Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

  • The Coldest War

    Joseph Stalin (Wikimedia Commons)

    I'm entering into the portion of the Postwar that deals with the early days of the Cold War. Terms like "evil" are overused, but it takes some mental gymnastics to watch Stalin bend Czechoslovakia, war with Tito, choke Bulgaria, pilfer Hungary and not construe the U.S.S.R as "an evil empire." If there's any problem with that phrase it's that it's redundant. I've yet to come across an empire that isn't "evil." Empires emerge from conquest, degradation, and mass existential violence. I don't know how you look at what the British did in Kenya, what the Belgians did in the Congo, what the French did in Algeria and conclude that empire is ever anything but "evil." 

    But this shouldn't obscure the point. There's a long history of African-American communism that deserves a longer treatment than I offer here. Some of my heroes rank among these folks--Robeson and Du Bois immediately coming to mind. I was talking to my buddy William Jelani Cobb about this. Jelani did his doc researching black anti-communists. He pointed out that part of the attraction for people like Robeson was the fact that the Soviets had no colonies in Africa. 

    But the U.S.S.R. was ultimately as much a colonizer, as much an imperial power,  as any other European power. The difference was that Russia colonized white people:

    The Czech case is a particularly striking one. Before World War Two, the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia (already the industrial heartland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1914) had a higher per capita output than France, specializing in leather goods, motor vehicles, high-tech arms manufacture and a broad range of luxury goods.

    Measured by industrial skill levels, productivity, standard of living and share of foreign markets, pre-1938 Czechoslovakia was comparable to Belgium and well ahead of Austria and Italy. By 1956, Communist Czechoslovakia had not only fallen behind Austria, Belgiumand the rest of Western Europe, but was far less efficient and much poorer than it had been twenty years earlier. In 1938, per capita car ownership in Czechoslovakia and Austria was at similar levels; by 1960 the ratio was 1:3.

    Even the products in which the country still had a competitive edge—notably small arms manufacture—no longer afforded Czechs any benefit, since they were constrained to direct their exports exclusively to their Soviet masters. As for the establishment of manufacturing mammoths like the Gottwald Steelworks in Ostrava, identical to steelworks in Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the USSR, these represented for the Czechs not rapid industrialization but enforced backwardness (crash programs of industrialization based on the manufacture of steel were pursued in spite of Czechoslovakia’s very limited resources in iron ore).

    Following the one-time start-up benefits from unprecedented growth in primary industries, the same was true for every other satellite state. By the mid-fifties, Soviet Eastern Europe was already beginning its steady decline into ‘planned’ obsolescence.

    The U.S.S.R. extracted reparations from Hungary and made each of subservient nations trade with them first, not each other. At the center of it all was the pirate Stalin:

    Stalin had emerged from his victory over Hitler far stronger even than before, basking in the reflected glory of ‘his’ Red Army, at home and abroad. The personality cult around the Soviet dictator, already well advanced before the war, now rose to its apogee. Popular Soviet documentaries on World War Two showed Stalin winning the war virtually single-handed, planning strategy and directing battles with not a general in sight. In almost every sphere of life, from dialectics to botany, Stalin was declared the supreme and unchallenged authority.

    Soviet biologists were instructed to adopt the theories of the charlatan Lysenko, who promised Stalin undreamed-of agricultural improvements if his theories about the inheritability of acquired characteristics were officially adopted and applied to Soviet farming—as they were, to disastrous effect.50 On his 70th birthday in December 1949 Stalin’s image, picked out by searchlights hung from balloons, lit the night sky over the Kremlin. Poets outdid one another in singing the Leader’s praises—a 1951 couplet by the Latvian poet V. Lukss is representative:  

    Like beautiful red yarn into our hearts we wove/Stalin, our brother and father, your name.  

    This obsequious neo-Byzantine anointing of the despot, the attribution to him of near-magical powers, unfolded against a steadily darkening backdrop of tyranny and terror. In the last years of the war, under the cloak of Russian nationalism, Stalin expelled east to Siberia and Central Asia a variety of small nations from western and south-western border regions, the Caucasus in particular: Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, Nalkars, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars and others, in the wake of the Volga Germans deported in 1941. This brutal treatment of small nations was hardly new—Poles and Balts had been exiled east by the hundreds of thousands between 1939 and 1941, Ukrainians in the 1930s and others before them, back to 1921.

    More than anyone, Stalin is the most fascinating figure in the early chapters of Postwar. I can't get a handle on him. He bumbles constantly. When Stalin goes to subjugate Poland, he is crippled by the fact that he's purged an entire generation of Polish communists. He was caught totally by surprise when Hitler invaded. And yet somehow Stalin does not just hold on to power he increases his power.

    The politics at work in this era of Central\Eastern Europe remind me of the politics at work during in the early 17th century. There's that same sense of chaos and shifting alliances. As history, it is totally gripping. I have argued, repeatedly, that white people have never done anything to black people they haven't done to themselves. You see this in the Stalin's empire--right down to the slave ships.

    Judt is just now describing Stalin's anti-Semitism and the show trials orchestrated against Jewish communists. More on that soon. 

  • How to Be One of the Guys

    I don't really know in what universe "figure him out a little" leads to calling someone a racial slur.

    AP / Lynne Sladky

    It's worth checking out this piece by retired Dolphins lineman Lyndon Murtha, in which he gives his ostensibly unbiased ("I don't have a dog in this fight") perspective on Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito:

    From the beginning, when he was drafted in April 2012, Martin did not seem to want to be one of the group. He came off as standoffish and shy to the rest of the offensive linemen. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye, which was puzzling for a football player at this level on a team full of grown-ass men. We all asked the same question: Why won’t he be open with us? What’s with the wall being put up? I never really figured it out. He did something I’d never seen before by balking at the idea of paying for a rookie dinner, which is a meal for a position group paid for by rookies. (For example, I paid $9,600 for one my rookie year.) I don’t know if Martin ever ended up paying for one, as I was cut before seeing the outcome.

    Martin was expected to play left tackle beside Incognito at guard from the start, so Incognito took him under his wing. They were close friends by all apperances. Martin had a tendency to tank when things would get difficult in practice, and Incognito would lift him up. He’d say, there’s always tomorrow. Richie has been more kind to Martin than any other player.

    In other situations, when Martin wasn’t showing effort, Richie would give him a lot of crap. He was a leader on the team, and he would get in your face if you were unprepared or playing poorly. The crap he would give Martin was no more than he gave anyone else, including me. Other players said the same things Incognito said to Martin, so you’d need to suspend the whole team if you suspend Incognito.

    Which brings me to my first point: I don’t believe Richie Incognito bullied Jonathan Martin. I never saw Martin singled out, excluded from anything, or treated any differently than the rest of us. We’d have dinners and the occasional night out, and everyone was invited. He was never told he can’t be a part of this. It was the exact opposite. But when he came out, he was very standoffish. That’s why the coaches told the leaders,bring him out of his shell. Figure him out a little bit.

