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.

  • How to Read Camus Like a Boss

    Adventures in French education

    I haven't written about French in a while, but I'm still studying. Next month will mark the end of my second "official" year at this. Last week I started Camus's L'Etranger. It's the first time I've tried to read a book en français. I wanted to read Du Contrat Social, but my tutor looked at me like I was crazy. At any rate, I think I'm getting about 45 percent of what's actually happening. It isn't because I don't know the words or the grammar. I probably know about 80 percent of the vocabulary and, soon, I suspect I'll have a better academic understanding of French grammar than English.  

    Whatever that means. I still speak with the world's ugliest tongue. Try to imagine a three-year-old baby gone senile and you'll have some idea of what it's like to have a conversation with me in French. 

    But I delight nonetheless. I was in Chicago last week doing my internship with The Atlantic's incredible video team. Half the people at the front-desk of my hotel spoke French. I eagerly engaged. I was in straight faux pas mode. My brain said "bonne soirée" and my mouth said "bonne nuit."  I am that loud uncle, drunk at your wedding.  I am the dude on the dance floor who refuses to keep it in the pocket. And I have always been that dude. I have gotten a lot of things in my life. Not a one of them came pretty. Life is humiliation and failure, but the way is always up. Until it isn't.

    So I'm basically bashing my way through Camus. I plan to read it three times before February. My hope is that it will reveal more of itself each time. Part of the problem is that the French have phrases that can be translated into English, but not on a "word to word" basis. So you may understand every sentence in one paragraph, and every word in that sentence. But then you'll get a phrase like "au beau milieu de" which does not mean "at the beautiful middle of" and you'll be lost again. (Another favorite: "La tradition veut que...")

    Someday I am going to do a piece for the magazine on how language is taughtespecially to kids who go to the kind of schools I went to as a child. You can't just conjugate all day and get quizzed on your colors. Some of this is rote learning. Some of this is osmosis. To really get the language, you have to not just learn the rules, but hear someone employ them constantly, break them constantly, and then you have to try to imitate. That is what immersion is supposed to be. But we hear that word so much in foreign language education that it's basically more marketing than anything else.

    Anyway, I'm committed. Turning back now would be like burning money. How far does this ride go? I can't call it. I gave up on fluency, as a workable concept, some time ago. What I see happening to myself is a slow, grinding acquisition of skills. So two years ago, I could only say "Hi," "Good-bye," "How are you?" and "I am well." Then I could say "I cooked yesterday" and "When I was young, I loved football." Then I could read a simple article. Then I could write a short email. Then I could order from a menu. Then I could give directions to a taxi driver. Et dimanche dernier, je pouvais dire l'homme, "Je voudrais laisser ma valise ici."

    Each of these skills overlaps the other, giving birth to new skills until, at some undefined point, you have the ability to have a substantive and deep conversation with another human. Even there, "fluency" doesn't quite capture what's happened. Language can't erase the individual. I have spent a day talking to different people in France, barely understanding what they were telling me. And yet I still understood some more than others. I still enjoyed some more than others. We know that we are all human individuals, underneath. My need to have this repeatedly confirmed is ridiculous. And yet it's one of the most gratifying parts about language. 

  • From Centralized Planning to Centralized Killing

    Thoughts on Tony Judt's Postwar

    Your disenchantment is a threat to our socialist faith.

    --E. P. Thompson

    Some quick notes on the passages from Postwar which I alluded to in the last post. In terms of the atheist style, a couple of  examples should suffice. The first is Judt looking at the impact of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago on socialist intellectuals of Europe, and particularly Paris:

    Communism, it was becoming clear, had defiled and despoiled its radical heritage. And it was continuing to do so, as the genocide in Cambodia and the widely-publicized trauma of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ would soon reveal.256 Even those in Western Europe—and they were many—who held the United States largely responsible for the disasters in Vietnam and Cambodia, and whose anti-Americanism was further fuelled by the American-engineered killing of Chile’s Salvador Allende just three months before the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, were increasingly reluctant to conclude as they had once done that the Socialist camp had the moral upper hand. American imperialism was indeed bad—but the other side was worse, perhaps far worse.

    At this point the traditional ‘progressive’ insistence on treating attacks on Communism as implicit threats to all socially-ameliorative goals—i.e. the claim that Communism, Socialism, Social Democracy, nationalization, central planning and progressive social engineering were part of a common political project—began to work against itself. If Lenin and his heirs had poisoned the well of social justice, the argument ran, we are all damaged. In the light of twentieth-century history the state was beginning to look less like the solution than the problem, and not only or even primarily for economic reasons. What begins with centralized planning ends with centralized killing.

    And later on the impact of François Furet's La Révolution Française:

    The political implications of Furet’s thesis were momentous, as its author well understood. The failings of Marxism as a politics were one thing, which could always be excused under the category of misfortune or circumstance. But if Marxism were discredited as a Grand Narrative—if neither reason nor necessity were at work in History—then all Stalin’s crimes, all the lives lost and resources wasted in transforming societies under state direction, all the mistakes and failures of the twentieth century’s radical experiments in introducing Utopia by diktat, ceased to be ‘dialectically’ explicable as false moves along a true path. They became instead just what their critics had always said they were: loss, waste, failure and crime. Furet and his younger contemporaries rejected the resort to History that had so coloured intellectual engagement in Europe since the beginning of the 1930s. There is, they insisted, no ‘Master Narrative’ governing the course of human actions, and thus no way to justify public policies or actions that cause real suffering today in the name of speculative benefits tomorrow.

    I've allude to this sense in Judt's work before--the idea that there is no "Master Narrative," no ghost in the machinery of the universe, no arc bending toward justice. It is, to me, one of the most arresting aspects of the book. It's not that Judt is amoral or disinterested--his heart is clearly with the Left. But he greets his ostensible allies with ice-water vision. , which is to say he subjects his own ideological roots and his own ideological cousins to withering criticism. 

    Journalists, writers and thinkers are often hailed for their willingness to engage "the pieties of both the left and the right" or some such. Whenever I see that kind of language my eyes glaze over. A willingness to critique both sides isn't evidence of any particular wisdom--the critique could simply be wrong. (Journalists, in particular, make this mistake with alarming regularity.) False equivalence isn't nuance. And moderation in writing style isn't depth. But there is something to be said for real nuance. For trying one's best to see clearly. This book is not simply offering me more information, it's offering me a method of attempting to get clear.

    Everything isn't what it should be. The lack of footnotes is a huge problem. (Sorry Dad. That one hurts.) Still I think Postwar qualifies as a "knock you on your ass" book.

  • Mandela and the Question of Violence

    One should never lose sight of why America preaches nonviolence to some people while urging other people to arms. 

    Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

    I was right to be wrong, while you and your kind were wrong to be right.

    —Pierre Courtade

    I have the misfortune of being near the end of Tony Judt's Postwar at a moment when of the great figures of our history, Nelson Mandela, has passed. Judt's gaze is relentless. He rejects all grand narratives, skewers Utopianism (mostly in the form of Communism), and eschews the notion that history has definite shape and form. States are mostly amoral. In one breath he will write admiringly of the Nordic countries. In the next he will detail their descent into eugenics in the mid-20th century.

    This is what I mean when I say that Judt has an atheist view of history. God does not care about history, and history does not care about humans. There is no triumphalism, in Postwar, about Western values and democracy. What you see is a continent at war with itself. The upholding of democratic values is a constant struggle, often lost—in the colonies, in the Eastern bloc, in Greece, in Portugal, in Spain. Even among the great Western powers there is the sense that no one is immune to the virus of authoritarianism.

    There is great humility in Judt's portrait of Europe, a humility that is largely absent from the portrait of the West foisted upon the darker peoples of the world. Non-African writers love to congratulate Nelson Mandela on not becoming another "Mugabe," as though despotism is something Africans are uniquely tempted toward; as though colonialism was not, itself, a form of kleptocratic despotism. I too am happy that Mandela did not become another Mugabe. I am happier still that he did not become—as far as these analogical games go—another Leopold.

    This Western arrogance is as broad as it is insidious. There was a well-reported piece in the Times a few days ago on the disappointment that's followed Mandela's presidency. A similar note has been sounded in seemingly every obit and article concerning Mandela's death. It's not so much that these stories shouldn't be written, it's that they shouldn't treated the subject as though a man were biting a dog. That people are shocked that South Africa, almost 20 years out of apartheid, is struggling with fairness and democracy, reflects a particular ignorance, a particular blindness, and a peculiar lack of humility, about our own struggles. 

    On the great issue of the day, the generations that followed George Washington offered not just disappointment but betrayal. "The unfortunate condition of the people whose labors I in part employed," Washington wrote, "has been the only unavoidable subject of regret." Americans did not simply tolerate this "unfortunate condition," they turned it into the cornerstone of the American economic system. By 1860, 60 percent of all American exports came from cotton produced by slave labor. "Property in man" was, according to Yale historian David Blight, worth some $3.5 billion more than "all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together."

    In short order, Washington's slaveholding descendants went from evincing skepticism about slavery to calling it "a positive good" and "a great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.And they did this while plundering and raiding this continent's aboriginal population. For at least its first 100 years, or perhaps longer, this country was a disappointment, an experiment which—by its own standards of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—failed miserably. America is not unique. It is the product of imperfect humans. As is South Africa. That people turn to the country of Nelson Mandela and wonder why it hasn't magically transformed itself into a perpetual font of milk and honey is a symptom of our blindness to our common humanity. 

    Nowhere is that blindness more apparent then in the constant, puerile need to critique Mandela's turn toward violence. The impulse is old. "Why Won't Mandela Renounce Violence?" asked a New York Times column in 1990. Is that what we said to Savimbi? To Mobutu? 

    Malcolm X understood:

    If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

    Martin Luther King Jr. agreed:

    As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems ... But, they asked, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

    As did Mandela. Offered the chance to be free by the avowed white supremacist P.W. Botha if he would renounce violence, Mandela replied“Let him renounce violence.” Americans should understand this. Violent resistance to tyranny, violent defense of one's body, is not simply a political strategy in our country, it is taken as a basic human right. Our own revolution was purchased with the blood of 22,000 nascent American dead. Dissenters were tarred and feathered. American independence and American power has never rested on nonviolence, but on the willingness to do great—at times existential—violence.

    Perhaps we would argue that Malcolm X, Mandela, and King were wrong, and that states should be immune to ethics of nonviolence. But even our rhetoric toward freedom movements which employ violence is inconsistent. Mandela and the ANC were "terrorists." The Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956, the Northern Alliance opposing the Taliban, the Libyans opposing Gaddafi were "freedom fighters." Thomas Friedman hopes for an "Arab Mandela" one moment, while the next telling those same Arabs to "suck on this." The point here is not that nonviolence is bunk, but that it is is bunk when invoked by those who rule by the gun.

    In the shadow of our conversation, one sees a constant, indefatigable specter which has dogged us from birth. For the most of American history, very few of our institutions believed that black people were entitled to the rights of other Americans. Included in this is the right of self-defense. Nonviolence worked because it conceded that right in the pursuit of other rights. But one should never lose sight of the precise reasons why America preaches nonviolence to some people while urging other people to arms. 

    Jimmy Baldwin knew:

    The real reason that nonviolence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes—I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether—is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. One wishes they would say so more often.

    The questions which dog us about Mandela's legacy, his relationship to other African autocrats, the great imperfections which remain in his country, and his insistence on the right of self-defense ultimately say more about us than they do about Mandela. "I cannot sell my birthright," Mandela responded to calls for him to renounce violence. "Nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free." 

    This is a universal appeal, and our inability to see such universality in those who are black, or in those who oppose our stated interests, reveal the borders of all our grand talk about democratic values. That is the next frontier. A serious embrace of universality. A rejection of selective morality.

  • Gingrich vs. the Right on Apartheid: 'What Would You Have Done?'

    A message about Nelson Mandela that conservatives sorely need to hear

    Representative Dick Gephardt, Speaker Newt Gingrich, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Clinton at a 1998 ceremony where Mandela received the Congressional Gold Medal. (Ruth Fremson/Associated Press)

    I think this is a fairly noteworthy statement from Newt Gingrich on Mandela's passing that should get some airing. Gingrich is addressing the rather disgraceful response to Mandela's passing that we've seen in some quarters:

    Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.
    After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.

    As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.

    Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

    Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?

    Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.

    Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.

    I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

    I think it's important to note that Gingrich's position here is not particularly new. This is not an attempt to rewrite history, or claim someone in death whom Gingrich opposed in life. Newt Gingrich was among a cadre of conservatives who opposed the mainstream conservative stance on apartheid and ultimately helped override Reagan's unconscionable veto of sanctions. At the time, Gingrich was allied with a group of young conservatives including Vin Weber looking to challenge Republican orthodoxy on South Africa. "South Africa has been able to depend on conservatives to treat them with benign neglect," said Weber. "We served notice that, with the emerging generation of conservative leadership, that is not going to be the case."

