a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Outgrowing Booker T. Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd September 2012

In my previous post, I took up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President,” writing that “Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear,” and concluding “As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past.”  To wit:

“[Obama’s] approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity.”  

That sounds about right to me — extremely sad, at best, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of “Hope” and “Change”) routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it.

Sad at best, because Obama has considerably less justification for cautious, tactical, “temperamental” conservatism than Booker T. Washington had.  And unlike Booker T. Washington’s constituency, 21st century Democrats have considerably less justification for settling for it either.  Washington was an unofficial leader of a besieged, impoverished people facing not only the daily indignities of prejudice and racism, but brutal ethnic cleansings, unspeakable lynchings, widespread debt peonage and a vicious convict labor prison gulag.   It wasn’t that unreasonable to prefer cautiously building strength to the shorter, more dangerous choice of confrontation.*

Obama, by contrast, is the President of the United States of America; he took office after an electoral landslide that solidified his party’s control of both houses of Congress; he was inaugurated before an adoring, mobilized throng of millions.  The ongoing ‘racialization’ political handicap that Coates discusses is no figment of the imagination —  but it also can not have suddenly become a decisive handicap to President Obama’s political ambitions once he had reached the Oval Office.

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Instead, it’s fair to reflect (yet again) on what, precisely, those ambitions are or ever were — not for high office, but for what Obama would do and how he would do it when he got there.  David Sirota’s 2006 piece “Mr. Obama Goes To Washington” remains one of the most useful analyses of that question.  In Sirota’s judgment,

…[Obama] appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).

This being a time when he was still courting progressive voters, Obama valiantly… tried to have it both ways.  Sirota reports:

““You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that’s different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”

My takeaway from Obama’s statement (and the ensuing 6 years) is therefore that when Obama adopts some neoliberal Beltway conventional wisdom, then that’s what he believes in — and meanwhile he’d like us to believe his goals are ours.

The trouble for Obama is that now that he’s president, the “shared goals” part is easier to disprove, starting with the extrajudicial drone assassinations and terror strikes Coates put front and center in his own essay.  The Obama administration has also given up on any prosecution of torturers; it’s allowing detainees to rot and die in indefinite detention –uncharged, unprosecuted, even approved for release.  It has engaged in unprecedented, punitive investigations, harrassment,  and prosecutions of national security journalists and whistleblowers.  It has pushed for renewals of the egregious PATRIOT and FISA Amendment Acts.   And Obama notoriously co-designed and then signed the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions — with the signing conveniently timed for the evening of  New Year’s Eve, 2011.

And even if you’re bored with mere human rights, civil liberties,  or rule of law issues, there are plenty of bread and butter reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s leadership and policies, or even outraged by them: income inequality growth that was worse under Obama than Bush; a pitiful mortgage relief program intended to “foam the runway” for banks instead providing real relief to struggling homeowners — and intentionally leaving $300 million in potential mortgage relief unspent; a White House triumphantly touting a debt ceiling agreement that “Reduces Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower” — at just the time when Keynesian domestic spending was urgently needed to revive a strangled economy; taking Bush era tax cuts off the table prior to the 2010 election; repeatedly putting Social Security and Medicare benefits ‘on the table.’

Indeed, where at least “economic progress in exchange for political impotence was the touchstone of Washington’s creed,” as W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Lewis has put it*, Obama’s bargain may be the preservation, even exacerbation of a failing economic and political status quo in return for his own political stature — but ongoing progressive/liberal impotence.

I think the common denominators are more important, though: elite support for the political aspirations of a conveniently conservative, charismatic black leader.  In both cases, the rise to fame and power began with a nationally celebrated speech, one that served constituents less than the speaker’s own relentless climb up the ladder.

In Washington’s case, it was his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition speech — an eloquent call for racial peace, an argument to focus on economic growth …but arguably also a surrender speech to white supremacy. Not surprisingly, Washington was suddenly white America’s — and (thanks in part to the “without strikes and labor wars” line) especially white business America’s — favorite black spokesman.  Washington was able to set up an increasingly powerful nationwide black political machine from his desk at Tuskegee Institute, fueled by the dollars of magnates like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Wanamaker, and George Eastman, to name a few.  Benefactors and recipient shared a common outlook on what to do with those dollars: hire or support those who didn’t rock the racial boat, deny those, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would not accept long term second class citizenship, social inequality, and racial terror.

