It is said that pride goes before the fall. And so, as the 4th of July holiday appears on the calendar this is a good time to remember that the concept of penance is as ancient as civilization itself. Upon the commission of a serious transgression, the sinner is granted forgiveness upon the condition of performing some act of contrition – or penance – and only then is the sin truly forgiven. And now, here in the second decade of the 21st century, those of us who possess progressive beliefs are now forced to realize that we have committed a great transgression – we believed that the rights and privileges that we enjoyed were permanent and therefore we did not take the necessary steps to safeguard them. The penance is that now many of these rights and privileges are in grave danger of being taken away – for now or possibly for a lifetime.
The loss and denial of rights does not represent alarmist or fantastic thought. Throughout modern history there are too many instances of entire groups of people who enjoyed rights and privileges associated with citizenship and acceptance losing it all within an historical blink of the eye. Just ask the Armenians in Turkey at the turn of the last century, or the Jews in post-World War I Germany, or the Japanese Americans in 1942 after Pearl Harbor. Or you can ask the Tutsis in Rwanda when the Hutus came for them.
And now, we can ask each other, what is happening in America?
People formerly marginalized to the extreme – black Americans, Latinos, women and girls, members of the LBGTQ community, Asians have seen some of the barriers to full citizenship – visible and invisible – begin the fade away during the past 50 years. And as progress, however incomplete, has shed light into the many dark corners of America it has become easy for everyone, even those with the best of memories and the deepest knowledge of history, to remember to and understand the sustained struggles and ongoing battles that resulted in so many changes. Changes that so many of us have taken for granted.
And while the fruits of the labors of so many forgotten men and women were being enjoyed, the forces of racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia never went away. Having been vanquished on the field of public opinion they sought other ways to impose their will on those who were emerging from the shadows of American Marginalism. Those other ways included changing the electoral landscape of this country through gerrymandering and voter suppression so that as you are reading this a knee-jerk conservative Supreme Court justice is about to be nominated to a lifetime term by a President who was not elected by the popular vote and will be confirmed by a majority of the United States Senate who do not represent a majority of the American people. And we will have to live with the reality of this new right wing of the right wing Supreme Court for perhaps as long as a generation.
And as aspects of American socio-political life like affirmative action and gender equality and proscriptions against discrimination based on race or gender or sexual preference are stripped away, it will be helpful to realize what has happened. Because what has happened is that too many beneficiaries of progressive change have taken that change for granted, not realizing (or forgetting) that the foundations of this country – racism, slavery, sexism, genocide – continue to define too much of what this country is about.
The penance for the transgressions of forgetfulness and complacency is having to endure the very real reversal of what so many men and women fought and died for in this country. The penance for these transgressions will entail realizing that battles for equality and equity in this country never end. Those who believe in progress and progressive thought will have to return to strategies of resistance, organization, protest and rebellion against the regressive forces who would keep us from the light once more.