Redundant

The last five years bear proof that voting is a precious right, made real through two centuries of courage, and bloody violence. The extension of the vote, the collective voice of our political will, did not expand without difficulty or sacrifice. 

In the early days of the Republic, the founders struggled to strike a balance between their own political interests, and those of the public. The founders considered citizens as too mercurial, too easily swayed, to be trusted with the vote. Only men of standing, knowledge, and property were qualified to cast ballots.

As populations moved westward, new states allowed all white males voting rights. Making use of “poll taxes,” farmers and tradesmen paid a fee to participate in elections. The money indicated that the voter had some means, and a stake in the community. Still, voting at that time was a boisterous affair, as men publicly announced their choices to officials. That practice, combined with hard liquor guaranteed election day ended with a bloody fight or two.

Political machines, like New York’s Tammany Hall, lined up voters like soldiers each election day. Bosses such as William Marcy “Boss” Tweed maintained power manipulating elections like clockwork, assuring outcomes before the votes were ever counted.

Women labored long and fruitlessly for the vote. Seeking rights of citizenship, women wanted not only the franchise, but the equal legal standing before the law. The forces of inertia and sexism held fast, believing ladies must stay home where they “belonged.” Politics was seen as too complex an issue for the female brain, as they were smaller, (I kid you not). More custom than written law, the practice of “coverture” considered the call for women’s suffrage as redundant. Women, as dependents, like their children, were legally “covered” by their husbands’ vote. He, as head of the family voted for the entire household.

Not until 1919, after a century of ridicule and abuse, did women earn the right to vote. And even then just barely. Once the 19th Amendment reached the Tennessee legislature for ratification, the bill passed by a single representative’s vote, making the state the 36th and last state to approve.

The path to black suffrage provides the most perilous story. Considered property in antebellum America, branded 3/5’s of a human being in the Constitution, these people faced impossible hurdles after the Civil War. While Union soldiers remained in the South as occupiers, black men voted, per the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. However, once the blue coats with their bayonets left, that moment of possibilities passed.

Black codes, a carryover from pre-war slave codes, and violence at the hands of homegrown terrorist (KKK, and the Knights of the White Camelia), a black man risked his life attempting to cast a ballot. After 1876, marking the end of Reconstruction, Southern society returned to “normal” with blacks clutching the lowest rung.

It took a World War to breathe life into the Civil Rights Movement. Even then white resistance pushed back against the movement. Through the courts, the NAACP argued that case law favored black suffrage. Falling back on the 14th and 15th Amendments, attorneys like Thurgood Marshall jousted against white supremacy at all levels of society. In 1964, Freedom Summer introduced a massive voter registration drive, garnering enough leverage to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Old school Redeemers, like today’s Senator Mitch McConnell watched and waited to gut the law after the election of President Obama. McConnell argued with a black president, no need remained for the ’65 Act.

So where does that leave black and brown Americans today? Outraged. States, largely in the South are once again purging black voters from precinct rosters. Why? Because white supremacists in the South still feel they must suppress those voters to maintain white power.

Now that is redundant.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley also penned two history plays, “Clay” and “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Bloodsport

An allegory is a story with a hidden meaning.

Way back when, during my high school years, our English class read “Lord of the Flies.” And though too young to grasp the power of the story then, it’s bothered me plenty in the last five years.

Permit me a refresher on the story. During World War Two a group of English school boys are evacuated from England by air, and the plane crashes. The pilot is killed, leaving only the boys alive. Finding themselves on a deserted island, the kids try to organize into a functioning unit.

The wheels come off almost as once, as two groups emerge. One faction agrees to cooperate, while the other descends into depravity.  Those favoring cooperation seek (through logic and science) a way to be rescued. Those choosing muscle undermine that effort, reveling in bloodsport, killing wild pigs, and intimidating weaker boys. 

The novel reads as an allegory of disintegrating humanity, pitting good order against savagery. Though published in 1954, William Golding’s book has taken on a prophetic urgency made evident by the lawlessness before and after the 2020 election.

In a haunting parallel to the breakdown of order on the island, Trump’s mob attacking the Capitol came as an inevitable outcome of law breaking. Riffing irrational diatribes, this flawed man chose to incite violence to maintain power. That his misinformed followers eagerly climbed on the bandwagon proves how fragile democracy can be when infected by evil. The physical fury of that day seemed an aphrodisiac for his private thugs as they stormed America’s Alter of Reason. 

And it’s no wonder the mob chose to vandalize our sanctuary of law. This guy disdains justice,  indifferent to the sacrifices made by generations before to preserve it.

