Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lest We Forget: An open letter to my sisters who are brave.

By Alice Walker |

The author argues that we must build alliances not on ethnicity or gender, but on truth.

I HAVE COME home from a long stay in Mexico to find – because of the presidential campaign, and especially because of the Obama/Clinton race for the Democratic nomination - a new country existing alongside the old. On any given day we, collectively, become the Goddess of the Three Directions and can look back into the past, look at ourselves just where we are, and take a glance, as well, into the future. It is a space with which I am familiar.

When I was born in 1944 my parents lived on a middle Georgia plantation that was owned by a white distant relative, Miss May Montgomery. (During my childhood it was necessary to address all white girls as "Miss" when they reached the age of twelve.) She would never admit to this relationship, of course, except to mock it. Told by my parents that several of their children would not eat chicken skin she responded that of course they would not. No Montgomerys would.

My parents and older siblings did everything imaginable for Miss May. They planted and raised her cotton and corn, fed and killed and processed her cattle and hogs, painted her house, patched her roof, ran her dairy, and, among countless other duties and responsibilities my father was her chauffeur, taking her anywhere she wanted to go at any hour of the day or night. She lived in a large white house with green shutters and a green, luxuriant lawn: not quite as large as Tara of Gone With the Wind fame, but in the same style.

We lived in a shack without electricity or running water, under a rusty tin roof that let in wind and rain. Miss May went to school as a girl. The school my parents and their neighbors built for us was burned to the ground by local racists who wanted to keep ignorant their competitors in tenant farming. During the Depression, desperate to feed his hardworking family, my father asked for a raise from ten dollars a month to twelve. Miss May responded that she would not pay that amount to a white man and she certainly wouldn't pay it to a nigger. That before she'd pay a nigger that much money she'd milk the dairy cows herself.

When I look back, this is part of what I see. I see the school bus carrying white children, boys and girls, right past me, and my brothers, as we trudge on foot five miles to school. Later, I see my parents struggling to build a school out of discarded army barracks while white students, girls and boys, enjoy a building made of brick. We had no books; we inherited the cast off books that "Jane" and "Dick" had previously used in the all-white school that we were not, as black children, permitted to enter.

The year I turned fifty, one of my relatives told me she had started reading my books for children in the library in my home town. I had had no idea – so kept from black people it had been – that such a place existed. To this day knowing my presence was not wanted in the public library when I was a child I am highly uncomfortable in libraries and will rarely, unless I am there to help build, repair, refurbish or raise money to keep them open, enter their doors.

When I joined the freedom movement in Mississippi in my early twenties it was to come to the aid of sharecroppers, like my parents, who had been thrown off the land they'd always known, the plantations, because they attempted to exercise their "democratic" right to vote. I wish I could say white women treated me and other black people a lot better than the men did, but I cannot. It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that white women have copied, all too often, the behavior of their fathers and their brothers, and in the South, especially in Mississippi, and before that, when I worked to register voters in Georgia, the broken bottles thrown at my head were gender free.

I made my first white women friends in college; they were women who loved me and were loyal to our friendship, but I understood, as they did, that they were white women and that whiteness mattered. That, for instance, at Sarah Lawrence, where I was speedily inducted into the Board of Trustees practically as soon as I graduated, I made my way to the campus for meetings by train, subway and foot, while the other trustees, women and men, all white, made their way by limo. Because, in our country, with its painful history of unspeakable inequality, this is part of what whiteness means. I loved my school for trying to make me feel I mattered to it, but because of my relative poverty I knew I could not.

I am a supporter of Obama because I believe he is the right person to lead the country at this time. He offers a rare opportunity for the country and the world to start over, and to do better. It is a deep sadness to me that many of my feminist white women friends cannot see him. Cannot see what he carries in his being. Cannot hear the fresh choices toward Movement he offers. That they can believe that millions of Americans –black, white, yellow, red and brown - choose Obama over Clinton only because he is a man, and black, feels tragic to me.

When I have supported white people, men and women, it was because I thought them the best possible people to do whatever the job required. Nothing else would have occurred to me. If Obama were in any sense mediocre, he would be forgotten by now. He is, in fact, a remarkable human being, not perfect but humanly stunning, like King was and like Mandela is. We look at him, as we looked at them, and are glad to be of our species. He is the change America has been trying desperately and for centuries to hide, ignore, kill. The change America must have if we are to convince the rest of the world that we care about people other than our (white) selves.

True to my inner Goddess of the Three Directions however, this does not mean I agree with everything Obama stands for. We differ on important points probably because I am older than he is, I am a woman and person of three colors, (African, Native American, European), I was born and raised in the American South, and when I look at the earth's people, after sixty-four years of life, there is not one person I wish to see suffer, no matter what they have done to me or to anyone else; though I understand quite well the place of suffering, often, in human growth.

I want a grown-up attitude toward Cuba, for instance, a country and a people I love; I want an end to the embargo that has harmed my friends and their children, children who, when I visit Cuba, trustingly turn their faces up for me to kiss. I agree with a teacher of mine, Howard Zinn, that war is as objectionable as cannibalism and slavery; it is beyond obsolete as a means of improving life. I want an end to the on-going war immediately and I want the soldiers to be encouraged to destroy their weapons and to drive themselves out of Iraq.

