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When Wounds Hinder Nuance: Intersection of Thomas Jefferson and Angela Davis

I posted a quote from Angela Davis yesterday morning. Though most of my friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter liked the quote, one person was peculiarly repulsed by it. She noted that Davis is a communist and regretted that I would elevate her words and by extension promote her narrative. Let me say from the outset that I’m not writing this article to castigate her nor is my aim to shine at her expense. I’m hopeful that this disagreement between friends can open up a road to discuss issues that have become taboo and consider ideologies that have become third rails of our society.

I responded to my friend—whom by the way I’ve had the pleasure of debating many points and historical events in the past without resorting to odium—that it is not fair to judge Angela Davis through just one variable. Though I’m no fan of communism, for the same reason I’m not particularly fond of capitalism, I noted that Nelson Mandela was also once a communist. I also told my friend that Angela Davis, regardless of her flaws, was a fierce advocate of self-empowerment and that she was one of the instrumental voices who prodded the Black Panther Party to start soup kitchens and provide free clinics—she insisted on building up communities from within instead of being dependent on government. There is actually a conservative case to be made for the Black Panther Party if ideology and identity did not get in the way of common sense.

“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” ~ Angela Davis

These are the types of debates I engage in regularly. One of the benefits of writing from a non-partisan perspective and calling things as they are without being constrained by ideologies, labels or artificially constructed identities is that my articles draw a wide dissection of readers. People who would otherwise never talk to each other and folks who are extreme opposites of one another—in terms of outlook on politics, history and life in general—nonetheless count themselves as regular readers of the Ghion Journal. In fact, my proudest moments are when I see someone from Black Lives Matter debating someone who is a proud #MAGA member only for both to part ways without incinerating one another.

If we only talked to each other and put aside the political sledgehammers we regularly bash each other with, we would see that most of us are up in arms over the very same excesses of the people we entrust to lead us. We are being governed without consent; the political class in DC and the media chattering crass are colluding to keep us perpetually distracted by stoking grievances and “otherizing” people who struggle just like us. Politics is blinding us to our common struggles and further more preventing us from seeing each other as fellow humans. In this paradigm, agreements become rare occurrences and dissensions have become the norm.

The debate I had about Angela Davis, even though it did not devolve into a food fight, was not an exception as much as it has become common place. Pejoratives are as prevalent as hellos and ad hominem are the 21st century salutations. The same way I was reproached for quoting Davis, I’ve been reprimanded plenty of times for daring to quote Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin. We are being conditioned to see everything through the goggles of extremism and to view the world through black and white lenses. We end up so wedded to ideologies that our prisms become prisons. Our side is right; the other side is wrong, everyone is pointing fingers and few are willing to lead with an open hand of friendship—we would rather conquer others than connect with one another.

This is why history and politics have become poisonous. To say that I admire Thomas Jefferson’s ideas is to risk being labeled a sellout and an endorser of a slave master. Likewise, to pay homage to Angela Davis or Che Guevara is to be tarred a communist sympathizer and a subversive socialist. Instead of asking why I read books about people as divergent as Adam Smith and Patrice Lumumba, the blow-back is to catch flack and clap backs from opposite sides of society’s divide. This is indicative of a public that is beset by myopia; political and identity differences are blinding us to each others struggles and encouraging us to attack those things which are not familiar to us. We have reached a point where divergent ideas trigger people instead of inviting conversations. If we do not stop and reflect, we will continue to spiral into the abyss of chaos and eventual conflict.

This is why people lionize Thomas Jefferson vilify Angela Davis. Both of them were revolutionaries yet conservatives loathe Davis who stood up to the excesses of the Federal government while they lavish praise on Jefferson who also detested federalism. There is an inconsistency in hating Che Guevara who was fighting corporate imperialism and the capital avidity that is bleeding our planet to feed the greed of Wall Street while glorifying George Washington who stood against the imperialism of King George and warned of governmental hubris and nepotism. Likewise, to my friends on the other side who refuse to see anything redeeming in the founders of this nation, even if their reality did not match their idealism, men like Thomas Jefferson and George Mason laid the foundation for our nation that we call home.

Nuance is needed in all things. Even though I write regularly about the gluttony and corruption in DC that have become as constant as the morning tides of the Potomac River, my stance against the kleptocracy that is pervasive in DC should never be taken as hatred for my country. Two things can be true at once; we can demand better from our government while being proud Americans. I love America with all my heart, when my homeland Ethiopia was overrun by Marxists and Mengistu Hailemariam unleashed a Red Scare that led to the death of over 200,000 Ethiopians, it was America that gave my family and me refuge. Not only is it possible, it is an imperative to love our country and demand good governance from those who have authority over us. Patriotism does not mean blind acceptance but neither does standing for justice amount to undiscerning antipathy.

Alas, we are living in an age where nuance is of little value. The proliferation of outrage capitalism by mainstream media and the constant stirring of our emotions by demagogues has led us to the dead end of monopolizing pains and claiming exclusivity to injustice. In this zeitgeist, taking the middle road is a perilous decision. It is easier to speak to the antipathy of people and incite anger than it is to spread messages of goodwill to all and malice towards none. But this level of discord is only making our individual plights harder and harder to bear; the only way we can alleviate our collective suffering is by uniting as one people. Unity demands less zealotry and animosity and more forbearance and empathy.

“Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

In the interview I had yesterday on Hard News Network (see video at the end of this article), I discussed with HB how, before I had my “woke” moment, I too used to partake in this “us versus them” contrivance. I look back now and laugh at my inconsistency, the same weekend I would go protest police brutality that took place against “black” folks in Chicago or New York, I would come back home and laugh at the protests of “white” farmers in Idaho or coal miners in West Virginia who were decrying the intrusion of an overgrown government in their lives. I was not alone in this; most of us scream to be heard while we refuse to hear the pains of those who hurt just like us.

I’ve changed, I no longer see the world through the prism of black and white. No more do I lay the ills of the world at the feet of “white” people and only seek justice for only “my people”. A walk on poverty row and a dance with the most mind bending hardship removed tribalism from my eyes. When I witnessed people of all stripe, irrespective of identity and ideology, broken on sidewalks and mired in hopelessness, I realized that injuries come for us all—the only way we can arrive at justice is through inclusiveness. There is nothing redeeming about saying “only I hurt”, that path only leads to bitterness and solitude. Our pains gain more meaning and we can arrive at solutions when we say “I hurt too” and give space for others to understand our pains through their experiences.

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

These things take nuance. And nuance demands that we stay away from absolutism and allow for human lapses and distill issues through a wider context in our quest to understand history, politics and each other. Next time someone quotes a person you might not like or says something that makes you shiver, instead of rushing to judgment, find it in your heart to talk to each other. Maybe, just maybe, both parties might end up walking away having gained a new perspective and perhaps even a new friend. Stop trying to prove who is right and instead seek righteousness. Don’t fall into the trap the establishment is setting for us; do not let the rich and powerful lead us down the path of conflict and strife through the narrow prisms of identity and ideology. Put humanity above all things and maybe one day we can have a modicum of peace on earth in our lifetime.

There are many things I respect about my father Fikremariam Million who would have turned 75 had he not passed away from lung cancer. Chief among them was his ability to put aside personal grievances in order to serve his nation and provide for his family. My grandfather, Million Tedla, was an Ethiopian general and a war hero who fought against Mussolini’s occupying army in World War II. When Emperor Haile Selassie returned from exile at the end of the war, he ordered the assassination of dozens of insurgent fighters and men who fought with distinction against the Italian genocidal military. My grandfather was among the men assassinated at the behest of Haile Selassie—leaders commit atrocities to maintain power.

“Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.” ~ Che Guevara

My father grew up without a father because a king chose to eliminate potential rivals upon his return. My dad had every reason to harbor hatred for Haile Selassie—he chose a different path. Fikremariam Million joined the Ethiopian Navy and saluted the very man who took away his father. Perhaps the wounds never left my dad’s heart, but his decision to put his country above his injury paved the path that led to his future wife and my mom Sara. There were times I wanted to project animosity towards the once king of Ethiopia Haile Selassie because his decision made it impossible for me to meet my grandfather. But if my father could look beyond wounds and in the process find redemption through love, why could I not do likewise.

I chose to emulate my dad instead of being resentful by derivative. It is because of this decision that I can give credit to Haile Selassie for some of his achievements in advancing the interests of Ethiopia instead of vilifying him at all times. I am able to give him credit where he deserves it, his vision of a Pan-Africa was admirable and so was his ability to connect Ethiopia to the African-American narrative, but I can also note his shortcomings without rose color glasses. We should not elevate leaders to gods and we must be careful not to cast them as devils. They are just humans who are susceptible to the corrosive nature of power; we can either feed their predilections or check it based on our decisions.

As we focus on politics and history, there is something even more pressing we should address as a people. It has been noted throughout the ages that slavery was the original sin of America. This deep scar and festering scab on the conscience of our nation has never been attended to. Instead of time healing wounds, it seems with each successive generation we get more and more polarized. Provocateurs in the guise of social justice warriors rile up resentment on all sides; each time a scandal about race takes place, mainstream media trots out demagogues who have no interest in healing and instead hear cash registers. Conservative outlets like Fox News and liberal outposts like MSNBC and CNN feed the fire of hostility; they would rather have us brawl than talk to one another. The solution will never come from politicians, media pundits and Hollywood stars, they prefer the status quo instead of leading a reconciliation and forgiveness campaign like Nelson Mandela once did in South Africa.

The answer will only come from us and through taking the time to listen to each other.  I have learned over the years to be mindful of people’s shortcomings and extend as much grace as I can. It is easy to return bullets with blowtorches and to reciprocate ill will winds with tornadoes of rage. But these things profit us none, it is better is to talk to each other instead of yelling past one another. The old me would have made it a point to upbraid the lady who chided me for quoting Angela Davis. I chose to explain without flames and to reach instead of trying to conquer. A friendship was kept and in the process perhaps our debate on Facebook inculcated into the mind of one person the value of cordiality over combativeness. The changes we all want will happen not through tirades but through nuanced conversations. #NuanceNeeded

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Check out the latest installment of Hard News Network where I was interviewed about independent journalism, my journey from partisan organizer to a believer of inclusive justice and more. 

Check out this Ghion Cast below where I discuss how history and politics is used at all times to invert justice and have us bickering among each other. 

Lij Teodrose Fikremariam
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Lij Teodrose Fikremariam

Lij Teodrose Fikremariam is the co-founder and former editor of the Ghion Journal. He is currently the chair of Ethiopians for Constitutional Monarchy. A published author and prolific writer, a once defense consultant was profoundly changed by a two year journey of hardship and struggle. Going from a life of upper-middle class privilege to a time spent with the huddled masses taught Teodrose a valuable lesson in the essence of togetherness and the need to speak against injustice.

Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Lij Teodrose Fikremariam
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