Yo La Tengo - "Friday I'm In Love"

>> Friday, July 24, 2015


When I decided to post the video to Yo La Tengo's cover of The Cure's "Friday I'm In Love," it was because it was Friday, and I'm still in love with my wife, and YLT's recently-released  version is a thousand kinds of sweetness in just over three minutes.

I had no idea their video was ten thousand kinds of awesome, and not nearly so sweet but very, very funny.

Happy Friday, everyone.  Give someone a hug.  And try not to destroy civilization, please.




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Quote of the day -- Well, at least we settled that, then, edition

>> Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Reading the media accounts, one would conclude that defendant has admitted to rape. And yet defendant admitted to nothing more than being one of the many people who introduced quaaludes [sic] into their consensual sex life in the 1970's."
- Patrick O'Connor and George Gowen, as quoted by Yesha Callahan,
Drugging Doesn’t Equal Rape," The Root, July 22nd, 2015.


No, no, no.  I did not want to go here, or have this subject visit this blog.  What needs to be said that hasn't been said already?  And no, please: resist the temptation to state the obvious in the comments--that Cosby is a reprehensible man, or that he's innocent until proven guilty, or whatever.

Still, that quote is too rich to pass up, isn't it?  Yes, indeed, the rockin' and rollin' '70s, when powerful prescription sedatives were a part of the consensual sex life.  I was but a child and so missed the coital haze of the post-Woodstock decade, but was somehow under the (evidently false) impression that the '70s drug of choice for enhancing the sex life was that infamous anesthetic and stimulant, cocaine.  I was also under the impression that most recreational users of 'Ludes and Mandies administered the pills to themselves or shared the experience, much as users of that other famous recreational depressant of the '70s, heroin, shot up themselves and not just their partners.

Which, you know, wasn't good for the actual grindy sexifying, but wasn't the point when you were popping soapers.  Or so I'm told.  I was still watching Sesame Street in a completely sober, rapt and unironic way at the time.

No, I don't really want to get into obvious statements re: Mr. Cosby's sleaziness or the possible mixed motives some of his accusers may or may not have at this late date.  We know.  But I do think it bears amused comment and remark upon the obvious tone-deafness of Mr. C.'s lawyers, who, in an era in which sex with a drugged and unconscious partner has generally come to be regarded as a form of non-consensual sex, i.e. rape, insist that recreational use of Quaalude1 and alcohol is compatible with a "consensual sex life."  It seems fairly self-evident that the introduction of these specific drugs, especially in combination, quickly renders one or both partners incapable of meaningful consent and/or incapable of even active participation in sexual acts.  It also seems fairly self-evident that the introduction was one-sided, since one assumes (although the effects of drugs upon individuals may vary) that washing down a few 'Ludes with booze would render Mr. Cosby as semi-conscious and placid as his ladyfriend du jour and the whole discussion of stoned sex would be mooted.

That this is apparently a written statement, one which the lawyers had the opportunity to review before submitting to the press, makes the gaffe even more amusing and bewildering.  It would be a thoughtless enough thing to say during a press conference, in an interview, in the heat of a moment without carefully thinking through the sequence of words before they're launched from the lips.  St. Lionel of Hutz, patron saint of the legal profession, knows any of us in the Bar have done that; it's another thing entire to carefully write the words onto paper (or type them onto a screen), look at them, and still think they're a clever thing to show somebody else.

It might also be observed in passing that above and beyond expressing the dubious notion that giving a woman "a central nervous system (CNS) depressant of the quinazolinone class that acts as a sedative and hypnotic" prior to sex is consistent with a "consensual sex life," the statement also rather broadly suggests that the allegedly commonness of this is some sort of absolute defense.  That is, the statement from the lawyers essentially says, "Hey, c'mon, everyone was drugging women into semiconscious and schtupping them!  It was the '70s!", which hardly seems like a ringing defense of the sexual culture of the 1970s, much less of their client.  I can't say I've ever been able to successfully use "Everybody was doing it!" as a defense of anything, or have heard of it being successfully used in any venue from the backseat of a car during a hellish family roadtrip to a court of law.  One figures that even if the lawyers' statement is true, it's a far worse condemnation of the Disco Decade than the usual jokes about the clothing of the era or bitching about musical tastes.

Anyway, it was a dumb thing for Cosby's lawyers to put out there.  That was about the extent of it; that, and imagining all the people introducing 'Ludes to their sex lives.  I should really talk to my parents, or probably strenuously avoid the subject altogether.  I haven't quite decided.




1Let me tell you that this looks wrong, and yet "Quaalude" is a brand name, and spell-check rightly (I think) doesn't like "Quaaludes" (and "quaaludes," with the lowercase "q", is clearly right out).  And yet I fully realize that as far as pop-slang goes, "quaaludes" has come to be a common term for more than one dosage-unit of methaqualone, the generic name for the drug. 

Descriptivist-not-proscriptivist that I am, I'm normally inclined to go with the pop usage of a word, or to have some preference for it anyway.  But this seems tricky here, because technically we're talking (I think) about a trademark (indeed, I should probably be littering the post and footnote with TMs, it's just that I'm lazy.

