Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Blind Leading the Dumb: Biblical Illiteracy and American Politics

If you are a typical American, you have no idea that the title of this essay alludes to a Biblical verse.

A truism holds that Americans are the most religion-drunk of all the Western nations. Surveys seem to confirm this. Polling data suggests that Americans are more likely to go to church, to take the stories of the Bible at face value, to believe in supernatural forces and in an afterlife than their vastly more secular peers in Europe. Allow me to overwhelm you with numbers:

According to polls, more than 95 percent of Americans believe in God, though how Americans define that concept widely varies. By contrast, only 61 percent of the British public believe in God. About 84 percent of Americans believe Jesus is the son of God and came to the Earth to save mankind, compared to only 46 percent of Brits. Around 70 percent of Americans believe in hell, compared to 28 percent of the British.

Church attendance is much higher in the United States than in Europe, with 45 percent of Americans attending church once a week compared to 23 percent of Belgians, 19 percent of Germans, 13 percent of the British, 10 percent of the French, 3 percent of the population in Denmark and a mere 2 percent of those living in Iceland.

Almost 80 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will eventually return to Earth, according to a 2006 survey by Pew Forum on Religion and America. The Pew Forum also reported that just 20 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return in their lifetimes, although that number reached as high as 40 percent as the millennium approached according to a 1999 Newsweek survey. Another 67 percent believe in the Virgin Birth.

Another 67 percent of Americans define the United States as a Christian nation. Nearly half of Republicans believe the Bible should more strongly influence public policy than the will of the voters. About half of Americans want to see political decisions more influenced by religion. Sixty-nine percent of Americans believe that liberals have gone too far in limiting the influence of religion on public life. By contrast, only 49 percent believe that the Christian Right has too much political power.

Four in ten Americans believe that life forms have only existed in their present form and 49 percent reject the theory of evolution. Two-thirds want scientific creationism and evolution taught side-by-side in the public schools.

A substantial minority (35 percent) of Americans believe that every word of the Bible is literally true.

An even larger plurality believes that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. As a result, many more Americans sympathize with the Israelis (44 percent) than the Palestinians (9 percent.)

All this religiosity, however, comes in an atmosphere of appalling ignorance. Both my students at the University of Texas at Austin and now at Collin College in Plano are blissfully unaware of the most basic Christian or Judaic doctrines, are completely unfamiliar with the stories of the Bible, and cannot articulate the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, let alone tell me what Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims believe.

I wondered if my students were unusually secular and disinterested in religion or if they were representative of the larger American culture. Apparently they reflect a nationwide epidemic of Biblical and theological ignorance. According to a book published earlier this year, Stephen Prothero’s “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn’t,” fewer than half of Americans know that the Book of Genesis is the first book in the Christian Bible, only half can name one of the four Gospels and only a third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. One out of ten think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Sixty-percent can’t name five of the 10 Commandments while 50 percent of high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

As Prothero, chair of Boston University’s religion department suggests, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Referring to the controversy over so-called “intelligent design” curricula (which is nothing more than theological assertion thinly masked as science offered as a counterpoint to evolution theory in the public schools), Prothero notes that the average American cannot intelligently discuss the issue if they can’t identify Genesis as the book that contains the Jewish creation account.

Theological illiteracy also tragically shapes American foreign policy. Anti-Semites tend to blame the uncritical relationship between the U.S. and Israel on an all-powerful “Israel Lobby.” America’s blind support of any and all Israeli governments and policies, however, has much more to do with that large swath of the Protestant public that, based on third and fourth-hand information, believes that God has given Israelis a permanent lease on Palestine.

Unquestionably, American support for Israel’s occasional invasions of Lebanon, and our tepid response to human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, have spawned widespread rage in the Arab world and terrorism against our citizens. A more even-handed American policy that fully embraces Palestinian statehood and emphasizes Israel’s need for security will only be possible when Americans know their Shiites from their Sunnis, their Ashkernazis from their Sephardim. A rational public discourse about our proper role in the Middle East can happen only if the voting public becomes better educated about the three great monotheisms, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Finally, American homophobia gets reinforced by evangelical preachers like the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and “former homosexual” Donnie McClurkin and others of that ilk who exploit religious ignorance to spread their message of intolerance. These preachers rant that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because the inhabitants of these ancient cities were practicing homosexuals and they warn that America suffers a similar fate if civil rights are extended to gay citizens.

The average American, unfortunately, does not know that the few homophobic verses in the Bible were written in a particular political context. The ancient Jewish scribes who produced the books of the Bible came from an oppressed people long engaged in a struggle for independence against various pagan empires. In particular, these Hebrew nationalist authors associated their Roman overlords with evil, and therefore condemned as immoral customs associated with the Roman upper class.

For instance, many upper class Roman men –- who typically had wives and children – would engage in pederasty with under-aged acolytes. Such male-to-male contact was encouraged by the thoroughly sexist Roman culture which saw women as inadequate intellectual and emotional mates for men. The noble Roman used his younger partner as a sexual outlet, but in return he was expected to teach the youth manly arts such as warfare and governance. With this historical context, it is easier to see the small number of anti-gay verses in the Bible as a political attack on the habits of the ruling Roman upper class.

