Saturday, October 21, 2017

A New and Predictable Twist

Since my last post was written, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly addressed the nation via a press conference. In it he eloquently spoke of the rituals of taking care of fallen soldiers after their deaths, and what is and is not expected of presidents regarding their contact with the families of the deceased. He said that some presidents call family members, sometimes, and all write letters. As a former general and Gold Star Family member himself, Kelly spoke from the heart with the kind of authority that few people could have. Frankly in my opinion, that part of his monologue was brilliant.

Sgt. La David Johnson
Then he got to the part that explained Donald Trump's seemingly callous words to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of a young U.S. Army Green Beret who was killed two weeks earlier in Niger. Kelly said that President Trump came to him after a press conference where the subject of contacting families was brought up and told him he'd like to call the survivors of the four dead soldiers. Kelly said that he discouraged the president from doing so but Trump insisted, asking Kelly's advice on what to say.

Kelly responded with what a close friend of his told him after his own son was killed after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan. The friend told Kelly something to the effect of, "your son was doing what he wanted to do and was exactly where he wanted to be when he lost his life, defending his country, despite the risks. Perhaps Kelly worded it a little more delicately than the president did to Mrs. Johnson, yet the words had essentially the same meaning. Despite his good intentions, I have to say that Kelly's advice to the president on what to say to Mrs. Johnson and the other family members of soldiers killed alongside La David Johnson, was inappropriate. Kelly's were originally the words coming from one brother-in-arms to another. While the words made perfect sense to Kelly, a lifelong soldier, they certainly must have had a different ring to Mrs. Johnson, a young widow who herself was never in the service, but rather, found herself the victim of it. And unlike Kelly's experience, those words were not delivered by a close friend and comrade who shared common experiences and values, but rather a complete stranger with no military experience of his own.

I have no doubt that President Trump was trying to do the right thing by calling the family members of the fallen soldiers. Kelly warned the president before his calls that, "there is no way that your words will lighten the load of these people."  Wise words indeed, it was just too bad that Kelly couldn't have come up with a more suitable message of comfort, tailor fit for a mother of two with one on the way, who will never get to meet his or her father. Coming up with the right words is certainly no easy task and I do not fault Kelly or Trump for not getting it right.

Kelly's explanation made perfect sense to me and today I completely understand why Trump chose the words he did. But apparently that explanation was not satisfactory for the president who continues to deny he said those words, insisting that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson was lying about the conversation, and implying that his own chief of Staff was lying as well. Instead of leaving well enough alone, the president is perpetuating yet another needless battle that further divides the nation, and making himself look like a complete doofus in the process.

Having listened to Kelly's words in the first portion of his press conference, I was convinced more than ever that Congresswoman Wilson was in the wrong by reporting to the press the contents of the president's call to Mrs. Johnson, which she listed in on via speakerphone. The congresswoman did herself no favors when she later made a comment likening herself to a rock star for all the attention she received after the current imbroglio began this week.  

Yet John Kelly is also guilty of not knowing when to quit. Kelly chose to close his comments with an uncalled for dissing of the U.S. representative from Florida which was framed around a falsehood. Comparing the congresswoman to "an empty barrel that makes the most noise" Kelly recalled the 2015 dedication of an FBI field office in Miami, named after two agents who were killed in the line of duty. Kelly said he was appalled by the congresswoman's "self-serving" remarks at the dedication, claiming that all she spoke of was her own role in bringing the center to her constituents. Tapes of the speech proved otherwise, while she did make a reference to her role in bringing the office to her Miami constituents, (imagine a politician ever taking credit for something!), she also spoke of the role of other lawmakers responsible for the project, whose work “speaks to the respect that our Congress has for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the men and women who put their lives on the line every single day.”

When pressed on the matter of General Kelly's (to put it kindly) memory lapse, White House spokesperson Sarah Hucakabee Sanders doubled down implying that the press was out of line for daring to question the word of a retired four star general.

And so it goes. What happens when our current government, run by people who refuse to take responsibility for even the most trivial error, one who will stop at nothing when it comes to justifying the unjustifiable, are being covered by a highly motivated and competitive  press looking for any angle they can get on a story? In this case, with no act to speak of, just a misunderstanding with a perfectly logical explanation, the story itself, not the act, becomes the story.

What a series of unfortunate, yet predictable events. What a country. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Reciprocity Failure

A friend of mine told me the other day that I was much too quick to criticize Donald Trump. I told him that while I do knock the president early and often, (as it's the Chicago way), there is indeed much to criticize. Still, I took his words to heart and this morning after listening to yet another story that made me cringe, I grudgingly came to the conclusion that in this case, the typical universal condemnation of the president, did not fit the crime.

A little background to the current fiasco in the world of the most powerful man in the world would be in order. On October 4th, four U.S. Army Green Berets, Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were killed in the western African nation of  Niger. The four men were the victims of an ambush waged by 50 or so individuals allegedly associated with ISIS. Here is a CNN story that chronicles the lives of the four soldiers.

Judging from his tweets, Trump had a busy couple of weeks since the soldiers' deaths. He's tweeted about his negation of the Iranian arms deal, his ongoing attempt to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (and virtually everything related to his predecessor's legacy), his tax "reform" plan, more promises to build his wall along the Mexican border, the continuation of his self-imposed war with James Comey and Hillary Clinton, threats against Senator John McCain, lots of self-congratulation over the stock market, and what has become hands down his greatest crusade, those nasty kneelers in the NFL. So Trump fans, my friend included, must certainly understand how an over-worked president who needs to balance important tweet-time with much needed R&R on the golf course, wouldn't be able to find time in those two weeks to mention the sacrifice of the four soldiers, which he didn't.

It took a press conference the other day where a reporter asked the president about the soldiers that prompted Trump's first public remarks about the tragedy. The conversation took a bizarre twist when the subject turned to the president personally telephoning the soldiers' grieving family members. In typical fashion, Trump hemmed and hawed and made the grossly erroneous comment that his predecessors in the White House did not necessarily call family members. In response, former staff members of President Obama spared no invectives in refuting Trump's assertion about their former boss. And former President George W. Bush's visits to wounded soldiers and grieving family members were well documented. including times when the former president listened silently as he was being excoriated by the bereaved.

When Trump was called on his whopper, he told reporters to ask his Chief of Staff John Kelly if Barack Obama called him after Kelly's son was killed in Afghanistan. Kelly it turns out, received no phone call from Obama but was invited with his wife to a dinner at the White House for Gold Star families (those who lost a loved one in service to the country), where the couple sat at the same table as Michelle Obama.

Now there are at least ten things in this sordid mess that absolutely infuriate me, but the absolute lowest point was Trump using the personal grief of his Chief of Staff, as a stepping stone to weasel out of a pickle. Shame on him was the last thing on my mind when I went to bed last night.

I woke up this morning to the Trump boo boo du jour. The day after the press conference and the kerfuffle over calling families, Trump made four phone calls. One was to Myeshia Johnson, the wife of La David Johnson, the mother of two with another on the way. It so happened that the president reached Mrs. Johnson as she was on her way to receive her late husband's remains that had just arrived from Africa. On her way to the airport, Mrs. Johnson was accompanied by Fredericka Wilson, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida. As the conversation was on speakerphone, Wilson listened in, and was all too eager to go to the press with what she heard. One of those things she heard was the president telling Mrs. Johnson that her husband (whom he did not call by name), signed up for duty so he knew the risks of service. He then reportedly added that he was sure (the soldier's death) hurt despite that.

On the surface this is about the most callous thing anyone can say to a widow en-route to meet her husband's remains. On the other hand, we don't know the full context of the conversation. Granted it's hard to imagine a context where the president's words were anything but boorish, let alone comforting, but let's just say that here that I'm willing to give him the benefit of doubt.

