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there’s something to living in a country that stakes its claim to a higher moral ground—that doesn’t subscribe to an outdated, eye-for-an-eye philosophy and refuses to treat even its most despicable citizens with the same inhumanity with which they treated others.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

The killing of Philando Castile and the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez

Jeronimo Yanez and I attended the same university at the same time.  I don’t recall ever meeting him, but we ran with a similar group of friends.  They tell me that Yanez was a good guy—nice, friendly, hardly the monster that many have made him out to be following his deadly encounter with Philando Castile last July.

Nothing I’ve seen over the past year has done anything to make me think otherwise.  Even after watching that horrifying dashcam video in which Yanez pumps seven fatal rounds into the front seat of Castile’s car, I still find him to be a sympathetic figure.  The video hardly portrays a vicious executioner.  The guy’s nervous, he panics, and in the process, he makes the gravest mistake of his life.  It’s obvious that he feels terrible, both then and now, and I feel sorry for him.  But that sympathy isn’t enough to prevent me from adding my voice to the overwhelming chorus who feel that, in the case of State of Minnesota v. Jeronimo Yanez, justice was not served.

I think it’s worth highlighting that Yanez was not being charged with murder.  He was being charged with manslaughter—second degree manslaughter to be exact.  This reflects the notion that we as a society lend police officers a certain amount of leeway not provided to ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of lethal force.  We recognize that police officers perform a difficult and dangerous job in which snap decisions are often necessary, and can make the difference between whether or not an officer lives or dies.

However, when I watch that dashcam video, the definition of second degree manslaughter is exactly what I see. Words like “negligence,” “unreasonable,” and “endangerment,” seem to perfectly describe Yanez’s actions.  He may not have murdered Castile in cold blood, but based on what I’m reading, he still appears criminally culpable for Castile’s death.

But the video admittedly does not provide the whole story.  Despite all the disturbing images that we can see through the lenses of the squad car and Diamond Reynold’s cell phone, we still can’t see exactly what’s happening inside of the car prior to the shooting.  Perhaps this is the primary reason that the jury chose not to convict.  In our justice system, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, not the defense.  Even though it seems unlikely, there is no hard proof that Castile was not reaching for his gun rather than his license.  There is no hard proof that Officer Yanez did not fear for his life (and if you’ve seen the video, it seems quite likely that he did).  In the United States, the defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and in spite of all the incriminating evidence that the prosecution presented, the jurors still obviously possessed the proverbial reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed Yanez to be “innocent,” it just means they didn’t feel that they had enough to send him to prison.

This case is unique, and should be treated as such.  What we think about the case should be influenced by the details of this case and this case alone, not by what has or has not happened in similar cases in the recent past.  That said, this case is also so emblematic of the systemic issues inherent in the way that we do criminal justice in this country, that it’s easy to see why people are so quick to make that jump.   From the fact that a black man was pulled over for his resemblance of a suspect in another crime (a.k.a. “driving while black”), to the careful compliance exhibited by the black occupants of the car as they talked to the police (in Reynolds case, even AFTER her boyfriend was shot), to the ultimate acquittal of the officer (are black people innocent until proven guilty?), this case just seems to be such an example of the experience of black people when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and those who administer it.  As one write-up put it, “the system worked as it was designed, it was not built to protect black lives.”  I’m not sure if I agree with everything that that statement implies, but I understand why a black person might.

Even if Yanez had been convicted, that verdict would have given me no pleasure.  This is a disgusting situation in which even “justice” is no real remedy.  As one juror put it, “nobody was ok with it”—nobody was ok with the pain and suffering that will plague each member of the Castile family for the rest of their lives, nor the guilt and regret that Yanez will carry with him for the rest of his.  Yet that juror still chose not to convict. I was not in that court room.  Maybe, legally speaking, acquittal was the right call.  But if this case is not an example of injustice perpetrated by a police officer against a black man, then what in the hell is?

 

 

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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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Politics, Race, USA

The Alt-Right Wink

I don’t know if Donald Trump is a racist. I certainly think that he seems unenlightened about race. This is the guy, after all, who called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., declared a significant number of Latino immigrants to be criminals and rapists, and suggested for years that our first black president was actually born in Kenya. These comments appear to be evidence of harmful attitudes that, whether or not it’s Trump’s intent, could do enormous damage to communities of color should they ever be reflected in national policy.

I know that there are many, many Trump supporters that are not racists. These people have legitimate criticisms and concerns about the liberal vision for our nation, and in Trump they see a candidate who seems to be echoing those sentiments. However, I also know that there are a significant number of Trump supporters that do indeed harbor real racist opinions, and whether he intended to or not, Trump has created a space in which those people feel validated and empowered.

