Monday, December 20, 2010

The Persistence of Memory

A few years ago I was traveling around a small pig-farming town in Bavaria. It was a weekend and the town was strangely deserted - there was a festival in the nearby town of Rothenburg (centered, awesomely, around the legendary chugging of a very large mug of beer), and I suspect that most of the small town's 1000 or so residents were over there. Anyway, this small town had a small memorial tucked away on one of its picturesque lanes. It was a plaque, about as tall as me, with a list of names. I don't read German, but I could tell that it was commemorating the German dead in both world wars. Which made me, as a Jew, feel... well, sort of uncomfortable. I don't begrudge the German regulars their courage in death, but I had to remember that these names were of people who were fighting, essentially, to maintain their country's right to kill people like me. How much respect could I pay such a memorial? And what should I think about people who remember fondly those who would, if alive, want to see me gassed to death?

Back home in Raleigh, there's a memorial at the end of Hillsborough Street where it dead-ends into Salisbury Street at the State Capitol. It is a tall, thin structure with a soldier on top, and in large letters, plainly visible to the cars across Salisbury waiting to turn, is written the following inscription: "To Our Confederate Dead." And now, each time I pass that memorial, I wonder if Raleigh's African-American population feels the way I felt at that memorial in Germany.

150 years ago, the Civil War began. On December 20, 1860, the state of South Carolina passed its secession declaration. Four days later, the denizens of the Palmetto State explained their reasons for doing so:
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
It is difficult for a serious student of history to deny that the direct cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the threat of its dissolution by the nascent Republican Party and its leader, Abraham Lincoln. You can claim that it was "states' rights," but it was the states' rights to allow slavery that was in question. You can claim that it was about economics, but the South's economy was based on slavery. There's just no way around it. You can claim - correctly - that the average Confederate soldier didn't give a rat's ass about slavery (only 25% of those who fought for the South came from slaveholding families), but they were led and encouraged by plantation owners and defenders of slavery.

Which puts the modern white Southerner in a tight spot. White Southerners, by and large, abhor racism and are disgusted by the idea of slavery, but have to deal with the fact that their ancestors fought and died for that very cause. Even folks like me who had nary an ancestor in the US during the Civil War but who grew up south of the Potomac have to deal with the fact that we call home a region of the country that once fought a war to keep the black man in chains, and then spent 100 years trying to reforge those chains out of laws and intimidation. And the decision that faces us is this: do we confront our history or try to rewrite it, ignore it, and hope it'll go away?

Unfortunately, anyone who has spent a lot of time down here knows which option we chose.

Southern food is famous for recipes born of necessity. Dishes like jambalaya and fried chicken arose out of the need to create good-tasting food out of whatever there was lying around, creating beauty from the unlikely, inconvenient situation of poverty. Cuisine, however, is not the only field where the Southern ability to make the best out of a bad situation surfaces. Today, of all days, a story broke which demonstrates this. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour got caught trying to sugarcoat the White Citizens' Councils that sprung up across the South in response to integration. Barbour credits the Citizens' Council of his hometown of Yazoo City for - of all things - ensuring that school integration was done peacefully. Never mind that this integration occurred in - wait for it - 1970, no doubt having been delayed by the actions of those very Citizens' Councils.

Barbour responded via a spokesperson, who claimed in an interview with TPM's Eric Kleefeld that Barbour isn't a racist. And you know what? I believe him. I'm sure that Barbour is as non-racist as possible. But like an old-time Cajun cook, Barbour is trying to make something delicious out of a less-than-desirable list of ingredients.

And Barbour is hardly alone - witness the South Carolinians holding a "Secession Ball" this evening, complete with period costumes and a re-enactment of the signing of the Ordinance of Secession. (No word on if black attendants would be required to wear shackles.) And if you aren't familiar with the "Lost Cause" mythology, the ability of Southerners to talk about the Civil War without once mentioning slavery - well, you just don't know enough Southerners.

The question, though, is why dp this? Why do we Southerners feel the need to turn the negative parts of our history into something good? My guess is that it's a pride thing - we don't want to admit that those who came before us did something wrong, that the region of the country that we love so much might be responsible for something so unequivocally awful. So we whitewash it. We pretend it wasn't that bad. Like Barbour, we tell stories of mixed-race crowds idly listening to Martin Luther King in small Southern towns, conveniently ignoring the tensions of the era.

The truly sad part is that we don't need to do this. Because racism isn't contained completely in the South, and it never has been. Malcolm X's autobiography is filled with awful instances of racial violence; Malcolm X grew up in Michigan. The swimming pool crowd who reacted to a group of black kids like they were diseased called Pennsylvania home. The region of the country most famous now for crazy white separatists isn't the South - it's North Idaho. And the state legislator who made national headlines for comparing a bill he didn't like to a black baby wasn't Southern - he was from Utah.

