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.

To save a politician’s hide…

August 22nd, 2017 No comments

I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world then I would lose everything at home. All my programs, all my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on the entire globe.[1]

This quote paints a rather complementary picture of Lyndon Johnson and his reasons for escalating the Vietnam War. It is true that the political atmosphere of the era was hysterically anti-communist, and that any politician who could be portrayed as “soft on communism” suffered an inevitable fall. But the communist threat in Vietnam had been created by Americans with their support of the corrupt and unpopular French puppet Ngo Dinh Diem. In fact every American President from Eisenhower on knew that there was no way to overcome the popular appeal of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, but each President in his turn, fearing to be seen as “soft on communism,” essentially kicked the can of inevitable failure to his successor.

The political tactic is entirely understandable. To be sure, Americans then viewed the spread of communism as seriously as Americans today view the spread of terrorism. The Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, beginning American escalation, almost unanimously (407-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate). Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of the two to vote against the measure, warned “I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake.” Boy howdy! In spite of near-unanimous support, the situation in Vietnam presented no immediate threat to the United States. Yet Johnson felt compelled to call upon American jingoism and fear as a political expedient. The question is, should we expect politicians to self-immolate to do the right thing? In this case Johnson’s failure to act on principle resulted in the death of over 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. How many lives are acceptable in return for saving a politician’s ass?

[1] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written, Eighth Printing edition (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991), 251.

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