Tag Archives: Civil Rights

Why DOMA is Unconstitutional or America’s Grand Heritage of Egalitarianism

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the third in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first and second posts in the series.

 

Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press), an economic history of the United States, highlights important moments of American egalitarianism. Yes, good ol’ American egalitarianism!

gordon book

In the current age of excess that exuberates in chest-thumping hyper-partisanship and the attitude of winner-take-all, the meaning and sense of egalitarianism seems forgotten. A biblical concept, egalitarianism is the cry of the Israelites wanting freedom from Pharaoh and slavery; we hear echoes of it when the apostle Paul, calling for unity in the nascent Christian community of Galatia, challenges the Galatians’ understanding of entrenched identities, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . .” The word itself comes from the French egal – meaning “equal”but it refers to much more than equal parts or measurements. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of dominance-subordination, or inequality. Egalitarianism is opportunity and access for rich and poor alike. Egalitarianism is blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth.

“What Happened to Egalitarianism?” is the title of the third chapter of my book Just a Little Bit More. I reference anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who studies primates and their social relationships. Boehm looks for interplay between the competing spirits of egalitarianism and winner-take-all in our evolutionary relatives as he investigates the origins of morality in the human family. He speaks of the principle of “reverse dominance hierarchy” as a form of egalitarianism; he witnessed weaker members in a group joining forces to combat the dominance of alpha males.* I call this not survival of the fittest, but survival of the united. Egalitarianism is a sociopolitical phenomenon. A group or community engaged in the struggle for self-determination within a larger community or with a competing community seeks or maintains a sense of equality. The achievements of the civil rights era in the United States are a prime example of the workings of egalitarianism, as is the process that led to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

Gordon knows that America has a grand heritage of egalitarianism, starting with the Boston Tea Party and the revolutionary plea “No taxation without representation.” When Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the divine right of kings (sorry, George III) took a decisive egalitarian kick to the groin from which it has not recovered.** The competitive spirit of winner-take-all is legitimate and necessary, and has benefitted American ingenuity, inventiveness, and innovation. The winner-take-all ploy becomes troublesome, however, when there is no mitigating force to keep its excesses in check. Egalitarianism serves as the mitigating force of winner-take-all (and vice versa, for that matter), ensuring that the values of equality and greater access for the many win out over unmerited privilege for the few.

Here are some other gems in the history of American egalitarianism, according to Gordon:

The Price Tag: John Wannamaker opened the nation’s first department store, Grand Depot, in Philadelphia in 1876. Whereas bartering and haggling dominated the ways of buying and selling prior to this time, Wannamaker believed all people were “equal before price.” He eliminated price breaks and discounts for the connected, favored, and powerful. A religious man, he believed that all as equals before the Creator meant “one price for all.” He was the inventor of the price tag, an egalitarian innovation that revoluti0nized the consumer age.

The Networking of  Utilities – Electricity, Heating, Telephone, and Sewer: It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that more than half of Americans lived in cities. A majority of these urban dwellings were constructed after the turn of the century, enabling the inclusion of indoor plumbing, electricity, heat, and telephone. As Gordon says, “Networking implies equality. Everyone, rich and poor, is plugged into the same electric, water, sewer, gas, and telephone network. The poor may only be able to afford to hook up years after the rich, but eventually they receive the same access” (p. 95). Because of American society’s relative youth, the networking revolution of utilities spread much more quickly than it did in older European societies. (The current tragedy of lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan is a shameful example of inequality in this land where we refer to these utilities as “basic.”)

Radio: Pittsburgh’s first department store, Joseph Horne’s, began to sell amateur wireless sets – radios – for 10 dollars in the fall of 1920. On November 2, 1920, KDKA in Pittsburgh made the first radio broadcast in American history by transmitting election results as Warren Harding defeated James Cox to become the nation’s twenty-ninth president. Twenty years later, 80 percent of American households had radios in their domiciles. (For sake of comparison, only 75 percent of American households today have Internet access.) Gordon says the invention and rapid diffusion of radio was an example of “striking egalitarianism . . . enjoyed equally by the richest baron or poorest street cleaner” (p. 193).

Both forces – cooperative egalitarianism and competitive winner-take-all – are legitimate and inherently American; our society shines best when neither force dominates, but when they hold each other’s excesses in check. Too much egalitarianism stifles drive and creativity; too much winner-take-all produces inequality and accompanying ill effects. In Just a Little Bit More, I argue that our much cherished democracy needs egalitarianism in order to function at its best. American egalitarianism has helped make possible the following: emancipation from slavery, women’s suffrage, the many acheivements of the civil rights era, same sex marriage, and other accomplishments. Egalitarianism is a main driver of social progress in American and beyond. May we continue to lift it up and advocate it.

 

*Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press (1999), pgs. 1-3.

**More than two centuries after Jefferson’s famous formulation, we’re still working on fully living out its implied intention.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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Meeting Taylor Branch

Whenever I buy a book* – new or used – I immediately write my name and the purchase month on the inside cover. I bought Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 when we were living in Houston; I was starting out as a young pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran. I don’t remember exactly how in 1992 I came across Taylor Branch’s exhaustive tome of more than 1,000 pages detailing the crux of the civil rights era. ptwPerhaps I had heard it won the Pulitzer Prize for History, or maybe my ministry colleague Gene Fogt, a bona fide bibliophile, suggested I read it. The book was yet relatively fresh, published in 1988. We were living in Peru in the late ’80s, my seminary internship dictating how I spent the majority of my hours. Seven degrees south of the equator in Chiclayo, Peru, el bendito castellano occupied most of my free brain space, but I was able to do some “catch up” reading on the side – The Brothers Karamozov and Les Miserables, among others. I had always liked to read, but during my adolescent and early adult years, basketball and golf always took precedence over reading. I played some basketball in Peru for a city team, but didn’t touch a golf club for two years. I started to do a lot of reading on internship, and I continued to read extensively as we made it back to the States.

