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I’ve written before about why I am not a conservative (Link here), but now I want to point out that neither are Republicans.

What is conservatism? Through the centuries, it has been defined by two central guiding principles.

First, that tradition is the best guide for governance. The wisdom of centuries of ancestors has winnowed the true and lasting from the meretricious and ephemeral. We should not make ill-considered changes in the functioning of society, but only those absolutely necessary, and even those should never be done quickly, but only with judicious deliberateness.

Second, that a strong central government is necessary for the smooth running of society. A Hobbesian Leviathan to control the powers of crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature.

This sort of conservatism has been both a strength of such lasting governments as those of Great Britain, and a weakness, when entrenched interests use its tenets to prevent the furtherance of justice. In America, we have seen this most maliciously in the retrenchment against Civil Rights and the enforcement of segregation.

So, a faith in keeping things running smoothly as it has been running, and in a strong central government are what define conservatism. But this is almost 180 degrees from what those who now call themselves conservatives believe. In fact, they seek to promote the crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature. All checks removed. Yea!

For them, the central government is too strong, too invasive, and such segments of the Republican Party as the Tea Party, seek to blow up two centuries of established patterns of governance. What happened? Conservatives are meant to be wary of change.

These once-fringe elements of the Republican Party are much closer to Anarchists than to Conservatives. As Grover Norquist famously said about the Federal government, “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Once again: This is not conservatism. It is anarchism.

In recent decades, the Republican Party has been the conservative party, from Barry Goldwater, through Ronald Reagan and into the 1990s, but that has all changed. There is precious little conservatism in the party these days.

Of course, parties have changed over the years, over the centuries. When the Constitution was written, it was the fervent hope of all those participating that the government would be able to function without the pernicious effect of factions. That didn’t last long, as almost immediately, the Federalists began feuding with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

But, while the parties were originally formed on ideological grounds, they soon became something else: competing teams of political power-seekers. They might as well have been football teams. They existed on patronage and party machinery. In the 19th Century, occasional third parties arose, based on political philosophy, but they either soon faded, or were absorbed into the system. Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings.

The one that survived and prospered was the Republican Party, begun as an anti-slavery party, and, after the Civil War, the party of Reconstruction and then the party of Big Business. The logic of this evolution is not clear, except as the party was led by power-seekers who gravitated toward money.

But it was also the party fostering conservation in the natural world, and the party that undertook the breaking up of corporate monopolies. Nowadays, that is hard to credit.

Through most of the 20th Century, the contending Republican and Democratic parties were simply teams vying for power. There were liberal Republicans and quite a few conservative Democrats. Both parties contained a spectrum of inclinations. They were just teams competing for power.

But, since Goldwater, the parties began a process of ideological cleansing, with those calling themselves conservatives drifting ever more to the Republican Party. Some were motivated by genuine governing philosophies, but many were pulled toward the right by the rise of Civil Rights. There was a conscious strategy among some Republicans to appeal, mainly via dogwhistle weasel words, to abject racism.

The Republicans claimed to be conservative; they excoriated the Democrats for being “liberal,” as though that were a pejorative term.

But just how conservative are current Republicans? Not much.

It has been pointed out by many observers that the leaders of the Republican Party have made a devil’s bargain with these fringe groups to gain and keep power in Washington, but that now, the monster has begun to kill its own creator. As a smaller and smaller faction of radicals enforce their will on primary elections, otherwise sensible politicians have had to curry the favor of the nut-groups, leading to a wider and wider division between the two political parties, and into that divide has seeped an element so toxic, it could destroy the whole thing.

Donald Trump is not a conservative. He isn’t anything. There is no philosophy of government, no thoughtful consideration or principles. He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Heck, he can even contradict himself within a single sentence — if you can acknowledge those utterances of word salad as sentences.

Trump is a creature unfit for the office, unfit even for human company. A “short-fingered vulgarian” and self-promoter, he makes me embarrassed to be an American. And not because of his politics — which are bad enough — but because he is such a poltroon. I needn’t enumerate his gaucheries, insults, lies, distortions, self-aggrandizements, arm-twisting handshakes, bilious lip-poutings, shuffling gait, knee-length neckties, blatant nepotisms and the creepy things he has said about his daughter — all these and more can be found by the thousands on the Google.

But, because the Tea Party has controlled the Republican Party, and because a minority of voters in a crowded primary managed to win Trump the nomination in 2016, the party finds itself having to defend and support the unsupportable and indefensible.

