Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Fifty Seventh and Osseo Road where my family lived in Brooklyn Center, was a mile and a quarter beyond the end of the Penn Avenue streetcar line north of Minneapolis. That was 1943-55. Every house along Osseo Road was occupied by a white Christian family, accustomed to working the sandy-soiled vegetable farms, which covered most of the area.  

At an early age I learned the importance of being able to pass, a word I borrowed from African Americans, who use it to refer to light skinned Black Americans who learned they could pass for being white.  While I was definitely very white, I learned how to pass for being the son of one of the uneducated blue color father and mother who spent their entire lives digging the dirt out from under their fingernails from the extraordinarily heavy, hard work they did over long hours and for little pay.  Our neighbors attended one of the local Protestant churches, mostly Lutheran.   Some, but not all had graduated from high school and none had gone to college.   Reading was not a priority in my community. There were no libraries in Brooklyn Center at that time.  Higher education was considered an effete activity for rich Easterners. 

The school bus ride from the corner near our house to Twin Lake Elementary School, a mile away, provided my introduction to the first rule of passing.  My parents had gotten me eye glasses in second grade because I had trouble reading what the teacher had printed on the black board, which was otherwise all blurry.  The first day I proudly donned my new black rimmed glasses, several boys on the bus called me "four eyes," "teacher's pet," and "sissy." I stopped wearing my glasses on the way to school.  I didn't understand the connection at first, but later I figured out they thought the glasses made me appear excessively studious, which was definitely verboten.

Although I liked to draw and paint pictures from an early age, I learned to hide that fact from other boys my age who called me a "fairy," when they found out I liked to draw and paint.  Apparently art was for girls only, and a boy who liked art must be effeminate.  In fourth grade I became interested in science, and checked out books from the school library about astronomy.  I had found where my interests lay, and it was within the world of science.  A boy on the bus grabbed the book from me and held it up waving to and fro for the others to see, as though he had found pictures of naked women in my possession, yelling, "Travis is a brown nose," and another yelled "Teacher's pet!"  From then on I was careful to hide my science books from other kids.

In sixth grade I noticed several guys consistently shoved other kids on the playground or when waiting in line.  They punched girls in the stomach and picked fights with other boys.  They said "shit," a lot and called other kids "assholes," when there didn't seem any reason to do so.  Most of the other guys in my class shrugged and seemed to accept their obnoxious behavior as though it were something you just had to tolerate, like an annoying pimple.  I began feeling I must be from another planet, because their behavior seemed totally unacceptable and so alien to me. When I told them to cut it out, they threatened to “beat me to a pulp.”  No one took my side.

When I was in 7th grade we were transferred to Robbinsdale Public Schools five miles away.  After school I walked into town down to West Broadway to get a haircut. The barber was an older balding guy who did his best to make conversation with his customers, including kids like me.  As he clicked his scissors around my ears he said with a chuckle,  "How about them Gophers, sure kicked the Hawkeyes butts!   He was referring to the previous Saturday's football game.  I said, "Yep," but had no idea what he was talking about.   That was when I learned about guy talk.  I played touch football nearly every day after school in Fall, and played basketball outdoors all winter, and softball in the spring, but I had no idea who the Hawkeyes were.  I didn't follow sports news.  It was of no interest to me.  I was a doer, not a watcher.  My dad wasn't much of a football fan either, though he enjoyed watching Friday Night Fights on television.   After that, I looked up the Gopher game scores before going to get my next haircut; it was part of passing.  

My parents let me get a driver's license when I was 16 years old.  The problem was that I didn't have a car.  I saved my money and for $24 bought a dark green '37 Plymouth. I earned enough money working odd jobs to buy gas and oil.  It used way too much oil.   When my friends gathered round to see my purchase, I discovered I was expected to lift the hood lid and prop it up so they could see and listen to the engine running. I wasn't sure why, but that was definitely what guys did. The really cool guys lifted one foot and rested it on the bumper while the engine was running, as they talked about compression, carburators, distributors and plugs. I tried to do that in order to pass.  I knew what a sonnet was, where the superior vena cava was located and the names of Mars's moons,  but I couldn't remember the difference between a carburator and distributor.  That's a real problem when you're trying to pass.

