Archive for Responsibility

Exports and Imports

While the economy is still struggling, the United States is successfully exporting democratic ideals, and motivating citizens in oppressed countries to stand up to their oppressive governments and secure a measure of liberty and stability they have not yet known.  Unfortunately, via our capitalist and conservative political spheres, the United States is also importing authoritarian oppression at a fast pace, too.

In Tunisia, a republican movement of citizens and disenfranchised people voted with their feet and their hearts, toppling a dictator.  In Egypt, kindergarteners, children, adolescents, young adults, older adults and mature citizens gathered in peaceful protest, filling Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other cities, and pushed “President” Hosni Mubarak off their necks.  In Libya, Iran, Bahrain and Yemen, government of the people is becoming a popular refrain, where citizens fatigued with oppressive and corrupt regimes choose to lay down their lives by standing up for their rights to receive their due.  Democracy, it seems, is being exported.

Here in the United States, however, Republicans with a capital R seem to believe that the rights and responsibilities that citizens across the globe are exercising are “UnAmerican”.  In Wisconsin, public employees are being denied by the elected Republican governor and legislature their right to assemble (collective bargaining) and their right to petition for the redress of grievances.  Governor Walker has exaggerated a budget deficit in order to nullify their contract, and at the same time attempted to quell the voices of the workers by stripping them of the right to bargain collectively.

Much like the thugs hired by the Egyptian president, who stole US State Department vehicles in order to attack the peaceful revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, Governor Walker’s associates have bussed in thousands of actors, disguised as concerned citizens of the Tea Party Movement, to berate, confuse and antagonize the protestors (read: teachers, nurses, etc.) in Wisconsin.

The parallels – large numbers of economically challenged lower and middle class workers struggling peacefully to receive their just due from economically advantaged politicians and political actors – between the exported democratic ideals and the imported authoritarian oppression are clear and striking.

It’s important to realize, then, that in order to continue espousing our democratic ideals and speaking about the rights of the people, we must fight here in the United States to insure that they are not usurped by people whose priorities are money before people.

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” – Thomas Paine, 1777

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Our life is better

[text] Our Life Is Better When We Work Together

I like marching bands.  How many of you like marching bands?  They make great music, and they are fun to watch.  Anyway, Rev. Barberia asked me to speak to you today because this week we celebrated a very important birthday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ordinary man.  He brushed his teeth.  He put on his pants one leg at a time.  He went to school.  He used a pen and paper to write down his ideas.  He believed in God.  He looked at the world with two eyes, smelled the world with his nose.  He loved his wife and he loved his children.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ordinary man.

In other ways, Martin Luther King, Jr. was extraordinary.  He went to college when he was fifteen years old.  The ideas that he wrote down with his pen and paper helped the government of the United States live up to its promises to its all of its citizens.  The words he spoke inspired people when he was alive, and continue to inspire people today, over forty years after his death.  He was the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  He was made a saint in the Episcopal Church.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was also extraordinary.

Both in his ordinary and extraordinary senses, though, Martin Luther King, Jr. was just one person.  He had one brain, one mouth, two eyes, two hands, two feet.  He couldn’t be in Washington, D.C. and Selma, Alabama at the same time.  He couldn’t give a speech at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church while he was giving a speech at a synagogue.  He couldn’t be in jail, arrested for civil disobedience, and speaking to the President of the United States at the same time, though he did all of these things in his lifetime.  He couldn’t teach people to be non-violent protesters, lead protests, write speeches, go to college, preach at his church, go on television, fight for civil rights, speak out against war, sleep, eat and be a good father all by himself.

He needed help.  Just as we all do, he needed to work with other people in order to accomplish all of the great things that he accomplished.  He needed parents to show him how to brush his teeth, and how to put on his pants, and to introduce him to God.  He needed teachers to instruct him how to use the paper and pen, and how to string his words together to express his ideas.  He needed other people who believed that the laws in the United States were wrong in order to get those laws changed.  He needed others who understood that each person is a child of God, deserving of love and respect and support, in order to battle for change in a non-violent and peaceful way.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Who knows what a drum major is?  What is their job? Yes, they are the leaders of a marching band.  A drum major is the person out in front, usually in a crazy costume, keeping time for the band while entertaining the crowd.  Why would this ordinary, this extraordinary, man call himself a drum major?  Because he understood one simple thing:

Life is better when we work together.

As talented as he was, as talented as we all are, we can do much, much more when we work with (and for) other people.

