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.

What to do for the next four years

I feel oddly lucky this morning, in a very specific way. I feel lucky that, this year, I didn’t let myself get totally consumed by the election, as I did in 2004 and 2008, or this morning, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as our 45th president, would feel even worse than it does. 

I also feel lucky to have lived through eight years of George W. Bush, and before him, eight years of Ronald Reagan. Because I know I can live through the next four. (Punk rock should help; it did before.)

But not the way I lived through the last eight. If last night taught me anything, it’s that we will never survive as a nation if we continue to allow ourselves to be divided. To that end, the first thing I intend to do differently, and suggest you consider, is:

Listen. You know those people you unfriended on Facebook because of their political leanings? You might want to start talking to them again. And it might be a good idea to find a media site that’s not slanted toward your biases and read that too. 

And, by the way, you can’t listen if you dehumanize, or demonize, the other side. Now is probably a good time to de-install Detrumpify. 

But I don’t mean just listen to what people on the other side of the aisle say; listen for why they’re saying it. Both sides have been saying some hateful things this election (some more than others), but that doesn’t mean they’re hateful people. They have real concerns too, though they may not always express them in ways we are ready to hear. And not all of their concerns are racist and bigoted. Some of them just want to feed their families.

That doesn’t mean you don’t call out bad behavior, which is why my second thing is:

Speak up. There are going to be a lot of actions and words that are going to anger us in the next few years. I don’t counsel silence. I do counsel raising our voices in protest—against behaviors, not people. If the blatant racism that we saw in the last twelve months continues, silence is not the right response. 

Lastly:

Get active. There will be a lot of people who get hurt in the next four years, but there are also a lot of people who are hurting already. Volunteering is a good way to make a difference.  Volunteering for a campaign, say for Congress, is a good path too. And for God’s sake, vote. 

I guess the FBI isn’t with her

Talking Points Memo: Odd Timing: FBI Releases Closed Case Files on Bill Clinton Pardon of Marc Rich. In addition to the Clinton Foundation investigation, the full set of documents dumped also includes a set of videos from aerial surveillance footage of protests in Maryland from April 29 to May 3, 2015; the report on the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state; J. Edgar Hoover era records on Nikolai Tesla; and an inquiry into Fred Trump.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, the other records posted to the contrary, the combination of the two Clinton disclosures strongly suggests that someone at the FBI has decided they aren’t going to take any chances that Hillary might be democratically elected President.

Viewing the mysteries

Hot Feet crown, courtesy UVA Magazine.
Hot Feet crown, courtesy UVA Magazine.

Hyperallergic: Folk art relics from the Golden Age of America’s Secret Societies (via Boing Boing). Interesting exhibit of artifacts from the Freemasons and Odd Fellows.

It made me think of some of the few artifacts that have surfaced from the University of Virginia’s secret societies. Most of them have left behind only their rings or ribbons, but a few other items of stranger affect survive, particularly from the Hot Feet.

My favorite is the crown of the Hot Feet, pictured above and worn by James Rogers McConnell, among others. Though the crown was updated by the time that Lewis Crenshaw wore it, it is still a fascinating reminder of this intersection between UVA mythology, folk art and the American tendency toward the borrowed ritual image. It would be fascinating to see if any of the other … intriguing artifacts pictured below from 1906, showing the coronation of Charles S. McVeigh outside the East Range, survive.

Hot Feet coronation, 1906, courtesy UVA Magazine.
Hot Feet coronation, 1906, courtesy UVA Magazine.

Vote early (not often)

Early voting sign in Andover, Massachusetts (AP)
Early voting sign in Andover, Massachusetts (AP)

I just did early voting for the first time this morning. It was easier than I expected.

My town offers one early voting location, in Cary Memorial Hall. I found a parking space in front (reserved for early voters) and entered the lobby, where there were about twelve other voters reading signs and standing in line to check in. About eight more were already inside voting.

I was given a ballot and an envelope that the poll worker marked with my precinct number. I voted, then signed the envelope and wrote my address on the outside, sealing my ballot inside. I turned in my ballot to a sealed box; because the ballot was sealed, there was no scantron and no counter, so I can’t tell you which voter number I was.

From a security perspective, the voting process seems no more or less secure than regular voting. It’s possible that someone could give a poll worker someone else’s name and street address, thus blocking their attempt to vote (just as they could on Election Day). It’s also possible that someone could register under their own name and then write someone else’s information on the early voting envelope and thus invalidate both ballots. But I think both outcomes are unlikely to be practiced at scale.

Massachusetts passed legislation in 2014 requiring that early voting be offered, and this is the first presidential election in which the law goes into effect. I’m hopeful that it will spark higher turnout. I’m wearing my “I Voted” sticker with the same goal.

The day after the election?

The New Yorker: Donald Trump and the Day After the Election. This is the thing I find most horrifying about the coming election: the prospect that in his ensuing tantrum, Trump will cement what a big part of the electorate already fears, that democracy is broken. When in fact, the most probable outcome is that democracy will be proven to work.

Leonard Cohen, as usual, is way ahead of us:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

But also:

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA