Tag Archives: civil war

Tearing The Scab Off

MONDAY’S POST–INADVERTENTLY PUBLISHED EARLY…(Every once in a while, I hit the wrong button…)

It has taken nearly 150 years–since the end of the Civil War in 1865–for America to face up to our most consequential deviation from the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence. During most of that time period, we have engaged in various kinds of denial–the most widespread and egregious being the oft-repeated assertion that the war was fought over “states’ rights.”

That description was true, as far as it went. The war was fought to defend the “right” of some states to authorize and enforce the enslavement of black human beings.

Although very few school history classes have taught the realities of slavery, reconstruction and the various horrifying efforts to thwart the civil rights movement, we find ourselves at a point where the reality and extent of racial animus can no longer  be ignored. Over the last four or five years, members of what the late Molly Ivins used to call “the chattering classes” have focused more honestly on the extent to which racial grievance permeates our politics and distorts American public policy.

I posted a few days ago about the eruption in the Indiana General Assembly, but the verbal expressions of incivility certainly weren’t the only metric of racial bias: the assault on Indianapolis by more suburban and rural lawmakers–displayed this session in a number of truly offensive bills–is driven in large measure by disdain for the racial diversity of urban life. Legislative support for Indiana’s costly voucher program, which aims to “privatize” (and not so incidentally, resegregate) education, has its roots in that same disdain.

The under-appreciated problem with policy grounded in racial and ethnic bias is that such policies don’t hurt just the people who are targeted; they also hurt those who support them, as a new book makes very clear.

Michelle Goldberg described that book–“The Sum of Us” by Heather McGhee– in a recent column for the New York Times.

McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off.

One of the most fascinating things about “The Sum of Us” is how it challenges the assumptions of both white antiracism activists and progressives who just want to talk about class. McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.

She describes research done by the Race-Class Narrative Project, a Demos initiative that grew out of her work for the book. McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives (disproportionately people of color) about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”

There is a widespread zero-sum approach to social justice–a deep-seated fear that equality for “them” will diminish dominance/status for “us.”

McGhee’s book shifts the focus from the ways in which racism benefits white people to the substantial costs it imposes on them.

 Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.

An unhealed wound will form a scab; a healed wound will leave a scar.  Racism is America’s wound. There will always be a scar, but it won’t heal until we recognize and acknowledge the ongoing, significant damage it causes to all of us.

As Goldberg says, counting on altruism will only get you so far.

About Those Statues…

In the last couple of days, I’ve gotten two messages from friends in different (Northern) states who are troubled about the efforts to remove statues of Civil War figures. 

Here’s the first:

I am in a quandary. I am an educated, white, privileged male.  I can understand, but not empathize with, the thoughts of those who wish to see the statues of Confederate officers removed.  As an English major, I also see the statues as art.  So what is next? Paintings, then books? Are the Holocaust museum displays too emotional, the paintings at the WWII museum too one-sided, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel acceptably historical?  And who would decide?  

Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Is Fort Bragg any less offensive to humanity than Fort Sherman?  

I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds with the idea, but I do see the opportunity for a slippery slope.  Maybe it’s just my white, privileged male quandary? 
I look forward to your thoughts.

Here’s the second:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the new wave of dismantling Confederate statues, not displaying the Confederate flag, dropping Gone with the Wind from Netflix, Lady Antebellum changing their name to Lady A, etc. I agree with a lot of this, but I wonder if we’re going too far? Where do we draw the line? I noted on Facebook that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. Should we tear down their monuments while we’re at it? Is it rewriting history? I would love for you to write a blog about this and help me figure it out!

Both of these individuals are progressive, thoughtful and public-spirited. If they are uncomfortable with removing these monuments and renaming bases, I’m sure many other people are equally conflicted.

Here’s my “take” on the issue:

First of all, I see a profound difference between statues and monuments that honor historical figures, and museum and other displays that educate about those figures. The placement of statues in public places pretty clearly falls into the first category. (In a couple of instances, Confederate statues have been moved to museums rather than destroyed–an implicit recognition of the difference, and in my view, an entirely satisfactory resolution.) With respect to the names of military posts, same thing—we don’t name streets, buildings, etc. for “bad guys,” we reserve naming rights for figures we admire.

Germany doesn’t have statues of Hitler, but German history certainly hasn’t been lost.

The men who fought for the South in the American Civil War were defending slavery– an indefensible system–and they were traitors to their country. We should remember them, but we certainly shouldn’t honor them. (There’s also the fact that most of these monuments were erected long after the war, to signal white resistance to the civil rights movement.)

So I think removing Civil War statues is a relatively easy call. But I understand the concern about “slippery slopes.”

None of the historical figures we admire were perfect people. As the second message notes, Washington and Jefferson (among others) were slaveowners. But we don’t honor them for slave-holding; we honor them for their willingness to risk their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to bring a new nation into existence, and for their crafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  

If being a flawed human being was reason to ignore significant contributions made by historical figures, there wouldn’t be many statues. (Maybe Mother Teresa, although who knows? There might be something in her past….)

Before we either defend or dismantle a monument, I think we need to ask why it exists, and what it is that we are honoring.

It’s pretty clear that the only reason there are statues of Robert E. Lee and other Civil War figures is because they were central figures in an uprising–a rebellion– against our country. We are honoring their decision to be traitors, and implicitly sending a message that although they lost, their “cause” was honorable.

