Confederate Monuments, Names of Schools, etc.


Lately, there has been discussion about removal of statues and monuments to soldiers and generals of the Confederate States of America. I guess it got a lot of traction with the discussions about the Confederate Battle Flag flying on State property in South Carolina and its eventual removal. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has announced it is removing stained glass that depicts the Confederate Battle Flag. Similar actions are happening in cities across the south, New Orleans, Louisville (granted, Kentucky was not a state of the Confederacy, but it was a slavery state), and Birmingham, to name a few.

It’s not just monuments, schools are named after prominent Confederate figures. There are high schools named for Jefferson Davis, P.G.T Beauregard, “Stonewall” Jackson, and so forth. Of course, several are named for Robert E. Lee. I knew of a middle school and a high school in Louisiana. I would have attended the middle school if my parents had not put me in private school during the height of the integration battles in my home town. I did attend Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Robert E. Lee High School

It was an excellent school and prepared me well to go to college at Georgia Tech. I was ready to tackle calculus through my pre-calculus class and had two entire semesters dedicated to Shakespeare. Located near LSU, with many faculty children attending, it was expected to have such things.

Age caught up with Lee and it has been rebuilt with all of the marvels of the modern views of education. It is top notch in all ways, clearly.

As it is slated to reopen in the coming fall, the question of its name has been brought up, and a battle is brewing. The battle is the same as the one over the monuments. Is it appropriate to honor Robert E. Lee in 2016 America?

My Opinion on Renaming

Below, with some editing, is a comment I made in response to an editorial in The Baton Rouge Advocate. On Thursday, June 9, 2016, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will have a forum to discuss a name change.

Some still question if changing the name is appropriate. Absolutely, it is appropriate.

This is not a decision about political correctness or other such distracting mislabeling. It is about ethical decisions and removing a burden for future students.

Ethical Decisions

This is about making ethical decisions in the here and now about whom we choose to honor and whom we choose to relegate to history books and museum contextualization. By naming a school after an historical figure, by maintaining a statue to an historical figure, we are absolutely honoring that person. Indeed, we continue to elevate that person in public consciousness. Robert E. Lee is a much larger figure in the public consciousness than he should be, in my opinion somewhat because of the many monuments and schools named after him. Thousands of students who attended the first version of Robert E. Lee High School learned about him who otherwise would have read about him in a history book and probably forgotten him soon afterwards. How many people know of George Thomas? Patience, you’ll learn a little here.

Whether to honor a specific historical person or not is our choice based on our ethics. In that choice, we make a statement about how we feel about that historical person’s acts.

Robert E. Lee had a choice to serve the Union or serve the Confederacy. He chose the Confederacy, arguing he was choosing based on loyalty to Virginia. He chose to serve the side protecting the right to ownership of other human beings. Other officers in the United States Army had the same choice at the time of the outbreak of the war. Some men from Southern states chose their loyalty to the United States, some transferred their loyalty to the Confederacy. (They had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, after all.)

If we maintain the honoring of Robert E. Lee with the name of the school we are saying that his decision to defend slavery was quite all right. We all know it wasn’t because owning humans is grievously wrong. It was an act of misguided loyalty. Others such as George Thomas of Virginia who chose to stay with the Union lost all posessions and connection to the family. They are the heros for whom schools should be named. Alas, I can find no record of a school named after George Thomas. (There is a George C. Thomas Junior High School in Philadelphia, named after a banker important for financial stability of the Union during the war, and not the same man.)

The Effect on Students

We should recognize the effect the name of the school will have on students of the school. Regardless of background, there is a heavy weight associated with attaching yourself to a school named Robert E. Lee.

The descendants of slaves should not need to attend a school named after a man who made the choice to defend enslavement of humans. They should not have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of desiring an excellent education at a place dedicated to a man who fought for their ancestors’ continued enslavement.

I am a proud graduate of R. E. Lee High School, class of ’76. But, over the years, on paperwork for this and that I needed to document the name of my high school. As a psychologist, I know that people are influenced by their biases, even when they try their best to not let those biases have influence. How many times was my application downrated just a small amount, enough to move me out of contention for a job or educational opportunity because of the awareness of R. E. Lee as a man who defended slavery? I can never know the answer in any specific case, but without a doubt it happened, because that’s just how the human mind words. The people making a decision wouldn’t even be able to point to why. They’d just say, “I don’t know, I just have a bit of a negative ‘vibe’ about this candidate.”

