Tag Archives: United States

I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by factcheck.org is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.

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Part III: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

In this, my thrilling and final series conclusion, I will explore problems that ex-cons face, as well as articulate a path that I see moving forward.  

After people get out of prison, society never truly stops punishing them for their crimes.  In many states you can’t vote or sit on a jury.  Ex-cons are often not eligible for food stamps or public housing.  Finally, it will be hard to attend college, and, of course, to get jobs–discrimination against ex-cons is seen as entirely appropriate.

Of course, ex-cons need jobs desperately.  In addition to often being low-income and ineligible for various forms of assistance, many ex-cons leave prison with debt from accumulating child payments, court fees, probation fines, legal fees, etc.  Steady employment, ironically, is also a condition of parole — a catch 22.  To avoid violating parole, prisoners have to take very low paying jobs even if it does not make sense (e.g., they have to take a 30 minute taxi-ride to work everyday that costs $40 where they make $55 a day at minimum wage).  Unfortunately, within 3 years, 70% of realeased prisoners are rearreested and half are sent back to prison.  Many of them have not commited new crimes, but have instead merely violated parole in one way or another.

So why doesn’t the explosion in our prison population, the prison rape issue, and these other injustices get so little attention? Why is society not interested i?  One obvioius reason is that the victims usually have no voice: they are poor and they cannot vote, which means they can’t back campaigns financially or vote in them.  Another reason, and this was news to me, is that the supreme court has ruled that the first amendment does not prevent prison authorities from barring the press.

Perhaps more importantly there are, in my personal opinion,  five significant cultural dynamics at work that make the American penal system deeply dysfunctional:

  1. America prefers to punish than rehab; we do not feel that others deserve forgiveness or protection once they have failed us to a certain extent–they are now “criminals.”  (Three personal encounters of American passionate punitiveness: inner-city residents I worked with in Buffalo would very often fervently prefer to punish those they thought were responsible for the decline of their neighborhood rather than take steps to arrest that decline, even if punishing others directly contributed to neighborhood decline.  Secondly, in my work in housing court, I saw how Judges might love to throw homeowners and slumlords in jail for violating housing codes, but throwing a slum lord in jail is the only way to ensure that his/her property will not be fixed.  Finally, after I rescued that guy on the subway, I was dumbfounded by how often I was asked if I would have still risked my life if knowing the guy was drunk; as if being drunk and doing something dumb meant that you did not deserve to live.)
  2. The second cultural factor that makes our prison system worse comes from American Christianity.  Too often the church has equated state justice as God’s justice and forgiveness and rehabilitation with weakness.  Fortunately this is solvable.  I would argue that true Christianity is about forgiveness.  There is a debate here that can be won.
  3. Thirdly, while Americans love the entrepenurial spirit and those who take risks when it comes to business, while Americans love taking risks with their health and eating whatever they want, Americans won’t accept risk when it comes to safety.  Americans are willing to keep another million people a year in prison if they think it lowers the chance of their daughter getting raped even .3%.  (I remember moving back to America from Taiwan, and I was amazed at the vast apparatus involved each morning in the task of transporting children to school–those same kids are packing capri-sun, jello, PB&J on white bread, and string cheese for lunch.)
  4. Americans, because we are rich, can afford to indulge our love of segregating ourselves.  The old, the young, the mentally ill, the disabled, the “low-lifes,” the dying, and even the dead, will be curtained off and put out of view as long as we can afford it.
  5. There is little money, passion, or organizational support around protecting men from getting raped.

So what can we do?   Christopher Glazek identifies 7 tasks.

  1. Put up with increased risk in our daily lives by letting people out of prisons.  (Pooling risk, he claims, is the liberal insight.)  I agree, but this is relatively minor.    
  2. Parole needs to be less strict.  Agree.  
  3. He asserts that “we must be ready to sacrifice the trational progressive agenda on the altar of criminal justice” and he offers an example of the death penalty.  For the last three decades, about 30 people a year have been executed.  This, he claims, is a tiny injustice compared to the millions of prisoners and communities that suffer from our penal system generally.  Therefore, “Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate for a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward.”  Probably wise to an extent.  
  4. Stop wasting time on gun control; it helps little.  I’m not sure.  
  5. Legalize narcotics.  I agree strongly.  
  6. Lower standards for life sentences.  Agree.  (Interestingly, unlike rape, homicide has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime–you can only murder your wife once, suggesting that death row inmates may pose less of a security risk than other categories of offenders.)
  7. Lower standards for prison sentences across the board.  Agree.

