My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Friday, April 25, 2014

April 25, 2014: How Would a Patriot Act?: César Chávez

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is César Chávez.
I don’t have any illusions about how many Americans would disagree with me that a labor activist and leader, and one who did most of his work on behalf of migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, and other impoverished American communities, could be a unifying and inspiring figure. Our increasingly divided and partisan versions of American history (and everything else) have, I would argue, meant one of a couple things for how we remember inspiring recent patriots: either we create warm and fuzzy images of them that elide much of their greatness, as we have with Martin Luther King, Jr.; or many of us come to see them as a destructive force, as I believe is the case with Chávez.
But one of the central jobs of public American Studies scholarship, as I see it, is precisely to find those ways to do a couple difficult and even potentially contradictory things at the same time: to help us connect more fully and with more complexity to our national histories and stories, perhaps especially the dark and divisive ones; and to imagine and argue for unifying American communities and identities to which we can all connect as we move forward. And I think our most impressive and inspiring Americans offer a great opportunity to do just that: with King, for example, if we can remember both his impassioned stands against poverty, war, and other injustices and yet at the same time recognize his transcendent arguments for a universal, color-blind, whole national future and community, we have a model for both sides of this two-part process.
I’d say exactly the same for Chávez. It’s certainly fair to say that he wasn’t scared of a fight, of taking a stand, of being divisive or unpopular in service of his goals, even of appearing to be anti-American (at least if “American” means the government and its various extensions) as a result; there’s a reason why he, like King, was the target of FBI investigations for decades. But I would argue that such activism, far from seeking to undermine American identity or ideals, embraced and extended them; that, just like Quock Walker, Chávez worked to embody the Declaration of Independence’s arguments for equality, to live them in his own efforts and to help millions of other Americans connect to them as well. And as the ongoing work of his Foundation makes clear, those efforts, while focused on particular American communities, can and should be extended to every American, as an ideal embodiment of Bruce Springsteen’s idea that, “In the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Pretty patriotic concept, I’d say.
Your nominess this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Nominees you’d add for that weekend post?


  1. Dear Ben and fellow bloggers,

    I want to make a few points now, and hopefully will have some more reflections when I have more time this weekend.

    I had never heard of this guy Cesar Chavez before reading about him in your blog, so I wanted to thank you for taking the time to educate me - and opening my mind, a little more - to talk about Chavez and his work.

    I found it helpful the connection you were making to the more popular (not necessarily more important, per se, but more popular) work that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was involved in in this country.

    In case you and your readers didn't know, Dr. King was arrested (on record) over 20 times trying to right what he saw as wrongs in this American Society of ours.

    In his now famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, he makes one of my favorite quotations from an activist for social change that I have ever heard: He explains, "I am here [in Birmingham] because INJUSTICE is here."

    You say in your blog that Chavez "...wasn't scared of a fight, of taking a stand, of being divisive or unpopular in service of his goals, even of appearing to be anti-American (at least if "American" means the government and its various extensions) as a result; there's a reason why he, like King, was the target of FBI investigations for decades."

    And now, I would like to take a stand myself that many others might think is unpopular or even innapropriate: Would it make me be un-American - or appear to be un-American - if I said that Dr. King has been quoted at least once as making statements (in writing) about an even lesser known minority group - namely the Mentally Ill, of which I am a member - that were prejudiced, demeaning, and ultimitely unjust?

    Is this a story of there being something wrong with me as a person, or is it possible there could be something - anything - wrong with our great hero Dr. King and what he was doing or saying?

    Here's a test (an example) to see how much you know about mental illness:

    Abraham Lincoln was mentally ill himself, unbenounced to the overwhelming majority of Americans. He suffered from Major Depression... but he didn't openly explain and educate people about that fact of his true illness to those who were potentially going to be voting for him for president (as far as I understand the history of that situation).

    Why do you suppose that is? What would a patriot have done? What would you have done if you were diagnosed as mentally ill, like Abraham Lincoln, or like me?

    Popular opinion is a tricky thing, isn't it?

    I look forward to your thoughts, as always.

    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    FSU Mentally Ill student

  2. Hi Roland,

    Lots to think about here, and I certainly appreciate your adding these complexities to each of these figures and histories.

