Category Archives: Politics

Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, and America’s Quest for White Martyrs of Racial Violence

It began with Emmett Till.

He was a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1954 when two white men lynched him to death for whistling at a white woman.  That in itself, sadly, wasn’t so unusual.  Thousands of African Americans were lynched to death during the first half of the 20th century.  What was different about this particular lynching was his mother’s response.

Till’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago instead of getting a quick burial in Mississippi. She then insisted upon an open-casket funeral so the world could see what they had done to her boy.  The black press covered the funeral as upwards of 50,000 mourners passed by the coffin. Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender newspaper published photos of his body, mutilated almost beyond recognition.  Afterwards, mainstream (white) national publications also ran the pictures and covered the story in depth, and Emmett Till entered the larger white consciousness as a martyr of racial violence.

Needless to say, there have been countless black (and Latinx and Indigenous and Asian) victims of racial violence in America over the last four centuries.  How many black people have been killed or maimed by whites for, essentially, being black? The number is impossible to know.  As an American historian, I suspect that tens of thousands would be an underestimate.  When considering the ravages of slavery and decades of subsequent lynch violence, the number could easily be in the hundreds of thousands.

Yet prior to Emmett Till, almost none of them ever entered white consciousness as martyrs.  Till became the first, the token black, the only one from among the countless thousands who most white people ever learned about in school or could cite by name.  Slavery and Jim Crow repression wrought horrible violence was no secret.  But upon whom, specifically?

In the 1960s, Till was joined in this sad canon only by Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers (briefly), and Malcolm X (but only to a minority of whites).  However, with the death of King in 1968, white consciousness considered the civil rights era over, largely went into hiding on the issue of race, and stopped acknowledging new black martyrs of white racial violence.

Why? Continue reading Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, and America’s Quest for White Martyrs of Racial Violence

There Is No Grand Conspiracy

Donald Trump’s most recent interview with a newspaper editorial board is here.  This time the Wall Street Journal had the privilege of sitting down for a tête à tête with the bloviating POTUS.

I think it’s a good idea to read extensive Trump interviews with serious journalists once in a while, whether they be from a liberal paper like the New York Times or a conservative one like the Journal.  Why?  Because they immediately dispel any notion of Trump as the master puppeteer choreographing a complex dance of political distraction.

There’s a line of thought, fairly popular at the moment, that Trump is some evil mastermind who makes outrageous comments to drag our attention away from his insidious plans, which are supposedly unfolding as we waste time parsing his tweets.

The truth is quite the opposite: Donald Trump is just not very coherent, and he lies a lot. Continue reading There Is No Grand Conspiracy

Interesting Times

I was wrong about Donald Trump winning the presidency.  Hell, I was one of those dopes who thought he wouldn’t even be able to get through the GOP primaries.  But at least one of my predictions did come true.

From day one, I told anyone who asked that a Trump presidency would be far more interesting than any other 2016 electoral scenario.  Indeed, a Trump presidency would be one of the most interesting political developments of the last hundred years, maybe of the next hundred.  And I’m afraid I was right.

After all, these are, if nothing else, interesting times.

There are many reasons to be deeply interested in the festering, moldy pyrotechnics of Trump’s amateur hour presidency.  There’s the sheer comedic value of watching him fumble and roar.  There’s the absolutely stunning, slow motion reshuffling of America’s role on the global stage.  There are the painful undulations and muted screams of a Republican Party unexpectedly confronting its own impotence in the hour of its great victory.  And there are all the things you were absolutely certain would happen that will not.

All of these funny, alarming, surreal shocks and many more cry out for explanation.  Anyone who’s paying attention desperately wants to understand just what the hell happening. Continue reading Interesting Times

This Populist Moment

Last week, Barack Obama got beaten up on social media and called out by the press for accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street firm Cantor and Fitzgerald.  It was the day’s major kerfuffle, the non-Trump story of the week, and reactions to it by many of my smart, well reasoned friends surprised me somewhat.

They began with the stance that it simply wasn’t an issue.  Obama’s a private citizen now, so who cares? But lots of people did care.  When the story picked up steam despite their protestations, my friends then blamed the loony left for fabricating the issue, launching a general assault on fringe elements of the Democratic party and a firm defense of sensible liberal or centrist (depending on the friend) outlooks.  But of course it wasn’t just the left.  The right predictably piled on as well, without any prompting from the left.  The story also transcended the partisan divide as the centrist press ran with it.  Christ, even the BBC, the vanilla pudding of international news, covered it.

