Update: A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong. I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword to my copy of On Civil Disobedience. I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars. Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.
Happy Birthday, Thoreau. Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA, Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class. He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.
Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.
Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs, but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.] He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine. Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience. In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience. By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil. One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws. Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.
Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists. Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways. Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience. So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.] These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.
We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness. We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.
We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.
Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.
UPDATE: It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway. Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten. Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]
As I write this, it is already 04 July 2009. It’s Independence Day, the anniversary of the day (04 July 1776) when American colonists declared their independence from the U.K. It’s the birthday of this republic, the United States of America, although our current form of government did not set until 1790. Throughout this land on Sunday, churches will be filled with pastors giving sermons on freedom or on “God and country,” etc. Most of them will be pretty bad. Some of them will be positively idolatrous–reducing the God of all creation to a tribal deity that somehow cares more for this nation than others–a truly blasphemous idea.
Some preachers will do better. My brother-in-law, Rev. Bill Westmoreland, a Presbyterian minister in Cincinnatti, OH, will be preaching on the differences between freedom in Christ (e.g., Gal. 5) and the individualistic, consumerist versions of “freedom” that most of the nation will celebrate this weekend.
But let’s skip the idolatrous perversions. What of patriotism itself? Can Christians be patriots? Some would be highly skeptical of the idea. The great Pascal said that patriotism as love of country is a great idea but why should my love stop at an artificial border? Good question, Blaise. Others have noted that patriotism is the last refuge (or excuse) of the scoundrel. (I am reminded of the scene from the hilarious play and film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas where a TX Sen. was caught at the brothel–and immediately claimed that he had been drugged and kidnapped and taken there against his will by his enemies–all because they KNEW he was the fiercest anti-Communist in the Senate. Yeah, right.) Huge evil has been done in the name of patriotism–by the patriots of many nations. Can a Christian, who believes that the saints are called out from among all nations, really be a patriot?
I think so if we define “patriotism” differently than “nationalism” or “militarism.” Love of one’s native land is natural, like love of one’s family. It doesn’t have to mean hatred or contempt for others’ nations anymore than quiet pride in one’s family means the hatred of other families. The Apostle Paul, with dual citizenship, both bragged on his heritage as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and on his Roman citizenship–though he knew the shortcomings of both. The Sanhedrin would eventually arrest Paul and turn him over to Rome–where tradition says he was martyred. So, Paul had to have a critical love of country. It could not be the kind of blind patriotism which ignores the faults of one’s nation. It had to point out those faults and seek to correct them.
The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler–which led to his arrest by the Gestapo and eventual execution by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was partially motivated by his ecumenical commitments to the church universal. But I would contend that Bonhoeffer was a greater patriot than those “German Christians” who lavished praise on Hitler, flew Swastikas in their sanctuaries, and supported the Third Reich’s agenda.
I would similarly claim that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–who once called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” to be a better patriot than the “God and country” Jerry Falwell types. I would say that Rev. William Sloan Coffin, or Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who were leading resisters to the Vietnam War were also patriotic Americans–genuinely so.
A Christian patriotism must be an “eyes wide open” critical patriotism that is always calling for repentence and reform. Because Christians can never forget that no nation, no government, is anywhere close to the standards of the Rule of God. Our first loyalty is to that other “kingdom” (forgive the patriarchal language, the political meaning comes through better) which is not from this world–but which will overthrow the Powers and Authorities of this world. We are loyal first to the “God Revolution,” and second to the global church (the scattered People of God) and third to the whole world, in and out of the church, as God’s beloved creation. Only after that, as a lesser loyalty, can we be lovers of our own nation and government.
Nationalists and jingoists, therefore, will always find Christians to be suspect. We will not appear patriotic enough for them. Too bad.
On a more secular note, I link to this great forum on patriotism by the online version of The Nation.
A traditional intellectual is a scholar, usually ensconced at an academic institution, who speaks and writes for other academics as well as teaching students in her or his particular discipline.
A public intellectual is different. She or he engages not only (or even primarily) other scholars, but the general public–leading, provoking, arguing positions, helping a society engage the great moral and social issues of the day. Now, a public intellectual is not the first need of a society, by any means, but all societies need them. The prophets and sages of Israel were (among other things) public intellectuals. So were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
America has had, even in our short history, numerous excellent public intellectuals: Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, Alice Paul, W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. But we don’t seem to have many at the present moment –a time of great transition and, potentially, of great good or bad. We don’t need more blowhards on the radio or cable TV–pundits we have in plenty. But we do need those engaged thinkers who can help us form a great national conversation on where we need to be going and what we need to be doing.
