options – I’ve handled some environmental lawsuits, for example. All of us can speak with our Congresspersons as well as local office-holders. They actually want to know what we’re thinking – we’re not burdening them by letting them know in a civil way. Mary Poppins was right, of course, “a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But we have a mutual interest in telling them. My point is that politics can be fun.  It is NOT all about money. It’s about votes, voters and people.

And there is the pleasure of taking responsibility. Many of us were inspired when President Kennedy bid us to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy followed immediately with the wider implication, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Survival in the face of potential environmental catastrophe needs all our help. The environmental movement is global, neither black nor white, upper, lower or middle class. People are involved from every corner of American life. Let our numbers and power inspire us to solve these problems and protect this world for all our children.

Let’s take those walks in the park with friends for the environment, and make visits to our representatives with friends for the environment. And let’s feel really good about it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 17, 2018.

 

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I Have a Dream

August 22, 2017

The North was segregated after Brown outlawed segregation in 1954. It didn’t happen by private individual choices but by government decisions that blocked banks from lending to African-Americans in both the suburbs and inner cities. Those now well documented decisions created many of the inner cities’ problems and the struggle to make equality real. But who cares?

Who cares because all the proposals to fix a huge injustice, not in the distant years of slavery but now, mean paying to help “them.” It’s fine if someone else pays. But not us, not the wealthy, the middle class or the poor.

So are there answers society could adopt?

We nibble: the Fresh Air Fund, scholarships for the African-American elite, the people who overcame all the potholes and roadblocks in their way.

In 1938, years before Brown, the Supreme Court understood that the inescapable sin of segregation was the barrier to networking. Missouri was prepared to send African-Americans to any law school in neighboring states so that they would get what Missouri called an “equal” education, but not to Missouri schools. Presaging Brown, the Court said it wasn’t equal to deny African-Americans the chance to get to know future colleagues, adversaries, judges and legislators. As Brown would say 16 years later, segregation is inherently unequal.

There lies the real problem of race – any real solution involves us all. Would we put the resources into “their” schools that we put into “ours”? Would we share some classrooms? Would we allow willing parents to send their kids to our schools or would a modest program be too much for us or the racist majority on the court in Washington?

I think there will be success for African-Americans too. Fresh out of slavery, their ancestors created a system of higher education,  fine colleges and universities which survive and thrive. Then they started the climb toward the middle class familiar to many of us. Many African-Americans joined the ranks of civil servants in the federal government. Government service had been a route out of poverty for many of our ancestors. But beginning in 1913, after years of progress, President Wilson excluded African-Americans from all but menial federal jobs, pushing educated and successful African-Americans out of the federal bureaucracy.

That story was repeated after World War II, after Brown v. Board, when federal officials denied that African-Americans had any rights the capitalist system need honor and instead used the federal agencies they controlled to block African-Americans from getting loans to build businesses or join the march to the suburbs. It wasn’t anything African-Americans did, but that deliberate undermining of their efforts and successes laid the seeds of contemporary inner city problems.

There are many more chapters to the story of the ways that the financial and political rugs were pulled from under potentially successful African-Americans and their businesses. The road of our African-American brothers and sisters has been longer, harder, more unjust than the ancestors of most of the rest of us because America made it so.

I was there in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. That dream of equality belongs to all of us. All of us depend on the crucial American realization that all mankind is created equal. So, like most Americans, I thrilled to King’s words. And I admire the principled courage and dedication of Charlottesville’s counter-protestors. Their presence was an indication of the progress America has made, and their struggle reflects the distance still to travel.  King’s dream, our dream, is still a dream.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 22, 2017.


The Dagger in the Heart of Labor

August 15, 2017

Last week I spoke about labor. Next week is the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington. I intended to connect the two. After hate intervened in Charlottesville, that’s even more urgent.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Progressive Movement was making great strides on behalf of American workers and farmers. Gradually, the political parties adopted parts of the Progressives platform and many of their proposals were eventually adopted. But in the South, white elites drove a stake through the heart of the Progressive Movement by dividing workers on race. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s to wake America up.

The March on Washington that many of us remember as Martin Luther King’s great triumph was actually called by a coalition of labor leaders. Labor understood that workers had to stand together or they would be trashed together. If you could underpay African-American workers you could underpay everyone. The AFL-CIO, clear about the ways our fates interrelate, was a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.

But some politicians used racial prejudice to drive a wedge into support for progress, to prevent government from providing benefits and services for all of us, and then take the “savings” as tax breaks for themselves. Far more whites land on the public safety net but politicians want us to believe it’s just African-Americans. Far fewer African-Americans than whites depend on public schools but politicians want us to think money spent on schools is wasted because “they” get it. In area after area, politicians convinced many of us to starve public services. They want whites to think we would never need what African-Americans would get. They tell us we don’t want to spend anything on “them.” We should be allies, but the politics of race turns us into competitors.

Last time, I described how states and the Supreme Court have been undermining labor’s political role even as it augments management’s. So-called free market “conservatives” don’t want to do anything for the public, for you, your kids and your parents. They tell us that the market solves all problems for the deserving and only the undeserving need help, even while sanctimonious business men poison and defraud us. The real culprits want the freedom to take advantage of us while piling on more tax breaks for themselves. Racial prejudice just makes it easier for them to hide their own misbehavior.

So I want to make three points. First, racial prejudices do the greatest harm when politicians exploit them. I applaud those who condemn the violence and the perpetrators specifically. White supremacists don’t just object to policies – they hate everyone different from them. And no, Black Lives Matter is not a racist organization – objection to racism isn’t racism.

Second, the Supreme Court handed us heavily armed racists massing and marching to intimidate the rest of us. That must stop. Guns have no place in politics or public debate. Worse, white supremacists here admire Hitler, and study his path to power. Hitler’s Brown Shirts terrorized Germany. These folks are terrorists.

Third, Trump has done permanent damage to American politics. His close ties to groups which hate a large portion of America because they think we have the wrong parents is outrageous and highlights the danger of those hate groups. Trump has shown a path to power that every decent American must reject.

I was in front of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King shared his glorious dream. I thrilled to his words. But the March on Washington which we remember for Dr. King’s words was called and organized by the labor leaders of America dreaming of unity for all the working men and women of America. It is still a dream. We have to make it come true.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 15, 2017.


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