Happy New Year

December 31, 2019

I’ve been recording commentary on WAMC for approximately 15 years. Christmas and New Year’s are always different. It doesn’t feel like a time for argument, for praising some and condemning others. So I and many in similar positions usually talk about the joys of the holiday season and individual plans for the New Year. I tend to do it a bit multi-culturally but it really doesn’t matter; we all share the same dreams.

In reality, though, I realize that those who govern us have an enormous impact on our health and happiness – whether we’ll die on a war front, as refugees from battle or other disaster, or for lack of roads, doctors or access to health care. So I want to address my hopes for the New Year to those who have those powers.

It’s hard to read or hear the news without finding more evidence that power corrupts. George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a slave-owner himself, told his colleagues, on August 22, 1787, that “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.”[1] Talking about lessons from slavery seems extreme to some except that we see frequent examples of masters taking cruel, often deadly, advantage of those who are called employees or are otherwise vulnerable. Let us not sire petty tyrants.

The promise of America goes well beyond class, race or religion. Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania congressman and a Republican leader in the fight for the 14th Amendment, expressed the American dream when he told the House that he dreamed of the day when “no distinction would be tolerated in this purified republic but what arose from merit and conduct.”[2]  Our Constitution makes no other distinction. If you’re here you are protected. It protects not only citizens but residents, travelers, visitors, everyone. It does that by using broad terms, “people,” “persons,” without limitation. That’s one of the great features of our Constitution. Our country pioneered the concept of human rights, guaranteed for everyone.

Paul Finkelman, an old friend and former colleague, now a college president, showed me a draft he’s been writing on the point. He goes through each Amendment which make up what we call the Bill of Rights and the language of who gets those rights. The 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 10th Amendments are directed to “the people.” The 5th protects “any person.” The 6th protects “the accused.” Otherwise the Bill of Rights simply prohibits government from infringing rights and the language is again universal. Attacks on people and their rights which depend on where they come from conflict with the great principle which this country pioneered – universal human rights.

The late, great, vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, broadened the point at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, on November 1, 1977, saying “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”[3] That we may treat each other well are my wishes for the coming year. And, as Pete Seeger sang, “Pacem in Teris, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Heiwa!” which spells peace in many languages, and in some it also means good health. Happy New Year.

[1] 2 Max Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 370.

[2] Cong. Globe,  39th Cong., 1st sess. 3148  (1866) (June 13, 1866).

[3] Congressional Record, November 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287, available at https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hubert_Humphrey.


On Egos in Skin, Muscles and Race

December 31, 2016

Years ago, when I was working out in a gym, a younger woman was obviously putting more weight on the equipment and doing more and faster reps than I was. I did not know this woman and there was no conversation between us. But as she passed me, she commented that it was OK because I would be stronger on the upper body exercises. When people catch me off guard with a comment like that, I often say nothing, and I don’t think I responded. But I have often wanted to say to her that I don’t keep my ego in my muscles.

Some do of course, people who can do all sorts of things that I can’t, great athletes but also people who move furniture and other heavy work and they have every right to put their egos in their muscles.

But why would anyone put their egos in the color of their skin? I hope everyone has other things to be proud of. That leads me to feeling mostly pity for the people who base their lives on racism, as if their own race is special, not just as good, but superior. That is as shallow as the cosmetics that people apply to their skin.

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens told the House of Representatives that he hoped people would be judged only by their character and ability. By that standard of course, whites, or Caucasians, are all over the map, from killers and thieves to statesmen and scientists. The same is true for other so-called races. If that leaves people feeling like the ground has been knocked from under them, they need to hike onto firm ground, but it isn’t going to be the color of their skin. The people who kept repeating that President Obama couldn’t figure anything out only revealed their own inferiority complex, a struggle they tried to hide by claiming to belong to a supposedly superior white race, and by their inability to see the qualities of an African-American man.

The great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, made a very revealing comment when he pointed out that what had really upset some ballplayers when Jackie Robinson broke in to the majors was not the color of his skin; it was his education – Robinson had been a four-letter man at UCLA and came to the Dodgers as a well-educated African-American at a time when most ballplayers had little education. The antagonism of some ballplayers was jealousy concealed as racism.

By the same token, I think what bothered many about President Obama was not just his race, but his accomplishments – an ivy-league education capped by the top position on the Harvard Law Review, a job with a corporate law firm followed by a career in public service. These are accomplishments most of us could envy. But most of us are happy to admire the man without demeaning his obvious accomplishments because somehow his skin color diminishes us. Truly I think racism both masks and reveals the inferiority of the racist. They need to get over it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 27, 2016.


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