This week I wrote a couple of posts that prompted responses that made me rethink what I wrote. I’m not changing my position in either case, but the responses were thoughtful and deserve consideration.
The first case involved a post from Wednesday in which I praised Madison School Board President Ali Muldrow for indicating she might vote to reinstate former Sennett Middle School Principal Jeffrey Copeland after Copeland had been fired for allegedly saying something perceived as racist. Here’s what Muldrow said:
I don’t think anti-racism and zero tolerance are compatible. I think if you want to have an anti-racist school district, then you have to embrace things like restorative justice, you have to understand that people are going to make mistakes, that people say things that are insensitive. You have to have an ability not just to eliminate or dispose anybody who’s ever had a racist idea or said something in a way that could be interpreted as racist, but you have to have an ability to repair harm when those things come up, as they inevitably will.
Faithful reader One Eye responded that Copeland had nothing to apologize for. I agree. All he said was that a job applicant didn’t have the necessary communications skills to function as a teacher in his school.
But I still think Muldrow’s comments were significant because they break with a key tenant of anti-racist thinking, which is that good intentions don’t matter. Back in March of 2021 a member of a Madison city committee said, “God bless George Floyd.” Her intent was to express the idea that Floyd’s death had opened a lot of people’s eyes to ongoing racism. But two members of the committee resigned in protest over that simple and clearly well-intentioned statement. They said that that member’s remark caused harm because it treated Floyd’s death as a mere device to facilitate the progress of white people. This, I pointed out in a blog at the time, is just nuts.
Assuming that the Board reinstates Copeland at a meeting tonight, it will be interesting to see if he submits to any kind of reeducation program or admits to any kind of insensitivity in his comments. On the merits I don’t think he should do either, but in the interests of moving on it might make sense for him to meet Muldrow half way because she has, in fact, moved from a more hardline position. The point is to get Copeland back at Sennett to see if he can build on his good start in restoring order to the school. If he needs to swallow hard and accept some reprimand he should do it in the interests of the students.
Then yesterday I wrote about what I thought was a very well done AP story about right-wing extremists in St. Croix County. I pointed to one paragraph in that story, which I thought did a nice job of recounting the idea that people aren’t just one thing:
He’s a complicated man. While even he admits he might accurately be called a right-wing extremist, he calls peaceful Black protesters “righteous” for taking to the streets after Floyd’s murder. He doubts there was fraud in the midterm elections. He drives a Tesla. He loves AC/DC and makes his own organic yogurt. In an area where Islam is sometimes viewed with open hostility, he’s a conservative Christian who says he’d back the area’s small Muslim community if they wanted to open a mosque here.
Last night I had dinner with a friend who read the same story and had a very different reaction. Where I saw the story as hopeful she saw it as frightening.
My view is that John Kraft, the guy described above, has views and preferences that cross cultural lines and that those areas of commonality can be used as bridges. When I was a politician and knew I was facing a chilly audience I would try to begin with some comment about the Badgers or the weather or a shared hatred of parking tickets, any small thing to get us on the same page. Then I could work up to discussing our areas of disagreement.
The last presidential candidate to win easily in Wisconsin, Barack Obama, did exactly this kind of thing on a grand scale. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if John Kraft voted Obama at least once.
But I also think I understand my dinner companion’s concern. After I got home a couple of good books came to mind, The German War and In the Garden of Beasts. Both volumes explore the reaction of the German middle class as Adolf Hitler came to power. These were people much like middle class Americans. They had their favorite radio shows. They were starting to embrace the nuclear family, cars and suburbs. They had all the trappings of normalcy. And yet they actively accepted Hitler or looked the other way or were just too intimidated to speak up against him.
From that perspective, you can read this AP story and become very concerned. It’s possible to drive a Tesla and make your own organic yogurt and still actively or passively support a fascist.
What’s certainly true is that people are complicated. Politicians can appeal to their better angels, as Obama did, or their darkest paranoia, as Trump has.
My point, I suppose, as I close out the week, is that nothing is simple. Life and politics are filled with grey areas. Your enemies will sometimes surprise you while your friends may disappoint you. Nobody is just one thing. Moral certainty is a curse.
Have a good weekend.