Activists often invoke a fear of "selling out" to keep followers in line
For my last Times column I did some cursory research on other movements, besides abolition, and some of the tactics. I got through quite a bit of Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's Sell-Out: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, which is a semi-defense of ostracism as a political weapon.
A quick nugget:
During the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s leading black figures constantly addressed themselves to what they saw as the problem of racial betrayal by complacency, collaboration and outright treachery. Fannie Lou Hamer declared that the champions of black empowerment had to "stop the Toms" from selling out. "I don't believe in killing," she remarked, "but a god whipping behind the bushes wouldn't hurt them."
Malcolm X asserted that "just as the slave-master used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slave master today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms--twentieth century Uncle Toms-to keep you and me in check,": "There are Negroes," Martin Luther King Jr., complained, "who will never fight for freedom. There are Negroes who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle. There are even some Negroes who will co-operate with their oppressors."
In Montgomery, during the bus boycott, the talk actually got quite real:
The boycott is typically portrayed an entirely voluntary enterprise in which the heroes of the story wage their struggle against racist villains without morally soiling their hands at all. The reality, however, was considerably more complicated. The boycott was mainly animated by the commitment of many blacks to reform, if not erase, patterns of racial subordination that they rightly abhorred.
It is important to note, however, that the boycott was also reinforce by the knowledge that any black person caught riding the buses would face ostracism from his peers. He or she would be denounced as a sellout--or words to that effect. Tha the fear of reprisal acted as a coercive influence is no mere speculation. A number of blacks who sought to ride despite the boycott testified in court proceedings that they were physically harassed or intimidated by supporters of the strike.
As it turns out, extraordinarily few African Americans rode the buses. More would have evaded the boycott, however, had they not feared the cost of attempting to do so. This slive of black Montgomery would have included Negroes who either opposed the boycott on ideological grounds or opposed being enlisted in a strike by which they did not want to be inconvenienced. These blacks have largely been airbrushed from the public memory of the boycott. But they did exist and should be taken into account.
A couple of reactions. First, one reason why, as a child, I wasn't much interested in the Civil Rights movement is because it was always presented as a kind of holier than thou moral play. Black history, at least in the schools, existed mainly as clunky "You Can Do It" inspirational rhetoric. I often joke that I know I'm in a hood school because there's a lot of inspirational sloganeering around "success," "achievement," and "winning." At my old middle school they actually organized us into "teams" named after heroes of black history--the Woodson team, the King team, the Garvey team, the Booker T team etc. I was on the Marshall Team. On the rafters of my hall there was a slogan that went something like, "It is by choice not chance, that we choose to enhance, the Marshall Team. We can achieve. We will achieve..." and so on.
The point was to make black history utilitarian, and applicable to our education. The strategy was not wrong, but with it came this sense that we walked in the path of infallible Gods. No one talked about, say, Garvey dismissing the NAACP as the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." Or Fannie Lou Hamer talking cracking some Uncle Toms head.
I don't even know that that sort of thing is appropriate for middle school kids, but my point is that the narrative of black super-morality never connected with me. The people just never really seemed human, so much as they seemed like rather divinely passive reactions to white racism. The Montgomery boycott is the perfect example. The way it was told to us, sheer magic and Christian spirit made the boycott work. Castigation and intimidation surely would have doomed it. Except any deep study of activist and activism always reveals moments like this, moments that cut against the narrative of victory through pure moral force.
The funny thing is even while these more human portraits attract
me, they actually point out why I am ill-suited to radical activism or
activism. In re-reading Douglass's denunciations of Lincoln last week, I
couldn't help but feel that sometimes, they were really unfair. And
yet, leaving aside the fact that I have never lived as a slave, I don't
know that it's the job of any activist to be "fair." It almost seems
"unfair" to ask radicals to function in a moral universe where no other
humans, especially those with power, tend to live. I strongly suspect
that any serious history on Mandella's ANC will find the exact sort of
behavior, if not behavior that's even more complicated.
yet, while being convinced by Kennedy's defense, there is not a single
African-American in the world who I feel comfortable disparaging as a
sell-out or a Tom. Indeed, I've never liked Malcolm's "house slave/field
slave" comparison. I couldn't see myself physically threaten someone
for riding the bus, if only because, I'm very much an individualist. I
understand why these tactics existed, but I recoiled while reading about
them. I think about gay rights activist outing conservatives who
support anti-gay policies. I recoil at that too. But I'm not an
activist. Nor is it really my fight.
listening to a lot of lectures on Napoleon and the French Revolution. I
think I would have been with Burke. And yet, the Revolution was good,
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week, for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
How the North Vietnamese remember the conflict 40 years after the fall of Saigon
HANOI, VIETNAM—Forty years ago, on April 30, 1975, Nguyen Dang Phat experienced the happiest day of his life.
That morning, as communist troops swept into the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and forced the U.S.-backed government to surrender, the North Vietnamese Army soldier marked the end of the war along with a crowd of people in Hanoi. The city was about to become the capital of a unified Vietnam. “All the roads were flooded by people holding flags,” Nguyen, now 65, told me recently. “There were no bombs or airplane sounds or screaming. The happy moment was indescribable.”
The event, known in the United States as the fall of Saigon and conjuring images of panicked Vietnamese trying to crowd onto helicopters to be evacuated, is celebrated as Reunification Day here in Hanoi. The holiday involves little explicit reflection on the country’s 15-year-plus conflict, in which North Vietnam and its supporters in the South fought to unify the country under communism, and the U.S. intervened on behalf of South Vietnam’s anti-communist government. More than 58,000 American soldiers died in the fighting between 1960 and 1975; the estimated number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed on both sides varies widely, from 2.1 million to 3.8 million during the American intervention and in related conflicts before and after.
The president’s unique approach to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner will surely be missed.
No U.S. President has been a better comedian than Barack Obama. It’s really that simple.
Now that doesn’t mean that some modern-day presidents couldn’t tell a joke. John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton excelled at it. But Obama has transformed the way presidents use comedy—not just engaging in self-deprecation or playfully teasing his rivals, but turning his barbed wit on his opponents.
He puts that approach on display every year at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. This annual tradition, which began in 1921 when 50 journalists (all men) gathered in Washington D.C., has become a showcase for each president’s comedy chops. Some presidents have been bad, some have been good. Obama has been the best. He’s truly the killer comedian in chief.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A pastor and a rabbi talk about kids, poop, and tearing down the patriarchy in institutional religion.
The Bible is a man’s book. It was mostly written by men, for men, and about men. The people who then interpreted the text have also been predominately male.
No wonder there’s not much theology preoccupied with weird-colored poop and the best way to weather tantrums. Throughout history, childcare has largely been considered women’s work—and, by extension, not theologically serious.
Danya Ruttenberg—a Conservative rabbi whose book about parenting came out in April—disagrees. So does Bromleigh McCleneghan, a Chicago-area pastor and the author of a 2012 book about parenting and a forthcoming book about Christians and sex. Both women have made their careers in writing and ministry. But they’re also both moms, and they believe the work they do as parents doesn’t have to remain separate from the work they do as theologians.