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A sociologist explains how moral panics serve the right-wing agenda

ProPublica detailed a pattern of suppressing cases of sexual assault at Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia. After female students reported being assaulted, campus officials submitted them to victim-blaming, suggesting they violated campus policy against drinking and fraternizing with the opposite sex. Students told ProPublica that staff did not even report their cases to the Title IX office, a legal requirement. This has been going on for years. How?

How can an institution of this size and visibility carve out this immoral space and thrive in it for so long? What allows staff to feel justified in minimizing complaints of sexual assault? There are many explanations, including the obvious one that Liberty University was concerned about its image of producing good Christian women and men. But I want to offer an explanation that may not be obvious.

Moral panics are the taking of anecdotal instances and making them seem more prevalent than they actually are (the panic), then demonizing groups associated with these instances (the morality).

The moral panics engineered by a philosophically bereft and culturally out-of-step Republican Party allow pockets of America to continue patterns of behavior that most of society would deem problematic.

Let me explain.

Moral panics and immoral action
Social scientists and faculty administrators have been aware for some time that women endure all forms of sexual aggression on college campuses, from unwanted sexual advances to inappropriate touching to rape. It is a long-standing problem. It is well understood in progressive and academic spaces. A common statistic shared in these spaces is one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus.

The Harvey Weinstein case of 2017 and the subsequent #MeToo Movement was a watershed moment, inaugurating a wave of women coming forward about their experiences with sexual aggression. For many, it was simply making public what was already known.

But conservatives turned the #MeToo Movement into a moral panic, suggesting that hapless innocent men were in danger of being persecuted by liberal feminists. News organizations frequently ran stories saying the movement had "morphed into a career-destroying mob," "gone ridiculously too far" and that it was a "scary time for men."

Liberty University could then position itself as being against these feminists and what they support, and double down on practices we know are harmful. Administrators at Liberty University can operate under the assumption that they are a place free of progressive, pink-haired "feminazis." At the same time, they routinely dismiss legitimate claims of sexual assault from their students.

This is how moral panics sustain immoral practices.

The panics keep coming
I chose the Liberty example, because it is the most recent and one of the more disturbing. But also because the links between Liberty's practices and the moral panic that helped sustain it are not readily apparent. Other instances are much clearer.

Consider "cancel culture." The idea is that a hypersensitive irrational "woke mob" will call for the firing or the deplatforming of someone based solely on their ideas. A few cases where people have lost economic opportunities (rarely is someone actually canceled) are used to suggest a pervasive phenomenon. We now live in an oppressive society, they say, where people cannot speak their minds.

This narrative allows people to continue to disseminate damaging ideas without considering their impacts on vulnerable populations. They can say they are against "the wokies" and will not be silenced. So instead of operating in a moral space where people are mindful that speech is an action with consequences, people propagating racist, sexist and transphobic ideas can do so with no qualification or filter.

The panic around critical race theory (CRT) is even clearer, with candidates making the banning of it a significant part of their platform. Liberal, unionized public school teachers are the demonized group in this panic. Because scholars and K-12 teachers themselves have pointed out the ridiculousness of K-12 teachers discussing an esoteric set of ideas oriented towards law school students, anti-CRT advocates have stretched the idea of what CRT is. It now includes anything deviating from Martin Luther King Jr.'s phrase of judging one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

In response, citizens uncomfortable with talking about racial inequality can hide behind the anti-CRT banner, and legislators are now emboldened to narrow what children learn. In effect, they are upholding a white supremacist version of our history and reducing the ability of our young people to think with any depth about racism.

Let's do one more example, shall we?

Society continues to move forward on recognizing trans rights. It is inevitable that conservatives will generate moral panics giving people the cover needed to continue practicing their transphobia.

But this particular moral panic comes from an unusual space. Within the conservative media sphere, stories about trans women prisoners raping female inmates are becoming more numerous. While this does happen, and we need to find ways of preventing this, these instances are exaggerated (the panic) and they demonize trans persons (the morality). In an odd twist, conservatives have finally developed some sympathy for our incarcerated population only because it allows them to push back against what they see as "trans ideology."

The politics of panics
Moral panics have utility for people who want to resist change and continue operating in ways becoming increasingly inappropriate. People attracted to Liberty University do not want to accept a world in which women are not at the sexual disposal of men. Many white Americans are uncomfortable with a school system that critiques their ancestors and our nation's history. People are uncomfortable with the visibility of trans people and chafe at requests to treat them as equals.

Panics are tools for these people.

But they also serve a broader purpose.

The Republican Party of the 21st century is struggling with rapid change. It has always been the smaller party in terms of registered voters. Recent polling suggests it is getting smaller. Few policies Republicans can offer appeal to voters who are young, educated, less economically secure or of color. One of the ways they can maintain competitiveness is to make sure their voters are energized and vote.

My concern is that progressives legitimate these moral panics by participating in the discourse. By generating an argument against them, we operate on the battlefield conservatives chose. If these panics are at best distortions, at worst lies, maybe the most effective strategy is to double down on our own, more truthful narratives.

I have invested too much time discussing why CRT is not in our schools. Why did I do that? The anti-CRT folks and the political party supporting them were not invested in the truth. My engagement as a progressive academic only helped validate an anti-CRT opposition.

I will be doing that much less now.

Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.

The modern Republican brainwashing plot is the latest outgrowth of McCarthyism

Three things need saying. One, that "critical race theory" is becoming the most destructive political boogeyman since Joseph McCarthy fear-mongered about Communists hiding behind every bush and tree.

Two, that this political boogeyman is being used by Republican state lawmakers to achieve what they have wanted — to use the power of the state to censor information and to police thought. We are close to updating the old Cold War pursuit of "un-American activities."

Three, that by censoring information and policing thought, the Republicans can replace knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America, to wit: In America, everyone gets a fair shake in life. Social ills like poverty and racism are individual failings, not societal ones. Everything is fine. Nothing to worry about. Except "those people" making trouble.

The desired outcome of such rhetoric, of course, is preempting serious and legit challenges to a social order in which white men are on top.

All of this is happening at the same time. It can be dizzying! But make no mistake. It is a backlash against the political gains made in the wake of George Floyd's murder. The movement against anti-Black white supremacy has been (somewhat) successful. The backlash is proof.

Now, remember. No one is learning critical race theory in K-12. That's what college students study if they choose to. What's being debated is make-believe. (Hence, my quotes around "critical race theory.") So when people like Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governor in Virginia, say they're going to ban "critical race theory," strictly speaking, that's not possible. "Critical race theory" doesn't exist.

But thanks to the efforts of Republicans and right-wing propagandists, there are now lots of things associated with "critical race theory" that have nothing to with critical race theory, without the quotes, and they pretty much include all discussion of race and racism that might make respectable white people conscious of their race, uncomfortable with heightened awareness of their race and even pained by the knowledge of a social, political and legal establishment that protects them on account of their race while punishing others on account of theirs.

