Poe’s Law, the Civil War Edition

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Have you heard of the minie ball pregnancy?

It occurred during the civil war at a battle in Raymond, Mississippi. Apparently, a minie ball (a conical-shaped bullet commonly used in the era) passed through a Confederate soldier’s testicles and then lodged itself in a young woman’s own private parts. Though, still a virgin, she later gave birth to a baby boy, apparently impregnated by the minie ball carrying the young man’s seed along with it.

Okay, but by “apparently,” I of course mean “not at all.”

This did not happen.

Not really!

Photo of Legrand G. Capers found in Wikipedia

The fact that this didn’t happen didn’t stop an army surgeon by the name of L.G. Capers from reporting on the incident as though it really did. He describes in detail coming upon a soldier staggering toward him before collapsing as a woman began screaming from the house in which he planned to conduct field operations. He treated both parties, or so he says. Later, Capers writes that he returned six months later to find the young woman pregnant though her hymen remained intact. A month or so later, he also delivered the baby, still confused about her story. After piecing the events together later, Capers says he found the soldier and explained the child to him. Of course the young man did the honorable thing, and the doctor reported visiting the lovely couple many years later to find them living happily together with 3 children.

All of this was published in a journal known as the American Medical Weekly in 1874. It was later republished in a British Medical Journal, the Lancet, and a few subsequent publications (whose editors should probably have known better) have presented the story as medical facts. Author Tony Horowitz tells us that at least one museum in Vicksburg Virginia related the story without comment as of his research for book, Confederates in the Attic, published in 1999. (The story appears on pages 199-200). Though the American Medical Journal later published a clarification explaining that the whole account had all been a joke, it seems there are always a few folks determined to take it seriously.

Also, aside from the source being a known spoof, apparently, this is a medical impossibility.

This time, by “apparently,” I mean “absolutely.”

What has me thinking about this today is Horowitz’s account. As he put it, the original account was intended as a spoof of other wildly exaggerated stories circulated by medical doctors in the wake of the civil war. If nothing else could have tipped a reader off as to nature of this tall-tale, the fact that Capers reported later removing a mini-ball from the child’s own testicles should probably have been the final “gotcha” moment of the story. Tall tales often have this, a final twist so improbable as to effectively communicate to anyone who might still be wondering that the whole thing was just an elaborate joke. This, if nothing else, ought to have tipped readers off then and now as to the nature of the Capers’ clever little yarn. Note to mention, the correction published published by the same journal.

Apparently, some people would rather believe the story anyway.

And by “apparently,” this time I just mean “apparently.”

***

All of which brings to mind a principle coined by an old net-friend of mine, Nathan Poe. Frustrated with debating young-earth creationists on Christian forums, Poe once quipped; “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” In other words, you can’t make a satirical statement sufficiently outrageous to out-absurd the very people he was arguing with. But of course Christian fundamentalists are not the only bunch with a few loose canons in their midst, as others have pointed out. So, the principle has been generalized since its original formulation to apply to a broad range of topics about which satire might be mistaken for the real thing, not the least of reasons being that someone is usually just as extreme as any parody their critics might make-up to poke fun at them.

Apparently, that was also true in 1874.

***

This story was only a couple pages out of Confederates in the Attic, but I highly recommend the book as a whole. Great read! There are some other good sources on the internet. Wiki has a decent page on Capers, and of course that contains many good links in itself. Mark Powell’s write-up is useful and fun to read. Of course, Snopes has a good page on it as well, complete with many of the relevant primary documents.

And …winner!

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Right on this corner, I believe

For a brief period of my life (in the early 90s), I lived on the south side of Chicago. It was an interesting experience, to say the least.

I remember one day seeing a couple young men laughing at one of the local homeless guys. This particular individual was always stoned or drunk, or both. Often, when he approached me, he couldn’t even put the words together to ask for change; he just held his hand out. He was often in bad shape. At least once, I found him passed out on the street, with his own piss flowing out over the curb. This time at least he was up and moving with some purpose as he walked by the young men, both of whom were well dressed.

Laughing, one of the young men shouted back at him; “Hey do you remember me?”

“Yeah.”

“Really? Who am I?’

“You!”

I’m not sure this particular individual knew he won that exchange, but the two men mocking him sure did.

An American Flag as a Weapon, Redux.

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Right wing patriots love their country in much the same way that an abusive spouse loves his wife.

“I love you baby, now do what I say or else!”

When one of those participating in the riots on the 6th picked up a flag used it to beat an officer, that struck me as rather par for the course. Independent of all the other crap perpetrated by those engaged in this insurrection, Francis Stager’s choice of a weapon might have seemed ironic to some, but for me it actually seemed rather telling. An American flag used as a weapon makes a fitting symbol for right wing politics.

It makes a fitting symbol of right wing patriotism.

Peter Stager beat Capitol Police Officer with American Flag Credit: FBI

This morning I started thinking about another image of a flag used as a weapon.

Was it the hard had riot of the Nixon era?

No.

After digging around a bit, I fount it. This iconic photo, “The Soiling of Old Glory,” captures a moment in the busing riots of 1976. This time the flag wielder was a student upset that his friends would be bused away in an effort to desegregate the schools. His target wasn’t a cop, it was a random African-American.

