This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life. I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Happy New Year, Ruthie —by Jinny Batterson
Diminutive giant of the judiciary,
We mourn your passing,
Even as we celebrate
Your life and legacy.
You left us at the
Beginning of the Sabbath,
At the beginning of
In Jewish tradition,
The celebration of a
New creation, of a New Year.
Those of us still on
This earthly plane
Will have a lot of work
To do later, but for now,
Grieving, rest, restoration,
Plus a heartfelt wish:
Happy New Year, Ruthie!
Goodwill —by Jinny Batterson
In business dealings,
Intangible assets in excess of
The value of bricks and mortar,
In Christmas carols,
What the angels sing of
At the birth of Jesus.
In this conflicted age,
An improbable hope that
Something good will emerge
From this global pandemic:
Our acknowledgment that
Human life is uncertain
And that all life is connected.
What Difference Can a Letter Make? —by Jinny Batterson
Of late the future of the United States Postal Service seems in doubt. Congressional hearings are being held. The recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has defended his changes in service levels as attempts to streamline the post office’s business practices. Others have questioned whether the changes he is implementing undermine vital services, including a crucial pandemic-era method for casting ballots—by mail.
I’m a fan of the postal service. It’s provided a lifeline, especially during periods when I’ve resided outside the United States. Then, the postal service provided the surest way for me to interact with family and friends back home. Internet access might be spotty or absent, phone lines might go down in earthquakes or other natural disasters, but the mail nearly always got through.
Today, August 26, many in the U.S. celebrate Women’s Equality Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution for women’s suffrage: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Many of us know the story of the letter that made a difference in the suffrage fight—a six-page handwritten missive from a widowed mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County, Tennessee. After hearing a scathing denunciation of the amendment by one of her son’s legislative mentors, Febb Burn was moved to include a gentle rebuttal in her letter, nestled among descriptions of doings on the family farm. She closed with a suggestion, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt…(a longtime suffragist).” When Burn broke a previous tie in the Tennessee legislature to support suffrage, others at first thought he’d made a mistake. He had not. He’d opted for conscience and the advice of his mother over political expedience in his heavily conservative district. (For a lengthier account, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/history/tennessee-19-amendment-letter-harry-burn-mother-febb/ ).
My family has a different letter that made a difference. It was written by an Army corporal serving in Germany. My uncle, John Voris, loved learning. He described in his letter that he’d sent a big batch of books home, and hoped for a new shipment soon. “About the books, … I try to keep one or two about me all the time. You see that four years in the army represents a big hole in your life. I try to keep studying and reading so that I can salvage some of these years, in part at least.”
Much of the November, 1944 letter describes his prior campaigns and the bronze star he’d just been awarded. What made and makes the letter special is that it was received by his family at about the same time as the telegram informing them that he had been killed in action. While the letter couldn’t bring John back, it helped assuage their grief. His younger sister, a printer, had the letter typeset and distributed. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Along with a few pictures, it’s all we have to remind us of an idealistic young soldier who didn’t live to see the next peacetime.
The Febb Burn letter is now displayed in a museum. Most family mementoes have a less illustrious place, but they are still special. Our emails, tweets and instagram posts are not likely to replace them. So take the time to write a postal letter to someone you care about. Maybe write to the Postmaster General, too. Letters make a difference.
Using Tools Wisely —by Jinny Batterson
My parents, long dead now, got most of their early schooling in relatively sparse classrooms. My dad attended grades one through seven in a two-room schoolhouse that was still standing, if derelict, when I was a child. On one of our Sunday afternoon rambles in the family station wagon, we stopped to see it. The wooden structure, built on raised posts, was set in a grove of trees at the edge of a small country road. Its door had a padlock, but, with a boost from Dad, we could look in through a couple of windows whose glass had long been missing. Only a few benches remained inside. Gone was the blackboard where Dad said students had practiced their sums and letters. Near the center of the structure on the floor was a metal platform. Dad explained that the platform had partially protected the rest of the structure from the potbellied stove (now also gone) that had provided the school’s only heat. Feeding wood into the stove had been a job reserved for the teacher or for responsible older students, since errors could result in either too little heat or a bad fire.