And now, no grown-ups have gotten what they wanted, or thought they wanted. Only the immature, thoughtless and xenophobic have got what they sought.

I have no doubt that many a Republican congressman and senator would be more centrist, if they did not face rabid primary challenges in their now gerrymandered districts.

Some Republicans no doubt would like to promote genuine conservative ideals, but they have been backed into a corner, and now face defending tariffs instead of free trade. They have to campaign against the very institution they are members of. And they have to excuse behavior from their party leader that they would have salivated over being able to use against any Democrat. Did Bill Clinton lie about Monica Lewinsky? A threat to our nation. Did Trump lie about Stormy Daniels? Well, he’s just being Trump. No big deal.

They are caught, not merely in a round of hypocrisy, but hypocrisy so blatant and toxic it may well end up disintegrating the Republican Party. And most of the country  — a majority of voters — will find it hard to lament the demise.

race gravure

When I was a schoolboy and too young to know better than to ask foolish questions, I wondered why I, with my ruddy pink skin, was called ”White” and why Charlie Johnson, with chocolate skin, was called ”Black.”

What I saw around me was a huge variety of skin color, from the pasty Irish winter skin to the darkest African blue-black. There weren’t two colors, but thousands.

It was one of those cultural inconsistencies that sometimes bother children, but that adults seldom seem to puzzle over. I now recognize that it is as if a linguistic pattern were cast over reality, taking its place, so that we see words and not skin.

The question of race has followed me into adulthood, as I see people argue back and forth, usually at cross purposes, without ever having stopped to ask themselves, ”What is race?”

If they took time to define what they mean, they might have a better chance of making themselves understood.

For race isn’t one self-contained category; we mean many things by it, and sometimes contradictory things.

It would help if we could tease out some of the strands of the knotty problem.

The problem of definition began with the 18th century European obsession with taxonomy. They wanted to name everything. Europaeid types

While it had been recognized for millennia that there were distinctive population groups in the world — The Greeks knew their Ethiopians, Shakespeare knew his Othello was a Moor — it is only during the Enlightenment that anyone tried to pin the variations down to uniform categories.

Race as a scientific idea began with the Swede Carl Linne, who devised an ingenious system for classifying animals and plants by morphology. He devised a system of phyla, orders, families and genera that worked its way down to species and, occasionally, subspecies.

A dog is Canis familiaris, a swamp rose is Rosa palustris. Humans are Homo sapiens.

Linne further divided humans into four ”races,” or subspecies, which he named H. sapiens americanus, europaeus, asiaticus and afer. These, he said, were red, White, yellow and Black. He also defined them by personality and culture.

H. sapiens europaeus, for instance, ”wears tight-fitting clothes” and is ”nimble, of the keenest mind, innovator.” H. sapiens afer, however, are ”cunning, lazy, careless,” and they ”smear self with fat.” Guess which race Linne considered himself to be.

American Indians, by this system, are cheerful and resolute, and Asians are proud and greedy. It should be noted that Linne didn’t get to travel much; it was the 18th century, and what he knew of other peoples was largely peculiar hearsay.

The confusion of race and behavior continues. I remember one White minister in Greensboro, N.C., who announced that his ministry was to aid ”the alcoholic, the drug addict and the Negro.”

Later biologists narrowed the races to three, eliding the red and yellow races, and they called the three Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Then others, noting the number of population groups that could not easily fit into these three classes — Polynesians, for instance, or Australian aborigines — came up with newer and more distinct races and sub-races. The number proliferated to the point that there were nearly as many races as there were people, and race as a useful scientific classification evaporated.

MISSING IN MODERN SCIENCE

Most scientists now discount the idea of race; you will be hard pressed to find the term used in any modern text.

The initial idea was that genetic ”types” exist in regional populations. The problem is that there is more variation between individuals within each group than there is between the groups themselves. Dravidian Caucasoids may very well be darker of skin than Nilotic Negroids.

As a biological concept, race was a convenient but misleading shorthand, made nonsense after a deeper look at the facts. race types

And the very distinctions made between populations — skin color, nose shape, resistance to malaria, lactose tolerance, etc. — are not distributed uniformly through the so-called races. The characteristics are likely to be distributed regionally, but the regions are multifarious and overlapping, not monolithic and co-equal.

It is a very few people who have all the many characteristics used to define a ”Negroid” or ”Caucasoid.” There are dark-skinned Caucasoids and straight-haired Negroids.