This is a truth that allowed the founding fathers and other English colonists to form a new country called the United States of America; this is a truth that supported abolitionists who fought to end slavery in these United States; this is a truth that helped women gain full citizenship, and people working in hard jobs get fair pay to feed their families.  Working together is how people in the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the laws to make black people, brown people, yellow people, red people, Christian people and Jewish people equal in the United States.

And here at school, that truth holds, too.  From the soccer field to the basketball court; from class retreats to physics projects; from everyone throwing away their own trash and unplugging their chargers in order to help the planet; from putting on medieval town plays to performing the school musical;  Our life is easier when we work with (and for) each other.  And we can make a difference in the world when we find people to help us, or find people we can help, who share our goals.

And though we take this week to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr., his lesson is one that we can learn everyday from the ordinary, from the extraordinary, people around us.  People like Les Frost, who sets an example of love, respect and EKG for parents, teachers, staff and students each day; people like Howard Anderson who demonstrates by the smile on his face and the bounce in his step the blessing we have to be alive; people like Kristin Barberia, who reaches out each and every day to help us open our eyes, open our hearts and open our minds to the grace we can find in each other.

Dr. King said that he was a drum major, because he knew that the drum major needed help, too.  The drum major is nothing without the band.  Our life is better when we work together.

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I See Ghosts

A few weeks ago, Republican Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law SB1070, which originally required peace officers in Arizona to stop and question people “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien” about their citizenship status. No definition of reasonable suspicion was given, and the day after the law was signed, an American Citizen of Mexican descent was arrested for failing to have his papers birth certificate on his person.  “The legislation would require … force public service employees to report suspected illegal immigrants.” This meant that the police could be sued by citizens who felt they weren’t enforcing the new law to their satisfaction.  Subsequently, she signed a second law that withholds funds from schools which offer classes that “… promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” “The bill was written to target the Chicano, or Mexican American, studies program in the Tucson school system,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

A few days ago, Republican (Tea Party) candidate for the United States Senate from Kentucky, Rand Paul stated that while he is against and “abhors anything racist”, there are parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that he finds overreaching because they infringe on the “individual liberties” of racists who own restaurants to discriminate the race of their clientele.  This is the same man who shouted to his supporters on the eve of his primary victory that he is on his way to Washington to “take our government back!”

In Texas, where Thomas Jefferson has been replaced by Newt Gingrich in high school history textbooks by an avowedly vocal and active conservative Christian block of Republican school-board members, they are now attempting to change the language of the books so that the next generation of students doesn’t learn about the slave trade which was the economic foundation of the United States, but rather they learn about the Atlantic Triangular Trade of which slaves were simply one component.  Add to this the Alabama math teacher who tried teaching his geometry class angles by hypothetically assassinating the (first black) current President of the United States, Barack Obama, and these isolated incidents of racism, violence and oppression begin to define an ugly pattern in American civic life.

The problem with being a history teacher is that I see ghosts. Watching Senator John McCain say the “economy is still strong” in 2008 echoed to me President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression; watching Senator Obama be chastised for youth and inexperience during that same campaign reflected Governor Clinton and Senator Kennedy’s treatment during their campaigns for the presidency; and watching Governor Brewer sign racial profiling into law and codifying ethnic erasure in schools sounds to me like the breaking glass on Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”). The Night of Broken Glass was an anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany and Austria from the 9th until the 10th November 1938. (Kristallnacht was part of a broader racial policy of Nazi Germany, including antisemitism and persecution of the Jews and it is viewed by many historians as the beginning of the Final Solution, leading towards the genocide of the Holocaust.)

This comparison, though, was greeted with trepidation by friends of mine.  I had invoked “Godwin’s Law“, one argued.  I was giving in to “leftwing holocaust hyperbole”, said another.  Neither grasped the larger frame of my comparison.  Adolf Hitler is the modern boogeyman for the United States, probably because as a nation we were complicit in his atrocities through our actions and inactions, from sending the US Olympic Team to Berlin for the Summer Games in 1936 fleeing Nazi Germany.  Be that as it may, the steps taken by Hitler and the Nazi Party that moved them and their nation from defeated and downtrodden to The Third Reicht are being echoed today in the United States.

