New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
Dennis J. Daniel
Reconnecting politics to our best values is now the most
important task of a political life.
Reconnecting politics to our best values is now the most
important task of a political life.
Reading: an excerpt from Just
Stories: How the Law Embodies Racism and Bias, by Thomas
A while ago, Sydney and I
watched a video called Once Upon a Time, When We Were Colored. The film tells of the growing up
years of Clifton Taubert, a young “colored” boy in the South during the 1950's
and 60's. Mostly it tells about the loving and supportive community of hard
working black people who lived in Glen Allan, Mississippi, the village in which
Clifton grew up—his grandfather, his aunt, his schoolteacher, and dozens of
cousins. We watch them eating together, studying, going to church. We see the
goodness of the people win out over the cynicism and selfishness of a traveling
showgirl who stays with the family for a few days while the circus is in town.
We watch the inner conflict of the boy’s aunt as she tries on some of the
showgirl’s stylish clothes.
Dramatic tension is provided by the things the grandfather has to teach
the boy about protecting himself from white people, and by the attempts of a
white businessman to steal customers from the local, black ice man. The story
reaches its climax when the people of the black village spontaneously go on
strike in resistance to the pressure to buy their ice from the white
The film is gentle, elegiac, almost a fairy tale, as the title implies.
It almost caresses the little town and its sturdy people. They are decent, caring, responsible,
attractive. They look after their own, trying to raise their children to be
moral and upstanding. They help each other in times of trouble. They are torn
between the close ties that bind them to the rest of their community and the
lure of high wages and freedom from Jim Crow laws that call to them from the
The North attracts them, especially the young men, because they can’t
stay forever in the village. Every day, life takes them out of their safe homes
into the white town or onto white farms, and when they go among whites, they are
overworked and underpaid, pushed around and threatened, abused and discounted by
most of the whites they have to deal with.
Now, a change of focus. A while back, the New York Times Magazine
ran an article about Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and the warmth of domestic life
that they turned into TV comedy during the 50's. Again, these were people who
cared for each other, who respected each other, but who could get caught up in
silliness and hilarity deciding to get a new hairdo, washing the car, or
training a puppy. Week after week, we came into the Nelson’s home and learned
the story of their family, saw the depth of their relationships to one another,
and learned to laugh at ourselves as we laughed at them.
These two stories about life in the US of A between 1945 and 1960 are so
attractive that I can’t question the yearning of some Americans to return to the
kind of basic values they associate with that time. I can even understand that
some people might want to pass laws that would draw or compel us to rebuild such
a society, such strong family values.
But let’s pull those two media experiences closer together. Instead of
locating the Nelson family in the San Fernando Valley, let’s transport them to
Mississippi and put them in the township where Once Upon a Time
was situated. This is not too much
to imagine. I’m sure there were hundreds of white families in that town who
resembled the Nelson’s in many ways, although the fathers of those families
probably had jobs they went to most days of the week, whereas Ozzie was always
at home. Life for the Nelson’s would be pretty much the same in Mississippi,
except they would most likely have a colored maid do the housework, and maybe a
chauffeur who would take care of
washing the car, depriving Ozzie and neighbor Thornton of the opportunity
for many of their conversations. They might even be the family that gives books
to young Clifton in the movie.
What is different is that we are now looking at the stories of the two
families side by side. We see how one family is oppressed by the culture the
other family finds to be very comfortable. We see the pain and rage that the
black family has to fight down whenever the whites decide to assert their
superiority. And we begin to understand that the values of the Nelson family
were never really tested in their daily comedy. They had it pretty easy, all
things considered. They could get exercised over the details of daily living
because the rest of the world didn’t impinge on their existence. The boys, David
and Ricky, didn’t even use drugs. Probably didn’t drink until they were 21. And
as far as I can remember, they didn’t even have girl friends, so sexuality was
not an issue.
(If you’re too young to remember the Nelsons, just think of the Partridge
family or the Brady Bunch. The narratives were similar in that the families
dealt each week with minor bumps in the road, but never had to survive major
floods that washed out the road completely.)
On the other hand, the closeness and interdependence of Clifton’s village
were an active response to the tenuousness of their lives. They were tested all
the time. They had to deal with poverty, the fickleness of white society, the
constant threat of violence and repression, and the inexorable tightening of the
constraints that white society placed on them.
