Category Archives: current events

Patriotism and Colin Kaepernick

My dad likes a quote that is often attributed to Churchill: if you’re not a liberal in your twenties, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative in your thirties, you have no brain.

“Uh oh,” I said on the phone with him this weekend. “I’m almost 30. You’d better convince me soon.”

judge judy

One of the things that we argue about lately is protests that involve patriotic symbolism. My dad reveres his parents’ generation, particularly the sacrifices they made during World War II. From his perspective, taking a knee before the flag is a grievous disrespect to the legacy we’ve all inherited as Americans – especially the sacrifices that fuel the freedoms we enjoy and, sometimes, take for granted. My dad is grateful almost beyond words for all the hardships his parents endured to give him a better life. It is a very touching message. It inspires me to follow his example and venerate my parents more.

I think I understand his perspective. But what bothers me is when people say that protesting the anthem is disrespectful to veterans specifically. It seems like civilians tend to invoke the armed forces as a sort of moral rallying cry. I think this is for two reasons:

  1. They recognize that they have done nothing to sacrifice specifically on behalf of their country, and
  2. They want to make it known that we ought to venerate those who do.

This seems to manifest as feel-good displays of public adoration, big in style but small in results. A recent article in The Atlantic, “The Plunging Morale of America’s Service Members,” says,

Our military is a major part of who we are as a country; it is the force that has undergirded the post–World War II international order. Being an American means being deeply implicated in that, for good or for ill. But… the solution to our current dead end doesn’t lie within the military itself. The military can’t set its own goals, can’t determine its own budget or which ideals it fights and dies for, and can’t decide how its losses will be honored, dishonored, or appropriated after the fact. So while America as a whole chooses to express its love for its military in gooey, substance-free displays, our military waits, perhaps hopelessly, for a coherent national policy that takes the country’s wars seriously.

What would such a thing look like? It would probably look like rescinding the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force and making the president regularly go before Congress to explain where and why he was putting troops in harm’s way, what resources the mission required, and what the terms of success were. It would look like every member of Congress carrying out his or her constitutionally mandated duty to provide oversight of our military adventures by debating and then voting on that plan. It would look like average Americans taking part in that debate, and scorning anyone who tried to tell them they couldn’t. It would look like average Americans rolling their eyes in disgust when our leaders tell us we’re not at war while American troops are risking their lives overseas, or claim that Americans must support the wars their country engages in if they want to support the troops, or when a press secretary argues that anyone who questions the success of a military raid in which a service member died “owes an apology” to that fallen soldier. It would look like our politicians letting the fallen rest in peace, rather than propping up their corpses for political cover. And when service members die overseas in unexpected places, such as the four killed in Niger last year, it would look like us eschewing the easy symbolic debates about whether our president is disrespecting our troops by inartfully offering condolences or whether liberals are disrespecting our troops by seizing upon those inartful condolences for political gain. It would look like us instead having a longer and harder conversation about the mission we are asking soldiers to perform, and whether we are doing them the honor of making sure it’s achievable.

In short, it would look like Americans as a whole doling out a lot fewer cheap, sentimental displays of love for our troops, and doubling down on something closer to Gunny Maxwell’s “tough love”—a love that means zeroing in on our country’s faults and failures.

The essay is worth reading in full. It describes why service and sacrifice don’t exist in a vacuum – they are only as good as the mission, “one that is achievable, moral, and in keeping with the values of the society they represent and whose flag they wear on their uniform.”

“I’m willing to listen,” my dad said, after we had argued back and forth about what it means to kneel before the flag. “Give me something to read and maybe I’ll change my mind.”

So here we are. This brings us to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL.


As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and Syria, and Yemen, and Pakistan, and Somalia, and Libya, and… – drag on, morale and recruitment are down. The military is visibly, painfully scrambling to keep people in the service and to get them to actually deploy.

Someone over at the Pentagon must have realized that direct advertising wasn’t working. The branches could show commercials until they bled dry and no one would pay attention – at least, not beyond a vague mushy feeling about The Troops™. No, what the Department of Defense needed was to inspire Americans, to appeal to their love of country, to motivate them to action – to join the fight, to continue funding the fight, to keep seeing the fight as relevant and necessary. Instead of promoting the military specifically, they would instead commercialize patriotism itself. At the very least, it would encourage Americans to continue to support the ongoing – endless – wars overseas. At best, more desperately-needed bodies in the war machine.

