So I follow the popular strands of American politics with what strikes me as impressive forgetfulness. I just keep coming back for more, evening after morning after evening after morning, and I keep feeling frustrated and bewildered. Actually, that’s not fair, it’s not forgetfulness, because it’s not the same frustration and bewilderment. The thing is, I am actually more keenly bewildered each day I see yet another instance of dastardly cynicism or badly cloaked racism or the arrogance of institutional patriarchy (is there any other kind?)… just to speak of generalities. Disagreements on policy are a separate question altogether. I don’t feel I know enough about how things work to believe I know the best policy on this or that issue, let alone the more significant question of what best policy can be put into practice and how – the complexities are astounding and require care and attention. I love having those conversations, especially because there’s always more for me to learn. So no, that’s not what I’m talking about. Just the little things, the lies and the hatred. It’s all about the, “I want my America back.” It’s about how, when you read that sort of comment in a news story, you can freely bet on the race and relative age of its speaker. Interestingly, both male and female cluelessly bigoted older white Americans make this comment. The women want their America back, too. Maybe their political selves are more entrenched in being white than in being women. Whatever. I want to care, but I struggle to, so blinded am I by the anger I feel towards their hatefulness and childishness and ignorance.
Most of the time I prefer to write more carefully put together posts, but I’m not sure when I’ll next have the energy to compose myself when thinking about this particular issue. Looking at a Thomas Jefferson statue in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, Sarah and I briefly discussed my disgust. Earlier in the day I had supposed in 300 years (to pluck a random number) humans would look back at our beliefs, practices, attitudes, etc., and find themselves confused and aghast. Sarah pointed out that this is how it is now, so there’s good reason to think it might continue on in this way. (In that sense, perhaps 300 is a clever number, after all, the US being a bit younger than that: out of the range of that particular survey, sort of.) My consideration, upon looking up at TJ: people oughtn’t be allowed to say they want to go back to the founders, to the ideals and values of the founders. When I say “oughtn’t be allowed,” I hope it goes without saying that I mean socially rather than legally; i.e., I don’t think it should be considered a legitimate sentiment, and should be mocked and derided in polite company and popular media.
Now, that isn’t to say the founders weren’t a group of interesting and in some ways very admirable fellows who started something I can honestly say I am proud to be a part of. And suffice it to say, I won’t be accused any time soon of being an expert on TJ, George, Sam and their ilk. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson, among our favorite and most well-known founders, was, to say the very least, a slave-owner, as were most of the other founding fathers. (The few notable exceptions are notable indeed.) I submit it is not outrageous to say that this fact alone suffices to disqualify Jefferson’s from being values to which we should return.
Perhaps some of his values (his deism seems interesting…) are worth revisiting, debating, situating…, but any simplistic expression of a return to the values of our founders must include slavery. This is not some minor nit to pick, this is not one man’s private questionable practices coming to light and casting a shadow on his reputation. It’s hard for me to find the language here, as I’m imagining as my interlocutor someone who says things like, “Do we really have to talk about slavery anymore?” Anymore? No, not anymore, we have to begin the discussion. The fact that folks are simply quoted as saying things like, for example, that [Rick Santorum] is going to “bring back the old United States,” is, to me, as clear an indicator as any that the unpardonable sin of slavery continues to mark this country and its culture. (Let us not, for a moment, get into the justice system and incarceration. My restraint wears thin as it is.)
Let us return to the founders for a moment. Perhaps my interlocutor would reply that what matters more than, say, the 3/5 compromise (which, can we just, like, point that out as soon as this sort of comment/conversation arises? as, like, a pertinent fact…?), are the ideals of, you know, the whole “self-evident” business and the “we the people” bit. To a certain extent, I can agree to this. It would be more troubling if, looking back on our past, we found no one outraged at the glaring hypocrisy of the publication of the Declaration in light of the institution of slavery. We can find facts that lend a positive reading: founders who were abolitionists, others who eventually freed their slaves, slave owning founders who felt conflicted about the whole thing… Is it wrong of me to skew the argument with the phrasing of that third item? I have an image in my head of a cowardly George Washington, willing the freedom of his slaves knowing his wife won’t allow them all their freedom. To whatever extent this story is true, it is a lesson in not putting off ending your enslavement of other human beings until after death. No, I refuse to accept the small-minded dichotomy between actions and ideals. I can appreciate the wording of the Declaration and Preamble and seek to uphold their ideals without accepting simplistic idolization of the men who signed their names on those documents while considering some people to be their property. This is one issue that really could not wait as the political wheels turned. Let me explain.
I am supportive of gay marriage in the sense that I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone doesn’t recognize this to be among the more obvious issues of our time. It’s hard for me to understand arguments I’ve heard against gay marriage. The whole “definition” thing is a laugh, religion is irrelevant (don’t marry gay couples in your church if you don’t want to…), and studies in support of my contention aside, we don’t legislate straight marriages by whether we think ahead of time the children they may or may not have will be better or worse off for having these two for parents. It’s, again, just not relevant to the discussion. It’s a question of context. Anyway. Nevertheless, I am under the impression that the gradual but increasingly speedy legislation of equal marriage rights around the country will be a more stable shift than, say, the seeming tenuousness of Roe v. Wade. I think it is a travesty to force couples to wait – especially seeing as we’re not immortal – but I also think, from my privileged vantage point, that the cultural shift is forcing the tide of legislation, and that by the time (soon!) all fifty states and the federal government recognize marriage equality, those who remain against it will be mocked and derided, if, after their ignorance and frightfulness is lovingly made known to them, they cling to their ignorance. Hooray for the derision of willful ignorance! I want everyone to feel loved, but love doesn’t mean not giving someone shit for being proud of their foolishness.
My point? Obviously, re slavery this is something I say not only from a privileged vantage point, but from an absolute temporal distance. I can’t say about the institution of slavery in America (at least not in the same sense that I can say the opposite about the extremely significant and integral but thankfully much less dire issue of gay marriage) that it cannot wait for the shifting tide of public perception and the slow and steady degradation of ignorance and bigotry. And yet, there is still a certain sense in which I can say that of the present. It is not okay to continue to portray (often unwitting) thinly veiled racism (is there a better and stronger word than ‘racism’ or ‘bigotry’? I think ‘hatefulness’ comes closer to capturing it) as just another of a set of opinions relevant to this or that political matter. Who knows, maybe when Santorum’s supporter speaks of the “old United States,” he’s not thinking of white domination but of the economy in the 90s. (Yuk yuk yuk.) Then don’t use that ugly phrase. And if you do, we will ask you just what you mean, and we won’t accept evasion or defensiveness. We honestly want to know, because if you don’t mean what we think you mean, we all need to know that, and you need to express yourself more clearly – and if you do mean what we think you mean, then there’s a long conversation we’ve been meaning to get started, anyway…