Much of what our parents shared with us from their early schooling were poems or essays they remembered having read in their texts all those years ago. The memorization tasks they set for us may have been a partial 1950’s equivalent to some of today’s at home “virtual learning.” They’d ask us to learn, then recite from memory, some of their favorite poems, like Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” about Mudville’s baseball team and its famed but ill-fated slugger. Somewhat more somberly, they introduced us to the Klondike gold rush via Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
The old schoolhouse selection that has come back to me most often lately, though, is an adaption of Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation on Roast Pig.” The adapted essay was likely an entry in one of the “graded readers” that both my dad and my mom learned from. (A Gutenberg project link to Charles Lamb’s entire essay can be found at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43566/43566-h/43566-h.htm. )
According to Lamb’s account, likely neither true nor fact checked, roast pig first arose as a result of a house fire. A Chinese peasant had left his careless son in charge of the family homestead while he ran some errands. The son accidentally spread some sparks onto a bale of straw that then set the whole house ablaze. The building, a relatively insubstantial hut akin to the straw or stick houses built by the first or second of the “Three Little Pigs,” burned completely to the ground. Poking around amid the rubble, the son noticed a delicious aroma, and eventually determined that it was coming from the skin and flesh of a piglet, one of several who had been unfortunate collateral damage in the fire. After he tasted it, the son wolfed down the rest of the scorched creature. By the time his father arrived back on the scene, he’d started to devour a second piglet. The son avoided punishment by introducing his father to the roast delicacy—a huge improvement on the raw meat, grains, and vegetables that had previously made up the peasants’ diet. It took a while before the peasantry adjusted their practices so that roast pigs could be obtained without pyromania. Taming fire, using it wisely, was and is an ongoing effort.
You can likely see where I’m going with this. Our burgeoning online environment has spawned some of the same excesses as the pyromania that, per Lamb’s essay, originally attended roast pigs. We hear almost daily about “tweet storms” and various distortions, half-truths, conspiracy theories and blatant lies circulating on the internet. The “world wide web” has proved to be a hugely important adjunct to many of our former ways of communicating, but it is susceptible to abuses that, unchecked, can burn down more than houses. Can we in time figure out ways to enjoy our virtual “roast pigs” more safely and wisely?
Valuing Connections, Finding Joy —by Jinny Batterson
The corona virus pandemic has impacted every nation on earth, few more severely than the United States of America, which has rarely seemed less united. Many of us, especially if we are older, have mostly hunkered down in physical isolation at home (assuming we have a home), venturing out rarely, masked and sanitized, for shopping or medical appointments. It’s easy to feel disconnected.
An American friend who’s widely traveled and now makes her home in France sent me a link to a lengthy article by Colombian-Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. His early August 2020 commentary is titled “The Unraveling of America,” and includes this quotation:
“In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.” (You can read the entire article at https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/?fbclid=IwAR1STn3hp2VywUqvGxjPpSUqMItAGBnF7oEPorxsZ1OeUZERQbrTpSHEe78.)
Some of us Americans are still involved in blaming each other for the mess we currently find ourselves in. Some are foolishly conflating “freedom” with the license to spread harm via a tiny airborne pathogen none of us can see. Some, though, are also remembering glimmers of our underlying interconnectedness, even while physical distancing remains an important tool for reducing the spread of illness, misery, and death.
Earlier today, I attended this week’s “Friday Action Parking Lot” event at our mostly distanced congregation, a sort of modified “tailgate party.” Since March, Sunday services and most weekday meetings have gone virtual, but we’ve adapted some of our sharing practices to fit our changed circumstances. Before the pandemic, we participated, along with other religious groups and non-profits, in various feeding and affordable housing programs. Hosting an in-person group luncheon is no longer practical, but food still needs to be provided. Lengthy in-person visits to affordable housing complexes are not advisable, either, but families whose children may soon continue “virtual” schooling in apartments lacking air conditioning could really use donated portable fans. Each week a virtual call goes out via email for items especially needed—this week, in addition to fans, there was a premium on face masks and reusable grocery bags.
If few in our congregation are among the wealthiest, few are destitute, either. It’s important to maintain connections with others who may be economically challenged at the moment, for a whole host of reasons. One of the strongest is that we are all inevitably interconnected, so generosity helps maintain health and brings joy.
