Monday, April 26, 2010

The Executioner's (Happy) Song

It's one of the thorniest aspects of the capital punishment issue. And yet we rarely talk about it, hiding our heads in shame, hoping it will go away.

I'm not talking about the legal niceties here, not about what might or might not be cruel and unusual. Ethics schmethics. I'm talking about the "image problem" state-sanctioned killing causes. We all have to be conscious of our image in this Facebook-saturated, twittering society, and governments who kill people are no different. They worry about their image too.

Take, for example, the problem one Ronnie Lee Gardner has caused the good folks in Utah. Gardner was sentenced to death in Utah in 1985. Back then, death-row prisoners got to choose the method of their own execution (hey, it was a more permissive time) and Ronnie Lee chose the old-fashioned firing squad. Fast forward 25 years, and now Utahans (Utah-ites?) don't want to load up the 30-30s "because of the media attention and bad image" they feel firing squads bring to their state. (Quoted NY Times, 4/24) They would prefer that he be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of chemicals. (The NRA, which funds much of Utah politics, has objected strenuously to "this blatent assault on the 2nd ammendment." "Guns are how we've always killed people," an NRA spokeman said, "Not just in Utah, but in every damn state in the nation. Shooting people with guns is one of our most deeply cherished American traditions.")

Or look at the problem the Saudis are now confronting. The Saudis want to kill Ali Hussain Sibat because he was convicted of "sorcery" for, among other things, predicting the future. (Presumably, not his own, or not very successfully). Being a less enlightened society than Utah, Saudi Arabia prefers to execute people by chopping their heads off with a long, curved sword. But you see the problem: doing so would make Saudi Arabia look like the sort of country that would, well, chop off someone's head with a long, curved sword. How is the Riyadh Tourist and Convention Bureau supposed to do market that!? (The SLCSA - Saudi Long Curved Sword Assocation - has objected strenuously to the delay in this execution. "Long curved swords are how we've always killed people," an SLCSA spokeman said, "Chopping off heads with long curved swords is as Saudi as stoning women for adultery.")

So I say to Utah: shoot Ronnie Lee and do so proudly. Don't worry that this public execution might become a public spectacle. It won't harm your state's image one whit. In fact, why not use it as the basis of a PR campaign: "Utah - XXX days since a botched execution. We're much better than Ohio!" or "Utah: We'll shoot you if you if you ask real nice!"

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Who Speaks for the Banks??!!

What do you see when you look at Mitch McConnell?

I know. You see a shriveled old white guy, the sort of guy whose sagging face screams "restricted country club!" You see a face - nay, a person - of the sort that Grant Wood used to paint. Kentucky Gothic.

But I'll tell you what I see as I look into those doleful eyes. I see vulnerability. I see pathos. I see loneliness. I see the Lorax, with a southern drawl.

You remember the Lorax, right? The Dr. Seuss book? He was the fuzzy little creature who tried all by himself to defend the forest against the ravages of industry. He famously took his solitary and courageous stand: "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you sir, at the top of my lungs - that thing! That horrible thing that I see! What's that thing you've made out of my truffula tree?"

That's Mitch McConnell. Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell has taken on the loneliest cause of righteousness in our country today: Defending Ginormo Wall Street Banks from any sort of reform.

Sure, it's easy to pick on the banks and the bankers. It's easy to blame them for, well, everything they screwed up for the rest of us. Fish in a barrel easy. And all this anger about how we had to bail them out? Well, that has really brought out our uncharitable side, hasn't it. They needed our help - when your neighbor comes over for a cup of sugar, you don't hold it against them for the rest of eternity, do you? Are you proud of yourself for all that anger?

Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell is defending the banks as a way of appealing to the better angels of our nature, and progressive people ought to applaud his lonely work. After all, he is the Senate Minority Leader, and aren't we progressives always trying to champion the interests of minorities? Likewise, The Louisville Lorax is simply trying to protect this tiny number of bankers from the bullying of a great mob. There are so many of us, and so few of them - they need someone to stick up for them, and Mitch "The Lorax" McConnell has taken on that job.

