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Do you know what Privilege is?
It is the ability of being able to vote for someone like Donald Trump and yet insist that you are not a bigot.
It is the ability to say “I Matter”, “I’m Being Left Out” and “I Want My Country Back” when people like you have been running this nation ever since it was founded.
It is the ability to ignore that if you are a white, straight, Christian man that you have never had occasion to fear who you are in this country and that so very many people because of the color of their skin, because of where they came from, because of what they believe, because of who they love or simply because they are women have had a very long time to become afraid of you and with good reason.
It is the ability to say something absurd like “The millions of people who voted for Trump can’t all be bigots”, including your family, friends and neighbors based solely on the belief that half the country can’t be so brazenly racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and ultra-nationalist. Yes they can and yes they are, regardless of how as shockingly high a number that appears to be.
What allows us to rise as one people is the understanding that all of us are bigots to some extent. Nobody likes to think they are a bigot but to some degree everyone is. I’m a bigot. You’re a bigot. Everyone is somehow prejudiced and it is something that each one of us must strive to overcome.
What many of us fail to understand is that prejudice does not require intent. All it requires is the refusal to acknowledge that there are so many people who hate and despise other people solely because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. and then justify their hatred as something other than plain and simple bigotry. We must acknowledge once and for all that racism comes in many forms. It comes as traditions, rules, laws, codes of behavior and all manner of things above and beyond calling someone a cruel name or using an arcane label.
It is saying “You people are lazy”, “You people aren’t strong enough”, “You people cheat and are miserly”, “You people are an abomination against God”, “You people are all violent” or just “You people don’t know your place” and not understand that this is bigotry in its purest form. It is the delusion that by depriving basic human rights from others that you are just protecting your heritage, your religion or your “way of life”. It is excusing your own hatred as “just my opinion”. It is this belief that “No, it can’t be me. I’m not a bigot.” which permits institutions that allow bigotry to stand, function and grow unabated.
What is Privilege? It is the ability to excuse a man who divides the country using every form of bigotry there is and then speaks about unity only after he wins. It is believing that by having women and minorities in his inner circle will somehow make him immune to the charge of being a sexist, a misogynist or a racist. It is ability to ignore the reality that this same man who by filling his cabinet with known racists, white supremacists and eugenicists sends a powerful signal to many in this nation that he intends to hold his grip on power by continuing to divide with fear and prejudice. And it is the inability to acknowledge that by supporting him you have taken sides with a terrible man who has said terrible things against millions of your brothers and sisters and appears prepared to continue to do terrible things because he like all of us is a bigot. Only now he has near limitless power to act on his bigotry.
What was the Great Sin his opponent committed that you couldn’t live with? Perceived dishonesty? The potential for graft? The failure to acknowledge that These People Don’t Belong Here? The desire for vengeance and punishment for crimes that for over four decades the law could not see but somehow you could? What was it that for all the danger, the hatred and the bigotry that this man represents you still found him a better choice? How comfortable will you feel about what you have done a year from now? Five years from now? Ten?
We are asked by you to give him a chance. How much of a chance do you want us to give and how long do you ask that we wait? The next election cycle will undoubtedly be too late for some.
Maybe for all.
The Dakota Access Pipeline has “environmental disaster” written all over it. It’s a senseless destruction of land and culture and a blatant disregard of treaty with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. I hate this pipeline and would love to see it scrapped. But it’s time to be truthful. The protest against it near Cannon Ball, North Dakota is a tragic exercise in futility.
Many of the “police” at the site are privately contracted security guards, not unlike the ones the US military had in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are a heavily armed, paramilitary force and really answerable to nobody other their employers who pay them very, very well. Local and state government stand to benefit greatly when the pipeline is operational so they are going to be of no help. Quite the contrary, they apparently are all too thrilled to throw as many of the protesters behind bars and to be blunt, people are crazy to think they will lift a finger to stop any violence when it happens. Some in this country may even welcome a forcible crushing of this protest, the First Amendment be damned. As such, in the absence of direct intervention at the Federal level, the self-described “water protectors” out there are sitting ducks. When the time comes that the corporate overseers of this project back in Dallas decide they are bored with this nuisance, those guards will be given leave to do whatever they want.
Let me say that again. They can and will do whatever they want.
