I was born, 46 years ago today, in the cradle of a long-dead Confederacy. Morganton is a small town in North Carolina, and the plain truth is I don’t know very much about it. When I was just a baby, we moved to a place often called the “buckle of the Bible belt,” a place too often sympathetic to the old Confederacy, Arkansas.
My brother, my sister and I were raised in that state, which also, as it happens, is home to the headquarters of the Grand Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But we were raised in the 1970s and ’80s, a politically progressive time in Arkansas. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was governor for much of my youth. Prior to Clinton serving in the Governor’s Mansion was David Pryor, another Democrat, who went on to be a well-regarded United States Senator. And before David Pryor was in the governor’s mansion, the late Dale Bumpers served there. He went on to be another esteemed United States Senator, who only passed away early last year. (And if you were not privileged to see, in real time, the remarkable speech Senator Bumpers gave during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, then I implore you to read it now. His love for the Constitution, the rule of law, and all that is fair and right is transcended only by his deep and abiding love for the Great State of Arkansas and her people.)
It was nice, I suppose, to grow up in a state that had a long tradition of Democratic governors and leadership, if not always progressive-minded values.
What was much more important than the politics of my state (or my nation) was (and still is) the politics and progressive worldview of my mother and father. We were raised by parents, Democrats, who nurtured love, understanding, affection for our fellow Americans and fellow humans. They ingrained in us an abiding belief that everyone is equal, and that each of us deserves a shot at success, no matter who we are or where we come from.
There is a story that embodies this for me, and it is the story of my grandfather — my father’s father — and my great-uncle, my Uncle Stell, who was like a grandfather to me. Both of these men, roughly the same age, brothers-in-law, grew up in Arkansas in a time when liberal use of the “n” word (a word I will not write or say it out loud) was a matter of casual, simple acceptance. No matter your age, social status, church affiliation, or economic status, everyone used this word, and everyone fully understood its meaning.
At some point, my parents had to have conversations with each of them (as well as my grandmother, and my great-aunt) about that word. They told them that using that word in the presence of their children — me, my brother, my sister — was unacceptable.
What they were really telling them was that their beliefs about African American people were outdated, anachronistic, and no longer appropriate in a changing world.
I tell that story, in part, because I think about what it must have taken for my parents to approach my father’s parents, and his aunt and uncle, whom they loved dearly, with this. Think about approaching your own family with something of that gravity, your own parents: what you believe to be true, and the way you express it and have always expressed it is not appropriate to be expressed around my child.
Any parent knows you do anything for your kid. Still, I would bet that was not an easy day.
But was it worth it? I will tell you this: I never heard my grandfather, my grandmother, my great-aunt or great-uncle use that word.
Make no mistake: these were good and honest and hard-working people. They were proud of the work they did and took pride in the things they built and the things they grew. They were devout, particularly my Uncle Stell (who never cursed. Ever.), and were supportive of their community and their church.
They were not wearing hoods on the weekend. They were not burning crosses in yards. They were not imbeciles with tiki torches and white polo shirts.
My grandfather and grandmother, my great-aunt and great-uncle loved us with the whole of their hearts, their entire being.
And we revered them.
And the only way I know that story is because it was told to me years later by my own parents.
So this grotesque idea of supremacy, and in particular white supremacy, offends me nearly beyond words, beyond description. Of course, if should offend everyone.
Apparently, Charlotteseville taught us that it does not.
It is important to remember the context of Charlottesville, that it is about the removal of a statue, in particular, one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. These statues and symbols that represent the division of our county and the horrors of slavery are also deeply offensive, and offend me as well.
It’s simple. They should be removed. All of them. Everywhere.
I get that this is not an easy proposition, or one everyone wants to hear. And there are vestiges of the defeated Confederacy in places you don’t always think to look.
The North Carolina State flag, for example, is a variation on the Confederate war flag, and the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” a symbol of secession.
The Arkansas flag has four stars within a diamond — a diamond of stars representing the starred “X” of the Confederate flag itself — one of which represents the Confederate States.
I call Florida home now. Our flag contains St. Andrew’s Cross in support of the Confederacy, and which was proposed by Florida Governor Francis Fleming, himself a Confederate soldier, and — it should go without saying — an abject racist.
