Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why We Fight

That big ol' bomber at the top of the page tells you why we're here: We Fight On. But sometimes, it's useful to take a moment and remember just what it is we're fighting for.

I had that moment, over and over again with shattering clarity, while I was in Fort Lauderdale the week before last. Long blog post aside, the truth is that very little of that week-long trip was spent hooshin' by the pool. The vast bulk of it was spent inside the Broward County Convention Center, liveblogging the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly -- the church's annual national convention -- which is one of the best events going if you want to remember, all the way down to your soul, what it means to be liberal in America.

The events I covered were often inspiring, but even more often intellectually and morally challenging. The recently retired president of Amnesty International (who, before that, was the national president of our church) told us that, beyond a doubt, America's credibility in the world is badly broken -- and that there are specific steps the next president must take, immediately, in order to have any hope of salvaging it. He conveyed the true global sweep of our power -- and along with it, our catastrophic moral failure to use it in the service of peace and justice around the world.

Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigration Coalition brought in two speakers, Gaby and Juan, whose lives have been destroyed by America's absurd immigration laws. Two ministers, Disciples of Christ minister Rev. Jessica Vasquez Torres and Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie of the UU Arlington Street Church in Boston, told us what activist churches are achieving by affiiating with the New Sanctuary Movement -- and how easily we can change the national conversation on immigration by offering ourselves as local witnesses to the atrocities being committed in the name of border security.

Jesuit Father John Dear, a 2008 Nobel Prize nominee who cut his teeth as a young priest working with the original liberation theologians in El Salvador (his mentors were all eventually assassinated) and is now under constant government surveillance, convicted us all with his passionate theology of radical non-violence, and showed how that idea flows seamlessly through Jesus' teachings.

Thomas DeWolf, one of the Family of Ten whose sojourn through their clan's slave-trading history was the subject of the recent PBS documentary Traces of the Trade, dared the mostly-white crowd to start facing their own histories and telling their own stories. The only way we will ever truly get past racism in America is if white people start confronting and owning the truth about the role our own ancestors, churches, and communities played in perpetuating it.

I had a front-row seat for Van Jones' keynote, which offered a rich vision of a future in which a new green economy also becomes the solution to inner-city poverty. This time around, he told us, we are by no means required to rebuild the economy on the backs of the poor, or deliberately leave people behind.

These are just the events I personally covered or attended. There were scores more, so many that the 20 or so writers, photographers, and videographers on the GA Webworkers Team couldn't even get to half of them. All of them were designed to educate UUs about the things we fight for every day, ground us in the seven principles that guide our fight, and sharpen our skills to fight more effectively in the year ahead.

Weirdly, perhaps, the one that got most deeply under my skin was the talk by David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist whose painstaking work first put the inequities of the US tax code on the liberal agenda. Johnston showed us, in clear detail, where the gap between America's rich and poor falls; and how quickly both ends are moving toward their respective poles.

His charts and graphs showed clearly that this gap is becoming insurmountable. And all you had to do to see it widening before your very eyes was step outside the convention center into the shimmering June heat.

One beautiful evening, seeking some solitary time, I went back to my hotel for dinner, and then took the proverbial three-hour tour on the water taxi that serves as a sort of floating bus line on the intercoastal waterway. Our guides were knowledgeable and chatty as we cruised through the city's endless canals, which act as the back alleys of one of the country's most exclusive refuges for the rich and famous. As dusk fell and lightening filled a spectacular sky, the little open-air boat glided past the back yards of gleaming mansions, each of them with a yacht parallel-parked on the waterway, just like you'd park the Lamborghini out front on the street. I hadn't really understood before -- though it soon became inescapable -- that Fort Lauderdale is one of a handful of American Ground Zeroes for that top 0.01% Johnston was talking about, the one that's receding away from the rest of us at something like the speed of light.

The water taxi. Note ugly behemoth house and yachts in background.

"That house over there," the captain said, pointing to a massively unhandsome house on a corner lot with a huge and astonishingly tacky gold statue anchoring its vast patio, "belongs to the biggest Toyota dealer in Chicago. It cost him $22 million to build. The yacht parked behind the house cost $35 million."

"And that house over there" -- he gestured to the other side, where there was a sincerely gorgeous palm-shaded Tuscan villa that would have fulfilled the dreams of a Medici -- "belongs to an attorney who specializes in foreclosures. He's doing very well right now, as you might guess. He bought the place for $17 million, but it's worth considerably more than that now."

We motored on, past yachts belonging to the famously and quietly rich. A beautiful classic blue yacht was identified as belongin to the Van Andel family of Amway fame. We saw the homes of assorted car dealers and attorneys and real estate agents; and Jay Leno's Florida retreat, a charming stone house with a small yacht, both quite modest by Fort Lauderdale standards. Johnny Weismuller's plain 1950s-vintage clapboard salt box -- the size of an average home in any upper-middle-class suburb -- provided a useful baseline to measure how much more lavishly the wealthy of this decade now live.

But right next door to Weismuller's place was the biggest atrocity of all, the one that's still niggling at me ten days later. The house, we were told, was owned by the family that started and sold the Sunglass Hut chain of stores. You couldn't really see the house (which we were told was valued in the ballpark of $20 million), because the seawall in front of it was completely obscured by three yachts, lined up according to size like a seaworthy take on the Three Bears.