I want the Israeli government to be made accountable for its behavior towards the Palestinians, and I want the people of the United States to cease acting like they don't understand what is going on. All colonization, all occupation, all repression basically looks the same, whoever is doing it. Here our heads cannot remain stuck in the sand; our future depends of our ability to study, to learn, to understand what is in the records and what is before our eyes. But most of all I want someone with the self-confidence to talk to anyone, "enemy" or "friend," and this Obama has shown he can do. It is difficult to understand how one could vote for a person who is afraid to sit and talk to another human being. When you vote you are making someone a proxy for yourself; they are to speak when, and in places, you cannot. But if they find talking to someone else, who looks just like them, human, impossible, then what good is your vote?

It is hard to relate what it feels like to see Mrs. Clinton (I wish she felt self-assured enough to use her own name) referred to as "a woman" while Barack Obama is always referred to as "a black man." One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not. She carries all the history of white womanhood in America in her person; it would be a miracle if we, and the world, did not react to this fact. How dishonest it is, to attempt to make her innocent of her racial inheritance.

I can easily imagine Obama sitting down and talking, person to person, with any leader, woman, man, child or common person, in the world, with no baggage of past servitude or race supremacy to mar their talks. I cannot see the same scenario with Mrs. Clinton who would drag into Twenty-First Century American leadership the same image of white privilege and distance from the reality of others' lives that has so marred our country's contacts with the rest of the world.

And yes, I would adore having a woman president of the United States. My choice would be Representative Barbara Lee, who alone voted in Congress five years ago not to make war on Iraq. That to me is leadership, morality, and courage; if she had been white I would have cheered just as hard. But she is not running for the highest office in the land, Mrs. Clinton is. And because Mrs. Clinton is a woman and because she may be very good at what she does, many people, including some younger women in my own family, originally favored her over Obama. I understand this, almost. It is because, in my own nieces' case, there is little memory, apparently, of the foundational inequities that still plague people of color and poor whites in this country. Why, even though our family has been here longer than most North American families – and only partly due to the fact that we have Native American genes – we very recently, in my lifetime, secured the right to vote, and only after numbers of people suffered and died for it.

When I offered the word "Womanism" many years ago, it was to give us a tool to use, as feminist women of color, in times like these. These are the moments we can see clearly, and must honor devotedly, our singular path as women of color in the United States. We are not white women and this truth has been ground into us for centuries, often in brutal ways. But neither are we inclined to follow a black person, man or woman, unless they demonstrate considerable courage, intelligence, compassion and substance. I am delighted that so many women of color support Barack Obama -and genuinely proud of the many young and old white women and men who do.

Imagine, if he wins the presidency we will have not one but three black women in the White House; one tall, two somewhat shorter; none of them carrying the washing in and out of the back door. The bottom line for most of us is: With whom do we have a better chance of surviving the madness and fear we are presently enduring, and with whom do we wish to set off on a journey of new possibility? In other words, as the Hopi elders would say: Who do we want in the boat with us as we head for the rapids? Who is likely to know how best to share the meager garden produce and water? We are advised by the Hopi elders to celebrate this time, whatever its adversities.

We have come a long way, Sisters, and we are up to the challenges of our time. One of which is to build alliances based not on race, ethnicity, color, nationality, sexual preference or gender, but on Truth. Celebrate our journey. Enjoy the miracle we are witnessing. Do not stress over its outcome. Even if Obama becomes president, our country is in such ruin it may well be beyond his power to lead us toward rehabilitation. If he is elected however, we must, individually and collectively, as citizens of the planet, insist on helping him do the best job that can be done; more, we must insist that he demand this of us. It is a blessing that our mothers taught us not to fear hard work. Know, as the Hopi elders declare: The river has its destination. And remember, as poet June Jordan and Sweet Honey in the Rock never tired of telling us: We are the ones we have been waiting for.


And with all my love,

Alice Walker


Northern California

First Day of Spring

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The trouble with road salt

The salt-strewn streets that have become a common winter sight in Minnesota now cause salt pollution severe enough that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has started to classify some Twin Cities streams as legally "impaired" from chloride contamination.

The use of road salt (mostly sodium chloride) in the United States, uncommon a generation ago, has increased eightfold since 1960. A University of Minnesota study showed that the Twin Cities metropolitan region now uses an astounding 260 pounds of road salt per person every winter.

During snow melt, peak chloride concentrations in some urban streams can approach half that of ocean water, far higher than many freshwater organisms can tolerate even for a short period. Chloride levels high enough to impair aquatic plants and animals may persist through the summer. This happens because some dissolved road salt infiltrates into groundwater, which then seeps slowly into streams, contaminating them long after the snow has melted.

Since 2002, the MPCA has designated four major Twin Cities streams -- Shingle Creek, Battle Creek, Bevins Creek and Nine Mile Creek -- as impaired because of chloride toxicity to aquatic life. For these large streams to have chloride toxicity means that numerous small streams and lakes also have toxic chloride concentrations, though they have not yet been legally designated as impaired.

The "impaired" designation means that local governments will need to find ways to reduce the contamination.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation and many local governments have sought to minimize salt use. Salt application rates are now based on real-time temperature measurement. With this information, salt can be applied just before a snow or ice event ("anti-icing"), rather than during or after the event, reducing salt application rates while improving driving conditions. New trucks have computerized controllers that deliver just enough salt to melt ice and no more. New snowplows are also equipped to apply brine ("prewetting") rather than dry salt, reducing wasted salt by 20 to 30 percent.

