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I've been thinking a lot lately about why I'm not a conservative, mostly because I've been thinking so much about slavery and Reconstruction. It seems, to my mind, to be an authentic conservative in the 1850s is to perhaps recognize slavery as evil, but oppose doing anything about it that might upset the planters. It seems, to my mind, to be an authentic conservative in the 1960s would be to recognize that segregation was also evil, but resolve to nothing about it which might upset its supporters.

This is not a view to be dismissed out of hand--more people died at Antietam that on any other day in American military history. I think about the terror that fell upon black communities in the South, after the Civil War, and I wonder whether it could have all been averted by a more a gradualist approach. Sadly, I don't think so. And yet you see Lincoln (a conservative at heart, no?), a reluctant reformer, doing whatever he can to avoid war, to avoid making the war about slavery (initially), trying to save the Union at all cost.

He isn't wrong. But if you are the slave, that essentially conservative approach will always privilege your master over you. Conservatism, with its belief in institutions, traditions, and the past, will seemingly always privilege (perhaps inadvertently) the powerful over the powerless. Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power. Privileging them, privileges their agents.

Two quotes made me think about this today. Here's David Brooks:

Sonia Sotomayor had bad timing. If she'd entered college in the late-1950s or early-1960s, she would have been surrounded by an ethos that encouraged smart young ethnic kids to assimilate. If she'd entered Princeton and Yale in the 1980s, her ethnicity and gender would have been mildly interesting traits among the many she might possibly possess.

But she happened to attend Princeton and then Yale Law School in the 1970s. These were the days when what we now call multiculturalism was just coming into its own. These were the days when the whole race, class and gender academic-industrial complex seemed fresh, exciting and just.

Here's Andrew:

It isn't the judicial rulings that trouble me so much as her non-judicial opinions and mindset. The constant, oppressive consciousness of her identity - racial and gender - and the harping on it so aggressively so often does strike me as a classic mode of victimology deeply entrenched in her generation. I don't think it's disqualifying and I don't see any crude racialism in her rulings, but I do think it shows that for Obama, this kind of racial/ethnic view of the world is so endemic it's invisible to him. And it's off-message for his candidacy and life.

Both of these quotes extend a tremendous amount of charity to the agents of power. Brooks assumes that these agents at Princeton and Yale, in the 50s and 60s, would have welcomed the Puerto-Rican Sotomayor with open arms. He presumes that they would have wanted her to be one of them. Andrew presumes that that identity politics, what he calls "a classic mode of victimology," with its "racial/ethnic view" of the world, and its focus on gender, is particular only to Sotomayor and her ilk.

A critique of liberal identity politics is not wrong on its face, but it almost always is unconcerned with the identity politics of power. Thus Sotomayor's focus on her identity as a "wise Latina" pose is seen as the disturbing result of multiculturalism run amok, not having been raised in a country where the tangible mechanisms of white supremacy were in full effect.

It isn't, for instance, the fact that Sotomayor was raised in an era where government-backed redlining was still legal, it's the fact that some students at Yale demanded a Chicano history course that's the issue. Likewise, it isn't the oppressive identity politics practiced by conservatives for the past 30 years that's disturbing, but Sotomayor's response to it. To be a true conservative is to be more disturbed by victimology, than actual victimizing. It is to claim to abhor evil--but to abhor the response to evil even more. It's like in the NFL--it's the second who throws the punch who draws the flag.

Still thinking this through. More later.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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