By James M. Wall
The times they are a’changing. Not immediately and not fast enough, but the signs are promising. Consider these three stories:
Michigan State President Says No to ADL
Michigan State University invited retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to deliver the university’s 2009 commencement address. Tutu is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to apartheid in his native South Africa in the 1980s. He is a widely admired Christian world leader.
Two Anti-Defamation League officials, including the Jewish advocacy group’s director, Alexander H. Foxman, sent a letter of protest to MSU President Lou Anna Simon, objecting to the presence of Tutu at MSU. The officials claimed that Tutu was a “poor choice” to deliver the commencement address because he had made statements about Israel that “conveyed outright bigotry against … the Jewish people.”
The ADL officials also charged that a proposed cultural and academic boycott of Israel, which Tutu supports, was “based on ideas that are anti-Semitic and should be anathema to any institution of higher learning truly committed to academic freedom.” They asked MSU to reconsider the invitation.
President Simon responded this week. She said no to the ADL. Archbishop Tutu’s invitation would stand. President Simon added:
Michigan State University rejects the notion that free intellectual exchange and scholarly activities should be casualties of political disagreement.
David Wiley, a professor of sociology who headed MSU’s African Studies Center for 30 years before stepping down this year, was involved in MSU’s 1978 decision to divest from South Africa. Wiley described the ADL’s request as “improper.” Wiley told the East Lansing Journal:
“Again and again, the ADL and some other Jewish agencies confuse being critical of Israel with being anti-Semitic,” he said. “In fact, Bishop Tutu has always been for inclusion of the marginal, whether it’s blacks in South Africa or the Jewish community.” Tutu has said he supports the existence of the state of Israel. He also has compared the treatment of Palestinians to that of blacks under apartheid.
A similar campaign against a Tutu campus appearance at Minnesota’s St. Thomas’ University in 2007 was more effective. But St. Thomas paid a high price for canceling its invitation to Tutu. Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, sent a letter to his campus community following a national outcry against his decision. Father Dease wrote:
One of the strengths of a university is the opportunity that it provides to speak freely and to be open to other points of view on a wide variety of issues. And, I might add, to change our minds. Therefore, I feel both humbled and proud to extend an invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at the University of St. Thomas.
I have wrestled with what is the right thing to do in this situation, and I have concluded that I made the wrong decision earlier this year not to invite the archbishop. Although well-intentioned, I did not have all of the facts and points of view, but now I do.
The ADL’s effort to intimidate Michigan State University’s President Simon fizzled.
St. Thomas’ President Dease courageously admitted he had made a mistake in withdrawing his school’s invitation to Tutu. The signs of hope are all around us.
President Obama Opens the Door to More Travel to Cuba
Late Monday afternoon, President Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, announced that American citizens will be free to make unlimited transfers of money and visit relatives in Cuba. Gibbs, was joined in the announcement by Dan Restrepo, the president’s National Security aide on Latin American policy.
The joint announcement was seen as a step to usher in a new era of openness toward Cuba. There was no move to lift the boycott against the island, but the Obama decision is a major shift away from previous administration policies since the Carter Administration. Carter was the last U.S. president to signal that he wanted to actually improve relations with Cuba.
Wayne Smith, a Carter appointee, was chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana from 1979-1982. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. Smith wrote in the Washington Post that he had thought the White House would announce “it was not only lifting restrictions on the travel of Cuban Americans, but also that of U.S. academics, cultural groups and other visitor categories.”
This more sweeping move was not included in the new policy, which to Smith “was very disappointing”. This suggests that an internal White House debate over the policy chose the more conservative option, rather than the hoped-for total rejection of previous policies. Smith added:
If this is all the Obama administration has to offer by way of change in our Cuba policy, the president is in for a difficult time at the upcoming Summit of the Americas. Our Cuba policy has zero support internationally, and Latin American states have indicated they expect some real change on our part. Let’s hope that President Obama reconsiders between now and the summit opening.
Monday’s announcement was timed to coincide with Obama’s trip this week to Trinidad and Tobago where he will meet with Latin American and Caribbean leaders. It is still possible for Obama to use the Summit meeting to take his policy change even further when he meets with leaders who will be demanding a stronger move toward openness to Cuba.
Those members of Congress who are strongly anti-Castro, are under the influence of the Cuban American lobby, which provides votes (especially in Florida) and money for the continuation of the ineffective and outmoded U.S. policy on Cuba. Other members of Congress, including Republican Senator Richard Lugar, have been pushing for a more lenient policy which would favor more trade and completed freedom for all Americans to travel to Cuba, not just Cuban Americans. About 1.5 million Americans have relatives living in Cuba.
Obama is retaining the 47 year old U.S. trade embargo, offering the usual rationale that the boycott is needed to encourage Cuba to free political prisoners on the island. Since the boycott has had no impact on the Castro brothers’ governments, Obama’s retention of the boycott is purely a sop to conservatives in Congress. Obama has made a cautious step, but he promised much more in his campaign rhetoric.
In a speech he gave in Miami during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. He was critical of politicans who “come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba.”
Wayne Smith is right; Obama has made a tentative step, but he needs to go much further, sooner, rather than later.
Vermont Joins the Move to Legalize Same Sex Marriages
On April 7, Vermont became the fourth state to legalize gay marriage when the Vermont Legislature voted to override a veto by Gov. Jim Douglas which allows gays and lesbians to marry. The Burlington Free Press reported that the vote in the state Senate was 23-5 to override the veto and 100-49 to override in the House. Under Vermont law, two-thirds of each chamber had to vote for override.
Vermont is now the fourth state to permit same-sex marriage and the first state to approve same sex marriage through the legislative process. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa are the other three states now allowing same sex marriage, thanks to decrees handed down from state courts.
For a brief period, California had approved same sex marriage, but voters supporting Proposition 8 on the November, 2008 ballot, overturned that law. At the moment, there is an intense political battle in California to overturn Proposition 8.
As I’ve stated in previous blogs, I am Canadian. In Canada it is a federal law that people of the same sex can be married. Society has not come crashing down around our ears, heterosexual marriage has not suffered any degradation, and now that it is law, very few people give a damn. I suspect the same would be true if the US passed the same law. Gay men and women would no longer be further marginalized but become an even more integral part of society rather than standing in the wings waiting for equal rights. It is not a light issue – it is a huge step towards ensuring that gay people are SEEN.
So there we have it: The times they are indeed, changing. Archbishop Tutu is free to speak, Cuban-Americans are free to travel back to their homeland, and the GLBT community is slowly starting to be seen. In a democracy, change is usually slow. But sometimes, maybe when the stars are aligned in just the proper order, change could rush in upon us, and we will all be free.