‘He’s No Angel’: The unbearable whiteness of innocence

Dear Rebecca:

Conor Friedersdorf is one of my favorite writers around right now. He’s conservative, but he’s probably the most intellectually honest commenter I know of — during the Obama Administration he was equally tough on both the president and the president’s most-stupid critics.

His latest post over at The Atlantic involves the consideration of a podcast interview between Sam Harris, professional atheist and Trump-hater, and Scott Adams, “Dilbert” creator and Trump-lover.

He quotes from the interview at length, and it was in those quotes that something jumped out at me:

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 6.40.50 PM
Technically, he’s white.

Adams: Keep in mind that President Trump’s past is far more public than other people. So you’re going to see the warts as well as the good stuff. But let me stop acting as if I disagree with the general claim that you’re making, that he has done things that you and I might not do in the same situation, and would disapprove of. That is common and would be shared by Trump supporters as well.

Harris: But then you seem to give it no ethical weight.

Adams: Here’s the proposition. He came in and he said in these very words, ‘I’m no angel.’ But I’m going to do these things for you. Now he created a situation where for his self-interest, if you imagine he’s the most selfish, narcissistic, egotistical human who ever lived, he only cares about himself, he put himself in the position where there was exactly one way for any of those things to go right for him, which is to do a really, really frickin’ good job, and to imagine that he wants to do anything but the best job for the country now, now that he’s in the position, and probably even when he was running, is beyond ludicrous.

“No angel.” Where had I heard that term before?

Oh. Yeah. It’s used anytime a black person has been abused by police — to suggest that even if the victim of that abuse didn’t haven it coming, he or she probably still had it coming. It’s a cliche among activists now, one that had its origins in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the New York Times coverage afterwards.

Justin Cohen explained the problem with this last year for HuffPo:

In the wake of police executions, you are bound to hear a few things that distract from the real issues. One of those storylines is that “he was no angel,” wherein the media will outline the various ways in which the victim behaved inappropriately in the past. None of this matters, and it certainly does not change the fact that the police killed the person outside of any legal process. I smoked pot when I was in high school, for example, and if the police used that as justification to murder me, that would be ludicrous.

Which brings us back to the president. As Friedersdorf notes: “It is fascinating that Adams counts the pronouncement, ‘I’m no angel,’ as a point in Trump’s favor, as if unapologetically acknowledging moral depravity lessens its weight.”

Indeed, for our white president, “he’s no angel” is his “boys will be boys” get out of jail card, an exculpatory phrase, whereas when the phrase is used with black people, it’s to heap guilt upon them in, at best, ambiguous circumstances.

Seems wrong, somehow.

Sincerely, Joel

Elijah Parrish Lovejoy, Heather Heyer, and the white fight against racism

Dear Joel,

Has some defender of the Lost Cause told you yet this week that you need to “learn your history”? (I know, it’s only Sunday, but I’ve already wracked up a few!) I find that retort to be especially vexing because those who toss it out generally don’t respect the intellectual work of historians. Most often, they’re not going to be convinced by history, and they don’t value learning.

But I’ll meet them partway and offer a brief history lesson:

I’ve heard that Elijah Parrish Lovejoy was the first white man killed in defense of freedom for enslaved African Americans. I don’t know if that is true, but he was clearly one of the first. He was killed in 1837–nearly 30 years before the Civil War broke out–when a pro-slavery mob came to set his newspaper press on fire. His abolitionist newspaper had been attacked three times when it was located in Missouri, a slave state, so he’d move across the river, to the free state of Illinois, to continue his work.

He was a Princeton-trained theologian and a Presbyterian pastor. He knew that slavery was wrong, and he fought against it using the liberty granted to him by the First Amendment. He was killed in that endeavor.

Lovejoy is a hero, the kind of person, like Heather Heyer, who put his life on the line to fight injustice.

We honor Lovejoy with a monument in Albon, Illinois, where he was shot and killed.

I hope this year sees a rush to honor more people like Lovejoy and Heyer, like Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner and others who resisted white supremacy and slavery.

Image result for lovejoy monument

Above, the Lovejoy Monument, honoring a true Civil War hero.

Want to visit a Confederate War Memorial?

Dear Joel,

This past May, the Journal of Hate Studies released a special issue, Heritage and Hate. I was the editor on the issue, which included articles on the Confederate flag, remembering slavery in museums in the American South, and what to do with memorials that honor white supremacists (in Zimbabwe, not the US). The authors were incredibly patient as we put together this issue and got it in the hands of readers. (Most readers will have to be a little more patient. The issue is in the hands of subscribers and libraries, but the digital copy isn’t online yet. When it is, though, you can read it for free. In the meantime, if anyone wants a copy of any of the articles (Here’s the Table of Contents.), just let me know and I’ll happily send you a PDF.)

So, this issue of how we navigate Confederate memorials–I’ve been thinking about it for awhile now.

