Take no pride in the stars and bars

This should be an easy call for everyone: the battle flag of the Confederate States of America is a symbol of traitors who went to war against their own country with the primary goal of preserving their ability to buy and sell human beings as property.  I don’t understand why that flag has been treated with respect anywhere since the day Lee surrendered to Grant.

This was never an issue for me as a kid: either we lived in New York, Ohio or Minnesota where I don’t remember ever seeing the Stars and Bars displayed, or we lived in Alabama and Texas but I was too young to understand what the flag symbolized, or how often one would see it flying.  I admit, ashamedly, that once I was old enough to understand, I didn’t think much of it: so what if a neighboring high school was named after Robert E. Lee, and their mascot was the Rebels, and the Confederate battle flag was their flag.  It didn’t register for me, meant nothing.

The first time I experienced cognitive dissonance over the display of Confederate symbols was when I arrived at college, at The University of Texas at Austin, in the fall of 1975.  Suddenly there were a lot of places where people were very seriously, and very publicly, paying homage to the men who provoked a war with America over the issue of slavery.

Mostly for me, it was the statues. The South Mall, just beyond the plaza in front of the Main Building—the Texas Tower—features heroic statues of three icons of the Confederacy: CSA president Jefferson Davis, and army generals Robert E. Lee and Albert S. Johnston (plus CSA postmaster general John Reagan).  They were put 3371952120_246b01a6ed_zthere in the early 20th century, along with a statue of President Woodrow Wilson and one of former Texas Governor James Hogg, in conjunction with the Littlefield Fountain, all envisioned as a grand entry to the university and a memorial for the university students who died in World War I, which in the sculptor’s view was the beginning of real healing after the Civil War since it was the first time Americans from all across the country started to act as citizens of the same country again.  There was also supposed to be a statue of George Washington that didn’t get finished in time due to finances, and it was later placed nearby.  (A good short history of the UT statues is here, in a recent article in the Austin Chronicle.)

You put up a statue of someone, you’re honoring them and what they did and stood for in their lives.  For me, one day on the South Mall, I finally thought, why the hell is my university honoring traitors?  Racist traitors?  Why do we in Texas name streets and schools and public buildings after these people?  The fountain nearby (pictured) has an inscription memorializing those who died in WWI, and a second inscription recognizing another conflict:

To the men and women of the Confederacy, who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states’ rights be maintained and who, not dismayed by defeat nor discouraged by misrule, builded from the ruins of a devastating war a greater South and to the men and women of the nation who gave of their possessions and of their lives [so] that free government be made secure to the peoples of the earth this memorial is dedicated.

Just a few more blocks to the south, on the grounds of the state capital, there’s a Confederate Soldiers Monument, and another to the 8th Texas Cavalry known as Terry’s Texas Rangers.  What the f***?

The shooting deaths of nine people in a Charleston church last week, by a young man who used the Confederate battle flag as part of his symbology of white supremacy, has sparked (seemingly from out of nowhere) a lot of discussion about the propriety of governmental display of these symbols of racism , and caused me to consider the issue.  Let me be clear about my position.

I’m not saying that all the Confederate flags and all the statues of all the Confederate “statesmen” and generals, and all the memorials to the Confederate soldiers, should be banned or removed or destroyed.  I’m not suggesting we pretend that the Civil War didn’t happen; we need museums and displays that can tell the story in context.

I am saying, those people were wrong to enslave their fellow men and women and children, and they were wrong to try to secede from the United States so they could continue to do so; they lost the war they started, which cost their part of the country most dearly in lives and treasure.  And we as a people, as a nation, as state institutions, should not be seeming to honor them and their actions by displaying their flag.  As individuals, you or I can fly any flag we choose, for whatever reason; but there is no reason I can think of that any government entity in the United States should make any prideful display of the symbols of a failed racist rebellion.

And let’s be clear about the motives: the states of the Confederacy fought that war to protect their ability to engage in human slavery. Ta-Nahesi Coates has the goods in a recent article in The Atlantic.

The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.

And examine it he does, using the words of the secessionists to deny any modern-day claim that the Confederacy was not about preserving slavery. 

  • South Carolina: “…A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.”
  • Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…”
  • Louisiana: “As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of an­nexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
  • Texas: “…in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states….”

