Donald Trump’s Racism Diminishes America

Depiction of Du Sable taken from A.T. Andreas’ book History of Chicago (1884). Reprinted from Wikipedia

Greetings from the U.S. city founded by a Haitian immigrant.

Sometime in the 1780s, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, reportedly born of a French father and an African slave mother, who had gained some education in France and made his way from New Orleans to the Midwest, settled with his Potawatomi wife on the north shore of the Chicago River. He developed what became a prosperous trading post before eventually selling it for $1,200 (no small sum in the early 1800s) before relocating to St. Charles, in what is now Missouri, where he died in 1818. According to the best-known assumption about his date of birth (1845), he would by then have been 73, a ripe age on the early American frontier. You can learn more about the admittedly sketchy details of his life here as well as through the link above. However, Chicago has long claimed him as part of its heritage, and his origins speak volumes about not only Chicago but the diversity of the American frontier despite the attempts in some quarters to continue to paint a much whiter portrait of the nation’s history than the truth affords. His story, and those of many others, can be viewed at the Du Sable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side.

Du Sable Museum of African American History, photo from Wikipedia

What does this have to do with President Donald Trump? As almost anyone not living in a cave knows by now, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has said that Trump, while Durbin was at the White House for a meeting with the President and several Republican members of Congress to discuss a possible compromise on legislation concerning immigration and border security, began a verbal tirade asking why the nation was allowing so many immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Africa and Haiti. Yes, Trump now denies saying it, but there were other witnesses, and even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) acknowledges it and reports confronting Trump personally about his remarks. Moreover, the sad fact is that such remarks are consistent with a much broader pattern of similar comments ranging from his initial campaign announcement decrying Mexican “rapists” to provably untrue tweets to his infamous praise of “truly fine” people among the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan members protesting the pending removal of Confederate statues in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. Since those comments last August, Trump has continued to lacerate the Twitterscape with new gems of disingenuous absurdity.

It also betrays a disturbing lack of depth of any historical knowledge that might ground Trump in the truth. There is surely little question that Haiti is one of the poorest and most environmentally beleaguered nations in the Western Hemisphere. But it helps to know how it got there, which takes us back to what was happening in Du Sable’s lifetime. Emulating the ideals of both the American and French revolutions, including the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, deeply oppressed African slaves rebelled in 1791. An ill-advised expedition sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to suppress the revolution—Napoleon was more interested in financing his European wars with Haitian revenue than in honoring liberty among Africans—failed miserably when nearly 80 percent of 57,000 French troops first fell victim to yellow fever before being pounced upon by Haitian revolutionaries in their weakened state. Only a small contingent ever made it back to France alive. As time went on, however, Haiti found itself isolated in the New World. The United States, under presidents from Thomas Jefferson onward until the Civil War, refused to recognize the new republic, fearing a similar uprising among its own growing population of slaves in the South. Recognition finally happened in 1862, with the Confederacy in full rebellion against the Union and with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. The story gets much, much worse, including Haiti’s long-time mistreatment by France, its former colonial overseer, but those with more intellectual curiosity than our current U.S. president can read about it in a variety of books including Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois; the fictionalized but brutally vivid and historically accurate trilogy (starting with All Souls’ Rising) by Madison Smartt Bell, whom I met 20 years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference; and the more modern history of exploitation, The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer. There is much more; just search Amazon or your local library. It is all there for the learning. We are at least partly responsible for helping to create the historical pattern of misery and poverty in Haiti. Its people have suffered through vicious, greedy dictators like the Duvaliers and yet bravely insisted on creating a democracy despite all obstacles.

Why do I review all this? Because, especially as we celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday and the ideals of the civil rights movement, history matters. For the President of the United States, at least a respectable knowledge of history matters, as do an open mind and a willingness to learn what matters. Little of that has been in evidence over the past year. And that remains a tragic loss for the nation.

Instead, we have a President who, before taking office, spent five years helping to peddle the canard that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and thus not a native-born U.S. citizen as required by the U.S. Constitution. Based on his recent comments, one might suspect that, all along, he regarded Kenya as among the “shithole countries.” It is small wonder, then, that he holds Obama’s legacy in such low regard. (Several years ago, while in Oahu, my wife and I met a Punahou School high school classmate of Obama, working as a tour guide, who said he knew Obama’s grandparents. “I was not in the delivery room,” he mused, but “I think I would have known” if Obama had not been born in Honolulu.)

The problem, as millions of Americans seem to understand, is that, despite Trump’s claim that these nations “do not send us their best,” our nation has a history of watching greatness arise from humble origins. Abraham Lincoln, in fact, arose from starker poverty in Kentucky and southern Illinois than many immigrants even from African nations have ever seen. Major League Baseball might be considerably diminished without the many Dominicans who have striven mightily to escape poverty and succeed, more than a few making it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (I worked in the Dominican Republic in 2000-2001, organizing HUD-funded Spanish-language training on site planning for design professionals working on reconstruction after Hurricane Georges, and can attest first-hand to the national pride Dominicans feel about their achievements in the U.S.) How many Americans visit doctors who emanated from India, Nigeria, and other countries who saw opportunity here to expand their talents and contribute to this nation’s welfare? And, lest we forget, Steve Jobs, who created more and better American jobs through Apple than Trump ever dreamed of creating, was the son of Syrian immigrants.

