Radical Hindsight

There's a lot to like in my old colleague Ross Douthat's piece on Rand Paul. This opening paragraph really got me.

No ideology survives the collision with real-world politics perfectly intact. General principles have to bend to accommodate the complexities of history, and justice is sometimes better served by compromise than by zealous intellectual consistency.

Douthat goes on to show how this notion is played out on the Right, and we can certainly discuss that. But what I immediately thought about was, of course, the Civil War and Abe Lincoln. I am, in my bones, a Frederick Douglass man. I believe in agitation, and I believe in the place of radicals in our politics. Douglass was ahead of his time in so much--not simply an emancipationist, but a suffragist and the only African-American at the Seneca Falls Convention. His pitch for full democracy is rooted in a quasi-selfish vision of egalitarianism:

In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.

Love that. The vote is not a "favor" to women, it's a "favor" to the rest country. 

But I digress.The downside of being a radical is that you have no responsibility in terms of implementing ideas. It's easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to say "Well, Douglass had it all right and Lincoln was the greatest slave-master ever." I have found myself, at times, doing the same. I did a lot more of it before I entered into my present realm of study. 

I've said I have some degree of sympathy for the notion of letting integration happen through the market. But an examination of the full context of the times quickly demonstrates why that wasn't possible. It was not merely a group of merchants disliking black people, it was an entire society engineered toward white supremacy. This public/private split we've been debating was only a quasi-reality. The Klan were the cops, and many white Southerners held black inferiority as part of their identity. It strikes me just as the "What's the matter with Kansas" argument. Self-interest is sometimes more than economic.

Likewise, I think about Lincoln and how easy it is to attack him for his caution, for not immediately--at the onset of the war--freeing the slaves. But when you start seeing that he was holding together this fragile coalition, when you see some of the military commanders going South and being converted to abolitionism by seeing slavery first-hand, as opposed to by presidential edict, you start to see the wisdom of going slow. You start to see how going fast likely would have been disastrous.

I don't want to imply that the authors of history are above critique. But Lincoln won the war. The Civil Rights Act made the country a much better place. These are the broad truths. I'm skeptical of solutions offered up without much knowledge of history, and without the context of the times. People do what they do for actual reasons. It's worth considering them before insisting that we somehow have a better idea.
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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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