Monday, September 25, 2017

Protesting the national anthem

I did not watch any NFL games yesterday. My schedule did not allow it. I have followed the disagreements over players' actions during the playing of the national anthem in news reports, so I'm aware of the controversy.

My initial reaction is that I have always objected to the use of non-political public events to promote political views. I have sat through stage productions, fundraisers, school events and, yes, sporting events that were used to promote political viewpoints. My objection is not to the political views themselves but to the exploitation of a captive audience to promote those views. The innocently trusting audience had no way of knowing they would hear a political spiel and had no way of escaping. Welcome to "bait-and-switch."

NFL players have demonstrated their objections to the killing of African-Americans by police (or associated issues) by refusing to show respect to the United States during the playing of the national anthem. Instead of standing silently, hats off and hand over heart (as etiquette prescribes), players have knelt on one knee, turned away or simply ignored the anthem. The protests began with one player and has spread to others.

President Trump greatly magnified the protest when he called on NFL owners to "fire" any player who failed to show respect to the flag. The president's disrespect of players' concerns turned other players and NFL owners against the president and multiplied the number of protesters

Although protests are protected by the First Amendment, this is not so much a legal issue as a respect issue. Football players — or teachers, entertainers or celebrities — should respect the audience that came to see them play or sing or dance. They should exercise their First Amendment rights in a manner that respects others while still getting their message across. Modern media offer multitudes of opportunities for free expression. Millionaire football players have even greater opportunities to claim the spotlight without disrupting events people have paid dearly to watch.

You would think that the powerful and wealthy NFL Players Association could find a reasonable compromise for this issue before more fans are alienated. Let protesting players pass out leaflets at the stadium; let players address issues after the game is over. The NFL could even eliminate the playing of the national anthem, which, until recently, had received little attention. The old baseball joke went like this: "What's the last two words of the national anthem?" "Play ball."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Civil War history is full of tragedy and nuance

Thanks to historian Philip Gerard for providing some historical context to the debates over Confederate monuments. Gerard's op-ed piece in Sunday's News & Observer was about a new Civil War museum planned for Fayetteville. The museum is to be housed on a historic site where a key U.S. and (later) CSA arsenal had stood.

This museum will be about more than the battles and about more than slavery or states' rights or any of the other issues involved in the war. As Gerard points out, North Carolina's Civil War history "is complicated and full of nuance." Many, probably most, North Carolinians see the Civil War as a struggle between slave-owning aristocrats on their plantations vs. enslaved African-Americans and the northern liberators who sought to free them.

In fact, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many were little better off economically than some slaves or free blacks. As N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance admitted, the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” The aristocrats could buy their way out of military service. Even among that elitist population, not all were die-hard supporters of slavery. Many North Carolinians, especially those in the mountainous western part of the state, opposed secession and fought either a guerrilla war against the Confederacy or enlisted in the Union Army.

The stated purpose of the Lincoln administration was to preserve the Union. Only near the end of the war did Lincoln add abolition of slavery to his war goals.

By the end of this ill-begotten war, the South's economy was utterly destroyed. Farms were burned, livestock was claimed as bounty of war, industrial sites were destroyed, wealth in the form of Confederate dollars became worthless. It would take the seceding states most of the next 100 years to catch up with other states in economic health.

The war settled issues that had been simmering since the founding of the republic — slavery and the sovereignty of member states. While slavery was widely viewed as evil and inhumane, it was widely practiced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

The question of secession had never been settled in federal courts. The Constitution does not forbid states from resigning from the Union, and those states were less than 100 years from the precedent of the United Colonies' decision to secede from British rule.

The debate over Confederate monuments ignores these nuances and paints everything related to the Confederacy as reprehensible. While some Confederate monuments extol individuals whose views on slavery and the "brotherhood of man" may be repulsive to 21st century minds, other monuments offer gratitude for people who made America's most devastating war less awful. Among these is the monument on the N.C. Capitol grounds honoring Southern wives and mothers who endured incredible hardship, tragedy and sacrifice during four years of war, which included a strategy of destroying the Confederacy's ability to wage war, meaning the destruction of anything of value in Southern hands.

