The Moral Universe – What If?

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I know I’m a dreamer. I’ve been accused of “magical thinking,” a term I’ve come to dislike. I have seen it used to dismiss the idea that the world can be better than it is. I do believe I have a responsibility as a dreamer to move from the dream into action, to try to bring hope into reality, to cooperate with the “better angel of my nature,” in Lincoln’s words.

So, what if? What if everyone used their extra hour this weekend to meditate on the Ten Commandments? I don’t think you have to believe in God, or be of a particular religion, to see the wisdom in them.

1. I am the Lord, your God.

There are dimensions of life on Earth that are beyond our control and should stay that way. The Western world, especially, has since the age of exploration tried to mold nature and other peoples into its image. Usually bad things ensue. Example: When the British started establishing themselves in Africa, they uprooted natural plants and vegetation that had been for eons a source of immunity to Africans from certain diseases. The disappearance of these plants led to death for people for whom they had been a major food source.

2. Thou shall bring no false idols before me.

What do we worship that is bad for society and nature? To what lengths will we go to ensure that we have enough money, drugs, alcohol, gasoline-fueled toys no matter on whose backs we have to step to get them? Can we dare to make a vision of goodness the thing we prize above all else?

3. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.

How often do we blame God for situations that we as a society caused? Or how often do we say that tragedies prove there is no God when in fact those tragedies only prove how thoughtless or even evil human beings can be? What would happen if we all refused to be part of the systems that cause tragedies and became part of the systems that prevent them?

4. Remember the Sabbath and make it holy.

Why do we insist that businesses be open seven days a week for our convenience? Do we not see that this means that some people have to work seven days a week? This is true especially in lower-paid, part-time jobs. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one day a week, the same day, that everyone had off and put the commercial world aside? Or, at the least, what if we all took time every week to relax, to seek the beauty of the natural world, to renew ourselves and our commitment to our causes?

5. Honor thy father and thy mother.

What if we thought of the Earth and our communities as our father and mother, as the source of the things we need to grow into better people? Instead of thinking of ourselves as masters of the universe, what if we thought of ourselves as children and as servants of the universe and all that is within?

6. Thou shall not kill.

Are we implicated in killing the hopes and aspirations of people who are different from us? Do we really believe that someone’s “right” to own a gun trumps the right of little children to grow up, to fall in love, to learn, to experience everything that life can offer? Do we discourage people from having hope by taking away their right to vote, to be decently housed, to receive proper nutrition? Do we spread fear so that other people will be as scared as we are? And do I even need to mention the death penalty?

7. Thou shall not commit adultery.

In this day and age, a lot of people probably find this commandment absurd. There have been ages in human existence when the meaning of adultery even extended to banning married couples from having recreational sex. But the word “adultery” (which is not related to the word “adult”) comes from a French word meaning “to corrupt,” and I think that this is where the essence of this commandment lies. How often are we corrupted by our baser instincts to cheat, to lie, to justify bad behavior, or to let our bodies rule our intellects? Might those actions of ours tempt others, corrupt others who were previously innocent? How many children watch the adults in their lives being jerks and decide that it’s okay for them to be jerks too? How many children in homes where domestic abuse takes place grow up to be abusers?

8. Thou shall not steal.

Beyond physically taking what doesn’t belong to us, we can steal by gossiping about someone by taking away their good name. We steal precious resources of the Earth by overusing or polluting them. Whenever we steal, literally or figuratively, we are not sharing. Sharing is not only a way of spreading the wealth around, it is also a way of building community.

9. Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Are our neighbors just the people who live on either side of us, or are they all of the people who co-habit the world with us? Do we challenge stereotypes or allow them to define people? Isn’t it bearing false witness when we think we know how whole races, whole countries, think and live? Whenever we perpetuate a stereotype, or don’t challenge one, we perpetuate a lie.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

Even fairly strict interpretations believe this really means one’s neighbor’s property, since sadly wives were until not so long ago considered a husband’s property. Do we want something just because somebody else has it? Do we stifle our individuality so as to fit in the popular folks? Do we spend more time wishing we were someone else than realizing our own potential? How many wars have been fought because one government coveted another’s land? How many countries in Africa have been despoiled by conquerors’ greed? How much human suffering has been caused by the search for profit, whether financially or in terms of prestige?

Just in the couple of hours in which I’ve been writing this, I have had to face the fact that I am guilty of breaking all of these commandments. I do happen to believe in God; perhaps inspiring me to write this is Her way of getting me to look at myself. In which case, I’d better end now as I have a lot of work to do.

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The Moral Universe – “Right” is the Operative Word in Voting Rights

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It will be 50 years in March since President Johnson announced that he would be sending a Voting Rights Act to Congress. The date of March 15, 1965, is particularly significant as the date on which he told the nation this news.

Just over a week earlier, a group of black Selma, Alabama, residents and a mixture of civil rights groups led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery in protest of weeks of brutality from Sheriff Jim Clark and his fascistic goons. John Lewis and Hosea Williams were leading the march, which was met by Clark and state troopers. They received the first beatings of many that were delivered that day. Despite years of beatings, Lewis was for the first time hospitalized with a fractured skull.

lbjOutrage tore through the country, and sympathizers demonstrated in other major cities. President Johnson had been hesitant to move on voting rights, but he couldn’t avoid the issue any longer.

Some say the address he gave on March 15 was the finest speech he’d ever written.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.

Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes….

In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution.

We must now act in obedience to that oath.

To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their home communities—who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections—the answer is simple. Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land. There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

You can view a video of LBJ giving this speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxEauRq1WxQ

In less than two weeks, thousands of voters in states that a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act was meant for may not be allowed to vote. The overwhelming majority of them will be minorities.

Ian Millhiser elucidates beautifully the problem with the SCOTUS decision to reinstate Texas’ draconian voter ID in an article on “Think Progress”; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed up all night to write a dissent to the decision. I won’t try to interpret for you Mr. Millhiser’s argument; it can be read here: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/10/18/3581589/the-dangerous-legal-rule-behind-the-supreme-courts-voter-id-order/

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Ian Millhiser

Mr. Millhiser’s main point is that “Voter ID laws are voter suppression laws.” They are Jim Crow at its worst. President Johnson himself warned that there would be people seeking to use “ingenious” means of skirting around the law. But when members of the Supreme Court itself use such means to skirt laws that are at the very foundation of Constitutional rights, something is very, very wrong.

This is not just a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats. This is a matter of racists being allowed to control the destiny of millions of Americans. This is not just Jim Crow at its worst, it is also pre-1865 in intent.

I am white. I first voted in 1974, for George McGovern. I always vote in town, state, and national elections, so I have been to the polls many, many times. I have never once been asked to show ID at a polling place. The worst thing that ever happened to me at a polling place was when a local gossip who was a poll worker yelled personal information about me across the room. That hurt me at the time, but I would rather it happen to me a million times before fellow Americans, fellow human beings, were denied their right to vote.

In the words of a beloved fictional activist, Billy Kwan, “What then must we do?”

We must protest. We must have the Voter Rights Act reinstated in full with Section Five restored. We must call and write our congressmen; start petitions online, do whatever our particular talents are to make this right.

I pray for all of those people voting in the coming days, that all will cast their vote safely. I pray that there will be poll monitors in Texas and Alabama and Mississippi. I pray that, amidst all the other pressing issues facing us today, we will rise up and demand justice. Pass this blog on; share it with your friends; form a group; be heard.

President Johnson ended his 1965 speech, “We shall overcome,” echoing the civil rights movement’s anthem. I say, we must overcome or the soul of this nation will die.

 

 

 

 

 

The Moral Universe – Be Fearless

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It strikes me that those who are doing most to spread fear about Ebola, gay marriage, black people, poor people, and non-Christian people (mostly Muslims and especially Presidents) are the very people who are best suited to isolate themselves from all of these scary things.

