Why statues matter

Statues are not history. Rarely is a statue erected at the moment that something historic happens. (For instance, the first statues of George Washington were over 40 years after his death.) This is because we need time and distance to see what is historic. And also because statues are not history. Statues are looking back through history, through the lens of our moment, and cherry-picking someone we think exemplifies something worth looking up to – literally. Statues are public civics lessons.

So statues matter less because of who they are and more because of why they were made. One of my favorite statues is one you have probably never seen and it is someone you probably don’t know. In the Indiana State House, there is a statue of Colonel Richard Owen. He was a geologist and university professor who served in the Mexican American War and the Union Army in the Civil War. The statue though….was commission in 1913, by Confederates who had been in a prison camp run by Owen. No, those are not typos. Owen set up standards for how to run a prisoner of war camp. (Standards that later became norms in something called the Geneva Convention.) Those norms included allowing the prisoners to maintain their rank structure and chain of command in the camp. Ensuring prisoners had enough to eat. Allowing them to write home and read books. In fact, this became well known during the Civil War because of the deplorable condition of most prison camps. So well known, that when Owen was later leading a regiment in the war and was captured, the Confederate General thanked him and released Owen and his regiment to return home “on parole.”

The Confederate veterans continued to recognize how special Owen as they heard horror stories about other camps. In 1913, they commissioned and paid for the statue. It was then given to the state of Indiana. It is the only statue of a Union soldier directly commissioned by Confederate veterans. And they did it for his “courtesy and kindness.” That is why it matters. That is the lesson they wanted taught.

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Are there other reasons to honor Owen? Sure. He was the first President of Purdue University. He was a very influential geologist. He was an abolitionist. He and his family were major leaders in Indiana history throughout the 1800s. But that isn’t why they did it. Read the plaque. READ. THE. PLAQUE. Even the Owen bust is cherry-picked history. The Confederates were not commissioning a memorial to an abolitionist. I wonder if they even knew that? If they had, would they have done it?

Which leads us to today’s topic. Statues of Confederate leaders. Why do we have them? It’s not like they were put up during the war. As mentioned before, statues come later. They weren’t even erected right after the war in most cases. Most of the contentious ones today were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. The height of segregation, lynching, voter suppression, and Jim Crow era power. Erected by white governments and white-controlled communities intent on cementing a sense of white power. Statues are also symbols of power. That’s why we make them larger than life.

So people were told, look up at these great powerful leaders! Look up at these cherry-picked historical moments! Look at our attempt to preserve slavery! And a solid reminder to African Americans as to where they belonged in the community (or didn’t belong as the case may be) and that “the South will rise again.” A reminder that African Americans were once owned by white people who would die to defend their right to own them. It’s not like the Southerners were erecting statues to Abraham Lincoln. Or statues of General Lee reading to children. They were being intentional about who they wanted people to look up to and how they wanted them to be seen.

And when a community decides that it no longer wants to look up at a statue and see that civics lesson, they can and should take it down. Putting a new plaque on it to change the meaning doesn’t work when you have spent decades using it as a tool to teach another lesson. Remember all those scenes of people tearing down Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq? Remember how we all laughed and cheered? They didn’t want that lesson anymore.

I’d love to see a park created for old statues. I’d love to see just row after row of statues and monuments in a park on the outskirts of town. One that we could take kids to and ask questions like – why is this here now? How has our culture changed over time? How has our community values changed? That would make for some excellent civics lessons.

Taking down statues doesn’t change history. Taking down statues says these are no longer the people from history who we want to look up to. These are no longer the people who we put on a pedestal. These are no longer the people we want our children to grow up to emulate. Statues are civics lessons, not history lessons. History will still be there in the books. We can still read about those people. We can even learn about why we took the statue down or moved to someplace else. Yes, we could also surround it with “opposing statues” but is putting Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglas next to a bunch of Confederate Generals really the same? (Or the first black professional tennis player….looking at you there Richmond). Unless we put Ulysses S. Grant on a horse headed directly at General Lee we are still teaching civics not history (and that wouldn’t be a very accurate history lesson anyway.)

