The scandal of sub-scandalous ‘controversial’ racism

The scandal of sub-scandalous ‘controversial’ racism August 16, 2020

Remember Alabama state Rep. Will Dismukes? He’s the Republican lawmaker who lost his day job as a Southern Baptist pastor due to being at the center of “a biblically based process to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue.” (What issue? Well, the whole point of mitigating controversy is to avoid saying.)

And now he’s back in the news due to a legally based process to mitigate controversy surrounding another issue. “Alabama state Rep. Will Dismukes arrested for theft,” reports:

Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, who last week came under fire for attending a birthday party for the Ku Klux Klan’s first leader, has been charged in connection with a theft at a business where Dismukes worked.

Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey made the announcement of the first-degree theft of property charge at a press conference this afternoon.

Bailey said his office launched an investigation after a May 20 complaint from the owners of Weiss Flooring about alleged theft of a large sum of money by an employee.

… Bailey did not disclose the amount of the alleged theft but said the charge of first-degree theft applies to amounts exceeding $2,500.

“I will tell you that the alleged amount is a lot more than that,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the time frame of the alleged theft was 2016-2018.

If convicted of the crime, a felony, Dismukes would automatically be removed from office.

Announcing to the world that you’re a Neo-Confederate, Neo-“Redemptionist” white supremacist who celebrates the Klan and traffics in vile racist imagery is one thing. Felony embezzlement is another. The former is flagrantly immoral, but it’s not against any official rules. It’s not a violation of any professional code of ethics and it’s not against the law. That’s why Dismukes was able to shrug off calls for his resignation after his guest-speaker gig at the Klan picnic.

Critics say that some people claim religious-right figures come under fire when controversy is thrust upon them.

But felony embezzlement is against the law and, thus, is also a violation of ethics rules for state legislators in Alabama. That can’t be shrugged off or stonewalled. And it means the fuzzy language and fuzzy morality of “controversial-ism” and PR-spin (“a biblically based process to mitigate controversy surrounding this issue”) won’t be able to smother the fall-out from actual criminal charges. Dismukes’ attorney is still trying that approach — spewing word-clouds of squid ink that rival the fuzziness of those Alabama Baptist officials:

Attorney Trey Norman said he has not asked Dismukes, 30, if he is going to resign his seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. But Norman does not expect that to happen.

“Will is young and is learning some hard lessons,” Norman said. “But he’s a very convicted man. He’s very convicted in his faith and he’s very convicted in his character. He’s very convicted in his heritage. And Will’s not a person who’s going to shy away from the tough questions to satisfy folks. And that upsets a lot of people. And I understand that. Especially in these times. … He’s a fighter.”

I don’t quite know what “not … going to shy away from the tough questions” is supposed to mean there, but it’s less mystifying than whatever “especially in these times” could possibly mean. (I’ve tried, but I can’t conjure up any possible meaning there that isn’t every bit as Neo-Confederate and ugly as Dismukes’ own “convictions in his heritage.”)

The embezzlement charges may seem more serious — more disqualifying — than “coming under fire” for celebrating a Klan picnic. After all, felony theft is the trifecta: it’s immoral and illegal and an ethical violation. Being a white supremacist who endorses the violent reversal of the first and second Reconstructions, by contrast, is immoral, but not illegal or technically even “unethical.”

We could argue that Dismukes’ white supremacy is more gravely immoral than his (alleged) skimming from his former employer. I mean, yes, “Thou shalt not steal” is one of the Ten Commandments, but the sin of white supremacy is a violation of all of them — of the whole of the law and the prophets as distilled into the Great Commandment and the second, which is like unto it. The thief on the cross was saved. A white supremacist is a blasphemer and “a liar” who “does not know God” and “cannot know God.”

But the main difference between the dual and dueling scandals that Dismukes has brought on himself is that the criminal charges involve undisputed immorality while the toxic white supremacy, sadly, involves disputed morality.

