Unlearning Mt. Rushmore: Legacy of Injustice

I just downloaded the late Howard Zinn’s masterful A People’s History of the United States. You might say I’m divesting myself of the whitewash of American history handed down to me by a white culture.

As I write, Trump plans to visit Mt. Rushmore today, July 3, replete with flyover and fireworks, 7500 lottery selected attendees not observing social distancing, few wearing masks.  It sits upon sacred land, 1200 acres, stolen from the Lakota in violation of the Ft. Laramie Treaty (1868) following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

We know about Washington, Jefferson and Teddy. I didn’t know Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862, the largest mass execution in American history, following their uprising. In the aftermath, the Dakota were expelled, their lands seized. Subsequently, the bodies of the executed, buried in a mass grave, were exhumed and used for cadavers.

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, held racist sentiments and was previously known for his earlier contribution to Stone Mountain (he was dismissed from the project for his competing interest in Rushmore) near Atlanta with its gargantuan effigies of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.

While not a member of the Ku Klux Klan, he supported their views. In one of his letters, he complained of a “mongrel horde” contaminating the “Nordic purity” of the West. In another, he wrote of his successor at Stone Mountain, “They got themselves a Jew.”


Snobbery’s Menace


Politics can be a mean way of life, filled with scurrilous attacks on opponents, replete with prevarication, and downright lying. I stay away from it, as much as possible.

Case in point, just the other day former Vermont governor and one time seeker of the Oval Office, Howard Dean, took a shot at Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, commenting on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “The issue is, how well-educated is this guy?”

Walker, who may throw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination in 2016, dropped out of college almost at the finish line in the spring of his senior year to join the Red Cross.

Our Constitution, however, lists only three prerequisites for our nation’s highest office: natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a minimum of 14 years lived in the United States.

Maybe Dean and others of his stripe might want to try amending our Constitution to secure their elitist government.

I would contend our government is just too elitist as it is, an oligarchy of power interests distanced from the vast majority of working Americans, three quarters of whom don’t sport a college degree.

I would also question the underlying assumption that a college degree automatically confers knowledgeability on anyone for any job.

I was a prof for 40 years and I can tell you first hand my students learned best, not from books or lecture, but hands-on. That’s what internships are all about, Dean, and you of all people, a medical doctor, should know this, since M. D.’s do a year of internship followed by several years of residency.

I have to confess I made a lot of dumb mistakes as a young prof despite 10 years of college before I was really fit to step into the classroom.

I would like to ask Dean how it was, judging by his own maxim, he was suddenly fit to be governor having trained to be a physician. That’s a huge gap. Maybe Rand Paul can help us out here.

My father had only an elementary school education, dropping out of the public schools like so many of his generation in the pre-World War I years. Like several of my uncles, he worked as a leather tacker for all of his working life in a brutal environment of body-sapping humidity and toxic fumes in one of the most deprived areas of Philly.

But for all his lack of schooling, he was one of the wisest men I’ve known across a life time, intuitive, and possessed of a healthy dose of skepticism whenever the facts didn’t seem to line up.

Not only do I owe my love of baseball to him, but the importance of being aware of what’s going on the world. The TV evening news with John Cameron Swayze or Douglas Edwards was time out and you’d better not be talking while they were on.

Every Sunday morning, he’d send me up the block for the Philadelphia Inquirer, just a dime then (imagine!) and split the newspaper with me on my return, which I’d eagerly devour, sprawled out on the floor. At 10, I was fully aware of a new war in a far off place called Korea, and spell bound by the firing of MacArthur not long after.

I remember his love for Winston Churchill, who had warned the West in the early thirties of the menace of Joseph Stalin.

My father was always slow to swallow the government line, speculating that we might never really know the facts behind that “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor, a surmise that historian John Toland’s recent book. Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, lends credence to.

I take offense when the snobs start wagging their tongues, the privileged lording it over the common herd, whether in the political area or anywhere else

Money, celebrity and, unfortunately, education–one of the most rampant bastions of elitism– can become divisive weaponry in putting down others to boost yourself up.

Or to efface those opinions you don’t like. Dummies!

Snobs always want to impress. As Virginia Woolf put it, herself a snob, “The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people.”

I like best how one of my favorite authors, D. H. Lawrence, who came from miner stock, defined it: “[Snobbery] is the desire for what divides men and the inability to value what unites them.”

