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.

IMG_3825 - Copy

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.)

 

Advertisements

…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.

 

 

Shouting people down is not the same as free speech

I have watched it play out on campus after campus this past year. And it has begun to creep into off-campus protests and events as well including local government meetings and civic events. Somewhere along the way, we have confused shouting people down with free speech. When it is rather the opposite. It is suppression. I am specifically talking about the idea that free speech means being allowed to stand in someone’s face and scream at them or disrupt and shut down an event.

Let me set a ground rule before I start. I don’t believe all ideas are equally valid. I don’t even think all ideas are worth giving air time to or listening too. However, all people, have a right to their own ideas. They have a right to gather together and discuss their ideas with like minded people. And to a certain extent, the government should not be involved in suppressing those rights. In fact, this is the very thing the has built progressive America into what it is today. I have an even bigger concern when the legislatures start weighing in with free speech bills and legislation that are clearly punitive to one side or idea.

The majority of the context I am speaking about is with higher education. Let me begin by telling you a secret. [whispers] There are conservative students, faculty, and staff in higher education. And that’s okay. A certain vocal minority within the left has convinced themselves that higher education, particularly large, public, liberal arts colleges, are bubbles of pure untouched left wing thinkers whose only limitation is the moderately left leaning administration.

Then when some small conservative group (or any group with an idea they find questionable) gets together – regardless of cause – they immediately want to hound them, suppress them, shout them down, and drive them from campus. This is not freedom of speech nor the free exchange of ideas. This is mob mentality, intimidation, and suppression. This is not what we claim our institutions value.

Three years ago, at my nearby college, the largest campus religious group invited a nationally known anti-GLBT speaker. The speaker is a strong advocate of being able to “pray the gay away”. Almost no one noticed. This year, that same group, has noticeably limited their advertisements about who they are inviting and has actually started employing security for their meetings. The largest. campus. religious. group.

This sort of “majority rules” “mob-intimidation mentality” that forces people to think and act like the majority wants them to act is dangerous – be it left, right, up, or down. And the truth is that it isn’t really a majority. It is another minority (for now). But it is a minority to whom the largely left-of-center campus is sympathetic. And as such, few seem to perceive the danger in this and many are willing to tolerate it. Though few are around to actually watch when dozens of shouting people surround one or two lone people and scream them down. The intimidation and fear is real and intentional. But afterwards and beforehand, the crowd wants to label it “free speech.”

I worry about this as the military has previously been a target of visceral free speech. The Martin Niemöller statement of “First they came for the socialists….” sticks in my head. So now, me, a social liberal, religious progressive, and social justice advocate, has to say we’re going too far. (Maybe it’s not “too far,” maybe it is just the wrong direction?)

I was proud of our local college when they did not let an invited speaker get suppressed by those who proudly boasted of their intent to disrupt the event and shut it down. Even though some students, faculty, and locals made it cost a fortune and made it get ugly. Yes, I found myself being proud that we let a conservative speaker with some ideas that resound of racism and bias come speak. That part hurts I admit. I’m not proud that we invited him but I’m proud that our students who invited him were able to hear him. I was not proud that some in our community’s plan to protest it was to shut it down. Too often the majority has ruled by intimidation and suppression. We can’t allow this to be the way our emerging progressive majority acts if want to claim to be inclusive.

Thoughts on War and Peace

Firefighters regularly go door to door or to community events to talk to people about fire safety and to install smoke detectors. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

Police officers go out to schools and community events to explain the laws and educate people about them. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

Search and rescue professionals go out and teach kids and adults how not to get lost or get hurt. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

Emergency room doctors go out and speak to the public about the dangers of drunk driving. They are doing so with the hope of having to do their job less often.

So why is it so weird in our culture that a soldier might to out and promote peace in the hopes of having to do their job less often? Why do we assume that if one is in the business of war, they are pro-war and anti-peace. No one accuses the fire fighter of being pro-fire or the doctor of being pro-injury.

I easily admit there are folks in the military who are pro-war. Often on some quest to prove their toughness, avenge a perceived wrong, or simply to see if they can do it. There are those in all these fields who have a misguided desire for hero status.

Case in point #1, a reserve soldier I know recently said on social media in response to someone commenting about concealed carry laws: “I don’t carry a gun because I want to shoot people. That’s crazy. I carry a gun so I have the option of protecting myself, my family or the weak and innocent from the forces of evil.” Admittedly, I’m not sure how much “evil” lives in his small rural Midwestern town.

Case in point #2, a police officer I know who has a hard time walking away from his job. When he is off duty he still reads emails and listens to his radio and then laments that he wasn’t there “on that bust” or “on that call.” As opposed to lamenting that it had to happen in the first place and spending his free time trying to keep it from happening.

But the folks with this pro-hero mentality aren’t all or even most of the people I’ve encountered. The problem is, we let them dominate the conversation. We in the military and first responder community let those folks get away with spouting off those things. And then we begin to think that we are the minority. And then we start to think that those of us who are perfectly happy only having to use our skills as a last resort are the few and far between. We aren’t. We are the silent majority.

That impacts how other people see us outside of our agency as well. The military is the worst about it because so many veterans claim to speak for the the entire military and say absurdly pro-war things. The the anti-war veterans remain quiet. Or worse yet, some of the biggest pro-peace, anti-war advocates I know, are veterans but don’t mention their veteran status and don’t include it in their biographical info. Because they too have succumb to this idea of thinking they are a minority. And they think it will detract from their message.

We need to change this thinking. We need more military leaders who say “this war isn’t a good idea” to the President, Congress, and public. We need more military folks invested, passionate, trained, and leading in the peace process. How do you expect to establish peace with a bunch of folks that only know war and don’t see peace as part of their job? The principles of establishing a lasting peace have to be part of the conduct of war not the opposite of it.

“Good policing” can not be based on the number of arrests. It has to be based on the lack of crime.

“Good war” can not be based on the number of kills. It has to be based on the lasting peace.

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.

 

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.