Only willful ignorance and prejudice can blind us to these contributions and lead us to accept the validity of Trump’s vile observations. As adjunct assistant professor, I teach a graduate-level seminar (Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery) each year at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Since this began in 2008, I have taught not only Americans but high-quality students—in a few cases, Fulbright scholars—from places like Zambia, Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They do not see themselves as coming from “shithole countries,” but they do perceive that they are availing themselves of excellent educational opportunities in a nation they have typically seen as a paragon of democratic ideals. Now we are undermining that perception at a breakneck pace. These students, whose full tuition helps undergird the finances of American universities, know there are viable alternatives for a modern education in Britain, France, Germany, and Canada, but until now they have believed in the promise of America.

Meanwhile, Europeans—the very people whom Trump apparently would like to see more of among our immigrant ranks—are watching this charade with alarm and dismay. I know this evidence is anecdotal, but my wife and I, as noted in recent blog posts, traveled to Norway last July. We encountered New Zealand, South African, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, German, British, and Norwegian citizens, among others, as we traveled. Almost no one we met was impressed with Trump. This is a new development in European perception of American leadership. Moreover, our perceptions then are supported by reporting in the last few days on reaction to Trump’s comments. Despite Trump asking why we cannot have more immigrants from Norway, NBC News reports that Norwegians are largely rejecting this call as “backhanded praise.” If we want more European immigration to the U.S., we would do far better impressing them with our sophistication and our commitment to the democratic ideals we have all shared since World War II.

Beyond all this, it must be noted that thousands of dedicated Americans serve overseas in the nations Trump has insulted, wearing the uniforms of the Armed Services, staffing diplomatic missions, and representing their nation in other ways. No true patriot would thoughtlessly place them in jeopardy and make their jobs more awkward than they need to be. It is one thing to face the hostility of Islamic State or other terrorist-oriented entities because of U.S. policy. Those who enlist or take overseas jobs with the U.S. government understand those risks. It is another to engender needless fear and hostility among nations that historically have been open to American influence and leadership. How do we mend fences once they perceive the U.S. President as an unapologetic bigot?

That question leads to another, more troubling one. Silence effectively becomes complicity, but far too few Republican members of Congress have found the moral backbone to confront the reality that both their party’s and their nation’s reputation will suffer lasting damage if they remain too timid to stand up to the schoolyard bully they helped elect. A few, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Mitt Romney, and members of the Bush family, have demonstrated such integrity, but most have not. It is one thing to recognize that you badly misjudged the character of the man you nominated and helped elect. It is another entirely to refuse to speak up once it is obvious. Admittedly, Democrats right now have the easier job. But this problem transcends partisan boundaries. It is about America’s badly damaged license to lead in the world. We either reclaim it, or we begin the long, slow torture of forfeiting it.

Jim Schwab

The Voice of Identity

For many Americans, including numerous prominent Republicans, one of the more troubling phenomena in the 2016 presidential election was the rise of certain groups who seem to attach their own identity to resentment and rejection of those who do not fit traditional images in our culture. The frequently demonstrated reluctance of Donald Trump to distance himself from advocates of white nationalism or supremacy served only to reinforce a sense of unease about the direction our nation was taking. The situation raised some disturbing questions about who we are as a nation at the same time that it also revealed a very real sense of the loss of possibility among those who embraced the Trump messages. Before we hasten to condemn this trend, it is important to keep in mind that many of the people who launched Trump into the White House have felt a very real unease of their own, a feeling of losing their footing in what they experience as a stagnating economy. The feeling transcended party boundaries and went a long way toward explaining the surprising popularity of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic primaries. This great stirring is far from over just because Trump won.

I do not raise this issue to reach any partisan conclusions or even to address it in any specifically political terms. But I was moved to think about it in part after observing some of the more blatant instances of racist prejudice in post-election interviews with the likes of Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute. Spencer grabbed some attention with a speech that included the phrase “Hail Trump,” a barely veiled echo of “Heil Hitler,” and, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, made clear his dream is “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans,” and has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” It is hard to imagine how ethnic cleansing can possibly be peaceful, so I think one can hardly be blamed for suspecting deceitful propaganda. No matter how many disclaimers the alt-right may use in trying to reframe its identity, the old stench of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi movements refuses to go away.

But I want to make a larger point and then delve into the very question of how we frame identity, and how it frames us. Our sense of identity can be both liberating and oppressive, both loving and resentful, thoughtful and downright stupid. Spencer, in a recent television interview, effectively expressed the notion of simply claiming his white identity in the same way that blacks take pride in theirs. Many on the alt-right take pains to note how much white people have contributed to our society as a means of expressing dominance. This is rather simplistic for the obvious reason that our society long was of predominantly European origin, so it stands to reason that most of our heritage bears that mark. But it is not nearly so simple as all that. The whole notion bears some dissection.

