An Imperfect Dividing Line for Honor

America still wrestles with names, symbols and statues.  But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some of the nation’s idols are falling faster than I can type.  Just today came news that Princeton University is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from their school of public policy and a residential college.  Woodrow Wilson famously screened the pro-Klan Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915.  Earlier this week, the city council of Charleston, South Carolina voted unanimously to remove a statue of John C. Calhoun from their city square (and the removal work has already started, likely with a museum as its final destination).  In addition to serving as Vice President, Secretary of State, and senator, Calhoun was perhaps this country’s most ardent defender of chattel slavery. The reckoning has even spread abroad, with protesters in Bristol, England pitching a statue of Edward Colston (a slave trader) into the harbor and Belgium beginning to remove statues of King Leopold II (brutal colonizer of the Congo).

Resistance to removing these men and certain symbols from places of honor still continues however.  While Mississippi has begun the process of considering a new state flag (minus the Confederate flag insert), the current flag still has its defenders. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest (whose Confederate troops massacred black soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow, and later led the Ku Klux Klan) still stands in the Tennessee state house after an 11-5 vote against removing it in favor of another Tennessee historical figure.

Two things prompt my attempt to craft a dividing line (however imperfect) for honor:

  1. The toppling of a Ulysses S. Grant statue in San Francisco
  2. News of protesters’ demands for the removal of an emancipation memorial in Washington, DC.

In my view, if someone fought to create the country in the Revolutionary War, fought to preserve the country during the Civil War, supported Reconstruction, or were responsible for desegregating anything at all, that is sufficient cause to leave up any statue of them or leave their name on any building or public facility where it may be–whatever other flaws and shortcomings that individual may have.

Adam Serwer’s defense of Grant is reason enough that no state of Grant should ever be abused in such a fashion.  Professor Aderson Francois adds Grant’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and in a congressional commission that studied post-Civil War terrorism against black men and women in the South.

Professor David Blight (perhaps the best living authority on Frederick Douglass), writes an eloquent defense of The Freedmen’s Memorial.  Before reading his column, there was so much about the monument I did not know:

Professor Blight closes with a most constructive idea of how to add context to imperfect monuments to flawed men:

Rather than take down this monument to Lincoln and emancipation, create a commission that will engage new artists to represent the story of black freedom from one generation to the next. Let today’s imaginations take flight. Perhaps commission a statue of Douglass himself delivering this magnificent speech. So much new learning can take place by the presence of both past and present. As a nation, let’s replace a landscape strewn with Confederate symbols with memorialization of emancipation. Tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial would be a terrible start for that epic process.

In response to the Blight column (which I shared with friends on Facebook), one of them asked me if I felt monuments to Thomas Jefferson should be torn down. Here is my response to him:

The short answer is no. The longer answer is while the hypocrisy of certain of the founders of the United States re: chattel slavery is obvious, they were trying to build a nation. I favor Dr. Blight’s approach of adding more context. The Confederate States of America and those who led it (by contrast) betrayed the nation the founders built and had the explicit goal of breaking this nation in two for the purpose of preserving and expanding the institution of chattel slavery. Statues of those who supported the Confederacy were erected to support the myth of the Lost Cause, and in concert with violence and terrorist acts against black people, despite the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. With the exception of tombstones and gravesites, I would not preserve a single Confederate monument on public land were it up to me. Strike Confederate names from every military base, every road, every school, and/or other public facility as well.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin is a place I’ve visited many times.  The words of the Declaration of Independence inscribed on one of its panels are clearly at odds with Jefferson’s treatment of the enslaved and profit from chattel slavery.  Monticello, Jefferson’s primary plantation, is attempting to address this contradiction even today.   When it comes to the Founding Fathers, hagiography has characterized too much of our treatment of them.  As more is revealed, it seems that what we have been taught as history looks more like propaganda.  Continued denial of the unsavory, hypocritical, and contradictory beliefs and actions of America’s founders serves the nation poorly.  But destruction of their monuments may not serve us any better.

My First Juneteenth

Today marks the date in 1865 when General Gordon Granger read General Order 3 to the people of Galveston Bay, Texas, informing the enslaved there and in all of Texas of freedom that had been rightfully theirs two years earlier.  That was essentially the full extent of my understanding of Juneteenth until recently, so I’ve taken the additional time off my employer gave us today to dig a bit deeper.  Juneteenth.comthe Wikipedia entry about Juneteenth, and this explainer by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have been my starting points.  I shared these links with my direct reports as well as my co-workers before our 2PM close today, and was heartened by how generously they were received.

In today’s national discussions of and writing about Juneteenth, the role of Texas and black Texans doesn’t get nearly the prominence it should.  Even as someone who has read The Warmth of Other Suns, and the way that aspects of black southern culture migrated north and west out of the South along with its people, it didn’t occur to me that holidays would or could migrate too.  Once I looked at the map of dates when different states granted it official recognition however, it made sense that Minnesota and Florida were among the first states outside of Texas to grant that recognition before the year 2000.  In reading a story like this one, it reinforces yet again that we in this country are fundamentally miseducated about its history when it comes to the Civil War, Reconstruction, its failure, and the consequences of that failure.

