The George Bush lovefest threatens to obscure reality and history

Look, I realize that the passing of a former president—any former president—is big deal. It goes beyond just family and friends. It’s about an entire nation’s feelings, good and bad. And even though the family of recently deceased George H.W. Bush is tied to Texas more than anything, the family has a compound not far from where I live in Maine, and they routinely summered there. So even as Trump closed down federal offices for a day (including your postal service right at the start of the Christmas season), in a an attempt to look like he actually cares about anyone or anything other than the furry little alien occupying space on his scalp, there was a lot of chatter in my own state. Many tears and accolades and kind words.

Bush himself and the rest of his family are generally well-regarded here. I see all kinds of praise being heaped on him and have been listening to plenty of it on NPR as well. For the most part, articles like this one in the Portland Press-Herald give passing mentions to anything he did that was bad and generally shine a light on how good and decent a man he was.

You know, despite the fact he played off racism to boost his tough on crime image during his presidential campaign, relentlessly using a Black man, William Horton, as his symbol and rallying cry to drum up support. As vice president, he unfailingly backed up and bolstered policies of Ronald Reagan that helped put our nation on a horrific economic path (the ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else, among other things) and that ushered in the religion-obsessed right-wing GOP that we have today. As president, he kept a lot of those policies and momentum going. He turned a largely indifferent eye to AIDS, leading to increased death and misery for its victims, and he played a huge role in a lot of the political destabilization of many nations—including those in Central America from where immigrants seeking asylum are serving as cannon fodder literally and figuratively for the rabid conservative masses, particularly Trump.

Now, if it sounds like I hate the man, you’d be wrong.

I dislike most of what he did and much of what he stood for, sure, but that describes my attitude toward a lot of white people, particularly white men, in this nation built on stolen land and the blood of enslaved Black people.

What I dislike is this notion that we cannot speak ill of the dead, especially esteemed dead like Bush himself. That doesn’t mean I think we can only heap degrading words on dead people who did horrible things when horrible doesn’t describe the whole of who they were or what they did. But I am all for truth-telling. Balance. Honesty.

Tell lies about me when you eulogize me, and I might come back to haunt you.

The thing is, we can say in the same set of breaths that George Herbert Walker Bush was a personable and decent guy who was pragmatic in his politics, willing to try to find common ground and generous to family, friends and others—even as we acknowledge that whatever his personal personality strengths, he did horrible things that shaped our nation for the worse and did all kinds of harm.

Sure, it’s not just Bush, or Reagan, or Bush’s son George or Trump. It’s not even just the GOP. Bill Clinton did terrible things, too, not the least of which was the way he helped destroy the social safety net with welfare “reform.” And while Barack Obama may be one of the most truly decent humans we’ve had in the White House since Jimmy Carter—and he carried off two terms with no political or family scandals—he is guilty of a lot of sins toward immigrants (helping to usher in heavy deportation activity, for one thing) and civilians in war-torn nations (with all his love of using drone attacks abroad). I want the truth told about all of them.

I can honor Obama for having done a lot in office that was good and having failed a lot as well. For example: raising his voice about racial issues even as he did a lot to undermine Black Americans in his policies and things like his nearly unwavering support of police even when they needed to be taken to task for killing unarmed Black people left and right. I expect people to do the same for Bush.

And so too can we say that Bush loved many people, including a lesbian couple in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush compound is—attending their wedding and serving as a witness—even as we acknowledge that he did nothing good for gay and lesbian people policy-wise—in fact, he probably worsened their lives as a group. And when it comes to racial issues, Bush almost certainly wasn’t a raving, unabashed racist, but I have little doubt there was plenty of racism in his actions, even if he didn’t think about it much and even if his “heart wasn’t in it.” And I’m not going to stand for sweeping that under the rug—he is partly to blame for how little progress we’ve made on racism in this nation. Life is about impacts that we create more than the intentions that we have.

My fears with this lovefest toward Bush and how decent he was are many. For one thing, even liberals are jumping on the train, undermining their own missions by raising up a man who opposed much of what they work toward—probably even unto his death bed. Also, all this love with very little attention paid to the negative aspects of his life threatens to cement what has already been a glossing-over of his record. History will, if we are not careful, paint Bush as some kind of saint that he was far from being. Finally, we need to admit that much of our affection for Bush and his legacy and history has to do with how absurdly awful Trump is. Remember, we’ve been on a track for years now of softening our views on his son, George W. Bush, because he’s old now too and painting and seeming so nice and quiet—even liberals talk about how we kind of miss the younger Bush’s presidency. And that was a man who tanked our entire economy and led us into awful wars that we are still fighting or trying to recover from. The late George H.W. Bush may be very little like Trump overall, but he did help pave the way for our Orange Autocrat.

No, we need to stop the unwavering love and the call to “never speak ill of the dead.” We can be balanced. We can be kind to the Bush family in their time of mourning. We can acknowledge what was good about the man. But we absolutely need truth right now in an era where lies are openly spoken from the White House and no one bats an eye about it anymore. We need to tell the whole story of influential and powerful people, not totally sanitized ones (at worst) or ones that heap on the good things and give passing attention to the bad ones (which is often the best we ‘re seeing in most mainstream media coverage).

A false history won’t help us. It may make a lot of us feel good, but it won’t fix anything. It just breaks the nation a little more to erase the sins of the past just because someone got to the end of their life just like all of us do.


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The real conspiracies are worse than the wild conspiracy theories

To me, the difficult thing about writing is choosing what to write about. There’s just so much happening all the time. Do I write about the country’s racist history or policies or population? Do I write about our own Black history? Do I just write about the most recent time I got pulled over? What issue do I want to draw focus to in the moment? There’s a responsibility in that question that is clouded over by an ever-changing media landscape, peoples’ personal habits and now more than ever, conspiracy theories.

As a member of the media, a person with an audience and just as a person, the abundance of conspiracy theories in the public square is terrifying. It points to how few of us have to acknowledge the shared reality and I worry that it’s just going to get worse.

The thing that’s always bothered me about conspiracy theories is that generally, they are obviously and flatly false. For instance, I think a lot of people buy into the idea that there is a group of mysterious people who control all of the wealth and politicians and pull all of these strings from behind a secret curtain somewhere just out of sight.

I hate this idea so much for so many reasons. I hate it because believing it dismisses our own agency as a citizenry. I hate it because it’s an argument from ignorance. I especially hate it because the opposite is true and the truth is actually in our faces all the time.

Do the wealthy control everything? Absolutely. But are they hiding it? Fuck, no! They brag about that shit! It’s not a secret. They’re constantly shouting it from the rooftops, all of which they own.

Here’s how not-a-secret it is: 101 years ago Bertie Charles Forbes created Forbes magazine. Currently Bertie’s grandson, billionaire Steve Forbes, is the editor-in-chief. If you were to flip through the magazine you would quickly see that it is the voice of the wealthy publicly celebrating themselves as masters over all they see and imagine including the rest of us. And they’re so fucking ostentatiously proud of it they name the shit after themselves.

And, yes, I mean ostentatious.

If I were to tell you that the wealthy actually celebrate surging wealth inequality as a happy sign that life is becoming much more convenient, you might say, “Well, they probably think it and maybe they say some monstrous shit like that behind closed doors, maybe, but that’s not really something you can prove.”

And if that were to be your response, I would gladly direct you to a recent Forbes article, unironically titled, Surging Wealth Inequality is a Happy Sign that Life is Becoming Much More Convenient.

It’s the furthest thing from a conspiracy, though it is somehow believed to be.

That being said, things are different if you’re Black.

Very different.

That Forbes article begins with, “Two hundred years ago the American people were quite a bit more equal in terms of wealth…”

Just like my enslaved ancestors at the time, I know I wouldn’t have been considered any kind of equal two-hundred years ago. Or considered American. Or people. And that information, that the opening line conveniently leaves out is the shadow of a very tall tree with very real conspiracies for every branch, like nooses.

There are intimate conspiracies between individuals like the recent police frame job in Florida. There are more widely-spread conspiracies involving multiple institutions like red lining. There are even full-on, 40-year-long conspiracies of Nazi-style human experimentation perpetuated by the United States Government like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

Like I said, it’s a very tall tree.

