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We’ve Been Trumped!

August 9, 2015

Donald Trump

The tycoon with the aerodynamic hair has been dominating the news this past week, and that’s exactly what he wants. No matter that the punditocracy has generally blasted him for brazen misogyny. Or that conservative bigwig Erick Erickson banned him from appearing onstage with the other Republican presidential hopefuls. Or that his own campaign manager, Roger Stone, jumped ship (or was tossed overboard, depending on which account you read) after vainly pleading with The Donald to stifle the ugly rhetoric.

No, the Trump brand is flying high where it counts: among the sort of Americans who still aspire to gaudy, blow-’em-away success but tend to live vicariously through the exploits of the rich and famous. In other words, Trump is our first tabloid presidential candidate. His constituency is as vast as the audience for the Kardashians, and about as intellectually astute.

Trump’s macho swagger and assertiveness conjure up memories of the older, paunchier Frank Sinatra croaking that he could be “king of the hill, top of the heap, A-number one.” It’s a brash, gold-plated vision of America, high on money and testosterone and primed for combat.

The funny thing is that Trump is no ideologue. It’s virtually impossible to paint a coherent picture of his political beliefs. He’s conservative on immigration… he seems uncharitable toward women and minorities… he’s a militant capitalist… but he’s no evangelist for the Christian right, either.

You’d think a diehard moderate (like me, for example) might embrace a candidate who departs from the holy scriptures of our orthodox progressives and conservatives. Trump speaks his mind without fear, a refreshing trait in any would-be politician. He’s no fan of political correctness. He’s blunt and unscripted. You get the impression that he disdains focus groups, even though he could afford to serve caviar sandwiches and Dom Perignon.

All that is laudable. At last week’s televised GOP debate, Trump made the more conventional candidates look pale and wonkish by comparison. His more outrageous pronouncements elicited both cheers and boos — but nobody could deny that he stirred the blood. After eight years of a surprisingly bloodless Obama administration, America might respond to a president who struts, swears and shakes his fist.

But let’s get real for a minute. During the GOP debate, Fox News spitfire Megyn Kelly asked Trump point-blank when he decided to become a Republican. (After all, he had contributed to the campaigns of several Democrats in the past.) And here’s where my jaw dropped a few inches. Trump casually admitted to Kelly, the nation and almighty God that he was simply playing the game: buying the future favors of politicians — Republicans and Democrats alike — by enriching their campaign coffers. He confessed that he had done as much for most of the candidates sharing the stage with him that night.

I had to wonder how this blatant oligarch would reform our already broken system of government-by-lobby, in which the elected representatives of the people secretly cater to deep-pocketed elites. Trump seemed to be fine with the current arrangement. After all, his America is a land of winners and losers (mostly losers), and it’s only natural that the alpha dogs should control the government. At least Trump is so obscenely rich that no oligarch in America could conceivably influence his policies with a covert bribe.

Should we take Trump seriously as a candidate? Is he for real, or is he just a buffoon with money to burn? Some political cynics have suspected that Trump is nothing more than a Clinton “plant” — a tactical stooge whose candidacy would spawn chaos and discord among the Republicans.

We know that Trump pals around with the Clintons — and that the silver-haired ex-President chatted with Trump about his political ambitions. Could foxy old Bubba have played to Trump’s narcissism by encouraging him to run (and inadvertently clear the path for another Clinton presidency)?

The danger is that Trump could actually succeed. He’s already leading the other GOP candidates by an absurdly fat margin in the polls. His braggadocio seems to play well in Peoria. A blowhard and a bully? Sure, but so was Mussolini, and the masses adored him.

At the very least, Trump could be America’s answer to Putin: a defiant strongman who understands power instinctively, like a predator, and wields it with scant attention to international opinion. Trump is already the virtual embodiment of post-9/11 America as seen by our more jaded European allies: a cocky, shallow sociopath with a monstrous ego and a penchant for asserting dominance at any cost. In other words, he’s George W. Bush on steroids.

Of course, a President Trump would have to contend with our infernal constitutional system of checks and balances. He’s accustomed to being dictator of his own real estate fiefdom, but he’d have some major adjusting to do if he actually makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. No problem… Congress is so accustomed to legalized bribery, and Trump’s personal treasury is so spectacular, that — well, you get the picture.

Will Trump’s appeal fizzle as he continues to alienate one group after another? Can a billionaire continue to pose as a populist? Does he have “legs” — or will he flame out before the primaries? Will his hyperactive mouth be his salvation or his undoing?

Stay tuned… with Trump in the race, we should be in for a compulsively watchable campaign. Reality TV was never this entertaining. At the same time, beware: reality TV never had this much power to influence the future of our nation.

trump

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

 

 

 

If It Offends You, Sandblast It: the Movement to Erase the Confederacy

July 16, 2015

stone-mountain

It hasn’t been a good month for Southern white guys.

The much-awaited publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-hidden, pre-written sequel to her revered classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealed that lawyer and liberal icon Atticus Finch was actually a racist curmudgeon who attended Ku Klux Klan rallies and railed against integration. He may have defended an unjustly accused black man in court, but he probably wouldn’t have invited him over for dinner.

Meanwhile, the Memphis city council voted unanimously to dig up the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife from their resting place in a public park. Forrest, you see, was not only a Confederate general but a Klan leader during its formative years. No matter that he later advocated racial reconciliation and, in his last public appearance, addressed a group of Southern black representatives in a most un-Klanlike manner:

We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers?… I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.

Pretty bold words for a white Southern eminento in 1875. Still, his crumbling bones have to go.

Even lightweight Confederate-friendly entertainment faced the executioner. TV Land, the nostalgia-themed cable channel, announced that it was yanking reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard, the amiably cheesy good-ol’-boy comedy-action series featuring a vintage Dodge Charger named General Lee. No reasonable soul could accuse the show of harboring racist sympathies… but the anti-Confederate tide swept it out to sea, where it would join Walt Disney’s Song of the South, Amos ‘n’ Andy and Al Jolson musicals in the special Davy Jones’ Locker reserved for racially incorrect pop culture artifacts.

The movement to evict Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill continues apace. The Dixie-born general and seventh U.S. president was, of course, a slave-owner and oppressor of Native Americans, so despite having preserved the Union in the face of secessionist legislation in South Carolina, he appears to be headed for the dumpster.

Finally, earlier this week, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP called for the removal of all Confederate symbols from nearby Stone Mountain Park — including the monumental 90-by-190-foot relief sculpture of Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis carved into the side of the mountain. Said chapter leader Richard Rose:

Those guys need to go… They can be sand-blasted off, or somebody could carefully remove a slab of that and auction it off to the highest bidder… My tax dollars should not be used to commemorate slavery.

No matter that the park isn’t publicly owned or operated… the sentiments are clear: if it offends us, out it goes.

The culture of offended sensibilities is flourishing in twenty-first century America. Right-wing groups are offended by the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage — just as they’re offended by abortion, gun control, illegal immigration, welfare, Islam and (of course) Barack Obama.

But despite all the joyless noise emanating from the right, I’m awarding the top prize in the readiness-to-take-offense contest to the enlightened left — those perennial opponents of the capitalistic white racist heterosexual Christian imperialist patriarchy. That’s a lot to be offended by in one fell swoop, and I’m not denying their right to take offense. What alarms me is their collective eagerness to denounce, censor and exile anyone who takes issue with their issues.

Renegade speakers are either banned outright from college campuses or accompanied by “trigger warnings” so that sensitive young progressives can retreat to special rooms equipped with teddy bears and coloring books. Aging conservative blowhards like Rush Limbaugh must be brought down by boycotting their sponsors. (No free marketplace of ideas for these illiberal liberals.) News stories must be cherry-picked to perpetuate pet narratives that agitate the faithful. And of course, the Confederacy and its symbols must be sandblasted from our consciousness.

According to the latest lockstep wisdom, the Confederate rebellion — and its infamous battle flag — began and ended with slavery. Those prematurely dead Confederate soldiers moldering away in military cemeteries for the past 150 years? Traitors and slave-drivers, every one. No other issue (states’ rights, Southern solidarity, defending one’s land and family against Northern invaders) can be admitted into the debate. Anyone who claims that the Civil War was fought for any cause other than slavery is deemed a racist and expelled from polite company. Ditto for anyone who sees no harm in letting Confederate flags adorn the graves of the men who died for their breakaway republic.

I get the impression that, come the revolution, those sorry heretics (including me, and possibly you) would find themselves relocated to remote “re-education camps.” It’s already happening, more subtly, in the endless references to white privilege and patriarchy in the progressive press. The left is constantly telling the rest of us that we need to feel bad about ourselves, and that’s no way to win friends (or influence people).

Do I sound predictably contrarian, wrongheaded… even cynical? Could be. After absorbing a half-century’s worth of anti-white, anti-male rhetoric, with no end in sight, even a confirmed moderate like me has to wonder if the noise assaulting my head from the left will ever stop.

Yes, today’s right-wingers are a noisy lot, too. Of course I recognize that the Confederate battle flag has been appropriated by rabid racists over the years, and that much (if not most) of the irrational hatred directed at President Obama is tied to his African parentage. I’ll never align myself with right-wing fanatics who insist that the Bible should dictate our nation’s laws, or that dark-skinned Americans aren’t American enough, or that we need to arm ourselves against our own government.

So why pick on the left during its campaign to eradicate all traces of a defeated, much-discredited Southern rebellion? Because they insist on zero tolerance for dissenting beliefs. Because they’re generally educated enough to know better. Because, ISIS-like, they seem hellbent on destroying historic icons that offend their sensibilities. Today it’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, tomorrow it’s Robert E. Lee, five years from now it could be George Washington. They love to see those dominoes fall.

Isn’t the radical, gun-toting right at least as dangerous as the revisionist left? Of course it is… but what we’re witnessing is a desperate backlash against half a century of radical social change. Much of that change has been for the good, some of it is questionable, but nearly all of it (the recent concentration of wealth being a notable exception) has favored the social left at the expense of the social right.