So there's some highly coded rhetoric here. When Youngkin says he's going to ban "critical race theory," the message isn't that he's going to ban ways of thinking about and engaging the world, which is, in fact, what he's proposing, but instead "ban" the discomfort and pain respectable white people and their kids may feel as a consequence of the political gains made by Black activists after George Floyd's murder.

If we're very lucky, respectable white people — that great globular middle of American politics — will see the danger. They will see that, no matter how dangerous "critical race theory" is said to be, that's no reason to ban books and outlaw the utterance of individual words. They will see the Republicans, even at state and local levels, as being people who cheered the former president's attempted coup d'etat.

If we're very unlucky, however, respectable white people — those Americans who view politics through the gauzy lens of respectability between and among white people — will see the GOP as not censoring information and policing thought but instead "banning" Black people from making them feel the pain of being aware of being white. They will see the Republicans, especially at state and local levels, as being not so bad despite cheering the former president's attempted coup.

What to do? First, make it clear the Republicans are lying. No one, and I mean no one, is teaching white children to hate themselves. No one is teaching white children their moral character is determined by their race. No one is teaching white children that one race is superior to another. All of this is a lie that, when repeated often enough, becomes the basis for state laws forbidding such things from being taught. (See legislation passed by the Wisconsin Assembly for a case in point.)

Second, these lies are part of the Big Lie. Donald Trump lies when saying the election was stolen from him. It wasn't. What he means, however, is that people he believes should not have a say in American politics — nonwhite voters — had a say in American politics, and that's wrong. That's "fraud." This Big Lie dovetails with another big lie, which is the belief among authoritarian white people that the United States is being taken from them, being stolen from them. By whom? By those who should not have a say in American politics — nonwhite voters. When they pass laws against "voter fraud," what they mean is passing laws against the "fraud" that is nonwhite Americans having a say.

Third, these lies and the laws these lies are based on are spearheading myriad state and local efforts to do what Republican officials have wanted to do but did not have the chance or justification to do until respectable white people felt first a pang of discomfort on becoming increasingly aware of being white after George Floyd's murder.

Compulsory K-12 public education is the greatest tool the United States has devised for flattening the hierarchies of power that allow the Republicans to maintain an advantage in society. For decades, they endeavored to censor information and police thought among teachers and children for the purpose of keeping white men at the top of the order — for the purpose of replacing knowledge and understanding with lies and propaganda advancing a preferred way of seeing America, to wit: America is the best place in the world. Don't like it? Leave it.

Some even called for banning books and outlawing the utterance of individual words. That seemed extreme before Floyd's murder.

Let's make sure it stays that way.

How Facebook exploited our cognitive flaws and biases — for profit

The public has been given insight into Facebook's business practices. Many of these disclosures have come from a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee who, in her testimony before Congress, stated: "I am here today because I believe that Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy."

The Facebook leaks have shown, among other things, that the company provided a breeding ground for right-wing extremism. For example, Facebook's own researchers determined that a fake user who was tagged as "Conservative, Christian, Trump-supporting" would be hit by a deluge of conspiratorial and racist propaganda within days of joining the platform. Similarly, in India, over the course of only a few days, a fake user was inundated with anti-Pakistani rhetoric, such as, "300 dogs died now say long live India, death to Pakistan."

How did Facebook's algorithms radicalize users across the globe?

We don't have the complete answers, but here's what we do know: Facebook designed algorithms that played upon a web of human cognitive biases and social dynamics to maximize engagement and derive profit. And the very factors that made these algorithms profitable also made them a veritable petri dish for extremism.

To understand this, we can first reflect on the underlying psychological mechanisms that the company exploited.

We, as social creatures, are subject to multiple forces that shape the information we consume and our social interactions.

  • Confirmation bias: We seek out information that confirms our beliefs rather than that which would falsify them.
  • Congeniality bias: We seek out supportive behavior from others who affirm our beliefs.
  • Emotional bias: We favor emotional information over neutral information in general. We favor engaging with negative content over positive content, especially on social media.

These biases then lead us to self-select into groups. We want to interact with people who agree with us. We want affirmation. We bond over powerful emotions, rather than neutral facts.

Once we join groups of like-minded people, we are subject to multiple effects that arise from our interactions with other group members. Within a group, we are less likely to express dissenting opinions than we are to express agreement. Further, we are driven to not just agree, but to rather make more elaborate points. These tendencies can be benign, or even productive, but research has also shown that, over time, the confluence of agreement and elaboration can be detrimental: specifically, the more members of a group speak about a topic about which they all agree, the more extreme their rhetoric becomes.

None of us are immune to these pressures, including myself. I'll hesitate before expressing dissent within a given social group, whereas I'll feel bolstered when I express agreement. When I express agreement, I'm rarely enticed to say, "Yes, I agree;" rather, I feel inclined to offer an elaboration. This is all ordinary human behavior.

However, biases and behaviors become pernicious within the domains of bigotry and conspiracy theories. If a group rewards members for bigotry, they will engage in more frequent and extreme acts of bigotry. If the group rewards members for the brilliance of a conspiracy theory, members will increasingly elaborate on the conspiracy theory.

What does all of this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook made specific algorithmic choices that not only facilitated these psycho-social phenomena, but exploited and amplified them. Why? Because appealing to biases and group behavior leads to user engagement. User engagement, in turn, leads to greater profit.

Facebook is still not fully transparent about its algorithms, but here is what we do know: Before a user views a given piece of information — whether it's a news report or a post from another person — that information gets filtered to maximize the user's engagement.

To achieve this, the algorithm evaluates a person's profile and provides them with information that conforms to a user's identity. It also down-weights — or, frankly, suppresses — information that disconfirms the user's priors. This entails that if a user expresses doubt about vaccines, they will see more doubt about vaccines rather than pro-vaccine arguments. If a user expresses bigotry, they will see more bigotry, rather than anti-bigotry arguments. This aspect of Facebook's algorithm thus relies heavily on confirmation bias to engage users.

But the algorithm's cognitive tricks don't end there.

In 2017, Facebook made the decision to give five times more weight to posts that elicited extreme emotional reactions — such as rage or love — than posts that elicited mere likes. This decision exploited biases towards emotional valence. The company also decided to double down on promoting group membership to combat a decline in engagement. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, wrote: "There is a real opportunity to connect more of us with groups that will be meaningful social infrastructure in our lives . . . that can strengthen our social fabric."

At the same time, researchers warned that Facebook's group dynamics could be a hotbed of extremism. In 2018, one researcher went so far as to state group algorithms produced bot-like behavior among humans and introduced "radicalization via the recommendation engine."