These suggestions are mostly good, but I think he widely misses the mark.  These policies are fine, but our first policy aims must be that which has a catalytic effect and increases energy around a host of policy goals.  Here is my list:

  1. I would suggest that the most important task before us is fully reinstating criminals after they have paid their debt to society.  In other words, all discrimination against ex-cons must be illegal.  Specifically, they must be allowed to vote and get jobs.  This would grease the skids for all prison reform by giving the victims more power.  Also, a true 2nd chance would hopefully descrease recidivism rates and allow “ex-cons” to reinvent themselves and gain self-respect.   )This might sound goofy, but I tend think we should have civil reconciliation ceremonies after which ex-cons are declared full citizens again.  These events should be as celebrated as weddings.)
  2. We need the disinfectant of light; the press must have access.
  3. We need to count crimes against criminals as actual crimes, in the data and in our own heads.
  4. This means we need to address the cultural factors that might be mutable.  The goal of prisons must be rehabilitation instead of punishment and we need to push back on all forms of Christianity that advocates for harsher sentencing.

Lastly, and this may sound weird, but I think each of us needs to forgive “the other” for all the anonymous crimes that have been commited against us.  For example, I am still mad at the thief who stole a beautiful leather jacket in college.  I had bought it in Tuscany when I was 17, spending way too much money.  I think there is a part of me that assigns to known criminals all the frustration of unsolved crimes against me.

But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the real problem with our penal system is that you and I, and others too, care more about other things.  This is a political issue; it can only be mitigated through public will.  Certainly, there are many other important issues vying for our attention, but I hope that prison reform will be on your list of issues worth paying attention to going forward.

In other news, Alicia probably won’t get to Sri Lanka until late June!  Argh!  But I did make a friend today.  He is 18, a hotel receptionist and a massage therapist, and his name is Anwas.  He walked around with me today and we went to the History Museum together.  Also picture is a tuk tuk ( 3 wheeler Colombo taxi), and a beautiful pool in a restaurant I checked out.  Forgive the bad quality iPod pics.  


Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

Crime has fallen precipitously since the high of the early ’90s.   For example, from 1980 to 2005, the estimated incidence of rape fell by 85%.  In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides  in NYC.  In 2010, there were only 536.  Crime has continued to fall even during the recession.

But this is not actually true.  Crime has merely been transplanted and concentrated in our nation’s prisons and, incredibly, crime rate statistics do not include crimes which occur in prison.  This is totally understandable, right?  Crimes against criminals don’t count!  But, lately I have pretended that they do count, which has led to some basic research about the U.S. penal system, to a discovery of an obnoxiously worthy cause, and now I am less content in my ignorance and apathy–a rookie mistake.  (If somebody can explain all this away please let me know!)

In recent posts, I noted the media frenzy around Trayvon Martin’s death and that, while the incident was tragic, murder by strangers, especially neighborhood watch volunteers, is not a top societal problem.  In an effort to walk my talk I am taking the next few posts avoiding the latest stories (Obama’s for gay marriage!?) in order to highlight the critical situation in our burgeoning penal system.  These issues receive little attention, and, in my opinion, could easily be much improved.  For those in search of a crusade, you might consider it.

Thoughtful citizens take note: the U.S. prison population has boomed (this would make a good voting quiz question).  It rose 400% from 1980 to 2007, while the general population grew 33% in the same period, until U.S. prisons housed 2.3 million with about 5 million people on parole–a total population greater than the municipalities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco combined.  This makes the United States the most incarcarated country in the world and second most in known history (supposedly the USSR under Stalin just edges us out).  Today, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people.  We spend $70 billion of the $200 billion spent globally on keeping people locked up.

Many factors contribute to the rise in the U.S. prison population.  One is the war on drugs.  Another is 3 strike and other laws that demand stricter penalties which the public demanded after the rise in crime in the 80s and 90s.  Unfortunately, offenses that count towards 3 strike laws can be quite minor, such as stealing videos from wallmart, etc.  Life sentences are also given out more often than they used to be.  In 2003, 127,677 Americans were serving life sentences, an 83% jump in 11 years.  For these reasons and others, the prison population grew.