If those security contractors, or the Morton County Sheriff’s office, or the North Dakota State Police, or any of the myriad enforcers with a badge and a gun out there decide to go in and kill fifty protesters, they will likely do just that and there isn’t a single court with any jurisdiction in these United States that will send a single one of those men to jail. The law, right or wrong, will call the protest “trespassing on private property” and that is all that will be required to initiate a legal mass execution. At the rate we are going, there is nothing to indicate that this will not end in a brutal and violent crackdown. Why? There has never been a point in our national history where the needs and rights of Indigenous Peoples have ever trumped private interests. This pipeline is 60% completed, has cost almost $4 billion and despite the injunctions currently in place, construction will resume sooner than later and it will resume through Indigenous land. It’s oil, people. Nobody is going to get in the way of the flow of oil which everybody needs and loves. And ugly as it sounds, obscure petitions on even more obscure websites, appeals to the United Nations or a protest that is smaller than the average Grateful Dead concert will do little if anything to dislodge a powerful oil developer like Energy Transfer Partners.
I’m very upset at this. Not so much because of the construction of the pipeline itself. I’m upset because it’s only when the abuse of the Indigenous people of this nation reach an absolutely horrendous point such as this exigency do white people start to care and that is the rub. This is why it’s now acceptable for the rich and famous to now make “appearances” in opposition to the project. Rarely, however, are the elite of Hollywood’s activist class actually going anywhere near North Dakota. Some do, but it’s always best to play it safe. Protests in New York and Washington, DC are great. So are interviews on YouTube, primetime cable news shows and of course, what could be better than the ever popular hashtag activism on their Twitter feed? They want you to know that they “stand with Standing Rock”.
Well, so what?
Well-known entertainers and media stars don’t want trouble. They just want exposure. Honestly, who wants to go to where there’s the potential for real danger to life and limb? Especially theirs, since they have a vested interest in maintaining those faces and bodies that keep them so very well compensated at the box office. Does anyone think these celebrities will go to North Dakota and stick it out long-term to fight a real injustice? Hell, no. They want a photo-op and then they are gone. Lawrence O’Donnell will not lose a day of sleep once the protest has been successfully terminated. America barely knows who Amy Goodman is now much less cares. So when she was arrested for reporting on this travesty, it was hardly noticed.
Worse yet, the endless parade of celebrities who never trouble themselves with Indigenous matters at any other time will still be able to enjoy their lives of luxury when this protest inevitably ends. It’s a disgusting spectacle. Think about it. What do Leonardo DiCaprio, Susan Sarandon, Pharrell Williams, Rosario Dawson, Mark Ruffalo, et al really have to lose if the pipeline goes through? Not a damn thing. Riley Keogh is out there taking promotional selfies with people there like she’s at a family barbecue, for God’s sake. Now, I’ll give credit where credit is due. Shaliene Woodley went to Standing Rock and got herself arrested and humiliated and brought attention to the cause. Good for her. On the other hand, Ms. Woodley is privileged enough to have the best of attorneys at her disposal to get her out of jail as quickly as she can get thrown in. Plus, as soon as her agent calls with the latest Divergent script, she is on the next plane back to Los Angeles. Guaranteed. Who do the people who live there all the time have to turn to when they get beaten, strip searched and imprisoned? Nobody, that’s who.
Dr. Jill Stein has been out there, but seeing as her future in politics is up in smoke, she may as well take up professional activism full-time. As for the Rev. Jesse Jackson? He just goes where the cameras are and has for the last thirty years. As nice as it may appear, it’s all just famous people making themselves feel good by going somewhere to have a camera pointed at them and say “Look at me! I’m progressive! I care about issues! And by the way, check out my new movie.” Don’t believe me? Then ask Ben Affleck about the attachment of this protest with promotion of the new Justice League movie set for 2017 release. Wow. Now that’s what I call heroism.
So what’s the solution? Let the Dakota Access Pipeline go though.
Let it go through and wait for catastrophe to strike. When white people start dying after the pipeline breaks down, which at some point in the future it will, you can rest assured that the Powers That Be will get their collective asses in gear and fast. When rich white people are getting hurt then things get done. That’s a fact. Things never get done when the people who were here thousands of years before America even existed are the ones getting hurt.
