The Franken photo

Peggy and me, 1981
For those who live in America and pay attention to the news, the top photo is a reminiscent of the recently released bottom photo of Minnesota senator Al Franken and a woman with whom he was on a USO tour (the USO entertains troops in war zones). My photo was taken by my brother-in-law who was "in on the gag." Peggy was, as might be expected, startled, but didn't complain, perhaps because she took the attitude that, "Boys will be boys," and that's partly why girls love them. 

Al's little joke is--to me anyway--harder to forgive because he was 55 (I was 32); he wasn't having a relationship with the woman in the photo (Peggy and I had been married for ten years); and because it occurred in 2006. That said, I don't know what preceded Al's photo. While no woman deserves to have her breasts touched without her permission, if the trip had been filled with ribald humor that went both ways, the photo might look worse than it appears. Although the woman insists that she was a victim all the way, I wouldn't bet money on it because: (a) Al set up the photo, implying that he didn't anticipate a negative reaction, and (b) it hasn't been established that he makes a habit of predatory behavior. None of us are as bad as our worse moment, and this might be Al's worse moment.

It's common in modern America to argue that people from decades ago should "have known better" about all manner of things. No doubt, many of us state this conviction over a steak dinner while wearing sweat shop clothes, and, when we're done, leaving our underpaid "waitperson" a 10% tip. Surely, none of us are as pure as we might be if we operated from our hearts rather than from the latest moralistic fad. I even think it likely that, for most of us, our hearts are so overlaid with decades of jumping on the bandwagon that we are dead to messages from our hearts.

I hadn't thought about the top photo in years, it only coming to mind after I saw the Franken photo. I feel uncomfortable with it, but Peggy doesn't (while neither of us is conservative, Peggy leans more heavily in that direction than I). 

I heard a radio program yesterday in which a woman interviewed several men who admitted to playfully slapping women on the ass (I wondered how many men she had to interview to fill a radio program with nothing but such men). In any event, the men said that it was all in good fun; was intended as a compliment (sort of like, "I wouldn't have raped you if I hadn't thought you were pretty"); and that if women don't enjoy it, they need to "lighten up."

I asked Peggy if there had ever been a time when she would have been okay with being slapped on the ass, no matter how well she knew the man who did it, and she said that, unless I did it, she would have always interpreted it as a low level sexual assault. Neither of us could remember me having ever slapped her on the ass, but I later recalled that (before we got old and pathetic) we used to roughhouse pretty much everyday, so I surely did, and it's also true that we have on occasion popped each other with rolled-up towels while working in the kitchen. I can but say that if Peggy held her body so inviolate it precluded innocent playfulness, I would have a problem with Peggy. Thankfully, I have never had such a problem with Peggy.

P.S. Whatever my faults, I'm better looking than Al Franken.

Thomas Dixon, Reconstruction, and the KKK

Frontispiece to The Clansman
While browsing at St. Vinnie's, I came across the works of a Baptist preacher/writer named Thomas Dixon (1864-1946) who was best known for three novels about the Reconstruction era following America's Civil War. These books are entitled: The Leopard's Spots; A Romance of the White Man's Burden (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907). In 1915, D.W. Griffith made The Clansman into a hugely popular three-hour movie entitled The Birth of a Nation. The movie revived the waning Ku Klux Klan, and despite strenuous objections from the recently formed NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dixon's friend, Woodrow Wilson, made it the first movie to be screened in the White House. I've completed the first two books of the trilogy, and nearly all of what I have to say about Dixon comes from these books, especially the first book in which he details his thoughts about race. 

Dixon depicts black people as inferior based upon their intrinsic immorality, intellectual dullness, and physical appearance. He argues that the black race never advanced culturally, technologically, or governmentally except under the immediate influence of white people, and that American slavery was a boon to black people in that it exposed them to the fruits of "four thousand years of white civilization." He blames blacks for the Civil War and repeatedly asserts that "a drop of nigger blood a nigger makes," by which he meant that, "It kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."