The price tag on the baby yacht: $18 millon. On the mama bear-sized one: $45 million. And on the shiny new Papa Bear megayacht parked on the end: $90 million.

One family. Three yachts. $150 million -- not counting the $15 million they spend every single year maintaining them, or the thousands of dollars an hour over and above that that it takes to run them, or the cost of the private jet they no doubt also own to bring them here for a little R&R.

In an earlier era, that money would have been taken in taxes. Think a minute about $150 million in tax revenue might have bought, back when we still dared to tax the rich. The cost of those three yachts alone would put a thousand deserving kids through four years at the country's most expensive universities. It would upgrade thirty dilapidated public schools to the tune of $5 million each. It would clean up half a dozen Superfund sites at $25 million each. It would provide public health coverage for 75,000 uninsured children.

But instead of insisting that the richest among us invest in such common goods, we Americans have decided it's more important that one family should be able to exercise their God-given freedom to own three yachts.

Am I the only one who finds this obscene?

And let's talk for a moment about what this does to the middle class. Many of the owners of these fabulous yachts and houses acquired this wealth by driving countless mom-and-pop operations out of business. (Sunglass Hut, not to pick on them particularly, now has 1500 US stores. How many opticians had to shut up their shops and go to work for Wal-Mart to make this fortune happen?) Johnston pointed out that these big chains have gotten so cumbersome, and support so much overhead, that the mom-and-pops these days very often can offer better service, larger selections, and competitive prices -- all while paying higher wages to their employees. (Don't believe him? He suggests that you have dinner tonight at TGIFriday's or some other large chain restaurant. Tomorrow night, try your locally-owned diner. And then compare the prices, and the working conditions, and the quality of your experience.) But because we all like the convenience of the mall, they're still going out of business at a rate that's already virtually sunk America's original small-business "ownership class."

Amid all this splendor, you don't have to look far at all to see all the way to the other end of the American wealth spectrum. They're right there, under those same roofs -- building them, maintaining them, cleaning them, swabbing decks and pruning the lush greenery and serving lunch to tourists like me. When I left the convention center, most of my human interactions were with Caribbean taxi drivers, Mexican waiters, African-American maids -- the minimum-wage brown and black people without whom none of this splendor would be possible, but who will never in their lives be able to aspire to anything like it for themselves. I knew from Maria Rodiguez that these people are chronic victims of wage theft: their time cards are altered, their bosses insist on unpaid overtime, or they're paid with rubber checks or not at all. It's a real problem, especially since the brothers Bush gutted every avenue of legal recourse available to appeal such cases in Florida.

It was everything David Johnston talked about -- the approaching end of a democratic middle-class America where we once all thought we shared a similar destiny.

The water taxi made its halfway stop at a little Greek restaurant, and let us off for a few minutes to use the restroom and buy drinks to bring back on the boat. As we headed back out into the now full darkness, the few passengers' faces lit only by the ethereal glow of the opulent houses on either side, I thought back to something Tom DeWolf said at the end of his talk. He and his cousins spent a couple of weeks in Cuba as part of their journey through history, locating the sites of the five coffee and sugar plantations their ancestors continued to operate -- and profit handsomely from -- long after slavery had been abolished in the US.

DeWolf pointed out that the system is very carefully designed so that those of us who benefit the most from it will never really look at it, and see it for what it is. Our history books whitewash it, literally, so as not to disturb our beautiful minds. Those who depend on our money will never show their resentment -- at least, never to our faces. "It's easy to let yourself be distracted from all that, " he said of his days in Cuba, "when there's a mojito in your hand, and a band always playing somewhere nearby."

The cold, sweet mojito in my hand was, in fact, the best one I'd had all week. But it wasn't stiff enough to distract me from the gnawing awareness of the whole global system that supported my surroundings -- wars fought, countries destroyed, people enslaved, civic duties shirked, economies in tatters. And if we think all of that is Out There somewhere, and will never come home to places like Fort Lauderdale -- well, it's already too late. The convention center is inside the city's port complex, which means that every UU in attendance had to go through a Homeland Security checkpoint every time we showed up for our conference. (This kind of thing doesn't go down well with UUs: a lot of people were so furious about this requirement -- which didn't exist when the convention was booked several years ago -- that they simply stayed home.) The fact that they're worried about some cruise ship being turned into a terrorist target tells you, right there, just how close we are to the reckoning.

I drained the glass and set it in the box, letting the gentle buzz sink in, softening the glittering surroundings into a warm glow. It wasn't enough. A second one, or even a third, would not have been enough.

I didn't sleep well that night, or any night after, for as long as I was there. And there's part of me that will probably never be able to thoughtlessly fall into that kind of anodyne white-lady complacency again.

We fight on. And this is why I fight. As an affluent, educated white girl afforded every privilege, including the privilege of this and other soapboxes, I have more power than most people to change it. And as a liberal, a futurist, and a Unitarian, finding creative ways to use that power to change this system is nothing short of a moral imperative for me. I'd like to think that you're here because it's a moral imperative for you, too.

It's a long, roundabout way to encourage you to support this blog -- not just with your money, though that matters to us more than you can know; but also with your voice and your presence and your continued willingness to carry on the fight in your own way, in your own little part of the world. You're part of the system, too; but if I learned anything from my long week in Florida, it's how much power we have in our own hands, in our own communities, to fight for the change we want to see.

Here's the tip jar. If you haven't dropped a dime yet, now's as good a time as any.