Saturday, November 24, 2012

Steven Spielberg's New, Moving Lincoln Memorial


Let’s get to the point, Abraham Lincoln was a great president – along with Franklin Roosevelt perhaps the most gifted to lead the nation – and Steven Spielberg’s new epic Lincoln is a great film.

To be honest, in spite of the wave of positive press about Lincoln, I approached the movie with some trepidation.  No one can doubt Spielberg’s skills as a director –  the amazing casts he assembles, his brilliant integration of onscreen action and musical score, or his timing and slick skills as an editor.  His films almost always pack visual punch, contain memorable performances and dialogue, and at some point hit powerful emotional buttons.

But Spielberg is no historian.  In spite of an almost overwhelmingly shocking and moving opening half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, that film became muddled in tone and often seemed more like a movie about other movies, a compilation of war flick clichés and stock characters, rather than an honest reflection on the violence and contradictory meanings of war.  Schindler’s List ranks as one of the great movies of all time, but even that film is structured around a movie cliché extant since the 1940s – that of the heroic “good German,” and Spielberg can’t resist wringing a Hollywood happy ending out of even this unremitting Nazi horror show.

What most alarmed me before I saw Lincoln were the words of screenwriter Tony Kushner before the film’s release.  Kushner stands as one of the giants of modern theater, a playwright of Shakespearean ambition.  His stage epic, Angels in America, radiates with the writer’s decency and acerbic wit. His depictions of Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn, and his nemesis, Ethel Rosenberg, provide two of the most memorable stage characters in the last century. Angels captured the horror of the AIDS epidemic and the dignity of that plague’s victims, without being mawkish.  It was smart, heartbreaking and funny all at once.

Unfortunately, listening to Kushner interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air, I began to dread what historical horrors his screenplay for Lincoln might have wrought.  Kushner told the guest host that one of the tragedies of Lincoln’s assassination was that Lincoln would have been merciful to the South, meaning that all the animosity and racial violence that plagued the region after the Civil War might not have happened.

Oh great, I thought, some more Lost Cause fable- making.  The myth of Southern slave owners as the victims of the Civil War informed Hollywood’s first great, and execrably racist, epic The Birth of a Nation, continued through Gone With The Wind, and wormed its way through countless lesser Blue-and-Gray potboilers. I had trouble figuring out why a smart, gay New Yorker like Kushner would fall for such moonlight-and-magnolias balderdash.

This mythology is not just bad history; it’s a pernicious lie.  While President Lincoln did favor leniency towards the South, and died before he could implement his plans for Reconstruction, leniency is exactly what the former Confederacy got for a year under Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.  Pardons showered upon former Confederate leaders who had committed treason by seceding and who by starting the Civil War plunged the nation into a bloodbath that historians now estimate killed as many as three-quarters of a million people. President Andrew Johnson asked only that Southerners acknowledge the abolition of slavery and not pay back the financiers who bankrolled the Confederacy.  Northerners forgave Southerners.  Southerners, however, never forgave Northerners for winning the war, nor black people for gaining freedom.  The white South responded to this unprecedented post-war generosity with a campaign of terror and murder against African Americans and their allies in the South.  They launched an evil attempt to re-impose slavery through the “black codes.”  White Southerners were not the victims, but the relentless, vengeful victimizers.  Only one figure in Dixie was executed by the Union. He was a pathetic German immigrant who ran the infamous Andersonville, Ga., POW camp where thousands of Union prisoners died of starvation, mistreatment and disease. He was hanged for his crimes.  Other Confederate traitors eventually got universities and highways named after them.

Going to the theater Friday night, I thought I would be subjected to Confederate apologia layered over a simplistic, wooden tale of American exceptionalism.  I feared I would see a corny exercise using a great past leader to tell Americans everything they wanted to hear about themselves.  I thought I would be subjected to a movie that would also demonize, as had so many films in the past, dissenters such as abolitionists who had the courage to directly face the moral rot at the nation’s core.

