Immigration, Politics, USA, World

Taking on Trump with democracy and civility

I don’t like Trump’s travel ban.  Even if it’s not specifically a ban on Muslims, it’s still a disaster for diplomacy in the Muslim world, and severely undermines the United States’ ability to win over potential Muslim allies in the fight against radical Islamic terror. Furthermore, even more so than being anti-Muslim, the ban is just anti-human, unconditionally denying refuge to some of the world’s most desperate people.

That said, I still can’t trick myself into thinking that the ban is unconstitutional.  While the ban’s author almost certainly harbors some anti-Muslim sentiments, the language in the ban itself is religiously neutral. Furthermore, the ban excludes the vast majority of the world’s Muslim-majority nations, instead singling out seven specific countries (two of which are the highly non-Muslim countries of Venezuela and North Korea) that possess unique security concerns at this moment in time.  I still don’t like the policy, but in upholding its constitutionality, I think the Supreme Court got it right.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, I also don’t like the fact that Anthony Kennedy is retiring, gifting Trump another opportunity to nominate a conservative justice to the country’s highest judicial body.  Once again, I would like to convince myself that turnabout is fair play—that Dems should delay Trump’s appointment just like Republicans did when they robbed Obama of his nomination, Merrick Garland, prior to the 2016 presidential elections.

That said, considering their minority position in both the House and Senate, Democrats probably couldn’t pull that off even if they wanted to, and even if they could, I wouldn’t feel right advocating for a tactic that I find so politically repugnant.  I hate to say it, but I think that Donald Trump has the right to appoint any conservative judge he sees fit, so long as he has the Senatorial votes to get them confirmed.

As the above paragraphs might suggest, I don’t like most of President Donald Trump’s agenda, but in a way, I feel that America is getting exactly what it deserves.  Despite seemingly endless outrage over every presidential speech, tweet, and executive action, this is exactly what America voted for, and to be sure, many people in this country are still very supportive of this presidency.

Some take Donald Trump’s election and presidency as a sign that our democracy is broken, but I tend to agree with Chicago Tribune writer Steve Chapman that it’s quite the contrary.  American citizens democratically elected Donald Trump to be their president, and now Donald Trump is doing exactly what those people elected him to do.  The Trump agenda does not result from a failure of democracy—it is a product of it. And if you are one of the people that find the Trump agenda to be problematic (I am!), then democracy also needs to be the solution.

The most obvious example of this is the upcoming midterm elections.  Unless Bob Mueller uncovers the proverbial “smoking gun” in his Russia investigation, Donald Trump will still be president following this Fall’s elections, but if those who oppose his agenda come out and vote in full force, Trump’s ability to carry out that agenda could be pretty limited. Democrats have a real opportunity to take control of both the House and Senate, but even if they just controlled one of those bodies, that could serve as a very powerful check on any item that Trump wishes to push through the legislature.

However, anti-Trump individuals exercising their own personal right to vote might not be enough. If it were, then Trump probably wouldn’t be president in the first place.  If those appalled by the Trump presidency really want to see significant change, they have to do their part to ensure that other people who may be voting in the midterm elections will vote differently than they did in 2016.  That means encouraging supporters of the president’s agenda to reconsider their support.

Which is why I could not disagree more with the suggested approach of Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who effectively called for the public shaming and harassment of anyone who has lent their support to the Trump administration. I cannot think of a more toxic, self-defeating approach.  If there is any action that would reaffirm everything that Trump supporters already believe about the anti-Trump crowd, or push Trump supporters to cling even more tightly to their president and his agenda, this would be that action.

What is more, the suggestion of Congresswoman Waters seems to me to be a violation of one of the founding tenets of what I believe it means to be liberal—recognizing the humanity in all people, especially people whose worldview differs from your own. That goes for supporters of the president, and even the president himself.  If people who stand against Trump surrender the high road and choose to fight Trump fire with Trumpian-fire, then Trump already won.

