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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

It Will Be a Long Time Yet Before the Past is Truly Past

I’ve never met him, but I’m grateful for Robert Trigaux of the Tampa Bay Times. Year after year, he writes enlightening stories in the business pages that one never finds elsewhere. Last Sunday’s was on the huge amount of fraud in Florida, much greater than that in any other state. A handy map used red dots to represent every 100,000 consumers who charge that businesses defrauded them. Our Florida was a sea of 14 bright red dots: twelve covered the peninsula; the dots skipped the counties around Tallahassee but added two more at Pensacola. Residents of this area proudly refer to themselves as living in “LA,” by which they mean “Lower Alabama.” It’s notable, though, that Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and even traditionally corrupt Louisiana had no dots at all. My guess is that people there are simply too poor to be worthy of con artistry.

In contrast, Florida attracts millions of retirees whose life savings are ripe for plucking – as well as an increasingly dominant notion in state government that regulation is axiomatically bad. We’ve even recently advertised that ideology with slogans such as “the rules are different in Florida” and “Florida, open for business.” It’s a Wild West syndrome that says anything goes under a government up for sale.

Insurance commissioners, which we gave up our right to elect on the advice of Jeb Bush, now are told to sit down and shut up when they consider actually doing their job of protecting policy owners. The so-called Public Service Commission, which we also gave up our right to elect, serves the utility corporations, not us. The head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was told by Rick Scott’s staff to pack up his desk and leave – and the resultant stir in the media has all but faded. We still elect the attorney general, but unlike Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who courageously and successfully sued the tobacco industry for poisoning our kids, no one in that office has filed a case in ages that would benefit ordinary Floridians.

And now we read that employees of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have been forbidden to use the terms “global warming,” “climate change” and even “sustainability.” Whether or not the governor denies this, DEP whistleblowers did not invent the anti-science attitudes that right-wingers proudly proclaim. Talk about fraud! We have reached the point where our scientists are being paid to commit fraud via sins of omission.

As the name indicates, DEP was created by previously progressive legislatures to protect our fragile environment -- but how can its scientists talk about the data they collect when they cannot use the language of modern science nor speak truth to power? Florida is in fact “open for business:” our lakes and rivers can become privatized sewers; our caves and aquifers collapse from excessive pumping; and our skies darken from fossil fuels and never-ending gas-powered traffic. Although we are the Sunshine State and are surrounded by ocean tides and steady winds, no one funds energy extraction from the alternative sources of solar, wind, and waves. Other states are doing this, but in Florida, thoughtful scientists -- the prophets of our time -- risk their jobs if they speak.

Final word: the most notable thing about the map was California. Its population is nearly 40 million, twice as large as Florida’s nearly 20 million. Like Florida, it also has lots of retirees and vacationers who are open to fraudulent exploitation, and yet it merited only three red dots, compared with our fourteen. Two were just north of San Francisco, and one was in the San Diego area, where recent immigrants surely are vulnerable to all kinds of fraud. Yet the map of the large state largely was white, not red. The difference, I’m sure, is that Californians long have elected Democratic legislatures and governors who understand the limits of laissez faire capitalism. Voters there are sophisticated enough to understand that when anything goes, everything goes.

* * *

On March 3, the Florida Humanities Council honored our stellar state historian, Gary Mormino. The ceremony was at USF St. Pete, which is increasingly lovely. At the beginning, someone asked if the audience recognized the meaning of the date. About a hundred people were there, but only three or four (not including me) knew the answer. It was the 160th anniversary of Florida’s entrance into the Union, which was March 3, 1845. The state office charged with cultural affairs is another Cabinet position that we used to elect, but now allow the governor to appoint. Maybe if we still had someone akin to Secretary of State George Firestone, the last intellectual to hold that office, more attention would be paid to such milestones.

