Tuesday, December 28, 2010

W.E.B. Du Bois - Black Activist Radical

LAST TIME:  Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Gender Wars Radical

Black radical historian, scholar and agitator-prophet W.E.B. Du Bois (who was born during Andrew Johnson's administration in 1868 and died shortly before Lyndon Johnson's presidency in 1963) is the fourth of five individuals profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America.

Like the other four radicals, Du Bois was committed to core Enlightenment principles and “had a towering sense of the Right and of the Just, a basic faith in reason, and a passionate commitment toward achieving the just through the use of reason,” explained Herbert Aptheker.  He tirelessly challenged government to repudiate laws and practices that institutionalized white supremacist principles and thereby to accept – to tolerate – black people as equals under the law.

Perhaps not surprisingly, controversy followed Du Bois during his life and beyond, to the point where the United States government effectively disowned him during the last year of his life by denying the renewal of his passport while he was abroad in Ghana; and the town of his birth, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, only grudgingly, after a bitter 1969 struggle, established a memorial park at his boyhood home. Yet, Du Bois advanced a principled moral approach to race relations and society that pre-destined the end of Jim Crow and won the hearts and minds of his successors who carried on the Civil Rights Movement.

Like the other four radicals profiled in the book, Du Bois thought organized religion had contributed to society's discriminatory practices, exclaiming, "it is the Churches which are the most discriminatory of all institutions!”  Du Bois believed the true teachings of Jesus Christ were morally uplifting, but as he explained,  “I have no particular affection for the Church. I think its record on the Negro problem has been shameful…. The church of John Pierpont Morgan [is] not the church of Jesus Christ.”

Part of what makes Du Bois and the other four profiled radicals such compelling figures is that they were ready to pay the price for their convictions - regardless of the consequences. For them, principle prevailed. Du Bois emphasized that one should never follow the path of Galileo Galilei, who renounced his life’s work of seeking scientific truth when threatened by the Catholic Church. “By that lie," Du Bois said, "civilization was halted, science was checked, and bigotry was more strongly enthroned on its crimson glory.”

NEXT TIME:  Vine Deloria Jr. - Radical of the Native Rights Movement

Monday, December 20, 2010

Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Gender Wars Radical

LAST TIME: Thomas Paine - Radical of the Revolution

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) is the third of five individuals profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Liberty and Equal Justice in America.

Stanton was born during the United States's early decades, an era when women were considered to occupy a "separate sphere" of existence essentially limiting them to activities within the home.  Groomed in her upbringing as daughter of a prominent judge in upstate New York to a conventional life as mother and homemaker, Stanton long endured mocking disdain from countless strangers and even her own father and husband for insisting that women were morally and legally entitled to equal treatment.

Yet with her lifetime of unflinching advocacy for women’s rights - including her two singular landmark creations, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments for the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and the Woman’s Bible in 1896 – Stanton did more than any single person to establish the framework for eventual gender legal equality in the United States (including the “right” to vote, gained some eighteen years after her death with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920).

Like the other radicals profiled in the book (Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Vine Deloria Jr.), Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that America's constitutional democracy requires a tolerant government. Specifically, Stanton demanded that government replace a legal regime imposing separate, inferior status on women with one that recognizes – or tolerates - the equal legal status of women.

Also like the others, Stanton too charged that clergy (or, more generally, organized religions) were responsible for much of society’s ills, especially for women. “I now see more clearly than ever, that the arch enemy to women’s freedom skulks behind the altar,” she ruminated in 1886. “No class of men have such power to pervert the religious sentiments and oppress mankind with gloomy superstitions through life and an undefined dread of the unknown after death.” But Stanton was convinced the clergy did not truly speak for the Almighty, reasoning, “I cannot believe that a God of law and order … could have sanctioned a social principle so calamitous in its consequences as investing in one-half the race the absolute control of all the rights of the other.”

To so baldly criticize mainstream Christian orthodoxy at the turn of the twentieth century was too radical even for most women’s rights activists - who distanced themselves from Stanton by issuing a formal censure at the 1896 NAWSA convention, and for decades after her death rendering her persona non grata, even while canonizing her longtime collaborator Susan B. Anthony.

