Monday, July 27, 2015

What About a One-of-a-Kind Museum?

A Richmond Times-Dispatch's editorial in this morning's paper sought to boost the efforts to put a museum in Shockoe Bottom.
...The Bottom and its extended neighborhood played central roles in the history of slavery and its aftermath. Human beings were bought and sold there. The protests served as reminders that neither Virginia nor the United States has directly addressed slavery, its consequences, which linger, and Jim Crow, slavery’s successor vehicle of oppression.
As well-intentioned as the concept presented by this editorial might be, the idea of creating a museum in Shockoe Bottom, to gather and present the history it mentions, may be too broad. That is, too broad to ever put together the backing to become a viable project. Although there is plenty that remains to be said about the topics of “slavery and its aftermath” and “Jim Crow,” a museum dedicated to presenting those stories would lack the special appeal of a more narrowly focused effort.

Couldn't such stories just as rightfully be told in any number of cities? What makes Shockoe Bottom's history peculiar is the huge slave market that was centered there in the decades running up to the Civil War.

Dig it: The establishment of the convenient mythology of the Lost Cause was accomplished in large part by implementing two strategies:
  • The fabricating and promulgating of a false history – school text books full of pickled history and a stately Monument Avenue help.
  • The covering up of evidence that could have told the truth.
What was it like to have been a Shockoe Bottom slave jail owner, or confinee, in pre-Civil War days? Who had given it much thought before the movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013) was such a big hit?

Now we're seeing the vestiges of the mythology's underpinning crumbling. Flags are being furled. However, the untold story Richmond could now reveal to the world is the one about its slave market era. Parts of that story still need to be dug up by archaeologists.

A one-of-a-kind museum devoted to unfurling the truth about life in Shockoe Bottom in the 1850s, with what must have been a rather bizarre atmosphere, might well prove quite interesting to the world's tourists. Those travelers might bring money with them, so it could turn out be a good investment, business-wise, in the long run.

Imagine that -- making money off of telling the truth! Either way, it would also be a fitting gesture of atonement.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Bluster Meister is having fun, fun, fun

Living at the top of the news, Donald Trump is having fun, fun, fun*. Nobody knows how long his wild ride will last. My back page OpEd at STYLE Weekly tells the story. 
Like a movie monster created by a mad scientist, the candidate that Donald Trump has become was created semi-unwittingly by mischievous ultra-conservative Republicans who’ve relished annoying Democrats to distraction for the last six and a half years. Naturally, when the monster came alive, its creators marveled at their work and assumed they could control the creature when the time came for it.

To read "The Bluster Meister" click here.

Who will be the Republican "daddy" to take the keys to the T-bird away from the Bluster Meister? Maybe that will happen soon. Maybe not. Anyway, here's how that old Beach Boys song went: 
* Well she got her daddy's car
And she's cruisin' through the hamburger stand now
Seems she forgot all about the library
Like she told her old man now
And with the radio blasting
Goes cruising just as fast as she can now

And she'll have fun fun fun
'Til her daddy takes the T-Bird away
-- Lyrics to "Fun, Fun, Fun" (1964) by Brain Wilson and Mike Love

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pop Star Populist

We've seen singers and actors who took up causes to become factors in the world of politics. There have been exceptions but in most cases it didn't last long. Since the advent of movies and the broadcast industry a few entertainers have used their show business notoriety to help them get elected to public office -- B-movie actor Ronald Reagan being the most obvious example. Still, Reagan was hardly at the top of his career as an actor, such as it was, when he first ran for governor of California. Whereas, Donald Trump is now in the process of going directly from being a high-profile presence on a popular network television program to running for president -- no stops in between.

It was bound to happen. That it has turned out to be Trump says something damning about the way politics and popular culture have merged seamlessly in the new millennium. Whatever else you might want to say about Trump's presidential campaign, he is creating a story that Americans want to watch.

Moreover, Trump has puffed up and seized control of the ultimate Reality TV show. Nobody knows where it's going, including the pop star populist who's directing and producing the show. In the doing, he's taking America deeper into the cynical terrain of catering to the low-road aspects of human nature than it's been in a while -- deeper into the amoral swamp Paddy Chayefsky imagined was in the future for us when he wrote "Network" (1976).

