Ta-Nehisi Coates On Why the Confederate Flag Should Be Taken Down In South Carolina

Take Down the Confederate Flag Now

I would never argue to ban a flag.  Not because there are any flags that I’m expecting to wave anytime soon, but because I believe in freedom of expression, even the freedom to express views that are misguided.  However, there is a big difference between giving people the choice to wave their own flag and putting it up over a statehouse, where it carries the weight of law with it.  I know there are some that say the Confederate Flag carries history and heritage with it, but if you look at that history it is troubling to say the least.  Up above Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the argument that the Confederate Flag should be taken down, with the weight of history on his side.  I picked Coates because I know that he has done a great deal of time studying the history of slavery, The Civil War, and the legacy of those times.  I’ve read him long enough to know that he has done the heavy lifting, the research, on these questions.  Anyone can spout their opinion, but Coates has long been interested in these very things.  I’ve read enough history myself that, while I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on such things, Coates words ring true to me in that they stack up with the things that I have read.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t like culture wars for the sake of them and I don’t like acts of symbolism.  I’d much rather know that racism was stamped out than to see a flag taken down.  However, again the fact that this flag is hung up on a public building is what I find troubling.  Taking the flag down in no way means that issues of institutional racism are stamped out.  But at the same time flying a flag that has stood for institutional racism over an institution is a little strange, especially if you are one of those that claims there is no institutional racism.  Taking it down is a symbol and a gesture and no more.  It doesn’t solve anything in and of itself, but it at least says, “we’re working on it,” doesn’t it?

If you want to hang that flag on your house or put it as a bumper-sticker on your car, as they say in Deadwood, “That is between you and your god.”  But I think, given what that flag has represented over the years, taking it down from government buildings is a pretty damn good idea.

Five Reasons Lincoln Was a Great Man

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I am slowly making my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, as I have a bunch of books going.  I also just watched the movie Lincoln for the third time last night.  Before that I watched Ken Burn’s The Civil War series.  The more I learn about Lincoln, the more I like him.  Normally I hate questions like if you could go to dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose?  I usually feel put on the spot and there are a million ways you could answer that anyway, depending on the conditions.  It’s like someone asking you what your favorite color is.  Well, I like blue, but depending on the context I might also like…

But I have to admit if I were forced to answer a question like that right now I think I would have to say Lincoln.  Unlike many people, the more he is taking off of a pedestal, the more he is humanized, the more unbelievably likable he is.  Here are five reasons, out of many that I could have picked, to explain why I find Lincoln so compelling:

1.  He was extremely interested in the world.  This is someone that had almost no formal education.  However, he would consistently try to push himself to learn more.  Books were his companions.  He loved books and could recite passages from literature and poetry by memory.  He wanted to learn complex geometry at one point.  He simply got a book out, read it, practiced it, and learned it on his own.  Usually the myth of the self-made man is bullshit, as most people have someone that helps them along the way, were born in favorable circumstances, etc.  However, Lincoln was about as close to this archetype as possible.  He was also interested in people and loved to sit around late into the night talking with people about an incredibly wide range of topics.  He was simply someone that loved to learn, push himself, and acquire new skills.

2.  He was humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  While Lincoln was confident in himself, he was never egotistical.  When he would win a case as a lawyer or a political victory, he was quick to give credit to others around him, and he never lorded his victories over his opponents.  When he lost, even when he was smeared by political opponents, Lincoln was quick to forgive.  He was also quick to empathize with others, he tried to understand them, so that he never took it personally when he was attacked.  This was crucial to why he was successful, as he never let petty political rivalries get in the way of his career.

3.  He was good natured.  I cannot think of one story where Lincoln was ever cruel to anyone.  And even though he suffered at times from melancholia, he always told funny stories and tried to put others at ease.  He would make himself the butt of a joke if it could make people smile and make them comfortable.

