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Climbing Denali

Renaming a mountain is better than beheading it.

And the pseudo-uproar from Donald Trump and other Republicans over the presidential renaming of the continent’s highest mountain, Denali — “the great one” — is so much yammering in a cage.

The cage is “Americanism.” The small-mindedness of this concept is suddenly more apparent than ever: Hey, we’re the greatest! Obama’s taking Mount McKinley — our mountain — away from us, giving it back to the Indians . . .

Would that it were true. Would that a sense of earth-reverence had entered the national consciousness through this act of renaming, this acknowledgement that our world isn’t merely the plaything of the American political ego. Would that President Obama meant what he said when, as he began his symbolic, climate-change-awareness trek to Alaska, he declared: “The time to plead ignorance is surely past.”

But of course he only meant it rhetorically, as though sternly resonant words — a great speech — could stop global warming and the melting of Arctic ice and the looming shroud over our children’s future. It’s so easy to call for change, then go back to business as usual. “We’re proving that there doesn’t have to be conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth,” he said.

Uh, yes there does.

For one thing, we have to get far more serious about weaning the human race from its dependence on fossil fuels and leave most of the oil, coal and natural gas that’s still in the ground exactly where it is, according to most climate scientists. If we don’t, the greenhouse gas emissions we produce by burning them will cause a global temperature rise beyond the point of ecosystem sustainability, which is 2 degrees Celsius.

That’s why the fact that Obama granted approval to Royal Dutch Shell to begin oil and gas drilling in the Chukchi Sea, off of Alaska’s northwest coast — “potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil,” as Bill McKibben recently wrote — has ignited so much outrage. “It’s as if the health teacher giving the anti-smoking talk to junior-high assembly had a Marlboro dangling from her lip,” he added.

Here’s what I’ll concede. The nation is a stew of contradictory forces, all of which the president must, at the very least, placate. If the corporate drivers of the American and global economy want something, they’re going to exert enormous pressure to get it — the sort of pressure a political leader may find almost impossible to resist. Indeed, the concept of the nation-state may be no more than an amalgam of destructive forces and “interests” — greed, fear, the lust to dominate — that render it incompatible with transcendent change, which is what our global crises absolutely require. The nation-state serves war. The nation-state serves economic growth. The nation-state does not serve climate integrity.

And so the climate crisis is where science and political science meet, as McKibben put it. “Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with, the ones where compromise makes complete sense,” he wrote.

The players “think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between people and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.”

The scientists sounding the global-warming alarm are simply reporting the basic physics of the situation. “They’re not expressing an opinion; they’re reporting on the world’s actual limits.”

But of course there is more involved here than merely cold, impartial science. There’s a conflict of attitudes going on. One attitude serves and benefits from a self-perpetuating political-economic system that’s all about endless growth, endless expansion. Our leaders and our media, for the most part, cater to this attitude. For instance:

“President Barack Obama on Tuesday will propose speeding up the timeline for purchasing and constructing new Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic, an area where the United States has fallen behind Russia in resources as the melting sea ice creates more opportunities for global commerce, tourism and scientific research.”

This is from CNN. I grab the sentence almost at random. I read it again, not quite believing it. “. . . as the melting sea ice creates more opportunities for global commerce, tourism . . .”

The other attitude is more like a rending cry that we value the planet the way we would value our own children. I’m sure this is not an easy attitude to legislate, at least not under present circumstances. We’ve achieved so much by turning our most callous instincts loose on the world. We’re addicted to environmental collapse. Even the death throes of the global ecosystem, if that’s what this massive melting can be said to represent, are seen, and legislated, as opportunity.

I think again about the renaming of a mountain. I think about our slow ascent toward awareness.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: Photo by Nic McPhee via Wikimedia Commons. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.o license.

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“God’s Authority”: Same Sex Marriage and a Kentucky County Clerk

A Kentucky clerk claimed “God’s authority” yesterday when she refused to issue a marriage license to same sex couples. As I read her story, I was reminded of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, who had a vision about God’s authority.

This story is told in the book of Acts, chapter 10. The story about God’s authority comes down to this verse:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

This verse was an absolute game changer for Peter and the early church. And it should be a game changer for us today.

Peter made this statement after he had a vision of a sheet falling from heaven. On the sheet were “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.” Many of the animals on the sheet were unclean according to religious law. For example, Leviticus 11 provides the classic biblical teachings, supposedly from God through Moses, about what animals are clean and unclean to eat.

Well, those clean and unclean animals appear on the sheet in Peter’s vision. God tells Peter, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” God makes no distinction between clean and unclean; rather, God just tells Peter to eat up because it’s all good!

Peter protested, because, you know, the Bible. And that was Peter’s problem. He elevated the Bible above God. Peter complains, saying that he would never eat that unclean stuff. “For I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Then God gives Peter a lesson in God’s authority, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Okay. Is God pulling a Jedi mind trick? I mean, Peter was right! After all, Leviticus says you can’t eat bacon. But damn I love bacon! And there on the sheet in Peter’s vision was a nice, fat pig. God told Peter to go kill it and fry up some bacon. Understandably, Peter was confused because of the purity codes in Leviticus. But God was now saying that he had actually made all those animals clean and they that they are good to eat.

And I’m so thankful because bacon is amazing.

But for Peter, this vision was about much more than saying all animals are now clean, despite any previous biblical teachings. It was about human beings. It meant that we could no longer use religious principles or laws to call certain people clean and unclean. Hence Peter’s statement that, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

After the vision, Peter went to a town called Joppa and baptized a Roman soldier named Cornelius. An important element of the story is that Cornelius was a Gentile, and a member of the hated Roman army. Just like Peter didn’t think it was kosher to eat bacon, he also didn’t think it was kosher to hang out with Gentiles, especially a Gentile who was a Roman centurion. But when Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house, it was full of Gentiles. Peter said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Peter’s vision was about animals, but it was about much more than animals. It was about human beings. It’s important to note that every culture has these kinds of purity codes that tell us who is included and who is excluded, who is clean and who is unclean. Sometimes those purity codes are based on religious principles and sometimes they are based on other cultural standards. The point is that these purity codes create a barrier of hostility between “us” and “them.”

But God’s vision to Peter changed all of that. He could no longer call anyone unclean. Later in the story, Peter explained his actions by stating, “The Spirit told me … not to make a distinction between us and them.”

Why? Because “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” This is such an important verse because our words mediate reality. When we call others unclean, when we decide who is included and who is excluded, we construct a reality that is in opposition to God. God shows no partiality, so neither should we.

In Peter’s day, it was the Gentiles who were thought to be unclean. Who is it in our day? This brings us back to yesterday, when the Kentucky county clerk claimed she was “under God’s authority” to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples.

The Kentucky clerk is using her interpretation of biblical principles to call certain people profane or unclean. Because, you know, the Bible. But Peter’s vision tells us that we “should not call anyone profane or unclean” – and we certainly shouldn’t use the Bible as justification to make those kinds of distinctions. That is to elevate the Bible above God. It turns the Bible into an idol. Just as the Spirit told Peter not to use the Bible to “make a distinction between us and them,” so we shouldn’t use the Bible to make a distinction between us and them.

We aren’t under God’s authority when we make declarations of who is clean and unclean, who is worthy of marriage and who isn’t. Rather, that authority comes from the demonic. As Peter’s vision shows us, God’s authority doesn’t divide us from them. Rather, it includes us and them.

Photo: Screenshot from YouTube.

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The Ashley Madison Sex Scandal, Josh Duggar, and the Place of Shame

A woman who discovered that her husband was a member of the Ashley Madison website gives this advice to women through CNN: “To women who have no suspicions, I say: check anyway. It’s sad.”

The Ashley Madison sex leak is sad. Not because men are getting caught with their pants down, but because the website whose tagline is “Life is short. Have an affair,” has 32 million users.

32 million! It’s hard to wrap my mind around such a large number. So much attention has been given to Josh Duggar’s account with the Ashley Madison site. He was the first “star” to be outed by the leak. Duggar has dedicated his public persona to supporting “traditional family values.” He is the former executive director of the Family Research Council Action. The FRCA supports traditional family values, which means it is staunchly against LGBTQ rights.

Duggar’s opposition to LGBTQ rights means that he has put LGBTQ folk in the “place of shame.” It’s a common move among those who fight for “traditional family values.” To work for the sanctity of marriage means that they gain a sense of moral superiority by fighting against an “evil other” that threatens that sanctity. For example, Duggar and his friends fear that the LGBTQ community is a threat to the traditional family, so they work in opposition to LGBTQ rights, especially the right to marry.

Because it’s those LGBTQ people who threaten the sanctity of marriage. Right…

Of course, it’s easy to point out Josh Duggar’s hypocrisy. While working for the “sanctity of marriage” by shaming others he deemed a threat, he shamed his own marriage by having an affair. In other words, Duggar hid from his own shameful behavior by shaming others.

That’s how shaming works. We project our own shameful behavior upon others so that we don’t have to deal with our sense of shame.

And here we begin to see the problem when we gleefully unite against Josh Duggar. By shaming him we become what René Girard calls his “mimetic double.”

In the same way that Josh Duggar claimed a sense of moral superiority by shaming others, we claim the same sense of moral superiority by shaming him. By doing so, we risk hiding from our own sense of shame as we project it onto him.

James Alison, in his adult education course Jesus the Forgiving Victim, notes that we learn “to dance with others around the place of shame, close enough to get the benefits from someone being there but not so close as to be the person who is put there.” This is the pattern of life that adults tend to inhabit. We start to learn this pattern in middle school and high school, but we perfect it when we become adults. Putting others in the place of shame so that we don’t have to go there is how we survive – whether it’s immigrants, the poor, Muslims, prostitutes, the LGBTQ community, or Josh Duggar.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to avoid the place of shame. At some point in our lives, we will all find ourselves in that place, and we will all probably participate in putting someone else there. Because shaming is so mimetic, we tend to shift shame from one person to another, just as long as shame doesn’t fall upon me!

The Ashley Madison/Josh Duggar sex scandal is just one more example of how much our culture is run by shame. It infects each one of us.

