Witness

Submitted by Charles Sackrey

I was raised in Texas as a Southern Baptist and, of course, I came to know about how a person’s actions might “give witness” to some element in that brand of Christianity. The word became ingrained in my mind and, despite long ago falling from grace into atheism, it remained for me an urgent piece of loaded language. Now, when I see or read about some commanding witness on behalf of what I believe, such as those described below, it always helps me to keep on keeping on.

Some witnesses are so powerful that they take the breath away and ripple and resonate through the body politic from then on. On April 28, 1967 in Houston, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam on the grounds that, as he put it, “I ain’t got nothing against those Viet Congs.” And, “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” He was found guilty, fined $10,000 dollars and stripped of his heavyweight title by the boxing commissions in every state. It’s hard to overestimate the lasting and profound effect of his action on many of us millions of Americans who shared his antipathy to that vile and misbegotten war. When that beautiful, proud black man from Kentucky stood his ground in Houston he strengthened our own commitments, however frail and small in comparison, against the U.S. war machine.

Between 1977-1982, for a year with a friend, then alone after that, I published a small left-wing quarterly magazine that mixed fiction, poetry, and commentary. As I put together the 1980 winter issue, I came across the account (the source of which I have lost) of an action by an English boy of 14, Henry Eaton. Henry was arrested in 1794 for publicly resisting the government’s repressive measures in response to the clamor for democratic rights stirred up by the French Revolution. For his crime of advocating democracy, fourteen year old Henry Eaton was brought before the prime minister himself, William Pitt, the Younger. As he stood in the front of Pitt, and I quote:

Henry Eaton did enter into a political harangue in which he used very harsh language against Mr. Pitt, upbraiding him with having taxed the people [rather than the rich and powerful] to an enormous extent.

Thank you, Henry Eaton, cheeky boy of fourteen years, for being in my memory and urging me onward when I hesitate to take action simply because I am afraid. And, pardon me when I have so often held back and watched the others do my work for me.

Recently, while I was watching the movie, “North Country,” I decided to write this article. The movie tells the story of Lois Jenson, a Minnesota woman who in 1975 went to work at a huge taconite mine. She was one of the very few women who worked there, and they all faced unceasing, degrading, and often violent harassment from most of the male miners. With colossal courage, she challenged the men, at the mine and in the court. In doing that, she became a pariah in a community which refused to admit the sordid treatment of the women in the mine. Lois Jenson ultimately prevailed, and the story of what she did and its effects are detailed in Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, in their book, Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law (2003). If you have any stirrings inside for the democratic rights of women, or for anyone else, you probably can’t watch this movie without feeling a persistent itch to do something about it.

The importance of giving witness is that such actions are always noticed by others — whether what you do shakes the whole world or just a few people who pass by and read the sign you’re holding. Of course your enemies will turn away in disgust, or will respond with harsh words and sometimes evens harsher actions. Yet, your hand in the air will undoubtedly energize your allies because it will confirm their own convictions and actions. More important, taking a stand will likely have its greatest impact on those still on the side of the fray, knowing that things need to be done but yet can’t see themselves as the ones doing them.

Each of us, on our way to political action, has to start somewhere, and that beginning is always fraught with doubt, embarrassment, and the fear of offending friends, family, strangers, co-workers, and the boss. But, all this bad stuff doesn’t win the day because taking that first step – joining a phone bank, writing a letter to the editor, making a sign for a rally, marching in one — always feels so damned good. And, that is why the second step is already on the way.

If we are going to salvage a democratic culture from what we have now, we need a great and growing mass of witnesses spreading the word about democracy with their bold actions, encouraging, enlivening and urging each other forward. The truth is that there isn’t any other way to get it done.

No More Mease Please

submitted by Chris Schell

Ken Mease begins his letter to the Daily Item (2/22/09) by recalling that he read the National Recovery Act of 1933 was two cover sheets filled with newspapers. Not true. This “socialist” legislation was a 9300 word bill that enabled Roosevelt to enact codes for business and labor to help end the depression. Businessmen wrote the codes to their own advantage. The Act mostly failed, became unpopular and was declared unconstitutional just as it was due to expire. Darn socialists.

Mr. Mease ends his letter with a quote from John Adams about democracies committing (economic) suicide. However the word “economic” was a Mease addition. In context Adams’ quote is about his fear that democracies tend to give too much direct power to the people resulting in the people forcing their wise leaders into unwise, vengeful, empire-building and eventually self-destructive wars. Our recent history seems to reverse this result: Our leaders are the ones urging self-destructive wars.