Unlike office-holder candidates with constituencies and fundraising responsibilities, Trump isn't beholding to anybody but his fans. Fans who want the swaggering billionaire to rock the GOP's boat. For their champion they want an untamed monster, one who breathes in paranoia and alienation like it is air, as he feeds on the hypocrisy and greed of establishment gridlock politics. Their voracious monster -- the Bluster Meister, himself -- laughs haughtily at danger warnings. He recognizes no boundaries.  

Trump's comments about whether McCain ought to be seen as a hero have drawn some criticism from some of Trump's fellow Republicans. So after jabbing at the campaign trail opponents he felt like toying with, Trump attacked John McCain with a right-cross. Trump questioned whether getting captured and held as a prisoner of war is all that heroic.

In Trump's show business world-view, heroes don't stay captured. They win their wars. Although some of Trump's opponents have mildly rebuked him for his remarks to that effect, most of Trump's fans don't seem to care all that much about military heroes in a war they see as boring history.

Since Trump's rise in the polls his rivals have been waiting for a safe way to bash him -- a way that doesn't touch on issues in a way that might offend the GOP's tea party elements. But this rally-around-the-unassailable-hero avenue is only safe because those Republican hopefuls who've squawked don't care about appearing to be hypocrites. Remember the "swift-boating" of John Kerry in 2004? What did Jeb Bush say about that shameful episode?

Bottom line: A lot of conservatives view McCain as a geezer who's a sellout -- a "Republican in name only." Mostly, Trumps fans love it that their monster seems to be striking more and more fear in his cowardly opponents' hearts. The Bluster Meister doesn't apologize.

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Flash of Empathy

The thought struck me like bolt from the blue. It was about 30 years ago. Facing east on Monument Avenue I was waiting for the stoplight to change. The sights were as familiar as could be. The J.E.B. Stuart monument and the hospital named for that place on the map -- Stuart Circle. I was born in that hospital and so was my daughter.

Not too long before this moment in the mid-1980s, I had run for a seat on Richmond's City Council. The task of campaigning had exposed me to some neighborhoods in my home town that had been unfamiliar to me before I suddenly decided to run for office. Why I took that plunge, with no chance to win, is another story, for another day. But the reason for mentioning it here is how eye-opening that experience was.

For one thing, I don't think I had ever spent any time in Gilpin Court before the campaign trail took me there. It was part of the Fifth District, which also included the part of the Fan District that was behind the equestrian statue before me. Virginia Commonwealth University's academic campus was sprawled out in the blocks ahead, just beyond the statue.

Can't say for sure if I was smoking a joint, but in those days, there was a good chance of it. The reason for bringing up that factor is that for me pot used to sometimes facilitate making connections between ideas that hadn't occurred to me before. Anyway, looking at that depiction of a man on a horse I suddenly had a fresh question explode in my head: What would I have thought of that statue if I had been born black, instead of white, and I had grown up in a federal housing project like Gilpin Court?

The thought that followed made me laugh. Answering my own question provided me with a momentary walk-in-the-other-man's-shoes epiphany, as I said to myself: "By the time I was 16, I would have blown that damn thing up."

That prompted me to be amazed that it hadn't already happened. Folks who remember the 16-year-old version of me should be laughing now. At least a few of them know there would have been a decent chance I would have really done it ... had I been a headstrong black teenager, who, like me, got thrown out of school regularly.

Before that flash of empathy, I don't think I had ever tried to imagine myself as a black Richmonder looking at those statues of Confederate generals, day after day. Ever since then, I've seen those memorials to the Lost Cause in a different light.

Today I think a lot of good people in Richmond need to try to step into the other man's shoes, if only for a second, and take another look at Monument Avenue's famous statues.

Art and words by F.T. Rea

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Friday, July 10, 2015

What Has Hillary Clinton Learned?

During Hillary Clinton's "official launch speech," on June 13, when she talked about her family history her tone of voice was warm and well modulated. She sounded genuine. That day at Roosevelt Island, when Clinton talked about politics, issues and proposals, her tone of voice was colder. It had a forced edge.

