Damned Levees; They Breaks!


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I grew up listening to blues.

…sort of.

Like most any white kid in the suburbs of the 70s and 80s, I listened to hard rock. As I got older, I came to understand there was some kind of relationship between the blaring guitars and thundering drums making their way into my ears and the old blues artists of what then seemed to me like ancient times. In college, I learned a bit more about it from a History of Rock&Roll class, and from a friend with a good stash of old blues albums, but it wasn’t until I started buying those albums myself that I realized just how much my favorite bands owed to the old blues artists. In time, I came to see just how much of what I loved about Rock&Roll was already there in blues.

Needless to say, this meant I had a whole new range of music to explore.

One of my favorite songs, then and now, would have to be Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.

I’m sorry, I meant to say that one of my favorite songs has always been the Led Zeppelin version of When the Levee Breaks.

Zeppelin absolutely nailed this recording, but listening to four British guys play the song, I always had the sense that the lyrics didn’t quite fit. Sure, it was Robert Plant’s vocals on the albums, but it wasn’t his voice (in the literary sense) that animated the story. No. The voice that shaped the lyrics belonged to Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, the original artists to record the song. Realizing this, puts the tune in a whole new perspective. Minnie and Joe were singing about the great Mississippi flood of 1927, an event far closer to their own lives than those of the Mighty Zep. Zeppelin may have carried their story forward a bit, but not without taking a few ghosts along with it.

I still love the Zeppelin version, but I feel just a little better knowing where it came from. No. I don’t always need that to enjoy a song, but in this case, the story itself keeps pointing back to its beginnings. The song keeps alluding to an origin that doesn’t sit well in the mega-hit from the early seventies. For me at least, the song is a little more interesting when you can grasp the traces of dialogue within it, when you can hear at least a trace of Minnie’s voice in that of Robert Plant.

Lately, my favorite version of the song comes from Buckwheat Zydeco. I didn’t expect that. Really, When I first hit play on this version, I fully expected to mumble ‘that’s interesting’ and switch half-way through the tune to something else (something louder and meaner). But no! He frickin kills it! Zydeco seems to keep a lot of the Zeppelin version in his own approach to the song, but of course he adds something new to the mix, something rather cool. Hearing Zydeco’s own vocals onto the blaring guitars and thundering drums makes for an interesting twist in the story. Without erasing the classic rock influence, Zydeco manages to bring the song back closer to its original home. It all gets a little more interesting when this version of the song turns out to be a nod to the hardships brought on by Hurricane Katrina. You can hear a lot of history in this recording, both in the lyrics and the in layers of musical style.

Mostly, it just rocks.

Killers of the Flower Moon: A Book Review


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Regarding his own documentary work, Joshua Oppenheimer once wrote of modern Indonesia; “…I felt I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.” I thought about this line as I read Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. It’s a different time and a different place, perhaps even a different scale of atrocity (at least if you are counting bodies), but each of these stories raised for me the same haunting thought; what must it be like to live one’s life among those that have murdered your loved ones. Oppenheimer’s movies, the Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are set in Indonesia nearly half a century after genocidal policies resulted in the loss of at least half a million lives. Grann’s work is set in Oklahoma, closer to a century century after a wave of killings struck the Osage community, leaving generations to wonder about what really happened? Both stories recount the details of gruesome murder, and both raise questions about life in the wake of atrocity.

I’m also reminded of Anna Rosmus, whose work on the resistance fighters of her hometown uncovered a sordid history of Nazi collaborators well hidden in the town’s oral narratives. She asked enough questions to draw up a violent response from those still tied to that history. I wouldn’t say this was Grann’s focus, but stories like the one he tells have a particularly reflexive quality. Murder on the scale of his story doesn’t rest neatly in past; it haunts the present.


This book is the story of a series of murders carried out in the Osage community of Oklahoma during the 1920s. Grann begins the story by concentrating on a little over 20 murders which would become the focus of an investigation by the FBI. As this was one of the first big cases to be carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the book provides insights into the early years of Hoover’s budding new empire. At the same time, the book helps to shed light on one of the darker chapters of Indian-White relations, the long slow looting of Native American communities by outsiders under the policies of General Allotment.

To grasp the events unfolding in this book, you must understand two things: the Osage community had come into control of vast oil fields, and many had been declared incompetent to manage their own estates. To resolve the second of these problems, various white businessmen had been named as trustees and put in charge of the private fortunes belonging to various Osage members. As individual Osage accumulated the proceeds of oil money. It seems that some people found the notion of wealthy natives rather objectionable (a theme often echoed today by those who resent Indian casinos). More importantly, a certain quantity of non-natives found ways of doing something about it, ways of acquiring that wealth for themselves.

