Legacy

I wonder why I’ve never been assigned to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and speeches and letters.

I’ve spent some time today reading a few of them, and I’m embarrassed at never having done so before.

I was reading King’s now-historically titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because I went looking for some quotes from Dr. King that are lesser-known to the masses. (I do this every year because I shamefully do little else in recognition of his influence and the sacrifice of his life, and I feel like I can at least take some time to reflect, since that’s much of what he was asking us to do all those years ago.) I had found one such quote, and sought its source for context. In part, the reason I went looking for the source was because the quote, in juxtaposition with present-day electoral politics, seemed to have gained new life.

This is where I stop to think of whether it is fair to apply more universally a sentiment about the struggle to end the oppression of black people. In doing so, do I diminish the call that is unique to that people? Do I, essentially, usurp “black lives matter” in favor of “all lives matter”? Do I, as one does when espousing all lives, blunt the power of the voices raised for the 400th year against oppression of one people that still has not seen justice fully realized? Do I imply that the injustices their people have suffered are equal to injustices done to me?

I’m going to risk it with the clear implication that it is not my intention to detract, but to recognize that Dr. King, I think, would have raised his voice a lot in the last year or two to support others who are struggling for freedom and understanding.

“…The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
~Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

One of the greatest things about this country is that we’re free to say whatever we want about its government and its people, but there is now an abuse of that freedom that makes some of us think it’s right to stand in our insistence and shout that dissenters are more than wrong, that they’re idiots, devils, communists, socialists, lunatics and trolls. This nation’s freedoms of speech and expression have been twisted into a compulsion to berate without conscience, and to spread it in unprecedentedly broad swaths with a keystroke. We’ve been fostered in our misguided belief that freedom of speech equates with encouragement to spout opinion at every opportunity. In the old rally cry that warns, “Don’t tread on me,” we have become the snake that eats itself.

There are no saints in a culture that champions schadenfreude.

Nowhere has this seemed more obvious than in the presidential race we are currently enduring. I am struck by how tired the spectators have been made by the marathon. We have a field of Republican candidates so pushed to extremes by its perception of a shifting base that those who were dismissed from some circles years ago for their own extremism now seem perfectly reasonable and measured. We have a field of Democratic candidates who bore us in debate because there is a less belabored circus, even while no opportunity is missed to fling bile on absent dissenters.

It is tempting, and has always been, to hate politicians for the way they spar, for the way they turn what we profess to love as a governing system into an intractable mess of complexly woven and codependent governance by spite. It is, at worst, a spiral into hell that destroys democracies. At best, it is a horror show. It’s a show of extremism and rancor directed at all who are “other.”

But what has dawned on me more and more as we watch it all unfold is that the actors take the stage for us. We have settled into the certainty that we deserve to stand firm in our thoughts with ears closed to disagreement rather than open to understanding, and hands clenched into fists rather than clasped in handshakes. We have acquired some misguided sense of having been persecuted for our perspectives, when we have suffered no indignity approaching what we inflict on others in our intransigence.

This is where I believe Dr. King’s voice would have been raised. Whether it’s those who disagree with sentiment or those who seek asylum on our shores, those who haven’t followed whatever path we presume to prescribe or those who don’t fit a 200-year-old perception of the Judeo-Christian mold, those who are criminalized for believing in a different creed or those who are hated in general for the most tangential association with the evil deeds of a most specific group, we have once again proven ourselves a nation consumed by refusal to hear and understand, so that we may preserve a status quo because to do otherwise would force us to question our self-assurance.

Politicians, after all, seek the votes of those who agree.

This election is not about politicians or politics. It is about Americans. It is about for what this nation truly stands.

And isn’t that the most terrifying thing of all?

 

 

 

american flag

A Note Before You Vote

You didn’t think you were going to get to Tuesday without another political post from me, did you?

Just a few things to think about before you head to the polls… provided you didn’t vote early.