At first, the scale of this prison population spike just seemed strange.  After all, have we really had a 400% increase in depravity in the last 30 years?  Regardless, perhaps the rise is gravy if prison life means simply reading, watching TV, and exercising.  But the truth seems a bit more complicated. (Part 2 to come.)

(Unattributed quotes or stats are pulled from a fairly well-known article by Christopher Glazek.)


A Note to George Zimmerman

Last week’s post sparked great discussion.  It is so gratifying tackling these issues with so many friends.  Throughout those conversations, the following three points emerged:

First, as per usual, I am entirely unimpressed with the issues that the media and public choose to care about.  Obesity, to name just one issue, kills millions and costs the US economy at least $300 billion a year and is treated primarily with those two incredibly cost-prohibitive treatments: diet and exercise.

Horrible and solvable issues abound and the Trayvon shooting is not one of them.  All the ranting about this being part of a larger issue about gun control and “Stand your Ground” laws is silly.  Perhaps we will get more cases like this because of these new laws, but right now each year about 56.5% of gun-related deaths in this country are suicides, a majority of what is left is drug or gang related, only 14% of gun deaths involve strangers, and on the whole violent crime like this has continued to decline across the country since the 1980s.  The rise of homicidal neighborhood watch volunteers is not likely to be an important public health issue in the future.

Second, we must be slow to judge what happened and why it happened (this video was something that made me pause).  This story has inspired racial outrage prematurely.  Of course, it very well might be racism that killed Trayvon Martin.  If so, when that is discovered to be the case, I will agree that it is part of a disturbing, larger trend of racism.  But the trends that I see right now are an America who jumps to conclusions when the victim of a shooting is black and progressives who jump to conclusions about gun owners.  So, my progressive friends, take it from me: I find the second amendment archaic, stand your ground laws unwise, vigilanteism foolish, and the modern Republican Party upsetting.  But nonetheless, Zimmerman deserves to be tried based on the laws of his state and not your sense of what is right and wrong.  He should have his day in court and, if you are truly an open-minded liberal, in the court of your opinion.

Third, I have something to say to Zimmerman himself.  (If he is anything like me, he probably spends too much time looking at his story online, so I hope he finds this.)

Zimmerman, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what happened, but please know that I’m feeling for you man, for the fame that has rushed in on you, and for the tragic circumstances that led to it.  Two years ago, I almost hit a baby in a stroller while pulling out of a gas station.  I cannot imagine what you are going through having actually killed a 17-year-old.  And now it must seem like your whole life is out of your control and you don’t know who your friends are.  I am sorry so much has been taken from you so quickly without a conviction to justify it.

But do me a favor.  I know my little traffic accident made me think about giving up cars entirely–that perhaps it just wasn’t worth speeding around at high velocity in large hulks of metal if I could destroy something so precious with it–but I ultimately didn’t because it was too inconvenient. But you could succeed where I failed.  I am wondering, has this experience caused you to reflect anew on whether owning personal handguns is worth it?  If you came out against gun ownership right now, or even sold your own guns, it would send a strong statement.  If you don’t change your mind on guns, I respect that, but you should still think about it.  Very soon your 15 minutes of fame will be gone, your national audience will dissipate, and you will lose the chance to effect enormous change.  Don’t waste the moment. ; )


My Favorite Republican Hopeful

Now that I am done with my Habitat temp job, it’s time to get down to what’s really important: crudely assessing the Republican presidential field.  I tend to think it’s pretty weak, and, to be honest, a bit embarrassing for Republicans.   Three big heavyweights are sitting out this round: Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie.  I think the main reason is that they realize how little of a chance anyone stands of beating Obama in 2012.  Chris Christie and Marco Rubio are young, and despite what Christie recently said to my old pals on Fox & Friends, they both would make great VPs.  However, let’s look at who’s running.

In general, I think that there are three types of candidates.  For the first, it’s a publicity stunt, a way to sell books, raise your profile, and advance your career (think Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain).