Suffice it to say, I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was moved, often to tears, by Spielberg and Kushner’s film.  This is no Dixie apologia, but a subtle tale of how great moral purposes can be achieved through the tawdry sausage-making that is the lifeblood of politics.  There are no dashing Confederate cavaliers here, no Rhett Butlers redux.  The Southerner with the most screen time is Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who at the start of the Civil War exuberantly proclaimed that the Southern “nation” was the first  “founded . . . upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

In this movie Stephens, played expertly by Jackie Earl Haley, is an oily slave-owner-as-vulture-capitalist.  Stephens takes part in a Southern “peace commission” that meets with General Grant and then with Lincoln to see if an early end to the war can be negotiated.  Stephens will agree to peace only if Southern states can be hastily reintroduced to the Union in order to block from ratification the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment abolishing slavery.  Rebuffed by Lincoln when he makes this demand, Stephens icily insists that the Confederate government will continue to fight a war the Confederacy already knows it has lost in the vain hope that the super-wealthy can keep their grip on their human property. Stephens would sooner burn down the entire country than lose any of his power or any of his suffering, living, breathing chattel. As Stephens, Haley turns in a memorable performance in a minor role, a portrait of the sociopathic top 1 percent of Confederate society in its corrupt dotage.  Lincoln is a movie full of such performances.

Meanwhile, the Confederates’ Northern allies in the Democratic Party, played by such talented screen veterans as James Spader, come off as less competent and maybe less ethical versions of the mob henchmen in The Sopranos.  No one seeing this film will want to go back to dear old Dixie.  Spielberg has indeed traveled far from the pro-Southern whitewash of Gone With the Wind.

The film abounds in important historical details, such as the way it depicts the importance of technology in the Civil War – particularly the telegraph lines that kept Washington, D.C. in touch with its diplomatic missions to the South and with its army.  It captures the way in which white supremacist ideology defined the North as well as the South, and how racial fears divided even the anti-slavery Republicans. 

Meanwhile, Daniel Day-Lewis accomplishes the nearly impossible – putting flesh and blood on a person who has been little more than a marble monument our whole lives.  Lewis’ Lincoln is a troubled man, barely holding in check suffocating sorrow and a rage at his misfortune, which seeps to the surface in one memorable confrontation with his bitter, often grief-paralyzed wife Mary Todd Lincoln, also played with grace and subtlety by Sally Field.  Day-Lewis’ accent sounds authentic, and he makes incredibly smart acting choices.  His tall frame is bent throughout, partly so the unusually tall president can speak directly to his cabinet and constituents, but also because of the constant weight of death and sadness bearing down on his prematurely elderly frame. 

Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as a weary man who keeps a sense of humor, but who nevertheless tightly drapes himself with a shawl to keep out the chill of impending mortality.  He cuts this icon down to human size, making him frail, without diminishing by an ounce his considerable moral gravity.  Lewis’s Lincoln, like the real person, is also ironic and possesses a devastating sense of humor.  It was striking to listen to a 2012 audience laugh out loud at Lincoln’s jokes and emotionally respond to speeches that had been reduced by American classroom recitations to dusty clichés.

Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Pennsylvania’s abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens commands attention whenever he appears on screen, and Kushner gives him a modern edge.  One could imagine Stevens as an MSNBC host as he spews invective at his pro-Southern antagonists who are trying to block the 13th Amendment in the House and as he vents his frustration at Lincoln, whom he sees as a timid and unreliable reformer in an age needing iron-willed revolutionaries.

Jones evokes laughs as he pretentiously thunders at his verbal victims.  He is at his most moving and brilliant, however, not when he chews the scenery. At one point, Democrats opposing the 13th Amendment try to trap Stevens by asking if he supports the abolition of slavery because he believes in racial equality.  This belief in human equality and dignity, of course, rests deep in Stevens’ soul and has animated his fight for abolition for three decades.  As Jones plays the moment, Stevens denies any connection between the 13th Amendment and racial equality, but as Jones delivers the insincere word out of political necessity, one can almost feel the character’s soul splinter between the true believer fighting for a great truth and the politician who stifles his deeply held personal convictions in the name of the greater good.  Jones almost vibrates as he makes this struggle, and he breaks the audience’s heart.  It’s one of the most memorable acting moments in cinema in years.

Of course, in the long run, on issues of racial equality the Radicals and not Lincoln were right.  Spielberg, however, doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard to think that Spielberg didn’t have Barack Obama in mind when he made this film.  Obama is another Illinois politician who rose to power in a time of great crisis and ran headlong into an opposition drunk on white supremacy; and who sometimes conceded points to people of questionable motives in order to advance an agenda.  Spielberg seems to be saying that the progressives of today are like the so-called Radical Republicans of Lincoln’s time; that both groups sometimes seem willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. However, Spielberg is a great enough artist to make his slightly-left-of-center political points without being smarmy or insufferable.

Like the man, “Lincoln” the film suffers from some serious flaws.  At the beginning of the movie, we meet a pair of black soldiers in the Union Army who are chatting with the president near a battlefront.  One soldier in particular already wants to press for black voting rights.  Theses soldiers, and their white peers nearby, end up quoting the Gettysburg Address as they exit the film forever.  It’s a brief moment when African Americans are central characters, and they end up quoting a white man.  There is another African American, played by Gloria Reuben, who is given a few moments in the limelight as Mary Todd Lincoln’s servant and constant companion.  She gives a moving speech to Lincoln, urging him to see the battle for the 13th Amendment through to a successful end.  Even when she is just a silent witness to the actions of white people, she commands the screen with her grace and intensity. Yet, her words are few and she spends most of her time reacting to whites, not shaping events.

Most of the audience, unaware of Thaddeus Stevens’ 23-year romantic relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith, will be shocked by a scene when the Congressman comes home after the House has approved the 13th Amendment. He hands a copy of it to his lover (played by S. Epatha Mekerson of Law and Order fame) and asks her read it to him as the two lie side by side in bed. This is the first time the film deals with this unconventional relationship and this extraordinary woman, and the moment is fleeting.

That’s it for the black presence in a movie centered on historical events in which African Americans were truly the central players.  Escaped slaves who settled on the Northern side of the Mason-Dixon line before the Civil War had humanized African Americans to racists in the North, and helped inspire the abolitionist movement.  There was no more powerful or effective abolitionist than Frederick Douglass and no more heroic advocates of black freedom than Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  Why are these voices almost completely silent in Lincoln? Yes, the action centers on the White House and the Congress during the debate over the 13th Amendment, and government in the 1860s was an entirely Jim Crow affair.  But Mary Todd Lincoln was not exactly a central character in these events, and she commands a large amount of attention in Kushner’s script. 

Why are black people in this film mostly left to smile or cry at what white people say or do?  Why can’t Douglass or Tubman or Truth or some of the tens of thousands of black Union soldiers be given more time to speak for themselves?  This film is no atrocity like Mississippi Burning, which turned the heroic black crusaders of the civil rights movement into passive ciphers and depicted villainous FBI agents -- who tried to hound Martin Luther King, Jr. -- into heroes of the black freedom struggle. But we’re too far along to have a film so dominated by the white voice.  Black people make history too, but you would never know it from this film.

Still, while Lincoln is not a documentary, it does an admirable job of capturing the tenor of the 1860s and is pretty close in its depiction of events. The input of celebrity historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose excellent book Team Of Rivals partly inspired this film, undoubtedly helped.  Along with Glory, it ranks as one of the best films on the Civil War and certainly outshines earlier hagiographies like Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda.  Spielberg has created another great moving Lincoln memorial.


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, July 20, 2012

Drafting The Declaration of Independence


I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss the impact of Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet Common Sense in the critical days after the battles of Lexington and Concrod and the fierce debate over the Declaration of Independence.


In the days leading up to the American Revolution, the soon-to-be former colonists would struggle with reconciling a fight supposedly for freedom with the racist practice of slavery.   However, a significant number of Americans had traveled a long philosophical distance from when they considered themselves loyal British subjects. Beginning in January, copies of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense began to circulate through the colonies.  Over the year that followed, the pamphlet was reprinted no fewer than twenty-five times, with roughly half a million individual copies made.  Paine was a virtually penniless Englishman fleeing to America from a failed career as a corset-maker and tax collector, but along with a letter of introduction from Franklin, he brought a style of written expression that was clear, sharp, elegant, and fearless.  In Philadelphia he found work as an editor, but he would make his mark as an author of one the clearest arguments for the colonies’ political independence.  

