I am old now

Me

Today is my birthday, and I think I can say with confidence that this is the oldest I have ever been. There were a couple years in my late twenties when I wrote obsessively about subway etiquette like a septuagenarian, but now I am even more crotchety than that. I feel good, though. Ongoing physical therapy notwithstanding, I am probably in the best shape of my life. I am engaged to be married, which is a young person’s game, and I have the judgment of a man half my age. Such a man would still be able to buy cigarettes, which is sobering, but I suppose my continued aging is pretty good when I consider the alternative. It is better to be young, but it is best to live. I have lived about half of what a modern person can reasonably expect, and it feels all right. I think I will keep doing it.

I am hereby putting Combat! blog on hiatus until Monday, August 28th. It’s a logistical choice, not an emotional one. My brother and The Cure are here in Missoula even as we speak, and several other good friends will arrive in the coming days to observe my birthday this weekend. On Monday, we are traveling to see the eclipse. On Tuesday, I fly to New York on assignment, and the rest of the week will be consumed with reportage. These are all excellent conflicts to have, and my only regret is that they will deprive you, the gentle reader, of my arbitrary and sometimes destructive opinions. Probably you could stand a break from me, though. In the meantime, how about you watch this amazing Vice segment on the violence in Charlottesville? Spoiler alert: It will make you think that white nationalists are dicks. I’ll see you in 12 days.

Why is there a Confederate monument in Helena, Montana?

The Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena—photo by Thom Bridge

The state of Montana did not participate in the US civil war. Montana didn’t become a state until decades later, in 1889, and even then it was about as far north of the Mason-Dixon line as states get. Although somebody in the Montana territory probably traveled south to fight on the side of the Confederacy, the war is only a part of this region’s history indirectly, in the same way as, say, the Boston Tea Party. There’s no statue of Sam Adams in Helena. Yet there is a memorial to Confederate soldiers, given to the city by The Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

In a letter to city commissioners, eight members of the state legislature’s American Indian Caucus recently asked that the fountain be removed. Helena Mayor Jim Smith opposes this idea. In his own letter, reported by Holly Michels in the Helena Independent-Record, he writes, “Fundamentally, I believe we ought to be very careful before we start obliterating history. That is what totalitarian regimes do.”

Let’s talk about what constitutes history, then. The notion that statues and fountains somehow stand between us and the “obliteration” of history is fatuous. I defy you to show me someone who only knows about the Civil War from a statue. And what information about history does the fountain in Hill Park convey? If you did not know anything about the past, all this monument would tell you is that there once existed a group called The Daughters of the Confederacy, and it dedicated a fountain in 1915.

That fountain is less a piece of history than a monument to one group’s understanding of it. The distinction is  important. The D of the C built this monument 50 years after the Civil War ended. That’s an astonishingly short time, like erecting a monument to the Wehrmacht in Paris in 1995. But it is still two generations after the Confederacy ceased to exist, and the fountain cannot meaningfully be called a relic of Civil War history. Instead, it is a monument to the City of Helena’s endorsement of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

That moment is also part of history, but it is not important in the same way as the Civil War. I don’t think anyone considers it a significant part of the story of Helena. It has purely symbolic importance, and what it symbolizes—then and now—is not something the city should support, even if only by inaction.

The Daughters of the Confederacy was founded to sponsor burials of Confederate veterans, erect monuments to them, and influence schools to teach Civil War history in ways that reflected favorably on the South. Its membership increased dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th century, going from 17,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by the outbreak of World War I. The fountain in Hill Park reflects the height of the Daughters’ influence. It also reflects a sympathy to their cause completely divorced from history.

Again, Montana played no part in the Civil War. If it had existed as a state, it would have almost certainly fought for the North. It had no historical ties to the Confederacy, in 1863 or in 1915. The fountain therefore suggests an affinity for some other aspect of the Daughters’ mission. It is hard to say what that could be other than white supremacy.

