Amusing Ourselves to Death

The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing, on the radio, or for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. Neil Postman

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I was one of the only people I knew who didn’t have cable TV or an at-home computer. This wasn’t an aesthetic choice on our part as much as it meant we were poor. I found this to be somewhat of a cramp in my style, especially when I visited the houses of friends with slick PCs and 200 channels. But mostly I read a lot. For better or worse, kids are adaptable.

I didn’t recognize it until later, but this experience instilled in me a lifelong love of books. More important, it gave me the ability to entertain myself for hours without electronics. I couldn’t have imagined then how useful that would be.

Today I have the money to buy a nice TV and computer. I’m writing this essay on one right now. But still, I prefer books, long form essays and newspapers (some in digital format, to be sure) to TV or mediums like Twitter.


Photo by Frank Okay 

That’s nice, you might be thinking, but why should I care?

Because the switch from a culture based on the written word to one based largely on images affects you, in ways you may not have realized. That switch is the subject of one of the best books of all time, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), by Neil Postman.

Much has been written recently about our current political culture and the divides it creates. Still more about about the rise of technology use, the dip in attendance at traditional community institutions like churches and social clubs and how these things change the way we all view each other.

Relatively little has been written about how we got here in the first place; that is, to a place where what is valued is speed, looks and attention.

Many of us are unhappy with the way things are. Or at least we feel a vague sense of being in a hurry or on display most of the time; yet we don’t know how to make it stop. 

We’re not satisfied, yet we have not wondered why this might be. If we have, we blame it on what are arguably symptoms: (political candidates, news channels, electronic devices, work hours) rather than root causes.

Neil Postman is an exception to this norm. The author of several books and a professor for more than forty years at New York University, Postman was well-known as a critic of technology’s impact on culture before his death in 2003. He was not afraid to wonder. Amusing Ourselves to Death a bible for the zeitgeist of today’s fast-moving culture and worth re-discovering.

His witty and prophetic work is mostly about television, but it could apply word for word to the way our culture has changed following the adoption of social media, data analytics and other tools.

He argues we have failed to examine the impact of the transition from a largely written-word society to one that is mostly image-based. The invention of the telegraph, and then the television, created ‘news of the day’ (events most of us might read about but will affect few).

Attention spans shifted. No longer would audiences sit for events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted hours. Most of us feel deluged by news events we can do nothing about. The cultural implications, he says, are profound and have gone largely unnoticed.


Photo by Daniel McCullough

Think about the presidents of the United States. Most people in the U.S. would be unlikely to recognize the first 15 presidents if they passed by them on the street. No one knew what they looked like. Can you imagine?

These men were instead known for their speeches, for those who could hear them. For the rest of the country, they were known by newspaper accounts of speeches they gave, letters they wrote and whatever else the public could read about them.

Today nothing could be further from that reality. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, a large part of choosing our contemporary leaders has to to with their photogenic qualities. In your recollection, since the advent of television, have any of the presidents (or many governors, state senators, news anchors, celebrity pastors, etc) been bald? How about overweight?

In the the fields of journalism and public policy, a good discussion of ideas is not worth as much as a good haircut.

Somehow, in the last half-century or more, we’ve completely switched our paradigm for viewing leaders, and in doing so, have created a culture of celebrity that has changed the way we view the pulpit, politics, journalism and almost every public arena.

You might think this doesn’t matter to you, but science shows us we’re all affected by bias and looks and distractions. 

Postman’s brilliant critique invites us to closely examine not just the effects of these changes, as many of us have already done, but to look at the tools themselves and how they fundamentally influence our culture and conversation. 

When we make gains, (which he allows television provided, such as coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights marches in the 1960s) we make choices. We bring something to trade. The error isn’t in making the trade, but in leaving the trade unexamined.

He gives the example of clocks, which completely changed the way we think about time. Minutes, hours, and seconds play a pivotal role in our lives and in the way we measure almost everything. Yet they are, like most measurements, just an invention. Before we had clocks, we had the seasons.

“Moment to moment, as it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s,” Postman says. “It is man conversing with himself about and through a machine he created.”

As an artist, Postman inspires me because he is not afraid to examine the hard questions in our society. He takes almost nothing at face value, asks ‘why’ about everything and forces the reader to rethink almost all their long-held assumptions. He’s funny, for all that, and well worth the time spent on his work. If you want to know how we got to today’s media culture, Postman is an indispensable read.


