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NEAR TRUTHS:
WRITTEN IN STONE

HOLD THE FIREWORKS: The 4th of July is typically a weekend of widespread celebration mostly emptied of meaning. This year, though, with many of us still isolated in quarantine—and with the chants of Black Lives Matter protesters still ringing in our ears—we may be more inclined than ever to ponder what our “independence” means. Stripped of the pyrotechnics and potato salad, what does Independence Day signify? This annual expenditure of gunpowder in the sky ostensibly marks the establishment of a nation without monarchy, yet we are disarrayed and downtrodden by the whims of an autocratic tyrant. This patriotic summer event commemorates a founding principle of equality, yet our reluctance to address or even acknowledge the fundamental inequalities of America is ripping us to shreds. This yearly festival of red, white and blue is supposed to signify our unity, yet we are ever more polarized into “red” states and “blue” states—largely because of the “white” part. There is nothing, not even the simple wearing of a mask to conquer a pandemic, that can’t be curdled into an “us vs. them” conspiracy spiral on cable and social media. We typically see a lot of anodyne quotes from our founding fathers this time of year, but not enough of this one from Benjamin Franklin upon the signing of our storied Declaration: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

Meanwhile, the American President who most closely resembles George III prepares his own July 4 celebration at Mount Rushmore—profaning the work and beliefs of the leaders hewn into that rock, who now serve as a mere backdrop for a depraved orgy of cultish worship and racist rhetoric. Masks, we hear, will be scarce, and social distancing forsaken. That all this flies in the face of pandemic protocols is just another way of owning the libs as Dear Leader makes his flailing appeal for re-election. While this sickening spectacle unfolds, it feels as though the only definition of patriotism that makes sense in the U.S. right now involves massive voter registration and GOTV efforts, along with a relentless focus on making America live up to the promises it has so wantonly broken. Also: Wear a damn mask. Seriously, what the fuck?

SLEDGEHAMMER TIME: If you’re Jewish or of any ethnicity or other group that was exterminated in mass numbers by the Nazis, you know how you’d feel if, in your travels, you encountered statues of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Rommel et al, or saw someone waving a Nazi flag at a public event as a symbol of “rebellion” and regional pride. No argument about the preservation of history could justify putting those monsters on a pedestal or hoisting a swastika to flutter in the breeze. No dispassionate praise of their military cunning or remembrance of German “heritage” would offset the horrors these artifacts represented. You would go running for a sledgehammer to knock those fuckers down, and a can of gasoline to douse that nightmare flag.

Similarly, imagine a survivor of the Gulags confronted with a statue of Stalin, or an escapee from the killing fields encountering a monument to Pol Pot. Think of the engineers of planetary slaughter, from the massacres of indigenous peoples in this country to Japan’s butchery in China, or the bloodbaths in South Africa, Somalia and Rwanda, all across the Middle East—should those who presided over mass murder be commemorated in stone?

Now you know how black people feel pretty much every day in many parts of America, as they pass through public squares over which loom the sculpted visages of Confederate generals, architects of the Klan and other champions of slavery and extermination. Now you can imagine how they respond to seeing the Confederate flag, flown so tirelessly to preserve the “peculiar institution” of owning human beings as livestock. And you can perhaps anticipate how they might answer the claim that these monuments and icons are mere affirmations of Southern “heritage.” Imagine being a black student at Robert E. Lee High School, your education in thrall to a man who shed oceans of blood to keep you and yours in chains.

Why do we still allow public spaces in the U.S.A. to be festooned with the likenesses of the losers of the Civil War? Why do we appease the side that staked its claim on the murder, kidnapping, rape and torture of an entire continent’s population?

This is no mere sidebar to the Black Lives Matter conversation. However much white America might’ve deluded itself to the contrary, the Civil War is not done with us. Symbols matter. And for us to even begin to implement systemic change, the warriors of forced bondage and racist terror must go tumbling into the dust.

STARS AND BARS: It’s interesting to see how quickly certain references to the Confederacy are at last being set aside. In our own sphere we’ve seen two prominent country acts change their names, as Lady Antebellum became Lady A (and then reconciled with a black singer/songwriter who was already using that name) and Dixie Chicks morphed into The Chicks. The latter troupe, whose liberal politics have long been associated with the “New South” (radio once buried them for their critique of George W. Bush), have unequivocally sided with the BLM protesters in their latest single and video, the rousing “March March.”

But the mythos of the Confederacy still exerts a strong hold on the imaginations of too many white people—and not just in the South. Even after NASCAR banned the Dixie flag from its events, it was waved defiantly by many die-hards, and the entity’s one black driver menaced with a noose.

THE LONG MARCH: President Trump, with his innate ability to make a bad situation worse, retweeted a video of supporters at a Florida retirement community, one of whom shouted “White Power” at a protester, and praised the “great people” there. Trump is fanning the flames of white resentment because it’s all he’s got, and he’s desperate to keep the focus off the many scandals dogging his re-election effort. These include his depraved indifference to the escalating COVID-19 crisis, the attendant economic disaster and the latest outrage—that Russia paid the Taliban a bounty to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and Team Trump turned a blind eye.

The pandemic is raging out of control, meanwhile, because so many states and communities decided that not wearing a mask or social distancing was another way to wave the rebel flag. They also feel liberated by the Republican doctrine of not giving a shit about anyone else.

But amid all this insanity there are signs of change. Goddam, even Mississippi is changing its flag—a stunning turn of events given its bloody history. The impact of the BLM protests on the culture at large has been undeniable; we’re a long way from knowing how much of that impact will be cosmetic rather than systemic, but just look around. Better yet, ask around; a great many white people are examining their own privilege and assumptions in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to them a few short months ago. Meanwhile, Trump’s flop of a Tulsa rally was the first inkling that his electoral advantage might be slipping; his subsequent nosedive in the polls—including those in the crucial battleground states—offered ample confirmation.

Just as artists have led the way in resisting racism and autocracy, so too have top athletes. Remember when Trump threatened NFL players who took a knee against police brutality, pressuring the league and team owners to penalize any player who made such demonstrations? Remember when the NFL blacklisted Colin Kaepernick for his symbolic gesture, and the issue was so polarizing that players stayed in the locker room during the National Anthem? Now commissioner Roger Goodell has admitted he and his cohorts were wrong to punish players for kneeling—yet more evidence, if it were needed—of how transformative the BLM movement has been. What once was an ideal way for Trump to both exert his authoritarian will and unload on a black scapegoat has become another dead end for him. (Among the countless other ways he’s waxed dictatorial: Calling for the imprisonment of those who burn the flag, though this is in fact protected speech. Let the country burn, but never the flag.)

Meanwhile, in the NBA, LeBron James and other stars have declined to “shut up and dribble” and have instead lent their voices to enfranchising minority voters with the new More Than a Vote nonprofit. And the NBA, WNBA and the Players’ Association will be painting BLACK LIVES MATTER on the sidelines in Orlando venues; other initiatives are planned to address the struggle. Meanwhile, with Atlanta’s decision to use State Farm Arena (where there will be a pronounced lull in November) as a giant voting center, basketball’s most conscientious players and their allies have found a way to push back against voter suppression.

As the coaches say, when you’re 10 points ahead, play like you’re 10 points behind. The PTSD of 2016 is so powerful that many Dems have trouble accepting the possibility of victory, and as we know with elections (and Putin), anything can happen. But the movement for change will not be stopped; eventually it will leave leaders and followers and toadies and statues in its mighty wake.

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