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Political – Walking Contradiction

Day 54: Honoring an American Hero

The word “hero” gets tossed around so much these days. Someone joined the military? They’re automatically a “hero” before they have done a single thing. It dilutes the word until it’s almost meaningless.

True heroes are few and far between. Yesterday we lost one of those heroes, Rep. John Lewis. For those who don’t know him (shame on your teachers!), he was an icon of the American Civil Rights movement. In fact, he was the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington in 1963, the event in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech.

In 1965 he led the march to demand voting rights that was to start in Selma, Alabama, and go all the way to the capital, Montgomery. However, as they were leaving Selma and crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by 150 state troopers, who demanded that the march disband. The marchers stopped advancing, and stood in place. About a minute later, they began to be attacked by the state troopers with club, whips, and tear gas. Lewis himself suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the troopers. This attack became known as Bloody Sunday, and was the subject of a Federal investigation, in which Lewis testified about the events. Here is an excerpt from that hearing:

Lewis: . . . a State Trooper made announcement on a bullhorn or megaphone, and he said, “This march will not continue.”
Hall: What happened then; did the line stop?
Lewis: The line stopped at that time.
Hall: You stopped still?
Lewis: Yes, sir.
Hall: You didn’t advance any further?
Lewis: We stopped right then.
State Troopers stopping the marchers
Hall: Then what happened?
Lewis: He said, “I am Major Cloud, and this is an unlawful assembly. This demonstration will not continue. You have been banned by the Governor. I am going to order you to disperse.”
Hall: What did you then do?
Lewis: Mr. Williams said, “Mr. Major, I would like to have a word, can we have a word?” And he said, “No, I will give you two minutes to leave.” And again Mr. Williams said, “Can I have a word?” He said, “There will be no word.” And about a minute or more Major Cloud ordered the Troopers to advance, and at that time the State Troopers took their position, I guess, and they moved forward with their clubs up over their—near their shoulder, the top part of the body; they came rushing in, knocking us down and pushing us.
Hall: And were you hit at that time?
Lewis: At that time I was hit and knocked down.
Hall: Where were you hit?
Lewis: I was hit on my head right here.
Hall: What were you hit with?
Lewis: I was hit with a billy club, and I saw the State Trooper that hit me.
Hall: How many times were you hit?
Lewis: I was hit twice, once when I was lying down and was attempting to get up.
Hall: Do we understand you to say you were hit . . . and then attempted to get up, and were hit—and was hit again.
Lewis: Right
Alabama State Troopers attacking the marchers. John Lewis is the man in the foreground being beaten.

This event marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle, and six months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Johnson gave Lewis one of the pens used to sign that act, and Lewis proudly displayed that pen on the wall of his office in Congress, where he served for nearly 34 years until his death.

So imagine my surprise when I was returning from a conference in Atlanta a few years ago and saw him in the airport! I approached him, shook his hand, and thanked him for all he had done to make this country a better place. He was very gracious, and I didn’t keep him any longer. I immediately texted my wife to tell her my exciting news, and while she shared my excitement, she chastised me for not getting a photo. I really didn’t want to bother the man at the time, so I was fine with just meeting him in person.

A little while later I was heading to the men’s room to empty my water bottle before going through security, and I saw him in front of the entrance, taking a selfie with a custodian (who was clearly thrilled). So I approached him once more, blaming my wife for shaming me into taking a selfie. He was more than happy to do so, and…

Ran into one of the great American heroes, Representative John Lewis, in the Atlanta airport. He was gracious enough to let me take this photo. I was too excited to hold the phone still!

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was so in awe of meeting him that I rushed the shot, and the result was a blurry photo. Me, the big-shot photographer, screwing up an easy selfie!

Thank you once again, John Lewis, for all that you’ve done. You truly are a hero.

Day 50: Divisions

Currently, the rate of COVID-19 hospitalization in many parts of the US is climbing rapidly. Here in Texas there are many hospitals that are at capacity, and are unable to take any more patients. The point of “flattening the curve” wasn’t to stop the virus; it was just to keep our medical system from being overwhelmed. We are seeing this happening now across Texas.

