Engaging for Sustainability

I know. My very title for this blog post sounds to some like yet another naïve stab at kumbaya. Well, stay with me, anyway. We are talking about solving problems in our communities, and the more people who get behind the solution, the more successful it is likely to be.

Kristin Baja, right, with Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol before her presentation.

What I am really aiming to write about, in the narrowest sense, is a morning keynote presentation by Kristin Baja at the tenth annual Growing Sustainable Communities conference in Dubuque, Iowa, on October 4. The City of Dubuque has been hosting this event from the outset, and I rather like the riverside convention center where they host it. Hell, I rather like the mystique of the Mississippi River, the very reason Dubuque exists. I’m fascinated enough that I thought the conference a good venue for meeting people who might be useful to my pet project since leaving the American Planning Association (APA) at the end of May: a two-book series on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods. Dubuque is one of those communities that understands that environmentally healthy communities are a necessary path to the future.

That is why they engaged Kristin Baja, a former planner for the city of Baltimore who was instrumental in effecting significant changes in planning that recognized the fundamental problems that Baltimore needed to address, both socially and environmentally. She openly states that Baltimore was built on a legacy of racism that must be overcome through new approaches that must complement the city’s efforts to address climate change. The poor tend to be more vulnerable to natural hazards. Recently, Baja left her city position to become the Climate Resilience Officer for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. In this new role, she is essentially bringing what she learned at the local level to the national stage.

What she seems to have learned most, and emphasized in her keynote, is the value of empathy, a quality often sorely lacking in national politics. I frankly think we are more likely to relearn its value at the community level, where we can engage directly and personally with our neighbors. Perhaps then we can reapply it to national policy discussions if we can get past the angry tweets and the noise of shouting talk show hosts.

Baja started with a display of many of the same points I have made in this blog before. The climate is changing, and we have plenty of evidence to make this point if we can get people to listen. We cannot afford to continue to confuse weather with climate, for instance, by using one snowstorm to ridicule the entire notion of global warming. “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality,” she suggested, and it is not a bad analogy for helping people to grasp the distinction between short-term and long-term trends. If we are to achieve resilience in our communities, it will be essential to understand that we must build community strength in the face of both shocks, which are sudden and unexpected changes, and stressors, those long-time problems that weaken a community’s social fabric, like high unemployment, poverty, racism, and distrust of authority. If community leaders want to overcome some of that malaise, it is critical that they foster and sustain mutual trust, be accountable, keep promises, share power, value people’s time, and focus on community cohesion. It may be a tall order, but I would add one other factor. When a community finds such leaders, it needs to honor them. Too often, the best intentions are drowned in a tidal wave of vitriol.

I will not reprise every aspect of Baja’s captivating presentation. What I want to share is the underlying logic of her approach. She first came to my attention when I learned about Baltimore’s now well-known DP3 project, which stands for Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project. DP3 resulted in the approval in 2013 of a combined local hazard mitigation plan and climate adaptation plan. Baja participated in a July 2016 webinar I organized for APA on the subject of merging climate adaptation and hazard mitigation plans.

Hazard mitigation plans have been produced by the thousands by state and local governments ever since the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 decreed that they would be ineligible for federal mitigation grants, which pay for many hazard mitigation projects after disasters, unless they adopted a FEMA-approved plan. All states now have such plans, and about 20,000 units of local government have adopted them, often participating in multijurisdictional efforts. But almost universally, until a few creative cities like Baltimore began to outline a new approach, these plans have been backward-looking in identifying local hazards. Why? Because the standard approach is to project future hazards based on historical patterns. The problem is that climate change is disrupting those expectations and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. The path to resilience lies in using climate science data to anticipate the hazards of the future. Baltimore accomplished that by integrating data about climate trends into its hazard mitigation plan, thus elegantly addressing both existing and future hazards. Baja was at the center of this activity.

But her innovative style goes farther. She worked on the use of vacant lots in cities for development of green infrastructure to help remedy urban flooding. In March of this year, she attended the first of two day-long roundtables APA organized with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on ways to integrate climate science into the local planning process. She was feisty and persuasive as usual, and we all appreciated her contributions.

Ultimately, what Baja discussed with the audience was not merely the policy changes that are needed to produce climate-resilient communities, but the practices of community engagement that would undergird those policies and make them stick, embed them in municipal and regional civic culture. She unleashed her own flood of ideas about how to do this, including training staff, as she has done recently in Dubuque, with training games that make the undertaking fun, such as a “Game of Floods.” The laundry list that rolled from her tongue and flowed from the PowerPoint screen included these tips for engaging members of the community and removing barriers to participation in civic meetings:

  • Go to people
  • Partner with community leaders
  • Provide transportation
  • Provide food and beverages
  • Provide childcare or activities with children
  • Consider language barriers
  • Translate signs and data
  • Insure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Collect stories
  • Approach all stakeholders with empathy
  • Provide interactive and fun ways of engagement
  • Invite participation on advisory committees

One of her approaches, used in Baltimore to give life to these ideas, was to create a community ambassador network to empower the very people who often labor to advance these ideas through small neighborhood organizations with no financial support from the city. Recognizing the contribution these people make to their city goes a long way to strengthening the trust that supports progressive policy making.

There is a method to the madness of making this all work. Baja is not the only person who has discovered the value of empowering volunteers for good planning, but she herself is now a full-time ambassador through USDN. I’d say they found the right person.

Bike tour of Dubuque’s riverfront at the end of the conference.

 

Jim Schwab

Short Visit to Charlottesville

Few people live for the excitement of radical demonstrations. Most of us want to enjoy life and, if we can, contribute something positive to society along the way. Thus, it is small surprise that, when hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, and engaged in open intimidation of counterdemonstrators the following day, almost no residents were happy, and many made their displeasure clear. In the end, one Nazi sympathizer from Ohio chose to drive his car into a crowd, injuring numerous bystanders and killing Heather Heyer, a young local paralegal with an admirable history of assisting the disadvantaged.

Thanks to extremely unfortunate and ill-considered comments on the matter by President Donald Trump, Charlottesville has become shorthand in many people’s minds for a controversy about intolerance. But what really happens as a community tries to resume normal life after such distasteful episodes? What happens after the intruders, who among other things took issue with the proposed removal of statues of Confederate leaders, finally leave town and go back where they came from? Only one organizer was a Charlottesville resident, not a particularly popular one at that, and the vast majority of right-wing demonstrators were from outside Virginia—a point emphasized by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his condemnation of their activities.

