Saturday, January 15, 2011

Interview with David McReynolds

David McReynolds has been one of the leading voices in progressive politics since the 1950s. He has been affiliated with the War Resister's League, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the Socialist Party of America. In his lifetime, David has run for president twice, once in 1980 and again in 2000. He has twice placed bids for the U.S. House of Representatives, once in 1958 and again in 1968. In 2004, he ran against Chuck Schumer to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. I met David through our mutual affiliation with Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). Recently, I asked David if I could interview him for JuliusSpeaks. This is what transpired.

1. How long have you been active in Socialist organizations?

I've been active in the Socialist movement since I joined the Socialist Party in 1951 in Los Angeles.

2. Where are you from?

I was born in Los Angeles in 1929 and lived there until leaving for NYC in 1956.

3. What is your social and ethnic background?

My ethnic background is Scottish, English, Welsh, Dutch, French, German. The class is middle middle.

4. What would you say most influenced your political ideology?

Hard to say what "most" influenced my political ideology. Certainly reading The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffans while in High School played an important role. Also the influence of friends at UCLA, and hearing Bayard Rustin speak in 1949.

5. What was Liberation Magazine?

Liberation magazine, founded in 1956, was a monthly publication committed to a radical nonviolent viewpoint. I served, from 1957 to 1960, as the editoral secretary (which really meant the guy who bundled the magazine for the post office, handled the mail, etc.)

6. How did you become involved with the War Resister’s League?

I became involved with WRL before leaving California, as I moved toward a CO position in relation to the draft.

7. When did you become involved with the Peace and Freedom Party?

My only involvement with the Peace and Freedom Party was as their candidate for Congress in 1968 here in New York City.

8. What is your political philosophy?

My political philosophy is democratic socialist, with libertarian leanings, and of course with a pacifist underpinning.

9. What compelled you to run for president on the two occasions that you posed a bid?

Nothing compelled me to run for office, but Maggie Phair encouraged my bid in 1980. I was, in 2000, more genuinely drafted (but happy to accept).

10. What was the platform you ran on in 2004 against Chuck Schumer in the New York Senate race?

The main platform in 2004 in New York was the Iraq War - plus the general Green Party platform.

11. What was your association with Bayard Rustin?

My association with Bayard was his impact on my from 1949 on. He was my boss at WRL from 1960 until he left in his "turn to the right" in 1965.

12. You were the first openly gay man to run for president. You also wrote one of the first exposes on life as a gay man in 1969. What was it like to be one of the lone openly gay public voices before Stonewall?

I did not become an "open gay" until the article in WIN magazine in 1969 - though I had not, with friends and associates, made any secret of my life. And my piece in WIN came just after Stonewall - not before. If the question is what was it like to struggle with "gay identity" that is complex. There was a combination of guilt, confusion, etc. and one must realize that when I "came out" in 1949, and admitted to myself that I was homosexual, that was a period when the whole gay community was - without exception - "underground".

13. Bayard Rustin was both political and openly gay in the 1950s. Do you see your life as parallel to his in any way?

Bayard's life and mine are not parallel. He was not, by the way, "openly gay" in the 1950's, despite his arrest in 1953. Everyone in the movement knew Bayard was homosexual but he himself never made any public statement about it (of course, given his morals charge arrest in 1953 he hardly needed to make a public statement!). His
first response on reading my piece in WIN magazine was to call Ralph DiGia and urge I be fired. I did NOT take offense at that, and understood it very well - Bayard was one generation earlier than me. Later in his life he was open about his homosexuality.

14. Did you know James Baldwin?

I met James Baldwin once when I got him out of the Community Church after a talk he had given for WRL there. I got his cab and went down to the Village with him to Folk City. That doesn't constitute knowing him. His writings are very important.

15. It has been said that you were in a long term relationship with the choreographer Alvin Ailey. What was the nature of your relationship with Ailey?

I did NOT have a long term relationship with Alvin and as noted earlier I've got to write this up before I die and Alvin's own life history gets in any way confused with mine. We were friends from May of 1949 on. But I saw him rarely after he came to New York. I had seen him often in Los Angeles, visited him in San Francisco and in New York, and saw him in London when he was there and we met by accident on the Underground.

