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.

Conflicts of interest #1: Trump Hotel in the Old Post Office

TPM: Federal agency warns Trump he must give up DC hotel before inauguration. It has long galled me that Trump took over the Old Post Office space, which I thought as a young visitor to DC was one of the most amazing places to visit in the nation’s capital.

Turns out, the GSA thinks his ownership is problematic, but for a different reason: there’s a clause in the lease contract that says no elected official of the US may have a say in or benefit from the lease of the property. So they’re advising Trump he needs to fully divest the hotel before his inauguration.

I think this is just the first real manifestation of what will be a long series of conflicts of interest between Trump’s business dealings and his job as our head of state. It’ll be interesting to see how this proceeds.

The Year of Jubilo

Two streams of media combined for me in the last few days. I finished reading The Underground Railroad last week, and I found The Year of Jubilo on Dust to Digital. Both brought an immediacy to some of what I’ve been thinking and learning about my country and the South in the years before (and during) the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad dramatizes the already-dramatic-enough role that some Southerners played in helping escaped slaves to safer (but not safe) destinations in the North, by mythologizing it. Sort of.

Colson Whitehead preserves a lot of things that really happened in the Underground Railroad, such as concealing runaways in attics and under haybales in wagons, but mythologizes the motivating spirit by envisioning a vast, mysterious underground network of tunnels with real trains running beneath barns and sheds. When Cora the runaway slave asks in astonishment “Who built it?,” the reply comes “Who builds anything in this country?” “Who do you think made it? Who makes everything?”

The unspoken secret: We built it. We built everything in this country. As Whitehead’s messianic Lander says later in the book, “Black hands built the White House.” The secret Whitehead tells is that the Underground Railroad wasn’t made up of well meaning whites with their attics and trap doors; it was built by the slaves themselves who decided they would fight for their freedom.

The flip side of that self determination? “The Year of Jubilo.” This is a Civil War song, written in 1862 by Henry Clay Work as “Kingdom Coming,” and familiar to fans of Tex Avery by its inclusion as the tune whistled by the “Confederate wolf” in “The Three Little Pups.”

Knowing it’s a Civil War era tune doesn’t exactly prepare modern ears for the lyrics. Even without the dialect, lines like “Say, darkies, have you seen the massa with the moustache on his face” are jarring to modern ears. But listening closer, the inversion that the song depicts, with the master running away from the arrival of the “Lincoln gunboats” and pretending to be a runaway slave himself to await capture, while the slaves avail themselves of his wine, is a different facet of the Civil War experience and captures part of the feeling that the world was turning upside down.

On Jefferson’s legacy

Cavalier Daily: Professors ask Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson: Faculty, students believe Jefferson shouldn’t be included in emails. This letter has blown up, so a few words about what happened:

  1. University president Teresa Sullivan sent an email after the election to the student body after the election, noting that UVa students had the responsibility of creating the future they wanted, with these words: “Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes’ … I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.”
  2. Assistant psychology professor Noelle Hurd drafted a letter, signed by 469 students and faculty members, to Sullivan, arguing that in light of Jefferson’s status as a slave owner and other racist issues, he should not continue to be held up as a moral compass: “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.”
  3. Predictably, the right wing of the Internet lost its mind. I’m not going to link to that, but you can get a flavor of it in the comments to the CD article.

If you’ve been reading my blog this year, you probably already know how I feel about this. I tried to express it in this post about appreciating Edgar Allan Poe’s art while rejecting his racism, but I don’t think I was clear enough.

This country may have been founded out of a desire for religious liberty and economic opportunity, or just for economic opportunity. But, as far back as 1640, our colonial forebears gave a legal basis to slavery, and by 1750 even colonies that rejected slavery on moral grounds (like Georgia) embraced it because of a shortage of workers. And ever since that tradeoff of morality for economic benefit was made, slavery and its corrosive effects have been at the heart of the history of this nation.

You want to knock Jefferson for being a slave owner? Here’s one worse: the economic growth, largely agricultural, that enabled this nation to come into being in the first place, that allowed it to grow strong enough to fight for and win its independence, was driven largely by the labor of chattel slaves.

You cannot uphold the ideals of American democracy and inclusiveness on the one hand while denigrating the intellectual contributions of a Thomas Jefferson on the other. Indeed, you have to acknowledge that both Jefferson and America were, and are, imperfect, are in fact stained with the same original sin.

But that cannot be a reason to stop being inspired by the ideas that Jefferson created and the hope that he gave the world. Jefferson’s great genius was that his intellect led him to ideas that had far greater implications for humanity than even he originally intended; that carried far greater moral authority than he could ever claim. The rejection by the young United States of the inherent inequity of the class systems of Britain, of the monarchical inequities of Europe, and the embrace of the idea that a people have inherent rights and should determine its own destiny, are all ideas that were far bigger than their limited implementations in 1776, or 1787, or 1863, or 1920, or 2015.

I recognize that I write this from a place of privilege, that I cannot in fact have any idea what Jefferson’s hypocrisy, his endless contradictions, and his inhumanity to his fellow man feels like to an African-American, or to anyone else. But to me, to demand that we silence Jefferson seems like the wrong response, now more than ever. We are all of us imperfect strivers toward an ideal we cannot possibly uphold. We should seek to hold a clear eye on the failings of those that came before us, while still acknowledging that their vision and ideas put us on this path in the first place.

Could be, should be, won’t be

New Yorker: Making the Hopewell Baptist Church great again. I love this piece. Partly I love it because it provides the punchline to a story that I had briefly heard about and then lost track of: the destruction by arson of a predominantly black church in Mississippi, accompanied by graffiti reading “Vote Trump.” The good news: a GoFundMe page with a goal of $10,000 raised over $250,000 for the church.

But partly I love it because it expresses in very clear terms what we expect of a president in these times, and by implication highlights how far we’re going to have to go to get there. Yes, Trump should get credit for giving a speech after the election calling for reconciliation, guidance and help. But he should also go and send a clear message that actions like the arson at Hopewell Baptist are not OK. I don’t think it’ll happen, but I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised.