O Captain! My Captain!

3 August 2017

ED Letter

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

When Walt Whitman wrote his poem about the death of President Abraham Lincoln, he captured the sorrow and depth of loss in a nation torn asunder by the clash of cultures and a bloody war that marred the country in 1865. We have not lost our captain, but I fear this president is demonstrably ill-equipped for leadership in the culture wars underway in 2017. Maybe the best that can be said about him is that by his selfish example of what a leader is, he makes it possible to finally have the conversations we have avoided during changing administrations throughout the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century.

For example, now that the White House has switched parties the agency and department Secretaries are quietly dismantling progress made over the last eight years that will adversely impact the health and economic security of our constituencies and community members in ways that once seemed products of a less enlightened era. The high profile showdown in Congress over health care is only one example, and the coming showdown on the Farm Bill is likely to be ugly in the extreme, for one very important reason:

Follow the money.

It came as no surprise that Congressional opposition to Trumpcare decried efforts at repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as a thinly disguised tax cut plan for wealthy Americans—roughly the lion’s share of $800 billion. Now that initial efforts have failed, the Farm Bill process is next up with another large pot of money—roughly $800 billion in SNAP benefits—that will likely be in the cross-hairs by a Congressional majority party seemingly desperate to find any way to redistribute more wealth to the 1% whose agents are unrelenting in pursuit of amassing ever more wealth. Led by the current White House resident.

At the same time the day-to-day work of food and agriculture and social justice activists in D.C. and around the country are keeping pressure on legislators at Congressional hearings on the different elements and Titles of Farm Bill 2018. Their efforts are nothing less than heroic, in the face of the mass of wealth and professional political power arrayed against them—against us. Thankfully, our system of representative government still provides—so far—the means to advocate as individuals and communities and groups. Although, as evidenced by the failed health care legislation, Congress can move forward without a single public hearing if it so chooses.

All the more reason to recognize and support the work of everyone who is standing up for just (as in justice) food, agriculture, and public policy in spite of the array of forces working against them.

The current civil wars have not boiled over into outright bloody confrontation on the scale of what the country experienced in the 19th century, but if you are black or other marginalized populations it is hard to argue that life is not rife with violence in addition to promises of opportunity.

I visited the Public Health Institute recently and met with two staff, black women and new mothers. The one with a two-year-old daughter shared cell phone photos of a toddler beaming the promise of infinite possibilities, her mother holding the phone determined to protect her from the real possibilities of harm. The other mother shared photos of a miracle, a black baby boy recently come into a culture that promised one chance in five of him ending up in prison. Or victim of street violence, sometimes at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect.

What ensued was one of those conversations that people of color have among themselves that others never, in spite of what they may think say and aver, are ever party to. Yes, reality for people of color in 2017 in these United States where it matters the most is sobering, although there is no arguing that the heroic efforts of generations of activists have carved out the possibilities of opportunities for some fortunate enough to access them, and eventually even achieve success.

So back to my captain. Yes, he is a poor example of a leader. Certainly, if a black man—and we had one, remember?—acted as President Trump has he would be pilloried, impeached, and tried and sentenced in the Sinclair media and Rupert Murdoch empire and perhaps worse. We never really had the conversation that for eight years politicians played on the racist fears of small minds to undermine the work and achievements of one of the most talented men to hold the office of the president in our life time. Until Donald J. Trump we just did not have those difficult conversations, because virtually no one at the public level would break the wall of silence.

And so yes, the current state of affairs provides an opportunity to begin the hard conversations, on any number of fronts.

For one, why does Congress not insist on and move forward vigorously with its own hearings on the conflicting stories by those close to the current administration’s misstatements on interactions with Russians and Russian operatives’ efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election instead of leaving a vacuum to be filled by ever changing stories and lies from the Trump administration? What if it had been those associated with the black president’s administration?

Or why is healthcare a vehicle for tax breaks for the wealthy? Or the Farm Bill? Almost every public conversation avoids that question, diverting the sanctimonious discussion of “tax breaks for the middle class, etc.” The fundamental unanswered question or even discussion is do proponents of tax relief believe the wealthy deserve more wealth just because they are wealthy? More than equity for middle class and poor people? Can we get a simple yes or no, please?

