Saturday, March 14, 2015

Arlo Guthrie and the segregationist SAE fraternity

I haven't drilled into the particular free speech claims involved in the SAE Oklahoma University case enough to have a definite opinion about whether expelling two of the racist frat boys was a violation or not. (As I explain below, though, the conventional phrase "frat boys" obscures the fact that the "boys" in this case of fully grown white men.)

I was surprised on Friday, though, to see Arlo Guthrie of all people defending the frat "boys" in a March 13 Facebook post:

Oklahoma University - My Take

Although I do not weigh in on everything going on in the world because there's too much to think about, there are times when I am compelled. The recent event(s) at Oklahoma University (OU) with the video release of a few people chanting some ridiculous song on a bus is driving me crazy.

It is not the people or the chant itself that causes me to say something, but rather the reaction compelled by some arbitrary political correctness. The people responsible for sensationalizing a few foolish kids are profiting from our gut reactions. There is no other way to explain how these same people who went ballistic over the killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France, now are mouthing off against a few foolish young people, demanding that something be done. Something was done in France. That's not where we want to go.

Charlie Hebdo intentionally set about to enflame those they knew would be offended by their work. And I would stand with those in France and elsewhere who defend their right to do so. So we all condemned the attack made on them. Where are those condemnations now?

These kids in Oklahoma did not intentionally set out to offend anyone. The targets of their stupid chant were not on the bus. You wouldn't hear them chanting this at an OU basketball game. I'd call their actions stupid and inappropriate. But the reactions of those offended are different in France and Oklahoma only by degree. WE are offended by stupid. But we should not react like the thugs in France even to a lesser degree. It is not illegal to be stupid (Thank You Lord).

Expulsion from OU is not only over-reacting, it doesn't even make sense. What these kids need is an education, not another authoritarian (parental) slap down. Saying 'Nigga' does not make anyone a racist, or we'd have to conclude that 98% of African Americans are racists. This is just stupid. If anything, it's time to lighten up, and stop playing 'gotcha' with every video, email or statement which comes to light in public.

We should be more ashamed of those who exploit these circumstances for financial or social gain, than we are of some foolish kids who are harmed more by the reaction, than anyone could or should be harmed by their dumb song.

That's my take... It anyone finds it offensive, lighten up. adg
After receiving several comments, he added in a comment of his own, "If anyone wants to argue back and forth as to whether their chant was racist or not, okay. We can do that. But, my concern (and the thrust of my note) was the hypocrisy of the reaction more than the actual video. That, to me, was more alarming."

Universities have an obligation to protect free speech and debate. They also have a responsibility to pay attention to threats of violence against their students. And they can - and should - apply nondiscrimination regulations to organizations the campus officially recognizes.

That SAE on the Oklahoma University campus understood itself as, among other things, a racially segregated and white supremacist organization seems pretty clear to me.

I posted a comment on Arlo's Facebook page saying there is a lot more to the history of white fraternity racism than a few drunk frat boys having a dumb, drunken moment. And I quoted from historian Robert Cohen's The Historical Roots of Fraternity Racism History News Network 03/10/2015:

The tape shows cheerful, white, well dressed frat boys repeatedly singing "You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a nigger SAE." What astonished me was how reminiscent this chant by Oklahoma fraternity members in 2015 was of the chant of segregationist fraternity members at the University of Georgia in January 1961. Though separated by more than a half century in both cases a lynching reference was combined with the chanting of a pledge to keep the segregationist fraternity tradition in tact [sic].

The only difference between the racist chants in 2015 and 1961 that I can discern is that the fraternities today seem more inclined to do their chanting in private.
I also commented that, for what it's worth, I was disturbed by the uncritical nature of the "Je suis Charlie" campaign. Because a lot of their humor seemed to be Rush-Limbaugh-style mean sneering at ordinary people, not satire aimed at the powerful. But, whatever someone may think of the university's reaction, it was surely not,"like the thugs in France even to a lesser degree." (Arlo's words) Murdering Charlie Hebdo employees at random is very much a different reaction in kind compared to disciplining a white segregationist fraternity. Whatever legal free speech objections the disciplined students may have, they were not murdered or even put in jail.

Arlo's comment, "Saying 'Nigga' does not make anyone a racist, or we'd have to conclude that 98% of African Americans are racists," really misses the point, though. These frat guys were not quoting a piece of literature or performing a rap song. They were chanting their commitment to keeping their fraternity segregated and invoking lynch-murder in the process. These are not children, they know what "nigger" means and they were using it in a racist way. Pretending otherwise is naive at best.

The Young Turks take a worldlier look at it in this segment, Frat Boy Defends Racist Bros On Twitter 03/12/2015:

Kent Greenfield describes 03/13/2015 the situation well in The Limits of Free Speech The Atlantic Politics 03/13/2015 when he writes, "No one with a frontal lobe would mistake this drunken anthem for part of an uninhibited and robust debate about race relations. The chant was a spew of hatred, a promise to discriminate, a celebration of privilege, and an assertion of the right to violence–all wrapped up in a catchy ditty."

I wouldn't go with Greenfield's discussion of the First Amendment applications here, though. As I said, I don't think I have enough information in this case right now to have a really informed opinion on how legal free speech concerns apply here. University expulsion cases can involve an incredibly messy mix of issues.

