Saturday, December 27, 2008

Change I can believe in

I wonder if any of you can remember your life in politics before 2000? Before we were loaded with one outrage after another to the point that it became difficult to keep up?

I remember Monica and impeachment (ha-ha) and the "vast right-wing-conspiracy." But things get more fuzzy when I try to think about what issues were on the table, or which ones were off the table and we were trying to get them on.

The reason I'm going down this memory lane is that I'm doing my best to try to imagine a world without Bushco. And its hard to get there. I feel like I've been fighting them with almost everything I've got for so long that I can't imagine a world where that isn't a centering theme. But its about to happen.

I don't mean to say that there won't be political battles to fight. That has never been the case and I doubt very much that it ever will be. But I also don't want to dismiss the magnitude of the change that is about to happen.

I can hear it all now though. Those of you who want to say that Obama's policies are not THAT different. That's not my point - even if I disagree. What I'm thinking about is how I've ordered my political life around the outrage I feel at people like Bush, Cheney, et al. And they are about to disappear from the stage of power. We got a bit of that when folks like Rumsfeld and Gonzales resigned. Where are they now and what are they doing? Who knows and who cares? That's about to happen to Bush and Cheney.

So its a starting over...almost from scratch when it comes to the Executive Branch of our government. Oh, and while we're at it, lets take a look at one of the Legislative branches, the Senate. Over 1/4 of them are new to the body since 2006.

1. Sen. Barrasso, John (R-WY)
2. Sen. Begich, Mark (D-AK)*
3. Sen. Brown, Sherrod (D-OH)
4. Sen. Cardin, Benjamin (D-MD)
5. Sen. Casey, Robert (D-PA)
6. Sen. Corker, Bob (R-TN)
7. Sen. Hagan, Kay (D-NC)*
8. Sen. Johanns, Mike (R-NE)*
9. Sen. Kaufman, Ed (D-DE)*
10. Sen. Klobuchar, Amy (D-MN)
11. Sen. McCaskill, Claire (D-MO)
12. Sen. Menendez, Robert (D-NJ)
13. Sen. Merkley, Jeff (D-OR)*
14. Sen. Risch, Jim (R-ID)*
15. Sen. Sanders, Bernard (I-VT)
16. Sen. Shaheen, Jeanne (D-NH)*
17. Sen. Tester, Jon (D-MT)
18. Sen. Udall, Mark (D-CO)*
19. Sen. Udall, Tom (D-NM)*
20. Sen. Warner, Mark (D-VA)
21. Sen. Webb, James (D-VA)
22. Sen. Whitehouse, Sheldon (D-RI)
23. Sen. Wicker, Roger (R-MS)
24. ILLINOIS*
25. NEW YORK*
26. COLORADO*
27. Sen. Franken, Al (D-MN)???*

(* indicates new in January 2009)

No matter whether you believed Obama would bring change or not, we're going to have heaps of it rolling out over the next few months. The specter of these kinds of changes to two of the three branches of government (and the Supreme Court is very likely to change too as several retire) is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Of course, you add to all that the fact that we now have Democratic control of both the executive and legislative branches for the first time since the advent of the netroots as well as the incredible grassroots movement that Obama built during the campaign. I'd say that all bets are off for predicting how things will play out based on what has happened historically.

Of course, I would be remiss if I were to neglect mentioning that with all this change in personnel, we are also facing some of the greatest challenges we have ever seen as a nation. Those include the crisis in the economy, climate change, two wars, and eight years of everything from incompetence to war crimes to clean up.

I am NOT predicting some progressive sweep of our national politics. What I'm saying is that the deck has been shuffled - big time. That is just as likely to scare people into retreat as it is to invigorate them to move forward. All I know is that there might not ever have been a more momentous time to be engaged in the process.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Revolutionary Soul

This week some of us will have a few days off from work and many will also gather with family for times rich in history and tradition. While the days that I celebrated all this as a christian are long gone, I usually like to take a few minutes around this time of year to reflect on the life of Jesus.

I have come to the conclusion that, while he was not god, Jesus was a truly revolutionary soul. As humans are want to do, we have for the most part, corrupted what he had to say. The christian fundamentalists have done this by focusing almost exclusively on his birth and death...completely ignoring what he had to say while he was alive. Perhaps that's because his words call us to a place that is difficult for many of us to go.

One of the most powerful messages he gave was the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they shall possess the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Beautiful words, aren't they? But what about the promises Jesus made? Do we have to wait for some kind of heavenly kingdom to see them? Not according to Tod Lindberg.

Jesus describes those who are truly fortunate, the lucky ones of their day. But it is not emperors, conquerors, priests, and the wealthy who enjoy this favor. Rather, it is the common people, those whom earthly success has largely passed by: the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemakers. How can this be? Because though they may have been denied worldly success, what cannot be taken away from them is their potential to live rightly by one another. It is all too easy for those who enjoy the pleasures of this world to try to float above such obligations. Jesus goes on to say that so long as ordinary people stand for the right things and do not retreat in their rightness before those who seem to have more power, what ’s right will prevail. It’s their kingdom — a kingdom organized not from the top down, but from the bottom up.


Jesus often chose to tell stories in order to illustrate a point. Perhaps the most famous of these is the one where he answers the question "Who is my neighbor?"

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."


Notice that the "expert in the law" couldn't even say the word "Samaritan" in his reply. That's because there was so much hatred at the time between Jews and Samaritans. And yet Jesus was holding up a person from among those who were most reviled as an example of one who demonstrated what it means to be a neighbor.

But the passage that has meant the most to me is a bit more obscure. As many sermons as I heard growing up, I don't recall ever hearing one about this.

And it came to pass that he went through the grain fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of grain.

And the Pharisees said unto him, "Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?"

And he said unto them, "Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him; how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar, the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them who were with him?"

And he said unto them, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath."


What I hear in this story is Jesus saying that the rules (i.e. dogma) are negotiable. What's not negotiable is the dignity of every human being. And that ultimately trumps all.

At this time of year, I usually go back and read an amazing diary written by Kid Oakland about four years ago titled a christmas message. Here's just a taste.

Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.

Their company, their stories, their lives, their environs, their plight and their faith.