A place to start

Turns out, though, we are still on earth, and every cell in my body has not been excruciatingly flattened into pure math. It just feels like it. (Lindy West)

It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. (Vicktor Frankl)

Some days are hard. Is anyone with me? There’s a lot to be down about right now. I’m right there with you. Like Lindy West says, “During my morning routine of opening my laptop, clicking on literally anything, and just screaming and screaming,” it often feels like too much. It’s not that things have gotten worse (except when they have) – it’s just that we know about it more.

Our world, at least in the realm of information, has expanded at an unprecedented rate in the past 150 years. The amount of information available to us is greater than it’s ever been, but our ability to do anything with that information has not kept pace.

How we got here

This isn’t an accident. We’ve created a world so full of data, one that moves so fast and changes so quickly, that we haven’t left much room for thoughtful analysis, or to step away from the constant flow of news and information. In our continuous quest for improvement, we’ve created new vulnerabilities.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman discusses how the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s changed the way we think about news.

“Telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country,” Postman says. It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.

Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Postman calls this change the ‘information to action’ ratio – the idea that data’s usefulness is related to what we can do with the knowledge we’ve received. When we have too much information, we get into an ‘information glut’ which leads to a diminished ability to act.

We receive more data than we can possibly act on, and that leads to a feeling that we cannot do anything to change any situation around us. Faced with that feeling, many of us withdraw altogether. We don’t vote. We don’t go to meetings or talk about issues that matter. We pursue entertainment and pleasure, not for fun, but to avoid our feelings.

Again, it’s important to note this didn’t come about by accident. As a nation, we purposely adopted this strategy, because it was profitable. As the news environment has changed, this trend has accelerated.

“The foresighted among the nation’s publishers were quick to see where the future lay, and committed their full resources to the wiring of the continent,” Postman says.

“It was not long until the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed. James Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that in the first week of 1848, his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic content – of what relevance to his readers, he didn’t say.

Only four years after Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line in 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to crisscross the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods- became the content of what people called “the news of the day.”

“As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge’s famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use.

A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about.”

So what’s a well-intentioned news consumer to do?

See it for what it is. Be a smart reader. Recognizing this pattern is the first step to breaking free of it. As a journalism major, I believe it’s extremely important to follow the news and to stay aware of both current events and long-term trends. But it’s also important to filter the news. If we don’t actively control what we are reading and watching, it will control us.

Today’s content is designed to be addictive, attention-grabbing and flashy, but not often substantive or useful. It can be biased, sometimes through overt discrimination and the perpetuation of stereotypes and other times because it simply leaves voices out of the discussion.

People who are not at the table are not missed, because they never get up to leave. When consuming news, ask yourself: “Who wrote this? Who is not being discussed or interviewed? Who benefits from this story/situation?”

Analysis and longer stories might be more worth your time than hot takes or reactive pieces. This is not to say good writing can’t be found in short amounts or good information on video. But ask yourself – how easy is it to present a complicated situation, like a war, in a minute-long segment? Are you getting the whole story and the context? Probably not. Read more.

It’s okay to take a break. Eat a pint. Drink a pint. Laugh. Watch bad TV. Self-care is how we keep from going over the edge. Don’t go away forever. We need people who care to be involved. If all the committed, involved, and compassionate citizens stay home, who will be running things? Whoever shows up. More often than we’d like to admit, simply being present is a qualification. It gives you a voice.

Don’t buy the lie that you can’t do anything. Remember the information glut. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.

One of the ways oppression works is that corrupt people in power try to keep other people from thinking they have any agency. It makes their job a lot easier, because they don’t have to keep you down. You keep you down. But you have power. You have a voice – a circle of friends and family who listens to you. You can be part of collective action. Small kindnesses add up.

To put myself through college, I worked as a nurse’s aide. I earned minimum wage. I wore a pink polyester uniform and I dealt with the elderly and the dying, ignored people who went years without seeing a loved one, who died alone. When I speak of this job, I never impress anyone. I am not understood to be a virtuous person. Rather, I am understood to be working class.

I loved this difficult, low-paid work not out of any masochistic sense of personal elevation through suffering. I loved it because I physically and emotionally touched people every day, all day long; I made them comfortable; I made them laugh; I challenged them; they rose to meet the challenges. In return, patients shared with me the most precious commodity in the universe: their humanity.

I’m protesting the fallacy that to be virtuous, one must be on TV, one must be off to a meeting on how to be a better person, or one must have just come from a meeting on how to be a better person, but one can pass up every opportunity to actually be a better person.”

(Danusha Veronica Goska)

How to listen to people you disagree with

Update: Part II of this post is here

It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby. (Noam Chomsky)

As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups. (Robert Sapolsky)

The name of this post probably surprised you. It was supposed to be ‘how to talk to people you disagree with.’ But the more I started researching this topic, I realized that title wasn’t right.

