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My Country, 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future by Keith Ellison

My Country, 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future
by Keith Ellison


As American congressman Keith Ellison—the first Muslim elected to Congress—enters the race to chair the Democratic National Committee, reread this interview on the cause he stands for: progressivism — and the best books to read to fully understand it.

My Country, 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future by Keith Ellison

My Country, 'Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future
by Keith Ellison

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You co-chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Please outline its core principles.

There are four. We stand for peace and justice around the world. A lot of our caucus members were active on getting out of Iraq and now Afghanistan. We try to promote diplomacy and development as opposed to military confrontation. That’s one principle.

Second, we’re about working class prosperity. We’re about working class people being able to have a strong economic future that includes retirement, decent wages and good educational opportunity for their kids. We believe the Bush tax regime has contributed to growing inequality in our country and we’re all strong advocates of consumer law. All of us voted for the Obama health bill but most of us are supporters of single-payer healthcare.

Third, we believe in environmental sustainability and regulation of toxic substances.

And last, we believe in human rights and the equality of all people. We believe that race, gender, sexual orientation, religion – none of these things disqualifies a person from being a good American. We believe in liberty and justice for all, and we underline the word all.

How, if at all, do progressives differ from liberals?

Liberals also believe in equality and economic fairness. I think what makes somebody a progressive is a willingness to challenge the system. I think some liberals look at poverty and feel they need to go to a food shelter to volunteer, which is great. But a progressive would say, “Why are there poor people in the land of plenty?” And they would agitate and organise to change that status quo.

Do you think that difference is rooted in history? The progressive movement, founded in the early 20th century, was a reformist movement.

We do draw from the progressive era of the early 20th century, but it’s not the same movement. For instance, some elements of the progressive movement were for temperance. I don’t think any one of us is calling for that. But we are calling for internationalism, good government and challenging economic plutocracy. So we’re really a new movement that draws inspiration from the earlier progressive era.

The first book you’ve chosen is Stride Toward Freedom by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, published in 1958. Tell us about it.

Stride Toward Freedom is Martin Luther King’s personal account of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, which lasted for 381 days. During segregation, in some areas of the South, black people, who paid the same fares as white riders, were forced to sit in the back of the bus and give up their seats to white passengers if there weren’t enough. Rosa Parks sparked the boycott. But an incredibly bright and articulate 26 year old man known as Martin Luther King emerged as a leader of the protests. He incorporated Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence, which he learned from other leaders. He went on to galvanise the civil rights movement and win the Nobel peace prize.

Why should progressives read or reread this book?

Progressives need to read and reread this book because if you want to know anything about advancing progressive values, you need to know about the best example of progressive success in the last 100 years, the American civil rights movement. It is an example within the memory of many people in which ordinary citizens took on the system, with dignity and unity, and won. People were killed, people were bombed, people were blasted with hoses and yet they prevailed. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to know how to press for change and for anyone who doubts that things do change and ordinary people can change them.

How central are civil rights to the progressive agenda?

They’re the heart and soul of it. We take all colours, all cultures and all faiths. We take you as you are. We accept you as a person with dignity, without regard to whether you have a disability, without regard to whether you’re an immigrant, without regard to whether you’re gay or lesbian or Muslim or anything. We embrace the diversity of America. We embrace this idea of liberty and justice for all. So the struggle that converted our society from a racial hierarchy into a truer democracy – you can’t be a progressive and be ignorant about it.

What are the important points of the progressive platform concerning civil rights in the 21st century?

In the 21st century, we’ve got to make sure that new Americans are treated with respect – so we’re fighting for immigration reform. We’re also standing against some of the xenophobia that has emerged. We want to make sure that America remembers how much new Americans contribute to our society. Then, there’s the fact that the gay community is still subject to hate crimes, mistreatment, discrimination and bullying that leads to suicides. This is something that we’ve got to stand up to as a society.

