Moral Mondays: Democracy on Trial


Bastille Day — It’s Sunday in Maine, le Quatorze de Juillet, the 224th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and back home in North Carolina many of my friends and neighbors are preparing themselves for tomorrow, Moral Monday, when they will drive to Raleigh to be arrested for picketing our legislature. They will be handcuffed and booked for passive resistance to what amounts to the dismantling of civilization in the Old North State, a crusade by the Republican-controlled, Tea Party-infected legislature to overturn or neutralize every law and regulation that represents progress in our state since the days of Jim Crow laws and Klan marches. The right-wing program is so sweeping and such a shocking turnabout for North Carolina, which has long prided itself on moderate politics and civil discourse, that the entire country is taking notice of our plight.

A lead editorial in the New York Times on July 10, headed “The Decline of North Carolina,” focused national and international attention on our embarrassment. A couple of days later, that embarrassment was multiplied by a Letter to the Editor of the Times, signed by Pat McCrory, Republican governor of North Carolina. Dismissing the Times as the vendor of a “very liberal worldview,” McCrory characterized our state’s backward plunge as “a powerful comeback” and its Neanderthal legislators as “problem-solving leadership.” He boasted, of course, of luring industry and creating jobs, and his letter reads like a Chamber of Commerce press release from the 1920s, or a choice piece of satire from the novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Gov. McCrory, once considered a centrist, ecumenical mayor of Charlotte, is an opportunist who sold his soul and the contents of his athletic supporter for the overflowing war chest that carried him to the governor’s mansion. He disappeared from the moral radar when he appointed his paymaster Art Pope, Croesus-rich godfather of North Carolina’s Paleolithic conservatives, to serve as his budget director.

Many pity us, but who can help us? It’s possible that we are lost, though at least we’re not silent. There was a time when no one I knew had been arrested for anything besides public intoxication or driving under the influence. Now somewhere near a thousand of North Carolina’s finest citizens, including most of its clergy and most of my friends, are facing court dates for — what? — disturbing the peace, failure to disperse? It’s not a gross exaggeration to claim that nearly everyone in North Carolina with any moral or intellectual credibility has gone to Raleigh to be handcuffed, even the aging and disabled. Ministers, scholars, artists, schoolteachers, college students, social workers — literally the best and the brightest — all of them refusing to believe that this is the best we can do in North Carolina, that we’re obliged to bow our heads and submit to a Dark Age of reaction and retrenchment, of government by sinister millionaires and people who watch Fox News.

Moral Mondays in Raleigh are a distant, sedate mirror of the chaos in Cairo, where another legitimately elected government became insufferable to a huge minority (?) of its citizens. In January 2011, I was in Egypt, by chance, when the first demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak began in Tahrir Square. In November 1989 I was in Prague, by design, when the mass protests in Wenceslas Square drove the last communists from public office. I listened to Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel address the cheering multitudes from their balcony, and experienced second-hand the euphoria of a popular uprising that actually, briefly, sees its dreams come true. Like those busloads of good Tar Heels in Raleigh, these were demonstrations against democratically elected governments. In this month of July, with its celebrations of the Declaration of Independence and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s relevant to note that the American Revolution and the Civil War were the results of popular rebellions against legitimate governments. So, according to the broadest definition of “legitimate,” was the French Revolution that began with the storming of the Bastille.

Assessing the Egyptian dilemma for the Times, Carol Giacomo writes “Democracy sometimes requires you to accept leaders you don’t like.” This is a truth that comes with qualifications. Straining to write objectively about the rebellions in Egypt and Czechoslovakia, I was reminded that it’s rarely a clear case of right and wrong, of good guys against bad guys. That’s why President Obama may seem paralyzed by his choices in Egypt, not to mention the snakepit in Syria. Any sane person would be. But that’s why I hold out some hope for the near future in North Carolina. If there were angels involved — and 77% of Americans believe in them, according to one poll — they would all be in handcuffs in Raleigh, provided you could cuff a demonstrator with wings. In this world of gray we inhabit, this confrontation is as close to black and white as we can hope for. On one side, everyone whose self-image includes logic, tolerance and generosity. On the other, a mean-spirited, semi-literate rabble nodding their heads at the wisdom of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

The legislative agenda of these North Carolina Republicans is conservative only in the sense that it’s what old white men used to get away with in the South, and hope to get away with again. Ideas don’t interfere in any coherent way. The wholesale demolition of of North Carolina’s legal infrastructure is all about rabid partisanship and the irresponsible use of power. As a hereditary Republican — I’ve long been disinherited — I can guarantee that these legislators are no descendants of Eisenhower, or even of Nixon and Ford. This is what the Southern GOP looks like now. With every diehard Dixiecrat added and every rational moderate subtracted, it’s been reduced to a ragged army of right-wing yahoos bent on mischief, and payback. They trace their descent from Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. One district has twice elected a Tea Party congresswoman who lobbies to name a federal building after our late Sen. Helms, the last pure segregationist who never backtracked or apologized. As for the Tea Party, I’m not sure what it means to conservatives in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But what they’re brewing down home is no Earl Grey or English Breakfast, believe me. It’s a rank and nasty brew, the sort of beverage you’d get from boiling one of Shaquille O’Neal’s discarded sneakers.