So the Department of Defense start paying millions of dollars to promote America, the brand. Fly-overs. Service members in uniform. A giant, billowing flag. And, of course, the anthem, our most favorite and sacred song. The government paid millions of dollars to sports organizations to dial the ‘MERICA up to eleven. And somewhere along the way, these patriotic displays went from a sentimental salute to government-sponsored marketing to untouchable and holy – something mandatory.

Known liberal softie who has never experienced the terror of war John McCain (may he rest in peace) wrote,

“Americans across the country should be deeply disappointed that many of the ceremonies honoring troops at professional sporting events are not actually being conducted out of a sense of patriotism, but for profit in the form of millions in taxpayer dollars going from the Department of Defense to wealthy pro sports franchises… Fans should have confidence that their hometown heroes are being honored because of their honorable military service, not as a marketing ploy.” (NPR)

Further reading:
Pentagon paid sports teams millions for patriotic events (USA Today)
NFL’s tangled ties with national anthem don’t run deep (CBS)

This is our starting point. This is, actually, my reference point. I am a white woman. I have never experienced the sort of discrimination highlighted by Kaepernick and many others. I believe he is right and should be listened to, and there is plenty of evidence to back him up. But the point I’m trying to make here is not whether or not Kaepernick’s protest is a valid one; it’s whether or not taking a knee is disrespectful to the idea of America, symbolized by the flag and anthem and, because it seems like we’re always dragged in when it’s politically convenient, veterans.

What idea of America, though? Whose idea of America? Not my dad’s, certainly – the idea of the greatest generation storming the beach at Normandy, raising the flag at Iwo Jima, returning homes as heroes from a just and popular war. That is something terribly idyllic.

Kaepernick and people of color in general have a vastly different experience of America than my dad did – or, despite being Kaepernick’s age, than I did. I am capable of believing that different people have different experiences, and some of those experiences are rooted in other people’s unjust perceptions of them. Surely we have all been in a position where someone treated us badly for something beyond our control. And what is more beyond one’s control than the color of their skin?

Political protest is as old as our country itself. Our country was founded on political protest, and the right to do so is guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. But there is this idea that kneeling for the flag is an abuse of those rights, and moreover, a slap in the face to those who have made sacrifices to uphold them. Who else? It is disrespectful toward the military.

When Colin Kaepernick began his protest of the national anthem in 2016, he started by sitting. But before 2009, teams stayed in the locker room while the anthem played.* A former Green Beret turned short-time Seattle Seahawk named Nate Boyer wrote Kaepernick an open letter, in which he says, “During college football games, both teams usually wait in the locker room until after the national anthem. That always bothered me. Leading the team out of the tunnel while carrying the American flag meant a lot, but I still regretted not being out there to stand for that song.” He describes the pride he felt during his first NFL game, when he was allowed to demonstrate his patriotism. “As I ran out of the tunnel with the American flag I could feel myself swelling with pride, and as I stood on the sideline with my hand on my heart as the anthem began, that swelling burst into tears.”

( * With the NFL’s recent ruling that protesting players must remain in the locker room during the anthem – a return to the previous norm – President Trump said, “Isn’t that worse than not standing?… I actually think in many ways it’s worse.”)

What’s most impressive about Boyer’s letter, though, is the absence of condemnation of Kaepernick’s protests, despite these patriotic symbols holding so much personal significance to him.

Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it… I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem.

Boyer had listened and tried to understand. Kaepernick listened, too. He got in touch with Boyer and together they came to a compromise:

We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.

 

Kaepernick asked Boyer to kneel beside him. Boyer declined, but he said he would stand alongside Kaepernick – showing solidarity while still staying true to his own ideals.

Listening. Understanding. Compromise. This is the my generation’s version of the idyllic America – different people with different opinions coming together and supporting one another’s rights.

In an interview with NPR, Boyer said something very beautiful about the act of kneeling.

In my opinions and in my experience, kneeling’s never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act. I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray… So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful.

