17 July, 2020

Battle Flags Cannot Heal

(This is a comedy sketch in which a Nazi officer is suddenly aware his unit's emblem is a skull.)

Starting in 1600 or so, European scientists began the process of understanding and explaining why white Europeans were so easily able to dominate the rest of the world. At the summit of their thinking, they created the idea of race. They compared Quarter-horses to Clydesdales, and found these two different species of "horse" were intrinsically differentiated across a spectrum of speed and strength. They categorized these 2 breeds as "races", and went off to the races with the idea. They accepted that white Europeans were intrinsically optimized for mastery and the rest of the world for obedience. Their invention of this idea of race soothed their cognitive dissonance. 

The word, "race", as used today to encompass American social issues revolving around skin color, began its life in 1774. Darwin's famous book is actually entitled, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". Darwin (who was not a racist) used word "race" in its scientific meaning, and others ran further with this thinking.  Race took on a narrow and profitable definition in the United States when plantation owners embraced the new science of keeping the races separate. Racial purity would ensure masters maintained mastery and slaves remained compliant and productive. 

Science called the internal principle of heredity, "germ plasm", and recognized it was inherent in every being. In 1872, they coined the term, "genetics", to describe it. Only 11 years later, a scientific theory was advanced to quantify the advantages of intentionally maintaining good genetics - eugenics. The word "eugenics" literally means "good genetics" in Greek.

Adolf Hitler famously took this acknowledged, if faulty, scientific hypothesis to its extreme and launched his notorious programs to ensure the Aryan "race" was kept genetically pure. 

The people following Hitler never asked themselves, "Are we the Baddies?" Any doubts they may have felt were mollified by their own jealousy and the pseudo-scientific rationales experts put forward. Were I in Germany in 1935, I have to admit the odds I would have done any better in the face of such rational arguments are not encouraging. I could have been the Baddie then, and if I could have been the Baddie then, I have to see I could be the Baddie now.

We cannot understand history until we embrace the fact our most comfortable beliefs could be as false as Jefferson Davis's or Adolf Hitler's. Until we understand we could be the Baddies today, we cannot understand how Confederate politicians and Nazi politicians could be, however ambiguously, on the side of evil then. They calmed their cognitive dissonance by embracing arguments presented as scientifically reasonable and defensible. If the hypotheses behind eugenics were true, and these men had just enough excuse to believe they might be true, then they could do their jobs in peace. The family men under these leaders were just being faithful to their own consciences.

Something ended eugenics - stopped it dead in its tracks. Something finally put this evil science to rest for good and for all, and we need to understand it. Hopefully, Stephen Jay Gould put the final nail in eugenics' coffin in 1996. Yes, eugenics was still alive and publishing in 1994. And yes, the broken science of white supremacy continues to bedevil social progress to this very day. 

When Herrnstein and Watson (who famously was part of the pair who codified the alphabet of the genome) released their pro-eugenics book, The Bell Curve, Gould took aim at its faulty science and shut it down. Almost 700,000 dead during the Civil War had only driven eugenics underground in America. Hitler could still send his scientists to America in the 30's to extend his thinking on race. 70,000,000+ dead during World War II finally made eugenics unpopular throughout the whole world, but it still quietly lived on. It was science that finally did the job. Science exposed the falsehoods of eugenics and the world accepted Gould's demolition thereof as final. 

Eugenics is finally off the table, but Race retains its destructive power. Race is no longer a scientific matter, but it's still culturally deadly. The invention of Race by white Europeans, and magnified grotesquely by 250 years of American slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow oppression, and 50 years of tone-deaf denial, continues to kill today. America stumbles forward in blind hope 350 years of cultural momentum toward hate can be wiped away with a simple declaration of colorblindness. 

10 years ago I thought racism was done and dusted. I would have stood anywhere and declared meaningful prejudice was eliminated in America. No longer. Good and helpful confrontations by Black Americans made me ask whether maybe I was deceived, maybe Race was still hurting Americans today, maybe I was helping keep that harm alive, maybe I was the Baddie. I was. I was supporting a culture that offered a worse life to innocent people because of their skin color. I was championing politics that were ruining the lives of innocents. I was the Baddie, and I am changing. 

The Confederate Battle Flag has somehow morphed into a Conservative cause, and my conservative friends -- my Christian friends -- have taken it up. How can they not cry? In 1860 a man might be excused, but in 2020 we know how that story goes. We know the death and oppression that flag boasts against our Black brothers and sisters. My friends' support for it, and for the Confederate "heroes" who committed their lives to support it, shakes me to the core. 

How are we not the Baddies when we fight to wave the Confederate Battle Flag in the face of those whom it has crushed for generations? 

Race exists because we created it 250 years ago. Race is no part of human makeup. Instead, it's a cultural pile-driver and the statistics show the generations it's driven into the dirt. We need to see those horrifying numbers and own American culture as the thing causing them. We need to be horrified and resolve to heal. 

We need an American conversation about this culture, a conversation with my friends at the table. 

Can we not forswear that battle flag and talk?