Archive for the ‘News + Politics’ Category

The Lovable League of the South

May 7, 2017

In case you were wondering what sorts of boobs would drive eight hours to New Orleans to “defend” the Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis statues, one of the groups prominently featured in news coverage of today’s opposing demonstrations was a quaint little heritage society called the League of the South. What the TV coverage didn’t explain about the League, you can click here to read on the SPLC’s profile of the group — their cheeky call for Southern secession from the United States, their charming demand for “Anglo-Celtic cultural dominance,” their adorable annual celebration of John Wilkes Booth, who “knew a man who needed killing when he saw him,” or their helpful, civic-minded warning to “never underestimate the perfidy of the organized Jew.”


The Bernie Supporter

February 5, 2016


Just one more thing about monuments

July 11, 2015

Some people (that I respect) feel that the whole conversation about flags and monuments is a distraction, a red herring, a superficial substitute for real change.

I find this argument understandable, but wrong. You want to have a substantive “conversation” about race (or economic equality, or marriage equality, in other contexts)? This is the conversation. The debate over monuments, memorials, flags, “mere symbols,” is the conversation that determines who we are and what we stand for. A city (or a state or a nation) puts up public commemorations as a way of reifying and declaring its values. The debate over monuments is exactly the debate we should be having.

Somewhere down the line, of course, values have to turn into laws and policies. And that’s a whole other conversation. But the conversation about values is where it all begins, and our public monuments and symbols are the language in which we have that conversation. The face we present to the world says who we are and what we believe in.

Those New Orleans CSA monuments

July 11, 2015

Mitch Landrieu has weighed in in favor of removing four prominent white supremacist Civil War monuments from New Orleans, saying they “belie our progress and do not reflect who we truly are.”

Good for Mitch! They certainly don’t reflect who we are; and they only ever reflected who we were one the condition that we is taken to mean white New Orleanians only.

The four are the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee circle (certainly the most prominent NOLA landmark in the bunch), the Beauregard statue near the Art Museum, the Jeff Davis statue, and the White League monument behind the Aquarium — the latter being quite frankly a white supremacist monument with nothing really to do with the Civil War at all (read about the White League and all that in Justin Nystrom’s book).

I’ve had a problem with these monuments ever since living here. It’s not that I would object to some sort of battle memorial to honor Civil War soldiers on both sides. But these are not that; historically they date to the Lost Cause/Jim Crow period when elite white Southerners were very consciously and frankly trying to reclaim the narrative, build a new repressive racial regime, and turn the loss in the war into a win on the battlefield of historical memory (and doing it very successfully, with results we still live with today).

It’s also striking how this city has so few monuments to anything else; how this 58% black city with a rich history of black civic activism and cultural achievement still wears, on its public face, the look of the Lost Cause. Of course Louis Armstrong is everywhere. But what about Homer Plessy? He has a small plaque near the site where he boarded a whites-only streetcar. What about Albion Tourgee or Rodolphe Desdunes? I’d be OK with keeping Lee and Beauregard around if we could honor some of those who fought to make the South more, not less equal.

I’m OK with the Jackson statue; to me it represents unionism, which is an important value, and the very opposite of what the CSA stood for, obviously. (In the eyes of most visitors to the city, admittedly, the Jackson statue is probably of a piece with the Confederate ones.) I’m also OK with the John McDonogh memorial; just the bare fact of having been a slaveholder, when slavery was legal, should not be an automatic disqualification. The fact is that McDonogh not only developed a plan of self-purchase, emancipation, and re-Africanization for his slaves, which for all its flaws was more enlightened than anything 99% of Louisiana slaveholders at the time were willing to countenance. He also donated his vast fortune to endowing the public school systems of both Baltimore and New Orleans (his birth and adoptive cities, respectively) — and what stronger statement in favor of democracy and equality could there be than supporting public education? Would that McDonogh’s successors in the New Orleans business elite shared the same values.

That flag

July 10, 2015

Yeah, of course that flag should come down from above the South Carolina statehouse. It’s been an embarrassment for years. It sucks that it took a terrible, mind-numbing tragedy like what happened in the Charleston AME church in June, and it does not in a million light-years atone for that tragedy, but it’s still a good thing that it’s gonna come down.

It doesn’t represent your heritage, unless you’re talking about the “heritage” of being a racist yokel. It doesn’t represent freedom or some sort of romantic rebel pose. (Sorry, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I still respect your music.)

