An Absurdist Take on "Both Sides"


Charles Lane compares the radicalism of white supremacists with the radicalism of escaped slaves:

Today, we admire the American revolutionaries, and subsequent uncompromising movements. But don't forget: The victors write history. If the South had won the Civil War, what would our schoolchildren be taught about the abolitionists today? Some in the antislavery movement were as extreme, in their way, as the Southern "fire-eaters." We tend to think of the secessionists as resisting federal authority during the run-up to Fort Sumter. But the antislavery side had its moments of nullification as well. In 1851, a Boston crowd broke into a federal courthouse to free "Shadrach," a black man being held there by U.S. marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. Abolitionist Theodore Parker declared this blatant defiance of Washington "the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea in 1773." 

I am not suggesting a moral equivalency between the anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces. But I am suggesting an attitudinal equivalency - one that has been played out repeatedly in our history, and that may play out again.

Lane is referencing, in rather disrespectful fashion, the awesome Shadrach Minkins. A Norfolk-area slave, Minkins' unthinking extremism deluded him into believing that he was a human being. Upon this radical realization, the hot-headed Minkins fled North and took up with a band of ex-slaves and abolitionists who also had thoughtlessly decided that blacks were people.

Lane is trying to cover himself by noting that he's comparing attitude, not morals. This only works in the most absurdly narrow sense--both abolitionists and fire-eaters believed that aspects of the federal law should be resisted. But this is like saying that both Roosevelt and Hitler had resigned themselves to mass killings.

In fact, whereas Minkins and his ilk's attitude insisted on on the rudimentary benefits of citizenship (you know like not being horse-whipped), fire-eaters like Robert Rhett attitude insisted on the dissolution of the entire country. This is not a matter of equal radicalism, even in attitude. Shadrach Minkins and his folks were willing to ponder a jailbreak. Robert Rhett and his folks were willing to ponder the loss of two percent of America's population.

There certainly is more here that's erroneous--I'm not convinced that "attitude" and "morality" are separate spheres. Moreover, I think that if Lane had used some empathy, the kind that leads you to use a man's full name unencumbered by scare quotes, he'd see the difference. Instead we have a lazy, mealy-mouthed "on the other hand" kind of centrism,  which is every bit as rote, calcified, and rehearsed as the extremes it claims to deride.
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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.

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