So the next time you see The Louisville Lorax on TV, or hear him deliver his talking points in that weird way where he repeats everything he says three times but doesn't actually say anything, or at least anything that Frank Luntz didn't write for him because that's all he really knows how to read, don't get angry. Repeat after me:

"I speak for the banks, for the banks have no tongues (Note: strictly speaking they have dozens and dozens of high-paid lobbyists who function as their tongues). And I'm asking you Sir (presumably here President Obama, who Mitch would never call "sir" but probably "boy") at the top of my lungs - that reform. That horrible reform that I see. What's that reform you've made out of my truffala tree?"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Civil War - Now 100% Slavery-Free!

Let me start by saying that I wrote the last essay before I learned that the Republican Governor of Virginia had declared a "Confederate History Month" purged of any mention of slavery. I confess as well that as a history professor - you know, a PhD in history, lots of courses in history, lots of courses I've taught, yadda yadda - I always thought the the Civil War was really fought over the issue of slavery. So I thank the Honorable Governor for setting me straight on this.

But it got me to thinking. If I've so completely misunderstood the Civil War, then perhaps I've misunderstood lots of other things about Southern history too. And if its time to celebrate the Confederacy, then why not party over those other things as well. Why stop at Confederate History Month in Virginia?! Here are some ideas for other celebrations we should mark throughout the calendar:

Segregation Appreciation Days! - Let's take a week and turn back the clock, back past 1954 (Brown v. Board) all the way back to 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson). For this week, let's bring back the rich traditions of segregation to the South. You know, like separate water fountains. Denny's Restaurants could refuse to serve black patrons and NOT have to worry about being sued. Because after all, segregation was really about "states' rights" - not about keeping negroes in their place.

Plantation Days! - Not too many people in the South actually own plantations any more, but we can update those good old days can't we? The plantations may be gone, but lots of white folks in the South have lawns right? And those lawns are often cared for by landscaping companies that employ Mexicans. So during Plantation Days, just don't pay them. Threaten to call the immigration authorities if they make a stink about it. They'll get back to mulching right quick I reckon. I'm thinking sometime in the spring when the magnolias are blooming for this.

Gov. Orval Faubus Week! - During the first week of the new school year let's honor the great states' rights champion, Arkansas' own Orval Faubus, by standing in the doorway of our local schools and refusing entrance to any non-white kids. Especially the Asians, who work harder than our kids and are getting better grades and going to better colleges. I hate that.

Secession Summertime! - All that talk by Gov. Rick Perry and others about seceding from the Union is just hot air. Southern states don't want to leave America - they can't afford it. Not with the balance of payments being what they are. Geez, if the South really did try to form its own country (again), its social statistics would resemble Nicaragua's, only without the charm and with much worse food. But during Secession Summertime all those Yankee tourists could be treated like foreign visitors, forced to show ID papers or passports, shaken down for cash at the border. That sort of thing. Who knows? maybe that would raise enough money to ease that balance of payments.

The Klan Kat Walk! - Let's face it: One of the reasons the Klan has dwindled of late is the fashion. Very few of us look all that good in nothing but white, the cuts on the robes and hoods aren't flattering and it's really tough to get the barbeque stains out. Why not put a little hipster edge into the ol' KKK by sponsoring some Klan fashion shows? See what creative variations on the old standard can be. Could be a way to promote young, up-and-coming designers, maybe raise a little money for the local John Birch Society. Just because you're going to a cross burning doesn't mean you have to look frumpy.

The Holiday Book Burning! - The Republican majority on the Texas State Board of Education pointed us in the right direction with their recent decision to re-write American history to make it more, well, Republican. So let's close out the year by having big book burnings around the South to celebrate the Christmas holiday. Preferably near one of those 10 commandments monuments. What a spectacular way to honor the baby Jesus, watching all those books about slavery, reconstruction, segregation and lynching go up in flames. Jesus doesn't want us to read those books, he wants us to handle snakes and watch preachers on the TV. Who doesn't love an old-fashioned book burning?

