Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Day: March 20, 2021”

The statue


This is the second in a four-part series on racism in the U.S.

I was doing a crossword puzzle the other day, a pastime I’ve enjoyed since I was a teenager. I am accustomed to seeing filler clues, those very common sequences of letters occurring in many crosswords that fill the squares between the difficult sequences. But the other day, one innocuous and very common filler made me think. The clue read: “Gen. Robt. _ ___.” The answer was four letters and I knew right away the solution was “ELEE” or more accurately “E. Lee” as in Gen. Robert E. Lee.

As a part of our nation’s Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee holds a prominent place in history books, military lore, even crossword puzzles. He also has dozens of public statues and memorials honoring him. The problem with that last bit is straightforward: those who fought for a faction whose overarching issue was one of the all-time great human evils do not get honored with handsome public commemorations.

Or bluntly, losers who fought for evil don’t get statues.

I avoid evoking the Nazis in comparison to anything because such comparisons are usually enormously lopsided and totally inappropriate. But in this situation, I believe a careful comparison can be both appropriate and accurate. One group of people violently subjugated another, the first absolutely certain of its superiority and moral right to dominate. The second group was deemed sub-human, codified and quantified into law by governments. Americans legally bought and sold human beings for forced labor.

The thought of this moral poverty is intellectually repulsive and physically sickening to me. And those who literally fought with violence to preserve this evil deserve no public honor — their good deeds are erased by the wickedness they sought to perpetuate.

With the Allied victory in Europe, nearly every symbol of the vile Third Reich was eradicated. Indeed, even displaying a swastika became (and remains) illegal.

But today, our Gen. Robert E. Lee holds the reputation of a Southern gentleman, a man graced with intelligence and humor, someone you’d want to have to Sunday dinner. By many accounts, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was also a good man, apolitical, a man of character. But both Lee and Rommel consciously and voluntarily fought for empires founded on the commission of unspeakable malevolence — other than a tomb-like limestone block in his hometown, Heidenheim, and a simple natural stone marking the spot on which he committed suicide in Herrlingen, you will not find monuments to Rommel in Germany.* The reason should be obvious. Why, then, is the South littered with glorious memorials honoring Lee?

To those fond of the oft-repeated refrain “but it’s part of our history,” I reply you’re right but no other free western society honors the promulgators of evil with monuments and noble statues. If you still have doubts, they should be cleared up when you consider how many Confederate memorials were erected as contemptuous rejoinders to Black people during the Jim Crow era. Don’t fret, Lee will remain a part of our history whether or not we have statues peppering the public squares of the southern states.

A friend pointed out to me that Robert E. Lee agonized over the impending split of the country and only after great inner turmoil decided to fight for the South, declining President Abraham Lincoln’s offer of command. I appreciate the legitimate complexity this lends to the man. But in the end, he made the wrong choice — and he alone sacrificed his honor for that decision. While scholars still argue over the root causes of the Civil War, one area of general agreement is that the awful question of slavery was the single-most important issue dividing the nation.

Around 1,700 public nods to the Confederacy currently exist, nearly all located in Southern states. Over 700 are statues or monuments. As a result of the racial unrest of the last few years, around 100 of them have been removed. I believe many, many more must come down — they never should have been raised in the first place. Most can find homes in private gardens or museums where they can be viewed in context and require no public support. A few can probably be allowed to remain as long as they are contextualized to tell the entire story, not just one falsely-romanticized side.

If you’re one of those people who feel you have a vested interest in keeping these relics to one of the worst collective acts Americans ever committed, consider that many of your fellow Americans are morally repulsed by what they represent. Further, many Americans with brown skin consider these hateful monuments a direct affront to their ancestors, people who often died at the hand of the evil the monuments celebrate.

I held out hope that the one good thing to come out of the prolonged violence in Portland would be a meaningful, ongoing dialogue aimed at bringing healing between the races. But we seem to have stalled again. As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this month and focus on Black history next month, please do more than cursory actions like watching a couple of television shows on the civil rights movement or vacantly telling your friends you’re color-blind. We’ve never completed the reckoning that should’ve taken place after slaves were freed or, failing that, after the civil rights movement. In a significant way, our spiritual growth as a nation is stunted by our failure to examine our own prejudices with humility and honesty.

Please don’t get me wrong — I am not making a sweeping condemnation of white people or disrespecting this great country. But in all our nationalist enthusiasm over two hundred years, I believe we sometimes forget we must own several national shames — arguably, the worst of these was slavery. In the big scheme of things, removal of some one-sided statues is a very small price to pay to begin desperately needed racial healing.

*In addition to the two simple stone monuments noted above, seven small context-specific memorials noting the life of Erwin Rommel do exist in Germany. Most are small and discreet, essentially footnotes. You’ll find no glorious statues of honor. Recent public discourse in Germany has included discussion of removal of the few notations that do exist.

Rock on the ‘no’ button


The easiest vote to cast in politics is a NO vote. It absolves responsibility. If something later goes wrong, and in politics things often go a little bit wrong, the no voter is off the hook, and can fall back on the oldest line in politics: “I told you so.”

