On Our (Not So) Great Racial Divide

”The two platforms” From a series of racist posters attacking Radical Republican exponents of black suffrage, issued during the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race. Democratic candidate Hiester Clymer’s platform as “for the White Man,” represented here by the idealized head of a young man. (Clymer ran on a white-supremacy platform.) In contrast a stereotyped black head represents Clymer’s opponent James White Geary’s platform, “for the Negro.”*

Pious White America created a racist environment—with its ongoing consequences—at the nation’s inception, and it has steadfastly maintained it since. Barack Obama, as the first black president, could do nothing to change those two facts. Nor will Donald Trump, as the first authoritarian president, be able to do so—should he even care.

In the country’s early days, the small ruling class had three big forces of opposition: natives, poor whites, and blacks (free and slave). The threat of overthrow was a constant worry. If any two of these groups banded together in opposition, the party was over. The prevailing strategy of control was to keep the three groups at odds with one another.**

Genocide, over time, took care of the Native Americans, rendering those who survived toothless. But the black-white problem persists through its deliberate nurturing. Trump’s promise of “law and order” will not solve anything other than maintaining the violent tension and keeping private prisons profitable.

If the racial divide never existed, ours would be a much different country. If you tell me it would be worse, then you have reason to support the divide with all its negative consequences. If you say it would be better, then what part will you play in breaking down the barriers?

*Image and description of poster from Wikimedia Commons.
** See The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.

Roots of Division – Part 2: Roe v. Wade

Demonstrators voice opposing views on abortion.

In Part 1 of this series I suggested that the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973—which along with the encompassing investigation, led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation—was such an embarrassment to the Republican Party that ever since it has tried to live it down by beating down and demonizing the Democratic Party.

Aiding and abetting the effort, Rush Limbaugh and many like him, took to the air and Internet, ranting about the evils of Liberalism and everyone connected with it. These constant right-wing drum beats helped rally the faithful to one side of the field and outfit them in the jerseys of TeamRed. The goal? Overthrowing America’s (perceived) enemy of all that is good and true: TeamBlue.

A major affront to the Conservative notion of good came on January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, the ruling that gave women in all states the right to seek abortion. (Before then, it was already legal in five states.)

Roe v. Wade and Watergate were gigavolt jolts to the Conservative psyche, one right after the other. The festering wounds they caused continue to poison the sociopolitical atmosphere of the United States.

One of the many powers of the president is to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in the case of a vacancy. That’s always a consideration during a presidential race. Voters expect Liberal candidates to appoint liberal judges who would vote favorably on cases that came before them. The same expectation holds for Conservative voters.

Ever since Roe v. Wade became law, Republicans have fought to control who sits on the Supreme Court and, therefore, the opportunity to overturn the ruling.

During his January 11, 2017, press conference, President Trump said:

"But on the Supreme Court, I'll be making that decision, and it will be a decision which I very strongly believe in. I think it's one of the reasons I got elected. I think the people of this country did not want to see what was happening with the Supreme Court, so I think it was a very, very big decision as to why I was elected."

Trump did not have to utter the words “Roe v. Wade.” The whole country knew what he meant. The Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration showed his widely perceived intention.

Why is abortion so divisive? For Conservatives, it’s strictly a moral issue. Abortion, at any stage and under any circumstances, is murder. For liberals, it is not so black-and-white. And it’s less of a moral issue than it is a social and personal one.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun wrote:

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation."

This runs counter to a Conservative worldview built on the absolute conviction of right-wrong morality governed by strictly moral authority. There is no gray area and no sympathy for those who live within it.

Legal or not, like it or not, abortion has always been part of human activity and with social ramifications. Making it illegal will not make it go away:

  • Women with resources and who are intent on abortion will have one.
  • Pregnant women who are intent on birth may be forced into abortion by others—with or without the resources for a safe procedure—to make it happen.
  • Poor women without resources and who seek abortion will put their lives in jeopardy.

With or without adequate resources, women who feel compelled to give birth to an unwanted child, as suggested by Judge Blackmun, are likely to suffer mental and financial problems they may be unable to manage. And an unwanted child is at a great disadvantage from birth and more likely to be a lifelong drain on society.*

The personal and societal effects of illegal abortion lean toward the negative.

A not-so-subtle hypocrisy exists within the pro-life movement.

