The Seductive Exploitation of Race Division

September 28th, 2017 No comments

Demystifying Racism: Race as a Means of Social Domination

Keith W. Cox, Ph.D.

 If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.[1]

Racism is so deeply embedded in American life and culture that until recently it mostly hidden from sight. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Americans have been content to believe that problems of racial discrimination and race controversy are in inevitable decline. Yes, we acknowledge, there are still some stubborn holdouts against the tide who cling to ignorant racial attitudes, but they are in a diminishing minority that is increasingly powerless, and they will inevitably be swept into the dustbin of history. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008 seemed to seal the deal. America is on the march to a post-racial future.

Yet events in the last decade have served to arouse Americans from this comforting illusion. Riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, racial assassination in South Carolina, reports of police brutality and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement tell a very different story. Americans must once again consciously grapple with the issue of race. I believe there are few who do not desire racial justice and reconciliation. But at the same time I think as a society we are baffled about how to achieve it.

Racial injustice exists and is measurable today, but within the lifetime of many still living, including myself, conditions have been much worse. There are many still alive who suffered the indignities and brutality of Jim Crow. Historical memory enflames those living today with a wariness and mistrust not easily overcome by lukewarm displays of goodwill. Historical memory is essential to the reconciliation we seek, but at the same time historical memory can become a burden. And worse, historical memory can be deliberately used to keep past atrocities alive and insurmountable.

Education is proposed as a means of bringing reason and objectivity to our vision of the past so that we can squarely confront it and move on. But too often education becomes a rehashing of grievances and a rekindling of emotions. “How could your people have done this to my people?” And then, because we often fail to differentiate ourselves from historical actors, “How could you do this to me?” This kind of education is not a recipe for healing.

Like much else of interest in the contemporary public arena, objective information is rarely consulted, even by those passionate about achieving change and reconciliation. Too many allow too much public thinking to be accomplished by too few partisan hacks. When we look to historical memory to seek a way to heal, we must lay aside much that is untrue in order to assess and process what is. This is not as easily said as done, because our perception of reality is rooted in knowledge we may not even know we possess, and that knowledge might be, and often is, wrong.

In an insightful essay entitled “An Unthinkable History” historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot considers the question of how an event that is outside of the realm of common consciousness can be assessed historically. In 1793 the French colony of Saint Domingue (today Haiti) was rocked by the world’s first successful slave revolution. White colonists were faced with an event that in their minds was impossible — that African slaves could imagine liberty and organize to gain it. Trouillot tells the story of La Barre, a French colonist, landowner and slave master in St. Domingue who wrote to his wife in France mere months before the salve uprising reporting that,

‘There is no movement among our Negroes…. They don’t even think of it. They are very tranquil and obedient. A revolt among them is impossible….’ And again: ‘The Negroes are very obedient and always will be. We sleep with doors and windows wide open. Freedom for Negroes is a chimera.’[2]

In describing how the incomprehensibility of the events now encapsulated within the framework of the Haitian Revolution were inconceivable to the colonists who were its target, Trouillot writes,

Indeed, the contention that enslaved Africans and their descendants could not envision freedom – let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom – was based not so much on empirical evidence as on ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants.[3]

Let’s wrestle for a moment with what that quote. To grasp its meaning we have to consider the word implicit. What does it mean? The word brings to mind something that is implied, but not stated. It this case it is, in effect, something that is known without empirical (observed and recorded) evidence. One definition of implicit is “with no qualification or question; absolute,” as in “an implicit faith in God.” One does not need empirical evidence of God to believe in God. Though the ancillary explanations are multitude the answer to faith in God always resolves on a practical level to the circular argument “I believe because I believe.” That doesn’t make it wrong, untrue or incorrect, but neither does it allow for rational proof.

So when Trouillot tells us that the colonists’ knowledge of slaves’ desires and capabilities was based on ontology, he is proposing a worldview shaped by an implicit belief in a world in which the desire for individual liberty was quantifiable based upon an organization of people based on race.

In other words, if you were to ask La Barre, Trouillot’s white colonist, why he was confident slaves could not imagine freedom, he might reply, “Well, everybody knows that.” (In French, of course.) This indicates, and I know this is a little sticky, it may be possible to know something is true without knowing that you know it. It’s just there: fundamental. And, as the particular case Trouillot discusses demonstrates, we may be motivated by fundamental knowledge that is entirely untrue. Because it is so deeply ingrained, we don’t question it – until some event, like the arrival at your home of a slave with a machete driven by the historical injustice of slavery, calls our implicit knowledge into question, and forces us to reconsider its validity.