There is no defense of such monuments. We know that most of them were put up not to honor Civil War veterans but to reinforce white supremacy during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era. Some have been put even more recently. Claims that “this is history” were naive last week; this week, they are offensive. If only it were history! But it’s not–the statues are about maintaining the right of whites to terrorize blacks, through slavery and the violence of Reconstruction, through legalized segregation,  through imprisonment, through marches of white men carrying torches.

None of those honored are heroes. All of them led a revolt against the United States, one not rooted in freedom but in defense of white supremacy, of the right of white people to own blacks, and of an economic system that relied on the oppression of human beings. This is the “Southern heritage” that those men fought to defend, and it is shameful.

Monuments are not about history. They are about stories. These monuments are about the story of the Lost Cause and about the goodness of men who were evil. They don’t deserve to stand.

Citizens should not have to take these matters into their own hands. They should not have to look at their tax money being used to honor men who were willing to kill for white supremacy.  We don’t need a public dialogue to discuss whether these men should be honored. Honoring them dishonors us. Honoring them is an act of violence to real people, right now, today.

Can we look to our elected leaders to remove them? In some places, yes, thank God.

What should those leaders do with the monuments? Dump them into the sea, where they cannot be reclaimed or turned into profit for white supremacists. We have a precedent for doing this with the bodies of those who commit mass violence and genocide.

But what about–

No, I do not care about them. Not when we have never paid the descendants of slaves for what they lost: lives, opportunities, justice. We don’t spend taxpayer money honoring men who took us into war while we say that we just can’t figure out how to to do right by  the people they enslaved.

Let those who want Confederate soldiers honored do it on their own dime, on their own land. Private citizens are free to erect monuments to white supremacists on their own. If “heritage not hate” folks want to see them, I can direct them to white supremacists training grounds.

And if “heritage not hate” tourists find the idea of hanging out with folks who are training for a racial war, planning attacks on the US government, and laughing at racial terrorism a little bit distasteful… Well, I’m not sure what to tell you. Today’s white supremacist militias are just doing what your heroes did.

A group of men walking in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017 (Photo provided by the Office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe)

Above, white supremacists aren’t all polo shirt wearing college students upset about Fisher v. University of Texas. They’re also heavily armed racists itching for a racial war that will end with a white ethno state. Their major criticism of slavery is that it brought Africans to this continent. Basically, Confederate war heroes. 

 

 

 

Misogyny as a Precursor to Mass Violence… Again

Hi Joel,

 

I must sound like a broken record, but have pity on me–if you are tired of hearing it, imagine how tired women are of saying it.

Men who commit mass violence–and being a young man is characteristic that most mass violence actors have in common–are almost always domestic abusers first. Hate crimes begin at home, and the crime of wife beating is a misogynistic crime. It is rooted in the same toxic masculinity as other kinds of violence, fed by entitlement., grudge holding, and a wounded sense of honor.

James Alex Fields, Jr. is why we need a national domestic violence registry.

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Above, the murder weapon–a car–that Fields used. 

Prior to his murder of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and his terrorist attack that harmed 19 others, Fields’ violence toward his mother prompted her to call 911 repeatedly to seek police intervention to protect her from him.

Most domestic abusers do not go on to mow strangers down with their cars. And most people who are planning acts of mass violence aren’t dissuaded from doing so because their names appear in a registry.

But a registry would allow us to keep better track of convicted offenders (who, obviously, do not represent all or perhaps even most of those who commit such acts) and allow us to move more quickly to intervene, including through gun restraining orders.  

Rebecca

Support your Local Nazi Hunter

Dear Joel,

Can’t bring yourself to slug a Nazi?

If you want to get out of the tension between worrying about antifa’s tactics, do your part to support the fight against fascism. You already know what it is.

Work on justice, and antics will recede–at least until we drift near fascism again.

Sincerely,

Rebecca

antif flag burning

Above, an antifascist activist burns a “Thin Blue Line” flag. If this upsets you, think about what it means that some officers and their Blue Lives Matter supporters have their own flag, which desecrates the US flag according to the US flag code. Oh, and that thin blue line in the image–it represents the police officers who stand between us and anarchy. Feeling a little worried yet about police authoritarianism? 

My “antifa” conundrum

Dear Rebecca:

pacifism

One thing about being Mennonite: It offers clarity. Violence is the wrong answer, always, no matter the question.

I’m a quasi-lapsed, quasi-worshipful Mennonite these days. It’s complicated. And it complicates how I’m viewing the events in Charlottesville and its aftermath.

See, I’m not a fan of the billy-club wielding “antifa” crews. And I strongly suspect that folks who rely on violence to advance their ideology are in pretty big danger of becoming “fa” sooner or later, no matter how they describe themselves.

But.

I’m also having a hard time getting as angry about the antifa folks as I am about the Nazis who used lethal violence in the name of white supremacy.

Motives matter. We have a billion different ways of judging wrongful deaths based on the motivations of the killer. (Neglect will get you a few years in prison; heat of the moment anger a few years more; something judged a “hate” crime can get you sent away even longer.) But … they don’t for Mennonites.

Violence is violence is violence, and violence is wrong. But I’m having trouble condemning all of it with equal fervor.

This troubles me.

With anguish,
Joel