Dissent. Diversity. Unity.

Category archive

Political Thought

Why I Am a Progressive

in Political Thought by

When I was in high school, religion and the existence of God were issues and questions my friends and I debated frequently. I was definitely agnostic. I find comfort in the tangible, the verifiable—I like data, and I enjoy math because I like the certainty of finding a correct answer.

One day (in biology class) I asked a friend of mine who was (and still is) deeply religious why he believed in God. It was a beautiful spring day, and he waved his arm toward the window (we’re both drama nerds, so we love the theatrical) and said, “Look at that life! The trees, the sky, the grass, all the animals out there! How could that be without God?”

For me, this was not a convincing argument. Science could explain the prevalence of life on Earth, and I scoffed at his simplistic faith that dismissed the explanations provided by human discovery and research.

Over the years, however, I have thought of this moment many times. And I have begun to think that although what he was saying was indeed simple, it also contained something fundamentally true:

At the heart of the existence and continuance of life is an essential mystery, an original seed, a moment of wonder. And this is what imbues all life with a sacredness and a call for reverence that must not be dismissed, forgotten, or chopped up and compartmentalized.

In this, I have come to see the divine in this wonder of life—its diversity, its strangeness, its imperfection, and its dogged perseverance. When I think about all the factors that have come together so perfectly so our planet can support such prevalence and multiplicity of life—the exact right distance from our sun, the perfect tilt of our axis that gives us all the cycles that ensure life continues to renew itself year after year, the composition of our planet in both water and minerals, and much more—I am in awe.

And I am deeply grateful.

But it is not enough for me to simply feel this appreciation or to offer up my thanks to a higher power. To truly honor this life, to give of myself in deep gratitude, I must do what I can to protect and care for this fundamental gift of life.

And the science- and data-loving part of me supports this conclusion. For when I look around at our glorious planet, I see this practice of protecting and caring for life everywhere. This is not just a human concept; all life on Earth does something to support, protect, and/or make possible other life on this Earth. This is the basis of any ecosystem: an interconnectivity of care that makes life possible and thrive for all.

Now, how each of us expresses this gratitude and reverence will differ among us. And I’m okay with that; after all, diversity is a part of life itself.

But for me, this reverence for the sacredness of life is what informs my progressive values and drives my political activism.

I advocate for single-payer healthcare for all because, as many have said, healthcare is a human right. But perhaps “right” is the wrong word here, as it calls to the authority of such human-made documents as the US Bill of Rights or the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For me, healthcare is life care, and to be a moral society, we must ensure that all people get the care they need to sustain their life as much as they can and desire.

I advocate to protect the environment and work to minimize the effects of climate change because we are destroying life on this planet and making it unlivable for future generations. We cannot simultaneously hold this gift of life as sacred and yet not work to protect and care for all life on our planet—including life still to come.

I recoil at the glorification and mindless race to needless war because I see—and don’t understand how others DON’T see—that it is a repudiation of all that a moral society holds true. It is to spit on our sacred gift of life.

In fact, all the issues that I and other progressives fight for—quality education for all, racial and gender justice and equality, housing for all, access to quality employment, affordable childcare, paid parental or family leave, ensuring security and dignity for our elder generation, caring for the sick and disabled—and what we fight against—grotesque income and wealth inequality; corporate rule and exploitation; oligarchy; government corruption; poisoning our air, water, and food supply; mass incarceration; extrajudicial killings; systemic discrimination; and on and on . . .

At the heart of all progressive values is a reverence for the sacredness of life and, thus, a commitment to protect and care for everyone in all of our communities, with no racial, gender, income, geographic, or other human-imposed exceptions.

So if someone were to ask me why I believe what I believe—why I am a progressive—I may wave my arm in a very theatrical way and proclaim, “Look at this life! I need to do what I can for it!”

Dear Democratic Leadership: Here’s How You Win

in Political Thought by

Dear Democratic leadership,

Today an article announced that the leadership of the Democratic Party has laid out their agenda: Win back the House and investigate Trump.

Please, I’m begging you. Listen to me: This agenda will NOT help you win.

If your focus is simply to win, then you will lose. If all you are doing is vying for power for the sake of being in power, people will not flock to the polls to support you.

Just as your 2016 election strategyignore battleground states in the general election, focus all of your rhetoric and talking points on bashing Trump and his followers rather than tell people who Clinton is and why we should support her, and offer only empty concern and superficial policies rather than real, substantial solutions to the struggles Americans facedid not bring you an electoral victory in November.

