Playgrounds as a civil rights struggle

There’s a nice three-minute video released today by Al Jazeera America, part of a much wider collection of material on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s about playground accessibility, which is a struggle that has emerged largely in the aftermath of the ADA. Indeed, in the year I spent on a county disabilities commission, the ADA compliance committee (its most important part, since they decide how to spend limited grants from the state and federal governments) spent a huge chunk of time on playgrounds. Basically no playgrounds created prior to the ADA met code. Like all other structures, they have to evolve with the many amendments to the Act, which have made many new areas in violation.

Disability accommodation and accessibility are civil rights struggles. The failure of conservative lawmakers to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities due to a series of vague, conspiratorial concerns is not the exception, but rather part of an ongoing undermining of a large, diverse group of oppressed people that was in no way ended when the ADA was signed.

How tax money is spent is a reflection of a society’s commitment to their ideals. The United States prioritizes defense spending above programs that would help implement what the Constitution and American idealism espouse. Indeed, how much time and attention is paid to playgrounds can tell us much about the larger social justice struggles of the 21st century.

The (forgotten) radical politics of liberal idols

Martin-Luther-King-August-28-1963

So another year, another day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King is perhaps the single most warped figure in contemporary America, where his legacy is used to defend the entire spectrum of opinion- anything from social services to Gun Appreciation Day. What is clear each year when his life and work is celebrated is how much of King’s radical politics have been sanded off. Indeed, “there is a crucial fact of his life, activism and thought that no major commemoration has ever celebrated: that King was a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism”. Here’s one of many relevant quotes by King on economic justice:

“There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” (source).

This phenomenon is entrenched to the point where it now has a term- “Santa Clausification“. This is the most public case of the sanitizing of important modern figures, but it’s far from the last. I’m here to argue that the most guilty party are liberals, in particular white liberals, who celebrate figures like King but omit the philosophy that make their dreams and ideas so powerful.

Let’s just stick with people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize like King. How about Nelson Mandela:

“Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro … Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our destiny … There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death. The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” (source)

That was from a speech made in 1991.

Mandela held anti-imperialist ideas that had much in common with Castro and Guevara. While his long imprisonment and his role in ending apartheid is appreciated, the radical politics that led him to attack the racist system are ignored.

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What about the Dalai Lama? He speaks to packed crowds all over the world, and he’s very popular in my Unitarian Universalist church, and among American liberals and progressives. He’s more complicated than just the spiritual messages and peaceful ideology-

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won’t play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.

For decades, the Dalai Lama has spoken openly of his Marxist politics, once stating “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair” (source).

And finally, the most recent Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. Malala has in her short lifetime been appropriated by Westerners, who use her near-death experience to justify military action against Muslim countries and paint places like Pakistan as impoverished, backward, and in desperate need of Western intervention. White man’s burden, version 2.0.

But Malala tries as much as possible to distance herself from the actions being taken in her name. She states that drone strikes are “fueling terrorism”, and sent a message to a socialist conference in Pakistan that reads in part:

I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation. (source)

So four Peace Prize winners, four political radicals, and four figures who are often softened or used selectively. This is disheartening, because their awards and legacy (living or dead) were meant to get the whole world to learn from their example. Even if you are not a socialist or have radical politics of any strain, to celebrate these people without those aspects is to see the world through a warped glass.

We talk so much about Dr. King’s dream, about what kind of society he wanted, with racial and social equality. But that dream, that society, is not a capitalist society. An illusion is that his dream is achievable with the current economic and social system in place, when it’s clear that the issues of imperialism and militarism he spoke of in the last three years of his life are still rampant, and connected to a lack of radical political solutions.

Besides a lack of depth, these four figures, all non-white and from three different continents, have been skewed by a media and consumer culture that mainly caters to white Westerners. The Dalai Lama is glued to a whole meditation and enlightenment industry that has popped up in America. But if he speaks of peace and love in the world, he is speaking of a world crafted by socialism. Often he is portrayed as an exotic wise man coming from the East to bring wisdom. I think some of his wisdom is being selectively ignored.

I don’t mean to demonize the modern American liberalism, nor say for a moment that integrating other cultures into your own religious practice is bad. Unitarian Universalism as a faith is all the more stronger for being open to incorporation. There is a danger, though, of placing radical and unorthodox world figures into a conventional mindset. Radicalism gives the ideas and aspirations of these four, and many others in a similar situation, weight and makes them something more attainable. King’s dream of a racially and socially equal country without true economic democracy is a fantasy. We can get filled up with the hope that these individuals espouse, but not stay around for the heavier course of methods and practice.

