On Symbols, Substance, and White Supremacy

So, suddenly it’s become politically and socially acceptable to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from public space and banish it from polite conversation.

This is strange. In my life, I would never have imagined that this symbol would ever be contested by white conservatives in the South. There was so much honoring of ancestors and heritage in the defense of that flag that it seemed a permanent part of America.

I’ve never defended the Confederacy, though I have in the past defended secession as a general principle. I’ve always thought arguments claiming the secession of the southern states in 1860 and 1861, and the subsequent war, was about something other than slavery — such as tariffs — was foolish. Slavery had divided the nation since almost the moment it was formally founded, and certainly since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It had set Kansas on fire, made the murderous terrorist John Brown into a hero, and fixed the eye of the Southern ruling elites toward the Caribbean, where they envisioned an expanded American empire of slavery.

(Tennessee lawyer, journalist, and “adventurer” William Walker managed to do some of this on his own when he a group of Americans conquered and ruled Nicaragua for a few years in the mid-1850s. Among his first acts as el presidente, Walker re-established slavery in the tiny isthmus state; it had been abolished in Nicaragua in the 1820s.)

At the same time, I think the end of the American Civil War (note: it was more a failed act of secession, like the Biafra War or the long and failed struggle in Sri Lanka by the Tamils for independence, than a true civil war, which is historically a fight by two or more parties to govern one particular patch of territory) is not such a happy one. Yes, slavery was ended, but white America’s commitment to true racial equality — to treating black Americans as equal citizens — was found wanting, and largely abandoned a decade after the guns fell silent.

However, it is the precedent — that no one says no to America or leaves for any reason — troubles me the most. It is state power without limit, government which cannot be resisted, and we would see — especially in the 20th century — just how far those who ruled would push those limits. It also contains in it the very seeds of an American version of The Brezhnev Doctrine — once you are part of America, you cannot walk away. Empire was the likely outcome of the war no matter how it ended. But we now live with an American empire that simply cannot be escaped.

But back to the matter at hand. The banishing of the Confederate Battle Flag from acceptable public discourse is happening at a dizzying speed. I won’t argue with it. While the South has long honored its war dead (particularly from 1898 onward, when the Spanish War allowed the ex-secessionists to feel like proper Americans again), the Confederate Battle Flag was resurrected in the 20th century primarily as a symbol of resistance rather than of unity. The War with Spain allowed the citizens of the former Confederacy to finally consciously and enthusiastically embrace American symbols, and in turn, America embraced the South in popular culture in a way it never had prior to that. The first few decades of the 20th century saw a popularization and nationalization of all things southern, including the South’s coarse racism.

Consider: Al Jolson, an immigrant Jew from Lithuania, invents large portions of his early career — in the teens of the last century — by singing songs about the Suwannee River, “memories” of “mammy,” crooning darkies, steamboat races between “the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee,” and singing in blackface to crowded halls across the country. His family may have arrived penniless in America decades after slavery ended, but he profited hugely — as did so many others — from the country’s distorted and romantic telling of it ugly racist story.

(By the 1930s, and definitely by the 1950s, popular culture had become significantly less overtly and coarsely racist, choosing mostly to ignore blacks altogether instead of caricaturing them. The resurrection of Jolson’s career in the late 1940s, for example, was largely free of his earlier, racially loaded material.)

In America 100 years ago, even progressives were racist. To be a racist was to be American, and to embrace American symbols. When it marched in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan would march with the American flag. Not the Confederate one.

By the 1950s, that had changed, as the great Kulturkampf over what America meant — were American ideals universal, meant for all people everywhere, or were they very particular, and only really for white people? — began. The majority view looked upon the end of Western colonialism (white, European rule) of Africa and Asia, and seeing independence movements springing up claiming the enlightenment heritage as their patrimony too, saw American segregation and racism as both an embarrassment (how can we claim to support African independence when blacks at home are not free?) and presenting an opening for communist ideologues to exploit (because the Americans don’t really mean it when they support your freedom; look at how they treat their own black people!). It would embrace the civil rights movement, and embrace some form of anti-colonialism abroad. This was the majority view, and the view of nearly all of America’s governing elites from the late 1940s onwards.

