Last week, the Salina County Commission in Kansas was debating hiring an architect to improve a county building. Republican Commissioner im Gile - cost-conscious as any good conservative is - suggested that maybe they could avoid that by just "n****-rigging it".
Some laughs. Some gasps. And when one attendee asked what he meant by that, he answered - I kid you not - "Afro-Americanized".
Not surprisingly, there are calls around the county for him to resign. Probably also not surprisingly, Gile is resisting.
"I am not a prejudiced person," he told the Salina Journal. "I have built Habitat homes for colored people."
No, I'm not kidding. This is not snark. He said that. As a defense.
On the one hand, this is a quick laugh of a story. On another, it's a needle to poke the "rebranding" of the GOP. But I also see something else - a complex mix of history and change and failure and hope.
Read on . . .
I am a child of the South, in a big way. My maternal grandmother spent her hours on the front porch with old black women, sewing and drinking tea and - depending on what you believe - working a little old-style magic. My paternal grandfather was a police detective and an officer of some rank in the Ku Klux Klan. I grew up steeped in the complex Southern life of racism and the odd counter-current of interconnectedness that crossed color lines.
Yes, there was racism. But there were also color-blind friendships. It's hard to elucidate the swirling currents of that culture - especially at the bottom rungs, where white and black mingled via economic destiny - and the hundred ways they pushed us together and apart. It's hard to redraw the stereotypes you may have in your head and replace the caricatures of racist Southern whites.
But the fact of it is this: I knew a lot of good people that used Gile's term of art - including my dad, who wouldn't think twice about helping anyone of any color, even as he dropped n-words in casual speech without a thought. I knew real racists, and I knew decent people who treated everyone the same, but expressed the differences between people (real and imagined) in the terms they learned as children. I knew people who traveled back and forth on that spectrum, and people who never let a racist word drop by their lips, or gave the smallest sign that they subscribed to any prejudice - and some of those latter were good people, and some of them were ruthless fucks no sane person would turn their back on.
Like I said, complex.
That background means I can forgive someone like Giles dropping an offensive term from his childhood. It means I can see his "colored people" follow-up as just kind of a sad joke, just an old man that doesn't quite know what world he's in today.
But I can't forgive a party that still puts guys like Giles, whatever his good points, on a County Commission. My dad was a good guy - widely loved - but even if he hadn't died over thirty years ago, I wouldn't want to see him filling a seat on any public body in 2013. The way he thought, the way he saw the world - regardless of his character, his heart, his spirit - did not belong to this century.
Our lives are short. Rare exceptions aside, the fact is most people can only change so much in their lifetime. The residuals, the flotsam of our native eras, cling to us all the days of our lives. We can shake off a lot of it, but I'm not sure how much.
A part of me will always be of the South, in that era of the 70's and 80's. And a part of my dad would always have been of the South of the 30's and 40's.
We are what we are. That's why generations come in, one after another, like waves. Each new wave takes the torch and carries us forward a bit more, carries us forward past the point that last generation could have reached.
The GOP, for all their rebranding - or talk of rebranding - have still kept that torch in the hands of a past generation, of people who don't feel, don't see, don't understand the world they actually live in, versus the world they remember.
Commissioner Gile's comment is a punch-line; that Giles is still the kind of person Republicans elect to lead them is a eulogy.