Witness Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience at its unimagined worst: a Congress in rebellion against itself and its oath, whose continual looting has brought inattention and cynicism to the treasures carefully hidden and being lifted out of its ruins. The powerful have long been known for the benefits that can be reclaimed from the trough of moral morass. Pull out freedom; its leverage becomes an element of theft.
Before any great political theft, the ground must be made ready. Money must be put in in order for money to be taken out. Politics must reach beyond logic and ignore facts and details to ignite passion, a passion tied to fear and prejudice that becomes push-pull factors that block and bend the attractions of voters and drive their preferences. A push-pull factor that combines fear and prejudice into a powerful package is death.
Death is a common bedfellow of politics. Death is the political spear of politicians. Its push-pull offers the satisfactions of blood lust to followers and offers a palate of fear that dismantles opponents. Other than martyrs, death defines losers.
Socrates’ sentence of suicide is a part of the politics of the ancient Greeks. Crowds in the 1800s gathered in festive moods outside of London’s Newgate Prison for hangings as vendors set up shop for food and sold relics of the hangman’s ropes. In Charleston, during this period, the heads of convicted slaves were mounted on wood columns at the foot of the city’s entry bridges as a warning and assurance to all who passed. These few examples are among the many ways civilizations dealt death as punishment and tried to prime the social environment for political theft.
The use of African-American deaths in politics begins with the journey of the Middle Passage from Africa to America; bodies were jettisoned during the Atlantic crossings, and these deaths incited rebellion and despair—and a raft of insurance claims. Later, the enslaved were hunted and murdered at night by special horseback patrols. The Civil War brought the Fort Pillow massacre; the blood spilled by black Union troops turned the Mississippi red. At Ebenezer Creek, in December 1864, 30 miles from Savannah, the bodies from a refugee train killed by Wheeler’s Cavalry dammed the creek.
After the Civil War came the organized, methodical killing of KKK units across the South; then came the mob violence of lynchings in which bodies were hanged and burned. The violence caused black schoolteacher and former Civil War nurse Susan King Taylor to write in her reminiscences:
In this “land of the free” we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for any imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man. There is no redress for us from a government which promised to protect all under its flag. It seems a mystery to me. They say, “One flag, one nation, one country indivisible.” Is this true? Can we say this truthfully, when one race is allowed to burn, hang, and inflict the most horrible torture weekly, monthly, on another? No, we cannot sing “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of Liberty”! It is hollow mockery. The Southland laws are all on the side of the white, and they do just as they like to the negro, whether in the right or not.
In 1923, a riot resulted in six blacks and two whites killed and destroyed the self-sufficient black town of Rosewood, Florida.
And then the Civil Rights movement came. It brought a new wave of white violence that targeted blacks: the deaths mounted, from the violent beating with a cotton weight that bashed in the skull and tore out the eye of visiting teenager Emmett Till, to the shooting on his porch of Mississippi NAACP President Medgar Evers, to the explosion that killed Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, four young girls attending Sunday school in a Birmingham Baptist church on September 15, 1963, to the three civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, killed less than a year later in June 1964, to three college students in South Carolina, killed on campus by state police at South Carolina State in February 1968. The name of the college’s basketball arena memorializes Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., Delano Herman Middleton and Henry Ezekial Smith.
From 1882 to 1968, over 3,400 blacks were lynched, killed in anger and hate, without due process, murdered by mobs and individuals that got away scot-free. And last week, in a rally across from the White House, caught on an open microphone, the cry to hang Obama was seconded by a voice that said, “He wouldn’t be the first.”
Death and theft are not separate in politics, but in America, death has been the throwaway; it launches a political payload and drops away. Texas executions, school massacre (there has been a school shooting every five day, on average, since Newton), street violence; in recent days, the misuse of police authority has brought hundreds of thousands to the streets from New York and Chicago to Berkeley and San Francisco to the stadiums of pro sports, where outraged police officials have demanded apologies but have sent none of their own to the families grieving from police killings. Not a single card of sorrow for their loss, not an expression (except for Ferguson and New York) of compassion or sympathy.
Death is a muscle memory in black communities. Every local town has an incident etched in memory.
Yet the effect of the grief and the lost of the dead themselves are denied. The dead are blamed for being killed while unarmed, blamed for being choked to death, shot to death, lied about, blamed for disobedience, until the primal taste of the lynch mob fills the mouths of those who cannot find a way to say, “I’m sorry.”
