Some Independence Day Thoughts

It’s Independence Day.  As we recognize our oldest national holiday, dating back to before the country was even formally founded, no doubt many people are thinking that these are strange, difficult times, and are wondering just what the future may bring.  We’ve experienced significant protests across the country — with “Black Lives Matter” signs being seen even on a small road in this remote corner of Maine — and in this presidential election year political passions are running high.  

The spirit of unbridled protest has always run deep in this land.  We’ve fought two civil wars in an effort to define and structure concepts of liberty and freedom, and we’ve experienced other periods where the vein of protest pulsed strongly.  The country has seen the mass civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the women’s suffrage movement, the Prohibition and anti-Prohibition movements, and the organized labor movements in the late 1800s — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Each of these protests has changed the country in some meaningful way, and there is no doubt that the current protests will, too.  The spirit of protest is so important to this country that we have codified our right to protest in the very first provision of the Bill of Rights and specifically stripped Congress of the ability to make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  People who wring their hands about protests simply don’t understand our history, or our institutions.  In reality, protest is as American as apple pie.  

We often think of the “Founding Fathers” as gentlemen with powdered hair in fancy dress who secured freedom just by signing the Declaration of Independence — the execution of which gives rise to the holiday that we celebrate today.  From our vantage point, more than 240 years later, we tend to forget that country’s first civil war, which we now know as the Revolutionary War, was a harsh, bloody fight that occurred in a bitterly divided land — and the Founding Fathers in their silk stockings were the rebels

Courtesy of a present from Richard, I’m reading an excellent book about the first part of the revolutionary period by Rick Atkinson, called The British Are Coming.  One passage had particular resonance with me, in view of the period we are currently living through:

“John Adams, never taciturn, later would be quoted as saying, ‘I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy in the contest.’

“Few were hanged, at least not yet; incivility rarely turned to bestiality.  But no one could say how brutal the war would become.  Conformity, censorship, and zealotry now flourished.  Even small sins, such as ‘speaking diminutively of the country congress,’ might be punished with forced public apologies, boycotts, ostracism, or property confiscation.  A mild word of praise for the British government–or simply being suspected of thinking loyal thoughts–could provoke a beating.  Militias served as a political constabulary, bolstered by the Continental Army.  When Queens County, a loyalist stronghold on Long Island, voted 788 to 221 against sending representatives to the provincial congress, the names of those in the majority were published in the newspaper; they were forbidden to travel, hire a lawyer, or practice a trade.  More than a thousand militiamen and Continentals then swept through Queens, arresting opposition leaders, seizing weapons and extracting allegiance oaths–except from the 250 obdurate men who fled into the swamps to await General Howe’s arrival.

Such measures spread.”

In short, there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve been through these kinds of challenging periods–in fact, much more challenging periods–before.  Reading accurate histories of America would provide reassurance on that point.  Unfortunately, airbrushing history has also been a tradition in this country.  How many of us who went through the American school system were taught of the horrendous Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921, or of lynchings, or the role of the Ku Klux Klan in subjugating African Americans — or for that matter the egregious history of lies, broken promises and mistreatment of indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, or other ethnic groups, or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II?  Those terrible racist episodes are as much a part of American history, and our ability to gain a true and complete understanding of our country, as the lofty pronouncements in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those of us who were taught that America’s history is an unbroken story of freedom, liberty, and fairness in service to the world were not told the whole story.  We deserved the truth, but we didn’t get it.

I hope that that will be one of the positive impacts of these current protests.  We can only fully grasp the meaning and complexity of American history, and the true importance of crucial historical figures, if we take an unvarnished view of their lives and understand their faults, flaws, and failings as well as their successes.  I hope that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms that we are seeing in these protests ensures that American history is never sanitized again and the full story — good, bad, and ugly — is told from here on out.

The exercise of our freedoms is something worth celebrating.  Happy Fourth of July, everyone!  

Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

Powerful Thoughts From Dr. King

Today we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  We remember him because he was a warrior for justice, equality, and peace, because he was an inspiration for millions, because he was a great thinker and stirring speaker, and because he stood up for his beliefs and was not afraid to buck the oppressors in power in order to achieve what he knew was right.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.If you are interested in getting a sense of the man, read the entirety of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written to fellow clergymen in April, 1963 in response to their statements that his actions were “unwise and untimely.”  More than 50 years later, it still resonates with immense power.  Here are a few points he made:

“Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.”

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

“I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

These all remain thoughts worth pondering today, more than 50 years later, as we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

Confronting History, Warts And All

At the University of Virginia, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson lurks just about everywhere you look.  That shouldn’t be a surprise, really — Jefferson was the founder of U. Va., and designed some of the buildings.  And, in the course of the university’s history, his words have been quoted to students over and over again.

So when the current president of the University of Virginia wrote to students and the school community after the results of the 2016 presidential election, it was not a surprise that a Jefferson quote found its way into the missive.

But some professors at U. Va. had had enough.  They wrote a letter to the school’s president asking that she stop using Jefferson as a “moral compass.”  In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President, Jefferson was a slaveholder who propounded views of racial inferiority.  The letter states that “[t]hough we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we hope to bring to light that many of us are deeply offended by attempts of the administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”  It adds: “We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it.  For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”

Although some people might consider the complaining professors to be ingrates — after all, the school that employs them wouldn’t exist but for Jefferson — I think they raise a valid point.  For too long, we’ve airbrushed the “Founding Fathers” and other American historical figures.  We quote their lofty, elevated statements but ignore the baser elements of their stories.  As a result, they become more like marble statues and less like the real people they actually were.

You’re never going to take Jefferson out of the University of Virginia — he was so proud of his role in its founding that he instructed it should be one of three accomplishments noted on his tombstone — but you can recognize that, for all of his brilliance, he was a deeply flawed person who held human beings as slaves.  Grappling with his contradictions and understanding his obvious personal limitations seems like a worthwhile academic endeavor.

And it might be good for the school, too, if administrators resisted the temptation to trot out Jefferson quotes at every opportunity.  There is nothing wrong with an occasional backward glance, but colleges and universities should focus on looking forward.

Standing For The Anthem

In our sports-obsessed culture, when a professional athlete declines to stand for the National Anthem and says it is because he is protesting race relations and police brutality, it’s news.  In this instance, Colin Kaepernick’s actions have provoked some fans to burn his San Francisco 49ers jersey and generated reactions from all points on the political spectrum.

tsjcI don’t get the jersey-burning.  Of course, under the First Amendment, Kaepernick has a right to protest and advocate for his position on important issues of the day, period.  We all do.  Although some people increasingly seem hell-bent on punishing and eventually criminalizing free speech, through speech codes and “safe zones” and other contrivances designed to protect our delicate sensibilities from unpopular views — and, of course, quash the expression of those views in the first place — every American still has a right to peacefully express their views on topics like racism.  Kaepernick’s actions aren’t unAmerican; they’re quintessentially American.

And anybody who thinks sports figures should just take their big salaries and keep their mouths shut is kidding himself, too.  Sports have been politicized for as long as I can remember, since at least the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the National Anthem.  And the NFL itself has become increasingly involved in public issues, with events like breast cancer awareness weeks where the players wear garish pink towels and socks.  Breast cancer is a pretty safe public issue, but it’s a public issue nevertheless.  To the extent there ever was a line between sports and the real world, that line has long since been erased and crossed.

Kaepernick’s gesture shows the power of free speech — which is why the founding fathers were so interested in protecting it.  One player sits during the National Anthem, and it provokes a firestorm. Kaepernick obviously picked the National Anthem because he knows that every sports event starts with its playing and that it is a source of pride to Americans.  Showing disrespect for the Anthem is an effective way of drawing attention to your cause, just like burning a flag was during the campus protests in the 1960s.

