Friday, 22 September 2017

Fighting with Statues

Living in the south, and particularly Texas, it is recommended that one develops a thick skin, at least when engaging with social media. The south had slaves, invented the Klu Klux Klan, and it's mostly been downhill from there if social media is any indication. The civil war was fought because everyone living in the north hated slavery and loved freedom, and those were the only reasons. Dirty deeds done in the north are exceptions to the rule, and anyway there was usually some dude from Texas involved, but anything shitty occurring below the Mason-Dixon is probably occurring just because that's how we are down here. Facebook posts linking news items referring to the south, some retarded government official proposing regulations discriminating against a particular group of people for example, will inevitably be embellished with the comments of millions from somewhere up north who told us so. Can't we just get rid of Texas?, they'll whine, because Texas is the only place in all America where shitty officials get in power and make stupid decisions. Nothing bad ever happens anywhere else, and it's surely only a matter of time before we learn that Donald Trump is actually from Brownsville, because it sure would explain a lot.

This is why when a speaker from an organisation called Sons of Confederate Veterans was invited to talk on a local radio show, I listened to what he had to say. I had no strong opinion regarding the Confederacy, beyond some reservations about those who still wave its flag, but in any case this wasn't really what the guy wanted to talk about. Instead he discussed the north-south divide and the continued demonisation of the latter. He discussed the Civil War and the received wisdom of it being fought purely so as to free the slaves - which may have been an issue, but was at best a side issue. It was more to do with the south seceding from the Union, and this being a problem because the south was where all the money was made, doubtless thanks to slavery, which suddenly deprived the government of a significantly massive source of tax revenue.

This is roughly my understanding, namely that there was no great or noble cause on either side of the line, regardless of the possibility of there having been noble individuals; because that's how war is by definition, a last resort where reason and negotiation have failed. That slavery was ended is obviously a great thing, but we should probably keep in mind how well African-Americans have generally fared in this country since 1863 before anyone starts declaring it their victory.

This isn't to necessarily express either sympathy or solidarity with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, so much as to acknowledge that the existence of such an organisation is understandable in terms of regional identity without needing to be rude about it by suggesting anyone is necessarily a racist. Unfortunately though, the Confederate cause really does seem to attract shitheads. I've encountered one of them on a local bulletin board called Next Door, a forum to which one may sign up in order to converse with others in your neighbourhood. The city council had announced that it would be removing a statue commemorating the Confederate dead from Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, and Biffo the Bear quite naturally had plenty to say about it on Next Door.

Of course, this wasn't the same Biffo the Bear whose adventures endured for fifty-one years in the pages of the English children's comic, the Beano, but that's what I'm calling him in accordance with the level of respect which I feel is his due.

I signed up for Next Door more than a year ago, and became immediately aware of Biffo the Bear. He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands and would comment on almost every thread. Maybe you were moving house and had decided to give away a dresser to anyone able to collect the thing. Biffo the Bear might comment on how it was a nice piece of furniture and how he sure wished he had room for it, and then his attention would turn to the more pressing issues of no good punks, or lousy drivers, or shiftless repairmen. You'd lost your chihuahua and wondered if anyone had seen her, and there was Biffo once again grumbling about Obama coming to take our guns, and how we all needed to keep an eye open, and to keep our guns in good working order because you never know who might be out there, and hell - there could be an ISIS cell right here in our neighbourhood just waiting, waiting…

Biffo the Bear struck me as insane and stupid, and I found his testimony depressing, so I gave up on Next Door. I didn't want to have to think about the existence of people like Biffo the Bear, and how they get to vote and thus influence decisions which affect the rest of us, people with working brains. More recently I found myself drawn back in when another of our neighbours received a particularly vile piece of anonymous hate mail.
Attn. Lazy filthy Latin negros From Cuba. Take a little pride in yourselfs and clear up your unkempt dump of a yard. Start by storing that junk boat you smuggled your 'familia' in, in a storage, also chop shop are against the law. I understand stealing cars is the only thing your parents taught you. It's obvious you smoke crack or PCP, so get rid of those ghetto blinds and buy curtains. Fix up your 'casa'. My dog has a better house than you do, but then again my dog is an American, not a uneducated immigrant. If you need help join the neighborhood association, but you have to quit the Bloods or Crips first. If you can't read or write English and probably never will, look at all your 'Primos' in the 'Bronx'. Ask your Mexican neighbours if they could read it in Reggaeton. For your theirs like twenty of them that live next door. Or go library and check out Hooked on Phonics for the Spanish speaking Negroes from Cuba or Dominican Republic. But do something please, you pathetic peasants. Now I know why Trump wants to get rid of you. Better yet we should make you slaves like your cousins.

