Anne Klaeysen's Blog
Last month I received the following email from Professor Dr. Youri Devuyst from the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
“I am contacting you regarding the remarkable writings by the late Matthew Ies Spetter. . . My now 86 year old father, a humanist leader in Belgium, who was one of the transatlantic friends of Dr. Spetter and Howard Radest, recently drew my attention to Dr. Spetter’s book Man – The Reluctant Brother: An Exploration of Human Courage.
“Starting with a strong plea for ‘truth,’ the analysis (published in 1967 by Fieldston Press) provides a truly outstanding insight in the Trump era. Few of today’s observations match the depth of pages 157-171 on ‘A homebred fascism?’ and ‘The success of unreason.’ At the same time, the book offers a path for living together in human community, as brothers, based on what Dr. Spetter calls a ‘Passio Humana.’
“I think it really matters that the wisdom displayed in Dr. Spetter’s book is remembered, especially in the Ethical Culture movement. While I am sure you do, I also wanted to let you know that Dr. Spetter’s writings have not been forgotten on this side of the Atlantic.”
Dr. Spetter’s inspiring life and words have not been forgotten here, but I confess that I needed this reminder to return to him for guidance in these troubling times.
After seeing Nazis throw children into a truck from a Jewish orphanage in his native Holland, he joined the Dutch Resistance at the age of 23 and worked to help Jewish families escape. He later worked with Allied military intelligence before he was captured, tortured and sentenced to death in 1943. “In Holland you were either on the side of the executioners or the victims,” he said. “You had to make an existential choice.” Two years later, weighing 68 pounds, he fled through the woods to escape the Buchenwald concentration camp and later testified as an Allied witness at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany. Dr. Spetter was awarded the Resistance Cross by the government of the Netherlands.
In 1951, Dr. Spetter and his family moved to the United States where he discovered the Ethical Movement and soon became an Ethical Culture Leader, serving the Riverdale-Yonkers Society, The Encampment for Citizenship, and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools for several decades. He also founded the Riverdale Mental Health Clinic in 1960, which remains an important community resource today. Among his many written works, Man, the Reluctant Brother remains my favorite. Dr. Devuyst is right: It does indeed provide insight into the Trump era.
This book illustrates what Dr. Spetter called his “militant humanism” and analyzes the impermissible fanaticism that allows the killing of innocents. From his experience as clergy, counselor, and professor of Social Psychology, he called for a nurturing of trust as the fundamental law of life, a nurturing of the fullness of human capacity, without the delusion of perfectionism.
“I need truth,” he wrote, “because I was an eyewitness to the premeditated murder of children. The killers were men and women of a nation much akin to my own. The children were ours. I need truth because my generation allowed the ultimately impermissible and because such killing continues. Men everywhere, while protesting their abhorrence, are still willing to permit the impermissible, still willing to kill as ‘a necessary evil,’ still willing to appease their conscience with justifications which fasten the tyranny of evil upon their souls. . . I have seen this
[atrocities] and speak of it, not with sentimentality but with outrage and I will not permit it to be locked from your heart.”
Today we are witnessing outrageous acts against fellow Americans and immigrants, against our environment and our children’s future. Some can be attributed directly to our new president in the form of his executive orders and his appointment of cabinet officers. Others are performed by domestic terrorists emboldened by his support of their racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred. We must not allow this behavior to be locked from our hearts. We must stand up and take action, resisting any policy that treats human beings as “others” to be dismissed, derided and deported.
Dr. Spetter ends with a note of hope: “I hold deeply that each life is a gift which the centuries bestow upon the continuity of existence. A Passio Humana, a passion for Man, is what will negate totalitarianism and oppression, it will open the jail-doors of history, provided our mutuality and love outpace our tools. All of us are constantly close to death and yet we are also in touch with the perpetuation of life through what we create and build.”
Dr. Matthew Ies died peacefully at his home on December 30, 2012, surrounded by his family.
People who march today in protest of this administration’s policies chant “This is what democracy looks like!” and “This is what democracy sounds like!” It’s a gathering call to witness what is happening and to take action against it. It’s a demonstration of the freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. For most of our lives we have taken these freedoms for granted, but no longer, not when police threaten to arrest activists exercising their civil rights.
