Tuesday, September 2, 2014

No One Was Singing the Blues

What do conservatives think about race in America? Phil Robertson, the new conservative hero, offered an argument about the history of race relations that is popular with conservatives: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people.’ Not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say, ‘Were they happy?’ They were godly, they were happy, no one was singing the blues.”

Robertson justified this version of race relations in Louisiana before the civil rights era by saying, “I’m with the blacks.” But he wasn’t with any blacks in school, because all the public schools in Louisiana were segregated long after the 1954 Supreme Court decision about Topeka, Kansas. In November 1960, when the first blacks were admitted to school in New Orleans, whites in Caddo Parish, where he grew up, burned crosses at the all-black high school and at the Parish School Board Office. Robertson was 14 years old. The first blacks were admitted to public schools in Caddo Parish in 1965, after he had graduated. School officials there kept delaying integration through the 1970s. So of course, he had no black teammates at his high school, where he was all-state in football, baseball, and track.

Robertson met no black people at any sporting or social event, due to the 1956 state law banning “dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports or contests and other such activities involving personal and social contacts in which the participants or contestants are members of the white and Negro races.”

When he went to Louisiana Tech in 1965, there were no black students. That year a federal judge ruled that Louisiana Tech finally had to admit African Americans. A photo of the football team where he played ahead of Terry Bradshaw shows no black players. Across the state at Louisiana State University, the segregation laws had made national news in 1956 when the University of Wisconsin’s football team had refused an LSU demand to leave their two black players home, and LSU then refused to play. LSU had no black players until 1971.

Louisiana had a long and violent history of racism. At least 27 African Americans were lynched in Caddo Parish alone between 1878 and 1923, more than one every other year. Perhaps the last black man lynched in Louisiana was R.C. Williams in 1938 in Ruston, home of Louisiana Tech.

Charles Blow of the NY Times said this about Robertson’s claims about race: “Only a man blind and naive to the suffering of others could have existed there and not recognized that there was a rampant culture of violence against blacks. Whether he personally saw mistreatment of them is irrelevant.”

Robertson’s casual dismissal of racism in the Deep South fits well with conservative Republican mythology. His Governor, Bobby Jindal, calls himself one of Robertson’s “loudest and earliest defenders”. He said, “I’m tired of the Left, I’m tired of those that say they are for tolerance, they’re for diversity, and they are, unless you happen to disagree with them. The Left wants to silence anyone who has a different view or a different perspective.” Earlier this month, Representative Mo Brooks from Alabama said, “What is the one race that can be discriminated against? … All whites.” That echoes conservative Pat Buchanan’s comment from a year ago.

Why are conservative Republican politicians blind to the history of American racism? Why do they make absurd claims about how good things were for blacks in the Jim Crow Era? One reason is the widespread self-pity among conservative whites. A study in 2011 showed that whites believed that anti-white discrimination was stronger than anti-black discrimination. White conservatives fear that diversity brings discrimination against them: in a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of white conservatives said that “discrimination against whites will increase due to rising diversity.” A majority of white conservatives believes that “high levels of racial and ethnic inequality are a natural outcome of the economy.” Thus they oppose “new steps to reduce racial and ethnic inequality in America through investments in areas like education, job training, and infrastructure improvement.” Observing the events in Ferguson, Missouri, 61% of Republicans believe race has been getting too much attention.

In April, Rand Paul told students at Howard University that “the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights.” Reince Priebus lamented at the Republican Leadership Conference that the party of Lincoln doesn’t get enough credit: “We’re the party of freedom and we’re the party of opportunity and we’re the party of equality, we’re the ones with that history.” Yes, once upon a time the Republican Party was the party of freedom for African Americans. But as long as conservative Republicans celebrate deniers of our racial history like Phil Robertson, nobody will believe that.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 2, 2014

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Who Are Our Heroes?

Phil Robertson was the featured speaker at the Republican Leadership Conference in May in New Orleans, announced only two days before the meeting. Most Americans know his name, because he plays himself on “Duck Dynasty”, the highest rated reality show on cable.

Robertson’s personal story is remarkable for his rejection of conventional modern life, and inspiring for his persistence. The Wikipedia article about him is worth reading, especially for the buzz cut 1967 photo of him as a college football star. Robertson started at quarterback for Louisiana Tech for two years while Terry Bradshaw of later Pittsburgh Steelers fame backed him up. But as Bradshaw wrote in his autobiography, “The quarterback playing ahead of me, Phil Robertson, loved hunting more than he loved football.” Robertson did not play his last year and refused offers to play in the NFL in order to hunt and try to convince other hunters that his hand-whittled duck calls were the best. Beginning by selling his work store-to-store, making some duck hunting videos, appearing on the Outdoor Channel, he finally earned an invitation from A&E to have his family become reality TV stars.

Robertson has a great beard, which I appreciate. But I don’t think his wild hair recommended him to the most clean shaven, tightly coiffed class of Americans – politicians.

Robertson’s rags to riches story links the Republican Party, which bases its economic policies on protecting the rich, with average working Americans, although he is anything but average. Only a minority of Americans regularly watch his show, less than one in every 20 adults. Many more have heard about Robertson because of his recent remarks on political issues. That was the reason for the Republican invitation. Robertson was being asked to talk politics to conservative politicians and their supporters.