Use of road salt in Minnesota has been stable since 2000, after decades of increasing use, but real reductions will probably be needed to reduce chloride impairment of streams. A next step would be to install sensors directly in the most vulnerable streams. These sensors would provide additional feedback that could be used to fine-tune salting operations. For example, feedback from stream sensors might show that the normal salt-reduction strategy is not sufficient at a particular location and that alternative (but expensive) deicers are needed.

The effort to reduce road-salt use is driven largely by the legal requirement to protect aquatic life. However, as is often the case with environmental regulation, reduced road-salt pollution would have other benefits. A well-tuned adaptive management strategy could actually improve winter-driving conditions using less road salt (a shift from a brawn strategy to a brains strategy). Using less road salt would reduce corrosion of vehicles and bridge decks. According to a study by the Federal Highway Administration, bridge-deck corrosion costs $8.3 billion per year in direct costs (and 10 times more in indirect costs), much of it caused by salt. The same study reported that $23.4 billion is spent annually to avoid or repair corrosion to vehicles. The effort to reduce road-salt use would probably yield economic benefits that far exceed costs.

Lawrence Baker is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saving the World with Co-ops

By Elizabeth Archerd

Do you think the title overstates the case? I don't. The cooperative principles require cooperators to take a longer view than businesses that emphasize quarterly financial performance. A case can be made that co-ops form the basis for a sustainable world economy.

Paul Hazen, president and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association, addressed a United Nations panel at the 46th Session for the Commission on Social Development on February 11, 2008. The following are excerpts from his remarks:

A couple of recent books have argued that global capitalism today is ailing. CEOs see their role as simply to drive up the stock price and don't much care about anything else. Meanwhile, the gap between executive and worker pay gets wider by the day. Incompetent executives receive golden parachutes while high-performing employees get laid off. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Well, if capitalism is ailing, co-ops are the antidote.

Co-ops aren't outmoded. They are needed more than ever to balance the scales. They are not simply an alternative business model. They are a better business model.

Let me give you some reasons why.

Cooperatives distribute capital widely among average Americans, while stock companies make the rich richer. Surplus revenues earned by cooperatives are either reinvested in the business or returned to members. With more than 130 million cooperative members nationwide, this distributes co-op revenues broadly among average Americans. Investor-owned businesses, on the other hand, distribute profits to shareholders based on how much stock they own. That means those with the most shares - generally wealthy investors - receive the most, while average Americans get little.

Cooperatives keep capital in the community where it was generated, while stock companies export capital elsewhere. Since they give surplus revenue back to their members, cooperatives keep wealth in their communities. Stock companies do the reverse. By distributing profits to shareholders, they take capital out of the community.

Cooperatives exemplify the Ownership Society, while stock companies concentrated ownership among the investor class. Cooperatives are owned by 130 million members nationwide... those who buy their goods or use their services. That's approximately 40 percent of all Americans, or six in 10 adults. Ownership of stock companies, on the other hand, is concentrated among a small group of outside investors.

Cooperative governance is open and democratic, while stock company governance is closed and easily manipulated. Cooperatives are run democratically, on a one-member, one-vote basis. Board members do not have a business relationship with the co-op, other than being customers of it. In a stock company... boards include members of management and those with financial ties to the organization, such as major contracts.

Cooperatives have both economic and social goals, while stock companies are motivated solely by the need to maximize shareholder returns. This has positive consequences for co-ops and negative ones for stock companies. Cooperatives have multiple bottom lines. In addition to meeting the economic needs of their members, they often have social objectives, such has widening participation in the economic system or promoting sustainable development. Stock companies' focus on shareholder returns often leads to negative outcomes.

Cooperatives largely police themselves while government must provide extensive oversight and control over stock companies. Members provide oversight of cooperatives, assuring that the business adheres to good business practices and cooperative principles. Stock companies must be highly regulated to protect their customers. Still, the stock company world is plagued with scandals, while co-ops are virtually scandal free.

One of the persistent myths about America is that rugged individualism built this country. Don't you believe it. If you look at the critical moments in our history, starting with the Revolutionary War and the writing of our Constitution, it's when we came together that we have been most successful. People working together built our schools and our religious institutions. People working together built our industries, defended us in two world wars and sent men to the moon.

Cooperatives are part of this. They built our farms, brought power and light to our rural areas and provided a place to deposit money in the 1930s when the banking system failed.

Rugged individuals didn't build America... cooperation did. And it's needed now more than ever.

Source. Posted by Wedge Co-op member/owner #252321.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: 'A More Perfect Union'

Philadelphia, PA | March 18, 2008
As Prepared for Delivery

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution - a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign - to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either "too black" or "not black enough." We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we've heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way

But the truth is, that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth - by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

"People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend's voice up into the rafters....And in that single note - hope! - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shame about...memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students.

Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments - meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns - this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American - and yes, conservative - notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn't believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation - the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today - a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

Christine Stark: Prostitution, even when legalized, destroys lives


LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - The one point on which I agree with Steve Chapman ("Prostitution: The sex act that's illogically illegal," March 16) is that it is hard to feel sympathy for a hypocrite like Eliot Spitzer. However, the rest of his piece is woefully misinformed.