I've standardised the case - which randomly switches between upper and lower, sometimes half way through a sentence - and I've added punctuation, and anglicised and deleted a couple of words I didn't understand, but that's the general thrust of the argument as set forth by this anonymous individual who identifies only as your wonderful and caring Anglo-Saxon neighbours on Sumner Drive.

The subject of this missive was understandably upset, and so shared it on Next Door in hope of discerning some clue as to its origin. It seemed like the point of the letter was spite, plain and simple. Having walked past on many occasions, I would say that the man's house is fine, as are his blinds, as is his yard, as is the boat he keeps in his driveway. There is nothing to distinguish his house as any different to those of his neighbours, and it's situated at such a distance from Sumner Drive as to call into question why the author of the letter would even give a shit; but this is of course to credit the sender with both locative honestly and motives beyond just racist harassment undertaken for the sake of retarded chuckles.

We talked about it on Next Door, and everyone was horrified. I noticed, after the first hundred or so replies, that Biffo the Bear was yet to weigh in, Biffo who routinely shares his thoughts about the dangers of liberalism and the protection of our second amendment rights on every single thread, even if it's just some guy asking for the number of a decent plumber. It struck me as strange that Biffo, never usually so reticent on the subject of other people's business or how we need to act when we don't like what some neighbour is up to, should have no opinion. I said as much in the thread, which prompted a couple of others to agree that yes, it was fucking weird; which in turn prompted another couple of others to break their silence and point out that Biffo was a lovely Bear and would never have sent that terrible letter, and that we were sounding a little like a lynch mob and should therefore be ashamed of ourselves. More serious still, one of Biffo's defenders informed us that she had made a note of all our names and would be handing the note to her brother-in-law at the first sniff of pitchforks and burning torches.

Her brother-in-law was a cop, she told us. That's how most crimes are solved, see. Usually the officer in charge is handed a revealing note by some close friend or relative, and that's how he knows which heads to bust.

Biffo the Bear returned to the fray a couple of days later, just as I now return to the point. The city council had announced that it would be removing a statue commemorating the Confederate dead from Travis Park in downtown San Antonio, and Biffo the Bear quite naturally had plenty to say about it. His cousin had been down to Travis Park and had told him all about what was going on, and William B. Travis fought at the Battle of the Alamo and was nothing to do with the Civil War, which just goes to show how stupid these uneducated punks are, and it's exactly like when the Taliban blew up those Buddish*1 statues in Afghanistan. ISIS also want to rewrite history and that's why these damn liberals must be fought. Something about Sharia Law, Obama, blah blah blah...

Had Biffo gone down to Travis Park himself - and it's surprising that he didn't considering how much he cares - he would have seen that the statue earmarked for removal simply commemorates the Confederate dead, and was erected in the park named after William B. Travis without actually depicting the man; but never mind. His understanding of the situation at least doesn't seem to be any worse than that of anyone else on his side of the debate. Photos of protesters from both sides of the divide appeared on facebook, not really clashing because there probably weren't enough people there and the cops were present. One image showed kids in mostly black t-shirts, some black lives matter slogans, laid out on the ground in what was obviously a peaceful protest. One of them shows a raised clenched fist, a symbol of which the meaning is so fucking obvious as to require no further clarification.

That fist means Marxism, warned an octogenarian facebook dweller in the comments section next to the photograph, because the beauty of social media is that everyone gets a say, no matter how fucking stupid they are; and someone will read those words and somehow assume that the moron responsible is speaking from an informed position.

'Let's see what's happening down at Travis Park,' I said to my wife. It's Sunday and we have nothing else on, so we go.

The park is pretty small and has been populated by a substantial population of homeless people at intervals between vote-grabbing drives to move them to a place where they can no longer offend the eyes of responsible tax payers such as Biffo the Bear. It's about 98° Fahrenheit and there aren't many people around. We see a small group over near one of the fountains, mostly African-American, so we go over to talk with them. Unfortunately someone has beaten us to it, an older white guy pleading the case for keeping the statues.