In the end, the defense of Obama that gained the most traction among my friends, and to some degree in the national media, was a racial analysis.  Some claimed that this brouhaha was another example of white people shaming a black man for earning a paycheck, the imposition of a racial double standard since white politicians and ex-politicians do this kind of thing all time.

This needs to be reckoned with.  Obama was always held to a higher standard, precisely because he was black.  He was always subjected to intense racism.  And the racist backlash to his presidency, as much as anything else, helps explain Trump’s victory.  So was this just another example of that racial double standard?  It’s an important question to ask.

In the end, I don’t think it was.  Which is not to say that Obama is no longer subject to racism and double standards; he obviously is.  And those issues are still at play here, but I don’t believe they’re the driving force.  Because to mark race as the reason for a vast public outcry against his acceptance of money is to ignore the most salient point: where the money came from.

People are not upset that he made money.  Private citizen Obama collecting a $400,000 speaking fee doesn’t violate anyone’s principles, even racist assholes’.  Rather, the problem is that he very specifically took money from Wall Street.  The proof is clear: There wasn’t nearly as much griping when he signed a $20,000,000 book deal last month.

Why did that eight-figure windfall spark nowhere near the outrage this five-figure fee did?  Because no one’s worried that publishing money has corrupted Washington.  No one’s bitter about the book industry crippling the U.S. economy ten years ago, only to reap a massive bailout from taxpayers, and now running amok again.  And thus, virtually no criticism of twenty-million to publish what will probably be the kind of bland, self-serving memoir that every ex-president of late has authored.  But $400,000 from Wall Street is different, if for no other reason than the general public now views Wall Street differently than it used to.

Why did Obama take the speaking fee?  Should he have?  Should people be upset about it?  None of those questions interest me.   Rather, I believe the issue worth considering is: Why exactly did so many people get upset about it?

That question speaks to the current political moment, which Obama seems to have misread, much as the Democratic Party mainstream he represents has been doing for over a year now. Continue reading This Populist Moment

April Fools

Donald Trump’s first hundred days as president are nearly tallied.  Enough time has passed that we can now divide people who voted for him into two groups:

1. Those who: never liked Trump (but made a calculated decision to vote for him); have more  recently developed doubts; or will soon become disillusioned when Trump not only fails to deliver on his promises but actually does the opposite in many respects (eg., loses good paying blue collar jobs instead of creating them; contributes to a national healthcare scenario that’s worse than ObamaCare; doesn’t build a wall or at least doesn’t get Mexico to pay for it, etc.)

2. Suckers

Ahh, the sucker.

Most of us like to pretend we’re immune to crass charlatanism.  I’m not that gullible, you tell yourself, refusing to believe you could be seriously suckered.  Surely, someone as smart as you sees through the vulgar farces dangling before us.

The embarrassing truth, however, is that we all get taken for the proverbial ride now and again.  Continue reading April Fools

God Bless the #Millennials

According to a new poll, Donald Trump’s approval rating among voters age 18-30 is a measly 22%.

For those of you who really dig fractions, that’s less than a quarter.  Barely a fifth.

But wait.  It gets better.

A clear majority of these voters (57%) don’t just disapprove of the orange hair pie; they think his presidency is downright illegitimate.

Plain old disapproval?  That would be the 70% who don’t like his demeanor, and the whopping 80% who disapprove of his policies.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: God Bless the Millennials.

I don’t care if they can’t tie their own shoes.  Lord knows they’re the only thing standing between us and Ronald McDonald totalitarianism (that last line works on a couple of levels; think about it). Continue reading God Bless the #Millennials

American Regicide

Donald Trump is going down.   His house of cards will collapse at some point.   The leaks will keep flowing and eventually his position will become untenable.   Conflicts of interest.   Connections to Russia.   All of it will become too great a weight to carry, especially since The Donald has very few genuine allies in Washington.

The Democrats want him gone.  So too do most of the Republicans.  Hell, they never wanted him to begin with.  The GOP did everything it could to derail his candidacy, and only climbed aboard after Trump’s runaway train was the last red line careening towards the White House.  So for now they’re playing nice with the former Democrat who eschews Conservative dogma in a variety of ways and is loyal to absolutely no one save himself.  But when the moment comes, they’ll gladly trade Trump in for Mike Pence, a Conservative’s wet dream.