It was not an appropriate time to make a point that you nonetheless should know: A mere fifteen years after Florida eagerly joined the Union, it left. The federal government had spent unprecedented amounts of money subduing the Seminoles on behalf of white Floridians, with the last war against them in 1858. Yet on January 10, 1861, ungrateful Florida was the third state to secede from the Union. It followed only South Carolina and – by one day – Mississippi.

The founding principles of the Confederate States of America that Florida joined were akin to those of today’s Tea Party, with small government and low taxes as high priorities – in addition, of course, to maintaining slavery. Within a year or two, however, Florida was raising taxes on impoverished people, drafting unwilling soldiers, and confiscating private property for military use. State government even sent cavalry to violently attack deserters and their families who hid in the woods around Tallahassee rather than serve in what was clearly a losing cause.

Our governor, John Milton, was the only official anywhere who displayed enough remorse about the war to kill himself; ironically, on April Fools Day of 1865. But other CSA leaders refused to admit defeat, and the war went on for more deadly weeks after it should have ended. Abraham Lincoln, who spoke of a peace policy founded on “malice toward none and charity to all” in his second inaugural address on March 4, was killed by another Confederate who refused to admit defeat on April 14.

The anarchy that marked Florida’s Reconstruction “government” is clear in this one statistic: In Jackson County, a small county in the Panhandle, 153 people were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and its confederates during the four years between 1867 and 1871. Almost all former slaves who had no weapons or other ability to defend themselves, they lived with daily terrorism. Sheriffs and other alleged law enforcement officials not only protected the murders, but even joined them. The culture of police brutality is not new.

* * *

I’ll be writing more about this in April and May, as we approach the end of the 150th anniversaries that have been memorializing Civil War events for several years. Today I want to conclude with a bit of research I’ve never before done – or even remember seeing anyone else do. You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the 3,100-word work by James G. Blaine, Republican nominee for president in 1884. He spent a great deal of ink on readmission of Southern states to the Union (even on the stupidly legalistic argument that they never truly left), but he wrote about readmission almost entirely from a congressional point of view. He was interested in who would be his new colleagues in Congress, not in the reality of ending anarchy in the South by establishing local governments.

Just as states had seceded on different dates, they were readmitted on different dates, depending on how much they merited reinstatement to equality in the Union. When I looked more closely at these dates, I found an interesting difference between readmission to the Union and actually re-creating civilian governance. Not surprisingly, politicians got to Washington first: all Union readmission dates precede the date for “reestablishing local rule.” The most important element in determining this was whether or not local officials could be trusted if occupying troops were removed from a rebellious state.

Once again, the facts on Florida are revealing. The third state to secede, it tied with Louisiana as the last to have non-military state government. That was on January 2, 1877 -- but Florida was readmitted to the Union on June 25, 1868. That means we had voting members in Congress for almost a decade prior to civilian governance at a local level. There’s more to the story, but I’ll merely point this out as yet another contradiction in our complex and often contradictory state.

Another revelation that I would have missed if historians weren’t trained to look for what isn’t there: No states were readmitted nor any local governments reestablished during 1875. I’m sure that’s because 1876 was a presidential election year, and no aspiring politician had the courage to take on the issue prior to running. The 1876 election in fact turned out to be the most controversial in American history – even more so than Bush vs. Gore in 2000 – and that all occupying troops were removed from the South is directly related to the election. New York Democrat Samuel Tilden clearly won the popular vote, but an unconstitutional commission gave the presidency to Republican Rutherford Hayes -- by one electoral vote. In return, Republicans who initially led the fight against slavery gave up on enforcing that freedom.

Understanding ourselves requires that we know historical facts. Congresswoman Kathy Castor gets this, and she went to the 50th anniversary of the 1965 confrontation in Selma, Alabama, which resulted the important Voting Rights Act. Because of that law, we have a much more representative government than we did a half-century ago, but serious issues remain. We can’t solve them without knowledge of the past. It will be a long time yet before the past is truly past.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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