Friday, August 18, 2017

The Limitation of Statues

All the crazy news Donald Trump has generated over the past year or so has, until recently, overshadowed a long-simmering political issue that is extremely topical, though it has stayed a bit under the radar. It only occasionally broke the surface of my Twitter feed. And it got practically no media attention outside the States. Now, that’s all changed.

This is the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues. A controversy that was already heated this spring, but is now red-hot. Even before the tragedy in Charlottesville this past weekend, there was the potential back in May for violence in New Orleans -- that torpid city on the languid Mississippi I have not visited now for many years -- all because of the removal of four public statues or monuments.

I think folks in Finland would be shocked to hear that the removal of these statues had to be carried out mostly at night, by workmen wearing bullet-proof vests and face coverings to hide their identities. There were justifiable concerns that someone would shoot them, so irrational was the passion swirling around this simple public-works task, a fact that reveals some deep divisions in America, as we saw this week.

The monuments that the city of New Orleans decided to remove were of three men: Jefferson Davis (a senator from Mississippi before becoming the president of the Confederate States of America), PGT Beauregard (a native of Louisiana and prominent general in the Confederate Army), and Robert E. Lee (the Virginian who led the army which eventually went down in ignominious defeat). In addition, there was a monument honoring an 1874 uprising by white supremacist paramilitaries called “The White League”, in which they overpowered the New Orleans police force and replaced the Governor of Louisiana for three days before the US Army took control. You can see why residents of NOLA, many of whom are black, might find such a monument in poor taste.

Robert E. Lee coming down in New Orleans.
(Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans) 

You might understand New Orleans erecting a statue to native son Beauregard, but the only direct connection to Jefferson and Lee that I can see is that they were leading figures in the CSA. In other words, it’s a celebration of the fact that Louisiana was once part of a treasonous group of states that wanted to ensure their citizens continued to enjoy the freedom to own other human beings.

Is that something to celebrate? Most Americans today would (I hope) think not. At least, it's now being debated. Vigorously. 

The murder of nine black worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 reopened an earlier debate about whether the Confederate Battle Flag, used by the KKK as a symbol of hate for decades, should be part of official government iconography. The anti-flag forces won that issue in South Carolina, and the flag came down from the state capitol.

That may have prompted people to begin rethinking the issue of the hundreds of CSA monuments throughout the South. Personally, I would be fine with most being removed -- that is, unless they can be contextualized to explain their dismal role in the Jim Crow South and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause myth that was created to whitewash a disgraceful chapter of US history. Sadly, we now have someone, a young woman Heather Heyer, dying in part because a faction, and not a small one, of Southerners still cling stubbornly to that myth.

And it may only get worse. I’ve gotten the feeling that for many hard core “Southern traditionalists” in Georgia the flash point is Stone Mountain. 

Huge rock carvings on the granite side of that gigantic dome of exposed stone depict Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, all gallantly on horseback. None of these men were from Georgia, so their glorification is only meant to commemorate the traitorous CSA. Stone Mountain was also the birthplace of the second coming of the Klu Klux Klan, giving the place a special resonance with white supremacists.

I’m sure no one is seriously thinking of erasing the carvings from the side of Stone Mountain, but just the mention of the idea evokes some strong reactions from folks. You get the sense that some people would take up arms to prevent any such thing from happening, and that is scary.

It just goes to show the extraordinary meaning people often attach to representative figures in bronze or stone. Throughout history someone has erected public artworks to honor something or someone, and throughout history – at turning points in history, in fact -- someone else has chosen to bring those artworks down, if given the chance.

We probably all remember the image of Saddam Hussein’s 12-meter statue being pulled down by gleeful Iraqis in 2003 -- with the help of a US Marine armored vehicle. It was a mark of defiance and hatred toward a brutal dictator. After the Soviet Union fell, so too did many statues of Lenin as a repudiation of Communism. There must be something gratifying in that act of vandalism, though I must say that pulling down the confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, this week was stupid, as mob actions often are.

The iconic statue toppling of our age.

Or course, not everyone welcomes such toppling of icons (there’s a word for it, “iconoclasm”), as we see with the protests over the CSA monuments. Sometimes, even simply relocating statues, no matter how carefully, can arouse dangerous passions.

A decade ago, the government of our neighbor Estonia decided to move a Soviet-era statue from the center of the capital Tallinn to a military cemetery a kilometer away. It was clearly a political move, motivated by the Estonians' long-held view of “The Bronze Soldier” as a symbol of Soviet occupation. The county's sizable Russian-speaking minority saw it differently, and as plans for the relocation went forward protests and three nights of rioting and looting ensued, resulting in one death. At the same time, Estonia came under an unprecedented cyber attack by foreign hackers (sound familiar?). Hopefully, by now everyone has come to terms with the soldier’s new home.