Recently I picked up some books ordered online from my favorite local bookshop, which now has “book take-out.” As I’d ordered a different book by a favorite author, another book he’d co-authored came up as a possible selection: The Book of Joy. The title was especially appealing. Once I got my treasures home, I found the book jacket cover of two famous octogenarians broadly smiling at each other worth the price of the book all by itself. Created from notes and insights garnered during an in-person 2015 meeting between Desmond Tutu, retired Archbishop of South Africa and convener of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Tensin Gyatso, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy chronicles some of these two Nobel Peace Laureates struggles along the way to developing abiding senses of joy. It examines “eight pillars of joy:” perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and, finally, generosity.
Tutu speaks from his religious tradition about the importance of generosity: “I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way … you give and it then seems in fact you are making space for more to be given to you.”
“And there is a very physical example. The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. …And we are made much that way, too. I mean, we receive and we must give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.”
Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined —by Jinny Batterson
My early upbringing stressed that I was “white,” as opposed to a few “black” students who began when I was in fifth grade to attend the same Maryland public elementary school I did. Whiteness has benefited me in many ways. For much of my life, it has also partially blinded me to the violence and discrimination visited on those who are “not white.”
As I’ve aged, the whole notion of “whiteness” has become suspect. Much of the history I was earlier taught “whitewashed” the impact of enslavement and supported the myth of white supremacy, upholding both slavery and its more contemporary descendants—Jim Crow, mass incarceration, jingoism, xenophobia, disenfranchisement.
Partway through my work life, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of years in an African country, as junior member of a project supporting small-scale local consumer cooperatives. I noticed that my African colleagues and neighbors were generally darker skinned than most African-Americans I encountered while living in the United States. Once I returned to the U.S., I was advised by an African-American neighbor that most people who self-identify as “black” in the U.S. have at least some “white” ancestry.
That got me to thinking. For much of my work life, I lived in central Virginia. The history I’d been taught as a child idolized Thomas Jefferson among the founders of our republic—author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, President of the United States. Several times I made a pilgrimage to Jefferson’s “retirement” home of Monticello just outside Charlottesville. Little of the story of Monticello as it was then told related to Jefferson’s position as a slave holder. Over time, I began to read and learn more about the seamier side of a slavery-based economy. A few years ago, long after I’d left Virginia, an exhibit was mounted describing the life of Sally Hemings, who in addition to being enslaved, was likely the mother of several of Jefferson’s children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/us/sally-hemings-exhibit-monticello.html). The exact nature and complexity of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship remains controversial, but it’s fairly well established that Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson’s white wife, Martha Skelton Jefferson, and that after Martha died, Jefferson and Hemings were involved in some sort of relationship for several decades.
Jefferson and other white men whose historical contributions I’d been taught to venerate may very well have been engaged in non-consensual sexual relations with enslaved black women. Might I have African-American cousins who were the result of some of my white male ancestors raping their female slaves? It seems not entirely unlikely, though difficult to prove. An African-American friend recently explained that genealogy in black families is hard to do, because record keeping was skimpy and generally did not include enough information to fully identify an enslaved person.
“Most of us can’t go back further than a couple of generations,” he said.
By contrast, the most thoroughly documented part of my northern European ancestry traces back a dozen generations to the Dutch tavern keeper who late in life resettled in what was then New Amsterdam, along with several of his adult children. Other parts of my lineage are less clear. Some of my Scots-Irish ancestors were likely outlaws, fleeing across the Atlantic to escape retribution. One of my Southern great-grandfathers (in a family with long generations) was born in South Carolina in 1820. By the time my maternal grandfather was born near Carthage, Mississippi in 1869, his family were former slaveholders. I remember my “Pop-pop” as a white-haired old man who spat tobacco juice out the back porch door and hated his ill-fitting false teeth. I remember stories retold to me by my mother of how frightening he’d found it as a small child to live in a Mississippi home that also billeted federal troops.
During the 2020 election season, there’s speculation that an African-American woman will be named as a vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. Certainly, there are many highly qualified African-American women politicians—Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago; Kamala Harris, U.S. senator from California; Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta; Stacy Abrams, voting rights advocate and former Georgia legislator—to name a few. The challenges faced and overcome by such women have helped forge a strength that most of us “white” women have rarely had to summon. The mythology long fed to “white women,” especially in the American South, that white men were needed to “protect the sanctity of white womanhood” was hypocritical at best, if not deliberately misleading and damaging.