So we make progress where we can. I am proud to work for a mayor who has removed such a monument in my city of St. Petersburg. I am proud to help in that work, and to help continue to unify a city under a vision of opportunity, where the sun shines on us all. Where anyone can come to live, work and play.
But the truth is we still have real work to do, beyond just the removal of monuments and the changing of symbols. We all have real work to do. Our nation has real work to do. Even I have real work to do.
Idiot Nazi kids and the alt-right are wrong about the statues. But with all due respect and honor to Heather Heyer, who died in Charlottesville doing the right thing, we have much deeper wounds to heal.
Of course we must reject our failed president and his shocking alt-right apologia.
But let us also reject those who, for too long, apologized for him. And enabled him.
And don’t you dare let anyone tell you this transcends politics, or that it isn’t political at all. It absolutely is.
But first, let’s ask a quick question: Why on earth do these young white people in Virginia seem so angry? As a point of order, I might refer you to this excellent Louis C.K. routine (“If you’re white and you don’t admit that it’s great, you’re an asshole.”)
There is no reason in the world for a white person (and particularly a white man) to be anything less than ebullient about the state of affairs in today’s America. Donald Trump, a man who has garnered the favor of a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is President of the United States. The Congress is controlled by Republicans, and its leaders seem hell-bent on rolling back the policies of the last Democratic administration. Republicans also control 32 state legislatures, 33 governorships.
Despite the fact that these vast Republican majorities — almost exclusively white people, and in particular white men — can’t seem to get much done, the average young conservative white guy seems awfully angry about the whole thing.
Though I remain unclear on the source code, if you will, of the anger, I have some theories about it.
This is my best guess:
In the last eight years, we had a largely progressive-minded* President of the United States, this nation’s first African American Commander in Chief. His presidency was almost entirely unsoiled by scandal. We now have health care for many millions more of our fellow Americans than before he took office. Marriage equality is the law of the land. There was significant, measurable progress on climate change. We made progress as a nation on immigration, in foreign policy (thinking about Cuba in particular). He repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Private sector jobs grew on his watch and at a record pace. Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, and kicked off what promises to be slow but necessary criminal justice reform.
Oh, and he saved about 1.5 million auto industry jobs and “preserved $105.3 billion in personal and social insurance tax collections,” effectively saving the nation (and arguably the world) from complete and total economic collapse. In other words, he strove for a nation of opportunity for all. For all his flaws, that is an indisputably progressive value.
So let us now imagine a young man, white, like me. Grew up in the South, like me. But let’s imagine that perhaps he was not as fortunate as me. Let’s imagine that he didn’t have progressive-minded parents who nurtured the ideals of equality and justice, who didn’t decide to ensure the positive influences on their children were in a progressive-minded direction.
I would respectfully suggest that a president, credited with not only rescuing the economy but ushering in an era of social progress and equality, may be, to those straight, white, conservative men, perceived as a threat to the life and power they have known for, say, two-hundred and forty years. Give or take.
In all of this, I think it is worth remembering that my own city, St. Petersburg, Florida, is a hub of that progressive-mindedness. I sincerely hope it will continue to be.
And so our question becomes: How do we work with a frightened population that is not in any meaningful way marginalized (white male conservatives) but collectively thinks it is, collectively feels that it is, and continue to advance progress, sensible government, and forward-thinking policies.
The answer is that you don’t. You don’t because you can’t.
Look at the picture of that crazy kid holding a torch. All he is interested in is preserving “white European culture” (his words; “White nationalists aren’t all hateful: we just want to preserve what we have.”). He is in no way interested in a conversation about opportunity creation, the advancement of sensible policy, or engaging in a dialogue about good government practices.
More for himself, less for anyone else seeking equality, no advancement of the important conversation around the cause of the historical disenfranchisement of minorities, especially African Americans, but many others as well. In other words, he and his friends are the living embodiment of these ridiculous Confederate statues, memorials, and plaques.
With that, I would urge any person — Republican, Democrat, Independent — who is even marginally forward-thinking, progressive-minded, or just interested in the idea of equal opportunity for all to not give any Republican leader a pass for calling President Trump out by now. Trump is unhinged, clearly mentally unstable. Of course he should be called out, by everyone. Calling him out now doesn’t make you a hero. It merely means your TV is on and you have access to a news network.