In any case the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, told in Genesis 18 and 19, is not the clear-cut anti-gay parable that the McClurkins of the world make it out to be. In the story Lot, a foreigner, has taken up residence in Sodom. He is visited by two angels who warn him that both Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed for their wickedness. A delegation of Sodom’s men appears at Lot’s door and say, “bring them unto us, that we may know them.” This has been widely interpreted to mean that the Sodom delegation wanted to homosexually rape the two strangers. The angels use supernatural powers to prevent the crowd from harming Lot, who leaves the city with his household. Once Lot has departed, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, as Byrne Fone skillfully detects in “Homophobia: A History” (published in 2000), the story is much more ambiguous. The Hebrew verb to know, “yadha,” is sometimes translated in English as “to have sexual intercourse with,” as in “Cain knew his wife.” The verb also means “to be familiar with or have knowledge of” as in, “I knew driving on Central Expressway during rush hour was a bad idea.” As Fone points out, Lot was an unfamiliar foreigner to the men of Sodom, as were his two mysterious guests. The sight of the three foreigners meeting together may have sparked security concerns. The Sodom delegation may have wanted to know who the strangers were and why they were in the city. No homosexual connotation need be drawn from the text.

In fact, in other books of the Bible cite other reasons for Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Ezekiel 16:44-52 outlines God’s indictment of the two cities and that act that came to be called “sodomy” is never mentioned. God destroyed the city of Sodom, the author says, because “she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched.” In short, the Sodomites were destroyed because they were greedy, indifferent to suffering, and arrogant (which would be a good description of the Republican Party.)

The Book of Wisdom, accepted as scripture by Catholics but not by Protestants or Jews, says Sodom was destroyed because its inhabitants “evinced such bitter hatred towards strangers [and] . . . had made slaves of guests . . .” In other words, the destruction of the city’s was retribution for unfriendliness and a lack of charity. Once again, sex (gay or otherwise) doesn’t come up.

Nevertheless, evangelical careers have been built on the use and abuse of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. None more infamously than the Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas, who should every night win Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” award. Phelps, who runs a website called www.godhatesfags.com, is the man who first entered the limelight by bringing members of his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas to the funerals of people who died of AIDS or were murdered for their homosexuality. Members of the Westboro Church hold signs that say, “God hates fags.” At the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, the Wyoming college student killed in a 1998 gay-bashing incident, Phelps screamed at Shepherd’s grieving mother and other mourners, shrieking that Matthew was in hell and telling Mrs. Shepherd that she would go to hell also because she had “raised [her] son for the devil.”

Westboro has anywhere between 70 and 150 members and most of them are related to Phelps. Like any sadist, Phelps and his army of malignant mutants get off on the emotional pain they cause. Phelps is addicted to media attention and the torment of mourners, so he has expanded his list of targets. Lately, he has been disrupting the funerals of fallen soldiers returned from Iraq. Phelps preaches that God has cursed America because of civil rights laws protecting gay citizens. God has wrecked his vengeance, according to Phelps, by killing our soldiers.

Now Phelps and his cretinous band bear signs that say, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for IEDs" (improvised explosive devices -- one of the chief weapons used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.) Now that soldiers, and not just gay people, were involved, Phelps' demonstrations finally inspired a rash of state laws and one federal statute banning protests at funeral services

Phelps finally got a miniscule taste of what he deserves this week when a Baltimore jury awarded Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder (a Marine killed in Iraq), $11 million dollars. Snyder is the first target of graveside picketing to sue Phelps. The jury ruled that Phelps' thugs violated Snyder's privacy and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

A mystery, however, surrounds Phelps. Phelps has a law degree and he got his most of his 13 children to also become lawyers. This allows the Phelpses to defend themselves in court cases pro bono and to file a mountain of nuisance lawsuits against their many enemies. It is unclear, however that any of the Phelps lawyers are ever paid by clients or that they have represented anyone but themselves in years. Yet, Phelps by his own estimate stages 40 funeral protests a week, appearing across the country with several of his relatives/congregants. Where does Phelps' money for basic sustenance, let alone for extensive traveling and a lifestyle that seems to be a permanent vacation from real work, come from?

Phelps must have financial enablers. In fact, there is a mass flock of Biblically illiterate homophobes Phelps can draw on for support. Consider this passage on Phelps from the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report" in the Spring of 2001:


"In 1990, Phelps . . . ran as a Democrat in the Kansas gubernatorial primary and won 6.7% of the vote.

In 1992, after one year of publicly flaunting his hatred of homosexuals, Phelps' popularity had actually shot up dramatically: He polled 31% of the vote in the Kansas Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, taking about 50,000 ballots. Last November, without even running for office, Phelps received write-in votes for several local offices . . .

In the mid-1990s, Topeka had both a mayor and a police chief who were seen by many as sympathetic to Phelps, men who agreed that homosexuality is a sin.

Chief Gerald Beavers already was facing some public criticism for assigning contingents of police to the Phelps pickets — not to protect passersby, but to guard the picketers. Later, he would be accused of coddling Phelps in other ways.

This reported coddling had its effect. Gene Roles, whose sisters experienced 'absolute physical devastation' from a screaming attack by Jonathan Phelps, likened their experience to ‘verbal rape.’ Roles says that the biggest hurdle in eventually convicting Jonathan Phelps of disorderly conduct in that incident came from an unexpected quarter — the Topeka Police Department.

'They all said they had been briefed not to issue reports on the Phelpses,' Roles told the Intelligence Report. 'We talked to 10 officers and got 10 different reasons why. In the end, winning the case came down to simply following through on a police report. The jury was convinced in 15 minutes.'

A few years later, officers came forward to essentially corroborate the Roles story, complaining publicly that they'd been instructed by Beavers not to arrest members of the Phelps family.

Beavers denied that charge, although Fred Phelps says today that the two men 'understood each other.' In any event, then-Mayor Felker says he told Beavers to resign or face firing. Beavers quit."


