Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘slavery’ Category

Historicizing “Violence”: Thoughts on the Hedges/Graeber Debate

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By Peter

There has been a running debate, started by Chris Hedges, over the proper tactics of street protests and the role of violence in the Occupy Movement. Hedges, who was one of the first writers with an audience to support Occupy Wall Street, attacked Black Bloc, which he mistakenly seems to have identified as a cohesive movement, rather than a tactic. Black Bloc occurs when protesters dress the same (normally in black hoodies), move in a pack, and, often, provoke confrontation with the cops by smashing windows, overturning garbage cans, etc… By dressing the same, they make it far more difficult for police to single out individuals. Coming on the heels of the Oakland protests, Hedges called the Black Bloc, a “cancer” on the movement, who provoke unnecessary repression by the state, distract from the message, and practice a sort of negative politics of aggression, in which confrontation and the symbolism of militancy takes the place of organizing and coalition building.

In reply, David Graeber, one of the grandfathers of OWS, defended the Black Bloc. He corrected some of Hedges’ factual inaccuracies, but resorted to a fairly hysterical response to Hedges’ (admittedly unnecessarily provocative) language, accusing Hedges of using a rhetoric that “historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another,” and arguing that Hedges would be read as a call to violence against Black Bloc. (I, at least, sure didn’t read Hedges’ article as a call for genocide). More reasonably he pointed out that the police almost always resort to violence and that the media almost always blame this violence on protesters, whether or not the Black Bloc is involved. State repression will happen no matter what that kid in the black hoodie does. Finally he argued that the mythologies that have developed around supposedly non-violent movements have obscured how often they involved violent activities, most often of a far more deadly sort.

Masked Political Protesters Violently Destroying Property

As a historian of the abolitionist movement I was struck by how timeless this debates is. Few issues tore the anti-slavery movement apart as much as the question of violence: should fugitives use violence to defend themselves? should abolitionist victims of mob attacks (like Elijah Lovejoy) violently defend themselves? Should insurrection be encouraged? Some, like William Lloyd Garrison (a pacifist and Christian anarchist), maintained that non-violence was both moral and practical in the long run (by getting the conscience of the North on their side). Others, Frederick Douglass being the most notable, but also Theodore Parker, Charles Lenox Remond, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, argued that it was “right and wise” to kill someone trying to capture a slave. Like today, activists debated both the morality and the pragmatism of violent activism (different issues that are too often conflated).

One interesting difference, though, was the definition of violence, where the line between violence and nonviolence got drawn. As Graeber suggested at the end of his letter, the violence that Black Bloc protesters have been accused of–breaking windows, spray painting, occasionally throwing rocks– is small beans compared to the violent tactics that have been debated in most political movements. For abolitionists, the question was about the morality of taking up arms against the state, something they did over and over again, killing a number of slaveholders and US Marshals. One group I study, called the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League, planned on kidnapping Southerners who were trying to capture slaves. Kidnapping the kidnapper, if you will. And when these actors set the terms, non-lethal force was rarely considered “violent.” In 1851, When a mob of black Bostonians pushed their way into a court room, grabbed a slave, “kicked, cuffed and knocked about,” some guards, and ran off, Garrison applauded the act. If he thought pushing their way into a court room and shoving down police officers crossed the line, he didn’t mention it. The point was, when abolitionists discussed what tactics were violent, they meant things far more radical and dangerous than anything that the Black Bloc thinks about.

Obviously the stakes were much higher in the fight against slavery than they are today in the Occupy movement. But violence of some form has dotted American social movements. Let’s not run away from this: the Left has often used violent tactics, as one, among many strategies. Unions waged pitched battles against state militias and violently kept scabs away from workplaces, black homeowners defended their right to integrate neighborhoods with the force of arms, and even the Stonewall Riot was, well, a riot, complete with firebombs, thrown bottles, and bloodied cops. What’s remarkable, in fact, is how little violence, all in all, the OWS movement has engendered. No talk of running to the barricades, no calls for “the deliberate increase in the chances of death,” or the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” no naming of “defense ministers” for the movement, or sloganeering about the “birth-pangs” of the new society.