What has come to be identified as the African-American experience, for starters, resulted from a forced common experience of bondage in which most slaves lost any or most of their specific African heritages under circumstances that were not only unquestionably racist but involved violent subjugation as well. It is no accident that black slaves often readily identified with the biblical story of the Israelite release from slavery. Liberation movements throughout world history have played a role in forging new identities through struggle. The fact that the struggle has continued to this day in the form of civil rights battles has served only to strengthen those ties.

And yet—one needs only to observe the assimilation into American society of African and Caribbean black immigrants to realize that there are subtleties and variations in the African identity. President Barack Obama himself, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan student at the University of Hawaii, struggled in his youth to establish his own sense of identity, which did not come from claiming slave ancestors in the Deep South. In current American society, one can see expressions of Ghanaian culture, as well as of Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Somalis, all arriving long after the most bitter civil rights and liberation struggles have been fought, seeking to establish their own ethnic identities in a very diverse America. The tapestry is ornate and continues to enrich American society with everything from new cuisines and artistic expression to new ways of understanding what attracts people to the American dream.

These variations and nuances extend to the frame of “white American” experience. Because what became the United States of America began with English colonies, the experience of early Americans was very English in nature—but not entirely. Early on, the British empire absorbed Dutch and French settlers into its universe, as well as a modest number of American Indians who intermarried. (It should also be noted that perhaps one-fourth of African-Americans have some American Indian ancestry, in no small part because of slaves escaping to Indian communities and integrating and intermarrying over time. See Black Indians for just one interesting exposition of this fascinating history.) Over two or three centuries, “white” America gradually absorbed more non-English elements, beginning with the Irish and Germans, and eventually including all sorts of largely non-Protestant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as Lebanese, Turks, and others.

All these people brought with them unique cultural attachments. For example, Greeks brought not only their Orthodox church, but numerous specific perspectives on the world based on their own historic and philosophical outlooks, all tempered over time by new experiences in the New World. In many cases, those initial experiences included some discrimination and challenges in becoming American. Any serious student of American history is aware of such phenomena as the Know-Nothing movement of the 1840s and 1850s, a period when factory doors often sported signs indicating that “Irish need not apply.” Tensions boiled over at times, including one notable instance in Chicago in 1855 known as the Great Lager Beer Riot. Know-Nothing Mayor Levi Boone sought closure on Sundays of the pubs and bierstuben that the Irish and German workingmen patronized, and a confrontation erupted. Boone became a one-term mayor, and his initiative came to naught.

The targets of white-on-white discrimination shifted over time into the early and even mid-20th century, as assimilation proceeded and various nationalities won grudging acceptance. American literature is replete with very personal interpretations of these experiences from Norwegians, Lebanese, Greeks, Russians, and others trying to find their place in American society. One astute student of the subtleties of this evolution, Mel Brooks, generated the biting and wickedly comic satires Blazing Saddles. I have long felt that movie, which I have watched several times, offers far more insight than meets the unlearned eye into the sometimes explosive mixture of influences that shaped the American West. My own discerning eye for the subtleties of this movie came after living in Iowa for more than six years and researching a book on the farm credit crisis, as well as marrying a Nebraskan, all of which made me very aware of the diverse ethnic communities that comprise much of the West. Rural America is not nearly as monochrome as many urban Americans imagine it to be.

Let me return briefly to the phony vision of the alt-right. What I have just described should make abundantly clear that the notion of “white identity” can have only one purpose. That purpose is white supremacy and the oppression of minorities because the overall “white” experience in America is itself so diverse and has evolved so far from its English colonial roots that the only possible meaning one can attach to this “white identity” is that of suppression of any other form of identification with the meaning of “American.” I also do not think a blog article like this can do more than scratch the surface of this subject. Whole books have been devoted to the formation of personal and collective identity in the American melting pot without successfully exploring all the nooks and crannies of the issues involved. Nonetheless, I strongly believe we must keep this subject open for further exploration. We have little choice if we want to understand both ourselves and what is happening around us.

I also want to make clear that I do not believe that Donald Trump is endorsing white supremacy. What troubles me is his willingness to exploit this sentiment to advance his political ambitions. Many of the obvious splits within the Republican party had as much to do with the discomfort of Mitt Romney, John Kasich, John McCain, and the Bush family, among others, with this exploitation of prejudice as with any other stance that Trump took. These past Republican leaders simply found themselves unable to stomach such intolerance. Trade and foreign policy issues are fair game in a presidential contest, but for reasons related to his own view of the imperative of winning at any cost, there is little question that Trump took the low road in making his arguments. That choice will leave him mending fences for the next four years if he truly wants to be president of “all the people.”

Ultimately, our collective national identity is a composite of the many individual identities we construct for ourselves. Some of us construct these identities carefully and deliberately over many years, and others simply accept inherited attitudes, privileges, or resentments. But one of the central claims of the conservative right has been that America has traditionally been a Christian nation. That is a position that, in some respects, also ignores the freedom of religion that is enshrined in the First Amendment, which includes the right of people to observe other faiths or no faith at all. But I would prefer to confront white identity on Christian grounds both because I am willing to claim Christian identity and because real Christian faith flatly excludes white identity: “For in Christ there is no longer Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male or female.” (Galatians 3:28) Saint Paul did not need to add “black nor white” to make his point perfectly clear. The only thing that is remarkable is how often this simple point is missed or ignored.

