A Pox on Both Your Houses? No

Donnie Boy says the darnedest things, but of course you would expect that of someone with the maturity of a ten-year-old. One of his latest whoppers is that President “Obama is the most ignorant president in American history,” afterwards Trumped, as it were, by accusing the President of being “the founder of ISIS,” not even figuratively, but literally. Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt tried to give him an out by suggesting that surely he meant that Obama effectively allowed ISIS to come into being, but Donnie refused the exit and said that he meant it literally. Apparently he was imagining the President and Hillary in the Situation Room conspiring with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to let Baghdadi be the Operations Chief as long as Obama’s name was at the top of ISIS letterhead. And if Donnie imagined it, it must be true, like the non-existent videos of all those Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11.

But the “most ignorant president” comment was astonishing in revealing Trump’s horizonless ignorance of American history. Not only do James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson (said to have been taught to read by his wife), and Warren G. Harding pop to mind, but the reputations of all three would skyrocket by comparison if Trump joined their ranks as president. But further, the statement begs for a new word. “Ironic” would be the closest word, but even raised to the third or fourth power it seems pathetically inadequate to describe an abysmally uninformed philistine like Trump calling a former professor of Constitutional law and a man as articulate, reflective, and knowledgeable about world affairs as Obama “ignorant.” Love him or hate him, or something in between, Obama is hardly ignorant. What would be the word to use if, say, a pathological mass murderer called Gandhi or Pope Francis a threat to peace? What word captures that level of titanic irony? So beside all the accurate commentary about Trump’s temperament, his micro-thin skin, his demagoguery, his insecurity, his bullying, his offensiveness, his ostentatiousness, and his total disregard for truth as disqualifiers for the presidency, what about the simple fact that the GOP candidate who considers himself a “genius” and challenged the Muslim mayor of London to an IQ contest is in fact a know-nothing ignoramus?

Meanwhile, as for the fifteen percent of Bernie-istas who said in a recent poll that they would either vote for Trump, a two percent party, or no one at all, what are they smoking? Columnist Joe Klein calls them the dead-enders, comic and former Bernie supporter Sarah Silverman calls them the “ridiculous” Bernie-or-bust people, and I call them the left-wing equivalent of the right-wing Tea Party. They could also be called utopians, and not in a good way. In the same sense that Thomas More’s Utopia literally meant “nowhere,” Bernie himself spoke of “the real world” as a counterpoint to his most avid supporters who feel that they cannot dirty their hands or foul their souls by voting for Hillary, flawed as she may be. They seem to say that Hillary and the real world are imperfect, and thus depraved, and nothing short of utopia—nowhere—will do. But if they choose to sit out the election, or throw away their vote on the two-percenters and zero electoral vote-getters Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, they might consider the consequences of their moral superiority. And a claim of neutrality, the pox-on-both-your-houses defense, won’t wash—they are helping Trump. The catchphrase from my college years, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” calls out the utopians. The pox-on-both-your-houses stand means you’re part of the problem.

So, to the utopians, the dead-enders, the Bernie-or-busters, if you don’t vote and Trump is elected, don’t complain. If a Thomas- or Scalia-like hard-right conservative gets on the Supreme Court, don’t complain. If that court hands down decisions you don’t like on abortion, guns, gay rights, voting rights, Obamacare, or a multitude of other issues, don’t complain. If Trump embarrasses the country through his bombast and ignorance, don’t complain. If Trump becomes the arrogant, authoritarian ruler he has already shown signs of being (“I alone can fix it”), don’t complain. If a Republican congress passes objectionable laws that Hillary would have vetoed, don’t complain. If your hourly wages don’t go up, if women’s equality does not advance, if the Trump tax plan favoring people like himself is enacted, if a de-regulated Wall Street leads to another crash, if corporate welfare continues apace, if we get into military conflicts that diplomacy would have prevented, don’t complain. If a hyper-sensitive President Trump uses the bully pulpit to denigrate or otherwise punish private citizens such as journalists who offend him, don’t complain. And, just one more, if a President Trump continues to view man-made climate change as a Chinese “hoax,” don’t complain.

It has become a political cliché to state that any particular election is critical to the history of the country, and it’s true, they all are. But this one really is unique. This is not merely a choice between two contending political persuasions, two visions of America’s future, two individuals of differing ideology but both within the elastic bounds of political competence. Trump, unlike any of his Republican predecessors running for president, is an amoral self-seeker of fundamentally despotic temperament, a crude misogynist, a liar exceeding anything we have seen in decades, a demagogue oblivious to and dismissive of inconvenient facts, a purveyor of conspiratorial innuendo, and a mercurial bully far too uninformed and narcissistic to wield the power of the presidency. I have compared him to Kim Jong-Un, ruler of North Korea, except that as president Trump would have a Constitution, a congress, and a free press to at least partially clip his wings. And so, Bernie-or-busters, you cannot congratulate yourselves for your high principles by sitting this one out. If you have to hold your nose while voting for Hillary, fine, do it. And then—but only if you vote for her—if she does something you don’t like, complain at will.