    Something else: There's a video attached to the post in which Gingrich gives his thoughts on Mandela's passing. When Gingrich compliments Mandela on his presidency he doesn't do so within the context of alleged African pathologies, but within the context of countries throughout the world. It's a textbook lessons in "How not to be racist," which is to say it is a textbook lesson in how to talk about Nelson Mandela as though he were a human being. 

    More soon.

  • Apartheid's Useful Idiots

    For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. 

    Gettysburg Times, July 17, 1995

    Nelson Mandela died yesterday, and all around the world, much-deserved hosannas are coming in, praising the life of one of the most important figures in modern Western history. That last bit reflects my own bias. What's become clear in all my studies of our history of World War II, of the Civil War, of Tocqueville, of Rousseau, of Zionism, of black nationalism, is that understanding Enlightenment ideals requires understanding those places where ideals and humanity meet. If you call yourself a lover of democracy, but have not studied the black diaspora, your deeds mock your claims. Understanding requires more than sloganeering, and parroting—it requires confronting our failures.

    For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. We have some experience with this. Still, it's easy to forget William F. Buckley—intellectual founder of the modern right—effectively worked as a press agent for apartheid:

    Buckley was actively courted by Chiang Kai-Shek's Taiwan, Franco's Spain, South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal's African colonies, and went on expenses-paid trips trips to some of these countries.

    When he returned from Mozambique in 1962, Buckley wrote a column describing the backwardness of the African population over which Portugal ruled, "The more serene element in Africa tends to believe that rampant African nationalism is self-discrediting, and that therefore the time is bound to come when America, and the West ... will depart from our dogmatic anti-Colonialism and realize what is the nature of the beast."

    In the fall of 1962, during a visit to South Africa, arranged by the Information Ministry, Buckley wrote that South African apartheid "has evolved into a serious program designed to cope with a melodramatic dilemma on whose solution hangs, quite literally, the question of life or death for the white man in South Africa."

    Buckley's racket as an American paid propagandist for white supremacy would be repeated over the years in conservative circles. As Sam Kleiner demonstrates in Foreign Policy, apartheid would ultimately draw some of America's most celebrated conservatives into its orbit. The roster includes Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Jesse Helms, and Senator Jeff Flake. Jerry Falwell denounced Desmond Tutu as a "phony" and led a "reinvestment" campaign during the 1980s. At the late hour of 1993, Pat Robertson opined, "I know we don't like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don't have it all that bad."

    Not all prominent conservatives were so dishonorable. When Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan's veto of sanctions of South Africa, Mitch McConnell, for instance, was forthright—"I think he is wrong ... We have waited long enough for him to come on board." When Falwell embarrassed himself by condemning Tutu, some Republican senators denounced him.

    But the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa's white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage. When you see a Tea Party protestor waving the flag of slavery in front of the home of the first black president, understand that this instinct has been cultivated. It is still, at this very hour, being cultivated: 

    He won the country's first free presidential elections in 1994 and worked to unite a scarred and anxious nation. He opened up the economy to the world, and a black middle class came to life. After a single term, he voluntarily left power at the height of his popularity. Most African rulers didn't do that, but Mandela said, "I don't want a country like ours to be led by an octogenarian. I must step down while there are one or two people who admire me."

    That is the Wall Street Journal, offering a shameful, condescending "tribute" to one of the great figures of our time. Understand the racism here. It is certainly true that "most African rulers" do not willingly hand over power. That is because most human leaders do not hand over power. What racism does is take a basic human tendency and make it it the property of ancestry. As though Franco never happened. As though Hitler and Stalin never happened. As though Pinochet never happened. As though we did not prop up Mobutu. As though South Carolina was not, for most of its history, ruled by Big Men as nefarious and vicious as any "African ruler."

    To not see this requires a special disposition, a special blindness, a special shamelessness, a special idiocy.

  • The Invincible Jessie Ware

    This a woman who knows something about missing people, about being marooned in other cities.

    One of the cool things about teaching is that you're always around young people, who actually have the time to dig through new music and tell you what's good and what's crap. I don't have the time to dig through music like I used to. Moreover, it's gratifying to know that, though I'm 38, I'm not actually aging out of music. At least not yet.

    My son keeps playing the new Drake around the crib. I think I might actually like it. One of my kids in my "Voice and Meaning" class put me on to How To Dress Well. They are in heavy rotation right not. A friend of mine who is not my son, and who is not in my class, put me on to Jessie Ware. She still qualifies as a kid, though. Basically anyone not having to cope with the moods of a 13-year old boy is, in my eyes, a kid. Just putting that out there.

    Anyway, this Devotion joint is my new hotness. Yes, music nerd-boy, I know that I'm a year late and no one says "new hotness" anymore. Sit down and listen to your elders. And listen to Jessie Ware. This a woman who knows something about missing people, about being marooned in other cities, far from family, and far from home.

    As an aside, I was talking about this Jessie Ware song in class the other day. Ware basically repeats the line "Who says 'No' to love?" making subtle changes each time. I was trying to explain how musicians pick out phrases and repeat them, adding new twists each time, and how that evokes emotion and movement. My point is that great writers often do the same thing. Is there a name for this? Is there a more concise way I can explain this? Writing is the only art I've actually studied, I'm approaching my limits.

  • Bigotry and the English Language

    Language does not exist encased in glass and formaldehyde.

    George Lincoln Rockwell (center) attending Nation of Islam rally in 1961. Photo credit: Eve Arnold

    Wes Alwan reaches for the dictionary in his effort to defend Alec Baldwin against the charge of being a bigot:

    The problem with these responses is that they redefine “bigot” away from its well-established common usage. In fact, the primary function of a word like “bigot” is to very precisely exclude more conflicted, doubtful states of mind, as in: a bigot is “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance” (Merriam-Webster). The obstinate devotion to certain avowed, intolerant beliefs is critical to the way that “bigot” traditionally has been used. The word has its origins in the general notion of close-mindedness: the idea is that a bigot is someone who is un-persuadable, who cannot be argued out of their beliefs. But accusing someone of being close-minded and un-persuadable requires that they adamantly hold the beliefs in question in the first place: it cannot be the case that they’re conflicted or akratic – that for example they sincerely favor gay rights as a matter of principle yet betray this principle during bouts of homophobic rage. Having unsavory impulses and poor impulse control is simply not the same thing as being closed minded and systematically intolerant. To extend the word “bigot” to someone like Baldwin is just to pervert it in order for the sake of exploiting its toxicity to his reputation.

    The notion that bigot has "its origins in the general notion of close-mindedness" would be news to etymologists. The origins of the word "bigot" are unknown, but the current theory holds that it is an import from Middle French denoting someone who was sanctimonious or hypocritically religious. Alwan is concerned about the word bigot becoming "perverted,"  to exploit "its toxicity." But this happened long before Alec Baldwin. As late as the 1700s, the word was brought to English with its French meaning. That it was perverted into other meanings is unremarkable. Language does not exist encased in glass and formaldehyde. And the perversion of words is not a cosmic felony, it is how language actually works. 

