Saturday, April 22, 2023

Deadly Fear

 Deadly Fear

by Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird May 2023)


When I read about an 84 year old white man in a Kansas City suburb shooting unarmed Black teenager Ralph Yarl through his front door, saying he was “scared to death,” I remembered a similar incident I wrote about five years ago, when a 14-year-old Black teenager, lost on his way to school, was fired upon when he knocked on a white neighbor’s door to ask for directions. In both cases, the perceived threat was only in the mind of the homeowner, stoked by the relentless fearmongering of politicians, conservative news media, and organizations like the NRA who want to capitalize on that fear.


Fearful and angry men shooting first and asking questions later is becoming an epidemic. Within a week, several examples of innocent people being shot by a trigger-happy ‘good guy with a gun’ have made the national news. 


In upstate New York, Kaylin Gillis was killed when the car she was riding in turned in to the wrong driveway. As the car was turning around and leaving, the homeowner fired on the vehicle, killing the 20-year-old honor student who hoped to become a marine biologist. Near Austin, Texas, a cheerleader who got into a car she thought belonged to her friend was shot after she got out of the car but before she could apologize. And in North Carolina, a man shot a 6-year-old and her parents when they tried to retrieve a basketball that had bounced into the man’s yard.


In each of these cases, and likely many others around the country, the victims were just doing something every one of us has done. But rather than trying to understand the mistake and respond with reason, the shooters reacted with fearful violence and deadly consequences.


None of this should be a surprise. The gun industry used to market their products as something for responsible sportsmen, emphasizing safety and citizenship. But as former gun industry insider Ryan Busse wrote in The Atlantic — “The Gun Industry Created a New Consumer. Now It’s Killing Us.” July 25, 2022 — advertising began a shift in the 1990s towards marketing guns as a means for young men to get their ‘man card’. 


After the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire in the mid 2000s, marketing took an even darker turn. As manufacturers saw the opportunity to sell ever more deadly weapons, they began creating their own market by instilling fear of Antifa, Black Lives Matter protesters, and many of the other right-wing ‘bogeymen’ that are statistically much less likely to commit violence than the fearful white man.


This same rhetoric is used by politicians and right-wing news media to hold the attention of their audience and supporters. Those who consume the 24-hour barrage of fear from the likes of Tucker Carlson are afraid to leave their own homes without carrying a weapon. Republican-led states are eliminating gun regulations, claiming that individual citizens need unlimited access to weapons to defend their homes and families. So-called ‘stand your ground’ laws encourage the use of firearms as a first response rather than a last resort.


But more access to guns does not reduce gun violence. To the contrary, statistics compiled by Everytownshows a direct correlation between states with fewer gun restrictions and higher rates of gun violence. 


“True Americans must be prepared! Get a gun to protect yourselves, because the government and the liberals aren’t going to do it! They are coming for your guns, your wives, your children! Don’t trust them. Don’t trust the media. Those people (Mexicans, Blacks, immigrants, democrats) are coming for you. Those people are going to replace you! Liberals want to defund the police and let all the violent criminals out on the street!  Vote for me and I’ll protect you! Buy more guns to protect yourself!  Stand your ground. Shoot first and ask questions later!”


With such inescapable rhetoric, It's no wonder so many live with an irrational fear of the other, which leads to irrational behavior. 


Shooting a lost teenager through your front door out of fear is irrational. Shooting a 6-year-old retrieving a basketball from your front yard is irrational. Shooting someone in the back as they try to escape from you is irrational.


Fear is a primal human emotion. Our natural response to fear is not rational; it is inherent in our biology to respond to danger. When that irrational fear has a lethal weapon readily available, innocent people are injured and killed.


As Yoda is famous for saying in another galaxy: “Fear is the path to the dark side… fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering."


We are a nation divided by fear — fear that is fed by those who want our vote or our money. And we are all suffering with too much violence.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right when he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


And I’m afraid.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Правда (Pravda)

 Правда (Pravda) 

by Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird March 2023)


During the height of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, I always thought the title of the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, was the epitome of irony. Pravda — or ‘truth’ in English — was the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I often wondered how many Russian citizens actually believed what they read in Pravda, and whether they were aware that what they read was only what the leaders in power wanted them to believe. Even today, Russian propaganda has a completely different ‘truth’ about the Russian invasion of Ukraine than what we see in the Western free press.