What guides the killings, expanded now to a global stage (this week: Pakistan, Australia), is a culture that revels in its hidden impulses. This era has seen the world’s largest sustained impulse for wealth. The heads of state of African countries (Angola, Nigeria) are billionaires. Fines for illegal conduct by big banks in the US run into the billions. Russia, once the world’s great communist regime, has billionaires sitting in its parliament. China, a socialist nation, has the world’s second largest number of billionaires, after the US. The world’s richest person is a Mexican business mogul who controls much of Latin America’s telecommunications and cell phone business. The sovereignty of Argentina is being threatened by US Federal Court judgments made on behalf of hedge funds that own large bundles of Argentina’s defaulted debt; the country’s President flies commercial when she leaves the country; an Argentine navy ship was seized but returned when it docked in Africa.
Within the global culture that desires and celebrates wealth is an out-of-control ideal expressed as greed. Greed argues for shortcuts to wealth: not work hard and climb the ladder, but kill and steal. Greed flourishes where there is destabilization. Killing weakens the bonds of the society’s structure. Insurgencies are getting rich. ISIL is the creation of this paradox.
Faith lost, and greed spreads. More die. It repeats again. Ancillary breakdowns of society occur. The irrational widespread fear of Ebola, and crowds of adults blocking buses of immigrant children who had reached our borders to stop their entry into facilities in their communities foretell a loss of inner strength and inner truth.
Through seemingly unconnected, death is one of the elements that sets the ground for greed and leads to theft. The connection is the way their interior values attract and repeal, push and pull.
The worst form of civil disobedience is robbery, the taking of what belongs to others by law or natural right. The law is broken when Congress or the crowd goes against government measures and protections and when the law itself becomes a tool to steal and rob, as it supposedly comforts our loss. Murder can occur only once in a life, but robbery can be repeated. When done under law, it is protected by force, and justified as stopping intrusion.
For example, out goes the cry: the Affordable Care Act robs us of the right of choice. But those insured clients dropped after the purchase of insurance were robbed of the right of choice in a time of need; at precisely the point where insurance took on greater importance and would provide security against health catastrophes and the cost of catastrophic illness, it vanished, without appeal or recourse.
The point here is political theft is often committed in the name of freedom, and this flag-wrapped theft often stands on bloody ground. But rarely are these connections direct. In modern cultures, blood money will have two phases, seemingly unconnected. The first destabilizes, the second resets the rules.
Witness the budget bill swiftly approved by the two chambers of Congress last week. After six years of destabilization, its resets included riders on potatoes, whole grains and salt in school lunches, on clean water, on truck drivers’ working hours, on farmers with livestock killed by wolves, and on campaign gifts, all passed without debate, swept forward, tucked in neatly with the $1.1 billion in spending that in some places was as much vendetta as budget.
Despite its size, the central issue of this mundane list of special interest riders is an overarching fact: its business-as-usual is destroying democracy. It places special interests beyond the reach of public accountability. It replaces Congress’ fear of discovery with the cold glare of indifference, and while it claims to condemn government as the enemy of business, it deliberately hides the use of government for gifts to business friends. The doors of democracy are unlocked to the rich. Those same doors are closed and sealed shut to the poor.
If government is the enemy, look again to find out who its friends are. Too often, it is those who criticize it as being the enemy. This blame and embrace is an old favorite of corruption. Cast the blame elsewhere; haul in the spoils. Continue reading Murder and Theft
Turkey’s actions, however it thinks itself justified by its internal and regional politics, have been outrageous on the international front and strike the wrong balance for a country concerned about its security.
Turkey should have promised aid long ago when the international coalition against ISIL formed. Aid helps promote peace and opens new channels. Aiding the Kurds in the fight against ISIL might further the peace talks with its Kurdish opposition and win support for coexistence within Turkey among its Kurds, 20% of its population and long oppressed. One thing is sure: the act of denying support and access only hardened old tensions and angered the international community and the Kurds at home. Turkey is missing a unique opportunity to forge a new era of cooperation by failing to focus on a dangerous regional enemy and turn a new page.
That missed opportunity—which Turkey is now trying to regain—may prove to be a greater threat to Turkey’s future than the narrow concerns that drove it to launch air attacks early last week on the Kurdish rebels, taking advantage of the Kurdish forces’ engagement with ISIL.
After hitting the Kurds with F-16s, Turkey accused the Kurds of using Kobani support as a “blackmail” tactic for the peace process. In reality, Turkey is using Kobani to further its wrongheaded military aims and as blackmail to compel the US coalition to attack and engage the Assad regime in Syria.
Turkey’s change of direction may help in the fight over Kobani. But it may come too late to win brownie points internationally or further peace internally.