Of course, we can wonder whether Kaepernick will just sit during the Anthem, or will go beyond exercising his free speech rights to actually do something to promote better race relations or address police actions.  The San Francisco police have invited him to come to the police academy to open lines of communication and learn about the challenges facing the thin blue line.  I hope he accepts that invitation, and uses the interest his one-man protest has generated to increase understanding and help improve things.  Sitting is one thing, taking meaningful action is quite another.

Blazing Saddles In A PC America

Tonight the CAPA summer movie series screens the Mel Brooks epic Blazing Saddles.  I’ll be joining a group of guys from the firm who will be going to watch the film that features the greatest fart scene in the history of American cinema.

blazesaddle129It’s pretty amazing that CAPA is showing the movie in this day and age, because Blazing Saddles has to be one of the most politically incorrect films ever made.  Released in 1974, and written by Brooks and Richard Pryor, among others, it tells the tale of an ex-slave in the post-Civil War American West who is appointed sheriff and, with his drunken gunslinger sidekick the Waco Kid, works to save the aghast and unappreciative townsfolk of Rock Ridge from the depredations of a carefully recruited gang of thugs — all as part of a deep scheme to drive the people out of town and allow a corrupt politician to cheaply buy land needed for a railroad.  Along the way, Blazing Saddles manages to skewer every racial and sexual stereotype, insult just about every ethnic group and sexual orientation imaginable, and hilariously spoof all of the hackneyed elements of the western movie genre.

I think Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever — which undoubtedly says something about my sophomoric sense of humor — but it’s hard to imagine it being made today.  Our modern time seems like a more brittle, more easily offended America, where colleges have speech codes, comedians are being censored on campus, and people often seem to be actively looking for ways to scale new heights of political correctness.  Perhaps the America of 1974, in the twilight of the ugly Vietnam War/Watergate era, was just more willing to enjoy a hearty laugh at the expense of racist townspeople and gassy cowboys.

So tonight, as Lili von Shtupp cavorts onstage with dancing Germans, Mongo punches a horse and later expresses feelings for Sheriff Bart, the ungrateful people of Rock Ridge list their preferences for different ethnic groups, and a brawl in cowboy movie spills onto the sound stage of a musical featuring prancing, tuxedo-clad dancers, I’ll be mindful of the audience, too.  How many of the people in attendance will laugh at one of the stereotype-bursting lines — and then look around with a guilty conscience for having breached the invisible wall of modern political correctness?

How Divided Are We, Really?

Another week with really bad news.  Two African American men in two different states are killed in encounters with police that inexplicably escalated into fatal shootings, followed by five Dallas police officers shot down by a sniper at a protest of those police actions.

It’s the kind of grim, bloody ugliness that causes people to question whether the social fabric of the country is being ripped apart, and whether the common threads linking us all as Americans are snapping, one by one.

Police Shootings ProtestAnd yet, I don’t think there is an irreparable divide — at least, not yet.  No one I know, regardless of their race or political views, thinks that police should be shooting African Americans who are stopped simply for driving with a broken taillight.  No one I know, from any point on the political spectrum, thinks that police officers who are doing their duty at a peaceful protest should be assassinated.  There may be tiny fringe elements of disturbed people who believe such actions are appropriate; America has always had its share of lunatic loners.  But I’m quite confident that the vast majority of Americans unequivocally reject what we have seen in Louisiana, and Minnesota, and Dallas this week.  In that, at least, Americans can stand united.

So why, then, are people feeling a gnawing sense of despair about where the country is, and where it is headed?  I think it’s because we’ve seen these same scenarios before . . . and nothing gets done.  We feel disturbed because we don’t think our political leaders, or even our political culture generally, is capable of addressing the problem in a meaningful, effective way. We don’t understand how we can have gotten to the point where police shootings have become so commonplace, or where a military veteran can become so disaffected that he takes a rifle and starts indiscriminately killing police officers and shooting others at a protest — but we have a nagging fear that these incidents, too, will produce no answers.  We expect that we’ll see Facebook memes, and we’ll see people of different political views retreat to their corners, and we’ll see talking heads vigorously disagree about whether the problem is racism, or guns, or poorly trained police, or a general sense of hopelessness, but we fear that ultimately nothing will change, ever.