But what is the truth? In a free society, does the truth always win?


The First Amendment was written as a check against an overreaching government that would use its power to limit speech, control the press, or infringe on the right to peaceably protest. The Constitution guarantees those rights in order to limit the ability of the government to use its power against the people.


Having a free press is essential to hold accountable those who would use the government for their own gain. Freedom of the press is so important that it has sometimes been called the fourth estate or the fourth branch of government. The right to criticize government policy and public officials, even with the use of inflammatory language, is a fundamental right that has been repeatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court, most notably in the 1964 decision New York Times v. Sullivan.


But what if the press isn’t working to protect the interests of the people, of our democratic principles? What if the press is more interested in their profitability than they are in reporting the truth? 


The recent legal filing in Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News Corporation (FNC), portions of which were released on February 16, provides explicit details of how the corporate leadership and top personalities at Fox knew what they were telling their viewers wasn’t true. But they continued to spread lies and disinformation, telling their audience what they wanted to hear instead of the truth. Why? 




Texts between top FNC personalities and corporate leadership show that they knew claims of election fraud were false, that Dominion voting machines were not to blame, and that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election. 


When reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact checked a Trump tweet, correcting him with statements that election officials had found no evidence of fraud and that there was no evidence that voting systems had deleted, lost, or changed votes, Tucker Carlson sent this text to Sean Hannity: “Please get her fired… Seriously… What the f*ck? I’m actually shocked… It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”


Example after example of messages like these show that Fox was more concerned with the bottom line than with telling the truth and protecting our democracy.


Republican leadership, afraid of the same demographic to which Fox News panders, refuses to acknowledge the truth more than two years after the 2020 election. Indeed, dozens of Republican candidates ran on a claim that the 2020 election was rigged or fraudulent. That repeated claim, that our elections cannot be trusted, is undermining the foundation of faith in our democracy. A Newsweek poll in November 2022 found that 40% of Americans still believe Trump’s Big Lie.


There’s an old joke that goes: “How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” But there’s a difference between political spin and outright lies. And when the media not only repeats those lies, but amplifies them to the point of creating doubt in our electoral system, they are attacking our country from within. When profit is more important than the truth, the free press becomes an accomplice of our enemies instead of an essential protector of the people’s government.


Fox News is just an extreme example. All media includes spin. Selection of what to report, how to report it, which perspectives to promote and which perspectives to avoid — all are influenced by corporate media owners, editors, and reporters. Journalists can’t avoid their own biases and opinions, even those that work hard to be objective. (And opinion pieces aren’t news, although the line between them is often intentionally muddled.)


The so-called mainstream media has become increasingly sensational. To grab more market share, they use click-bait headlines and divisive rhetoric. Americans think we are more polarized because we are told that we are. At the heart of the loss of a common truth is corporate media repeating false equivalencies and using both sides-isms, with social media providing an amplifying feedback loop of noise. 


Time and time again the media — and that’s across the political spectrum — focuses more on the politics and division than on the issues. They are echoing what they think their readers and viewers want to hear. They obfuscate the truth to maintain the status quo. And while most of us are looking in the wrong direction for someone to blame, the corporate politicians continue to get elected, the rich keep getting richer, the problems in this country continue to fester, and the truth gets harder to find. 


Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, wrote:


“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”


Let’s not allow ourselves to be bamboozled. Look through the noise and spin for the actual truth, not the “alternative facts” someone else is trying to sell us.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Gay students aren’t controversial

Gay students aren’t controversial

by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird January 2023)

When I heard the devastating news that five people were murdered and many others injured in a mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs on November 19, I immediately thought of other recent shootings targeting the LGBTQ+ community, and the constant threat to my own friends and loved ones. Even before anything was known about the shooter, it was obvious that Club Q was targeted because it was a place where queer and transgender people gathered.


