In the last weeks of summer in 2001, I found myself hunting for something in my files, “files” being a euphemism for frayed, yellowing papers stuffed here-and-there. Some idea had come to mind, and I remembered something I had scribbled on the subject at some point before, so I went looking for it. To this day, I cannot remember what I originally had been trying to find because – as often happened – I stumbled across other things which diverted my attention.
What I discovered that summer day were two essays I had written some years before, one of which I had submitted to this city’s commission on the arts and humanities for a contest it was sponsoring. Typed on impossibly thin Coraserble Bond paper, it railed against the geopolitics of the time. I had had high hopes for Iran following the overthrow of its shah, and had grown disgusted that the country’s revolution had replaced the fascism of its right-wing secular government with the fascism of a theocracy. Judging by what I had written, I had been even more disgusted by how the leaders of this country and Europe seemed to have responded. The other essay was written as a humorous piece about a non-humorous subject. It was an open letter to all the world’s disgruntled groups engaging in what some such groups do at times. It was titled “Don’t Bomb Washington”. In it, I explained that the people of this city never do anything to give anyone any reason to bomb us. I pointed out we don’t have a vote in Congress, where most anger-inducing policies are made.
The memory of running across those two pieces remains with me because of what happened three days after finding them. That third day was September 11th, and this city barely missed being bombed. Now, recent events remind me of something I thought then, a thought some might find inappropriate given that day’s carnage, but it is what came to mind nonetheless: “There are not enough jihadists in the world to ever make me forget that the profile of a terrorist in this country is a white male.”
That truth was borne out two weeks ago today in Charleston, South Carolina by one such individual who has said he believes in the separation of the so-called “races”. In his mind, this includes the elimination of the race from which he hopes to separate. One white organization I would support – were it to exist – would be the National Organization to Make Sure White Men Don’t Get Mad About the Wrong Things (N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T.).
White male anger is not necessarily a bad thing. This nation was founded by aristocratic English colonists angry enough to believe they could secede from the English kingdom. When angry American soldiers in Philadelphia demanded to be paid for having fought all the king’s men, the frightened founders – realizing no state could guarantee their protection elsewhere – established this federal district called Columbia as a safe-haven for themselves. The birth of the nation and its capital are just two entries on the list of not-so-bad things resulting from white American male anger.
Then, there is that other list, the one of terrible things. Let’s consider an item near the top. With their angry forbears having successfully seceded from England a mere 77 years prior, Southern aristocrats in some of those former English colonies became mad enough to secede from this country. That might have gone well for them had they not also been angry enough to fire on our Fort Sumter. That was a mistake leading to 630,000 deaths and more than a million casualties, but it was their mistake. The question we find ourselves asking 154 years after we were fired on is “Why does the United States of America continue to pay for the mistakes of the Confederate States of America?”
That’s a question we never would have to ask if we had an N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T. We don’t, so the question must be answered. One answer is a word now commonly associated with 20th century English statecraft and diplomacy: appeasement. If you know your history, you already know it is a word fraught with negative connotations ever since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain mistakenly thought he could appease the anger of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by agreeing to let him annex parts of Czechoslovakia. You also know how Hitler proved him wrong.
Our own appeasers predate Chamberlain by more than 70 years. In a spirit of brotherly love, for the sake of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, our appeasers thought they could “soothe the savage breasts” of the Civil War’s losers by welcoming them back into the nation. It was a noble notion, and may have gotten worthwhile results were it not for the fact that the anger of our former antagonists never dissipated. Instead, it metastasized.
Lately, we have been witnessing the beginning of the end of at least one form of appeasement – the official reverence afforded the Confederate battle flag. It is not enough that the freedom granted by our Constitution allows people to display their ancestral disdain for the nation on bumper stickers and billboards. They have expected their state to display it as well, and the idea that the state might disagree makes them angry. Frightened by the prospect of that anger turning into the loss of elections, legislators have capitulated and anti-American flags have been flying on government grounds. As for the rest of us, we have not been angry enough to do much more than protest. Now, because of the confluence of tragedy and guilt, this one type of coddling will cease. Of course, angry new-age rebels do more than wave flags. Seven years ago, one burned down a black church because he was mad a black man had won the White House. Fourteen days ago, one killed nine people in church because he was mad black people exist.
The home of Mr. and Mrs. Wilmer McLean in the Virginia hamlet of Appomattox Court House is where this nation’s appeasement of the South began. It was there that the victorious General Grant graciously gave the vanquished General Lee a break instead of what many believed Lee deserved. The appeasement continued during the decades that followed. In 1877, it was the terminating of Reconstruction and removal of federal troops. It was the Supreme Court’s Plessy decision in 1896, which made racial discrimination legal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two years ago, the Court weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the midst of voter suppression. Two days ago, we learned the Court has agreed to hear yet another challenge to affirmative action during its next session. Despite all of this and more, it never has been enough. A war we pretend ended a century-and-a-half ago continues to be fought in angry hearts and minds.
In high school, I had the fun of playing the title character in a production of “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” from William Thurber’s revue, A Thurber Carnival. In that skit, a drunken Grant surrenders to Lee, providing more irony for audiences than Thurber might have imagined or intended. Playing Grant is one thing, but in real life I am only 16.5% white, so I am not the best candidate to take a swing at starting something like an N.O.M.S.W.M.D.G.M.A.W.T. More of the 100% folk need to grab a bat and step up to that plate.