Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Fix for the Electoral College - Fewer States

This year, for the second time in the last five elections, a candidate who failed to receive a majority of the popular vote will be President of the United States because of the oddity of the Electoral College.

This time, the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is going to win the popular vote by some 2.5 million votes.  

We’re already hearing a lot of talk about the electoral college being an anachronism.   People who like the outcome of the election are insisting that it worked the way it was meant to, as a bulwark to protect small states from large states.  (They’re wrong, of course.  The SENATE was that bulwark.   The electoral college WAS designed to force candidates to campaign in more than one region; in other words, to compromise with slavery.  But primarily, it was designed to put a handful of “grown-ups” between a mob-endorsed demagogue and the White House.)

But face facts, the electoral college isn’t going away anytime soon.   It would require an amendment to the constitution; and that would require, first, for both houses of Congress to pass it by a 2/3 majority.  And, given that the 20 smallest states, which contain 10% of the American population but get 40% of our Senators, that’s never going to happen.  Let alone the idea of 38 state legislatures approving an amendment if it did ever pass Congress.

It might be almost easier to make the electoral college work better by encouraging some states to merge.   That’s not likely to happen, either, at least not in the next two years.   But most of these small states only exist thanks to their purchase or conquest by an activist federal government, and only survive thanks to a massive influx of federal money that comes from economically viable large states.

Here’s the deal:   there are somewhat more than 320 million people in America today, including some 80 million children, teens, and immigrants who are not entitled to vote but all of whom still pay taxes every time they buy a pack of gum.   Our laws apply to all of them and our elected officials represent all of them whether they can vote or not.  The U.S. House of Representatives is composed of 438 Congressmen, roughly one per every 700,000 Americans.  The U.S. Senate is composed of 100 Senators – two from each of 50 states.    That means that a state with less than 6.4 million people is over-represented in the Senate, and those with less than 3.2 million people are over-represented by 100 to 600%.

Only 30 of the 50 states have more than 3.2 million people.   Between 1790 and 1960, it was
Map of US Counties, adjusted for population.
necessary to have a minimum number of people to qualify for statehood.  Our nation is now full of states that at one time met that threshold, then failed to maintain a sustainable economy, and now survive only with massive federal subsidies, while getting an outsized vote in the federal government that continues to subsidize them.

So … let’s work our way across the country and consider what it would look like if states needed 1% of the nation’s population in order to have 2% of the nation’s power.

In northern New England, neither Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine have enough population to qualify as a state.  In fact, all three of them need to merge in order to qualify.

Rhode Island, at 1 million people, likely needs to merge with Connecticut.  Or Massachusetts, but why would they?  Rhode Island was founded by a man that the Massachusetts Colony sent off into the winter wilderness to die.

Delaware, with 900,000, needs to merge with Maryland.

At this point, I imagine Republicans are liking where this is going.   I’ve just cut 8 blue states down to four.

All of the rest of the original 13 colonies meet this standard for statehood, as do all but two other states east of the Mississippi River:   West Virginia and Mississippi.

Culturally and economically, West Virginia and Kentucky would likely elect to merge.

Geographically, it makes sense for Mississippi to merge with Alabama; but SEC football rivalries alone would scotch that deal.   Alabama doesn’t need Mississippi.  Since Mississippi is across the river from Arkansas, another state that stands to lose its status, there is considerable logic to these two states merging.

After we cross the Mississippi River, it starts to get more complicated.  In the first tier of states, Iowa as well as Arkansas is too small to qualify for statehood.  It would make sense culturally for Iowa to merge with Minnesota, but politically Iowa would resist that.  So Iowa may end up merging with Nebraska and maybe someone else.

As we move to the second tier of western states, Texas and Oklahoma are large enough to continue to be singular states.  No one above them is.   Kansas and Nebraska are large enough to make for one state; and if they agree to merge with Iowa as well, they would be a fairly populous state with more than the minimum number of House seats.

North and South Dakota wouldn’t qualify for statehood even by merging; so they either need to merge with the Kansabraskiowa consortium, or merge with Montana and at least one other mountain state.

Moving farther west, New Mexico doesn’t qualify for statehood.   A merger with Arizona makes geographical, but not cultural or political sense.   So New Mexico and Colorado should merge, even though Colorado doesn’t need a partner.

Wyoming, the least-populated state in the Union, needs to merge with multiple states.   The most likely outcome is that Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho – and possibly Alaska – become one huge but still very sparsely-populated state.  Nevada, at this point, is a borderline state that might become either part of a big Red state to the northeast, or join California as a big blue state.  But if they don’t go red in the next two years, they never will.

All of the blue Pacific Coast states are solid as they stand, although one of them needs to absorb Hawaii.

This would result in a 34-state union with 68 Senators, and still 438 Representatives, although we should probably recalibrate that number down, too.   Perhaps one representative per million residents, so each state had 2 Senators and no less than 3 representatives.