Mass shootings like the one at Club Q and at Pulse nightclub in Orlando six years ago make national news, but violence against LGBTQ+ people, and particularly against Black transgender women, is often underreported or not reported at all. Yet, at a Congressional House Oversight Committee hearing on December 14, survivors of the Club Q and Pulse nightclub shootings and other experts testified that in the last year, almost 150 LGBTQ+ events have been attacked. FBI hate crime statistics show that 1 in 5 hate crimes target individuals based on perceived sexual orientation of gender identity. Hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ people have increased by 40% since 2015.


With the steady stream of hateful rhetoric and misinformation coming from right wing political leaders, media personalities, school boards, and judges, this increased violence is not surprising. As Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York said during the committee hearing, “These actions are the culmination of years of anti-LGBTQ extremism that began in statehouses across the country and spread to social media platforms before boiling over into the communities where we reside.”


We want to believe that kind of hate and violence couldn’t happen here, but Colorado Springs is not so different from the Tri-Cities. The same anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric can be heard from our local politicians… and at our local school board meetings. Parroting language being presented in school districts across the country, Kennewick and Richland school board members are proposing policy changes to ban teachers from displaying flags representing “controversial issues.” With a lack of any clear or objective criteria, the purpose of these bans is to leave “controversial issues” open to interpretation, letting policy makers target the rainbow pride flags which some teachers display as a sign of a safe and inclusive classroom for LGTBQ+ students. 


Not only are the proposed policies unnecessary, but they are also potentially illegal. In a November 21, 2022 advisory letter to the Richland School District, the ACLU said: “Without any definite, objective standards, this policy invites erratic and arbitrary application, potential for abuse, squelching of the constitutional guarantee of free speech, and runs the risk of censorship and viewpoint discrimination.”


In addition to harming students through a misguided attempt to prohibit acknowledging their existence, the proposed “controversial issues” policies could lead to expensive legal costs, diverting funds that should be spent on educating our students, not defending ill-advised and harmful policies. 


Who are the so-called “controversial issues” policies proposed by the Kennewick and Richland school boards supposed to protect? They certainly aren’t going to protect our LGBTQ+ students. Our school districts already have policies in place to address curricula and classroom discussions of topics that some parents may find controversial, and there are mechanisms for students and parents to address those issues with school administrators.


Although a number of local teachers have long displayed rainbow flags and symbols in their classrooms, some of those teachers have recently been attacked on social media and during school board meetings for their displays of support for their students. 


Symbols that let LGBTQ+ students know they are safe and welcome shouldn’t be controversial. Banning pride flags tells those students they are not welcome to be themselves in school. Creating a policy that tells our LGBTQ+ students they are controversial is harmful to our most vulnerable children. Such a policy attempts to erase their existence and leads to dehumanizing language, bullying, and violence.


According to the Trevor Project, bullying and negative treatment is a significant risk factor for youth suicide. LGBTQ+ youth experience significantly more bullying and are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Data reported by the Trevor Project indicates that affirming schools not only provide a more inclusive environment for their LGBTQ+ students, but that LGBTQ+ students in those schools are less likely to experience bullying.


And the attitude towards LGBTQ+ students impacts the broader community. The disinformation and lies about gay and transgender people spread by local leaders marginalizes the adult LGBTQ+ members of our community, as well. 


The people are listening. Too many in our community believe harmful lies about our LGBTQ+ citizens, and those lies could push someone to violence. Violence against LGBTQ+ people is happening all across the country, and it could happen here.


Being gay isn’t controversial. Policies targeting people because of their gender or sexual orientation leads to the spread of dangerous misinformation, and puts our students and other community members at risk. And that risk all too often leads directly to violence.


These aren’t harmless differences of opinion. They aren’t intended to protect religious liberty or freedom of speech (unless your religion and speech deny the existence of LGBTQ+ people). No, these policies uphold bigotry in the name of ‘protection’ and parental rights. And when we target one another, we put the entire community at risk.  


We must recognize the danger to our community. Protecting our LGBTQ+ neighbors and children is not a controversial issue. It is imperative

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Money talks

Money talks

by Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird December 2022)


A parable.


Imagine a village that has established a form of democratic self-government. All decisions for the common good are made through simple democracy – one person, one vote. 


