If you are American, particularly if you are a white American, male, Christian (especially if you are Protestant), and most definitely if you are rich; basically, if you have any of the markers in our society of possessing what is called privilege (and certainly there are others–if you are straight, thin, attractive, able-bodied, you too have privilege in our society), you should take the time to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
For me, it is something that I take the time to read and reread every few years, but I truly think every American should read it at least once, because it is eye-opening and instructive, in a way that very little of the history you learned in school was, particularly on the matter of how this country was actually built. There is a lot I considered saying here…in defense of my own privilege, in apology of it, in defense of my own lack of privilege, in apology of it… The matters of race, in particular, are difficult to address, and I cannot pretend to have the ability to be able to do them justice. But I can try to speak with some accuracy and integrity and honesty about my feelings on the problem of our historical ignorance and denialism, and the manner in which I think, I hope, we can begin to recognize both.
History is the memory of states,” wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leavers of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies… But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everywhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation–a world not restored but disintegrated.
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nation are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of a thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as sheen by the Cherokees, of the Civil Was as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican War as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women of the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the post war American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.
My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
~Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Particularly if you are white, male, Christian (especially if you are Protestant), and most definitely if you are rich, you are taking part (wittingly or unwittingly, willingly or unwillingly, fairly or unfairly) in a system responsible for a both genocide and the total subjugation of peoples on the basis of race, religion, and class. This is true whether you are from the United States, or (as I have learned over the years from my international friends) if you are in Australia or Canada–pretty much anywhere that Europeans saw fit to make a profit on the backs of native peoples. Since I am from the US, I’m going to leave the sin of those nations to the privileged peoples of those countries to explore, and focus on the sins of this nation, to which we are all complicit in perpetuating to one group or another.
Among those most wronged in the history of this nation are its original, Native inhabitants, the Africans brought to its shores in chains, and the descendants of both. To be sure (only because someone is sure to comment upon it defensively), the privileged have wronged other people as well–Catholics and Baptists in the colony of Virginia, factory and mine workers during the 1930’s, migrant workers in the West, women of all colors (though white women such as myself share less of the burden there), the veterans from a number of wars–from Black soldiers in the Union army to the Bonus Army to the veterans of Vietnam, families in Japanese Americans internment camps, immigrants from every corner of the world, Muslims, particularly after 9/11…and this is in no way a comprehensive list. But the scale of these wrongs is nowhere close to that of what has been done by white Americans to Native Americans and Black Americans.
History classes have traditionally ignored this aspect of our nation’s history; if you are lucky enough to take an AP or honors class in high school with a good teacher or a university history class from a professor that thinks of a general, introductory history class as more than a collection of dates, you might learn a little bit more than the average citizen. But by and large, Americans are ignorant about the realities of their own history, and loathe to remedy that situation.
It is astounding to me that we, as a nation, criticize the Japanese for their failure to address the most heinous aspects of their recent Imperial history–the rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the forced prostitution of comfort women, and the testing of chemical and biological weapons on civilian populations while Columbus Day is a national holiday and the nation’s capitol’s football team is named after a derogatory term used to other the indigenous people of this continent, that the majority still seeks ways to keep minorities from voting (a right that they died for at the hands of mobs of that majority) and where a flag that symbolized open rebellion over the right to own people and the terrorization of Black Americans is a bumper sticker for regional pride and “sticking to the man” (ironic, when the people perpetuating this falsehood are, in fact “the man”).
And so, as we get ready to celebrate the great American myth (on my more optimistic days I like to think of it as our founding goal)–that this country was founded on the principle of freedom from tyranny, I think it is proper that we take a moment to think about men and women that were crushed by that freedom, and that still struggle under the weight of its memory. Because this nation, this quilt of communities, stitched together by blood and struggle, will never be free until we have reconciled the simple fact that privilege is paid for in human coin.
As we enjoy our barbecues, take a moment to remember the millions of men and women and children that were brutally terrorized in conquest to build the cities and towns in which we live (and the millions more killed by the diseases our ancestors and our predecessors spread to them, and the hundreds of thousands more displaced from their traditional homelands). Take a moment to remember the millions of men and women and children that died at sea, crammed into the dank, dark hulls of ships, snatched from their homes for the profit of greedy men, under the guise of religious salvation. Take a moment to remember that many of the very authors of the Declaration of Independence, so focused in the injustice of taxation without representation ignored the injustice of their contrived white superiority.
As we enjoy our fireworks, take a moment to remember the families and cultures torn asunder by those in power–the Native American children sent to white schools meant to “civilize” them and the Black parents and children sold as chattel to keep them in their place. Take a moment to remember the men and women beaten and killed for daring to live free. Take a moment to remember that the President of the United States of America ignored both Congress and the Supreme Court to send an entire nation of peoples on a march that rivals the Bataan Death March. Take a moment to remember that even after the end of slavery that Black Americans were terrorized in their homes, their churches, and their communities for daring to vote, to ride a bus, to use a lunch counter. Take a moment to remember travesties so numerous that I cannot possibly recount them all in one blog post–volumes have been written to document them.
