The events of the past few days have left me exhausted. I’ve sat down many times since Saturday, wanting to write more, wishing to say something – anything – coherent enough and sensible enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to post it. These have been days of chaos, of irrational hatred, of violence, of death. Part of me wants only to make sense of it so this will no longer be true.
The truth is, I’m just going to leave it be what it has been – days of rage and violence, of irrationality, of chaos, of the official sanctioning of racist violence by no less a person than the President of the United States. There is no way typing that can make any more sense. No matter how hard people will try, it is what it is.
Part of me wants to remind readers that Hillary Clinton warned us, last fall during the Presidential campaign. People got upset with her for calling some of Trump’s supporters “deplorable”. Even I, at the time, thought that wasn’t the best move on her part, even though I also thought she was right. The thing is, at that moment she wasn’t caring about politics. She was doing what she thought was right: Warning us as a nation not only what kind of man Donald Trump was, but what kind of people he was carrying along with him in his train. People like David Duke:
Which leads me to say this: Anyone who claims either that Trump isn’t a racist, or that no one can know what’s in another’s heart: (A) Of course he’s a racist. His record on that score is long and very public; (B) White supremacists and Nazis were among his most vocal supporters during his campaign, telling the world he was one of them; (C) You know what’s “in a person’s heart” by that person’s words and actions. Yesterday Donald Trump stood and gave cover to Nazis and white supremacists, cover for their violence that killed one person and wounded 19 others, cover for a group of pipe wielding thugs beating a young African-American.
I was quite sure Trump’s Presidency would be horrible. I remember once saying it would be even more horrible than I could imagine at the time (before the inauguration). The complete and utter moral collapse of the Presidency, however, was nothing even I could imagine. The silence of the Republican leadership following Trump’s horrible press conference yesterday leaves them complicit in his ongoing embrace of the worst among us.
Let me be clear: As long as the Republican leadership – Congressional, Party bureaucracy, Administration members – remain in place saying or doing nothing, they own this turn toward overt white supremacy support by their party. Pretty words by a few here and there, mean absolutely nothing. Either the Party rises up to save itself, or like everything else Trump touches, it will be forever stained by his very presence. Either the Republican Party acts out a very clear, “No!” to white supremacy, it is now the party of white supremacy.
We are at a critical moment. Our President has taken sides with the most morally depraved elements of American society. His failure as a human being, on display for all to see, leaves us with the simple choice of continuing to support him in an office for which he has always been demonstrably unfit, aligning oneself with Nazis, the Klan, white supremacist murderers, and their enablers; or we stand as a country and demand an end to this failure of a Presidency, removing him from office as quickly as possible. While Mike Pence is no one’s choice for President, either, his brand of crazy conversatism is just slightly less deplorable than Trump’s.
Trump has made his bed, in linens covered in swastikas, and is quite comfortable there. The damage he has done to the instruments of our state power is vast, including now vitiating the moral authority the Office of the Presidency. It is up to we the people to demand an end to all of it as soon as possible. Only then can we begin to sort through the wreckage for what’s salvageable.
There are people who are going to read this and be angry with me. Some people might unfriend my on Facebook. Some might want to argue with me. At this point, I couldn’t care less. In light of events in Charlottesville, VA since last night silence is a privilege I will no longer exercise. Wanting not to hear or read about events is something only those who are insulated from the potential dangers of events at UVA spinning out of control can afford. Of course, I’m far removed in many respects, so I could be silent. But I cannot.
First, what’s happening in Charlottesville is not some aberration, something strange and foreign to us as a people. On the contrary, the mass expression of hatred and a desire for violence against minorities is older than the the Republic. When H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” he wasn’t defending Black Power tactics. He was talking about things like Charlottesville. Because, you see, it’s not new. From the first African slave markets in 17th-century Virginia through the 3/5ths clause of the United States Constitution; the outlawing of freed blacks across the South in the decades before the Civil War; the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan led by a former Confederate Army General and the institutionalization of segregation and white supremacy across first the old Confederacy then the rest of the country; Chief Justice of the United States Roger Taney, writing in Dred Scott v. Ferguson that even freed African-Americans were not citizens, having no rights a white man need respect; the racial terrorism of lynching and the acceptability of the white rape of black women; the destruction of African-American communities in Tulsa, OK and Rosewood, FL; the lynching and murder and continued segregation of African-American veterans returning from war in France in 1918; race riots across the country in 1919 and 1920; massive resistance to school desegregation; George Wallace declaring, “Segregation forever!”; the Ole Miss riots; the harassment and murder of volunteers registering people to vote; riots in LA, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, Harlem, and Chicago; the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King followed by white celebrations; the anti-busing riots in Boston; the destruction of a Philadelphia neighborhood in 1985 because of a small group of MOVE radicals; the on-going murder of young black men by police departments with impunity and without consequence; stripping the Voting Rights Act of any enforcement mechanisms; the criminalization of Black Lives Matter.
