Confluence in Charlottesville

The events of 11 August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia were tragic on many levels. First, a life was taken in the name of something the world put down 72 years ago. Nineteen people were injured in the attack. It was terrorism, a term that needs no qualifier, for its practitioners are all equally abhorrent. Similarly tragic is the idea that people with such views feel welcome to come out of the dank spaces they have been hiding in their whole lives. They are emboldened by an administration specifically tailored toward their nativist views and are now basking in the final tragic event of the weekend, the fact that it took the president 48 hours to denounce by name the hate groups responsible for the violent end of the “Unite the Right” protest. It is hard to acknowledge any good could come from such a despicable display of the depths of human nature, but perhaps there is one thing this tragedy highlights that may serve to propel us forward. For once and all, we finally see the dark heart of the movement to hold on to seditionist monuments. This weekend, the flags of two banished hostile powers finally flew seamlessly together.

I moved to Georgia from Virginia during the aftermath of the mass shooting in a Charleston church. That crime was committed by a hate-filled young man seen displaying Confederate Battle Flags and espousing white supremacist ideology in pictures and words released after the fact. He, we were told, was not representative of the crowd who cared only about southern “heritage.” My social media feed was filled with comments by friends I graduated with from high school in Montgomery, Alabama lamenting that it seemed you couldn’t be white, male, and from the south anymore. It was, had I been savvy enough to recognize it, exactly the sentiment our president was tapping into—the self-victimization of a majority class benefitting from the privilege such a station bestows while claiming to suffer persecution as a minority they increasingly claimed to be. It was then with utter shock that I observed a makeshift parade of pickup trucks flying Confederate flags and stopping traffic in Cleveland, Georgia on the 4th of July. Confederate flags on the 4th of July.

In the weeks and months after Charleston, the “heritage not hate” movement became more visible. While South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, took the bold stance of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the state grounds, other states and cities began similar campaigns. These were met with increasing opposition from groups walking the fine line between recalling history and embracing it. But this movement to remove Confederate statues—really to relocate them to more teachable venues—also raised the ire of white supremacists and nationalists. Ostensibly to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in what is now called Emancipation Park, these supremacists and nationalists descended on the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence and began to publicly defile the cherished content of that document and the very concept of governance it granted to the world.

We are, unfortunately, used to seeing one-time symbols of sedition and treason held up as proud southern heritage. Were what we saw in Charlottesville only that, it would have been bad enough. Here though, for the first time in my memory, was the willful confluence of Confederate iconography with symbols representing the most destructive and immoral foreign power ever to hold a place in the history of humankind. Hitler’s Third Reich purposefully exterminated 12 million human beings. The effort to crush his supremacist views and free the world of tyranny cost 50 to 80 million lives worldwide. Yet here, in the United States of America, citizens of the nation that led the world in the fight against authoritarianism based on racial supremacy marched under the banner of the Nazi flag. They were joined by those carrying Confederate Battle Flags, and now the world need have no more question about the place those symbols should hold in our culture.

There were perhaps as many as 750,000 war dead from the U.S. Civil War, the most of any of our nation’s conflicts. There are those who may rightly claim their ancestors fought with justice and honor on the side of the Confederacy. The separation of jus ad bellum, regarding the decision by a political authority to go to war, and jus in bello, regarding just conduct by military forces in war, allows this seeming dichotomy to exist. It is possible both to fight an unjust war well and to commit war crimes and atrocities in a just war. It is for this reason I can understand those who want respect for the manner in which their ancestors conducted themselves in an unjust war. Such understanding, though, cannot be offered without concession. They must first admit that it was an unjust war, that a war fought for the right to enslave their fellow men and women cannot be justified. They must acknowledge that war as a rebellion against the country they now call home, the country that has granted them the freedom to live on their own merit and without the judgment of the cause for which their ancestors toiled. And they must disavow the symbols of that rebellion and stop clinging to them as representative of their ancestors’ heritage. Those symbols represent the unjustified use of force by a treasonous political authority; they do not represent the just conduct of those who deserve the honor of our memory. The events in Charlottesville should remove any doubt about associating Confederate symbols with honored war dead.