As far as I know, no such angry topplings have occurred in Finland. Okay, statue “topping” is practiced annually here -- when an oversized student hat is placed on the head of Helsinki’s lovely Havis Amanda statue as part of May Day celebrations. But that is a wholly different thing. 

There was a bit of ill-feelings when some perhaps overly patriotic Finns fretted that the new (“new” in 1998) Kiasma art museum would overshadow the nearby equestrian statue of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Finland’s George Washington in a sense.

Otherwise, the prominent statue of Alexander II* (monarch of Finland when it belonged to the Russian Empire) and the country’s two statues of Lenin have remained unmolested, as far as I know. 

I'd like to think of that as a sign that Finland has healed the wounds of its past much better than the Old South is healing its own -- even after 150 years.

Havis Amanda wearing a white cap on May Day, 2002.

* corrected from original

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Heritage, History and Gasligthing

After some back and forth with people on social media over the last few days, I have some thoughts on points I keep hearing from the other side of the Confederate statue issue.  

1. The question of “heritage”. Some folks seem captive to the past. They venerate the Civil War and honor the leaders of the traitorous Confederate States of America just because “my ancestors fought for the South”.  

It’s as if, once somebody takes a political stand, then all his descendants are locked into that position for generations to come. I really don’t get that. Speaking for myself, I am my own man. I decide what I think about an issue, how I see the world. What my ancestors might have done or thought doesn’t determine what I think.  

2. Even if you take the position that the traitorous CSA and its leaders should be honored because of your heritage, it’s important to remember that the South is home to a lot of people who don’t share that heritage, or whose heritage was slavery itself. Why should communities that are majority black have to put up with memorials of oppressors just because of “your” heritage.  

3. I continuously hear "you can’t rewrite history". Yes, you can. This is what whites in the South did decades ago with the Lost Cause myth-making, to the point where some people even today believe that slavery was NOT the cause of the Civil War. The truth of the conflict was “sanitized” to obscure the racist foundation of the CSA and encourage a sense of victimhood among the losers of the war. To make them feel better about their deplorable past. It is a decades-long process of gaslighting. 

4. In any case, history isn’t written in statues. It’s written in books. If statues are essential for the telling of American history, then why not erect some statues of Hitler, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein? Those guys are part of American history as well. In truth, the Confederate statues are about honoring CSA leaders (and in some cases, common soldiers), not “telling history”.  

5. A typical taking point of CSA apologists is “It’s heritage, not hate.” No, it’s both. It’s a heritage of hate. And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dixie Chicks and Such

One day this summer, as I headed out to do some work at our sauna-cabin (so called because it’s basically equal parts sauna and cabin – in other words, it’s not that big), I decided to put on some music for the drive. Something besides the Mozart that my son, who had recently been borrowing the car, had left in the CD player.    

I pulled the traveling CD case from the glove-compartment and started flipping through the random selection of discs there. Finding nothing I especially wanted to listen to, I decided to try one disc that I didn’t recognize, one with no markings I could make out.    

When I slipped the CD into the player I was surprised to hear the sound of “The Dixie Chicks” come out of the speakers. I’d almost forgot I had that one.    

I can’t claim to be much of a country-music fan. I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and didn’t really “discover” other kinds of music until almost high school, when like most of my teenage cohort, I started listening to rock. After that, me and “country” mostly parted ways.    

I do like some artists well enough, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, some Johnny Cash, old school country, you might say, and bluegrass, but not so much modern, “slicker-sounding” country. I wouldn’t be able to pick Garth Brooks out of a line up. A musical line up, that is.    

Still, I like many of the songs on my one Dixie Chicks CD (Top of the World Tour: Live), spunky tunes, for the most part fun, high energy. Not bad. In reality, however, I bought that CD not because of the music, but because of politics.

Amazing to think that that was 14 years ago, though in many ways it feels like it was much deeper in the past, a very different time from our own.    

The Dixie Chicks, a trio of female country singers from Texas, were at the peak of their popularity in early 2003. Six of their singles had reached number-one on the country music charts in the previous five years, soon after lead singer Natalie Maines had come on board. By the first months of 2003 they had won four Grammys and ten Country Music Association Awards.    

The first months of 2003 was, of course, also the time when the drumbeat for a new war was in full swing in the US. The world watched anxiously to see if George Bush would invade Iraq. The wisdom of such a preemptive (Iraqi had not attacked the US) action was being debated in Congress and the media, though surely not debated enough. Outside the US there was much more skepticism.    

That was the background when The Dixie Chicks took to the stage in London on March 10, 2003. When it came time to perform their current top selling song, Maines paused to say a few words first.    