In the midst of all this, we have many voices calling for the re-opening of schools when the fall term starts next month. That would be great, except we’re not even close to being able to do that safely. Remember, it’s not just the safety of the children at stake, but that of teachers, custodians, food service staff, bus drivers, administrators, and everyone else involved in running a school. Some districts are choosing to delay in-person classes for at least two more months, but others are rushing forward, such as Orange County, California, whose school board is allowing in-person classes with no masks or social distancing. Understandably, many parents are angry at the callousness of the school board, and are asking them to reconsider.

What is needed is for people to come together in opposition to these short-sighted actions. Yes, there are some parents who want their kids back in school, but the vast majority would place their children’s safety above any other consideration. When people join their voices together, they are much more powerful than when acting individually. But that seems almost impossible these days.

When it was discovered that Russia had been using bots to influence the 2016 election, it turned out that they weren’t just promoting Trump; they were also promoting Hillary, and in roughly equal numbers. The goal was to divide the American people against each other, preventing them from being able to come together and unite against an enemy. Just look at that division has taken a simple thing like wearing a mask during an infectious pandemic has become a political issue, not a health issue.

There are wide differences of opinion on many political matters, such as immigration, monetary policy, and the like. We can continue to oppose each other on those, but unite against the dangers of the pandemic. The divisions run deep, though – I don’t hold out much hope of them going away any time soon.

Day 49: Little Courtesies

Someone recently told me of the shopping cart test to gauge a person’s level of consideration for others: when you unload your groceries into your car, what do you do with the empty cart? Most people return them to one of the cart collection areas set up for that purpose, but many do not. They just leave it in an empty space by their car, and drive off. Sometimes they make a minimal effort to reduce the risk of the cart accidentally rolling away and denting another car by propping in on a nearby curb, but many times they simply leave it.

How difficult is it to walk the cart to a collection area? Some suggested that a person might have a disability that would make that difficult, but it does seem odd that they would be able to use the cart to do their shopping, and then push it to their car, but not be able to return it.

To me, this displays a lack of basic courtesy, rooted in selfishness. The cart served your needs, so it is just abandoned. There is no thought about potential damage to others’ cars, or making the employee work harder to gather the carts from the far-flung corners of the parking lot. It’s a simple test of one’s consideration for others.

There are many such things where you need to acknowledge that you are just one person in a common environment with others, and when we do, things just go much smoother. Did you use the last of the toilet paper roll? Or leave just a tiny bit? If you don’t make the small effort to replace it with a new roll, you’re making life more difficult for the next person. Same thing with cleaning the lint screen of the dryer after your load. It’s a small effort on your part to make someone else’s experience much better.

What do you think about people who can’t be bothered to do these little things? Sure, everyone forgets once in a while, but I’m talking about people who consciously choose not to do them.

I’m writing this in the shadow of the biggest social effort in some time: stopping the spread of COVID-19. Everyone is asked to do something very simple: wear a face mask over your nose and mouth to reduce the potential for spreading the virus, since people can be infectious before they have any symptoms at all. It’s not much to ask, but man, the way that some people react makes it sound like the worst oppression ever experienced by a human being!

My parents lived through World War II (my dad fought in the war), and I grew up hearing stories of the rationing that the entire country was expected to follow. I can’t imagine something like that working today, for one simple reason: back then people saw themselves as belonging to the same side against a common enemy. That’s no longer the case: too many people see themselves as a persecuted group

It’s sad, but that’s to be expected with the polarization that has spread across this country. Too many people have rejected the American vision of inclusion that we’ve been striving for for centuries, and want to return to the days of straight white male dominance, even if it means embracing our enemies.

Me? I’m going to continue to return my shopping cart to the cart return area.