Before large crowds, when Clinton amps up her delivery, to drive home at point, occasionally it can sound like she's picked over and practiced her spiel so much she sounds disconnected with the meaning of the sentences. Like any weakness, this one provides the chance for a rival to provide contrast.

Bernie Sanders has been doing exactly that with how he's been connecting with the mobs his speeches have been drawing. His amiable gruffness has looked almost like charisma. Sanders appears to be the candidate whose longtime liberal message has found its time to be a good fit. Authenticity is playing as his strong suit.

While speaking effectively before big crowds isn't essential to the job of being president, it's obviously an asset on the stump. Footage from such appearances plays well in sound bite news reports. It's useful in political ads. It helps with fundraising. Yet some of Clinton's handlers are probably advising her to avoid scheduling large events, because in the past she's been noticeably more effective – more likeable – in town hall confabs, round table discussions and one-on-one interviews.

During a 2008 debate in New Hampshire, Clinton's struggle to be likeable was treated as an issue. After the moderator brought the subject up, she pretended her feelings had been bruised, as she joked to stiff-arm the question. She handled it well, but then Barack Obama owned the moment with his deft sarcasm, "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

So far Sanders, the grizzled underdog, has been easy to like. Still, to be fair, after all of her years in the spotlight, we can chalk some of Clinton's perceived likeability deficit up to Hillary-fatigue. Old Bernie is still a fresh face to most Americans.

The content of Clinton's launch speech unpacked her views about how government can help make America's future brighter. It also showcased her considerable experience in public life: First Lady (Arkansas and the USA); U.S. Senator (New York); Secretary of State. That's the other side of the coin from Hillary-fatigue. With her lengthy resume, saying Clinton has been around the block is an understatement. That resume also prompts a key question – what did Hillary Rodham Clinton learn from the journey?

Now that Clinton admits her 2002 vote to support the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, what has she learned about how to avoid being drawn into bad wars? What has she learned about the need to oversee Wall Street's mode of operation to prevent more of its excesses? Has her experience taught her anything about how to lead recalcitrant lawmakers out of perpetual gridlock?

Meanwhile, Sanders has been steadily chipping away at the carved-in-stone myth that has the American electorate being forever locked into a “center-right” position, ideologically. It became true during Ronald Reagan's years, maybe it stayed that way through Bill Clinton's presidency. Then came George W. Bush with his disastrous war in Iraq. Not to mention the American economy collapsing into a monster recession.

It's entirely possible the inbred analysts inside the beltway have been overlooking a steady movement of the ideological middle spot of the American electorate since Obama has been in office. Or maybe the aftermath of a series of mistakes by Republicans has suddenly coalesced over the last year.

Either way, it's important to note that young voters haven't been steeped in decades of ideologically-driven propaganda. So they aren't necessarily looking at politics through their parents' prism.

Watching Republicans in Congress threatening to scuttle the federal government's ability to pay its debts – in the middle of a routine budget squabble – some young Daily Show fans must have considered that strategy to be less than fiscally responsible, sort of crazy, but not funny. Young Virginians, who weren't taught in school to believe a pickled version of history, inspired by Jim Crow Era thinking, don't quite understand why some Republicans are still defending a flag that symbolizes hate to many of their fellow Virginians.

Moreover, nationally, the GOP's youth problem will only be getting worse in the future, as most young voters don't see much good in ranting against same-sex marriages. The extremism and tone-deafness of the hardcore right-wingers in the Republican Party may have minted more new Democrats in the last few years than anything Democrats have done. Sanders seems to be attracting a lot of new Democrats.

Looking ahead, Clinton would probably rather talk about domestic policies designed to help the middle class and the cultural significance of electing a woman to be president. But events could intervene. After the last two presidential campaigns were focused on spending and the economy, scary foreign policy issues could shoulder economic concerns aside.

During the early primaries next year, if a new war seems to be looming and Hillary Clinton is still being peppered with questions about her vote to support invading Iraq, her "inevitability" could start shriveling once again. Which could then make peace-loving Bernie Sanders look all the more likeable.

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