I had the opportunity to visit Charlottesville last Monday. To be clear, my primary motive was to visit two retired friends who moved there from suburban Washington, D.C. They had invited me long before the demonstrations took place. I took them up on the offer largely because I had been asked to speak at the North Carolina state conference of the American Planning Association, which began on September 26. I flew into Richmond the previous day and drove to Charlottesville that afternoon. They wanted to show off their new home town and took me to the University of Virginia campus and then downtown, where we eventually had dinner followed by some late-night conversation. I drove to Greenville, North Carolina, the next morning.

I mention all this because I am sharing casual observations, not dedicated reporting or profound knowledge of the city, which I had never previously visited. Even so, I think my observations have some modest value. For one, Charlottesville is a normal, mostly attractive city, a university town of average size (just under 50,000). It is well forested in places and sports some attractive scenery, like much of Virginia. It is easy to see why people would like living there.

It is also largely a progressive city, not unusual for a community with a strong academic history. The Rotunda, the original core of the University of Virginia campus, was designed by Thomas Jefferson in the years after he retired from the presidency to his home at nearby Monticello. The campus thus has a noteworthy history dating back more than two centuries to America’s earliest days. The university has a noteworthy academic history and has produced its fair share of meritorious scholarship. Historic preservation clearly is part of the university’s DNA.

But that history contains a dark side that long remained unacknowledged until more recent times. Much of Jefferson’s architectural handiwork was achieved with slave labor. The slaves who helped build the campus spent many decades deprived of access to the educational opportunities the university provided. Social justice has become a significant focus of the university’s attention in recent decades, once the civil rights movement had forced the entire state to think seriously about racial equality. This is the state, after all, that in the 1960s gave the nation Loving v. Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

To its credit, however, the University of Virginia has been coming to terms with its history. Surely, one can credit Jefferson for remarkable skills and a certain practical genius in both politics and architectural design. His achievements are not to be gainsaid. At the same time, there is no question that much of his life was predicated on and enabled by inequality and the suppression of opportunity for people of color, enslaved or free. His political courage never extended to the liberation of his African-American servants. University walking tours now include very factual discussions of the role of enslaved African Americans, some of whom were openly abused and maltreated on the antebellum campus. Their story deserves to be told along with that of the leaders who created much of the university’s unique heritage. Brochures and information related to historic buildings suggest that university historians have spent time documenting this history for the benefit of future generations. The contributions of African Americans, willing or involuntary, to the university need to be part of the public record. The educational displays in the Rotunda acknowledge that history.

But it was through this very campus that the Klansmen and Nazis marched on that August night, carrying torches and chanting offensive slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” They made a point of marching in front of a downtown synagogue. I may be Christian, not Jewish, but I can easily imagine how angry I would feel if that were my place of worship. It has never even occurred to me to disrespect someone else’s house of worship in any way. Part of being American, in my humble opinion, lies in respecting other people’s ethnic or racial heritage and freedom of religion. I am aware that there are plenty of examples of disrespect for diversity in American history, but they should fill us with shame, not pride, because they contradict our stated principles as a nation.

Shrouded statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson in downtown Charlottesville.

As in any such city, the university is a major presence in the life of Charlottesville. But it was downtown where the Saturday rally and confrontations occurred. There seems to be some serious public discontent with the role of the police that day in containing the violence that occurred, quite possibly because public safety officials failed to take seriously enough the full extent of the threat, expecting a much smaller demonstration. Certainly, no one expected James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer from a Toledo, Ohio, suburb to drive his vehicle through a crowd with the express purpose of producing mayhem among those opposed to the right-wing protest, but it also is not clear to all concerned that police had taken all appropriate measures to secure the area to prevent such an outcome. I am not judging; I am merely reporting the apparent public sentiment.

Two statues whose preservation was the object of the protest, those of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, have been shrouded from public view with a “no trespassing” sign to bar fans of the Confederacy from removing the shrouds. I will not take up the arguments about the fate of the statues here. I am merely noting that many would like to see them go, even as others make a case for preserving them. But it does seem to me that there is a serious difference between exploring and understanding the history of the Civil War and providing people who fought to preserve slavery and against the United States with a place of honor on public property. Equating knowledge of American heritage with statue preservation strikes me as simplistic and even disingenuous.

But most striking in this city seeking to reestablish normal life after a harrowing episode involving domestic terrorism and racial hatred is the simple campaign that has been launched to demonstrate a municipal identity in the wake of those events. Throughout downtown, posters and displays proclaim that “Charlottesville Stands for Love.” It is a simple, almost unsophisticated declaration that captures a sentiment that informs the Klan and the Nazis that they are out of place in Charlottesville, that the community simply is not interested in fomenting or disseminating hatred. This is a city looking to the future, not interested in perpetuating the animosities and bigotries of the past. It is time to move on.

The display in the photo above appears in the middle of the downtown pedestrian mall, which reminded me in its design features of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. It is a place of small shops, of funky and independent restaurants, of people who accept diversity. It is a place for people to find locally oriented businesses, to relax, to meet each other, and to foster a culture of mutual respect. It is its own message: We all just want to get along and lead productive lives. We have our problems, like any city, but hate is not welcome here.

Jim Schwab

A Brief American Declaration of Intelligence

Ignorance did not make America great. Ignorance will not make America great again. Let’s all vow to stop the glorification of #ignorance.

 

Like millions of other Americans, I have been deeply disturbed over the past week by the comments of President Donald Trump regarding the events last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contemplated what I could possibly do or say in response to someone who seems to possess so little desire to educate himself on the basic issues of U.S. history or to consider the impact of his words on the people threatened by demonstrations of torch-bearing, bat-carrying, shield-wearing neo-Nazis chanting Nazi slogans and white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members invoking the horrors of the Confederacy. I finally concluded there is no point in refuting someone who clearly cares so little for the truth. The truth, in his mind, seems to be whatever he wants to believe is the truth.

Instead, I posted the statement above earlier today on both Twitter and Facebook as an offering to those other millions of Americans who cherish equality and dignity and understand that compassion and truth are the foundations of a better future for our nation. If I can share anything with America, it is a gift for condensing the message in articulate language, and so that is what I tried to do here. It is what I can do for my country at a moment when it is pining for clarity of purpose. We need to honor intelligence and intelligent, thoughtful inquiry concerning the kind of nation we want to become. We must rise above hateful slogans.

One reason I titled this blog “Home of the Brave” was that I felt we should not accede to the appropriation of our national symbols and phrases by extreme right-wing forces at odds with democracy for all. We need to keep in mind the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Those who want more, and those who want to dispute my perspective, can dig through the rest of this website, and the rest of this blog, and parse and dissect it to their hearts’ content. I have left a long trail by now. But for tonight, at this time, my three-word statement above is what I have to offer. Share it, retweet it, put it on your placard or bumper sticker. But please insist on intelligent dialogue.