Then, of course, a lot of anti-Muslim stuff has flared up, including ethnic profiling and this recent ridiculous myth that American Muslims want to impose their religious law on others. Not one city, one state or one Muslim has attempted to institute sharia law in the United States, yet we’ve got laws passed to ban it. These are attempts to make it illegal to be Muslim, despite our constitutional commitment to freedom of religion.

We still have good old American racism. We still have racial disparities in health, in sentencing. If you listen to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the people who are most often the target of hate crimes are still black Americans. And anti-semitism still rears its ugly head. We’ve got a lot to fight.

Let’s move onto The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Please give us a sketch of this unparalleled life story and say why it belongs in the progressive canon.

The reason it’s got to be there is because the many people who enter American society from the margins need a story that helps them understand how they can change and effect change. Malcolm X began life as a poor black kid from Nebraska. His father died early in his life. His mother had a bunch of kids and was relegated to the state mental health system. Malcolm ended up in foster care and went to prison for robbery. Then he became a member of the African-American religious movement, Nation of Islam, which still had some very reactionary ideas about race. Yet Malcolm evolved to accept others without regard to race, and to call for justice for all people. He became a leading anti-colonial figure.

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Malcolm X is somebody that everybody in America’s prisons today could look at and say, ‘You know what, I can emerge, I can evolve.’ A lot of people who are politicised today, they may have done or said some things in the past, when they were developing, that they’re not proud of. Malcolm X is an example of how human beings are constantly in a state of evolution and he stands for the idea that you are not the worst thing you ever did. That does not describe you. If you are fighting to get rid of drug sentencing disparities, or for inmate enfranchisement so that people getting out of the criminal justice system can vote again, or if you’re promoting re-entry so that when people get out of prison they actually have some skills so that they don’t return, then Malcolm X’s story shows the possibility for human evolution.

“Economic justice is at the heart of the progressive movement.”

How do you think black nationalism and the Nation of Islam shaped the progressive movement?

They’re two separate things. I think the Nation of Islam was a way station for Malcolm X. A lot of people who become committed progressives, fighting for human equality, will have gone through a phase from which they’ve evolved. As for black nationalism, I don’t think it is a healthy political position from which to build a multicultural America. But if you’re from a group that has been historically suppressed, your entry to the progressive movement may be through fighting for racial justice.

Let’s move forward to the fate of the middle class as outlined in 2003’s The Two-Income Trap. Tell us about the book.

The author, Elizabeth Warren, is a professor of law, specialising in bankruptcy, at Harvard Law School. She found that back when one person was responsible for the economic viability of a family, when families hit hard times then the other adult, usually the woman, could step into the labour market to help. But now since two-income households are the norm, when families hit hard times there’s no back-up. Increasingly, families get into a two-income trap where both mom and dad are working to keep up with middle class standards of living. After 30 years of stagnant wages, 30 years of unions under assault, 30 years of deregulation—even under Clinton—American middle class families find themselves in a very precarious economic position.

Progressives tend to be identified more closely with concern for the poorest among us. Is that a misperception?

Progressives understand that the poor aren’t necessarily poor because of some moral failing. We understand that there are systemic problems in our economy. But progressives don’t have a monopoly on compassion, and we aren’t just about opening opportunities for the poor. We are also focused on how the economy that Reaganism and Bushism have given us fails the middle class.

How has the financial crisis affected the progressive agenda?

Economic justice is at the heart of the progressive movement. Over the last 30 to 40 years, there have been political movements to suppress the public sector and exalt the private sector. As a result, we don’t have enough people minding and regulating markets. That’s directly related to how we ended up in this mortgage crisis and this financial crisis.

We regard the appointment of Elizabeth Warren to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a key strategic initiative. This Bureau will improve the information available to consumers to help them make good decisions. One of the ways that the market players got us into this major crisis is by having opaque markets. People didn’t know what they were signing, whether it’s a mortgage agreement or a credit card contract. Banks hide useful information behind gobbledygook. Her movement to provide a level playing field by requiring easier to understand information will be good for the American economy overall. Remember, some business interests didn’t want the Securities and Exchange Commission. They claimed it would destroy the market, and it’s helped our economy grow.