Attitudes in response to the Sayreville hazing range from cavalier to laissez-faire to open anger and hostility—all which point to evidence that we have a larger problem: we are becoming a nation of bullies and victims who are to minimize their degradation and find the humor in their shame. It matters less the details of who did what; the crime here is the attitudes that are shaping the response of both the children and adults. It seems that few can see or realize the moral failing put on display by the hazing. Whether as a potential threat or a real one, physical restraint is not “bonding,” it is intimidation. It takes away a fundamental right to feel safe and secure physically among peers. It’s a social form of attack that violates every moral and legal practice, but few seem to get it. All have dismissed the homoerotica in the nature of the hazing which was planned and executed; the lights out symbolic of denial.
Evidence the young female student quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We sure as hell hate them now,” about the victims. She feels her righteous indignation is justified by her sacrifice—not being able to attend football games. She has not a single thought of empathy for those hazed and expressed no ambivalence about the misconduct. She simply wants to pile on. She does not see in her own anger cause for remorse.
In a sport in which individual behavior affects and penalizes the team, many seem to be denying this fundamental relationship and consequence of bad behavior. Too many are focusing on sport and competitive success. If not the hazing, it’s really about a massive failure of character and the community climate which enables, supports and justifies the debacle.
Neither party nor policy is responsible for the shredding of the President’s leadership by Democratic candidates: with job growth unprecedented, GDP growth up, troops at home, uninsured numbers reduced, US oil production globally number one, the Dow doubled, consumer confidence tripled, and higher wages on his plate and several successful fixes for the bureaucracy in progress, his opposition is in name only. Largely without support or cause. Continue reading Turkey, Sayreville, and Some Democrats Get It Wrong
What is racism? Is it a universal idea? A judgment about biological identity? A group of dysfunctional behaviors in a culture? Persistent myths about a community’s strength and weaknesses? Does it belong equally to white and black, and yellow and tan?
Is racism a political idea? A wedge for advantage? Does it exist? Is it an excuse? Do statistics verify its presence? What role does it play in society? How does it change individual lives?
Racism does exist; it always reflects the role race plays in society. For instance, the structures and forms of racism during slavery have virtually no role in society today. The laws, punishments, limits and ideas that governed race then were very different and many have been erased.
Since these ideas have lost their viability, does that mean racism has ended? In modern society with its pledge to equality, has racism been eliminated? No. But it has changed forms. Remember, each era produces its version of racism. Remember, the construct of racism is based on the role race plays in the social milieu.
Before looking at modern racism, let’s ask: How does race fit into today’s society?
In America today, race has become the major standard and measure for equality and equal opportunity. Collectively, through numbers and statistics; individually, through incidents and events, race provides the details and the rough measure of fair play and justice. Race sets the bar for social and economic improvement, the standard for civil liberties, but is also the target of anger for those in and out of power, and a source of constant confusion. This positivist function of race is rarely mentioned; race is most often framed as a problem or a source of friction, or as a factor of mistreatment.
But race has noble virtues. It is the source used to reflect how far America has come in resolving internal tyranny and it measures America’s social progress. It is also a measure of how far apart Americans stand on many social issues. It has been the bubble at the center of the builder’s level.
Race, in part, is the weight of a group response, for both blacks and whites. The shooting of whites by police, while tragic, doesn’t alert the nation to the attack of police violence and misconduct aimed at the American Promise; race is a sentinel for the entire country—not just for blacks. Race puts blacks in the vanguard of social change, yet also makes blacks one of society’s most vulnerable groups. The paradox leads to scepticism and ignorance about the fix for social problems as race as a change agent is caught in a fluid whirlwind of individual and indirect forces.
That is why whites were always visible and angry in the Ferguson protests, every night, in every frame, side by side with blacks. Race is America’s active metaphor for character and justice, for liberty and criminality, for alarm and good riddance. It is not a discussion about blacks or whites, but about the vision and substance of America and the content of the American character, not just of the individuals whose roles shape the discussion.
In the same way, America’s educational success is measured by race. The differences in student test scores reflect race as a means of distributed wealth.
Race as an American idea is always in motion; different than last year, changed by new experiences, redefined by the culture it represents. Unfortunately it is often tied to omissions, deficiencies and neglect more than success, and its noble side is missed.
From this view, I propose racism plays three key roles in today’s America, all three tied to politics and culture:
To unify race appearance (by skin color) into a common culture of values and desired qualities (i.e., loyalty, defense, ideology) that lead to mutual and joint actions for power and privilege limited to and controlled by a group.