With his skeptical, scientific turn of mind and his uncompromising temperament, Paine saved no respect for sacred traditions in his blunt pamphlet.  His complete lack of deference was breathtaking.  “The royal brute of Great Britain” was no guardian of his subjects’ liberties.  England was corrupt, not as a result of recent missteps or individually bad government ministers, but because kings by their nature tended to be corrupt tyrants. Governments existed to serve the people, not the other way around, and the British regime could not meet that basic requirement. “A government of our own,” he proclaimed, “is our natural right.”   British rule brought no practical benefits, recent British military attacks made reconciliation unthinkable, and independence was no more likely to lead to intervention by foreign powers or civil wars among the colonies. Paine was not only angry at injustice, however, but his pamphlet also offered a vision of an optimistic American future.  In his scripture-quoting yet fundamentally secular way, Paine reimagined America, as had earlier Puritans, as a shining city on a hill, a light to the rest of humanity:

O! ye that love mankind!  Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!  Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.  Freedom hath been hunted round the Globe.  Asia and Africa have long expelled her.  Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart.  O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Common Sense captured a growing public mood and helped to seal a permanent shift away from olive branches and petitions to the King to demands for a separate, new American nation.

DEBATING “INDEPENDENCY”


As the summer of 1776 wore on, heat, dust, and the usual unsavory smells permeated the streets of Philadelphia, and even the insides of its grand brick buildings.  In the Pennsylvania state house, in a stifling hall filled for a second consecutive summer by weary delegates from thirteen colonies, the windows had to be closed to keep out the biting horseflies.

Some hoped the Congress would launch not just a war of political independence, but a more profound social revolution as well. In writing to her husband in March of that year, Abigail Adams had playfully instructed him to “remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your Ancestors. . . . If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”  John’s effort to respond in kind betrayed mild indignation. America’s revolution would in many ways be a conservative one, aimed at replacing one government ruled by rich elites with one headed by a different, local set of the privileged.  Gender, racial and class inequality were not on the table in Philadelphia.


Some delegates still held out hope for reconciliation at the beginning of this summit, but the day was carried by those who advocated what they called “Independency.” In early June, a small committee of delegates to the Second Continental Congress had been assigned to draft a declaration of independence for consideration by the whole.  Sequestered in his boarding house, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, diffident in public debate but both meticulous and forceful in written argument, sought to frame a case that would draw upon the delegates’ shared experiences of recent years.

Taking his wording sometimes directly from the English philosopher John Locke, Jefferson’s declaration argued that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were natural rights possessed by all people and that governments that failed to protect those rights were no longer legitimate.  The declaration listed alleged acts of tyranny committed by the British king and the Parliament, such as the closure of Boston Harbor after the Tea Party protest; the suspension of the right of trial by jury for cases involving smugglers; closing elected colonial assemblies; using foreign mercenaries to attack the colonists and so on.  Jefferson wrote that as a result of these violations of rights, the bonds between the British government and the colonies had been “dissolved.”

With minor changes made by Jefferson’s fellow committee members (John Adams and Benjamin Franklin), his draft was brought before the delegates in the airless room on June 28.  Eventually the Congress would reduce the length of the Declaration by one-fourth.  The Congress would eliminate Jefferson’s more controversial passages condemning King George III for encouraging the transatlantic slave trade.  Even though Jefferson himself owned slaves, he frequently attacked the institution of slavery as immoral. 

“[H]e [the king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither . . .determined to keep a market where MEN should be bought and sold,” read Jefferson’s original draft.  Jefferson then condemned the king for “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce . . .”   Southern members of the Continental Congress, particularly from South Carolina and Georgia, according to Jefferson, disdained the argument that slavery was in any way “execrable” and insisted on deletion of this passage. Meanwhile, some Congressmen did not support slavery per se but feared Jefferson’s words would undermine support for independence on the part of both Southern slaveowners and New England merchants profiting from the slave trade.  Some would acknowledge the contradiction of proclaiming the universal right to liberty while holding human beings as property, but decided the time to push for abolition of slavery had not arrived and that political independence from Great Britain remained the more important cause.  However, they did not remove a reference to Lord Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves who escaped from their masters and served in the British military or of the recent slave revolt supposedly plotted by Thomas Jeremiah.  The final draft of the Declaration condemns the king for “inciting treasonable insurrections of our fellow citizens” and exciting “domestic insurrections among us.”  Regardless of the arguments it engendered about slavery, the Declaration itself had been improved in many ways from Jefferson’s original draft. “This was no hack editing job; the delegates who labored over the draft Declaration had a splendid ear for language,” wrote historian Pauline Maier. 

