There is a union organizing song from the 1930's called
Which Side Are You On?
It says that when it comes to values and rights there are
neutral positions. The question needs to be answered by each of us in our time on our own issues - What are your values? Which side are you on?
At the same time, beware of "sides" and partisanship - they can lead to discord and dysfunction.
I recently heard a progressive commentator say that a new government initiative was Un-American. He was speaking about the ban of transgender people from the military. It could just as well have been a conservative saying the Affordable Care Act was Un-American creeping socialism or an Alt-Right KKK leader saying that racial equality is Un-American. We have a president who thinks regulations that stop coal mine owners from dumping their waste into rivers and streams is Un-American. Growing up I learned of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its post-WW II hunt for Reds, and I was taught that the committee itself was thoroughly Un-American.
Clearly what is and isn't Un-American depends on your point of view; your values.
Along with a bill of rights and an increasingly progressive history, we have had some ups and downs. There were McCarthyism, slavery morphing into Jim Crow and racial discrimination, the attempt to wipe out Native American people and culture, and waves of anti-immigrant bias and violence throughout American history. They seem all to be part of the fabric of America.
Yet, many of us, hopefully most, like to define being American in terms of the values of democracy, free speech, peace, fairness, equal opportunity, inclusion, and practical governance. We see slavery, lynching, racial, age and gender based discrimination and hate mongering as evils to be eradicated. There can be no neutrality about these.
The Context - Ethics and Values
Health-care, the Trump-Russia connection, the gutting of the EPA, voter fraud, whether or not to take down Confederate statues are each important challenges. They appear in a broader context with issues like ethics, the way we handle poverty and income inequality, the nature and future of democracy, free press, diversity and more.
Let's dispense with terms like American and Un-American and focus on the things that matter.
What are your values? Why? What are your goals? Why?
How do we, in a local society within a global society move forward to achieve our goals while not violating our values?
How do we work with people with different values, like leaders who value their own wealth, fame and power above all else? How do we address those who value the heritage of heroic rebellion in the Civil War regardless of the fact that it glorifies those who fought to preserve slavery and instituted violent racism after the war was over? How do we address those who think violence is a viable option for settling differences?
It is complicated!
It is increasingly obvious that the vast majority of people in the world value security, peace, prosperity, health and happiness. Yet, we are faced with elected leaders who seem not to promote programs that further these values.
Our current administration seems to fixate on ideologies and personal greed, minimize even the most logical and valuable environmental and consumer protections. They act as if it is Un-American for the government to influence and control the way companies get rid of their waste but that it is OK to turn a blind eye to and promote discrimination, seek to disenfranchise those who disagree with them and fabricate "alternative facts."
Cutting Through Ideology to Go Beyond
Bi-Partisanship to Simply Working Together
We are experiencing several years during which partisanship has made government ineffectual. Though, the recent emergence of a bipartisan bloc in Congress may be a glimpse of a healthy response. I hope it will bring practical reality back into government to replace or at least confront the ideologues who would rather get nothing accomplished than compromise.
Not to say that having an ideology is bad. It can be a useful guide. However, it is dysfunctional to be inflexible in the face of evidence that your ideology is based on nothing but unfounded belief or custom and that it contributes to the suffering of large numbers of people. For example, a racist ideology leads to slavery and mass murder. A nationalistic ideology promotes warfare and makes international cooperation difficult, if not impossible.
The ideology that views government intervention in the economy as Un-American makes it difficult to confront a trend toward underemployment caused by artificial intelligence and robotics based automation. How do you address chronic unemployment without accepting the fact that people without jobs need food and shelter? Do you let the jobless starve, rely on the wealthy to voluntarily share or does government redistribute wealth and provide a minimum livable wage?
With states rights as an ideology where do you draw the line? Do you let states legalize racial and gender based discrimination, drug use, assisted suicide and abortion? When does the state's rights ideologue justify federal intervention?
What values underlie the ideology? Are they your values? Is the ideology the undisputed Only Truth or is it a guideline? Can conflicting ideologies be reconciled?
- Which Side are You On?
To address these issues, we must base decisions on some fundamental values - non-harming, taking a long-term view, practicality, personal choice and freedom of expression (as long as there is no harm to others) and compassion. With these as a base we can then find solutions to issues like health care management, income distribution, environmental protection and tax reform, which may not be perfect, but will work for the largest number of people possible and be open to refinement over time. Maybe anything else is Un-American.
I'm on the side of a practical, rational, compassionate approach that seeks to understand and accommodate the needs of others while clearly and unequivocally declaring against Nazi-ism, racism and violence.
Which side are you on?