Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Riding Down From Stone Mountain

My mother, who grew up in Decatur, Georgia, used to tell me about seeing the Ku Klux Klan in their white robes and hoods hoisting their fiery torches as they came riding down from Stone Mountain. They terrorized black communities, but it was another kind of fear that kept them going, that gave them their dreadful legitimacy: the fear of Southern whites that their way of life was slipping away. In their road houses, country clubs and political cloakrooms, they put up a good front of bigoted bravado, but deep down they were afraid. The Klan was their avenging angel.

I hear that same tremulous fear when Ted Cruz rails against Obamacare, when Eric Cantor warns of the culture of dependency created by food stamps. They talk about specific programs, but what they are really fighting are the demographic and social changes that are overtaking them. They feel threatened, and they are angry. The Tea Party wears their white robes and carries their torches.
Not everyone in the south wanted burning crosses and lynchings. Many thought the Klan was an abomination. A few stood up, or sat down, until blacks were treated better. But there were many who did not. Some were the timid sympathizers Martin Luther King spoke of ---“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”---but many secretly wanted what the Klan wanted: a return to the old ways of blacks who knew their place and whites who, however poor, had someone they could look down on.
There are silent groups like that today. Some want health care and immigration reform and a strong and flexible social safety net. Others just want to be left alone. In the Old South, the lines were racial. Now the struggle is not mostly about black or brown or white, although that is certainly part of it, but more about the haves and the have-nots. Intended or not, the policies of today’s Republicans---less discretionary government spending, less regulation, lower taxes---elevate the halves over the have-nots as plainly and effectively as segregated schools separated blacks from whites.
So who is sitting in at lunch counters today? Who is refusing to give up her seat on the bus? You might think those in the front line fighting the Republican Right would be many of the residents of Owsley County, Kentucky. As Timothy Egan pointed out in a recent column, Owsley County has the lowest household income in the United States. Half its residents live below the poverty line. Half receive federal food aid. Surely they are angry that the Republican controlled House wants to take away what little government support they have. But if they are, they aren’t letting it affect their party allegiance. Owsley County, which is ninety-eight percent white, is eighty-one percent Republican.
The reason for that apparent paradox is (as it always has been) fear of change. This go round it’s not the changes associated with ending discrimination against blacks that the good people of Owsley County are uneasy about, but the threat to their way of life that they believe is posed by godless technocrats who want to tell them they have to have insurance to cover contraception, that abortion is a woman’s choice, or that it’s okay for one man to love another and raise children with him. These attacks on core moral beliefs are more threatening than fiscal conservatism. Besides, they’re still getting their assistance checks. That hasn’t changed. Yet.
But if the Republican Right has its way, change it will. Money for most social programs will dry up. People in need will have nowhere to turn. For them it will be like the Great Depression before the New Deal. Or like being black in the Jim Crow South.

When we get to that point, the pendulum will swing back. Poor and working class citizens, and immigrants pursuing the American Dream, will realize that the far right does not have their economic interests at heart. They will vote for a fair shake, for a level playing field. A new progressive era will begin. It may take another generation, but it will happen. I just wish we could avoid the pain we will have to go through to get there.

Monday, September 9, 2013


I didn’t want my tombstone to say “He wrote a good merger agreement.” Someone was always buying someone, and I helped them. So what. Plenty of others could have done it. When I left my law firm it was like, as they say, pulling a finger out of a bucket of water.

I thought perhaps I wanted my epigraph to be “He brought new life to a tired old business and gave its employees new pride.” But it was I who needed new pride after that humbling effort.
More recently I’ve thought I’d like to be discovered a hundred years hence on some dusty bookshelf and taken down and read, perhaps cradled in a wing chair by someone who nods and smiles as she reads. Ah, sweet immortality.
I still hope for that, but in the meantime, and while I’m still alive to enjoy it, I’m seeing take shape a legacy I had not contemplated: the flowering of the children that, like some minor Johnny Appleseed, I planted across the land.
A relationship with adult children (my youngest is a senior in college) is a different thing than being a parent. I’ve gone from standing under them as they scrambled over the monkey bars, from making them waffles for breakfast and helping with the odd bit of homework (at least up until fourth grade, when my expertise ran out), to participating in seminars with them in which as often as not they, not I, are the professors.
In the university of Dad’s continuing education, I’m blessed with a rich and diverse curriculum: the arts, law, economics, technology, business. We talk about everything. They assign me course materials, which I read more carefully now than I did in my own college days, and with greater perspective if not wisdom.
There are things I think I know. Some I’m pretty sure of. But sometimes, when I’m forced to scratch the surface of my belief, I find there is less foundation for it than I assumed. It’s like the feeling of flimsiness I got the first time I broke open a stucco wall. It looked attractive, but there wasn’t much to it.
One of my children gave me Galbraith, and as soon as I was nodding “yes, yes” to Galbraith’s vision of socialist utopia, he gave me Hayek. Another taught me about machine learning and confirmation bias. A third about Commedia dell’arte. Another is patiently guiding me through the benefits of tax reform, not just to him, he swears, but to the economy as a whole. The fifth articulated so well this morning the uncertainty he feels over Syria and his disappointment that the president he so admires seems to have gone Rambo.
Despite my best efforts, my children do not agree with me on everything. And that is my good fortune. They are teaching me, as I tried to teach them when they were young, that I still have a lot to learn. What impresses me most is that they listen to me and to each other. They don’t just give due regard to other points of view, they seek them out. Their minds are never completely made up. They are in a long process of considering.
And so this is what I’d like on that granite slab o’er my bones: “His children gave him something to think about.”