Conventions and Discontents

I am, as I write this, on call as a home support volunteer for the Radical Reference people who are at the Republican National Convention. So far this has not entailed any actual work on my part, but that doesn’t mean that things haven’t been happening. It’s very weird in many ways to be so far from it all. My best friend lived in the Twin Cities for a decade, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time there myself. And

My friend doesn’t like election years because they seem to divide people too easily. I don’t like election years because I feel like none of the divisions create any spaces I can claim.

I’ve always felt that elections in the US are basically about choosing which flavor of capitalism you’d like. I got that from hanging out with the socialists, of course, but that doesn’t prevent it from being true.

I worry sometimes that by moving to a place where my vote, at least at the presidential level, truly does not count, I’ve just stepped off the edge of the political world and turned into the sort of person who is happy to sit on the beach (or in my case the mountain top) and watch the world as it burns. Of course, I’ve always said that voting is the least thing you can do politically, especially voting for national office. It stands to reason, therefore, that I ought to be able to go on doing the other political things that I do, such as volunteering with Radical Reference. But distance does make a difference. I can hardly imagine attending a candlelight vigil — much less a rally — any more, and yet I used to do that sort of thing all the time. I wonder if by being so far away from meetings and conference calls and marches and coordinating committees I am also far away from the things that they stood for, if I am losing my grip on them. I talk to people all over the country, and sometimes even the world, almost every day, and since they are almost all librarians, I have often a lot in common with them. In the last couple of weeks, though, reading blogging and tweeting and whatever the hell it is we do on FriendFeed, I’ve started to feel like I’m talking to people who mostly don’t know me at all, and that’s a little disturbing.

Of course, it’s good to be exposed to variety. It’s good to consider other viewpoints. But I think again and again of the story about the man who kept proclaiming his beliefs, even when people thought he was crazy. “Why do you keep speaking?” a young man asks, and the man says that sometimes he keeps speaking to change the world, and sometimes he keeps speaking so that the world doesn’t change him. That’s what I’m doing, I hope, these many years after the very first New Rambler.

Upgrades, The Black Dude, and Other Forward Thinking

I just upgraded this blog from WordPress 1.5 to the current version, which I believe is 2.3.3. Yeah, I missed a few in there. I’m also planning to play around with the theme some, so if you read this from the source rather than via aggregator, you may see some changes.

In other news, on Saturday, for the first time in my life, a candidate I caucused for won. Wyoming Public Radio feels, for some reason, that telling you about its upcoming pledge drive (which, while very short, is unbearably annoying) is more important than telling you, oh, say, news, but happily NPR and the AP come through with the results, even down to the county.

I got to the caucus site about ten minutes before it started (under normal Wyoming circumstances, that would be early) to find a line to get in. I didn’t even have to wait in line at the DMV when I got my Wyoming license; I rarely have to wait in lines at the grocery store. I had a nice time chatting with my fellow registered Democrats, though, and one turned out to be a fellow librarian. The organizers of this caucus had somehow missed the national press attention that Wyoming was getting in the days prior to the caucus, and they had thus booked a room that holds about 25 people. There were about 300 people there, and so they had us crowd around the main floor and the balcony of the floor above.

Where I come from, a caucus means getting a bunch of people in a large room and saying, “Okay, if you’re for the woman, go over there; if you’re for the black dude, go over there.” (And then, because it’s the first caucus in the nation, you get about ten more choices, which as you may imagine is why I have never before caucused for a winner.) In this caucus, we still heard some speeches and endorsements, but then we filled out ballots sort of like this one and deposited them in a cardboard box with a hole cut in it. After that, there may well have been more, but I’ve been ill and so I left to come back home and sleep before my week of Missoula Children’s Theatre (brought to you by the Park County Arts Council, of which I am a proud member) and Thinking Ahead (where I’m going to be talking about Radical Reference).

Although it was exciting to have voted for a winner, I am not really all that excited. There’s enough background about what I think and who I’ve voted for elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that, while the candidates whose positions I really admired have long since dropped out, I am trying to see that having either a woman or a person of color as a major party nominee (and, one hopes, as President) is a major symbolic step for this country and the world.

High as the Listening Skies, Loud as the Rolling Sea

People often ask me how I hack it in Wyoming. Don’t I miss, well, culture? There are all sorts of things wrong with that question, not the least of which is that every place has a culture. But I know what they mean: don’t I miss living in a place where there are concerts and lectures and people who get the New Yorker? You can find all of those things in Wyoming, though often they’re a little far flung.

In truth, for the most part, I don’t miss the culture I left to come here. Oh, now and then I get a hankering for Indian food, but I manage.

I’d forgotten until today what the other thing I miss is.

My friend called on her way to the Twin Cities wondering if I could look up the time of a particular Martin Luther King Day celebration that she wanted to attend. Unfortunately, it was held last Tuesday, on his actual birthday. “But wait!” I said. “There is a whole page of MLK Day events.”