Whether it is “heritage” or a racist symbol is immaterial now. Confederate symbols no longer belong to anyone wishing they could only represent a southern pride. In truth, they have not done so in many years. Those symbols were long ago hijacked by those still fighting for the cause they have always represented. Like it or not, Confederate symbols do represent hate. The world cannot “unsee” what it saw outside the gates of Monticello. Swastikas, the “stars and bars” of the true flag of the Confederacy, and the ubiquitous Confederate Battle Flag are all representative of the same ideas; that there is such a thing as “race,” that those who are white are superior, and that killing for that idea is still a worthy cause.

I have been wrestling with what my grandfather might have thought about seeing a flag he fought against carried down Main Street, USA. From the serenity of the English countryside he flew into the maelstrom of combat over places like Dresden, Schweinfurt, and Berlin. He lost one of his crew and saw hundreds of his countrymen fall to their fiery deaths trying to bomb the Nazi war machine into oblivion. He was 21 years old and in command of 9 men. I think I know what my father would think. His was a flawed war to free Vietnam from the grips of Communist authoritarianism. He was spit on in an airport upon his return, an exercise of free expression the Vietnamese would no longer know. I know how I feel. I spent 25 years fighting tyranny in the Middle East, part of it during another flawed war of choice. I’m more than willing for those here at home to exercise their freedom of conscience and speech, just as those white supremacists were doing in Charlottesville before they turned violent. Brave men and women—men and women far better than they can ever hope to be—gave them that right. When evil is allowed to speak its mind, it clarifies an issue. I encourage such clarification. I want them to have their say, to slide out from under their rock and declare for the world what they really are, to highlight the fallacy we’ve long known existed about how to conceive of Confederate symbols, to finally understand the moral equivalence of all ideologies based on racial superiority. That those who most fervently believe in them freely illustrated that equivalence is a gift we could hardly have dared wish for. Writers cannot be called out for “false equivalence” when the white supremacists made the equivalence themselves.

This we should all now know. If you march under the banner of a hostile power, one the entire world took up arms against or one only the U.S. Army stood against, you are no patriot. You are not representative of the ideals of the nation which has granted you the right to declare yourself an enemy of the state. That you would do so in so blatant a manner is again something we would not have dared dream. But having done so, you are now the most recent reason for the line in the U.S. military officers’ oath that pledges to defend the Constitution against “all enemies, foreign and domestic…” And when you decide to kill innocents, you are no better than any other claiming a divine, or any other, right to do so.

It is for this reason that the response of our president was so inadequate. For a man who cannot find the will to hold back on the most banal kinds of things, to not confront the terrorism and racism that run counter to our being as a nation is simply a dereliction of duty. While I find the actions of the president lacking in the extreme, perhaps the words of another president can move the nation once more to act against an ideology we twice defeated on the battlefield and dreamed we had once defeated in the halls and on the steps of Congress. “…the man who loves his country on it’s [sic] own account, and not merely for it’s [sic] trappings of interest or power, can never be divorced from it: can never refuse to come forward when he finds that she is engaged in dangers which he has the means of warding off.” Those are the words of President Thomas Jefferson, resident of Charlottesville, Virginia.

Our country is indeed engaged in grave dangers. Our president, wallowing in the trappings of interest and power, has proved no ability or desire to ward off such dangers. In fact, he has stoked them at every turn. It falls to us then, as President Jefferson knew it always would, to stand against the dangers to our republic. One person died this weekend under the boot of the racial superiority proclaimed by both Nazism and the Confederacy. Let there be no more. 80,750,001 is enough.