Perhaps millions of Americans fear gays, and petition and vote to deny them the right to be with their loved ones in hospitals. or to have a presumptive claim on their lovers' estates, or to have the freedom to adopt, love and nuture children. All this bigotry stems in part from a myth about Sodom and Gomorrah that most of these bigots have never read personally and wouldn't understand if they did. Thanks to the army of homophobes voting in 2004 for state referenda banning same sex marriage, we got stuck with a second disastrous Bush term as a side bargain. To paraphrase a bumpersticker, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Perfect Racists: Hard Bigotry and Low Expectations in the GOP

Bill O’Reilly’s shock at the idea that blacks can behave themselves in a restaurant and Ann Coulter’s recent anti-Semitic outburst should have come as no surprise since the modern Republican Party built its electoral coalition on racism and intolerance.

For those of you who have been hiding under a rock, in a late September broadcast Fox Noise commentator Bill O’Reilly expressed the surprise he felt during a recent dinner at the landmark Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s. "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." Later on, O'Reilly expressed his surprise that "there wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

O’Reilly claimed that his comments somehow were taken out of context, though reading the full transcript of the broadcast doesn’t improve his case any. This is hardly the first time racist words have tumbled from O’Reilly’s lips. Check out some choice comments documented by Fairness and Accuracy in the Media (FAIR) and the Daily Kos:

In April 2003, O’Reilly served as host for a fundraiser put on by Best Friends, a charity benefiting inner-city schoolchildren. According to a Washington Post story (4/15/03), O’Reilly told jokes before a singing group connected with the charity, called the Best Men, was set to perform. “Does anyone know where the Best Men are?” O’Reilly asked about the African American group. “I hope they’re not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.’”

On a February 6,2003 broadcast, O’Reilly used the term “wetback” to describe someone helping immigrants across the border. Fox Noise excused the comment as a slip of the tongue (New York Times, 2/10/03), but the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call (1/5/03) quoted O’Reilly using the same slur in an earlier speech that year: “O’Reilly criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for not doing its job and not keeping out ‘the wetbacks’” O’Reilly denied the statement (Washington Post, 2/17/02), but the reporter stands by his story.

During a discussion (2/9/00) on African American athletes filing suit against the NCAA’s minimum academic standards for college admission, O’Reilly said: “Look, you know as well as I do most of these kids come out and they can’t speak English.”

On the April 12, 2006 Radio Factor show, O’Reilly insisted that the previous day’s guest, New York City councilman Charles Barron had unintentionally revealed the “hidden agenda” behind the current immigration debate, which, O’Reilly claimed, was “to wipe out `white privilege` and to have the browning of America.” O’Reilly suggested that this “hidden agenda” involved letting “people who live in the Caribbean, people who live in Africa and Asia … walk in and become citizens immediately.’”

On March 24, 2004, in response to a contributor who reported that by mid-century the United States would no longer be predominantly white, O’Reilly responded by exclaiming, “Yeah, but by then we’ll all be dead. Thank God!!”
Ann Coulter stirred her own dust-up in recent days when, during an appearance on The Big Idea" with Donny Deutsch, she looked forward to a world without Jews. Here are her comments:

"DEUTSCH: Let me ask you a question . . . If you had your way, and all of your . . . dreams, which are genuine, came true having to do with immigration, having to do . . . with abortion — what would this country look like?
COULTER: UMMMMM (pause) ... It would look like New York City during the Republican National Convention. In fact, that's what I think heaven is going to look like . . . People were happy. They're Christian. They're tolerant. They defend America, they —
DEUTSCH: Christian — so we should be Christian? It would be better if we were all Christian?
COULTER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: We should all be Christian?
COULTER: Yes. Would you like to come to church with me, Donny?
DEUTSCH: So I should not be a Jew, I should be a Christian, and this would be a better place?
COULTER: Well, you could be a practicing Jew, but you're not . . .
DEUTSCH: You can't possibly — you're too educated . . .
COULTER: Do you know what Christianity is? We believe your religion, but you have to obey . . . We have the fast-track program. . . we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.
DEUTSCH: Wow, you didn't really say that, did you?
COULTER: Yes. That is what Christianity is. We believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express. You have to obey laws . . . [T]hat is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews. We believe the Old Testament. As you know from the Old Testament, God was constantly getting fed up with humans for not being able to, you know, live up to all the laws. What Christians believe — this is just a statement of what the New Testament is — is that that's why Christ came and died for our sins. Christians believe the Old Testament. You don't believe our testament."

Republican racism is a recurring phenomenon that the mainstream media chooses to largely ignore. Whenever television covers the Republican National Convention, the cameras always manage to zero in on every African American in the audience. Similarly, the Republicans find media-savvy African Americans like former Congressman J.C. Watts and talk show host Armstrong Williams to front for them on news shows, thus creating the illusion of a diverse, tolerant party. (In fact, 90 percent of African Americans vote for Democrats. Mexican Americans and other Latinos prefer the Democrats by 2-1, and Asian Americans reject the GOP by a 6-4 margin.)

Similarly, the rightwing trotted out NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams to deny Bill O’Reilly is a racist. “They[O’Reilly’s critics] are trying to shut up anybody who’s having an honest thought about race relations in this country, and wants to speak honestly about the damage being done by the likes of these rappers or these comedians who use the N-word, and all of that,” Williams said. “You know, they’re willing to celebrate Snoop Dogg, or Twista, or any of these guys who go out there and present these minstrel show images of black people . . . [O’Reilly’s comments] had nothing to do with racist ranting by anybody except these idiots at CNN.”