At first, the killings seem a bit random, a pair of shootings here, a few mysterious illnesses there. Someone seemed to be killing off a number of Osage, but why? It didn’t help that the first couple investigators to get somewhere were themselves brutally murdered. It helped even less when a bomb was used to kill an Osage couple and their white servant living in the middle of town. Most of the victims knew each other. They had plenty of connections between them. But which ones were the key to the case?

In the end, it was the mysterious ‘wasting’ illnesses that seemed to provide the most representative cases. The medical science necessary to detect poison was not yet widely available, and it certainly wasn’t standard procedure to test for poison in the event of every death. In the midst of the prohibition era, moreover, it was easy enough to attribute poisoning to bad moonshine. So, poisoning could provide a very effective means of killing someone without raising too many suspicions. It was particularly useful for relatives, trustees, and other beneficiaries of life insurance or inheritance policies eager to acquire an Osage headright. Such killings were not only difficult to detect in the day, they are difficult to detect now in the historical record, but as Grann shows, Osage died at an extraordinarily high rate in the 1920s, a rate not fully explained by any other known factors. The FBI wrapped up an investigation of a little over 20 murders. If Grann is right, the number of Osage actually killed in this era is more likely in the hundreds.

Most were killed by relatives, or at least those who’d been hired by them.

I have to admit the specter of so many white marrying into the tribe making friends with Osage for the clear purpose of killing them fills me with a sense of shame. The feeling will pass, of course, for me, but one of the most haunting features of the book is the number of people for whom such feelings clearly will not pass. The final chapters of this book are filled with personal stories those who grew up in the wake of these murders. It’s been nearly a century, yes, but in family terms these are stories about (great) grandparents, great aunts and uncles. These are stories about children who went on to live their own lives and raise their own families knowing that their own parents had been killed by loved ones or trusted neighbors. …and in some cases wondering just who might have been involved?

…or what local businessmen might have profited from these murders?

This kind of violence isn’t contained in one generation, or even two. It haunts a community long after those who participated have passed away. I can’t help thinking part of the horror might lie in the fear that the truth will never be known, that someone’s death could be forever buried in falsehood, which is why books like this are important. They are one means of countering that horror, however inadequate they may be. Grann didn’t stop at the FBI cases. He went on to study murders left unsolved and to explore the causes of deaths that never caught the attention of authorities. He couldn’t always find an explanation, but he does manage to reveal something of the  extent of these crimes.

It’s evident that some folks entrusted Grann with the hopes of finding out the truth behind their family tragedies. That must have been quite a weight to carry.

It must have been a far greater weight for those to carry such stories their whole lives.


Postscript: I just wanted to make a couple additional remarks here, regarding the writing style. While Grann is relating a historical narrative, he does so through the lens of a particular woman, Mollie Burkhart, who lost most of her family in ‘reign of terror’, and of the FBI agent, Tom White, who was put in charge of the case. By following the lives of these two people into the story, Grann is able to provide a historical narrative that reads like a murder mystery. Those familiar with the story may know where it’s going, and I’ve shared a portion of that here myself (minus severl significant details), but most of the time this approach leaves the reader to wonder how the pieces will fall together, and to expect that will happen when the main characters put those pieces together themselves. Again, tis is history, but it reads a bit like a murder mystery.

This is an interesting approach to historical narrative, one that should prove helpful in the rather likely event that this is made into a movie.

Grann also fills in a lot of detail as he writes the story. He relates the physical features and demeanor of his characters in this book, much as a fiction writer would. When reading such material, I often find myself wondering where that came from? Is this how someone else described the person in question? Is it the impression Grann gets from looking at their pictures? Some combination? Hard to tell!

I can never decide how I feel about that approach to historical writing. A part of me would like to keep closer to identifiable records, to have the option of checking specific claims about specific source material. Another part of me is just happy to get the story. I can file away the fluffy details and focus on the main story line if the information is worth reading.

…which is definitely the case here.

With Apologies to Oscar Brown, Jr.


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no reason!


On her way to work one morning

Down the path alongside the lake

A tender-hearted woman saw a wealthy well-fed snake

His pretty colored skin had been all tanned an oddly-colored hue

“Oh well,” she cried, “you’re so fat and pretty, I will follow you.”

“Trust me oh tender woman

Trust me, for heaven’s sake

Trust me oh tender woman,” sighed the snake


She stood in great hallways with others of her ilk

Admired his suits and loved his ties made of the finest silk

Stood in line to speak with others of long dead hopes now revived

Commended him at the polls, proclaiming; “greatness had arrived.”

“Trust me oh tender woman

Trust me, for heaven’s sake

Trust me oh tender woman,” sighed the snake


The Apple Times and the Capital Post, she turned aside

On distant bears, odd schools, and crying girls, twas always others, she said, who must have lied

Now in his coils, she gave herself to her scaly hero, craving that he hold her tight

But instead of tender care, that snake gave her a vicious bite

“Trust me oh tender woman

Trust me, for heaven’s sake

Trust me oh tender woman,” sighed the snake


“I loved you,” cried that woman

“And you’ve bit me even, why?