Eight years of racist hatred against the first African-American President of the United States.
What’s happening in Charlottesville is just another moment in our ongoing national pageantry of racist violence. If you really think it an aberration, are shocked and saddened, and wish to separate yourself from the torch-wielding mob, please remember we cannot do so without continuing to accept this as part and parcel of American life. We have indeed made great strides, legally and socially. That has not eradicated the dark heart of America, our ugly, evil hatred of those different than we are. Our Constitution is a racist document. Our national wealth is constructed upon centuries of chattel slavery, white supremacy, and the capitalist exploitation of our inherent, institutionalized racism. Even our religion has been hijacked by this demonic stain, with denominations and churches enforcing segregation and white supremacy. Until and unless we see this clearly, accept it as part and parcel of being American, then we shall fail to deal honestly with events in Virginia.
When people demand an example of institutionalized racism – as if I or someone else had made up the idea out of whole-cloth, contrasting events last night and today with what happened in Ferguson, MO a few years back makes it so clear. When a community marched peacefully against decades of racist police practices that culminated in the murder of an unarmed young black man, the police who met them were militarized. A single image captures the absurdity of that particular moment:
Last night, hundreds marched through Charlottesville carrying lit torches with not a police officer in sight.
In Ferguson, it was a community tired an angry at official neglect and harassment. They weren’t anti-police; they wanted better police.
In Charlottesville, they chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil”.
I want to be very clear here so there’s no misunderstanding: the widespread disdain for BlackLivesMatter among whites ignores the reality of blue-on-black violence as well as the desire African-Americans have for their lives and their persons treated the same as whites. Those who claim this is already the case don’t see the truth expressed in these contrasting photos.
This is an American problem. White racial grievances have certainly been encouraged by politicians, aggrieved and enraged whites soothed by promises to make America great again. I want to be clear here on this point: The Republican Party has done more than just play footsie with the darkness that is racist America. When Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign for the Presidency in Philadelphia, MS – where two young Jewish men and one young African-American man were murdered for the heinous affront of registering black voters – he was making it very clear to any who were paying attention where he and his party stood. In the decades since, whether it was the Willie Horton commercial, Jesse Helms’s “white hands” commercial, or last year’s love affair between the Klan and the Trump Campaign, highly-visible Republican candidates for high office have certainly been unafraid to make clear where they stand regarding race relations in America. Indeed, the whole idea behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan relies upon the ridiculous notion that under Barack Obama, the United States somehow lost respect around the world, or that our domestic life was somehow destroyed. Trump campaigned on white grievance; not a single Republican spoke against it, most denying it all as liberal fantasies. In many ways, what’s happening in Charlottesville right now is not at all surprising or shocking, but rather the result of Republican coddling of racists for over a generation.
Yet, these people are not somehow “un-American” or otherwise not part of our civic life. They represent some of the oldest, darkest parts of what it is to be American. Until and unless we’re willing to claim this, events like this will continue.
And we must rid ourselves of the idea that “non-violence” is a strategy that will work. People who carry lit torches, chant racist slogans, and are part of organizations promoting violence against minorities aren’t interested in dialogue; they won’t be won over by peaceful counter-protests. Force and the threat of violence can only be met with superior force. There will, alas, be blood.
We cannot escape ourselves, no matter how much we might wish to do so. As events continue to unfold in Charlottesville, with the State Police dispersing the fascists, a car plowing into counter-protesters then speeding away, and surely more violence to come, we need to watch and see this all-American show unfolding before us.
it’s become painfully clear to me reading comments tonight that most people don’t have a fucking clue what Transgender even is!! Just sayin… – An old school friend of mine, on Facebook
I’m going to say it up front and out loud: I’m uncomfortable with trans people. This isn’t due to any ideas about what makes men and women real. Mostly, it’s because I haven’t spent much time around them. It’s also ignorance about the complexities of gender identity confusion, something that I have been trying to learn but, honestly, there are other things I am doing which is a lazy person’s excuse, I suppose. In any case, yeah. The notion of people transitioning from one gender to another makes me uncomfortable.
