Sunday, May 29, 2016

On Pain and Perception

I forgot to blog about something that bothered me a while back.

It seems a few medical students at the University of Virginia actually believe that blacks feel less pain than whites. Maybe they are projecting their own lack of empathy, but I suspect culture has a hand in it. Only a culture with a guilty conscience could construct such a notion to excuse routine institutional violence.

It makes you wonder how these medical students think. If blacks feel less pain, how effective did these future physicians think whipping slaves was back in the day? I guess they think it wasn't all that bad. 

And white society has often portrayed blacks as "oversexed," but how does that work with less-sensitive nerve endings?  I suppose they imagine black sexuality is all hormones with a disappointing payoff - which sort of sabotages related fantasies many whites have if you stop and think about it. Fortunately, bigotry stops all thought on the topic of its target, so those fantasies are quite safe.

Bigotry and ignorance form a feedback loop. The very definition of the word "prejudice" means judging without evidence. The less we listen to others, stubbornly fortifying our assumptions and cementing our mistakes, the less information we have. It is a callous cycle,(1) which frequently becomes a vicious one.

By contrast, empathy makes us more objective because it makes us step outside ourselves and consider others' experience and perspective. In 
my book, I argue that reason and compassion often go together and that this combination summed up the goals of both the Enlightenment and the Progressive Era.(2) I note that the word "understanding" has two definitions: compassion and comprehension. Likewise, "thoughtful" means both contemplative and kindly - ditto with "considerate."

Of course, this is an oversimplification. Although liberalism rises with education, it does not inoculate you against the more complex malady of bigotry. The authors of this study argue that spending time with those different than yourself is the best tonic against racism. Yes, but you can still spend time around those who are different and be a bigot. I see a combination of factors. Time with others is more likely to activate compassion (if you have any), and an alert person is more likely to learn from the experience. After all, experience is just an opportunity to learn - unfortunately, an often wasted one. But the linkage between compassion and intelligence has been shown because reading literature improves both.

Obviously, doctors need both to perform competently in their chosen occupation.(3) The first study is shocking because doctors should be smarter, but also because treating pain is essential to their profession.

EDIT 02/27/17:

This issue is getting a little more attention.


Thinking about this dynamic has taken me on some tangents. A few weeks ago, I mused that the Dunning-Kruger Effect applied to compassion as well as competence. Exhortations to be more compassionate tire callous people and, playing out the jukebox theory of emotions, they read their fatigue as evidence that they have already done enough for others.

(2) "
Ayn Rand's 'Objectivist' label is contradictory. Both logic and compassion require looking beyond our subjective perspectives and selfish interests. In fact, combining logic and compassion was what the Enlightenment was all about. It advocated taking in the big picture to improve the common good. In short, you cannot be selfish and objective at the same time because of bias. The word 'objective' sounds trustworthy, so Ayn Rand used it. Likewise, some religious cults incorporate the word 'science' into their names. But a self-interested, narrow mindset is not objective any more than a religion is scientific."

This isn't just a question of medical ethics. Compassion is no less critical to citizenship than intelligence. I explore this point more in the chapter entitled "Liberty, Equality, and Empathy" and here on this blog. Obviously, I do not think that conservatives make model citizens. But perhaps that can change. Appeals to human decency haven't had much of an effect on them, so perhaps we should try patriotism. We should hammer home the fact that being intolerant is unpatriotic. They don't mind being called the former, but the later gets their attention. Of course, nice liberals are loathe to question others' patriotism and that is exactly what enables conservatives.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bitburg Revisited

Excuse the mixed metaphor, but I've seen some pretty spectacular straw-grasping in my day, but the random rationalizations Confederate apologists often concoct take the cake. Maybe it's straw cake.

In my previous post, I analyzed their most plausible argument against removing Confederate monuments and found it wanting. I looked at a few ludicrous ones too, but I held back my favorite moment:

At one point, one opponent actually claimed that the local Confederate monument was built to honor fallen soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. As is so often the case with the Dunning-Kruger effect, he was as wrong as he was certain - and he was absolutely certain.

