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“A Call To Political Responsibility”: The Roots And Lessons Of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery.

Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined.

Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view — in the case of the Dred Scott decision, it was the pro-slavery view — and to override growing popular opposition to slavery’s expansion. Religious people sundered their ties with each other over the political implications of faith and biblical teachings. And, yes, we struggled over race and racism.

We are not on the verge of a new civil war, and no single issue in our moment matches slavery either in its morally evocative power or as a dividing line splitting the nation into two distinct social systems. But Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period (the late David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, “The Impending Crisis,” has helpfully been reissued) for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present.

The holiday itself and how it was transformed over the years also carry political lessons for us now.

Memorial Day, as veterans are always the first to remind us, is not the same as Veterans Day. Memorial Day honors the war dead; Veterans Day honors all vets. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vast and politically influential organization of Union veterans. The idea was to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. Students of the holiday believe that Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR (and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1884), eventually set May 30 as its date because that would be when flowers were in bloom across the country.

The South, of course, saluted the Confederate war dead. A group of women in Columbus, Miss., for example, decorated the graves of the Southern dead at the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. This and other comparable ceremonies led to a vigorous competition over where the holiday originated.

It was only after World War I that Memorial Day was established as a holiday commemorating the fallen in all American wars. And it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, although that has not stopped the disputes over where it began.

Seen one way, the Memorial Day story traces a heartening journey: a nation whose Civil War took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans (more than 2 percent of the U.S. population then) could and did gradually come back together. A holiday that was initially a remembrance of those who died because the nation was so riven is now a unifying anniversary whose origins are largely forgotten.

Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the roots of Memorial Day in our Civil War. Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July. The graves that Logan asked his contemporaries to decorate were a reminder that politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality (the pro-secession forces, for example, wrongly insisting that the resolutely moderate Abraham Lincoln was a radical) makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 25, 2016

May 30, 2016 Posted by | Civil War, Decoration Day, Memorial Day | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Some Americans Should Not Have Equal Rights?”: The Racist Roots Of The GOP’s Favorite New Immigration Plan

The year 1866 was an alarming one for xenophobes: Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, declaring “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power…to be citizens of the United States.” Though explicitly intended to grant citizenship to African-Americans, who’d been denied it by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case, wouldn’t the law also “have the effect of naturalizing the children of Chinese and Gypsies born in this country?” wondered Pennsylvania Senator Edgar Cowan. “Undoubtedly,” responded Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. When President Andrew Johnson vetoed the act, he too raised the specter of the Chinese and “the people called Gypsies.”

Congress overrode the veto, and went on to enshrine the principle of birthright citizenship in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Needless to say, fears about the children of the gypsies proved unfounded. Yet the idea that people with certain types of parents should be denied citizenship—and the associated rights—persisted. Late in the nineteenth century the government tried to withhold citizenship from the children of Chinese immigrants, but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court. Native Americans weren’t considered citizens until 1924. These days the target is Latino immigrants and their children. And thanks to Donald Trump, the nativist argument against birthright citizenship has moved from a sideline item to a centerpiece in the Republican primary.

In a set of immigration policies released Sunday, Trump called for an end to birthright citizenship, which he described as “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” Trump’s invocation of the fictitious “anchor baby” phenomenon isn’t particularly original. But what’s striking is that his implausible call for reinterpreting or rescinding the 14th Amendment has been taken up by so many of his competitors in the Republican field, including Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul. Chris Christie said recently that birthright citizenship should be “reexamined.” The much shorter list of those not in favor includes John Kasich (who previously advocated for revoking birthright citizenship), Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio, who stated that he is “open to exploring ways of not allowing people who are coming here deliberately for that purpose to acquire citizenship.”

The issue of birthright citizenship resurfaces every so often in Congress, but it’s never gotten much traction. Most recently Louisiana Senator David Vitter warned of the “exploding phenomenon” of “birth tourism,” and in March proposed to limit citizenship to those who have at least one parent with a green card or who’ve served in the military. Though bids like Vitter’s are more demagogic than actionable, some US-born children with undocumented parents already face hurdles related to their citizenship rights. Texas, for instance, recently began refusing to issue birth certificates to parents who use a photo ID from the Mexican Consulate as their only form of identification.

Kelefa Sanneh points out that, bluster aside, Trump is actually forcing a substantive policy debate. The substance is extreme: Walker, for instance, once supported comprehensive reform legislation that including labor rights and a pathway to legal status; now he is “absolutely” in favor of ending birthright citizenship. (So are 63 percent of Republicans, according to a 2010 Fox News poll.) While the GOP was once wondering whether Romney’s promotion of “self deportation” went too far, now candidates are pandering to the base’s racial anxieties with talk of undoing what historian Eric Foner characterizes as one of the Republican Party’s own “historic achievements.”

The irony is that doing so would dramatically increase the number of undocumented people living in the United States. (As has the militarization of the border.) Denying birthright citizenship to children with undocumented parents would bring the population of unauthorized people to as many as 24 million by 2050, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The result, according to MPI, would be the creation of “an underclass of unauthorized immigrants who, through no fault of their own, would be forced to live in the margins of US society.” In other words, undermining the 14th Amendment won’t solve the (nonexistent) problem of “birth tourism.” It would, however, do what the denial of citizenship has done since the era of Dred Scott: strip civil rights from a racialized group, facilitating their exploitation.

