America’s Fourth Revolution

As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.  The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me.  By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes.  In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study.  I’d like to share some of what I learned.

We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy.   Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before.  These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice.  But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there.  I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.

Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776.  As Robeson sings:

In seventy-six the sky was red

Thunder rumbling over head

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.

We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power.  We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law.  By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent.  The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.

There were limitations, though.  Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion.  The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others.  To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers..  These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority.  The Revolution was a monumental  l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.

1860 brought the second revolution.  At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves.  Robeson intones:

Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,

His heart was high and his faith was strong.

But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,

And he went down to his grave to free the slave.

Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have  been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since.  In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.

Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done.  The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow.  The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice.  The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place.  What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority.  Robber barons  like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.

The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal.  The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants.  If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people.  That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.

Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor.  In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson.  The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives.  For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.

Still, much needed and needs to be done.  There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.

What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy.  Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream.  Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people.  The US President-elect  insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government.  New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.

Let me be more direct:  The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build:  liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable.  It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.

We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals.  They may now be our Tories.  We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions.  We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country.  We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy.  We must fight the new property classes.  We must resist a Trump monarchy.  We must fight “bad King George” all over again.

I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed.  And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be.  But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big.  Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans.  The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going?  Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:

Our country’s strong, our country’s young,

And her greatest songs are still unsung.

From her plains and mountains we have sprung,

To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.

We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.

Our song of hope is here again. 

Strong as the people who made it.

For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,

And now you know who I am.

Who are you?

America! America!

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Let Us Ban Guns in the United States

The character-driven 2016 presidential campaign has given short shrift to vitally important issues, chief among them, climate change.  But threats to the peaceful transition of power has also pushed gun control toward the top of my list.  Civilians in the United States own more than 300 million guns—over 1,000,000 purchased since President Obama took office—and the most per capital in the world.  Under “normal” circumstances, 33,000 people kill others or themselves each year. With Trump and his Alt Right compatriots threatening to reject election results and, in some cases, to storm the barricades, the threat level may have risen exponentially.

In the short run, guns will remain on the street, in individual hands, and in the hands of self-appointed militias, who believe themselves to be fighting for their liberty in the tradition of Revolutionary War heroes.  Should a succession crisis arise, the United States government would have to deal with treasonous threats—and, of course, treasonous actions—by meeting power with far greater power.  In the long run, we need to deal with the economic and social discontent that fuels the threats.  In the intermediate run, we need to get the guns off the street and out of the mountains.

You would think that the case for gun control is both known and broadly shared..  Some is but some isn’t.  Advocates of gun control cite the violence in the streets, the danger of accidental shooting, and suicides in our homes.  They point out  that criminals and mentally ill people should not be allowed to own guns. Duh. They frequently make allowances for hunters.  And they accept what they have come to see as the Constitutional right to gun ownership guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

During the second debate, Hillary Clinton assured us that she believes in the Second Amendment and that she only seeks sensible safeguards to gun ownership.  This fearful, compromised bowing down to a false interpretation of the Amendment has become second nature for virtually all American politicians.  In spite of the fact that both Clinton and the majority of Americans want gun control, the prevailing belief among politicians is that you can’t propose banning buns or even severely limit their purchase.  It would be fatal to their careers.  In effect, they have acquiesced to a powerful political minority, led by the National Rifle Association’s Congressional lobbying and public intimidation campaign—allied to a general right wing agenda, and supported by millions inflamed, largely male voters who believed they are being sacrificed to the interests of corporations, minorities, and immigrants.

The gun lobby is hardly satisfied with the acquiescence in this line of thinking.  They maintain that Clinton and all those like her are pretenders.  Once in power, the Clintons of the world would seize the guns of patriotic Americans.  Two-faced politicians would deprive true Americans of their ability to protect their liberty.  This, the protection of individual liberty, has become the true north star of the Alt Right.  The gun lobby and its protectors bellow that regulation is simply the start of a slippery slope toward the banning of all guns.  Banning guns robs loyal citizens of their fundamental, Constitutionally sanctioned rights and leads ineluctably towards an oppressive federal government.  It’s a simple, cause and effect formula.