 

Jim Schwab

The Voice of Identity

For many Americans, including numerous prominent Republicans, one of the more troubling phenomena in the 2016 presidential election was the rise of certain groups who seem to attach their own identity to resentment and rejection of those who do not fit traditional images in our culture. The frequently demonstrated reluctance of Donald Trump to distance himself from advocates of white nationalism or supremacy served only to reinforce a sense of unease about the direction our nation was taking. The situation raised some disturbing questions about who we are as a nation at the same time that it also revealed a very real sense of the loss of possibility among those who embraced the Trump messages. Before we hasten to condemn this trend, it is important to keep in mind that many of the people who launched Trump into the White House have felt a very real unease of their own, a feeling of losing their footing in what they experience as a stagnating economy. The feeling transcended party boundaries and went a long way toward explaining the surprising popularity of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic primaries. This great stirring is far from over just because Trump won.

I do not raise this issue to reach any partisan conclusions or even to address it in any specifically political terms. But I was moved to think about it in part after observing some of the more blatant instances of racist prejudice in post-election interviews with the likes of Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute. Spencer grabbed some attention with a speech that included the phrase “Hail Trump,” a barely veiled echo of “Heil Hitler,” and, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, made clear his dream is “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans,” and has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” It is hard to imagine how ethnic cleansing can possibly be peaceful, so I think one can hardly be blamed for suspecting deceitful propaganda. No matter how many disclaimers the alt-right may use in trying to reframe its identity, the old stench of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi movements refuses to go away.

But I want to make a larger point and then delve into the very question of how we frame identity, and how it frames us. Our sense of identity can be both liberating and oppressive, both loving and resentful, thoughtful and downright stupid. Spencer, in a recent television interview, effectively expressed the notion of simply claiming his white identity in the same way that blacks take pride in theirs. Many on the alt-right take pains to note how much white people have contributed to our society as a means of expressing dominance. This is rather simplistic for the obvious reason that our society long was of predominantly European origin, so it stands to reason that most of our heritage bears that mark. But it is not nearly so simple as all that. The whole notion bears some dissection.

What has come to be identified as the African-American experience, for starters, resulted from a forced common experience of bondage in which most slaves lost any or most of their specific African heritages under circumstances that were not only unquestionably racist but involved violent subjugation as well. It is no accident that black slaves often readily identified with the biblical story of the Israelite release from slavery. Liberation movements throughout world history have played a role in forging new identities through struggle. The fact that the struggle has continued to this day in the form of civil rights battles has served only to strengthen those ties.

And yet—one needs only to observe the assimilation into American society of African and Caribbean black immigrants to realize that there are subtleties and variations in the African identity. President Barack Obama himself, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii, struggled in his youth to establish his own sense of identity, which did not come from claiming slave ancestors in the Deep South. In current American society, one can see expressions of Ghanaian culture, as well as of Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Somalis, all arriving long after the most bitter civil rights and liberation struggles have been fought, seeking to establish their own ethnic identities in a very diverse America. The tapestry is ornate and continues to enrich American society with everything from new cuisines and artistic expression to new ways of understanding what attracts people to the American dream.

These variations and nuances extend to the frame of “white American” experience. Because what became the United States of America began with English colonies, the experience of early Americans was very English in nature—but not entirely. Early on, the British empire absorbed Dutch and French settlers into its universe, as well as a modest number of American Indians who intermarried. (It should also be noted that perhaps one-fourth of African-Americans have some American Indian ancestry, in no small part because of slaves escaping to Indian communities and integrating and intermarrying over time. See Black Indians for just one interesting exposition of this fascinating history.) Over two or three centuries, “white” America gradually absorbed more non-English elements, beginning with the Irish and Germans, and eventually including all sorts of largely non-Protestant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as Lebanese, Turks, and others.

All these people brought with them unique cultural attachments. For example, Greeks brought not only their Orthodox church, but numerous specific perspectives on the world based on their own historic and philosophical outlooks, all tempered over time by new experiences in the New World. In many cases, those initial experiences included some discrimination and challenges in becoming American. Any serious student of American history is aware of such phenomena as the Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, a period when factory doors often sported signs indicating that “Irish need not apply.” Tensions boiled over at times, including one notable instance in Chicago in 1855 known as the Great Lager Beer Riot. Know-Nothing Mayor Levi Boone sought closure on Sundays of the pubs and bierstuben that the Irish and German workingmen patronized, and a confrontation erupted. Boone became a one-term mayor, and his initiative came to naught.

The targets of white-on-white discrimination shifted over time into the early and even mid-20th century, as assimilation proceeded and various nationalities won grudging acceptance. American literature is replete with very personal interpretations of these experiences from Norwegians, Lebanese, Greeks, Russians, and others trying to find their place in American society. One astute student of the subtleties of this evolution, Mel Brooks, generated the biting and wickedly comic satires Blazing Saddles. I have long felt that movie, which I have watched several times, offers far more insight than meets the unlearned eye into the sometimes explosive mixture of influences that shaped the American West. My own discerning eye for the subtleties of this movie came after living in Iowa for more than six years and researching a book on the farm credit crisis, as well as marrying a Nebraskan, all of which made me very aware of the diverse ethnic communities that comprise much of the West. Rural America is not nearly as monochrome as many urban Americans imagine it to be.

Let me return briefly to the phony vision of the alt-right. What I have just described should make abundantly clear that the notion of “white identity” can have only one purpose. That purpose is white supremacy and the oppression of minorities because the overall “white” experience in America is itself so diverse and has evolved so far from its English colonial roots that the only possible meaning one can attach to this “white identity” is that of suppression of any other form of identification with the meaning of “American.” I also do not think a blog article like this can do more than scratch the surface of this subject. Whole books have been devoted to the formation of personal and collective identity in the American melting pot without successfully exploring all the nooks and crannies of the issues involved. Nonetheless, I strongly believe we must keep this subject open for further exploration. We have little choice if we want to understand both ourselves and what is happening around us.

I also want to make clear that I do not believe that Donald Trump is endorsing white supremacy. What troubles me is his willingness to exploit this sentiment to advance his political ambitions. Many of the obvious splits within the Republican party had as much to do with the discomfort of Mitt Romney, John Kasich, John McCain, and the Bush family, among others, with this exploitation of prejudice as with any other stance that Trump took. These past Republican leaders simply found themselves unable to stomach such intolerance. Trade and foreign policy issues are fair game in a presidential contest, but for reasons related to his own view of the imperative of winning at any cost, there is little question that Trump took the low road in making his arguments. That choice will leave him mending fences for the next four years if he truly wants to be president of “all the people.”

