Virginia is for WTF?

“Hmmm …” Lou Doench is seeing if this class is more interesting SIDEWAYS.

The above is the most embarrassing picture of me in the St Xavier HS Class of 1987 yearbook. It’s not even really that embarrassing, my wife (who has seen very few pics of me from this era,) thought it was kind of cute. I was just really tired that day.

At least I’m not doing anything racist… as opposed to Virginia Governor Ralph Northham, who was recently discovered to be at least one of the people on the right in this picture from his 1984 medical school yearbook.

Which is more racist? White people don’t get to decide…

Good old Ralph is the 73rd Governor of the Old Dominion, having beaten by nine points veteran GOP flunky Ed Gillespie in one of the most contentious and racially charged campaigns of the last election cycle. The image was uncovered by a right wing website and quickly confirmed as authentic by the mainstream media, evidently provoked by the Governors clumsy response to a reporters question on a bill being debated to change the states late term abortion restrictions. Ralph’s questionable media savvy is going to be a recurring theme here.

In a whiplash series of apologies and retractions, Northam seems to have settled on a claim that he is neither of the people depicted in the yearbook photo. Why a future pediatric neurologist with the nickname “Coonman” would have two other people dressed in blackface and KKK cosplay on his yearbook page is a mystery. In his press conference in support of this strange claim he managed to fit his foot even further into his mouth by admitting that he had worn blackface in college in order to impersonate Micheal Jackson for a dance contest. Oh, and he referred to the first Africans in Virginia as “indentured servants,” for some strange reason.

Pretty much everyone in the Virginia and national Democratic Party have called on Northam to resign, which would be fine except for the fact that the next two people in line have their own scandals.  Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax  has been credibly accused of at least two sexual assaults. And Attorney General Mark Herring got out ahead of his own blackface history by admitting that he and his friends had put on blackface to go to a party as Run DMC.

Jesus Christ on a Pogo Stick Virginia…

I’d like to believe that such shenanigans are a thing of the past or confined to the more “yokel” adjacent parts of the nation. Sadly that would be misguided. Blackface has a long history in the good old USA, and it’s always been an act of white supremacy. From the above 2014 Vox article…

Blackface is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume.
Its American origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late nineteenth century, white actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage.
To be clear, these weren’t flattering representations. At all. Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.
The blackface caricatures that were staples of Minstrelsy (think: Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel) took a firm hold in the American imagination, and carried over into other mediums of entertainment.
Blackface has also been seen in Vaudeville Shows and on Broadway. Yes, black actors sometimes wore blackface, too, because white audiences didn’t want to see them on the stage without it.
We have blackface performances to thank for some of the cartoonish, dehumanizing tropes that still manage to make their way into American culture.
Beyond that, blackface and systematic social and political repression are so inextricably linked that, according to C. Vann Woodward’s history The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the very term “Jim Crow” — usually used as shorthand for rigid anti-black segregation laws in force between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement — derives from an 1832 blackface minstrel number by Thomas D. Rice.
There’s no way around it: this particular costume choice has a terrible track record.

Yet we white folks still keep sticking our hands into this particular Gom Jabbar. Like we’re convinced that THIS TIME it will be OK. Just last year Megyn Kelley’s attempt to craft a career outside the Fox News Bad Take Factory exploded spectacularly on contact with her defense of blackface Halloween Costumes. A week later a BYU student walked right into that shitstorm with his shoe polish proudly applied, while the lily white campus was “hosting a symposium(in collaboration with historically black Morgan State University) on the 50th anniversary of the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” And that’s just tip of the Jolson Iceberg when it comes to blackface (and yellow face, and sexy Natives, etc) on our colleges.

I just don’t get it. I feel like I missed class on the day they taught “White Supremacy 101” in school. It would never have occurred to me that it was OK to go all Amos and Andy at ANY POINT of what I feel was an adequately misspent youth. I feel certain that the Jesuits at ST X who taugth me to be a “man for others,” would have kicked my ass up and down North Bend road for pulling that shit.

As it stands today it looks like Twerk-it Ralph is gonna hold on to his job for now. As a Democrat I would prefer he step down, but considering the scandals brewing beneath him and the short attention span of the media in the age of Trump he’ll probably be able to ride this out. Which is too bad. We gained a lot of credibility when Al Franken was pushed into stepping down because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. When we let our own get away with shit like this we feed into the conservative propaganda that anti-racism is just a mask we put on when we want to chastise conservatives, one we gleefully discard when the camera’s turn off, proving that we’re the “real racists.”

