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Digby today:

All day I've been seeing torture apologists all over TV frantically trying to block this particular line of inquiry. They know that it's potentially the most explosive revelation of all. If the White House ordered torture to try to get the prisoners to falsely confess to links between al Qaeda and Iraq ... well all bets are off.

I have to say that even in all my cynicism about the Cheney gang, this didn't occur to me, but now it seems obvious. They used torture techniques that were specifically designed to get false confessions after all. Is it really reasonable to believe they did that by accident?

We all sort of suspected that the misdeeds of the Bush administration would gradually come out under a new government, but I've actually been rather surprised at how quickly things seem to be unraveling for the Bush crew. While it's pretty clear that Obama really wants no part of the "looking backwards" that reestablishing the rule of law is going to entail, it would also appear that he is content to stand back and let the law reassert itself, and given the magnitude of the crimes involved that might just be enough.

I alluded to the prospect of false confessions a couple of years ago, but I have to agree that even I'm not cynical enough to have suspected that that was the point of this whole affair. Let the war crimes trials begin.

Sunset from the Ft. Sumner airport.

Some Old Words


Matt Yglesias yesterday:

After the end of the Civil War there were, for a time, various African-American members of congress elected from the Reconstruction-era South. But then came the "redeemer" governments using a combination of a terrorist violence and state coercion to institute an apartheid system and for a while black elected officials departed from the federal government. On January 21, 1901 George Henry White, the last of these Reconstruction-era members of congress, said:
This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.

No African-Americans served in the United States Congress for the next 28 years, until the Chicago South Side elected Oscar Stanton DePriest in 1928 (the Illinois 1st Congressional District has been represented by African-Americans ever since, and happens to be President Obama's home district as well. Incidentally, it was my home district for five years, too.) By contrast, no Southern state would elect an African-American to federal office until 1973.

Obviously we've now seen many African-Americans in the highest offices: many Congressional Representatives, a handful of Senators, and for one day now, President Obama.

To close the inauguration, civil rights leader and Reverend Joseph Lowery gave a moving benediction. Here's a transcript. The ending drew a few laughs from the crowd:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

But it also generated some confused and startled reactions, too, especially from younger and white listeners. Naturally, some of the usual conservative suspects have been clutching their pearls in outrage over the presence of such "inappropriate" and "divisive" language, but you can safely ignore them. More commonly there seems to have been a somewhat widespread "that was cool, that was weird, where in the world did that come from?" type of response. And actually, I didn't know offhand -- I'd definitely heard something similar before, probably in a civil rights context, but darned if I could remember where!

The internets settled pretty quickly on what was I guess the most readily Google-friendly answer, and it's not a bad one (see e.g. this Kos diary). They claim it derives from great Chicago Blues artist Big Bill Broonzy's Black, Brown, and White:

they says, "If you was white, should be all right,
if you was brown, stick around,
but as you's black, hmm brother, get back, get back, get back"

It's a deep little song, and while this was undoubtedly unpopular in the late 40s, it doesn't quite scan as the source Lowery is working from, though. Two extra colors, for one thing, and I feel like I remember hearing something close to those lines about red and yellow before. With a bit more digging, I turned up this mention of a much older rhyme, which led me to this blog post's links. Quoting from Lalita Amos:

Reverend Lowery deftly reworded a very old and very terrible rhyme that is widely-known in the Black community, which went:

“If you’re white, you’re alright
If you’re brown, stick around
If you’re yellow (a reference to light-complexioned Black people, generally of mixed race, who were percieved more favorably), you’re mellow
But if you’re black, get back."

One source even claims this goes all the way back to the plantation era, which sounds plausible. The rhyme alludes to the social heirarchy in many black communities, in some cases persisting to the present day, which assigns higher rank to fairer skinned families, privileging in effect those with white ancestors -- in practice, historically, the result of sexual abuse of slaves or native blacks respectively by slaveowners or colonial masters -- but also relevant to the larger world as lighter skinned blacks were nominally closer to being able to pass for white and join the social stratum of the masters. This particular stratification has broken down considerably or even reversed in some cases in America, as by now a couple of generations have grown up with no memory of Jim Crow, while legal and social bans on interracial families have steadily eroded. However, Lowery remembers this very well, and given the consternation from some quarters during the campaign about whether Obama is too African or maybe not black enough, it's actually quite relevant, and worthwhile to subtly reject that.

But that's only half of what he was talking about, I think. Because in his repurposing -- and I still could swear I've heard it used this way before -- much of his audience took yellow not to mean blacks who can almost pass for white, but to mean East Asians. (Which was the source of some of the cognitive dissonance; since nobody actually calls them "yellow" anymore, it sounds both offensive and anachronistic.) And so forth. Given the demographics of that crowd on the Mall, plenty of people there knew the old rhyme and class system it represented, but to a large segment listening it sounds instead like an oddly phrased but broadly inclusive call for justice among all the ethnicities in America, which aligns nicely with the post-racial rhetoric that has featured prominently this past year, and the big-tent tendencies of the Democratic party in general. I don't imagine that was unintentional, either.


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It seems that this year, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday has been somewhat folded into the general festivities surrounding Obama's inauguration. By itself, that really isn't a travesty, as the Reverend would certainly have hailed the occasion as an historic step forward. However, as I've mentioned before, Dr. King's vision has been thoroughly sanitized and defanged over the years. Matt Yglesias wrote this morning,

We’ve by no means conquered bias and prejudice or overcome the lingering scars of the major injustices of the past, but on the level of message nowadays you don’t see anyone within a thousand miles of mainstream politics denying the desirability of racial equality.

On violence, we’re in another world entirely. By the standards of today’s discourse, King would be considered deeply unserious. Serious people understand that if you think something is important, the serious way to go about expressing that is by voicing support for having other people go kill other people. Doubts about the ethics of such action are loathesome moral equivalence and doubts about their wisdom demonstrate naïveté.

Indeed, this much more than the fight for racial equality is what made him problematic in the eyes of the established order. Via Phoenix Woman at FDL, not two months before he was killed King said this:

They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.? “I must be supreme.? “Our nation must rule the world.? (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But nobody hears those speeches very often. Today a CNN poll reported that 69% of African Americans feel that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has been fulfilled. That's not quite right, I think. King would be celebrating tomorrow, no question about it. But that mountaintop he saw? I think it was more than a little bit higher.

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