Let's face it, compassion is not one of Donald Trump's strong suits; he just doesn't have a gift for saying the right thing, especially on a personal level. He even said as much during his press conference the other day. As an example, Trump's parting words to a victim of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were to "have fun." Given that, he was probably right in waiting so long to contact Mrs. Johnson and the other newest members of the Gold Star Family. Come to think of it, if I was grieving over a loved one, the very last person on earth I'd want to talk to would be Donald Trump. Maybe in fact it would be a good idea if he didn't make these calls at all, or at the very least, read from a prepared script that somebody else wrote.

On the flip side, I seriously question the judgement of Congresswoman Wilson's decision to go to the press with this story. I can't judge her motivation but it is not out of the realm of possibility that her comments were personally and politically motivated. If that's the case, the U.S. representative is using the grief of Mrs. Johnson as a means to stick it to Donald Trump.

And if that's the case, shame on her, and shame on all of us for revelling in schadenfreude over Trump's latest misadventure, as it comes at the expense of Mrs. Johnson, her children, the rest of her family, and especially the memory of her husband. The conversation we should be having should focus on remembering Sgt. Johnson and his three brothers in arms, American heroes who gave their lives in service of not only their country, but also the innocent people of Niger who are being terrorized by ISIS. It is not our place to be arguing over what Trump said or didn't say to Mrs. Johnson; that conversation should be between her and the president, no one else.

If we are at all appalled by Trump using Kelly's grief to save his own skin, a sense of fair play should dictate that we should also reject Representative Wilson's self-serving, attention-grabbing actions.

Besides, the president is gracious enough to provide us so much other stuff to legitimately piss us off.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Photographs of the Month


September 14

September 18

September 20

September 21

September 23

September 27

September 28



Thursday, September 28, 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Patriot Game

Right after he sat out the national anthem for the first time just over a year ago, I wrote about Colin Kaepernick and my feelings about his actions. As you may recall, Kaepernick's sophomore season as quarterback of the National Football League San Francisco 49ers was the stuff of legend. Replacing the injured Alex Smith in week 10 of the 2012 season, Kaepernick had his first professional start against the Chicago Bears in a Monday Night Football game in where he picked apart my hometown team's defense, completing 16-of-23 passes for 246 yards with two touchdowns in a 32–7 victory. Alex Smith got better fast but San Francisco's head coach, former Bears QB Jim Harbaugh, decided to keep the momentum alive with Kaepernick. Smith wouldn't take another snap for the 49ers (he's now the starter for the KC Chiefs), as Kapepernick led his team to the Super Bowl that year where they just barely lost to the Baltimore Ravens, incidentally coached by Harbaugh's brother John.

Kaepernick was brilliant the following year leading his team to the NFC Championship Game where they barely lost to the Seattle Seahawks. After signing a big time contract with the 49ers in 2014, things started to go south for Kaepernick and his team, and neither of them have been able to come close to the great promise of that magical 2012 year. 

In the interim, having lost his job as starting quarterback, Kaepernick's fateful moment came in a pre-season game against the Green Packers in August of 2016 when he refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as a protest over the rash of police killings of unarmed citizens, particularly in the African American community. When asked why he sat, Kaepernick responded:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
In my piece written shortly after the incident I said this:
I don't agree with the histrionics in his statement, which oversimplify the issue of killings at the hands of police to an almost laughable degree. I also believe that sitting out the Star Spangled Banner is nothing but an empty and misguided symbol in itself.
To be honest, at the time I questioned Kaepernick's sincerity. Was he serious I wondered aloud, about drawing attention to a difficult but important issue in our society, or in light of his of his fading career, was he merely drawing attention to himself? Well a year has passed and Kaepernick has to my satisfaction anyway, proved that not only was completely sincere about his actions, but he was also entirely serious when he said this:
If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.
Despite an entire season of derision from fans, including the public burning of his jersey and obligatory death threats, Colin Kaepernick continued his one man protest, his only concession: he turned to kneeling during the anthem rather than merely sitting. No one can say for sure if the reason that he is not playing football this year is because of his actions on the sidelines or on the playing field, but for his part, Kaepernick is not complaining about his fate. Before last week, the number of NFL players who took up Kaepernick's mantle and took a knee for the anthem was about ten. The issues of unarmed black people dying at the hands of the police, fans boycotting the NFL for its failure to punish the kneelers, or for that matter Colin Kaepernick himself, were barely footnotes in the press or on social media.

Then along came Donald Trump.

While you won't hear it from his die-hard supporters, things haven't been going well for the president. For the past eight months, it's been practically routine for the Sunday morning news pundits on the networks whose call letters don't contain the letters F, O, and X, to proclaim that the past week was a bad one for Donald Trump. Last week was no exception, capped off by Senator John McCain proclaiming that he would not vote for the latest iteration of the Republican measure to repeal and replace Obamacare. McCain's decision virtually killed once and for all the current president's one and only objective as the leader of the free world, to eradicate every trace of his predecessor's legacy.

Another ritual since Trump took office is Freaky Friday, the day of the week the president reserves for doing something particularly newsworthy, designed to deflect attention from all the bad stuff that happened during the previous four days.

It was on a Friday that Trump pardoned the controversial Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sean Speicer's "resignation" and Anthony Scaramucci's short lived appointment happened on a Friday. Reince Priebus and Sebastian Gorka were fired on a Friday as was Trump's private messenger from the underworld, Steve Bannon.

The "Friday news dump" as reporters call it, was not invented by Trump, but he and his administration have raised it to the level of an art form. Last Friday was a prime example when he found a tailor made topic for the perfect venue, creating from scratch, a news cycle that would distract the country from not only his failed health plan, but also the pathetic response to the devastation after Hurricane Maria in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, his irresponsible posturing with North Korea, the ongoing investigation into possible collusion with the Russians, and a number of other less than flattering issues concerning his administration.

Last Friday Trump was in Huntsville, Alabama to campaign for Luther Strange, a candidate running in a primary election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, the current Attorney General. Most of Trump's speech that night was forgotten except for the part where he went off on the NFL.

The NFL kneeling issue fell upon Trump like manna from heaven. Right next to God and country in the hearts of most Alabamans, the white ones at least, are the flag, the armed forces, and football. The president also has a well documented bone to pick with the NFL as he has been involved in numerous law suits with the league. It was a win win for Trump. Not only did he get to settle an old score with the football league, but he worked up his adoring base into a hypnotic frenzy when he addressed the issue of Colin Kaepernick and the handful of fellow kneelers who took up his cause with these words:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!"
Trump's Huntsville audience ate up those words like candy, as did many Americans who don't necessarily support Trump, but do believe that the act of not standing for the anthem is tantamount to spitting in the face of our troops. On the other side of the issue are the folks who believe as I do, that kneeling for the national anthem is in no way disrespectful to our men and women in the armed forces, that on the contrary, it only reinforces the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution that our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen and women have valiantly fought and died for, for over two centuries.

Trump didn't stop at the anthem kneelers. Apparently a game known for its brutality is not violent enough for our president:
The NFL ratings are down massively...
...Because you know today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! ...
 They're ruining the game!
Never mind that there have been numerous cases of players, both active and retired with life altering brain injuries, the result of too many blows to the head playing football. This issue hit me particularly hard when one of my heroes, a star of the 1986 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears, Dave Duerson, committed suicide in 2011. He shot himself in the heart rather than the head so researchers could study his brain to gain insight into the irreparable damage he incurred during his eleven years as an all-pro safety in the NFL.

Then there is the unspoken issue of race. Needless to say, the history of race relations in the state of Alabama in particular has been, to be generous, less than stellar. The names of its cities, Scottsboro, Selma, Montgomery. Tuscaloosa. and Birmingham, just to scratch the surface, are well known around the world as symbols of racial hatred and intolerance.