But there was another view, that saw independence struggles in the emerging “Third World” as a form of communism in and of itself. The United States should support white rule where and when it can, because nothing good can come of dark skinned peoples governing themselves. Indeed, they are incapable of doing so. This was never widely held among elites (although it was probably what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed), but it was widespread among conservative white America from the beginning.

As an example, the intellectual forebears of Dylann Roof [sic] condemned the Kennedy Administration’s failure to support Salazar’s Portugal following India’s invasion and annexation of Portugal’s last possessions on the Indian subcontinent in 1961. Failing to stand with Portugal, the thinking went, was a victory for communism and the eventual destruction of white civilization.

This was never a majority view following the Second World War, this idea that the world’s dark-skinned people are incapable of governing themselves (again, this was a progressive view once; Woodrow Wilson believed this intensely). But it was held by enough people to cause trouble. And it’s still not settled. Not really.

Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, gets us back to the Confederate Battle Flag. It should have been banished from polite conversion decades ago. It doesn’t belong there.

At the same time, I cannot help but think the whole move is … well, meaningless. It will be one more thing for conservatives to be angry and resentful about in a few months the next time righteous anger is stoked when a black man dies at the hands of a police officer.

“What do you people want from us?” I can hear a Fox News talking head say in angry exasperation. “We’ve done everything you’ve asked!”

The flag is a symbol, and the sins of America are not symbolic. It also costs nothing to apologize for sins you didn’t commit. It may make you feel good, but you can’t really repent of something you didn’t do, and thus cannot really make right. (This also applies every time liberal Christians apologize for the Crusades or slavery.) You didn’t do it, and Jesus’ admonition to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 comes to mind:

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31 ESV)

The only sins you can repent of are yours. Yes, scripture is clear, you may pay for the sins of your fathers (and their fathers, and theirs), because of the things their sins set into motion, but you cannot really repent of them. You can only bear the consequences of their sins. And hope that repentance will alleviate or ameliorate the current course of events.

And the sin in question is foundational to America: that blackness is viewed in and of itself as a permanent other, a threat to good order, potential disorder which power and law and authority must control and dominate. This is foundational to America, it goes back to the 17th century. (In some flavors of the American civil faith, blackness is viewed as a “curse,” something that cannot really be undone.) If we wish to repent and atone and do penance, then we must consider not the Dylann Roofs of America (though the fact that alienated young white men are most likely to do this says something else about us we need to consider), but how we think about blacks, how we police them, how we fail to consider them — long after the ending of the War Between the States legally made them full citizens — as equal participants in America.

Because we still treat them as occupied people, people to be controlled. We still govern and police them in ways we don’t even police or treat poor whites (who we are generally content to let wallow in their own misery and failure). We still consign them to a kind of outer darkness, and we generally close our ears to their wailing and gnashing of teeth.

This, and not slavery, or some flag, is what we as Americans now need to repent of.

I’m not optimistic. I’m not even hopeful. Because the criminalization of blackness is so foundational to America, and so rooted in “evidence” and “reason” for some, that fixing it (even if that’s possible) would be like trying to repair a portion of the foundation of a house while trying to live in it and keep it from falling over. I know there are people of goodwill out there trying to improve things. And I know many black folks are angry that after so much struggle, and so many promises, so little has changed.

I do know people of goodwill can hack through or find their way around it. I’ve seen them do it. I’ve tried to do it myself. But fixing the society … I don’t know.

I do know that 30 years ago, a white conservative could defend Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, and even Portuguese rule in Angola. (Because I heard them do just that.) But even then, most such conservatives had long forgotten Goa, just as today they had long forgotten, and are embarrassed by, Rhodesia. That’s something.

Maybe there’s reason to be hopeful, then. As we consign symbols to outer darkness, we banish the things they represent as well. It’s slow, agonizingly slow, and too many brothers and sisters will suffer and die between here and there. And it still only marches around the fundamental sin of America, the criminalization of blackness, and the daily brutality that results, which remains on ugly display, something far too many are still far too proud of.