I propose that our attitudes about race and racism are ontological. We proceed from assumptions we may not even know we have. And I will further propose that the assumptions we hold are flawed. One of these is most probably that there is such a fundamental category as race. Few scholars today acknowledge any significant biological difference between groups of people that might go by the term race. Another false assumption is that racism has always existed, at least among white Americans. So it may be informative to consider when race actually became a distinguishing factor in American life. And interestingly, we can point to a particular event that leads to the beginning of deliberate segregation of white and black. That event is what is known in history as Bacon’s Rebellion, a class uprising that occurred in the Virginia Colony in 1676.

The rebellion was a rising of working class blacks and whites against the planter class in Colonial Virginia. It demonstrates a number of things about slavery and race during the first few decades of the Virginia Colony. The first is that there was no practical separation of whites and blacks based on race. There are recorded instances of black and white indentured servants joining together in opposition to their common oppression by the planter elite. Blacks and whites recognized the differences between the two groups but could unite to oppose common threats. But while that was possible at the end of the seventeenth century it was unthinkable by the end of the eighteenth, at the time of the founding of the United States.

Nathaniel Bacon, a white man who felt alienated from the elite and who professed concern about Virginia Governor Berkeley’s perceived inaction in protecting the colonists from Native Americans, led a group of approximately 1000 white and black colonists against the Berkeley administration. Bacon died of disease and the rebellion was eventually put down by loyalists and British troops, but our concern here is the consequence. In the aftermath the British colonial authorities began to pass laws that separated blacks from whites, a process which would eventually lead to the Black Codes, the creation of a legally separate enslaved class based on race, and ultimately Jim Crow. You can read about the rebellion here. The response to the unity of poor blacks and poor whites by white elites in Virginia was to erect barriers of segregation between blacks and whites.

It would be a mistake to propose that racism can be traced solely to this incident. In fact, the causes and history of racism are quite complex. White/black racism more likely developed as a justification for European use of Africans as slaves from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Although not as rigidly defined as in British North America, privilege in all American societies came to be associated with whiteness. The more “pure” white one was, the more privilege was afforded. “Pure” blacks and natives were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the place associated with peonage and slavery. In North America the British invented the “one drop rule,” defining as non-white anyone who had “one drop” of non-white blood. Thus, one was either white or not white, with all privilege reserved to whites.[4]

Yet it is significant that the first traceable instance of racial segregation in what was to become the United States occurred as a strategy to prevent whites and blacks from presenting a unified front against the dominant class. It is significant because that has been the practical consequence of segregation in America since. Poor whites, who are little better off or not better off economically than their black counterparts, can claim at least the status of not being black. It is interesting to note that in the United States, racism is rampant among lower class whites and blacks even while the ruling class is thoroughly integrated.[5]

The tragedy here consists in the fact that the false perception of privilege on the part of poor whites leads them to act in ways that are detrimental to their own interests. It convinces one group to support a status quo that keeps them at the bottom: excluded from wealth and power. They trade the benefits they might receive from common cause with their economic peers to maintain an illusion of privilege. Who benefits from this are those in the dominant class.

This isn’t exactly new. When the writers of the Constitution affirmed the will of “We the People” they meant “we the wealthy, property owning people.” Familiarity with US history will reveal that most people were excluded from the franchise either by race, gender, or property ownership until the 1820s. In the first Presidential election George Washington received 35,866 votes out of a free population of approximately 2.4 million.[6]

In the 1820s the United States moved toward “Universal Manhood Suffrage,” lowering property qualifications, but even then “universal manhood” indicated only white men. In the model of the Greek democracies it was thought that only those who had a material stake in the polity would act for the benefit of the polity. It was acknowledged that everyone acted in their own interests, and so it was assumed that only if one’s interests coincided with the state’s would people act in a virtuous way. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most radical of the founders, promoted middle class property ownership as a way of expanding democracy and creating a “republic of virtue.”

The elitism of the Constitution as it was originally understood was very much in keeping with the liberalism of the day, which, if it considered popular participation in government at all, assumed that only the wealthy would be able to make good decisions about the common welfare. The founders, along with liberals in Europe and later in Latin America, had an aversion to and a fear of the masses. It goes almost without saying that the assumption that the wealthy could and would govern for the benefit of all rather than their own interests was as flawed as the also common assumption that Kings would protect the people rather than exploit them. It was sometimes true, but more rarely than not.

