Thursday, September 23, 2021

Color Blind?

The Fox sportscaster Chris Meyers got himself in a bit of hot water after a tweet he posted on June 4, 2016, shortly after the death of Muhammad Ali. This is what he wrote:

When you saw #Ali you didn't see color you didn't see religion you saw a gentle man who was a strong fighter,a Champion you could believe in

Other remarks coming from media outlets in their obituaries of the three time heavyweight boxing champion of the world claimed that Muhammad Ali "transcended race and religion."

Those comments, harmless as they might sound to the uninitiated, were remarkable in a couple of aspects. 

First of all, Ali defined himself by and championed his black heritage more than any public figure of his time. He never made any secret of his membership in the Nation of Islam, in fact for a time he became the public face of that controversial group. Responding to the idea of a racially neutral Muhammad Ali in an article for Jezebel at the time of Ali's death, writer Kara Brown penned an article titled: "If You Don't See Blackness, You Didn't See Muhammad Ali."

When I first read Meyers' tweet five years ago, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he must have been too young to remember Ali in his prime: the cocky, immensely proud black man known in some circles as "the Louisville Lip", but only the older Ali, the most recognized person in the world, who under the influence of a devastating illness, had softened a little around the edges. 

Well it turns out Meyers is my age, and I'm old enough to remember all the way back to when Ali still went by the name Cassius Clay.

Maybe he just wasn't paying attention. 

And what on earth does it mean to "transcend race and religion"? After five years I still don't get that. Did anyone eulogizing Mickey Mantle feel the need to write that when you looked at the late ballplayer, you didn't see that he was a white guy, or that he transcended his religion, whatever that may have been?

Certainly not. 

Putting it another way, if you didn't see a black man when you saw Muhammad Ali, what would make you even think of mentioning it in the first place?

Could it be that what Meyers and the rest of the presumably white writers who penned those remarks really meant was: "Muhammad Ali may have been black and a Muslim, but despite that, we liked him anyway"?

Other than complete ignorance of the man on their part, that's the only reasonable conclusion I can make.

There in a nutshell, is the problem with the absurd idea of "color blindness" when it comes to race. 

I thought of this a couple weeks ago when I spotted an article on the web called "Colorblind is the Moral Ideal." The premise of the article is that the real racists in this country are people who make race an issue, not those who like the writer, supposedly ignore it. In the words of Dennis Prager, the author of the piece:

Colorblind means one does not believe a person’s color is in any way significant.

My first thought after I read the first sentence of the article...

There is little that reveals the immorality and dishonesty of the left more than its labeling the term "colorblind" racist. 
...was how far Prager would get into his piece before he mentioned Martin Luther King.

It took him about 250 words.

Far right wing rants are nothing if not predictable.

The far right has become enamored with Martin Luther King. I've gone on and on about the subject in this space and you can read why they love him so much here. Of course they don't totally embrace the late civil rights leader, rather cherry pick random comments here and there. Here Prager selects one line from one speech, the part about his dream of the day his children would be judged by their character rather than the color of their skin. 

Who could argue with that?
 
According to Prager, the left does by rejecting the idea of color blindness. In doing so in his opinion, they are also rejecting Martin Luther King.
 
But judging a person by his or her race is not the same as being conscious of race. I never heard Dr. King suggest that we should all strive to be color blind in regards to race. Quite the contrary, that would mean disregarding our history of slavery, genocide, racism, forced segregation, disenfranchisement, and many other shameful acts imposed upon black people and other minority groups in this country. That would mean ignoring the fact that being black in America is still today a different experience than being white.

Hmmm, you don't think ignoring all that unpleasant stuff is exactly why the ultra right promotes color blindness in the first place do you?

Then comes another predictable argument in their arsenal, comparing the left to the KKK:
The worst racists — defenders of slavery, supporters of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, just to cite American examples — were the least colorblind people. Color is the one thing they and all racists see in people. Precisely because they defined people by their color, they justified their subjugation of black people.

The left’s insistence that color is important is one of the most racist and anti-human doctrines of our time. It was precisely when America was most racist that people’s color was deemed most important. Why would we want to return to that time?
Insisting that race is important is itself "racist, and anti-human"? I would argue the exact opposite.

On the contrary, insisting that (beyond our basic humanity) we're all the same, insisting that race plays no role in society, insisting that the black experience in this country is no different from the white experience, is living in a state of denial as big as the state of Texas.  

