E Pluribus Unum for White Supremacists

Americans teach our children to admire the country as a place where people of diverse origins can come together. By diverse, we have usually meant the right parts of Europe and believing in the right religion. Just how large a circle that draws varies over time. My surname ends in a vowel, which a few decades back put me into the wrong group. My grandfather grew up in an ethnic ghetto, which they had even in small towns. The Polish people lived on this side of the river, while everyone else lived on the other. They spoke Polish at home and learned English elsewhere. In school two generations later, we always knew the teachers not from the area by how they stumbled over our surnames. By then, everyone else could get at least close to however we chose to render the weird piles of consonants that made sense to our grandparents but we added to the difficulty with inconsistently modifying the pronunciations to fit English spelling conventions. Many Americans have similar stories. Make the number of generations removed from immigration into a variable and you can take in most of us. We become Americans, Americans become us, and the national myth rolls along.

We make exceptions, of course. Native Americans and African-Americans can live in the country for centuries longer than any of our ancestors and remain outsiders, at best contingently human. Part of becoming American, for the rest of us, usually means we join in afflicting them with special zeal. At some point, the unstated logic goes, one has to get on board with the national creed. Irish Americans learned it in the nineteenth century, understanding free black Americans in the North as an existential threat to their jobs. In those days, immigrants worried that the native-born would steal their work. But we muddle through, injustice by injustice, atrocity by atrocity, smiling and linking arms as we go about the national project of making North America a white person’s paradise. To do otherwise would mark us as foreign, like those adults who refuse, in their perfidy, to make the trifling effort to pick up English as a second language. E pluribus unum or else.

For decades now, Americans have understood Nazis as the antithesis of all things American. We have made them into our ultimate symbol of evil. Anything we dislike, we consider something the Nazis did or would have done. Any leader we loathe, we compare with Hitler. We may use other comparisons too, but when only the big guns will do we go with the Third Reich. Some malevolent fools might try it, but no real American could go Nazi. We have no place for such vile individuals.

E pluribus unum, America has worked its magic again.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has a statue of Robert E. Lee. For some time now, many have thought it past time to get rid of the thing because honoring a traitor who fought a nation built on white supremacy and slavery in order to make a new nation still more thoroughly built upon them should not continue. The proposed removal drew protests and, quelle suprise, the Nazis showed up. They came bearing torches, in the hallowed tradition of their German and American heroes. It seems they took a pass on wearing their sheets or brown shirts, but other than that they marched straight out of central casting. They had things to say too, which showed that they had done their homework:

The protesters chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.”

Richard Spencer, the Trump-heiling unwitting star of this reenactment of Captain America’s first appearance, couldn’t stay away from the fun. All his friends turned out., after all.

Back in the day, American white supremacists thought little of Nazis. The United States had its own ways to hate and for the most part didn’t need tips from foreigners who copied off our paper when it came to racial laws. No one likes a cheater. So we should put this one down on our calendars. Americans who hate like the Klan and the Confederacy come together with Americans who hate like the Nazis, all basking in their magnificent whiteness. When the Klan, our homegrown fascist movement, rode around with torches everyone knew the purpose. Men in sheets didn’t scare anyone much past the age of ten, but men in sheets who would murder you for the color of your skin made an impression. Here too the protesters did their homework.

Other Americans condemned them, as we do. The men who want to serve as Virginia’s next governor joined in, even from the more eagerly white supremacist of the two parties. Spencer and the others probably expected as much. They understand Donald Trump as one of their own even if he makes feeble gestures otherwise now and then to maintain plausible deniability. One candidate, Democrat Tom Perriello asked them to get their hate out of his hometown. Spencer answered back on that they won and he lost. Perriello responded:

I’ll not argue otherwise, though the Richard Spencers of the world have won often enough since 1865. They know their history well enough to know that. I bet Perriello does too, but it doesn’t do for a candidate to admit such things. They also both know that most of the Virginia governor hopefuls condemned Spencer, but one did not. Corey Stewart, former head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, seeks the Republican nomination and has made the Lee statue a large part of his campaign. He wants it to stay. Yesterday, he managed to tweet out a Mother’s Day message but not to comment on Spencer or the protest. I have no doubt Spencer and company will cherish the memory of that fact. The rest of us must simply live with the fact that a man who expects to run for statewide office in the America of 2017 doesn’t see a need to distance himself from a Nazi torch mob. Some of us will probably die from it too.

In Defense of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Gentle Readers, some of you might enjoy my prose but I suspect you keep reading for the history. That history comes from a mix of original research on my part and the work of others, who guide me to documents and further work through their footnotes. A typical post begins with my reading what a historian has said about something, checking those footnotes, and then reading the sources if I can access them. In the course of that, I also come on things by chance. If you read the acknowledgements of any history book, you’ll find long lists of colleagues, archivists, and others thanked. Still more fill the citations. Every work of history owes much to unnumbered collaborators from librarians to mentors to students, friends, and family.

And they cost money. I do my research through an internet connection, but I can do that because of you. For decades the United States has used tax dollars to fund historical research in much the same way, albeit rather less generously, as it does science. Those countless historians digging through the archives often do so with government grants. If you look through the citations of any history book, except perhaps the most narrow and technical works, you will find numerous references to widely-scattered archives. Even if one has the good fortune to live near an important archive, others always remain that require travel expenses. That’s gas for your car, your airfare, hotel costs, and historians have long accustomed themselves to eating while they do all of this. Grants and other federal funds make meeting those expenses far easier, especially for the vast majority of historians who lack the considerable wealth of the few academic superstars who regularly hit the bestseller lists.