    The word "bigot" has been perverted into many related, similar, meanings. One meaning is Alwan's.  Here is another:

    a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)."

    And another:

    One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.

    Another definition holds that bigot is "a person who is bigoted" as in "intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself." 

    My argument is simple: I hold that if you attempt to intimidate and threaten a man by calling him "a little girl" who "probably got raped by a priest," and then you call a gay man a "queen" and threaten to rape him, and justify this by claiming your threat "had absolutely nothing to do with issues of anyone's sexual orientation," and then you threaten someone else by calling them  a "cock-sucking fag" and you attempt to excuse yourself by claiming you didn't know "cock-sucking" was a slur and that you didn't say "fag," and you blame your subsequent misfortune on "the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy, that you are very likely a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people; that you are someone who is refusing to accept another group of people as humans; that you are strongly partial to your own group; that you are a bigot.

    Bigots come in all shapes and forms. Strom Thurmond tried to raise an entire political party on the basis of segregation, daring the federal government to intervene in the South's domestic affairs."There's not enough troops in the army, " charged Thurmond. "To force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theatres into our swimming pools into our homes and into our churches."

    But Thurmond was not without conflict. He had a black daughter whom he gave financial support, sired the career of black conservative Armstrong Williams, supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And Thurmond was not "unpersuadable." He later voted for the Voting Rights Bill, the Martin Luther King holiday, and in the 70s, became first Southern Senator to hire a black staffer. This a man who once claimed that segregation, left "our niggers...better off than most anybody's niggers."

    Thurmond's racist views were defended by Senator Trent Lott, who argued that had his hero prevailed, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years." Later reporting discovered that this wa the second time Lott had made this comment. As a young man interested in politics, Lott worked for segregationist politicians, eschewing more moderate candidates. As a politician in his own right he frequently addressed the racist White Citizens Council. Lott's endorsements of segregation, some of which were louder than others, spanned some forty years. But as the fight over his more recentendorsement of Thurmond caught fire Lott came out in support of Affirmative Action. 

    George Rockwell was a virulent racist, and a commander of the American Nazi Party. His embrace of White Power was total, and yet he was a fan of the Nation of Islam and praised them for having... 

    gathered millions of the dirty, immoral, drunken, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people sneeringly called ‘niggers’ and inspired them to the point where they are clean, sober, honest, hard working, dignified, dedicated and admirable human beings in spite of their color.

    Was Rockwell without conflict? Was he a bigot? Who qualifies as "unpersuadable?" Do the former slaveholders who, having lost the Civil war, claimed that they'd never defended slavery make the cut? What of the neighbors of Jews who smiled at them one moment, and then looted their homes and turned them over to Nazis the next? And what are we to say of the promoters of "conversion therapy" who claim to "love the sinner" even as they deprive him of the right of family? Are they unconflicted? Are they unpersuadable?

    Alwan's definition of a bigot, as a "global" label encompassing their humanity, as someone who is wholly unpersuadable, wholly without conflict, and wholly without doubt, is not a description of humans, it is a description of myth. And it a definition to which those who live under the power of actual bigots enjoy no access.

    Alwan is unhappy that I am raising this point:

    I worried, when I published a long post defending Alec Baldwin against charges of bigotry for calling someone a “cocksucking fag,” that I ran the risk of being seen as defending the indefensible. I knew that if the post got any attention, readers who are unfamiliar with my reputation as a (hardcore) liberal might interpret it as a particularly sophisticated piece of crypto-conservatism or closeted bigotry. And I also worried that friends who know me better might wonder how it is I could possibly make such a defense: my motives would be suspect. Indeed, the point of Coates’ marking a portion of my argument as “bizarre,” “terrible,” and “telling” is to signal – without openly calling me a bigot, a ploy that would be too embarrassingly obvious – the fact that my motives are in question: I’m a white guy defending another white guy, not someone making a principled argument (no matter how wrongheaded) about what I believe to be right. I am, possibly, a closeted bigot, dressing up my bigotry in a sophisticated argument; not, as I intend to be, a self-critiquing liberal who wishes to hold liberals – for the sake of consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness – to their own liberal principles.

    If I thought Alwan were a bigot, I would call him one and then make the argument. I am not questioning his motives. I am questioning his knowledge of the world. I am happy to read that he is "self-critiquing liberal." Hopefully he will take the following critique in that spirit: Wes Alwan's understanding of the word "bigot," is ignorant of the word's origins, history and its current usage, especially its usage by those most affected by bigotry. This ignorance is a luxury afforded him by identity. People who live in the thrall of actual racists, and actual homophobes, can't employ Alwan's definition because  it would not accurately describe anyone they have ever met. 

    Very few white people in the 19th century—indeed very few slave-holders—were without conflict and without doubt when considering black people. Many of them were persuadable and akratic. (A great word, by the way.) Some manumitted the enslaved. Others taught them to read, even though it was against the law. Others bore children by them, and sometimes even loved those children. And others still argued that white people should be enslaved too. These people were conflicted, complicated and bigoted. I suspect that the same is true for many homophobic "love the sinner, hate the sin" bigots today. 

    Perhaps we are now entering a new age wherein we will do violence to our language and Osama Bin Laden will no longer be a terrorist, but "a person who enjoyed a career killing innocent people." Rush Limbaugh will not be a racist, but "a man who has made a career saying racist things." Nathan Bedford Forrest will not have been a white supremacist but "someone who seemed to believe that things would be better if white people held most of the power in our society." Louis Farrakhan will not be an anti-Semite but "someone who exhibits a pattern of making comments against people who identify themselves as Jewish."

    I am doubtful that such an age is dawning. In the meantime, I hope a self-identified "self-critiquing liberal" like Alwan--and I mean this--will see that while some people reach for labels simply to conduct a mythical witch-hunt, others reach for labels because in their world witches are very real, and are not the hunted, but the hunters. We will see whether being labeled a "bigot" is ultimately toxic to Alec Baldwin's job prospects. There is no such need to wait on the toxicity of being labeled a "cock-sucking faggot." 

  • Yeah, Alec Baldwin Really Is a Bigot

    "Bigot" isn't a "global" judgement of someone's character. It's a description of how they choose to act.

    Reuters

    Responding to Andrew Sullivan's argument, and my own, that Alec Baldwin is—in fact—kind of a bigot, Wes Alwan offers the following defense:

    For calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag” in a blowup caught on video, and another journalist a “fucking little bitch” and “toxic queen” on twitter, Baldwin has been roundly condemned as a “bigot” and “homophobe,” despite the fact that he has been a vocal supporter of gay rights. ...