But hasn't so much changed in the last hundred and fifty odd years since the end of the Civil War, and even in the last fifty odd years since the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King and others? After all, we've had a black president. 

To that last point I would respond, yes we did, and look at whom we elected in response to the presidency of Barack Obama. If I were forced to say something positive about Donald Trump's time in office, it would be that by making open racism acceptable again, he uncovered a cancer in our society that many white people, myself included, had mistakenly thought was in remission since the seventies. Of course black folks were never under that delusion.

Like any disease, the chances of eradicating it are much better when it is discovered and confronted. 

The color blind folks implore us to ignore the disease of racism.

Of course it's ludicrous to claim that anyone is really color blind. Noticing someone's color is as natural as noticing someone's gender, their age, their accent, their height, girth or lack thereof, and all sorts of other characteristics of individuals. It's embedded in our DNA and goes back to our Stone Age days and beyond when society was centered around the immediate clan. Anyone outside of that group posed a potential threat and making detailed observations of strangers contributed to the well being and indeed the survival of our our bygone ancestors.   

It's just like other subconscious responses to the outside world that were once beneficial to our ancestors. Increased heart and breathing rates during stressful situations for example, gave our bygone ancestors the extra strength and endurance to help survive things like the proverbial sabre tooth tiger attack. However, a racing heart and hyperventilation doesn't do us much good during a typical modern day stressful situation such as having to speak in front of a large group of people. Nevertheless the response lingers on within the recesses of our reptilian brain cores, the part of our brain that controls our instincts, and there's precious little we can do to stop it. 

But through training, practice and effort, we can mitigate it, and possibly even use that extra adrenaline rush to our advantage.

This reminds me of a discussion I was involved in years ago while leading in a group of Catholic students studying to receive their sacraments. The topic was the greatest virtue we as humans are capable of, forgiveness. As I was blathering on as is my style, a deacon piped up and told the students that not only we as Christians are expected to forgive all the bad things people do to us, but also to forget them. 

At that point a young priest from Kenya, one of the wisest people I've ever known, disagreed with the deacon saying that while forgiveness is well within the scope of our capabilities, it is humanly impossible to selectively erase the contents from our memory banks like we can a computer's. In other words, we can will ourselves to forgive, but not to forget.

Moreover, where is the virtue in forgiveness if we can't remember what we're forgiving?

In much the same way, we can't will ourselves to be color blind, we can will ourselves to control our reactions both outward and inward when we encounter people whom we regard as different from us.

Fear of the different is also a trait we inherited from our ancestors who lived eons ago, and lingers to this day in our primitive brains, just as appetite and sexual desire do. But our brains have evolved considerably since then, and we certainly don't have to live as hostages to those fears and impulses. 

While we may not be able to completely avoid our deep seeded fears, we can control them. Just as forgiveness helps us mitigate our inability to selectively forget, virtues such as curiosity, compassion, empathy, and perhaps above all, critical thinking, (all of which came along much later in our own evolution), help us mitigate our fears of the different.

So instead of fearing our differences, we may embrace them.

It's been known for a long time that the gene pool of any species is strengthened through diversity and weakened sometimes to the point of extinction through over homogenization. In other words, you cannot create a master race by selectively breeding from one small group of people as the Nazis liked to believe, only a defective race. In much the same way we all benefit psychologically, spiritually and intellectually from our exposure to people from many different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, beliefs and yes, even opinions.

Why on earth would anyone want to be blind to all that?

That is precisely why I value living in a diverse neighborhood of a diverse city and why my wife and I chose to raise our children here.

I probably won't be around to see it, but I have faith that one day most people of good will, will be able to look at their fellow human beings and honestly say: "I love you because of who you are", instead of in spite of who they are.

That will be the day when we will have finally put our reptilian brains back into the recesses of our minds where they belong.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Dan Quayle: Elder Statesman and Defender of our Democracy

Until very recently, there probably has not been a more maligned holder of high public office in this country than the 44th Vice President of the United States, J. Danforth Quayle

From the get go, Quayle was lambasted as a lightweight, both intellectually and for his lack of political experience leading up to his election to the second highest office in the country, "a heartbeat away from the presidency" as they like to say. To this day, he is probably most famous for an exchange during a nationally televised debate with his rival, Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen. During the debate Quayle was asked if his lack of experience would be a hindrance, especially if he for one reason or other had to take over in the role of Chief Executive. Quayle correctly responded that he had the same amount of experience in Congress as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president (not vice president) in 1960.