In the center of the village is a town square where every citizen has an equal right to debate ideas for the common good of the village. When an issue or a matter is to be decided, every villager is allowed to speak for or against the decision. To ensure everyone has an equal say on a matter, there are a few simple rules: 

·       Everyone wishing to speak is allotted an equal amount of time

·       Only one person may speak at a time

·       All speakers must speak from a designated area in the center of the town square


After everyone has had an opportunity to speak, the villagers mark a ballot and place it in a box in the town square. Votes are counted and the villagers respect the majority rule, agreeing to abide by the decision of their fellow citizens.


One day, a minority group of villagers who own several of the businesses in the village market secretly conspire to put their competitors out of business. The secret plans are highly effective, and the minority group begins to concentrate the wealth of the village in the hands of the few. 


Some of the villagers realize what is happening and call for a decision to address the unfair business practices. As speeches in the town square begin to expose the corruption, the minority group realizes their scheme is in jeopardy. They begin to secretly pay villagers to spread misinformation among the crowd, saying that those wanting to regulate businesses are just lazy and don’t want to work. 


Claiming the rules allowing everyone to speak are unfair, the wealthy business owners build platforms around the square to elevate their speakers above the designated speaking area. The business owners and their supporters begin shouting over the speakers in the designated area following the rules. With their ability to build platforms and pay speakers, the business owners create such a loud opposition to those trying to expose the business corruption that voices of truth and reason can no longer be heard.


Soon, the rules for the simple democracy established by the village are overturned and the business owners are able to guarantee their power and influence over the village decisions, disregarding the will of the villagers and continuing to concentrate the power and wealth in the hands of the few.  


This simple parable illustrates what has been happening in the United States for several decades. Although the wealthy have always had more influence on our government – the founders only allowed white male landowners to vote or hold office – constitutional amendments and laws over the years have sought to level the playing field and minimize the impact of electioneering and unfair voter influence. Following Watergate, laws like the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974 and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 sought to limit campaign spending by corporations, unions, and other special interest groups. But in 2010, the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision overturned those laws, stating that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting campaign spending. In the twelve years since Citizens United, campaign spending by secretive Political Action Committees, funded by anonymous corporations and wealthy donors, has exploded.


In the 2022 midterm election held last month, the Washington Post reported that billionaires poured over $1.1 billion dollars into political races. The amount of money spent on political campaigns is staggering. Money has become such an integral part of U.S. politics that we judge the effectiveness of a political leader by the amount of money they are able to raise. Campaign literature in emails, texts, and other advertising is constantly asking for more money, breathlessly claiming that opponents are raising more money and the future of the nation depends solely on donating to a political campaign.


As money has become more important to winning elections, the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations has grown, particularly in Congress. And as corporate media becomes more consolidated, owned by the same wealthy class that funds political campaigns, the influence of that money pushes us ever closer to oligarchy.


In a system where voters receive their information from campaigns and media sources funded by those who want to influence government to ensure their ever-growing profitability, even at the expense of the middle and lower class, the idea of a government of the people is severely eroded. 


In his dissenting opinion in Citizens United, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens said corporations were not part of the “We the people” in the Constitution, and that corporations did not have the same motivations as individual citizens since their only interest was the corporate bottom line, not the interests of the people of the United States. Stevens said that the majority opinion in Citizens United was "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government."


In the current American political system, money indeed talks. The question all of us should be asking is whether that money is being spent for the good of the many, or for the good of the few.


In the parable of the village, the power of the villagers is only limited by what they allow the business owners to take. As long as the shouting continues unchallenged, the average villager won’t be able to hear the truth. But if they can work together to restore the fairness of the town square, the business owners won’t be able to shout with their money, and the simple democracy in the village can be restored.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

A republic, if you can keep it

A republic, if you can keep it

by Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird November 2022)


I have been concerned about the future of our country for some time now. I, like many Americans, feel a sense of dread that the United States as we know it is on the brink of collapse. That our system of government, a constitutional democratic republic as established in the Constitution, is heading towards autocracy. 


The most significant indicator of this threat is the sustained and growing effort to undermine confidence in our elections. 


Our founders worked together to agree upon something that was at the time a radical idea: that a government should only exist with the consent of the governed. And so, the system of checks and balances, of rights and authorities, and of liberties and limitations were written into the United States Constitution, giving the ultimate authority of government to the people of the United States. “We the people” are the first words of the Constitution for a reason. 