If you have ever read a history book published in the United States in the last fifty years, you have almost certainly read a work that received support from our government many times over. In addition to the historians themselves, the United States funds many of the archives used. It has funded work I do here, by way of the digitization projects which have made so many documents available to me. I lack the funds and ability to travel to Kansas or Missouri where I might find bound volumes or loose issues of those nineteenth century papers. I journey to them through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you have a local museum, university, college, historical site, or library, then your community probably has had funding from them too. The NEH has a search function you can use to find what it has done for your town.

We have a public library here with an impressive local history room, which received $6,000 in 2009. To the best of my knowledge it doesn’t have any interesting slavery-related materials, but I have had occasion to use it all the same. Last fall, my father saw a news report about the anniversary of a plane crash. He vaguely recalled the event but not any details, so one Tuesday we hopped in the car and got over to the public library, which hosts the collection. I thought we would probably have to go through the microfilm and we found the proper reel, but we no sooner did that than a librarian came over. She told us that they kept clippings from the local newspaper for aircraft disasters. In less than five minutes, we sat down in a pleasant little room with one of the gray archival boxes you see in the documentaries. We came away with almost everything we needed to know. My father wanted to know about a monument that the families had built on public land. The librarian knew a few local people who studied that kind of thing and put me on the phone with one, who gave us directions. That NEH grant paid for our afternoon’s research and facilitated a thoroughly pleasant afternoon together.

The loser of the 2016 presidential election got to be president anyway. This past week he submitted a budget which does not merely cut the NEH, but actually eliminates it on the grounds, presumably, that the NEH has never killed a sufficient number of people as to impress him with its hard power bona fides. I consider it eminently worth keeping, and vastly increasing, simply for the good work it does. You can’t put a dollar value on the greater understanding of ourselves that the humanities provide. But if one insists, then the NEH consumes such a tiny part of the four trillion dollar budget that eliminating it wouldn’t pay for a brand new aircraft carrier or some other war-winning gadget for a war we have yet to embark upon. If one feels an overriding need to slash spending for its own sake, then the president might well look at his own travel budget. His weekend jaunts to his vacation home in Florida have already cost us millions, rather more than almost every historian will ever see.

The cuts to the arts and humanities will not kill anyone, which is more than I can say for most of the cuts that Trump prefers, but they do strike to the heart of this blog’s mission. I hope you will join me in condemning them and making your opposition known.

Some help for @GOP

Lincoln 1860Gentle Readers, a conventional post will come today but I wanted to put out this item separate from it. As you know, Abraham Lincoln hailed from the Republican Party. The Republicans today haven’t forgotten. I have it from Kevin Levin that for his birthday, the GOP’s official twitter offered up a fake Lincoln quote. This speaks volumes for their understanding of history, though I suppose we must give them credit for not attributing something from Alexander Stephens or Jefferson Davis to him instead. But I write this to help, not mock.

To replace the false Lincoln quote, I offer to the Republican Party this genuine article:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes”When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

 

Elizabeth Warren and the Gag Rule #shepersisted

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Gentle Readers, Kansas must wait a day. This past Tuesday night, as part of protesting against the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the post of Attorney General of the United States, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read into the record a letter that Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in opposition to his nomination for the federal bench back in the 1980s. It details how Sessions, as United State Attorney, used his power to go after black Alabamans trying to vote. King operated under the theory that a white supremacist ought not have a judge’s lifetime tenure to use fighting against black Americans who dared think they could vote. The protest worked then and Sessions did not get black robes to wear over his white set. Such things happened in 1986; they do not in 2017.

Instead, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Majority Leader, rose up and accused Warren of violating the Senate’s rules. He moved for her censure on the grounds that she had insulted a fellow Senator, which the Republicans then agreed to. As a result, Warren had to stop reading the letter and remain silent for the remainder of the debate on Sessions’ nomination. Now Jeff Sessions, who had the votes regardless, heads up the executive department charged with stopping people like Jeff Sessions.

I didn’t come here to write about Sessions; I’ve done that. Silencing elected representatives in the course of their deliberations has a history in the United States. We can find the most obvious precedent for Warren’s case in the Gag Rule of 1836-44. Practice going all the way back to the First Congress dictated that antislavery citizens could petition Congress, but any petition they sent would receive no action other than tabling or referral to a committee to die in obscurity. After coming to Washington and voting to do just the same as always with two antislavery petitions, South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond rose in the House of Representatives to condemn the petitions as an insult to the South which demanded a firmer response than effective silence. Instead, the House ought to not receive the petitions at all.

The drama that ensued rarely left the confines of the United States Congress, but that made it no less significant. Here, as in previous clashes, slavery rose up as an issue that could reconfigure national politics. No white man in the South could afford to appear less proslavery than anyone else and expect to prosper in politics. That same quest to always prove one’s soundness on slavery required concessions from a North which would understand each one as demanding that they yield not far away, but in their own homes, to slavery’s despotism.

John C. Calhoun, always ready to involve himself in anything proslavery, took up the same charge in the Senate. There he argued, as quoted in William Freehling’s Road to Disunion, Volume One, that the petitions represented

a war of religious and political fanaticism, … waged not against our lives, but our character. The object is to humble and debase us in our own estimation, and that of the world.”