Privilege comes in many guises, from race, religion, economic status, gender, sexual identity, and level of education to regionalism, ethnicity, language, appearance, physical ability, neurodiversity, and beyond. For most of this nation’s history, not being these things–whiteness, Christianness, maleness, straightness, etc, were seen as inferior, as a weakness, and the people that had them were exploited and oppressed. This tendency to create and subjugate people for their differences has been a long tradition in human history–this is not an excuse for the behavior of our forefathers, but rather a statement of fact. But despite this tendency, or perhaps because of it, because of those that struggle against it, there is something else that is true. To add a thought to a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King and Theodore Parker, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it surely bends towards justice…and with justice, so follows freedom.
Let us endeavor to ensure that all of us can partake of that freedom, not just some of us. It is the least that we can offer after five centuries of human sacrifice upon the altar of American nation-building.
What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.
~Frank James, in a censored speech, 1970, the entirety of which should be read and can be found here
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, “I have a dream” speech, 1963, the entirety of which (as well as video) of which should be watched and read here
Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.*
At the beginning of this Maxim Monday enterprise I wrote about “being overcome by justice”, and its intersection with the 2nd principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In it, I quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. a couple of times. Somehow in a stroke of kismet or coincidence, I picked its companion maxim for Martin Luther King Day, not really thinking about the timing, until just before I sat down to write. I had an entirely different post in mind until then…something in line with service (which I’ve talked about before) as a form of practicing justice…
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.*
I think that this maxim happens to be one that Martin Luther King, Jr. might have been a fan of.
I’m not sure there is much I can say on this subject though, that he didn’t say. And on that matter, I’d prefer to let him speak for himself.
There will be hundreds of posts and articles and news clips on Martin Luther King today, as a historical figure, as an icon for justice and civil rights, and as a husband and father. I encourage everyone to watch or read them–the Civil Rights era is an important period of our time that we could all use to be more cognizant of…but this post is not about that, not precisely.
I think we all can agree that practicing justice is a good thing to do, even if we differ on what that means in our own lives, and how we feel compelled to express it. Men (and women) like Martin Luther King do (and have done) a far better job of orating and demonstrating how we can be more just than I will ever be capable of doing. But what I can do–probably my most important contribution towards bending the universe towards justice, is to teach my children what it means to be overcome by justice and to practice what is just, by talking to them about justice and our failings in living justly with honesty and integrity to the best of my ability and demonstrating just actions in my dealings with them and others.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.*
Today my Chickadee asked me a very serious question that I wasn’t quite ready to answer,”Why did a white man kill Martin Luther King? Is it because he was black?” For an almost six year old, this is a serious question that she just didn’t know the answer to. But for me…this question was just a little bit heartbreaking.
Just last week, my baby girl though of skin color as nothing more than nature’s Crayola box. Just last week, my baby girl would tell you that “I’m not white, I’m peach” and would correct anyone that might suggest her bus buddy with brown skin was “black”. As far as she was concerned, our skin colors were no more significant than the colors of flowers, and they should be accurately described. In a mostly white neighborhood, the most significant physical trait of her bus buddy was not the color of her skin, but that “Miss M has ponytails that are better than mine because they have poof.”
And now, not only did she want to know about The Man With A Dream (as she has taken to calling Martin Luther King)–a question much easier to answer than what would follow, but she wanted to know why someone would be mean to someone for having a different color of skin. And then she wanted to know why people would think that they were better than other people for having a different color of skin. And then she wanted to know why people had owned other people. And she wanted to know why we are white, when we are really peach, and why people that are brown are called black, and why any of that matters, because we are all just people. And then she wanted to know if having white skin made people do bad things.
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.*
…And I had a hard time answering some of her questions. I was raised in a family where skin color was treated like eye color…and I come from a place of racial privilege–I’ve experienced prejudice, but never on the basis of my skin color, and never as overt as that sort of prejudice can be. I might intellectually understand that racism exists and where it stems from (we *do* do Civil War reenacting), but I don’t really understand the depths of hatred that it can and has descended to–I don’t get that kind of hatred, and I sure as hell don’t want my children to. I might be guilty of saying something that is prejudiced simply because I come from a place of racial privilege, but that would be/would have been from ignorance, and not maliciousness (and I sincerely apologize if that has ever happened).
How do you explain all of that to a six year old? Especially a six year old with a heart like butterfly wings (seriously, the kiddo gets upset at the idea of hurting someone’s feelings on accident), especially when there are six year olds around the world that LIVE this, on a daily basis. And if not now, from us, when and how will this lesson be taught?
The Hubby and I did our best to explain that people’s minds and hearts can and do change over time. And that people that lived a long time ago had different ideas of what was right and wrong from ours, and that even then they argued over what was right and wrong like we do today. Just because something was right (or wrong) then, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way…as our sense of morality grows into one that is more compassionate and more just, we can change what we do and say to be more equitable and to embrace equality…not just on a basis of race, but everywhere, for every quality that makes us different from one another.