You get the idea.  Civil War documentarian Ken Burns backs up the argument; South Carolina state senator Paul Thurmond, son of famous racist and Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, says the “heritage” some claim to be glorifying is nothing to be proud of.

All the talk of “state’s rights” is just polish on the pig: the right that the Confederate States of America was trying to protect was the right to own other human beings.  Their agricultural economy depended on free labor in the fields and in the master’s house.  Those people fought a war to maintain slavery in this country; that’s not worthy of our respect, and neither is their flag.


What happened in Paris this morning?  Well, for starters, it’s not about cartoons:

…this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.

What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count.

Read Ezra Klein’s essay.  And this one by Joe Randazzo, a former editor of The Onion.

If it turns out that members of Al Qaeda or some other radical “Islamic” sect carried out this attack, the saddest, most profoundly ironic thing about it will have been that the satire worked. It did its job. It so threatened its target, cut so deeply at the truth, that it resorted to the most cowardly, most offensive and despicable form of lashing out.

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

It’s about freedom—of speech and of religion.  Yes, I know that the people who committed the murders in Paris today probably aren’t Americans with an American’s sense of those freedoms—more the reason why people who do have an American’s sense of freedom should be spreading the message.

The TV news is an ass, the sequel

I failed to give credit where it was due when I wrote early yesterday about how television “news” ignored the dramatic events at the Texas state capitol.  There was a filibuster-to-adjournment over a bill that would drastically reduce the availability of abortions in Texas and that caused citizens to fill the galleries, and later to express their anger when they saw, plain as day, the lieutenant governor and his supporters try to railroad the process, and at one point saw that an official record of a vote had been changed.  I was annoyed that I couldn’t follow the story on television–it was not being covered on any of my local stations in Houston nor on any of the national cable “news” channels.  I was keeping up on Twitter.

What I neglected to do was to consult other avenues available on the Inter-Webs, and I was reminded of that today by Time and by Rachel Sklar.  The state senate was live-streaming itself, and the big show was available on other live streams, too, with some great work done by the Austin American-Statesman.  Congratulations to them all for recognizing a newsworthy event when they saw one and doing something to let the rest of us keep up.

Time: “As protesters massed in the gallery, the GOP majority attempted to close debate and bring a vote, and Democrats maneuvered to stall after their rivals forced [Senator Wendy] Davis to stop speaking on procedural grounds, well over 100,000 YouTube viewers were tuned to the channel–closer to 200,000 as zero hour approached. That’s a six-figure viewership, after primetime in most time zones, watching legislators argue over Robert’s Rules of Order and who properly held the floor.”

Sklar: “The clock struck midnight. Victory! They had run out the clock! The chants continued. Twitter exploded. But that was weird, it seemed like that vague roll call was still going on. What, exactly, was going on in that huddle by the Chair?

This is what was going on: They were taking the vote. It was after midnight, and suddenly that strict adherence to rules didn’t seem so strict anymore. Whispers were trickling out, confirmed by the AP: SB5 had passed, 17-12.

Twitter was going bananas. I checked the networks again. CNN was re-running Anderson Cooper. MSNBC was re-running Lawrence O’Donnell. Fox was re-running Greta van Susteren. Journalist Lizzie O’Leary tweeted, ‘Interesting choice you made tonight, cable news executives.'”

By now you’ve heard how it turned out: the good old boys intent on changing a law that most Texans thought didn’t need changing (and despite having failed in their effort to change the law during the regular session, by the way) were gobsmacked at the reaction of the crowd, yet tried to push ahead and took a vote on the bill after the deadline and declared victory, only to be confronted with not only the evidence of their failure to act within the rules of the chamber but evidence that someone messed with the records (Anthony De Rosa posted screenshots of the evidence, here and then here) and ultimately conceded defeat of the bill on other technical grounds.  And just as expected, Governor Haircut issued a call for another special session starting next week so legislators can have a third bite at the apple.