On the question of equity, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has refocused the Department of Justice’s office of civil rights to address affirmative action efforts of colleges and universities that potentially discriminate against white students. As if the deck was not already stacked in favor of mainstream culture applicants, the acknowledgment of which is the very reason for the existence of affirmative action and a civil rights office at the Justice Department.

For those that need instruction, this refocus is the very definition of institutionalized racism.

As I wrote earlier, for generations succeeding administrations have attempted to reverse efforts of a previous administration with little or no public discussion of the root reasons or eventual impact of the decisions. But now we have a Captain, a leader, who was elected to “tell it like it is.” Who says it is his right to grab a woman’s genitalia. Who despite all evidence to the contrary refuses to believe that he did not win the popular vote. Who refuses to let us know how his business interests may intertwine with countries and business interests inimical to the United States.

In such an environment perhaps it is possible to start the hard conversations. And while I acknowledge it will be uncomfortable for many if not all of us, please try to remember the young women at the Public Health Institute with new children. Isn’t it time to move forward for those children? For all the children to come?

AG Sessions is a good old boy from the south, and remember, for many “good old boy” is not pejorative. It is what it is. Just as the cultural differences are very real.

I have been working on another new book entitled Ten Rules for Coping with the Fragile, White Male Ego. I hasten to add, if that is not you, or if you do not have one of those egos, then nothing I have to say may apply so there is no reason to take offense. But I believe it is foolish to ignore the impact that such egos have had on public policy. Arguably, it is the basis for the new civil war.

In the 19th century the conflict was between economic cultures—one economy dependent upon slavery—and different visions for our country. According to current projections, by 2044 the United States will have a majority minority population. Today, more than 50% of U.S. students are students of color.

It is therefore not surprising that for a very active minority of fearful Americans all stops have been pulled out in a last gasp effort to consolidate wealth and power in a power elite class, arguably embodied by the current occupant of the White House. It also explains why voter suppression has been a tactic and goal of the fragile, white male ego for generations.

The bad news is that there is likely no way that those in fear of changing demographics will ever be satisfied with change.

But the really good news is that the 42-46% of the electorate who sat out the last election likely do not share those fears. And it is in the people of that political reality that lies our hope for the future.

Most of us cannot devote much of our time for public policy. Just as most of us cannot spend much time engaging in political activities.

But each and every one of us can represent each and every day the kind of human being we aspire to be. And which we want to model to our children, and in our communities.

We do not have an Abraham Lincoln today, at least not in the White House. But maybe we can thank President Trump for reminding us of who we are, and who we refuse to be. In the greater scheme of things, maybe that is why he is there to be a sterling example of how far we can descend. As a man, I can be better. As a human being, I am better.

We can respect and honor the office of the presidency, while holding the president accountable to that office.

The President has the bully pulpit, and perhaps more importantly, legions of sycophants proselytizing his vision for America. It is best to remember that the vision espoused—“make America great again”—never did exist, except perhaps on 1950’s television, and in the minds of a fearful population. The country has always been an amalgamation of cultures from many parts of the world, sadly not too well integrated with the original residents.

However, today we have a choice. We can learn from the past, from the mistakes but also from the brilliance of those who came before us. And also from those working tirelessly for just public policy on behalf of our people and communities.

Please stay tuned to this space. Nearly two decades ago Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “the greatest generation,” with reference to the U.S. before, during and after participation in World War I. I submit that history will determine if we are the next great generation, in how we collectively respond to the challenges now undeniably before us. I plan to write more about the concept in future columns.

We are in a civil war. It is our responsibility to make sure that it never devolves into out and out widespread open conflict and bloodshed. But we also have to stop the current bloodshed that we unfortunately condone by our collective complacency.

Please take a moment again to consider what you can do today to be the change we need. And please make a contribution to CFJC so that we can continue to do our part in the ongoing struggle.

Thank you.

All the best.

armando-sig

 

 

 

Y. Armando Nieto
CFJC Executive Director

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