    These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it....

    It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses. Freud thought that homophobia and same sex attraction (which is not the same thing as homosexuality per se) were universal and mutually implicating (a man, for instance, might be both repelled by and fascinated by homosexuality because he associates it with the both terrifying and thrilling prospect of submitting and being penetrated). Whether or not you like such associations or agree with Freud, you cannot condemn people merely for being afraid of something, or for having certain feelings or associations: what counts are their considered thoughts and behaviors. The bigot who gets on TV to tell you that homosexuality ought to be against the law does not belong in the same category as a vocal advocate of gay rights who has not purified himself entirely of negative feelings about homosexuality. Homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself...

    Before I offer a rebuttal, I think it's important that we take an account of the evidence.Two years ago, Baldwin—hounded by paparazzi—Baldwin reacted as follows

    It seems Alec finally had enough ... This time, Alec -- clutching a pink stuffed animal -- approached one of the photogs who was hanging out in front of his apartment building and lashed out, "I want you to shut the f**k up ... leave my neighbor alone ... get outta here."

    At one point, at the beginning of the confrontation, It sounds like Alec says to the photog, "I know you got raped by a priest or something."

    Then, in an effort to assert his dominance, Alec got right in the pap's face ... and in a menacing tone said, "You little girl."

    You should watch the video in the hyperlink to get the full effect of this.

    A few months ago, offended by something a reporter—who is gay—had written, Baldwin said the following:

    George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck….you….up.

    Then two weeks ago Baldwin, again hounded by paparazzi, pursued the cameraman and once they'd back off called one a "cock-sucking fag." Baldwin claimed that he'd actually said "cock-sucking fathead." He also added that he was unaware that "cock-sucker" was a derogatory term for gay men.

    Yesterday, it came out that Alec Baldwin will no longer have a show on MSNBC. Baldwin offered the following commentary on his cancellation:

    But you've got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they're out there, they've got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show.

    Baldwin didn't blame his own repeated use of anti-gaydare I say bigotedslurs. He blamed "the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy." 

    My way of understanding this is simple. If I were to be found to, in anger, repeatedly employ anti-Hispanic slurs, to refer to my enemies as "wetbacks" or "illegals," if I were found to address an actual Latino journalist with the term and threaten to say "kick his ass back across the border," and then having lost my job here at The Atlantic blame "the fundamentalist wing of La Raza," I think you would be justified in calling me a bigot. I don't think my support for, say, the DREAM Act, or my horror at Arizona's immigration laws would save me

    And I don't think it would save many other people, besides Alec Baldwin. I don't think if Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton, shared Baldwin's record of threatening actual gay men, and threatening people period with anti-gay slurs, that this would be a debate. I don't believe their record of support for marriage rights would save them. Alec Baldwin a rich, handsome, white guy from the liberal Mecca of the Upper West Side of New York. He enjoys the full weight of our credulity

    Alwan believes that we shouldn't, "make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves." I reject the notion that "bigot" is a "global judgement." Aside from Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, no single white person may be more responsible for the destruction of slavery than William Sherman. But Uncle Billy was—even in his own time—a reconstructed bigot and white supremacist. This is neither shocking nor particularly complicated. There is no reason why one could not, on the one hand believe,  that slavery should have ended, and also believed that black people were inferior and worthy of a lesser place in society. "Bigot" is not a polite way of saying "child-molester" or "serial killer" or "genocidal maniac"  or even asshole. And it does not automatically blot out one's other qualities such as "caring father," "good husband," "charitable giver," or "supporter of marriage equality."

    Black people—who have spent much of the history living around, working for, or working with actual bigots but have not had the luxury of dismissing them "globally"—understand this. I suspect that women—who have, for some time, had to live around, work with, and work for sexists and misogynists, but have not had the luxury of "globally" dismissing them—understand this too. And I suspect the LGBT community, where people must function in families with other people who believe their lifestyle to be a sin, understand this as well. If you are gay your father or mother could be a "homophobic bigot," but you might well love him all the same. For a significant period of American history it was common for black people to have fathers who were white supremacists. Some of us hated our fathers. But for many of us, the feeling was somehow more complicated.

    The ability to "globally" label anyone is a privilege that people who live with a boot on their neck don't really enjoy. We see people as complicated, because we must, because your tormentor one moment might be your liberator the next.  This is not theoretical. In 1863, General James Longstreet led an Army that kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery. Ten years later, Longstreet was leading black soldiers in a courageous, if doomed, campaign against white terrorists in Louisiana. 

    And if we are honest with ourselves, as the president would say, we know this isn't theoretical, because we know ourselves. 

    The most telling—and bizarre—portion of Alwan's essay is the idea that "homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself." This is a really terrible thing to write, but more importantly it's false.  And I know it's false because I was once a homophobic bigot. When I was a teenager, my anger almost certainly manifested itself in the same way as Baldwin's. Calling someone towards whom you meant violence a "faggot" was what you did. The fact that it was what "you did" doesn't make it any less bigoted. It means that bigotry was that much more pervasive. "Faggot" littered our understanding of English. Crews who were worthy of beat-downs were "faggot-ass niggas"; when our friends were behaving in weird ways they were "acting like fags"; when a boy shook a man's hand and it was weak, he was told to not "shake hands like a faggot."

    I have often thought back on those days. How many gay men were actually around, silently watching all of this, fearfully keeping their peace? I never bullied anyone for being gay. But that isn't because I wasn't bigoted, it's because I was an active agent in a world that made it dangerous to be yourself. The couple of kids who tried, who were bravely game, hung out with girls and were the subject of snickers. Those snickers were mine, too. And who knows what else they were subject to that I simply never witnessed?

    The only thing that changed in my life was that, as an adult, I was forced to confront gay men on an equal plane. Sometimes it wasn't even equal. One of my most influential editors was gay. I was 21. He was a great editor. What values did I hold that would allow me to see him as weak? What right had I to be disgusted by anyone? I was kid who'd seen West Baltimore and little else. What did I know about anything?

    Being confronted by actual humans is a dangerous business. It leaves you with questions, and things that you think are natural—homophobia for instance—you discover to be less natural than you presumed. I say this because I know it: You can be repulsed by gay sex one day, and then repulsed by the fact that you were ever so low as to be repulsed in the first place. You can discover that your repulsion is actually built on a series of unstated beliefs—what you think about the world, what you think about women, and ultimately, what you think about yourself. 

