Monday, February 29, 2016

Unoriginal Sin: Part I

Conservative ideology is often convoluted and dishonest. Its "simple truths" must be buttressed by increasingly Byzantine rationalizations that make hypocrisy a constant rhetorical hazard. If their magazines were factories, their DAYS WITHOUT AN ACCIDENT signs would seldom escape single digits.(1) I blame negligent and callous management. Conservative scribes need a good union.

Take the judicial doctrine of Originalism. At first, it seems quite reasonable and straightforward: It insists that the Constitution should be interpreted as the founding fathers intended. So, what's wrong with that?

Well, one big problem with this doctrine is that Originalists harbor some pretty faulty assumptions about our founders. Their fanciful founders were devout Christians who were skeptical of government. In this reactionary fantasy, the founders all hated taxes, handouts, and social engineering of any sort. Not quite.

The idea that the founders wanted to run the country on a biblical basis is particularly ridiculous. Patrick Henry was the only famous founder who thought religion had any place in government – the only one they can quote without lying outright. The rest were either deists who openly loathed organized religion or Christians who understood that mixing church and state was dangerous to both.

Otherwise, there were few areas of broad agreement. The founders fought over everything from slavery to the property qualification for voting to the proper role of government. Remember reading about the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists? This may surprise you, but they disagreed over the how much power the federal government should have. Yes, it’s shocking, I know.

And even after compromises were hammered out, there was still disagreement on how to interpret the results. Certainly everyone remembered what they were originally aiming for and sought to turn every ambiguity to their advantage. And often ambiguity is what makes compromise possible. Your “obvious” interpretation will likely differ from mine. But if we both think the language is to our advantage, we will both approve. We will either think we have outfoxed each other or that we have found common ground – only to decry betrayal later on. In politics, compromises are only temporary cease fires.

And these fights could get downright dirty. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams hired newspapers to slander each other. This is the origin of our two party system, folks. It shattered their friendship and they did not mend it until years after most of the other founders had died off. (They died within hours of one another on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that they had worked together on.) The point is that disagreement was fierce, to say the least. As I wrote in my book, "To suggest that there was consensus where there was scalding conflict is either ignorant or dishonest."

One often overlooked topic of conflict was their concepts on economic equality. As I detail both in my book and this blog, founders like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and many others were proto-socialists who thought a rough economic equality was fundamental to a functioning republic. James Madison thought it would mitigate the evils of political parties, while Noah Webster thought it was "the very soul of a republic." Obviously, not all the founders agreed. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay thought the rich should rule and had no problem saying so. This was why Jefferson called Hamilton a corrupt monarchist. The founders did not speak with one voice.

Finally, party strategy and ideology have often gotten flipped and remixed since then. The founders who favored states rights, like Thomas Jefferson, advocated for the poor – whereas the founders who wanted a strong central government, like Alexander Hamilton, favored the rich. At that time, the greatest threat to the wealthy came from the states. In some states, poor veterans demanded debt relief acts and their agitation sent terrified bankers to the feds for help. After all, that’s what the right thought the Constitution was for. As James Madison had argued in Federalist #10, “a rage for paper money, for the abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project” would be less likely to prevail at the national level. (Yes, vets were demanding those other things too.) Conservatives originally loved the federal government.

Such flips should not be difficult to imagine. After all, the Republican and Democratic parties had switch geographical voting bases after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That is when the GOP began its infamous Southern Strategy of using racist dog whistles. Likewise, the GOP was once so pro-tariff that it was their signature issue, but today they favor free trade.(2)

Incidentally, George Washington thought, “The Men who oppose a strong and energetic government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views.”(3) No, he did not seek an eighteenth century version of the New Deal. (Although Thomas Paine’s social security proposal suggests that he might have.) But nor did Washington think that the weak, decentralized, states rights-based Articles of Confederation system worked either. Sorry, modern day “Tea Party” movement.

Likewise, as I wrote in my book, Thomas Jefferson is often called the father of small government. But to him, “big government” meant large armies and broad police powers - things conservatives love. So it is strange to hear them invoke the man who thought banks were “more dangerous that standing armies.”(4)

Today, ideological battle lines are ying-yanged from what they were when the founders lived. This makes making honest analogs pretty tricky to pull off. You have to acknowledge these switches, which conservatives are loathe to do because, to them, tradition is about resisting change rather than adapting to it. Legitimacy hinges on purity of preservation. They see the founders as almost prophets whose precepts are therefore perfect and eternal. By contrast, liberals are more likely to recognize that the founders were fallible mortals with all the associated foibles.