As a formerly prostituted child and young adult, I disagree that prostitution should be legalized. Prostitution is an industry of sexual exploitation, predominately of women and youth. Prostituted women and youth are raped, beaten and otherwise tortured by pimps and johns. A study in Canada reveals that prostituted women and girls have a 40 percent higher mortality rate than nonprostituted women and girls.

Many of the women lack high-school educations. Many end up with severe physical, mental and emotional disabilities. Another study also reports that prostituted women have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than war veterans.

Most prostituted women and youth are coerced by poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, and drug and alcohol addictions. The average age of prostitution is 13 in the United States, so a woman has likely been abused for five years when she turns 18 and supposedly chooses to be a whore.

Another study conducted with thousands of prostituted people found that 89 percent of those interviewed wanted to get out of prostitution immediately. This backs up what those of us used in prostitution know from experience: Prostitution is organized rape and battery of women and youth, and the vast majority of those in it want out now.

Studies in countries where prostitution is legal reveal that when prostitution is legalized, international and domestic trafficking increases, child prostitution increases, and the women are actually treated worse because the johns become more violent. What we need are better laws that treat as sexual predators those who use, rape, batter and kill prostituted women and youth.

We also need direct services for prostituted women and youth. They know that men like Spitzer are not an anomaly. Wealthy, powerful men use and sell prostituted women and youth in this country all the time. He just happened to get caught.

Christine Stark is an author and coeditor of "Not for Sale: Feminists Against Prostitution and Pornography."

Actually, I didn't do it


On March 6, as one investigator later put it, I was the "unluckiest person in the world." That morning, someone bombed the military recruiting station in New York's Times Square, and 3,000 miles away, the fallout landed on me.

A 64-page pamphlet and a 20-page memo I wrote to Capitol Hill Democrats had reached lawmakers the very day the bomb went off. Knowing the odds against anyone actually reading what I sent, I had included a photograph to grab their attention. It shows me in a victory pose in front of that Times Square recruiting station's neon flag, with the caption "We Did It!" To the authorities, it was a smoking gun. My explanation is found only at the end of the memo: "I have enclosed the Holiday card I sent out to family and friends after the 2006 election. I hope and fully expect to have reason to send out an equally jubilant card after this November's results."

Arriving home that evening, I was met by FBI agents, dogs and a bomb squad. I consented to thorough questioning and a search of my home, and was greatly relieved to learn the next morning that the FBI had publicly cleared me of any connection to the bombing.

As it turned out, my relief was a little premature. I began surfing the Internet and realized just how stridently fingers had pointed in my direction. The tabloid headlines left little room for doubt: "Letters Claim Responsibility for Times Square Blast" (the New York Post); "'We Did It' Taunts Sicko's Manifesto" (the New York Daily News).

Also striking was how the media, without firsthand information, had adopted stock descriptions of both me and my writings: an "antiwar activist" (Fox News and USA Today); an "anarchist manifesto" (, and an "anti-Iraq war screed" (

In fact, my "activism" rarely leaves my keyboard, and I have never opposed any U.S. military action before 2003. As for Iraq, it is only one of many topics addressed in my congressional mailings, and my message was that "there is no easy way out" and that instead of debating "withdrawal," Democrats should offer "compelling and alternative" positions on "unilateralist foreign policy, preemptive war, effective counter-terrorism (and) genuine 'pro-Israel' policies."

The only ones to get it right were the law-enforcement personnel who read what I actually wrote. One investigator told me (correctly) that many of my views sounded "conservative," and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly fairly characterized the mailings as "innocuous."

I hoped my clearance by the FBI would keep me out of the spotlight, but the focus simply shifted to what one official described as an "incredibly unbelievable coincidence."

Given the odds, much of the right-wing blogosphere insisted that there must be a cover-up: "I do not believe in 'incredibly unbelievable coincidence(s)' " (; "... Waterboard him!" (

Then my name surfaced, and I became, as one friend told me, "the talk of the town," as well as a media stereotype: a 50-year-old, single, gay entertainment lawyer coming home from the gym to the Hollywood Hills.

Reporters next located my 82-year-old mother. She lives alone, and with the television news blaring and the phone ringing, anxiety got the best of her. She tried to defend me as "the most gifted, creative person. ... He's been writing letters since he was 13 years old." She then called me and burst out crying: "I hope I did the right thing."

Speaking out on political matters entails risks, but nobody should have to take the risk that the media will inflict personal damage without regard for innocence or content. My pamphlet -- titled "Common Ground" (with a nod to Thomas Paine) -- was modeled on classic American patriotic tracts. A lot of thought, time and money went into my writings, which were never quoted and reportedly were confiscated by Capitol police. And while I can now rest easy that my FBI file is clean, no such luck with Google.

Friends advised me to retain an attorney and even a publicist. But I decided to rest my case on "the best evidence rule" and let my writings speak for themselves. As for publicists, I don't see how anybody could say it any better than FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller already has: "This was a citizen exercising his right to make a political comment to his representatives."

David Karnes, an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles, wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ramsey International Fine Arts tells parents: Keep your money

The parents of the Ramsey International Fine Arts Center Foundation have donated more than $280,000 to their school in south Minneapolis in the past dozen years.

That still wasn't worth the aggravation to school officials.

In a rare move, the Minneapolis School District sent a letter to the foundation, telling its leaders not to contact school staff, administration or the principal about fundraising issues. The principal sent a letter halting the annual Read-a-Thon and Plant Sale fundraisers for the foundation.