I’m not saying there aren’t conspiracies based things aside from race. There definitely are. What I am saying is that there is a reality we can choose and a reality that is forced upon us and not understanding the difference can mean falling victim to both.

But understanding the difference can mean undoing both and making an objectively better world for everyone.


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If we don’t universally shun the hatred, little will change

It wasn’t until 1847 that anyone even suggested surgeons wash their hands. The idea was openly mocked by the medical community for the next 30 years and the doctor who suggested it was eventually killed by bacteria.

I think about that a lot. Fighting against an enemy that seems invisible to most, but the evidence of its destruction is everywhere you look…

From the moment that the very first enslaved African escaped bondage, there have been systems put in place to keep Black people wherever white people would prefer. The enslaved African escapes, so slave patrols are created.

Slavery ends, slave patrols become the Ku Klux Klan.

This type of reactionary attempt to re-marginalize Black people is a constant throughout American history. The white power movement was a reaction to the Black Power movement. No one bothered to interrupt us with “all lives matter” until we began explaining how Black Lives Matter.

Hate was attached to us when we were fully at the margins and no matter how far any of us have come since, this country has never put forth an honest effort to separate us from that hate. But the thing about hate that this country never seems to remember is that it ruins everything. It causes collapse. As a personal foundation, hate will ruin your health, and as a systemic foundation it can cause the entire system to collapse.

At the time of this writing there is a law in Florida that keeps former felons from voting. This law was originally written to specifically keep Black people from voting, but things changed. Now the majority of former felons in Florida are white. That hate wasn’t going exactly where it was intended anymore, so they’ve had to make adjustments along the way to keep focus on the intended target.

The electoral college was created out of racism as a means to help out slave owners. That’s the system that gave George W. Bush the presidency even though he lost the popular vote by 500,000. The next republican to become president is the one we have now and he lost the popular vote by 3,000,000. That’s six times as many votes as Bush. If that pattern holds it’ll be 18,000,000 next time.

Those are just two obvious, historical examples. I’m not even getting into the more subtle or personal ways in which hate is attached to us, but it is clear that as we move into the mainstream, this historically attached hate comes right along for the ride.

We point to the bad actors, like the president, and blame him. We point to the Richard Spencers and Gavin McInneses and blame them, but we never address the fact that hate itself is just culturally acceptable in this country.

We talk all the time about how much the president stokes hatred, but we don’t try to get rid of the actual hatred. No, I’m not talking about some kinda hippy-dippy, personal and emotional cleanse. And I’m not talking about making any kind of speech illegal, though I do have some thoughts about that.

I am just saying that there are things that are culturally acceptable and things that are not. For example, in absolutely no way is it culturally unacceptable to pick your nose in public. If you arrive at work tomorrow with your finger jammed into one of your nostrils, at first some may laugh, thinking you are deliberately being funny. Keep it up throughout the day and you will find yourself alienated and visiting HR for a mental health check.

Now imagine you acted like this after being told not pick your nose at work.

Have you ever been in a room full of people when someone coughs without covering their mouth? That person hears about it. Somebody says something every time. The cougher is often reminded that there are other people in the room and that they should not let something so toxic come out of their mouth, at the very least for the sake of everyone else. Sometimes the cougher is even told to leave and that they shouldn’t be around people until they become less toxic…

Unacceptable behavior is often deemed that way because of its effect on others and it doesn’t have to be legislated to be understood. But it does have to be recognized.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the same videos as you. And, yes, it’s nice to see all the Apartment Pattys getting theirs. But for me, it’s just not that much of a relief when all of the hate speech, all of the political assassination attempts, all of the internments of children, all of the church murders, all of the Nazis, klansmen, proud boys and fascists all come out of the same, affectionately titled Grand Old Party that is currently in charge of the entire government. And they are in charge of the government in a democracy even though they represent the minority of citizens.

Their hate and their methods are as old as abolition and they’ll either have their way or they won’t. We’ll either figure out how to separate the hate from a people or we will push those people back to the margins. One of those options I am hopeful for. The other the country has always found easier.

Always.


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Image by T. Chick McClure via Unsplash