To be sure, our current president–whether one loves him, hates him, or (as with me) is somewhere in between–is the first public intellectual elected President of the United States since Lincoln. (Jimmy Carter has become something of a public intellectual–and peace and human rights activist—since LEAVING the White House, but he didn’t govern that way. Bill Clinton had the capacity for such–and loves high powered intellectual engagement with a variety of people–but he dabbles. Neither as President, nor since leaving office, has he really sought to help shape public conversations–although he claimed once to want to start a national dialogue on race. ) But he can only be one voice and, as president, he cannot devote his whole attention to the role of public intellectual.
The lack of strong public intellectuals is most notable currently on the political right (although from 1980-2001, the right had far more public intellectuals than the left or center). With the passing of William F. Buckley of The National Review, there isn’t really a strong intellectual defender of modern movement conservatism. I thought George Will would fill that slot, but the election of Obama seems to have so frazzled Will that he is no longer able to clearly articulate a reasonable conservatism. Peggy Noonan, the closest thing to an intellectual center for the Reagan admin., bravely keeps on, with help from Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, but they do not have a wide enough audience–and Elshtain’s credibility took a great hit from her endorsement of Bush II’s war policies.
But the left and center aren’t much better off. In previous generations, we had Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (yes, we sometimes elected such public intellectuals) and many more, but few of that caliber are here today. I can think of a few: Princeton’s Cornel West, Georgetown’s Michael Eric Dyson, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, Martha Nussbaum, Naomi Klein and Kristina Van Den Heuvel of The Nation, but that’s about it. Virtually no prominent clergy (other than R. Lerner) are both sufficient theologians and well enough known by the general public to count–though this has not always been true.
We need more public intellectuals–and we need more public fora for the kinds of discussions about “Where do we go from here?” on any number of issues. We have plenty of pundits, plenty of politicians, plenty of activists–but remarkably few well known public intellectuals.
Unless, of course, everyone just wants to watch America’s Got Talent or Ninja Warrior and forget everything else. 🙂
On Friday, Associate Justice David Hackett Souter, 69, announced that he is retiring at the end of this term of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS–as the legal shorthand goes). That’s at the end of June. Pres. Obama announced that he will seek to have a nominee for Justice Souter’s replacement soon so that the senate confirmation hearings can proceed and the replacement can be sworn in before the Court’s new session which begins on the 1st Monday in October (by law).
This has led political and legal nerds (including yours truly) to play a new game: Search federal judges, legal scholars, politicians with law degrees, etc. for Obama’s likely list of potential nominees and weigh their chances of getting through the confirmation process. The game has serious implications. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and their legal judgments affect the law and politics of the land for decades after the president who appoints them is long gone. E.g., the oldest member of the Supreme Court is Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, who was appointed by the late Pres. Gerald Ford in 1975. But my speculations will await another time. I want to take a moment to express appreciation for the departing Justice Souter.
I didn’t expect to like Souter when he was appointed by Pres. George H.W. Bush (Bush I) in 1990. I knew that Bush desired to appoint a very conservative justice to fill the vacancy left by William J. Brennan, a hero to liberals and progressives like myself. I remembered how we had barely escaped being saddled by Reagan with the far-right wackjob in Robert Bork.
[Note 1: That’s one vote I’ll always be grateful to Arlen Specter for. He led the GOP moderates against the extremist Bork. Note 2: The Religious Right interprets any criticism of Bork as due to his pro-life views. WRONG. I was thoroughly pro-life when he was nominated and still find his opinions on that issue to be among his most legally challenging. I still thought Bork was a wackjob. He thought Brown v. Board of Education (the unanimous 1954 decision which outlawed segregation) was wrongly decided! He believed Gideon v. Wainwright which demands a right to counsel for those who cannot afford lawyers to be wrongly decided! He thought Miranda v. Arizona which demands that the police read suspects their rights to remain silent, to have an attorney present before questioning, and to be warned that any statement they give can be used against them at trial to be wrongly decided, too! Bork would have been a dangerous addition to the Court. Of course, after Bork was blocked, Reagan pushed through Scalia, whose extremism isn’t much different–except on free speech where Scalia has surprised liberals and enfuriated conservatives by consistently striking down restrictions on free speech, including a Texas law against flag burning.] I suspected Souter to be another Bork without a sufficient paper trail to be caught.
I have been pleasantly surprised. He is no liberal–no matter what Republicans say whose battle cry has become “No more Souters!” But he is a very thoughtful justice with an independent mind–exactly the kind of qualifications one needs in a Supreme Court justice. He began as a swing vote on the Court, a moderate conservative who relies heavily on precedent and does not like to see courts make radical changes in settled law. But as the SCOTUS grew ever more conservative, Souter sided more and more with the moderate dissenters. (After the departures of Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, there have been no real liberals on SCOTUS–the closest being Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would have been considered a moderate in earlier decades.)
