“That’s Not Who We Are.” Wrong. It Is Who We Are. So Let’s Deal With It.

A farm market in Somerset, KY., the largest city in one of the most conservative counties in the United States. All seems calm. County residents are engulfed by the various cultural messes that affect the rest of the country. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY. — “That’s not who we are.” A number of Democratic presidential candidates have joined other national leaders in uttering these words. Presumably they’re meant as a rallying cry for the sane among us, served up to define principles of fairness and justice — the country’s core values.

Actually, it’s not who we are. What we are is the spasm of lies, violence, injustice, and hate that has characterized much of American history, a black blanket of cultural rage that has again settled on the country.

This is not a screed on the American president–though he encourages the mistrust and contempt destabilizing the country–or that Make America Great Again embodies too many of our worst national traits. And it’s not a lament that half the country approves what he’s up to and seems to enjoy the show.

Instead it’s an essay about us, written at a time of apparent full employment, when Krogers are arrayed in a bounty of food and goods, when Fords and Toyotas are flying off of dealer lots, and gasoline costs less in real dollars than it did in the 1970s. It’s prompted by a conversation I had earlier this month with a friend from Chicago, a Chinese immigrant, who told me he and his family have noticed a coarsening of attitudes, a hardened inflexible barrier in their interactions with Americans. Four years ago, when they arrived in America, they felt more welcome. People were friendlier, more accommodating.

My friend said he was nervous about an America he did not recognize. An interesting thought, considering he is an American archetype. My friend is a successful and brilliant engineer. He was born, educated, and employed overseas and chose to come with his family to America. He’s done well and lived well here. Same for his wife and children.

But he was worried because as a boy, he and his family lived through the same kind of coarsening in Chinese society, a cultural revolution a half century ago that was brutal and in some cases deadly to the most successful professional and educated people of that nation.

I told him he ought to be worried. I’m worried, too.

I also told him that with a few exceptions, our 243-year history has been stained by inequity and pain and evil intent aimed at every group that’s ever lived within our borders. America is great at fostering myth, I said. Few are as powerful and enduring as the myth of the benevolent America shining a beacon of hope and a lantern of opportunity on its immigrants, on its own people, and on the other nations of the world.

President Trump in Salt Lake City, December 2017. He removed 2 million acres from two national monuments in Utah, the first decision of its kind in American history. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The reality is quite different. From the very beginning, we arrived on these shores and took everything we wanted from the Native Americans who lived here — land, women, wealth. And since that time, every immigrant that came to the United States has been the subject of torment and attack. Now many members of those same groups are the tormenters.

We’ve been an angry, selfish, perturbed country since the start. We enslaved Africans to build the agrarian economy of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. We terrorized their descendants with a state-sponsored system of apartheid and lynching for 100 more years. We wrongly convicted and mass-incarcerated thousands more black men and women.

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In Montgomery, Bryan Stevenson is Thurgood Marshall’s Heir Apparent For Supreme Court

Montgomery’s excellent jazz musicians highlight the city’s lively club scene. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Montgomery, which has occupied one bank of the Alabama River since 1819, never deliberately set out to distinguish itself as the white hot furnace of American racial injustice, or the historic hearth of reconciliation. That’s what Alabama’s capital has become, though.

Yesterday the city of 200,000, where slaves were sold and where the Civil Rights movement was born, took another memorable step. It elected Steven Reed, Montgomery County’s first African American probate judge, as its first black mayor.

In the age of a maniac in the White House whose words enflame white supremacist hatred, Montgomery is a welcome lesson in cultural evolution. The city’s reckoning with its cruel past, and the opportunities afforded by its civil advance also has produced two more well-earned outcomes.

The first is the flourishing tourism trade centered on dramatic new expressions of racial injustice that are articulated in an emotionally gripping national monument to victims of lynching, and a sister museum of slavery and mass incarceration. Both opened in April 2018. The two attractions express a more urgent and contemporary narrative of bigotry that ties slavery, the Civil War, lynching, segregation, and civil rights to the current era of street shootings and mass incarcerations of African American men.

