The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 14, 2012

Pontifical Politics in Mississippi

Not only holding the keys to the governor's mansion, Bryant seems to think he holds the keys to hell, death and the grave.

That the new Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, teared up giving his inaugural address to the legislature when he told them he had been sworn in on his grandma’s Bible is not surprising, nor am I surprised that he quoted scripture a great deal in his speech — all that is standard operating procedure for politicians, especially in the South.  When thanking Governor Barbour, though, for years of service to the state, Bryant cast himself in the voice of the Lord when he told Barbour, “I think I can say, ‘well done, my good and faithful servant.'”  That is surprising indeed and is indicative of the mood right now in the far Right of the Republican party in this state and others, as they honestly think they speak for an authority beyond their service to the people who elected them.

The outgoing Governor, Haley Barbour, just pardoned some men who had murdered their girlfriends and wives because he got to know them when they were working the prison work detail polishing doorknobs in the gubernatorial mansion.  It reminds one of W. S. Gilbert‘s ironic operetta lyric about nepotism:

“I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!”

It’s as if Barbour, in current Republican mode, honestly couldn’t imagine the humanity of all the inmates of state penitentiaries, but when given the opportunity to talk to a few of the good ol’ wife-stabbin’ boys who come and call him “sir,” he is able to look upon them, Lord-like, with compassion, and remit their sins while still being tough on the others who have not had a personal audience in his Sistine chapel — I’m sorry — his official office.  Rather than imagine that all the inmates in the penitentiary are capable of rehabilitation given the right set of circumstances and a will to change, he responds with compassion to those he can see and disregards those to whom he can say, like it says in the Good Book, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”  This, of course, appears in Red Letters in the Gospel, and is the voice of the Lord as well.

Among those to whom he showed no compassion in pardoning these men arbitrarily are the families of the victims of these incidents of domestic abuse.  They worked no iniquity, and have reasons for concern that these men are back on the streets, because the ability to use Lemon Pledge effectively on the governor’s desk does not qualify as any actual sort of rehabilitation.  In Mississippi, the pardon gives them the right to bear arms, many arms.  Just how do you suppose they remember their last encounters with their former in-laws?  I doubt these families sleep well at night.

This knowing-better-than-the-stupid-people-who-elected-you fashion has extended down to the state legislature, where only in November, the voters of Mississippi voted down initiative 26, the so-called “personhood amendment,” that would have legally defined life as beginning at conception, complicating not only questions related to abortion but even of delivery of babies, birth contol, and in vitro fertilization.  The voters resoundingly defeated these initiatives with 58% of the electorate, even in conservative corners of the state, voting down this idea.  This week, two bills were introduced into the legislature to ratify the very text the voters rejected.  One is called something like “the treatment of embryos act,” and the other one is called something like, “the life begins at conception act” (no H.R. or S.R. numbers assigned yet).  Thinking the people can’t decide such a weighty matter for themselves, or rather, thinking they did not like the results when they did leave it to the people, the state legislators think they have an authority that extends beyond the will of the people who put them in a higher position.

I have been trying to figure out the Biblical text on which they have based this last dishonest double-dealing.  I’m looking at Psalm 118’s “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”  The stone, which is understood by the church as Jesus, would be in this case, their rejected ideas.  So appointed not by a fair election of the people who pay their salaries but by God Himself alone, why wouldn’t they adopt this as a method of justifying this?  Aren’t they capable of  declaring themselves infallible on any matter?  Didn’t you see the white smoke from the roof when the votes were counted?  We don’t have a state government — as they say at the Vatican when the new pope is elected — habemus Papam — “We have a pope,”  even if most of us are Southern Baptists around here.

 

 

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May 30, 2011

Voter ID as the new expression of racism in Mississippi

What the cops used to do in Mississippi voters of color -- now the Republicans want to institute an ID requirement in the same spirit of oppression.

It’s a crime today in Mississippi to do what the cops in this photo are doing — preventing a black man from registering to vote.  However, the Republican establishment of Mississippi, given their fear of a black activist voting population, want to make it effectively harder to vote in the State of Mississippi.  The Republicans are trying to introduce voter ID measures in the state that are unAmerican and anti-human-rights.