Williams’ apologia aside, it is clear from O’Reilly’s comments that he regards boorish and crude behavior as the norm among African Americans. Or at least he did until he went to Sylvia’s. One might well ask why O’Reilly, who has lived in New York for years, took so long to visit such a great restaurant unless it was because of his fear of black people. O’Reilly’s comments indicate that his dinner in Harlem was a rare close encounter of the black kind and that the TV and radio host lives most of his life in segregated isolation.

If Republican exploit accommodating black people to cover for white racists, they are now using Jewish writers to argue that Coulter’s comments are not anti-Semitic. “On one level, the whole affair is just so silly,” writes David Klinghoffer at the National Review Online. “Which religion, whose adherents accept the tenets of that religion as the truth about God, does not regard adherents of other faiths as holding imperfect theological notions? If religious belief is important, then to accept more perfect beliefs is to be more perfect.” A similar argument is made by Dennis Prager at Human Events.com. “There is nothing in what Ann Coulter said to a Jewish interviewer on CNBC that indicates she hates Jews or wishes them ill, or does damage to the Jewish people or the Jewish state,” Prager writes. “And if none of those criteria is present, how can someone be labeled anti-Semitic?

"What damage has she ever done to Jews? What is wrong with a person believing that it would be better if another person adopted their faith? Is there one liberal who doesn't believe that a conservative would be better -- "perfected," if you will -- by embracing liberal beliefs and values? Why is it laudable for a liberal to hope that conservatives convert to liberalism, but dangerous and hate-filled when a Christian hopes that Jews or anyone else will go to heaven (that is, after all, Ann Coulter's and most other Christians' primary concern) by believing in Jesus?"

Klinghoffer and Prager hold a zero-sum view of theology whereby the truths of one religion necessarily invalidate the truths of another. It may be beyond their imagination, but some people of faith acknowledge ambiguity and doubt and recognize that, because of human imperfection, no person or doctrine can contain the whole truth, or to definitively possess a “perfected” version of it unquestionably superior to its competitors. Competing ideas of God are all founded on speculation and, as such, have equal standing to the tolerant.

Both the Coulter and the O’Reilly incidents bring to stark light a basic truth: that appeals to racism lay at the heart of the conservative message and that the distance between mainstream conservative like O’Reilly and Coulter and the fringe occupied by the likes of former Klansman David Duke is shorter than anyone in the mainstream media is willing to admit. The Republican Party comes almost entirely in one flavor, vanilla, and any gathering of the GOP closely resembles the old Sun City resort in apartheid-era South Africa. This stems from the origins of the modern Republican coalition, which became competitive, after the Democratic monopoly over the White House from 1933 to 1953, when Southern segregationist Democrats like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms began to leave the party of their fathers and, ironically, drift towards the part of Lincoln.

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley’s National Review played a pivotal role in creating the modern conservative movement, creating an iron alliance between libertarians who wanted little or no government regulation of business and traditionalists who wanted to defend and preserve respect for traditional moral authority, as represented by conservative churches. Buckley set the tone for conservative discourse and frequently expressed sympathy for segregationists. “Prior to [the 1955 founding of the National Review], conservative intellectuals had no central outlet for rigorous debate among themselves, let alone a means of communication to preach to the unconverted,” wrote sociologist Sara Diamond.

As the magazine gained a following among wealthy and influential conservatives, Buckley acquired the power to define conservative orthodoxy and excommunicate those deemed damaging to the cause, such as when he disowned any alliance with the extremist anti-communist John Birch Society. An unembarrassed elitist, the patrician Yale graduate Buckley embodied the right wing of the mainstream, appearing as a frequent guest on television talk shows and even hosting a Public Broadcasting System television show, Firing Line from 1966 to 1999.

Buckley’s ugly, not-so-hidden secret, was that this mainstream conservative held a view on racial issues not substantially different from that of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. Under Buckley, the National Review abandoned its lip service to libertarianism and adamantly supported the right of Southern states to regulate whether whites and blacks could sit next to each other, or use the same public transportation, water fountains or bathrooms. In a 1957 editorial headlined “Why the South Must Prevail,” Buckley defended the denial of black voting rights:

"The central question that emerges . . . is whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes – the white community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.

National Review believes the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority."

In this editorial, Buckley calls blacks primitive and suggests that granting African American voting rights in the South would threaten civilization, defined as the will of the white community. At the time this was written, of course, that Southern civilization embraced lynching and the mob mentality that resulted in the savage murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. However, black voting so endangered white standards of living, Buckley wrote, that the South was justified in using any means necessary, including presumably violence, to prevent the ballot from falling in the wrong hands.

Buckley’s views not only reveal a deep racism, but an antipathy to democracy itself. Buckley believed that majority rule should be respected only as long as it provides a vehicle for elite objectives. What check would exist to prevent a politically dominant minority from using the “defense of civilization” to rationalize any tyranny doesn’t concern the typically intellectually sloppy Buckley. Inconvenient dissent, even on the part of the majority, should be squashed as ruthlessly as it was in the Soviet Union Buckley so despised.

Buckley’s views of the Jim Crow South reflected no aberration in the magazine’s general view of African Americans, who were consistently portrayed in the pages of the National Review as mentally backwards. In the 1960s, the National Review supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and in a June 1964 article cheered the life sentence given African National Congress Leader and future South African President Nelson Mandela. The National Review also regularly tapped white supremacists advocating eugenics, such as Phillipe Rushton and Steven Sailer, the far right-wing journalist, to contribute articles on race and to write negative reviews of anti-eugenicist academics and authors like Stephen Jay Gould.

