Letter from a Birmingham Jail

A couple of years ago, I decided to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the MLK Day, as I have the day off from work. The federal holiday was intended to be a day or service, but perhaps we can at least start with learning about the man and his beliefs through his most famous letter. I can’t imagine that anyone could read this letter and not come away changed. It is truly one of the finest writings I’ve ever read.

It is a rather long letter (as he even admits to near in its closing). So, if you prefer to spare the hour with a reading, then this video has you covered. The first four minutes are a reading of the letter by a group of clergymen that prompted King’s response. This embedded video starts after that.

I felt compelled to share this as during our parent’s Sunday school class yesterday, one person raised the question “Why does this person even have a holiday? He wasn’t the only civil rights leader.” I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was raising the question in good faith (the talk immediately changed to a slightly different subject, as these group conversations often do). He stated that his children and others had asked it, and I believe he was saying this so he could justify that the MLK Day holiday was because Martin Luther King Jr was a great American and civil rights leader.

That is true, and even in his brief lifetime (I’m now two years older than he was when he was killed), he became a symbol for a movement much greater than himself1. He was a brilliant and courageous leader who believed in the best of the Christian church and of America. This letter is strong evidence of these things. So the holiday isn’t just a memorial to his service, but I believe to all of what he represented. Its to remind us of the ability of people in this nation to be able to move mountains. Its to remind us that complacency and the desire to maintain order is not an American virtue, but the antithesis of what America was founded on. America can always be a better place for all and no one else is going to come do that hard work for us. Some of us will have to give up some privilege. Some of us will lose time and money to the work. Some people have given so much more, as King risked and ultimate lost his life in doing his work.

So that’s why we have a holiday. Not because of what Kind did, or at least not entirely because of it. Also, to remind us of what we have left to do. We have to do it not because we owe it to King’s memory, but because we owe it to every last American. It’s precisely what it means to be American.

  1. I’m basing a great deal of this statement on Rep. John Lewis’ March graphic novels, which are an amazing read, too. []

What I Told Our Kids

I’ve been interested in politics for most of my life and Angela is much the same. So we of course discuss politics quite a bit around the house. I do my best to follow my parents’ lead and 1) not get overly emotionally or upset about politics and 2) not present my opinion as the only one that matters. This is important so the kids can grow up forming their own opinions and also so they will be less likely to get in an unnecessary argument with other kids. Kids at school should focus on learning and being kids, not arguing with someone else over who’s parents voted for who. Though I’m adamant our children understand how our country is governed, it’s not really important for them to have strong opinions in grade school on matters of national policy.

But kids do talk about current events and even politics, to a lesser extent, at school. So I wasn’t too shocked when my son told me last Tuesday night after I turned out his lights “I sure hope Trump doesn’t win or I’ll have to move to Canada! He wants to build a wall around the entire country.”

I assured him that we wouldn’t have to move no matter who won and that there wasn’t going to be any wall1. The next morning Angela and I discussed the outcome of the election before the kids got up. But once they did wake up, it was a typical weekday rush to get ready for school and work, so there wasn’t any time to talk about the results of the election. After school, though, while I was making dinner, my daughter called out “So did Trump really win last night?”

“What!?” my son shouted with a look of genuine horror on his face.

So I told them that, yes, Trump did win and that one of the greatest parts of being an American is that we have free elections for our leaders. And even though mommy and I may have both voted for Sec. Clinton, we don’t have to leave or lose anything just because she lost. I explained that this is just how we pick a leader but it has nothing to do with who gets to be American.

Now, to a certain point, that is true. However, there are plenty of people who Trump has promised shouldn’t get to enter or even stay in America. And even if Trump hasn’t directly expressed it, plenty of his supporters have some very strong and disgusting opinions about just who should or should not get to be an American at all. But I really didn’t want to have to burden a nine- and seven-year-old with that, so I figured that would be the end of my two-minute reassurance talk with them.