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Patriots, Education, and Ignorance (140 Characters at a Time)

A short time ago, I sat and listened to someone who has not had children in school for many years lament the state of education in America today. He said public schools—he lives in Georgia—were completely controlled by the left. Intrigued, I asked him why he thought that. “Believed” would have been a better word. In response, he asked, “you really don’t believe that?” I said I was simply asking why he thought it; I am a seeker of evidence. He then said they don’t teach civics or the Constitution anymore. They don’t talk about the Founding, our form of government, or highlight our exceptionalism. I assured him that they do in fact talk about those things; I do have children in the public schools. But then I told him that it seemed much the other way to me, given the assurances of my then-7th grader’s science teacher who told me they would talk about evolution in animals but not in humans. She was at a loss when I asked how he was to learn about that important detail. My companion in conversation could only offer the tired refrain, “well, it’s a theory.” Yes. Indeed it is. It is ironic, sitting as we were in an airplane, that aeronautics is also “just” a theory. It is defined by a set of equations that have never been fully solved. Yet there we were, looking for all the world to me like we were actually flying. I tried to suppress that conversation as I do with many others I have with those who state things that are demonstrably false or use words they do not understand. The 4th of July and reactions to public radio’s celebration of our Founding brought it all back.

National Public Radio has for some decades read the Declaration of Independence on the anniversary of its signing. This year they expanded their horizons to Twitter and tweeted the whole thing, 140 characters at a time, into the welcoming arms of the internet. Well, maybe the internet is not so welcoming of the defining document of self-governance and determination. The cyberverse erupted, unprovoked, in defense of our president. Apparently, many of his fans could not stand the similarities, highlighted in a 241-year-old document, between their man and King George III. I read the Declaration every year around the 4th, and I must admit, defenders of the president have a point. There are several passages that seem to apply to his authoritarian streak and his clear belief, highlighted again in a recent New York Times interview, that he is beyond the law.

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” Sure. That seems to fit. Self-dealing. Emoluments. The most egregious lack of business ethics in our history. “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.” Well, allegedly. I’m sure the Congress will get to the bottom of it, knowing how true they are to their duty. If not them, then the special prosecutor. Unless the president fires him, as he again recently alluded to doing. “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.” There is that commission on voter fraud “harassing” [sic] our secretaries of state and demanding our personal information. He created a government entity to oversee dismantling the so-called administrative state. “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:” Yes. He is working very hard on this one, and if the recent G20 summit is any sign, he will probably succeed beyond all expectation. The EU has a trade agreement with Asia that will encompass a full 40% of world trade, and the U.S. will be left out. Remember, he tore up the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that would have cemented our foothold in that region and kept China at bay, because—say it with me—America First. “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…” Look no further than the NRA’s latest public relations campaign for this one. Observe the rally violence he personally incited. Look at his own words in foreshadowing the possible assassination of his opponent as a means to shore up the Supreme Court and protect against a non-existent government run on our guns. And witness the President of the United States, in the first months of his term, going back again and again to adoring crowds at campaign rallies instead of trying to unite a deeply divided country or in any way speaking to the greater number of Americans who voted against him than voted for him.

There are two things interesting about this phenomenon. The first is that some Trump supporters see in the Declaration of Independence the behavior of a tyrant that is being mirrored in some of the actions of our current president. We know this because they spoke out against the “propaganda” NPR was spreading. They read the words of the Declaration and independently associated it with the character of the man they put in the most powerful office in the world. It would be funny if it was not so salient to the very fragile nature of the concepts stated in that seminal document. The irony and situational comedic effect would be inconsequential were it not for the second point. It is one that deals not with antiquity but with posterity, the potential of the country the Declaration bequeathed.

These are some of the same people who complain that our public education system is devoid of the vital civics lessons required to make us productive participants in our own governance. These are some of the people who say local communities know better about how to educate the future of our entire nation than does a federal program of standards. These are some of the people who claim the left has no appreciation for the concept of the Founding and who consistently question the patriotism of those who believe as much in social justice as personal responsibility. These are some of the people who want to control your children’s education. And these are the people who could not recognize the Declaration of Independence of the “united States of America” on the day set aside to commemorate that monumental event in the history of world. That, my friends, is simply astounding.

