The “Innocent Mistake” Defense for Racism

Slavery was repugnant to many Americans long before America was a country — the Germantown Quakers denounced it in 1688. It was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833. We fought a Civil War over it from 1861-65. Still, injustice and violence against black people continued, and that has been an issue every minimally educated person has known about ever since, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the rise of the KKK, the 1909 founding of the NAACP, “Strange Fruit” (1939), the civil rights movement, landmark legislation, assassinations, the Southern Strategy, birtherism, voter suppression, and Charlottesville.

When the movie “Birth of a Nation” was released, it sparked widespread protests over its celebration of the KKK and demeaning depictions of black people. That was in 1915. More than a hundred years ago.

Harry Truman was born in 1884 and raised as a racist in a pro-Confederate family in rural Missouri. But he, like many white Americans of his time, was able to learn, to feel compassion, and to change. In 1947 he said, “If this freedom is to be more than a dream, each man must be guaranteed equality of opportunity. The only limit to an American’s achievement should be his ability, his industry and his character.” And the next year he desegregated the military.

That was more than 70 years ago — and even then, it was a common belief that what progress had been made had taken far too long.

Also in 1947, Frank Sinatra, who had been raised in a working class family and never finished high school, said this: “We’ve got a hell of a way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro as a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up.”

Every American alive today has the benefit of centuries of thinking on civil rights, and centuries of examples of people who managed to choose respect and kindness over bigotry and cruelty. All the information about this that anyone could ever need has long been available easily and for free.

So maybe, by 2019, the “innocent mistake” defense is done?

Beyond a certain point, ignorance becomes a choice, and “innocence” is just a cloak.

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How We Won—And Then Lost—The Cold War

It’s been hitting me hard lately how so much of the agony we’re living through now originates in our bungling response, or lack of response, to the fall of the Soviet Union.

When the USSR collapsed in on itself under the weight of its own illogic and corruption, we could have recalled the lesson of the stunningly successful Marshall Plan, then only four decades in the past: Do not let a defeated enemy sink into despair and humiliation. In your own self-interest, help the foe succeed, and become a friend.

But no, as the Russian empire fell, America and the West stood back, trusting that freedom and free markets would be enough.. But instead, oligarchs and gangsters used their new liberty to set about looting their own country.

And the horrors of communism were replaced with the horrors of thugocracy.

So? Maybe we didn’t care so much, since there was money to be made by us as well.

But the corruption spread. And it breached the borders of the West as Soviet aggression never could.

Ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his gang didn’t need to invade Britain with an army. They did it by buying up luxury real estate with their looted billions, or by parking their money in British banks, or by negotiating joint ventures with British corporations.

And it turned out they they could do the same to the United States — except that even better, in an incredible stroke of luck, they apparently were able to make a partner of America’s future president. When no reputable American bank would lend to him, they bailed him out of his bankruptcies and, by the evidence, hired him as a money launderer, converting their cash into condos.

We humiliated Germany after World War I and got World War II. But we learned, and got it right with Germany and Japan after World War II. They became two of our strongest allies.

And then, after the Cold War, we made the same, old, terrible mistake again.

And here we are.

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Erasing the difference between America and a thugocracy like Russia may be this presidency’s most tragic effect.

Millions of Americans are being held hostage by a leader who can’t get what he wants through the legitimate legislative process. Count 800,000 federal employees, with let’s say the average two children per family — that’s 2.4 million Americans. And then there are all those who depend on federal services — in some cases, with their lives at stake.


And while he’s taking hostages, he’s also running a protection racket: he does damage and then negotiates a price to make him stop. Like creating a humanitarian crisis at the border, or throwing Dreamers’ lives into turmoil, and then offering to stop in exchange for his extortionate demands.

And then there’s the long list of his other mob-boss behaviors: intimidating witnesses, obstructing investigations, self-dealing, concealing financial information, constantly and flagrantly lying, attacking law enforcement, and years of business dealings with gangsters — Russian and American. How much more obvious could it be? Innocent people don’t behave this way.

America has never been perfect, as other countries have always been ready to point out. But other countries have also trusted that America was much, much better than Russia, or any of the other alternatives as the world’s leading nation — and that, not money or weapons, was why America could have so much power, for so long.

But now, they can’t be so sure. As the president himself said when challenged to — just once — criticize Vladimir Putin: “You think our country is so innocent?”

Not any more.

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Branding and Incantation

One thing that President Trump understands is branding, although with “steel slats” I really think he’s losing his touch (panic will do that to you).

His more successful efforts have included MAGA, Crooked Hillary, Fake News, and, of course the Big, Beautiful Wall, compared to which Steel Slats is New Coke.