As we know from psychology, if you are in a social group, you are societally rewarded for increasingly extreme behavior. But, on Facebook, you're not just rewarded by other members of the group, you're also rewarded by the company itself. When you get a lot of likes from your group, Facebook rewards you. When you post something that elicits more extreme responses, such as anger, Facebook rewards you even more. As one internal Facebook report stated, "Our algorithms exploit the human brain's attraction to divisiveness."

Furthermore, Facebook decided to show group members unrelated posts from other members of the same group. This inevitably led to an interconnected web of extremist ideologies. Research has shown that once a Facebook member joins one extremist group — such as flat-earthing — Facebook will recommend they join interconnected groups, such as those pertaining to anti-vaxxing or chem-trails.

And, if group membership correlates with white supremacy, users will start to see that, too. As one researcher put it, "The groups recommendation engine is a conspiracy correlation index."

When we look at all of this, it becomes clear how Facebook's specific choices to maximize engagement facilitates a snowball of interconnected conspiracy theories and radicalization. Users are shown information that confirms their beliefs. They are encouraged to engage with others who share those beliefs. They are furthermore rewarded for increasingly extreme posts. And, then, when they engage in one extremist group, they will be exposed to several others.

Perhaps, one could argue, Facebook shouldn't be held too accountable here. They are a company that is trying to make money. Their ability to make money is dependent on engagement. They didn't design the algorithm with the explicit purpose to encourage radicalization.

This excuse falls apart the moment one realizes that, for years, Facebook was warned by people both inside and outside the company that their algorithms led to the rise of right-wing extremism globally.

What we now know is that Facebook drew people in based on their relationships with friends and family, and then it exploited specific cognitive biases in order to maximize engagement with other content.

We know the company made choices it was warned could lead to radicalization globally. The company not only ignored these warnings, but suppressed evidence by their own researchers that demonstrated dire predictions about the algorithm were coming to fruition.

We know radical content led to more engagement, which, in turn, was good for the company's bottom line. Facebook is therefore culpable of not only exploiting human beings' ordinary cognitive biases, but knowingly encouraging political extremism for profit.

The evidence is mounting that top Trumpworld figures had foreknowledge of potential Jan. 6 violence

Hunter Walker of Rolling Stone interviewed two anonymous Republican activists who helped organize the January 6 rally at the Ellipse where President Trump ordered his supporters to "take back their country" just before the mob assaulted the Capitol. Legislators had gathered there to certify Joe Biden's victory. Trump was impeached largely based on the statements he made at that rally.

These two anonymous sources, identified as "an organizer" and "a planner," say they are in contact with the House Select Committee investigating the insurrection and both expect to be called to testify. MAGAland is a hive of deceit and vainglory, so proceed with caution.

The Rolling Stone piece has gotten a lot of attention based on Planner and Organizer's vague assertion that various extremist Republican members of Congress were involved in planning the rally on the Ellipse in some capacity. Some, like Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, spoke at the rally, which implies at least some level of cooperation. Another explosive claim is that Rep. Paul Gosar promised blanket pardons, which he said had been approved by Trump. Maybe, maybe not. If Walker inquired as to why pardons would be an incentive for an event conceived as a peaceful protest, the piece makes no mention of it.

But here's where the story really gets interesting: "The two sources also claim they interacted with members of Trump's team, including former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who they describe as having had an opportunity to prevent the violence."

This sentence reminded me of a June 25 story by Josh Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien of ProPublica entitled "New Details Suggest Senior Trump Aides Knew Jan. 6 Rally Could Get Chaotic." Their story delves into a power struggle within MAGAland in the run-up to January 6. The story makes a strong case, backed by named sources and text messages, that the White House was warned by their own organizers that Stop the Steal was planning a potentially violent march on the Capitol.

On December 19, Donald Trump issued a Twitter invitation to his followers: "Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!" Thus began a bitter intra-MAGA power struggle over which faction was going to organize the protest and what would take place.

One faction included Tea Party co-founder Amy Kremer, the head of the anti-feminist organization Women for America First, and Steve Bannon associate Dustin Stockman. This faction allegedly wanted to hold an "extended oral argument" on January 6 detailing their (non-existent) evidence of systemic election fraud. Kremer and her allies got the upper hand and secured the permit for the main rally on the Ellipse, at which the soon-to-be-ex president spoke on January 6.

The more extreme faction was Stop the Steal, led by Ali Alexander, and featuring conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, dirty trickster Roger Stone, anti-feminist Kimberly Fletcher and retired reki practitioner turned right wing organizer Cindy Chafian. Alexander openly embraced paramilitary groups like Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers and racists like Nick Fuentes and the groypers. Stop the Steal favored a confrontational approach.

So much so that they doubted they could get a permit to rally under their real name, given the violence and intimidation that had marred previous Stop the Steal events across the country. A Stop the Steal organizer confirmed to ProPublica that "One Nation Under God" was a front name used to get their permit to rally on Capitol grounds. Alexander later bragged in a livestream that Reps. Gosar, Brooks and Andy Biggs helped him come up with the idea for a march to put maximum pressure on lawmakers gathered to certify the election.

Ellipse organizers told ProPublica that as January 6 approached, they worried Stop the Steal was planning an unauthorized march that would arrive at the Capitol just as election results were being certified.

Bannon associate Dustin Stockton told ProPublica that he and Amy Kremer, the Tea Party co-founder, tried warning former White House employee Katrina Pierson about the danger posed by Stop the Steal's march. When that didn't work, Stockman said, they took their concerns up the chain of command to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Kremer now denies doing so, but the record says otherwise.

"The WH and team Trump are aware of the situation with Ali and Cindy," Kremer wrote in a text message obtained by ProPublica.

Rolling Stone appears to describe a dynamic very similar to the one laid out in the ProPublica piece: Ellipse organizers getting nervous about Stop the Steal's capacity for violence, reaching out to Katrina Pierson with their concerns and finally to Mark Meadows.

"Katrina was like our go-to girl," Organizer told Rolling Stone. "She was like our primary advocate." Rolling Stone continues:

Both sources also describe Trump's White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, as someone who played a major role in the conversations surrounding the protests on Jan. 6. Among other things, they both say concerns were raised to Meadows about Alexander's protest at the Capitol and the potential that it could spark violence.

Amy Kremer has been subpoenaed to testify, as of October 25.

Dustin Stockman has not.

What statues say about race in America

Thomas Jefferson, after a long stint in New York's City Hall, is about to get the heave-ho, courtesy of city council members long convinced the statesman, polymath and slaver had no place there. Cue the supporters and detractors of a man who played an outsized role in the creation of the United States, and in its original racial sins.

