Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Despair

Recently, President Obama addressed a dinner of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. In that address, he once again pledged to end at the federal level discrimination based upon sexual orientation, including a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that restricts the service of gays/lesbians in the military. The predicable hue and cry resulted, with the gays/lesbians and the political left saying “when, right now” and the conservative side saying “no, never.”

The truth is that America has always had a history of discrimination. This truth is somewhat all the harder to fathom given our multi-cultural history from our beginning. British middle-to-upper class society dominated the governance and economy of this country from Day 1 in Jamestown. That dominance was unchecked for all of the 17th through 19th centuries. Not until the early 1900s did that yoke begin to break for the other cultural, racial and gender groups.

The Irish were told they “need not apply”; the Jews and Catholics were excluded most social clubs, private schools and politics; African-Americans had their separate entrances / water fountains / sitting and living areas while working as modern-day indentured servants; Native-Americans forcibly surrendered their land and were confined to specific reservations (unless white Americans found that they wanted that land’s resources after all); women had no voting and limited property ownership rights; Asians worked in laundries and restaurants, and helped build a railroad; and Mexicans, once the proud owners of their southwestern lands, became the field hands for harvesting and the gardeners of landscapes. Other groups were similarly relegated to specific niches of American society.

The American War Between The States freed the African-American from outright slavery, but consigned him/her to de facto slavery by ostracization and economic exclusion. But that war was also the first step in bringing out into the open a recognition of the need to end inequality in America. So we thusly began the long, slow, but deliberate march towards the true fulfillment of “all [humans] are created equal.” The three rungs in achieving this movement have been through access to 1) education, 2) economic opportunity, and 3) politics.

I am of the opinion that true fundamental change in cultural beliefs and attitudes takes at least 3 generations to achieve, and only then after concerted efforts and milestones by the parties involved to build the bridges required. Bluntly speaking, you have to wait for the old people, the original ones with their vested interest, to die off and end the “righteous cause” that they continue to espouse. By that yardstick, peace will never come to the Middle East until the original fighters and homeowners in the 1948 partition conflict die off. Ditto with China and Tibet, as well as others. Even so, left unchecked, the hatreds and suspicions can go on seemingly forever, passed from generation to generation in a near blood oath. So the Britain / Scotland / Ireland conflicts remain backdrops after 1000 years, the Sunni / Shiite Islamic conflict remains after 1500 years, and various Mediterranean and Baltic countries still pursue long-held agendas over ethnic cleansing, holocaust, and cultural annihilation.

By that measure of sustained resistance, we have moved forward quite remarkably in America in pursuit of genuine cultural equality, even given how much more remains to be done. Blacks broke into the military during the Civil War and continued through World War II, albeit in segregated units until President Truman officially ended that. In 1919 women became able cast a vote; women were elected as governors of Wyoming and then Texas in 1925; a woman from Arkansas was the first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932; and FDR appointed the first female cabinet member in the 1930s. The U.S. Supreme Court over time has now incorporated virtually all cultural representatives, though it still remains insufficiently balanced in any given year. A non-Protestant became president in 1960, and a non-white in 2008. Over time, the American workforce has shifted from a predominantly white, married, suburban, male breadwinner to instead reflect virtually all cultures / races / genders in most every profession, though issues of equal pay and advancement continue. Other examples of substantial change exist everywhere.

In most all successful instances, integration and equality have been achieved from the bottom up, moving through the ranks, typically at great pain &/or loss to those in the forefront. But as little children of all races play together, as adults of all cultures and gender work side-by-side, the old barriers and animosities can gradually fall away over time. Not in a grand overnight swoop, but in that plodding but straight-ahead drive that cannot be stopped; 1 step backward or sideways, but always with 2 steps following forward. So when I return to my boyhood home in Arkansas, I drive by the old Negro public housing settlement, and the park and swimming pool nearby set aside uniquely for them. Except they are all thankfully torn down and gone now. There is only one entrance door to all facilities, not “separate but (un-)equal” ones.

In the future, America will undoubtedly continue to refine and improve its equal access to all. We have come so very far from the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the 1950s, the starting line of this past 55 years of our current push to genuine equality. Gays/lesbians in the military will ultimately go the same route and outcome as of female cops – incapable ones will be weeded out, and competent ones will prove to work side-by-side and ably protect their co-workers as well as any straight male. The immediate legal barrier will ultimately fall away, never as soon as we would like, but as inevitable as it must be.
All of the legal and social pushes being made now have to continue unabated. Yet in the end, it is all about personal abilities and competency, while realizing that all other perceived issues are incredibly irrelevant. I am confident that, in 20-30 years when my five granddaughters approach middle-age adulthood, they are likely to look back at 2009 and wonder in amazement what all the fuss was about in the first place.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The State Of Our Current Being

I recently had a good friend visit and spend awhile on this mountain. Among other things, one of the reasons that he came was to talk with me about his concerns for the current political and social climate here in America. Some of that concern was exacerbated by his sense of loss of the hope he had felt from the November 2008 election results. A loss that a hoped-for new climate and change of direction were finally imminent. Instead, by the end of this summer, we had witnessed a critical low point in civility, common sense, and creative thinking. Extreme radicalism had cornered the market of news and public discourse. His discouragement and pessimism were easy to understand.