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The Return of P. T. Barnum

The Republicans have actually done it, nominating someone even more bizarre than Lyin’ Ted, the evangelical Crusader given to endless attacks of piety and hoping to send the U.S. to the fourteenth century with all its accompanying witch burnings and other entertainments. Lyin’ Ted may yet prove to be the Republicans’ Lyndon Larouche, and, like Larouche, he will probably run again, and again, and again, bloviating about the Apocalypse if the electorate fails to heed his jeremiads hurled at Beelzebub and other Democrats. But for now, Lyin’ Ted slinks back to his Senate lair, mumbling about how he has been out-lied by the very best.

So The Donald is their boy, whose accusations of Lyin’ Ted’s lies, given his own, raise irony to fine art. Donnie himself lies only when his lips move. But when Crusader Cruz threw in the bloody towel, Donnie Boy lapsed into a kumbayah moment, which is to say that he did not call him Lyin’ Ted for once and said that he ran a “great campaign” and had a “great future”—all of which proves that the anti-politician Trump is a politician to the core. Apparently The Blonde One thinks that a campaign of lies is a great campaign and the basis of a great future. Meanwhile poor old Kasich, who managed to display some sense and integrity as all the poisoned darts flew through the air during the extended Republican circus, was the last opponent still standing on wobbly knees, but he too then keeled over in the face of the Trumpanista onslaught. The Dear Leader then entertained us with a triumphal, alleged foreign policy speech. Its incoherence bore all the stigmata of Trump’s own fiction-filled, love-me-because-I’m-God orations, but the tell-tale use of big words like “rudderless” and “disarray” and the failure to repeat his punch lines twice in a row testified to hidden authorship. Trump salivated at the thought of taking Ohio from Crooked Hillary by naming Ohioan Kasich as his veep, but the vanquished governor concluded that an embrace of the low-vocabulary, grammatically challenged, monomaniacal, National Enquirer devotee would be a bigly mistake. Damned bigly mistake. Rumors have circulated that Donnie is now thinking of appointing himself as his veep, but the Trump camp avers that no decision has yet been made.

Besides reading the National Enquirer for the news of the day, Donnie has been consulting the P. T. Barnum Scriptures for campaign advice on the subject of suckers, and it has paid off yuge. He has bamboozled vast swaths of the American electorate, which perhaps might not be all that hard, but you would think that some of them who consider themselves hard-nosed realists might see through the fantasy of heaven in America when he becomes president: with a wave of his hand, heaven will descend to the heartland, and walls will be built and paid for by Mexico, ISIS will renounce violence and embrace brotherly love, all trade deals will be re-negotiated to our advantage just because he says so, the military will be great again, all jobs will come back, the national debt will evaporate in eight years, all eleven million illegal immigrants will just pack up and leave, and every little girl will have a pony. Admittedly some of the Trump loyalists who account themselves realists have questioned the pony issue, specifically arguing that Muslim girls shouldn’t get one. Meanwhile back here on earth the sociologists have blitzed the staid, peer-reviewed academic gazettes with scores of their enlightened lucubrations on the subjects of mesmerism and mass delirium.

Or do the swooning masses actually know he’s just a huckster, but a huckster is what they want? On this point ol’ P. T. may have anticipated The Donald back in 1855: “The public appears to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” As a purely psychological study, whole armies of professors will be required not only to ascertain the degree of credulousness of the Trumpanistas, but also to delve into the question of whether Donnie is just playing the Barnum card or his Messiah complex is so galactic in scope that he actually believes his own fantastic confections. It was reported by the National Enquirer that Trump called God and told Him that it was a good thing He wasn’t in the primaries and to keep the throne warm for him when he becomes president, known in Trumpland as the Second Coming. There was some skepticism about this story from the majority of losers in the journalism trade, or at least that part of the reporting where God said “yes sir,” but the Trumpanistas proclaimed it gospel, right up there with “Two” Corinthians.

There have been a few sniffish comments or attitudes about Huckster Don being the Republican nominee, including a few from the last two Republican nominees McCain and Romney, the last two Republican presidents Bush Sr. and Jr., and the current speaker of the House Ryan, not to mention almost all the lesser fauna of the official Republican confederacy. However, these Establishment views are all to the good for The Donald’s flock, who see those folk as just more losers to be left behind when the Rapture comes. The Establishment fears a break-up of the Party, with the crazies scurrying over to Huckster Don’s new Know Nothing Party, leaving the comparatively sane remains of the GOP impotent. They also fear that Donnie will cause destruction on the down ballot, with possible loss of the Senate and maybe even the House. At that point, current Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will be hanged in effigy, or worse, for failing to call for a vote on moderate Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland when he had the chance. Abetted by Faux News and Rush Limbaugh and other assorted gasbags and circus barkers, the GOP has in fact long been drifting toward the right wing fringe, but reports of its demise may be greatly exaggerated.

