Diehard teen republicans

Matt Kennard reports from the Republican convention where he's already met with Republicans young an

As I got into St. Paul airport at about 1pm also arriving were the 50-strong Junior Statesman contingent from all over the United States. A collection of diehard teen Republicans who had come to meet lawmakers and officials for a week of festivities, they were noticeable a mile off.

I spoke first to preppy looking Matthew Zubrow, a 17-year-old from Fast Hills, New Jersey. “I believe in McCain because he is a fiscal and social conservative and he is right for America,” he said, like an automaton. “He has more experience than Obama.”

At this moment his friend sitting next to him got involved. A diminutive 15-year-old called Brendan Zehner he reeled off a scary and perfectly delivered set of Republican shibboleths. “I’m not pro-McCain but I definitely don’t want Obama winning,” he said. “McCain is too liberal for me,” he continued, “his energy plan, his cap-and trade policy fails economically, and he doesn’t support drilling in Alaska, that would make us much less dependent on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. But at least he doesn’t want to tax the people creating the jobs,” said the 15-year-old.

Zubrow agreed. “In some respects McCain is too liberal. Overall I feel he is excellent and despite what I disagree with he’s a good, honest person; I know because I interned for the campaign this summer.”

But what do they think about Bush, the mega-unpopular Republican now in the White House. “In theory Bush is not the problem, he hasn’t been a bad President. It’s the way he does things that makes his policies seem bad,” said Zehner.

***

I moved on to the Convention in a shuttle full of octogenarian Republicans. They talked variously in the back about how “Fox News is too liberal”. One of the older women said, “I have a horrible feeling that Obama and his wife hate America.” As her husband was getting out he said: “Tell those liberals in the UK if they think Obama is gonna make it you’re dead wrong.”

The shuttle driver Abdi Mohamous, 26, came from Somalia in 1991 and said he was supporting Obama. “These Republicans are scary,” he said. “I have to listen to all their bullshit in the back, these 80-year-olds talking about how they want to bomb Iran and how they are disappointed because the Vice President is a woman.”

He dropped me off at home, and I went down to the convention centre to check out what I thought would be the raucous protests. In the end it was one guy with a “9/11 was an inside job” placard.

There was a surfeit of cops hanging around though doing pre-programmed routines marching about the place. Dave Morris, 25, was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I think the government planned 9/11 for it’s own political gain,” he said. “They did it so they could invade the Middle East, set up a police state, control the world drug trade, and all the other stuff.”

He was getting a fair about of media attention. “I’m just here to get people to wake up, spread the word,” he said.

Morris was standing at the main entrance, and not much was happening so I moved around to the media entrance where there was one placard that read McBlood and “No more wars for Israel”, alongside, without any seeming animosity, a pro-Israel placard of another protester.

After talking idly for a minute the atmosphere suddenly turned febrile and out passed us walked George W. Bush’s brain, Karl Rove. I followed him with my camera asking him why he’s a war criminal and what he thought of torture in Guantanamo, which was the signature issue of the Amnesty protesters, who I’d just been talking to. He gave no response and was surrounded by four burly guards. He got in the car with three women all decked in Red.

I walked back up the path and got into a conversation with the Ron Paul fans, a perennial fixture at any American political event these days. John Kusske, 30, from St. Paul was a slow talking but intelligent guy who believes in bringing the Republican Party back to the principles on which it was founded. “We have to make our presence know to the delegates,” he said. “There are a lot of people in there with ideas sympathetic to Ron Paul.”

So what was wrong with the current Republicans in power? “Two things,” he said, “Number one, they spend far too much, the Federal Reserve prints too much money, it’s spending money we don’t have; we need sound finances and I would like us to go back to the gold standard.”

He paused now consumed with an evangelical zeal that was a little scary. “And number two,” he declared, “we should not be going around the world invading other countries; we need to get rid of troops around the world and not declare war around the world without even going to Congress.”

***

That was it for the daytime convention, which was all taking place in the stuffy surroundings of the Excel Center, a gargantuan edifice surrounded by reams of barricades and surly police and tooled up secret service.

The real action everyone knew was happening in the evening in Minneapolis ten miles away where the party season was getting under way. I went along with my friend Eugene Mulero, who works for the wonkish D.C. weekly National Journal. He had got me in free to a $75 party and we got down there about 9 pm.

It was at a club called 1st Avenue on the main Minneapolis strip, which was full of cops and sprightly Republicans – not everyone’s idea of fun, but worth a try. Inside there was to be a performance by the music titan, Sammy Hagar, also know as the Red Rocker, who used to perform in Van Halen.

Inside there was the usual Republican fabric; out of the probably 300 people there wasn’t one black face. It was an open bar and everyone got jollier as the event drew on. Then came the video show that would be the intro to Hagar. Up flashed pictures of Mexico and young Americans kissing and fondling each other in Cabo, a popular Mexican resort for young frat types. Snoop Dogg’s pimp classic “Gin and Juice” then came on and the crowd looked a bit bemused. Then, strangely, a Banksy style rendering of Bush’s visage. Then the line: “Right now youth equals violence.” Then this one: “Right now Christians and Muslims don’t pray together”. Then more pictures of Mexico and the beach. Everyone looked as confused as I was.

Then up came the video and on came the prophet, Sammy Hagar, himself. A shaggy haired blond man in sandals and beach shorts and a “Cabo Wabo” T-shirt. The definition of an aging rocker his enthusiasm contrasted farcically with the depleted crowd on the floor. Behind him were fake plastic palm trees and it all felt a bit David Brent.

I talked to Marina Hockenberg, 52, from Minneapolis, who was part of the Katrina Relief Fund and selling T-shirt’s behind a table. “I think it’s a crime and unconscionable what the Bush administration did in New Orleans,” he said, while I looked around to see if anyone could hear us. She was obviously not a True Red. “The Republicans don’t seem in the mood to purchase this stuff so far,” she said. “Maybe they feel a bit guilty!”

Meanwhile the rockster was still on stage singing away and the crowd was getting behind him now. People were hi-fiving him on the stage and he was talking about his mom’s back yard in between songs and how all she wanted was a place to grow tomatoes; the Republicans cheered. He then did a song about chasing your dreams. My notebook at this point reads: “Fake palm trees – End Of The World.”

I then spoke to Jordan Russell, 22, a student from the University of Mississippi, and a College Republican. “I’m here because we have a war to win,” he said. “Palin has electrified young conservatives.” He paused: “We don’t want to be socialists,” he declared swigging his drink. “We want to be Americans!”

Hagar stopped his infernal racket after about two hours and the crowds seeped out onto the street. There was speculation that Republicans didn’t want to be seen to have fun while the South was bracing itself for a new hurricane, but judging by this show it’s going to take more than a category 4 to stop them.

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.