The authority of the Constitution is derived from we the people, as long as we continue to support it. We do so by recognizing the authority and legitimacy of the rule of law. And, most importantly, we recognize the authority of the law by trusting in and accepting the legitimacy of our elections.


There have been attempts to undermine our elections throughout our history, but there has never been such a widespread, concerted effort to both delegitimize the electoral process and refuse to accept the results of an election. With the unprecedented refusal of Donald Trump to concede that he lost to Joe Biden, the violent insurrection on January 6, and the extensive and ongoing efforts at voter suppression by Republicans across the country, our electoral process has never been in this much jeopardy. 


The Republican Party no longer believes in the principles of a shared government of all the people. A common theme among Republican candidates is that they will refuse to accept the results of any election unless they win. Repeating Trump’s falsehoods has become a central part of the Republican Party’s message. A recent New York Times article, ‘A Crisis Coming’, states that about two-thirds of Republican voters say Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. Among Republican candidates running for statewide office this year, 47 percent have refused to accept the 2020 result. That’s nearly half of all Republican candidates. 


Election deniers are not only running for Congress and state legislatures, but for secretaries of state and other offices that oversee state elections. Many Republican led states have proposed or passed laws that give authority to either the legislature or the secretary of state to overturn the results of elections they don’t agree with.


The extreme right is so fearful and hateful towards those they consider un-American that they are willing to destroy the country rather than accept election results they don’t like. 


Writing in The Federalist, senior editor John Daniel Davidson has called for conservatives to abandon their long-standing principles and instead wield government power as a “blunt instrument.” He claims that “accommodation or compromise with the left is impossible.” He demands an end to no-fault divorce and subsidizing families with children. He claims all abortion is murder and should be prosecuted as such. He wants to defund public universities to keep them from “spreading poisonous ideologies.” He calls for arresting parents and educators who teach their children that LGBT people should be treated equally and with respect. He thinks that doctors performing gender-affirming medicine should be thrown into prison. He thinks same-sex marriage should be outlawed. In effect, he wants to overturn one hundred years of social progress. 


If Mr. Davidson and those who think like him have their way, our form of government will be abolished and replaced with fascism. The vast popularity of his ideas indicates that this is not an idle threat, but a very real possibility. This isn’t a differing opinion about how best to achieve our collective goals, but a call to completely abandon the principles upon which this country was founded.


And how could this come about? If we the people allow it — by ignoring the signs of what is happening and abdicating our authority to hold our elected officials accountable through free and fair elections.


If your vote didn't matter, those who don't want you to vote wouldn't work so hard to disenfranchise you or discourage you from engaging in the elections. But there is something even better at suppressing your vote than legal disenfranchisement and the power to overrule election results: voter apathy.


We are told by much of the media, and certainly by those who don’t want us to vote, that our vote doesn’t matter. Voter turnout, particularly in non-presidential elections, is abysmal. As a long-time advocate for voting, I have talked to many people over the years about the importance of their vote. I can’t tell you the number of non-voters who have told me they didn’t bother because they were convinced it didn’t matter. 


Some people fail to vote because they think voting is too hard. Some are just too busy and too complacent to bother, believing that no matter the outcome of an election, their lives will continue much the same as they always have. And then there are those who believe their vote won’t make a difference because those in power have rigged the system so they will win regardless of the vote. 


With the barrage of campaign ads, breathlessly begging for money with fearmongering about how dire the stakes are, it’s no wonder that many of us just want to tune out of politics. And while the campaign rhetoric may be hyperbole, the choices we make really are significant.


In his first inaugural address, March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln said:


“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 


There is a growing effort to make us enemies. If we abandon our principles of unity, of equality, of liberty, and of our commitment to the Constitution, we will abandon everything good about the United States of America.


Our progress has not always been steady. Our history is filled with violence and inequity. But the beauty of what the founders established is that we can continue to make things better for everyone. Giving in to a minority who believe their narrow view of the world is the only way, and that all other beliefs and opinions must be stamped out, will be the end of progress.