Outrage cannot be the only thing offered by those of us who stand against Trump.  It is the easiest thing in the world to be outraged at the parent-child separations that characterized the Trump response to the crisis at our southern border. It is much more difficult to come up with a workable solution. Still, workable solutions have to be a part of the anti-Trump package, not just on immigration, but on any and all issues in which we perceive Trump’s approach to be incompetent or intolerable.

Democracy got us into this mess, and democracy can get us out, not just through the vote, but through all the tools that allow an individual to maximize their voice and exercise their agency, civil discourse with unlike-minded people being chief among them. However, if those who want change continue to dehumanize Trump and his supporters just as Trump dehumanizes immigrants and Muslims, don’t be surprised if democracy once again works against you this Fall.

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Politics, USA

More gun control would lead to less gun violence. Period.

In governance, some things are just common sense.  If you have higher taxes on the rich, you will have less economic inequality.  If you invest more money in education, you will have better public schools.  If you increase border security, you will have less illegal immigration.  And if you pass gun control legislation, you will have less gun violence.

These are value neutral statements.  They are not saying that the result of the above trade-offs are necessarily good things or bad things.  They are simply saying that if the first action is taken, the second thing will happen. One does not need to be a fan of the type of equality that results from higher taxes on the rich—an action that some may viewing as punishing success while rewarding the lazy—but nevertheless, this action would undoubtedly create less economic inequality.  Likewise, one does not need to like the limitations that gun control legislation might impose on their 2ndamendment rights, but it is undeniable that less gun violence would be the result of those limitations.

When it comes to guns, this is also true as a matter of degree.  Degrees of gun control and gun violence are inversely correlated—the more of one, the less of the other.   In the United States of America, we will never be able to eliminate gun violence completely, but with every step we take towards controlling our firearms, we also take a step towards reducing the violence that guns can create.  Take longer waiting periods.  In and of themselves, longer waiting periods would make a nearly imperceptible dent on the overall amount of gun violence in this country.  That said, longer waiting periods still would likely prevent some instances of gun violence, such as crimes of passion or firearm purchases that take place during episodes of irrational decision-making. What is more, if passed as part of a more sweeping gun control package, longer waiting periods could play a role in a larger ensemble that makes a more visible impact.  This package could include items such as mandatory background checks, required certifications, higher age restrictions, and bans on certain assault-style weaponry or modifications.

If you’re not buying this logic, try running the thought experiment in reverse:  What if we made guns more easily attainable?  What if we removed the gun control measures that we already have in place?  What if any Joe Schmoe off the street could walk into a gun shop with a driver’s license and a debit card and walk out five minutes later with a fully-automatic weapon and ammo to boot?  No matter how many times I run this simulation in my head, the results are always the same—more shootings and more bodies.

I’ve often heard it said that—no matter the limitations and regulations that we place around guns—if somebody wants a gun, they’re going to find a way to get one.  I don’t buy that argument.  Perhaps if the person is a career criminal well-acquainted with the sketchy faces and shady places that make up the black market, then yes, they may find a way to obtain a firearm, even if the law says that they shouldn’t have one.  But when it comes to many of the hapless teenagers that have been shooting up our schools over the past two decades, I’m not so sure that the same is true.  Would the Parkland shooter have obtained a semiautomatic rifle if he could not have legally purchased one himself?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Would the shooter from Sante Fe have gained access to firearms if there were stricter laws regarding gun storage in a house inhabited by minors, or if the house would not have contained firearms at all? Maybe, but maybe not.  If we could rewind time to the days before Columbine and implement all the restrictions and regulations suggested in this write-up, could we have prevented the 217 episodes of gun violence that took place in schools across the country during that time?  Definitely not all, but very likely some.

And that last part is the key.  No amount of gun control will eliminate gun violence.  No single piece of legislation can make a mass shooting impossible.  But more control of firearms CAN and WILL reduce gun violence in this country.  While eliminating gun violence should always be the goal for the ideal world, reducing gun violence should guide our decision-making in the world that we actually live in.