You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”

“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile in her final hour

“You knew damn well I was a snake before you put me in power

“Trust me oh tender woman

Trust me, for heaven’s sake

Trust me oh tender woman,” sighed the snake


A Trip to Central America, and to 1950!


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I never met my grandparents on my mother’s side. Hardly a day went by that Mom didn’t mention them, but of course I have more questions about them than answers. So, it was a very pleasant surprise to find out that grandpa left behind a few travel journals. One relates the story of a trip to central America in 1950.

What caught my attention?


Passenger list

Okay, so it might not be all that obvious why this should be interesting to me or anyone else for that matter. I probably won’t be traveling on the Great White Fleet any time soon, and who has even heard of United Fruit? They probably don’t even exist anymore, right? Well, they don’t. That’s true. If you’ve eaten a Chiquita Banana, then you’ve some familiarity with their progeny, but United Fruit itself doesn’t exist anymore. In the 1950s, though, they were going good and strong.

United Fruit was more than a business. It controlled much of central America and helped give birth to the phrase ‘banana republic,’ which I suppose means it has yet another descendant of sorts in the business world. In just four years, United Fruit and the Central Intelligence Agency would engineer a military coup in Guatemala, one of the nations my grandparents visited on this trip. Two of the ships in United Fruit’s Great White Fleet would later be used in the Bay of Pigs operation. Clearly, United Fruit did a lot more than grow and sell bananas. They would eventually be forced to sell off their monopoly interests in Guatemala, and then merged with another company to become Chiquita. In the meantime, Grandma and grandpa were free to enjoy the hospitality of the company on the Great White Fleet.

It’s just a travel journal, to be sure, but a travel journal into the heart of American imperialism. Suffice to say, this was enough to peak my curiosity.


I can’t say the journal was overflowing with details of military juntas and revolutionary conspirators. That’s not what Grandpa and Grandma went down there to see, and this isn’t exactly my area, anyway, so I may have missed a thing or three. Most of the journal seems like pretty normal stuff for travelers. Its pages are filled with tales of mundane trips about the countryside, meals enjoyed (or simply ensured), beautiful architecture, run-down hovels, archeological sites, and countless random travel companions, most of which slide onto stage and back off without too much fuss.

Yet there are a few notable passages.

I no longer have the actual journal in my possession, but I took pictures of every page. I reproduced a number of the these below, numbering them for ease of reference. I intend to give the thing a closer reading sometime down the road, but for now, these are a few things that caught my notice for one reason or another…


Apparently, my grandparents hit a cow somewhere near Chichen Itza (pic 70). Grandpa also mentions meeting a young man in that area who had been to Peoria, IL during the war (pic 76). I can’t tell enough from the narrative, whether the man is even local, or perhaps an ex patriot, but I wonder if this wasn’t someone who had come up on the Bracero program (workers brought into the U.S. to replace Americans gone to war). Either way, I expect there would be an interesting story there.

They encountered the President of Honduras (Juan Lindo?) whom they were evidently told had been too democratic to live in the President’s Palace. He tipped his hat to someone in their party. (You can read Grandpa’s account of this on pic 55).

Grandpa mentions a banana shaped menu once in his journal (pic 46). Pics 14 and 15 would seem to fit the bill. Oddly enough, I don’t see bananas all over the menus, which is interesting. Under the guidance of Edward Bernays, the father of modern Public Relations, United Fruit made an effort to broaden people’s ideas about when and where to eat bananas, a campaign which included (for instance) reversing ideas about whether or not parents should encourage snacking. I really did expect to see a lot more  gustatory propaganda on those menus, but mostly the fruit (which would have been the Big Mike), seems to show up in pictures and other visual motifs.

There is an interesting little history of the Banana, according to United Fruit (pics 17-19), and nice overview of the travel services aboard ships of the United Fruit Company (29-45). Oddly enough, this does not mention any of the company’s efforts to monopolize the entire national economies of several of the countries on the itinerary.

A couple of these pamphlets include references to ‘Middle America’. (I think these were menus.) I found the phrase amusing enough, wondering what folks in Oklahoma or Nebraska might make of it, but of course our North American fashions of speaking about ‘America’ can be a little odd once you shift references to include the whole hemisphere. More interesting than that, the phrasing matches a news agency developed by Bernays for the purpose of promoting the interests of United Fruit. The Middle America Information Bureau had gone dormant by 1950, but I do find myself wondering if the phrasing doesn’t reflect some conscious reference to that project.