You don’t have to believe the radical politics, but you have to engage with them. Otherwise you’re wasting a great part of their characters, and leaving wisdom on the table.

Open Mosque, and the not-quite Reformation

Vice writer Gavin Haynes has a new feature out about Open Mosque, an eclectic liberal mosque in Cape Town. I think he oversells the idea that Open Mosque is unprecedented in its views (the Alevi of Turkey are millions strong, largely secular, left-wing, and gender-equal). Otherwise, I found it interesting. The idea that Islam needs a Reformation like the one Luther kicked off in the 16th century has gained much currency recently with the rise of ISIS and their so-called ‘caliphate’. This is problematic- early Protestants were extreme theocrats (anyone living in Calvin’s Geneva would let you know that), the two religions are dissimilar in a lot of key areas, and since the Reformation global industry, culture, and politics has emerged that create complications. But taking the idea of the Reformation as a potential good, let’s go on.

Haynes gives an idea as to what a Martin Luther figure would look like- TV news tends to skimp on the details of how a Reformation would work, besides moderate Muslims creating new institutions that end the reign of hard-liners. Taj Hargey has a key thing in common with Luther- going back to the core text and using it as the moral guide to society. This is a lesson that all religious people can use- going back to scripture, what does it say, and what kind of society does it put forward? What is the gap between scripture and modern day religious authority? I don’t think Open Mosque will change the face of world history like Luther managed to, but it is offering a genuine alternative. What I worry is that violence against him and his congregation will prevent the spread of new ideas.

Michael Sam, and what a LGBT milestone is

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Credit: Michael Qwertyus // License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

This weekend has been dominated by the coming out of Michael Sam, an elite college football defensive end, who helped lead the University of Missouri to an incredible season. Coming out as he looks towards the NFL draft and a promising pro career, he is an interesting landmark for American athletes.

I wrote an article last April about veteran NBA player Jason Collins, and his decision to come out. With each high-profile individual that discloses their status as an LGBT individual, the question of landmarks versus normalcy stick in my head. I ended the Collins article remarking:

So Collins is a member of another, more neglected front of the gay rights struggle. When he came out two days ago it was national news. Part of the goal is that one day an athlete will come out, and it’s not a media spectacle. It’s just someone living their life.

It’s clearly still a media spectacle, one managed for maximum effect, as a behind-the-scences feature by Outsports shows. It depends on the fame of someone and the nature of their fame. The last two years have seen several journalists announce their homosexuality, and in that area it’s certainly not headline news. Athletic competition is another world, and there is some sort of informal hierarchy of gay-friendly sports- in some one’s sexual orientation isn’t considered important, in others it can be.

American football is considered a hostile environment. Not without evidence- witness gay-friendly punter Chris Kluwe’s legal fight about homophobic coaches who may have kept him off the team. Strange, I feel, than an individual’s contribution to the fight for equality varies so much on unrelated traits. Race, religion, national origin- Mary Cheney gained much media attention and support because of who her father happened to be.

To some extent, this has always been true. While many Civil Rights icons were known for their organizing ability, their tenacity, their charisma, others are known for their odd place in history- the Little Rock Nine were courageous and some led impressive lives after the crisis, but their place in history is not about their qualities as people. They were not any nine, they were the nine.

There is a great inequality in our innate importance in struggles for equality and justice, what we carry by virtue of who we are. It’s more than that, however. Even with the rise of a Michael Sam- an elite-level athletes entering the prime of his career- in the long run those gay athletes and their allies who will make the difference do so by their long-term commitment to organizing and fighting for change. Athletes, gay and straight, who support the You Can Play project that fights casual homophobia, march in LGBT pride parades, and use whatever fame they have to speak out can do great things even if their own stories aren’t groundbreaking.

A big name coming out as gay is symbolic. But it’s progress is also symbolic, and must be underscored by action to mean something years from now.

 

 

 

Without equality, we have nothing: gay marriage as a first step

Gay Marriage Utah
A gay couple displays their marriage license, Salt Lake City, UT. Kim Raff/AP

So the reddest state in America now has gays and lesbians marrying. With Utah, a standard is set for the 32 states yet to gain marriage equality. All I can do at this moment is express my thanks: I am so incredibly proud of the activists, families, lawyers, judges, and politicians that have been able to change public opinion, make courageous stands, and put their political futures on the line in order to do the right thing.

To the members on the Iowa Supreme Court whose courage cost them their jobs, you have my respect.