It would be better to not saddle future generations of high school graduates with that little bit of extra weight in what will doubtless be a competitive employment and educational market.

Pride in a Name

Fix this now. It is both ethically righteous and a benefit to future students to change the name away from Robert E. Lee. A name of a public structure should be one to utter easily with pride, not one that may require a justification.


Establishment of a State Religion OK According to Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas is OK with states establishing an official religion and that’s why it is important to vote for Hillary Clinton even if frustrated by Bernie Sanders not getting the nomination. The Supreme court is in the balance.

Clarence Thomas has been a controversial figure since he was first nominated to the Supreme Court. We are approaching the 25th anniversary of his nomination in which accusations of sexual harassment were revealed by National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg. Thomas has been remarkably conservative, some argue even farther to the right than the late Antonin Scalia. Charges of conflict of interest have dogged he and his wife. He virtually never speaks from the bench when cases are presented, so much so that when he finally spoke this past February for the first time in over 10 years it made national news. Just speaking sparks news stories.

So, it is never a surprise that he is in the news again. This time it is for something a good bit more substantial, possibly the biggest issue since his nomination hearings in 1991. He has said that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit the individual 50 states from establishing official state religions. It came in a dissent in a 5 to 4 case that allowed prayers at town board meetings. Thomas simply says that the Establishment Clause is not included in the implications of the 14th Amendment. The 14 Amendment is used to justify that the U.S. Constitution applies to States, also. In his rather unusual view, the Establishment Clause says that Congress can’t make laws that establish an official national religion (that is a conventional view) and can’t make laws that interfere with a State making laws to establish an official state religion (that is a non-conventional view).

So, this coming November we all will be facing a crucial decision: Whom to elect for President? There are a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters who are unwavering in their devotion. That is truly great. Sanders views are close to my own Social Democrat* views, I admire him tremendously. But, he will not be the nominee. A lot of Bernie Sanders voters claim that they can’t vote for Hillary Clinton. I guess a lot of folks are not Democrats and feel no obligation to support the Democrats’ nominee. No foul there. But, come November an election will  be held and there will not be a viable Social Democrat on the ticket because there is no Social Democrat party in the US that could reasonably launch a viable national campaign. Therefore, Social Democrats have a decision to make between Clinton and Trump.

Look at the 4-4 Supreme Court. Who do you want deciding the upcoming cases on religious freedom, women’s rights, the influence of money in politics, gun laws, etc? Who do you want to pick the next several Supreme Court Justices, men and women who will have huge influence for the next 20 to 40 years? Do you really want Donald Trump to make that decision?

Come November, it will be time for the Social Democrats to hold their nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. In December, it will be a good time to then gather to form a new Social Democrat party in the USA. Then, start the hard work of getting local officials elected, state officials elected, and eventually national officials. You have to start in the minors to work up to the big leagues. Heck, maybe you bolster the already strong Green Party. If you are lucky, maybe you can get Bernie Sanders to be your founder and standard-bearer. Indeed, this may be Bernie Sanders long game, to use the contact lists he gains from the Democratic Party and his own list of workers and contributors to form the basis for a new Social Democrat Party.

*It is worth noting that there is a difference between Social Democrat and Democratic Socialist views. Social Democrats are strong believers in capitalism as the engine of an economy, but that the primary purpose of a society is to build a social system that is constantly supporting the strength of the next generation with education, health, housing and sustenance. Democratic Socialists want to eliminate the capitalist system as fundamentally incompatible with democratic ideals and with social support systems. They believe the state should own and operate the means of production, distribution, etc. So, they sound the same, but they are somewhat different.


Roe V. Wade Isn’t Actually About Choice

Sometimes I see a meme that genuinely helps me think differently about a topic. We’ve allowed the discussion about abortion to become a discussion around the word choice. I understand the decision to focus on that word. But the fact of the matter is, the discussion about abortion should be about medical safety and health (even though there’s a problem with that right now*).

The Roe V. Wade decision occurred when I was about 15 years old. I didn’t even know it had happened, really. But, as the years passed, I learned and grew in my understanding of the issues. I’m sure there were times when I was modestly conservative on the issue (meaning it should only be allowed in cases of rape, incest, woman’s life in danger, etc.) because I was politically moderately conservative in my early college years.

