Thursday, August 9, 2018

Stars and Bars

We live in a bubble up here in Chicago. All the more so for me as I work in the art world, where the vast majority of people I come in contact with on a daily basis are a pretty homogenous group, politically speaking that is.

The last time our family took a road trip out of town was two summers ago, during the 2016 election. Taveling through rural Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, I expected to see scores of bumper stickers and posters supporting Donald Trump for president. Even though the people in the areas we passed through voted overwhelmingly for the current president, much to my surprise during the hundreds of miles we covered on that trip, I could have counted on one hand the number of folks who publicly displayed their pro-Trump sentiments, and still had a finger or two to spare.

This past weekend we took a short trip downstate, to visit a college with our son. The city, Galesburg, IL. and the school, Knox College were founded concurrently by the same man, George Washington Gale, a Presbyterian abolitionist. The first anti-slavery society in Illinois was founded in Galesburg and the city was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Galesburg wears its Lincoln heritage on its sleeve. It was there in front of the building known as Old Main on the Knox campus, where the fifth of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas took place on October 7, 1858. (More on that in a subsequent post). Throughout the town and especially on campus, there are likenesses of the 16th president practically everywhere you turn, so much so that I asked our student tour-guide if she ever became a little weary of all the Lincoln hagiography. She diplomatically kept her cards close to her vest.

If that weren't enough, Galesburg was also the birthplace of the poet and author Carl Sandburg who wrote the most exhaustive biography of Lincoln ever: two volumes alone devoted to "The Prairie Years", and four, count 'em, four to "The War Years."

Clearly Galesburg has serious historical street-cred when it comes to the cause of American progressive politics.

Despite that, I wasn't surprised to find Trump posters and bumper stickers scattered here and there around town. I get it, Galesburg, like just about every other municipality in this part of the country has seen better days. The Maytag refrigerator plant moved out of town in 2004, about a decade after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and took with it about 5,000 well paying jobs, representing one sixth of the population of the city. The company re-located its plant just across the Rio Grande from Hidalgo, Texas to the city of Reynosa, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. There, factory workers who now build Maytag refrigerators earn on average, $1.50 per hour, about one tenth of what their counterparts made in Galesburg.

Donald Trump campaigned hard on the issue of NAFTA and the disastrous effects it had on American blue collar jobs, while Hillary Clinton all but ignored the struggling blue collar workers of this country. It's not hard to see how Trump's slogan "make America great again", played in a city that could be the poster child for all that is wrong with free trade. And it's not at all difficult to understand why Donald Trump won more votes than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election in countless places like Galesburg.

What is a little hard to understand is why, underneath the Stars and Stripes on the flagpole in front of a business platestered with Trump posters, as well as a few other locations around town, a Confederate flag flapped in the breeze.

The flag, specifically the Confederate battle flag, has been a point of contention for a long time, but the issue came to a head after a white supremacist slaughtered nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. in 2015 after the victims warmly welcomed the killer into their church. After his arrest, authorities gained access to his website which included photographs of the murderer posing with symbols of white supremacy, including a Confederate battle flag. That incident sparked the movement to remove that flag from display from all government property in the south. It was time many people felt, to put the hurtful symbol of oppression for so many people, to rest.

Not surprisingly, that movement ignited a controversy among those who believe that flag is an enduring symbol of Southern pride and culture, both the good and the bad of it. Again, I get, well sort of, why white Southerners feel strongly about that symbol of their complicated history. My question is this: what does it mean when Northerners, especially deep in the heart of Lincoln country fly that flag, especially in tandem with a Trump sign?