It reminded me of a moment in Paul Slansky's book, The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American 80s. In it, Slansky gives a nearly day-by-day account of the Reagan Era and Administration. Of interest here is Ronald Reagan's infamous 1985 Bitburg cemetery visit fiasco:
4/11 The White house announces that President Reagan will lay a wreath at the Bitburg, West Germany, military cemetery housing the graves of both American and Nazi soldiers. Oops! Correction: no Americans are buried there.
That clarification was significant. For Reagan's aides, the situation only deteriorated from there. It was not because Reagan's White House Communications Director was fascist apologist Pat Buchanan - most Americans probably did not know this about him at the time. Nor was it those nine Bush Senior campaign officers that were outed as fascists in 1988. That came later. No, it was because everything President Reagan said made the approaching photo-op both comedic and horrific
4/18 Michael Deaver - who somehow failed to notice Nazi gravestones last time he was there - is back in West Germany searching for an appropriate concentration camp to add to the President's itinerary. Asks Rep. Pat Schroeder, "What are they looking for? The right light angle?" Meanwhile, Reagan defends his visit to Bitburg by claiming the German soldiers "were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." Says an aide,"Oh my God!"
4/19 Elie Wiesel - fortunate enough to be accepting a medal from the President on the same day The New York Times carries the headline "Reagan Likens Nazi War Dead to Concentration Camp Victims" - tells his host, "That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS." Reagan puts on his sad face.
4/29 President Reagan defends the Bitburg visit as "morally right," adding, I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform for four years myself." He does not claim to have filmed the death camps.(1)
5/5 Having atoned in advance with a visit to the Bergen-Belsen death camp, President Reagan spends eight minutes at Bitburg, where cameras are forced to shoot the ceremony from poor angles. He cites a letter from 13-year old Beth Flom who, he claims, "urged me to lay the wreath at Bitburg cemetery in honor of the future of Germany." In fact, she urged him not to go at all. Summing things up, he says, "It's been a wonderful day."
The parallels with Confederate apologists grow with scrutiny. There are the awkward false equivalencies, of course. There's the reflexive lying as well.

But there is also an attempt to woo a particular ethnic demographic. As Russ Bellant explained in the link above and in his book, Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party, some Eastern Europeans were enthusiastic Nazi collaborators in WWII - hands-on accomplices in the Holocaust. They had formed their own fascist parties before the war and fought alongside the Nazis during it. But after the war, they found it easier to slip into the U.S. because they were not Germans and therefore, technically, not Nazis. No, they were members of the Latvian Legion, the Baltic Legion, the Belarus Brigade, the Romanian Iron Guard, or the Hungarian Arrow Cross. All formed SS-linked Waffen combat units.

Once here, they took over many leadership positions in immigrant communities; occasionally, strong-arming their way in. Then they became formally involved in Republican Party politics within the National Republican Heritage Groups Council. These were the type of white ethnics that Pat Buchanan advocating catering to - not just Southern whites.(2)

Like white Southerners, many in these minorities were/are opposed to these fascist groups and their goals. But the fascists controlled a big enough chunk that they had some clout. They knew how to manipulate group pride, bully, and blur crucial distinctions. And they were also aided by the ignorance or denial of others. All too often the desire to feel good about your group prevents you from hearing anything bad about it and nationalists always take advantage of that. People are people and that is my point.

But in both cases, there are also people like Beth Flom urging us to face the past honestly and carefully choose who we honor. We should follow her example.


(1) Reagan had made that claim on two previous occasions. As Slansky wrote: "12/6 [1983] The Israeli newspaper Maariv reports that during a meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, President Reagan - who spent World War II making training films in Hollywood - claimed to have served as a photographer in an army unit filming the horrors of Nazi death camps." Two months later: "2/16 [1984] Welcoming Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier to the White House, President Reagan again claims, according to Hier, to have 'photographed Nazi atrocities while he was with the Signal Corps.' When reporters question this account, James Baker elicits from Reagan the clarification that he 'never left the country' during the war and 'never told anyone that he did.' As to how Shamir and Hier - in two separate meetings - could have come away with the same wrong story, Baker has no explanation."

(2) The Bitburg visit might not have been a dog whistle like then candidate Ronald Reagan's 1980 Philadelphia, Mississippi speech. It could have been an honest error compounded by the Gipper's gaffes. You can be an anti-communist without being an anti-semite. But much of the leadership of the RNC's Heritage Groups Council were both and Reagan was trying to encourage their support. Reagan spoke at a luncheon for them two weeks after his Bitburg visit. As Russ Bellant wrote in the introduction of his book: "If President Reagan needed a boost after the Bitburg fiasco, this was the crowd to supply it. To the assembled media, Reagan's visit that afternoon appeared as a routine stop, perhaps paying a re-election debt. The Republican Heritage Groups Council did, in fact, help elect Reagan. And they gave him a long standing ovation that afternoon at the Shoreham [Hotel]. To some of those attending the 1985 Council meeting, Reagan's rehabilitation of the Waffen SS must have offered a sense of personal and historic vindication." Vindication. That is what we are trying to avoid.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Statuary isn’t History

Closet Confederates make the most moronic arguments against removing their monuments.

Their strongest argument is that monument removal is somehow "erasing history" or trying to "sanitize the past." They compare it to burning books or to Stalin having his old rivals airbrushed out of official photographs. It's not the greatest argument, but it is the best they've got.

nfortunately, the argument hooks a lot of good folks who think such statues act as valuable reminders of our nation’s sins and follies. They say, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." This version of the argument is often well-intentioned but wrongheaded because these monuments obviously do the opposite: They reinforce the militant ignorance of bigots who deny our society has ever done anything wrong. Or, if they perfunctorily admit any wrongdoing, they disassociate self-evident connections to quickly close the discussion. “Yes, slavery and racism are bad - BUT the Civil War was not about that.”