When 20% of American children are living in poverty, your focus should be on helping those families put food on the table and ensure that the utilities stay on, that they have a house to live in, and that there are good jobs that pay a living wage for struggling parents. Focus on these goals, and people will know what you stand forwhat you fight forand the votes will come.

As poverty, foreclosures, and hunger among the nation’s elderly continue to rise and as the GOP works to increase healthcare and drug costs for those 65 and older, fight to make sure that everyone can retire and live out their later years with dignity and security. When you tell everyone you can and whenever you can that you are doing everything you can for America’s aging generation, then people will know that you are on their side, and they will vote for you.

When tens of millions of people are facing the prospect of losing critical healthcare because of skyrocketing costs, put your energy into figuring out how to deliver truly universal coverage in the most cost-efficient way. If Democrats once and for all solve the problem that is the American healthcare systemnot just tinker around the edges, which is what Obamacare doespeople will take notice and will work to get you elected by getting more people to the polls.

When our schools are fighting for the most basic funding while Republicans are working to funnel money to the communities that need it least and away from those who need it most, you need to be battling every day for every American kid to have access to quality education and the opportunity to build a good life for themselves. If you do this, people will know what it means to be a Democrat and will proudly cast their vote for anyone with a (D) next to their name.

When our young adults are struggling under crushing student loan debt, a stagnant economy that offers very little in good entry-level jobs, and a cultural narrative that continually denigrates them, our Democratic elected officials need to work to relieve the burden of those with prohibitive student loan payments, make college affordable for all, revive the economy by supporting industries set to explode (e.g., renewable energies, technology), and begin changing the way we talk about and to our nation’s emerging leaders. Give the next generation your care, respect, and attention, and they will take heed and throw their energy and support behind you to make you the leading party for at least the next forty years.

But when your #1 issue focus is Russia, something that feels distant and abstract and reeks of Washington political game playing to the millions of Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads and the utilities on, to feed their families, to get the healthcare they need to survive, to find a good, steady job that pays a living wage, you are not talking to voters.

You are talking to yourselves.

And there’s not enough of you in your narrow echo chamber to win elections.

Democratic leadership: Stop focusing on what YOU want, and start working toward what Americans NEED.

THAT’S how you win.

What Does It Mean to Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America?

in Political Thought by

What I’m about to say is going to anger a lot of people. And I’ve held my tongue (or, rather, my typing fingers) because of that—I’m at heart a people-pleaser, and I just want everyone to be happy. But I can’t always make that happen and still speak my truth.

Last week my family and I (me, my husband, and our two kids, aged six and four) were in an airport, waiting to board our connecting flight as we traveled home after visiting my in-laws. My children saw some American flags while we were sitting at the gate and began to recite the Pledge of Allegiance together.

A couple of minutes later a man came over and handed us $20 and said he’d like to buy our drinks on the plane. We looked at him confused—why? “I’m so happy to hear your kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I think it’s great. I’m active military, so it means a lot to me.”

We tried to refuse the money—my husband makes a good salary, and if anything, WE should be buying HIM a drink on the plane because he’s the one serving our country in such a fundamental and possibly ultimately sacrificial way. But he insisted we take his money. Hesitantly, I put it in my back pocket, and the man went to board the plane (active military are one of the first groups to board).

My husband turned to me and said, “I feel bad taking his money. We didn’t even teach them the Pledge of Allegiance.”

This is true: they learned it at school. To be clear, we didn’t choose to NOT teach them the Pledge of Allegiance—it’s just not something we’ve thought to prioritize in the limited time we get with our kids (we both work full time).

But the thing is: I do have a little bit of an issue with making kids pledge allegiance to a flag.

And before anyone starts leaving angry comments below, let me break this down to help you understand why.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God,[*] indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1954–present
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1923–1954
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
—The Pledge of Allegiance, 1892–1923

To me, making a pledge—a binding promise—of allegiance—devotion and loyalty—is a serious thing. It is personal because it binds the person to that which they pledge. Any pledge of allegiance should be made with a full understanding of what it means—its significance, what it asks and demands of a person.

A pledge of allegiance should be made thoughtfully, carefully, without being compelled to do so, and with the ability to comprehend what that pledge entails.