Trump and his supporters insist this issue has nothing to do with race. Well if Donald Trump says something is not about race you can rest assured one thing is certain, it's about race. As we saw in Charlottesville last month, Trump has opened up a festering wound in this country  one that many of us, myself included, foolishly believed was well on its way to be healed years ago. It is no coincidence that the players Trump referred to as "sons of bitches", are all black.

One could say that no, Trump was making a color-blind assessment of what he honestly considers an unacceptable affront to this country and to its military. While I don't agree with that point of view,  I could certainly accept that assessment were it not for one thing. What could be a greater affront to the values of our nation and to its military than Nazis and Klansmen marching in the home town of the man who wrote our Declaration of Independence? Trump did not call the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville sons of bitches, in fact he took pains to point out that some of the people who were marching arm in arm with the Nazis and Klansmen last week were indeed "very good people."

Standing for the national anthem is not an act of patriotism, it is a purely symbolic act. I get it, symbols are important, which is why I always stand for the anthem, even if the spirit doesn't always move me to do so. But this is a fact, no soldier fights and dies for a flag. If a soldier is true to a cause, he or she fights for what the flag stands for, not the flag itself. In the case of this country, at least our stated meaning of the flag is freedom and democracy. As I heard someone very eloquently put it the other day, soldiers don't fight and die so our leaders can tell us how to be a patriot, as the current president has been doing for the last week. Besides fighting and dying for a country, there are many other patriotic acts, big and small. Voting is one of them. Soldiers put their lives on the line everyday to protect our freedom and democracy, yet more than half the people in this country who are eligible to do so, don't recognize that sacrifice by bothering to vote. To me that is a far greater affront to our military than taking a knee during the anthem.

Working for the betterment of this country for all its people, including donating money to worthwhile charities as Colin Kaepernick has done to the tune of millions of dollars, is an act of patriotism. So is being an community organizer, working to empower disenfranchised Americans as our former president did before becoming involved in politics. Even though it didn't quite work out at the time it was written, the mission statement of our nation says this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Any person who keeps these values in mind and works toward them is a patriot. Likewise, anyone who would deny another person his or her life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness, is violating the very spirit of what our country and what our flag stands for. I find it very disturbing that a large number of Americans are more troubled by athletes taking a knee during the anthem at a football game, than they are about law enforcement officials unjustly depriving Americans of their lives.

I have written on this subject a number of times and I realize as I said in my earlier post on Kaepernick that the issue of police shooting black people at a disproportional rate to members of other groups is a very complicated issue. It is true that many of the people who were shot by police, contributed to their own deaths. But it's also true that many of them did not. If our fellow Americans are faced with an issue such as this which gravely affects their community and their children, who are we who are not directly affected by it to say that this is not a discussion worth having?

Some would argue that the national anthem at a sporting event is not the time and place for such a conversation. They say that highly paid athletes should mind their own business by sticking to the business at hand which is playing a game, not protesting.

To that I reply with one word, bullshit.

From Jackie Robinson, to Muhammad Ali, to Billie Jean King and beyond, we have a long and glorious tradition in this country of sportsmen and women using their platform, valiantly advocating not just for social change but for also for justice and decency. I might add that all of these athletes whom we now consider heroes, were excoriated by the general public in their day, who felt that taking the actions they did, just "wasn't their place."

Then there is the symbol of the flag itself. A particularly stirring meme is making the rounds of social media that features a folded flag that covered the coffin of a fallen soldier being handed to a grieving family member. The caption reads "Those who disrespect the flag, have never been handed a folded one." A more fitting and compelling argument could not possibly be made in favor of respecting our flag, what it stands for, and the fact that we should never take that symbol for granted and always respect it.

On June 14, Flag Day, 1923, members of Congress amended the US Code to add a section  (Title 36, Chapter 10 to be exact)  that dealt specifically with patriotic customs including the proper display of the American Flag and conduct during a rendition of the national anthem. The purpose of the code is to insure that "No disrespect should be shown to the Flag of the United States of America." But regarding the mandate of the code, it unequivocally states that:
no federal agency has the authority to issue 'official' rulings legally binding on civilians or civilian groups. 
Regarding the anthem the U.S. Code states this:
During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note..
So yes, not standing for the national anthem is technically a violation of this non binding code. So is not putting your hand above your heart. I'll have to remember that the next time I'm at a ball game.

But in reality, we violate the code ALL THE TIME.

Here are just a few things the code says about proper display of the flag:
It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed twenty-four hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.... The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement.
I've noticed especially in the last twenty years or so, the custom of business flying as big a flag as they could possibly get their hands on. Of course it goes without saying , the bigger the flag, the more patriotic the company, I've also noticed these flags flying 24-7, day and night, rain or shine, with no proper illumination, a clear violation of the code.
The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
I don't hear anyone objecting to the current trend at football games of unfolding flags the size of the entire field and holding them horizontally, which as you can see is also a violation of the code.
The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. 
Images of the flag adorn items of clothing from tee shirts to high couture dresses, from shoes to bathing suits to even underwear. Where is the indignity over that?
The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. 
We use the image of the flag to sell beer, crappy beer at that. On the Fourth of July and even Memorial Day, businesses blatantly use the flag to advertise their goods. I guess capitalism trumps patriotism. Oh yes, all those disposable plates and napkins with the image of the flag, those paper flags on toothpicks that we stick into cocktail wienies, all that is strictly forbidden.
No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. 
U.S. Army recruitment poster by James Montgomery Flagg
Are you listening Uncle Sam?

The code goes on and on about the dos and don'ts regarding the proper display of the flag which we disregard on a daily basis.

There is an interesting rule in the Code that may be applicable to the current controversy of taking a knee during the anthem:
 The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. 
One could argue that the rules of conduct as spelled out in the Code as this sentence implies, could be reversed in times of distress. One could also argue that we are living in one of those times, and that the taking of a knee during the anthem is a signal of distress.

I'm disheartened but not at all surprised to say that every single person I know and virtually everyone I've heard complain about the knee takers, has been a white person. To these people it appears, the issue of their fellow Americans being unjustly shot by law enforcement officials, is simply not important, at least not important enough to be worthy of a serious discussion. It harkens back to just a month ago when white people just couldn't seem to understand why black folks living in the South objected to statues of Confederate leaders occupying places of honor in their communities.

As a white person, this inability to be able to look from someone else's perspective, to walk in their shoes, in short, the ability or desire to have empathy for people of another race or culture, frankly sickens me.

As I said above, standing for the national anthem is not in itself  a patriotic act. It doesn't take any more courage or sacrifice than standing for the seventh inning stretch. It is ingrained in us, merely a conditioned, Pavlovian response to a stimulus otherwise known as a ritual, that we have participated in our entire lives. My guess is the majority of the people who stand for the anthem at sporting events do so with no serious thought about what they're doing or why.

However being in the spotlight and taking a knee for an unpopular cause you believe in, while having 50,000 people booing you, and millions more of your fellow Americans watching on TV and cursing your very existence, now that takes courage.

Fighting for unpopular causes and the right to do so is at the heart of the American experience..It is supposedly what this country is about. We live in a great but  flawed country. None of us should ever deny the right of a fellow citizen to sincerely and peacefully try to make this country a better place, even if we disagree with that person's ideas or their tactics.

If we actually LISTEN to the words of the anthem, we might take them to heart. In this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, we should be admiring those players for peacefully exercising their freedom, taking a brave stand for something in which they believe, rather than castigating them.

We Americans must be better than that.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Enjoy the movie but...

