Attempting the Meaning of Things

Some people write because they know what they think and they know what they want to say, and they say it. Sometimes they even add supporting evidence, to let everyone know they’re right – really, there can be no other way to see things. A dozen or more years ago there were those who said that we had to go to war in Iraq, to remove Saddam Hussein, because he was fixing to kill us all, and this would also fix everything that was wrong in the Middle East. They knew that, and they said that. They even had supporting evidence, such as it was. The essays would pop up in the Weekly Standard the National Review. Others argued that this was a stunningly stupid idea – and they had their supporting evidence too – and a whole lot of if-then logic that was pretty convincing. Those essays would pop up in the Nation and such places. But each side was sure of itself. Those who opposed the war were traitors, actually on the side of the terrorists, or cowardly appeasers – Neville Chamberlin was invoked again and again. Those who wanted the war were blustering fools who would make things far worse in the Middle East and make the United States hated around the world, or at least a laughingstock – at tremendous cost – many would die for no good reason. Each side laid it out. The writing was impassioned.

History has now sorted all this out, as has shown that those who know exactly what they think and exactly what they want to say, and say it, end up looking foolish – because there’s another way of writing. Some people write because they want to discover what they think, because they don’t know yet. An event happens. Some say it means this. Others say it means that. There are these factors that seem to bear on matters. There are other factors that contradict those. Sometimes it’s best to write it all down and examine all the elements before deciding what you think of it all, definitively. You may never get there, but that’s not the point. You write to discover what you think, if you can. You don’t know beforehand.

After all, the word “essay” derives from the French infinitive “essayer” – “to try” or “to attempt” – and Montaigne was the first to describe his work as essays. His three volume Essais in the mid-sixteenth-century contain over one hundred of these. He invites his readers to follow along as he works things out – and he would go back and revise many of these again and again. Sometimes he never did make up his mind, but that was the point. Things are never simple. Francis Bacon’s essays were published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, the first works in English that described themselves as essays. In the eighteenth century it was Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Samuel Johnson. A generation later it was Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and then William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thomas de Quincey. Whether deadly serious or light and playful, the essay had become a distinct genre, where, with as much honesty as possible, the author tries to figure out what the hell was going on. These folks want to discover what they think, because they don’t know yet. Sometimes they surprise themselves. They ask the reader to tag along.

That said, tag along. A young white man visits a famous black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and asks if he can join the evening Bible study session. He sits quietly through it for an hour, and then pulls out a gun and shoots the pastor dead – and eight others too. Then he drives off, and is captured a few hours later, giving up without a fight, saying nothing.

What are we to make of this? What the hell is going on? Everyone has an opinion about that. They’re sure of something or other, but things are never simple. That means it’s time to “essayer” – “to try” or “to attempt” to make sense of this, wherever that might lead.

There are the facts of the matter, which the Associated Press reports this way:

It was an act of “pure, pure concentrated evil,” Charleston’s mayor said – a black community’s leading lights extinguished in a spray of bullets, allegedly at the hands of a young white man who was welcomed into their Bible study session. And so the nine victims at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church joined the ever-lengthening list of America’s racial casualties.

In one blow, the gunman ripped out part of South Carolina’s civic heart: a state senator who doubled as the church’s minister, three other pastors, a regional library manager, a high school coach and speech therapist, a government administrator, a college enrollment counselor and a recent college graduate – six women and three men who felt called to open their church to all.

Those aren’t facts. These are:

Dylann Storm Roof, 21, had complained that “blacks were taking over the world” and that “someone needed to do something about it for the white race,” according to a friend who alerted the FBI. He was arrested with his gun after an all-night manhunt, authorities said. …

Surveillance video showed the gunman entering the church Wednesday night, and Charleston County Coroner Rae Wilson said the gunman initially didn’t appear threatening.

“The suspect entered the group and was accepted by them, as they believed that he wanted to join them in this Bible study,” she said. Then, “he became very aggressive and violent.”

Roof’s childhood friend, Joey Meek, called the FBI after recognizing him in the surveillance footage, down to the stained sweatshirt he wore while playing Xbox videogames in Meek’s home the morning of the attack.

“I didn’t THINK it was him. I KNEW it was him,” Meek told The Associated Press after being interviewed by investigators.

Meek said Roof recently used his birthday money to buy a Glock pistol. When the two of them were drinking together a few weeks ago, Roof began railing about black people and remarked that he had “a plan,” Meek said. He did not say what the plan was, but Meek said it scared him enough that he took the gun out of Roof’s car and hid it in his house until the next day.

