Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution

irvington_statue_of_rip_van_winkleOn November 4, voters in the US made a momentous choice, not only by taking another step towards racial equality, but also by demanding new ways of relating to other countries, to injustice, to the environment, and to truth itself. As of today, that is only one step; nothing has changed except the direction we are pointed.

Where the path leads next depends even more on the rest of us than it does on President-Elect Obama. The great challenges of globalization, racism, poverty, and violence are unaffected by a single election. Yet, there is a risk that we can fall asleep, lose sight of those challenges, and begin to think only of narrow issues, such as many that surfaced in the campaign.

We have the opportunity now to respond to the challenges posed 43 years ago in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s excellent speech, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. In his talk, he relates the story of “Rip Van Winkle,” who slept 20 years. But he reminds us that when Rip went up to the mountain, the sign on the local inn had a picture of King George III of England. Twenty years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington. Rip had not only slept 20 years; he had slept through a revolution. As King says, “Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.”

King saw that we are experiencing a scientific and technological revolution, one that challenges us to remain awake, and to develop a world perspective. It’s more imperative than ever to eradicate racial injustice and rid the world of poverty, and to find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Long before talk of flat worlds, King saw that our destinies were intertwined:250px-martin_luther_king_jr_nywts

All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality…And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.

Remaining awake means looking beyond government as usual and recognizing that children in Haiti are in our “garment of destiny,” as much a part of our world as the person next door. It means knowing that justice is an ongoing project that needs to be defended wherever we hear of abuses of human rights, not seeking ways to justify them. It means finding an end to wars, not simply moving from one venue to another.

Can we do any better now at addressing King’s great challenges?


King, Jr, Martin Luther (1965, June). Remaining awake through a great revolution. Commencement address for Oberlin College, Oberlin Ohio.

Bill Ayers interview

Bill Ayers gave his first interview after the election on NPR’s Fresh Air on Tuesday. It’s very interesting,  providing some context on a bizarre aspect of the Presidential race this year. Terry Gross gets him to speak freely and also asks probing questions about the war in Vietnam, the 60’s, terrorism, means v. ends, politics, imperialism, and the personal impact.

Fresh Air from WHYY, November 18, 2008 · The name of former anti-war activist William Ayers was brought up twice in an attempt to discredit Barack Obama during the recent presidential campaign — first by Hillary Clinton, and then by the McCain campaign. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Obama — who served on two nonprofit boards with Ayers — of “palling around with terrorists.”

The accusations stemmed from Ayers’ involvement with the Weather Underground, a radical group responsible for bombings on the New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the U.S. Capitol building in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972. The federal case against Ayers was dismissed in the early 1970s.

Ayers is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of ‘Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist.’

Ayers will be a guest-in-residence on the Urbana-Champaign campus this coming March 8-12.

Creative democracy: Yes we can!

Yesterday’s election of Barack Obama as President of the United States was not only promising for our future, but was also a moving reaffirmation of all that America can be.

His Presidency may not fulfill all the dreams that the candidacy inspired; some things may not change at all. But it reminds me of what Thurgood Marshall said after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which outlawed segregated schools. When asked what the Supreme Court ruling really meant, Marshall, said that in fact nothing had changed, except that henceforth, repeating the civil rights mantra, “the law is on our side”. In a similar way, Obama’s Presidency offers no guarantees, but does offer exciting possibilities in terms of uniting Americans and restoring America’s role in the community of nations.

The election of Obama is also a reminder that democracy is not a static system, but a process in need of continual renewal by all. Dewey (1976/1939, p. 230) expresses this in his essay, “Creative democracy: The task before us”:

Democracy as compared with other ways of life is the sole way of living which believes wholeheartedly in the process of experience as end and as means; as that which is capable of generating the science which is the sole dependable authority for the direction of further experience and which releases emotions, needs and desires so as to call into being the things that have not existed in the past. For every way of life that fails in its democracy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the interactions by which experience is steadied while it is also enlarged and enriched. The task of this release and enrichment is one that has to be carried on day by day. Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.

Let’s have the audacity to hope that we are capable of creating of “a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” I might add that John McCain’s concession speech was a gracious and thoughtful step in that direction.


Dewey, John (1976). Creative democracy: The task before us. In J. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925-1953, volume 14 (pp. 224-230). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1939)

Kluger, Richard (1977, 1975). Simple justice. The history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality. New York: Vintage Books.

Powell asks, “What if he is?”

Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama for President was a powerful statement from a much-respected figure. It will certainly help Obama’s campaign. But at least as significant was his challenge of Islamophobia:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as ‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well the correct answer is ‘He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian, he’s always been a Christian.’ But the really right answer is ‘What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?’ The answer is ‘No. That’s not America.’ Is there something wrong with some 7-year old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she can be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion he’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.">Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008</a>I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo-essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 years old at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he can go serve his country and he gave his life. [Photo courtesy of Tom Gugiluzza-Smith, August 2008]

Powell is not the first to make this point, but it’s difficult to name another such prominent political leader who has done so. Others, including Obama himself, have focused on the fact that some statements about his ethnic or religious background have been false, not on the bigotry revealed by the very question itself. Ignoring the presupposition of those questions shows a lack of understanding and respect for the US Constitution, which should bring shame on Republican and Democratic leaders alike.

See Abed Z. Bhuyan, On Faith: Guest Voices: Powell Rejects Islamophobia

Comparing Obama and McCain

Kent Porter has prepared a helpful website (Obama and McCain Compared), which presents Obama and McCain’s positions on taxes, spending, environment, and health care. It should be useful for any voter who wants some basic, well-sourced facts that go beyond the usual, impoverished discussions we see in the mainstream media.

The following information represents my attempt to cut through all of the divisive spin that our presidential elections have engendered. As a high school teacher who values information and facts over red herring issues that take our minds off of the ball, I have tried to provide details about four key areas–Taxes, Federal Spending, the Environment, and Health Care. I wanted to present factual information about where the two candidates stand on those areas.

Obama’s speech: A more perfect union

Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia yesterday (full text and video of the speech) was an historic moment, the most direct attention to race and racism from any major Presidential candidate. Speaking in the way he did was an intelligent, courageous, and moral act in an atmosphere of sound bites and back-biting. I don’t know whether it helps or hurts his campaign, but it should help the country.

I saw three main points in the speech, with my comments in brackets:

  1. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” [Prejudices against those who speak different languages, profess different religions, have different values, or simply look different, are a major problem. However, the legacy of slavery, segregation, and continuing discrimination against Blacks has made that form of racism a defining feature of US history. It’s our biggest challenge, one no other country faces in the same way.]
  2. “Not this time.” [Racism in its historical forms not only continues to undermine our best impulses; it spreads and poisons other issues such as how we address immigration or how we interact with other countries. We need to move the discourse forward this time, to transcend race in a deep way, if we are ever to form “a more perfect union.”]
  3. “We cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together.” [We can’t do #2 if we don’t address #1.]

Some people express what they know about the pernicious effects of racism in ways that are divisive or factually wrong. In so doing, they fuel the very ignorance and hatred that underly racism. By not acknowledging the possibility of change, they effectively block it. That was Obama’s response to some of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments.

Others ask, “why not just be color blind?”, essentially ignoring the reality of racism. In response to that, Obama said that race is an issue; we need to work to make it not so, but that requires understanding and facing it.

Obama’s speech wasn’t a scholarly critique, but he managed to show for those ready to listen why we need to understand and confront racism. Only then can we work together to build a different kind of society, and bring the focus to issues such as education, health care, and the economy.