Four days later, the delegates unanimously agreed on the core issue—“that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” Writing to his wife Abigail in Massachusetts, Adams confidently anticipated that “the Second Day of July 1776” would be “celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the Great anniversary Festival. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”  The Congress, however, quibbled about wording for another two days before ratifying a final draft on July 4 and sending the text to a printer.  The die was cast. The “American Revolution” would not uproot society, but it would it become one of those rare points at which startling new possibilities existed, and the range of possible outcomes stretched the limits of human imagination.  


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, July 19, 2012

Calling The President "A Monkey": Just Another Day Hate Radio



According to right-wing radio hater Barbara Espinosa, it’s not possible for her to be a racist because she has a Latino last name.

She insists that she is no bigot even though she referred to President Barack Obama as a “monkey” during a radio broadcast. Incidentally, when she compared the first African American president to a lower primate during a June 17 broadcast of her Hair On Fire radio talk show on KFNX, Arizona Republican chair Tom Morrissey was the guest and he never uttered a word of protest.


According to this right-wing talk show host, you can't be a racist if your last name is "Espinosa," even if you call a black man a "monkey. (Photo from http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/06/19/arizona-radio-host-voted-for-the-white-guy-because-obama-is-a-monkey/).

Fielding a call from a listener who described Obama as “the guy with the rabbit ears,” and who asked why anyone would possibly back the “idiot” in the White House, Espinosa responded, “I call him a monkey.  I don’t believe in calling him the first black president.  I call him the first monkey president.”   She then clarified that, “I voted for the white guy myself.”  (See http://newsone.com/2021269/barbara-espinosa-obama-monkey/).

After receiving a flurry of national attention, Espinosa said that her choice of words was inspired by a cartoon image of Obama as a monkey.  “The comment was prompted by the Google image cartoon that was sent to me,” she posted on her website, American Freedom by Barbara.  “With a last name of Espinosa, I’m anything but racist.”   She also defended her on-air remarks at her blog site:

“To set the record straight I did use the word monkey and Obama in the same sentence. Yes I did say I voted for the white guy. Unless there has been a takeover of America and free speech is no longer allowed and I can be put to death for making a remark, I refuse to take the fifth.” (See http://www.mediaite.com/online/radio-host-barbara-espinosa-stands-by-calling-barack-obama-a-monkey/).


An ad back when Phoenix AM radio station KFNX was proud to broadcast Barbara Espinosa,  They later replaced her with higher-rated racists. (Photo from http://www.mediaite.com/online/radio-host-barbara-espinosa-stands-by-calling-barack-obama-a-monkey/).

As noted, GOP chair Morrissey chose to say nothing during Espinosa’s racist rant, but instead only offered praise for the patriotism of Obama’s opposition.  “Those of us — and I believe this and it’s bias — those of us that do not support Barack Obama and act upon our love of country are motivated by that,” Morrissey said. “That’s why I say we’re patriots. I believe he is as wrong as wrong can be, and I hope that there’s enough people that think like we do — this group — so that we can defeat what I call, it’s like a national sickness.” (See http://www.mediaite.com/online/az-gop-chair-remained-silent-when-radio-host-barbara-espinosa-called-obama-monkey-on-air/).


Arizona GOP chair Tom Morrissey was a guest on the "Hair On Fire" radio show when host Barbara Espinosa called President Obama a "monkey."  Morrissey said nothing about the racist outburst.  (Photo from http://www.mediaite.com/online/az-gop-chair-remained-silent-when-radio-host-barbara-espinosa-called-obama-monkey-on-air/).  

If not a tacit endorsement of Espinosa’s racism, Morrissey’s silence doesn’t exactly represent a profile in courage.  Apparently the public outrage didn’t move Arizona Republicans to denounce her, but it did lead to KFNX to cancel her show.  The station tried to disingenuously suggest that the broadcast in question did not originate in their studios, but evidence suggests otherwise.  Here’s the KFNX statement:

“Barbara Espinosa does not host a show anymore on KFNX 1100, so the information is dated. She has not aired a show at KFNX for nearly a month. She currently hosts an internet show on Blogtalk radio to the best of our knowledge.

KFNX management, staff and sponsors do not endorse or agree with her viewpoints. Ms. Espinoza (like all KFNX Hosts) does have the First Amendment Right to say what she believes, but KFNX Host Contracts includes a clause which prohibits on-air slander of people.