Do not hail these Republican leaders as heroes. Instead, ask where they were when racist memes of the president were being passed around.
Ask where they were when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called Obama “the food stamp president.”
Ask how many of them participated in the birther movement.
Ask how many of them refused to acknowledge that Barack Obama is a Christian. And were they silent when General Colin Powell — an African American and a Republican, it is worth noting here — endorsed Obama in 2008 (“I have some concerns about the direction the party has taken in recent years,” Powell says in what remains one of the most compelling endorsements and seven minutes of TV in a generation. “It has moved more to the right than I would like to see it.”)
Ask where the GOP leaders now running the states, the House and the Senate were when it was suggested that the man running for president in 2008 was a terrorist.
In fact, ask why has the GOP spent years fighting Obamacare. Fighting man-made climate change. Fighting gay marriage. Fighting a woman’s right to choose (absolutely a civil rights issue).
Don’t bother looking for an answer. There are no good answers. Only the knowledge that our Republican leaders are representative of a party entrenched in fighting progress of any kind. They are the party of fighting opportunity for all.
The current Republican Party, the current Republican leadership has enabled the Nazis, the alt-right, and the white supremacists who killed a young woman in Virginia. Yes, many Republican officials have condemned President Trump’s apology of American Nazis and racists. And that was the right thing to do. But it was their behavior and actions of the last several years that got us Donald Trump and the alt-right to begin with.
My father is the kind of guy who got up every day and worked hard for his family. In his line of work, he often worked evenings, weekends, sometimes a holiday. And I can still hear his voice in my ears as he went (sometimes taking me with him): “I’ve got to go to work.”
Both my parents are believers in getting to work and getting the job done. It is a work ethic I find is embodied in that phrase, simple as it is: I’ve got to go to work. What a genuine American work ethic, one I still try to emulate today.
I think it is time for everyone to go to work. Everyone, all of us, all Americans, people of good faith and good will. People who want to advance our nation, not hold it back with regressive policies. Your party affiliation shouldn’t matter. Your faith, your background, your heritage, none of it should matter. We should universally renounce hate, and not offer weak qualifications because there’s a base or a constituency to consider.
If you are yelling about a monument to a dead confederacy, you’re not only on the wrong side, you’ve already lost. If you are arguing about the cause of the Civil war, you’re a part of the losing side (a side that lost more than 150 years ago). If you think that white nationalism is a part of the American conversation going forward, you’re wrong, you’ve lost, and you need to get out of the way.
As important: if you are, in any way, unclear on which side to pick, well, you’ve already lost, too. Because there aren’t any sides, not really. There is only a direction, and it is one way. It is the road to progress, the road to opportunity, and it is paved through the valley of racial reconciliation and understanding, compassion, and love. If you want to stand in the way of that, you may as well pick up a torch. You’re part of the problem.
I am proud of this city and the work we’ve done here to make it a city of opportunity for all. I am proud of the work I’ve done in politics and government over the last 25 years. But I am tired of the old both sides work together trope. There’s no working with alt-righters, there is no working with neo-Nazis. And there is no working with those who enable them.
Every day I wake up and look at my children and hope that I am instilling the same sense of love for our fellow humans, the same sense of honor and decency, the same ideals of justice, equality, liberty and progress that my parents instilled in me.
I don’t put on coveralls and boots, I put on a jacket and slacks and shined shoes. I don’t go out in the sun, or under houses, or in the frigid cold, I go to an office and jockey around a keyboard.
I look at my son, I look at my daughter, and I tell them to work hard in school, learn a lot. I know the work of moving our nation and our world forward won’t soon be done. One day they will have to take up where their father left off.
I take them to school, give them each a kiss and a hug, and tell them, with all the sincerity I can muster, “I’ve got to go to work.”
# # #
*I get it, guys: Obama wasn’t always much of a progressive. Bank bailouts, drones. Sure. His moderate politics is a fair and legitimate point of contention on the left about the Obama legacy, and one we can certainly discuss another time. In the meantime, I ask my progressive friends and neighbors to accept that fact that genuine, pure progressive or not, many progressive things were ushered in on his watch.