So tomorrow afternoon, my friend will be going back to her undergraduate college to hear Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, an early SNCC organizer whom I’ve read about in books. And I. . . will be at work. Although MLK Day is a national holiday, it is not one recognized by Park County, Wyoming, and thus, as a county employee, I do not have it off.

It is popular nowadays to celebrate MLK Day as a “day on” instead of a day off: a day where you go out and work in your community to make the world a better place. I’m glad that people are feeling moved by the day to do that kind of work. The priest at my church once said that going to church is your reward for being a Christian all week long, and I tend to feel the same way about MLK Day. I try on a daily basis to make decisions, and to encourage others to make decisions, that make the world better for the poor and the oppressed. One day a year I want to celebrate that work. I want to listen to speeches and spirituals. I want to lift my voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty.

I took that for granted before I moved here. Oh, I remember signing the petition to get MLK Day recognized by the University of Iowa, and I remember, in later years, getting told we couldn’t leaflet for political causes outside the big MLK Day celebration. I got plenty cynical about the University’s supposed commitment to human rights, which seemed to consist of freeloading on the reputation of a great man every year around his birthday, and which, like most remembrances of King, focused solely on his early civil rights work and not at all on his campaigns against poverty and war. I didn’t realize until last year, my first MLK Day here, how much that ceremony meant to me, despite my doubts as to the appropriateness and sincerity of its sentiments.

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the first people I remember learning about. I surely knew about kings and queens and presidents and actors at least dimly, when I was seven. But one night when we still lived on Rider Street in Iowa City my mother saw that there was going to be a special program on television about Martin Luther King, and she told me that, if I wanted to, I could stay up past my bedtime to watch it. In all the years that she had a say over my bedtime, this is the only occasion on which I can recall my mother allowing me to stay up late. She explained that Dr. King had been an important man, and that her best friend in high school had taken a bus all the way from Chicago to Washington D.C. to be at a march where Dr. King had given his famous speech. Thirty years later, my friend–the same one who’ll be at Augsburg College tomorrow–and I went to an anniversary march in Washington, and I spent the night at the house of the mother of my mother’s best friend, and she packed a lunch for me of peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread–just what she’d packed for her daughter for the bus trip, since the bus would be unable to stop at segregated restaurants along the way.

I think I shall have to make my own ceremony here, and that ceremony will begin with turning back to the language. Dr. King’s famous quotations are generally taken out of context, and while the words still ring out, they lose specificity, and, in doing so, become platitudes. People always remember the beginning of the Declaration of Indpendence and forget all about the list of greivances that make up the bulk of the document. Similarly, people tend to remember only the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech and forget the rest of the speech, where King discusess the promissary note “to which every American was to fall heir,” the promise of that first part of the Declaration of Independence, and the “shameful condition” that, for so many, that promise has not been kept.

I offer tonight two selections from “A Time to Break Silence,” the speech in which King first came out agains the Vietnam War. Space, time, and copyright prevent me from offering anything but excerpts, but I hope that I leave as much context as possible attached.

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in a time of war.

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken–the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

And then, because it is celebration I wish to provoke, not merely action, I leave you with perhaps my favorite paragraph of all, a passage from King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, about the Montgomery bus boycott:

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awake a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Where We Were Going, Where We Have Been

A great many people today asked me what the date was, which suggest that the many efforts to make sure that we Never Forget are, perhaps, failing in some way.  We seem to do better with Pearl Harbor.  What that difference may say about the difference in rhetorical talents between George W. Bush and Winston Churchill I leave for you to decide.

I myself remember this day all too well, and my mourning, and remembering, are not just for those who died but also for the many hopes and dreams and plans that died that day.  About a month before September 11, 2001, I attended a United Students Against Sweatshops conference in Chicago.  I came back to Iowa pumped up and prepared to get all sorts of balls rolling.  On September 12, 2001, I realized–or believed–that all those balls had to be dropped, because the only thing we could do now was to stop the war, or try to.  That, of course, failed too.

The war is still here (the “first” Gulf War, it should be noted, never did end), and USAS is still around, too, so perhaps we haven’t failed entirely, but it sure seems that way some days–days like today most of all.

in the ‘hood

In my new town, I am frequently called upon to do things I have never done before, or have never done with any regularity. Some of them, like hauling my own trash, are tedious but not really a big deal. Some of them are more troublesome. Near the top of that list comes the opening of the monthly school board meeting, at which we are all called upon to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

My background is probably somewhat unusual: I have never in my life been required or even asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis. When I was in third grade, some parents at my grade school became deeply upset that we weren’t saying the Pledge every morning. Our teachers put aside the regularly scheduled social studies programming for a few days, and we studied the Pledge of Allegiance. We looked up all the words we didn’t know and talked about them. We watched a little film on the history of the Pledge. We discussed the addition of “under God” (“your parents will probably remember when that phrase wasn’t there”) and talked about what God that meant and whether one might feel alienated if one believed in a different God, or gods, or didn’t believe in God at all. After due consideration of all these points, we voted. Yes, that’s right — we voted. Seven and eight and nine and ten and eleven and twelve year olds voted on whether and when we ought to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school. We voted for the option of maybe saying it for a special occasion, but it would of course be optional, and no one would be forced to participate. It never came up again.