I am not saying that you cannot invoke the founders to argue anything – obviously, I do routinely. But you have to provide context to be honest, and context gets complex. After all, this was supposed to be a short post. And I have not even gotten into the enormous problems with the arguments of Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia or how some founders had anticipated the great temptation of Originalism and warned against eating the fruit of the Tree of Stupid.

I will explore those omissions in part two. The point here is that conservatism's "simple truths" are neither. Originalism is the Creationism of jurisprudence. Both are wishful thinking-driven cherry-picking: Myths and fables seeking not only to be taken literally, but to also enjoy the force of law.

And that is not what the founders wanted.

End of Part I - Part II is here.


(1) Okay, this joke admittedly begs explanation. See, factories were places were Americans used to make things before Republicans and conservative/"centrist" Democrats facilitated their export overseas. Some factories still exist. Take your kids to see them before they are all gone.

(2) Such party-wide flips are familiar. They may even make parties disown or at least ignore their own founders. For example, Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic Party. Ignoring the fact that Jefferson had owned slaves while writing against slavery, Lincoln said the Democrats had originally put “the man before the dollar” – i.e. put human rights before property rights. Since abolitionists frequently quoted Jefferson’s anti-slavery rhetoric, the Democrats had soured on their founder. In a famous letter Lincoln reflected on the irony - particularly since the Republicans were arguably descended from the old Federalist Party. He followed up with an anecdote about two drunks who got to wrestling in the street and wound up wearing each others great coats by the time they got pulled apart. Lincoln said that America's two major parties had done the same. In the early twentieth century, progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt affirmed the primacy of the man before the dollar. His younger cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt later ran as a Democrat and quoted Lincoln's anecdote about the two drunks, suggesting that the two parties had switched principles again. Today, the party of Lincoln has embraced Jefferson Davis. And so it goes.

(3) George Washington, The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 5:257.

(4) Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), 15:23. Actually it was John Taylor who first coined the phrase but Jefferson expressed his agreement in a letter to him on June 7th 1816. Jefferson’s reply reads, “And I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Death Debate Again

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died a week ago today and I am ashamed to say that I joined in on the tasteless schadenfreude-fest that swept the Internet. I must admit I said some terrible things.

Okay, I’m not actually ashamed.

But some kind-hearted liberals think I should be, so the traditional cycle of cheering and chiding ensued. The arguments against celebrating are familiar - they get trotted out whenever a malevolent political figure dies. Glenn Greenwald wrote a great essay about this on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death. It was a follow up on an argument he made on the occasion of Christopher Hitchens' death.

Naturally, how terrible the individual was in life varies and I suppose we can disagree over whether the degree of glee is really proportionate to the departed's damages. Augusto Pinochet’s regime tortured and murdered thousands of Chileans whereas, in England, Margaret Thatcher’s austerity measures merely ground a generation of working poor deeper into poverty. And Antonin Scalia only sought to subvert equality and democracy in America, so I suppose it is all relative.

I can maybe see making the argument that only their victims have a right to raise a glass but that others do not. I disagree, but I can at least see it. But to say nobody should only silences the victims. It tries to shame them for their valid anger – particularly when the public figure’s crimes are gently finessed or totally ignored in a flourish of eulogistic praise, as is frequently the case. As noted in the Greenwald article, it is the praise that is truly tasteless. Those who tisk-tisk are the type that think it is rude to point out rudeness. But then how does rudeness ever get corrected? This politeness is enabling writ-at-large on the scale of nation states. Gallows humor towards, say, war criminals who escaped the gallows and died peacefully in their sleep is not only understandable but totally appropriate. It is scant, bitter consolation to the survivors; but I will not deny them that. They are unquestionably entitled to it.

