WASHINGTON — Sometime last week, demographers estimate, a baby was born who brought the planet’s population to a staggering 7 billion. That’s worrisome, given the stresses on precious resources such as water. But the underlying trend that has created a crowded planet is not a baby boom in distant, impoverished countries. It’s a phenomenon you can see in your own neighborhood or church or civic club: People are living longer and healthier lives.
As someone who hopes to live to an advanced old age, I can hardly denounce the trend. But we’ll face a slew of challenges — including inevitable economic decline — if there are not enough younger workers to fill the coffers for Social Security and Medicare, to feed and bathe and medicate nursing home patients, to build the elderly-equipped housing and drive the wheelchair-accessible vans we’ll need.
The United States has a big advantage over several other nations — if we don’t blow it: We have immigrants, some legal, many illegal, who help to keep our population younger. While native-born American women have more children than their counterparts in Japan and Italy and Greece, it’s also true that workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and other points south have boosted the U.S. fertility rate.
So here’s something you won’t hear from politicians anywhere on the political spectrum: Let’s celebrate those so-called anchor babies, supposedly born to women who sneak into this country just to confer citizenship on their infants. (That particular right-wing cliche is not borne out by research, but it retains its popularity. If it were true, it would be worth encouraging.)
Unhappily, that’s not what you’re hearing these days. With the Republican presidential campaign in high gear, you’re hearing quite the opposite: A steady volley of coarse, demagogic pseudo-facts about the burdens presented by illegal immigrants. “They’re criminals bringing drug violence across the border! They’re grifters stealing social services! They’re taking jobs from honest-to-goodness Americans!”
The hapless Rick Perry has few policies or proposals worth defending, but he has been mercilessly attacked for one of those: a tuition subsidy for Texas college students who happen to be in the country illegally. If a student graduates from a Texas high school and has the grades and test scores to gain admission to a public college or university, he gets in-state tuition. No questions asked. No citizenship documents required.
That’s actually a fine idea; it enriches not just the individuals but also their adopted state and country. The immediate beneficiaries are young adults who were brought into this country by their parents, have lived here for years and adopted American customs, habits and aspirations. Why not encourage them to get college degrees?
As Perry has noted, his policy creates taxpayers. (He might have added, those taxpayers can help pay for my Social Security and Medicare costs.) But the Texas governor has been roundly denounced by his rivals, including Mitt Romney, who should know better.
Admittedly, presidential campaigns are not ideal platforms for public tutorials on complex issues. But the problems caused by a population heavily tilted toward the elderly are not difficult to explain.
Take Social Security and Medicare, the two huge entitlement programs that are front and center in the debate over cutting government spending. Those programs will encounter difficulties because the pool of elderly will grow so much larger, and the pool of workers who pay taxes to support them won’t grow enough. It’s shortsighted to the point of dementia to try to expel the illegal immigrants who mitigate that shortage of younger workers.
If you believe illegal immigrants are a bigger drain than they’re worth as taxpayers (and they do pay taxes), there’s a solution: Put them on a path to citizenship. Turn them into full-fledged Americans. Encourage their children to go to college, since college graduates generally end up with higher-paying jobs and higher tax bills.
In a well-researched book about the not-too-distant future, “The Next Hundred Million,” writer Joel Kotkin predicts that the United States will prosper because the country will “maintain a youthful, dynamic demographic” through “a resourceful stream of ever-assimilating immigrants.”
But that future depends on a political and social climate that welcomes newcomers instead of scaring them off.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
That question has great relevance for Black America, it seems, as we enter a new year. It can be reduced, in its most simplistic form, to whether a thing actually exists, at all, if no one is paying attention to it.
In that regard, here in the U.S., it’s getting more difficult each year, it seems, to determine whether news stories that we see are considered important because people want to hear and read about them, or because the people who control the media have decided to present them, in the first place (the old “media agenda” theory).
For example, you may recall that, for the first week or so of the Occupy Wall Street activities, mainstream, traditional media acted as though the protestors didn’t really exist. There was virtually no print, national broadcast, or cable coverage and very little national digital presence, and the activity was taking place smack dab in the middle of the country’s media capital, New York City.