Who Do You Really Dislike?
Not as in hate. As in, if you have a problem in the political sense, with whom does that problem truly sit? Here’s why I ask: we do a great job making a big deal out of the presidential election. And we should. It’s hugely important. But it’s not the only important thing. There’s also Congress.

Food for thought: Since January 2009 when President Obama was inaugurated, his lowest approval rating was 41% (March 2012). His highest was 57% (May 2011 – right after Osama bin Laden was killed).

Since January 2009, Congress’s lowest approval rating was 10% (August 2012). Its highest was 39% (March 2009).

That means that President Obama’s very lowest approval rating was better than Congress’s very highest. And when the nation was least happy with him, he had still satisfied four times as many people as Congress had.

My point is, a shocking number of people don’t know who represents them in Congress. Given that, they can’t possibly know what that person stands for, how they vote, what positions they take in politically touchy situations, from whom they take money, to whom they’re beholden. So why are we all so angry when they don’t do what we think they should?

The country’s problems are not all about its presidents, and we should pay much more attention to our representatives and senators. If you want to see who your congressperson is, go to www.house.gov/representatives/find/  and you can plug in your zip code to find out. If you want to know how they’ve voted on issues and bills, go to www.opencongress.org. Do it before Tuesday, because they’re all up for re-election. Congressional representatives are elected every two years. If you discover too late that you don’t like what you see, you have two years to keep track of them and get it right next time.

What’s Really A Distraction?
One of the most common refrains this campaign season has been that insert Issue That’s Hurting Party A — here — is a “distraction” put up by Party B. But not everyone finds the same things distracting. In fact, some of us find some of those so-called “distractions” pretty important. There is more than one issue facing this country. It’s not just about the economy. It’s not just about jobs. It’s not just about regulation or deregulation. Or taxes. Or education. Or immigration. Or women’s health. Or abortion. Or federal funding for programs. It’s about all of those things, and to say otherwise is insulting. Don’t dismiss an issue out-of-hand simply because you didn’t feel like listening to the discussion. And don’t allow your leaders to do it, either.

And Speaking Of Self-Interest…
One of the things that disappoints me most about people in general and about American politics specifically is that everything happens because of money. I don’t just mean campaign fundraising or Congressional budgets. Money pushes policy we would otherwise think objectionable on more than one level. I think it’s compromising our (dare I say) moral standard as a union. This is particularly true of political decisions that hurt the communities they affect, rather than helping them. For example: the casino built on the west side of Columbus, Ohio. The west side is poor. The casino is there because the people were powerless to stop it, unlike residents in other parts of the city. And the area around it has only declined. Similar example: Atlantic City. Been there? It’s a hole. The flash of the lights keeps your attention away from the crumbling infrastructure and dilapidated homes. (No jokes about Sandy, please – I have a deep connection to the Jersey Shore, despite my opinion of AC.)

And more and more, we as individuals seem to think only of ourselves. It’s natural to vote one’s interests, but there seems to be a growing insistence that one’s own interests be the only interests one must consider. “Give me everything, or give me death.” Sometimes I find myself wondering whatever happened to the inspiration that came from President Kennedy’s simple call: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Let’s not forget that this is a nation forged in the interest of the greater good, and for everyone’s rights equally. Not just yours.

Yes, Your Vote Does Count
It’s easy to get discouraged when your political leanings are opposite those of your fellow state residents. It’s easy to feel like no one will miss your opinion at the polls. But in a population of 1,000, twenty such opinions can change a race entirely. Yep, just two percent. In 2004, President George W. Bush only got 3,000,176 more votes than John Kerry. Two percent.

But about 21,000,000 registered voters stayed home.

So this is it. I’ve smacked you around with political posts for more than 16 months. I’ve gotten myself worked up. I’ve chased my tail and shaken my head. I’ve done my best (through absolutely no mandate at all from any of you) to share what I hoped were informative and at least mildly entertaining breakdowns. And now we have arrived at the doorstep of yet another moment in American history.

Be part of it.

Vote.