That’s why Jesus is so important. He occupied the place of shame, the cross, without being run by it. The Atonement works in a very specific way – Humans put Jesus in the place of shame and Jesus freely went. He didn’t mimic that shame. He didn’t seek to defend himself by putting his enemies in the place of shame. He went to the place of shame and stopped the mimetic shame cycle by praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In the next few weeks, I have no doubt that many more people will be outed as having an Ashley Madison account. You will likely find out that prominent politicians, pastors, teachers, pop culture icons, star athletes, business owners, maybe even your coworker and your neighbors have an account.

How will we respond? Will we put them, and their already grieving families, in the place of shame? Will we experience a sense of glee as they are “outed”?

Because we don’t have to live our lives run by shame. We don’t have to shame others anymore. We don’t have to live our lives hiding from our own sense of shame by projecting it upon others. Rather, we can stop pointing fingers. We can start managing any sense of shame that we may have. And we can respond to others with empathy and compassion.

After all, the fact that 32 million people, men and women, have been involved in the Ashley Madison scandal shows how easy it is for any of us to get seduced into this kind of activity.

And when we are seduced into it, Jesus reveals that we are already forgiven. Thus, we don’t have to hide. We don’t have to project our own baggage, our own shame, upon anyone else. We can stop the mimetic cycle. Indeed, we can learn to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Photo: Copyright: prazis / 123RF Stock Photo

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Prager University: Ray Bradbury’s Nightmare

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie begs to differ with Prager University’s philosophy that true knowledge can be obtained in “clear, 5-minute presentations.” To sacrifice complexity, different perspectives, the process of research and the hard work of deep, critical thinking for the sake of “clarity” and “brevity” is, as Ray Bradbury suggests, to trade intellectualism for entertainment. An “education” from Prager can be a scapegoating mechanism because it trivializes important issues and discourages empathy with those who hold other perspectives. Negative mimesis suggests that the anti-intellectualism Prager encourages could spread like a contagion. Tracy McKenzie, along with Ray Bradbury and Alexis de Tocqueville, cautions against such a cavalier approach to learning.

One of my  favorite sayings comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  Reflecting on his 1831 visit to the United States, the Frenchman observed, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”   Tocqueville’s adage doesn’t always holds true, but it often does, which is why I regularly share it with my students.  Across the generations, Tocqueville reminds us to be wary of our fondness for simplistic answers to complicated questions.

Tocqueville’s words came to me repeatedly over the weekend, as Colonel Ty Seidule’s five-minute explanation of the causes of the Civil War went viral, attracting more than four million views in a matter of days.  (It’s now topped six million.)  In my last post I explained how Colonel Seidule effectively replaced one myth about the Civil War with another one, and there’s no good reason to cover that ground a second time.  But I do want to share a thought abut the venue in which it first appeared: the absurdly misnamed “Prager University.”

“Prager University” is the brainchild of conservative radio personality Dennis Prager.  It is not an accredited educational institution, and no one connected to it claims otherwise.  It offers “free courses for free minds”–professionally produced five-minute videos on a range of topics in economics, political science, philosophy, history, and religion.  I have nothing personal against Dennis Prager, and as a political conservative myself, I suspect that we could probably find several things to agree about.  But I’m offended by anti-intellectualism parading as a commitment to knowledge and wisdom, and that’s what I see in this online travesty.

I hesitate in sharing these strong words, because I’m aware that a number of serious scholars and public intellectuals have lent their names to Prager’s undertaking.  Perhaps they thought they were doing the public a service.  Perhaps they hoped to stimulate informed discussion and raise the level of public debate about important questions.  If so, then they were well-intentioned but misguided.

When a ruler of Egypt supposedly asked the Greek mathematician Euclid whether there was an easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”  He meant that there were no short cuts.  No Cliff’s Notes. It would take time, concentrated effort, and perseverance.  As 19th-century philosopher Charles Peirce put it, “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”

“Wrong!” says Dennis Prager.  When you visit “Prager University” online, you’re immediately reassured that “there are no fees, no tuition, books, homework assignments, or grueling midterms here – just clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers.”  Who could turn that down?  It’s not just that the student at P.U. can receive “life-changing insights” without forking over a pile of cash.  He can also get them without wasting valuable time reading, studying, or thinking deeply.

There are “no long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures” at P.U., the web site proclaims.  “All our courses are five minutes long,” the spiel continues. “That’s right, five minutes.”  And how is such brevity possible, you ask?  It’s possible because “our faculty get right to the point.”  You’ll find “no fluff” at P.U.  And if five minutes still strains your attention span?  Not to worry.  Each life-changing insight “is supported by cutting edge, visually-compelling, entertaining images and animation.”  Since you’re likely to get tired of looking at world-renowned intellectuals, in other words (and let’s face it–most of them aren’t that photogenic), P. U. will regularly interject cartoon figures to help you concentrate.

“Just as a shot of espresso boosts your energy,” P.U. promises,

“a shot of Prager University boosts your brain. Because not only will you have more knowledge, you will have more clarity. You’ll get one other thing, a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”

If this were only a parody.