Even a widely-acclaimed documentary like Ken Burns’ The Civil War–which my high school classmates and I watched parts of in history class on VHS after each episode aired–can’t convey just how determined some in this country were to preserve the institution of slavery.  Only in reading about Juneteenth did I learn of plantation owners and other slaveholders migrating to Texas and bringing those they enslaved along with them to escape the fighting (and leveraging their distance from Union troops to extract years of additional labor from them).  This thread by Aderson B. Francois, professor of law at Georgetown University, tells a story I definitely did not know about concerted efforts to make it unconstitutional to abolish slavery.  Not only was the Corwin Amendment passed by both houses of Congress by the necessary margin to proceed to ratification, not only did Abraham Lincoln support it, but my home state was among five that ratified it (and only rescinded that ratification in 2014).  Thanks to a friend I met back in grad school, I learned that some of the defeated Confederates attempted to preserve the Confederacy in Brazil.

Spending the time to learn more about Juneteenth has unearthed quite a few things done in previous years to focus attention on it, and the story of black people in this country more generally.  This interview with Isabel Wilkerson from 2017 leads off with audio from the 1940s housed at the Library of Congress from a formerly-enslaved woman old enough to remember the original Juneteenth, and reflects upon the death of Philando Castile at the hands of police in the previous year.  This piece on the National Museum of African American History and Culture website talks about the legacy of Juneteenth.  A brief story from The History Channel originally published in 2015 talks about the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth.  I’m not sure how many other holidays have their own flag, but Juneteenth does and has for over 20 years.

Another interesting thing Juneteenth has done in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is spark good faith questions from white friends and co-workers about aspects of black history in the United States.  While my heritage makes my connection to the term “black” more complicated, I refer friends to documentaries like 13th, and to the scholarship of Dr. William Darity to learn more about reparations.

In addition to spending at least a part of today learning more, I donated to two non-profits and encouraged friends to do so as well.  The Innocence Project works to free those wrongly convicted of crimes.  The Equal Justice Initiative operates The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which seek to educate about the history of enslavement, lynching, and mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States.  Perhaps this Juneteenth will be the beginning of an annual tradition of learning and contributing to the cause of justice.

New MacBook Pro

The untimely death of the mid-2015 MacBook Pro that had been my primary machine the past few years meant I forking over for another laptop. Given the hassles that resulted from buying that machine from somewhere other than Apple or MicroCenter, I didn’t take any chances with its replacement.

A refurbished version of this laptop (where I wrote this post) cost a little over $400 less than retail. I’m still in the process of setting things up the way I like them, but one new thing I learned was that Apple is still shipping their laptops with an ancient version of bash.

Having used bash since my freshman year of college (way back in 1992), I have no interest in learning zsh (the new default shell for macOS). So right after I installed Homebrew, I followed the instructions in this handy article to install the latest version of bash and make it my default shell.

There’s still plenty of other work to do in order to get laptop the way I want it. Data recovery hasn’t been difficult because of using a few different solutions to back up my data:

I’ve partitioned a Seagate 4TB external drive with 1TB for a clone of the internal drive and the rest for Time Machine backups. So far this has meant that recovering documents and re-installing software has pretty much been a drag-and-drop affair (with a bit of hunting around for license information that I’d missed putting into 1Password).

I wasn’t a fan of the Touch Bar initially, even after having access to one since my employer issued me a MacBook Pro with one when I joined them in 2017. But one app that tries to make it useful is Pock. Having access to the Dock from Touch Bar means not having to use screen real estate to display it and means not having to mouse down to launch applications.

Because of Apple’s insistence of USB-C everything, that work includes buying more gear. The next purchase after the laptop itself was a USB-C dock. I could have gone the Thunderbolt dock route instead, but that would be quite a bit more money than I wanted or needed to spend.

Even without the accessories that will make it easier to use on my desk in my home office, it’s a very nice laptop. Marco is right about the keyboard. I’ll get over the USB-C everything eventually.

COVID-19 Doesn’t Care About Our Politics

A friend on Twitter asked the following question:

Does the shortage of ventilators/mask[s] show the cruelty and inefficiency of capitalism?  If so, would a centrally planned economy have better outcomes?

My response:

It’s nothing to do with capitalism being cruel or inefficient, and everything to do with what can happen when the profit motive is the main driver of private sector companies involved in the healthcare supply chain, and in healthcare provision.

That combined with incompetently led governments both at the federal level and in some states are why the United States finds itself leading the way in the number of [novel] coronavirus cases.

Even as the total of coronavirus cases worldwide has exceeded 1 million (as of April 2, 2020), it’s too easy to find people trying to use the pandemic in favor of their preferred ideology and against others.  From my vantage point, no ideology is faring particularly well against coronavirus.  Most of the countries at the top of the charts for total cases and new cases are democracies, but the top 10 also includes China (communist), the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Turkey (effectively a dictatorship).

What the coronavirus is highlighting (in addition to the problem of allowing the profit motive to take primacy in healthcare) is the importance of competent government–regardless of what ideology they claim or operate under.  Many articles (including this one) have pointed out that South Korea and the United States reported their first positive COVID-19 case on the same day.  The differing results of their responses couldn’t be more stark.  South Korea has a tiny fraction of COVID-19 deaths compared to the United States, and a very low number of new cases.