The song was “Travelling Soldier”, a classic country tearjerker written by Texan Bruce Robison (never heard of him, but that’s not a surprise). It tells about an unassuming young soldier from small-town America, a soldier sent to Vietnam who did not make it back, just one of the some 58,000 Americans who suffered the same fate. (In some ways, the song reminds me of the Vietnam-era hit “Galveston” by Glenn Campbell, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s recently.)   

I guess “Traveling Soldier” took on special meaning for the band as the US was being pushed inescapably by the president toward a controversial war that would again result in the loss of US soldiers. Surely with that in mind, Maines told her London audience this:    

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”   

The Iraqi War started ten days later. To date, over 4500 Americans have died as a result, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.    

I’m not sure how Maines’ London audience reacted to her mild anti-war statement. Probably with cheers. I suspect most Brits, with the exception of Tony Blair, were not especially eager to follow the US in its quest to topple Saddam Hussein.    

The overall reaction in the States was unambiguous, however, and scalding. Many of the Chicks’ fans were outraged, especially by the criticism of President Bush. People began boycotting the band. Their songs plummeted in the charts, sponsors started to abandon them, and I doubt they have ever fully recovered from the controversy. All because they said they were “ashamed” of the US president. Ridiculous.    

I’m not sure what the opposite of a boycott is. It would be too corny to say it’s a “girlcott”, but okay maybe I just did that anyway. In any case, in order to do my bit to support the band, to boycott the boycott, as it were, I bought a Dixie Chicks CD.  

How times have changed. In today’s political climate, where public discourse has never been coarser, Maines’s ding at George Bush seems quaint by comparison. This year there have been some celebrated cases of celebrities perhaps crossing the bounds of good taste in insulting Donald Trump, sparking outraged conservatives to ask for their heads. They got Kathy Griffin’s at least. She lost her New Year’s Eve gig at CNN and suffered other repercussions after posting a photo of herself holding a fake severed head of Trump.    

Of course, outrage is often a one-way street. You didn’t see the same outrage on the right (or none, in fact) when Ted Nugent, while banishing two machines guns, inspired concert-goers with this bit of nuanced commentary:    

"Obama, he's a piece of shit. I told him to suck on my machine gun. Hey Hillary, you might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch."    

No boycott. No outrage from folks worried about the sanctity of the Oval Office. In fact, Nugent got invited to the White House just three months after Trump took office.    

Isn’t that ironic? Perhaps not as ironic as America electing a president who now claims that he too shared (not really) the Dixie’s Chicks’ opposition to an unnecessary war, a huge disaster that was about to happen. 

His fake opposition didn't prevent him getting elected by many of the same people who 13 years earlier trashed the Dixie Chicks for speaking their minds and taking a genuine stand. Seems supremely unfair to me. 

The Dixie Chicks in concert, June 2003. 
(Credit: Wasted Time R)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Small Lies or Big Delusion?

Once again I’ve been astounded this past week by how fact-challenged Donald Trump is.

First up – the leaked transcript of phone calls. I agree with a lot of people (both Republican and Democrat) that leaking these kinds of presidential phone conversations is not good. But, boy, do they ever reveal some things about Trump.

In one of the calls Trump tells Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that the state of New Hampshire is a “drug-infested den” (no doubt, now the new state motto!) and for this reason Trump won the state.

To be fair to Trump, we can assume that he’s NOT saying that he was especially popular among the addicted-voter segment (though that might explain a lot). Instead, perhaps he meant that the concern over the opioid epidemic was an issue that worked in his favor – though I don’t know if that’s true, either.

The more interesting fact about Trump’s (mis)statement is that he did NOT “win” New Hampshire. Clinton did, though it was very close. You would think Trump would remember this. Someone should set the record straight with Peña Nieto so he doesn’t accidentally embarrass himself by bringing up this impressive “fact” about Trump at, for example, some cocktail party.

“Did you know,” he would say confidently, “That my good friend Donald Trump won New Hampshire?” while his better-informed companions stare into their drinks in awkward silence.

Anyway, perhaps Trump is thinking of his big GOP primary win in New Hampshire, the surprise victory that set him off on his journey to the White House. Maybe that looms so large in his mind that he confuses it with actually winning the state in the general election nine months ago.

The other thing that struck me this week is what Trump said at a campaign rally in West Virginia (a state he actually did win, bigly). Concerning the Department of Justice investigation into Russian meddling in the election, he assured a throng of cheering coal-industry supporters that “The Russia story is a total fabrication. It’s just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics.” Greatest loss in the history of American politics.

Only, it wasn’t. Trump LOST the popular vote by almost three million votes. He did win the electoral college, but only by 34 votes, the narrowest margin since George W. Bush and in no way a “great win”. (Obama won by 95 and 62 votes.)

It just goes to show that if you repeat an untruth over and over, maybe you start to believe it’s true. Seems to be working for Trump. He’s probably hoping it works for his audience too.