You should listen to NPR read or tweet what is perhaps the most important document ever conceived for the desired state of humankind. I urge you to read the Declaration often. Make a habit of doing it on the 4th of July every year. In it you will find a remarkable intellectual achievement by some of the brightest minds of their time. And if you happen to note a tinge of commentary on the current state of affairs, well, that is exactly what the primary author intended.

Rhetoric, Right, and Responsibility in Alexandria

The shooting at an Alexandria ball field where the GOP Congressional baseball team was practicing was a tragedy that should never happen in America or any other country based on the rule of law and self-governance. However, no one can claim or feign surprise at such an act. Not today. Not in this America. And not after so many for so long have claimed with such certainty that the very reason for citizens to arm themselves is to be able to shoot at the government. Now, when someone levels a weapon at another human being, they have made a personal decision to do so and, unless there are legal reasons involving agency, they are responsible for their actions. There are those among us who love to talk about that personal responsibility when something like this happens. Let’s do that.

By now we have all seen the Tweet Senator Rand Paul sent sometime last year extolling Fox News-personality Judge Napolitano’s understanding of the rationale for the Constitution’s Second Amendment. Senator Paul (he claims a staffer did it) live tweeted a quote from a speech the senator invited the judge to give, quoting Napolitano as saying, “Why do we have a Second Amendment? It’s not to shoot deer. It’s to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical!”

Senator Paul’s staff is rushing to say the senator never said those words. That is neither comforting nor relevant. He tweeted it on his official feed for the benefit of those who believe it and would vote for him to secure a Constitutional right that is in no danger. It’s the same reason then-candidate Trump said there would be nothing anyone could do about the Supreme Court were his rival to gain the highest office, except that “maybe the second amendment people, there is.”

The idea that your deer rifle and shotgun—or even your high-capacity, semi-automatic, high-muzzle velocity, U.S. military-look-alike rifle (it would be easier to just say “assault rifle,” wouldn’t it?)—will somehow, someday save the republic from an authoritarian who wants to siphon your liberty and turn the U.S. into a dictatorship is strong with the gun lobby (though their ire is apparently misplaced). It is so even though the government they would supposedly be fighting has flying death robots and nuclear weapons. It is, in a word, absurd. It also does not comport at all with what the Constitution says. I would have thought that would have been important to all those who suddenly found themselves to be “originalists” when Justice Scalia unexpectedly passed.

The Second Amendment of the Constitutions says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When you read it in whole and in context, the Second Amendment says that the people must retain the right to keep and bear arms to fight for the State. It is written that way because of the Founders’ disdain for the principle of a standing Army and the hope that the people would rise to collectively defend the State and its governance. There is no way to read it, literally and “originally,” as the last hope of a terrorized citizenry to tear down a government, though that is an obvious and necessary risk. How it is written, unfortunately, is no longer even relevant.

The man who brought “originalism” to the bench of the Supreme Court used a rhetorical trick to rid the Amendment of the pesky first clause and canonize only the part his own judicial activism could not stomach being “weakened” in his 21st Century eyes. Certainly plenty of others have pulled Founders’ writings on the virtues of maintaining weapons to secure individual security instead of that of the State, though not a single Founder or Framer could possibly have foreseen the State as maintaining a standing Army with weapons capable of killing hundreds of millions at a time or just a single person from over 7,000 miles away with literal fire from the sky. There were some, perhaps many, who believed in that rationale of individual self-interest. The question is, particularly for those who want to interpret the Constitution in terms only of what the Framers meant when they penned it, why didn’t they just write it that way? I could have done so. It might read, “In order to protect individual liberty from the natural and tyrannical tendencies of the State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It isn’t hard to write what you mean. The Framers did, but those meaningful words are no longer the issue.