Branding is perfect for Trump, whose name is itself a brand, because a brand doesn’t require facts, logic, or any argument at all: just an impression.

This might be a lesson for corporations that have invested so much in creating and building their brands — not least by backing them up with actual goods and services.

Trump sees the power of a brand as pure incantation: simply say the right words the right way, and, as the ancient Irish filid could tell you, the human mind can be ensorceled into believing nearly anything.

Try it: Crooked Hillary. Or Nancy Pelosi.

Do people really know why they’re supposed to hate them? No — unless it’s to recite other powerful though empty incantations, like Benghazi, Uranium One, or (shudder) San Francisco.

In TrumpWorld, it’s brands all the way down.

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Trump Isn’t Getting Better, America Is Getting Worse

[Also published at Medium.] After the shock of Donald Trump winning the presidency, the hope many of us clung to was that he would grow in office.

Instead, America has shrunk.

There was some reassurance at the beginning, as his poll numbers fell — especially once they reached the low 30s, because 30 percent might as well be zero. As pollsters will tell you, it’s the noise floor of politics: there are always about that many voters who are uninformed, careless, or crazy.

But lately, support for Trump has been rising, at times approaching 50 percent.

This after the Muslim ban, Charlottesville, the attacks on our institutions, the attacks on our allies, the children in cages, the thousands of lies, and on, and on, and on.

Nearly half the country is OK with all that. And a small but growing number of violent extremists are emboldened by it.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Trump isn’t getting better. He really doesn’t seem able to.

But neither should we be surprised that instead, America is getting worse.

We like to say “This is not who we are,” and “We’re better than this.” Normally, those assertions are true.

And yet with the wrong leadership, it is who we are. Yes, America is exceptional. It’s the first country to be founded not on an ethnicity but on an idea, and that idea, freedom and equality for all, is a glorious one.

But Americans are human beings, and human beings are creatures of light and dark, of hope and fear. If a leader constantly summons the worst in us, it will come forth.

History has shown, over and over and around the world, what can happen. Still, we think it couldn’t happen here. Instead we ask, “What was wrong with those people?”

The answer is, they were people. There was nothing wrong with them that isn’t also wrong with us — as a nation of immigrants, we literally are them.

Leadership matters.

But in a democracy, so does citizenship.

We have chosen a terrible leader.

If we want better, we must be better.


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After Trump, Prepare for the Shame: A Warning for Americans From Occupied France

General Charles de Gaulle and his entourage set off from the Arc de Triumphe to Notre Dame for a service of thanksgiving following the city’s liberation in August 1944.

General Charles de Gaulle and his entourage set off from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame for a service of thanksgiving following the city’s liberation in August 1944. Photo: British Ministry of Information / Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

[Also published at Medium.] With the Liberation of France in 1944 came a miraculous discovery: the entire nation had resisted the German occupation.

“Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!” proclaimed General DeGaulle in his victory speech.

It was an inspiring story of courage and resolve. If only it had been true.

But no. The story of universal resistance was a comforting fiction, hiding a complicated and painful reality: while there certainly had been heroic resisters, most of the French had silently cooperated with their occupiers and the puppet Vichy regime. Many had actively collaborated.

What story will we tell, when our time comes? Because the Trump presidency will end, and for many, that will be a time of shame.

Not, of course, the ones who have no shame. But those who see Trump for what he is, and yet remain silent. They mimic the French attentistes, who privately deplored the occupation, but chose to “wait and see.”

When the wait was over, though, it turned out they couldn‘t bear to see.

So they turned to an alternate reality, in which courage was redefined. In an essay for The Atlantic at the end of 1944, existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre hailed the heroes of the “Silent Republic.” Their contribution? They could have informed on actual Resistance members, but didn’t.

Some tried to puncture the nation’s self-delusion. In 1947, novelist Jean-Louis Curtis published “The Forests of the Night,” a portrayal of wartime life in a typical French village. As Curtis wrote, resistance was the “rather blurred background” to a far less noble foreground: acquiescence, collaboration, and betrayal.

Curtis’ book won France’s top literary honor, the Prix Goncourt. But it failed to displace the more less realistic fiction his compatriots preferred.

Poster for “The Sorrow and the Pity"

Poster for “The Sorrow and the Pity,” via Wikimedia Commons

A full reckoning with the truth didn’t begin until 1969. That was when film-maker Marcel Ophüls made the French face themselves, in his

quietly harrowing documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity,” or “Le Chagrin et La Pitié.” The full meaning of that title, which in French also means “regret and shame,” is revealed through the first-person accounts of a few brave resisters—and many others who struggle to explain their wartime behavior even to themselves.