Voting no often means a politician doesn’t even need to explain the rationale for the negative. The political focus is typically on those who want to make something happen, who are willing to take a stand in favor of something.

“If a legislator votes ‘yes,’ he or she is responsible for the entire bill and all the consequences of the legislation, good or bad, intended or unintended,” long-time congressional watcher Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently.

Every congressional Republican justified a no vote on the recent COVID and economic recovery legislation on the grounds that it was too big, too much of a driver of deficit spending or not targeted enough. That’s a convenient if disingenuous argument, as Rothenberg noted because “even the GOP — once, but no longer, the party of fiscal responsibility — didn’t much care about the deficit and the debt when President Donald Trump and his merry little band of tax-cutting ideologues cut taxes during a period of solid economic growth — almost always a bad idea. You won’t hear Republicans accepting some of the blame for the deficit and debt.”

And besides who remembers a no vote? That’s why voting no is almost always the easiest thing to do.

Senate Republicans have perfected the no vote strategy, particularly with regard to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet appointees. Voting no on a Treasury secretary or the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, even when the nominees are demonstrably capable, not only serves to register disapproval of the new president, but it’s safe. Voting no appeals to the most rabid, partisans in the party. Some Senate Republicans – Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz come to mind – have voted against virtually every Biden nominee. These guys want to be president someday – fearless prediction, they won’t be – so they are performing the ritual of negativity as political necessity.

Idaho’s Jim Risch, a practiced no voter, has supported a few Biden nominees, but opposed more, nine as of this writing. Risch is the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee but he voted against the confirmation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Risch is a top Republican on the Intelligence Committee but was one of ten votes against the confirmation of Avril Haines, the first woman to ever hold the position as director of National Intelligence.

“She is a really smart person, a person with serious horsepower and a nice person,” said Carol Rollie Flynn, a three-decade CIA veteran, said of Haines. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of drama out of her. Just a serious professional.” A Risch spokesman said he was thumbs down on Haines because he wasn’t confident she wouldn’t politicize intelligence. Risch, it should be noted, had no problem with the appointment of former Republican congressman John Ratcliffe, arguably the most partisan person to head the intelligence community in the history of the intelligence community. Risch better hope Blinken and Haines aren’t as vindictive as he is.

Idaho’s Mike Crapo has supported a few more Biden appointees, and unlike Risch he supported Janet Yellen’s confirmation as Treasury secretary. Yellen is the first woman in that job and was the first women Federal Reserve Board chair, the job she previously held. Both Idaho senators opposed Yellen for that position, so Risch obviously doesn’t like her. Yet I find no record of any public statement justifying Risch’s opposition to the eminently qualified, PhD economist who continues to receive bipartisan praise for her work during the 2008 financial crisis.

Crapo and Risch opposed Judge Merrick Garland to be attorney general. Garland is the guy who was denied consideration as a Supreme Court nominee in 2016 despite his exemplary record as a federal judge and as the prosecutor who handled the investigation into the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Neither senator offered a comment on why Garland isn’t suitable to run the justice department, but both supported the guys the previous administration put in place, even when the former president demanded blind partisan loyalty from each of his attorneys general.

Risch and Crapo both voted no on nominees to be secretaries of the Interior and Housing and Urban Development and head of the Small Business Administration. It’s probably just a coincidence that all three are women of color who are broadly seen as historic pathbreakers, but also demonstrably qualified. No explanation from the senators.

Notably, both senators supported former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s pick to head the Department of Energy (DOE). Granholm is arguably among the most partisan of Biden’s picks – she’s been a TV talking head often critical of GOP positions – and some Republicans criticized her support for abandoning the Keystone XL pipeline. She would have been a natural to oppose, but perhaps this was a rare case of political pragmatism by the Idahoans. After all, they need a working relationship with the secretary who oversees the Idaho National Laboratory, the huge DOE complex in eastern Idaho that requires pledges of unquestioned political fealty from the state’s Republicans. Maybe all politics is local after all.

An old rule once held that barring some ethical lapse or scandal a president – any president – was entitled to pick the people for his administration. Biden will almost certainly end up getting all but one of his top people confirmed, creating the most diverse cabinet in history. The one nominee that withdrew did so because some senators found her past Twitter feed too mean. Irony had a good run.

Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz notes that the median margin of confirmation for the 18 Cabinet level appointees considered so far is 64 votes. So, Chafetz says there hasn’t been wholesale party line voting against Biden nominees who he notes are broadly liked, as well as competent. Still, Crapo and Risch have been among the most consistent Republican senators in opposing Biden’s picks – women, men, African American, Native American, Hispanic – and they offer almost no explanation as to why.

Like most everything they do in the Senate, the Idaho duo nearly always takes the predictable and most partisan path. At some point voting no when a Democrat is in the White House is just an act of reflective partisan performance. Maybe putting a rock on the no button just feels good even if you can’t be bothered to explain the reasoning.