Admittedly I’ve been less than consistent with posting on this blog because of the two other major writing projects I’m currently working on, and this post is a bit of a departure from the norm (though it will tie in, and I’m thinking of expanding my blog topics) but this is a place where my thoughts go, and as I look around at recent events in America, as I think of how they relate to some of the stories I find most inspiring, I felt the very pressing need to share my mind. Fair warning before you proceed in case it’s not your cup of tea, but this is going to get a bit political; but it’s about more than politics; it’s about humanity and the spirit of a country I happen to love a great deal, a country I have hope for, and a country whose leadership I believe needs to take a good long look at themselves. I think perhaps all of us need to take a good long look at ourselves and the freedoms we sometimes do not appreciate, and the duty we have to preserve our well-being as a whole, vibrant, varying nation.
The ideas and thoughts here have been a long time coming; anyone who spends more than twenty minutes talking to me knows how hard I’ve fallen for Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: the musical, the movie, the 1,000 page (plus) novel, all of it. I adore every last character and every last page, Valjean and Javert, Cosette and Marius, but my particular interest has no doubt fallen very heavily with the Les Amis de l’ABC, known by some as the Barricade Boys. Their scenes in the movie/musical are some of the most rousing, including “Do You Hear the People Sing” which makes anyone want to wake up and start a revolution, but their fight and the historical context of it is explained very well within the novel, and that spurred me to learn more about the France those young men inhabited, the France they fought and died for. I picked up books on the original French Revolution itself, I learned about the aftermath, the subsequent rebellions, I learned about the June Rebellion of 1832 (which is featured in Les Mis), I learned about barricades and revolutions and political history and the fact that during the time of Les Mis, cholera was rampant, bread was short, and the French economy in tatters. I picked up Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” and “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality.” I’m still reading through both, and it’s been incredibly illuminating.
Through a stream of leads that only the Internet could invent, through Les Mis I also found Newsies, a musical now on Broadway which was originally a really great Disney movie with a 17-year-old Christian Bale. The story of Newsies takes place in New York City during the 1899 newsboys strike, when newsboys all across New York City held a two week strike against William Pulitizer and William Randolph Hearst in rebellion against their low wages. They won, increasing wages for newsboys throughout the city. Listen to the music, watch the movie, see the show, and it’ll make you want to stand up for something, will remind you of that rebellious spirit that I feel resides somewhere in all of us, because as Jack Kelly, the main character in the story might say: “Pulitizer may own the World, but he don’t own us!”
Because of all of this, my thoughts have recently been very focused on the power of people’s voices and the beautiful idea of having those voices heard, the immense value of creating a country founded on the idea that everyone had a unique voice, the idea that everyone could shape their own future, the idea that if something wasn’t right, people could and would rise to stand up and fight to do away with the old and create something new, something better, to fight against injustice and inequality one step at a time. I’ve been thinking, in short, about the American spirit, the human drive to stand up, as they say, for the little guy, the underdog.
The spark that lit the flame of these innumerable thoughts, the spark that resulted in having to write this post or I felt I might burst with feeling and outrage, was two-fold; the first happened almost two weeks ago when a man named Aaron Alexis walked into the Navy Yard in DC, killing 12 people and injuring more. The second happened as I watched the battle over the Affordable Care Act and the government shutdown occur over the past week, a battle that’s still ongoing, a battle that could possibly mean literally no one in my household will be able to go work after next Tuesday if Congress doesn’t pass a budget.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was already on fire about the issue of gun violence in America, and I remember very clearly being massively disappointed back in April when Congress failed to pass the bill expanding background checks and the proposal to ban some types of semi-automatic weapons in light of both the Aurora and Newton shootings, getting 54 votes where they needed 60. At the time, polls suggested that somewhere around 90% of the American public wanted these laws passed.
I’m not going to stand here and say gun control is a simple issue, and I’m also not going to stand here and blame one group for the problem, but I will not hide my immense shame and outrage at the fact that Congress ignored the very clear will of the American people in favor of appeasing the smaller special interest gun groups like the NRA. Our government was created to do the will of the people, not to appease private groups, and I was furious and heartbroken for all the people who consistently lose loved ones in these mass shootings that are almost ceasing to be a surprise. In “The Social Contract” Rousseau warns about allowing the “particular will” of certain powerful factions to hold sway over what he calls the “general will” of the people, which is essentially the ideal compromise lawmakers search for, the “sum of the differences” of everyone, and that is exactly what happened then; more than half the votes, and still no progress. Congress was not formed so either side could hold political stand offs until one of them got exactly what they wanted, it was formed to debate and reach a middle-ground that best suited the American people, to listen when the people spoke out.
