Monthly Archives: April 2012

Still a Long Way to Go

My favorite political news this week was that Newt Gingrich had dropped out of the presidential race. All things considered, withdrawing from the race is probably the greatest contribution of his political career. I suspect he will now go back to lecturing on the need for “family values,” i.e. denying eighty year old lesbians the right to marry their partners of half a century, while enjoying time with extramarital lover#50-turned wife#3. In other news, it’s obvious how homophobic a lot of Americans still are. First off, Coach Rob Brown, who is apparently an assistant coach for the Cornhuskers team in Nebraska (seriously, I have next to no interest in or knowledge of football and had never heard of this guy until now—I could tell you way more about Grover Cleveland’s isolationist conservatism than about the current Falcons roster) made a religiously-motivated statement against a proposed law in Omaha to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Let me be clear. There should be no legal penalties against Brown for making this statement. While we have historically and still do lag behind must of the West when it comes to granting equal rights for all, the United States’ commitment to free speech is arguably greater than that of any other country. I would like to keep it that way. However, legal consequences are not the same as professional consequences. Brown is employed the University of Nebraska. As a public institution, it has a responsibility to hire people who support equality for all. To fail in this regard reflects poorly on the university and is an insult to gay students and faulty, as well as to gay taxpayers who help foot the bill for Brown’s salary. Firing Brown for expressing a controversial position on abortion or health care would be wrong, because such a position would not denigrate anyone based on an immutable trait. Claiming that people do not deserve equal rights based on race, gender, or sexual orientation does denigrate people based on immutable traits. Thus, such a statement must be handled differently. In the case of private colleges and universities, I would likewise urge that professors who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians be sent packing, as giving them employment sends the message that their bigoted beliefs are really not such a big deal. The idea of even one gay person being forbidden to marry because of his or her sexual orientation is more disturbing to me than the idea of every homophobic teacher in America being without a job. Is firing homophobic teachers a violation of religious freedom? No. I have already demonstrated on my blog that the Bible can be and was used as an argument for slavery. In order to avoid sounding like a broken record, I will simply urge everyone to go back and read my piece entitled “Gay Marriage and Other No-Brainers” for a more detailed examination of the Bible’s support for slavery and what this means for the issue of gay rights. In other news, the Boy Scouts of America, bastion of homophobia, is involved in a gay rights-related fracas yet again. I recently received an email asking me to sign a petition urging that the Boy Scouts of America change its policy banning gay scout leaders. For the record, the policy states: “Boy Scouts of America believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed. The conduct of youth members must be in compliance with the Scout Oath and Law, and membership in Boy Scouts of America is contingent upon the willingness to accept Scouting’s values and beliefs. Most boys join Scouting when they are 10 or 11 years old. As they continue in the program, all Scouts are expected to take leadership positions. In the unlikely event that an older boy were to hold himself out as homosexual, he would not be able to continue in a youth leadership position.” The text of the policy was removed from the organization’s website in 2010, but it is obviously still in force. A lesbian mother named Jennifer Tyrrell was recently fired from her position as den master of her son’s scout troop because of her sexual orientation. There is no room for debate about whether or not this was the reason for her firing. According to U.S. News on MSNBC.com, “Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith said Tyrrell was removed from the program for being in violation of the national policy regarding homosexuals. ‘This policy was understood by her and her fellow volunteers, but not followed, upon her registering in the program,’ he wrote in an email to msnbc.com.” The actions of the Boy Scouts of America are bigoted and completely unjust. As referenced above, such actions entail discrimination based on an immutable trait. For many years, Boy Scouts apologists loved to claim, despite the obvious wording in the BSA’s policy to the contrary, that the exclusion was based on fear of male scoutmasters sexually abusing boys. Even if this were true, the policy would still be asinine. Such logic seems to imply either that all gay people are pedophiles, that gay men are the equivalent of women (and that, therefore, letting a gay man sleep in a tent with boys is the equivalent of letting a heterosexual man sleep in a tent with girls) or both. Yet if it was not already, it must be painfully obvious now that the policy is rooted in opposition to homosexuality. If it were based on fear of sex abuse, why would the BSA exclude a lesbian from leadership? After all, a lesbian is a lot less likely to sexually abuse a boy than a heterosexual woman would be. However, as disgusted as I was and am with the Boy Scouts of America, I could not help but shake my head at Jennifer Tyrrell upon reading this story. In an email urging people to sign her petition, she said, “When Cruz told us last year that he wanted to be a Boy Scout, my partner and I were concerned. We knew the organization has discriminated against families like ours before. But the other families in Cruz’s group were so welcoming and supportive — they even asked me to be a den leader on the first day.” As soon as I read this, I almost did a face-palm. Why would she have ever gotten involved with the organization? It is clear that she did not intend to serve as a test case, as she did not begin protesting until the policy began to impact her directly. A civil rights movement cannot be run this way. Members of oppressed minorities, as well as their allies, must not be involved in institutions that support their oppression. I regret to say that as a little boy, when I was unaware of the pressing issue of gay rights, I was a boy scout. I have not been affiliated with the organization in roughly fifteen years. If I had it to do over again, I would not join. I don’t have a son, but if I did, I would not encourage him to join the Boy Scouts of America. And this is the difference between my views and those of Jennifer Tyrrell: if my son wanted to join the Boy Scouts of America, I would not let him. Instead, I would sit him down and explain to him why the BSA is a bad organization. Tyrrell should have explained to her son that the BSA is “mean to people like your mommies.” The vast majority of the time, children love their parents. If they know that a person or group is mean to their parents, they will generally not want to be associated with that person or group. This case is a cautionary tale about the futility of staying in bigoted organizations while opposing their policies. The fair-minded families who welcomed Jennifer Tyrrell must now make a choice. They can do what they should have done long ago and quit the BSA or they can retain membership and tacitly condone its policies. There is no third option. Those who support gay rights must learn to make sacrifices as members of other social movements have. Abolitionists refused to buy sugar or cotton because these products were made with slave labor. Blacks in Montgomery refused to ride the city’s buses in the 1950s because they were segregated. As a consequence of publishing his autobiography against slavery, Frederick Douglass had to leave his native land behind and go to Great Britain. If Frederick Douglass was willing to flee the country, surely those who support gay rights can avoid participating in the Boy Scouts of America. On a final note, I would like to respond to those who claim that the government cannot force the Boy Scouts of America to change its policy. That is indeed true. However, it is also true that the government has an obligation to deny the Boy Scouts of America the right to use taxpayer-funded property until it allows gays and lesbians to participate.

