Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Shine a Light

(Author's note: I wrestled with this post, or at least, the notions behind it,  for a long time.  I wanted to get the tone and message just right, and each time I thought I had it, I still wasn't sure it was right.  But I'd rather be mostly right than silent; because silence's time is over.  I am only speaking for myself in the words that follow.)

The recent events at Michigan, between the raised fist protest by members of the football team and the racially charged flyering, there's been lots of attention paid to where we are as a campus and alumni community at Michigan, part of a larger national conversation.  This conversation has no easy answers, because if it did, it would already have taken place.  A piece on this topic by MTV News's (and Michigan alumna) Jane Coaston helped me understand that maybe I did have one small thing to add to this conversation.

I'm a 38-year-old white guy from the suburbs.  My entire life has been lived in a triangle bounded by Livonia, Ann Arbor, and Cone, Michigan.  By any estimation, I have had an incredibly blessed life, one for which I am grateful, though perhaps not always as grateful as I should be. Whatever my anxieties or stresses are, they are not life or death.  I do not know the African American experience, nor would I make any claim to understanding it beyond what I have read and what I have heard from listening to people whose opinions I respect discuss it or write about it.  But I do feel like an important piece has been, if not missing, at least undervalued, in the discussion of the protests taking place regarding the national anthem.  It is in this area is where I feel comfortable, as someone who is well versed in America's history, in making a point.

In the preamble to the United States Constitution, Madison and the other Founders gave their generations and those in their posterity, a mission statement for the United States.  We, the People, of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.  "More perfect" is a statement of striving, an aspirational goal that says "It's not going to be perfect, but we should try to be better."  Immediately following that statement, the Framers provide a list of things that this Constitution seeks to accomplish: establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.  That "establish Justice" and "insure domestic Tranquility" sit side by side is what gives us pause.  Those who are protesting are seeking, in a very oversimplified by me, way, equal protection under the law, something the Constitution would not assure its citizens for nearly 90 years after its ratification by the several States.  That the quest for that assurance has, in the minds of some, disrupted domestic tranquility is frustrating or even angering, but it is truly in the best traditions of America's history.

One of the heritage narrative themes that runs through America's history, in its telling, is that we are a country founded on dissent and protest.  The Puritans were religious dissenters who left England for an errand in the wilderness and resolved to make their colony a "city upon a hill," an example to the rest of the world.  When middle-class artisans and upper-class Bostonians felt their way of life being threatened by increased regulation from Britain, they took a series of steps to express their displeasure, culminating in the Boston Tea Party.  When men and women alike began to question the role slavery was playing in the United States, they began to write, and write, and write to expose what they saw as a grave injustice, often at great personal or political cost.  When women felt they had waited for a half century of empty promises to grant women's suffrage, seeing nothing come of the words but delays and prevarications, they took to the streets and made their case.  When African-Americans realized that nearly a century after the Civil War, America was still a segregated society of two classes of citizens, they employed a variety of techniques to make their message heard.  All of these moments were, in their time, denounced by the status quo as needless agitations and harmful to the proper order of society.  Today, we celebrate these groups as examples what America can do at its best, shine a light on that where we are wrong and through commitment, dedication, and courage, make things better.  We strive ever forward towards more perfect, though knowing that while perfect may never be attainable, it is a lofty and worthy goal of a nation that believes in the ideals of liberty, freedom, and equality.

At a university whose motto is "Arts, Knowledge, Truth," we too can seek a better way forward.  We can have minds broad enough to embrace positions with seeming contradictions.  We can support the players who protest knowing that they understand their beliefs fall firmly between a love of country and a desire to see that country be better.  We can believe in the possibilities of a better tomorrow while simultaneously listening to those whose today needs immediate care.  We can learn from each other if we listen to each other. If we accept that, well, just maybe, we don't know better than everyone else.  If we don't presume motives without asking questions, and if we can use knowledge gleaned from a wide variety of sources, backgrounds, and beliefs, perhaps we can find something closer to the truth.

I'm just one person, with a very tiny platform, if I can use my platform to support the courage of young men who seek to use their athletic gifts to benefit the university I love, and who use their platform to help draw attention to difficult truths worth examining, then I know that we are keeping in the best traditions of the university I love.  A university that seeks better tomorrows together, and walks together into that future, one that is hopefully made brighter by the honor, courage, and sacrifice of those who shine a light today.

I thank you for reading, and as always, we fight for better days.

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