So, y'know, I just don't know.

While we're down here, by the way, I'd just like to add that the only reason I know the Brits call 'Ludes "Mandies" is because of Nick Mason, who claimed that Mandies were Syd Barrett's drug of choice.  There's an infamous story, even, of Barrett crushing up his Mandies into a thing of hair gel before a Floyd gig and dumping the concoction on his head before going out under the hot stage lights, which caused the slop to melt and run all down Barrett's face like he was a melting wax effigy, and this was one of the final straws that had his bandmates deciding they couldn't work with him anymore even if he was not only their guitarist and lead singer, but also the author of nearly all their songs; the story has been told in more than one place, but I believe it was Mason who attempted to debunk it by observing that Barrett would never waste good Mandies like that.  In any event, if you're still with us and care at all: Mandies were evidently Syd Barrett's drug of choice, not LSD, which he probably took only a few times, and his reputation as an "acid casualty" is probably an inaccurate accounting of what was probably emerging schizophrenia exacerbated by drug use--mostly Mandies--and the stresses of the up-and-coming rocker's lifestyle (public performances, staying up all night, driving from one end of England to the other, having to answer reporters' questions, business dealings and financial issues, etc.).

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Trolling Woody

>> Tuesday, July 07, 2015

One of the wonderful things about social networking sites is discovering, through your friends and connections, that things are things.  F'rinstance, it was thanks to a friend's Facebook feed that I encountered a Washington Post opinion piece by Randy Barnett about removing Woodrow Wilson's name from public places, which turns out (upon further Googlification) to be the tip of some kind of iceberg composed of several people suggesting we do this with levels of actual seriousness ranging from apparent sincerity to a trolling troll's just gotta troll.

The underlying notion in all these pieces appears to be that if we're going to have a national dialogue about tearing down the treasonous Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and possibly also the various statues commemorating various traitors who opened fire on their fellow Americans, who stole taxpayer property, who damaged personal and public property, and/or who agitated for or coordinated such activities, and renaming various public places like schools that have been named after these figures, then we ought to discuss what a terrible President the 28th was.  Which, unfortunately, doesn't follow, though it happens to be a fair-ish point in its own right.

I mean, Woodrow Wilson was hardly a "model progressive" (as he's sometimes mislabeled), unless you redact the parts of the American progressive plank that were egalitarian, pacifist and isolationist: Wilson's presidency was notable for his rabid racism, his imposition of segregation on the Federal bureaucracy, and his military adventures in Mexico and Russia.

The dominant fact of his Presidency, America's late entry into the First World War, is a bit harder to grapple with: we tend to take it for granted that it was necessary, and it's one of the milestones in the United States' ascension to world power status along with the Spanish-American War and Teddy Roosevelt's diplomatic intercession in the Russo-Japanese War; we don't really grapple with the fact we entered it late, as a consequence of European meddling and politicking, that we arguably had little legitimate reason for getting into it, that our ascension into global importance may have cost us our Constitutional government, and that we may have played some small role in achieving the false peace that caused World War II to break out less than twenty years later.  That is, we don't really grapple with the bad parts of our intervention and really lay out the costs alongside the benefits in order to come to truly reasoned conclusions about whether the whole thing was worth it and (even if it was) how much we paid for it.

Wilson wasn't the worst President in American history, mind you.  He didn't get Washington D.C. razed, precipitate the Civil War, worsen the Great Depression, or narrowly avoid not just impeachment but indictment.  (The popular, wholly political and partisan misapprehension that either our current President or his predecessor are or were "the worst President ever" is a laughable yet sad indictment of how short and skewered our collective historical perspective is.  Our contemporary Presidents have yet to be judged by history, but it's unlikely either of them would qualify for the bottom five, much less the nadir slot.)  But he was undeniably a terrible person and a pretty bad President.  And talking about whether his name belongs on a high school any more than Richard Nixon's does is a legitimate conversation.

But when Randy Barnett writes something like this in the WaPo, it's so lacking in seriousness that I have to figure he's trolling--he can't possibly be so clueless:

No doubt there are others whose names should also be expunged. But because of his record of official racism and betrayal, Wilson’s name should be first on any such list. Those who oppose its removal from government buildings should explain exactly why whatever principle of tolerance they apply to so extreme a purveyor of racist policies as Wilson should not be applied equally to memorials to other historical figures as well.

What I suspect he means, from the context of current events and his mention of the Confederate Battle Flag early in the piece, is why single out Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis for opprobrium and not Wilson?  Of course, as you might gather from my proceeding paragraphs, I fully endorse giving the skunk eye to Woodrow Wilson, talking earnestly about his legacy of racism and military gallivanting, and renaming high schools and cash prizes that currently bear his name.  So the question Barnett asks is... well, it's fairly stupid even if taken on its own terms.