Luckily, he missed!

I don’t know if Joseph Rakes, the flag-wielding student, fits the right wing stereotype quite so well as Francis Stager, but the meaning of the moment seems comparable enough. As does the outrageous nature of the action. You’d be hard-pressed to avoid seeing in either conflict some sense of the defense of privilege; harder to still to find any meaningful excuse for the decision to turn the arguments of the day into a physical assault against a momentarily defenseless victim. Whatever the cop might have done in some other context, he was hopelessly outnumbered when Stager attacked him. Ted Landsmark, the black man in the 76 photo hadn’t done a damned thing; he too was hopelessly outnumbered and already realing from another blow. Neither deserved to be attacked with a deadly weapon.

Not any weapon.

Still, the weapon in each of these cases does seem to make a statement.

It’s just not a very good one.

***

The photo of the Capital Hill riots is taken from Yahoo News.

The Soiling of Old Glory is taken from an NPR story about it.

Two Green Manalishis (Each With a Two Pronged Crown)

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I grew up listening to Green Manalishi, the Priest version of course.

To say that I loved that song is hardly the half of it. I recall waiting by the stereo with a cassette recorder, hoping it would play soon, and hoping the damned DJ would announce it in time for me to his record. That and “You Got Another Thing Comin'” led me to Judas Priest. Combined with a few other things, it led me to Heavy Metal. To say that I took an interest in the genre is putting it mildly. For an adolescent male back in the 80s, Heavy Metal was more like a religion than a musical genre. I didn’t just embrace metal on account of this song and others like it, I instinctively renounced others. To love music from another genre just felt wrong; metal was my music. I made exceptions, but they were few and far in between for a few years there. My interest in metal back then was an oath of allegiance. Remembering now what it was like to sit in front of my dad’s old stereo with a tape-recorder waiting for a Green Manalishi to make an appearance, I can’t help but chuckle at he foolishness to come even as I wish I could have (just for one moment even) the magic and the intensity of my initial interest in this song.

I don’t know when I first learned that one of my favorite Priest songs was actually a cover. I imagine, I must have responded with something like; ‘cool’, but I don’t think I sought out the original. As with Diamonds and Rust, I was happy to know that there was a history to this song, but I didn’t make too much of an effort to learn what it was.

I think I listened to the full version of this song only recently. It was a Fleetwood Mack song, made long before Stevie Nicks brought her own haunting vocals to the band. This was one of Peter Green’s final contributions to the band.

What is a Green Manalishi?

To Green, it was a green dog, if you can imagine that, a green dog and a dead one at that, dead but still barking. The dog, according to Green represented money.

Yes, drugs were involved.

In its own way, the Green version of this tune is just as hard hitting as the Priest cover. It’s slower, more minimalist, and yet so much more haunting. Anger always came through loud and clear in the Priest version; in the original it’s dread. I always imagined Rob Halford angry at some old flame who wouldn’t go away. I would never have imagined the Green version was an old lover; every note suggests something more sinister, more arcane. I wouldn’t have guessed it was a dog or a money, but listening to the tune now, death and worse seems quite likely the point of the song.

I have two versions of this song in my favorites list now.

Love them both!

Religious Freedoms

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Russian orthodox Church in Anchorage

Here is an interesting question (to me anyway). What legal mechanism prevents the Federal Government from banning your church?

(Hopefully, they don’t want to, but humor me…)

That would be the First Amendment, right, or more precisely the ‘free exercise clause’ of the First Amendment.

Okay, so what stops your state government from banning your church?

It’s not the First Amendment, not alone anyway. The relevant text of the First Amendment reads as follows; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” So, that prevents CONGRESS, and by extension other Federal entities operating under the authority of Congress, from banning your church. It doesn’t say anything about the actions of state governments.

What would prevent a state government from doing such a thing?

That would be the Fourteenth Amendment, or perhaps the First Amendment, as incorporated into state jurisdiction via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Section I of the Fourteenth Amendment reads as follows (emphasis added):

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This is significantly more ambiguous, of course, but I do believe most people, and more importantly, most of the relevant legal authorities, generally take this to mean that state governments have been operating under the free exercise clause (or some principle like it) since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Okay, good fun, right?

Now here is a question, most Americans might not think about. What prevents a tribal government from banning a church on their own lands?

By tribal government, I mean the government of any Federally recognized tribe within the United States. We are talking about American Indians or Alaska Natives here. So, I am asking what legal mechanism would prevent a tribal government representing one of the indigenous peoples of the United States from banning a church under the own jurisdiction?

It isn’t any explicit measure in the U.S. Constitution itself.

Nope!

There is nothing specific in the text of the U.S. Constitution which limits the authority of a tribal government to restrict the religious activities of anyone subject to their jurisdiction. Congress has of course asserted plenary power to alter the relationship between tribal governments and the Federal Government at will since Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903). (At least that is when the doctrine of ‘plenary power’ received its most explicit expression under the Federal courts.) Still, absent any explicit action from Congress restricting the authority of an Indian tribe, indigenous people are assumed under U.S. Law to retain any sovereign powers they had before colonization began. So, in the absence of any clear Federal statement to the Contrary, a tribal government may resolve the matter of religion and religious freedom as they deem fit. (Some would argue, that is exactly how it ought to work.) In any event, the Tenth District of the Federal Courts ruled in 1959 that no such law existed. According to the decision in Native American Church v. Navajo Tribal Council (1959), neither the U.S. Constitution nor any Federal Law obligates tribal governments to respect the free exercise clause or any principle like it.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, some would say that is how it should be. Let indigenous people settle any questions about religious freedom for their own members (or others subject to their jurisdiction) themselves! For good or for ill, it’s their business.