NEXT TIME: W. E. B. Du Bois: Black Activist Radical

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thomas Paine - Radical of the Revolution

LAST TIME: Roger Williams - America's First Radical

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) is the second person profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America (Cambridge 2011).

Paine, a corset staymaker’s son with a checkered past career, moved from England to the colonies in late 1774 at the relatively-advanced age of thirty-seven.  Yet he made his presence felt almost immediately in America with the January 1776 publication of Common Sense, penning the words that provided “the January heat of 1776 that balanced the July light of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” and lending crucial moral support to the revolutionary cause in its darkest hours. 

A key intellectual player in not one, but two, revolutions (American and French), Paine's flair for the written word was much-admired:  Ben Franklin once said, “Others can rule, many can fight, but only Paine can write for us the English tongue”; and Thomas Jefferson, who for many years sent Paine manuscripts for criticism and correction, wrote him, “You must not be too much elated … when I tell you my belief that you are the only writer in America who can write better than your obliged and obedient servant - Thomas Jefferson.”

Like the other four radicals profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time (Roger Williams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vine Deloria Jr.), Paine believed that governmental tolerance for the autonomy of all citizens is a fundamental, mandatory feature of American democracy.  He explained the concept in the 1792 Rights of Man: “Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.”

As for the role of society and government vis-à-vis those natural rights, Paine elaborated: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.” In other words, government, which is merely a useful tool devised to protect every person’s pre-existing natural rights, simply lacks authority to curtail these rights. Government, one might say, is Liberty’s servant.

Also like the other four profiled radicals, Paine too believed that religious orthodoxy had been a significant source of intolerance throughout history.  He admired Jesus Christ the man, and the principles of tolerance, equality, humility and forgiveness he advocated. “[Jesus] was a virtuous and an amiable man,” Paine explained in the Age of Reason. “The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind.” Paine admired Christ's stubborn commitment to principle (recognizing, no doubt, some of himself in Christ’s own persecuted life experiences): “[Christ] preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests; and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priesthood,” Paine recalled. “The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject…. Jesus Christ [likely] had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans.”

And for that, Paine explained, “this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.” One might accurately say Jesus Christ was himself a radical in his own time.

NEXT TIME: Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Gender Wars Radical

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Roger Williams - America's First Radical

LAST TIME: Americans Are Hungry to Believe Liberty and Equal Justice Will Ultimately Prevail

Roger Williams (1603-1683) is the first person profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America.

Williams moved from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 at age twenty-eight to escape religious persecution and was was expelled from the Colony just four years later in 1635 for his nonconforming views on religious freedom and separation of church and state. Yet with his views favoring unconditional broad tolerance of the views and practices of all (believers and non-believers alike) - “I plead for impartiality and equal freedom, peace and safety to other consciences and assemblies, unto which the people may as freely go, and this according to each conscience, whatever conscience this conscience be” - he set the template for governmental tolerance of religion in the New World in his new state of Rhode Island, which made the guarantee of religious liberty a part of its fundamental law.

Williams believed government must tolerate the personal autonomy of all citizens on the reasoning that matters involving individual choice not affecting the rights of others are natural rights pre-dating government itself. Indeed, Williams believed the term “tolerance” is itself a misnomer, as it implies government has the authority in the first place to decide whether or not to recognize the right; whereas, the idea of pre-existing natural rights forecloses government interference - period.

When it came to matters of religious orthodoxy, Williams like the other four radicals profiled in the book (Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vine Deloria Jr.) deeply objected to he elaborate superstitions and practices that arose around Christ’s teachings in the many centuries following his death, which variously punished, stigmatized, marginalized or victimized certain individuals or groups. He railed against the hypocrisy of religious wars: “The blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the Wars of present and former Ages, for their respective Consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.”

In the end, for having “broached and divulged [such] diverse new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates,” Williams was banished to the wilderness, where he founded his Rhode Island community dedicated to freedom of religion.