And the truth is that we don't need the Civil War and the mythology of the noble rebel to feel Southern pride. We don't need to ignore the things our grandfathers did during the civil rights era. The South is the region that gave the world the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll; jambalaya, gumbo, barbecue (with vinegar-based sauce, thank you very much), fried chicken, and collard greens; William Faulkner and Alice Walker; Jerry Rice and Bobby Jones; Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, and Robert Johnson; Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Martin Luther King; and an extremely useful second-person plural pronoun that is sorely lacking in mainstream English. And that's just scratching the surface. No other region has had anywhere near as much influence on American culture as the South. To all those non-Southerners who look at Southerners as a bunch of ignorant rednecks - until your region of the country produces a nowhere-near-exhaustive list like that, y'all can shut the hell up.

The difference between the two memorials, the one in Bavaria and the one in Raleigh, is that the Bavarians don't pretend like their fight was the good fight. They have learned how to honor their dead without honoring their cause. We can do the same. We can memorialize our Confederate dead without justifying their rebellion. We don't need to pretend like the stance of Southern state governments during secession and segregation was benign concern for "states' rights." Rather, we can stand up on all of our region's other contributions to America, and be justifiably proud.

150 years ago today, the Confederate States of America was born. It is long past time to put it to bed.

I'm Wishing That He'll Go Away

The only thing that can be said about this:
The Republican who will head the House committee that oversees domestic security is planning to open a Congressional inquiry into what he calls “the radicalization” of the Muslim community when his party takes over the House next year.

Representative Peter T. King of New York, who will become the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was responding to what he has described as frequent concerns raised by law enforcement officials that Muslim leaders have been uncooperative in terror investigations.
is this:

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lester Bangs Caucus

There's a new political group out there now called No Labels. They refer to themselves as putting aside hyper-partisanship in order to move the country forward. Nothing wrong with that. Compromise is a good thing. Take the tax cut package, for example. As much as I don't like the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts on the upper tax bracket, if we have to give that to get a bunch of other stuff Republicans don't want, I'll go along with it. In a country of 300 million people, you'll never get all of what you want. As long as the compromise isn't worse than the opposition's original position (and it isn't, mainly because the deficit problem requires long-term solutions that are unaffected by this short-term deal) and it's fairly even (and it is - unemployment benefit extension and a boost in other low-income tax credits offset the extension of the tax cuts for the rich), take it.

So compromise is how things get done, and a group that supports that is OK with me. Also, blind partisanship is bad news - a lot of bad policy and bad ideas are propagated out of an unwillingness to go against anyone perceived as being on the same "team." So if you want to put aside labels and have a policy discussion, cool.

And yet. Uneasiness remains.

See, the problem with being "non-ideological" is that it's impossible. We all have ideologies. No Labels, for instance, is actually rather ideological. Their statement of purpose describes what they find important:
  • Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works – driven by shared purpose and common sense.
  • Americans deserve a government that makes the necessary choices to rein in runaway deficits, secure Social Security and Medicare, and put our country on a viable, sound path going forward. Americans support a government that works to spur employment and economic opportunity by encouraging free and open markets, tempered by sensible regulation.
  • Americans want a government that empowers people with the tools for success – from a world-class education to affordable healthcare – provided that it does so in a fiscally prudent way.
  • America should be free from discrimination and should embrace the principle of equal opportunity.
  • America must be strong and safe, ready and able to protect itself in a world of multiple dangers and uncertainties.
  • But what if you believe, like many libertarians, that Social Security and Medicare are bad programs, and that no regulation is "sensible"? What if you believe, like many leftists, that free and open markets are an invitation for corporate exploitation? What if you believe that government has no role in education or health care, or that it's more important to protect civil liberties than it is for America to be "strong and safe"? I guess "No Labels" has no use for such silliness.

    No Labels is short-circuiting our political process by assuming a consensus on our nation's direction that may or may not exist. In the name of civility and compromise, No Labels is actually treating the dissenters to their presumed consensus in the most uncivil way possible - pretending that they don't exist.

    Look, civility is great, and it should be practiced wherever possible. But this belies the fact that political issues deeply affect our lives, and as such they produce an outpouring of emotion that makes civility almost counterproductive. In the name of "civility," we ignore the passionate extremes who might have a good idea every now and then, and we temper our own impulses for fear of being ridiculed as "uncivil." And what purpose does that serve? How can we impress on someone the importance that we affix to, say, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the use of the criminal justice system to try terror suspects if we're so concerned about being "civil"?

    Put differently, which is more important: being civil? Or being truthful?

    The big problem with our discourse is not that it is "uncivil." American discourse has always been kind of "uncivil," stretching all the way back to the days of Jefferson and Adams. Rather, it is that we allow lies to propagate unchecked. We have a significant portion of the population that thinks that Obama raised taxes on the middle class when, in fact, the opposite is true. And if someone attempts to call the liars on their lies, the center simply sniggers and calls the bullshit-callers "uncivil."

