Talk to people

June 7, 2013 1 comment

talkingYesterday, word broke that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been tracking the phone and internet records of virtually all Americans, and that they ordered companies from which they received information to keep this sharing a secret. (Read the original, exclusive piece from the Guardian here).

I was having a conversation with a couple of friends yesterday about this issue, coming from very different points of view. One thought that the NSA collecting information on everyone was intrusive, he had no expectation of privacy from the government in the first place and therefore wasn’t mad about it in the slightest. The other was outraged over the government’s actions and thought that it was an extreme intrusion into personal privacy. Their arguments were a bit more nuanced than that, but we’re not going to discuss national security and transparency policy at this very moment.

I asked my second friend what he thought we should do about it, and his answer was an incredibly simple, almost unbelievable one: talk to people.

The idea is, most people might be mad about something like this, but they don’t know why they should be mad, and they don’t know what they should do to channel that discontent. By talking to, say, four people you know about an issue, they might turn around and talk to four people they know, and so on until there’s a whole wave of people who can articulate a disagreement with the NSA’s information collecting.

Sometimes it takes that critical mass of the public to change the way the government (or a group, or a corporation) operates, and the way to get that started is one of the simple, most basic tenants not just of democracy but also of communities, families, and even human existence. Let’s talk.

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Better Together in the South

June 4, 2013 Comments off

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The great folks at the Applied Research Center (which publishes Colorlines) released a briefing paper today on their year-long Better Together and Southern Leadership and Action cohort. The cohort was made up of groups from the South that work on LGBT and racial justice issues. Here’s a summary from ARC:

Our newest briefing paper, Better Together in the South: Building Movements across Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, looks at the challenges and opportunities that arise when we connect the movement for racial justice with that of LGBT liberation in the U.S. South. Drawing on lessons learned from the cohort, the paper shares strategies for advancing change in the South and beyond. Three key themes for progressive movement building in the South are intersectionality, unity and visibility. To illustrate these themes in action, we present brief profiles of four organizations: the Freedom Center for Social Justice (FCSJ) in Charlotte, BreakOUT! in New Orleans, SPARK in Atlanta, and The Center for Artistic Revolution (CAR) in Arkansas.

Conversations such as this are vitally important for any movement, but also for us working on democracy issues. Democracy groups need to begin thinking more broadly about working across issues for change, and cultivating a more diverse leadership within their organizations. Check out the report from ARC, there is some great information on what the groups were able to do, as well as recommendations for building future work.

Restoring ex-felon voting rights: Virginia and beyond

May 30, 2013 1 comment

cantvoteWe herald the news from Virginia: restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons who have served their time. This is a step forward for the nation. Virginia adds itself to the column of states that recognize that a prison sentence should not be for life, and, that participation in all aspects of society (work, family, civic life) actually improves long-term outcomes for a challenged and stigmatized group.

Do a little thought experiment: replace the words “criminal”, “convict”, “felon”, “prisoner” in the text of whatever you hear or read next with the word “citizen” (or “human being” if the incarcerated is not a citizen) and you will start to understand the slippery slope we slide down as a nation. We certainly do have two classes of citizens, as long as certain citizens have the right to vote and others do not.

Virginia’s move is a step in the right direction in two ways: it is another crack in the set of laws nationwide that dehumanize and delegitimize people who have been convicted of crimes, and it adds another group of folks to the rolls of voting citizens. The possibilities only grow: more states, all released citizens, all citizens even in prison. Fancy that!

Kudos to the organizers in Virginia: Virginia New Majority, Advancement Project, the NAACP, SOBER, and others (as well as their counterparts in other states)–your work is vital, and making a difference!

Let’s take the “ex-” and “formerly” out of our lexicon as well. While it serves a certain moral perspective to have “lifetime” sentences, it does not serve society. We can do better at rehabilitation and we should. More importantly, we should not hand our government, civil infrastructure, and our democracy over to our baseless fears. Wardens and local governments with an ounce of wisdom are challenging overly long sentences, solitary confinement, the effectiveness (cost-benefit ration) of prisons generally, and the warehousing of men and women into their senior years for distant and often first time offences. There is a great deal of productive talent and wisdom being squandered for no good.

Witch hunts in recent years for “illegal voters” have targeted the formerly incarcerated in quite a few states, disenfranchising potential and valid voters. The miserable outcome has been pushing our nation into shameful fellowship with an ugly set of global peers whose elections we know cannot be trusted, and in the process embarrassing a nation proud of its democratic history and credentials in world opinion.