And then of course there are just a couple cryptic references in Grandpa’s journal to a rather large layoff by United Fruit coupled with the observation that communism is coming in fast (pic 54).

That’s it!

I could easily wish for more. I could wish Grandpa had uncovered a great big smoking gun, or that he had left behind a complete account of the political history of the region, but alas, he was just a tourist along on a vacation. His politics were not mine, and he didn’t know the history of the company. He mostly wrote about the meals and the sites, and the friendly chatter with people he met here and there. It’s me that sees these documents nearly 70 years later and thinks about all the history of the company that took him down there, but perhaps there is an interesting lesson here after all. This is what the imperialism of the day looked like to people like my Grandpa, to guests of United Fruit.

It was central Americans that witnessed the violent side of United Fruit. For so many (North) Americans, it was simply slices of fruit a mother may have wanted to put on bowl of cereal. Or perhaps it was a quaint news story about a far away place, and perhaps reasons Uncle Sam needed to help fight the red menace somewhere else. Living here in the United States, the majority of Americans would never have felt the blunt force of this company’s power. Neither would they have seen it in any recognizable manner. What they saw was always this benign.

Whatever else can be learned from Grandpa’s journal, it seems we can learn the same was true for countless American tourists traveling through the region. United Fruit is all over the literature in this journal. Details that would one day matter can be found here and there, along with rumors that even reached the ears of a passing tourist. Still nothing recognizably nefarious pops up in the journal, at least not to the eyes of tourists such as my grandfather. What we can see is a range of pamphlets, dinner menus, and brief canned histories, all of which make the whole region seem so innocent, and so quaint. To so many (North) Americans, that banana shaped menu is presisely what our imperial age did look like.

I could of course rest happy thinking that we are better and wiser today. This is all behind us, right? Then again, we sometimes get a little reminder that there is nothing new under the sun.


This is hardly a research paper, but I thought it might be worth mentioning a couple sources here. I first Read Bitter Fruit as a teaching assistant to a professor who specialized in Latin-American studies. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a couple other books on the subject. Bananas makes a particularly nice quick read with a lit of interesting details on the history of United Fruit. Cohen’s books is also useful. Galeano’s book helps to draw connections between different regions and phases of history, all with a very pointed sense of significance.

The Bernays angle on all this stuff is particularly interesting. His book Propaganda, is still considered a classic in the history of Public relations. It’s a good peak into the kind of techniques the man used in selling United Fruit and its interests to the American public.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Broooklyn, New Yok: IG Publishing, 1928, 2005.

Chapman, Peter. Bananas: How the United Fruit Company shaped the world. Edinburgh, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2007.

Cohen, Rich. The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York: Picador, 2012.

Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973, 1997.

Schlesinger, Stephen and Stephen Kinzer. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatelama. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1982, 2005.


Couple Murals from the Mission District of San Francisco


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I’ve been to San Francisco before, not often, and never for long. This summer I spent a couple days in the city with my girlfriend, Moni, and her friend Annie, all before starting the great road trip with Wonder Woman as our companion. That was this summer, but what do I recall from before?

I was once on a massive field trip to San Francisco with virtually my entire grade school when by a perverse coincidence someone in California decided to kidnap a school bus full of children and bury them alive while waiting for the ransom. The seventies were kinda wacky that way, but don’t worry, they all made it.

…and someone at my school had to tell countless concerned parents that we were all on course and fully accounted for.

The field trip, itself I don’t remember much.

I remember a speech and debate tournament held at Berkeley way back when I was in college. I remember a hoard of people drumming in a courtyard, lots of great bookstores, a lovely trip to the wharf, and plenty of great street performers. I also remember wearing red ribbons in protest of apartheid. This was a new thing at the time, not just the color and the specific cause, but as I recall the notion of wearing ribbons as a political statement. It wasn’t then quite the cliche that it is now. Two athletes realized what the ribbons were for. That was all.

I also remember attending an anthropology conference held in San Francisco. We were palling around with an ex-Jesuit priest who had done his fieldwork in China. The guy swore he knew a great dim sum place near the hotel. We were snaking up and down the side streets until he finally hooked a quick turn into some place quite unimpressive, at least until they started serving the food. I remember him asking about spicy chicken feet. He was told they didn’t serve it to the customers, because we wouldn’t know how to eat it. After speaking to her in Mandarin for awhile, she agreed to feed him, and she brought out just enough for HIM to eat it. The rest of us got to watch.

Gustatory voyeurism!

I remember a little here and there from other trips, but nothing worth mentioning.