4.  He was not afraid to change his position if new facts emerged.  If a problem were to arise, Lincoln tried to learn as much about it as he could, often reading late into the night, and would try to reach a conclusion based on the facts.  When he was wrong, which wasn’t much, he would admit it and try to learn from it.  He rarely let preconceived notions of how he viewed the world get in the way of dealing with whatever facts were in front of him.

5.  He was always able to overcome personal setbacks and grief.  He lost the first election that he was in.  When he got his first big case he was snubbed and let go by the two more educated attorneys that were on it.  Instead of going home mad, he stayed in the audience to try and learn as much about the law as possible.  The first person he was ever in love with died.  Two of his children died during his lifetime, one while he was in the White House.  Yet time after time, while being highly skeptical of an afterlife, and full of tremendous grief, he pushed on, able to overcome his own grief to do things for the good of others.  Part of the reason he was a great man wasn’t because he always succeeded.  In fast he faced several serious failures and personal setbacks.  He was a great man because he pushed on in the face of these.

Although I am only about halfway through Goodwin’s book, I can’t recommend it enough.  Spending time with Lincoln is a true pleasure.  The book will teach one an incredible amount about American History.  Also, by examining Lincoln, one can learn a lot about how one should try to live.

Is Whipping, Raping, and Hanging Superior Behavior?

So, let’s just deconstruct an argument.  One of the arguments for racism is that black people are genetically or intellectually inferior.  Some white people claim that whites are superior to black people and that this is why so many black people live in poverty or commit crime or what have you.

Lets say for the sake of argument that it is nature that shapes us and not nurture.  We know, for a fact, that many white people’s ancestors whipped children.  We know that they often took advantage of black women that they owned if not outright raped them.  We also know that many white people went to the lynchings of blacks and treated the event like a picnic.  Is it in white people’s nature to be savagely brutal?  Is it in their nature as a people to torture children, to rape women, and to enjoy seeing people hanged?  If so how can they be superior?

Yet we know that, while racism still exists in many parts of this country, most white people were able to leave the above behavior behind, even ones that still harbor racist sentiment.  We even know that descendants of slave owners could be quite kind and moral people.  The following is a story of the descendent of a slave owner trying to make amends with the the descendant of a slave:

When Kin of Slaves and Owner Meet

So if we know that white people were able to transcend their background, how come some believe black people cannot?  (And this is even without noting that slavery and reconstruction created the kind of systematic poverty that has kept certain black communities from reaching their full potential.)  The racist system of slavery shaped the behavior of many of the white people of that time, people that in another time and place would have probably been decent.  Society does not look upon their descendants as cursed.  So next time someone tells you that white people are superior to anyone you can laugh in their face.  Ask them if raping, whipping, and hanging are the hallmarks of a superior people.

We’re all just people that have been thrown into an ocean called life that we don’t understand.  Most of us are trying to make the best of it.  For better or worse we’re all in this thing together.

Politics and Empathy

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  It is about Lincoln and his cabinet.  The book is endlessly fascinating.  I am only about a tenth of the way through and already I have learned an incredible amount about this country.  I read the following passage today, about Lincoln’s first major anti-slavery speech:

Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.  More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be me with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.”  In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as a the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”

Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,” the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker  or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.  Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.”  In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”  This, he concluded, was the only road to victory – to that glorious day “when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.”

It is a hard thing to do, to change people’s minds.  Lincoln was such a great leader and was able to get so much done, precisely because he had empathy, the ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, even those he vehemently disagreed with.

Politics is a tricky thing, because you need people that are going to tell the truth no matter who it offends, to get the ball rolling a lot of the times.  Yet you also need people that can reach out and change people’s minds.  It’s a hard thing to know when to do what.

In George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the second half of the book is his argument for socialism.  However, it is also a diatribe against socialists, because he feels that they are going about their cause completely wrong.  Even though he agrees with them politically, he feels that most of the socialists of that time are wrong in the way they approach people.  Orwell spent a lot of time with the working class in England, especially in the mining towns.  Orwell felt that if you wanted to bring the common man over to the cause of socialism you couldn’t do things like attack their religion, something that many people need to make sense of the world.  He felt that in order to influence people one needed to reach them where they were at.