How can it be that in a country that requires ID to drive and to purchase alcohol that providing ID would be anti-democracy?  Imagine for a moment that the white men in this photo holding the black man in submission let go of him.  Let’s say they let him register to vote, get to a polling place.  Then, looking him square in the eye, filled with the implicit threat of their hatred of his rights, they demand to see his ID before he casts his ballot.  In a small town, one perhaps like the one in Mississippi where the prom is still segregated, voter ID is a deterrent for the people of color of the community the way that these cops holding this man back from registering to vote was a deterrent in the early 1960s.  Fair-minded people ought to be outraged at the very suggestion of a voter ID bill by Republicans, who desperately would like the black population of Mississippi to stay home on the first Tuesday of November.

The Republicans claim their concern is for voter fraud, but they re not concerned about fraud at all — the only game-changing  frauds are in the GOP, given the low, low turnout for most elections.  In many of districts in Mississippi, the majority of adult citizens are black.  This is a consequence of slavery and generations of share cropping.  In some districts, the percentage of people of color is above eighty percent.  Yet the majority of eligible persons are not voting.  The Democrats bear some responsibility for this — in some cases they have failed to inspire a turnout.  However, no one will doubt that the majority of people of color, were they to vote in the State of Mississippi, would not vote for candidates like Haley Barbour, who is the darling of white racists and a former presidential hopeful for the Republicans.  They would vote for Democrats.  Yes, an election where less than half of the people who might have voted actually vote is fundamentally fraudulent.  This by itself is not the fault of any one political party, but an initiative to limit access in even the slightest way to the ballot should shock the sensibility of any American.

Ironically, often the Republicans run in Mississippi on the notion that government needs to get out of our lives,  that regulations are unAmerican.  The gun laws in this state, for instance, are so very lax that I don’t even need to have a permit to own one on my own land.  I could own an arsenal without showing ID, one that would make David Koresh look like he was unarmed.  That’s the way Republicans want it.  However, if they get squeamish at the idea of voting without ID, I wonder who they think they are fooling.  Frankly, their work reminds me, particularly given Mississippi’s very libertarian gun laws, of the revolt to racist thinking that inspired  Malcom X to write his  famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Is that a choice for any  citizens in the 21st century?  Have we overcome so little in Mississippi  since this photograph was taken about 40 years ago?  Republicans just want these cops in this photo to look the black voter in the eye, check ID — intimidate — and keep this  man and  his family away from the polling places.

They disgust me.

July 18, 2010

The Emperor (or Mississippi State Governor) of Ice Cream

“Call the roller of big cigars,/ The muscular one, and bid him whip/In kitchen cups concupiscent curds…./ The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” — Wallace Stevens

Stevens, in his poem about the ephemeral nature of life, bids us believe that there is no other emperor than the emperor of ice cream — meaning that empires melt after appearing and tasting grand.

I ask you — is that such a bad thing, really?

Where the empire awaits.

Off of Highway 49, going South from Florence, Mississippi toward Hattiesburg, there is a fruit stand called Donna’s.  Donna and Sidney Harrell sell boiled peanuts, squash, satsumas, cucumbers, and Sidney’s ice cream.

It is amazing ice cream, and if there ever were an emperor of ice cream, Sidney Harrell is it.

His black walnut ice cream has underflavors of maple, a pinch of salt,  and — I want to say but can’t prove it — whiskey.  His blueberry ice cream tastes as if the berries were flash frozen at the moment of picking, ready to explode in the mouth of the person who has a scoop of this heavy and redolent cream.

All empires fall.  Why not enjoy them before they melt into the sticky folds of the paper napkin surrounding the homemade waffle cone?

Sidney Harrell doesn’t look like a world-class chef.  The day I saw him at the fruit stand, he was wearing a trucker cap and a pair of faded jeans.  He had no air of the pretense that surrounds most emperors.  Rather, he looked like he might have been the mechanic of ice cream, the farmer of ice cream, the ranch hand of ice cream.

