It is now Fifty years to the day that I stood outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, NY, and listened through the open door of a local taxi cab to the news on the cabbie’s radio. I heard that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, but there was no confirmation of his condition. After a time I proceeded, with some of the group with whom I had been in conference, to an Ithaca landmark where we heard of the death of our President. I was a young Episcopal clergyman - 25 years old -- married with one 4-month-old daughter.
I suppose the greatest single effect upon me personally of that event and its aftermath, was the fact that I went from being a Republican who had voted for Nixon in 1960 to being a confirmed and dedicated liberal progressive. From that day forward, I have been a registered Democrat, a backer of liberal and progressive causes, and a man devoted to, what I consider, extremely important values. I will not bore you further with personal reminiscences (unless they fit the narrative), but permit me to put forth some of those values for your consideration.
1) I believe in government as the protector, defender and advocate for all of us, but mostly for those who are the most vulnerable in our society. I believe that government embodies a political and social compact or contract that we are interconnected as people, and that we have a mutual responsibility to enable government (and the private sector) to act with “malice toward none and charity toward all.”
I have difficulty knowing how we got from this simple value to one that regards government as an enemy, as a usurper of power, as a denier of rights and liberty; as a great Satan. But then, I remind myself that such viewpoints have been around since the pre-revolutionary days simply because distrust of the English government in the colonies was at fever pitch. That fever has lasted and every once in awhile - as in the Civil War -- it breaks out into unhealthy modes that intend to destroy central government power once again. We are living in the midst of one of those times. We are engaged in another civil war, living in a country embattled on the political and social front, but not yet on the battlefield. We, as a people, are being challenged by the negativity of the Far Right that wants to destroy most of the power of national government in favor of returning power to state governments and private enterprise, believing that will increase our freedom, our liberties, our prosperity and our strength as a nation.
However, the motives of humankind are never that pure. At the base of this belief about government as the enemy is another belief that secretively holds that power must reside with those who are successful, meaning they own property, have a lot of money, the best education, and who are mainly white, Protestant and European in ancestry. They are elitists who have little place in their value system for people of color, people of another language, or people who must depend on the rest of society for some support in life. The elitists have no use for free-loaders or the irresponsible or those who do not control their own destinies. The elitists call the “others” by various names, many of which we cannot use outright here: the “n” word, lazy, irresponsible, trash, free-loaders, undeserving, unwashed, uneducated.
Their narrow view of the “worthy” of society mirrors their view of government for they see government as working to preserve what they believe and cherish and hold dear, not what anyone else values, because the “others” don’t count. Indeed, that is why they have initiated the movement within so many states to deny the vote to some of these “other” constituencies, not just because the others tend to vote a Democratic ticket, but because the elite see those voters as being not worthy of the vote!
On the other hand, the value that I have enunciated above, leads to a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Our form of “representative democracy” should embody those words in all that it does, but it often fails to do so. And when it does fail, you can wager that the simple value at the foundation of “representative democracy” has been forgotten or denied -- that all the people must be protected, defended, and provided for, not just ones we choose over others.
What goes into making such a democracy? Well, let’s start with a new citizen, either born or naturalized. What do we want for all of them, and what should they have a right to from the moment of their birth as citizens of this great country?
2) The right to speak out and to vote must not be infringed, but protected and expanded.
All those rights in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution must be protected by a strong central government. To take one of those rights (2nd amendment right to own guns, for example) and to place it in opposition (or in higher priority) to the others is, at its core, a denial of the Constitution. For example, to encourage passage of “stand your ground laws” that result in denial of the right of someone to be in a particular spot at a particular time is fundamentally a denial of his or her first amendment rights. To deny the will of 2/3s of people polled, and to block legislation they favor-- such as limiting the sales of guns to minors, to persons with mental illness, or to felons; expanding background checks for gun sales; limiting the number of rounds in an ammo clip -- is to potentially deny other persons their voice and their right to life and happiness, and to deny them their right to petition their government and their right to be fairly represented.