According to the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Warren’s reading of Scott King’s letter imputed

to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun maintained, as Freehling puts it, that

Free debate must leave us debased in our own estimations.

The Senator from South Carolina averred that the Senate must receive petitions, but only when they prayed for action that the body had a constitutional power to undertake. Since the Congress had no power to touch on slavery whatsoever, it must reject all antislavery petitions. To do otherwise would trespass against the property rights of the white South.

James Henry Hammond

James Henry Hammond

In all this, both Calhoun and Hammond insisted that the South’s censorship of the mail must now extend to the halls of Congress itself. The tolerance that the white North possessed for dirty hands and debased republicanism far away did not extend so near as all that. But outrage also went only so far. The House and Senate both passed gag rules that gave the Hammonds and Calhouns of those bodies nearly everything they wanted. James Buchanan, the man infamous for letting the Union fall apart, then sat in the Senate with Calhoun. The chamber adopted his almost absolute capitulation: the Senate would receive the petitions -sorry, Calhoun- but then would reject them at once rather than merely leave them on the table, from which someone might take them up, or refer them to a committee which may then take action on them.

The gag would last almost a decade, during which time it gave John Quincy Adams his finest hour. Now occupying a seat in the House, he proceeded to both name the rule by demanding to know if his opponents would have him “gagged” and explore every clever option he could think of for breaking it, including presenting a petition from people alleging themselves slaves -the objections rose up at once- who he then said had decided they liked slavery. When not embarrassing his overeager foes that way, he would offer up petition after petition and ask if they fell under the rule or not. Each time occasioned a slavery debate, just the thing the gag meant to stop forever. Stricter rules failed to silence the former president, who would finally introduce the resolution to end the gag in 1844. By then, the Northern Democrats that had accepted the gag before joined in opposing it.

Mitch McConnell did gag Warren Tuesday night. That he did it to silence her criticism of a man contemptuous of the rights of black Americans speaks volumes. So does his use of a rule against insulting senators reveal a further disturbing connection between his work and the nineteenth century. I need not explain the salience of the twentieth century connections. Instead, I will close with the epitaph that the Majority Leader wrote on Warren’s speech and which, gendered pronoun aside, fits John Quincy Adams just as well:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

In Remembrance of the Holocaust

Gentle Readers, we have had quite a weekend. Various organizations have a habit of declaring this day and that a day to celebrate, remember, or mourn some historical event. Wealthy, powerful organizations usually have people on staff who will check and see what occasions warrant the usual statements or when they ought to refrain from certain things. The White House, the center of the wealthiest and most powerful organization on the planet, for now, has the staff to keep track better than most. Holocaust Remembrance Day came on Friday and the Trump White House put out two statements in honor of the occasion.

The first addressed the occasion directly, albeit in an unusual way. In three paragraphs, the man who appointed an antisemite his chief adviser somehow neglected to mention any particular victims of the Holocaust. Once, people we used to consider the epitome of evil worked to physically erase the Jewish people from the Earth. Now their admirers would do the same to their memory. In this, they follow the example of their international counterparts. If they must acknowledge the Holocaust, then it would not do to give the impression that they objected to the choice of victims.

The White House pleads that other people died in the Holocaust. In an effort to be inclusive, they chose language which could apply to LGBT people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roma, Sinti, and Slavs. Related programs murdered the disabled. Had the White House given the full list, no one would have objected. Had they just listed the Jews, as the Nazi’s principal victims, they would have followed the precedent of past statements. Any public statement to come out of a modern White House goes through many hands, checked and rechecked. We cannot fairly call this an accident or oversight; the Trump Administration made a choice.

The second statement in memory of the Holocaust came in the form of an executive order. Therein Trump forbade the entry of refugees from Syria indefinitely. Driven from their homes by a civil war between a brutal dictator and brutal religious fanatics, the latter of whom earned a Made in the USA sticker by rising out of our war for pleasure against Iraq, they will find no safety here. The poor, huddled masses yearning to be free can instead find freedom from the mortal coil in the tender ministrations of ISIS. Previous to this, those masses largely consisted of homeless children, the elderly, and the seriously ill. None fits my profile for a terrorist, but I confess myself unlearned in such things.

We have feared refugees before, particularly when they adhere to a less familiar religion. Trump’s other restrictions on entry from a list of Muslim-majority countries exempt religious minorities, so non-Muslims. All of the restrictions, over the objection of the Department of Homeland Security’s lawyers, apply even to legal residents of the United States. Steve Bannon, the antisemite aforementioned, overruled DHS. His victims must endure extreme vetting, as if they had not already gone through the torturous, expensive process of acquiring their green cards. We designed said process to generate refusal for all but the most determined and well-lawyered, incidentally. Even those who hazarded their lives to aid us in our misbegotten wars in the Middle East for the promise of admission to our occasionally fair land must submit. This vetting, it seems, includes yielding up their phones, social network accounts, and asking their opinion of Donald Trump.

I digress; you come here for history and I have written entirely of current events. In 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg for Cuba, with the idea that its nine hundred plus passengers would wait there while others arranged their entry to the United States. It didn’t work that way; the City on the Hill declared the Statue of Liberty closed and eventually the ship returned to Europe. We had strict quotas on immigration, you understand; we could not break our rules. (The quota system stood until 1965.) Some nations took on a few of the Jewish refugees aboard, but about half died in the Holocaust.