When I was a feshman at the University of Minnesota I came upon Dick Guindon cartoon that explained everything to me. Guindon had drawn cartoons for the Minnesota student "Daily" before he made it big. The first frame showed some cows in a pasture standing on their hind  legs chatting with one another.  A fence and roadway ran along the field.  In the second frame, one cow shouted to the others, "Car!" and they immediately got down onto all fours and started chewing grass.  In the final frame, as the car passed into the distance at the furthest end of the field, they all stood up on their hind legs again and resumed their conversation.  I finally discovered what passing was all about. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving 1621 and 2012

Thanksgiving, like most holidays celebrated around the world, has little to do with the original occasion being celebrated, the first year of survival of the European settlers at Plymouth Rock. Such celebrations are idealized abstractions based on shared values held dearly, whether it is the Haj to Mecca, or the Hindu New Year, Diwali: The Festival of Lights, the French observing May Day with bonfires, eating and drinking into the night, or in the US Americans celebrating Thanksgiving with our families. Many think of it as the uniquely American holiday, though our neighbors to the North also celebrate Thanksgiving the second Monday in October. The mythology of Thanksgiving abundance was a by-product of Normal Rockwell’s magazine cover paintings a happy white Christian family seated around the table before a veritable feast. Americans came to accept that as the reality rather than the mythology of Thanksgiving. The commercialization of holidays in the US reaches its pinnacle, and is cause for understandable cynicism, but not for abandoning the spirit behind some of our more important celebrations.

As more Americans have become aware of White Europeans’ history of appalling mistreatment of the Native American people who first lived in the land we now call America, our discomfort with this holiday has grown. It seems a celebration of white men with guns driving Native people from their land on which they had lived for for a very long time before the White man came. Moreover, the economic disparity which has always beset our country, has grown more pronounced in the past decade, as the rich have grown vastly richer and the average working or unemployed American, far poorer. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other minority groups continue to suffer economically disproportionately. This year, some of us find it necessary to pinch pennies on our Thanksgiving meal, still reeling from the devastating Recession piled on top of the past 20 years of no wage increases as the cost of living has risen. It’s been the old squeezing blood from a stone situation. For each family that is skipping apple pie with ice cream this year, there are many other families that will have either no Thanksgiving meal or a meal from items obtained at a food pantry, or perhaps a meal provided by a charity. This makes us wonder exactly what it is we are celebrating.

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 wasn’t about abundance either. It was about a year’s survival under impossibly challenging, life threatening conditions. If you thought 2011 and 2012 were bad, you should have seen 1620! It was a celebration of having worked together and helping one another against formidable odds, and survival. It was a observance that of the 102 people who were on the ship that landed, by the end of the first winter, 53 were still alive to enjoy a meal together from the very limited crops they had grown, deer and birds were shot 

and cod and bass that were caught. Only nine women and adolescent girls survived. Massasoit, the great Chief of the Wampanoag tribe and 90 of his people arrived with meat, fowl, fish and crops and helped the pilgrims prepare for the upcoming winter. Several of the Wampanoag people shared the meal with them. So perhaps we should approach this year’s Thanksgiving in a similar spirit. We have survived a very difficult year. This primitive painting may actually depict the setting more accurately than many idealized versions. 