My kids have no idea what they’re saying when they say those words. They have not been taught what this pledge means. No one has talked to them about the significance of a pledge or of allegiance. And certainly no one has talked to them about what is meant when we make this pledge of allegiance to a flag.

Not a person. Not an ideal. A flag. A symbol. And a nebulous one at that.

What is the American flag a symbol of? The easy answer, of course, is the United States of America. But why should a person make the individual choice to bind themselves in loyalty to the United States of America? What about America is so special that we, as individuals, should not only pledge our allegiance to it but also compel our children to do so without even giving them an understanding or a choice of what we are asking of them?

What is America? What does it mean? Is it a set of values? Is it the American people? Is it our geographic territory? Is it our shared history?

What are we promising to remain loyal to? What does this promise demand of us?

And should we all agree on what we mean when we make this pledge?

Is it the values and guidelines set forth by our founding documents of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

If so, I can get behind that. If that’s what we mean, yes, I will pledge to uphold and defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights every day of my life. Happily. Proudly.

These guidelines and statements and structures set forth a foundation of values, rights, and a relationship between a people and their government that I believe in, even as they are in places vague and open for interpretation—they remain living documents that help us stay on a path of democracy and liberty even as our world changes and evolves. They are the blueprint for our national community, our sense of what we mean when stand for our country and when we stand together as a country.

And this is why I’m particularly bothered by recent comments by Donald Trump, who lamented that our constitutional system of checks and balances is hindering his ability to efficiently do what he wants to do, saying, “It’s an archaic system. . . . It’s a really bad thing for the country.”

Yes, that’s right, folks: the man who has taken an oath (a pledge) to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” just said that our Constitution is bad for America. If you’re angry at me for questioning what it means to pledge allegiance to a flag (and compelling our children to do so without first ensuring that they understand what they are pledging) but you are not completely outraged by Trump’s comments here, then I’d like you to do some soul searching, because this is a contradiction.

The Constitution established “the Republic for which it [the Flag of United States of America] stands.” If we have willingly and thoughtfully made the Pledge of Allegiance, then we need to be aware that what we have pledged allegiance to may need defending right now from the man who may seek to break his own presidential oath.

Does the flag symbolize a love of the American people?

You know what? I can get behind that too. I don’t agree with everyone in the United States, but I believe all people (even non-Americans) have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe we all have a right to live with dignity and kindness and compassion. I believe in community and caring for one another. I believe all people deserve love, regardless of their political views, their family background, their religion (or lack thereof), their ethnic and/or racial heritage—all of it. I hold a general love for all people based solely on their humanity, and this, of course, includes all Americans.

But I look around at all the people who proudly make the Pledge of Allegiance and who believe that we should compel children to recite it beginning as soon as they can ape the words—and I don’t believe all Pledge lovers and defenders actually love and are willing to defend ALL Americans.

On every kind of media, I see people all too willing to walk down the path that our corporate propagandists and political party leaders are leading us down, paths that divide us and encourage us to hate each other, blame each other, and see each other as fundamentally wrong, as deficient, as less worthy of kindness, compassion, understanding, empathy, and basic human dignity.

I see people shrugging with indifference or even scowling in contempt as fellow Americans are killed and beaten without justice or humanity, as entire communities are abandoned economically and culturally and then decimated by mass incarceration and addiction, as millions of people struggle to make ends meet, provide shelter and food and healthcare for their families, and face impossible choices for their very survival.

How can anyone love America while they also hate or are indifferent to Americans?

Are we “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?” Are we really?

Are we pledging allegiance to this great land we call America?

We should definitely do that. I support that all the way. Yes, please, let’s pledge allegiance to this land.

Let’s vow to defend and protect our land, our water, our biodiversity, our air. Because it is amazing. And we love it. As well we should. Because we live here and depend upon this land and water and air for our very survival, as do the generations that will (hopefully) follow us.

This geographic territory that makes up what we and the world demarcate as the United States of America is our country. The country we claim to love. And we treat it like shit and are destroying it.

We are destroying our own country.

We are destroying our—the American people’s (see above)—ability to survive. To eat healthy food. To breathe clean air. To drink potable water. To not be ravaged by devastating storms and debilitating droughts and destructive fires. To not have our land taken by the rising sea.

How can anyone love America and not care about this land?

What about our shared history?

This is a hard one.