I’ve felt the need to write about this for months, and it’s not just because of our current political climate, although that’s a big part of it. More and more, we are a culture of talkers. We love the sound of our own voices, to debate, to argue, to have the last word. We love these things right up until they make us question our own dearly-held beliefs.

Doubts and flaws are all well and good, but they belong to the other guy. We know things, and we have the funniest quips to win the argument.

The problem with all this is apparent enough (if you checked the news or your news feed anytime in 2017 you probably agree) but we keep doing it. I’d like to examine why we do, how even the most well-intentioned people can get like this, and how we can do better.

Our boxes, our selves 

We don’t like uncertainty. It makes us uncomfortable and we quickly search for a way to get rid of it. Some of this is unavoidable. Our brains simply can’t process all the information going past us at light speeds, so we use categories to help make sense of it all. That’s not inherently bad. It’s how we identify something we’ve never seen as a chair.

Categorization gets dangerous when we start to use it as a shortcut for other things, like getting to know people, or figuring out who we are.

We reach for the simplicity of boxes because they make sense, but people and the world don’t always make sense. We don’t want to spend time thinking about that, or being afraid, so we grab onto a cause or a stereotype and stop thinking.

When these shortcuts become the building blocks of our lives, we build them on foundations of sand. But usually we don’t realize this until it’s late in the game, and we don’t want to look stupid or start over. Instead we cling harder.

One thing I’ve noticed in some discussions I’ve been part of is how much people care about issues that don’t seem to immediately affect them. It’s pretty common – the straight person who’s never been in the armed services angry about the transgender military ban, or the rural resident who’s never met an immigrant who worries about illegal immigration.

Why do we get so heated over issues that don’t immediately affect us? They might, especially if a wider law is passed, but statistically the chances are low. Yet these and other issues become top of mind, ones that divide friends and even families, sometimes forever.

In his 1984 book The Psychology of Influence, Robert Cialdini discusses why we identify so strongly with things that don’t seem, in the big scheme of things, to change our daily lives.

Cialdini tells the story of a war veteran recovering in a hospital ward. The man remained silent for 30 years. One day as he heard a game on the radio being played by his hometown team, he sprang to life and yelled at the radio. After that moment he never spoke again. Why, of all things, should that have made him speak? Cialdini says it’s because he didn’t see it as a game. The vet thought he was the one losing the game, had gotten a bad call.

“When viewed in this light, the passion of the sports fan begins to make sense. The game is no light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent form and artistry. The self is at stake.”

These things aren’t just abstract issues affecting small groups. They’re lenses that change how we see the world. Or maybe more accurately, they’re mirrors in which we see ourselves.

Successful politicians and public figures have mastered these portrayals, pitching issues and their own candidacies as reflections of a voter’s psyche.

The reason it seems like we can no longer have rational, calm discussions about many of these issues is because for most of us, they are not rational.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes no one is above it.

“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means,” he says.

“And if you don’t believe that about yourself, just note how true it is of everybody else.”

If we all cling to our issues, using them as building blocks for our very identities, is there any hope for discussion or listening between people who think differently?

Forming identities is part of who we are as people, and we could no sooner leave behind these identities than we could cease to become human. It’s not wrong to find meaning or identity in things like gender, race, religion or politics.

The problem occurs when we can’t see around them, when we have certain ideas about people from other groups, or even our own groups, that grow so strong that we decide we don’t need to meet them, to listen to them, to hear their stories. The ideas become the people.

The Us and the Them 

In a recent article for Nautilus, author Robert Sapolsky discusses how easy it is to divide the world into an us and a them. Science shows it’s actually hard-wired into the way we think and react.

“Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture.

We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality.

Across cultures and throughout history, people who comprise Us are viewed in similarly self-congratulatory ways—We are more correct, wise, moral, and worthy. Us-ness also involves inflating the merits of our arbitrary markers, which can take some work—rationalizing why our food is tastier, our music more moving, our language more logical or poetic.

When a Them does something wrong, it reflects essentialism—that’s the way They are, always have been, always will be. When an Us is in the wrong, however, the pull is toward situational interpretations—we’re not usually like that, and here’s the extenuating circumstance to explain why he did this.

Despite that role of cognition, the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic, as summarized by when we say, “I can’t put my finger on why, but it’s just wrong when They do that.”

Haidt, the social psychologist, has shown that often, cognitions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why.”

Getting real 

All this psychology and theory is helpful for understanding our blind spots, but how does it apply to real life? Can we face Uncle So and So easier across the table at Thanksgiving because of any of it? And where do we start?