It is unlikely that Tom Cotton, for instance, or Greg Abbott, or Mitch McConnell or Mike Huckabee or _____ (fill in the blank) from Fox News Network will ever be near enough to someone who has contracted Ebola to catch it from them.

It’s also unlikely that they’ll be invited to a gay marriage any time soon, that they know any black or poor (or poor black, yikes!) people, or that they regularly associate with Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Shintoists, Buddhists, etc. And since they have all pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made a ton of money without any help from anyone else, they can hide away in their luxury homes and be pretty certain that none of these groups of people are going to come knocking on their door on Halloween (which they also reject because it’s got something to do with devil worship even though it’s really All Souls’ Day, a Christian holiday).

It must be horrible to live in such fear all the time (though isn’t this ironic: They don’t fear global warming.). Yet I don’t feel any pity for them; their fear is in their own heads and at some point they decided not to educate themselves. They seem to prefer to live in ignorance, make lots of money and decide how everybody else should live (or not live, as the case may be).

I wonder what the response would be if one of these people asked someone with Ebola what they might be afraid of.

Or if they asked a gay person commemorating the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard what they’re afraid of.

Or asked a black person who gets up every day wondering whether this is the day the police will decide that they are acting suspiciously and pull a gun on them.

Or asked a Middle Easterner in the path of ISIL what scares them.

I made a decision long ago, around the time I received a threatening phone call from an anonymous person who didn’t like the fact that I wrote a lot about Nelson Mandela in my newspaper column (he asked me what I knew about self-defense), that I was not going to be afraid of the world. I renewed that decision when I returned to my faith and put myself into the hands of Jesus Christ.

But these people scare the shit out of me. Yet, because of my faith, I have to learn not only how to not be afraid of them, but also how to love them as fellow human beings and children of God.

I heard a story recently about an astronaut who was sailing into outer space with people from other countries on board. At first, everyone was looking for their country, then their own continent, until they suddenly realized they could only see one planet, “this fragile Earth, our island home” (Book of Common Prayer). It affected him strongly, giving him a new view of himself as a citizen of Earth rather than a citizen of a particular country with its own patriotic self-importance and prejudices.

These lines are taken from An Act of Reconciliation and Sharing of the Peace at a National Service of Thanksgiving in South Africa in 1994:

“We struggled against one another; now we are reconciled to struggle for one another.

“We believed it was right to withstand one another; now we are reconciled to understand one another.

“We endured the power of violence; now we are reconciled to the power of tolerance.

“We tried to frighten one another into submission; now we are reconciled to lift one another into fulfillment.”

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

The prayer comes from An African Prayer Book; the prayers were selected by Desmond Tutu. I look at his picture on the cover and my own fear recedes. If he has not been afraid, how can I be?

 

 

The Moral Universe – Are the Police the New KKK?

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The United States cannot claim any moral high ground over Middle East nations that are not trying to thwart the Islamic State when almost every day we learn of new instances of police brutality against black people and do nothing to stop it.

Continually we learn of outrageous new incidents where policemen have either over-reacted or acted in a way they saw fit while confronting black men. This week we learned of Jamal Jones, a passenger in a car being driven by his girlfriend, Lisa Mahone. Their children were in the backseat. They were on their way to a hospital to say good-bye to Ms. Mahone’s dying mother.

The car was stopped for a “seatbelt violation,” the new code for driving while black or in the company of a black person. Despite Ms. Mahone’s cooperation, the policeman decided to question Mr. Jones with gun drawn and demanded to see his ID. He had no right to ask for it, and Mr. Jones was not obliged to give it. As the policeman became more aggressive, Mr. Jones told the policeman that he was afraid to open the window. (Ms. Mahone, meanwhile, had actually called 911 and told a supervisor what was going on.) The policeman then took his billy club, smashed the window in, and tased Mr. Jones while dragging him from the car.

Don’t take my word for it; it’s captured on video: http://thefreethoughtproject.com/family-traveling-hospital-tased-assaulted-traffic-stop-seat-belt-violation/.

The look of smug privilege on the policeman’s face as he wielded the billy club is disgusting. So is the reaction of Indiana officials that the policeman was operating within the law.