But if Wilson deserves infamy, he deserves it on his own terms and not because of some inane apples-and-penguins comparison between an awful American president and someone who committed acts of treason against the United States and only avoided hanging by being shot in battle or because of Reconstruction-era amnesty policies that seemed (and perhaps were) necessary to effect national reunification and a permanent end to a long and bloody insurrection.  And if--if--Wilson's name remains on public buildings or associated with public institutions, it's because he was--for better and mostly for worse--Our American President of These United States, In War and In Peace, for awhile, and he didn't get run out of office; in other words, if we're going to have airports and schools and things named after Andrew "Trail of Tears" Jackson and Ronald "Iran-Contra" Reagan, one supposes we may as well have Woodrow Wilson's name here and there, though that doesn't change the need for frank conversation about what kind of man and what kind of President he was.

As I waited about this morning for things to happen, I read the Barnett piece and I also turned for a little while to one of the books I happen to be reading--President Ulysses S. Grant's memoir--and synchronicity or serendipity caused my eyes to land on these lines, which perfectly explain why Jeff Davis and why-not (perhaps) Woody Wilson:

The 4th of March, 1861, came, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn to maintain the Union against all its enemies. The secession of one State after another followed, until eleven had gone out. On the 11th of April Fort Sumter, a National fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, was fired upon by the Southerners and a few days after was captured. The Confederates proclaimed themselves aliens, and thereby debarred themselves of all right to claim protection under the Constitution of the United States. We did not admit the fact that they were aliens, but all the same, they debarred themselves of the right to expect better treatment than people of any other foreign state who make war upon an independent nation.

They "debarred themselves of the right to expect better treatment than people of any other foreign state who make war upon an independent nation," indeed.  The problem with roads and schools and government buildings named after the likes of Jackson, Lee, Davis, Stephens, Forrest and others isn't simply that they were terrible racists, though that's relevant to how we judge them.  (An unfortunate truth of our heritage is that if we're going to expunge historical figures for racism, this country will have hardly any history at all, since a vast number of our country's heroes and villains were racists by almost any objective standard, even ones who weren't nearly as virulent or activist in their bigotry as Woodrow Wilson was.)  The bigger problem with these national exhibits, rather, is that these men were all traitors who waged war against their nation; on top of that, and salting the wound, they were traitors who waged war against their nation for the cause of preserving racial chattel slavery.

The great sin in having these public monuments to our self-proclaimed aliens is a compound sin, a knotted insult, an interwoven shame.  It's not merely that they were racists.  It's not merely, for that matter, that they were traitors--there's an argument, I think, that we should lionize John Brown for trying to seize the armory at Harpers Ferry; if he was a criminal and insurrectionist, at least he was a criminal and insurrectionist on the right side of history and humanity who was attempting in an unfortunate way to make good on the failed promises of the Declaration of Independence.  It's not merely that we are a shallow and history-less people who have spent two centuries wrapping ourselves in a self-aggrandizing, semidelusional automythology that is starting to look embarrassingly shabby these days.  It's all of these things, taken together: it's that we have a lot of memorials to men who betrayed their nation in their defense of racism, memorials which we have erected and tolerated in our defense of gauzy fables about "Lost Causes" and "states' rights" and "honor" and "heritage" and "tradition."  We haven't bothered to deal with who these men really were and what they did and why, much less what our continuing elevation of them to honored status after they so ignobly dishonored themselves says about us as a people.

By all means, let us talk about what a horrible little prick Woodrow Wilson was.  Don't let me stop you.  But if you think the problem with Woodrow Wilson is the same problem we have with Robert E. Lee, you're either a fool or a troll.  Sorry.



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Just another little note about that damn flag

>> Sunday, June 28, 2015

Is it still possible to stipulate that someone who murders nine people has something wrong with them?  This used to be self-evident.  Relatively well-adjusted people don't usually go around killing anyone, much less numerous anyones; when a person with a history of relative well-adjustment goes and kills someone we almost always look to a moment of imbalance--what pushed this person over the edge, what made them "snap"?

This isn't a comment at all on anyone else who might have some kind of disability or illness, who might be receiving treatment or in need of treatment.  This isn't stigmatization.  This is merely stating something that used to be obvious.  Something that ratchets one way: someone receiving psychiatric treatment isn't one bad day from an unlawful killing, but surely someone who kills another without lawful excuse or justification ought to have been receiving some kind of preventative treatment.

I have seen, of course, quite a lot of people contest the above assertions.  Denounce the merest suggestion that the young man who murdered nine people in a Charleston church was mentally ill.  He wasn't diagnosed or in treatment, so far as we know, so how can we say he was mentally ill?  Aside from taking that time he killed all those people as evidence of some extreme form of mental disturbance, that is?
 
Just as, naturally, I've seen a lot of people denounce the suggestion that this was in any way about the widespread availability of firearms, as if it were nearly as easy to kill one person--much less two, or three, or nine--with a tool that requires one to get up close to another person and exert oneself, as it is to kill as many persons as one has bullets with a tool that allows one to slowly walk around holding your arm out, working a little lever with your finger.

We are talking (by which I mean we aren't, but should be) about a trifecta.  There are racists with guns who never hurt anybody.  There are mentally ill racists who do little more than post hundreds of messages to the kinds of fringe social media websites the Southern Poverty Law Center tries to monitor.  There are mentally ill people with guns who don't drive a hundred miles to terrorize one of the most important historically black churches in the United States, opting instead to shoot their parents or a schoolhouse or whomever the neighbor's dog told them to.  What we have in Charleston is three-by-three, what happens when a mentally ill racist has easy access to firearms.

