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 Smartest Nerd in the Room

    Why Melissa Harris-Perry is America's foremost public intellectual, and what she means

    Melissa Harris-Perry/Facebook

    On Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry apologized on air for segment that made light of the Romney clan's adoption of a young black boy. On Sunday, Mitt Romney accepted Harris-Perry's "heartfelt" apology, noting, "I've made plenty of mistakes myself." I've watched the offending segment several times now. I can see how a white parent who'd adopted a black child (or vice versa) would find the segment flip and offensive. It would not have surprised me if those concerned about adoption, equality, and racism voiced some protest about the segment. Instead what we got was week of invective driven mostly by a conservative movement with less lofty concerns.

    "Harris-Perry has been a public laughingstock for some time now," wrote John Nolte. "P.S. The Duck Dynasty family has an adopted black child. Maybe this is why the media hate them so much." Nolte was writing for the site named for the man who engineered the "Shirley Sherrod is a racist" hoax. There has never been an apology for that and there won't be one. That is because the conservative movement does not believe that racism is an actual issue to be grappled with, but sees it instead as a hand grenade to be lobbed into an enemy camp. One week we find Sarah Palin defending a man who thought my father was better off living under state-sponsored terrorism. The next we find her arguing that history's greatest monster is one Melissa Harris-Perry. 

    When not attempting to shame their enemies on trumped-up charges of racism, the conservative movement busies itself appealing to actual racists. We are into the sixth year of the era of a black president. In that time the conservative movement has gorged on a steady diet of watermelon jokeswaffle jokes, affirmative-action jokes, monkey jokes, barbecue jokes, terrorist machinations, secret Muslim plots, and dastardly Kenyan conspiracies. Three months ago, the movement reached a new low, waving the flag of slavery in front of the Obama's home. It is tempting to call this the climax of a long campaign. That would exhibit an unearned optimism at odds with history.

    Mitt Romney is not immune to this trend—he embodies it. On July of 2012, then-candidate Romney spoke to the NAACP (allegedly planting his own supporters). Later that day, he went before a crowd of conservatives and pitched his speech as follows:

    I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston and I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don't give different speeches to different audiences alright. I gave them the same speech. When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren't happy, I didn't get the same response. That's OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don't stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that's just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy-more free stuff. But don't forget nothing is really free. 

    A few months later Barack Obama ended Romney's political career. Romney responded as follows:

    Mitt Romney told his top donors Wednesday that his loss to President Obama was a disappointing result that neither he nor his top aides had expected, but said he believed his team ran a “superb” campaign with “no drama,” and attributed his rival’s victory to “the gifts” the administration had given to blacks, Hispanics and young voters during Obama’s first term.

    Racism is, among other things, the unearned skepticism of one group of humans joined to the unearned sympathy for another. Mitt Romney was born into a state whose policy was white supremacy, whose policy was to heap "gifts" upon people who looked like him, at the expense of people who looked like Barack Obama. Romney's familiarity with white supremacy was not passive and distant but direct and tangible. As a child he lived in a neighborhood which, by the employment of compacts, red-lining, and terrorism, was an exclusive white preserve.

    As an adult, Romney worships in a church that as late as 1978 took racism not simply as policy but as the word of God. It is possible the church believes this even to this day.* In 2012, the Washington Post looked at the Mormon church's racist history. Reporter Jason Horowitz talked to Brigham Young University professor of religion Randy Bott, who explained the church's take on its past:

    “God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.

    “What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth—although not in the afterlife—protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

    There is a sense that Romney's grandchild should be off-limits to mockery. That strikes me as fair. It also doesn't strike me that mocking was what Harris-Perry was doing. The problem was making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy. That's a weighty subtext. But there is no one more worthy, and more capable, of holding that conversation than America's most foremost public intellectual—Melissa Harris-Perry.

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  • Grappling With Holodomor

    Thoughts On Timothy Snyder's The Bloodlands

    A few days ago, I listened to a chapter in Timothy Snyder's The Bloodlands on famine in Ukraine during the 1930s.  The famine was man-made--the result of Stalin making war against his own citizens in Ukraine. I listened (I have the book in MP3 format) to about 90 percent of the chapter before I just had to cut it off. I generally have a strong stomach when it come to reading about evil, but this was too much:

    Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.

    That people were starving to death in Ukraine, and that this was a political act, not an act of God, was hidden from the world. And then sometimes the world just looked away:

    Throughout the following summer and autumn, Ukrainian newspapers in Poland covered the famine, and Ukrainian politicians in Poland organized marches and protests. The leader of the Ukrainian feminist organization tried to organize an international boycott of Soviet goods by appealing to the women of the world. Several attempts were made to reach Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president of the United States.96 None of this made any difference.