To which Bentsen replied:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy. 

Quayle, clearly shaken, responded that the remark was uncalled for. 

Which honestly, it was.

But in politics, decorum is thrown out the window, there was nothing new about it then and as we can see thirty plus years later, it has only gotten worse. 

It was a pithy line that brought the house down and has stuck in the annals of political discourse ever since and probably will, rightly or wrongly for eternity.

Called for or not, in truth, Quayle had no one to blame but himself as he had been making the comparison with Kennedy for quite some time, and the team preparing Bentsen for the debate was ready for it. With that in mind, if you watch Bentsen as Quayle is making his remarks, you can see from the look of satisfaction and mock indignation on his face, that he's ready to move in for the kill. 

As the commentators in the linked clip suggest, that one remark would define Quayle in the minds of the American public forever, and set the tone for the coverage of him during the next four years. Every gaffe or malapropism, and there were several of them, were magnified tenfold by the press, pundits and late night talk show hosts. Despite winning that particular election with his running mate, George H.W. Bush, his one term as Vice President would mark the pinnacle of Quayle's political career. He would make a couple attempts at running in the Republican primary for president, but never received more than a handful of votes.

Quayle eventually entered the private sector and disappeared from the public spotlight, save for appearances at official events such as presidential inaugurations and funerals. Quite honestly if you asked me before this week if Dan Quayle were still alive, I'm not sure if I'd have been able to tell you.

Boy has that changed.

Dan Quayle's name has surfaced again thanks to a new book by Bob Woodward (his third on the Trump presidency) and Robert Costa. The book, Peril, scheduled to be released next week, chronicles the closing days of the Trump administration and opening days of the Biden administration. 

Peril describes the exPOTUS's reaction to his election loss to his successor as nearly hysterical, leaving him bent on retribution and revenge. The part of the book that has been drawing the most attention deals with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and his profound concern for the stability and sanity of the Chief Executive. Kind of like a General Jack D. Ripper in reverse, Milley trying to lessen the damage of a "rouge" president, inserts himself into the chain of strategic command, and personally contacts his counterpart in China to assure him that the United States had no intention of attacking that country with nuclear (or other) weapons. He also made it clear to the military brass beneath him that they were to answer directly to him and not the president. I must point out that there is no evidence that the former president actually had any inclination to attack China. 

The part of the book that has garnered the next amount of attention deals with former Vice President Mike Pence and what many consider to be his finest moment, his refusal to kowtow to the wishes of his boss and the thousands of people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th demanding to hang him, by officially certifying the November 3rd election that resulted in the exPOTUS's defeat, and of course his own. At the resumption of the Senate session to affirm the election after the violent events of that tragic, deadly day in our nation's capital, with uncharacteristic determination and anger in his voice, Pence delivered these words to his colleagues, the country, the world, and most pointedly his soon to be exBOSS: 

Thanks to local, state and federal law enforcement, the violence was quelled, the Capitol is secure, and the people's work continues. We condemn the violence that took place here in the strongest possible terms. We grieve the loss of life in these hallowed halls, as well as the injuries suffered by those who defended our Capitol. And we will always be grateful to the men and women who stayed at their posts to defend this historic place. To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the People's House. As we reconvene in this chamber, the world again will witness the resilience and strength of our democracy. For even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. 

Then after invoking the Almighty's blessing, Pence with even more determination and anger in his voice defiantly said: 

Let's get back to work. 

It was the most stirring minute and half of political rhetoric delivered by an American politician in a good long time, and will probably live long after most of us are gone. Mike Pence will and should be remembered by those words. 

Which is a good thing because before that moment, Pence was best known for being Donald Trump's obsequious lapdog and number one enabler. Perhaps the moment he was known for best, OK second to the fly landing on his head during his debate with Kamala Harris, was the time when at the behest of Donald Trump, he and his wife flew to Indianapolis for the sole purpose of walking out of a football game in protest as players knelt during the National Anthem. 

The truth is, as far as lightweights go, next to Mike Pence, Dan Quayle looks like Joe Frazier.

No lightweight he, "Smokin' Joe" Frazier delivers a devastating left hook to the greatest heavyweight of them all, Muhammad Ali.

Anyway...