For those of you eagerly awaiting Ken Burns's documentary on the Vietnam War as I am, consider this. Burns is a fabulous storyteller, that much is certain. Unfortunately he has a problem with not letting facts get in the way of a good story. One of the central characters in his 1994 film "Baseball" was one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Ty Cobb. In his film, Burns cast Cobb as the villain: "a great black mark on the history of the game" and "an embarrassment to baseball." Over and over again, Cobb comes up as a mean spirited racist who hated black people and "deplored the integration of the game." Burns and quite honestly just about everyone else who wrote about Cobb after his death, based everything they said about the man, on the work of Al Stump, who ghost wrote Cobb's autobiography, and later, three scurrilous pieces, a magazine article, another book, and the screenplay for a movie, on the ballplayer which portrayed the man as a nothing less than a racist monster, on his good days. Burns's treatment of him was in fact, quite tame by comparison.

Two of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb
Looking at this picture of Cobb and Willie Mays, it's a little hard to imagine there's much credibility behind Stump's and Burns's characterization of Cobb. In fact, their version of Ty Cobb is a lie. Far from "deploring the integration of the game", Cobb was one of its champions. Commenting on the subject in 1955, when only half of MLB teams had yet to sign a black player, Ty Cobb said this:

"The Negro should be accepted whole-heartedly and not grudgingly into baseball. The Negro has the right to professional baseball and who’s to say he has not?"

At the time the Associated Press called Cobb's comments " a home run for the negro ballplayer." In his excellent 2015 biography: "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty" Charles Leerhsen debunks virtually everything Stump wrote about Ty Cobb. Stump it turns out, was simply bent on making money on the by then, dead ballplayer to recoup for the lackluster sales of his original "autobiography", Leerhsen makes a very compelling case that Stump's portrayal of Ty Cobb was a terrible injustice that ruined Cobb's good name..

But Leerhsen was not the first to call out Al Stump, there are many pieces of evidence from other sources that the myth of Ty Cobb we have so whole heartedly accepted for so many years, in entirely the imagination of one unscrupulous man.

As the newspaper man of old once said, "when facts get in the way of a legend, print the legend." Despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary, even back in 1994, Ken Burns stuck with the legend. What has Burns to say about his treatment of Ty Cobb, after Leerhsen's very strong evidence that it was all false? So far nothing.

Another reputation who is the victim of Burns's baseball documentary is that of the former owner and founder of the Chicago White Sox, Charles Comiskey. You can read about him here.

So enjoy Burns's story of the Vietnam War tonight and the rest of the week, but
bear this in mind: take in all the information you hear with a huge lump of salt.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Should They Stay or Should They Go?

I have a running bet with a friend who claims we'll have hell to pay now that they've started removing statues of Confederate heroes in the South. He believes that before you know it, we'll be removing likenesses up here of presidents who owned slaves, explorers who abused the people they "discovered" and just about every statue in town that offends somebody, which when you come to think of it, is probably every statue in town.

We didn't set terms but I've already offered to pay the dollar I owe him as after we made the bet, before you could say Jack Robinson, activists made demands that the Daniel Chester French equestrian statue of George Washington in Chicago, which has stood in front of his namesake park for over one hundred years, be removed from view. George Washington owned slaves of course, as did several presidents including U.S .Grant who owned one slave while he lived at his wife's family plantation in St. Louis. The man's name was William Jones, and Grant freed him shortly before the Civil War. I have yet to hear any demand to remove Chicago's monument to Ulysses S. Grant, but that day may be coming.

To my knowledge we don't have statues of other slave holding presidents in Chicago but plenty of things named after them, and other problematic historical figures. We have Washington Park and Jackson Park on the South side, and Douglas Park on the West, named after Steven Douglas, the Illinois senator and proponent of slavery, who lost the 1860 presidential election to Abraham Lincoln.

The South Side pastor who suggested that George Washington and his horse come down, also suggested that streets and parks named after these problematic figures be re-named. To ease the pain, he gave a simple solution to the problem. Instead of changing the names of the parks and roads, all we'd have to do is re-dedicate these places to more appropriate people who happen to share last names. So for example, Washington Park could become Harold Washington Park, (after the city's first African American mayor), Jackson Park cold become Jesse or Michael Jackson Park (after the civil rights activist or the King of Pop). and Douglas Park could become Frederick Douglass Park, and all they'd have to do is add one "s" to the common name.  So far I haven't heard mention of the community of Jefferson Park being re-dedicated in honor of the blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson but that may be in our future as well.

I make light of this knowing full well that there are people who are quite sincere about reconsidering tributes to people who owned slaves. Why shouldn't they be? Slavery was a blight upon this nation and its history.

But while I truly believe there are legitimate arguments for considering the future of monuments of people who did things in their lives we don't like, I do see clear distinctions between the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders, and other monuments. For me, the most compelling difference is this: we celebrate people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because of their significance in the founding of our nation, despite their shortcomings, including owning slaves. By contrast, people such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee are celebrated precisely because of the cause they took up. That cause was directly tied to the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, As public monuments represent the ideals of a community, I am in complete agreement with the idea that communities that continue to honor Confederate leaders with monuments in public places, are also implicitly condoning slavery, and other civil rights abuses.

I realize that to some, this distinction may be purely academic. A valid argument could be made that everyone who participated in the institution of slavery is implicit, and therefore, equally deserving of moral condemnation. Following that argument, that would include paradoxically, the man who second only to Abraham.Lincoln, was most directly responsible for the end of slavery in this country, Ulysses S. Grant.

For the record, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel discounted that argument, saying the issue of removing George Washington from his place of honor in Chicago is a "non starter." My guess is that this is not the end of the story. Regardless, the voices of people who would remove statues of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and others, deserve to be heard, and I strongly believe  this is a conversation worth having, regardless of my opposition to removing those monuments.

Thanks to the mayor, George Washington is safe for now, but there are two other controversial Chicago monuments that might have a date with destiny.

Until a few weeks ago, few Chicagoans knew their city had not only a monument to Fascism, but also a bona fide Confederate Monument.

Perhaps the most momentous event that took place during the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, was the culmination of a trans-Atlantic flight of a squadron of 24 seaplanes, under the command of Italo Balbo. A staunch anti-communist, Balbo became one of the early supporters of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF, the Italian Fascist Party. As one of the leaders of the 1922 March on Rome which resulted in a bloodless coup, Balbo was instrumental in bringing the PNF to power in Italy, and Benito Mussolini, the prime ministership of that country. By the 1930s Balbo, who trained as an aviator during WW I, was the Minister of the Italian Air Force and had already one trans-Atlantic crossing under his belt.

The 1933 trip was an eight leg journey originating in Rome, with stops in Europe and Canada before landing in Lake Michigan beside the fair grounds, the present site of Northerly Island. Balbo and his flight were received with a great deal of fanfare including a massive parade and a street named in his honor. So appreciative of all the fuss, the following year Mussolini, who at the time, by every measure of the term, was the dictator of a totalitarian Italy, sent Chicago a present in the form of a monument consisting of a 2,000 year old column  that was removed from the port city of Ostia on the outskirts of Rome. Upon its arrival, the column sitting atop a pedestal, was placed in front of the Italian Pavilion at the Fair. There, the  ancient column stood in stark contrast to the pavilion, a stunning work of Modernism designed by Alexander Capraro. Well Modernism be damned, the pavilion and the rest of the fair buildings disappeared shortly after the Century of Progress closed late in 1934, but the column atop its pedestal remained as the only surviving remnant of the exposition.

Chicago's (in)famous Balbo Monument along the Lakefront Bike Path
And there it remains, long after Italy and its Fascist government joined forces with the Axis powers in the late thirties: Japan who invaded Pearl Harbor, and Adolph Hitler's Germany. Despite being at war with Italy and the government who gave us the monument, no one ever thought to take it down during World War II. Despite the post-war Italian government's strong suggestion the city take down the monument to the regime that brought its country to ruin, it kept standing. And despite the occasional request from concerned citizens for 72 years since the end of World War II, Chicago's Fascist monument still stands today, ironically just a few steps away from a stadium dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. armed services, Soldier Field.

