Category Archives: Politics

31st and 32nd days of Lent. The Movement Continues.

Wednesday afternoon I listened to Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York speak about her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. I wrote a post and was editing it when I deleted three paragraphs by accident. In my rush to undo my error I undid my ability to recover what I’d deleted. Sometimes things happen that you can’t undo. I was frustrated when it happened, but more of me was tired. Still, remembering that my Lenten commitment is to end my days with a post, I pressed on. My body let me know pretty quickly that there was not going to be any re-write. I protested. My body doubled-down. I fell asleep sitting in my chair, relented when I awoke, and headed to bed.

A day after listening to Theoharis talk about her book, how is it reverberating? What about it is still with me? I know that yesterday, after ninety minutes, I remained engaged. Today I read the kindle sample pages and was happy to see her style is easy to read. I logged in at my local library and found twenty-six copies of her book available. I reserved one. I’d already listened to this interview with Tavis Smiley. I looked for others, and found several. The one I particularly enjoyed, and which you can watch as a video podcast if you like, is her interview with Amy Goodman.  I suppose you can say that a compelling life, led to a compelling book, which compelled me to learn more.

What else? One of the fundamental points Theoharis makes is that the story about Rosa Parks that we’ve over-learned, and by that I mean the version that says that on Dec 1, 1955 the reason she broke a segregation law by refusing to give her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man who’d just boarded is she was tired after a long day of work and just wanted to get home. Or that it was an accident, or it happened by chance. Any version of what happened that even faintly hints that way, is myth.

The day she was arrested for not giving up her seat, she’d already been an activist for more than a decade. She knew that in the year prior, three other women were arrested for refusing to give up their seats, and that nothing had changed. That summer she’d spent time at Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in Monteagle, Tennessee. Just five days before she kept her seat she attended a mass meeting hosted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and featuring T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi. Emmett Till’s murder was that summer, and his killers acquitted in their trial. That’s what brought Howard to Montgomery. All of these events, combined with the rest of her life experience is what led to her decision to keep her seat. Her decision is something she’d lived into.

Who are you? What sort of person do you want to become? Are your actions aligned with your values? Like it or not, you’re living into something. People, live into everything.

At the end of her lecture I asked Dr. Theoharis what Rosa Parks might have said about Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the related “Black Lives Matter” campaign. I expected her to flesh out one of the themes in her book, the importance of perseverance, and not giving up. Instead, she said “I think she’d say it was exciting.” I was stunned. Instead of evaluating those events, or talking about her book, Theoharis shared the perspective of a woman who would see the thread that ties the events of the last year, to those she grew up living through, long before she gave up her seat. To my chagrin, I realized that in not seeing it myself, I’d accepted a chunk of the myth that surrounds Rosa Parks. My blindness is such that I could not see the connection between these events, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. That’s when I understood the obvious; the Civil Rights movement isn’t over. It continues.



What Matters: Living After Sandy Hook.

On Thursday, I did some last minute shopping at Target. At Sweets’ school, today is Pajama dress down day. The kids can wear pajamas to school in place of their regular uniforms. In preparation–after deciding she didn’t have anything suitable to wear at home–Sweets poured through racks of fleece and cotton sleepwear. Finding two different sets with potential, she asked, “Dad, where are the dressing rooms again?” “Walk from here to that corner over there” I said, while pointing to a wall on the other side of the store. “That’s where they are.” “Okay. I’m going to try these on. Will you be here when I get back?” “Yes” I said. She walked the fifty yards to the dressing rooms alone. I remained where I was, chatting with a friend. Target is a place where Sweets feels safe. I do, too.

While we were there, we ran into six other students, their parents, and one of the school’s First Grade teachers. Everyone was shopping for pajamas. I walked over to the teacher to say hello. It was the first time I’d had a moment with her since last Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary. This teacher is a marvelous person, and such a good teacher that parents with children in her class, often request that she teach their next child as well. I’ve had that conversation. I’ve encouraged other parents to have that conversation. She’s that good. While we were talking, I swallowed hard. If my daughter’s school was Sandy Hook, she might have been one of the victims. It was a sobering moment.

Last Friday, when the news about the shootings broke, I was stunned. “Not again,” I thought. I spent much of the day driving. I was spending the weekend with my parents. My dad had heart bypass surgery just before Thanksgiving. He was coming home. I wanted to be available to help with any transition issues that might arise. I’d also planned to meet with a friend. We were going to organize Christmas cards. Mine never seem to make it into the mail (I say “maybe this year,” every year).

In the car, I moved in and out of the range of a given radio station’s signal. As I did I invariably ran into the tragedy as “breaking” news. It was disorienting. I didn’t want the drive to become an extended meditation on what had just happened. I turned off the radio and traded it for un-listened podcasts on my iPod.

I finished the drive, and met my friend. The first thing that came up in conversation? Sandy Hook. After a few minutes, we let the topic go. Like me, she was struggling to understand how something like this could have happened. A while later, I noticed her two year old trying to climb onto an office chair using the space under the arm rest as his entry point. Concerned that he might get stuck, or fall, I picked him up and held him high, so that he could touch the ceiling. I set him down and he bent his legs. He was ready to leap again. We repeated the play again and again. Enough times that he was able to hit the ceiling with his right hand, with his left, and with the two of them together in multiple combinations. We repeated this until my arms tired. For me, the moment of play became a symbolic action of a future filled with hope. One where he would break through whatever ceiling was before him. One, where the sky would be his limit.