KFNX no longer has a relationship with Ms. Espinosa, and again certainly does not support her comments. If those comments were made on KFNX, we would have terminated our relationship with her. We certainly apologize for our former relationship with Ms. Espinosa and are deeply sorry she said offensives things.

We do not know when the comments were made, but it is possible they were made in the past while airing on KFNX, or maybe could have been said on her current internet show on Blogtalk. We also do not know who posted the YouTube video. It is an edited video (and not dated), so it is unclear what context the improper comments were made.” (See http://jim.tarber.net/?p=220). 

Lest you be moved by KFNX’s act of contrition, the Phoenix station continues to carry other right-wing racist and anti-Semitic hosts such as Neil Boortz, who in 2006 called the mostly black victims of Hurricane Katrina  “just debris” (see http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2006/fall/overheard)  and in 2007 commented that, “Muslims don't eat during the day during Ramadan. They fast during the day and eat at night. Sort of like cockroaches." (See http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2007/winter/overheard).


Right-wing host Neal Boortz, whose show is still carried on KFNX, tries to prove he's not racist by sitting next to Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain before the New Hampshire primary.  Boortz once compared Muslims to "cockroaches."  (Photo from http://www.boortz.com/s/photos/). 

They also carry Michael Savage’s show.  Samplings of Savage’s thoughtful commentary on world events include calling the so-called “Developing” or “Third World” the “Turd World,” describing fellow talk show host Jerry Springer (who is Jewish), a “hooknose,” demeaning inner city residents as “ghetto slime” and charging that Latinos “breed like rabbits.”  Considering the other hosts still carried by the station, one wonders what line Espinosa crossed exactly. (See http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2004/spring/the-rating-game). 


Another KFNX host, Michael Savage, calls Jews like Jerry Springer "hooknoses," and says that Latinos "breed like rabbits."   (Photo from http://media.photobucket.com/image/michael%20savage/lizardjulia/savage-sm.jpg?o=11).

Comparing African Americans to apes and monkeys has been a recurring theme with white racists in the Western world since Europeans first encountered these primates in Africa starting in the 1500s and especially since the publication of Darwin’s evolutionary theories in the mid-19th century.  The comparison is meant to suggest that Africans and their descendents represent a lower stage of evolution that whites.  (For more on this theme in racism, see http://www.authentichistory.com/diversity/african/3-coon/6-monkey/index.html).  





Comparing Obama to an ape or monkey has become a favorite theme of the Republican right.  Above is just a small sampling o f images circulating on the internet.  Espinosa, sadly, is not exceptional in today's GOP.  (Above images of Obama from http://thenakedtruthinaconfusedworld.blogspot.com/2011/05/usa-obama-deception-why-cornel-west.html and http://thenakedtruthinaconfusedworld.blogspot.com/2011/05/usa-obama-deception-why-cornel-west.html and http://www.columnpk.com/president-obama-monkey-cartoon/)

Espinosa is despicable and deserves her unemployment.  She is, however, only par for the course on talk radio. And the mainstream Republican Party is happy to accommodate these white supremacists by keeping quiet when these bigots rave.

(For more, see http://wonkette.com/475902/arizona-talk-radio-gal-who-called-obama-monkey-has-excellent-reason-why-she-is-not-racist and http://www.americanfreedombybarbara.com/). 


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.

Slavery And The American Revolution


I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss a last peace offering made to the British Crown by the Second Continental Congress and the role slavery played in the American Revolution.

Initially the American Second Continental Congress had been envisioned, like the First, as a kind of inter-colonial treaty conference working out a common response among the colonies to new actions by the British government.  But when delegates convened in Philadelphia in May 1775, the colonies were already in a state of undeclared war against the world’s leading imperial power.  Instead of convening for a brief, intense conference, delegates settled in for prolonged legislative debates and the difficult task of managing the war.  The ultimate objective of the colonial resistance continued to divide the delegates. During its opening months the new congress attempted, as John Adams put it, “to hold the sword in one hand, and the olive branch in the other.”

George Washington, who had commanded frontier troops and the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War, was one of a number of colonial military leaders who were eminent and politically well connected.  However, a uniformed member of the Virginia delegation – the largest colony -- to the Second Continental Congress, he appeared as an indispensable man at a critical moment.  On June 14, the Congress created the Continental Army, to be made up of new recruits from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, along with the New England militia around Boston.  Washington was selected as its commander the next day and immediately left for Massachusetts.  Washington won the trust of fierce advocates of independence and supporters of reconciliation with Britain alike. Even John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the leading advocate of reconciliation, voted in favor of the army and Washington’s appointment.