For all of these reasons, Trump may not make it to the finish line.  But there’s at least one more factor to consider: the precedent of regicide.  And to understand that, we should begin by briefly recounting the demise of the Ottoman sultan Osman II.

Young Osman II ascended the Ottoman throne in 1618 at the tender age of 14.  Wishing to assert himself, in 1621 he personally led an invasion of Poland, which ended with a failed siege of Chota (aka Khotyn, now in western Ukraine).  In a rather unwise move, Osman blamed the defeat on his elite fighting force, the Janissaries.  Afterwards, he ordered the shuttering of Janissary coffee shops, which he saw as a hotbed of conspiracies against him.  The Janissaries responded with a palace uprising.  In 1622 they imprisoned the 17 year old monarch and soon after killed him.  Because it was strictly forbidden to spill royal blood, they strangled him to death. Continue reading American Regicide

A Call to Arms

I recently heard from a mutual acquaintance that an old friend whom I’ve lost touch with plans to leave the country.  This soon-to-be emigrant is an immigrant with brown skin, and has quite understandably decided that he does not want to live in Donald Trump’s America.    He is also a British  citizen with a way out.

I don’t begrudge my old friend for wanting to move back to Great Britain now that Trump and his cavalcade of cronies have infested the White House.  For at least the next two years, the United States, and sadly much of the rest of the world given the United States’ size, power, and influence, will endure a stunning string of short and long term setbacks that, while difficult to predict the specifics of, will almost certainly range from the ridiculous to the serious and even the frightful.

Why sit in the center of the storm when you can reasonably take shelter elsewhere?  Especially as a person of color with a British passport, why endure the absurdities and horrors of America’s Trumpist turn?

No, I don’t blame him one bit for wanting to get out.

But me?  I’m gong to stay here and fight.  And this is not a decision I have reached recently.  It’s a conclusion I drew 25 years ago. Continue reading A Call to Arms

Outraged? Get Outrageous!

I was reading a friend’s FB post earlier today.  I respect this person immensely, although I disagreed with him on one point.  Which is good.  He’s the kind of dedicated and genuine intellectual who encourages honest exchanges.

My friend is thoroughly appalled by the American political situation at the moment, as am I.  But he is also not given to public displays of emotion.  And so perhaps it made sense that, with regards to politics, he warned us that,
“the satisfactions of flamboyantly expressing one’s rage against Trump and the right can make it less, rather than more, likely we are going to turn this thing around as soon as it can be turned around.”

This is where I disagreed with him.  I wrote a short response on his page as to why, but I would like to expand upon it here.

Let me begin by acknowledging that there are many things we can do to effectively oppose Trump.  We need a broad palette.  But one important thing we can do, I believe, is engage in occasional public displays of moral outrage.  Even flamboyant ones.

Public displays of moral outrage against the lunacy and mendacity of Donald Trump specifically, against his core of executive cronies, and against the GOP more generally, are actually a good and productive thing right now.  There are several reasons why, but before I list them, let me clarify what I mean by “flamboyantly expressing one’s rage against Trump and the right,” to borrow my friend’s words.

I am not advocating that we join the GOP in its filthy pit of lies and “alternative facts.”  While I’m going to advocate a fight fire with fire approach, I don’t think we should extend that to the Right’s immolation of the factual truth, lest we lose sight of the forest from the trees.   We should not sacrifice core principles of democracy to win the immediate battle.  Indeed, in many ways the fight must be fore those core principles.

So, for example, we should not counter their science denialism; (climate change, evolution) with politically convenient science denialism of our own; for example, let’s not start wooing the anti-vaxer vote by spurring that movement on.  And let’s not sink to the level of fabricating lies to smear Republicans.  For starters, it’s so unnecessary; given their horrible actions and hateful ideology, it’s easy enough to smear them with the plain truth.

Rather,  I am championing the notion that we become morally outraged at Trump’s and the GOP’s fabrications and falsehoods, their lies and lunacy, their brazen assaults on honesty and democracy.  Furthermore, I think we should feel free to publicly display our moral outrage.  Why?  For several reasons.

For starters, it is important to recognize that we are clearly past normal. Continue reading Outraged? Get Outrageous!