Saturday, April 30, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Congresswoman Barbara Lee

Congresswoman Barbara Lee

US Congressional Representative Barbara Lee (from California's 13th Congressional District) was the only member of the US Congress to vote no on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) immediately after the 9/11 WTC tower attacks, stating that "It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events – without regard to our nation's long-term foreign policy, national security interests, and without time limit." 

We know, now, that Representative Lee was correct. We know, now, that she voted properly. But on the 14th of September, in 2001, that was anything but obvious. Her no vote that day took an immense amount of courage and conviction in her belief that it was the right thing to do. She suffered for it. And that is the very definition of moral courage. 

I don't remember that vote. I only remember the fact that a nation nursing hurt pride had descended into a black hole of hatred. No voice of reason, sanity or true Christian love stood a chance of being heard above the din of those who called for war. Barbara Lee knew, absolutely, that her no vote was futile, and it would make her the target of the haters There was no reason for her to cast that vote, other than a resolve do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. 

It really made me feel good to read of an American leader who wouldn't descend to the level of those who yielded to fear, and the hatred born of that fear, and chose to cast away all reason and morality. America, as a nation, chose not to act rightly, judiciously or honorably; but instead, to choose a path of retribution, emotion trumped reason. It was good to hear of someone who acted more nobly. 

The fact that Barbara Lee was forced to stand alone in Congress proves not only how widespread the sickness went, but how courageous she is. The US Senate vote was unanimously in favor of the AUMF, 98 Ayes, 0 Nays, 2 abstentions. Out of 535 elected officials in Congress, Barbara Lee was the only one to vote no. Her vote took tremendous courage in 2001. I know about that, first-hand. She had to have around the clock security because of the death threats she received. I know about those types of threats, too. 

Before that day, Barbara Lee didn't tell anyone in her family how she intended to vote. She was worried that they would try to convince her not to oppose the resolution; to take the safer course, especially knowing how unpopular the vote would be. After the vote, she received a call from her father, a retired lieutenant colonel who had fought in World War II and Korea. "I'm proud of you," he said. In the weeks that following, and the thousands of death threats and hate calls that flooded her office, Lee said the support of her father, who was a retired military officer and veteran of two wars, meant a lot to her. 

What her father supported was not her decision to vote against the AUMF, but her personal courage in casting the vote. How could he not? I think it's important that we all recognize the only person in Congress to display that kind of courage. 

Barbara Lee is a true American patriot. And a personal hero of mine.

However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say: Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control. Let us not become the evil we deplore.

– Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D–Calif), Sept. 14, 2001   (her 2 minute speech on the House floor)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tecumseh (1768-1813): The American leader who died defending Canada

Americans all know of the Western American Indians, they're familiar with the names of Crazy Horse (Apache), Geronimo (Lakota Sioux), Sitting Bull (Lakota), Red Cloud (Lakota) but know very little about the most successful Indian chief of all, Tecumseh of the Shawnee, one of the eastern tribes. Tecumseh devoted his life to "pan-tribalism", bringing all the eastern tribes together to sit around one fire. In the Ohio valley, tribes like the Potawatomi and Shawnee and in the South, along rivers like the Chickamauga, the Tennessee, the Coosa, there were the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creeks. Here's a good map of the tribes that inhabited (by the tens of millions) what is now the continental US: 

Tecumseh tried to convince the Indians east of the Mississippi, from the Great Lakes on the Canadian border to the tip of Florida, that the Americans were making empty promises to the Indians that they would be left alone on their treaty lands if they agreed to ever more massive land cessions. Tecumseh was right. There was no intention, ever, of honoring a single one of the treaties, indeed, some were broken within only a few years. Tecumseh stood alone as a man of great courage and honor; he was opposed by treacherous and deceitful men, driven by avarice, convinced that they possessed a divine right to "eminent domain" over the entire continent. In the sense that Tecumseh was unable to convince most of the Indians that they could never trust the word of the white man, Tecumseh was defeated by lies. 