Perhaps in return for his cooperation, Dickinson secured the delegates’ signatures to an “Olive Branch Petition” addressed to King George III, professing their loyalty as faithful subjects.  The deferential prose of the petition, which described the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain as painful and blamed the impasse on devious ministers and “artful and cruel enemies”, offers a window into the mindset of a colonial moderate:  honestly conflicted, still feeling fundamentally British as well as colonial.  In London, as Franklin, Adams, and at least a few others could see, none of it mattered.  In November, intermediaries on behalf of the colonies presented the Olive Branch Petition to George III.  The King refused to receive it.
 
The American Strategy:
The Invasion of Canada and the Siege of Boston

Waging war brought its own kinds of disappointments.  In late 1775 the Congress supported an ambitious effort to expel British forces from Quebec, bring the formerly French Canadians into the common struggle against London, and remove Canada as a source of likely threats to the colonies from the north and west.  The opportunity arose from an early victory at Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain in northern New York.  Ethan Allen, a legendary frontiersman, land speculator, self-styled philosopher, and commander of a backcountry militia called the Green Mountain Boys, took on the project of capturing the fort. He was joined by Benedict Arnold, a Connecticut merchant and militia leader who had conceived the same project.  Despite their differences, Allen and Arnold surprised the token British force and seized the fort without firing a shot. Having gained the main strategic point between New York and the borders of provincial Quebec, the Congress approved an expedition that was ultimately led by General Richard Montgomery.

 Arnold, passed over for command, obtained a separate commission and a detachment of men from Washington. As Montgomery invaded from New York, took Montreal, and continued down the St. Lawrence River toward the British stronghold at Quebec, Arnold led his men on an impossibly arduous two-month advance up the Maine rivers and through the north woods.  

Ultimately it was all wasted effort:  when the two forces converged near Quebec, both were drastically reduced by sickness, hunger, and expiring enlistments, and when they attacked the city in a snowstorm on December 31, the large British garrison repelled them with heavy losses. With Montgomery killed in combat, Arnold maintained a semblance of a siege with his few surviving men.  With the impoverished American forces having worn out their welcome among French-speaking colonists, the entire project gradually collapsed. Failure to develop the alliance with French Canadians would prove potentially costly later in the war, as British strategists considered the same invasion route between Canada and New York.

Washington’s own work that winter was less adventurous but much more successful.  With British forces, now under General Howe, still nursing their wounds in Boston, the Continental Army focused on instilling discipline and building basic skills among the men in its ranks.  Lacking a proper officer corps as well as proper soldiers, Washington complained, as he had in his previous military career, about their rudimentary state, but worked with the materials he was given. By early March 1776, he felt ready to act.  Through a series of careful maneuvers, he successfully occupied Dorchester Heights—like Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, a site looking down on Boston from a short distance—without exposing his forces unduly to a possible counterattack from the city. Then, to the amazement of the British, he quickly installed artillery, captured at Fort Ticonderoga, behind portable fortifications.  Facing the guns, Howe was forced to make a choice.  He chose not to attempt another uphill attack against fortified positions.  Instead the British Army evacuated Boston, while Washington and his men watched from above.  On March 17, as the Continental Army entered the city, no British armies of occupation remained in the thirteen colonies.

GEORGE III THROWS DOWN THE GAUNTLET
 
A Congress which could approve, and sign, a document such as the Olive Branch Petition was clearly not yet ready to declare independence.  Part of the point of the petition was to defend the Congress against accusations of disloyalty.  The Adams cousins from volatile, radical Massachusetts continued to bide their time and avoid provoking their colleagues.  Yet, the mood in America changed quickly in the months that followed.

The experience of being at war, under attack by British soldiers supposedly sent to defend the colonies only a few years before, had a profound impact. If King George III felt the colonisst were disloyal, the colonists felt betrayed. The king’s response to the Olive Branch Petition must have made an impression as well.  In fact, during the closing months of 1775, both king and Parliament added still further insults and injuries.  In a speech to Parliament in October, George III himself charged that the colonial rebellion was “manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.”  In December, Parliament passed one more piece of punitive legislation.  The American Prohibitory Act closed the thirteen colonies to all legal commerce and empowered the Royal Navy to confiscate not only American ships, with their cargoes, but all other ships continuing to trade with the colonies, as well.