The best defense of Graeber’s point, then, is that by defining “violence,” in such a narrow way (one that, without questioning it, includes property destruction as well as self-defense in the same category as aggressive violence against human beings), Hedges sets up an unrealistic standard, that few if any social movements could meet. If you get 100,000 angry people in the street, its hard to imagine that some won’t throw a rock or fight back when cops try to kick the shit out of them. This is especially true as cities impose greater and greater restrictions on the ability of protesters to meet, and as police resort to greater and greater acts of repression and violence. So hewing too closely to some mythologized vision of nonviolence, and working to exclude those violate the terms, means accepting a paralyzing and self-limiting definition of what are acceptable tactics.

The whole debate illustrates well the elasticity of the term violence, and the historically specific ways that it gets defined. At an earlier time, you were one of the “good” ones, if you eschewed armed struggle, and just limited yourself to the occasional excess in the street protest. Today, according to the administration of Berkeley, linking arms to resist police invasion is an act of violence. The Left should, rather than accept the state’s definition of what is nonviolent (and therefore what is “good” activism) fight back at an ideological level against definitions that only restrict our behavior.

At the same time, its hard to take Graeber’s wounded outrage totally seriously. Does he really not understand why nonviolent protesters are angry when a tiny minority hijacks their events? Does he really not see how a small group trying to provoke the cops endangers everyone? I’m not super offended by Black Bloc tactics, but if I were the type to engage in them, I sure wouldn’t be shocked when other people disapproved. I also have no patience for the ultra-leftists who openly detest unions, community groups, and the Democratic Party as a bunch of pathetic bureaucratic sell-outs, but then clutch their pearls in shock when anyone dares to attack their preferred group or tactic.

As Bhaska Srunkara points out, tactics like the Black Bloc are unlikely to lead to the type of democratic dialogue that will inspire more people to join a movement. Its hard to see how a smashed window will convince anyone to join your movement, but its easy to see how it will keep them out. “Masks, after all, aren’t good for talking to people.” And rarely do you see the “fuck-shit-up” crowd coming to the boring planning meetings or going out flyering with you.

In my mind, the proper response is for all sides to dial down the outrage. This question is old and probably never ending. I have absolutely no interest in throwing a brick or whatnot, but I think history teaches us that at a low level, at least, such things are likely to be part of any significant social movement. As long as serious acts of violence against people (as opposed to against property) don’t erupt, I’m willing to live and let live, while remembering that the real action should be in dialogue, organizing, and recruitment, not whatever happens to the Starbucks’ window.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 13, 2012 at 00:42

Obama’s (Revealing) Misunderstanding of Abraham Lincoln

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By Wiz

I know I’m a bit late to the game here, but I wanted to respond for a second to Obama’s recent lecture about the virtues of compromise and bipartisanship that he gave to some college students. A number of good commentators have already jumped on the philosophy behind his remarks. Needless to say, I agree with what they say. Politicians certainly need to balance principles with compromise, but they shouldn’t make a fetish out of selling out their stated beliefs.

But Obama invoked Abraham Lincoln’s stance on the Emancipation Proclamation as evidence that sometimes you have to compromise.

Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a guy who didn’t believe in slavery, but his first priority was keeping the union. I’ve got a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in my office, and if you read through it, most of the document is those states and areas where emancipation doesn’t apply because those folks are allied with the union so they can keep their slaves.

Here’s a wartime President making a compromise around the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced, because he understood that his job was to win the war and maintain the union. Can you imagine how the Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. “Lincoln Sells Out Slaves.” There would be protests, and we’re going to run a third party guy.

This is bad history, and in a revealing way.

First, of course, Lincoln received plenty of complaints from the left. As Joan Walsh pointed out, a number of abolitionist newspapers criticized Lincoln for inadequacy of the Proclamation. Second, there was a third party candidate: John Fremont, who was supported by a number of abolitionists, Wendell Phillips most prominent among them. Had it not been for the constant push of people like Phillips, Fremont, and Douglass, many of the best outcomes of the Civil War may never have happened. James Oakes has written well on the necessary interplay between radical activists and pragmatic politicians in the Civil War period.

But these are minor squabbles. The meat of Obama’s argument is that the Emanciaption Proclamation was a compromise from Lincoln’s lofty ideals, but he (like Obama) was willing to make it because he would achieve the Good rather than fail at the Perfect.