In its infinite stupidity and quest to forever appeal to the lowest common denominator, NBC News reported today that Donald Trump “conceded” that President Barack Obama was, in fact, a US citizen by birth. Not to be outdone, CNN reported that Trump “finally admitted” Obama’s legitimacy to be President under Section I, Article II of the Constitution.
Other news outlets covered this non-story in a similar fashion with headlines like “Trump accepts Barack Obama was born in US” (BBC) and “Trump Believes Obama Born In US” (CBS) as if this were a major policy address. Even the Washington Post, who is no friend of Donald Trump, had a headline that read “Trump acknowledges Obama was born in U.S.” Only the New York Times started its coverage of this pointless, idiotic story by printing “Unwinding a Lie: Trump’s Long Embrace of ‘Birtherism’”. They were one of the few media outlets that called out this whole affair using the appropriate term: LIE. But hey, as for the rest of you in the press, we understand. Donald Trump’s tirades are fantastic for ratings. It makes for great copy, too.
Even it is political vomit.
What a service the mainstream media provides in covering truly breaking news. It was certainly magnanimous of Donald Trump to legitimize Barack Obama for us. If not for the press hanging on his every word as if something intelligent and useful were to emerge from that twisted mind of his resembling actual policy or proposals, we would have missed this most important announcement. Thanks to the national press corps assembled at his brand new luxury Washington, DC hotel (no doubt the penthouse of which will be his official residence should he win in November) we can breathe a sigh of relief that we actually have 44 Presidents of the United States instead of 43 and maybe 1 impostor because…shhh! That last one is black!
Forget for a moment the moronic statement by Trump preceding this that: “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it, I finished it.” What is far more amazing is that after eight years, we are still talking about this issue. Let’s not be coy anymore about Donald Trump and everyone else who embraced this belief, even for a moment. The fact that the Democratic nominee for President in 2008 was an African-American ignited the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory and nothing else. This story is the end product of racism. It was a desperate attempt to discredit Barack Obama by those who could not conceive of a successful and well-educated African-American ascending to the highest office in the land. To these “birthers”, this whole lunacy is little more than a coping mechanism to try to wrestle with the reality that the people who to them are little more than the descendants of the house help and those who used to work the cotton fields are now everywhere in government, education, law, medicine…even your next door neighbors. Even the President of the United States.
I, for one, am sick of this “white fragility” that Donald Trump personifies. This notion that he and other straight white men like him are just “Americans” with the sole right of defining our national culture needs to stop. People like Trump have always been challenged by the presence of these “others” in society. To Trump, these “hyphenated” kinds of Americans mean trouble for his ilk. They aren’t part of the old dominant structure of this country like he was and therefore must be something less than him. You can tell by the way he talks about people. “Oh, look at my African-American over here. Look at him.” Who the hell says something like that and is unaware of how that sounds? He knows. He just doesn’t care. He also knows the press will give him a pass on it because they are dying to hear the next crazy thing he utters and it gives him and his ego a hard on long enough to seal the southern border.
Donald Trump believes America is being smothered by Undesirable People. It has gotten under his skin to the point that he has lashed out and the press keeps letting him do it. But as for us? We let the press get away with it each and every time. Well, no more. It is Privilege by any other name and it’s stupid. Americans of all kinds knew from the beginning that Barack Obama was an American. Why can’t Trump? It’s because he’s a bigot. He’s Archie Bunker without even the courtesy to be funny. But we have allowed the media to cover this and all the other dreck he utters like legitimate news items and that is something that needs to be stopped just as surely as any racial hatred. Want to see a real conspiracy? How about the one perpetrated by the national press with the public’s help that “both candidates are equal”; a notion which is patently untrue and you’d have to be blind not to see that.
I guess we shouldn’t expect more than this. When we have so little in terms of anything else from the Republican nominee we shouldn’t expect much more. But we should. Shame on you, American news media, for the cowardice you show and sensationalism you foist on us as “news”. You breathe life into the never-ending stream of lies this perversion of a man spews out on a near daily basis and that is unforgivable. Walter Cronkite is spinning in his grave. So is Edward R. Murrow.
And shame on you, too, Donald. You’re a racist and if any of your supporters believed this line of bullshit at any point then so are they.
And that’s deplorable.