Day 42: One Step At a Time

Lately I’ve been reading people who are upset at the state of the world, and are angry that it won’t change fast enough. It’s absolutely true that Joe Biden isn’t the guy who is going to change everything. It’s true that the Democrats have done more than their share to get us to where we are, and have a vested interest in not shaking the boat too much. It’s true that they won’t be leading the charge to overturn the institutions that have gotten them to where they are, as most of them have done pretty well under the current system.

Given that disappointment, many are falling prey to the “it doesn’t matter” attitude about elections. Why bother voting for Biden when he won’t do nearly enough to make the country as good as it should be?

Because improving this country is a journey, not a single step. The end game may be an ideal that we can never reach, but we need to keep moving toward it. This November, one of two old white men will be elected President for the next 4 years. Neither of them is exactly what this country needs. But it should be clear that one of them will move the country closer to where we need it to be than the other. We’ve seen how disastrous the Trump years have been, and there is no reason to think that he will mellow or see the error of his ways if he were to have a second term. He has always shown us exactly who he is.

We have to have a much longer viewpoint than just the next election. One election will never make enough change; it is a much, much slower process, with the old two steps forward, one step back dynamic. Remember how exciting it was watching Barack Obama take the oath of office, thinking that a new era of racial equality was upon us? Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out. But it did provide a glimmer of hope that will keep us moving toward our goals.

We need to start electing people who want to make radical changes. AOC is one of the young voices who is saying the right things; we need to get more people like her into office. It’s telling that she is characterized in the press as an “extremist”, yet nearly all of her main policies enjoy a large majority of approval among the nation as a whole. By electing more and more people who aren’t afraid to call out the faults in the current system, we can make some actual progress in creating a better system.

Day 40: Your Place in History

I have one of my favorite tweets pinned to the top of my timeline:

“Right now” is tomorrow’s history. You can either be a spectator, or you can help to shape how things will be.

Even if you are a spectator, you are shaping events. Think about all those people living in Germany in the 1930s: of course they didn’t know that Hitler would start the mass murder of Jews in the 1940s, but it wasn’t much of a surprise either. Early in his career he told a journalist “Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.”

It has been commonly assumed that the average German had no idea what was going on while the Holocaust was being carried out, but that notion has been debunked. It was written about in newspapers, usually in terms that de-humanized the victims. But most people alive then couldn’t be bothered to speak out: maybe they secretly agreed with the Nazis that Jews were subhuman and deserved to die; maybe they were afraid that they would face retaliation if they spoke up. Either way, their decision to do nothing enabled the Holocaust to happen.

A common time-travel fantasy is to send someone back in time to kill Hitler before he rose to power; with hindsight I don’t think any of us would hesitate to pull the trigger if we had such an opportunity. It would have been much more difficult for someone back in the 1930s to do so, however: they may not have liked Hitler, but he hadn’t revealed his true monstrosity yet. He hadn’t yet committed the acts that we now associate with his infamy. The more they did nothing, the stronger he got, and the more difficult it became to oppose him.

And so it is with today: we have monsters in power who say horrible things, like calling white supremacist marchers “very fine people”, or that Mexicans coming to the US are “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists”. These monsters take the refugees coming to our border, and rip children from their parents, isolating them in cages. They’ve shown what they want to do. They’ve shown their true nature. And others have shown their support for these ideas by keeping them in office, free from consequences when they abuse their power.

So here you are, in the middle of this history. Given the parallels to the rise of other fascist, authoritarian leaders, and knowing where this can lead, what will you do? Will you sit this out, saying something like “I’m not into politics”?

By the way, “I’m not into politics” is a subtle way of saying “I don’t care what horrible things are happening to others, because they aren’t affecting me”.

Don’t be like that. Don’t be a passive enabler of our history. Instead, speak out against racism. Speak out against hate. Speak out against exploitation of workers. And not only do you need to vote, you need to get at least 5 other people who would otherwise not bothered to vote into the voting booth. We need overwhelming numbers of people working together in order to reverse the current negative trend, and help to make this time a brighter spot when future generations read about our history.