    I don't really know in what universe "figure him out a little" leads to calling someone a "half-nigger" and telling them "I'll kill you."

    Be that as it may, it's worth considering what being "one of the group" meant on the Dolphins' offensive line:

    Recently suspended guard Richie Incognito held meetings for fellow Miami Dolphins offensive linemen at a South Florida strip club and would fine them if they didn't attend, according to a report.

    The National Football Post, citing two sources, reported that Incognito expected the linemen to attend. If they failed to show up, Incognito would fine them in the club's kangaroo court and mock them for not being part of the group, one of the sources said.

    "Richie wanted to set up Richie's world as a way for everybody to act," a team source told the National Football Post. "Richie thinks everybody should act that way. He doesn't get that some guys aren't into that behavior. Some guys don't want to constantly explain to their wife or girlfriend why they have to go to a strip club."

    This is right out of the gangster's playbook. It's enough for me to dirt. You need to do it with me. Otherwise, I start wondering whose side you're really on.

  • Tony Dorsett Has CTE

    Whereas some players accentuated the violence of football, Dorsett masked it. It did not save him.

    Tony Dorsett. (Getty Images)

    When I was eight years old there simply no one I wanted to be like more than Tony Dorsett. Not Malcolm X. Not my Dad. No one. Tony Dorsett was pretty, as we used to say. He did not so much run as danced. He was the first player I watched as a kid and had that feeling—every time he touched the ball—that something other-wordly might be about to happen. (Randall Cunningham used to give me that same feeling. Derrick Rose, these days.)

    To perform in that way, to be a magician, to bring people to the edge of themselves, up out of their skin, simply by running with a ball seemed incredible to me. Watching Dorsett was like a watching a doe play tag with a pack of hyenas. The doe always won.

    Football is violence. Some running backs embrace this and broadcast this. I think of how Earl Campbell played offense like he was playing defense. He looked for contact and exacted a price on all who went looking for him. "He fell," Campbell once said after bulling over a linebacker. "I kept running."

    Whereas Campbell accentuated the violence of football, Dorsett masked it. Dorsett danced. It did not save him:

    Dorsett’s 15-minute phone interview with The News was punctuated by long silences as he stopped in mid-sentence, searching for his train of thought.

    Dorsett won the 1976 Heisman Trophy at the University of Pittsburgh and rushed for 12,739 yards during 12 NFL seasons, but nowadays he often can’t remember routes to places he’d driven for years.

    “I knew something was going on. It takes me back to the fact that we [as players] were treated [after head injuries] and still put back out there in harm’s way, when from my understanding management knew what they were doing to us.

    “They were still subjecting us to that kind of physical abuse without the proper treatment. It really hurts. My quality of life [long pause] deteriorates a little bit just about every day.

    I left the NFL two seasons ago. I still check in weekly on NFL scores and news. If I'm in a bar and a game is on, I watch. I went to Howard's homecoming game last week. For the first 35 years of my life, football was my favorite sport. It's going to be a long time before I'm totally done. 

    It isn't the violence to which I object. Players often say "I know the risk." I think it's worth taking them at their word on that. Longevity is not the only value in the world. There are experiences so intense that you might trade them for the years. Were I white I could pad my life expectancy a bit. Still I somehow believe I got the better end of the deal.

    What rankles me is the inability to look squarely at what this game is, to obscure, to pretend that penalizing head-shots, that decreasing "big hits," that playing the game "the right way" will make it all go away.

    And even as I write that I wonder if I am being too cute, if I am not being radical enough. Circling back to the conversation du jour:

    The report states the the female volunteer told police that Incognito "used his golf club to touch her by rubbing it up against her vagina, then up her stomach then to her chest. He then used the club to knock a pair of sunglasses off the top of her head.

    "After that, he proceeded to lean up against her buttocks with his private parts as if dancing, saying 'Let it rain! Let it rain!'" the report states. "He finally finished his inappropriate behavior by emptying bottled water in her face."

    I grew up in a time and place where you really did have to fight if you expected to be able to live.  I was a boy. I adopted certain codes in order to survive. But I never liked them. To beat a man down, even then, I felt was a kind of self-degradation, a lack of control, a reduction. I am not speaking abstractly.  I don't know how many of you have ever kicked anybody's ass, but the few times (the one time) I did, what I felt in the aftermath was great pride, then greater shame, and then even greater fear. I don't like being hurt. I like hurting other people even less.

    But when I was young our bodies were all we had. Imposing those bodies on other bodies was the height of our power. It was also the limits of it. All the while we knew that were other people with greater power, who imposed with force so great that it seemed mystical to us. To see football players—arguably the most exploited athletes in major sports—bragging about manly power, along the same codes that once ruled my youth, is saddening.

    I've been reading a lot about war, lately. Yesterday it was bloody Stalin in Prague and Belgrade. When I was young "Prague" was just a funny sounding word and I thought Belgrade was in Ireland. It's getting harder, the more I read, to find any valor in violence. Even self defense is a kind of failure, a breakdown, a submission. Perhaps this is our world and the job of a moral human is just to try to, somehow, live honorably in it. It's been two seasons, now, since I gave up my religion. Everything I have seen since has confirmed my feeling. I did not want the world to change. I would settle for myself.

    I am sorry for rambling.

  • Richie Incognito and the Banality of Supermacho

    What does being the "toughest of the tough" really mean?

    AP / Wilfredo Lee

    It's unsurprising to see reports indicating that the Richie Incognito's harassment of Jonathan Martin began in the upper levels of management. Via Deadspin, here is some reporting from The Sun Sentinel:

    Miami Dolphins coaches asked player Richie Incognito, who was the offensive line's undisputed leader, to toughen up teammate Jonathan Martin after he missed a voluntary workout last spring, multiple sources told the Sun Sentinel.

    The sources told the paper they believe that Incognito, who is accused of using racially incendiary language and bullying tactics against Martin, may have taken those orders too far...

    Even though OTA workouts are voluntary, the NFL culture forces coaches to strong arm the team's leaders to make sure everyone attends. Sources say Incognito was doing his job, but they admit he crossed the line.

    "Richie is the type of guy where if he's on your team you love him," a teammate said. "If he's not on your team, you hate him. Every team needs a guy like that."

    A Dolphins spokesman declined comment when told about Incognito's directives from the coaching staff, saying the franchise is fully cooperating with the NFL's independent investigation, which was requested by owner Steve Ross.

    There's been a lot of what my mother used to call "If I Hadda Had My Gun" talk around this story. On the one hand you have the keyboard commandos and sensitive thugs in NFL front offices popping off about "going down swinging." On the other you have players blaming Martin and invoking their own "toughness" and "manliness."

    There is something bizarre about all this talk about strength and ass-kicking. No other athlete in a major sport gives so much of his body and gets so little in return than the average player on a NFL team. These are men whoon balanceearn their greatest payday in their most vulnerable and immature years. Those years are generally brief, while the injuries sustained often last a lifetime. The average NFL player emerges into the world with three years of service, and without a college degree. All the while another group of people make millions watching these young men blow out shoulders, knees, and perhaps ultimately, brains.

