Monthly Archives: October 2013

Reflections on the World’s Worst Holiday

There are only four men—and, perhaps reflecting our society’s sexism, no women—who have a national holiday in the United States. In January, we have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In February, we have what is officially recognized by the federal government as George Washington’s birthday, but is colloquially referred to as “President’s Day.” Christmas is for Jesus’ birthday. And sandwiched between George Washington and Jesus is Christopher Columbus. Today is Columbus Day. I cannot think of anyone in my lifetime for whom the public view has changed so drastically. When I was in elementary school in the late 1990s, Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, and King were treated as the four great historical heroes from different eras. The way we were taught, Columbus discovered America, Washington founded the country, Lincoln freed the slaves, and King ended segregation. I remember back when I was in first and second grade, wondering, How could Columbus have discovered America if the Indians [I hadn’t learned the word ‘Native American’ yet] were already there? And isn’t it kind of weird to claim land for Spain when there are already people living there? By the time I started high school, the well-deserved scholarly spanking that Columbus had received in A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told Me had settled into the public mind. However, I will provide a recap of Columbus’ transgressions. The first tribes that he encountered on Hispaniola were the Arawaks. Deciding that the Arawaks were easy picking, Columbus left some Spaniards behind, headed back to Spain, and persuaded the king and queen to give him more ships, supplies, and men. However, when Columbus returned, he discovered an inconvenient development. Probably thinking that the Arawaks would not fight back no matter how badly they were treated, the Spaniards had enslaved them and forced to them to pan and mine. Pushed to the breaking point, the Arawaks had finally killed and possibly eaten Columbus’ men, as well as destroying his fort. Rather than acknowledging that his men had brought their unhappy fates upon themselves, Columbus reacted savagely. Some Arawaks were sent to slave markets. Of those who remained on the island, each was enslaved and forced to find enough gold every three months to fill a quota. If they did not find enough gold, their hands were cut off, and they died from blood loss. As if this body of evidence was not enough to demonstrate the moral turpitude of the Spanish voyage, it is known that Columbus’ men raped native women. When Native Americans’ rights activist Russell Means said that Columbus made Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent, the statement was wrong only because it understated the crimes of Hitler. Columbus is basically for Native Americans what Hitler is for Jews. Now, we have the matter of the national holiday. There are hundreds of phenomenal individuals in both American and world history who do not have a national holiday in the United States. Let us look at John Brown. John Brown has been castigated for taking part in killing. Why, pray tell, did Brown take part in violent killing? Because he hated slavery. He let himself be hung from the end of a rope so that millions of slaves could be free. Do we have a holiday for John Brown? No. The Governor of Virginia has not even sit fit to issue a posthumous pardon for him. Yet every year, we have a special day marked off for a man who enslaved other human beings and butchered those who resisted. How on Earth has Columbus Day not been abolished yet? Most students now know what a loathsome, vicious human being he was. Are we really so glad that he “discovered” America for white people that we are just willing to overlook the matters of slavery and slaughter? What, indeed, did Columbus’ “discovery” lead to? More outrages inflicted on indigenous people: enslavement, murder, rape, loss of land and culture. We should indeed mourn the fate of the Arawaks and other Native American tribes. There were admirable aspects of their cultures. Chattel slavery was often less prevalent, women often had more rights, gay people were often less stigmatized, and children were often treated more humanely. But more importantly, nothing gives someone the right to invade a land and treat the indigenous people the way that Columbus treated Native Americans. If we celebrate Columbus Day, then based on what it says about us as a nation, we should not just mourn the horrors inflicted on Native Americans; we should mourn ourselves.

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The Self-Destruction of Chris Christie

This blog post is about one of Woodrow Wilson’s successors as Governor of New Jersey. I cannot say this for sure, but I truly believe Chris Christie wants to be president. In the first place, back in the 2012 election, he made his speech at the Republican National Convention, which was supposed to be for the purpose of drumming up support for Mitt Romney, into The Life and Times of Chris Christie. Then, earlier this year, he got gastric-band surgery. This may seem irrelevant to a presidential election. However, there is an unfortunate fact about presidential elections: many voters take physical appearance into consideration. Ridiculous and unfair though it is, presidents that are short, overweight, or both have not been elected in America since television became widespread. Presidents like the 5’4″ James Madison and the 300+pound William Howard Taft were all elected before most Americans had T.V.s in their homes. Hence, in all probability, Christie has gotten the surgery to make himself slimmer. Otherwise, it seems probable he would have done it sooner. His timing speaks poorly to his claim that it the surgery nothing to do with presidential ambitions. However, the New Jersey governor is in the process of inadvertently ruining his chances in a general election. While avoiding the rabid, obsessive homophobia of the Rick Santorums, Mike Huckabees, and Jim DeMints of the GOP, Christie has consistently opposed gay marriage. At one time, this was the stance of President Obama, but Obama and most other Democrats have changed their positions. In 2012, Christie was presented with a bill that the legislature had passed legalizing gay marriage. He stated that while he favored the separate but equal civil unions New Jersey currently had in place for gays, he still opposed marriage equality and would not sign the bill.