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Eliminating Executions a Capital Idea

As some of you may know, Connecticut recently abolished capital punishment. While the new law will not impact the fate of the men currently on the state’s death row, it will prohibit anybody from being sentenced to die in the future. This makes New Hampshire the only remaining New England state to still have the death penalty, though it has not executed anybody since 1939. The Northeast seems to have become a bastion of anti-death penalty sentiment, with Pennsylvania being the only other state in the region where capital punishment is still allowed. Much of the Midwest has also ended the death penalty, with the South and outer West being strongholds for execution. I myself oppose capital punishment. The Pope also opposes capital punishment, but this is not a good reason to support it. The biggest reason that I am against it is moral absolutism. I believe that killing another human being is wrong, except in self defense or to protect someone else. Since murderers on death row are already incarcerated, self defense/defense of others is not a legitimate reason for killing them. Linked to this is a distrust of government. When we choose, as most states in the union have chosen, to give any government the right to execute someone, we are giving the government the power to do something denied to ordinary citizens, no matter the circumstances. As Radley Balko of The Agitator pointed out last year, the death penalty is a government program. If you favor the death penalty, you trust the government to do what you and I are prohibited from doing. And hopefully, you trust them to do it without error. Because, of course, once an execution is performed, you cannot hit an undo button. This is very important, because death penalty advocates may be inclined argue that the death penalty would deter murder and cost less money if authorities performed it quickly, rather than allowing people to sit on death row for such a long time. The problem with this idea is that, irksome and tedious though it may be, the appeals process is an important safeguard in making sure that innocent people are not put to death. For instance, after being convicted in Texas by an all white jury, African American Clarence Brandley was on death row for nine years before finally being exonerated. Unfortunately for supporters of capital punishment, only speedy executions are likely to prevent homicide, and even then the outcome is not certain. For instance, supporters of the death penalty like to point out an increase in homicide in the years 1972-1976, when the death penalty had been suspended nationwide by the Supreme Court. What these supporters fail to mention is that the homicide rate had been increasing since 1966. While it continued to increase in 1972-1974, it dropped slightly in 1975 and noticeably in 1976. After the death penalty was reinstated, the homicide rate rose for the next four years. The problem is that many people are convinced that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, and politicians speak out in support of it as a result. Since anti-death penalty, ACLU member Michael Dukakis lost the United States Presidential Election of 1988 by a landslide, not a single Democratic presidential nominee-not Clinton, Gore, Kerry, or Obama—has opposed the death penalty. Bill Clinton staunchly favored capital punishment and arguably used the issue to garner votes. John Kerry changed his previous opposition to capital punishment when he ran for president, stating that he favored the execution of terrorists. With Barack Obama having favored limited use of the death penalty throughout his presidential career and having fought tooth and nail to build up a reputation as being tough on terrorism, it is unlikely that he will ever reverse his position on the issue. Of course, one should keep in mind in the case of terrorists that executing them runs a severe risk of making them martyrs in the eyes of their comrades. However, despite this risk and the fact that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports life imprisonment rather than execution for terrorists involved in 9/11, public opinion seems to be behind the death penalty for these individuals. It is my hope, however, that supporters of “limited government” will consider my argues on the statist implications of capital punishment and that other Americans will rethink their support for what I believe is an outdated, barbaric institution.