We Americans are stuck, right now, on guns.  Perhaps we always will be.  They aren't going away any time soon, and the Supreme Court has hampered any efforts to restrict the number of firearms in circulation.  Any number of people have pointed out that the gun control laws in place and the gun control laws frequently proposed and most of the gun laws lately struck down wouldn't have kept a gun from the Charleston shooter.  Perhaps they miss the point that if there were simply fewer guns all around, he might not have been able to get one, not even legally; or that if he'd only been able to get a long gun, having to openly tote it into a church would have made his intentions more obvious and frightening; or if he'd been restricted to a firearm with a much more limited rate of fire and/or limited magazine, his victims might have had more opportunities to escape or disarm him.  After all, if you read the Second Amendment as a state right to militias instead of as a broad personal right to almost anything except possibly nuclear weapons, you could, maybe, limit firearms possession to the personal ownership of muzzle-loading flintlocks, or to the temporary possession of assault rifles checked out of the state armory for closely supervised militia drills, just to offer two extreme f'r'instances.  But that's a dead issue, because that's certainly not how we read the Second Amendment, so you don't even need to argue with this paragraph if you're inclined to: if you disagree with everything I've said in it, congratulations, you've already won.

And we are stuck on mental illness.  We don't appear to be particularly interested in diagnosing people, or in treating them, or (to be more precise) we don't appear to be interested in paying for it, which amounts to the same thing.  Don't misunderstand me and think that I'm saying we could diagnose and treat every dangerously violent person in the country even if we spent the whole national budget on it.  But since we're not inclined to spend much money diagnosing and treating any of them, the point seems moot, yes?

But perhaps we can do something about pervasive racism.

Here is the thing about the Charleston murderer (you'll have noted I've avoided his name, both because he hasn't been convicted--though it appears he's confessed and that his identity was never in much doubt--and because I take some small pleasure, frankly, in depriving him of his name): perhaps in a less-racist society, his obsessions would have taken a different turn---messages from the neighbor's dog, a cloud of ennui compelling him to the thought of using the schoolyard across the street for target practice.  But in this society, his obsessions turned to "white pride" and the belief that black Americans were harming this country; that recent, highly-publicized incidents of white-on-black violence were somehow the victims' faults; and he expressed his obsession, not by immediately going out and murdering nine of his fellow human beings, but at first by decking himself out in the symbols and icons of racial supremacy--the Rhodesian flag, the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia--and by telling racist jokes and talking about killing blacks when he was drunk.

And this is the thing, the very worst thing about that: perhaps in a different, better place, decking oneself out in racist iconography and saying racist things would mark oneself as a potentially dangerous obsessive, would lead one's intimates to at least keep a watchful eye out and perhaps even contact the police, might (under the right set of circumstances) lead to one being involuntarily committed and evaluated to determine if one was mentally ill and dangerous to self or others (if one's conduct and language crossed the fine line between Constitutional guarantees of one's right to be an asshole and legitimately menacing society).

But in Twenty-First Century South Carolina, as in much of the United States, attitudes like the killer's are so commonplace in kind, if not necessarily degree, that his behavior was within the bounds of cultural norms.

That is, there's nothing unusual about a contemporary American saying racist things, and lots of Americans have racists symbols on their clothing, cars, and in their front yards; so maybe this guy's a little "Can't he talk about something else for a change?" but there's nothing that weird about him.  CNN reports:

"They were just racist slurs in a sense," [someone who went to high school with the killer] said. "He would say it just as a joke. ... I never took it seriously, but now that he shed his other side, so maybe they should have been taken more seriously."

And why would you take him seriously?  He sounds like lots and lots of people, only sometimes more so.

Surely that's something that ought to be changed?

And this is why taking the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina State House grounds, and off of shirts and toys, and taking it down anywhere else it appears, is a small victory.  Very small.  It's not that you take the thing away and suddenly centuries of institutionalized racism from race-based chattel slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to today vanishes in an instant as if it were never there.  Nor is it only a small win because it no longer slaps African American citizens in the face (in the South, anyway, many black residents have gotten somewhat used to the damn old thing; it's complicated).  It's a small win partly--actually, the word I'd prefer is largely--because its presence normalizes the things it represents in some circles, because tolerating it even under some pretense of "heritage" (and I've written about what I think of that recently) provides far too much cover for those who irrationally, obsessively, and (yes) sickly dangerous.  Because there shouldn't be any question about whether the Charleston shooter was mentally ill or just some kind of "run-of-the-mill bigot," who didn't need to mask himself or exercise very much self-control because, frankly, he wasn't dressed strangely or saying anything you hadn't heard coming from the mouth of a family member or co-worker (or even thought or said yourself).

From everything I've read, he just sat out there in plain view until he decided to go a-killing.

I have a problem with that.  You should, too.




