Friday, December 16, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Moral courage is defined as "the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences." In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger.

Moral courage is often exhibited by the most ordinary people, and examples are all around us.

Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of a black sharecropper from rural Mississippi who helped black American citizens exercise their rights to vote in the 1960's.  For that simple act, Fannie Lou Hamer was threatened, thrown into jail, beaten so badly she suffered permanent kidney damage, and shot at.  For helping other Americans vote.  For standing up to those who would deny those people their rights as American citizens.  For that, she should've been awarded a medal.

In 1962, already 45 years old, Fanny Lou Hamer made a decision to attend a public meeting held by young civil rights workers who'd come to the Deep South to register black voters.  After that meeting, she and 17 other hopeful black voters rented a bus and traveled to the county courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, about 25 miles South of Ruleville, intending to register themselves to vote.  That very day, when she returned to the plantation where she worked picking cotton by hand, she was fired by the plantation owner who had warned her about registering to vote.  She was forced to leave the plantation where she'd worked since she was six years old.

Fannie Lou, rather than give up the struggle for black rights, began traveling with the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing freedom schools and black voter registration drives.  She said, later, "They kicked me off the plantation; they set me free."

In 1963, while returning to Ruleville, MS from a literacy workshop in Charleston South Carolina, was arrested in Winona, Mississippi and jailed on a false charge.  While in jail, she was held down in a cell while two other inmates were ordered by the police to beat her with a blackjack.  The beating was nearly fatal, and had lasting physical effects; but it didn't stop Ms. Hamer.  She returned to her work, organizing voter registration drives in Mississippi.

Fannie Lou Hamer came to the attention of the entire nation in 1964, during the US Presidential election that year, when she traveled to Washington, DC with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (or "Freedom Democrats").  The Freedom Democrats were there to challenge the Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Nominating Convention which was all-white, and anti-civil rights.  The population of Mississippi in 1964 was 45% black [source]. That meant nearly half of the people of Mississippi were not represented politically at the convention.

PBS's American Experience told the story of Fannie Lou Hamer's powerful speech to the 1964 Democratic National Committee and President Lyndon Johnson's ridiculous response to it:   (3m40s)

I gave up a good job, a 20-acre farm and the house we built in Alabama, to get out of America's Deep South.  All I had to do to keep those things was to do what Fannie Lou Hamer would not  – what I was taught growing up in America's Bible Belt: a little "Yassuh, Massah, Suh!" never kilt no n*r."

I'm glad I had an example like that of Fannie Lou Hamer to emulate. Someone for whom Liberty is more than just a word or an empty promise.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Act as a sovereign individual; always. Not as a slave of the State

On 25 January, 2013, John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison for exposing torture in Guantanamo Bay. He served every day of that 30 month sentence.  He is the only man who ever went to prison because of the CIA torture program.

At the time, General David Petraeus (a man of no great moral authority), who was then CIA director, stated "This case ... marks an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country. Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws".

That's the argument that was used by the defendants at the Nuremberg trials ... that their oath of allegiance to the State, and to serve as an instrument of that state, absolved them of responsibility for their own actions.  They were hanged anyway ... the judgement of the court being that we are all, individually, responsible for our own actions.  Not the State, the Marine Corps, the First Baptist Church, or the Boy Scouts of America.  

Moral autonomy is having the freedom and possessing the courage, and the will, to make moral decisions on one's own, individually.  It's standing on one's own two feet; and sometimes that requires sacrifice.

Moral autonomy is at the root of what is termed "character."  Character is always individual.  You don't display character by joining a group.  Moral autonomy is the ability to choose the right course of action, by oneself, without any outside pressure or influence.

Our first allegiances, as men and women of characters, should always be to our principles, and to our families, those who depend on us, not to some oath of allegiance to a State.   To put the powerful above our principles is to act as a tool of an authority that seeks only to enrich and empower itself at our expense; in other words, to act as a slave, rather than a man. It is not just a choice to act amorally, giving over our moral choice to another; it is moral cowardice to refuse to do what we believe is right, using our "oath of allegiance" to excuse that choice.

Ironically, it was under US leadership that the Allies prosecuted not only leaders of the Nazi Party but also industrialists, doctors, and prison commandants. The Americans and Soviets also wanted to prosecute the people who had created the legal framework for the Nazi regime, but British and French leaders objected. Consequently, the United States, acting on its own, convened a separate Nuremberg tribunal to try lawyers, judges, and legal policymakers. In doing so, it established the principle that anyone who violated international laws against harming prisoners in wartime could be prosecuted as war criminals, no matter how many internal memos they had written to the contrary or how much they claimed they were "only doing their jobs."

