Rothman At-Large

Good Riddance to 'Silent Sam,' UNC’s Toppled Civil War Statue. Don't Bring Him Back.

August 26, 2018

Stone statues honoring the dead helped draw me to the University of North Carolina.


Thomas Wolfe wrote unforgettably of his father the stonecutter in Look Homeward, Angel, a classic coming-of-age novel. After reading Angel, I knew I must go to Chapel Hill.


Back in the 1960s when I was at “Pulpit Hill, as Wolfe called the university in his autobiographical work, I was blind to the full history of another monument to the dead. This bronze one was of a far different nature from the stonecutter’s creations.


“Silent Sam,” shown here in an old file shot, was a Civil War soldier who had acquired his name because he bore no ammunition. White students saw Sam as benign. Here was a landmark to sit and perhaps get drunk on. Most of the local Caucasians regarded Sam just as a tribute to the many UNC students and alumni who had fought bravely in the Civil War.


I took a class from the brilliant George Tindall, a leading Southern historian, and learned in detail of lynchings and the dark Dixie populism that would help pave the way for the Trumpist variety. For Tindall or perhaps on my own, I read David Chalmers‘s Hooded Americanism. Surely a genteel university town like Chapel Hill was above the more outrageous manifestations of Kluxery. What I did not know, and what even Professors Tindall and Chalmers probably did not, was that Silent Sam himself could have merited a harrowing mention in the latter’s book.


At Sam’s dedication in 1913, speakers praised the courage of the Confederates from UNC—I haven’t the least issue with that. But racist myths notwithstanding, the South fought the Civil War mainly to a defend a multi-billion-dollar investment in slaves. And an ugly speech, forgotten until rediscovered in 2009 by a then-graduate student named Adam Domby, was vile enough to balance out all the talk of brave student-soldiers.


The orator, Julian Shakespeare Carr, was not just an ex-Confederate private transformed into a rich UNC trustee with the honorary title of “general.” He was a persistent and passionate booster of the Ku Klux Klan. Fortified with classical allusions, his dedication speech was far more flowery than demagogic rants in front of burning crosses. But the hate was the same:


“I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.”


Defend Sam with all the standard excuses; yes, 500 members of the university community may have died in the war or of related causes. But in the end, wittingly or not, you’ll be dog-whistling in memory of full-throated racists like Julian Carr. Let Southerns honor their beloved dead as individuals—but not Carr’s true cause dedicated to the enslavement of fellow human beings. Silent Sam should be relegated to a museum with large signage placing him in historical context. We must not erase but learn from history. But Sam’s very location provided the wrong context.


I am saddened that UNC administrators, while condemning Sam as divisive, failed to try as hard as they could to use legal means to banish Sam from the university’s upper quad facing Franklin Street. Such an essential job was left to protestors. They pulled Sam down from his pedestal on August 20 after having vandalized him in the past. Miraculously the police somehow allowed it to happen, without injuries or loss of life, even though the university had been spending about $400,000 year on Sam’s security. Of course, the protestors broke the law. But given the lack of alternatives, the statue’s toppling was a praiseworthy act of civil disobedience. The protestors should be arrested and fined—$1 each—and go through life proud of their police records.


Like my own state of Virginia, North Carolina has a law protecting public monuments. There are even provisions for restoring removed monuments to their previous locations or ones of similar prominence. May this not happen! If so, large corporations should take a stand against Tar Heel racism, just as they did with boycott threats against North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law, fortunately repealed. For full clarification of the legal situation, the law protecting Sam should be amended or, ideally, stricken from the books. Passed by a viciously racist Republican state legislature, in part the product of gerrymandering and voter suppression, the law even says that a statue cannot be relocated to “museum, cemetery, or mausoleum unless it was originally placed at such a location.”


University officials could help by telling Democratic Governor Roy Cooper that return of Sam really would threaten public safety. He had provided them with a similar opportunity before, but they did not respond as meaningfully as they could have. As of August 23, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt would neither reveal the statue’s current location nor tell whether Sam would return to the old one. Almost surely she and UNC System President Margaret Spellings are not bigots; nor, let me add, would I automatically apply that pejorative to every one of Sam genuine supporters. I just wish UNC had been more forceful in fighting the old prejudices that Sam symbolizes even at one of the South’s more enlightened schools. As late as 1938, saying that the State Legislature must decide, the university denied admission to an African American hoping to attend the school of social work, the very kind of place devoted to better lives for the have-nots. A racist student, in fact, threatened to tar and feather any people of color who accompanied Pauli Murray to class.


The university’s atonement should be an ongoing process. It is with me. While at UNC, I myself ridiculed the Klan and the racist Sen. Jesse Helms in the Daily Tar Heel, the school newspaper Wolfe had once edited, but I still could have shown far more sensitivity on racial issues, especially those intertwined with the Vietnam War. These days I have tried to make it up through such efforts as a proposal for a national library endowment, which, among other things, could provide scholarships to people of color aspiring toward librarianship.