And they loved him. Because he touched them. He looked them in the eye and believed in them. Because, at the end of the day, when they looked to him they saw that his commitment to them was a commitment unsullied by qualifier or clause. It was a commitment to love them, even upon pain of death. And they saw in him, a love that promised to love them as they were, who they were...fully, without judgment or flinching glance, or hypocritical accommodation.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moonlight Musings

Sometimes when it comes time to write, I'm in more of a contemplative mode, yearning to listen instead of speak. Today is one of those times. So I hope you can follow me on a bit of journey through some of the poetry and music that's speaking to me today.

I'm still thinking about darkness and light, as all kinds of seasons are shifting around us. Here are some words from James Baldwin that continue that journey.

One discovers the light in darkness. That is what darkness is for. But everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith...I know we often lose...and how often one feels that one cannot start again. And yet, on pain of death, one can never remain where one is. The light. The light. One will perish without the light...For nothing is fixed, forever, and forever, and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have...The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. And the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.


This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.


Baldwin's words about faith reminded me of a David Whyte poem that speaks to the tenuous nature of our faith in the darkness.

I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.




There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.


Today I had a spiritual experience listening to Debussy's "Claire de Lune." Little did I know that the song is based on a poem with the same title by Paul Verlaine. Translated from French by Norman R. Shapiro, here's "Moonlight."

Your soul is like a landscape fantasy,
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.

Singing in minor mode of life's largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming--
Slender jet-fountains--sob their ecstasies.


I hope you'll take a few minutes and listen to the musical version. It speaks to places words can't go. As a special treat, I'm posting a version played by Lydia Kavina on the theremin. But if you prefer something more traditional, check it out on piano or violin.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Dark

The hard part about winter for me is not necessarily the cold...its the darkness. I don't know what its like where you are, but around these parts I figure we spend about 1/3 of any 24 hour period in the light and the rest of the time darkness rules. So its the dark that's on my mind today.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with darkness. Its a great excuse for the lazy among us to hibernate. And it seems that there are some who prefer the dark for prowling. But overall, we seem to want to avoid it.



On the other hand, we all know that a certain kind of darkness we've been living with is about to end. I find a mixture of disgust and curiosity as I watch George W. reflect on his tenure in office while trying to avoid the dark. As you know, he's in the process of giving interviews these days, perhaps thinking that he can shed some light on his "legacy."

It has been clear for a long time now that W. has no capacity to reflect on himself and his actions. That's why he will always lack the ability to grow and learn. And while none of us are as incapacitated as he is, its hard for us too. Looking at the darkness that resides within us is perhaps one of the most difficult things we are asked to do.

I am reminded of a scene in Arthur Miller's play After the Fall. The main character Quentin (who is Jewish) is asking a German woman how she lives with herself after the Holocaust. Here's what she says.

I think it's a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one's self. One day the house smells of fresh bread, the next of smoke and blood. One day you faint because the gardener cuts his finger off, within a week you're climbing over corpses of children bombed in a subway. What hope can there be if that is so?

I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not go to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible...but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one's life in one's arms.


Whenever I shrink at the thought of looking at my own darkness, I try to think of this baby clutching my clothes and imagine taking her up in my arms. Too often though, I get defensive and don't take the time to realize that if I could honestly look at myself and embrace what I see - warts and all - I'd perhaps have the strength to find the only real hope that is available to me when it looks like the world is falling apart...myself.

When I have been able to face my own darkness, I find fear, guilt, shame, anger...its tough. But more often than not, the experience leaves me with what David Whyte has called "Sweet Darkness."

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Out of Balance

My thoughts are pretty random this Sunday morning. But if I reach for a theme, I think I can find one in the idea that so much in our world is out of balance.

My theme might not be apparent at first in this story. But I was struck by Bill Moyers' closing remarks on his show this week.



If this was anyone but Moyers, I'd be thinking it was someone who looks at the world through the eyes of American exceptionalism. But we all know that's not his take. Perhaps what we are seeing is a world out of balance when it comes to power...people all over the world who's fate is tied to what happens in the US. Of course ours is tied to theirs as well. Its just that too many in this country are unaware of that...hence the lack of balance.

Jackson Browne reminds us that there are lives in the balance.



And next, on this long holiday weekend as we hear stories of people getting trampled to death by shoppers on "Black Friday," I can't help but think of Annie Leonard's wonderful videos on The Story of Stuff. If you haven't watched these already, I can't think of a more productive way to spend an afternoon or evening. They'll change you. I know they did me. Here's the chapter on consumption.



And finally, this week Nezua wrote about the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. Here's what the director, Godfrey Reggio, said about it.

The greatest event in the history of mankind has occurred recently, and has been largely missed by both the media and academia. Beyond the headlines and every day crises of international events, a deeper shift in human affairs has occurred: Humanity no longer exists in the natural world, we are no longer connected to it. It is not that we are now users of technology, but rather that we exist within technology, we are part of it and it is part of us. The natural world now exists only to support the artificial one in which we live.


I had never seen the film, so last night I watched it. You can see the whole thing here (one hour, 25 minutes). But for a taste or a reminder, here's the trailer.



I certainly don't have the answers on how to right all that's out of balance in this world. Perhaps the first step is noticing and righting ourselves as much as we can. Toward that end, I can't think of anyone who helps balance my inner soul more than Mary Oliver. So I'll leave you with "The Sun."

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone--
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance--
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love--
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed--
or have you too
turned from this world--

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Forbidden Fruit

Every human being has a biological drive for 4 things...air, water, food, and sex. We've pretty much accepted the first two as givens, but ever since Eve took that bite out of an apple, we've struggled with our need for food and sex, coming up with all kinds of rules about who, what, when and how. I, for one, think its highly symbolic that such a powerful myth in our culture involves a woman eating a "forbidden fruit." After all, we know the long fixation we've had with who and when a woman has sex. Is it any surprise that we are also fixated on what she eats?

From Meer Images Photography

But just as with sex, these rules about eating get all tangled up in our psyches and come out a mish-mash of myths that are difficult to sort. And while we on the left have at least a bit more awareness about how seeing sex as a forbidden fruit is damaging, we seem to have bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the myths about eating. Of course, we've been aided in that process by alot of pseudo-science funded primarily by the $40 billion diet industry.

So what are these myths? The Center for Consumer Freedom has compiled a list of myths about obesity.