Still, the party has reason for concern. Numerous professional and academic organizations have joined the Trump bandwagon and started thumping the drums. These include the Global Cooling National Front, the John Muir Clear-Cut Logging Federation, the American Phrenological Association, the Men’s Temperance and Anti-Evolution Coalition, the Society of Biblical Inerrantists, the North American Organization of Alien Abductees, The International League of Clairvoyants and Mind Readers, the Southern Scientology Society, the Four Humours Medical Association, the Midwestern Academy of Fantasists, and the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the American Slavery Denial League. These are organizations not to be trifled with, several of which boast a number of congressmen and senators among their memberships, especially the Global Cooling National Front. With the collective intellectual gravitas of these and other hotbeds of cerebral ferment in his camp, Trump’s full assault on the White House is ignored at the nation’s peril. Fellow megalomaniac Kim Jung Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea tweeted Donnie a congratulatory note on his nomination, joshing The Blonde One that in his country primaries and elections were unnecessary fluff since all you had to do was put words like “democratic,” “people’s,” and “Republic” in the name of the country to insure that the starving masses stand supreme. Kim also noted that he and Donnie had so much in common, including weird hairdos, itchy nuclear trigger fingers, a touchiness about criticism, zero political experience, self-idolatry, a penchant for fair ladies, and the joys of seeing their names and pictures everywhere. Donnie tweeted back: “Thanks, Kimbo. You’re an inspiration! Lunch?”

But unlike His Rotundancy, Trump still has the inconvenient burden of an election. You might think that women wouldn’t like him, blacks wouldn’t like him, the disabled wouldn’t like him, Hispanics wouldn’t like him, grammarians wouldn’t like him, POWs wouldn’t like him, immigrants wouldn’t like him, barbers wouldn’t like him, people making minimum wage wouldn’t like him, liberals wouldn’t like him, evangelical conservatives wouldn’t like him, and folks who know simplistic and blustering ignorance when they see it wouldn’t like him. But hey, this is America, waiting to be made great again by a magisterial wave of the Dear Leader’s dear hand. And, as ol’ P. T. also said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

Senator McConnell, Why Do You Disrespect Justice Scalia?

Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing has led to the President doing his constitutional job of nominating a replacement and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell not doing his. McConnell refuses to even meet with the nominee, Merrick Garland, a centrist respected by both sides. Holding hearings and voting on him, the senate’s constitutional job, are out of the question. In the time-honored and almost magical way that politicians have of making their base, self-serving interests sound like high principle, McConnell very prettily says that deferring the decision until the next president is in office so that “the people have a voice” is the right thing to do. Of course, the people actually did have a voice and they elected Barack Obama to a second four-year term, not a three year term. Naturally McConnell’s pretended principled stand is really raw politics, as he hopes for a Republican to be elected president allowing the next justice to be a Republican nominee. But if a Democrat is elected, all the Republican principle of letting “the people have a voice” will dissolve, and the centrist Garland will likely get a lame duck hearing after all, just before the newly elected Democrat takes office and has the opportunity to nominate someone less satisfactory to Republican sensibilities. Would McConnell be talking about letting the people have a voice if a Republican had almost a year left in office? Of course not.

As the leading voice for the judicial philosophy of deciding cases based on the “original intent” of the Constitution, Justice Antonin Scalia would have to be appalled at McConnell’s “let the people have a voice” hypocrisy concerning the Justice’s replacement. The founders unquestionably intended “advise and consent” to mean precisely that, and doing nothing is not “advising” the President, much less “consenting.” If McConnell and company want to show respect to Justice Scalia, then abide by his oft expressed judicial philosophy and proceed with what the original intent of the Constitution’s framers clearly was: consider the nominee and have the senate give its advice in the form of an actual vote. Senator McConnell, why do you so disrespect the Justice whom you so profess to revere?

Swooning for Trump

Iowa Republican caucus-goers have not even yet donned their sealskin parkas and mukluks and begun their trek across the windswept tundra to vote in their quadrennial confab, but Donald J. Trump has had them all aflutter for months. An innocent civilian cannot suffer through a single news cycle without scurrying for the foxhole under a cannonade of alleged news about the coiffure-challenged candidate, invariably including some choice apercus from  The Donald himself. We have learned, for example, by his own testimony that if he is elected, his presidency will be HUGE, and it will be GREAT, and Mexico will pay for a huge WALL, and EIGHTY PERCENT of killings of whites are committed by blacks, and he will bomb the SHIT out of ISIS, and all you need to know about how everything will be fixed and America will be made great again is that he will use MANAGEMENT, unlike all the STUPID leaders we have today who have been a DISASTER, one in particular. Some have claimed that DJT is really a sub-literate, misogynistic, deranged, xenophobic, bloviating, demagoguing, know-nothing blowhard. But I have to admit that he also has some bad traits, though it would be ungentlemanly of me to enumerate them.