Well, that’s not what happened.

What happened was The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.

In other words, the answer to my third question is The Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.

What stops a tribal government from banning a church is The Indian Civil Rights Act. This was part of a larger Federal Law expanding civil rights in a number of areas (most of which were of more direct concern to African Americans at the time). The Indian Civil Rights Act applies most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the actions of tribal governments. Significantly, it does not incorporate the establishment clause of the First Amendment into tribal jurisdiction. Tribal governments are free to establish their own religions, but they are not free to restrict the religious activities of those subject to their jurisdiction.

You can see this in the relevant text.

“No Indian tribe in exercising powers of self-government shall—

  1. make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for a redress of grievances…”

Note that there is a clear reference to the principle of free exercise, and yet, there is no mention of establishment. So, you can see it in the text. The Indian Civil Rights Act only incorporates 1 of the 2 basic religion clauses of the First Amendment into the context of tribal government. This somewhat belies the thinking of America’s founding fathers who might have suggested that the two clauses work together to ensure that religion will not become a source of abuse, or more to the point, to prevent an establishment of religion from becoming the reason religious freedom is restricted, but of course all of this ignores the context of colonialism here. The power of any religious establishment that might occur under tribal jurisdiction is significantly blunted by the presence of a larger Federal government which has already compromised a great deal of tribal sovereignty,not to mention state governments eager to eat away at what might be left of tribal sovereignty. In any event, the thinking at the time the ICRA was passed is that traditional tribal government is far too entangled with the ceremonial systems and spiritual narratives of the people in question to introduce the proverbial “separation of church and state.”

Of course, the ICRA has other significant limitations, particularly insofar as anyone might attempt to apply it to civil disputes, but that’s another matter.

All of this is to say nothing whatsoever about the religious freedoms of Native Americans facing regulations by the Federal and State governments. That’s a whole other messy history in itself.

Damned ugly one at that!

Finally, one reason I think this little exercise is worth doing is it helps to illustrate the way that religious freedom sits in the context of American law. Most people just think they have a right of religious freedom. They don’t really distinguish the establishment clause from the free exercise clause much less make a serious effort to think about how these measures relate to one another. More importantly, folks tend not to think very carefully about the way that concepts of religious freedom play out in different layers of American government. Of course far too many people, think government is government is government, until they are pushed to start making distinctions, but the point at the present is this, religious freedom is not simply an abstract concept under the U.S. Constitution. It takes the form of specific limitations applied to specific levels of government through different legal provisions. Religious Freedom takes different forms in relation to different layers of American government.

Leetul Buurdz!

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Just Hollerin’

I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I need a cuteness break, right about now.

So, I’m going to post some pics of these little birds we get here over the summer. they usually arrive in April or May, and it seems like they disappear with the first few snows of the Fall, so usually by October. I’m told they are called “snow buntings.” I don’t think these critters are really all that unusual. I probably saw plenty of snow buntings when I lived in the lower 48, but I sure notice them a lot more now. Their arrival is a welcome sign that what counts as Spring here is actually starting to happen. I hear them singing first in the Spring often without actually seeing any for a couple weeks. Finally, the numbers get large enough to enjoy the sites.

Love these little guys!

I took these pics over the last couple summers. (Click to embiggen!)

Timothy McVeigh Would have Been Proud!

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NOT Antifa!

Believe it or not, there was a time when liberals were the civil libertarians of American politics and conservatives were the folks most likely to advocate repression of individual rights. I do not mean simply that this was the substance of our nation’s politics at that time. No. I mean, that this was largely the understanding of people across the board of American politics. Lest you think this makes liberals the obvious good guys and conservatives the obvious baddies, I should add that a good portion of conservative rhetoric stressed the excess and indulgence of civil rights themes in liberal politics. The Republican Party was also much more invested in a kind of Edmund Burke version of ‘conservatism,’ so they were explicitly concerned with the preservation of long standing traditions, even at the expense of individual rights. Hell, they used to tell you so!

I don’t know how far this pattern stretches back in American history, but as I came of age in the 80s, it was sufficiently common to be taken for granted by a good number of people on each side of the battles we then fought. Back then, liberals consistently played the underdog, a stance often granted without challenge. For their part, conservatives often spoke with the authority of the ages; they spoke on behalf of powerful institutions, and they were the voices most likely to wield power consciously at the expense of individual rights.

A lot has changed.

…at least in the way we Americans typically talk about politics.

***

This is all broad strokes commentary, of course, but I think you can see it in the general tenor of the times. William F. Buckley, Jr.s first book, for example, was an appeal to Yale to crack down on the damned unbelievers at that institution. It was liberals who fought the banning of books. It was liberals who defended artists in music and film facing censorship from government in one form or another. It was liberals who supported birth control, gay rights, and much of the sexual revolution. It was liberals who defended the burning of the flag, and so on. In those days, before the right wing learned how to tell stories of ‘political correctness’ there was a definite sense that in any political battle you could expect the liberals (and along with them, many on the far left) to side with advocates of individual liberty and conservatives would tell us why something else mattered more.

