Monthly Archives: March 2012

Looking at Health Care from a Social Liberal-Fiscal Conservative Perspective

As the Supreme Court hears the case regarding national health care, I find it interesting that we are on the 100th anniversary of Teddy Roosevelt’s third party run for president, when he included national health insurance in his platform. Since then, presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton have made achieving national health care a major issue, while Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter have also expressed support. I bring all this up to explain why I am not and will never use the phrase “Obamacare” to describe what I believe to be a detrimental change to the health care system. The fact of the matter is that progressives have been promoting national health care for a long time, and trying to blame the current law completely on Obama is unfair. Why am I against national health care? Well, for starters, I adhere to a mix of liberal and libertarian principles. One of the most important aspects of libertarianism–and the best kind of liberalism–is the Harm Principle. Perhaps best articulated by 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the Harm Principle states that government cannot prohibit a sane adult from doing something unless that action directly harms children or non-consenting adults. Thus, according to the Harm Principle, a person’s unhealthy life choices are their business, not the government’s. For instance, there is a man who shall remain nameless that at one point was taking in about thirty thousand calories a day and tipping the scales at a little over half a ton. That is as much as an average bull moose. In other instances, you will observe people who make it their life’s work to inhale as much smoke into their body as possible, thereby destroying their lungs. And in case anti-national health care Republicans would like to point fingers, let us also remember how much insurance costs have probably been raised by 5’11”, 300-pound cigar junkie, Rush Limbaugh. But I digress. At any rate, it is my viewpoint that smokers, gluttons, daredevils, hard-core druggies, and all of the other people who ravage their bodies should be allowed the ability to make their own decisions about such things. Because if I decide to eat five pounds of onion rings each day for a year, then shove sparklers up my nose in an audition for Jackass, it only directly effects me, and the government has no right to interfere. The problem is that if the taxpayers are paying for my nose to get stitched back together and for me to have bypass surgery, it is then other people’s business. If the government pays for everybody’s health care, they are more likely to claim a right to police everybody’s lifestyles. And they won’t stop at monitoring the truly abominable health decisions. Consider this: I consider myself to be a healthy individual. I get plenty of cardio, am an inch or two shy of six feet, and weigh about 175 pounds. I visit restaurants sometimes and eat some dessert every night, but people have observed that I do a great job watching what I eat, and whatever bad food decisions I’ve made apparently haven’t caused me to become overweight. But whenever I go to the doctor’s, I get a warning about cholesterol. Because part of a doctor’s job is to warn people about doomsday scenarios. In essence, the cholesterol warnings mean that I might be taking some medication decades from now and that I might live to be ninety instead of ninety-five. I’m perfectly willing to assume the risk. The problem is that in a country where we are already spending way more money than we should, I think there’s a good chance that government officials will try to ban anything non-organic in order to cut health care costs. I have here a joke I found on the Internet entitled “Ordering a Pizza from Big Brother” that I feel sums up the risk we face in a society post-enactment of universal health care and the Patriot Act…

Operator: “Thank you for calling Pizza Hut. May I have your…”

Customer: “Hi, I’d like to order.”

Operator: “May I have your NIDN first, sir?”

Customer: “My National ID Number, yeah, hold on, eh, it’s 6102049998-45-54610.”

Operator: “Thank you, Mr. Sheehan. I see you live at 1742 Meadowland Drive, and the phone number’s 494-2366. Your office number over at Lincoln Insurance is 745-2302 and your cell number’s 266-2566. Which number are you calling from, sir?”

Customer: “Huh? I’m at home. Where d’ya get all this information?”

Operator: “We’re wired into the system, sir.”

Customer: (Sighs) “Oh, well, I’d like to order a couple of your All-Meat Special pizzas…”

Operator: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, sir.”

Customer: “Whaddya mean?”

Operator: “Sir, your medical records indicate that you’ve got very high blood pressure and extremely high cholesterol. Your National Health Care provider won’t allow such an unhealthy choice.”

Customer: “Damn. What do you recommend, then?”

Operator: “You might try our low-fat Soybean Yogurt Pizza. I’m sure you’ll like it”

Customer: “What makes you think I’d like something like that?”

Operator: “Well, you checked out ‘Gourmet Soybean Recipes’ from your local library last week, sir. That’s why I made the suggestion.”

Customer: “All right, all right. Give me two family-sized ones, then. What’s the damage?”

