Anne Klaeysen's Blog
Oft hope is born when all is forlorn. – J.R.R. Tolkien
Having grown up in rural western New York State, I wasn’t as surprised by the presidential election result as many of you were. Trump lawn signs were prominently planted in the front lawns of my hometown, and many of the people I knew from school watch only Fox News. Nonetheless, I was disturbed that an antiquated Electoral College once again put someone into office who had lost the popular vote. (Previous beneficiaries were Bush in 2000, Harrison in 1888, and Hayes in 1876.)
We held sharing circles for our staff on the afternoon after the election and for members that evening. There were tears and anguish, fear and anger. The growing and deepening division between our two Americas was painfully clear, and many doubted that the union could hold.
In the days that followed, we assessed the danger that awaits us when Trump takes office. As I write this, we have learned about the appointments to his White House staff and cabinet. We can expect assaults on human rights and environmental protections. We are already experiencing a campaign of disinformation that promotes heinous positions taken by alt-right media.
A colleague, Jone Johnson Lewis, shared a colloquy called “The Gift of Despair” that I led last month. Founder Felix Adler wrote and spoke about learning from failure; it is when we realize that, despite our best efforts to achieve an ideal, we have failed that we also realize what it was that we most wanted. It is similar to mourning for someone who has died. We recognize how much we valued that person and despair over our loss.
This colloquy includes a quotation from historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States: “[H]uman history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Here is my ethical dilemma: How do I attribute worth and dignity to people who deny human rights to others? Trump’s election gives license to every racist, misogynist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc., and the attacks are increasing. These incidents must be meticulously documented and reported. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center for details: https://www.splcenter.org. We who still have privilege must be allies and accomplices to those who do not, and we must do so with humility, following the lead of organizers for their respective groups.
My Ethical Culture faith has been sorely tested as I try to stay in relationship with people whose values are diametrically opposed to mine, people who accuse me of condescension when I bring to their attention the suffering of marginalized Americans and the disinformation promulgated by hateful social media sources. I don’t want to pay lip service to our ethical rule of eliciting the goodness in others and thereby in ourselves by engaging in the “toxic niceness” of simply accepting that they hold different opinions. This election is a tragic reminder that rights are never given; we must fight for them every day of our lives. It is time to roll up our sleeves and take to the streets; to employ every legal means available and every civil disobedience tool in our kits to right the wrongs that have already, and will continue to be, unleashed.
The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.
Felix Adler, Founding Address, May 15, 1876
Historians remind us that this election is not unique in terms of rancor and divisiveness. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States from France in 1831, wrote: “Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds. . . As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps. . . The whole nation gets into a feverish state.”
Nonetheless, most Americans experiencing the 2016 campaign have never witnessed such noxious public discourse. Voter suppression and voter fraud are both cited as dangers to our democracy. While there is considerable evidence for the former; the latter is statistically non-existent. Various court orders have been issued to states to lift restrictions to voter registration and to the GOP to prevent intimidation at the polls. The Democratic party, on the other hand, has dedicated itself to full voter registration and getting out the vote. Families and friendships have been torn asunder, with supporters of one presidential candidate vilifying supporters of the other. And the whole nation, anxious about the results, wonders whether these relationships can ever be healed.
I cannot tell you for whom to vote, but I can encourage you to follow your conscience when you do vote – and remind you of who we are. We Ethical Humanists affirm the worth and dignity of every person. Since our founding in 1876, we have devoted ourselves to social justice and the common good. We hold the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with reverence. Remember who you are and what you value tomorrow and every day – and vote accordingly.
You will read this column before the 2016 presidential election season ends. I am weary and imagine that you are, too. This “ultramarathon” – from the forming of exploratory committees to the inauguration – can last two years, far longer than any other country’s campaigns. Canadians were perturbed that their recent election season lasted eleven weeks. The average length in the UK is less than 20 weeks and in France two weeks. In Australia, the average length is eleven weeks, and voting is compulsory.
We rank near the bottom in terms of voter registration because we make it so difficult; strategies include cutting back on early voting, making absentee voting more difficult, and imposing photo-ID requirements at the polls. Even when federal courts rule that their voting processes are unconstitutional, some states (Ohio, NC, Texas and Wisconsin) continue to defiantly suppress votes. New York State does not allow early voting, and requires voters to register at least 25 days before Election Day. Absentee voting requires “snail” mail between the voter and local Board of Elections.
The Founding Fathers were divided on the issue of voting rights. In 1776 John Adams was unwilling to extend voting rights beyond white men who owned property and warned, “There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state.” Poor Abigail!
According to Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and author of The Fight to Vote (Simon & Schuster, 2016), a history of the struggle to win voting rights for all citizens, “Often groups fearful of change are most determined to change the rules – to make it harder for others to vote.” Still, he is optimistic about our future. I wish I were.