I estimate that around thirty percent of the American population would actually like to see him as president. However, if he somehow were to be the GOP nominee, he would get at least forty-five percent of the vote on the principle of “my Republican, right or wrong.” But of those thirty percent who swoon for him, rejecting all others, a very significant number are closet fascists, the card-carrying Ku Kluxers and John Birchers of an earlier era. (Aside: I was getting a haircut yesterday, with Fox alleged News spewing in the background, and one of the waiting customers, maybe my age, observed that he was waiting for Obama’s State of the Union Address. The barber, whom I’ve long known to be of far right wing and racist persuasion, asked why. The customer replied that he was hoping somebody would “shoot him.” The barber said, “Nobody has the balls to do it.” Yes, I should have changed barbers a long time ago, and had another option availed itself, I would have, but that was it, I’m done. Actually, I did change barbers a long time ago, from the one whose Confederate flag filled a wall. So anyway let’s not pretend they’re not out there, and they’re sure not voting for any Democrat. The customer and the barber’s assumption of white, male, right wing solidarity in front of two other customers is itself telling. Now I guess I’ll be getting my hair “styled.”)

Many of the thirty percent are high school educated (or less) white males who consider themselves victimized by Obama-the-born-in-Africa-Muslim, the press, the government in general, and now Hillary and her adorers. And in their often self-pitying and angry world view, they are surrounded on all sides by a liberal or merely moderate cultural onslaught, and Trump is the blond Galahad come to slay their oppressors. Even more so than most politicians, DJT offers his admirers pabulum of intellectually digestible simplicity instead of nuance and complexity, a binary world of strong vs. weak, good vs. evil, smart vs. stupid, and especially us vs. them. The essential qualities of a president for the swooners are bombast, overweening vanity, political inexperience, a delight in offending, and a willingness to utter whoppers that they consider to be inconvenient truths—e.g., Mexicans are rapists, our leaders are stupid, Muslims were celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City—statements which would be anathema to ordinary politicians even if they were true.

In particular all his supporters love his unwillingness to apologize or admit error about anything, even things on which they know him to be wrong. Were he to apologize or admit he might have been wrong about something—say, for example, mocking McCain’s legitimate war hero status—it would deflate his “brand” and expose a weakness that they cannot countenance. After all, strength means never having to say you’re sorry, and one should never let an annoying fact or a truth get in the way of a good storyline. Feeling the love, DJT has become an even greater bully than he was on The Apprentice, a show which thrived to the extent that it did because of his bullying, tough-guy tactics. His vast but terribly fragile ego cannot abide criticism, so mockery—the McCain charge, the blood coming out of Megan Kelly’s “wherever,” his spastic shaking to mock a journalist with a disability—becomes his weapon of choice, one that enraptures his worshipping fans though it may discomfit the few not quite yet fully in the fold. In all, it is more than a little possible to see comparisons to National Socialism in his candidacy: his venomous and theatrical screeds are offered as speeches; his stoking of fears of Muslims and Mexicans is reminiscent of Hitler’s scapegoating Jews; and his observation after a heckler was beaten and kicked at one of his rallies that “maybe he should have been roughed up” recalls the Brownshirts in sentiment if not in scale.

If The Donald were somehow actually elected, it would be the cognitive equivalent of installing a whiny nine-year-old in the Oval Office, with a few loaded assault rifles lying around on the desk and sofa. Surely nothing could go wrong. America would have its very own Kim Jong-un, with the added benefit of their dueling hairstyles. After a few weeks of President Trump, the reputations of Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover would skyrocket by comparison. He would be shocked by the discovery that the country actually has a constitution, and that his pronunciamentos, whims, and imprecations were subject to congressional scrutiny. Perhaps fortunately for him, his rabid supporters do not appear to have the numbers to elect him, thus saving him the disorienting revelations that he could not be Dictator of the United States and that realities and facts matter. As president, he would be confronted with the impossible drudgery, at least for him, of having to govern, as well as the appalling realization that actually being president is not at all fun like the improvisational joys and glories of campaigning for it. Like Sarah Palin as Alaska governor, he might actually quit. Of course the hurdle of getting elected in the first place is raised even higher by the enigma of DJT’s actual birthplace. Rumors have abounded for months that he was not, in fact, born in Queens, New York in 1946 as he claims, but rather in the small village of Dystopia, Vulgaria, to minor aristocracy in that benighted eastern European nation. If true, as a native Vulgarian, he would not be constitutionally qualified to serve as president. Whether such rumors can withstand media scrutiny remains to be seen, but what is unequivocally true is that so far he has never made public his birth certificate.