To install social barriers supported by legal frameworks and individual decision makers that limit life chances and prospects for many of those outside of the group.
To deny the advantages that racism inherently seeks to make permanent.
The three are easy to understand with examples.
1. At the diner where I often eat, we wondered during the 2012 election how long it would be before Mitt Romney screamed, “I’m white!” to pander for votes. The opposite nearly occurred. Romney’s campaign adviser John Sununu approached that edge, claiming someone needed to teach the President “how to be an American.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich skirted the same precipice: he cited Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial world view” “as the the most accurate, predictive model for his [Obama's] behavior,” calling it “a profound insight.” “The food stamp President” was another of Gingrich’s contributions.
Rick Santorum came within a syllable of an offensive racial slur before he caught himself. Recently, a New Hampshire police chief uttered the word publicly (saying the President “met and exceeded” his criteria). He refused to back down, resigning but never apologizing.
My oft-cited example is the empty chairs that appeared after the 2012 Republican National Convention, tied to tree limbs on private property, often with roped nooses hung over chair backs—performance art that starkly expressed the dark dread of justice as lynching. These spontaneous racial installations were a reminder that the media never reported in 2008 the high degree of fear in the black community for Barack Obama’s life; people were frantic and the hysteria went unnoticed.
Racism is tasteless and invisible—until the first tug of attitude pushes one of its many structures into place to block progress—and to strangle black success. Members of Congress have said Barack Obama was only elected because he is black. Others say he won due to white guilt.
These conversations and actions call white people to band together under a banner of skin: a favorite principle of racism is to unite to defend and defeat the idea of the other. The other is different—and also more dangerous, more deadly, more deficient. The most important other in America is race. Its group tensions involve a history of violence, lynching, lawlessness, blame, poverty and social control.
I think that race as a social measure should change. Women and children are suffering greater attacks than African-Americans in this historical moment; women and children need a movement worthy of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, yet they remain on the edge of America’s conscience. Thankfully, ending domestic violence has become a noble virtue. So should ending the murders of children by their peers.
2. Examples of social barriers abound. The most prominent and dangerous, as US House member John Lewis rightly recognizes, are the state-level bills that are redefining the right to vote. The new tactic recognizes it is not necessary to disenfranchise minority voters en masse (the old, pre-1960s tactic). Trimming voter turnout by 3 to 10 percent will often be enough to swing close national elections.
Remember, racism fits the role of race in society. In politics, that’s votes. After the Civil War, bills sought to disenfranchise the entire Negro vote, which ended with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now, in this era, with this Supreme Court, the same outcome can be achieved with a more limited, targeted effort to restrict early voting, raising the bar to voter access by requiring more paperwork and reducing polling hours. Continue reading Racism and Noble Virtues
The most sobering thing I’ve read in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri didn’t focus on Brown, his uniformed killer, or Ferguson at all. It was a news item from last December about an incident in Iceland.
On December 2, police shot a man to death in Reykjavik, the first such shooting in Iceland’s history as far as anyone knows. He was reportedly firing a shotgun in his home for reasons not disclosed, and fired at police as they entered the building after an unsuccessful attempt to subdue him with teargas. The chief of police held a press conference the same day, describing the shooting as “without precedent” and noting “police are deeply saddened by this tragic event and would like to extend their condolences to the family of the individual in question.”
As the Guardian article linked above points out, Iceland is by no means a gun-free society. GunPolicy.org estimates its citizen gun ownership to be 30.3 per 100 people, ranking Iceland 15th in the world on a per-capita basis (the United States tops the list with a rate roughly three times higher). They also estimate that Icelandic police have an arsenal of 1,039 guns, though police officers on “routine patrol” do not carry firearms.
Iceland’s population of about 326,000 is very close to that of St. Louis, with about 318,000. Yet in 2011 alone, police in St. Louis shot 11 people, three of them fatally, according to statistics compiled by crime writer and former FBI agent Jim Fisher. (Ferguson, eight miles away, is part of the Greater St. Louis area, but has its own police force, however dysfunctional.)
In 2010, gun deaths per 100,000 people in the United States stood at 10.1, while Iceland’s 2009 rate per 100,000 was 1.25 and never went above 2.85 in any year between 1996 and 2009. Continue reading ‘Police are deeply saddened by this tragic event’
For President Obama, a list of difficulties has become the equivalent of a list of failures. If the world is a mess, it is because of his foreign policy. If Republicans are obstructionists, he didn’t “lead” and win them over. If a mid-level bureaucrat in one of the six far-flung federal districts creates a public crisis and embarrasses the government, the President should have been standing over his shoulder. Scope or scale no longer matter. The only accounting is a single ledger list of his faults—which includes policies and fights that were on Democrats’ wish list–and even things he should have done, extrapolated from current events. How dare he not have a prophetic vision?