Similarly, Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address launched Obama onto the national stage.  And in retrospect,  like Washington’s Atlanta speech, it succeeded less by telling hard truths than by flattering its listeners that the country was basically fine, they were basically what was right with it,  Obama was basically the proof, and all that was required was pretending we all agreed with each other.    The upshot was to “affirm the greatness of our Nation” in light of Obama’s own “unlikely” and “improbable” presence on the podium, and (just as Washington established in his 1901 autobiography ‘Up From Slavery’) in light of his compelling biography.

There’s another parallel between Booker T. and Barack H. that’s closely connected to the elite support they received: their frequent validations of outsider critiques of and attacks on their constituencies.  Even Jesus just said “turn the other cheek” —  he didn’t say “agree with the one who slaps you.”

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How’s that lesser evil thing working out?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th January 2012

Welcome to your new country, where speaking loudly about losing your guaranteed right to trial
gets you arrested within minutes.

“Occupy Wall Street Protesters shout warnings of a creeping police state in Grand Central terminal and are
themselves quickly arrested for speaking in public.” —

It’s an even numbered year, so it’s time again for leftish pundits of every shade — from Democratic blue to radical red — to warn their angrier, more fed-up friends that we must choose the lesser evil within this political system, or bear the blame for the results. Thus we have digby writing in her blog “Hullabaloo”:

Unless you believe, as some do, that we must get on with our impending dystopian nightmare so that we can rebuild from the rubble (sometimes known as destroying the village in order to save it) this is probably a useful group of articles.

The articles are from a Washington Monthly issue on the topic “What if Obama Loses?”, and they complete the arc of the argument: you just don’t get how really bad a Republican win would be.  Either that or, to paraphrase digby’s charge, you must be some kind of irresponsible nihilist itching to zippo-raid the hooches of the American political system — probably just because you like to see stuff burn.

Now it is undoubtedly true that Republican candidates up and down the 2012 ballot will generally be a bunch of pinch-souled corporate lick-spittles, pious frauds, and incoherent cranks.  In a sane world — and judging mainly by their presidential candidates — they’d be fit at most to write daily letters to the editor or mutter about the slow service at McDonald’s.  In our world, however, their political prospects are good, “thanks” in part to the diarrheal eruption of campaign cash unleashed by the Citizens United ruling.

The life cycle of the Democratic base
The life cycle of the Democratic base

But “thanks” — regrets really — are also in order about the quality of their opposition.  And what’s remarkable is that if you read some of the “What if Obama Loses?” articles, that comes through just about as clearly as the intended “barbarians at the gates” message.

In what seems the most widely linked (hence presumably most persuasive) of the Washington Monthly articles, Dahlia Lithwick (whose coverage of the Supreme Court and civil liberties issues I truly admire) warns that Justice Ginsburg is 79 years old, ergo it had better be Obama who nominates her successor and not Romney.  So far, so unremarkable — but then she starts to discuss who’s manning the castle walls, as it were:

Imagine a Democratic presidential nominee running on promises to reshape, remake, make over, hog-tie, or even just refinish the federal bench. It doesn’t happen. And so, even though the most conservative Supreme Court in decades sits poised to decide cases ranging from the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care legislation to the future of affirmative action in schools, the rights to gay marriage, and the fate of the voting rights act, Republicans portray both the Supreme Court and the lower courts as a collective of lefty hippies. And Democrats mainly just look at their fingernails. If you care about the future of abortion rights, stem cell research, worker protections, the death penalty, environmental regulation, torture, presidential power, warrantless surveillance, or any number of other issues, it’s worth recalling that the last stop on the answer to each of those matters will probably be before someone in a black robe. Republicans have understood that for decades now, and that’s why the federal bench—including the Supreme Court—is almost unrecognizable to Democrats today. (emphases added)

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Their urge to betray — and ours

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th March 2011

Until recently, Peter Benjamin was the chairman of the Washington, D.C. area Metro transit system’s Board of Directors. A former mayor of Garrett Park, he brought an avuncular personality and long experience with Metro affairs to the table. While in correspondence with us about the bag search issue I’ve written about before, he dismissed some of our assertions about the program’s drawbacks — for example, he didn’t believe it would cause much decline in ridership. But he seemed to take seriously the civil liberties issues involved.