Many other monuments address the sacrifices of nameless Confederate soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a cause they had little stake in and hardly understood. Slavery hung in the balance, it is true, but slavery was not the motivation of most of these poor unfortunates.

Destruction of these monuments will not provide context for a tragic war, nor will it improve the plight of descendants of slavery and segregation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Trump the Democrat

Suppose Donald Trump runs for re-election on the Democratic ticket!

After yesterday's new coalition of Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plus Trump's indication that he might eliminate the debt ceiling altogether, Trump seems more Democratic than some Democrats. And he clearly left some Republicans (Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) miffed by the Republican president's detour around the party's congressional leadership.

The Trump-Pelosi-Schumer triumvirate got together on a legislative plan that appears to be counter to the Republican Party's interests. Ryan and McConnell wanted to put off debt ceiling and 2018 budget decisions until after the 2018 mid-term elections. Making painful and controversial decisions after the election instead of before would be in the best interests of the majority party. Democrats wanted action sooner rather than later, giving them the opportunity to force Republicans to state where they stand on controversial but essential legislation before Americans go to the polls.

Some Republicans have complained that Trump is not really a Republican, which is true. He is Trump, and what is good for him and his friends is his policy, regardless of partisan concerns. Bipartisanship, if that is what Trump is able to bring about, would be welcomed by many Americans and by some members of Congress in both parties.

Bipartisanship would be helpful in repairing Trump's initiative on immigration. Trump was prompted (by Pelosi) to say some nice things about young immigrants while his attorney general announced the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy of the Obama administration. Trump tweeted (how else would he make an important announcement?) that the "Dreamers" protected by DACA would have nothing to worry about in the six months before DACA expires under the new policy.

Critics are portraying the administration's decision as a cruel betrayal of these young immigrants brought here illegally as children. But what the administration is doing is forcing Congress to pass DACA-type protections into federal law. It gives Congress six months to pass legislation. There is no guarantee that Congress will do its duty, but there seems to be overwhelming support for providing a means for these innocent young people to avoid deportation. Members of Congress who fail to support a fair and reasonable bill to protect "Dreamers" will face political consequences. A long-sought comprehensive immigration overhaul might even come from this motivation.

Both of these actions this week by the president relates to his impatience and impulsiveness. Trump has been critical of Congress for its failure to pass health care legislation and other important measures. He has accused his own party's leadership of dragging their feet. Most successful businessmen have an impatient streak, and Trump's streak is long and deep. If his impatience gets Congress to start things moving, he could salvage his own failing presidency.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three books about death and dying

You might say I've been on a binge lately. In the past few months, I've read three books about death and dying. Twenty years ago, I might have thought of this as a premonition, but I no longer trust in premonitions, and I feel fine, really, for someone my age.

The death and dying books were not part of a plan; they simply came my way in nearly sequential time. Most recently, I read "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe. The book is not so much about books or book clubs as it is a memoir of the author's time spent with his terminally ill mother. They decided that reading books together and discussing them would be a great way to pass the time while she was undergoing chemo treatments for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The book discussions fade in comparison to the plans made and the things done as Mom dealt with the aggressive cancer and the extensive treatments to forestall its inevitable outcome. She traveled extensively to visit her children and grandchildren, to be with old friends from around the world and to strengthen relationships with friends and family. Fortunately, she was given time for all of that. Despite pancreatic cancer's three- to six-month average survival rates (my sister lived just 30 days after her diagnosis), Ms. Schwalbe survived more than a year with good "quality of life" for much of that time.

Previously, I had read Nina Riggs' "The Bright Hour," a book that is excruciatingly sad and at the same time positive and beautiful. Riggs, the mother of two small boys, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. What should have been just a "one small spot" that could be easily removed and destroyed turned out to be highly aggressive and ultimately fatal. Riggs spent the last few months of her life writing this memoir filled with the insights and beauty of a poet. She finds humor in the midst of pain and despair. She celebrates every minute of time she has with her sons and her supportive and brave husband. "The Bright Hour" deserves all the accolades it has received, and I've recommended it to dozens of people. Riggs died only weeks before her book's release.