Further reading:
Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees (Washington Post)
Tim Tebow not happy about ‘Tebowing’ being brought into national anthem protests debate (USA Today)

It’s worth mentioning that there are many veterans who disagree with Kaepernick and, by extension, Boyer. Boyer wrote a follow-up letter that echoes these concerns. I think many veterans, fighting increasingly unpopular wars on behalf of population who doesn’t care about them, neglected by the government when they come home, feel like their service is being taken for granted. This is a real and true feeling. They need their sacrifices – the deaths and trauma, the missed birthdays and weddings, the time away from family and friends – to mean something. When we see those coffins come home draped with the flag, we have to believe the flag was worth it. I get it.

But this isn’t about the military. It never was. We keep getting foisted into the conversation because we have the deepest link to these symbols. It’s hard not to take even perceived disrespect very personally. But despite the jets and bunting and songs and confetti, none of this was ever about us or our service or our sacrifice.

It’s about everyone else back home.

Further reading:
SOLDIERS SPEAK OUT ON KAEPERNICK: His protest ‘makes him more American than anyone’ (Business Insider)
Minorities in the Military Open Up About the N.F.L., Kaepernick and Nike (NYT)

(Both of these articles are worth reading. They contain some pretty spicy Hot Takes on racism and civilians selectively caring about veterans.)

One Army veteran is quoted in the NYT article above,

As a black man and former service member with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, the sad reality is that statistically speaking, I was more likely to be killed by a police officer at home in New York City than by the Taliban or an armed combatant in a far-off land. I have parted ways and broken ties with former comrades who I went to war with because of their foolhardy and abhorrent views on unarmed black people being wrongfully killed and their complete misconstruing of the Kaepernick protest.

These men want complacence and silence, even though we fought for and had friends who died for the right of citizens to speak freely against injustice and inequity. I realized that these same white comrades, even after sharing the bond of service, ultimately only judge and value me in the same way as their favorite black athletes: as a commodity.


But what good does it do? If kneeling causes so much offense and controversy, is it really fixing anything? Isn’t it making it worse? Tearing us apart as a nation?

NFL players occasionally wear pink for breast cancer awareness. Pink doesn’t cure cancer, but it draws attention to a terrible disease and the hope for a cure. After all, wasn’t that the point of paying the NFL to make these patriotic overtures to begin with – to raise visibility of service members?

“It starts the conversation about social issues,” I told my dad. “He has a platform. He is getting people to acknowledge a problem.”

“But he’s being paid millions of dollars to play football,” my dad said. (He was. Now, blacklisted from the NFL, Kaepernick has a contract with Nike.) Why isn’t he protesting on his own time? (See above: platform, conversation.) Why isn’t he taking actual steps to address these issues?

It’s a little unfair to expect Colin Kaepernick to fix racism. But he is still trying to make a positive impact. This must have been such a frequent but inaccurate criticism of Kaepernick that Sports Illustrated did a substantial profile on his charitable work – and awarded him the 2017 Muhammad Ali Legacy Award “for his steadfastness in the fight for social justice, for his adherence to his beliefs no matter the cost.”

Images courtesy of the Sports Illustrated profile – which is already a little bit dated and doesn’t include Kaepernick’s most recent charitable endeavors (see below). It is long but worth reading; it emphasizes how Kaepernick uses his money as investments toward social change rather than as simple fire-and-forget donations.

If all athletes took such a specific, targeted approach to their charitable endeavors, [Adam Jackson, the CEO of a grassroots Baltimore-based think tank] says, they could affect immediate structural change in their communities. “They all tweet, they talk, they wear T-shirts—and that’s cool,” he says. “But that’s cultural. And cultural change can go but so far.

“The purpose of protest is to change the environment that gives everyone else permission not to care about these issues. If there were 100 Colin Kaepernick’s—or 2,000!—then you’d be talking about a real social movement.

“Just kneeling,” he says, “is a cop-out.”

The article also observes the “hypocrisy in NFL teams and fan bases that want players to appear charitable—visiting sick children in hospitals, for instance, or cutting ribbons at community center openings—but not actually jump into the fray themselves, especially on thornier issues.” Kaepernick, by contrast, isn’t trumpeting his efforts, but letting the actions speak for themselves. And these actions are making waves in small communities.