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Quote of the day -- "the hope of companionship" edition

>> Friday, June 26, 2015

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.   In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of  the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.

There are things I never really expected in my lifetime.  This is one of them.

I think many readers will understand that the Court's decision today somehow means even more to me since my own marriage to the Scatterkat.

Elsewhere in his opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy writes, "Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.  It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other."  Indeed.  My own marriage feels more valuable to me today, not less.

Congratulations today, to everyone who would like to get married, might ever like to get married, or whose marriages are now recognized all across the United States as a result of this decision.  And much love.

For all the darkness and despair I sometimes feel when I think about the state my country is in, days like today remind me that sometimes, yes, implausibly and improbably, love wins.



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Hot plates

>> Thursday, June 25, 2015

Last week, I was ranting and raving about the Confederate flag on the South Carolina capitol grounds.  Since that post, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, joined by Senator Lindsey Graham (the chief whipping boy of my previous post) has called for the removal of the traitor's flag.  Some of my fellow travelers on the left have impugned her motives on this score--some have noted that South Carolina's rootin' tootin' racism has cost the state outside business investments, some have commented on the political favor Governor Haley does for the Republican party by taking this particular embarrassment off the table at the beginning of the campaign season.  I'm not going to join in that particular dinging; rather, I'll point out that people frequently do the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons, and that a deluge begins with a single raindrop, and a small advance up the side of a cliff is always preferable than falling down it again.

To be clear, taking the flag down isn't going to solve our nation's problems with racism; if the American Civil War and Reconstruction failed to do so, it would be magical thinking indeed to imagine removing a single symbol is all it takes to make everything better.  But it's a small, achievable step: maybe if the symbol gets hidden away to the museum it belongs in (a label saying "Never Again" would be too much to hope for, yet we'll hope), it won't be there to preserve and promote the post-Reconstruction historical revisionism that turned a bloody fight over white-supremacy-based chattel slavery and the nation's soul into a "noble" "Lost Cause" over "state's rights" and "Yankee aggression".  At the least, maybe it won't be a public face-slap to the victims of past and present racial disparities.

It's a step, anyway.

And in keeping with the deluge/raindrops cliche, there's the promising sign that the South Carolina confederate flag fracas has been followed by feeling a few more drops on our upturned faces.  We're talking about the racism of the Confederate States of America more than we usually do, we're talking about other places the flag ought to be removed from.

As an utterly trivial f'r'instance, Warner Bros., doubtlessly motivated more than commerce than moral fortitude (but again, who cares?), is removing the Confederate flag from the top of the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee custom Charger.  And you might well ask, "So what?"  Well, it's pop culture icons like the General Lee that perpetuate the "heritage not hate" canard and obscure the flag's connection to a nation founded on the premise that white superiority not only justified but mandated chattel slavery of blacks.  The flag on the car roof normalizes it, makes it frivolous, makes it the icon for "good ol' boys, never meanin' no harm," rather than the icon of men who said things like "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."  Just a few years ago--in 2012--Warner told the New York Times they had no intention of taking the flag off the car.  And now they're taking the flag off the car.

It's worth pointing out at this juncture, I think, that symbolism clearly meant a lot to the murderer of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Singleton, and  Myra Thompson.  He liked his flags, or so it appears.  It's also worth pointing out that the solidarity that has manifested in the short term around his crimes (and we hope it lasts into the long term) is probably not the effect he intended.  It's doubtful he meant for the symbols of his deviancy and irrelevance to become a source of embarrassment, a target of sustained criticism, and to be removed from view with a recognition that these are symbols of hurt and hatred.

The idea that the flag needs to go away has spread, and is now manifesting in my own home state with a small contretemps over the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plate.  Unfortunately, we seem to be getting it wrong.

Governor Pat McCrory, in what has become a rare moment of moral clarity, has called for the state legislature to do away with the traitor flag on the plate.  The State House has responded that they don't need to do a thing, the Governor can do away with the plate without their help.  The Governor's spokesperson has made the surrebuttal that state law requires a civic group's plate to include the civic group's insignia, hence the need for legislative change.

Oh, if only there were, I don't know, some kind of recent U.S. Supreme Court case directly on point (PDF link).

So, to bring you up to speed, here's what's happening: the NC Division of Motor Vehicles has been authorized under  NC General Statute §20-79.4 to issue more than 250 flavors of specialty plate, which is a gimmicky but effective way to generate revenue, since nearly all of the specialty plates cost a vehicle owner an additional fee (the military service plates, such as the plates for Bronze Star recipients, don't cost anything to those who qualify for them).  Parenthesis 42 under the statute allows DMV to issue a special plate for "Civic Clubs":

(42)      Civic Club. - Issuable to a member of a nationally recognized civic organization whose member clubs in the State are exempt from State corporate income tax under G.S. 105-130.11(a)(5). Examples of these clubs include Jaycees, Kiwanis, Optimist, Rotary, Ruritan, and Shrine. The plate shall bear a word or phrase identifying the civic club and the emblem of the civic club. A person may obtain from the Division a special registration plate under this subdivision for the registered owner of a motor vehicle or a motorcycle. The registration fees and the restrictions on the issuance of a specialized registration plate for a motorcycle are the same as for any motor vehicle. The Division may not issue a civic club plate authorized by this subdivision unless it receives at least 300 applications for that civic club plate.

