Monday, January 17, 2011

The Blood of Patriots

One favorite quote professed by Tea Partiers and the like was made famous by Thomas Jefferson - "The tree of liberty must from time to time be watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants." It has been used with hyperbole and frequency, in the past several years, to protest the actions of a legally and freely elected government. A legally and freely elected government that, I might add, peaceably transferred power to the opposition after our nation's next scheduled legal and free elections.

One problem I have with such hyperbole and emotional rhetorical devices is the expectation that this now mainstream political participant in American government is somehow working to fight the tyranny of non-representation and oppressive rule that Jefferson was discussing. As if the other mainstream political choice in this nation represents tyranny. A tyranny ironically usurped by the iron grip of voter turnout and bound by law.

My problem exists because, in the not so recent past, patriots have had their actual blood spilled and lives lost while opposing to a system of government that entrenched very real tyranny and refused enfranchisement to American citizens on the basis of skin color. This tyranny and oppression was defended with the hanging rope, torches in the night, arson, bombs, billy clubs, tear gas, fire hoses, and bullets; not to mention the tacit public approval of those methods by a majority of the enfranchised public. Thus had such oppression made its way into the legislation these patriots dared oppose.

The Memphis assassination cannot be considered as an isolated incident in this country or abroad. It will stand with the assassination of President Kennedy, the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, the murder of Malcolm X in New York and the slaying of civil rights workers in the South as a stain on our whole society, a scar which cannot be forgotten. Is this to be the mark of the United States in this second half of the Twentieth Century?

Forgetting the very real trials of this time in American History, or at least subconsciously marginalizing them, has become pervasive in our current political culture. Words matter. Culture matters. History, accurately appraised, matters.

These historical sacrifices are trivialized by a movement of wholly enfranchised and empowered citizens claiming to be oppressed at the hands of a tyrannical government elected by the majority. The Tea Party faces no billy clubs, fire hoses or police dogs. Hooded bands of liberals do not arrive in the night to burn things on their lawns. They have openly carried guns to their rallies, and faced only chiding from the media. Their most popular leaders have used rhetoric far more fiery than the non-violence associated with the most popular and numerous leaders of the Civil Rights era. As a matter of fact, you don't even have to look very far to see the esteem in which fiery Civil Rights era voices are held - you only have to compare the pop culture legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to that of Malcolm X. Thus is the difference between the "table of brotherhood" and "by any means necessary."

More telling is the historical fact that neither were allowed to make it out of that era alive.

More insidious, in my opinion, is the attempt to rewrite, revise or erase the history of our recent past. This can be found in the way we politically discuss matters of race in our national discourse. Our Congress just read a sanitized and fake Constitution, removing the controversial parts that speak to the darker and lasting historical legacies of this nation, even as they claim to be "originalists" and Constitutional "constructionists" that politically advance a "return" to the Constitutional values of our nation's Founders - many of whom owned slaves.

Further still is the way certain issues are discussed. Political correctness, an academic attempt to modify the dehumanizing language of Jim Crow and segregation, is now used as a political slur; vernacular for lying or misrepresentation. School choice and states' rights are still used as arguments for policy change, and any attempt to point out the race-based history of such policy is met with outright dismissal. The charges of "racism" and the counter-charge of "crying-racism" have diluted the necessity of our national conversation on race; degenerating that conversation to the farcical exercise of rewriting Huckleberry Finn or intentionally misconstruing the definition of the term "tar baby." Affirmative Action is discussed only in terms of reverse racism, without the acceptance - or even acknowledgement - of the very, very real race-based obstacles to some populations and the very real race-based advantages still in play for other populations. Our schools, finally legally integrated, remain culturally and realistically segregated.

But progress has been made. The blood of these patriots, though seldom celebrated with meaning, was not in vain. I have written this post in a city where the most privileged youth of the nation are unashamedly striving to increase the educational aspirations of the nation's most at-risk youth, despite the politics of those who wrecked the last system or who will wreck the next system. I am seated at a coffee shop where the restrooms are labeled only "Men" and "Women," on a street faced with grand antebellum homes. I have just watched a white woman and a black man introduce themselves to one another in public, and share a table and a conversation without any hint of fear or impropriety. They had replaced a duo of women, also black and white, who had giggled over a shared laptop computer for an hour while studying for the same class at the same local college.

An idyllic scene, without a doubt. A new Norman Rockwell paradigm, where all the issues I have discussed don't necessarily occupy the conscious thoughts. On a holiday all paid for with the blood of patriots, in the course of our grand American experiment.


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