This idea of a list of his failings has expanded to include even his obvious victories. Obama fail is a helpless craving, prompted by a President who inspired a phantasmagoria of fallacies and fear so rich that he alternates between being considered utterly inept and having embedded diabolical wiles whose ruses and ploys are able to summon and capture world-class terrorists in faraway lands on command, to protect and distract the public from his failures.
“Too neat,” several pundits have described Obama’s announcement of the capture of one of the leaders of the 2012 armed strike on the US consul in Benghazi. Add it to the list as a coarse example of another Obama political stunt.
Boehner pointedly thanked the troops.
Obama is a dumb guy who keeps terrorists in his back pockets. He stages their capture whenever he needs a political boost. The new list of failures even allows for mutually exclusive ideas.
This line item strategic equivalence of failure is assigned to every presidential action Obama undertakes—and for every event that takes place anywhere in the world. It is an easy default of add-ons that avoids a list of reasons, requires no thought, and plays well in the press.
The narrative of Obama failure is not only the one in the press. One of his difficulties is the narrative of our history. Unique to America’s DNA, that historical narrative also finds a way to wrap its tentacles around every act and view of the President. It is the host and source for his failures and has proven malleable and durable through the years.
To some, it is invisible; to others, it is denied. It is alternatively small and large. Mainly it is dismissed. But it is a silent, unspoken constant; one that makes the fur fly about equality, equal opportunity, qualifications, character, ideology, justice, safety nets, slavery, education, personal ethics, stereotypes, American strength. It is attached to our tailwinds, our progress as a nation.
The President rarely makes note of it. The few times he has, he has been excoriated for it. It has come up in jokes at the WHCD. In remarks to the press about gun violence. The fact that the President seems unfazed by it infuriates many people even more.
Its presence and weight, its burden and well known place is demonstrated by the fact that, although unnamed, by now you know exactly what I am talking about. (His birth certificate? His inexperience? His vacations? No?) It’s race.
It has an inverse effect on his power. The greater Obama’s accomplishments, the greater the denial. The more low-key the recognition, the louder the cry that he exceeds his authority.
The media is especially culpable in creating the boxed-in myth of post-racialism—in the midst of one of the most active periods of individual and political expressions of race we have witnessed in our history.
The media drags the President down by its omission of race as a silent embed in our national noise, around since Frederick Douglass was begged and implored not to march in a Republican street parade in Washington, DC (he ended up carrying his delegation’s banner!); since W.E.B. DuBois identified its effects as a “double consciousness” regarding African-Americans; since lynchings by color persisted through the early 20th century, followed by vigilante violence and Midwestern sundown towns (all blacks out by sundown!)—since the only Supreme Court decision whose full effect of law was delayed with “all deliberate speed” (Brown v. the Board of Education, Topeka, KS). Race has been used to tarnish achievements since Dr. King’s legacy (his desire for equality made him a communist!) and before and since to justify the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, the smearing of the NBA, to advance the coverage of television reality stars who rewrite history to deny their visceral, unrelenting hate of President Obama—due to race—by making race and fault the same, with nothing between. Continue reading Race and Obama: The Longstanding Silence of Hate’s Empty Dream
How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth. But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; – I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!
— Socrates, The Apology
In a written account of a runaway from slavery, authorities stopped a suspected fellow, questioning him closely. “Where are you going?” they asked. “I am from South Carolina!” he replied. Puzzled, unsure about his answer, they let him continue on his way. His empathetic response won the day.
“I’m from South Carolina!” Do you think I am so stupid as to run away, knowing what I face if captured? Surely the masters of fear succeeded in deterring the thought of escape and made profoundly clear my lot, and I my willingness to accept it without challenge.
“I’m from South Carolina!” Need I say more than this simple moral plea, even for a bondsman? Is justice found in the demands for denigration and physical cruelty that respect no rights except wealth and power?
“I’m from South Carolina!” I know you will never admit my feat of deception, or the success of my journey so far; it casts a long shadow on your beliefs and institutions and shows how the cherished follies you substitute for truth fall woefully short, including the idea that superior intelligence and character is tied to skin color and the land of birth or heritage. I am African. Stop me–and reveal to yourselves your failure, and know you will fail again. You can not face this failure, so you will ignore my success. Let me go; you will pretend this never happened and that your fears and narcissism are intact.