As Dave Neiwert points out in his excellent book Death on the Fourth of July (2004), in cases of violent hate crimes, it is often young white men who escalate from incidents of harassment and rudeness to more serious actions. And very often, the perpetrators have previously had run-ins with police over lower-level threatening behavior but law-enforcement brushed them off as "boys will be boys." I would think University President David Boren in the SAE case would have been remiss if he hadn't taken very seriously the inherently threatening nature of a white supremacist fraternity on campus thinking that celebrating their hostility to "n*****s" and laughing about lynching black people. These guys were headed for more serious trouble.

Later in the day, Arlo made this addendum to the post:

Addendum: After reading and responding to so many posts and comments: I remember hearing the story of when my father, Woody Guthrie first went to Los Angeles, leaving Oklahoma and the pan-handle of Texas during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, he got a job on a local radio station singing his songs. A few of the songs were 'off color' which by todays standards would be considered racist. One day a black man approached him and asked why he thought making fun of others was such a great idea. My father was stunned. After giving it a little thought, he decided that the man was right in questioning his apparent disregard for the feelings of others.

He began a long journey that became for him, an education. My father had never 'hated' anyone to begin with, but that alone was not enough to stop him from having a laugh at the expense of others, even those in the same financial or political boat as him. When confronted by a thoughtful and reasonable man my father began to change. Some years later, he wrote some equally bad verses about how 'we 'beat the savage Injuns...' when working on songs about the Columbia River. Someone may have confronted him again because he scratched them out and didn't use them.

Within a few short years, he went from being what we would these days call a racist to someone who would become revered the world over for his speaking out against the very same thing. His songs became universally adopted.

Someone reading this may disagree with my assessment, or my opinions, but no one reading this can change my history. I do not throw my opinions around loosely and I am convinced that working together with a little more thoughtfulness and reason we can make changes in individuals, universities, nations and worlds. I am the heir of those changes, and I am forever thankful for those who have corrected me at times, with reason, compassion and clarity.

In my younger days it was easy to make fun of people, even presidents. And I did so publicly in songs and onstage. These days, I don't. I just make fun of their policies where it seems appropriate. I've learned. That's how I know others can learn too. adg

Sadly, I'm not surprised by the number of Arlo fans who commented on his post pretty much the same way your typical elderly white FOX News addict would. I learned a while ago that folk music fans are not all the peace-and-love Birckenstock sorts of the stereotype.

What is mildly surprising is the number who pretend that it's some kind of question as to whether these SAE jerks were racists. Despite being frat "boys," these guys are grown men. And in the United States in 2015, any adult white man knows that joining a chant performance with a bunch of other white guys about how they ain't gone let no "nigger" into their precious white guys' club, complete with the lynch reference "You can hang him from a tree," these guys knew very well that taking part in that was a racist act. And only a white racist would have willingly participated in such a thing. Anyone who can't see this as a manifestation of white racism literally would not be able to recognize it anywhere, under any circumstances.

After focusing on this sad-ass case, I'm curious to dig a little more into the actual legal free speech issues over the University expelling two of them.

This is the 2014 Christmas photo of the SAE chapter at OU from their webpage:

Given that this fine bunch has made very clear their hostility to "niggers" and that they think it's a big yuck to chant about lynching them, what kind of things might these guys get into after a big kegger party on a Saturday night? Regardless of the legal technicalities of the two expulsions, the campus President David Boren would have been nuts not to recognize that he had a serious problem on his hands with this lot. I'll add, in the kind of fairness that one could not expect from SAE white racists, that probably not all the individuals in this photo participated in the pro-lynching chant. But everyone in this photo now knows the kind of white supremacist group with which they've associated themselves.

I hope that the SAE guys do recognize what they said in their chant was racist and wrong. None of them are likely to ask for my advice on the matter. But we're not talking about children here, nor about someone saying the n-word while quoting rap lyrics or having a classroom discussion about "Huckleberry Finn." In the United States in 2015, any adult white man knows that joining a performance with a bunch of other white guys about how they ain't gone let no "nigger" in their precious white guys' club, complete with the lynch reference "You can hang him from a tree," these guys knew very well that taking part in that was a racist act. And, yes, only a white racist would have willingly participated in such a thing. Anyone who can't see this as a manifestation of white racism literally would not be able to recognize white racism anywhere, under any circumstances.

It would be nice to think that some of them will change course in their lives and not intentionally pass their white supremacist attitudes and hatreds on to other people and other generations. But it's probably more likely that most of them will seek refuge in white victimization whining about how the Bad Negroes and Mean Libruls are pickin' on them. And they will get plenty of support for that attitude among a sadly large portion of white people in the United States.

On March 14, Arlo followed up with another post, acknowledging his surprise at the variety of the responses he got to the first one. In that post he includes, "the president of Oklahoma University, David Boren is someone I've met and admired. He's also a distant cousin of mine. I'm pretty confident he's got a handle on this sad episode, a view with insights I could not possibly have."

I have the impression that Arlo has a "libertarian" perspective. But the crowd that identifies as "libertarian" in the United States these days is also full of people who think the only racism problem we have in the US is that them thar blacks just cain't "git over it." And the "alternative medicine" trend with which he identifies is also full of people for whom combating white racism is very low on their list of life priorities. (See my post, Arlo Guthrie is a Republican? 07/28/2009)

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