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THE CULTURE WAR BY: JOHN TOULOUPIS

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I arrived in Mississippi after attending an elite, liberal boarding/day school while on financial aid in Birmingham, Alabama. My parents were both Greek immigrants, and they strongly believed education led to success in the United States of America.

My dad likes to tell people he attended the University of Alabama because ‘Alabama’ was at the top of the list of colleges presented to him by his academic advisor in Greece. Believing the top meant the best, he closed the book and headed to Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

I like to tell people I attended the University of Mississippi because the Greek columns and architecture reminded me of my Greek roots and heritage. I felt right at home in Oxford, Mississippi.

The Lyceum at Ole Miss

The last piece of advice my father offered me before I set off to college was to always remember in life, it is not what you know, but who you know. Life was about connections. I saw his life motto hundreds of times while working in my parents’ restaurant when lawyers, judges, businessmen, politicians, mechanics, doctors, and sheriffs walked through the door.

Freshman year I rushed and pledged a fraternity. Immediately, I was introduced into an incredible network of power, privilege, and good ol’ boys.

Notable names like Archie and Eli Manning, Trent Lott, Thad Cochran, Haley Barbour, William Winter, Roger Wicker, William Faulkner, Dickie Scruggs, and James Barksdale decorate the Greek system at Ole Miss.

I wanted to add my name to that list.

I spent the first two years of college getting drunk on the Square, smoking pot, and maintaining a near perfect GPA.

(Woodstock: One of the biggest spring parties at Ole Miss)

It was like a drug. And I was hooked.

But everything changed after my sophomore year.

I spent my summer volunteering with an Orthodox Mission program in Tijuana, Mexico. I shared a 600-square-foot house with eleven other guys on an orphanage. We shared one bathroom, one kitchen, one living room and had limited access to the internet, television, and the news.

Every week, we lead groups of volunteers on home building missions for impoverished families throughout the community. Our mission was to build a safe, weather tight home, not convert locals to Orthodoxy.

However, along the way, I was converted by them.

Early in the summer, I met a local mango salesman named Juan Manuel. Inspired by our work, he joined our team.

In another life, he worked construction in the U.S. to support his family. However, they didn’t always appreciate his sacrifices, and he battled alcoholism and depression before eventually leaving his family and returning to the U.S.

He told me tales of crossing the border with the help of coyotes. Back then, it was easy he used to say.

I learned about life in Mexico. When we smoked cigarettes, he explained how the drug cartels infiltrated communities and forced locals to cooperate. He had been held at gunpoint, shot at numerous times, and saw friends die due to cartel violence. The penalty for disobedience was death.

One day after eating carne asada tacos, Juan Manuel opened up to me about his new family. He rescued his wife from an abusive relationship, adopting her daughter and her two-year-old son with down syndrome into his family. He took care of them like they were his own blood. His dream in life was to create a better life for his family.

Sometimes after splitting a six-pack of Tecate, the Mexican version of Natural Light, Juan Manuel would break into song. He used to sing for mariachi bands and loved telling stories about nightlife in Tijuana.

Whenever I needed help, I called Juan Manuel. He offered unpaid professional construction tips to amateur volunteers. He taught them how to properly hold a drill, stucco walls of paper chicken wire, and provided boosts of positive energy with his radiating smile. Together we built beautiful homes.

Carlitos

Juan Manuel mentored me in Mexico and opened my eyes to the rest of the world.

In his words, he showed me the way.

I crossed the San Diego-Tijuana border for the final time this summer a changed man.

The Tijuana-San Diego Border

I stood in the line with everyone else waiting our turn to clear border security. Greeting the Mexican faces as they enter our country are two giant portraits of our President and Vice President. The irony.

When I returned to Mississippi, the culture-shock hit hard.

Growing up, my parents always preached you should be proud to be Greek. Although the country is broke right now, Greek contributions to modern civilization include democracy, literature, the Olympics, philosophy, theatre, trial by jury, and advances in mathematics and science.

Even though I see Greek architectural influences every day when I walk by the Lyceum, I started seeing something else too.

(Students protest against the Confederate statues at the University of Mississippi)

I understand why people take pride in their heritage, but there are legitimate problems with the way people continue to express their Southern heritage in 2018.

At the beginning of my fall semester, I set out to write an article about Confederate statues in Oxford, Mississippi. I learned from the Southern Poverty Law Center the influence of the Lost Cause Ideology to help whitewash the justification of the Civil War.

There is no coincidence during the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement, two of the most racially-charged time periods in our country’s history, more monuments were constructed. I didn’t realize until I read General Robert E. Lee’s letters he opposed Confederate monuments, believing it would be best not to leave open the wounds of the Civil War.

I talked to various administrators, professors, and students about their personal experiences. I heard first-hand accounts of what it was like to be a black student at the University of Mississippi in the ‘60s following the integration of the school's first black student James Meredith.

(The monument to James Meredith)

Although I understood why students’ families questioned their decision to enroll in the ‘60s, I never knew students still faced those same questions in 2018.