It’s another example of how the citizenry is being ill-served by the political classes.  I honestly don’t think the American people are deeply divided on these incredibly basic, core issues.  We know that what we are seeing in Dallas and Minnesota is flat-out wrong and can’t be countenanced.  We just don’t think that the people who are charged with trying to deal with the problems are up to the task.  We don’t think they’re willing to cast aside their knee-jerk reactions and pointless bromides and actually sit down to talk honestly and work out a possible solution — and we’re probably right.

That’s why so many people are walking around today, feeling an immense sense of sadness and discouragement about our country.  We feel like we’ve seen this before, and before, and before, and we know exactly how it will play out this time, too.

The Greatest

Muhammad Ali died last night, after a long, twilight struggle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease.  His death was a reminder of an era that ended long, long ago.

fistAli was my favorite boxer — hell, he was just about everyone’s favorite boxer — but of course his influence transcended mere sport.  Although he was the greatest fighter I ever saw, his words and conduct had a much more profound impact than he could ever make with his fists.  Ali was one of those crucial cultural figures of the ’60s and ’70s who moved the needle and shifted the context.  He did it when he rejected his “slave name,” spoke out against racism in America, adopted Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali to proclaim his freedom from the old ways of the Jim Crow South.  He did it again when he refused to fight in Vietnam after being drafted, saying he had “no quarrel” with the Viet Cong.  His anti-war stance cost him the prime years of his boxing career, but his words captured, in that special Ali way, the growing American unease with the fighting and dying in southeast Asia.

And, of course, Ali changed the national zeitgeist through sheer force of personality.  He was the flamboyant black man who was unabashedly loud and proud, the sports star who wasn’t afraid to bluntly speak his mind on the issues of the day, the quick-thinking, silver-tongued marketing genius who mocked his opponents, traded gibes with Howard Cosell, and built his fights into worldwide phenomena, and the boxing great with the astonishingly quick hands, the dancing, tasseled feet, and the grit and determination to always fight to the end in some of the greatest matches ever staged.  For a time, he was the most famous man on the planet, and his style and entourage and antics changed the world of sports and celebrities forever.

All of this made an indelible impression on me and every other kid, regardless of race, color, or creed, who was growing up in the America of the 1960s and 1970s.  We all wanted to have the same brilliant flash and dash, the same glibness, as Muhammad Ali.  He was as magnetic and mesmerizing as any national figure I can remember — which made the shaky, diminished Ali of later years, ravaged by his disease, so difficult to see.  The days when the world would stop to focus on one man and one battle in a boxing ring are long past, but Muhammad Ali of that era will live on in memory, and in our cultural history.

Harper Lee, R.I.P.

Writer Harper Lee died today in Monroeville, Alabama.  She was 89.

gty_harper_lee_tk_131016_16x9_992I’d be willing to bet good money that most obituaries about Ms. Lee will begin with the words:  “Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, . . ..”  She was, and always will be, associated with that one book.  Why not?  It is indisputably one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, and also a book that captured a moment in history, and a time and place, so vividly, and sketched characters so indelibly memorable, that it is one of those books that you would gladly read over and over again.  No one who has read that book will ever forget the adventurous Scout, the thoughtful Jem, the quiet dignity of falsely accused Tom Robinson, the mysterious Boo Radley, and the noble Atticus Finch.

And, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that did far more than what most books ever even aspire to do:  it helped to change the world.  By quietly telling a story of one instance of rank and sickening racial injustice in a small town in Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird illuminated the dark underbelly of the American Dream and the blindered perspective of 1950s America.  The book, published in 1960, was one of the cultural elements that forced America to deal with the Jim Crow South and the heinous mistreatment of African-Americans in the states of the old Confederacy, and in the rest of the country as well.  What other novels have accomplished so much?  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps — but the list is not a long one.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.  You have made your mark, left a legacy that will endure, and served your conscience and your country well.