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Gay Marriage and Other No-Brainers

For those couples whose engagements don’t fall by the wayside, statistics show that divorce after the wedding is a real possibility. Let’s look at some of the reasons why people have divorces: spousal abuse, fights over money, adultery, and different expectations. What is interesting is that, among the reasons I have listed for increased divorce, gay marriage is not one of them. Yet there is an idea among many Americans that, somehow, heterosexual couples will dissolve their marriages upon seeing married gay couples. It is supposedly the fault of gay couples who have been married that Newt Gingrich and John Edwards repeatedly failed to keep their trousers on. Of course, blaming the unpopular minority is always easier than starting with the person in the mirror, so what do you expect? Why precisely is it so important that gay marriage be legalized? Sexual orientation is an immutable trait, meaning that it is inherent and unchangeable. For those heterosexual readers who disagree, I would ask them to try and remember when they chose to be heterosexual. If they’re honest with themselves, they can’t remember, because sexual orientation is not a choice. And this is where some people get touchy. Because if sexual orientation is immutable, then it is just as immoral to deny a person equal rights based on sexual orientation as it is to deny a person equal rights based on race. Obviously, there are major differences between the “Gay Experience” and the “Black Experience.” However, differences do not mean that comparisons are unfounded. For instance, slaves were often not allowed to marry, and most states at one time or another banned marriage between blacks and whites. While interracial marriage was legal in all of the Northeast and much of the Midwest by 1890, laws banning it were in force throughout the South until the 1960s. Some people around today who are involved in interracial relationships, such as former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, realize the similarities between bans on interracial and gay marriages and are hardly shy about pointing them out. There’s a very interesting quote I want everyone read: “Marriage between one man and one woman only was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.” Who said this? Well, it was Jefferson Davis. And it wasn’t about gay marriage, it was about slavery. The fact that I can replace “slavery” with “marriage between one man and one woman only” and have the quote sound almost exactly the same should give one pause. Jefferson Davis was a fork-tongued, sanctimonious racist, but he knew his Bible. Leviticus, Chapter 25, Verses 39-46 state, “And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant. But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee. And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bond maids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor.” There isn’t much wiggle room: Bible verses exist which condone race-based chattel slavery. If the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality is infallible, so is the Bible’s support for slavery. Realizing that the Bible cannot be used to support their views, opponents of same sex marriage sometimes argue that marriage has “always” been exclusively between a man and woman. So? The fact that something is tradition does not make it right. Otherwise, slavery, genocide, and rape would not be wrong. And if marriage has indeed always been defined as exclusively between men and women, that is because of societal and governmental bigotry, and the definition of marriage should be changed. Will this lead to polygamous, incestuous, or inter-species marriages? It does not need to. Heterosexual Americans have the right to marry the individual that they love–gays simply ask for that same right. Polygamists want a new right that nobody in America has been given–the right to marry multiple people. In the case of incest, there is no reason to believe that some people are intrinsically attracted to family members, meaning that banning incestuous marriage does not violate anyone’s civil rights. Finally, silly though it may be, I will address the claims of people like Bill O’Reilly who suggest that legalizing gay marriage will mean legalization of marriage between people and turtles: Bill, good luck getting a turtle to sign a legal document. Some people, who want gay activists to simply go away, have suggested civil unions as a compromise. That is nothing short of separate but equal. It is the same principle that condoned separate drinking fountains, schools, and the like for people of different races. If marriage is indeed a religious institution, then get the government out of it and leave it to churches. As long as there is civil marriage, it must be granted to gay couples. Even those gays and lesbians who do not wish to get married should understand that a legal ban on gay marriage labels them as second class citizens. The arguments against gays serving in the military, adopting children, or being protected in employment and housing by workplace protection laws are just as silly. They consist of putting what some narrow-minded, bigoted heterosexuals want above what gay people are entitled to. Unfortunately, many of these heterosexuals scream that they aren’t bigoted. And in their attempts to be conciliatory, many gay people say, “Of course, we know not everyone who is against gay marriage, adoption, etc. is bigoted.” Um, alright. I would argue that bigotry consists in feeling that a group of people is inferior based on immutable traits/supporting systems that keep them as second class citizens. So indeed, if you oppose same sex marriage, adoption, etc., you are bigoted. Limiting the definition of bigotry to outright hatred for a group of people limits the root of the problem to a few crazy people, like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan, rather than a far reaching poison imbedded in our country for centuries and solidified with the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s. (Read Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3.) Other countries have already given gay people equal rights. If we really are the “Land of the Free,” we had better follow suit immediately.