Bible Belt conservatives — those latter-day heirs to the lost Confederacy — are smart enough to sense that their salad days are over. They represent the last generation of America’s white Christian old guard. They’re scared and angry. By constantly poking them, ridiculing their beliefs and destroying their icons, we just make them angrier.

By contrast, the progressive left represents the future — a diverse multicultural nation with a darkened complexion and often-bewildering nontraditional values. (Do we really need to refer to non-transgender individuals as cisgender?) If those progressives truly intend to embrace diversity and remain faithful to their liberal roots, they could start by showing a little more tolerance for diverse opinions.

That means recognizing that there are at least two legitimate sides to nearly every debatable issue — including abortion, gun control, illegal immigration, welfare, race relations — and yes, even the tattered old Confederate battle flag. Once we’ve removed the flag from public buildings, it’s time we let the Civil War rest in peace. We don’t want a second one on our hands.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

Death in Charleston: a Moderately Speculative Post-Mortem

June 23, 2015

Dylann-Roof-and-a-Night-of-Hate-in-Charleston-1200

The pale young man with the bowl haircut had driven to Charleston, South Carolina, alone and armed, with a singleness of purpose. There, in the centuries-old port city with its graceful antebellum townhouses and slender church spires, he would attempt to make his mark, consummate his desires, fulfill his earthly purpose.

He stepped inside the sanctuary of historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he joined a weekly Bible study and prayer meeting. The twelve already assembled there must have wondered, at least briefly, about the motives of the stranger who took the thirteenth seat, but they welcomed him all the same.

They were brothers and sisters in Christ, and the stranger’s complexion was no impediment to Christian fellowship. As the group prayed and pondered over their beloved ancient scriptures, the pale young man must have been thinking other thoughts.

They’re friendly and welcoming enough, but I have to accomplish my mission. The blacks are ruining this country, dragging us down to their level… infecting us with their primitive culture… committing acts of violence against whites that never get covered in the news. But let one white guy kill a black guy, and all hell breaks loose. Blacks just aren’t capable of being objective… they see everything through the lens of race, and they constantly make whites out to be villains.

The kid might have been a high school dropout, but he was a Deep Thinker. His sensitive, half-educated mind could detect the unfairness of news stories cherry-picked to promote a perpetual black-victimhood/white-guilt narrative, starting with the Trayvon Martin case. So the introspective boy who had once counted blacks among his friends cast his lot with the white supremacists, the Ku Kluxers, the diehard Confederates, the wingnut militiamen ready to take on the liberal establishment with their guns and their demented passion. He went over to America’s dark side.

For the pale young man, there was no middle ground. Moderate viewpoints carry no weight in polarized times, while extremism stirs the blood and validates our prejudices. Few of us have the time or inclination to analyze endless shades of gray. We tend to like our ideas neatly pre-packaged in bold black and white.

Just as important, there was no safe outlet in America for rational discussions of race from a white perspective. Anyone who dared defend white people in polite company was automatically branded as racist and promptly ostracized. The pale young man probably wasn’t even aware of that unwritten rule, but his instincts told him he’d find kindred spirits among the militant white reactionaries. After frequenting a white supremacist website and writing his own resentful manifesto, the pale young man had become a time bomb.

I can’t stand it anymore. This is OUR country, and the blacks are having their way with us. Nobody’s doing anything about it… so I have to do it myself.

He sat there for an hour, in the company of the gentle black Christians who had welcomed him and tried to bond with him over shared Bible verses and prayers. You’d think he would have noticed their warmth and hospitality, their humanity, their individual voices and personalities during the hour he spent with them. You’d think he would have been moved.

I’ve seriously pre-judged these people. What was I thinking? They’re kind and decent. I’m glad I came down here and entered their church after all. Now I’ll head back home with a fresh perspective. Sure, we have bad apples of both races, but these folks give me hope that the good will overcome the bad.

But instead, there came the dreadful snap. Brandishing a handgun he had concealed during the prayer meeting, the pale young man shouted: “I am here to shoot black people. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go!”

You already know the rest: nine black people dead — three men and six women. Four of the victims were clergy, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. He had served in the South Carolina state legislature since he was 22 and appeared to have a bright future in public life.

During the media frenzy that followed, the designated pundits dealt us the usual punditry: mass shootings as a uniquely American sickness (they overlook Anders Breivik’s bloody rampage in Norway), the need for gun control (too late — there are already 300 million guns in circulation!), the hateful symbolism of the Confederate battle flag (yes, it needs to be retired from public life, but it’s not all about racism), the semantics of the shooting (hate crime or terrorism? does it matter?), the too-easy insanity defense for white (but not black) criminals, and, of course, the ongoing victimization of black people by white people.

My own thoughts centered around one perplexing unexamined mystery: why do the perpetrators of mass shootings almost always turn out to be alienated young white males with limited prospects? Black men may commit more gun crimes per capita, but we rarely see them unleash pent-up furies by mowing down multiple strangers in the ghastly manner of an Adam Lanza, Jared Lee Loughner, James Holmes or the aforementioned Mr. Breivik.