Roof was arrested without incident Thursday in Shelby, North Carolina, after a motorist spotted him and tipped police, and waived extradition back to South Carolina, where he was held pending a bond hearing, Charleston Police said.

Then there are the secondary matters:

His previous record includes misdemeanor drug and trespassing charges. He wasn’t known to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and it’s not clear whether Roof had any connection to the 16 white supremacist organizations operating in South Carolina, but he appears to be a “disaffected white supremacist,” based on his Facebook page, said the center’s president, Richard Cohen.

Meek said he and Roof had been best friends in middle school, where “he was just a quiet kid who flew under the radar.” Roof then disappeared and showed up again several weeks ago, seeming even more quiet and withdrawn.

But on his Facebook page, Roof displayed the flags of defeated white-ruled regimes, posing with a Confederate flags plate on his car and wearing a jacket with stitched-on flag patches from apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, which is now black-led Zimbabwe.

And when Meek asked what was troubling Roof, “he started talking about race,” the friend said. …

Meek said his friend had become an avowed racist.

“He said he wanted segregation between whites and blacks. I said, ‘that’s not the way it should be.’ But he kept talking about it,” Meek said.

This seems pretty straightforward, but there’s this:

White supremacists on Thursday quickly tried to distance themselves from the suspect in the mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, worried that a white man killing nine people in a black church in South Carolina looked bad for their movement.

“This is going to be really bad, I’m afraid,” wrote WhiteNationhood in a discussion thread on the white nationalist site Stormfront – “Condolences to the families.”

“The media and the left will use this to support their narrative that whites are slaughtering blacks,” added MattwhiteAmerica. “It will not matter what the truth is.”

They think something else might be going on here:

Stormfront commenters continued to hold out hope Thursday morning that perhaps Roof wasn’t motivated by racism – maybe it was anti-Christian hatred instead – and their movement could keep what they think of as their good name.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions and call him a WN [white nationalist] until there is an indication as such… The fact that he targeted a church gives me an inkling that it was religion-related,” wrote WhiteVirginian ….

“Let’s not make excuses when a person of our own race does something like this,” added WhiteIsRight. “The guy was clearly a bad apple.”

They weren’t alone:

Analysts on Fox News floated the theory on Thursday that the shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night was motivated by religious animosity toward Christians, rather than by racism. Host Steve Doocy suggested on “Fox & Friends” that religion was the likely motivation for the terrorist attack.

“Extraordinarily, they called it a hate crime,” Doocy said in an interview with a pastor Thursday morning. “And some look at it as, well, it’s because it was a white guy, apparently, and a black church. But you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians, and it was in a church, so maybe that’s what it was about.”

Doocy’s co-host, Brian Kilmeade, also tried to cast doubt on the idea that the gunman, whom authorities believe to be 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, was motivated by race, asking a guest, “Is it a church that has white congregants as well as black?”

Early Thursday morning, Fox News host Heather Childers acknowledged that officials are treating the shooting as a hate crime, but wondered, “Could the shooter have been motivated by pure hatred for religion?”

That caught fire:

Presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) on Thursday called the attack by a white gunman on a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. part of a broader assault on “religious liberty” in America.

“It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be?” Santorum said on the New York radio station AM 970.

“You’re sort of lost that somebody could walk into a Bible study in a church and indiscriminately kill people,” he added.

Santorum called for a broader pushback against the “assaults” on religious liberty.

“You talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation,” he said.

Then add this – Lindsey Graham: Charleston Shooter May Have Been ‘Looking for Christians to Kill’ – so that’s the story.

But there’s the other story:

President Barack Obama stood righteous, angry and powerless on Thursday as he responded to yet another mass killing by a gunman in America.

“I have had to make statements like this too many times,” Obama said, pausing with emotion, referring to similar statements of grief following at least 14 mass killings during his presidency, according to a tally by CBS’s Mark Knoller. Those include shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona, and Newtown, Connecticut. Once again, he said, “someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

Obama described the frequency of the type of gun violence seen in the killings of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday evening as unique to the United States among advanced countries.

“Let’s be clear,” Obama said, as Vice President Joe Biden, standing beside him at the front of the White House briefing room, nodded. “At some point we as a country have to reckon with the fact that this type of violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

That’s not how the blunt man sees it:

“What transpired in Charleston, South Carolina last night was not just a tragedy, it was an act of terror,” according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“Nine of our fellow Americans were murdered while praying in a historic church because of the color of their skin,” said Sanders, an independent US Senator from Vermont. “This senseless violence fills me with outrage, disgust, and a deep, deep sadness.”