I don’t need the “liberal media” to point this out to me either. I’ve had the misfortune of seeing it first hand at the school in which I teach. Over the last week and change, our school has witnessed several racially charged incidents, including students using the N-word on social media to describe their black peers, students threatening their Hmong peers that they will soon be back working in the “rice paddies,” and a student creating the username “LynchNegroes” for an in-class, online review game.

The offenders here are not bad kids. They are good kids with good hearts whose minds just need a little enlightening. But I would argue that the unenlightened and sometimes hateful rhetoric that has recently surfaced in my school and everywhere is a direct result of the election of Donald Trump and the alt-right wink that he has been giving to many of his voters throughout his campaign.

The alt-right wink refers to language used by him and other members of the alt-right movement that, while not explicitly advocating for things like racism or xenophobia, lends implicit support to people who harbor racist or xenophobic beliefs.   In many cases, this has the look of a two-part sentence in which only the first part of the sentence is said out loud. The second part is the racist, xenophobic shit that the listener hears in their head. “We need to take our country back!” (From the black man who stole our White House and the Mexicans that took our jobs.) “We are going to make America great again!” (Like it was when white men controlled it.) And when you mix that message with some of the stuff Trump has said about Mexicans, Muslims, Somalis, and others, racist vitriol towards those communities is hardly a surprising result.

I suppose it is possible that Trump’s incitement of said racism is unintentional—that he really doesn’t realize what it is that he appears to be suggesting to so many people when he says the things that he says. However, it is not possible that Trump is unaware of the effects of some of his language—that he does not see the racism and xenophobia and hate that his campaign has inspired in the American electorate. And the fact that Donald Trump has not been more vocal in his condemnation of these racist reactions means that, no matter his intentions, he is culpable for the results.

This goes for Trump supporters too—Trump supporters who do not identify as racists themselves but have been all too tolerant of the virulent strand of racism that has provided essential fuel to their movement.   Unfortunately, the conspiracy theories surrounding liberals that Trump and the alt-right have created mean that liberals like myself have very little credibility in combatting this racism. We are perceived to be part of the “biased” and “brainwashed” liberal machine and therefore cannot be trusted. That’s why it is so important that Trump and his supporters speak out against this hatred themselves.

The alt-right is correct about some stuff. Their critiques of liberal beliefs surrounding things like multiculturalism, political correctness, and Islam are valid, and over the months that come, liberals will have to look inward and address some of those issues. But it is also imperative that Trump and his supporters call out the ugly hatred that exists on their side of the ideological fence. If the alt-right wants to be taken seriously, they need to quit winking at xenophobes and racists with their coded language and let those people know that there is no place for that kind of ideology in Donald Trump’s America. Donald Trump did not create this deep-seated hatred, but he sure as hell uncovered it, and now it is up to him and all of us to take it on.

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Politics, Race, USA

Making sense of the 2016 presidential election

Tuesday night hit me like a fucking semi.

Needless to say, I did not expect Trump to win. I did not think it was outside the realm of possibilities, but I certainly did not think he would win like that—taking Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and nearly my home state of Minnesota. I don’t even think that Trump thought that he would win like that. He may have called it on the campaign trail, but you have to do that kind of stuff when you’re trying to win an election. But even if Trump didn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth, his supporters did, and then they went out and made them come true.

Tuesday’s results left me not only shocked but depressed—depressed by both the winner and my complete and total aloofness to the sentiments that produced that winner. In reflecting on that aloofness, and trying to make sense of what the fuck actually happened, one thing has become very clear to me:

I live in a liberal bubble.

Bill Maher often talks about a “conservative bubble”—a place where facts don’t matter and where our country is being overrun by gay Muslim socialists hellbent on taking our guns, our freedoms, and our cisgender bathrooms. But there is a liberal bubble in this country too, where arrogance, elitism, and a tinge of unchallenged hypocrisy work together to create a perception of our country that, while perhaps not as apocalyptic, is still pretty distorted.

Nothing that I’ve read breaks down that bubble better than this must-read Cracked.com article entitled “How Half of American lost its F**king Mind”. In this article, author David Wong describes an America that is less divided by lines between red states and blue, and more divided by lines that distinguish urban from rural. This is not a revelation. There’s no doubt that, upon seeing how close Trump came to taking our state, the first group that many of us liberal Minneapolitans looked to blame was the ignorant white rednecks that reside in the rural wasteland of “Greater Minnesota”—the unenlightened bigots who put their fear and hatred of diversity over their own working class interests.