The evil white characters in Dixon's book (carpet baggers and scalawags) manipulate the voting system to install equally evil, but far less intelligent, blacks into office in order to become rich through crooked governance (blacks won the vote in 1870), while the good white characters fight against corruption, and discuss what to do (once they have regained control over their black neighbors) with millions of recently freed illiterate people, hence the term "the white man's burden." The first goal is to disenfranchise black voters, and then to decide whether to keep them in the country or send them someplace where they would have the advantages of such civilization as the white race had been able to impart. Those who favor keeping them in America debate whether to put them to work in the various trades or restrict them to agriculture. Everyone agrees that education for blacks is undesirable because it couldn't alter their inherent inferiority while it would lead them to imagine themselves equal to whites. 

Dixon's position has several fatal flaws as I see it, all of them built upon the common human error of deciding what one wants to believe, and then looking for proof that it is true. To whit: (1) He never clearly defines the concept of innate black inferiority, and such evidence as he offers is self-serving and anecdotal. (2) He acknowledges that there are differences in individual potential within the white race, and he holds that every white person has the right to realize his unique potential to the fullest, but by lumping all black people together as being but a step away from savagery, he goes so far as to feel justified in relegating a genius to a life of manual labor without regard for that person's desires or abilities (I often pictured Neil DeGrasse Tyson while reading Dixon's books). (3) Dixon blames the problems that the black race had with assuming leadership during Reconstruction upon innate inferiority, while completely ignoring their problems with illiteracy, inexperience, and centuries of slavery. (4) Dixon is resigned to the fact that nothing short of terrorism can effectively keep an entire race of people in a condition of eternal subservience. (5) By holding the black race as barely human, Dixon is able to rationalize their oppression and exploitation as coming from a place of superior morality.

Dixon portrays the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era as a idealistic endeavor that was forced into existence in order to protect white Southerners from the combined vengefulness of the freed slaves and the U.S. military occupation. If it is true that the situation during the Reconstruction era was as desperate as Dixon described it, I too would have joined the Klan because I would have seen it as my only source of help and safety. That said, the circumstances that gave birth to the Klan ended when Reconstruction ended, and so it was that Dixon adamantly opposed the reconstituted Klan that his writings inspired. He wrote that it had little resemblance to the original Klan, and that its members tended toward stupidity and corruption. He also complained of its anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.

Dixon's writings are yet another reminder of how woefully unschooled I am in regard to my nation's history despite the fact that the period of which he writes is a fourteen year segment of the much longer period (1865-1929) in which I am the most interested. He has also shown me how ignorant I am of the history of the KKK, a plethora of organizations with similar names which I imagined to have always been composed of sadistic ignoramuses who were proud of their ignorance and contemptuous of the educated. By contrast, the Klan which Dixon describes was a haven for men who were cultured, courageous, and idealistic. Even allowing for hyperbole, I am convinced that what I thought I knew of the Klan--and of America's Reconstruction era--was insignificant even where true.

Dixon has also reminded me of a personal deficit which lies increasingly heavy on my mind, namely that there are so very many things that interest me greatly, but that I hitherto ignored (thinking I would pick them up later) and now don't have time to learn. I had imagined that, by limiting my reading to a few decades of the largely forgotten literature of a single nation, I could at least become a passable scholar in regard to that period, place, and literature, but my mistake was akin to that of a person who looks at a slide of microscopic pond life and imagines it possible to learn everything that is known about something that is, after all, so small. If I could do my life over, I would probably strive for scholarship in the fields of American history and American literature, but where does that leave me now that my time is so short and my ignorance so vast? The walls are closing in upon me, and they find me as desperate to learn as I am paralyzed by the thought of how little time I have to learn. As Mme du Barry (mistress of Louis XV) expressed it as she stood on the scaffold, "Life, life, leave me my life. I will give all my wealth to the nation. Another minute, hangman!"