Friday, July 3, 2020

Being Serious

One of the Black Lives Matter movement’s goal is to remove offensive statues and symbols that remind one of slavery and racism. Many (but not all) of these symbols are located in the old Southern Confederacy. For example, John Calhoun’s statue in one of Charleston’s major squares was recently taken down.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, protesters just brought down the statue of Ulysses Grant, the country’s 18th president. He, of course, led the Union forces which defeated the South and ended slavery. However, he married into a slave-owning family. The San Francisco action also brought down the statues of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish missionary and that of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner. He owned slaves.

In Washington, D. C., New York, Raleigh N. C., New Jersey, Sacramento and elsewhere, offending statues, symbols and names were removed. Some of these represented confederate leaders; some were historical figures who had mistreated native Americans (E. G. John Sutter); some were US Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

So far, so good. Some historical revisionism is in order. By all means, rename most places, monuments and institutions that bear the names of people like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. These men were traitors. Their statues are best kept and viewed in museums, as is done for instance in Berlin. There, Nazi paraphernalia can be viewed by museum visitors without offending holocaust survivors. I also laud removal of confederate flags from events such as NASCAR. I have always felt that the display of confederate flags is a bit as if Germans today were to wave swastikas.

However, such a “proscription” list could get awfully long. There is no consensus as to the names that belong on the list. And there could be some problems with the implementation. For example, a dozen major military bases are named after Southern military men. There is talk of renaming Fort Bragg. Braxton Bragg was a general in the Confederate army, and thus a traitor. The proposal makes sense. But what about all the other ones?

And what about US Presidents? Twelve of them owned slaves: George Washington (the “father of the country”), Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk and Zachary Taylor. What do we do with all of them?

Not to mention our paper currency: Several bills will have to be changed: The $1 bill features George Washington, the $2 bill shows Thomas Jefferson, the $20 bill has Andrew Jackson, and the $50 bill depicts Ulysses Grant. Replacing Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill would have been great, but Trump nixed that.

Then, the list expands to include many foreigners. Columbus has long been a prime candidate for proscription. Yes, he was bad in many ways. But how is this to be done? Thousands of schools, streets, buildings, cities (Columbus, Ohio), universities (Columbia), countries (Colombia) will have to be renamed. Where does it stop? Recently, the English have covered up Winston Churchill’s iconic statue in London’s Parliament Square. Churchill was in many ways a racist (as were most people of his generation).

There is no rock bottom to revisionism. Movies such as Gone with the Wind and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are racist. Gone with the Wind is one of the most successful lies ever perpetrated on the public. Commendably, some networks have begun to present this propaganda movie encased in editorial commentary and analysis. The movie thus remains available to the public and it becomes an educational tool.

With censorship, the list of candidates never ends. It could include Jack London, Mark Twain, Truman Capote, maybe a majority of famous historical figures. Are we to blow up Mount Rushmore? The problem is that the further back you go, the more different the norms were. Judging people who lived long ago by today’s evolving standards is problematic. Hopefully we march forward and we realize our ancestors’ errors. Burt rewriting history is tricky.

And this all leads me to another issue: At some point, the fight over symbols can get in the way of REAL material progress. We are in the midst of a huge struggle for justice. What ails African-Americans more than any other group is severe economic inequality accompanied by brutal treatment by the criminal justice system and widespread racist attitudes in the society at large. Blacks share some of these conditions with other groups - other communities of color and also a poor white underclass. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the struggle for justice is largely an old-fashioned class conflict. The oppression and exploitation of an underclass by a power elite.

There is a place for identity politics, of course. It’s good to remove heinous symbols. However, we should not let feel-good politics replace the pursuit of REAL goals. On average, blacks make half what whites make, and their net worth is ONE TWELFTH that of whites. Blacks’ incarceration rate is five times that of whites. Their chances of being killed by a cop are equally astronomical. These are the real issues: Economic progress and equal treatment by the authorities.

There is truth to the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” Consider an affluent society such as Belgium: There, too, different ethnic groups must coexist, and sometimes there is friction. However, the difference between Belgium and the US is that over there, both competing ethnicities (the Walloons and the Flemish) enjoy a very high quality of life. Neither is oppressed by the other. Therefore, they may carry some prejudices against each other, but they coexist peacefully. They are happy.

Getting rid of the statue of Christopher Columbus should not become a substitute for the real work. If Democrats pursue symbolic goals to the neglect of tangible ones, they may appear to be frivolous, not serious. The main fight has to be about saving thousands of lives and millions of jobs, about greater equality, about medical care, about improving the lives of the American people, especially those who are struggling the most. Can you think of a greater obscenity than the fact that - as we speak, in the midst of a deadly pandemic - the Trump administration is trying to administer the final death blow to Obamacare?

By what metrics will you judge success? Whether you have dismantled many symbols of Confederate bigotry, or whether your life has improved? How do you define progress? By how many offensive statues have been removed, or whether or not you and your children have access to life-saving medical treatment?

You may say: We must pursue both goals - real economic and legal changes that will produce a better life, AND getting rid of offensive cultural symbols. The two go hand in hand.

 Fine. I just want to caution you to remain serious, as you fight for progress. We will know that we have achieved true progress when fewer innocent blacks are killed by cops, when black income and wealth approach those of other ethnic groups, when the black incarceration rate no longer exceeds that of whites five to one, when blacks do not die from the Coronavirus two and a half times as much as whites do.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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