16 thoughts on “On Symbols, Substance, and White Supremacy

  1. This is a very powerful post, without many answers. But it does take the problem seriously.

    • That’s because I’m not sure there any. Except maybe persistent engagement and love. Jesus never said it would be easy, and didn’t say it would be successful either. We love because it’s faithful, not because it will make us victorious.

  2. I make a feeble objection to the claim of racism as foundational in America, only because it was not yet an important factor in the first century of the colonies (the 1600s). Slavery was not yet ideologically associated with race. This became more apparent to me in reading some of the history of the period; especially when I learned that towards the end of the English Civil War of the 1640s, when tempers had become raw and mercy scarce, both sides in the war sometimes sold prisoners of war into slavery [talk about PTSD]. It was over the course of the 1700’s that chattel slavery (as opposed to indentures and apprenticeships, which conveyed non-transferable ownership of labor for specific periods) was increasingly reserved for Africans and justified with racist ideologies. And of course these ideas were well in place by 1776, but so were counterviews, primarily in New England. It is because of the latter that abolitionist movements arose and gradually became dominant. Abolition within the northern states came fairly quickly, and slavery was outlawed from the outset in the chunks of the ‘Northwest Territories’ which were admitted to statehood – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, etc. The idea of imposing abolition forcibly on the South by law was far more radical, and was not mainstream in the North until the war was in progress. But this had more to do with political and military practicalities than with principles. [I think there was a powerful current of opinion in New England in favor of secession in the 1840s, when Texas was admitted to the union as a slave state, and the Mexican War (popular in the South but not the Northeast) promised more of the same.

    Slavery of Native Americans and Africans in Latin America had begun a century earlier than in El Norte. There were no doubt racist justifications touted there too, but seem to have been less central or persuasive, at least in creating a Black-White duality. My impression is that Native American ancestry was considered a far greater stigma than African ancestry in Mexico and points south.

    My own family were abolitionist, at least in the matrilineal line. My grandmother told me several stories about her grandfather, a disabled veteran of the war who remained a rabid Union diehard, who taught her to sing “Marching Through Georgia” with vengeful gusto, the same way she taught it to me.

    And yet … my mother’s generation did not keep the faith. My mother’s favorite movie was “Gone with the Wind”, which caused (with the addition of other serious factors I won’t go into) a serious rift with my grandmother. Several of my uncles voted for George Wallace for president. [Even then, none of them would have displayed a Confederate flag, or even whistled Dixie.] My mother, working at an army base during the war, got a proposal of marriage from an Alabama officer. Family principles finally asserted themselves, and she refused his proposal – especially after she typed some business letters for him, and he had her revise one of the letters because that particular customer was black, and he wouldn’t allow the use of “Mr.” or “Sir” in addressing him in the letter or on the envelope.

    I think you are quite wrong in characterizing pro-3rd-world-liberation sentiment in the 50’s and 60’s as a mainstream liberal consensus, and objections to such movements as the influence of a ‘conservative’ minority. First of all, cold war competition with the Soviets emphatically trumped all other foreign policy considerations. Liberation movements were judged accordingly. Castro was supported at first by liberal optimists, opposed by pessimists. When Castro aligned himself with the Soviets, that decided it. The important distinction in American views was between the imperialists (heirs of the progressive Roosevelt presidencies) and the anti-imperialists, who were mostly conservative. There were also the leftist anti-imperialists, who were pro-Stalinist, and then Maoist, but they were not remotely mainstream until the 70s, when they began form a consensus of sorts in the academic world, at least, and in the background of Democratic politics. Things changed gradually during the 70s and 80s, when conservatives in general and Republicans in particular were overwhelmed by the influx of lost-cause Southerners and pro-defense-industry Westerners. Meanwhile, the labor union movement, which was strongly imperialist and somewhat racist in the 50s and at the height of their political clout, rapidly lost their power, after which new public-sector unions became more important than the blue-collar industrial unions, as manufacturing moved overseas.

