Readings: One year after Parkland

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Photo by Skitterphoto on

I have a column over at The Week about the one year anniversary of the Parkland school massacre. I reflect on the shabby treatment that has been afforded the survivors. Wherever you find survivors of mass gun violence, it seems, you’ll also find gun rights defenders making the survivors’ lives more miserable.

Some people might argue that by plunging into the gun debate, Hogg and other survivors asked for the treatment they’re getting — our politics are loud and ugly, and if you’re going to take a stance, you’re not going to be treated with kid gloves. Hogg, in particular, seems to give as much as he takes, which might be why he seems to be singled out for extra abuse. That kind of argument, though, suggests that name-calling and conspiracy theorizing should be a normal part of politics. Maybe it’s time to challenge that idea.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that gun advocates have to accept the Parkland survivors’ policy prescriptions. And it doesn’t meant that gun-control advocates don’t have to listen to their opponents — Kasky, for example, has embarked on a project to listen to gun rights advocates. But the Parkland students should have been treated as people worthy of respect, as survivors of a horrific crime. Because that’s what they are.

About blackface: Why not listen to black people?

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A lot of white folks really want to defend blackface, it seems.

…conservatives are wondering whether blackface — typically, the act of white people dressing up as black people by using makeup, or, in Northam’s case, shoe polish — is always racist, or whether it can be the product of ignorance, without being inherently racist or reveling in stereotypes. In short, does an action require racist intent to be racist?

Good intentions, road to hell, etc. etc…..

To this day, many white people have bristled at the notion that blackface is inherently racist, arguing that it is a tribute to the person being imitated or, as Robert H. Michel, the Republican from Illinois who served as House minority leader, said in a 1988 interview, “just a part of life” that “was fun.”

In 2008, Mel Kuhn, then the mayor of Arkansas City, Kan., appeared with a darkened face as part of a charity drag show. His character was inspired, he said, by movies like “Big Momma’s House”; The Associated Press reported that the character’s name was “a vulgar reference to female genitalia.”

Mr. Kuhn apologized publicly shortly after the performance after meeting with the N.A.A.C.P., but he sounded a defiant note this week. “There was no insult intended,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to stop this P.C. nonsense, where if I don’t say something perfectly correct, people just get disjointed.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, including what looks like an overwhelming sense of entitlement among people who use blackface. If I want to do a thing, why shouldn’t I? It’s an attitude that suggests we have no obligations of kindness or respect to our neighbors and fellow citizens, that their feelings pale in comparison to those of us who just happen to be white and, in the grand scheme of things, relatively powerful.

Here’s an idea: Why not just listen to black people?

There are a few African Americans, I’m sure, who will defend the rights of white people to wear blackface. But the vast majority seem deeply wounded and offended by it.

Jamelle Bouie:

The most popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America, which continued well into the 20th, blackface minstrelsy was defined by its caricature of and gross hostility toward black Americans. In the minstrel show, blacks — and free blacks in particular — were objects of ridicule, lampooned for seeking equality and respectability. Beyond simple mockery, the pleasure of blackface for white performers and their audiences lay in the vicarious experience of an imagined blackness — a wild, preindustrial “savage” nature that whites attributed to black Americans.

“Painting oneself hearkened back to traditional popular celebrations and to paint oneself as a Black person, given American realities at the time, was to throw reason to the winds,” the historian David Roediger wrote in his 1991 book, “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.” He notes later that blackface was a form that “implicitly rested on the idea that Black culture and Black people existed only insofar as they were edifying for whites and that claims to ‘authentic’ blackness could be put on and washed off at will.”

In other words, blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.

So, white folks, try to think empathetically: Even if you think you mean well, even if you are just “paying tribute” to some African-American celebrity, the truth is that blackface will be taken as hurtful by black people. If you know that’s the case, why persist? To restrain yourself in the service of not giving unnecessary offense may be “politically correct” — but it’s also the responsible, adult thing to do.

Readings: Evangelicals, racism and abortion

Ralph Northam, in his natural state.

Funny thing about the blackface scandals that have been erupting in Virginia lately: Gov. Ralph Northam had come under fire from conservatives just days earlier for his support of a bill that removes abortion restrictions in his state.  Once it was revealed that Northam had appeared in blackface during the 1980s, though, many conservatives spoke more sympathetically, about the need to forgive those kinds of mistakes.

And I wondered: Is it the case that conservatives will defend racism more than they hate abortion?

Coincidentally, then, this story appeared on my radar:

In 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the biggest white evangelical group in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, supported its legalization. The group continued that support through much of the 1970s. And the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, did not give his first antiabortion speech until 1978, five years after Roe.

Though opposition to abortion is what many think fueled the powerful conservative white evangelical right, 81 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump, it was really school integration, according to Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth.