Statues have been all the rage in recent years. As in, literal rage. Whether being pulled from their pedestals, picketed, spray painted or protected. At least for a moment, those hunks of bronze looking out over a public park through sightless eyes, gesturing grandly at a state capitol, or standing in for whole generations of soldiers, have become standing battlegrounds, and the catalysts for heated history lessons taught on the fly.

When they are toppled, or tossed into the nearest river, a chorus of defenders rises to rend their garments, gnash their teeth and threaten a wholesale disappearance of historical memory because some old slave-owner, Ku Kluxer or segregationist isn't preserved forever in monumental scale to whisper to the passerby, in effect, "You must remember my name, but forget what I did."

Along with the Robert E. Lees, Stonewall Jacksons, even the Lincolns and Grants who've come in for spasmodic attacks and stout defense, countless other memorials and monuments continue to talk to us about who we were, ask us who we are and challenge us about who we want to be.

Statues are literally fixed, immovable, unchanging images in stone and metal. They offer few opportunities for reshaping, recreating, reimagining, to reflect contemporary realities. When circumstance presents us with the opportunity to rethink a memorial, in an unquestionably low-stakes context, are we ever ready to try something new?

Don't ask Louis J. Heintz. A 19th-century citizen of The Bronx, a brewer and streets commissioner, he has been standing quietly in Joyce Kilmer Park on the Grand Concourse, just a baseball's toss from Yankee Stadium, for over a century. A big deal over a century ago, Heintz likely doesn't mean much to the more than a hundred thousand mostly Black and Latino people who call the neighborhood home today.

The Grand Concourse hasn't had a great century. The broad boulevard championed by Commissioner Heintz represented aspiration and elegance to its striving early residents. That was before white flight, the wrecking ball and economic decline hollowed out The Bronx.

Through it all, the Streets Commissioner stood and watched what modern life dished out for the city's poorest borough, and along the way his memorial lost most of the allegorical figure of Fame, a woman standing at the base, lifting a palm frond in tribute. Eventually, just Fame's midsection remained. Her hands, arms, feet, and most notably her head, were lost to posterity.

Here, if we wanted it, was an opportunity. The Citywide Monuments Conservation Program, and the Parks Department, planned to restore fame to the largely forgotten Louis J. Heintz, by returning Fame to his memorial.

Here, the impulses of history, restoration and memory clash. Purists might bridle at the idea of giving the face of today's Bronx to a century-old allegorical figure. It would be lampooned as silly "wokeness," of political correctness run amok.

However, since we don't know what she looked like, the palette of possible faces was wide open! Thus restoration becomes a battle not of right vs. wrong, but right vs. right, and somebody was going to have to lose.

Should anachronistic rules of memorial art allow the past to bind the present and eternally bind the future? To be an "accurate" allegory of Fame, all the new head had to show was the face of a woman. Given that there are almost four billion women on the planet, it is hard to think of a design requirement broader than that.

There was no accurate depiction of Fame's original head. In all existing photographs, she has her back to the people of The Bronx, as she pays homage to the impassive Mr. Heintz. No matter how it was accomplished, putting a good 21st-century head on Fame's restored shoulders would be a pure act of imagination.

There was no requirement to create an exact replica, or obsess over how Pierre Feitu, a Frenchman born in the 19th century and sculpting in the 20th, thought "she" looked.

Since Commissioner Heintz took his place above the pedestal in 1909, the South Bronx has changed. New York City, to which The Bronx was back then still a fairly recent addition, has changed. And again — this cannot be stressed enough — Fame could look like anybody, and our conception of anybody might be allowed to change as well. As long as she paid tribute to the long-forgotten Heintz, Fame would do the job she was created to perform.

She will soon have new arms, new feet and a new head. Perhaps it won't be a surprise to learn it has already been decided that Fame will not look like the Black and brown people who call the Concourse section of The Bronx home.

With absolutely no obligation to soothe hurt feelings, meet established expectations or copy a known work of art, the new Fame will be obviously, famously an imaginary woman of European descent.

Circumstances had given the Parks Department, and the worthies who populate the various oversight boards and commissions an unusual chance to say, "We think allegories, as representations of ideas in human form, can look like all kinds of different human beings."

Non-white figures have been used in classic sculptural language to represent the Americas, Africa and Asia for centuries. Clutching tobacco plants, exotic birds on their shoulders or with a monkey in their laps, they have often been placed in service to represent the exotic, and faraway, paying tribute to conquerors from the other side of the world.

They just couldn't pull the trigger.

This challenges conservators, and commissions with an uncomfortable state of play. Even in the 21st century, does convention still require that virtues and praiseworthy concepts like Justice, Learning, or Charity must adopt the classical form of the allegory and be white people, now and forever? Will we insist the foreign, the primitive, the exotic are now and will always be festooned with earrings, feathers, ankle bells and tropical fruit?

Once Fame is again splayed at the feet of Louis Heintz, she will not challenge, provoke or even quietly inquire of the borough's passersby, "Pssst … Hey, if Fame is a woman, what does she look like?" If The Bronx's present paid tribute to its past and present, what could that, what should that, look like?

Off the top of my head, three women from The Bronx could have suggested the face of modern Fame for the modern Bronx; Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Jennifer Lopez, raised in Castle Hill, and Irene Cara, the Oscar-winning vocalist who starred in what movie again?

Oh yeah. Fame.

The implicit, whispered, conclusion is that imaginary figures are, most properly, people of European descent. Even in Black and brown places, Love, Prudence, Bounty, Learning, all have white faces. That conclusion has taken us to some strange places in the past.

While passing the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on foot, I saw a memorial that had escaped my notice for years until that very moment, called the "All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors." It was dedicated in 1934, and moved to a prominent place on the city's grand Franklin Boulevard, leading from City Hall to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in 1994.

I looked at the figures of fighting men who encircled the monument. Like the men of the famed Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, its figures looked like real people, rendered in bronze from actual Black men, rather than the artist J. Otto Schweizer's imagination of what generic Black men might look like. They are, in their early 20th-century uniforms, intent, dignified, solemn. They are looking toward an allegorical figure of Justice, and that's where the memorial gets really interesting.

Justice holds in her hands symbols for "Honor" and "Reward." At the back of the column are more allegorical figures, representing War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty. The plaque below Justice reads, "Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Honor of Her Colored Soldiers."

A quick check on my phone revealed it was dedicated in 1934, and, after all, pretty cool, right? The Great Migration had seen the growth of big African-American communities in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and elsewhere. This monument would not wash away the stains of the race riots at the end of the First World War that brought horrendous violence to Black neighborhoods, driven by white hatred and rage. This was Pennsylvania's "thank you" to men who served in the segregated armed services not only in the Great War, but in the American Revolution, Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection. American expressions of gratitude to its Black citizens was rare enough, and a welcome and unexpected thing in 1934.