In the second group are those that have very little or no chance of achieving the nomination, but they hope to shape the debate.  Ron Paul is the quintessence of this group.  Gary Johnson joins Paul in his love for most things libertarian, and I tend to like him.  He seems interested in solving problems and is refreshingly thoughtful on policy issues.  For example, in the June 13th CNN debate he proposed a kind of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants which centered around making it easy to achieve work VISAs.  I find it sad that it takes guts to suggest this in the Republican world of absolutist solutions (e.g. send everyone back!).  He’s also a fan of legalizing many types of drugs, which I agree with wholeheartedly.  Newt Gingrich has such high negatives that he really has little chance of being president, but he hopes to shape the discussion and be the Republican ideas man.  This hope betrays an intent that indicates a firm footing in the first group as well, as he hopes to sell more of the 21 books he’s published.  Really, the guy has very little chance, and you better believe that he knows it too.  Finally, Rick Santorum is in this group as well.  He wants to shape the debate by bringing the pet issues of the religious right to the forefront.  The problem is that he cannot distinguish himself as everyone seems on board.  There is no front runner like Rudy Guiliani who is pro-choice.  Nonetheless, I do believe that Santorum thinks Santorum has a shot at winning everything.

The third type of presidential candidate is actually running for president.  So far, only three people populate this group: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman.  Mitt is the frontrunner I suppose, but these early polls are extremely meaningless.  I think he’s the frontrunner in large part because he is the only one of these three with larger name recognition, a holdover from the last presidential contest.  However, I remember him primarily for conveniently flip-flopping on abortion, viciously attacking John McCain in the primary debates last time around, and spending a shit-ton of money in Iowa and losing to an insurgent, relatively poor, and likable Huckabee.  I am comforted by the fact that even Romney’s supporters don’t really seem to like him, and may easily defect.  These numbers won’t be replaced, because he can’t get much tea party support with his record on health care reform, which is so toxic to the extreme elements in his party.  Tim Pawlenty seems like a serious candidate, but he seems to be continually trying to feign outrage in order to grab some share of the Tea Party.  But he’s not an angry guy, and he’s not really that confrontational, as was shown by how he sidestepped his Obamneycare line at the June 13th debate.  Also, I just disagree with him about most things he says.  So that leaves us with Jon Huntsman, my current fav.  I’ll talk about why in my next post.


Birther Brilliance

I just want to mention some of the profound ways that not being born in the United States would have affected the quality of Obama’s presidency.  He clearly would not have been able to truly understand the country or be capable of talented, decisive leadership.

My confidence in this knowledge stems from observing my own inabilities brought on by not being born in the US.   It has rendered me an imbecile in regards to all things American.  For example, I sometimes get the words wrong when saying the pledge of allegiance.  Americans even think that I stutter, when really I am just talking like everyone not born in the United States.

I’ll miss the Birther movement.  I find crusades for meaningless truths amusing (or depressing, depending on my mood).  Who could have better publicized the idea that citizenship jus soli (by the soil) is an idiotic idea in the first place?  I remember in 8th grade Social Studies when I found out that an illegal immigrant can have a kid in the US and that kid is automatically a citizen.  I thought my teacher was joking, but apparently dirt has magical properties, at least in America.

At the same time, there is a myth in the missionary kid world that those like me who were not born in the US can’t be President.  From what I can tell this isn’t true.  I did some research for the sake of Obama and I.  Please, correct me if I am wrong.  Article 2 section 1 of the Constitution says this:

“No person except a natural born citizen…shall be eligible to the office of president.”

Ok.  What is a “natural born citizen”?  In the fourteenth amendment, section 1, it says this:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”

That didn’t really help.  Finally, title 8 of the US Code fills in the gaps in section 1401. It says a couple of things but most importantly for our purposes it gives citizenship at birth to:

“a person born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents both of whom are citizens of the United States and one of whom has had a residence in the United States or one of its outlying possessions, prior to the birth of such person.”

Ok.  This means that I am good to go right?  My mom grew up in Ohio and my Dad in Virginia.  Yay!  I can be president.  What about Obama even if he was born outside the country?  Secion 1401 of title 8 goes on to say that someone is born a citizen if he or she is:

“a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years.”

Shouldn’t this apply to Obama also?  His dad was from Kenya who came to America to study.  His mom was from Kansas where she lived, presumably, more than five years.  What am I missing?