1. Obesity Kills 400,000 Americans a year
2. You Can't Be Overweight and Healthy
3. Obesity Is a Disease
4. Overeating Is the Primary Cause of Obesity
5. Soda Causes Childhood Obesity
6. 64 Percent of Americans Are Overweight or Obese
7. Obesity Costs the US Economy $117 Billion Annually


The Center has also published a 28 page report debunking each myth and you can find the pdf file on the report here. But I'd like to take up the one that is most embedded in our culture, the one that says "overeating is the primary cause of obesity." This one seems intuitive and has lodged itself so deep in our psyches that, even with evidence to the contrary, it's hard to uproot.

One of the people working on debunking these myths is Gina Kolata, science writer for the NYT and author of Rethinking Thin. In an article that is an excerpt from her book titled Genes Take Charge, and Diets Fall By the Wayside, she cites the work of Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania, who studied both adoptees and twins separated at birth. His conclusion:

The researchers concluded that 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, a figure that means that weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.


Another person who writes regularly to debunk these myths is Susan Szwarc. In an article titled On Obesity, What the Researchers Didn't Find she concludes:

The GUTS (Growing Up Today Study) and DONALD (Dortmund Nutritional Anthropometric Longitudinally Designed Study) join a profusion of other studies, both clinical and epidemiological, over the past fifty years demonstrating that fat children and adults as a population normally eat exactly the same as thin people. And regardless of their diets, children will still naturally grow up to be a wide range of heights and body weights. "Multiple researchers, using a variety of methodologies, have failed to find any meaningful or replicable differences in the caloric intake or eating patterns of the obese compared to the non-obese to explain obesity," concluded David Garner, Ph.D. and Susan Wooley, Ph.D., for example, in their review of some 500 studies on weight in Clinical Psychology Review.


I imagine that most folks at this point would say that since obesity is a health problem, it doesn't matter what the cause is, the cure is eating less and loosing weight. While I'll leave the mixed reviews on the health risks for another day, the research is also quite clear that dieting is not only ineffective, it is a much bigger health risk than being overweight.

Kolata addresses the ineffectiveness of dieting in the article cited above by outlining research that demonstrates how genetics dictates weight...when you eat more, metabolism increases to limit weight gain and when you eat less, it slows. But the more serious health implications were actually found way back in the 1940's when Ancel Benjamin Keys, PhD. studied starvation.

Young male volunteers, all carefully selected for being especially psychologically and socially well-adjusted, good-humored, motivated, active and healthy, were put on diets meant to mimic what starving Europeans were enduring, of about 1,600 calorie/day -- but which included lots of fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates and lean meats.


The "starvation" portion of the study lasted six months and they followed the subjects for a year afterwards. His findings were astounding - both physically and psychologically. In terms of the physical, as the men lost weight, they found that their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength by about 10%, their metabolic rates declined by 40% and their heart volume shrank by about 20%. Their sexual function and testes size were reduced and they lost all interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging.

But the psychological effects were even more dramatic:

The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed...­They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things...Binge eating episodes also became a problem as some of the men were unable to continue to restrict their eating.


In the year-long follow-up, here's what they observed:

When the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again, they had insatiable appetites and ate voraciously, some eating 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, yet never felt full...On average, the men regained to their original weights plus 10%. But the weight regain was largely as fat and their lean body mass recovered much more slowly. Their weights then plateaued despite being given unlimited food, before finally, about 9 months later, most were near their initial weights -- giving scientists one of the first demonstrations that each body has a natural set point.


Dr. Keyes called the symptoms he observed "semistarvation neurosis." And when I read about this study, it had a huge and profound impact on me. I recognized that from the time I was 15 until I was in my 40's, I had lived this. Almost all of the symptoms were there as I bounced from one diet to the next, always gaining back the weight..and more. Not only living with these symptoms, but being told over and over again that if I just had enough will power, I could curb my eating and loose weight. It was my moral failure that kept me from being successful.

I lost 25 years of my life to this. And I'll never know how it might have been different if I hadn't had to battle back from all the depression, pain and shame. It took some grieving to get over that. But at least I'm grateful that I had the opportunity. And I'll be damned if anyone will ever sell me on the idea of forbidden fruit again! Instead, I'll follow the path that Mary Oliver spoke of in this excerpt from her poem "Wild Geese."

You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Friday, November 14, 2008

On the Twoness of Being

Back in January, as the Democratic Primary heated up in an epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, there was a lot of what I would categorize as "silly talk" pitting women's issues against those of African Americans. I can't claim to have been untouched by that strain in our leftward attempts at coalition though. There were charges from both sides that were deeply painful and only occasionally a real discussion about how these systems of hierarchy and oppression are very much alive in our culture.

I remember that during those days, I found solace and guidance in the words of the one group who felt this tension deep in their souls...African American women. I traveled around the nets to find and listen to their voices and wrote an essay that attempted to capture some of it. At the time, these women were busy reacting to an op-ed by Gloria Steinem. But its these words that I remember most.

After reading Steinem's Op-Ed I felt invisible...as if black and woman can't exist in the same body. I felt undocumented...as if the history of blacks and the history of women have nothing to do with the history of black women.


Look, I'm not going to go head to head with Steinem and argue what is most pressing for womyn in America - race or gender. What I do know is that as a US womyn of color living in this country is that the two are so inexplicably interlaced that I resist ANY individual that pits once against the other.


Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women, Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender.


You may wonder why I am re-visiting these particular battles today. My answer is that I think with the election of Obama and the passage of prop 8 happening simultaneously, we are witnessing and feeling some of the same tensions now about the issues facing African Americans and the GLBT community.

I'm not sure we can make those tensions just disappear, it will take some work. But I think one of the places to look for that is to seek out the voices of African American GLBT folks. Perhaps the best in blogland can be found at The Republic of T. Here's how Terrance describes the same kind of experience I quoted from the women above.

It has been a strange couple of weeks. Just last week, I saw something that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and felt like I was witnessing it for all my ancestors who didn’t live to see a hope fulfilled. But — with a “twoness of being” that DuBois probably didn’t imagine when he coined the term — it was a deeply conflicted moment.

As a Black man, in that moment I felt like more of an American than I ever had before, like a barrier to full citizenship and belonging had been raised. As a gay man with a husband and a family, however, I ended up feeling like less of an American than I ever had before; divorced from the celebrating and even the historic significance of the moment by a barrier to citizenship and belonging that fell more firmly into place even as another one was lifted.

My response to the events of the past week have been informed by that “twoness of being,” and a conflict that demands I prioritize one part of my identity over another.