I’m no believer in “white male privilege” — you’d have a hard time convincing a West Virginia coal miner that he and his boys are more privileged than a black doctor’s daughter who gets admitted to Harvard. But I’m suspecting there might be an element of perceived entitlement that drives young white men to insanity when they hit a brick wall. We expect white guys to succeed; in fact, we almost demand it of them.

So what happens to the ill-favored white male rejects and underachievers? Most them simply carry on, but a select few never recover from their beating. Thwarted, exasperated, doomed to failure (and painfully aware of it), they react by fuming at the world and finding convenient scapegoats. Think of young Hitler, a competent budding artist rejected twice by the academy in Vienna. Think of the pale young man in South Carolina — a reasonably intelligent fellow who couldn’t finish high school and purportedly watched a black guy walk off with a girl he fancied. It drives them mad.

Young black men are more accustomed to being thwarted, so they’re probably less inclined to boil inwardly and explode lethally when life doesn’t deliver for them. Nobody promised them glory in this world, and they face their fate with equanimity. Or they join gangs that promise them the thrill of power and illicit income. Either way, their minds don’t ferment slowly in their own juices.

A personal note: For the first time since the killing of Trayvon Martin generated the narrative of the innocent black male victim, I’ve begun to feel genuinely protective toward African Americans. When I heard a black protestor raise the doleful question, “Are we safe anywhere?” I immediately understood and sympathized. They’re harassed by cops, murdered regularly on their streets, and now slaughtered in the sanctuary of their church. Where can they go to feel safe in this world? How do they protect their children?

The victims in Charleston weren’t assaulting cops or resisting arrest. They were model citizens with charity in their hearts, and still they died. And when they died, their survivors didn’t take to the streets to loot and burn. They reached out to the white South Carolinians who reached out to them.  Then, much like the ancient Galilean they venerate, they forgave the pale young man for his unforgivable deed.

charleston-victims

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

The Trouble with Baltimore

April 30, 2015
A Baltimore protester tosses a gas canister back at the police. Source: IBTimes.com

A Baltimore protester tosses a gas canister back at the police. Source: IBTimes.com

Baltimore, that vintage mini-metropolis on the Chesapeake, is a 17th-century city with serious 21st-century issues. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody on April 19, tragic as it was, is just the dot on the “i” in issues. But it was enough to trigger a one-night outburst that some observers described as an uprising.

You probably know the backstory, but here it is again, briefly: Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimorean with a lengthy arrest record for mostly drug-related crimes, was arrested yet again under mysterious circumstances on April 12. (He was carrying a concealed switchblade, which the police had no way of knowing at the time, and he bolted to avoid arrest). Shackled and thrown into the back of a police van without a seat belt, he died just as mysteriously a week later from a nearly severed spinal cord and a crushed larynx.

Another son of the ghetto had met his doom at the hands of the police, and the news swept into the national headlines like so many other similar fatal encounters.

But here’s where the story took a disturbing twist. What started as a peaceful protest on the day of Gray’s funeral had, by nightfall, escalated into mayhem. Rampaging mobs in Gray’s mostly-black West Baltimore neighborhood ransacked a mall, looted and burned a CVS Pharmacy along with several mom-and-pop stores, and set multiple cars on fire. Across town, a nearly-completed senior housing center lovingly built by a black church erupted in flames and was reduced to smoking ruins.

The destruction seemed so wanton, random and irrational that it struck me as urban suicide — the final, desperate gesture of a community with nothing left to lose. These people were burning the last vestiges of enterprise from their own blighted neighborhoods. In a matter of hours, they were destroying what had taken generations to build — and to maintain against the deadly encroachment of urban decay.

Where would the local folk go to buy necessities and have their prescriptions filled? Who in their right mind would launch new businesses there now? The rioters had signed the death warrant for their community, and — consciously or not — maybe that’s exactly what they wanted.

Meanwhile, the police simply stood guard while the fires and the people raged. No warning shots fired, no tear gas, no tanks, no army of occupation.

Just as the cops had overreacted to the demonstrators in Ferguson last summer, they seemed to be consciously underreacting here. Even black-friendly CNN was browbeating them for being too passive in the face of chaos.

I could see the oblique wisdom of their reticence: they didn’t want to come across as enemies of the people — even at the cost of lost property. Baltimore was suffering enough without adding police brutality to the mix.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took heat for a misinterpreted statement about giving “space to those who wished to destroy,” refused to impose a curfew until the next evening. So the city burned for one night, and the neighborhoods would be more desolate than ever. But nobody else would die.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the Baltimore riot that we haven’t already learned? Was the night of fire and rage a template for race wars to come?

This much is clear: what happened in Baltimore could have happened — could still happen — in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles or any other American city with a significant population of impoverished black people. Police brutality is just the match that lights the powder keg. And let’s face it: our inner cities have turned into powder kegs.

Why are so many black neighborhoods so poor, so troubled, so violent, so devoid of hope? Racism? A legacy of slavery and institutionalized oppression? The demoralizing effect of white privilege? These left-wing pieties, based on half-truths taught in collegiate seminars, fail to explain the day-to-day realities behind the decay of black communities.