 

Why does free speech only matter on college campuses?

I’m not dumb. I’ve seen the news. I realize that college campuses are a hotbed of free speech issues right now. And the backlash has primarily been directed at conservative speakers. Hence every Republican led state government is looking at some sort of “campus free speech” bill. But that is part of my point I think.

The “shout down,” “physical disruption,” and “mass intimidation” tactics that liberal students are using against conservative speakers are the very tactics many of them learned from the conservatives. Head over to your local Planned Parenthood and see how the religious zealots are handling things there.

Despite the focus on campus free speech issues there have been many more protests, counter-protests, and acts of violence related to off-campus free speech issues. But now, conservative state legislatures are suddenly worried – only because they see themselves as the victims – about campus free speech. When the crazy preacher guy is screaming at their daughters for being “sluts” for wearing shorts to class and gets shouted down by fellow students, they don’t seem to care.

What really set me off was an article about the Wisconsin legislature who wants to impose state mandated “sentencing” for those found guilty of violating free speech. Second offense gets you suspended and third gets you expelled. Yet there is no other law or campus code that has such a thing. Men found guilty of rape don’t get such a thing. Fraternities that cause the deaths of their members from hazing, drinking, and cover-ups don’t get such a thing. Let that sink in. Conservative law makers care more about not getting shouted down and harassed than they do about campus sexual assault or fraternity deaths.

The “free exchange of ideas” is a fundamental bedrock of higher education. But so is campus safety. If you are going to impose state mandated sentences, do it for all crimes and code violations. But then your rich white kids you send to those schools and join those privileged fraternities might face consequences…..better to just aim at the liberals and hope that your kids education doesn’t turn them into one of them.

 

Update: Nikki Haley, form South Carolina Governor and now Ambassador to the UN was heckled at the New York Pride parade. The woman who once defended the gay marriage ban was shocked she wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Maybe we will soon outlaw create free speech laws for parades as well.

…a million things started going through my head. And I thought I was gonna die.

“I know he had an object and it was dark, and he was pulling it out with his right hand. And as he was pulling it out I, a million things started going through my head. And I thought I was gonna die.”

Those are the words of a scared man. A man who is explaining why he shot another man. The words of a police officer who shot a man. A man he pulled over for his taillight being out. A black man who was out driving with his family. A black man who then did what he was supposed to do and told the officer he had a gun permit and had a gun in the car. Seconds later the officer shot him because the officer thought he was gonna die.

If you haven’t watch the police dash cam footage of the Philando Castile shooting, you should. White people, black people, red people, blue people. Everyone should watch it. It’s scary. Not because of the violence and death of Castile, but in how quickly the officer goes from a friendly tone saying “hey you got a light out” to fearing for his life because Castile tells him that he is legally armed. His fear seems to rocket up because it turns out he pulled over an armed black man. (Note that he reaches for his gun the moment Castile mentions being armed.)

It seems that many officers fear for their life upon meeting someone else that is armed, particularly if that person is of color. We are considerably less concerned with armed white men who blatantly use the threat of violence to get what they want (you do remember Y’all Qaeda and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff right?). We are willing to give them some space and “respect their rights.” But a black man clearly does not get the same right because an armed black man inspires fear in people including many police officers. Even if he is just out for a drive with his family and was stopped as a courtesy about his brake lights.

I’ve grown up around guns my whole life. I’m a former NRA member (I gave up on them about the same time George H.W. Bush gave back his lifetime membership.) Rule number one that I was taught (by cops!) was that you should always let an officer know that you are legally armed. Clearly, this only goes for white folks. But to be honest, now I’m a bit worried too.

