Tag Archives: history

Statues And Shades Of Gray

Americans are having yet another iteration of a longstanding argument about the various monuments erected to memorialize–or let’s be honest, valorize– Confederate heroes of the Civil War.

People defending these statues argue that they teach us about our history. Proponents of removal respond that placing them in museums is adequate to the teaching of history, and remind us that Germany still remembers the Nazis despite the fact that there are no statues of Hitler or Eichmann “gracing” the public way.

In my view, deciding that Confederate statues should come down is an easy call.

Here’s the test: why was this particular statue erected? To ask that question a bit differently, why is this person being honored? Public statues are uniformly considered “honors”–so the first question to ask is, logically, “why do we honor Senator or General or XYZ?” If the person portrayed has been selected for his participation in the Confederate secession, the monument should go. If the person is historically significant, move the statue to a museum or other teaching venue; if he is just a reminder of Confederate treason, smash him.

As numerous historians have reminded us, these statues weren’t erected in the aftermath of the Civil War; almost all of them were placed in prominent places during the civil rights movement as a testament of white resistance to African-American equality. They aren’t even legitimately “historic.”

The question of public monuments gets more complicated when it comes to people who were less one-dimensional. What do we do, for example, about people like Woodrow Wilson?

As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times awhile back,

When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter. Raised with the bland liberal history that hailed the 28th president as a visionary for championing the League of Nations, I picked up in college what was then a contrarian, mostly right-wing perspective — that many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that’s deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise.

Now his racism has finally prompted Princeton University, which once had Wilson as its president, to remove his name from its prominent school of public and international affairs. This move was made under pressure from left-wing activists, but it also answered conservatives who had invoked Wilson’s name to suggest that progressive racists might be unjustly spared from cancellation.

For this Wilson-despiser, his fall was a clarifying moment. I expected to be at least a little pleased and justified when the name was gone. Instead, the decision just seemed fundamentally dishonest, a case study in what goes wrong when iconoclasm moves beyond Confederates to encompass the wider American inheritance.

Douthat says that monuments and honorifics are intended to honor deeds,  “to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.” I agree.

So–what do we do with monuments to inevitably flawed real humans–to Founders who glorified human liberty while “owning” other human beings, for example?

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

I find myself in agreement with Douthat. The relevant question remains the one I previously outlined: what, exactly, are we memorializing?

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that’s exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

On the other hand, complicated and often profoundly flawed individuals often do very good things. If the statue we have erected was intended to honor those good things, it should stay. If it is only there to remind us that something happened–especially when that “something” was regrettable– it shouldn’t.

If we shouldn’t celebrate what a monument celebrates, it should go.

 

The Politics Of White Male Grievance

I have obviously spent most of my life being naive.

Until very recently, I had faith that the overwhelming majority of my fellow-Americans were really good people. Wrong sometimes, certainly. Confused sometimes. But essentially kind and well-meaning, and –importantly–receptive to reality and able to learn from it.

I accepted that there would always be a small minority of people who are damaged in some way. I still think that “damaged” explains more than “evil,” but I’m less certain that the distinction is helpful (and Mitch McConnell has convinced me that some people really are evil).

During the past few years, I’ve read more American history, and a lot of that history isn’t pretty. The Internet has put more information at our fingertips (some credible, some not), and much of that information has been depressing. And then, of course, came November of 2016. It was like ripping a bandage off a very ugly sore.

If there is one central thread running through my various disillusionments, it is some people’s evident need to divide humanity into “us versus them”–and to dominate “them.”

Paul Krugman recently published a column responding to Stephen Moores’ comparison of the protestors storming state capitols to Rosa Parks. (If you missed that bit of Trump administration idiocy, I assure you I am not making it up.)  I was particularly struck by this observation:

The modern right is driven in large part by the grievances of white men who don’t feel that they’re getting the respect they believe they deserve, and Fox-fueled hostility to “elites” who claim to know more than guys in diners — which, on technical subjects like epidemiology, they do — is a key part of the movement.

Krugman is restating what social science research has confirmed: white male grievance explains most of Trump’s base support. (There is also significant evidence that white male grievance has motivated most mass shootings.)

As Rebecca Solnit has observed, these are white men who feel threatened because they see life in America as a zero-sum game–a game that rightwing media and the Republican party are constantly telling them they are losing. They were born into a culture that told them they were entitled to dominate us “lesser” folks: black and brown people, women, gay men, non-Christians…that they were the “real Americans.” Suddenly (or so it seemed), those “lessers” were demanding a place at the civic table, and they had to defend their superior status.