Dexter Avenue, which ends at the state Capitol, was the end point of the famous 1965 civil rights march from Selma. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The second is the emergence of Bryan Stevenson as a national human rights hero. Stevenson is a decorated civil rights lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery to defend and liberate wrongfully convicted black death row inmates in Alabama. Stevenson was barely known in the city and state as recently as three years ago, even though he won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the ‘genius’ award) in 1995.

A lot changed since. Stevenson published a best-selling memoir about his work, “Just Mercy,” in 2014. The new museum and memorial, which he inspired and helped to design, are attracting throngs of visitors and encouraging a surge of downtown construction. The Equal Justice Initiative campaign to install historic markers at sites where lynching occurred gains momentum in counties across the country.

This year HBO broadcast a documentary on Stevenson, and Hollywood produced a major motion picture, “Just Mercy,” that stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of the book’s central characters.

As if the United States needs another reason to liberate the White House from its current occupant, here’s one more. Electing a Democrat as president would elevate Stevenson as a legitimate and logical nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and decorated civil rights lawyer. (Photo/Equal Justice Initiative)
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Will Americans Defend Our Democracy?

President Trump in Salt Lake City in December 2017 to announce two national monuments will shrink by 2 million acres. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY. — During the first week of March 2016, nine months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), opened their online assault on American democracy. The Russian military intelligence unit began to hack, according to Robert Mueller’s special counsel report, “the computers and email accounts of organizations, employees, and volunteers supporting the Clinton campaign, including the email account of campaign chairman John Podesta.”

By April 25, according to the Mueller report, Russians had stolen 70 gigabytes of data. On July 22, WikiLeaks released a horde of stolen insider details about Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the media just three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

During the same period, another Russian intelligence unit was busy establishing social media groups and seeding American social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Instagram, with messages that lied about Clinton but were favorable to Trump. According to the Mueller report, the Russian accounts made over 80,000 posts and “these posts reached at least 29 million U.S persons and may have reached an estimated 126 million people.”

The consequences of what turned out to be the most damaging attack ever by Russia on the United States is not in dispute. Clinton’s run for the presidency was damaged by massive amounts of misinformation. Donald Trump’s campaign received an unlawful mega-boost from a foreign power.

The Mueller report says neither Trump nor his aides participated in the online document thefts. But they actively encouraged their disclosure and dissemination, even after The New York Times, on July 26, 2016, disclosed that Russian intelligence was the source of the stolen campaign documents.

Washington during March For Our Lives demonstration. A display of constitutionally-protected citizen activism in March 2018. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Just a day later, on July 27, candidate Trump urged more such disclosures during a news conference in Florida. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And five hours after that call to arms, said the Mueller report, Russian intelligence aimed their hacking expertise at Clinton’s email accounts.

Now America faces a cultural and political reckoning, one of the singularly momentous choices of this century. Trump vowed at his inauguration to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The question the country must answer is this: Does President Trump’s encouragement of the Russian election interference, and his unsuccessful campaign to impede the public assessment of what occurred, represent a violation of his oath of office?

I spent several days last week driving in Alabama and listening to local talk radio hosts express their clear conviction that Trump is innocent of any managerial mishaps. Conservative supporters of Trump are satisfied to let him skate. I also heard a select number of progressive voices tell me that actively pursuing more Congressional investigation was politically impulsive, even dangerous to Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle. A good number of Democrats also are prepared to let the president slide.

But what occurred in 2016 with Russia’s election interference, and in 2017 with the president’s effort to impede an investigation, is an egregious violation of the public trust and national security. A sacred rite of Democracy, free elections, was violated by a foreign antagonist. The Russians did not aim a missile or fire a shot. But their expertise in asymmetrical warfare, in data gathering and online messaging, succeeded in causing ongoing social division and poisonous political turbulence in the United States, and to some extent around the world. Rather than marching to the front lines of defense, the American president retreated to the dark hollows of lies, deceit, and cowardice.