We are all now subject to the idea that the .308 bolt-action rifle or 7.62 semi-automatic AK-47 knock-off in our gun safes (I’m assuming a level of responsibility that does not exist everywhere) are there for us to water the “tree of liberty” with the “blood of patriots,” another quote misused and misunderstood. It cannot then be a shock when someone decides to exercise that idea as enabled by the right to legally keep and bear firearms. Perhaps the only surprise, to some, is that the members of that government who happened to be on the ball field are thought to be the tyranny we are all warned about by the primary organization responsible for such rhetoric, an organization whose campaign funding was almost certainly put at risk on an otherwise quiet morning. Those on that ball field are not that tyranny. Far from it. Tyranny like that does not exist, nor has it in the past 150 years, and that brings us back to personal responsibility.

A man leveled a gun on members of Congress. That was his choice. He is responsible for that action. But there is responsibility in the rhetoric that made him think it his patriotic duty to do so. Judge Napolitano is no less responsible for the consequence of his words than the man looking down the sights at what represented a portion of the government he believed did not represent him. Senator Paul is no less responsible for quoting the thoughts of a judge whose legal qualifications, fine as they must be, landed him a job on a partisan television show than was a man who decided the judge was right about the intended purpose of his weapons.

I keep saying this, so far to no apparent avail, but words have consequences, and we better start acting like we understand them. We are now in an eerie realm where it is somehow accepted to talk openly about the violent overthrow of the government, killing presidents because of who they might put on the Supreme Court or because we are disgusted and fearful of the one who made that allusion, attacking the independence of the judiciary, and telling people at political rallies to knock the hell out those they disagree with. To be fair, we only think any of this is a good idea when the rival party occupies the seats of power…which for half of us at any given moment is all the time. There is no justification for such talk or the violent imagery that accompanies it for freely elected governments, and the invocation of the Founder’s thoughts on such things are devoid of meaning without the acknowledgement of the very different context of the times.

The Founders lived through the formation of the very first government of its kind on the face of the earth. There was only a fleeting sense that it would work. Only in their wildest hopes would the first man to occupy the presidency voluntarily step away from ultimate power. Only in the dreams of the Framers would the checks and balances they devised make it so difficult for a single man or faction to gain a stranglehold on power that more than 240 years later, there has been only one existential threat from insurrection, only twice has a president been impeached, and never has there been anything other than a peaceful transition of governmental power. Many of the Founders may have thought their muskets—let’s at least be honest, that is what the Framers meant when they wrote it—were necessary to keep them free from the tyranny of the government they did not know would work so well. Their fears have been overcome by the magnificence of their achievement. It was that enduring optimism, a grand wager on the good conscience of a future public they so effectively modeled, that led them to write the Second Amendment the way they did.

Glorifying violence toward the government does not make you a patriot. Neither does, it must be said, sharing the imagery of violence even under the guise of art. Taking photos with the faux severed head of a president or putting on Shakespeare in the Park to “update” Julius Caesar with the assassination of a presidential look-alike are vile attempts at notoriety that do nothing to quell the very real dangers we now face from a vindictive and incurious man most of us voted against sitting in the Oval Office. What these have in common is that those propagating such filth and nonsense share the responsibility when someone decides to act out in deference to their stated ideals. We are, because of the second named right in the First Amendment, free to say these things, of course. We are free to take photographs we wouldn’t show our children, and we are free to have the audacity to try to “improve” on Shakespeare. None of those evocations of a right mean we should. What it does mean is that if we make that choice, we ought to also be held accountable for actions that follow in the vein of our protected speech.

When I was child and the gun lobby was a far-off nightmare, I was taught never to point a gun at something I didn’t intend to kill. The First Amendment corollary is that one should never say something unless they are willing to accept the consequences of someone carrying out the message. When we start to take ownership of what comes out of our mouths, maybe we can alter the course of human events for the better. Until then, take cover. And keep your powder dry. You never know who might think you the enemy and decide your words are very fitting for the action they intend.