We would no longer have 20 states containing 10% of the population but controlling 40% of the Senate and a hugely disproportionate share of the electoral college.   Not likely to happen, but an interesting set of numbers to keep in mind as we figure out how to move forward.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Be Not Afraid: A Eulogy for My Mother

Following is the text of the eulogy I delivered this morning at the funeral of my mother, Phyllis Franklin, who passed away a week ago Monday.

On the first Christmas an angel appeared to the shepherds and said, “Fear not.”   

On the first Easter the angel that greeted the two Marys at Jesus’ empty tomb said, “don’t be afraid.”

The Old Testament was full of promises and urgings to “Be Not Afraid, I go before you always.”

Phyllis Franklin knew for almost two years that her body was starting to fail her, and she knew for only two weeks that she was not going to get better from her latest illness, but she was never afraid of death.

So thank you for being here today to remember and celebrate Phyllis,  to whom I will henceforth be referring as “mom.”    

But this service is not for her.  If it was up to her, we wouldn’t even be here.   She always insisted she didn’t want anyone to bother over her; she just wanted to be put in a garbage bag and left by the side of the road.  Well, too bad.  This service is for us.   This is our chance to tell her, “You’re not the boss of me,” and to spend time with each other and remember her.  And it is for me, to use an opportunity to “bear witness” to my children and niece and nephews some thoughts on the message of mom’s life. 

Phyllis was born here in Hutsonville in the waning years of the Great Depression on May 29, 1937, the youngest of Milo and Alma Crouch’s seven children.     Three of her older brothers – Mike, Ernie, and Dick – joined the Navy to fight in either World War II or Korea, or both.    Her oldest sister Dot became a nurse and spent a lifelong career caring for our veterans in the VA system.    And some people would have you believe WE live in a harsh and dangerous world.   Give me a break.

By 1950, mom and her sister Pat were the last kids still at home, and they became lifelong best friends, just as her granddaughters Jessica and Grace have become.    Now, I only learned during this past year, on a long drive with Mom to see a specialist in Champaign, about some of the childhood shenanigans that Mom and Pat got up to.    I knew that Milo was an auto mechanic.   It seems that Pat and Mom used to go joy-riding in some of the cars that he had repaired that hadn’t been picked up yet.  (If one of those cars belonged to one of your parents or grandparents … sorry about that.)    And you know what they would do in those cars?    They would drive somewhere and park and sit in the front seat and have drawing contests to see who could sketch the best flower or horse.    And they would enjoy a treat of – hold on to your seats – slices of Wonder bread.    Kids!   What was the matter with kids those days …

Mom graduated from Hutsonville High School in 1955 and took off on an adventure to live for a few months in Amarillo Texas with her big sister Dot.   There, she got a job as a telephone operator, a job that she picked up again when she moved back to Illinois the next year.    Footloose and fancy free, she bought a convertible.    One day, a young man came into the building where she worked to tell her that the top was down, and it was starting to rain.   That was Bud Newlin, my father.

The world has changed a lot since 1957 when they got married.   Their first home in Annapolis didn’t have indoor plumbing.   Dad drove a truck for $1 an hour, and Mom set about being a homemaker and, soon, a mother, managing a household on a budget and preparing inexpensive meals with the amazing new processed foods like TV dinners and Chef-Boy-R-Dee, and reading, reading, reading to me.

As was the custom in those days, the family followed Dad’s recurring opportunities to move up in a company which moved him from Hutsonville to Huntingburg IN to Wesport IN to Indianola IA  to Maquoketa IA … and from truck driver to management.   Dad took Dale Carnegie courses in public speaking, and Mom learned to play golf.   Dave and I grew up with trips back to Hutsonville to see grandparents and cousins being our summer vacations.   We were baptized in the Baptist Church, when my parents had one car.  Then they got two cars and became Methodists, and eventually got three cars and became Presbyterians.    Now I’m an Episcopalian.   Sally and I only have two cars, but we make up for it by having six computers.

Her Christian faith, as you all know, has always been important to Mom, but along the way she read about and explored a wide variety of flavors of theology.    She was always participating in, or teaching, Sunday School classes or, more likely, home Bible studies.  

After Dave and I were raised, and the business that Dad had started with his brother moved back to Hutsonville, Mom began to provide nanny services to other families.    My parents’ marriage ended in the early 1980s, and Mom moved to Las Vegas and married John Franklin, who was originally from Palestine, and continued to be a nanny.    John died of cancer in 1994; a few years later, she moved back “home,” and in the last years of my dad’s life she maintained a friendship and caring relationship with him.   

In recent years she expressed regret for having left that first marriage, and I always tried to convince her she shouldn’t feel that way.   Her relationship with John was different from her relationship with Dad – a little less “comfortable routine,” a little more excitement and joy – but I always told her she deserved all of those things.    I wish she hadn’t spent the last few years having that regret.