I can hear all my liberal friends answer that question with a resounding "well duh." It is in fact quite hard for me to come up with any explanation other than the obvious one: it's because they're racists.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt however, I'll throw out a few other possibilities:
  • Could be the people flying the flags are transplanted Southerners, homesick for the feel of soft southern winds in the live oak trees, good ol' boys like Thomas Wolfe and those Williams boys, Hank and Tennessee. (With sincerest apologies to the memory of the great Don Williams) 
  • Perhaps the Confederate flag flyers are staunch anti-Federalists, who buy into the myth that the Civil War was not about slavery at all, but about denfending states' rights to determine their own destiny against the tyranny of the federal government. 
  • Or it could be simply this: flying the Confederate battle flag is nothing more than one big "fuck you" to us left wing snowflakes who refuse to accept the fact that Donald Trump is our president. Personally I think this is the most credible explanation outside of the obvious one. 
The problem with these explanatonns is that no matter how hard you try, you simply can't explain away the underlying scourges to humanity that flag represents, namely intolerance, oppression, racism, and of course, human bondage. Hillary Clinton made a huge gaffe when she declared a large swath of Trump supporters to be "deplorables." That move backfired as a great many Trumpers picked up that devisive term as a badge of honor for themselves, much as religious groups adopted names like Quaker, Methodist and Lutheran, which were originally unflattering pejorative terms used against them by critics. The difference is that the Trump supporters Clinton was describing, namely KKK members, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, by any reasonable standard, are truly deplorable. By proudly referring to themselves as "the deplorables" Trump supporters are unwittingly or not, either equating themselves with these groups or expressing solidarity with them.

One of the big lies that the Trump camp keeps propagating in an attempt to refute the idea that they may be racist, is to equate themselves with the Republican Party of the past, the party of Lincoln the Great Emancipator. Conversely the Deomcrats are the party of slavery and Jim Crow. Gullible people who have absolutly no understanding of US history over the past 150 years, fall for that nonsense, hook, line and sinker. While the roles of the two American political parties had shifted 180 degrees a century after the Civil War, the coup de grace came on July 2, 1964, when a Democratic President from Texas,  Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law what he hoped would be his enduring legacy, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which put an end, at least on paper, to discrimination in this country on the basis of race, religion, sex or nation of origin. That evening, a somber Johnson confided to his then staffer,  journalist Bill Moyers:
I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,
Never have words coming out of a president's mouth been so prophetic.

Then there are the words coming out of the current president's mouth. Time and again during his presidency he has had the opportunity to bring people of different races and nationalities together, and time and again he has chosen to do exactly the opposite.

His latest episode was an imbecilic tweet reacting to a TV interview of basketball star LeBron James, conducted by CNN journalist, Don Lemon. In the interview about James's charitable work in opening up a school for underprivileged kids, both men who happen to be African American, expressed exasperation with Trump, to which the President of the United States responded:
Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.
Add Lemon and James to a long and growing list of African American individuals whose intelligence has been publicly questioned by this president. In a measured response, Lemon said this:
Referring to African Americans as dumb is one of the oldest canards of America's racist past.
A long time ago, President Johnson, again speaking with Bill Moyers, de-constructed America racism in a slightly more colorful way:
If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.
As far as Galesburg is concerned, no, the town didn't shrivel up and die as some predicted it would after Maytag moved out. Businesses that benefited from free trade, such as the railroads which were always a major player in town, and distribution centers, began to fill the void left by the loss of the manufacturing jobs. That's not to say that things have returned to where they were before Maytag pulled the plug, not by a long shot, but things are looking up. Barack Obama visited Galesburg several times before and during his presidency. Looking toward the future, he advocated for the expansion and development of industries with a future such as solar and wind based energy. On our drive to Galesburg, we passed several flat bed trucks, each carrying a single enormous wind turbine blade, supplying the numerous wind farms we passed along the way.

Meanwhile President Obama's successor is advocating for the revival of moribund industries like coal, and instituting tariffs that are little more than a detriment to many up and coming new industries. He has also, time and again, aligned himself with the same types of individuals who sold out the city of Galesburg by putting the wants of stockholders ahead of the needs of their fellow Americans, people whose labor made them rich in the first place. Free trade may have created a conduit for greedy individuals and corporations looking for the big payday, to easily pull up stakes and leave communities high and dry, but it certainly did not necessitate the move as the current president would suggest.

Regardless of how you feel about the current president, if to you, the sentiment of making America great means a country where anyone can earn a living wage without necessarily going into years and years of college debt, as well as a country where there is truly liberty and justice for all, then I'm with you one hundred percent.

If on the other hand that slogan to you means taking America back to a time when women and people of color knew their place, say, back before the stars and bars flew over Dixie, well that's where we part company. You sir are a part of the problem, not the solution.

If you truly feel that way then you could not care less what I have to say, but it may behoove you to heed those words of President Johnson's.

Above all, don't forget to check your pockets.