16. What are your thoughts on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

I think the repeal of DADT is a very good thing but the more important thing is getting rid of the economic draft which forces youth into the military.

17. How would you grade President Obama on the job he is doing? How would you advise him?

I think Obama has been somewhat of a disappointment but I think he was always part of the establishment- he'd never have gotten the nomination otherwise. He has accomplished more than those of us on the left realize, but he has not met the challenge of the economic crisis and his foreign policy, while better than Bush
(marginally better), is basically very much the same. One has to judge Obama in the context of how he has been "bounded in" by the right wing of the Democratic Party and the fierce (and incredible) attacks on him from the Republicans, driven by racism. Aside from advising him to be tougher with Israel and getting out of Afghanistan, I am not in the business of advising him but of shifting public opinion so that whoever is President has new pressures to face.

18. What do you say is the most pressing issue for progressives and activists today?

There are so many pressing issues. I don't even begin to know what should be done to get the economy moving. I don't think socialists have quick answers to this. Certainly the military - its budget, its role in the culture- is a major (really very major) problem, but so is the environment, and so is the problem of how to get the US to adjust to the fact our role is "sliding downward" in the world.

Thanks, David!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Revisionist Tea Party in Tennessee

A coalition of Tennessee Tea Party groups has formulated a list of "demands" focused on the state's educational curriculum and political agenda that they want the state's legislature to heed this session.

As far as their educational concerns, the panel writes that they want to "compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government," a failure that they claimed had been brought about by "neglect and outright ill will," The Memphis Commercial Appeal reports.

Hal Rounds, spokesman for the group, recently claimed at news conference that there was "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the Founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."
As a result, the Tea Party organizations argue, there should be "no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership."

"The thing we need to focus on about the Founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn't existed, to everybody -- not all equally instantly -- and it was their progress that we need to look at," Rounds explained of his interpretation of the legacy of the Founding Fathers.

The issue of revising curriculums to teach history in a manner that encourages the glossing over of the uglier factors of the past has popped up in other states over the past year.
In Texas, an ultra-conservative faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded in pushing through a drastic overhaul of the state's textbooks and educational agenda. Among those proposals was an effort to replace instances of the "slave trade" with "Atlantic triangular trade."

In Texas, an ultra-conservative faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded in pushing through a drastic overhaul of the state's textbooks and educational agenda. Among those proposals was an effort to replace instances of the "slave trade" with "Atlantic triangular trade."

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In Tennessee, Tea Party groups have also waded into the ongoing debate over health care reform, attempting to make efforts to repeal the measure a matter of state policy. The Commercial Appeal reports that members of conservative movement call the measure "an insult to Constitutional principles."

Interview with Cheryl Kilodavis, Author of My Princess Boy

One of the fresh, new voices leading the call for acceptance and tolerance is that of Cheryl Kilodavis,author of the children's book, My Princess Boy. Discovering that her son liked to wear girl's clothing and expressed himself in ways that fell outside of the social norm, Cheryl and her family chose to embrace their son's difference. Cheryl wrote, My Princess Boy as a way to teach tolerance and to spread the message that being different is O.K. Recently, I contacted Mrs. Kilodavis and expressed my interest in interviewing her for JuliusSpeaks. The following is what transpired.

1. As a multicultural family, your family encounters several different cultural attitudes and dogmas on a regular basis. How has your son’s choices and your family’s choice to embrace him been accepted in the various communities in which you interact?

It’s been a mixed bag, but 95% have been supportive. I’d say 3% have respectfully disagreed with our decision but also admit that we put loving our child first. The other 2% have personally addressed us with negativity, which we ignore because it’s not constructive conversation. Not surprisingly, the toughest audience has been the African American community, in large part because of religious and cultural norms. Having close extended family in the south, we knew this would happen when we decided to go public and publish the book. What is refreshing is many men in the African American community are sticking up for love and acceptance, regardless of disagreeing or agreeing with our parenting choice. Dean and I have led African American groups and diversity committees since college so we understand the discomfort. The hope is that the constructive conversations continue so all children who feel different, are different, or choose to be different are accepted for who they are.

