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To John Lewis: An Open Letter to an American Hero

Democracy-loving, independent-minded, and compassionate citizens will continue in the spirit of those like you, who are the real ambassadors of truth and democracy and the American way.
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Dear Representative Lewis,

I imagine this will come off as a bit corny -- please indulge me. When I heard what happened on Saturday outside the Capitol building, I was brought to tears. And now I feel compelled to apologize for the behavior of my fellow citizens. When I heard that some of the tea party protestors called you "ni**er" and verbally berated you for your support of health care reform, I initially assumed they didn't realize who you were. Then I realized: they probably just don't care. That you've spent most of your life working for the cause of civil rights, often at great personal risk and alongside such icons as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson is completely irrelevant to the self-named "tea party patriots." They aren't interested in the fact that were it not for the work of brave pioneers like you, many of them would not enjoy the extensive rights and liberties they have today. And I doubt that more than a few will take the time to reflect on the deep shame their behavior brings upon the United States and its citizens, and that how in their fear-whipped frenzy of verbal violence, they reveal a sad truth: that American racism is still very much alive and well, with its newest forms hiding behind mostly-contrived grievances like taxes and "questionable" birth certificates.

In a way, it's a relief to have my suspicions confirmed. At least now we "anti-racists" don't have to continue wringing our hands wondering if there isn't something to the accusation that we "wrongly see racism everywhere." And although it's a stretch to say that all tea party protesters are patent racists, Saturday's incidents pretty much sealed the deal -- fear of racial difference animates a portion of, if not the entire, "Tea Party Movement." These people claim to be about the notion of "freedom," but they not only do not seem to support the concept for those different from them, but the individuals they single out for their most vitriolic attacks are often those who have done the most for the cause of freedom for all. I would say it's ironic, but that would imply that tea partiers understand the term "freedom." So instead, I'll say it's surreal.

Representative Lewis, I'm sure you know this, but I think it needs to be said as firmly and as vocally and as frequently as possible: those people who accosted you outside of your place of work the other day do not represent me. They do not represent what I've always understood to be the American ideal of freedom and justice for all. They do violence to notions of patriotism and democracy and basic human decency. What's more, although many of them (I'm told) identify as Christians, they do violence to the message of Jesus Christ as well. Their notions of democracy and Christianity (which are too often erroneously tied up together) are unrecognizable to decent, rational people. These folks seem to believe that American patriotism is rooted in a specific set of demographic characteristics rather than a set of principles. And that misunderstanding leads them to some very confused viewpoints and some very unseemly behavior.

For my part, I want to extend my gratitude for everything you've done to help evolve this country. You are a hero- the truest example of an American patriot that I can envisage. It is remarkable to me that regardless of how undignified and (sometimes) hateful a vocal handful of frightened people can get, you always manage to return to the calm courage of your convictions. As you probably know, Gandhi attributed that ability to the concept of satyagraha (adhering to truth), and you, sir, are a model of it.

When I consider the intensity of the anger and fear that seeps out of the tea party crowds, I can't help but contrast it to how Martin Luther King Jr described the role of anger (in the movement) during the civil rights era: "We harnessed anger and released it under discipline for maximum effect." When anger is truly righteous (as opposed to being artificially whipped up through an insidious propaganda campaign disguised as a television news network) and the cause is truly just, there is no role for insults and personal violence in the movement or by the activists. There is no reason for an advocate of a message rooted in truth to treat their opponents -- and by extension, oneself -- with indignity. As such, the behavior of the tea party protesters betrays a last, desperate, and highly aggressive effort by a few frightened bigots (and many more misguided, manipulated souls lacking the confidence or tools to think for themselves) to give relevance to a decaying worldview.

I am writing this letter of apology because I am absolutely certain the real perpetrators of this attack on American dignity will not. Instead, we'll be hearing from Limbaugh and Beck and Steele that these were "isolated" incidents that do not reflect racist views, but rather an opposition to an allegedly racist policy agenda of President Obama and Congressional Democrats. These folks will twist themselves into pretzels making excuses for behavior and rhetoric that should have been eradicated half a century ago. But we democracy-loving, independent-minded, and compassionate citizens will continue to reject it forcefully and in the spirit of Gandhi, MLK and all of those like you, who are the real ambassadors of truth and democracy and the American way.

In solidarity,
Cynthia Boaz

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