We are living in a time of pronounced fear all around us. Where there is fear, there is always the twin close by – anger. These are the fraternal twins, always one with the other, two faces from a common source. Fear comes from our sense of helplessness when the world around us, the future we projected for ourselves, or the support structures for our security and survival that we came to believe in, come crashing down. Anger comes from our sense of powerlessness to stop that crash, to extricate ourselves from these unwanted changes, or to find the tools by which to restore our personal order.

Eight years ago the Twin Towers in New Your City were destroyed within one hour in a seemingly irrational act by people whom we did not know were angry at us for reasons we had no understanding of. Believing that “it could happen anywhere to any of us,” our illusionary sense of well-being was shattered. Fear set in. Unfortunately, some of our political leaders chose to prey upon that fear and tried to draw us towards a false dream of personal and national security, done out of their own short-sighted sense of exaggerated righteousness. If we agreed to let them loose, they would make everything all right again for us (and the world), and we needed not even disrupt our lives nor make any personal sacrifice for them to achieve this.

Jump forward to 2008. Thousands of American soldiers have been killed and maimed, yet there was no collective sense that we are any safer from outside terrorists. The entire banking system was set to collapse, echoing the Great Depression of 1928-1940. Jobs were disappearing, with talk of new bread lines. Retirement savings were slashed, if not wiped out, by the stock market tanking. People were losing their homes due to bad, over-sold mortgages and lost jobs. Bernie “Made-off” stole $65B of other people’s money with no apology, while story after story of individual and corporate greed splashed all over the headlines. General Motors and other stalwarts of American capitalism were driven to bankruptcy by incompetent business executives. And sick people died, well people became sick, and healthy people feared getting sick because everyone had to finally acknowledge a truth – that in this richest of countries, deserving people could not get needed health security without losing their financial security.

And so as is always the case, fear of what was happening all around went to anger. Lots of screaming about political philosophy, government takeovers, the death of capitalism. Lies and distortions from self-serving broadcasters and politicians took over the news media and Internet, with seemingly no one willing or of the stature to stand up and say “Enough” to these untruths. Se we had people taking guns to political rallies in order to strut their would-be importance. Hitler moustaches on Obama faces, racial name-calling and images, shout-downs at public forums. This is where anger took us. It is in fact an ugly picture. It is not the American picture we have previously believed in.

Yet we have been here before in American history. We have lynched people whom we deemed the lesser of us. We have killed religious leaders of different persuasions or burned them as witches. We have protested in marches and “tent cities” in Washington. We have segregated people and ideas different from our own into separate ghettos, locations or entertainment facilities. And some similarly fought a Social Security program in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s rather than provide comfort and dignity to our fellow citizens. We have long had the capacity to shut out that which is different, and attack and do violence to that which we feel threatens us.

But as the wise Yogi Berra once counseled us, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” We are at another one of those forks. In one direction is to continue on the fear path. Let an illusion of “the good old days,” demanding personal security and status quo at all costs, and an unwillingness or inability to adapt be our only goals. In which case anger will continue to fuel the engine of our thinking, speech and actions. America may well go this way. I hope not. And it does not have to.

Alternately, we can acknowledge the reality of our fears, yet not give in to them. We can swallow hard, take a deep breath, and plunge ahead believing that we still have the capacity to make our individual and collective lives right. By doing the right thing while looking long-term. We have cause to believe in that: GM may be smaller, but it is still in business and employing people; no one talks about the banking industry collapsing anymore; overall, the stock market is moving in the right direction. However slowly, most all steps are moving in the right direction, but we are not there yet. The sky has not yet fallen.

We have been on a very questionable road this past decade, if not the past three decades. A road of questionable ethics, goals, economics, and spiritual values. A road where the signs said “American might wins all; financial success is the one true goal however you need to get there; other people are on their own; my way or not at all.” The political establishment of 2001-2008 showed us clearly the folly of that narcissism. But it takes a near-complete collapse of that folly, such as we are currently experiencing, before we can perhaps be willing to change our direction. Before our love of the old past can give way to the necessary future. Optimism is in the LONG view. The human truth is that we do not change our thinking or direction until the “pain of right now” is greater than our fear of an unknown future. Future by definition is that which we cannot envision clearly, but in which we have faith.

We have frankly needed this social and economic disaster to open the possibility for us to change direction, temper our beliefs. It is change that is necessary, however painful. Will we? Which of Mr. Berra’s forks will we take? Will emerging new voices leave behind old views and speak for a new American future? That future is not certain. But yes, Paul, I still remain hopeful and yes, even optimistic.