We know things are still f'd up in this country when people like Terrance feel the need to prioritize one part of their identity over another. Perhaps it we worked a little harder at seeing things through his eyes, we could start to see the whole.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, Leonard Pitts, went a long way in that direction with a piece titled Coming Out of the Closet to Declare My Humanity. Its a response to one of his readers who assumes that because he writes about gay rights, he must be gay.

The most concise answer I can give is cribbed from what a white kid said 40 or so years ago, as white college students were risking their lives to travel South and register black people to vote. Somebody asked why. He said he acted from an understanding that his freedom was bound up with the freedom of every other man...

See, I have yet to learn how to segregate my moral concerns. It seems to me if I abhor intolerance, discrimination and hatred when they affect people who look like me, I must also abhor them when they affect people who do not. For that matter, I must abhor them even when they benefit me. Otherwise, what I claim as moral authority is really just self-interest in disguise.

Among the things we seem to have lost in the years since that white kid made his stand is the ability, the imagination, the willingness to put ourselves into the skin of those who are not like us...

I believe in moral coherence. And Rule No. 1 is, you cannot assert your own humanity, then turn right around and deny someone else's.

If that makes me gay, fine.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Organizer-In-Chief

Throughout this most recent campaign I, like all of you, have been trying to get a handle on just who this man is that we have now elected as our next President. So many of us are projecting our hopes, fears, and cynicism onto who he is and what kind of President he will be, that it often gets confusing.



I continue to have lots of questions that will only be answered in the days to come. But the one thing I feel pretty certain about is that if you look at Obama's history and how he ran his campaign, this is a man who believes in community organizing. The question is, how will that affect how he governs?

My guess right now is that his commitment to organizing is one of the reasons Obama has become such a Rorschach for most of us. To be effective in that kind of work requires a different kind of leadership than what we have grown accustomed to in politics. One of Obama's mentors, Marshall Ganz, describes leadership this way:

Although we associate leaders with certain kinds of attributes (like power), a more useful way to look at leadership is as a kind of relationship. James McGregor Burns argues leadership can be under­stood as a relationship that emerges from repeated "exchanges" or "transactions" between leaders and followers or constituents. Leaders can provide resources constituents need to address their inter­ests and constituents can provide resources leaders need to address theirs...Effective leaders facilitate the interde­pendence or collaboration that can create more "power to" -- based on the interests of all parties.


As I mentioned in a previous essay, Ganz has a whole course on Organizing available on-line. Within that course is a chapter on leadership. One of the things you'll find there is a graph illustrating the role of leadership in community organizing.



He explains that leaders work with constituents to build coalitions and utilize their resources to reach goals. In running for President, Obama has laid out some goals. The thing is, he needs us (the constituency) to reach those goals. We are the holders of resources that he will need to accomplish anything. That's because we know that the powers that be are preparing to take him on as he tries to do things like get out of Iraq, provide universal health care, address climate change, and on and on. He will need us to "have his back" when those forces try to stop him.

And if we want to see some changes in those goals, we'll have to organize a broad enough coalition to convince him that it can be done. In other words, when we want to get a message to President Obama, we'll have to talk to each other and get organized. A few weeks ago, I went to hear Al Giordano, a long-time community organizer, talk about how to work for change after the election. One of the things he said (sorry, I'll have to paraphrase) is: given that Obama has so completely embraced the community organizing model, if we use it effectively, we're sure to get his attention.

With all of that in mind, I ask you to listen once again to Obama's now-famous "Yes We Can" speech and see if you can hear the community organizer building a coalition and motivating them to work with him to reach their goals (especially starting at about 8:00).



All of the candidates in this race share these goals. All have good ideas. And all are patriots who serve this country honorably.

But the reason our campaign has always been different is because it's not just about what I will do as President, it's also about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it...

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What they're saying

I originally got a "gig" on the front page here at DD because I made an attempt to write a weekly roundup of some of the discussions going on in the diversosphere called Blog Voices. Over the months, I've veered off that course, but I thought that the day after the United States elected the first Black President, it might be time to check in and see what folks are saying. This is definitely not an exhaustive look, but I checked in with some of the folks whose writing has had an impact on me and would like to share those with you.

First of all, Kai over at Zuky wrote an amazing piece before the election that he titled The Palin' Identity that captures the message of this campaign in a very powerful way. I'll give you a taste, but mostly encourage you to go take in the whole thing.

The reason why the McCain-Palin campaign has appeared erratic throughout the election season is that their strategic communications have been conceived and crafted according to the language of implicit cultural code rather than explicit thematic cohesion. On the surface, their messages appear scattershot, misaligned, contradictory and confusing; but that's because these messages are designed to appeal not to crisp logical consistency, but rather to murky socio-cultural undercurrents and subterranean sentiments which have fueled, informed, and warped white identity politics since the birth of this nation.

What's extraordinary is that this time around — at this particular crossroads, against this particular candidate — it's not working...

I think it's safe to say that two generations of steady anti-racist work in the wake of the Civil Rights movement have had a profound effect on mainstream attitudes. The stigmatization of racism, so often decried as mere "political correctness", has in some ways succeeded in driving the most toxic forms of racist hatred underground, resulting in a popular culture which at least tolerates a superficial modicum of racial diversity.


Tim Wise weighs in at Racialicious with an essay titled Good, and Now Back to Work: Avoiding Both Cynicism and Overconfidence in the Age of Obama.

Those who say it doesn’t matter weren’t with me on the south side of Chicago this past week, surrounded by a collection of amazing community organizers who go out and do the hard work every day of trying to help create a way out of no way for the marginalized. All of them know that an election is but a part of the solution, a tactic really, in a larger struggle of which they are a daily part; and none of them are so naive as to think that their jobs are now to become a cakewalk because of the election of Barack Obama. But all of them were looking forward to this moment...

It’s like this y’all: Jesse Jackson was weeping openly on national television. This is a man who was with Dr. King when he was murdered and he was bawling like a baby. So don’t tell me this doesn’t matter...

It was a victory for youth, and their social and political sensibilities. It was the young, casting away the politics of their parents and even grandparents, and turning the corner to a new day, perhaps naively, and too optimistic about the road from here, but nonetheless in a way that has historically almost always been good for the country. Much as youth were inspired by a relatively moderate John F. Kennedy (who was, on balance, far less progressive than Obama in many ways), and much as they then formed the frontline troops for so much of the social justice activism of the following fifteen years, so too can such a thing be forseen now. That Kennedy may have been quite restrained in his social justice sensibilities did not matter: the young people whose energy he helped unleash took things in their own direction and outgrew him rather quickly in their progression to the left.


