Letter to My Granddaughter

Dear Molly,

A couple of weeks ago, you wrote to tell me that you’re taking a history seminar on the 1960’s, that transformational decade.  You needed to do some interviews, you said.  “How about you, Grandpa?”  Naturally I loved the idea, loved that you asked, loved getting to know you better in an adult-to-adult way.  But as a relic, a remainder from antediluvian times?  A living historical archive?

Truth be told, Molly, I wasn’t outraged at all.  I have come to relish the view of myself as a man in the midst of a long, long journey, mostly with my eyes open.  As I’ve traveled, I’ve sometimes felt at home, a loving American patriot, and sometimes like a stranger in my own world.  And here’s a key point: My sense of belonging depended not so much on my own stage of personal development as on my assessment of American culture at any given point in time.

Let me give you a broad sense of my journey.  I have vague memories of people rejoicing on the streets of New York during Victory Europe (VE) Day, 1945.  I was three and the imagery from that day feels like a series of snapshots.  But by 1948, when my family moved from the Bronx to Long Island, pioneers of the urban exodus, the memories are more continuous, more like a motion picture.  As I look back  I can almost see headlines about the Korean war and the anguish of the adults who witnessed it.  I remember the McCarthy-fueled Red Scare of the early 1950’s and the first marches on Washington for the civil rights of Black people.  That was in 1956 and I traveled with a bus filled almost exclusively with African American teenagers, listening during the long rides to their songs.  And finally joining in.

I was already a grown man during the long, torturous days of the Vietnam War, then, much later, the trumped up accusations of weapons of mass destruction to justify the attack on Iraq.

And I’m just getting started.  My parents bought the first television on our block. That was 1949.  I remember when the Russians put Sputnik into space in 1957, creating an outcry of fear and anger throughout America; then being put into small, advanced math and science classes created to help us catch up to the evil Soviet empire.  We young people would have to hurry up.  Then there were the first space ships circling the earth, the first computers, which would have made typing my doctoral dissertation so much easier.  Soon there was email that my political and professional activities required, even though I fought it every step of the way.  By then, technology was moving too fast for me and I had become a stranger in my own land.

It wasn’t just the constant change and innovation that formed my generation—what they now call pre-boomers—but the way that we were steeped in the values and experiences of the 1930’s, truths that we took in from our parents like direct transfusions of blood.  The Great Depression that began in 1929 wasn’t history to us.  The financial anxiety and general prudence that it created defined our own life styles.  The Holocaust may have been stopped by 1945 but, as a Jew, the feelings it generated were still raw, the fears still live.  As the children of the generation that was formed by those events, we, much like our parents, were steeped in its wariness and prohibitions.

But the generation born before or during World War II were also children of the American dream.  Paradoxical as it may seem, I think we were more optimistic than any generation since.  We were defined by a belief that, if we worked hard, very hard, we could achieve any goals we set for ourselves—or any goals that our parents, who had lost so much during the Depression had set for us.  That belief was both personal and political.  We believed in progress, that, for each generation, life would get better and better—especially for poor people, Black people, and Brown people—because we would make it so.  That’s how the idea of progress ruled our hearts and minds.

Many of us lived for decades in that happy belief.  We knew that there would be set backs—like the damage of the Vietnam War and periodic economic recessions—and we knew that some benefited from progress more than others—but we saw those set backs and injustices as obstacles that we would eventually overcome.

Our profound optimism began to erode during the last couple of decades, during the presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes and culminating with Donald Trump.  It seemed that our economic largesse was increasingly devoured by the wealthy, that the idea of heroic wars in defense of freedom had fallen to cynical, imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panama and Yemen—to defend our material interests.  Political discourse was balkanized, racism was revitalized, and the only people who pursued what looked like an idealistic agenda were the “hard right” and the evangelical Christians, who were not so happy sharing it with people who didn’t look like them.  Our Presidents and their “bases” were willing to let our infrastructure, our climate and our commitment to basic democratic values rot.