The story we like to tell ourselves about American history is a continuous progress away from this seminal elitism toward ever expanding democracy. And it is true that as time passed more and more groups who had once been excluded: poor people, blacks and other ethnicities, and women, were enfranchised. But early on, beginning with the creation of machine politics in Jackson’s Democratic Party of the 1820s, it was known that the way to make the popular vote count was to create voting blocks. In other words, the solidarity of the masses was the only way to promote the welfare of the masses.

Creating voting coalitions based on class interest can be successful in promoting those class interests but it tends toward corruption. Voters in the voting blocks become convinced that their welfare depends on the election and continuation in office of their preferred candidate. But history shows us that the candidate rarely has the welfare of his constituents uppermost in his mind. The organization of the vote into political machines serves to create an alternative elite, who often has more in common with the original dominant class than with their own constituency. The unity of Democrats and Republicans against Civil Service reform in the Progressive era provides a telling example. Reforming an antiquated Civil Service system based on patronage would make government services more efficient and less prone to corruption, but because the political careers of both Democrats and Republicans were furthered by that very corruption, reforms that would benefit the people were resisted by stalwarts in both parties.

So it remains a truism in American politics that the interests of those who rule are separated from and often at odds with the interests of the masses. This difference, as seen going as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion, is caused by class interests. But, also demonstrated by the same event, race has been the primary instrument by which the elite maintain their hold on power. The ruling elites of Colonial Virginia deliberately used false prestige to drive a wedge between lower class blacks and whites, and were spectacularly successful. Since then racism, along with justifying a brutal system of chattel slavery, has provided different groups of the lower classes with the illusion of privilege. In the South, whites who should have had common cause with blacks aligned themselves with the planter elite because of an imagined solidarity based on whiteness. In the industrializing North and West white workers focused their discontent and fear on Irish, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Hispanics, or Asians, when uniting with them would have been more favorable to their interests.

When viewed in this light, I think, race and racism become less mysterious. What perpetuates a racist system is the interest of dominant elites abetted by the complicity of the false consciousness of the working classes. While the working classes are arrayed against each other they are not able to focus their anger, nor their creative power, on the real problem of their dispossession. In the end, race, which is itself an imagined category, becomes a way of distracting the masses and maintaining the status quo, for the benefit of the dominant elite.

The video linked below demonstrates the surprising result of refusing to allow our actions to be dictated by invented race narratives. As citizens of the United States, there is much more that ought to unite us than we allow to divide us.

Bacon’s Rebellion 1675 – 1676

“[We must defend ourselves] against all Indians in generall, for that they were all Enemies.” This was the unequivocal view of Nathaniel Bacon, a young, wealthy Englishman who had recently settled in the backcountry of Virginia. The opinion that all Indians were enemies was also shared by a many other Virginians, especially those who lived in the interior. It was not the view, however, of the governor of the colony, William Berkeley.

Berkeley was not opposed to fighting Indians who were considered enemies, but attacking friendly Indians, he thought, could lead to what everyone wanted to avoid: a war with “all the Indians against us.” Berkeley also didn’t trust Bacon’s intentions, believing that the upstart’s true aim was to stir up trouble among settlers, who were already discontent with the colony’s government.

Bacon attracted a large following who, like him, wanted to kill or drive out every Indian in Virginia. In 1675, when Berkeley denied Bacon a commission (the authority to lead soldiers), Bacon took it upon himself to lead his followers in a crusade against the “enemy.” They marched to a fort held by a friendly tribe, the Occaneechees, and convinced them to capture warriors from an unfriendly tribe. The Occaneechees returned with captives. Bacon’s men killed the captives They then turned to their “allies” and opened fire.

Berkeley declared Bacon a rebel and charged him with treason. Just to be safe, the next time Bacon returned to Jamestown, he brought along fifty armed men. Bacon was still arrested, but Berkeley pardoned him instead of sentencing him to death, the usual punishment for treason.

Still without the commission he felt he deserved, Bacon returned to Jamestown later the same month, but this time accompanied by five hundred men. Berkeley was forced to give Bacon the commision, only to later declare that it was void. Bacon, in the meantime, had continued his fight against Indians. When he learned of the Govenor’s declaration, he headed back to Jamestown. The governor immediately fled, along with a few of his supporters, to Virginia’s eastern shore.