Here’s the problem: The Emancipation Proclamation was not a compromise for Lincoln. He had never previously stated that he could or would abolish slavery in the Southern states. When he ran for president, he was clear that he would not abolish slavery. In his first Inaugral Address he said:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

The Emancipation Proclamation, when he signed it, was a move to the left for Lincoln, not a compromise on fundamental principles. In response to abolitionist pressure, the “General Strike” of runaway slaves, and the general revolutionary logic of the Civil War, Lincoln moved slowly to the left over his presidency. I’m sure I would have been one of those people like Wendell Phillips or Frederick Douglass who was often frustrated how slow he did it. But even they couldn’t accuse Lincoln of violating campaign promises by moving to the right. On issues like black soldiers, emancipation, black suffrage, etc… Lincoln was moving towards the position of his leftwing critics and away from his campaign positions.

On the other hand, when faced with a situation when he was called upon to compromise the core principles that he had run on, he showed a remarkable backbone. Before the war actually started, when hardline southerners had already seceded, there were numerous calls- from Seward among others- to pass some sort of compromise which would placate the South and avoid war. This movement coalesced around the Crittenden Compromise, which if it had passed, would have, among other things, guaranteed slavery below the 36° 30′ line for perpetuity (It’d sure be interesting if Los Angeles was a slave city, huh?). It was sort of the master “Grand Bargain” of the day.

Lincoln had ran on the platform of Free Soil, and so he took an admirably hardline stance on this issue, refusing to endorse any compromise that might end secession in return for the extension of slavery.

With Obama, on the other hand, the changes in his position are always to the right. At this point,the 2008 candidate who supported the public option, card check, protecting civil liberties, higher taxes on the rich, and cap and trade looks like Lenin compared to what we see today. I can’t think of a single issue on which Obama has moved to the left since the campaign, but I’ve lost count of the amount of times he’s moved to the right.

This isn’t to say Lincoln was always pure and Obama always compromises. But there is a difference between moving (slowly and haltingly as Lincoln did) towards doing the right thing, and moving (eagerly) to do the wrong thing. That Obama chooses not to see the difference is quite revealing. Lincoln started small, but grew big. Obama, on the other hand, seems determined to shrink.

Perhaps, Obama’s compromises are all justified. I believe, with plenty of others, that he needs to grow a spine. But either way, he shouldn’t be comparing himself to Lincoln.

Update: While I was writing this (clearly because he knew what I was going to say) Obama manifested evidence of a backbone for the first time in some while. Good. But my critique stands.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

July 22, 2011 at 22:22

A Forgotten Abolitionist, Death, and the Arbitrariness of Public Memory

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By Wiz

For some time now I’ve been meaning to write more about this character who I found in the archive, an abolitionist named Daniel Foster, about whom I’ve found almost nothing published (Wikipedia has entries for Dan Foster the West Virginian politican, Daniel Foster, the Nigerian DJ, and Danny Foster, the British Football star). I was telling myself I should wait for something relevant to happen that might make his story meaningful, but couldn’t really find anything, and doubt that I would. I don’t think I’ll use him much in my dissertation, but I really just wanted to write about him, for reasons I wasn’t quite sure of at first.

I found Foster’s papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society, where they ended up sometime in the early 20th century. Foster was born in New Hampshire, educated at Dartmouth, and ended up in Concord, MA, as the Congregationalist minister. Rare for an orthodox minister, he was drawn both to the anti-slavery fight and the Transcendentalists. Emerson, generally no fan of Congregationalists, spoke warmly of him, writing that he “respected certain heroic traits which appeared in him” and that Foster “was a brave good pastor, & took care of the outcast & forgotten.” Among the “outcast & forgotten” who Foster aided were a number of fugitive slaves, including Thomas H. Jones, whose memoir Foster helped publish.

Foster served as Jones' patron in Concord

During the crisis around the rendition of Thomas Sims, Foster distinguished himself. Sims, a 17 year old from Georgia, was captured under the terms of the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act. Taken to prison, his freedom quickly became a cause célèbre among Massachusetts radicals, who had taken pride in their (erroneous) belief that no slave could be captured in Boston. In his journal, Foster obsessed about the case, writing that he was “hardly been able to think of anything else all day,” and eventually traveled to Boston in order to attend Sims’ trial and participate in the activity of the Boston Vigilance Committee, which was plotting, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to free Sims. When the 17 year old was finally deported, it took, according to Foster’s diary, “500 thoroughly armed [soldiers] assembled around the Boston Bastille” to carry him to the dock. A crowd of abolitionists followed, and when Sims was finally put aboard the ship to bring him south, Foster was called on to read the prayer. Thoreau, whose family was friends with Foster’s, wrote in his journal that when he read that “the man who made the prayer on the wharf was Daniel Foster of Concord, I could not help feeling a slightly pride because, of all the towns of the Commonwealth, Concord was the only one distinctly named as being represented…”

