In the course of researching my books, I've gone back to read over Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. (I originally wrote about Morgan here.) I rarely reread whole books within five years of each other, but Morgan's work stuck with me in a way that I've never experienced.
The second time around was even better. Morgan's work deserves a much, much wider audience. To wit:
The connection between American slavery and freedom is evident at many levels if we care to see it. Think, for a moment, of the traditional American insistence on freedom of the seas. "Free ships make free goods" was the cardinal doctrine of American foreign policy in the revolutionary era. But the goods for which the United States demanded freedom were produced in very large measure by slave labor.
The irony is more than semantic. American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station, they had neither the arms nor the ships to make that claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor.
So largely did tobacco figure in American foreign relations that one historian has referred to the activities of France in supporting the Americans as "King Tobacco Diplomacy," a reminder that the position of the United States in the world depended not only in 1776 but during the span of a long lifetime thereafter on slave labor. To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.
Morgan's basic contention, one which I increasingly find convincing, is that American slavery made American freedom possible. Thus, it is an understatement--and perhaps even a falsehood--to cast slavery, as Condoleeza Rice has, as the "birth defect" of American freedom. The term "birth defect" conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn't just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America's midwife, not it's birth defect.
My own formulation for my text aims to push this notion further: America was not only made possible by slavery, it was made possible by prosecuting a perpetual war against its slaves, without which there may never have been an "America."
Even as I say this, questions and problems occur for me. The use of the word "war" carries with it a notion of intention, consciousness, something which I think is present at some moments (in antebellum America) and absent, or diffuse, in others (colonial America.)
More tangibly, can you have a war when the people with guns do not acknowledge it as such? Surely, Thomas Jefferson did not see himself as "making war" on his enslaved populace. And yet when Jefferson died, most of the slaves at Monticello were sold to settle his debts:
"a small-town editor in a Susquehanna River town asked how Jefferson, 'surely the champion of civil liberty to the American people,' left 'so many human beings in fetters to be indiscriminately sold to the highest bidder.' In biting words, the editor wrote: 'Heaven inspired Jefferson with the knowledge 'that all men are created equal.' He was not forgetful--in his last moments he 'commended his soul to God, and his daughter to his country;' but to whom did he commend his wretched slaves?'"
My contention is that Jefferson subjected the slave community at Monticello to existential violence. He doubtlessly destroyed familial bonds--children forever parted mothers, wives forever removed from husbands, brothers forever taken from sisters. It is true the slaves weren't killed, but they were effectively rendered dead to each other. They were subject to a kind of banishment to Limbo, one which--by the approach of the Civil War--some one in three slaves would experience.
There's more to be said--enslaved African women lived basic lived under a regime of legalized mass rape, the effects of which so many of us carry in our very bones. There's the way in which white identity was constructed, and the way the status of indentured servants and white freedman rose in the 17th century, just as the status of black people fell.
We'll talk about all of this more in my follow-up posts. But one notion which I bear little respect for, is the idea that the term "war" should be reserved for countries that can field mass quantities of armed men. I am reminded of the old quote that the difference between a dialect and a language is that the latter enjoys an army.
Moreover, surely if we can take Al Qaeda's actions as a declaration of war, if we can declare war on "terror" on "drugs on "illiteracy," if Gaddafi can be said to have "made war upon his people," then I find little wrong with the claim that a country can declare war upon its own.
More to come. About Morgan. About everything. These are simply my thoughts thus far.
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 Beautiful Struggle and the forthcoming Between the World and Me.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
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.
All of the downsides of being a subordinate, combined with all of the downsides of having to tell people to do things they don't want to do.
When researchers try to determine the types of workers who are most prone to depression, the focus is usually on the misery of those at the bottomof a company’s hierarchy—the presumed stressors being the menial duties they're tasked with and their lack of say in defining the scope of their jobs.
But it turns out that middle managers have it worse. In a new study from researchers at Columbia University, of nearly 22,000 full-time workers (from a dataset from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions), they saw that 18 percent of supervisors and managers reported symptoms of depression. For blue-collar workers, that figure was 12 percent, and for owners and executives, it was only 11 percent.
As the vice president edges toward a presidential run, is he banking on further public disclosures to discredit the frontrunner?
As Joe Biden edges closer to a presidential run, there’s no shortage of theories as to what he’s up to. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has built a commanding lead in the national polls, giving Biden little apparent space to gain traction. Perhaps he’s counting on the early-primary state of South Carolina to provide a critical boost. He might be banking on appearing as a stronger general-election candidate than any of his potential rivals in the primary race. Maybe after spending the past 42 years of his life running for elective office, he just can’t stop.
But there’s one intriguing theory that has so far garnered little attention: What if Biden knows something about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton that the rest of us don’t?
The Republican frontrunner has offered Bush the perfect chance to display some passion—but he’s declined to take it.
Donald Trump has gotten a boost in his efforts to maul Jeb Bush in recent days from an unexpected source: Jeb Bush himself.
Trump’s attack on Jeb isn’t mostly about issues. As with most things Trump, it’s mostly about persona. The Donald thinks Jeb is a dud. “He’s a man that doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing,” Trump said in June. “I call him the reluctant warrior, and warrior’s probably not a good word. I think Bush is an unhappy person. I don’t think he has any energy.”
Over the last week, Jeb has proven Trump right. Trump, and his supporters, continue to demonize Mexican American illegal immigrants. On Tuesday, Trump threw the most popular Spanish-language broadcaster in America out of a press conference. That same day, Ann Coulter warmed up for Trump in Iowa by offering gruesome details of murders by Mexican “illegals,” and suggesting that once Trump builds his wall along America’s southern border, tourists can come watch the “live drone shows.”
A new study shows that the field suffers from a reproducibility problem, but the extent of the issue is still hard to nail down.
No one is entirely clear on how Brian Nosek pulled it off, including Nosek himself. Over the last three years, the psychologist from the University of Virginia persuaded some 270 of his peers to channel their free time into repeating 100 published psychological experiments to see if they could get the same results a second time around. There would be no glory, no empirical eurekas, no breaking of fresh ground. Instead, this initiative—the Reproducibility Project—would be the first big systematic attempt to answer questions that have been vexing psychologists for years, if not decades. What proportion of results in their field are reliable?
At the height of her career, the beautiful young performer accidentally stumbled into a power struggle between Hollywood communists and McCarthyites.
She was a goddess with a honey-sweet voice. “I remember once seeing her on a train,” says the jazz scholar and author Stanley Crouch. “She had a luminous restrained presence that most superstars try to pretend they have. She really had it.”
Over the course of her long life, Lena Horne became a star of film, music, television, and stage, as well as a formidable force for civil rights. She won a Tony in 1981, and two years later, earned an NAACP medal that had previously been awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks. When she died in 2010 at age 92, President Barack Obama noted that she was the first black singer to tour with an all-white band and that she refused to perform for segregated audiences. “Michelle and I join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country,” he said.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances.
Four and a half years of violent conflict have destroyed entire regions of Syria. Neighborhoods have been smashed by shelling and government barrel bombs, and towns have been seized by rebels and ISIS militants, then retaken by government troops, killing hundreds of thousands and injuring even more. The United Nations now estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees, forced to flee to neighboring countries or Europe. Caught in the middle of all this horror are the children of Syria, relying on parents who have lost control of their own lives and are now being forced to make difficult choices in desperate circumstances. Though many families remain in Syria’s war zones, thousands of others are taking dangerous measures to escape, evading militias, government forces, border guards, predatory traffickers, and more, as they struggle to reach safety far from home.
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.