A white woman of my parents’ generation, Anne Braden, whose work I recently discovered, put it eloquently. In the early 1950’s, after reporting on the execution of a black man, Willie McGee, for the supposed rape of a white woman, Braden wrote:
“I believe that no white woman reared in the South or perhaps anywhere else in this racist country can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls – absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white – absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.”
The work of freeing ourselves of preconceptions and misconceptions is the work of all. However, in this era of divisiveness and government sanctioned disinformation, it is especially the work of “white” women. May we dedicate ourselves to continuing this work.
Of Loaves, Fishes, and Miracles —by Jinny Batterson
One of the earliest Bible stories ever read to me was an account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I remember thinking how special it was that thousands of people could be fed from only a few loaves of bread and a few fish. My knowledge of Biblical lore is not as deep as I’d like, but I’ve recently revisited Biblical loaves and fishes stories, of which there are at least six (Matthew 14, Matthew 15, Mark 6, Mark 8, Luke 9, John 6). Online sources explain that the miracle of loaves and fishes is one of few mentioned in all four Gospels. In all the stories’ variations, Jesus interacts with his disciples, with a spiritual force to whom he gives thanks, and with large crowds. Literalist interpretations stress how many baskets of leftovers were collected at the end of the meal. More metaphorical explanations of the miracles concentrate on the possibility that it was not Jesus’ direct intervention that multiplied the available food, but his unleashing the generosity of members of the crowds who had enough food to share.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about loaves and fishes stories, as the global covid-19 pandemic spotlights and sometimes worsens inequities in our access to material resources. I’ve been reading the words of former Congressman John Lewis, a champion of principled action and societal equity. I’ve been marveling at the life of this man who was so often told that there was not enough, that HE was not enough, but persevered to blaze a path of non-violent protest and public service. I’ve been thinking, too, about a woman colleague from a couple of generations ago and the lessons she imparted to her daughter.
I’ll call my former colleague Susan. Susan was a single mother. She’d struggled hard to provide a decent living for herself and her daughter. Susan never talked about the child’s father. I never asked. They lived in a very conservative neighborhood. Despite disapproving looks and hurtful comments, Susan insisted on taking her daughter to church and to Sunday school. Over time, Susan saved up enough to provide a summer trip to Disney World, every young princess’s dream. Planning the trip was almost as fun as the actual event. Once Susan returned to work, she was full of stories about the marvelous rides, about the great service at the hotel where they’d stayed, about how thrilled her daughter had been to meet Mickey Mouse.
“Do you have any special memory that stands out?” I asked her one day.
After a pause, she told me, “Actually, it wasn’t a ride itself, but something that happened while we were waiting to get into one of the most popular attractions. It was a hot day, and I decided to spend a little extra money to get my daughter a popsicle—nothing fancy, just one of those water ice contraptions with two sticks. When I next looked at my daughter, she’d broken the popsicle in half and given a piece to the little boy in front of us. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I didn’t say anything. The line moved fast, and we all enjoyed the ride. That night at the hotel, I asked my daughter why she’d done what she did—didn’t she like the popsicle?”
“It’s not that,” she told me, “but I could see that the little boy was just as hot as I was. I remembered my Bible school lesson—‘Jesus wants us to share.’”
Taking a Media Sabbath —by Jinny Batterson
In Judeo-Christian traditions, we are taught to “honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” According to the strictest interpretations, that means on every seventh day abstaining from all sorts of work and some of our usual daily activities, taking time instead to focus on spiritual growth. The term is related to a longer interval, a “sabbatical,” a seventh year widely observed in academic settings when professors and researchers take an extended break from their standard duties to pursue alternate studies and to recharge.