Still, sometimes I think if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read “I’m a supporter of the ACLU, but…” I could afford the richer, more refined lifestyle I truly deserve.

And sure enough, when push came to shove at a February 10 discussion of the bag search issue, Mr. Benjamin delivered what may be the new low standard in that genre. Beginning with the heart-sinking words “I am a long term member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of my friends consider me a civil liberties nut,” Benjamin was giving the lie to those words within roughly twenty seconds. Even though asserting that the rights we have as citizens are “why we are the great country that we are” and personally believing that “bag checks are a violation of those rights, and …the beginning of a process that moves towards us having fewer and fewer and fewer of those rights,” Mr. Benjamin continued:

And if this decision were only for me, and only about me, I would say I personally am willing to take the risk of potentially having somebody get into the system and blow something up and I would be one of the victims, and I would balance that against my rights and say my rights are much more important. […]

However, I’m also a member of this board, and I was sworn to protect the safety and the security of the people who ride our system. And I don’t know how I as an individual with good conscience could allow somebody to get into our system and cause an explosion and know that somehow or another I contributed to that by overruling the best judgments of our chief executive officer and the professionals who understand this process. […]

But I don’t know that I can be in a position of saying that I have got the ability, given the responsibility that is given to me as an individual and as a member of this board to protect our riders, to say that they should take the same risk that perhaps I would be willing to take. And as long as I have to carry out that responsibility, I think I need to defer to those who believe that they understand better this issue. It’s one that I do very reluctantly, but it’s one that I do after very, very careful thought. And I think that’s the balance that each of needs to make as we consider this issue.”

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Are Metro bag searches really that bad?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st February 2011

Recently I was asked:

are metro bag searches really that bad? I am no fan of racial profiling, but this just doesn’t sound that bad. What’s to hide in a bag? If it’s not a bomb, it’s not a bomb. Just keep your embarrassing belongings at home if you don’t want Metro Police to see them.

The following is adapted from the answer I sent.

= = =

You are now less free to move about the country
The fundamental answer, of course, is that we have the Bill of Rights for a reason, that reason is to affirm individual rights, we concede them at our peril, even if the concession appears a small one.

Part of what’s at stake here is maybe captured in that Southwest Airlines ad line that says we should be “free to move about the country.” It’s important that we carry our our rights with us wherever we go, including the right to be free from unreasonable searches. This is the very definition of an unreasonable search — for no reason (at least for no disputable reason), you are pulled aside and subjected to a search.

Why is this particular right important? The government should have to have a very good reason, in advance, for searching you — whether in your home or at a subway stop — because otherwise the door is open to fishing expeditions where you get stopped and searched just to see if you can be charged with something or other. You’re focused on bombs — but the police are not; anything they turn up is generally fair game (thanks in part to poor Supreme Court decisions, but that’s the world we live in). The burden shifts to you to know what you ought not carry with you; as a result, you’ll generally carry less; you’ll be less free. We agree one ought not carry bombs around. But fewer agree we ought not carry certain drugs around. And many fewer still agree we ought not carry anti-slavery literature around. Yet all of those things have been sanctioned before. We can’t know what the future holds. Let’s not make searching us for anything any easier than it should be.

Where will these searches end? We’ve already all but conceded that this may happen in isolated occasions — for example, when entering certain buildings like the WMATA headquarters, or when getting on airplanes. (A point Metro Transit Police Chief Taborn made to me in person, and then considered his case closed.) We’re now about to concede it can happen as we move about a city on its subways. We’ll have no point left to make if we are soon asked to submit to random bag searches on the sidewalks and streets of our cities as well. Would you still urge people to simply not take embarrassing things with them, or might you then say enough is enough? We’re saying so now.

Not just unconstitutional, but stupid
Finally, these searches aren’t just unconstitutional — they’re stupid. And they’re not just stupid — they’re stupid by definition. What program of unreasonable, suspicionless (and unconstitutional) searches is going to be better than a program relying on reasonable (and constitutional) ones based on real suspicions? What bad guy is going to be foiled by a plan to occasionally set up bag searches at a few stations, in which a majority (likely a vast majority) of people with bags are left unexamined, and which he or his co-conspirators can simply turn around and walk away from? This is a plan all but guaranteed to never, ever catch a single bomber. Its proponents sometimes concede that — but argue it nevertheless deters bad people from planning attacks, by introducing an element of uncertainty. Yet it’s absurdly easy to plan for the contingency of encountering a bag search: walk away and try somewhere else, some other time. I’d venture to say a subway system advertising this as its best thinking on security invites attack more than it deters it.