“Theft is illegal” is an undisputed factual statement. There isn’t a “both sides” escape clause if you’re convicted of felony theft.

“White supremacy is immoral” is also a factual statement, but this fact remains disputed and denied and rejected by millions of people. It’s treated as a partisan claim — as a matter of political disagreement, which is why newspaper reports about it tend to fall back into the mushy vagueness of passive-voice statements (“came under fire,” “drew criticism”) or fuzzifying attributions like “some say” or “critics claim.” Those tortured phrases give equal weight to “both sides” of the dispute, thereby legitimizing both sides and affirming that the morality or immorality of white supremacy is — officially and objectively — in dispute, undetermined, and unclear. (We might say that such language suggests the morality/immorality of white supremacy is “subjective,” except that the weird passive-voice constructs it uses create sentences that have no subjects.)

My previous post about Dismukes having “controversy” mysteriously fall upon him was spurred by dismay and anger at the way that this same tortured language of moral indifference has been adopted and employed by the religious press and even by church leaders. His embrace of white supremacy, Baptist leaders and Christianity Today said, created “controversy,” but whether or not it was immoral they were unable or unwilling to say.*

This is dismaying, in part, because it seems that the church and the religious press have subcontracted morality out to the legal system and to professional codes of ethics. They’ve accepted a false hierarchy that says immoral isn’t as bad as unethical which isn’t as bad as illegal. That’s nonsense, of course, that leads to all sorts of moral absurdities, such as the notion that the hideous neighbor-haters pouring drinks on lunch-counter demonstrators were somehow morally upright while the criminals violating the laws segregating those lunch counters were immoral. Or that defiant outlaws like Oney Judge, Harriet Tubman, Corrie Ten Boom, or John Lewis were criminals and, therefore, immoral.**

What the sad case of Will Dismukes clarifies for us is that disputed immorality isn’t treated as a scandal. It’s merely a “controversy.” Elected officials and religious leaders can follow a “process to mitigate controversy,” but a full-on scandal — or a criminal conviction for felony theft — is another matter.

Which brings us to the recent travails of Jerry Falwell Jr., who is now on hiatus from his former posts as president and chancellor of culture-war institution Liberty University.

Falwell has a long, long track record of grossly immoral behavior, most of which has been far worse than the vulgar foolishness that may ultimately have cost him his job. But he didn’t face any consequences for that previous immorality because it was disputed — disputed, especially, within the community of Liberty and its right-wing, Christian nationalist supporters. Most of that earlier harmful and hateful behavior was thus treated as merely “controversial.” It didn’t become a scandal until Falwell crossed into immoral behavior that was not a disputed matter within his community.

The saga of this scandal is all so strange and many-layered, and has been the focus of so much insightful commentary, that we’ll have to return to the subject of Jerry’s Yacht Party when time allows later this week. Stay tuned.

* Dismukes’ church ousted him as pastor, explicitly, because he had become “controversial.” That was a firing offense, but apparently being a white supremacist was not. This is even more disturbing given that Dismukes became the small Southern Baptist church’s pastor after serving for several years as its youth pastor.

Since his time as that church’s youth pastor overlaps with the time during which he allegedly was skimming thousands of dollars from his other employer, the church may want to take a closer look at its own finances during those years.

If he’s convicted of this theft, I imagine the church will have some kind of special session with the young people he’d served as youth pastor to discuss what it means for them to have been pastored all that time by a felon, and to make sure that those young people weren’t misled to believe the same immoral ideas that led their youth pastor astray. It would be nice to think the church would also address what it means for those young people to have been pastored all those years by a white supremacist, but I doubt that will happen.

** This moral confusion might be cleared up if these folks would just accept that Letter From a Birmingham Jail is scriptural canon:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

But then again maybe not, as even their closed canon already includes enough prison epistles that you’d think Christians wouldn’t be so confused on this point.

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