On this one point, I hope that the Alt Right is correct.  I hope that we can ban guns from civilian use, with the possible exception of hunting.  The case for banning guns doesn’t seem hard to make.  There isn’t enough time and space to document the argument in this essay, but I can summarize it.

To state the obvious,, guns enable violence.  Second, do not help us defend ourselves.  There is almost no evidence—amid much research—that guns deter violence.  .  Third, the apparent truism that the Second Amendment was written to protect the individual’s right to bear arms, is false, or at best a tenuous, modern reinterpretation of the Amendment.

Until the 1970’s, the NRA had been an association of hunters, dedicated mostly to gun safety.  As Jeffrey Toobin has written, during that decade,  “The NRA and conservative lawmakers engineered a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party…The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms…At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger,” a Republican, “who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as ‘a fraud.’”

That coup d’etat, with sturdy support from an obedient Congress, established the norms that persist today and overwhelm majority opposition.  The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Until the 1970s, the interpretive emphasis was on militias, not individuals.  The United States had been a loose confederation of states, each jealously guarding its own interests.  Having come together to fight the British monarchy, they were wary of federal power—the establishment of a new monarchy.  To guard against the powers of a central government, they argued for states’ rights.  And to protect the integrity of states, the Bill of Rights, written by the nation’s founders, empowered state militias.  Individuals could own guns in the service of these militias, which could be mobilized when states rights were encroached upon.  This is the key:  Individuals could own guns in the service of militias.  And, of course, to hunt.  This was the 18th century, after all, and people hunted for their food.

We are now a nation — no longer a loose confederation of states.  There would be no contest between the federal armed forces and local militias, no matter how many assault rifles they could mobilize.  What’s more, the thousand or so militias currently active no longer correspond to state boundaries.  With the obvious exception of the Civil War, the democratic process established in the 18th century has allowed us to resolve our differences through debate and voting.  Throughout this period, political majorities win and minorities fume but, eventually the minorities become the majorities.  The cycles of liberal and conservative victories represent our triumph, not our failure.

According to the standards proposed by both the Constitutional Originalists, like Antonin Scalia, and those who see the Constitution as a living document that must adapt with the times, there is no logical, legal argument that favors individual gun ownership, and certainly none that favors assault rifles and other military weapons.  The Founders wanted to arm militias.

We, the people of the United States, have a right and, I believe, a duty to ban the civilian use of weapons.  It will save lives and it will thwart violent revolution. With the possible exception of our own American Revolution, revolutions have not solved anyone’s problems.  In the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, to name a few, violence begat violence; and violence, in turn begat tyranny.

It will be difficult, but not impossible, to ban guns.  It will require a sustained grass roots effort throughout the country.  It will require our belief that it is the right thing to do.  It will require stamina and courage for a long struggle. I invite all of you to think with me about how to build much greater momentum so. In the fight against guns.

 

 

 

 

The Right to Protest

Dear friends,

I don’t know if you follow sports enough to catch the uproar over Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality.  Kaepernick is a football quarterback playing for the San Francisco Forty Niners.  He’s not great but he generates attention because he began his career so quickly and dramatically.  He’s young and earnest and a little impulsive –like  many young people.

During the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick continued to kneel while his teammates stood at attention.  He did so quietly, with little fanfare.  To me, this gesture did not seem very confrontational but the press made a big deal of it..  Gradually, others have either followed his example or tried other ways to stand for the rights of young Black men, like linking arms or raising their right fists the way that Tommy Smith did in the 1968 Olympics.  Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, among an increasing group of people across American, have joined in common cause with the protesters.

