Robert W. Lee IV

A few thoughts on Robert W. Lee IV, because I’m a Christian, I’m a UCC pastor, I oppose White Supremacy, I don’t believe BLM is a terrorist group, and, on a lighter note, I remember when MTV mattered.

First, my criticism of Lee (and MTV), which has nothing to do with anything he said after his first few words.

“My name is Robert Lee IV, I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville…”

Robert W. Lee IV is Robert E. Lee’s fourth-great-nephew.  I believe the wording of this introduction was meant to make W. Lee seem like direct descendent of E. Lee.  I don’t know why MTV or W. Lee chose that wording or wanted that framing.  And maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe that’s just how I’m hearing/reading it. Being a fourth-great-nephew and bearing the name Robert Lee and speaking out against supremacy is no less compelling to me than being a direct descendent, but I feel like the statement started from a less than clear place, which is a shame.  Also, saying that the statue itself was the center of violence makes it sound like most of the so-called Alt Right protestors were really there because of the statue.  As evidenced by their own propaganda, we know this to not be the case.

Lee continued:

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”


“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”

If you’d asked me in 1996 if I ever thought I’d see a pastor talking about God’s call on the VMAs, I would have laughed in your face.  Lee is absolutely right here: we must answer God’s call to confront racism and supremacy head-on.  The same is true for any injustice.

I have seen absolutely nothing to make me believe that Black Lives Matter is what its most vocal detractors say it is.  I’d welcome a one-on-one discussion with anyone concerned that BLM somehow promotes black supremacy or is engaged in terroristic activities.  Yes, I believe all lives matter.  So does BLM.  If you know me personally and want to talk about this, please, let’s.

If there was any area of Lee’s statement that I could understand people reasonably taking umbrage at, it would be with regards to the Women’s March, and for reasons you might understand even if you don’t embrace them.  Observers who felt that the March was primarily concerned with abortion, or that it largely ignored the concerns (and input) of women of color, might take issue with Lee’s reference to it as a model for confronting racism and supremacy.

Lee and his Winston-Salem church have received tremendous backlash for the appearance. He’s since resigned and issued this statement, which begins:

“I’m writing this statement to make sure that people are able to read in my own words what has happened to me over the last three weeks so that the events of my leaving Bethany United Church of Christ might be understood from my perspective.”

“It began when MTV invited me to speak out at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles as a descendent of Robert E. Lee who is committed to speaking out against white supremacy and the hatred that had permeated our country.   The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee. I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy.”

Let’s be clear: Lee is right about his duty, not just as a member of the Lee family, but as a Christian and a child of God.  He also strikes me as a young, 24-year-old pastor seemingly blindsided by the reaction from within and without his congregation. I have no idea whether he talked to his church about his statement before he made it.  I hope he did. If he didn’t, he should have. We don’t know what did or didn’t go on behind the scenes.  Whether or not it would have made a difference isn’t the point.

My assumption, and it is only an assumption, is that the faction at Lee’s church taking issue with his statement were more upset with his lifting up of BLM than with the fact that the Women’s March had less overtly in common with combating white supremacy and racism.  I may also be grossly underestimating how much of the negative response is from people who don’t want the statues to come down.  And lest anyone think there’s no such thing as a liberal or progressive that opposes abortion, I know many people like Melissa Linebaugh.  The seeming near-zero-tolerance policy among many progressives for people who oppose abortion is likely part of the backlash.  While the Women’s March wasn’t “a march for abortion,” as such, it’s not hard to see why many people have that sort of view of it.  It’s part of Lee’s pastoral job to understand that, and to be in conversation with his church before he goes on national television.  And maybe he did and maybe he was.  Again, at this point, we don’t know.

I haven’t seen a statement from the church.  I’ve looked.  Its Facebook page is down.  Its website isn’t very current.  This piece from the Chicago Tribune has a few more details, and some important elaborations from Lee:  “‘The uncomfortable media attention and differing views with me by some of the congregation — and I want to make it very clear that it was not all of the congregation — made it clear that I was no longer welcome there,’ he said, adding that he’s also received positive messages.”

If Lee left the church because most of its members can’t abide the idea that he supports bringing the statues down, or because they’re so convinced that BLM is covertly in favor of black supremacy that they can’t see themselves to conversation and resolution, they should be called to task.  We don’t (and likely won’t) know the specifics of their broken relationship, nor how long it’s been broken.  That’s partly to Lee’s credit.

Because there’s much we don’t and won’t know, let’s say what we do know:

Racism is evil. Racial supremacy is evil. America is divided in ways we don’t even understand and are perhaps much further from understanding than we’ve been given to think.  Robert W. Lee is right to use his family name to fight racism and supremacy.  All people are right to fight racism and supremacy.  Even agreeing on that, we won’t always agree on the best ways forward. All ways forward require forbearance, listening to each other, respecting each other, and upholding each other’s dignity and worth.  In times like these, those basic precepts seem sadly radical.  We have more work to do than we know, and more than we have the strength for.  Build us up, Holy Spirit. Build us up.