    We all believe in the right to defend one's own body. But the ability to kick someone's ass is oft-stated and overrated. Jerry Jones doesn't want to fight DeAngelo Hall. He won't ever need to, because such is his power that he can erect a Wonderland of a stadium, reduce men to toy soldiers, and toss their battered bodies out onto the street when he's done. Pimping ain't easy, but it sure is fun.

    If you squint hard enough you might dimly perceive the outlines of some phantasm, some illusion. You might see power back there behind the scrum. You might see how a national valorization of violence attaches itself to profit. On the streets of Chicago, violently confronting someone for disrespecting you is evidence of a "culture of pathology." In the NFL it is evidence of handling things "the right way."

    We are being told that the NFL is filled with the "toughest of the tough," that Richie Incognito is a "tough guy." He had better be. The world is coming. And it's not a game.

  • You Don't Want to Fight an NFL Lineman—Stop Talking Like You Do

    Anonymously calling someone a coward is the height of self-parody and the pit of self-awareness. 

    Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68) stretches during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, July 24, 2013, in Davie, Fla. (AP / Lynne Sladky)

    "This is a most cowardly struggle. These people can do nothing without gunboats... We should have had gunboats."

    Julia Le Grand

    Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito has been found to have directed a rather lengthy campaign of harassment at fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. "Harassment" understates the thing. Incognito, with some regularity, threatened Martin's family ("[I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face"), threatened Martin personally ("Fuck you, you're still a rookie. I'll kill you"), and assailed him with racist invective ("Hey. What's up, you half-nigger piece of shit"). This is what we know. Apparently there's more.

    Until yesterday, Incognito had taken to loudly defending his honor over Twitter, telling ESPN reporter Adam Schefter—"If you or any of the agents you sound off for have a problem with me, you know where to find me. #BRINGIT." Schefter subsequently brought it in the form of actual quotes. Incognito has been quiet ever since. 

    Jim Trotter has a useful piece on all of this in which he quotes various front office people loudly quoting from the Book of Men: 

    "I think Jonathan Martin is a weak person," said one personnel man, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "If Incognito did offend him racially, that's something you have to handle as a man! Mike Pouncey was a rookie at one point while Incognito was there and you never heard any complaints from him. There's no other way to put it, other than him being sofTTT!"

    Said another: "Guys are going to be guys, if you know what I mean. I'm sure there are some instances of 'taking things too far,' but that happens everywhere. You handle it in house—fight, handle it on the field, joke about it, etc.—and keep it moving..."

    "I might get my ass kicked," one said, "but I'm going to go down swinging if that happens to me, I can tell you that."

    Probably not.

    Anonymously calling someone a coward is the height of self-parody and the pit of self-awareness. Each of these personnel men feel perfectly comfortable attacking the mental strength of Jonathan Martin. Not a single one of them is willing to put their name on it. That is because none of them wants to deal with the pain of embarrassing themselves, their organization and the league, nor the pain that might attend their careers.

    Calling for others to endure pain in one breath, while you duck it in the next is a particularly loathsome form of cowardice. The men who call on Martin to fight Incognito in the locker-room, are also the same men who would ruthlessly cut Martin or Incognito should either be injured in any way that jeopardizes the team's plans. Perhaps one of these braggarts actually would "go down swinging." But "down" does not have the same meaning for a general manager as it does for a left tackle. Jeff Ireland can report to work with a broken arm. Jonathan Martin not so much. 

    The point here is power. As demonstrated by Trotter's column, Martin has risked his career and millions of dollars by exposing Incognito. There's a solid argument that Martin's actions were "brave." It just isn't the kind of "brave" that immediately empowers the NFL. On the contrary, it's the kind that threatens it. 

    The personnel men are not alone:

    Early this morning, a poster with the username "idrd1994" left an impassioned defense of Incognito on the FinHeaven message board. In it, he attacked both Martin and Mike Pouncey as "black brothers that do drugs on a regular basis," and asked readers to "pray [GM Jeff] Ireland and [coach Joe] Philbin die of AIDS." He blasts the team from top to bottom, claims Incognito is getting railroaded, and uses the "black people say the N-word in rap music" argument to dismiss claims that Incognito sent racial messages to Martin. He also implies that Martin has pondered suicide, and "does not belong in an NFL locker room."

    There is strong evidence that idrd1994 is Richie Incognito's fatherRichard. The senior Incognito isn't commenting. 

    UPDATE (1:12 PM): Thinking on this, I want to say something more. I think Jim Trotter should have asked his sources why they would demand that Martin risk his career, when they obviously are not willing to risk their own.

    There's quite a bit of opinion in Trotter's piece, but very little of it comes at the expense of the people who are venting under the mask of anonymity. I think challenging one's sources, as opposed to simply shielding them, is an important step in distinguishing penetrating journalism from stenography.

  • 'War and Welfare Went Hand in Hand'

    Children In London's East End Made Homeless By Nazi Air Raids. (New Times Paris Bureau Collection)

    I'm still making my way through Postwar, slowly but surely. I told my Pops to get the audiobook (which is fantastic) and he's now gotten further ahead than me. But I booted up my own audiobook yesterday while doing some cooking for the week and made some progress.

    The most striking thing about Judt's narrative is his essentially amoral view of history. That isn't to say Judt is amoral as a writer. He certainly is not. But he doesn't believe in history has a necessary trajectory, nor does he much care about narratives of inevitable progress. Europe was wrecked after the War. French opinion polls in 1946 list "food," "bread," and "meat" as the public's main concerns. In the East, bad harvests and droughts brought back reports of cannibalism. Here's Judt quoting Hamilton Fish's dispatch from Europe:

    There is too little of everything—too few trains, trams, buses and automobiles to transport people to work on time, let alone to take them on holidays; too little flour to make bread without adulterants, and even so not enough bread to provide energies for hard labor; too little paper for newspapers to report more than a fraction of the world’s news; too little seed for planting and too little fertilizer to nourish it; too few houses to live in and not enough glass to supply them with window panes; too little leather for shoes, wool for sweaters, gas for cooking, cotton for diapers, sugar for jam, fats for frying, milk for babies, soap for washing.

    I am coming at this as a total amateur and a total American whose exposure to the post-war narrative was something like—"The Germans learned their lesson and everyone (in the West, because no one talks about the East) resumed their status as upstanding white people." Somewhere in there I knew something about the Marshall Plan. But whereas the narratives which nations tell themselves so often have a moral component, Judt is giving us something less flattering and more atheistic. Even Europe's great achievement—a broad strong social safety net—seems inseparable from the barbarism from which it had just been plunged. A safety net (often means-tested) existed in Europe before the War, but there was not the same sense that a state should be a comprehensive guarantor of the health and happiness of its people:  

    It was the war that changed all this. Just as World War One had precipitated legislation and social provisions in its wake—if only to deal with the widows, orphans, invalids and unemployed of the immediate post-war years—so the Second World War transformed both the role of the modern state and the expectations placed upon it.

