Column: Georgia

The Governor of Georgia signed a bill two weeks ago that brought tears of joy to the ghosts of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Governor Brian Kemp claimed it was to reduce election fraud, even though no evidence of election fraud was offered or even manufactured for the occasion. The signing ceremony could not have been more symbolic if it had been designed by a political satirist. 

The wealthy, white, Republican Governor sat at a table on which the bill sat with a portrait of an antebellum, forced labor camp (aka, plantation) above and behind him and three white Republican men to either side of him and an outraged African-American legislator knocking on the locked door to the room occupied by these representatives of the Old South.

The white men inside the locked room congratulated each other on this latest move to keep Georgia out of the twentieth century. The African-American legislator, Park Cannon, was arrested within 50 seconds of knocking on the door and charged with two felonies, convictions on either of which could lead to her expulsion from the legislature. 

Having viewed these proceedings, I had flashbacks to the stupidity of Governor George Wallace standing in a schoolhouse doorway and Senator Strom Thurmond’s filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  These men were hoping to advance their political standings. Both of them ran for president of the United States. They thought the majority of Americans shared their 1859-era views. These racist dinosaurs died but never really went away; they were reincarnated as well-groomed purveyors of power and hired better public relations firms than their ancestors and wrote bills in a dialect spoken only at Ku Klux Klan and Proud Boys meetings.

I suspect the greater irony was lost on these little men. They claim to be Republicans, the party of John Fremont and Abraham Lincoln, a party established to end slavery and the subjugation of African-Americans, a party dedicated to enforcing equal justice in all of the member states of the United States. Perhaps they never read the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Thirteenth declared forced servitude illegal. The Fourteenth promised equal protection under the law to all men and included measures intended to keep the states that had rebelled from sabotaging the survival of the nation.

As a physician, I worry about the real world consequences of some of the housekeeping measures introduced to suppress voter participation. You may wonder what is the point of making the distribution of food or water to people in line to vote a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of $1,000 and a year in jail (for each count).

In the 2020 election, the median wait time for voters in primarily white districts was six minutes. Even though these districts were well-staffed and had adequate equipment and materials to handle the crowds that showed up, some of these primarily white voters had to wait more than 20 minutes to cast their votes.  In primarily African-American districts, the median wait time was 51 minutes and some of these primarily Black voters ended up standing in line for more than 10 hours. 

The dramatically longer wait times in African-American communities were a consequence of targeted under-staffing or other measures to suppress voter processing in these largely Democratic districts. Under the new law, your offering water or bread to people who have been forced to wait in line for five, six, seven or more hours will get you arrested. If you dare to help 10 people, you will face a $10,000 fine and up to 10 years in jail.

Obviously, the Republicans in Georgia are indifferent to how this must appear to the majority of Americans.  They are intent upon holding onto the power and the money their positions afford them, regardless of how their bills and behaviors are criticized. They have said explicitly that they do not care if major league baseball plays elsewhere. They do not care if Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines and other massive corporations headquartered in Georgia are rethinking their plans for the future.

They do not care about the future of Georgia or of the United States. They are unblinkingly focused on their self-interests. Their co-conspirator, Mitch McConnell, has warned corporations to stay out of politics or face state and federal repercussions. He was quick to explain this did not apply to financial contributions to politicians, including himself.

Unfortunately, this self-serving behavior cannot be limited by an embargo or quarantine. It is like a disease, and it will inevitably spread if it survives in Georgia. Others feeding at the public trough will take their cues from their fellow politicians. As worrisome as these tactics are if they succeed, the outcomes if they fail are equally troubling. In 2020 efforts to suppress the vote failed in many states, and the Democratic challenger to the president won. Efforts to establish in court that there had been fraud failed. Political machines went into overdrive and gave us the first violent attempt to block the transfer of presidential power in American history.

I believe this is the last gasp for those embracing the attitudes and strategies of 1859. If we are to have a better life and peaceful future for ourselves and our children, we must move into the 21st century. When drowning men pull down those trying to swim to shore, both the drowning and the swimmers die. Those who look back wistfully at those plantation portraits on state house walls need to move out of the way or we shall all drown.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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