- These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. [Thomas Paine, “The Crisis,” December 23, 1776.]
A major fault line separating left from right in politics runs along the definitional line of patriotism, or citizenship. People on the right are inclined to see patriotism as worship of symbol, such as a salute to the flag or the recitation of a pledge. People on the left are more inclined to see patriotism as activism: being politically involved, following the laws and actively participating to make the system work. While symbols have their place, they can never substitute for the hard work of citizenship; on the contrary, they can provide easy cover for charlatans and hypocrites, who use them to disguise devious intentions. We are mindful of the historical examples of symbols misused, and of the political realities in the United States today: to the extent that absence of national unity is a concern today, that concern is in economics, not politics.
Committed as we are to naturalism, we Humanists are decidedly on the political left in this respect. We live by a commitment that actions speak louder than words, and hold that our actions in the service of justice are the measure and test of our patriotism. By contrast, symbol-worship reflects the same kind of magical thinking that many Humanists reject in theism.
- Benazir Bhutto, Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1989).
- David Frost interview with Benazir Bhutto (Nov. 2, 2007)
- Ingrid Betancourt, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Columbian Jungle (Penguin Press, 2010).
- Peniel E. Joseph, Stokely: A Life (Basic Civitas, 2014): Stokely Carmichael’s activism as a lesson in how the United States “came to a moral fork in the road and opted to go straight.”
- Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013): “. . . a fiercely determined activist behind the mild-mannered lady in a hat.”
- Laura Wides-Muñoz, The Making Of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2018): “Immigration reform and the student activists who tried to make it happen.”
- Raymond Arsenault, Arthur Ashe: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 2018): “ . . . he was a man who needed to do more than just hit the ball well; he needed to give back to the world . . . ”
- Imani Perry, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon Press, 2018): “Lorraine Hansberry was one of the most brilliant minds to pass through the American theater, a model of that virtually extinct species known as the artist-activist.”
- James McGrath Morris, Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press (Amstad/HarperCollins, 2015): “By her late 20s and early 30s, Payne was fighting housing segregation and defense industry discrimination with the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. When A. Philip Randolph, the founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — the most powerful black union in the country — reached out for local support for the emerging March on Washington Movement, Payne answered the call. This was the opening salvo of the civil rights movement, and she was right smack in the middle of it.”
- Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury Press, 2015): This daughter of Karl Marx “was . . . from earliest childhood smart, passionate, argumentative. Although in love with literature and languages, music and theater, it was always radical politics that set her on fire.”
- Ira Berlin, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States (Harvard University Press, 2015): “‘The Long Emancipation’ offers a useful reminder that abolition was not the charitable work of respectable white people, or not mainly that. Instead, the demise of slavery was made possible by the constant discomfort inflicted on middle-class white society by black activists.”
- Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Antiracist (One World, 2019): “Kendi is on a mission to push those of us who believe we are not racists to become something else: antiracists, who support ideas and policies affirming that ‘the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences — that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.”
- Adam Hochschild, Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020): “Hochschild’s book shows us what a radical movement looked like from the inside, with all of its high-flown idealism and personal intrigues. Whatever protections we take for granted once seemed unfathomable before they became real.”
- Roxane Gay, ed., The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (Norton, 2020): “The rise of the prison abolition movement has followed the decades of activism by Lorde and fellow Black feminist writers . . . . She feels present in every call to reconceive models of care and justice”
- Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town (Random House, 2020): “The cycle of resistance, crackdown, resistance, crackdown — with the crackdowns serving mainly as goads for further resistance — culminated when locals, most of them current or former monks from Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery, found a new and uniquely public way to protest Chinese rule and call for the return of the Dalai Lama. In 2009, they started setting themselves on fire.”
- Maurice Chammah, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty (Crown, 2021) “promises a history of 'the rise and fall of the death penalty.' But as it tells that focused tale, it becomes — almost unwittingly — a case study that speaks more broadly to our current moment, about building monumental change brick by brick.”
- Kate Clifford Larson, Walk with Me: A Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer (Oxford University Press, 2021), “is a gripping and skillfully researched political biography that embeds Hamer’s personal history within a compelling account of the post-World War II civil rights movement.”