Another piece of Christian wisdom is well known and comes directly from Jesus (Luke 12:48), that from those to whom much has been given, much also is demanded. I can think of few things more appalling than to waste one’s life and talents disseminating hatred and bigotry in a world badly in need of greater love and understanding. An honest search for our collective or personal identity demands both an open mind and respect for our fellow citizens. I can think of nothing that would ever alter my perspective on that final observation.

Jim Schwab

We Are the Cure, We Are the People

Our nation is suffering from a terrible social disease. It is not a sexually transmitted disease, though it can be spread orally, through the things we say to each other and over the Internet and the air waves. Since everything seems to need a name, I will call it BJ Disease, which stands for blanket judgment. It has been with us for a long, long time, latent in our political system and society, but it has gone viral, it seems, and become an epidemic in a very bad political year.

If there is one thing I personally learned long ago, it was to view people as individuals rather than as monolithic groups. In part, that is because I learned as a Christian that this is the way in which God values us, and it saddens me when I see people use religion as a weapon or a tool of exclusion rather than an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. It has paved the way for my wife and me adopting two girls of varied backgrounds and becoming grandparents of a passel of children of racially mixed backgrounds, each with their own unique characteristics.

Adopting such an outlook has allowed me to see many more shades of meaning and value in the ways people speak and behave than if I were to see them simply as blacks, whites, Hispanics, or adherents of one faith or another, or of particular ethnic groups or sexual identities. Yes, many people in all these groupings have limited things in common, but there are far more that differentiate them as individuals and many more that we share in common as human beings across all those lines. But far too often, we refuse to see them. It is costing us lives and endleDSCF1345ss heartache, and that is a very sad thing.

Amid the uproar over black lives taken by police officers, most often though not always white officers, there is among a vocal minority of protesters an unfortunate tendency to paint all police as racially biased and prone to violence against minorities. There is, no doubt, a small segment of many of our police departments with such tendencies, though I am inclined to think it is a much smaller segment than it used to be. It is, however, far more visible today as a result of technology. Certain members of police departments have not yet adapted to an era in which the ubiquity of cell phone cameras virtually ensures that bad judgment in handling suspects, often in minor incidents such as traffic stops, will end up on the evening news. But lest I be accused of BJ disease myself, let me note that there are instances in which traffic stops have resulted in the deaths of police who did not soon enough realize that someone had a gun and intended to use it. Traffic stops can escalate, and there are reasons why police may be wary of the drivers they have pulled over.

At the same time, it is also perfectly clear that the shooter in Dallas made statements to the police, as they were trying to negotiate with him, that he hated white people and police. His indiscriminate shooting of officers at the end of what had been a peaceful protest not only bloodied and sullied the message of the protest but made clear that, in his mind, the people he was shooting were not individuals with families and unique perspectives and experiences but a single mass of people not deserving of such differentiation. It is hard to see the difference between that outlook and the views of a white racist who sees blacks as an undifferentiated force for evil. Both perspectives simply deepen the propensity for violence in our society.

At a time when it would be extremely helpful to have political leaders who can help us to escape the bonds of blanket judgment disease, which can become contagious through peer pressure and the desire to conform in the condemnation of outsiders, however they may be defined, it is disappointing in the extreme to have instead candidates for the presidency who engage in spreading the disease through inflammatory rhetoric. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Trump may well understand that many Muslims condemn the violence of terrorists, and that many are fleeing their countries in search of safety, but the careless lumping of all Muslims into a suspect category that must be denied admission to the United States does nothing to further that understanding. It does nothing to foster our awareness of Muslims as distinct individuals, any more than racial fears of American Indians or Mexicans or Asians fostered such understanding in the past. But let’s be clear. While he emerged as the winner of the Republican nomination by dominating debates with such reckless proposals, Trump was hardly the only candidate to offer such blanket condemnations or stoke such fears. In fact, his ascendancy within the Republican party was made possible precisely by years of such pathetic pandering before he chose to take it to another level.

So—I have said my piece for this week in an effort to make peace. There are no links in this particular blog post because the links that matter are not on the Internet but between all of us as Americans and as fellow human beings. We need to foster those connections across racial and political and ethnic and religious lines. We need to reach out even when it takes courage to do so. We need to spend more time understanding each other and less time criticizing each other en masse. We need to focus on the eradication of BJ disease. I will pray for that tonight and every night until we can achieve a more civil and respectful dialogue. Is it too much to ask? Or, as Rodney King once famously asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

Jim Schwab

 

Misusing the Populist Label?