An old colleague and I were having breakfast this morning when he looked up at the news (I can’t remember which network …MSNBC, I think) and noticed a split screen of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He lamented long about how terrible both candidates are in this election and I guess we just have to choose the lesser of the two evils or, as he put it, “…put on a blindfold and just pick. It doesn’t really make any difference.”
And that’s when I went off.
I am really sick and tired of people saying both candidates are equally horrible choices, how much America thoroughly hates both of them to the core, that there’s not a single positive trait in either one of them and wow, if only we had voted for that guy behind the deli counter or the neighbor’s cat, America would be WAY better off.
Fuck you. Fuck the deli guy and fuck your neighbor’s cat.
There are only 2 candidates who stand any mathematical chance of prevailing in this year’s election and one of them is, in fact, eminently qualified to become the 45th President of the United States, perhaps more so than any of the other 44 previous office holders. She (that’s right…SHE) has been dedicated to public service in one capacity or another since 1971. Her accomplishments are tremendous. To name a few (edited from the list once provided by Daily Kos for space):
- First ever student commencement speaker at Wellesley College.
- Distinguished graduate of Yale Law School.
- Editorial board of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action.
- Co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
- Former civil litigation attorney.
- Staff attorney for Children’s Defense Fund.
- Faculty member in the School of Law at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
- Former Director of the Arkansas Legal Aid Clinic.
- First female chair of the Legal Services Corporation.
- First female partner at Rose Law Firm, the oldest and one of the largest law firms in Arkansas.
- Twice named by The National Law Journal as one of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.
- Former First Lady of Arkansas.
- Arkansas Woman of the Year in 1983.
- Chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession.
- Created Arkansas’s Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youth.
- Instrumental in passage of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
- First Lady of the United States.
- Promoted nationwide immunization against childhood illnesses.
- Successfully sought to increase research funding for prostate cancer and childhood asthma at the National Institutes of Health.
- Worked to investigate reports of an illness that affected veterans of the Gulf War (now recognized as Gulf War Syndrome).
- Helped create the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice.
- Initiated and shepherded the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
- First FLOTUS in US History to hold a postgraduate degree.
- Helped create Vital Voices, an international initiative to promote the participation of women in the political processes of their countries.
- Two-term New York Senator and the first ex-FLOTUS in US History to be elected to the United States Senate.
- Served on five Senate committees: Budget (2001–2002), Armed Services (2003–2009), Environment and Public Works (2001–2009), Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (2001–2009) and the Special Committee on Aging.
- Member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
- Leading role in investigating the health issues faced by 9/11 first responders.
- Worked with Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York on securing $21.4 billion in funding for the World Trade Center redevelopment.
- Former United States Secretary of State.
- Brokered a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas in 2012.
Go ahead and try to show what the other candidate has done in the public interest during his whole worthless life.
You can’t and why?
The other candidate who is supposedly “equally bad” is a real estate developer and television personality who was born into a family whose wealth has been estimated to exceed $300 million and makes racism, sexism, misogyny, nihilism and ultra-nationalism the pillars of his candidacy. So far he has called for:
- Building a wall across the southern border that Mexico is supposedly going to pay for.
- The deportation, by force if necessary, of 11 million undocumented immigrants (and stop saying “illegal”, you jackass).
- Banning and deporting all members of a religious faith that total over 1 billion adherents worldwide, even if they are American citizens, because “everybody knows” they’re just a bunch of murdering terrorists.
- Lists among his associates known white supremacists and eugenicists.
- Speaks admiringly of ruthless foreign despots and encourages espionage against the United States by hostile governments.
- Ruminates about not defending our NATO allies against Russian invasion.
- States openly and freely that using nuclear weapons should always be an option simply to make him more “unpredictable”. That’s not a strategy. That’s insanity.
Did I mention his blithe refusal to offer concrete policy proposals on how any of this neo-Nazi wish list could possibly be achieved? And all the while still finding the time to be rude, nasty, loud, mean, cruel, hateful and boorish.
And it’s still August.
But they’re supposedly “equally awful” and “everybody hates them both”. Yes, you can’t vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump because, you know…emails. And Benghazi. And Foundations. And Wall Street. And secret assassinations. And pantsuits. And, and, and.