Tecumseh was an example of a leader who didn't fall back on force or authority; but led by courageous example and by magnanimity. He was a truly great man, and any one of us would do well to follow his example today. 

John Sugden wrote, in his excellent biography of Tecumseh (I found a copy in our regional library): 

Tecumseh was at his best in times of danger or crisis. He never considered defeat. His courage was legendary. He was a great warrior. He was also an inspirational orator.

Tecumseh was an old-fashioned Indian chief, who care little for material wealth, but distributed what little he had to the neediest of his followers.

– Tecumseh: A Life
   John Sugden, Henry Holt and Co., 1999

Would you consider yours a life worth living if a biographer, 185 years after your death, wrote such a passage about you? Tecumseh was not interested in fame, glory, wealth or power. Those things would only have debased him. 

Tecumseh has always had hero status here in Canada because it is believed that he saved Canada from the invasion by Americans, led by William Hull, in 1812. Hull began an invasion of Canada on 12 July 1812; but encountered resistance from Indians (led by Tecumseh) and withdrew to Fort Detroit on the American side of the river. [ Siege of Detroit ] The Indians used various strategies to make it seem they had a larger army than they did, and it worked. Hull was convinced that he was surrounded by a greatly superior force of bloodthirsty "savages" sand surrendered Fort Detroit to British general Sir Isaac Brock on August 16, 1812. Hull was a good example of the kind of men who opposed Tecumseh in 1812. When it was learned that Fort Detroit was surrendered without a shot, Hull was court-martialed for cowardice and initially sentenced to be shot to death. 

The defeat of Hull's army at Fort Detroit was a humiliating one for Americans, and it caused the Americans to divert resources from the far more strategic area around Niagara and the St. Lawrence river to the East to retake Fort Detroit. The involvement of the American Indians (on the side of the British in the War of 1812) is credited with having saved Canada from annexation by the United States. 

Tecumseh was killed in battle on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the River Thames, near Moraviantown in Upper Canada (now called Ontario). 

Tecumseh was an American leader of immense courage.  Long live the memory of Tecumseh! 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Sophie Scholl (1921–1943)

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, Munich 1942 

Sophie and Hans Scholl were a German sister and brother who were among the founders, in 1942, of a Nazi resistance group called "The White Rose" (auf Deutsche, die Weiße Rose). The White Rose was a peaceful group, composed of young students, which mainly distributed leaflets that questioned the Nazi regime. And for that, they were considered dangerous enemies of the State. They were the Edward Snowdens of 1940's Nazi Germany. 

Sophie, Hans, and other members of The White Rose, were distributing their sixth leaflet at the University of Munich on 18 February 1943 when they were arrested. Four days later, they were found guilty of treason against the States, and only a few hours later, at 17:00 hrs, on 22 February 1943, they were guillotined to death. 

Sophie Scholl's last words were recorded. She said, "Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did." 

Sophie Scholl was 21 years old when they silenced her voice by removing her head. 

The life and death of Sophie Scholl is told in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl – The Final Days. The movie, which I have not seen, depicts a scene in the trial in which a functionary of the Nazi State declares, "Without law, there is no order. What can we rely on if not the law?" 

In the movie, Sophie responds: "Your conscience. Laws change. Conscience doesn't." 

Did she actually say those words at her trial? It is unlikely. But that doesn't matter to me. What she said at her trial does not matter to me. She lived her life according to that principle, whether it was ever so stated or not. Her life is my example; not her words. 

Most people today define what was right as what the State tells them is right. What they do is what the State tells them to do. 

What is true today, is whatever is popularly accepted as truth; there are no eternal immutable truths anymore. The State decides. 

And just like Nazi Germany in the 1930's and early 1940's, there is a rapidly growing belief among Americans that what is most paramount, what must be observed above all other things, is adherence to the Law. 

Those who would question the Law; or attempt to live outside it, must be silenced, by death if necessary. 