Each leader tried to muster support. Each promised freedom to slaves and servants who would join their cause. But Bacon’s following was much greater than Berkeley’s. In September of 1676, Bacon and his men set Jamestown on fire.

The rebellion ended after British authorities sent a royal force to assist in quelling the uprising and arresting scores of committed rebels, white and black. When Bacon suddenly died in October, probably of dysentery, Bacon’s Rebellion fizzled out.

Bacon’s Rebellion demonstrated that poor whites and poor blacks could be united in a cause. This was a great fear of the ruling class — what would prevent the poor from uniting to fight them? This fear hastened the transition to racial slavery.[7]

Timothy Breen on the relationship between black slaves and white indentured servants

Q: Given that there is a situation of black and white indentured servants, how did they begin to interact or deal with one another? Is there any sense of a commonality that crosses over differences of race or ethnicity?

A: There are many ways that human beings divide themselves up. Class is one, [and] gender, race, ethnicity. There’s a number of ways that people divide themselves up. And in early Virginia, race was a category that people recognized. Black people recognized difference, and sometimes, I would even argue, celebrated difference. But in this highly competitive, depressingly abusive world, poorer whites and poorer blacks — people who were marginalized in this system of dependent labor — oftentimes reached out to each other in ways that suggest that, at least in the first 50 or 60 years of Virginia, …people of African background and English background were able to work together in ways that, again, in later period of American history, were impossible.[8]

Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University

Margaret Washington on Virginians’ concerns about white and black servants

Q: Given the conditions and the sense of isolation in a colony like Virginia, was there a real concern around this emerging class of white and black workers who begin to become a threat? Do you feel that that has anything to do with why it begins to start shifting towards an enslaved class?

A: You can’t discount the notion that black and white servants and slaves were going to unite over their common oppression. We have evidence of them running away together. We have evidence of them rising against their masters together. They lived together. They slept together. So yes, there was a possibility of a lower class surge against the elites. So that’s a very important consideration for the Virginians, in terms of wanting to create one kind of labor force.[9]

Margaret Washington, Associate Professor of History, Cornell Universiy

Questions for discussion:

  1. What does the discussion about what is ontological in the article have to do with the topic of racism?
  2. How and why did the unity of black and white settlers in the Virginia colony during Bacon’s Rebellion lead to the creation of race segregation?
  3. How might race segregation lead to racism? What does this tell us about the nature of racism (i.e., is it a “natural” human response, or is it a social construct)?
  4. Whose interests does the perpetuation of racism serve?
  5. How does learning about Bacon’s Rebellion affect your own ideas about race and racism? Does it call into question any of your own underlying (ontological) assumptions about race?
  6. Explain how Dr. King’s remarks quoted at the beginning of the article address the practical effects of race segregation.
  7. How can the study of history help us to address the issue of race division in contemporary American society? In what ways can the study of history be counterproductive to understanding the present?

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March” (speech, State Capitol, Montgomery, Al., March 25, 1965), accessed July 15, 2015, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_address_at_the_conclusion_of_selma_march/

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, ©1995), 72.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] The Color of Money: Colonialism and the Slave Trade, (BBC, 2007).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “US President – National Vote,” Our Campaigns, December 24, 2008, accessed September 28, 2017, http://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=59542.

[7] “Bacon’s Rebellion 1675 – 1676,” Africans in America, accessed February 18, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p274.html.

[8] Timothy Breen, “Modern Voices: Timothy Breen On the Relationship between Black Slaves and White Indentured Servants,” Africans in America, accessed February 18, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1i3025.html.

[9] Margaret Washington, “Modern Voices: Margaret Washington On Virginians’ Concerns About White and Black Servants,” Africans in America, accessed February 18, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1i3028.html.

The right side of history

September 24th, 2017 No comments

Those who make nonviolent revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” – John F. Kennedy


With the exception of committed white supremacists, almost every American holds the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in high regard. This is partially because his legacy has been, to use an ironic term, whitewashed. Few realize how radical King really was. He was radical enough to believe in and try to create a beloved community in which all people could live in peace and harmony. We may tell ourselves this is what we all want, but our history indicates this is far from the pursuit of the American Dream, marinated as it is in solipsism and radical individualism. What may be surprising to some is that after King delivered his most revered address, the “I Have a Dream” speech, he was labelled “the most dangerous Negro” in America by the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division.[1] Anyone who has ever heard or read the speech would be hard pressed to find much in it very dangerous, unless you are invested in the idea that equality and brotherhood are dangerous.

