The Casual Blog

Tag: 1619 Project

The debate disaster, ending the elections problem, and fixing messy history

The presidential debate this week was difficult to watch, but gave us plenty to think about.  President Trump seemed to be impersonating an angry wingnut conspiracy monger’s all caps Twitter account.  When Biden threatened to say something interesting, Trump interrupted with ugly taunts, sarcastic asides, baseless accusations, bizarre lies, and shouts of incoherent nonsense.  

Judged by any normal standards of civil discourse, Trump’s performance was not just disgusting but bizarre.  Why would anyone do that?  But perhaps there was a method in the madness.  Trump’s performance seemed designed to make people stop watching politicians and thinking about politics. 

And that would make some sense.  If people kept watching, they might like Biden even better, and the pending anti-Trump landslide might get even bigger.  Given Biden’s success so far, it would make some sense for the pro-Trump forces to try to make everyone so sick of the political process that they tune out and stay home.  

The debate was such a fiasco that the commission in charge is talking about revising the rules for the remaining two debates.  One idea is to cut off the mike of the candidate who refuses to shut up according to the rules.  Unfortunately, that wouldn’t prevent a crazy orange haired candidate from distracting the other candidate by shouting bizarre lies.

So I have an idea!  Remember those cake stands with glass covers that show nicely decorated cakes?  We could make a very large soundproof cake stand cover and suspend it with a motorized cable above the candidates.  Then when a candidate shifts into Tweeting madman mode, the moderator could lower the cover.  We could observe the candidate smirking, scowling, and gesticulating, but would be able to listen to what the other candidate was trying to say.  After some suitable penalty period (say, 3 minutes), the moderator could raise the cake stand, and the out-of-control candidate would get another chance to behave normally and play by the rules.

In the debate this week, Trump declined to condemn white supremacists, and tried to blame left wingers for violent incidents associated with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.  He spoke approvingly of a violent racist group called the Proud Boys.  If all that weren’t horrifying enough, he encouraged his followers to gather at polling places to discourage non-supporters from voting, and again claimed that the election is going to be fraudulent.     

With President Trump all but promising to declare our next presidential election invalid unless he wins, he continues to force us to think more about American democracy.  I’ve always thought of elections as one of the least interesting things about the American system, because they were generally simple and uncontroversial.  We voted, the votes were counted, and the person with the most votes won.  

Now, to be sure, there have always been problems with our elections, such as excluding Black people, women, and others from the process during much of our history.  But I thought the worst of that was in the past, and that one thing most Americans were justifiably proud about was having more or less free and fair elections.  

If only!  It sounds like Trump and a significant number of his followers who propose to Make America Great Again are ready to stop having those old fashioned elections.  Is it really possible that there are seemingly normal people who think 1. this is a great country and also 2. we should quit having free and fair elections?  Even if their adored potential dictator were someone of much higher quality than Trump, this seems like a thing you would oppose if you cared at all about our country.  

I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic.  I’m still fairly sure that stopping fair elections and making Trump our supreme leader is the dream of only a minority, and the majority will not buy it.  But Trump is making unmistakeable and unprecedented threats to dismantle our most fundamental institutions, including elections, and we can’t take it as a joke.  We need to vote and encourage voting like never before, and like the future of our democracy is at stake.  

The movement to dispense with elections may have something to do with weaknesses in our system for teaching history.  A lot of history education is badly done, and leaves students with the mistaken impression that history is boring.  As an enthusiastic amateur of American history, I was intrigued to hear about President Trump’s new history initiative, the 1776 Project.  

But I quickly got less excited.  The 1776 Project seems to be an effort to reinforce the traditional triumphalist narrative in American history and suppress the fuller understanding coming into view from sources like the 1619 Project The latter is an effort begun last year at the New York Times to shine light on formative aspects of our national experience that we’ve mostly tried hard to forget, like slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and contemporary discrimination.  

The 1619 Project sparked a lively discussion of the meaning of race and the roots of our existing power structure, and it’s well worth reading and talking about.   My guess is that the 1776 Project turns out to be nothing more than another cynical election year Trump lie-promise.  It probably won’t even rev up the base very much, since most of them hated high school history, quickly forgot the little they learned, and have no interest in ever thinking about history again.  