None of this is to say that I am a big Hillary fan. I’ll certainly vote for her, but I have no affection for her prevarications and occasional outright lies. Here is a little-known one, reported by now deceased critic-at-large Christopher Hitchens in his book And Yet . . . . He noted that in a trip to Asia some time ago, Ms. Clinton met mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, and “ever ready to milk the moment,” she told him that her mother had named her after him. How could she be foolish enough to say such a thing? She was born in 1947, and Sir Edmund was an unknown until the Everest climb in 1953. Hillary, do your math homework! Her spokeswoman Jennifer Hanley acknowledged in 2006 that it was not true, but observed that “It was a sweet family story her mother shared to inspire greatness in her daughter, to great results I might add.” OK, it’s just a tiny obsequious lie, sort of like Paul Ryan’s tiny self-aggrandizing one that he had run a sub-three hour marathon. But then there was also the “running under sniper fire” one in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1996. Still, I’ll take Hillary over any of the Republicans, though Kasich seems almost honest and reasonable. Of course he doesn’t have a chance. Cruz is cagily holding fire on DJT, hoping for something from him that would be so bizarre or offensive as to presage a fall, allowing Cruz to rush into the breech and claim the presumably disillusioned Trump fantasists. Rubio poses as a moderate conservative, a pose which, compared to Cruz, may almost be true. Meanwhile Carson wilts, Christie scratches, Jeb pleads, and Fiorina snarls.

The funniest line of the campaign so far came from now departed and greatly unlamented Bobby Jindal, who, when informed that The Donald claimed the Bible as his favorite book, retorted that that could not possibly be true as Trump himself was not mentioned anywhere in it. But who knows, maybe The Donald got into all the animal sacrifice stuff. As for the Democrats, O’Malley, like the lesser Republicans, can be dismissed as a cipher scrounging for a footnote in the history books or maybe a gig as a talk show host. Meanwhile Sanders nips at Hillary’s sniper-dodging heels by advocating mostly reasonable and fair policies that even Democratic congressmen and senators would scorn to entertain, like raising taxes on the wealthy.

Several months ago it was easy to dismiss Trump as a gasbag mountebank. He’s still that, but the presumed self-destruct button that he was always on the verge of pushing has now been pushed a few dozen times and seems to be out of order. The only possible unpardonable gaffes for him among the true believers at this point would be a sudden embrace of some hint of gun control or a confession of atheism. The fact that his corporations have filed for bankruptcy four times has apparently elevated his economic prowess; his ignorance of what the nuclear triad is enhances his commander-in-chief bona fides; his three marriages confirm his family values; his sweet talk about Vladimir Putin burnishes his foreign policy cred. The lemmings live in a topsy-turvy world, where up is down and black is white. Let’s just hope there are not enough of them to lead us all over the cliff next November.

The Awakening of Miss Jean Louise

One might be forgiven for wondering if Harper Lee’s formerly lost novel Go Set a Watchman just might be the equal of To Kill a Mockingbird. For fifty-five years we have had just one volume of the companion set, as if we only knew The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but not The Mysterious Stranger. Watchman was written first, the story of Jean Louise Finch’s return to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama after a few years of escape in New York City. Was the return a mere visit to see her elderly father or was it permanent? We do not know, nor does the novel tell us, but we do know that Lee herself did eventually return to Monroeville, where at eighty-nine she lives today in a nursing home. Her New York editor in the mid-1950s seemed unenthusiastic about Watchman but saw possibilities in the novel’s frequent and sometimes lengthy flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and a rambunctious young girl’s 1930s-era evocation of free-roaming summers and invented games, but also Southern life, manners, and the color line.

So Lee returns to her typewriter. In a fine, easy prose, sparkling with tidbits of humor, she creates a Southern small town world as seen by Scout, the nickname of the young Jean Louise, as she navigates ages six through nine, along with her older brother Jem, her father Atticus, their black housekeeper Calpurnia, her playmate Dill, and a cast of lesser but well-drawn dramatis personae. Indeed the language is a little too fine for the six-to-nine year old narrator, a fact which invites a legitimate criticism of the novel. But on that point a willing suspension of disbelief is justified, given that even the precocious Scout could not otherwise reward us with scores of little gems such as:

Atticus had urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass. The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb’s leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding arising from the alleged wrongful detention of a mare, were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses, and insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody.

But Mockingbird is not solely a story of Southern rhythms of the mid-1930s as seen through the innocent eyes of a very young, tomboyish girl ever willing to scrap with the local boys and averse to all impositions of femininity. Lee goes straight to The Great Forbidden in the catalogue of white racial fears: black men raping white women. That particular miscegenation is for whites de facto rape; the idea that interracial sex between black men and white women could be consensual is too abhorrent to be conceived, while that between white men and black women is almost an entitlement, though mentioned only in whispers. The only acceptable outcome to this affront to white sensibilities is lynching, whether judicial or extra-judicial.