In the 1960s George Wallace, Governor of Alabama and Presidential candidate, announced his support for running over protesters along with his call for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He also pronounced the Civil Rights Movement a “fraud” and a “hoax.” Richard Nixon invented a war on drugs to criminalize black opposition to his presidency.[2] Right wing politicians and groups were busy trying to associate the Civil Rights Movement with international communism.[3] White clergymen responded to civil rights protests by denouncing King and urging black citizens to “unite locally in working peacefully” to solve racial “frictions.”[4] As if such a thing were possible in the Jim Crow South. In the 1960s America’s cities were aflame with riots ignited by incidents of brutality against the black community. White Americans looked on in horror as political leaders denounced the riots while at the same time remaining silent on the systematic cruelty that enflamed them. The fires were eventually quenched, but the cruelty remained.

In 1968 two black athletes: John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised black-gloved fists as the Star Spangled Banner played at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in what came to be known as the Black Power Salute. They were protesting racial inequality and injustice in America. They were vilified. They were ousted from the Olympics. Their medals were taken away from them. Their careers were ruined. Family members were harassed.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr., is a hero to most. The Civil Rights Movement is seen as a great victory in America’s quest for its potential. White racists are roundly condemned. White moderates who urged caution and patience are viewed as timid and ineffectual. Even the action of Carlos and Smith is considered, in hindsight, heroic.

But the problems that instigated unrest in the 1960s have not gone away. In the 1960s Civil Rights activists used the tools of technology to draw attention to blatant racial injustice. The nation condemned those those injustices, but the racist poison that animated them continues to work under the surface today . This is not hyperbole or conjecture. There is plenty of solid evidence to identify and prove systemic racism. And new technologies can now bring to light what has long been accomplished in secret. Smart phones with video capabilities now catch racists in the act and publish it on social media, where it provides, as coverage of the Civil Rights Movement did, undeniable evidence of atrocity.

The response to demands for equal justice is essentially the same today as it was in the 1960s. Those who stand up for equal rights are painted as agitators, disloyal or worse. They are told they have a right to protest, but only if it doesn’t inconvenience or offend me. I am familiar with a clever cartoon that shows a historian in his study speaking to a younger student saying, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it; but those who remember the past are doomed to watch others repeat it.” As a historian I can see society assuming patterns as if they were formulaic. Perhaps they are. In context, it is astonishing to watch people on the one hand revere the Civil Rights movement and its leaders and on the other condemn today’s Civil Rights activists.

The question is, who was on the right side of history? Was it Nixon, Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and the John Birch Society? Or was it Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommie Smith? In the Twitterverse I ran across this thought provoking tweet: “[I] Remember sitting in history, thinking ‘If I was alive then, I would’ve…’ You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.” There is a right side of history. It is the side, not of law and order, but of justice. Are you on it?

The man who raised a black power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games

You’re probably not familiar with the name John Carlos. But you almost certainly know his image. It’s 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics and the medals are being hung round the necks of Tommie Smith (USA, gold), Peter Norman (Australia, silver) and Carlos (USA, bronze).

[1] Charles Blow, “‘The Most Dangerous Negro’,” New York Times, August 28, 2013, accessed September 24, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/29/opinion/blow-the-most-dangerous-negro.html?mcubz=1.

[2] Frida Garza, “Nixon advisor: We created the war on drugs to “criminalize” black people and the anti-war left,” Quartz, March 23, 2016, 1, accessed September 24, 2017, https://qz.com/645990/nixon-advisor-we-created-the-war-on-drugs-to-criminalize-black-people-and-the-anti-war-left/.

[3] Rachel Tabachnik, “The John Birch Society’s anti-civil rights campaign of the 1960s, and its relevance today,” Political Research Associates (January 21, 2014): 1, accessed September 24, 2017, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/01/21/the-john-birch-societys-anti-civil-rights-campaign-of-the-1960s-and-its-relevance-today/#sthash.YNZP9OPe.dpbs.

[4] Statement by Alabama Clergymen, in the Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle Encyclopedia, accessed September 24, 2017, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/frequentdocs/clergy.pdf.