The National Review also leant its prestige to the cause of neo-eugenics, running a rave review on September 12, 1994 of J. Phillipe Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior in which writer Mark Snyderman praised Rushton’s “fearless” thesis that “Orientals are more intelligent, have larger brains for their body size, have smaller genitalia, have less sex drive, are less fecund, work harder and are more readily socialized than Caucasians; and Caucasians on average bear the same relationship to blacks.” The National Review would similarly praise The Bell Curve, a book that argued that African Americans were an average of 15 points lower in intelligence than whites, that the difference stemmed from biology and not poverty, racism and discrimination, and that no remedial programs like Head Start could make a difference regarding black achievement.

If prior to the 1960s, the “solid South” could be counted on to support the Democratic Party, which had been the party of the slave South and held monopoly power in the Jim Crow era, by the 1960s this loyalty frayed badly. Richard Nixon launched an era of Republican domination of the presidency in 1968 when he reached out to segregationists in the South and parents angry over school busing and anti-war protests in the North through the use of racially coded language about law and order and “neighborhood schools.”

Such language appealed to men like the Rev. Jerry Falwell. When Falwell, the founder of the Christian Right organization the Moral Majority, died this past May, obituaries inevitably mentioned his warnings to parents that one of the characters in the children’s television show “Teletubbies” was gay and his remark after September 11 that the terrorist attack happened because God was angry with America due to “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America."

Such comments bordered on entertaining in their sheer dimwittery. The media, however, whitewashed Falwell’s earlier support of segregation, perhaps because much of the press does not take anti-black racism seriously. The Virginia preacher, however, stood with the racists as the greatest moral crusade of the twentieth century raged in his native region. Responding to the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision, “Brown v. The Board of Education” which ruled that segregated public schools violated the constitution, Falwell said, “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made…. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

In 1958, Falwell delivered a sermon at his Thomas Roads Baptist Church titled “Segregation and Integration: Which?” in which he proclaimed, "The true Negro does not want integration... He realizes his potential is far better among his own race... It [desegregation] will destroy our race eventually...” In 1964, Falwell delivered another sermon, this time against the sweeping civil rights legislation pushed by President Lyndon Johnson in wake of the JFK assassination. Falwell declared that the bill “should be considered civil wrongs rather than civil rights” and that it represented “a terrible violation of human and private property rights.”

A preacher who would joyfully plunge into politics to roll back the human rights of gays and the reproductive choice of women, Falwell condemned preachers involved in the civil rights movement, arguing that ministers had no place in political debate but should focus instead on saving souls. In a March 1965 sermon titled “Ministers and Marches,” he expressed doubt as to the “sincerity and non-violent intentions of some civil rights leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are well known to have left-wing affiliations. It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

It was inappropriate for a minister like King to lead the charge for social reform, Falwell argued. Referring to the clergy, he declared that, “our only purpose on this earth is to know Christ and to make him known. Believing the Bible as I do, I find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else -– including the fighting of communism or participating in civil rights reform . . . Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul-winners . . . If as much effort could be put into winning people to Jesus across the land as is being exerted in the present civil rights movement, America would be turned upside down for God.”

As William Martin, author of “With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,” points out, Falwell’s stand reeked of hypocrisy since defense of segregation constituted political activism as much as fighting for civil rights. In any case, in 1965, Falwell formed the Lynchburg Christian Academy to serve as a refuge for white parents fleeing the ordered desegregation of local schools. The “Lynchburg News” described the academy as “a private school for white students.” Falwell regularly hosted segregationist governors like George Wallace and Lester Maddox on his “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television show. Meanwhile, Falwell’s church and school remained segregated until 1968, and did not baptize its first African American member until 1971, years after “whites only” signs had come down across Dixie.

Racism and intolerance lurked barely below the surface as Falwell aligned his Moral Majority organization with the GOP. Falwell’s period of heavy political involvement began in 1977, as he backed singer Anita Bryant’s campaign to repeal an ordinance providing equal rights to gay men and women in Dade County, Fla. Holding “I Love America” rallies, Falwell urged churches to register voters and for openly campaign for candidates supporting allegedly Christian positions on moral issues and even welfare and affirmative action.

Falwell’s significance, however, is that he sought a coalition that included more than just evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, but also more mainstream but conservative Protestants, right-wing Catholics and conservative Jews who shared a resentment of the civil rights movement, a fear of the Soviet Union, and opposition to abortion and gay rights. Falwell articulated his central strategy in forming The Moral Majority as: “Get them saved, baptized and registered.” Holding highly politicized evangelical rallies Falwell held up a Bible, telling followers: “If a man stands by this book, vote for him. If he doesn’t, don’t.” In just three years the Moral Majority held $10 million budget could count on an army of 100,000 trained clergymen and several million volunteers.

No organization proved more central to Ronald Reagan victory in the presidential election of 1980 than the former segregationist Falwell’s Moral Majority. Christian conservatives helped the Republicans reduce the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and to capture the Senate. In spite of his ostensible repudiation of segregation, Falwell’s anti-black racism surfaced repeatedly during Reagan’s presidency. Falwell supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and would use the pages of Moral Majority publications to ridicule anti-apartheid activist Bishop Desmond Tutu. Falwell also proved to be one of the many prophecy-believing evangelicals who was more Zionist than many Jews, even if he was forced to apologize in 1999 for saying that the Antichrist was probably alive and if so would be in the form of a male Jew.

