Montana Viewpoint: Bending the arc toward justice, away from fear

Jim Elliott

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal …”

My very being swells with pride when I read those words by Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence, and I think that I am no different in that regard from any other American. The marvelous thing to me is that Americans have taken the concept of equality far beyond what it meant in 1776, and that our country and the world are the better for our actions.

In 1776, the “all men” who were created equal did not apply to women, slaves, Native Americans, immigrants, or free white males without property; at least as far as voting was concerned, and voting was considered then, as now, the most essential part of freedom.  Today, because of Americans who believed in equality the right to vote has been extended to virtually all Americans.

“The arc of history is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” I believe that whatever bending has been done has been done by the people of America themselves, and often in spite of political sentiment.

The great paradox of America is that we revel in our ideal of inclusiveness but at the same time we do our best to practice exclusiveness, and somehow, in spite of that paradox, inclusiveness prevails.

A few years ago, many states clamored to pass laws entitled the “Defense of Marriage Act” for the sole purpose of excluding same-sex marriages in their states.  Today, the hysteria over the concept of same-sex marriage seems to have been replaced by a collective shrug.

But at the same time that lesbians, gays, and transgendered people are being accepted as “just folks,” a lot of Americans — many the same people who are totally accepting of the LBGT community — are seriously exorcised about giving asylum to Hispanic people who fear not only for their own lives, but for the lives of their children.

How do you account for the difference in attitude? I think it’s because of the relationships we may have with one group or another. It seems there is hardly any American who does not have a gay relative, friend or co-worker, but fewer of us in rural America have the same kind of acquaintance with Hispanic immigrants, documented or undocumented. What we do have, however, is a constant barrage of accusations against them driven by the politics of fear.

Politicians and political opportunists can smell fear a decade away, and those inclined to find an issue to exploit will work it to ensure their popularity or political gain. The American people are bigger than that. We can look back with some pride — tempered with some shame — on the acceptance into our nation and hearts of those immigrant groups who were reviled when they first began to arrive. We just don’t see help wanted signs qualified with the words “No Irish Need Apply” these days.

Why? Again I would argue that familiarity conquers fear. This does not hold just for the gays and immigrants I have used as examples, it applies as well to African-Americans, Native Americans or any other group that is proud of being — or wants to be — an American.

I was in politics for many years, so my beliefs are no secret. I have many friends with whom I disagree politically — seriously disagree. I am proud to have them as friends. I know I can count on them when I need help, and they, I hope, know they can count on me. We purposely refrain from talking politics so that we can dwell on what we have in common rather than where we differ. By doing that we are able to get along as neighbors, work together, be friends and fellow Americans. In our small way, we are helping to bend that arc of history toward justice.

How about giving us a hand?

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.