"They're treating us like we don't matter," foundation president Kristin Rigg said.

Many Minneapolis schools have similar parent fundraising foundations, but none has had as much trouble as Ramsey, said Associate Superintendent Craig Vana.

Officials with the state association of parent-teacher groups agreed that such disputes are rare in Minnesota.

The public dispute follows years of disagreements between parents and school officials over how fundraising money is spent. The dispute has persisted through changes of principals and parent leaders.

Parents say school officials failed to account for the donations they were given. School officials say parents tried to interfere with how the money was spent. Unable to agree, both parties are now communicating through lawyers.

At a time when parent fundraising is becoming an ever more important asset to public schools, the standoff is stunning to outsiders.

"It's ridiculous," said Roberta McCue, who was picking up her granddaughter Savannah Ness, 13, from Ramsey last week.

"We don't have any books. We have to share," Savannah chimed in from the backseat of the car.

School board member Tom Madden said he met with members of the foundation and the parent-teacher organization (PTO) last year, but they didn't take him up on his offer of help.

"This is a very unusual situation," he said. "There's certainly room for improvement on both sides."

Still, he is optimistic that a truce can be reached. "I suspect that the differences aren't that great and they can be worked out," he said. "Things are never one-sided, period."

Strong feelings, strong letter

Money from the foundation has been used to support a school opera, to buy band and gym equipment and to pay for museum visits. But foundation officials said they suspected that the school had used some of it to pay for a teaching position. District officials flatly deny that.

The conflict intensified last fall when Ramsey Principal Karen Hart wrote that she would no longer support foundation events that used school resources, including students. The scheduled February Read-a-thon, which had been managed by the foundation since the 1990s was put on hold.

Vana sent foundation leaders a letter in late November stating that the school's officials "have been directed to focus their energy on academic achievement. They are not to be distracted by the ongoing fundraising issues."

Foundation treasurer Carol Peterson and Rigg were told "not to contact the principal, staff, or members of the site council about issues related to the Foundation."

Both the foundation and the PTO filed grievances to the school's site council, a group of teachers, parents and school officials.

The PTO's grievance stated that money raised by the foundation was to be spent within a year. Because the school did not spend all the money, the remainder should be returned to the foundation. Receipts for expenses have not been turned over either, Peterson said.

"We're donors to this school, and as donors we can restrict how the money is spent," Rigg said. "You are obliged to be accountable to that."

Both grievances were reviewed and rejected, said Margaret Westin, the district general counsel.

More trouble than most

David Curle, foundation treasurer at nearby Clara Barton Open School, said there haven't been any major conflicts between his school and foundation.

"Frankly," he said, "I think [the situation at Ramsey] really is isolated."

Sandy Zarembinski, of the Minnesota PTA, said most schools and fundraising groups cooperate for the benefit of students, but issues can arise.

Sometimes parents want control over the money because they worked to collect it. Administrators may want to use it to solve problems with state funding. Principals, she said, can also be pressured by the district to control funds that may not legally be theirs.

"Sometimes, it's who can throw the bigger temper tantrum," she said.

Can this problem be solved?

Rigg moved her children to another Minneapolis public school last year, but will finish out her foundation term in late 2008.

"I feel like my commitment to the foundation was really separate from my commitment to my children's education," she said.

Asked why the district can't make peace with a group that has raised so much money, Vana said. "It's all about the foundation leadership."

Though the district appreciates the work the foundation has done, Vana said, Ramsey is more than capable of conducting fundraisers independently.

Indeed, last month's Read-a-thon went on without the foundation's help.

Vana said he's still interested in gathering all parties to talk. "My goal is to bring everyone together," he said.

But collaboration seems unlikely.

"I'm not interested in giving them a dime until they can tell me where it goes," Rigg said.

Kathryn Nelson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Documentary Featuring Hakeem Wins Student Emmy Award

Farheen Hakeem, candidate for State Representative District 61b, is no
stranger to electoral politics or standing in the media spotlight. During
Hakeem's run for County Commissioner in 2006, two University of Florida
graduate students followed her as the subject of their Master's Thesis
film at the Documentary Institute.

What resulted was the film Bismillah: In the Name of Allah, directed by
Jolene Pinder and Sarah Zaman. The film is a finalist for an Academy of
Television Arts and Science College Television Award
(Student Emmy). The
film is one of three winners, and its placement (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) will be
announced at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles on March 15th.

Bismallah: In the Name of Allah, is a film that follows the beginnings of
Farheen Hakeem's decision to put herself under public scrutiny by taking
part in the consummate American patriotic act - running for office.
Director Jolene Pinder comments, "We're so happy that the film is getting
out into the world and that Farheen's story is being heard!"

Hakeem states, "I am ecstatic for the film makers. They have worked so
hard and they deserve this recognition." Hakeem is currently running for
State Representative District 61b. This seat is currently being held by
Representative Neva Walker, who is not seeking re-election. Farheen
Hakeem will be attending the award ceremony on Saturday March 15th.

For more information about the film, please refer to the University of
Florida's Documentary Institute at

For more information about the Student Emmy awards, please refer to

For more information about Farheen Hakeem, please refer to

For more information contact Ayesha at 612-636-1557 or at

Mike Gravel and the Green Party

National Statesman and International Hero Senator Mike Gravel Supports Jesse Johnson's Bid for President

In what has to be the most unprecedented cross party statement of support Democratic Party Candidate for President Mike Gravel announced that he has decided to support the campaign of Green Party Candidate Jesse Johnson running for the nomination on the Green Party Ticket.

