Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is the Push-Back" Beginning?

All across the country, the crowds are gathering: in Times Square, at statehouses, in public plazas. The causes are multiple. My question is this: could they be the beginning of a grass-roots “push-back” that matures into a new civil rights movement? God knows, we need it.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, congregate to bear witness to the unequal treatment of blacks and whites in our courts, so sharply illustrated by the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer. The familiar dilemma of “driving while black” for African-American males now joins the even more unsafe adventure of “walking while black.” Of what comfort are those (so recently eroded) voting rights if you can’t even let your teenager go down to the convenience store for a snack in his own upscale neighborhood?

On successive“Moral Mondays,” crowds have stood outside the North Carolina statehouse protesting the draconian cuts to unemployment insurance and other right-wing moves. Hundreds have been arrested. We’ve seen similar statehouse rallies in Wisconsin and Texas as well over similar issues. 

A widespread vulnerability

The working poor, more and more of the middle-class, women, blacks and latinos—we're all now directly in the cross-hairs of the not-unrelated forces of international big money and narrow-minded politics. We can feel it in the harsh bite of the right-wing desire to “starve the beast” that provides a social safety-net against vagaries of the Almighty Market. We experience it in the vicious edge of a deeply embedded racism that flares forth afresh on the internet, in political speech and action. We feel it the dawning fear that the new economic “normal” presages an expanding, inter-racial underclass.

The protests are diverse: women’s rights, voting rights for people of color and college students, truly equal rights for blacks in the court system. What they all reflect, however, is that many of the major social reform achievements of 20th century progressivism are now threatened with roll-back.

Most Americans are actually unaware of the manifold ways these achievements have made middle class prosperity a reality, but they will, as funding continues to be cut and laws undone. Is it possible that these different streams of protest could coalesce into some sort of mass movement?

Relying on more than the courts

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine has suggested that the reason the gay rights movement has been successful is that it was, in fact, a mass movement. Not so much via large rallies (outside of Gay Pride parades), but by millions of people “coming out.” It succeeded through the influence of this mass action as well as the court system, and the two are as inseparable as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By contrast, he says, the civil rights movement of the 60s shifted from the streets to the courts after the Jim Crow laws were abolished. The time has come for renewed mass action.

This time we really are all in this together. The desire to limit access to voting hits many groups; the movements to limit women’s health choices is color-blind; the passion of conservatives to undermine the social safety net is no respecter of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Is a renewed, interracial civil rights/economic opportunities movement in the making? If so, what are the next steps?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

They Really DO Want to Block Almost Everything

Are you a liberal still scratching your head in bafflement and disbelief about the latest round of GOP obstructionism in the House of Representatives, or in state legislatures?
Still wondering why they don’t “want the government to work”? 

Time to wake up to the sober realization that a great many GOP politicians, especially neo-con and Tea Party folks, really don’t want the government to work, at least not in any of the ways we got used to in the 20th century.  Furthermore, they really don’t care who gets hurt, because they are hell-bent-for-leather to “make things right again.” Having ground Congress to a halt, they're now aiming to enact their agenda in states all over the country.

Back to 1890—or is it 1800?

So, what’s “right”? Consider the conversation I had a couple of years back with a colleague, an intelligent, very wealthy uber-conservative Republican. The proper role of the federal government, he insisted, was 1) national defense, 2) maintaining civil order when a state might not be able to do so.  Anything more, including Federal investment in infrastructure, was “financially unsustainable” and would eventually “ruin the country.”  No social services of any kind, no way, no how. That’s up to families. Or, if necessary, private charity. Period.

In other words, the U.S. has gone astray ever since the days when Andrew Jackson railroaded through a Federally-funded and organized effort to build a highway to the “Northwest” (aka Ohio, Indiana and Illinois) for the settlers to move into new territory. Much of the going-astray due to allowing non-property owners to vote, making the government prey the passions of those who don't have a "real stake" in the society.