His supporters are satisfied with the president’s behavior. But every other American must hold the president and his supporters in Congress accountable. That includes the Democratic leadership. How can they allow their 2016 presidential candidate be savaged by a foreign power without a powerful response? The credibility of their party and US democracy is at stake. The House must hold hearings on impeachment. The country must replace Donald Trump as president.

Enemy Of The People

A news conference at UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen 2009 (Photo/Keith Schneider)

There are places in the world where being a journalist is dangerous. Last year 65 journalists were killed around the world, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Two of the nations at the top of the list for assassinating journalists are Mexico and the Philippines, where I’ve worked. Another is Pakistan, where I won’t work. Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was killed there in 2002.

Very suddenly, though, it’s become dangerous to be an American journalist in the United States. In late June five reporters and editors were killed in Annapolis, MD. It was the deadliest mass murder of American journalists since 1910 when a bomber killed 21 people at the Los Angeles Times.

The killer is a man said to have a long-standing grudge against the Capital Gazette. And while investigators assert they understand the motive, it’s not lost on me (or other journalists I know) that the Annapolis killings occurred when the president of the United States was lustily declaring the American media as “the enemy of the people.”

The video coverage of Trump’s rallies display how his attacks on fake news and the media animate blood lust in the crowd. It’s no reach at all to project how some among them could take up arms and attack U.S. journalists. And it’s no reach to project that Trump’s supporters, and perhaps the president himself, would say they had it coming.

This is the requisite paragraph in which I display my intimate understanding of the myriad lapses in American journalism. I understand why the powerful institution to which I’ve devoted my life makes good people crazy. It’s not just the factual errors or the mechanics of hyping insignificance. It’s how the herd can be driven so far off course, like blindly following government lies about weapons of mass destruction into war with Iraq, or devoting so much attention to Hillary’s emails while dismissing much of Trump’s record of financial fraud and management malfeasance.

But in no way are journalists the enemy of the people. Our value in holding leaders accountable, in uncovering wrong doing, or promoting good work is vital to a healthy democracy. I will not be pushed off track by a manic president or his menacing siege against journalism. My colleagues won’t either. At this vulnerable moment in our history we know the nation needs courageous reporting more than ever.

— Keith Schneider

The November Election

President Trump during December 2017 appearance in Salt Lake City to announce his decision to remove protections for 2 million acres of public land in Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — I’m not at all concerned by the talk about the “end of the American empire.” I saw that needless arrogance slipping by nine years ago in Beijing’s spotless and soaring international airport, fast subways, faster intercity high-speed rail lines, and well-dressed professionals building the Asian century on boulevards flanked by state-of-the art offices.

No, what keeps me up at night — quite literally, I’m not sleeping well these days — is my creeping conviction that President Trump has opened the door to the dungeon of American ugliness. Our most grotesque cultural behaviors are being turned loose. Innate violence. Racism. Hate. Ignorance. Intolerance.

The administration’s program of separating babies and older children from their parents along the Southwest border, and holding them in chainlink enclosures, is cruel. It’s also supported by nearly all the people who voted in 2016 for the president.

It’s starting to appear that the last half century of cultural advance — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, access to higher education — may be an aberration. A remarkable period when America really tried to live up the social contract framed by its founding documents. That half-century, though, may soon be regarded as a departure for a nation that enslaved and sold human beings, waged war on its indigenous people, subjected millions of its citizens in the South to decades of state-supported separation and terrorism, met its union organizers with machine guns and bullets, assassinated its prophets, and concocted lies to dispatch its young to die in losing wars of ideology.

Oh Lord. What will the November election tell us about the American character? It better be good.

— Keith Schneider