Operator: “That should be plenty for you, your wife and your four kids, sir. The ‘damage,’ as you put it, heh, heh, comes $49.99.”

Customer: “Lemme give you my credit card number.”

Operator: “I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid you’ll have to pay in cash Your credit card balance is over its limit.”

Customer: “I’ll run over to the ATM and get some cash before your driver gets here.”

Operator: “That won’t work either, sir. Your checking account’s overdrawn”

Customer: “Never mind. Just send the pizzas. I’ll have the cash ready. How long will it take?”

Operator: “We’re running a little behind, sir. It’ll be about 45 minutes, sir. If you’re in a hurry you might want to pick ’em up while you’re out getting the cash, but carrying pizzas on a motorcycle can be a little awkward.”

Customer: “How the hell do you know I’m riding a bike?”

Operator: “It says here you’re in arrears on your car payments, so your car got repo’ed. But your Harley’s paid up, so I just assumed that you’d be using it.”

Customer: “@#%/$@&?#!”

Operator: “I’d advise watching your language, sir. You’ve already got a July 2006 conviction for cussing out a cop.”

Customer: (Speechless)

Operator: “Will there be anything else, sir?”

Customer: “No, nothing. oh, yeah, don’t forget the two free liters of Coke your ad says I get with the pizzas.”

Operator: “I’m sorry sir, but our ad’s exclusionary clause prevents us from offering free soda to diabetics.”

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March 29, 2012 · 12:25 am

Farm Subsidies: Good or Bad?

How is a free market supposed to work? Under a free market, I can start a business. I can run it how I see fit, within reason—certain practices, such as hiring discrimination, are rightfully forbidden. If my business is failing, I either improve it or go under. Yet that’s not really the way it works in the United States. Today, I want to talk about an example of this, farm subsidies. I have nothing against farmers. My paternal grandfather is a farming enthusiast, and I love him to death. Unfortunately, however, there has long been a problem in the United States with what I call the “Farming Lobby.” During the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, Native Americans in the Southeast were forced to march to Oklahoma, partly to make way for white farmers. Decades afterwards, in the late 1800s, many poor farmers in the United States were saddled with debt. Debt is a terrible thing. I don’t know if anybody’s seen Rob Roy, but it’s a great Liam Neeson movie released two years before the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The basic moral of Rob Roy is: don’t end up in debt, or you might end up terrorized by a deadbeat dad/pedophile. Unfortunately, many of these poor farmers became involved in the Populist Movement in an effort to relieve their debt. In addition to restricting immigration, one of the less laudable goals of populism was to get the federal government to abolish the Gold Standard and institute “free coinage” of silver. As any economist can tell you, this would have caused inflation—which was exactly what the Populist Movement farmers wanted, because it would have made their debt easier to pay off. Of course, it would have hurt the Northeastern industrialists who had lent the farmers money, as well as pretty much anyone who had saved. While Populism temporarily took over the Democratic Party in 1896, it did not accomplish its goal of free silver. As a result of the desire of Western Populists to attract white Southern farmers, any early racial egalitarianism in the movement petered out, preventing a real biracial coalition from being formed. Furthermore, working class whites in urban areas—especially those who were immigrants—did not identify with the goals of their rural counterparts. Still, the Farming Lobby gained victories in the 1920s and 1930s. Herbert Hoover signed the Agricultural Marketing Act in 1929, authorizing the lending of money to farmers by government. Franklin Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, paying farmers to kill “excess” livestock and not plant a portion of land. Since then, farms have been getting federal handouts. In order to demonstrate one reason why farm subsidies should be phased out, I want to offer an analogy. In their old age, racist, homophobic Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Strom Thurmond (R-SC) developed the unfortunate habit of inserting earmarks into bills that steered federal tax dollars toward their native states. That is probably a big reason why everything in those states seems to be named after Byrd and Thurmond. But why, for example, should someone in Minnesota be required to pay for a “Strom Thurmond Swimming Pool” in South Carolina that they will probably never use? Likewise, why should someone in Connecticut be required to pay for farms in Nebraska? Well, the argument goes, people all over the country consume the goods produced by farms. Maybe that’s true. But why do businesses (because that’s what these farms are) need to be taxpayer funded? In a capitalist system, aren’t you supposed to mean that you set up your business, take the risks, compete, and either rise or fall by your own innovation? Why should taxpayers prop up farms or any other businesses that can’t independently function on a commercial basis? Do we really think that no farms can survive without taxpayer money? Surely, in a free market, the most efficient farms will survive, so long as they adhere to basic regulations. Regrettably, the Democratic Party is unlikely to touch this issue. While some Northeastern liberals can be expected to support ending farm subsidies, other Democrats will not, for fear of damaging their reputation of sticking up for “the little guy.” While the Republican Party seems much more amenable, it will be interesting to see how things pan out. According to an admittedly outdated study from 2002, Kansas is one of the top beneficiaries of federal farm subsidies. Kansas has also gone Republican in every presidential election in the last forty years. If they push for an end to farm subsidies, Republicans may find that many of their rural constituents are not as fiscally conservative as they like to believe. Some people may ask me why I am not focusing on the allocation of tax dollars to huge corporations. For one thing, the Occupy Wall Street Movement seems to have that covered. For another, it’s easy to bash big corporations. Virtually no American will get up and say, “Man, we’re so lucky to have these gigantic companies in the United States, and I’m so glad my tax dollars are going to support them.” But right now, there really isn’t an organized movement of urbanities protesting that they are forced to pay taxes to aid farming businesses. As I end this post, a disclaimer is in order. I do not in the least resent farmers for pushing for subsidies. Nor do I resent big corporations, labor unions, or Tea Partiers angling for their economic interests. That is a natural human impulse. Rather, I blame the government for catering to farmers in order to get votes. Our national debt has snowballed out of control due to our penchant for “unfunded mandates.” Right now, we can choose between the party of high taxes and high spending and low taxes and high spending. The politicians in Washington are not concerned with any of this, because most of them will be in the ground by the time that we really start to feel the terrible consequences of national debt. It is up to the younger generation to call for fiscal sanity.