The use of a day of prayer is not limited to Christian or Jewish traditions, though, and can have political overtones. In British-controlled India in 1919, a set of repressive new laws were passed giving the British government authority to arrest anyone suspected of “terrorist activity” and to detain them for up to two years without trial. Other laws simultaneously broadened police powers to conduct searches without warrants and curbed press freedoms. When the most egregious law, commonly called the Rowlatt Act, went into effect, opposition figure Mohandas Gandhi proposed that the entire country observe a hartal, a day of fasting, prayer, and abstention from physical labor, in protest. The response was overwhelming–on April 6, 1919, millions of Indians simply did not go to work, and for twenty-four hours (agonizing hours for the British) India simply ground to a halt. (https://www.sparknotes.com/biography/gandhi/section7/) After continuing protests, the Rowlatt Act was repealed in 1922.
As internet use has spread globally, much of the world’s population spends at least some time online. Back in 2017, scientists writing in a journal of neuropsychiatry estimated that perhaps 2% of the adult population suffered from “internet addiction,” compulsively spending more and more online time. (abstract from 10.4172/Neuropsychiatry.1000171, 2017) An article from 2019 (https://www.psycom.net/iadcriteria.html) gave a range of estimated internet addiction from below 1% to nearly 38% of adults. Since the onset of the current global covid-19 pandemic, internet use has spiked further as more of us turn to online communications while confined close to home and admonished to maintain social distancing.
The internet can be a source of valuable new information, publicizing trends and histories that many of us had been unaware of. For example, as someone with no known enslaved ancestors, I’d been less aware of “Juneteenth” than those whose ancestry was less fortunate. (The holiday initially celebrated the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when formerly enslaved people in Galveston, Texas first got official word that they were now free.) Juneteenth is becoming more widely celebrated throughout the United States, and was recently cited as a reason for the postponement of a political rally by our current President.
However, the internet can also be used to spread spurious information and to inflame tensions. It provides instantaneous feedback as “algorithms” select more and more of the content they believe we might want to be exposed to. We become “products” who are encouraged to buy more and more goods and services. These days, I know that my use and misuse of the internet can drift close to addictive behavior as I search for clues on how to stay well, relatively safe and somewhat sane in this confusing and highly politicized time.
So I will use this Sunday, July 19, as my individual “Julyteenth,” my media sabbath, a brief freedom from the endless click bait of internet content providers. I’ll disengage as much as possible from internet browsing or virtual meetings. I’ll also try to cut back on television, streaming services, and the like. I’ll try to focus instead on spiritual growth, with perhaps some limited, more direct, but safe offline methods of reconnecting with neighbors and loved ones. I’ll adapt some advice of poet and writer Maya Angelou, who counseled a generation ago:
“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. … Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” (Maya Angelou, from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, 1993)
If my media sabbath refreshes me, I may make it at least a monthly ritual, if not yet every seventh day. My hope is that the spiritual nourishment of a sabbath will better equip me to confront the complex issues of my community, nation, and world. Good Sabbath, friends.
Checking Our Sources, Knowing Our Contexts —by Jinny Batterson
As the pandemic caused by the corona virus drags on, amid increasing conjectures about how to respond, increasing finger pointing about whose “fault” it might be, I can feel emotionally overloaded. So far, no one close to me has died of the infection, though several friends and relatives have had cases of varying degrees of severity. The small enclave where I live stays mainly quiet, those of us retired or furloughed staying pretty close to home, those still in the paid workforce adjusting work routines to stay as safe as practical.
More of us live more of our lives in virtual spaces—emails, virtual meetings, social media posts. It can be tempting to get all of our input filtered through some electronic medium or other. My biological and intentional families are politically diverse. In these fraught times, we sometimes avoid discussing politics, but it can be nearly impossible not to be influenced by what we see, hear, and read. When discussions get especially heated, I try to remember some of my history teachers, including my part-time historian mother.
“Check your sources,” they would repeatedly caution. “Everyone has an angle. Why did this particular source frame this particular event in this way? What advantage did they gain from telling their story from this viewpoint?”
It’s disturbing to me that a fair amount of “information” these days is murkily sourced, if sourced at all. Lots of groups with high-sounding names have turned out to be unreliable at best, malicious at worst. Conspiracy theories abound.
It’s unclear where the virus causing covid-19 originated. It’s unclear exactly when it first spread among humans. It’s unclear all the ways the virus may be transmitted. It’s unclear why some people have few or mild symptoms, while others with similar backgrounds can be severely affected. Given these uncertainties, it’s natural for us to form theories about what’s happening. What’s not natural is for so many of us to be so adamantly certain of “answers.”