“There was one value that we all shared, and that was caution,” offers one.

“I’m trying to remember, but I can’t,” says another.

But the archives did remember. Historian Thomas Paxton studied them exhaustively and, two years after “The Sorrow and the Pity,” he published his findings in “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order” (1971): most people, some of them eagerly, had aligned with whomever was in power.

A crude graph of French public opinion from 1940 to 1944 would show nearly universal acceptance of Marshal Pétain [head of the collaborationist Vichy government] in June 1940 and nearly universal acceptance of General de Gaulle in August 1944, with the two lines, one declining and the other rising, intersecting some time after… November 1942 [when the Germans occupied the former “Free Zone” of southern France following the Allied landing in French North Africa].

After Paxton, assessments of the true strength of French resistance would shift this way and that. But the current judgment of history incorporates the pain of that very uncertainty. As Ronald C. Rosbottom writes in “When Paris Went Dark” (2014):

Even today, the French endeavor both to remember and to find ways to forget their country’s trials during World War II; their ambivalence stems from the cunning and original arrangement they devised with the Nazis, which was approved by Hitler and assented to by Philippe Pétain, the

recently appointed head of the Third Republic, that had ended the Battle of France in June of 1940. This treaty—known by all as the Armistice—had entangled France and the French in a web of cooperation, resistance, accommodation, and, later, of defensiveness, forgetfulness, and guilt from which they are still trying to escape.

This web waits for us.

It’s popular to scorn and mock the wartime French. A supposed French propensity for surrender has become a stock joke (one that ignores World War I and much other history).

Book cover: “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order"

“Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order,” Columbia University Press

But who are we—especially the silent ones among us—to laugh?

To speak out against the German occupation was to risk torture and death.

To speak out against Trump—so far at least—is to risk only embarrassment, strained relationships, or perhaps the loss of some business.

Before we judge the French of World War II, we must ask ourselves if we can honestly say we would have done better. With that in question, their warning should sound all the louder in our ears.

If they felt such shame, how will it be for those of us who find mere inconvenience an excuse to forsake democracy?

And make no mistake, that is what it means to stay silent now, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder, for one, argues so persuasively and concisely in “On Tyranny.”

When the institutions and norms of democracy are strong, they protect us. But when they are threatened, as elections, the judiciary, law enforcement, the press—and even the truth itself—are threatened now, we are called to protect them.

For most of us, most of the time, democracy is easy. Maybe too easy. We’ve grown awfully comfortable letting a tiny minority serve as its guardians, out of sight, out of mind.

But ultimately, each of us is democracy’s last line of defense. And silence, unavoidably, becomes betrayal.

It’s that hard knowledge which met the attentistes of post-war France. So too the attentistes of post-Trump America.

Speak out, now.

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African Immigrants Are Better Educated Than Americans

[Also published at HuffPost.] African immigrants are better educated than native-born Americans. 42 percent of African immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher; 33 percent of Americans do. Immigrants from Nigeria? 61 percent.

Racism depends on ignorance. And at a time when knowledge is available instantly and for free, ignorance is increasingly a matter of choice.

No one is forced to watch Fox and Friends.

Educational Attainment of Foreign-Born Population from Africa by Selected Country of Birth: 2008-2012

Census data on African immigrants:

Census data on educational attainment of Americans:

Just a click away.

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Will you just “wait and see?”

Marshal Petain

Marshal Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain
Public domain via Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons

[Also published at Huffington Post.] Have you ever wondered whether you would speak up if democracy came under attack, as it did in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s?

That question is being answered now.

Are you speaking up?

Or are you waiting to see how things work out?

There’s a name for that, which comes down to us from occupied France: attentisme.

It means “to wait and see.” After the German army conquered two-thirds of France in a shockingly short six weeks, the French people had to choose: defend the rest of their country, or wait and see.

The government of the Third Republic fled south to Vichy, where it dissolved the Constitution and gave near-dictatorial powers to Marshal Pétain, a hero of World War I whose name is now synonymous with “collaborator.”

And as their freedoms were taken away, and then as their Jewish neighbors were taken away, many, if not most, of the French people chose to be attentistes.

Do you blame them? Do you judge their unwillingness to defend what others had died for?

Well, are you speaking out now, as our elections, judiciary, law enforcement, free press, and the truth itself are under assault?

When your life, unlike lives in occupied France, is not in danger?

Maybe you’re concerned about offending friends, family, colleagues, or business contacts.

Maybe it’s better to wait and see.

Here’s the problem: when the institutions of democracy are under attack, only the people can defend it.

We are the last line of defense, and that defense must be made every step of the way.

If we wait and see, what we may see is that it is too late.

