Archive for the ‘Birth of a Nation (1915)’ Tag

Proper Levels of Sensitivity   3 comments

Above:  A Scene from Blazing Saddles (1974)

A Screen Capture


Or, Neither Be a Snowflake Nor Excuse and Facilitate Snowflakism in Others

Maintaining the proper level of sensitivity is crucial; hypersensitivity is at least as negative a force as insensitivity.

Certain statements are always beyond the pale.  These statements are those intended to degrade other human beings.  Reasons for degrading others include race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation.  Anyone who crosses that line deserves strong condemnation.  Nobody should ever tolerate such statements.  One might, on occasion, quote them (as in academic work; try writing a biography of a segregationist politician without quoting racial slurs, for example) or mock them (as in Blazing Saddles).

Above:  Men Reluctant to Give Land to the Irish; from Blazing Saddles (1974)

A Screen Capture

Some works of art age better than others based on this standard.  For example, Blazing Saddles (1974) depicts unapologetic racists as fools and idiots.  The movie stands the test of time as a masterpiece that argues against bigotry.  We who watch the movie laugh at those ensnared by their own learned racism.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is also a classic, but Mickey Rooney’s performance as an Asian man makes me cringe.  On the other hand, the movie does boast Audrey Hepburn and a cat.  How can I dislike a movie with Audrey Hepburn and a cat in it?

Above:  Holly Golightly and Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

A Screen Capture

I am sensitive, but not hypersensitive.  Life is too short (however long it might feel in real time) for me to spend it being hypersensitive, either about what others do and say or what I do or say.  No, I aim for a proper level of sensitivity on both sides of the equation.  I find Birth of a Nation (1915) offensive, for the seminal movie does glorify the first Ku Klux Klan.  The work is inherently racist, but it is also a landmark of cinema and a document of sorts of racial attitudes in much of the United States half a century after the end of the Civil War.  I have no regrets about having watched it from beginning to end once, for historical interest, or in having shown clips in classes, for educational purposes, with context.

The guiding principle for me in these matters is respecting the dignity of every human being, a value built into the Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer (1979).  This principle explains why, for example, I oppose abortion except in extenuating cases (while I argue that changing minds and making alternatives to abortion easier is a more effective, and therefore, better strategy than outlawing the procedure) as well as homophobia and discrimination against homosexuals.  Whether one places the label “left” or the label “right” on a position regarding respecting the dignity of all people does not matter to me.  Respecting the dignity of every human being is a principle that leads me to refrain from dehumanizing those who are different from me in one or more ways.

That does not mean, however, that I can ever get through day without doing something to offend someone, given that some people take offense more easily than others, and often at matters certain others consider inoffensive.

I am, for example, sufficiently pedantic to insist on always using the words “they,” “them,” “their,” and “themselves” in the plural.  One can be inclusive in the present tense, often by writing or speaking in language that makes one sound educated.  “One” and “one’s” are gender-neutral pronouns, after all.  One might also remain in the singular and substitute the definite article (“the”) for a gendered pronoun.  One can, when one sets one’s mind to the task, identify several strategies for being inclusive in the singular without wrecking the English language.  Alternatively, one might use “they,” “them,” “their,” and “themselves” correctly by switching to the plural forms of words.  Or one might accept the tradition of using masculine pronouns as the inclusive default position and go about enjoying one’s day.  All of the above are feasible options.  I refuse to distort the English language, of which I am quite fond, because of the hypersensitivity of others.

Some people take offense at even the most respectful and polite disagreements.  I have experience with this, usually in the context of teaching.

In late 1991, in southern Georgia, U.S.A., I was at a transitional point in my life.  I was a freshman in college.  I was also turning into an Episcopalian.  I was, for the time being, still a United Methodist, though.  My father was the newly-appointed pastor of the Sumner United Methodist Church, Sumner, Georgia.  One Sunday morning I was teaching the adult class.  There were two visitors, a married couple, Independent Baptists from Savannah, Georgia.  One half of that couple was a child of a member at Sumner.  During the course of that Sunday School lesson the visitors decided that my position on a particular theological point was lax.  Courteously I said,

I disagree.