- Keisha N. Blain, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021): “. . . Blain asks us to revisit the activist’s achievements through the lens of the current civil rights movement. She argues that Hamer pioneered an approach to fighting racism, sexism and class discrimination that is relevant today.”
- Nice Leng’ete, The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide (Little, Brown & Company, 2021): “This Kenyan Activist Said No to ‘the Cut’”
Documentary and Educational Films
- Sing Your Song, on Calpyso singer and political activist Harry Belafonte
Film and Stage
- The Ipcress File, about an heroic spy
- Watch on the Rhine, about an anti-Nazi crusader and the people around him
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Pete Seeger, If I Had a Hammer
- Peter, Paul and Mary, If I Had a Hammer
- Trini Lopez, If I Had a Hammer
- Sam Cooke, If I Had a Hammer
- Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion: A Novel (Riverhead, 2018): “ . . . Wolitzer is an infinitely capable creator of human identities that are as real as the type on this page, and her love of her characters shines more brightly than any agenda. People — loving them, knowing them, letting them shatter and rebuild us again — areWolitzer’s politics . . . ”
I looked like Abraham Lincoln.
I was one of you, Spoon River, in all fellowship,
But standing for the rights of property and for order.
A regular church attendant,
Sometimes appearing in your town meetings to warn you
Against the evils of discontent and envy,
And to denounce those who tried to destroy the Union,
And to point to the peril of the Knights of Labor.
My success and my example are inevitable influences
In your young men and in generations to come,
In spite of attacks of newspapers like the Clarion;
A regular visitor at Springfield,
When the Legislature was in session,
To prevent raids upon the railroads,
And the men building up the state.
Trusted by them and by you, Spoon River, equally
In spite of the whispers that I was a lobbyist.
Moving quietly through the world, rich and courted.
Dying at last, of course, but lying here
Under a stone with an open book carved upon it
And the words "Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven."
And now, you world-savers, who reaped nothing in life
And in death have neither stones nor epitaphs,
How do you like your silence from mouths stopped
With the dust of my triumphant career?
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Elliott Hawkins”]
- Edgar Lee Masters, “The Spooniad” (analysis)
Collections by poets who focused on activism:
- Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller, eds., The Essential June Jordan (Copper Press, 2021): “Writing is an act of faith in a future where meaning is possible. Some poems may make nothing happen, but any poem has a formidable potential, an energy that, in the right conditions, can cross time to change a life.”
- Natasha Trethewey, ed., The Essential Muriel Rukeyser: Poems (Ecco, 2021): “. . . the Arc of Moral Verse Bent Toward Justice”.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s activist spirit is evident in his many fine recordings.
- “Queen Hatshepsut”
- “Social Justice – A Fire for Reimagining the World”
- “Awakening Emmett Till”
- “Rosa Parks”
- Ives, Orchestral Set No. 2 (1919), is a three-movement work about “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” an outdoor people’s meeting and a popular uprising.
- Wolpe, The Man from Midian (1942): “His Moses was not the philosopher-priest, but rather the political agent who strove to liberate his people from oppression.” [from the liner notes to this album]
Albums and tracks:
- The Awakening Orchestra, “To Call Her to a Higher Plain”
- Joel Harrison + 18, “America at War”
- Yothu Yindi, “Treaty” remixes: this aboriginal group called for a treaty through music.
- Danilo Pérez & The Global Messengers, “Crisálida”: “Pianist, composer, humanitarian and activist Danilo Pérez believes that a united global perspective for the arts and social justice are the keys to moving humanity forward in harmony.”
- John Lane, Allen Otte & Torch Quartet, “Trigger” (2022) (49’), is a response to gun violence and gun obsession in the United States.
- Paul Smith, Voces8, Apollos & Barnaby Smith, “Renewal?” (2022) (55’): “The multifaceted texts by Lal Ded, Edmund Spenser, W.H. Auden, Lord Byron, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou and others offer thoughts about our world and about our past, present and future.”