There were exceptions of course, the most significant ones lying in the area of economics, which threw actually skewed the normal response to power inn both liberal and conservatives politics. So, we could certainly find some battles where the dominant themes were reversed. Also, some of the battles outlined above still track the same way now, but even there, the vocabulary has changed. One topics such as racism, for example, even the moderate left is no longer interested in individual acts of discrimination. If it ain’t systemic, it ain’t racism in left wing circles anymore. Meanwhile, the right wing is happy to use individual acts of racism as a wedge in which to insert the word ‘reverse’ into any discussion of racism in which they willingly take part. If it ain’t reverse racism, it ain’t racism in right wing circles anymore. It’s an absurd situation, to say the least, and part of what got us here is a massive shift in the means by which left and right wingers frame the issues in American politics. The left (and here I am including moderate liberals) wants to talk about larger issues; the right just wants to talk about individual rights.

What we don’t talk, at least not with each other, is how these themes intersect.

***

How the left got to where it is today is an interesting question, but I am not going to talk about that in this post. I am more interested in how the right got to where it now sits, utterly blind to the public welfare and completely disingenuous in its sense of individual rights.

Suffice to say that I do not think this evolution has been a positive force in American politics. The right wing embrace of individual rights hasn’t done much to enhance them.

Far from it!

***

How did we get to the point where a significant portion of America’s right wing thinks it’s acceptable to set aside the results of an election on little more than rumors and pornographic conspiracy narratives? How did we reach the moment in which the President of the United States would incite a riot and shut down our government over this very thing? How did we arrive at the principle that protesters could occupy federal buildings with weapons on their person?

The extreme violence of this event has been repudiated, of course, even by those who helped to stir that very mob to its frenzy, and the great bulk of Republican leadership is still unwilling to see in this event – the bloodshed spilled in our government buildings on behalf of a sitting President – anything so significant as to merit impeachment or invocation of Amendment 25. Mike Pence, one of the very people literally hunted by the domestic terrorists at the head of this riot (people who would have counted him an ally just last month), even Mike Pence doesn’t think this is worthy of removing the lunatic from the office Trump trashes with his very presence.

And still concern trolls all about the country urge us all to try and understand the perspective of Trump and his supporters!

How did we get here?

I think a large part of the answer to that question lies in the way ‘conservative’ ideas about authority and individual liberty have changed over the last couple decades.

***

What happened?

In a name, it was Bill Clinton!

No, I don’t mean to suggest that it was anything Clinton did that caused this change, though Goddammit he sure did enough to lend credence to the worst of his detractors. What I mean to suggest is that his own Presidency signaled a radical change in the way that conservatives approached our government. They didn’t like Carter before him, no, but they REALLY didn’t like Clinton. More to the point, they simply didn’t accept losing control of the White House.

During the administration of Bill Clinton, elements within the Republican Party abandoned any pretense to work with their opposition. Newt Gingrich led the charge in Congress, abandoning efforts to compromise on actual legislation and putting the GOP political machine on permanent campaign mode. He repudiated the very notion of putting country over party, and made it the norm to fight on any and all fronts, even at the expense of the American people.

I mean, what the Hell? You can always blame the other side, right?

That’s what Newt would do.

It’s what he did.

***

What happened to cultural conservatism was more important.

What happened there was Rush Limbaugh. First Morton Downy, Jr., of course, but after him, Rush Limbaugh. I still don’t think the majority of Americans quite realize how important Limbaugh was back in the early 90s. It was Limbaugh who taught countless bullies and bigots to call themselves ‘conservatives,’ people who weren’t really all that interested in politics but were happy to laugh at anyone supported by liberals and to berate any woman foolish enough to call themselves ‘feminists.’ Limbaugh entertained his audiences by attacking a parade of underprivileged people seeking help in various forms, and he gave his audience the weapons to hurt such people for generations to come. It was also Limbaugh who transformed the culture of conservatism from a Burkeian defense of tradition into the smart-ass voice of a teen rebel, or for that matter an internet troll. Limbaugh never really made a serious case for cultural conservatism, but he was relentless in his critique of liberalism and his challenge of any authority liberals might come to wield. Whether it was the campus speech codes coming into fruition at the time or inclusiveness in the academic curriculum, the authority of the Bureau of Land Management, efforts to enlist government in combating the AIDS epidemic (yes, Limbaugh made fun of that!), or any number of issues in the culture wars of the time, what Limbaugh did most was to poke fun at liberal pretense and tell stories about the abuse of authority by liberals. Conservative use of similar authority was never at issue on his shows, but this was simple hypocrisy. It was a conscious effort to equate liberalism with the abuse of authority, to delegitimize liberal use of authority in any form, and where necessary, to burn down the authority of any institutions then dominated by liberal voices. Attendant to this cause was a willful erasure of thought about conservative use of authority, and erasure of consciousness that that could ever really happen. Even when conservatives were in charge, their actions would be measured, henceforth, in terms of the response to liberal authority. Limbaugh’s audience bought that story to be sure.