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A Car Wash for Souls

Vintage car wash sign, shaped something like a cross

Photo: iStock

[Also published at Huff Post.] I had Christianity all wrong — I thought Jesus didn’t want you to sin.

Yes, if you did sin, He would forgive you. But the baseline was, Jesus was anti-sin.

Well now Christian supporters of Roy Moore and Donald Trump have shown me the error of my ways.

It turns out His forgiveness isn’t an exception — it’s a license.

Stalking little girls? P***y-grabbing? Do it! All you have to do is show up in church of a Sunday, and you are good to go, Monday through Saturday.

Sin-sin-sin-sin-sin-sin-“I love you, Jesus!”-sin-sin-sin-sin-sin-sin.

Defending Roy Moore, Pastor Mark Burns explained it to Joy Reid Saturday morning: “Morality isn’t the only quality that makes a good leader.” Even King David, he explained, had been quite a sinner, and Jesus was the only perfect man ever to walk the Earth.

And Jesus’ job is to forgive the rest of us.

I feel so stupid for not getting how this really works — and how you can work it.

The good news is, this revelation has led me to a new business idea — and I’ve been checking out the Prosperity Gospel, too, so I’m sure I’m on the right track here.

I’m calling it the Car Wash for Souls™.

Check it out. You see, it’s great that all this sinning is allowed, but there’s no need to make it so inconvenient. In the Car Wash for Souls™, it’s all right there for you.

As you enter, they’ll stick a drink in your hand and a pretty girl in your lap. And just like that, you’re off, working through all the sins you can ask Jesus to eat: lust, intemperance, lying, cheating, stealing — you name it.

There’ll even be some you don’t want to name. We’ll call the really embarrassing ones Mystery Sins™. They’ll happen in a dark room, and no one ever has to know.

But the kicker comes at the last stop on your way out: We’ll have a pastor right there to forgive you! Won’t take a minute; he can do it while you pay.

It can’t miss.

And if it does, well sorry, investors, and I love you, Jesus!

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Yes, Judge What Happened In Charlottesville — And Then What?

Confederate flag photo illustration

AK Rockefeller,

[Also published at Huffington Post.] We have to call out horrors like what happened yesterday, and there’s value in doing it: to make it clear what America is and what it cannot be.

At the same time, I think there’s also a risk in having such obvious villains as Nazis and KKK members to point to, because it’s so easy to denounce them, feel good about ourselves, and move on.

In day-to-day life, people don’t wear swastikas. Almost no one thinks of themselves as a bigot. But we all have at least some fear or hatred of others within us. If we refuse to see it, we create an internal darkness similar to the one that allows bigotry to grow in society as a whole.

And whatever’s going on inside each of us, it’s what each of us does that matters. Judging others just distracts us from what matters.

Warning, it’s about to look like I’m going to blame the other party, feel good, and move on ― if you think that, please read on to, “And we Democrats…”

Right now it matters that Republican leaders don’t just make stronger statements than Trump’s ― an easy test to pass ― but that they stop acting to enable bigotry. They do that not just by supporting Trump’s bigoted policies, but by advancing their own, like their longstanding efforts to suppress the minority vote under the pretense of stopping nearly nonexistent voter fraud.

And individual Republicans, whatever they feel in their hearts, need to stop enabling a Republican Party that has welcomed racists since the mid-1960s. The Nixon campaign designed the Southern Strategy, and the party kept on using it, even after former GOP chair Ken Mehlman apologized for it. Under the Southern Strategy, explicit racial slurs were replaced with code phrases like “states rights,” “welfare cheats,” and “law and order.” The only difference with Trump is that he has dropped the veil that had been hiding the naked racism.

And we Democrats should be careful of using Republican bigotry as a free pass. Yes, our party has been on the right side of civil rights since the ’60s. I’m not suggesting a false equivalence. But there are issues like affordable housing, for example, in which many liberals support zoning regulations that have the effect of keeping neighborhoods segregated, without anyone having to look too hard at how it happens.

The challenge is to see clearly, especially when it’s uncomfortable ― it’s so much easier to see where other people are falling short ― and more importantly, to do things that make a difference.

So of course we have to call out horrors like Charlottesville. But we also have to be able to talk openly and usefully among ourselves, when there isn’t such obvious evil to decry, and find ways to change things that need to change. I think that means avoiding the distracting temptation to judge each other ― at worst, getting into ever-escalating moral purity contests ― and it also means avoiding the temptation to judge ourselves.

See ourselves, yes. But too often judgment is like a heat sink ― energy that could be used for change just gets converted to guilt, and lost.

None of us is morally pure. But each of us, in all our impurity, can make things better.

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