Saturday, October 13, 2018

Philadelphia, Mississippi

In August of 1980, a former California governor did an odd thing. Before he was a governor, he’d been an actor, in Grade-B Westerns portraying men with easy access to guns working out Civil War-era post-traumatic stress disorder in a white man’s world, all of which helped him in pulling off the odd thing. He was telegenic, he knew his part, and the rich loved him.
The odd thing he did was this: He showed up in Philadelphia, Mississippi on August third to give his first speech after the Republican Convention in Detroit where he had just been anointed their official candidate for president. As with other such campaign speeches coming from presidential candidates right out of the box from their party’s convention, it was a calculated one, carefully crafted to set the tone for the candidate’s trajectory into history, or its dustbin. Just as in real estate and armed conflict, location was important, and so it is was in 1980 presidential politics.
Not many Americans can point out Iraq or Afganistan on a wordless map, nor can they attach meaningful words to Philadelphia, Mississippi today. But the following are a few words I would attach to the place if it were a blank spot on that blank map which (I guess) most Americans use these days for navigating around painful issues. Philadelphia, Mississippi was the town where three civil rights workers--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner--were murdered by the Klan only sixteen years earlier, in 1964, the same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. In fact, the murders of the three young men during the civil rights action known as Freedom Summer was one of the big last straws that finally broke Jim Crow’s back in Mississippi and the South, and compelled the nation’s politicians into finally passing a civil rights bill. 
Freedom Summer was organized by a lot of groups, but the main one was the now-legendary Students’ Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was a group of young practitioners of that rare discipline among activists in any age: profound courage. They believed in doing things that were seen as presumptuous and threatening to the powerful and were therefore, upon doing them, more powerful than the powerful. Things that would get them jailed, beaten up, killed. All for that silly cause: human dignity. Sit-ins, freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington. Very, very presumptuous things to do in the eyes of the powerful, the status quo, and therefore, by definition, threatening to them. One of SNCC’s presidents, Stokely Carmichael, later popularized the term “Black Power”, a phrase the defeated segregationists in the South found presumptuous at best. And what was the presumptuous goal the murdered men were pursuing that summer in Philadelphia, Mississippi? Registering eligible voters. Politicians were embarrassed, a civil rights bill was passed, and Jim Crow waited a bit for the next turn of the screw.
Jim knew, of course, that he wouldn’t have to wait too long. Ronald Reagan chose Philadelphia, Mississippi out of four million square miles of United States territory to aim his trajectory into history, which he did, and he did not mince his words. In an open ploy to woo working-class Americans away from paying attention to their own best interests, Reagan declared that “states’ rights” and truncated interpretations of the U.S. Constitution that would shrink the government’s power to regulate those who felt entitled to unregulated wealth, bigotry or both would be his central themes. Of course these were the same themes the South had used a century earlier to defend their “peculiar institution” and to forever justify their rebellion and then, after they lost that war, to justify Jim Crow. Reagan didn’t quite go as far as to call for a rebirth of the Confederacy, but he did a good job of acting like he did, and the rich loved him. 
Five months later Ronald Reagan was sworn in as America’s 40thpresident. Simultaneously, fifty-two American hostages were released in Iran, where they had been lanquishing for 444 days. The Hostage Crisis, as it was popularly known, had become an audacious, unthinkable assault on American Exceptionalism and had become the screaming subtext of the entire presidential contest. An upstart Islamist country had insulted the United States by imprisoning its citizens and for 444 days there seemed to be nothing the benighted Carter Administration could do about it, no resolution that could be offered to assuage the People, who decided to give the actor a chance. 
Then, as if by a lovely magic of such quality that no one really took much notice at the time, Reagan’s Puritanical inauguration speech laced with American Exceptionalism, seemed to instantly release the hostages into the air, delivering them from Evil, as promised. Reagan, of course, didn’t resolve anything, but he did a good job of acting like he did, which  was his job. Modern-day Republicans still have this event burned into their memories which, by the way, is a medical procedure that takes up a lot of space and accounts for John Bolton. And what is it that's burned into their memories? That Reagan delivered. 
Money can’t buy happiness, but the rich and powerful who supported Reagan certainly could have bought a grandstand event such as the end of the Hostage Crisis for their candidate, who promised and ultimately delivered vast, temporal wealth to a tiny percentage of the human population at the expense of the entire rest of the human race, including America’s once-vaunted middle-class. You don’t have to subscribe to any “October Surprise” conspiracy theory, though, to look at the thing, scratch your head and--if you were alive and aware in those times--remember the sounds from your T.V. set’s tiny, inadequate speaker, as Reagan inaugural words about “a city on a hill” (American Exceptionalism) were interspersed with the tinny sounds of a roaring jet leaving the Tehran tarmac. As we say today about a worldwide cabal of oligarchs play a president like casino chip, WTF?
One thing is beyond question: The dark wells of conscious political powerbroking were most certainly tapped when Reagan visited Philadelphia, Mississippi and, as always, there’s plenty of evidence laced within our current events that speak to the fact that it’s never been dealt with, even superficially. We wonder, these days, where Trump came from. Well, we often wonder the same thing about cancer and, after it shows up, a good few of us practice the all-too-human traits of procrastination and denial on it, hoping it will "just go away". 
           With that in mind, I'd posit that cancer has this in common with fascism: Once you know you have it, you either deal with it early or it get worse.
            The proof's in the pudding.  

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