Friday, August 28, 2015

Some genealogy and some bad analogies.

My maternal great-grandfather was Samuel Visnow.  Samuel was born in Quebec in 1847. I do not know exactly how they ended up there but by 1860, Samuel, his mother Matilda, and his sister Lydia were living in Black River Falls, Wisconsin where Matilda worked as a cook in a lumber camp.  In 1864, Samuel enlisted in the Union Army at the age of 17 and was assigned to Company G of the Fifth Wisconsin Infantry. It's not specified in his war record, but family lore is that Samuel was a color bearer. During the Civil War, this meant carrying the flag in front of one's company as the company was charging the enemy. Soldiers were instructed to follow the colors so that they knew where to go in a battle. Of course, the side being charged knew that soldiers followed color bearers, so the color bearer was a popular target of soldiers on the defense because a fallen color bearer would slow a charge as someone else would have to pick up the flag and get going.

Whether he was a color bearer or not, Samuel Visnow was wounded at the Battle of Sailor's Creek, on April 5, 1865. Samuel's obituary describes the wound as "serious." I was told that Samuel was shot through the chest but the shot was at such close range that the powder from the shot cauterized the wound so that the bullet hole did not ever completely close. As a result of the wound, Samuel was granted a pension which was increased on at least one occasion. 

Samuel was proud of his Civil War service. Indeed, Samuel's service in the 5th Wisconsin is the only thing mentioned besides his name on his tombstone.  I do not know why Samuel joined the Union Army. Maybe he joined because being in the army would be an adventure that would get him out of Black River Falls. Maybe he joined out of patriotism for his adopted country. Maybe he joined because he believed that slavery was wrong.  Although I do not his motive, I am also proud of Samuel's service.

All of this is a long way of saying that I understand the impulse to want to honor one's predecessors. I also do a lot of reading about the Civil War and understand why some people are very interested in making sure that people remember that conflict. At least, I understand it to a point. I do not really understand how some people, typically one's that romanticize the Confederacy, overlook that the Civil War was fight over slavery.  

The Texas Tribune has story about this phenomena which is also an example of how extreme comparisons do not really help a lawyer's cause. It seems that there is a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the main mall of the campus of the University of Texas. After some incidents of vandalism, and the student government voting unanimously that the statue should be removed, the university's president decided to move the statue to the school's Center for American History. As a result, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (whose website calls the people who fought to preserve slavery "heroes") sued in an attempt to halt the move.  

Th attempt failed because Texas District Court Judge Karin Crump found that the group did not have standing to challenge the move. Kirk Lyons represented the SCV.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mr. Lyons is "a white supremacist lawyer who co-founded and serves as the 'chief trial counsel' for the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC), which has effectively become the legal arm of the neo-Confederate movement."  

The Tribune reports that during oral argument and after the hearing, Mr. Lyons made some interesting analogies regarding the move. First, Mr. Lyons said that the decision to move the statue was similar to the destruction of antiquities by the Islamic State.  Because, you know, moving a statue from outdoors to indoors (where it will be displayed with statues of other prominent historical figures like Sam Houston, Stephen Austin, and Samuel Rayburn) is exactly the same as destroying a statute so that no one can ever see it again. Judge Crump reportedly told Mr. Lyons the analogy was inapt but Mr. Lyons decided to use it again during his closing argument in the guise of a non-apology apology. According to the Tribune, Mr. Lyons said “I apologize if anyone was offended by my actions comparing removal of the statues to ISIS and the Taliban, but that is what it smacks (of).”

Consistent with the Southern Poverty Law Center's description of Mr. Lyons as a white supremacist, Mr. Lyons argued to Judge Crump that moving the Jefferson Davis statue will lead to the removal of other statues from the university's mall (James Hogg, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan, and Robert E. Lee are also on the mall) by saying “I am afraid we will be signing the death warrant for every statue on campus, except maybe Barbara Jordan and Martin Luther King.”  Put another way, Mr. Lyons envisions a university where the only statues on campus are statues of African-Americans and thinks that vision is a nightmare that the Texas state courts must prevent.  Maybe it would be more charitable to say that Mr. Lyons is concerned that the only statues on campus would be those that honor individuals committed to the idea that all people are created equal rather than honoring people committed to the idea that people should be enslaved based on skin color.

After the hearing, Mr. Lyons continued making bad analogies when he spoke to the press. Saying that he was proud to have fought to keep the statue on the mall, Mr. Lyons said, “Sometimes you have got to be that Chinese student in front of those four tanks in Tiananmen Square." Given that Tank Man was probably jailed and/or killed for his role in the Tianamen Square protest, while Mr. Lyons probably went out for lunch after the hearing, reasonable minds may differ about whether Mr. Lyons was really being like Tank Man. Mr. Torvik, feel free to make your own joke about that comparison in the comments.

What do you think Mr. Torvik, is honoring "Southern Heritage" something people should be trying to do? After all, the "heritage" that people are trying to honor is one of slavery, segregation, and the brutal suppression of civil rights. If this heritage were based on the losing side in the war fought in the 1940s rather than the one fought in the 1860s would any one find that a legitimate thing to honor?

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