Here is a brief sketch: Born in 1939 in Melrose, MA, he spent his childhood and adolescence in rural New Hampshire. He fell in love with the New Hampshire farmlands and hills and still loves to climb and hike in that area to this day. This respect for rural America has led to the one consistently liberal area of his jurisprudence: Souter’s strong commitment to environmentalism against the depradations of corporations. This rural background also led Souter to a love of simple living that stays with him: He does not own a television or cell phone and does not use email. He writes out all his legal briefs in longhand using a fountain pen. He has no answering machine or personal computer. He lives a spartan existence in a small apartment. He loves reading, plays and opera, and jogging, and avoids the Washington, D.C. nightlife like it is a plague. He returns every year when the court is not in session to NH (by car, not using air travel except when absolutely necessary–and for this reason turning down many opportunities to lecture in Europe) to hike in the NH woods and mountains. Although once engaged, he has never married, leading him to once be listed as among D.C.’s “most eligible bachelors.” (At 69, that is probably no longer the case!)
Some have used his persistant singleness to argue for Souter being closeted gay, and that’s possible, but there is no real evidence of this. Also, I bristle at the suggestion that all people who aren’t either married or obviously sexually active (even promiscuous) must be gay. We used to understand that some people had low sex drives and, for whatever reasons, preferred single life. David Souter seems to be among them. I think it has to do with his love of simplicity. Whatever the joys of married life and parenthood (they are many), they do not include “simplicity.” Marriage and children mean that one’s life is inevitably COMPLICATED–for better or worse. 🙂 Souter’s semi-monastic life has its attractions–even for those of us who have chosen another path.
His low-tech existence also has its attractions. I have succumbed to the personal computer and to blogging and email, but I often check my email only once a week and find the amount of it discouraging. I try to be selective in bowing to the high-tech age: I don’t own a cell phone and didn’t own a pager when they were the rage, either. I won’t go on My Space, Facebook, or Twitter because I believe I’d never get any real writing done. I have cable TV, but try to rotate: 1 month of watching followed by a month of not watching. My addiction to news, however, means that during my off months from TV, I am glued to National Public Radio and the BBC! I love the way the internet really is an information highway–and hate its filth, commercialism, and meanspiritedness. Souter’s decisions resonate with me even where I have not made the same ones. Note: Souter’s low-tech lifestyle means that while he is a “nerd,” he is not a “geek.” I appreciate the difference since my techno-geek wife has to help me with all electronic equipment. 🙂
Souter earned a B.A. in philosophy at Harvard (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) with a thesis on the judicial activist philosophy of Oliver Wendell Holmes. (In confirmation hearings, Souter said that he rejected Holmes’ judicial activism, but envied his ability to write and many of his substantive positions. This was a clue that neither liberals nor conservatives picked up on in 1990.) Selected as a Rhodes Scholar, Souter earned an M.A. in political science from Magdalen College, Oxford University, in 1963. He earned his law degree from Harvard University Law School in 1966. He is a cradle Episcopalian and a lifelong Republican in the old-style New England version of Republicanism: fiscally and legally conservative but not radically right; libertarian in social views (i.e., if it doesn’t hurt the common good, allow it even if one finds it personally distasteful); cautious about state power, but also about corporate power; arguing for a strong military defense force, but VERY cognizant of the limits of military power and generally opposed to military adventurism. It is a style of Republicanism that is now fading fast.
Souter worked in private practice for only two years, not liking that aspect of the law. He became Asst. Attorney General of New Hampshire in 1968, beginning a long career in public service. He was a strict law and order person as a prosecutor and that part of his judicial philosophy remains. The Attorney General of NH in those days was Warren Rudman and Souter and Rudman became fast friends–and therein lies the tale of Souter’s later career. Rudman made him Deputy AG in 1971. When Rudman left to return to private practice in 1976, Souter succeeded him as AG of NH where he was known as a tough prosecutor.
Again because of Rudman’s influence, Souter was named Associate Justice of the Superior Court of NH in 1978. As a judge, he was known to sketch jurists and witnesses. He was known for treating everyone in court, including defendents, with great respect. He was also known for tough sentencing. From there, Souter was named Associate Justice of the NH Supreme Court in 1983, and Associate Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the First Circuit in 1990.
At this time, Rudman had become a Republican Senator from NH and former NH Gov. John Sununu (who had passed Souter over for Chief Justice of NH’s Supreme Court) had become White House Chief of Staff to Pres. George H. W. Bush (Bush I). They were both instrumental in Bush’s nomination of Souter for the SCOTUS position vacated by the retirement of the liberal champion, William J. Brennan (STILL one of my heroes). At that time, few outside NH knew who Souter was, although he had been on Reagan’s short list for the SCOTUS seat that eventually went to Justice Anthony Kennedy (the swing vote these days). Bush I wanted to name Clarence Thomas to Brennan’s seat (as he eventually was to the seat of the other great liberal dissenter, Thurgood Marshall). Rudman and Sununu convinced Bush I that Thomas did not have enough judicial experience and he nominated Souter, instead.