Once “discovered” by media, however, the “movement,” for a brief number of weeks, continued to receive virtually 24/7 coverage, right up to the point when big city mayors contemporaneously decided to tear down the encampments, in their respective cities. It was almost as though someone, somewhere, had thrown a figurative switch. Just like that, the TV and cable outlets coincidentally decided to turn off and reassign their cameras. Just like that, newspapers and magazines also, coincidentally, began to send their editorial staffs, still photographers and videographers, to other “more-newsworthy” stories. For all intents and purposes, then, the Occupy Wall Street Movement was history.
I thought about all of that as I reviewed the Pew Research Center’s “Public’s Top Stories for 2011,” released December 21. This is a part of Pew’s Project for Excellence In Journalism (PEJ) that tracks which news stories actually hold the interest of the public, from week to week. I couldn’t help wondering who actually decided which stories would be shown to the “public,” in the first place.
It’s not really the case, after all, that “the public” wakes up every day and actually decides which “news” they want to see. Instead, they turn on the radio or the TV set, or log on to their favorite sites and absorb what’s being offered. If there’s something else going on that the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, the New York Times or CNN doesn’t bring to their attention, they simply don’t know about it.
As I looked down Pew’s list of the top 20 stories, I was struck by the fact that not one of them — over the entire year — included a specific focus on African-American people.
In the main, the things that actually did make it into the news about Black folks, as sparse as they were, tended not to be constructive. They also tended to come from high-profile people, rather than from ordinary people, who were simply trying to make a difference.
The year got off to an inglorious start in late January, when former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, in a speech on the topic of abortion, decided that President Barack Obama’s stance on that subject was “almost remarkable for a Black man.”
Somewhere, in the deep recesses of his mind, Mr. Santorum apparently believes that he knows what’s appropriate “for a Black man” to believe. By the way, I can’t ever recall having heard Rick Santorum say, ever, what he feels is appropriate “for a white man” to think. If you see him out there, on the campaign trail, maybe you should ask him.
In April, we had to endure an equally strange and condescending remark from another presidential pretender, Donald Trump. When asked about his ability to attract votes from African Americans, the “Trumpster” blurted out, inexpicably, “I have a good relationship with the Blacks.”
Damn, Donald. “The Blacks?” Sounds like an overseer on an early 1800s Georgia plantation.
Then, there was U.S. Republican Congresswoman Sally Kern, who, while commenting on a bill that was designed to eliminate Affirmative Action programs in her home state of Oklahoma, said: “We have a high percentage of Blacks in prison, and that’s tragic, but are they in prison just because they are Black, or because they don’t want to study as hard in school? I’ve taught school, and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”
Congresswoman, please, get real! The reasons for high rates of Black incarceration are a great deal more complex and sinister than that. And, on a related subject, maybe “the people of color” that you saw not studying hard simply didn’t want to go to school because you... were ...their... teacher. I’m just saying...
In July, there were these deep thoughts from another presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann: “… Sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the United State’s first African-American president.”
Seriously, does Ms. Bachmann really believe that slaves had “households,” like they did on the “Brady Bunch,” and that they were allowed to enjoy two-parent existences? That’s pretty hard to do, Michele, when your pop is being sold to a plantation in another state. Maybe the candidate should “look it up,” before giving another speech.
In August, right-wing pundit Glenn Beck informed us, and the rest of the world, that he thought people of African descent, in this country, shouldn’t refer to themselves as “African Americans” because, in his opinion, it was a “bogus,” “made-up” term. Instead, Beck suggested, we should go back to referring to ourselves as “colored.”
Thank you, Mr. Beck.
When we look back, however, we have to admit that all of the dumb and insulting things said about Black folks in the media didn’t come, exclusively, from people of European descent. No, there was a guy named Herman Cain. Remember Cain’s remark, in September, that “Many African Americans have been brainwashed…into not considering a conservative point of view?” Remember him agreeing with Glenn Beck that reporters shouldn’t refer to him as an African American?