After a meeting between the two in Washington DC Friday, Gravel stated, "My political party long ago walked away from taking the necessary steps that will safe guard our nation's and our children's futures. I worked dedicatedly throughout my career as a U.S. Senator to protect the precious resources our country had within it's boundaries as well as to mitigate the negative impact our businesses and individuals were having on the planet. I have watched the ever important job of stewarding these gifts vanish from the political landscape and I hold the Democratic Party leadership responsible for giving up that fight."

Why did Gravel choose Johnson from among the other candidates vying for the nomination in all the campaigns of all available political parties? Gravel explains, "I'm supporting Jesse because he began his political career with the determination that the environmental plundering must stop. He placed every other interest on hold to run for office, in his home state and now nationally, to challenge the corporations that destroy our national resources and then harvest from this practice a toxic energy source; coal. The mountain top mining practices devastate the landscape by blowing apart mountains and then carbon belching plants burn the coal creating a form of energy that serves as one of the major contributors for global climate change."

Gravel continues, "We must have a voice in the political realm speaking earnestly and intelligently about all of our environmental needs. Johnson and the Green Party have that environmental credibility that we Democrats have lost."

Senator Gravel intends to travel and campaign with Jesse Johnson as their schedule allows.

Jesse Johnson, former chair of the West Virginia Mountain Party and two time candidate for statewide office, said that this sort of cross party support "was just the kind of non-traditional, selfless act that we have come to know Senator Mike Gravel to make. When he read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record, or filibustered to end the draft he had his eye - at all times - on the big picture and the needs of others. I am not surprised that a true patriot and advocate of the citizen as leader of our country would take such an unprecedented and bold stand. And I am honored and humbled that he has selected my campaign and the Green Party as his allies in this very important race to save our environment from the actions of humans."

Gravel closed by saying, "We've seen the havoc the two parties can wreak, on a global scale, by locking out the voices of reason - by eliminating the third party voices. I want to amplify those voices to save our country from our own shortsighted and greedy actions. If we want to end the war in Iraq, provide health care to all citizens, educate our young people, we're going to have to start not only working together with these alternate parties: but literally working to support them. That's why I'm supporting Jesse Johnson's campaign for President."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Elliot Spitzer and America's Ethical Perversity

by Rabbi Michael Lerner

The cross-the-political-spectrum attacks on Elliot Spitzer and the intensity of the demands that he resign his office show just how far the Right-wing sexual moralizing has been able to trump any other kind of ethical reasoning in American society.

Going to a prostitute is legal in some states and some countries around the world, and is often the very arrangement that saves families from splitting up whose sexual energies have diminished but whose love is intact. It's not uncommon for men (and now increasingly women as well) who have achieved great power in our society by adopting an outer show of ruthless pursuit of power and influence (even, as in Spitzer's case, if the power is aimed at pursuing laudable ends) to feel a deep emptiness and loneliness that is not addressed by friends or spouse, and hence to seek some kind of outside connection no matter how superficial that is not bound by previous rules and roles. Nevertheless, I and many others in the religious and spiritual world oppose that practice when it involves adultery or prostitution, because it depends on the objectification of another human being, so that sex is disconnected in ways that it should not be from a significant encounter with the spirit of God in the other or a deep recognition that is the only real way to overcome existential or situational alienation.

Moreover, the trade in women for sexual purposes has frequently led to rape and abuse and the kidnapping of young women who are sold into sexual slavery. All of these outrageous practices are abhorrent and should be challenged. The flaunting of sexuality in the media, and the implicit message that the only real satisfaction comes from having the most physically attractive people as sexual partners, not only generates huge dissatisfaction even as it allows corporate advertise to become predators manipulating our personal sense of inadequacy to sell their products, but also generates desires that feed the sexual trade in women. Given this larger social context, until sexual satisfaction is so broadly available in our society that no one has to pay for it and so deeply tied to love that no one is objectified in the process, this kind of exploitation of women and degradation of sex is likely to continue. All of these practices foster the sexual predators of the contemporary world.

So Elliot Spitzer deserves to be critiqued and ought to be doing deep atonement for what he did. His previous moral arrogance and willingness when he had power to do so to prosecute others for their participation in creating prostitution rings makes him an easy target. We, in turn, might practice the forgiveness that our religious and spiritual traditions preach, particularly those of us who have been willing to honeslty face how flawed we ourselves are, and how at times we ourselves fail to embody in our actual practice with others the values that we publicly espouse. Humility and compassion are also part of the path of a spiritual progressive.

But the intensity of the critique of the N.Y. governor, tied with the demand that he resign, shows more about American society's ethical perversity than about Spitzer.

The President of the U.S. and the Vice President, working in concert with several other high ranking officers of our government, lied and distorted to get us involved in a war that has led to the death of over a million Iraqis, the displacement of 3 million more, the death of 4,000 Americans and the wounding of tens of thousands more. After token opposition in Congress, our elected representatives have overwhelmingly passed budgets funding this war, rather than refuse to fund any military projects until the President stopped the war and withdrew the troops.

Meanwhile, our government has overtly engaged in torture, wiretapping of our phones, and violation of our human rights and the rights of people around the world. Senator Diane Feinstein and Senator Charles Schumer votes to confirm as Attonrey General a right-wing judge who refused to repudiate these crimes.