But, I was raised by a single mom, so my ‘women should be independent’ vibe is very strong. So, I’ve long favored a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. I have known for about 25 years that the main issue for me isn’t if women will have abortions. Women always have and will have abortions when they so choose, no matter the law. The issue is if those abortions will be safe for the woman.

I became clued-in on that perspective when a very proper woman of South Carolina heritage said at a party in a voice loud enough to carry through three rooms of the party from the table where the topic was under discussion, “We will not go back.” And the table fell silent, all heads turned, and she said, “I mean it.” That made me curious so that I was open to learning what will not go back meant. As the ensuing years passed I would be open to learning what women would go through to get abortions in the years prior to Roe V. Wade. Scenes in movies or books would include something either obliquely or directly about the bad old days: The expensive travel to far away states where it was legal for those who could afford it, the back alley ‘doctors’, the coat hangers, and the horror drugs.

That clinched it for me, all women must have access to safe and legal abortion. The choice is for the individual woman to make based on her own life circumstances, heart and mind. If you believe abortion is wrong, don’t have one. The clinic is not for you, but for the women who choose it. The mere availability of abortion does not force any woman to have one.

Over recent years the debate increasingly has been framed as Right to Life versus Choice. I was never much troubled by that because it’s not that I’m pro-abortion. I simply believe that each individual should have the choice and implicit in that choice is availability of safe and legally available abortion provisioning. Never have I (nor anyone anywhere, I’ll wager) thought: Hey abortions are available right around the corner and you are pregnant, maybe you should have an abortion instead, because Choice! That’s ludicrous, but sometimes seems to be the way the Forced Pregnancy framers (see below) want to make it look. And, the Choice frame does lend itself to such hyperbole, because its meaning has a note of trivialization of the process. “What movie should we rent? I don’t know, what are our choices?”

Right to Life vs Choice is a false framing of the debate and has lost its value, I worry. It is actually Forced Pregnancy versus Safe and Legal Access (for the dim-witted: Forced Pregnancy is the Right to Life side and Safe and Legal Access is the Choice side).

This is the meme that reminded me of what is actually at stake. I’m sure it has been around for a long time. I just happened to see it for the first time today. I’m glad I saw it, that my thinking was renewed and it led to me writing this.


So, let’s get to work making sure people understand this is about Safe and Legal Access.

*The problem is that medical safety and health concepts are being coopted by right wing politicians as justification for creative methods of restricting abortion. So, they make it so clinics must have physicians with admitting privileges at a local hospital (Texas, for example). Or, they claim in Utah that the fetus must be anesthetized to ensure it feels no pain, against evidence to the contrary and lack of evidence of effective anesthesia for a fetus. So, medical safety and health concepts are being stolen from the choice-oriented forces. They had better figure out how to prevent this from getting worse before they lose all their political ground.

Deconstructing the Seduction of The Will of the People

Within hours of the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican senators and candidates for President were saying that President Obama should not put forth a nominee, that we should wait for the Will of the People to be revealed in the coming election.

It is a seductive argument, if you don’t think about it… of course, that is the nature of seduction. Feel it, it feels so right, shhhh, don’t talk (don’t think), be carried away, float away with it feeling so right...The Will of the People…

Snap! Think using facts.

The Constitution (every Republican has one in their pocket, right?) says in Article Two, Section 2, Clause 2, “… he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for,…”. That is, the President nominates and the Senate provides consent or rejects the nominee. There is no ‘except in an election year’ clause. If Obama were to not offer a nominee it would be an abdication of constitutional responsibility. If the Senate does not hold hearings and vote for confirmation, it would be an abdication of constitutional responsibility.

The Republicans are saying that we should wait for the Will of the People to be represented in the 2016 election. But, there is no precedent for that. In contrast, there have been numerous nominations for Associate Justices by Presidents in an election year, even in their last year of their second term. One example is President Reagan in 1988 nominating Associate Justice Kennedy as a third choice after his first two were rejected. (Parenthetically, it is arguable that Joe Biden could have overcome some of the difficulties he faced in the 1988 Presidential campaign if he’s ignored his responsibility as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, see What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer.)

The Republicans are saying that we should wait for the Will of the People to be represented in the 2016 election. But, that will has been spoken in the 2012 election of Barack Obama as President with the known power to appoint Justices. Twice elected. The Republicans say that the 2014 election that put the Republicans in control of the Senate means the people no longer support the President. Maybe, maybe not. The way to test it is to have the actual argument over a nominee. The Constitution says the President nominates and the Senate provides advice and consent. That is to say: The Will of the People from both the 2012 election and the 2014 election are represented in the process.