Last week we learned of Lavar Jones, the South Carolina black man who didn’t even know he was being pulled over until he got out of his car at a gas station. This was also for a “seatbelt violation.” The State Police trooper immediately pulled his gun and told the man to show his driver’s license. The man turned to get his license from his car and when he turned back, the policeman shot him twice. Fortunately, the man survived. This was captured on the trooper’s own dash-cam (http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/25/justice/south-carolina-trooper-shooting/). At least the trooper was charged.

Is anyone even aware of what happened to John Crawford in an Ohio Wal-Mart? While shopping and talking on the phone, he picked up a BB gun. Now mind you, Ohio has an open-carry law, but a white customer called 911 and said that a black man was waving a rifle around (not true; yup, on video too). The police who responded rushed into the store and shot Mr. Crawford dead before asking any questions. A grand jury refused to indict the policeman.

The city of Ferguson, Missouri, is worried about black reaction if policeman Darren Wilson is not indicted by the grand jury. What are officials doing about it? Holding reconciliation meetings? Oh no, they’re gearing the police with more weapons and ammunition and have called in the FBI. This makes the federal government complicit with any new violence that takes place in Ferguson.

Put in this mix the strife there will be over the upcoming mid-term elections when millions of people across the country are turned away from the polls because of draconian new laws instituted after the Supreme Court took the heart out of the Voting Rights Act.

Let’s see, what else is going on this patriot’s dream of a country? Oh yes, there’s the blaming of all Muslims for ISIL and Scott Brown fomenting hatred against them in New Hampshire. There’s the blaming of President Obama for the Ebola epidemic . . . Well, I won’t go on, you get the picture.

We know these kinds of things have been happening since so-called Reconstruction ended in the 19th century. Am I the only one, though, seeing such a rise in violent racial acts since President Obama was elected? And committed with such impunity? The Tea Party has fomented an “us” vs. “them” attitude for the past six years, spewing lies and bent truths for their own agenda. Hate in the brain is going to translate to hate in actions sooner or later. Members call it patriotism; I call it malevolence. They cannot possibly love a country they are making such a mess of.

It’s time for a march again. The only trouble in organizing one is deciding where it should take place. Florida? Washington, DC? Missouri? South Carolina? Ohio? New York? Maybe in all of them.

The Moral Universe – Learning to Embrace A Native Son

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The little corner of Massachusetts that nestles against the borders of New York and Connecticut in the Southern Berkshires is the site of much history to do with slavery and civil rights.

Until fairly recent years, though, not many local people knew about that history. It is possible that they didn’t want to know.

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W.E.B. Du Bois

The small town of Great Barrington there, my hometown, was also the hometown of W.E.B. Du Bois. He grew up there, went to school with white children, and maintained a lifelong relationship with his roots here in the “Black Burghardt” family, as he called it. His first wife, infant son, and grown daughter Yolande are buried here, in the Mahaiwe Cemetery next to a little complex that houses Randy Weinstein’s Du Bois Center and North Star Rare Bookstore.

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Randy Weinstein

Does “North Star” sound familiar in the annals of the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans? It should; it was the name of Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper. Not only a metaphor for the escape from slavery, Polaris was also a literal guide to the thousands of slave refugees who made their way to non-slavery states and Canada on the Underground Railroad.

Randy knew about Du Bois from his earliest childhood thanks to Rebecca Alexander, the black woman who was his friend, nanny, and parental figure until the age of 17 while his parents were working. Rebecca, a granddaughter of slaves, told him lots of stories, including stories about Du Bois. Randy dedicated his book, Against the Tide, to her in 1996 and named his daughter for her.

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Rebecca Alexander

Randy eventually worked at a residential treatment center, starting at the bottom and working his way up to director. The majority of youths he worked with were black and made tough from living in inner cities. For many of them, the treatment center was the last option before confinement. He found a way to get through to them by using history – their history – to educate and impart a positive self-image.

