Sometimes it seems that way. Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s new Republican governor, won on a platform of not teaching kids things that might make them “uncomfortable.” His state and others passed laws against such teaching. Really!
Lots of things make me “uncomfortable.” Climate change makes me uncomfortable. Being among maskless strangers while the pandemic rages makes me uncomfortable. Thinking about the next variant after Omicron makes me uncomfortable.
Thinking about nuclear war—or Russia invading Ukraine—makes me uncomfortable. Watching the consequences of four centuries of American racism in action makes me uncomfortable. Knowing that our Constitution, which they taught me all my life (even in law
school) to venerate like scripture, creates a deeply flawed structure of minority rule, designed from the outset to perpetuate slavery, makes me uncomfortable.
So what should I do? What should we
do? Should we stick our collective heads in the sand to maintain our mental equilibrium and await the apocalypse?
The “socializing” emotions of shame, guilt, remorse and (their lesser cousin) embarrassment all make us uncomfortable. That’s their purpose
. They are our internal pillars of civilization.
The discomfort they provoke is good
discomfort, much like John Lewis’ “good trouble.” They make us think about others and try to distinguish right from wrong.
They bring us around to the right path. They are our social, cultural, biological and evolutionary guard rails. Lose their corrective redirection, and we slip over the edge into the selfishness, anarchy and darkness. We need
to be made uncomfortable at times, to know when we are wrong.
I’m not a religious man. If I were, my Jewish roots would probably keep me from becoming a Christian, though I have deep respect for Jesus of Nazareth as a thinker, leader and early small-d democrat.
Yet today I find myself magnetically drawn to certain Christian religious leaders, mostly Black ones. Some have a way of turning discomfort into a light showing the path. In Lincoln’s words, they use discomfort to guide us to the “the better angels of our nature.”
Dr. King, MLK, was the finest. He had a unique combination of penetrating insight, vast intelligence and moral acuity. They killed him because his gifts made many of us uncomfortable and had begun motivating uncomfortably rapid change.
I’ve spent decades thinking about Dr. King and what he might have accomplished had he lived longer. He was an American virtuoso of straight talk
. He could inform and enlighten without offending or inflaming.
Today we have few like him. Most of our leaders were trained as lawyers, a few as business people. But neither hair-splitting nor profit-seeking can help us now. We need men and women who can show us, with the clarity of biblical parables, where lie right and wrong. We need those guard rails more than ever.
Then came the Reverend Raphael Warnock. I gave to his campaign because he’s a Democrat and a progressive, and because Stacey Abrams endorsed him. The beautiful symbolism of the first Black senator from Georgia
, which Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea had made a citadel of racism and regional resentment for centuries, was not lost on me. But I didn’t really see
Rev. Warnock until recently.
I get my video news from PBS almost exclusively. The reason is simple: I want my information focused by reason and public interest, not profit. Fox may be the worst, but it’s not the only medium to let profit dictate its coverage and its “angle.” Sooner or later all the profit-making “news” media fall into Facebook’s dismal trap: they jolt our amygdalas, stoking shock, surprise, fear and rage, just to attract eyeballs and build viewership and profit. That’s not the way to build a civilization.
That’s not the way to straight talk. Nor is bend-over-backwards objectivity, bothsidesism, or retreat into nuance and complexity. Every once in a while, we need a moral leader who can and will illuminate the right path with simplicity and force.
So, like most of us, I lapsed into a diet of bland pablum. I thought I knew where right lay, but I rarely heard anyone say it. As leaders and newscasters described how Republicans were systematically making it harder for people to vote, all I heard was numbers and abstract verbal analysis, which missed the human and moral point. The incessant statistics were mind-numbing, even for a wonk like me.
Then, one night, Judy Woodruff interviewed Rev. Warnock on the PBS Newshour
. At the end of the interview, she asked him to comment on the massive GOP efforts at voter suppression. Here’s part of what he said
“[The suppressors] know what they’re up to. And the people of Georgia know what they’re up to. I have stood in those lines. I’m not making this up. I’m not telling you what someone told me. I have been in those lines. I have seen people in neighborhoods stand eight and 10 hours trying to vote. I have gotten those phone calls.”
“I have seen the ways in which our state has purged hundreds of thousands of voters on a Saturday night. And now, in this very moment, they are threatening to swoop in and take over local boards of elections. This is anti-democratic. It's anti-American. And we have an obligation to stand up.”
* * *
“[A]s the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached and where John Lewis worshipped, I don’t have any right to give up. I don’t have any right to break in into tears right now. These folk fought battles that we look back [on] and we act as if those victories were inevitable.”
“The truth is, they were quite improbable. It was improbable that John Lewis could walk across that bridge, face that kind of brute force, and somehow bend the arc of history. We don’t know when that moment comes. It’s our obligation to keep fighting the good fight, to stay in what he called good trouble.”
“And that’s what I intend to do, because I believe in democracy, and I love this country enough, a kid who grew up in public housing, now serving in the United States Senate. I love this country enough and what it represents at its core to fight for it. . . .”
“And the democracy gives me a framework in which to fight. You can't do that everywhere all over the world, and that’s why I’m fighting for it.”
straight talk. That’s the kind of moral leadership that no lawyer’s brief or research report can lend, however erudite or well composed it may be. Rev. Warnock got me up off my couch, shouting, singing and dancing with determination and joy. And the next thing I did was make a spontaneous, unscheduled contribution to his re-election campaign.