    It's also worth noting that the history of concepts of, narratives about, and attitudes toward mental illness was significantly distinct in each of those periods. In Lincoln's, the mentally ill were directly equated to criminals and were housed in prisons:

    Things had evolved a good bit in the subsequent century, but it's still fair to say that our narratives were dramatically different in King's time than in our own. Sylvia Plath was given repeated electroshock therapies for depression in the 1950s. Doesn't mean that we can't critique any of these figures, of course; but I do believe that we have to try to approach each period with the best sense we can get of its own histories.


  3. Dear Ben,

    two things for your consideration:

    thing #1: Something I didn't even think of until now: I don't have any way of getting your office availability this current week right now Saturday, but I'm in the process of preparing a presentation for one of my classes on the mentally ill... and I think you would be a good person to give me some good pointers on background research.

    Please let me know by email if this (meeting with me 20, 30 min, approx.) is something workable for you this coming Monday, or Tuesday (before 3pm)... I look forward to hearing from you about this matter, thanks.

    thing #2
    One of my other favorite quotes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and there are many) is simply "Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that."

    I hope I'm not sounding HATEFUL in my arguments - not only is it not my intent or goal in the first place, but I feel strongly that an approach like that ultimately wouldn't help anybody concerned, not even me.

    That being said:
    I don't have a college degree on my resume... I don't have The Nobel Peace Prize on my resume, either - I have not earned these honors and have the utmost respect for the select few who have.

    However, what I do have on my Resume is over 10 years professional experience working with mentally ill adults; including 4 years working for the Central MA Area Department of Mental Health; which is located at Worcester State Hospital in Worcester, MA.

    One of my major responsibilities for DMH was presenting (with other mentally ill persons as volunteers) enlightening and educational talks at local colleges.

    In addition, I have had over 100 electroshock treatments, myself. (Maybe it goes without saying, but I'm glad that part of my life is over with).

    My point and my conclusion in all this I think is quite simple: In my opinion, I have the personal, professional, and educational background to speak with authority about the mentally ill, and (as far as I know) Dr. King never has.

    I am accusing Dr. King of perpetuating (or ignoring, for want of a better word) a negative prejudice - a negative double-standard, in effect - that may be deeply rooted in history, but is not rooted in fact.

    Rev. Dr. King had options: He did not have to do that - he did not have to say those negative things he said about his fellow human beings who happen to be mentally ill - no matter how "popular" or "accepted" that perspective was at the time.

    Again, thank you for your consideration. This is good practice for me.

    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    FSU Mentally Ill student

    1. Hi Ron, I've only ever met you through this blog but have always enjoyed your interesting comments and have envied your intelligence and eloquence. I am unacquainted with Dr. King's comments towards the mentally ill but I did want to write to you about something you had said. While you might lack a degree and a Nobel Prize you have personal insight into a problem that plagues more Americans than people think. As a person who has battled with the re-emergence of a mental illness often insulted as a "white girl problem" I can relate in a small way. My problem is often just blown off and I am not subjected to the stigma often given to the mentally ill. To be silly I'm a "day walker" in the community. But I think it's important that people who have this struggle come forward, speak up and offer their voice to the discourse since this is a problem that really can't be understood from the outside in. Even "white girl problems". :)

    2. Strength To Love
      a book by
      Martin Luther King, Jr.

      Page 14, par.2 “Some years ago Professor Bixler reminded us of the danger of overstressing the well-adjusted life. Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted. We must, of course, be well-adjusted if we are to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities, but there are some things in our world to which men of goodwill must be maladjusted.”

      Dear AMDonahue (whoever you are) yes thank you for kind and encouraging words of feedback. I think everybody needs challenges in their life, and advocating for myself and other mentally ill people has somehow become mine.

      Ironic, in a way - when I originally went off to college, I thought fulfilling my destiny was to be a Professor of Physics. Well, 14 hospitalizations later, I am happy to say (I think that's the word I'm looking for) I'm educating people about people, in my own way. Funny how those things work out, in life.

      Maybe you can help me... even more than you already have: later this semester, my job in one of my classes is to make the case that the mentally ill are NOT in fact a danger to society - as was once so commonly believed.

      Any thoughts on getting some research to back me up? I'm going to follow up on this with Dr. Railton, too.

      Nice talking with you (so to speak).

      Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
      Schizo-Affective Disorder sufferer

  4. "Mental Slavery is worse than Mental Illness."

    You can quote me on this... In fact, I hope you do.

    Roland A. Gibson, Jr.
    Schizo-Affective Disorder sufferer