Monthly Archives: August 2013

Reviewing The Butler

About a week and a half ago, I saw the film, The Butler. And I was quite impressed. I think that it could rival Lincoln in terms of overall quality. The acting, as you can probably guess from the slew of talented cast members, is great. However, I thought I would focus on its merits as a historical film. People who wish to avoid spoilers are advised to quit reading now.

The Butler does a good job of portraying the horrors of Jim Crow. The film starts off in a 1920s Georgia cotton field, and the protagonist, Cecil (based on a real figure named Ernest), witnesses his father shot by his white employer after objecting to said employer’s sexual assault of his wife, Cecil’s mother. Cecil, keep in mind, is still a child at this point. The remainder of the film’s first, brief but potent, act is devoted to showing Cecil’s hard, persecuted, even Hellish childhood. Some people may complain that the film is demonizing white people, but in fact, it is simply giving an accurate depiction of the Jim Crow. It will become clear later on that the film is most definitely NOT anti-white.

The main body of the film starts with Cecil being offered a job as the White House butler for President Dwight Eisenhower. In real life, Ernest began work under Harry Truman. I suspect that this part of the story was changed for two reasons. First of all, Truman’s presidency was in its last year when Ernest began working at the White House, and there may have been a feeling that it would be pointless to have Truman get a little bit of screen time, only to be quickly replaced by Eisenhower, who gets a fairly important role. Second, Truman had a great deal in common with LBJ, who is introduced later on. They were both lovers of hardcore profanity. There were both Southerners who could sometimes have their Southern credentials questioned–Truman’s Missouri roots made some people view him as a Midwesterner, and LBJ’s Texas roots made some people view him as a Southwesterner. Perhaps more importantly in the context of the film, Truman did more to promote the rights of blacks than any president since at least Benjamin Harrison, yet he also made a slew of racist statements in public and private. LBJ probably did more to promote the rights of blacks than any president since Ulysses S. Grant. He also began his career as a segregationist and was still using racial slurs worthy of Riley Cooper while serving as president. A serious case could be made that having both Truman and LBJ depicted in the film would have felt repetitive.

The depictions of Eisenhower and JFK, while by no means bad, suffer some from rose-colored glasses. Eisenhower is portrayed by Robin Williams, and while I am a big fan of Williams’s work, I can’t help but wonder if he played Eisenhower as a bit too much of a softie. The former general is portrayed as reluctant to send federal troops to Little Rock, which he of course ends up doing, for fear of another civil war. However, Eisenhower’s ambiguities and contradictions on race are not done justice. Evidence suggests that Eisenhower may have used the n-word. It is documented that as an Army general, he favored continuing racial segregation in the military. He opposed workplace protection laws for African Americans. Certainly, he played an important role in civil rights reforms, especially in the case of Little Rock. But I cannot help but feel that the movie went too far in the direction of hagiography with “Ike.” JFK’s colorful infidelities are glossed over, and he is portrayed as being eager to pass civil rights legislation mainly out of a sincere desire for justice. I could not help but feel that this characterization is more accurate for Robert and Edward than for John. For instance, Robert Kennedy was much quicker than his big brother to begin pushing aggressively for civil rights. By the time JFK began strongly promoting civil rights, he was backed into a corner by increasing anger from activists, very bad international publicity that could hurt the U.S. in the Cold War, and the knowledge that some liberal Republican hungry for the presidency might get the GOP presidential nomination in 1964 and get the lion’s share of the black vote. I think that the film would have been well-served to cast another actor to play Robert Kennedy and give him some of the scenes that were instead given to John.

LBJ, Nixon, and Reagan are all portrayed superbly. I thought that the filmmakers might shy away from LBJ’s aforementioned racism. I was wrong. The Butler depicts both his use of the n word and his overall crudeness. In one scene that it is as well acted as it is disturbing, Johnson fires off racial slur-laden instructions at Cecil while sitting on a toilet surrounded by his beagles. He is not portrayed without some redeeming qualities, however, as he is also shown to have legitimate concern for the fate of black Americans. I really wish that they had included at least one scene with Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who was a sincere believer and staunch advocate of racial equality throughout his political career. I think that there could have been a very heartwarming scene between him and Cecil. Still, Humphrey, like most vice presidents who never reached the Oval Office, is largely forgotten. John Cusack wonderfully captures the shifty mannerisms of Richard Nixon. My one complaint with his depiction involves a scene in which, while serving as Eisenhower’s vice president, he approaches Cecil and other black White House employees and attempts to enlist their support in his bid for president. In an effort to keep them from supporting JFK, he calls the Democratic contender a, “rich f@#% up.” I cannot say for sure whether this scene is based in fact, but my inclination is that Nixon would have been more inclined to bring up the fact that, in 1960, his record on voting rights was actually superior to that of Kennedy. Of course, this goes against the way that the filmmakers wanted to portray both presidents. Ronald Reagan’s race hustling is depicted nicely. In one scene, he declares firmly that he will veto legislation that imposes sanctions on South Africa. Reagan’s coddling of South Africa’s apartheid regime, seemingly so at odds with his generally aggressive foreign policy, has not received enough attention but was an important way of maintaining his political coalition.