There was a theme I saw in a couple of places. First of all, from Carmen D at All About Race.

It feels good to be in love with my country right now. Oh, I always love her. But sometimes we fight and we don’t get along as well as I’d like. Even though divorce is never an option for us, right now we’re like newlyweds.


And then from rikyrah at Jack and Jill Politics.

Our resident Chicken Little-NMP- said something during the primary season that I never forgot: she said watching Obama win like this made her feel like an American. Not a Black-American or an African-American, but an American. And, I knew what she meant, because it’s how I’ve felt too. I would watch Obama rallies and SEE the America that I wanted to live in, and I was willing to work for that.


The Field Negro shares a comment by one of his readers. I'll put the "spoiler" here, but go read the whole thing.

I wanted to vote for these people, who did not live to see a day where a Black man would appear on their ballots on a crisp November morning. In the end, though, I realized that I could not vote for them any more than I could vote for Obama himself. So who did I vote for? No one.I didn't vote...I stood there, and I thought about all of these people, who influenced my life so greatly. But I didn't vote for who would be the 44th President of the United States. When my ballot was complete, except for the top line, I finally decided who I was going to vote for - and then decided to let him vote for me. I reached down, picked him up, and told him to find Obama's name on the screen and touch it. And so it came to pass that Alexander Reed, age 5, read the voting screen, found the right candidate, touched his name, and actually cast a vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Oh, the vote will be recorded as mine. But I didn't cast it.

Then again, the person who actually pressed the Obama box and the red "vote" button was the person I was really voting for all along...So, no, I didn't vote for Barack Obama. I voted for a boy who now has every reason to believe he, too, can grow up to be anything he wants...even President.


Of course anyone who's ever read Blog Voices before will know that I can't complete a trip like this without a visit to Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican.

I WEPT. And today, I am weeping. On and off. The smallest thought or image suddenly touches me again and I crack open with relief, hope, or gratitude. Excitement. Calm.

Nobody knows for certain what lies ahead. But I think we all can agree, nothing will be the same as it was. And not in a dour, scared, “9/11 changed everything” sort of way. For once.

Something has been righted. I don’t need now to wrestle over how large or exactly what “it” is...

I cannot hang this morning with people jumping immediately into negativity. Can’t do it quite yet. I understand the process and the points, but I can’t go there quite yet...You can choose a negative moment anytime. Go ahead. Right now, you can. Think any thought you want about me, him, yourself, the street, the sky, the body, the next moment. Paint it dim. Or don’t! Or think positive. And use that positive energy to get to the place the complaint pretends to desire...

I do think we have been traumatized in a collective sense. I do think we are afraid to hope, afraid we are being spied on, that martial rule is about to descend, that nothing good can happen here; afraid dark massive shapes are hulking under any patina of benevolence…I understand trauma. And societies can have it, too...

We have amazing stores of power in us, of energy, of psychic, spiritual, mental energy. That’s why we can heal ourselves and sicken ourselves and others around us. Obama is not perfect, but from what I see, he believes in orienting upon the restorative, constructive, and healing properties of that energy. And any people who do that in a day or a place have my attention.

Today, I am amazed. Today, I feel anything can happen. Today, I am alive with dreams.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Walls

In Baghdad



In Palestine



On the US/Mexico Border



Around Gated Communities



More and more walls...what are they for?

I got a bit of a jolt about this as I listened to the cd of Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine on a recent road trip. At the end of the book she discusses the Israeli economy and the walling off of Palestinians in the occupied territories. She says,

What Israel has constructed is...a network of open holding pens for millions of people who have been categorized as surplus humanity.
.

I immediately thought of a speech given by David Simon (creator of the HBO show "The Wire") where he talked about the fact that, in our post-industrial economy, every day that goes by, humans are worth less. In other words, our current system as it now operates, needs less of us to make a profit and is content to categorize millions of people as "surplus humanity" and then wall them off to protect us from their anger and rebellion.

And in cases where we don't have permanent walls, we have this kind.



Or this...



It is therefore no surprise that one of the largest growth industries in the United States is our prison system and that we are now the world's leader in incarceration with over 2 million people in prison - a 500% increase in the last 30 years. Most states are going bankrupt building these kinds of walls that house one in three black men. And our federal government is spending millions to incarcerate an ever increasing number of migrants. Just another reflection of the growth of "surplus humanity" and an excuse for more walls.



This last week, Buhdy has been asking us to think about our vision for the future. This is one of the fundamental things I think we need to figure out how to change. Here's a little bit from the speech by David Simon that I referenced above.

I didn't start out as a cynic, but at every given moment where this country has had a choice - its governments, institutions, corporations, its social framework - to exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god. You are not looking at a marxist up here, but you are looking at somebody who doesn't believe that capitalism can work absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy. Capitalism has to be attended to. And that has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed... At some point, either more of us are going to find our conscience or we're not.


I am not one that thinks an economic model can solve this, though a better one could certainly improve things. The capacity for disrespect of individual humanity has been equally demonstrated by both communism and capitalism.

As Simon says, its in our conscience where the change starts. We have to really believe that our fate is tied up with the fate of the millions of "others" who are being so casually discarded every day and find a way to include them in where we want to go.

That will take some evolving. It means that we will have to rid ourselves of our sense of US exceptionlism and white privilege. It means a lot of listening to the points of view of the people behind those walls that we create...not being afraid of hearing and feeling their anger for what we've done...and then working with them to find some common ground.

That's my vision...no more walls.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On finding "home"

I remember in the midst of the 2004 Democratic Convention, hearing Barack Obama speak for the first time. And like most of America, I was intrigued...who IS this guy? So a few months later when I saw his book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, I decided to read it.



In it, I found the journey of a young man with a Black African father and White American mother trying to find out where he belonged in the world. It was pretty hard-hitting and gut-wrenching at times. Here's a short passage from when Barack was in high school as an illustration.

Following this logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. N#####r.


The exploration of his identity continued from there and eventually through his journey to Africa to learn what he could about his father and his Kenyan family.