And, of course, we always have to circle back to the military. We’re going to be part of the conversation whether we want to or not.

When Kaepernick first took a knee, he clearly (and later frequently) noted the reason for his protest: to draw attention to police brutality and the need for reform. That act meant even more to Collette Flanagan, [mother of a young black man shot dead by a Dallas police officer], than did the $25,000 he donated to Mothers Against Police Brutality, the organization she started in her son’s honor. It has pained her to see Trump and other detractors misrepresent the quarterback’s initial intentions, to see the meaning of his kneeling shift beneath him. Kaepernick’s protest was never about the military or the flag, as the President has suggested. It was always about injustice, specifically young black men being killed. Men like her son.

Further reading:
Colin Kaepernick Not Stopping, Donations Roll Past $1 Million (Forbes)
Colin Kaepernick jerseys to raise money for charity sell out hours after going on sale (CBS Sports)


My mom, my gentle, patient, affectionate mother, suddenly really likes war movies. Maybe it helps her appreciate the horrors that other Americans have endured for the sake of her freedom. Maybe it helps her relate to the military more, and by extension, me. But when I started having panic attacks as a result of a trauma I experienced while in the military, she said – not out of malice, but helplessness and misunderstanding – that happened a long time ago. Shouldn’t you be over it by now?

get up

But it was only four years ago. Sometimes trauma lasts centuries, spans whole generations, disappears and reemerges, and takes on different forms, like severing the head off the Hydra.

Sometimes we think that time and social progress are correlated, that as we grow in knowledge we will also grow in justice. As a general trend, I want to believe it is true. As an American, I want to be proud of our way of life. As a veteran, I want to trust in the good intentions of the civilian population and lawmakers in particular. When someone thanks me for my service, I want to believe that I represent something worth the gratitude. But the march of time is not a guarantee of positive human development. Believing such a fallacy makes us morally lazy at best and, at worst, cruel or indifferent to the plight of others.

My dad is allowed to object to Kaepernick’s protest. That’s his right as an American, and I will support him. The philosophical underpinnings of those rights are worth fighting for. But he has to find a justification for his indignation beyond his appreciation for the sacrifice of the military. I won’t let my service be used as a political prop to be waved around when convenient. I made an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” – not the anthem, not the flag, not some symbol, but our actual, written rights. Even if that means challenging my most sacred ideas of what America is all about. Even if that means challenging my dad, who I love very much, and who raised me to be as argumentative as I inevitably became. Our differences in opinion keep us both sharp and passionate. Sometimes we even listen to one another.

When I was in SERE training, one of our last experiences was listening to the prison guards go on a tirade about how awful America is while tearing up and burning an American flag. The officers in our group, kneeling in front of the formation, turned around, putting their backs to our tormentors in silent protest. We enlisted immediately followed suit. We couldn’t stop the enemy from disrespecting the flag (and before anyone gets upset, no flags were harmed in the making of this training – it was torn up in the correct, ceremonial method, but we were all so delirious with hunger and exhaustion that we didn’t realize it), but we didn’t want to acknowledge it, either. It was an extremely moving, unifying moment of defiance. I cried then, linking arms with the sailors beside me. I still get choked up whenever I talk about it in person.

It was emotionally compelling. But it was also the completely wrong thing to do.

Our instructors – those people who were preparing us for the very worst experiences of war – explained later that the flag is just a symbol. It doesn’t mean anything on its own, only the meaning we give to it. America, they said, is who we are. It is what we carry in our hearts, and the reasons that we choose to fight. The flag is just a piece of cloth that can be torn up and destroyed (and, if you’ve invested so much into it emotionally, enemies will use that against you). But America is an idea, and ideas are unkillable.

I’ll end with this: an excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a brilliant literary work describing the destruction caused by totalitarian regimes and Soviet communism in particular.

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly — but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…Then after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of his interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“Is it better than Episode VII?” my brother asked via text, more or less immediately after I walked out of the theater. I was still digesting what I had seen.

I thought about it. I talked about the movie with other people. I read about it. It’s only been about 48 hours, but I think I have answer: yes, The Last Jedi is better than The Force Awakens – not just on its own merits, but also what it establishes for the Star Wars universe as a whole.