It makes even less sense in America, where the variations are no longer regional, and the bloodlines are no longer separate.

Yet, the notion of race persists. It is this nation’s most intractable social problem. If it is not biological, what is it?

Even before science took over the idea, race was a short word for ”bloodline.” Each family, insofar as it can be distinguished from its neighbors, is the culmination of a race. In Wagner’s version of Germanic myth, for instance, there is the race of Wolsungs, the race of Gibichungs, the race of Niebelungs.

I come from a race of Nilsens, although I can only trace it back a handful of generations, and there is no eponymous hero at its source.

But that is not what most Americans mean when they evoke the word ”race.”

In this country, with its peculiar history, race most immediately means skin color.

Yet the distinction is the least useful. If you took all the peoples of the world and lined them up, not as in an old grammar school photograph, by height, but by skin shade, you would not find any distinct breaks, but a continuous spectrum of color: a wash, not a palette. average female face

In the U.S., we have an artificial sampling of skin color. It is as if a dollop of red from one end of the spectrum were plopped down square on the blue end. The colors seem distinct and different, but this is a historical accident, not a true picture of racial difference.

While skin color is the most obvious racial marker, the most important is culture. People brought here from Africa had a different culture from those who came here from Europe.

The cultures have blended together quite a bit, yet it is astonishing how conservative culture is. Cultural forms can be maintained over centuries without anyone really thinking about it. Why does a wooden church in New England so often have the pointed arch of a Gothic stone cathedral? It makes no sense in wood.

We enter our jet planes from the left side, just as we mounted our horses. We let our children play with ”choo-choo trains,” despite the fact that their grandparents were likely the last in their race to have ever seen a steam locomotive.

When I visited South Africa, I was astonished to find it seemed so much like the North Carolina I had lived in for 20 years. I saw an old Black man in a worn blue suit and no shoes, waiting in front of a wooden store/service station for a ride. He could have been from Hobgood, N.C.

I heard a choir of cleaning women singing as they worked, and I recognized in the tone of their voices Ma Rainey and Aretha Franklin.

It is often these cultural differences that we use to separate the races in the U.S. — Rap vs. bluegrass; basketball vs. hockey, grape soda vs. root beer.

We feel comfortable with our own way of doing things, suspicious of other ways. There is considerable xenophobia in our racial attitudes.

Another important facet of what we call race is more accurately called class.

The reaction of many well-to-do Whites to poor Blacks is not much different from their reaction to poor Whites. “Trailer trash,” they call them. One remembers that in the 19th century, when there was so much prejudice against Irish working-class immigrants to the U.S., there were attempts to prove that the Irish were little different from African slaves. Irish negroes

Poor people are seen to have different work ethics, different hygiene patterns, different cultural ideals. That so many more Blacks than Whites, by percentage, are poor, leads to a bleeding of one attitude into another. Much of what is ascribed to African-Americans by their White neighbors is class consciousness, not simple racism.

Both are pernicious, but the two become confused in argument.

POLITICS AND POWER

Then, too, race has become politics. And by politics, I mean power.

Political leaders speak as if they mean to ameliorate the problems of society, but the main goal of politics is power, its acquisition and maintenance. Those in power don’t want to give it up, those disenfranchised want to get it. When they can use race, from either side, they will.

This is used by both sides: White politicians have a glossary of code words that warn their voters that Blacks will take their jobs and their women. The privileged mean to prevent the dispossessed from getting power.

But the Black politician often complains about a Black conservative that he is somehow turning his back on the ”solidarity,” which is needed to gain power. Voter blocks on each side line up to scrimmage at the poll.

If a demonstration of the political definition of race were needed, one only has to consider the concept of ”race mixing,” seen in two different contexts.

Consider these two political systems and their apportionment of political power. In South Africa under apartheid, the admixture of White blood and Black ”ennobled” and made a new category, ”Colored,” above Black and not far under White and with most of the rights of Whites, whereas in the old U.S., a percentage of Black blood mixed with White ”degraded” and created a Black person and the lack of rights that came with the color.

It is an odd system indeed that forces Mariah Carey or Halle Berry into the category, “Black woman.” And how we scratch our heads over the categorization of Tiger Wood. trio

Nor can we forget history when we talk of race. The United States cannot escape the evils of its own past. Whites would like to forget slavery: ”That was a long time ago. I never owned any slaves,” they say. They seem to have no sense of history (unless it’s the Southern White’s sense of grievance about the Civil War.)