My discomfort, however, doesn’t mean I think they’re weird or odd or anything else. The problem isn’t with the trans folks. The problem is most definitely mine, an unease borne of a combination of ignorance and few contacts with trans people. It isn’t up to them to show me they’re “just folks”. It’s up to me to understand trans people are just people, people who live with a difficult, sometimes debilitating confused sense of identity. The target of violent harassment, out trans people demonstrate courage in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to demonstrate. Even though I’m uncomfortable, I’m not asking for help getting over that discomfort because that’s my cross to bear.
As far as “knowing” what trans people look like . . .
This is a trans man. If he wasn’t wearing that shirt, would you even know? Would you even dare ask him his gender identity without his self-identification? I thought not.
This woman on the other hand, what, exactly about her threatens so many men they want her to use a public men’s room? How many of you, not knowing she was trans, would be at all comfortable with her walking in while you’re standing at the urinal?
These aren’t pedophiles, looking to use restrooms to entice somebody’s precious child into sex. These aren’t people who are “obviously” any gender in particular. They’re just men and women who would prefer to go about their lives without ignoramuses like me speculating about what they have in their underwear, or claiming they’re weird perverts.
And they serve in the military. I read several places yesterday claiming there are currently 15,000 active duty trans in the military. Perhaps. Even if it’s only ten percent of that number, Issuing an order demanding their immediate separation from the service for no other reason than who they are – without regard to questions of readiness, troop moral, and security – isn’t exactly supporting our troops. The only reason Trump cited for this order was cost; specifically, the cost of gender reassignment surgery for active duty troops. I found out this morning via Twitter that House Republicans were looking to remove this line item from this year’s NDAA. They had no intention of removing trans troops from the ranks; they just wanted Trump to support their bigoted parsimony. Considering the President gave no notice to anyone, civilian or military – many in the military feared, based on the wording of his first Tweet and the lengthy delay between it and the second Tweet, that he was announcing a strike against North Korea via Twitter, which would be horrible – and only cited “cost” as the reason for ordering separation.
I’ll be honest. I’m guessing that some in the ranks weren’t happy about openly integrating trans people. I’m sure units were angry and confused, if for no other reason than changes like this can be unsettling, just like racial integration was in 1948 and moving women in to front line combat units was. While I tend to believe reports that these actions haven’t altered military preparedness or readiness, I’m quite sure there are some, perhaps many, for whom this action last year was shocking and disconcerting. Had there been any disruptions in preparedness, troop readiness and effectiveness, and unit cohesion, surely that information would have leaked long ago. So, these folks who weren’t happy about the change were, in essence, like me: Uncomfortable with trans because of ignorance and a lack of interpersonal contact.
I cannot stress this enough – if some or even many people in the military were unhappy with this change, not because it disrupted unit cohesion or effected the willingness of troops to serve together, but just because they have something against trans folks, it isn’t incumbent upon the military or anyone else to accommodate their personal feelings. If you, dear reader, just “believes” trans people don’t belong in the military that is certainly your right to believe that. That belief, however, shouldn’t be raised to the level of national policy. Remember, there are die-hard bigots in the ranks who believe people of color have no business integrating with white troops, and I don’t see or hear the brass demanding an end to racial integration.
A couple things that happened yesterday did bug me. First, one of the cable networks – I can’t remember if it was CNN or MSNBC – had on a Naval Lt. Commander who is trans to speak on the matter. I found this disturbing because our service members shouldn’t be put in the position of questioning, on national television, the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. This person wasn’t in uniform, but that doesn’t make it any less discomfiting. There are plenty of vets who spoke out both for and against Trump’s order yesterday available to any network for interview. Getting someone, an officer no less, to speak out in this way was . . . it was wrong, OK?