Ultimately, our collective national identity is a composite of the many individual identities we construct for ourselves. Some of us construct these identities carefully and deliberately over many years, and others simply accept inherited attitudes, privileges, or resentments. But one of the central claims of the conservative right has been that America has traditionally been a Christian nation. That is a position that, in some respects, also ignores the freedom of religion that is enshrined in the First Amendment, which includes the right of people to observe other faiths or no faith at all. But I would prefer to confront white identity on Christian grounds both because I am willing to claim Christian identity and because real Christian faith flatly excludes white identity: “For in Christ there is no longer Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male or female.” (Galatians 3:28) Saint Paul did not need to add “black nor white” to make his point perfectly clear. The only thing that is remarkable is how often this simple point is missed or ignored.

Another piece of Christian wisdom is well known and comes directly from Jesus (Luke 12:48), that from those to whom much has been given, much also is demanded. I can think of few things more appalling than to waste one’s life and talents disseminating hatred and bigotry in a world badly in need of greater love and understanding. An honest search for our collective or personal identity demands both an open mind and respect for our fellow citizens. I can think of nothing that would ever alter my perspective on that final observation.

Jim Schwab

We Are the Cure, We Are the People

Our nation is suffering from a terrible social disease. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, though it can be spread orally, through the things we say to each other and over the Internet and the air waves. Since everything seems to need a name, I will call it BJ Disease, which stands for blanket judgment. It has been with us for a long, long time, latent in our political system and society, but it has gone viral, it seems, and become an epidemic in a very bad political year.

If there is one thing I personally learned long ago, it was to view people as individuals rather than as monolithic groups. In part, that is because I learned as a Christian that this is the way in which God values us, and it saddens me when I see people use religion as a weapon or a tool of exclusion rather than an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. It has paved the way for my wife and me adopting two girls of varied backgrounds and becoming grandparents of a passel of children of racially mixed backgrounds, each with their own unique characteristics.

Adopting such an outlook has allowed me to see many more shades of meaning and value in the ways people speak and behave than if I were to see them simply as blacks, whites, Hispanics, or adherents of one faith or another, or of particular ethnic groups or sexual identities. Yes, many people in all these groupings have limited things in common, but there are far more that differentiate them as individuals and many more that we share in common as human beings across all those lines. But far too often, we refuse to see them. It is costing us lives and endleDSCF1345ss heartache, and that is a very sad thing.

Amid the uproar over black lives taken by police officers, most often though not always white officers, there is among a vocal minority of protesters an unfortunate tendency to paint all police as racially biased and prone to violence against minorities. There is, no doubt, a small segment of many of our police departments with such tendencies, though I am inclined to think it is a much smaller segment than it used to be. It is, however, far more visible today as a result of technology. Certain members of police departments have not yet adapted to an era in which the ubiquity of cell phone cameras virtually ensures that bad judgment in handling suspects, often in minor incidents such as traffic stops, will end up on the evening news. But lest I be accused of BJ disease myself, let me note that there are instances in which traffic stops have resulted in the deaths of police who did not soon enough realize that someone had a gun and intended to use it. Traffic stops can escalate, and there are reasons why police may be wary of the drivers they have pulled over.

At the same time, it is also perfectly clear that the shooter in Dallas made statements to the police, as they were trying to negotiate with him, that he hated white people and police. His indiscriminate shooting of officers at the end of what had been a peaceful protest not only bloodied and sullied the message of the protest but made clear that, in his mind, the people he was shooting were not individuals with families and unique perspectives and experiences but a single mass of people not deserving of such differentiation. It is hard to see the difference between that outlook and the views of a white racist who sees blacks as an undifferentiated force for evil. Both perspectives simply deepen the propensity for violence in our society.

At a time when it would be extremely helpful to have political leaders who can help us to escape the bonds of blanket judgment disease, which can become contagious through peer pressure and the desire to conform in the condemnation of outsiders, however they may be defined, it is disappointing in the extreme to have instead candidates for the presidency who engage in spreading the disease through inflammatory rhetoric. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Trump may well understand that many Muslims condemn the violence of terrorists, and that many are fleeing their countries in search of safety, but the careless lumping of all Muslims into a suspect category that must be denied admission to the United States does nothing to further that understanding. It does nothing to foster our awareness of Muslims as distinct individuals, any more than racial fears of American Indians or Mexicans or Asians fostered such understanding in the past. But let’s be clear. While he emerged as the winner of the Republican nomination by dominating debates with such reckless proposals, Trump was hardly the only candidate to offer such blanket condemnations or stoke such fears. In fact, his ascendancy within the Republican party was made possible precisely by years of such pathetic pandering before he chose to take it to another level.

So—I have said my piece for this week in an effort to make peace. There are no links in this particular blog post because the links that matter are not on the Internet but between all of us as Americans and as fellow human beings. We need to foster those connections across racial and political and ethnic and religious lines. We need to reach out even when it takes courage to do so. We need to spend more time understanding each other and less time criticizing each other en masse. We need to focus on the eradication of BJ disease. I will pray for that tonight and every night until we can achieve a more civil and respectful dialogue. Is it too much to ask? Or, as Rodney King once famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

Jim Schwab

 

Misusing the Populist Label?

Long ago, in a graduate urban planning course at the University of Iowa called “Collective Decision Making,” I had an interesting exchange of views with Professor Mickey Lauria, now at Clemson University. We are both much older than we were in 1982, so it might be interesting to reignite our brief debate over coffee or beer, but it was a friendly, if slightly testy, intellectual debate that has taken on some new meaning for me in the context of our current presidential race. Much of what I am seeing serves to reinforce my original beliefs, but it might just as easily serve to reinforce his as well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, in objecting to the press describing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as populist, President Barack Obama seemed to land firmly on my side of the debate. I was pleased.

As I recall, and I am relying on an excellent but certainly not perfect memory, our classroom debate occurred in the midst of a discussion about some issue regarding the politics of public housing or low-income housing development in Minneapolis, where Prof. Lauria had acquired a Ph.D. in geography just five years earlier. Most of the details of the immediate issue are now obscure, but I recall that he made some reference to populism in a way that suggested it merely meant catering to popular sentiment, which, of course, can easily be turned against disadvantaged populations on issues like adequate housing. I objected by saying, “That just means anything goes.”

Mickey turned to me with a face that suggested some disbelief, even some cynicism, and replied forcefully, “Anything always has gone, Schwab.”

I insisted, in the face of his adamant response, that populism had some clear historical origins that rose above such a broad indictment, and that it was not as simple as catering to popular prejudice. I discovered that not everyone in the class was enamored of his take on the question, though I am sure I did not win all the endorsements that day, either. Mostly, I just deserved credit for offering and articulating another perspective.