It was what we call coincidence, but possibly meant to be, that Randy wound up in Great Barrington. It must have seemed like coming full circle for him to be living in the birthplace of the activist, NAACP co-founder, newspaper editor, philosopher, and author Du Bois.

Randy sought to commemorate him and, almost nine years ago, established the bookstore and center next to the cemetery that he considers sacred ground. He used credit cards to open the center and is still paying off the debt, but “it’s a gift that Great Barrington has earned,” he said, for finally opening up to, and embracing, its native son. Randy was instrumental in getting signs put up at the main borders of the town declaring it Du Bois’s birthplace.birthplace-sign-400

“One of my goals in opening the center was so that the name ‘Du Bois’ didn’t have to be controversial,” he said, hoping that enough exposure would divert overt hostility.

And that has mainly happened, but it wasn’t always that way. The controversy began in the 1960s when two men, one black (Dr. Edmund Gordon) and one white (Walter Wilson), purchased the land on which had sat Du Bois’s childhood home on Route 23 in Great Barrington. Dr. Gordon was a professor of psychology at Columbia University and National Research Director of Project Head Start. Mr. Wilson was a land developer who had spent time as Southern Secretary of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the time leading up to the commemoration of the site in the late 1960s, townspeople were divided on the notion of honoring Du Bois, ostensibly because of his late life membership in the Communist Party and his acceptance of Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation to live and work in Ghana.

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The Infant Du Bois and His Mother

When the site was dedicated in October 1969, actor Ossie Davis was the emcee and Georgia legislator Julian Bond, who had come out of the Atlanta chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was the keynote speaker. Du Bois’s widow attended, as did playwright William Gibson (“The Miracle Worker”). Local residents Ruth Jones and Frederick Lord were there as incorporators. The FBI was also there, because who knows what mayhem a group of peaceful people gathered in a woody clearing on an autumn afternoon might get up to?

As I walked the path to the homesite recently, I had to wonder why I was not at the ceremony that fall day. I was aware of the controversy; I know that I and my peers, who opposed the Vietnam war, derided the logic of granting Du Bois his full measure of respect because of the Communist angle. We certainly talked about racism in our “Contemporary Affairs” class and, when a leading local member of the John Birch Society spoke to our class, I got into a shouting match with him that my schoolmates egged on until the man’s face was purple with rage. So why were we not encouraged to witness history that day? What was more important than the opportunity to hear Julian Bond in person, to be part of history in our very own neck of the woods?

Well, when I figured out exactly where I was, I felt sorrow and anger for my 17-year-old self. I was a cheerleader; it was an October Saturday afternoon. There was a football game and my on-again, off-again boyfriend was a team member. It might even have been the same afternoon when he broke my heart, not for the first or last time. The anger’s gone, but I still feel some sorrow for missing the historic opportunity.

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The River Walk Marker

I moved away from Great Barrington for many years, and when I returned in the early 2000s, Du Bois was once again the subject of controversy. Two new schools were to be built and a local resident suggested that one be named after Du Bois. It seemed a no-brainer, and the School Committee at first agreed, but later flip-flopped with transparent excuses. Was it because of racism or anti-Communism? The committee’s turn-around brought criticism from far beyond Great Barrington, and also derision as one of the schools was named “Muddy Brook.”

By this time, the homesite had been donated to the University of Massachusetts and it was being excavated. Over the next several years, a cadre of local people, including Randy, the late Rev. Esther Dozier of the AME Zion Church, Wray Gunn and Elaine Gunn, kept Du Bois’s name in the forefront with activities and speakers. The homesite now has a proper trail leading to it, with plaques and pictures replicating Du Bois’s journey from Great Barrington along it. The River Walk along the Housatonic River in the center of town, near his actual birthsite, is dedicated to him, and the greater community has a map of all places in the county associated with slavery, black Civil War veterans, and other hallmarks of the march toward freedom.

You can visit the Du Bois Center online, but you’re in for a bigger treat if you visit in person. Randy has a wealth of historical knowledge about much more than W.E.B. Du Bois. He is also an expert on Ulysses S. Grant and is working on a book of commentaries about Grant’s writings.