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court declared that same-sex marriage must be legalized in the state. Chris Christie had a golden opportunity here. He could have said that he was respecting the court’s decision, without explicitly giving his current opinion on gay marriage, and allow marriage equality to take effect in the Garden State. Then, sometime next year, he could  have announced that he had come around to supporting gay marriage. This would have allowed him to appeal to moderate voters, including some Democrats who have fiscally conservative tendencies but have voted Democrat previously based on social issues. Instead, he is appealing the court decision, asking that it be reversed. He has stated that he is willing to put gay marriage to a public vote, but as many have pointed out, civil rights are inalienable, not dependent on the will of the majority.

The fact of the matter is that most conservative Christians will not vote for Chris Christie in a primary unless he’s competing only against people like Jon Huntsman, Lincoln Chafee, and Olympia Snowe. He has generally laughed off the fear by conservative Christians that Islam represents an internal threat and, in an attempt to straddle the fence on gay rights, signed a bill outlawing “ex-gay therapy” for minors. The conservative Christian hostility to Christie will not abate if he continues opposing gay marriage, since they will almost certainly have more virulently homophobic candidates to choose from. Christie has little to gain and much to lose from the path he is currently on. He is, however, running the risk of losing moderate and socially liberal/fiscally conservative votes if he manages to win the nomination. It will be best for him, as well as for the cause of equality, if his appeal is denied. This will allow him to eventually change his position without being known as the man who prevented gay marriage from being legalized in New Jersey. If he wins the appeal, and gay marriage is not legalized until another governor takes office, Christie’s die will have been cast. He will forever be known as being bigoted towards gays and lesbians, and come 2016, he will be unable to etch-a-sketch his way out of it.

What the Chris Christies of the world cannot see, though even Karl Rove is finally come to see it, is that we live in a very different world than we did fifteen, ten, or even five years ago. There was a time when the majority of Americans clearly opposed gay marriage, and taking the “oppose gay marriage, support civil unions” stance was considered progressive. In 2000, Howard Dean could be given an option by his state’s Supreme Court of legalizing gay marriage or legalizing civil unions, choose the civil unions, and still be considered a viable candidate for liberal Democrats. (To his credit, Dean did eventually come around to supporting marriage equality in 2010.) In essence, the fact that Christie is now considered conservative on gay rights for taking Dean’s old position shows how the times they are a-changing. The majority of Americans now realize that allowing civil unions for gays and allowing civil marriage for only heterosexuals represents a two-tiered, discriminatory system not entirely unlike requiring blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains. Chris Christie has had many chances to reverse course, but he has rejected them all, and his political career may be headed straight off of a cliff.

This man believed civil rights should be decided by popular vote.

So does he.

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Woodrow Wilson and the 19th Amendment

One of the reasons that I used to be hesitant to place Woodrow Wilson in the top five worst presidents (coming in at #3) is that he did eventually support the successful attempt to pass the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote nationwide. This amendment was a glorious triumph for women’s equality, the fourth part of what I call the Second Bill of Rights–the constitutional amendments that have addressed issues of freedom for women and racial minorities. (The Second of Bill of Rights, in its current entirety, consists of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 19th Amendment, and the 24th Amendment.) I eventually concluded, however, that this amendment does little to improve Wilson’s historical standing. Before looking at Wilson’s handling of the 19th Amendment, it is important to look at how his segregation of the federal government unfolded. Wilson needed little pressure to allow his administration to begin this segregation. While there was political incentive to implement segregation, Wilson could have probably survived politically if he had refused, since he had begun making inroads with black voters (inroads that were closed off due to the racist polices of his first term), and the Democratic Party had acquired some socially liberal Northern whites by this time who would have supported Wilson if he had defied the segregationists of his party. Furthermore, Wilson’s policies at Princeton, taken together with his policies as president, indicates that he favored a stringent system of segregation. Wilson’s path to endorsing women’s rights were far more marked by indecision and flip flopping. While writer Charles Dunn states that Wilson did favor women’s suffrage early in his career, the 28th president’s frequent “dipping and dodging” makes this difficult to confirm or debunk. In 1887, Wilson wrote in his diary that lecturing women about politics was pointless. This was not just a folly of youth. When he became Governor of New Jersey, he stated that, “my personal judgment is strongly against” women’s suffrage. In 1911, he told his publicist, Frank Stockbridge, that he was, “definitely and irreconcilably opposed to woman suffrage.” In the 1912 presidential election, it was the Progressive Party that endorsed women’s suffrage. Wilson claimed not to have given the issue much thought. In December of his first year in office, Wilson met with the National Woman Suffrage Convention but once again avoided publicly taking a position on the right of women to vote. It was not until he became publicly engaged to his second wife, Edith, two and-a-half years into his first term, that he publicly announced support for women’s suffrage. Still, until at least 1917, he advocated leaving women’s suffrage to the states. It was only after activists used pickets, marches, and hunger strikes to put pressure on Wilson that he took a firm stance in support of a constitutional amendment that would allow women to vote.

As referenced earlier, Wilson’s decision to support the 19th Amendment under intense pressure after dragging his feet of clay for years stands in stark contrast to his readiness to re-segregate federal departments. In essence, Woodrow Wilson’s reactionary civil rights stances were taken eagerly, while his progressive ones were taken while being dragged kicking and screaming. I hope that my series of posts has made readers reconsider their views on Woodrow Wilson. Far from being one of our greatest presidents, he should be ranked among the worst. Indeed, I would argue that his extreme racial bigotry, irresponsible foreign policy, and flagrant abuse of civil liberties make Wilson the worst president of the 20th century.

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