The precedent for dealing with war crimes was set by Americans.  And they're fully prepared to walk away from that precedent now.  It is not only a glaring hypocrisy to the whole world ... it is a demonstration of weakness.  And a clear indication of how far the nation has fallen, morally. 

So, my verdict on war resisters like Justin ColbyKimberley RiveraDean Walcott, Edward Snowden:  heroes, by virtue of retaining their autonomy as human beings when all around them grovelled, claiming they had no choice other than to act as a helpless tool of authority. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Yes, trials ARE the American way

There's a twisted irony in the fact that Saddam Hussein was never convicted of the single worst charge brought against him, the claim that he authorized the use of chemical and nerve agents to murder innocent civilians (specifically in one Kurdish village, Halabja).

Under the charter of the Iraq Special Tribunal which tried and convicted Saddam Hussein, there was a "presumption of innocence" for that crime:

SECTION THREE: Jurisdiction and Crimes
PART TWO: Rights of the Accused
Article 20.

a) All persons shall be equal before the Tribunal.

b) Everyone shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty before the Tribunal in accordance with the law.
In other words, Saddam Hussein, never having been convicted of the Halabja murders, is legally and by our own standards of justice, presumed innocent of that genocidal crime.

History now records that Saddam Hussein was hanged for executing the perpetrators of a plot to assassinate him and overthrow his government in military coup d'├ętat. Referred to as the Dujail Massacre, more than 140 people were sentenced and executed for their alleged involvement in the plot.  He was guilty of that, it was a harsh act, a brutal one, and it was an act of reprisal against his political enemies ... but it was not the genocidal murder of innocent civilians that Halabja was.

The trial of Saddam Hussein for the Halabja massacre should've been completed before his execution. My opinion is that someone did NOT want the truth to come out about that massacre.

As it stands, Saddam Hussein is innocent (by presumption) of that crime. Forever. That is the law.

There were damned good reasons why the Nazi officers were forced to stand trial for war crimes at Nuremberg before they were hanged.  There were reasons why the full truth was made public; documented, and committed to history.  Reasons that persist to this day.  Very few serious doubts remain about the atrocities that they committed in the name of "social cleansing."

There are very good reasons that we should always want men like these brought to trial.  Public trials.

Now Saddam Hussein will never be tried for genocide. And the evidence against him will remain, forever, a "classified" secret.

There are very good reasons that we should always want men like these brought to trial.  Here's one:  Saddam Hussein is, by law – a law we are all bound to respect – innocent of genocide.  


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Viola Desmond to be on a new Canadian $10 bill

Viola Desmond, a Nova Scotia businesswoman who once refused to sit in a blacks-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre, will be the first woman other than a Queen or a Princess to appear on the front of a Canadian banknote.  Desmond’s image will be featured on Canada’s next $10 bill, which will be issued in 2018.

It should come as no surprise, I suppose, to learn that Canada has pockets of racial prejudice similar to what I knew growing up in the 1960's American South, but I was surprised to learn that Canada had its own Rosa Parks in 1946, 9 years before Ms. Parks said "No" when asked to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person.

Last year, the neighbouring province of Nova Scotia, celebrated its first annual "Heritage Day" statutory holiday.  The holiday was used to commemorate 
Viola Desmond, an African-Nova Scotian, who, in 1946, bought a movie ticket at a New Glasgow movie theatre. But instead of sitting upstairs where the "coloured people" were supposed to sit, she took a seat on the main floor.  She was jailed for that "crime", but was granted a special pardon by the city of New Glasgow in 2010, 63 years after her arrest and 45 years after she died.

I grew up in America's Deep South, and have lived in 6 different "Bible Belt" states, the most recent being Alabama.  Growing up, I saw a lot of things I didn't understand, and that I thought were wrong; I accepted them as "just the way things are."  It wasn't until I was nearly an adult, I suppose, that I perceived the hatred, generations of it, in which those things were grounded.  I also realized that I was "expected" to continue the cycle and adopt the hatred into my own notions of "how things should be."

Viola Desmond exemplifies the type of courage we can all emulate, and strive to demonstrate in our own lives.  It's the courage that simply says "No!" to things that we know, without question, are wrong.  

In 1946, how many of the good white citizens of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, do  you think had the courage of principle to stand with her?  Very few, if any, I'm sure.