It was through Limbaugh that countless Americans came to see authority as the domain of liberalism, so much so, that even a sitting president could count as an underdog, so much so that Hillary’s years in Washington could have made her responsible for everything that happened in government in the decades before 2016, that Biden’s years in office could now make him the new fall-guy for everything done by the Federal government over the last 40 years, so much so that Biden rather than Donald Trump could be the man most responsible for America’s failure to mount an effective response to the Covid outbreak.

So complete is the equation of authority with liberalism in right wing thought at this stage in our history that Joe Biden, a private citizen in 2020, was regarded by many cultural conservatives as more responsible for our nation’s disastrous pandemic response than the very President of the United States!

In right wing thought, all government power is liberalism. Conservative use of power is by definition the opposition to liberalism, the opposition to big government, even if the policies in question expand the power of that government. If a conservative is found to have expanded the power of the feds in the end, well then they were never really a conservative after all.

It takes cultural conservatives the time it takes to read a tweet now to wash their hands of one of their own.

Any of their own!

It was Rush Limbaugh that taught cultural conservatives these narratives. His message has been re-enforced, of course, by countless pundits in the echo-chamber, but no other voice in American politics could was ever so consistent, so loud, or so shameless in its repetition of this theme. He played the smart-ass in the back of the room mocking the liberalism as though it were a teacher hated by every student (American citizen) in the class, and he played that role so well, it became the dominant trope of right wing politics.

***

At least one other major development in U.S. politics helped to shape the rise of underdog themes in American conservatism, and that is a series of conflicts that reshaped the way conservatives thought about (or at least talked about) police power. Oh they are still happy to back the blue, of course, so long as we are talking about treatment of individual suspects, and certainly in relation to just about any conflict with persons of color, but during the early years of the Clinton administration, America’s right wingers added a new victim narrative to their own list of stories about police power.

They did this in the wake of Waco and Ruby Ridge.

I still think about this with a bitter sense of irony as I remember conservatives around me responding to the initial conflict at Waco by telling me how much they worried that the Clinton administration would simply let those bastards get by with it. Police had been shot, and they were deeply worried that a liberal softy might prove soft on the thugs who did it. After the travesty, I also remember conservatives laughing and telling me how glad they were that those idiots got what was coming to them.

That was before the Branch Davidians became martyrs to conservative politics, along with those killed at Ruby Ridge.

In the wake of these tragedies, Federal authorities doing much the same as they had under Republican administrations suddenly became symbols of liberal authoritarianism. The right wing folded in complains of a “New World Order” to be ushered in by Bill Clinton in with the horror stores about Waco and Ruby Ridge, all the while while forgetting that George Bush, Senior, had used that very phrase to help sell his war in the Gulf (a war most of these folks had openly supported). Everywhere fears of oppression by big government made their way into right wing rhetoric. G. Gordon Liddy spoke openly of shooting ‘jack-booted thugs” in the head, and countless cultural conservatives forgot that Liddy himself had been one of the worst of these thugs, the most openly corrupt.

Everything the Feds did under Clinton became fodder for these stories. When Elián González became embroiled in a custody dispute between relatives in Florida and his father back in Cuba, he too became a symbol of liberal excess. Countless Republicans declared Janet Reno’s determination to send González back to his father as the height of liberal abuse. How, they asked, could we send a small child back to a miserable life in Castro’s Cuba?

…as thousands of Haitian refugees, including their children, rotted in an internment camp at Guantanamo Bay.

The right wing wing spin on these events was shameless in the extreme.

And it worked.

A substantial portion of America’s so-called ‘conservatives’ embraced these themes about conflict between private citizens and “jack-booted thugs” serving the Federal Government. That these thugs were presumed to serve liberal interests goes without saying, not that that story makes any sense. All of this dovetails with the standard rhetoric from the NRA (“from my cold dead hands…”), and it must have been a real comfort to white supremacists to see otherwise mainstream Republicans taking common cause with them on conflicts with Federal authorities. If the KKK and its brethren had lingered in the wilderness of American politics for a time, this narrative about armed conflicts with the Feds brought them in out of the cold.

Today’s Republican Party gives them a place at the table.

***

On a personal note: it was this theme that led me to wash my own hands of the gun culture. I’d grown up with firearms, loved them at one point in my life, and still harbored a soft spot in my heart for firearms. Listening to the growing fanaticism of the gun lobby, back in the 90s, I came to see the gun lobby as a positive evil independent of the firearms themselves. Whatever the ins and outs of gun control, it just isn’t a good thing to have a substantial portion of the American public openly fantasizing about armed conflict with the Federal Government. In selling its products to the right wing through such stories, the NRA and their allies do us all a great disservice.

***

It’s one thing to talk about gong to war with the Federal Government, but that begs the question of just who will you be fighting when that happens. When Timothy McVeigh addressed that question in 1995, his answer was people in a government building in Oklahoma City.

Those people included children.

Anyone who couldn’t see this coming was beyond blind to the realities of right wing politics.

Then, as now, they talked about such things openly. One has only to take them at their word.

