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“An Acknowledgment Of Where We’ve Been”: Tubman’s Twenty Moves Us Closer To A More Perfect Union

The journey toward a more perfect union was quickened with the announcement that Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, Union spy and activist for women’s suffrage, will grace the front of the $20 bill. The Tubman twenty will be unveiled in 2020, timed to honor the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

She will be the first woman on U.S. paper currency in more than a century and the first black American ever. That a black woman who was born a slave will be given such a prominent commemoration is a testament to American exceptionalism, a reminder of the nation’s slow and erratic but continuing march toward a more just version of itself.

Not all Americans see it that way, of course. Some are already grumbling about the demotion of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, to the back of the bill. (Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren has called the change “stupid.”) Others insist that the Treasury has simply caved to an ill-conceived political correctness. (Donald Trump claims that’s the case.) A few will venture commentary that has no place in polite society.

Indeed, the announcement of a revamped and more-inclusive currency comes at a fascinating time in our politics, a time when a sizable portion of the electorate is roiled by anger, agitation and fear. While some of that anxiety has its roots in economic uncertainty, much of it — especially among the supporters of Trump’s presidential bid — has its foundation in a deep-seated resentment of the nation’s changing demographics.

It’s no accident that Trump — who is among the “birthers” who insist President Barack Obama is not an American — leads the Republican presidential field while denouncing Mexican immigrants and denigrating Muslims. There is a substantial minority of white American voters who are threatened by the loss of numerical advantage, furious over the election of a black president, and resentful of the growing racial and ethnic diversity in American life.

Trump and his supporters have dominated the political narrative in this election season and ignited a civil war inside the Republican Party. They have panicked the Republican establishment. They have set off alarm bells in faraway capitals.

Yet, the racially intolerant are losing the battle for primacy in the American story. They no longer dominate the nation’s culture or mythology, as the changes in the currency illustrate.

Last year, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew invited the public to comment on his decision to recast a paper bill to feature a woman. Of the 15 women suggested by the activist group Women on 20s, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks, Tubman received the most votes.

A genuine American hero, she deserves the honor. As a young woman, she escaped the Maryland plantation that had enslaved her, and then made several trips back to assist others. Over a little more than a decade, she helped around 70 enslaved men and women find their way to freedom, traveling by night, using ingenious disguises and employing the hideouts established by the Underground Railroad.

She became an outspoken advocate for abolition, and when the Civil War broke out, she worked first as a cook and a nurse, and later as a scout and spy for the Union Army. After the war ended, she moved to a home she had purchased in upstate New York and campaigned for women’s suffrage.

Giving her prominence on the $20 bill forces the nation to acknowledge its original sin, slavery, as does demoting Jackson, a slaveowner. An accurate history further notes that the seventh president was notorious for his brutal treatment of native Americans, whom he forcibly removed from their lands. From now on, it will be difficult for history texts to ignore Tubman or to venerate Jackson.

Lew plans other changes, as well. A depiction of a 1913 march for women’s suffrage will be added to the back of the $10 bill, as will portraits of leaders of that movement. Images of Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt will be added to the back of the $5 bill.

That’s as it should be. The journey toward a more perfect union demands an acknowledgment of where we’ve been.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; Featured Post, The National Memo, April 23, 2016

April 24, 2016 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Harriet Tubman, Women's Suffrage Movement | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Beyond Trump; The Politics Of Courage”: Cracking Open The Locked Vault Of American Politics

If Donald Trump can thrive politically by throwing meat to the American id, what else is possible? How about the opposite?

Trump’s most recent attempt to reclaim poll supremacy — his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what’s going on” — is not simply reckless and dangerous, but also starkly clarifying. America’s bully billionaire, so rich he doesn’t have to heed the niceties of political correctness, is channeling old-time American racism, as mean and ugly and self-righteous as it’s ever been. Jim Crow is still with us. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is still with us.

Americans — at least a certain percentage of them — like their racism straight up, untampered with code language, unmodified by counter-values. Come on! An enemy’s an enemy. A scapegoat’s a scapegoat. Don’t we have the freedom in this country to dehumanize and persecute whomever we want?

The unfolding Trump phenomenon is stunning to behold because there’s no telling how far — or where — it will go. Following his latest reckless “proposals,” which include mandatory IDs for Muslims, he’s being compared with Adolf Hitler. He’s also being called the best friend ISIS could have, as he spreads outrage and hatred across the globe and, in the process, helps foment the same war they’re attempting to engage.

Fascinatingly, some of Trump’s biggest critics are neocons and fellow Republicans, who, though not that far away from him politically, feel threatened by his reckless candor. The conservative strategy, at least since the Nixon era, has been to use and manipulate American racism rather than directly rouse it to a fever pitch. That sort of volatility isn’t so easy to control and could be counterproductive to the economic and geopolitical interests of the stewards of American empire.

For all the baseness of Trump’s scapegoat politics, he’s doing, it seems, one thing right, which is what makes him unacceptable as the Republican presidential nominee. He’s speechifying as though values matter, as though they supersede market and strategic interests. The danger Trump represents cuts in multiple directions.

All of which makes me wonder whether American democracy is, in spite of itself, at a transition point. I mean, it’s been decades, from my point of view, since real, society-changing values have been on the line in a presidential election. Questions of war and peace, among much else, have been utterly off the table, with any serious questioning of U.S. militarism ignored and belittled by the mainstream media and completely excluded from the corridors of national decision-making.

The Republicrats rule and war is no longer merely inevitable but eternal. At the same time, the security state has grown like cancer and the prison-industrial complex has expanded exponentially. America in its exceptionalism is the world’s largest arms dealer, snoop, jailer and hell raiser. We destabilize the planet in the interests of the corporate few and call it exporting democracy.

And none of this is Donald Trump’s doing.

But the fact that he’s a threat to this status quo raises some interesting questions. Trump is a dangerous idiot, but perhaps as he pursues his own interests he is also, unintentionally, helping to crack open the locked vault of American politics.

“He’s essentially the American id,” writes Glenn Greenwald, “simply channeling pervasive sentiments unadorned with the typical diplomatic and PR niceties designed to prettify the prevailing mentality.”

The challenge Trump poses, it seems to me, is this: If the basest of human instincts — fear and revenge and the hunger to blame our troubles on a scapegoat — can enter, or re-enter, American politics, can the best of human nature enter as well and, in the process, challenge the prevailing status quo more deeply and profoundly than Trump could ever imagine?

Let me put it another way. “In the practice of tolerance,” said the Dalai Lama, “one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

Such a statement poses a serious challenge, of course, on the order of a quote I heard several years ago from a seatmate on a transatlantic airplane flight: You’re as close to God as you are to the person you like the least.

What if such ideas had political resonance? What if — even in the face of tragedy, even in the face of murder — we lived within a social and political structure that was committed not to dehumanizing and destroying a designated enemy but to understanding that enemy and, my God, looking inward for the cause of problems, not simply flailing outward with high-tech weaponry? What if human compassion, soul deep and without strings attached, played a role in international relations?

Believe me, I’m not asking these questions simplistically, with some pat belief that the answers are obvious. Rather, I’m pressing forward into a dark unknown, or so it seems.

“It is terrifying that on the one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace,” Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said earlier this year, in the context of a global refugee crisis staggering beyond belief.

To grow spiritually is to begin to realize how little one knows and practice reaching out not with aggression but with humility. This is what takes courage. Can we begin creating nations with this kind of courage, whose “interests” embrace the welfare of the whole planet?

 

By: Robert Koehler, an Award-Winning, Chicago-based Journalist and nationally syndicated writer; The National Memo, December 13, 2015

December 15, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Democracy, Donald Trump, Racism | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Week Of GOP Cowardice And Bigotry”: In Time Of Crisis, Too Many Politicians Feed Fear And Scapegoating”:

In the somber days since ISIS terrorists killed 130 people in coordinated attacks on Paris, elected leaders from around the world have been searching for solutions. But far too many American politicians have fallen back, instead, on that old standby in times of crisis: Stirring up fear and finding someone, anyone, to scapegoat, no matter how unconnected the scapegoated person is with the problem at hand.

Sadly, in Congress that took the form of a House vote to in essence stop the U.S. resettlement of refugees from Iraq and Syria by imposing nearly impossible bureaucratic requirements on what is already the toughest vetting system for anyone seeking entry into the U.S. This bill was scapegoating in its purest form, framing as terrorists people who are fleeing the very violence that this bill was supposedly trying to prevent.

The House vote — in which 47 Democrats joined nearly every Republican — was the culmination of a week of cowardice and bigotry sweeping the political landscape.

There was the Missouri state legislator who urged his governor to watch out for “all flavors” of Muslims and the mayor of Roanoke who invoked the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a positive model for how to treat American Muslims.