Finally, the struggle for racial justice is portrayed deftly. The sit-ins and Freedom Rides appear frighteningly realistic, making it possible for viewers to fully grasp the bravery of the activists, who endured terrible violence without fighting back. It also showcases the cowardice of the violent racists, who attacked people they knew would not fight back. I also really liked how white civil rights activists were depicted along with the black civil rights activists, reminding viewers that some whites stood up for racial equality when it was unpopular. We also see both the good and bad aspects of the Black Panther Party and the link between the fight against Jim Crow and the fight against apartheid. One of the best scenes is when Cecil is reunited at an anti-apartheid protest with his estranged son, Louis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, Louis and Cecil live to see the election of our nation’s first black president, though Cecil’s wife, Gloria, dies just before Barack Obama wins.

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Being an Abolitionist 150 Years After the Civil War

I sometimes describe myself as a neo-abolitionist. To me, this means that I am a historian of the abolitionist movement who upholds the principles of abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, and William Nell. One of the ways that I do this is by supporting the fight against modern day slavery. While slavery is illegal under international law and occurs at a much smaller rate than it once did, it has not been fully eradicated. I believe that this is a horrific tragedy that must be remedied. There have been a number of public figures and private citizens who have become modern day abolitionists, including some veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Charles Jacobs, John Lewis, and Barney Frank. I first got involved in the cause in 2011. That year, I was at a bicentennial event for Wendell Phillips, I met James Brewer Stewart, a Phillips biographer whose book, Wendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero, is a must read for anyone interested in American history, civil rights, or both. He also founded the group Historians Against Slavery. I want to encourage everyone to join the organization. Information can be found here: http://historiansagainstslavery.org

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On Pennsylvania Mayors, Tom Ridge, Eric Alva, and the Moral Turpitude of Some Hecklers

While Pennsylvania was the first state with a law against interracial that chose to repeal said law, all the way back in 1780, Pennsylvania is also the state that elected Rick Santorum as a Senator, and it has not followed in the footsteps of many of its fellow Northeastern states by legalizing gay marriage.  However, as documented in this article (http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/882909_Which-Lancaster-County-mayors-will-perform-same-sex-marriages–if-legalized-.html), some Pennsylvania mayors are performing same-sex marriages. This practice is nothing new. Shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco began performing same-sex marriages, until the California Supreme Court forced him to stop.

Like Gavin Newsom, the Pennsylvania mayors who have made the decision to defy their state’s law against gay marriage are American heroes. They have realized that their state’s legal code, like that of the majority of the codes of others states, as well as the federal government, discriminates against gays and lesbians. And they have decided not to sit idly by and wait for things to change. They have decided to fight for change themselves. By enforcing an anti-gay law, they would be part of the problem. Instead, they are now being part of the solution. Some people will argue that defying the law, even for a good reason, is wrong. This argument, however, fails to hold water. If people have a right to fair treatment, then that right cannot be contingent on law or the will of the majority. Hence, when the majority enacts an unjust law, there is no obligation to obey it. It is sometimes claimed that they will sow disrespect for the law and ultimately cause anarchy. If this is the case, however, the people who made the bad law are to blame, not the people who refused to obey it. Blaming the breakdown of law and order on people who break unjust laws would be like blaming the breakdown of a family on a battered man or woman who leaves their abusive partner. Socrates once argued that by choosing to live in a country, we are obligated to obey all its laws or accept our punishment for breaking them. I would submit that Socrates was wrong. The reason for obeying laws in general is because it benefits those around us. If a law is unjust, obeying it benefits nobody. Laws against same-sex marriage cause lots of harm and have no “benefit” except to give some bigoted heterosexuals a misplaced sense of superiority.

Postscript: I want to give a somewhat perfunctory congratulations to former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. During his time as governor, Ridge signed a law reaffirming that gay marriage was illegal in Pennsylvania and mandating that same-sex marriages from other states would not be recognized. This year, however, he signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Prop 8. Glad you’ve come around, Mr. Ridge. You could have done a lot more for the cause if you had been this fair-minded as governor, but better late than never.