The Columbus Day Thing


In a pivotal scene in The Godfather Part II, Kay Corleone (nee Adams, because what could possibly be more WASPy than Kay Adams, Dartmouth co-ed?), confronts Michael with the truth about the surreptitious abortion of their child, “an unholy, evil” act she likens to their marriage and to what she calls “this Sicilian thing.”  Left unexamined, of course, is Kay’s own role in denying, enabling, and benefiting from the Cosa Nostra.

For over a century, Italian Americans have lived with the idea that WASP America may love our music, our food, our poetry, and our art, but doesn’t really respect, like, or trust us. The WASP owners of most of the means of production since the days of Carnegie and Morgan have benefited from our cheap, white labor, buffering themselves from us with buffoonish caricatures, with immigration and naturalization policies meant to keep Southern Europeans distinct from “real” Americans.  They’ve stereotyped and propagandized us as simple-mindedly affable and calculatingly murderous, domesticated house-pets or rapacious wolves.  Dogs in any case.

Yes. I know Mario Puzzo wrote The Godfather.  I know Francis Ford Coppola made Puzzo’s novel and screenplays into two of the greatest movies in the history of cinema.  I don’t fault these Italian Americans for making irrepressible art highlighting exactly the struggle Italian Americans have had making a place for themselves in WASP America.

Of course Michael courts and marries Kay Adams.

Consider the exchange between Senator Pat Geary and Michael in Tahoe:

Senator Pat Geary: I can get you a gaming license. The price is $250,000, plus a monthly payment of five percent of the gross of all four hotels. [sneers] Mr. Corl-ee-own-eh.

Michael Corleone: Now, the price of a gaming license is less than $20,000. Is that right?

Senator Pat Geary: That’s right.

Michael Corleone: So why would I ever consider paying more than that?

Senator Pat Geary: Because I intend to squeeze you. I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, passing yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family.

Michael Corleone: Senator. We’re both part of the same hypocrisy…but never think it applies to my family.

Senator Pat Geary[exasperated] Okay. Some people need play little games. You play yours. Let’s just say that you’ll pay me because it’s in your interest to pay me. But I want your answer and the money by noon tomorrow. And one more thing. Don’t you contact me again, ever. From now on, you deal with Turnbull.

Michael Corleone: Senator? You can have my answer now, if you like. My offer is this: nothing. Not even the fee for the gaming license, which I would appreciate if you would put up personally.

I don’t personally know any Italian Americans who are proud of the legacy of the Mafia.  But I believe I know plenty of people who see in Michael’s offer to Geary a kind of comeuppance, even a certain kind of justice, long deferred.  An Italian American forced into the Cosa Nostra by circumstance turning the tables on Geary’s wop-shaming WASP, a stand-in, of course, for a century of very real anti-Italian hatred.  As much as we hate the gangster stereotype, we’ve been allowed few other heroes outside of Christopher Columbus.


I hate the Columbian Exchange.  I hate how Columbus himself thought of and treated indigenous people.  I hate how many of the actual founders of this country felt about the indigenous people of this continent and the indigenous people of Africa.

I hate the nickname of the professional football team in Washington, DC.  I think it’s a slur and shouldn’t be used.  I don’t care if the Snyder family thinks otherwise.  I hate it as much as I’d hate a team called the South Philly Dagos.

Discussions of Columbus Day and of October as Italian American Heritage Month cannot take place in isolation from Columbus the historical person.   Italian Americans need to hear this.  But we also need to be heard, and as long as we’re having this discussion, we need everyone else to be honest about the degree to which Anti-Italian and Anti-Italian-American tropes remain widespread and acceptable in everything from political journalism to children’s television.

I get it.  We’re white. But we’re not named Smith or Jones or Rogers or Adams or some other thing from the Shire.  We are without a doubt privileged because of our whiteness, even if our whiteness (and Americanness) has only been wholly accepted in the third or fourth generation of our families’ presences here. In Columbus, we, a despised and displaced people, laid a pre-emptive claim to a pre-emptive America in the face of the WASP power structures that not only controlled economic and social capital, but the literal definitions of “white” and “American.”  That power of that symbol for Italian immigrants, and for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is real.  Ask me how I know.

These days, Italians Americans aren’t marginalized the way people of color or white people from the wrong parts of Europe are, but we’re still gangsters and clowns and a-people who talk like-a this.  I’m proud of Mario for consistently saving the Mushroom Kingdom and for his work as a plumber, but I find Nintendo’s later-day characterizations of his patterns of speech wholly offensive.  The same is true for just about-a any-a chef you’ve ever seen on any-a children’s show.

