The long arc.

The most important information in this post is this: Monday, February 3, 2020 is the deadline to register to vote in the Tennessee presidential primary on March 3, 2020. Put that date on your calendar: March 3. If you have a child who is newly of voting age and planning to attend college in the fall, away from home, check your local requirements for absentee voting. In Shelby County, TN, a person must either register in person or vote in person before s/he can vote by absentee ballot.

(Not in Tennessee? Here’s the list of primary dates for every state.)

But before we get into that, let’s start somewhere else, with an idea I’ve been holding in “draft” status for three years. Here goes:

The original words, from Theodore Parker’s 1853 sermon, are these:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

In case you didn’t follow along in recent years, as the paraphrase of this quote made its way into the Oval Office and became an NPR “let’s set the record straight” story, here’s a brief background on the author:

Theodore Parker was the grandson of Capt. John Parker, who led the Lexington Minutemen. Self-educated until he was admitted to (and able to pay for) Harvard Divinity School, Theodore was an influential social reformer in the mid-nineteenth century. His ideas were a blend of Unitarian, Transcendentalist, and Enlightenment beliefs. He was (and is, still) credited as the source of Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” formula.

(I must note my source, the 1973 print edition Encyclopaedia Britannica that was my mother’s. The entry for Parker, Theodore is on p. 372, Vol. 17.)

Devoted to critical thinking, Parker believed intellectual, moral, and religious education to be the solution for popular ignorance and corrupt leadership. He fought for prison reform, education for women, and the abolition of slavery.

That words from his 1853 sermon, adopted a century later by Dr. King, would eventually become so much a part of our American cultural vernacular that a President would weave them into a rug in the Oval Office might have delighted Parker.

Only, as Matt Lewis wrote in 2017, Obama got it wrong. Because Parker’s words are words of faith, not policy. They are not a statement of historical determinism, and continuing to misuse them in this way will only perpetuate toxic American exceptionalism.

Do you know what is actually exceptional about America?

The U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout. (Pew Research)

Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other developed nation. (Pew Research)

Related (though it might not seem so): Early childhood education in the U.S. is 35 percentage points behind the OECD average.

We are, by and large, both ignorant and apathetic.

But it’s never to late to turn over a new leaf, to accept the responsibility and acknowledge that voting is a right and a privilege. People died for the right to vote – for everyone’s right to vote. We squander this inheritance at our own peril.

Think someone else is going to fix this mess we’re in, that the arc of the moral universe will magically come to our rescue? You’re wrong.

Think you can skip voting in your state’s primary election because it’s small and just too confusing and doesn’t really matter and you don’t really know enough about any of the details? Wrong again. Who decides the party nominees on the November ballot? You and I do. (Yes, yes, yes, I know; money and party politics and all that. But are you really going to abdicate so easily?)

To vote, you must be properly registered. If you are not registered to vote, then register. Today. Do it now.

If you haven’t asked your family, friends, and colleagues whether or not they are registered to vote, then now is a good time to start. Send an email, post on social media, ask the grocery store clerk. Do it now.

If you haven’t contacted your child’s school to ask what the school is doing to promote civic engagement and strengthen democracy by helping 18-year-old students register to vote, then Monday is a good day to start. (And if the answer you hear is something about non-partisan, we don’t want to politicize schools, blah blah blah, then you’ll have a great reality check on how dire the current situation.)

Register, and then vote in your state’s primary. It’s the beginning.

The Senator from Tennessee – the man who once walked the state in his iconic flannel shirt, the man who shook my hand while we were standing (it was just three of us, Lamar, Lewis Lavine and I) under the wing of the Memphis Belle and explained, while looking me straight in the eye, how he would build bridges and represent all of Tennessee, including me – that Senator was, and is, right about one thing: America must decide what’s next.

Do not wait until November 1 to join a Get Out The Vote bandwagon. Don’t be that guy. And, while you’re fighting for fair access to voting, don’t throw up your hands over gerrymandering and flaws in the Electoral College system. This is what we have today. Work with what is; fight for something better.

Three years ago, almost to the day, a friend sent me a text message that read: STAY ANGRY.

She was worried, and rightly so, that I would drift toward consensus, strive to build bridges, to advocate for balanced perspective. She was worried I would give up and give in.

Then came the Charlottesville rally, Heather Heyer’s tragic death, and the response that there are “good people on both sides” of white supremacy.

That’s when I printed the words, STAY ANGRY, and put them on my desk.

I’ve looked at those words every day since the summer of 2017, reflecting on their moral imperative. And I’ve thought about Theodore Parker, his grandfather and the Minutemen; about the arc of the moral universe, how the world is big and impossible to comprehend in day-to-day real time; about how I choose, every single day, to believe that light, in the long run, will always conquer darkness, and good will always triumph over evil. This belief enables me to get out of bed every morning.

From what I see, I am sure something better is possible. But I’m also sure that it’s far from certain.




  1. Not this time. After Friday’s destruction of both the Constitution and democracy as we know it, we’ve made a decision to move to another country. Keep in mind, I served this country during wartime. The same damn war that bone spurs ran away from. I haven’t got it in me again to drum up the vote. Or, battle anyone. We are exhausted.


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