Neighbors

“The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
— Stokely Carmichael, 1965

Shocks you, doesn’t it?

It shouldn’t. The great reformers and radicals always have feet of clay, and it’s often women who wind up taking the brunt. Mohandas Gandhi was profoundly strange when it came to women, surrounding himself with girls late in his life to prove he was “above temptation”; Dr. King was unfaithful to his wife; many early abolitionist women were also suffragists who lived to see the 13th Amendment, but not the 19th. The modern feminist movement, after all, began when the modern civil rights movement treated the women who signed up to help as servants and easy sex. Carmichael’s quote above was his response to one of the first feminist manifestos.

It’s not just women, though, and it’s not just one way. Dr. King relied enormously on Bayard Rustin, the man who taught him nonviolence, but he could never acknowledge Rustin in public, for Rustin was openly gay. Transgender women on the streets or in the shelters are warned to be most careful about violence from lesbians.

A people uprooted from their homeland, suffering through slavery, emancipation, mobs murdering them in the streets, hopes raised and hopes betrayed — if ever there were two peoples who could sympathize with each other, it would be blacks and Jews, and yet somehow that didn’t happen. When I was in college the Black Student Union invited a speaker who had made anti-Semitic remarks; when the Jewish Student Union protested from its office mere steps down the hall, they were accused of being racist.

On an even broader level, liberal/leftist/progressive organizations have a tendency to treat their own staff fairly poorly. I can attest to this personally; I once worked for the Fund For the Public Interest for a week — hired on Monday, quit on Friday. The day I was hired I took one glance at the contract for my position and thought, “We need to unionize.” I should not have been too shocked to discover that some people in my position had tried that in Los Angeles, with the result that the field office in LA was summarily shut down to head off a nascent Canvassers’ Union. I’ve heard similar reports from friends; the general message from on high in the Left seems to be that if you are truly progressive, you don’t need a fair salary, since it should all be for the love of the work. Or, to put it another way, when you’re working on the Left, you should make waves, but only in the authorized directions.

Why is this?

Why do those who face injustice turn around and perpetuate it? Why do those who suffer seize on the opportunity to harm others?

There are plenty of psychological and anthropological explanations having to do with dominance and status, and they have some relevance here, but the simple version is that we learn from what’s around us. African-Americans have seen whites get ahead by trampling others in the mud for centuries now; is it any wonder that some of them have tried to follow the same practice, consciously or not? It’s what they know how to do, because it’s been done to them for so long. Moreover — like it or not — it seemed to work!

There are also the politics of simple survival: when you’re up against the kind of well-regimented and well-bankrolled resistance that the American political right can field, it’s easy to get into a siege mentality and keep anyone inside the boat from rocking it. Any dissent from within needs to be swiftly silenced, even when the group’s mission is dissent.

Of course there’s the problem of priorities. The abolitionists tried to stamp out the just-born woman’s suffrage movement because they were afraid male scorn would destroy their own movement, too; most of a century later the more radical suffragettes sparred with the socialists over which should come first, votes for women or a worker’s paradise; the civil rights movement never worked on poverty until King drove them to it, and the alliance was brief.

There’s the heretic factor, too: those who are like you, but not enough like you, or split off from you, will always face some of the most withering hatred and dislike. For all the pressure on gay-rights groups from the right, their deepest vitriol is often flung at each other — GetEQUAL takes its cuts at the Human Rights Campaign and vice versa, despite the fact that their gay-rights causes are almost indistinguishable.

Finally there is, perhaps, a justifiable concern about mission creep. If you’re a gay-rights organization, taking up the rights of transsexuals may seem beyond your scope.

It’s part of the pathology that we’ve come to accept as normal, the toxic air we breathe and rarely notice: it is a basic premise and touchstone of mainstream culture that people get ahead by stepping on other people. And another part of the pathology is this: we are so used to hierarchy that we establish them everywhere, even in the most rebellious and anarchic activist movements. Someone always takes charge, and the rest of us let them.

But I fear that many of our foremost fighters for equality and justice have forgotten that all their battles are interconnected. The African-American leaders in this country, from the Black Caucus in Congress and the White House to the pastors of storefront churches the country over, should be the first to stand up for gay rights. Why? Well, because some black people are gay. Gay rights leaders should come out swinging for black issues for the exact same reason. Both leadership groups should have a meeting of the minds with immigrant rights groups because any injustice anywhere puts the rest of us at risk. These three should talk to the feminists and do some soul-searching over how they’ve been treating women. And all of them need to clean house and make sure they are treating their laborers well and paying a decent wage, because all their constituencies face that kind of injustice and don’t need their own champions exploiting them.

We also need to remember that some of the divides between us were created intentionally. Rich white men in the Old South set poor whites against poor blacks (and white women against their black sisters), and all to preserve the power structure. Hierarchy again. Dr. King was killed trying to heal the rift between poor blacks and whites; the work remains unfinished. We can all remember the old poem, “First they came for the trade unionists…” but so often we forget why that tactic worked so well.

A large part of all this division and distrust comes from a problem that leaches into all organizations: the well-being of the organization becomes more important than the well-being of the individuals who make up the organization. But look at the last half of the sentence again: the individuals make up the organization. They are the organization. If they are suffering for the organization’s sake, then the organization itself has become the oppressor, and any benefit the individuals derive from the organization’s work is undermined. A step backward for each step forward.

Now, sacrifices must be made. In fact that must be a part of any remedy to this crisis among liberals. But the sacrifices need to be voluntary, not forced; they must begin at the top, not the bottom, for the responsibility to make such sacrifices always lies with those who have the most power. (It is a responsibility the powerful on every level have almost always shirked.) If not for responsibility’s sake, then it should be for the sake of avoiding arrant hypocrisy. If major progressive organizations treat their workers like slaves because they can, hiding behind the mantra of “Anything for the Cause,” why should anyone trust them? If black leaders are fierce advocates for full rights for their own but deny gays their own causes, why should anyone support them? If feminists cannot support transgender and transsexual individuals, how well will they use whatever power given them?

The bottom line is — as so frequently happens with me — compassion.

If you care for any sufferer, you must care for all sufferers. You need not give your life to help each and every one, but if you cannot exercise the compassion to recognize a fellow-struggler — if you are willing to cut in front for your group, or jettison some for the sake of more — then the compassion you claim to hold for your own pet project is entirely compromised.

If you cannot love all, you cannot be trusted to love any.

A friend of mine was a co-founder of a group called “One Struggle, One Fight.” They got it: the rights of workers should matter to the LGBTQ community, and the rights of the LGBTQ community should matter to the black community, and so forth.

The thing is, this isn’t as hard or complicated as it looks. There’s an extremely simple rule that can see every single group I’ve accused back to the path. It can get bosses right with their crews, it can get women the respect and security they absolutely deserve, it can get full rights for every gay man, woman, and child, it can get trans folk the protection of the law and the respect of the community. It’s a formula that just about everyone can follow, and I guarantee that if faithfully followed it can clean up just about every problem I’ve mentioned. So listen closely:

“Love your neighbor like you love yourself.”

That’s it. That’s all. It is the simplest rule — golden, you might say. It’s the foundation of all morality. It’s the basis for every campaign the left has ever launched, in fact. Dig around in the mission statements of all your favorite causes, I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere. If it seems tricky, come at it from the flip side: if you don’t love your neighbor, you’re just making things harder for yourself.

But I hope you’ll love your neighbor — and everyone’s your neighbor — for the simple reason that they are worth loving. Imperfect and beautiful and frustrating and uplifting and stubborn and hopeful: that’s your neighbor. Go and love.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” 1963

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