Now, as it happens, back in 1997, the NC chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (NC SCV) applied for a specialty tag under §20-79.4(42), and as it happens, the "emblem of the civic club" is a variation of the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia or Second Confederate Navy Jack--I'm putting a picture of the plate next to this paragraph, so if you didn't already know what we were talking about, now you have no excuse.  And the NC DMV denied the plate--the then-Commissioner of the DMV offering as an official rationale that the NC SCV "does not meet the statutory criteria for a civic club".

I will allow that this was pretty obviously a bullshit excuse.  I mean, transparently bullshit.  The NC SCV had all the legal makings of a "civic club" within the purposes of the statute, and one suspects that the "not a civic club" justification was merely a non-First Amendment-implicating cover for an actual rationale that the NC SCV are tacky, insensitive assholes who want to commemorate a chapter of our state's history that we are simultaneously embarrassed by and proud of, humblebragging that we were the last state to secede and first to give blood to the Civil War (as an aside, the latter portion of that may or may not be true).  Not to mention the offensiveness of the symbol.  Or the way North Carolina has spent much of the past fifty years trying to be the Newest and Shiniest state of the New South--we would much prefer that when you think of us, you think of Charlotte banking and Triangle R&D, and how much fun your yuppies and hipsters can have in Asheville or Wrightsville Beach.  (We have a wine country now.  I want to be clear about that: we have a wine country.  Don't think, "North Carolina, segregated lunch counters"--that was all very sixty years ago; think, "North Carolina, mmm, delicious, delicious wiiiiiine."  Please?)

Anyway, you'll be unsurprised (I hope) to learn that the NC SCV sued and won, and the NC DMV appealed, and the NC SCV still won.  But the issue wasn't the sacred First Amendment right of assholes to be public assholes; the sole issue that the NC Court of Appeals addressed in North Carolina Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans v. Faulkner, 131 N.C. App. 775, 509 S.E.2d 207 (1998) was whether the NC SCV was a club, specifically a "civic club".  The only Constitutional comment from the appellate branch was in the first of the court's two footnotes:

1 SCV's emblem strikingly resembles the Confederate flag. We are aware of the sensitivity of many of our citizens to the display of the Confederate flag. Whether the display of the Confederate flag on state-issued license plates represents sound public policy is not an issue presented to this Court in this case. That is an issue for our General Assembly. We are presented only with the issue of whether SCV-NCD [Sons of Confederate Veterans - North Carolina Division] has complied with the language of section 20-79.4(b)(5), and note that allowing some organizations which fall within section 20-79.4(b)(5)'s criteria to obtain personalized plates while disallowing others equally within the criteria could implicate the First Amendment's restriction against content-based restraints on free speech.

If that was the last word in the matter, then the Governor's office would clearly be quite right that this was a legislative matter.  There it is in very plain text: the court is only interested in whether the NC SCV has complied with the Motor Vehicle Code, and oh-by-the-way, if the court were to look into a free speech issue, well, yeah, they'd probably have to find against the state then, too, if--but it's not before us.

But last week--a complete coincidence--the US Supreme Court decided a case brought by the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans against the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Texas SCV lost.  In a five-four ruling, the Court held in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans (2015) (still a PDF link) that "Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech and that Texas was consequently entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design."

I think what this means for the NC DMV is that the DMV probably can--by way of an executive order--simply stop issuing these plates on the grounds that the State of North Carolina has a right not to endorse an offensive message on public policy grounds.  Except.  There's a wrinkle.  Why is there always a wrinkle?

I started this post with some harsh words for Governor McCrory, who I assumed (and I think not unreasonably, frankly) was simply ducking and weaving a potentially controversial issue by kicking it over to the State House, and that the Legislature was returning the serve tit-for-tat.  But then I'm looking over the opinion in Walker and I notice something about the Texas specialty plate statute.  According to Justice Breyer:

The relevant [Texas] statute says that the Board "may refuse to create a new specialty license plate" for a number of reasons, for example “if the design might be offensive to any member of the public... or for any other reason established by rule."  Tex. Transp. Code Ann. §504.801(c).

Not really a fan of Texas law (coincidentally, I was looking up a point of Texas law for personal reasons not too long ago: I'm an informed not really a fan of Texas law, this isn't just me talking out my ass like I normally do; they're kinda crazy, and no, that's not a surprise), but this provision seems... pretty logical.  I qualify that because on the one hand you have common sense that suggests the DMV really ought to be able to reject the most fucked-up license plate proposals to cross their desks because, I mean, c'mon seriously, people?!  On the other hand you have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (applicable to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment, natch), and it's generally been held that the government isn't really supposed to question the dickery of its worst citizens, even when they're obviously trolling, except in the most egregious and extraordinary of situations.  So while the Texas statute seems logical, I can also see where it could be an endless source of bureaucratic and legal headdesking.