I still recall a leader from the very Michigan Militia which McVeigh had ties with speaking at a televised “Town Hall” meeting after the bombing. He cited a long litany of abuses by the Federal government as partt of the reason for his own politics. I still remember that one of the horrors he cited was the Sand Creek massacre, an event carried about by the Third Colorado Cavalry, in affect a local militia. The American public learned about events at Sand Creek largely through the efforts of Federal troops who refused to take part in it. None of this prevented the event in question from becoming fodder for the relentless story of big government run amok and the hope that militias could counter that.

The irony of that was excruciating!

I thought about all of this when I heard that Michigan Militia had recently plotted to kidnap and put Governor Whitmer on trial. I thought about that plot recently as I watched video of a domestic terrorist inside Congressional buildings with his face covered and police-style zip-ties in his hand. I try not to jump to conclusions, but it’s hard to escape the notion that he was looking to make his political enemies into hostages. And if that seems to extreme to think about, one has only to remember that McVeigh’s own efforts to put right wing rhetoric into practice.

It should not surprise us to find that people who speak of the government as their enemy would be willing to carry out violent attacks against that very government.

***

In the past few days I have been told by numerous people that the recent attack on our government was carried out by extremists, that the actual violence was done by Antifa, and that no-one, not even Donald Trump himself has sanctioned their crimes or their violence. Of course it isn’t the first time that right wing violence has been blamed on Antifa, but this is a particularly shameless version of that theme. Anyone who thought this was going to be peaceful would have been naive in the extreme to do so. Anyone who thought Trump wished it to be so was ignoring the extremism of his own rhetoric (and the precedent he set in encouraging people to beat protesters at his rallies back in 2016), Plausible deniability is an art form in right circles, and Trump is one of its greatest practitioners, but the extremist rhetoric used to sell the “wild” protest could hardly be thought innocent. Trump wanted a disruptive presence in Washington on the day his loss would become official. Nothing short of stopping Congress in its tracks would have served his purposes.

Anyone who says that Donald Trump or his supporters are not responsible for these events is a Goddamned liar.

I have also been told that one of the problems here is the degree to which the media, the courts, and the rest of us have been dismissive of concerns about the integrity of the election. This was an insurrection to be sure, but it was an insurrection led, so I am told, by people whose voice and whose votes have been silenced by the powers that be.

And here we have it!

This is the ultimate pay-off for all these years of underdogging right wing politics. An action carried out in the service of the President of the United States, a man born to wealth and sporting a long history of abusing it, will count for so many cultural conservatives as being done out of love for the common citizen. An effort to set aside the legitimate votes of 80 million Americans is, in effect, no more than an effort to protect the rights of the voters. And a mob full of people who literally attacked our nation’s government still counts as patriots! Those whose hatred of American government, of liberal politicians, and even of the newly demonized Vice President, still count as having acted out of love for their country.

Even as they attacked it!

***

I still say; “Damn them all to Hell!

Along with anyone that humors them.

The Good Lord Baldwin Country, and to Hell With Buckley Anyway!

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“Are white South African or Mississippi sharecropper, or Mississippi sheriff, or a Frenchman driven out of Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality which compels them to, for example, in the case of the French exile from Algeria, to offend French reasons from having ruled Algeria. The Mississippi or Alabama sheriff, who really does believe, when he’s facing a Negro boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity.”

God damn that James Baldwin!

He was right about far too many things.

He was right about them in 1965, and speaking as he was in 1965, he is just as right about them today, damn it anyhow. It’s enough to make a white guy raised on stories of progress feel all somehow!

I really do hate that!

You can hear Baldwin’s voice in the first episode of Lovecraft Country. An exerpt from a speech he gave at Cambridge Union back in 1965 plays over a couple scenes this in this episode.

This is as brilliant as it is ironic.

This Baldwinization of Lovecraft effectively transforms the literary themes of a known racist into a meditation on the nature of racism in American history. You can see Lovecraft in the monsters. You can see Baldwin in the protagonists.

YEAH SPOILERS!

Lest one miss the connection to Baldwin’s speech in 1965, one has only to think about a few more of his words;

“We talk about integration in America as though it was some great new conundrum. The problem in America is that we’ve been integrated for a very long time. Put me next to any African and you will see what I mean. My grandmother was not a rapist.”

Now just think about the plot-line for the male lead in Lovecraft country, a back man (Atticus Freeman – played by Jonathan Majors) turns out to be an heir of a rich white explorer. Far from being a blessing, this proves to be a terrible curse.

Lovecraft Country, is James Baldwin’s critique of American racism transformed into a horror story. Just how much of a transformation that took is another question. It should come as no surprise to find Jordan Peele listed as one of the show’s producers. It wouldn’t be the first time, he mapped the patterns of racism directly onto a horror story and left some of us more than a little disturbed at how easy and obvious the connection turned out to be. It’s also fitting that Lovecraft, in particular, would be the vehicle for this narrative, not just because of the delicious irony, but because so much of Lovecraftian horror resides in the prospect of insanity. In Lovecraft, this horror is about the encounter with horrors such as C’thulhu, in the consequence of knowing one day a monstrous God will destroy everything and there is nothing we can do about it. In Baldwin, this insanity the consequences of racism. It is about the perception of whites threatened by those challenging racism, and about the impact of racism itself on the minds of white people struggling to rationalize our own privilege. As Baldwin suggests, white privilege leads us to think of those who challenge it as insane, and yet that same same privilege cannot skew the reality of those who benefit from it. Racism, as Baldwin describes it, does merely enable one segment of society to oppress another; it twists the minds of each into a distorted of reality.