The rest is history. Liberal groups marshalled against Souter, convinced he would be another Bork or Scalia–and his confirmation was far from unanimous. Conservatives had never heard of Souter, but the liberal opposition reassured them that they were getting a reliably conservative voice on SCOTUS. Both groups were wrong. Souter’s first two years on the bench were reliably conservative, but as the Court moved right, he moved center and then slightly left of (the new) center. Conservatives were furious when Souter provided the vote to prevent overturning Roe v. Wade (the 1973 decision which struck down most laws against abortion) in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 (although Casey did allow more restrictions that Roe). Civil libertarians like myself were pleasantly surprised when Souter ruled with the majority in another 1992 case, Lee v. Wiseman against a school-sponsored public prayer.
Souter’s departure while relatively young (by the standards of a court of lifetime appointees who often die in office!) and in good health is unusual. But it should not be surprising. Since his appointment in 1990, he has let it be known that he does not like Washington, D.C. He leaves immediately at the end of every Court year back to NH and returns only a few days before the new session. As mentioned above, he does not participate in the Washington night life. He has called his position, “the world’s best job in the world’s worst city.” I find it refreshing that he is not addicted to power and prestige and wants to retire in time to enjoy the NH hills and woods some more and to visit old friends and family. There is many a career politician in both major parties who could take a lesson here.
But I think it likely that Souter’s departure also has to do with Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case which stopped the recount in FL and declared Gov. George W. Bush winner of the presidential election. Souter sided with the 4 against the decision. It wasn’t losing that disturbed him: Every justice expects to lose as well as win controversial court cases. What disturbed him was the blatant partisanship. Souter believed that judges are to be above party loyalties–as they are. Watching colleagues go against previously articulated judicial philosophies (especially the conservative allegiance to federalism–the belief that state decisions should be decided by states wherever possible) because those policies would likely work against the person they WANTED to win, greatly disturbed Souter. He was especially distraught over the way Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, with whom he was very close, voted with the Renquist-Scalia majority. So distraught was Souter that friends had to convince him not to resign SCOTUS in protest.
[Note: When Bush v. Gore was decided, I thought my opposition might be simply be because I couldn’t stand Bush. I wanted to see if the decision was really as bad as I believed. So, I began reading the legal reaction of conservative legal scholars from Yale’s Stephen Carter, to Duke’s H. Jefferson Powell, and others. I was not wrong. The vast majority of legal scholars were horrified by Bush v. Gore and conservative scholars considered it the biggest example of judicial activism (a bad word for conservatives) since Roe v. Wade (their previous benchmark). So widespread was this reaction that the American Bar Association came very close in 2001 to doing something unprecedented in its history: issuing a public denunciation of the decision! Since the ABA is hardly dominated by liberals, this was an indication of how radical a departure from settled law, Bush v. Gore was and how worried most legal scholars are that it will set a precedent–even though the 5 justices in the majority tried to restrict the ruling to that case. Former MN Sen. Norm Coleman’s lawyers, in his legal contest of Al Franken’s narrow victory, are hoping to appeal to Bush v. Gore before SCOTUS before its all over. Two of the 5 justices who voted for that decision, O’Conner and Renquist are no longer on the bench. Renquist died and O’Conner retired. But their replacements, Alito and Roberts, are just as conservative if not more so. So, would they suddenly decide that Bush v. Gore IS legal precedent, no matter what the court said in ’00?? My guess, is that SCOTUS will refuse to hear the case. The Constitution clearly says that the Senate is the last word on its own membership. Of course, SCOTUS was the one organ of government that had no constitutional role in presidential elections, too. If the recount could not decide a clear winner, the presidential election of 2000 should have been thrown to the House of Representatives, per Art. 2. Since Republicans had the majority of the House in ’00, B ush would likely still have been declared the winner, but at least the process would have been constitutional!]
I, for one, am glad Souter didn’t resign. I think of several important cases during the Bush years (especially torture and detention and war powers cases like Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) that might have been decided differently without Souter. I am among those who believe that we came very close to losing our democracy altogether during the Bush years. Without David Souter on the Supreme Court (as well as many other factors), we might well have lost it.
Thank–you, Justice Souter, for putting the law above party. For putting loyalty to law and to country ahead of your own personal desires. Thank-you for waiting, years after it was no longer pleasant for you to work on SCOTUS. Thank-you for the thoughtfulness you put into each opinion and dissent–even when I disagree with your conclusions. Thank-you for your service. All Americans, indeed the world, owes you thanks for keeping the nation from becoming a dictatorship. You retired not when you wanted to retire, but when it was safe–when your successor was unlikely to be part of the Scalia/Thomas/Alito/Roberts and sometimes Kennedy cabal that has so distorted American jurisprudence.