The Supreme Court (and other district) rulings of late have done much to undermine this fundamental value. They have allowed elections to be fully undermined or compromised by money from unknown corporations and individuals in unaccounted amounts. They have upheld “stand your ground” laws, as well as laws that limit affirmative action or which gut the voting rights act. It is well known that this Court jumps to the tune of the NRA, the Radical Right and big corporations, but it is not in favor of the rights of the “others.” When was the last time that this Court found in favor of the little guy? When they allowed the mandates of the Affordable Care Act? Maybe so, but they upheld it on the basis of a tax and not on the basis of a mandate, or better yet, a universal right.
This conservative Court has begun to tear down, in conjunction with this Congress, the fundamental principal or value that government is a blind-folded (impartial) protector, defender and advocate for all who need help in making a meaningful life for themselves.
The fundamental issue for me is not about restriction but about expansion. When will we see a reform of the electoral process so that big money does not tilt elections? When will we have non-partisan commissions drawing new congressional (and other) district lines ? When will we restrict lobbying activities and anonymous gifts to office-holders? When will we allow people to register and to vote in less restrictive ways, such as voting in different designated places within a specific time-frame rather than on just one weekday? Can we encrypt voting to such an extent that we will ever allow voting online? How about the Immigration and Naturalization department being made responsible for helping new citizens to understand and take advantage of the voting process? There is so much we could do to expand voting rights and voting itself that it boggles the mind that the concern of the Right-wing is to restrict that right (on the basis of voting ‘fraud’ which is unsubstantiated).
3) That new child, and that new citizen through naturalization, should have given to them at their point of entry to that status, a number of special insurances reserved to the citizens of this great country.
I want every new citizen to be given:
Ø guaranteed health care for life; with government as the single payer
Ø a guaranteed public education, including college or vocational school
Ø guaranteed access to nutritious food every day of life
Ø guaranteed access to adequate shelter during times of special need or times of crisis
Ø available jobs and job training sponsored by the public and private sectors together
Ø a guaranteed government-sponsored pension (Social Security) with built-in COLAs
I can hear the cries of outrage already! Where is all the money coming from to support those wild (“socialistic, communist-inspired, foolish“) ideas? It comes, first of all, from right where it should emanate -- the tax system. But, as I have indicated, the private sector has to also be a partner in these endeavors. It is only right that private corporations and businesses give back to citizens who are consumers of their goods, and who continue to put money into the coffers of all for-profit entities.
A balanced and fair tax system, with the rich paying their fair share, will be able to support this program of American values without a lot of strain, as long as three things hold true: 1) the rich must pay their fair share; 2) tax loopholes (which have made our tax system the largest source of welfare spending for the rich!), and not merely deductions, must be closed along with tax giveaways for rich corporations and individuals, and 3) those receiving benefits (including the rich and the poor), insofar as they are able, should be giving back to their community in some manner, either through established work locations, worship centers or service organizations.
Someone is bound to bring up that old saw about leaving the rich alone because they earned their wealth and their success; “the others” of the lesser classes should not be encouraged to believe they are “entitled” to any of it. I am immediately reminded that England and most of our European neighbors at one time or another in their histories had similar class elitism (and some still do) holding them back from building a viable middle class which could improve the effectiveness and prosperity of their economic and social engines. For a group so concerned about resources, it is amazing how the elitists miss one of the most important points about resource management: inventors, entrepreneurs, catalysts, leaders, change agents, etc. exist in all classes. Holding back others while advancing one’s own elite class, overwhelmingly restricts the pool of talent and resources and does not benefit the society as a whole. In fact, so many resources are lost by this attitude that an upper crust is created; but “crustiness” is not the sign of a vibrant society.
But what about the “cheaters?” Oh yes, those cheaters; they seem to be everywhere-- like in the financial firms and the banks and the big retail stores and government contractors, and other large corporations! So I would say in answer: let’s get rid of the corporate cheaters and scam artists who waste billions of dollars of taxpayer money, and then let’s go after the penny-ante thieves on food stamps or Medicaid that make off with a few thousand. Perspective is a wonderful thing! However, in spite of my sarcasm, I do admit that we can do a better job of government oversight of all contracts and programs (something I have spoken of before) -- including the use of ordinary citizens to advise, evaluate and even audit, the use of taxpayer money in every entity of government, including the Supreme Court!
4) I want government that is looking toward the future, always seeking to better our concept of government for the people, and to envision hope for a better nation and a better world.