The other thing that bugged me were all the people insisting that if critics hadn’t served in the military, they shouldn’t speak out. The last time I checked the military was under civilian control in this country: Their C-in-C is a civilian, the secretaries of the services are civilian, the Congress that determines how much money they can spend, on what, and for how long are all civilians. And, yeah, your run-of-the-mill person on the street with no military experience not only has the right but the duty to speak out. I’m actually quite tired of people being silenced, or at least the attempt to silence critics, because “we don’t know what it’s like”, yadda-yadda-yadda. We either engage actively on these matters or we turn control of military matters over to the military, which is a truly horrible idea. Claiming a privileged position in a discussion based on personal experience is really tiresome. While vets and troops certainly should be listened to, they shouldn’t have some kind of automatic veto on what is and is not acceptable in discussions over military policy. There was a time, not that long ago in fact, when the civilian public actually distrusted the views of vets and the military. I’m not suggesting we return to such a time, but all things should be met with a healthy skepticism. We need more, not less, public engagement.
So, yeah, random thoughts bearing on the matter. My problem is not only with the order and the way it was announced; my problem is with so much talk about the issue that’s divorced from any reality people actually encounter. And if you’re uncomfortable with trans people, like I am, I suggest you follow my lead and not let that personal discomfort become some universal truth that guides your life.
Yesterday, I had a post planned on the series of New York Times articles concerning Donald Trump, Jr. meeting with people he believed to be agents of the Russian government. Monday afternoon the Times published a story online that claimed there was an email in which it specifically stated just that. The problem with that article was the email itself wasn’t disclosed and the article stated the reporters had only the word of three sources such a monstrosity existed. At that point I thought the Times had jumped the shark. I was highly skeptical for one simple reason: I refused to believe anyone involved in this kind of high-level nonsense would be so stupid as to write such things down so clearly. So, after completing some work I needed to get done, I was sitting down to write about my skepticism.
Before I did that, however, I was going through Twitter and discovered my feed had exploded with news that Donald Trump, Jr. had released the email chain that included precisely the email about whose existence I was so skeptical. I quite literally spent the next ten minutes sitting with my mouth hanging open, aghast at just how stupid Donald Trump, Jr. really is. I honestly felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Even though I was seeing it, and reading the emails, and reading what others were saying (including one independent journalist whose shock was personal; he’d spent a year on this story and Trump, as this journalist wrote, “just tweeted it out”), I just couldn’t wrap my mind around just how stupid these people are.
So my post yesterday was out the window.
Today I just want to offer some reflections on the reactions to this story. I’m not talking about Trump, Jr or his father carrying on about how innocent Junior is in all this, because the emails pretty clearly incriminate not just him but Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort as well. I think it should be obvious that many people see this quite obvious evidence – at the very least – of attempted collusion with a foreign power as not only shocking but bordering precariously on treasonous behavior. Now in the US, “treason” is the only crime defined in the Constitution:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
As we aren’t at war with the Russians (although one could easily make the argument, as many have, that their cyber attacks on our major political parties constitute an act of war), I’m not sure that, legally, anyone should be charged with this specific crime. I do, however, believe it has the same general stench, a willingness to act against both the laws and best interests of the United States and receive information from a hostile foreign power during a national election. This is appalling and, one would think, indefensible.
All the same, almost immediately, Trump supporters online, including on my Facebook page, have been out in force slinging all sorts of mud in the form of what’s called “Whataboutisms”, as in “What about when Obama worked to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu?” or, “What about when the DNC worked with Ukraine during the last election?” or, among my favorites, “Since the Russians didn’t offer any actual information, no crime was committed.” I like this last one because it elides the reality that Junior not only believed such information would be on offer, but responded enthusiastically – “If it’s what you say it is I love it” – to the offer. Now, any other campaign would immediately have taken this information to the FBI. Why? Because you don’t meet with agents of a foreign adversary trying to influence a campaign for the Presidency!
As to the matters of the US interfering in the domestic politics of Israel and dozens of other countries, all I can say is conservatives used to love all those CIA front groups, invasions, and assassinations. People such as me who were outraged by them back during the Cold War were frequently called unAmerican and communist sympathizers because we thought it was pretty horrible that the United States would, say, kill the democratically elected leaders of Iran and Chile, say, or work with dissident military officials in Greece and Cyprus to overthrow their civilian governments. Now, however, the fact that the United States has acted this way means it’s perfectly fine for the Russians to do the same to us.