The republic of the United States of America has a great and proud history of grit and determination and idealism made law. We fought for our freedom from an oppressive, parasitic monarchy. We built this nation from the ground up. We took on massive projects that transformed our ability to trade, to move around this country and explore, to build a strong and thriving economy. We were instrumental in defeating fascism that threatened to take over the world, and we then helped rebuild economies globally, not just for our allies but also for those we vanquished. We should all be proud of our country for these things.

But we also built this country through the theft of its land from its native people, a theft that was made possible through genocide, destroying families and communities and cultures. And we continue to steal from and poison and disparage Native Americans.

We built this country and its thriving economy through the abduction, cruel and inhumane subjugation, bondage, and forced servitude of people from another land, which saw the murder of millions of Africans through the slave trade; the rape of millions of women; the physical, emotional, mental, cultural, and economic abuse of generations of black people, abuse that continues to this day in different, evolving forms.

We built this country while we subjugated and devalued an entire gender, reduced them to property, and denied their political voice until relatively recently (it is not yet a century now that women have had the right to vote). And we continue to treat women, their work, their contributions, their voices, their bodies as inferior, as less worthy, as objects to be used and disposed of as the patriarchy sees fit.

I could go on. But the point is: How do we pledge allegiance to a country that is both so great while also so flawed?

Someone once told me that if all of us were perfect, there would be no need for love.

To love America is to embrace our shared history—our imperfect legacy. It is to be proud of when we did good, but it is also to listen with all of our being to those who ask us to acknowledge and own when we failed humanity, when we ignored our own values, as set forth by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. To love America is both to honor our accomplishments as well as to always actively remember and seek to correct our failures of humanity and morality.

When I make the Pledge of Allegiance, this is also what I am promising to do.

I only hope that when we all make this pledge, we think about what it means to us. What does that flag symbolize for each of us? What are we promising of ourselves when we take this oath of loyalty?

What are you willing to do to uphold your pledge of allegiance?

To finish the story that began this post: my husband and I never purchased drinks on the plane—because it was a short flight, it was late at night, and we needed our energy to get our tired kids through the airport, to baggage claim, and then to the car. The man who gave us the money turned out to be sitting in the row in front of me, and I tried to give it back to him: as I said, we didn’t need the money, and I’m sure he needed it more than we did. But he refused. A few days later, still feeling bad for taking that money, I donated it plus another $20 to Wounded Warrior Project. And then I started writing this post.

I agree with him that the Pledge of Allegiance should be taken seriously, and to me this means that it should be respected, that it should be made with thought and care and understanding. I don’t think children should be compelled to take a pledge they don’t comprehend; instead I think we should teach them about it and allow them to participate when they feel they are ready. Because then it will mean something to them. Then it will be real and not just a bunch of words strung together because an authority figure tells us to say them.

After all, wasn’t the Revolutionary War fought in resistance to an authority figure making us do things because he said so?

[*] Note that “under God” was not added until 1954. I am not religious, so when I make the Pledge of Allegiance, I simply don’t say that part, and I know that my pledge doesn’t need it. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which is part of what I am pledging my allegiance to, tells us that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This tells me that people have the right not only to practice whatever faith they believe in but also to not practice a faith if they do not believe. For this reason, I object to this later addition to the Pledge of Allegiance because it is in contradiction to one of the components of what we are pledging allegiance to. It should also be noted that one religious faith, Quakers, do not allow the taking of a pledge, period. And the Bill of Rights protects their right to not pledge allegiance.

Courage in a Time of Fear: Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War

in History/Political Thought by

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was taking a big gamble in making this speech. The year was 1967. April 4 was a damp and dreary Tuesday evening in New York City. Dr. King was to speak before a large and receptive crowd at New York’s famed Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though no one knew it at the time, Dr. King would have exactly one year left to live; in 365 days he would be struck down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee. It was frightening and uncertain time.

Dr. King speaking at his Birmingham’s Sixteenth St. Baptist Church in 1963. An Atlanta native, Dr. King would come to be a thorn in the side of populist and racist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. In fact, in the early stages of the investigation, the FBI looked into whether Governor Wallace played a part in King’s assassination.

For Dr. King this had been a time of severe uncertainty too. He was adrift, without rudder or compass, in search of a new direction for his efforts to speak for the dispossessed. His time of wandering in the wilderness had begun at the climax of his success, the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by then-President Lyndon Johnson (D-TX).

