Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated that “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We can also view the notion of moral progress as a spiral stretched out. We commence our travels forward, and then we begin to circle up, back, then down, then we continue the process over and over again through time. But as we begin moving forward on each consecutive revolution of the spiral, we stand a bit further ahead, further onward than we did at the previous cycle.
The march toward social justice, therefore, cannot be represented as a continually forward procession, but rather, it advances and retreats. With each retreat, though, we stand closer to our goals than we did previously. The metaphor represents the movement of individuals, nations, and the world at large.
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On the final evening of the Democratic Presidential Convention, the legendary Carol King performed her popular and very moving “You’ve Got a Friend.” The careers of Carol King as a song writer and performer, and Hillary Rodham Clinton as a community organizer, lawyer, and politician run parallel in their trajectories.
Carol King began as a song writer for other people and groups to perform. She advanced the careers of many other entertainers. At a certain point during her career, she made the decision to step into the recording studio and onto the live stage to present her talent, her creativity, and her art directly to her audiences, and in so doing, King provided the sound track of many of our lives.
Likewise, Hillary Rodham Clinton began as an impassioned and dedicated student in the law translating what she learned to help children, people of color, people with disabilities, and others who traditionally were underserved by the “justice” system. Hillary performed this work, often silently, outside the bright lights of publicity, fame, and fortune because she felt a passion to learn and to serve. In so doing, she advanced the lives of many.
Rather than intentionally going after the spotlight, the strong bright glow found and focused on her every move after she married a future governor of Arkansas. She utilized her increased visibility by continually tapping into her talent, intelligence, and creativity in the work she loved, which her daughter Chelsea on stage at the convention described as “the calling of her life.”
Hillary was instrumental in the passage of the 1975 federal law, Education for All Handicapped Children Act (reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990, 1997, and 2004). This federal law contains a mandatory provision stating that to receive federal funds, every school system in the nation must provide a free, appropriate public education for every child between the ages of 3 – 18 (extended later to 3 – 21) regardless of the severity of the student’s disability. As First Woman (not “Lady”), she worked to ensure that more than 8 million previously uninsured children received health insurance.
In September 1995, as thousands from around the world meet in Beijing, China, for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, First Woman Hillary Rodham Clinton, representing the United States, gave a speech arguing that “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights once and for all!”
While her assertion may seem obvious to many of us in the United States today, this was not always the case as it still remains an outlandish notion in many countries around the world. Therefore, as a founding purpose, the conference organizers “determined to advance the goals of equality, development, and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of all humanity.”
In a comparable presentation, as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a historic speech at the 2011 United Nations gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, in recognition of International Human Rights Day. The speech focused on the rights of LGBT people internationally. She referenced the monumental United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights ushered through the seemingly insurmountable process to ratification by Eleanor Roosevelt.
Though the Declaration as approved did not cover indigenous people around the world, children, and people with disabilities, Hillary argued forcefully also for the inclusion of LGBT people:
Yet in the past 60 years, we have come to recognize that members of these groups are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity….[Therefore also,] gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.
Unfortunately, Hillary’s assertion is still not so obvious to many people in the United States, as it remains contested in many countries to this very day.
Today, LGBT people face legalized discrimination around the world. In 10 countries, people who engage in same-sex sexuality face the death penalty, and in 65 others, they risk other forms of punishment.
Hillary powerfully argued that nations must work to protect the rights and safety of people who may not follow culturally defined norms of gender identity and expression and sexuality. She eloquently reasoned that countries must abolish laws criminalizing LGBT people on the basis of who they are, who they love, and how they express their identities. In addition, she proclaimed:
It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgender women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives.
Hillary refused to entertain the often common but scurrilous argument that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are simply “Western inventions.” She did her homework by enumerating the countries, “Western” and non-Western alike, that have either passed or have committed to pursue legislation protecting the human and civil rights of LGBT people.
In the German language, mensch translates as “a human being.” In the Yiddish of Eastern European Jews, mensch represents so much more. A mensch is a special kind of human being: a kind, caring person, someone who loves and gives everything they can back to humanity, someone with a noble character.
Yes, Hillary (and Bill) haven’t always seen LGBT rights as human rights and human rights as LGBT rights. And yes, Hillary, like everyone who puts themselves out in the world and takes risks to effect change, has made mistakes, some blatant. And in the glare of the spotlight, Hillary hasn’t always shown her Menschlichkeit (menschness) to the fullest.
However, in traveling her moral spiral of progress, Hillary has bent toward justice. And yes, she is a true mensch.
Hillary, from First Woman of Arkansas, to First Woman of the United States, to Senator, to Secretary of State, to (hopefully) First Woman and mensch to serve as President of the United States, will continue traveling her moral spiral and advance the moral progress of our country “toward a more perfect union,” for as she said during her convention speech, as long as “…we work together, we will all rise together.”