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Searching for Meaning in a ’50s Western

When I went to high school, there were two teachers who used to argue about a John Wayne movie called The Searchers. One teacher showed it in a class that he taught on Westerns. The other thought it was racist garbage. A basic version of the summary is as follows: John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a cantankerous Confederate veteran who returns home to Texas, only to have most of his relatives massacred by Comanche warriors and his niece kidnapped. Not surprisingly, Ethan character does not objectively evaluate the situation and conclude that the Comanches attacked because the whites were trespassing. Instead, he sets off with his part-Cherokee adoptive nephew named Marty to find his niece. Throughout the movie, it becomes clear that Ethan has a pathological hatred for Native Americans. We aren’t told what he thinks about blacks, but probably nothing good. Last night, I was looking for a movie to watch and decided to watch The Searchers, then write a blog post analyzing whether or not it was racist or, as some people claim, actually a subtle attempt at criticizing racism. The movie is told more or less entirely from the white point of view. Can a sympathetic account of the Native American experience be told from the point of view of frontiersman? It’s difficult. A good analogy is the novel Frankenstein. The real victim of the story is the monster. After being created by Victor, he is abandoned by the scientist and left alone and unloved. Filled with grief and rage, he begins a killing spree. At one point, he offers to stop the violence if Victor will build him a mate. Victor refuses, and the monster kills his remaining family members. Unfortunately, because the bulk of the story is narrated by the incessantly whining Victor, we end up feeling the most sympathy for him, even though he brought all of the pain and suffering on himself. In order to build up some degree of sympathy for the monster, Mary Shelley at least lets him narrate a portion of the book, retold by Victor. The Searchers doesn’t even do that. So we end up with a situation in which white settlements are slaughtered, and the loved ones of the dead are left to carry on. What don’t we see? We don’t see precisely why the Comanches might object to the influx of settlers. We don’t see, for example, Comanche children going to bed hungry, because the arrival of the whites has caused the tribe’s food supply to dwindle. We don’t see Comanche warriors unable to find buffalo to hunt, because whites have killed them for sport or skin. Time that could have been spent showing events like these and giving an added layer of complexity to the film is instead spent focusing on a romantic subplot involving Marty and including scenes that really contribute almost nothing to the overall plot. To be fair, there is some dexterity in the film. Scar, the Comanche antagonist, mentions that he has killed many whites in retaliation for the death of his sons. Of course, Scar is also played by a German actor, and while you can talk all you want about colorblind casting, I seriously doubt that they would have cast Paul Robeson as Ethan if he had auditioned. Ethan’s virulent racism towards Native Americans is portrayed in a negative light, while the biracial Marty is the real hero. And Ethan’s niece actually develops a sense of attachment to the tribe that has kidnapped her, causing her to initially refuse to go back with her white family members. Her reaction, by the way, is based on fact. Benjamin Franklin, one of our more far-sighted though still warty founders, once wrote that, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. And that this is not natural [only to Indians], but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet within a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.” This is not multiculturalist revisionism. This is evidence from a primary source, a man who would have had no reason to make the Native Americans seem more favorable than whites. There is strong evidence that the old Native American cultures had much to be admired. It is unfortunate that these cultures were destroyed when whites ravaged Native Americans with disease and warfare and converted them into wards of the State. So is The Searchers racist or sympathetic toward Native Americans? I believe that it represents a clumsy attempt at attacking racism. In 1956, incumbent president Dwight Eisenhower won his bid for reelection. We know that Eisenhower sent federal troops to allow integration in Arkansas. It is also true, however, that he used the n-word and opposed a federal commission to monitor against workplace discrimination. And in 1956, black Congressman Adam Clayton, Jr. endorsed Eisenhower, because Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson was too racist. In short, the 1950s was a prehistoric time period in many ways. I think it likely that Searchers director John Ford believed that an obviously pro-Native American film would have been a box office failure. And in all probability, it wasn’t about white or red to Ford, it was just about green. So, he made a film that was seemingly racist but actually tried to get the audience to sympathize with the Native Americans. For evidence, we should look at John Ford’s background. Having grown up in Portland, Maine, Ford recalled that African Americans “lived with us. They didn’t live in barrios. Our next-door neighbors were black. There was no difference, no racial feeling, no prejudice. My sister Maimie’s closest friend was a Mrs. Johnson who was black. A wonderful woman.” In a 1960 film, Ford cast his close friend, black actor Woody Strode, as the protagonist of a film about the first black sergeant in the United States cavalry. And in an interview, Ford astutely commented that, “We’ve treated them [Native Americans] badly, it’s a blot on our shield; we’ve robbed, cheated, murdered and massacred them, but they kill one white man and God, out come the troops.” So I believe that Ford was attempting to make a movie that would do Native Americans justice and make lots of money, two somewhat conflicting goals in the 1950s. Unfortunately, one thing that might have hampered the Mainer’s efforts was John Wayne. While Ford was ahead of his time in some ways, John Wayne was much less so. According to the book John Wayne: American, Wayne opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a violation of private property. His 1971 interview with Playboy Magazine gave us the following quotes.

            “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

            “Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two fags, qualifies [as a perverted movie]? But don’t get me wrong. As far as a man and a woman is concerned, I’m awfully happy there’s a thing called sex. It’s an extra something God gave us. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be in pictures. Healthy, lusty sex is wonderful.”

            “With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

            You begin to see how the urban legend about the coroner finding forty pounds of fecal matter in John Wayne’s body got started, because the man was full of crap sometimes. Oh well. He was pretty good in True Grit. (The remake is better.) Still, I have to imagine that trying to make an anti-racism movie with John Wayne would be like trying to make a pro-abstinence movie with Angelina Jolie. And compared to Gone with the Wind, The Searchers ends up looking like Roots. You have to remember that even in the 1980s, we had books like North and South that came across as perhaps a bit racist. (The T.V. miniseries tried to tone this down, but it can still make you cringe at times.) The Searchers is best watched either purely for cinematic quality/entertainment, although that comes up short at times, or to analyze the evolution of Native Americans in film. 

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Wendell Phillips: Another Forgotten Hero

Note: On my blog site, I posted an article on November 29 of last year, commemorating the 200th birthday of Wendell Phillips. Because Wendell Phillips, like Bayard Rustin, is such a major influence on me and someone that I consider to be one of my five greatest heroes, I felt it was important to repost the article I wrote on him last Fall.