But Black Americans cannot avoid the burden of history. It is brought home to them every day. They cannot forget that they arrived on this continent under protest. They cannot forget that they were once legally less than fully human.

They cannot help seeing the vestiges of that past, even when such vestiges are invisible to Whites. What they call ”racism,” is often just the comet-tail of history, still affecting the course of events.

There are still more facets of race: linguistic usage, self-image, marketing. In one sense, race has turned from being a caste marker and into a demographic group.

So, when we open a dialogue on race, as the president has asked, we need to try to be clear about what we mean, and not address skin color when we mean class, not argue over culture, when it’s politics we are concerned with.

I don’t have the solutions to America’s race problems, but I am certain that unless we begin by defining what we mean by race, by beginning with the simplest questions, we will continue to repeat ourselves over and over until we are neither Black nor White, but are merely blue in the face.

manzanar

My attraction to Manzanar was initially artistic, not political.

The 500-acre site in California’s Owens Valley on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is now a dusty spot of desert under the snow-capped peaks, but in 1943 it was home to 10,000 Japanese-Americans detained under federal order in a concentration camp built there, one of 10 such camps in the American West.

That year, it was visited by photographer Ansel Adams, who was invited to make a series of photographs of camp life. I had seen prints of those photographs while doing research at the Library of Congress, where they are stored, and had long wondered about the place.

”My first impression of Manzanar,” Adams wrote in his autobiography, ”was of a dry plain on which appeared a flat rectangular layout of shacks, ringed with towering mountains. … row upon row of black tar-paper shacks only somewhat softened by the occasional greenery.”

manzanar barracks

Most of the photographs he made are of the people, their homes and the social lives they maintained under impossible circumstances. But he also found something redemptive in the landscape.

”I have been accused of sentimental conjecture when I suggest that the beauty of the natural scene stimulated the people in the camp. No other relocation center could match Manzanar in this respect, and many of the people spoke to me of these qualities and their thankfulness for them,” he wrote.

And the single most famous image from Adams’ time in the camp is his Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California. It was prominently featured in the Museum of Modern Art show ”The Family of Man” in the 1950s, with its foreground of gargantuan boulders and background of sunlight breaking through a storm over the mountain peak. If ever there was a photograph meant to evoke the spiritual power of landscape, this is it.

manzanar mt williamson

So I was drawn to Manzanar to see the land. Certainly nothing was left of the camp, I was certain.

And the only thing that gives away the location of the camp is a stone sentry booth off the side of U.S. 395 about 15 miles north of Lone Pine. Behind it, all you see at first glance is gravel, dry grass, mesquite trees and clumps of datura wobbling their coarse white lace in the breeze.

But as soon as you drive into the camp and crawl along the old dirt roads, you discover what the decades have tried to obscure: flat concrete foundations of barracks, some weathered lumber littering the ground and the odd sight of water-system standpipes poking up like leafless shrubbery in the emptiness.

Walking through the old foundations, you discover broken bits of dinner plates and an occasional fork with its tines splayed. In one plaza area between the concrete ruins, there was a 5-foot mound of earth ringed with stones. It had been a Japanese rock garden built by the internees.

Above the camp, Mount Williamson still looks impressive although nothing in nature ever looks quite so impressive as it does in Adams’ prints.

And the reality of American politics is sometimes less impressive than it looks in the Constitution. Here in Manzanar, American citizens were locked up for no reason but their race.

When Adams published a book, Born Free and Equal, of his Manzanar photographs in 1944, copies were actually burned by what Adams called ”reactionary groups with racial phobias and commercial interests” who questioned his loyalty and patriotism.

manzanar father and son

I became adult as the Vietnam War raged both here and in Asia, and I recall many of the same sentiments expressed then.

And as I left the camp, I poked through the sentry booth, which is filled with 50 years’ worth of graffiti, most of it in Japanese and left by those who were detained there and now by their descendants, who often come back to visit.

A young Japanese man pulled up on his Kawasaki while I was there and started photographing the booth interior. He spoke almost no English, but when I asked him if he could translate the words, he told me that most were names.

I pointed to one set of characters carved into the woodwork around a window, and he told me it was the Japanese transliteration of the name Clark.

In 1992 Congress designated Manzanar as a National Historic Site. It was the 50th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order authorizing the internment.