Our ancestors were olive-skinned, non-English-speaking whites, but as everything from popular sentiment to my great-grandmother’s federal immigration papers make clear, we were only white (and in those says, “American”) in relation to darker-skinned people. Columbus Day was meant to cement our claim to Americanness, whiteness, and social respectability, wedding us with and contrasting us to other American whites, Anglo whites, the same whites casting us as idiots, wop-shaming us as a matter of practice and policy.  Columbus Day is full of these kinds of ethnically, racially charged ironies.  As human beings, Italian Americans ought to despise the evils inherent to the Colombian Exchange. I’m sure most of us do.  We struggled as Other for over a century, a situation mitigated and frustrated by our fringe position within canonical whiteness.

You’ve likely heard of Sacco and Vanzetti. You likely don’t know about the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans in 1891, or how both tragedies were driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Italian hatred.  Italian Americans are right to want to celebrate our historical struggles in and contributions to the United States and the Americas more generally.  How ought we tell our stories without becoming the locus of marginalizing power ourselves?  Rather than beg special pleading for Columbus, shouldn’t we be ready and able to find alternative icon for ourselves, for the spirit that brought our ancestors here, and our shared belief in what America can be regardless of what it sometimes is?

If we’re hell-bent on locating Italian-American pride on an historic figure fundamentally tied to the American founding, Filippo Mazzei might be a model.  A friend of Thomas Jefferson, it was Mazzei who famously wrote “All men are by nature equally free and independent” in a pamphlet promoting the cause of liberty in colonial America years before Jefferson made the sentiment famous in the Declaration of Independence.  Unlike Jefferson, Mazzei seems to have managed to utter those thoughts without also owning slaves.  Seems like good place to start.

We can remember Columbus’ place in history without idealizing Columbus the man.  We can and should continue to teach, learn, and understand the unvarnished history of 1492 and all that came after.  We can and should do all of these things without feeling the need to honor Columbus as the prototypical Italian American.  He wasn’t. Our ancestors were.  That’s enough.

Closing Time Podcast: Tim Keller, “Jesus Didn’t Mean the Poor,” and Other Cognitive Dissonance

“Other Cognitive Dissonance” might be a good name for the podcast in general.  Enjoy. Be blessed!

Knowing Jack: Square Solutions to Dorsey’s Twitter Problem?

Mobile payment is huge in the food truck business, and Square is a huge player not only in mobile payment, but in point-of-sales in general.  It was co-founded a 7 years ago by CEO Jack Dorsey.

If you’ve wrapped your truck in the last few years, you probably have a Twitter icon on it somewhere, maybe even some hashtags.  Twitter was co-founded 10 years ago by CEO Jack Dorsey.

Square and Twitter have absolutely no formal connection.  One isn’t a subsidiary of the other, nor are they divisions of a shared corporate parent.  Jack Dorsey is the CEO of both. He runs two completely separate publicly traded San Fransisco tech firms.

One is doing very, very well.  The other is Twitter.

This is the fascinating story of Dorsey’s return to Twitter, and something of an expose on the company’s internal struggles. It’s also a good read for any entrepreneur, and that includes all food truckers.

Writer Nick Bilton notes that Twitter suffers from identity issues.  What kind of tech firm is it, really? Does it specialize in something?  Does it specialize in anything?  To use a foodservice metaphor, does it have a focus, like Dorsey’s favorite taco trucks do, or is it Silicon Valley’s ultimate grab-joint?

Twitter’s feed is kind of clunky, and engagement is easy in theory but also hard-won. Food truckers benefit, of course, from the standard “here’s a picture of what I’m eating for lunch” way of using the service, but even there, Instagram is, well…eating Twitter’s lunch. It might be more accurate to say it’s eating Twitter.  Other competitors are doing the same in other areas.

Then there’s Square.  That’s a service I use everyday.  So do hundreds of thousands of other small business owners.  We don’t always have time for even the most intuitive and gratifying social platforms, but we need to process credit cards efficiently and often on-the-go.  We must use Square or something like it.  We should and do use social, but when we do, Twitter if often an afterthought. It’s hard to crack. It can be rewarding, and it’s often fun. But it’s also work.  Work is time. Time is money. Square facilitates the flow of money, and that’s why Square prints money.

That’s what Twitter needs to crack.  It’s not an essential tool.  Neither are most other forms of social, but platforms like Facebook and Instagram seem to scratch our more persistance social itches.

I like Twitter, but very few of my IRL friends are even on it.  On the business side, I use other means to schedule my tweets, track my interactions, and build my audience.

What do others think?