In October, we learned that MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan had published yet another book. In this one he said, among a series of other really stupid things, “… journalists of color are demanding the hiring and promotion of journalists based on the color of their skin. Jim Crow is back. Only the color of the beneficiaries and the color of their victims have been reversed.”
Then, as the year was running out, there was right-wing media darling and author, Ann Coulter, who, while trying to defend her good friend Herman Cain from charges of sexual harassment, said to anybody who was listening: “I mean, that’s why our Blacks are so much better than their Blacks.”
Ms. Coulter sounded, for all the world, like a person selling cows, chickens or used cars. Instead, she was discussing Black people in America, separating them, for her convenience, into two neat categories — those who were, somehow “acceptable” to her, and those who were not.
If any of this “news” was shocking to you — and I hope it was — perhaps, we should make a collective New Year’s resolution to put real, rational and productive Black-focused issues on the national media agenda, in 2012.
So far, it seems, we’ve been doing a pretty poor job of getting that done.
And, at the end of the day, it appears that no one is hearing us, or paying attention to us, at all.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.
Is the United States in decline? With protesters in the streets, Washington in gridlock and our economy on life support, it’s easy to understand why the question is being asked a lot these days. But, as an old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.
Yes, say more than two-thirds of American voters in a recent poll by The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and Pulse Opinion Research, an independent polling firm. A clear majority of 57 percent also said they think the next generation will be worse off than this one.
Yet a closer look reveals that levels of pessimism varied sharply by race and political party. Republicans were more pessimistic than Democrats, and Blacks were much sunnier than whites.
An overwhelming 90 percent of Republicans said they thought the U.S. is declining, compared to fewer than half (47 percent) of Democratic respondents agreed. And two-thirds of Republicans but only 45 percent of Democrats feared today’s kids will be worse off than their parents.
“Oddly enough,” the Hill reported in its news pages, “African Americans — who were hammered much harder by the recession than whites — are more optimistic about the direction of the country.”
Actually it is not that “odd” when you consider how much better, despite the current economic woes, the long-range future of African Americans looks than it used to.
Ironically, in the post-1960s, era as the U.S. was losing its manufacturing base to overseas workers, walls of discrimination against nonwhites were breaking down. For those who prepared themselves through education and job training, the Black middle class rapidly grew.
I think that helps to explain why only 30 percent of black respondents in The Hill’s poll said the United States is on the slip-and-slide, versus 74 percent of whites. Similarly, fewer than a third of Black voters (31 percent) think today’s youths will suffer greater hardships than their parents, vs. almost two-thirds (60 percent) of white respondents.
The reasons why are all around us, especially for baby boomers like me who grew up in factory towns that don’t manufacture much anymore. A major topic I encountered at my recent high school reunion, now that we’re old enough to view almost everything worth remembering as “the good ol’ days,” was the disappearance of opportunities we used to know in the mid-1960s.
How much easier it was for the kids of our generation, a mix of races and ethnicities, to get a summer job at the local steel mill, as I did. Jobs like that, if we played our cards right, would pay our room, board and tuition at a state university so we’d never have to look at a slag pit or an open-hearth furnace for the rest of our lives.
We don’t have to look at those factories and assembly plants now because they’re almost all gone — to overseas workers. Meanwhile, the gap between the upper and lower income brackets has widened sharply and steadily since the mid-1970s, along with the difficulty faced by youngsters who want to bridge the gap.
The news is not quite as stark as the “1 percent versus 99 percent” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement puts it, Terry J. Fitzgerald, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, recently wrote on the bank’s website. Middle-class incomes have gone up over the past 30 years, too, although at a slower rate. But farther down the income scale, the news gets increasingly bleak.
The real problem, then, is not the income gap, but the opportunity gap. Many of my classmates were, like me, the first in our families to go to college. In our conversations about the good old days, someone inevitably comes back to the real problem: “Education is the key. We’ve got to do something about the schools.”
Indeed, a number of studies find that the European nations where many of my classmates’ ancestors came from, have been able to hold onto upward mobility better than we Americans have, simply by investing in education.