Our celebration is not about abundance, because very few American experience abundance. We are rediscovering the worth of working together toward a shared cause, of improving the lives of all members of our community. The Pilgrims had left royalty and the landed gentry behind to start life in a world where they believed everyone would be equal. That was, of course, a fiction because the native people and women were not treated as equals, but it was a good starting point that is little by little becoming closer to reality. 
We continue to struggle with the notion that everyone must have an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of our labor. It is not necessary to celebrate an extravagance of plenty on Thanksgiving. The holiday is about spending time with our families and friends, not the number of courses in the meal.  We have never really come to accept the idea that everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in their own way.

Working in food pantries once or twice a year on holidays is good. It helps a dozen or hundred individuals on that one day, and it relieves the guilt. Thanksgiving is a time to commit our selves to a larger goal that may be possible because of the immediately past national elections. It is time we commit ourselves to doing everything in our power to reduce the gross disparity among our people, to lift up everyone, not just on one day, but all days. Now that the election is over, it is time to begin again in earnest to do what we must, which is to engage the gears of democratic government to make all of our lives better. 

 It is time to apply our most persuasive pressure on our political leaders and others in the public arena, for the economic reforms necessary to create a better life for all Americans. That must have been the sincerest wish of the Pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving 391 years ago. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Election 2012: From Celebration to Racial Bitterness

Wednesday November 7, 2008 and again on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009 a broad spectrum of Americans celebrated the nation’s first election of an African American to the Presidency.  Jesse Jackson and other Black Americans cried tears of joy, but many who voted for Republican John McCain were also proud that America had finally made progress on this unfulfilled promise of racial equality which Alexis de Tocqueville had pointed out in “Democracy in America” (1835-40).  Nearly all Americans want to think of themselves as treating all people equally regardless of race or ethnicity, and the narrative of an African American who had grown up in difficult circumstances ascending to the highest office in the land was highly appealing and cause for celebration. That of course was largely a myth, for many Americans continued to harbor fundamentally racist attitudes and beliefs, but at least for that one day they could make believe they were supporters of equality.  

Any pretence of national solidarity ended with a secret dinner on January 20, 2009 at the end of the Inauguration Day when House Republicans and some Senators met to plan a campaign of obstruction against newly installed president Barack Obama. During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years, making it appear he accomplished nothing. Attending the dinner were House members Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, Dan Lungren, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and Pete Sessions. From the Senate were Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign and Jon Kyl.  Others present were former House Speaker and future presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who organized the dinner.  A detailed account of who was present at the dinner on that January 20 night and the plan they worked out to bring down Obama is provided by Robert Draper in 'Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the US House of Representatives.’

Barrack Obama surpassed any reasonable expectations of what a president could possibly do to address the disastrous state of the economy that he encountered on the first day in office, the Republicans succeeded in blocking nearly every presidential effort to improve the economy.  There were more filibusters of Administration legislation than at any time in history.  But despite those efforts to undermine the nation’s economic welfare, Obama was able to achieve economic improvement, with less unemployment and more new housing starts than any time over the past four years.  His foreign policy achievements, including eliminating Bin Laden, have been stunning. 

When Romney was selected as the Republican opponent, the die appeared to be cast that the official deciding factor in the upcoming election would be the economy.   Romney’s only claim to legitimacy appeared to be his experience as a business executive.  But when it turned out his business experience had almost completely involving consolidating and eliminating businesses, firing workers, and shipping American jobs to Mexico, China, the Philippines and India, it appeared that advantage had disappeared. Concealing his vast wealth from American taxation did not help Romney’s case.  But despite Romney’s appalling business record, many Americans continued to believe he would be able to improve the economy for ordinary people, which was simply false. The people who believed that were the elusive “swing” voters who are really uncommitted Republicans looking for an excuse to vote for their party. 