    I am not persuaded that “the criminalization of blackness” has ever been descriptive of American culture since the 70s. I am old enough to remember remnants of the real thing. It could be used of the period 1880 to 1940, but less and less so thereafter. There was, it’s true, a rising “criminalization of criminals” during the last 3 decades of the 20th century, but rednecks have not got anything like the pass you seem to think. The trend, in any case, was due to a reaction to the counterculture [increasingly represented in people’s minds by the Manson family, not the Beatles], to the collapse of New Deal optimism, and a genuine spike in the crime rate. Most crucial of all was the vanishing of the many little decencies of everyday life which contribute to respect for law and civic peace. The icon in my mind was the act of tearing out of a page from the phone book in a phone booth rather than taking the trouble to write it down on scrap paper: who cares whether anyone else will ever need that page in the future?! In all these development, the most to blame were the spoiled kids of affluent or highly literate families, who championed moral anarchy. This generally did themselves little harm, unless they were unlucky enough to succumb to drugs. [There was a hippie mom here in the early 70s, one like many others I knew; except that she was an heiress of a pharmaceutical fortune – irony, that. Later she went to law school and was eventually made a county judge.] Blacks and southern-rock rednecks paid the heaviest price for this cultural Russian roulette.

    I will tell a story about a good neighbor or ours. He works construction, and apparently runs his own crew. He has been generous in letting others share his place, under the condition that they show up for work every day, put out good effort and take responsibility for improving their situation. Lately, he’s taken on a couple of bad-case roommates. One admitted to stealing frequently from Walmart, etc and selling the loot for cash. The other had essentially abandoned his very young wife and two pre-school kids. The latter wife and kids eventually came to live with him in the neighbor’s house (a bit crowded, now, especially as the good neighbor gets his own kids on the weekends). Then a couple of days ago, my wife heard the kids say they had no food. After confirming the situation, she immediately made some soup and a pile of PBJ sandwiches and a bag of grapes (about the best stuff we had on hand at the time) and brought them over. In fact, she learned, the place also had no electricity. The good neighbor had given the money to pay the electric bill to the self-proclaimed thief, who disappeared with it and did not pay the bill. Then today, we heard from the young mother that her husband had attacked her: he put his hands tightly around her neck and told her she was going to die this day – she believed him. The children saw it all. Somehow the police were called. The wife was not very seriously hurt, but the kids told the police what they had seen. The husband was arrested. He will be prosecuted whether or not the wife files charges, and will probably be in prison for a long while – he has priors and other outstanding felony charges. My wife heard from the good neighbor’s ex that he (the ‘good neighbor’) has plenty of his own money to get the electricity turned back on, but he won’t until the wife and anyone else who may be staying with him take responsibility for actively improving their own situation and contribute substantially to the amount needed to get the power back.

    Everyone in the above story is white, and would be characterized as ‘redneck’ by most people. With one exception. The good neighbor is Maori, from New Zealand. He is a good example of what I came to think of as “upper working class”, a blue-collar guy who is zealous about doing things right, at home and on the job site, is frequently making improvements in his home, and who knows tools well, and is meticulous in their proper use. Not all are as generous as he is.

    • A couple of things.

      First, you are right, Goa was never significant. The folks expressing their support for Salazar were the fringe of a fringe. But they were there. They may not have mattered much, but they expressed an opinion that, especially during Nixon (and Reagan, kind of) had weight — that the US had strategic allies of sorts in South Africa and Rhodesia. And they should be engaged that way.

