I always write a serious column this time of year, and the recent death of Nelson Mandela has reminded me of something very important. It is this: While so many things in the world seem wrong and unfair, there are people who simply will not let them stay as they are and who will do what they can to make the world a more just place. I love that Martin Luther King quote because it helps us keep our eyes on the prize (another wonderful phrase), since what comes before the prize is often extraordinarily painful and difficult. And, as King’s untimely death shows, it can sometimes involve more than pain and difficulties.
There is so much wrong in our world and in our country, but it’s always a good idea to keep King’s words in mind. Because actually, when you think about it, our country has made and is making progress in some very important ways. And among them is that we are headed in the right direction in at least one essential area: the recognition of the humanity, value and dignity of every human being.
I know that for anyone in a group that has not been treated justly, the length of that arc may sometimes seem simply too long to bear. But in my lifetime I have watched amazing changes for the good. That young people today may be incredulous at the way things were, even 50 or 60 years ago, shows how far we have come.
I remember when the academic department to which I belonged was all male — this was in 1972 — and we began to talk about hiring a woman. There was actually controversy over this (and I am happy to say that I was one of the pro- people). Someone said, “But the man is the breadwinner in the household.” Another said, “We’ll have to start watching our language in department meetings.”
But within a year or two, we had hired our first woman, and by now the department is more than 50 percent female. (And watching our mouths was never a problem; the language of the women in the department was often just as salty as that of the men.)
Women have perhaps been the most successful group (and this word seems inadequate to describe half the human population) in terms of convincing the whole society — not just men, but women who didn’t necessarily feel oppressed — that each individual member of a group is deserving of as much opportunity and respect as anyone. It has been a harder fight for African-Americans. I know that sexism is still a big problem in our society, but I personally believe that racism is a bigger one.
But it is not a “competition of miseries,” an expression I once heard an African-American woman use on a television discussion years ago. The fact is that sexism still exists and so does racism. But things continue to change for the better. That arc does bend toward justice.
As a straight person, I would never presume to say how life feels for a gay American, but here too there have been tremendous improvements in my lifetime. Same-sex marriage? This was a dream even 20 years ago, and today it is legal in 16 states.
What has helped move along the full acceptance of gay people is the fact that virtually everyone has someone in their family, someone they love, who is gay. And in such situations, you have two choices. Either you continue to find something wrong with homosexuality, and therefore something wrong with your loved one, or you look at this person you love and you say to yourself, “He (or she) is fine. There’s something wrong with the old way of looking at this.”
Love sure helps that arc move toward justice.
Talking about love, my major social concern is America’s boys and young men and the fact that on so many measures they are not doing as well as girls and young women. Even as long ago as January 2006, this was described in a Newsweek cover story as “The Boy Crisis.” True, there are many educators speaking out on this problem and trying to help schools and parents lift boys out of what, for many, is a kind of stagnant state. But it has not really caught on. There are government initiatives in the UK and Australia to try to deal with this same concern, but not here. It seems like it’s taking forever. (I’ve been writing about it for more than 20 years.) But with three sons, and now four young grandsons, I feel I have no choice but to keep raising people’s awareness of this issue.
And like anyone fighting for something they believe in, I, too, have to remember that while the arc of moral justice is long, it does bend toward justice.
While you celebrate the holidays, think about all this, whether for yourself or anyone you love or care about. And try to do what you can to help the arc bend just a little more sharply and with a little more speed. This is a great way to finish up this year and start the new one.
Happy holidays to all!