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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For Peaceful Counter-protests

August 21, 2017

There is a debate that follows political activism – whether to be peaceful or violent. I’ve seen reviews of contrary scholarship. One view is that the old KKK used many of the same tactics as the modern “Alt-right,” using clownish outfits to draw in supporters so that laughter just helps their strategy and is an unhelpful response: The Ku Klux Klan Used the Same Trolling Tactics as the Alt-Right: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-ku-klux-klan-were-memelords. Instead that scholar argues that Klan opponents at the turn of the 20th century literally beat them up. There were communities that kept the Mafia out the same way. But that view underestimates the impact of the Klan. Literally it kept a large part of the U.S. intimidated, quiet about their depredations, and unwilling to investigate or convict for a century. I don’t see good evidence that violence held the Klan in check.

The reverse view is that violence feeds the Alt-wrong. This is the same point many have made about violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. Violence feeds the sense of discrimination that is a large part of the Alt-wrong rhetoric and sense of grievance. Thus it becomes a recruiting tool. Plus the Alt-wrong appears way more ready to use violence to harm and intimidate than any other populations in America:  Don’t respond to fascists with violence. A German town offers some helpful tips. See:

The Civil Rights Movement put a very large effort into staying nonviolent. Violence was always the tool of the enemy and demonstrations were arranged to highlight that violence for a national audience, preferably on television. That effort was much more successful in shutting the Klan down than the earlier confrontations.

I would add that the contemporary American public is much more hostile toward violence than it was in 1900, despite the posturing, violence and intimidation of the Alt-wrong. So it is very important to avoid becoming the perpetrator of violence, and to follow the tactics of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. By contrast the antiwar movement, against the war in Vietnam, did resort to property destruction and my judgment was that they lost support in those demonstrations. I much preferred demonstrations carrying candles to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or the reading of the names of American servicemen killed, and similarly powerful, but nonviolent demonstrations. I would follow the insight of Dr. King and the Civil Rights demonstrators in the present struggle and keep ourselves peaceful.

With all good wishes for you and for our country, Steve


Dr. King’s Message of Love

January 20, 2015

Yesterday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. We are still much too far from a post-racial society. For the big victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we think of Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the Rehnquist Court did its best to chip away, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which the Roberts Court is doing its best to tear up. There was another victory that I’d like to talk about, just a few years after Martin Luther King shared his dream at the Lincoln Memorial.

It often seems like a postscript to Dr. King’s legacy but was actually at its very core. When the NAACP planned its attack on school segregation, they started with graduate schools, racking up a string of victories so that any other decision in Brown would have flatly violated the teaching of a whole group of recent precedents abandoning separation in law school, medical school, graduate school in one state after another. But until Brown they didn’t touch grade school. They had concluded that grade school would be the most inflammatory and most difficult because of southern fear of what they called miscegenation, marriage between whites and Blacks. There was a sense in which worrying about marriage of kids in elementary school rather than adults in graduate school seemed backwards. But they understood the fear and went with it.

Fear of intermarriage was a very big deal with reason. Sociologists have been finding that one of the main ways Americans have been putting stereotypes and prejudices behind them has been intermarriage, not just Blacks and whites, but Jews and Christians, whites and Asians, different white ethnic groups, and now the marriage of gay or lesbian children of straight families, all of us to some degree have been marrying out of our ancestral groups, introducing our families and producing children who celebrate all sides of their heritage. Marriage and intermarriage matter.

Rabbis don’t like Jews to intermarry – they’re afraid to lose another Jew to the assimilated culture. When Jeanette and I married, it was hard to find a rabbi who’d marry us. There are a lot of mixed families in our Temple, creating the loving, open community we love.

In the 1950s Mildred Delores Jeter grew up down the road from Richard Loving in rural Virginia. Richard was a white bricklayer; Mildred a young Black girl. In that part of the state, Blacks and whites often socialized, but didn’t marry. Mildred and Richard weren’t thinking of Dr. King or making a racial statement. They just fell in love, married and wanted to raise a family together. For that they were arrested, jailed, convicted and kicked out of Virginia. They were together until, tragically, Richard was killed in a traffic accident nearly twenty years later.

The year Martin Luther King shared his great dream with us, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their inability to visit family and friends in Virginia. Kennedy sent them to the ACLU whose lawyers brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 the Warren Court gave us the historic decision of Loving v. Virginia, one of its great decisions, establishing the right to marry, and marry without discrimination.

That part of the Civil Rights Movement seems resilient and lasting – we keep meeting, befriending and learning to love each other. The world changes, though slowly. It has always seemed appropriate to me that they were Mildred and Richard Loving. Dr. King’s was a message of love; love needs to run this world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 20, 2014.


The White House Butler

September 3, 2013

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish. Read the rest of this entry »


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