We won’t close the opportunity gap by demonizing either government or the private sector, but by persuading both to work together. Otherwise, we won’t have to ask whether America is in decline. We will know it is.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.
“It is troubling that unemployment is so high…and that we are so caught up in details of deficits and debt ceilings that we question whether government has any moral duty to serve the poor, help feed the hungry and assist the sick.” — U.S. Representative and civil rights legend John Lewis
As frustration with the inability of Washington to solve the nation’s job crisis mounts, the National Urban League is taking this fight directly to the American people. So far this year, we have held major job fairs and town hall forums in Indiana, New England and Washington, D.C. At each stop, thousands of unemployed African Americans and urban citizens have shown up, résumés in hand, desperate for work. On September 17 and 18 we will be in Atlanta, offering both job and home rescue assistance at a free Empowerment Summit as part of that city’s 20th annual “For Sisters Only Expo.”
For months, Washington has been distracted by a manufactured debt ceiling crisis that nearly resulted in an unprecedented government loan default. But in recent weeks, President Obama, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and other activists have joined the National Urban League in refocusing the nation’s attention on reducing high unemployment that has reached a Depression-era rate of 15.9 percent in Black America. According to CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, in the last two years the Caucus has introduced more than 40 job creation bills in the House of Representatives. Most of that legislation has been stalled by tea party-backed obstructionists who continue to put the interests of Wall Street over the wellbeing of Main Street.
While Washington must do more to create jobs, the National Urban League and other progressive activists believe citizens have to empower themselves with the information, training and employment connections needed to bring jobs and hope back to their communities. Last year, the National Urban League provided that kind of empowerment assistance to a record 2.6 million Americans.
Our jobs tours this year are part of that movement. The September 17–18 Empowerment Summit at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta will feature a career fair with local employers ready to hire as well as free one-on-one career coaching sessions. Attendees will gain access to local job training programs, and workshops will be held on how to utilize social networks and how to put the “wow” in your résumé. We are asking all jobs seekers to bring an updated résumé.
We will also hold a home rescue fair to help the thousands of Atlanta-area residents who are struggling to avoid becoming victims of the foreclosure crisis that has also hit urban Americans especially hard. Attendees should bring:
•Their two most recent paystubs showing earnings for last 30 days
•A copy of any benefits statements reflecting amount, frequency and duration of benefits •A household expense budget
•If self-employed, most recent quarterly or year-to-date Profit and Loss Statement
•Last two months of bank statements
•Copies of signed 2009 and 2010 income tax returns
•A copy of a utility bill showing name and property address
•Homeowner’s Association bill if applicable
•Most recent mortgage and property insurance statements
•Copies of closing documents and most recent correspondence from your mortgage company.
Many people come to Atlanta’s “For Sisters Only Expo” for the fun and great entertainment. This year come for empowerment too. — (NNPA)
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.
Every time I have the opportunity to be back in Africa, I am always reminded that African Americans, in particular, should continue to strive to stay abreast of what’s happening in the motherland. Black people all of the world will not be totally free until all our brothers and sisters in Africa are truly free and self-empowered with control over their vast human and natural resources. But we cannot afford just to be spectators on the sidelines of history when it comes to Africa as well as the need to keep vigilant about what’s happening in our own communities throughout the world. The future empowerment of African people in Africa and in America will be contingent on how well we secure a better economic future for the communities in which we live.
I am in the heart of Africa: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) attending an international business conference. After witnessing first-hand the growing resilience and self-determination of the people of the DRC in the face of great social and economic challenges, I am optimistic about this nation’s future. That is why I am sending this message from the Congo because as the winds of change and progress continue to blow stronger in Africa, it also should bode well for Black Americans if we will broaden our worldview about how we can and should connect with each other to transform and improve the quality of life for our families and communities.
