Today, I’m speaking to a group of women students at IUPUI. I was asked to address civic engagement. These are the remarks I plan to share….(longer than usual–sorry about that.)
In the blurb I sent as an introduction to this talk, I wrote that “America is in the throes of a not-so-cold Civil War. Political participation and activism have never been more important—but what do those terms mean? What is required of women who want to secure the progress that has been made, not just for women but for the diverse citizens who make up our “body politic”? What is our obligation as citizens to return the political process and government to something resembling sanity?”
Let me deconstruct that paragraph, and explain what I meant by each of those assertions.
When I say we are in the midst of a “civil war,” isn’t such an assertion hyperbole, a wild exaggeration? Actually, I don’t think so. The American Civil War was fought to defend the institution of slavery, an institution that rested upon a belief that Black people were inherently inferior. The slave owners and their White apologists may have been defeated, but their very pernicious bigotry still motivates far too many Americans.
Today, a resurgent White Christian Nationalism is driving a wide variety of destructive behaviors and encouraging the increased expression of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny. You can see it in the ridiculous argument that teaching accurate history is Critical Race Theory—a subject these folks couldn’t define if their lives depended on it—and can’t be allowed. We see it in efforts to bans books and in fights over what can be taught—or even discussed—in our public schools.
The progress that has permitted Blacks, women, and other minorities to advance—to take more visible seats at the civic table—has been met with grievance and hysterical resistance. The election of a Black President was a catalyst for more overt expressions of deep-seated bigotry. A significant number of White Christians tell pollsters that only White Christians can be “real Americans” and that the rest of us are here on sufferance. The people marching and chanting about being “replaced” are telegraphing their fear of losing social dominance.
Although it’s true that only a few people are actually shooting at each other—I think it is not inaccurate to say that we are engaged in a civil war over very different visions of what it means to be an American.
We women have a critical stake in this fight. Patriarchy is part and parcel of what is really an effort to resist modernity and social change, and the assault on reproductive rights is best understood as an attack on women’s equality and autonomy. You need not be “pro- abortion” to understand why the decision to carry a fetus to term must be made by the individual woman, not by the government. (As a lawyer and former ACLU director, I can tell you that the constitutional issue is not whether a woman can legally abort: the issue is who has the right to make that decision—the individual or the state?
The current use of “my body, my choice” by anti-vaxxers who are anti-choice would be humorous if it wasn’t evidence of incredible civic ignorance. In fact, the anti-vaxxers have it exactly backward: Government has an affirmative obligation to protect public health and safety—to prevent some citizens from harming others. Courts have long held that public health restrictions are legitimate and appropriate. A pregnant woman, however, poses no threat to her neighbors.)
Whether a woman calls herself pro-choice or pro-life, she needs to understand that a government that can control her body considers her a second-class citizen. Once women lose the right to make their own reproductive decisions, they open the door to loss of other hard-won rights.
America is really at an inflection point. We are experiencing an extreme relapse into tribalism, and at the same time, a number of longstanding government structures are showing their age or are otherwise under assault. The Electoral College and the filibuster have outlived any utility they may once have had; the Supreme Court has been turned into a political rather than a judicial body; gerrymandering has allowed both parties to carve out districts perceived as so safe for one party or the other that people stay home because they figure their vote doesn’t count. There is so much about our current government—not to mention our politics—that cries out for repair.
Speaking of repair–you all have a choice. You can tune in to Dancing with the Stars or the Kardashians while the planet warms, racism thrives, and American government is gridlocked and impotent. If enough of you do that, my advice would be not to reproduce, since the world your children will inhabit is likely to be a chaotic hellscape. Or you can get off the couch and engage—become an activist, and work to make things better for your children and my grandchildren.
What would that look like?
Well, you don’t have to run for office or even work on a campaign, although that would be great. There are plenty of other ways to be civically active.
One thing you can do that would make an enormous difference is helping to get out the vote. You know those gerrymandered districts I talked about? The data used to draw district lines is turnout from the preceding election. But previous turnout has been depressed by the widespread belief that the game was fixed, so that casting a dissenting vote wouldn’t make a difference. I’m here to tell you that a number of supposedly safe districts wouldn’t be safe if turnout substantially increased.
You can also work on the campaign of someone you believe is honorable, someone whose positions include fixing these systemic problems and working for a fairer, more open and inclusive society. Or you can do general “grunt work” for the political party of your choice.
But even if you absolutely hate politics, you aren’t off the hook. In the introductory blurb, I referred to citizens’ obligations—and one of those obligations is civic engagement, making a reasonable effort to improve your community. There are lots of avenues available to channel that effort: You can volunteer for a nonprofit organization that is addressing a problem that matters to you. You can tutor kids from a poor neighborhood. You can read up on American history and the values actually embedded in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and explain what you’ve learned to people who display a lack of civic literacy. You can speak up—nicely but firmly– when you hear someone share a bigoted statement.
We are at a pivotal point in America’s trajectory. We will either surrender to the mob that wants to take the country “back”—who want to ensure that women and Jews and Muslims and people of color continue to be second class citizens—or we will come together to breathe new life into the Declaration’s vision of a country where all people have been created equal.
My generation has really made a mess of things. Yours, unfortunately, has been handed the job of fixing it. If those of you on this Zoom call are anything like the students I taught, though, you’re up to the task.