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, August 19, 2015

August 23, 2015 Posted by | 14th Amendment, Birthright Citizenship, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Commemorations Of The Lost Cause”: A More Perfect Union Comes From Accounting For The Past

The Confederate markers continue to tumble — flags, statues, monuments. After Dylann Roof associated his alleged atrocity with the Confederacy, politicians fell over themselves getting away from its symbols.

While a few supporters of the Old Dixie are resolute, most leading public figures want nothing to do with commemorations of the Lost Cause. Indeed, once NASCAR declared that the St. Andrew’s cross and stars was not a fit emblem for its franchise — where that flag has been always been revered — the earth shook.

So after decades of protests over the Rebel flag and other Confederate insignia, which enjoyed prominent display in public spaces for much too long, that battle appears over. Progressives won in a rout.

But the war has only just begun. America has yet to come to terms with its original sin: slavery. Until we do, the removal of flags and statues remains a small gesture, a harbinger of a reckoning not yet come. Some 239 years after that awe-inspiring Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — we are still in denial about the foundations upon which this republic was built.

Most high-school graduates can probably recite the bare outlines of the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise that allowed the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to adopt a founding document. That agreement counted each enslaved human being as three-fifths of a person.

(It remains a testament to the complex nature of the human enterprise that one of the greatest thinkers on liberty, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. When we speak of Jeffersonian democracy, what, exactly, do we mean?)

Some high-school grads may also be aware of the Dred Scott decision, rendered by the Supreme Court in 1857. It stated that even free black men had no rights that white men were bound to respect.

But here’s a fact you probably didn’t learn in your high-school history classes: Much of the wealth that the United States acquired early on was built on slavery, that ignominious institution in which one human being may own — own — another. As historian Eric Foner has put it: “The growth and prosperity of the emerging society of free colonial British America … were achieved as a result of slave labor.”

That wealth was not confined to the slave-owning South, either. Although the planters certainly owed most of their money to their unpaid laborers, Northern institutions also profited. Northern banks, insurance companies, and manufacturers all benefited — some more directly than others — from slave labor.

This is a great country, but it has a complicated history. The building of America was a violent, oppressive, and racist undertaking, not simply a virtuous tale of brave men breaking away from the overweening British Empire. The story of Colonists who were tired of paying high taxes on their imported tea is a well-told anecdote, but it neither begins nor ends a rather more painful narrative.

And enslaved Africans were not the only ones who suffered. Following the practices established by the European conquerors, the new government stole the best land from the Native Americans, consigning them to isolated corners of the country when it did not kill them outright.

Yet, our mythology and folklore acknowledge very little of that. That’s not in the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the poems we recite. It’s not only that history classes are haphazard and superficial, but also that our common tales are woven from misrepresentations, if not outright lies. Land of the free? Not at first.

Truth be told, history is a hard sell in these United States, no matter how it’s presented. We’re a moving-on people, hustling forward, closing the books, looking ahead. That has helped us in so many ways. Unlike, say, the Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, we don’t consume ourselves with arguments more than a millennium in the making.

Yet our failure to acknowledge a turbulent and cruel history is a hindrance, a barrier to a richer future. We can continue to perfect our union only through a full accounting of the past.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, July 4, 2015

July 7, 2015 Posted by | American History, Confederate Flag, Slavery | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Mark Of A Weak Organization”: The NRA And America’s Long History Of Absolutist Extremism

Watching Wayne LaPierre’s press conference today (transcript here) I found myself searching for various synonyms of “insane” to describe it. Unglued, unhinged, taken leave of his senses, etc. It reads like the nutty handwritten letters to the editor magazines get, complete with lots of italicizations and exclamation points.

But the truth is this is not true madness. It’s something as old as the country, which bears some eerie similarity to the extremism of the slavery movement, as a lovely piece Ta-Nehisi Coates put up today argued. Here’s a taste:

In the 1850s, slaveholders got their way in Congress (including a hardened Fugitive Slave Act), in the Supreme Court (the Dred Scott decision), and in the White House (occupied by a succession of doughfaces). But proslavery hardliners weren’t satisfied. They sought the resumption of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the Constitution had banned as of 1808. They branded moderates like Abraham Lincoln–who pledged to leave slavery alone in the South–as members of a “Black Republican” conspiracy to overthrow slavery. And they banished former allies such as Stephen Douglas, who lost his A-Rating for straying from the ultra-orthodox line that there must not be any restriction on slavery.

Rather than accede to Douglas’s nomination as Democratic candidate in the 1860 presidential election, which he might well have won, Southerners split the party and nominated one of their own, dividing the Democratic vote and paving Lincoln’s path to the White House. At which point, the Fire-Eaters led Southern states out of the Union rather than accept a democratically-elected president they opposed.

The NRA shows signs of similar derangement and over-reach. During the election, it demonized a president who had done nothing on gun control, claiming a “massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.” It has alienated staunch allies like Democrat John Dingell who resisted the NRA’s mad-dog campaign to hold Eric Holder in contempt over “Fast and Furious.” Other supporters who have deviated an inch from the NRA line have been targeted for electoral defeat.

This could be a positive development in the medium term, I suspect. The NRA still has a lot of clout, and they’re not clinically insane, but they’ve clearly lost the ability to know what they sound like to non-gun nuts, or a view of sensible tactics. That kind of overreach is the mark of a weak organization—one particularly vulnerable to being baited by the other side into overreach. I predict much trolling of the NRA in the coming weeks.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The American Prospect, December 21, 2012

December 22, 2012 Posted by | Guns, Public Safety | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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