If Sidney’s ice cream pleases — and it does — it is not because he blows his own horn.

Summer is half over.  The heat in Mississippi could give anyone a headache.  Why not fight fire with ice, with ice cream?

Donna’s website — http://www.donnasproduce.com — announces “Sidney makes all of our flavors in a stainless steel machine with an old, crank-style cylinder.”  The ice cream is fourteen percent butter fat, one hundred percent worth it.

Gelato is unheard of in Mississippi.  The delicate sorbets of Berthillon on the Ile Saint Louis are as distant as the House of Chanel in this backwoods country surrounded by pines.  However, ice cream is, however ephemerally, perfectly articulated in that crank-style cylinder on the highway between nowhere and nowhere.

Sometimes, an empire rises in the desert.  Sometimes, when a pine tree falls in the forest, one can hear the sound of one hand clapping.

So it is with Sidney’s perfect ice cream, created for a public that sees it between parentheses, a pit stop, a moment between destinations.  However, it is not parenthetical, this ice cream.  It is the empire, the only empire, according to Wallace Stevens.  Sidney, Haley Barbour notwithstanding, is the governor of this emperial defiance of the transitory, temporary  nature of his stand.

So stop on your way somewhere better and notice that it might be that the journey is the destination, just as Wallace Stevens points out that the ice cream is the empire.

July 5, 2010

Tar balls — but no great balls of fire

before the tar balls hit the beaches in Mississippi, Governor Barbour shows the President around

One of the ways I know I live in Mississippi and not New York or Paris is that the people — not individuals but groups of people — don’t seem inclined to mass demonstrations.  I find the calm of the people of the State of Mississippi astonishing in the wake of a disaster where there is a yachting, snooty British face to make into a mask to put on a doll to hang in effigy.

Why are they not more feisty, more pitchfork-waving?  Why do I not hear the click of the cocking of the myriad guns that they fiercely claim the right to bear?

In 1986, when I lived in Paris and participated in the student strikes of that year with the other students at the Sorbonne, the news came on the radio one early morning that the cops had killed one of the kids demonstrating, beating him to death with billy clubs.  Within a half hour I heard shouting underneath my apartment window.  A hundred thousand people awakened by the news had gathered with signs and were shouting the name of the mayor of Paris — they called him a bastard, and shouted, “Le peuple aura ta peau” — The people will have your hide.

In New York, during the nineties, I worked organizing demonstrations for a human rights organization, and I promise you that New Yorkers, too, have a clamor that comes out relatively quickly from within them whenever the city’s troubles bubble up, like — I don’t know, so much uncappable oil from the Gulf.

Yet here we are a month into a disaster of Biblical proportions which, unlike a hurricane, cannot be blamed on an act of God, but quite simply an act of over-ambitious man, in support of the coffers of a foreign country, to the detriment of Americans, local Americans, Americans who qualify to belong to Sarah Palin’s short list of “true” Americans, Mississippians, no less, and right here, right here in Mississippi — I hear no shouting in the streets.

On the air waves, I hear right-wing radio pundits lamenting the imagined “judicial activism” of Supreme Court Nominee Kagan and the horrors of Brown V. Board of Education admiration in thinly veiled racism and by obtuse arguments like: if the founders didn’t predict the Internet, then the Constitution cannot apply to it.  On the local airwaves, I hear no grand outcry for the head of anyone on a platter regarding British Petroleum.  The silence would make one think that no such spill had affected anyone in the region.

On the local left-wing radio, I hear practical discussions about pragmatic steps that people can take to join wildlife rescue teams, about problems long-term related to the environment.  No cries for the death of a corporate Satan.

The governors of the affected states called (surprisingly late in the game) for a day of prayer.  My church prayed.