The U.S. government has rejected every attempt to implement the Kyoto environmental agreements or to work out new agreements sufficiently strong to reverse environmental destruction that is certain to lead to new levels of flooding particularly in several poor countries around the world. The consequence: tens of millions of deaths.

The Clinton Administration pushed, along with corporate support, a set of trade agreements that have devastated the farmers of many developing countries, forcing many off their farms and into city slums where their daughters and sons are often sold into sexual slavery. The global economic system we have fostered has led to increasing gaps between the rich and the poor, so that over one out of every three people on the planet lives on less than $2 a day, 1.5 billion live on less than one dollar a day, and over 15,000 children die every day from malnutrition-related diseases and inadequate availability of medicine that is hoarded by the rich countries who can afford the prices made to ensure huge profits to the pharmaceutical industry.

Health insurance companies and private medical profiteers are doing all they can to ensure that there will be no health care for tens of millions of Americans, unless that is provided in ways that guarantee corporate super-profits and thereby guarantee that the cost of health care paid through taxes will be huge and create anger at all government social welfare and well-being programs, leading to their likely de-funding.
People in the US have faced severe economic crises on a regional and soon on a national level because corporations move their centers of production to countries in Asia where they can exploit workers with less government or union interference and where they can destroy the environment with less societal restraints. Wild to achieve greater profits, corporations and the rich have managed to support politicians who lower the taxes on the rich, in the process bankrupting the public sector or severely reducing its ability to provide enough funds for quality education, health care, libraries, public transportation, and social welfare.

That there is no outcry for these government officials and corporate leaders to resign immediately or be impeached, that there is no moral outrage at the entire system that produces this impact, is America's ethical perversity. Instead, the only crime against humanity that the media takes seriously and the politicians fear is being exposed for personal sexual immorality. While everyone basks in their own self-righteous demands on Spitzer, we all allow media and elected officials to fundamentally distort our ethical vision and play out our morality on the smallest of possible stages while ignoring the global and personal consequences of our larger ethical failures.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine <> , Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives <> , rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, and author of The Left Hand of God. He welcomes comments at

If you agree with this perspective, call your local media and ask that it be presented alongside the mainstream views. And help us continue to provide alternative analyses by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives ( and urging your friends to do so as well!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sexism! Still a Force in American Politics

The quest for the Democratic nomination continues to ebb and flow as the two rivals struggle to gain an edge. Senator Clinton was presumed to be the front runner prior to the Iowa Caucuses, but Senator Obama won that state impressively. Then Senator Clinton came back to win the New Hampshire primary and looked poised for a sweep on Super Tuesday. The sweep turned out to be more of a draw and launched Senator Obama on to a string of eleven straight primary or caucus victories from South Carolina to Wisconsin from Washington to Vermont. Once more he seemed on the crest of victory. The super delegates who had been pledged to Senator Clinton began to waver and defect. No one smells blood better than a politician. The pundits were now sure that he would wrap up the nomination on March 4. It was, however, not to be as Senator Clinton roared back dramatically, scoring impressive victories in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island. Next Senator Obama won a caucus in Wyoming and a primary in Mississippi to regain his frontrunner position, but he did not win so decisively that he was able to clinch the nomination. So the struggle now moves on to the key state of Pennsylvania in which Senator Clinton, according to the polls, stands poised to make her third comeback of this primary season.

Beneath the excitement of what is surely the most interesting political contest in recent memory, there is another dynamic, always present, but seldom talked about. Two debilitating prejudices, sexism and racism, are in this political process being routed from their dwelling places deep in the psyches of our citizenry. Both have had long histories in the Western Christian world. Racism, the more overt and obvious of the two prejudices, was once protected by the laws of this nation, but it has had its back broken first by the bloodiest war in our nation's history and second by a rising consciousness that found expression in the relentless pressure of the Supreme Court. Sexism on the other hand penetrated the culture in an almost assumed way that seemed to many to be appropriate, even proper. Even though sexism was also protected by the laws of this nation it was always more subtle and its evil less recognized. While no one would seriously argue today that racism in this society is dead, it is recognized at once when it rears its ugly head, while sexism is still widely supported in high places, including an obvious presence in the official statements of organized religion. Many church leaders continue to use a version of the "separate but equal" argument that has no credibility at all when applied in a racial context. No one in the political arena would dare to make an overtly racist comment, but overtly sexist comments have not been absent from this campaign. History tells us that while racism is crueler, sexism is more difficult to root out. Remember that this nation gave the vote to black men many years before it was given to white women. Data from this political season still points to the fact that sexism continues to be less recognized in the body politic than racism.

Senator Clinton, who had been first defined nationally as the "First Lady," had to establish her professional competence apart from her husband. She did this by winning a seat in the United States Senate, by mastering the intricacies of that most exclusive of clubs, by gaining the respect of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and by avoiding the spotlight of the media while doing her unglamorous homework. Her constituents in New York responded to these efforts and rewarded her with election to a second term by an astonishing 64% majority. Senator Obama, on the other hand, had been in the Senate for only two years when he announced his intention to seek the presidency. This is not to say that he is without significant credentials. He was an impressive student in law school, being chosen to be editor of the Harvard Law Review, an honor that goes only to Harvard Law School's top student. He taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago's Law School for ten years, during which time he was elected to and served in the State Senate of Illinois. Those accomplishments are not to be minimized, but it is to say that no woman with a resume as brief as that of Senator Obama would have been taken seriously as a presidential candidate. A woman still has to be twice as impressive to be viewed as equal. That is an expression of sexism.