Then my daughter asked what the KKK was and why were some kids saying the KKK were happy Trump won? That’s right: my innocent little kid was asking about the goddamn Klu Klux Klan2. I explained that they were a very racist group who felt that white people like me were somehow better than other people but that I am most definitely not better than anyone else, no matter what they look like, where they come from, or for any other reason. That God loves everyone just the same and that, without question, anyone who contradicts that is wrong.

As horrified as I was that I was having to hold this conversation with my children as a direct result of a U.S. presidential election, I decided now was the time to start righting the ship. I explained that even though we weren’t better than anyone, there are racist and prejudiced people in this country who wrongly believe that. Further, that our family probably already has it better than most people and are likely to experience far less difficulties and prejudices than other people in our country already do and will under President Trump and many of his supporters. And that as a result of that, it was our duty to help speak up on the behalf of others. That if we ran away or even just looked the other way, it would make the bullies stronger and their victims’ pain even worse. I asked them both to promise me that if they ever heard or saw anyone else being mistreated because of how they look, the color of their skin, or what they believe, that they would tell the person doing so to stop. Tell them that they were wrong. And to tell a responsible adult immediately.

They both gladly promised that they would. So if two kids are brave enough to make that promise, I know I will be, too. There was never a time in this country’s history that we didn’t need to look out for one another, but maybe it took something like this election to remind us of that.

Please note that any hurtful or derogatory comments will be deleted with extreme prejudice.

  1. I’m equally confident about both. President-elect Trump has already stated that the wall may just be a fence in some places. I doubt even that will get built, but feel free to re-check me on that statement over the next four years. []
  2. Let’s be very clear bout something right here: If you feel the need to say something in defense of the Klan, you need to leave this site and never come back. If you are somehow offended or upset that I despise the KKK, just as much as I do any white nationalist, white supremacy, or other racist group, you and I can call it quits right here. I may not think I’m superior to you, but I know you are wrong and I have zero need to tolerate you. Full stop. []

PAC Insanity

School boards and parent organizations should be really boring stuff, but it’s been pretty heated in Williamson County, TN in the past year. A local parent organization called Williamson Strong was fined $5,000 dollars recently when it was decided that they were operating as an unregistered Political Action Committee (PAC). They are appealing the decision and, in fact have a federal case against Tennessee’s PAC laws. The following is a from a Tennessean article on the lawsuit:

State law defines a “political campaign committee,” commonly known as a PAC, as “a combination of two (2) or more individuals, including any political party governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure, but does not include a voter registration program.”

State law defines “expenditure” in pertinent part as a “purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit or gift of money or anything of value made for the purpose of influencing a measure or the nomination for election or election of any person to public office.”

In case the absurdity of how much that limits free speech that isn’t immediately ridiculous, let me ask this:

If my kid & I borrow some poster board and paint to make a sign to support our neighbor who wants to run for school board, should we first register as a PAC in Tennessee?

The Registry of Election Finance, who issued the fine, indicated that the amount of money spent wasn’t at issue. Basically, if any two people spend any amount of money, they could be fined thousands of dollars with no way to give their side of the issue? And school board member Susan Curlee1 has shown that she is nothing if not tenacious and vindictive, so who would risk that sort of thing? It absolutely is the sort of thing to put a hold on political free speech.

I cannot believe it, but I’m actually glad of the Citizens United case ruling and hope this Williamson Strong case is overturned and the law is found to be a violation of the First Amendment. I believe in campaign finance reform and limit the insane amounts of money spent on influencing elections, but that’s no where near the sort of thing we’re discussing here. Some e-mail lists and a website domain registration aren’t likely anyone’s definition of large campaign expenditures, even in a local school board race.

  1. But just to CMA, this site and its contents are completely paid for by myself and I’m not yet currently making any public recomendations for school board members. []

On Marriage Equality

I haven’t written much on my blog in the past few years, let along anything about politics. But this has been some week, hasn’t it? Today’s US Supreme Court 5-4 ruling striking down anti-same-sex-marriage laws —such as those we have had! here in Tennessee— feels like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of change. That so many Americans are suddenly free to marry whom they choose is amazing and I felt moved enough to remark on it.