It was a classic confrontation on the question of just how the word “populist” is used. Populism has certainly been denigrated by certain political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And, heaven knows, American history has been full of such sentiments, which have gained and lost ground over time. Some of it is fed by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments, but some also is fed by resentment of privileged elites, who sometimes can be blamed for stoking such resentment with their own brands of arrogance and condescension. Coming from a working-class family yet striving for higher education and intellectual achievements, believe me, I can see both sides of the debate. I can see both the grievances of many working-class people as well as the futility of the frequent search for easy answers that can dominate their thinking. And while the targets of resentment may vary among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others, the temptation to latch on to easy answers is omnipresent in one form or another. It is often difficult for people to take time to think more deeply and to perceive that the world can be a very complex place.

But I have never seen that as an excuse for intellectuals to see populist politics as inherently naïve or to paint it with the broad brush of the ignorance of the unwashed. In the end, in my opinion, such attitudes about what constitutes populism concede far too much to the demagogues and manipulators among us because they then wear the populist label with honor when some of them clearly deserve opprobrium.

What Mickey Lauria almost surely did not appreciate, aside from my own undergraduate education in political science, was that I had specifically done my homework on the origins of populism as a political concept in American history. Part of this was due to my move to Iowa as executive director of the small but feisty Iowa Public Interest Research Group and connecting with the politics of agricultural protest during the emergence of the 1980s farm credit crisis. That subject eventually became the focus of my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, for which I subsequently did a great deal more historical research over the next few years. But one book that had captured my attention was highly recommended by another urban planning faculty member at the time, Michael F. Sheehan, who later obtained a law degree to supplement his Ph.D. in economics, and then moved to Oregon as an environmental and public interest lawyer.

Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn, had been a game changer for me in shaping my awareness of the role of protest politics in American history. It outlined the growth of the admittedly short-lived People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s but led to the title of my first book, which came from a quote from Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist politician of the time, who consistently told farmers that they needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” The populists essentially took over the state of Kansas in the early 1890s, a far cry from the Tea Party Republicanism that dominates there now. But their moment in the sun was relatively short. The party actually won electoral votes, largely in the West, in the 1892 presidential election, but the growing threat it posed also prompted Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan to engineer its absorption into the Democratic Party, where its voice became less distinctive. It articulated legitimated grievances against the industrial elite of its day, such as the railroad barons, but also worked in many instances across racial lines. It may be worth noting that similar grievances during the Great Depression prompted the emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which elected one governor, but which also was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party after World War II in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey.

The tragedy is that some of its leaders, like Lease, a suffragist who broke with the populists, became anti-Semitic, and suffered from self-importance, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who later descended into racist diatribes, succumbed to the enormous pressures to conform to the prejudices of the day, taking the easier route to public acceptance after the collapse of their third-party effort. But it must be said that others helped form the core of the emerging Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs. Others helped minimize elitist tendencies in the progressive movement by keeping its focus on issues of economic justice for the working class, exemplified later in the Wisconsin initiatives of Robert LaFollette.

There is no question that much of this poses problematic history and that its implications are subject to debate. But I also think that populism at least presented an articulate alternative for a large segment of public opinion that felt oppressed by powerful forces emerging in the post-Civil War American economy. I would also ask what movement for social justice has ever failed to experience its growing pains, including often severe backlash from the powerful interests representing the status quo. Think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and gay rights. The big difference with populism was that it once threatened the status quo not just with demonstrations but with viable candidates for elected office. No wonder the powers of the day reacted so vehemently.

That leaves the question of what has become of the populist label. Is it now whatever we decide it means whenever someone like Donald Trump can rouse large audiences to an angry froth by scapegoating minorities, immigrants, and women who do not conform to his expectations? If so, we had best be careful about the mantle we are allowing such leaders to wear and what they will do with it, for it will then take on authoritarian and fascist dimensions. On the other hand, if we insist, as President Obama did, that there must be a strong element of actually positively representing and fighting for the interests of working people, we can deny Trump and his ilk a hero’s label they have not earned. Demonstrably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a clearer case for building an honest populist movement in this century, whatever the shortcomings of his campaign, which did far better than most people ever expected, most likely including Sanders himself, who seems in any case to prefer the label “democratic socialist.” Curiously, that self-description seems not to be hurting him politically, although most politicians would have run from that label in panic.

Many have argued that both Sanders and Trump mounted populist campaigns. I would argue that both tapped into a palpable anger at the nation’s current political leadership, but that, while one is opening old wounds, another is trying to heal them. One is focused largely on himself; the other is actually building a movement for social change.

As I did in 1982, I still argue that the way we use the populist label has serious political implications, and that using it loosely and thoughtlessly may have dangerous consequences for our national political dialogue. The news media, in particular, need to rethink this one. Unfortunately, many reporters have only a cursory knowledge of history.

 

Jim Schwab

Our National Farce

Sadly, a national farce is underway. I first commented on the evolving phenomenon last June on this blog, but it has metastasized and metamorphosed in the intervening months, trumping all other considerations as we choose a new leader of the world’s most powerful nation. I wish I could find a reason to write about anything else, but it just keeps staring me in the face this weekend because the farce found its way to Chicago.

I could not even escape it while eating dinner Friday evening with my wife at the end of a very busy week. Because she was coming downtown anyway, I suggested that we eat at Miller’s Pub, right next door to the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash Avenue, where, it so happened, protesters were greeting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner during a Republican fundraising dinner. Given the stalemate between Rauner and the Democratic majority in the state legislature, there is undoubtedly plenty of reason for people to be upset. After all, the state still has no budget, and schools are getting no money. He insists on including some antiunion provisions in the budget, and the Democrats refuse. Checkmate. The losers are the students and teachers and the voters. But dramatic as that is, it is not my point.

Miller’s Pub is one of those busy, popular places with television screens on the walls, and while they are often filled with sports images or the usual news, Friday evening it was impossible to avoid noticing the train wreck associated with the other demonstration in town—the one at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Pavilion. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump had canceled a rally that attracted more than 25,000 people because among them were thousands of highly diverse protesters. The anti-Trump crowd consisted of young and old, black and white, Christians and Muslims, Hispanics—a veritable Chicago rainbow. In choosing the UIC Pavilion for a rally, Trump had situated himself amid Chicago’s diversity, much of which consists of populations he has insulted or offended in recent months during his rise to prominence. Many of the protesters stated they wanted to make clear that Chicago relishes its diversity and does not share his values. In my honest opinion, it is almost as if he wanted this result. The idea of actually engaging in dialogue with his critics, as most candidates do at some point, seems foreign to him, almost a sign of weakness. Only confrontation is acceptable for a man’s man. How sad.