Simply put, the “no matter how bad they were” argument makes no sense in the secular context of civic life. If the strictures of your personal religion command you to love everyone, then do so. But I am not Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King. I did not sign up for either of their religions, so I am not bound by their precepts. The fact is that, contrary to conservative propaganda, liberals are ridiculously Christian in temperament regardless of their religion. Forgiveness, atonement - liberals love that shit. Even Darth Vader gets saved and comes back as a blue Force ghost - with an impressive celestial face lift, no less. But what gets me is that you do not even have to atone if you had held public office. Official liberal forgiveness is automatic. Grace is de rigueur, if not an unthinking reflex. I know that one of the dictionary definitions of "liberal" is "generous," but perhaps a measure of conservative restraint is required here.

The thing is, I seriously think that society benefits from impolite timing. Last Sunday, I tweeted, "Political prediction: Opponents of genocide will cheer Henry Kissinger's death and be criticized for their insensitivity." I cross-posted it on other social networking sites and a friend objected that there should be no cause to cheer. I replied that it can turn the media's predictable whitewashing into a teachable moment. We must confront our history. The fact that Kissinger is a free man and admired by the establishment reveals terrible truths about America that seriously need to be addressed.(1) Until he sits in a cage in the Hague, we cannot possibly call our nation a champion of human rights.(2)

The point here is that opportunities to talk about such figures are incredibly rare. Who would have guessed that Henry Kissinger would get mentioned in a Democratic presidential primary debate? TWICE! Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually doubled-down on that endorsement. The second time, Bernie Sanders could not let it pass. His response was righteous and I quite approved. Kissinger had facilitated three different mass murders either by accident or deliberately.(3) Sanders only singled-out one of them, but even that mention was a minor miracle. But everybody eventually dies, so that last opportunity is guaranteed. We should never surrender it.

I think there would be a lot less liberal "vitriol" if the "liberal" media didn't whitewash manifest monsters. It legitimizes them and thereby encourages others like them. The fact that a war criminal like Henry Kissinger is not only walking free but respected by the establishment and proudly touted by Hillary Clinton illustrates this. Richard Nixon didn't deserve our respect when he died, Antonin Scalia didn't, and nor will Henry Kissinger when he kicks it. If you want monsters to be more respected in death, then perhaps the news media should stop spin-doctoring the cadavers and treat their deaths as ordinary news stories. Write an obit, not a eulogy. Screw the usual slurry of polite, funereal obfuscation. If a writer wants to write eulogy, give the victims' case equal time. Granted, not every effort will equal Hunter S. Thompson's epic "eulogy" of Richard Nixon, but that rare effort should still be made.

But, hey, maybe I am wrong. I am always open to possibility. Perhaps I should not toast the deaths of total toads. After all, there are a lot of them. As I noted in my book, "[T]he right’s icons have been dropping off like flies – Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Charlton Heston, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, William F. Buckley, and Robert Bork have all kicked the bucket since I had started writing this thing." I need to start drinking less before I start seeing the Force ghost of Richard Nixon in the full youth and vigor of his early McCarthyite days. He's Blue, Rested, and Ready.


(1) Nationalists will naturally call this sentiment unpatriotic. Quite the opposite: You cannot fix problems that you refuse to recognize, and in a participatory democracy fixing things is a duty. As I write in my book, "Criticism is part of citizenship. Stifling dissent is a form of sabotage. It is like disconnecting an important dashboard warning light."

(2) This makes two recent posts that I am put in the awkward position of praising Christopher Hitchens, but his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger is must reading on this topic. Watch the documentary of the same name, if you prefer. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s touting Henry Kissinger’s praise of her encapsulates all that is terrifying about her candidacy.

(3) First, the accident: The illegal bombing of neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War may have killed as many as 150,000 Cambodians. That is not the accident part. The accident part was that it destabilized that country and allowed the brutal Khmer Rouge to take over and murder over a million more. Nixon and Kissinger's recklessness accidentally had helped the Khmer Rouge just as surely as George W. Bush had accidentally created ISUL (or Daesh, if you prefer). You could call it negligent genocide. It is a chronic blow back from bombing. As the first linked article noted, comparing Afghanistan to Cambodia, "The Khmer Rouge grew from a small force of fewer than 10,000 in 1969 to over 200,000 troops and militia in 1973. During that period their recruitment propaganda successfully highlighted the casualties and damage caused by U.S. bombing." Funny how similar actions in similar circumstances get similar results.