    The change was most marked in Britain, where Maynard Keynes correctly anticipated a post-war ‘craving for social and personal security’. But everywhere (in the words of the historian Michael Howard) ‘war and welfare went hand in hand’. In some countries nutrition and medical provision actually improved during the war: mobilizing men and women for total war meant finding out more about their condition and doing whatever was necessary to keep them productive...

    Moreover, the War in some countries actually enhanced views of the State:

    Obviously it would prove easier to achieve the ideals of the social state, ‘from cradle to grave’, in the small population of a wealthy, homogenous country like Sweden than in one like Italy. But faith in the state was at least as marked in poor lands as in rich ones—perhaps more so, since in such places only the state could offer hope or salvation to the mass of the population. And in the aftermath of depression, occupation and civil war, the state—as an agent of welfare, security and fairness—was a vital source of community and social cohesion.

    Many commentators today are disposed to see state-ownership and state-dependency as the European problem, and salvation-from-above as the illusion of the age. But for the generation of 1945 some workable balance between political freedoms and the rational, equitable distributive function of the administrative state seemed the only sensible route out of the abyss.

    To circle back to Judt's atheistic rendition of history, even this idea of the State as the ultimate salvation is not an unalloyed good:

    the ‘welfare state’—social planning—was more than just a prophylactic against political upheaval. Our present discomfort with notions of race, eugenics, ‘degeneration’ and the like obscures the important part these played in European public thinking during the first half of the twentieth century: it wasn’t only the Nazis who took such matters seriously. By 1945 two generations of European doctors, anthropologists, public health officials and political commentators had contributed to widespread debates and polemics about ‘race health’. population growth, environmental and occupational well-being and the public policies through which these might be improved and secured. There was a broad consensus that the physical and moral condition of the citizenry was a matter of common interest and therefore part of the responsibility of the state.

    You see a similar spate of reforms coming out of the Civil War—land grant colleges, the National Academy of Sciences, black male suffrage, etc. But the Civil War was so very different. Ultimately, Black Southerners paid the greatest toll. And most of the battles were fought near the homes of white Southerners. People talk of Sherman and "total war," but this doesn't belong in the same conversation as the kind of "total war" you see in World War II. In much the same way that World War II is a more radical war, its reconstruction seems more radical also.

    When I was younger it was popular for my leftie friends to ask "Why can't we be like Western Europe?" We probably can. A good first step, it seems, would be fighting a genocidal war which results in massive relocations, more ethnic homogeneity, the near-extermination of one of our minorities (one guess at who that would be), and the reduction of our major cities to rubble.

  • On Telling President Obama to Go Back to Africa

    Ted Cruz's father stands within an ugly American tradition.


    David Corn digs up some video from Ted Cruz's 2012 Senate campaign, with utterly unsurprising results (my emphasis):

    In April, Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), spoke to the tea party of Hood County, which is southwest of Fort Worth, and made a bold declaration: The United States is a "Christian nation." The septuagenarian businessman turned evangelical pastor did not choose to use the more inclusive formulation "Judeo-Christian nation." Insisting that the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution "were signed on the knees of the framers" and were a "divine revelation from God," he went on to say, "yet our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation…The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God." Seven months earlier, Rafael Cruz, speaking to the North Texas Tea Party on behalf of his son, who was then running for Senate, called President Barack Obama an "outright Marxist" who "seeks to destroy all concept of God," and he urged the crowd to send Obama "back to Kenya."

    For what it's worth, Barack Obama's roots in this country go back through his ostensibly "white" mother all the way to an enslaved African in 1640. I point this out because Cruz is not the original author of his line of thinking. Black people are one of the oldest ethnic groups in America. Still, it is fairly normal in our history to find recent immigrants seeking to establish their nativist bonafides by accusing us of being anti-American, and insisting that we be sent back to Africa. 

  • The Blast

    Reflections on returning to Howard University for homecoming

    I had a column today in the Times. I tried to use to convey the gravity of Homecoming at Howard University last weekend:

    A group of us — black parents with ties to The Mecca, as we call it — returned for Homecoming weekend. The football game (versus Morgan State University) was sloppy. A great many of the best college football players are black, but since the fall of Jim Crow, schools like Howard have not been able to compete for them.

    But at a black school, football is barely the point. The point is the bands that battle at halftime. The point is the affection in the stands, the warm banter between us, which we invented out on the margins of America.

    Howard won. We cheered and walked out on the Yard where thousands of black college students and black college graduates assembled in reunion. Love was free-flowing. Cameras were passed. Memory cards were filled. I walked past Douglass Hall, and thought of my professors who put The Struggle in my heart and Consciousness in my head. There was tailgating just off campus. The entire community was there, from hustlers running card games to Kappas running steps.

    I came to Howard as an insecure 17-year-old boy from Maryland, with none of the confidence that oozes out of my son. In my youth, doubting your own humanity, which is to say your own beauty, your own intelligence, your own history, came easy. Resisting the hatred in my heart could be accomplished only in a crowd, where 10,000 others like me, who sang a variant of that same blues, could lay on hands.

    A sense of "peoplehood" was all over the campus last weekend. I don't know how to convey this except to tell you who I am and what I have become. For the first twenty years of my life I lived almost wholly within black America. My parents were black. Their friends were black. My friends were black. My girlfriends (when I had them) were black. White people were something that mostly happened on TV. 

    The next twenty years of my life were spent very differently. I became a writer. I moved to New York. I had a son. I put him in school. I went to Paris. At each of these points I found myself in contact with people who were not black. If I was slowly moving out of the nationalism in my younger years, each of these steps pushed the process along until I basically became a lefty multi-culti humanist. But I was a reluctant cosmopolitan. My parents kicked me out of Baltimore. My wife wanted to come to New York. Then she wanted to go to Paris. I was fine before I knew. But then I knew and somehow felt I could never go back.

    Except I could.

    I spent Saturday in my native country. The old feeling came over me like a quilt. Brothers saw me walking on the Yard, gave pounds, knowledge, told me they were proud of me, then moved on. Sisters who I'd adored, but had not lately seen, enlisted their children, handed them cameras. You can find us somewhere on Facebook smiling as though it is 96, and we are young, black and can not die. 

    I walked past Douglass Hall where I was throttled by history professors. I walked down Georgia Avenue where China Wonder tried to kill me. I was packed in, weaving  my way down the block. At even stops brothers were playing three card monte. Inside a large parking everyone was tailgating.  Everything was Parisian and bacchanal. Blunts and cognac were all around me. Women strolled, beautiful, inducing malfunction. The Alphas assembled on one side. The Qs a little ways down. The Kappas with their canes were working a step. 

    That was when I felt The Blast--Everything warm. Everything close. Nothing translated.

    We were given the one-drop--it was not our choice. But we took it. Flipped it. Until we were something broad but tight. By another's man hand we were made a race. But by our own, we became a people. That is The Blast--the understanding that you are more than what someone else did to you, that you are more than what socioeconomics makes of you, that you are more than the other side of a Marxist analogy. I have always known this.  But it is so easy to forget it out here in this new and necessary world. 