I’m a librarian at the DC Department of Transportation, just a few blocks down the street from the Navy Yard, a place I walk past all the time going to and from nearby restaurants for lunch. I’ve stood in line at food trucks with workers from the Navy Yard for the past 2.5 years, passed them while walking from Starbucks. On the day of the shooting I woke up in the morning feeling really terrible and so called out sick (a rarity for me), falling back asleep only to be awoken by my phone buzzing with a frantic phone call from my aunt, who couldn’t get me on the line at work because I obviously wasn’t there.
“There’s a shooting at the Navy Yard,” she said, near tears. “I couldn’t get you, are you okay? Are you there?”
I answered that I’d stayed home sick, and rushed to turn on the news, fielding messages from people who knew I worked in the area who were concerned for my safety. For hours, I watched the events unfold, seeing the cameras sweep up and down the streets I walk down five days a week filled with more emergency personnel than I’ve ever seen, and I was in DC during the earthquake. I saw pictures of a man with bullet wounds lying on the sidewalk outside the CVS I go to regularly. I watched my city and my office neighborhood lock down while a man murdered people inside, and all I could think was “Again. This is happening again.”
Chills went down my spine when I went into work the next day, and every day since when I walk past the Navy Yard my heart clenches for those people who died, for their loved ones, because all they did was go to work. As has been reported in the news, Aaron Alexis had a history of misconduct, gun misuse, and ongoing mental health issues that made him violent in the past, and yet to all appearances, he passed the background check and purchased his guns legally in Virginia. A woman who lost her husband in the Navy Yard shooting lost a son several years ago when he was shot on his way home from the Metro by a man who’d been arrested nine previous times for gun violence.
There is something WRONG here.
People are dying, and yet I hear from so many people, “well, these things just can’t be helped” or “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and all I can think is how can we, a country who fought (with France’s help, to tie back to all of my Les Mis talk) for our independence against a much more powerful and well-prepared British empire when we didn’t even have any sort of set military, a country that watched the Civil Rights Movement succeed in the 60s, a country that is meant to be the face of freedom and justice for all, and we say we can do NOTHING? When people are dying? No. I do not and never will accept that kind of apathy and cynicism from anyone, especially not from a country and a people who were founded on the spirit of rebellion against unjust rule, on the spirit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of LIFE.
I was speaking to a lovely friend of mine from the UK recently, and we were talking about accents when I made the comment, “you know, I feel like most all Americans sound like they’re just about ready to fight someone,” to which she responded, “Well that IS the general stereotype.” The world sees us as fighters, and are we not often at least trying to look out for human rights across the world? I’d like to know where that spirit is, and I’d like us to find it again, because I believe it’s there, can sense it in the fiery indignation of anyone who stands up for something in this divided political climate. It seems to me that right now we need to look inwardly at ourselves.
As I heard a woman on the news say a few days ago shortly after the Navy Yard shooting (to paraphrase), “We do not want your condolences, we do not want your well-wishes. We want your courage to take action.”
I am not, for instance, demanding we ban guns entirely, but I am asking for some intense discretion, some kind of far more intense safety measures than we currently have in place, because what we have is very clearly not working. Something needs to be done to keep the guns out of the hands of people like Aaron Alexis, and gun illiterate as I am, I’ve never understood why everyday people need to own military assault weapons.
I’m not saying we can stop every gun tragedy, I’m not saying terrible things don’t happen; they do, and that’s how the world is, good and bad all mixed up together, light and dark existing side by side in everything and everyone. But simply stepping back from gun tragedy after gun tragedy and saying “well, the world just sucks, doesn’t it?” isn’t a strategy, and it isn’t helpful. We cannot wash our hands of it like this, and the world has not suddenly changed so much that there is no path forward. All of history shows the progress of the human race, life improving year by year, century by century. Surely we can at the very least reduce these mass shootings that occur so often, take a lead from other countries that hardly ever see such events. Yes we’re a very large country, but if they can do something so can we.