I’ll miss the Birthers.  They were off-base technically (I think Obama would still have been eligible for president), meaningfully (Obama would still have been capable of being president), and factually (Obama was in fact born in the US).   Nonetheless, in March one quarter of all Americans believed Obama was not born in the states, the majority of Republican primary voters believed he was not, and 49% of all Republicans nationwide.  Obama and his advisors must have been wondering when to release the long-form birth certificate. This would have been the best opportunity ever to make your political opponents look dumb.

What do you think?  I think he blew it.  He played his ace prematurely.  If he would have waited, I think he could have painted an abysmal picture of the entire Republican party right before an election (BTW, 83%/12% of Republican birthers viewed Palin favorably compared to 41%/52% of republican non-birthers).  Some Republicans, Karl Rove for instance, did try to discourage this preposterousness, but most leaders, such as John Boehner, did not.  When asked about it on Meet the Press he said, “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.”

That’s the sort of inspiring leadership that magic soil is capable of.


A Stutterer’s Take on the King’s Speech

Many of my friends have asked me, as a stutterer, what I think of the King’s Speech.  I watched it tonight with Alicia, and I have a couple of thoughts worth sharing and a few that are not (I apologize for the length).  However, I feel strongly that, because of the great multitude and degree of stuttering problems, different stutterers will respond to the film differently.  So I do not pretend to speak for all stutterers.

A bit about my situation: my own speech impediment used to be much more severe and, after all, just last week I gave a few reasonably coherent on-air interviews.  However, for those who watched those interviews, you may not have noticed that nearly every word is a struggle.  I am constantly flipping through a thesaurus in my brain, trying to say words and phrases in different ways.  I play rhythm games, and I’ll tap my thigh, my chest, etc.  I’ll rap four words in a row and change up the rhythms as to avoid notice.  My pauses are often forced errors in the middle of phrases, and I’ll finish the thought on the upbeat of the next rhythm I can create (in the 4 minute F&F interview for instance, I did this maybe 6 times, most noticeably between “each” and “other” two times in a row towards the end).  I’ll hold onto vowel sounds for longer than normal.  Fun aside: by just spending too much time with me, a few folks, maybe 15 over the course of my life, have found themselves exhibiting some of my speech patterns.

Almost everyday there is some blooper related to my speech.  Today, for instance, I was talking to two people, and they thought I was making a joke when I stuttered on the word “planning,” and they laughed nervously.  About a month ago I failed to get a job because I could not read a simple prompt.  In fact, for years now, I have broken down and cried irrationally about once a month through sheer pent up frustration, usually in response to one of these awkward incidents.  Alicia and I call it my PMS.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for me.  We all have issues.  My point is that even if my stuttering does not come across as that bad, even if I am usually able to speak coherently with minimal problems, I am still thoroughly a stutterer, and to not see that, and my frustration with it, is to not understand me as a person.  It has done much to form who I am.

As the film shows quite well, stuttering is extremely frustrating.  It’s imprisoning.  (I thank God that I have the outlet of writing.  It is the one place where I can express myself in such a way that I truly forget that I have any sort of communicative impediment.)  The frustration definitely affects our behavior and our inner personalities. Therefore, I think stutterers are actually really bad film critics for this movie, because we want to feel understood first and foremost.  You can’t be a good critic if you are also seeing the art as a form of therapy and concurrently worried about its accuracy.  But on to the film:

