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 - 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.

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