There are reasons to be skeptical of some gun control measures.  Like it or not, the right to bear arms is constitutional in this country, and while I would be the first to support a constitutional amendment that changed gun ownership from a right to a strictly-regulated, dutifully-earned privilege, that solution does not seem plausible considering the current political reality.  Also, despite what the statistics tell us, possessing a gun does help some people feel safer, and in many instances, has given people the ability to protect themselves, their families, and others when harm inevitably threatens.  Nevertheless, the point stands that the more we begin to shift our laws and our attitudes away from protection of gun rights and towards limiting them, the less gun violence we will see.  On that single point, it really is that simple.

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Immigration, Politics, Race, USA

The CAPS LOCK President: Why I like nuance, and why Donald Trump doesn’t have it

I don’t support the death penalty.  I believe that there’s something to living in a country that stakes its claim to a higher moral ground—that doesn’t subscribe to an outdated, eye-for-an-eye philosophy and refuses to treat even its most despicable citizens with the same inhumanity with which they treated others.

That said, I’m not vehemently opposed to it either.  Life-in-prison sentences cost a lot of public money, and we could probably find better uses for that money than caring for convicted murders (although some studies do suggest that capital punishment is actually more expensive than keeping somebody in prison for life).  Also, while it’s easy to take the moral high ground as a detached, objective observer, I’m not so sure that I could maintain that ideological purity if a capital punishment-worthy crime were to touch me more personally.

Which is why I’m not offended when Donald Trump expresses his desire that the man responsible for the recent Manhattan truck attack be put to death.  This guy is a monster of the worst kind.  He brutally murdered eight strangers, has admitted to his crimes and their premeditation, and has even expressed a sense of accomplishment from the results of his deadly actions.  If there was ever a person who was deserving of the death penalty, this guy is that person.

But like a lot of disagreements that I have with our president, it’s not always so much about what he says, but the way that he says it.

Donald Trump could have simply stated his hope that this man is prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that he receives the harshest form of punishment available under our criminal justice system.  He might have even mentioned that, in a case like this one, capital punishment seems like an appropriate response.  But Donald Trump didn’t do that.  Instead, Donald Trump used his Twitter account to call for the man’s head in all CAPITAL LETTERS.

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This is why I can never get behind Donald Trump.  In a world with so many shades of grey—so many issues in which nuance and complexities hugely matter—Donald Trump has chosen a platform of black or white.  He’s chosen exaggerations, simplifications, and generalizations over any position that would require more than an ounce of intellect.  Everything is the “best” or the “biggest” or the “most” or the “greatest”.  I guess that’s acceptable if you’re Joe Blow by the water-cooler (who coincidentally voted for Trump), but when you’re President of the United States, it’s inexcusable.

Take the national anthem protests by NFL athletes—an issue in which there is all kinds of nuance to be had. Do you support the players right to free expression while questioning the effectiveness of their use of that freedom?  Do you challenge their indictment of American police while also recognizing the reasons that people of color might feel differently? Do you distinguish between sitting down and taking a knee, and the conscientious shift made by Colin Kaepernick following a conversation with a former Green Beret?  Not if you’re Donald Trump.  If you’re Donald Trump, you just scream for owners to FIRE those sons of bitches that are disrespecting OUR HERITAGE, never pausing to consider the fact that the heritage experienced by the “our” in your almost-all white audience may be a little bit different than the heritage experienced by “those” players peacefully kneeling on the field.

The lack of nuance was pretty evident on the campaign trail, too.  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “border security being a legitimate concern for even the most dogged supporter of American diversity.”  He ran a campaign of “BUILD THE WALL!”  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “serious questions over Hillary Clinton’s careless and dangerous use of her private email server.”  He ran a campaign of “LOCK HER UP!”  And sadly, that’s probably what won him the election.

Which begs the question: Is this the authentic Donald Trump, or is it all part of an elaborate strategy?  Does Donald Trump really believe the hyperbolic bullshit that comes out of his own mouth, or is he just throwing out red meat to a certain sector of his base in order to secure their support?  Either way, the answer is unsettling.