Shortly after this book was published, Obama's mother died. It was re-printed in 2004 when interest in him soared after his speech at the DNC. In the preface to the new edition, Obama laments that most of the book centered on his search to find himself by learning about his absent father. And he says this.

I think sometimes that had I known she (his mother) would not survive her illness, I might have written a different book - less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life...I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and that what is best in me I owe to her.


I just recently found an audio interview (pdf transcript) Obama did back in August 1995 not too long after the book was published. Its about 13 minutes long and you can listen to it here.



When talking about why he wrote the book, here's one of the things he said.

I talk a lot in the book about my attempts to renew the dream that both of my parents had. I worked as a Community Organizer in Chicago, (and) was very active in low income neighborhoods on issues like crime and education and employment, and seeing that in some ways certain portions of the African American community are doing as bad (as thirty years ago), if not worse, and recognizing that my fate remained tied up in their fates. That my individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country.


When asked whether he has ever been tempted to avoid the difficulty of these kinds of conversations about race, here's what he says.

I think there's an impulse among all of us to shy away from these issues. There's a certain race-weariness that confronts the country, precisely because the questions are so deeply embedded and the solutions are going to require so much investment of time, energy and money...

I think what kept me going is the recognition that we can't solve these problems by ignoring them or pretending they don't exist. One of the things that strikes me, and the country right now, is our tendency to either pretend that racial conflict does not exist, and to pretend that we live in a color-blind society...or to say that race is everything, that there is no possibility of common ground between black and white.

I think the truth of the matter is...some sense that although the lives of blacks and whites in this country are different, although our historical experiences are different, my family is an example - and hopefully I am an example - of the possibility of arriving at some common ground.


I have seen people who have been marginalized by this culture - be it because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. - have to go through similar struggles to find an identity they can call "home." Some never take the risk and pretend the marginalization doesn't exist. And I've seen the storehouse of rage that builds to explosive levels as a result. I've also seen those who stay in the place of that quote from Obama during his high school years. They are usually the ones who, as Obama said, see race (or other isms) in everything and remain trapped in their feelings of victim-hood.

But the ones like Obama, who have faced the ugly truth and grappled with the rage to come out on the other side, have a strength of self that can buffet just about any storm.

As I've watched the Obama campaign over these many months, I keep going back to the man I was introduced to four years ago as I read this book. My hope is that this is the man that shows up after winning the election to be sworn in as our next President.

How to combine

In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.

–Alexis de Tocqueville


Over the last few weeks I have grown increasingly interested in the community organizing aspects of the Obama campaign's ground game. I have no idea how history will record what has happened in communities all over this country over the last couple of years, but it seems to me that it is as responsible as anything else for the success of the campaign. But like most things that are new and don't involve the rich and powerful, it's happening under the radar of the MSM and pundit class.

Of course, alot of this comes from Obama's history as a community organizer. But relatively speaking, that was only for a short period of his life. The person who has brought the skill and experience to this aspect of the campaign more than anyone else is a man by the name of Marshall Ganz.

Lecturer in Public Policy, entered Harvard College in the fall of 1960. In 1964, a year before graduating, he left to volunteer as a civil rights organizer in Mississippi. In 1965, he joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; over the next 16 years he gained experience in union, community, issue, and political organizing and became Director of Organizing. During the 1980s, he worked with grassroots groups to develop effective organizing programs, designing innovative voter mobilization strategies for local, state, and national electoral campaigns... He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, organization, and strategy in social movements, civic associations, and politics.


Here's a short video where Ganz ties his previous work to that of the Obama campaign.



When you look at the work of Ganz, you can see it as the backbone that is being played out in the Obama campaign all across the country. In order to understand what a radical shift this is from how campaigns have been organized in the recent past, here's a summary from Andrew Golis.

Field organizing in the Democratic Party for the last 20 years has been built around a marketing model in which the candidate is a product to be sold. First you collect information on a voter by finding out what magazines they subscribe to, what organizations they are a part of, who they've voted for in the past. Then you solicit them for their support with a piece of mail, a knock on the door or a phone call in which your candidate just happens to care most about whatever random issue that person is most likely to care about. If the consumer sounds like they want to buy, they go in the database. Approaching election day, you call (and now email) them to remind them to vote, offer a ride to the polls, and emphasize that your candidate cares about what you believe they care about based on the data you've collected.

It's a charming process that has the three-part effect of losing elections, deadening our civic culture and forcing the progressive movement to rebuild itself from a list of names and preferences every two or four years. And it's got to end.

Luckily, there's a contingent of Democratic operatives and activists (of which I consider myself a semi-absent member) at war with the traditional model. Instead of treating voters like consumers, we believe they should be treated like citizens. It's a radical idea, but it just might work.

The new approach, based on old American traditions of political organizing, emphasizes the importance of engaging voters and bringing them into the campaign. You recruit activists to join your work not based on some narrow unpersonalized targeting but face-to-face meetings that bring a sense of common purpose. When they join your work you ask them to organize their own communities by finding common purpose with others. You help them to build neighborhood committees, host house meetings to recruit new activists, plan outreach that makes sense within their neighborhoods. You give up some control of the message and allow people to speak from the heart instead of from the handed-down Message of the Day.


Yeah, sounds alot like democracy, doesn't it? But is it a pipedream? If the reporting of Zack Exley, Sean Quinn, and Al Giordano is to be believed, it is not only possible, but just might be a major factor in why Obama is likely to win this election.

As I have mentioned in a couple of comments recently, this week I went to Madison, WI to hear Al Giordano talk about how this model might be used to continue to organize people AFTER the election. It was great to have the opportunity to meet Giordano and hear what he has to say. But it was only afterwards that I realized that my big question is really all about how this model might be put to use online in places like the blogs. That hasn't been the focus of much work yet, except that Giordano has incorporated social networking on his blog with the development of what he calls Fieldhands. Its a start.

I personally want to explore the possibilities of community organizing on the blogs rather than just at the local level. As a place to start, I'd offer some of Ganz's work on the importance of leadership and what it means to successful organizing. To understand what he means by leadership, Ganz has this to say,

Developing a leadership rich organization not only requires learning to delegate. It requires a conscious strategy for identifying leader­s (opportunities for leaders to emerge), recruiting leaders (opportunities for lead­ership to be earned), and developing leaders (opportunities for leaders to grow).