Yeah, but we didn’t need to see any of that live as it happened, did we…

UPDATE 6/28 8:00 am CT: Patti Kilday Hart at Houston’s Leading Information Source solves the mystery over the conflicting reports of when the Texas Senate voted on the abortion restriction bill, and it turns out there was no hanky-panky.  The respected secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw explains that the vote started before the special session ended at midnight–she knows because it’s her job to check the clock before starting the roll call–and the rules allow such a vote to count; because of the noise in the chamber the staffer charged with recording the vote had to leave her desk to hear the result, and it was past midnight when she returned to her workstation to enter the result; someone later manually changed the date in the system to reflect the correct date of passage.  But the bill ultimately was not passed legally because, as Lt. Gov. Dewhurst said at the time, it hadn’t been signed by the presiding officer “in the presence of the Senate” as required by the state constitution: all official action of the special session ended the moment the senators left the chamber (because of the noise) after midnight, and could not resume when they returned some time later Wednesday morning.

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to www.facebook.com/nationalrifleassociation now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.

Judging news judgment

I boarded this train of thought reading  Ted Koppel’s op/ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post in which he eloquently denounces the cable networks’ proliferation of opinion-as-news programming.  I mostly agree with his complaint that Fox News and MSNBC have given up any pretense of being objective in favor of creating an “idealized reality.”

They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.

In this essay Koppel seems to put a lot of the blame on the desire to turn a profit; I find that disturbing.  No one in this argument should be against the idea of the Koppel_11_25companies turning a profit, and Koppel himself has proudly noted in the past that Nightline made a pile of money for ABC, although he says they did so with high standards.  I see that Koppel, in the end, is lamenting the death of any effort at real reporting, the loss of any non-partisan effort to uncover facts that can illuminate the truth.

So last night on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann did what he does: protest perhaps a bit too much about being the subject of criticism and spend a lot of valuable minutes proving points that were never called into question.  Mostly though, he gratuitously blasted Koppel for not having done on “Nightline” what Olbermann believes he does on his program—seek for truth, particularly about the war in Iraq.  (Click on the picture to see the whole commentary; runs something over 12:00.)


Credit where I think credit is due: Olbermann did his damnedest to get America to see the ugly truth about the Bush Administration and the Iraq war, in the spirit of Murrow’s takedown of Joseph McCarthy.  But as he himself has admitted, in a previous incarnation Olbermann squandered an inordinate amount of precious airtime on the Monica Lewinsky “story.”  Nobody’s perfect.

The important issue here is news judgment.  In Olbermann’s examples of Murrow’s reports from London, and when Cronkite made clear the fiasco of Vietnam and the importance of Watergate, their reports were  the result of a collective decision within their organization about what was news: what was important, what had lasting value, what did the audience need to know about.  In Koppel’s examples of the shouting heads on today’s cable network programs, the reports are the result of a collective decision within those organizations about what will grab attention: what is current, what has flash, what does the audience want to hear.

Koppel’s complaints focus on cable programs, not the broadcast networks and their news programs.  I don’t think those guys have any room to crow when it comes to news judgment when you consider their response to news from London of a wedding within the royal family: leading with the story as “breaking news,” dispatching armies of troops immediately to London, and planning major special reports.

Really?  Is there really anything more pointless, or with less real substance or import to our future, than the wedding of British royalty?  What does it say about our news media when we see them drool on themselves at this news?  Personally, I laughed at the headline Unemployed English girl to wed solider from welfare family, but that’s just me.

I’m not completely pessimistic about the future of journalism; I believe there will always be some place to get an honest recitation of what’s gone on, along with some perspective to help me make sense of my world.  But I know that it will not be from the Tribune Company’s TV station here in Houston.

KIAH-TV is moving ahead with a plan developed by the ousted corporate boss Lee Abrams to do away with traditional newscasts altogether.  They need “preditors” to run this new paradigm, and there’s no pretense: the ad says clearly that they aren’t interested in experience or credentials, they value the ability to make noise and grab attention; heat, not light…flash, not value.

And that’s fine, too—it’s their station and they can put whatever they want on their air.  But when it’s about news judgment, we all need to think about who we want to trust.

(Note: the spell-check dictionary didn’t like the word “Olbermann’s”; it recommended “Doberman’s”…I’m just saying.)

(Would you look at that: a post with Prince William, royal wedding, and Monica Lewinsky tags…I should be ashamed.)