Strangers In A Strange Land

Do a majority of Americans really feel like “strangers in their own country”?

That’s one of the provocative conclusions of a recent Ipsos poll.  According to the poll, 53 percent of Americans surveyed — 62 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Independents, and 37 percent of Democrats — agreed with the statement “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.”  An even larger percentage of respondents agreed with the statement “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”

arrival20usaThe poll designers believe these results expose “neo-nativist” sentiments in America and help to explain the mystifying, continuing popularity of Donald Trump.  They state:  “Simply put, Trump’s candidacy taps into a deep, visceral fear among many that America’s best days are behind it. That the land of freedom, baseball and apple pie is no longer recognizable; and that ‘the  other’—sometimes the immigrant, sometimes the Non-American, and almost always the  nonwhite—is to blame for these circumstances.” In short, they apparently view the statements posed by the poll and quoted above — which don’t explicitly refer to race or immigration — as nevertheless exposing racist and xenophobic attitudes among Americans.  (At the other end of the spectrum, they view the statement “More and more, America is a place that I can feel comfortable as myself” as exhibiting non-“nativist” sentiments.)

I’m skeptical of this kind of armchair analysis of the American psyche generally, and particularly in this instance where the two purportedly “nativist” statements seem to tap into a less sensational sentiment — the view that America is heading in the wrong direction.  For decades, pollsters have asked whether respondents think America is heading in the right direction; last week the Rasmussen poll found that only 28 percent of Americans say yes to that question.  I don’t recall reading that the right direction/wrong direction question is supposed to expose “nativist” views, and I don’t see its phrasing as materially different from the statement that “More and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”  Both statements are broad enough to encompass a wide range of dissatisfactions — with political developments, with economic issues, with cultural and social changes, with security issues, and with America’s position in the world, among many others — and therefore can’t be directly tied to “nativist” attitudes.

I have no doubt that there are racists in America and that at least some of the anti-immigrant sentiments are rooted in racist xenophobia, but I think the notion that a majority of Americans are “neo-nativists” is silly.  It is, perhaps, easier to rationalize a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with our country’s direction as rooted in ignorant, racist views, because it allows people to avoid evaluating whether there are less inflammatory, more substantive concerns underlying the sense of unease with our position in the world.  I don’t know why, for some people, the bumptious blowhard Donald Trump seems like a solution to our nation’s perceived problems, but I think the conclusion that he has tapped into a previously hidden vein of racism in America just allows people to avoid tacking the tougher question:  what is it, exactly, that is motivating people to express support for this guy?

 

 

The N-Word

Today’s Washington Post has a long, thoughtful piece on the “n-word” — the most hateful, racially charged word in the English language.  It’s worth reading in full.  And here is the uncomfortable issue that the article explores:  can the n-word, which in its a-ending form has become increasingly prevalent in youth culture, be redefined and eventually stripped of its racist connotations, or should the use of the word, in any variation, just be stopped?

This year the National Football League has empowered referees to penalize teams whose players use the n-word.  It’s the NFL’s response to several recent incidents with racial overtones — but the decision to penalize the use of the word has been criticized by many players as out of touch with the common use of the word among younger people of different races.  Indeed, internet search engines indicate that, in its a-ending form, the n-word is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter.  The resurgence of the n-word among young people is often attributed to hip-hop culture, where the word is commonly used in the lyrics, and even the titles, of popular songs.  The Post article recounts a story about a recent Kanye West concert where the performer gave white concertgoers permission to say the word as they sang along with his songs, and they did so.

I don’t listen to hip-hop music, and I was unaware of the extent to which the n-word has been reintroduced in the vernacular of the younger generation.  I think that development is very troubling and unfortunate.  I don’t think American culture should follow the lead of rappers in the use of the n-word any more than it should in adopting the misogynistic, twerking, gunfire-at-every-party elements of hip-hop culture, either.

