Two Writers Illuminate the Nation’s Governance Crisis
The Roanoke Times is the regional newspaper serving Blacksburg, Va., the town in which Virginia Tech is located, and it routinely publishes the syndicated work of the distinguished columnist Leonard Pitts and of the writer and attorney, Christine Flowers. Essays by the two authors appeared together in the paper on October 23 and their juxtaposition constituted something of a metaphor for the character of the nation’s present governance crisis. Flowers’ column expressed outrage that social media corporations and users were engaged in “witch hunts” in the United States. Her example was Jon Gruden, the now former coach of the Las Vegas Raiders professional football team, who was fired after a series of emails sent over the course of several years that embraced racist, homophobic and sexist beliefs and values came to light. Here is how Flowers characterized Gruden’s messages:
Last week, Jon Gruden’s life exploded because of some private email exchanges that he had between 2007-2018 with a colleague. The emails included comments that were objectively racist, sexist and homophobic, and it’s hard to figure out how to defend them. You really can’t. Gruden doesn’t.
Despite this disclaimer, Flowers nevertheless contended that Gruden had been “canceled,” noting: “I have friends who were canceled because someone believed that they’d overstepped social boundaries that are now delineated by the tech gods and their acolytes.” Flowers continued:
You can no longer use certain words, because the Twitter armies will hunt you down and take your soul hostage if you do. You can’t express certain dissonant views about vaccines or masks, or the Facebook Stasi will sniff you out and tag your posts with disclaimers, the social media equivalent of being placed in the public stocks.
Flowers went much further, but these quotations suffice to offer insight into her mode of thinking, about which I can offer several observations. First, the allusions to Twitter armies and the former East Germany’s infamously cruel secret police were wildly inflammatory and completely inappropriate to the situation. Gruden was not imprisoned, tortured or murdered for his racist and socially hierarchical claims and values. Likewise, no armed military figures, from Twitter or otherwise, appeared at his door to detain him or worse. Moreover, Flowers’ allusion to cancelling someone for obnoxious views was singularly off the mark since Gruden’s views, as a very public figure, were, and are, as she suggested, unacceptable in a society devoted to human and civil rights and equality. More generally, there was no reason to imagine that Gruden’s indefensible claims were treated with anything like the inhumanity that has occurred in authoritarian societies, despite Flowers’ contentions to the contrary. So far as I can determine, her allusions to historically despicable actors were designed to appeal to those already disposed to believe that such repugnant views as Gruden had long supported were, in fact, otherwise somehow defensible.
In addition, Flowers’ decision to liken racism, sexism and homophobia to the argument that anti-vaxxers have offered that they should be free to imperil themselves and others during a deadly pandemic raises an especially ugly specter. That comparison, in fact, approves such anti-democratic views and supposedly absolute individual rights, even when those espousing them are in public positions of authority and leadership, and whether they result in the deaths of those so targeted or, indeed, of those displaying them. Taken as a whole, Flowers’ column appears to countenance Gruden’s racism and other repeated oppressive claims on behalf of his and others’ right to divide society into social groups and to demean and undermine the rights of those they agree are less than them. Withal, there can be no more anti-democratic assertion than such empty a priori discrimination. The historical record is awash in the inhumanity and depravity that has arisen from such arguments.
Leonard Pitts’ essay adjoining Flowers’ column offered a very different set of contentions aimed at making the point that national values and ideals matter because they play a major role in determining the health and character of a body politic, particularly a democratic one. Pitts was concerned that many Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, whose life was endangered on January 6 by the sort of inflammatory rhetoric Flowers offered, but who has since embraced such arguments notwithstanding to pursue power, have used a false self-righteous anger to justify injustice and discrimination. Here is how Pitts framed his reaction to such egregious contentions:
I’m an American. By that, I don’t simply mean that I’m a U.S. citizen, though I am that. But what I really mean is that I venerate the ideals on which this country was founded. Unalienable rights. Life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Freedom of speech. Of faith. Of conscience. Government by consent of the governed. Equality before the law. Because of those ideals, America already was a revolution even before it won independence from England. … Indeed, to witness politicians openly rigging the electoral process by installing loyalists to count votes, to watch them lionize insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol, to see them wheedle and rationalize rather than stand up for the country they purport to love. … It’s a realization that forces a choice [concerning whether to support those ideals and values].
Pitts concluded his essay by arguing that those Americans whom he supports believe in freedom of speech, the rule of law, democratic ideals and facts and reason, while today’s GOP and its allies have sought to undermine or denigrate all of these.
Reading the Pitts and Flowers’ columns together encouraged me to reflect on how the division the former pointed up has arisen so swiftly and so deeply. I wondered, too, how Flowers and many like her can countenance unjust and oppressive beliefs and behavior and blame those who reveal them, rather than working to eliminate their occurrence or at least to demand a repudiation of such demeaning and dehumanizing views. I also pondered how Flowers and others who have adopted her perspective could believe that pursuit of the common democratic weal for a pluralistic society is somehow not only perverse, but also appropriately likened to the worst sort of autocratic inhumanity, cruelty and injustice. Finally, I found myself mulling how Flowers and those she sees herself representing can imagine that undermining the rights of others by allowing their oppression in law and practice will do anything other than degrade and ultimately eliminate their own democratic possibility and freedom in the longer run. Individuals cannot abrogate the rights of some groups and demean the principles that protected them, and yet imagine that their own may never fall prey to the same depredation as circumstances shift.
As I have contemplated these essays—one that celebrated the power and potential of the American experiment and one that winked at and supported individuals who would undermine those ideals and scapegoated unnamed others for discriminatory and racist actions—I was reminded of geography scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s insight that democracy can readily be undone by efforts to ensure the dominance of one or another group. That process is characterized by what she called “the displacement of difference” through which “particular kinds of bodies, one by one, are materially (if not always visibly) configured by racism into a hierarchy of human and inhuman persons that, in sum, form the category of ‘human being.’” Gilmore did not contend that she was describing specific actual conditions, but instead that their manifestation represented a continuing social and spatial struggle. These two essays by nationally syndicated writers neatly highlight the fact that just such a contest is now in progress concerning what this nation is and will become. Will its citizenry formally embrace racialized claims to superiority, or will that population seek instead to address and to realize its own long-professed ideals and values of equality and democracy? Our country is now fully in the throes of deciding whether it will remain an experiment, however flawed, in efforts to ensure human freedom, and these two columns captured that sad reality. I remain hopeful that those pressing for democratic values will prevail in this struggle, but history teaches that a devotion to such ideals is ever hard won. This vital drama continues to unfold as I write. It, rather than imagined social media witch hunts, is surely the most important question now confronting the American people and nation.
 Pitts, Leonard. “My People are Americans who believe in Ideals,” The Roanoke Times, October 23, 2021, p. A-9, Flowers, Christine. “Beware the Social Media Witch Hunts,” The Roanoke Times, October 23, 2021, p. A-9.
 Flowers, October 23, 2021.
 Flowers, October 23, 2021.
 Flowers, October 23, 2021.
 Pitts, October 23, 2021.
 Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Fatal Couplings of Power and Difference Notes on Racism and Geography,” The Professional Geographer, 54(1), pp.15-24, 2002, p. 16; https://bit.ly/3CBNCNJ. Accessed October 30, 2021.
November 1, 2021