Just in time for the holidays, Glenn Beck has a new book out about George Washington that promises to be a love fest for our first president. The synopsis states that Washington was “respectful to all.” Oney Judge, whom Washington had pursued all the way to New Hampshire after she attempted to escape slavery, might disagree, as would Washington’s other slaves. In Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, Peter Henriques describes how George Washington ordered most of the dogs kept by slaves on his plantation to be shot or hung because slaves were using the dogs as sentinels to steal food. If I had been this “respectful” to my parents, I would probably have gotten grounded. Interestingly, the most exceptional heroes are often forgotten in our depictions of American history. The greatest casualty of the typical version of American history, except for gay and lesbian figures, has been white men and women who were active in the abolitionist movement in the United States. A typical student of the American education system will have very little knowledge of white abolitionists and will be only be able to name a few. Of these few, some such as John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison are often portrayed in a negative light. Most students, when asked about Wendell Phillips, Samuel Joseph May, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lydia Maria Child, Abby Kelley, Stephen Foster, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, George Luther Stearns, and others, might stare at you blankly. Many educators, even those who have lived in the Northeast, will have a similar reaction. Today, I will be writing about Wendell Phillips. The reason for my decision is that, unbeknownst to most Americans, November 29th marks the bicentennial of his birth. Besides being a white abolitionist in Boston, who was Wendell Phillips? It is important to note in our examination of the man that, first of all, he was a child of privilege. His ancestors had been among the original settlers of the Massachusetts colony, and his father had been the first mayor of Boston. Educated at Harvard, Phillips was a master orator. He advocated a host of unpopular causes, most of them noble and farsighted, some of them less so: immediate emancipation, resistance to fugitive slave laws, the evil of the Constitution and the United States government, racial equality including interracial marriage, rights for Native Americans, women’s suffrage, abolition of capital punishment, and democratic Socialism. The moderates and conservatives who were appalled by Phillips’ speeches nonetheless were forced to concede that his public speaking ability was incredible. If he had desired to enter politics, his upper class, old stock Puritan roots, combined with his handsome features, public speaking ability, and powerful six-foot frame would have made him likely to become an important figure in the government. But Phillips had no taste for the government. He fully understood that the Constitution had been written with protection for slavery and that politicians had to chose between defending slavery and breaking the law. Thus, Phillips not only avoided running for public office but also refused to vote. Instead, he worked as a social activist, defending equal rights. In addition to writing and speaking on behalf of his causes, he also directly resisted unjust laws. In the 1840s, more than a century before Rosa Parks’ heroic stand in Montgomery, Phillips rode with black abolitionist William Nell on the New England railroads in a successful attempt to desegregate public accommodations there. In the 1850s, he worked with other Bostonian abolitionists, such as Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, to thwart the men who tried to recapture runaway slaves. Phillips’ radicalism did not cease after the Civil War. Unlike the majority of Northerners, Phillips (and many other abolitionists) bitterly denounced the end of Reconstruction and the abandonment of blacks to the mercy of white Southern racists. His solution to the problem of what to do with the ex slaves involved providing them with education and land, in essence a form of reparations. If America had listened to Wendell Phillips, the modern day controversy over reparations would not exist. Yet he also knew when to temper his radicalism. Phillips had long argued that the North should separate from the South because of slavery. But when the Civil War broke out, Wendell Phillips realized that it was a prime opportunity to destroy slavery once and for all and rallied to the Union cause. While he is almost unknown today, many well-known figures either interacted with him or were inspired by him. Despite clashing over the Constitution, he and Frederick Douglass eventually formed a strong friendship. He also became acquainted with Harriet Tubman by way of their mutual friend John Brown. In 1884, W.E.B. DuBois delivered a speech at his high school graduation in Massachusetts about Wendell Phillips, who had died earlier in the year. A few years later in