The soldiers are, naturally, all Black men. The sailors, too. But Justice? She's white. You should not be surprised to learn War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty are all white, too. I've heard countless emotional arguments launched in the last two years about whether such a thing as "white privilege" exists. When asked, I sometimes reply by noting that to the extent it exists, it largely consists of beliefs unspoken, and assumptions unconsciously made, which is why the very idea of such privilege drives white people a little crazy. If it helps, imagine it as an invisible map, an overlay, a pattern outlined on the tangible landscape that stretches out from your own two feet. Some things just "are."

In 1934, justice, liberty, peace, and plenty were still strictly aspirations for most Black Americans. They had made war in the name of a country that promised they would have as good a shot at plenty as any other American, but too often was reluctant to follow through. Did the sculptor, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, ever think of Plenty as a woman who might have full lips, or a tight curl in her hair? Could Peace have the almond eyes and broad nose of a bronze head from Benin? Schweizer, born in Zurich during the Civil War, came to the US in his 30s, and won his reputation in the US sculpting war memorials, including seven on the Gettysburg battlefield alone.

Let's remember, an allegorical figure on a street in a big American city is purely a work of imagination. There was never an actual person "Peace," or "Liberty." In the visual language of the allegorical, these ideas could be rendered as any kind of woman. As long as "Plenty"'s playing the part, her ribs aren't poking out, or her sunken cheeks and hollowed eyes telling the opposite story, any well-fed woman will do.

In Philadelphia, in 1934, however, even imaginary women could not command too much imagination. Allegories, even those invented to honor Black men in uniform, were going to be white, even rendered in dark bronze. Were they made identifiably people of African descent, would it have been too much to bear for Philadelphia's then 2 million souls?

Today more black people live in Philadelphia than white ones. The war memorial seems a cultural relic, of a time now almost 90 years gone, when neither the sculptor, nor the commissioning sponsors could have imagined Black men fighting to protect a "Liberty" that had a face like theirs. At the same time, bronze is permanent. The mythical ladies on Franklin Boulevard will likely keep the faces they were born with, forever. And the "colored" soldiers and sailors will have to silently contemplate the promise of Justice, coming from the generous hands of a white person, forever.

Most Americans told the US Census Bureau last year they are white. But non-Hispanic whites as a share of America's overall population, and as an absolute number, declined over the last ten years. You may feel you have plenty on your plate already. In a browning America, you now have to add to the wealth gap, the wage gap, the education gap, the "statuary gap." That last one may be the hardest one of all to close.

Why does a democratic republic founded in opposition to monarchy tolerate billionaires?

In Thursday's post, I imagined a world in which conservatives placed equality at the center of their sensibilities. It was fun, though hardly realistic. As one reader said, conservatives never do that. If they did, they'd be liberals. But the goal of the exercise was less practical than imaginative. At the root of the many problems we face are thorny questions difficult to answer. But there's also a failure of imagination.

I don't mean to say we need "attitude adjustments." I mean to say we tend to accept conditions as if they were natural rather than what they are, which is constructed. So today, I want to stretch our imaginations by asking a deceptively simple question. Why does our democratic republic, founded in opposition to monarchy, tolerate billionaires?

I say "deceptively," because the question might prompt a quick reply: why not? Most Americans believe billionaires don't intend harm, earn their wealth and, on the whole, benefit society. Some Americans even think billionaires deserve our respect. After all, they sell things consumers like, innovate useful technologies, and some, like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, give away their fortunes to worthy causes. But what if I suggested this is rationalizing a democratic abomination?

Let's cut through the haze to state two things plainly about how one person becomes a billionaire. One, it's with the government's blessing. Two, it's with the government's willingness to look the other way. The free market is not free. The very obscenely rich would not be nearly as very obscenely rich if it were. Billionaires, therefore, are not self-made. They are politically, legally and socially made. Yet the vast majority of Americans tends to believe billionaires are just the way things are.

I am not suggesting some kind of malicious conspiracy. I am merely pointing out an obvious fact. Jeff Bezos is worth a reported $200 billion. (He is personally financing all those rockets to space.) It is not humanly possible for one man to work so hard so much so fast to earn $200 billion. (It's been a little over two decades since he founded Amazon.) There has to be a system established in tandem with the government, or in tacit approval by the government, to make such a pile of cash.

Ten percent of the country owns 89 percent of stocks on Wall Street, according to new data from the Federal Reserve. "The top 1 percent gained over $6.5 trillion in corporate equities and mutual fund wealth during the pandemic," CNBC reported this week. (The bottom 90 percent holds about 11 percent of stocks.) All that idle money is, moreover, taxed at lower rates than income you earn with your labor.

If it's taxed at all. Lots of very obscenely rich people hide their wealth. (Gerard Ryle, head of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, said of the global network of secretive and legal tax havens: "The people who could end the secrecy … are themselves benefitting from it. So there is no incentive for them to end it.") Meanwhile, the US government's ability to find wealth to tax has been hamstrung by decades of starving the IRS of resources. The result, according to the LA Times' Michael Hiltzik, has been a "tax gap" that reached a stunning "$630 billion in 2019 — more than 2.5 percent of gross domestic product and about 17.5 percent of the more than $3.6 trillion owed."

Let's say that again, with feeling. The very obscenely rich owe more than $3.6 trillion. That dollar amount should sound familiar. It's roughly the same one being haggled over by the Democrats and the White House. If passed, the legislation would be, along with another spending bill, the biggest investment in the American people since the 1960s. Spending so much is controversial, but it might not be if the very obscenely rich had not, as they have for years, created the impression that there's not enough money to spend on public goods and works. There has always been enough money, but this idea keeps living, in part due to the inability of normal people to imagine an alternative.

I haven't explained yet why billionaires are a democratic abomination. I'll close with that. I think it will help to imagine a political alternative.

What does it mean when a government of, by and for the people treats the very obscenely rich in ways it does not, and never would, treat the people? It means the government, founded in opposition to monarchy, has found ways of replacing the old order of greater mortals (kings and queens) with a new order of greater mortals. Instead of having "magic blood," as Lindsay Beyerstein put it, this new order has magic money, meaning they have so much of it, they can create whole industries to rationalize their existence, thus forcing the rest of us to fight with each other over whether to pay for things like community college.

That's not just wrong.

It's a democratic abomination.

The seedy history behind gerrymandering and the fight to preserve white power

Maps are being redrawn all over the country in response to last year's census. Unfortunately, the process currently leaves a lot of room for partisan gerrymandering. It is the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act that district maps will be drawn without the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act for many states.

A 2019 Supreme Court case also makes it impossible to bring gerrymander cases to federal courts on the basis of partisanship. Luckily some states have passed redistricting reforms since the last census. Others have divided legislatures where partisan abuse is less likely. But there are states that will attempt to draw maps in blatantly partisan ways, particularly to protect Republican political power.