 

John McCain – American Hero

September 23rd, 2017 No comments

Not everyone who serves in the military is a hero. I served, and I am not a hero. I can’t compare my service to the sacrifices many others have made. Who knows if I would have been heroic under the appropriate circumstances? But I care enough about my country to have put on a uniform during wartime, which is something most Americans have not done.  Including our Commander in Chief, who was struggling with a near-fatal case of bone spurs at the time McCain was flying missions over Hanoi, and who thinks not getting venereal disease is equivalent to service in Vietnam.

Heroism can be an act like falling on a grenade, but I think it can also be an accumulation of service. McCain spent seven years in a box, then came home and continued to serve in civilian life. I am not a fan of his politics. I have never voted for him. And politics is a dirty business. But at this point he has nothing left to prove and no need to prove it, yet he made an unpopular stand against his own party out of conviction that democracy is more important than winning. He stood up against extreme partisanship. And, leaving aside his prior service, in today’s political climate, I’d call that heroic.

This video was excerpted from The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Episode 5: http://www.pbs.org/show/vietnam-war-not-edited/

As if we needed Cardinal Dolan to tell us…

September 23rd, 2017 No comments

“We are called not to politics or partisanship, but to love our neighbor,” it continues. “Let’s reject the forces of division that insist we make a false choice between our safety and our humanity.”

Cardinal Dolan: Steve Bannon’s comments on immigration are ‘insulting’ and ‘ridiculous’

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said claims by a former senior adviser to President Trump that Catholic bishops advocate for immigrants for economic benefit and to fill pews are “preposterous and rather insulting.”

Welcoming the Stranger

September 7th, 2017 No comments

Excerpt from Paul VI “Populorum Progressio” (1967) 

Finding our humanity

September 2nd, 2017 No comments

What is happening in South Texas and Louisiana is unimaginable. Here in San Diego, in the 72 hours ending at 4AM Tuesday February 28, 2017 rainfall was recorded ranging from 9.04 inches at Mt. Palomar observatory to 1.95 inches in Oceanside.[1] If you can remember that weekend people were losing their minds, as if the world was about to end. By contrast, in a similar period in the path of Hurricane Harvey up to 50 inches of rain fell. Dropping over 15 trillion gallons of water. It was a much more powerful storm than Sandy or Katrina. We might even call it a storm of biblical proportions.

I’m not going to follow the lead of others who have blamed the devastation on lesbians or Republicans. I am, instead, going to observe a real miracle. There were two kinds of images that came out of the storm: pictures that tried to relay the immensity of the event both in terms of human suffering and destructive power, and others showing the sacrifices and heroism of first responders, rescue officials, and ordinary citizens.

The last two years at least have been especially polarizing in the United States. The days before the storm were exceptionally so, as Americans pointed fingers at each other with accusations of racism, fascism, and violence. No doubt the people in these photos, both the victims and the rescuers, were as caught up in the drama as everyone else. But in the face of disaster, these people didn’t stop to ask, are you racist?, Are you #BackLivesMatter? Are you liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, straight or gay?

This is a hopeful sign because it shows that we are fundamentally generous and caring. But why is it that we can only find our common humanity in the midst of calamity?

[1] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/weather/sd-me-heavy-rain-20170228-story.html

Speaking his Mind

September 2nd, 2017 No comments

McCain has survived three plane crashes, cancer, public disgrace and, above all, five and a half years of torture in a North Vietnamese P.O.W. camp. As Bob Dole is said to have put it, “You spend five years in a box, and you’re entitled to speak your mind.” NY Times Magazine

“…Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct.

We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people. We must be diligent in discharging our responsibility to serve as a check on his power. And we should value our identity as members of Congress more than our partisan affiliation.”

Opinion | John McCain: It’s time Congress returns to regular order

John McCain, a Republican, represents Arizona in the U.S. Senate. Americans recoiled from the repugnant spectacle of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville to promote their un-American “blood and soil” ideology. There is nothing in their hate-driven racism that can match the strength of a nation conceived in liberty and comprising 323 million souls of different origins and opinions who are equal under the law.

“Hold the line…”

August 27th, 2017 No comments

Apparently not everyone in the Trump Administration is crazy…

Mattis to US troops: ‘Hold the line until our country gets back to respecting each other’

Defense Secretary James Mattis James Norman Mattis Trump to tackle Afghanistan strategy at Camp David Four members of Joint Chiefs denounce racism US, Japan conduct air drills after North Korea issues Guam warning MORE gave a pep talk to U.S. troops stationed abroad during his trip to three countries last week.