We can do better.

Decoration Day

May 28, 2013 Comments off
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Image via Dominion New York

Over the course of Memorial Day weekend, I came across another article that discusses the true roots of the holiday. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day, a celebration dating back to post-Civil War recently freed former slaves. Ben Becker writes at Dominion of New York:

These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.

The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.

This is definitely something I’ll remember and keep in mind for Memorial Days to come.

Memorial Day

May 24, 2013 Comments off

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We’re preparing for a long weekend here at the Campaign, as are a good number of Americans, as Monday is Memorial Day. What are the origins of Memorial Day? Here’s a brief history from the Department of Veterans Affairs:

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

Have a great Memorial Day weekend, everyone.

More on bipartisanship

May 22, 2013 Comments off

Some more interesting thoughts on bipartisanship, this time from Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post, who got near unprecedented access to the staffs of Senator Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank leading up to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. Here’s some insight, though the whole article is worth a read:

The lesson, sadly, is that something like Dodd-Frank can only happen when the stars align in an almost magical way, something that rarely happens. This required a national catastrophe, big Democratic majorities in both houses plus a like-minded president, and two highly talented legislators, Chris Dodd and Barney Frank. And even then the bill barely scraped through. So this example of Congress working also illuminated why it works so rarely.

I think what should concern us is the fact that so few of our senators and congressmen are policy experts or good legislators. The people who run for Congress now are much more likely to be political warriors for whom partisan warfare is the name of the game. Too few members know or even care about the details of policy, which of course empowers staff.

Does this mean all hope is gone for bipartisan solutions in Congress? Time will tell, but it doesn’t paint a very rosy picture. There is a group of Congressmen who have teamed up with No Labels who want to do something about that, though:

Maybe there is hope.

The IRS scandal and democracy

May 17, 2013 Comments off

300px-IRS.svgA few thoughts this morning about the IRS scandal that broke earlier this week. Some background: A couple of “rogue” IRS staffers in the Cincinnati field office responsible for approving 501(c)(4) nonprofit registrations gave more attention to applications suspected to be “conservative” groups. They kept an eye out for terms like “Tea Party” on forms and either delayed those approvals or denied them altogether. The IRS inspector general found that this was the doing of a few “rogue” employees, not a directive handed down from superiors or President Obama. The head of the IRS still turned in his resignation earlier in the week.

First, it goes without (a whole lot of) saying that if IRS staffers were to keep an eye on 501(c)(4) applications, they should have applied the same scrutiny across all applications. They can’t single out groups with certain buzzwords in the name. It’s not a good governmental policy and it’s also a very easy way to get caught.

Also, looking at the whole realm of campaign finance reform, looking more closely at applicants for nonprofit status can be a good thing, if applied equally. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, most new political spending came from nonprofit groups with few transparency requirements, mostly from groups with a clear “conservative” bent (Citizens United itself was an organization set up to prevent Hillary Clinton from being elected). Nonprofits receive tax benefits, and current tax law says that nonprofit status should not be given to groups looking to influence elections, writes David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Another angle: does size matter? Ari Berman of the Nation writes that the IRS focused on the wrong groups (local organizations with small budgets), and that the agency should look into the bigger organizations that already engage in what can be considered “political spending.”

Although some have called for more scrutiny, the scandal could result in less oversight by the IRS, writes Alex Seitz-Wald in Salon. While some had hoped for the IRS to clarify its rules on nonprofit groups spending on politics, the scandal might make such a clarification “politically impossible.” David Levinthal of the Center for Public Integrity writes that the scandal might even mean in influx of money for nonprofits, particularly those with a conservative tilt.

How did federally designated nonprofit organizations even reach the point of being unable to participate in elections? Colorlines looks at the history of nonprofit designations and finds that then-Senator Lyndon Johnson pushed for a change in law to remove nonprofits’ ability to participate in electioneering after multiple anti-communist and right-wing groups opposed his re-election to the Senate in 1954.

As it turns out, nonprofit tax policy has a lot to do with democracy — The scandal not only has great potential to lessen the public’s trust in an already disliked entity (after all, it was only a month ago that millions of Americans begrudgingly filed their tax returns), but could even go so far as to actually cause it damage.

Here are some additional links —