Today if you look really hard, you can still read these words inscribed on the pedestal:
The inscription worn by years of exposure to the elements,
extolling the glories of Balbo, Mussolini and Fascism.
Fascist Italy, by command of Benito Mussolini
presents to Chicago
exaltation symbol memorial
of the Atlantic Squadron led by Balbo
that with Roman daring, flew across the ocean
in the 11th year

of the Fascist era
In the current placement of the monument, there does seem to be one concession to its controversial nature. The object is turned ninety degrees so that the Italian inscription on the base does not face the lakefront bike path upon which the monument resides. An English translation, which is now barely legible from erosion due to the elements, is on the side directly opposite the path.

Today in light of the removal of the Southern statues, a new movement has emerged to remove the Balbo monument. Spearheaded by Chicago aldermen Ed Burke, and Gilbert Villegas, who himself just learned of the monument's existence a few weeks ago, the Balbo monument is once again in the news, if just barely.

So should it stay or should it go? Well on purely philosophical terms, I'd say there is no question that if we're going to remove statues of Confederate leaders who were themselves, enemies of the United States, then a monument to a foreign enemy, with direct ties to Hitler no less, really has no place in a public park in Chicago. For consistency's sake alone, I can't think of any good reason not to move it to a museum or other venue where it can be placed into a more appropriate context.

To get to the Italian inscription on the base
you have to walk around the black fence.
The English interpretation is on the left,
 hidden from the view of casual passersby. 
On the other hand, unlike the vast outpouring of emotion and rightful indignation over the Confederate monuments, especially after the disgusting white supremacist rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last month, public emotion in Chicago over the Balbo monument is barely a trickle if that. To my knowledge it has never been a rallying point for black shirted neo-Fascists proclaiming the glories of Il Duce. Despite it being located in Chicago's front yard near one of the city's premier sports venues, it is quite off the beaten path, seen mostly by cyclists and runners who manage only a quick glace as they zip on by. If you're intent on seeing it, you really have to seek it out.

The monument is an anomaly, a side-show story in the history of this city, an interesting, if strange and somewhat macabre attraction. If it were removed from the park, probably few people would miss it. My guess is that like dozens of times before, there will be a little fuss made over the appropriateness of the Balbo Monument, then something more pressing will come up, and it will be forgotten again. It's kind of like the old radio gag, Fibber McGee's Closet, where every time the hall closet door is opened at 79 Wistful Vista, all the contents comes spilling out onto the floor. Likewise, every time the subject of the Balbo Monument comes up, Chicago's response is just like McGee's: "I gotta clean out that closet one of these days." Of course, he never does.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I expect my grandchildren to be around to see the Balbo monument standing in precisely the same spot where it stands today.

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As strange as a Fascist monument in Chicago's front yard may sound, the thought of a Confederate monument in the predominantly African American community of Grand Crossing, in a cemetery that bears the earthly remains of African American icons including Harold Washington, Jesse Owens, Thomas Dorsey and Ida B. Wells, may seem truly bizarre.

But Confederate Mound's existence in Oak Woods Cemetery is anything but bizarre. During the Civil War, Camp Douglas, on property belonging to the aforementioned Steven A. Douglas, served as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. Conditions at the camp were wretched and thousands of prisoners died while in confinement due to starvation, exposure, scurvy, cholera, smallpox, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and numerous other maladies. Bodies of soldiers were mercilessly dumped in the lake, only to have them wash up on the shore, or buried in shallow ground without coffins. Others were sold off for medical experiments. In all, the official death toll at Camp Douglas was listed at  4,454, but the number is certainly higher.. It is estimated that the death rate at the camp was approximately 17 percent of all prisoners confined there.

After the war, the bodies interred in Camp Douglas were moved to the old City Cemetery, the present site of Lincoln Park. The constant flooding of that site necessitated the closing of that cemetery and the remains were moved again, this time to the new Oak Woods Cemetery on the Chicago's south side. There, roughly six thousand bodies were re-interred in concentric rows within a two-acre plot, purchased by the Federal Government in 1867. Along with the Confederate soldiers, the bodies of twelve unidentified Union prison guards are buried in what is said to be the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.

In the 1890s a monument was proposed for the grave site and contributions were solicited from all over the country. The completed monument consists of a likeness of a Confederate Army soldier standing atop a forty foot tower. The base of the tower holds plaques with the names of 4,275 men known to have perished at Fort Douglas. Five gravestones in front of the tower commemorate the roughly 1,500 unidentified soldiers buried at the site. Four cannons, one pyramid made of cannonballs, and a pole flying the American Flag. stand around the perimeter of the site.

The monument to the roughly 6,000 men who perished in Fort Douglas from 1861 to 1865 was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1895. Present at the dedication were President Grover Cleveland, his entire cabinet, and about 100,000 spectators.

Confederate Mound has been brought up sporadically in light of the recent controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments. Daily Southtown reporter Ted Slowik questioned in a op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune why there hasn't been more controversy surrounding Confederate Mound. In his piece, Slowik examines both sides over why Chicago's Confederate monument should or should not be controversial. He points out that the monument over the gravesite, the work of General John C. Underwood, head of the United Confederate Veterans division west of the Alleghenies, was built at a time when nostalgia, rather than a critical examination of the past was the rule of the day, at least regarding the Civil War. He takes it one step further with this sinister tidbit:
Many Confederate monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era to intimidate blacks, 
That was certainly true in the south where there was growing resentment by whites of black people whom they felt "didn't know their place." I'm not so sure that sentiment would apply to Confederate Mound as the African American population of Chicago in the 1890s was relatively low and the few black people who did live here at the time, were integrated into the rest of the population. Of course that all changed during the Great Migration of the 1910s when the tens of thousands of African Americans looking for better opportunities up north, came to Chicago and found themselves forced into over-crowded, restricted ghettos on the south side. Virulent racism, at least the kind that would inspire the building of a monument to Confederate soldiers just to prove who's boss, wouldn't have been much of an issue in Chicago, at least not in the 1890s.

Slowik then comes upon another, more logical reason to build the monument in Chicago:
But Confederate Mound represents something different: an effort by Congress to encourage reconciliation.


The need to reconcile, to heal the old wounds of the Civl War was not a new idea in the 1890s. It goes all the way back to just before the end of the war, March 4, 1865 to be exact, when Abraham Lincoln stood before the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building and ended his second inaugural address with these words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Those words were put into action just one month later at the courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia after Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee's unconditional surrender. Rather than having the Confederate general led away in chains to be prosecuted as a traitor, Grant gave Lee and his generals their freedom, allowing them to walk away from the courthouse with their dignity intact, their swords still in their scabbards.

For his part, Lee, who also recognized the need for reconciliation, would go to his grave insisting that the people of the South NOT erect monuments to the leaders of the lost cause and go on fighting the Civil War, but rather live their lives as devoted Americans. Sadly, he never got his wish.

I think it is fitting that Confederate Mound exists here in Chicago. It is not a war monument, nor is it a monument to the Confederacy, not by a long shot. Rather it is an elegy to wasted lives. We may hate the cause they fought and died for, but it makes no sense to hate the men of the South who are buried at Oak Woods Cemetery. They were I have no doubt, to a man, caught up in a struggle that was far beyond their control. Some of them may have supported slavery, others may have not, fighting the battle because they felt it was their duty. It's very likely that since they are buried up in Chicago and not down home, few if any of them owned slaves. Regardless, who are we to judge them?