  • When Plunder Becomes a System of Governance

    The painting, Jewish Woman Selling Oranges by Aleksander Gierymski, was looted from Poland by the Nazis. (Wikimedia Commons)

    In Postwar, Tony Judt evokes the chaos of living under the thumb of Nazi Germany:

    It is misleading to think of the German occupation of continental Europe as a time of pacification and order under the eye of an omniscient and ubiquitous power. Even in Poland, the most comprehensively policed and repressed of all the occupied territories, society continued to function in defiance of the new rulers: the Poles constituted for themselves a parallel underground world of newspapers, schools, cultural activities, welfare services, economic exchange and even an army—all of them forbidden by the Germans and carried on outside the law and at great personal risk.

    But that was precisely the point. To live normally in occupied Europe meant breaking the law: in the first place the laws of the occupiers (curfews, travel regulations, race laws, etc) but also conventional laws and norms as well. Most common people who did not have access to farm produce were obliged, for example, to resort to the black market or illegal barter just to feed their families. Theft—whether from the state, from a fellow citizen or from a looted Jewish store—was so widespread that in the eyes of many people it ceased to be a crime. Indeed, with gendarmes, policemen and local mayors representing and serving the occupier, and with the occupying forces themselves practicing organized criminality at the expense of selected civilian populations, common felonies were transmuted into acts of resistance (albeit often in post-liberation retrospect).

    Judt describes a descent into rule by the gun—not simply as a monopoly on violence. Legitimacy is rooted in "force alone, deployed without inhibition." No appeal to divine right. No appeal to blood or the vote. Here is Method Man Law #1080—"I got more Glocks and Tecs than you\I make it hot, neighbors won't even stand next to you" 

    Violence bred cynicism. As occupying forces, both Nazis and Soviets precipitated a war of all against all. They discouraged not just allegiance to the defunct authority of the previous regime or state, but any sense of civility or bond between individuals, and on the whole they were successful. If the ruling power behaved brutally and lawlessly to your neighbour—because he was a Jew, or a member of an educated elite or ethnic minority, or had found disfavour in the eyes of the regime or for no obvious reason at all—then why should you show any more respect for him yourself?

    Judt is, I think, in speculative but interesting territory. There's nothing about a  social contract that necessitates equality among shareholders. What happens when some shareholders pay in more, but get out less? What is the message that a Power sends to its subjects when it says to them "Some members of society enjoy the protection of the State, and others are outside of the law?" And what happens when a whole sector of society is effectively branded as the rightful field for plunder?

    For most Europeans in the years 1939-45 rights—civil, legal, political—no longer existed. The state ceased to be the repository of law and justice; on the contrary, under Hitler’s New Order government was itself the leading predator. The Nazis’ attitude to life and limb is justifiably notorious; but their treatment of property may actually have been their most important practical legacy to the shape of the post-war world.

    Under German occupation, the right to property was at best contingent. Europe’s Jews were simply stripped of money, goods, homes, shops and businesses. Their property was divided up among Nazis, collaborators and their friends, with the residue made available for looting and theft by the local community. But sequestration and confiscation went far beyond the Jews. The ‘right’ of possession was shown to be fragile, often meaningless, resting exclusively on the goodwill, interests or whim of those in power.

    There were winners as well as losers in this radical series of involuntary property transactions. With Jews and other ethnic victims gone, their shops and apartments could be occupied by local people; their tools, furniture and clothes were confiscated or stolen by new owners. This process went furthest in the ‘killing zone’ from Odessa to the Baltic, but it happened everywhere—returning concentration camp survivors in Paris or Prague in 1945 often found their home occupied by wartime ‘squatters’ who angrily asserted their own claim and refused to leave. In this way hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Dutch, French and others became complicit in the Nazi genocide, if only as its beneficiaries.

    It is important to remember the ordinary beneficiaries who do not always wear the swastika. It is important to remember that atrocity is not simply insanity, that it is often not insanity at all, but hard interest, that even in the Holocaust there were interests, that there were winners and that they saw themselves as such. 

    In our own land, we have long observed this. To better avoid the painful fact that there were "winners" in a slave society, that those winners were not merely great planters, to avoid the fact that ordinary Americans are indicted in all that came from slave society, we discuss the "race problem" as though it were a problem of manners and civility. I am sure the average African-American in 1963 could empathize with the dream of little white boys and little black girls holding hands. But he likely would have settled for a day when white people would no longer see him and his family as a field for plunder. 

    Judt is not wrong to focus on property. Theft is the essence of atrocity—if only the theft of dignity and life. Indeed, where I forced to to offer one word to sum up black people's historical relationship to the American state, "theft" is the first that would come to mind. Theft of labor and theft of family in slavery. Theft of life through lynching and pogrom. Theft of franchise in half the country. Theft through mortgages for some and contract loans for others. Theft through unemployment insurance for some, and debt-peonage for others. Theft of tax dollars which support "public" libraries that do not want you, "public" pools that will not have you, "public" schools that will not teach you, and "public" universities that will riot at the sight of you. 

    Better to move along and go about your own private business. Better to forget this entire ugly everything. Better to focus on civility, your local diversity workshop, and the reduction of harsh and intemperate language. Better to forget that indigestible truth: behind every great atrocity stands some particular winner.

  • The Auschwitz All Around Us

    What happens when a society must prosecute itself?

    Members of the League of German Girls wave Nazi flags in support of the German annexation of Austria in Vienna, Austria, March 1938 (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

    What follows is the last comment in a long thread on the limits of the state to bring itself to justice. Particular attention was paid to Austria in our conversation. The historians provoking this conversation are Tony Judt and Tom Segev.

    I want to make sure this comment doesn't get ignored:

    One of my grandfathers fought at the Russian front; his wife, my grandmother, still uses expressions like "like der ewige Jud" ("like he eternal Jew") - as an expression for a greedy, malicious person. Some time ago, a then-collegue of mine in highschool found documentation for a history project that Jews where transported through the village I have grown up in, and held captive in barns there. When I asked my grandmother about it, she told me that she'd never heard about it. Given the size of the village (about 1000 inhabitants), that's close to impossible. Apparently, nobody has ever heard about it.

    My other grandfather was member of the NSDAP and (as we put it in Austria) "had to hide" after the war, i.e. he faced prosecution. Still today, one of my aunts shows me his Arierausweis (the document "proving" that he is "Arian") with apparent pride.