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Stripping a Supreme Court Decision of False Rhetoric

In the years since the Bill of Rights was set up, one major point of conflict has been between the narrow and broad interpretations of the first ten constitutional amendments. Advocates of the narrow interpretation tend to see the Bill of Rights as only imposing a set of very basic restrictions on the federal government. Historical figures who haven fallen into this category include Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln (still our greatest president), Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Richard Nixon. Advocates of the broad interpretation see the Bill of Rights as greatly limiting the powers of the federal, state, and local governments in order to insure the greatest possible degree of civil liberties for Americans. Historical figures who have fallen into this category include Roger Nash Baldwin, Rose Wilder Lane, and William Douglas. The narrow Jackson-Nixon interpretation has recently been sustained in a Supreme Court decision. This decision rules that anyone can be strip searched upon arrest. To demonstrate the seriousness of this ruling, I feel the need to point out that this ruling includes people who have been arrested but not convicted, meaning that innocent people can be strip searched along with the guilty. The ruling also lumps in those accused of petty, non-violent crimes with those accused of assault, rape, or murder. Now, let’s get something straight. Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution supported slavery, and those Americans such as Harriet Tubman and Thomas Wentworth Higginson who helped fugitive slaves were behaving both heroically and unconstitutionally. So I am not going to harp on why it’s supposedly important to follow everything in the document. My litmus test is natural, inalienable human rights. And that is why, regardless of the original intent or exact wording of the Bill of the Rights, I believe that the legal views of those in the broad interpretation camp should prevail. (As a side note, I am thinking of buying the book Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History by Leonard Levy.) Government is not some benevolent deity that is always ready to help and needs only to be freed from restriction in order to do so. It is a necessary evil that exist to fulfill a specific set of functions and otherwise leave us alone. It needs strict limits on its power to prevent our freedoms from being abridged. Let’s say, for instance, that I was accused of having unpaid parking tickets and taken to jail. Failure to pay parking tickets is not a violent offense. There would be no reason to be extremely paranoid that I was carrying a knife. It’s certainly possible that someone who fails to pay parking tickets is also violent. But the existence of a possibility is not the same as probable cause. Therefore, it would be unfair to subject me to a strip search. Furthermore, what if I was innocent? That would mean that I had been strip searched because of a petty, non-violent crime that I did not even commit. Our justice system is supposed to be set up in such a way that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Strip searches without probable cause for those accused but not even necessarily guilty of petty, non-violent crimes dispenses with the presumption of innocence and replaces it with a presumption of guilt. I have to seriously wonder if the five judges who ruled in favor of law enforcement in this case have ever been strip searched. I haven’t, but I have the empathy required to guess that it is highly degrading. That is why it should only be used in emergencies. One thing I find interesting about this case is the statement by Justice Anthony Kennedy that the Supreme Court cannot second-guess the decisions of corrections officers. By this logic, Miranda v. Arizona should be reversed, since it “second-guesses” police by preventing them from arresting someone without reading them their rights. Now, don’t get me wrong. Compared with some of my fellow civil libertarians, I am actually willing to give police the benefit of the doubt a lot of the time. I feel that alleged cases of police brutality are often quite ambiguous, and I am concerned that police officers are often blamed for larger societal problems like racism, crime, child abuse, and domestic violence. This is why, despite being a proud member of the ACLU, I oppose the organization’s proposal for a police review board composed of civilians. Still, I do not subscribe to the idea that police should be allowed to do whatever they think is necessary to stop crime. I want to see a society with a strong, effective police force. What the five conservative judges on the Supreme Court are advocating has the makings of a police state. The former is necessary and good. The latter is intolerable. This recent ruling once again gives lie to the claim that conservatives stand for small government. Allowing corrections officers, who are government employees, to strip search whenever they please represents a victory for big government, not small government. And it was not liberal judges like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer who voted on the side of big government. It was conservatives. Liberals voted for small government as, in fact, true liberals often do. Yep. Except for bans on gays marrying, adopting, or serving openly in the military, border fences, the War on Drugs, the Patriot Act, criminalization of flag burning, display of religious symbols by government officials on taxpayer funded property, allowing government employees in taxpayer funded public schools to initiate student prayer, allowing the government to execute or water board people, and anti-obscenity laws, those conservatives sure do support smaller government. But all joking aside, I doubt anyone seriously thinks that conservatives actually believe in small government. Part of the reason why both conservatives and progressives frequently abridge civil liberties is that many people have an idea that freedom is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Unfortunately, if freedom is only useful for the greater good and does not have any intrinsic value, fundamental rights like freedom of speech can be trampled on as soon as it is decided that doing so will be best for society. This was part of the thought process behind essentially banning criticism of the government during World War I. It was part of the thought process that led five judges to rule in favor of allowing warrantless strip searches in any situation. And unless this thought process changes, we may be headed for disaster.