Except it most definitely was. There is no honestly denying that the Civil War was fought over slavery because the Confederates had said so themselves in their twisted imitations of the Declaration of Independence: the Articles of Secession. Like the Declaration, these documents presented a laundry list of perceived grievances - and Yankee agitation against slavery is unquestionably their number one complaint. Click on the link above and search the page for the word "slave." It appears again and again. These smoking gun documents amount to a terrorist martyr video. Their motive is known. Case closed. 

Also note that the link above is to an organization dedicated to preserving Civil War battlefields, so they are hardly trying to erase history or sanitize the past. Bottom line: If these statues actually educated anyone their admirers would make smarter arguments. They might at least abandoned long-debunked ones
This issue isn’t rocket science. When we rebelled from England in 1776, we tore down statues of King George III. Did we forget we were once colonies as a result? Of course not. After the French Revolution, they did the same with their king's public statues (but they preserved the palaces). Likewise, they have not forgotten their monarchist past. This isn't Pol Pot's "Year Zero." Monuments are meant to celebrate things we are proud of. When we are no longer proud of them, we logically take them down. This is not just to spare ourselves embarrassment but because we do not want our citizens to celebrate terrible behavior.

But reactionaries cannot grasp this. Recently, they threw a hissy-fit over the Treasury Department's plans to redesign the twenty dollar bill and replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman. This was not just a question representing more women and people of color – which racists portrayed as “pandering to blacks.” Jackson was a genocidal maniac who was pretty casual about killing people - including his fellow whites. Although I approve of replacing Jackson with Tubman, getting him off our money was necessary and long overdue no matter whom we replaced him with. Common sense says we should not honor our worst leaders. There are more great Americans than practical denominations of bills. Mediocrities like Salmon P. Chase should be replaced, but we should start with the monsters.

Again, this isn’t rocket science. Ask yourself this: Were Russians wrong to take down statues of Stalin? What about all those statues and murals of Saddam Hussien that were all over Iraq? There's that Orwellian-named Victory Arch that Saddam made for the fallen Iraqi soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War, which of course nobody won. It's dismantling was arrested and reversed. But that's okay because I'm sure it cannot possibly be politicized or used to fuel future militarism or hatred. Perhaps you think Germany would have been wiser to keep its Nazi monuments. But I think not.

I did not make that last analogy lightly. My father came over from Germany in the mid 1960s, so I obviously had family members who served in the Wehrmacht in World War II. This begs the question: What if some Nazi monument was still standing and I made the same arguments as Confederate monument lovers to prevent its removal? You would reasonably suspect me of having Nazi sympathies.

You may say it’s not the same, but it is. Otherwise, the same arguments could not be made in both cases:

In war, people get drafted into a cause they may or may not support. Some might even be reflective enough to recognize they are the baddies and be ambivalent - or actively subvert the war effort, such as the students involved in the White Rose group in Nazi Germany. As James W. Loewen noted in Lies My Teacher Told Me, a lot of Southerners sabotaged or fought against the Confederacy. We should be celebrating them.

And when death is faced there is bravery as well as cowardice, even if it is for an evil system. Seriously, I have to ask these Confederate apologists how do they make that argument without realizing how easily it can be flipped to defend any evil system? How is their pet heritage the exception that proves the rule?

Finally, aggressors may later find themselves on the defensive and then say they are “fighting for their homes and families,” as Germans were told without irony when the Red Army was rolling toward Berlin. (Also, when Germany invaded Poland, they claimed that Poland had invaded Germany.) And recall that the Civil War started when the Confederates fired the first shot on Fort Sumner. Yes, most of the war was fought in the South - but not at first. That changed when they started to lose, which was also about the time of Morgan's Raid through the Midwest. Therefore, the "War of Northern Aggression" wasn't.

If I had made any of these arguments about “bravely defending their homeland” to defend a monument to the German army, you could and should say that I am missing the point: A heroic-looking monument to the bravery of the Wehrmacht would obviously and correctly be perceived as glorifying Nazism.

But closet Confederates are oblivious to the obvious: Trying to confuse monuments with museums, more than one online opponent has asked me, "Why have 7 concentration camps been preserved in Europe???" (Always with superfluous punctuation. It must be important to the talking point.) Clearly, the camps are preserved as museums to show that genocide is evil and horrific, not to honor fallen Nazis. Their respective purposes are completely different: The first educates, the second celebrates. But I am probably arguing with people who thought that President Ronald Reagan's Bitburg cemetery visit was a brilliant idea.

I will explore that parallel more on that in the next post.