We tried to tell her that sometimes people are afraid of people and things that are different from what they see or do on a daily basis and that sometimes people are afraid of change. That sometimes when people are afraid, they think they need to fight against what they don’t understand, that the fear makes them hate, that the hate can poison their hearts, that poisoned hearts can make them do bad things. We talked about the fact that people are just people, different and beautiful for it. We talked about Martin Luther King, and that he believed in justice for all people that were disadvantaged, whether it be because of skin color, or economic status, or any of the other things that divide us, and we watched The Man With a Dream talk about the day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
I think that he might have liked to see Chickadee and Miss M skipping down the sidewalk, hand in hand, on their way for a play date. I think that maybe, for all that practicing justice often means protesting, it can also means two heads bowed together over a coloring book, drinking cocoa, and watching My Little Pony. Practicing justice is about doing what is right. And what is more right than two six year olds than playing, together, oblivious to the controversies that might have stirred before they were even born?
*quotes are from Martin Luther King, Jr.
Gain possessions justly (Δικαιως κτω) Delphic Maxim #64
Acquire wealth justly (Πλουτει δικιως) Delphic Maxim #117
I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out just what, exactly, can be said about these two (fairly redundant) maxims, that shouldn’t be patently obvious. And then The Hubby pointed out something else that should have been even more patently obvious–these maxims can’t be all that obvious, considering the economic issues over the last few years. So, I guess it might be a good idea to talk about just acquisition after all.
1) What does it mean to acquire things justly?
I’d guess that part of the problem here is that people have different ideas of what a “just acquisition” is…but here are my ideas (in brief):
- Paid for with a fair price
- Purchased from a reputable source that treats their employees equitably
- Manufactured in a manner that has the least harm for the environment
2) What keeps us from acquiring things justly?
Ignorance–Sometimes we just don’t know. It would take more time, effort, and energy than most of us have to research each and every supply and supplier we dealt with on a daily basis.
Need–Sometimes we might know, but can’t do too much about it. When the pennies are being pinched, you might be stuck shopping at the cheapest store, regardless of how they treat their employees, or you buy the less environmentally friendly *whatever* because it costs about half as much.
Greed–Sometimes we know, we don’t need (or can afford otherwise), and just don’t care.
3) Where does that leave me?
I never ended up blogging about it, but last year I did a little social experiment. One week, I tried to do my shopping entirely with American-made products. The following week I tried to only buy things that didn’t use plastic packaging, and then I tried to not buy anything where I couldn’t understand the words in the ingredient list, and then I tried making a list of everything I knew I wanted to buy and researched the “best” brand, and then the stores that they could be found at. It was the worst month for shopping ever. All four weeks I was over-budget without getting everything we needed, all four weeks it turned a two hour shopping trip into an all day inconvenience, and the third week left me with more work during the week than I was able to get done (and I already do quite a bit from scratch/the long way). I can’t imagine if I had tried to do all of those things at once…
So I guess that leaves us doing the best we can, and the best we can afford in our day to day lives…and hoping the people at the top are making decisions that we (and our children’s children) can live with (and supposing that they probably aren’t).
The Unitarian Universalist Association has a list of seven principles that its congregations (and members) affirm and promote. The second of these principles calls for “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”, but in practice, I think this principle should be named after the fifth of the Delphic Maxims–to “be overcome by justice”.
Be overcome by justice.
If you look at a few definitions of justice (including its etymological history), there are a couple of key words that emerge. Fairness. Equity. Impartiality. Due reward (or punishment). Vindication of right. It is a nuanced term with a variety of interpretations and applications by persons with differing opinions and values. For me, justice is about treating all persons with fairness–sometimes with equity, and sometimes with equality (which are not the same thing), and figuring out which is the more appropriate way to handle any given situation.
Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.
~Martin Luther King, Jr
But what about being overcome by justice? What the heck does that even mean? Most definitions of overcome seem a bit negative–to defeat in conflict, to overpower, to conquer or defeat, to subdue…and I’m pretty sure this maxim doesn’t mean to get your butt kicked by justice. So there has to be another way to look to look at things.
And I think that “another way” is where the UU 2nd principle meets Delphic Maxim #5. Being overcome by justice, I think, means to be an instrument of justice: To affirm and promote justice for all persons–fairness under the law, impartiality in our dealings with others as respect to their personal beliefs, equity in our responsibilities to society, equality in human rights.
I once read a blog post by Diane Sylvan that meant enough to me at the time that I quoted the relevant parts on my own blog about two years ago. I’ve never been able to find the post again, but the phenomenon she describes here, for emotion, is the perfect explanation of how we are should be called to be an instrument of justice. I think it is best described like this: To cause change, justice must become energy, so in order to be expressed, it must first move through you. The justice that you express will come back to you–but first it starts with you and within you. You have to feel justice. Feel it in the very fiber of your being. And only then, when it has filled you, can it overflow into others.
Its not so much about being overcome by justice, as to let justice come over you, into your heart, and to burn out the prejudice, the pettiness, the hate, the fear. Only then can we hope to be just.
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
(this has been part of the “Delphic Maxim Blogging Party“, that was recently started by Star Foster, and is going on right now–if anyone else is participating in blogging about the Delphic Maxims, feel free to let me know, and I’ll add you to my link list!)