Thus WMATA’s bag search program really encroaches on a fundamental civil liberty, yet only pretends to provide security. To me, opposing such a program is an easy choice to make . By contrast, I’m ruefully confident that if we don’t block this now, future Chief Taborns will see the new status quo as a justification for further intrusions on our freedom.

How bad is that really? In the scheme of things, it’s not as bad as an unjust war, or torture, or assassination policies. But it’s bad enough. We ought to fight for our freedoms whenever they’re encroached on — especially when the justification is as threadbare as it is in this case.

Thanks for writing, and thanks for asking an honest, challenging question. I hope this was a decent answer.

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A flawed policy made worse — Metro’s random bag searches

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd January 2011

In mid-December, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA — better known as “Metro” — and its police force announced a new random bag search policy:

…police will randomly select bags or packages to check for hazardous materials using ionization technology as well as K-9 units trained to detect explosive materials. Carry on items will generally not be opened and physically inspected unless the equipment indicates a need for further inspection.

As described, the policy allows people approaching a station to decide to refuse the screening, of course — they just can’t then bring their bags with them:

Anyone who is randomly selected and refuses to submit their carry-on items for inspection will be prohibited from bringing those items into the station. Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection.

Opponents of the policy (including myself) deemed the policy unconstitutional, ineffective, and misguided — security theater that demands public acceptance of routine, suspicionless, unaudited (and therefore possibly profiling-based) searches for almost precisely zero security in return.  Thanks in part to a good deal of mobilizing by opponents — including an online petition and an evening of nearly unanimous public opposition — WMATA’s “Riders Advisory Council” (RAC), the institutional voice of Metro users,  overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the Board to halt the program, and require their police department to consider alternatives in consultation with civil liberties advocates.

The RAC is — as its name implies — simply an advisory body, and it’s not clear how much weight the WMATA board of directors will give their recommendation. While the policy was apparently all but sprung on the board by Chief Taborn and WMATA General Manager manager Sarles, it’s not clear whether the board will even take it up at the next board meeting — scheduled for 1pm next Thursday — let alone come to a decision about it.

Be observed… be watched
As welcome as the 15-1-1 RAC vote was,  the real news of the January 5th RAC meeting may have happened earlier in the meeting.  During a brief question and answer session, Metro Transit Chief Taborn confirmed that bag search refusers would “be observed… be watched” for their decision by law enforcement:

Metro Transit PD Chief Taborn answers questions by Riders Advisory
Council members Diana Zinkl and David Alpert about the random bag
search policy begun in December. (Excerpt transcript)

DIANA ZINKL: And also, could you also clarify, one question that came up at our last meeting, where there was some confusion – the answer either from Deputy Chief Pavlik(?) or the other officer who was in attendance — is what happens if someone’s approaching a rail station, is stopped, does not consent to the search, turns around and leaves and goes to get on the bus.
CHIEF TABORN: What happens is that according to our policy, that person is free to go.  But with regards to law enforcement initiatives, there will be some actions, there will be some observations, because we need to establish why that particular person chose not to do it.  So there will be some activity that’s afoot.
DIANA ZINKL: Can you give us some specificity — given that I think everyone of us in this room has been in the situation that if there’s something that’s not working with the rail system you go and get on a bus — given that this is a very likely scenario, can you be a little bit more specific as to what’s actually going to happen to that person and what they will be… what their experience will be?  Because – I think – the reason I’m asking is that I think this is a very real scenario, and the answer that we received, that was received on Monday, indicated a fair amount of ambiguity and uncertainty from the officer…
CHIEF TABORN: Well I can tell you without any uncertainty that that person would be observed.  And what that means to you is different than what it means to me, but that person would be observed.
DIANA ZINKL: Well could you clarify what ‘be observed’ means?
CHIEF TABORN:Be observed. Be, be observed. Be watched.
DIANA ZINKL: And when they try to get on the bus, what would happen?
CHIEF TABORN:That will be activities that law enforcement will use just as any regular law enforcement has to establish probable cause, to find out who, what, where, why, and when.