And there were the 31 governors who declared that their states would turn away Syrian refugees who go through the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Not wanting to miss out on the action, of course, Republican presidential candidates have been tripping over themselves to outdo one another. Donald Trump has speculated that refugees from Syria “could be one of the great Trojan horses.” Mike Huckabee, in what can’t even be described as a dog-whistle, has told Americans to “wake up and smell the falafel” when it comes to Syrian refugees. Chris Christie said he’d get tough on Syrian orphans. Ted Cruz has suggested that the U.S. only admit Christian refugees from Syria, although how he plans on testing people’s religious faith is unclear. Jeb Bush has hinted at the same thing, saying he would back refugees who can “prove” that they’re Christian, which shows what this is all about. If you have a system that’s strong enough to “prove” someone’s true religion, don’t you think it could also properly vet people for national security purposes? Jeb Bush was supposed to be the mature establishment candidate. So much for that.

These politicians are feeding what a new Public Religion Research Institute poll reports is an “increased xenophobic streak in the American public.” It’s no coincidence that threats against American Muslims have been reported across the country in the days since the Paris attacks.

It is of course reasonable to ask that refugees be vetted — they already are — but if security were the real issue, our current debate wouldn’t be about refugees at all. In fact, if someone were intent on sneaking into America to cause harm, exploiting the refugee resettlement program with its intensive and lengthy screening processes would be the hardest way to do it. No, what is behind the anti-refugee campaign of the Right is not reasonable concerns about security, but something much uglier.

The candidates who are now spewing cynical anti-refugee rhetoric are often the same ones who claim that their opponents don’t believe in “American exceptionalism,” and the movement so willing to embrace explicit anti-Muslim bigotry is the same one constantly telling us that religious freedom is under attack. They seem to have forgotten the vibrant pluralism and commitment to shared values that make us exceptional, and a beacon of freedom to the persecuted, in the first place. Looking back on the history of our country, our best days have been when we opened ourselves to people facing persecution, not the times we turned them away and demonized them. Let’s not let this become the American Way.

 

By: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way; The Blog, The Huffington Post, November 24, 2015

November 27, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Bigotry, House Republicans, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“So Much For American Exceptionalism”: Fear Of Syrian Refugees Brings Ugly Past Incidents To Mind

It didn’t take long for the stampede to start.

By Sunday, even as stunned Parisians were still placing flowers at the sites of the terrorist atrocities that claimed more than a hundred lives and injured hundreds more, a couple of American governors had announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome on their turf.

Within a few days, more than half the nation’s governors had signed on. (Never mind that governors have no authority to control borders.) Republican presidential candidates rushed to keep up, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz pledging a religious test that would admit only Syrian Christians. By Thursday, the House had passed a bill with such stringent vetting standards that it would be virtually impossible to admit any Syrian refugees.

How depressing. Whatever happened to political leadership?

Yes, yes, Americans are shocked and frightened — and understandably so. The savage attacks on unarmed Parisians were carried out by affiliates of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL), which has established a stronghold in Syria, and were calculated to produce horror, to instill fear, to provoke panic. The point of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize.

And since fear is such a powerful emotion — with the capacity to overwhelm reason — it’s no surprise that the American public is now exhibiting a deep reluctance to take in Syrians displaced by war, even though many of them are also targets of ISIL’s brutality. A Bloomberg survey conducted in the wake of the Paris attacks showed that 53 percent of Americans oppose granting asylum to Syrian refugees.

But the proper duty of political leaders is to, well, lead. They shouldn’t pander to our fears or inflame our basest instincts. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many of them chose to do.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, desperate to raise his standing in the GOP presidential race, was more shameful than his rivals: “I don’t think that orphans under 5 should be admitted to the United States at this point.” Even for a governor who prides himself on in-your-face provocations, that’s pretty despicable.

But some pols managed to sink even lower. One Tennessee legislator, Rep. Glen Casada, proposed sending the National Guard to round up any Syrian refugees who’ve been resettled in his state and ship them out. Casada has clearly refused to learn from some disgraceful episodes in the nation’s history.

In 1939, for example, the United States, along with Cuba and Canada, denied entry to more than 900 Jews aboard the MS St. Louis seeking refuge from Nazi Germany. The refugees were forced to return to Europe, where, historians estimate, about a quarter of them later perished in death camps.

As historian Peter Shulman, a professor at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, recently pointed out, antipathy toward European Jews ran high even as the Nazis began their campaign of extermination. He cited a 1938 poll showing that 67 percent of Americans opposed bringing in “German, Austrian and other” political refugees.