Beware of all who drink it, and woe to the citizen afflicted with politicians who find it intoxicating. All the dark old racist secrets are coiled in its vapors, and Jim Crow, stirring hopefully, can smell them in his shallow grave. An accurate measure of the racial malice and tone-deaf insensitivity of our legislature was its repeal of the Racial Justice Act, a progressive law passed in 2009 to address a gross imbalance in the number of death sentences imposed on blacks and whites. The repeal was intended as a first step toward reinstating the death penalty in North Carolina, where no one has been executed since 2006. But the name of the statute, which they targeted without hesitation or apology, showcased the legislators’ almost comical blindness to public relations, race relations or symbolism. “They’re just as naïve as they are zealous and hostile,” observed a friend of mine, a legal scholar. “A lot of these first-term and second-term legislators have no idea what’s appropriate, or feasible or even legal. They’re not very well educated and they’re never exposed to anyone who’s better informed than they are.”

As proof of our Republicans’ malignant innocence, another trusted source reports that legislators are threatening to fire their most outspoken critics on the faculties of public universities. Is it possible that they’ve never heard of tenure? An even more despairing assessment came from a veteran of the state’s political wars, an activist for gun control and women’s rights who has already been handcuffed. “All the people we felt sorry for back in grade school, that we tried to help because they couldn’t do math or science, because they were tongue-tied—-here they are again,” she sighed. “It’s their moment, they’re in charge, and they’re getting even. What a nightmare.”

After making short work of racial justice, tea-drunk Republicans have taken aim at abortion rights, gun control, unemployment benefits, the public schools, the university system, ballot access for students and minorities, gay rights, health care and programs for the mentally ill and the disabled. Everything, in short, that has made civilized people happy to live in North Carolina. Not one of these crude and humiliating attempts to turn back the clock has been vetoed by the emasculated Gov. McCrory. A move to issue special driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — licenses colored pink and stamped “No Lawful Status” — reminded critics of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. Education, long our special pride here in the Bible Belt where school boards still battle against Charles Darwin, appears to be a sinking ship. North Carolina now ranks 48th of 50 states in spending on its teachers and students, a grim statistic that suggests a rich harvest of New Republican voters in the future.

Recently a friend emailed me a photograph from the battlefront. It’s a close-up, possibly photo-shopped, of a highway sign that reads “Welcome to North Carolina.” Underneath that greeting, in the same cheery white-on-green format, are three smaller signs carrying amendments. The first one reads, “Unless you are a teacher, or a student, or gay, or poor.” The second reads, “Or unemployed.” The third, “Or have a uterus.”

That’s the state of things back home. One horrified alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writing to the editor, claimed that the North Carolina of his day was considered “a beacon of farsightedness in the South.” I wouldn’t go that far. But remember that we proudly became a blue state in 2008, awarding our 15 electoral votes by a very small majority to Barack Obama. In 2012, 48% of us voted for Obama again. Unfortunately the election of a non-white to the White House, symbolically democracy’s greatest achievement since the 19th Amendment, proved to be the undoing of democracy in North Carolina, as it has been across much of the South. A limited but critical bloc of sleeping racists, less rabid than their parents but confident in their vegetable slumber that white supremacy was forever, were stirred to frantic reaction by Obama’s victorious smile. The national Republicans understood that these voters were the key and mobilized them impressively, thanks to Art Pope and generous helpings of out-of-state cash from his role models, those notorious Koch brothers.

The great White Revival, much of it under the banner of the Tea Party, succeeded in delivering the state for Mitt Romney last fall. Its most painful effects were felt in rural districts statewide, where Democrats and even sane Republicans were swept from office by a wave of shockingly inferior right-wing specimens, first in 2010 and then, more dramatically, in 2012. Republicans won both houses of the legislature, and the governor’s mansion, for the first time since Reconstruction. This is the knuckle-dragging, barefoot excuse for a state government now held up to ridicule by the New York Times. But the New York media, which take an anthropological view of the South (The New Yorker profiled Art Pope) and expect us to be backward and quaint, have no idea of the pain this realignment inflicts on the new minority in North Carolina. It’s as if we’ve been pushing a heavy truck up a mountain road for decades, gaining a few feet every day, proud of the distance we’ve covered, when suddenly we lose our grip and it rolls back down the mountainside at high speed, all the way back to the bog where we started pushing long ago. In our state, the myth of Sisyphus is no mere metaphor.