Today, there are over 71 million people who live in the DRC. The enriched cultural history of the Congolese people goes back further in time beyond 650 B.C. The Congo is the largest land-based nation in Africa. Geographically, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not only strategically located along the line of the Equator in the middle of Africa, it also borders eight other nations including Uganda, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Republic of the Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, Angola and Zambia. The DRC is one of the most endowed nations anywhere on earth with vast mineral and natural resources. In addition to vast amounts of diamonds, copper, gold and the DRC is the world’s largest producer of cobalt in addition to coltan (tantalum) that is the precious metal used in every iPod, iPad and Apple computer as well as in most cell phones manufactured across the globe. There is no question that if the Congo continues to develop its people and resources, it has the potential to become one of the most productive nations of the future.
Recent research studies have estimated that the untapped raw materials of the DRC are worth more than $24 trillion. That is why other nations outside of Africa that urgently need those raw materials for their own development and interests are monitoring closely the political and sustainable development of the DRC. China is currently the largest investor in the Congo. How is it that non-Africans see the value and huge potential of Africa more than people of African descent?
But there is another statistic about the DRC that reveals its greatest promise and hope. The majority of the 71 million Congolese are young people. The median age in the DRC is 17 years old. There is a very positive glow and uplifting countenance expressed in the stated aspirations of the youth of the Congo. Millions of young Congolese are hungry for education at all levels of academic preparation. I visited the University of Kinshasa that was built to originally hold 5,000 college students, but now the university educates more than 28,000 college students. There is significant opportunity for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to establish academic and strategic partnerships with the University of Kinshasa and other universities in the Congo. Likewise there are millions of young African Americans who should know about Africa, and in this case need to become more aware of the future development opportunities in nations like the DRC. Hopelessness is not the answer. Raising our awareness about Africa can create more options and hope going forward. During these hard economic times in Black America, we must continue to stress the importance of education and preparation for a better future with new forms of economic development and international relationship-building.
The upcoming re-election campaign for young President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo later this month reminds us of the upcoming re-election challenge for President Barack Obama in November 2012. Both President Kabila and President Obama deserve to be re-elected. Yet, the future of Africa and America is in the hands and minds of people who are informed, organized, mobilized, and culturally and economically self-empowered. We all must vote, create, build, unify, pray and share in taking the responsibility for the future advancement of our families, communities and nations. — (NNPA)
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is senior advisor to the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and president of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.
I was the only member of the Collegium of Officers of the United Church of Christ in the national denominational headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 11, 2001, when it became clear what was happening, I invited all the staff to gather in the Amistad Chapel, our space for worship in the building. Like many others, all we could do was express our sadness, our fear, and our confusion about what was happening and why.
The reality is that none of us ever controls our own fate but sometimes we try to and delude ourselves to the contrary. September 11th was a harsh reminder that much of life is out of our control and sometimes all we can do is pray — and that is what we did ten years ago when we gathered.
Being a denominational staff person means that many of us travel frequently. It was only a couple of weeks after September 11th that I had to get on a plane. I have never really liked to fly, but it came with the position so I found ways to manage my anxiety. But my first flight after September 11th was really hard.
I knew that those who died on September 11th got on those planes expecting an uneventful flight, just another business trip, or vacation, or visit with family… As I prepared for my first trip after 9/11, I understood in a visceral way that life as we knew it had changed. We would never again feel immune to the suicide bombings and terror attacks that we had watched on our TVs.
That first post 9/11 flight was hard, and yes, I was afraid. But I also experienced something other than fear. I experienced outrage. Outrage because back then and increasingly over the last ten years, I began to notice the stares at people who appear to be Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. I don’t personally know about religious persecution, but as a person of color, I know how it feels to have conclusions drawn about me with no information other than my skin color. I recently listened to an old podcast of This American Life where the painful story of a Muslim fourth-grader was recounted and how her life changed after September 11th. It was the story of intolerance and hate being taught in our classrooms and innocent children becoming collateral damage of 9/11.
We all know better, but ten years after September 11th, the numbers of anti-Muslim hate speech and attacks have only increased.
On September 11, 2001, in the face of the attacks and incredible loss of lives, all we could do was pray. As we approach the 10th Anniversary of September 11th, I hope we pray for all who feel the loss of precious family members and friends, but we can do more this time. We can speak up when we hear comments or witness acts of aggression or insult based on racial and/or religious difference. We can be proactive in teaching acceptance of all of God’s children and refuse to act out of fear and ignorance. Fear cannot be the winner here. I hope that is how we honor those who died on September 11th.