Long ago, in a graduate urban planning course at the University of Iowa called “Collective Decision Making,” I had an interesting exchange of views with Professor Mickey Lauria, now at Clemson University. We are both much older than we were in 1982, so it might be interesting to reignite our brief debate over coffee or beer, but it was a friendly, if slightly testy, intellectual debate that has taken on some new meaning for me in the context of our current presidential race. Much of what I am seeing serves to reinforce my original beliefs, but it might just as easily serve to reinforce his as well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, in objecting to the press describing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as populist, President Barack Obama seemed to land firmly on my side of the debate. I was pleased.

As I recall, and I am relying on an excellent but certainly not perfect memory, our classroom debate occurred in the midst of a discussion about some issue regarding the politics of public housing or low-income housing development in Minneapolis, where Prof. Lauria had acquired a Ph.D. in geography just five years earlier. Most of the details of the immediate issue are now obscure, but I recall that he made some reference to populism in a way that suggested it merely meant catering to popular sentiment, which, of course, can easily be turned against disadvantaged populations on issues like adequate housing. I objected by saying, “That just means anything goes.”

Mickey turned to me with a face that suggested some disbelief, even some cynicism, and replied forcefully, “Anything always has gone, Schwab.”

I insisted, in the face of his adamant response, that populism had some clear historical origins that rose above such a broad indictment, and that it was not as simple as catering to popular prejudice. I discovered that not everyone in the class was enamored of his take on the question, though I am sure I did not win all the endorsements that day, either. Mostly, I just deserved credit for offering and articulating another perspective.

It was a classic confrontation on the question of just how the word “populist” is used. Populism has certainly been denigrated by certain political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And, heaven knows, American history has been full of such sentiments, which have gained and lost ground over time. Some of it is fed by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments, but some also is fed by resentment of privileged elites, who sometimes can be blamed for stoking such resentment with their own brands of arrogance and condescension. Coming from a working-class family yet striving for higher education and intellectual achievements, believe me, I can see both sides of the debate. I can see both the grievances of many working-class people as well as the futility of the frequent search for easy answers that can dominate their thinking. And while the targets of resentment may vary among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others, the temptation to latch on to easy answers is omnipresent in one form or another. It is often difficult for people to take time to think more deeply and to perceive that the world can be a very complex place.

But I have never seen that as an excuse for intellectuals to see populist politics as inherently naïve or to paint it with the broad brush of the ignorance of the unwashed. In the end, in my opinion, such attitudes about what constitutes populism concede far too much to the demagogues and manipulators among us because they then wear the populist label with honor when some of them clearly deserve opprobrium.

What Mickey Lauria almost surely did not appreciate, aside from my own undergraduate education in political science, was that I had specifically done my homework on the origins of populism as a political concept in American history. Part of this was due to my move to Iowa as executive director of the small but feisty Iowa Public Interest Research Group and connecting with the politics of agricultural protest during the emergence of the 1980s farm credit crisis. That subject eventually became the focus of my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, for which I subsequently did a great deal more historical research over the next few years. But one book that had captured my attention was highly recommended by another urban planning faculty member at the time, Michael F. Sheehan, who later obtained a law degree to supplement his Ph.D. in economics, and then moved to Oregon as an environmental and public interest lawyer.

Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn, had been a game changer for me in shaping my awareness of the role of protest politics in American history. It outlined the growth of the admittedly short-lived People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s but led to the title of my first book, which came from a quote from Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist politician of the time, who consistently told farmers that they needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” The populists essentially took over the state of Kansas in the early 1890s, a far cry from the Tea Party Republicanism that dominates there now. But their moment in the sun was relatively short. The party actually won electoral votes, largely in the West, in the 1892 presidential election, but the growing threat it posed also prompted Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan to engineer its absorption into the Democratic Party, where its voice became less distinctive. It articulated legitimated grievances against the industrial elite of its day, such as the railroad barons, but also worked in many instances across racial lines. It may be worth noting that similar grievances during the Great Depression prompted the emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which elected one governor, but which also was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party after World War II in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey.

The tragedy is that some of its leaders, like Lease, a suffragist who broke with the populists, became anti-Semitic, and suffered from self-importance, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who later descended into racist diatribes, succumbed to the enormous pressures to conform to the prejudices of the day, taking the easier route to public acceptance after the collapse of their third-party effort. But it must be said that others helped form the core of the emerging Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs. Others helped minimize elitist tendencies in the progressive movement by keeping its focus on issues of economic justice for the working class, exemplified later in the Wisconsin initiatives of Robert LaFollette.

There is no question that much of this poses problematic history and that its implications are subject to debate. But I also think that populism at least presented an articulate alternative for a large segment of public opinion that felt oppressed by powerful forces emerging in the post-Civil War American economy. I would also ask what movement for social justice has ever failed to experience its growing pains, including often severe backlash from the powerful interests representing the status quo. Think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and gay rights. The big difference with populism was that it once threatened the status quo not just with demonstrations but with viable candidates for elected office. No wonder the powers of the day reacted so vehemently.