We shuffle up behind him to listen in. I'm wearing my favourite shirt, one made from material patterned so as to resemble the state flag. It seemed like a good idea to appear vaguely patriotic, because I'm more worried about being shot by angry, uneducated crackers suffering from patriotism poisoning than I'm worried about being shot by anyone in a black lives matter t-shirt; but now I feel a little self-conscious as the old guy states his case. I hope no-one thinks I've come along to back him up.

There are a couple of white dudes sat at a table about ten foot away. They look like hillbillies. Their accents are impenetrable to me, just noises like someone playing with rubber bands; but they don't sound particularly happy and they glance over at us from time to time. A little further away there's a cop maintaining command presence.

Bess and I listen, and I am at least initially encouraged by the words of the white guy. For him it's about history and identity, and has nothing to do with racism. This much is obvious from the fact that he's talking to these seven young men and women. Finally he runs out of words, and his audience are better able to respond.

'Kanye was stupid for that,' one of them sighs, referring to Kanye West's attempt to take back the Confederate flag in some video or other.

'Same goes for Lil' Jon,' says another shaking his head.

I'm stood next to two young guys in shorts with black t-shirts and dreads. The larger one now dominates the conversation. He speaks well, genial and without any obvious anger, and I find myself chipping in. It's fun, and I'm actually learning something, coming down off that fence; not least because it's so rare that I ever have anything you would call a conversation, certainly not spoken with anyone to whom I'm not directly related in some way.

'This is a park,' he says, 'a public place where you bring your family, your children.' He gestures towards the statue somewhere behind him, and the case for the prosecution is shown to be solid.

The removal of Confederate statues isn't about rewriting history, because the statues weren't about history in the first place. Most of them were raised during a period of elevated white racial insecurity, expressed in reactionary terms such as the revival of the Klan in 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and even chuckling Edgar Rice Burroughs referring to the KKK as freedom fighters in his pulpy little thrillers. If we're really that bothered about remembering history, statues don't seem to have been much help with this one; but in any case, it isn't about then, it's about right now, and whether we as a multiracial society can move forward if we're still doffing caps to a regime which has come to stand for white supremacy and the slightly sinister reduction of the practice of slavery to something which was simply of its time. It doesn't matter that something like 95% of the population of Texas at the time of the Civil War had no direct involvement in either owning slaves or the practice of slavery. It doesn't matter that there was more to the Civil War than just the issue of slavery, or that the north was hardly a model of progressive thought; because what matters is right now, and that the Confederacy has become a symbol for shitheads across the board.

'Even with all that you said there,' our man continues, 'whatever that flag meant back then, it ain't ever coming back. It ain't ever going to be good again; and we need to start thinking about moving on.'

He's right too.

We talk some more, at least enough to elicit a few smiles once they realise I'm not about to pull on a white hood. The shirt was probably a mistake.

'You from Australia?' asks the guy who reminds me of Idris Elba.

'That's what everyone says,' I sigh, and tell him I'm from London because he probably doesn't want my entire life story; and of course it turns out he has family somewhere in the south-east of England.

We all shake hands and fuck off, going our separate ways. Later I go online to look up soulhop_musik, having seen it written across their t-shirts. It turns out that a couple of the guys we spoke to were rappers, and pretty good ones too, and I'm sort of relieved I didn't know this at the time, thus sparing us all the embarrassment of the fat, old white dude in the Lone Star shirt trying to be down with the kids and talking about which is his favourite UGK album*2.

It can be a shitty old world, but the guys at the park give me hope, and some faith in the idea that the current resurgence of the shithead far-right is its death rattle, a croaking protest at the certainty of the knowledge that it no longer has a role in the world; but I suppose deep down I already knew this on some level. For one thing, the overwhelming response on Next Door was in support of the guy on the receiving end of the hate mail, and not just support but justified and righteous outrage that such a thing could have happened in our neighbourhood. Biffo the Bear was suddenly revealed as a cranky minority voice, just some lonely, paranoid twat making a lot of noise because there's nothing much else going on in his own life, and I suspect that's probably the reason why he chose to say nothing for the first time ever; because he saw himself as he really was, and he understood that maybe the shitheads aren't going to inherit the earth after all.

*1: No idea. Possibly some belief system derived from Buddhism.
*2: Probably either Too Hard to Swallow or Ridin' Dirty. It's hard to say.

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