We saw that resentment in Charlottesville. (It’s important to note that we also saw it in the appalling behavior of now-Supreme-Court Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. White male grievance isn’t the exclusive province of people we can dismiss as “yahoos” and “uneducated yokels.”)

As a column in the Washington Post put it, shortly after Charlottsville,

More than a half-century ago, minorities, women and immigrants began to challenge the economic, political and legal hierarchy that had favored white men for centuries. Their efforts produced a white backlash that burst into the open after Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Donald Trump has tapped into this anger and manipulated it to his political advantage. The bond between President Trump and his white followers is not based on policy but on grievance. They both reject the cultural changes over the past half-century, and Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan signals his intent to unravel them…

Until the 1960s, white men sat unchallenged atop the United States’ cultural and economic pyramid. They did not have to compete against women or African Americans in the workplace, and they benefited from laws and customs that sustained their privileged position. They not only ruled the workplace, they dominated American politics and exercised virtually unchallenged power at home.

That automatic dominance based on skin color is changing. Slowly and unevenly, but it is changing. And a significant number of white men simply can’t deal with the change.

My problem is, I’m having an equal amount of trouble dealing with the realization that these attitudes characterize something like 35% of American voters.

Tribalism Versus Americanism

Permit me a “Sunday morning meditation”…

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.)

Your rights vis a vis your government depended upon who you were—your religion, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, anyone (okay, any white male) born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history.

All of our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which America Do You Live In?

My father was called up for service in World War II when I was a toddler, and when the war ended, I was still far too young to comprehend what “war” really meant. But one of the most vivid memories I have of those days was coming across my mother reading something called “The Black Book,” and crying.

The book was a compendium of Nazi atrocities. My mother said I was too young to hear about such things (as I recall, I was about five) but that I should always remember how lucky I was to live in the United States.

Years later, I read multiple historical and sociological analyses in an effort to understand how the Nazis came to power, how otherwise good people could participate in–or turn a blind eye to–what was happening. The lesson I took away began with an economic reality: when people are experiencing economic insecurity and privation–especially if they see that others are flourishing– resentments suppressed in better times surface, and the very human need to find someone or some group to blame for loss of status and/or security becomes incredibly easy for demagogues to manipulate.

There’s a reason that loss of the American middle class is so dangerous.

A recent book by an MIT economist paints a very troubling picture: America is now two countries, and one of those countries looks a lot like the third world.

 Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, believes the ongoing death of “middle America” has sparked the emergence of two countries within one, the hallmark of developing nations. In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Temin paints a bleak picture where one country has a bounty of resources and power, and the other toils day after day with minimal access to the long-coveted American dream.

In his view, the United States is shifting toward an economic and political makeup more similar to developing nations than the wealthy, economically stable nation it has long been. Temin applied W. Arthur Lewis’s economic model – designed to understand the workings of developing countries – to the United States in an effort to document how inequality has grown in America.

Temin describes multiple contributing factors in the nation’s arrival at this place, from exchanging the War on Poverty for the War on Drugs to money in politics and systemic racism. He outlines the ways in which racial prejudice continues to lurk below the surface, allowing politicians to appeal to the age old “desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks”, encouraging white low-wage workers to accept their lesser place in society.

Temin lists policies that could begin to ameliorate the economic divide: Expanding education, updating infrastructure, forgiving mortgage and student loan debt, and programs to encourage social mobility for all Americans.

Right now, of course, the clear priority of Congress–let alone the current, deranged occupant of the Oval Office–is tax reduction for the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.

What’s that famous Santayana quote? Those who who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

 

The Circle of Political Life

When we study history, it isn’t difficult to see repeating patterns. Not that events or eras actually recur, but–humans being what we are–contending impulses and beliefs about the proper way to construct a society often create situations that look familiar. Sometimes, eerily so.

The other day, I was reading an essay on Spinoza, and I was struck by the following paragraphs:

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear.

The ability of our own era’s “Prince of Orange” to capture the GOP nomination is evidence that the assault on Enlightenment values is alive and well these many centuries after Spinoza.

Whether enough of us are willing to “boldly defend” those ideals–which lie at the very heart of America’s constitutional system–remains to be seen.