Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dreamin, Then and Now...What is Possible?

Kudos to personal finance columnist, Michelle Singletary for her Sunday August 25th column that ran in the Business Section of our Lansing State Journal.

 Michelle Singletary finance advisor

 Rarely do newspapers put these types of stories in front of the eyes of those who read this section of the paper. They flood this section with new CEO's whose company has had recent success, or what sold yesterday for how much, and what stocks have climbed. But rarely do they allow for a critique as strong and thorough as Singletary offers, given the limited space a columnist receives.

Singletary, like other writers on this the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's memorable speech, have been looking back to see what has changed and what hasn't. She quotes King's speech, "The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." She then goes on to look at the stats, not just for black and other minorities, but how wealth has concentrated so much since this historic event. Citing a recent report from the Urban Institute she notes "Over the past 30 years.Americans in the top 20 percent saw their wealth increase by nearly 120 percent, while families in the middle quintile saw growth of 13 percent. The folks in the bottom 20 percent saw their net worth drop below zero, meaning their debts exceeded their assets."

Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, writing in this week's The Nation also looks back to King's speech and how history has remembered it with an eye most other pundits have ignored.
     It is implausible to imagine that, were King to be raised from the dead, he would look at America’s jails, unemployment lines, soup kitchens or inner-city schools and think his life’s work had been accomplished. Whether one believes that these inequalities are caused by individuals making bad choices or by institutional discrimination, it would be absurd to claim that such a world bears any resemblance to the one King set out to create...

...In the final analysis, to ask whether King’s dream has been realized is to misunderstand both his overall politics and the specific ambition of his speech. King was not the kind of activist who pursued a merely finite agenda. The speech in general, and the dream sequence in particular, are utopian. Standing in the midst of a nightmare, King dreamed of a better world where historical wrongs had been righted and good prevailed. That is why the speech means so much to me, and why I believe that, overall, it has stood the test of time.

     I was raised in Britain during the Thatcher years, at a time when idealism was mocked and “realism” became an excuse for capitulation to the “inevitability” of unbridled market forces and military aggression. To oppose that agenda was regarded, by some on the left as well as the right, as impractical and unrealistic. Realism has no time for dreamers.
     True, we can’t live on dreams alone. But the absence of utopian ideas leaves us without a clear ideological and moral center and therefore facing a void in which politics is deprived of any liberatory potential and reduced to only what is feasible at any given moment.
     In the summer of 1963, with a civil rights bill pending and the white population skittish, King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable and pragmatic. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan, laid out his case for tougher legislation, or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable. 
     Instead, he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether building the world he was describing was a Sisyphean task or merely a Herculean one, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with the power to act on it. In so doing, he showed it is not na├»ve to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless be necessary, worth fighting for and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?

This conjures up a little story clipped to my desk as a going away present from a student who worked for me many years ago.

The Weight of a Snowflake
        "Tell me the weight of a snowflake," a coalmouse asked a wild
        "Nothing more than nothing," the dove answered.
        "In that case I must tell you a marvelous story," the coalmouse
said.   "I sat on a fir branch close to the trunk when it began to
snow.  Not heavily, not in a raging blizzard.  No, just like in a dream,
without any violence at all.  Since I didn't have anything better to do,
I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my
branch.  Their number was exactly 3,471,952.  When the next snowflake
dropped onto the branch--nothing more than nothing--as you say--the
branch broke off."
        Having said that, the coalmouse ran away.
        The dove, since Noah's time an authority on peace, thought about
the story for a while.  Finally, she said to herself, "Perhaps there is
only one person's voice lacking for peace to come to the world."
        -Source unknown