Disappointingly, the library profession’s diversity statistics are abysmal. In 2012 there were just 563 credentialed black male librarians, for example, despite their value as role models. Minority neighborhoods especially have suffered when school districts cut back or close K-12 libraries. Politicians and perhaps certain librarians need to atone, too. It is wrong not to deplore Sam and other racist trappings of the American past. It is even worse not to care sufficiently about the injustices of the present.


A good response to the library world’s minority crisis would be to work toward a privately funded national library endowment, one of whose purposes would be the provision of enough money for scholarships and advocacy to address minority needs whether or not politicians are receptive. This need not be a pipe dream. Just ten Americans are together worth more than half a trillion dollars; 400, more than $2.5 or so trillion.


So far, however, the American Library Association has refused to issue even a brief endorsement of the basic endowment idea. ALA says it lacks the “bandwidth.” Really? Aren’t most cosmic issues “bandwidth”-intensive? Couldn’t ALA partner with Harvard or another wealthy institution on a conference bringing together librarians, prospective donors and other stakeholders? Would ALA feel the same if more schools in well-off white neighborhoods were losing their librarians? Another reason exists for the proposed endowment. Libraries help give voters of all colors a sense of history, which, after all, must be preceded by a certain level of curiosity and literacy—at the core of what libraries should be about. Come on, ALA. Where’s the reflection?


Thomas Wolfe fought his own internal battles. A lover was Jewish, but many critics saw tinges of anti-Semitism—in fact, much worse—in his life and work. Even so, we can all aspire.


I’m reminded of the beautiful lines from Angel about the protagonist’s father: “He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel’s head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine—but not the angel.” Still, we can at least try to carve our own angel’s heads.

Updates in the Washington Post: Three people charged, and UNC prepares for possible protests, after Confederate monument Silent Sam is toppled and Protesters clash, arrests mount after toppling of Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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Historic Trump-Satan Agreement

June 12, 2018

HELL—Fresh from his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump has negotiated a historic agreement with Satan.

Under the deal, Satan will not lay claims on the souls of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Occupational Health and Safety Administration acting head Loren Sweatt, immigrant hater Jeff Sessions, consumer financial protection foe Mick Mulvaney or any other Trump Administration member who normally would end up down here.

“It’s a little like the pardons we’re considering for certain of the President’s people,” said an Administration insider. “No matter how many Americans die of cancer, perish in industrial accidents, endure forced separation from their families or go bankrupt due to lax financial regulations, there’s not a chance in Hell his appointees will suffer in the afterlife for their behavior. The contemplated pardons could help some out legally. Now our pact with the Devil breaks new ground, in expanding protections to other areas.


“Pruitt will be freer than ever to be Pruitt, and so on. Best of all, the pact covers Trump himself. More than ever, Trump can be Trump.”

The President beamed, amid tall flames and burning sulfur, as the ceremony took place.


In deference to the image-conscious President and to help the Fox News audience feel more comfortable, Satan wore a stylish hat over his horns. A well-tailored business suit artfully concealed his tail.

No mention was made of Satan’s human rights violations.

“We enjoy an excellent relationship,” President Trump said. “So much in common.”

“I reached out to President Trump before the election,” Satan told reporters. “The Access Hollywood tapes told me everything I needed to know.”


Asked if the pact might alienate rural evangelicals who make up so much of Trump’s following, a White House source said, “Many. But for many more, just the opposite. The pact is a genuine victory for patriotic racists and xenophobes interested in full-scale voters suppression, immigration crackdowns and Aryan purity in general. Satan will help us make white America great again.”


While President Trump normally disdains a multilateral approach, he expressed hope that future Satanic negotiations could be expanded to include Vladimir Putin and even Kim Jong Un, who, for diplomatic purposes, would be regarded as an honorary Caucasian.

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Ten Ways Trump Jeopardizes Even His Fellow Billionaires' Wealth

March 26, 2018

Ouch. If you own stocks, how did you feel when Wall Street suffered its worst week in two years? The S&P dropped six percent.


Donald Trump had been pestering the media to report more on the stock market, up since his election. Now at least one TV financial pundit was joking about Trump’s crazy trade policies and the possibility of The Donald shorting stocks after pumping them.


You could say, “Oh, that was just the action of the week, a mix of tariff worries and jitters over rising interest rates. Things will be fine.” But not so, long term, if Trump remains in the Oval Office.


Elections have consequences for your wallet, and I’ve got a two-word economic solution for American investors of all ideologies, from the Koch Brothers to multimillionaire Nancy Pelosi. Impeach now.


I’m not deluded that the House Speaker Paul Ryan and the other powers in the Republican-dominated Congress will see this column, much less act on it—they’re too busy reading ring-wing publications and watching Fox News and soliciting Koch-style plutocrats for campaign cash. Still, we can at least fantasize and maybe even look forward to a Democratic Congress willing to do the obvious.


Even if I were one of the Koch Brothers, Trump would scare me. I would be funneling as much campaign cash as possible to Red state congress members in danger of getting primaried by fanatical Trumpists, and along the way I would be ditching my economic dogmas as well. I would also join billionaire Tom Steyer in running anti-Trump commercials, and if I were a Fortune 500 CEO I would threaten Rupert Murdoch with an ad boycott of Fox and urge other corporate leaders to do the same if the network continued to encourage and even advise an aspiring dictator.