    It is to my shame and discredit to have to write this. This was supposed to be a rebuttal. It's turned (again) into rambling memoir. I wish I had been a better young man. I hope the next generation of young men are better. I hope that they are smart enough to never equate their learned hatreds with someone's very identity. 

    More »

  • From Super-Predators to the 'Knockout Game'

    Looking into a trend that isn't

    The Times looks into the latest "trend" in which young black boys try to knock a random person out with one punch. What they find is unsurprising:

    And in New York City, police officials are struggling to determine whether they should advise the public to take precautions against the Knockout Game — or whether in fact it existed.

    “We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday. “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.”

    The Times looked into one of the more prominent incidents:

    Much news coverage of reported knockout attacks includes 2012 footage from a surveillance camera in Pittsburgh of James Addlespurger, a high school teacher who was 50, being swiftly struck to the ground by a young man walking down an alleyway with some friends. Yet the Pittsburgh police said the attacker insisted the assault was not part of any organized “game.”

    “This was just a random act of violence,” Police Commander Eric Holmes said in a televised interview last year. “He stated that he was just having a bad day that day.” The assailant saw Mr. Addlespurger, the commander said, “and decided this was a course of action he was going to take.”

    Telecasts have also shown teenagers in Jersey City, their faces blurred, describing knockouts, which they defined as anyone might; someone is struck and knocked out. But they did not report that it was a game.

    Bob McHugh, a police spokesman in Jersey City, said there had not been a single reported knockout incident there.

    “If there ever was an urban myth, this was it,” he said. Still community concerns spurred by the video prompted a member of the City Council there, Candice Osborne, to post on her Facebook page, “there have been NO reported instances of this type of assault.”

    This is not like finding a dime-bag in someone's pocket, or even catching someone with a vial of crack. People who assault other people for amusement should be prosecuted. Understanding this, it's also worth pointing out that, in terms of long-term trends, we are in the midst of a historic dip

    But since the days of slavery, into the days of super-predators, and now the time of the Knockout Game, there has always been a strong need to believe that hordes of young black men will overrun the country in a fit of raping and pillaging. It's how we justify ourselves. Information can't compete with national myth.

  • The Answer to the Crisis in Democracy Is More Democracy

    The filibuster has never been a friend of civil rights.

    Via Andrew Sullivan, I see Eric Posner in Slate arguing that "centrists" should be in mourning over the filibuster. I think Posner's case to progressives, liberals, and lefties deserves particular attention:

    To provide an extreme example, under a pure system of majority rule 51 percent of the population could pass a law that transferred the wealth of 49 percent of the population to the majority. If at the next election, the other side managed to win, it could expropriate the wealth back. The resulting instability, as different groups took turns expropriating each other’s wealth, would impoverish the country over time. If one group never took a turn winning, then the outcome would be inequitable as well as bad for the public at large. If all of this sounds too implausible to be of concern to you, then remember Jim Crow in the South, and the many decades disenfranchised African-Americans spent as electoral losers.

    When progressives stop cheering, they may remember that they are historical opponents of majority rule. It was “tyranny of the majority” that produced racist laws in the South or, if you want, the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Conservatives also traditionally objected to majority rule. For them the problem was the tyranny of the property-less majority that resulted in laws that repudiated debts, violated contracts, and expropriated property before the ratification of the Constitution put a stop to all of this. Along with the two-chamber structure, fear of unconstrained majorities on both sides of the political aisle explains many more features of the American political system—the presidential veto, federalism, the rise of judicial review, and, yes, the voting rules in the Senate.

    Scott Lemieux takes on this argument, pointing out that there was nothing whatsoever "democratic" about Jim Crow. Indeed the notion that "disenfranchised African-Americans" were "electoral losers" argues against itself. Black people could not vote. That was the central problem. To be an "electoral losers" you have to be permitted to compete. 

    A dose of history is needed here. Jim Crow was created to beat back majority rule, not to profit from it. Indeed, Jim Crow was most vicious precisely in those states where black people were a majority. As late as 1930, the majority of people living in Mississippi were black. For South Carolina, 1920. In 1890, for Louisiana. 

    In the wake of "Redemption" black voting in these states—and across the South where significant minorities of blacks lived—was nullified by a long night of domestic terrorism. 

    And domestic terrorism wasn't a quiet affair, but something to be taken to lustily, as when "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman boasted of lynching blacks from the Senate floor:

    We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got.

    As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.

    Or when Klansman and Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo said:

    White people will be justified in going to any extreme to keep the nigger from from voting. You and I know what's the best way to keep the nigger from voting. You do it the night before the election. I don't have to tell you any more than that. Red-blooded men know what I mean. 

    In the 19th and early 20th century, it is not too much to say that a despotic, terrorist faction held considerable sway in our national government, and was the law in many state governments. This faction—the Democratic Party's "Solid South"—did not rule simply be withholding the franchise from blacks, but from whites also.

    From Ira Katznelson's indispensable history of the New Deal, Fear Itself:

    ... in 1890, the planter-dominated Democratic Party ... convened a constitutional convention that established a literacy test and a four-dollar poll tax payable during the the course of the two years before the election. These measures not only eliminated black voting but radically reduced the white electorate as well ...

    More:

    Across the country as a whole, nearly 60 percent of eligible persons voted in the 1940 presidential election. In the South, no state reached a 50 percent level. In Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina turnout rates were were at or below 20 percent.

    Midterm congressional elections attracted even fewer voters. In 1938, Mississippi had a population of 2,138, 796, of whom 49 percent were African-American, yet all seven of its Democrats in the house ... ran unopposed that year .... In all voters in Mississippi cast 35,439 votes .... In California, by contrast, no member of the House from any of its twenty districts, each contested, received fewer than 52,516 votes.

    And what happened when African-Americans rose up in the early 20th century and attempted to overthrow a regime which reigned through undemocratic state-endorsed, state-sponsored, terrorism? Why, there was a filibuster, of course:

    The Senate today ended the thirty-day Southern filibuster against the Wagner-Van Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill by voting, 58 to 22, to lay it aside to take up the $250,000,000 emergency relief resolutions, on which a final vote is pending.

    The filibuster had blocked the Senate throughout the present session on all business except adoption of the Farm and Housing Bill reports.

    The vote came after nearly two hours of vigorous debate, in which Senator Wagner warned that the fight was not over. It was a ``strange'' situation, he said, in which, with seventy or more Senators assertedly in favor of the legislation, the necessary two-thirds vote could not be obtained to invoke closure.

    There's nothing "centrist" about this, unless you by "centrist" you mean a skepticism of people voting, paired with an ignorance of history. It's true that we should be suspicious of other mythologies—such as the idea that "the people" are always the font of all things good. As Lemieux points out, democracy can't devolve into straight majority rule.