By 2015, I found myself writing in my journal that I was “tormented by what is happening in America,” the country whose core promise of liberty, equality, and justice so closely mirrored my own, the country I had loved so deeply for 70 years.  I wondered if the damage was beyond repair. I was tempted to retreat into myself and my personal development.

But, I have to tell you, Molly, that I don’t think my despair is worthy of you and your generation.  In the midst of the current rubble there are so many seeds of hope, so many young people living into their dreams, which are the same American dreams that motivated my generation.  Instead of retreating, I formed an organization to train idealistic and very diverse young people in organizational and community leadership.  That turned out to feel redemptive to me and, I hope, to them.

Do you know that, even in retirement, I still mentor many of those young people, who make me believe that our society may be circling back to its better self.  My students work on behalf of foster children, abused children, and children who have been denied the opportunities that good educations afford.  Students work for affordable housing, immigrant rights and disability rights, and environmental protection.  They work with limited financial rewards towards goals of equality and the right of all Americans to social, economic, and political opportunity.

I have come to believe that they have the power to “bend the arc” of our tormented country back in the direction of justice.  They make me experience my own life, not as having lived under the false god of progress but as part of a cadre of people who retain their optimism and fire in the face of great odds.

I know that your heart lives in this same place and my hope, dear Molly, is that you will join us.

Love,

Grandpa

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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!

Newsflash: The 2032 Triumph of Obama’s People’s Crusade.

Newsflash: Sixteen years after he left office, former President Barak Obama has been awarded a second Nobel Peace Prize, this time for leading a People’s Crusade to stem the tide of climate destruction and authoritarian governments throughout the world.  As people begin to trust the victory, joyous, raucous celebrations have begun on the streets of New York, Paris, London, Moscow, and even Beijing.

Most people expected Obama to take a break after eight exhausting years as president.  He had fought valiantly, if a little too gently, against the irascible and relentless opposition of right wing legislators and a Supreme Court determined to undermine decades of movement towards the civil and economic rights of working people and people of color.  Instead, he began the People’s Crusade that has crowned his heroic struggle against tyranny and small-mindedness.

It would take books to describe how Mr. Obama turned the seemingly unstoppable and increasingly reactionary Trump—Putin-Le Pen locomotive.  But here is a very brief synopsis of how the little train, begun in 2017 grew into a powerful engine of social transformation.

Immediately after turning the White House over to Donald Trump, Obama moved to Akron, Ohio and began to organize—his first and greatest skill.  He organized what was left of the unions and the social justice organizations housed in nonprofits. He organized Black people, White people, Brown, Red, and Yellow people in common cause: the need for jobs, housing, rights, and hope. There was a vacancy and he ran for Mayor and won handily.  This was his new pulpit and he immediately turned things around by creating food, job, and child-care collectives, and housing starts. All of these created jobs.  Harking back to the New Deal and Keynesian economics, Obama insisted that sufficient taxes would eventually flow from good jobs. Within a couple of years, the Akron economy proved him right.

This became Barak Obama’s talking points in Ohio, where, in 2020, he won a Congressional seat, and around the country.  In his campaign, he dropped some of his celebrated civil tone.  He stopped trying to please everyone.  He grew more urgent and insistent, and he emphasized the need of poor, working class, and middle class people to unite against the 1% and their dominance.  It has been a long time—since the 1940’s really, that the anger of disenfranchised Americans has been educated and built into a powerful collective force.  The spirit of FDR spoke through him.  The betrayal of Democrats, the Republican, and the banks, who gathered power and fortune to themselves, became the core of Obama’s new narrative.

As he traveled the country, Obama brought small and medium-sized business owners into a growing coalition.  They, too, understand that more income for the lower and middle classes meant more income for them.  He brought in the universities, not in the spirit of the sixties, which left out and alienated the working classes, in common cause—and to help articulate the new agenda: higher wages, more jobs, health care for all, voters rights, affirmation of immigration, and a strong but conservative foreign policy, neither isolationist nor aggressively pushing the American agenda onto other nations, but resolute in defense of our shores and our strategic interests.   Within a year—say 2021—there was a great stirring in the country.  Everyone could feel it.  At last, a cause and a leader the great masses of Americans could unite behind.