OK, listen up. Nobody cares about emails that show Bono wanted State Department assistance to stream his music from the International Space Station. You should thank Almighty God and Jedi Jebus he failed. So far all we have seen is a public official in extraordinary circumstances who should have known better demonstrate “extreme carelessness” to which I believe she has owned up to sufficiently and which, by the way, no wrongdoing was ever uncovered even after a year-long investigation by the FBI for the love of God. We all know that trustworthiness is important in a President. But if absolutely no slack is given at all, and I mean none, if this is how we treat people who make public service their life and profession, then you will always get “crooks” as politicians because who in their right mind would want the job? It’s like being a firefighter. When there’s a fire everybody runs out. You run in. It’s a maniac’s job but it has to be done so let’s have the best do it and not get wrapped up in what amounts to paperwork. That’s all this really is. Paperwork. You would rather stay at home or vote for someone George Orwell or Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t have dreamed up over emails? Then you’re even dumber than you look.
Furthermore, I want to know why everyone has their knickers in a twist over the tragic deaths of 4 State Department personnel in Benghazi in 2012 when nobody raised a peep about, count ‘em, 241 armed and ready US servicemen who were blown to bits by a suicide bomber in Beirut in 1983? Well? WHY NOT? We all know why but I won’t denigrate the deaths of brave people serving their country in the diplomatic corps and the military while performing what is often a filthy and difficult job. But other people love to bring it up as often as possible as a political weapon. They want you to believe she is some kind of cold and diabolical monster without any concern for the lives of people who often must work in really dangerous places in the name of peace and diplomacy. That is also a load of steaming horseshit and if you spread it around then you ought to be ashamed to show your face in public. So please stop. Now.
I know, I know. Damn it all! Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just forget all of that pesky accomplishment stuff of hers and remember that what really matters is the thrill of waiting for indictments which makes for great television? That way we could finally “lock her up” and enough with these stupid women who think they can run a country. Well, enough out of YOU, you moron. This isn’t the lesser of two evils. This is a choice between one great and qualified candidate for the nation’s highest office who you really should be excited about and a dolt with a bad toupee who if you were honest with yourself you wouldn’t trust to manage a Dairy Queen much less the Oval Office.
And by the way, don’t give me any of your crap about Bernie, Martin, Ted, John, Marco, Jeb, Chris, Rand, Carly, Ben, Lindsey or any of the others because they aren’t running anymore. And I certainly don’t want to hear some fantastic load of tripe about Gary or Jill because they can’t win either and that’s simply the way it is. Deal with it. Those two are just like all of the other hundreds of people legitimately on the ballot to become President in November who are never going to get within spitting distance of the White House. Ever heard of Rod Silva? Me neither, but he’s running for President on the Nutrition Party ticket. Don’t believe me? Look him up. Here’s the bottom line: only two people can win and it’s not going to be anyone on this Rogue’s Gallery of wannabes…or the guy behind the deli counter or your neighbor’s cat so wake up.
We have a great opportunity here, people. We also have the potential for real catastrophe and that’s not being hyperbolic. You know damn good and well which is which.
Don’t be stupid.
The following is from a letter sent to the alumnae/i of Vassar College and to the parents of the students currently attending the college from President Catherine Bond Hill prior to a discussion to address “…current issues and tensions within our community related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This writer is taking no sides in the current debate (yet), but feels that all sides require an airing out, since constructive engagement is clearly the only thing lacking at this juncture. As such, in the words of Shakespeare, “Judge when you hear”:
Vassar has as an abiding principle of “going to the source.” As you likely know, it comes from history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon, who at the turn of the 20th century encouraged her Vassar students to use primary sources to do their research. With so much being written in the media and on social media about these issues at Vassar, much of it without the benefit of primary sources at the college, we want to provide our alums and parents the opportunity to hear what is really happening on campus.
I would suggest that the op-ed about Vassar earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal fell far short of the principle of going to the source. It would have been useful for the authors to come to campus to find out for themselves what is actually going on before writing the piece. I have extended an invitation to them both to come to campus next week to meet with students, faculty, and members of the administration during our annual All College Days.
If they accept, they will see a vital community, grappling with some of the toughest issues of our time. Activist students, supporting a variety of issues, are not necessarily committed to dialogue. And, encouraging balanced programing and opportunities for discussion has been difficult. But, we are making some progress.
