Monumental miss

Posted on August 25, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

I’ve never met anyone who supports repealing the 13th Amendment, and reinstituting slavery. I’ve never heard of anyone proposing such a thing, regardless of how radically right the “alt-” reaches.

That peculiar institution perished forever on American soil in 1865, thank God. Involuntary servitude of that sort isn’t part of anyone’s daily life, and hasn’t been now for more than 150 years.

It is, however, part of U.S. history.

And in all the ruckus surrounding monuments lately, we’ve missed a tremendous opportunity for some truly teachable moments.

At an intellectual level, historical knowledge among average Americans runs on the low side. There’s no H in STEM, which helps explain why national benchmark scores for proficiency in history among American eighth-graders is around 18 percent.

Stories and examples of people, young and old, being befuddled about correctly connecting dates and events and wars and presidents and so forth are as amusing as they are commonplace.

YouTube videos of random Americans on the street being unable to answer the most basic questions of U.S. history garner views in the tens of millions for their humor.

Interviewer: “Who won the Civil War?”

Young woman: “We did!”

Every Fourth of July average passersby caught on camera can’t name a founding father, pin down the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, or even identify the country from which we gained our independence.

A populace that has trouble placing our founding conflict in the right century is most assuredly easily misled about the finer points of complex politics and economic pressures leading up to secession.

Instead of tearing statues down, we should be holding them up for discussion, and challenging everyone with an interest about the value of historical education—and the risks and costs of historical ignorance.

History books are typically large and thick for a reason. Skimming the surface on major historical matters generally results in mis-education, and the ensuing peril isn’t the erasure of history but the propagandizing of it. That’s what’s most on display in this ongoing uproar over Civil War statuary.

See what you can score on a few “Trivial Pursuit-type” questions:

1.Who wrote “In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”

(A) William Seward (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Abraham Lincoln (D) Henry Clay

2.Which Civil War general owned more slaves?

(A) William Tecumseh Sherman (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Ulysses S. Grant

3.Name the U.S. state whose Black Code of 1853 prohibited any black persons from outside of the state from staying in the state for more than 10 days, subjecting blacks who violated that rule to arrest, detention, a $50 fine, or deportation?

(A) Kentucky (B) Illinois (C) Missouri (D) West Virginia

The words condemning slavery as evil were written in a letter to his wife in 1856 by Robert E. Lee.

Contrary to popular belief, Lee owned no slaves. He was executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which included a slave plantation. Reports of Lee “freeing his slaves” are false; the slaves Lee freed belonged to his father-in-law, in accordance with the dying man’s wishes.

Sherman never owned slaves, having never lived in a state where slavery was legal. The only general among the three that apparently owned a slave was Grant, and the only evidence of that is a manumission document for a single slave Grant signed in 1859.

Like Lee, Grant managed his father-in-law’s farm on which a number of slaves worked.

Racist and discriminatory black codes were prevalent in antebellum northern states in what is now the midwest region. The language above is from Illinois, but other states such as Indiana and Michigan had similar discriminatory laws designed to impede racial immigration.

Indeed, in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville observed racial prejudice in America to be “stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant,” he wrote, “as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

He pondered the paradox, and offered a provocative proposition: “[W]hy have the Americans abolished slavery in the North …, why do they maintain it in the South, and why do they aggravate its hardships?” he asked.

“The answer is easily given. It is not for the good of the Negroes, but for that of the whites, that measures are taken to abolish slavery in the United States.”

It’s unclear how many of the chanting protesters have ever bothered to read Chapter 18 of Democracy in America, but a safe wager is the number would be minuscule. Tocqueville is only one voice on the matter; the vast chronicled record is full of brilliant thinkers.

The historical racial relationship in America isn’t tidy, and neither were the Civil War’s causes or consequences; simplistically portraying either as such will produce no progress.

The undeniable truth is that broader, deeper knowledge dispersed among any participants in this overcharged argument would bring greater empathy to all. It’s never too late to learn.

A toppled monument educates no one. Ignorance threatens us all.