By 2024, Obama and a burgeoning group of charismatic and diverse young leaders had won the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a majority of state legislatures.  Now they could get to work. Now they could reverse all the voting rights restrictions, the cripplingly low taxation, the nasty culture of us against them.  The People’s Crusade began to represent an overwhelming majority.  There was less and less need to demonize “them.”

It wasn’t just the brilliance of Obama and his allies that won the fight.  It was also the utterly self-destructive fury of the Republicans that brought them down.  There were the tax cuts that left the poor poorer, the sick sicker, the homeless and the drug addicted even more destitute.  It was the three wars, the two in the Middle East and one in South America, that bankrupted the country.  Each of the wars had been begun with an insult that President Trump could not ignore.  Angry words followed angry words—and led to retribution, with Trump believing that his bullying ways could translate to international relations.  And, like all wars since Vietnam, we couldn’t win those wars.

Aided by social unrest and European economic collapse, the American economy was on bring of a disaster comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  At the same time, China and Russia grew stronger.  Together, they organized Asian-centered trade deals that Americans, at first invited, refused to join. Even in decline, America under Trump believed in its general entitlement, and its special mission of world dominance.  America and the West grew more isolated, less able to dominate through economic power and more dependent on its bullying threats and its weaponry.  The brittleness of that stance was the most frightening of all.

Most Americans had never liked or even trusted Trump in the first place.  He had represented an opportunity to protest the growing disenfranchisement they felt.  But once the thrill of protest began to wane, Trump’s ruinous domestic and out-of-control foreign policies became evident to all.   An alternative awaited: impeachment.  Once the Republicans joined the uproar—he wasn’t helping their cause either—impeachment was easily accomplished.  Trump’s narcissistic and thuggish imitation of Putin’s enrichment of his own business empire provided an easy target.

In 2019, Mike Pence, the guy the Tea Party establishment wanted all along, became president.  He kept his ego out of foreign affairs, providing a show of strength and stability, but he continued to implemented the Tea Party’s nativist, misogynistic, and bellicose attack on fifty years of progressive political accomplishments with a quiet fury.   Never popular with the majority of Americans, Pence began to look slick and inept.   Once again, Paul Ryan tried to step into the breach with a disguised version of Pence-Trump policies, but within months of what the Tea Party saw as Ryan’s presumption and perfidy, he was assassinated by a White Supremacist.

During the early years of the Trump-Pence regimes, militias had grown bigger and bolder but they were almost as disenchanted with the Republicans as they had been with the Democrats.  Their grandiose dreams of power seemed close to realization. Secessionist sentiment in Texas, Alabama, and Idaho went mainstream.  America seemed on the edge of civil war and chaos.

Into this terrible cauldron of violence and lawlessness, came the Obama’s People’s Crusade.  Throughout the states, both Blue and White, growing fear and yearning led to the desire for a leader who would bring them back to the good old days.  Only now it wasn’t the ante-bellum South they sought.  It was the post war years, the late 1940’s and 1950’s when Americans seemed united in their optimistic pursuit of happiness and success, when individuals—though not, of course, African Americans—almost all felt they were on the rise, and that their interests were protected by a stable, powerful government.

Obama and a great swelling coalition of working people, people of color, immigrants, youth, women—and men seeking jobs and dignity—were ready.  They stood as the obvious choice to right the wrongs of the Tea Party, Donald Trump, the Koch bothers.  The Crusade had continued to give voice to this new and not so silent majority, and to win seat after seat in state and federal elections.  By 2028, the Crusade controlled both Houses of Congress and the Presidency—now held by Julia Perez, forty five, brilliant, and unafraid of taking charge.  The Supreme Court would soon follow.

That brings us back to 2032, the day of celebration.  Not only is this the day of Obama’s Peace Prize but, with a second term coming, Julia Perez now represents the consolidated reign of our first woman as president, and a Latina at that.