I try to vary the sources of information I review, to filter out the obviously bogus. I know, too, that I respond to content in part from the contexts in which my life has unfolded so far. During my childhood, polio was a crippling pandemic that tended to reappear each summer, impacting both children and adults in seemingly random fashion. In some years in the early 20th century, as many as 6,000 Americans had died. Most Americans knew that president Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio as an adult during the 1920’s and never fully regained the use of his legs. At its maximum in the U.S., in the early 1950’s, there were nearly 58,000 U.S. cases annually, with nearly 3,000 deaths. Swimming pools closed. Parents restricted their children’s friendships.
Eventually, medical researchers tracked down the source of the illness and developed successive vaccines. I remember when I was in elementary school being part of a large-scale medical trial in which many of us got doses of an oral vaccine. In 2020, polio infections exist in just three countries globally, with fewer than 200 annual cases. Global health workers do their best to detect and isolate pockets of infection, often in war-torn areas, and to make sure at-risk children get vaccinated against the disease.
At some future point, this novel corona virus that is spreading illness and death will yield to research and to more effective responses. Until that happens, it behooves us humans, whatever our political leanings or backgrounds, to check our sources and to be as aware as we can of our contexts.
Democracy Is Not an “Ism” —by Jinny Batterson
We’re living in a strange season, locally, nationally, globally. First came a novel corona virus to which few humans have immunity. It has spread fear, illness, disruption, and death to nearly every country. So far efforts to contain, cure, or prevent it have met with uneven success. In many parts of the United States of America, the outbreak seems to be worsening.
As people everywhere began to cope with the pandemic, it quickly became evident that self-isolation and social distancing were the best ways to slow the virus’s human spread. In the U.S., those at the “bottom” of society were least likely to be able to self-isolate. Most lived in crowded conditions. Those who were employed mostly worked in low-wage service jobs necessary to society’s functioning—“essential workers,” they were suddenly called, as if a dignified label could make up for generations of poor pay and poor living conditions. Others chose not to isolate or distance because these practices seemed an impingement on their liberty.
To add to the trauma of the pandemic, we’ve recently been confronted with other examples of our inequitable society. Video footage went viral of a white police officer in Minneapolis squeezing the life out of a prone, handcuffed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers looked on and bystanders yelled for him to stop. It became less and less possible to talk about “resisting arrest” or “a few bad apples.” The systemic corruption of America’s criminal justice system was broadcast worldwide for all to see.
And we have an American election coming up, one that’s poised to be expensive, divisive, and prone to distortions at many levels. Is it any wonder many of us are disturbed? Whatever happened to the “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere? Whatever happened to our democracy?
I’m not exactly sure, but I think part of the difficulty is that we’ve confused democracy with ideology. Many of us self-identify at least partly using a series of “isms”: conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, socialism, libertarianism, federalism, communitarianism, environmentalism. Every week seems to bring a new label.
Democracy is not supposed to be easy. It is always a work in progress. Some guidelines our U.S. founders laid out have generally held, but there were huge blind spots in our original framework of laws. Some of those blind spots have persisted, as the George Floyds and “essential workers” of our country have recently reminded us.
Democracy requires that each human has some say in decisions that impact him/her/them, regardless of circumstances. In small settings, that say may be direct. As groups get larger and more diverse, it becomes necessary to have “representative democracy,” where officials are elected to represent a neighborhood, town, city, county, state, or nation and to champion the interests of their constituents.
Democracy requires that each human be willing to listen to perspectives that differ from his/her/their own, to acknowledge the humanity of others, to be humble about the limits to any individual’s knowledge or judgment. Whatever “isms” we subscribe to, we all breathe air, we all drink water, we all eat food. While we’ve been busy discounting and insulting each other, our air and water are getting dirtier, parts of our food supply are at risk, and more of us are becoming sickened by the corona virus.
A few of our political leaders have stressed our connections across our divisions: “We’re all in this together. We’ll get through this together.” Too many of us may not get through at all unless we start acting as if we believe that, meeting each other beyond our “isms.” Happy In(ter)dependence Day!