      Second, I don’t retract my conclusion, but I would like to nuance it a bit. What I claim as foundational that today expresses itself as white supremacy/criminalization of blackness has its roots in English Protestantism’s dealings with Catholicism. Catholics were the original “other,” and the language and ideas of racism as we know it were invented by English Protestants in their dealings with the Irish. (The English had warred and conquered the Celts of Wales and Cornwall, and even Ireland, without the racial animus that would come to define the English-Irish relationship post-reformation.) Again, the ease with which English Protestant elites in 1688 were willing to make common cause and invite a Dutch Protestant prince to topple a perfectly good English king largely (but not solely) because he had a Catholic heir shows how this concept of the “other” worked, at least in that part of Anglo-America. The language of tyranny is basically untrustworthy in English because it has no real substance — tyranny, by definition, is “rule by the other.” (Catholics, the pope, communists, foreigners, whatever.) There’s a different history here, because there are other threats that are seen as existential — the natives, especially in New England in the 17th century, who gave almost as good as they got (King Philip’s War, for example). But blackness in America quickly adopts this language, and blacks are seen as an “other” and an internal threat in the way the many poor Scots-Irish and their descendants who settle the frontier in the 18th century are not. The whites who settled, conquered, and ruled were afraid of “others” right in their midst — slaves (not always black at first, as my Irish ancestors can attest to were they still around) and Indians (whose loyalty to the English crown could never be guaranteed. That fear is what is foundational, and expresses itself as white supremacy/criminalization of blackness.

      Kevin Philips, I think, makes a case for seeing the American Civil War as a class-based extension of the English Civil War, Roundheads vs. Cavaliers. I cannot describe the argument cogently, but note that a culture and a history is shared across Anglo-America — which includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to a lesser extent, South Africa (the Cape and Natal, as opposed to the Boer republics). There are similarities in how these colonial societies deal with natives and construct race. And they are not happy similarities.

      I think the criminalization of blackness describes something so deeply embedded in the culture that we don’t really know how to deal or even adequately describe it. It is structure, and goes beyond overt language to how things are made and done. We don’t know anymore that we do them.

  3. I’m not sure of the significance of your mention of Goa. True, it was a Portuguese colony, one of the last to be ‘liberated’. But it was liberated by a military incursion of troops from India. This was not an altruistic act, but an imperial one. The locals in Goa had never known British rule, and were quite distinct in their cultural history. They wanted independence, not to swallowed up into another empire. At the time, the actions of India were considered to be a shocking (or amusing, according to one’s degree of cynicism) revelation that the Nehru government was completely hypocritical in claiming to be the heirs of Gandhi’s principles of non-violence.

  4. I can think of one case in the 1950’s in which support of sorts for a “liberation” movement outweighed anti-Soviet principles among the American ruling class. This was the Suez incident of 1956. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, in effect cancelling the British lease unilaterally and without compensation. (Of course the lease had been extorted in the first place by British Imperial power.) France and Britain joined Israel in moving into Sinai and capturing the canal. The result was a unique convergence of US and Soviet condemnation of the act in the UN.

    Nothing was quite what it seemed here. The Soviets were making their first move in shifting support from Israel to Arab states. This was partly retaliation for the purge of pro-Soviet officers from the IDF, when Ben Gurion decided that the US, with its influential Jewish minority, might be a better ally (not in the short run – no US aid till 1973). Partly, the Soviets were replacing industrial workers’ solidarity with anti-Imperialism as the basis for gaining new opportunities to expand their own empire (irony again).

    The US was continuing their war-time policy of ripping out the foundations of the British Empire, to make sure that we were the undisputed Western commercial superpower. Early in WWII, British gold reserves were brought to Canada to keep them out of German hands in the event of an invasion; somehow they ended up in Fort Knox. (Part of the Lend-Lease deal, I think.)

  5. I have written a reply to your “couple of things” comment above which is so disgracefully long that I am going to post it in parts.

    Part 1:

    A reply to your ‘couple of things’:

