Monday, August 18, 2014

Article lays out argument for slave reparations

The notion of reparations for African-Americans in compensation for the sins of slavery is an argument I never found persuasive. So far as I have been able to trace my family history, none of my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were poor farmers whose lives were probably little better than the lives of slaves on some plantations. My great-great-grandfather, who was killed 150 years ago at the Third Battle of Winchester, did not own slaves, nor even land. He was a tenant farmer with an illiterate wife. Should his descendants be taxed for reparations at the same rate as the descendants of plantation squires who owned scores of slaves?

And who would receive reparations? Some African-Americans are recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants (e.g., President Obama) with no ancestry of the deprivations of slavery. Should they get paid, too? And what of African-Americans of mixed races? Some people estimate that large percentages of today's African-Americans have mixed ancestry, either from consensual relations or from rape. Where would these Americans fit in the reparations formula? The 1860 census reveals that some free African-Americans of that year were themselves slave owners. Would their descendants pay reparations or receive reparations?

With this background of skepticism, I read the June cover story in The Atlantic magazine: "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I came away from the almost book-length article with a new respect for the reparations argument. Coates argues that reparations are justified not only by the injustice of slavery but also by post-Civil War oppression, physical, statutory and financial. The stories he tells of unethical real estate developers legally stealing homes from black buyers are appalling, especially considering these practices lasted into the late 1960s. The argument for compensation for these wrongs committed against still-living victims strikes me as far more persuasive than reparations for slavery.

Coates' arguments still fall short on the practical side. He avoids any discussion of the logistics of reparations, but those logistics will have to be addressed. This article by David Frum addresses the practical barriers to any reparations legislation. I recommend reading Coates' argument (and it is more of an argument than a disinterested, objective analysis), followed by Frum's practical reasons why Coates' dream is unachievable. In its current issue, The Atlantic has published a number of well-considered responses to Coates' argument. The magazine should be applauded for leading this national debate.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Historic preservation tax credits: just a liberal plot

It's hard to explain the N.C. General Assembly's killing of historic preservation tax credits on simple philosophical or economic grounds. Since 1998, the credits have fostered $1.5 billion in investments in 2,300 projects in 90 of the state's 100 counties. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is for them. Republican Secretary of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz is for them. Scores of local officials are for them, even outraged at the potential loss of billions in investment while dooming the preservation of local landmarks.

Under the soon-to-die tax credits, owners of income-producing properties qualify for a 20% tax credit for approved renovations of historic structures. Non-income-producing properties, such as homes, qualify for a 30% tax credit. Income-producing properties can also receive a 20% federal credit. The credits have provided the final incentive for the revival of center-city buildings in towns and cities across the state. Look no farther than the Nash Street Lofts, which opened recently in downtown Wilson in a former retail building that was so far gone that it would have otherwise been razed.

 So why would Republicans in the legislature want to eliminate the highly effective and private-investment catalyzing tax credits? After all, what could be more "conservative" than conserving historic buildings, converting structures that already exist instead of building anew?

I can only conclude that some members of the legislature have determined that historic preservation tax credits are a "liberal" cause. After all, liberals such as Jim Hunt, Betty McCain and Richard Moore supported the tax credits. And living downtown in old buildings with loft apartments is a youthful, Generation Y, liberal thing to do. These legislators would prefer to give tax breaks to cronies who run big corporations that pollute North Carolina's air and water, ravage natural beauty and abandon depleted buildings and towns.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Police arrest reporters who are doing their jobs

I have no idea what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, when a black teenager was killed by police bullets. I do know that the police there are not making themselves look good with their military gear and aggressive tactics. They are arresting reporters?

I am reminded, uncomfortably, of the complaints 50 years ago about "outside agitators" stirring up the local populace. Reporters were blamed then, too, and roughed up by police. Karl Fleming, who began his newspaper career in Wilson and went on to cover the civil rights movement for Newsweek out of the Atlanta bureau, wrote in his "Son of the Rough South" memoir about precautions reporters in Mississippi and Alabama took at the height of the civil rights protests. They holed up in motel rooms with the door barricaded and would not open the door at night. They kept watch over the parking lot for suspicious vehicles that might carry gangs out to frighten or kill them.