Rethinking My Youth, Part II

I wrote about marriage laws over ten years ago on this site. That was inspired by Virginia’s (where my wife and I lived at the time) state Supreme Court struck down an old law that forbid adults having sex outside of marriage. It was crazy that it was still on the books in 2005, but as I noted, Virginia also banned interracial marriage up until the landmark Loving vs. Virginia 48 years ago this month1. I concluded with the following paragraph:

This sounds like all the same rational for banning homosexual marriages: that because God obviously doesn’t want them, than neither should we. I’m not so sure that there’s a whole lot of evidence that suggests God doesn’t want two loving people to have a formal commitment. Further, I think that at some point in my lifetime, we’ll look back at today’s anti-gay-marriage laws and feel the same way about banning interracial marriage and unmarried sex: why did we ever have laws institutionalizing hate and criminalizing love?

Well, at that time I truly didn’t think it would happen so fast. And in the context of such a huge change in both public opinion and dumb, anti-gay laws, a decade seems fast. However, I am sure that a decade seemed far too long for those men and women in long-term relationships who were forbid from marrying the man or woman they loved. To them, it must have seemed like forever and the struggles they faced were tremendous.

Angela and I have been happily married now for over thirteen years. I love her more now than ever and it would be inconceivable that our marriage would have been considered anything less than something shouting for joy over, let alone likely illegal at one time in the state where we lived. Our marriage is as strong as we are able to make it. No one outside of us —not straight or gay— can change that. The only two people who could make our marriage mean less are ourselves. Today’s SCOTUS ruling doesn’t change that at all. It just gives many more Americans the chance to have that same opportunity and the legal benefits (of which there are many) that go along with it.

To My Fellow Christians…

To my fellow Christians —especially those of you who feel this ruling somehow hurts you— please emulate the compassion and love of Christ. He never once spoke on the subject of same-sex relationships or marriage. Those passages many of you so often feel the need to throw around from the bible? Consider the following perspective from a Presbyterian Church USA (my denomination) news article from March of this year, just after the PC(USA) allowed for same-sex marriages (emphasis mine):

“Some will say that we have turned our back on the ‘clear teaching of Scripture,’ ” says Todd Freeman, pastor of College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It appears that many Presbyterians now consider that this is not the case. We recognize that our cultural biases and prejudices were woven throughout the biblical witness. This recognition has helped lead the Presbyterian Church to change its traditional stance on a number of issues, including slavery, racial equality, and the right of women to be ordained into positions of church leadership. Many of us also recognize that the biblical passages that condemn same-gender sexual acts are not in reference to couples in a loving mutual relationship, but rather address relationships that are controlling, abusive, and exploitative.

Please read here and here for some detailed explanations on that final sentence. And even if you do choose to interpret those very same passages as condemning homosexuality in any form, what about all the other biblical laws that you (and I) break daily? The mixing of fabrics (Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19), the eating of pork and shellfish (Leviticus 11), or even shaving our beards (Leviticus 19:27)? There are countless biblical laws that most of us Christians break on a daily basis without so much as a second thought2. I don’t say this to condemn you or myself. And even though I hope it’s obvious that those who so often claim we can’t just cherry-pick from the bible are likely doing just that themselves, that’s also not the point I want to stress. As a Christian, I want to focus on loving others rather than forbidding them from being who they feel they are and loving who they choose to love (likely because it just really makes you feel icky and you’d like to back that up with a bible verse or two). It’s beyond me how anyone would claim to be a Christian (or any moral or ethical person, regardless of faith or lack thereof) and think that’s OK.

Two People

None of this may convince you, of course. But be aware that there are many different interpretations of scripture and we, as a nation founded on religious liberties, simply cannot deny others basic rights such as the freedom to marry —and yes, Justice Scalia, it’s a right!— based on a narrow reading of scripture. That is what today’s ruling is about. Not a redefinition of marriage —as that was always so much messier than conservatives have led us to believe— but rather an acceptance that we each get to define our own marriages. The only requirement is two people willing to make that commitment to one another.