As I wrote at the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition blog, it got worse.  When RAC chair David Alpert followed up, Chief Taborn elaborated that “[a]t some point in time, as we work with the FBI and as we work with the Department of Homeland Security, we establish why” the person refused the search. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Great Betrayal, judicial activism, and a living Constitution

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd October 2010

September 17 was Constitution Day, always a good opportunity to reflect on that document and what it means to us.  Unfortunately, I missed that opportunity.  But of course every day is Constitution Day!  So I’ll go ahead and write down a few things I’ve been thinking and reading about lately on that subject and its intersection with another that has been occupying me lately: post Civil War American history.

In a note he published on Facebook, Patrick Bruckart wrote,

…the Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the federal government’s authority and provide citizens a means of redressing grievances against it. The BOR did not originally apply to the states. The Fourth Amendment, for example, was later applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment and subsequent court decisions. The next time we are inclined to complain about “judicial activism,” we should ask ourselves whether it would be acceptable for state or local law enforcement officials to search our homes (or property) without having first obtained a warrant based on probable cause. And that’s just one example.
(links added)

Even in colonial times, some states provided their own constitutional guarantees — that is, they acknowledged their own limitations — regulating searches and seizures.  But it was optional — especially with respect to the lower and disenfranchised members of society.

The Fourteenth Amendment
1. All persons born or naturalized
in the United States, and subject to
the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens
of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside. No State shall
make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities
of citizens of the United States; nor
shall any State deprive any person
of life, liberty, or property, without
due process of law; nor deny to any
person within its jurisdiction the
equal protection of the laws. […]
5. The Congress shall have power
to enforce, by appropriate
legislation, the provisions of this

But the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that.  In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment — in both intent and language — clarified that rights guaranteed under the Constitution were a floor under state law, not merely interesting limitations on a far off federal government.  And both these rights and the promise of equal treatment under the law were guaranteed to everyone born in, naturalized to, or simply under the jurisdiction of the United States of America.

And Congress could see to it.  According to Akhil Reed Amar’s indispensable “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” the final enabling clause — “Congress shall have power to make all appropriate laws” furthering this aim — was selected to echo specific Supreme Court rulings deferring to “appropriate” Congressional legislation. Amar:

And — here is the key point –the American people ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, with evident understanding of its, and also the Thirteenth’s, language authorizing “appropriate” federal legislation.  Knowing full well that Congress believed that this language authorized transformative new federal statutes to uproot all vestiges of unfreedom and inequality — and having seen with their own eyes that Congress had already acted on a similar belief in connection with the Thirteenth Amendment — Americans said yes.  We do.

Or so they believed.

“A vain and idle enactment”
To return to Bruckart’s remarks, I think one point to remember about judicial activism is that sometimes it’s needed simply to undo prior such activism.

The main example, to me, is in how the Fourteenth Amendment was bled nearly dry shortly after its ratification by one regrettable Supreme Court ruling — In re Slaughter-House Cases (1873; text)  — and one manifestly unjust one, United States v. Cruikshank (1875; text), a ruling rivaled in infamy by Dred Scott, Korematsu and few others.

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Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st August 2010

Late last week we ended a wonderful stay in Maine, one where a quiet lake, the company of family, the calls of loons, the cracks of lobster shells, and the splash of kayak paddles were the dominant experiences of lazy days.

We returned, however, by driving straight home — in a minor family legend of a road trip that took sixteen hours to complete. The traffic wasn’t bad, but it took a little longer than anticipated, and it’s just a long, long way.  As time wore on, dusk turned to night, we found ourselves in the seemingly endless urban plain of New Jersey with a blur of highway stops, gas stations, exits, and a slow flux of neighboring cars and trucks to keep us company.  We talked, planned, argued, listened to music, read, drove.  And drove.  And drove.

And while we certainly weren’t on a quiet lake in Maine any more, there was a certain familiar but usually overlooked beauty to this, too: streams of red tail lights ahead, oncoming streams of white headlights, the rush of buildings, bridges, signs and overpasses, a giant civilization all around.

“Just Drive 2: New Mexico – New York,” YouTube video uploaded by ‘heraldstreet’, whose
description is “driving across america in 1995 with a super-8 and the radio. music by
jonathan richman and the modern lovers. pretty well unedited.”