“I’m from South Carolina!” You are powerless. I will not respond to your confrontation. Nor be drawn into a defensive fight. I have said enough. My truth is deaf to your demand. Let me pass.
These four dialogues—different than Plato’s—are multiple sides of the gnostic “that-which-is,” the search for a reality based in truth, in which no simple explanation by itself gives the right reason, but they all do so collectively, as air, water and sun enjoin the storm.
The South Carolina runaway flees at the zenith of oppression by race. At a time and point when the enslaved were captured as fighters and sold like commodities. They were shipped stacked like casks of myrrh, the dead deposed like scraps; landed, then worked like beasts, bought and sold as capital on balance sheets, widely used as instruments of status and pleasure—while being sources of ridicule and disdain and proclaimed sub-human. In America, the enslaved lost the fight for any external right of freedom by government, except those granted by individual property holders.
But the experiences of slavery and the enslaved reveal something more. Race in the form of slavery was at the center of a global debate about the sacred nature of life, the authority and rule of a divine presence, about the relations of a highly visible and tempting secular life of wealth and ease to the unseen admonitions of logic and faith. Some men refused to hold the enslaved as property because it profaned a sacred trust.
Over time the discussions and views which once vigorously embraced the deep, centered questions of slavery and race moved away from the foundations of faith and in-depth human inquiry. No longer was the discussion filled with the terms of the celebrated principles of the gifted Greek philosophers and others who carefully charted the grand reviews of who we are, of life’s meaning, of the nature and fundamentals of truth, and how suffering, punishment and accountability are described and distributed in secular and sacred justice.
Over time, we have forgotten race had a deeper, more profound core: it was a prism into humanity, into how we thought and felt about ourselves and others; about who we were and what we celebrated; about what values were inviolate and what principles we would defend, even how we saw the image and hand of God and stewardship and mercy and how we responded to its paradox.
Race tested the limits of governments and men to envision the reach of deceit and sin. It set limits on liberty. It changes economics: in the 1781 case of the British slaver, the Zong, its insurers were ordered by a lower court to pay the costs of Africans jettisoned as cargo because the ship ran low on drinking water. The court found that even for the enslaved, the British maritime principle holds that a captain who jettisons part of his cargo in order to save the rest can claim for the loss from his insurers.
The case was so egregious that the British high court threw out the lower court’s ruling to issue an insurance payout on the dead souls of a deliberately jettisoned cargo of men, women and children, a ruling which had suddenly made slavery’s horrors benign and its greed for profits obscene.
In a three-day period on the Zong, 54 children and women, then 36 men, were lost, followed by another 42 thrown overboard (and these numbers may be too small). Many on the last two days were jettisoned after it rained!
A replica of the Zong
Chained together, 10 enslaved jumped from the Zong in protest. These captives would not settle for the lives of slaves as a condition of the death of others. They surely would not settle today for the crumbs of riches given as welfare. Even then they would not settle, before the courts ruled, ignoring precedent, that the killing of innocents was lawful.
The Zong case revealed a shameful paradox: that men could turn other men/women/children into slaves, sell them for profit; that God and law had become separated in the souls of some. It held another lesson hidden in its horror: that truth will embody change. The old status quo passes and brings new issues forward. But the new issues of freedom after slavery turned race from reality to myth.
In an irony of American thinking, the greater the progress made against racial oppression, discrimination, bias and injustice, the more the old roots that anchored the discussion were pulled up. The buying and selling of human beings, forcibly transmitting across an ocean to an alien land, is the central issue of slavery, not the work ethic of those enslaved. But powerful outside forces shape the conditions of slaves and their descendants, and their hard work to become victors over the odds seems to garner less respect.
Race became a story robbed of its epic soul. No longer debated in the words of Christ and Socrates, or the great English, French and German philosophers, or the Grimké sisters, Frederick Douglass, or the eloquent abolitionists, including England’s William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp, race, no longer a pivot point, has became a wedge of hate and blame—of power and politics. Hate and blame used denial to limit and distract its discussion. Race has evolved into a debate over stereotypes, from which there is little escape, with all sides engaging in blame. Too little, too much; too lazy, too mean; too denied, too rigged; too late, too entitled.
We have forgotten the inclusiveness with which Frederick Douglass addressed a nation from Arlington Cemetery in May 1871, when he asked, “What Shall Men Remember?”
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans, which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth, and sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold—swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves—and planted agony at a million hearthstones; I say that, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?