The historical comparison isn’t perfect. The U.S. had not fully emerged from the Great Depression, and fear of economic competition was certainly a factor. But so was anti-Semitism — just as an anti-Muslim xenophobia is now. Among some, including President Roosevelt, there was also the suspicion that Nazi agents might be hiding among Jewish refugees. Sound familiar?

The nation’s hysteria didn’t stop with the refusal to aid the Jews aboard the St. Louis. Roosevelt also signed an executive order to round up more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent and hold them in internment camps; 62 percent of them were American citizens, some with sons serving in the U.S. armed forces. Decades later, the U.S. government officially apologized and acknowledged that the camps resulted from, among other things, “race prejudice.”

History, then, offers some powerful lessons about fear and the shameful reactions it can provoke. So let’s all keep our heads.

The Obama administration already has a thorough and painstaking vetting process for Syrian refugees that can take as long as two years. Is it perfect? No, it isn’t. But it sets a high bar for entry while also preserving our ability to assist those who most need our help.

Isn’t that what American exceptionalism is all about?

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, November 21, 2015

November 23, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, GOP Presidential Candidates, Syrian Refugees | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Biden Urges Us To Regain Our Sense Of National Purpose”: The Vice President Struck A Chord Too Long Missing From Our Public Debates

After Joe Biden’s Rose Garden announcement, news reports naturally focused on his decision not to seek the presidency. But the overarching theme of his short address was something more powerful and less political: This is a great country that ought to be more optimistic about its potential, more ambitious in its goals, more confident about its future.

That theme underlay Biden’s clarion call for a “moonshot” to cure cancer. As he noted — “It’s personal,” he said — his grief over the untimely death of his son, Beau Biden, fueled his sense of urgency. The younger Biden, Delaware’s attorney general, died in May at the age of 46, after a long battle with brain cancer.

Still, the vice president struck a chord too long missing from our public debates, too little heard in our partisan warfare: We have the ability to accomplish great things when we summon the will to do so.

“I know we can do this. The president and I have already been working hard on increasing funding for research and development, because there are so many breakthroughs just on the horizon in science and medicine. The things that are just about to happen, we can make them real with an absolute national commitment to end cancer as we know it today. … If I could be anything, I would want to be the president that ended cancer, because it’s possible.”

Whatever happened to that feisty spirit in our civic life? Whatever became of our sense of never-ending achievement, of unbridled national ambition, of great national purpose? Why don’t we reach for the stars anymore?

Instead, we’ve become brittle, limited in our expectations, dour in our outlook, afraid that the nation’s best days have already passed. While the lingering effects of the Great Recession, as well as the global threat of terrorism, have undoubtedly worked to dampen our optimism, history teaches that we’ve faced down more daunting odds before.

Indeed, the long-running Cold War, when the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to the United States, inspired the great space race that led to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The United States poured money into the sciences, down to the high school level. That period of bountiful scientific research benefited not only NASA, but also countless other streams of inquiry — including the pioneering communications work that led to the Internet.

Since the 1970s, though, Congress has slowly drained away money from the sciences, a process that has sped up over the last few years. In their current obsession with reducing federal government spending, GOP budget cutters have hacked away at everything from medical research to space exploration.

Nowadays, Congress can’t even agree to fund things that we know work. While all reasonable people agree that the country needs to repair and rebuild its aging infrastructure — bridges, highways, dams — Congress cannot manage to set aside the funds that are necessary.

During his first presidential campaign, President Obama called for a massive revamping of the nation’s electric grid, a plan to put in place the energy infrastructure for the 21st century. But that’s rarely even discussed anymore.

Instead, a small minority of vociferous partisans holds up routine legislation, such as raising the debt ceiling to pay the bills we’ve already incurred. That’s how a great nation behaves?

It’s not clear that even a massive infusion of research dollars — Biden’s “moonshot” — would lead to a “cure” for cancer. Scientists would likely even debate the use of the phrase, since cancer is not a single disease but rather a group of diseases that share the phenomenon of abnormal cell growth.

Still, Biden’s call for pouring national resources into the search for better treatment options makes sense. When President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon!” our scientists weren’t certain we could do that either. But they dared to dream big dreams. Why don’t we do that anymore?

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Winner for commentary, 2007; The National Memo, October 24, 2015

October 25, 2015 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Joe Biden, Scientific Research | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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