In Trump’s defense, the criticisms levied against him haven’t always been all that nuanced either.  It’s become waaaay too easy, hip, and cool to hate Donald Trump in certain circles, and while I can’t say that I’m unhappy with peoples’ lack of satisfaction towards our president, I’m also not all that impressed with the casual tossing around of terms like “racist,” “fascist,” and “white supremacist” from people who seem to be echoing the opinions of others rather than carefully and critically forming their own.

The solution to Trump cannot be to fight fire-with-fire, or to fight the outrageous with the absurd.  That response does no more for civil discourse than the state-sponsored execution of murderers does for curbing violent crime.  The only way to fight the CAPS LOCK president is to disable that function on our own keyboards, type with complete sentences, and insist on saying things that reflect the complicated reality in which we actually live, not the distorted dystopia that the demagogue in the White House likes to portray.

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Politics, Race, USA

Thoughts on Charlottesville: The necessity of conversation

This morning I finally watched the VICE documentary on the race-based terror that rocked the city of Charlottesville last weekend. The footage is nothing short of terrifying.  Even though I have no illusions about the pernicious role that racism continues to play in our society, I was still shocked to see that a white supremacist rally of that magnitude could take place in America in 2017.

Trump’s response to the rally was disgraceful.  Even if Trump himself is not a racist or a white supremacist, it’s pretty clear that his presidency has emboldened many people who are.  This was Trump’s opportunity to explicitly separate himself from those groups, but he didn’t take it.  Instead, Trump once again blew his racist dog whistle, refusing to denounce the hateful elements of his base that were so vital to his electoral success.

184503.pngHis attempts to draw equivalencies between neo-Nazis and radical leftist groups like Antifa are also total bullshit.  I personally have no shortage of criticisms that I could offer about certain elements of today’s far-left—their affinity for identity politics, their silencing of free speech on college campuses, their ever-evolving policing of political correctness—but I would still stop far short of equating them to Nazis. One side fights against racism whereas the other side fights for it, and no matter how misguided the means of the former group may be, I’ll take them over the latter group any day.

Moral outrage is definitely the appropriate response to what happened last weekend in Charlottesville.  If images of torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” don’t make your stomach sink, then you have some introspection to do.  However, as justifiable as our moral outrage might be, I still believe that conversation is the only solution.

The conversations that need to take place are not with the relatively tiny (albeit far too big) fraction of the population that self-identify as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, but with the people who, while not neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves, still support small pieces of the agenda that motivated those far-right assemblies last weekend in Charlottesville.  These are the people who question the removal of Confederate monuments, the people who view groups like Antifa as legitimate threats to American democracy, the people who possess justifiable concerns over immigration and radical Islam, and most likely, the people who voted for Donald Trump.

At no point in this presidency have Trump supporters been more ready to jump ship than they are right now.  They are ready to seize the opportunity that the president did not and separate themselves from racism and bigotry.  They are ready to open up a dialogue with people of differing beliefs on how to move forward from some of the ugliest days in our country’s recent past.  But if we insist on labeling everyone whose outrage we deem as insufficient as an ally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, then there are no conversations to be had.  If we don’t throw Trump supporters a lifering, then they are not going to jump ship.

Conversation doesn’t necessarily mean compromise.  It means finding common ground, validating beliefs that are acceptable, challenging beliefs that are not, and above all else, recognizing the humanity in the person on the other side of the table.

Everyone is a product of their life experiences.  No one is born a racist just like no one is born a criminal.  Those behaviors are learned.  They can be unlearned as well.

It’s easy to be the purest person in the room—to righteously shout your worldview from the hilltops while refusing to acknowledge the life experiences that, for right or for wrong, have led other people to see their worlds differently.  But when it comes to changing minds, that shouting will get you nowhere.

Conversation is about cultivating a mutual understanding.  It is the attitude of “perhaps if I listen to them, then they will listen to me.”  It’s an approach that gets people to uncross their arms and open their minds, in hopes that once the mind is open, it will be susceptible to change.  I get the sense that a lot of arms have come uncrossed since Charlottesville.  I just hope that our moral outrage doesn’t disable us from taking advantage of that opportunity.