Reagan was hardly less explicit in his appeal to white supremacists during his 1980 presidential race than Falwell, even delivering a speech supporting state’s rights (a phrase Southerners had used first to defend slavery and then Jim Crow) at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. This happened to be the infamous site where three civil rights workers (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney) were murdered with the complicity of the local sheriff’s department in 1964.

Reagan also loved to deride welfare queens (by implication black women) and enthusiastically supported reversing a long-held federal policy of withdrawing tax-exempt status from private schools that discriminate racially, going to mat to defend the tax-exempt status of segregated Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school that in its student code of conduct explicitly banned interracial dating. Even as he rode on a wave of white backlash, Reagan denied that racism was a major issue in America. Speaking of civil rights leaders, Reagan once remarked, “Sometimes I wonder if they really mean what they say, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they're victims of prejudice."

Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, rose to the White House in part due to an ad that featured the menacing mug shot of a black rapist, Willie Horton. In 2000, Bush’s son, George W. Bush ran into a serious obstacle on his road to the GOP nomination in the person of John McCain, who beat him in the New Hampshire primary. Desperate for momentum as he campaigned in the South Carolina primary, the younger Bush borrowed a tactic from his father’s arsenal and made one more appeal to the angry white man vote. Bush’s political operatives distributed fliers featuring pictures of McCain’s dark-skinned adopted Vietnamese daughter, implying the girl was a black love child.

Making a speech at Bob Jones University, Bush not so subtly linked himself to the school’s white supremacist outlook, declaring, ''I look forward to publicly defending our conservative philosophy.'' While Bush’s comments were vague enough to provide plausible deniability, they were inclusive enough to the Bob Jones audience to imply an endorsement of BJU’s racial separatism. Bush, of course, would later pretend to be offended when presumed Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott, at the 100th birthday party of Senator Strom Thurmond, noted that his home state of Mississippi had supported Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. "We're proud of it,” Lott said. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either.”

Bush led the charge to drum Lott out of his position as Senate Majority leader, but the Mississippi politician’s comments merely reflected the attitude of a conservative movement that has in the past half century routinely portrayed African Americans as less intelligent, more promiscuous, as allergic to hard work and as prone to crime. Racism, such as that shown by Lott, draws condemnation only sporadically and randomly and anti-black comments are widely accepted. In the past decade, the venom has shifted to immigrants, but the white supremacist sentiment remains the same. David Duke served in the state Legislature of Louisiana as a Republican for a reason. He found many kindred spirits there.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Friday, October 19, 2007

And the winner of the Paul McCartney "But If This Ever Changing World In Which We Live In" Redundancy Award Goes To . .

. . . The student who came up with this gem:

"The difference between Native American cultures when Christopher Columbus came was very different.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Ecumenical, Shmecumenical

Another tidbit from a student on an exam:

"Residents of England were divided between Protestants and Christians."


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I did not know this

According to one of my students, in an answer on an exam:

"The Puritans were amazing astronomers. They invented the number zero." Which is close to the score she's going to get.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Friday, October 12, 2007

On a roll

An Oscar, an Emmy and now a Nobel Prize. Al Gore has enjoyed a much better six years than George W. Bush. Why would any friend wish the presidency on him?


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Shame on You, Huffington Post

Mythology to the contrary, the mainstream media suffers from an exasperating lack of progressive voices. As Eric Alterman convincingly demonstrates in his 2003 book “What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News,” if anything television networks, major newspapers and the radio giants like Clear Channel are dominated by conservative, if not reactionary, voices.

That’s why I’ve always enjoyed reading the online journal “The Huffington Post,” which has offered genuine debate on issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict and has given the occasional actual liberal, as opposed to the usual pale imitations like George Stephanopoulos and David Broder, a real voice.

That’s why I was distressed to read this recent item on the “Huffington Post” website:


“[The] yearly federal budget deficit is over $250 billion and the trade imbalances are setting records every year. There is no end in sight.

And today, our Dear Leader has vetoed a bill that would help 4 million American children at the lowest levels of our ‘booming’ economy have access to elementary health care, saying it is ‘too expensive.’

And after all of this obscene heartlessness toward American kids and profiteering on the killing of innocents abroad, our Dear Leader sends his cute little blonde Italian-surnamed spokesmodel, Dana Perino, to tell us these words in regard to trying to find a way to pay for the bloodbaths:

’We've always known that Democrats seem to revert to type, and they are willing to raise taxes on just about anything.’”


Yes, Dana Perino some day will have to answer to a higher power for serving as a shill to such a corrupt and clumsy regime. However, this post, written by Joseph A. Perino, is sexist in the extreme. I recall no previous articles on the “Huffington Post” website describing what the previous White House flack, Tony Snow, looked like. "Post" writers haven’t speculated whether or not James Carville is “cute.” Nor have attractive men in politics like John Edwards been condescended to as “spokesmodels.” (This might be because the pickings are awfully slim. As someone once archly observed, “Politics is show business for ugly people.”)

Perhaps it is naïve to expect real progressives and their mainstream liberal sometimes allies to be above sexism. After all, the previously mentioned Eric Alterman, in the just cited “What Liberal Media?” book, feels the need to comment on Axis spokespersons Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham’s looks. (Alterman refers to Ingraham as a “leggy” and “pretty blond ex-clerk” who “had the good sense to wear a leopard-skin mini-skirt for a 'New York Times Magazine'” cover” while Coulter is referred to as a “blonde bombshell pundette.”)