A country has forgotten and altered its meaning. The profound has been replaced by the stupid. Instead of Monroe Trotter, Henry Highland Garnet and W.E.B. DuBois’ gifted insights, we get Michele Bachmann’s mangled facts and Newt Gingrich’s Mau Mau spree. Instead of lynchings, we get leeches; even as the lynching of young men continue by gunshot rather than rope. Instead of a common humanity, we get officials who said their idea of God led them to refuse to marry those in love with members of different races. Instead of respect, we get soldiers refusing service under a legally installed black Commander-in-Chief as a matter of “conscience.”
We get a party that ignores its historic Southern strategy, directly tied to exploiting race; only to remind us that white Democrats were once racists—and the same group to which its Southern strategy appealed!
We get a news media that says the right to private conversations under free speech inoculates someone with racist views from consequences; ignoring that a doctor using drugs privately is at professional risk; a person sleeping with your spouse can be sued; a baseball player, track runner, cyclist, or weight lifter privately using drugs can be barred from competition. Donald Sterling needs to know words are acts. Words do not belong in a separate category when it comes to consequences, especially in the marketplace and under a signed agreement of authority that spells out consequences for acts of speech.
The days when property holders who claimed the ownership of people and occupied high office are gone, because law—words—created a new reality. It is perfectly permitted within the culture, when mayors, city council members, and the President call a racist myth reprehensible to take action—no society has to endorse its sin to preserve its freedom. And four hundred years of evidence and witness that includes four years of a war that produced the largest number of American war dead of any conflict, is not a rush to judgement about liberty and rights. Continue reading Race and Myth Revisited
I spent the week watering the well. Drinking coffee from five Ethiopian regions, feeling a link to the small family farms that depend on the income from the sales of beans, thankful to have a good relationship with a coffee seller in DC who provides me the 15 to 20 pounds my daughter sends me every two or three months.
But I can’t get my friends to try it! The corporate brands have them dialed in. So this morning’s Sumatra brings an old question: how do you get people to change? Why is change resisted?
In part the questions explain the Republican attraction: People don’t have to give up very much except government to be Republican. It’s a safe default for the risk-averse, even when in sight of something better.
I also spent the week anticipating the visit of friends I haven’t seen in 40 years. That energy was a celebration of passage; how vision grows out of change. Vision pushes away fear and brings hope. That why Sarah Palin sneered at “that hopey thing”—it give a freedom found on the inside, a freedom to grow; not just a freedom to fight government. Friends bring collective energy, a unique group experience that in politics is called the public good.
Republicans have abandoned that part of the public square, substituted profit for its focus, and measure of profit.
The maxim that people are willing to turn down collective advancement and fight against their own interests is proven both by the experimental and empirical. Why are we surprised?
What’s the strategy that will make the resistant change their minds?
On race? No way. On women? Lip service contradicted. On the public good? A rip-off! On income? Be glad for what you got.
This core is the Republican fortress. Impenetrable. But it’s placed to cause the maximum fright. As Barack begins to end his second term, race matters less; the coded challenges now go after his record and deliberately misconstrue his policies. The goal is to tear down his legacy. Listen, you can hear it from all sides. Continue reading Try It Out!
The latest Fox News controversy was Megyn Kelly and her insistence that Santa Claus and Jesus are white, in response to an article by Slate columnist Aisha Harris on the concept that Santa Claus should not be depicted only as an older white man. Watching the video of Kelly’s assertion showed that she was not speaking in jest and seemed rather offended that Santa could be depicted as anything other than an older white man. Ms. Harris proposed that Santa be depicted as a penguin.
Why Santa Looks the Way He Does
The present image of Santa Claus is based on Thomas Nast’s illustration for the Clement Moore poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” published in 1823. Mythical and fictional characters are going to take the form of the demographic group that is looking at them. Since the US is majority white, the depictions will be white, including the legendary 1st-Century itinerant Jewish rabbi from Nazareth in the Roman province of Judea. He is normally shown as if he was born in Bethlehem, PA rather than Bethlehem, Judea.
Going around the world, Jesus is generally shown in the form of the society in question. He is Japanese in Japan, Ethiopian in Ethiopia, and so on.
A comedy aside: I’ve listened to quite a few comic routines on the depiction of Santa Claus, especially by black comics. Of course Santa is white; he has to be. A black man would never get to creep around people’s houses late at without someone calling 911!