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Military, Politics, USA

Donald Trump’s Military Transgender Ban

I’m willing to entertain the idea that transgender people, as a group, face more challenges than cisgender people when it comes to being equipped to serve in the U.S. military.  Physically, although I’m pretty ignorant of what the transition process really entails, I’d imagine that there would be some challenges that could adversely affect a person’s ability to effectively serve in the field.  Psychologically, I could also imagine how transitioning could be an extremely taxing and difficult process, especially considering the unsupportive-to-hateful attitudes that trans people often encounter in their day-to-day lives.

If a transgender person were deemed unfit for military service due to concerns about their physical and psychological ability, I would have no problem with denying that person the opportunity to serve.  The problem with Donald Trump’s policy, however, is that not all transgender people possess cause for such concerns.

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Donald Trump’s policy is a blanket statement.  It assumes that all transgender people are unfit to serve in the military because of the sole fact that they are a member of that group.  The evidence tells a different story.

Estimates vary, but most agree that there are currently thousands of transgender troops serving in the U.S. military both in active duty and the reserves.  Of this group, there is no shortage of examples to demonstrate the capacity of transgender people to effectively protect and serve their country.   Perhaps the most notable in the aftermath of yesterday is the service of Kristin Beck, a former member of the elite Navy Seal Team 6 who publicly challenged Donald Trump to “tell me to my face why I’m not worthy.”   And while it may be tough to find a lot of people, trans or cisgender, as decorated as Beck, there are plenty of other stories of transgender soldiers who have performed their duty adequately and honorably (i.e. Minnesota natives Capt. Tarrence Robertson and Air Force Maj. Bryan Bree Fram.)

Trump’s policy is hateful and discriminatory, but it is also insulting to the intelligence of the American public.  The series of tweets released yesterday by the president are only the latest blatant attempt to distract the public from the constant shitstorm that is his presidency.  It’s the equivalent of waving something shiny in front of us with his right hand in hopes that we won’t pay attention to what he’s doing with his left.  One day of debating the merits of Trump’s transgender tweets is one day that we are not talking about the Russia investigation.  It’s also an ill-concealed attempt to win back a lot of the conservative base that he had begun to alienate after his attacks on Attorney General and conservative stalwart Jeff Sessions—the story that had been dominating the news cycle before Trump woke up Wednesday and again turned his Twitter account into a Molotov cocktail.

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Trump’s strategy seems to be working.  The country has spent the last two days debating an issue that is not even regarded as official policy by the Pentagon, nor by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.  Nevertheless, it’s probably a debate that we should be having, because no matter what the policy was or is in regards to this specific issue, it is clear that we as a country (myself included) have a long way to go in accepting and understanding transgender people.

It’s okay to question policy in regards to transgender people serving in the military.  I think it is fair to debate when and if taxpayer dollars should go towards the healthcare costs of transitioning, and how a culture of political correctness could adversely affect the functioning of our military.  What I do not think is fair, however, is turning the T in LGBT into an automatically disqualifying factor when it comes to military service in the United States.  There are too many examples of transgender people who have served successfully and honorably to lend this proposed policy any credibility.

To an extent, the U.S. military can and should discriminate.  People who are not fit to serve for various physical and psychological reasons should not be permitted to do so.  Some transgender people may fall in to this category, but many do not.  That’s why if we Americans are serious about the ideals that our country is founded on, when a transgender person arrives at the recruitment office with the ability to serve, we will give them the opportunity.

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Economics, Minnesota, Politics, USA

Single-payer healthcare in the state of Minnesota

Constitutionally speaking, Americans do not have a right to healthcare.  We have a right to free speech, a right to bear arms, a right to freely practice religion or to be free from religious practice, but we do not have a constitutional right to be cared for when we are sick. Supporters of a single-payer system, myself being one of them, are hoping to change that.

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Legislation creating a single-payer healthcare system, aka “universal healthcare”, aka “Medicare for all”, would not change the Constitution, but it would guarantee all Americans publicly funded access to core medical services.  Obamacare is not an example of this system, but it is perhaps a move in that direction, in the sense that it uses the federal government as a tool to get healthcare in the hands of people that the private market had previously left behind.