I’m sorry, Dennis, but I’ve got to go with Euclid on this one.  Like the path to geometry, there is no royal road to wisdom, much less a five-minute video, no matter how compelling its animation.  P.U. doesn’t clarify big ideas.  It trivializes them.  Rather than teach its students how to think, it tells them what to think.

The idea of a five-minute video isn’t inescapably awful.  If each video were paired with another that offered a competing answer to the same question, together they might stimulate rather than indoctrinate.  If the “world renowned thinkers” were encouraged to treat competing interpretations seriously, or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.

But that would suggest that some questions are complicated and don’t admit of simple answers, and that flies in the face of P.U.’s whole philosophy.  Want to know whether the U. S. should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?  P.U. will cut the fluff and give you the “clear and unambiguous” judgment of history in five minutes.  Interested in the truth about Vietnam?  Five minutes should be plenty.  Want the straight scoop about the Constitution? the Ten Commandments? capitalism? feminism? racism?  global warming? abortion?  Five minutes a pop or your money back.

In addition to Alexis de Tocqueville, I’ve also kept coming back to Ray Bradbury these past few days.  In his marvelous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradford eerily anticipated the denigration of the life of the mind that Prager University embodies.  Writing in 1953, Bradbury described a twenty-first century world in which the primary task of firemen was not to put out fires but to burn books. Intellectual had become a swear word.  Entertainment was life’s primary pursuit.  Happiness was life’s ultimate goal.  Complicated ideas got in the way.

Early in the novel, Bradbury speaks through a Fire Department captain to pinpoint the genesis of the gradual denigration of learning.  It began with the rise of mass culture, Captain Beatty relates to fireman Guy Montag, who has become curious about books.  As late as the Civil War, Beatty says, “books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.”  But then the population began to grow rapidly, and with it came the birth of mass culture.  “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

Gradually everything became “boiled down,” Beatty explains.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  . . . Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

Ray Bradbury died shortly after Dennis Prager founded his “university,” and I won’t presume to say what he would have thought of it.  I don’t mind telling you what I think, however.  Following Captain Beatty, I’d say there’s more nursery than university in P.U.

Image: Dennis Prager speaking at the California Capitol Building in 2008. Copyright: Nate Mandos via Wikimedia Commons. Available via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. Some changes made.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author ofThe First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

 

Donald Trump

The Donald’s “Inclusive” Racism

The central assumption of democracy — beyond the assumption of fair elections, which is disturbingly questionable — is that voters are the possessors of their own “interests,” and vote for the candidate most sympathetic to them.

But of course those interests are fair game for advertising, bombast and propaganda — and the psychology of fear.

Thus, not only are candidates capable of misrepresenting their support of people’s interests, even more insidiously, they engage baldly in manipulating them. This is a game that turns the endless presidential campaign season, especially as it is conveyed to us in the mainstream media, into little more than a mish-mash of clashing sound bites: full of sound and fury, you might say, but signifying nothing, or at least nothing much.

The two-party system, which comes to us courtesy of Big Money and is taken so seriously by the media — as seriously as any advertising campaign takes itself — is, essentially, a race to seize control over the nation’s collective reptile brain.

Let’s make America great again!

Welcome to the 2016 presidential campaign, underway well over a year ahead of time and already devolving into cartoonish absurdity, thanks to the loudmouth billionaire who leads the Republican fray.

Donald Trump, with the help of his money and his ego, is exposing the absurdity of American politics like no one else I can remember. Whoosh! Gone is the protective veil of political correctness. Let’s hear it for naked cynicism!

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

As far as I can tell, Trump is the unapologetic standard bearer of late-stage, theater-of-the-absurd American exceptionalism. He directly addresses the prerequisite for national identity: an enemy. Someone to hate. Someone to fear. This is nationalism; this is Republicanism. And Trump brings his own special twist to it: a gleeful American inclusiveness.

And not a moment too soon, here in “post-racial” America. As Rick Perlstein astutely pointed out last month, Trump’s inflammatory, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant announcement of the start of his presidential campaign — presenting a gift-wrapped enemy to the racist that secretly lurks in so many American hearts — was almost precisely juxtaposed with the immensely symbolic lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. “And, immediately, Trump shot to the top of the Republican charts — with a bullet,” Perlstein wrote.

He added: “I’ve never seen anything that lays bare the core lineaments of conservatism so neatly: There is our tribe, which is good, true, and pure; and there are those other tribes, who are existential threats to you and me (Reagan’s favorite phrase), and must be suppressed in order for good to be preserved. ‘We’ all know this, even if ‘they’ don’t allow us to say this. If anything, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina opens space for this particular new longing to air this other silent truth more freely.

“This is important: Conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole.”

But there’s a special brilliance to the reconfigured racism Trump is offering to the American people.

Consider this paragraph from Trump’s campaign website. When you click on “positions,” only one topic shows up: immigration reform. And it’s not just any old immigration reform, it’s IMMIGRATION REFORM THAT WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

As the website explains: “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries). They have even published pamphlets on how to illegally immigrate to the United States. The costs for the United States have been extraordinary: U.S. taxpayers have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in healthcare costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc. . . . The effects on jobseekers have also been disastrous, and black Americans have been particularly harmed.”