That’s not even close to being anything other than nihilism, pure and simple. These alleged superpatriots (at least according to many of their self-descriptions) are somehow down with the Russians attacking the United States during an election. I’m just dumbfounded that anyone calling themselves a patriotic American would ever say anything like this.
We are at a crucial point in what is clearly the biggest – and let’s say it, the stupidest, most venal – corruption story in American history. President Trump really does have the power both to fire independent investigator Robert Mueller (and not a few of his allies are insisting he do just that) as well as pardon anyone convicted of any crimes. Trump is both unstable and really quite idiotic, so we might just see these things, although I make no predictions. Were he to do so, however, this would constitute a very clear act of direct interference in an investigation (his firing of former FBI director James Comey looks more and more like just that), and would most certainly create an even deeper Constitutional crisis than the one we’re currently embroiled in.
I say we’re in a Constitutional crisis because the Republican leadership in both Houses of Congress have abdicated their responsibilities under the Constitution to act in their oversight and investigative capacities. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are refusing to act, for very different reasons, even as Democratic members in both Houses are demanding action. Which brings me to a point about which I want to be very clear: the willingness of elected Republican officials to defend both the President and his idiot child make this a partisan issue. The Republican Party’s willing acquiescence in acts like these should become a Scarlet Letter any Republican seeking office should wear for a very long time. The Democratic Part, after the Civil War, was often characterized as the party of rebellion (along with rum and Romanism, but that’s for another post), hindering their ability at rebuilding a national party base; there were only two Democratic Presidents between 1865 and 1932, sixteen out of sixty-seven years. I believe the Democratic Part needs to begin right now to make clear the entire Republican Party establishment is tainted by these events. They’ve proven themselves again and again over the past nine years unfit to govern. With their acceptance and defense of Trump and his son, they should be labeled the part quite willing to work with foreign powers against the United States. These events should be painted on their foreheads, worn on their arms, and called to mind each and every time a politician with an “R” after his or her name is mentioned. To pretend otherwise is to invite more such actions in the future.
Events are happening quickly, and – who knows?!? – by the time I hit “publish” this whole piece may well be mooted just as yesterday’s was. All the same, I think Americans need to speak out about these events. Our civic institutions, from the federal bureaucracy to our national elections, are and have been under attack and been seriously damaged by less than six months of a Trump Presidency. These are things worth fighting to preserve. Calling out people willing to put family and Party above their country is an ugly but necessary part of ensuring nothing like this ever happens again.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. —
Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.
He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:
- For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
- For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:
- For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
- For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
- For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:
- For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:
- For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies:
- For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:
- For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In Jefferson’s draft there is a part on slavery here
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
The more severe the wrongdoing, the more likely we are to react rather than respond, to act toward wrongdoers the way we feel like acting rather than the way we should act. – Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World, p.8
It was the evening of the first day of the new Administration, January 20, 2017, when newly installed Presidential Press Secretary came to the podium and, rather than welcoming the press to a new Administration, harangued the alleged misconduct of the press by presenting as fact the relative smallness of the inauguration crowd when the Trump Administration insisted it’s crowd was far larger than either of his predecessors. Of course, everyone in the room, presumably including Sean Spicer, knew it was bullshit. The gathering for the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States was comically small, made even more ridiculous by the days-long obsession with denying this very obvious reality.
In the months since, we have come to accept that no words from this Administration or those who have roles of authority within it have any value whatever. Our 45th President has not even a glancing acquaintance with the truth and feels no need to improve his eyesight. We are nation gaslighted on a daily basis by a small group of (mostly) men who believe that reality is so malleable that mere repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them true.
And this is no odd occurrence. It is, rather, the outcome of nearly two decades of FOXNews presenting its alternative reality to a shrinking cohort of Americans who just want to count. Few things are as threatening as the complicated reality within which we live, a reality that less and less abides a single narrative voice speaking from one perspective to offer any authoritative commentary upon it. Building upon the manipulations of one of Richard Nixon’s original rat-fuckers, Roger Ailes, and aided and abetted by the spread of toxic “talk radio” in the voices of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and others, there are millions of Americans whose view of the past two decades is not only radically different than the majority’s; it is a castle floating in the air, supported by the comforting tones of white men repeating a mantra that everything can be good once again, once we silence those other voices that aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t like us.