We could round up the usual suspects noted by conservative pundits: laziness, unfettered reproduction, dependence on government handouts. These unkind stereotypes don’t cut it, either.

Finally, we could cite the depressing preponderance of absentee fathers, substance abuse, academic underachievement, sky-high dropout rates, and — based on all of the above — a swaggering male street culture that glorifies gangsterism and crime.

The crime. There’s simply no denying the crime. When only white-on-black violence makes national news, we tend to forget that nearly 95% of black crime victims are victimized by blacks in black neighborhoods. Excessive crime naturally leads to excessive police surveillance, which creates a war-zone atmosphere and ships alarming numbers of black men off to prison or premature death.

Crime also drives out businesses, which eventually tire of the robberies and perpetual vigilance. When businesses disappear, so do local jobs. When jobs disappear, unemployment obviously soars. Unemployed and underemployed people have trouble securing mortgages and other loans, not to mention paying their bills. Homes are abandoned. Property values drop. Healthcare suffers. People languish in joblessness and poverty.

The predictable result: more crime… which sends more people to prison and drives out more businesses… which eliminates more jobs… and on and on until there’s virtually nothing left except a lot of hopeless, angry, alienated black people. It’s a brutal cycle with no visible means of escape.

So what can we do to break the cycle and improve the lot of black communities? For one, stop incarcerating young blacks — or anyone else, for that matter — based on petty drug offenses like possession of pot. We can’t keep shuffling these otherwise blameless men in and out of the prison system and expect black neighborhoods to prosper. (Ex-convicts have a funny way of being denied employment when they’re released.)

Police urgently need to establish better relations with the community, and the community needs to reciprocate by trusting the police. We should all look forward to the day when black people can honestly view their local cops as protectors rather than oppressors.

We need to be fearless in smashing taboos that keep us from uncovering the sometimes unpalatable truths behind black poverty. We might have to conclude, for example, that ordinary garden-variety capitalism doesn’t work in poor black neighborhoods. Or that traditional teaching methods don’t reach the majority of kids in those neighborhoods. Or even that race isn’t an artificial construct after all, but a genetic heritage that — at least to some extent — colors the way we interact with the world.

I was impressed by the character of the ordinary citizens interviewed on TV during the crisis in Baltimore. The gallant minister whose senior housing project burned to the ground — still hopeful, intelligently reflective and free of bitterness. The grizzled veteran who stood with the young demonstrators at night to keep them in line. The famously irate mom who slapped her wayward son upside the head (a little too hard, perhaps, but with the fierce devotion of a parent who cares).

It was reassuring to see that kind of inspiring, dogma-free moral leadership at the grassroots level. Maybe character can prevail over despair and aimlessness. Maybe it can break the insidious cycle of poverty, crime and decay. And then — just maybe — the future of black America won’t seem so bleak after all.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

 

 

Those Stubborn Armenians, 100 Years Beyond Doomsday

April 24, 2015
The ceremony earlier today at the Genocide Memorial in Armenia

The ceremony earlier today at the Genocide Memorial in Armenia

I’m writing on the hundredth anniversary of the day Armenia began to die.

On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk leadership of the crumbling, embattled Ottoman Empire rounded up some three hundred prominent Armenian intellectuals, artists and community leaders in Constantinople and shipped them off to prison or worse. Celebrated young poet Daniel Varoujan was stripped naked and tied to a tree while Turkish officials slowly sliced him to death with knives. Gomidas Vartabed, the beloved Armenian composer, witnessed horrific atrocities during his captivity, went mad and spent the last two decades of his life in mental institutions.

But that was only the beginning of the end. Over the next eight years, the Turkish government systematically purged the Armenians from their ancient homeland in the eastern provinces of the empire.

This is a historical fact. Nobody denies that the Christian Armenian community was uprooted and widely massacred. Nearly two million strong in 1914, the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire plummeted to a tenth of its original numbers following an interminable orgy of executions, death marches, rapes, crucifixions and mass starvation. Over a million died, thousands were “Turkified” (i.e., forced to convert to Islam and live as Turks if they wanted to survive), and the rest managed to escape to Syria or the West.

Today’s Turkish government, understandably defensive about the purported sins of its founding fathers, insists that all those dead Armenians were simply casualties of war. The Armenians represented a security threat, they say, and there’s a grain of truth in their assertion.

You see, the Armenians had already suffered losses of up to 300,000 in a series of massacres launched in 1894 by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who said he wanted to “box the Armenians on the ears” for demanding equal rights. (Imagine if the U.S. government had massacred 300,000 blacks during the Civil Rights era.) In 1915, while the Ottoman Empire was under attack from the Allies on multiple fronts, the Young Turks surmised that the Armenians would join forces with their fellow Christians from Russia who surged across the eastern border.

Scattered Armenian militias did take up arms against their oppressors as the Tsar’s troops came to their aid. But the vast majority of Armenians simply went about their business as artisans, merchants, professionals, farmers, housewives and loyal subjects — and most of them were nowhere near the border. Still, the Turks rounded them up and sent them to their doom.