Postscript 2: In one of the very first posts I did back when I was on Tumblr, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in place, I recounted the story of Eric Alva, the first American soldier to suffer a serious injury in Iraq, namely losing his right leg. I raised the issue of whether or not the United States wanted to be a country where someone like Alva had the fact that they were gay, while losing a limb serving in the military, then come home and be denied equal rights. Recently, Alva went to San Antonio to speak in favor of an anti discrimination law that had been proposed in the city. Alva, the man who had risked his life and sacrificed his right leg fighting in Iraq, was booed while trying to give his testimony. Of course, this isn’t the first time gay soldiers and veterans have been booed for suggesting that they should be treated fairly. It happened at a primary debate for Republican presidential candidates two years ago, and not one candidate on the stage said a word of reprimand to the hecklers. The boorish, outrageous behavior that some people engage in truly astounds me.

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Franklin Graham Gets His Due

Franklin Graham has a long career of bigotry. He has repeatedly made homophobic statements, including endorsing North Carolina’s amendment to solidify the state’s ban on gay marriage, and labeling gay equality part of moral decline. He has used his family name and pulpit to denigrate people because they have a different sexual orientation than him. As a Christian Unitarian Universalist (CUU), I will go on record of saying that Graham and other like him may well have caused more people to reject Christianity than Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins ever did. However, it seems that he is now getting a receipt for his years of bullying.

I should disclose that I am something of an Icelandophile. I think that this small, Northern European island is a model to the world for freedom and equality. Gays and lesbians have equal rights, including the freedom to marry, and the nation has elected a lesbian prime minister. Iceland has been ranked the best country for women to live. During the horrors of apartheid, Iceland was a major player in opposing the oppression of black South Africans, while the United States coddled the white supremacist regime until activists and Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act–over Ronald Reagan’s veto, of course. I was reminded today of why I love Iceland when I read about Franklin Graham’s proposed trip there. When some Icelandic Christians invited the minister to hold a festival, many Icelanders were outraged by Graham’s bigoted history. Apparently, his reputation precedes him. So, a bunch of these socially conscious individuals began reserving tickets to the event, with no intention of showing up. The goal is that, when the time for his festival rolls around, Graham will be without an audience. And since the event is free (I will at least give the evangelist credit for that), these activists will not be putting any money in Grahm’s pocket. Now, all the available tickets have been reserved for the event, there is probably no legal way for their reservations to be cancelled, and anyone who now decides they want to attend cannot buy a ticket. While some Western European nations have banned bigoted public figures from visiting to give speeches, I think the way that Graham’s visit was handled was much better. Everyone has the right to free speech, even homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, or racist speech. Banning certain types of speech is the lazy solution. In this case, Graham’s right to express his opinions was respected, but a group of Icelanders made it clear that the opinions themselves were not respected. They also demonstrated the importance of the foot soldiers, not just the leaders, in equality movements, like in the case of the “Lynn petition” when thirteen hundred Massachusetts antebellum women demanded that their state legislature legalize interracial marriage. I don’t know how much else I can say about this, except, good for Iceland. The country has once again demonstrated why it is great. Also, I hope that Franklin Graham enjoys his stay in Iceland and takes a good, hard look at the country. He might just learn something.

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Presumption of Guilt

For the last couple of months, I have been following the NSA scandal, but there have been too many other things going on for me to find the time to sit and down and write exactly what I want to say about this. I should clarify that while I find it interesting to try and ascertain whether the NSA’s indiscriminate monitoring of people’s phones was constitutional, constitutionality does not impact my views on the matter. For almost eighty years, Constitution got something as cut and dry as slavery wrong, so it would hardly be shocking if it got something as intricate as the proper balance of civil liberties and security wrong also. And if paper and ink written by fallible humans is considered the be all and the end all, God help us all. Still, taking into account that in their wildest dreams, the framers probably never envisioned that the NSA scenario would ever even be possible, my reading of the Bill of Rights strongly suggests that what the National Security Agency did was unconstitutional. The text of the Fourth Amendment reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Clearly, there is a constitutional guarantee of privacy, and while the amendment is worded vaguely, it’s hard to call monitoring millions of law abiding people’s phones “reasonable.” Conservatives and liberals alike who demand that the Constitution must always be followed will have a hard time defending the NSA’s actions.