Mom was a voracious reader, and that made her a very good writer, and she passed both of those passions down to me. 

She had a sharp sense of humor.   As recently as three weeks ago, within five minutes of learning she had cancer, the doctor explained the option of hospice care, and told her that the likely end-result would be renal failure, which would be like going to sleep.    She said, “Well, good.   I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for three weeks.”   The poor doctor had to wait to make sure that the rest of us were laughing before he could laugh, too.  

A sharp sense of humor combined with a mastery of words could be a two-edged sword.   I imagine most of you in this room got nicked with the sharper edge of that sword a few times. 

But I think what defined Mom more than anything else was her insatiable desire to know God; and to study the Bible until every verse of it made sense to her.    And I think this last desire may have done her as much harm as good.

As I said at the outset, Mom faced death unafraid, confident – assured – doubtless, that she would be in heaven in the afterlife.  

I like to imagine that she and Pat are sitting in the front seat of a “borrowed” DeSoto right now, eating white bread and seeing who can draw the best angel.   I like that image, but I have no “blessed assurance”, no “peace that passeth understanding,” that heaven looks like that, instead of like some other image of peace that we can’t comprehend.  But I'm not afraid.

Mom believed that heaven was real.   I’m not sure where she ended up on hell— she was at least aware of the idea of annihilationism, as opposed to eternal torment.  But she believed in heaven, and she believed that the path to heaven was a narrow one.    And this led to some conflict between us.   Not that she was ANGRY toward me for having some theological views that were different from hers; but that she was troubled, frightened, and deeply PAINED that my own faith was different from some of the texts that she read; that she feared that she would not see me, or Dave, in heaven.

And that grieves me.   I grieve that my mother’s final years and final days were inflicted with that fear.   I grieve, and resent that, to protect the mental well-being of this dying but smart and once-inquisitive woman, I felt that I couldn’t risk upsetting her by challenging the entirely man-made and utterly fallible theologies of exclusion that she had stumbled on in her quest for certainty.

I hate the thought that in her final days and hours, the one thing that kept Mom fighting (in some degree of pain), was her inability to let go because there was doubt in her mind if Dave and I would be okay in the long run.   For that, I resent all the misguided or outright malicious people who got rich writing books and making radio and TV shows about “their” one and only truth.

Now, I also know that her concern for David and my immortal souls was based on the fact that she loved us, and indeed, we were her proudest achievements.   And I do think, if I do say so myself, that based on the job she did of raising us, and the children that we are raising, she deserved to be proud.

So it’s my intention to continue to follow the same path I’ve been on.

And my message to you – to my family in particular but to everyone else Mom will continue to touch, through me, is this …

Be not afraid.

Face life with the same lack of fear with which mom faced death.

Seek knowledge and truth, and seek God, like she did.

Choose to believe in a God that is big enough to love and accept and welcome anyone God wants; and follow the commandment to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

And as we Episcopalians say, go in peace … to love and serve the Lord.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Tale of Two Widows

This past weekend, at several thousand churches across America, attendees were exposed to a pair of scripture lessons from the lectionary, about widows.

I was a guest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where my dear friend Rev. Grace Burton Edwards had returned from her current post in Columbus Georgia to help that parish, where she began her ministry as an Episcopal priest, celebrate its centennial.

The gospel lesson on Sunday was the familiar passage in Mark 12, where the widow puts her last two mites, or pennies, in the offering box.

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus observes “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

A few minutes later, a poor widow approaches.  When the widow puts her pennies into the offering box, Jesus tells his disciples,  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

And that is the end of the chapter.   It doesn’t go on to say that she went home and her grain basket had been refilled and her oil had been replenished.   She had put in everything, all she had to live on.  She was not an exemplar, but a victim.  A victim of those who devour the homes of widows.   Modern capitalist Western society has assuaged its guilt by assuming she went home to a heavenly reward, but the Bible says no such thing. She went home and died.   End of story.  No next chapter.  

Jesus was not celebrating the righteousness of the poor.  He was condemning the neglect of the wealthy. 

Meanwhile, one of the optional Old Testament lessons – and the basis for Grace’s sermon – was the Book of Ruth.  As Grace described in her sermon, I’ve long been familiar with this story in a kind of “How I Met Your Mother” sense.   The Book of Ruth is the story of Naomi, an Israelite woman in the years between Moses and David, who with her family fled a famine in the alleged Land of Milk and Honey and sought refuge in nearby Moab.   While there, Naomi’s sons married Moabite women; then both her husband and her sons died.  

