Saturday, December 23, 2017

It's Time to Remember Edwin Lemkin

     I just got done looking at the obituary of my old Social Studies (what we used to call it in the 70's) teacher, Mr. Edwin Lemkin. It dutifully notes that he was 89 when he passed away in West Palm Beach, Florida on July 23rd, 2010. However, there isn't a mention of his career as a professional educator in East Meadow, New York, where I'd completed high school, or anywhere else. There's no picture. There's just a ghostly trail tracing some of the courses he taught in 1966 and beyond.
     A decade after that, I formally made Mr. Lemkin's acquaintance when it had been decided I would have him for Social Studies in my senior year. He was a short, squat fireplug of a man, with a borderline pugnacious personality. He made no bones about the fact he was former Navy and looked as if he had been born to be a Navy Chief or higher. I used to love making jokes that his booming voice called to mind a naval foghorn.
     But Mr. Lemkin was much more than a man who quit the US Navy and carelessly decided on a second career in education. He turned out to be quite an astute and learned man and, all jokes aside, I quickly realized why East Meadow Senior High had chosen to contract his services.
     I don't know what action he saw in the Navy but I'd be willing to bet he saw early action in Vietnam, a war that had just ended so recently, it hadn't even begun to be taught in high school curriculums. But if there was, I'm sure he could've given us his thoughts and impressions on the war in Southeast Asia. Perhaps he'd even seen action in WW II or Korea.
     But I'm writing this 40 years after the fact because present conditions in our nation's Capitol, which are having a ripple effect in every corner of Sarah Palin's "Real 'Murrica" make me think of one thing Mr. Lemkin said in either 1976 or '77.
     Out of the nine months we had him as our senior year Social Studies teacher, the one thing he said that stuck in my mind the most was his thoughts on George Wallace.
     "George Wallace stands for hate... and that's why he's never going to get elected President of the United States," he confidently said. And we three dozen or so students in his classroom perhaps were comforted that such a noxious racist such as George Wallace, while not exactly relegated to the fringes of American society (he took five states in the 1972 primaries), would never go on to the most powerful and exalted office in the free world.
     George Wallace was the last of the nationally known Dixiecrats. He never changed party affiliation to the end of his days but he would fit in perfectly with today's GOP. The man who had once famously pulled a stunt such as standing in a doorway at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and who said in his inaugural address just months earlier, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" cynically tried to garner mainstream support by proclaiming he no longer supported segregation.
     Yes, a man that filled with racist hatred was actually winning states in the 1972 Democratic presidential primaries and that was frightening enough. And it took a wouldbe assassin's bullets to derail his presidential aspirations forever.
     Mr. Lemkin, were he alive now, would be appalled to see who we'd elected president just last year. Perhaps he was appalled by Jeff Sessions' ascension to the junior Senate seat in Alabama but Sessions, as we soon realized to our individual horror, was just the hors d'oeuvre in the rancid banquet of racism to which we've been subjected since Trump threw his double weave in the ring in June of 2015.
     It started very much like Trump doing the same thing four years earlier. He was in and out in three weeks and made not a ripple in the political waters. He went back to his ill-gotten real estate empire, shitty reality TV show and beauty pageants and we thought that was that.
     But after eight years of a biracial President, "Real 'Murrica" decided it had had enough. Wall Street's Dow Jones going through the roof wasn't enough for them (a fair enough assessment, since Main Street and Wall Street have two completely different economies where the wildest fortunes of the latter have little or no impact on the former). Rising employment wasn't enough for them nor health care that insured an additional 20,000,000+ Americans.
     By 2015, "Real 'Murrica" had had it up to here with the Obamas and wanted to elect someone who was the polar opposite of Obama, someone who'd infamously called the Hawaiian-born President a fraud, that he was born in Kenya, thereby trying to delegitimize the most unassailably legitimate President since Bill Clinton. And Donald Trump had finally found his audience and at the perfect time.
     Birther Zero's campaign took off since Trump said to his largely mercenary crowd, which he almost stiffed as he had so many others he'd contracted over the decades, that Mexicans were rapists and criminals and that he was really really rich. It no longer mattered to the fact-allergic crowd that early in his presidency, Obama had ordered the deportations of up to 2.5 million people, mainly Hispanics. Because Trump promised...
     ...a wall.
     One not seen on such a massive scale since the Berlin Wall was erected in the days after Checkpoint Charlie. Only this one would be far more massive and militarized than East Berlin's wall.
     And that was all they needed to hear. He would give them a wall after effortlessly demonizing an entire nationality and then audaciously saying he'd make Mexico pay for it.
     Two and a half years later and almost a year into his so-called presidency, Trump had not delivered on that wall, much less one for which Mexico had pledged to pay.
     Instead, since then we've heard comic book ideas such as a transparent wall to foil drug runners, "a virtual wall" and other bizarre ideas even Rube Goldberg wouldn't have dreamed up. Alas, so far the only concrete evidence we've seen of the plans to build a wall along the southern border are the US government's land grabs along southern Texas, the same state that Trump won by 9 points. Many of those landowners who've seen their land stolen from them by "eminent domain" or bought for pennies on the dollar were Trump voters who cheered for the very same wall that they, not Mexico, they will subsidize with their ancestral land.
     In other words, it's the same tired refrain from Republican voters who also went to the dark side as they have most of their lives, "Yes, well, he's a lunatic but since I voted for him, his insane bullshit won't splash back on me." These were the same people in the Rust Belt and other depressed parts of the flyover states that Trump effortlessly conned for a year and a half that he would make them great again, too, until their jobs continued disappearing overseas and the 1% got a fat, greasy $1.5 trillion tax cut at their expense.
     But I'm here to talk about Mr. Lemkin and racism and his premature confidence that a man like George Wallace would never get elected president.
     No, he didn't. But we elected far worse.
     Say what you want about the former Alabama Governor but he was a lifelong politician and regardless of whether or not the Klan would've gotten him elected had he not been shot, he probably would've had the survival skills to throw them under the bus if something like Charlottesville had happened on his watch. After all, by 1972, realizing there weren't enough racists to get him elected, Wallace went populist and had repudiated segregation.
     But this summer, Trump embraced the racists, even calling them "very fine people" even after one of them murdered an innocent woman named Heather Hyer. In the one statement he made denigrating the racist troublemakers in Charlottesville's alt-right rally, he delivered it with the reluctance and insincerity of a five year-old boy forced by his parents to apologize to his neighbors for putting a baseball through their window.
     And indeed, the very next day at Trump Tower, Donald Trump essentially took back everything he'd said the day before and that's the day he called the white supremacists, antiSemites and KKK members "some very fine people," hardly disguised dog whistle language that immediately pricked up David Duke's ears.
     In fact, Donald Trump has gone after African Americans with more vitriol than he ever had the white nationalists who'd taken a life and inflamed the entire nation. It was the Nexus phase of the development of a man who with his father was sued by HUD for denying leases to African American applicants.
     And, before we entirely leave the subject of Alabama, there was Trump's reluctant and cynical championing of a racist made straight from the crumbling Wallace mold: Pedophile Roy Moore, a man who'd said that America's best days were during slavery.
     No, Mr. Lemkin, George Wallace never got elected President of the United States. What we got, instead, four decades later was the refinement of that message in the form of Donald Trump, President of a Disunited States of America, a man who brought millions of outraged women to the National Mall less than a day after his nightmarish inauguration. A man who makes the late Governor Wallace look like a model of statesmanship by conspicuous relief. And we slowly and gradually tolerate this overtly racist behavior. Worse than that- We're assimilating such racism back into our national culture.


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