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

September 21, 2015

The Texan Tale of Ahmed Mohammed and Who Southerners Think is a Bad Guy

Last week, America looked at a situation in a high school that worked like an ink blot on our culture, and our divergent perceptions reveal the central problem of American culture today.

We’ve all heard the story of Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen year-old who was perhaps a bit nerdy and excited about building a clock, which he took to school.  I think none of us would have been surprised if any nerd had brought a clock to school, showed it to everyone, and then ended up getting beat up by the junior varsity football squad in the parking lot after lunch for being a massive nerd.  We would have been able to sympathize that the student in question had underestimated the social consequences of proud nerdiness among the Spartan youth that gets favored in American high schools, perhaps particularly in Texas, over the people who might have ended up working at Texas Instruments back in the 1970s. Such a story could have happened to any American nerd, and we would not have been so engaged with that narrative as a nation.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

Instead, it wasn’t the footballers that beat up Ahmed. The administration and faculty of the high school, the very people ostensibly in charge of encouraging him to pursue his nerdiness for the good of humanity despite football squad pressures to conform, who crushed his spirit.  We need people like Ahmed to become inventors.  I am rooting for today’s Ahmeds to become the future inventors of at-home liposuction kits, high heels that don’t hurt your feet, and automatic dog-walkers for snowy days.  Instead, if our President had not Tweeted as he did, we might not have seen Ahmed inventing anything after last week.  Why would he ever want to express his gifts if they get him arrested?  I have confidence that Ahmed Mohammed will explore his abilities to the fullest now, and he must rest assured that the majority of us are not inclined to discourage his success.

But here’s where I think we have a huge problem.  It’s worse than I thought it was.  Nobody who accused Ahmed feels inclined to apologize to him, and members of the Right are actually fabricating bizarre and apocryphal versions of the well-documented incidents of Mac Arthur High School’s day of infamy.

First, the Principal of the school sent out a completely offensive letter to parents congratulating himself for having taken appropriate measures to protect the school from danger.  He wrote this after he knew full well that Ahmed’s clock was not a bomb.  He then condescendingly told parents they ought to speak to their kids about bringing suspicious objects to school.  Are clocks suspicious objects?  Would they have been suspicious in the hands of a blond nerd named Tyler?

Then the mayor of Irving, Texas said she stood by the principal. She had made local news earlier this year by complaining about non-existent problems of Sharia law in her town.  Then, Sarah Palin, who hates a lot of people for a professed Christian, including the entire Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, whom she claimed when running for VP was not really American, said about Ahmed’s clock that if it was indeed a clock, she was the queen of England.  As a real Queen of England is supposed to have said, We are not amused. There is nothing amusing about calling someone guilty who is clearly, with a Texan law enforcement thumbs-up, entirely innocent of all wrong-doing.

Then, after Ms. Palin’s — let’s call them cultural contributions — a barrage of conspiracy theories hit the lunatic Right-wing Internet and were instantly believed by the already-converted, including:

  • The clock was ticking backwards like a bomb clock when the English teacher spotted it.  It wasn’t.
  • The little white packet pictured by the clock was plastic explosives. I shake my head.
  • That Ahmed didn’t invent a new clock, he just used parts he got from other devices, and this is cheating.  It’s not cheating.  There was no assignment to cheat on, and it’s really not in dispute.  Of course at age fourteen he didn’t invent his own digital interface! He participated in the time-honored tradition of American nerds of going to junk shops and Radio Shack for tools with which to create one’s first works.  There is nothing cheating in this.  And his work was mighty impressive for a fourteen year-old.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated this false arrest himself to cover up a real conspiracy to blow things up.  I ask if this idea is a product of a meth-addicted paranoia.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated with his family his false arrest so that he could sue the city of Irving.  They are suing now, and since they have received no apology for an outrageous error of judgment, I hope they walk away with the deed to City Hall, because the officials should be ashamed of themselves but aren’t.

It has gotten to the point where a certain portion of white people in this country look at an incident like this where, I repeat, there WAS NO BOMB and see a bomb, and a terrorist,  and a conspiracy.  If the facts don’t support them, it’s only because all of us — the President, the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, the MIT professors, and the supportive members of the intelligentsia are lying to the good folks of the American heartland.  We must be in favor of bombs in schools.  We must want Sharia law since we hate Christianity so much, all of us — except we don’t.  We embrace empirical evidence as a source of information about world events.  Where a boy’s clock is investigated by a bomb squad and found just to be a clock, just like he said it was over and over again, we believe the boy and the clock.  The clock is ticking forward.  It’s the increasingly ugly racist Right that wants it to tick backward to prove that their views are not backward.

The rest of us, when we look at Ahmed Mohammed, see a smart nerd and a science project. It’s like we can barely discuss events in front of us because one smaller group sees a world of dangerous, swarthy hordes with Paladins defending a narrow front line, and the rest of us see a relatively harmonious multicultural coexistence disturbed by a few fascists.  When we see videos of white cops hurting people of color, we don’t assume we have just missed a segment where the ghost of Nat Turner swooped in and killed a cop after the African-American police brutality victims summoned him.  We don’t blame the victims of government violence and institutional racism.  We don’t understand how those RIght-Wingers don’t see what we see.

How do we get past this? I want America to value American values again, including diversity, tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and for Ahmed’s sake — I want us to embrace invention instead of treating it like a threat.  We used to do that very well.  How do we get the clock to move forward on that once more?

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.

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