Naomi’s only option, as a useless old widow in a Bronze Age society, was to return to Israel and throw herself on the mercy of distant relatives.   The story here is that one of her widowed Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth, chose to leave the similar sparse “comfort” of her own culture, and go with Naomi back to Israel.
Back in Israel, Naomi arranged to introduce Ruth to her nephew Boaz.   Boaz married the foreigner and, with the exception of one sentence at the end of the book of Ruth, that was the happy end of the story;

What I didn’t know until I heard Grace’s sermon was that the Moabites and the Israelites, at least according to oral tradition, were closely related.   The Israelites were the descendants of Abraham, through his wife Sarah and their son Isaac.   The Moabites were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (of Sodom and Gomorrah fame), through an incestuous liaison with his own daughter.    In other words, in the eyes of the Israelites, the entire Moabite race was conceived in the worst possible sin, and not worthy of even touching.   Worse, one might say, than the relationship today between modern Israelis and modern Palestinians.  Or than certain modern American whites and modern American blacks.

Yet Boaz, an Israelite in good standing, fell in love with the honorable Ruth and married her.   Their grandson was Jesse, and their great-grandson was King David, the first real king of a stable and viable Hebrew kingdom, and (according to prophecy) the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

So what’s the story?   Had Boaz the Israelite acted on his culture’s prejudices against an immigrant woman from a despised and dehumanized culture, there would have been no King David and no Messiah.   

So what is the connection here?  

Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, if you know me or you’re reading this in English, you are part of a culture that has been shaped by the religion built around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who either was or was perceived to be the Son of God. 
A religion based on this man/God-man’s testimony was eventually adopted by almost almost everyone  on half of the face of the earth. 

And what did this person/entity have to say about widows?  

That the power structure of that time (and this) should be damned for devouring their houses, their meager possessions, their lives.

Yes, that they would be blessed for sharing the last of their unsustainable income with others.   But not that that was God’s  plan for all humanity.    Jesus clearly said that a system that reduced widows to abject poverty so that the rich could congratulate themselves for giving a tiny fraction of their wealth, was corrupt and reprehensible.

And that poor widows from foreign countries – whether it was Naomi in Moab, or Ruth the Moabite in Israel, or a modern Mexican or Syrian refugee in the United States  – should not only be welcomed; but could be the instrument through which each culture’s future and even “salvation” was assured.

My question in this political season is this:  is the United States of America on the side of Ruth the Moabite, or of those who would send her back into the desert?   Is the United States on the side of the widow who gave her last two pennies, or on the side of the scribes who would “devour her house?”

A portion of western society has been built upon Jesus’ message of radical inclusion.    I would argue, the best portion of our society.   Large portions of our society, though,  have been built on alternative viewpoints that either ignored or outright rejected the Biblical stories that encouraged us to accept and embrace the poor and the foreigner.     I don’t think that that is the best of what people are capable of, or what the Absolute Being that I want to follow would encourage.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two kinds of gun owners

The Second Amendment was added to the Constitution – assuring the right to bear arms to participate in a well-regulated militia – in a different time in Western history.   At the time, gun ownership outside a few cities on the Atlantic seaboard was already a fact of life.   It was reasonable to own a gun for hunting, to protect against bears and rabid dogs, and to band together against potential attacks by the British, the Indians, or – as we tend to forget – a possible slave insurrection in much of America.

Bears, rabies, and the British are no longer much of a threat.   We exterminated or extirpated the native Americans.  We (with much difficulty and resistance) freed the slaves 150 years ago.   Hunting is still a legal hobby, but it is an expensive indulgence.  The idea that feeding one’s family by hunting and butchering wild animals is cheaper than just buying a half a hog is not realistic. 

But even within the last 50 years, the rationale for gun ownership has changed.  Even fifty years ago, perhaps half of Americans chose to own guns, and in rural areas hunting and the occasional wild animal were reasons to take a gun out of the locked gun cabinet; but most gun owners didn’t define themselves by their ownership of a gun.

Even then, though, even when I was a teenager, there was an acknowledgment that the power to kill that a gun offered was, in fact, something of a rush.  Holding and shooting lethal weapons gives young men erections, and we used to acknowledge it and make jokes about it. 
Today the best estimates are that there are more guns in America than ever before – perhaps 300 million of them – but they are concentrated in fewer and fewer households; perhaps 100 million Americans own a gun.    Included in this number are tens of millions of people who still use them with the same care and on the same limited occasion as we always did.

But I think in the last 20 years, and certainly the last eight, the number of gun owners who have adopted a rationale that their gun is necessary for self-defense – against the almost non-existent threat of an armed home invasion, or against the prospect of encountering someone who looks threatening on the street or in a restaurant -- has exploded, even as fifty million “old-school” gun owners have died and been replaced in the general population by seventy million younger people who don’t see the point of inviting death into their homes.

The 240 million of us who don’t own guns don’t necessarily define ourselves by that choice.   On a daily basis, most of us are preoccupied with making a living, raising our families, and when we have time to take up a cause, with faith and hunger and poverty and civil rights and social justice or even just with coaching youth sports. 

