January 2007 Archives

If It Quacks Like Apartheid, It Probably Isn't a Duck.

I’m not sure how I feel about Jimmy Carter’s new book, Peace not Apartheid, which seems a little over the top to me in some respects, although I do know that the absurd efforts to brand him an anti-Semite are all too typical not only of historic hyper-sensitivity to any criticism of Israel but of the way the arch-practitioners of political correctness dismiss as a racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious bigot anyone who says something they don’t like and can’t easily refute. Carter has caught a lot of flak for characterizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestiniansas "apartheid." I don’t know whether this usage is the most accurate description possible, but I do know that Carter is by no means the only person to employ it.

Consider this anecdote from a former Israeli cabinet memberconcerning the construction of “Jewish only” roads in Palestine:
Wonderful roads, wide roads, well-paved roads, brightly lit at night — all that on stolen land. When a Palestinian drives on such a road, his vehicle is confiscated, and he is sent on his way.
On one occasion I witnessed such an encounter between a driver and a soldier who was taking down the details before confiscating the vehicle and sending its owner away.
"Why?" I asked the soldier.
"It's an order. This is a Jews-only road," he replied. I inquired as to where was the sign indicating this fact and instructing [other] drivers not to use it.
His answer was nothing short of amazing. "It is his responsibility to know it, and besides, what do you want us to do, put up a sign here, and let some anti-Semitic reporter or journalist take a photo, so he then can show the world that apartheid exists here?”

Few scholars would dispute the distinguished historian Neil McMillen’s observation that Mississippi was once ”the heartland of American apartheid.” It may seem a bit of a stretch to suggest a connection between Mississippi under Jim Crow and Palestine under Israeli control, but as McMillen notes, ” early in the automobile age… some communities arbitrarily denied black motorist access to public streets. Many towns informally restricted parking to whites on principal thoroughfares. For a time following World War I, Jackson’s Capitol Street, portions of Greenwood, the entire city of Laurel and doubtless all or parts of many other communities were known to be open only to white motor traffic. None of these proscriptions were matters of law and they varied considerably from one place to another." As a black educator put it, ”every town had its own mores, its own unwritten restrictions… The trick was to find out from local [black] people what the ‘rules’ were.” In other words, for a black traveler in Mississippi just as for a Palestinian traveler in Palestine, it was “his responsibility to know it.”
It would be foolish, of course, to argue that life for Palestinians in contemporary Palestine is generally comparable to life for black Mississippians in the Jim Crow era. However, if apartheid is defined to include “using different legal instruments to rule over different racial groups,” there is more than ample evidence of it in both contexts. More accurately, perhaps, we might conclude that both situations suggest, as many historians of segregation in the American South have shown, the law itself is often of little import, either as an expression of the will of the powerful or as a protection against it, in a society where the dominant group is so dominant that it can demand adherence to its preferences and whims merely as a matter of custom and practice.

MY KIND OF WIMP

ALTHOUGH IT CONSISTENTLY TESTS MY FAITH IN DEMOCRACY, I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN GIVEN TO PORING OVER “THE LETTERS TO THE EDITOR” PAGE OF WHATEVER NEWSPAPER IS HANDY. SINCE RETURNING TO GEORGIA NEARLY A DECADE AGO, I HAVE BEEN STRUCK BY THE NUMBER OF CORRESPONDENTS WHO SEEM TO HAVE TAKEN IT AS THEIR SOLE PURPOSE IN LIFE TO EXCORIATE JIMMY CARTER. FEWER THAN HALF OF THE WHITE SOUTHERNERS WHO VOTED IN 1976 SUPPORTED CARTER, BUT A LOT MORE THAN THAT SEEM TO FEEL THAT HE SOMEHOW “BETRAYED” THEM AS PRESIDENT THROUGH SUCH "UNSOUTHERN" DECISIONS AS HANDING OVER THE PANAMA CANAL AND FAILING TO TURN IRAN INTO A PARKING LOT DURING THE 1980 HOSTAGE CRISIS. THE RECENT CONFERENCE ON THE CARTER PRESIDENCY HERE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA HAS BROUGHT THESE SPEWERS OF VITRIOL OUT IN FORCE. ON A SINGLE DAY LAST WEEK THE ATHENS PAPER FEATURED ONE FIERY MISSIVE PROCLAIMING CARTER “THE WORST PRESIDENT OF THE MODERN ERA, BY FAR” AND DISMISSING FORMER MEMBERS OF HIS ADMINISTRATION AS “A BUNCH OF WASHED-UP BEDWETTERS.” MEANWHILE, A FEW LINES AWAY ANOTHER SERIOUSLY DISTURBED INDIVIDUAL DERIDED CARTER AS “THE BIGGEST WIMP OF ALL MODERN DAY PRESIDENTS.” (YEAH, THANK GOD WE FINALLY GOT OUR SWAGGER BACK UNDER GEORGE W. AND HIS HANDLER, ‘”DELUSIONAL DICK.” ) AS FORMER CARTER VP WALTER MONDALE POINTED OUT, WHERE S.O.P. FOR MOST POLITICIANS IS “FRONTLOAD PLEASURE” AND “BACKLOAD PAIN,” LIKE THE GOOD BAPTIST THAT HE IS, CARTER DID JUST THE OPPOSITE, TELLING US WHAT WE NEEDED TO HEAR EVEN WHEN HE KNEW WE DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR IT. HAD MORE OF US LISTENED TO HIM WHEN HE WARNED US OF THE NEED TO CONSERVE ENERGY AND REDUCE OUR DEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN OIL, WE’D BE A HELL OF A LOT LESS VULNERABLE TO THE TIN HORN TYRANTS AND THE MURDEROUS FANATICS WHO’VE MADE OUR LIVES MISERABLE UNDER THE MACHO DUDE WHO SEEMS TO BE THE KIND OF PRESIDENT CARTER’S DETRACTORS PREFER.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT DOWN SOUTH--AND IN ATLANTA