The Act, passed by a southern politician no less, signified the capstone of the Civil Rights Movement. For the first time since reconstruction, racial bias and voter suppression would face serious and sustained judicial action and review through the federal courts. The federal government now had the legal as well as moral tools to prosecute any person, business, or government for racial prejudice and discrimination.

President Johnson perhaps spoke more than he knew when he was said to have uttered sullenly after signing the historic Act: “I have just lost the South for a generation.” But that all lay ahead in the future.

Dr. King busily making last-minute corrections to his remarks on his way to the podium at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967. A consummate writer, King would later claim this speech was the most difficult he ever wrote—even more than his “I Have a Dream” speech that he is remembered for today.

For Dr. King the struggle now shifted gears from the blatant racism and bigotry that existed in the Jim Crow South to the fight for equality and rights in the urban cities of the North. Dr. King would soon find, however, that the last three years of his life would be years of surprising failure and disappointment, as cities, officials, and allies once sympathetic to him and his cause now slowly abandoned him—and the movement altogether. The great marches and rallies that had marked the movement’s highpoints from 1961 to 1964 had slowly eroded away in the face of the two new factors King now had to contend with.

The first was the rise of a new, young, and militant group of civil rights activists such as Mohammed Ali, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X. They represented a growing and ever more vocal group of black Americans who no longer supported the nonviolent, gradual, and organized methods preached by men such as Ralph Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin, of whom King counted himself an ally.

These men of the old guard faced a growing discontent and resentment from fellow African Americans for the suffering and indignities they continued to endure despite the tremendous gains from recent legislation. As for the young militants, their views would soon come to have a creed and image associated with their calls for black separatism and power, in the famed (or infamous) Black Panther Party.

Dr. King (left) and Stokely Carmichael (right) when both were on better terms with each other. The two were a study in contrasts: they diverged on where the next steps of the movement should go. Carmichael believed in militant activism in the streets with no quarter to those in power, whereas King believed in conciliation and continued outreach to all disaffected communities.

The other factor was Vietnam. By now over 450,000 American servicemen were in that tiny corner of Southeast Asia, well on its way to having more bombs dropped on it (roughly 2.5 million tons of explosive munitions) than in the entire European theater of World War II. It is estimated that over 1.3 million casualties (those killed, injured, captured, or missing) would be sustained in America’s longest armed conflict up to that time (the War in Afghanistan/War on Terror now bears that dubious distinction). But all that still lay in the future. On this day King would speak for the first time on Vietnam.

For a man who had been so outspoken throughout his short and remarkable life, up to now King been glaringly reticent about the war. His reasons for silence were understandable, as explained through the age-old maxim “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Dr. King knew that these great bills, acts, and laws of the Civil Rights Movement would have been relegated to the obscurity and death of some Washington committee had it not been for the towering force and strength of President Johnson. King, out of deference and respect for the president and his commitment to civil rights, had held his tongue.

Initially Dr. King had even once been a strong supporter of the war. Like many Americans of the late 1950s, it was patriotic to support a nation fighting against communist invasion. The stance also lent King and his early followers an air of respectability that made up for the constant and persistent rumors that they themselves represented a Communist fifth column in the United States.

Slowly, however, King began to learn of the real cost of mounting such a war—both in dollars and in lives. Precious tax-payer funds that would have gone to desegregate schools and housing were instead spent to sustain massive armies and bomb enemy sanctuaries. The draft that sent many a young man to Vietnam tended to send more African Americans and poor boys of all colors, young men who could not seek or win deferment from their service. Even the justification for increased hostility, the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, gave Dr. King cause for concern.

President Johnson (left) in a closed-door meeting with Dr. King (right). Although the two had been on friendly terms throughout the early 1960s, their relationship would turn cold as King became less willing to back the president’s agenda and more strident in his opposition to Vietnam.

Still Dr. King felt he knew his place and did not wish to tarnish his reputation or that of the greater struggle by speaking out against the growing controversy of the war. As draft boards began taking middle- and upper-class college students, resistance to the war inexorably moved higher and higher up the social ladder. By the time 1967 rolled around Dr. King knew he faced a choice: he could sidestep no longer. The title of his address went to the heart of his new thinking on the conflict: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

It would come to be known as King’s most controversial speech as well as the one he toiled the most to perfect and craft. Although his “I Have a Dream” speech carries with it the timelessness and beauty of his style and prose, “Beyond Vietnam” would show a different side of his oratory skills. He began by addressing his need to speak out by posing a series of questions asked of him:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

For King, being outspoken was a matter of moral principle and courage, not of political calculation or strategy. He continued by highlighting the vulnerability that antipoverty programs felt under the constraints of a major military action in the federal budget, saying,

I watched this [antipoverty] program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. 

