There's a lot to think about today. There is the revolutionary birth of our country. There is the apex of a a second revolution which birthed us anew. And in the world around us, there are still more revolutions in the offing. At such a time, it really is a pleasure for me to bring you this short essay by historian W. Caleb McDaniel, derived from his book -- The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery. I think we are all familiar with Lincoln's words at Gettysburg. But McDaniel reminds us that there was a time in America when the possibility that democracy would "perish from the earth" was very real. This is the strength of the McDaniel piece -- the Confederate rebellion was not incidentally pro-slavery and anti-democratic (it was both), but anti-democratic because it was pro-slavery.
On July 4, 1854, at a grove in Framingham, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison held up a copy of the Constitution, labeled it a compromise with tyranny, and burned it to ash. He then invited the abolitionist audience to join him by shouting "Amen."
Ever since that Fourth of July, Garrison has been remembered primarily for his rejection of the Constitution, a document he once said was dripping with human blood. Look more closely however, and you'll find more complicated, even patriotic, Garrison.
In fact, before he started setting paper on fire, Garrison delivered a less well-known speech that praised the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution as models for the world. He even began the day by declaring that the first Fourth of July was "the greatest political event in the annals of time." It had created a charter of inalienable rights that, if enforced, would mean the "eternal dethronement" of all tyrants everywhere and the "redemption of the world."
In an 1824 speech he described the American Revolution as "the splendid, immaculate guide,---to all other nations, in their career after freedom." Around the same time, Garrison advised recent revolutionaries in South America to use the United States as their "model."
Garrison never really stopped believing that the United States should be a "guide" to other nations--but a proslavery Constitution compromised such guidance. As Garrison said at Framingham in 1854, "we have proved recreant to our own faith, false to our own standard, treacherous to the trust committed to our hands." The result was that "instead of helping to extend the blessings of freedom" abroad, Americans had hindered the spread of their democratic ideals.
Abraham Lincoln would not have applauded Garrison's actions, but he often echoed him. Because of slavery, Lincoln said, "our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust," leaving the world without an untarnished example of "spirit of '76." To prove the danger, Lincoln quoted from a recent London newspaper which expressed "apprehension" that slavery was "fatally violating the noblest political system the world ever saw" and thus undermining "the liberal party throughout the world."
The idea that American slavery was a threat to American democracy, and thus democracy the world-over, was not an exaggeration in 1854. The future of political liberalism was far from clear, and many in the "liberal party throughout the world" looked to the United States, flawed though it was, as one of the only bastions of democratic politics.
Nothing made democratization in the early America inevitable. It proceeded slowly, with great struggle, at different paces in different states. But by 1855, most states had either minimized or eliminated the property qualifications that previously kept even white adult men from voting. Universal white manhood suffrage had become the reality.
Pure democracy, this was not. Women, slaves, and most free blacks remained disfranchised. Immigrants and industrial wage-workers faced renewed challenges to their voting rights even as universal white manhood suffrage took hold. In particular locales and states, even legally enfranchised voters grew accustomed to serious attacks on their rights. But the extent of voting rights in the United States made the nation seem like a radical democratic experiment, especially in comparison to the political arrangements that prevailed elsewhere in the nineteenth century.
In South America and Haiti, for example, early nineteenth-century revolutions had created undemocratic governments that managed to beat back any calls for the radical expansion of the right to vote. Parts of Europe had inched towards more popular rule, but a few telling numbers show how little progress had been made. In the United Kingdom, which reformed its Parliament in 1832, only around twenty percent of the adult male population could vote. In 1830, the French elevated a new monarch to the throne who promised to be the "People's King." But even then, as historian Mike Rapport notes, "the electorate swelled to include only 170,000 of France's richest men: this was a mere 0.5 per cent of the French population, a sixth of those who enjoyed the vote in Britain after 1832." And even such small electorates did not yet exist to check the rule of monarchs in Europe's other great powers---Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
The most serious challenge to Europe's crowned heads and landed classes came in a series of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848. Democratic European revolutionaries like Mazzini in Italy and Lamartine in France capitalized on the unrest of that year by establishing new republics in Rome and Paris. The tide seemed, for a moment, to be turning towards popular government. But by 1854 Europe's conservative forces had regained their balance, and republican experiments in Italy and France had ended. By the time Garrison rose at Framingham and Lincoln stood at Peoria, the fate of democracy worldwide seemed more fragile than ever, and even more dependent on the survival of the "spirit of '76."
But after 1848 American slavery also seemed---more than ever---like a hindrance to the further spread of that spirit. Revolution and reform in Europe had not brought radical democracy to the continent, but they had, by 1848, abolished colonial slavery in the British and French Caribbean empires. Meanwhile, as the electorate grew in the United States, the American slave population had surged to nearly 4 million. These facts were a source of embarrassment for American abolitionists, of course, but increasingly they were embarrassments for overseas democrats as well, who often heard conservative aristocrats cite American racism and slavery as reasons enough to doubt that majority rule was a good idea.