Earlier this week, Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and political analyst, spoke out against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to a supportive audience. Late last month our Jewish Studies program sponsored a lecture by anthropologist Aomar Boum, who discussed his research at the United States Holocaust Museum detailing a partnership between North African Jews and Muslims to fight racism and anti-Semitism.
In late January, with support from my office, the elected leaders of our student government, the Vassar Student Association, along with members from a variety of student groups with differing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attended a training provided by the National Coalition Building Institute on addressing difficult issues. These kinds of events make us hopeful for even more productive and respectful exchanges.
This is not to say that we do not face difficult issues, we absolutely do. And, this includes incidents of anti-Semitism. Such incidents are in violation of our college regulations and policies and we do not tolerate them. We denounce them. A recent e-mail I sent to the community denounced anonymous anti-Semitic comments on the social media platform Yik Yak, and our Dean of the College emailed students this week, urging them to treat each other with the respect that is called for by, and is central to, our code of conduct as a community. I have called on our students to think about the impact of their actions on others in our community. I also have asked our community to call out actions that offend and harm others.
The recent speaker to campus who has attracted so much attention has also spoken at Harvard, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, and Wellesley to name only a few institutions both in the United States and abroad. As academic institutions, we must be committed to academic freedom and free speech. Just as I objected to the call for the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I will defend the faculty’s right to bring speakers of their choice to campus. I also will let the faculty who invited the recent lecturer speak for themselves.
Along with many others in the Vassar community, I am dissatisfied with the range of perspectives being presented on campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are working to fill this gap. While many people on campus work hard to do this, the megaphone effect of those who think they know what is going on but really don’t, damages those efforts. As I have said before, Vassar deserves, and demands, better.
The real tragedy here, of course, is that Vassar College needed to have this conversation at all. But it is foolish to assume that in the great halls of academia where freedom of thought, inquiry and opinion reign that prejudice does not exist. It does. It always has and it always will. Perhaps some important perspective will be found in the days and weeks to come and perhaps not. One thing is certain. A great institution of higher learning has some explaining to do. Such explanations, however, will do little if people of good will are unwilling to listen. This is essential as listening is the foundation of understanding. It is necessary as understanding leads to healing.
We must remember, however, that bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism are intolerable in a civilized society. As such, if there is a cancer in this place which so many of us love, it must be cut out, as surely as if were afflicting our own bodies. But a biopsy must nevertheless be done to determine how extensive the problem is. Is it a powerful malignancy comprised of many or the benign idiocy of a few? This we will determine. Some have suggested the patient is already too far gone; that we should now turn our backs and focus our efforts on those still worth saving.
I defy this notion.
Until Vassar College is dead and relegated to history, I, for one, will not allow those who seek to rip us apart because of our religious beliefs, who want wholesale bigotry to define this community, who have already decided that it is an irretrievable cesspool of prejudice or want only their side to be heard and no one else’s any semblance of victory of comfort.
We are Vassar. We are many and we are strong. Do not fuck with us.
Exactly 150 years ago this past April, the American Civil War came to a close. The men on both sides of the conflict were sent home by their commanders and whether in victory or in defeat, there can be no doubt that all were glad to see their families once again. Many thousands had been killed on the battlefield. Hundreds of thousands more had died of disease and starvation. Roughly 2% of the country’s population, an estimated 620,000 men, lost their lives in the conflict. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the death toll would have reached 6,000,000, a figure roughly equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust. In the midst of these sobering numbers, we as a country once again face a spectre from this past conflagration. But it is not in the horror of the Civil War itself that visits us, nor its causes, which have been endlessly debated by historians and scholars for generations. Rather, it is a symbol from those dark years that grips us like the possession of an evil spirit that will not go away on its own without a kind of national exorcism.
The debate over the Confederate Flag and what it symbolizes has the nation in thrall. With the brutal murders of nine black parishioners at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, by a man motivated by racial hatred and allegiance to what this emblem represents today has brought to our national consciousness the full weight of what it means to have symbols from this conflict in our public places. To put a fine point on it, why are there Confederate flags and banners on public property? These are symbols of a war motivated by the Southern states rising up in armed insurrection against the Union in 1861, claiming “State’s Rights”, in an effort to retain the ability to own slaves.