Many historians, including Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, consider the Daughters of the Confederacy a stalking horse for white supremacy. It’s not inconceivable that some of the Daughters are lineal descendants of Confederates who only want to memorialize their ancestors, but that argument breaks down in Montana. The further we get, geographically and chronologically, from the Confederacy itself, the more structures like this fountain become monuments to the idea and not the history.

That idea is repugnant. Confederate soldiers fought a war of treason against the United States in defense of slavery. There are a lot of good reasons to study that war and remember it, to literally memorialize the history. But there are only two reasons to memorialize the ideas: either you like the notion of exploiting and disenfranchising black people by force, or you like the notion of betraying the United States and killing its citizens.

There is a third reason, of course: you recognize that Confederate monuments have some vague appeal to disgruntled white people, and you’re pandering. I hope that’s what Mayor Smith is up to. I would hate to think he is a slavemonger or seditionist. He has probably just performed the same calculus the city fathers did in 1915. Most of Helena is white, and saying yes to some cracker nonsense will alienate fewer voters than saying no. The next step in this process, probably, is to prove him wrong.

Should we get white nationalists fired from their jobs?

Cole White, formerly of Top Dog, marches for whiteness in Charlottesville.

The thing about white nationalists is fuck them. Ordinary rules of civil society, such as “don’t persecute people for their beliefs,” break down as those beliefs approach fascism. We already tried responding to fascism with sanction and argument, and it ended baldy. This history puts fascism in a  unique category of beliefs that might justify preemptive violence. If NAMBLA organized a march through downtown Missoula, I would oppose heading over there to beat them up. We have seen what happens when fascism gets rolling, however, and the way it seeks to make force superior to reason or democratic processes, in a way that might justify wielding force against fascism right off the bat.

I mention this because of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. It ended in violence and what appears to be a vehicular homicide. Even those marchers who did not show up with sticks and torches espoused an ideology antithetical to this country’s values. The white race is a fiction, in my opinion, but even if it were real, you cannot say one race is superior to or even just inherently different from others while simultaneously claiming that all people are created equal. Race nationalism is incompatible with American democracy. The people who believe in it are assholes, but are they Nazis?

This question should not be taken as a defense of any of the ideas expressed by what is called the alt-right. I’m not steeped in that culture, but literally everything I have heard from them has been stupid. Not everything I have heard from them has been what I would classify as Nazism, though. This distinction is important to me, because while I am comfortable with the idea of stomping Nazis for their beliefs, I am not comfortable with the idea of stomping someone because they believe, for example, that white people are inherently better at math.

That claim affronts me, and I would hold whoever said it in contempt. I would not persecute them, though. In most cases, that’s a distinction without difference. When you see some Richard Spencer type marching down the street with a club and shouting about Jews, by all means, knock him down. But what about when you see some asshole like Cole White, pictured at the top of this post? He marched in Charlottesville Friday night. The Twitter account Yes, You’re Racist identified him from a picture on Saturday, and by the end of the day he had been fired from his job at a libertarian hot dog restaurant.

Just desserts, right? That’s one white man who will have time to rethink his theories about which race is superior, now that he doesn’t spend all day preparing and selling hot dogs. I don’t feel too bad about what happened to Mr. White, but I don’t feel too good about the mechanism by which it came about. I have two concerns, one of them a lot more esoteric than the other. Both of them can be neatly encapsulated in one thought experiment:

  1. Imagine you are a socialist, and you march in a public demonstration demanding that the United States nationalize its banking system. The Twitter account Yes, You’re a Communist calls your employer about it, and you lose your job at the libertarian hot dog place.
  2. Imagine you are a socialist, and you see Cole White marching in a public demonstration demanding that Charlottesville preserve its monument to Robert E. Lee. You call his employer, and he loses his job at the libertarian hot dog place.