This is the scenario Atticus faces as the lawyer for Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of “ruttin’ on my Mayella” by the much-put-upon white trash lowlife Bob Ewell. Ewell, Scout tells us, “was the only man I ever heard of who was fired from the WPA for laziness,” after which “he resumed his regular weekly appearances at the welfare office for his check, and received it with no grace amid obscure mutterings that the bastards who thought they ran this town wouldn’t permit an honest man to make a living.” As becomes obvious to any objective eye in the courtroom, Mayella has broken the “code” and lured a black man into her shanty house allegedly to move a piece of furniture, kisses the frightened man, and then sees her father at the window and begins screaming as if she has been attacked. Tom runs, and Ewell beats his daughter. Soon enough, father and daughter both easily slip into victimhood and cry rape, and at the trial Atticus coolly eviscerates the mendacious Ewells on the stand, earning their simmering hatred. But reason and facts succumb to the “code,” The Great Forbidden, and so the all white, all male jury comes to its inevitable verdict.

Jem and Scout have been secretly watching the proceedings from the balcony, unknown to Atticus. Scout’s near deification of her father is rooted in her memories of her gentle, loving father who lets her crawl into his lap and reads to her. Despite all Scout’s scrapes, misadventures, and general pugnacity, Atticus is never really angry with her. Though not of an age capable of fully understanding the quiet courage of her father and the esteem in which he is widely held in Maycomb, Scout’s trust in him to know almost everything, to always do the right thing, and especially to always be there for her and Jem form the circumscribed and idealized perspective she has of her father. And she is not far off: reading Mockingbird, one finds a man worthy of imitation—a desire to be more like Atticus, less temperamental, more equable, more laid back.

Two decades later, in Watchman, Jean Louise returns from New York to Maycomb to visit her aging father. Little has changed in Maycomb, and little has changed Jean Louise’s image of her father. The color line is as firm as ever, and Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia, quietly grieving over the fate of her grandson who has accidentally killed a pedestrian, is an almost unheard of literal crossing of that line. It does not go well. But it does provide the final chapter in Jean Louise’s awakening. As a girl, she was innocent of the color line’s social mores which enveloped her, and had seen Calpurnia as a mother substitute, dispensing love and discipline with equal fervor. But now, weighed down by age, her grandson’s predicament, and long memory of the unbridgeable divide between white and black, Calpurnia barely speaks, and the realities of the color line rend the cherished memories of Scout’s childhood innocence. Plaintively, Jean Louise asks in parting, “Did you hate us?” After a pregnant moment, Calpurnia shakes her head, but Jean knows that she had a right to.

But the full catastrophe had already begun with Jean Louise’s discovery of a snatch of paper about a meeting of the Maycomb Citizens’ Council. What she now sees as the lie of her childhood crescendos with her clandestinely watching her father introducing white supremacist and state Citizens’ Council leader Grady O’Hanlon, all in the very courtroom where Atticus had so nobly defended Tom Robinson some two decades before. Seeing her father even at the courthouse meeting, much less introducing this reptilian creature, sends her rushing outside, puking her insides out. The disillusionment, the loss of innocence, is almost complete. Her sort-of boyfriend Henry is as complicit as her father. What they and the Citizens’ Councils see as a justifiable defense against the presumed onslaught of the NAACP in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision is, to Jean Louise, the howling of the Ku Kluxers railing against the possibility that Negroes might be as human as white folk. And the man she vaguely thought of marrying, and even more importantly, the man she had idolized since before she could walk, were in league with that constellation of odious views up to their armpits. Her faith and trust have been ripped from her, awaiting only Calpurnia’s melancholy head shake to be complete. Jean Louise had simply endured her Aunt Alexandra’s assumptions of class superiority and higher breeding, her supercilious presumption of white benevolence, and all her corseted, self-deluded entitlement that are the poison and ignorance of skin color aristocracy. But her father was pure, the embodiment of racial integrity, the defender of her faith. Yet now, with her own eyes, she had seen that it was not at all so. He was a monster. He may not have burned a cross, but was he not in their camp? It is a small step from radical disillusionment to white-hot anger and loathing, but the step after that is a long one. Finally, through the ministrations of a wise uncle, she comes of age. She takes that long step to a reluctant acceptance. It is not an acceptance of beliefs contrary to her own heart, but an acceptance of her father’s imperfect humanity.

Let the Flag Come Down

A seminal moment occurred on June 17 when twenty-one year old Dylann Roof entered a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat with a Wednesday Bible study group for about an hour, then pulled out a gun and proceeded to shoot nine of them to death. Roof’s flagrant white supremacist views, as seen in photos of him with a gun and a Confederate flag, as well as his stated desire to start a race war, have brought to new life a vigorous debate about the Confederate flag, and particularly its display by government bodies on public property. South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley bravely declared that it should come down from the Capitol grounds. The legislature, after beating down some foot-dragging amendments, approved, and on July 10 the flag was officially lowered to widespread cheers and moved to a museum. Even the flagpole and fencing were removed. Meanwhile Mississippi legislators seem content to let the fervor cool as time passes, knowing that having the only state flag that contains, in its upper left corner, the entire Confederate flag puts Mississippi’s flag under an unwelcome glare.

