Feb
11

Mob Rule in Virginia

            I’ve never worn blackface, but I’ve laughed when I’ve seen actors like Bing Cosby do so. Just like I laughed when I saw three Coors beer cans in hoods surrounding a Budweiser bottle in a noose. In the highly charged world in which the closest thing to holiness is identity, that makes me a racist. I suppose I’m a sexist, too; I think a person crying “rape” years after an event has some explaining to do.

         It’s easy to throw words like “racist” and “sexist” around. It’s harder to stand your ground and say things like “proof matters” and “off color humor isn’t a crime.”

         In the world of social media, accusations of racism and sexism are easy to come by. Those in search of clickbait score easy points with socially charged name-calling.

         But should governments be toppled so easily?

         I’m watching the madness in Virginia just now and fearing the new lynch mob.

         Calls for the state’s top three Democrats to step down -- Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney Mark Herring, for wearing, or condoning the wearing of, blackface decades ago; Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax, for “raping” two women decades ago – are a clear and direct threat to the legitimacy of the democratic process. You don’t force an elected official to resign, much less impeach him, because of conduct alleged in a viral tidal wave of scorn.

         The conduct of the three men was never hidden. The blackface photographs were in school yearbooks. Where were the racial crusaders when these men ran for office and were elected over and over again? When did being racially insensitive become a capital offense? This is the United States – our history on matters of race is shameful. You don’t right the wrongs of slavery by outlawing juvenile humor.

         And the claims of rape against Fairfax?

         One accuser, Meredith Watson, demands that Fairfax step down immediately. Why? She claims he raped her – in 1980, while they were students at Duke University. Her claim arose days after Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor, claimed that Fairfax raped her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

         Fairfax doesn’t deny libidinal contact; he claims the encounters were consensual. Did these flings become “rapes” as matters of political convenience?

         Where were these accusers when Fairfax ran for statewide office? Why weren’t these damning accusations raised when voters were assessing his fitness for office?

         Northam, Herring and Fairfax aren’t names I’d ever heard of until this past weekend, but I live in Connecticut, and I’ve never voted in Virginia. I now know their names because of the allegations against them. The same cannot be said of Virginians or the men’s accusers.

         There is no mob quite so savage as a self-righteous mob. We no longer lynch people with rope; now we use memes and the toxins spawned by social media. When the viral swill hits the mainstream media, the mob is empowered, and demands blood.

         Repeat after me people: Presumption of innocence. Sure, that’s a criminal law concept; we need have no such thing in our politics. We are free to make snap judgments about elected officials. We just can’t make those judgments against people of color, if you are a white male, or women, if you are a male.

         Northam and Herring are racists because they wore, or condoned the wearing of, blackface; Fairfax is a sexist because he had sex with women who years later claimed rape. Can you feel the mob flexing its muscle, bearing its teeth – all in the name of sensitivity?

         This is race and gender pandering; the accusations aren’t serious claims of wrongdoing. Not after all these years and not in the context of viral politics.

         Identity pandering is what passes for politics now. The pros at it are people like Patrick Hope, a Democrat in the Virginia General Assembly who plans today to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax. He'll be strutting his stuff on CNN tonight, and loving every self-righteous minute of it. If there’s a politician in Virginia who ought to be bumped from office it is the hopeless Mr. Hope.

         I don’t know if Fairfax raped his accusers. Accusations of rape are easy to make years after the event, when murky consent feels like a regretful outrage. And claims of racism are too easy to make. I was surprised when the local NAACP called me a racist for posting the picture of beer bottles on a social media site; I was stunned when a lawyer-blogger at Above the Law, uncritically adopted the accusation. But I expected no less from a lawyer-blogger at a popular website.

         In Virginia the stakes are no less than the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Northam, Herring and Fairfax have been vetted by the political process and chosen by the people of their state to lead. The claims for removing them from office aren’t the product of new misconduct, they are the result of allegations hiding for years, even decades, in plain sight. You don’t remove people from office on such grounds. Not if you think elections matter.

         But the mob must be sated. #MeToo, it screams. Racist, it roars. Sure, this new two-headed beast now shows some fissures – I mean, isn’t it racist to cry #MeToo against a black male? Is that what is at stake in Virginia, an existential arm-wresting contest to see which identity packs more clout –I mean, slavery is only 400 years old; the oppression of women has gone on forever.

         Virginia was inevitable, really. I worry about what comes next.


Feb
10

Wakanda? -- Thanks, But No Thanks

            The apocalypse dawned for me in the summer of 1967.

             I was living on Detroit’s East Side when all hell broke loose. The angry white men sitting on their porches with shotguns on their laps blamed it in on the “niggers,” and promised to shoot first and ask questions later if the riots spilled into our neighborhood. It was terrifying. Race mattered, suddenly.

            Michael Eric Dyson was living in Detroit then, too.  He was nine in 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down in Atlanta. Detroit again careened into violence. Dyson writes of learning to understand his blackness at about this time. “[W]hiteness,” he writes, in “What Truth Sounds Like,” “loomed as an unknowable force.” King’s death made him feel vulnerable, “the whiteness that had been shapeless lunged forward suddenly…. I was frightened for months.”