Jacksonville, Florida, as recounted in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, prominent black writer James Weldon Johnson’s high school graduation included a black boy reading a Wendell Phillips speech. In 1915, future African American radical Paul Robeson delivered the same speech. In many ways, Phillips was much more revered in the late 1800s and early 1900s by African Americans, who understood his contribution to racial justice, than by whites. Why is he so obscure today? I asked retired professor James Brewer Stewart, author of Wendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero, this very question at the Wendell Phillips Bicentennial at Harvard this past June. According to Stewart, the reason is that Phillips cannot be fitted into a patriotic narrative. Maybe he is right. After all, Phillips spent his life on the fringes of society denouncing America and the Constitution. Compare him with Frederick Douglass. While Phillips is revered almost entirely by a handful of leftists, Douglass is frequently praised by conservatives and libertarians, despite the fact that he made unpatriotic statements and favored open immigration. The reason is that Frederick Douglass believed the Constitution to be an antislavery document. Phillips and I have both debunked this claim. To be clear, Frederick Douglass is a personal hero of mine. On the issue of the Constitution, however, he was simply incorrect. Still, this incorrect stance, more than all of his great achievements, has made Douglass an icon with many conservatives. Phillips’ disdain for the Constitution has made him a pariah with conservatives. I also think he is obscure because both blacks and whites who hold racist views have tried to suppress stories of white men and women who rejected racism. On a related note, when people try to explain away racist statements made by the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and other figures, they like to resort to the argument that “Everyone was racist back then.” In Forced Into Glory, a largely inaccurate biography of Abraham Lincoln, historian and Wendell Phillips enthusiast Lerone Bennett, Jr. correctly says that such a statement is inaccurate. But when compared with Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Stephen Douglas, Lincoln looks like a great champion of racial justice. When compared with Garrison or Phillips, he looks quite bigoted. For people obsessed with building up the Founding Fathers, many of whom were far more racist than Lincoln, it becomes even more important to suppress Wendell Phillips. After all, if they learn about Thomas Jefferson, who owned and whipped slaves and sold dozens of them to pay off debts accrued by a luxurious lifestyle and then learn about Wendell Phillips, an altruistic figure who spent his life standing up for other peoples’ rights and was left poor due to donating so much of his money, they might decide Phillips is the more admirable of the two men. Likewise, if black children learn about Wendell Phillips, they may decide that not all white people are racist and therefore judge individuals not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That is a possibility that the Louis Farrakhans (who, interestingly, attended Boston Latin School, just like Wendell Phillips) of the world cannot allow. In a society where Pat Buchanan denounces Brown v. Board of Education, where a Kentucky Senator believes that public accommodations segregation should not be banned, and where a poll showed that only 40% of Republicans in Mississippi want interracial marriage to be legal, it is obvious that all too many Americans today still hold more reactionary racial views than Phillips did 150 years ago. Imagine how appalled the great abolitionist orator would be if he went to Mississippi and saw segregated proms. Phillips is equally pertinent in the current struggle against slavery. I have written before about how both Stewart and myself have tried to use his legacy to understand and combat 21st century human trafficking. In essence, conscientious social reformers must become modern day counterparts to Wendell Phillips. Furthermore, I believe his legacy is important in the area of gay rights. I have written before about why I strongly believe that he would champion gay rights if alive today. The idea that a person’s worth derives from what they do, not by immutable traits like race or sexual orientation, is an idea that Wendell Phillips helped pioneer. If Wendell Phillips were alive today, he would probably use his great eloquence and sarcasm to rebut ministers who argued that the Bible condemned homosexuality and gay marriage. After all, he would be reminded of the preachers who had used the Bible to defend slavery. If he observed people arguing that the Constitution did not include a right to gay marriage, he would deliver a spellbinding speech lambasting the document itself as oppressive. Just as 19th century America needed Wendell Phillips, we still need his spirit today.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”—Wendell Phillips, 1852