The book gives us a little bit of the backstory behind Pence's decision to do his job as proscribed by the Constitution, and not the bidding of his boss. It turned out that up to that fateful day, Pence did everything he could to see if it was within his powers to do exactly as he was told and appease the exPOTUS.

A deeply religious man, one can only assume that after consulting the lawyers and parliamentarians and getting no help, Pence got down on his knees and did not a little praying. It would be his Gethsemane moment if you will, invoking the good Lord's help in letting the cup of scorn from his fellow Trumplicans and possibly much, much worse, pass from him.  

Apparently that day there would be no divine intervention in store for Pence.

So he called Dan Quayle. 

Why Quayle you might ask. Well he was in a particularly good position to offer advice in this situation as he was only one of three people alive who had to as vice president, authorize an election in which he lost. The other two were Walter Mondale (who passed away this April) and Al Gore, both Democrats. Pence probably figured getting advice from those two would be like Jesus taking advice from the Sanhedrin or the Romans. In addition to being a fellow Hoosier, Quayle is a Republican of good standing.  

According to the book, Pence pressed Quayle for a long time about all his options in opting out of certifying the election. 

Yet again he got nowhere.

A frustrated Pence brought up voting irregularities in Arizona which could prove cause, at least to delay the certification and send the election back to the states. 

Quayle told Pence: "I'm in Arizona, trust me, there's nothing here." 

Pence brought up other issues, mostly the fruit of the steadfast work of Rudi Giuliani.

Quayle told Pence: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away," 

Then almost to the point of desperation Pence said: "You don't know the position I'm in,"
 
"I do know the position you're in," Quayle responded. "I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That's all you do. You have no power."

And that was it. Despite being told on January 5th by Donald Trump that if he didn't refuse to certify the election the next day, Trump would stop being his friend (as if he ever was), the die had been cast. The rest as they say is history. 

So what do we make of this? Is Dan Quayle a hero for making Pence see the light and do the right thing? And in this new light, is Pence even more of a coward than we thought for groveling at the feet of Trump all these years doing everything humanly possible, even to the point of throwing our entire election system out of keel simply to gain his favor? 

It's all about politics, obviously, and ambition. Both Quayle and Pence had higher aspirations than vice president and both those men's aspirations were dashed almost as soon as they took the oath of office. Neither man ever got much respect, especially Pence who was continuously mocked by his boss for his over-the-top piety. 

It was easy for Quayle to offer sensible advice to Pence because he left the fray years ago and had nothing to lose politically speaking. It was the same advice I'm sure that 95 percent of the Republicans currently in Congress would have given Pence, were they not scared to death of Trump, his base, and the prospect of losing their job to a true believer in the next primary. 

Nevertheless I am grateful for the wisdom Quayle offered Pence, even if it was of the "duh" variety. It makes me long for the day not so long ago when we could differ on ideology yet come together as a nation and rally around a higher cause, our democratic-republic. 

As for Pence, well  I'm not so sure. Was his almost pathological sycophancy to the exPOTUS based upon ideological grounds or purely self-interest? In either case it was certainly a catastrophic miscalculation on his part, as it has been for nearly everyone who has ever gotten close to Trump. Did Pence honestly believe there could be any good result for him had he stood in the way of certifying the election? Yes it would have caused more chaos (music to the ears of his exBOSS) and a constitutional crisis delaying the inevitable. But the crisis (if not the chaos) would have been quickly resolved in the courts, and his actions would have certainly been deemed unconstitutional. History would have taken a very dim view of him for that disgraceful act.

Despite his hesitancy, Pence did the right thing in the end, which is all that really matters right? He stood up not only to Trump, but to the hooligans the exPOTUS sent to the Capitol to intimidate and very likely do him harm. That alone took cajones. Then on inauguration day, Pence stood solemnly on the platform in front of the west portico of the Capitol Building, the lone representative of his administration witnessing a sacred tradition in this nation, the peaceful transfer of power. Meanwhile his soon-to-be former boss was scuttling out of town like a rat deserting a sinking ship.

Solely because of his actions this past January 6th and 20th, as it stands now, history will look more favorably upon Mike Pence than we do now. Today the Trumplicans consider him a traitor and his politics are too right wing for practically everyone else. I have little doubt that his political career is finished. 

The good news is he can now hold his head up and look his children and grandchildren in the eye.

That alone is worth far more than all the political power on earth.