NEXT TIME:  Roger Williams in England

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Americans Are Hungry to Believe Liberty and Equal Justice Will Ultimately Prevail

LAST TIME: America's Love of Fictional "Everyman" Underdogs

With its ringing assertion that certain unalienable natural rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) exist beyond the reach of any manmade government - and, more radically, that the people have the right to abolish any government not observing those rights - the Declaration of Independence was a bold statement to the world. As Thomas Jefferson wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence just days before his death, “May [the Declaration] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government.”

It was Americans' ancestors who then crafted a Constitution establishing a governmental structure guaranteeing liberty and equal justice, thereby making America the first nation in the history of the world to break the bonds of feudalism. While the promises of the Declaration and Constitution have fallen far short in the execution, the mandate for a constitutionally-limited government dispensing equal justice is every American’s birthright. “It is the protection of the humblest individual against his own government; [his] bulwark against autocratic power, and against the impulses of an irresponsible majority,” Gaspar Bacon rhapsodized in 1928.

So, when Americans are presented with anecdotal reminders of liberty, individual autonomy and equal justice triumphing over a rigid shepherd, it stirs something familiar from deep within themselves: a welling pride, a visceral longing, a sheer hope, that someone - maybe even oneself or loved ones – will have the courage to claim the full promise of Freedom bequeathed by their forebears. Americans are hungry to believe liberty and equal justice will ultimately prevail. The fictional characters identified in the last post, Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, the Great Debaters in 2007, and even Yertle the Turtle in 1959, speak to this hunger, and stand – as do their real-life counterparts Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois and Vine Deloria - as timeless American heroes for courageously challenging a powerful, often unjust and intolerant Establishment - and winning in the end.

NEXT TIME:  Roger Williams

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

America's Love of Fictional "Everyman" Underdogs

LAST TIME:  Radicals Stood on Principle, Regardless of Consequences to Selves

Even while the American masses may be “disposed to suffer” death by a thousand cuts, as the Declaration of Independence suggests (see last post), at the same time the masses vicariously enjoy the exploits of the few who refuse to be intimidated. So, in any given holiday movie-going or summer reading season, it is possible to find fictional radical characters pushing back against overweening or unjust government. “Who are we to just lie there and do nothing?” asks fictionalized radical-James Farmer Jr., for example, in the 2007 movie The Great Debaters, during a debate about the morality of civil disobedience in response to Southern lynchings in the 1930s. “There is no Rule of Law in the Jim Crow South,” Farmer continues, “not when Negroes are denied housing, turned away from schools, and hospitals. And not when we are lynched. St. Augustine said, ‘An unjust law in no law at all,’ which means I have a right – even a duty – to resist, with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.”

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the Wizard-government of Oz commands as he madly works the levers and wheels trying to maintain his grasp on power in one of the most popular movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz - while radical-Dorothy scolds him for his hubris and refuses to allow him to usurp her own autonomy or to mistreat her friends. Dorothy implicitly understands the Wizard is human, no better or worse than herself – and she demands the restoration of justice and tolerance to the Land of Oz.

Or, on the lighter side, Theodore (Dr. Seuss) Geisel’s radical-turtle Mack in Yertle the Turtle implicitly knows that King Yertle is not so special that he should be able to cruelly command all of the other turtles to stack themselves up merely so Yertle will have a better view from atop the stack - so he does something about it. Mack “did a plain little thing. He burped. And his burp shook the throne of the king! … And Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-sond, Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! In the Pond! And today the Great Yertle, that marvelous he, Is King of the Mud.” And best of all - “the turtles, of course … all the turtles are free. As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

There is good reason Americans today are so inspired by underdog stories of courageous individuals who take on an unjust Establishment and prevail – it is in their blood. It was their ancestors, after all, who against heavy odds declared and won independence from the mighty British Empire on the audacious principle that government serves only as liberty’s servant; and that the people may abolish any government that fails to do so. As the Declaration of Independence declares:

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles."

NEXT TIME:  Americans' Hunger to Believe Liberty and Equal Justice Will Ultimately Prevail