Throughout the 1850s he wrote for The Liberator before moving to Kansas in 1858, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state. According to a friend, he was a “bosom companion” of John Brown, while in Kansas. When the war broke out he volunteered first as a chaplain with the 33rd Massachusetts, and then asked to be transferred to a black regiment, the 37th U.S. Colored Volunteers, and serve as a soldier. The US Army only began arming black soldiers in late 1862, and even then, demanded that the officers be white. Foster became one of these officers, a particularly dangerous position. Not only, of course, did skin color make it much easier for the enemy to identify, and therefore target, officers, but Confederates considered white officers who led black troops to be inciting slave rebellions, a crime punishable by death. Agreeing to lead a black regiment was generally a sign of strong commitment to the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, and a faith in black equality. At Chapin’s Bluff, in Northern Virginia, Foster was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter while warning his troops of enemy movement.

Certainly there are more remarkable lives, but Foster, by any standard, lived a life worth admiring. Like any great social movement, the anti-slavery fight drew on thousands of unrecognized and forgotten men and women, only a few of whom we recognize in public memory.

But I think the reason I wanted to write this blog post came from something different, and perhaps some of the other historians reading this will understand what I mean. It was not so much Foster’s extraordinary life, but his absolute ordinariness. There is a very strange and poignant feeling when you open up a folder or a box in an archive that contains the entire life of a long-dead person. The first couple of pages, normally letters from their grandchildren who are submitting the collection to the archive, then a yellowed journal, perhaps a short collection of letters, maybe a momento from an organization, some official documents, likely a will, etc… In this case, a letter written to Foster’s wife by an army companion after his death. Most of the material, of course, is mostly unusable from the perspective of the historian. Take Foster’s journal. Like everyone, Foster only rarely mentioned political or social affairs. Instead he was mostly concerned with his daily life: he misses his wife, who must stay with her mother, is touchingly anxious before her childbirth, is devastated when his infant daughter dies. The basic struggles of anyone, repeated, no doubt, millions of times over by people both famous and forgotten.

Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts

I think I found Foster’s story poignant partly because his journal, which seemed so honest and believable, made him seem like such a knowable person, and partly because he illustrates so well the profound unfairness of historical memory. I’m sitting in the library of the Boston Athenaeum, one block away from the famous statue of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Commons. Shaw, of course, was another white abolitionist who died leading black troops. If anything, Shaw did far less for the anti-slavery fight than Foster did, and yet there he is in one of the most famous Civil War memorializations ever. They made a Hollywood movie about him, and in Robert Lowell’s 1960 poem For the Union Dead, Shaw serves as the symbol of submerged New England idealism buried by a plastic modernism.

Why will Shaw remain forever famous, while Foster is completely forgotten? All Shaw did was be born rich and then die in battle. Foster’s family was not wealthy, he came from New Hampshire and not Boston, he was overshadowed by famous contemporaries, and, likely, his papers were not deposited in an archive for years after his death. I suspect, as well, the commonness of his name makes him forgettable. But if it seems that Foster was treated unfairly, think about how many more people didn’t even have his privileges, because they were illiterate, or peasants, or black or brown, or women, or gay, and so no archivists ever took them seriously.

This is not to say, of course, that Shaw doesn’t deserve memorialization. And regardless of his own merits, as David Blight has shown, the memory of Shaw and the 54th served as a powerful counter-discourse to the racist Lost-Cause ideology of the late Nineteenth Century. But it is to say that the celebration of Shaw, instead of Foster or any other equally heroic figures, is more or less random and arbitrary.

I think there is an element of history, if I could get absurd and existential for a second, that is motivated by our anxiety towards death and existencelessness. Telling someone’s history is, in a way, a manner of keeping them alive, fighting that nagging sense that we’re pushing that boulder up a hill for reasons that can’t possibly matter in some truly ultimate way, that death will wipe all our petty accomplishments away. Certainly I think this is true of millions of Americans who study their own family history. There is just this strong desire to believe that all of the little struggles and triumphs of our life, and of our family, matter. That it matters to history that Daniel Foster’s 2 year old daughter died in 1853, in some way approaching how he felt it mattered. It’s a bit like that Smiths song: “ So we go inside and we gravely read the stones, all those people all those lives where are they now? With the loves and hates and passions just like mine, they were born and then they lived and then they died. Seems so unfair and I want to cry.”