What does it represent? Originally it represented Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they fought a war to destroy the democratic project of the United States and preserve the system of slavery. Over time it came to represent the Confederacy in general (though it was not the official Confederate flag). In the mid-20th century, it was repurposed to represent white resistance to civil rights, school integration, etc. In recent years it’s just been a symbol for dumb people, not all of them Southerners, some of whom ride motorcycles or wish they did, who vaguely want to show that they won’t bow down to The Man and don’t care about offending a few black people.

And you know what? I’m all for free speech. Free speech is a good thing; a free speech society has worked well for us. So let the ignoramuses proudly display the rebel flag on their bumpers, rear windshields, mailboxes, jean jackets, Chevy Camaros, duck blinds, 8 track cassette decks, garage workbenches, tool kits, survivalist magazines, and teenage bedroom walls. You want to advertise yourself as an idiot? Go ahead, this is a terrific way. It’ll save the rest of us the twenty seconds it would otherwise take to figure that out about you. But let’s not fly it over government buildings — because after all, in addition to being a symbol of racist violence and hatred, it is also a symbol of secession — of treason against the government of the United States — and has no business on government property.

And no, no, no, don’t go defending the Confederacy. It was not some noble project, it wasn’t about states rights or preserving a traditional way of life or resisting Lincoln’s tyranny. That’s all bullshit. The Confederacy was a bad deal, cooked up by bad people with a stupid plan, whose main motivation was to keep on making profits off the forced labor of slaves, and it ended up causing the deaths of — what was the latest estimate? — 750,000 people? — as well as nearly destroying what was, then, the only democracy on the globe.

By the way, I love the South. I love living here. I love the people, the food, the music, the history. But I’m afraid that this benign view that most white (and even some black!) Southerners have of the Confederacy and secession is pretty much baked into the culture at this point. They think Lee, well, he was such a gentleman, and Sherman, well he was a war criminal, and you know what, they were going to get around to phasing out slavery in their own good time until the Yankees interfered. I don’t know if this is taught in schools or around dinner tables or just absorbed through osmosis, but it’s not going to be dislodged anytime soon.

And so yes, it does take a terrible calamity to force change — like nine people being murdered in cold blood while they were attending bible study. And many of my friends online have pointed out that the removal of the flag is a pitifully inadequate response to the problems of a society that could produce a Dylan Root, that it is “only” a symbol, that it’s a shallow, easy, feel-good fix, that it allowed a Republican governor to grandstand, that it avoids more substantial issues — and while that’s all true, I can’t help feeling, as a historian, well, yes, but, that’s how change often happens. And it is often cosmetic or shallow or laughably inadequate, but that’s what you get, take it or leave it, and keep dreaming of more, and never forget those good people in that peaceful church before the shots rang out.


July 7, 2015

I’m not enough of an economist to judge whether acceding to the troika’s terms or bowing out of the Eurozone would be better for Greece’s people in the long run.

(And frankly, neither is anyone else.)

It seems to be that staying in is almost certainly accepting a crappy, but predictable, state of awfulness; while leaving would constitute a gamble, with possible results anywhere between relatively rapid recovery and total refeudalization into something like North Korea.

What I really do want to say, and fortunately many others, most notably Thomas Piketty, seem to be making this point is that Germany, of all countries, saying that Greece should not be granted economic assistance since that would be “rewarding bad behavior,” is really a bit much.

Sarah Carr, Hope Against Hope

June 15, 2015

This is a profound, beautifully written, intelligent and moving book about the jarring changes in the New Orleans public school system since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. As you may have heard, our Crescent City is now on the cutting edge of the school privatization/reform/charter movement that has been sweeping the Sarah Carr Hope against Hopenation, and has been cited by Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as a model for the nation. Those of us who actually live here tend to see things differently; in my own opinion, New orleans becoming a model for the nation would be a tragedy of the first order. In any case, what is really wonderful about Carr’s book is that she avoids the postage-stamp caricatures that both sides in the debate generally make of each others’ points of view. She explores all viewpoints with nuance and compassion, following a freshman at a KIPP high school, a young white teacher at Sci High, and an experienced black woman principal at O. Perry Walker school, through the ups and downs of a whole school year. While doing this she also considers the history of public education in the United States and New Orleans in particular, segregation and integration, No Child Left Behind and the quantification movement, Teach for America, and many other aspects of the subject. There are many books about these issues — I also like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System — but Hope Against Hope is one of the best out there, a must read for anyone interested in education.