    This is not to demonstrate how my family has an antisemitic background (though that's true), but rather to give an example of a really very common (if not near-universal) situation in Austria. It is sometimes said that the reintegration of Nazi officials after the war was inevitable to keep the country running. But this stinks a bit of rationalization. Rather, I think, it's a consequence of the sheer scale of shame. A whole generation of children and grandchildren would have had to admit that their (grand)fathers participated, implicitly or explicitly, in one of the most cruel abominations of mankind. This can perhaps be done if individual families are concerned - but a hole society will rationalize their deeds. And given that Austria could hide in the shadow of Germany, it was that much easier, I guess. Only in the nineties, then-chancelor Vranitzky officially recognized Austria's liability and complicity in the Holocaust (without naming it, he only talked about WW II), as an answer to the rising popularity of Jörg Haider who used antisemitic (and xenophobic, and racist... you get the picture) rhethoric to fish in the pond that are generations ashamed of their (grand)parents'. Eight years later, Haider's party was in a coalition forming the Austrian government. Haider is now dead, but not his political philosophy and party: a couple of weeks ago, the party got 21 percent in the general elections (note that Austria has currently six parties in the parliament, so that's a lot - the leading social democrats got 27 percent).

    2008, Otto von Habsburg (yes, THAT von Habsburg, the old emperors' family, imagine that!) held a speech during a commemoration of Austria's "annexation" in front of representatives of the ÖVP, Austria's peoples party (in government for most of the time after WW II, as it is in the moment). He defended Austria's "role" as "Hitler's first victim" to standing ovations.

    Here in France, when I walk through the city center, I often think how good it is that these old structures get diluted when I see how many "blacks" and "beurs" there are. Apart from my own underlying racism here, I then remember why there are so many "blacks" and "beurs" here compared to Austria (or Germany, for that matter). How France has still not managed to reconsider its past as a colonizer (and who would force them?), how Marine le Pen has phantastic poll numbers, etc. Or, how de Gaulle, THE founding savior/hero of the present République, had to say this:

    "Vous savez, cela suffit comme cela avec vos nègres. Vous me gagnez à la main, alors on ne voit plus qu’eux : il y a des nègres à l’Élysée tous les jours, vous me les faites recevoir, vous me les faites inviter à déjeuner. Je suis entouré de nègres, ici. […] Et puis tout cela n’a aucune espèce d’intérêt ! Foutez-moi la paix avec vos nègres ; je ne veux plus en voir d’ici deux mois, vous entendez ? Plus une audience avant deux mois. Ce n’est pas tellement en raison du temps que cela me prend, bien que ce soit déjà fort ennuyeux, mais cela fait très mauvais effet à l’extérieur : on ne voit que des nègres, tous les jours, à l’Élysée. Et puis je vous assure que c’est sans intérêt."

    Somehow it's all fascinating: that we can look at this history and wonder how we managed to get through it the whole time.

  • The Best Opinion Journalist in the Business

    Next Tuesday  I will be in conversation with Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor at the New Yorker. The event will be at MIT in Building 32 (The Stata center) in room 123. It will begin at 7:00 PM and end at 8:30 PM. You should come. And if you can not come you should spend your weekend wishing you could. Here is why.

    From time to time, I have been lucky enough to pinch-hit over at the opinion page for The Times. This is always a special moment. When I was a young man trying to pursue poetry, an older poet once told me to try writing a sonnet every week, or a haiku every day. His point was the discipline of writing in confined space, makes us better when we are writing in free space. (You see the same principle at work in rap.) I always see opinion columns in a similar light. It is one thing to say something meaningful in the open water of a blog. It is another to say something meaningful within the cell-like confines of 800 words. To do so beautifully--which is to say to make your argument through a marriage of logic, rhythm,  and imagery--is another thing entirely.

    No one makes the case with more beauty--which is to say more effect--than Hendrik Hertzberg. Here is the kind of opening that I dream of writing in a column: 

    It was a chilly winter for Barack Obama, politically speaking. For six months, he and his party shivered under the avalanche that had buried them in November's midterm election while Republicans disported themselves on the partisan ski slopes, pausing only to throw snowballs, some of them dirty, and warm themselves with nice hot cups of tea. Lately, though, there's been a change in the weather.

    The close in this column then comes back around in a beautiful use of symmetry:

    The Abbottabad raid has, for the moment and perhaps for good, subdued any exploitable doubts about Obama's fitness to be Commander-in-Chief. But eighteen months down the road the "bounce" he has got from it will be as dead as bin Laden. Barring some unexpected foreign or terrorist enormity, the election will turn on domestic issues. The Republicans have done the Democrats a favor by proposing to phase out Medicare and Medicaid as we know them while demanding further tax cuts for the wealthy. But much depends on the economic weather. If the snow is any deeper than it is now, the President is going to need an awfully big shovel.

    One reason why I am excited about teaching writing at MIT is that I strongly believe that people with access to knowledge have a moral responsibility to learn how to communicate that knowledge clearly. But in the world of journalism, communicating beautifully has somehow fallen out of favor. I say "beauty" and people think of lavender cardstock with daffodils at the top, perfect penmanship or a stroll through the meadow. In fact beautiful writing is a show of strength and muscle. In the world of opinion, I believe that it is not enough to simply lay out your argument, you want people to feel it in their gut.

    Rick excels at making you "feel it." Come see how next week.

  • The Selective Amnesia of Postwar Europe

    Thoughts on Tony Judt's Postwar

    Klaus Barbie's 1948 mugshot (Gerda Henkel Foundation)

    There's this idea among those of us who are disappointed with America's inability to deal with the repercussions of the Civil War that things were better during World War II. Perhaps they were. But the overwhelming sense one gets from Tony Judt's Postwar is that in the case of great atrocities, the pursuit of justice is often foreclosed by our want of stamina:

    By the time the western Allies abandoned their denazification efforts with the coming of the Cold War, it was clear that these had had a decidedly limited impact. In Bavaria about half the secondary schoolteachers had been fired by 1946, only to be back in their jobs two years later. In 1949 the newly-established Federal Republic ended all investigations of the past behaviour of civil servants and army officers.

    In Bavaria in 1951, 94 percent of judges and prosecutors, 77 percent of finance ministry employees and 60 percent of civil servants in the regional Agriculture Ministry were ex-Nazis. By 1952 one in three of Foreign Ministry officials in Bonn was a former member of the Nazi Party. Of the newly-constituted West German Diplomatic Corps, 43 percent were former SS men and another 17 percent had served in the SD or Gestapo. Hans Globke, Chancellor Adenauer’s chief aide throughout the 1950s, was the man who had been responsible for the official commentary on Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The chief of police in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Wilhelm Hauser, was the Obersturmführer responsible for wartime massacres in Byelorussia.

    The same pattern held true outside the civil service. Universities and the legal profession were the least affected by denazification, despite their notorious sympathy for Hitler’s regime. Businessmen also got off lightly. Friedrich Flick, convicted as a war criminal in 1947, was released three years later by the Bonn authorities and restored to his former eminence as the leading shareholder in Daimler-Benz. Senior figures in the incriminated industrial combines of I.G. Farben and Krupp were all released early and re-entered public life little the worse for wear. By 1952 Fordwerke, the German branch of Ford Motor Company, had reassembled all its senior management from the Nazi years. Even the Nazi judges and concentration camp doctors convicted under American jurisdiction saw their sentences reduced or commuted (by the American administrator, John J McCloy).