In Target, the teacher asked me, “Has Sweets started making snowflakes?” Her daughter, who is seven looked up and said, “Mom, who’s making snowflakes?” “I think you will. Maybe tomorrow” she replied. “What for?” “A lot of schools are making snowflakes for other children, so that when they come to school it will look like a Winter wonderland. Isn’t that wonderful?” “Yes!” Her daughter clearly liked the idea. “Can we make snowflakes too Mom?” “Of course.” The teacher looked at me. I wanted to ask how she was. She beat me to the punch. “How is Sweets doing?” “I think she’s okay,” I said. “I asked her if she’d heard about what happened, which she had. I asked if she wanted to talk about it. She didn’t. I let her know that if she wants to, we can, but we don’t have to. She told me there was a moment of silence on Monday “which is what we always do when something bad happens.”” Sweets’ teacher chuckled, and added, “I think that’s a good approach. There’s no need to take her anywhere she’s not ready to go. All it will do is scare her.”

During the past week, I’ve been thinking about how a person is supposed to respond, how we’re supposed to live, after an event like this. There are obvious things. Gun control. Everywhere else in the world, when something like this has happened limiting access to guns has dramatically curtailed further incidents of gun related violence. This is not a Second Amendment issue. This is common sense. The politics of gun control may be difficult. The logic is clear.

We need to do more to support the Mental health of our citizens. Stories like this one are heartbreaking. Collectively, taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves, is a responsibility we share.

The most important thing we can do? That’s easy. It’s this: show up. Stress, anxiety and shock shut us down. They keep us from feeling comfortable walking across a department store where most days we are safe. It keeps parents from finding friendship with each other over time, in the places where they gather. The way I do, at Target, and my children’s schools.

As she disappeared from view I didn’t worry that Sweets wasn’t in my line of sight. She knows how to behave around strangers, and she’d checked to make sure she knew where to find me when she returned. Those gestures, and her simple walk, are small unconscious ways we all have of showing that violence doesn’t win. It’s a way we have of putting the evil that happened at Sandy Hook, in its place. During the past week, people have been bringing stuffed animals, candles, and flowers to makeshift memorials throughout Newtown, CT. These acts do the same thing. They convey our mourning, yes. They speak to the reality of our shared pain. Most important, they are a way of saying to the families of the victims: You are not alone. We are with you.

For me, one of the wonders of the presence of newborn children is the way babies re-orient a parent’s life. Everything a parent does, has the child’s well-being at the center. Nothing else is important. New parents know this, and feel the weight of responsibility, as they leave the hospital, or their birth center. The stakes are high, a new life is in your hands, and there’s no manual. Newborns and young children are often overwhelming. They eat at all hours. They sleep and wake when they want to. They pee and poop without asking if you have a diaper handy, or a change of clothing nearby. Sometimes, five minutes after they finish, they do it again. Still, most new parents learn to successfully shift their attention from what I want to do, to what the baby needs.

Last Friday, after dinner, my friend said, “I don’t think I can work on Christmas cards tonight.” I sighed in relief. I couldn’t think about bringing glad tidings. Not that night. Instead, we watched a movie with her nine year old daughter. I sat on one side of her child, my friend on the other. The movie, “Henry Poole Is Here” is a quirky tale of redemption. I needed something to redeem the day. As the DVD played, I realized I didn’t like the film. Neither did my friend. In the end, our sense of it wasn’t important. We looked to the child sitting in our midst. If she wanted to watch it, we would. If not, we’d find something else. We checked with her multiple times. Every time, she said that she wanted to keep watching. That’s what happened. That night, like many people, we were out of sorts. I was reeling. Without thinking we knew one thing: nothing was more important than meeting her needs.

A week later, that remains true. I think the way to think about what to do, how to respond, and how to live after Sandy Hook, must begin by thinking as differently as the parent of a newborn does. We need to re-orient our sense of what we want and need. We have to keep showing up, and live as if the needs of our children trump any of our own. We must do this, today, tomorrow and every day after, because they really do. Our children aren’t simply our future. They are our precious present. Nothing else matters.


It’s A Wonderful Life or Why You Should Support The Bank Bailout

The clearest explanation I’ve found comes from a scene in one of my favorite films, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you know the film, you’ll recognize it immediately.

[during the run on the bank] “You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?…Now wait…now listen…now listen to me. I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town.”

What freaked folks out two weeks ago is that funds (Lehman, AIG) didn’t pay back the money they were loaned. They broke the bank. Banks loan money through the commercial paper market. It’s a system that depends on trust. With that trust lost, banks didn’t want to lend each other money. As a result credit has tightened. It’s now harder for banks to loan each other, businesses and everyone else the money needed to keep the economy going. Essentially, that means a rewrite of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” scene for our time might look like this:

“Starbucks money is in Microsoft’s business. And their money is in your utility company’s, and in Home Depot’s, your local hospital’s, and a hundred others. Why, everyday through the commercial paper market of our financial system they lend each other the money they need to do their business, and then, they pay it back as fast as they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?”

If we didn’t bail out Wall Street then in effect we’d be foreclosing on them. If banks don’t lend each other money then they can’t lend businesses or people money. If your local retailer can’t borrow the money it needs to buy what it sells, then it may close, or scale back it’s business and reduce it’s workforce. People who aren’t working buy fewer things. That shrinks the need of the retailer to have as much stock on hand or as many stores in operation. That means more folks are out of work and you get a snowball effect that leads to recession.

Is this bill the best we could have done? Probably not. Is it better than the first bill, yes. And this isn’t something we could take our time with.

Does the bail out fix everything? No. This could happen again. The Potter’s of the financial world are real. There will always be people willing to take risks to make money. That’s why following up the bail out with regulation is a good next step.

At the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” all the townspeople come forward with gifts of money and put them in a large basket. Together they bail out the Bailey Building and Loan. As Clarence the angel says earlier in the movie, “… you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”