2. We’ve recently seen H&M, the fashion brand, come out with a new line of skirts for men. Gender conformity codes are constantly being broken down in society. Despite this, most gender codes remain strongly in place. What do you make of the pace at which these codes are being challenged and torn down? How would you advise others to work towards eradicating these cultural dogmas?

As a family, we use children’s books to help our kids learn about many things – how to share, how to live in a different country, how to cross the street. To my surprise, there weren’t any books about little boys dressing up, so I created one. Girls dressing in traditional boy clothes are much more accepted than little boys dressing as girls. I feel the pace is slow to change on that front. But books like My Princess Boy and the fantastic first step by H&M helps people like my son Dyson to feel that it is ok to go with what feels natural.

3. Do you agree with the concept that there are more than two genders, that the definition of gender should be expanded to include transgender and other forms of gender identification?

I really don’t have enough knowledge to say; I am learning more every minute. However, I do agree with what the psychologist Dr. Vilhauer said on our first TV appearance in Seattle on New Day Northwest with Margaret Larsen – “there is more than one way to be a boy and more than one way to be a girl.”

4. Has your son begun to develop a gender identity?

Dyson is happy being a boy. He actually coined the term Princess Boy when I told him boys were not princesses. In response he told me, “I am a Princess Boy!” Early on we went to doctors because we wanted to know that Dyson was happy within himself. The verdict – we have a healthy and happy little boy. He just loves to dress up and all things pink and sparkly.

5. How old is your son?

Dyson is 5 now.

6. Self-expression is often lauded in this society. However, this society is weighted down by hegemonic and patriarchal dogmas that condition people to conform. How would you propose that we as individuals and as a society break away from hegemony and patriarchy in order to live more fully and freely?

This is a tough one. I do believe dialogue changes suppressed societal norms so conversations are crucial in the transformation of accepting self-expression. However, I am not sure there is one way. At the basic level, when I see something different, I ask myself two questions to use as barometers to my decisions: 1) Why is this bothering me? To answer where is this discomfort coming from? and 2) Is it harming anyone? The first question is a deep dive and when the second answer is no, it allows you to move forward. I also think we need practice on how to be compassionate parents. Learning from children’s choices does not mean we lose our position as strict parents, it means we are accepting the unique person within our children and showing them that their own internal radars are something they can trust. Again, if it’s not harming anyone we should accept and move on.

7. You wrote this book as a means of showing love and support to your son and to teach others the value of acceptance. Has this book helped your son develop as a person?

My Princess Boy has helped our entire family develop as individuals. The story is much more than a boy in a dress. It’s a story of hope, and of the simple need to be liked, accepted – to be friends. Before I self published, I used the book as a tool to help other adults who spent time with my child -- teachers, educators, camp counselors -- so they would accept him and not crush his spirit. Both of my sons carry the book around and used it as a tool for their friends to read, which then extends on to their parents. It really is a story about accepting differences, learning how exclusion hurts, and teaching children how to prevent bullying before it starts.

8. What advice would you give to other children dealing with issues of gender and sexual identity?

I am not a specialist qualified to answer this question -- I am just a mother trying to make the world a kinder place for my child. But I will say that every family is different. Talk to a doctor or someone you trust to point you in a direction for advice and support.

9. What advice would you give to parents dealing with issues similar to yours?

Again, it’s hard to give advice when all parents, children, families are different. But again, talk to a doctor of specialist -- and please know, you are not alone.

10. What does your son dream about? What does he want to be when he grows up?

Dyson has many answers. I just asked Dyson right now and here’s what he told me (as of today)
What do you dream about?
“I dream that the world will let Princess Boys dress up and that I will have friends in the whole world”.
What do you want to be?
“I want to be a Princess Boy model, a gymnast, an artist and a dancer and a Princess Boy who wears dresses when I want to.”

Thanks for agreeing to this interview.