Last summer I was camping in the mountains with my family. We had just finished a series of hikes into the North Cascades. Everyone was dirty and tired, but it was that content, wrung-out tired won only after a long, hard day of playing in the woods. A burn ban was in effect, so we huddled around a lamp instead of a campfire, toasting s’mores over a portable stove.

“So,” someone said as we settled in to talk – talking is our television in the mountains, and it’s nice – “what does everyone think about the NFL protests?”

Silence reigned around the fire as we made our calculations. It was a mixed crowd around the lamp/fire that night, not a comfortably homogeneous group of politically conservative or liberal people who held the same opinions. We only saw each other a few times a year. Yet we were friends and family. We wanted to say what we really thought and felt, but how could we do so?

That experience made me pause. Somehow, the easy camaraderie of conversation had become a field of land mines, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. And for these people, I cared.

They weren’t anonymous images on the other side of a screen, they were people I’d known for years, who sat at my wedding, who gave me furniture for my house and helped me make eggs for breakfast that morning. We don’t agree on every social and political issue and probably never would, but our relationships transcended that. How do we navigate these relationships now, in 2017?

It’s easy, usually, to say what we think when perusing message boards and social media. Like shots fired from a military drone, our words are chosen with less regard for our targets, because we can’t see them. We can talk to more people than ever before, most who we’ll never see in person, and if the conversation upsets us, we can block, delete, unfriend or ignore.

“I can’t talk about things like religion or politics,” friends have told me recently, “Because it’s never a conversation. It just becomes a shouting match. Everyone assumes things about me before I’ve even started, so I figure, what’s the point?”

“Twitter is the worst,” someone else said. “It’s just people one-upping each other over and over. There’s no room to discuss anything. It’s like you get points for being mean.”

So now what? 

Right about now, this may seem dark. Our biases are hard-wired into our thinking, and studies show our reactions are usually visceral, immediate and unconscious. We can’t necessarily think our way out of them. But we’re not helpless.

We can be aware that something beyond our conscious choice is shaping our thinking and the way we perceive the world. Many people don’t think about bias, or they think everyone is biased except them. That’s not true. You are biased. I am biased. We all have lenses – let’s accept it and work on it.

We can take time to build and nurture relationships in real time, with people who might be different from us. Not to get them to convert to something or to win an argument, but just because we want to know them. No one is born with their views, they learn them. Life shapes them. So how did they get there?

Individuals and relationships are the antithesis to the Us/Them way of seeing the world. When we see someone as a person, it’s a lot harder to make them a box or a category. Your cause and beliefs may be very different than a friend’s, but it’s not your list of talking points that will change minds or increase empathy. Just knowing you does that.

Finally, we can try a little more listening. It sounds like a small solution because it is. It’s not a substitute for policy change or fixing racism or ending poverty. But big things start with small things. Governments and organizations are just people. Someone who seems worlds away from you might not be that different, if you knew more of their story. That’s the beginning of big change.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 2017

Full text here:

Hardly a day goes by when a well-meaning person on the Internet, usually in reference to a protest taking place where things are not quite going according to plan, brings up The MLK Question. As in ‘what would Martin Luther King Jr. think of (thing these protesters are saying or doing)? Usually, the insinuation is that anything other than politely holding a sign in a designated area at a place and time you are allowed to be is not okay. I’m not any kind of authority on Martin Luther King Jr., but I can tell you that conclusion is probably not accurate, based on his writing and speeches.

King was a non-violent activist. But he was also a proponent of civil disobedience, marching and saying and doing things that made people in power uncomfortable when these things needed to be said and done. He and the other folks who pioneered many of the changes we take for granted today knew sometimes just talking together in a room and eating tea and cookies wasn’t enough. They tried that, and often it didn’t work. I’ll stop talking now and let you read excerpts from one of his best works, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written in August 1963, that addresses many of these topics. His work is just as relevant today and in the past few years as it was the day it was written. Since this letter is quite long, I’ve abridged it (other than that the text itself is unedited) but the link for the full text is available above.

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights.

The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are)

and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?

We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.

Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.

Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist? — “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”

Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? I had hoped that the white moderate would see this.

Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.

I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too small in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some, like Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, and James Dabbs, have written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic, and understanding terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They sat in with us at lunch counters and rode in with us on the freedom rides. They have languished in filthy roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of angry policemen who see them as “dirty nigger lovers.” They, unlike many of their moderate brothers, have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.

Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation — and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

(Birmingham, 1963)


A better politics

I originally wrote this article for Spokane FAVS, a non-sectarian faith and ethics website I contribute to.

These days, I’m not often inspired by political speeches, but last night’s State of the Union was something else indeed. I couldn’t resist sharing my thoughts.