We should be better than that.

The Origin of Specious, How Evolution Helps Explain the Modern GOP Pt. 1

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, all 17 members of the Inane Clown Posse (H/T Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars,) were asked if they believed in evolution. Only “Low Energy” Jeb Bush would say yes, and even he equivocated, claiming that it shouldn’t be “part of the curriculum.” In fact a majority of Republicans refuse to accept Charles Dartwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. And considering the quality of their counterarguments it is likely that most Republicans don’t understand evolution either. Which is too bad, because an understanding of natural selection would really help members of the GOP understand why their party’s standard bearer is now an incurious dictatorial buffoon who is personally responsible for the longest government shutdown in history.

Evolution is about environment as much as it is genetics

Even those who accept evolution have a fairly pedestrian understanding of Darwin’s theory. Most can dig up “the survival of the fittest” as the centerpiece of “On the Origin of Species.” This part is at least intuitive— we can easily imagine the bigger faster fish eats the smaller slower fish and passes it’s superior genes on to their progeny— but “fittest” is a deceiving adjective, evoking anthropomorphic images of strength and toughness. It is certainly the way proponents of eugenics use Darwin to justify their toxic views on how to build a better human.

A better way to think of evolution is that an organism will be more likely to survive to pass its traits on to its progeny if those traits are more suitable to its environment than other traits. In other words evolution isn’t a PvP game, it’s a PvE (player versus environment) game.  When the environment changes, the traits that improve survival change; like how frustrating it can be to transition from an open free fire zone to a crowded urban environment and all you have in your pack are sniper rifles. Critters that aren’t as well adapted to changes in the environment die off. And the critters that do survive may eventually end up looking radically different.

Environments are systems, sometimes fragile systems

We don’t need to limit this model to animals. All systems respond to changes in the environment. This is easy to see in things like sports: soccer, rugby and football all developed from a fairly simple village game called “football” that was essentially a glorified and sometimes literal version of “kill the man.” As Europeans spread to the New World, the game was adapted to the various available environments. Sometime in the 19th century, as men’s clubs on both sides of the Atlantic grappled with how to make the game safer to avoid being shut down by the government, various rules where applied in different locations.

First the number of players was controlled, soccer and football both settling at 11, rugby at 15. Soccer eliminated direct possession of the ball and forbid use of hands and player to player contact was heavily regulated. Rugby allowed it’s players to run with the ball, and for a long time the US and English versions of Rugby football were almost identical until Walter Camp introduced the concept of downs and the line of scrimmage, turning gridiron football into a series of set piece plays rather than the nonstop back and forth scrummage rugby. The forward pass would further distinguish the two games.

These rule changes served to take what was once one game and turn it into three very different games, played by very different players. Soccer became a free flowing sport that favored agility, quickness and endurance. Rugby favored bigger and stronger participants, with less specialization than either of it’s brothers. Football became the most radically changed game. The stops between plays allowed for more substitutions. Eventually the rosters were expanded and players specialized in offense or defense. Linemen on both sides of the ball grew larger, players on the flanks became faster. The forward pass eventually became the focal point, making the quarterback the most important player.

A time traveler from the Victorian era wouldn’t recognize any of these games as “football.” And without knowing the environmental factors that led to the evolution off the three games his confusion would be understandable. What would be less understandable would be if our time traveler insisted that nothing had actually changed. That football was actually just as it had always been, or could easily be returned to it’s previous ideal state. That would require willful ignorance of both history and the evidence in front of our eyes. Guess which political party favors those traits?

From Ike to Trump in only three generations

There are lots of reasons why our political parties act the way they do. They both are contesting for control of a superpower state. They are both working to run the worlds largest economy. They are both products of of our bloody history of slavery and genocide counterpoised with democracy and progress. Yet one of those parties operates in a largely predictable fashion and one operates in such a way that confuses even it’s own members. Why is that? What changed in the environment that led to a GOP that appears completely incapable, or even unwilling to participate in democratic governance?

My proposition is that the Republican Party are in today’s predicament because they have created an environment in their party that doesn’t select for the skills necessary for democratic governance. Changes in the conservative media environment, how elections are funded, and how their electorate is educated have led the party inexorably down a path from Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan to Trump. And a refusal to admit that those changes have occurred, an almost pathological lack of institutional memory, has left the party incapable of admitting that it even has a problem. 

What those factors are, and why the Democrats are different, we will explore in Part 2.

Featured Image by Randy Molton