Edith Guffey is collegium of Officers, United Church of Christ, Witness For Justice, Justice & Witness Ministries.
Whether beginning a career or seeking to keep one going, the competitive edge in today’s job market usually goes to those with college degrees. In our recovering economy with fewer jobs available than there are people who need them, there is strong motivation to earn degrees. But higher education also costs money — more than many household finances can afford. As a result, many Americans are counting on the potential benefits of higher incomes derived from strong academic credentials against the cost of going in to debt to fund that degree.
The New York Federal Reserve determined that 37 million Americans now owe more in student debt than is owed on either car loans ($730B) or credit cards ($693B) nationwide.
Further, according to Rohit Chopra, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s student loan ombudsman, outstanding student loan debt hit the trillion dollar mark several months ago. In just one year, 2011, federal student loan volume totaled $117 billion.
In a recent blog, Chopra said, “If current trends continue, there will be consequences not just for young people, but for all of us. Too much debt means too much risk for a generation of young people, many of whom are struggling in today’s economy.”
Chopra is right. How America Pays for College, a research report from Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest financial services company specializing in education found that parents’ income(s) and savings are being stretched as well. For the average American, 70 percent of college funding comes from three sources: grants and scholarships (33 percent); parent incomes and savings (30 percent); and parent borrowing (7 percent). Students invest in their own futures by a combination of borrowing in their own names (15 percent) and working/saving (11 percent).
The Sallie Mae report also found that the recent increase in grant usage occurred among middle and high-income families. Low-income families — with the least financial resources — actually paid more of their incomes and savings for college. Among Black families, 51 percent borrow for college costs and 35 percent of Black students take out loans in their own names to attend four-year institutions, both public and private.
Instead of comparing curriculum choices or graduation rates to guide a choice of college, today the weightiest influence in selecting a college is the financial aid package offered. The value of a financial aid package, according to the Sallie Mae report, was the determining factor for 57 percent of Black students. Additionally, 52 percent of Black students live at home while studying to contain costs.
Overall, students who graduate leave campuses with a degree in one hand and a stack of student debt in the other. The average amount of debt new undergraduates amass is $25,000. But for Black students receiving a bachelor’s degree from 2007 to 2008, 27 percent borrowed $30,500 or more. The highest student loan debt was most common among families with incomes between $30,000 and $59,999.
As young graduates enter the workplace, student debt burdens will likely defer their ability to purchase a home, the traditional gateway to building personal wealth. For their parents, the additional debt of borrowing for their children will probably defer retirement and/or alter their standard of living.
These devastating financial effects have attracted the attention of some Capitol Hill lawmakers as well.
According to U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke of Michigan, “Graduates are finding that their degrees, like homes at the height of the real estate bubble, were vastly mispriced assets that are now hard to finance. Yet, unlike the debt from a home bought in the boom years, it is impossible to walk away from the debt incurred by getting a degree. Student borrowers cannot discharge or even refinance their debts in bankruptcy, regardless of how desperate their situations become. We must set these students free.”
Finding solutions to this student debt dilemma is another initiative of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Later this year, the bureau will publish a report of their findings on this mounting issue.
Only once since my foolish adolescence do I recall actually feeling fortunate to be a smoker, a truly insidious addiction that I have since kicked. It was the slightly chilly Washington evening on which I was joined during a smoke break at a friend’s birthday party by Christopher Hitchens, one of the few people who can be called a journalist-intellectual without it sounding like a punch line.
How ironic that memory now seems upon hearing the news Thursday that the simultaneously celebrated and vilified curmudgeon had died at age 62, after a long, highly publicized bout with esophageal cancer, an ailment that his smoking certainly didn’t help. Yet how like Hitch it was for the famous self-described contrarian to remain a symbolic last-man-standing, even against clean air.
This was the author, after all, of numerous books and essays, most recently for Slate, Vanity Fair and the Atlantic Monthly, taking on such varied targets as Henry Kissinger, Princess Diana, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore and even — Gasp! — Mother Teresa.