And this is where I see the efforts of the good folks who have been trying to legislate their version of
family closeness for us, running into difficulty, running into irreality,
The feeling I get from my reading is that they really do have a vision of
the peaceable kingdom. To say that they want to return to the world of Ozzie and
Harriet is not fair to them. And to imply that they would want to return to Jim
Crow times is a grave injustice. They do want a world of racial equality. They
do want a world in which all people can prosper and feel proud of themselves, in
which everyone can discover their gifts and live them. They do want a world in
which the self-destructive behaviors we all deplore today have been washed
And they even have a vision of how it can come about. They feel that the
key to reclaiming the solid citizenship and close family life of the 50's is
to return to the religious values
of that time. Let kids pray in school. Honor marriage. Teach such a reverence
and respect for life that abortion would be out of the question. Get sexuality
off the TV screen and back into the bedroom behind closed doors. Do whatever is
necessary to remove the specter of drugs from our streets. Instill in children a
profound love of God, so that they will have the resources they need to resist
the temptations that still come their way.
For all I know, these may indeed be the very developments that would
bring a measure of salvation to our society. I believe in most of them. I think
prayer is school is a wonderful idea. Prayer in the classroom, prayer in the
locker room, prayer on the bus, prayer in the library, prayer on the playing
field. A life of prayer is a life of richness, self-knowledge, empathy and
balance. I wish I were better at it. I wish everyone might learn it. But the
prayer I’m talking about isn’t set-aside prayer. It isn’t prayer by the clock or
on demand. What matters in a person’s life is the habit of prayer as something
that wells up from within, not something that is called up by a bell or a
I honor marriage. I’d better. I get a significant income from ushering
people into it. But I see marriage as a covenant between two people, first of
all, and between the couple and society, secondly. These days, when so many of
the couples I marry have been married before and already have children, the
covenant may actually be between three or four or five people, since the
children have to be counted into the relationship as well. Each couple I marry
has its own dynamics, its own balances, its own trajectory, its own emotional
And each couple has its own way of assigning authority and
responsibility. The one sure sign that a marital relationship is going to be
troubled is if the partners have externally derived expectations about what it
means to be a wife or a husband. It’s always a surprise to me to see which
partner has the money sense, which is intuitive, which is concerned about home
decor, which is enthusiastic about children, which is the neatnik and which is
messy. There are no rules about these things. Nobody fits a mold. Each
relationship is a rich and rewarding amalgamation of talents and shortcomings.
You can’t legislate it.
I dislike abortion. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t . I would really like
to see the kind of respect and reverence for life that would make abortion
unthinkable. But I have my own understanding of what that reverence means. First
of all, it must include reverence for the potential parents before the moment of
conception. By which I mean, that reverence for life doesn’t just apply to the
foetus. It applies first to the two whose behavior leads to conception. I would
want them to revere and respect each other to the point of behaving responsibly
and caringly toward each other. And that means thinking of the future as well as
the present. It means protecting each other from shame, from responsibility they
are not prepared to meet, from the disruption of their own childhoods, if they
I also think that reverence for life means more than allowing a foetus to
come to term. It means caring for a mother throughout her pregnancy. It means
providing that young life with warmth and shelter, food, love, and security. The
right to life has to mean more than the right to be born. It must also mean the
right to a healthy environment, a meaningful education, and the opportunity to
earn a decent living. The right to life should not mean rats, drugs, and
hypothermia. When post-partum rights cannot be provided, then I don’t see birth
as the greatest gift of all. If adoption is not feasible, or if the foetus is
severely damaged, then I think that abortion may be the more loving
Sexuality is another area where I agree but disagree. We do live in a
culture that is heavy with sexual energy. I can’t speak about television, I’ll
refer you to this weekend’s TV Guide for that, but there is certainly a lot of
sexualized material in the daily newspaper, to say nothing of the magazines and
tabloids next to the check out stand in the super market. And many of the big
stories of the year, in the local papers at least, combine sex and violence. Sex
is one of the most powerful motivators of human action. It not only sells
products and gains an audience for the media, it also drives people crazy. In
Maine, where there is little drug activity or gang activity, the majority of
murders involve couples who have split up, usually ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends
shooting the women who have left them.
And, yes, with a credit card and some form of age verification you can
find sex on the internet. It’s all voyeurism and fantasy, but it’s there, in
huge quantities. Run a search on “sex” and you’ll get thousands of listings.
Obviously, sex not only sells automobiles, computers, and perfume, it also sells
itself. And we don’t seem to become satiated with it. The appetite always
renews. Else Cosmopolitan wouldn’t feature so much creative cleavage on its
cover every month.