On top of the shooting, there is now an imminent threat of a government shutdown on Tuesday, an event that will leave hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work without pay, workers who will have to find a way to get by if the shutdown lasts long enough. A shutdown that will not cripple just DC, but the whole country’s economy, because as I’ve read, it will cost 2.1 billion dollars to restart the government once it closes (a huge hit to our finally improving economy) and once again, it’s one small group preventing us from moving forward over a healthcare law that’s already set to go into effect. I won’t go into the merits and issues concerning the Affordable Care Act here, because it’s a complicated piece of legislation and deserves a post all to itself. But the fact of the matter is that it’s a piece of legislation that has already been passed by Congress, a piece of legislation that’s set to start going into effect on October 1st, and if it’s going to be repealed, it needs to be repealed by the proper process of a creating a new law, not because a small faction of the Republican party in the House doesn’t agree with its implementation. Digging their heels in over a bill that’s already law and preventing the passing of a budget that will shut down the government of this country and cause direct financial strife among the very people who voted for them, is unforgivable, callous, and selfish, particularly given that the shutdown won’t affect their paychecks.
This is not really a post in which I’m trying to argue for or against the healthcare law, because it’s complex and important, I just don’t believe that particular fight should shut down the government of a whole country when even the party opposed to it isn’t united even in their opposition. Senator John McCain, a Republican himself, urged his fellow party members in the House to stop this “unwinnable” fight, and according to the Huffington Post, denounced his colleague Senator Ted Cruz’s 21 hour long filibuster earlier in the week saying that though efforts to repair the bill shouldn’t be abandoned, it was not worth shutting down the government, noting that the people largely spoke on the matter when they re-elected President Obama in the last election.
Regular government workers aren’t people who make millions of dollars a year, they’re normal Americans who need those paychecks to live and pay their bills, to feed their families and pay their rent and their mortgages and their student loans. There are young people working on Capitol Hill who hardly get paid enough to get by as it is, middle-aged men and women across the country who need this money to support their families, and this is a hit lots of people who live paycheck to paycheck cannot afford to take without belt tightening even further. Imagine you have every penny lined up, and then you get hit with this?
All of this has been going on for over a week, and during the chaos, something happened that made my heart lift in unison with the American spirit, the human spirit, I’ve been contemplating so thoughtfully. Until a new law takes effect in January, DC government is also forced to shut down when the federal government shuts down, but amid all the arguing and the tension, DC mayor Vincent Gray and the rest of DC government leaders stepped up and put their feet down in a wonderful fit of revolutionary fervor, saying they were going to do everything they can to stay open in the event of a shutdown, given that a great deal of their money comes from local DC taxes and they, unlike Congress, have kept a balanced budget for 18 years.
“Isn’t that how this country was founded?” DC Mayor Gray asked in a Washington Post article.
Yes sir. Yes it is.
But though DC government might remain open, a good number of their contract employees (myself included) still might not legally be able to go into work because some of our funding is federal; as of yet, that situation remains unclear. If it’s deemed I can’t go in, the door to my agency’s library will be shut until Congress gets it together, because both my fellow librarian and I are currently still contract employees.
I’m an eternal optimist, a believer in the good of humanity and its progress, and seeing that act of defiance by the government of the city I call home, bolstered me and furthered my hope that despite all the awful things currently going on in this country, in the world, there is most assuredly still good that happens every single day, that people will stand up for that, will fight for it. Inevitably, there will always be people fighting for what’s right, fighting for the good and betterment of humanity against the powerful and the corrupt. We only need to remember to step out of apathy, to step out of complacency, to pull away the curtain of cynicism and remember that just because something doesn’t harm us directly, it doesn’t mean we should ignore it; we must look outside our own front doors, outside our cities, our countries, and see that in the end, we are all human beings, and that’s a powerful bond.
As for America, a country founded on the heart of all these concepts, I still maintain a strong hope that soon we will find a way to break through the intense divide we’ve found ourselves in, will find a way to turn and heal the wounds and progress the country forward in a way that is healthy and equal for everyone, not just one special group, not just the wealthy and not just the powerful, but for everyone, because that’s what we’re about, and I bid everyone to remember that, particularly those men and women who are currently elected representatives of this nation, put there by the voting citizens who believed in them. If they don’t, they can be sure of the rebellion of those very people, and if they don’t listen, might not be holding their seats in the Capitol building any longer, and they will see the American people continuing the great tradition of free speech and assembly to make their voices heard.
When we truly take a look around ourselves, despite difference, despite politics, despite religion or race or creed or sex, we are a society still, a society that must always remember to care about and love as a whole, or we are nothing. If we forget, we are so much less powerful against the darkness that comes, when instead we might be a bright light.
As Enjolras, the revolutionary leader from Les Mis says, and to tie it back to my ever present love of stories, “This is not a moment to pronounce the word love. No matter, I pronounce it, and I glorify it. Love, thine is the future.”