If you grew up in the United States at any time in the past sixty years, you probably know this story: A Jewish family hides from the Nazis in a secret room. One of them, a young girl, keeps a diary. Someone betrays them and the Nazis come. The father survives and one of the people who helped hide the family gives her the papers she found in their hiding place, the diary included. Its author died in Bergen-Belsen. We didn’t know the rest of the story when I sat in the eighth grade and read the book, but it came out a few years ago: Otto Frank sought entry to the US for his family. We refused them just as we refused the passengers on the St. Louis.

I don’t know what to say to that. Thousands of Americans have made their discontent known by flooding the airports. The ACLU got a court order suspending enforcement of the executive order for holders of green cards, but now I see reports that the customs officials don’t see court orders as something requiring their compliance. People ordered released remain in custody as of this writing at more than one airport. That looks less like obstinate bad apples and more like planned resistance. It may be that eight days into his administration, Donald Trump has already decided the courts have no power over him.

In the previous eight days, Trump ordered the silencing of all executive branch communications with the public. He has essentially removed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, military professionals, from the National Security Council and replaced them with Steve Bannon, publisher of this sort of thing. Now this. When movements like these happen in other countries, we call it a coup. Tomorrow we may wake up and find out that Trump caved and this crisis has passed. Or we might not. The last, and only, president who fell did so because a hostile Congress proceeded against him. Trump has no such adversary.

2017 by way of 1965

Gentle Readers, I’ve thought quite a bit about whether or not to continue with Modern Mondays. In the past I’ve sometimes had trouble finding an adequately modern event with historical resonance to write about and struggled to write about those I do find in new ways, failing often. The horror that stars in our news for at least the next four years suggests no shortage of incidents to come, which forms part of the problem. I come here to write history, if history I consider relevant to our present circumstances. For all that I wear my politics on my sleeve, I did not set out to write a political blog. I don’t know how often I will keep this up, but here we are.

A white supremacist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will soon lead the Cabinet department responsible for, and founded for the express purpose of, defending the civil rights of African-Americans. People don’t have to take an example from the names their parents chose; this Jefferson could have done better. The brief era when people took the Justice Department’s mission seriously will come to a close just as it has before. We may all be long dead before such a time comes again, if it ever does.

History has no arc and it will not bend toward justice. People bend history. We made this world as we made all the others, with the choices that fill our days. We could unmake it too, if enough of us move in the right direction. That happens, sometimes. When the world tilts our way we call it justice. When it doesn’t, we have to explain it. We can tell ourselves that we just lost that one on a fluke, that something outside the system intervened, or the ill-starred moment just came and no one could do anything.

Everyone has stories. Jeff Sessions will tell you he stood up for civil rights. He will not tell you that he did so by prosecuting people who tried to register black voters. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in racism, in segregation, that he opposes white supremacy in all its forms. He will not remind you that the Republican Senate found him too racist to give a job on the federal bench to back in in the Eighties. The Republican Senate of the two thousand tens will confirm him and congratulate themselves for all the work he will do ensuring black Americans find it harder and harder to vote. The other side bends history too; they win at least half the time.

Sessions will become Attorney General. We can’t stop it, but we don’t have to go quietly along. Sessions presently represents Alabama in the United States Senate, and by Alabama I must say that I mean the white Alabama of 2016, by way of 1965. White Alabamans knew what they wanted back then: black Americans should not vote, should not protest, should not do anything that made them look like citizens of the United States. They should instead remain, if not chattel, then as close to it as one could feasibly manage. Some whites disagreed with the racial order, even if it did put them on top, but they had a century to alter it and had not found the will or numbers to bend that arc of history.

When American citizens, allegedly as equal and good as your or I, marched to protest Alabama denying their right to vote, the Sheriff of Dallas County called out every white man in his jurisdiction and deputized them. One does this to answer an invading army or a revolution, which came that day in the form of nonviolent protesters walking down a public road. The police told them to stop and go home. They paused, prayed, and the police descended on them with teargas. Some, mounted, rode into the crowd with billy clubs.

We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

I don’t know how Jefferson Sessions, nineteen that year, spent that day; I suspect he spent it at university. John Lewis, twenty-five, stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading the protesters. Those are his words above. They fractured his skull. He remained with the protest and delivered a speech before seeking treatment. Since 1997, when Sessions claimed his Senate seat, both men have served in the United States Congress. No one needed to tell John Lewis where his old enemy had risen up again. This past week he testified against Sessions’ nomination:

I advise against reading the Youtube comments, Gentle Readers.

I hold to the school that we ought not make people into heroes, as we must revise and edit them past any hope of honesty to turn a person into perfection. For the same reasons, we should not name anyone the conscience of a nation. Everyone has faults, blind spots, contains contradictions. But if we conceive of the United States as a nation of justice and freedom, I don’t know many people living today who have done better at holding the country to those ideals and living them out, broken bones, bruised flesh, and all. If being a good American means the things we so often say it means, we must count Lewis one of the best.

Our questionably-coiffed president-elect, the man who got millions less votes in the election of 2016, must have had his TV on just then. He informed the world via Twitter

You understand the thought process, Gentle Readers. He saw a black man on his television. That must mean poverty and crime, because he has worked hard all his life to ensure just that. For Lewis to represent a large section of Atlanta, which seems to do well enough, would mean that Trump and all the others that update their wardrobe in the bedclothes aisle had failed. It would confront them with black Americans as capable, not merely of good leadership but of anything at all. They could not endure such a tragedy and so will go to heroic lengths to prevent it, like losing an election by more than two million votes and calling it a landslide. Or naming Jefferson Sessions Attorney General.