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Not Just A Pretty Face

Posted on February 17, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

All too often, actors and actresses try and chime in on political issues or current events from an uninformed perspective, relying only on their name fame for celebrity credibility.

Back in 2005, as the execution date for Crips co-founder and convicted multiple-murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams approached, actor Jamie Foxx said the only thing he wanted for his birthday (the same date as Williams’ scheduled execution) was clemency for Tookie.

Williams used a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun to kill four people in two robberies that netted less than $300. He infamously mocked the gurgling sounds his first victim, a convenience store clerk, made after being shot while prone on the ground. During his 24-year stint on death row, more than 40 courts and legal entities scoured and reconsidered his case, with unanimous conclusions: He was guilty as charged, and deserving of his death sentence.

That avalanche of evidentiary and scholarly scrutiny was lost on the likes of Hollywood types such as Susan Sarandon, Ted Danson, Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and others who put their signature to a “Save Tookie” petition. That’s why there’s almost a negative reflex any time a movie star takes a microphone in hand in advocacy of this plight or that.

So when I happened across a video link featuring actor Ashton Kutcher testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, I first thought, “oh boy.”

But I watched the 15-minute video, and oh boy! Was I glad I did.

The baby-faced Kutcher (it’s hard to believe the That ’70s Show star is almost 40) with his boyish, tousled haircut was anything but uninformed as he laid out a plea for assistance in the fight against human trafficking, which he likened to modern slavery. Within the first few minutes, he separated himself from the mere megaphone crowd peddling only their own hot air.

When celebrities like him start talking about politics, he acknowledged, that’s when people usually tell him to stick to his day job.

“So I’d like to talk about my day job,” he said as he introduced the panel to the organization he co-founded and chairs. Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children uses technology to combat sexual predators, pornographers and traffickers. “We build software to fight human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children,” he said.

Kutcher’s success as an actor is indisputable. He has had a consistent record of being the highest-paid television star, earning in excess of $20 million per season in sitcom work.

His success as a venture capitalist investor in high-tech industries is less well-known, though many of his investments are popular names: Uber, Spotify, Shazam, Foursquare, Pinterest and Airbnb, to name a few. Together, his acting and investing have produced a net worth of around $150 million.

He didn’t waste time citing his credentials to senators, however. Instead he stayed focused on the harrowing and heartbreaking issue of sexual human trafficking that pervades the Internet—and particularly the shadowy world of the Dark Web.

That’s the part of the Internet content that is only accessible through use of specific software, configurations or authorizations. It’s not indexed by search engines, and though it was born of noble causes—Kutcher told the panel it was designed for practical uses such as sharing U.S. intelligence information anonymously and protecting political dissenters in oppressive regimes—it’s also constantly used for illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans.

A 2014 University of Portsmouth study found that the most common content found in Darknet encrypted sites was child pornography, followed by black markets.

Kutcher called it “the warehouse for some of the most offensive child-abuse images in the world.” Thorn programmers have “taken the investigation times for Dark Web material from three years to down to what we believe will be three weeks,” he said.

His voice breaking at times, Kutcher described his personal involvement with the issue and some of its victims, saying he’d seen things “no person should ever see.”

Discovery of victims is an intersection point, he noted, between the pipeline in and out of child exploitation victims, and he highlighted one in particular: the foster-care system.

His supporting statistics were aggregated from various state studies, not national research, but shocking nonetheless. He said 70 percent of prison inmates, and 80 percent of death-row occupants, had touched the foster-care system. Half of foster-care kids won’t graduate high school, he said, and 95 percent won’t get a college degree.

Most astonishing, he said, was that foster-care children were four times more likely to be abused. “That’s a breeding ground for trafficking,” he said.

Foster care is a challenge for many states, Arkansas included, where children in our system are at record highs.

I know from personal acquaintance people who lovingly take in foster kids, but I also know from reading and research that many foster children never find such caring households.

The statistics Kutcher cited must be improved, and a study done here spawned several suggestions on doing just that. Public awareness is always key to social improvement. For inspiration, Kutcher’s testimony video is a great start.