Spoilers below. These are scattered thoughts without much explanation or summary, so it might not make sense without seeing the movie.

Negative stuff first, because it’ll be quick: it could have been 30 minutes shorter. The Last Jedi is 2.5 hours, and it absolutely feels that way. The sidequest on Canto Bight had an important message and great character development, for sure, but it felt like a strange detour from the overarching story and probably could have been omitted. Sometimes the pacing of the story felt off, and some situations felt like pure fan-service (not necessarily a criticism, just an observation). There are also a few jokey moments that might not hold up on a second viewing, especially with the porgs as (admittedly very cute) comic relief. Some folks complained that this is the “Disney-fication” of the series, but the original trilogy had its share of these moments, too. It would be a bummer to endure 2.5 hours of war and dying religions and family melodrama. Besides, it just feels good to laugh in a theater where everyone else is also laughing, even if the jokes are a little silly.

Now that that’s out of the way, the remainder of this post is dedicated to what I really liked about The Last Jedi, and in particular what stood out to me after one viewing. I will rewatch this movie before Episode IX’s release in 2019, and I’m curious to see how these first impressions hold up over time.

First things first: I was dying to know who Rey’s parents were. It felt like the entire theater was at the edge of its seat as Kylo Ren tormented Rey with this information. The reveal was not what I was expecting at all. It was perfect. I think the Star Wars franchise needed this to sustain itself. If we trust what Kylo Ren had to say – and I think we should, at least for now – Rey’s parents are nobodies, not any part of these enduring Star Wars lineages. Instead, Rey’s rise from obscurity is a powerful and completely necessary development, reminding us that a new hero can come from anywhere, even a backwater like Jakku. This point is driven home by the final scene of the movie, in which a child on Canto Bight grabs a broom using the Force (now affectionately dubbed Broom Boy by the internet) and gazes up at the stars while the camera focuses on the Resistance signet given to him by Rose.

One of my biggest ongoing issues with the Star Wars universe is that the Sith are not credible or relatable villains. Rarely do they demonstrate motivations that outsiders can relate to. “Kill them all” is one-dimensional and meaningless without emotional context, and no previous Star Wars films did this convincingly – yes, even Episode VII. In fact, I think part of the reason that Episodes I-III failed so spectacularly was not only because of Jar Jar and bad acting – they failed in forcing the audience to truly empathize with Anakin. We need to see not only how he came to choose the dark side, but to be able to put ourselves in his shoes and think, yeah, if that had been me, I might have done the same thing.

Here, in The Last Jedi, we see how perception matters more than objective reality: Kylo Ren glimpsed his master’s dark machinations, spooking him enough to reject everything that Luke stands for. Can’t we all relate to betrayal by someone we trust, someone we thought had all the answers? Kylo Ren’s dilemma is one of the most significant takeaways from this movie. It’s something we can forgive him for, which puts us precisely in the same position as Rey. It makes him a great antagonist and a great character. I never thought I’d say that after seeing Episode VII.

In a similar vein, I thought that Rey and Kylo Ren’s psychic connection across space and time was hugely beneficial for both of their characters, and it left me desperately eager to find out who was going to be the dominant influence. But while it was a great device for character development, I wasn’t convinced by Snoke’s motives in linking the two. How could he have not seen how conflicted Kylo was and how easily an outside influence, especially one sympathetic to Luke, could have further exasperated his turmoil? I’m also not yet onboard with the romantic angle that other fans seem to have seen. The two have great chemistry, made abundantly clear during their joint fight scene against Snoke (more on this later), but the power play between the two – their separate and shared suffering, their allegiances to opposite but somehow, sometimes overlapping ideals, their competing destinies – strikes me as much more compelling. Rey and Kylo seem to be two halves of one whole, but to what degree, I’m not yet sure.

There are two scenes that deal with the past that I’d like to talk about, because I think they mirror each other in some ways.