Say it ain’t so…

August 26th, 2017 No comments

I hope this is hyperbole, but you have  to admit we have normalized behavior that would have been unthinkable from any other President. And Bill Moyers is no wild-eyed conspiracy theorist.

Arpaio Pardon May Be Opening Act of a Constitutional Crisis – BillMoyers.com

This morning, I received an email from an old friend – one of the country’s top trial lawyers: “I have underestimated Trump. He knows what is coming, including a variety of criminal charges and other impeachable offenses. He is not just arousing … Continue reading

America Loses its Mind

August 26th, 2017 No comments

Novelist Kurt Anderson has written a piece appearing in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine entitled “How America Lost its Mind.” It’s an intriguing title and a piece sorely needed in our current “post-truth” conundrum. He argues that Americans have always possessed a cultural tendency toward belief in the rationally unbelievable. It may be true, and it’s not surprising given that the country was born out of a David and Goliath-like contest between a makeshift barely-organized Colonial Army and the great Empire of the world (with quite a bit of help from King Louis XVI of France, who would later lose his head in the French Revolution).

Anderson proposes that this propensity for dreaming big dreams has historically been balanced by a tether to what he calls reality, which, as an atheist, he puts forth as the rationality of the Age of Reason. Although I disagree that everything one believes must be supported by rationality, as there are many things we know to be true that cannot be explained rationally, I do believe both that American history is characterized by a highly inflated sense of self and also a shared general agreement about what is real and what is not. In other words, that there is something that we can all agree is “real.” Anderson’s article traces the loss of this common agreement beginning in the 1960s and the anti-war movement and culminating in a nation in which people essentially create their own personal realities with the individual as the anchor and center of reference. He writes:

Why are we like this?

The short answer is because we’re Americans – because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.[1]

What Anderson describes is the dilemma created by the collapse of the Enlightenment metanarrative: summed up by a deep faith in “progress.” It is the overarching belief that humans through their own efforts in science, technology and education will inevitably create a man-made paradise. It started with the Enlightenment Philosophes and climaxed in the Marxist economic critique. “Progress” was the general Truth™ underlying all of American life and thought.  But it was rejected, as it ought to have been, after the horrors of the 20th century –  the Western Front, the Holocaust, and the Atomic Bomb – demonstrated its fallacy.

The consequence is what scholars call “post-modernism.” The fundamental rule of the Enlightenment was that there is a single monolithic and unchangeable reality that every educated person can discern through “reason,” which essentially resolves to scientific measurement. When that faith system collapsed, the idea that there is a single truth that we can all agree on collapsed with it. The locus of truth shifted from the exterior world to the individual. In the sixties, as Anderson notes, America had “a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative.[2] The problem isn’t “right vs. left,” it is that there are as many “truths” as there are those who want to believe them, and because they do not require any external validation, these “truths” are unassailable.

Our national loss of a connection to a common narrative has led to our current political challenges because while all of us agree that “progress” is the goal, we no longer have general agreement as to what that looks like. For some, progress would be returning to a time when the United States was filled with righteous Christian folks chosen by God to further the cause that makes the United States exceptional, ironically not the gospel of Jesus Christ but that of John Locke and Adam Smith.

For others, progress consists of overcoming the shortsightedness and injustices of the past and creating a society that embodies the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address. The ultimate tragedy is that all sides point to the same words and identify completely different things. Why? Because they don’t mean what they mean, they mean what we think they mean. Without a commitment to a common reality, anyone who disagrees with you is not wrong, they are insane. Or deliberately evil.

To be fair, this is not new. Ratification of the Constitution was accomplished by leaving contentious issues unresolved. For example, the Constitution nowhere states that the Union cannot be dissolved. If that had been specified, many Southern States, even in 1787, would not have joined the United States. Some walked away believing they had created a confederation of convenience, and others a permanent union.

During the first Presidential Administration, these ambiguities set the groundwork for US politics to the present in the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Is the United States an idyllic landscape of liberty where a prosperous agrarian middle class pursues happiness? Or is it an economic powerhouse rivaling Great Britain? The conflict very nearly ended the American Experiment in 1800. In order to preserve the union, the antagonists reluctantly compromised, effectively confining political conflict to the ballot box until 1861.