Estimates are that 84 percent of gun purchasers/owners are men, and 74 percent of them are white men; even though white men only make up 34% of the American population.   There is a considerable overlap between gun ownership today, and supporters of the extreme wing of one dwindling political party, that gets its worldview  from a persistent drumbeat of paranoia-trading television and talk radio hosts.   And for these people, maintaining their personal arsenal is not something that occurs to them from time to time; it is the core of their post-apocalyptic worldview.

We’re not under attack, and the world is not coming to an end.    We’re not in a hot war with the Nazis or a Cold War with the Soviets, and it’s been 14 years since a tiny faction of an oppressed culture on the other side of the world inflicted any damage to us on our soil; our cars are safer than ever before, and we’ve almost eradicated numerous diseases that once struck terror into every parent’s heart.   Most forms of violent crime have been decreasing for decades, except for mass shootings and the epidemic of suicides and accidental shootings that happen dozens of times a day. 

Today’s arguments for gun ownership come predominately from people who expect to have to use them, against other human beings of the same nationality.     Their fears are not rational, but are fed by industries that profit immeasurably by feeding them.   All one has to do is to read any comment board on any news site to realize that they are motivated by fear and anger, and that their arguments consist of rhetoric, insults, and threats.    They are a small minority of Americans, but they are not a fringe.   There are perhaps fifty million of them.   They have made it impossible  for one of America’s two major political parties to nominate a Richard Lugar, a John Danforth, or even a Ronald Reagan.
Those of us who want to live without the constant threat of death from a heavily-armed civilian population need to understand the difference between these two kinds of gun owners, find common ground with the ones that are willing, and make sure the ones who are making our world a worse place are given the influence that their positions deserve.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Social Media and Racial Violence

Two weeks ago I got pretty involved in a social-media exchange after a neighbor was killed by a stray bullet.  What really upset me, and caused me to start contacting Facebook and the local media about their comments policies, was a post from a pseudonymous stranger from Alabama on a local TV station’s comment section, for which that station uses Facebook.

I found the comment to be racist and misogynistic, and so I reported it.   The TV station agreed with me and blocked the user.  Facebook didn’t agree, and suggested that I contact the other Facebook user directly.   So I did.

I was surprised by the response, in which the poster seemed to apologize:  ”I went to remove the comment, but it said page not found... I apologize, Ron. That was an extremely horrible comment. I really am full of hate and anger and I need to figure out a much more constructive way to let that go than be a jerk on news articles I come across. I really am sincerely sorry... my bad.”

So I followed up:  

“Thanks for responding.   After Facebook declined to remove the comment, and after I PM'd you, WTHR-13 in Indianapolis removed the comment.  But I appreciate you acknowledging my emails.   I realize your message to me might be sarcastic, but I will take you at your word.   Thank you for the apology.   Why do you feel you are full of hate and anger?”

He came back with a lengthy response, which I didn’t agree with, but I did respect his candor. 

“No, it wasn't sarcastic... I think I am so angry because there really is a disproportionately larger amount of black perpetrated crime and in particular, black-on-white violence in not just the US, but globally. I am frustrated that the media and our government largely covers this up and portrays a false narrative that blacks and whites can live together in harmony. I believe whites that buy into this deception put their lives in danger... your neighbor being a prime example.

“My comments were juvenile, hateful and stupid and I apologize for them... they did nothing constructive and where a product of my frustration because I've sadly seen this type of story over and over and over again, check out a site called --- they log on the black-on-white crime that goes ignored by the main stream media.

“Anyway. you may disagree with my train of thought, but I appreciate your concern. I also thank you for calling me out on my infantile and rude comment. I sometimes forget that behind all these news stories are actual, real people whose lives matter and have loved ones that cared about them.”

I’ve drafted the following as another response; but rather than send it to him directly, I'll send him a link to this blog.

So, thanks again for responding and being so candid with me.  I’ve been thinking a lot about our exchange.   I did go to the website you suggested, and at least I can say that I’m glad to see that it is full of links to actual local news sources. 

Here’s my take on this issue of interracial crime.  I think between following the crimes themselves, and the trials, it’s easy to fill a page with a dozen new stories a day.   But in terms of the real size of the problem, I rely not on the media but on the statistics published by the FBI, here:

Focusing just on murders, the number of murders in the US has been slowly dwindling for a few decades, down to about 15,000 in 2012 from 20,000 twenty years earlier.  One thing that hasn’t been changing much is who is getting killed by whom.

Most people get murdered by people they know.  Most black people are killed by black people (about 93% of black murder victims are killed by other blacks, year after year).  Most white and Hispanic people are killed by white and Hispanic people (about 84%, year after year). 

In 2012, black people represented 47% of murder victims, almost all of whom were murdered by black people.  White and Hispanic people represented 48% of murder victims, 84% of whom were murdered by other whites or Hispanics.   (American Indians, Asians, and other ethnicities make up the rest).