That is, we can allow the Will of the People to lead us, because it has already been expressed…This wait for the Will to be expressed argument has some traction because that old actually-expressed Will is not seductive. Like most idealized offerings, seduction lays in their unexpressed possibilities not in their realities. The Will of the People of 2012 and 2014 are not seductive, not like the easy to idealize Will of the People yet to be discovered for 2016. That 2016 Will will be so lovely, so clear, so perfect an expression that we will all know what to do…. <sigh>

The Constitution is designed to deal with the reality of the situation, taking into account the Will of the People through two branches of government to establish members of the third branch. It is not designed to have us live in the thrall of seduction. Otherwise we will always be in a never-ending hesitation awaiting the next expression of the Will of the People, only 2 years or less away.

Another day, another mass shooting

I see all the calls for prayers, the outrage that it was Christians targeted, the pointing of finger at the shooter’s mental status, the calls for greater number of guns needed and that would have stopped him… wait, what? Umpqua CC campus had virtually no restrictions on guns on campus as allowed by state law, it was open carry and concealed carry (on a shall-issue permit basis, meaning you ask and you shall not be denied unless you are a felon) campus. A ‘good guy’ with a gun was nearby. Still, death and mayhem were not prevented.

Things I note:

  • Those of you tearing at your clothes in righteous prayer, yet feeling that guns should not be touched, I’m pretty sure you worship guns above your god-thingy. This thoughtful and caring Christian man gets it right: Why Gun Lovers Don’t Get To Grieve Another Massacre With Me.
  • There will be another mass shooting within the next 24 to 48 hours, as defined as 4 or more shot as documented by Shooting Tracker and another major mass shooting (which I define as 9 or more persons shot) will happen within about 45 days.
  • For those who claim we need more guns because then the shooter would be confronted by a ‘good guy with a gun’, that’s just crazy-talk. Here’s the story of the good guy with a gun on the campus of the school knowing that he couldn’t intervene unless the shooter was literally right in front of him: Raw Story on Army Vet at Umpqua. 
  • There are those who claim the cat is out of the bag on this issue, with about one gun for every person in the US. What can be done with so many guns? But, that erroneously describes the distribution of guns. Only about 1/3 of Americans own a gun or live with someone who owns one, effectively the household rate of gun ownership. So, guns are concentrated among a sizable minority of Americans.
  • What can be done with so many guns is this: Declare the most dangerous guns illegal and buy them back as was done in Australia in 1996 after a huge mass shooting there. Do the same with ammunition magazines, to limit them to no larger than 10 rounds, buy back all that are larger. This can be done, Australia bought back over 600,000 guns. We have the resources, do we have the will? Australians get it. 

As President Obama says, we have made a political decision in this country that we will live with mass murders on a regular basis as the price we pay for easy availability of high powered guns. It is a political decision meaning we can change it.

When we decided that the design of automobiles and highways contributed to accidents and deaths, we made laws to mandate better design and laws for usage of safety features such as seat belts. The rate of deaths in automobile accidents is now about 1/3 of the rate of the highest levels (1930s) and as low as it was 100 years ago when cars were just emerging as affordable to the masses.

Alcohol was known as a huge factor in automobile accidents and deaths. The study of alcohol’s effects and implementation of laws to increase penalties for use of alcohol while driving started in the early 1980s has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the proportion of deaths in accidents that were alcohol-related. The drop is from 60% of accidents were alcohol-related in 1982 to now a bit more than 30%.

We had the political will to implement stronger controls, to decide that our freedom to enjoy alcohol was not worth the cost in destroyed lives. Alcohol culture was rampant in the decades preceding this shift in political will. Just witness the use of alcohol in Mad Men, which was NOT an exaggeration of the times. 

So, don’t say we can’t change. We just need to decide that the price in lives is a cost we are no longer willing to pay, just like we did with alcohol.

Torture is beneath the dignity of the United States of America

It is as simple as that. Torture is a method without moral or scientific justification. We taint our moral standing in the world when we torture. It is a conscious decision, never accidental, never excusable, never appropriate. More importantly, can we get future Presidential candidates to promise they will not reinstate the torture programs of W’s era?