A friend of mine who grew up in New Glasgow, described the town as he knew it in the 1960's:

Even when I was a pre-teen (late 1960's), the balcony at that theater was known as "n_gger heaven" 
and good white families didn't allow their children to sit up there – no matter how much we begged.

Down the street was the "Cozy Corner" diner where the tables at the front – in view of the street, 
were "reserved," you might say, and blacks were "expected" to sit in the back tables, away from 
the windows.

Who wants to live in a place like that, among people like that?  Not my friend from New Glasgow.  Certainly not me.  We both left communities in which hatred was deeply woven into the social fabric; passed downed from generation to generation in a self-perpetuating cycle.

The people of New Glasgow did the right thing in absolving Viola Desmond of a crime ... but only after waiting 63 years.  They waited until a time when it cost them nothing; when it required no sacrifice.  When it was convenient.  When it took no courage.  What's that worth?  Not much, in my book.

Viola Desmond stood up and spoke back to a reprobate authority.  Viola Desmond had the courage of one among many thousands.

Why can't more of us do the same? Why do you think most people simply can't act courageously when the chips are down?

America's wars changed this Southern boy forever

Why, yes, of course I'm glad I immigrated to Canada from the US Deep South when I did (October 2005).  It was the right decision for me and my family; and the best thing I've ever done; even if many years too late.

But it was a lot more than simply a change of residence.  It marked a change in me; who I choose to be, and how I choose to live the remainder of my life.  And, as strange as this sounds, I have to credit America's headlong foolish rush into a series of unnecessary wars for that change in me. Without the wars; I'd have remained the man I was, "happy as a pig in slop" as they say in Alabama.  
Too often. people told me that I should "get over it."  In other words, return to who (or even where) I was before.  Never.  
I remain absolutely antiwar, but America's wars aren't what's important; they only reveal the truth about Americans. The wars didn't change most Americans like they changed me; they only brought to the surface, and made visible, what was already there.  Something I discerned for the first time; something I want absolutely no part of.

And to those who say, "What have you accomplished, what have you changed?", I'd say this:  I changed the most important thing of all.  In the end, the most important thing I did, and certainly the most difficult, was this:  I changed myself.

Here's the bottom line:  I will no longer give my unquestioning allegiance to politicians, to institutions, to political parties, and to religious leaders, especially those who have betrayed my loyalty and trust.  I'll go with my gut from now on.  All morality is ultimately individual.  Allowing institutions to define moral behaviour for us, refusing to live by a personal standard, is not merely "amoral" ... it is immoral.  It is a choice to abandon morality as a basis for one's actions and to yield the moral responsibility for one's choices to another person or an institution.

By the way, where were America's churches when all this went down?  Most (at least in the Bible Belt) were in lockstep with the national sentiment of hate-filled desire for blood ... for vengeance. Their role was to assure Americans that evil had God's "stamp of approval."  That was a lie ... a blasphemous lie, and I'm using the term "blasphemous" both literally and accurately.

The wrong choices that most Christians made were made because they were easy to make.  In my opinion, the right choice for Christians should never been an easy one.  The basic tenet of the Christian faith is love for others, and Christians should be immune to all appeals to the basest emotions of humans (hate, envy, greed, prejudice, and the desire for vengeance).  They were not, because society had made the wrong choices easier; the right choices (like speaking out against evil-doers) very, VERY difficult 15 years ago.

Why do I kick against a stone wall?  I guess I'm actually trying to make those hard choices a little easier for others, and more socially-acceptable – choices that better society ... that better the living conditions and the prospects for the greater number.  I don't want others to have to endure the pain I have.  And, maybe along the way, I might save the lives and limbs of a few young men and women who are being used to advance the purposes of those who care nothing for them. Americans were easily led into an extended series of wars that, as most wars do, will be manifested most vividly in the blood shed by the sons and daughters of poor men serving to make rich men richer.  [the US is currently involved in direct military action in at least seven countries; four more than when President Obama took office eight years ago].  

Where were the good Americans when all this started, and when all of this could most easily have been prevented?  I believe they were learning to listen to voices that "tickle the ear." Those voices say, "The messages of peace, love, kindness, compassion, self-sacrifice and humility are old-fashioned, quaint, we can't afford them anymore.  It is your destiny to own more, and to think of yourself first ... not to worry about the plight of others or even the world you leave your children's children."  I know, because I heard that message, I heard that lie, and I loved it.  I loved it, and I lived it for 45 years. I'm no longer that man and never will be again.