Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bob Herbert:: The Refusal to Submit Quietly and a Better Place

If op-ed columnists were ice cream flavors, Bob Herbert would be my rocky road, pistachio almond, and lemon ice all rolled into one: my three favorite flavors. I have long devoured every word of his I can get my hands on, and as a teacher and academic administrator, I circulated articles of his with such avidity that I suspect the recipients of his work eventually became thoroughly tired of reading it.

Bob Herbert speaks what this blog’s subtitle calls “truth that needs to be spoken, but never gets told.” He tells the kind of plain truth that few journalists these days seem capable of telling—the plain truth that reaches to the heart of the matter and transforms our understanding of it.

There is, in other words, a profound moral sensibility at the heart of Bob Herbert’s journalism, which is sorely needed in our current media. I suspect this moral sensibility has much to do with his experience as an African-American man in a racist nation. It has to do, too, with his relentless commitment to solidarity with all groups that are oppressed.

Mr. Herbert’s “Savor the Moment” column in today’s NY Times hits me between the eyes. He speaks of our need to celebrate the historic event that has happened this week—the nomination of a person of color to the presidency of the U.S (

But, in doing so, Mr. Herbert reminds us, we also have an obligation to remember and celebrate those countless millions of courageous human beings who have helped open the door for Mr. Obama. These are those who kept on demanding justice in the face of outrageously oppressive forces—forces that had the command of the law and could and would use it ruthlessly to have workers demanding better wages beaten by police, or to have fire-station hoses and dogs turned onto crowds of African-American youths asking for the right to be served at a “white” lunch counter.

As my students in HBCUs have always said to me, Lady Justice has that blindfold on only when she thinks we’re not looking. Wave some green bills in front of her, and it comes off quickly.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about my education in the aberrant ways of “justice” as I came of age in the household of an attorney who ran several times for judgeships. I quickly learned, as a boy, that judges have biases. I learned to my chagrin when my father ran for judgeships that candidates for such positions are capable of striking deals with the devils, when—on one occasion—he took me to a place where I later discovered he had secretly met with the Klan to ask for its support.

My parents’ circle of friends as I grew up included many judges. I knew these folks to have penchants and preferences, including, in most cases, deep-rooted ties to churches. Those ties had everything to do with many judicial decisions these judges made, even when the decisions could not (in my view) be justified morally or legally—except that they were legal, because those making the decisions represented those who owned the law.

In my adult life, I have tangled with one such judge, in the years in which I served as my mother’s guardian. My complaints about her biased treatment of me did not result in any disciplinary action against her. I have reason to think that they did, however—and I say this with an admitted smidgeon of pride—result in a heightened awareness at the level of the state judicial disciplinary commission of how gay citizens are often treated by the court in Arkansas. This year, the commission has issued a new disciplinary code for judges that prohibits expressions of discrimination by judges on the ground of sexual orientation.

When I began my battle with this judge, I was warned time and again that I would not win. Friends told me you can’t fight the court. The judge is an African-American woman with very strong ties to the leadership of many black churches in Arkansas. Her homophobia is rooted in her beliefs.

I knew that I was fighting a losing battle. One doesn't fight the churches, any more than one fights the judiciary. But that did not stop me from fighting. It did not stop me from fighting because I also knew that I had right on my side. What this judge did to me was morally wrong, if legally permissible. I was determined to speak out over and over, no matter how many people sought to silence me, in the hope that someone, somewhere, would listen, and it would be just a tiny bit harder for the court system in my state ever again to mistreat a gay son or daughter caring for an aged parent in his/her final years of life.

And eventually I made inroads . . . .

(This is not to deny that many, many judges and courts do their work without prejudice. It is to recognize, though, that more frequently than should be the case, judges can be swayed by considerations beyond fair application of the law—and that has been perhaps all too common in the American South over the course of history.)

This dynamic of keeping on keeping is what Bob Herbert addresses in his column today—the dynamic about which Labi Sifre sings:

The more you refuse to hear my voice
The louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho
Your lies will come tumbling.

We citizens of the world who want to build a more humane society must never allow our voices to fall silent, even when those threatening us appear to have all the power in the world on their side: wealth, institutional privilege, high titles, the command of the court and the police, the appearance of having the church on their side.

The more those who want us silenced rely on this kind of worldly power, the more they undermine their claim to have moral right on their side. If they are in the right, why do they need to resort to oppressive techniques to silence those who call for open, free dialogue, for the free flow of information? Why do they not wish to bring the questions they seek to suppress into the public forum, for fair-minded citizens to discuss in the kind of open forum that is essential to the health of a democratic society?

We must speak out. We must continue speaking out.

There are already ominous signs, as the election gears up, that those with the power to oppress—and I include here the churches, many of them, unfortunately—will use that power to the hilt to try to silence those calling for transformational change in our society. I have heard in the last several days of someone who blogs frequently about progressive social issues receiving threatening emails seeking to shut his blog down. The emails include threats of physical violence against him.

I have a friend who has had the police threaten him—with no basis at all!—because of something he has written calling churches to accountability for their inhumanity to gay human beings. These bullying tactics, this misuse of the law to try to curb free speech, is part of a wider dynamic in our society today, in which our civil liberties have been so radically eroded under the current administration, that even the churches will apparently avail themselves of their “right” under law to try to stop open discussion of their behavior—especially as it concerns gay human beings.

As Bob Herbert says in today’s column,

So a victory lap is in order. Not for Senator Obama (he still has a way to go), but for all those in every station in life who ever refused to submit quietly to hatred and oppression. They led us to a better place.

From Thoreau to Sojourner Truth, from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, from Helen Prejean to Harvey Milk: the journey to a better place begins when those told to shut up and accept the way things are, since we are powerless in the face of money, unjust manipulation of the law, the clout of the churches—whatever—refuse to shut up.

And keep on speaking out, claiming our right to do so as a human right.

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