If abortion is strictly a moral issue, then we must talk also of guns and other weapons of war, war itself (which always entails murder of innocents), extreme Capitalism, systemic racism, political corruption, voter suppression, social and political injustice, etc. Aren’t all these immoral? In particular, we must talk of forcing an unwanted child—especially a poor one—into a world where he or she has little chance of wholesome or real survival. Thanks to a sociopolitical mindset that is dead set against programs designed to help them, for many, it’s a life of poverty, crime, and prison. Isn’t this akin to murder?

Roe v. Wade is law. Whether it is upheld by future courts or struck down, the division it has created will endure.

Part 3: The Vietnam War coming soon. For Part 1: Watergate, go here.

*For an in-depth analysis of the relationship between abortion and crime, read Chapter 4 of Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

Roots of Division – Part 1: Watergate

Richard Nixon and Rush Limbaugh
Richard Nixon and Rush Limbaugh

This is first in a series of essays exploring how we got to this, our Great Divide.

Division, like coming together, is part of human nature. It’s part the history of any people or nation, including “we the people” of the United States. American history is replete with divisive events, but for this series I focus on four because they occurred during my lifetime so are part of my history. Each of them was divisive in its time, yet their repercussions merge today, leading to what could be among the most divisive moment in our history.

Two of those events, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, coincided over the two decades of 1955–1975. Two singular and separate events occurred in 1973: the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade and the Senate Watergate hearings. I begin with the latter.

On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee began hearing testimony in its investigation of the 1972 GOP break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

President Richard Nixon was running for reelection at the time of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and office complex. Much of the questioning during the hearing focused on what Nixon knew about it and, more important, when he knew about it and if he had participated in a coverup.

On May 9, 1974, impeachment hearings began before he House Judiciary Committee. On August 9, Nixon resigned from office, his impeachment imminent. The Supreme Court had ruled that Nixon must release all his tapes of secretly recorded conversations he’d had with members of his administration. These tapes, especially the last one discovered, showed the world Richard Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up. Nixon became a major embarrassment to Conservatives and the Republican Party, a condition they’ve worked hard to overcome.

Since the Watergate scandal, Republicans have been steadfast in their effort to portray Democrats as evil and in all ways worse than Republicans.

During Jimmy Carter’s third year in office, on November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students overtook the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Over time, the militants released 14 hostages, but 52 remained captive 444 days, until minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981. Carter had failed to negotiate a release of the hostages. A military rescue attempt ended in disaster—with eight Americans killed—because of mechanical failure. Republicans held Carter personally responsible. Republican scorn handed Carter a humiliating defeat by Ronald Reagan after one term

Compare the Iran hostage situation with the Iran-Contra scandal. Members of Reagan’s administration secretly traded weapons with Iran and used the proceeds to support Nicaraguan “contras” during that country’s civil war. Nothing came of this scandal for reasons that had more to do with concealing evidence and with pardons than with innocence.

Conservatives’ balanced their hatred for Carter (despite his many accomplishments) by their adoration of Ronald Reagan as the exemplar of the Republican ideology and character.

Republicans hounded Bill Clinton with investigations of one manufactured scandal after another—not to say there wasn’t one or two real scandals during his time in office. The Republican House did impeach Clinton for  his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate acquitted him.

Yet Republicans had nothing to say about George W. Bush’s devastating invasion of Iraq justified by lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Republicans spent eight years obstructing Barack Obama, earning the epithet “the Party of No.” Among other things, they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act some 60 times, even though it was based on a plan developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Upon Obama’s election Republicans insisted he would be a failure. They worked against him to make sure he failed. In the end they insisted he was a failure. They could not bring themselves to acknowledge any of Obama’s accomplishments or his character.

On September 11, 2012, members of Ansar al-Sharia attacked the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya. The Republican-led Congress heaped blame on then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Seven investigations, including one 11-hour stint of questioning of Clinton produced no evidence of misconduct on her part or President Obama’s. Strong suggestions emerged from Washington that the investigators’ intention was to discredit Clinton and hurt her chances of a possible run for president.

One of the most blatant examples of elevating Republicans by disparaging Democrats is Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion in 2013 that the attack on Benghazi was “one of the worst incidents, frankly, that I can recall in my career.”

This is the same Vice President Cheney who was in office on September 11, 2001, serving under President George W. Bush. The Bush administration disregarded several warnings in the spring of that year of a likely attack by Al Qaeda on American soil.