Installing the aforementioned Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was the other mass murder that Henry Kissinger was an accomplice to, but that was no accident. Kissinger explicitly green-lit that slaughter. Generally, the dictators we chose to run other countries during the Cold War, asked our permission first. That was also the case when President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger approved Indonesia's invasion of East Timor. Indonesia massacred almost a quarter million Timorese - a third of that country's population. It's traditional. Indeed, a miscommunication in one protocol is what triggered the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein sought - and thought he got - George Bush Sr.'s permission to invade Kuwait. After all, during the Reagan administration, we sold him the poison gas he used on the Kurds. Yes, we sold it to him to fight Iran, but we did not stop selling to Saddam after we discovered on whom it was being used. Kissinger was not directly involved in the sale, although he had betrayed them previously. No, that is Donald Rumsfeld seen shaking hands with Saddam.

Some quibble with the use of the word "genocide" arguing that specific ethnicities were not targeted. For example, this article argues that, in East Timor, the term is not technically correct in terms of international law. And in Chile, the targets were ideological rather than ethnic. But the Khmer Rouge's brand of communism was rabidly nationalistic and ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Cambodians were targeted by Pol Pot's regime.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On Coates and Roosevelt

In preparation for my last post, I reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent essay “The Case for Reparations.” For the most part, it holds up. I have only one minor quibble with Coates’ essay but even this ultimately justifies him. Facts are frequently double-edged swords.

I think that Ta-Nehisi Coates was a tad harsh on the New Deal. Granted, the most important New Deal programs like Social Security and the Federal Housing Authority did indeed exclude Africa Americas. And the net effect dramatically widened the wealth gap between blacks and whites. There is no denying that and, at the end of the day, that is all that actually matters. But a casual reader might get the idea that preserving and strengthening white supremacy was the goal of these programs.

Not quite. Craven compromises were made out of weakness rather than malevolence or indifference. Such concessions are familiar examples of the Southern plantocracy holding the whole country hostage – something they had done since threatening to scuttle the Declaration of Independence. (There is actually a musical about that.) The New Deal era was no different. As Harvard Sitkoff admitted in A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade, the Roosevelt administration initially feared that aiding African Americans in any way would derail other legislation. "Even as minor a matter as the invitation of a Negro to the Senate restaurant in 1934 resulted in Southern Democrats howling their rage and threatening to cut off appropriations."(1)

And this may very well be what Ta-Nehisi Coates means when he says that America was built on white supremacy - only that our country has been continuously structured to advantage whites and keep blacks vulnerable in various ways right up until the present day. If so, I cannot possibly argue with that. I may be misreading him on the New Deal.

But, as the title of Harvard Sitkoff’s book suggests, things started to change during the New Deal. Not all the credit goes to the Roosevelts or the New Deal. The Harlem Renaissance had inspired African Americans to take pride in their identity and assert their rights. (And, although Sitkoff is an integrationist, he has praise for Marcus Garvey on this score.) Black labor leaders were flexing their muscles. And unquestionably some credit goes to communists who were agitating on both class and race issues. More whites in the union movement began to grasp how racism is used to divide and conquer the working poor. Even conventional liberals noticed the Nazis’ brutal racism and asked how the Klan was any different. The logic of the New Deal coalition's "forgotten man" rhetoric pulled toward civil rights even though it prioritized economic recovery and, later, getting Hitler. 

Within the Roosevelt administration, there were different opinions on this issue. Some were wary of offending Congress, while others favored pushing the envelope within the executive’s prevue. Among the later was Harry Hopkins, head of the Works Progress Administration, and Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor. Both were once social workers in New York and sympathetic to the plight of Blacks. But perhaps the most powerful was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She needed schooling but proved an apt pupil. As Sitkoff wrote of Eleanor's education:

Her friendship with Walter White of the NAACP and Mary McLeod Bethune, President of the National Council of Negro Women, began to resemble a crash course on the struggle of blacks against oppression. ... Like other liberals who initially viewed the race problem as essentially economic, to be solved by New Deal anti-poverty measures, Mrs. Roosevelt only gradually came to the realization that such specific matters as discrimination, lynching, and disfranchisement had to be faced directly.(2)
That last sentence pretty much sums up Ta-Nehisi Coates' critique of Bernie Sanders' answer on the question of reparations for slavery. Of course, I should add that Sanders has embraced the Black Lives Matters movement and believes that African Americans are owed an official apology for slavery. But with regard to the question of black poverty, Sanders program is indeed only class-based. Eleanor Roosevelt became a vocal advocate for a federal anti-lynching law, much to the chagrin of many White House staffers. And I have no doubt that Bernie Sanders is an equally quick study. But, yeah, this has often been a blind spot with socialists and liberals alike. 