As of this writing, it looks like the chances are good that Trump himself will be history come January 20, 2021.  But if we should be so unfortunate as to have to revise American history to fit the Trumpian vision, it would be fairly easy.  Essentially, we’d just censor all the unpleasant stuff that clutters up the MAGA narrative, and get over any last shreds of reluctance to celebrate white supremacy.  

For example, here’s a prototype of a 1776 Project history quiz.  See how you do! 

 

  1.  Prior to the Civil War, life in the American south was:
  1. Romantic, with gallant men and pretty girls in flowing gowns
  2. Opulent, with tremendous profits from cotton, which allowed for building lovely mansions with columns with grand lawns
  3. Lively and stimulating, with big parties and fine horses
  4. Generally harmonious, except for the occasional duel to preserve gentlemanly honor

 

  1.  How well were American slaves treated before the Civil War?
  1. Not bad.  They got whipped and tortured, but generally only when they failed to do as instructed
  2. Fairly well.  Otherwise, why didn’t they escape?
  3. Well.  They got to sing those lovely spirituals and do lively dances
  4. Quite well.  They got free room and board, and we should all be so lucky

 

  1. What was the most remarkable achievement of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups following the Civil War?
  1. Mass imprisonment of former slaves on vague charges such as vagrancy and loitering
  2. Widespread lynchings on false charges of improper relations with white women
  3. Preventing Black people from living outside designated areas and from socializing with white people
  4. Violence that intimidated former slaves into not voting

 

  1. What was eugenics?
  1.  A pseudo scientific theory developed in the late 19th century and widely accepted in America that classified the white race as superior
  2. A movement that used forced sterilization and other measures to reduce reproduction rates of non-white people so as to improve population genetics
  3. The intellectual basis for Hitler’s final solution
  4. All of the above

 

  1. What is the significance of Black Lives Matter protests against police systems that regularly harass, brutalize, and kill Black people?
  1. No idea 
  2. They clearly make no sense
  3.  They are part of a plot by leftists to kill police and bring anarchy
  4.  They show the need for mobilizing massive force against Black people and their supporters in the hellhole cities so as to prevent invasion of beautiful white people’s suburbs

See, it wasn’t that difficult!  In Trumpworld (as opposed to reality), every single answer is entitled to full credit.  Needless to say, I’m hoping we’ll be leaving the false and racist history of Trumpworld very soon, and continuing the struggle towards racial equality and justice.  

If you’re interested in learning more about how American schools teach history, I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James Loewen, which I’ve been re-reading.  The title is a bit of an oversell (it doesn’t literally have “everything”), but Loewen has a lively style and gives bracing accounts of some of the key distortions regarding our forebears that most of us got indoctrinated with.  

Taking down some more Confederate monuments, and learning some important history

Looking across the N.C. Capitol grounds to the former site of the tall Confederate memorial obelisk

The big Confederate monument on the west side of the Capitol in Raleigh came down last week.  I didn’t learn the news until I walked over there for my morning constitutional.  Where there once was a 75-foot-tall obelisk, there was just a pile of rubble, which workers were cleaning up with a backhoe.  

People think of these monuments as part of history, which they are, in a way, but not the way most people think.  The big Confederate obelisk was dedicated in 1895.  Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, during the 12-year Reconstruction period, there were meaningful efforts to recognize equal rights for formerly enslaved people, but after that, white supremacy was reinstituted in the new form known as Jim Crow.  Most of the Confederate monuments in N.C. and elsewhere date from the Jim Crow period, and carry the coded message that the Lost Cause was noble, and white supremacy was still triumphant, so black people had better know their place, or else.   

It truly is historic that these monuments are coming down, but I’m sorry that they’re coming down so quietly.  There were apparently thousands of  people cheering when the Confederate obelisk was dedicated, and probably a lot who would have liked to cheer as it came down. 

Unfortunately, the Republican North Carolina legislature passed a  law in 2015 following the mass murder of black people by Dylann Roof forbidding the removal of such state owned monuments.  What were our Republican leaders trying to express, I wonder?  Let’s hope it wasn’t support for white racist terrorism, which would not be unprecedented in North Carolina.  Many of those Republicans are still in power, so let’s ask them.  

