Trump lobbies GOP senator on base names

A Washington D.C. diner recorded a conversation between Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and President Trump in which the senator promised to help Trump prevent the renaming of military bases bearing Confederate names. Read that story here.

Congress has already passed a Defense Authorization Act containing such a provision with majorities large enough to override Trump’s threatened veto; it passed the Senate 86-14.

First of all, the diner wasn’t spying on the conversation. He (or she) simply overheard it. Inhofe put it on speakerphone, and anyone in the restaurant could hear it. It wasn’t private. That made it fair game.

Trump has made clear his stance on Confederate flags, monuments, and military base names. These are considered racist symbols by many — but not all — Americans.

I could argue this doesn’t make Trump a racist. The argument goes like this: First, to be a racist you must believe in something. Trump believes in nothing — not God, America, democracy, or the difference between good and evil. Only in taking care of Trump. (However, to be clear, I consider Trump racist.) Second, defending all things Confederate is simply pandering to a voting segment he can’t afford to lose. While I think Trump’s racism factors in, I think this is what’s really motivating him in this.

In this conversation, Trump referred to “cancel culture” as “bull****,” which the story linked above describes as “support for a person is withdrawn over offensive actions or statements.” Let’s work with that definition and talk about “cancel culture,” which is my topic for this article.

Is the “cancel culture” movement reasonable or “bull****”? To address this question, I’ll start with a simple (and improbable) hypothetical to both illustrate what “cancel culture” is and why those promoting it may have a valid point. Let’s say a serial killer murdered your daughter, but he was a hometown hero in a faraway state, and they put up a statue of him. Would you want that statue removed, even though it’s not in your community, and you don’t have to look at it? I don’t know about you, but I certainly would. From there, the debate becomes how analogous that is to Confederate “heritage.” (Think oppressed blacks, and descendants of Union soldiers killed in the war.)

To many Americans, especially blacks, Confederate flags and statues are symbols of racism. This isn’t so much because of the Civil War as the fact that segregationists and racists made them so. Many Confederate monuments were erected long after the Civil War by the Ku Klux Klan and others to intimidate blacks and support segregation. That makes them prime targets for cancellation, and makes defending them look racist.

Now let’s turn to the military bases. There are 10 Army facilities named after Confederates, all in the South, and according to Vox “the history of naming Army installations after Confederate officers is deeply intertwined with America’s long history of racism.” They explain that around the same time that the Army began integrating, it was building facilities in the South because land was cheap there, and named them after Confederate heroes “to appease racist white political leaders and locals who didn’t want a more integrated military nearby.” Read this story here.

For example, Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Gordon in Georgia, and Camp Pickett in Virginia were all established in 1941. Fort Bragg, North Carolina, however, dates back to 1918. The mothership of Confederate-named Army bases, Fort Lee in Virginia, dates back to 1917 near the site of a Civil War training camp known as “Camp Lee.”

What, exactly, is the “heritage” these base names represent today? Former Army general David Petraeus, quoted in the Vox article, says,

“When I was a cadet at West Point in the early 1970s, enthusiasm for Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson was widespread. We were not encouraged to think deeply about the cause for which they had fought, at least not in our military history classes. And throughout my Army career, I likewise encountered enthusiastic adherents of various Confederate commanders, and a special veneration for Lee.”

Another West Pointer quoted by Vox, Fred Wellman, and Iraq veteran, says professors there taught cadets what historian William R. Black calls a “collection of historical myths meant to whitewash the hard truths of slavery and the Civil War.” While this helps explain the Army’s past institutional resistance to changing these names, and inertia in retaining them, that’s not a compelling “heritage” worth retaining.

While some people in the South feel strongly about their Confederate “heritage,” with or without racist intentions, other people feel equally strongly about expurgating this “heritage” from our culture. They consider Confederate leaders and generals traitors and anti-Americans who fought for the destruction of this country. How do you resolve these irreconcilable views?

Simple. Through the political process. If Congress mandates name changes, Trump vetoes it, and he’s overridden — that’s the end of it. The military seems to be on board with the changes, although how anybody in the military feels about it, from the top down to the lowest enlisted ranks, is immaterial because the military has to accept and follow direction from civilian policymakers. And while Trump and southern politicians like Inhofe might be able to stall Confederate “cancel culture” for now, with Trump trailing badly in polls and Democrats also poised to win control of the Senate (this, of course, could change by November), the days of Confederate-named military bases definitely seem numbered.

The “cancel culture” movement is, of course, larger than that. Its targets aren’t limited to Confederate flags, statues, symbols, and names. It has also targeted Christopher Columbus and even some of the Founding Fathers. While its focus, for now, is slavery and historical figures who defended slavery or at least owned slaves, it could widen to include other “politically incorrect” facets of our culture.

The question then will become, how much is too much, and where do you draw the line? It’s always easier to defend an idea or movement that has highly specific goals and objectives. But I see no reason why “cancel culture” can’t cast a wide net, although it might not be the best vehicle for reshaping our culture in all cases.

Culture isn’t just important, it’s crucial, in shaping human society. It gives permission for some things and forbids others. Slavery couldn’t have existed without such permission. Neither could’ve the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War 2, and the culture that permitted it had to be carefully constructed with propaganda and political coercion. Culture isn’t carved in stone, and in evolving societies like ours, reshaping it is natural and necessary for social, economic, and technological progress. Culture gets reshaped by changing attitudes influenced by art, music, politics, and even science. The “cancel culture” movement should be seen as a subset of the broader social movements that seek to change societies. It can be either good or bad, and constructive or destructive, depending on its objects and goals.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    Since the President does not have a line item veto, he must either accept the Defense Authorization act as is or veto the whole thing. It is not unusual that items such as renaming bases that the President may object to ends up in the act. Most Representatives and Senators like seeing the troops get paid, and that is why they vote overwhelming for what ever is in the bill after it gets out of committee. While there are costs involved in renaming should this action not be in a separate bill?
    You are not going to remove the names from history books or movies, ect and in the end they are just place names, and in nations reconciliation happens in names of leaders from both sides end up on schools, post offices, military bases, ect. All of these leaders spent time as uniformed soldiers or sailors in the US military. In the Indiana civil war memorial there were captured Confederate flags on display. There are National Battlefields mostly from the civil war. Some southerners would appreciate these symbols of the war of northern aggression go away and the Angle, Peach Orchard, Wheat Field be turned into strip malls.
    One cannot study the American civil war without slavery being somewhere on the sage, though everything is directly connected to slavery or racism. Should the residents of Douglas county in Nevada change the name of the county as it is named for Stephen Douglas Democrat orator and racist and supporter of the 1850 compromise.
    Everyone thinks Canadians are nice, well Canada had slavery until the 1833. Slavery was a world wide phenomenon. No group of human beings is innocent of not being blemished by slavery in some way. Many benefitted, even Sir Isaac Newton though I do not hear that effects his theory of gravity. The fact he profited and others including the crown profited means tearing down statues and destroying the corner stone of Western Civilization?
    In the US military at any base there is the ability to rebut cancel culture with the phrase: “Suck it up.” From time to time black soldiers have had to suck up their disgust at a name of a base and it has made them better soldiers and that is the goal, and complaining how much the rations suck. A time honored tradition of all soldiers.