Lastly, to all the wonderful couples who go married today, in places like Nashville or Franklin, TN, I hope that ten years from now I can write another post. One that will look back and place the shear ridiculousness of how you were treated in the same frame as other laws governing who and how we could love one another.

For now, congratulations.

  1. This is a bit of a personal aside: Justice Clarence Thomas, likely to be the most conservative member of the current US Supreme Court, is African-American and is married to a caucasian woman (coincidentally, named Virginia). It took a US Supreme Court ruling to allow his marriage to be recognized in all states, including Virginia. So I cannot help but find it particularly egregious that he has some ridiculously narrow interpretation as to the meaning of “liberty” in the due process clause. He seems to limit to basically our ability to go about the country as we choose and no more. As such, he argues that petitioners were not deprived of their liberty, nor was there dignity diminished. Given that a law also had to be found unconstitutional for him to have the liberty to marry his wife, I can’t begin to see how he reconciles this. The petitioners have not “been left alone to order their lives as they see fit” as he states. They have been denied visitation, death benefits, sharing of health insurance, adoptive rights, and so much more. []
  2. I can’t say what Mike Huckabee had for breakfast or what his nice suit is made of, but he clearly shaves his beard without much remorse. []


It doesn’t amount to making any difference, but as a rule I never vote for a candidate who is running unopposed. Sadly, this happens a lot. Many of the races for Congress I’ve ever voted in were this way.

There was one election in Richmond, Virginia in which I literally voted for no one (though I think I did answer y/n on one of the question votes). Really doesn’t do much to motivate one to vote at all when it really doesn’t matter, right?

So I’m very glad to see some competition —no matter how anemic— on my ballet this November. I’m no fan of Rep. Blackburn or Sen. Corker. Though some of their competition are no-chance, fringe candidates; folks like that have occasionally won races.

So if you haven’t already voted, go vote this Tuesday. Even if you have to skip over some one-horse races, it always matters.

Mike Rowe on Trade Labor

Mike Rowe of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this past Wednesday. The entire written testimony is worth reading. I can guarantee you that it contains the most heart-warming story of plumbing repair you’ll read all day.

I completely agree with everything he says. Even in a bleak economy with high unemployment rates, our country faces a shortage of skilled laborers (which actually started long before the economy tanked and certainly didn’t help prevent it). Rowe:

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

We really need to re-orient our notion of success away from how much we have, how much we make, or how little we have to work for it. The subtext to the question So, what do you do? should be what do you do to help society?. Labor isn’t something to be ashamed of as a society nor is something we should considered relegated to those less worthy. The people who construct and repair our homes, our places of work, and our infrastructure the interface between life and civilization. It’s about time we started taking a lot more pride — as a society or country — in the class of professions that make it happen.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit hypocritical coming from a college educated guy and that’s fair enough. However, I do what I do because I love it. I’ve always been fascinated by building things and how things simply go together. So, as a product of my environment, I became an engineer and now a writer (about engineering software). But I still value every moment that I get to use my hands and some tools to make or fix something. As Rowe describes, those are some of the best memories I have and I know that I learn a lot when doing those projects. I also have learned to have a great deal of respect for those who do it for a living.

An analogy of where we — as a society — seem to value trade labor: the phrase chef to the stars seems like a reasonable (if not pretentious) thing to put on one’s business card or web site. However, electrician to the stars seems like a joke punchline (or possibly a new reality series on TLC, which I’d argue is the same thing). But, honestly, what is the difference between the two professions in terms of body of knowledge or skill sets? Both require years of experience, apprenticeships, and even formal training to master. But the idea of our kids becoming a chef seems to have more appeal than an electrician because, why, exactly? We’ve just somehow decided it’s not as worth and that needs to change.

I Miss Ned Ray

After his last term as governor of Tennessee, the I Miss Ned Ray bumper stickers were a fairly common site around the state1. He was certainly a popular governor during his two terms in office.

Today, former Gov. McWherter passed away in Nashville at the age of 80. He was a great leader and he will — again — be sorely missed by most Tennesseans who remember him fondly.