I have not studied Lewis’ career in Congress, but I don’t doubt he’s had his share of frustrations and disappointments. The latest probably began late on election night. But he’s gotten results too. The broken bones of he and his fellow protesters, coming to them through the television in fuzzy black and white, drove a profoundly white supremacist nation to briefly decide it could be something better. The Voting Rights Act, now teetering on the edge of oblivion, came out of it. That could not stand. Millions of white Americans would not tolerate any such thing and embarked on a decades-long campaign to restore Jim Crow and take it fully national. White supremacy won the White House, despite losing the vote, back in November just as it has previous Novembers when Richard Nixon promised “law and order” (break skulls) and Ronald Reagan declared for state’s rights (the right to murder civil rights activists without federal interference). We have come this way before. We shall again. Departures stand out because we see them so seldom.

Every time a storm hits Washington, you don’t have to go far to find photographs of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. They come with injunctions to respect the steadfast commitment of these men and women to their duty. That, we believe, says something about us and the kind of nation we have. Maybe it does; I am no connoisseur of martial virtues. Fifty-seven years on, it seems we still stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge too. Now, just as then, both sides have a large cheering section as the teargas flies and bones break. That says more.

Jim Crow Comes to Michigan

Gentle Readers, the triumphant story of the Civil Rights Movement ends in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow died there, stabbed through the heart by Lyndon Johnson’s pen. Black Americans henceforth had protection against state governments that acted more as their jailers than their servants. Their laws did not say, in so many words, that no black person could cast a vote but the men who wrote them made sure it worked out that way. To grant the vote to subhumans would degrade actual people who, our most ancient creed holds, come exclusively in white skin. The Supreme Court has gotten at the law, cutting away many of its substantial protections. We must now believe that some states with a history of racial discrimination -a trait all fifty share- do not require special attention. As a result those same states have rushed to erect numerous obstructions to casting a vote, closing more than eight hundred polling places and writing laws against the phantom of voter impersonation fraud which they design to ensure black Americans don’t vote. The laws will not catch every black voter, of course, but they can swing close elections. Furthermore, their mere presence serves as a deterrent.

My state has had voter ID on the books since the Nineties. I disagreed with it then, on the grounds that the fraud it’s claimed to protect happens so rarely that these measures clearly constitute a solution looking for a problem. Even if someone went around to multiple polling places to cast votes under assumed names, complete with the correct addresses remembered on the spot and the person they posed as didn’t show up before or later and cast suspicion on the ballot by doing so, microscopic vote margins happen so rarely and unpredictably even in local races that they amount to statistical noise. An individual could cast no more than a handful of fake votes. As soon as you get enough people to really make a difference, things look more like territorial Kansas. Everybody who knows anything about elections already knows this.

But Michigan requires you to have identification so every time I go with my driver’s license in hand. I present it to one of my father’s old coworkers, a man who used to live less than a block from me. We know each other by sight. He passes it to his wife, who knows me just as well. They scan the license and compare my address and name with their records to discover, quelle surprise, I am who they thought I am. Then they mark my name off and hand me a ballot. The license adds no great security to the rest, but it does cost money and one has to go out and get a new one every now and then. If I lost my license or it was damaged and I could not get a new one before election day, I would have to swear an affidavit that I had the right to vote in my precinct and then proceed. More than eighteen thousand of my fellow Michigan residents did that this month. While not ideal, and clearly intended to deprive people of less means of their chance to vote, they state government hasn’t gotten all it paid for from this system. Black Michiganders still vote.

The Republicans who control the state government have had quite enough of that. The Party of Lincoln, founded in this state, has decided to throw in with Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. They insist that if you don’t have your ID, even if you have the right name and address and the risk of someone impersonating a voter is astronomically rare and unlikely to ever matter without being obvious to the dullest observer, you should have to cast a provisional ballot. They will cast it in the trash, only to rescue it if you provide your ID within ten days. In other words, if you have the misfortune of lacking an ID on election day you have less than two weeks to get fortunate enough, find out where and how you can prove your bona fides, and then get your vote counted long after the outcome has been announced.

Maybe people will do that, but the Michigan GOP hopes they will not. They have dug this law out of a drawer somewhere, in the lame duck session immediately after the election just as they did when they voted to eviscerate the right to unionize in our state. Now they rush to get it passed before opposition can mount. I suspect that, while their gerrymandering will keep them in control of the legislature, they worry about the governor’s race in 2018. Their incumbent poisoned thousands of black people, after all. Those people have families and friends who will vote, probably not for whoever they run for the top spot in the state.

This should remind us that Jim Crow disenfranchised black Americans by the millions because of their race, but also because of how they would vote. The Democratic party that erected the whole edifice knew full well that the freedpeople and their descendants would remember what party freed them and stood up for their rights. In much of the postwar South, if black men could vote then they would decide elections. In still more areas, they would have numbers enough to force white politicians to court their support or see it go to an opponent. We must remember segregation as a racial injustice, but we should not forget that racism doesn’t come down to pseudoscientific theories about superiority. Rather we invented white supremacy to justify an existing political and economic order against challenges to it. In suppressing the vote so they can keep winning elections, Republicans in Michigan and across the country have not departed from our most deadly creed; they have renewed it.