Why the over-the-top Turkish response? It wasn’t simply a matter of border security during wartime. While the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire fell apart, it was being reborn as a more compact, purely Turkish state. Creating a model later admired and emulated by Hitler, the Young Turk leadership succeeded in ridding the Ottoman heartland — the Anatolian peninsula — of its problematic minorities: Greeks and Assyrians along with the multitudes of Armenians. The former Ottoman Empire was to be a Muslim nation — Turkey for the Turks.

And so it came to pass. After World War I, a tiny sliver of historic Armenia on the Russian side of the Turkish border won a brief independence — and the general later known as Ataturk promptly snatched half its territory. Tens of thousands died in the process, and a generation of American children grew up hearing about “the starving Armenians.”

The term genocide didn’t exist until the 1940s, when lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, coined it based on what had befallen the Armenians. Clearly the Armenian deportations and massacres of 1915-23 must qualify as genocide… right?

Believe it or not, the matter is still up for dispute. Armenians insist on using the G-word, of course. So do most other civilized nations. Two of Turkey’s old World War I allies, Germany and Austria, recently declared the mass killings a genocide and urged Turkey to fess up. So did the Pope. France and several other well-meaning countries have actually made it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide — the sort of high-minded law that offends believers in free speech and probably stirs up perverse sympathy for the Turks.

But a handful of choice Turkish allies, notably the U.S. and Israel, have been curiously reluctant to bandy the G-word in public. The Israelis have long depended on Turkish friendship in a hostile region, so I can almost forgive their official ambivalence. (Many Israelis, to their credit, have lambasted their government’s head-in-the-sand policy.)

America’s high-profile genocide denial is less justifiable. President Obama has deftly skated around the subject every April since 2009, despite the fact that Candidate Obama promised to use the G-word once he took office. What does the U.S. have to lose by doing the right thing and prioritizing simple justice above Realpolitik? A dubious NATO ally? Turkish apricots and tobacco? Access to a strategic Turkish air base for policing the Middle East?

Build one in Armenia: the country would welcome an American presence with open arms. Once the most prosperous of Soviet republics, Armenia is withering as an independent nation: tiny, landlocked, blockaded by its foes, suffering from a continual brain-drain  and population loss, threatened by the rise of archenemy Azerbaijan (essentially East Turkey) as a global oil power supported by — you guessed it — the U.S. and Israel.

My Armenian ancestors couldn’t have picked a more unfortunate place to build a nation. Roughly three thousand years ago, when the various tribes of the eastern Anatolian highlands coalesced into a single people, the land of Ararat (as it was known to the authors of the Old Testament) seemed like an earthly paradise. The Garden of Eden was reputed to have been located somewhere in the vicinity, and Noah is supposed to have planted his grapevines on its slopes after emerging from the ark.

But over the course of centuries, Armenia became a beleaguered battleground along the main thoroughfare of squabbling empires. Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Parthians, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Russians and Turks all stormed across the land, denuding it of its forests and conquering its people between intervals of plucky independence.

Just as disastrously, the land sits atop a major earthquake zone that puts California to shame. (An epic quake in 1988 killed upward of 25,000 Armenians.) Time magazine referred to us as “Job’s people.”

Despite all that historical and geological mayhem, the Armenians managed to survive and carve out a distinctive civilization with its own alphabet and architecture, its own rugged language and brand of Christianity. We’re a stubborn, tenacious tribe; we don’t easily forget our past triumphs, tragedies and grudges.

A hundred years after our near-annihilation, the Armenians refuse to slip quietly into history’s dustbin. They marched by the thousands today — in Armenia, California, France, and even the streets of Istanbul. Nobody will be confusing us with Albanians and Romanians now.

More and more Turks, especially among the educated class, have been voicing sympathy for the Armenian cause — a promising sign of reconciliation to come. At the same time, more and more Armenians have started referring to their lost Turkish homeland as “Western Armenia” — probably not the most diplomatic route to genocide recognition, but an exhilarating sign of Armenian pluck in the face of innumerable setbacks.

I like to dream about Western Armenia, the now-desolate realm of my ancestors, with its ruined medieval churches and fortresses and ghosts. The land still sings to those of us who can hear it, with the lullabies and laments of our great-grandparents.

Will Armenians ever live there again? Perhaps not. But those of us who dream can look forward to the day that our majestic Mount Ararat, now looming tantalizingly, exasperatingly, just across the Turkish border, will be ours once again. My stubborn Armenian bones tell me that it will happen.

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Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

 

 

A Tragedy of Errors: the North Charleston Shooting and Its Aftermath

April 13, 2015

scott memorial 2

Here we go again. White cop confronts black man. Black man resists. White cop kills black man. Event generates national media furor. Black community protests war on black men, gets angrier. We seem to be stuck on an endless repeating loop.

The confrontation between Officer Michael Slager and 50-year-old Coast Guard veteran Walter Scott in mostly poor, mostly black North Charleston, South Carolina, started out uneventfully enough. A dashcam video revealed that the officer, who pulled Scott over because of a non-functioning brake light, treated Scott with courtesy and simply told him to remain in the car while he returned to his own car. Standard operating procedure.