    But even that skepticism deserves some context. During Reconstruction, Northern reformers opposed giving women the vote because, they argued, Southern women would simply put in power the same old unreconstructed Confederates. But that happened anyway—John B. Gordon, Alexander Stephens, Wade Hampton, Tillman, and a wave of avowed white supremacists dominated Southern politics for a century. Keeping women disenfranchised saved no one. We chose dishonor over war, to paraphrase Churchill, and got both.

    One wonders what a democratic South—with all women and all men enfranchised—would have looked like. We didn't get to see that until the late 1960s when America finally became a democracy in more that just name. And even now people are working to roll back democracy, to reserve voting rights for those who hold guns, and withhold them from those who hold books. The filibuster will not save us from this.

  • You, Me, and Every Word We Know

    I've never really understood why every other year, it seems, we need another debate over who can and can't use the word "nigger." But here we are in this time of "Whither Richie Incognito?" at it again. You can see me try to tease out some of that thinking in a column this Sunday for The Times. The logic, from my perspective, is fairly obvious and relies more on common sense than a Ph.D. in semiotics:

    A few summers ago one of my best friends invited me up to what he affectionately called his “white-trash cabin” in the Adirondacks. This was not how I described the outing to my family. Two of my Jewish acquaintances once joked that I’d “make a good Jew.” My retort was not, “Yeah, I certainly am good with money.” Gay men sometimes laughingly refer to one another as “faggots.” My wife and her friends sometimes, when having a good time, will refer to one another with the word “bitch.” I am certain that should I decide to join in, I would invite the same hard conversation that would greet me, should I ever call my father Billy.

    "Billy" is what my paternal grandmother and my Aunt Joyce (Dad's older sister) used to call him. Needless to say, I have never called my father "Billy." The idea that all language in all situations should be open to all people is preposterous, and would quickly destroy communication itself. Language depends on context and relationships. If you believe, as I do, that the relationship between black people is distinct, than it follows that their use of language would be distinct. 

    But accepting black peoplehood has always been something of a problem in America, if only because it says that there are limits to white power, that running everything doesn't actually mean running everything. Specifically for the word "nigger," it means accepting something profound—that a group can take a word meant to mark them as pariahs, flip it, make it their own. Try to imagine Hester Prynne rocking the scarlet letter. But try to imagine something more—it's not just that "nigger" has become our own, it's that it's become a marker which says "We are different from you, because of you, and this can never be changed."

    But again, this is not so original. I will never joke about a "white trash picnic." I like women. I will never be a woman. Because of that there's a whole range of communication which I will never partake in. (I often think about my reticence at calling myself a "feminist" in this light.) I love France and I love the French language. I will never be French. I will never be comfortable with the kind of self-deprecation and self-mockery which I heard French people employ when discussing their own country.

    Communities are not simply about warmth, hugs and nice dinners. They are also about borders. I strongly suspect that were you to interrogate the history of communities who are seen as a problem by those in power—the Jews in Europe, women everywhere, the poor in 18th-century London—you would see a similar contentiousness over the borders (and perhaps even the names) which they claim as their own.

  • More Scalias and Thomases Please

    Democrats have nothing to fear from filibuster reform.

    As Harry Reid pushes to end the ability of the minority party to filibuster judges and executive appointees, I think it's worth reconsidering this quote from Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley:

    "Many of those on the other side who are clamoring for rules change and almost falling over themselves to do it have never served a single day in the minority," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Tuesday in a floor speech. "All I can say is this—be careful what you wish for."

    "So if the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, then I say go ahead," he said. "There are a lot more Scalias and [Clarence] Thomases that we'd love to put on the bench. The nominees we'd nominate and put on the bench with 51 votes would interpret the constitution as it was written."

    I don't know. I think understanding the electoral stakes of an election in stark and clear terms is really healthy. Threatening to appoint "more Scalias and Thomases" is basically threatening to appoint more judges who would unwaveringly hew to their vision of the country. That any political party would like to do this strikes me as unsurprising. The place to decide whether we're going to have "more Scalias and Thomases" is the ballot box. That's why during debates candidates are usually asked about the kind of judges they'd appoint. The place to decide whether having "more Scalias and Thomases" actually worked out is the election following. 

    Elections don't always have consequences, but they should. You can't judge a party's agenda if they don't get a chance to actually implement. Judicial and executive appointments are indispensable to that endeavor. If you don't want to even have the experiment, if you don't like being in the minority, win the damn election—which is another way of saying, make the case to the American people. 

    There's a separate issue here about the wisdom of lifetime judicial appointments. But the filibuster needs, at the very least, reform.

  • Why Black Folks Tend to Shout

    What to make of a third violent incident involving the man who killed Trayvon Martin

    Very few black people were shocked by the lamentable return of George Zimmerman to the headlines:

    Mr. Zimmerman, 30, was charged with domestic aggravated assault, domestic battery and criminal mischief after he and his girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, had an argument at their home in Apopka, northwest of Orlando, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Dennis Lemma of Seminole County. Ms. Scheibe told investigators that she had asked Mr. Zimmerman to leave the residence, and that he had begun packing his belongings, including two firearms, before growing agitated and turning violent.

    Deputy Lemma said that Mr. Zimmerman had “broken a table and, at one point, pointed a long-barreled shotgun” at Ms. Scheibe, who said he had aimed at her for about a minute. Later in the altercation, the authorities said, Mr. Zimmerman forced Ms. Scheibe, who was uninjured, out of the home before obstructing a doorway with furniture.

    “He just pushed me out of my house and locked me out,” Ms. Scheibe told a 911 dispatcher.

    Zimmerman has a somewhat different version of events:

    In his own 911 call before the deputies entered the home, Mr. Zimmerman said that Ms. Scheibe was pregnant with his child and that he wanted “everyone to know the truth” about Monday’s episode.

    “I never pulled a firearm. I never displayed it,” he said. “When I was packing it, I’m sure she saw it. I mean, we keep it next to the bed.”

    He also said Ms. Scheibe was responsible for the broken table when she started “smashing stuff, taking stuff that belonged to me, throwing it outside, throwing it out of her room, throwing it all over the house.”

    It may well be true that, against all his strivings, trouble stalks George Zimmerman. It may be true that George Zimmerman never pointed a shotgun at his girlfriend's face. That Ms. Scheibe smashed a table, took his stuff, started throwing it and then called 911 on herself. That she was simply being poetic when she said "you pointed your gun in my freaking face and told me get the fuck out" and then added "he knows how to do this. He knows how to play this game." 