Here’s praying that your replacement, no matter her or his general legal philosophy, shows your commitment to the rule of law, your refusal to put party first, and your independence of mind. If she or he showed your love for nature, that might also be a good thing, considering the many ecological questions that are likely to face the SCOTUS.
The U.S. Congress is organized by caucuses: groups of Representatives and Senators that meet together to work for legislative agendas. Even the two major political parties, in the person of their elected members of Congress, are referred to as the Democratic caucus and the Republican caucus. But there are numerous other caucuses: The Congressional Black Caucus is composed of African-American Representatives and Senators. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is similar for Hispanic members (although much smaller), a caucus to address the specific concerns of minority constituents. But most caucuses are ideological: The “centrist” Democratic Leadership Caucus (DLC) which produced Bill Clinton (and I tend to look askance at as the “corporate Democrats); the “Out of Iraq” caucus formed to put pressure on the Bush administration to end the Iraq War (and now on the Obama admin. to speed up the troop removal); the “Blue Dog” Democratic caucus (which is composed of fiscally conservative budget hawks). The largest caucus, believe it or not, is the Progressive Caucus(71 members)–but they are stronger in the House of Representatives than in the Senate.
Well, now there is a brand new caucus, the Populist Caucus. So far, only Democrats have joined, but the caucus is open to all who seek to advance an economically populist agenda. “Populism” is a pragmatic ideology (or impulse–it may not be well enough defined to be an ideology) that stands up for “the little guy (or gal)” against elites or entrenched interests, especially economic elites. There can be dangerous dimensions to populism since it stays close to the concerns of ordinary people: In the past progressive populist movements have been divided by racism and “nativism,” the anti-immigrant prejudice.
But progressive economic populism has taken on a resurgence in our day. The resurgence began in the U.S. in 2005–as an angry reaction to the government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of the revelations concerning Abu Ghraib (and, later, concerning Guantanemo Bay) and of the missing WMD, the American public began to feel deceived about the war in Iraq. Thus, a populist anti-war movement, involving soldiers and veterans and family members of the military, combined with the traditional peace movement. It was this populist uprising that led to the Democrats reclaiming the majority in Congress in 2006—even though most of the elected Democrats were not (then) populists and most of the mainstream media and the political classes did not understand the populist nature of the uprising. Consider three Democratic Senators that were elected for the first time in ’06 in races they were not expected to win: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). All three were in states thought to be Republican strongholds: Montana was part of the West that is turning Democratic, but in ’06 it still looked pretty Republican. Tester was not a politician, but a wind farmer who sought to revitalize Montana through green energy–a populist environmentalism that worked to combine unlikely allies: ranchers and environmentalists against rich developers destroying the land. Jim Webb was a former independent (who had served as Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy) who had often voted Republican in a traditional Republican southern state. A fiscal conservative who is pro-military (though not a hawk and a fierce opponent of the Iraq war) and a conservative on gun issues–but he ran as a Democrat for the Senate because of the exploitation of the poor. Economic justice for ordinary people, says Webb, should be the heart and soul of the Democratic people. (His strong passion for prison reform is rooted in this economic populism, too, since we are wasting an entire generation.) Sherrod Brown was already a Democratic Congressman and a progressive–but Ohio in ’06 was still considered friendlier to Republicans than Democrats–certainly than progressive Democrats. Yet Brown won by sticking close to economic populist issues.
Very different states and very different people–but united by a concern for economic populism. Since ’06, the populist movement has grown. And the economic crisis has increased it. The anger that ordinary people feel toward the rich (especially the rich who created the mess and then use our money for their selfish ends) is a populist anger. The grilling of the Bank CEOs in Congress yesterday is a result of that rising populist tide. (The CEOs now understand THAT the public is furious–but they have lived for so long in their own world that they still seem not to understand WHY. Like the 2 Wall Street firms that were caught on tape still giving out cash awards–but no longer calling them bonuses! As if “re-branding” will stave off populist anger.)
Well, now this rising populism has resulted in at least one organization: The Congressional Populist Caucus. It will give voice to the populist anger at the economic crisis and the opaque bank bailout. It tried to put a “Buy American” provision into the stimulus package (cut out by the 3 Senate Republicans as part of their price for voting for it–very patriotic). They will still try some form of encouraging “Buy American” policies while hoping to avoid longterm protectionist tariffs that have negative longterm economic consequences. They want to revisit trade policies with a focus on Fair Trade in place of “free trade.” Universal healthcare and middle-class tax reform (and closing tax loopholes for rich people and corporations) will also dominate the agenda. I am contacting them to promote the Employee Free Choice Act and Mass Transit. I am very glad to see my own Congressman (elected in that populist year, ‘o6), John Yarmuth (D-KY), among its first members. Here are the initial 21 members of the new caucus:
Reps. Michael Arcun (D-NY); Peter DeFazio (D-OR); Betty Sutton (D-OH); Bruce Braley (D-IA), who will chair the caucus; Leonard Boswell (D-IA); Steve Cohen (D-TN); Joe Courtney (D-CT); Keith Ellison (D-MN), elected in ’06 as the first Muslim U.S. Congressman (now there are 2); Bob Filner (D-CA); Phil Hare (D-IL); Mazie Hirono (D-HI); Hank Johnson (D-GA); Steve Kagan (D-WI); David Loebsak (D-IA); Eric Massa (D-NY); Linda Sanchez (D-CA); Jan Schackowsky (D-IL), who may challenge Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) in ’10 for Obama’s old Senate seat; Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH); Peter Welch (D-VT), and John Yarmuth (D-KY). I expect more to join, including the aforementioned 3 Senators.
