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  • Flag Debate Comment Still Relevant

    • Posted on Jun 25, 2015
    The following piece was published in the Waterloo Courier on July 9, 2000.
    It dealt with the Confederate Flag debate when South Carolina moved it from a main statehouse building to a lesser structure, where it still sits today, though 
    evidently not for much longer, judging by the emerging consensus about taking it down permanently.  

    There was no such consensus fifteen years ago, that's for sure.   

    Here's the column:  

    Real trouble begins when people stop talking. If that's true, there's  trouble in Dixie.

    I spent last week in the Carolinas, first in the mountains of North Carolina, and ended in Spartanburg, South Carolina with relatives.  A major story hit all the papers that Sunday, and only three people would even touch it in conversation with me.

    The story?  The lowering of the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina Statehouse.  It happened last Saturday, July 1. The Confederate flag was lowered by two Citadel cadets (one black, the other white) in a solemn ceremony and placed at a different but still visible site on the Statehouse grounds.

    A huge crowd observed that ceremony, and they were literally at each other's throats. Nobody was happy with the legislator's compromise solution of moving the Stars and Bars.

    That Sunday morning, The Charlotte Observer ran a four-column front-page story with a huge color picture, and three more stories inside with more pictures. Their headline:  "THE FLAG COMES DOWN AS ANTAGONISM RISES." 

    Incidentally, the story hardly made a bump in Iowa. The Courier ran a brief notice with two pictures on page 4 and the Register didn't mention it.  The Civil War has been over now for 135 years, and though racism still simmers in America, each generation takes it down a click, it seems.

    Yet not in the deep South. All of the Charlotte Observer's stories and columns pointed to the same issue:  Overt racism is alive and well in the South in spite of decades of school and cultural integration.

    According to reports, flag-supporting "rebels" shouted  "go back to your tribe" to blacks and a white man shoved his confederate flag into a black man's face, snarling "Here boy, get a whiff of this."

    I could hardly believe such redneckery still exists anywhere, and I wanted to talk about it.  No takers until I met a former Iowan early Sunday afternoon.  He had moved South from Keokuk some fifteen years ago, and told me "Southerners don't like outsiders coming down here and telling them what to do. They think they can handle their own problems, and that's why they're so upset at the NAACP boycotting the State."  

    I replied, "Surely they know that the Confederate flag was raised in 1962 to protest and antagonize the civil rights movement. And that it's reasonable to see it as a symbol of slavery." 

    He shook his head and changed the subject.  I felt a bit like an outsider, even with my fellow Iowan.

    Later in the day, when a local woman mentioned that "Northerners" had no business telling people how to live, I realized that I had just been told: You damn Yankees mind your own business.           

    On Monday a young man did open up, telling me that "No matter how much you give them, they want more. There's no satisfying them. That's what has me upset."

     I asked politely and quietly. "Who do you mean by "them"? 

    He said, "Those NAACP activists.  They come down here and make us all unhappy."

    He went on like that awhile, and I could only reply that if he had been enslaved for 350 years he'd probably be upset about symbols of slavery too.  Maybe he would even become an activist.

    He then went silent too, as did I.   There wasn't much more to say.

    At bottom, white Southerners have felt, and still feel, pushed around by the rest of the country, and they resent it. Though the vast majority are moderate, they still harbor deep beliefs that race matters, that some people are more equal than others, and that the "races" shouldn't mix any more than necessary. 

    Though they're embarrassed by their redneck image, they aren't doing much to change it,  and they aren't talking about it.

    Silence reigns. And trouble brews.

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  • What Really Matters?

    • Posted on Jun 21, 2015
    This morning's (Sunday 6-21) Courier column--about what really matters.   Not 
    an easy subject, given the shock we've suffered this week--and I'm in Charleston (my second home city) right now, struggling with the unvarnished reality of race hatred that led to the cold-blooded murders of nine Charlestonians in their church.    

    Still, the idea that there's a larger reality that really matters is what's helping people get through that hatred and move toward healing.   

    Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, wrote Gershwin.  It’s true, at least 
    when summer vacations roll around and beaches and mountains loom.   
    Time for a change of scene, for easy relaxing and pondering.  

     Ponder what, you ask?   

    What really matters, that’s what.  It’s the best all-around question to ponder during those days without deadlines and pressures. 

     Everyone will answer it differently.  

     Winning matters hugely for some, meaning being first and best at everything.  The competitors, we might call them.  

     Others spend serious time finding and nurturing a soul-mate, a love of their life, and that’s what matters most to them.  They’re romantics, bless their moonstricken hearts.   

     Fame, for others, so that everyone notices them, seeks them out, makes them the center of attention.   “Look at me!” their lives seem to say, and cameras beckon to them like moths to flame.  They’re narcissists, and they’re everywhere these days. 

     Wealth, for still others, so that they never have to deny themselves a new Luxemobile, a granite-countered house, a fast boat, a perfect vacation.  They’re high-enders who seek big bucks.  

     For still others, friendships, near and far, supportive and intimate. They spend hours cultivating friendships, lunching, writing, catching up on social media.

     They delight in lending a hand or shoulder to those they’ve gotten to know, love to be
    counted upon for favors, and seek to maintain old friendships.  They’re our friends, and thank heavens for them. 

     We all belong to some of these groups, and derive satisfaction from the undeniable benefits that each provides. 

     So, is that all?  Once you’re winning, famous, rich, soul-mated, and surrounded by friends, have you found everything that matters?  Does your happiness at that point know no bounds? 

     Alas, no. We all know such seemingly fulfilled people who still rely on therapists and happy pills to calm their frayed nerves.  They’re still seeking something that really matters.   

     And what might that be?    

     Dylan’s 1979 song “You gotta Serve Somebody” points toward it:  
    "You may be an ambassador to England or France
    You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
    You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
    You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
    You're gonna have to serve somebody,
    It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

     As Trish, the character who tries to commit suicide in that great film “Educating Rita” laments, “I’m not enough.”   

     If you live for furthering yourself and meeting your needs only, you’re headed for disappointment and suffering.   Truth be told, none of us are the complete center of anything.  Our egos don’t really matter. 

     Realizing this amounts to growing up, and the sooner the better.  

     This is not easy, especially with our little digital screens tempting us to believe that we are the center of everything. 

     Granted, a strong, confident self does help you succeed. But that’s not what really matters.   

     Religious folks get at what really matters through worship, faith in some supernatural power, and prayer.  

     Non-religious folks do it through wonder, curiosity, contemplation, and seeking enlightenment through in-depth awareness.  

     I’m among the non-religious, and have found what really matters is a spiritual path that’s stimulating, endlessly challenging, and ultimately satisfying. 

     If you like pondering what really matters this summer, and you’re leaning toward the non-religious, let me suggest two books I’ve found helpful:  Tara Brach’s 2005 “Radical Acceptance” and her more recent “True Refuge.”  She’s a clinical psychologist and an American Buddhist teacher who has been pondering what matters for 35 years.   

     If you’re curious and open to new approaches, these books make perfect summer reading. 

     I can’t imagine a summer without spending daily time seeking and pondering.  
    That’s what really matters. 

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