But the general reaction to Kkaepernick’s protest has been negative.  Throughout the country, innumerable politicians, business owners and countless others have offered their often heated objections to Kaepernick’s gesture. The public conversation has not focused on police brutality or equal rights.  It has focused, instead, on Kaepernick’s right to protest versus the “disrespect” he has shown to a patriotic American ritual, the National Anthem.  The challenge to his right has been stunning to me, considering all of the abusive, massively disrespectful behavior we see in local, state, and national politics.  Compare Kaepernick’s behavior to Trump and the outrageous, fact-free Birther challenge to Barak Obama’s presidential legitimacy.  And this is but one sign of disrespect to the dignity of our highest office.  Why should Kaepernick be held to a different standard than the politicians.  In fact, his “protest” was relatively respectful.

On the other hand, the objections that have filled sports pages of newspapers, have, paradoxically, added great fuel to athletes’ desire to protest.  There seems to be a little movement building.  For better or worse, athletes are in the limelight and have some power to influence their fans.  Since so many of these athletes are people of color and have managed to ‘rise’ in one of the arenas most open to them, why shouldn’t they be able to use their success in the service of their values?  Business people certainly do.

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed this issue in his September 16th column.  I found the article smug and misguided and wrote a Letter to the Editor in response.  Given the substantial response that Brooks’ article received, there seems little likelihood that mine will be published.  So I decided to send it to you in the form of a mini-blog post.  This version is slightly changed just in case The Times does publish it. I hope you like it.

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David Brooks’ invocation of American civic religion, “The Uses of Patriotism,” runs much too close to the 1960’s condemnation of Vietnam War protesters.  “Love it or leave it” was the sanctimonious and divisive cry.  Why can’t we love it and protest when our country does not live to its values?  The right to protest is baked into the American tradition and the American Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of assembly, association, and speech.  The Boston Tea Party, a disrespectful protest of British taxation, helped precipitate the Revolutionary War.   In my view, we honor our nation by continuing practices that led to its formation and that guarantee the values on which it stands.

Brooks, himself, notes that “Every significant American reform movement was shaped by” self-criticism.  Protest is self-criticism in protean form.  Should we not have protested slavery when it was sanctioned by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution?  How about the absence of women’s suffrage and discriminatory housing practices that have made it hard for every group of immigrants, from the Irish to the Latinos, to buy their own homes?  Almost all of America’s great social and economic achievements have come on the back of protest.

Every protest is met with resistance and disdain, as though they don’t fit in polite society.  I have written, myself, in favor of a more dignified and restrained presidential politics. (https://barrydym.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/a-call-for-a-more-dignified-and-restrained-presidential-politics/); and I find the current lying, name-calling, and bullying vile.  But, Brooks wants to sanitize protest too much.  He should know that self-criticism is inevitably messy and upsetting; and it does call into question the culture and values of the ruling classes.  In fact, protest, by its nature, arises outside of the halls of power.  It is the means taken by people who lack the institutional power to enact change through formal governmental channels.  In Thursday’s column, Brooks stands with those ruling classes and against the very tradition at whose shrine he asks us to worship.

We must stand with the original Tea Partiers, with the Abolitionists and the Suffragettes, with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his call for nonviolent protest, and with all who seek to highlight the need for changes in law and public behavior—even when they are irreverent.  Irreverence towards one set of “values”—standing for the National Anthem—often signals reverence for another set.  In this case, the more hallowed statement of values comes in both the right of free speech and in equal protection under the law, as it is assured by the 14th Amendment.  I believe that we should be proud of young people who speak up in this way.

 

A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics

I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am.  It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics.  The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism.  Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency.  They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind.  I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics.  Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making.  I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.

I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct.  So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing.  What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington.  True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors.  Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.

Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times.  Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.  But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood.  As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.

Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say.  He was a quiet man.  Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual.  There was nothing abstract about him.  Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.

Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President.  Here’s how Woods summarizes it:  Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.”  In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”

Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.  This was unprecedented.  Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements.  In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy.  Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power.  Power must reside in the citizenry. 

If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation.  The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word.  He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession.  He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President.  He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support.  As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.”  But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification.  In other words, he was all in.

Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.”  He believed that, too.  He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance.  He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.”  By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.

Then he did it again.  After two terms, Washington left office.  More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments.  Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right.  Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.  In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”

Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards.  But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm.  She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate.  Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited.  We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.