Today is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All sorts of politicians are quoting his infinitely quotable self. I keep getting stuck at “I have a dream ….”
I know, I know, overquoted, overused, so overdone as to make the words meaningless, but what if they aren’t? That’s all I’m sayin’ — what if they aren’t overdone because they can’t be overdone?
Rodgers and Hammerstein, well, actually Oscar Hammerstein II, or OH2 as I came to know him when I worked for their estates, wrote an almost-as-famous lyric on the same subject. It comes from a song in South Pacific called “Happy Talk.” Sung by an island local, Bloody Mary, she asks, “You got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”
Rev. Dr. King had a dream of freedom — for all of us. I challenge anyone to deny that the man lived his principles. In fact, I’d venture that not only did he live them, he breathed them, he acted upon them, he reflected upon them, he changed them when necessary. Principled seems like a most apt descriptor for the phenomenal man we celebrate today.
Freedom is a principle that is foundational to the United States of America. Any school-age third grader could tell you that. But that is where agreement on the principle ends. Consider what is going on in our world just today, Beloved.
An upstate New York man was arrested over the weekend for his part in the DC riot. “‘Decisions have consequences,’ William Sweeney Jr., the assistant director in charge of the bureau’s New York field office, said in a statement posted on Twitter. ‘Edward Lang is in custody for the ones he made during the assault on our Capitol.’”
Mr. Lang was free to do as his conscience dictated. This is the USofA. Law enforcement was also free to do as it did and arrest him. Freedom has consequences.
Dr. Marissa J. Levine is the director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida. She “said that a failure of leadership — first from the White House, and later from the states — had polarized the entire response to the pandemic and given the virus an extended life. The toll points to a colossal failure at every level of government. The top five worst days for new deaths in the United States have come in January. As the calendar page turned for a new year, the virus was worse than it had ever been.”
Leadership, from The Oval Office to local aldermen, were also free to make the choices they made. Those in government are always free to make choices, are, actually elected to make choices. Choices have consequences.
Let’s parse this a little more finely, shall we?
A leading story in this morning’s New York Times blares this headline: “One Year, 400,000 Coronavirus Deaths: How the U.S. Guaranteed Its Own Failure.”
“After the White House declined to pursue a unified national strategy, governors faced off against lobbyists, health experts and a restless public consumed by misinformation. ‘The single biggest thing that would have made a difference was the clarity of message from the person at the top,’ one man observed in an interview.”
The person at the top had the freedom to create a clear message or an unclear one. Messages have consequences.
“[T]he White House balked at enforcing its own guidelines, and Mr. Trump was openly encouraging states to open up. He turned over control to governors on April 16. ‘You’re going to call your own shots,’ he told them.
Governors had no choice but to accept the buck that was passed to them. Passing the buck has sometimes dire consequences.
Fifty governors were saddled with a misinformation campaign of Gulliverian proportion and no money to implement a plan even had there been one. Misinformation campaigns small and large have consequences. Inadequate funding, too, has consequences.
“But the majority of deaths in the United States have come since the strategies needed to contain it were clear to state leaders, who had a range of options, from mask orders to targeted shutdowns and increased testing. Disparities have emerged between states that took restrictions seriously and those that did not.”
State leaders had the freedom to take restrictions seriously and the freedom not to take restrictions seriously. Restrictions, and the lack thereof, have consequences.
At his wits’ end when his strong recommendations were systematically ignored, “Tired and increasingly frustrated, Kansas Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino sat down at his desk and drafted his resignation letter. ‘You can’t put public health professionals in charge of making these difficult decisions and then overrule them based on no data,’ said Dr. Pezzino, who, in a moment characteristic of the pandemic, read the letter aloud during a video meeting last month and then turned off his camera to leave.”
Dr. Pezzino, as well as myriad other public health officials, had the freedom to speak what they knew was the right course of action. When those same officials, staggering under the weight of all the responsibility with none of the authority, resigned, there were consequences.