This time I recall getting very sick on a tour boat. I do that sometimes. Pretty much whenever I’m on a boat. Sometimes on a plane. Once recently in the back of a sled. Needless to say, roller coasters are right out! Anyway, I got off the boat this time and found myself miserable and bucking up for a day of hard work just to make it through what should have been good fun. So, Moni and Annie let me sleep in the park for an hour or so after which I actually enjoyed the rest of the day. At the very end of the evening, we decided to check out some street art. Seeing me go crazy with my camera as the sun went down, her friend, Annie, graciously agreed to take me back to check out the art in the Mission District again the next day.

I think I love Annie!

My all-time favorite was the Women’s Building with its great mural, MaestraPeace. We weren’t the only ones there with cameras, which is quite fitting, because a lot of great talent went into this piece.

MaestraPeace Mural was painted in 1994 by a “Who’s Who” of Bay Area muralists: Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez.

Seriously, that painting is very cool.

We were hunting some murals in a small alley at one point when a local suggested we go check out Clarion Alley. Moni was a little annoyed that I was talking to random homeless people, but honestly the guy helped me out quite a bit. Clarion Alley was great advice! Moni was even more annoyed the next day when I was accosted by a homeless man who wanted me to leave Clarion Alley very quickly. He wasn’t as helpful as the first guy. Still, I got my pics, and he didn’t shoot me after all, not that he had a gun mind you, but shootings were mentioned.

…as were donuts.

Anyway, I clicked away at my camera for the better part of a full day, and I could hardly tear myself away as the sun fell again. I have no doubt that I missed a great deal. I’m also told that much of the artwork would be different if we go back.

I really must test this theory some day.

(Click to embiggen!)

The Women’s Building

Random Artsities

In Cheeto We Trust


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Whenever I’m tempted to simply accept the seemingly innocuous gestures of civil religion here in America, someone or something comes along and reminds me that it simply isn’t safe to do so, that the boundary between church and state is worth defending, and that the potential for compromise on this issue is a well-poisoned well.

Case in point?

This bit of Cheeto-driven drivel, right here!


This pathetic tweet is an artifact of the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s an occasion when the President bows to the authority of political Christians, and vouchasafes their victories in the early days of the cold war. Whatever else this event is, it’s a good reminder that the cold war was always about internal politics as much as confrontation with external enemies. It’s also proof that little has changed under the sun (except perhaps the ratio of black carbon in the atmosphere, which is of course a heresy to the breakfasting prayer-mongers Trump spoke with today). Seriously, this event is the legacy of people who wanted Jesus to roll back the institutions of the New Deal, people who wanted to take away the social safety net and leave us all with nothing but Jesus and our own boot straps to help us in times of need. “In God we trust?” The subtext of that message is that government isn’t going to help you all.

That was always the point.

…which is why this message may be particularly relevant coming from an administration Hell-bent on tearing up every government agency that Americans rely on to keep us safe and prosperous. When the Manchurian Cheeto is done, we may well have nothing more than Jesus to keep poisons out of our water supply, remove the Russians from our computers, and hold the crooks at bay in the multinational cartels we now call banks. Jesus is already what the Republicans had offer the people of Flint and Puerto Rico. It’s what they offered to Southern Californians as a good chunk of the state burned down. It’s all we’ll be left with when the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast see Donald Trump deliver up the national disaster they’ve been praying for all these decades.

For all their flag-waving and Bible-thumping, those behind the National Prayer Breakfast are neither patriots nor Christians, and they certainly aren’t conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. What they want for this country is a disaster, and Donald Trump is delivering that disaster. He is the answer to their prayers.

The hypocrisy orgy known as the National Prayer Breakfast gives us a lot to gripe about. Donald Trump was fully immersed in the spirit of the occasion. He shared a good number of thoughts about the importance of faith in America, and in the American people. All utter crap of course, but he shared it all just the same.

For purposes of brevity, let’s just stick with the tweet, that portion of the wretched breakfast he chose to put into the only literary form the man and his fan base truly appreciate. He makes three points in this tweet, each of which is supposed to tell us something about the importance of God to the United States of America. Each of these points is damned misleading, which I suppose is a step up from the outright falsehoods we normally fall from this fountain of false facts, fake news, and utter foolishness. Still, a moment on each point will go a long way towards illustrating why Donald Trump is wrong about the role of God in America, and why the political Christians who eat this message up are wrong as well.

The first thing to notice is what is not mentioned in this vapid tweet, and that is the U.S. Constitution. It is the U.S. Constitution, and religion clauses of the First Amendment, that make the role of religion in our government such a hotly debated topic. One of the most fascinating things about those who want us to think of America as a Christian nation is just how hard they work to leave the Constitution out of the discussion. That document doesn’t help them, so they have to work around it. They have just one problem. Simply failing to mention the U.S. Constitution is too obvious. It sets up a great big red flag and invites those of us on the secular end too many obvious entry points to push our own point of view. They can’t just not say anything. That won’t work. So, they typically do what Trump does here. They cite the Declaration instead.