The first is Luke’s attempt to burn down the tree which housed Jedi religious texts, which he had carefully preserved despite his voluntary rupture with the Force. He hesitates, torch in hand. An apparition of Yoda intervenes – not to stop Luke, but to finish what he started, summoning a bolt of lightning to set the tree aflame. Luke tries to run inside to salvage the texts but is forced back by the blaze. Luke grieves over the loss of ancient Jedi wisdom, but Yoda sets the record straight, reminding Luke of a sentiment he himself had just recently expressed to Rey: the dangerous deification of the past. This was some striking symbolism – literally setting fire to the holiest of holies – and at first it seemed like a hilarious middle-finger to purist fanboys. All that you hold sacred is gone, gone, gone, destroyed by the very arbiter of those truths! But there was more at play here, I think. It established a theme that would arise between Rey and Kylo Ren later: mistakes aren’t cause for complete erasure, to start over and pretend like the past never happened. “Failure is the greatest teacher,” Yoda says. Go ahead and hold something dear, but see it for what it is: imperfect, mired in mixed motivations, but worthy of improving upon going forward – a direct reflection of the Star Wars franchise’s recent rebirth. Learn from the past. Do better in the future.

The second scene comes after Kylo Ren betrays Snoke and, together with Rey, issues a spectacular beat-down to his security team. Rey assumes Kylo Ren is repentant and ready to turn a new leaf, but he has other plans: to join with Rey, light and dark together, and start a new order, a similar agenda to his grandfather before him. Rey begs him to save the Resistance, the remains of whom were being bombed out of the sky as they retreated from their final spent cruiser, but Kylo Ren is firm. Let them all burn, he says, the First Order, the Resistance, the Jedis, the Sith, their families, the past. It is time for the new generation to take their place. Rey, of course, rebukes him, pleading with him to join her and the Resistance instead. They enter a stalemate portrayed visually by a force-battle for Luke’s lightsaber which neither of them win – another piece of powerful symbolism. Rey, too, has a painful history of betrayal and abandonment, yet she is the only one with a plan for the future that doesn’t demand destruction of the past. She wants to carry the good forward and leave the bad behind, in its proper place, while both Kylo and Luke can’t foresee the next step without a clean slate, perhaps a symptom of their lingering regrets. Even as Leia gives up on her son, Rey continues to embody reconciliation with the past and forgiveness of mistakes. She is the spark of hope.

This next part is going to generate some wailing and gnashing of teeth, but don’t @ me. Look, representation matters. It really does. And if you disagree, consider the possibility that you’ve always been represented. The way you feel when you see an abundance of characters who don’t look like you – well, that’s everyone else’s experience, all the time. You’ve probably never felt the surge of joy in seeing someone who looks like you, for once, portrayed heroically on the big screen. (Rose’s sister’s valiant death, and later Rose’s intervention on Finn’s suicidal plan, struck a particularly emotional chord with me.) As a white woman, this is something I can relate to only in a small way. I always had Leia, for example, revered princess and general, to look up to, though back in the original trilogy, she was a lonely island in a sea of white, male faces. Now, seeing lady fighter pilots and admirals and even First Order soldiers gave me a rush of exhilaration. Can you imagine how people of color, especially children experiencing Star Wars for the first time, must feel? It is direct, visual evidence that this movie, this world, this struggle: you’re part of it, too. The Last Jedi is more representative than ever, and despite what cranky pissbaby fans might say, this makes the Star Wars series much more realistic and convincing. It is a big, wide universe out there. It can represent all of us. It should.

I’m glad we got a final meeting between Luke and Leia. It was all the more tragic remembering Carrie Fisher’s recent passing, which leads me to this: we know that Leia, too, has to die. This is what I expected when she was sucked into space from the Resistance cruiser, that she dies alongside her admirals and generals. It would have added to the gravity of the situation and really driven home the point that the Resistance could have been crushed right there, right then. But she didn’t die. Leia’s use of the Force to propel herself to safety was… well, I’m not sure. Not believable? We’ve seen crazier stuff happen as a result of this mysterious space-magic. Not necessary? Then we never would have gotten the aforementioned reunion of Luke and Leia. Leia’s presence was also important for resolving the power-struggle between Poe and Holdo, particularly for the latter’s redemption. I guess the glorious space-death would have been a convenient time to say goodbye to Leia, but the Star Wars franchise thrives on keeping things complicated. I’m curious to see how Leia meets her end in Episode IX.

It hurt my heart to see Carrie Fisher on the big screen, remembering that she has passed away. She was a treasure not just for the series, but for the world.