Many advertisers ran away from Breitbart News. It’s time to do the same to all of Fox, beyond specific programs—not just for reasons of morality but also practicality. Cut Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal a break for the virtues of the news side. Hooray even to the editorial page for not giving Trump a free pass on tariff issues. Still, the WSJ really needs to go all the way with a passionate call for impeachment, based on general lack of fitness for officer, of which Trump’s Dow-busting tariff tantrums are just one example. Immediately deserving a full-fledged ad boycott is Sinclair Broadcasting, which inserts Trumpist propaganda into local news programming.


Why my strong views, especially since I normally dislike the idea of advertising boycotts? Civic reasons count most—these are “Fire in a crowded theater” times. But not everyone on Wall Street and executives suites will care. So in considering ad boycotts of Fox, Sinclair and the like, here are ten reasons why Donald Trump is a long-term threat even to billionaire plutocrats. Yes, exceptions could exist. While Jim Cramer was joking, Trump cronies just might be playing shady market games for real, such as shortening the S&P via straws, based on inside information.


Reason #1: Trump is Warren Buffett in reverse—a 71-year-old child focused on his emotions and on the short term, as the threatened trade war with China shows. The Chinese have been shafting us in areas such as intellectual property. But Trump’s bellicose talk, mainly meant to appeal to his die-hard supporters, not solve the problem, made the Chinese seem like good guys by comparison. Outbursts like this are doing major damage to America as a brand, not just for now but perhaps for years to come.


Reason #2: Sleaze is bad for business. If you were a foreigner, which would you rather invest in—a banana republic or an America with a regulated Wall Street? The longer Trump remains in power, the less chance of the Securities and Exchange Commission being able to do its job. Tobacco and healthcare-related stock buys did lead to the resignations of the Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the media caught on. She was hardly Trump’s BFF. But then consider other Trump people such as investor Carl Icahn, who resigned as a Trump advisor amid concerns over an energy-related conflict. With conflicts of interest galore, the Trump and Kushner families are hardly setting examples for the rest of Washington, and regulatory agencies such as the SEC may ultimately suffer. In fact, they are at already at risk at the expense of investors, savers and the country at large.


Reason #3: Trump loves to portray himself as King of Debt and in his business life ran away from creditors. Republicans shouldn’t let him treat the country the same way. Of course, with tax cuts for the rich bloating the deficit, Capitol Hill itself is no small part of the problem. Trump and the GOP Congress, alas, are each other’s enablers. Thank you, Trump and friends, for increasing the likelihood of rising interest rates, as deficits grow. Economists overwhelmingly agree that growth won’t be enough to make up for the massive tax cuts.


Reason #4: Nuclear war is bad for business, even if you’re a Koch. Wall Street loves certainty. Trump and his new national security advisor, John Bolton, worship war and chaos.


Reason #5: Climate change isn’t so helpful, either. Granted, the Koch brothers are heavily invested in fossil fuel and related industries. But eventually mass anger may prevail over political donations. We’re starting to see this now in the area of gun control. The fossil fuel interests may in time be the new NRA, especially as massive flooding and other horrors of climate change become even more visible than now and insurance companies pay out still more billions. Let’s not expect immediate miracles in either area. But in the Koch Brothers’ place, I would be looking ahead and phasing in renewables in a major way even if fossil fuels, chemicals and the like are their major show now. Solar and wind are opportunities, as shown by employment figures, and yet Trump is fighting them at every turn.


Reason #6: Trump doesn’t understand technology, especially dependent on free trade. The parts in your tablet or laptop come from all over, and not all the raw materials are available in the U.S. In a related vein, see Reason #8.


Reason #7: He can’t even figure out the blue-collar economy, as shown by his lack of appreciation of the damage that mindless tariffs can do to our industries reliant on affordable steel.


Reason #8: As first bigot-in-chief, Trump is making America less inviting for ambitious immigrants whose hard work in the end will create more American jobs in tech and elsewhere. Capitalize the J word and we’re talking Jobs indeed—yes, Apple founder Steve Jobs, the biological son Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, a Syrian-born Muslim.


Reason #9: America’s wealth distribution is already horrific, and Trump and his friends seem keen on worsening it through tax scams and attacks on Social Security and the rest despite all the populist rhetoric to the contrary. On the surface, the looting would appear to be billionaire-friendly. It is not. The tax cut money instead could have gone for better roads and other infrastructure to make American business more competitive. But that’s not all. Without a thriving middle class to buy goods and services, the corporate investments of the wealthy are worth less in the end. Moreover,  when enough voters wake up, there may be calls not just for stiff estate taxes but also huge taxes on the actual wealth of living billionaires, beyond their dividends, capital gains and other income. Ready for the guillotine, dear billionaires? Not your necks, but your holdings.

Reason #10: Trump, regardless of rhetoric, couldn’t care less about health insurance costs and the healthcare system in general. By bringing so much chaos to the insurance marketplace, the policies of Trump and the GOP are reducing job mobility and making the U.S. economy less efficient. Also, workers could spend more on good and services in general if 18 percent of our GDP didn’t have to go to healthcare industry.

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