We can forgive Scott for dreading an encounter — even a polite one — with the local authorities. He owed more than $18,000 in child support and related court costs, and had done time behind bars on account of his debts. He used to avoid heavily policed areas of town simply because he feared being incarcerated again.

Scott bolted from his car and broke into a run, and we know the rest. A tragedy, yes… but a tragedy of errors on both sides.

Error 1: How does it benefit anyone to lock up a man who owes child support? Unless he’s earning a salary in his cell, he’s less capable than ever of satisfying his debt. As an ex-convict, he’ll be hard-pressed to find a decent job after he’s released. It’s an unjust no-win situation for everyone involved.

Error 2: Scott had no registration for the 1991 Mercedes he was driving, and he couldn’t produce an insurance card. He told Slager that he had just bought the car from a friend, then amended his story to say that he was in the process of buying the car from his friend. If I were a cop, I’d see a couple of red flags there.

Error 3: Given the lethal nature of recent confrontations between black men and white cops, Scott should have known that it wasn’t a smart idea to bolt and run. Cops tend to get angry when you bolt on them, and even a man half Scott’s age can’t outrun bullets.

At some point not recorded on video, Officer Slager caught up with Scott and used his stun gun. Scott didn’t like being tased, as most of us wouldn’t, and apparently he struggled with Slager because the taser dropped to the ground. (I won’t charge Scott with an error here, but he should have known that you don’t grapple with a cop’s weapon — even if that weapon is causing you pain and distress.)

Error 4: Scott broke away and ran once again.  Fatal mistake. By this time both men were undoubtedly pumped full of hormones, so we can assume that reason took a back seat to primal instincts.

The fatal moment. Insets: Scott and Slager looking proud in their uniforms.

The fatal moment. Insets: Scott and Slager looking proud in their uniforms.

Error 5: Slager could have let Scott disappear into the wilds of North Charleston. After all, a broken brake light isn’t a capital offense. But the officer had to get his man. So, without warning (as captured in a bystander’s viral video), Slager pumped seven shots at Scott and brought him down. It goes without saying that American police are dangerously trigger-happy these days. According to a widely disseminated statistic, U.S. cops killed more people in March of this year (111, to be exact) than British police have slain in all the years since 1900 (a grand total of 52), when Queen Victoria still sat on the throne. If true, this is a shocker and a wake-up call.

Error 6: It’s not clear whether Scott died instantly, but Slager and his African American partner made no attempt to revive their victim or check his wounds. They seemed content to let him expire on the spot.

Error 7: Slager picked up an object from the site of their struggle and carefully dropped it next to Scott’s motionless body. It’s assumed that this object was the taser that Slager used on Scott, and if so, this was a major foul on Slager’s part. To move evidence is unsavory enough, but to move it with the purpose of justifying a shooting is even more so.

Error 8: The media and the local community immediately framed the shooting as a racial incident. While we can’t know Slager’s mindset and prejudices, we do know that resisting arrest often results in death — for whites as well as blacks. (Whites actually get shot by cops, you ask? You’d never know it to judge by media coverage, but the ratio of whites to blacks killed by police between 1999 and 2011 was almost two-to-one.) This leads us to…

Error 9: Our mainstream and left-leaning media have been cherry-picking news stories that support the prevailing narrative of systematic racial oppression. This is both disingenuous (because it blatantly ignores incidents involving white victims) and dangerous (because it fans the already crackling flames of race hatred). News sources on both the right and left cherry-pick their stories to push their respective agendas. Nobody pays attention to self-described moderate news sources, of course, so we depend on mainstream outlets like CNN and the networks to steer clear of ideological narratives. When they don’t, the truth suffers.

Officer Slager was immediately charged with murder and fired from his job. While this was a smart public relations move that probably kept the anger in North Charleston from boiling over, it will be difficult to convict Slager of anything more serious than second-degree murder and tampering with evidence.

That’s serious enough, but when you take the taser struggle into account, Slager could end up with a simple manslaughter conviction. If history has any power to predict the future, a light sentence (or, God forbid, an acquittal) means we can look forward to more marches and unrest.

What can we do to break the endless repeating loop of police shootings and well-publicized black victims? Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. Police culture and ghetto culture are both prone to violence; put the two together and you have a combustible mix. But obviously we need to do something. The status quo is unacceptable.

Short of gathering around a campfire with their assigned communities and singing Kumbaya, cops need to show blacks, through attitude and actions, that they’re a force for good. That means striving to help the people they’re hired to protect, and finding mostly non-lethal methods of bringing lawbreakers to justice.

Blacks, for their part, should acknowledge that their communities tend to have serious crime issues, and that they stand to benefit from the presence of a vigilant, fair-minded police force. Where crime is rampant, the “no-snitch” tradition of non-cooperation helps nobody.

Meanwhile, here we are once again: a tragedy of errors involving cops and victims, and the tragedy of a nation that, 150 years after the Civil War ended, still can’t seem to move beyond black and white.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

Why Should Extremists Have All the Fun?