There are several reptile-brain subtleties of note here. First of all, the illegal immigration flow, according to Trump, begins with the machinations of “Mexico’s leaders.” It’s not a poverty-induced bleeding of the poor across the U.S. border but a deliberate, provocative act by one nation against another: something like an invasion. The Donald is not only giving us a subgroup to hate. He’s giving us war!

Perhaps even more appallingly, Trump makes a point of saying that “black Americans have been particularly harmed” by this invasion. Thus he opens the door to Black America to join the “We Hate Mexicans” club, in effect, creating a more inclusive form of American racism — the benefits of which, of course, will be reaped by his campaign.

Perhaps what this is really about is the slow-motion collapse-into-absurdity of the American empire, as Trump makes the emotional glue of hate and fear that has held it together for two and a half centuries unbearably obvious. The question he inspires, which lurks just beyond the horizon, is what sort of political entity we can build that isn’t based on these shadow “interests.” What happens after we stop seeing ourselves as conquerors? Can we build a country that honors, and fits into, a global whole?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image: Copyright: Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Available through Creative Commons license.

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West Point Historian Mixes Truth And Myth, Goes Viral

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie exposes Prager University’s uncritical acceptance of the “northern myth” that the Civil War was fought by the North to abolish slavery. While slavery was at the heart of the civil war, abolishing it was not the primary goal of the Union soldiers. Portraying abolition as such dangerously portrays racism as a blight on our national history confined to a limited geographical region, thereby scapegoating the South and minimizing an issue that is critical to understanding and repairing race relations today.

A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?”  Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.”  You should check it out.

P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager.  Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.”  Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.”  Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”  Quite the bargain.

Since its release [one week] ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  A whiff of scandal may have lured some.  There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.

I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights.  Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack.  They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument.  (The prize for subtlety goes to Salon.com: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks.  “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.’”)

My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe.  Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas.  The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War.  Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself.  This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.

Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence.  There is nothing novel in this.  Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations.  But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.

He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.”  After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade.  He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed.  That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers.  This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:

“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.  No one denies that.  But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”

The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War.  If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”

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Union Major General George B. McClellan

Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians.   Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy.  Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example.  McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility.  “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863.  And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply.  “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began.  But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked.  His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck.  “Negroes are not equal to this.”

Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies.  And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood as “practical abolitionists.”  These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war.

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Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion.  “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863.  “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?”

And when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864.  “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly.  And more than just historical accuracy is at stake.  As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past.  Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.”  The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it.  For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem.  Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.

Top Image: Public Domain via Encyclopedia Americana, 1920, v. 7, pg. 7

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author ofThe First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

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Book Feature Friday: Ray Bradbury’s “Love Letter To Books”

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie contemplates the continuing cautionary relevancy of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s fictional dystopia is a harrowing story of negative mimesis in which the desires of society for amusement over wisdom snowball until “the public stop[s] reading of its own accord.” Dr. McKenzie laments the resemblance of this extreme with today’s reality. Note: This article was written a few weeks ago, and the reflections on the Confederate battle flag have already been posted on Dr. McKenzie’s personal blog as well as Raven.

I have one more set of reflections I want to share with you concerning the Confederate battle flag controversy, and I promise that I will get to them, but my recent experience on “my” bench at Lake Ellyn called to mind a marvelous novel that I finally got around to reading earlier this summer, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Quite a number of its passages are now in my commonplace book, and I thought I would share a few while they are fresh in my mind.

Many of you are probably familiar with Bradbury’s 1953 classic, but in case you aren’t, it’s easy to summarize the plot. It’s a dystopian novel, set some time after the year 2020 (the only year ever mentioned), at a time when the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to set them. Specifically, they burn books, almost all of which are now illegal. The novel explains retroactively how such a state of things came to be and meditates on the incalculable human cost that ensued. At its most basic, it’s a “love letter to books.”

Years after writing Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury identified himself as “a preventer of futures . . . not a predictor of them.” The book is speculative fiction, imagining what would happen if men and women succumbed wholly to the lure of empty entertainment and simply stopped reading, or at least stopped reading books of substance. According to a recent reviewer, the novel’s remarkable staying power stems from its ability “to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”

As the novel unfolds we learn the chilling truth that “the public stopped reading of its own accord.” Although the prohibition of reading is now officially enforced by the state, it originated with the people themselves, and throughout the book individuals who are hiding books are caught because they are turned in by neighbors rather than because of extensive government surveillance. The local fire chief reveals the genesis of the oppressive regime to the novel’s protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag whose eyes are opening to the heart-emptiness and soul-sickness that surrounds him: “It didn’t come from the Government down,” Chief Beatty exults. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!”

The majority preferred to be amused rather than stimulated, titillated rather than educated, affirmed rather than challenged. Above all, they preferred to be happy rather than wise.  Because books might threaten these values, the safest course was to give up books entirely and reduce life to two dimensions: work and entertainment. The path to this impoverishment led directly through the schools, as Chief Beatty explained: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” No firemen will set our books aflame, but doesn’t this mindset pervade our society? A generation ago, Neil Postman offered a trenchant critique of how modern media feeds our cultural obsession with entertainment in his marvelous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has exposed the ways that higher education is actively exalting the other pillar of Bradbury’s dystopia, the grossly misguided conviction that higher education should focus primarily on knowledge that generates income. In her work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum exposes how both politicians and university administrators are evincing a willingness to sacrifice the liberal arts as peripheral subjects that don’t produce the same obvious public benefits as investment in science and technology. Both groups, Nussbaum writes, “prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.”

