Should They Let The Descipicable Racist Play Ball?

Earlier this month, the University of Texas dismissed Buck Burnette from the football team for posting a racial slur, referring to Barack Obama, on his Facebook page.

Perhaps there is a good reason to support this decision. The university’s need for some discretion in choosing what kind of judgment or character to condone or chide in their students? Team unity, morale, etc.? I don’t know. I’m not an educator or an administrator. I have no adolescents in my charge. So, perhaps I don’t fully understand those issues.

What I do understand is how many things are wrong with the dismissal of this (admittedly scorn-worthy) student.

* The person toward whom the slur was applied is Barack Obama. President-Elect Barack Obama. If being American means anything, it means having the ability to say horrible things about our leaders.

* Buck has absolutely no position of authority and can’t be construed as intimidating anyone.

* While society has a right to spurn Buck for being a despicable racist, and that means a team he plays for has a right to kick him out, this particular team is part of the University of Texas, a state university, which according to well-established legal tradition, is an arm of the state, which is prohibited by the First Amendment from punishing speech, PARTICULARLY speech criticizing politicians. I know calling someone by a racist slur is not what most of us consider worthwhile political “criticism” but that kind of content-based judgment by state actors is PRECISELY what the First Amendment proscribes.

* Buck made his comment on Facebook, and no matter how publicly viewable that comment was, it was still private speech, that no one was obliged to read if they didn’t want to.

My History or Yours?

My fiction project about a black girl growing up in antebellum Kansas and Philadelphia tends to generate a lot of curiosity. People want to know why I am not writing about Indian Americans. Or about historical indians. What could possibly resonate with me about a black girl in the 1850s? How could I possibly understand such a character well enough to write about her?

I’m always struck by that response. Can anyone living today claim to have some special insight, not as a scholarly expertise, but as a function of personal cultural engagement, about a black girl in the 1850s? Can I, born in Washington DC and much better versed in American history than Indian history, claim some authority on something like 19th Century Indian experience? Does being black, without more, make one better suited than me (with my enormous interest in the subject), to empathic invention about it?

As I like to say, history isn’t inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. History, any part of history, belongs to those who choose to study it, be inspired by it, revel in it, or in some way engage it.

But I’m talking about ideas, knowledge, empathy — intangibles. What about objects?

Sharon Waxman’s Loot is a fascinating inquiry into competing claims of ownership of great objects of antiquity.

The answer is anything but easy. I think a common contemporary preference is for return to “origin” just as throughout earlier modern history the preference was for respecting the custody of the more “enlightened” (Waxman’s book has an extensive treatment of Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the vast collection of Greek marbles in the British Museum, which was largely driven by a desire to “improve” the English artistic taste and an obsession with possessing beauty).

There is definitely some truth to the argument that a lot of art, if left in their original locations, might have been destroyed, either by poverty-induced (or corruption-induced) neglect or pollution, or by intentional violence — remember the Taliban effort to eradicate Buddhist art in Afghanistan just a few years ago? There is also a difference between amateur looting, which tends to damage, and scholarly looting, which tends to preserve. And what about the “legacy” that grows from having taken care of an object for decades or perhaps centuries? I find this kind of legacy more compelling than the incidental heritage of geography.

On the other hand, as Waxman points out, the looting of beautiful objects has not typically been motivated by any desire to “rescue” the works from any foreseeable harm, but from a desire to possess them. That many objects have been preserved from future disaster is often a matter of historical accident.

So what do we do now?


Democracy: Too Much of a Good Thing?

The cure for democracy, more democracy? I don’t know, really. Although, I am a democracy freak by instinct, I must admit that my better judgment has always tempered that enthusiasm. Tuesday’s events demonstrated how capricious the majoritarian will can be. On the one hand a it’s wonderful that the majority of Americans entrusted its most powerful office to Barack Obama, a self-identified member of a historically oppressed minority. On the other hand, a majority of Californians voting on Proposition 8 (prohibition of same-sex marriage) decided to adopt an expressly discriminatory policy against a discrete and insular minority that is powerless to overcome that policy with numbers of its own. Two other states passed similar measures.

Gay folks in those states won’t be able to marry anymore, but I’m guessing they can’t opt out of paying taxes that keep the marriage bureau — or whatever the relevant state machinery — operational.

This is the danger of majority-rule. To avoid becoming tyrannical, democracy must be checked by a strong principle of individual liberties. This is why the federal constitution (like a number of state constitutions) has a bill of rights.

Of course, most constitutions get their legitimacy from the ratification of a supermajority, and it’s tempting to propose that California adopt a policy requiring a supermajority to amend its constitution.

But consider this: if you are in a sufficiently tiny minority whose interest-overlap with the majority’s interests is sufficiently tiny, then, a supermajority just means you can be tyrannized by the “sovereignty” exercised by even more people, and have that tyranny be considered even more “legitimate” and have an even harder time overcoming that tyranny.

Speaking of too much of a good thing: it’s not just the “small-d” democrat in me that’s a little spooked. By electoral orientation, I am also a “big-D” Democrat. But I’m a little worried about single party control in washington. Unlike some Democrats, I sighed a sigh of relief that we didn’t get a filibuster-proof senate. The filibuster, like judicial review and the bill of rights, is part of the system of checks against ordinary majoritarian misrule. I understand that this protective device has been abused by each party in recent years. But the gridlock that such abuse creates is a far lesser evil than having one party in charge with insurmountable power.

