Sunday, September 3, 2017

Radiohead – "Electioneering" (1997)

Say the right things
When electioneering

As noted in a previous 2 or 3 lines, the state of Maryland recently gave the old heave-ho to a statue of Roger B. Taney, a Maryland native who was the Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court for 28 years.  That statue was installed on the grounds of the Maryland State House in 1872. 

A contractor hired by the state arrived in the dead of night, used a crane to lift the statue on to a flatbed truck, and drove it away.  (The cost of the operation has been estimated at $100,000.)

Removing the Taney statue
That statue was removed because the governor of Maryland recently stuck his finger up to see which way the political winds were blowing.  It turns out they were blowing against Roger Taney.

I happen to like the current governor of Maryland – in fact, I like him a lot.  I’ll vote for him in the next election despite the fact that his decision to get rid of the Taney statue was 100% the result of political considerations.

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A recent NPR/PBS poll found that Americans oppose the removal of statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee,  and other Confederates by a better than 2-to-1 margin.  Despite that, statues of Confederate leaders are quickly becoming an endangered species.

Some people believe that Confederate monuments were built to make a statement about white supremacy.

In a recent column in the Washington Post, history professor Karen Cox says that theory is supported by when the statues were erected:

[T]he vast majority of monuments date to between 1895 and World War I.  They were part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution, and their installation came against a backdrop of Jim Crow violence and oppression of African Americans.

The Robert E. Lee statue
in Charlottesville, VA
Cox is especially suspicious of statues located near courthouses:

During the era of Jim Crow, Confederate monuments could be placed most anywhere.  Some were in cemeteries or parks, but far more were erected on the grounds of local and state courthouses.  These monuments, then, not only represented reverence for soldiers who fought in a war to defend slavery.  They also made a very pointed statement about the rule of white supremacy: All who enter the courthouse are subject to the laws of white men.

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While most of the recent controversy relates to statues of Confederate leaders, some believe that statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other slaveholders are a slap in the face of African-Americans. 

Professor Grace Elizabeth Hale is one of those who believes a line should be drawn separating monuments to Confederates and monuments to pre-Civil War American icons who were slaveholders:

I would argue we’re not celebrating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slaveholders.  But I think the reason that they are commemorated or memorialized is because of their role in founding the nation. . . . [W]e need to look at that in all its complexity — in how people could support freedom and also own slaves . . . But that is not the same thing as celebrating Confederate generals; people who [fought] for the preservation of slavery.

Law professor Ilya Somin agrees:

One crucial distinction it misses is that few if any monuments to Washington, Jefferson and other slaveowning Founders were erected for the specific purpose of honoring their slaveholding.  By contrast, the vast majority of monuments to Confederate leaders were erected to honor their service to the Confederacy, whose main reason for existing was to protect and extend slavery.

[T]he Founders deserve commemoration because their complicity in slavery was outweighed by other, more positive achievements, such as establishing the Constitution. By contrast, leading a war in defense of slavery was by far the most important historical legacy of Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate leaders.

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There’s one obvious difference between Taney and Confederates like Davis and Lee. 

Taney never foreswore allegiance to the United States, much less fought in the Confederate Army.   He remained a loyal citizen of the United States after the Civil War broke out, and headed up the third branch of the U.S. government – the judicial branch – until his death in 1864.

Taney’s statue was hidden away not because he was a Confederate, but because he was the author of the famous (or infamous) 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that slaves (or descendants of slaves) could not bring a lawsuit in federal court because they were not citizens of the United States. 

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It’s hard to reconcile Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott with his words and deeds as a young man.

In 1819, Taney defended an abolitionist minister who was arrested for disturbing the peace after preaching a fiery anti-slavery sermon.  He told the jury that slavery was “a blot on our national character,” and argued that “every real lover of freedom confidently hopes that it will be . . . wiped away.”

Roger Taney in 1831
Taney put his money where his mouth was when it came to emancipation.  He never bought a slave, and he manumitted the slaves that he had inherited from his father when he was a young man.

From a 2010 article by historian Timothy S. Huebner:

[In 1818] Taney affixed his signature in the court record book, paid the requisite transaction fees, and manumitted seven slaves. . . . Moreover, in 1820, together with his younger brother Octavius, Taney liberated two additional slaves who had been owned by their father.  Over the next four years, Taney manumitted two more slaves – bringing the total number of slaves he freed to eleven.  We must not underestimate these deliberate acts on behalf of freedom.  While historians have lauded George Washington, for example, for liberating his slaves at his death, Taney did so at a relatively young age. . . . Unlike some Maryland emancipators, Taney never purchased other slaves to replace the ones he freed.

(By contrast, George Washington was a slaveowner for 56 years, and owned 317 slaves at the time of his death.  Washington’s will provided that his slaves should be freed, but only after he and his wife Martha died.)  