The first book in my trilogy of recently read death-and-dying books was Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal." Gawande, a medical doctor, examines the way we die in this "civilized" modern world, and he concludes that we are often doing it all wrong. Instead of fighting death, as if it were a foreign invader, he recommends seeing death as both inevitable and part of life. The extreme measures to keep a terminally ill patient alive often result in pain, discomfort and a terrible "quality of life" for the patient and for loved ones. Modern medicine can keep many patients alive but cannot make them well and cannot restore their enjoyment of life. Accepting the inevitability of death can be the first step toward a more humane, less painful and less costly manner of death.

Of these three books, I would recommend that "The Bright Hour" and "Being Mortal" are definitely worth a second reading.

I should probably be looking for some humorous books to relieve the sadness of the last three books. Instead, I'm rereading "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Ecco, which I read about 25 years ago. It's about a series of mysterious deaths in a 14th century abbey. The nice thing about a well-aged memory is that I remember almost nothing of the plot, only that I thought it was a great book when I first read "Name of the Rose." We'll see how a more mature reader likes it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Silent Sam honors students who died as soldiers

For as long as I have visited or lived in Chapel Hill, nearly 60 years, "Silent Sam" has been a part of the University of North Carolina campus. In all those years, I never thought of the bronze Confederate soldier as a reminder of slavery or as an intimidation of anyone. In fact, I rarely even thought of Silent Sam as a Confederate soldier. Like most students and visitors, I saw Silent Sam as a decoration and a landmark. I suspect most students thought of Sam's reputation (every time a virgin walks by, he fires his musket) far more than they thought of his symbolism.

If I took the time to think about his presence, I thought of the UNC students who dropped their books and took up arms to defend their homes, their university and their state from a threatening military force. The statue was dedicated as a memorial to those students who fought and died in the Civil War. Sam was erected as an expression of grief by a population that suffered more casualties in the Civil War than any other state. UNC students were among those casualties, and Silent Sam honors the sacrifice of those families.

Although one speaker at the 1913 dedication, made tasteless and off-message boasts at the dedication, the solemn intent of the Silent Sam statue was to remember the UNC students who died in the Civil War, as Ed Yoder states in an excellent column in the News & Observer.

Andrew Young, the civil rights hero, confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., former congressman, former mayor of Atlanta, told an NPR reporter recently that removing Confederate monuments, as advocated by Black Lives Matter and other groups, is the wrong fight at the wrong time.

"I'm saying these are kids who grew up free, and they don't realize what still enslaves them — and it's not those monuments," Young said. He worries that the next time the political winds shift, crowds may be advocating tearing down monuments to Dr. King and other civil rights icons.

I hope, before the mob psychology takes hold and sweeps away every offending, misunderstood or uncomfortable vestige of the Civil War, the public and elected leaders will listen to voices of reason like Ed Yoder and Andrew Young.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville, destruction in Durham

The only thing more disturbing than the riot that broke out in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend was the American president's ultimate embrace of the neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist mob that sparked the street fighting, injuries and at least one death Saturday.

President Trump first blamed "many sides" for the violence that erupted. The next day, he read a script that laid the blame on the right-wing extremists who came to Charlottesville looking for a fight and who marched through Mr. Jefferson's University chanting Nazi slogans, such as "Blood and Soil." But then, the Real Donald Trump came out the following day and again blamed "both sides" for the violence and defended those using shields, bats and other weapons to attack protesters opposing their march.

This is a free country. You have the right to speech. You have the right to assemble and to petition the government. You don't have the right to assault other people exercising those same rights. White supremacists, KKK and neo-Nazis are reprehensible. Their beliefs are repugnant and uninformed, but they still have the right to their beliefs. What they don't have is a right to force their twisted beliefs on others.

Days after the Charlottesville riot, a mob in Durham, N.C., climbed a pedestal topped by a bronze statue of a non-descript Confederate soldier, tied a rope around the top of the statue and helped mob members on the ground tear down the statue while police watched silently. The hooting as the statue crumbled to the ground was scary. This was mob mentality, spurred on, apparently, by anarchists in the crowd. The next day, police filed charges against the primary actors in destruction of the statue. I hope the leaders of this ugly mob are prosecuted for inciting to riot, destruction of public property and any other illegal acts. To allow this behavior to go unpunished would be an invitation to anarchy, which is apparently what some mob members want.