Identifying leaders requires looking for them. Who are people with followers? Who brings others to the meetings? Who encourages others to participate? Who attracts others to working with them? Whom do other people tell you to "look for?" [Saul] Alinsky writes about community networks knit together by "native" leaders - people who take the responsibility for helping a com­munity do its work out of their homes, small businesses, neighborhood hangouts, etc...Where would you look for these kinds of leaders around here?


And what is the role of effective leaders in organizing?

So what makes the difference? Why are some groups disorganizations and other groups organizations? It is the quality of the work leaders do within them that makes groups work.

• Leaders turn division into solidarity by building, maintaining, and developing rela­tionships among those who form the organization.

• Leaders turn confusion into understanding by facilitating interpretation of what is going on with the work of the organization.

• Leaders turn passivity into participation by motivation - inspiring people to commit to the action required if the group's goals are to be accomplished.

• Leaders turn reaction into initiative by strategizing - thinking through how the organization can use its resources to achieve its goals.

• Leaders turns inaction into action by mobilizing people to turn their resources into specific actions by means which they can achieve their goals.

• Leaders transforms drift into purpose by accepting responsi­bility for doing the leadership work which must be done if the group is to succeed and challenging others to accept their responsibility as well.


If you'd like to learn more about the teachings of Marshall Ganz on effective community organizing, he has a whole online course featuring both written materials and videos.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Imagination

In my dream, the angel shrugged & said, If we fail this time, it will be a failure of imagination & then she placed the world gently in the palm of my hand.

- Brian Andreas



Imagine My Surprise

Imagine my surprise,
sitting a full hour
in silent and irremediable
fear of the world,

to find the body
forgetting
its own fear the instant
it opened and placed
those unassuming hands
on life's enduring pain,

and the world for one
moment
closed its terrifying eyes
in gratitude.

Saying,
"This is my body, I am found."

- David Whyte




Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

- Albert Einstein

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I cried my last tears yesterday

I must admit that this has been a hard week for me. As if the collapse of the global economy weren't enough, we've witnessed a presidential campaign successfully stir up the hatefulness that lies underneath the veneer of our so-called "color-blind" society.

I decided that it was time to take a tour of the diversosphere to see what they were saying about all of this. The condemnation of the McCain/Palin strategy was not that different from what I read in the rest of the progressive blogoshere. But I did find something that was amazing and just what I needed...a reservoir of strength and determination.

For most people of color, this election is about a struggle they've been fighting for generations. The fact that it engenders hatefulness is nothing new to them. They've been dealing with it their whole lives. And now, just when we are about to cross one of the most significant milestones in our nation's history, they are not about to be intimidated. To get an idea of what's at stake, just look at the picture that is at the top of the page on Jack and Jill Politics.



So I'd like to share a little of what I found with you. First of all, at RaceWire, there is a video of Donna Brazille during a panel discussion at the New Yorker Festival.



I’m gonna say it and get it off my chest, because for the next thirty days, I’m gonna be the best Catholic woman ever….As a child who grew up in the segregated Deep South, we’ve come so far in this country….But I remember when I used to get on the bus: my mother would tell me, “Donna, when you get on the bus, you and your brothers go all the way to the back, and don’t look at anybody.” We have changed. This is a more tolerant, open, progressive society. And yet, we’re having this conversation because [Obama] is biracial. He spent nine months in the womb of a white woman. He was raised…by his white grandparents…He got out of school and went to Harvard, and all of a sudden he’s “uppity” and there’s something wrong with him? What is wrong with us?…You can vote against him, but don’t ever put me in the back of the bus. I’m not going to the back of the bus! I’m not going to be afraid! My black skin does not make me inferior! And may I add: being a female does not make me dumb!


Carmen D. over at All About Race gives a shout-out to Richard Trumka, the Secretary Treasurer of AFL-CIO, and his courage to take a stand.

I say to all of my friends, of all skin colors, you must not tolerate racism in your space. If you want things to change, you must change. You must dig deep for the courage to say how you feel...Why should a racist comment be given more room to breathe and to grow than one that confronts it down? I know it can be scary, but there are others like you, like us, on the front lines here.

And your voice is needed.

Listen to Richard Trumka and know that you are not alone in the journey to creating a better America.



But I've saved the best for last. Al Giordano at The Field posted an email he received from a reader with the subject line: "I Cried My Last Tears Yesterday."

Dear Al,

The words in the subject line are from a gospel song by Mary Mary:



I feel that way. I write to you because I think you know how I feel, where I am coming from, and the struggle that we have all been on for so long.

If it matters, I am an African American single mother-This election means more to me than I can find the words to describe. I love this country despite all of our history.

And yesterday, I cried my last tears, after I watched the venomous, vile, and vitriolic display at the McCain-Palin rally unfold over the last few days. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, and I was taught as a young child when things look bleak and you are backed up against a wall you just let go and let God. We as AAs have been subjected to the system and have the philosophy ingrained that we have to accept the things that we can not change.

Well here and now damn it--I have cried my last tears yesterday. I am going to fight!


These folks are standing up to say that they are not going to the back of the bus, they are not going to stay silent, and they are going to fight. I am humbled by their strength and motivated by their perseverance. So I'll join the fight...if not for ourselves, then at least for the children.



In this country, justice can be won against the greatest of odds; hope can find its way back to the darkest of corners; and when we are told that we cannot bring about the change that we seek, we answer with one voice - yes, we can.

- Barack Obama, Raleigh, North Carolina, May 6, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fearless Thought

Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth -- more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages ... But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back -- fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.

-Bertrand Russell




Perhaps our current day exploration of this can best be found in the comedy of Stephen Colbert, especially in his performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner where he satirized the Presidents reliance on "gut instincts" and included the memorable line: "reality has a well-know liberal bias."

I'd like to think that liberals are much more comfortable with the fearlessness of thought, and for the most part, I think we live up to that. We have had to fight through the lies and media spin for years now to actually think about things like what it means to invade another country pre-emptively rather than loose ourselves in the need for revenge. We've had to think about what the constitution means when it provides for things like privacy and habeas corpus rather than give in to the feelings of fear and insecurity from "terrorists." We've had to think about what the words "separation of church and state" mean in a pluralistic society rather than worry that "our way of life" is somehow being threatened by those who hold different beliefs. At times we've even had the courage to think about our own privilege...as US citizens, or as white people, or as men, or as heterosexuals, or as able-bodied, or as members of the middle class...rather than give in to the fear of "the other."

