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.


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.


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.