Thanksgiving weekend is often marked by movie going, and this weekend was no exception. I purchased tickets to "Milk" the Sean Penn movie about "gay" activist Harvey Milk. This is New York, and I knew enough to purchase the tickets early in the day. I was warned by the woman at the ticket booth to get there about a half hour earlier. I arrived 20 minutes early, and the entire theater was filled. "Gay" activists? No, the theater was filled with mostly heterosexual couples of the 50+ crowd. There were few if any under 40.
Harvey Milk, born in the early 1930s, was the generation that most of these moviegoers came from. Known as the "builders," most of them missed serving in World War II, but the men of that generation served in the military. Harvey Milk served during the Korean War. It was a generation that gave and gave, and many became activists later in life. Harvey Milk was in the closet until he was 40 and only then with the freedom that came with the late '60s and early '70s did he choose a life of activism and living a life that was open.
The men and women attending the movie could relate to the story. Here was a man raised in the traditional values of America who decided to put everything on the line for a cause he believed in. It is interesting to see how this happens in a rich and diverse democracy like ours. One person can make a difference, and protests can be planned and peaceful. What struck me is how much has been accomplished by our American methods of dissent. Although Harvey Milk's life ended in violence, killed along with Mayor Moscone by a former colleague on the board of supervisors, we can disagree and protest without having to resort to the kind of terrorism that we see unfolding before us on an all too regular basis. Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a country that is an absolute monarchy. There is viable means of dissent or of protest. If you do not like the king's policies, you may be able to write something in the newspaper, or maybe not. No flash mobs, phone trees or leafleting allowed. Anger and hopelessness will build in an absolute environment, and there is no steam hole in the volcano to allow excess anger to pour out.
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Americans love stories about people who make a difference – especially those who grow up without privilege. Rosa Parks is famous sitting in the white section of the bus; Martin Luther King for leading the civil rights movement. Harvey Milk was no exception. He organized local business to create an economic and business force. He stood on a street corner with a bullhorn and proclaimed his policies. He acted as a consummate local politician by beginning a campaign in front of television cameras about stepping in dog poop. He championed the local working union member. He did what he needed to do to get various groups who had nothing in common with each other to support him. This is the story of politics in a democracy.
Like other politicians, he had a blind spot too. He could not hear the concerns of Supervisor Dan White who could not feed his family on the salary he was paid, and who felt humiliated by Harvey Milk and the other members of the board of supervisors. Feeling hopeless as he was not reappointed to the job he had just resigned, he killed the mayor and Harvey Milk. The lesson here is that hopelessness can lead to violence, as the hopeless feel they have nothing left to lose.
Yes, there was murder in this American story, but the greater story is how much can be accomplished without violence and by peaceful protests and working within our amazing system of participatory democracy. It doesn't exist in dictatorships or in an absolute monarchy. Citizens of those kinds of governments can feel hopeless without an outlet. We have at this Thanksgiving week much for which to be thankful. The movie "Milk" shows us how strong we really are as a nation.
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