Blacks make up only 13% of the 330 million people in America – about 45 million people.  So the fact that they are 47% of the 15,000 murder victims is a serious problem.  And the fact that other blacks commit most of those 7200 murders is a serious problem.   I’m not sure that we can separate those numbers from the issues of poverty and of unequal policing and sentencing – I don’t think that using those numbers to say that “it’s a black problem” really gets at all the issues.

But here’s the bigger issue in my mind.  In addition to the 7200 (out of 45 million) black people who are murdered each year, about 7300 white and Hispanic people (out of 275 million) are murdered each year – 6300 of them by other whites and Hispanics.   So, yes, there appear to be 1000 white and Hispanic victims of interracial murder every year.   Three a day.   Fill a website up with links to stories about them and it looks like an epidemic.

But another way to look at those numbers is that only 1000 of the 15,000 murders in America each year are black-on-white crime.   Your chances, as a white American, of being the victim of a black-on-white murder are 1000 in 275,000,000, or 3.6 in a million.   On the other hand, the 45 million black people suffer from a “mere” 500 interracial murders – so their chances of dying in an interracial murder are actually, at 500 in 45,000,000, or 11 in a million, far greater. 

(And, at the risk of making even more people mad, no, these numbers don’t include police shootings, unless they are prosecuted as murders, which they rarely are.)

And even that’s not the real issue.  Every death is a tragedy and every murder is an outrage, and when they happen by the hundreds or thousands that’s an atrocity.   But I’m more concerned about the 15,000 murders of all kinds, most of them intra-racial; most of them within families; most of them within poor families.   I’m more concerned about the 10,000 accidental deaths from firearms, almost all of them children, almost all of them within families.  

These happen twenty-five times more often than black-on-white crime, and they happen because we as a society have become armed to the teeth against threats that are so rare that they are almost imaginary.


I don’t expect my arguments to change the mind of my new internet acquaintance.  His arguments certainly didn’t change mine.

I am glad that I took some action and maybe, together with this person with whom I vehemently disagree, ratcheted down the rhetoric in a couple of places.

I want my local news outlets to stop letting anonymous posters use their comments sections.   But in the meantime, I don't think its enough for us to shrug our shoulders.

I think we all say things on the internet we wouldn’t say on the street or in the lobby of our children’s school.   I know we all tolerate such things on the internet; or at least look the other way.  Perhaps we shouldn’t look the other way.     

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Flags and Lost Causes

I own a Scottish flag, as well as three kilts and related accoutrements -- all part of showing off a Scottish heritage that I didn't know I had until 15 years ago.   My great-grandfather Harry Cummins had been in the United States so long that none of HIS descendants even know their name was Scottish. 

So it's not like I grew up hearing bagpipe music in my cradle; although the Scottish heritage may be baked a bit into my DNA.   It's a fun culture with which to identify -- unique music, games, clothing; and stereotypical cultural traits like being independent, fearless, industrious, and inventive (which I like to think describes me) as well as thrifty and rebellious (which really doesn't).

I've been thinking about my Scottish flag the last couple weeks, as the controversy over the so-called Confederate flag has swelled in the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston.   Many of my friends seem to identify with the southern cross in a way that sounds similar to the way I feel about my Scottish connections -- it's a symbol of a way of life and an ideal, not of racist intent.   They think that being charged with racism for owning and displaying one is unfair to them, and the suggestion that it is a symbol that American society needs to remove from the public square and retire to a museum feels like an attack on them.

So I've been thinking about some comparisons.

Scotland and England were separate countries -- and frequently at war -- for hundreds of years before the vagaries of royal bloodlines made them one country, Great Britain, in 1603 -- with a Scotsman as king!    The British flag that we know today, the Union Jack, was a combination of the red-on-white horizontal English Cross of St. George, an the white-on-blue diagonal Scottish Cross of St. Andrew.

Of course the Scotsman, King James, moved to London, commissioned a Bible to be translated to English, and pretty much became an Englishman.   Within a few decades the Scots were bucking for independence again.   The last of the Scottish insurrections came in 1745 when "Bonnie Prince Charlie" returned from exile, raised an army in the Scottish Highlands, and not only seized Edinburgh but began to march on London.

The English had had enough.  They brought troops home from their never-ending meddling on the continent and forced the rebels all the way north to Inverness, where Charles ordered a disastrous counter-attack at Culloden that was the last battle fought on British soil

Today British as well as Scottish history treats Culloden as a tragic and epic tale of heroism and patriotism.   There remains a desire for Scottish independence -- just last year, the British government agreed to hold a referendum on the issue, and presumably would have honored the results if a majority of Scots had voted to secede!   But I also think that for 270 years, British culture has done a better job of merging English and Scottish, than American culture has done of merging Northern and Southern.

