A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species
By Marvin Roberson
I’m a huge Gloria Steinem fan. She is one of the smartest, most insightful, most thought-provoking people I’ve ever read, heard speak, or met (I say “met” just to burnish my credibility - 15 years ago, I paid to sit in an auditorium with hundreds of other people to hear her speak - after, I waited in line to have her sign my book, while I gushed like a fanboy - I don’t think she has me on speed dial).
However, lately, I think she is misreading the strength of our social fabric in a way that my 16-year-old niece Molly is not, and I think Molly is right.
The past couple years, and especially during this election, Ms. Steinem has been admonishing us to remember how hard-fought the gains were in civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, etc. She has expressed concern that many young people today take those gains for granted, without recognizing that they are relatively recent gains. She has also been cautioning us to consider this progress. as fragile and possibly temporary.
I think she’s right about almost all of that. However, I think that the fundamental foundations of that progress are fairly secure, and I think that the very fact of the manner in which the younger generation takes it for granted is both an indicator of this, and a measure of how secure it is.
Let’s take an example from Molly. She is a Junior in High School, at the same school where her mother (my sister) and I went, our mother went, and her mother and father (our grandparents) went. We’ll follow a couple examples through the time our family attended this school.
This fall, a young man with Autism was elected to the Homecoming Court. Some folks made a big deal about this. Molly was outraged about that, expressing the opinion that it was not relevant and no one’s business, he was just a student like anyone else.
Think about that in the context of my family’s attendance at that school. During my grandparents’ tenure, this young man would have been hidden at home or sent away to a “home” (as in fact my eldest uncle was). During my Mom’s time, he would have likely been in “Special Ed” classes, possibly not even in the same building as the rest of the students. When my sister and I were there, he probably would have been beginning to be “Mainstreamed”, where he had some Special Ed classes, but possibly some regular classes, and he would have had “opportunities” to interact with the “regular” students.
And today, not only is he eligible, but in fact elected, to the Homecoming Court. And not in the “aren’t we tolerant for electing him” sense that would have been the case a decade ago. No, his classmates don’t think that it’s terrific that he’s “overcoming his autism” to accomplish this. They think it simply isn’t relevant, and is no one’s business, it’s just part of who he is.
This is progress that was hard won, and fought bitterly. “Mainstreaming” was very controversial when I was in high school. Parents expressed concern over the safety of their children interacting with “those kids”. My family actually went to court to help establish the first group home for developmentally disabled adults in our county (for the uncle who was sent away as described above).
But it’s not fragile. And it’s not going away, exactly because of the fact that Molly takes it for granted, not in spite of that fact. That doesn’t mean folks with disabilities won’t experience intolerance - recall Trump’s horrific mocking of a disabled reporter. It doesn’t mean that some, or many, individuals won’t experience serious discrimination, and the resulting isolation, rejection, and pain that comes with it.
And we need to fight against all of that. But remember, we’re taking the long view here. And in the long term, the student Molly voted for in the Homecoming Court isn’t being sent away to a “Home” for “people like him”. He’s part of the fabric of our society, and he’s here to stay.
Let’s follow another example through my family’s history at that same school. My grandfather graduated from that school. My grandmother stopped in 6th grade, because that’s as far as girls were allowed to go. My mother graduated at the top of her class. However, she was told not to apply for law school at UM, and had to forsake her dream for something “more suited to a woman”.
My sister, however, has more degrees than you can shake a stick at, and her daughters look poised to do the same. Heaven help the fool who tries to tell either girl (or their mother, or in fact their uncle) that they are disqualified from some field of study pr profession by their gender.
Or consider this - my grandmother attained voting age at a time when voting age didn’t affect her - because women were simply not allowed to vote.
My mother vividly described her joy at seeing the beginnings of women representing Americans in Congress. My sister and I both were ecstatic at the prospect of being able to vote for a woman for President of the United States, for the first time ever.
And here’s where I will again cite Molly over my hero Ms. Steinem. Gloria Steinem (and many others, I’m using her as an example, not singling her out) has expressed concern over the fact that not enough young people, especially women, understand how historic that was, and what a bitter disappointment the loss represented.
I get that, and I understand it. However, I asked Molly about that. Her response was that while she understood that no woman had been elected as President of the US, that all it meant was that no woman had been elected - not that being a woman disqualified a candidate from office, or that no woman could be elected.
And that, folks, is Progress - permanent, irreversible progress. It is unthinkable that the US will ever again tell women they can’t vote because they are women. It is unthinkable that policy makers will ever again debate in public the question of whether a person’s gender in and of itself makes one unsuited for office.
And again, don’t get me wrong. Some (maybe many) people feel that way (see the next installment). There will still be obstacles, and attempts to roll back progress. Reproductive rights are clearly under attack.
But the fact that women vote, run for office and get elected, will eventually be President of the US, and that no one is debating these fundamental rights, means that we have been, and will continue, to move in the Progressive direction, and that’s good news, even in this terrifying time.
And that’s the Tsuga’s View
In the next installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, I explain why we should thank my neighbor for helping pull up the floorboards, and why the current political situation is not yet a crown fire, no matter what my friend says.