    To the 1st one: Support for Salazar was so fringe, I don’t remember anyone express it. But then there was no internet back then – you had to be connected to those sort of people just to hear their ideas. Re: Nixon & Reagan – it would be ironic if they become emblematic of Conservatism. True, Reagan was asking for it, playing the role of Mr. Conservative. But the word had already ceased to mean anything. The economy was by then (the 80’s) based on pure ruthless opportunism. Reagan gave lip service to new-right moral-majority social views (which Barry Goldwater despised) but did not lift a finger to act on them. He remained what he always was – a 1940s Hollywood Democrat. I expect Nixon & Reagan were both guilty of the influence of the unquestioned racism of the culture they grew up in. But Nixon was no conservative; I have said before and repeat now that the Nixon administration (considered in terms of policy rather than rhetoric) was by far the most left-wing since Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, even well to the left of Obama. Obama has not challenged the financial interests or seriously challenged the military status quo. His health care plan is such a hash that the only excuse for it is that it may be a foot in the door to something more rational. Nixon created the EPA, began the first serious enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, ended the Vietnam War by the end of his first term [technically a week after] (and greatly reduced ground fighting long before then), went to China, and wandered the Washington mall alone, without secret service, to talk to stunned anti-war demonstrators, massed in their tens of thousands. If he hadn’t been such an asshole, and wasn’t still hated for the Alger Hiss thing, he might be fondly remembered by the Left. There hasn’t been a conservative president since Calvin Coolidge.

    On the 2nd one:

    An admission of bias: I grew up with a Civil War partisan (though she was born nearly 20 years after the war ended), and I am deeply immersed in that partisanship. I think that Lincoln was a greater president than this country had any right to expect or deserve. I see ante-bellum Southern culture as vile, and that Sherman was right that the war would not end until the great majority of the sociopathic hellions who looked to the war for personal advancement were dead. (He did think, however, that some of them might be useful to recruit into the Union cavalry after the war and send out west – some of them did that, or became western outlaws.) I have cast off much of the Manifest Destiny bias I once absorbed, and regard the Roosevelts as dangerous egotists. But I still hold to Lincoln. Phillips may be right that the US Civil War was a “class-based extension of the English Civil War” – I feel the same emotion pro-roundhead about that conflict. Likewise, the American Revolution, which has also been called a continuation of the English Civil War. One British officer writing back home said that it was a Presbyterian war, and in fact the Scotch-Irish provided much of the military enthusiasm required, and later were a thorn in the side of the patrician Jefferson in demanding more radical changes than he would like. There is a cantankerous old Presbyterian denomination represented here (I have mentioned them before as part of the underground railroad) which until the 1930s or 40s did not permit their members to hold public office, because the Constitution did not mention the lordship of Jesus Christ and did not establish Presbyterian church polity in accordance with the still-binding (as they saw it) English-Scottish covenant of the 1640s. Binding on the US no less than on England.

  6. Part 2:

    That denomination, or at least some of their clergy, still carry a pretty heavy historical anti-Catholic bias (as well as anti-English). But I don’t think bringing over William of Orange was based on the same kind of anti-Catholic feeling. Like all things in England at the time and ever since, it was based on money. James came to be seen as dangerous to the commercial status quo. He might actually try to impose his will, in a way that his brother never had. William was James’s son-in-law and was set up to rule jointly with his Stuart wife. However he did prove to be more Dutch than the English liked, and perhaps more partisanly Protestant. Once William & Mary and then Anne were done, parliament crowned a reliably obtuse German, who never even learned to speak English. After that time, it was considered safe for the upper classes to dabble in Catholicism, which supported the ideology of aristocracy.

    Hatred of the Irish was based on two things – the first were reports of atrocities against Protestants in the opening round the Civil Wars, exaggerated no doubt and already returned in kind, but not helped by the enthusiastic continuation of threats of further atrocities by the Irish. I saw the lyrics to a song published in the 1790s, which promised the institution of the Inquisition in England, and how jolly it would be to hear the Protestants scream while burning at the stake. Of course, people on the losing side of history often resort to vicious bravado. The actual outcome – British cavalrymen made a game of hunting and hacking down already captured Irish rebels. The second factor in English hatred of the Irish was the failure of the Irish to go quietly, as the highland Scots were forced to do after 1745. For almost 2 generations after that year, bagpipes, kilts and Gaelic were banned. Then, as also often happens with history’s losers, highland culture was romanticized by enterprising lowland merchants, and resold to the English. Descendants of Germanic lords began to wear kilts and buy up old highland castles. Lowland weavers got rich inventing ‘proper’ plaid patterns for each of the clans – dress plaids and everyday plaids, you gotta buy them all! No one remembered the terrible fates of the real highlanders – transported to Australia or Canada, or festering in the slums of Glasgow and London. Very few left on the land; some on the remote islands.

