Back from vacation

Just got done driving my family around Washington, DC for a few days. Slowly trying to reenter working life, but it’s challenging to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, which is about the length of time my kids will let me focus on anything.

But there were some cool things along the way, including what may now be my favorite room in the Smithsonian, the exhibit room inside the Castle (above and below). Note the Concorde model below and the flock of birds above.

Heading to DC

We have a rare family vacation next week. We’ll be taking the kids to visit some family and then to spend a few days exploring our nation’s capitol. There’s a part of me that will always be excited to visit the seat of our government and of so much of America’s identity, and to expose my kids to our history as well as all the riches of the American Museum of Natural History.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel any uneasiness about the trip. My feelings toward our government are definitely tarnished by the current occupant of our nation’s highest office and the horrific car wreck of an administration he’s surrounded himself with. But this will be, I hope, a good opportunity to push reset on some of those feelings and just take in the reminder that we can be better than we are.

100 years’ anniversary: James Rogers McConnell

Some members of the fighter squadron N.124, “l’Escadrille Américaine,” in May 1916. Corporal James Rogers McConnell is at the right. (Courtesy Air Force Times)

Yesterday was a solemn anniversary of sorts, covered in the Cavalier Daily (Ceremony honors 100th anniversary of alumnus’s death in WW I) and UVA Today (UVA Honors Inspiration for “Winged Aviator” Statue, 100 Years After His Death). I’ve written about McConnell before, both as student and martyr. On this hundredth anniversary of his slaughter, it seems fitting to reflect on his legacy and what he represents.

First, McConnell was at once the last and first of his kind. First because he was the first UVA student to be killed in that awful war; last because he was the last American airman killed before the United States officially entered the war April 6, 1917, just 18 days after his death. He was also effectively the last American warrior-as-adventurer, in the model of Teddy Roosevelt or the other early 20th century military leaders who held greater fame in civilian life.

Indeed, his decision to head to France, and later join the Escadrille after serving as an ambulance driver, is best read through the lens of Roosevelt as a role model. As he is quoted in the introduction to his memoir Flying for France, “These Sand Hills will be here forever, but the war won’t; and so I’m going.” But later he was converted to the belief of the absolute rightness of the French cause, and so he entered his combat role.

He was last in another way too—probably the last prominent UVA student to partake so fully of UVA’s extracurricular offerings. As King of the Hot Feet he was part of the University’s tradition of revelry; as one of the earliest known members of the Seven Society he was a founder of the tradition of more sober and secretive organizations that focused on good works.

The UVa Library has a comprehensive exhibit on McConnell’s life online, showing not only his letters home and artifacts from his plane and personal effects, but a memoir from his frequent correspondent Mademoiselle Marcelle Gúerin. Reading the material is a sobering reminder of a time when causes were just and consequences were mortal.

Sounds of anguish

Christopher C. King, Oxford American: Unearthly Laments. It’s easier than you might think to connect the dots between the earliest known complete musical composition—the Seikilos Epitaph—and “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” I’ve got a mix almost in the can that explores some of these connections.

But that isn’t why you should read King’s piece. His tale of discovery of a 78 of the Blind Willie Johnson record is: a little physical remnant of sorrow, left to rot in a sharecropper’s shack until saved from fiery destruction.

‘Do what thou wilt’ not, in fact, the whole of the law

The New Yorker: The Ninth Circuit Rejects Trumpism. The enumeration in the article of the constitutional principles challenged by Trump’s executive order on immigration, aka the “Muslim ban,” is long. The scarier bit is the repeated note that the administration was given every chance to argue in a serious way for its side and offered no more than “because I said so.”

Václav Havel and the path forward

New Yorker: Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis.” A perspective of hope drawn from Havel’s response to both Communism and Cold War capitalism:

The spontaneous and vigorous opposition to Trump, whether at the women’s marches the day after his Inauguration or at the protests at U.S. airports in support of a viciously demonized people, has already manifested many of the qualities that Havel wished to see in civil society: trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love. Many more people realize, as Havel did, that arbitrary and inhuman power cannot deprive them of the inner freedom to make moral choices, and to make human community meaningful. They are shaping a redemptive politics of dissidence in the free world, nearly three decades after the fall of Communism. To measure the American dissidents’ success in electoral or any other quantifiable terms would be beside the point. For they are creating a “parallel polis”: the vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger, and learn to live in truth.

I like this perspective very much. Here dissidence isn’t just opposition to the actions of an “enemy,” it’s assertion of moral values and enacting positivity. Definitely a lesson here.

Wait, what?

New York Times from yesterday: Trump and staff rethink tactics after stumbles

Key quote:

Mr. Bannon remains the president’s dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump’s anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council, a greater source of frustration to the president than the fallout from the travel ban.

Read that again. 

Trump demoted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Director of National Intelligence to give Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, a seat on the NSC, then complains he didn’t know what was in the order he signed?

Jesus. 

Ban the ban 

Sorry for the unplanned radio silence on the blog. The combination of the horrific first week of the Trump presidency and a busier work schedule than normal has temporarily stopped my words. 

At least here. For some reason, I can still write on Facebook. Here’s what I said recently about the immigration ban targeting Muslims:

The anesthesiologist from Iran who assisted with my heart surgery does not need to be banned.

My son’s best friend, a Sikh boy in kindergarten who played at our house yesterday, does not need to be banned.

Students who are legal residents, with full documentation and vetting, who went home to visit their parents for winter break and cannot return to complete their studies, do not need to be banned.

And don’t try to tell me that this is about terrorism, when Saudi Arabia, the country of most of the 9/11 hijackers who killed my friend Doug, my dear friend M’s husband, and thousands more, is not included in the ban. Nor are any other countries linked to Trump’s business interests

This isn’t about terrorism. This is about unprecedented levels of institutional racism and bigotry in a country founded on religious freedom.