Such talk would be crude and condescending if it came from Rush Limbaugh, and indeed far worse has. (Limbaugh once referred to one of Louisiana’s senators as “Cute Little Baby Fat Mary Landrieu.”) We should expect more, however, from the relative progressives at the Huffington Post. They should either comment on the physical appearance of all reactionaries or refrain from making patronizing comments only about the attractiveness, or lack thereof, of fascist women.

Dana Perino has far worse to answer for than being “cute.” such as for letting loose with this whopper in response to a “New York Times” story this week revealing that after publicly disavowing the use of torture techniques on terrorism suspects, the U.S. Justice Department issued a secret finding endorsing methods such as head slaps, submerging suspects in freezing temperatures and treating prisoners to simulated drownings known as waterboarding. “"The policy of the United States is not to torture,” Perino lied “The president has not authorized it. He will not authorize it."

There are so many substantial critiques to make of the Bush administration and its flunkies without resorting to a locker room mentality. You can rest assured that, should she win the White House, right-wingers will obsess over Hillary Clinton’s appearance as a substitute for discussion of her policies. The left can and must do better.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

Suicide Is Not Painless

Ring out the bells again
like we did when spring began
wake me up when September ends

Here comes the rain again
falling from the stars
drenched in my pain again
becoming who we are

As my memory rests
but never forgets what I lost
wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
wake me up when September ends

-- Green Day

When I began this blog, I envisioned it as a forum to discuss American history and current events. I never imagined how often I would vent my feelings after the deaths of loved ones.

Last year ended and the new year began with the deaths of my mother, my father-in-law, and a 19-year-old cat I had known longer than my wife. After that fierce season of mortality, I spent much of the summer consumed by the mundane heartaches of life: homesickness following a move to a new city; the resulting domestic strife; a nasty adult case of the chickenpox; and finally, a moment of hypoglycemia resulting in a low-speed car crash and a broken clavicle. Wounded, I nevertheless deluded myself that this was as bad as it could get.

That changed on that ill-starred anniversary of September 11. On that Monday, my sister Marie’s oldest son Danny Ray Pugh hanged himself. For Danny, life had always been a struggle. When he was born, Rh factor left him desperately ill and he tenaciously held on to life for several precarious days while we prepared for the worst. A learning disability narrowed his horizons and dystonia robbed him at times of control of his body. He survived, but grew into a man-child, gentle and unprepared for the demands of an unforgiving adult world.

Danny could never manage money. As a small child he once beamed as he showed off his brand-new Hot Wheels car. Marie and my brother-in-law David asked Danny how he got the car and Danny, his angel face beaming, explained that he had traded his tricycle for it. Sadly, dollars and cents remained indecipherable runes to Danny as he got older. My mother, who suffered from borderline personality disorder, enabled his immaturity with money, time and again bailing out Danny when he got in financial trouble. This proved lethal when my mother died from cancer nine months ago.

She left Danny a $10,000 inheritance. Danny promptly gave the whole amount to a woman he was attracted to and she, as swiftly, dumped him. This happened even as Danny, earning poverty wages at a grocery store, began manically spending and gave up coping with mounting debt. At 2 a.m. the morning he died, in the parking lot of his workplace, his truck was repossessed. Danny told his co-workers unconvincingly that the truck was being repaired, but he was obviously embarrassed and grew quiet. He nevertheless regained composure, told the same jokes he always told, called his friends by the nicknames he gave every friendly acquaintance, and rode home with a friend. When the friend dropped him off, Danny smiled and told his ride he would see him Wednesday.

On their rural property, David and Marie had built an apartment for Danny and for Marie’s younger son Jeremy. Danny got there around 6-7 in the morning. Around 9 a.m., Marie went out to the shed attached to the apartment. In the dim light she saw Danny’s face from the side and it appeared to her that he was standing. She called his name and received no answer. Approaching him, she saw the rope and began screaming.

In the days since, I have taken some comfort in the words of the Roman poet Aeschylus.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

I still pray fervently for that day when our grief might yield to wisdom through the awful grace of God. I await the day that our eyes might once more be dry, our hearts no longer heavy but light with joy, our minds not clouded with darkness but filled with hopeful dreams of the future. Right now, that moment seems so painfully far away.

I have always relied on the magic of words. I write books and make speeches. I rely on words to inspire, to motivate, to calm and to enrage. On this occasion, words failed me. I couldn’t find the magic words that could undo the terrible events of September 11, the incantation that would give my sister peace of mind and make our family whole once again.

Danny was the first baby I ever held and I ache for his loss. What we have lived through is grotesque and obscene. I want to calm a grieving mother, but I realize that I am not calm myself. Instead, I am angry, filled with rage because a mother should not have to bury her son, because I was not supposed to speak at my nephew’s funeral but he was supposed to crack jokes at my expense during mine.

You made a terrible, terrible mistake Danny. You imagined you were alone, without friends and without a lifeline. I wish you could have witnessed the heartbreak your death has caused. I wish you could have seen the tears, and heard us ask over and over again that unanswerable question, “Why?”

Like too many people in this world, you felt bankrupt but you were blind to the treasure lying at your feet. All around you were people who loved you and who would have done anything to purchase you one more breath of life. They came by the dozens to my sister’s house and almost 200 people attended the funeral service of a young man who sacked groceries -- grieving friends and family who feel that a light in their soul has forever dimmed.

The Apostle Paul knew something about the magic of words, but also their tragic limitations. As he writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Though I speak with the tongue of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” With charity, with forgiveness, comes wisdom and with that wisdom comes the awful grace of God. Once we set aside our anger at this young man’s death, we realize that Danny’s terrible end is just a small piece of a too short, but often joyful life. Once I get past that terrible final act, I remember Danny’s infectious laugh, his smile and his beautiful eyes. I remember his unmistakable, friendly East Texas drawl. I remember Danny as a wrestling fanatic, then as a roper, and then as a tattoo-addicted, ear-lobe gauged, body modifying, walking work of art.

