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This blog contains the musings of an Ethical Culture Leader (clergy).
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Leader’s Message – “Rally ‘Round the Gay Pride Flag – Again” – June 2017

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 11:52am

When the result of the 2016 presidential election sank in, many social justice organizations and community groups gathered their members to assess the impact it would have and to mourn. We held circles here at Ethical with our staff and members. The one that I joined at New York University, where I serve as Humanist Chaplain, was especially painful. Members of the campus LGBTQ community wept uncontrollably. They, like other marginalized Americans, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants, knew that they had a great deal to lose with an unsupportive, indeed an antagonistic, administration. Trump’s daughter Ivanka may count LGBTQ people among her friends, but there was no illusion that she could protect them. His unholy alliance with socially conservative evangelical Christians would drive his agenda, as it has other Republicans.

 

Questions flooded the offices of LGBTQ advocacy groups nationwide following Trump’s victory. GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, maintains The Trump Accountability Project (TAP at http://www.glaad.org/trump), a resource for journalists which catalogues the anti-LGBTQ statements and actions of Trump and those in his circle.

 

While Vice President Pence has been unequivocal in his opposition to LGBTQ rights (having once supported the use of federal funding to treat people “seeking to change their sexual behavior” and tried unsuccessfully to amend his home state of Indiana’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage), Trump’s position on this, as on many other issues, varies. His “religious liberty” executive order wasn’t as discriminatory as LGBTQ advocates had feared. Indeed, the conservative Heritage Foundation called it “woefully inadequate,” and Bryan Fischer, radio host for the American Family Association, angry that the order doesn’t allow bakers, florists and adoption agencies to discriminate, blamed Ivanka who “wore out her red pencil eviscerating the original order, leaving us with [an order] which has very nice language but is virtually entirely lacking in substance.” Nonetheless, he reversed Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms and locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity, reigniting the debate on whether guidance on use is a state or federal rights issue.

 

Here’s some good news. According to Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow, “Congress and Trump do not have the power to unilaterally undo marriage equality.” The Supreme Court has deemed same-sex marriage a “fundamental right,” and all five of the judges who ruled in favor of it are still on the bench.

 

There is much that we can do to support LGBTQ rights, from donating to advocacy groups to lobbying our local, state and national representatives. We can also march on Sunday, June 25.

Here’s a reminder of the parade’s history. A year after the police raiding of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on the morning of June 28, 1969, the first Gay Pride March was held by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee to commemorate the riots. In 1984, Heritage of Pride was founded to take over the planning. Last year, the newly-identified NYC Pride held over a dozen events in addition to the march, which included 350 unique contingents. This year’s Grand Marshals are the American Civil Liberties Union; Brooke Guinan, a 29-year old trans-woman firefighter; Krishna Stone, Director of Community Relations at Gay Men’s Health Crisis; and Geng Le, leader in the movement for LGBTQ equality in the People’s Republic of China.

 

When I interned at the NY Society in 2002, I marched in the Gay Pride Parade with a contingent of members that included Meg Chapman and Mo Malekshahi with their toddler Clara. Much has happened since then. Many gains have been realized over the years, and people haven’t felt the need to march. This year it’s time to rally around the pride flag again. Celebrate the gains and fight for the rights that might be lost.

 


Leader’s Message – “Remembering Dr. Spetter in the Trump Era” – April 2017

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 3:34pm

Last month I received the following email from Professor Dr. Youri Devuyst from the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
“I am contacting you regarding the remarkable writings by the late Matthew Ies Spetter. . . My now 86 year old father, a humanist leader in Belgium, who was one of the transatlantic friends of Dr. Spetter and Howard Radest, recently drew my attention to Dr. Spetter’s book Man – The Reluctant Brother: An Exploration of Human Courage.

“Starting with a strong plea for ‘truth,’ the analysis (published in 1967 by Fieldston Press) provides a truly outstanding insight in the Trump era. Few of today’s observations match the depth of pages 157-171 on ‘A homebred fascism?’ and ‘The success of unreason.’ At the same time, the book offers a path for living together in human community, as brothers, based on what Dr. Spetter calls a ‘Passio Humana.’

“I think it really matters that the wisdom displayed in Dr. Spetter’s book is remembered, especially in the Ethical Culture movement. While I am sure you do, I also wanted to let you know that Dr. Spetter’s writings have not been forgotten on this side of the Atlantic.”

Dr. Spetter’s inspiring life and words have not been forgotten here, but I confess that I needed this reminder to return to him for guidance in these troubling times.
After seeing Nazis throw children into a truck from a Jewish orphanage in his native Holland, he joined the Dutch Resistance at the age of 23 and worked to help Jewish families escape. He later worked with Allied military intelligence before he was captured, tortured and sentenced to death in 1943. “In Holland you were either on the side of the executioners or the victims,” he said. “You had to make an existential choice.” Two years later, weighing 68 pounds, he fled through the woods to escape the Buchenwald concentration camp and later testified as an Allied witness at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany. Dr. Spetter was awarded the Resistance Cross by the government of the Netherlands.

In 1951, Dr. Spetter and his family moved to the United States where he discovered the Ethical Movement and soon became an Ethical Culture Leader, serving the Riverdale-Yonkers Society, The Encampment for Citizenship, and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools for several decades. He also founded the Riverdale Mental Health Clinic in 1960, which remains an important community resource today. Among his many written works, Man, the Reluctant Brother remains my favorite. Dr. Devuyst is right: It does indeed provide insight into the Trump era.

