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Learning to Cherish Hard-Won Rights

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Arlene Goldbard

When we have rights, it's easy to take them for granted. It's when they are contested that they matter most; and when we forget the struggle to gain them, it has to be relearned. Today, I write about two very different examples: the U.S. Supreme Court took a step backward when it gutted the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, artists and activists in Scotland see the independence movement as a chance to secure cultural rights.

There have been many times in my adulthood that I questioned the meaning of voting. I have friends who dismiss the whole system as so hopelessly corrupt that voting has been reduced to a form of what sociologist Erving Goffman called "cooling out the mark"—making the person who is being cheated feel better about it. And there's a truth to the Tweedledee/Tweedledum argument about the two main parties that have so far dominated every modern U.S. election. If nearly every candidate's journey is lubricated with corporate money, how much actual (versus symbolic) meaning does the two-party distinction have?

But one thing has always settled the question for me: The meaning of the right to vote should be assessed by who had to fight for it and how hard. In recent elections, right-wingers have spent vast amounts of money and energy on voter discouragement tactics, such as telling people they'll be arrested if they show up at the polling-place with outstanding parking tickets or aggressively publicizing the wrong voting days and sites. It always comes down to an anecdote I heard in the late 80s that banished my doubts once and for all: A young man, an exchange student from apartheid South Africa, remarked of other students he'd met visiting Washington, DC. "I don't understand," he said. "All the rights we are fighting and dying for, you have. But you don't use them."

We'll never know the full value of the franchise until everyone of voting age has it without impediment, and the vast majority of us use that right to make ourselves heard. Progressive groups have joined to create FreeToVote.org, supporting a constitutional amendment that guarantees the freedom to vote with national minimum standards for free, fair, accessible elections.

Here's why:

On June 25, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a case brought by Shelby County, Alabama, challenging provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act was propelled through Congress by a profound thirst for racial justice activated by the spectacle of civil rights activists standing up for legal equality in the south despite a hailstorm of hoses, billy clubs, and much more lethal weapons deployed to defeat them.

The Court ruled Section 4 of the Act unconstitutional, overturning a formula that has long been used to determine where some of the Act's extra protections of voting rights apply. In essence, Section 4 established conditions for fair elections before the fact; targeted districts had to obtain "preclearance" from federal oversight authorities. With that provision struck down, things like voter id laws and limits on early voting can only be challenged after the election in question. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito argued for the majority that times have changed, that historical records of discrimination shouldn't dictate current policy, and that the Act put an unfair burden on those states subjected to its provisions: one state had to clear things with the feds, whereas the state next door was free of those requirements. Thomas wanted to go even further, striking down other key provisions but failed to convince a majority.

Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented on the grounds that protections are still needed, and that this Court failed to exercise the same care and consideration Congress had used in reviewing and renewing the act each time it came up. Ginsburg concludes:

But the Court disregards what Con­gress set about to do in enacting the VRA. That extraor­dinary legislation scarcely stopped at the particular tests and devices that happened to exist in 1965. The grand aim of the Act is to secure to all in our polity equal citizen­ ship stature, a voice in our democracy undiluted by race. As the record for the 2006 reauthorization makes abun­dantly clear, second-generation barriers to minority voting rights have emerged in the covered jurisdictions as attempted substitutes for the first-generation barriers that originally triggered preclearance in those jurisdictions. … The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective. The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclear­ance is no longer needed. … With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.

Behind Ginsburg's statement is a critical truth about the culture of U.S. politics: When we fail to remember, repeat, and internalize the powerful stories that teach our finest achievements, the lessons of history are lost and we have to repeat them.

I’ve touched on the campaign for Scottish independence before, notably a paradigm-shifting speech by Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop that ended with a rousing call to vote yes in the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. When you say the phrase "cultural policy" here in the U.S., except for a few wonks, it tends to land limply, just another abstraction hitting the dust. But when you say it in a place where cultural self-determination has taken on a very concrete and immediate meaning, it resonates. Case in point: this past week, a group of Scottish artists and activists have called upon the government to adopt a new, participatory cultural framework for Scotland. Here's the first couple of paragraphs of their petition on Change.org:

We see state support of autonomous creative expression and its communication as key to a modern democracy. Sustaining the independence of producers and makers is essential to activity across all sectors.

The development of freedom of thought and the capacity to empathize with difference and otherness is central to life beyond mere survival. It follows that culture is not static but something we as citizens can change and shape in its complexity. People can collectively determine their own political, social, and cultural reality.

Yes they can, but only if we recognize, cherish, and ceaselessly pursue the rights that those who came before us fought so hard to secure. And the cultural rights we are fighting for this very moment. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court majority did the opposite, dismissing hard-won rights as entitlements (demonstrating a predictable blindness to their own entitled and highly privileged status).

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Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, activist, and consultant based in California. She is the author of two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave. You can read other work of hers at www.arlenegoldbard.com.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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