That leaves the question of what has become of the populist label. Is it now whatever we decide it means whenever someone like Donald Trump can rouse large audiences to an angry froth by scapegoating minorities, immigrants, and women who do not conform to his expectations? If so, we had best be careful about the mantle we are allowing such leaders to wear and what they will do with it, for it will then take on authoritarian and fascist dimensions. On the other hand, if we insist, as President Obama did, that there must be a strong element of actually positively representing and fighting for the interests of working people, we can deny Trump and his ilk a hero’s label they have not earned. Demonstrably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a clearer case for building an honest populist movement in this century, whatever the shortcomings of his campaign, which did far better than most people ever expected, most likely including Sanders himself, who seems in any case to prefer the label “democratic socialist.” Curiously, that self-description seems not to be hurting him politically, although most politicians would have run from that label in panic.

Many have argued that both Sanders and Trump mounted populist campaigns. I would argue that both tapped into a palpable anger at the nation’s current political leadership, but that, while one is opening old wounds, another is trying to heal them. One is focused largely on himself; the other is actually building a movement for social change.

As I did in 1982, I still argue that the way we use the populist label has serious political implications, and that using it loosely and thoughtlessly may have dangerous consequences for our national political dialogue. The news media, in particular, need to rethink this one. Unfortunately, many reporters have only a cursory knowledge of history.

 

Jim Schwab

The Angry Christian

The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling

Over the years, I have met some types of people who, strangely in my opinion, have believed that anger is unbecoming for a Christian. Most people understand that there is a place for anger in our lives, although it needs to be tempered with judgment and compassion. The bigger question is what role anger plays and how we use it for positive purposes. Clearly, anger can be poisonous if unchanneled or misdirected. At the same time, suppressed anger can lead to sadness and even depression when we fail to give ourselves an outlet for legitimate reactions to injustice, or indifference, or even just incompetence in situations where competence truly matters.

It may be clear by now that I am not leading into one of my nicer, happier blog posts. I have not written much lately because I have been very busy both professionally and personally, the latter attested by my previous blog post about our home kitchen renovation, an undertaking that requires some patience amid necessary temporary disorganization. While I have been absorbed in such matters, a number of unpleasant events have unfolded on the world and local scene that have me very concerned about our moral fiber and angry about the tone of much of the public dialogue on those events. Let me start with the world scene before I focus back on Chicago.

By now, anyone unaware of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 could fairly be assumed to have been sleeping under a rock.  The attackers, allied with Islamic State, killed 130 people and wounded many more, indiscriminately shooting at a variety of public places including a concert hall and restaurants. It was indisputably a despicable act, one that cries out for authorities to carry out justice, and certainly raises questions about security in many of our public spaces and how we can better protect people from those who clearly lack a conscience about murdering innocent and unarmed people. It is entirely proper to react to such circumstances with a mixture of anger and sadness, no matter what justifications the attackers claim. It is equally clear to anyone who is not incurably prejudiced that most Muslims want nothing to do with such people, any more than most Christians would agree with the tactics of the shooter who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

In fact, to escape just such brutal butchery, thousands upon thousands of ordinary Syrians of all faiths have been fleeing their homeland in recent months. Any thinking person must realize that it takes a great deal of both fear and courage for any person or family to flee their homeland to find a better life elsewhere. Most people are deeply averse to abandoning their native land. During World War II, millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other targets of the Third Reich perished not only because of the barriers to emigration erected by democratic nations including the United States, but because they were in many cases deeply reluctant until it was too late to believe that matters would become dire enough to require them to do so. There is far more push than pull for those who risk all to become refugees.

So how do numerous American politicians, including those in Congress and presidential candidates, react? We get calls to bar or severely restrict Syrian refugees on the grounds that we have no way of guaranteeing that just one of them might be a terrorist. There is, of course, no way of disproving a negative. And sincere Christians and patriotic Americans who believe in this country’s highest values must be nearly aghast at hearing someone like Donald Trump appear to suggest a database for American Muslims and the possibility of closing mosques—a concept eerily akin to the Nazi requirement that Jews wear yellow Stars of David. The underlying strategy is to make anyone who voices opposition to such measures suffer the blame when something inevitably goes wrong in a world where we can pretty much count on another terrorist attack somewhere, somehow, some day. Like the Boston Marathon bombings, which involved young men from Kazakhstan, not Syria, who grew up in America but dramatically lost their way, to put it mildly, and whose relatives were despondent over their actions, much like some of the relatives of the Paris attackers. It is not unusual, in fact, for such criminals to be lone wolves, alienated from their own families. In this respect, at least, they have much in common with the home-grown mass shooters who have repeatedly plagued American communities in recent years.

But there is a way of asserting a positive vision driven by compassion and common sense instead of directing fear and anger at people who are seeking refuge from the very terrorists and hypocritical bullies who engineered the attacks in Paris. And it is deeply rooted in both Christian and Jewish teaching. Let us start with the Old Testament passages concerning Jewish approaches to the topic:

Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

You might not know, from recent political reactions to Syrian refugees’ pleas for assistance, that the Bible ever offered such advice. Some 26 governors, mostly Republican, have vowed to keep Syrian refugees out of their states, including Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois. The U.S. House of Representatives demanded stringent measures before allowing such refugees to enter the country. Admittedly, we want to screen people for questionable backgrounds before admitting them, but many such mechanisms are already in place, and we have not been open to very many Syrian refugees so far. But let us move on to explicitly Christian teachings in the New Testament:

Matthew 25: 35 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

Matt. 25:40 Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me.