There is a generational element to this issue; for those of us who grew up during the days of the Civil Rights marches and police dogs being unleashed to attack peaceful protesters, the n-word is unforgivable.  I don’t care if a hip-hop artist gives me permission to say it.  I won’t use the word because I don’t want to be linked in any way to the brutal racists of the past, and I do not believe that — changed ending or not — the word can ever be sanitized and divorced from its violent, terrible roots.

So put me in the NFL’s camp on this one.  It may prove to be impossible to stop the use of the n-word, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Young people should be educated about why the word is so hurtful and discouraged from using it.  I agree with Denyce Graves, the terrific opera singer, who is quoted in the Post article as saying:  “I know we will never be rid of this word, [but] I would love to see it just vanish.”  I say, let it die.

Could A Rotherham Happen Here?

What happened in Rotherham, a large town in northern England, is appalling.  For more than a decade, local authorities looked the other way while gangs of men of Pakistani origin “groomed” young girls and then systematically raped and abused them.  At least 1,400 — 1,400! — children were sexually exploited.  The victims’ stories about their own personal hells of fear, rape, and hopelessness are harrowing and heart-breaking.

One question in this disturbing story is whether fear of being labeled a racist affected how authorities responded to reports of abuse they received.  The report that outlines the abuse and the massive failures of those charged with protecting the victims, criticizes the authorities for downplaying the issue of the race and ethnicity of the men who were committing the crimes.  Some believe that concerns about being called a racist or being accused of cultural insensitivity prevented the police and council members from actually doing their jobs.  (Of course, by not holding the perpetrators of the crimes to the same standards as everyone else, and by not properly acting on the complaints of the victims, the police and council members were in fact engaging in racist behavior.)

Could a Rotherham occur in the United States?  It’s hard to believe that a criminal enterprise of such scope and magnitude, with so many child victims, could happen here — but it’s hard to believe it could happen in England, either.  The British aren’t fundamentally different from us, and the circumstances that gave rise to the decade of abuse in Rotherham — in particular, the desire to “not upset the apple cart” that caused authorities to turn their heads — could be replicated in America.  Our own history is forever marred by instances where townspeople supported, or at least consciously ignored, murderous criminal gangs like the Ku Klux Klan.  Whether it is concern about running afoul of those in power, or just following along with the crowd, or trying to avoid being publicly called a racist, prevailing social conventions can be powerful motivators.

An African proverb states that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and Hillary Clinton later wrote a book about that concept.  Sometimes, however, villages like Rotherham fail.

Bad Neighbor

When you buy your first home and move in, your quickly realize that neighbors are an important part of the home-purchase equation that, perhaps, you hadn’t thought about when you were deciding whether to buy.

The reality is, neighbors can mean the difference between a pleasant home-owning experience and one that is an unending nightmare. There are certain baseline requirements of good neighbors. Do they keep their property up? Do they keep a beat-up sofa on the front porch? Do they play loud music until 3 a.m.? Do they have a vicious dog that scares the crap out of you every time you walk out the front door?

Flying a KKK flag and displaying a noose and a sign saying “Members Wanted,” as some racist idiot is doing in Palm Beach County, Florida, is so far below the the good-neighbor baseline it can’t even be measured. It’s not surprising that the bigot wouldn’t give his name to the news reporters who showed up to his door — just as there is a reason members of the KKK wear hoods. Inveterate racists know their bigotry is deeply shameful, and they are compelled to hide behind a veil of anonymity as a result.

What would you do if your neighbor flew a KKK flag and seemed to be recruiting for one of the most vile organizations in American history? I’d be inclined to display a sign of my own: “My Next-Door Neighbor Is A Racist. I Despise Him, And You Should, Too.” And I think I would add that it’s my practice to take photos of everyone who visits him and publish those photos on the internet, too.