The positive aspect, though, of being forgotten, is that you avoid being sainted. You remain a person. Shaw, after all, must always remain that bronze statue (or the stuffy horrible performance by Matthew Broderick), more symbol than human. Foster, on the other hand, still seems like a real person with real loves, and struggles, and fears. I guess I liked him because he’s a reminder that people can be, well, just normal everyday forgotten people, and still have done amazing things worthy of the highest praise. And that, in fact, most of the best things ever done are probably totally forgotten.

So, perhaps, read correctly, there is democracy in the arbitrary absurdity of the archive. Yes, most of us won’t end up like Shaw, praised for centuries to come. But that doesn’t at all mean that those who end up in statues and movies have a monopoly on heroism or good lives. In fact the arbitrariness of it is the exact proof that there is no link between fame and good deeds. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that we shouldn’t look at great movements as the products of its famous heroes (your Abraham Lincolns, Eugune Debs, etc…) without remembering that there are countless people who made those things happen who will never be remembered.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 10, 2011 at 14:51

Bad History in Defence of the Constitution and the Founders

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by Weiner

Over at Frumforum, an “employee of the US government” with the pseudonym Henry Clay (yes, that Henry Clay) has attacked new US Supreme Court appointee Elena Kagan for her citation of Thurgood Marshall‘s criticism of the US Constitution. Really, “Clay” is attacking Marshall himself here.

Unfortunately for him, Clay’s reasoning is both immoral and historically inaccurate. Most of the commenters on the site do a good job of showing that no matter how you slice it, the Constitution was a flawed document, and the Founders were imperfect human beings.

Sure, Clay correctly notes that Frederick Douglass himself revered the Founders and Constitution. Indeed, in his famous 1852 Fourth of July Oration, Douglass proclaimed:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too, great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

And he went on:

The Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.

Yet calling on the authority of Douglass is not a valid defence of the Founders, some of whom owned slaves, or the document, which if it didn’t specifically allow for slavery, did not outlaw it either, and did label Blacks 3/5 of a person, a vile idea indefensible to our modern sensibilities, no matter its political intentions. Indeed, the very fact that the Constitution needed amendments, including one to abolish slavery, suggests its imperfection. The only major thing Clay got right was when he said: “the Founders’ compromise with slavery was the Constitution’s original sin.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there. This was especially off-base:

The Founders deserve our praise for setting in motion a natural rights republic that would liberate the slaves, promote economic liberty, and ultimately save the world from the twin tyrannies of Nazism and Communism.

Where to begin?

First, nothing in history is inevitable, unless you’re a Hegelian or a Marxist. And I don’t think Clay is either of those. Second, the Founders didn’t set anything in motion. England and France ended slavery before America did. Abolitionists, who upheld the Declaration of Independence but deplored the Constitution, put forth the anti-slavery cause, often with fiery Christian rhetoric and sometimes with violence. An entire war was fought to free the slaves, in which both sides invoked the Founders. Promoting “economic liberty”: well that’s certainly debatable, and that’s for another time.

And then there’s the whole “saving the world” from Nazism and Communism. Actually, the Americans only entered the Second World War in December of 1941, while the British and, after Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets fought off Hitler’s troops. Indeed, the Red Army, battered though it was, won WWII at Stalingrad, in the winter of 1942-1943, when it began to push the mighty German war machine back. D-Day sped up the result, but the war had already been decided. So I guess you could say that Communism saved the world from Nazism, though I wouldn’t say that. And I don’t really think America “saved the world from Communism,” despite the evils of the Soviet Union and Communist China, I don’t think they ever really threatened world domination. Also, the Soviet Union fell mostly due to internal difficulties and Mikhail Gorbachev’s brave leadership, not Ronald Reagan’s patriotic fervor.

Too many Americans foolishly worship documents, namely the Constitution, and hold up the Founders as deities. That makes for bad history, and as we hope this blog has been showing, bad history can lead to bad policy.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 11, 2010 at 20:21

Would Frederick Douglass agree with Rush Limbaugh?

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By Wiz

Well, no, probably not about anything. Douglass was not, after all, a fat fucktard. But here is something:

Republicans have decided to attack Elana Kagan because she claimed that the Constitution as originally conceived was “defective” because it permitted slavery. In fact Kagan, who won’t give her opinion about what color the sky is if she thought doing so would hurt her career, was only concurring with Thurgood Marshall (what would he know about these things?).