After 35 years of faculty meetings, most of them resulting in the utter loss of sensation in both my brain and my rear end, I’m pretty accustomed to seeing academics in a more or less perpetual state of high dudgeon. Hence, I managed to contain myself pretty well when I read that leaders of the American Historical Association had written Mayor Shirley Franklin to protest the alleged manhandling and subsequent arrest for jaywalking of Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (currently of Tufts University but formerly of Oxford University) during the AHA's annual meeting in Atlanta. I can no longer remain silent, however, now that the thing has ballooned into an international incident with a variety of Brits warning that Atlanta’s new image as a dynamic international city is likely to give way to its old reputation as a city with “Southern attitudes.” Knowing how dramaticallyand dangerously this comment must have ratcheted up the torque on the already constricted sphincters of the Yankee-fying image-makers who would like to make it illegal even to own a GPS in Atlanta, I feel obliged to try to clarify and hopefully defuse this explosive situation.
A very learned, articulate and sincere sounding fellow indeed, Professor Fernandez-Armesto claims that, as a relative newcomer, he was unaware that jaywalking was against the law here in the States, and you have to admit that it is a very selectively enforced prohibition in these parts Perhaps because I was in Milwaukee when I saw my first and only ticket issued for jaywalking, I always thought that the idea of jaywalking as a crime was a thoroughly Yankee notion, but if it’s going to be taken seriously anywhere below yon Mason-Dixon line, it’s no surprise that Atlanta’s the place. I believe I speak for a lot of southerners of my generation in saying that we view jaywalking not as a crime but as a sport. If anybody wants to jump out there and tiptoe ‘tween the Hummers, then, more power to ‘em. On the other hand, if they aren’t willing to accept the potential consequences of winding up as somebody’s hood ornament or acquiring a few treadmarks somewhere on their torsos then they should have by-God stayed on the sidewalk.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto’s asserts that the Atlanta police are “barbaric, brutal and out of control.” So? Maybe he should have done a little reading about crime and punishment here in the southern quadrant before he came visiting. We have a lot of the former and arguably even more of the latter. The southern states actually dominate the national per capita rankings for both homicides and incarceration of criminals. So you wound up eating a little sidewalk and doing a brief jolt in the pokey. Cheer up! At least nobody tried to kill you.

In the interest of his own safety, I suggest that the good Professor also further his education about this region by spurning those self-important sissy-britches types at the AHA in favor of the much more downhome folks who make up the Southern Historical Association. As a former president of this group who was elevated to that office just a few years after being threatened with arrest at an SHA meeting, I can assure him that had his Atlanta experience occurred at one of our gatherings, he would have little reason for complaint, for he would have immediately become the object of much congratulation and backslapping and achieved what amounted to instant cachet with his new colleagues. It would further enhance his stature as a naturalized southerner, of course, if instead of complaining about his confinement with the “most deprived and depraved dregs of the American underclass,” he declared that he actually got along famously with his cellmates and may have even discovered a couple of long lost third cousins twice-removed while on the inside.

THE GLOBAL VILLAGE HAS ITS IDIOT,TOO

Historians of the Vietnam War tell us that it took Walter Cronkite’s first major critical report on the Vietnam war to convince a beleaguered Lyndon Johnson that he had lost the support of the American mainstream. Although our current president isn’t much for nuance or inference, even he might have had a similarly sobering revelation had he accompanied me last week on a visit to my favorite western wear store, where I espied on the counter right next to some mighty stylish belt buckles, a bumper sticker announcing “Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing an idiot.” I had seen this sticker several times in parking lots and on the streets in a number of college towns, but encountering it in a place where folks plunk down hard-earned money for Wranglers and Tony Lama’s is akin to seeing a “How ‘Bout Them Dawgs?” tattoo on a Georgia Tech lineman’s biceps.
That said, as I have repeatedly warned my friends who have been celebrating Bush’s decline in the polls and his rejection by the voters last November, he is, after all, still the President. His capacity for harm, though diminished, is still prodigious, especially when only a very few members of the opposition party, much less his own, are willing to say “Enough already!” to more of his homicidal nonsense, even though few really believe his new “surge” offensive in Iraq will produce anything other than even more American casualties.
Cynical as it seems even to suggest it, Bush’s new “Stay the Course” II strategy seems calculated to maintain our military presence in Iraq until he can escape the official “loser” tag by dumping the mess he has made there over to his successor. Save for Barack Obama, regardless of party, those who appear to be vying for that unenviable position seem willing to go along with Bush’s plan to keep things going long enough to hang his bloody blunder around their necks. Perhaps they believe that, politically, it is safer to support the President’s persistence in an enormously costly and damaging policy than to risk the fate of the Vietnam War critics whom right-wing revisionists have succeeded in blaming for the failure of another ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous American military venture. With Bush barricaded away with his equally delusional cadre of yea-sayers and almost no one, friend or foe, willing to storm the barricades, the two years until the Texas village gets its idiot back are likely to seem more like an eternity.

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