I had the fortune to meet then Gov. McWherter during his second term in office on a Political Science class trip to the state’s capital. We (the class and our teacher, also the school’s football & soccer coach) had walked into his empty office. I recall a smell of cigar about his desk and that my friend spotted his half-eaten sandwich. We were just being shooed out by the teacher — who no doubt thought he’d gotten away with something by getting us uninvited into to the governor’s office2 — when the Governor walked back into the room. He was an imposing man to most people, but to a 125 pound high school sophomore, he seemed as formidable as most of the state’s mountains. However, he was gracious and friendly and took a few minutes to speak with us. It was lost on me at the time that he was in the process of expanding the states education system by pushing for landmark improvements to the state’s education system and management.

During the course of that class and as a result of meeting him, I grew more interested in his politics and came to respect him as wonderful governor and politician. I can trace much of the political values I hold dear to growing up during his time as governor (I was just ten when he was first elected).

  1. Despite my claim, I couldn’t find any images of one on Google []
  2. Yes, kids, there was a time in the nation’s great history when you could just walk into your state’s government buildings and actually speak with your elected officials. []

Tax and Spend Conservatives

USA Today‘s Dennis Cauchon:

Federal, state and local taxes — including income, property, sales and other taxes — consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the last half-century. The overall tax burden hit bottom in December at 8.8.% of income before rising slightly in the first three months of 2010.

“The idea that taxes are high right now is pretty much nuts,” says Michael Ettlinger, head of economic policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Who was in charge when the country had its last budget surplus? Bill Clinton (D). Who was in charge when it (quickly) ended and we reached the highest deficit in history? George W. Bush (R). Who is in charge now that we have the lowest taxes in six decades? Barack Obama (D).

Who nearly bankrupt the Commonwealth of Virginia with spending? A long line of Republican governors. Who slashed spending and got the state back in the black? Mark Warner (D).

So do we all understand the notion of ‘tax and spend liberal’ is a boogeyman? I sure hope so. (via Gruber)

Self Identification

This was the first year that I ever got to fill out a census as husband, father, homeowner, and all around adult. The last census, both Angela and I were living in a dormitories (in two different states, no less). It was such an small but satisfactory sense of self-worth.

In the bigger picture, the U.S. Census is a constitutionally-mandated check-up on who makes up our country. But something that really struck me is that it is no longer about what labels can the government assign to us so much as it is a questionnaire of how we see ourselves. My wife was absolutely thrilled that she was able to check more than one box for race (you’d be surprised how many forms still only allow for one option). So, she able to describe to the government how she sees herself as well as how we see our children.

There is a short, cutesy video explaining to same-sex couples that they are allowed to mark how they view themselves and their relationship. It’s short and stars George Takei and his husband, Brad Altman:

The same concept applies here: the census is about discovering how we view ourselves and not what labels others want to use. Whether it be race or marital status on the census, or religion or even gender, I – and my country – am realizing that self identification is far more important that external labels.

In a country where individualism is celebrated, this is the census we should use1. The government of the people has to let the people define themselves.

  1. Though, in 2020, it damn well better be electronic! []

Liberals Who Pine for Conservatives

As a liberal who grew up with, works with, and lives with great people who are conservatives, this piece by the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, Jr. speaks volumes about how I feel about them. Which is that conservative voices are an important party of a progressive society. Unfortunately, as Dionne points out, we haven’t seen that kind of conservative in the past year when discussing the current administration or health care reform:

Many who call themselves conservatives propose to cast aside even government programs that have stood the test of time. They seem to imagine a world in which government withers away, a phrase that comes from Friedrich Engels, not Buckley. Or they tie themselves up in unruly contradictions, declaring simultaneously that they are dead-set against government-run health care and passionate defenders of Medicare.

And while modern conservatism has usually supported the market against the state, its oldest and most durable brand understood that the market was an imperfect instrument. True conservatives may give “two cheers for capitalism,” as Irving Kristol put it in the title of one of his books, but never three.

The world and this country desperately needs both liberals and conservatives, but those who truly champion those values and can peacefully and constructively reach a compromise.