Danny was always a work in progress. He tirelessly recreated himself. Growing up in the highly intolerant East Texas atmosphere, for a brief time he held that region's unfortunate attitude towards African Americans, gays, and so on. But this was an abberation. Danny's heart was more open than that, and he became in his final years a gentle soul who welcomed all to his table.

One image of Danny remains etched in my mind. I remember watching him once in an elementary school play. The teacher cast him as a tree. Danny stood there on the back of the stage with his silly paper costume. When the cue came, he stretched his arms which were made up like braches, his angel face beaming. That was Danny, content to be in the background yet somehow still commanding attention.

Through it all, Danny was sui generis, one of a kind. He loved to give and to receive and his appetite in all things was voracious. If one tattoo was good, a hundred were better. No one was going to tell him who he was, what he was going to look like or what he was going to be. Danny, for instance, liked to dip snuff. Marie, David, Jeremy and many of Danny friends tried to get him to quit that nasty habit. One time Danny was grounded for what seemed like a life sentence after Marie and David caught him dipping.

The day that Danny’s punishment ended, Marie and David spotted a snuff can in Danny’s car. Determined to end that nonsense, David marched Danny to every tobacco dealer in Hunt County, told the merchants in no uncertain terms that Danny was underage, and that if he was sold chewing tobacco in their store again, they would have to deal with the law. Danny turned beet-red. David then made Danny eat a tugboat’s worth of snuff, hoping to make him sick. Danny put on a stoic face.

David became a high school football coach on steroids. It was a hot Texas summer day, over a hundred degrees, and David made Danny run laps behind the house. Through all the physical torture, Danny never broke. Unfortunately, he kept dipping snuff. He did so even when Jeremy and his friend Steven began putting Tabasco on his tobacco, and even cologne. They would watch Danny dip and he would keep a straight face, determined not to sweat or wretch in front of his would-be reformers. That was Danny. For good or bad, he was an unshakably independent spirit.

Danny’s presence continues to be felt, both as a heavy shadow and as a light. Learning disability aside, my nephew loved to pull pranks on his co-workers and figured out how to program the cash registers at Kroger’s so they would chime simultaneously after he left each morning. No one was ever able to figure how he did this or how to stop the registers from ringing. The Wednesday after his death, the cash registers tolled again, Danny’s last extended middle finger at convention.

Yet, he had us all fooled. He gave the perfect imitation of a happy-go-lucky free spirit, untouched by the ordinary pressures of life. For him, tomorrow and its obligations never seemed to exist. I still think that perhaps for much of his life he did feel joy and hope. Yet inside, dependency and fear lay coiled like a snake. There was a dark corner of his soul none of us ever saw and all in his family are torturing their souls trying to recall the tell-tale signs of his future doom that we somehow missed.

That’s a fool’s errand born of narcissism. Depression is a great deceiver, turning honey to gall and rendering friends and family invisible. None of us was so big or so important that we could cut through the thick, private haze of despair that clouded Danny’s mind in those last days. Danny was a creature of impulse, whether he was implanting a stud in his face, running a red light, adding another tattoo to the canvas of his body, or, at the very end, surrendering to a lightening moment of panic. The spontaneity that made Danny exciting also proved his tragic undoing.

We loved Danny. We can no longer tell him that directly. In the lonely moments when I want to speak to him again, to go back in time and prevent his suicide, I ask if there was any point to his suffering and his senseless, too-early death. Towards that end, I have turned to Viktor Frankl, the Austrian founder of logotherapy, a school of psychology that emphasizes humanity’s seemingly intrinsic need to create meaning in the face of suffering.

The Nazis seized Frankl, who was Jewish, in 1942 and transported him, his wife, and his parents to the Theresianstadt concentration camp. The SS later moved Frankl to Auschwitz and then to Dachau. Sitting under chimneys belching the grey snow of human ashes, Frankl observed that those camp inmates who found their torment meaningless were the most likely to seek a quick exit by grabbing the electric fences surrounding the camps. Those who found small, even trivial purpose in their ordeal greatly improved their chance at survival. As he noted in his classic, post-war book “Man in Search for Meaning”;

If a prisoner felt that he could no longer endure the realities of camp life, he found a way out in his mental life - an invaluable opportunity to dwell in the spiritual domain, the one that the SS were unable to destroy. Spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival.

To Frankl, the meanings people attach to life that allow them to survive don’t have to answer fundamental questions, such as why we suffer and die. They don’t have to be the philosophical equivalent of quantum physics. “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” Frankl noted. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.” Frankl focused on surviving the camps so he could see his wife face-to-face again, if for nothing else then as an act of defiance aimed at his Nazi torturers.

By the time Allied troops freed Frankl at war’s end, his wife had died at the Bergen-Belsen camp, but the therapist summoned his courage and lived on, devoting himself to the study of suicide prevention and depression and honing techniques that came to be known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.”

Frankl’s life and suffering was not meaningless and neither was my nephew Danny’s. If I can find meaning in Danny’s terrible end, it is that we can never allow ourselves the self-indulgent luxury of imagining that we are alone. As the song says, “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We’ve got to carry each other, carry each other.” Our lives are worth so much more than any material things we might possess. We will never again see someone like Danny, but we will guarantee his legacy if we pledge to each other our mutual love, support, honesty, and most of all, our shared determination to survive.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.