The practice of manipulating voting districts for political power — ie, gerrymandering — wasn't invented in the US but it's hard to say we didn't perfect it. In 18th-century Britain, districts called "rotten boroughs" were drawn with few voters to ensure certain representatives were elected to Parliament. Gerrymandered districts have existed since the inception of US congressional districts, but initially the districts were still drawn in relatively normal ways.

The term "gerrymander" was coined after an 1812 Massachusetts state senate district map was drawn and signed into law by then Governor Elbridge Gerry. The map drew a long thin district that sliced up Essex County, which usually voted for the Federalist Party, in order to help the Democratic-Republicans. As a result, a county that had elected five Federalist representatives elected three Democratic-Republicans and only two Federalists. Federalists won over 1,500 more votes statewide but elected only 11 representatives while Democratic-Republicans elected 29. Ultimately, the extreme district map caused a backlash and Federalists soon regained power and redrew the district map.

The bill was seen as a partisan vendetta by many Federalists and when a satirical cartoon was drawn Elbridge Gerry's name was used to describe the salamander-like monster. Thus the term "gerrymander" was born. While obviously not the first time districts were drawn in a way to consolidate political power, the Massachusetts map was the first example of a district drawn in a clearly ridiculous way.

In 1842, Congress passed the Apportionment Act. It required districts to be geographically contiguous but there's little evidence it was enforced. Once Black men gained the right to vote, the use of gerrymandering grew with a vengeance. States redrew their maps more often after the Civil War to advantage the Republican and the Democratic parties. Democrat-controlled Ohio redrew its congressional districts six times between 1878 and 1890 to ensure Democrats were in control of the state. In 1888, Pennsylvania redrew its map so Republicans could retain their majority in the state House.

After the Civil War, gerrymandering not only caused partisan results but was used to disenfranchise Black voters, specifically as a response to the Black political power gained during reconstruction. In 1876, a Texas newspaper commented that the racist gerrymanders disenfranchised Black voters by "indirection." Mississippi created a "shoestring district" and South Carolina drew a "boa constrictor" district in order to disenfranchise Black voters. This "boa constrictor" district linked every Black precinct that could be connected by even the smallest land continuity. By isolating Black voters , the violent intimidation or outright fraud needed to disenfranchise them became much easier. Along with poll taxes, literacy tests and all-white primaries, racist gerrymanders successfully disenfranchised Black voters in the South until the civil rights movement.

In the 1960s, the Supreme Court issued a number of opinions dubbed the "redistricting revolution" to address gerrymandered districts. In 1960, the court found that district lines drawn with the intention of disenfranchising Black voters violated the 15th Amendment in Gomillion v. Lightfoot. Justice Frankfurter's opinion held that an Alabama act that created a Tuskegee district that excluded nearly all Black voters effectively denied people their vote to vote on the basis of race. Overturning the 1946 decision Colegrove v. Green, which held that malapportioned congressional districts were not the purview of the federal judiciary, Baker v. Carr in 1962 held that redistricting issues could be brought to federal courts under the 14th amendment. Two years later the Supreme Court decided two cases, Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims, requiring that electoral districts be established based on equal population and the principle of "one person, one vote."

While important precedent that forced maps to be redrawn, the requirement of uniform population did not stop districts from being drawn in bizarre shapes to protect partisan power. In 1993, in Shaw v. Reno, the Supreme Court held that a bizarrely shaped district is strongly indicative of "racial intent" and therefore will be struck down for violating the Equal Protection Clause if no other reason for the shape can be given. While certainly a step in the right direction, Shaw didn't exactly end the practice of drawing ridiculously shaped districts. Additionally, Shelby v. Holder will likely make it easier to get racist gerrymanders into effect because preclearance is no longer required.

In 2019, the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to efforts at fixing partisan gerrymandering. In Rucho v. Common Cause the court held that partisan gerrymandering is not an issue for federal courts to consider and is only the purview of state courts or legislative action. Under the 2017 decision Cooper v. Harris, cases can bring issues of racist gerrymandering to the federal court system, but they have to prove race was the predominant factor in drawing the district and that the state didn't have a compelling state interest, like protecting minority voting rights at which time race can be a consideration.

Two weeks ago, Texas released a redistricting map that prompted a lawsuit alleging intentional discrimination against Hispanic voters. Since the lawsuit concerns racist gerrymandering and not just partisanship, it can be brought in federal court. But it's not yet clear how it will be received. Under the proposed Freedom to Vote Act, this type of gerrymandering would not be allowed and neutral redistricting standards would be imposed. The act also would provide more power to courts to adjudicate issues with gerrymandering more quickly.

Unfortunately in the most recent Senate vote, the bill was blocked in a 51-49 vote because Democrats don't have enough votes to override the filibuster. Republicans are blocking the bill but the current redistricting reform is actually based on a 30-year-old Republican proposal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is still promising to fight for the bill but we likely will continue to need West Virginia Senator Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema to agree to filibuster reform if we have any hope of passing the legislation.

Abortion, guns and religion: How to think about creating a counter-conservatism

Yesterday, I said the Republican Party isn't conservative in the way it defined the term for 50 years. With exceptions, it meant opposition to "state intervention" in the economy, business, or civil affairs. These days, however, Republican voters want elected officials to use the power of the state to ensure the superiority of white people. You can call that conservative, too. But that's not how the GOP defined it. Until very recently, the party at least paid lip-service to political equality.

What about the Democrats? Well, they are more liberal than they have ever been in my lifetime. But the fact remains the party is very big — on account of Donald Trump chasing away people who really did believe in conservatism as defined for half a century, with privilege for private property, private enterprise and individual liberty. Those voters have to go somewhere, even if they call themselves independents. This is one reason the Democrats are now fighting among themselves.

With so much attention paid in recent years to the liberal drift of the Democratic Party, there's been less attention paid to its conservative character. That might be a blessing. After all, "conservative" as applied to the Democrats is not the same as "conservative" as applied to the Republicans. But because these modes of thinking are different and distinct, there's an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a Democratic conservative. Or at least what it should mean by centering political equality. If the GOP can define it, why can't the Democrats?

The following is my attempt to shake the dust off the term as it applies to only three controversial issues. My hope is that by characterizing a kind of counter-conservatism, we can, first of all, see the fuller breadth of human understanding. Second, give conservatives who might still be in thrall to right-wing propaganda a means of seeing there's room for them in the Democratic Party as long as they commit to equality.

Abortion
This one's easier than you think. Lots of Democrats sit on the line between pro-choice and anti-abortion. Joe Biden has said for his entire career he's personally opposed to it, because he's a Catholic, but he supports the right of women to control their own bodies. I said the difference is a line, but I think it's more than a gap. You can oppose abortion but simultaneously oppose state regulation of an individual's very body. That's conservative political equality. If you don't think women ought to have such rights, well, there's always the fascist party. As for the fetus being a person, any idiot can see a fetus is not a person until it's born. Then it's a person entitled to full rights and privileges.