    Later, a myth would arise that the Nazis were, somehow, the kidnappers of the German nation, and that Hitler's atrocities said nothing about Germany itself. In Judt's postwar Europe, there's a constant fight for victim status. (Deeply  antisemitic Austria gets off lightly, for instance, by portraying itself as Hitler's "first victim.") But it's fairly clear that the hate that made the Shoah was neither an invention nor the magic of false-consciousness, but a reflection of the people themselves:

    In the same poll of November 1946, one German in three agreed with the proposition that ‘Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race’. This is not especially surprising, given that respondents had just emerged from twelve years under an authoritarian government committed to this view. What does surprise is a poll taken six years later in which a slightly higher. percentage of West Germans—37 percent—affirmed that it was better for Germany to have no Jews on its territory. But then in that same year (1952) 25 percent of West Germans admitted to having a ‘good opinion’ of Hitler.

    Attendant to all of this was something that any student of white supremacy in America will recognize—a strong propensity toward national amnesia:

     In Italy the daily newspaper of the new Christian Democrat Party put out a similar call to oblivion on the day of Hitler’s death: ‘We have the strength to forget!’, it proclaimed. ‘Forget as soon as possible!’ In the East the Communists’ strongest suit was their promise to make a revolutionary new beginning in countries where everyone had something to forget—things done to them or things they had done themselves. All over Europe there was a strong disposition to put the past away and start afresh, to follow Isocrates’ recommendation to the Athenians at the close of the Peloponnesian Wars: ‘Let us govern collectively as though nothing bad had taken place.’

    It's worth taking a moment to think about this "strength to forget" notion. National forgetting is always a selective endeavor. Italy had no more intention of dismissing its Roman heritage as "the past," than Americans have of dismissing George Washington as "the past." "The past" is whatever contributes to a society's moral debts. "Heritage" is everything else. 

    Judt is making a very disturbing argument—that postwar Europe was built on  a willingness to only push deNazification but so far. There is here something not wholly dissimilar to our own reunion accomplished on an agreement to "forget" what the War was over. So far does the myth advance that Judt finds president Eisenhower lauding the Wermacht—"The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland."

    We are confronted with a series of awful questions: What are the actual limits of human justice? How much of human justice, ultimately, rests on the accumulation of guns? What is one to do when the people, themselves—not sinister hidden forces—are the engines of persecution? Of useful killing? Of genocide? 

    I think of the villain Klaus Barbie who somehow seemed victorious even in capture:

    Mr. Barbie remarked after his extradition that he had nothing to regret and that he remained proud of his service to Hitler's Third Reich.

    Locked up in Montluc Prison, where the Gestapo had tortured its prey 40 years earlier, he promptly proved an embarrassment not only to the French, but to official Washington. It came to light that United States Army counterintelligence had used him as a paid informer after the war, shielding him from his French pursuers and then helping him escape to South America.

    For the French, Mr. Barbie caused enduring agony. Back in their midst, behind bars at last, his presence weighed heavily on the national conscience. To contemplate Mr. Barbie was to face a chapter of history the French longed to forget: the Vichy France of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

    Man. Such hate. What can men do against such reckless hate. Don't study history to boost your self-esteem. Study history to lose your religion. Or maybe in the end, to gain it. I am not religious at all. But seeing the limits of all of us, you start to understand why people might appeal to some higher, more certain, more fierce, invention.

    More soon.

  • 'In a Starving, Bleeding, Captive Land'

    Some thoughts on Tony Judt's opus Postwar

    Wikimedia commons
    Library of Congress

    I'm thoroughly enjoying Tony Judt's Postwar. "Enjoying" is really too small of a word. The art that sticks with me, the art I truly love, is the art in which I find a piece of myself. I think about Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence a lot, because it a courageous work of art created by someone with the mental stamina to mount a conservative defense of the old order, by exploring all of that order's limitations. I hope to do something like that from time to time. I have opinions, and that's all well and good. But more interesting to me is the limits and implications of those opinions. I don't want to spend my time on earth performing, yelling "Look At Me" or "Confirm My Humanity, Please" in various tongues. I have problems of my own.

    As does everyone. There are a great many of these problems in Judt's post-Hitler Europe and almost no satisfying answers. There are human beings taken into Germany, during the War, as slave laborers who do not wish to return, lest they fall behind the Iron Curtain. There are "Germans" who've lived outside of Germany for centuries who are kicked out and forced to return to a home they scarcely regard as such. There is the incomplete attempts to bring justice to Europe after Hitler's death. One is almost tempted to say that the Nazis "got away with it." It puts my own frustration with Reconstruction in perspective. Post-war justice anywhere seems really trying. That it would be more so in a country which shares certain foundational beliefs—like intelligence and morality are directly related to continental descent—makes sense. 

    There are many lines in this book that strike me, but here is a quote from the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Dilas that will live with me for a long time. Dilas is discussing the partisan resistance against the Axis during World War II. Judt makes clear that fighting for, or against, the Nazis or Fascists can't—in and of itself—make one villainous or heroic. In Yugoslavia , the War quickly became fraternal. Dilas observes:

    For hours both armies clambered up rocky ravines to escape annihilation or to destroy a little group of their countrymen, often neighbors on some jutting peak six thousand feet high, in a starving, bleeding, captive land. It came to mind that this was what had become of all our theories and visions of the workers’ and peasants’ struggle against the bourgeoisie.’

    I think of our own Revolution and its hollow exultations toward freedom. I think of my own lineage and Bunchy Carter and Huey Newton. I think of August Wilson's Two Trains Running:

    Niggers killed Malcolm. Niggers killed Malcolm. When you want to talk about Malcolm, remember that first. Niggers killed Malcolm.

    I think we all see our "theories and visions" come to dust in the "starving, bleeding, captive land" which is everywhere, which is politics.

    There is a cutting moment in one of the debates between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X. Rustin largely avoids sanctimonious defenses of America and moralizing around nonviolence. Instead he compliments Malcolm on his fierce denunciations of American racism, and hails him as an important voice articulating the anger of "the American Negro." But then he begins dissecting the Nation of Islam's nationalism and their desire for a separate black homeland. Who will govern this "homeland?" Will Rustin, Christian (and gay though he doesn't explicitly say it) be welcome there? Will Elijah Muhammad be its president? If you know anything about Elijah Muhammad, the idea of "Elijah, President of the Blacks" is chilling. The thought of any man—including my hero Malcolm X—assuming such a perch chills me. Rustin's critique is cutting because instead of mocking and laughing at the NOI's nationalism, instead of dismissing it as crazy, he follows its reasoning to its logical, disagreeable conclusions.

    It seems that it is one thing to correctly name a ruling order as corrupt. It is all another to overthrow that order in some honorable fashion. And it is another still to replace that order with some honorable government. Only in the past 50 years has this country even begun to consider grappling with that last task. That is not because America is uniquely evil, so much as it is because America is the work of humans. One wishes we would dispense with the entire industry of "shining cities" and admit to this.

