Grits and Bear It

In the wake of the primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, Mitt Romney?s effort to ingratiate himself with Southern voters by proclaiming, ?I?m learning to say ?y?all? and I like grits,? has gotten almost as much attention as his third-place showing. Critics have made fun of Romney?s efforts to win Southern voters, but they have also been forgiving. Their assumption has been that changing his way of speaking, like tailoring the issues he addresses, is all part of the political game Romney, like every modern politician, must play.

But we shouldn?t automatically make that assumption. The best counterexample comes from the speech Robert Kennedy, another Massachusetts politician (then a new attorney general), gave in the South at the University of Georgia Law School in May 1961.

If anyone had reason to try to ingratiate himself with his Southern audience, it was Kennedy. In October 1960 John and Robert Kennedy helped get Martin Luther King, Jr. out of a jail in Reidsville, Georgia, after he was arrested during a civil rights protest. The future president called Coretta King to express his concern, and Robert called the judge handing the case to inquire into King?s right to bail. The pressure from the Kennedys worked, and King, who had spent nine days in jail, was suddenly released on a $2,000 appeal bond.

Their actions won them increased black support in the country, but the Kennedys were resented by the white political establishment in Georgia. ?It is a sad commentary,? Georgia Governor S. Ernest Vandiver observed, ?when the Democratic nominee for the Presidency makes a phone call to the home of the foremost racial agitator in the country.?

As he addressed the Georgia Law School, Robert Kennedy was aware of the resentment toward him. ?They have told me that when you speak in Georgia, you should try to tie yourself to Georgia and to the South, and even better claim some Georgia kinfolk,? Kennedy declared early in his speech. Then he went on to disavow that approach, saying, ?I have no relatives here, and no direct ties to Georgia except one: This state gave my brother the biggest percentage majority of any state in the Union, and in the last election that was more important than kinfolk.?

What followed was as candid as he promised. ?I happen to believe that the 1954 decision was right,? Kennedy announced, referring to Brown v. Board of Education, and then, while his audience was taking this in, he made it clear that there was no room for evading that decision so long as he was attorney general. ?Some of you may believe the decision was wrong. That does not matter. It is the law,? Kennedy declared, before adding, ?You may ask, will we enforce the civil rights statutes? And the answer is yes, we will. We also will enforce the antitrust laws, the antiracketeering laws, the laws against kidnapping.?

We will never know whether Kennedy would have won Georgia in 1968 if he had lived long enough to become the Democratic Party?s presidential candidate that year, but what nobody reading Kennedy?s Georgia Law School speech today can doubt is its importance, or how the chuckles Mitt Romney gets for trying to sound Southern should embarrass us all.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.