Obama’s sixth’s State of the Union address took a confident, even conversational tone at times as the president discussed what one of my friends labeled ‘a domestic populist agenda’ — plans to implement free community college for much of the nation, affordable child care and increased tax cuts for working families with children. He also touted the success of the Affordable Care Act, citing 10 million formerly uninsured who received coverage in 2014.

“That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.  We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success — we want everyone to contribute to our success,” he said.

I was impressed with these plans. I’ll wait to see how many of them come to fruition before a divided and increasingly partisan Congress. The issues facing lower and middle-class families and individuals — childcare, affordable student loans, house payments, health insurance — for me, these help conceptualize a complicated and politicized issue referred to as ‘income inequality’ that Obama promised to address in his speech last night. Income inequality is kind of like ‘tax cuts’ to many people: something that sounds good, but that when it comes down to brass tacks, we don’t always know a lot about it.

I’ll borrow a strategy from Obama on this one and say that I’m not an economist, but I do have access to the research of some very bright economists, who announced the disturbing news Monday that by 2016, the wealthiest 1 percent will own more than half of the world’s wealth.

It was encouraging to see our president put forth practical policies to help middle-class families in his SOTU speech after reading this. Less so that the House recently voted to delay the Volcker Rule, further weakening financial regulations meant to protect us after the 2008 crisis, but I remain hopeful.

In last night’s speech, Obama also notably addressed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, including them in a discussion about discrimination and the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

“As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened… it’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.  It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace.  That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.”

The speech also touched on plans for new or renewed efforts on global trade agreements, highlighted 2014’s historic job growth (the best since 1999) and discussed the growing threat of climate change. I can’t possibly fit it all in a reasonable column — you can find the full text of the speech here.

I’ve listened to many political speeches, and have grown jaded over the years about the divide between politicians’ promises and their actions. Hypocrisy is abhorrent to me, and it seems rampant in Washington, with no immediate plans to leave. However, as I listened to Obama’s sixth SOTU, at least some of that fell away for a while. I’ve followed his track record and I admire his performance in a gridlocked city. But it’s more than that — when I hear him talk, I’m reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, the radio broadcasts that won the heart of America throughout the Great Depression and World War II, addressing the nation as ‘friends.’

“Imagine if we did something different,” he said in closing.

“Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.  A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.”

Yelling is so much fun

No matter which side of the political spectrum you hail from, or whether, like many of my 20-something friends, you’ve just checked out of it altogether because it feels about as useful and relevant as having a MySpace account these days, you probably haven’t heard of this guy – Representative Dave Camp (R) of Michigan.

That’s unfortunate, because Mr. Camp has done some pretty good things this year. Back in February, he worked with Montana Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont) to propose a tax code overhaul. Their proposal would have simplified the existing tax laws and created fewer brackets, instituted taxes on big financial companies and changed how long-term gains (like stocks and bonds) are taxed, among others. His plan seemed fair and balanced. It wasn’t dramatic, didn’t involve a government shutdown, an executive action or calling anyone a liar or  a member of the Taliban. He didn’t threaten to impeach anyone. Perhaps if he had, he would have had more luck getting it passed.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me remind you that taxes, boring as they are, actually matter in everyday life. They fund things everyone uses (roads, schools, police forces) and almost everyone has to pay them in some form.

What’s more, there’s a big inequity in the current way we pay taxes. They’re complicated and insane. I’m not going to pretend to fully understand it, but I do know that there are a bazillion little loopholes right now that let big corporations take advantage of the tax code to do things like move their company operations overseas so they don’t have to pay much, if anything.

I don’t usually talk politics here, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is, unless you’re a news or financial junkie, you probably haven’t heard of Dave Camp. His tax proposal was immediately set upon by lobbyists from big financial institutions and such who are happy with the current tax code. It failed to pass. Meanwhile, other government officials, specifically folks on both sides of the Congressional aisle, carried on with their tide of yelling and disrespect for one another, while accomplishing little.

This is why people feel a disconnect from their government. Its growing status as an ideological battleground replaces its purpose – to govern.

The reasons for this are varied, and worth several posts on the subject, but for the sake of this post, compromise is not sexy. No one wants to admit that this is how government (and life) works and has been working for decades. It means coming to the table with your concerns, being willing to bargain in good faith and listening to what the other person has to say (without using the time to polish your own story).

It’s much more exciting to run around calling names and discussing impeachment, government shutdown, and how stupid the folks are in the other party who don’t think the way you do. Electing someone to office on a platform of crushing the other side should never be a virtue – it is a red flag. This person will not be an effective governor. Unfortunately, this is something many increasingly value in elected officials.

We have the government we have chosen for ourselves.