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Understanding the Civil War, Part 4

What is the significance of the Civil War in this day and age? In order to answer this question, we must look at the war in conjunction with the overall civil rights history of America. There is some argument to be made that the first blacks who came to the United States arrived as indentured servants, their status similar to that of their white counterparts. Over the next few decades, however, the statutes of the American colonies were constructed to solidify the enslavement and inferior legal status of the black race. This racial issue eventually provoked the Civil War. While the South was defeated, Jim Crow endured for just over a century after the actual war ended. However, evidenced by the Confederate nostalgia displayed by men like Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour (whose fetish for all things Confederate has been covered in a previous post), the racial issues that caused the war live on. The simple fact of the matter is that while legal racism has been eradicated, a large minority of Americans still have racist views. Aside from the frequent displays of the Confederate Flag, think about the judge in Louisiana who refused to marry an interracial couple as recently as 2009. Or the fact that the blatantly racist Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee were both considered as candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2012 Election and that the racist Ron Paul is still in the running. But the significance of the Civil War extends beyond race. I believe I have stated that I see black rights and gay rights as linked. Let me elaborate here. The policies of the Founding Fathers did not include liberty and justice for all. Blacks were enslaved, Native Americans had their land seized against their will, women were denied most legal rights, and gays could not marry and faced arrest or even execution if they found sexual partners. As I have already demonstrated in a previous post, the Constitution indeed supported slavery. The racist Southern politicians of the nineteenth century believed that the policies of the Founding Fathers should be continued. They believed, in essence, that not all Americans should have equal rights. Abolitionists felt differently. They believed that the Founding Fathers had been wrong and that equality was a fundamental aspect of justice. There was indeed some conflict about who was continuing the legacy of the founders. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens criticized Thomas Jefferson for writing that all men were created equal, while Frederick Douglass tried to appeal to the Constitution as an antislavery document. But other Confederates like Jefferson Davis realized that they were following in the footsteps of men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, while abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips correctly determined that the Constitution was a proslavery document that could not be relied on in the pursuit of abolition. Also important to the Confederate defense of slavery was the Bible. Jefferson Davis argued that according to the Bible, slavery was divinely sanctioned, the result of a curse God placed on the black race. According to the widow of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general claimed to base his support for slavery completely on its support in the Bible. In a 1990s article defending slavery and the Confederate Flag, Alabama state senator Charles Davidson wrote, “Our ancestors in the Old South were fundamental Christians, which means they believed that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, was the Word of Almighty God, who does not change, and not the opinions of man. On the other hand, the Abolitionists from the North were humanists. They believed that God changed with the times and that the Bible was merely the opinions of men and not necessarily the Word of God.” A strong parallel can be drawn between the conflict that led to the Civil War and the current struggle for gay equality. Like the politicians of the Confederacy, many Americans today agree with the policies of the Founding Fathers and believe that gays and lesbians should not have equal rights. Like the Confederate leaders, they base their stance on specific Bible passages, in this case those that condemn homosexuality. Just as abolitionists were accused by slaveholders of ignoring the “Word of God,” modern day gay rights activists are accused of trying to subvert Biblical teachings. But many of the most prominent abolitionists were in fact Christians. But it is my view that these men and women had the good intelligence to see that the overall Biblical message of love for all people, rather than individual Scriptures promoting injustice and cruelty, should be followed. That is, in my estimate, the stance being taken today by gay Christians and heterosexuals Christians who support gay rights. Finally, the debates over anti-gay ballot initiatives remind me a lot of the debates over slavery in the Western territories that were applying for statehood in the 1850s. Some time ago, Mike Huckabee was in the news, wondering how anybody could support gay marriage when it has been voted down in so many states. When Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated in 1858, Douglas postulated that the intense moral issue of slavery could be settled by a public vote in each new state. In essence, the rights of the slaves were dependent on majority will. Lincoln felt differently. He believed that blacks had some natural, fundamental rights—albeit not necessarily equal rights—that could not be taken away by referendum. That, combined with a demand for full equality, was the argument promoted by individuals like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Lydia Maria Child, and Frederick Douglass. The argument for natural rights to full legal equality regardless of public opinion is now being put forth by attorneys David Boise and Ted Olson as they challenge the California law banning gay marriage. Finally, on a more cynical note, I must confess that Lincoln’s moderate views on slavery—opposing immediate abolition and racial equality—remind me a bit too much of Barack Obama’s refusal to endorse same sex marriage. And just as was the case in the Civil War and in the years leading up to it, a small, courageous group of people are challenging this lukewarm position and standing up for equal justice. The Thirteenth Amendment did not just set the slave in Savannah, Georgia free. It also planted the seeds for the freedom of the Irish American lesbian in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Wendell Phillips once stated that, “Whether in chains or in laurels, liberty knows nothing but victories.” I sincerely hope that he was right.