That the past is contested space isn’t a new idea. That’s precisely how historians present the ethical dilemma of their work: as best as possible to present the past as it was for those who lived and moved and had their being in the past. Rather than history, however, our reactionary fellow-Americans are far more content with a noxious nostalgia stripped of any humanity or meaning other than to bolster the fading power of a white cultural and political voice. Particularly with the rise of African-American history, feminist historiography, histories that bring to light hidden realities from the past whether that be the treatment of the native nations of North America or how Chinese immigrants living on the west coast were treated as viciously as African-Americans by a nation ungrateful for the labor they provided building our continental railroad system. We don’t like to hear or see things that upset our tranquil view of America as a beneficent provider of freedom and opportunity to the world. Such histories, however, darken the far too clean edges of our official memories.
I was sitting down to read Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory, already disturbed by the subtitle, Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. The idea there is “one right way” to do the necessary individual and social act of remembering is an idea that no longer carries any weight. Individual memories, as psychological studies have shown over and over again, are malleable things, sometimes presenting us with false memories either to console or disturb us. That our collective memory has long been contested space is something historians take for granted. To offer, then, a view of “remembering” as something to do “rightly” seems difficult to sustain. Human communities, including religious communities, are not immune either to the false god of nostalgia or the weakening of hegemonic discourses leaving confusion about what is and is not true and right. We in the churches find ourselves struggling in the midst of rapid social and cultural changes for which the assertion of “should” has no moral or pedagogical weight. There are only communities and the various ways they embody remembrance, including most especially the remembrance of violence, injustice, and persecution, as part of their practice of faith. Whether it’s in the liturgy, the pastoral, the missional, or theological expressions of the faith, we can no longer pretend there is a single answer to the question, “How should we Christians deal with memory in all its variety?”
Even more troubling, however, is Volf’s stated intention to present an ethic of memory that “goes beyond” justice (p.10). It is in remembering that the hunger for justice is kept alive. Memory is the enemy of any official statement, be it sacred or secular. The messy realities of human life, too often denied by our national or church leaders, are the one thing that keeps us from succumbing to the constant barrage of falsehoods either from secular leaders creating a false narrative and reality, or some in the churches who would insist that only doctrinally approved memories are fit grist for our theological mills. In a time when the very act of remembering denies the truthfulness of our public officials; when some would silence the memories of faithful lives lived outside sanctioned lifeways; living in such a moment when the very fabric of reality seems, at times, to be the main battleground, to demand an ethic of “right” remembering, rather than celebrating the varieties of remembering that keep alive identities too long denied and never fully satisfy the hunger for real justice that can only come by a transformation of our institutions. This doesn’t mean the past will somehow cease to be contested space; it will always be such. It is only to assert that remembering is a contested political act and contested act of faith. To declare the contest over by the mere assertion of how we “should” act, including remembering as an active ethical concern of real individuals and communities is a kind of religious imperialism that can only land within the already contested areas where memory and history, where real human lives and communities struggle to assert their full place within our collective consciousness.
I don’t regret not being able to get much beyond p. 12 or 13 of Volf’s work. The entire premise – there is a single ethical stance Christians should take regarding memory – is a house built on sand. That this sand is the all-too-popular idea of a transcendent, peaceful, “liberal” Christian “tolerance” (always a disparaging, derogatory stance) of The Other, even when that Other has done violence to oneself or one’s community, it is easy to watch the beautiful house crumble as the bloody flood of history rises and destroys it. To claim that we as Christians need to move beyond justice rather than always hold it before ourselves as a necessary part of true reconciliation is a blasphemous attempt to silence those whose history is one of official repression, denial, and murder in order to keep our histories and memories clean and male and white.
Now I just need to find something else to read . . .
I remember a time when churches were full on Sunday mornings. I remember when my home church, now dead and gone, had so many in attendance they’d set out extra chairs for people to sit in. The mighty sound of a full and full-throated choir bouncing off the hardwood and stained glass was powerful. People greeting one another after worship in long queues, across generations, smiling and thankful to be together.
I’m not saying I remember some golden age to which I wish to return. I’m just saying I remember a time when faith, a life of faith, the practice of faith still meant something. More than anything, such memories mark me as a bit older than I’d care to admit.
When I started Seminary, it was at the point in our local and national life when the decline of active church membership, and church membership at all, was starting to be noticed. Even as there were whispers and guarded discussions about what was happening, by and large our education was preparing us for a world that was disappearing far more rapidly than we could imagine, let alone wanted to admit to ourselves. There’s a saying that our military is always preparing for the last war. I guess it’s true with training our pastoral leaders: We’re getting them ready with old tools and skills for a world with new challenges, new dangers, and always always always the promise of something new happening.
