Removing Statues and Planting Trees: Charlottesville and Beyond

This is not an essay denouncing the violence in Charlottesville, or our president’s disgraceful response to it. Those things are self-evident and, to the extent they’re not, others have spoken about them with more eloquence and insight than I could. I want to talk instead about why Charlottesville happened, why it’s likely to happen again and how we might come through this struggle in a better place than where we began.

First, a little background.

This country has never truly reckoned with the consequences of the Civil War and its aftermath — especially, I think, the aftermath, the true, horrid scale of which I believe still remains largely unknown by white Americans; it certainly was to me for most of my life. “Jim Crow” was more than just laws that kept black people away from the ballot box, a disgraceful enough thing in itself. It was a collusion of culture, politics and the legal system to recreate slavery in all but name, exploiting blacks for their labor while depriving them of everything they were entitled to as newly recognized American citizens. This was done not only through “literacy tests,” grandfather clauses and whites-only drinking fountains but through the convict lease system, consciously racist zoning laws, and of course, vigilante terror and murder, to name just the most obvious things.

The Robert E. Lee statue that was the ostensible cause of all this is a relic of this system. Most of the Civil War statuary dotting courthouses and public squares in Southern towns was not made during the war or in its immediate wake. These figures were erected from the 1900s through the 1920s as totems of Jim Crow, meant to remind both blacks and whites of the level each group occupied (low and high, respectively) on the social pyramid. They are subtle instruments of terror wrought in bronze.

As these monuments began to spring up, there came with them what we now know as the myth of the Lost Cause, the revisionist belief that the Civil War was brought about not by slaveholders determined to protect their human property, but by an overzealous, self-righteous and hypocritical Northern government bent on overrunning the states’ rights guaranteed in the Constitution in order to clear the path for a smothering, all-encompassing Federal authority. The Confederate States of America, a would-be oligarchy founded on racial and religious bigotry and with the explicit goal of expanding slavery throughout the Americas, was recast as a noble-but-doomed final stand in the defense of a now-vanished American ideal.

This historical lie, aided and abetted by whites in the North as much as the South, is why the Stars and Bars remain for many Americans (who often do not consider themselves racist to the slightest degree) a symbol of proud American defiance and self-determination, rather than an emblem of hatred on par with the Nazi swastika. It explains why people wearing the insignia of a defeated insurrectionist movement that sought to leave the Union outright now regard themselves, without irony, as the true patriots and lovers of America. By extension, statues of Lee, Forrest, Longstreet et al, gilded in the patina of the Lost Cause, serve a similar purpose in valorizing this deracinated Confederacy. Civil War statues and the Confederate battle flag are not racist, we are told — they’re our heritage, and no one should be made to feel ashamed of his heritage.

To be sure, the Klan-saluting, torch-wielding crowds protesting in Charlottesville seemed very much motivated by racism, however much they speciously invoked their “heritage.” But these monuments haven’t endured this long solely because of the small minority of Americans who think and act like the demonstrators at Charlottesville. They endure because as a nation we have failed to honestly confront what they stand for — because after all this time, we refuse to agree on what the Civil War meant, or engage with what its post-Reconstruction aftermath set out to achieve.

Until now.

Remember that what prompted this whole appalling display was the Robert E. Lee statue in question was set to be removed from its privileged place, because the leaders of Charlottesville could no longer countenance the insidious ideals that had led to its creation. The neo-Confederates protesting this were lashing out in fear, and their fear is fully justified. The lie upon which they have constructed their pride and sense of worth is being challenged, not just by far-off liberal interlopers but by their own friends and neighbors. People both in the South and beyond it are seeing the myth of the Lost Cause as just that — a fable designed to protect the privileged by obscuring the brutality on which that privilege was founded.

After more than 100 years, the cracks are indisputably beginning to show. New Orleans removed a statue of Lee from public view a few months ago. The Republican governor of Maryland just announced his intention to remove a statue of the Supreme Court justice who wrote the Dred Scott decision. The mayor of Lexington, Kentucky announced — ahead of schedule, spurred on by the violence in Charlottesville — that he intended to have two Confederate statues relocated from the former city courthouse, now a visitor’s center. More cities and states are sure to follow.

Expect more outbreaks like Charlottesville as the weight of public opinion turns slowly, inexorably against these background furnishings of Jim Crow. It will undoubtedly get worse before it gets better, and it’s perfectly appropriate to be outraged and sickened at these spasms of racist violence, and at the president who responds to them with cowardly equivocation. But the fact remains that this conversation has been long overdue, and having it was never going to be easy. Do you remember when well-meaning politicians used to talk wistfully about the nation “having a dialogue” about race in America? This is what that looks like.

There is a saying among the Chinese: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” It is tempting — and futile — to wonder what might have been had Reconstruction continued as Lincoln had envisioned it, and Jim Crow and the Lost Cause had shriveled and died before ever having the chance to bloom. But it is not 120 years ago or 20 years ago, and today we are tasked with planting trees in some very hard, stubborn earth. The work will be long and brutal and not all of us may live to see it bear fruit. Yet when it is done — when those seeds have finally taken root and resisted all efforts to pull them free — we can look back at our efforts and our sacrifices and know that they were given in pursuit of a worthy goal, one which, once achieved, will leave our nation better than it was before.