Now, to be clear, slavery and indentured servitude existed in the North as well. The Revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 held that all United States citizens, whether in the North or the South, had to return any runaway slaves to their “rightful owners” or face severe penalties which could include 6 months imprisonment and a fine of $1,000; the equivalent of $28,000 today. New York did not completely abolish slavery until 1827. Pennsylvania did not achieve complete abolition until 1847. Connecticut had slaves until 1848. New Jersey and New Hampshire did not totally abolish slavery until the after the close of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The stain of slavery and Civil War was not, and is not, borne by the South alone. But it is there that the grip of this flag is strongest. It is in the South where much of the Civil War’s legacy endures today. It festers like an open sore in the form of the so-called “Rebel Flag”. Ironically, despite the tragedy of the conflict and America’s involvement in slavery, we find ourselves in the odd position of realizing that the modern connotations that this banner holds do not lie in the events of 150 years ago, but rather as a symbol of defiance against federal intervention in the blossoming Civil Rights movement that began shortly after the Second World War.
Although a man with many personal prejudices about race of his own, President Harry S. Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights (PCCR) on December 5, 1946, tasked with investigating the status of civil rights in the United States and propose measures at the federal level to protect such rights. Whether motivated by electoral politics, concerns that America’s Jim Crow laws in the South would be used by the Soviet Union as a propaganda tool, or simply because it was the right thing to do, the PCCR successfully led to new federal involvement in the cause of fighting racial injustice, which culminated in the signing of Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. Using the authority granted the President as Commander-in-Chief under Article II of the Constitution, this order de-segregated the armed forces of the United States.
In the minds of many southerners at the time, Truman’s action went too far. In 1948, a breakaway group from the Democratic Party formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, often referred to as the “Dixiecrats”. This faction ran on a platform of segregation. It opposed any efforts by the federal government toward integration and the preservation of Jim Crow laws in the South. On August 14, 1948, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond became the new party’s nominee for President in the upcoming election, which called for “…the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race…We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program.” The party’s nominee for the nation’s highest office himself stated at the convention: “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the N**** race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
The symbol chosen by the States’ Rights Democratic Party for this revolt against the progressive policies taken by Truman and Democrats outside the South was the battle standard of the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), more commonly known today as the Confederate Flag. The last time this flag was flown in any official capacity was on April 9, 1865, during the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to United States Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in Appomattox County, Virginia, thus ending the Civil War.
Lee’s battle standard has become a symbol today for defiance against the United States and all it represents, just as it was on the bloody fields of Petersburg, Virginia in 1864. There are many today who say the ANV Battle Flag is simply part of American history and that is true. Some others, however, say that it is a source of ‘Southern Pride” or “Southern Heritage”. If it is, I submit that is a misguided heritage. Armed insurrection and yes, treason, for the stated purpose of maintaining the right to own slaves is not something any American should take pride in. Let no one be under the illusion that the motivation behind the rebellion was for anything else. All it takes is a cursory read of the secession declarations of the Confederate states to understand this was the reason for war.
In the post World War II era, the defiance continued in the form of Jim Crow laws designed to keep black citizens as close to their station prior to the 13th Amendment as possible. Is it any wonder that the Confederate flag can still illicit such a visceral reaction to all who see it? The flag was born of insurrection and defiance and has been reincarnated as a symbol of the way many in the South still dream that life should still be. A “whites-only” world, where there is nothing wrong with separate water fountains and segregated lunch counters. Simply measures to keep those who used to be the help from getting the wrong idea that they may be equal in the eyes of man and God. Tara remains undimmed in their world. It can therefore be no wonder that Dylann Roof had those 13 stars in his eyes when he walked into the Emmanuel AME Church, sat through an entire Bible study…and killed those in attendance anyway.
These are the ghosts of Appomattox. The spirits that haunt us today should have been laid to rest many years ago; their weapons, uniforms and flags sealed in storage trunks, museums and the history books. To those who say the outrage against the ANV flag is merely symbolic and perhaps we should be focusing our energies toward other endeavors, such as stronger gun control legislation, well, that is also true. But symbols are powerful. They have meaning and lend motivation to people’s actions and inactions. It is high time that we as Americans collectively decide that a flag that died on a spring morning in a Virginia courthouse, a symbol that has been used to cause so much anguish then and now, be relegated to a place where it is only a memory of a national tragedy. Can it ever be something we can glean important lessons from? Yes. If we can achieve this, then perhaps we might learn something from this banner after all and have it be something positive and life affirming instead of divisive.