Let us examine these facts:

    • The Nazis began their grip on government with a two-pronged strategy: 1-the Jews are bad, and 2-elect Hitler to lead us back to glory.  Today in Arizona “illegals” are bad, though they don’t know what they look like (except they look illegal, i.e. brown and not from “here”), and Rand Paul is going from Kentucky to “take [his] government back!” from the “un-American” President Obama.
    • The Nazis began as a third political party, running candidates with staunch conservative, anti-Jewish, pro-Germany propaganda riding a wave of national dissatisfaction. Today in the United States, from the healthcare debate to clean energy to the lies about the tax code and the false tales of cancelled National Days of Prayer, the Tea Party is running candidates (and defeating Republicans) whose full-throated persecution of illegal immigrants takes place in states with Southern borders and more dark immigrants than not, legal and illegal. In Arizona, and California, and Kentucky, persecution of “the Other” is coupled with Sarah Palin‘s uber-nationalist “feel good about us and never apologize” national tour, endorsing candidates (Governor Jan Brewer) who share her views or at least bark at her command (Carly Fiorina).  And politicians hoping to ride the wave are going further faster in hopes of grabbing power for themselves (Steve Poizner).
    • Finally, the Nazi’s began their Final Solution to “the Jewish problem” with legislation that targeted German Jews specifically.  They passed laws against the Jews for years before the death trains rolled, and the non-Jews in Germany complied.  Each law, or bundle of legal segregation and oppression, appeared a reasonable reaction to a real or imagined woe of the people.  Arizona’s laws, targeting phantom illegal criminals and demonizing inclusive education, are following the Nazi’s goose-steps in perfect time.

Obviously Jan Brewer and Rand Paul and Sarah Palin and the Texas School-board and the Alabama math teacher are not rounding up darkies and shipping them off to Manzanar.  However, they are laying tracks toward that racially segregated, oppressive Us v. Them state of constant emergency with their calculated words and deeds just as surely as the Chinese and the Irish did when building the Trans-Continental Railroad.  With each law passed, they are reaching out from beyond the grave to drag the United States back in time.  And all that stands between the sad history of segregation and oppression, of marginalization and genocide, is the full-throated rebuke of evil from people of conscience, whether that is writing blogs and letters, being informed and informing others, getting out in the streets to organize, or running for the local and national offices which have the power and authority to squelch the hate that fear produces.  Pastor Martin Niehmoller, writing in the midst of the Holocaust, put it more simply, “when they came for [someone else]/ I did not speak . . . [and] when they came for me/ there was no one left to speak.”

The problem with being a history teacher is that I see ghosts.  In the last several weeks, the backlash against progress and inclusion, against the embodiment of the American Ideals of Liberty, Equality,  and Opportunity has been staggering and shocking.  But beyond being shocked, the need for Americans of Conscience to speak up and to act, to fight back in the name of the country we cherish and the humanity we struggle to embody is pressing and immediate.  Marcus Garvey put into words my thoughts, the firing of my synapses which drove me to speak of Arizona’s laws in Nazi terminology when he too was attempting to rally his people, and so I leave you with his words.  They are as pertinent in 2010 as they were when he spoke then in the 1920s, in the same country, fighting the same battle with a different face.

“Up You Mighty [Human] Race!  Accomplish What You Will!”

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I’m Tired, Too

For two years of the presidential campaign, from 2007-2008, I lived and breathed politics.  Though I didn’t begin Spreading the Word until early 2008, I was reading and talking about the candidates long before then (think 2004 Democratic National Convention’s keynote speech).  With the election of Barack Obama, it seemed that I’d be able to go back to my day job, teaching, and be able to leave the day-to-day political awareness and direction of the nation to my elected representatives.

I was wrong.

The election of Barack Obama angered many Republicans, scared some people who are “bitter, clinging to their guns and religion”, gave birth to the Tea Party movement, and generally ginned up even more opposition than I believed possible.  I’m not sure why I thought his opponents would understand they LOST THE ELECTION and be a little quieter.  But John Boehner and Eric Cantor continue to lie and scream about the president; Lindsey Graham is sitting on Meet The Press complimenting the President on his parenting style while blasting a series of untruths that the President is “governing as an American liberal in a center-right nation” and that the President hasn’t done any “heavy lifting” on legislation; Mitch McConnell is saying that Republicans are going to run in November on “Repeal and Replace”; and Sarah Palin is helping John McCain run further and further into the weeds on the right side of the political spectrum.

While I know politics isn’t flag football, I don’t expect it to be Celebrity Death Match, either.  It seems, though, that implementing an agenda which speaks to the best in the American ideals and meets the goals stated in the Constitution is going to be a continuous engagement, because the opponents are galvanized.

We have to continue to participate – to write, to speak, to think, to act, to vote.

I know.  I’m tired, too.  But if not us, then who?

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