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Understanding the Civil War, Part 3

For the focus of tonight’s blog. I will now examine some more pro-Confederate myths.

Myth #2: The Confederate Flag is not about racism, just history!

One thing that you notice about Germans is that they virtually never display the swastika. Driving around in a car with a swastika bumper sticker in Berlin the way people in my hometown of Atlanta drive around in cars with Confederate Flag bumper stickers on them is likely to get you arrested. There is no “Nazi Heritage Day” in Germany. The reason for this is that most Germans acknowledge that the Nazi Party was evil and that it is a good thing that Germany lost World War II. It isn’t that they are ashamed of their German heritage, it’s just that they, unlike many Southerners, understand that not every aspect of a people’s history should be celebrated. Displaying the Confederate Flag in a museum exhibit is generally not offensive, because it is not being honored but instead merely being depicted for educational purposes. When a Confederate Flag flies on a pickup truck or a state capitol or over the graves of fallen Southern soldiers, it is celebrating the symbol. Going back to the German example, what would be the reaction of most Americans, Southerners included, if Hitler’s swastika was placed on Germany’s national flag? Perhaps Germany goes a bit too far in restricting free speech when it comes to this issue, the United States could take a lesson from the country where Hitler once ruled.

Myth #3: The Confederate Flag is no more racist than the American Flag, because slavery existed in the United States!

First of all, this a classic argument used by people who have no other leg to stand on. They think that if they argue that a country is no worse than the U.S., they can silence all criticism, because nobody will dare criticize the United States. Well, I am here to say this: If the Confederate Flag is truly no more offensive than the American Flag, this means that Old Glory is highly offensive and should no longer be flown. But in actuality, despite my disdain for the Founding Fathers, this claim is simply not correct. The fact of the matter is that whatever role racism may have (and probably did) play in the American Revolution, slavery was not the central cause of the war between Britain and the colonies in the same way that it was for the war between North and South. If anyone has evidence demonstrating the Revolutionary War was waged primarily to preserve slavery, please let me know. If I am sufficiently persuaded that the American Flag is in fact a racist symbol, I will write a blog post advocating that it be retired. Until then, however, I maintain that the evidence shows the Confederate Flag to be more far more offensive. None of this is to let America off the hook for the fact that it was a racist nation for the majority of its history or that the Founding Fathers gave slavery constitutional protection (though not to the degree that the Confederates did) and should be castigated as a result. But by the Confederate Flag=U.S. Flag line of thinking, it could just as easily be argued that the British Flag is as offensive as the Nazi swastika because of the fact that Jews experienced great persecution in Britain.