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Movie Misnamed

Posted on November 23, 2012. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Hollywood epitomizes the triumph of style over substance, so it’s not surprising that a film like “Lincoln” would, in so many ways, be striking in its cinematic presentation.

It’s downright uncanny how much some of the actors wound up remarkably resembling their historical counterparts, starting with star Daniel Day-Lewis’ stellar personification of the 16th president.

One film critic wrote that Jackie Earle Haley, who played the Confederate vice president, “looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.”

Few details in setting and costuming went unattended. Director Steven Spielberg spared little on research, even unearthing from the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort one of Lincoln’s pocket watches so he could record the sound of it ticking for the movie’s soundtrack.

Alas, if only so much energy had been expended on creating an historical portrait as compellingly authentic.

For a population consumed with text-messaging, Facebook and You-Tube, depth is often elusive, and it’s easy to reduce complex issues and subjects to one-dimensional oversimplification.

At last, I hoped, a filmmaker with both resources and talent would reveal Abraham Lincoln, complete with his critical flaws, to 21st Century movie-going audiences.

Ardent students of history are already aware of Lincoln’s controversial actions, including some blatantly unconstitutional tactics that would render a modern-day president disgraced and driven from office.

But from the very first scene in the movie, it is clear that the film was misnamed. It should have been titled “Amendment”—because the main theme of the movie is the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, with Lincoln co-starring.

I had wanted to see a movie about Lincoln. Not just Lincoln in the last four months of his life, but Lincoln as shaped by the previous 56 years, too.

The passage of the 13th Amendment by the House of Representatives is a worthy tale, and while the film does a good job capturing the legislative maneuvers required to get it passed, it falls prey to the flaw of reshaping history to fit today’s context. Why a movie so intent upon thematic authenticity would begin with a scene that likely never occurred is puzzling. The film opens with a couple of black Union soldiers talking with President Lincoln after a battle, one of whom impertinently complains that white soldiers are paid more.

Such impudence likely would have been punished immediately in 1865 military circles, but in Hollywood, the farsighted foot soldier is allowed to muse that not only someday will black soldiers be paid equally, but perhaps in 100 years they will vote, too. The theater crowd seemed nervously unsure whether the private’s next breath would prophesy a black commander-in-chief. All breathed easier when the script veered back to more realistic dialogue.

That opening sequence set a racial tone that would pervade the entire movie. Race obviously figured into the Civil War, along with a number of other factors, but any implication that Lincoln was consumed with the issue of racial equality is utterly inaccurate. Lincoln was from a segregationist state where statutory prohibition of permanent residence by blacks was allowed by its 1848 constitution. And while he clearly opposed slavery, he also clearly rejected social equality for blacks, repeatedly proposing repatriation after emancipation.

When Horace Greeley chastised him in an editorial for not embracing the abolitionist cause with sufficient vigor, Lincoln famously replied in a published letter that “If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them.” He also voiced the inverse, and then took a pragmatic approach about his paramount objective: If he could save the union without freeing any slaves, that is what he would do, or if he could save the union by freeing all the slaves, he would do that.

To its credit, the movie does clarify that the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure, which applied only to Southern states in rebellion (and gave them a grace period to return to the Union under which they could keep their slaves) and actually freed no slaves.

The most disappointing thing about Lincoln is that little is learned by watching it. There is so much more depth to so many more aspects of the man that would have made for enlightening cinema. For example, his vast assumption of “war powers” in 1861—even though the administration refused to consider the Confederacy a wartime belligerent—was big news at the time and is an instructive study 150 years later.

Fearing a potentially problematic Maryland secession given the slave state’s border relationship with the District of Columbia, Lincoln, in direct violation of the Constitution’s habeas corpus guarantee, ordered military imprisonment of anyone with suspected secessionist sympathies. In the end, 17 newspaper owners, 29 elected members of the state legislature and countless merchants, bankers and businessmen were among the nearly 2,100 Marylanders jailed without due process. Critics of the Patriot Act would have a hard time finding a worse civil liberties offender than Lincoln, who was ultimately responsible for more than 10,000 unlawful imprisonments.

It’s often said that the book is better than the movie. If you really want to get acquainted with Lincoln, read some history.

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