In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did away with the Fairness Doctrine, which compelled television and radio broadcasters to give equal time to controversial viewpoints. This newfound freedom opened the way for daily broadcasts by Rush Limbaugh to go unchallenged. Over the past 30 years, Limbaugh has directed his diatribes against everything Liberal. Dozens of vitriolic voices have since amplified the message of hatred for the Left and a mistrust of all media other than those which reenforce the Party line.

Today, the larger sociopolitical environment is so toxic the misinformed shout down reasonable rebuttals as lies and “fake news.” The Right considers Liberal thought cancerous, a disease with eradication the only solution. The Right lays claim as the sole possessor of patriotism, morality, and as the true heir of the American Experiment. Their “values” are the only ones that count. Hatred is now one of those “values.” Republicans use outright lying and trafficking in conspiracy theories and false equivalencies as valued tactics.

This unchallengeable rhetoric and impenetrable mindset, built over the past 44 years, have enabled Donald Trump’s ascension to power. His supporters believe he will upset the world as he puts “America First.” But it’s a world created, to a large extent, by the very people who boosted him into power.

For Part 2: Roe v. Wade go here.

The Crushing Grip of Conviction

Grip
You know the truth,
Absolutely, you do.
The facts are obvious,
So indisputable.

Blissful it must be to
Bask in the comforting
Rays of certitude,
Righteous and secure.

Ah, but what of those
Oceans of conflicting
Truths with currents of
Doubt and confusion?

What then of those
Precious beliefs,
Cherished opinions, and
Hard-cured convictions?

Can you be wrong and
Others right? No, no, it
Cannot be that way; for
Strong is the grip of

Blind faith in God
And Preachers and
Politicians who never
Can be wrong. Ever.

(Even
When
They
Are.)

The Right Man for the Job

Caravaggio's Narciso (1594-1596).*
Caravaggio’s Narciso (1594-1596).*

I’m beginning to see how Donald Trump is the right man for the job. I don’t mean President of the United States, though, because he’s unqualified for that one. Rather, he—and only he—is uniquely qualified to use his coming position as president to fulfill a purpose whose time has come. It’s now or never.

As president, he will show us Americans what the rest of the world already knows about the country we call our Homeland. As a country, the United States is narcissistic, duplicitous, dishonest, and dangerous. As president, Trump will hold a mirror to us the people and say, in contradiction to a few other politicians: “This is who we are.”

For too long we have wrapped ourselves in the flag of American exceptionalism, believing (by God!) we have the unique purpose in the world to rule. We piously claim ourselves a Christian nation, but we sell more weapons around the world than any other country. We espouse freedom but overthrow weak democracies in order to exploit their human and natural resources. We start wars so as to promote our own interests, regardless of the economic and human costs. We oppress our own citizens through bigotry and hatred.

Politicians, i.e., Republicans, like to tout their Christian values. To me, Christian values are things like “love thy neighbor as thyself,” caring for the poor, “turning the other cheek,” the Beatitudes,** and all those other Christ-like qualities one finds in their over-thumped Bible. Yet those politicians ensure the poor stay poor (while blaming them for their poverty), ensure the rich get richer (while saying they deserve it), decry peacemakers and justice-seekers as unpatriotic, undermine their opponents with lies and cunning, use their office to increase their own power and influence, and many other tawdry things. And we the masses cheer (or jeer), just as ancient Romans had done at the Colosseum and Circus Maximus.

Such are we—as a nation—the Great Pretenders, wrapped in delusion.

Now (by God!) we have Donald Trump. He, too, is a pretender. And a con-man. He doesn’t try to hide who he is, either. He is the greatest, the best, the only one who can save the country—but that’s just his sideshow-barker’s cry. Something else awaits us inside his hall of mirrors. He made a lot of promises for the sole purpose of garnering the support of the masses. It worked, and he’s in.

Based on his campaign, post-election behavior, and his selections for cabinet and other positions, Trump’s plan for making America great again will not entail building up and unifying, but demolishing and dividing. In the meantime, he will line his pockets and those of the plutocrats he’s brought into power with him. The rest of us, I fear, won’t fare so well.

