Saturday, April 30, 2011

Heads of State and Heads of Government; Or, Where's Mommy?

Yesterday it was almost impossible to get away from the news about the royal wedding. Even NPR, which can normally be relied upon for substance, devoted too much time to it (admittedly, five minutes would have been too much, in my opinion). It was a particularly egregious manifestation of celebrity worship, except that unlike (for example) Justin Bieber, who actually did something to become famous, William and Kate have done nothing (unless you count being born as doing something).

Earlier this week on On Point, Tom Ashbrook devoted an hour to discussing why any nations still have royal families (at least on the part that I heard, they didn't come up with an answer). Over at the Daily Dish, British-born Andrew Sullivan makes the case for the useful role a monarch plays as a symbol of the nation. Like many other countries (e.g., France, Ireland, Sweden), Britain makes the (to us) foreign distinction between the head of state and the head of government. In Britain, Spain, and other constitutional monarchies, the monarch is the head of state. In republics such as France and Ireland, an elected president is the head of state. Head of state is a largely ceremonial post, but in the case of some republics the president has limited discretionary powers. The head of state's real purpose is to be a figure of national unity, or a national parental figure, if you will. In such monarchies and republics, it's the prime minister who actually runs the country, with all the difficulty and dirtiness that such work involves. The head of state is theoretically above all that.

In the United States, for good or ill, the head of state and head of government are the same person. To many (mostly older) Americans, the president is supposed to be almost a living embodiment of the nation. This partly explains the intensity of the national grief when Kennedy was assassinated--and the disgust of many Americans at Bill Clinton's messy private life. It also helps explain why so many white Americans are outraged that we have a black man with a foreign-sounding name in the Oval Office. He embodies a demographic change that terrifies a lot of people who miss a picket-fence, white-bread America that never actually existed.

Very few men have had the personal prestige to successfully fulfill the symbolic promise of the presidency: George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower come to mind, but not many others. In the unlikely event that our constitution were amended to make head of state a separate office, I can't imagine we could find anyone seen as sufficiently above the fray of politics to be a symbol of national unity.

In the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II is possibly the last member of her family capable of being a figure the entire country can rally around. As Jonathan Freedland points out in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, she's one of the last living links to the most glorious hour in modern British history: when the nation stood alone against Hitler. I don't see how her lily-white descendants will come to be as seen as anything other than an anachronism in an increasingly multiracial Britain.

Of course, all this begs the question, why do people need symbols of national unity? Are peoples around the world really that infantile that we all need some national parental figure or physical representative of a national ideal?

Apparently so.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Southern Dispatch

I was scanning Salon's headlines a few minutes ago and this caught my eye:

Poll: 46 percent of Mississippi Republicans want interracial marriage ban

The article went on to explain the poll subdivided Republicans in my native state by the candidate they supported for 2012 and showed what percentage of each candidate's supporters were for or against a racial marriage ban. Guess what? Supporters of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour lead the pack in being against interracial marriage at 37%. Supporters of Mike Huckabee came in second at 22%.

Because I have a sick compulsion to read the comments thread on news stories, I skimmed what little remained of the article and went straight to the comments. Most of it was the predictable liberal outrage and horror. Others were along the lines of "So, Republicans are racists? In other news, rain falls out of the sky."

I have to admit when I read that headline I was genuinely shocked--because the percentage of Mississippi Republicans who said they supported a ban of interracial marriage was much lower than I had expected. Then I took a closer look at the figures: another 14 % of Mississippi Republicans said they were "unsure" whether they supported a ban on interracial marriage. Now to be on the fence about that issue....let's just say the math puts the figure of Mississippi Republicans with antebellum views on race relations at 60%. Of the forty percent who said they were against a ban on interracial marriage...I'm sure that includes a few respectable citizens of Jackson or Columbus who know you just can't say that sort of thing out loud anymore. And I'm sure that number also includes (say) a Greenville cotton broker or a Laurel house wife who has a son who moved to San Francisco or New York and married a black woman and [read the following italicized words with your best imitation of a Southern accent] so of course nothin's wrawng with interracial marriage and we've nevah been prejudiced...but let's just say they don't talk to their daughter-in-law often and the holidays are kind of....tense.

Southern Republicanism has its roots in racism. When Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he reportedly told an aide, "We've lost the South for a generation." It turns out Johnson was being a tad optimistic. But Southern disenchantment with the Democratic party had begun much earlier. When the Democratic Party adopted a civil rights platform for the election of 1948, 35 Southern delegates walked out of the national convention, and a splinter group of Southern Democrats calling themselves Dixiecrats supported Strom Thurmond for president. Thurmond carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina in the election. The only reason Southerners stayed with the Democratic Party as long as they did was a traditional revulsion at the idea of supporting the party that had freed the slaves.

In other Southern news, the University of Mississippi is trying to get some positive exposure for its new mascot. For those of you who don't know the back story, the mascot of the Ole Miss football team has traditionally been Col. Reb, a bearded plantation owner with appalling taste in clothes. (As an aside, I never really understood this choice of mascot. Isn't a football team mascot supposed to represent ferocity and prowess? Michigan State's mascot is a Spartan. South Carolina's Clemson University has a tiger. What is a geriatric plantation owner supposed to do to an opponent? Serve them bourbon until they pass out?) Anyway, for years critics had been deriding Col. Reb as an antiquated symbol of racism. Well, change is inevitable, even in Mississippi. In 2010 students and alumni were asked to vote for a new mascot. A few visionaries voted for Admiral Ackbar, a rebel commander in Return of the Jedi. (I think the argument went something like, well he's a rebel too, and he outranks a colonel).

In spite of campaign rallies like the one pictured below, a Star Wars character simply wasn't a serious contender for mascot of the university.

Okay enough backstory. In spite of serious competition from a land shark, a bear became the new mascot. But the football team isn't the Ole Miss Bears now, it's still the Ole Miss Rebels. Given that the historical record is silent on the role of bears in the Civil War, I think we can assume either a) that this is wishful thinking on the part of some of the more reactionary Ole Miss students and alums that white supremacy is so ingrained in nature that even wild animals fought for the Confederacy, or b) that this is a bear that has problems with authority. Probably had an absent father figure. Did some time in juvie. Or maybe just watched James Dean movies too many times.

Well, the University of Mississippi is committed to making future students as attached to this disobedient bear as their forbears were to the old plantation owner. The Rebel Bear even paid a visit to Blair E. Batson's Children's Hospital in Jackson to brighten up the day of some sick kids:

As University of Mississippi Junior Athletic Director Michael Thompson said, the goal is "to create emotional connection with little Ole Miss rebels." Because that's what's important: loving the football team and the poor sap who has to stand on the sidelines wearing a bear suit when it's 95 degrees. It's not like future students should pick a school for something silly like getting an education.

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