February 27, 2005

Why Do You Ask?

You should, as usual, go read The Sideshow, starting here and ending wherever you run out of new Sideshow. But Avedon wrote something in that post the other day that I've thought about every time I've sat down at my computer since reading it:

...And yes, Lance, you are right that The Sideshow has been turning into little more than a link-farm lately because I haven't done much writing, and I apologize to all my loyal readers for their forbearance while I am in my current state of mental hibernation. It's partly a result of the fact that I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the news. I mean, the whole torture-Negroponte-etc. business just leaves me speechless. What can you possibly say once these things are even on the table? "Torture? I'm against it. Why do you ask?"

Every single day, every time I am starting to write something in my head about the first administration outrage I heard about today, I hear about another one, and then another one, and then I feel like I'm drowning and can't seem to focus. That makes it really easy to just link to whatever Digby or Atrios or whoever had to say about things, instead. This situation may continue until I get my breath back, but in the meantime, I do want to call those good links to your attention.

I suspect this is the reason why journalists rapidly develop a thick protective coat of cynicism, known in other circles as not caring about anything that could be worrisome. Not that they're alone, because about half the country seems to share the same attitude.

But what can I say. It does seem a little redundant to keep mentioning that I'm outraged by torture, embezzling, invasion of privacy, the corruption of the press, the dissemination of propaganda, the destruction of the environment, the economic oppression of the third world, the complete hash that's been made of Iraq and Afghanistan and all the people who've died because of lies and incompetence, the slashing of veterans' benefits, cuts in our social safety net, attacks on public services, the alienation of world opinion, the escalating terrorist threat, the support of leaders like Islam Karimov who actively abuse human rights, the fact that you can be jailed longer in America for consensual activities like personal drug use than for rape, by the demonization of the GLBT community, that the boxed in Hussein was a higher priority than the ongoing genocide in Sudan, that minorities in the US are imprisoned and executed out of all proportion to their numbers or crimes, that the poor are getting poorer, the rich, richer at their expense.

Yeah, I'm pretty much against all that. I'm outraged. I'm exceedingly offended by the fact that the list above is far from complete.

What ticks me off most though is that people do have to say it, that it can't just be assumed. That's the problem, though. Carol Moseley Braun was in town to speak last Friday, and she spoke about making the Declaration of Independence more than a declaration of intent (pdf). (The link is to a transcript of a previous event, but the speech was similar in many respects.)

She talked about the countless contributions of people whose names will never show up in history books, those who created the climate of opinion that made the Civil Rights laws possible. She shared this story about the passage of women's voting rights:

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified August 18, 1920.The fight to secure suffrage for women was waged for many of the same reasons and by many of the same people as had fought for the emancipation of African Americans. One of the last speeches given by Fredrick Douglas before his death was in favor of women’s suffrage. However, it took the efforts of a lot of everyday people to change the hearts of men so that the laws would change to embrace our Constitution's promise of equality for women. A true story from this era illustrates the point. Tennessee was the last chance the 19thAmendment had for ratification, and there the battle was full blown and convoluted, as divisions among the women clouded the debate. The notion that women who were BLACK, too, might get the vote under the amendment was enough to inspire opposition by both men AND women. Some women who might have gone along with female suffrage drew the line when color was also involved.

One legislator, Henry Burn, had voted against suffrage, but the night before the crucial vote he received a letter from his mother. It said "Vote for suffrage, and don't keep them in doubt. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the Rat in ratification! " The next day, Burns’ vote was the decisive one that put Tennessee behind the 19thAmendment, and Tennessee’s approval passed it for the entire country. When the press questioned him about the surprise switch he responded: "I changed my vote in favor of ratification because a mother's advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and the opportunity was mine to free millions of people from political bondage".

We know about Burn, and about his vote, but we will probably never know who spoke to his mother, what conversations she had, that gave rise to the letter that changed his mind. Every person, every voice, every contribution makes a difference in creating a climate of opinion out of which comes policy and from which laws are made. I like to say that a climate of opinion is just like any other weather system; it depends on the hot air rising from the ground. A climate of opinion shapes conduct as well as perspective, and can change hearts as well as minds. ...

The other day, Steve Gilliard talked about America's long history of lynching, a time during which any black person could be dragged out of their house and killed in public like a rabid dog while people bought souvenirs and snacks and took pictures for their photo albums. White people who defended blacks or opposed lynching could meet the same fate, though the vast majority of the victims were black. Gilliard pointed out that even though things were once that bad, they got better because there were people who refused to give up.

Things improved because the first civil rights crusaders didn't get tired of pointing out that it was wrong to drag people out of their houses in the middle of the night to be tortured and killed. Though it must have made them sick to their stomachs to even have to say it. Though they must have wanted to tear their hair out every time they saw fresh evidence that not only did everyone not realize lynching was horrible, not only did some people not care, but that there were those who thought it was both patriotic and just.

Though black people once couldn't vote, once weren't citizens, once could be treated worse than animals, they didn't give up until they were free to talk about setting their own political agenda and working to implement it on their own behalf.

They faced longer odds, started with less power, and knew that their murderers wouldn't even be prosecuted.

Sometimes I do want to throw my hands up and forget about these issues, turn off all the news, stop talking about it. I should be ashamed when I feel that way. I should be ashamed to add my silence to the crimes being committed in broad daylight.

Posted by natasha at February 27, 2005 05:02 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

Very nice post, natasha. And yes, we do need reminders about why we can't let outrage fatigue stop us from trying to change someone's mind about what should be expected of our country and ourselves, one mind at a time if necessary.

Posted by: Mary at February 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Well said. I feel the same way. I get overwhelmed. I want to hide, like a small child. But I can't. We can't. If not us, who?

Posted by: Alan S at February 28, 2005 09:35 PM