White Skin as Iconic Norm
Megyn Kelly, along with her defenders, all agree that the iconic white, “normal” version of Santa, Jesus, and any other major figures, is the only one that shall be in the public domain. Even pseudo-libertarian right-wing former radio host Neal Boortz interrupted his retirement to weigh in on the issue. He said that he would complain that Martin Luther King, Jr. is always depicted as black. Seriously? He is going to complain about the accurate depiction of an actual person as opposed to the depiction of a fictional character? This goes to the iconic level that whiteness has to the majority, that Boortz would be so entitled to say something that stupid out loud. Continue reading Megyn Kelly and Fox News’ White Santa—A Cautionary Tale
The George Zimmerman trial ended with his acquittal. He is now a free man, and a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, is dead. The defense portrayed Zimmerman as a victim of a young black thug. The fact that he ignored the directions of the police dispatcher not to follow Martin, and his rather limited list of injuries, do not match the lethal force used by Zimmerman.
Just another day in the US injustice system.
There are plenty of cases where black defendants are found guilty and punished more severely than white defendants. Powder versus crack cocaine is an example, but the examples are legion; a Google search will show them. In the presence of a racist caste society, the darker-skinned members of the lower caste are considered criminals and not really citizens, or even people. The laws and rules do not matter because those protections are not extended to them, only the penalties. In the famed segment of the ABC program What Would You Do? that shows three different people dealing with a locked bicycle, a black man, a white man and a white woman, the black man was immediately interrogated by passersby and had the police called on him; the white man was looked at, but no action taken by passersby; the white woman said that she was trying to steal the bike and assistance was offered. If there were any question that race matters, it does. Innocent until proven guilty does not apply to everyone.
Supposedly, we’re a nation of laws. However, the laws have always been ignored when it is convenient, not to mention that the laws do not apply to everyone. Roger Taney, Chief Justice in the Dred Scott decision, summed it up when he said that the Negro had no rights that the white man need respect. See the Medgar Evers and Emmitt Till cases, and the concept of jury nullification. In jury nullification, the jury has the option of ignoring the charges of the accused and declaring the accused not guilty, regardless of the evidence presented. That’s why cases in the pre-Civil Rights Era with white defendants and black victims rarely ended in the conviction of the accused. The federal government had to pass civil rights laws so that they could prosecute when the states would not.
Self-defense and legal protections are not for black people. The law and juries failed Marissa Alexander, John McNeil and John White; all black defendants with self-defense claims. Alexander used a gun to defend herself from an abusive husband; McNeil and White defended themselves against white attackers. Their claims were rejected and all were convicted and sentenced.
OJ Simpson, Zimmerman, and Rodney King
A lot of people cite the result of the OJ Simpson trial as a great injustice, but it is noted for the wrong reasons. It is not that OJ Simpson was acquitted, but the fact that a black man, with enough money, got away with killing white people. That is never supposed to happen, period – only the other way around. Note that the corrupted and poorly done LAPD investigation is never mentioned. Continue reading Just Another Day of Injustice in the USA
The Supreme Court returned a decision in the voting rights case, Shelby County, AL v. Holder (2013), that invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. In short, the jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination no longer have to go to the Justice Department in advance of any changes in voting laws.
Please pardon my cynicism, but I’m not losing any sleep over this. It is not that it isn’t a bad decision; I think it is, but it does not rise to the level of the worst Supreme Court decisions. There are four of those, and two have invalidated the rights of black people, specifically Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), denying citizenship to all black people and invalidating the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allowing slavery in all territories. The other is Plessy v. Ferguson (1898), which allowed “separate but equal” Jim Crow segregation. The rights of black people have always been at the whim of the powerful and those whose rights are not in question at any given moment. The activist judges have done it again. Not the first time this has happened.
There are options the federal government still has; they will have to be prepared to work a lot harder. Section 5 is still intact, but weakened. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. However, that will be difficult with a divided Congress. Note that the corporatist Chief Justice said this out loud, so that is an option, though not an easy one. Section 2 is still intact: any jurisdiction that has passed a law that is discriminatory in nature can be taken to court. The Justice Department must remain vigilant, now even more so. Sections of the Voting Rights Act can be rewritten to pass Constitutional muster and be reauthorized by Congress. Maybe voting laws can be standardized at the federal level. I’m sure there are other options available.
There is something that can be done at the grass roots level, also. The obvious one is to use this as impetus to vote out the GOP and their racist counterparts at all levels. There is the coming demographic shift, especially in the red states, where people of color will eventually outnumber white people in general, not just in certain areas. There’s also the GOP’s vulnerability – they tend to cater to older white racists. Those are becoming fewer in number, in spite of their attempts to increase their numbers, while those who do not vote GOP are increasing. The struggle is far from over. Continue reading Why I’m Not Losing Any Sleep on the Voting Rights Act Decision