Like Jesus sent to atone for the sins the humanity, The Declaration of Independence serves to atone for the silence of the Constitution on the subject of God. (Yes, the Constitution mentions God in the date. If that impresses, you then I have an acre of arctic ice-pack to sell you.) The Constitution simply doesn’t say what Evangelical Christians want it to say. It does not invoke God as the authority for creation of the U.S. Government. (It locates that authority in the people.) It doesn’t say that you have to be Christian to hold office. (In fact, it expressly forbids such a standard.) And of course it contains a clause holding religion at bay right there alongside the right to practice religion. We can debate the proper interpretation of the establishment clause, but its mere existence is an annoyance to those who would clearly rather live in a theocracy. You can read the Constitution all day, but it won’t give you the license to tie Jesus to our politics that Evangelical Christians want out of the document. So, they typically talk about the Declaration of Independence instead.

Just like the Cheeto-in-Chief did today.

Of course those pushing the America-as-a-Christian-nation theme typically misread the Declaration itself, often confusing this reference to a Creator (written by a man widely regarded as a Deist) with a direct reference to Jesus himself and nearly always confusing this piece of propaganda with a clear plan of government. They ignore the clear parallels to logic of Hobbesian thought and other connections to Enlightenment philosophy in order to cast the language of the Declaration in terms closer to those of scripture. Most importantly, they reverse the point of the argument. Jefferson wasn’t using rights to prove the existence of a creator. He was using a reference to the Creator to explain the existence of rights, and no, there is nothing in the relevant passage of the Declaration that suggests the rights will cease to exist if we take the Creator out of the picture. All of this is lost on those consuming messages like that Trump delivered today at the National Prayer Breakfast. When they reference the Declaration, they see it as an argument for belief in God (which they assume means Jesus), but they are dead wrong in more ways than they could possibly count.

Simply put, the Declaration doesn’t mean what Donald Trump pretends it means. Neither does it mean what the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast want it to mean.

I doubt there is much in the Bible that means what they want it to mean either.

Or the Constitution that matter.

The whole shell game is crap!  People ought to stop talking about the Declaration when they mean to address questions about the Constitution, and they ought to stop reading either one as though it was the script for the youth pastor in a particularly uneducated part of the country. Most of us are smarter than that, but that doesn’t stop some people from recycling the same old garbage, which is what Trump did today. The whole con has been painfully obvious for decades. That should be as obvious to Christians as it is to the rest of us.

But not to the political Christians at the National Prayer Breakfast!

As to ‘In God We Trust’? That motto was adopted by the nation in 1956. It was part of the same movement that led to things like the National Prayer Breakfast, which makes it an interesting point for Trump to make. In doing so, he is simultaneously invoking a principle many assume to be a timeless part of American history and also giving a nod to the faithful who know the history of the prayer breakfast, people who understand the aggressiveness of their own political agenda, people who understand how divisive that phrase was always meant to be. It may sound like a nice an unifying message, if that is, you don’t give a damn about those who don’t trust god after all. In effect, the motto says of the rest of us that we aren’t really part of America. We don’t really count.

That is of course precisely the point. Always was.

“One nation, under God?”

Same story. This too was also added in those days shortly after Ike had been reluctantly cajoled into making public professions of faith in the official service of the nation. It too has always served as a clear reminder to the rest of us that we do not really belong. One nation under God? If you don’t believe in God, that little utterance, that bit of prayer stuck into the middle of an oath, gives the lie to the whole charade, it drops you right out of the narrative in the very moment the thoughtless celebrate unity at your expense.

Again, that is the point of the ritual.

So, there we have it, one twisted effort to dodge the Constitution on the subject of church and state, and two tokens of divisiveness wrapped in a cloak of unity. Whether he means it or not, whether Donald Trump is capable of ‘meaning’ anything in the conventional sense of the word, this is the message he offered America’s political Christians today. He endorsed their most aggressive agenda and made a point to isolate their enemies. Small wonder that these folks love him despite his obvious insincerity. Today Donald Trump offered the religious right the power to which they feel entitled, and he did it in precisely the same deceitful tones they have always known and loved. That’s our President; completely without substance, and utterly disingenuous.

The religious right wouldn’t have him any other way!

Repellent Utopias and the Case Against Black History Month


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Do we really need a Black History Month?

It’s a common question. It might be a little more common coming from white folks like me, but I’ve certainly heard it from some African-Americans as well. A couple years back, for example, Stacey Dash weighed in on the subject for the benefit of the Fox viewer base. I hear views like that of Dash often enough. So, I blogged my own two cents worth of a response here. It was a short post, and rather sarcastic to be sure, but I still think that post about captures my sense of the issue. (Also it was an excuse to get a Leyla McCalla song onto my blog, which has to be a good thing.) Today, I thought it might be worth spelling out the point a little more directly.