All across the country today, state legislatures and boards of trustees are concluding that the humanities are peripheral to education. Rejecting the heart of the western intellectual tradition and following the example of nations like India and Japan, they are choosing to allocate precious resources disproportionately to STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on the grounds that the primary purpose of education is to promote national competitiveness in the global economy. Boiled down, they now champion a vision of education that teaches students how to make a living rather than learn how to live, that helps students to create technology but not to think deeply about it, that trains them to think about things but rarely the meaning of things. Bradbury saw this coming sixty-plus years ago.

As a historian (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I can’t help but notice that this glorification of the pragmatic—life is immediate, the job counts—is also a mindless exaltation of the present, a marvelous example of what C. S. Lewis long ago labeled “chronological snobbery.” Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury makes the point that it is in books that we most commonly connect with the generations that have preceded us. Professor Faber, an out-of-work literature professor who went into hiding after the final liberal arts college was shut down, explains to Guy Montag that books were a “type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”

Toward the end of the novel, Montag—who is fleeing for his life after being caught with books and forced to burn them himself—joins a band of hobo intellectuals in the distant countryside. Each individual has memorized all or part of an important book, and they wait for the day when they can return to print what they carry in their minds. Until that day comes, they are a living library, the world’s surviving, secret connection to the best that has been thought and said in humanity’s now forgotten history. The group’s leader explains their thinking to Montag as the novel closes, shortly after a nuclear attack has devastated the nearby city:

Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.”

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author ofThe First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

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President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus doesn’t identify with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.

 

Photo: President Obama speaking in Kenya (Screenshot from YouTube, KTN News Kenya)

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Sandra Bland being arrested (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

My White Dad and Sandra Bland: On “Assaulting” a Police Officer

“I fixed the problem with your car,” the mechanic told my dad. “You can pick it up now.”

It was the mid-1990s. I was a junior in high school. My dad and I drove to the auto shop to pick up my new car. Well, it wasn’t new per se. It was used, very used, but it was new to me.

Needless to say, I was very excited. And my dad was excited for me. I remember him being very proud of me. He has always been a proud, patient, and joyful father. I can only remember him getting angry twice during my childhood. Once at my brother. And once at a police officer.

He had to make a left hand turn across traffic to enter the auto-body shop. There was a median in the road, marked by solid double yellow lines. My dad crossed the lines, entered the median, and when it was safe, he turned into the parking lot so that I could drive home my new car.

That’s when we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights.

The police officer followed us into the parking lot. My dad stopped and the police officer knocked on his window.

“Sir,” the officer began. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“I have no idea,” Dad replied as he shook his head with frustration.

“You crossed the double yellow lines. I’m going to have to give you a ticket.”

“For crossing a double yellow line?!?” My dad asked incredulously.

“Yes sir. It’s against the law,” the officer responded as he walked back to his car. After a few minutes, he returned with the ticket. “Here you go sir. You have a month to pay the fee or contest in court.”

By now my dad had turned into a different person. He was filled with anger like I’ve rarely seen. “This is ridiculous,” he complained. “People make that turn all the time. I can’t believe you gave me a ticket for that!”

“Sorry sir,” the officer impassively replied. Then he simply walked away.

I’ve learned two things since that day. First, I’ve learned that any encounter with a police officer doesn’t define who a person is. My dad thought the police officer was abusing his power, and my dad responded with uncharacteristic, but understandable, anger.

Second, I’ve learned to be grateful that my dad isn’t black. Because if my white father had been born black, the officer may not have simply walked away. Things might have escalated very quickly into a yelling match and my dad might have been arrested for “assaulting” a police officer or for “resisting arrest.” And it would have been my dad’s fault.

For example, take a look at the 52 minute video in the Sandra Bland case. Sandra was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. For the first few minutes of the encounter, Sandra was just like my dad – irritated but compliant. She answered every question the officer asked. Then the officer asked her to put out her cigarette.

“Do you mind putting out your cigarette, please?”

Sandra responded with a natural question, “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

The officer didn’t answer Sandra’s question. Instead, he demanded that she step out of the car. “You can step on out now.” Then he threatened her with a taser.

Why? A police officer can demand that someone exit a vehicle when the officer thinks there is a threat. You know, a lit cigarette can be used as a dangerous weapon.

Sandra was subsequently arrested and died in her jail cell.

How could this happen? Ask many white people and they will tell you it was Sandra’s fault. According to CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houk, Sandra was the problem. “The whole thing here is that she was arrogant from the beginning. Very dismissive of the officer. She was uncooperative.”

Once again we find white people blaming a black victim of violence. She’s to blame because she was “irritated.” She’s to blame because she refused to put out her cigarette. She’s to blame because she’s black.