Well, fine. He’s who—and what—we voted for (not all of us, but enough). Donald Trump is who we are as a country. Some of us, though, don’t find that image so appealing. These are people who, like me, cringe when we see our reflection in the national mirror. Many of us have seen it for years, generations even. Most of us have gone along with the program with uncomfortable acceptance. Others of us (but not enough) have stood up and stood out but with only small success.

And now, maybe enough of us—even those who believed the Flim-Flam Man from Queens—will be so appalled by his behavior and disregard for the average citizen and the world that we rise up in outrage and say: “If the United States will be truly a good and moral force in the world, then we must begin now to practice what we preach so the rest of the world will see us as we wish to be seen.”

All our politicians at every level—whether Democrat, Republican, or whatever else—need to hear this cry. We must demand they and other leaders set examples of goodness and not greed, harmony and not hatred, justice and not judgement, virtue and not viciousness. We must insist they create conditions that foster the health and wellbeing of all of us, not just the ruling class.

Donald Trump has exposed the right’s longstanding moral corruption masquerading as sanctity. He has shown us just how complacent, misleading, and corrupt much of our media have become. He has revealed how the Democratic Party has lost its way as champion of the working class. For all this we should thank him.

Now, we, as a country, must shatter the mirror of national narcissism that Trump holds before us. Let us use him as a beautiful, beautiful catalyst to create the kinds of change that benefit us all, every one of us. This is real life I’m talking about, not just another episode of “Celebrity Apprentice.” We’ve had enough of that.

*The story of Narcissus and Echo

**The eight Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 during the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Power and Fallacy of Belief and Our New Civil War

battle_of_franklin_november_30_1864
Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With all the disinformation, fake news, innuendo as fact, and lies gone unchallenged, it’s been difficult to get a grasp of anything close to truth during the past campaign for president and post-election. This onslaught of propaganda has rendered truth irrelevant, further cementing Red-Team beliefs and Blue-Team beliefs as well. Belief is a Kevlar vest against sharp attacks of disagreeable facts. And it’s an armor-piercing bullet, a weapon of force and power.

It’s been difficult for me to disentangle what I read in the news from both camps and make of sense this of war of beliefs between the Reds and the Blues. To help me put things into perspective I reached back in history to an era where the destructive forces of belief split the nation.

We all know of the Civil War, the War Between the States, between North and South, between the Blue and the Gray. Although I think even today some would deny it, the root of this war was slavery.

Slavery was the way of life in the South. It was as natural as magnolia blossoms. It’s mentioned many times in the Bible and not unfavorably. Belief held that God approved of slavery, endorsed slavery. It was right and good. Moreover, it was a necessary duty. Such was the belief that made slavery possible, thus making it possible for those upright people of Southern gentility to sleep well at night and with a clear conscience.

Ah, but those in the North, those abolitionists, believed slavery was an abomination. It could not be possible for a good and gracious God to condone slavery. Slavery was evil and it must end.

So here we have two strongly held and conflicting beliefs. Some 500,000 people died for those beliefs. Those conflicting beliefs ripped families apart. Those conflicting beliefs wrecked the Southern economy.

Such is the power of belief.

But who was right? Where lay truth?

Did Northern victory prove that God abhorred slavery? If so, all those Southerners held wrong beliefs about God and a few other things, too. Or could it be that God got whupped along with the true believers? If that’s the case, then Satan, not God, stood behind Northern victory. And, hell yeah, the South will rise again!

Or maybe, just maybe, God had no opinion of slavery or the war, for that matter. If so, the South used God as an excuse for deplorable behavior (not at all uncommon, don’t you agree?).

Such is the fallacy of belief.

So what do you believe? Is slavery right or wrong? Was God with the Gray Team or the Blue Team? Or nowhere to be found? Is belief the same as truth, or is truth independent of belief?

And here’s another bit of perspective-putting: Abraham Lincoln, that good and deliberative man so determined to keep the union together, was despised by half the country for what he believed.

Now take this perspective on truth and belief, pop it into this very day, and make of it what you will.

9/11, Hurricanes, Elections, and Change

During a conversation with a friend soon after September 11, 2001, I compared the al-Qaeda attacks to a major natural disaster. The difference, I said, was our collective reaction. Suppose a tremendous earthquake had toppled the World Trade Center. The destruction would have been widespread, with thousands more people killed. Would there still be this angry, vengeful response which had already begun to grip the country?