Confederate monuments have become symbols of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination to many people, but that was not the statues' intent. They were installed to memorialize Confederate soldiers' honorable service in defense of their homes and what they saw as their state's right to leave the United States. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many did not support the "peculiar institution." Slavery was the key consideration of the gentry that led the South into a destructive war, but the common soldier had other motivations than defending slavery from abolitionists. Lincoln's wartime goal was to keep the Union intact, with or without slavery (which remained legal in some Union states until passage of the 13th Amendment after the Civil War).

A discussion of Confederate monuments needs to take place. Shouting, violence and vigilante destruction of property will not resolve this issue. Many of the statues are magnificent works of art that should not be lost. Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., is one of the country's most beautiful boulevards with numerous statues of Confederate officials, who are no threat to African-Americans or anyone else. It would be a shame to lose Monument Avenue. But 150 years after America's bloodiest war, perhaps we have too many statues in too many places, and perhaps some people are intimidated or angered by those statues. Let's see what we can do together.

Across the street from the White House stands a magnificent statue of President Andrew Jackson astride a horse. Jackson was a southerner, a slave owner, a racist who banished thousands of Indians onto the Trail of Tears. Had he lived longer, he almost certainly would have sided with the Confederacy. Can the destroyers of Confederate statues stop with Lee, Stonewall, and the many unnamed, symbolic infantrymen who stand on courthouse lawns and cemeteries, and not also topple Andrew Jackson — and others?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

White nationalists came looking for a fight

Yesterday's violence in Charlottesville, Va., a quiet, sophisticated college town, is appalling, alarming and despicable. This is not the American Way.

Three people are dead (two state troopers in a helicopter crash and one individual on the ground) and dozens are injured. President Trump blamed "many sides," but the violence was between only two sides — the far-right, white nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi side and the individuals and groups who came out to protest the white nationalist rally. Photos and video from the scene show the far right side waving a variety of flags and symbols — the Confederate battle flag, swastikas and flags of various far-right, white-supremacist groups I'm not even familiar with. These flag bearers were also wearing helmets, carrying shields and wielding weapons. They clearly arrived looking for a fight. Some of the people protesting the rally fought back or actively went after the flag wavers.

Police failed to control the crowds. They were overwhelmed. 

About 25 years ago, when a Klan rally was planned in my hometown and grassroots opposition rose to protest the rally, I suggested in newspaper editorials that the best thing opponents could do to the Klan members was to ignore them. They were a pathetic little group of about a dozen white-haired old men, none of them, as far as we could determine, from the local area. They were outnumbered at least 25-to-one by protesters. Some of the angry protesters took out their frustration on innocent bystanders who had stopped to see the Klan march or had just happened to be downtown. Several people were injured or robbed, but no serious injuries were reported. The violence just helped to enhance the Klan's rhetoric about barbaric non-whites.

When a follow-up rally took place a month or so later, local police called in neighboring police departments, Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agents to make sure the protesters and the Klan were kept far apart. The rally again attracted only a handful of KKK folks and hundreds of protesters, but strong law enforcement prevented any violence.

The riot in Charlottesville was far more frightening than those Klan rallies a quarter century ago. The white nationalists were well organized. They were prepared for a fight. They seemed eager for it. Many adopted the swastika and the Nazi salute in disgusting demonstrations of hatred and ignorance of history.
How could anyone adopt the language and symbolism of a regime that murdered millions of innocent people and killed many thousands of U.S. and other allied troops in a six-year war that ended with the discovery of Nazi death camps, extermination facilities, cremation furnaces, mass graves and documents — irrefutable evidence of the inhumanity and total evil of the Nazi regime?

Even without the violence, the flags and other symbols displayed in Charlottesville were shameful and reprehensible. With the violence, the incident was a national disgrace.

Right-wing political groups have every right to protest, and I can understand their frustration over a politically correct world where you can have a Black Student Movement or a Congressional Black Caucus but not a White Student Movement or a Congressional White Caucus. Clashes over Confederate monuments are not all about racism or slavery. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and most Union soldiers did not accept racial equality (a radical concept in the 19th century). Resolution lies in reason and cross-cultural, multi-racial understanding, not in violence or challenges to fight.