Myth #4: Confederate war memorials do not promote slavery

Confederate war memorials exist in various parts of the country. At one memorial located in Arlington, tradition dictates that every U.S. president must leave a wreath to honor the dead soldiers buried there. I cannot think of a single other war in which the soldiers who fought against the U.S. Army get their own monument on American soil. The Arlington memorial was erected at the height of Jim Crow by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization whose support for racial segregation is well documented. The monument also depicts a loyal slave marching to serve a master fighting in a war to keep him in bondage. Confederate memorials mock the suffering of slaves and promote the idea that the South was in the right during the Civil War.

Myth #4: Robert E. Lee Opposed Slavery

This isn’t the exact same debate, but Lee’s name comes up so much when we talk about honoring the Confederacy that I figured he warranted a mention. Some time ago, I was at a fraternity party—a venue not exactly known for attracting the most liberal folks—and was asked my opinion of Robert E. Lee. My answer was and remains that he was a phenomenal general but that his character was another matter. I frequently hear that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery. This seems to be based on a letter he wrote to his wife in which he stated that, “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Sounds pretty unambiguous, right? But it turns out that this is a prime example of cherry-picking from somebody’s words to change their meaning. First off, please bear in mind that the letter, reprinted in full below, was written regarding a speech that then President Franklin Pierce gave to Congress attacking the antislavery movement.

“The steamer also brought the President’s message to Cong; & the reports of the various heads of Depts; the proceedings of Cong: &c &c. So that we are now assured, that the Govt: is in operation, & the Union in existence, not that we had any fears to the Contrary, but it is Satisfactory always to have facts to go on. They restrain Supposition & Conjecture, Confirm faith, & bring Contentment: I was much pleased with the President’s message & the report of the Secy of War, the only two documents that have reached us entire. Of the others synopsis [sic] have only arrived. The views of the Pres: of the Systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South, are truthfully & faithfully expressed. The Consequences of their plans & purposes are also clearly set forth, & they must also be aware, that their object is both unlawful & entirely foreign to them & their duty; for which they are irresponsible & unaccountable; & Can only be accomplished by them through the agency of a Civil & Servile war. In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day. Although the Abolitionist must know this, & must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & suasion, & if he means well to the slave, he must not Create angry feelings in the Master; that although he may not approve the mode which it pleases Providence to accomplish its purposes, the result will nevertheless be the same; that the reasons he gives for interference in what he has no Concern, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbors when we disapprove their Conduct; Still I fear he will persevere in his evil Course. Is it not strange that the descendants of those pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion, have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?”

It must be apparent from reading this letter that Lee viewed slavery perhaps as an evil but certainly a necessary evil and opposed any political restrictions on the institution. After slavery ended, he opposed the Fifteenth Amendment that gave blacks the right to vote and stated that he wished that someone could find a way to get the free blacks out of Virginia. Much has justifiably been made of Abraham Lincoln’s belief in black inferiority, and some have held up Lee as his moral superior. But the real difference between the two men is that in spite of his racism, Lincoln believed that African Americans were entitled to certain inalienable freedoms, while it is clear from this letter that Lee believed they had no rights at all, save those that their masters chose to grant them. Stay tuned for Part 4, the final installment, in which I articulate what I feel to be the significance of the Civil War in the here and now.

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Understanding the Civil War, Part 2

