Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Does Democracy Look Like?

This latest blogpost was taken from a collection of tweets I rattled off in the immediate aftermath of the Arizona shootings. Due to the number of responses I received, and after some careful thought, I compiled my tweets (and a few responses) into an essay of sorts. I’ve edited the tweets as I thought was necessary and also cited some of my “Twitterfolk” in this piece. I look forward to hearing any comments you may have.

With the recent shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I ask the question, “What does democracy look like?” We tend to think of America as the bastion for this system of government, a true personification of the Greek dÄ“mokratia. It is easy believe in the myth of “American exceptionalism” this notion that we are unlike any other nation before or after us. Thus, as the protectors of this system, our government historically has been the champion of making the world safe for democracy. That in mind, an even better question, posed by @NvrComfortable was, “What does our democracy look like?” That is something to consider. What does American democracy look like? At this moment we need to seriously analyze our so-called democratic republic. When fear mongering, ignorance, and hate are allowed to fester like a diseased wound, there are disastrous consequences for us all. When faced with a tragedy such as the Arizona shooting, it tends to bring out all the fringe aspects of our political culture who unfortunately hold even more fervently to warped ideologies of hate afterwards.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords pleaded with her fellow Americans in March of 2010 after her offices were attacked in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s really important that we focus on the fact that we have a democratic process, “ she explained. We need to remember that. Now, six people have lost their lives and twelve others have been injured. This was not the time to start spewing more incendiary rhetoric, as some have. That is how we got into this mess in the first place. This is not a Left or Right issue, it is in fact an American one. We need to understand that this is serious. People have lost their lives, and for what?

Some, like @vast_lyte, optimistically urged those of us who speak out to “Stay the course...compassion and sympathy even for a lost life will bring out even the weakest of wolves to try and feast.” Others bear witness to these events through mediums that have always provided an outlet for our frustration and collective pain—art. In this case, music was the art form. I was reminded by Professor Will Boone (@afroblew), of Jay-Z’s “So Ambitious” lyrics, “How many guys u see make it from here/they don’t like us, is that not clear?” Yes, “they” don’t like “us”. “They” are the small minded and willfully ignorant. The “us” are those who love justice and have the capacity to speak for the voiceless. The latter must be able to ensure that we have meaningful discourse, and not let virulent points of view force us into the shadows of our national political dialogue. We must embrace our differences and find places that illustrate our common bonds. On December 18, 2008, President Barack Obama explained why he selected Pastor Rick Warren participate in his inauguration. He mentioned that although they did not see eye to eye on certain social issues, “we have to be able to create an atmosphere were we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.”

During the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombings, President Clinton asserted, “The words we use really do matter…There’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike.” Now a congresswoman has been shot. I agree with blogger @AverageBro, who stated, “I don’t care what side of the political/ideological line you reside on, there’s NEVER any reason to kill anyone.”

I wish we demanded as much accountability from the purveyors of fear, ignorance, and hate in politics as we do hip-hop artists and athletes. When we live in a society where a coward like Tucker Carlson can say that although he’s a Christian, he wishes that NFL star quarterback, Michael Vick, should have been executed for his crimes against animals, there is a problem. In a pitiful attempt to explain his comments Carlson said he “overspoke.” That is about as empty as any time he’s tried to provide political analysis on television. When we speak about hip-hop artists, when isn’t there a time where we begin to hold them accountable? Pick any popular artist and I’ll show someone who is upset that they have not taken responsibility with the art they create.

Do you hear Dr. King’s words of caution from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech? I do. In the beginning of that historic address, King repeats the slogan of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, “A Time Comes When Silence is betrayal.” King said that it inspired him to speak out against the greatest purveyor in the world that he knew—the American government. In that same spirit, we can no longer can sit by idly and wait for the mainstream media, bloggers, or even someone on social media like Twitter to speak out against hate filled socio-political rhetoric. I use the term “socio-political” because truly the words we use affect not only our political culture, but the social fabric of the democracy as well. The time to speak out against those who recklessly use their bully pulpits was yesterday.

Democracy only works when we ALL participate. There is no final victory in democracy. Never. Yet we continue to forget that. Particularly when you are part of the dispossessed population, freedom is a constant struggle. If you don’t believe me ask those men, women and children that marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

Dr. King warned us in 1967, and especially in 1968, that people of ill will use time to their advantage. Folks of goodwill get pacified thinking, “We won!” It is a mistake to think in such a way. Contemporarily, we need to look no further to the election of President Obama for an example of misguided thoughts about “victory.” Yes, it is a great win, but there is still work to be done. King implored, “We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

The Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor, the greatest living Christian preacher, once told me that “we cannot control our circumstances, but we are called upon to respond—that, we can control.” The time to respond is at this very moment. The immediacy of now is that those persons of good will must act in a way that is sustainable and empowering.