Of course we live in a new, post-9/11 world today, right? Sophie Scholl lived in a "post-9/11 world" too, one in which national security mandated a strict compliance with the Law; and no questions about the activities of the State were permitted. 

She chose to act according to her individual conscience. And her name lives on because of that. 

Sophie Scholl lived and died a heroine. Can you think of a better way to live ... or die? 

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just do not dare express themselves as we did.

– Sophie Scholl, die Weiße Rose (The White Rose Society)
   Statement to the Volksgerichtshof [People's Court], 21 February 1943

Saturday, April 2, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)

Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)

I try to profile people who you've probably never heard; ordinary people who acted with extraordinary courage, at great cost to themselves, because of deeply held principles; who exhibited a special kind of courage, moral courage. Nelson Mandela is not such a person, he's certainly one of the most famous men in the world; we all know his name. But that does not change the fact that he was once a man in circumstances which made it virtually certain that he would die young, in obscurity, and in agony. Somehow, he overcame that virtual certainty to become the man we all know. What a story. 

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo in the former republic of Transkei in South Africa. While a young man, Mandela became a political activist, a protestor against injustice in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In 1942, then young man in his twenties, he joined the African National Congress. For 20 years, he was a leader of the ANC, directing a campaign of peaceful, non-violent, defiance of the white-minority ruled South African government and its openly racist policies (apartheid). 

Mandela was arrested (at the age of 42) on August 5, 1962 on charges of inciting workers to strike and leaving the country without valid travel documents. On November 7, 1962 a South African court sentenced him to five years in prison at hard labor. 

Two years later, along with four "co-conspirators", Mandela was convicted of four counts of sabotage (an attempt to overthrow the government) and his sentence was extended to life. The goal of the government of South Africa was to break the man. His years in prison were characterized by mistreatment, he was forced to perform hard labor, denied access to the outside world (he was allowed to receive one letter from outside the prison every six months, and allowed to write one other). Nelson Mandela refused to be defeated. In fact, he became the spiritual leader of the anti-apartheid movement and an image of defiance of unjust authority to the entire world; he became "the world's most famous political prisoner." 

The authorities tried for years to break Mandela's spirit. To isolate him, silence him, destroy his will to resist authority. They failed. Even in prison, rendered powerless, he resisted, and through that resistance, and public awareness of conditions in those prisons, officials were force to make concessions to basic human rights. 

In 1985, Mandela was offered a deal for his freedom by President P.W. Botha. On one condition: he had to publicly renounce his militancy. To publicly admit defeat. In pure defiance, Mandela rejected the offer. He told Botha (essentially) to go pound sand. 

Four years later, in 1989, Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk, who became South Africa's last apartheid-era President. In 1990, one year after taking office, F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups and announced that he would free Nelson Mandela. The entire world rejoiced. 

On April 29, 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, in the first free open election held in that country's history. Nelson Mandela voted, for the first time in his life, in that election ... at the age of 75. 

Nelson Mandela was a huge part of the revolution against apartheid rule in his country. 

The most frequent comment I hear about protestors is that "they cannot win. They are opposing massive amounts of power and wealth. They are wasting their time." 

Really? That's sufficient reason to stand down in a principled fight? When we realize we can't possibly win; the most acceptable choice is to give up

I'm sure that reason was given to Nelson Mandela; a man who stood firm against "unconquerable" power. I'm sure he was told, more than a few times, "You can't win!" He stood firm anyway. 

Whatever the issue, no one of us who aspires to demonstrate courage in upholding our principles should be influenced by the argument that we can't win. Find something that matters strongly to you, and make a principled stand. You won't regret it; I promise you. 

Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, right? 

Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. Mandela remains a global symbol of courage and freedom; and a man who steadfastly refused to compromise his principles. 

I regard Nelson Mandela as the greatest human being who lived during my lifetime. Mandela exhibited every trait of moral courage and leadership, every day of his life, and he will always be a personal hero of mine.