The question of whether the Stars and Bars should continue to fly on Southern states’ public properties pits Southern ultra-conservative ideologues claiming to defend their “heritage” against progressives, moderate Republicans, and especially black Americans, all of whom know, when all is said and done, that the flag really is about white supremacy. The likelihood that few flag supporters could name a single relative in the Civil War severely undermines the heritagers’ claims of ancestral affection and protestations of racial good will. A realtor friend of mine told me a few years ago that when a house would become available for sale in a white area, some neighbors would put up a Confederate flag to deter possible black buyers. It was unequivocally not about “heritage.” Both the white homeowners and any potential black buyers knew exactly what that flag meant: blacks audacious enough to buy would be entering hostile territory.

The flag’s meanings are multi-layered, but heritage is the least of them. “Heritage” is the benign cover for the many malign realities. Fueling the white supremacist meaning, the flag is a statement of defiance against the great accumulated stockpile of right wing Southern white grievances—a black president, civil rights, black advancement and accomplishment, the daily necessity of interaction with black people on an equal basis, or, worse, in positions of authority, all of which presumably come at the heritagers’ aggrieved expense. So the flag is their proud statement of defiance against all of that. It is not coincidence that the state of South Carolina did not raise the flag at its capitol until 1962, as the state’s racist senator Strom Thurmond railed against civil rights, and the state legislature gloried in thumbing its collective nose at the civil rights-loving federal government and Yankee interference with the “Southern way of life.” Yankees, claim the heritagers, have been interfering with that way of life since its apogee in the antebellum years, and the war, symbolized by the Confederate battle flag, was the glorious scream of defiance to end that Northern interference. In fact, the heritage actually being defended is the infamy of a revolt against the United States, a revolt costing over 600,000 souls and innumerable limbs and traumatized lives. The revolt’s sole purpose, without which it would not have happened, was to preserve America’s original and most shameful sin. That is the real heritage represented by the flag—hatred and violent defiance of a government that would end the South’s presumed right to own, exploit, torture, and rape other human beings.

Southern heritage, of which I too am a part, is already well represented at county courthouses across the South. Statues and monuments to the Confederate dead adorn courthouse lawns, and I have no heavy brief against that. The county I live in, Forrest County, Mississippi, is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunate, but so be it. The flag, though, is another matter. Statues and monuments to war dead really do reflect heritage, and I can respect that in the same way I can respect, say, actual German war dead. But the flag is not about those real humans dying in a morally contemptible cause, but rather about present day grievance and message-sending. I can respect my great, great grandfather and Civil War veteran Larkin Creech without retreating into the suspect sentimentality of “heritage,” without approving the morally bankrupt cause for which he fought, and without waving an inflammatory flag whose current real meaning we all know.

Bring On the Clowns

The spring of the year preceding a presidential election has arrived, and again we are entertained with the quadrennial parade of professional pifflemongers to the steppes of Iowa, a state inebriated by the hypothesis that it alone has the wit and discernment to distinguish the genuine pretenders from the merely egomaniacal. Iowa takes for granted its sagacity in the matter of judging cows and would-be presidents at state fairs, so other states wishing to wrest control of Iowa’s perpetual first-in-the-nation status would do well to acknowledge the bucolic charms of Iowan prairie life and the political wisdom they invariably confer. And so every four years—but nary a one in between—the lowing herds of nostrum peddlers and gasbags obtrude themselves on proud Iowa, sip coffee with the salt of the earth in Mama’s Café, order up a plate of hotcakes and corn syrup, and nod earnestly as local boy Billy Bob dilates on geopolitical conundrums and especially the need for the ethanol subsidy. Then it’s back on the bus and down the straight, flat road. Collectively they form a claque of traveling grovelers, mountebanks, and dancing bears whose bedrock convictions sway with the prevailing winds and the vagaries of the particular audience. Who doesn’t love a great circus, especially the clowns?

Dickens’ Own Fleurs du Mal

Few if any novels have distinctly moistened my eyes, but Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities recently achieved that distinction in its last pages. I had read the novel perhaps forty-five years ago, and I now read the very same paperback copy that I had read so long ago, priced at an astonishing half dollar, marked with occasional underlinings and rare marginalia from that long-ago first read. I remembered that I liked the book, and I remembered a few essentials of its plot, but all of its intricacies and moral implications were long gone.