In other words, government cannot limit itself just to solving and resolving current problems and crises. We must have the kind of government JFK brought to bear: a government that looks to the future and says “let us land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.” We need a government that can look at a vulnerable population and ask what can we do to advance their lives. We need a government that has a vision of the future and begins to act upon that vision, not just for ourselves but for the world at large. We need a vision of hope like the Peace Corps.
We tend to make terrible decisions when we only look backward rather than forward; when we emphasize keeping the status quo rather than expanding our horizons; when we say we don’t have the money to fix our infrastructure or to find a cure for auto-immune diseases. We have always found the money for advances in military weapons systems; can we not do the same for research into disease? One of the terrible decisions we are now making is to ignore climate change. Not only do the negative detractors say that science cannot show that carbon emissions are affecting the climate, they believe that we can increase our use of fossil fuels, believing that profit from oil and gas drilled off-shore and in federal reserve lands is the way to advance our economy.
Climate change is all about the future, and the necessity of developing new technologies to find alternate sources of energy and to find efficient ways to deliver that energy to homes and businesses; innovation is what future orientation is all about. It doesn’t really matter if you believe the science, although that’s risky. It matters that we ask ourselves: what does the future demand? It demands innovation, efficiency and progress in the area of energy and energy delivery. Oil and water are two of the earth’s resources that are not expanding. Just on economical grounds, we need to find an alternative method for extracting natural gas, for instance. We need more electric cars. We must innovate or we will fall behind the other developed countries and end up begging for resources from a country like China or Russia.
But finally, I want to come back to where I started. JFK inspired me personally to change my political orientation and to accept what had been brewing in my life for awhile: a vision of the world seen through the prism of progressivism. Without delving further into what that has involved, let me talk with you briefly about something that has meant a great deal to me in my work life, and that is the concept of community service. I have spent my whole working life dedicated to that value and concept and now my retirement has also moved in that direction.
Overtime, the concept of the Peace Corps developed into a myriad of community and national service programs and activities under government sponsorship. In 1972, I went to work for a Community Action agency and became something of a community organizer along the lines followed by our current President. The concept of community service to solve societal problems by paid and un-paid volunteers is something that is not supported by everyone, but it goes to the heart of who we are as a nation. That’s what the Peace Corps concept was all about. We as a nation place a value on helping others, on teaching others to help themselves, on helping others find in themselves qualities that had not been acknowledged or recognized. We value the concepts of support, companionship, building relationships and strengthening communities. We respond positively to the idea of making some sacrifice in order to give something to others because we know what it means to enjoy so many of life’s benefits in this country.
So where are we today? The Peace Corps is not the bright light it was back then. AmeriCorps and VISTA and Points of Light have all faded in their brilliance and in their effect. The Senior Corps is still active, but we don’t have a Nancy Reagan writing a book about one of them! Yet here we are in the midst of a recession that has hurt so many people. Here we are in a desperate situation that tries our patience because Congress will not act to address real problems of the present or the future.
I have written to the White House encouraging the President and his staff to think about the importance of providing a Vision of Hope in a situation where austerity seems to be our only thought. We need a new Vision, something like a call for a Domestic Action Corps, or maybe a new “Rebuilding America” Corps (or call it something else like the ‘Hope Brigade,’ or ‘Americans In Action’ or even “Organizing for America’) and fold into it all those Corporation for National and Community Service programs, like AmericaCorps and the Senior Corps programs. Its Mission could be simple: to provide a conduit for American citizens to give back to their country and communities some of their own talents, experience and hope in order to enhance and rebuild institutions, and to support community efforts to aid those (still) struggling with their economic and social problems.
Or, going in another direction, how about establishing a Movement dedicated to expansion of certain fundamental rights - like voting rights, civil rights, health care, minimum wage, social security benefits, number of college graduations, number of members of minorities going to college, amount of electricity being delivered to homes and businesses from alternate energy sources, etc. Call it the “New Age of Expansion” and tie-in many ideas for expanding the rights and resources available to ordinary Americans. What a vision that would make!
Can a Movement that captures the imagination of the American people again be done? It can, and it should. The nay-saying Republicans have captured headlines long enough. Let us show them that American volunteers, old & young, paid and unpaid, can be utilized to do what they will never do - resolve problems, prepare for the future, provide opportunities for work that are meaningful because of the needs being addressed. Let us once again call our people to ask that fundamental question: what can I do for my country?