“Who says that fictions only and false hair become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty? Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines pass, except they do their duty to a true, but painted chair?” – George Herbert (1593-1633)
Somehow, I can’t applaud Caitlyn Jenner like everyone else seems compelled to do. Don’t get me wrong. I am a full-throated supporter of the LGBT community and I for one see transgender issues as one of the next great challenges of civil rights. But to be honest, I’m not buying whatever is being sold here and make no mistake, something is unquestionably being sold. My wife noted how much of this is truly smoke-and-mirrors and she’s right. This isn’t about someone finally becoming the person they have always been inside. This is a movie premiere. Another reality TV moment. It concerns me that there is another debate that may wind up being glossed over with this reveal and that is how we as a society look at gender roles and what constitutes real “change” for individuals in the transgender community. Should we simply be impressed by the dress and makeup and then cheer? Or is this revelation in no small way a genuine disservice to transgender people who don’t have the money and fame to insulate themselves from prejudice and hate?
I’m beginning to wonder how many of her most vocal supporters are merely enthusiasts; thrilled about Caitlyn’s reveal only because it is galling to political conservatives that a transgendered person is garnering so much media attention, or because it is the correct and enlightened viewpoint to take if one is a social progressive or simply to avoid the appearance of being thought of as transphobic. One cannot look at this production (there’s a polished behind-the-scenes video and an upcoming 8 part miniseries for crying out loud…don’t say this isn’t a production) only to smile and state in a very blasé fashion that if nothing else “it sparks discussion and debate on transgender issues.” That’s a cop-out. To accept that posit on its face is a refusal to confront the real issues that face those in the transgender community that aren’t radiant or glamorous. There is bigotry out there that must be dealt with and real discrimination that needs to be fought and I’m more than a little troubled that nobody is acknowledging the many hurdles that remain for the transgender community. A new idol, even a hero, and a reveal to be celebrated? Sure. Why not? But let’s see if people can get refocused on the bigger picture once Vanity Fair needs a new cover model.
In the final analysis, there is little doubt that we’d all probably love to have an airbrushed photo taken of us by Annie Leibovitz and wind up on the cover of some high-profile magazine. On the other hand, I remember when Caitlyn was a man back in 1980 trying to recapture some shred of the glory reaped from past athletic triumphs and doing it by appearing in every cheesy and ridiculous movie or TV show that presented a willing camera lens. 35 years later, the “Please Look At Me” tour bus continues to roll unabated. Given who she was, and still is to a large degree, one can’t help but think that many in the transgender community must be wondering if all Caitlyn Jenner is doing is marketing a persona carefully crafted by the same infernal machine that spat out her Kardashian counterparts. One individual I know personally who is about to begin the transition from male to female has gone so far as to say that until there is some kind of sex reassignment procedure, what has been captured for all the world to marvel at is, and I quote, “Bruce Jenner in drag. He’s making me feel like a circus freak.” The use of the pronoun “he” is especially noteworthy if for no other reason that it came from someone who is also struggling to be accepted for who she is by a society that insists on seeing her as an aberration to be despised. The difference is that she won’t be getting fat checks for a miniseries about her story and when all is said and done, plenty if people will still move to the other side of the street when she goes to the store to pick up some groceries.
Is Caitlyn Jenner’s transition really just a planned media stunt? Extremely unlikely. But is the public, even the most well-intentioned of us, perhaps getting the wrong message from this new symbol of the transgender community? Almost assuredly. The great transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox is right: “Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have…it is those trans folks we must continue to lift up.” I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner is helping. There is too much marketing, too much smoke-and-mirrors, surrounding this issue. Celebrities have often drawn our attention to the issues that we otherwise may overlook or just ignore. The PR leviathan driving our fascination with this story, however, needs to start finding the others who need to be lifted up, the ones who face bile from ignorant people every day because right now, it just feels like rich and famous people becoming more rich and famous than they already are.