    I grew up in a mixed family, because two of my mother’s 7 siblings married Catholics and converted, giving me 5 Catholic cousins. My aunt married an Irishman (born in Chicago to a father from Canada, but his mother was born in Ireland and believed in the Little People). He was, in fact, a failed seminarian! After the Church sent him to Oxford (B.A.), the Sorbonne (Ph.D.) and further study in Rome, he decided he wasn’t cut out to be a priest. So he went home, married a Protestant jazz piano player, and became an accountant. He continued as a member of the church (despite a probable crisis of faith) and led in community and charity work. Of course, my own father’s father’s father was a French-Canadian Catholic who immigrated to the US around 1890. One of his daughters became a nun – I’ve seen pictures of her. My father’s father left the church, became a pathological liar (met his wife and married her under a false name, which later had to be corrected) and much worse. My father suffered a severe head injury at 22 which nearly killed him and caused permanent brain damage. He also became a pathological liar with a ferocious temper. My mother was sensible enough to boot him out of her life around the time I was born. If those two had remained good Catholics, I might be one also. More likely, I wouldn’t be at all.

  7. Part 3:

    Regarding “criminalization of blackness”, I hardly know what more to say. I have my biases, as partly described above, and I know that language and structure can undermine perception. But I will say something, even though it must surely be offensive no matter my intentions or efforts to avoid that outcome, because I am heartbroken at what *appears* to me to be the [pardon the phrase, but I don’t know what else to call it] “self-criminalization of blackness”. I AM NOT SAYING THAT THIS IS WHAT HAS HAPPENED *INSTEAD* OF EXTERNAL “CRIMINALIZATION”. MORE LIKELY AS A RESPONSE TO IT. BUT IT IS A SELF-DESTRUCTIVE RESPONSE. Around the time rap went gansta, and in some ways before, it *appears* to me that influential pillars of black popular culture promoted blackness as something inherently criminal, maybe because the law was, as you say, structurally anti-black. This was not the response of all the many known and unknown black leaders (often hugely successful within the limits available to them) who led the efforts for education, community cohesion, and advancement which culminated in the Civil Rights movement. It is not even the way of Malcolm X. It sure as hell wasn’t the way of the black iron church-ladies, who dominated the north-west corner of town here. (It was not the black neighborhood, just the poor neighborhood, black and white together – a little like the checkerboard pattern I saw walking through New Orleans in the 70s: a block of black, then white, then black, etc.) This resignation to an outlaw identity is just another illusion created by structure and language, and it hurts most the people who rely on it. It is no better than the ideology of the Lost Cause, South-shall-rise-again, put-another-Confederate-flag-on-window, ‘It’s a redneck thang, y’all wouldn’t understand” yahoos who think their local high school football team is losing, because thar’s too much larnin’ in sculls tuday. That kind of attitude makes me so furious, I would *almost* rather have an oppressive class system run by cane-wielding Victorian schoolmasters, except that I know that the schoolmasters, and the aristocrats whose agents they are, would exploit precisely that same yahoo bravado to create minion soldiers and thugs-for-hire. It’s what they always do.

    Maybe all this is the wrong thing to say and the wrong way to think. I can’t go any deeper until I answer your theological post of a couple of days ago to which I promised a comment. It’s related. I’ll just say what comes to mind: Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the problem is in the structure and language of society cannot win. Every effort to change the structure and language directly will only cause them to morph a little to absorb the impact, and nothing substantial will change, or it may actually get worse. So does anything work? Well, violence can be really effective at taking things from one group and awarding them to another, but only when the winners are very clever in the end game. For the unwary, violence just opens up the field to all comers, and eventually allows Napoleon to become Emperor. Even Napoleon is hostage to the ambitions and greed of his troops. Reason, moral persuasion, art … none of these are effective by themselves. There is only one human creation which actually improve the life of a community, and that is Civilization; but that is just habit evolving under stress, so it is not really a creation, though it can preserve many creations. It can also degrade the life of a community, so there are no guarantees there.