Even me writing right now, and you reading my words, only fills part of the void. We talk about the work that needs to be done and only few respond. That will not work. Don’t be fooled by those who say they “marched with King” or “were beside Brother Malcolm.” One of my mentors always says, "If all those people were really with them as they claim, they would still be with us today." It is always easy to say what you would have done, or to make martyrs and political heroes of the dead. We must move beyond that. There must be a demonstration of our collective frustration and anger that can be manifested in building coalitions. I’m not talking about a rally on the mall with a comedian and a group of musical artists of goodwill (not that there is anything wrong with that), but to deal with this problem and many others it is going to take much more effort.

I guess I’m really talking about movement. A movement of artists, intellectuals, teachers, lawyers, students, working-class folk, everyone who claims to love this nation, needs to show that America is not solely defined by an extremist group of political and religious fundamentalists, but real folk raising families and living their lives.I’m speaking to those folks that are hardworking and committed to living in a place where they are not governed by fear (private/public)…a place where folks are allowed to express themselves freely and not at the expense of someone else’s dignity.

To be clear, I’m not trying to conjure up the rhetoric of utopianism, but I am speaking of a nation that values its citizens collective humanity—that respects our histories, no matter how tragic they are…a nation that doesn't replace "nigger" for "slave” in an attempt to erase or sanitize its history. The nation that I am referencing explains and values our context.

We need to break away from this antiquated notion of the “American Dream.” I live an American reality. I don't want a damn 2300 sq ft house, a dog, a nice lawn, etc. All that was a fairy tale we were sold over the past three generations that is built on the devil of debt. I don't need 2.5 kids and a "good job”! My America is a place where there is a respect for our humanity and the communal nature that has sustained this planet long before any of us were born. The evils of materialism, racism, and militarism were once thought to be the biggest threats to our democracy.

We could also add sexism, homophobia, and countless other 'isms' to that list. They each have fragmented this country into hatred and confusion in every state. Add to this volatile mix an uncertain economy and you have a recipe for socio-political disaster. Those of us who know and understand what is happening to the nation tend to be more concerned with the new sale at the Gap, than a missing black girl, like Phylicia Barnes and why she is not getting that “Natalee Holloway” type of coverage.

My America is better than any of this. My America sees color and values it. It sees gender and celebrates it. It sees sexuality and respects it. We must decide and decide now, what kind of nation we want. Very soon there will be no warnings. No MLK speech to read. No twitterfeed to inspire us. No Youtube link to reference. No rally to attend. No book to read. We must transform and do it now, starting with self. I'm not saying we have to all sit and agree...I hope we never all just "agree" on everything. A nation thrives when there is a range of opinion and thought.

We must be able to have discourse. The value of human kind is our diversity of experience and out actions that speak to that experience. Our ability to think and think critically is what separates us from "beasts of the field". However, in our current state some of us act like lower level beings. We tend to be more like wild dogs. 

We are not wild animals. However, when those of us choose to engage in behaviors that are analogous to feral monsters we must speak out and act. Ultimately, America will be what we make it. I emphasize the “we” in this context. Coveting the “I-ness” of individuality does more to destroy society and we must reclaim the “we-ness” in order to preserve this union. If we allow the actions of a few destroy this nation that is our collective fault.

As much as I critique this nation...as much as its history angers me...I refuse to give up. I hope you won't either. Let our thoughts and prayers be with Rep. Giffords and the other families affected by this horrific tragedy.


Devona said...

Wow. Very well-said and articulated. I happened to stumble on your blog from another blogging site. I appreciate this, especially at a time when it seems as if anyone and everyone has an opinion on and about something. However, people do not respect boundaries. I think it is the percieved notion of anonymity of the internet. People believe they can say whatever they want without any consequences for their actions.

Anonymous said...

Sensitive issues raised here. They are very fundamental not just to America, but to the world at large especially where we practise the American kind of democrazy where the fundamental human rights are held with delicate sacredness. World over has always seen the american system as a model for others and it would a pathetic irony for american to be seen otherwise! I believe in america, and 'togetherness' they say 'makes a nation to stand'

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