    So is there a better way of promoting policy debate that moves our country forward? Yes, and fellow devotees of the movie Almost Famous already know it. It's from the end of this scene:

    "Honest and unmerciful." Call me a member of the Lester Bangs caucus. Let's be passionate. Let's call the other guys out when we think they're wrong. Let's let people know when we think others want to take America in the wrong direction. Let's pursue justice tenaciously, and speak out against injustice convincingly. But let's make damn sure we're honest - both intellectually and factually - when we do so. Passion and emotion need to be backed up by facts and truth. And let's not address those who manipulate our emotions with lies and half-truths with kid gloves in the name of civility. Open, honest, no-holds-barred debate is what moves this country forward. It weeds out the weak ideas and policies based on false premises. It forms the basis of those compromises that No Labels fetishizes. If we want to be true friends to America, we need to be honest and unmerciful.

    Tuesday, December 07, 2010

    It's About Respect, People

    2010 has a lot of entries into the "Douche of the Year" contest, but Robert Stacy "The Other" McCain is making a late charge with this incredible column.

    Let's set the scene. For those of you who don't know, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is being charged in Sweden with two counts of some sexual assault-like crime. In the first case, Assange and a woman were having sex, and the condom Assange was wearing broke; when the woman asked Assange to stop, he kept going. In the second case, Assange didn't bother to wear a condom at all despite the fact that the woman expressly asked for one. Jill Filipovic of Feministe, in response, makes what should be a relatively non-controversial point:
    If you consent to having sex with someone and part of the way through you say to stop and the person you’re having sex with continues to have sex with you against your wishes, that’s rape.
    No shit, right? Kinda obvious... but apparently not to Mr. Other McCain:
    In an era when some 40% of U.S. births are to unmarried women, in a culture where “Girls Gone Wild” and “hook-ups” are normative, where threesomes, bisexual experimentation and amateur video-porn orgies have become a virtual rite of passage for many young Americans, where chlamydia and herpes are pandemic — in this era of rampant sexual decadence, I say, does Jill Filipovic (J.D., NYU) seriously expect horny strangers to negotiate consent calmly on an act-by-act basis while they’re knocking boots, making the beast with two backs, in flagrante delicto?

    Listen up, sweetheart: You buy the ticket, you take the ride.


    If you tumble into a random hook-up with no prior knowledge of the guy’s reputation and he turns out to be a selfish brute whose standard modus operandi is repulsive, dangerous or painful, in what sense are you a victim of anything except your own stupidity?

    Mr. McCain and Assange are two sides of the same coin. Both feel very little need to respect the decisions of women regarding their own bodies. Assange went ahead with whatever he wanted to do without paying any attention to what the women wanted; McCain thinks that women don't have a right to make decisions beyond a certain point. These are equally disgusting viewpoints. Assange's disrespect is likely a figment of his narcissism, so we can expect that. I'm at a loss to explain McCain, though. I have a hard time believing that, in this day and age, anyone can believe that there's a point where women lose the right to consent to sex. And I'm even more baffled that there are people out there like Mr. McCain that enjoy explicitly blaming women for their own rape.

    So it's a little startling that McCain, when he finally comes down from his victim-blaming high-horse, attempts to make something resembling a legitimate point in an update to his post:
    I am not endorsing, advocating or defending Julian Assange’s behavior. He is a bad person, what he did was clearly wrong, and whatever harm befalls him, he most certainly deserves. But Assange’s wrongs were perpetrated in an environment of casual promiscuity. It is in just such an environment that lowlifes like Assange thrive and flourish, and if we refuse to criticize promiscuity — if we never point out to women that, in sleeping around, they are playing a game in which they are vulnerable to exploitation — then we are not-so-innocent bystanders.
    Let's ignore the insulting paternalism here for a moment and address what might be the kernel of an actual reasonable thought. Perhaps McCain isn't really blaming Assange's victims here, but is rather blaming a culture of promiscuity for rape. This is an idea worth addressing, though I still think it's a wrongheaded idea.

    If we imagine a society where sex is reserved only for the most meaningful relationships, we can understand how sexual assault cases like this would be all but non-existent, since strangers wouldn't be having sex. But we cannot assume that this would eliminate sexual assault; partner rape is depressingly common. Furthermore, one could also easily imagine a culture where casual sex is the norm and where all sex is consensual and mutually wanted; one-night stands are quite often mutually wanted. So a "culture of promiscuity" clearly isn't responsible for sexual assault.

    So what is? McCain backs into the answer by using the crap "but they can't help it" defense: "in this era of rampant sexual decadence, I say, does Jill Filipovic (J.D., NYU) seriously expect horny strangers to negotiate consent calmly on an act-by-act basis while they’re knocking boots, making the beast with two backs, in flagrante delicto?" The answer, of course, is absolutely yes. I've dealt with previously. Despite all the sexual messages in our society, I somehow avoid going around raping people, and so do most of the men I know. This is because I was raised to respect women, and so were my friends.

    And that's the key. The prevalence of sexual assault against women is not correlated to the sexualization of our society; rather, it is correlated to the respect our society has for women. The lesson that Assange and McCain refuse to learn is that a woman's choice to not have sex or to stop having sex is one that must be respected if we are to consider ourselves moral beings. Furthermore, this respect cannot be conditional. If one partner doesn't want to continue having sex, the other partner should respect that and stop (regardless of whether or not he/she likes it). It really doesn't matter what happened before.

    You'd think this would be easy to grasp. Respecting the wishes of others isn't that hard. Right?