We can go on all we like about the South bearing responsibility for their soldiers' fate, refusing prisoner exchanges because they did not consider captured black Union soldiers as soldiers, or about the fact that back in the day, African American people were not permitted to be buried in Oak Woods Cemetery. Those are both injustices. But as the gravestones note, the men buried here, roughly 6000 Confederate and 12 Union soldiers, were all American soldiers. They lie underneath the American flag. They died horrific deaths in our city, on American soil, in the alleged care of other Americans. The least we can do for these men is give them the dignity in death that they did not receive in life. Removing the monument above their final resting place would also be an injustice, that in no way would alleviate the other injustices.

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Yes the removal of the Confederate monuments in the South is indeed a slippery slope. It has the potential of opening up a Pandora's box of issues regarding other monuments around the country. Well so be it. Every monument in this country has its own history, and its own meaning. We shouldn't make decrees saying that all statues that commemorate X must be taken down while all those commemorating Y must stay. Nor should we demand that every statue must remain precisely where it stands for perpetuity.  We must not dismiss wholesale the feelings of our fellow citizens for whom some monuments represent the oppression of their people. Yet we are doing ourselves a disservice to insist that every statue that offends somebody must be removed.

Fortunately we have the tools at our disposal in the form of an active local citizenry, a free press, and locally elected representative governments to address the issues of monuments that no longer represent the values of a community. For the time being anyway, we live in an open society that tolerates the expression of different views. We have ears, as long as we are willing to use them, to listen to different points of view. Hopefully we have compassion to be open to, even if we don't necessarily agree with, the views of others. No public monument should be off limits to at the very least, discussion about its role in the community.

Most important we have brains that, when they are not corrupted by prejudice, intolerance and obsessive ideology, are more than capable of figuring out which statues should stay, and which ones should go.

Maybe it's time to start using them.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Moving Statues Around

It's hard to give up long held ideas and beliefs. My father, God rest his soul, went to his grave, eighty two years of age, still believing things he learned in the second grade. Neither logic nor empirical observation could sway him from the basic facts and ideas he learned in school as a child. 

Unless scientific findings challenge one's deeply held existential beliefs, I think it's safe to say that most people, unlike my father, accept the premise that scientific facts are facts, only until someone proves them otherwise. However I think many of us are more like my father when it comes to history. To them, the definition of history is the following: something happened, someone wrote about it, we read it, and that's that. Attempts to correct misconceptions about the past are usually met with suspicion, or even contempt. Any time someone tries to re-shape our concept of history, we call it "revisionist" or in our current Trump era parlance, "fake" history. 

This was made crystal clear to me a couple years ago when Charles Leerhsen wrote a biography of the great ball player, Ty Cobb. Now it was "common knowledge" that despite his prowess on the field, Cobb was a racist and all 'round nogoodnick. Leerhsen was prepared to write a book exploiting Cobb's misdeeds, and found several, (as the man had quite the temper). But he was surprised to discover that much of what we think we know about Ty Cobb, including his relationship with and his feelings toward black people, were never mentioned (at all, anywhere), until a biography of him was published shortly after his death. Through scrupulous research, Leerhsen could not find one shred of evidence that Cobb had racist tendencies, at least for a man of his time. On the contrary, Cobb, the descendant of Southern abolitionists, was a vocal supporter of the integration of the game of baseball, and a generous benefactor of charities that supported African American people in his home state of Georgia. After very serious consideration, Leerhsen came to the conclusion that the author of Cobb's biography, Al Stump, was an unscrupulous man who looking to create sensation where there wasn't any, made up most of the stuff that destroyed Ty Cobb's good name. Unfortunately it was Stump's work that would become the story of record on the life of Cobb.

As a result of his hard work, Leerhsen's book, Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty, was met with incredulity by many who refused to accept that their assumptions and prejudices about Cobb could be wrong. Its critics called the book, revisionist history. After all, it was none other than the de facto authority on American history, Ken Burns, who told us on public TV no less, that Cobb was "the great black mark on the history of baseball." If he said it, it had to be true, right? Well it turns out that Burns's description of Ty Cobb, as well as just about everybody else's, came straight out of Stump's work, virtually word for word.

I bring him up because Ty Cobb's name has been mentioned along with those of other notable Americans, whose monuments, some people believe should be removed from places of honor because those individuals had flawed characters of one kind or another. 

This all comes on the heels of the movement to remove Confederate monuments from public places across America. Taking advantage of the moment, some folks going well above and beyond the motives of the movement's original intent, are demanding the removal of likenesses of presidents who owned slaves, and any other historical figure who may have at some point in his or her life, displayed bigotry of one kind or another. As if on cue, the right wing "don't remove any monument anywhere, anytime" crowd, are in ecstasy over their disgust of the "liberal snowflakes" who would dare remove monuments to cherished Americans, simply because they are "offended" by them. 

The right wing sentiments could be summed up by a Donald Trump tweet he posted after the tragedy in Charlottesville two weeks ago: 

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....

...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson... So foolish! 


As I've said time and again, there are good arguments to be made for both sides of the Confederate monument debate, but changing history is not one of them. Other than being an injustice (if you buy into Charles Leerhsen's premise as I do), taking down the likeness of Ty Cobb in Comerica Park in Detroit would not erase Ty Cobb from baseball history. No one is talking about expunging his stats from the record books, removing him from baseball's Hall of Fame, or burning the millions of copies of the dozens of books about him. No one is suggesting wiping clean the memories of Cobb from millions of baseball fans or members of his family. 

The same can be said of the Confederate monuments. Taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee won't make people forget who he was, what he did, and what he fought for. It certainly wouldn't change the outcome of the Civil War, or everything that has happened since. Besides, no one is suggesting melting down the bronze likeness of General Lee and recasting it as Al Sharpton, (although I'd love to see the reaction of the rightist snowflakes if that were ever suggested). The plan is for these statues to be moved to institutions such as museums or cemeteries, where they can be viewed as historical artifacts, rather than as icons of devotion, which many have become in their current settings. 

As promised at the end of my last post, I'd like to point out some examples of local monuments which I am very familiar with, that illustrate what happens when monuments and the values of the community in which they stand, are no longer in sync.

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Chicago could at one time boast more Polish people than any other city in the world with the exception of Warsaw. By the 1890s the city boasted dozens of churches and countless institutions and organizations serving the community and preserving Polish culture. One of those organizations, the Kosciuszko Society endeavored to erect a monument in then heavily Polish Humboldt Park, to their namesake hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a military engineer who served with distinction in both the American Continental Army during the US Revolutionary War, and with the combined forces of Poland and Lithuania during their conflict against Russia. 

Polish Constitution Day rally at the foot of the Kosciuszko Monument in Humboldt Park
photographer unknown
For eight years, the society collected funds for the $30.000 necessary to construct the monument. Everything from pennys donated by laborers, to a $500 gift from the great Polish pianist turned politician and advocate of Polish independence, Ignacy Paderewski, went into the coffers. The resulting equestrian statue of Kosciuszko in the role of brigadier general, is the work of Kasmir Chodzinski, who was selected out of many Polish artists in a competition held by the Society. Standing in the northeast corner of Humboldt Park's great lawn, it is said that 100,000 people showed up for its unveiling in 1904 and that President Theodore Roosevelt sent a wire of congratulations. From then until the late 1960s, the statue served as the terminus for Chicago's Polish Constitution Day parade, held at the beginning of May each year, as politicians and performers of all ethnicities gathered in its shadow to address and entertain Chicago's Polonia. On a personal note, at one of those gatherings, while sitting atop my father's shoulders, I caught my one and only glimpse of Robert F. Kennedy who before his assassination in 1968, made a regular pilgrimage to the parade.