I went to a small elementary school in the People’s Republic of Johnson County, Iowa. The students were mostly the children of doctors and lawyers and professors. I had fellow students who were Indian and Korean and Israeli, but none who were black. (African-Americans constitute, as I recall, 2% of the overall population in Iowa but 26% of the prison population; in Wyoming, I suspect, the numbers are even smaller, though probably similarly skewed.) It was not, then, the most realistic setting in the world, but it is the one I grew up in, and there are experiences, like books, that you may get past but never get over. That vote on the Pledge is one for me — both the fact of the voting and its outcome.

I try to go to the school board meetings here every month (I say try because I don’t always last until the end — after two hours, my resolve does begin to fade), but I don’t say the Pledge. In my younger years, I would have remained seated while everyone else stood. Because I am trying to forestall the day when the locals start running up the hill to the library, flaming torches in hand, yelling “Burn the witch!”, I now stand for the Pledge and the national anthem, but I don’t put my hand over my heart, and I don’t join in. It’s the best compromise I can make.

I was explaining this to an old friend (who, in fact, went to the same grade school I did, though her memories of it may differ somewhat), who wanted to know what objection I had to the Pledge. Was it the God part? No, I said, or not exactly–since I believe in God (the Christian God, no less!), I don’t object to talking about Him, but I don’t think others should be forced to do so. What I really object to is the whole idea of nationhood.

There has been a meandering discussion on Hermits Rock of late on the subjects of nationhood, nationality, citizenship, immigration, race, and other such small topics. Like Jeremy, I feel very little attachment to the United States as a nation, but I don’t have his reasons. I grew up in the US, in a household that was, despite its churchgoing, largely secular. When I lived in the Chicago area, I often got asked what nationality I was. The first time it happened I was at an almost total loss for words. My first thought was that the questioner was trying to determine if I was legal — a nonsensical thought, since I am in appearance as white as white can be. That in itself does not, of course, prevent me from being a foreigner, but it would limit me to being a foreigner of northern European extraction, and people do not seem particularly concerned about their presence in this country. I stammered and finally said, “Uh. . . American?”, with that ever so annoying rising inflection, as if I were questioning the fact.

What the questioner wanted to know, as it turned out, was just what kind of northern European I was. “I mean, I’m Polish, and my friend here is Irish,” she said. I explained that I was little bit of both, plus English, German, Swiss, probably French, a pinch of Native American, and God knows what else. She still didn’t seem satisfied: she wanted me to identify as one of these things, and I don’t. My ancestors have been on these shores far too long for me to feel any allegiance to their home countries. The first of them, German draft dodgers and fourth or fifth sons from England, arrived before the Revolutionary War and some of them fought in it (not, I presume, the draft dodgers). I could, if I wanted, belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution, though no one in my family has for generations, in honor of Marian Anderson.

But in truth I stammered my reply to the woman because I truly didn’t know what to say. I don’t think of myself as having a nationality. I know that I am American in cultural ways that are indelible, even if I forsake large parts of American culture. But the notions of nationality and citizenship have never made sense to me. Because I happen to have been born within a particular set of imaginary lines, I should therefore feel (and even pledge!) an allegiance to the entity encompassed by those invisible lines, to this thing called a nation? Why?

My friend (remember her? — I apologize for the meandering nature of this narrative) brought up the social contract. Didn’t I have some obligation to the country because of the things the country provided for me? Well, yes: I have the obligation to pay taxes, which I do and to obey laws, which I mostly do (I won’t say completely — I’ve been known to drive over the speed limit). I reap certain benefits from being a citizen, and in turn I accept certain of the chains that come with it. But I can’t believe that accepting those chains carries with it an obligation of eternal allegiance to the republic. The republic in question hasn’t even been around all that long, at least not when considered in the broader sweep of human history.

I believe in loyalty, I told my friend. I am even somewhat hung up on it, especially when it comes to family and to friends. And I believe in an overall allegiance to humanity — not that I don’t criticize them, God knows, but I believe that if your neighbor has fallen in the ditch, you should help him out. I just don’t ask to see what kind of papers my neighbor is carrying before I help him out.

I was not at any immigration rallies on Monday (some photos and reporting from Chicago), and thus I did not face the question of what, if any, flag to march under. It has filled my heart with gladness to watch the marches around the country in the past month. Three years ago I attended the launch of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in Chicago, which was more or less a nonevent in the local and national news (if for no other reason than “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride” is quite a mouthful). It was, however, a part of the mobilization that resulted in what we’ve seen these past few weeks. That movement is something I could pledge to — but the key word there may be movement: a group of people, an idea, a groundswell with no borders.