Dash’s comments are hardly unusual. Time and again, you’ll hear someone gripe about the Latin American Music Awards, the Miss Black America Pageant, the existene of Black Entertainment Television, or any number of just-for-the-minority occasions, awards, and honors. In some cases, it’s hard to escape the impression that those making these comments just don’t like the ethnic groups in question and want them to go away. I somehow doubt that’s what Stacy Dash has in mind, but she’s probably not the sole example. Not every objection to minority-specific recognition can be fully understood as a conscious defense of white privilege.

As to latent prejudice, the jury is still out.

The most interesting case against such things, for me anyway, seems to to be the argument that they should not be necessary, and that minority-focused recognition is contrary to the spirit of a more unbiased community. Why set aside a specific month for black history, so the argument goes, when we should be incorporating elements of black history throughout the curriculum? Why have special awards for minorities when we should be including those minorities fully in the mainstream awards? Some might even suspect that Black History Month works to put the topic in a ghetto, so to speak, giving us leave to ignore the subject matter throughout the rest of the year. It may or may not work like that, but there does seem to be a certain merit to the notion that what we really out to be doing is ensuring that minorities are recognized when they ought to be recognized on a day-to-day basis, all year. Wouldn’t this be better than trying to set aside specific moments when this or that minority gets a spot of time under the spotlight?

Dash’s comments, like those of many who generate this argument, make a seamless transition from opposition to segregation to opposition to Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television, etc. Some of us might think these horribles (the segregation system of old versus Black History Month today) would weigh a little differently on the scale of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s raising a question narratives like this simply don’t address. It’s a point of principle, Dash seems to suggest, and the same principle that forbids the one should forbid the other. Hence, the absence of minority-specific recognition becomes the price of freedom from segregation with all of the horrible things that that go with it. Shouldn’t we just approach these subjects in a color-blind way, she argue, and not show any preference at all?

Maybe it’s just my inner redneck, or at least my outer whiteness, but I have to admit this argument has a certain appeal for me. The appeal isn’t entirely self-serving. Sure, there is the notion that life might be simpler without having to deal with a specific month where folks pester me about covering African-Americans in my classes. That might be convenient. But along with that goes the notion that I really should sit down and work really hard to ensure that I am covering the subject adequately all year. Then I should do the same thing for Latinos, Native Americans, Women, the LGBT+ community, and any range of underprivileged peoples who may get squeezed out of the history books and the history lessons in one way or another. Theoretically, at any rate, these kinds of responses shouldn’t lead us to forget minorities; they should lead us to distribute credit more evenly, allocating it to minorities when they’ve earned it, just as we supposedly do to those in the majority. Doing that right would not be easy. In fact, it would be damned hard.

…and by ‘damned hard’ I mean, ‘probably not going to happen’.

The plan runs aground on the limitations of human nature. We don’t really have a universal standard for any kind of recognition, not beauty pageants, music or acting awards, journalism, or anything else for that matter. Certainly not history! We all look at questions of merit through the lens of our personal experiences, values, cultural background, etc. Thomas Jefferson doesn’t simply have a privileged role in our history books for reasons of abstract merit. Like it or not, he is also there for his contribution to institutions of white dominance. Frederick Douglas didn’t simply get into the history books because he reached some imaginary threshold of significance that deserves a paragraph or maybe even a page in a textbook. He got there because he made contributions to the lives present condition of African Americans. All of these stories are filtered through the lens of interests shaped by issues like race and gender today. Those who rise to the top of the mainstream narratives typically have some real advantages in the competition for our collective attention. They benefit from personal and institutional bias. Some of these biases are obvious, and some of them are subtle, but the point is that bias is bound to creep into decisions about who does and doesn’t have merit. This is as true of a historical personage as it is an artist or a contestant today.

When I try to put together the materials for a history class, I make any decisions about what to include, what to emphasize, and how to explain things to my students through the lens of my own personal experiences. Those include years of life in lily white neighborhoods talking to other middle class white people. They also include years of exposure to minority subjects in college classes and even more years working in Indian country and then the arctic. Plenty of my influences point me to the dead-white male version of history; others lead me to open that story up and include lots of other people. Whether or not the one is enough to counter-balance the others is always an open question.

My answer is better on some days than others.

Under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be reminded for one month out of every year that I might have missed something. There may be some stories about Aftican-Americans that I could and should get to my students somehow. I can’t say that the results always get into the February part of the curriculum, but I have certainly added African-American subject matter to my American history classes during the month of February. I don’t ignore these stories the rest of the year either, but the reminder certainly doesn’t hurt.