Opinion columnist Ezra Klein’s essay “Biden’s Covid-19 Plan Is Maddeningly Obvious,” contains his feeling of helpless fury.
“You can’t help but wonder why the Trump administration left so many of these things undone,” sang the subtitle.
Things that are undone, no matter by whom, have consequences.
Mr. Klein continues, “What it [the Biden plan] does have is the obvious plan for combating Covid-19, full of ideas many others have thought of and strategies it is appalling we haven’t yet tried. That it is possible for Joe Biden and his team to release a plan this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response imaginable.”
Straightforward plans have, hopefully, beneficial consequences. So do indictments.
Mr. Klein again, “But vaccines don’t save people; vaccinations do. And vaccinating more than 300 million people, at breakneck speed, is a challenge that only the federal government has the resources to meet. The Trump administration, in other words, had it backward.”
Having it backward has consequences, Beloved.
Supporting the warp speed creation of coronavirus vaccines was completely necessary. Having no plan to administer them, regardless of how well they work, has stupidly dangerous consequences.
Always-Mr.-Nice-Guy Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was free to enable the president’s lies about the election. He was also free to, as former governor Schwarzenegger stated, to be “complicit with those who carried the flag of self-righteous insurrection into the Capitol.” He added, “We need public servants that serve something larger than their own power or their own party.”
Serving your own power has consequences as does serving your own party.
How long will it take us, both individually and collectively, to understand that there are always consequences, Beloved? That we cannot avoid them, and that we do so, or attempt to do so at our own peril? Consequences are. They’re how life works here on Planet Earth. We’ve even encoded it in our science. Formally stated, Newton’s Third Law of Physics is For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Con. Se. Quences.
Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock was elected to the Senate the day before the insurrection. Yesterday he preached from his home pulpit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, home of Rev. Dr. King, where he is senior pastor as well as a U.S. Senator.
“Mr. Warnock read from the Book of Isaiah: ‘Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.’
Does that verse not show consequences? Of course it does.
“He contended that those words underscored a divine mandate to create a level playing field. The folk who are accustomed to sitting high must come down just a little so that folk who sit so low can come up a little.”
Yes, Beloved, consequences. Sitting high at the cost of others has consequences.
“He said the rancor rippling through the country was a reflection of an ‘unleashing of unembarrassed racism. When you’re accustomed to privilege, parity and equity and equality may feel like oppression,’ Mr. Warnock said. ‘That’s what the current backlash is all about.’”
Backlash is another word for consequences. Unembarrassed racism is finally seeing the consequences it has long-deserved in this country. Privilege too has consequences.
On this day honoring one of the greatest persons ever to live in our country, I think we need to ask ourselves some deep, and perhaps uncomfortable, questions about freedom. What freedom means. How we see it working. What our own participation in freedom yields.
What price freedom, Beloved? It seems to me that freedom as currently referenced in these not-so-United States of America is bidirectional. There’s freedom from and freedom to. And often, nary the two shall meet. Or, if they do, they take on a role of competition rather than coordination. And don’t even start on cooperation — no such animal.
We need both kinds of freedom in this country, Beloved. Freedom from and freedom to, and we need them for everybody, every single body alive in these United States. Freedom was the dream that caused these United States to come into being in the first place. A dream of freedom. That dream has had consequences — for the most part, good ones — for two hundred and forty-five years and counting.
Oscar Hammerstein wrote these final lines for Bloody Mary, “If you don’t talk happy, And you never dream, Then you’ll never have a dream come true.” Rev. Dr. King had a dream. We each have our own dreams. We must or we will not find the energy to keep going. America was a dream come true for the founders, no matter their prejudices and bigotries.
Dr. King named those prejudices, those bigotries, and the consequences that would inevitably come from the limitation of freedoms to some. If we want to recommit to America the Beautiful, freedom from and freedom to must be granted to all of us. No exceptions.
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection between spirituality and culture. Find out more at www.susancorso.com