But while those sentiments contain some truths, they also show the inherent hypocrisy of the city-dwelling liberal—the smug, coffee-sipping douchebag who will righteously defend the rights of impoverished urban blacks to riot against their oppression, but condescendingly snicker when a couple of country hillbillies get their meth lab raided. Urban liberals like to fancy themselves as champions of the oppressed, but in reality, it’s only a select group of oppressed peoples that those liberals are concerned about.

Liberals are right to call out the racism that was so key in the rise of Donald Trump. Van Jones nailed it when he called this election a “white-lash,” a “white-lash against a changing country,” and a “white-lash against a black president” from whom we need to take our country back and Make America Great Again. But one thing Van Jones also did was acknowledge that this was about more than race. Racism played an all too significant role in Trump’s election, and I do think that you can argue that anyone who voted for Trump has an unacceptable tolerance for the racism that fueled that campaign. That said, all Trump voters are not racists. It’s more complicated than that.

I’m disappointed in my liberal friends who are thinking and saying otherwise—who are unfriending people on Facebook and blocking people on Twitter and using their social media platforms to label all Trump supporters as racist, sexist, xenophobic morons. These words and actions only serve to fortify the outer layer of the liberal bubble in which we clearly already reside. They cut us off from an America whose support we vitally need if our liberal vision for this country is ever to become a reality. For that to happen, there needs to be dialogue, especially with those who think differently than we do.

The United States was founded on the ideal of free speech not just because we believe that people should be able to say whatever they want, but because we believe that it is free speech that leads us to truth. In the unabridged marketplace of intellectual exchange, bad ideas are not ignored and suppressed, but intellectually undermined and defeated. However, if this shared market does not exist, it gives insufficiently challenged bad ideas an opportunity to flourish inside the bubbles in which they are born.

I’m very concerned about a Trump presidency, and I understand why others are absolutely terrified. But Donald Trump is going to be our president, and like president Obama said, we need to root for him. This does not mean cheering Trump on as he bans Muslims and boots Mexicans, but instead hoping that this whole process has humbled him a little bit. It means hoping that his time in office will help him to develop a sensitivity and empathy for people that see and feel the world differently than he does. It means hoping that he will take some positive strides in reforming a corrupt and broken Washington and that he will somehow be able to use his less than partisan status to break the perpetual partisan gridlock. Because like Obama said to the president elect, “if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

 

Early signs show that Trump may be willing to comprise. Less than a week after the election, Trump has already began walking back some of his “repeal Obamacare” rhetoric, and has appeared to be very gracious and respectful in his dialogue with Obama, the Clintons, and the like. Personally, I think the guy is scared shitless. I don’t think that he thought he would be here, and I don’t think that he knows what to do now that he is. I remain convinced that he is immensely unqualified for the job he just won and that he will be desperately relying on real intellectuals for help in keeping the wheels of the country turning. But even if some of Trump’s doomsday rhetoric fades, liberals will still likely be on the defensive for much of Trump’s presidency, and we need to take that role seriously. We do not want to be the uncompromising obstructionists that Republicans were during Obama’s eight years in office, but we still need to stand up against bad ideas. If we are able to do that effectively while simultaneously reaching out beyond the liberal bubble to those groups who have felt left behind or neglected by liberal voices and policies, maybe in the next election more of the country will agree with us about what some of those bad ideas are, and some of the good ones as well.

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History, Race, USA

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: A must read for Americans

“When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred”—and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.”

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I just recently finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was published in 1965, the same year in which Malcolm X was violently gunned-down by his former allies. At times, the book feels like it was published yesterday.

That’s because over 50 years removed from its groundbreaking publication, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is still incredibly, and perhaps depressingly, relevant. Its discussion of race unveils some painful truths about what it means to be born black, and white, in the United States of America—truths that still hold true to this day.

Especially amongst white Americans, X is commonly remembered as the anti-King. King was a southern Baptist, while X was a Black Muslim. King said to “turn the other cheek,” while X said to “send him to the cemetery.” King had a dream, while X saw a delusion. King had white allies, while X only saw “white devils.”

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History has definitely treated Martin King Luther more kindly. He is the face of the Civil Rights Movement and unanimously venerated today by black and white people alike as an America hero of the highest degree. I concur with that sentiment, but after reading X’s autobiography—the story of Malcolm X in his own words—part of me feels that the things that X was saying were more powerful and poignant than any speech that Martin Luther King ever made. King was a man of his time, but X was ahead of his, and perhaps 50 years from now, history will reflect that.