I'd say that we have become very adept at thinking fearlessly about what comes at us from conservatives and the right. But I wonder how fearless we have been when it comes to thinking about our own delusions? Are we capable of self-examination or are we too, as humans, subject to falling into patterns of reaction rather than thoughtful response?

Nezua, at the Unapologetic Mexican, wrote beautifully about this a while ago in a post titled We Stand in No (Every) Place.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view...

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


I think what Russell wrote about how we get trapped into surety is very profound, especially that last line about being proven less worthy of respect than we have supposed ourselves to be. Buhdy addressed this a few months ago in one of my favorite essays he's ever written at Docudharma, Eating the Bitter.

We work hard and struggle to build a Progressive Utopia...until it gets too hard or someone says something we don't like. We are full of high ideals and noble goals. Until the shit hits the fan.

Then we are just humans again, having to face our own pain, instead of the pain of others. Having to face our own limitations, instead of bemoaning the limitations of the wingnuts or Bush or the enemy du jour.

Working for high ideals and noble causes and making a difference (and believe me, we do) is sweet. Having to face our own limitations, our own pain, our own humanity and all its failings in the course of that...is bitter.


It is indeed bitter. I'm trying to eat a little of that bitterness myself right now as I examine the fortress of cynicism that has been built up around me over these last 8 years. My knee-jerk reaction is to disbelieve and fight every word I hear because the lies and deceptions have been so enormous. I don't want to be the fool, but I'm trying to learn how to stop myself from being so sure...to take the risk to really think about what I'm hearing and seeing. I don't want to miss that "newness of becoming" that Nezua was talking about simply because I'm too angry and jaded to notice the possibilities when they arise.

For me, the emotional constructs of cynicism from years of living in rage are very real and must be given their due attention. But I want to also think about where I am right now...fearlessly.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The line dividing good and evil

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn


My first job out of college over 30 years ago was as a counselor in a residential program for chemically addicted teenagers. I had lived an extremely sheltered life as a "good girl" and trained to be a teacher. When I graduated, there were no teaching jobs available. This one came along, so I took it. I didn't have to wait very long to learn I was in way over my head.

The kids in the program lived there for 6 months. During the first few weeks, we didn't see their families at all. After that, they joined us once a week for family therapy groups. I still remember one young man in the program who told me his story during those first few weeks. The abuse he had suffered at the hands of his mother was horrific. In some ways I dreaded meeting her. In other ways, I was anxious to do so and give her a piece of my mind.

I'll never forget what happened when I finally got that opportunity. I interviewed her privately before the group session and heard her story. The terrible things she had done to her son paled in comparison to what had been done to her as a child. My heart broke as she cried with me and I realized that she had actually come a long way in her life and was trying to do her best as a mother.

That experience early on in my career laid the groundwork for me in many ways both professionally and personally. I guess the old adage about never judging someone until you've had a chance to walk in their shoes sort of sums it up. I've found that no matter how evil someone has been in this life, if they're willing to honestly tell you their story...it all begins to make sense.

That doesn't mean I think we should excuse people for their behavior. When dealing with the mother I referred to above, we were all very clear with her that she was to NEVER hurt a child in any way ever again. And she was in the midst of paying the consequences for her actions. But when I heard her story - I felt a human connection with her and the compassion that comes from knowing that in her place, I might very well have behaved the same way.

I have recently been having similar questions since the Republican Convention was here in my town and I saw the way security was handled. The problem for me was that many of the people involved in all of that...the Mayor, the Police Chief, the Sheriff, the City Attorney, and the President of the City Council...are all people I have known for over 20 years. I consider most of them my friends. Beyond that, I know them well enough to know they are good people. But they were all involved in doing something that was horrific to me.

So I end up asking myself alot of questions about human beings and human nature...our capacity for good and evil. And I wonder about my own capacity for the later in all its many and varied forms. We are always much more adept at seeing it in others than we are at seeing it in ourselves.

As Solzhenitsyn says, there is no such thing as an evil "them" to be banished from our midst. If we're going to get rid of or reduce evil in the world, we're going to have to find a way to sort it out in our own hearts.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Writing while black


From The Field Negro this week, we learn the story of Fatimah Ali, a writer with the Philadelphia Daily News.

On September 2nd, Ms. Ali wrote a column titled We need Obama, not 4 more years of George Bush. In it she laid out the case that McCain and the Republicans will continue to deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots in this country.

AMERICA is on the brink of a long, harsh and bitterly cold winter, with a looming recession that the GOP won't even admit to.

The policies of the current White House have brutalized our economy, yet the wealthiest think that everything is fine.

Rich Republicans just don't understand that millions are suffering. But many of their working class do, and they're beginning to abandon their own party.


After laying out the different economic focus of each candidate running for President, she says this.

If McCain wins, look for a full-fledged race and class war, fueled by a deflated and depressed country, soaring crime, homelessness - and hopelessness!

Plenty of Americans would rather stay in their dream state than to recognize the poverty sweeping across the country, right here, right now.


Matt Drudge picked up on the column and headlined his link "Philadelphia columnist warns if McCain wins, look for a full-fledged race war."

Of course he missed the whole point of her article and its focus on class instead of race. But his business is to inflame, not inform. And inflame he did. As a result of his headline, Ms. Ali was the recipient of all the hate Drudge knew he would stir up. She gives us a few of the more mild examples from the over 2000 she received in a follow-up column titled 'Race War' in America.

Pleeeeease bring it, we'll extinguish you.

I'd rather have an all out war than have [Obama] for president.

There will be race wars either way. Why? Because he's black.

I just realized after I saw your last name you're a damn rag head. You stupid S.O.B.'s want to take us back to the seventh century.

Syndicated talker Jim Quinn wondered if I'm some "liberal black Muslim" and (according to MediaWatch.org) fumed, "Get an American name if you want to be an American."


What struck me about all this is not the awareness that outright bigotry is alive and well in this country. If we don't know that, we're living with our heads in the sand. And Matt Drudge is a magnet for folks like that.

I think about what it means to be a person of color - especially one with a non-western name - in this country, and the reality that at any moment, words that would be dismissed as harmless if spoken by a white person become grounds for this kind of attack. Just as young black men need to be wary about "driving while black," columnists like Fatimah Ali need to be aware of what it means to be "writing while black." That is as much the legacy of racism as the words/actions of ignorant bigots.