In Ferguson, police are arresting reporters and bullying them in a McDonald's restaurant for no apparent reason. Perhaps worse is the militarization of local police in the past couple of decades. Even small-town police have armored vehicles and heavy weapons that make them look like a military force instead of local law enforcement.

I don't know what happened to spark the unrest in Ferguson, but I do know that what the unrest has shown us about police there is disturbing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A comedian slips into the black hole of depression

It's not necessary to post any of the hundreds of his hilarious videos to demonstrate that Robin Williams' suicide is a tragedy. Years ago, I laughed so hard at a friend's videotape of Williams' HBO special that I literally fell out of my chair. I don't think any comic — Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, anybody — ever made me laugh that hard.

But behind the humor, behind the manic, non-stop jokes, was a chronically depressed man. The depression finally overwhelmed him, and the humor that made others laugh so hard no longer amused him. Those of us who have never fallen so far into the black hole of depression wonder what could ever compel a person to take his own life, especially a person so full of jokes and laughter as Robin Williams. But for millions of people, that black hole is never far away, and the solid ground around it easily crumbles when circumstances or situations connive to make them lose their balance and slip deeper into that abyss.

Mental health treatment, drugs, and a supportive network of family and friends can sometimes alleviate some of the danger, and an outwardly normal life can be lived. But the black hole never goes away, still grasping at one's feet, still tilting a person off-balance.

Many years ago, I attended the funeral for a friend who had killed himself. I dreaded the service at a fundamentalist church, worried that the preacher might declare my friend to be condemned to hell because he committed a mortal sin with a gun that left no time for second thoughts, regrets or forgiveness. Instead, the preacher declared that God loved my friend and would not judge his lifetime of kindnesses on one final, desperate act.

The best way to remember Robin Williams is to see that all who, like him, lived too close to that black hole, receive mental health treatment and reassurance.

Friday, August 8, 2014

I remember the end of the Watergate scandal

Forty years ago today, I was on vacation in North Carolina, far removed from my subscription to the Washington Post, where I had followed faithfully the reporting about President Nixon's "second-rate burglary."

Instead of being among the throngs who waited outside the White House or who went about their business in the nation's capital while a president resigned for the first time in American history, I sat on the floor of my father-in-law's house and watched Richard Nixon announce that he would resign. I would have preferred being in Washington, reading in minute detail the Washington Post's reporting and hearing the talk of Washingtonians all around me.

As mesmerized as I was by the Watergate scandal and the persistent, detailed reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, I did not despise Nixon, as so many of my generation did. I recognized his political skills and even admired the boldness of his foreign policy. But by 1974, after two years of watching the administration crumble under the weight of its own paranoia, deceit and disdain for the law and the Constitution, I was contemptuous of Nixon, who thought he was invulnerable after his 1972 landslide.

As I watched his speech on television, as he spoke of sacrifice and family and his own betrayal of American principles, I felt sorry for the man. I remarked that if he had given that speech two years earlier, at the beginning of the scandal, he might have avoided impeachment.

When Nixon flew off from the White House lawn, days before I returned to my job in Washington and my apartment in the suburbs, I felt a sense of relief that the nightmare was over. Gerald Ford, whom few (including Nixon) ever considered presidential material, turned out to be a reassuring father figure when America needed one. At Jimmy Carter's inauguration, after Ford's crushing and narrow defeat, the new president graciously acknowledged Ford's "healing" of America.

Forty years after Watergate, lesser scandals seem larger, public scorn of elected officials is more widespread and political anger is never-ending. Many pundits in 1974 celebrated by saying "the system worked" — Nixon resigned because the news media performed its watchdog role, the Senate was ready to remove him from office, and a new president took office without a military coup or an insurrection. But the legacy of Watergate is a different outlook from the American public. Politics is seen not as a means of running a democracy but as a slimey, crooked business. The news media, certainly one of the heroes of Watergate, suffer from a distrust almost as deep as the public's scorn for politicians.

Watergate is history, as distant in the past as Spanish Civil War had been when I was a young man in Washington. Like war, its impact lingers long after the big guns have been silenced.