“This hateful killing is a horrific reminder that, while we have made important progress in civil rights for all of our people, we are far from eradicating racism,” said Sanders.

Did he say terrorism? Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that won’t fly:

Police are investigating the shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as a hate crime committed by a white man. Unfortunately, it’s not a unique event in American history. Black churches have long been a target of white supremacists that have burned and bombed them in an effort to terrorize the black communities that those churches anchored. One of the most egregious terrorist acts in U.S. history was committed against a black church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Four girls were killed when members of the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, a tragedy that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.

But listen to major media outlets and you won’t hear the word “terrorism” used in coverage of Tuesday’s shooting. You won’t hear the white male shooter, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, described as “a possible terrorist.” And if coverage of recent shootings by white suspects is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources. Activist Deray McKesson noted this morning that, while discussing Roof’s motivations, an MSNBC anchor said “we don’t know his mental condition.” That is the power of whiteness in America.

By that she means this:

U.S. media practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans and Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs, motivated by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolfs – Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston already emphasized this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” – violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “No saint either.”

Early news reports on the Charleston church shooting followed a similar pattern. Cable news coverage of State Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME who we now know is among the victims, characterized his advocacy work as something that could ruffle feathers. The habit of characterizing black victims as somehow complicit in their own murders continues.

But there are the pesky facts:

All those who were killed were simply participating in a Wednesday night Bible study. And the shooter’s choice of Emanuel AME was most likely deliberate, given its storied history. It was the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, founded in 1818 by a group of men including Morris Brown, a prominent pastor, and Denmark Vesey, the leader of a large, yet failed, slave revolt in Charleston. The church itself was targeted early on by fearful whites because it was built with funds from anti-slavery societies in the North. In 1822, church members were investigated for involvement in planning Vesey’s slave revolt, and the church was burned to the ground in retribution.

With that context, it’s clear that killing the pastor and members of this church was a deliberate act of hate. … But we need to take it a step further. There was a message of intimidation behind this shooting, an act that mirrors a history of terrorism against black institutions involved in promoting civil and human rights. The hesitation on the part of some of the media to label the white male killer a terrorist is telling.

That may be so, and Esquire’s Charles Pierce adds this:

What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unthinkable.” Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them.

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

But there’s more:

We should speak of it as an attack on history, which it was. This was the church founded by Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in 1822. Vesey was convicted in a secret trial in which many of the witnesses testified after being tortured. After they hung him, a mob burned down the church he built. His sons rebuilt it. On Wednesday night, someone turned it into a slaughter pen.

We should speak of it as an assault on the idea of a political commonwealth, which is what it was. And we should speak of it as one more example of all of these – another link in a bloody chain of events that reaches all the way back to African wharves and Southern docks. It is not an isolated incident, not if you consider history as something alive that can live and breathe and bleed. We should speak of all these things. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unspeakable is not one of them.

Yes, he’s on a righteous roll:

Not to think about these things is to betray the dead. Not to speak of these things is to dishonor them. Let Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, look out her window at the flag of treason that is flown proudly at her state capitol and think about these things, and speak of them, before she pronounces herself so puzzled at how something like this could happen in South Carolina, the home office of American sedition.

Let Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, both of whom want to lead this troubled country, consider what it meant to absent themselves from campaign events in Charleston and think of these things and speak of them before they turn to their consultants about whether or not staying in a grieving city was what a leader should have done.

Let the elite political media that follows the two of them, roughly thrown into a maelstrom of actual news, look out onto the streets of Charleston and realize that politics exist for the purpose of governing a country, and not simply to entertain it.

This may be what is actually going on here:

There is a timidity that the country can no longer afford. This was not an unthinkable act. A man may have had a rat’s nest for a mind, but it was well thought out. It was a cool, considered crime, as well planned as any bank robbery or any computer fraud. If people do not want to speak of it, or think about it, it’s because they do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads. It’s because they do not want to follow this crime all the way back to the mother of all American crimes, the one that Denmark Vesey gave his life to avenge. What happened on Wednesday night was a lot of things. A massacre was only one of them.

That’ll do. An event happens. Some say it means this. Others say it means that. There are these factors that seem to bear on matters. There are other factors that contradict those. In the end you finally figure out what’s really going on. This is about America’s original sin. And that’s the end of this essay.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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