After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when asked what form of government we had, Benjamin Franklin is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”


I believe in this constitutional democratic republic. I hope we keep it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Violence is not the way

Violence is not the way

Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird October 2022)


Earlier this year, an Ipsos poll found that “more than one-fifth of the American public agrees that it is sometimes okay to engage in violence, either to protect American democracy or our culture and values.” That same poll found that seven in ten Americans think that our democracy is at risk of failing.


But is violence really the only way to hold our democracy together? 


The history we teach and the stories we tell often portray those who use violence against the oppressor as heroes. We are taught that sometimes violence is necessary for self-defense, as individuals and as a nation. And we tend to believe the myth that violence is more effective than nonviolence in creating political change.


I don’t have to remind you how polarizing our politics are today. That elected leaders and party politicians openly use the threat of violence for political influence is a sign that our democracy really is in crisis.


The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a wake-up call. Too many Americans believe the Big Lie that has eroded confidence in our elections, and too many of us are willing to use violence to overthrow the government. Threats and intimidation of election workers and public officials have become commonplace. Many long-serving public officials who have dedicated their lives to public service are resigning in the face of these threats. I can’t imagine what it is like for a long-time volunteer election worker to suddenly be subjected to threats of violence just for doing their job to ensure our elections are free, fair, and secure.


And now, in response to a lawful investigation of citizen Donald Trump’s mishandling of highly classified information, Senator Lindsey Graham said there would be “riots in the streets” if Trump were indicted. This week, Donald Trump said that if an indictment were handed down, “I think you’d have problems the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before.” This mob-boss language is clear; it is a threat of violence if he should be held accountable (as any other citizen who committed the crimes he is being investigated for would be). 


The rhetoric has gone from divisive to dangerous.


“This is not who we are” has become the refrain of those speaking out against political violence and the efforts to co-opt violence to achieve political gain. 


But this is who we are.


Our history is filled with examples of political violence. This country was founded on violence, not only violence against the King of England, but violence against Indigenous and enslaved people in our own country. 


Progress towards a more just, inclusive, equitable nation has often been countered with violence. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan was a direct response to the constitutional amendments that gave Black Americans the same rights as whites. Political violence kept Jim Crow laws in place for at least a century. 


When citizens began organizing and demanding an end to racist policies during the Civil Rights Movement, political violence by government officials and white supremacist mobs was used to suppress the movement. 


In too many ways, violence is who we are.


But violence isn’t the only way. We don’t have to accept violence as necessary or acceptable. 


Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience (which led directly to India’s independence from the British Empire), Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who organized with him were committed to nonviolent political activism. However, being nonviolent didn’t mean that these activists  weren’t involved in multiple direct action campaigns that put them at risk of physical violence. Over many years, nonviolent protests and civil disobedience — like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, the March on Washington, and the Selma to Montgomery march that led to the confrontation on the Edmund Pettis Bridge — began to get the attention of the public. The violence committed by state troopers and local police in Selma, severely beating peaceful protesters and injuring hundreds (including John Lewis), made national news and showed the glaring inequality in how Black citizens were treated. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. showed the world the extent of violence being used to suppress dissenting political opinion. 


Years of peaceful civil disobedience and the unprovoked violent response by those in power got the public’s attention and changed minds in Washington, leading directly to passage of the Civil Rights Act. A century of legal segregation, disenfranchisement, and racist policy was overturned through nonviolence.


But does nonviolent protest always work? Most of us think of nonviolence as a philosophy that seems righteous in principle, but ineffective in the face of violence. Ghandi and MLK may have been successful, but does a philosophy of nonviolence really work consistently?


As I was researching this essay, I discovered the research of Erica Chenoweth. A student of military history and political science at Harvard University, Chenoweth was challenged with that very question — whether nonviolent civil disobedience is more effective than violent revolution.


Chenoweth completed an exhaustive study of violent and nonviolent movements throughout the twentieth century and found that nonviolent political activism was twice as likely to result in change than violence. Moreover, nonviolence was more effective in creating lasting change than violence. And this is true even against repressive, violent, totalitarian regimes. The reasons for this are complex and counterintuitive, but the research shows that nonviolent resistance works. Ghandi and MLK were right.


I still wonder whether violence is sometimes unavoidable. Dr. King himself recognized that sometimes a “riot is the language of the unheard.” But there are always alternatives.