Good government rests on an educated, committed electorate. Mindless violence is the tool of the lazy and weak. Blind fury only destroys, and in truth that savagery lives in all of us. It is up to each one of us to make that choice, to awaken the “better angels of our nature” for the good of us all. It is well past time for America’s trial by the mob to end.

Unlike the school boys in “Lord” no one is coming to our rescue. And that reality leaves no alternative but to discipline ourselves to preserve the gift of democracy.

Handed down from our elders, the work in that domed building is the last line of a free people.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January : Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir. Both titles are available on Kindle. Gail has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears,” exploring antebellum America.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Worst White Man

This is an image from a college history text. The visual illustrates Southern society in years prior to the Civil War. There are plenty of inferences to derive from this chart; the most revealing being how little America has changed.

Although the election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked a high note in the story of America, our coming of age, so to speak, the violent reaction has exposed an old low.

In the aftermath of the Obama years, ugly ghosts have been summoned and let loose. Specifically, as in the years prior to the Civil War, the Southern aristocracy has, once again, activated yeoman, and lower class whites to fight their battles. How? Reinforcing the idea that a black president was one too many for today’s white aristocracy.

The depth of modern racism honestly feels surprising, proving that America actually hasn’t grown at all. In fact, a new civil war is underway, unleashing a fresh wave of fury from the most dangerous creature of all–an armed underclass white man. Planter society still reigns, and has incited those who believed they’ve been shortchanged by a complex, and changing country.

The link tying the 1860’s to the 21st Century? Convincing poor whites that the worst white man is still a better president than the best black man. (And I don’t mean Joe Biden.)

This needed to be said, so I said it.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January; Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Armageddon

Univac

Remember that episode on Star Trek, “A Taste of Armageddon?” The crew of the Enterprise encounter two planets at war, waged virtually by computer. Simulated clashes determine, by mutual treaty, real fatalities in execution chambers.

That one aired in 1967. 

Technical advancements, devices to improve life, can make tasks so much easier; and these same advancements can just as easily evolve into weapons of destruction. Glidden’s barbed wire made for cheap fencing for farmers. Carnegie’s steel provided the ribs for building upward in cities, and outward on rail tracks. Rockefeller’s oil meant cheap kerosene for lamps to light up the dark. However, these same improvements found new uses when converted to weaponry:concertina wire draped across trenches, heavy armaments, explosives, and gasoline powered vehicles. World War One demonstrated both the might, and bloody futility of modern, industrialized warfare.

The nature of Twentieth Century warfare had literally been forged from 19th Century industry, which in turn gave rise to an assembly line of annihilation.  

How does weaponized technology apply to now? 

The world depends on computers. From Univac, to Commodore 64, to the MacBook, we rely on computers much as we rely on air. The benefits of cyber technology keep us linked together through social media, and new apps that innovate daily. But the dark side of this ever-evolving technology, poses significant danger, and has been weaponized effectively to undermine the stability of America.

As I write, misinformation, via the internet, has contributed to the deaths of nearly one million Americans, and climbing. Troll farms in Russia ruthlessly still hack away, under the guidance of former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. Russian meddling in our 2016 presidential election, spewed misleading propaganda enough to tip the scales in the outcome. Though developed through advanced mathematics, and supported by other hard sciences, cyber criminals have succeeded in convincing some Americans not to believe in scientific facts. What an irony.

Our enemies have found their way in, a means to weaken and destroy the country from the inside. Through misinformation campaigns and network infiltration, criminals shut down Colonial Pipeline last May, and universities, government agencies, infrastructure systems, and businesses who are under constant threat of being held hostage–paying millions in ransom to rescue their business organizations.

The indispensable nature of computers, like this one in my lap, is a useful, vital tool. But like the technical innovations of the 20th Century, these advances foreshadow danger; cyber space as deadly as a machine gun, and as real as poison gas. Factor in nations around the globe still vying to destabilize America—especially chief competitors, Russia, and the China. 

Nothing has changed since 1914, aside from more sophisticated weaponry. Fifty-four years after Star Trek aired “Armageddon,” computer-generated death is as real as the death toll in the trenches. Threatening fingers typing the right strokes on a keyboard produces chaos and harm from those who wish us ill.  

It’s Only Fair

In his 1975 book, “The Russians,” author Hedrick Smith tells a story about a domestic fire in Moscow. He noticed passersby strolling along without a glance, despite urgent smoke and water damage. Neither Tass, nor Pravda covered the story–for Soviets, there was no bad news. This lack of public reaction, Smith concluded came from weary resignation. Citizens had long ago given up on honesty from Party authorities.

In stark contrast, an informed electorate founded the American system; information an essential component of our democracy. Cynical will not do. Without facts reported by a free press, it is game over.

Recognizing the influence of television as a news source, Congress, in 1949, codified equal time when broadcasts touched on public policy. The Fairness Doctrine the second of its kind (the first governed radio) was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandating broadcasters to present equal sides of public information, or lose their license to operate.

And that doctrine governed news coverage until killed by the smiling, ever popular Ronald Reagan in 1987. His personal charm camouflaged the catastrophe his administration lobbed against journalism and, in turn, our democracy.

In 1968 when the most revered news anchor of his day, Walter Cronkite, returned from assignment in Vietnam, he broke with precedent by publicly admitting Vietnam a lost cause. Later the anchor conceded Woodward and Bernstein were probably on to something with Watergate. Cronkite’s statements spelled the end for both the war, and the Nixon Administration.

The modern GOP hasn’t cared much about the equal time component since Richard Nixon crashed and burned in 1974. From his earliest days “Tricky Dickey” gained attention as a ruthless Communist-hunter, first in the House, as a Senator, and then as Vice President. Following his 1960 loss to JFK, Nixon loathed the press and like Trump saw the media as “The Enemy of the People.” In Nixon V The New York Times, the White House challenged publication of the Pentagon Papers, and lost, then in US V Nixon, ruled the release of the disastrous tapes proving Nixon’s Watergate coverup.

Nixon and other Republicans believed reporters, the networks, and the media, in general, was out to get them.

Before his own 1973 resignation in a separate scandal, Vice President Spiro Agnew did not mince words concerning the press. Agnew referred to the media as the “Nattering Nabobs of Negativity.” Soon the press found there was quite a bit to natter on, when Agnew pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned.

Today, the far Right has capitalized on the end of the Doctrine, manipulating facts, and generally reporting misinformation, without even a blush.

In some respects the end of the Fairness Doctrine has set a course for gutting American democracy.

To hear about it now, the fiasco of January 6, 2021, according to the right-wing media, was no more than a pleasant tour group visiting the nation’s capitol. That violence we all witnessed, is just a misunderstanding. Bear spray, tear gas, and baseball bats used against the D.C police didn’t actually happen. The “Liberal” press exaggerates.

Perhaps before 1987 Americans actually wanted to know whether or not a national fire was raging.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Pickaxe To Nerve Agent

Josef Stalin was the embodiment of evil. Moreover, if one figure set the standard for Russian despots, it was Stalin. His reign of domestic brutality and foreign terror set the tone for a long, dangerous Cold War. Czarist Russia had set a particularly high bar for authoritarianism, but Uncle Joe inflicted monstrosities that would make Ivan the Terrible cringe.

After Russia withdrew from WWI, through a series of moves, the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin prevailed in gripping the reins of power. Through the aid of Leon Trotsky, a brilliant intellectual, and Josef Stalin a seasoned street fighter, the Bolsheviks founded a peoples state, loosely framed around the teachings of Marx.

During the next few years The US provided relief to the starving of Europe from Great Britain to Vladivostok. But aid made no difference to Lenin. In 1919 the Comintern was established in Moscow, professing the aim of Communist takeover of the world.

In 1924 Lenin died, and a fresh struggle for power ensued. When the snow storm settled Stalin was in command and Trotsky exiled.* Conditions in Stalin’s USSR flowed a crimson red. The Kremlin’s secret police cracked down on the people, through arrests, murders, and spying. By 1934 the NKVD began a purge that included the liquidation of middle class Ukrainian farmers resulting in the deaths of millions.

And those policies were domestic.

At the same time, spying took center stage in Stalin’s foreign policy. English and American assets were turned including left-leaning Americans disillusioned by the Depression, and England’s Cambridge Five, headed by Kim Philby. Philby held a high clearance in British intelligence. The use of such double agents allowed Stalin to essentially shoot fish in a barrel.

Atomic weaponry literally mushroomed on the scene, raising the stakes in East West relations. America lost it’s mind in the Red Scare, and Soviet agents burrowed deeper undercover.

That was then. But it is also now. Excluding reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian leadership emulates the tone set by Josef Stalin. Infiltrating the National Rifle Association, political misinformation, cyber hacking, and buying off scoundrels with generous loans, Vladimir Putin is an apt pupil of old Uncle Joe.

On January 6, 2021 as white supremacists broke past Capitol barriers, vandalizing and assaulting law enforcement, the winner of that moment was Vladimir Putin. Destabilizing America has been the object of the struggle since the Russian Revolution. 

Dear GOP, you are indeed Putin’s puppets.  

*Trotsky was murdered in August, 1940. An operative bludgeoned him to death outside Mexico City with a pickaxe. Putin critic, Alexei Navalny is currently in a Russian jail, weakened by a nerve agent that was meant to silence him.