More than 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman captured some of that in the underground rock anthem “Roadrunner” — one of his first recordings.*  While the exact lyrics could vary from performance to performance, the gist was that there is a beauty in the experience of … driving through the suburban sprawl around Boston Richman called home, at high speed and with the radio on:

I’m in love with the modern world
I drive alone when it’s late at night
I wanna hear now, the modern sound
so I won’t feel alone at night
I mean I’m in love with the modern world […]

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How the Lost Cause was won

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th May 2010

Race and Reunion, David Blight, 2001
Harvard University Press

With the end of April came also the end, for this year at least, of “Confederate History Month,” unfortunately resuscitated by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell after a long dormancy under the previous two governors.  Amidst an outcry that apparently surprised the Regent University law graduate, McDonnell hastily reworded his proclamation with a grudging nod to the impropriety of slavery and the possible existence of other points of view on the matter of a rebellion leading to the country’s bloodiest war.

One might reasonably ask why there are no  “Union History Month” or “Victory over Treason and Slavery” celebrations — and that, more or less, is what David Blight did in his book “Race and Reunion,” published in 2001.  Covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg — and the release of the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” — it’s a fascinating read.  It’s also  — still, going on ten years later — a useful, jolting reminder of just what was lost as remembering the Civil War became more about rehashing every last engagement, and about getting over it, past it, and around it, than about reflecting why it happened — let alone reflecting on the unfinished business of the human and civil rights of black Americans.

Click above to order this
book or others by Blight.

Reconciliation — on southern terms
Blight’s research led him to soldiers’ remembrances in periodicals of the time such as Century and Harper’s; to the annals and publications of the Southern Historical Society and the Confederate Veteran, and to the schedules and membership rolls of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But he also paid attention to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, and the novels of the unjustly forgotten Albert Tourgee (“only fools forget the causes of war”) or Nelson De Forest — as well as the celebration of Klan terror by authors like Thomas Dixon, Jr, or the perhaps more insidious romanticization of the antebellum South by authors like Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”).

The book tells stories you’ve still almost certainly never heard before: the first Memorial  Day (that is, “Decoration” Day) — held by black Charlestonians to honor and restore the graveyard of Union prisoners of war on the site of the city’s “Race Course,” now Hampton Park; the unveiling of Richmond memorials to Robert E. Lee in 1896, and to Stonewall Jackson in 1875; the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, when Booker T. Washington gave his “Atlanta Compromise” speech — widely acclaimed at the time, but half wishful thinking, half sadly understandable surrender; the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, but with blacks in attendance only as blanket distributors and latrine cleaners.*  The Washington Post — apparently already a runaway gusher of idiotic political commentary —  marked that occasion by noting that slavery and secession were “no longer discussed argumentatively,” but were “disposed of for all time“; moreover, slavery was something for which “no particular part of the people was responsible unless, indeed, the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction” (emphasis added by Blight.)

What had happened by 1913 was a “Lost Cause” regional movement as potent, committed, and persistent as the abolition movement had been.  What’s more, it arguably had a greater reach (at least within the U.S.), in that ex-Confederates could and did safely peddle their redefinition — for that’s what it was — of the causes and legacy of the Civil War throughout the country, for good money and to plentiful applause.

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Baghdad, July 12, 2007

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th April 2010

On Monday, the online whistleblower site released 

…a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff. […] The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-site, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.

The video is provided at a separate address,, along with a timeline, photos, resources such as relevant military policy documents, and a transcript of the talk within the helicopter and radio traffic with other units on the ground and in the air.

The video below is the so-called “full,” 39 minute version.*  Even when zoomed, the grainy black and white view — one of the views the helicopter personnel relied on — is such that individuals on the ground can’t be easily distinguished from eachother.  Perhaps crucially, it’s also nearly impossible to distinguish a telephoto lens from an RPG (rocket propelled grenade launcher), when its cameraman is carefully pointing it around a corner to photograph an arriving American ground unit. But the visual quality is still high enough for a nauseating impression of the carnage high-caliber machine gun fire can wreak.

My view after watching it, looking at official reports (published by the Pentagon at a dedicated site in the wake of the leak), and reading online reactions by military personnel, was that a tragedy was followed by wrongdoing — wrongdoing even in the context of combat in Baghdad, July 12, 2007.