Lord Dunmore’s Emancipation Proclamation

For white Southerners, the most serious provocation came at the hand of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia since 1771.  After formally dissolving the Burgesses in response to its denunciations of the Intolerable Acts, Dunmore, like other royal governors in other colonies, watched helplessly as unsanctioned committees claimed legitimacy and began exercising the powers of government.  When he attempted to prevent elections for the Second Continental Congress (again in response to orders from Lord Dartmouth) his own situation became dangerous.  Before leaving for the safety of a Royal Navy frigate, he warned that if militia units threatened him, he would “declare freedom to the slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.”  In fact Dunmore was himself a slaveowner, but he placed military necessity ahead of his own interests.  In May he sent Dartmouth a proposal to “arm all my own Negroes and receive all others who come to me whom I shall declare free.”  Then, in November 1775, having landed at Norfolk with two companies of loyal British troops, Dunmore reasserted his authority as Virginia’s legitimate governor and declared free all slaves who “are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty.”

For the Virginia planters now committed to the colonial resistance, Dunmore’s proclamation, and the military campaign that followed, could hardly have been a deeper outrage or a graver threat.   As in the days of the Stamp Act, as masters debated the defense of their own liberties, slaves listened carefully and watched for opportunities for their own freedom.  In fact, Dunmore’s initial threats against Williamsburg were not his own idea.  A group of local slaves had offered to “take up arms” against Williamsburg in the governor’s defense.  News of the British government’s offer of freedom spread widely among excited Virginia slaves.  

In the closing days of 1775, as Dunmore marched inland from Norfolk through Princess Anne County, crowds of escaped slaves, including many women and children, flocked to his standard.  With hundreds of new volunteers, Dunmore’s officers formed a new “Ethiopian Regiment.”  Their uniforms included sashes bearing the inscription “Liberty to Slaves.”  (A second, smaller regiment was composed of white volunteers.)  The Virginia “committee of safety” sent a force of militiamen and a Continental Army regiment.  In the first major battle of the war in the South, at the hamlet of Great Bridge, on December 9, Dunmore’s regular troops and volunteers attacked but failed to overrun the patriot position.  Falling back on Norfolk, they were soon forced to withdraw to Royal Navy ships in the harbor.  Dunmore attempted to maintain the Ethiopian Regiment offshore, but smallpox swept through the crowded vessels.  Ultimately the surviving members of the regiment were assigned to scattered locations, including Bermuda, Florida, and British regular forces later occupying New York.

Throughout the colonies, slaves spread word about Dunmore, the “African Hero.”  While gathered in cities or isolated on their own estates, masters active in the patriot struggle lived in fear.  In South Carolina, in August 1775, a free black fisherman and boat pilot, Thomas Jeremiah, was accused of planning a general slave insurrection, to be supported by Royal Navy ships that he would guide into Charles Town harbor. Jeremiah, who owned slaves himself, had grown rich and probably stood out to white slaveowners because of his business success, which made a mockery of the theory of white supremacy upon which slavery rested. Despite flimsy evidence, a kangaroo court quickly convicted Jeremiah, who was hanged.  Escape plots, fears of insurrection, and the threat of British forces together preoccupied white Southerners.  Even in the North, with significant concentrations of slaves in port cities and a vastly larger proportion of free black residents, rumors of slave conspiracies terrified local elites.  Yet in the seaport cities where artisans active in politics had fostered the resistance movement, free blacks were well represented in the artisanal communities.  A substantial number of black militiamen fought with distinction at Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. When Washington, an extensive owner of slaves, arrived outside Boston, he found himself in the ironic position of commanding black troops.  He worked out his own idea of a judicious policy, which the Congress later ratified:  he ordered an end to the recruitment of “Slaves and Vagabonds” into the regular army but would not expel black soldiers already serving.   In some regiments, such as in Connecticut, slaves took advantage of an offer of freedom in return for military service from the colonial authorities.  Many dropped the slave names imposed by their masters and took new last names like “Liberty” or “Freedman” or even “Washington” to celebrate their new personal independence.


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.