On a similar note, here is one last theme that I noticed a few times throughout: women intervening on men’s well-intentioned but foolhardy plans. Rey and Kylo. Rose and Finn. Holdo (and Leia) and Poe. Each time, they seem to say: it doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself or put others at risk. There has to be another way. They represented the voice of moderation in a situations seemed to demand extreme solutions. It’s a different kind of bravery, one that I wish we saw more of.

All in all, The Last Jedi is a fun movie and a great addition to the Star Wars canon. It bridges the gaps between generations (and canonical inconsistencies) in a meaningful way. This is an exciting time to be a fan, even a casual one like me.

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TRANSCRIPT: Notes on an Imagined Plaque… (The Memory Palace, Episode 73)

[Listen to the original episode here.]

This is “The Memory Palace.” I’m Nate DiMeo.

Notes on an imagined plaque to be added to the statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, upon hearing the Memphis City Council has voted to move it and the exhumed remains of General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their current location in a park downtown, to the nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

First, it should be big, the plaque, not necessarily because there’s so much to say, though there is so much to say, but big enough to be noticed on the side of this rather grand monument, after they move it and the bodies beneath it across town to the cemetery. And not just big for the sake of bigness; it needs to stick out as something off, something that disrupts the admirable balance of the statue, currently so tasteful, regal even. This bronze man on this bronze horse. Goatee. Square jaw. You get it. You’ve seen it before, even if you haven’t seen it before.

The statue faces north. The sculptor wanted Forrest to face south, to better catch the light, but people complained, said it would imply that the General was retreating, and he wasn’t a man who retreated. He surrendered once, but if the sculpture faced north, maybe people would forget that part, I guess.

So, anyway, the plaque has to be big enough to catch your eye when you’re checking your cell phone or walking your dog or eating a chicken Caesar salad from a plastic box on a bench, whatever people are doing there in the cemetery, and whatever they might do there in the future. Because that’s why we make these things, right? Plaques, bronze men on bronze horses: we want people in the future to remember, but first we want them to notice.

So let’s think about material for this imagined plaque. Maybe the plaque should be garish. Not intentionally ugly, but necessarily, but like titanium, maybe. A patch of frank, eerie futurism on this stayed, stately old thing. It would catch the light. It would catch the eye. In contrast to the northward-facing brown-green man on his brown-green horse. Or a grey pigeon, alit on his brown-green epaulet.

And I like that the eerie of it all, the futurism, is not at all futuristic. It’s millennial. A decade from now, it’ll be dated, literally dated. Bilbao or Disney Hall or whenever will seem so late-90s, so 2000s. And you’ll scoff. And I want that. I want this plaque to be fixed in time, to let people know when it went up, let people know what was up at the time, because that is the point here. The point of this plaque is to make sure that these future people realize that this lovely old statue wasn’t always old and wasn’t always here in this cemetery.

And, moreover, I want the reader, standing there in the shadow cast by the late, somehow still lamented, Nathan Bedford Forrest, on some future summer Sunday, to know why it wound up in a park on the other side of town in the first place. Because memorials aren’t memories. They don’t just appear upon death. A letter of surrender, signed in some farmhouse at the edge of some battlefield, doesn’t come complete with a historic marker affixed to the door.

The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest was put in that park downtown for a reason at a specific moment in time. And, at that time, General Forrest and Mrs. Forrest were already buried in Elmwood Cemetery, the same place the city council recently voted to put them. His body and her body were originally dug up from the ground because a group of prominent Memphians thought they were better off somewhere else. That was 1905, 40 years after the war, 30 years after Forrest’s death.

They felt the city needed Nathan Bedford Forrest right then because they had seen that city fall from great heights. Memphis had been left relatively unscathed by the war but not by its outcome, not by the end of the slave trade, that had been one of the economic and cultural pillars of the city. Without the slave market selling men and women and children, without the river boats and crews and suppliers and dock workers sending them up and down the river, Memphis was hardly Memphis anymore. And then there was the Yellow Fever that had swept through the city some years before and killed so many and drove many more away, people who never returned after a mandatory evacuation.

