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My Five New Year’s Revolutions

When I realized that this column would be published the day before we celebrate New Year’s Eve, I decided to write about the resolutions we traditionally make at that time. So I booted up my computer and gave the piece a working title: “My New Year’s Revolutions.”

As I stared at the monitor, already bored with my topic, I saw the typo. I reached to correct it, then stopped. “No,” I thought, “that’s what I want to write about!” — suddenly grateful for the random creativity of the fingers on my left hand. “I want write about my resolve to commit to a few of the revolutions we need if we’re going to regain our humanity in 2016.”

The past year brought a floodtide of human suffering. I’m talking about such horrors as the plight of millions of refugees, the spate of mass killings in public places, the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, the ongoing degradation of Earth itself. That’s why I want to write about five revolutions that need to be part of my New Year.

Revolutions that succeed are always for something rather than merely against this or that. But if we’re serious about what we’re for, we need to name what we’re willing to stand openly against. It’s not enough to say “Yes!” to things like love, truth, and justice without saying a loud, clear “No!” to their ruthless enemies, risking reprisals as we do.

Pete Seeger had these words inscribed on his banjo:

“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

What Pete did with his music, we need to do by word and deed in our families, among our neighbors and friends, in our workplaces, religious communities, and the public square.

So here’s my list of five necessary New Year’s revolutions, named in terms of what they reject as well as what they aspire to achieve. I don’t need to launch any of them — they are all underway. I need only to invest my resources of self and substance more deeply than I have to date:

  1. The revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends. I want to stand in solidarity with those whose lives have been made even more difficult by the ignorance, cruelty, and shamelessness of the Donald Trumps of this world and their minions. When I hear people speaking against Muslims or Mexicans, to take but two examples, I need to say, “Your words are personally offensive to me. I am one with the people you’re insulting, and I can’t remain silent while you put my sisters and brothers down.” I may not change anyone’s mind, but I need to witness to my membership in the human community whenever I get the chance.
  2. The revolution against the state of denial in which most white Americans live, as when we refuse to acknowledge the power of white privilege and white supremacy in our lives. This revolution begins at home, in my own heart. I’ve never known a white person who was pulled over for “driving while white,” or tracked through a store for “shopping while white.” But I’ve known many who believe that the very idea of white privilege insults the way they’ve “worked hard and played by the rules,” and I can feel the same evasiveness in myself. If white people want to join the fight to bring racism down, we need to begin by coming clean about the benefits that accrue to us as long as racism reigns.
  3. The revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public schools. Most of the problems we blame on public education begin upstream; e.g., in the poverty that has nearly one-fourth of our kids coming to school too hungry for their brains to work well. So why do we blame teachers for children’s failure to learn — then double down on their burden by pretending to “solve” the problem with punitive, high-stakes testing? The only winners right now are those who want to force failure on public education in order to make privatization a more attractive option. I want to join with those who say, “Enough! This demonic scheme is crushing teachers and kids alike, and we will all pay dearly in the end. Let’s stop evading the real issues. Let’s deal with the upstream problems so teachers can help kids learn.”
  4. The revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers. There’s a link between mental illness and gun violence, but I’m not talking about the shooters right now. I’m talking about the people who have power over gun policy in this country. It’s urgent that we find some way to cure or at least contain the delusional minds that keep repeating “more guns” and “Second Amendment” as the way to end the terrifying torrent of headlines about yet another shooting. The murderous results of this madness were on display almost every day in 2015. I’m quite certain that this is not what the framers of the Bill of Rights had in mind. The “more guns” insanity poses a grave threat to public health, and if we can’t cure it we must contain it by legal and cultural means.
  5. The revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many others at mortal risk. I’ve been contemplating the lessons to be learned from the well-known mental experiment of shrinking the world to a village of 100 people. In that village, demographers tell us, five people would control nearly one-third of the world’s wealth, and all five would be U.S. citizens. Of the 100 residents, 68 would live on less than .00 a day, and 50 would be malnourished. If that village were built on a hill, I would live up top in splendid isolation with the other four U.S. citizens. How long would it be, I wonder, before the folks at the bottom of the hill would rush our gated community not out of greed but simply to keep themselves and their children alive? Even if they didn’t, how well would I sleep at night?

In the face of all these problems — and what I believe to be five much-needed New Year’s revolutions — does it still make sense for us to wish each other a Happy New Year? Yes, it does, and we can do it with fuller and truer hearts than if we played the game called “Let’s Pretend These Problems Don’t Exist.” The realities around us are hard. But in personal and public life, walking into reality and grappling with it is always more life-giving than retreating into illusion.

The New York Times editorial board, not normally a source of inspirational prose, found 2015 so daunting that it published a Christmas editorial titled “Moments of Grace in a Grim World.” It ended with these words:

“Evil is everywhere, and anger and hatred are loud. The shouting drowns out the quiet; tragedy and disaster block the view of the good. Yet there are always signs of progress toward a better future. Look, or you may miss them.”

I think we can do more than look. We can help create some of those signs of hope. So Happy New Year! As the clock strikes midnight on December 31, let’s redouble our resolve that we, our suffering brothers and sisters, and our New Year’s revolutions will find new life in 2016.

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