    Postwar is a rejection of the kind of moralizing tidiness which marked my own early education about Europe, World War II and its aftermath. Judt has the courage to look dead-eyed at ideology and all its limitations without lapsing into nostalgia or cynicism. The writer Jake Lamar once called this "ice-water vision." If I could cultivate any intellectual quality, outside of curiosity, it would be Judt's "ice-water vision." I am often asked for solutions to many of the problems I raise. Almost as often I demur. That is because I am increasingly convinced that my particular great problems don't actually have solutions, that the ultimate answer is "Game Over: You Lose" or more specifically "Race War: Whites Win. Again.

    This is not an inducement to anarchy. If I am not convinced that there is a "solution," I am even less convinced that the only reason to live one's life honorably is to contribute to a "solution." I will not determine my ultimate worth by the direction of people whom I do not know. Whatever happens to my people, whom I hope rise, prosper and then promptly disappear into America, whatever happens to white supremacy, which I hope falls, perishes and then is ever etched as a warning to the world, these explorations and efforts were worth it because they were mine.  

    I was improved. I hope the world was too. But that was never really up to me.

  • History's Greatest Monsters



    I did a reading at Wesleyan last week. Some nice folks took me out to lunch and dinner, and then dinner afterward, because I can't eat before a reading or talk. A few of the people there were from Wesleyan's African-American Studies department. At some point, I ended up in a conversation with Sarah Mahurin, who teaches a course on the black South, about the problem of teaching history to young people. A common response, she pointed out, was for a student to say "I couldn't have been a slave" or "I couldn't have been a slave-master" or "I would have been like Garrison" or "I would have been like Douglass." This wasn't new to me. Every conscious kid at Howard came in talking about how he would have been Nat Turner. Howard was there to teach him that he would have picked that cotton like everybody else. The Eddie Murphy skit above gets at this problem well. 

    I closed the thread below because I thought it was going in a direction that I didn't like. Whenever we find ourselves confronted by a great injustice--such as the Holocaust or the slave society of America--we gravitate toward that which we find heroic, and condemn that which we find fiendish. Complications--like David Ben-Gurion endorsing negotiations with Hitler, or the Maroons cutting deals with the British--make us nervous. The instinct is to make our history into a crude utilitarian book of invincible morals.

    We see this outlook employed by smart people all the time. I wince whenever I hear people claim "If  you don't know the past, you can't know where you're going." The fact is that that you should know the past, but, beyond some vague outlines, it can't tell you where you are going. Last week, I saw Benjamin Netanyahu claim that "history is a map" and I just got depressed. I don't know what "history" could have seen Lincoln's assassination or Barack Obama's election. We live in chaos here. History helps a little--but only a little. It does not exist for your services. It can not be your morality, your crystal ball nor your self-esteem.

    I have tried to push this in my writing about the Civil War. It is not enough to know that you are the descendant of slaves--you should also understand how easily you could have been the slave-master. You don't read George Fitzhugh to assure yourself that there is evil in the world. Auschwitz is all around us. Auschwitz is alive and well and living in your noble heart. The existence of evil is the premise. The discussion must proceed from there. 

    I will be talking about the Holocaust and Israel for the next week. I am really digging Segev's book. I hope that we can do something more than keep score on who got history "right" and who got it "wrong." I hope that we can see some of ourselves in the people we discuss, because we are human, because we know how easy it is to overestimate our own ostensibly infallible morality. We can approach history denouncing the craziness of others, or we can approach it trying to understand how we might possibly have done the same thing. 

    This is not false equivalence, it's texture and nuance. The beauty of a book like Battle Cry of Freedom is that McPherson makes an indisputable case that the Civil War was about slavery, and at the same time shows how humans--like you and me--could do nothing to prevent it. That is the gift of history. I understand that it is sometimes rage-inducing. But in the end it should be humbling.

    Perhaps I shouldn't speak this way about other people's history. I don't know what to say. It feels right. And it feels wrong to make absolutist pronouncements about people who are grappling with the opening act of existential evil.

    I'm reopening the thread below.

  • 'Who Are We—Humans, Jews, or Zionists?'

    The other day I mentioned that I'd picked up Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust. As the subtitle indicates, it's basically a history of how Jews in Palestine (and later Israel) grappled with The Final Solution. But the history begins before that, in the 30s, when Hitler comes to power in Germany. Segev is an excellent historian—One Palestine Complete is top-notch—and really excels at giving you some sense of the nation-builders without lapsing into cheerleading or caricature.

    Segev is at his finest discussing The Havaara Agreement—a deal between Zionist and Nazi Germany to allow Jews to emigrate into what was, then, more a nation than a state. The dilemma is familiar to some of us: Should German Jews continue the fight against antisemitism in Europe or should they separate and give up trying to convince people who have long hated them? Segev quotes a columnist  articulating the conflict as follows:

    The difference between the Exile and Zion is that the Exile. fighting for his life, wishes to overcome the evil Haman in his country...[The Exile] wants the Jews to remain in Germany despite all the troubles and persecutions and victims...Zion wants to uproot them. It washes its hands of a war with Haman, which in its eyes is but a Sisyphean task, its whole interest being only in legal and illegal immigration, despite all the anguish and sacrifice on the way to Zion.

    David Ben-Gurion goes on to say that there is war within the heart of every Jew—to assimilate or to separate. This characterization was rejected by Ben-Gurion's opponents, but the nationalist/integrationist line (for lack of better phrasing) is the essential dynamic in Havaara. Though it's only the 1930s, there are people in the future state of Israel who see the coming darkness. Ben-Gurion reads Mein Kampf and declares that "Hitler's policy put the entire Jewish people in danger." Ze'ev Jabotinsky claims that, "The Third Reich's policy toward the Jews calls for a war of extermination."

    Segev makes it clear that you should just as likely regard these wisdom in the context of Zionist interests. In Germany's blatant anti-Semitism, Israel's founders see a boon to their efforts to populate their nascent state. They obviously don't want to see German Jews exterminated. But they do see German bigotry as useful confirmation of what already believed—cold water to awaken one's brethren from the "assimilationist" dream. Thus in Haavara, interests dovetail: The Nazis get rid of their hated Jews. And the Zionist state gets more hands to cultivate the land

    Statecraft is never pretty. The responses to Haavara ran the gamut. Jabotinsky objects to dealing with Hitler, even as his Revisionists movement looks kindly upon the Italian fascist. (There was a similar phenomena in America which Ira Katznelson details in Fear Itself.) There are even those who admire Nazism, if it could be stripped of its Jew-hatred. "Were it not for Hitler's anti-Semitism, we would not oppose his ideology" claims Zvi Eliahu Cohen. "Hitler saved Germany." So much of this comes down to the cold, chilling calculus of trying to build a nation. From Ben-Gurion:

    If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would chose the second—because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.

    I came to this book to watch how one portion of a larger family dealt with the legacy of great crime committed against them. I haven't gotten that far. But what I am getting is something more than I expected. Segev's Israel is not an idea nor a symbol, but a collection of textured, conflicted human beings.*

    *Fixed some of the labeling in this post to avoid historical conflation.


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