More to the point, correcting bias isn’t simply a zen kinda thing. You can’t just sit there and be non-biased. As least I can’t. I’m human. My brain is subject to the same cognitive biases that I see quite readily in so many other people. So, if I just follow my first instincts (or even my first thoughts) on the subject of what to teach, I’m going to miss some things. I’m going to miss some people. I could wish otherwise, but it’s going to happen. So, somewhere in that process, I figure it’s worth it take a little time to think consciously and deliberately about those peoples who tend not to make it into the standard dead-white male narratives that still dominate so much of our common historical narratives. Whatever else, Black History Month does, it forces the issue, and it sets a number of teachers who might otherwise proceed blissfully onward to spend some time asking whether they’ve done enough.

The world would of course be better off if we didn’t need to go through such a process in the first place, if we could all be relied upon to handle minority subjects smoothly and evenly on the first pass.

But we don’t live in that world.

We never will.

Which brings me back to the imagination behind Stacy Dash’s opposition to Black History Month. The ideal she cites is compelling enough. It’s easy to say that we would all be better off without these special moments set aside for recognition of selected groups, but that only works if we imagine away the biases that make them necessary. The problem here is the notion that the ideal in this case will be achieved by eschewing the pro-minority agendas first. We may or may not get around to any sense of larger equality in due time, so the thinking goes, but as a point of personal integrity, we should all give up any effort to assign recognition to specific minorities before we can really expect movement on the larger issues. We have to forget Black History Month before we can be sufficiently color-blind to stop leaving black people out of our regular history lessons.

But that larger equality never comes. Like the communist state or the free market of Libertarian mythology, this world without prejudice just hangs out there somewhere in the ether. We can talk about it. We can imagine we are moving towards it, but it will never get here. In the interim, supposedly, the price of moving toward this ideal will be paid by those already on the short end of the stick. The first step toward that equality will be a sacrifice of what few breaks some folks have managed to gain at one point or another. The rest will come later. The big moment when we all judge each other by the content of our character sits somewhere on the other side of the moment we stop taking an extra beat to see who might have presently been left behind. But we’ll get there. Don’t worry!

…and the check is in the mail.


A Wondrous Road Trip!


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Just south of Taos

It was the summer of Wonder Woman. I mean, I know she was in the theaters this last summer, and I certainly enjoyed the movie, but that’s not what I’m talking about. She was in our car. Wonder woman, I mean. She was in our car.


We were wondering what that strange sound was coming from the back. We didn’t hear it often, at first anyway, but it was just an odd sound. Were the Jarritos bouncing up against the Mexi-cokes? Maybe something was falling out of the luggage? No, not that over and over like that, and it doesn’t sound like bottles. Neither Moni nor I could quite place it. And then an impression started to form, but it just couldn’t be right. I thought perhaps all those years of role-playing geeketry were playing havoc with my ears, because I couldn’t possibly be hearing it right. Still, the more I listened, the more convinced I became.

“Is that a sword?”

“It does sound like a sword, yes.”

Hearing Moni confirm my seemingly-impossible impression was a little reassuring. It was also a little disturbing. Why in the hell would the sounds of sword fighting be coming from the back of our vehicle? And then Moni remembered the costume. I had bought her a Wonder Woman costume for super-hero day at her gym. It came with a plastic sword and that sword made sounds whenever you moved it around. We meant to give it to one of of her nieces or nephews, but I guess we never got around to it. Instead, the noisy blade was buried somewhere in the back beneath a pile of luggage, snacketry, random shoes, and countless things we probably didn’t need. Evidently, the sword had room to juggle. So, Wonder Woman had room to fight in the back of our vehicle.

No matter! We would dig her out soon enough.

I think we first noticed the sound on a trip to Sequoia National Park. We could still hear Wonder Woman doing battle after a diversion to Monterey, another trip to Sacramento and San Francisco, several small trips around Los Angeles, a road trip to Santa Fe by way of the Navajo Nation, at least three trips back to to Taos Pueblo through Espaniola, one to Bandelier, one to Kasha Katuwe, and one each to Santa Ana Pueblo and Cochiti. We never did find her, or if we did, we missed the chance to find her a new home. Hell, she was still fighting her foes when we made it finally back to California at the end of the summer.

We actually did make an effort to find Wonder, but we were thwarted by the piles of unnecessary baggage. So, Wonder Woman spent the summer with us. She protected us from evils all across the southwest, and even scolded us when we did wrong. She could be kinda bossy that way, but otherwise, I must admit the living weapon herself was actually pretty good company.

Presumably, her sword is in storage now.

It’s been a little over six months now, so I guess it’s time to share some pics from our road trip, the one Moni and I took with Wonder Woman.


I’ve already blogged about a few of these things, but I do plan to produce at least one more post about the street art in San Francisco. I’ve posted about the Institute of American Indian Arts before, and about Santa Fe. These are definitely favorite stops of mine. Here are a few pics (click to embiggen)!