The Kosciuszko monument was a great source of pride in that community until the neighborhood began to change. By the end of the sixties, the parade moved Downtown and the equestrian statue, no longer relevant to the people who now lived in the neighborhood, became the target of graffiti and other vandalism. The great lawn designed for public gatherings, became the site of baseball fields and the Kosciuszko monument became controversial for one reason only, it was in the way.


By the mid-seventies, the monument was removed for the construction of another ball field. Few Poles were still around the neighborhood to mourn its loss. The statue found new life, restored to good as new, and relocated to Burnham Park on the peninsula between the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. It is now in an arguably more prominent site downtown, yet it has lost its context as the focal point of Humboldt Park, literally the crossroads of Chicago's Polonia. Today it is part of a pan-Slavic ensemble, forced to share its glory on the street now called Solidarity Drive, with a monument to the Czech man of letters Karel Havlicek, also moved from its original location, and the astronomer Nicholas Copernicus.

Kosciuszko, his glory just a little faded, as today he stands watch over Burnham Park
Despite that bit of a comedown for the statue, the legacy of Tadeusz Kosciuszko the man, lives on, along with the society named after him. 

As I said, there wasn't much controversy over the Kosciuszko monument, it was moved for practical reasons. The same can't be said for two monuments that depict tragic episodes in Chicago history.

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No statue in Chicago has suffered more indignities than the wobegone policeman atop the original Haymarket Riot Monument. It's been kicked at, spit upon, covered with graffiti, hit by a streetcar, moved at least six times, and blown up, twice. The riot which the monument commemorates, and the events that followed, are famous the world over as one of the pivotal moments in the international movement for workers' rights. Here is my account of the Haymarket Affair from a 2011 post.

After the May 4, 1886 riot which began after police moved in to break up an otherwise peaceful workers rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square, most of public sentiment favored the police, who lost eight of their own (many of whom died from indiscriminate shots fired from other policemen), over the demonstrators,  (who lost several of their own), the majority of whom were immigrants from Central Europe. In fact anti-immigrant hostility in this city was so high at the time that the man commissioned to create the monument, Danish artist John Gelert, was asked to re-work the face of the police officer, because it looked "too Irish." Gelert refused. The pro-police sentiment of the time explains why the loss of the policemen, not the workers, was commemorated by a statue, while the injustice of the execution of several of the organizers of the rally who had nothing to do with the violence, was overlooked. It would take over a century for the city to rectify that.

The original Haymarket Memorial in its second location in front of Union Park
photographer unknown
The police statue originally stood at the site of the riot on Desplaines Avenue between Lake and Randolph Streets, but it proved to be a nuisance as streetcar tracks had to be re-routed to avoid it. After it had been vandalized on numerous occasions, the statue was moved west to the edge of Union Park in 1900. Then on May 4, 1927, the forty first anniversary of the riot it commemorates, irony struck in the form of a streetcar going full speed which jumped its tracks and rammed into the statue, knocking it from its pedestal. After that, the statue was moved inside the park where it enjoyed thirty one years of relative peace and obscurity. In 1958 it was moved back to the Haymarket area which is where I first encountered it as a child. 

Then came the Days of Rage in the late sixties when battles with the police again became part and parcel of life in Chicago. On October 6, 1969, the statue was blown up by members of the Students for a Democratic Society, (the S.D.S.).

As Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok would have said on "Farm Film Report" during the late seventies SCTV comedy program: "Whoo boy they sure blowed that statue up real good." The legs of the policeman ended up on the Kennedy Expressway twenty feet below while hundreds of windows in the neighborhood were blown out. The Chicago Police were none too amused. The act prompted this bit of hyperbole from a police department spokesperson:

The blowing up of the only police monument in the United Sates by the anarchists ... is an obvious declaration of war between the police and the S.D.S. and other anarchist groups. We feel it is kill or be killed regardless of the Jay Millers, (director of the Illinois ACLU), Daniel Walkers (who investigated the clashes between the police and rioters during the 1968 Democratic convention and later became Illinois governor), and the so-called civil rights acts.

The statue was duly restored and returned to its perch above the expressway where it stood exactly one year to the day of the first explosion, when it was again, blowed up real good. After that, it received round-the-clock police protection until it was removed into police custody where it has remained ever since. Currently it resides in the courtyard of the Chicago Police Department Headquarters at 35th and Michigan, where you can see it but only if you look real hard from the street.

This is the public view of original Haymarket Monument today
 as seen from 35th Street in front of Chicago Police Headquarters

More irony about the monument can be found in the words on the pedestal:


I had to sweet talk an officer into allowing me access to photograph the statue up close. As you can probably guess, the base of the monument is not original. it's the work of local artist Mike Baur and
made its debut as the pedestal for the 1889 sculpture in 2007 when the monument made its latest move to CPDHQ.





Fro 32 years, visitors coming to Chicago from all over the world were shocked to find that the site of of one of the most important moments in the history of the labor movement, stood without any reminder of the significance of the place, not even a commemorative plaque. According to Chicago's official historian Tim Samuelson,
I can remember that in my own lifetime, not long ago, bringing up the idea of commemorating Haymarket was impossible because it revived emotions that were too strong. It took a long time to get historical perspective, to be able to look back at Haymarket and see that it was everyone's tragedy.
Mary Brogger's Haymarket Memorial, unveiled in 2004
In 2004, a new monument by Chicago artist Mary Brogger was unveiled at the Haymarket site, precisely where the speakers' platform, a wagon, stood on that fateful evening. Bragger's work features a disassembled wagon upon which several semi abstract figures are engaged in various activities related to either constructing or dismantling the wagon. The author of a New York Times piece described the work as "ambiguous." Brogger wanted it that way. She told the Times reporter:
I was pretty adamant in my own mind that it would not be useful to depict violence... The violence didn't seem important, because this event was made up of much bigger ideas than one particular incident. I didn't want to make the imagery conclusive. I want to suggest the complexity of truth, but also people's responsibility for their actions and for the effect of their actions.
Whether or not she was successful is up to the mind's eye of the beholder. Perhaps for a memorial commemorating an event as tragic and complicated as the Haymarket Affair, neutrality is exactly what the doctor ordered. After all, the facts are all out there, it's up to us to process them, not for a statue to decide for us.

Troubled as its history was, the original Haymarket Memorial was not the most controversial monument in Chicago history, not by a long shot.

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In 1812 the United States was at war with Great Britain. The Brits found a useful ally in Native Americans whose lands and ways of life were quickly being usurped by the ever expanding settlement of white Americans. In that year, Chicago was a small settlement with homes scatted along the main branch of the Chicago River, all of them a stone’s throw from Fort Dearborn. 

Before the war there was a relatively peaceful coexistence between the white settlers in Chicago and the Indians, mostly members of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples who freely traded and even intermarried with the settlers. But as news of the new allegiance spread, there was discord between members of the tribes, mostly along generational lines. The elders perhaps realizing the hopelessness of their situation, looked to maintain peace with the settlers while the young “turks” were eager to cut their teeth in battle and join forces with the British. 

Fort Dearborn, built nine years earlier, was the United States’ westernmost Great Lakes encampment, built at the strategic point near the mouth of the Chicago River. In July of that year, a similar fort along the Straights of Mackinac, connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron, was captured by the British with the help of their Native American allies. With that garrison gone, the Commandant of Fort Dearborn, Captain Nathan Heald received word from his superiors that the defense and re-enforcement of Fort Dearborn was no longer tenable and to prepare for evacuation. 