Admittedly, the effects of the disaster have not yet been fully felt.  Tourism on the Gulf in Mississippi, a source of income for the cities there, is at an absolute standstill, but  one bad season might not kill off such tourism entirely.  However, no one can say with certainty the long-term consequences to those communities.  Fishing along the coast has been prohibited, but no one knows for how long, nor can anyone say with certainty how long the fishermen will have nothing viable to catch there.

Admittedly, I live inland, hours away from the disaster, and I don’t have an eye-witness account to offer here.  However, this state feels itself as one, unlike New York State, where upstate and downstate are constantly at war.  So why have I yet to see a single sign that demands anything, anything at all, related to this disaster?

I have a few ideas why it may be that they have not responded with the elan I might have expected (or desired).  Possible explanations include:

  1. Everyone — even The New York Times — hails the posture adopted by Governor Haley Barbour in the wake of this catastrophe as a non-partisan promoter of this state’s industry.  Barbour is a Republican with ambitions, and he is habitually criticized by the Left for having his priorities wrong regarding state expenditures, for adopting policies that disenfranchise the poorest Mississippians, but here, in this instance, I hear little criticism locally on the Left of the Governor’s actions.  The people generally think that the state government is on the right side of this question.
  2. The fishing industry on the Gulf had dwindled to a shadow of its former self already for reasons wholly unrelated to this disaster.  Inland operations — cat fish and craw fish farming — are more common and profitable sources of fish these days in Mississippi.
  3. While  I doubt that many people on the Right around here would say so, Obama’s insistence that BP put 20 billion in escrow over time to address claims against the company, coupled with BP’s grudging but voluntary participation in said escrow fund, has put people’s minds at ease regarding the immediate needs of those most affected by the spill.  On right-wing local radio, I heard a whining complaint about Obama demanding this from BP, but the speakers were quick to point out that BP was honoring the government’s request without seizure of their assets.  They apparently like it when corporations volunteer for things.
  4. People around here believe that God is on their side.  They believe that God is going to see them individually and collectively through whatever they have to face.  This is not a posture that generally engenders mass demonstrations in the streets of the capitol.
  5. The capitol itself is not very big.  Unlike Paris or New York, a crowd would hardly pour into any grand town square and overflow.  There are more people living in the Brooklyn than the whole state.  A demonstration would be smaller necessarily than the ones I have seen in the past.
  6. These folks recently survived Katrina.  Whatever BP’s destruction has wrought, it feels less catastrophic than the last disaster.
  7. The people in Mississippi realize that the oil industry is one of the larger employers of people locally.  Even though BP’s practices were negligent, not the norm, many people in the oil industry realize that an accident could conceivably  happen at the company for which they work, too.  Everyone in Mississippi benefits to some degree from the revenue the oil industry generates.  Hence, the posture of the oil-company-demonizing environmentalist feels like something that local people cannot afford.
  8. Among employers in Mississippi, there are a large number of foreign companies.  This state provides some of the cheapest manufacturing labor in the country, and many foreign companies build factories here.  Hence, the foreignness of British Petroleum feels familiar, not like an attack by foreigners off the coast.
  9. People in Mississippi consider shouting bad manners.  They consider complaining bad manners.  They have good manners, on the whole.
  10. The media has been prevented in certain instances, from what I have heard through the grapevine, from going on certain beaches with cameras, from taking certain photographs, and perhaps, despite the non-stop media blitz, they have not seen the image — the girl running while napalm burns her, the firemen, policemen, and EMT workers raising the flag in the rubble — that will provoke a greater outrage.  However, the people have eyes to see for themselves.  This is local news.

Another idea that I have considered but rejected — perhaps the passivity of the people of Mississippi regarding this matter has more to do with the time in which we live, where people are more likely to join groups on Facebook than to march down the street, but then I think that no — that doesn’t make sense.  Martin Luther King, when he was visiting another Gulf state, Alabama, while he sat in Birmingham Jail wrote that the argument that a particular time has come or has not come yet for justice is false, that time itself is neutral, that people make the time do whatever they will make it do.  Hence this quiet, which I do not believe to be some sort of calm before a storm, remains mysterious to me.

Maybe it’s just too hot outside to demonstrate.

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