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.


This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 15, 2015.

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).


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