Learning about and actively participating in democracy was considered a sacred duty by Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler. In his idealistic philosophy, democracy was the practical application of his concept of Ethical Manifold, wherein all beings experience themselves fully in their uniqueness, diversity, and inter-relatedness. Community isn’t complete if it doesn’t include everyone. Indeed, even the universe depends upon everyone’s exertions. (Sadly, although he valued women as “moral teachers,” he did not support women’s suffrage. Other early leaders, including John Lovejoy Elliott did, and the NY Society had an active women’s civics club.)
Imagine what American democracy was like in 1876, when Ethical Culture was founded, and you will understand its importance to the first generation of leaders and members. Until 2000, the election that year between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was our nation’s most contentious, with Tilden carrying the popular vote and 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed for a majority. But nineteen votes from three ex-Confederate states controlled by Republicans were in dispute, so Congress created a Federal Electoral Commission (unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated) to sort it out. Voting along party lines, the commission handed victory to Hayes, a decision Democrats called “the Fraud of the Century.”
The election of 1876 drew the highest rate of voter turnout in U.S. history: 81.8 percent nationally and over 90 percent in some states. The fifteenth amendment, adopted in 1870, granted former male slaves the right to vote, but by the late 1870s Southern state governments had effectively nullified both this and the 14th amendment that guaranteed citizenship. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these egregious practices were addressed. Today, thanks to a Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013) that gutted key provisions of that act, states are again working to disenfranchise African-American voters.
The national turnout of eligible voters in 2016 was only 60.2 percent. (During the last NYC mayoral election, voter turnout was only 24 percent.) Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by close to 2.9 million, and Republican Donald Trump carried the electoral vote by 74. Fortunately, an important backlash to the election of Trump has been an increased interest in civics. Starting in the 1980s, policymakers shifted the focus of public schools’ curriculum from social studies to testable subjects like math and reading. They favored training skilled workers over educating critical thinkers. After all, the previous generation had fueled the civil rights and peace movements, neither of which was deemed good for business. In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. State and local funding for these subjects dropped precipitously. According to a recent government study, only 25% of U.S. students reach a proficient standard in civics assessment.
And this brings me back to the notion that democracy is sacred in a non-theistic religion of ethics. In March, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and I co-hosted an event at the NY Society that highlighted and celebrated civics. Our members read key passages from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Esteemed jurists explained their ramifications in today’s political climate, and an a cappella chorus sang the words of the First Amendment. The audience was encouraged to ask questions and given resources for further study.
We also co-hosted an event with Indivisible (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/), first an online guide and now a grassroots movement for local activism, conceived by two former congressional staffers who asked, “What do we do now?” Seeing energy building to resist, they laid out a roadmap to save democracy. The response has been overwhelming. Their guide has been viewed over 18 million times by over 3 million unique users from every state, and almost 6,000 groups, with at least two in every congressional district, have registered. An immediate consequence has been increased attendance at town hall meetings, forcing politicians to be responsible. Last month, Colorado Republican Representative Mike Coffman faced angry constituents who told him more than once, “You can side with us or side with the President.”
There is more that we can and must do. Alongside the protests and resistance, we must promote civics education. Our democracy will not survive future generations unaware of their rights and responsibilities. Visit the website of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (http://www.civicmissionofschools.org/) today. There you will find a quotation from John Dewey: “Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.”
Democracy is sacred, and it is entrusted to us.
“Such a nasty woman.”
Donald J. Trump referring to Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate in Las Vegas on October 19, 2016
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after sanctioning Senator Elizabeth Warren during the hearing for Attorney General nominee Jeffrey Sessions on February 7, 2017
The first quotation is an example of manterruption, the second of mansplaining. Both have been transformed into powerful social media memes – and T-shirts – to further the cause of women’s rights. They have, as the saying goes, “gone viral.” One woman tweeted: “Thanks for the new battle cries!”
For the record, during their third and final debate, Clinton interrupted Trump fewer than five times; Trump interrupted her more than forty times, more than in any of the other debates. Ironically, only minutes before, Trump declared (to audience laughter) that “no one has more respect for women than I do.”
When Clinton said, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere who doesn’t know what that feels like,” many of us agreed and shared with one another our harrowing experiences. Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit song “Nasty,” which had become a theme for women dealing with disrespectful men, was played again, capturing the essence of our problem with Trump.
