My mother, God rest her soul, always had a thing for gay men. In the 1980s, when gay culture was simultaneously everywhere and yet still that obvious thing in the room that could not be named, her gaydar was almost infallible. If there was a closeted gay celebrity, she almost immediately became a fan. Not only was she light years ahead of the tabloids on George Michael, she even shocked my brother when she speculated about why Rob Halford, the macho lead singer of the heavy metal band Judas Priest, wasn’t married. Sadly, I never asked my mother about Cory Booker.
At the age of 37, Pete Buttigieg has glided effortlessly through life. From Harvard, through Pembroke College at Oxford University, through McKinsey, to finalist for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, Pete Buttigieg has done everything right. There’s never a hair out of place or a wrinkle in his cleanly pressed white shirt, a sense of order and style he learned while serving in the military from 2009 to 2017. As a child, Buttigieg was almost certainly not the kind of boy, like I was, that you had follow around at family reunions and watch like a hawk to make sure he didn’t say the wrong thing. I doubt his teacher ever had to correct his spelling or his penmanship.
As I have mentioned before, my mother always told me that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion. It’s rude. It’s immature. It’s something that right-wing losers down at the local bar do before pouring out onto the street and catcalling women. It never accomplishes anything. And it’s here we come to the biggest reason why Pete Buttigieg is the son my mother, and probably everybody’s mother, always wanted. In recently excavated video of a local children’s TV show, the youthful mayor of South Bend, Indiana manages to talk about the United States Constitution and the history of slavery without talking about politics.
Pete Buttigieg, a gifted student, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, an alumnus of McKinsey, and a multilingual polymath, is not some ignorant cretin like Steve King or Paul LePage. I’m sure he could leap off the stage and tutor your kids in Calculus or fly to Paris and help ignorant American tourists conjugate French verbs without breaking a sweat. Yet somehow he gets a basic fact of American history wrong.
Of course the founding fathers knew that slavery was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, referring to slavery in his only book Notes on Virginia, wrote that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” George Washington, in summing up his career, remarked that “the unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.” Ben Franklin founded one of the first anti-slavery societies in North America. Most, if not all, of the founding fathers understood that slavery was a moral abomination. Only later in American history, did apologists for slavery like John C. Calhoun begin to argue that all men were not created equal.
Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and most of the Southern founding fathers who owned slaves knew they were committing a grave offense to nature and nature’s God, but with the exception of Washington, who freed most of his slaves upon his death, they not only continued to use slaves on their plantations, they expanded the practice. There are two primary reasons. The first is that they were large landowners who were perpetually cash poor. Thomas Jefferson went deeply into debt building Monticello. The second is the Haitian Revolution, which erupted shortly after the United States gained its independence. While largely forgotten today, it was an event as violent and radical as the French Revolution, and it scared white Americans more than the idea of universal, single payer healthcare scares the Democratic Party establishment today.
So why did Buttigieg get it so wrong? I’m sure he actually knows the history. I’m sure he’s read more books on the American Revolution than I have. In fact, I’m sure he’s read more books in Norwegian on the American Revolution than I have in English. Yet for some reason he chose to wipe his mind clean of what he learned in his required liberal arts courses at Harvard and Oxford. My guess is that he felt insecure as a very young Mayor talking to children. Say the wrong thing these days and you might just lose your job. Buttigieg didn’t get the history wrong because he was stupid. He got the history wrong because he was smart. Fresh out of his stint at McKinsey he had learned that if you want to go anywhere in corporate America, you had better be a “problem solver” and not some loudmouth who talks too much about politics. So, a master of the “McKinsey Pyramid”, he looked at the situation logically.
Buttigeig was faced with two problems.
1.) Talk about the history of slavery
2.) Not offend by being “political”
His solution was that nifty little machine, that political algorithm called the amendment process. The amendment process allowed Buttigieg to avoid any debate about the true intentions of the Framers of the Constiution by simply erasing any memory that they had every spoken about the question at all. It let him please conservatives, who worship the Founding Fathers as demigods and the United States Constitution as Biblical truth, liberals, who think everything about America is already great except for the racism, and people of color, who think slavery and racism are the primary reality of American history. It let him sidestep the debate altogether without taking any strong positions, to address slavery as an apolitical problem to be solved instead of a moral issue that the Founding Fathers punted on because they care more about the dirty rotten money than black lives, which even they knew mattered, and which was finally revolved by a bloody Civil War that cost over a million lives, an issue that still haunts us today.
So my mother would have loved Pete Buttigieg, and she would have hated the Bernie Bros and Warren supporters who dug up the old video. Shame on them. Never talk about politics or religion. It’s rude.