March 25, 2015

Sometimes I wonder why I use good brain cells in a doomed attempt to combat extremism. By now I’ve concluded that extremism, factionalism, discord and bile are essential components of the human genome. We’re squabbling creatures, and I can do nothing to alter that essential truth. It would be like fighting primal and unstoppable forces of nature: gravity, for example, or the Kardashians.

At my age I should be conserving my dwindling supply of gray matter for more immediately rewarding tasks, like figuring out how to replace a washer in a leaky faucet. Why bother crusading from the median strip of the political highway, when everyone seems to be zooming past me in both directions? Does anyone pay attention to that solitary figure with the sensible placard as the wind ruffles what’s left of his hair?

Well, here I stand, as Martin Luther proclaimed (though I doubt if I’ll have a church named after me): “I can do no other.” Let the extremists quake at my proclamation — assuming they can hear me as they whiz by with their radios blasting, always tuned to the same station.

Yes, extremists seem to be having all the fun. Here’s just a sampling of their antics over the past month:

The so-called Islamic State appears to have entered the demolition business: hacking ancient statues to bits, destroying Islamically incorrect Muslim shrines, ruining the noble ruins of Assyria. If they ever spread their tentacles toward Egypt, all the archaeologists in the world will be powerless to stop them from dynamiting the Great Sphinx.

Of course, the armies of ISIS and their fanatical allies have been wreaking havoc on human life as well: over twenty Coptic Christians beheaded in Libya… nearly that many tourists gunned down at a museum in Tunisia… more than a hundred Yemenis blown up in suicide attacks at two mosques (wrong denomination)… a young Afghan woman beaten and burned to death by a savage mob for alleged offenses against a copy of the holy Koran. Now the Islamists are threatening attacks on European targets and random American soldiers. It’s ugly out there, and chances are we’ll be living with that ugliness until the day we’re lowered into the ground.

Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, veteran Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, finding himself lagging in the polls, cleverly made a sharp right turn to clinch a last-minute victory over his more moderate opponent. Suddenly declaring himself against Palestinian statehood, he roused his base and they showed their love in return. Moral of the story: never underestimate the power of extremism to galvanize the masses.

Here in the U.S., freshman Texas senator and Ivy-educated right-wing demagogue Ted Cruz officially launched the 2016 presidential campaign by announcing his candidacy. In a rousing speech before a captive audience at Liberty University, he exhorted “courageous conservatives” to restore America to greatness. Notice that he didn’t reach out to the American people as a whole; why bother when you can win by appealing to tribal loyalties? Here was factionalism in its purest state, ready to widen the already gaping gulf between the two Americas: beleaguered, science-denying, government-hating, gun-endorsing Bible-believers on the right… latte-sipping, NPR-listening, politically correct Whole Foods shoppers on the left.

Speaking of left-wing latte-sippers, a debate on “rape culture” at Brown University made the news because a member of the Sexual Assault Task Force created a “safe space” in the debating hall for sensitive young women who presumably would be traumatized by hearing the libertarian opponent (a woman, no less) poke holes in the rape culture narrative. Even The New York Times, in a piece by Judith Shulevitz that made the rounds online, seemed incredulous at the need for a literal safe space — a room equipped with (I still can’t believe it, but apparently it’s true) coloring books, Play-Doh, blankets and videos of frolicking puppies, as well as trained trauma counselors. Apparently we can’t let the delicate children of the progressive elite — even at renowned universities that are supposed to train and challenge the intellects of the next generation — have their orthodox world-view punctured by surly contrarians. It would be like forcing them to ingest GMOs, gluten, non-organic tomatoes and Velveeta all at once. Yes, American universities are doing their best to make the world unsafe for heretics. (Maybe that explains their peculiar sympathy for Islam.)

Of course, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that collegiate feminists, some of whom might still be reeling from first-hand experience with rape, deserve to be verbally brutalized while already suffering from PTSD. But if they choose to attend an honest-to-God debate, they probably need to steel themselves for opinions that might stray from scripture. College is not — should never become — a nursery for ideological sheep.

So, yes, the extremists are engulfing society from both ends. They’re gaining ground; they dominate public discourse and Internet message boards. The sensible middle, with its tricky nuances and lack of rhetorical heat, lies almost bereft of life, unable to mesmerize the public or enlist bright-eyed recruits. I admit it; we’re losing the popularity contest to these battling bozos. If you drew a graph of American political sympathies today, you’d see a hill at either end with a depression in the middle. That’s us, down there in the valley.

The extremists are winning converts, but are they really having all the fun? I have my doubts. The left today seems whiny, prone to neurasthenic vapors, and oblivious to common sense. The right, for its part, puts up a macho front that conceals an underlying terror of demographic and cultural change. Both sides come across angry, clannish, intolerant and ready to take offense.

That’s not how I want to spend my days. Moderation and common sense might not generate much heat, but at least we’ll go to our eternal reward (or the communal boneyard) with the knowledge that we tried our best to make sense of these bewildering times. And while we’re here, we can enjoy the heady rush of firing away at follies to the left and right of us. After all, we moderates deserve to have some fun.

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

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