In this, the last month of the campaign, Romney’s supporters have explicitly turned to racism to defeat Obama, unleashing John Sununu and other representatives such as Newt Gingrich, to explicitly attack the president on racial grounds http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/10/26/1094491/john-sununus-history-of-racial-remarks-about-obama/?mobile=nc which tapped into the implicit racism of people who are mislabled “Independents,” whom most studies show to be largely Republicans who are concealing their affiliation.   Only 1 in 3 or 4 Independents are truly independent

The joy and justifiable national pride of electing the first African American to the presidency has been replaced by deep-seated racial bitterness, which is at its root will be the deciding factor in this campaign. If the election were decided on the candidates’ merits, Obama clearly would win. Most people realize that.  But it is no accident that Romney will win the southern states and mountain states that have traditionally had strongly racist constituencies, and Obama will win the west and east coast and upper Midwest states which have traditionally supported policies of social equality.  If Romney wins enough electoral votes to win the election, it will confirm for America and the World, that the country is deeply racist in its most fundamental way, revealing that all of the talk of equality is pure window dressing.  When Americans thrust their finger in the air and scream “We’re Number One,” they are referring to being the number one racist. All of the people of color throughout the world will realize this country’s rhetoric about equality is meaningless.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Snips & Snails and Puppy Dog Tails in France and the US

During a recent visit to Paris, I participated in an animated discussion among a group of French and American expatriates at lunch about politics in the US and France.  While there are poorly informed members of the public on both sides of the Atlantic, the French have the impression much of the American electorate has a superficial understanding of the issues, especially foreign affairs.  The impression seems to be that we Americans are making decisions about candidates based mainly on slogans rather than a grasp of the implications of one versus another choice.  They acknowledged that isn’t very different among a segment of the French as well.  

I had the impression that most in the group had a generally favorable impression of Barrack Obama and thought Romney has a simplistic and somewhat dangerous world view.  They seemed very puzzled about why Americans equate socialism with communism, which are entirely different, and fear them equally.   Though there were divided views on the Hollande socialist government, I heard many of the same feelings of disappointment among those on the left that I have heard over the past four years about Obama by the progressive wing of the Democratic party in the US. 

Though there is unemployment in France (about 8%) as in the US, our French friends don’t seem to be as overwhelmingly concerned as we are in the US.  I didn’t speak with anyone who expressed the view that it was a serious problem there, though acknowledging it had been a problem five years ago.  I suspect the reaction would be different among minority groups in France, such as recent immigrants.  The far right parties (there are 12 main parties in France) are capitalizing on hostility toward immigrants taking jobs from long time French citizens as among some blue collar white voters in the US.   The economy is in a deficit in France pressuring the Hollande government to cut government expenses and promote business growth, though there are strong differences of opinion about how to do that in France, especially among those on the Left.  While Republicans are attempting to eliminate labor unions in the US, in France national laws prohibit firing workers except with severance pay, and workers there have many benefits Americans would envy. So though pay is lower in France, the net result is most French people are well off because so many basic services are free in France.   Facism exists more openly in France than the US and there are fears among many about resurgence of a Vichy-style movement as had occurred during WW2 headed by Marshall Phillipe Petain, which collaborated with the Nazis.  There are similarities between the Tea Party and the National Front and Marine Le Pen’s party.  But unlike the irrational acceptance of many Tea Party views by Republicans, most conservatives in Sarkozy’s party in France reject the Far Right movements and find it puzzling that so many Americans are drawn to such atavistic views.

In France as in the US, there is an undercurrent of discourse about the functions of government, though the starting point for those conversations is very far to the Left in France compared with the US, in which our point of departure for discussion in the US is from a very conservative Republican perspective.  For far to long the Democratic Party has rolled over and played dead in the US and moderate Republicans have been like puppies running scared with their tails between their legs as the “Big Dogs” among the radicals bark their dangerous commands.  Though the Big Dogs account for a very small proportion of the electorate in the US, they are the tail that wags the dog because of their vast wealth. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Republican Feudalism and Functions of State

The political stability of the United States of America is the most precarious it has been since the Great Depression, and perhaps the Civil War. The very fabric of what his meant by the United States is in question.  The 2013 elections reflect the depth of this conflict.  