It is also important to note that blacks benefited from some New Deal programs. This was when blacks began to switch their allegiance to the Democratic Party – a process completed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Before, blacks had loyally supported the “Party of Lincoln.” This was not just a byproduct of the second northward black migration during WWII. (The first was during WWI.) The efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and Francis Perkins got some results. Of course, because these federal programs were locally administered, the gains were severely limited in the south; but they were noticeably effective in the north where blacks were migrating. 

But, again, evidence that supports this narrative also supports Coates. As Sitkoff wrote of the racist and timid climate in then Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace's department:
Henry Wallace, according to to civil rights spokesmen, especially feared antagonizing Southerners on the race issue. No other department was as controlled by white supremacists both in the bureaucracy and in Congress as was the Department of Agriculture. It had the smallest percentage of black employees and was the last to appoint a Negro adviser. "You didn't dare take a Negro to lunch at Agriculture," recalled Dr. Will Alexander, one of the few supporters of civil rights working on the New Deal farm programs. Wallace not only ducked action on Negro rights but complained to Alexander: "Will, don't you think the New Deal is undertaking to do too much for Negroes[?]"(3) 
This is a bit embarrassing for progressives because Wallace was their icon. Roosevelt later made him his Vice President (1941-1945), but then replaced him with Harry Truman - to the great ire of progressives. Truman and Wallace became rivals; and in 1948, Wallace ran as the Progressive Party's candidate for President thereby threatening Truman chances. However, by this time, Wallace had evolved a lot on civil rights becoming a stronger supporter than Truman, who desegregated the armed forces. The point being is that progressives haven't always been awesome. As I wrote before, the left's record is mixed - better than the liberal record to be sure, and far better than the conservative one, but it still has plenty of blemishes. 

There is a telling incident that illustrates both Franklin D. Roosevelt’s timorousness and the admittedly limited – but still significant – beneficial impact of the New Deal on blacks. In 1935, Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, then one of the biggest bigots in politics, wrote a letter to Roosevelt complaining that work relief projects paid too much. The upshot was local cotton barons could not get field hands for the starvation wages that satisfied tradition. Roosevelt wrote a tart response, but never mailed it. Instead, he then delegated the task of replying to Harry Hopkins. Hopkins wrote Talmadge that his favored wage rate left people "under-fed, sick, and ragged, and their children out of school for lack of food, clothes and school books."(4) Race was not specifically mentioned in either Roosevelt's or Hopkin's response. It was understood. But just in case it was not clear to the reader, the 1957 book this bit comes from introduced it with this opening sentence: "Talmadge was one of the most vociferous white-supremacy Southerners of the era." Hopkin's letter was still critical in tone, but it significantly did not come from the president.

Let’s not equivocate: This was not a heroic moment for Roosevelt. And Coates’ disappointment with the New Deal generally is unquestionably justified. If it seems like an example of “same old/same old,” that is because that is exactly what it was – a story that is quite literally as old as the republic itself. However, nor is this evidence that Roosevelt approved the perpetuation or strengthening of white supremacy. It is certainly disappointing, but not evidence of intent or desire. Yes, this is a defense of FDR, but it is hardly a rousing or inspiring one. And, hey, I can make it even worse by pointing out Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans, which was active rather than passive and – as Coates correctly points out – an instance where America has actually has made payments to an injured ethnicity.

But like I said, this is a quibble. At the end of the day, Ta-Nehisi Coates is right about reparations. What actually matters is that, whatever Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intentions, much of the New Deal was a massive whites-only giveaway which unquestionably widened the wealth gap between whites and blacks. And its effects are felt to this day. Conservatives cannot deny that and complain about the inheritance tax. And the subsequent G.I. Bill – arguably the first federal affirmative action program actually implemented – was also whites-only. Indeed, contrary to the absurd conservative fantasy that Martin Luther King would have opposed affirmative action, he not only helped pioneer it, he also likened it to the G.I. Bill. And, as Coates notes, blacks trying to buy homes were denied legitimate credit sources and thereby herded into predatory scams – and variants persist to the present day. Government collusion was always a part of this. The grievances so go far beyond slavery. If you doubt me, read his essay already.