How to be a white supremacist

Gentle Readers, let’s talk white supremacy. We do that almost all the time here, but usually in the context of other things. That makes it easy to let some details slip through the cracks. I think most Americans get the most basic idea: whites come first, everyone else possesses debatable humanity. I realized a few weeks back, in the course of talking with others, that I ought to pay more attention to the myriad ways that simple idea wends its way through our lives.

Most people would probably agree that an individual who expresses belief in the racial superiority of whites or the inferiority of non-whites to whites counts as white supremacist. The guy in the brown shirt with the red armband and the other guy in the white hood believe things like that. We have agreed, at least in mixed company, that this makes them monstrous. They believe in horrible things and countenance historical atrocities and present injustices which we righteously condemn. They have no fit place in polite society and we have an obligation to do what we can to contain them and limit the harm they do, so far as we can do so and remain faithful to other vital principles. If they wheel out racist pseudoscience, whether vintage nineteenth century or the more recent sort, that makes them a hard case. Sometimes they receive a kinder hearing than they should, but mostly the convention holds. We should call those people out and keep to our norms. Such clear expressions of racial hatred serve as calls to action and precursors for new horrors. People may do harm with or without our saying so, but they will understand silence as permission.

We do not, however much we may wish otherwise, live in a world where villainy so eagerly announces itself. Admitting that puts us in a bind. In making those who express open racial animus into pariahs, exiled by their deplorable ideas, we easily slip into a second corollary. Something we consider so vile, we cannot imagine occurring with any great frequency. We imagine racists as freaks, so different that we can’t imagine knowing them. We have made racism into a crime near unto murder, yet with no victims. Someone far away or long ago did horrible things, but we finished that and now we have sad, hateful remnants who don’t really warrant our attention. Racism simultaneously counts for a great deal and doesn’t matter at all. It then makes no sense for us to go looking for it.

By we, I must clarify, I mean myself and other white Americans. We have the luxury of these conventions written on our skin. Their costs we carve into the lives of others. I have done it myself more times than I care to remember. We have arranged our civilization to let us do it without thinking, but even when we choose thoughtlessly, we still choose. Suffer me this story to illustrate:

The worst physical injury I have yet endured came when two boys pushed me down on the playground. I landed with my left hand forward. Rather than catching myself, the radius and ulna both broke. My hand drove up between them and one of the bones lay lengthwise across the back of it. The doctors told us that I had one of the worst fractures they ever treated without operating. It still hurts when it gets cold sometimes, almost a quarter century later. I can’t imagine many people I have actually met whom I have cause to like less than those two boys, who suffered no punishment for doing it. But I have known since the day it happened that they did not come at me thinking that they would break my bones and leave me with occasional pain for decades after. They set out to shove me away, perhaps to the ground, but not to rearrange my skeleton.

Some part of that day will always be in the present tense for me. Others have suffered far worse with a grace I can’t muster; I don’t write this to ask your sympathy for childhood pains. Rather hope you can understand that what those boys meant to do on the playground didn’t matter. Their not meaning to hurt me did not preserve me from harm. No amount of good intentions saved my bones and spared me fleeting pain. Even had they simply bumped into me in the hall, not meaning to lay a hand on me, the bones got broken. I felt, and sometimes still feel, the pain of the moment. That matters. We live with the things done to us in flesh and blood far more than we ever will the intentions that drove them.

We can perform white supremacist actions without conscious intention to do so; I know I have. We can say, perhaps honestly, that we didn’t mean it. People get hurt all the same. I maintain that we do so more often than not, habitually privileging the interests, concerns, and ultimately the lives of white Americans above those of anybody else. The people of Flint have poison coming out of their faucets because white people chose to allow it. They suffer not an iota less if we meant otherwise. The government of Michigan, my state, poisoned them all. It has lately appealed a court ruling that the state must deliver that water to residents, rather than make them come to collect their daily rations. No one made the state file that appeal; they chose it, knowing that the less accessible they make drinking water the more likely they are to force the residents to use the poison flowing from their taps all the same. Flint has a majority black population. A mostly white government with a mostly white constituency prefers poisoning them to supplying them with basic necessities, even when that government has only itself to blame for the poisoning.

Say that the people of Michigan did not vote for this. (We didn’t, though when we voted as we did we could reasonably have expected a cavalier attitude toward black lives.) Say that the state government did not mean for it to happen or didn’t know it could. (They knew.) It doesn’t matter. Flint’s residents of all ages got to drink poison all the same. Pleading good intentions will not change that, though it does an admirable job of distracting us from white supremacy in grotesque operation.

Keeping on the theme of water, an oil company wants to build a pipeline through North Dakota. It would have run right by Bismarck, the state capital. The people there believed that this would put their drinking water at risk. Oil does tend to spill; pipes do fail. In response to the concerns of Bismark’s people, which we can all understand, the pipeline got rerouted through a Sioux reservation, Standing Rock. The Sioux, who know something about living on the business end of genocide for the past few centuries, objected too. They would also prefer that they and their children did not drink poison, as well as that an oil pipeline not run through their sacred lands. For some time now they have conducted a large, peaceful protest against the construction, to which the police have responded with violence. That includes spraying water on the protesters at night, in November on the high plains, which ought to count as lethal force all by itself.

I understand that many people stand to make a great deal of money off this pipeline, including the man who lost the late presidential election. But when the people of Bismarck objected to the route endangering their water, plans changed. Ninety percent of the people who live in that city can boast white skin, which goes a long way. The Sioux cannot, so they get to have their children poisoned and their holy places despoiled. Their resistance, not that of Bismarck, brought down the heavy hand of the law. Here, as in Flint and as we do in countless other times and places, people made a decision. White children don’t deserve poisoned water. No one will drive a pipeline through one of Bismarck’s churches. The Sioux have no such immunity. Their concerns, lives, and culture don’t count any more than the people of Flint do.