Unfortunately, the American Healthcare Act, supported by Trump and currently being considered by the Republican-controlled Congress, threatens to undo a lot of that progress.  Needless to say, this is a pretty disheartening development for single-payer advocates who had viewed Obamacare as a significant step towards their ultimate goal.  That’s why Minnesotan supporters of a single-payer system should turn their attention away from Washington and towards creating a single-payer system here in Minnesota.

In the United States, our federalist system of government grants significant leeway to its semi-sovereign states in controlling their own affairs.  In terms of power, state governments may be inferior to the federal government, but they are not necessarily subordinate to it.  This means that, in the case of healthcare, even though conservative legislators in Washington are fighting for further privatization, progressive state legislators can still fight to enact something more public within their borders.  Even though the American Healthcare Act may have dire consequences for the poor, old, unlucky and underprivileged in other U.S. states, that doesn’t have to be the case for anyone in the state of Minnesota.

Trying to pass single-payer legislation at the state level would be an enormous challenge.  Aside from the politics, the practicality of such a system is pretty daunting.  First and foremost is the cost.  In California, the most recent state to seriously consider a single-payer system, a legislative analysis estimated a $400 billion per year price tag.  That is more than double the entire state budget proposed for next year.

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And what about the system that we already have in place?  As one write-up put it, a single-payer system “may be what any sane and progressive community would adopt if it was creating a health-care system from scratch,” but that is obviously not the case here in the U.S.  The massive systemic overhaul that it would take to transition from the entangled clusterfuck of deductibles and co-pays to a system in which the state government replaces insurance companies, employers, out-of-pocket patients, and the federal government as the “single payer” is head-spinning to say the least.

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And then there are the criticisms that we always hear of single-payer systems—the longer lines, the lower quality, and the lack of responsibility shown by citizens once they get start to get something for “free”.  Some of the criticisms may be exaggerated, but in spite of whatever benefits a single-payer system might bring, I don’t think that there is any doubt that, at least for some patients, these problems would become a reality.

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But in order to be a success, a single-payer system doesn’t need to be perfect.  It just needs to be better than what we currently got.

A single-payer system would be expensive, but the U.S. already pays more for healthcare than any other country in the world, including the myriad of countries that have already adopted single-payer systems.  Even though the California proposal has a price tag of $400 billion, Californians already paid $367 billion for healthcare in 2016, and that doesn’t include the nearly 3 million uninsured residents that didn’t receive coverage, but would under the state plan.  The real difference would be that, rather than paying a for-profit middleman like the private insurance and pharmaceutical companies that currently rake in all those dollars, Californians would be paying the government via taxes.  And while those estimated costs still leave the price tag of single-payer significantly higher ($33 billion according to the estimates), it would also provide core medical services to EVERYONE.

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With everyone being eligible to receive government-sponsored medical care, it would not be surprising to find lines that are a little longer or care that is of slightly lower quality for those accustomed to having the most prestigious of plans.  But if this is the case, then the only reason that those lines were so short in the first place is because some people were not allowed to wait in them, and I’m not okay with that.  Plus, one would imagine that, even under a single-payer system, the economically empowered would still be able to use their financial wherewithal to purchase goods and services not accessible to most.

Implementing a single-payer system of healthcare in Minnesota would not be easy.  Even if the political will were there, inevitable setbacks and complications would surely make the transition process a frustrating one for many.  I don’t know if it would be best to try to implement that system in one fell swoop or in a series of steps, but I do know that these are the types of discussions that should be taking place in the halls of the Minnesota State Capitol.

States are the laboratories of democracy, and Minnesota should be the first to experiment with single-payer healthcare at the state level.  Minnesota may not be the economic powerhouse that California is, but smaller populations than us have made single-payer work, so there’s no reason that we can’t too.  If we can be successful in this endeavor—successful in building a workable, government-funded system that provides quality healthcare to all its citizens—then perhaps Minnesota can serve as a model to other states, and eventually, the federal government.  Healthcare is not a right in the United States, but in Minnesota, it can be and it should be.  We just need to make it happen.

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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

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The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.

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Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.

 

Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:

 

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