Recently Governor Cooper issued a decree authorizing removal of the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, which he characterized as an emergency measure.  The Governor’s reasoning was debatable, but close enough for government work.  I’d been a little worried that well-meaning protesters would try to pull down the big obelisk and accidentally crush somebody. Happily, the government workers got the monuments down without anyone getting hurt.

Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I took a walk through the Oakwood Cemetery, including the Confederate section.  It’s a quiet, lovely place, with old oak trees and gently rolling pastures.  There are several stone memorials praising the valor of the Confederate soldiers and the nobility of the Lost Cause.  

As for the soldiers, I’d guess there were some brave ones, and others who were flat out terrified.  As in every war, most of them were just followers, doing what they were told to do.  We can  feel compassion for them as humans and feel sorry that their lives were cut short without thinking their cause was noble.  Praising the Lost Cause (described as “Glorious” on a bench in the stone chapel shown below) is another matter.  That’s morally derelict.

Speaking of monuments, there was an outstanding essay by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times  titled You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is Confederate Monument.  Williams sets out in stark terms something we don’t much like to think about:  that the brutality of slave labor camps included a lot of rape of black women by white men.  From this racist violence, children of mixed race were begotten, as shown by the many variations in skin tones we now call black.  The evidence has been everywhere for all our lives, and we somehow managed not to notice.  The good news is, now we’re recognizing it was shamefully wrong, and starting to see the need for reparations.  

I also recommend a new essay by Isabel Wilkerson titled America’s Enduring Caste System.  Wilkerson  draws an interesting distinction between race and caste which explains how one can have no particular racial animus and yet still accept the caste system that subordinates people of color.  

As Wilkerson explains, our caste system is not explicit, but it is deep seated and powerful.  We understand it unconsciously, just as we understand our mother tongue, and it guides how we think about hierarchy and rights.  As it has traditionally operated, our caste system decrees that people of color should live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, have lower status jobs, and be regarded with suspicion.  This is, of course, an artificial creation with its roots in the racism that was used to justify slavery.  It is not immutable.  When we look at it more closely, we start to see we can dismantle it.  

I once thought I knew a fair bit about the history of slavery, but I’m finding there’s still a lot to learn.  Last weekend Sally and I watched 13th, a documentary on Netflix about America’s still on-going program of mass incarceration of black people.  It’s really excellent.  The subject is multi-dimensional, but the director, Ava DuVernay did a brilliant job of boiling it down.  Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, appears in the film, and contributes more here to our understanding.

I also want to give a shout out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her new piece on reparations.  Just as in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project work, she brings new aspects of the white supremacist system to light.  In the new essay, she points up that giving enslaved people their freedom and ignoring their poverty and other needs was a brutal way of handling the situation, and it cost many lives.  The continuation of white supremacy after the Civil War ensured that the descendents of enslaved people would remain second class citizens, poor and easily exploited. 

H-J notes that the coronovirus pandemic has taught us some surprising lessons, one being that we can come up with $2 trillion dollars to address economic problems without breaking a sweat.  She makes a compelling argument that now is a great time to finally acknowledge the immensity of the wrong done to kidnapped Africans and their descendents, and take a meaningful financial step toward righting that wrong.  I’ll conclude by quoting the last two paragraphs of her piece:  

Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.

It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.

 

Canadian forests and bears, and where we got our racism

Last week I went out to the west coast of Canada to photograph bears.  I stayed in Klemtu, B.C., a small community in Great Bear Rainforest, which is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet.  It was vast and beautiful there, with evergreens covering mountainous islands surrounded by intricate waterways. The area is home to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, members of which served our group as guides.

The travel involved some bumpy boat trips, hiking, and sitting for hours, often in the rain, watching hopefully for bears.  I found the waiting challenging, especially when the rain got heavy, but also learned some things. Sitting in the woods or on the boat watching and listening very closely for long periods became a type of meditation.  Getting really externally focused helped in making a good shot.  