There is some overlap with the Progressive Caucus, but not all Populists would identify as Progressive (or liberal) and vice versa. ( The late Molly Ivins would be a great example of a progressive populist. Ted Kennedy, while certainly a progressive, is not really populist, coming from such “blue-blood” stock. Sarah Palin is populist, but NOT progressive at all. John McCain attempted to fake populism with his “Joe the Plumber” idiocy–but when Samuel Joseph Wurzelburger turned out not to be a plumber–to be fake about everything, the tactic blew up in McCain’s face. Most Republicans do “faux populism” well–but I think Palin truly is a populist–though a conservative or even reactionary one.) See how many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus below you find also in the new Populist Caucus:
Senate member: Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Tom Udall (D-NM) were Progressive members before being elected to the Senate, but the Senate doesn’t work in caucuses as much as the House. The late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) was a member until his 2002 death in a plane crash. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was a member until being elected House Minority Leader in ’04. As Minority Leader and then as Speaker, she has recused herself from membership in any of the ideological caucuses.
Current House members: Neil Abercrombie (D-HI); Tammy Baldwin (D-WI); Xavier Bacerra (D-CA); Madeleine Bordallo (GU-AL), at-large, nonvoting member from Guam; Robert Brady (D-PA); Corrine Brown (D-FL); Michael Capuano (D-MA); Andre Carson (D-IN) (2nd Muslim Congressperson); Donna Christensen (VI-AL), at-large, nonvoting member from the U.S. Virgin Islands; Yvette Clarke (D-NY); William “Lacy” Clay (D-MO); Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO); Steve Cohen (D-TN); John Conyers (D-MI); Danny Davis (D-IL); Peter DeFazio (D-OR); Rosa DeLauro (D-CT); Donna Edwards (D-MD); Keith Ellison (D-MN); Sam Farr (D-CA); Chaka Fattah (D-PA); Bob Filner (D-CA); Barnie Frank (D-MA); Marcia Fudge (D-OH); Alan Grayson (D-FL); Luis Gutierrez (D-IL); John Hall (D-NY); Phil Hare (D-IL); Maurice Hinchey (D-NY); Michael Honda (D-CA); Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL); Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX); Hank Johnson (D-GA); Marcy Kaptur (D-OH); Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-MI); Barbara Lee (D-CA), formerly co-chair, now the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; John Lewis (D-GA); David Loebsak (D-IA); Carolyn Maloney (D-NY); Ed Markey (D-MA); Jim McDermott (D-WA); James McGovern (D-MA); George Miller (D-CA); Gwen Moore (D-WI); Jerrold Nadler (D-NY); Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), nonvoting delegate; John Olver (D-MA); Ed Pastor (D-AZ); Donald Payne (D-NJ); Chellie Pingree (D-ME); Charles Rangel (D-NY); Laura Richardson (D-CA); Bobby Rush (D-IL); Linda Sanchez (D-CA); Jan Schakowsky (D-IL); Jose Serrano (D-NY); Pete Stark (D-CA); Louise Slaughter (D-NY); Bennie Thompson (D-MS); John Tierney (D-MA); Nydia Velasquez (D-NY); Maxine Waters (D-CA); Mel Watt (D-NC); Henry Waxman (D-CA); Peter Welch (D-VT); Robert Wexler (D-FL).
But as important as I think the Progressive and Populist caucuses are in Congress, I think it is far more important for there to be a progressive populist MOVEMENT throughout the country.
Born Again American is a new project by Norman Lear that has debuted just in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the USA. Yes, that Norman Lear: liberal TV mogul of the ’60s and ’70s (responsible for such socially conscious comedies as All in the Family; Maude; The Jeffersons; & Sanford and Son among others) who decided to fight the influence of the Religious Right by forming People for the American Way.
In this latest project, Lear has teamed up with singer/songwriter Keith Carradine and Director Mark Johnson to create a song, video, and website that promotes a “liberal patriotism” that encourages people to put the common good before narrow self intest, to become involved in community and national service, and to hold government officials responsible for working for the common good. The song (see the lyrics here) espouses economic populism (chastising both big business and government for the destruction of the working class and middle class) and a spirit of unity across religious and racial lines. The website connects people with opportunities to serve and to get involved in holding government officials accountable.
The song and concept are patriotic in the best senses of that term: not militaristic jingoism that puts down other nations or divides the country into “real” and “fake” America, but eliciting pride in the country’s ideals AT THEIR BEST. UPDATE: I want to make it clear that I am not against patriotism per se. It is natural for people everywhere to want to love their country, celebrate its ideals, and push it to live up to those ideals, purging it of its faults and historical sins. As this article shows, the Right is in for a surprise since Obama’s election has led to an increase of non-jingoistic patriotism, despite all their efforts to portray him as a friend of terrorists and those of us who voted for him as haters of America. The right kind of patriotism can help us get through hard times as we tackle enormous difficulties–just as militaristic, world hating, America-0nly forms of patriotism divided and destroyed us for 7 years following 9/11/01. So, I welcome the right kind of patriotic renewal and want to share in it.
But there is also much civil religion in “Born Again American,” and this makes me nervous. Civil religion easily devolves into national idolatry. It seems strange that Lear, who has been such a relentless critic of the civil religion of the Right, should now espouse a liberal version of the same.
I am uncomfortable with lyrics that quickly link “my Bible and the Bill of Rights” (a lyric that seems at odds with the religious diversity shown in the video–a Muslim cleric singing next to a female Jewish cantor, several choirs, Christian clergy from different traditions)–even though I have long contended that the deeper roots of the human rights tradition are biblical rather than just springing up full-blown from the Enlightenment. And, while I am a major proponent of interfaith dialogue (necessary for any peacemaking in today’s world), I don’t want the basis of such dialogue to be a common loyalty to the nation-state that transcends individual faith loyalties. That would make the nation-state our real god (an idol by any other name).
But I may be jumping at shadows. Most of the prophetic forms of social change in this nation had SOME civil religious dimensions to them, from the Abolitionists to the first wave (19th C) of feminists to the civil rights movement. It IS possible to promote a rebirth of the right kind of patriotism, with spiritual dimensions, without losing the possibility of prophetic critique of the nation, right? And that is the point of this project.
The song, video, and website are hopeful–in place of a national despair or cynicism. Further, it specifically recognizes that the changes needed in this nation at this moment of crisis will not be made solely by the new presidennt, nor even soley by government. It is a ringing call to personal and communal responsibility–of the kind that most people expected after 9/11 when our government, instead, told us to fight terrorism simply by going along with whatever illegal and disastrous foreign military adventures it planned and, at home, to “go shopping.” I signed up to do my part.
But this born-again liberal Christian remains uncomfortable with being a “born again American.” Is this just Lee Greenwood’s horrid “God Bless the USA” in liberal form–or am I being too cynical? Check out the website, etc. and then give me your feedback on these tricky questions.
News stories have told how Democratic (and Independent) Registration is up and Republican down–just as participation in most of the Democratic primaries and caucuses has been twice as large as participation in the GOP caucuses and primaries. Greater turnout is good for our entire democracy. We know the contrasts: in many young democracies in Africa and in former Soviet Republics (and, to a slightly lesser extent, in Latin America, too), citizens line up (that’s “queue” for British readers) for hours on end for the right to vote. In many cases throughout the world voter participation is well above 70% while in the U.S. less than 50% of eligible voters cast ballots. And, until this year, young voters were the least likely to cast ballots.
It’s time to change all that. Democracy is far from perfect–certainly not the Reign of God. Christians’ primary political loyalty is to the Reign of God and to the Church Universal. The Church has carried out its mission under numerous types of government. Democratic republics with full protection of religious liberty for all give the most benefit for the Church, but can also seduce the Church into thinking that it’s primary task is to make democracy work–whether in liberal or conservative form.
But because democracies do give space for the Church and governments with elected leaders are more susceptible to citizen accountability (including the prophetic function of the Church in speaking Truth to Power), they can be temporal vehicles for conditions of relative justice this side of the Eschaton. So, greater participation is a good thing.
So, I am carrying voter registration cards with me everywhere I go from now until October 3 (one month before the election–and the last day citizens can be registered and still vote in this election). I plan on signing up everyone I can, especially young people–because research has shown that if citizens in the U.S. vote as soon after their 18th birthday as they can, they make it a lifelong habit. The older people get before voting, the less their participation is throughout their lives–and democracy suffers.
I will also be concentrating hard on African-Americans and Latinos since they participate less than whites–to the detriment of their communities and the detriment of the common good. Part of the reason for this is a level of cynicism in these communities (and among the young of all ethnic groups) that their vote will count, or that the system is rigged against them no matter what they do. There is good basis for such fears: One need look no further than Katherine Harris, who was Florida Sec. of State in 2000 and simultaneously the head of George W. Bush’s presidential election committee in FL. She deliberately purged the voting rolls of thousands of eligible African-American citizens, claiming falsely that they were felons who had lost the right to vote. Then there are the Diebold electronic voting machines without paper trails that experiments have shown can be easily hacked to change the outcome–and without a paper trail there is no way to do a recount. In ’04, voter suppression in Ohio was accomplished by the simple means of removing voting machines from heavily Democratic districts without warning. And even though repeated studies have shown that voter fraud is miniscule, the Supreme Court has upheld Indiana’s draconian return to the old “poll tax,” requiring a high-tech voter registration I.D. that costs $35–obviously more than the very poor can afford. Other states are now rushing to put such measures on their ballots before Sept., hoping to curb participation in an election that threatens the interests of the super-rich and ultra-powerful (NOT the interests of the poor or the Middle Class!). Since African-American voter turnout is expected to be at record highs in many states in the South, we should also expect greater-than-average attempts at voter suppression, too.
But non-participation just makes these problems worse. Yes, we need more than voting for real change. Yes, people power in the streets is needed to hold elected officials accountable. Community organizing and ‘Net activism are also necessary. We need, as Thoreau said, to vote with our whole lives and not just with a ballot. But the ballot is a powerful weapon of change–or else why would the Powers work so hard to keep marginalized populations from exercising it? One of my few major disagreements with Dorothy Day’s approach to “building a new society in the shell of the old,” was her total apathy and disinterest in voting. In her (pre-Christian, pro-Marxist) youth, she marched and went to jail for the right of women to vote–but never showed any interest in casting a ballot herself.
Yes, build alternative communities of Salt and Light and Leaven. Yes, subvert the dominant order with communities of noncomformity (and conformity to the Rule of God) that resist the dominant values of racism, sexism, plutocratic materialism and the conversion of all values to market values, rape of the earth, militarism and violence. Absolutely. But none of this should be seen as in opposition to voting in elections–even though there are no perfect parties or candidates and one often has to weigh which issues and values must trump others in the election (while not surrendering work for those values in other ways).
Of course, I will also lobby for these citizens to vote for my chosen presidential (and other) candidates, but even if they register Republican and/or vote for the other candidate, the health of the democracy will be better than with non-participation. Democracy is not the Ultimate Good–that’s the Rule of God. But it is a Relative Good and working for its health is not something Christians should neglect.
David P. Gushee is a friend of mine who is somewhat more conservative than I am theologically and politically–but not in any extreme sense. We are almost the same age (I’m slightly younger) and Dave is, like me, a former student of Glen Stassen. Dave then did a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary under Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran expert on Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer–as well as ecological ethics and the role of Scripture in Ethics. Dave tried to work with the fundamentalist Mohler administration at post-takeover SBTS before needing to leave for several years at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Now, he has recently joined the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University– a context in which I am sure he’ll thrive.
Dave shares my commitment to gender equality, but does not share my views on GLBT inclusion. (I’ll keep working on him.) He shares my strong commitment to Jewish-Christian dialogue and is beginning to add Christian-Muslim dialogue to that. He is deeply committed to a 2-state solution in Palestine-Israel for Middle East peace although I sometimes think he is too trusting of the Israeli government’s view of things. But Dave is definitely NOT one of those knee-jerk evangelicals who think the gov. of Israel can do no wrong and who support wiping out Palestinians or permanent occupation of the territories.
Dave is a Just War Theorist, unfortunately, but he is an honest and strict JWTer who opposed the Iraq war and opposes the Bush doctrine of preemption.
Dave is deeply committed to human rights, and started Evangelicals for Human Rights to work on abolitioning torture, beginning with the U.S.
Dave and I mostly agree on church-state matters, although I think I am slightly more of a separationist than he is. But in a very important article in USA Today, Dave takes most U.S. evangelicals to task for the way they have turned the majority of U.S. evangelicalism into a religious wing of the Republican Party–something that should not be done with ANY Party or ideology. Read Dave and show this to other U.S. evangelicals. It’s that important. The integrity of the church in these United States is at stake.
Okay, now this is just sad. I saw the whole routine which is longer than that clip. Jay Leno interviewed people on the street with actual questions from the citizenship test given to immigrants applying for naturalization to the U.S. He didn’t even use the hard questions, but the softballs. And the answers were disturbing. One woman taught high school English and couldn’t answer simple questions taught in grade school civics.
I don’t think people born here should have to pass citizenship tests (try getting THAT Amendment to the Constitution passed!), but maybe we should make passing the INS test a part of what it takes to graduate high school. Could you do it? To find out, go here. The INS requires 80% to pass–and that’s more than most than most people born in the U. S. know about this country. You get multiple choice on that sample, but in real life, immigrants get no such help and the test is delivered orally!
Oh, and just so you know: I scored 100%–although it was a guess about which INS form is used for naturalization.
Here’s another such quiz.