Let There Be No Reason

I want to take a moment to congratulate The Mac. What a wonderfully gracious, unifying, and patriotic concession. I loved that he recognized, explicitly, the wounds of the past and the salve of progress  that has been a hallmark of the extraordinary history of this most extraordinary country.  He also recognized the importance of the civic engagement that Obama’s remarkable campaign has inspired.

“Let there be no reason now,” he said,  “for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on earth.”


I have often thought Michelle Obama’s “first time in my adult life” comment was understandable, if unfortunate. Throughout our country’s turbulent racial history, African Americans have had to look for sources of pride in their country, and often that has had to be aspirational, sometimes with ambivalent results. I have always been surprised at the willingness of many to condemn this internal struggle of African Americans, demanding that their patriotism be as reflexive as it is for the rest of us, being descendants of those who came freely to America (I realize that as an individual, Obama’s ancestors also came freely, but I’m talking about the psychological impact of his racial identity on all African Americans).

Tonight, I agree with the sentiment expressed by John McCain. I urge all Americans to be proud of their beautiful country. I say to them: don’t be too cautious about your celebration of what this means. While it was African Americans (or perhaps minorities generally) that McCain had in mind, I urge white Americans to shed their guilt and ignore any temptation there may be tonight to fight the catharsis they are feeling. I know catharsis can sometimes be a hindrance to practical progress. Those of us who live by constant self analysis sometimes make the mistake of employing Brechtian alienation strategy to deal with our emotional impulses in important moments.

But this particular catharsis is long overdue. Enjoy it.

Just as formal emancipation did not automtically bring de facto freedom to all the slaves, the election of a biracial man to our highest office doesn’t eradicate racial hatred, but it most certainly shatters the presumption of racial suspicion. I think this election has earned us the right and the freedom to deal with race openly, honestly, and respectfully. I hope we finally are unshackled from the culture where every discussion about race is fraught with unspoken judgments and fears. Judgments of racism and fear of knee-jerk accusations of racial animus.

Given our history of racial tensions, given the attempt of some to raise questions about Obama’s trustworthiness based (openly or obliquely) on his race, given that African Americans comprise a small minority of the American electorate, this election certainly shows, in the most concrete way, that America is a country where Martin Luther King’s dream — that one day we will judge each other by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin — can be realized.

Tonight has seen nothing short of the restoration of the American spirit. That’s a little sappy, I know. But on many, many fronts, the election of Obama is the turning of a new page; a better page. We have elected by a landslide, this unflinchingly dignified person who has insisted on unity and respect.

People have compared Obama’s moment in history with Kennedy and Reagan. I think that’s fair. But I think this is different — and better– in important ways. Kennedy inspired a lot of people, but he was elected by a very narrow margin, and had Herbert Hoover not pressed Nixon to concede, 1960 would have dragged on the way 2000 had. The fact that Obama was elected by such overwhelming numbers, gives me confidence that a lot of this excitement can and will translate into genuine cooperation and progress.

While Reagan inspired a lot of people and won by a landslide, his response to the people’s endorsement did not have the humility that Obama has shown. Reagan highlighted the triumph of his party’s point of view, whereas Obama praised Republicans, not just as people and patriots, but he specifically praised their values and promised to work with them on figuring out the directions in which we take our country in the months to come.

I know people who distrust Obama’s “unity” campaign. Some of my conservative friends point out that Obama is pretty clearly an ideological progressive and they wonder on what basis we should accept his post-partisan promises.

That’s where style comes in. In sharp contrast to a recent president who swaggered as he expressed his intention to spend his newly gained political capital because “that’s my style,” this new president-elect assured those who didn’t vote for him that he will be their president as well. He promised to listen. Most hearteningly for me, he promised to listen “especially when we disagree.”

I personally think he means it. He always has been a coalition builder. Even as a young man, serving as president of the Harvard Law Review, he confounded his fellow liberals’ expectations by including more conservatives than progressives on the editorial staff. Republicans, even free-marketers who deeply disagree with him on policy issues, have put their faith in him in significant numbers. I know people who think this kind of cross-ideological support is simply irrational. I think what they don’t understand is that people support this guy because they can work with him. Because the way he has conducted his life so far clearly shows his willingness to listen to and learn from and work with those who disagree with him. They trust his good faith in this respect. After eight years of stubborn arrogance, Americans of all points of view are ready for a little good faith and humility in their public-servant-in-chief.

As I got into a cab on my way home from the election-party, midtown Manhattan was bursting with joy, and the Egyptian-born driver who has just become a citizen and voted for the first time, smiled at the flag draped around my neck and said “it’s a beautiful night to be an American.”

Have You Voted?

It was a beautiful, overcast morning outside of Robert F. Kennedy elementary school in Jersey City. The lines were long. The faces were friendly. I exchanged a nod with a cute, readheaded guy, whose glasses fogged up from the steam rising out of his Starbucks cup as he leaned his face down toward his torso and took off his McCain/Palin ’08 button and placed it inside his pocket before entering the school compound.

I left my flag pin on.

“Turnout looks good” he said. “Yes, it’s great!” I replied.

I don’t claim to be able to read his thoughts, but in the finest American tradition, I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust their genuineness until they prove me wrong — no matter how many before them have proven me wrong.

He’s a patriot, I concluded. His candidate might fare poorly by a high turnout in our precinct, but he celebrates the civic triumph of that turnout nonetheless.