We had good close views of  black bears, grizzlies, and a rare spirit bear, a white relative of the black bear which is found only there.  We also watched humpback whales and orcas diving and occasionally breaching. There were lots of bald eagles and ospreys.  One day we saw an osprey that had caught a fish drop it, and then an eagle caught the unfortunate fish in mid-air.

The trip was organized by Muench Workshops and led by Kevin Pepper, who gave me friendly encouragement and guidance.  The six other amateur photographers in the group were very well traveled and experienced. We were all surprised to find that every one of us, including Kevin, had the same camera:  the excellent Nikon D850.  My equipment worked well, except that I maxed out my hard drive halfway through the trip.  I ordered a new one, and should have a few more wildlife photos to share next week.  

It was a long trip home, starting from Klemtu by boat, then a cab to the Bella Bella airport, and a prop plane to Vancouver, and the next morning a flight to Seattle, and nearly missing the connection to Raleigh.  

 

One thing I like about long travel days is the chance to get immersed in books.   On the trip home, I finished Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The book is about the existential risks that we’re now facing, especially climate change.  McKibben strongly lays out the imminent threats of rising temperatures, storms, fires, droughts, ocean acidification, and others. His account of how the fossil fuel industry consciously misled the public and prevented remedial action is clear and infuriating.  Some of the factual information was familiar, but I still found McKibben’s framing readable and worthwhile, and appreciated his note of hope. 

It was good to get back to North Carolina.  On Friday, I stopped by Jersey Mike’s for lunch.  I like their veggie sandwich (the number 14), which I get dressed “Mike’s way.”  They know me there, and I usually get a smile when I order. But this time I noticed a young black man behind me did not get such a friendly reception when he ordered.  The woman at the counter, who’d been friendly and warm to me, turned sour and cold to him.  

Did it have to do with his color?  I’m pretty sure that it did. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this:  in our racial caste system, a lot of people treat others less well based on skin color.  Sometimes it’s subtle, and for those of us in the privileged caste, it’s easy not to see.

Grizzly cub

As I noted here recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the non-obvious effects of American racism, including its polarizing impact on our politics.  I learned more about those issues this week from the 1619 Project, an excellent series of essays in the NY Times on American slavery and racism.  The series makes a strong case for viewing slavery not as a momentary aberration in the American experience, but a central element of our foundation that continues to affect us today.   

The 1619 Project notes how the heritage of slavery explains many of the problems in our housing, schools, employment, health care, and criminal justice systems.  The essay by Matthew Desmond  was particularly intriguing.  Desmond points out that the version of capitalism that Americans think of as normal is actually quite different from capitalism in most countries in that it largely ignores concerns for workers’ welfare.  He argues that this is the result of attitudes and practices worked out in the extremely profitable cotton plantations of the early 19th century. Plantation owners pioneered many modern business and financial systems, and also developed a mindset that tolerated extreme inequality with wealth and privilege only for a lucky few.  Their success depended on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped Africans.  

The brutality of that system was justified by the pseudo-science of racism, with otherwise respectable scientific minds purporting to show that Africans and their American descendants were inherently inferior.  Ian Frazier has a very fine piece in this week’s New Yorker on that subject, including the early 20th century work of Madison Grant and his popularizer, Lothrop Stoddard. 

Reading this history is helpful in showing that our racism is not natural.  It was a human invention. It’s turned out to be surprisingly durable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be undone.  Since we had the power to set it up, we clearly have the power to undo it. But plainly, fixing it will take hard work.  For most of my life, I thought that the system was gradually disappearing on its own, but recent events have shown how wrong I was.  

Grizzley mom

If we take on the hard work of breaking down our caste system and its underlying psychology, it’s bound to make us better, at least a little.  Less hatred and fear equal more happiness. Our current system requires that we accept as normal unfairness, injustice, and brutality. It desensitizes us and leaves us morally numb.  As we overcome that system, we’ll be better able to connect with people different from ourselves, and even with ourselves.  

The moral numbness of our racist system may also account for part of our problems connecting with other living things in the natural world.  As we clear away racist ways of thinking, we may find ourselves seeing more of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how fragile it is. It might motivate us to get to work on mitigating the existential threats facing our planet.