Donald Trump cannot belittle the hard won rights that John Lewis and his colleague fought so hard for, writes Ella Crine
At the end of the film ‘Selma’, we discover that the brave young boy who marches with the great Martin Luther King to the eponymous town goes on to become congressman for his home district of Georgia. John Lewis still represents that district.
Here is a man who fought not only for his right to vote, but also for the kind of civilian rights we take for granted in our daily lives: to sit wherever we want on the bus, to attend whichever school is most local to us, to be treated in the same hospital as everyone else.
Donald Trump’s tweet then, deriding representative Lewis’ award for his autobiographical trilogy entitled ‘March’, threatens to belittle or distract from the remarkable story of change and progress this man embodies. In his acceptance speech, Lewis described how incredible it was that he, who was turned away from his local library as a black boy, could now receive such a prestigious award for his own book.
It is this paradoxical moment which seems to me to encompass the way the world works. As progressives we fight for change like that which Lewis has seen, and are devastated by setbacks. We live in a time where we have the most equal society in terms of rights that we have ever had, and the least poverty, yet we also see countries like the US electing despots like Trump, and we sit by whilst Bashar al-Assad drops bombs on his own civilian children. But this story is simply a lesson to us all, that whilst progress can often feel achingly slow and hard won, it is possible and worthwhile.
However, I think there is another lesson here: our democratic institutions are far too fragile, and we must never be complacent. Countries like the US can elect people like Trump. We still live in a world where a leader is able to massacre their own people with no consequence, and we stand helplessly and observe. The now familiar argument from some progressives goes: we have tried putting our hands in the fire before, and we have had our fingers burnt. We have failed with intervention before, so we should stay out of other countries’ affairs now. We only ever make things worse.
There is nothing progressive about this argument. To say that previous setbacks are reason to stop trying is to dismiss all the progress people like Lewis have ever made. If we want to see a world where all lives matter, we have to fight for it. We cannot take it for granted that progress will continue without us.
In 2005 we signed a treaty with over 140 other countries called ‘Responsibility to Protect’. In doing so, we subscribed to the universal principle that no matter where you are born, you have a right to your life and the world would unite to protect your life even from your own government. Too easily we have neglected our commitment to this treaty, cowering from intervention of any kind because of some of our recent previous experiences. Our recent successes – in Sierra Leone or Bosnia – are not afforded comparison to our failures. But we must not be put-off our commitment to people’s lives by the challenges that intervening presents.
We will always live in a world which takes one step forward and two steps back. But each step forward requires our engagement, commitment, and a huge amount of effort. If we turn inwards and shut ourselves off from the world, we neglect the most British of values. But also, we risk people like Trump trying to write Lewis’ story out of history. We risk the institutions we value being undermined by anti-democratic forces around the world. Progress is not made without dedication, but setbacks can happen in an instant. We can no longer rely on the dedication of the US, and we cannot allow our setbacks to scare us away from our commitment to protect civilian’s lives.
Ella Crine is a member of Progress. She tweets at @
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