A Few Thoughts for an Anonymous Progressive

I’d be happier if this could be an actual conversation, my anonymous progressive friend, but my experience has been that you do not listen. Even when you are willing to give your name, you only show up to talk–specifically to bestow upon those of us whom you see as sitting in darkness the superior wisdom of your orthodoxies. You are insufferable when you do this, but you don’t seem to know that. Perhaps you would if you were better at listening.

For most of my adult life I’ve done my best to maintain my equanimity in the face of patronizing insults, but now you seem to have crossed a line. Today, the day after President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, you left this anonymous comment on the Who is IOZ? blog: “I didn’t watch the Address. What did el presidente say? Wait. Nevermind (sic). It doesn’t matter what he said. At all.”

Really, Mr/Ms Anonymous? The remarks of the single most powerful and influential person on earth don’t matter? At all? Not to anybody, do you think, or just not to you?

But have I missed something crucial here? Perhaps you are the most powerful and influential person on the planet so what Obama said really doesn’t matter if you say it doesn’t.

If that’s the case, I wish you had taken the time to call him and let him know he didn’t need to go to all the trouble of writing and delivering that speech. Noblesse oblige and all. It would have been a nice gesture on your part. I mean, if it didn’t matter what he said, Obama could have stayed home last night with Michelle and the kids–maybe played fetch with Bo or something.

The truth, of course, is that you missed the speech last night because you and your ilk have written off Obama. You gave him about 90 days to remake the world in your image, and when that didn’t happen (how could it possibly have happened?) you wrote him off. That’s your prerogative under the Constitution you rely upon Obama to defend, but there are a few things you and those like you should consider:

  • When you write off the President unless he agrees with you 100%, you are doing your very best to hand the keys back to the GOP. If you are so amnesiac or willfully blind that you can’t tell the difference between Obama and Dubya, then you deserve Dubya and are helping to bring him or someone like him back to the White House.
  • When you only listen to people you already agree with, you get so you don’t even notice when you say things that are really, really stupid. The Who is IOZ? comment is just one tiny example of this.
  • When you indulge in supercilious brat attacks, you become profoundly unattractive. Perhaps you don’t care, but I would suggest that if you don’t admire Rush Limbaugh you should stop acting like him.

Riding with Ghosts on the El

I belong to a Congregational Church that is associated with the United Church of Christ. The U.C.C. is one of those liberal, mainline Protestant denominations for which many evangelicals feel seething contempt. The U.C.C. is different things to different people, however, and operates without a hierarchy of any kind. The differences between congregations can be enormous.

UCC LogoHere in New England, most U.C.C. churches began life as Congregational churches. Some of the congregations are centuries old. Each individual congregation voted on whether to join the U.C.C. when it was forming in the 1950s. As far as I understand the evangelical position, the chief sins of churches like mine are (1) the great majority of us are not biblical literalists and (2) our doors are open to everyone.

If that sounds easy, be assured that it is not. Opening the doors to everyone just about guarantees that you will meet people with whom you disagree, sometimes people whom you dislike. If you harbor prejudices of any kind (race, ethnicity, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, political persuasion—you know the list) a church like mine will challenge you.

But each U.C.C. church is in some ways unique. Right now, my church is focused on inclusiveness and community outreach and service. Other U.C.C. churches have their own ideas. Some are so different from mine that members of hierarchical denominations have trouble understanding what the U.C.C. really is at its core.

I’ve been thinking about these these things because the U.C.C. has been in the news recently. The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity U.C.C. in Chicago, has been a thorn in Barack Obama’s side as elements of the radical religious right and the progressive secular left joined hands briefly to condemn Rev. Wright and, by association, his former parishioner Sen. Obama. The whole business was so unsavory that, by supreme irony, it proved Rev. Wright’s point: racism is alive and well in this country, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Somehow it’s harder to talk about than in the salad days of the civil rights movement. Well-intentioned people of all persuasions like to believe that the era of racism is behind us, and it’s true that many battles have been won. But the ghosts of America’s past remain.

I suspect that most of us know more about these ghosts than we like to admit, but I’ll speak only for myself. I grew up in an all-white town in the whitest state in the nation and went to an overwhelmingly white college. I was a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, but there wasn’t much going on in Maine.

After college I spent four years in the military where I finally had the opportunity to put my convictions about racial equality into practice, and I did well. Some of my supervisors were white and some were black. The respect I afforded each of them varied, but not along racial lines. When I left the military in 1973, my credentials as a person free of racism were impeccable.

Ghosts, however, are by definition elusive. When they appear, it is impossible not to be surprised. And so it was for me riding the El in Chicago one day in the summer of 1976 when I looked around and suddenly realized that mine was the only white face on the train.

The stab of fear I felt in my gut was irrational, unwarranted, and somehow overpowering.

At one level I understood that everyone on that train was, like me, just trying to get somewhere. And yet. And yet. They were all black. All of them.

The ghosts had taken hold of me, and I was afraid. The received wisdom of my all-white boyhood (“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo…catch a n****r by the toe…”) contained virulent racism that had waited patiently for decades to show itself. My palms were sweating, my heart was pounding, and I sat on the train shaking with fear and humiliation. My wild emotional turmoil soon coalesced into shame, however, as I realized that for years I had talked one set of values and lived another.

When I got off the train, I began the real work of freeing myself from racism. I’ve come a long way since 1976, far enough in fact that I will never again make the easy claim that I have left behind every trace of that old received wisdom.

My U.C.C. church is almost exclusively white. Rev. Wright’s is almost exclusively black. Our shared motto and goal, “That They May All Be One,” remains within our reach but somehow just beyond our grasp.