Anyways…all our best friends have jumped on her for this: including the RNC and Rush Limbaugh. As Joseph Ellis pointed out this week, Conservatives have adopted a bizarre and intellectually stunted attitude towards the Constitution, seeing it more as a font of transcendent truth given by Daddy figures who shall not be questioned, rather than a messy historical compromise by humans. The underlying message, of course, is that liberals (and esspecially Barack Hussein Obama) are unAmerican, a perverse distortion of our traditions.

But, in this particular debate the question is whether the Constitution, as “originally conceived and drafted” was “defective” because it allowed slavery? Frederick Douglass, for one, believed that this was a misinterpretation of the Constitution, which was actually intended as an anti-slavery document. Influenced by the thought of Gerrit Smith, he argued– against William Lloyd Garrison, America’s most prominent white abolitionist who believed the Constitution to be a “pact with the devil”– that the Founders had hated slavery and so never once put the word “slavery” in the Constitution which promised to secure “the blessings of liberty.” Thus, as Douglass wrote, the Constitution should “be wielded in behalf of emancipation.”

Douglass was less concerned with the legal arguments, and more concerned with the rhetorical point. Constructing the Constitution as anti-slavery not only gave the abolitionists legitimacy (the aura of the Founders) but also, as historian James Oakes points out, justified Douglass’ interest in the political process, allowed him, as an African-American, to justify his participation in the public sphere.

Now, it is true that Limbaugh seems mostly to think that the purpose of the Constitution is to prevent black people from getting health care. But on the narrow question of the constitutionality of slavery, perhaps they are in agreement.

Or, more likely, Limbaugh likes the original Constitution exactly because he thinks it allowed slavery.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 10, 2010 at 23:34

Slavery, Reparations, and Obama

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by Weiner

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates wrote a fascinating op-ed about the difficulties of offering reparations for African slavery, give that both black Africans as well as white Europeans and Americans participated in the heinous trade. He also highlighted the unique opportunity that Barack Obama provides for re-starting the discussion about this thorny issue:

Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.

Economist Brad DeLong disagrees with Gates’ premise, and endorses programs like affirmative action, on conservative grounds. He invokes Edmund Burke, and argues that Americans “unmerited inheritance” of the goods of Western Civilization obligates them to “erase the debts” of that same inheritance, to wrong its rights, with perhaps no wrong greater than that of slavery.

Practically, a republic requires virtuous citizens: citizens who will take up their responsibilities and shoulder their share of the obligations neecessary for the common good. People who won’t shirk their responsibilities. “If you wish to be part of this great more than two-century partnership that is America,” Burke would say if I had him here right now, “you need to recognize that your inheritance is an entailed inheritance. First, it comes with an obligation not to waste it–an obligation to in your turn pass down to those not yet born a better nation than the one you live in. Second, it comes with debts attached: past deeds of America that were cruel and criminal, the memory of which is still shameful. Just because the particular members of the great partnership who incurred the debts (the three-fifths clause, the legality of the slave trade, the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, et cetera) are dead doesn’t mean that that the debts aren’t still owed by the great partnership.”

I’m not sure where I fall here. I might agree with Barack Obama, that is I support the “theory of reparations” but agree that in practice they are tricky. But thinking about it more, maybe they’re not so tricky. What I think has happened here is that DeLong and Gates have over-historicized this issue. Or at least over-analyzed in an academic way. That is, it’s (relatively) easy to recognize that slavery was evil, and that diverse peoples were implicated. The question is what to do now. To think, pragmatically, as Obama is so found of doing.

And so taking both of these articles together, I think we can have a good middle ground, or rather a combination of the Gates and DeLong suggestions. First, I think Obama can begin the process of making important symbolic gestures in recognizing that US government owes a debt to the victims of slavery, while also recognizing the roles played Europeans, Africans and everyone else involved. At the same time, Americans can continue to celebrate and study African and African American history, literature, art and culture. Last, and perhaps most important, programs like affirmative action, and other forms of economic redistribution and education reforms that will benefit people of colour can continue (and be improved upon) as well. DeLong is right: Americans (and Canadians) all have that obligation.

I recognize that this probably doesn’t sound particular original. It also might be very naive. But perhaps this issue doesn’t need to be as thorny as we make it out to be.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 28, 2010 at 19:06


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