Instead, I harken back to a time long ago when the Great Law of Peace guaranteed equal rights to men and women in the Six Nation Confederacy of the Iroquois. The impact upon our Constitution of this oldest participatory democracy has been well researched and documented. Senate resolution 331 from the 100th Congress in 1988 “acknowledges the contribution made by the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian Nations to the formation and development of the United States.” Tragically, our Founding Fathers, even George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who were “known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations,” failed to include women. And it took a Civil War to include men born in slavery; Native Americans would wait much longer.
Our Founding Mothers, however, those who met in Seneca Falls, NY in July 1848 to issue The Declaration of Sentiments asserting the equality of women and men, were well aware of the differences in women’s roles between the Iroquois and Americans. For example, Iroquois women selected their chiefs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described their rights “as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired,” said Sally Roesch Wagner, who curated an exhibit in Seneca Falls called “Sisters in Spirit: Celebrating the Iroquois Influence on the Early Women’s Rights Movement.”
So here we are in November 2016, centuries removed from that ideal.
I knew that Hilary Clinton’s run for president would challenge those uncomfortable with women holding positions of power. What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of her opponent’s misogyny. Perhaps I was naïve, and yet I don’t know any woman, including myself, who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment. Trump may epitomize that behavior, but far too many men practice it. In the weeks leading up to this election, we have been subjected to explicit evidence of a presidential candidate’s utter contempt for women.
Susan B. Anthony was thrown to the ground when she tried to cast a ballot in November 1872. Women won suffrage in 1920 after generations of hard-fought battles. We are still fighting for an Equal Rights Amendment. Among all the issues calling for our attention in this election, and there are myriad, in these final days we are being thrown to the ground again. Misogyny is alive and kicking. But so is the ideal of fully participatory democracy. Once upon a time, it thrived in this land. It can again if we don’t lose hope and work together.
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Do you remember reciting this verse in elementary school when preparing to celebrate Columbus Day? In two-line rhyming stanzas we learned about his voyage from Spain with three ships and ninety sailors to what he thought would be India. It mentions encountering the “Arawak natives” and concludes with “The first American? No, not quite. But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.” For the quincentennial of his “discovery,” Nancy Schimmel wrote a different song for children – “1492” (http://www.sisterschoice.com/1492.mp3) – with the refrain “someone was already there.”
Indeed someone was! The benign poem I learned didn’t mention the nations of indigenous peoples living in the Americas for millennia before the European invasion. It neither told their stories nor sang their praises. It taught us a myth and hid the devastating truth from us.
In North America alone, between 1776 and the present, our government seized an estimated 1.5 billion acres from Native peoples. Claudio Saunt, associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, created an interactive time-lapse map that can be viewed at http://invasionofamerica.ehistory.org/, to visualize this dispossession. In 1848, gold was discovered in California’s Central Valley, and three years later, in his State of the State address, governor Peter Burnett said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” For more than a century (1860-1978), Native children were ripped from their families and sent to boarding schools far from their homes. Between 1947 and 2000, an estimated 40,000 children from 60 tribes were placed in Mormon homes.
Many Americans have heard about the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee, but a vast majority know little about the extent of the atrocities committed against our hosts. It is high time we learned. It is time for a reckoning about the U.S. conquest of sovereign indigenous nations and a serious engagement with people who lost their homelands and future generations of children. Some progress has been made in the truthful teaching of our history and filing of lawsuits to reclaim land, but it is an arduous struggle.
Today we have an opportunity to support Native Americans taking a stand to stop construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, from North Dakota to Illinois, that threatens to contaminate the Missouri River. Thousands of indigenous activists from dozens of tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp (http://sacredstonecamp.org/) launched on April 1 by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protest this violation of the National Historic Preservation Act. A delegation from Black Lives Matters also participated. Many of us joined a rally in Washington Square Park last month (September 9) and continue to support the tribe’s efforts.
News of this protest and the lawsuits filed by the tribe has been slow reaching the general public. It was carried primarily by the daily independent news program Democracy Now! and through social media. Yet again, it is evident that mainstream news media care little about Native Americans. One notable exception was Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC at the end of the August 25th edition of his nightly news show, “The Last Word.” Here is a quotation:
“The original sin of this country is that we invaders shot and murdered our way across the land killing every Native American we could, and making treaties with the rest. This country was founded on genocide before the word genocide was invented, before there was a war crimes tribunal in The Hague. . . [Standing Rock reminds us of] The people who have always known what is truly sacred in this world.”
So this Columbus Day weekend, please make time to consider our country from a different perspective. Imagine what might have been had the European invaders respected the cultures and valued the lives of the people who preceded them. We have much to learn.