The victors, of course, dismiss Moral Monday demonstrators as sore losers, bitter Democrats who can’t accept the spoils system now that they’re on the short end of it. In fact, none of the protesters I know are party soldiers, professional radicals or even single-issue liberals. I’m sure they all vote Democratic, as I do, because the Republican Party is no longer an acceptable option for a voter who tries to steer by his conscience. I disagree with the North Carolina legislature on virtually every issue, but I’ll drop half my objections to their agenda if they can show me one bill, one law, one program of theirs that favors the poor man over the rich man, the small operator over the hungry corporate behemoth. These legislators are people who believe that the unemployed should be starved, if necessary, to motivate their job search. Nationally, the Republicans have devolved into a coalition of the ignorant, the prejudiced and the heartless, that cynical breed of capitalists who venerate Ayn Rand. Nationally this isn’t projecting very well. In North Carolina it’s killing us.

Unclean, indecent things are happening in the South. A close relative of mind was quenching his thirst in a saloon in Georgia when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was reported on the TV screen behind the bar. The nearly all-white (but, chillingly, not 100% white) clientele responded with cheers, high-fives and fist bumps.

What are we supposed to do now, as the reasonable minority in places like Georgia and North Carolina, where scenes like this can occur? Should we submit, should we pay taxes to a government whose plan for the underdog is to neuter or euthanize him? At the moment I’m writing a book about H.L. Mencken, one of the few American intellectuals who openly disparaged democracy. He seems to have 21st-century Raleigh in mind when he writes, in Notes On Democracy (1926), “the rule of the majority must tend toward a witless and malignant tyranny, anti-social in its motives and evil almost beyond endurance in its effects.” He offers us his sympathy when he writes, in a tribute to “the civilized minority,” “The individuals of this minority are often surrounded by dark, dense seas of morons and so they tend to become hopeless.”

Mencken’s primary commitment was always to liberty, not democracy. He would have insisted that the worst possible violation of personal freedom, next to the tyranny of dictators, is an obligation to bend to the will of people for whom we have no respect, and in whom we place no trust. Merely because they can, at this moment, present more bodies at the polling places, should their fears, prejudices, grudges, and catastrophic misjudgments be allowed to rule our lives? Free elections are not the only or always the purest expression of democracy, as the Czechs and Egyptians have demonstrated.

“We had to show Morsi that we could get rid of him if we didn’t like him, just like we got rid of the one before him,” one Tahrir Square protester, Ahmed Ghazi, told the Times. “What the Egyptian people did is pure democracy.”

And so it was. The Egyptian majority, like North Carolina’s, was a razor-thin one — the Muslim Brotherhood of Mohammed Morsi won with 51.7% of the vote. Free elections have lost credibility here since diabolical redistricting solidified the Republicans’ grip on North Carolina, and since the Supreme Court’s Republicans — by the same 5-4 majority that appointed a Republican president in 2001 — ruled in Citizens United to turn the keys of the kingdom over to the mega-lobbies and moguls. Possibly the Citizens United decision was the death of democracy as the Founders intended it. But what’s the alternative? Are we supposed to sell our homes and move to blue states, do we take up arms? (It was a North Carolina Tea Party operative, publicly advocating treason, who said last November that an Obama victory might precipitate “a Second Amendment solution.”) The Egyptian solution comes with a body count topping a hundred this July, and nearly a thousand in January 2011.

In America we don’t have an independent military; we don’t do coups, unless our Revolution qualifies. (There was a real Tea Party once, remember?) Surely peaceful resistance is always preferable. The quiet heroes and heroines of our Moral Mondays have succeeded in embarrassing these severely limited people in Raleigh, these clowns and bullies whose nostalgia for the Old White Way is making it very difficult be a Tar Heel. But they don’t embarrass easily. Very few blushes have been visible, and there are signs that a coherent opposition and its inevitable contempt only steel their resolve. Where do we turn next? I’m asking honestly, not rhetorically, and soliciting suggestions. This is democracy on trial, democracy in crisis.

Editor’s Note: This was written before Gov. McCrory signed the voter suppression bill.

Hal Crowther is a former writer for Time and Newsweek, the Buffalo News and the North Carolina Spectator before parking his column at the weekly Independent in Durham, N.C., and The Progressive Populist, among others. He won the H.L. Mencken Award for column writing in 1992. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2013

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