Let's talk about reparations for a moment.
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.
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 thatTa-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.
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.
- Benjamin Franklin, Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Albert Henry Smyth (New York: Macmillan Co., 1907), 10:67.