I may be wrong, but my reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates is not that he is denying the contributions of socialist solutions insomuch as saying that there is another important, studiously ignored piece to the puzzle. Socialism solves a lot, but it doesn’t solve everything.

So let's emulate 
Eleanor Roosevelt and recognize that.


(1) Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade (Oxford University Press, 1978), 45.

(2) Ibid., 60.

(3) Ibid., 44.

(4) Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Roosevelt Reader: Selected Speeches, Messages, Press Conferences, and Letters of Franklin D. Roosevelt, ed. Basil Rauch (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1957), 137.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

On Bernie and Ta-Nehisi

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote an interesting piece for the Atlantic. It asked why Senator Bernie Sanders does not support reparations for slavery when he advocates so many other ambitious proposals that are supposedly doomed too. When did the radical Sanders become such a safe pragmatist all of a sudden?

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a Bernie Sanders supporter. But I am also working on a follow up book on the ideal of equality and conservatism's eternal hostility toward it. One chapter deals with the issue of reparations. I am pretty convinced and Ta-Nehisi Coates 2014 Atlantic cover story, "The Case for Reparations" has played a part in that.(1) His prose is both powerful and persuasive.

Let's first talk about reparations for a moment.

I did not set out to discuss reparations in my second book. My goal was to look at conservatives’ bogus opposition to “group rights” in their anti-affirmative action rhetoric. They insist that there is no such thing as group rights despite their adoration for states rights and corporations. Their insistence that this is "a Christian nation" is another overt endorsement of “group preference” and I suspect they have many covert ones as well - like race, for example.

I also wanted to look at how conservatives conceptualize justice and concluded that they like authority and having an excuse to use violence and feel righteous about it, but that balancing the scales without any gun play apparently fails to ignite their enthusiasm. Hostility, yes. Enthusiasm, not so much.

In the process of all this, I quickly discovered that making reparations for slavery was an issue that no student of American history could honestly ignore.

Let's get something out of the way. Perhaps this reveals the limits of my imagination or my chops as a writer, but there is no polite way to say this that does not shortchange the facts or do outrageous violence to logic or the English language. The right’s arguments against reparations are bat-shit racist.  

Of course, the ever horrible David Horowitz's ten point newspaper ad proved that back in 2001. I was amazed that the late Christopher Hitchens’ take-down of it did not connect the last dot. (2) When Horowitz said it is actually blacks who owe America, the best Hitchens could muster was, "Smile when you say that, David." Hitchens' critique was otherwise epic. It is a pity that the mainstream media could not match those standards. Instead, a superficial acceptance of Horowitz's absurd assertions prevailed.

In his famous Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin wrote that reading a poorly-argued book against deism was what made him a deist.(3) Arguments against reparations have a similar effect on most thinking people if they bother to wade into them, which is why most don’t. Whatever your stance on reparations, the right’s tortured rationalizations against them are as viscerally illuminating as flipping on a light switch in a darkened slaughterhouse. The smell tells you exactly what to expect so most back out beforehand.

So what do I think of Ta-Nehisi Coates' critique of Bernie Sanders?

Well, there is a lot that I cannot really argue with. I agree that the word "divisive" was ill-chosen. Likewise, I agree that singling out Sanders was not unfair because Hillary Clinton never claimed to be a radical, parody notwithstanding. And historically the left has had a mixed record with recognizing that socialism doesn't solve everything.

My objection centers on the question of Bernie Sanders’ alleged pragmatism or lack thereof. Calling yourself a democratic socialist certainly sounds quixotic. And Ta-Nehisi Coates is quite right that Sanders picks his battles, so asking what yardstick the candidate uses is a valid question. But it is a question that Coates has actually already answered, although he does not seem to be asking it rhetorically. When not calling Sanders' agenda D.O.A., Coates notes that it is well inside the Overton Window. Isn't that contradicting himself? Well, not exactly. And there's your answer.

