Speak Out About Free Speech

Last Sunday, in Alexandria, Virginia, the closing hymn at the Baptist church I attended with my daughter made a powerful point. “I promise my words will not harm you,” the choir and congregation sung. “I promise my words will do you no harm.”

There’s a huge push right now to value free speech above the words we use, to honor what some feel is a constitutional right that words have to inflict pain. But mainly, the battle over free speech is thought to be a side show, secondary and insignificant, overshadowed by the budget and program fights over safety net services, and by the distractions over education in the states, where unprecedented school closings and new standards, some which consider race, point to a looming fall crisis. Add reproductive rights for women, healthcare, food safety, global conflicts, and free speech seems an abstract issue, but it’s not.

Each of the issues of politics, and every political decision, is a transaction of speech. From the myth that ambulatory centers and government-mandated vaginal probes benefit women’s health, to the insults and shame Texas’ Rick Perry and others have used to silence and denigrate women, to the 30-second commercials pandering to the worst fears of the uninformed about health care, to the Supreme Court’s rulings on voting rights and same sex marriage benefits, to the Zimmerman trial about the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, every issue of politics and justice engages and touches free speech.

Free speech isn’t a stand-alone right like property ownership. It is a transactional right; one at the center of every decision and law. Through free speech, we put on display our values and actions, our personalities and beliefs, our best logic, our anger and comfort and intent.

I wish Maury Povich began his show with the Alfred Street Baptist Church anthem, “My words will do you no harm.” But more, I wish political leaders took the same pledge. Free speech is more central to democracy than taxes. In fact, the “no tax” pledge is an example of the effectiveness of speech!

But that pledge, and many others, broke the edict of no harm. Routinely, the moral imperative of “do no harm,” at the center of peace and prosperity, is ignored for greed and political gain. Continue reading Speak Out About Free Speech

Remember Caution Is a Prerequisite of Success

I love history because I feel it. Others enjoy a kiss or music, great art; history flows deep in my soul with its own compass of beauty. My challenge is to wander outside of language’s cages and find how we are bound to freedom, for history is always about the drama of freedom. Barack Obama’s re-election is one of freedom’s greatest moments. I loved it. But every wisdom tradition warns that in the shadows of great moments are dangers and obstacles throbbing and alive with their losing gasp.

I congratulate the President—and the country—but I am going to write about the dangers swept up in that great moment; the dangers, though defeated and diminished, that are a threat to the freedom that I love. History shows dangers, after being pummeled, return redoubled. If dangers are not guarded against, the great moments of history become a pinnacle of achievement rather than a base camp for building greater success. And in the great success and jubilation of celebrating the re-election of Barack Obama with the support of states from east to west (and maybe south!), mighty danger lurks.

In a country where men and women from Kenya were captured, shipped and sold as property at public auctions and stripped of legal and personal rights, denied even the right to marry by Christian ministers and church elders, made into forced labor, compelled to accept forcible rape upon their women, our President, a descendant of Kenya, was told by an immigrant, speaking as his opponent’s surrogate, that he needed “to learn to be an American.”  That immigrant overlooked that the sons and daughters of Africa know all too well and have learned too deeply what America means. The danger in the casual denial of his words hints at the old auctions, except the descendants are increasingly being marginalized. Their worth extracted, they are floss. The old story is still written in the wastes of higher unemployment, lower incomes, in communities overrun with crime, violence, and dropouts.

These communities must return to their history of self-help, established within the communities created by the auction block, communities that honored marriage and deeply embedded a self-love unbroken by violence and words, a self-love whose self-worth was tied to its ethics and pride in education, work and achievement. The African-American community need be painfully aware of the dangers that stand in front of its destiny, blocking its progress, subtly attempting to change its inner truth.  At the moment of the highest achievement by one of its improbable sons, it stands on the precipice of imploding doom.

An irony of last night’s success is that women were the prime group in re-electing a man. In state after state, the President’s margin depended on women voters. His opponent narrowly tried to isolate employment as a single issue for women voters, as his party isolated women as a group. Not just jobs; health care is primarily economic. The Republican resistance to Obamacare is not to health, but to costs, or how the payment and revenues are directed. Before Obamacare, virtually every state had higher costs for women, with giant holes in coverage related to women, on reproduction and illness that affected women at a higher incidence than men. In many ways, women are the driver’s of the national balance sheet; Walmart has woefully exploited their skills, other women have sold them out, some buy into an ideology that marginalizes them, many miss the global picture, and more struggle with poverty. Continue reading Remember Caution Is a Prerequisite of Success