Bob Koehler by Tribune Content Agency
My guest today is Bob Koehler, syndicated journalist and award-winning author. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Bob. You wrote a great piece, His Soul Wrapped In A Confederate Flag , in the aftermath of the recent Charleston church slaying. Now that we have a suspect, how helpful is it in terms of understanding how such a thing could happen?
Hi Joan! Great to be back. I don't think there's too much mystery about how such a thing could happen. All you have to do is look back a few decades to the pre-Civil Rights era, to the endemic violence against African-Americans in the Old South. Dylann Roof was trying to bring back the days of lynching and segregation and open season on all non-whites. Our history is studded with this sort of behavior. We used to be proud of it.
Would you please address the tendency of politicians and the press to dismiss white on black murderers as mentally ill individuals as opposed to being part of a larger supremacist movement?
I think this mostly happens without deliberate intent -- it happens viscerally. Whiteness is part of the American infrastructure (if you are white). White equals "us" and it just follows that any crime committed by a white person is not systemic or in any way related to you or me or our fellow normal (white) people. It's an aberration, a bad apple kind of event. That's obvious and requires no reflection to believe. It's equally true that a crime committed by one of "them" -- black, Hispanic, Muslim or whoever -- is obviously part of some larger, hate-filled plan. So when the media or politicians call a white killer mentally ill and a killer-of-color a terrorist, it's done, I think, almost totally without thought. You may recall, about a dozen years ago, an incident that grabbed top rung on the national news cycle for a few days. In the buildup to the Iraq invasion, there was this incident where three Islam-American medical students were on their way to intern at a hospital somewhere in the South (Florida, I think) and en route had stopped at a Shoney's restaurant. A patron of that restaurant was freaked out by three young Middle Eastern-looking guys and heard one of them use the phrase "bring it down," so she called the police. They guys were stopped and detained for a day or so. Finally they were cleared of all suspicion and released, but not after an absurd ordeal. The "bring it down" referred to a car that belonged to one of the guys, as in, "You'll have to bring it down for me." OK, interesting news tidbit, life goes on. But what amazed me is that the hospital where they were headed got all kinds of threatening calls and letters, as in bomb threats, if the med students were allowed to intern there, so they lost their internship opportunity. The ones who made the threats were the terrorists!! But they were completely shrugged off in all the media accounts of the incident that I read. White people, who control most of the national infrastructure, don't notice white terrorism because it's invisible -- it's just normal fear of "them."
That's such an interesting interpretation, Bob. I've never really thought about it that way. And it does take care of part of the equation. But it doesn't explain the basic inability of our country to deal with and then move beyond our history of slavery and oppression. And while the South seems more of an obvious hotbed of racist sentiment, the North is certainly not above reproach: the racism just has a different flavor, but it's racism, nevertheless. Your thoughts?
We can't face our history squarely because we're still living it. It's only been a relatively short while that people of color everywhere on the planet are acknowledged as fully human by Americans and Western Europeans, the people who dominated most of the planet for 500 years. There has been an attitude shift in my lifetime. When I was growing up, it was normal and natural and non-controversial to talk about "the first white man to discover" wherever. When I was growing up, most of the non-Western world was still under colonial rule. This wasn't racist, it was the natural order of things. Slavery is only one facet of the hell wrought by colonialism. This evil has not been faced. A few years ago, Haiti sued France for the financial ruin France meted out on the island nation for hundreds of years following the slave insurrection. France demanded to be compensated for its losses. I doubt that anything ever came of the Haiti lawsuit. We're still living in a world organized around colonial domination. Those who benefit from that domination are still in charge. Among the powers that be, there is zero interest in facing the history of the last 500 years squarely -- of atoning for that history -- and building a different world.
Again, I appreciate the longer view you bring. But, where does it leave us? It doesn't seem tenable to just wait patiently for the powers that be to make their peace with present reality. In the meantime, in many instances, black lives, particularly black men's lives, don't seem to matter much. How do we chip away at the racism which enslaves us all? And is the Confederate flag just a distraction or is its proposed demise meaningful?
The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, as MLK said. I'm an optimist and believe there are larger forces -- certainly larger than the pleasure of rich white men -- driving us to our destiny. We have to devote ourselves to building peace: building the sort of world that reveres the planet and reveres all of humanity. This is not easy. No one said it would be easy. Building this world requires endless courage, but I believe it can be done. I believe that change is percolating. "Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other, so that the world may come into being." These are the words of one of my favorite philosophers, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Those of us pursuing peace are not operating in lonely isolation (even though it seems like that sometimes), but in concert with the great Whatever. So no, no, by all means, the last thing anyone should do is "wait patiently" for change to come from above. As far as I'm concerned, evolution is a participatory process. Regarding the removal of the Confederate flag, I think what's happening now is partly a distraction but also an important, real change that is suddenly taking place in American society.
I guess I'm not the patient sort and what you just said is a bit Kumbaya for me: devoting ourselves to peace feels so big and amorphous that I fear that many would be overwhelmed and therefore do nothing. So, let's first discuss how the issue of the Confederate flag can be simultaneously a distraction and "an important, real change".
The "distraction" part is that the mainstream media generally fails to put this or any news in sufficient perspective. It pursues the story like it's the latest celebrity scandal and generally fails to continually connect the flag with the history it represents. The "real change" part is that an action as serious as pulling the Confederate flag down from the public buildings where it still flies, and, indeed, finding a bipartisan consensus around the importance of doing so, is a huge step in the direction of disempowering racism. It's only a step, but it's real. Almost everyone, except the true believers, acknowledges that white supremacy was behind the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, and the flag stands for white supremacy. This should not be a value that any government in the US -- at the federal, state or local level -- honors by flying that flag. Taking the flag down dismantles some of the symbolism that gives institutional racism its coherence.
Meanwhile, it's a slow and painful process. I don't believe that bipartisan consensus has yet been reached, so it's not a done deal, although the conversation has been broached, which is definitely good and timely. How much does the power of the NRA and the proliferation and easy availability of guns play a part in this? While racism is insidious and hateful, armed racism is a heck of a lot more dangerous.
Disarmament is crucial at every level and I don't know how this will be achieved, except by a massive social attitude shift. Right now the NRA has enormous power. So does the entirety of the military-industrial complex. The money involved in armaments is beyond comprehension. As a culture, we celebrate war and violence endlessly. It's the default plot device of most movies and TV shows. The need for violent self-defense is a message drilled into people's heads a thousand times a day. We live in perpetual fear and essentially believe that the only protection against our fears is a gun (or a war). Challenging this belief quickly ignites the Prohibition effect. People become scared the government will take their guns away and hold onto them ever more tightly. I don't think there's an easy solution to this. Respect, calmness, honest communication: these are the values I promote. These are the values of Restorative Justice, a healing-based system of solving conflict and righting wrongs. I think the path to disarmament is in pursuing positive forms of empowerment and change.
We've spoken about Restorative Justice in the past and I anticipate that we will continue that discussion going forward. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?
It's a beautiful planet, with or without the Confederate flag! If we believe in peace and devote our lives to it, our appreciation of that beauty will only intensify. Thanks, Joan!
It's always a pleasure speaking with you, Bob. Thanks so much.