“I suggest that what has happened to white Southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there because Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama, cannot be considered – you know, no one can be dismissed as a total monster. I’m sure he loves his wife, his children. I’m sure, you know, he likes to get drunk. You know, after all, one’s got to assume he is visibly a man like me. But he doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”

You can see the psychological impact of racism all over Lovecraft country. The horrors faced by the central characters in this story are consistently brought to them by white people. For their own part, the world of the white characters in this series appears to be quite insane.

But of course!

How could the white characters in this world not prove insane. They are on the back end of the cattle prod, so to speak, and that, as Baldwin warns us, has its own hazards.

This same theme, the psychological effect of racism, also plays out in yet another contemporary series, The Good Lord Bird. Ostensibly a story about John Brown, the series turns into a meditation on the insanity of slavery, and in particular of its effect on those who benefit from it. There are few well-grounded characters in this story. Most of them are slaves. Even Frederick Douglas comes across as a man spoiled by privilege, one whose sense of reality is distorted by his own fame as an abolitionist, and whose commitments to the abolition of slavery are compromised by that very fame. To say nothing of John Brown himself! As he is portrayed in this series, Brown is an absolute lunatic. We love him, of course, at least in the end, but there is little question about his sanity. He doesn’t have it. No. To find a sensible character in this story, one has to look with the characters held in bondage. The slaves in this story are the only characters with the good sense to look after themselves. The rest are either too busy defending slavery and exploiting it or spiraling into ever more crazy schemes for opposing it. For those held in bondage, slavery in the Good Lord Bird is a force which keeps subjected to it well grounded; it is a force which sends those free of it into ever more bizarre flights of fancy.

The Good Lord Bird follows the story of an adolescent boy, Henry Shackleford (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson). Henry is labeled a girl by John Brown himself and Christened with a new nickname, ‘Onion’. When Brown proves incapable of correction, Henry simply accepts his new identity and thus becomes ‘Onion’ for the rest of the series. Henry knows who he is of course, but this is what it takes to get along in a world driven mad by people high on the privilege of freedom denied to others.

There is something especially interesting about the insanity of Brown and Douglas in the Good Lord Bird. It is as though the series producers believe you would have to be a little crazy to cut so far against the grain of the society in which you live, to seek to act effectively in opposition to slavery, to actually do what it takes to end it. Brown is typically regarded as something of a lunatic or a fanatic in history. (As I recall, this was one of the gripes mentioned by James Loewen in Lies My Teachers Told Me.) But how does one oppose an institution as powerful as slavery without becoming a lunatic or a fanatic. You can mumble, “oh that’s wrong,” or speak of some day overcoming the institution, but systemic oppression is not so fragile as to be threatened by expressions of passive regret. To actually confront the institution is to wage war against so many other things right along with it, even to risk bringing about harm to many people. That would of course include friends, and family, and even those one might seek to help in the end. You’d have to be a little crazy to want to do such a thing. Ethan Hawke is a lot crazy as John Brown in this series, and (for some of us anyway) it is a truly lovable performance.

James Baldwin reminds us that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a man confronting slavery treated as a crazy person, not at the time, not the history books, and not now on screen.

Damn that Baldwin!

His ghost is writing scripts for cable television.

But of course Baldwin wrote one other script with his speech back in Cambridge. He wrote the script for his debate opponent. You see, Baldwin was there in Cambridge on that day in 1965 to debate William F. Buckley, Jr. The topic for the debate was the proposition; “The American dream is at the expense of the negro.” Baldwin was to take the affirmative and Buckley was there to oppose it.

Two things are particularly striking about this debate: the absolute brilliance of Baldwin’s own speech, and the utterly pathetic response that Buckley makes to it.

It’s worth noting that two separate publications haunt the debate. (See, I haven’t given up the horror references.)

The first of these writings was an article published in 1957 by William F, Buckley entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” In this publication, Buckley, argued in defense of segregation, suggesting that white southerners needed to maintain segregated institutions and reserve power to whites until such a time as African-Americans (‘negroes’ in Buckley’s article) would prove worthy of it. Now some have suggested Buckley had changed his mind by 1965, but at least in this debate the difference is little more than a courteous veneer. Buckley was always capable of being courteous (though Gore Vidal might have thought otherwise); he was always capable of putting a polite face on his life-log defense of elitism and privilege. The second of these publications was book Baldwin had published in in 1963, The Fire Next Time, which is said to contain a warning that violence could well be the result of continued injustice. Buckley would have described it as a threat. Buckley’s article is the reason he was invited to debate Baldwin. Baldwin’s book is the key to Buckley’s response.

That and Baldwin’s tip that opposing racism must seem like insanity to those whose identity is tied to it.