            Dyson’s overcome his fear with a sense of black triumphalism. Candidly, I find his belief that America’s “redemption would come through black moral genius” about as unnerving as I did the presence of armed paratroopers patrolling our neighborhood in those smoldering July nights of 1967.

            “What Truth Sounds Like” is a meditation on Robert F. Kennedy’s meeting with James Baldwin and other Black intellectuals and entertainment leaders  -- Kenneth Clark, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne were among the other attendees -- in the spring of 1963. Kennedy was trying to understand the color line.  Things didn’t go well. Kennedy just couldn’t get it; the conversation is unfinished, Dyson contends.

            Dyson doesn’t advance the discussion; he announces its over. Shut up and listen, white America. The truth has arrived.

            Seriously?

            Dyson cites with approval a debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley , the founder of the National Review, at Cambridge University in 1965.  “I picked the cotton and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip,” Baldwin said.  Of course, the claim is nonsense. Baldwin was born in 1924, long after slavery had been abolished and the railroads had been built.

            Had Buckely been on his toes, his response would have been. “Oh, well, I was scratching the earth in search of potatoes, starving. What do we have in common?” Buckley’s parents came into the United States in 1874 from Canada, after either they or their forebears left Ireland years earlier.

            (Play along: Where were you in 1850? I was in Crete, most likely a peasant working someone else’s land, or perhaps a clerk in a French shop. My father came to the United States sometime in the 1930s from Crete, an illegal immigrant who snuck into the country from Windsor, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, he met my mother, the daughter of a French Canadian drunk who came here with a thick French accent. Where were you?)

            What Baldwin did was choose to recast his identity in terms of a history he had to learn, choosing what served to advance his interests. It’s a form of race pandering that Dyson transforms into giddy triumphalism.

            “What Truth Sounds Like” was a holiday gift, something to help me sort out my dark suspicions about identity politics. Sadly, the book failed to do anything other than confirm my hunch that identity, a social construct, is the face we present to the world when we ask for our due. Black triumphalism announces “our time has come.” What’s that mean for the rest of us?  We’re in the last gasps of the old, and presumably white world – the old guard is dying, you see.

            As a certifiable member of the old guard, forgive me for saying: “not so fast.”

            You didn’t pick my cotton. You didn’t build my railroad. You didn’t pay my father’s freight when he sailed from Crete to the Canada. You don’t owe me respect on account of my race; I don’t owe you solicitude on account of yours. Integrity matters; race is the calling card presented when there’s not time enough to evaluate character.

            Dyson is downright giddy about race. Black “moral genius” will save the world. White folks need to listen, listen, listen to the likes of Dyson. “Whiteness continues to metastasize across the body politic like a cancer that only goes into remission, sporadically,…” My race is “an extravagant hoax.” White guilt is necessary. “[B]lackness brings greater humanity.” He cites with approval calls for reparations payments to people of color, a race-based tax that will require white guilt to pay for its sins by cash transfer payments to black innocence.

            By the time Dyson finishes his book he’s punch drunk. Reread Baldwin, go ahead, he exhorts. But first watch Black Panther. Watch it over and over again. It’s a place where blackness is destiny, in a place called “Wakanda.” (If you’ve not seen the movie, you’ve still heard reference to Wakanda in ads for products on television. “Wakanda,” the little black girl croons, and her parents beam with proud hopes.)

            “Wakanda is the place of our unapologetic blackness, a blackness that is beautiful and ugly, that is uplifting and destructive, that is peaceful and violent, that is, in a word, human in all its glory and grief, with no special pleading for its virtue, no excuses made for its wickedness, except that wickedness exists, and in its existence, we find it necessary to address it, to fight it, to remove it, but not to defend ourselves against the belief that it represents all black people,” he exclaims.

            Too prosaic?

            “Wakanda is necessary for us because our black lives are seen as anything but. Wakanda matters because black lives don’t.” He goes on and on in the book’s final chapter overcome by the beauty of it all.

            Wakanda is demographic destiny.

            I read Dyson and was all at once again a child in Detroit listening to radio reports about my city in flames. Would the fires reach my home? Would the angry white men shoot to kill the angry black men setting the city afire? I hear Wakanda, and I think of that Detroit.

            Michael Eric Dyson wants to talk about race. But his idea of the discussion is that I listen to what he has to say, accept my accidents of birth as a cancer, regard his as proof of prophetic destiny, and then move to Wakanda.

            I’m not making the trip, Mike.

            You lost me when Baldwin started talking about picking cotton and building railroads. If he did all that, then I did nothing that should matter to Baldwin– I was in Crete or France. What have we to talk about?

            Dyson’s a preacher with a Ph.D.  Surely he knows the New Testament. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. When the pot says to the potter, why makest me so, sin speaks. Reworking the world in our own image is the very definition of sin. Are white men sinners? I know it to be true from experience. Are black men sinners, I believe so. All are in need of grace. And grace will be found by transcending what divides us, and cleaving to something higher.

            Michael Eric Dyson is a race panderer. And Wakanda? Just another circle in Hell. But I will watch Black Panther; I hadn’t planned to – black superheroes seem about as silly as white ones. I outgrew all that about the time Detroit burst into flames. But Wakanda is a calling.

x

About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis

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