Chancellor Robert Khayat banned flying the state flag during football games in 1997 after former Coach Tommy Tuberville remarked he couldn’t recruit against the Confederate flag. People still parade around the Grove with state flag stickers anyway.

In the past 15 years, the school has cycled through three different mascots. The university removed Colonel Reb in 2003 and did not have a new mascot until the Rebel Black Bear was selected as the replacement in 2010. He was dumped in 2017 in favor of the new Landshark.

Every time I thought I had the right narrative for the story another controversy arose.

In September, Ed Meek’s comments on the fights in the Grove and the Square were racially charged when he concluded his post with a photo of two black female students to end his argument.

Sociology Professors published a report in October outlining over 1,400 cases of race-related incidents during the 2014-15 academic school year. One of the professors in the report went viral for controversial tweets about respecting senators.

During the Mississippi Senate run-off race, Cindy Hyde-Smith responded to questions about debating black senator Mike Espy by saying, “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Although the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context aimed to find a middle ground to address the university’s problems, they failed to realize how grounded the left and the right were in their point of view.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter resigned in November.

Students Against Social Injustice led a protest against the Confederate statue, demanding its removal while also calling for a hate speech policy to be implemented. While they lead chants, other students laughed.

The plaque reads: "As confederate veterans were dying in increasing numbers, memorial associations across the South built monuments in their memory. These monuments were often used to promote an ideology known as the "Lost Cause," which claimed the Confederacy had been established to defend states' rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War. Residents of Oxford and Lafayette County dedicated this statue, approved by the university, in 1906. Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers, it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confedreacy actually meant freedom for millions of people. On the evening of September 30, 1962, this statue was a rallying point for opponent of integration.

This historic statue is a reminder of the university's divisive past.Today, the University of Mississippi draws from that past a continuing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth, knowledge, and wisdom."

That’s when I saw the Confederate statue for what it really is–a red herring. The statute distracts us from the bigger picture. Keeping, removing, or contextualizing the Confederate statue will not solve the larger problems facing Mississippi and the rest of the United States.

William Faulker famously said in order to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. In the past six months, I’ve had my feet in both worlds and heard both sides of the debate.

In the age of social media, everyone has a platform. But far too often, these voices only reach people who hold similar beliefs; people only really see what they want to see. Algorithm-based echo chambers only serve to reinforce people’s biases. Thanks for destroying our democracy Mark Zuckerburg.

As a society, we have lost the ability to listen.

There is no common ground because the left and right would rather demonize each other with insults rather than listen to each other. The current counter-reaction to Identity Politics’ obsession with placing people into groups based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion can be seen in the rise of white supremacy in the 2016 election. Identity politics gave us President Donald Trump.

Critics can easily dismiss me as priviledged, white kid who only through my incredible white, privilege traveled to Mexico where I learned to see the world differently.

But Juan Manuel did not. He saw the exact opposite.

He saw me as a young college student giving up his summer to help out in Mexico when I could have done anything else in the world.

Whenever I got mad, frustrated, or simply exhausted, Juan Manuel was there to put his arm around me to dish out his wisdom. Nothing is hard Johnny, everything is easy if you put your mind to it. You just got to find a way. Make it simple.

My friendship with Juan Manuel was a life lesson in listening. I wanted to learn more about him and how he saw the world. In return, I would tell him about my life in America. He never attacked me for identity but always encouraged me to stay in school, finish my education, and follow my dreams.

Because I am the product of the American dream.

My mom immigrated to the United States as the daughter of Greek immigrants from Freeport, Bahamas. She graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham with a degree in psychology but never had the opportunity to go to graduate school. She is a Greek-Bahamian who still renews her green card every ten years.

My dad came here without a dollar in his pocket and graduated with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. He couldn’t get a job at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, because he was still seen as an immigrant during the cold war.

He could be building rockets for Elon Musk, but instead he sells collard greens and mac-n-cheese with my mom to support our family.

Everyone is going to see the world differently. We have to stop judging people from where they come from and learn to listen instead.

So for every good ol’ boy who dismisses this as liberal bullshit or social justice warrior who wants to attack my white privilege, congrats on helping me make my point.

Our ideals, not our identities, define who we are as Americans.

Our common ground lies in our collective American identity binding together one of the most diverse countries in the world.

The beauty of the U.S. Constitution lies in the fact it is a living, breathing document. We can go back to edit, revise, and make changes as the world around us changes. Reading amendments to the U.S. Constitution is like a quick lesson in American history.

Instead of attacking our founding fathers because the world they lived in is totally different than our’s today, we can still appreciate the principles of government they installed when creating this country.

The ammunition for truth, equality, and justice lie in the U.S. Constitution just as much as the right to bear arms.

I see America as a melting pot. Let’s move away from identity tribalism and refocus on individual liberties granted to all citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. My generation will be the most diverse in the history of the country, and I hope we learn to speak to each other as fellow Americans, not groups.

We won’t find solutions until people leave their respective bubbles of safe spaces to learn why the other side believes what they do. We have to make real connections. The “me” point of view needs to be dropped in favor of “we” point of view, because, at the end of the day, we are all one team.

E pluribus unum.
Out of many, one.
Created By
John Touloupis
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