The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened with X as its leader.  King was palatable to the white American public in a way that X could never be. King not only shared the religion of the white masses, he was a minister. He used the very verses that white Christians knew so well to convince them that the just treatment of the black man was the Christian thing to do. His deeply held religious convictions also helped to inform his philosophy of non-violence—a philosophy that also had immense strategic wherewithal. Pictures of violent white cops brutalizing peaceful black protestors had an enormous impact on the white American psyche, and made the dehumanization of the latter much more difficult in the face of the actions of the former. What is more, King insisted on integration—on black people and white people living together peacefully, in harmony, as one. King’s timeless “I Have a Dream” speech is based on this very sentiment, and is credited with having helped to create a society where black and white people do indeed “work together, pray together, [and] struggle together,” at least up to a certain point.

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X, on the other hand, was a staunch segregationist. He had no desire to live next to the white man who had beaten and brutalized his people for hundreds of years—he just wanted an end to the beatings and the brutalization. He did not want to work with the white man either. He saw no sense or honorability in trying to convince the white man to bestow rights upon blacks. Respect and independence was something that the black man had to earn for himself, no matter what the white man had to say about it. In achieving those ends, X did not advocate for violence, but unlike King, he also did not advocate against it. “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self-defense,” X once said, “I call it intelligence.”

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Even though X was, first and foremost, an advocate for black rights, he was also one of the most prominent critics of the Civil Rights Movement, at least the movement as we think of it today. He was highly skeptical of the methods and tactics used by the more prominent civil rights “leaders” (X’s quotations, not mine), and was even more skeptical of the movement’s so called achievements. To this day, Americans celebrate things like the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act as historic moments in the fight for racial equality—tangible political achievements that finally fulfilled the promised ideals of “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for every American regardless of race. But like Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, the language in said legislation often rang hollow. The words may have been pretty, but they failed to reflect themselves in a racial reality that never stopped being ugly. State sanctioned segregation may have come to an end, but that did little to increase the quality of black neighborhoods and black schools. Discriminatory voting laws may have been outlawed (sort of), but the legislators and legislation that followed have done little to address the plight of a lot of black Americans.

X didn’t need the hindsight that I am using to make the above observations—he used foresight. He knew that inspirational rhetoric and symbolic milestones would only go so far in creating meaningful change in the lives of black Americans. He may have thought King’s ends and means to be just and well-intentioned, but as X once said of his fellow civil rights advocate, “If you don’t think that he’s walking on the right road, I’m quite sure that you don’t agree that he’ll get to the right place.”

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I have tremendous respect for Malcolm X and tremendous regard for the worldview that he projected, but I also think that one of the most powerful aspects of this book is that X’s flaws were on full display. Even as someone who is enamored by history’s radical revolutionaries, there were plenty of things about X that I did not like, and plenty of things that X said that I did not agree with. But like this essay, this book is not an effort to martyrize or romanticize X the myth. It’s an honest, unapologetic portrayal of X the man.

In history, we often pretend that people don’t change. We assign them with static characteristics, as if they come into this world with certain inalterable traits that they consistently exhibit throughout their lives. The Autobiography of Malcolm X challenges this notion by showing us X’s evolution—not just from youth to adulthood, but the changes that took place in X, both personally and philosophically, in his never-ending quest to make sense of the world around him. In his final months, X had become more willing to work with the white man and more warm to the idea of an integrated society. He had recognized and admitted that some of his earlier views had some major flaws that failed to reflect the complexity of the larger world. He even broke with the Black Muslims with whom he had burst onto the national scene, and began his own pursuit of justice and truth in light of the new realities he had discovered.

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It goes without saying that X’s words should not be mistaken as the truth. I don’t think that there even is such a thing to find when surfing the subjective waves of race and history. That being said, I am confidant that everything that X expresses in those 400-plus pages is undoubtedly his truth. X always told it like he saw it, even though the way that he saw it changed over time. He was never one to sugarcoat anything, and never held anything back no matter how hurtful or offensive his words might be. The truth itself is oftentimes hurtful and offensive, and if X had to hurt you or offend you in order to tell you that truth, than that was just what had to be done.

In telling his truths, X oftentimes alters our own. Over 50 years removed from his departure from this world, X’s words still challenge many of the beliefs that we as a nation collectively hold about things like race and history and what it means to be an American. His words can be as discomforting as they are empowering, as demoralizing as they are inspiring, but regardless of message or tone, they are always radical, raw, and honest.

That’s what makes X’s voice so worthy of inclusion in the conversations that we are currently having. That’s what makes his words so insightful in our continued search to find solutions to the racial unrest that still plagues our nation. And that’s what makes his book such an important read for whites, and blacks, and anyone else who has skin in the game of race relations in the United States today. As I said before, I don’t think that X was right about everything, and surely there are some things that I think he was blatantly wrong about. But even though, at the end of the book, I remained unconvinced that the entirety of X’s upside down worldview was true, I still think that I’m a wiser person for at least taking the time to consider it.

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