Hillary Clinton also had to carry the baggage of her husband in a way that no male politician has ever had to do. She is colored by the foibles of her husband's administration. His negatives became her negatives. She wanted to keep her maiden name, Rodham, but political pressure on Bill Clinton after he lost the governor's office in Arkansas forced her to become Hillary Rodham Clinton. The loss of her own identity, a reality that women have had to live with for centuries, has played a significant role in this campaign when people, defining Hillary as a Clinton, realized that in the elections of 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 there had either been a Bush or a Clinton on the presidential ballot. She was thus identified with the Clinton politics of yesterday, not the Rodham politics of tomorrow. She was implicated in what came to be called the Whitewater Affair, which was investigated endlessly and finally dismissed, yet its odor seems to cling to her. When the Clintons left the White House in 2001 charges were made about the Clintons removing things that were not theirs. These charges turned out to be nothing more than political attacks and were demonstrated to be false; nonetheless the stain on her integrity remained. When Hillary Clinton was cast in the role of violated wife in the sordid Lewinsky affair, she could not win. She was criticized by some for refusing to leave her husband and by others for standing by her man. None of these things would have been the fate of a male politician. Sexism was clearly operating below the surface.

In 1972 when Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to seek the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidency, she carried with her candidacy the impact of both racism and sexism. It is interesting to note that she said overcoming her status as a woman was always more difficult than overcoming her status as an African-American. That was an indication that even long ago racism was more overt and easily identified in the public arena than was sexism. In support of that thesis, I cite the following data from this campaign.

When Bill Clinton played the race card in the South Carolina primary, it backfired because people, aware of racism, were embarrassed by it. The sexist rhetoric that commentators let forth on Hillary Clinton, however, did not receive a similar rebuke in the Court of Public Opinion. Carl Bernstein on live national television referred to Hillary's "thick ankles" and Tucker Carlson, an MSNBC conservative talking head, observed that "every time I get near Hillary Clinton I feel castrated." Those were weird sexist comments, saying more about both Bernstein and Carlson than they did about Senator Clinton, but the point is that no female reporter could have gotten away with describing Governor Huckabee's legs or with saying, "Every time I am in the presence of Mitt Romney, I feel like I am going to be raped!"

A male radio host for Station KOA in Denver, Colorado, wondered on a live national network whether Chelsea Clinton "was going to wind up with a big posterior like that of her mother." Can anyone imagine such a statement being made about a son of John Edwards? When a woman in a political gathering asked John McCain how he was going to "beat the bitch," he knew to whom the question applied and proceeded to answer it without unloading its hostility. McCain later, however, rebuked a right wing radio host when he spoke of Senator Obama in a derogatory racist manner.

Another radio talk show host accused a cable news channel of overreacting by suspending one of its political reporters, who had wondered aloud on national television "if the Clintons were pimping out their daughter as a campaign presence." Is that not sexism?

Senator Clinton also had the distinction of being the only candidate to be called "the anti-Christ" by a member of the religious right. That was, I believe, a sign of misplaced sexist rage. Why would not the three times married, admitted adulterer, Mayor of New York, whose children will not speak to him because of his treatment of their mother, be a candidate for that title? Yet he was spared this ultimate religious slander.

Many people quite clearly still carry unconscious fears about a powerful woman. Look at the way Sandra Day O'Connor was negatively described by all of the Republican candidates except John McCain. Look at the number done on Geraldine Ferraro when she was the vice presidential nominee. Look at how Margaret Thatcher developed the aura of autocratic masculinity to win in Great Britain and how British male pride was displayed when they described her "as a man wearing a skirt." Maybe no one ever forgets those years in our lives when we were helpless dependent infants being cared for by that seemingly all powerful woman we called mother. Maybe the fear of being made dependent again on a strong woman is still buried in our psyche. Maybe our sexist, male-oriented society, which still holds to the primary definition of a woman as a sex object, creates an unconscious difficulty in our ability to relate to women in a position of ultimate authority. Maybe women, who were taught how important it is to please a man to get ahead, were also threatened by her potential power. Perhaps that is why there have always been more "Aunt Jemimas" in the women's movement than there were "Uncle Toms" in the black movement. There is much about which we can speculate, but the fact of which we are certain is that sexist barriers are still potent and that Hillary Clinton, is the current victim.

People uncomfortable about this charge reply, "I am not opposed to women, only to this woman." However, this woman was the only one who has battled to the place where she has a real shot at the presidency and, in the final analysis, she has not yet won a normal portion of the white male vote while she has consistently lost,, never the majority, but a substantial part of the female vote to her opponent. Hillary Clinton may or may not become our next president. That is yet to be decided. What is clear, however, is that she has taken some of the sexist poison out of the body politic by absorbing it. That will make it possible if she fails in this quest for another woman in another day to climb to the top of the hill.

I am drawn to Hillary Clinton's ability and to her intelligence. I admire the integrity and independence of John McCain. I am excited about the vision of a potential Obama presidency. I hope, however, that I will live long enough to see my nation and this world be able to celebrate the full humanity and the equal competence of women.

John Shelby Spong

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