It's time to stop being ashamed of all that history. Embrace it, hold it, cherish it, and in so doing, make it up, ignore it and lie about it. After all, if the Confederacy had won the war, we'd all be a lot whiter, wouldn't we?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The General Vanishes?

Poor Ulysses S. Grant.

Saving the Union by defeating the Confederate army and being elected twice to the Presidency is no longer good enough to secure a place for posterity. Republicans, led by Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, want to take the portrait of Grant off the $50 bill and replace it with one of Ronald Reagan. I had forgotten that Grant graces the $50, but Republicans handle a lot more those bills than I do, and apparently they want to see Reagan’s face every time they slap one down at a West Hollywood club.

No disrespect to General and President Grant, these Republicans insist, just time to honor Reagan. Again. And they’re right, at one level. This isn’t really about Grant or his bearded face. It is part of a much larger Republican project of re-writing the history of their own party to expunge it of anything that doesn’t conform to their current, hard-Right agenda.

Sixteen Republican presidents have occupied the Oval Office since the first, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860. Now, like the relatives nobody wants at Thanksgiving, Republicans don’t want much to do with most of them any more. Of course, some of them we would all like to forget – like the disgraced Richard Nixon, and “Uncle Warren” Harding, and “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes. But when was the last time you heard some Republican politician singing the praises of Dwight Eisenhower or even Teddy Roosevelt?

They don’t want to acknowledge that Eisenhower was perfectly content with most of FDR’s New Deal, or that Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of environmental conservation. They certainly don’t want to be reminded that Richard Nixon tried to create a national health care system.

No, the current Republican Party wants to forget about its own past so it can trace its origins exactly as far back as Ronald Reagan. And over the last twenty years the Party has, in an almost Vatican-like fashion, mounted a campaign to have Reagan canonized as St. Ronald. The Party regards his presidency as nothing short of immaculate and miraculous. During a 2007 debate, Republican presidential candidates brought up Reagan nineteen different times when answering questions; George W. Bush, the sitting Republican president at the time, came up exactly once.

Still, this current effort to replace Grant with Reagan on the fifty seems particularly perverse and particularly telling. As Lincoln’s general, Grant took what was a faltering Union military effort and turned it around. His campaign was as grim as it was inexorable, and he was determined that the Union army would triumph over the rebellious Confederacy. It does not exaggerate too much to say that without Grant there very well might not be a United States of America.

In the current political climate, however, this is the history that the Republican party wants to repudiate. Tea partiers fulminating about “state’s rights” and Republican politicians, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, who talk casually these days about seceding from the Union, aren’t sure that the right side won the Civil War and certainly don’t want any part of Grant’s legacy.

Likewise, this effort to dump Grant off the fifty represents a symbolic piece of the Republican Party’s “southern strategy,” using race as a wedge issue to attract white voters.

As late as the 1930s Republicans campaigned proudly on their history as the party that ended slavery. In the 1950s, Eisenhower’s Justice Department helped move the civil rights agenda ahead.

Then the Republican Party decided to turn its back on racial progress and cast its future with the bigots and Confederate flag-wavers. Nixon was the first Republican to capitalize on the southern strategy, but not the last. Reagan sneered at the “welfare queen” though it turned out she was fictitious; George Bush I used Willie Horton to strike terror in the hearts of white voters. And so it has gone.

The lily-white Republican party of 2010 wants nothing to do with the man who defeated the Confederacy, and who, as President, oversaw efforts to “reconstruct” a more equitable South.

During the Cold War, experts who watched the Kremlin used to study photographs of official Soviet events to see which Communist Party members were visible and which had been “erased” because they had fallen out of favor. (I've stolen the title of this post from a terrifically fun book about this phenomenon called "The Commissar Vanishes.") Not content to submit its current members and candidates to ideological purity tests it has decided that the past too must be purged of all but the true believers.

I wonder if poor Ulysses S. Grant would really want to be a member of party that no longer wants him as a member.