I would now like to examine the next part of the “Civil War Was Not Caused By Slavery” myth. But before beginning, I feel the need to examine one other reason Southern leaders might have claimed to be seceding for reasons other than slavery: denial. However much they might have claimed otherwise, Southern planters would have had a hard time feeling no guilt, at least subconsciously, over enslaving millions of people. Thus, stating in public or in private reasons for secession that felt less heinous, despite could serve as a form of guilt reduction. Now onto the main point of my article. One favorite argument of pro Confederate historians is that the North offered to expand the U.S. Constitution’s protection of slavery, and the South refused. Unfortunately, this argument does not take into account the way in which tensions over slavery issue had ratcheted up in the ten years before the South seceded. In 1850, Congress had attempted to forge a compromise between the two regions of the country. This compromise included adding teeth to the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, with the goal of preventing Northerners from aiding the Underground Railroad. This goal was not achieved, as abolitionists in the North continued aiding runaway slaves. In 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave rebellion, aided by a group of Northern abolitionists. These factors made the South convinced that, Constitutional protections or not, Northerners could be expected to continue to interfere with slavery if secession did not take place. As evidence of this, consider the fact that the Georgia Declaration of Secession explicitly complained that the fugitive slave law was a dead letter statute in the North. The second argument is based on very tricky wording. It states that, because most Northerners did not fight the Civil War to end slavery (though there is abundant evidence that a handful did), the Civil War was not fought over slavery. It is thus indeed more accurate to say that the South seceded over slavery, evidenced by the sources that I have provided. Indeed, despite the courageous decision of some men to fight in the Union Army for the purpose of ending slavery, it is correct that the majority of Northern politicians and soldiers were fighting because they believed the South had no right to secede and because they were connected with the region economically. But it is disingenuous or intellectually sloppy to use this as evidence that the South did not secede over slavery. No serious student of history can deny that tensions over the “peculiar institution” had reached a boiling point in the United States in 1860. It thus is not exactly rocket science to postulate that the South seceded over slavery, at which point the North for other reasons chose to try and force them to rejoin the Union. Unfortunately, every time people say that “we fought a war to end slavery,” they give Confederate apologists ammo to claim that slavery did not cause the war, giving the silly but remarkably convincing argument that if the North’s reason for fighting the war was not ending slavery it automatically means that the South did not secede over the issue. The third argument is that because the majority of white Southerners did not own slaves, the region could not possibly have seceded over that issue. I would first like to pose two questions: 1. How many people work in the oil business? Answer: Not a lot. 2. How important is oil to America’s economy? Answer: Very. Determining the total value of Southern slaves in 1860 is difficult, but let’s go with a middle estimate: $3 billion. Now account for inflation. Slave labor was the lifeblood of the South’s economy, making the people who controlled it extremely powerful. Thus, it is obvious that such people could have called the shots in Southern governments, and it makes sense that poor Southern whites might have feared the economic consequences of abolition. Also, note that working class Southern whites had several reasons to enlist in the Confederate Army. First, as mentioned in the last blog, plantation tycoons had other issues like taxes that they could use to inflame the passions of their salt of the Earth brethren. Second, working class Southern whites sometimes feared that racial equality could result from black freedom. Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president, observed that when antislavery efforts took place in Tennessee, whites who did not own slaves reacted extremely negatively. The Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi declarations all raised the issue of racial equality as a result of abolition. Third, many Southerners probably enlisted in the Confederate Army because of feelings of loyalty to their state and fear that their homeland was under attack. It must be noted, unfortunate though it is, that large gaps can certainly exist between the real reason a war is caused and the reason why soldiers think that they are fighting. Finally, this argument underestimates the amount of working class white Southerners who opposed the Confederacy. If one goes into the mountains of North Georgia, one will see a slew of Confederate Flags. The modern day residents of places like Ellijay and Young Harris might be surprised to learn that there was a strong anti-Confederate sentiment in these mountain communities. The non-agricultural, working class section of Virginia generally opposed the Confederacy and seceded from their state in order to rejoin the union. We now call this section West Virginia. The working class whites of Eastern Tennessee also tended to support the North in the war. Some people point out that after the initial seven Southern states seceded over slavery, four more seceded when it became clear that Abraham Lincoln expected them to provide sources to reunite the country. Some people thus argue that “Yankee Aggression” caused the war. But the fact remains: the initial secession that resulted in the war took place not because of tariffs, vague concepts of states’ rights or any other strange theories but because of a desire by very powerful people to continue slavery. Some people, such as Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, have argued that the Civil War could have been avoided if the U.S. government had simply paid to buy the slaves and release them. This does not take into account the fact that buying out slaves would have extremely difficult given that the federal income tax was not instituted until the war was in progress. It also ignores the fact that blacks could have been shipped back to Africa, as was supported by many Americans, and would have probably not received the Constitutional guarantees of equal rights that were codified as a result of the Civil War and laid the groundwork for Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, it is sometimes stated that the South could not have seceded to preserve slavery because of the fact that the Confederacy offered to abolish slavery later in the war in exchange for recognition by Europe. The reason for this offer is fairly obvious: following a string of major defeats in 1863 and 1864 (an important one being Atlanta), the South realized that they were about to lose the war. Once this occurred, it was only a matter of time before slavery was abolished. Thus, the South had two choices: end slavery but remain independent and have the option of using methods such as deportation to Africa in order to prevent racial amalgamation or be forced back into the union and risk humiliating surrender terms, not least among them black equality. Indeed, within five years of the South’s defeat, blacks had constitutional guarantees of equal rights, something unlikely to have happened if the Confederacy had won the war, whether it chose to end slavery or not.

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