But, anyway, you know what I did, right?  Yeah, I went back to the goddamn North Carolina Motor Vehicle Code and started looking for the similar rejection provision in the North Carolina statute, and guess what I found?  Let me put it this way: you're welcome to look, and you may be smarter and less-lazy and more observant and you probably smell better and have nicer teeth, but I couldn't find it and I think I couldn't find it because it isn't there, not because I'm an idiot (although, you know, yeah).  Which is... pretty logical.  because on the one hand you have common sense that suggests the DMV really ought to be able to reject the most fucked-up license plate proposals to cross their desks because, I mean, c'mon seriously, people?!  On the other hand you have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (applicable to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment, natch), and it's generally been held that the government isn't really supposed to question the dickery of its worst citizens, even when they're obviously trolling, except in the most egregious and extraordinary of situations.  So while the North Carolina statute seems logical, I can also see where it could be an endless source of bureaucratic and legal headdesking.

(You, ah, see what I did there, right?  Anyway.)

It occurs to me that the "transparently bullshit" excuse Commissioner Faulkner offered the NC SCV back in 1997 was, unfortunately, the only one available to her, since the legislature didn't actually give her a "dude, shit no, go away" option.

And you see the wrinkle, right?  While the DMV may have a constitutional right per Walker to decline to express some viewpoints for public policy reasons, they don't appear to have a statutory mechanism for actually doing so.  As far as I can tell, the North Carolina General Statutes merely say that if someone qualifies for a plate, they get the plate.

The wrinkle has wrinkles.  As far as I understand Walker, the Supreme Court absolutely is not saying that the Sons of Confederate Veterans can't have a Sons of Confederate Veterans plate; the Court only says, "Texas’s specialty license plate designs constitute government speech and that Texas was consequently entitled to refuse to issue plates featuring SCV’s proposed design."  So the SCV can come back with a less-patently-offensive design and if the Texas DMV doesn't have a problem, they have to issue a plate.  North Carolina's statute says, "The plate shall bear... the emblem of the civic club" (emphasis added).  If a duly-recognized, tax-exempt civic club has three hundred applicants apply for a specialty tag and it just so happens that the club's emblem is an Anthony Weiner dick pic... I guess the highways are jammed with penis photos of a New York Congress guy.  (Yes, you can totally sing that last line if you know the tune.  Get out your lighter when you do.)

The way this could work, see, is the Governor takes the Legislature's bait.  No more NC SCV plates, please.  The NC SCV sues, one imagines.  The case goes up, and the Governor argues "Flag plates are a public forum endorsement of speech we don't have to make because Walker."  The NC SCV argues, "So what, the state still has to follow the law, read Faulkner."  Aaaaand... and I think the Governor loses, actually.

Which meeeeeans... both the State House and Governor's office are kind of right, but the Governor is... more right?  Because ultimately it would be up to the Legislature to either specifically ban traitor flags from plates using Walker as constitutional cover, or to at least give the Governor and DMV authority to reject specific designs on grounds of offensiveness or strong public policy merits?  But either way, it's up to the House?

I think that's how it works out.  So (just so you know), I think I kind of changed my mind while I was writing this.  Not about the fucking flag, which is still the symbol of racists and traitors, but about how it would have to be taken off North Carolina license plates.  And, I hate to reach this conclusion, that leaves me thinking it ain't gonna happen, then, since both sides (the Governor and Legislature, I mean) are going to be able to bounce that ball around until the next Very Bad Thing comes along and we rant about something else for a bit.

And that's the state of the onion.







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We know it's who you are. We don't like who you are.

>> Friday, June 19, 2015


What do you say about this that hasn't already been said?  And I don't mean this week.  We are a country still torn by the sins of slavery and Jim Crow, a country that lets its mentally ill roam the streets unsupervised because we're too high-and-mighty about the rights of white people to lock them up and too cheap to provide care for them, and where dead children are the proper and necessary price for a God-given right to bear arms.  We've spent much of this past year watching black people die on film, and having rallies to protest that "Black lives matter," when the essential, basic truth of this nation is that human lives don't matter; that statement isn't an attempt to recast a racial issue as somehow magically non-racist as if centuries of slavery and racist discrimination are to be waved away; no, it's to observe that a bitter truth of this horrible nation's shameful history is that of all the lives that don't matter, black lives matter least.

By Billy Hathorn (South Carolina State Capitol grounds)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],
via Wikimedia Commons
And boy oh boy, is South Carolina the fiefdom that wants to prove this the hardest.  Down there in the heart of treason and tyranny, those good ol' boys have the Confederate flag waving at the monument to the Confederacy at the South Carolina State House, nothing new there, except for the unsurprising revelation today that it takes a literal act of legislation to take the damned thing down to half-mast in mourning for the nine lives they'll pay lip service to today.  Turns out, see, they're so committed to making sure nobody comes to take their damn banner away, they went and wrote into law that it can only come down to be changed out.  The national flag flies at half-mast, as it should, and so does the South Carolina state flag, as it should, but the flag of the defeated failed country that opened fire on American soldiers because they thought a duly-elected American President would take away their precious right to exploit the chattel labor of their fellow men?  Oh, that stays high and mighty on a permanent mount.