It may be that some of the people who made the decisions for Flint and North Dakota exulted at the thought of afflicting minorities. If I have learned anything from the research I do for this blog, I have learned to never underestimate the power of pure malice. But it doesn’t matter if they acted with depraved hearts, they did what they did. We can’t know fully the minds of others, however much we try, but they write their actions on the bodies of their victims. The rest of us must make our own choices then. Even if we can’t follow every issue and understand each controversy, we decide when they come before us. We can refuse to allow such things to happen in our name or we can turn away and tell stories about well-meaning mistakes and oversights, reducing those genuinely harmed to an irrelevant detail. A band of neo-Nazis or Klansmen might harm people by the score, but all of us standing by play our part in far greater crimes. A gang can kill dozens or hundreds; policy, silent assent, and willful blindness reach millions.

Thoughts on Donald Trump’s America

A couple of weeks ago, criminal and authoritarian Donald Trump lost the presidential election and so spared us four to eight years of looting the treasury and rule by open, unrepentant white supremacists, anti-semites, homophobes, and other assorted menaces to human rights, decency, and lives. His loss probably saved the tattered remains of American democracy for that same span. But white Americans don’t like that sort of outcome. We have had quite enough of this noise about non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-men deserving rights we feel bound to respect. So we made him president-elect anyway. We didn’t all sign on for that, but I suspect most of reading this can remember the last time the loser got to have the presidency anyway. If the American people all counted equally, we would live in a different world. We have a system that insists otherwise, granting tremendous power to mostly white, sparsely-populated states which they use from time to time to tell the rest of us that their dirt and trees count for more than our lives. Should you have heard the term “structural racism” and wondered how that worked, now you know.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Trump ran an openly racist campaign. At least one person vying for any office in the United States runs a racist, but we had norms about that. You chose policies that just happened to disproportionately harm minorities. You signaled your allegiance to white power with a code: law and order, welfare queens, entitlement cuts, small government, tough on drugs. I could go on. We all know what these things mean, but we pretend otherwise and then scratch our heads at how everyone else votes so differently from white America. They just can’t have reasons; only white people can afford those.

Those norms worked to facilitate racist outcomes, just as everything else in our discourse about “race” does. We imagine race as a thing out in the world, like the weather. What can we do about race or the rain? If we talked about racism instead, then we would have to admit that we choose it. We white Americans struck a deal with ourselves. We agreed to put some of the most egregious expressions of white supremacy beyond the pale, in exchange for keeping the rest. We agreed that the Dylann Roofs of the world had no place in our society, except for letting us denounce them and shrug off the far greater number of lives we waste at the stroke of a presidential pen or by carefully filling out the dot on our ballots. That norm didn’t count for much, but we assented to it away only after a great struggle still in living memory. We do not permit open racist intentions in our politics.

So much for that. He lost the election, but because we have a fundamentally broken system which structurally privileges whites above everyone else, the high-rent version of Dylann Roof moves into the White House in January. Scholars of authoritarianism, both the twentieth century German version and more modern, less famous brands have come forward to warn us; they do not do so lightly. They did not turn out for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or Ronald Reagan. He has named a segregationist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard, a man so racist that the Republican party of the 1980s rejected him for a the federal bench, to run the executive department founded to preserve the rights of the freedpeople. He has an anti-semite as his chief advisor. He stands poised to use the American government to enrich his personal businesses, just as the masters of stereotypical banana republics do.

I believe we will have elections in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2024; I do not expect the forms of American government to vanish. Putin’s Russia has elections too. They have done nothing to prevent authoritarianism there. We have stronger institutions, but they have endured a decades-long assault. Political parties have the job of keeping out the wildly unqualified and dangerous. They failed. The media ought to serve as watchdogs for our liberties. Instead of speaking of racists, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and all the rest, they deem Trump’s friends merely “controversial”. They wonder endlessly how they lost touch with the white working class, as though no other voters existed. In a nation where billionaires can destroy media outlets through the legal system, you don’t need censors. They’ll do the job themselves.

We imagine that democracy ends with a great crash. The world turns gray, the clouds roll in, and everyone forgets how to smile. The real world doesn’t support Mordor or any reasonable approximation. We will not wake up one day and discover that we have moved to in our sleep North Korea. Life goes on. You will probably still have friends and family. Good days and bad will come and go. Most of us will probably not have a mob rush up and clap us in literal chains. Real world oppression doesn’t work like that. It comes on little by little, small adjustments that don’t seem to mean anything. They happen to people far away, on the margins, to the hated. You get used to one and then the next comes. Things once unthinkable become ordinary, even welcome. Maybe something upsets you, but you learn to stay quiet. The rules become clear and we stick to them. We still have something to lose, after all.

You may choose not to believe me, Gentle Readers. I would gain no satisfaction from getting this right. But let me tell you something: back when I went to school, we reserved torture for the heights of villainy. Nazis tortured, not the United States. Under George W. Bush, the United States adopted torture as a matter of policy. When news of that broke, we did not unite in horror against it. Instead the administration and its defenders insisted we had done no wrong, redefining the word ‘torture’ to hide its substance and making a matter of human rights into one of simple partisanship. Trump has told us he will resume torture, and then some.