To those that grilled legislators, used their votes and their wallets to compel bills through political obstinacy and social conservatism, you are an example of what activism can do given time and sheer determination.

To the voters of Minnesota, who last year were the first to reject a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage, I admire the long and difficult campaign you endured. The outside money from places like the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The demonization from talk radio and “family” groups. You fought through it all and did it with grace and civility.

To the people who organized and led successful votes in Washington, Maryland, and Maine to approve marriage equality, you have done great work in promoting equal protection and preventing reactionary groups from taking it from you.

To those still laboring in states full of fundamentalism, hatred, and backwards sexual politics, I am sure you will achieve what you seek.

And to those in the LGBT community that know marriage is only one step of many towards true equality, I salute you. Only in a society where transgendered people are not viewed as somehow lesser people; where the workplace is a place where discrimination knows no place; where gays can donate blood without the ignominy that they are somehow the only group that can contract HIV- then justice has scored a full victory. You are already working on the next fight, and the fight after that.

This fight is not over. I am glad that people have not waited passively for a grand court decision to make marriage equality the law of the land. For a state-by-state struggle makes everyone stronger, forges the trust and bonds needed for future fights. There is no moral cover in waiting. The time is now, for all people to cross borders and ideologies and move in collective purpose.

I am glad to identify with the Unitarian Universalist church, who started on this road before anyone else thought same-sex marriage a possibility. They dream, because all justice was once a dream. Let us realize that without equality, we are all not free. The right to marry only achieves real meaning when it applies to all other people. Otherwise it is not a right, it is a privilege.

So today, with New Mexico and Utah moving in the right direction, it is time to move forward with a momentum never before seen in this country.

Andrew J. Mackay

“Who am I to judge?” a Unitarian Universalist sentiment

I’m currently reading James Carroll’s superb New Yorker feature on Pope Francis I, “Who Am I to Judge: A Radical Pope’s First Year.” It’s still early, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Francis is a great example of why Unitarian Univeralists include in their six sources “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

Overall I’m very critical of the Catholic Church. I find its politics counter to a modern, egalitarian society. I find its opulence hard to reconcile with its focus on the poor. I find its resistance to contraception use a contributing factor in the HIV/AIDS crisis. So after the stubborn ideology of Benedict, it was understandable to come into the papal election with very low standards.

Yet Francis has risen above all the things that have dragged the Church down into the mud. Many times in his nine months as Pontiff I’ve silently nodded my head to a news story quoting him. He’s put social justice on top where it’s supposed to be, and acted more like a real person than the infallible theocrat he could have easily been. He spends time denouncing bigots rather than being one himself. It was nice to see Francis shrug off an accusation that he is a Marxist by saying even though he is not one, he doesn’t view it as an insult.

Overall I feel his greatest contribution is to the first UU principle, the belief in “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” A key lesson we can draw upon from many faiths is the idea that the core of a person is more important than their gender, ideology, wealth. Francis doesn’t feel it’s his place to judge gays (even though, as Pope, many would say that is precisely his place), as long as they are good and honest people. Or atheists, as long as they are good and honest people. Ultimately we can learn far more from Catholic acts and practice than from all their doctrine. What individual priests do in their local communities is more important to learn from than a papal bull on abortion.

It is refreshing to see a religious authority talking about things that are important to creating a better society, when many preachers would rather demonize and hate groups. Perhaps it will set an example for other faiths to consider and reevaluate their priorities.

Affording college should not be a carnival game

I’m somewhat disgusted from watching the college football conference championship games. Not the quality of the games- they were pretty engaging, and go Spartans- but the halftime contest between two people competing for college tuition money. The Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway had two contestants throwing footballs into a hole in a giant soda can to win $100,000 in scholarships.

I don’t have a problem with a corporation handing out some money for college- it’s certainly not the most destructive way to gain publicity, but it does feel strange that people in the United States have to compete for the right to graduate debt-free. One of the long-term threads to American prosperity, especially if that prosperity is to cross class lines, are people of all ages pursuing some form of post-secondary education. High tuition rates discourage poor and lower middle class students from applying at all. And America is rapidly losing its edge in overall attainment:

Credit to The Century Foundation

And struggle in STEM majors:

STEM Graduation Rates1 600x486 The U.S. STEM Graduation Rate Is Very Low Compared To Other Countries

I’ve previously written a detailed speech on the idea of free tertiary education in America, which you can read here. It seems that intelligent and perceptive people should focus on learning, and not fret over balance sheets unless they take an accounting class.