Friday, March 30, 2018

Changing Hearts and Minds

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.
                     —MARK TWAIN

The first argument my husband and I ever had was over voting. He wasn’t registered. Didn’t see the point. It was kind of a deal-breaker for me. Long story short, he joined the electoral rolls and canceled out my vote for the next 20 years. Be careful what you wish for.

Russell Means at Wounded Knee, 1973
Lately, I wish I didn’t take politics so seriously. Sleep and conversations at parties would be so much easier. I blame my mother, who indoctrinated me into activism at an early age. She wouldn’t remember it that way—we lived a peaceful life in a quiet Midwestern town—but she believed in exposing her children to alternative points of view. She often took us to lectures at local colleges, which sounds boring, but changed my way of looking at the world.

The first speaker I remember was Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux activist who championed the American Indian Movement. Among many protests, he led the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee. He was a tall, impressive man with long, black braids—like the Indians I’d seen on TV, only much, much angrier. When he talked about poverty and despair on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and his vow to “get in the white man’s face until he gives me and my people our just due,” I was right there with him, shaking my fist. It didn’t occur to me that my face was white.

Dick Gregory and Muhammad Ali, 1968
Then there was Dick Gregory, a stand-up comedian who used his fame to fight for civil rights. He’d just finished a hunger strike and was gaunt, weak on his feet, but there he stood in front of an audience of middle-class Ohioans, making us understand that the American Dream was not the same for all people. This will sound trite, but as a kid who never missed a meal, I remember being awed that someone could believe in a cause so much, he’d be willing to starve for it.

That’s how you inspire change—by changing the minds of people who don’t know any different.

Kent State University, May 4, 1970
Growing up in the Sixties, protest was a way of life. Civil rights, women’s rights—someone was always burning something. I thought going to college meant demonstrating against the war, because that’s what I saw students doing on the nightly news. My mom was in grad school at Kent State when four students were shot and killed by the National Guard. Speaking truth to power could have deadly consequences. I remember hearing an adult say, “They got what they asked for,” and it terrified me. These kids, not much older than I was, were asking the government not to send any more of their friends to die in Vietnam. Why were they traitors? In solidarity, I dressed up as a hippie for Halloween, with a big peace sign on my shirt. A few years later, the Nixon Administration went down in flames, and there was nothing left to burn.

Senators Baker and Ervin, Watergate Hearings, 1973
Watergate was a different kind of war. Senate hearings, indictments, talk of impeachment—it’s hard to imagine the chaos of those years. We wondered if the country would survive. I was too young to vote, so it was easy to blame the people in charge, who seemed to be in denial. In the summer of 1973, we all sat down to watch the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, a reality show on PBS that had record-breaking ratings. Senators Sam Ervin and Howard Baker became my heroes. They stood up to a lying, corrupt president and brought him down, not with a coup, but with legislative procedures and the rule of law. These two fine men, who took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” were true to their word.

Atty. Gen. Kimberlé Williams & her staff with
Ohio Atty. Gen. William J. Brown, Girls State, 1976
So that’s how I became a political nerd. It wasn’t until my high school sent me to Girls State that I really understood how the system worked. Imagine hundreds of 17-year-old girls on a college campus, setting up their own government—running for office, forming coalitions, passing laws and enforcing them. Crazy, right? But there we were, from school board to governor, doing our jobs. Government wasn’t just some nameless, faceless entity—it was people like us, trying to make a difference. Many of the young women I met that week went on to careers in public service. My friend in the dorm, who ran for Attorney General, invited me to join her staff. We got to meet her real counterpart at the Ohio Statehouse. Today, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a civil rights advocate and law professor at UCLA and Columbia Law School. She’s out there fighting every day to make the world a better place.

25,00 people at the March for Our Lives in Orlando
That’s what we all want, right? To build a better world for ourselves and our families? It’s just the definitions we argue about. Your definition of safety may be different from mine. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong—it just means we have to find a compromise. To do that, we have to listen to each other, as painful as that may be. Here’s what I learned in a made-up legislative session at 17 years old: No matter how good your intentions, or how great your cause, if you can’t persuade others to join you, you’re dead in the water.

A friend recently said, “Politics isn’t my thing,” as if he didn’t care whether the police come when he calls 911, or how much he’ll pay in property taxes, or whether his son and daughter will be drafted into war. Every one of those decisions will be made by an elected official. We take our government for granted, except to complain about it. One of the silver linings of the 2016 election is that a record number of women—nearly 34,000—have filed to run for office across the country. Maybe we’ll finally get something done.

Protest, register to vote, call or write your representative, contact Emily’s List to start your own campaign—these are all rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Be a patriot and get involved. Research the issues yourself—don’t let a web site or TV station tell you what to believe. If I sound too strident, well, that ship has already sailed. As my husband will tell you, I’m not kidding around.