I have known a bunch of cops in different agencies and types of places throughout my life including now. Most of them are really good people. But what I’ve noticed over the years is that they have become more and more sacred. More and more convinced that they have to shoot first or they won’t make it home. More of an “us or them” mentality. When talking about even the most mundane situations, they switch to language I associate with war in foreign countries even when they aren’t veterans.

I have yet to figure out what has changed in our culture in the last 20 years that has made our officers so scared. The 1980s cop movies were Police Academy, Beverly Hills Cop, and Dirty Harry. And CHiPs and Hill Street Blues were on tv. Then suddenly we had Colors. But the 1990s had lone cop movies like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. And NYPD Blue was on tv. But then back to the Colors-esque genre of Training Day, End of Watch, The Departed, etc. Even the tv shows about cops now days reflect this change with mass shootouts and over the top adrenaline in every show. Some of this reflected a growing population of heavily armed drug gangs, particularly in urban environments but the societal impact was much wider.

My anecdotal-based hypothesis is that we are attracting a different type of person to being in law enforcement today and cultivating a different mindset among our officers. We used to attract people who were interested in solving and preventing crime first and foremost. People who lived in and were vested in their community. People who saw policing as a mental exercise to help their community. Now, many of the newer officers seem to be primarily interested in just being a bad ass, wanting respect “for the badge,” and constantly seeking that adrenaline rush of confrontation. Therefore, I hear older officers lament how the newer ones don’t bother with the non-adrenaline stuff like paperwork, cold cases, and non-violent crime. (And the officers who do those things are looked down on.)

Maybe both of these types were always there. Maybe in the past, law enforcement did a better job of self-regulation to control for these things. But most of the questionable shootings done by officers today seem to come from this newer generation of officers. I’ve not floated this theory among my law enforcement friends. But when I talk to that older generation about the younger ones, I see the often silent acknowledgement that things have changed even if they can’t put their finger on it.

How do we change this? How do we reverse this trend as a society? There is no one solution. Part of it is internal to the law enforcement community. Another part of it is on us. I think law enforcement officers need a wider breadth of experience before becoming law enforcement. They need more time with the general public, outside their own comfort bubble. More time spent around people who are different from them – socially, economically, culturally, racially, etc.

One system already in place to do this is higher education. We could actually require college degrees for law enforcement. A 2010 study from Police Quarterly found that officers with a college education are less likely to resort to use of force compared to those without a degree. Nationally, the rate of officers with a degree is very low. Stats vary widely but I’ve not see any above 40%. This isn’t new. In the 1960s, the federal government studies of law enforcement were recommending bachelor’s degrees.

I also think we need to change the system. Taking 2-3 years for someone to go from job application to officer on patrol is a lot of time. During that time, we need to find ways to build in this cross-cultural experience. They need to work in the community and get to know people. We also need to diversify our police officers as much as possible and building in programs that support applicants from underrepresented groups in the population.

Lastly, “I felt threatened” can’t remain as a blanket defense for police officers in a court of law. It isn’t considered justifiable for the military or those working overseas, so why do we allow it as a justification for police officers in the US. It isn’t even a universal justification for non-police officers despite some notable cases like Trayvon Martin (where again, his biggest threat was being a black male.)

In order to reduce their fear, we need to get rid of the “us and them” mentality both among police officers and among underrepresented groups. They need to come from the community. They need to understand the community. They need to be part of the community. Then maybe getting pulled over for a brake light being out and mentioning you are a legal gun owner won’t seem like a threat to an officers life.

 

 

Why no one, let alone a U.S. state, should celebrate Confederate Memorial Day

Let’s talk about the “heritage” that comes with the Confederacy. A failed, four-year attempt at establishing a nation based on the enslavement of black people. The succession documents and speeches of the leaders are very clear that slavery is the heart of the issue. Mississippi said: “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.” (source)

If you have been fooled into believing that the Confederacy was about “state’s rights” you are not only historically illiterate, you also don’t understand state’s rights. The “state’s rights” that were at stake related slavery. And even then, it was a fear — a fear — not a forgone fact, that slavery would be ended by the federal government. Racism in the North meant that slavery probably would have existed (though not expanded) for sometime still.