I learned later in the week that I had offended–upset, really–them.  If these individuals were not prepared to take a polite, respectful “I disagree” well, how did they cope with daily life?  Did they associate most days only with people who agreed with them completely?

I have also offended students with the Joe Friday strategy–

Just the facts.

(Watch Dragnet, if you dare.  The acting was consistently and purposefully bad, but the two series were popular culture touchstones.)  In World Civilization I courses, for example, I have recited facts of ancient comparative religion.  This information has disturbed some students, who have mistaken me for one hostile to Judaism and Christianity, and who have taken grave offense at me.  To quote an old saying many of a younger generation might not understand,

Their tapes were running.

Those who took offense at me were not listening to what I was saying.  No, they were listening to what they thought I was saying.  They were reacting not to me, but to others who had criticized Christianity on false grounds.  In contrast, years ago, when I wrote an article I submitted for publication at an online theological journal with a conservative Presbyterian orientation, I recited many of the same facts about ancient comparative religion, but with no negative response or reaction.  The editors checked my facts and published my article.  They read what I wrote.  They also understood I was not hostile to the faith.

At one of the universities I attended there was a professor who specialized in Latin American history.  One day years ago he taught about human rights violations centuries ago that were matters of policy in the Roman Catholic Church.  An offended parent of an offended student called the department chair to complain.  The professor’s material was factually accurate; he cited examples Holy Mother Church has acknowledged frankly and for which it has formally apologized.  The two offended Roman Catholics (student and parent) took offense more easily and quickly than the institution they defended.

No ideological, political, or religious camp has a monopoly on snowflakism.  If one is to criticize snowflakism while remaining intellectually honest, one must criticize it consistently, without regard for left-right distinctions.

I have a strategy for dealing with that which would ruin my day needlessly:  I ignore it.  If I do not want to hear a speaker on the campus where I work, I do not attend the event.  If I do not want to watch a program or a movie, I avoid it.  Life is too short not to enjoy it properly.

I affirm all I have written in this post thus far as I add to it the following statement:  I understand why many people are hypersensitive.  I understand that many people’s formative experiences have included unapologetic, intentional insults, degradation, and contempt from others.  I understand that many people have felt oppressed because they have experienced a degree of oppression.  I understand that experiences have conditioned them.  I accept that one should acknowledge the unjust realities of many people’s lives and make no excuses for the inexcusable.

I also return to my original thought in this post:  Maintaining the proper level of sensitivity is crucial; hypersensitivity is at least as negative a force as insensitivity.  Something I do (or have done) today is offensive to somebody, somewhere.  The same statement applies to you, O reader.  Our duty is to do our best to love our fellow human beings as we love ourselves.  That kind of love seeks to build people up, not to tear them down.  It respects in words and deeds the dignity inherent in them.  So may we act accordingly.  May we neither cause legitimate offense not take offense wrongly.




Feast of Thaddeus Stevens (August 12)   6 comments

Above:  The Honorable Thaddeus Stevens, 1860-1868

Image Source = Library of Congress

THADDEUS STEVENS (APRIL 14, 1792-AUGUST 11/12, 1868)

U.S. Abolitionist, Congressman, and Witness for Civil Rights

“The Great Commoner”

One of the advantages of keeping a calendar of saints on a blog is recognizing people–whether or not from a denomination’s authorized calendar.  Today I choose to recognize a saint who, to the best of my knowledge, does not occupy space on any church body’s calendar.  That fact constitutes an oversight on their part.  Many people–especially defensive Southerners with emotional attachments to the Confederacy–have heaped abuse on the reputation of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.  Representations of him from the bad films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Tennessee Johnson (1942) are laughably inaccurate.  Of course, the Klansmen were the heroes in The Birth of a Nation, a movie which should make a person cringe if it does not bore one into unconsciousness first.