I think different forms of communication require different kinds of tools.  If someone is a songwriter, for instance, you only have so many lines to get across an idea.  Music is also based on emotion.  I think because of this it is a form that is better suited to going all in and conveying something with passion.

However, politicians need to do the hard work of actually leading people.  I think they have to have more empathy in their approach.  Having empathy and trying to understand others is not to be confused with being wishy-washy, as so many politicians are.  I think one can take the moral high ground and at the same time extend an olive branch out to those that disagree.  Unfortunately we have very few leaders these days that are able to do both at the same time.

P.S. Although we all know prohibition was a nightmare and a mistake, one needs to understand how much people used to drink to understand, in part, the temperance movement.  Read up on it as it is a pretty good laugh.  I was just reading a passage in the above book where Senators in our government were described as being, “beastly drunk.”

How Do We Form a More Perfect Union?

I am very disillusioned with the state of our country right now.  Ever since the election, I have been trying to figure out how people could elect those that don’t have the well being of the average citizen in mind.  Instead of stewing over the loss, I tried to educate myself.  My intuition told me to start with slavery and the Civil War, as this is a period of American history that is still affecting how we think today in terms of our regional and cultural divides.

While I was thinking about all of this I had the opportunity to go to Australia.  I want to share some facts with you about Australia:

1.  By law they get 28 days of paid time off each year.

2.  Healthcare, although it is slightly more complicated than this, is basically free.

3.  Minimum wage is 17 dollars an hour.

4.  If someone is without a job or homeless they get a stipend.  It’s like unemployment that never runs out.

5.  They have clean and plentiful public transportation.

Those are all facts.  However, here are some personal observations that I made:

1.  The cities that I was in were very clean.

2.  The people were almost all friendly and helpful.

3.  Most of the people looked in relatively good shape.

4.  I saw no large-scale poverty.  In fact, while walking many days through a city twice the size of Austin, I never saw one homeless person.  (I’m not saying that they don’t exist, only that they exist in much lower numbers than they do in American cities.)

5.  The cities that I saw were vibrant and modern.

I know that Australia has its problems.  Right now they are having immigration issues for instance.  However, they seem to do a much better job at taking care of their citizens than we do.  I can imagine that just having 28 paid days off each year while living in a nice climate would alone make life more livable.

So how is it that a country that was started partially by criminals can be doing things so much better than a so-called Christian nation?  To answer this would require a book.  Although I intend to come back to this question, I am not going to answer it here.

The whole time I was there I was again reading about slavery and the Civil War.  What I found troubling was that so many of the arguments that were used to protect slavery are still used today to protect powerful economic interests.  Often progress in this country is stopped by arguments over states rights, religion, and economics.  We can’t pass a certain law that would benefit people because it would:

A. Infringe upon states rights
B. Would force people to go against their religion
C. It would hurt the economy

These are the same kinds of things that again were used to protect slavery.  In cases A. and B. these are the exact same arguments.  Although there were many people that were anti-slavery from a religious standpoint, there were also many that used religion to justify slavery.

During slavery education on average in the South was far behind the North.  In the present economic power is doing what it can to strip critical thinking from education.  This is not a North/South thing, although there is some of that going on if you look at recent election results.  However, I can take you to places that are backwards in my home state of Pennsylvania, while my current home of Austin is quite progressive in a lot of ways.

It’s just that as I dig deeper and deeper into the well I find myself more discouraged at the state of our country, not less.  Especially when you look at someplace like Australia in comparison, you realize that there is no reason that we couldn’t be doing a better job of helping the less fortunate.  It’s out there in the world, being done, right now as we speak.