What unfolded, however, exceeds even the bizarre standards of this year’s campaign, making it hard to stop tracking the news even on Saturday. Trump first explained that he had canceled the rally out of concern for public safety after consulting with the Chicago police. But interim Police Chief John Escalante said in a press conference that Trump had never talked to them before making that decision. Trump’s campaign claimed to have conferred with Cmdr. George Devereux, but the police said Devereux was responsible for security at Trump’s hotel, not the rally site. Is it that hard to just tell the truth?

We have a national campaign that begins to resemble a Jerry Springer television show in its ability to attract supercilious scuffles. Trump claims to want peaceful rallies, yet news reports can easily replay numerous scenes in which he has urged his followers to rough up protesters and even offered to pay their legal fees for doing so. Only a day before the Chicago contretemps, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a Trump supporter had cold-cocked a protester who was being escorted from a rally by the police, leaving him with injuries around one eye. John McGraw, 78, now charged with assualt, said the protester “deserved it” and that next time they “might have to kill him.” Trump’s response? The day after Chicago, he was claiming that his supporters were “nice people” and that the protesters were “Bernie’s people,” referring to Vermont U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders, one of the two remaining Democratic contenders (along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), whom Trump then derided as “our communist friend.”

If I were writing a wild fictional potboiler, the plot could not sound more contrived. I confess I am approaching a loss for words. I cannot recall a situation in my life where the leading candidate in either party has looked more like Benito Mussolini with his Blackshirts attacking those who disagreed with him. Trump has shown a complete incapacity to accept any responsibility for what Clinton rightly has labeled “political arson.”

What is sad is that a brand of political recklessness and disregard for truth that would have sunk almost any other candidacy in years past seems to buoy Trump in the eyes of his supporters. You can analyze this authoritarian phenomenon however you wish. There is little doubt in my mind that the divisive obstinacy of many Republican leaders in their reaction to President Barack Obama, in their willingness to remain silent in the face of nonsensical claims that he is a Muslim, that he was not born in the U.S., etc., has set the stage for this farce. They are now reaping the whirlwind.

Still, it was not inevitable, and it did not have to happen. There remains one man who, but for his own brand of narcissism and egomania, could take responsibility and change course. But as one commentator on CNN noted, Trump never backs down. And that is one very frightening characteristic for any potential occupant of the Oval Office. And they used to say it can’t happen here.

Maybe it can.

 

Jim Schwab

The Angry Christian

The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling

Over the years, I have met some types of people who, strangely in my opinion, have believed that anger is unbecoming for a Christian. Most people understand that there is a place for anger in our lives, although it needs to be tempered with judgment and compassion. The bigger question is what role anger plays and how we use it for positive purposes. Clearly, anger can be poisonous if unchanneled or misdirected. At the same time, suppressed anger can lead to sadness and even depression when we fail to give ourselves an outlet for legitimate reactions to injustice, or indifference, or even just incompetence in situations where competence truly matters.

It may be clear by now that I am not leading into one of my nicer, happier blog posts. I have not written much lately because I have been very busy both professionally and personally, the latter attested by my previous blog post about our home kitchen renovation, an undertaking that requires some patience amid necessary temporary disorganization. While I have been absorbed in such matters, a number of unpleasant events have unfolded on the world and local scene that have me very concerned about our moral fiber and angry about the tone of much of the public dialogue on those events. Let me start with the world scene before I focus back on Chicago.

By now, anyone unaware of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 could fairly be assumed to have been sleeping under a rock.  The attackers, allied with Islamic State, killed 130 people and wounded many more, indiscriminately shooting at a variety of public places including a concert hall and restaurants. It was indisputably a despicable act, one that cries out for authorities to carry out justice, and certainly raises questions about security in many of our public spaces and how we can better protect people from those who clearly lack a conscience about murdering innocent and unarmed people. It is entirely proper to react to such circumstances with a mixture of anger and sadness, no matter what justifications the attackers claim. It is equally clear to anyone who is not incurably prejudiced that most Muslims want nothing to do with such people, any more than most Christians would agree with the tactics of the shooter who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

In fact, to escape just such brutal butchery, thousands upon thousands of ordinary Syrians of all faiths have been fleeing their homeland in recent months. Any thinking person must realize that it takes a great deal of both fear and courage for any person or family to flee their homeland to find a better life elsewhere. Most people are deeply averse to abandoning their native land. During World War II, millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other targets of the Third Reich perished not only because of the barriers to emigration erected by democratic nations including the United States, but because they were in many cases deeply reluctant until it was too late to believe that matters would become dire enough to require them to do so. There is far more push than pull for those who risk all to become refugees.

So how do numerous American politicians, including those in Congress and presidential candidates, react? We get calls to bar or severely restrict Syrian refugees on the grounds that we have no way of guaranteeing that just one of them might be a terrorist. There is, of course, no way of disproving a negative. And sincere Christians and patriotic Americans who believe in this country’s highest values must be nearly aghast at hearing someone like Donald Trump appear to suggest a database for American Muslims and the possibility of closing mosques—a concept eerily akin to the Nazi requirement that Jews wear yellow Stars of David. The underlying strategy is to make anyone who voices opposition to such measures suffer the blame when something inevitably goes wrong in a world where we can pretty much count on another terrorist attack somewhere, somehow, some day. Like the Boston Marathon bombings, which involved young men from Kazakhstan, not Syria, who grew up in America but dramatically lost their way, to put it mildly, and whose relatives were despondent over their actions, much like some of the relatives of the Paris attackers. It is not unusual, in fact, for such criminals to be lone wolves, alienated from their own families. In this respect, at least, they have much in common with the home-grown mass shooters who have repeatedly plagued American communities in recent years.

But there is a way of asserting a positive vision driven by compassion and common sense instead of directing fear and anger at people who are seeking refuge from the very terrorists and hypocritical bullies who engineered the attacks in Paris. And it is deeply rooted in both Christian and Jewish teaching. Let us start with the Old Testament passages concerning Jewish approaches to the topic:

Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

You might not know, from recent political reactions to Syrian refugees’ pleas for assistance, that the Bible ever offered such advice. Some 26 governors, mostly Republican, have vowed to keep Syrian refugees out of their states, including Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois. The U.S. House of Representatives demanded stringent measures before allowing such refugees to enter the country. Admittedly, we want to screen people for questionable backgrounds before admitting them, but many such mechanisms are already in place, and we have not been open to very many Syrian refugees so far. But let us move on to explicitly Christian teachings in the New Testament:

Matthew 25: 35 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

Matt. 25:40 Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.