Sanders' strategy is to champion already popular proposals. It's about pounding obstructionists in Congress. Admittedly, it may take more than one electoral cycle. But the metric he uses to pick his fights is strategic, not naïve. Presently, reparations do not enjoy the same popularity as, say, breaking up the banks. Therefore, more agitation for slavery reparations remains necessary. In short, Sanders is picking difficult but currently winnable battles. One of which is reviving democracy. Is that radical?

Vis-à-vis the people, no. Vis-à-vis the system, yes.

Coates is correct when he says that Sanders is not actually all that radical. As Political Compass notes, Sanders is just slightly left of center - which is where the bulk of the frustrated voting public actually is. Energizing that public and demanding why we don't have nice things like Scandinavia has is his leverage.

Does this mean that Sanders is hostile to reparations? Not necessarily, although the word "divisive" certainly suggests he might be.
But if so, he has proven himself quick to evolve and get in front of progressive change. We very recently witnessed a beautiful revolution in people's attitudes toward LBGT rights and Bernie Sanders embraced them early. Reparations might follow.

Does this sound like
an odd mix of optimism and cynicism? Well, all political commentary is and mine is no different. Yes, leaders should lead and make difficult and unpopular decisions. But few have ever run on promising them. Lincoln's platform was modest when he first ran for the presidency: All he promised was no slavery in the territories. He believed that was all the Constitution would allow him to do. Likewise, in 1932, there was almost no daylight between Franklin D. Roosevelt's platform and Herbert Hoover's.

My best guess says that Ta-Nehisi Coates already knows all this and wrote his piece on Sanders in part as an act of agitation for reparations. If so, it worked beautifully and I approve.


(1) My only objection is not really an objection but a caution. Never underestimate the right’s capacity to twist an idea. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has suggested using slavery reparations to replace affirmative action. Monstrously, he had proposed them in exchange for all affirmative action programs, including those for women and other minorities who would get nothing. Krauthammer’s attempt to drive a wedge between disadvantaged groups was pathetically obvious. It is one of the handful of tactics conservatives routinely use – like presenting false-trade offs. Could reparations be used to preclude future class action litigation like the Tobacco Settlement does? Depends on how it is structured. As I type, details on the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply are coming to light. And the predatory, systematic disaster gentrification of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is still raw. Both show that the targeting of black communities en masse remains ongoing.

Of course, poor execution does not invalidate a righteous idea and none of these scenarios are inherent to the concept of reparations. Moreover, reparations would, in the long term, make black communities less easy targets thereby lessening the vicious cycle of victimization.

(2) Christopher Hitchens, "Debt of Honor," Vanity Fair, June 2001. Reprinted in Raymond Winbush's  Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations, (New York: Amistad), 2003. I have been critical of some of Hitchens' positions - on one of which, the invasion of Iraq, proved disastrously wrong - but not only was he right here he consistently kept pushing.

(3) Speaking of Benjamin Franklin, in my book, I point out that the founder of America's first anti-slavery society had made the argument that simply freeing slaves was insufficient. After listing the psychological scars of slavery on the freedman, Franklin adds, "He is poor and friendless; perhaps worn out by extreme labour, age, and disease." Franklin's solution was education and job training. His aims now sound both modern and modest. Granted, Franklin’s language could accurately be described as “not entirely awesome.” As I wrote, "While it is easy to be cynical about 'education calculated for their situation in life,' such organizations often provided promising freedmen with college educations and professional training." But part of Franklin's argument remains "radical" today - his appeal to duty. Franklin felt, “Attention to emancipated black people, it is to be hoped, will become a branch of our national policy,” because “that attention is evidently a serious duty incumbent on us.” Again I ask how much longer will it take for today’s conservatives to catch up with Benjamin Franklin. Contrary to conservatives' inconsistent individualism, the concept of collective responsibility is neither new nor un-American. In Coates' "Case for Reparations," he cites many contemporaries of Franklin who agreed that granting freedom was not enough. (Their language was arguably more awesome.) It was just as obvious to honest people then as it is now - the operative words throughout being “obvious” and "honest."

- Benjamin Franklin, Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Albert Henry Smyth (New York: Macmillan Co., 1907), 10:67.