Many transatlantic liberals expressed their apprehensions about this directly to American abolitionists. As I show in my new book, the "liberal party throughout the world" was not just an abstraction for Garrison; it was a network of antislavery sympathizers and democrats who communicated directly with abolitionists in the United States. In Illinois, Lincoln gathered his perceptions of overseas liberals from the newspapers; Garrison and his allies got theirs directly, and sometimes in person, from Europeans like Mazzini, Victor Hugo, and leading British Chartists who fought for universal manhood suffrage. By the time he burned the Constitution, many of these allies had warned Garrison explicitly that slavery in the United States was materially damaging their causes overseas.
In 1852, for example, the French abolitionist and republican Victor Schoelcher wrote in a Garrisonian publication that it was "an incalculable danger to the democratic idea, both now and hereafter, that the most democratic people existing should be holders of Slaves!" And in 1853, Garrison had shared with another abolitionist audience an address from "the Democrats of England to the Democrats of America" which declared that the abolition of slavery would give the United States "double moral power to reanimate the swooning liberties of Europe." Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary whom Garrison had met personally in 1847, also wrote to his friend that same summer that abolitionism in America and the struggle for the People in Europe were "one single cause."
A long history of such statements set the stage for Garrison's address at Framingham the following year, and before setting the Constitution ablaze, Garrison made sure his audience remembered the situation confronting their faraway friends. Garrison's speech first carefully reviewed the current, depressing state of "the freedom of continental Europe" since 1848. He noted "the perfidious and high-handed usurpation" of Louis Napoleon, who had by then dissolved the Second Republic and declared himself Emperor. And in Austria and Russia, Garrison continued, the people still suffered under "bloody despotism" and "iron autocracy." In the Europe of 1854, it seemed once again that "the reign of tyranny is as absolute as fate, and the extinction of the people complete."
Then, drawing on what he had heard from the "liberal party throughout the world," Garrison declared that Americans had contributed to this sorry situation by trumpeting their own example while brutalizing millions of human beings. The Declaration of Independence should have inspired the overthrow of tyrannies everywhere, Garrison affirmed. But "our flag is red with the blood of our slaves, and marked by their stripes," and those stains had prevented the nation's signature document from doing its work. After surveying European politics, he concluded that "this tells the story of American influence upon the liberties of the world." If Americans' democratic ideals suffered abroad, it was because of imperfections at home.
Here Garrison underlined that being a radical critic of the United States, even one who reproached the Constitution and the flag, did not require giving up on the hope of positive American influence on the world. Garrison did disavow the sort of exceptionalism which led many Americans to believe that the United States could never fall from grace. As early as 1829, he ridiculed the idea that "the republic is immortal; that its flight, like a strong angel's, has been perpetually upward, till it has soared above the impurities of earth ... and, having attained perfection, is forever out of the reach of circumstance and change." But Garrison did believe, like Lincoln, that this corruptible and imperfect republic could be improved and could, eventually, fulfill its high calling as an example to other nations of government of, by, and for the people.
To borrow a term used in slightly different ways by historians Timothy Mason Roberts and H. W. Brands, the views of Lincoln and Garrison represented variations on the idea of "American exemplarism," instead of the idea of "American exceptionalism." And while subtle, the difference between "exemplarism" and "exceptionalism" had significant implications. For one thing, it meant that Lincoln and Garrison refused to immunize their countrymen from critique. On the contrary, the nation's flaws as a model required thoughtful Americans to begin their improvement of the world at home, to prefer humility to hubris, to balance patriotism with cosmopolitan concern, and to focus less on making the world safe for democracy and more on making democracy safe for the world.
This was not, then or now, an easy position to maintain. Burning the Constitution without spurning the Declaration was a difficult balancing act, and it often left abolitionists struggling to make the same, complex assessments of the American experiment familiar to readers of this blog. If, as an earlier post here put it, "the challenge for someone trying to assess America, at this moment, is properly calibrating how far we've gone with how far we have to go," this was the challenge for Garrison and Lincoln in their moment, too. Peer past the fire and smoke of Garrison's most iconic gesture and it's possible to glimpse a figure whose dilemmas are still relevant today, on another sweltering and polarized Fourth of July.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Heterosexual women today, in certain milieus, find themselves placed into one of two categories: too young to settle down, and too old to find a man. There is a window of opportunity to get married, but it is ephemeral almost to the point of non-existence. It falls at a different age according to region, or the idiosyncratic biases of one's circle, but hovers around 27. "Too young" refers not to teen marriage, but to any commitment entered into by a grown woman deemed still a child by those around her.
Here's how it works: A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression "find a husband," is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
How those three little words sound around the world
I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
African American parents are increasingly taking their kids' education into their own hands—and in many cases, it's to protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping.
Marvell Robinson was in kindergarten when a classmate reportedly poured an anthill on him at the playground. After that, the gibes reportedly became sharper: "Why are you that color?" one boy taunted at the swing set, leaving Marvell scared and speechless. The slow build of racial bullying would push his mother, Vanessa Robinson, to pull him from his public school and homeschool him instead.
Marvell is one of an estimated 220,000 African American children currently being homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling, with black students making up an estimated 10 percent of the homeschooling population. (For comparison’s sake, they make up 16 percent of all public-school students nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)