To give credit, by the way, I have lifted these passages directly from the website of Cois Tine, an outreach project of the Society for African Missions. Whatever else the critics of Syrian immigration may say, this is clearly a Christian organization based in the Gospel and aware of its message of welcoming the stranger in need. It is just as clearly an organization concerned about social justice on a global scale.

My point here, however, is that there is more than legitimate reason for me to feel serious Christian anger at the sheer ignorance of the reaction to the dire prospect of numerous Syrian refugees desperately fleeing war, barbarism, murder, enslavement, and every other horror being inflicted on Syrian Muslim and Christian alike in a multi-sided conflict in which human compassion has not merely taken a back seat but has been crushed underfoot in the battle for survival. And while we who are privileged to live an ocean away from such conflict cower in fear of widows and orphans, it is Turkey, the nation next door to the conflict, which has just agreed to accept refugees in exchange for financial assistance from Europe. And before any cynic can scoff at the fact that Turkey negotiated financial aid for its generosity, we should note that Turkey has already hosted thousands of such refugees at great expense to itself with only a fraction of the resources available to the U.S. and most of the European community. It would be the height of hypocrisy to criticize Turkey, of all places, for seeking additional resources to handle the job. Few other countries could claim to be as vulnerable to attacks by Islamic State terrorists.

Admittedly, the United States has suffered its share of terrorism. The September 11, 2001, attacks claimed more than 3,000 lives. They also caused us to take airline security far more seriously. But it is also worth noting that, after that tragic episode, numerous people across the nation, including prominent political leaders, had the courage and integrity to object to targeting Muslims for discrimination and abuse. Where are those voices now?

If there is a legitimate basis for Christian anger, it is the righteous anger that should object to mistreating and isolating the stranger who seeks safety on our shores.

By the same token, we should be angry about the violence already occurring on our streets. Disappointingly, some of that violence seems to be emanating from those sworn to protect us. And just as I firmly believe that most American Muslims are peace-loving people who came here to enjoy freedom, so I also still believe that the vast majority of police are sincerely committed to protecting the public from criminal activity and want to uphold the values that their badges represent.

But there are others, and sometimes the code of silence among fellow officers allows them so much latitude to engage in abuses of power that the results become outrageous. Such now appears to be the case in Chicago with the shooting in October 2014 of Laquan McDonald, a young man trying to recover from drugs, with a troubled history that made a solid start for his life problematic, but who did not appear to pose an imminent danger to police when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times, killing him. A police video released only after a judge’s order in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act suits by journalists show he was walking away from police when shot. He had a knife he had used to slash the tires of a police car. He was admittedly a troubled young man, but police handle numerous similar situations daily involving the mentally ill and the drug-addicted without killing anyone.

If that were the entire story, the outrage that triggered protests on Black Friday on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue might not have entailed the level of anger that it did. We have learned that two officers immediately after the shooting demanded access to a security video from a camera at the nearby Burger King at 41st St. and Pulaski Avenue. The next morning, the Burger King manager and his employees discovered an 86-minute gap in the video covering the time of the shooting. Other police shooed away eyewitnesses from the scene without collecting names of those who could become material witnesses to a murder. Cameras from other police cars all seemed to be missing the audio that would have revealed police conversations at the time. Later, the city council, at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s request following an investigation, quietly approved a $5 million settlement for the young man’s family to avoid a messy lawsuit. And no one can explain the video gap and missing audio other than to refer to technical difficulties.

Let’s cut to the chase. The public, including numerous African-American clergy, is angry for a reason.. The city cannot reasonably rely on a “trust us” rationale for these unexplained gaps, some of which potentially constitute evidence tampering and obstruction of justice, both of which are crimes whether committed by officers or civilians. It is time for an independent prosecutor because it will be hard for any of the players, whether aldermen who approved the payout, the mayor, the police chief, or state’s attorney, to be taken seriously without a thorough investigation beyond their control. It just does not pass the smell test. This is truly a test of the integrity of the system, and the famous “Chicago way” is in no way compatible with Christian ethics. It is also true that many honest Chicago police officers fear retribution from fellow officers if they speak up. That said, there is a time for courage and convictions. This is that time.

Many people have fairly also raised the question of the reluctance in the black community to speak up, or “snitch,” about gang activity that has resulted in far more deaths than have resulted from police misbehavior. This is a legitimate issue that affects much more than black Chicago. It affects civic morale citywide. When witnesses to crimes refuse to cooperate with the police, the gangs win, hands down. The police cannot properly prepare a case against gang criminals when witnesses refuse to help. This reluctance seems to have two key sources: first, a legitimate fear of gang retribution as a result of speaking up. These people have to live in these neighborhoods and are often unprotected, even by police. Second, however, the very reputation for abuse of power that the Chicago Police Department creates with such fiascoes as the Laquan McDonald case only serve to contribute further to the mistrust that many people feel toward the police. Being caught between gangs and corrupt police is truly a formula for creating a cynical public.  We have a long way to go in this city in restoring the sort of trust that will let us overcome the plagues of violence that afflict us.

So where does that leave the question of Christian anger that I raised at the outset? We have to help channel that legitimate righteous anger at social and official injustice into a productive passion for justice that forces solutions and makes clear what a truly compassionate, caring society looks like. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped show us the way. So did Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. We have seen significant moral leadership before, and we can all help provide it if we muster our courage and root our moral beliefs in hope and compassion rather than fear and prejudice. I know we can do it, and I have said my piece.

Call me the angry Christian. I am proud to be angry when it matters.

 

Jim Schwab

 

But for Fortune

Less than three weeks ago, on June 2, a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus mysteriously crashed a red light on Lake St. during the evening rush hour, jumped the curb on the eastern side of Michigan Ave., and killed one pedestrian while injuring several others. The lady who died while pinned under the bus was a mother who seemed beloved by all who knew her.

I learned about the incident after going home, where my wife was watching the news. I immediately realized that this happened on a plaza in front of the office where I work, at 205 N. Michigan Ave., and that I had crossed that very corner not more than a half-hour before the accident. A co-worker related later that he had left just five minutes later. But for a matter of simple timing, either of us could have been swept up in the maelstrom. In the words of the Joan Baez folk tune, “There, but for fortune, go you or I . . . “

I was reminded of that when the news burst onto our screens this past Wednesday, June 17, of a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Emanuel AME Church in the heart of the downtown tourist district. As related in my blog just a week before today, my wife and I had spent the better part of a week in Charleston celebrating our 30th anniversary. While we did not step foot in the church—indeed, we did not visit any churches during our stay—we passed in front of Emanuel or near it multiple times while visiting museums and tourist attractions in the city. Had Dylann Roof chosen to launch his attack the previous week, who is to say that we might not have been caught up in some other kind of maelstrom, perhaps as he was fleeing the scene? Admittedly, being white, we were not among his intended targets, but when plans go awry, there, but for fortune, go you or I. And who is to say why it was the turn for any of his nine victims, including preachers who counted among them a state senator, to become part of the carnage? For that matter, how much do we know as yet of what made this young man the racist terrorist he apparently became?