Like anyone else entering middle age, the world around us is becoming less and less about us. The things we knew when we were younger are as dead as the past from which we dredge up memories of overflowing pews on Sunday mornings and a louder voice in our local and national affairs. Of all the new challenges with which we must deal, perhaps the most perplexing is the reality that for more and more people, the whole church-thing, God-thing, all the trappings of a bygone era are no more relevant than are tail fins on cars or touring with the Grateful Dead. It isn’t so much militant atheism with which the church must contend as it is a growing number of people who just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Meaning? Purpose? These things can be found in all sorts of organizations, life-ways, occupations, without all that weird metaphysical baggage that no longer makes any sense in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular age. We in the churches speak of Good News in a world that just no longer thinks it needs it.
A lot of churches, local and denominational, fall back on upholding old truths, drawing far more strict lines about who’s in and who’s out, demanding even greater adherence to doctrinal formulae and theological methods that, for all they once fed the multitudes are no so many empty baskets, ignored by those fed by other means. We now not so much invite as demand people come and see and hear and adhere and submit and their lives will have an overarching meaning, purpose, and telos that extends beyond the fragmented eternal nows that are the hollow substance of post-modern time. There are some, perhaps many, who find comfort and strength within such gated church communities. Upholding the past as true and the present as false offers a rock upon which to stand, someplace solid upon which to build a life of verities in the midst of a world that no longer cares about such things.
For every family that finds refuge within such seemingly solid structures, however, there are five, perhaps ten, that see these attempts at reconstructing a dead age for what it is – not a fortress within which one is safe from the world, but a Potemkin village, empty of anything other than those who admire the beautiful facades without caring how flat and false they are. Seeing this in abundance, all too often they look upon all churches as such false fronts, holding no promise, no message, no possibilities that cannot be found far better elsewhere. What these growing number of people see and hear isn’t so much Good News as it is a bunch of old words and promises for something no longer thought possible – safety and security in the midst of our chaotic world.
Is it necessary, or even possible, to reach such people? How do we in the churches who do not accept the crumbling sand of the same old thing and the incomprehensibility of so much of our talk about ourselves and our God still answer what we feel to be a call to tell the world there really is Good News? How do we live and practice our faith in a time when the very idea of “faith” is something about which fewer people care? These are the realities our churches face, the wall that separates us from those around us: we recognize the irrelevance of emptiness of so much of our talk, our ways of worship, our ways of living yet understand ourselves caught up in something the compels us to declare that God is, God is love, and God’s love extends to all creation.
I know I wasn’t educated or trained for such a world; I think our church leaders, those of my generation, weren’t either. We still read Bonhoeffer and Barth, Tillich and Niebuhr as if they were contemporaries, rather than oracles to a world that, even as we read their words, were receding more and more quickly. We thought Cone and Daly, Reuther and Gutierrez were radical when in fact they were no more than prophets to institutions unsuited to the challenges their messages announced. Ours is a world – truly a world – made up of neighborhoods. Whether we call them countries our states or even our local towns and villages, any global view always ends up zooming in on our increasingly nonhegemonic society, in which white and male faces no longer dominate; where love is greater than we thought, watching as same-sex couples celebrate blessed unions and state-sanctioned marriages; communities where the ravages of centuries of racism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism of all kinds have left indelible scars, requiring more than just good intentions and open minds and open hearts not only to overcome, but to accept the scars as a permanent part of our social, cultural, and political landscape. These and more are the new realities which confront our local churches, demanding an answer to the challenge, “With all this, why should I care about what you have to say and do?”
I’m not sure we yet have the tools to even begin searching for an answer, beyond recognizing the reality of the urgency of the question. I know our current generation of leaders weren’t given the tools with which to work toward anything like an answer. At the same time, I also know this is where we are, this is what our churches face, and if we do not even recognize the irrelevance of our claims to having something called “faith” that is vital to our lives and identities, we may very well wither and die. Falling back on false “timeless truths” is no answer, not really; it’s a reaction born of fear. We need to do and say something new in new ways, trusting that something beyond our own fears is giving us the ability to keep going.