Thus this latest piece of Meas-itry begins with a memory of reading an inaccurate history and ends with an altered quote taken out of context. In between we learn that Roosevelt, Johnson, the Clintons and Obama are conspiring, lying stealth Marxist-socialists. I’m sure glad they are no longer communists.

Mr. Mease closes his letter with the plea “save our constitution”. I never heard from Mr. Mease when our previous president was making the Justice Department into a Republican re-election organization, using the vice-president’s office to avoid accountability, secretly editing congressional laws to his whims, and attributing to the President powers that were unrevealed but absolute . Adams believed fervently in the rule of law and in checks and balances between the branches of government. Save our constitution? Help save it from those with the views of Mr. Mease. Please.

Eugene Debs Leaving Atlanta Penitentiary

A newsreel.  1922.

 

In the background a high block-long building

With hundreds of windows –

A sidewalk leads away from it diagonally,

Toward the camera.

 

A tall upright older man

In a dark overcoat, wearing a dark felt hat,

Walks forward, away from the building.

 

Abruptly, at 16 b&w frames per second,

He stops, turns back to the building,

Looks up at those windows,

Raises his hat in salute,

And stand there, stands there, hat in air.

 

A thousand convicts are cheering

The release of Eugene Debs from prison.

  – And it is all silent.

 

 

from Touch: Poems

by Karl Patten

 

Commentary

 

This little poem is simply what it says it is: a few frames from a 1922 newsreel.  It is representative, a description, nothing more.  And yet it becomes metaphoric overall.  This change occurs because the poem is motivated by emotion: first, my choosing it out of a world of dense phenomena; second, my very strong feeling in response to its single action; and, third, my imagined presence at the scene, which brings the total silence alive.  My admiration for Debs matters, too.  He had been imprisoned for opposing the draft in World War I.  In the 1920 election he received 2 million votes while in his jail cell.  In this newsreel, we see that huge bleak prison, a fair distance from Debs; then we “hear” in silence the cries of applause and praise, and we realize that those windows are crowded with prisoners and that their cheers are so loud that Debs hears them and turns to salute his fellow felons.

            What a different world.  Today, how many Americans would vote for a convict?  And the solidarity manifest is alien to us.  Finally, in the game of determining our Worst President, Harding’s pardon of Debs – a recognition of justice – raises him far above the Bush league.

 

Karl Patten

 

Winning with the Left, Governing from the Center

As President-Elect Obama goes about naming more and more of his cabinet and senior advisers, many of his left-of-center supporters are expressing increasing unease at the absence of certified progressives in the mix, and the prevalence of centrist Clintonites, including Hillary herself.  This is very much in contrast with what happened eight years ago, when movement conservatives were very prominent in the initial appointments of the Bush administration.

This is a difference of long standing between the parties.  While the Republican Party has come increasingly under the sway of extreme social conservatives, the Democrats have pretty much stuck with the conventional wisdom of staying close to the center where the majority of voters are to be found.  Although Reagan-era Republicans successfully demonized liberalism, with the sole exception of George McGovern in 1972, the left wing of the party has not controlled the presidential nomination since the Populist William Jennings Bryan ran in 1900.  By contrast, the right wing of the Republican Party has determined the nominee in at least four of the elections since 1980 (1980 1984, 2000, 2004), and has held veto power over the others (including this year, when John McCain never escaped the need to play to the party’s right wing base.

Public opinion polls show consistently that there are about twice as many people who declare themselves conservatives, as those who call themselves liberals.  Thus it is easier for a right winger to get enough centrist voters to win: the bar is lower for conservatives.  That’s exactly what happened under Reagan and George W. Bush.  Obama’s achievement was to be sufficiently inspirational for the liberal/left base of his party, while eschewing real liberalism (much less socialism or social democracy!).  He thus had a highly mobilized liberal base and a majority of centrist (self-described moderate) voters.

It should thus be no surprise that Obama’s first personnel decisions should be decidedly centrist.  There will surely be “movement progressives’ in the administration, but they are not going to occupy the top posts.  We don’t know yet what policies the new administration will adopt; we may hope that the policies will be more liberal than the personnel.  But fundamentally, progressives should reorganize themselves to articulate and promote such policies.  We should not wait for the administration to produce them.

In foreign policy, for example, it appears likely that Obama will move away from the unilateralist militarism of the Bush administration, but how far he moves toward antimilitarism will depend on how vigorous and thoughtful his progressive supporters are.  Similarly, policy toward rectifying a generation’s slide toward obscene levels of inequality will reflect progressive priorities only to the extent that progressives can generate pressure in that direction.

Obama could not have won without our activism, and we should not let him forget that.  He also could not have won without all those moderates, and we should not let ourselves forget that.