Originally published on Medium.

Story in Three Sentences

They met over artisan whiskeys in a bar that had once been a dentist’s office. With little to go on, she thought he could be kind to her, safe enough in his own skin to teach her to live safely in hers. It broke apart years later, amid tears and pleas and a final, raging silence, on the floor of a hollow space that had once been a whiskey bar.

Inspired by this challenge.

The Final Report of the Smell Committee

A few years ago, I wrote this story. It’s long and odd and has no chance of finding a paying market, so I thought I would finally just put it out there. You’ll find an excerpt below. The full version is available for sale on Amazon, bundled with some other pieces I’ve already published here. Because Amazon does not allow you to give Kindle books away, I have to charge $.99 for it. If you don’t want to pay, you’re welcome to download the free versions linked below; they also contain the full text of the story.

THE FINAL REPORT OF THE SMELL COMMITTEE

TO: The Board of Directors

FROM: Mr. A.V. Jascowitz

Mr. B. Sykes

Mrs. E. Drake-Avilas

Mr. T.S. Holm

Ms. T. Burke

 

BACKGROUND

On Tuesday, September 8, 2012, Joseph Schultz reported a strong, musky odor near his workstation in the payroll department of the Dubuque office. Schultz claimed that he had begun to notice the smell days earlier and had assumed it would dissipate of its own accord. Instead, it had grown increasingly palpable and had begun to significantly impact his ability to work. Facility Services investigated and noted a “faint” odor, which they traced to some old food in the nearby kitchenette. That weekend, the refrigerator and all fixtures were cleaned vigorously, and the issue seemed to be resolved.

The following Monday, September 14, Schultz reported that not only had the smell not been eliminated, it had actually grown in strength; he claimed he could now smell it in a radius of 20 feet from his workspace — a distance that encompassed nearly a quarter of the building’s third floor — and that its character had changed from a simple food-related odor to a fouler, more pungent stench altogether, one that Schultz described in a garrulous stream of emails as a “stink of death” or “what hatred must smell like.” Several of Schultz’s coworkers began reporting the smell on their own, attributing it variously to paint, cleaning solvent, new carpeting or other prosaic sources. In response to the volume of complaints lodged with Facility Services, a professional steam-cleaning service was contracted to clean every square foot of the payroll department. This operation was performed on September 22, again to no avail, and the payroll staff reported to work the following day to find the smell had returned undiminished.

With no options apparently remaining, Facility Services had little solace to offer Schultz or his colleagues, who resorted to their own methods to attempt to restore comfort to their workspace. Payroll Director Dot Freidburger organized a floor-wide effort to improve the work environment, with employees bringing in, at their own expense, a variety of air fresheners, air purifiers, potpourri sachets and other similar items. These invariably proved ineffective: potpourri turned dry and brittle within a few days; a potted fichus plant took on a peculiar chalky texture before crumbling into dust; and chemical air fresheners either had no apparent effect at all or else made the odor worse. Freidburger and her colleagues abandoned their efforts, and no further attempt was made by the employees to combat the smell.

Several emails from this period subsequently reviewed by the Committee reveal instances of poor work performance, unusual behavior or cognitive difficulties whose potential severity went unrecognized at the time. Payroll Specialist Amelia Beakman filed a quarterly Paid Time Off Usage Report that actually consisted of a thousand-word description of an erotic dream; she later claimed to have included the material through a simple cut-and-paste error and was not disciplined. Several employees were cited for failing to report to work, explaining later they had confused the day with Saturday or Sunday, though one in particular claimed, with no lack of embarrassment, that she had forgotten she was employed by the Company at all. Formerly outgoing men and women were observed to become quiet and withdrawn, and several emails sent to Human Resources took on an ominous cast. “I can’t sleep at night,” one employee wrote, “because all I think about is having to come back here and work in this smell.” Another wrote, “Do something. If you don’t, somebody will. This isn’t any kind of a threat. But you don’t understand how people are feeling here.”

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24 Cigarettes and One Pipe: Hammett and Chandler

When I was a writing student in college, I came across a how-to manual called The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. It was not like most other writing books I had read before or have read since. My professor, to whom I showed it, was mildly appalled at its strict focus on the mechanics of story construction, and indeed, The Essence of Fiction has no clever exercises a la John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, nor does it inspire you to live a life devoted to creativity a la Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Wild Mind. Essence is plain and direct and even, to my old teacher’s point, rather crude, but one of its precepts has stuck with me over the years: the rule against “cigarette action.”

Cigarette action is McConnell’s term for the meaningless physical business a writer will assign a character in order to pace a scene. When writing a dialogue scene, you can’t simply follow one speech with another and then another: it gets fatiguing to read, and the scene gradually loses its sense of place, its physicality. (Not that that stopped Elmore Leonard.) So writers solve this by having their characters do … something. Get up and look out the window. Check themselves out in the mirror. Change positions on the couch. And, of course, light cigarettes.