Guns
This one's not as hard as you think either. To a conservative, human beings are inherently evil. Evil people, even when occasionally good, should not be allowed to own serious firepower. The more guns around, the more likely someone's going to get hurt. Case in point: every single shooting massacre. The government should ban AR-15s and the like. It should compensate owners by buying their guns at fair market prices. The only guns available to private citizens should be for hunting and home defense. As for open and concealed carry, why? We're not trained peace officers. Let's not make-believe we are. You can call this "state intervention," but a conservative who believes in equality as well as the inherent evil of human beings might call this leveling the playing field so that no one has an unfair advantage.

Religion
Conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe their religion is the right one. But conservatives who center equality have not been as vocal as they should be about the need to maintain and defend the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The separation between church and state is not for the advancement of secularism, as some conservatives would have you believe. It's for the advancement of religion itself, yours and everyone else's. Some historians suggest the establishment clause is how the US became the most religious among industrialized nations. Without the thumb of government on the scales, religions had to compete in the marketplace of religions. For all religions to be equal in the eyes of the state is best for all of them.

I'll talk about other controversial issues another time. In the meanwhile, why not give it a try? Explain as well as you can how you think a conservative who centers equality might approach a given issue. Or tell me I'm full of it. After all, maybe a conservative who centers equality isn't conservative. Maybe they're just liberal!

America is growing skeptical of the Gospel of Big Business

My mother is a firm believer in Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior. When she receives an unexpected windfall, or a report of good health from her doctor, she says she's been blessed. When things are not going well, it is God testing her faith in Him. Never, absolutely never, does she question decisions by her personal Lord and Savior.

This is the relationship many Americans have with business.

Except for a contingent on the far left, local companies, major firms and multinational corporations are revered. CEOs are venerated as job creators. The decisions filtering down about wages, benefits, and work environment are justified through the gospel of the free market.

But we need to be skeptical of our relationship to businesses.

Tributes and sacrifices
We all know about efforts made by local and state governments to court business. They are like "tributes." But the scale of these tributes can be mind-boggling. Consider Amazon. Good Jobs First has been tracking subsidies — grants and tax incentives — Amazon receives yearly. According to the nonprofit, Amazon has received over $4.1 billion in subsidies since 2000. One could imagine tax breaks for a smaller, or emergent, company. But Amazon recorded revenues of $280 billion last year. It is No. 2 on the Fortune 500 list (behind Walmart). Yet the tributes keep coming. The company has gotten $650 million in tax breaks from local and state governments this year.

There's no reason subsidies shouldn't go to a profitable company instead of an emergent one. If one sees subsidies as investment, it makes sense to give a tribute to Amazon. But what Amazon gives in return are modest wages to warehouse workers and delivery drivers plus horrible working conditions. On March 17, an Amazon warehouse worker testified at a Senate Budget Committee hearing about her warehouse's "grueling" working conditions in Bessemer, Alabama.

Maybe the tributes are more like sacrifices, and meager blessings are given in return for taking the heart out of a tax base.

It goes on. We are currently in a worker shortage crisis. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, the number of job openings surpassed the number of job-seekers in July. That month, the US had 10.9 million job openings, an all-time high (the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report estimated 10.4 million job openings at the end of August).

One interpretation of this is that the COVID relief benefits have dampened interest in working. Fox News Business asked in a recent story, "Are unemployment benefits the new welfare?" Quoting from a research fellow at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability, the story claims: "Unfortunately, due to the recent COVID-19-related changes, unemployment insurance has been morphed into more of a long-term benefits program."

Yes, many people decided to receive COVID benefits instead of seeking low-paid employment. The "unemployment as welfare" line of reasoning ignores the responsibility of employers to employees. It assumes that if an employer "graces" us with a job offer, we should accept, regardless of how much it pays or the quality of work conditions. Businesses give us what we need, not always what we want. We should be thankful for what we have received.

A great awakening
Around 2015, my university decided to offer a degree in cybersecurity. The nation had coalesced around a narrative that there was a shortage of cybersecurity professionals. Our nation's president at the time, Barack Obama, allocated money for institutions that began offering degrees in this field. Our governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe, doubled down with even more money. As a result of government funding and some bright, industrious academics and administrators, we now have a fantastic School of Cybersecurity at my university.

Around this time I stopped singing from the business hymnal. I was on the front lines of my university's program development. The extent to which we attempted to meet business needs was problematic.

We wanted course content reflecting what students would be doing on the job. We even hosted seminars during which we listened to what business leaders wanted from graduates. This was already a problem for me, because I don't see universities as job-training programs.

At the same time, it became apparent to me that the tasks companies needed done did not require a four-year or two-year degree. Firms could train bright, hardworking people out of high school if they wished.

I worked with my university to create an elaborate feeder program, helping absolve businesses of their responsibility for identifying good workers and preparing them. My university's relationship with the cybersecurity industry is indicative of a broader problem.

We complain about the expense of higher education, and rightfully so. It is insane that a college graduate can expect to be saddled with $30,000 in debt. That is the average, but some end up owing much more. Universities deserve some blame. But remarkably, there are few complaints about businesses not hiring people out of high school.

Yet that is the central issue. Even if college were cheaper, a student, instead of owing $100,000 in loans for a job they could've gotten out of high school, would instead owe $50,000. Better, but they shouldn't owe anything or spend four years doing something they don't want.

Our deification of businesses makes it heretical to question this. But they also have a responsibility to identify, screen and train people.

Be a skeptic
We should question our relationships with businesses. Do localities need to offer all these tax breaks? Suppose no one offered them? I am sensing a growing pushback about these tax breaks, with evidence accumulating that these sacrifices do not lead to blessings.

On the minimum wage front, there is still an energetic Fight For 15 movement. Pushback will come from free-market proselytizers. But there are solid arguments for raising the minimum wage. Improving working conditions is a moral argument that must be articulated.

And the responsibility for worker training? I don't see anyone talking about this, which is unfortunate. The closest I have seen are commentaries about raising the profile of two-year colleges.

Understanding that everyone does not need a four-year degree is a step in the right direction but still does not put any responsibility on businesses. There is still a lot of work to do, but I feel good about where we are headed. We as a nation are becoming more skeptical.

It really is time for Thomas Jefferson to go

The plaster statue of Thomas Jefferson that looms over the New York City Council Chamber will be removed by year's end, following a vote by a city commission Monday. The council did the right thing after a 20-year campaign by its Black, Latino and Asian Caucus. This decision is an opportunity to commission a sculpture that celebrates the Jeffersonian ideals of liberty and democracy without idolizing the slaveholder himself.