This book illustrates what Dr. Spetter called his “militant humanism” and analyzes the impermissible fanaticism that allows the killing of innocents. From his experience as clergy, counselor, and professor of Social Psychology, he called for a nurturing of trust as the fundamental law of life, a nurturing of the fullness of human capacity, without the delusion of perfectionism.

“I need truth,” he wrote, “because I was an eyewitness to the premeditated murder of children. The killers were men and women of a nation much akin to my own. The children were ours. I need truth because my generation allowed the ultimately impermissible and because such killing continues. Men everywhere, while protesting their abhorrence, are still willing to permit the impermissible, still willing to kill as ‘a necessary evil,’ still willing to appease their conscience with justifications which fasten the tyranny of evil upon their souls. . . I have seen this

[atrocities] and speak of it, not with sentimentality but with outrage and I will not permit it to be locked from your heart.”

Today we are witnessing outrageous acts against fellow Americans and immigrants, against our environment and our children’s future. Some can be attributed directly to our new president in the form of his executive orders and his appointment of cabinet officers. Others are performed by domestic terrorists emboldened by his support of their racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred. We must not allow this behavior to be locked from our hearts. We must stand up and take action, resisting any policy that treats human beings as “others” to be dismissed, derided and deported.

Dr. Spetter ends with a note of hope: “I hold deeply that each life is a gift which the centuries bestow upon the continuity of existence. A Passio Humana, a passion for Man, is what will negate totalitarianism and oppression, it will open the jail-doors of history, provided our mutuality and love outpace our tools.  All of us are constantly close to death and yet we are also in touch with the perpetuation of life through what we create and build.”

 

Dr. Matthew Ies died peacefully at his home on December 30, 2012, surrounded by his family.


Leader’s Message – “Democracy Is Sacred” – May 2017

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 6:06pm

People who march today in protest of this administration’s policies chant “This is what democracy looks like!” and “This is what democracy sounds like!” It’s a gathering call to witness what is happening and to take action against it. It’s a demonstration of the freedoms of speech and assembly guaranteed us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. For most of our lives we have taken these freedoms for granted, but no longer, not when police threaten to arrest activists exercising their civil rights.

 

Learning about and actively participating in democracy was considered a sacred duty by Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler. In his idealistic philosophy, democracy was the practical application of his concept of Ethical Manifold, wherein all beings experience themselves fully in their uniqueness, diversity, and inter-relatedness. Community isn’t complete if it doesn’t include everyone. Indeed, even the universe depends upon everyone’s exertions. (Sadly, although he valued women as “moral teachers,” he did not support women’s suffrage. Other early leaders, including John Lovejoy Elliott did, and the NY Society had an active women’s civics club.)

 

Imagine what American democracy was like in 1876, when Ethical Culture was founded, and you will understand its importance to the first generation of leaders and members. Until 2000, the election that year between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was our nation’s most contentious, with Tilden carrying the popular vote and 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed for a majority. But nineteen votes from three ex-Confederate states controlled by Republicans were in dispute, so Congress created a Federal Electoral Commission (unprecedented and as-yet unreplicated) to sort it out. Voting along party lines, the commission handed victory to Hayes, a decision Democrats called “the Fraud of the Century.”

 

The election of 1876 drew the highest rate of voter turnout in U.S. history: 81.8 percent nationally and over 90 percent in some states. The fifteenth amendment, adopted in 1870, granted former male slaves the right to vote, but by the late 1870s Southern state governments had effectively nullified both this and the 14th amendment that guaranteed citizenship. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these egregious practices were addressed. Today, thanks to a Supreme Court decision (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013) that gutted key provisions of that act, states are again working to disenfranchise African-American voters.

 

The national turnout of eligible voters in 2016 was only 60.2 percent. (During the last NYC mayoral election, voter turnout was only 24 percent.) Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by close to 2.9 million, and Republican Donald Trump carried the electoral vote by 74. Fortunately, an important backlash to the election of Trump has been an increased interest in civics. Starting in the 1980s, policymakers shifted the focus of public schools’ curriculum from social studies to testable subjects like math and reading. They favored training skilled workers over educating critical thinkers. After all, the previous generation had fueled the civil rights and peace movements, neither of which was deemed good for business. In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. State and local funding for these subjects dropped precipitously. According to a recent government study, only 25% of U.S. students reach a proficient standard in civics assessment.

 

And this brings me back to the notion that democracy is sacred in a non-theistic religion of ethics. In March, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel and I co-hosted an event at the NY Society that highlighted and celebrated civics. Our members read key passages from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Esteemed jurists explained their ramifications in today’s political climate, and an a cappella chorus sang the words of the First Amendment. The audience was encouraged to ask questions and given resources for further study.

 

We also co-hosted an event with Indivisible (https://www.indivisibleguide.com/), first an online guide and now a grassroots movement for local activism, conceived by two former congressional staffers who asked, “What do we do now?” Seeing energy building to resist, they laid out a roadmap to save democracy. The response has been overwhelming. Their guide has been viewed over 18 million times by over 3 million unique users from every state, and almost 6,000 groups, with at least two in every congressional district, have registered. An immediate consequence has been increased attendance at town hall meetings, forcing politicians to be responsible. Last month, Colorado Republican Representative Mike Coffman faced angry constituents who told him more than once, “You can side with us or side with the President.”

 

There is more that we can and must do. Alongside the protests and resistance, we must promote civics education. Our democracy will not survive future generations unaware of their rights and responsibilities. Visit the website of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (http://www.civicmissionofschools.org/) today. There you will find a quotation from John Dewey: “Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.”

 

Democracy is sacred, and it is entrusted to us.