***

Often when I have looked at the war in Afghanistan I see it as almost science fiction.  It’s like people from the present are fighting people from the past.  That is not to say that I believe we are right to still be there, only that if you look at the technology and education of the United States against somewhere like the mountains of Afghanistan, which are still tribal, I think it is a fair way to look at things.

After visiting Australia and reading about our history I can’t wonder if our own country is still fighting culturally outside of space and time.  Are there not places that still have the mentality of the 1950’s arguing against people from the present?

All of this raises more questions than answers.  But that is where I’m at.  How did we get to where we are at and how can we make it better?  Can we make it better with entrenched economic powers that need to keep people ignorant to achieve their goals?

In one sense there has been a lot of progress in our country.  I don’t think anyone but the Ku Klux Klan wants to go back to the days of slavery or Reconstruction.  However, we are not where we need to be.  We need to stop thinking that we’re number one at everything and realize that there are other places out there that have some of the answers.  We have to confront our history so that we can recognize the problems of the present.  There is no shame in realizing you can do better then you are, getting up, and trying again.  Shame is only for those that quit.  When and where do we start?

12 Years a Slave Review

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12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power.  It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time.  Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does.  This is not a film that gets by on good intentions.  It is a tour de force for all involved.

The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North.  He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses.  It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell.  We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.

I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter.  There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results.  Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us.  In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.

The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master.  The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit.  The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story.  There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes.  There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing.  For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth.  And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head.  The score is almost minimal.  Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on.  Often films will try to manipulate you with their score.  I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.

Every actor in this film brings their A game.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face.  Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature.   Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.

This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy.  Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history.  This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors.  It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world.  In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists.  He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.

Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history.  I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time.  He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped.  Children!  And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.

When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront.  Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible.  Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.”  We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion.  Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.

This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion.  The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring.  Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.

If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table.  However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present.  While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface.  I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.

Inequality, Slavery, and Declining Quality of Life

I have never found it hard to believe that as inequality in wealth grows, the general quality of life for everyone, rich and poor inversely declines.  Today I was reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and read a comparison between North and South, during slavery.  This part of the book was about William Henry Seward,  who was in Lincoln’s cabinet.  I should mention that Seward had no ill feelings for the South before his trip, and was actually looking forward to traveling, only to cut his trip short:

At the time of their journey,  three decades of immigration,  commercial enterprise, and industrial production had invigorated Northern society,  creating thriving cities and towns.  The historian Kenneth Stampp well describes how the North of this period “teemed with bustling, restless men and women who believed passionately in ‘progress’ and equated it with growth and change;  the air was filled with excitement of intellectual ferment and with the schemes of entrepreneurs;  and the land was honeycombed with societies aiming at nothing less than the total reform of mankind. “

Yet, crossing into Virginia, the Sewards entered a world virtually unchanged since 1800.  “We no longer passed frequent farm-houses,  taverns, and shops,” Henry wrote as the family carriage wound its way through Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, “but our rough road conducted us…[past] low log-huts, the habitations of slaves.”  They rarely encountered other travelers, finding instead “a waste, broken tract of land, with here and there and old decaying habitation.”  Seward lamented:  “How deeply the curse of slavery is set upon this venerated and storied region of the old dominion.  Of all the countries I have seen France only whose energies have for forty years been expended in war and whose population has been more decimated by the sword is as much decayed as Virginia.”

I wanted to use this as an example as slavery is as unequal an economic system as one can have.  However, at this point in our history the inequality between rich and poor is growing.  Despite this, rich people,  as well as poor obviously, are very uneasy.  Our country is becoming less of a harmonious community. 

Meanwhile, being in Australia, which certainly has its own problems, one notices how at least in the city, where more people make a living wage and are taken care of by a larger social safety net than in the US, that the quality of life is quite high.  Despite walking for about five hours through various parts of the city yesterday, I saw not one homeless person. 

This is obviously a personal observation, but history and data seem to back it up.  The country does best overall economically when there is a thriving middle class that can purchase goods.  Why so many can’t seem to grasp this I don’t understand.