However, I suspect that for most people all this sexualized atmosphere
does little more than give their hormones a little hum. We look at the cover of
Cosmo and imagine ourselves being that woman or being with that woman, and maybe
we spend a little more money on clothing or cosmetics, maybe we carry the
frisson of sex home with us and initiate some fun-time with our spouse or
partner. If our lives are already filled with work and social activities and
children and clubs and church and school, there is probably not that much time
for sex. We may even need to be reminded of the possibility once in a
Sex is a problem when it causes us to lose control of our actions, which
it can do, or when we begin to see ourselves as sexual beings before all else.
This can happen to anyone, not just teenagers. Infatuation can strike us at any
time of our lives, and it can lead us to break marital vows, make fools of
ourselves, put ourselves in danger, and completely uproot our lives. But we
learn as we grow older that we don’t have to act on such impulses, we can just
enjoy them and marvel at their power within us. For most people, I think, sexual
attraction is too strong to resist only if the glue of their existing
relationships has lost its holding power. The ubiquitous presence of sexual
messages is only a threat if one is not sure that one’s power to resist is
strong. And I suspect that those who make the most noise about other people’s
sexuality are really speaking out of fear of losing
And if you think sexuality is powerful here, imagine what it must be like
in Afghanistan or Iran, where the ideology gives all sexual power to the woman
and keeps her completely hidden from view so that she won’t stir up the unruly
impulses of the male. Talk about sex and fear!
I could go on, but you get the picture. I share the vision that our
family values friends cherish, but at every turn, I have a different
understanding of what their words mean and how we can get there. And that brings
me back to the comment I made earlier about the way the family values in Glen
Allan, Mississippi had been tested, while those of the Nelsons had not. We are
now going through a time of testing. The values to which our friends want to
return are actually values which did not have enough substance to survive the
testing they were subjected to during the last thirty years. They worked as long as outside pressures were
kept at bay. Only when some inner resource kept the family strong in the face of
drug use, divorce, illness, bankruptcy, death, or similar crises, did the
lasting values develop.
When we look at the families in Glen Allan, we can see that the values
they live by have developed as a result of their story. It is the story of a
people under siege, deprived of most worldly goods, but having the pluck and
good humor to create a life for themselves that held meaning, perhaps
because of their trials. The Nelsons, on the other hand, do not have such
a story. We have not been allowed to see the crucible which refined them. As far
as we know, they have always been the same. Their values came with the house and
yard. This is a cruel judgment, I know. Every family, even the most comfortable
and prosperous, knows suffering and trial.
Certainly Ricky’s early death brought pain and suffering to his family,
as did and the rumor that he had been freebasing at the time, even if it may
later have been proven untrue.. But the trials that Ozzie and Harriet showed us
on television never approached suffering. They floated through life, as far as
Because I feel so strongly that our values grow from our life story, I
resist any attempt to impose values from a position of authority. Values cannot
be imposed from outside. They grow organically from the wealth of experience
that shapes our lives. Even if we grow up learning to value the family, we also
learn our own personal connotations of each family value as our life with our
family shapes us. Our values form and are formed by the narrative of our lives.
They cannot exist without a story, our story, our lives as they unfold in all
their wonder and frustration and beauty and pain. Values are not learned by
rote, nor by words. They require example based on conviction and rooted in the
give and take of experience. Otherwise they are empty words. Meaning always
comes from context.
We are about to witness the changing of the guard in Washington, DC. Many
of us hope for a return to honesty, the rule of law, international cooperation,
true compassion in government, transparency, and responsibility. These are
important values. They are values held by most Americans, I hope. They are
values that grow from a different narrative than the one that has guided our
nation for the past decade. We will have to stop seeing ourselves as somehow
more important than other nations, and we will have to stop approaching each new
demand for action as a problem to solve. Pragmatism is deeply ingrained in
American life, but unreflective pragmatism tends to put ends before means. We
will need a new understanding of success, one which puts ethical behavior before
immediate gain. That may require a deep ethical inventory from all of us,
because there are so many ways that we have all benefitted from the emphasis on
results that has prevailed in the past, whether in the gain in our property
values, the size of our pensions, the price we pay for produce or for gasoline,
or the institutions for which we work and from which we receive our salaries. A
change in values in Washington may require a change in values throughout our
country. The corporations, the White House and the Congress are not the only
players in this new narrative. We each have a strand of the story to live out.
Who do you suppose will teach whom?
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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