A white response that blames Sandra Bland is a racist response. White people can get away with being irritated at police. We don’t have to be kind to officers. We can express our anger and not fear arrest.

A black person though? If a black person shows any anger, they will likely be arrested or possibly killed. And it will be construed as their fault.

White Americans can no longer live in denial of the racism that infects us. Yes, racism infects police culture, but white America cannot simply blame police culture. Racist attitudes and structures are everywhere – from politics to education to mass incarceration to economics to housing.

Racism is a particularly pernicious form of scapegoating in America. Robert Hammerton-Kelly states in his book The Gospel and the Sacred that, “Scapegoating … is the psychosocial propensity to relieve frustration by lashing out at someone defenseless, or to avoid responsibility by blaming someone…”

The police officer was clearly frustrated that Sandra didn’t bow down to his demands and so he relieved his frustration by lashing out at a defenseless Sandra Bland, who’s only “weapon” was a lit cigarette. Since smoking a cigarette in a car isn’t illegal, Sandra had every right to ask why the officer requested that she put it out. Asking the question isn’t resisting arrest, nor is it a threat to the police officer’s safety.

But no matter. Case after case after case shows that an officer can make up any excuse to accuse a black person of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer and treat them with brutal force. The point is that Sandra’s arrest and subsequent death never should have happened. And those events never would have happened if Sandra was white. That’s because to be black in America is to be America’s national scapegoat. From the very beginning, white America has relieved our collective frustration by uniting against black people, lashing out at them with impunity because the power structures lean heavily in our favor.

White denial of this fact only leads us to avoid taking personal responsibility for the racism that infects each of us. Blaming black victims of police violence is indicative of our denial that we are racists. “It’s her fault,” we say. “She was arrogant.” Well, my dad was “arrogant,” too. He was “irritated.” But he’s still alive. Despite his arrogance and anger, his encounter with the police didn’t escalate into imprisonment or death. That’s because he was born with the privilege of being white in America.

It’s time for white people to stop our personal and collective denial of racism. It’s time for us to recognize that racism and white privilege have infected our country since the beginning of its history. That recognition is the first of many steps we must make to help dismantle the racism that continues to infect America.

Photo: Sandra Bland being arrested (Screenshot from YouTube)

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Racism In The Civil-War North

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie reminds us that around the time of the Civil War, the North as well as the South held to an ideology of racial prejudice and white supremacy. An understanding of the racism that permeated the entire nation is essential to the struggle for full racial justice that continues today.

I shared in my last post the concern that the recent scrutiny of the Confederate battle flag may simply end up replacing one myth about the American Civil War with a different one. On the plus side, most of the online chatter has rightly dismissed the postwar southern invention that the conflict had little to do with slavery. On the minus side, much of the editorial opinion I’ve read implicitly promotes the postwar northern fiction that the conflict was first and foremost a moral struggle over the institution. Both views are wrong, and both prevent us from reckoning honestly with our nation’s racial history.

As I explained last time, the Civil War was never a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery. While the white South was nearly unanimous in its defense of human bondage, the North was badly divided. To generalize broadly: the cause of Union unified the North, the cause of emancipation divided it, badly blurring the distinction between the two sides.

For different reasons, it’s likewise true that the war was never an unambiguous contest over racial equality. On this issue, the opinions of whites in North and South were almost—if not quite—interchangeable. The range of attitudes was undoubtedly greater in the North than in the South, but in both regions the vast majority of whites took white supremacy for granted and denounced all appeals for racial equality. Much of the condemnation of white southern racism during the debate over the Confederate battle flag has left the mistaken impression that the men who marched under the Stars and Stripes had significantly different views.

I won’t take the time to overload you with examples, but here are just a few observations that attest to the pattern I am describing. I’ll concentrate on white northern attitudes:

Let’s begin in the late 1850s. In many of the eighteen free states, adults could easily remember a time when bondage had been legal in their own neighborhoods. Slavery had been legal in all of the original thirteen colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution, but the northern states began to phase out the institution after the achievement of independence. They typically did so very gradually, however, commonly passing what are known as “post-natal” statutes that only freed slaves not yet born. Pennsylvania was the first to act in 1780 and set a pattern that was widely followed. The Pennsylvania law stipulated that no slaves currently living would ever be freed, but that any future children born to enslaved mothers would be freed on their twenty-eighth birthday. Other northern states followed suit, with New Jersey being the last to act in 1804 when it declared that all slaves not yet born would be free when they reached adulthood. This gradual approach minimized the financial impact of emancipation on slaveholders and insured that slavery would linger in the North, although in increasingly small numbers, all the way up to the Mexican War.

As enslaved African Americans made the transition from slavery to freedom in the North, they quickly discovered that “freedom” did not mean equality. Five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Oregon) legally prohibited free blacks from settling within their borders or required them to post prohibitive bonds for “good behavior.” In the remaining states, blacks were relegated to the most menial, low-paying jobs; consigned to segregated schools, when schools for blacks even existed; often prohibited from giving testimony in courts; always barred from serving on juries; and in the vast majority of cases, disqualified from voting explicitly because of their race. (When the Civil War ended, nineteen of twenty-four Union states still disfranchised black voters. Those that allowed blacks to vote were typically New England states with minuscule black populations. Overall, only 6-7 percent of adult black males could legally vote in the North at war’s end.)