To give credit, by the way, I have lifted these passages directly from the website of Cois Tine, an outreach project of the Society for African Missions. Whatever else the critics of Syrian immigration may say, this is clearly a Christian organization based in the Gospel and aware of its message of welcoming the stranger in need. It is just as clearly an organization concerned about social justice on a global scale.

My point here, however, is that there is more than legitimate reason for me to feel serious Christian anger at the sheer ignorance of the reaction to the dire prospect of numerous Syrian refugees desperately fleeing war, barbarism, murder, enslavement, and every other horror being inflicted on Syrian Muslim and Christian alike in a multi-sided conflict in which human compassion has not merely taken a back seat but has been crushed underfoot in the battle for survival. And while we who are privileged to live an ocean away from such conflict cower in fear of widows and orphans, it is Turkey, the nation next door to the conflict, which has just agreed to accept refugees in exchange for financial assistance from Europe. And before any cynic can scoff at the fact that Turkey negotiated financial aid for its generosity, we should note that Turkey has already hosted thousands of such refugees at great expense to itself with only a fraction of the resources available to the U.S. and most of the European community. It would be the height of hypocrisy to criticize Turkey, of all places, for seeking additional resources to handle the job. Few other countries could claim to be as vulnerable to attacks by Islamic State terrorists.

Admittedly, the United States has suffered its share of terrorism. The September 11, 2001, attacks claimed more than 3,000 lives. They also caused us to take airline security far more seriously. But it is also worth noting that, after that tragic episode, numerous people across the nation, including prominent political leaders, had the courage and integrity to object to targeting Muslims for discrimination and abuse. Where are those voices now?

If there is a legitimate basis for Christian anger, it is the righteous anger that should object to mistreating and isolating the stranger who seeks safety on our shores.

By the same token, we should be angry about the violence already occurring on our streets. Disappointingly, some of that violence seems to be emanating from those sworn to protect us. And just as I firmly believe that most American Muslims are peace-loving people who came here to enjoy freedom, so I also still believe that the vast majority of police are sincerely committed to protecting the public from criminal activity and want to uphold the values that their badges represent.

But there are others, and sometimes the code of silence among fellow officers allows them so much latitude to engage in abuses of power that the results become outrageous. Such now appears to be the case in Chicago with the shooting in October 2014 of Laquan McDonald, a young man trying to recover from drugs, with a troubled history that made a solid start for his life problematic, but who did not appear to pose an imminent danger to police when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times, killing him. A police video released only after a judge’s order in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act suits by journalists show he was walking away from police when shot. He had a knife he had used to slash the tires of a police car. He was admittedly a troubled young man, but police handle numerous similar situations daily involving the mentally ill and the drug-addicted without killing anyone.

If that were the entire story, the outrage that triggered protests on Black Friday on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue might not have entailed the level of anger that it did. We have learned that two officers immediately after the shooting demanded access to a security video from a camera at the nearby Burger King at 41st St. and Pulaski Avenue. The next morning, the Burger King manager and his employees discovered an 86-minute gap in the video covering the time of the shooting. Other police shooed away eyewitnesses from the scene without collecting names of those who could become material witnesses to a murder. Cameras from other police cars all seemed to be missing the audio that would have revealed police conversations at the time. Later, the city council, at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s request following an investigation, quietly approved a $5 million settlement for the young man’s family to avoid a messy lawsuit. And no one can explain the video gap and missing audio other than to refer to technical difficulties.

Let’s cut to the chase. The public, including numerous African-American clergy, is angry for a reason.. The city cannot reasonably rely on a “trust us” rationale for these unexplained gaps, some of which potentially constitute evidence tampering and obstruction of justice, both of which are crimes whether committed by officers or civilians. It is time for an independent prosecutor because it will be hard for any of the players, whether aldermen who approved the payout, the mayor, the police chief, or state’s attorney, to be taken seriously without a thorough investigation beyond their control. It just does not pass the smell test. This is truly a test of the integrity of the system, and the famous “Chicago way” is in no way compatible with Christian ethics. It is also true that many honest Chicago police officers fear retribution from fellow officers if they speak up. That said, there is a time for courage and convictions. This is that time.

Many people have fairly also raised the question of the reluctance in the black community to speak up, or “snitch,” about gang activity that has resulted in far more deaths than have resulted from police misbehavior. This is a legitimate issue that affects much more than black Chicago. It affects civic morale citywide. When witnesses to crimes refuse to cooperate with the police, the gangs win, hands down. The police cannot properly prepare a case against gang criminals when witnesses refuse to help. This reluctance seems to have two key sources: first, a legitimate fear of gang retribution as a result of speaking up. These people have to live in these neighborhoods and are often unprotected, even by police. Second, however, the very reputation for abuse of power that the Chicago Police Department creates with such fiascoes as the Laquan McDonald case only serve to contribute further to the mistrust that many people feel toward the police. Being caught between gangs and corrupt police is truly a formula for creating a cynical public.  We have a long way to go in this city in restoring the sort of trust that will let us overcome the plagues of violence that afflict us.