Stop saying we ought to let Texas secede

September 19, 2014

OK, so Scottish voters have spoken, and they’re going to stay part of the UK, hassles and all. And I think they made the right decision. But I notice the whole episode brought out a trope that really annoys me: my liberal friends from the Northeast saying things like, “we should let Texas secede, then we can run the country the way we want.” There are many variations — one facebook friend posted that we should allow Texas and Alabama to form Texabama (I don’t see how you could leave out Louisiana and Mississippi in that case, but whatever). Sometimes it’s expressed as, “we should have just let the South go in 1860” (and let slavery continue there too, presumably).

This sentiment peeks through every time a Rick Perry or some other conservative Southern blowhard flirts with the ol’ secession talk. But it came up in conjunction with the Scotland thing for a different reason: a  big reason many progressive Scots voted “yes” was the thought that they could escape political domination by Anglo-Conservatives, that they could make a break with Cameronism and have a nice Social democratic, Labourite state in Scotland (and finance it all with those North Sea oil revenues). And that’s the thought in the minds of many Northeastern liberals: if we could only part ways with the Republican Bible Belt, the most populated and prosperous part of the country could have a nice forward-thinking Democratic Elizabeth Warren regime and never again have to listen to the Tea Party bullshit.

It’s a nice thought, and these are people that I generally agree with, about principles. But it’s wrong.

For one thing, I’ve lived here three years, and there are a lot of intelligent, progressive Southerners who want nothing to do with living in the sort of corporatist theocracy that Texas might become if left to its own devices.

Southern progressives may not have the upper hand right now, but these things have a way of always changing. At the turn of the 20th c. the South was a hotbed of radical Populism. In the 1930s the South was (pretty) solid for FDR’s New Deal (while “liberal” New York was opposed). Louisiana felt the New Deal didn’t go far enough and elected Huey Long, who made Elizabeth Warren look like a corporate shill. LBJ, who gave us Vietnam, yes, but also gave us Civil Rights ’64, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and the NEA (has there ever been more progressive legislation in such a short time?) came not from the liberal Northeast but from the farm-coop culture of rural West Texas.

Of course, since Nixon’s Southern strategy and the rise of the Moral Majority, the South has been going in a very Republican direction, with exceptions in the cities (like New Orleans, and much of Florida). But the point is, this can change. And we should be trying to encourage that change — not trying to kiss the whole region goodbye out of what is, I hate to say this, nothing more than narrow-minded regional prejudice.

The South has problems, yes. A history of slavery and segregation, and a very unequal distribution of wealth. There’s more poverty, more murder, more ignorance here, per capita, than most of the rest of the USA. But these are problems to be solved, not shoved away with a contemptuous feeling of superiority.

And more importantly, in the bigger picture: Union is good. Our nation is big and strong and that works out well for all of us. We might like to believe we’ve entered some postmodern age where national power does not matter, where all nations big or small cooperate equally to solve the world’s problems. But we know that day is a long way off. The world is still a hostile and dangerous place. National power matters. We have it; much of the rest of the world would kill (and sometimes they do) to try to take it away from us. This is what the Scottish yes voters didn’t take into consideration.

Union is good. abraham-lincolnWe figured this out in 1861-1865. After 1865 even most Southerners admitted it. Our union is a good thing, our democracy, though it is fucked up in any number of ways, is still a good thing. Abraham Lincoln and the 365,000 Union troops who died to preserve the Union (and end slavery) were not wrong. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is a special thing worth fighting for. The architects of the European Union — an idea that also seems to be sliding into disrepair — understood the value of a large union. So did the citizens of the former USSR, who let their federation fall apart in a careless moment in 1991 they’ve regretted ever since. We are so lucky to have what we have.

I know the Rick Perrys of the world are a drag to share this country with. But don’t give up on Texas, Louisiana, the South. Work with us on making them what they can and should be. Separatism in either direction is not a progressive value.

UPDATE: New poll says 23.9% of Americans want their state to secede. It goes up to 34% in Texas, down to 18% in Maine, Massachusetts, etc. But basically the usual maniacs. Scattered through the comments, however, are periodic iterations of the “please, go ahead, let them secede” meme.