Naturally, Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina and would-be President of the country his proud forefathers repudiated and shot at, is one of those called upon to answer for this, and what does he say?  He says:

At the end of the day it's time for people in South Carolina—to revisit that decision would be fine with me, but this is part of who we are. The flag represents to some people a Civil War and that was the symbol of one side. To others it's a racist symbol, and it's been used by people, it's been used in a racist way. But the problems we have in South Carolina and throughout the world are not because of a movie or a symbol, it's because of what's in people's heart. You know, how do you go back and reconstruct America? What do we do in terms of our history?

Oh, brah-vo, Senator.  "The flag represents to some people a Civil War and that was the symbol of one side"?  Indeed, I cannot possibly dispute that: it was, indeed, in fact, well-and-truly, indubitably and undeniably the symbol of the losing side.  The side that founded a government upon "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition," as Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens put it on March 21st, 1861.

"[U]sed by people, it's been used in a racist way," Senator?  Why yes, you are correct, you are on a roll.  We called those people "Confederates" and "Rebels" and "Secessionists" and "Disunionists".  I'm afraid that perhaps the word we ought to have used after the War Between the States was "Traitors".  Later, of course, the flag was picked up by Klansmen and skinheads and neo-Nazis--other traitors, in other words, others who would stand against the principles this country pledged itself to in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, however shoddy our efforts have been at making those notions a reality.

People throw around the phrase "un-American" to describe those they merely disagree with.  But disagreement is nothing, disagreement is the fundamental premise of a democracy, a form of government in which people put disagreement to a vote and pledge to tolerate, if not support, the result.  Federalists and Democratic-Republicans disagreed about nearly everything except for a general sense that being an American meant subscribing to a Constitution and ideal.

(I exaggerate: they started calling each other "traitors" and accusing one another of being "too French" or "too Tory" within minutes of John Adams inauguration, and proceeded almost immediately to outlawing free speech; they were, I fear, more like us than we allow.  But go along with me for the point I'm attempting to make, please.)

But if there's anything that truly qualifies as "un-American," surely it's opening fire on a Federal garrison at Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861, or opening fire on a prayer gathering on June 17th, 2015 because your fellow Americans are supposedly "taking over our country. And... have to go."  Forgive me, I'm not trying to say these events are both apples or both oranges; what I'm attempting to say is that both acts proceeded from a willingness to reject a fundamental value this nation attempted to found itself upon: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  That they proceed from not just a dissatisfaction with our institutions, but a rejection of the principle that our institutions provide mechanisms for repairing themselves, and that the will of a violent minority--or individual--should trump whatever wisdom is possessed by the masses.

The flags of the Confederacy--the national flag or the more often displayed Confederate battle flags--are un-American, anti-American; they are the flags of a defeated slave state.  How do you "go back and reconstruct America"?  You don't do it, surely, by flaunting the diseased symbols of the anti-Union, of the traitor state.  To do so does nothing more than rub salt in the wounds of those who were to have been freed by the crushing of the insurrection against the Constitution of the United States and goad on those who truly don't belong here--the "state's rights"-ers and racists and unreconstructed disunionists who yearn nostalgically for a faltering feudal state where men owned men and the most ground-down white prole could ignore the burdens crushing his class because he could convince himself at least he was "better than a ------."

In Senator Graham's extended comments at CNN he added, "We're not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It's him... not the flag."  This is, of course, nonsense, pleasing tripe that a certain kind of Southerner perpetuates and possibly, foolishly, even believes.  As if the flag is a deflection, as if it really symbolizes "heritage" without needing to go into exactly what constitutes that heritage.  This is a flag that symbolizes a heritage of anti-Americanism and bigotry and violence in the service of anti-Americanism and bigotry (the disputed flag, as Confederate apologists often like to smugly observe, is the battle flag or Navy Jack and not the national flag of the Confederacy; ah, yes, point taken--it's the flag rebels stood under when they were actually shooting at the defenders of the Republic, and not the one they stood under while talking about shooting Americans, got it).  The flag is the murderer's banner, the murderer's banner is the flag; there's a symbolic identity at play.  The Senator talks about, "what's in people's heart[s]."  Certainly, indeed: it appears this flag was in the heart of this madman with a gun.

Those who fly the flag under which a gaggle of slavers demanded blood be spilt for the cause of bigots and torturers and exploiters, of those who would take liberty and give pain, of those who would break the backs of their fellow men and women for profit--yes, we worry what's in your hearts.  We see what you associate yourselves with, the history you glorify, the truths you deny, the apologies you offer and the lies you tell, the illusions you weave around your precious heritage and we worry that Senator Graham is honest and earnest when he says that's just a part of who you are.  We don't like that part of you.  No, we don't like what that flag represents and we don't like what it says about who you are--that is, we don't like who you are.  You're right to fear we look down upon you, that we feel contempt and fear and anger--we do, we do, we do.  We have contempt for your values and fear for what you might do for them, and we are angry, so very, very angry, at what you have done already for them.

We know it's a part of who you are.  How dearly we wish it wasn't.
 

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