Next, is Winner-Take-All Politics, written by two political scientists. What is the central argument of this book?

Winner-Take-All Politics puts complex economic ideas into language that we understand. It takes a fresh look at the increase in inequality over the last 30 to 40 years. Why are the economic scales tipping in favour of the richest among us? How did this happen? He pinpoints a series of public policy decisions – not some faceless scientific market force, but decisions made by individuals and institutions that resulted in this very lopsided economy that we’re in right now.

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I think this book is required reading because it helps folks understand why the union movement is taking such a beating. Is it because Americans don’t want unions? No. Every poll says they want them. But why don’t they get them? Because of money in politics. The needs of the average citizen are slow to be met because of the overwhelming influence of the wealthiest people and corporations. I don’t think the book uses the term, but it describes America’s slide toward plutocracy.

What can we do about it?

It’s not just the bill we pass, it’s the bill we don’t pass, the actions we neglect to take. We have corrective tools like antitrust laws. But unless the judiciary or attorney general do something about market concentration, power will continue to concentrate and people will take their profits to buy the favour of those who will do things to their liking.

What kind of economy do progressives believe in?

Unfettered unions, easy-to-access job markets, low interest, excellent education, a robust middle class with a retirement to look forward to, and competition based on price and quality not trickery.

God’s Politics by Jim Wallace, an apostle for progressive evangelicals, is next on your list. Tell us about it and why it’s important to progressive politics.

It’s one of my favourite books. Jim helps progressives understand that the people we care about, the people we are fighting for, the working people of America, are spiritual – people who go to church, mosque or synagogue, people who understand themselves as creatures of the divine. Often our politics has been secular, even hostile to religion. Jim says you’ve got to take people where they are, and if they are in a church pew you’ve got to go to the church pew.

Just as importantly, Jim points out that religious scriptures favour economic justice. In the book of Luke, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor”. And the Torah talks about the Year of Jubilee, how every 50th year you should forgive the debts of the poor – another religious prescription for economic justice. In the Koran it says that if you acquire wealth but fail to help the poor, you can’t enter paradise. So all of these holy texts make a progressive argument about the shape that society should be in.

And let’s not forget that progressive leaders of the past have been people of faith. Can you conceive of Martin Luther King without his Christianity? Can you conceive of Gandhi without his Hinduism? Can you conceive of Dorothy Day without her Catholicism? I think that a lot of progressives only see religion when it’s misapplied. We don’t let Martin Luther King be the face of Christianity, we let evangelical fundamentalist Jerry Falwell be the face of it. We should choose King. I really like the book because I think progressives should be the most patriotic and they should be the most spiritual.

What is the progressive view on religion’s proper role in the polity?

The progressive movement has a diversity of views, but in general progressives would say that religious values like love and generosity and forgiveness should animate our public policy, but that specific religious practices are private. So does it matter that on Friday I go to jumu’ah while my neighbour celebrates shabbat? No. Don’t tell me what religion you are, tell me what you believe. Do you believe in preaching good news to the poor? Do you believe in forgiveness? Do you believe every human being is valuable? That’s what I believe and that’s what most progressives embrace.

You’re the father of four. If your youngest came to you and asked “What is a progressive?” what would you say?

I’d say progressives are people who believe that government can and should help people.

September 6, 2012

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Keith Ellison

Keith Ellison

Congressman Keith Ellison represents the Minneapolis area, is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and serves on the Financial Services Committee. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, he was a civil rights and criminal defence attorney prior to entering elected office. As the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, in January 2007, he swore his oath on the Koran.

Keith Ellison

Keith Ellison

Congressman Keith Ellison represents the Minneapolis area, is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and serves on the Financial Services Committee. A graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, he was a civil rights and criminal defence attorney prior to entering elected office. As the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, in January 2007, he swore his oath on the Koran.