Once I started reading Parting the Waters, my focus did not waver. During the summer of ’92 all my free time dissipated into ardent observation of Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Septima Clark, John Lewis, Robert Moses, and the many other characters that forged the transformative movement. I was mesmerized; the reading filled me in on a part of my life that I had somehow missed. Born in the last week of 1961, growing up in the mostly white northwest suburbs of Chicago – yes, I missed it. When MLK was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, I was all of six years of age. I don’t remember my parents saying anything to me about it. I certainly don’t blame them.

Parting the Waters, its Exodus imagery trumpeted, is unequivocally one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not only did it provide crucial historical tb sigdetails of the 20th century’s most formative events, it further shaped my understanding of ministry and vocation. People of faith, working together, can influence and even change society in accordance with a sense of what is understood to be God’s justice and love. The shackles can be broken – imagine that. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long and it does bend toward justice.

Taylor Branch had more to tell; a second book was titled Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. I remember waiting and waiting for it to come out. Not until 1998, ten years after the first, did the second volume of the promised trilogy see the light of day. I purchased Pillar immediately upon its release, but didn’t read it until 2001. It was as if I had waited too long for dinner and my hunger had passed. There was other stuff I was reading, our three kids commanded plenty of attention, and I was once again playing an occasional round of golf. Once I started to read Pillar, I remember feeling that Branch was like a juggler trying to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. There were so many details and threads of the story in the years ’63-’65: Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Malcom X, J. Edgar Hoover, the Klan, King’s Nobel Prize, Selma – just to mention a few. A very busy narrative, its primary focus no longer locked onto King. Pillar was good, but it couldn’t match Parting the Waters. No book ever has.

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, found Branch back on stride. Published in 2006, the final volume of the trilogy recaptured its focus on King with gripping narrative and historical detail, especially as it highlighted the crucial work of the backbone organizations of the civil rights movement – CORE, SNCC, and King’s own SCLC. I read Canaan in the spring of 2007; as with Parting the Waters, I could hardly put it down.

Another ritual to my book reading habit is to record the date that I finish reading a book on the inside back cover. It was with joy and regret that I wrote 5/18/07 alongside my initials when I finished reading Canaan. Joy for the story told and its teaching message; regret that there was no more to read.

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tb and tcI met Taylor Branch in April 2015 after a lecture he gave at the University of Texas. The topic of the lecture covered his 2011 piece in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports.” The Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism speaker rearticulated his conviction that students who play sports at major universities (such as the University of Texas) need to be compensated financially. According to Branch, it’s a power issue. At the big-time colleges, administrators and coaches are paid extravagantly, which helps perpetuate a hierarchy where students are essentially powerless. I recommend reading the article if you haven’t – it’s conveniently hyperlinked above.

Branch provided good information for those of us interested in book reading, writing, and publishing. Writing was not his vocational goal after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1968, but, nonetheless, he started working as a staff journalist for magazine publishers (Esquire and Harper’s) to pay the bills. Before long, he fancied himself a god-honest writer. He wanted to write books. He did some ghostwriting – for Watergate convict John Dean and basketball legend Bill Russell – but labored under the impression that real writers are novelists. In 1981 he produced his novel The Empire Blues. He said, in full self-deprecation mode, that “it sold all of 500 copies.”

He then procured a contract to produce a history of the civil rights movement and its era. The procurement wasn’t easy, and the contract was only for three years. Consequently, Branch did some other writing projects to keep himself and his family fed. Six years of research and writing finally came to fruition when Parting the Waters received stellar reviews and won Branch the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History. Eighteen more years of research and writing would be required for Branch to finish out the landmark trilogy.

My three aforementioned kids are now adults. In the process of their college educations, I came up with the idea to present them some books, crucially important to me, that I hope would help shape their understanding of the world. Each of them receives the three same books, and then one or two books additionally as befits their particular personality and interests. Parting the Waters is the first book on the list that each of them receives; Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything complete the top three list.

I enjoyed visiting with Taylor Branch after the lecture. He was kind enough to inscribe my original copy of Parting the Waters and to receive a copy of my own Just a Little Bit More, posing for a picture to boot. American in the King Years is one set of many books that have influenced my thinking and inspired me to write JaLBM. Branch is a talented historian and journalist, but he’s gifted as a theologian as well. “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” (from the preface of Parting the Waters).

 

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

 

*I do own a Kindle and enjoy reading ebooks; Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was the first ebook I read on my Kindle. I thought I’d start with something light and short. Ahem. Read my review here.

A sidelight: I also met Frank Deford at the same event, the legendary journalist of Sports Illustrated and NPR fame. The University of Texas holds his archival writings, and presents the Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism annually. I told him I always try to catch his NPR Morning Edition commentary on Wednesdays, which he has been doing since 1980. He has two and a half minutes by which to get his message across. I told him those pieces are like mini-sermons; he thought about that and said, “You’re right.” Keep preaching, Frank!

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