Scenario (1) is very much like what actually happened, except the political belief in question is not as unequivocally bad as racism. Some might even say it’s good. No one of sense would say that about white supremacy, but I can imagine someone of sense saying it about the preservation of Confederate statues. I’m against that. Tear ’em down. But I am not so against it that I believe anyone who disagrees with me should lose their job. This scenario raises questions about how bad a political belief has to be to justify attacking the person who holds it.

Scenario (2) raises questions about how we attack objectionable beliefs. The practice of getting people fired for saying stupid things on the internet is well-established. White was doing stupid things in real life, but he was fired by the same basic mechanism: people were disgusted with him, figured out who he was, and put pressure on his employer. If you believe, as I do, that capital in general and work in particular exercise too much influence on American lives, it’s hard to justify getting people fired as an instrument of political action. White is an asshole, but has he now lost his health insurance? If he gets leukemia next week, are we willing to deny him treatment because of his opinions on Robert E. Lee and so-called racial science?

Again, I’m not trying to drum up sympathy for this jerk. I am trying to ask what we are willing to do to the people for whom we have almost no sympathy at all. We should punch Nazis, but maybe we should refrain from punching people who merely resemble Nazis. Otherwise, the mechanisms of our disagreements might overpower their content. If you had a button on your desk that electrocuted anyone you disagreed with, you could solve the Nazi problem real quick. Maybe, though, you would generate a new problem entirely.

Friday links! Works of art edition

Banksy strikes again.

Art has the power to change lives. It can redraw the boundaries of our public discourse and stretch the horizons of our private hearts. When you study its history and see the important role it has played in human development, you realize that art has the power to do anything, except make money. Mostly, though, it has the power to suck. Back when art was two carvings a year and whatever Michelangelo put out, it had to be really good. Now that everyone is an artist and all behavior is performance, no single unit of art has to do much work. It just has to be seen. Today is Friday, and the world is producing art on a larger scale than ever before. Won’t you tactfully remark on the size of the canvas with me?

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What makes it okay to deport Audemio Orozco-Ramirez?

Supporters of Orozco-Ramirez march in downtown Billings.

In 2013, Audemio Orozco-Ramirez with the passenger in a traffic stop in Jefferson County, Montana. At that time, he had been living in the United States approximately 16 years. Orozco-Ramirez was born in Michoacan, Mexico. He has no criminal record, but the officer of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department who stopped the car he was riding in suspected that he was in the country illegally, in part because he did not speak English. Orozco-Ramirez was arrested on a civil immigration violation and placed in a county jail sell with nine other men.

During a period of time that went missing from the jail’s otherwise continuous surveillance footage, a number of these men held down Orozco-Ramirez and raped him. In December, Jefferson County settled a federal lawsuit filed by Orozco-Ramirez for $125,000 without admitting that he was assaulted or it was liable. Since then, he has lived and worked outside Billings, checking in with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents on a monthly basis. During his last check-in, he was arrested and scheduled for deportation.

An appeals court judge has issued a stay against that decision pending a hearing. The feds frequently issue “U visas” to foreign nationals who are the victims of crimes and have aided authorities in their investigations, but in settling Orozco-Ramirez’s lawsuit, Jefferson County did not admit he was a victim of a crime. Legally, we can deport him. The question of whether we can do so ethically is more complicated.

Except for crossing the border illegally 20 years ago, Orozco-Ramirez has participated in the social contract. Our state and federal governments, on the other hand, have betrayed him multiple times. For example, there was the time we investigated him for civil violations as the passenger in a traffic stop. That doesn’t happen to Americans who enjoy constitutional rights. There was also the time we locked him in a cell full of rapists, also for a civil violation, and stopped watching what happened. Then there was the time we made a deal with him to forget about the rape thing and then picked him up for deportation while he was upholding his end of the bargain.

No American would agree that is the right way for a government to treat the people it governs. Yet because Orozco-Ramirez is not a citizen but merely a person who has lived here for the last 20 years, anything we do to him is fine. That’s a peculiar moral calculus, and you can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!