Yet, while admitting he brought it upon himself, he was constantly irritated by those who mentioned those high-value targets without noting what he criticized them for. He went after Mother Teresa for, among other reasons, “her warm endorsement of the Duvalier regime in Haiti.” Even so, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told NPR the magazine received hundreds of complaints and subscription cancellations, including from some members of his staff.
Although I frequently disagreed with Hitchens, I admired his courage, his exhaustive research and his relentless logic.
And he was full of surprises. At the birthday party, it looked at first as though he had overlooked the host’s request to bring a poem to read, instead of other gifts. But when Hitch’s turn came, he smoothly recited from memory a touchingly appropriate work by William Butler Yeats. This brought applause and a request for an encore, which he granted without the blink of an eye. He seemed to carry a library of literature in his head.
A mutual friend who had been one of his editors later told me that Hitch had a photographic memory — and a talent for producing excellent work without the benefit of much sleep. Both skills, enviable to many a journalist, appeared to serve him well.
Such was his legend. He was admired by fellow Washington scriveners in the way that other raconteurs like Hunter Thompson were admired, although fortunately he didn’t have the same streak for self-destruction.
Yet Hitchens also was vilified. He parted company with the liberal weekly The Nation, for example, after expressing support for President George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, which I also supported, and Bush’s later invasion of Iraq, which I did not support.
Nevertheless, his fierce independence, made him a hero to me at the time. As the politics of his adopted land became increasingly divided, he refused to be a lackey for the left or for the right, despite concerted efforts by both sides to enlist him. He courageously surprised everyone with his eloquent independence, even when it cost him friends.
How did he respond to criticism? “The brief answer is that I have become inured without becoming indifferent,"” he wrote in “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” a 2001 book. “I attack and criticize people myself; I have no right to expect lenience in return.”
That’s good because he didn’t get it, especially when he took on the Almighty Himself with his atheist polemic, “God Is Not Great.” Many people asked him, he said, whether he was having second thoughts about God and the possibilities of an afterlife after hearing that his own life was about to end. Did he feel, as the old joke goes, like he was all dressed up but with no place to go?
No, he dismissed the possibility that personal emotions might overwhelm his rational side. He remained consistent, working hard and turning out more provocative prose until his end, including some poignantly brilliant insights into such symbolism-rich developments as the loss of his speaking voice. He never lost his spirit, as far as I could tell, as he turned out prose that stands as a lasting gift to those whom he leaves behind.
When Britany Lewis was born, no trumpets and glad tidings or even balloons and baby showers greeted her arrival. She was just another poor baby. Britany never knew her father, and for the first six years of her life lived in virtual squalor with five siblings and a mother addicted to drugs who eventually went to prison. Britany barely remembers her, though there are some details of her early childhood that do stand out — like the maggots everywhere in their run-down house, even in the refrigerator.
When Britany was six, her then 19-year-old sister was awarded custody of her young siblings. But her sister was hardly prepared to be a parent or provider for her younger sisters and brothers, and the family was forced to live for over a year in a two-door Honda Prelude. The deplorable living conditions and lack of parental guidance caused Britany to miss an entire year of school. No one cared enough to notice or do anything about it. Her sister also began a destructive pattern of physical abuse toward Britany that would last for several years. Once, she dealt a devastating blow that forced Britany to miss two days of school while she nursed a black eye. Britany remembers that the physical pain paled in comparison to the disappointment of tarnishing the perfect attendance record she’d built up and determinedly maintained for several years in a row in the midst of the chaos at home. By then, school had become a refuge.
While millions of children have found safe harbor with relatives, Britany did not until she was 16. Her sister kicked her out and left her in the care of her grandparents. In this current home Britany has finally found the love, support and guidance she needs and deserves. Despite the abandonment, homelessness and physical abuse that permeated her childhood, Britany managed to stand tall against the odds that constantly threatened to destroy her dreams. Now a high school senior, she has a 3.94 GPA and is, according to her guidance counselor, “a proven force” on her high school campus. Britany serves as Associated Student Body President and is a vigilant community leader in programs such as the Youth Commission–City of Lancaster, California and the Teen Builders Community Service Club. Selected as a “Future Leader” by the Valley Press Newspaper, Britany believes “I overcame the things from my past because I refuse to let them hold me back. My plan is to continue to do my best in school and help others along the way.”