And now it was the turn of the next century and the city was increasingly – let’s just say it, let’s just stop not saying things – increasingly black, and increasingly tense. White businesses did not like competing with black businesses, black people did not like being lynched. This move to move Forrest started not long after Ida B. Wells, a Memphian too, had started writing, rabble-rousing – boldly, bravely – against lynching, after her friend Thomas Moss was improperly imprisoned; after a fight between children over a game of marbles escalated until adults were threatening to burn down a store; and after Moss wound up being pulled from that prison and strung from a tree. And Wells was threatened so much, so often, that she moved away and the paper she had written for burned to the ground.

So wealthy, white Memphis, at the beginning of the 1900s, found all of this unpleasant. So they raised money – $33,000 – not to rebuild that newspaper office, or build a police force that would properly protect all of its citizens, but to make a monument to a man who they thought best represented the Memphis they had lost. A man who had risen from nothing, a blacksmith’s boy, who became a millionaire, and then believed so strongly in the Confederate cause that he enlisted as a private, and went on to prove himself perhaps the most brilliant military man born on American soil, even if he didn’t fight for America. Those are facts. That’s a true story. And they like what this story said about the American dream, even if it wasn’t technically American, even if Forrest’s million was made by buying and selling human beings, and selling cotton raised and picked and cleaned and packed by enslaved human beings, even if the cause for which he employed that military genius was to ensure that men like him could rise up from nothing and make a million dollars buying and selling human beings and stealing their lives and their labor.

In 1905, they held a parade at the unveiling of the new statue and made speeches to honor the northward-facing General. They said nothing of slavery. They said much about heritage and honor and chivalry. They said nothing of how Nathan Bedford Forrest had been the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, nothing of the terror it had wrought. Nothing of the assassinations or the lynchings. Nothing how it sought to undermine and overthrow the nation’s political order, the nation that they celebrated there in Memphis in 1905, when they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” right alongside Dixie. They might not have mentioned any of it but they knew it, knew about Forrest and the Klan. They certainly had read “The Klansman” – it was flying off the shelves that year – a novel about heroic men hidden beneath bedsheets out to save white virtue from black barbarians. It was a historical romance – that’s how it billed itself – that looked back longingly to a time not long before when people were still chivalrous, who would stand up against barbarism and miscegenation and instability, and stand up for order, private property.

Who better to represent what they had lost than Nathan Bedford Forrest? They talked about his heroism in battle, though they didn’t talk about the Battle of Fort Pillow, where Forrest ordered the massacre of hundreds of American troops attempting to surrender, most of them former slaves. They talked about his faith instead, his strapping build, and about their own hopes, that future Memphians would gaze upon Nathan Bedford Forrest and be inspired. They even raised some extra cash for a skating rink so that the white children of Memphis could play nearby, in the shadow of this great man, and learn from his shining example, though the bronze wouldn’t shine for long, would brown and green as the symbol of all that was good was exposed to the light of the sun and washed by the rain.

There is debate – there is always debate – about what the Klan meant when Forrest was its Wizard, about his intentions at Fort Pillow. They say Forrest repented his sins and his crimes in his deathbed. Should that be on the plaque? Should it note his regret? I say no. May it have ruined him. May it have corroded him, like rain on bronze. May it have choked him like smoke from the crosses in homes and churches, burned by men who revered him decades and decades later. Revered him, at least in part, because some influential Memphians decided they needed to revere him in this way, in that park, in 1905.

So the plaque should be big, but it can’t be big enough to say all that. Maybe it should just say – maybe they should all say, the many, many thousands of Confederate memorials and monuments and markers, that the men who fought and died for the CSA, whatever their personal reasons, whatever was in their hearts, did so on behalf of a government formed for the express purpose of ensuring that men and women and children could be bought and sold and destroyed at will. Maybe that should be enough.

But I want people to know about those Memphians in 1905 who wanted people to remember Forrest and why, who wanted a symbol to hold up and revere, to stand for what they valued most. I want people to know that that statue stood in downtown Memphis for 110 years, and to remember that memorials aren’t memories. They have motives. They are historical; they are not history itself. I want them to know why it was moved, that in 2015, after Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, and Ethel Lance, and Susie Jackson, and Cynthia Hurd, and Myra Thompson, and Daniel Simmons Sr., and a Depayne Middleton-Doctor, were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There were people in Memphis who were done with symbols and ready to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest for good.

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