The primary complaint of the states that succeeded was that non-slave states were not returning their runaway slaves to them. Those states were not doing it because they had laws that didn’t recognize people as property. Therefore, there was no property to be returned.

If you argue state’s rights was the issue think about this. Hand gun laws, marijuana laws, and umpteen other laws are not universal in the US. The right of states to set their own laws is still in place. So clearly the issue wasn’t a state having their laws trumped by the feds. In fact, the constitution supported slavery. The state’s rights issue concerned if a state was obligated to search for and return escaped slaves to another state. Southern states wanted their stolen property returned (even if it ran off on its own). Northern state’s did’t view people as property. So which state’s right was at stake?

The other state’s rights issue, which likely has a better argument but brought up much less often, was that the federal government was outlawing slavery in new territories and determining which new states would be slave and which would be free. As opposed to allowing the residents of those territories and states to decide if they would be free or slave. I’m no constitutional law scholar, but yes, one could argue that might have been overreach on their part to dictate what the laws would be in those states without consent of the governed. However, the argument among the pro-slavery extremists was that since the Constitution recognized slavery, it didn’t matter what people there voted for, all of the US had to recognize slavery. Hence a constitutional amendment was later necessary.

So let’s not memorialize and celebrate the Confederacy. That four-year failed attempt at establishing a pro-slavery nation. There are so many wonderful things about Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. I’ve lived in those states. I know they have some wonderful pieces of their history that have nothing to do with the Confederacy. Let’s celebrate the total history of those states from their start through now and not just the four year peak of racism.

 

Is your church a photograph or a movie?

For some folks, church is what it is the moment they joined it. At that moment they agree to accept it and it accepts them. Very few people join a church for “where it is going.” People join a church for “where it is” socially, culturally, theologically, spiritually, and physically at that moment. From that point on, any change, difference of opinion, or adaptation to circumstances means a derivation of what they agreed to on the day they joined. And if all parties don’t agree, then obviously they have the option of leaving. No one is forced to stay. That includes the fact that as church culture, doctrine, or social issues change over time, they resist that change.

I like to think of that moment as a photograph. A beautiful photograph capturing a special moment when you joined the church. A moment now locked in time and not able to be changed. And a picture is further limited. You can’t look just outside the frame or see what is going on behind the camera. You don’t see what else was happening or people who weren’t in the picture. Nothing comes or goes from a picture.

 We need to stop dwelling on those photographs. We need to change this mentality. The memories are beautiful, informative, and fun to reminisce about but their limitations put limits on us. We need to think of our church as a movie. We need to start filming movies. We need to tell stories over time with actors. There may even occasionally be a plot twist. Your opinions of characters, ideas, and sub-plots change as the movie goes on. A movie is constantly full of new revelations about characters, places, and sub-plots often from places outside of the view of the first camera angle. And new characters, new scenes, and new issues come into the script.

Our goal should be that the church is constantly moving. Our members are all actors in the story, not bystanders or extras. We all need to take a role and help work on the plot and work towards a happy ending. Use the photographs to reflect and tell the backstory in the movie but don’t spend the whole movie staring at them.

 Pictures are worth a thousand words but they are words locked in time. When we constantly try to keep only that first photograph as our view of the church, we not only limit the church, we limit ourselves and our own opportunities for growth.

Permission to speak freely?

What is free speech? I mean, we use that term all the time. I’m sure there is some legal definition somewhere that almost nobody knows. In pop culture, we think it is some guy standing on a street corner protesting the nuclear bombs or the right to write whatever you want in a blog and post it on the internet. That’s free speech right?

Is free speech an action or a concept? Is it a social construct? Is it subject to change, interpretation, and more importantly – situational?

Is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater free speech? What about yelling “bomb” on a plane? If you have a gun in your hand and yell “I’m going to kill you!” at someone, is that free speech?