For some reason, however, I had remembered it portraying a more Burkean view of the French Revolution, that is, a view more from the aristocratic parapets than from the hollow eyes of the oppressed masses. Possibly I unfairly calumniate Burke, not having actually read his history of the Revolution. Twain, by contrast, defended the Revolution by comparing the relative drops of blood it spilled in the 1790s to the “hogsheads” of blood spilled by the church, crown, and nobility in the centuries preceding. Twain’s view would have found much sympathy with French atheist priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), whose loathing of the unholy confederacy of church and state, especially in their joint barbarous extortion and grinding oppression of the wretched peasantry, was poured out in secret scribblings by candlelight.

This universal and all too human theme of the oppression of the poor by the privileged rich does finds its way, as I had forgotten, into Dickens’ historical masterpiece. Most of the plot inevitably focuses on the period of the Revolution and its lust for human heads provided by the National Razor. But only one of the sympathetic characters, Darnay, is aristocratic by birth, and he repudiates that heritage and its cruelties to earn his own way in his adopted England. More poignantly, Dickens eviscerates the contempt of the aristocracy for all of those unkempt and bestial masses who encroach upon the nobility’s privilege and entitlement simply by the masses’ wretched existence. Darnay’s father embodies this contempt in his wholly remorseless though unintended striking and killing of an infant by his reckless coach careening through the narrow Paris streets, condescending to be bought off by flinging a coin on the cobblestones to the child’s distraught but unappeased father. Darnay’s uncle, no less intoxicated by centuries of unearned privilege and entitled importance, rapes a young peasant woman, then kills her brave and youthful brother who presumes to draw a sword on him for the crime. Then father and uncle together, fearing the doctor whom they abduct to tend to both dying victims, conclude that he is not to be trusted with the truth and connive to have him thrown into the Bastille for twenty years.

Dickens is no friend of the guillotine, but he knows its gestation and birth in the long centuries of the highborn tyrannizing the downtrodden, and thus comes the Revolution: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit, according to its kind.” The tumbrils rolling through Paris streets carrying to their execution the newly humbled aristocrats side by side with the lowborn, contrived enemies of the Revolution were only a little while ago “the carriages of monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants!” Evil sown is evil reaped, and the brave Sydney Carton, just before the blade falls, peacefully envisions these “long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use.” But rather than an endless cycle of the oppressed supplanting their oppressors, only to become the new oppressors, Carton, and Dickens, see hope: “. . . a beautiful city and brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” The feckless and wastrel life of Sydney Carton is wholly redeemed by his love of Lucy and her family and the great sacrifice he makes to save them as he bows down on that “retributive instrument”: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Unsolicited Advice to My Children

Parents and children have a highly evolved disconnect on the subject of unsolicited advice: Parents feel compelled to give it, and children have no wish to receive it. Parents have a biological need to dispense the fruit of their experience, and children have an equal need to roll their eyes and ignore it. But it’s tradition; after all, Franklin and Jefferson did it, and as a paean to tradition, I’ll give it a stab as well. Actually mine will be hidden since it appears in an unread blog. This allows me the pleasure of giving it without the annoyance of the eye-rolling. But in fact, it’s probably more advice to me than to my children. So, here goes.

Live within your means; find a good life partner; forgive freely; seek happiness, knowing that material things are not the means to it; do meaningful work; be not too proud, remembering that some of your accomplishment is the result of sheer good fortune and unearned gifts; be sparing in complaint; be slower to judge others; find humor in the everyday; give more, take less; love more; strive to find the right thing and to do it; share and be generous; try to leave the world a tiny bit better than when you entered it; temper justice with compassion; cry some, but laugh often.

“Religious Freedom,” Gays, and Mississippi’s Trainable Fleas

It is such a shame that the Mississippi legislature chooses to invent problems that do not exist, while ignoring so many that do. With the Senate’s unanimous approval of the “religious freedom” bill protecting businesses from having to trade with people they think might be gay, the Senate manages in one stroke to align itself with the state-sponsored racial discrimination of half a century ago, invite economic retribution, violate the equal accommodations component of the Civil Rights Act, and incidentally do nothing to enhance religious freedom—all while very effectively illustrating Mark Twain’s observation that “fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Where are the plaintiffs complaining that their religious liberty has been compromised? None. Zero. Nada.

If the legislature is truly concerned with religious liberty, they might start with amending the Mississippi Constitution, which, in Article 14, Section 265, states that “No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold office in this state.” In effect, while the legislature bucks and brays about what it considers religious freedom, we have in fact an officially theocratic state, where religious belief is a constitutional requirement for elected office. There is no freedom not to believe, or even to have no opinion. To be meaningful, religious freedom cannot just be a matter of having the freedom to choose among theistic offerings; it must also embrace the right not to believe. Thus the current “religious freedom” legislation, rooted in anti-homosexual sentiment, is a farrago of hypocrisy, mean-spiritedness, petulance, ignorance, pandering, and grandstanding—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or at least nothing worthy of a legislature supposedly smarter than fleas.

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