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Bayard Rustin: A Real American Hero

For most, March 17th, 2012 holds no particular significance. However, it marks a day of great historical importance, for it is the 100th anniversary of Bayard Rustin’s birth. So who was Bayard Rustin? For decades, he was one of the most important black leaders in the United States.

Rustin was born in 1912 in West Chester, Pennsylvania to an unwed teenage mother and raised by his maternal grandparents. It was not until the age of ten that he learned that his grandparents were not his biological mother and father. Three significant aspects of Rustin’s character make him one of the most admirable historical figures ever.

Rachelle Horowitz, a fellow civil rights activist who worked with Rustin for many years, once stated, “He was all-absorbing, a universal man…I don’t think he had a racist bone in him.” As such, Bayard was vehemently opposed to black separatism. He publicly debated Malcolm X on the merits of integration, arguing that racial equality should be pursued and that the abilities of anti-racist whites as well as blacks needed to be utilized in the struggle for equality.

When Rustin discovered that Stanley Levison, a left-wing Jewish businessman, had much to contribute to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, he introduced Levison to Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the same time, Bayard Rustin was never ashamed of his race. This can be seen in his relationship with the Communist Party. In his early career as an activist, he joined the Young Communist League. It cannot be denied that throughout his life, Rustin believed in massive wealth redistribution as part of the solution to poverty and racial inequality. But this does not diminish his fifty-plus-year career of fighting discrimination and injustice.