Gail Chumbley is an author, and history educator. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Divisions

Balkanize: Division of a place or country into several small political units, often unfriendly to one another.

America’s founders meant education to flourish, as a vital part of our country’s longevity. 

Designed to advance literacy, American public schools also curbed the rougher aspects of an expanding country. Since the earliest days of the Republic, centers of learning not only taught content, but other lessons like cooperation, and self control. Ultimately schools have instilled in all of us a shared baseline of behavior, supported by foundational facts necessary to find consensus.  

Today, technology and social media have endangered our ability to reach common ground. The distracting noise of extremists, splintering, and Balkanizing our nation threatens American institutions. Elections, government agencies, city and state government, and yes, schools are all targeted. Navigating through a culturally diverse society is inevitably stormy, and a closed American mind isn’t helpful.

Public education has traditionally been one of the ligaments that bind us all together as one people. Years ago a president encouraged us to ask “what (we) can do for (our) country,” but that’s over. Today it’s “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it!”

Patriotism and literacy evolved together hand in hand. In 1787 Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed an Ordinance for settling western land. This law devised a survey system, to organize states around the Great Lakes region. This is important because sales of one plat of the survey, (you guessed it,) funded public schools. 

Thomas Jefferson affirmed the practice by insisting, ”Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

President Lincoln, a figure who deeply lamented his own lack of formal education, pushed to establish land grant universities across the growing nation. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, in particular, financed colleges through Federal funding.These universities today are located in every state of the Union. 

America’s erosion of unity is tied directly to the erosion of public education. Our kids are increasingly sequestered into alternative settings; online, magnet, charter, home, and private schools. Missing is the opportunity to experience democracy at its most basic. Students grow familiar with each other, softening our own edges, renewing the energy and optimism of the nation’s promise. 

We are all taxpayers, but your local public school isn’t supposed to be Burger King, where every citizen can have it “their way.” We have a system that, regardless of money, race, ability, and social class, all have a seat at the table of democracy.

Gail Chumbley is a history instructor and author. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Masterpiece

Russia and the US didn’t have much contact in the 19th Century. A rumor had once circulated insisting presidential candidate, John Quincy Adams had procured American virgins for the Russian Czar when a young diplomat. Not true, but there it is.

Still the political tyranny of Russia was widely understood in America. Lincoln condemned the racism and intolerance stateside, remarking that Russia’s oppression was, at least, less hypocritical. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward later negotiated a purchase for Alaska with Russia. Seward’s Ice Box, 1867 newspapers scoffed.

Some sixty years later, during World War One, revolutionaries deposed the Czar, and later murdered him, and his family. The US shipped Doughboys to France, and dispatched American forces to Archangel, to aid the White Russians in defeating the Bolsheviks. The Whites failed.

In the newly founded USSR, Vladimir Lenin formed the Comintern with the express aim of exporting Communism worldwide, prompting the first American Red Scare.

Then came Depression and World War Two. Josef Stalin, a ruthless despot, struck a nonaggression deal with Hitler, splitting Poland as a buffer. Neither trusted the other, and in 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. End of alliance.

After Pearl Harbor the Russians found themselves allied to Britain and the US. Stalin didn’t trust Washington, and Washington didn’t trust Stalin. Not only had the Russians cut and run during WWI, but recently had signed this treaty with Hitler.

Before the Second World War ended, Stalin signaled his intentions by spreading the Red Army throughout Eastern Europe. Western allies relented and allowed Soviets forces first into Berlin, where Communists held that sector until 1989.

The second Red Scare hit America hard. Stalin’s operatives managed to lift atomic and hydrogen bomb intelligence. The Berlin Wall was built, and the entire Soviet Sphere of Influence made for an intense Cold War. Conflicts popped up in America, and around the world. Sputnik, the U2 incident, the Rosenbergs execution, Joe McCarthy hearings, duck and cover drills, and the black list ruining countless careers. Proxy wars cast a real chill over the free world. 

Some of America’s greatest Cold Warriors included President Eisenhower, JFK, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. These Chief Executives understood that any agreements with the Kremlin required verification. Our Soviet rivals were seasoned operatives, and no ally of the west.

So where does this story leave us? Clearly the Kremlin is no friend. Spy networks, election hackers, and embedded operatives are perpetual threats, that is for sure. Maria Butina, the little red groupie of the NRA, for one. So, when an American President smiles and pays court to Vladimir Putin the proof is clear. 

The Russian government is patient, and that patience has paid off. Putin’s masterpiece? He elevated a Russian asset to the White House, and convinced GOP voters to look the other way. 

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Arrogance of Now

Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors). 

A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.

Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.

Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study. 

Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.

The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?

In increments.

These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation. 

A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings. 

The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.

This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional. 

When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.   

Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com