    I am all for Civilization, because I greatly value the good things it can preserve. But Civilization is not a winning game. We don’t have a winning game. We are helpless, not just weak, but dead in our sins (as the pietist twaddle goes). A loose translation I did of a verse from maybe Luther’s most famous hymn:

    “Nothing can be accomplished by our own strength, for we are soon defeated. But the Blameless Man contends for us, the one God himself has chosen. ‘Who is that’, you ask? His name is Jesus, the Christ, Lord of Angel Armies! Don’t put your faith in any other Power. He must win the battle for us!”

    That’s the Luther who believes the end of the world is near, that we mortals have already lost on our own, that only an apocalyptic divine intervention can save anything or anyone. That is pretty much true. Except that sometimes God is merciful and doesn’t wait until the end of the world. Sometimes there is a donation of grace here and now which turns Civilization into a Society we don’t have to be ashamed of.

    BTW – just saw this evening that strangler-dad is out on bail and back with his kids. Lord have mercy. And give that young wife the sense to get herself and her kids to a shelter. In the time she has left.

    • “Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the problem is in the structure and language of society cannot win.” There’s an awful lot of wisdom in that statement. I still believe I’m right, but I’m going to keep this wisdom in mind as well.

      • You may well be right about everything. Right now I am very tired and not sure I’m right about anything. Except I trust in Jesus. Thank God I can do that even when I am bone weary. Even when I know I have done much that I regret, that the children I held as babies and promised a wonderful life to didn’t get perfection, or anything close. Even though I know I’m still the same person now that I was then. Older, a little wiser, but too late to do much good.

  8. Part 4:

    One of my sons, the most criminal-prone of the four, used to have a job delivering pizza, and when he was driving around on the job, he played rap on the car audio. At maximum volume. With the windows down. The most in-your-face he could find. Mainly NWA, I think. Was this because he was trying to appropriate black culture? I don’t think so. He wanted to appropriate criminal culture. The musicians who obliged him just happened to be black.

    He managed to get by with only one juvenile conviction, for theft, which was expunged after community service. He was lucky. It was far from the only offense. A friend of his once arranged to speak to my wife and I alone, and told us he thought our boy was a sociopath; that he frequently stole from unlocked cars and other places. And this our son told us himself: He was once at a party at a second-floor apartment which police broke into. It probably would have led to a drug arrest. He ran to the balcony and jumped off as a cop was grabbing his arm. His jacket came off and he escaped. But the policeman’s grip was so tight that he also tore some ligament in his shoulder. He was not a juvenile then, and not covered by my insurance. I think he eventually got surgery for it, many years later.

    He also told us about another party, because he had to explain his face somehow. He got drunk out of his mind. And – this is what he does – he started insulting his friends at the party, who were also drunk. He pushed their buttons mercilessly, until one of them pinned him down and started beating him in the face. For a long time. Beaten half to death … by his friend.

    I could give reasons our son went the way he did. But he could have dealt with his, admittedly severe, issues many other ways. We had been trying to get him into counselling from the age of 9. Nobody paid any attention to him – they preferred to address our messed-up family as a whole. Did the boy no good at all. Thank God he turned his life around. At one time he was living in Oakland and met some truly violent criminals. He could have joined them, or been murdered by them. Maybe he was ‘scared straight’. His marriage helped. In the end, I was helpless. Maybe he was helpless. God help us all.

  9. P.S. … Just for completeness: When I was describing Nixon’s leftist regime way up there somewhere, I left out his most extreme socialist policy initiative – the wage & price controls of the early 1970’s. The government’s first response to stagflation. No administration since would dare do anything so radical. And strangely, it actually appeared to work for a while. But inflation made up for lost time in the later 70’s.

  10. CORRECTION: I am happy to announce I was wrong. That was not strangler-dad I saw yesterday with the kids (maybe a relative). He is still safely in jail. Hallelujah! The Times regrets its error.

  11. Pingback: Why I Don’t Believe in Justice, Social or Otherwise | Charles H. Featherstone

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