Ah, let me call to mind just a few names of those from a humble way of life, without college diplomas, who have made a positive mark upon the world. You just may be surprised:

In Science:

Thomas Edison

George Washington Carver

In Business:

Henry Ford

John D. Rockefeller

Steve Jobs

Mark Zuckerberg

In the Arts

Thomas Hardy

Mark Twain

William Faulkner

Vincent Van Gogh

William Shakespeare

In Politics

Andrew Jackson

John Glenn

Winston Churchill

Abraham Lincoln

These are my heroes.

These are my greats!

My favorite people also spring from everyday people I’ve known who never did a mean social thing in their lives like dismissing others for their lack of money, possessions, or the right diploma; or practicing a trade; or for being Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, or gay; or because their political beliefs don’t mesh.

I measure people by a different yardstick: people who inspire with their kindness and compassion, from every walk of life, whose praise comes from the mouths of others and not their own; whose intelligence makes room for them to lead; who, to go back to Lawrence, unite rather than divide.

I like Shaw’s wisdom in his play Pygmalion, where he has Professor Henry Higgins put his finger on what makes for good manners–not whether what you do is in itself good or bad, but that you behave the same way towards everyone.

I must warn, however of another kind of elitism that has taken vogue, of a pride in defiance, or smashing icons for its own sake; a snobbery of rebellion where even norms that have given life grace, and with it, expectancy, are trampled upon in a frenzied allegiance to a vulgarity of self-indulgence of antinomian hue.

Snobbery is a way of life that will always be with us, but you and I, forewarned, needn’t embrace it and, by doing so, gain so much more.

























My favorite speeches

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...

I’ve always liked a good speech.  If you asked me to make a list of favorite speeches I’d be hard pressed.  In fact, what I’d worry about most was leaving out some real gems simply because of memory lapse or not having been exposed to them.  It’s complicated, too, because there are countless good speeches to be had across the years, even centuries, like Socrates’ defense before the Athenean court.

Probably the best way to go about it would be to catalogue speeches by genre; for example, political, social, and historical, though the categories might occasionally overlap.  I think of “Washington’s Farewell Address,”  despite it’s now quaint formalism, one of the standout American speeches in our history with its warning of the dangers of political parties turning into self-centered warring factions.  A historical classic, it surely falls under the political canopy as well like Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

By the way, commencement addresses offer a rich source of substantive speeches before limited audiences.  I think of Steve Job’s address to the Stanford student body (2006) as the finest of its kind with its counsel on living in the context of mortality.

But what makes for a great speech?  I’d offer things like appropriateness, wisdom, counsel, candor, caring, inspiration and eloquence.  The best speeches not only inform and persuade, they move us to take action.  I think of Martin Luther’s King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) as such a speech, perhaps rivaling Lincoln’s”Gettysburg Address” in its moving majesty.

As Americans, I think many of us would include Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” (1775) and John F. Kennedy’s “Inaugural Address” as among the foremost of American speeches as well.

If you pinned me down, however, to a list of five personal favorites, I’d complain about how unfair you are.  Still, with apologies to the likes of Socrates, Cicero, Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and even Patrick Henry and Kennedy, I’d offer the following personal favorites:

  1.  Lincoln:  “Gettysburg Address”
  2.  King:  “I Have a Dream”
  3.  Churchill:  “We Will Fight on the Beaches” (1940)
  4.  Washington:   “Farewell Address”
  5.  MacArthur:  “West Point Address”

I think of Winston Churchill, a Renaissance man living in the Twentieth Century, as the finest orator I’ve come upon with his ebullient, yet disciplined pathos as in “We Will Fight On the Beaches” (1940).  I think, too, of “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” and “This was their Finest Hour” as speeches transcending any I’ve encountered.

I included General Douglas MacArthur here as a supreme orator.  The rhythmic cadence and rich metaphor of his farewell West Point Address to the Corps”(1962), delivered while in his eighties and without notes,  still moves me:

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen then, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

I should mention as a kind of postscript, my liking for the compassion and eloquence typifying President Obama’s speeches.  It hasn’t anything to do with politics.  Not since Ronald Reagan “the great communicator,” has any President done it so well.