Dr. King speaking at Riverside Church, April 4, 1967. With the exception of sympathetic religious clergymen, most of King’s major and powerful allies would withdraw their support after his comments on Vietnam. Although it made the final year of his life that much more difficult, it freed him from the burden of having to tailor his remarks; he could now speak candidly from his heart.

From here Dr. King highlighted six more reasons, from the glaring racial and economic bias in draft rolls, to dissonance in fighting enemies abroad while failing to protect the vulnerable here at home, to his advocacy for peace in all fields, and to America’s ambiguous role in helping the Vietnamese people achieve self-determination. He culminated his reasons by citing the terrible consequences that total war had brought upon the women, children, and aged of that poor beleaguered nation with poisoned rivers, killed crops, great deforestation, and mass famine.

Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon, the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.

From a man of such deep compassion and conviction, such statements as these could be expected from a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But given the restraint he had previously had on the subject, saying such things must have been a welcome liberation for him as well as a true shock and surprise to many of his allies. Dr. King knew he would pay for his remarks—his complimentary visits to the White House and his favorable coverage by the press would be over. Still, he could now speak his mind freely, uninhibited by his fears of reprisals.

For President Johnson the real and hard break with his administration by the “voice of black America” would be a blow he knew would be hard to recover from. Within the year more and more people would re-examine their own views of the conflict, and opposition to the war would only intensify. President Johnson would recuse himself from re-election on March 31, 1968, four days before King’s death.

In many ways the Vietnam War would serve as a prism from which to view so many other causes, such as the war on poverty, women’s liberation, civil rights (much to King’s regret), and many others. It would be a war that would divide a nation more than any bombing raid, political season, or social movement. And it would take generations to heal.

Despite his specific address toward the Vietnam War specifically, Dr. King addressed history itself when he spoke of the need for a revolution of minds rather than a revolution of guns by saying,

It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause, emphasis added] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [applause]

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This was the real Martin Luther King Jr. No matter how much we may learn and remember of his life, no matter how we may recite his “I Have a Dream” speech, no matter what we may know about his life, his triumphs, his failures, his joys, his pains, his family, his passions, even his prejudices, this we do know: His compassion knew no bounds. He saw his struggle as the essence of the American dogma—that no person should be deprived of their dignity and no price was too small to secure it.

This Black History Month and in future Martin Luther King Jr. Days ahead, remember the King of his last year. Remember his struggle, and remind yourself that it is the struggle of America itself. Dr. King could take comfort should he have lived that he stands in good company today. History has a way of doing that.

No, Progressives Aren’t Afraid of the Word “Liberal”

in Political Thought by

I’ve recently heard it said and many blindly accept that people who call themselves “progressive” do so because they have become afraid of the term “liberal” ever since conservatives led a “liberal” smear campaign.

This claim implies that:

  1. people who call themselves “liberal” and people who call themselves “progressive” are fundamentally the same, hold about the same values, and seek very similar policy reforms. The only difference, according to this claim, is that…
  2. progressives are afraid of owning the word “liberal” or, more to the point, that people who call themselves “progressive” are afraid, which in turn implies that people who call themselves “liberal” are courageous.

First, it should be pointed out that the term “progressive” historically precedes “liberal” as these words are currently used in America. When West Wing’s Matt Santos says that it was liberals who have always fought on the right side of history, he is being anachronistic: the term liberal was not applied in that way at many of his historic examples; indeed, it was progressives who fought for policies that changed the face of America. The Progressive Era (1890s–1920s) helped enact many standards of our nation today—the 40-hour work week, the weekend, that child labor is illegal and considered wrong, and so on. And progressives laid the groundwork for now-integral programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The government programs and regulations that have kept America from degrading into a brutal, inhumane, and depraved society have come into being through the actions of people who proudly called themselves “progressive.”

And yet people still claim that liberals and progressives are fundamentally the same. This claim is difficult to disprove simply because there is not one, universally accepted definition for either term, though you can find several articles online attempting to parse the difference. David Sirota argues that today’s liberals want to help people through government subsidies but are unwilling to impose impactful government regulations or create game-changing programs; instead, liberals want to throw tax-payer money at a problem to temporarily ease the discomfort, whereas progressives want to solve the problem at its root.