Throughout the meeting to decide the statue's fate, its defenders kept returning to a theme: The statue doesn't honor Jefferson the man, it honors his great ideas, like universal human equality, religious freedom and a democracy free of autocrats, aristocrats and theocrats. As historian Sean Wilentz pointed out in a written statement opposing removal, these ideas are still radical today and continue to inspire liberation movements, including civil rights and feminism.

One of the greatest contributions of Jefferson and his fellow Enlightenment thinkers was discrediting monarchy, the ridiculous notion that some people are chosen by God to rule because they have magic blood. Idolizing a monarch with a statue makes sense if you believe in the divine right of kings. It makes a lot less sense to build statues of leaders whom we know are flawed citizens like ourselves.

There's no rule saying that public statuary must consist of the stony likenesses of dead heroes. Lots of great art uses idealized figures and abstract motifs to educate and inspire. History has to deal with people in full. Art has no such limitations. It can abstract away the flawed figure to express the higher ideals they ultimately failed to embody.

The council members who want to relocate the statue believe passionately in liberty and democracy. They argue, persuasively, that the likeness of a slaveholder is an inappropriate symbol of those ideals.

Even the statue's most ardent champions scarcely tried to defend the man. How could they? Jefferson owned over 600 people and consigned some of his own children to slavery, children he conceived with his wife's enslaved half-sister, whom he started raping when she was just 14. The man knew slavery was wrong, but kept on owning people and selling children, despite his contemporaries, including the Marquis de Lafayette, urging him to free the people he held in bondage.

Four council members of color testified. They said they felt degraded and dispirited by the enormous plaster statue. It has grown even more imposing over the years. Its 7-foot likeness on a 5-foot pedestal casts a pall over the chamber. Its pedestal was actually raised several years ago when art restorers warned that he was vulnerable to damage. Co-chair of the Black Latino and Asian Caucus — I. Daneek Miller — testified that Jefferson's "domineering presence" feels like "psychological warfare" to legislators of color, who comprise the council' majority.

If the purpose of public art is to inspire, it matters whether it is having the desired effect on its audience. If a supposed monument to liberty is making legislators feel less-than, it has outlived its usefulness.

Pro-statue speakers said they found it ironic that a democratic government is now using the tools that Jefferson helped to create to remove his likeness. That's exactly what's happening, and that's great.

We have outgrown Jefferson's likeness, just as we've outgrown the idea that kings and white people have magic blood entitling them to rule.

Let's replace the statue of the flawed man with a statue that celebrates the brilliant and radical ideas he promoted: Democracy, equality and religious freedom. Let's talk about how we want to express them artistically in 2021. Let's install a plaque explaining to future generations why replaced Jefferson's likeness with something new.

Virginia Republican's top campaign promise reveals the twisted state of the GOP

We need to talk about how and why the Republican Party isn't conservative anymore in the way the Republican Party has long-defined the term. The race for governor in Virginia is illustrative.

Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin gets nary a peep out of crowds when talking about traditional Republican things like tax cuts and deregulation. But audiences roar when he talks about the scourge of "Critical Race Theory" in public schools. This scourge does not exist.

No one, and I mean no one, teaches K-12 students anything at all about Critical Race Theory, because Critical Race Theory, without quotes, is something college students engage, if they choose to. What public school teachers do do is teach kids the history of slavery, the history of racism and, in some cases, how systemic anti-Black racism in America was the precondition for a white police officer murdering a Black man.

All the jabbering about "Critical Race Theory" is part of a white-power backlash against political gains made by Black reformers in the wake of George Floyd's death, itself coming after years of effort to bring more attention to the barbarous, and unequal, treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement. The former president's Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen from him has merged with a larger, background narrative about "God's country" being stolen from "real Americans." To fight against "Critical Race Theory" is now a fight to save "America."

So when Glenn Youngkin rails against "Critical Race Theory" he is not railing against Critical Race Theory, without quotes, because Critical Race Theory does not exist in K-12 schools. What he is really railing against is teaching kids things they ought to be taught for the purpose of flattening the old whites-on-top orders of power that were the precondition for a white police officer murdering a Black man. What he's railing against is the successful challenge of the racist status quo.

Republican candidates used to push back against liberals and their reforms by talking about traditional Republican things like tax cuts and deregulation. Starving the government of resources needed to "provide for the common Defence and general Welfare" hurts white people, to be sure. But as the GOP knows well, it hurts non-white people more. Anyway, many white people feel free when non-white people aren't, even if those white people suffer. When invested in the whites-on-top orders of power, there's more than one way to feel rich. Voting to hurt yourself is voting in your "economic self-interest."

Republican voters used to hear "tax cuts" and understand it meant putting Black people (and women and Jews and gay people) back in their place. That does not fly anymore. Neither does mere race-baiting in order to win political power. Republican voters increasingly demand candidates talk about how they are going to use the power of the state to maintain the racist status quo, even if those efforts collide with the interests of private property and private enterprise. For decades, the GOP was the anti-government party. It is now, increasingly, statist.

This is why demagogues like Tucker Carlson admire Hungary, a country so gripped by authoritarian forces it exiled a world-class university. This is why members of Congress like North Carolina's Madison Cawthorn demand the wall between church and state come down. This is why "think tanks" like the Claremont Institute formalize informal relations between the Republican Party and sheriffs for the purpose of legally enforcing the party line. This is why Texas deputized snitches to outlaw abortion. This is why GOP governors penalize private firms for mandating vaccines. This is why Glenn Youngkin said that on the day one he's going to ban "Critical Race Theory."

Again, Critical Race Theory, without quotes, does not exist in K-12 schools. But let's suppose it did. What Youngkin would then be proposing, while denying he's proposing it, is the establishment of government thought police. Allowable curricula are Republican curricula. Allowable speech is Republican speech. Allowable thoughts are Republican thoughts. Everything else is subject to prosecution.

Yeah, sure. The stated rationale for banning "Critical Race Theory" is fighting those malevolent forces of "cultural Marxism" threatening to take America away from the "real Americans," or some such thing. This is a lie, and as such, it should illustrate to the rest of us how easy it would be for a statist party to slowly expand its boundaries until there's no daylight between civil society, the government and the GOP. First, lie. Second, expand. Lie, then expand. Lie, expand. Given enough time and effort, everything is the State and the State is everything.

Granted, there's always been something a statist about the Republican Party. On the one hand are lickspittle of the military-industrial complex. To them, spending is bad unless it's for war. On the other hand are the Christianists who long to outlaw abortion, condoms and "sexual anarchy," as one put it. They were on the margins 40 years ago. They are the center now. Conservatives who privilege individual liberty — conservatives who privilege private property — will these days find warmer relations in the Democratic Party. Today's Republicans are telling us what "conservative" means to them.

Let's believe them.

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