Britany is now also one of the newest winners of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Beat the Odds® awards program, which recognizes outstanding high school students who have overcome incredible adversity to excel in school and display incredible self-determination and a drive toward achievement through the common thread of hard work, academic excellence and service to their communities. On December 1, celebrities and child advocates joined CDF’s California office at an awards gala honoring Britany and four other extraordinary high school students from the Los Angeles area. Each of them will receive a $10,000 college scholarship and support services including rigorous SAT prep, one-on-one college counseling, state-wide college tours, internship opportunities, educational and life-skills workshops, and guidance and mentoring throughout the high school and college years.
I am so proud of Britany Lewis and the other youths recognized in Beat the Odds awards programs in eight cities this year. But how many more of America’s 16.4 million poor children will never beat the odds stacked against them and grow up to reach their full potential the way she has? How many millions of Britanys have we already lost? How many poor babies were born today who will never win any awards and whose names we’ll never know — but who will instead grow up hungry, homeless, poorly educated and unloved on the outskirts of the American dream?
In the afterglow of Christmas when Christians celebrate the birth of the most famous poor baby in history — the miracle of the incarnation and the belief that God actually came to live among us as a poor, homeless child — I hope we can honor this holy baby in our lives today by raising a mighty voice for justice and protection for all the poor babies and children made in God’s image still left behind in poverty and hopelessness. — (NNPA)
Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children’s Defense Fund.
“With a pivotal presidential election just six months away, we must do all we can to ensure free and fair elections and that everyone can vote.” Voter Empowerment Act fact sheet
Thanks to rising citizen outrage and efforts like the National Urban League’s “Occupy the Vote” campaign, the voter suppression movement is facing mounting resistance. As we reported several weeks ago, voter suppression laws in Florida designed to purge voter rolls and make it more difficult to register voters, have now been challenged by the Justice Department. There is also a new bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that takes direct aim at some of the most egregious voter suppression tactics being employed or considered in dozens of states throughout the nation.
These tactics include elimination of Election Day and same-day registration, reductions in early voting periods and absentee voting opportunities, and new restrictions on voter registration drives. These measures could prevent millions of eligible voters from exercising their constitutional right to vote and they disproportionately affect our service members, people with disabilities, minorities, young people, seniors and low-income Americans.
As we approach the 2012 presidential election, we should be encouraging more, not less, voting by the American people. In the 2008 presidential election, about 3 million Americans were turned away from the polls due to voter registration problems. And an estimated 51 million Americans eligible to vote are not registered. Still there are those who are determined to keep even more people from voting. This is a travesty; it’s un-American and it dishonors the sacrifice of generations of voting rights foot soldiers who fought and died to guarantee every citizen the right to vote.
Sponsored by Representatives John Lewis (Ga.), John Conyers (Mich.), Steny Hoyer (Md.), James Clyburn (S.C.), and Robert Brady (Penn.), the Voter Empowerment Act (H.R. 5799), would fight back by ensuring equal access to the ballot box, protecting the integrity of voting systems and mandating accountability for fair elections. Among its provisions, the bill calls for:
The Voter Empowerment Act is the most serious attempt to date by Congress to protect voters from the recent onslaught of restrictive voting measures that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to register or vote. In describing the bill in a recent op-ed in the Hill newspaper, Congressmen Conyers and Brady write, “The bill declares that a voter shall not be denied the right to vote unless the challenge is corroborated by independent evidence, and it also prohibits persons other than election officials from challenging a voter’s eligibility based on voter caging and other questionable challenges.”
John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who was beaten during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in Selma, Ala., added, “The ability to vote should be easy, accessible and simple… We should be moving toward a more inclusive democracy, not one that locks people out.” We agree. Occupy the Vote. Pass the Voter Empowerment Act now. — (NNPA)
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.