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Did You Ever Have to Remake Up Your Mind?

Or, How to Convert an Atheist in Seven Extremely Difficult Steps

Faith, defined a little too simply, is a belief one holds without evidence. Perhaps that definition sounds somewhat derogatory or appears to contain an implied rebuke. But people of all stripes have beliefs they cling to for no intellectually defensible reason, whether they be common superstitions (“Crime is more prevalent during the full moon” — it isn’t), personal idiosyncrasies (“Something good always happens to me when I wear my lucky sweater”) and even moral or philosophical precepts (“If I make a point of being trusting and kind, others will be encouraged to follow my example”). Most beliefs of this sort are quite harmless, a few are beneficial and the rest are a small price to pay for the freedom to be occasionally irrational. I think it would be a terribly dull world if everyone had a solid empirical basis for everything they did. Besides, I’d probably have to stop buying lottery tickets, and I like having something to fuel my daydreams.

The snag is that a belief held without evidence is also extremely resistant to change. Christopher Hitchens once said that anything that is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. That’s an intellectually justifiable position, but not a very satisfying one, at least not if you find yourself wrangling with someone whose judgement you otherwise respect about an issue you can’t agree on. Faith beliefs are felt in the gut; they accord with our sense of how the world operates and are the result of influences we are mostly unaware of, from our parents and families to the media messages we’re exposed to every day. Though I defend recreational irrationality, I don’t hold it as justification for never changing your mind. Resistance to evidence is usually rooted in fear: fear of admitting you may be wrong and feeling stupid, fear of having your worldview attacked, fear of having to start at square one in determining just what it is you believe. This kind of fear is unhealthy and ought to be stood up to, at least once in a while. So occasionally I undertake the mental exercise of determining what it would take to change my mind on an issue I care deeply about. Today’s issue: religion.

I am an atheist, and I am an atheist of a particular stripe: I do not believe in a god or gods. That is not the same as saying “there is no god.” The latter is a statement about the nature of reality, the former about one’s own knowledge and the limits thereof; another way of saying it might be “I have seen no evidence of a god.” This distinction is sometimes called “soft atheism” versus “hard atheism” (neither of which are to be confused with agnosticism, an oft-misused word that describes the belief that true knowledge of god’s existence or non-existence is unknowable by human standards). In practical terms, there is not much daylight between the two positions, and holders of either belief/nonbelief would be indistinguishable in how they lived their lives. The only difference is that one has come to a conclusion and the other hasn’t. In the spirit of jiggling a knife into that small chink in the armor of certainty, and in keeping with Carl Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” here are the conditions I would require to renounce my atheism and adopt a belief in god.

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We Apologize for the Error in Filling Your Order

Dear Valued Customer,

As the chairman and CEO of BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com, I wanted to take a moment to personally apologize to you for the extreme inconvenience that resulted from a mistake in fulfilling your recent order.

I have conducted an extensive internal investigation into this matter, and could find no satisfactory reason why our fulfillment system substituted your original order of a case of Nev-R-Die D-Cell Flashlight Batteries 12-Count (KI139809) with a Live African Bull Elephant (WL897189). I further understand that the animal arrived dead in its shipping crate, and that it had actually been dead for some time, evidently long before it was dispatched from our warehouse. This was traced to fraudulence on behalf of our supplier and you may rest assured that our relationship with this supplier has been terminated and a strongly worded letter of opprobrium sent.

Of course, we realize it takes more than a strong letter to correct a situation of this magnitude. It is one thing to say that a dead elephant was delivered to one’s doorstep; it is quite another to have to deal with the consequences. I can only imagine the horror — I believe no other word will suffice — on opening the crate and being confronted with the carcass, a once-majestic beast surrounded in a blinding cloud of flies, its skin rippling with the movements of dozens of rats that had occupied the husk as though it were some ghastly putrefying mansion. I do not doubt that your children continue to have nightmares about it, nor that it raised a host of questions about life, death and the laws of nature that you had had no expectation of addressing for at least several more years. Furthermore, our customer service team “dropped the ball” in processing your return, and while the laws for transporting animal remains are admittedly obscure, that is no justification for our failing to retrieve the crate for eight days. I understand your homeowner’s association levied numerous fines against you and our legal department is currently reviewing your claims in this manner.

I further want to assure you that the anti-Semitic graffiti on the interior of the crate was in no way the doing of BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com and that we addressed this with the aforementioned supplier. Finally, please accept my apologies regarding the behavior of the delivery driver. We use this courier service on millions of deliveries a year and they are normally the picture of reliability. That your driver was intoxicated and repeatedly challenged your family to “step up and see if you can take” him is so far beyond the realm of what we typically experience from this firm that I am at a loss to explain it. Sometimes misfortunes come together in a “perfect storm” and that seems to be what happened in your case.

With that said, what is BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com going to do to rectify this situation? Here are the remedies I have personally instructed our Customer Service team to provide:

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