    And it may be true that in September when Zimmerman's estranged wife, Shelly Zimmerman, claimed that he had punched her father and threatened them with a gun she was embellishing*. That when she called 911 and said "I'm really afraid. I don't know what he's capable of. I'm really scared," she was suffering some form of hallucination. That Zimmerman had not smashed his wife's iPad. That it was his wife that assaulted him with it. That Shelly's father had challenged Zimmerman to a fight.

    And it may well be true that Trayvon Martin was empowered by a heretofore unknown strain of marijuana which confers super strength. That in a fit of Negroid rage, a boy with no criminal history decided to ambush a hapless neighborhood watchman. That the boy told Zimmerman, "You gonna die tonight, motherfucker," punched him, banged his head against the concrete repeatedly and then reached for his gun. That in killing the boy, Zimmerman rid the world of a gun-runner and drug dealer

    And it may well be that George Zimmerman is yet another victim of the nefarious forces of  black privilege. That he is helpless against the hordes of hyper-violent blacks, crazed women and the machinations of Eric Holder. That George Zimmerman continuing to live armed is evidence of sane public policy and a polite society. 

    Only God knows what George Zimmerman did on that rainy night in Sanford. God is not in the habit of talking—because we are not in the habit of listening. 


    * Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to Shelly Zimmerman as George Zimmerman's ex-wife. We regret the error.

  • The Case of Renisha McBride

     I believe that we live in a country that justifies killing in response to someone "banging" on your door. I hope I am wrong.

    It's been a little more than two weeks since Renisha McBride was killed in Dearborn Heights. An inebriated McBride crashed her car, and somehow, wandered on to the porch of Theodore Wafer. McBride was evidently knocking on the door. Wafer responded by killing her:

    The Dearborn Heights homeowner dialed 911, telling the dispatcher: “I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun banging on my door.”

    When police arrived, 19-year-old Renisha McBride was lying on her back with her feet pointed toward the door, a shotgun wound to her face, a newly released police report says.

    On Friday, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced second-degree murder and other charges against homeowner Theodore Wafer, saying the evidence suggests he opened the front door before he fired through the closed and locked screen door, killing McBride.

    “I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams of what that man feared from her to shoot her in the face,” her mother Monica McBride said on Friday. “I would like to know why. She brought him no danger.”

    Unfortunately whether Wafer was in danger or not is irrelevant to whether he will be convicted of any crime. He has been charged with second-degree murder. The standard for self-defense in Michigan provides for the use of "deadly force or force other than deadly force honestly and reasonably believes that the individual is engaging in conduct described in subdivision (a)" (my emphasis).

    Here is a preview of what you will likely hear:

    It’s not yet clear what kind of argument Theodore Wafer, the Dearborn Heights man accused of shooting the 19-year-old McBride through his screen door on Nov. 2 and charged with 2nd-degree murder on Friday, might use in his defense. But the bar will be high.

    “The standard for self-defense is that you reasonably perceive a threat of death or serious bodily harm from the other person. You respond with equal force. You can’t use deadly force ample to defend your home or to prevent someone from stealing your property. It can only be used for self-defense or defense of others,” Henning says.

    Authorities say McBride came to Wafer’s door around 4:30 a.m. after crashing her car. A toxicology report found twice the legal limit of alcohol in her blood.

    Could there be valid argument of self-defense in this case if the defendant was behind a locked screen door? “Certainly that’s a possibility,” says Henning. “It is possible that there was shouting, or perhaps an effort to open up the door, or bang on a window or something like that could give him a basis to believe that there was a threat that someone was going to break into his home. From there, you could infer a threat of death or serious bodily harm.”

    I'm not optimistic about this case. There are no eyewitnesses. The killing happened at the man's home as opposed to out on the street. And the only direct narrative will come from the lips of a killer who has every interest to shape that narrative in a way that justifies his actions. 

    I haven't written much on this case, because I don't know what else to offer beyond my deep skepticism of the courts as a likely resolution. It is painful to keep writing this. I believe that we live in a country that justifies killing in response to someone "banging" on your door. I hope I am wrong. It is sickening to believe myself right. It is sickening to see a polite society submit to gun law.

  • Yeah, Alec Baldwin Is a Bigot

    Supporting marriage rights doesn't mean you aren't a homophobe.

    AP

    I stole that headline from Andrew Sullivan, because like Andrew, I don't really understand how there can be much debate about Alec Baldwin's tendency to insult people who have angered him with the word "faggot" ("cocksucking fag" to be specific). "Faggot," like most slurs, is a word used to remove a group from the protections of society. It is not incidental that slurs frequently accompany acts of violence—both systemic (withholding the protections of the law) and personal (beatings, torture and killings). 

    Along with that societal estrangement comes an entire series of justificationsphysical weakness and immorality being the main ones. When Baldwin calls someone who has angered him a faggot, he is invoking those justifications. He is saying, "Your behavior is like that of a gay man and you should be treated as such." It is not a mistake that this reaction accompanies a temper bordering on violence. 

    This is bigotry. And it is not complicated by the fact that Baldwin  supports marriage equality. One need not believe that LGBTQ human beings are equal to support their right to marry, any more than one needed to be an anti-racist to support abolition, or an anti-sexist to support women's suffrage. There any number of self-interested reasons to support the advancement of civil rights. "Let them niggers vote" or "let them fags marry" is actually a politically consistent position. It says, "I don't like you, but I'm not willing to put my tax dollars behind my dislike." Or even, "I don't like you, but I think I can profit from taking this position."

    This is progress. But it certainly isn't the end of bigotry. And progressives, in this enlightened age, should not be in the habit of handing out cookies to bigots who happen to be politically sophisticated. One of Andrew's commenters begins by claiming that he feels "slimy" defending Baldwin. The commenter then launches a defense of his right to use the word faggot (and nigger) when angered. But if it feels slimy, it almost always is slimy. It is slimy to want credit for recognizing someone else's humanity, while avoiding a confrontation with the standards for your own. 

    UPDATE: Sorry, but I forgot to quote this essential graff from Andrew:

    In my view, the gay rights movement is not, at its core, about enacting legislation, or merely a political struggle. It is a moral case for the equal dignity of gay people, and for mutual respect. What deeply troubles me is not so much that one hot-headed actor is a bigot, but that his public support for gay causes is effectively buying him a right to perpetuate the vilest canards and hatreds that have demeaned gay people for centuries. What disturbs me is that pro forma support for various gay organizations or causes gives this man permission to perpetuate the foulest forms of bigotry – and never take full responsibility for it, and to do it again and again, with no penalty or the faintest sense that he has really done something terribly wrong by his own alleged standards.

    Dead on. 

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