I’m not suggesting that all Republicans are this draconian; I’ve got other Republican friends who lament that “the party has deserted me.” But similar visions drive the libertarian, Tea Party, and neo-con Republican ideologies, with various additions such as maintaining conservative Christian morality. The conservative wing of the GOP has been out to “starve the beast” of government since the beginning of the Reagan era—and they are actually making good progress.

Hearts in a cage of gold

Don’t be baffled by what seems hard-heartedness about the deprivation caused by things like the “sequestration.”  It’s brought to you by the same folks who feel that the ups and downs of an unregulated marketplace are “necessary to cleanse the system.”  “You have to break eggs to make an omelette.”  Sink or swim. I did it, so anybody can.

You don’t have to make this stuff up. This is their rhetoric, as in Romney’s infamously leaked comment about half of the American public—blacks, whites, latinos, the poor and the middle class— being moochers. It’s their talk and their increasingly successful walk.
When will push-back come? 

Push back must come from those whose future is being undermined, and needs to be multi-racial and multi-class. It will involve people in the streets and the statehouses, like the thousands in front of the North Carolina legislature on “justice Mondays,” and the 700 who have been arrested so far. All us “moochers,” who actually think Social Security, Medicare,  Head Start, affordable housing and so on are good ideas are faced with determined people dedicated to a re-creating a "sink or swim" world: every man, woman and child for himself.

To modify a famous saying of Ben Franklin: “We’re in this together; we either hang together, or they’ll hang us out to dry separately.”

Monday, July 1, 2013

Civil Rights and Regressions

A week has just passed which was both jubilant and sad for civil rights in America.

I am happy about federal marriage rights for gays and lesbians; sad about undermining voting rights for minorities —and very aware of how much work there is ahead on both issues.  I fear there is a deep and troubling connection between these two contradictory Court decisions, and it has more to do with economics and the Establishment than it has much to do with sexual orientation.

A Victory for the System?

It takes nothing away from the stunning victory for marriage equality to note, as Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine does, that “though the marriage equality movement challenges traditional social norms in U.S. society, the movement is at root a bid for inclusion in the current system rather than an attempt to shake up the system itself.”  Rights for LGBT people have been driven, predominantly, by people with connections within the system—and actually serves to enhance the system. Marriage Equality involves significant—and deserved—financial justice as well as promising greater social inclusion.

While it affects people of all colors and classes, the cultural shift that leads to the Court’s decision was created by millions of people “coming out” at levels of society not so far removed from the corridors of power: stockbrokers, teachers, clergy, media personalities, schoolteachers, executives, board members, to say nothing of your uncle Sid or cousin Sally. Inclusivity is good business in the international marketplace, and the LGBT population includes a large pool of skilled people and an important voting bloc.

But what about those about to be frustrated at the polls—especially poor people of color who are increasingly part of this (partially) prosperous nation’s economic underbelly?  Lerner goes on: “Any attempt to fight for substantive racial equity in our society, on the other hand, would necessarily involve a deeply threatening overhaul of our current economic system.”*

States Rights All Over Again

Furthermore, both decisions lay heavy emphasis on States Rights, the darling of the conservative wing of Court. In stark contrast to the mid-20th century battle to secure human rights on a national leve, the struggle for further marriage equality will be fought state by state, probably for a generation to come. The battle for voting rights, as well, the Court has decreed, will be a state-by-state battle, against even greater odds, while the GOP holds so many state legislatures securely, and has freely acknowledged that higher minority turnout hurts their chances of winning.

The preacher at last Sunday's Pride Evensong in New York City noted this glaring contrast, and called on the congregation to dig in for the long haul for the rights of all Americans. It’s time for progressives to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn—and ponder what actions will be needed to provide the same kind of momentum for Black and Latino voting rights as was created for Marriage Equality.

In the state-by-state slug-fest before us, will the cause of Blacks and Latinos be as successful as Marriage Equality promises, eventually, to be? And what will it take to make it so?

* You can see Rabbi Lerner’s full post at