I will not belabor the matter because we are all, at various times in our lives, either victims or beneficiaries of dumb luck. What makes us most human is simply our humility in coming to terms with that fact. Let life take a left turn here, a right turn there . . . . yes,  some people fight back nobly in the face of adversity while others collapse and surrender, but even that is to some degree a reflection of prior good fortune and mental conditioning, getting enough of a running start in life to acquire the necessary resilience, but still . . . . At some point a gun shot, a bullet in the wrong place, makes an end of things.

What makes me reflect on this is the almost absurd level of self-confidence and lack of reflection in some of those who seek leadership roles or some sort of public office. Sandwiched between the two incidents I mention above, for instance, was the announcement by Donald Trump of his latest campaign for the presidency of the United States. No humility was on display there. No sense of the limitations, real or potential, of Donald Trump. No sense of the degree to which fortune has shaped him for good or ill. He will solve everything for us, while others are simply stupid. Listen to the tape to count the number of times he uses “stupid” to describe others.

But he is not alone in his vanity or lack of self-knowledge, although his certainly seems to run deeper than the norm. Rick Perry reverts to the usual gross exaggerations of the National Rifle Association by decrying the “knee-jerk reaction” of the left in supposedly trying to take everyone’s guns away after violent incidents such as that in South Carolina. Rick Santorum, a lawyer but no scientist, says Pope Francis, who studied chemistry and once worked as a chemist before joining the seminary, should leave climate change to the scientists. (But he did attend the Sunday service at Emanuel AME Church the Sunday after the shooting.) It is a sorry spectacle.

And then there is Abraham Lincoln, a man of known frailties who somehow united a nation in the face of the worst conflict over its fate that it will likely ever face, who bled with his nation, who could express humility and inspire confidence, who led in part because he understood both the complexities of his times and how to lead in the face of controversy. And in the end, an assassin’s bullet found him. There, but for fortune, went our nation. We have not yet escaped the consequences, as another young man with a gun he should never have obtained proved yet again just last week.

Fortunately, in the most meaningful demonstration of the spirit of Christianity imaginable, several relatives of the victims of the Charleston shooting have publicly forgiven the young man. He may have a long time to ponder that forgiveness.

 

Jim Schwab

March to End Injustice

On this weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, my wife and I spent last night watching the movie Selma before going out to dinner. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, who also plays the part a Selma protester, the movie focuses on Dr. King’s leadership of the March from Selma to Montgomery for black voting rights in Alabama, which resulted in 1965 in the passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act that effectively ended the devious practices of southern officials in denying voting rights to black citizens. \

It is an uplifting movie, as one would expect, and I highly recommend it. The movie deserves more than the two Oscar nominations it received, but getting justice in Hollywood has always been a curious game of inside politics. It is not worth probing further in this forum.

Like most movies about a key piece of history, one gets far more out of the movie by knowing something about the events it portrays before watching it. The movie, however, rises above such demands to deliver a powerful message about the realities of segregation and the uncountable ways in which it was designed to crush the human soul. Early in the movie, Oprah’s character, having filled out a voter registration form, goes to the county registrar in Selma to register. The officious clerk first asks if her boss knows she is coming to the courthouse to “create the fuss.”

“No fuss,” she replies, “I just want to register to vote.”

He then asks her about the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which she recites perfectly. Determined to find a reason to deny her, he then asks how many county judges there are in Alabama. Sixty-nine, she says, and he grimaces. “Name them,” he says, and when she cannot, he stamps DENIED on her application. She leaves, knowing that further discussion is futile. The only thing that will change the outcome, she realizes, is peaceful protest.

I won’t go into great detail about what follows; go see the movie, please. Suffice it to say that, when the protesters in the first attempted march attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, local sheriff Jim Clark orders them to disperse in two minutes or face the consequences. They stand firm, and in short order, officers are flailing away at protesters with billy clubs, splitting skulls and breaking bones. Others on horses chase them down on the way back across the bridge, in one case letting a whip fly. All this is based on the striking reality of the brutality of Clark’s deputies in the historic march.

What anyone with an ounce of decency must wonder, however, even with the hindsight of history, is what motivates the kind of hatred and fear that causes men in uniform to unleash such violence against unarmed protesters seeking one of the most basic human rights in the world? How does anyone develop such animus against fellow human beings? I can almost understand simple cowardice in not confronting such people, but I find it impossible to understand the actual perpetrators of such injustice. For the life of me, I have never understood how any of them could reconcile such behavior with the Bible Belt Christianity they claimed to profess—especially given that Christianity was at the root of Dr. King’s movement.

But the movie is about more than that. It is also about the epic struggle of King, played by David Oyelowo, to motivate President Lyndon B. Johnson to accelerate plans to introduce voting rights legislation at the federal level. There has been a debate about whether the movie fairly portrays Johnson, though it is clear from all historical records that he was a master political manipulator who may well have resented what he saw as his own manipulation by this then 36-year-old Negro preacher. In the end, however, Johnson, who had only the previous fall won the Oval Office in a landslide of epic proportions, was not going to be left behind by the tide of history.

To forestall action by Johnson, amid legal battles over the rights of the protesters to march in Alabama, Gov. George Wallace visits the White House. There ensues what I regard as one of the most intriguing, and surely accurate, scenes in the movie involving Johnson, who asks Wallace why he is “doing this,” that is, using the powers of the state to prevent blacks from voting. Wallace pretends that he has no authority over the county registrars who are preventing blacks from voting, and Johnson is blindingly blunt and direct: “Are you shittin’ me? Are you shitting the President of the United States?” He asks what people in 1985 (not to mention 2015) will think of the stances they took in 1965, but Wallace professes not to care. Johnson ends the conversation simply: “I don’t intend to go down in history alongside the likes of you.”

In the end, as we all know, he not only did the right thing, but by November 1965, with King at his side, signed a landmark law with strict enforcement provisions that permanently changed the political landscape of America. Those who died at the hands of racist murderers, and those whose skulls were cracked and bones were fractured by merciless Alabama troopers and police, had something to show for their courageous sacrifice.

As I said, just go see the movie. If you think of yourself as a brave individual, match your courage against that of those who marched. You may find yourself aspiring to do better. I did.

Jim Schwab