In northern politics, race was a combustible theme throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Both major parties recognized its power. Generalizing broadly, northern Democrats sought to score points with northern voters by convincing them that the reason Republicans opposed the extension of slavery was that they favored racial equality. Republicans tried to deflect such charges by assuring northern voters that they were as committed as anyone to white supremacy. Where both parties clearly agreed was in their reading of the northern electorate. No political movement could expect broad success across the North if voters became convinced that they questioned the hierarchy of the races.

Such racially charged politics pervaded the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In their contest for a U. S. Senate seat from Illinois, the two future presidential candidates perfectly modeled the larger strategy. For his part, the Democrat Douglas continually charged that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a bunch of abolitionist fanatics with radical views on race. According to Douglass, the Republicans

douglas

Democratic Stephen Douglas, U. S. Senator from Illinois

“really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negroes, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fiji Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men. They alluded to men of European birth and European descent—to white men, and to none others—when they declared that doctrine. I hold that this Government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.”

This was race-baiting with a vengeance. While I find no evidence that Lincoln ever similarly pandered to white racism—intentionally trying to whip up a crowd with cheap racist remarks—he understood full well that he had to convince voters that Douglas was wrong if his campaign was to survive. And so he sought to persuade the audience that it was possible to oppose slavery without favoring the end of all racial distinction. Lincoln confessed his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political evil.” He admitted his opinion that the black man had just as much right as the white to “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” But this need not lead to complete racial equality, Lincoln explained.

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Northern racism kept the Republican Party on the defensive throughout the war. By all accounts, it was more virulent in the lower North than in the upper North, stronger in the Midwest than in New England, more pronounced in cities than in the countryside, more common among immigrants and blue-collar workers than among native-born Americans and farmers. Catholic archbishop John Hughes spoke for New York City’s massive Irish population when he insisted that Catholics “are willing to fight to the death for the support of the Constitution, the government, and the laws of the country. But if . . . they are to fight for the abolition of slavery,” he declared, “they will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.”

Class animosities also figured prominently in attacks on the Republican campaign against slavery. New York City’s Democratic newspapers argued that emancipation would eventually lead to a mass exodus of newly freed bondsmen from the South to northern cities, where they would compete for jobs with working class whites and drive down wage levels. Campaigners in 1862 for New York gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour announced that “a vote for Seymour is a vote to protect our white laborers against the association and competition of Southern Negroes.” Such working-class resentment of blacks reached its pinnacle in July 1863 when New Yorkers rioted for four days in protest of the new federal Conscription Act. During the New York City Draft Riots, as they are known, angry Irish laborers trashed African-American homes, burned an African-American orphanage to the ground, and lynched a half-dozen black New Yorkers.

Racism was almost as pronounced in the Midwest. Republican politicians from the region lamented that it was ubiquitous. Republican Congressman George Julian of Indiana confided in a letter, “Our people hate the Negro with a perfect if not a supreme hatred.” Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois agreed. “There is a great aversion in the West . . . against having free negroes come among us,” Trumbull conceded. “Our people want nothing to do with the negro.” The Chicago Times spoke for a broad swath of Midwestern sentiment when it blasted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Alluding to Lincoln’s allusion to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” the Times editorialized:

“It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Race continued to be a powerful weapon in the presidential campaign of 1864. Seeking to protect themselves from Democratic charges that they favored black equality, the Republicans took two steps aimed at redirecting the voters’ attention away from the controversial emancipation policy. First, they temporarily abandoned the “Republican” label and ran instead under the banner of the “National Union” Party, a transparent attempt to make loyalty to the Union, rather than support for emancipation, the defining issue of the campaign. Second, they scratched the current vice-president from the ticket. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was widely perceived as a man of radical racial views, and some Democrats had even insinuated that the supposedly swarthy Hamlin was a mulatto. To replace him the Republicans opted for an individual that no one ever accused of liberal racial views, the current military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. A staunch southern unionist who hated slaveholders and slaves alike, Johnson would later publicly proclaim in his 1867 State of the Union address that blacks  possessed “less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

While the Republicans tried to soft-pedal emancipation in the campaign, northern Democrats did everything they could to emphasize the issue, always linking Republican support for emancipation to the party’s supposed commitment to full racial equality. There was no subtlety in Democrats’ playing of the race card. They lampooned Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus I” and insisted that he and his Republican Party wanted nothing so much as a thoroughgoing intermixture of the races on terms of complete equality. Democrats coined a new term in the 1864 campaign—miscegenation—and informed voters that the creation of a mongrel race that was neither black nor white was the Republicans’ true objective. Democratic pamphlets and broadsides told voters that the Republicans wanted ex-slaves and Irishmen to intermarry, and Democratic artists imagined a ballroom of interracial couples celebrating a Republican victory.

No, the Civil War was not a referendum on racial equality.  Next time we’ll talk about what to make of this fact.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Top Image Credit: This sketch of a purported scene from the New York City Draft Riots appeared in Harper’s Weekly later in 1863.

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