The functions of our country as a state have come under relentless coordinated attack from a well organized and very generously funded political-economic insurgency, which has created a political crisis in this country.  Since 1980 with Ronald Reagan's election, and most notably over the past four years, an unrelenting public relations campaign has been underway to convince American citizens the US is a loose confederation of companies, banks and money lenders and investment companies that control the lives of all the people who work for them directly and indirectly,  i.e. you and me and all of the other citizens. That is the heart of the Republican Party's vision of Ayn Rand's philosophy which they are attempting to impose on the country.  The effort has involved establishment of a national television network (FOX "News") providing around the clock propaganda, various well funded organizations to serve as sources of propaganda information (mistakenly called "think tanks," such as the Cato Institute), extremely influential lobbing companies designed to raise money for support the election of state legislators and governors, and organizing campaigns to changing laws to permit unlimited spending to support election of candidates to local, state and federal offices, and the appointment of federal judges to interpret laws to favor those who are paying for them. These groups have no commitment to the modern meaning of the word "state"and more importantly, the functions of a state. Their goal is to create a plutocratic state rendering democracy meaningless. 

A state is a legal/political entity that is comprised of a permanent population, a defined territory; a government ; and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.  According to Woodrow Wilson's classic book,  "The State: The Functions Of Government,"  government has two groups of functions, I.  The Constituent Functions and II. The Ministrant functions. Wilson wrote,  "Under the Constituent I would place that usual category of governmental function, the protection of life, liberty, and property, together with all other functions that are necessary to the civic organization of society, - functions which are not optional with governments, even in the eyes of strictest laissez faire, - which are indeed the very bonds of society.  Under the Ministrant (functions) I would range those other functions (such as education, posts and telegraphs, and the care, say, of forests, which are undertaken, not by way of governing, but by way of advancing the general interests of society....". The Republican Party has proposed that only the Constituent Functions should be recognized and nearly all of the Ministrant Functions abolished. 

Among the Ministrant functions of the US government Wilson enumerated were ten which the Koch Republicans are seeking to eliminate or be emasculated: (1) The regulation of trade and industry, (2) The regulation of labor,  (3) The maintenance of thoroughfares, - including state management of railways and that great group of undertakings which we embrace within the comprehensive term 'Internal Improvements,  (4) The maintenance of postal and telegraph systems, which is very similar in principle to (3) The manufacture and distribution of gas, the maintenance of water-works, etc.(6) Sanitation, including the regulation of trades for sanitary purposes, (7) Education, (8) Care of the poor and incapable,  (9) Care and cultivation of forests and like matters, such as the  stocking of rivers with fish, and (10) Sumptuary laws, such as 'prohibition' laws, for example."

The Republicans are attempting to replicate the disintegration of the state that occurred in the Middle Ages, which is the essence of the strategy of the Koch Brothers' Tea Part, and was the goal of their father Frederick C. Koch's John Birch Society.  Wilson's analysis reminds us that during the Middle Ages, government was replaced by a... "Feudal System as the constituent elements of government fell away from each other. Conceptions of government narrowed themselves to small territorial connections, [much as the Republicans press for states rights or local rights and elimination of most federal rights].  Men became sovereigns in their own right by virtue of owning land in their own right. There was no longer any conception of nations or societies as wholes. Union there was none, but only interdependence.  Allegiance was not to law, but to ownership.  The functions of government under such a system were simply the functions of proprietorship, of command and obedience.....The public function of the baron was to keep peace among his liegemen, to see that their properties were enjoyed according to the custom of the manor....  The baronial conscience, bred in cruel, hardening times, was the only standard of justice; the baronial power the only conclusive test of prerogative."
That is what at stake.  The Koch Brothers Republican Party is in the process of entirely dismantling half of the functions of a modern US state.  That is what all of the rancor is about, a referendum on completion the conversion of America into a feudal state.  Exaggeration?  Regrettably, very little.