The late Paul Weyrich, whom Balmer called the organizational genius behind the religious right, had long tried to mobilize evangelical voters around some hot-button issue: feminism, school prayer, pornography, abortion. But nothing lit a fire like the federal government’s threat to all-white schools. Only in 1979, a full six years after Roe, did Weyrich urge evangelical leaders to also crusade against abortion, Balmer said in an interview. That was, after all, a far more palatable, acceptable crusade, one with a seeming high moral purpose, unlike a race-based crusade against black children.

It is worth reading the whole thing.

I don’t want to suggest that anti-abortion crusaders are secret racists. I know many people who genuinely believe abortion is murder. But the history of the issue is interesting, to say the least.

Readings: A Mennonite minister sells her land, shares the proceeds with the tribe that once lived there

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This land is your land… Photo by Artur Roman on

This is an extraordinary story:

“This was not always our land,” said Florence Schloneger, a 71-year-old retired Mennonite minister in North Newton. “I got my part . . . and, I wanted to acknowledge it wasn’t always our land.”

So, when her portion of the farm’s proceeds was received, she wrote a letter to the Kanza Heritage Society accompanying her check.

“This gift is a small acknowledgment that what our family homesteaded and owned was not unoccupied land – it is acknowledgment that no land can truly be owned and that the pride in our farm passed down through our family came at a great cost to your people,” Schloneger began her letter. “As my eyes have been opened, I have experienced great sorrow. Not only were your hunting grounds appropriated, but your rich culture and language was nearly lost through assimilation. My hope is that this small gift can help build and restore the strength of Kanza traditions for coming generations. Many blessings.”

Read the whole thing.

I’ve often wondered how we need to pay our debt to history. The lands that I live on were acquired through invasion and exploitation. I can’t change that. So how do I acknowledge that? Is there any way I can begin to repay the debt? It sometimes seems impossible.

I’m not sure I know the answers. Florence Schloneger, though, has offered one possibility.

The scandal in the Southern Baptist Church

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This is devastating:

In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

And a good question:

“That just appalled me,” Leathers said. “They had to have known they put a convicted sex offender behind the pulpit. … If a church calls a woman to pastor their church, there are a lot of Southern Baptist organizations that, sadly, would disassociate with them immediately. Why wouldn’t they do the same for convicted sex offenders?”

This obviously isn’t just a Southern Baptist problem. The issues of the Catholic Church are well-documented; closer to home for this blog, we know that Mennonites have dealt badly with sex abuse issues as well.

I guess the question for me is not why churches are prone to this behavior: Churches are human institutions, and where humans are you’ll find the ugliest behavior imaginable. (Despite my relative secularism, I guess I definitely believe that humankind is fallen.) But I do ponder a related question: Even given the human nature of these institutions, why doesn’t their dedication to higher power and higher ideals inoculate them, even a bit, from these scandals. Churches are supposed to be places of refuge. For too many people, they aren’t.

We won’t answer that question today. But let us resolve to stand with the survivors of sexual abuse where we can. God help us.

Taking a digital sabbath

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Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Photo by on

Hard words from the late Oliver Sacks in the latest New Yorker:

Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.

I work online: I couldn’t make a living if I didn’t spend my professional world in the digital world he describes. And I think Sacks might’ve been too zero-sum about some of the tradeoffs the new world creates:

A few years ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion about information and communication in the twenty-first century. One of the panelists, an Internet pioneer, said proudly that his young daughter surfed the Web twelve hours a day and had access to a breadth and range of information that no one from a previous generation could have imagined. I asked whether she had read any of Jane Austen’s novels, or any classic novel. When he said that she hadn’t, I wondered aloud whether she would then have a solid understanding of human nature or of society, and suggested that while she might be stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge. Half the audience cheered; the other half booed.

They were both right?

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again: When I grew up in central Kansas during the 1980s, we saw the New York Times once a week. It was the Sunday edition, and it arrived by mail, usually on Wednesday. If anybody in town besides the local library took it, I’m not aware. But I loved to look at it sometimes. Aside from being a burgeoning news junkie, I loved to sit and look at the ads for Broadway shows. The paper beckoned to a world largely inaccessible to me at that time and place.

Now? I read the New York Times and Washington Post every morning, and check their updates through the day. Those top-level newspapers were basically once available to, mainly, a small and coastal elite. My ability to access them from Kansas transformed my life, my understanding of the world, and my career.

On the other hand, I spend too much time trapped in the digital world.

The key, I think, is to try to find balance. I’m not good at that. But one way I can start to achieve it – or, start again, as I’ve done this from time to time – is to take a digital sabbath from time to time, ideally once a week.

That means no computers, no phones, no iPads. Time should be spent with people, or with books, or doing activities that require one to look up and around and see the world.

Saturdays will work best for that, I think. So, I’m going to try to go dark starting this Saturday. Maybe take a walk, or play a board game with my son. Balance is elusive in this world, but even moreso if you don’t at least try