And it didn't happen right away.  In fact, in the immediate aftermath of Culloden, the British treatment of the Scots was far worse than anything that happened in America's Reconstruction period.   Scots were disarmed, of swords as well as guns.   Wearing kilts or anything in the traditional clan tartans was banned -- upon penalty of jail for a first offense, and deportation for a second.   Landowners who kept their land lost many of their traditional property rights.    And other became so impoverished that they sold their land to English speculators -- which led to "The Clearances."

It's not true that the English rounded up the Highlanders and shipped them all to North America and Australia.   But as the English turned the Scottish countryside from cattle- and cash-crop farming to sheep-grazing land for their burgeoning woollen mills, tenants were forced off their land with the crops still in the ground.   Thousands starved.  Hundreds of thousands chose to leave everything for a new start in the New World.

Now THAT'S losing a rebellion.   Talk about a Lost Cause.

But another difference between the 18th century rebellion in Britain and the 19th century rebellion in the United States was that there was no third ethnicity in Britain who remained an oppressed underclass.

It's not just that the remaining British Scots have spent three centuries making incredible contributions to the industrial might, the literature, and the military strength of the United Kingdom.  The same can be said for American Southernors over the past 150 years.   The difference is that in Britain, waving a Scottish flag is not waving a red flag at several million citizens who know that their permanent enslavement was one of the purposes of the government and army that flew that flag, and that many who fly it today openly call for their removal or death.

I would urge everyone to spend a few days looking at the world through their eyes.

And to my American friends who feel attacked by the calls to bury their Confederate flags, I would say:    give in on this one.   You're not being asked to give up your Faulkner, your motorcycle, your hunting gear, your Lynyrd Skynyrd, or your college football tickets.    I'll keep my kilt and sporran and haggis recipe.   I don't think it's fair that I should give up my Scottish flag, because it doesn't offend anyone; but I would do it if it would help retire a symbol that many millions of Americans see as hostile and painful.

Image compliments of Steve Pollock via Creative Commons:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Curating Lincoln: Another Look at "So Costly a Sacrifice"