What he would say was already widely known. In January, GQ published a lengthy story about him, sprinkled with his political quotations. Asked what he believed was sinful, he replied, “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.” Paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, he said, “Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers, they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.” A bit later he tossed homosexuals, drunks and terrorists into one heap.

On African Americans, he explained how happy they were in Louisiana in the Jim Crow era: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people.’ Not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly, they were happy, no one was singing the blues.”

When the interview became public, there was a predictable outcry from Americans who found these ideas offensive. The A&E network suspended Robertson, then there was another outcry from the opposite direction, and Robertson was put back on the air.

Other information about his sexual beliefs has become public knowledge. In 2009, he gave marriage advice to the men of the Georgia Sportsmen’s Ministry. He started by advising, “Make sure that she can cook a meal.” Then he went further: “Look, you wait ’til they get to be 20 years old, the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16. They’ll pick your ducks.” He repeated that theme in his autobiography published in 2013.

These are the views that the Republican Leadership Conference organizers expected to hear, and Robertson delivered. He quoted Corinthians again about the evils of homosexuality and read many documents which equated the US with Christianity. He called the Obama White House “evil and wicked”. His main advice: “Get Godly.”

Phil Robertson is a fascinating man, with every right to express his opinions, shared by many Americans. When the Republican Party invites him to speak, they express their endorsement of those opinions: homosexuality is a sin to be compared with bestiality and terrorism; women should cook well and follow the lead of their men; blacks didn’t start singing the blues until liberals came along with the civil rights movement.

Robertson himself expressed some uncertainty about why he was asked to address an official Party gathering. He offers nothing to the majority of Americans who disagree with what he says. He has no advice for politicians trying to make policy or win votes. He appeals to the good old white boys, whose votes Republican politicians desperately seek.

That appears to make him a conservative Republican political hero. Republican politicians have had little success trying to change Americans’ minds about the very issues that Robertson is known to speak about. but they keep trying, by reasserting their simple formulas and offering only disdain to those who disagree. Mitt Romney won nearly twice as many votes among white men as Barack Obama, but even that margin was not enough to win the election. His assertion that Republicans could write off nearly half the population, those entitled minorities, sinful homosexuals, and equality-minded women, still appears to govern Republican Party practice.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 26, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Father of the Bride

My daughter Mae got married this weekend. That gave me a special status as father of the bride. But exactly what that means is not so clear.

The 1991 comedy “Father of the Bride” starring Steve Martin, and its predecessor from 1950 starring Spencer Tracy, portrayed these men as foolish protectors of their adult daughters, only slowly reconciled to losing them to their future sons-in-law. That wasn’t an attractive model for me, but it was based on widely accepted ideas.

For centuries fathers have given away their daughters to new husbands. That ritual reflected the idea that women were not independent beings, but for their whole lives dependent upon men. Marriage represented a moment of transition, when a father handed over responsibility for his daughter to her husband.

This transfer of responsibility for a woman was also symbolized by changing her name from her father’s to her husband’s. The question of whether women should change their names at marriage became controversial in the 1970s, when many women influenced by the feminist movement decided to keep their names.

It’s hard to find out how frequently women have kept their names since then: you can read quite different percentages from different studies. An academic paper says around one in five over the past couple of decades, with a slight decrease since 2000, while a Facebook study estimates about one third. When women talk about making that decision, they often describe the social pressure to change their names. The phrase we use to label a women’s birth name reveals the ancient thinking behind this tradition: the words “maiden name” imply women’s virginal state before marriage.

Mae is 30 years old, and didn’t need or want anyone to give her away. She and Ben had developed pretty definite ideas about how their wedding should be celebrated. They wanted to get married in the woods of northern Wisconsin, to eat homemade foods, to have wedding pies instead of a cake, to dance to a musical playlist they put together. They wanted every element of the ceremony to display the equality of their relationship. They wanted fun rather than formality.
The weekend was a family event. Not only did third cousins and third cousins of third cousins come from all over to celebrate their wedding, but they also baked and cooked and set up and cleaned up. Their friends created silly games to play outdoors on the wedding afternoon. In fact, weddings are two-family events, when groups of people, who may have never met, find themselves joined together by matrimony. Members of both families pitched in, inspired by this do-it-yourself approach and joyous for their opportunities to participate.

My role as father of the bride, of course in tandem with my wife, was to facilitate those plans: arrange the food they wanted to eat; rent the tents they wanted so guests could eat outside; buy paper plates and plastic spoons and vinyl tablecloths; procure a generator to run lights and sound system on the lake shore; and write a few checks.

Of course, that’s not enough. The father of the bride is expected to address the wedding party and the guests with words of love and wisdom. There are countless websites offering advice to fathers on how to give a wedding speech. They are strong on well-phrased platitudes, and thus not very useful, except to display the many themes that a father could express.

Generic phrases were not able to express my feelings about this wonderful milestone in Mae’s and Ben’s life. Ultimately, my status as father of the bride depended for its meaning on my daughter. For her, as for me, following traditions is less important than making her own decisions about the role she wanted me to play. Being father of the bride is nothing more than continuing to be a father. That role doesn’t end with a wedding. Nobody is lost or given away. Strong women don’t need protection. I was delighted to support her thoughtful choices, to welcome a new set of relatives, to carry on being a father, a man’s most joyous role.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 12, 2014