In the case of figures like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, et al, we are honoring their undisputed service and the importance of their contributions–and those contributions are clearly worthy of honor.

Anyway–that’s my take on the issue. I welcome the perspectives of my readers.

 

 

 

That Dangerous Alternate Reality

A week or so ago, I noted that, in their final essays, several students had suggested America might be heading for another civil war.

Despite our polarization, despite our increasingly toxic politics, that seemed farfetched. I still find it overblown–after all, this country has gotten through plenty of rough patches since our one (and so far, only) civil war without repeating that horrific experience. Granted, some episodes of civil unrest have been bloody, but they haven’t constituted civil war.

We’ve grown up, right?

Maybe not. This recent story from the Guardian made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Washington state Republican representative Matt Shea and several associates regaled an audience with conspiracy theories, separatist visions and exhortations for listeners to arm themselves ahead of a looming civil war, at a gathering at a remote religious compound in the north-east of the state last year.

In recordings obtained by the Guardian, Shea and Jack Robertson, also known as radio personality John Jacob Schmidt, invoked their visions and fears of a violent leftist revolt in speeches at the 2018 God and Country event in Marble.

The Guardian last week published leaked chat records in which Shea and Robertson were revealed to have discussed the use of surveillance, “psyops” and violence against liberal and leftist activists.

Robertson – who aired fantasies of extreme violence against liberal activists in the leaked chats – told the audience at the 2018 event that they should be prepared for civil war.

In his speech at God and Country last June, which immediately followed Shea’s speech, Robertson said: “Of course, you all know that you should have an AR-15 and a thousand rounds of ammo, right? Because Antifa is kicking up and getting ready to defend, right?”

Barely a week after the Guardian reporter contacted Shea and asked for comment, Shea linked to an Australian white nationalist website post which had criticized the reporter making the call.

Robertson and Shea are evidently regular guests on each other’s broadcasts, which air  on a local “Christian” network. According to the Guardian article, the two of them often share a stage at “patriot movement” events. They’ve been associated with the Christian Identity movement, which interprets the Bible as establishing a racial hierarchy in which Jews and blacks are enemies of the white race, who are the true Israelites.

According to Christian Identity doctrine, the United States should be a theocracy governed by Christians in accordance with divine law (as they interpret divine law).

Years ago, a friend of mine told me, in all seriousness, that 20% of the people we pass on the streets–20% of our countrymen– are mentally ill, and that some number of them are delusional and dangerous. At the time, I thought his estimate was high; I no longer think so.

What neither of us foresaw was the election of someone who is seriously disordered (and none too bright), and the encouragement his Presidency would offer to others who live in a  dystopian alternate reality.

We’re in uncharted territory.

Two Different Worlds?

It has become commonplace to complain that Americans are living in different realities–to respond to statements or opinions that seem particularly bizarre with some version of Barney Frank’s famous line, “on what planet do you spend most of your time?” But what if that isn’t hyperbole? What if Red and Blue Americans really are occupying different worlds?

What if America is actually going through some sort of “virtual” replay of the civil war?

My husband and I eat breakfast at a local coffee shop most mornings with a friend who shares our political obsessions.  Yesterday, during a breakfast discussion about the embarrassing series of congressional fiascos that finally led to last minute legislation avoiding–or at least postponing–the fiscal cliff, my husband shook his head in wonder: as he noted, Congress had set this scenario up and thus seen it coming for at least 18 months during which it had done absolutely nothing. Why? It seemed incomprehensible.

Our friend offered his theory: The Republicans swept into office in 2010, convinced they would retake both the Senate and the White House in 2012. During the campaign, they continued to believe that Romney would win the election, and that they would then have the opportunity and power to fashion their own “fix” of the impending sequester, probably along the lines of the Ryan budget. When Romney lost, and the Senate became even more firmly Democratic, they were stunned. They hadn’t prepared for that eventuality, and they’re still trying to find their bearings.

In the aftermath, the party’s internal fissures have also become more pronounced. At this point, the GOP is like a fish out of water, flopping frantically this way and that on the floor.

I would dismiss my friend’s explanation as utterly fanciful if there were not so many emerging reports that support it. Somehow, despite all of the data and polling and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, despite Nate Silver, a significant number of Republican political figures managed to convince themselves that up was down, blue was red, and America would never re-elect that black guy, especially in a sour economy. When Obama won, they were genuinely shocked–and unprepared to participate in divided government.

I was still mulling over this increasingly plausible explanation when I got to the gym, climbed on the treadmill, and turned on the television. There was Chuck Todd in front of a chart showing the massive increase in the number of single-party states–states where one party or the other controls both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s mansion. (Indiana, as we know, is one of those states.) There are exceptions, but most of the Republican-dominated states are in the old South (i.e., the Confederacy); most of the Democratic-dominated states are in the Northeast and on the west coast.

Representatives elected from lopsidedly one-party states don’t worry about challenges from the opposing party; they worry about primaries. So the Republicans pander to the rabid rightwing base of their party, and the Democrats play to the intransigent left of theirs. As the number of “safe states” multiplies, so does the number of unyielding, uncompromising ideologues.

Even in the absence of that political calculus, however, when people come from an environment that is dominated by a particular political philosophy, it takes effort to seek out and understand competing points of view. Such environments reinforce those “bubbles” we create by our media habits and friendship choices. Pretty soon, other perspectives seem fanciful and/or deluded, and we lose our ability to function within them.

The question is, how do we engage in anything remotely like self-government under these circumstances?