Links for January 25, 2017

Boing Boing: Rep. John Lewis’ civil rights comic trilogy still at #1. Thanks Trump! Going to check this out and hope to share it with my kids.

Washington Post: ‘This is dangerous’: After D.C. protesters shout at ex-N.C. Gov. McCrory, lawmaker floats bill to protect him. Interesting: my initial reaction was a knee-jerk response that this is yet another demonstration by North Carolina lawmakers that they don’t understand the Bill of Rights. But the Post article (unlike the Boing Boing pointer to it) references a DC law that similarly protects current or former DC employees in the course of their duties. Very curious on the back story of that one.

One Last Time

It’s been a great ride under President Obama. I’m not looking forward to what tomorrow will bring. Because tomorrow I have to stop ignoring the reality of last November’s election and dig in.

I was listening to Hamilton for the first time last week when I was traveling (I know. I’m the last person on earth to hear it), and when we got to George Washington’s farewell address, it got me thinking about Fortuna, the (lowercase-w) wheel of Fortune. How Washington set precedents for the peaceful transfer of power that all 44 presidents since him have followed, but that Donald Trump seems determined not to.

I think we’re going to find out in the next few years just how much that we take for granted in our public life—in the life of our Republic—is set by precedent rather than law, and how easily those precedents can be overturned.

Amateur hour in the House

New York Times: The Republican Ethics Vote: What Happened? When swift outrage followed the announcement that the House had quietly voted to dismantle an independent congressional ethics office, I figured it would be like all the times I was outraged about GOP actions: that the action would go forward anyway and our government would get a little shittier. Then Donald Trump weighed in, and this afternoon the House reversed itself.

The New York Times article explains the timeline, but not the cause behind the events. I think we can read this as a clear sign of “amateur hour” syndrome in the House. The Republican leadership spent six years in the majority under Obama, but they didn’t spend it governing. They spent it as though they were a minority opposition party, dedicating themselves to opposing every policy that he took and every initiative he announced. That’s not leadership; that’s protest. That doesn’t prepare you to actually act.

If today is any indication, we’re in for a long line of Keystone Kops style lawmaking out of this Congress.

Evaluating Paul Goodloe McIntire

Following yesterday’s link regarding the possible fate of the Confederate war statues donated to the City of Charlottesville by Paul Goodloe McIntire, I thought it might be worthwhile to dig a little deeper. Was McIntire, a huge donor to both the city and the University of Virginia, a virulent racist like composer and white supremacist John Powell

It seems many have been asking the same question, and as you might expect the evidence of his intent is a little murky. 

Let’s start with the facts. McIntire, after having made his fortune on the New York Stock Exchange, returned home to Charlottesville and started giving away that fortune. In addition to the school of fine arts, the amphitheater, and other gifts to UVA, he donated land and money for parks in Charlottesville, including two white-only parks (Belmont Park and McIntire Park). At the same time he donated the land for McIntire Park, he also donated the land for the all-black Washington Park.

Was he on the side of white supremacy? Or was he simply endowing all Charlottesville’s citizens, black or white, within the scope of the prevailing legal framework of “separate but equal”?

It’s hard to say. An article in CVille Weekly notes that “he did invite the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to plan the statue’s [Lee’s] unveiling.” But given the heavy concentration of Confederate veterans in Virginia, was this like inviting the Klan or only like inviting the Disabled American Veterans?

I don’t know if we will ever get a good answer on this, given that people like Ben Railton and Waldo Jaquith have been plumbing it since 2009. But it’s worth continuing to remind ourselves that many who have been held up as civic heroes were also products of their times. And, with Railton, to remember that we have many public spaces dedicated to the narrow Confederate view of history, and to call for more reminders of how life was on the other side. 

Your daily “past isn’t even past” update

Cavalier Daily: Final report on Confederate memorials presented to city. Interesting tension between moving the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and recontextualizing them, with some unusual voices on both sides. 

Interesting, too, to note the association of both statues within a historically segregated park and the donor of both statues and park, namely Paul McIntire, also a major donor to the University of Virginia. 

More from North Carolina

Jedediah Purdy: North Carolina’s Partisan Crisis. Great article in the New Yorker running down the “torch the place on the way out” law passed at the behest of outgoing Republican governor Pat McCrory to restrict the powers of the incoming Democratic governor, Roy Cooper.

Purdy makes the argument that the real crisis is not the restriction of powers, but the steady erosion of the Republican Party’s moral authority in North Carolina. To which I say, Gee, ya think? The gerrymandering that led to the creation of 28 illegal House and Senate districts to disenfranchise minority voters; the 2013 voting law that attempted to restrict black franchise by reducing early voting hours, eliminating same-day registration, and raising barriers to ballot access; the 2012 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, later ruled unconstitutional; the March 2016 “bathroom law” that placed trans people in real jeopardy by seeking to induce moral panic; the repeal of the Racial Justice Act; the refusal of Medicaid expansion.

There is no vision of serving the needs of the people in this legislative agenda. This is naked will to power, mean-spirited suppression of minority interests, and complete indifference to the protection of underprivileged minority groups. I look forward to seeing what Cooper can do to restore some sanity to the state’s government, but he faces a Republican legislature that surely will run the Mitch McConnell playbook in refusing to govern.

(This is the problem, by the way, with the “practical guide” put forth by the Indivisible folks. If each side engages in total trench warfare without putting forth an adult policy alternative, we’ll be trapped rudderless in windless seas as the disasters of the 21st century bear down on us. We need to be able to govern this nation.)

Here’s hoping, though, that there are a few grownups left in the Tar Hell State.