Before I leave off, there’s one speech, this by Eisenhower, that didn’t make my list, since  you squeezed me down to five picks.  It’s the speech in which he warned of “the military-industrial complex.”  Often quoted, Eisenhower had originally drafted “the military-industrial-congressional complex,” but then blinked.  No longer idealists, we now know the dismal reality of vested Congressional pecuniary self-interests in shaping today’s Realpolitik.   Had he kept it in, wow!


Overthrowing the tyranny of custom

I have always cared a great deal about animals.  I don’t know where it comes from, but I remember as a child wanting to take in every stray dog.  In 1996, I adopted a vegetarian diet to align my lifestyle with my conscience.  I wish I had done so much earlier but, for too many years, I had simply subscribed unquestionably to a pervasive culture.

The role of culture, often reinforced by religion, makes for an interesting study, since it may well be the primary instigator of human behavior and, unfortunately, a seminal source for a myriad repertoire of injustice, malice and cruelty practiced by humanity pervasively across the centuries.  As moderns, while we’ve made progress, we’re still on a steep climb.

In India, a land bound by tradition much like other Southeast Asian nations, practices sanctioning discrimination inherent with an age old caste system fell with the birth of an independent India in 1947, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and led by its first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru.  There are no more Untouchables, a formidable achievement that hints humanity can often mend its ways.

Earlier, in the United States, slavery was abolished through the courageous intervention of Abraham Lincoln, though it took a civil war, 600,000 deaths, and Lincoln’s own life.  Not long after, in 1867, Tsar Alexander III emancipated Russia’s serfs.

Not long ago, but only in 1920 under the 19th Amendment, did women achieve the right to vote in the United States.  It was as late as 1971 before women could vote in progressive Switzerland in national elections and not until 1991 that they could vote on local issues in all cantons.  At last, conservative Saudi Arabia will allow women to vote, beginning in 2015.  They’re still, however, prohibited from driving cars under penalty of imprisonment and/or flogging.  Disenfranchisement of women extends to many orthodox synagogues and Roman Catholic constituencies as well, barring leadership and voting privileges.  Catholic women cannot become priests, bishops or cardinals, the latter obviously eliminating their inclusion in selecting a pope.

In my lifetime we’ve made considerable inroads against the weight of traditional custom that forbade birth control, abortion and equal employment opportunity.  I grew-up seeing the last vestiges of segregation fall before activist resistance and court decree.  Currently, gays and lesbians are on the threshold of gaining their own civil liberties that include same sex marriage and adoption rights.  Looking back to a little more than a century ago, it seems incredulous that someone like writer Oscar Wilde would be tried in court and sentenced to a multiple year jail term, which ultimately broke the man.

I first became aware of the role of culturally sanctioned wrong doing in preparing to teach Voltaire’s satirical parody of custom in Candide, which I heartily recommend if you haven’t read it.  Slavery, militarism, the abuse of women, the hypocrisy of religion, they all receive their fair share of Voltaire’s scorn.  What really opened my eyes, however, was Voltaire’s taking on the scourge of war that continues to plague mankind, often buttressed with the sanctimonious verbiage of patriotic shibboleths and conferment of divine blessing.  As Voltaire astutely observed in one of his many letters, wars kill and maim far more than all our natural disasters.

As I’ve said, fighting to undo custom is still a steep climb, or hard sell. That’s what makes custom such an insidious threat: “But we’ve always done it this way!”  Like morning oatmeal, we imbibe the prejudices of our parents, who learned them from theirs.  Unquestioning, we adopt the status quo invested by time and institutions. Our brains dulled by habit, we believe what we’re told by our informed guardians: the government and press.  We find fact in the textbooks of our schools, oblivious to their omissions.  We like sameness.  We grow accustomed to our chains.

I give thanks to the avatars that make custom tremble by engendering new ways of thinking rooted in compassion:  the sanctity of animal as well as human life; the right to individuality; the implementing of economic equality; the elimination of political and religious oppression; the accessibility of universal health care; the end of pejorative labeling of the mentally distressed; the right to death with dignity; the healing of a wounded, dying Earth;  the elimination of the scourge of war.

They crowd into my mind:  Gandhi, Nehru, Lincoln, Goldman, Sinclair, Baldwin, Friedan, Sanger, Carson, Singer, Mandela, King, Mill, Voltaire– and so many more–emissaries of Light, their torches lifted high, showing the way to a better world.

I dream most of all of that day when it will truly “be on earth as it is in heaven,” and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4 [KJV:  Cambridge ed.]).


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