My personal view is that the NSA’s monitoring of phones was inexcusable. It is perfectly justifiable to monitor a person’s phone if there is enough evidence of their possible terrorism or criminality to obtain a warrant. The NSA tried to eliminate that part of the equation by not even attempting to only tap the phones of terrorists. Instead, they decided to tap everyone’s phones in the hopes of catching some terrorists. This bears some resemblance to a scene in The Dark Knight, when Alfred tells Bruce of a bandit in a Burman forest that he dealt with while serving in the British Army’s Special Air Service. Bruce asks if he ever caught the bandit, and Alfred replies that he did. Bruce asks how, and Alfred says, “We burned the forest down.” Part of the point of warrants is that there has to be evidence that the specific person being investigated might be guilty of wrongdoing. The NSA, however, has treated the entire populace as a suspect, and everyone is presumed guilty until proven innocent. President Obama has stated there is no domestic spying program in the United States. President Obama, I love you, but that statement is false, and you know it. Nobody should believe that we have entered a new age of authoritarianism. Civil liberties have always been in a precarious position in America. For instance, real freedom of speech was not established in the United States until the early 1990s. An entire book could be written about the blatant free speech violations practiced by government in America before then. People like Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who wanted the government “off the backs of people” have often been like lonely voices in the wilderness, and Douglas himself took a number of years and getting passed over for both the vice presidency and the presidency to embrace that stance. Still, it would be beneficial for the country if the revelation about the NSA served as a wake up call. Five years ago, the idea of a United States government agency tapping every person’s phone would have struck many people as something out of a dystopian novel. Now, we know it is reality. Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction.

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Authoritarian Bigotry Reigns in Russian Law

It seems that every time Russia supposedly gets a reform government, it becomes another tyrannical regime. From the Tsarist regime, to the Soviet Union, to Vladimir Putin, Russia has stood out among European nations for consistently having terrible human rights policies. Gay rights is one area in which Russian law seems downright medieval compared to other European countries. Unlike a number of European countries, gay marriage is illegal. Unlike most European countries, there is no federal workplace protection law covering sexual orientation. Now, Russia has enacted legislation that will take children away from parents suspected of being gay, forbidding people who live in a country with marriage equality from adopting Russian children, allowing gay or pro-gay rights tourists to be detained for two weeks, and effectively banning any pro-gay rights statements that could possibly be accessible to any underage person. America is behind much of the world in gay rights, and gays and lesbians are still treated as second class citizens here, but our country is clearly making great progress in this area. Russia, on the other hand, seems to be moving backwards. Vladimir Putin, the president who has been supporting this hateful legislation, is a tyrant with good publicity. It is clear that the former KGB officer has much in common with Joseph Stalin. Stalin was part of a regime that was supposed to be part of a new beginning. Instead, he re criminalized homosexuality and gave his nation a human rights record that was less heinous than Nazi Germany’s only because the government seemed to target people of all races for mistreatment equally. Likewise, Putin has tried to paint himself as a reformer who is trying to better his country, when in fact, he is destroying what freedom Russia gained when the Berlin Well fell.

The 2014 Winter Olympics are supposed to take place in Russia. Thanks to Putin’s new legislation, it is possible that any gay athletes will be arrested when they set foot on Russian soil. I urge the International Olympic Committee to not only choose a new location–perhaps Norway or Iceland–for the event but also to ban Russia and all other nations with similar or worse policies from the Olympics until such time as they are willing to treat their gay and lesbians residents with more respect. By allowing Russia to not only participate in but to host the Olympics, a message is being sent that the government’s totalitarian bigotry is really not a big deal. As long as athletes represent nations in the Olympics, rather than playing for independent teams, Olympic teams’ participation must be conditional on good human rights policies in their country of origin. In the past, the International Olympic Committee has sometimes chosen to look the other way regarding other country’s cruelties, in cases like those of Germany in 1936 and China in 2008. On the other hand, it has sometimes done the right thing, as in the case of South Africa for many years. I sometimes wonder if the Olympics do more harm than good. With not only bastions of freedom and equality like Iceland but also horrendously oppressive regimes like Saudia Arabia using the event as an excuse to extoll their national greatness, real or imagined, I cannot help but think that maybe the time would be better spent fighting for international human rights.

I also advocate that the United States and the U.N. take appropriate action against Russia. Russia and other nations with such unconscionable treatment of gays and lesbians should be branded rogue states, kicked out of the U.N., and be cut off from foreign trade. I will close this blog by saying that I find it ironic that whistleblower Edward Snowden may find refuge in Russia. Our country looks like an ACLU workshop compared to Russia.

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Patriot Act: Reform or Repeal

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I’ve been an opponent of the Patriot Act for nearly a decade, and despite being a staunch Obama supporter, I am disturbed by the apparent bipartisan consensus in favor of this authoritarian legislation. I rarely post other people’s articles to my blog, but sometimes I feel like another writer or group of writers does a better job than I would of describing something concisely and accurately. Hence, I am posting an article from the ACLU (in the interest of full  disclosure, I’m a member of the organization) detailing some of the big problems with the Patriot Act. I don’t agree with every single point the article brings up (I tend to support the “lone wolf” provision), but I think that overall, the writers are spot on: http://www.aclu.org/reform-patriot-act

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