If you and I both have something to say that opposes each other, do we both have a right to say it? What if one of us intimidated the other into not speaking? Were someone’s rights infringed there? What if one of us just shouts over the other is that still free speech? If I bring my friends to help me shout over you?

Does free speech protect a minority opinion? Was it what protected the civil rights movement? Abolitionists? Does it protect the Klan and Neo-Nazis? How minority of an opinion can it be and still be protected?

If we say that we are open to all, and one of those all espouses an opinion we don’t agree with, are we open to all? Or are we only open to those whose speech doesn’t offend us? If we are only open to speech that doesn’t offend us, is that really free speech?

Does a group have a right to invite whoever they want to speak to the group? Is that free speech? Does religion matter? What if it is a religious view we totally disagree with? A political view we totally disagree with? If the group is threatened by those who want to shut down their opinions and views, do we as a community have a right to defend them and support them?

At what point does majority rule and over ride your freedom of speech?

 

Can straight white males be progressives?

It’s a question that as a straight white male, I have struggled with. Not to mention adding in the additional layers of being a parent, a veteran and a regular “church-goer” (to those outside UU, we are typical church). There are several lens with which to view this question. (Leave it to a philosopher to correct his own question.)

First, can I overcome my straight white maleness to see the issues of people that are historically marginalized by a society run by straight white males?

I think I’ve tried. I don’t know that I will ever be perfect at it. I don’t know that anyone is ever perfect at overcoming themselves and their own experiences. I read, watch, and listen to feminist, GLBT, and racial/ethnic minority perspectives as well as attempt to include them in my thinking. I agree with them most of the time. I’m historically literate and know that there is bias in history that leads to present-day issues.

Second, if I use my straight white male privilege to amplify the voices and perspectives of marginalized persons, am I not invoking the very privilege I’m trying to dissolve?

For instance, a couple years ago, a group of older white males were repeatedly dismissing the issues my twenty-something female colleague was bringing up in a patronizing sort of way. I fired off an emotionally charged email (rarely a good idea) about their unwillingness to deal with the problem because of who was voicing the concern. After some chastisement from my supervisors, the issue was immediately addressed and resolved. They have since listened to her repeatedly but at least initially, it was more out of fear. (They seem to listen now out of both habit and respect.) But often I don’t have the longevity to see if my use of my privilege has a lasting impact.

Third, and maybe the toughest, when it comes to employment, when I do I allow my career ambitions to take a back seat to the promotion of historically underrepresented persons?

It happens that I work in a field with a strong collection of women, racial minority, and GLBT persons. So when an opportunity for promotion comes open, there have always been candidates from these groups also applying. When I am selected over them, regardless of qualifications, I hear remarks about the persistence of the straight white males in positions of power and privilege and how it is a shame I was hired over an equally qualified person who was not a straight white male. At times, knowing a qualified colleague who was not a straight white male was putting in for a position, and wanting to support them, I have chosen to not apply and openly supported them. But how often do we expect, encourage, or accept, straight white males who are willing to do such a thing? Even when it means passing up a career opportunity or a financial incentive for a working-class family. And has mentioned in the previous question, how you do such things also has career ramifications.

Last, is the question of voice. Is my voice less valuable in the diversity conversation?

When I work with people from marginalized groups, I find I am often shunted into a role of limited agency. When I write about the history of women or African Americans, there is the inevitable question “Why is a white guy doing this work?” As if straight white male historians are limited to only straight white male history. Isn’t that the problem?

I don’t say this out of seeking some pity or “woah is me” attitude. I say it out of answering an earnest question from a colleague about why aren’t more straight white male allies of women and minorities.  There are still more straight white males in this country than any other single group. And as a whole, they are more conservative and hold more power than any other single group. It isn’t easy for a straight white male to try to offload some of that either philosophically, physically, or financially. Hence, the limits to what many are willing to do.