So where does that leave the question of Christian anger that I raised at the outset? We have to help channel that legitimate righteous anger at social and official injustice into a productive passion for justice that forces solutions and makes clear what a truly compassionate, caring society looks like. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped show us the way. So did Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. We have seen significant moral leadership before, and we can all help provide it if we muster our courage and root our moral beliefs in hope and compassion rather than fear and prejudice. I know we can do it, and I have said my piece.

Call me the angry Christian. I am proud to be angry when it matters.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Learn from Taxi Drivers

“How old do you think I am?” the cab driver asked.

It was an odd question, but the conversation with my driver from Reagan National Airport to my hotel on 10th St. NW in Washington, D.C., had already caught me by surprise with his first comment before we had ever exited the airport.

He asked where I was from, and I said Chicago.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” he said. I was thinking that I had never seen him before at all. Why did he say this? I expressed a little surprise.

“Dr. Morse?” he asked. I soon learned that I apparently looked a lot like Dr. Morse, but I informed him that I was neither a doctor but an urban planner. Dr. Morse is apparently a frequent visitor to Washington, was also from Chicago, and must more than once have found his way into this man’s taxi. The fact was that I was not Dr. Morse produced its own line of conversation, and this was one of those rare cabbies who was actually good at generating conversation out of whole cloth. He worked with whatever conversational material his riders apparently seemed to offer, even inadvertently.

The fact that I did not turn out to be Dr. Morse was no obstacle. And now he took off his hat to let me guess his age. I studied his appearance from behind. “Forty-five,” I said after some consideration. He had only the slightest tinge of gray hair, a youngish-looking face, and seemed fit. Middle-aged.

He proceeded to tell me that a local magazine had cited him for looking much younger than his age. I was not the first to peg him at 45 or thereabouts. It happens a lot. Then he finally tipped his cap. “Seventy-two,” he admitted. I admitted that he looked remarkably good for 72. I asked him how old I looked, and he said 62. Off by just two years, I told him, I am 64. Perhaps my gray hair betrays me more than his does.

But this was about more than just age. He informed me that he had run a marathon, coming in fourth, I believe he said, in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Knowing that the U.S. had boycotted the Moscow Olympics that year because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, I asked what country he had represented.

Ethiopia,” he answered. But he had been in Washington 12 years and liked it. I did not ask when he came to the U.S. Somehow it did not occur to me. I was more interested in the man’s story than in mere numbers and dates. He seemed to look so young because of sheer fitness. It is curious how many immigrants become taxi drivers—it seems to be a port of entry in the job world, as well as a great way to learn your way around a new city—but few are former Olympians, for this or any other country. U.S. Olympians, of course, often have much greater opportunities in life if for no other reason than access to money, if they become heroes, or at least education. Such opportunities can more easily escape an aging Ethiopian runner. I would wager, however, that it is not escaping his grandchildren or, since he claimed to have some, his great grandchildren. He seemed amused that I could only claim grandchildren who are nowhere close to being old enough to produce their own offspring.

Soon enough, I found myself getting out in front of Embassy Suites. I tipped him nicely, adding $4 to a $16 ride to offer him a twenty. Taking my luggage as he pulled it out of the trunk, I commented that Washington must have been a significant shift from growing up in Ethiopia. He smiled. Yes, it was, and he did not seem to mind.

Earlier that morning, I had a somewhat more mundane conversation with a young man driving me to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. I had noted, in this 5:30 a.m. ride on Fathers’ Day, that I typically take the CTA Blue Line to the airport, that I traveled a lot, but that I simply had too much luggage on this first leg of a triangle trip to Washington, then Boston, then back to Chicago later in the week, to take the train this morning. It was a business trip. Only as we neared O’Hare did he suddenly mention, for a reason I have now forgotten, that he was from Sri Lanka, though he had moved here with his parents when he was five years old.

“I’ve been there,” I mentioned. He was stunned. Almost no one from America, to his knowledge, went to Sri Lanka, and it is probably true. I am sure it ranks poorly on a list of U.S. tourist destinations, although it ranks well with Australians, who don’t have nearly so far to go. I noted that it was unquestionably the longest journey one could possibly take from Chicago.

“When were you there?” he asked.

“April and May of 2005,” I answered. He immediately guessed that the reason for my trip must have been the tsunami. I confirmed that was the case, telling him I had been part of a team of planners and architects invited by the Sri Lankan Institute of Architects—but that I was an urban planner.  We discussed some details like how long I was there (ten days) and the army checkpoints that marked off barriers at the time to territory held by the Tamil Tigers.

By then, we had pulled up to the American Airlines terminal, and I got out and collected my luggage. I am also sure that encounter made his day. He had encountered a passenger who actually knew something about Sri Lanka and had been there for a serious purpose.

It’s amazing what conversations you can have with cabbies if you are willing. It’s a window into the immigrant experience in America. You might learn something.

 

Jim Schwab