Monday, March 21, 2016

The peace monument in Atlanta's Piedmont Park: four dates and a funeral for racial justice

"Cease Firing - Peace Proclaimed"
monument at the 14th Street entrance
of Atlanta's Piedmont Park
Until recently, I had never paid much attention to this monument at the 14th Street entrance to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. It is a larger-than-life sculpture that portrays an Angel of Peace stilling the hand of a Confederate soldier about to fire his rifle. It bears the title “Cease Firing - Peace Proclaimed.”

I had always assumed that it was not much more than a conventional memorial to the end of the Civil War, that was until I took closer at the plaque on its side. Depending upon your point of view, either God or the Devil lives in the details. In the case of this monument, I think that a convincing argument can be made for the latter.

Four dates are involved in telling the tale of this peace monument.

The earliest date is April 30, 1861, which marks the incorporation of Atlanta’s Gate City Guard into the Confederate Army, little more than two weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter lead to the outbreak of the Civil War. According to the plaque, they did this “in the conscientious conviction of their duty to uphold the Cause of the Southern Confederacy.” This so-called “Lost Cause” rationale was the Confederate retelling of history that transformed their shameful fight to uphold the institution of slavery to a noble struggle in defense of states rights.

A second date is that of a ceasefire somewhat disingenuously alluded to in the monument’s title. As far as I can tell, there was no formal declaration of “cease firing” that marked the end of hostilities of the Civil War. While it is true that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, not everyone got the memo. And many of those that did get the memo, ignored it. There was no shortage of Confederate dead-enders, as Donald Rumsfeld would have called them. Fighting continued sporadically for months. And a formal end of the war was only declared by President Andrew Johnson on August 20, 1866.

October 6, 1879 is the third date commemorated on the memorial. That was the date that the very same Gate City Guard “went forth to greet their former adversaries in the Northeastern and Eastern States, inviting them to unite with the people of the South to heal the Nation's wounds in a peaceful and prosperous reunion of the States.” Sick and tired of the bloody opposition to Reconstruction in the South, by 1876 the nation had decided to abandon its commitment to transform the political landscape of the former Confederate States. Although the Gate City Guard’s mission was, on its surface, a mission of reconciliation, it was, in many respects, a celebration of the Confederate triumph when it came to matters of race.

The fourth and final date associated with the memorial is October 10th 1911, the date of its dedication. Almost thirty-five years after the end of Reconstruction, a prosperous and resurgent South had been brought back into the Union. Georgia Governor Hoke Smith attended the dedication. Although Smith was a member of the national Progressive Party formed by Theodore Roosevelt, fulfilling a campaign promise, he led the adoption of a constitutional amendment that effectively disenfranchised black Georgians. This revision marked the final nail in the coffin of any hope for racial justice that had propelled the Union during the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction. All gains that had been made in that regard had been turned back. Jim Crow reigned supreme.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Why an Obama "excellent adventure" as a Supreme Court Justice is a bad idea

There's a lot of buzz going around about the possibility of a future Democratic president nominating current Democratic president Barack Obama to the Supreme Court. I think that this would be a bad idea, and I'd like to tell you why.

Just to fend off some of the disapproval that I know I've already provoked, I want to say that I think Obama has the intellect, legal expertise, and the judicial temperament to make for a great Supreme Court Justice.

Indeed, the matter of temperament is of paramount importance. No one has shown more of a commitment to the dispassionate consideration of the most divisive issues facing this country than Barack Obama has over the last eight years, this in spite of relentless attacks on his efforts to reach sensible political compromise.

So what's not to like?

To put it simply, the presence of an Associate Justice Obama would turn the Supreme Court Building into a third ring of the the Washington political circus that now includes the White House and the U.S. Capitol. And a Justice Obama would suck the air of the room of any oral argument before the court.

The obvious objection to the above claim is that we've been there and done that. William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1909–13), served as the country's tenth Chief Justice (1921–30). The Supreme Court didn't crumble as a result of his tenure there, so there's no reason to believe that a repeat performance by the 44th President of the United States in the capacity of an Associate Justice should raise any cause for alarm.

In response, first of all consider that Taft took on his Supreme Court gig a good eight years after leaving the office of President. I suspect that this cooling off period went a long way toward making Supreme Court deliberations less fraught with the political issues that Taft had to deal with during his time as president.

Second, and more importantly, the power and prestige of the office of the President of the United States have changed immeasurably since 1921. To understand this, it's instructive to look at a story that comes from the ex-presidency of Harry Truman, a little more than sixty years ago.

In June of 1953, not much more than sixth months after leaving office, Harry Truman and his wife Bess packed up their Chrysler New Yorker and headed across country on a road trip. Just the two of them.

It's hard to imagine that the man who had been commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces at the end of World War II - and who had also survived two assassination attempts - was out touring the country in the family roadster without the company of either a press entourage or a Secret Service detail. This presidential escapade is nicely documented in Matthew Algeo's "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip" (Amazon link).

If you imagine that Barack Obama's assuming a seat on the Supreme Court in 2017 would be not much more of a disruption than William Howard Taft becoming Chief Justice in 1921, then I invite you to consider how well an "excellent adventure" by the Obama family on a road trip alone into the American heartland would play out today.

Barack Obama is eminently qualified to a be a Supreme Court Justice in the same way that Cate Blanchett is eminently qualified to appear in a community theater production. But celebrity changes everything, and sometimes even the best qualified person isn't the right fit.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The stealthy third-rail of American politics

What do you think of this: spending over $1 trillion over the next twenty years for 2,400 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets? That's over $400 million per plane. The helmets that the pilots will wear, alone, cost over $400,000 a pop.

Bernie thinks it's a good idea.
Hillary thinks it's a good idea.
Trump and Cruz and Rubio and Jeb all think it's a good idea.

So much for finally finding something that we can all agree on.

The amount of money being wasted here is mind-boggling. And wasted is the right word, since no compelling case has been made that this weapons system boondoggle will do anything to address our genuine national security concerns.

This number of better things that we could do with this vast sum is itself mind-boggling.

We could provide free college and vocational training for young people for decades. Teachers could be paid the kind of salaries that would allow us to recruit and retain the best and the brightest of them. Our crumbling infrastructure could be repaired or replaced if need be. World-class public transportation systems could be built that would become the preferred way for everyone to get around. Sources of clean energy could be developed and our environment restored in the process. And, for a relative pittance, no city, town, or village in the country would have to settle for providing its residents with anything but the highest quality drinking water.

The list goes on.

So why is everyone behind such a bad idea? The reason is that the United States has become a warrior culture; you can stake out any position you damn well please across the political spectrum, but you can't say anything that in any way could be construed as calling into question the premise of unrivaled and enduring American military power around the world.

Military spending has become the "third-rail" of American politics. No one dares touch it.