Huebner’s view is that Taney’s change of heart on the slavery question reflects what happened in the country as a whole in the decades that preceded the Civil War:

Roger Taney's odyssey from antislavery lawyer to proslavery justice mirrored larger currents in American political and constitutional development. . . . The rise of the immediatist abolitionist movement, with its emphasis on moral purity and revolutionary change, significantly altered the nature of the political debate over slavery.  During the early 19th century, an amalgam of antislavery societies existed throughout the upper South and border states, and national political leaders vigorously and openly discussed ways to restrict the growth of [slavery].  Abolitionists' uncompromising rhetoric forced antislavery opinion from the mainstream to the margins, as more moderate antislavery advocates – particularly in slaveholding states – felt forced to defend themselves against charges of extremism.  This development silenced some of slavery's opponents and nudged others toward a more proslavery stance, thus circumscribing the national political debate on the subject.  By the 1840s and 1850s the Democratic party had shifted the discussion away from the question of whether slavery conformed to the nation's founding principles and redefined the issue as one of protecting the property rights of southern slaveholders. . . . Taney's changing views show that he was both a product and a proponent of this shifting discourse about slavery.

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The intention of those who erected the Taney statue on the Maryland State House's grounds was not to make a white-supremacy statement, but rather to express pride in the man who was at the time – and who remains to this day – the highest-ranking government official ever from Maryland. 

(The only other Marylander who held high national office was Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  The less said about him the better.)

Professor Somin argues that Confederate leaders like Davis and Lee, who left no legacy other than their defense of slavery, should be distinguished from figures like Washington and Jefferson, who had many significant achievements that outweighed the facts that they were slaveowners.

If the same standard is applied to Taney’s, he falls on the Washington-Jefferson side of the line.  In his many years as Chief Justice, Taney earned a reputation as a careful judge who understood legal nuance and stuck closely to the letter of the law.   

Taney and Dred Scott
Even Dred Scott’s lawyer found much to admire about Taney:

[Taney] was indeed a great magistrate, and a man of singular purity of life and character.  That there should have been one mistake in a judicial career so long, so exalted, and so useful is only proof of the imperfection of our nature.  The reputation of Chief Justice Taney can afford to have anything known that he ever did and still leave a great fund of honor and praise to illustrate his name.  If he had never done anything else that was high, heroic, and important, his noble vindication of the writ of habeas corpus . . . will command the admiration and gratitude of every lover of constitutional liberty, so long as our institutions shall endure.

But the Dred Scott decision – which was only one of the hundreds that Taney had a role in deciding while he was Chief Justice – did irreparable harm to his reputation.

*     *     *     *     *

Let’s face it.  No one really cares what a bunch of history professors think about which statues should stay and which should go.  The statues that are being taken down are being taken down for purely political reasons.

Consider the case of the Roger Taney statue.  Some urged Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to get rid of the statue back in 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine people at a black church in Charleston, SC.  But Hogan said that taking down the statue would be “political correctness run amok.”

What a difference a few days make.  Shortly after the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, Hogan said removing the Taney statue “was the right thing to do.” 

What caused Hogan’s change of heart?  Would you believe the upcoming 2018 election?

Hogan’s victory in the 2014 Maryland gubernatorial election was a huge upset because Hogan is a Republican, and Maryland is as blue a state as there is.  (Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in Maryland by a better than 2-to-1 margin.)

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan
Hogan bailed on the Roger Taney statue because he was afraid that if he didn’t, the Democrats would try to tar him with the brush of white supremacy when he runs for re-election in 2018.  Going over to the other side on this issue also allows Hogan to further distance himself from President Trump.  (Hogan didn’t endorse Trump – in fact, he stated publicly that he didn’t vote for him – but the Democrats will try to link Trump to Hogan, who is a Republican.) 

One high-ranking Maryland politician who wanted to keep the Taney statue was State Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, who is a Democrat. 

Miller acknowledged the harm caused by the Dred Scott decision.  But he noted that Taney served with distinction as Chief Justice and in other public offices, including state attorney general and U.S. attorney general.  And he pointed out that Taney freed his slaves and remained loyal to the Union.

In other words, Miller made the same points about Taney that I made above.  (GMTA!)

It’s a bit of a shock for 2 or 3 lines to find itself agreeing with Mike Miller and disagreeing with Larry Hogan.  But that’s where I find myself when it comes to Roger Taney.

It’s bad enough that Hogan is wrong about the Taney statue.  It’s worse that he flip-flopped on the issue overnight purely because it was politically expedient to do so.

But nobody’s perfect.  I’ll still vote for the guy. 

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“Electioneering” was released in 1997 on Radiohead’s third studio album, OK Computer.

As Tim Footman noted in his book on OK Computer, it was one of the most critically acclaimed albums ever:

Not since 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, had so many major critics agreed immediately, not only on an album's merits, but on its long-term significance, and its ability to encapsulate a particular point in history.

Of course, it’s clear today that Sgt. Pepper is a hugely overrated record.

Here’s “Electioneering”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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