On the evening of Tuesday, February 7, Elizabeth Warren started to read a statement that Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had written 30 years ago opposing the nomination of Jeffrey Sessions for a federal judgeship. Accused of violating Senate rules against impugning another senator, Warren was barred from continuing by a vote down party lines, followed by McConnell using a strategy designed to silence women. One woman tweeted that his words were “every woman’s epitaph.”
Unable to finish speaking in the nearly empty Senate chamber, Warren took to Facebook Live (“They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth,” she said.) where she read the entire statement for an audience of over 7 million by Wednesday afternoon.
Here is one paragraph from that statement: “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Mr. Sessions’ conduct as a US Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicated that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.”
In between the dates when the two “manly” quotations were made, on the day after Trump’s poorly attended inauguration, millions of women (and men) around the world, including Antarctica, took to the streets and marched. One woman’s invitation to forty friends to protest a sexual predator making his home in the White House grew to the largest and most peaceful single-day demonstration in U.S. history.
The sheer numbers made an impact, but what really made the day special was the sea of pink hats. The Pussyhat Project was launched over Thanksgiving weekend to draw attention to Trump’s caught-on-tape boasts about grabbing unsuspecting women by their genitals. Its mission was to provide people on the marches with a means to make a unique collective visual statement and to provide people unable to physically participate with a way to represent themselves and support women’s rights. What a rousing success it was, as you can see from the photo of Eleanor Roosevelt sporting one.
Following the march, the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington posted the “10 Actions for the first 100 Days” campaign for joint activism to keep up the momentum. Last month, an Upper West Side “Huddle” convened in our Meeting House to strategize how to implement those actions. In the coming weeks, months and years, we at Ethical will continue to partner with individuals and groups to fight for human rights and environmental protection.
Since 1976, every United States president has officially designated February as Black History Month. Here’s hoping President Trump does, too. He, more than any other president since 1976, needs to learn the lessons of Black History Month. A case in point: During the presidential campaign, Trump said there had “never been a worse time to be a black person” in America. President Obama urged him to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/) to brush up on his history. Trump seemed to have “missed that whole civics lesson about slavery and Jim Crow,” he said in a September speech at the Congressional Caucus Foundation in Washington, DC. “We’ve got a museum for him to visit, so he can tune in. We will educate him.” Sadly, Trump cancelled his plans to visit the museum on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One wonders whether he did so because civil rights leader John Lewis, who chose not to attend his inauguration and questions his legitimacy as president, championed the creation of this museum and is featured in many of its exhibits.
In her memoir, Negroland, Margo Jefferson quotes her mother, who, in the 1950’s, was worried that her young daughters were “being naturalized into white culture.” “When I was your age,” she said, “we celebrated Negro History Week. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History was founded by Carter G. Woodson right here in Chicago. We read The Crisis [official magazine of the NAACP]. We were so proud when we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing’ at assemblies and church programs.” Jefferson writes, “From that day forward Mother began her own cultural enrichment course with evening and weekend contributions from Daddy.”
Black History Month grew out of Negro History Week, founded by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and launched in 1926 in the second week of February between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 and the Journal of Negro History in 1916. A prolific writer about the contributions of African-Americans, his best-known work is The Miseducation of the Negro, published in 1933. It focused on the Western indoctrination system and African-American self-empowerment.
Born to former slaves in 1875 in Buckingham County, Virginia, Woodson worked in mines and quarries until the age of 20, received his high school diploma at the age of 22 and a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. In 1912, Woodson received a doctorate in history from Harvard, but was unable to land a teaching post there because Harvard wasn’t hiring black professors. He taught instead at Howard University, one of the nation’s leading black educational institution.
Woodson spent his life investigating, documenting and publishing African-American history. He died suddenly of a heart attack on April 3, 1950 in Washington, DC, before realizing his ambition of publishing the six-volume Encyclopedia Africana.
The theme for 2017’s Black History month, selected by ASALH, is “The Crisis in Black Education,” a tribute to its founder. It focuses on the crucial role of education and recalls Woodson’s words: “If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race.”
The crisis, according to ASALH, “first began in the days of slavery when it was unlawful for slaves to learn to read and write. . . [C]ontinuing today, the crisis in black education has grown significantly in urban neighborhoods where public schools lack resources, endure overcrowding, exhibit a racial achievement gap, and confront policies that fail to deliver substantive opportunities.”
I am finishing this column on Inauguration Day and will travel early tomorrow morning to Washington, DC to march for all that I hold dear about our nation. That includes Black History Month and the lessons we still have to learn.