Introducing an Era of Justice
Dr. Paul Zeitz is the executive director of the Global Peace Action Network (GPAN) and the Global AIDS Alliance (GAA), which he co-founded in January 2001. In that role, he has taken the lead on GAA’s advocacy across a range of issues, including ending pediatric HIV/AIDS, advancing children’s well‐being, integration of HIV and reproductive health services, universal basic education, global AIDS funding, and the links between HIV/AIDS and the broader Millennium Development Goals. Paul is a Professorial Lecturer of Global Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and has previously worked for WHO, USAID, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Introducing an Era of Justice:
How to Take back America and Usher in a New Political Age
as delivered for a Keynote Address at
The George Washington University
upon receiving the 2010 Global Health and Development Achievement Award on December 9th, 2010
Speak truth, be bold, and serve justice for all. I have dedicated my life to these principles. And to these principles I further dedicate myself to you and to all Americans at this urgent moment in our nation and our world, on the eve of International Human Rights Day.
Many Americans, including myself, believe that there is something seriously wrong with the American political system and our current leadership. We all know this to be true. The hope of two years ago for our new president, Barack Obama, has crumbled into partisan bickering, legislative obstruction and backroom trade-offs that benefit no one but large corporations, Wall Street money-changers, preservationist politicians and the super-rich.
What once was an America “by the people and for the people” today is a dysfunctional and ailing America “by corporations and for corporations.” Our elected leaders have failed us, as they are stuck in an intractable quagmire of greed-driven, lowest-common-denominator deal-making.
Is justice served by Republican leaders who decry America’s fiscal deficit yet extract $79 billion in tax breaks for the wealthy, larded on top of more than $900 billion in total tax cuts?
Is justice served when President Obama prostrates to these demands, yet declines to set-aside even 2% of that money for additional life-saving HIV/AIDS medications to save millions of lives in Africa and here in the United States? Or schools? Or roads? Or the environment? Or a modest cost of living increase for hundreds of thousands of federal workers? Senior citizens dependent on Social Security resources are facing higher bills and they’ve not had a cost of living increase for two years in a row.
Is justice served when the Supreme Court rules that corporations may spend unlimited amounts, hidden from detection, on these politicians’ re-election campaigns?
Is justice served when the gap between the richest and poorest Americans now is a record of 14.5 to 1 – double the previous high gap in 1968, when we lost The Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy to assassins? How do we honor these great men when 20% of Americans now earn 50% of all income?
I am gravely alarmed at the utter collapse of the American dream for the vast majority of Americans. We have become cynical, apathetic, rejectionist and resigned to the status quo. Our political system is broken and our leaders – dependent on corporate largess – no longer are able to effectively serve the interests of the American people.
This stalemate is not real political leadership. It is a charade of leadership; it is a theater of the absurd, created by the powerful in a winner-take-all economy. Millions of Americans are out of work and are losing their homes and their hope, even though corporations sit on $1.5 trillion in cash reserves. The American economy remains gargantuan. The world’s economic output last year was $70 trillion, of which 20% of the total- $14 trillion – came from America, which represents just 4.4% of the world’s population.
We have the wealth. What we lack is the political will and moral compass to use it in the cause of justice for all: for healthcare, for the environment, to end hunger, poverty and war – here at home and around the world. I have spoken with people all across this great country whose souls yearn for action. The time for resignation and hopelessness is over. The status quo of political inaction and backroom deals must end today and every day going forward.
Together we can stand for justice. Together we can insist on integrity in our political leaders. Together we can create a new patriotic movement to transform our country and once again make it “by the people, for the people,” rooted in the realization of rights for all. Together we can wage justice for America. We can reclaim our pride, our hope and re-emerge as a beacon for the World. The Washington Monument could be seen as an Excalibur of Justice, rather than a symbol of a greed-driven patriarchy.
That is why tonight I propose that people of conscience urgently join together to create The Justice Movement. Together, we can leverage a justice agenda that galvanizes political action and attains measurable results for all Americans. We should do this for ourselves, for our children, for future generations, and in honor of generations of Americans – soldiers and civilians – who have dedicated their lives to justice for all; people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Robert F. Kennedy.
“The problem of power,” Robert Kennedy told us, “is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use – of how to get men [and women] of power to live for the public rather than off the public.”
Forty days and nights from now – on MLK Day – a coalition of those dedicated to justice are planning to inaugurate the Justice Movement with a March for Justice, from the Kennedy gravesites, passing the MLK Memorial and rallying in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I invite you and everyone who stands for justice to join us in this possibility of transformation and victory over our past failures.
At President Kennedy’s inauguration, 50 years ago next month, the great American poet Robert Frost – his eyes blinded by the sunshine as it reflected off the snow – recited from memory words that remain essential today. This particular line grips me:
“Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves.”
When dawn emerges tomorrow, on the 60th anniversary of international Human Rights Day, I ask you to reflect on its meaning. The day marks the U.N.’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – just three years after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
What sort of America did our forbearers fight for? Was it one of tired proclamations that we trot out once a year? Or do we stand for a world free of violence and atrocity? Or will we be acquiescent to a system where the hungry and sick are neglected by those who are sycophants for the rich?
I’m through with wearing ribbons, holding up empty symbols, and feeling hopeless. It is time to take action, to walk the talk, and to march together. America belongs to us–to all of us: people associated with all political parties, races, religions, gender identities, and ages. It belongs to students and teachers, to soldiers and veterans, to workers, laborers, middle managers, those unemployed and underemployed, shopkeepers, and tradesmen. It belongs to people of all political views who believe in justice: Democrats, Independents and Republicans, Tea Partiers and Progressives.
Forty days from now – just after the new Congress is seated – the March for Justice on Monday, January 17, 2011, could become a touchstone moment when each of us has the opportunity to make a covenant for ourselves and between us as Americans to rescue our beloved country from the wilderness of greed, and to restore political rights and equality for all. But it will only happen only if you and I choose to take unreasonable and relentless action. Then, I believe that there is a genuine possibility that together we can usher in a new era of justice. Will you join me?
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” The Rev. Martin Luther King told us nearly a half-century ago. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”