It’s worth noting that Baldwin makes a point of personalizing the issue of race in his own speech. He claims that he built the infrastructure of the American south, that he himself is the subject of discrimination and racist policies. In effect he makes of himself an indexical icon (as my old professor would have put it), through which to contemplate all of the implications of racism. This offends Buckley a great (as it often seems to offend many today to hear that racism has a negative impact on persons of color). So, Buckley’s first move is to deny it. He suggests that he is going to treat Baldwin as though he were white, and that he will do so, because Baldwin’s race is irrelevant to the matter at hand. He does this in order to deny Baldwin the protections afforded to him as a public speaker making use of a negro identity.

And thus, Buckley’s own speech begins in a world where in Baldwin’s race is irrelevant to the topic of racism; a world in which being black is a privilege, one to which Baldwin is not actually entitled.

But that’s not insane is it?

(Of course it is.)

It gets worse from there!

Buckley does not defend segregation here, nor racism. Instead he dissembles his way through the topic, describing segregation as a ‘dastardly situation’, mocking the excessive concern about racism in American Universities, and suggesting in the end that it is negroes themselves that have failed to advance themselves as a people. In Buckley’s narrative, Segregation appears to be a ghost in the machine, a presence over which no-one takes responsibility, except as it seems, those oppressed by it. If only those gosh-darned negroes and their rotten liberal friends could just get over the whole thing and get on with their lives! As Buckley would have it, the only reason racism is still with us, is because it lives in the efforts of those actively opposing it. You can hear people saying similar things, today of course. It’s just a little more jarring to see someone saying this in the very era in which buses were burned, bombs, were set off, and children spat upon while going to school, all over the topic of racism. …but wait! Dammit! It’s just as jarring to hear it in the era when cops put a knee to man’s neck in broad daylight and on camera, when the Republican Party actively works to deny African-Americans the right to vote, and when white supremacists openly mix their own flags and symbols with those of mainstream American politics.

Shit!

That Baldwin guy just keeps getting righter and righterer!

It’s almost like he’s had some personal experiences with racism or something.

Dammit!

And what about this segregation anyway!?! Buckley’s vision of segregation is a monster worthy of Lovecraft country, one which somehow appears to the majority of us only in hindsight, but which haunts the lives of those afflicted with it. One must think those who complain of racism terribly insane to be afflicted by a demon that exists only in their own politics! Buckley certainly seems to think so. Those telling us “liberalism is a mental illness” today surely do, but of course the brunt of their criticism falls less on liberals than on those in need of remediation. We get insulted; they get to go on living with the with the demon folks like Buckley and his modern descendants will neither claim as their own nor confront in any meaningful way. Buckley did a lot to set ‘conservative’ politics on this course through his publication, National Review. That his vapid waffling response to racism could be considered intellectualism, as it has for so many calling themselves ‘conservative’ has always been a mystery to me. Buckley, never really had anything to say about anything, but he could sure as Hell take more words to say nothing than most any other public figure in modern history. Most particularly, he had nothing meaningful to say about racism or segregation in response to Baldwin.

Buckley concludes his meandering speech by warning Baldwin and those who sympathize with him of an apocalyptic scenario worthy of modern horror films. If, Buckley suggests, folks such as Baldwin insist that the American dream itself is antithetical to the justice which they seek, then he and others who love their country will be forced to fight over it, “on the beaches,” so to speak. Oddly enough, they would be doing so, even for for the benefit of the negro himself, as Buckley would have us believe.

Thus, Buckley ends his speech by imagining, not how segregation might be ended, but how the call for it threatens everything he loves, and how the defense of segregation under the pretense of basic patriotism is in the end, all for the benefit of those oppressed by it.

As beautiful as Baldwin’s speech was, Buckley’s own efforts are sickening.

What’s worse! This debate hasn’t moved a whole Hell of a lot since 1965. In this Debate, Baldwin struggled not to impress the audience with the notion that racism is wrong, but to get people to give a damn about it, to act meaningfully against it. For his part, Buckley struggles to hide it, and to hide the degree to which racism was always central to the world he defended throughout his life. Buckley has a lot in common with an awful lot of people today.

Small wonder that the script for this debate can still be found on your cable television networks.

***

Those present voted 544 to 164 in favor of Baldwin as the winner of the debate. For his part Buckley, bragged that he “didn’t give them a goddamned inch,” or something to that effect.

People can be proud of the strangest things!

Happy New Year!

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2021 Arrives

Moni and I spent the last couple hours before midnight, waffling as to whether or not we were going to head out and watch the fireworks show. See, fireworks don’t mean much up this way around early July. The big fireworks display in Barrow occurs on January First. And with most people in their cars (because it’s cold out there!), social distancing is a big can-do for this kind of thing. We heard different things about the prospects for fireworks this year, but in the end, the celebration was on. …not-so-much the gatherings that normally occur in the school afterwards, but fireworks? That part was definitely on! Only thing is Moni and I were both tired and feeling rather wimpy about the cold. In the last hour, we had decided we were definitely not going. Then decided to go in the last 15 minutes before midnight.

Hopefully, our inability to make a decision last night has more to do with the lingering effects of 2020 than the coming patterns of 2021. Either way, it was beautiful. I missed the chance to record the grand finale, and if my hand could talk, it would have been calling me names the entire time, but I recorded a decent chunk of the celebration. Moni got the finale.

Anyway, 2020 is finally behind us. Happy New Year!

Stay negative people!!!