My point was lost, however, because equating the 9/11 attacks with a natural disaster evoked its own kind of angry response. After all, other people did this to us. Our anger and thirst for vengeance were justifiable.

There is an old Zen story where a man is fishing from his boat on a fogbound lake. Through the mist he senses another boat coming directly at him. The startled fisherman shouts an angry warning. As the oncoming boat strikes, the fisherman curses the other. Quickly, the mist clears and the fisherman realizes the boat that rammed him is empty and adrift. Embarrassment replaces his anger.

Why is it that when other people, rather than nature, are the cause of our misfortune our reaction is different? I think it’s because, first, we believe other people should know better (as we always know better). Second, even though we can mitigate the effects of nature to some extent, we can and should control the actions of those human beings who would thwart, threaten, or harm us. Third, if we can’t control the actions of those who would thwart, threaten, or harm us, then we can justify doing whatever necessary to deter, punish, or avenge. And of course, somebody must pay. 

Religious beliefs entwine natural events with references to acts of God. We like to know why bad things happen. If the cause isn’t human, then it must be divine. If the cause is divine, then who are we to question? Historically and psychologically, God provides a needed explanation for the otherwise inexplicable and helps make tragic natural events easier to bear. Religion tangles things further when disasters become for us God’s judgment and retribution for things other people do, justifying one group’s destructive acts against another.

It’s ironic how easily so many of us accept natural disasters as God’s judgement on others, but when science tells us the progressively worsening changes in our global climate are the result of human activity, many of those same people deny it’s happening and call it a hoax.

Regardless, we humans and our descendants will have to live with and adapt to whatever climatic changes come our way. Ten, twenty-five, 100 years from now, no one will care that Al Gore was right and Rush Limbaugh was wrong about global warming any more than we care today that Galileo was right and the Church was wrong about heliocentrism.

Over eons of time, earth’s climate has changed in many inhospitable ways. The world has seen massive earthquakes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions. But these events never matter unless humans are in the picture. It’s all about us, isn’t it? We humans are right in the middle of this swirling ocean of change that goes on and on. We are part of it, and we have adapted. So far.

Political and social change are as inevitable as changes in weather and climate. Societies manage themselves by creating governments, religious institutions, and other social structures, but over time these have and will change as we continually adapt to new circumstances and conditions. Social and political development and evolution are unstoppable. People do what they will to control their environment, survive, and—if possible—prosper. Sometimes what we humans do in the name of control, survival, and prosperity is grand and life-affirming. Other times it cruel and inhumane. It’s always been like this. It’s the nature of who we are and what we do.

When I told my friend my thoughts about the 9/11 attacks being no different from a natural disaster, this is what I had in mind. As individuals, the hijackers committed a singularly evil and unjustifiable act of violence. But it was just another tragic event in a very long list of examples of man’s inhumanity to man that has been part of the cycle of life and death on earth for thousands of years. Eventually, what happened on September 11, 2001, will have all the emotional impact as the events at the Alamo. Remember the Alamo?

Had we been more vigilant (and we could have been), we may have prevented or lessened damage of the events of 9/11. But there are some things we cannot prevent. We can’t prevent droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, or arctic meltdown. We can’t always prevent other people from doing us harm (remembering that we are “the other” to someone else). We cannot prevent change, we can only live with it.

Hurricane Sandy pounds the eastern United States, and its powerful effects will be far-reaching. People are doing what they can to protect themselves and their property. Some will fare better than others, depending on many unpredictable factors. When it’s over, some will celebrate their good fortune of surviving another massive and destructive natural disaster, others will curse their misfortune and mourn their losses. Either way, as a country, we will clean up and carry on.

Yet another hurricane awaits off shore. When it strikes, it will rake the entire country. Unlike Sandy, this hurricane, which has been brewing for many years, is entirely human-caused. But like any hurricane it is unstoppable. We’ll have better information about areas of damage by November 7. When the skies clear, some of us will celebrate survival-as-victory, others of us will react with grief and anger at our misfortune. I hope the damage is manageable and that the inevitable post-disaster pillaging and plundering are minimal.

Some interesting things I found when researching this essay are here:

http://www.beliefnet.com/News/2005/09/Katrina-Gods-Judgment-On-America.aspx

http://christiannews.christianet.com/1215711636.htm

http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2012/0919/Massive-Arctic-ice-melt-far-surpasses-previous-record