Politics in 1800 evoked at least as much passion as politics today. Both sides saw the other not as opponents but enemies, not only of themselves, but of the country. And yet, rather than watching their dreams come crashing down around them, they found a way to overcome their biases and save the country. Why? They must have agreed that whatever had been created, preserving it was worth more than political victory. But they also must have inhabited the same intellectual universe. Think about that word: uni. One.

Now let’s take a look at a very sad but telling incident that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. Permits were given for a “Unite the Right “rally to participants and opponents. The organizers of the rally were avowed White Supremacists who idolize Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They are allied with or perhaps have morphed into a combination of their own Nazi views and the racist ideology of the Ku Klux Klan. They came to town heavily armed, and marched through the streets with torches shouting Nazi and racist chants, seeking to intimidate. They were met by unarmed leftist groups who nevertheless confronted them. There was violence. In the end, a deranged White Supremacist drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding several others.

The rallying point of the march was to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee. Americans are in conflict over such statues because they are seen as symbols of White Supremacy and a war fought to defend the institution of slavery. Interestingly, the events of the weekend prove that both protesters and counter-protesters view the statues just so. After the events in Charlottesville the Great-Great-Grandsons of Stonewall Jackson wrote,

Last weekend, Charlottesville showed us unequivocally that Confederate statues offer pre-existing iconography for racists. The people who descended on Charlottesville last weekend were there to make a naked show of force for white supremacy. To them, the Robert E. Lee statue is a clear symbol of their hateful ideology.[3]

Nevertheless, the argument employed by those who defend the statues is not that they are White Supremacist intimidations, but rather that they represent Southern “heritage.” Southern heritage conjures a narrative called the “Lost Cause,” which works to salve the sting of defeat for Southerners by explaining the Civil War as a noble cause that could not be sustained against overwhelming odds. Therefore, those who fought for the Confederacy were actually heroes.

The noble cause is most often summarized in the words “States’ Rights,” implying that the Union was trying to violate the sacred rights of the Southern States. This was indeed the rationale employed by the authors of secession and by those who fought, most of whom were not slave owners and would never have fought to preserve slavery. In fact, for Southerners the issue of the Civil War was exactly the same as the Revolutionary War. The latter was sparked when the Parliament acted to deprive the colonists of their property without their consent. “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” Southerners argued that their property rights were being threatened by the Federal government in the same way. The catch is that the items of property they sought to defend were human beings. The “Lost Cause” narrative emphasizes that Southerners were fighting for their rights, but leaves out that the rights they were fighting for consisted of keeping human beings enslaved. “States’ Rights” and slavery are inseparable.[4]

And therein lies the nub. The facts are entirely knowable, and in a reality based world they would be indisputable. But in a world where reality can be whatever I want it to be, facts are meaningless. What you say may be true but I don’t care because I’m entitled to my own (“alternative”) facts. Leaving the statues up or taking them down are equally useless, because the statues are not the problem The problem is the meaning assigned to those statues by the various actors.

I think it is fairly obvious that armed thugs marching through the streets spewing hate are not concerned about Southern heritage. Their issues are White Supremacy and racism (this isn’t arguable, this is what they said, loudly and gleefully). There may be others who are concerned about Southern heritage. Because they don’t want to believe they are White Supremacists and racists (and perhaps they try not to be), and/or because they truly believe these things stand for something good.

The first group is beyond reason. The second group I don’t know. I think if we could remove the study of history from the realm of narrative fantasy and tether it to verifiable facts, perhaps we could agree on something. If we could agree on what is true and what is false we might be able to see each other as fellow human beings rather than madmen and demons. And then, even though we disagree with and perhaps even don’t like each other, we might come to recognize that our differences are not as big as our common welfare.

Is that still possible?

Tolerance doesn’t mean I agree or approve. It means I disagree and disapprove, but I’m not going to try to stop you.

[1] Kurt Anderson, “How America Lost its Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2017, 76.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Jackson Christian and Warren Edmund Christian, “The Monuments Must Go: An open letter from the great-great-grandsons of Stonewall Jackson.,” Slate, August 16, 2017, 1, accessed August 25, 2017,  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/08/stonewall_jackson_s_grandsons_the_monuments_must_go.html.

[4] Please don’t take my word for this; read the words of those who moved to destroy the nation: The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States.

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