References in this posting to actions in this video will give the approximate video time,
by adding 25 seconds to the time given in the transcript.  C
urrently, that transcript fails
to account for the introduction.

The first attack
To me, a military engagement means a situation where both sides are shooting at each other.  That didn’t happen here.  Indeed, one of the disquieting aspects of the first attack is how quickly the option of engaging the Iraqis came up, given how little effort the alleged insurgents made to avoid harm, let alone cause any.

If the group (besides the two Reuters employees, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh) really was composed of active insurgents, they were breathtakingly nonchalant about it: sauntering down the middle of a street; a total of maybe three or four AK-47s and one RPG among a group of a dozen or so (what are the rest of the men there for then?); the men standing around and bunched together in their final moments, in plain view of two deadly American helicopters. **  “Positive identification” (PID) is a fundamental prequisite to engagement; identification here seemed to be quite a lot less than positive.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th August 2009

I got one of the health care e-mails that have been ricocheting around the Internet yesterday.  It was forwarded by a dear relative of mine, with the subject line “FW: SENIOR DEATH WARRANTS.” I’ve posted it on my Google Docs site — of course, without any identifying information, and without editing.  I want to respond to various claims made in that e-mail.

Throughout the discussion below, I’ll link to relevant parts of proposed legislation to back up what I’m saying.  I’ll usually be referring to the text of H.R.3200, also known as “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009” — this is one of the main House bills.  The link leads to an “all about H.R.3200” web page at that enables links to very specific parts of the bill.  However, readers with slow browsers or older computers may be better off consulting the text version of the bill.

The email begins by recounting a conversation with a doctor:

…He then asked how old I was, and when I replied 70, he said that if this legislation goes through as intended by the powers that be, that I probably would not be able to get [a cancer treatment] next year, as that would be money better spent on someone else with greater longevity. I would be referred to someone to “counsel” me.

REPLY: FALSE. This and other parts of the e-mail appear to misconstrue Section 1233 (“Advance care planning consultation”) of the bill.  As a fact sheet by Rep. Blumenauer summarizes,

The provision merely provides coverage under Medicare to have a conversation once every five years if – and only if – a patient wants to make his or her wishes known to a doctor. If desired, patients may have consultations more frequently if they are chronically ill or if their health status changes.

I asked him why the AMA had recently endorsed the plan. He replied that only about 15% of the nation’s doctors were members of AMA, and most of them were not really on the front lines of doctorhood but in some other areas of medicine. […]

REPLY: NOT RESPONSIVE. It’s true that the AMA has endorsed a health care reform plan; given the organization’s opposition to health care reform in the past, that’s big news.  The main reason, according to reporter Jeffrey Young of The Hill, is that the bill envisions a “permanent fix to a Medicare payment system that annually calls for doctors fees to be cut.”

This was potentially an expensive gift to doctors; so if the doctor is advocating keeping annual fee cuts intact, I’m right there with him.

SENIOR DEATH WARRANTS: In England anyone over 59 cannot receive heart repairs or stents or bypass because it is not covered as being too expensive and not needed.

REPLY: FALSE. First, while it’s too bad, no major health care reform bill advocates a health care system anything like England’s.  But second, the statement is flatly wrong. actually contacted the U.K. Department of Health and and an English nonprofit group advocating for older persons about this claim:

[A spokesman] said medical procedures in the U.K. are not routinely denied for older people. The National Health Service, the U.K.’s public health care service, has a constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age and other factors. “The NHS Constitution states that the NHS provides a ‘comprehensive service, available to all irrespective of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief,’ “ the spokesman said.

We also contacted a nonprofit group, England’s Age Concern and Help the Aged, which works to stop age discrimination in various facets of life, including employment and health care. Age Concern’s press office had never heard of any kind of prohibition on heart surgery for those 60 and older.

Obama wants to have a healthcare system just like Canada ‘s and England ‘s.

REPLY: SADLY, NO. First, it would be impossible to have a healthcare system “just like Canada’s and England’s” because they have different systems.  Canada has a “single payer” health care system, in which health care costs are negotiated between health care providers and the government or an independent agency — a kind of “Medicare for all” instead just for older persons.  Another country with a successful kind of single payer health care system is France — according to that left wing magazine Business Week.

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