Joined by Captain William Wells who volunteered to assist in the effort, Captain Heald and a group of 55 soldiers, 12 civilian militiamen, 9 women and 18 children began the perilous journey from Chicago to Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

As the group marched along the lake shore, unbeknownst to them, obscured by sand dunes to the west, a group of perhaps 500 Potawatomi warriors were waiting for them. When the warriors were spotted, Captain Heald made the fateful decision to attack, thereby separating the civilians and soldiers. As the vastly outnumbered soldiers approached, the Indians fell back, allowing the hapless Americans into their flanks, where they didn't have a chance. After the soldiers were neutralized, the Indians went after the wagons containing the civilians. They made quick work of the militiamen and then proceeded to slaughter many of their wives and children. Wells by all accounts, fought valiantly to the death. So impressed by his efforts, some the warriors cut out the heart of the fallen captain and consumed it, so as to absorb some of his courage. Wounded but still alive, Heald surrendered after receiving promises that the few remaining survivors would be spared. The following day Fort Dearborn was burned to the ground and the captive survivors were eventually ransomed. 

Much of what we know of that event comes to us through the writings of Juliette Kinzie, whose memoirs of frontier life called Wau-bun, contains a chapter devoted to what would become known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre.” But Mrs. Kinzie was a generation removed from the events of that day; her accounts based upon the testimony of some of the survivors. As one can imagine, Kinzie’s story is told from the viewpoint of the settlers. Despite numerous inaccuracies and dramatic flourishes, Kinzie’s account would be the story of record of the dreadful event for most of the nineteenth century. 

Another version of the story that would emerge some eighty years later, was told by Simon Pokagon, the son of a Potawatomie Chief who was present at the attack. Where Kinzie spoke of Indian treachery preceding the attack, Pokagon spoke of white treachery. Pokagon places the blame directly on the shoulders of Captain Heald for being foolish enough to go through with the march knowing full well of its dangers, However, few of the details regarding the actual battle differ in the two stories. 

Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument
on its original site at 18th and Calumet
The site of the attack at present day 18th Street and Calumet Avenue, would become the property of industrialist George Pullman who commissioned another Danish sculptor, Carl Rohl-Smith to create a monument commemorating the horrific event. The subject of the sculpture is based directly upon a story taken from Mrs. Kinzie’s account. In the tableau, one of the women in the group, Margaret Helm, grabs for a knife of an Indian while he holds a tomahawk aimed at the woman’s head, about to strike. Meanwhile another Indian, Black Partridge, a chief who had opposed the attack, intervenes to save the woman's life. At the feet of the three principal characters in the scene are the bodies of victims either killed or mortally wounded in the massacre.

Pullman willed the monument of the grizzly event to the Chicago Historical Society where it stood in that institution's lobby for many years. But the statue proved even too problematic for the museum after Native American groups protested its simplistic depiction of their people and the event. The statue briefly returned to it original site at 18th Street in the 1990s until it was removed by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, ostensibly for conservation. Since then is has sat in a Chicago Park District warehouse where it will likely remain for a long time, perhaps even perpetuity.

The story of the event and fate of the Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument is a good example of the way history can been hijacked by special interest groups bent on promoting their ideology. In 2009, a new park opened at the site of the attack. Pondering over what to name the park, Park District officials harkened back to the words of Simon Pokagon, who over one hundred years earlier said:  “When whites are killed, it is a massacre, but when Indians are killed, it is a fight.” It was decided that the park would be given the somewhat awkward name, "The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park." That appellation has now become the default label for the tragic event. Here is an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune written on the 200th anniversary of the attack, that tries to explain why what happened on that scorching hot day 205 years ago was not a massacre. The article's author Patrick T. Reardon has this to say:
Calling the battle a "massacre" cast the engagement in stark black-and-white terms and demonized the Indians. Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. Indeed, at the dedication of the Fort Dearborn Massacre sculpture in 1893, the director of the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) described the attackers as "invaders" and "barbarians."
The truth, however, is that, at that moment 200 years ago, the Americans were the invaders, and ....Chicago was "a symbol of an imposed colonial presence." 
OK I get it. It is without a doubt that Native Americans were subjugated by and suffered greatly at the hands of white settlers who stole their land and their livelihoods. It's not hard to understand why Native Americans sided with the British against the Americans, and we can grasp that an attack of a military unit is part of war. I think everyone today understands the loaded meaning of the word "massacre", and it is safe to say that the insistence of using that word to describe the events that unfolded on August 15, 1812, went a long way to seal the fate of the Native American people who once called this area home.

That's all well and good, but despite going into great deal about the events of the attack, what Reardon fails to mention anywhere in his article is the inconvenient truth that innocent women and children were brutally killed that day. The same is true for the plaque that currently marks Battle of Fort Dearborn Park.

Simon Pokegon did not ignore the victims. Describing the atrocity he said: “the Angel of Mercy seem(ed) to have been asleep” as a lone warrior entered their wagon and bludgeoned them all to death. For those actions that warrior "was hated by the tribe ever after" according to Pokegon.

The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park
I suspect few of the hundreds of residents of Chicago's new South Side walking their dogs everyday in this 1/2 acre park
understand the full magnitude of what took place here 205 years ago.
The plaque at the opposite end of the park only tells part of the story. 
It does not serve history to leave out or minimize that critical part of the story.  Whether we like it or not, whether or not it it fits into our world view or not, by any definition of the word, what happened on August 15, 1812 on the shore of Lake Michigan was a massacre. Rebranding the incident as a "battle" is not going to change that fact.

On the other side of the ideological divide, here is an article from a right wing publication that advocates the return of "Chicago's Forgotten Masterpiece" to the site of the attack.
By 1970, a new generation of Chicagoans turned to forgetting and rewriting history. The American settlers and soldiers who died at the Fort Dearborn Massacre in 1812 were transformed into "white invaders." Carl Rohl-Smith's masterpiece was removed from the Chicago History Museum and hidden from view.
In researching this piece I came across a wonderful quote from John N. Low, visiting assistant professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and a a member of the Michigan-based Pokagon Potawatomi. Regarding the change of terms from massacre to battle, Mr. Low said this: 
History is not truth; it’s memory, And a part of remembering is considering what we forgot. 
What some of us forgot is that the white people really were invaders. History wasn't re-written to make that so. Others forgot about the innocent victims of the "Battle of Fort Dearborn." Those same people may have forgotten that white settlers paid dearly for the right to call this land theirs, but the other side forgets that white people were here by choice, knowing the risks of taking over land that for centuries was occupied by someone else.

Tim Samuelson's argument about the Haymarket Affair being too painful for many years to come to grips with it, is even more compelling regarding the events that took place on August 15, 1812 on the shore of Lake Michigan. With the Haymarket Affair, eventually the police came to the realization they they too were part of the labor movement that protesters fought and died for at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact everyone of us who lives off a paycheck must be thankful for the actions and sacrifices of those people.

However the history of the relationship between Native American people and the European settlers who supplanted them in this country remains complicated and painful. It's true that the murder of the innocents during the "Battle of Fort Dearborn" was an atrocity. There were also many atrocities against Indians committed by the hands of white people.

Unfortunately the story of post-Columbian Native American history continues to be told from at least two sides. While the Fort Dearborn Monument attempts to tell two sides of the story by showing Black Partridge saving Margaret Helm while another Native American tries to murder her, it nevertheless falls short. Perhaps it is impossible for a work of art to put everything into its proper historical context. On the other hand, the plaque at Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, while also attempting to tell more than one side of the story, still leaves out a very critical component. Neither does a very good job of putting the story into proper context.

As we've seen, history is not served without the proper context.

Perhaps it is fitting that Carl Rohl-Smith's Monument to the Fort Dearborn Massacre will not see the light of day until we are able to reconcile all sides of the story, and give up our tenaciously held beliefs, assumptions and prejudices about the past.

Until the day comes if ever, history will not suffer its loss. 


Nest up, two Chicago monuments that may be soon headed for the chopping block, stay tuned...