  1. What helped Bertie’s speech impediment seemed odd to me.  My speech is the most fluent when I am not being judged on my speech as much as the quality of my ideas.  This is why I find myself good at speeches and bad at speech class.  Bertie, on the other hand, seemed to improve by divorcing himself from the ideas he was trying to say and focusing exclusively on the sounds themselves.
  2. I can relate heartily with how Bertie resisted attempts by those that he loved to fix him.  My mom for years tried to get me to try this and that, and many doctors promised what they didn’t deliver.  It becomes frustrating.  One nice thing (probably the only one) about other disabilities, like a missing arm or something, is that people aren’t assuming that if you talk about your deep fears and earliest memories your arm will grow back.  Stuttering’s quasi-fixability is exasperating.  As for me, I’ve mostly given up on fixing it.  However, I can give speeches with my stutter and function pretty well, so I can afford the luxury of defeat.
  3. I related to how embarrassed people feel for you, averting their eyes when you are stuttering.  This makes us not want to talk at all.  If I hate it, and you hate it, then I’ll do us all a favor and keep my ideas to myself.  However, in a strange way,
    my stuttering sometimes helps me in speeches.  People think I have something important to say if I am willing to risk looking like an idiot.  Also, in the same way that you cannot be bored when someone is crying on stage or making a fool of himself, when I am on stage it is hard not to pay attention to the high wire act I put myself through.  Also, my speech is often just bad enough to be a noticeable disability, but not so bad that it is overly inconvenient.  People, me included, like to be nice to people with disabilities if it’s not too much hassle.  In fact, I’ve observed at times that people will walk away from conversations with me feeling good about themselves for being a patient, caring person.  It’s a strange dynamic.
  4. “Keeping it real” and informal is one of the most helpful things I can do to decrease my likelihood of stuttering (the FUCK-FUCK-FUCK method is one I’m excited to try).  I am a very informal person, and it’s not just because I don’t like the arbitrary irrationality of pomp.  I can see how, as a king, keeping things chill-lax would be very hard to do, and that would make your speech much worse.
  5. I was appalled at how badly people in his family treated him.  “Just say it” is one of the stupidest things you can say.  Runners-up include “just relax” and of course people finishing your sentence for you.
  6. The king’s stutter was not at all like mine, and seemed fake to me, but I do not have a lot of exposure to stutterers.  In fact, when I come across other stutterers, their stutters often seem fake.  I can see how people who do not stutter at all look at a stutterer and wonder what in the world they are doing and that they must be doing it on purpose.
  7. I am glad the film raised awareness of the issue.  I am amazed at how many people remain ignorant about it, including service people.  However, virtually nobody has made fun of me for my speech knowing that I genuinely had a stuttering problem.  For me, meanness is usually just ignorance.  In fact, after someone laughs or makes a joke about my stuttering, I usually cringe for their sake, because now I have to tell them, and they are going to feel like a jerk.
  8. Stuttering is deeply associated with stupidity and/or mental frailty of some sort.  I got annoyed that Bertie did not break the stereotype with his brilliance.  He is portrayed as a normal person with average intelligence, I guess, but I was wanting him to turn out to be brilliant.  But again, this is also my own issue.
  9. As a lover of history, I actually became more interested in the content of his final speech instead of his experience speaking it.  Ultimately, a stutter is a boring thing and not that difficult of a difficulty.  Europe was descending into war for a second time.  I found myself just listening to what the king was saying and thinking about how alone the British were (America would not enter the war for a while of course).  They must have been thinking, “Is this really happening to us again?  Seriously?”

Ultimately, I am a lover of content, of ideas.  I don’t really care about stuttering, accents, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization.  I want to understand the speaker’s thoughts, and I want others to return the favor by stretching past my own interminable disfluency and seeing my ideas more polished and more brilliant than my presentation could ever make them.  I imagine that though my words and I might be frustrated, or even imprisoned, by a speech impediment (or melodrama), my ideas are not.

Clearly, I am not the guy you want as a film critic for this one.  It all was a little too personal and uncomfortable.  And they did not even show the worst parts: when he is stuttering heavily in front of people, this happened maybe 3 or 4 times, they just ended the scene instead of showing it.  But the worst part is when you completely give up and step down.  I’ve done that in the middle of stories and jokes with my friends and in class a couple times.  It gets real quiet.  Nobody knows what to do.  I suppose it makes for bad television.

I am impressed that Hollywood pulled off a successful movie about a stutterer in the first place.  However, in order to make this a good movie, his stutter had to never get in the way of what the film-watching audience wanted to hear or needed to hear in order to advance the story.  For example, at the beginning, the film-watching audience does not care what he is trying to say to the crowd.  They are only sympathizing with how badly he is struggling in saying it.  But of course, in reality, stuttering is very inconvenient, and the real audience often desperately wants to, and even needs to, understand what is being said.  But that, of course, would make for an awful movie.

So, I don’t think I’m going to watch it again, but I’m happy people are seeing it and it is raising awareness.  If you have not seen it, you should.