reprinted by permission from The Urban Times  

Is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is coming to a close with more of a whimper than a bang?
A few years ago there was a flurry of all things Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, starting with two major new scholarly AND popular Lincoln biographies by Michael Burlingame and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and including a Spielberg film starring Daniel Day Lewis, all timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth and the 150th anniversary of his election and the outbreak of the War Between the States.  Are we burned out?
“Yes and no,” says Indiana State Museum Curator of American History and Fall Creek Place resident Dale Ogden.   “Re-enactments are as big as ever.  The books keep coming.  Civil War history has almost taken on a Lord-of-the-Rings life of its own.  I do think it will ebb a little here, though.”
Indiana played no small part in that opening whirlwind of historical attention, largely because the Lincoln Financial Corporation, headquartered now in Philadelphia but once based in Fort Wayne, decided to get out of the business of maintaining a Lincoln museum in northeastern Indiana and to get some exposure out of donating its substantial collection to more high-profile and high-traffic institutions.  The State of Indiana ended up participating in a rather spirited "bidding" war, and the collection ended up staying in the state that was Lincoln's Boyhood Home -- in an arrangement whereby the massive collection of Lincoln books and papers went to the Allen County Public Library, one of the premiere public genealogical and research libraries in the country; and the smaller collection of artifacts found a home at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
A handful of Lincoln items are on constant rotation through the State Museum's permanent history galleries, but a key to Indiana's success in maintaining the collection was the commitment to mount periodic special exhibitions based on the collection.  Right now, the fourth such exhibit is on display -- and while "So Costly a Sacrifice:  Lincoln and Loss" won't be the last Lincoln special exhibition to come to White River State Park, it is the most fitting coda to the national observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that I've seen. 
The responsibility for this exhibition, like two major shows and one two-dimensional exhibit that proceeded it, fell to Ogden.
The role of curator can vary depending on the size, priorities, and program of the museum.  Some curators -- particularly paleontologists and archeologists -- can spend most of their careers building and documenting a collection, and publishing the knowledge they create in professional journals.   Ogden has always been a curator with a special gift for pulling together a room full of artifacts, arranging them in a particular order, and then telling stories about them in a way that conveys his own sense of wonder -- "this particular object was actually used by this particular person to do this remarkable thing right here -- in spite of the challenges posed by that last thing we looked at -- and now here it is right in front of us!   Isn't that amazing?" 
Ogden started working in what has become his milieu 31 years ago, when the museum was in the Old City Hall Building on Alabama Street.   In a six-year span he was curator of three of the most artifact-intensive exhibitions the museum has still done to date -- a military history exhibit based on the institution's own collection, and then two popular culture exhibits, on broadcasting history and sports history, based on collections that he and his colleagues built from scratch in two-year campaigns. 
Ogden's early exhibits were as colorful and riotous and sometimes uneven as the overly-ambitious production schedules and culture of the museum itself under its director in those days, Lee Scott Theisen.  The series of Lincoln exhibitions -- and especially "So Costly a Sacrifice," are the work of a mature craftsman.
The challenge to the museum staff of mounting biennial Lincoln exhibits has been that the number of three-dimensional objects in this collection is relatively small.   The inaugural installation in 2010 essentially showcased it all -- and, when coupled with a traveling exhibit from the National Archives in the adjoining gallery, was almost overwhelming in the sense of connection it gave to modern viewers of the life and legacy of the great President.   “We had an obligation to prove ourselves, to show that it was not a mistake that the collection stayed here,” Ogden says. 
“There are some really iconic things in the collection,” Ogden shares, and cites the ambertypes of Lincoln’s sons Willy and Tad that are being displayed again for the first time in five years.  “The thought of Lincoln sitting on his bed, in the midst of the Civil War, mourning his son – if that image doesn’t move you, you shouldn’t be a curator.
“It still moves me every time I talk about it. But you have to use them judiciously or they can lose their power.”
Three years later, in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, Ogden zigged when the rest of the museum world was zagging.   While everyone else was borrowing and lending military artifacts and images to tell the story of the war, Ogden negotiated with institutions around the country to borrow objects that they weren't using, to supplement a smaller number of Indiana's own artifacts to tell the story of four generations of the Lincoln family.   It was an exhibit that engaged in some "log cabin" myth-busting -- pointing out with three-dimensional evidence that while Lincoln came from humble roots, he, his wife, and his surviving descendants were ambitious and successful far beyond the norm for nineteenth-century America.
"So Costly a Sacrifice" is built around a subtext of mortality in the way that Peter Sellers' last movies and Warren Zevon's last albums were.    The exhibit is not morbid, but it is about morbidity.   For this exhibit, Ogden supplemented the Lincoln collection objects with an abundance of materials from the museum's own collection -- and fully the first third of the gallery deals with ante-bellum American's familiarity with death.
A child's coffin, a death mask, and memorial "hair wreaths"
from a time when death was a frequent visitor.
The exhibit sets the stage with reminders that unexpected death was a frequent visitor in those days:  a child's coffin, a Victorian hair wreath woven from the locks of deceased relatives, and death masks that were created, in the years before photography, for portrait artists to use as models after the fact.    One compelling object is a portable, perforated “cooling table” for displaying the deceased.  “Most funerals were at home,” Ogden explains.  “People would put chunks of ice under these tables to keep the body from decomposing too quickly.”
“You died in bed, you were viewed in the parlor, you were buried in the churchyard.  It was kind of the ideal of the ‘good death,’ which the Civil War shattered.  But the Civil War also was the beginning of the modern funeral industry.  ”
A label makes the point that three in ten Americans born in the early 19th century died before adulthood, which led to a sobering math equation for my 14-year-old son to consider about his 35 classmates. 
The carnage of the Civil War is depicted with some of the earliest objects in the museum's collection -- battlefield souvenirs of whole trunks of trees riddled with shrapnel, and shells retrieved by soldiers who were able to describe the deaths of companions that they caused.
Still, Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated.   Between the circumstances of his death just days after Lee's surrender, and the new technology of the telegraph allowing the nation to experience the news simultaneously, it was an unprecedented shock to the body politic.   One of Ogden's favorite components of the exhibit is a display of published versions of Easter Sunday sermons delivered two days after the assassination, from all over the country -- all of them drawing liberally on the parallels between Lincoln's death and that of Christ.
“From an intellectual standpoint, this is the most fun I’ve had in all the years I’ve been here,” Ogden confides.  “Part of it was an epiphany on my part – things that I knew, but that came together for me in doing this show.  I knew Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, and so the next Sunday was Easter.  But the fact that by the afternoon of the day he died, people in San Francisco knew it – it amplified the tragedy, made it more universal.  What a huge shift in the human condition.”
And by the next morning, Americans were pouring into churches for Easter services to hear the President eulogized in Messianic terms.
Nearby, one print shows George Washington welcoming Lincoln into heaven.  Another is a death-bed scene in which Washington himself, not God, is the face in the clouds, surrounded by angels, who is looking down on the martyred 16th President.
My family and I toured this exhibit two days after the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death, and two weeks after a visit to Washington, DC, which included a trip to the Lincoln Memorial.   Inscribed on the north wall of that monument is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, also delivered 150 years ago this spring.  It's the one containing the words, "with charity for all, with malice toward none."   But it also contains the haunting admonition that, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
The six-year national commemoration of Lincoln and the Civil War is drawing to a close, but Lincoln would no doubt agree that the work of reconciliation is on-going.  His modern-day Indiana curator is no doubt willing to engage you in a conversation on the subject.   "So Costly a Sacrifice" continues at the Indiana State Museum through July 5.   It is worth another trip.