In the 1930s, the Communist Party tapped into the dissatisfaction African Americans felt at being neglected by both major parties. When World War II first broke out, Communist leaders in the United States urged African Americans not to fight in a “capitalist” war when they were denied equal rights at home. Once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, however, the Communist Party changed positions and made supporting the Allied war effort a top priority. Thus, they decided that activism against racism in America had to take a back seat.

Rustin quit the party and began working for an anti-war, anti-racism organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation as Race Relations Secretary. In this capacity, he travelled the country conducting workshops to promote racial harmony. He traveled to California to help protect the property of Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps. He also served as the first Field Secretary of the Congress of Racial Equality. In addition, he helped plan and participate in the Journey of Reconciliation.  This served as the prototype for the later and more well known Freedom Rides.

Around the same time, he played a decisive role in getting President Harry Truman to issue an executive order banning military segregation. He began working with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950’s, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He went on to organize the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957 and the National Youth Marches for Integrated Schools in 1958 and 1959.

He served as Deputy Director and was the head organizer of the monumental 1963 March On Washington, where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. According to John Lewis, another of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important figures, the March On Washington would have been “like a bird without wings” without Rustin.

From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, Rustin was also involved in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He organized the Committee to Support South African Resistance in 1951.  In 1983, he published a report that led to the founding of Project South Africa, a group that worked to mobilize American support for peaceful anti-apartheid groups. Finally, for the last ten years of his life, he was romantically involved with a person of Jewish descent, showing that love cannot be restricted along racial lines.

His debate with Malcolm X notwithstanding, Rustin’s role in the Civil Rights Movement was primarily behind-the-scenes. The reason for this lies in his interracial relationships. Many black civil rights leaders, from Frederick Douglass to James Farmer, were involved in interracial relationships and were able to remain in the spotlight. Rustin’s interracial relationships were much more controversial, however, because they were with other men.   Bayard Rustin was gay.

His discovery of his sexual orientation was not without trauma. At the age of fourteen, he was taken advantage of by a man.  It was then that he discovered he was gay. In a society where homosexuality was legally classified as a criminal offense, and the idea of monogamous same-sex couples was simply not discussed, Bayard found it difficult to form a committed relationship. For years he engaged in a number of short-term relationships. Finally, however, in his sixties, he settled down with a young man named Walter Naegle.

The two men remained a couple until Rustin’s death in 1987. During this time, he gave multiple interviews discussing the impact of homophobia on his life’s work. He received invitations to address gay rights groups, and he testified in favor of a proposed gay rights bill in New York City. To the aging Rustin, gay rights was simply a logical extension of black civil rights, and much to the chagrin of many, he was unafraid to draw a comparison between the two causes.

To Bayard Rustin, unjust rules were made to be broken. Around the time he split with the Communist Party, the United States government attempted to conscript Bayard Rustin to fight in World War II. Believing in non-violence and probably not wanting to fight in the U.S. military for “freedom” when blacks (to say nothing of gays) were denied freedom in America, Rustin refused to register for the draft. He spent the next three years in federal prison.

The Journey of Reconciliation that he helped plan and participated in involved intentionally violating segregated seating restrictions on buses and trains in the South. Not surprisingly, he, along with other activists, was subjected to physical violence, arrests, and fines. It was at that time that Rustin spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang.

Some admirable figures in history, such as John Brown, have used violence in an attempt to achieve equal rights for oppressed people. Others, such as Rustin, used non-violence. One of Rustin’s greatest achievements was showing that non-violence did not have to be passive or accommodating. While he did not resort to physical force, Rustin made it clear that he would not stand for his rights being denied. He is indeed one of the paragons of non-violent civil disobedience.  No one epitomizes this philosophy better than Rustin.

At the centennial of Rustin’s birth, he remains an obscure figure in most people’s minds.  This is partly due to the way that he was kept behind closed doors in the Civil Rights Movement. Both liberal black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and southern segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond tried to use Rustin’s sexual orientation to discredit him. Children do not learn about Rustin in school. When Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month roll around, people hear little or nothing about him. But in this day and age, with the fight for same sex marriage and other forms of gay equality gaining more momentum than ever, it is time to bring the man Professor John D’Emilio called a “lost prophet” out of the shadows and give him the respect and accolades that he deserves.


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