As Chenoweth’s research shows, to achieve political change, violence is not only unethical and immoral, violence is less effective in the long run. Calls for violence by elected officials are irresponsible and antidemocratic. We, as responsible citizens, should call out violent rhetoric and refuse to support officials who use threats and intimidation against their political opponents.


Violence may be an integral part of the history of the United States, but violence does not have to be part of our future. 


This doesn’t have to be who we are.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Progress requires participation

Progress requires participation

by Ted Miller

(originally published in Tumbleweird September 2022)


“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. … It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Frederick Douglass, 1857


As a young man, I had a naïve belief in the infallibility of our system of government. The history of the United States seems to have shown that the checks and balances contained in the U.S. Constitution ensure that our government of the people can endure anything. If our nation could survive the Civil War, it would seem our democracy could survive anything.


Today, I’m not so sure.


I have always taken my duty to vote seriously. I believed that, as a conscientious voter, if I voted for politicians who shared my values, the leaders I helped elect would continue to work towards a more perfect union. I believed that, over time, the arc of history would indeed bend towards justice because our system inherently made progress toward the better.


But as I have become a student of both history and politics, I have come to realize that progress doesn’t happen because an elected leader suddenly decides that social justice is important. We the people must demand progress.


Many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today are a result of court decisions and not the legislature. As Congress has become more polarized and dysfunctional, we have depended more on the courts for progress. But as we have seen from this year’s Supreme Court decisions, unless those rights and freedoms are enacted into law, those rights and freedoms can be just as easily taken away.


I recently saw a Twitter thread reflecting on how we have shifted over the last seven decades from activism, organizing, and legislating to relying on the courts for progress. Niko Bowie (@nikobowie) wrote, in part:


For decades, liberals have confidently responded to injustice with “see you in court.” But the same voices are famished for alternatives when courts are the problem. Rather than look for leadership from dissents or Capitol poetry, we need to learn from people who have spent these same decades building power in *spite* of a hostile legal system. … To enact national laws we need political power. To build political power we need to collectively commit not just to the biannual ritual of voting, but also to the day-to-day grit of organizing the people around us. … Organizing is a theory of change that doesn’t trust people atop hierarchies to share our values.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t happen because President Lyndon Johnson suddenly realized that the promise of Civil War Reconstruction hadn’t been met.


Since long before the Civil War, Black voices like Frederick Douglass demanded justice. And although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a towering force in the civil rights movement, he didn’t achieve civil rights alone. Thousands of Black activists and organizers have suffered unspeakable violence and oppression for each step of progress over the years.


Although the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments abolished slavery and granted voting rights to all men (but not women) after the Civil War, racial discrimination, inequality, and voter suppression continued in earnest for at least another hundred years, and in many ways continue today. The Civil Rights acts of the 1960s happened only after decades of organizing and demands from Black people for equality.


Granting women the right to vote didn’t happen because President Woodrow Wilson suddenly thought women’s suffrage was the right thing to do.


Women didn’t gain the right to participate in our democracy for almost 150 years from the founding of this nation. Women organizers, led not just by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but by many others — including Black women like Mary Church Terrell and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin — organized and lobbied for decades for women’s rights. They used both marches and civil disobedience to demand action until the Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote.


Corporations and political leaders didn’t grant protections to workers because they suddenly thought the labor force deserved them.


Workers today have the labor movement to thank for many of the labor laws that protect them in the workplace. Unions and labor organizers demanded better working conditions through organizing, strikes, and protests. 


It is those who are denied their rights, those who suffer from inequality and injustice, who have organized and demanded change.


And the fight continues. As the wealthy and politically connected continue to try to maintain power, they work against fair labor practices, against universal voting rights, against racial equality, and against the freedoms too many of us take for granted.


Voting and participation in the democratic process is essential. We must pay attention to what our elected leaders are doing in our name. We must listen to the voices of the marginalized and those most impacted by our local, state, and federal governments. And those of us with the means to make our voices heard must use them to demand justice and equality.


It’s not enough to cast a vote and hope for the best. We must also participate in the decision making, organize with others when we can, hold our leaders accountable, and support those working hard to make the world a better place.


It is we who grant the power to our government. And it is we who must work together to demand the change in the world we want to see.