Trump’s surrogates now cite the internment of Japanese-Americans as precedent for their proposed national registry for Muslims. They expect us to take that not as a warning, but as a grounding in history they believe we should happily emulate. Come January, we have an administration which promised these things to us. If they come, they will owe their arrival not to surprise or shock, but planning.

Speaking of planning, a national registry of Muslims would serve as an ideal precursor for rounding them up into internment camps. Once we have them there, we might put them to work. If they don’t work, or prove difficult, we have the tools to deal with that too. They have already rolled out informally, as all the Klansmen and neo-Nazis, uniformed or otherwise, understand that Trump’s America has their backs. I don’t know if we will go that far, but we have already crossed more Rubicons than I care to count. The Nazis did not begin with Auschwitz, but with street thugs. They proceeded through roving bands of armed men in uniform, something Americans have plenty of experience with in the form of white sheets. The gas chambers and crematoria came late and killed fewer than those bands.

Don’t believe it can never happen here. This country enslaved four million people and only stopped after four years of bloody war. After it ended, we got almost all the way back to slavery again within twenty years and it took the better part of a century to claw our way back to measures that Reconstruction-era Republicans would have found broadly familiar. We have spent the decades since slowly rolling them back again; we just had our first election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Native Americans did not kindly die of disease to free up a continent for us. We white Americans murdered our way across it and now pretend the survivors’ descendants don’t exist. Past Americans can only show us theoretical ceilings: we know that we can go this far, but we may do them one better. We should not succumb to the temptation of the barrel’s bottom; it has none. The horrors of our past and present have far more often burned themselves out in a frenzy of self-destruction or yielded to overwhelming external force than they have discovered some long-neglected scruple on their own.

None of us knows what will come, but we should open our eyes to what looks likely. We should take seriously the warnings we have received from survivors and scholars alike. I start with this one:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.

I hope I am alarmed for nothing; being right would give me no satisfaction at all. But here I must remind you what Dylann Roof said before he went on his murder spree:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Those words put Roof one paycheck away from giving an official campaign speech. The day before he walked into that church in Charleston, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president with these words:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Roof had only ordinary firearms, themselves all too deadly, at his command. Come January, President-Elect Trump inherits a massive national security apparatus armed with nuclear weapons. We do not have the luxury, for the sake of our lives and those of countless human beings here and abroad, of taking him lightly.

Three-Fifths: A Capitulation Revisited

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry

Gentle Readers, I’ve previously written a mixed assessment of the three-fifth’s compromise. It did not work out as an extremely moderate antislavery measure, but I thought it had that potential when written. I have since learned from Paul Finkelman’s Slavery and the Founders that I have that wrong. On closer examination, it doesn’t even much deserve the label of compromise.

The story I believed works out like this: The South wanted to count 5/5 of its slaves for purposes of representation, but 0/5 of those same slaves toward any tax obligations that the national government levied on the states. The freer states objected, instead avowing just the opposite. The South deserved no reward for enslaving black Americans, but rather ought to undertake additional obligations because it had done so and the North would be called upon to suppress slave revolts should they come. The South would hardly have occasion to return the favor. Thus they split the difference at 3/5 for both and everyone goes home in possession of a settlement their white constituents can live with.

Finkelman looked at the dates and came out with something different. The Constitutional Convention debated the basis for representation at length, as we all learn in school. They eventually agree that representation should flow from population, rather than wealth or land values. Having decided that, they must grapple with who to count. Slaves constitute a substantial part of the Southern population, near half in some states. A great deal hangs on whether they get counted or ignored. The initial plan calls for a count based on free individuals, so no slaves at all.

As soon as this reaches the floor, South Carolina rises to object. Their delegation insists upon counting all the slaves along with the free inhabitants. They do not offer to undertake additional tax liability in exchange, but simply demand that their slave property count as people. The familiar ratio comes out of this, apparently in the hopes of getting ahead of both proslavery and antislavery opinion. In the North, delegates could sell the Constitution on how they prevented full slave representation. In the South, they could argue that they had secured most of what they wanted.

The vote over the ratio occasions little debate, save Elbridge Gerry’s objection:

Blacks are property, and are used to the southward as horses and cattle to the northward; and why should their representation be increased to the southward on account of the number of slaves, than horses or oxen to the north?

One must look at this in context. No slave state counted slaves for representation in their legislatures at the time. The southern delegates didn’t ask for something they already did at home, but a specific and additional security for their human property through disproportionate presence in the Congress, which then carries over into the Electoral College and elsewhere. Those extra votes prove instrumental in every sectional crisis resolved by legislation. As Finkelman puts it

Thus, with little debate, the Convention initially accepted the three-fifths clause as a basis for representation. The clause, giving the South an enormous political leverage in the nation, was accepted without any quid pro quo from the North. Application of the clause to taxation would not come until later in the Convention. Indeed, there was no reason in mid-June to believe it would ever be applied to taxation.

We have something different indeed from a compromise. Instead the framers did just as they and their descendants would spend the next eighty years doing: making capitulations to the South in order to help the section preserve slavery. Only later does the tax liability come into things and it direct taxation of the states falls out of favor right about the time Southerners achieve full control of the government. This restored the original 3/5 compromise: extra power for the South and slavery with nothing granted in exchange. The slave states got, as they usually did, license to put their thumb on the scale of law whilst demanding everyone else abide by the fair weight.