I begin at the end.  Thaddeus Stevens lies buried in a cemetery at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a town where he had lived for many years.  His epitaph follows:

I repose in this quiet and secluded spot

Not from any natural preference for solitude

But, finding no other cemeteries limited as to Race by Charter Rules,

I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death

The Principles which I advocated through a long life


Thaddeus Stevens was born in Vermont on April 14, 1792.  He was the second of four children of Sarah Morrill, a devout Baptist, and Joshua Stevens, a shoemaker  and a surveyor.  Joshua, a man with “rather dissipated habits,” abandoned his family, leaving Sarah to raise her children.  She was devoted to them, and Thaddeus remained devoted to her until she died in 1854.

Our saint had a difficult personality.  Inborn traits might have had something to do with that fact, but so did his disability:  a lifelong limp caused by a clubfoot.  This caused much taunting during his youth.  And some thought of the disability as a curse from God.  That accusation of being cursed by God might have influenced Stevens never to join a church, not that he was estranged from the Bible or hostile to organized religion.  In fact, he knew the Bible very well, having kept a copy by his bedside throughout his life.  And, in the early 1850s, in an attempt to convince his mother to leave Vermont and move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where there was no Baptist congregation nearby, Stevens offered to pay split the construction costs for a Baptist church with the Baptists.  Sarah died first, however.

Well-educated, Stevens moved to Pennsylvania in 1815 and opened a law office at Gettysburg the following year.  In 1821 he was complicit in returning a slave woman and her children to servitude.  This troubled his conscience greatly, so he became a strong, uncompromising abolitionist.  Stevens was, in fact, chiefly responsible for the equalization of pay for White and African-American soldiers and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in 1864.  He also favored Radical Reconstruction, with its insistence on enforcing the civil rights of former slaves.  And he worked hard to remove President Andrew Johnson (in office 1865-1869), an unapologetic racist and foe of the former slaves, from office.  The saint’s methods constituted an overreach, but his heart and mind were in the right place.  (Johnson had said of the former slaves,

Damn them!

To call him a twit is to understate the case greatly.)

As a man Stevens encouraged people to virtue and tried to act kindly, despite his acerbic tendencies.  He discouraged his nephew from drinking.  And Stevens was a kind employer to the workers at his iron works.  Steeped in the Bible, Stevens, as a state legislator in 1842, opposed capital punishment, stating,

Society ought to know nothing of vengeance.

Eight years earlier, he had pushed through the legislature a law creating free public schools in the commonwealth.  A year later, in 1835, he had prevented that law’s repeal.  The major complaint against free public schools was that some people did not want to pay for schools they did not intend to use.  But, Stevens rebutted, people already paid for courts and jails they did not intend to use.

Stevens, as a political creature, supported equality of access to opportunities for social advancement and personal improvement.  This led him to favor a strong role for the government in society, hence his support for public schools and for public works projects, such as those of Henry Clay’s proposed American System.  Stevens was a natural Federalist then Anti-Mason then Whig then Republican.  As I have explained to students in U.S. history courses, the political labels “Democratic” and “Republican” have been constant since 1854 yet the substance of them has changed more than once.  The fact that a certain historical figure fit into a particular political party in the 1800s does not mean that he or she would find a home there or in its successor today.  My readings about Stevens and my knowledge of modern U.S. politics cause me to conclude that he would not have fit easily into the post-Goldwater and Reagan Republican Party.  Certainly the Southern Strategy (appealing to Southern segregationists, beginning in the 1960s) would have offended his morality.

Stevens died about midnight on August 11-12, 1868, after having been ill for a while.  At the tail end of his life he received  a Roman Catholic baptism.  How conscious he was of this baptism was uncertain then and remains at least as uncertain today.  Yet we can be certain of the fact that there was a Protestant funeral him to rival the Roman Catholic funeral.

Professor Hans L. Trefousse, author of Thaddeus Stevens:  Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 1997), the main source of my notes for this post, concluded:

His policies often sounded harsh, whether vindictive or not, but his legacy made possible racial progress in the twentieth century, finally showing that his life had not been a failure.  Ahead of his time, he worked for an interracial democracy.  It was a goal for which he assuredly deserves to be remembered.

–page 245





Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil

and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Thaddeus Stevens,

to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever.  Amen.  

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60