The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is one example of liberal vs. progressive approaches. The ACA’s original proposed legislation was a hybrid of liberal and progressive solutions to the problem of the dysfunctional US healthcare system that leaves millions unable to access affordable care. In addition to the reforms and programs we are all familiar with, including Medicaid subsidies, the original bill also included strong government regulation of insurer premiums as well as a government-run insurer that would compete with the private insurers (the public option) and, likely, bring private rates down as a result.

But insurance company lobbyists had a talk with the liberals who run our Democratic Party, and the progressive elements of the legislation were the first to be scrapped. We were sold the promise that Medicaid with subsidies, along with toothless and spotty regulation, would be enough to create universal healthcare for all Americans.

But today 30 million Americans remain uninsured, and an estimated 32 million are underinsured—that’s 62 million Americans who can’t afford to get sick.

The liberal vision for creating universal health coverage in the United States, divorced from progressive oversight, regulation, and policy, has failed.

And when we compare the positions and policy proposals of self-proclaimed progressives to those of self-proclaimed liberals, the difference that emerges is indeed one of courage—but not on the part of liberals.

Progressives are fighting to make our national minimum wage a living wage to pull millions of people out of poverty—and, incidentally, off of government-assistance programs, which would mean saving billions of tax-payer dollars every year, money that is now essentially subsidizing the labor costs of very profitable corporations.

Liberals, however, have meekly and reluctantly been pulled and pressured to state that they would support—not propose or fight for—a $12 minimum wage, which would help people in some areas of the United States but would still leave many, many others struggling to survive below the poverty line.[1]

And while both progressives and liberals accept the science of climate change, it is progressives who are fighting hard to do something about it—seeking to aggressively transform our energy system (which, incidentally, would also make energy cheaper and more accessible to everyday people as well as create millions of jobs that cannot be shipped overseas), halt the increasingly dangerous extraction and transport of fossil fuels, and help those communities that will be impacted the most by the oncoming devastation of climate change.

Liberals, meanwhile, make a few symbolic and largely surface protections and regulations but are unwilling to meaningfully take on the entrenched fossil fuel corporate interests.

In fact, when Native Americans stood their ground (literally, they stood on THEIR ground—the land is theirs, and it is sacred) to stop the construction of an oil pipeline from being run through their water supply—and, by the way, the water supply of 17 million other Americans—progressives fought alongside them. It was progressives who took a moral stand and stated clearly and unequivocally that it is WRONG to support corporate oil interests over the rights of Native Americans and despite our critical need to start aggressively addressing climate change and protecting our world for future generations.

And during the months-long Dakota Access Pipeline standoff, liberal Democrats and, in particular, Hillary Clinton—then the Democratic nominee for president and the person liberals proudly hold up as their standard-bearer—stayed silent. They equivocated and said “no comment” amid pleas from the water protectors that they take a moral stand, that they do what they had previously said they would do: protect Native American rights and act to address climate change. But instead, Clinton and other liberals were morally spineless.

And it is here, when we compare progressives with liberals, that we see the myth break down.

No, progressives and liberals are not the same.

No, progressives are not afraid.

We are not afraid to call out, clearly and emphatically, what is right and what is wrong. We are not afraid to be put in conservatives’ rhetorical crosshairs.

We are not afraid to be radical—because that is not only who we are; it is what we do.

The word “radical” means to “get to the roots.” Progressives seek to solve our society’s greatest problems and challenges not through moral equivocation, not through back-room corporate compromise, not by clipping gingerly at the edges, but by diving in, getting our hands dirty, and fixing what’s broken.

We seek intelligent, meaningful change. Progressives truly fight for people, for our world, for our future.

Vision.

Moral strength.

Courage.

That is the difference between progressives and liberals.

 

[1] The living wage varies by geographic location. You can find your area’s living wage here. Although it is the general progressive position that the national minimum wage should be changed to a flat $15/hour, I disagree with this approach. I believe we should create legislation that mandates that the minimum wage be tied to the living wage, to be determined by a handful of independent agencies, and it should vary by locality. This not only would help ensure that the living wage is appropriate for each local economy but would also incentivize local businesses and chambers of commerce to look more closely at their fellow businesses’ practices—and how those practices may inflate an area’s living wage in a way that benefits only themselves while hurting the greater community.

Go to Top