    The laws of the international market ensured that the grain taken from Soviet Ukraine would feed others. Roosevelt, preoccupied above all by the position of the American worker during the Great Depression, wished to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The telegrams from Ukrainian activists reached him in autumn 1933, just as his personal initiative in US-Soviet relations was bearing fruit. The United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933.

    In August of 1933, French politician Édouard Herriot came to Kiev to see the socialist spirit. Instead he got a show. Food--meant for display not consumption--was put in the shops. Party activist were brought in to make it seem as though the town were bustling. The healthiest of the starving children were trotted out and coached to give pre-approved answers. Herriot was then chauffeured on to Moscow where supped on caviar. He would later praise Soviet actions for honoring both "the socialist spirit" and the "Ukrainian national feeling."

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  • Talk to Me Like I'm Stupid: Collectivization in the Soviet Union

    I want to ask a question of those who've followed these threads on Postwar and now Bloodlands. I'd like to talk those of you who've spent some time thinking about, reading about, or researching the history of the Soviet Union. I am trying to understood what Lenin, and then, Stalin was trying to accomplish. I have it this way so far:

    1.) Marx's theory of communism held that there would be a worker's revolution.

    A.) The revolution would begin in the industrialized states.

    B.) The revolution would lead to communism where the workers, themselves, ran shit.

    2.) Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were communists.

    A.) They did not believe in waiting for revolution, they sought foment one.

    B.) They did not live in an industrialized state.

    3.)  1A and 2B are in conflict. The Bolsheviks seek to resolve this conflict by industrializing.

    A.) The funds for industrializing come from the crops grown by the peasantry to buy heavy machinery.

    B.) The peasants lands are seized by the state and organized into collectives.

    Is this basically a correct formulation of the plan?

    What follows, of course, is something out of mix of World War Z and 12 Years A Slave. Famine. Roving bands of cannibals. State-sponsored slavery. More on that later, but I'd like to understand the basics of the plan before we start critiquing it and outlining its grim (horrifying, actually) results. 

    As with all these threads, please do not talk out of boredom, to be "first," or to simply "say something." Ask questions. But don't talk out of the side of your neck. In fact, I'll leave comments locked for a moment.

  • The Myth of Western Civilization

     Nicolae Ceaușescu, African Big Man

    I finished Tony Judt's Postwar--a book which ends as it begins, with Europe in process--just in time to catch the most recent reported musings of Phil Robertson. Here he is offering Christian marriage counseling to a young man:

    I said "Well son, I'm going give you some river rat counseling, here. Make that sure she can cook a meal. You need to eat some meals that she cooks. Check that out. Make sure she carries her Bible. That'll save you some trouble down the road. And if she picks your ducks, now that's a woman."

    They got to where they getting hard to find, mainly because these boys are waiting until they get to be about 20 years old before they marry 'em. Look, you wait ‘til they get to be twenty years-old and the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they’re about fifteen or sixteen and they’ll pick your ducks. You need to check with Mom and Dad about that of course.

    In many parts of America, this is an argument for statutory rape. More specifically, it is an argument for men seeking to elide the power of grown women, by seeking their sexual partners among teenage girls. This style of svengalism is generally seen as repugnant to our morality. Phil Robertson believes that society should withhold civil rights from consenting gay men, while allowing men like him to push the age of consent to its breaking point. The contradiction here is as predictable as it is ridiculous. The loudest of doomsayers, so often, carry the weightiest of sin. 

    Postwar ends with a Europe of Hitler's nightmares--darker, older, less Christian. The continent is teetering, its welfare state endangered, its peace, uneasy before the genocide in the Balkans. One get the sense that Judt believes that Europe has accomplished something--relative prosperity, democracy in most of its countries, lengthening life spans, acknowledgment of the Holocaust. But Judt believes in a world of actions, not monuments, and not shibboleths. Democracy is a struggle, not a trophy and not a bragging right. This is not a matter of being polite and sensitive. It is understanding that we live on the edge of the volcano, that the volcano is in us. Judt is keenly aware that late 20th century Europe's accomplishments could be wrecked by the simple actions of men.

    When I lived in Paris, this summer, I loved walking across Pont Neuf. There was something to the idea that I was standing on a bridge older (by centuries) than my entire homeland. When the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milošević rallied the Serbs, at Blackbird's Field, he was appealing to a memory older than Columbus. But Pont Neuf could fall next week. And everyone knows what followed Milošević's words.

    Vulgar nationalists often point to Europe as evidence of something that all humans, from Phil Robertson on down, strive for--certain civilized ground. And yet the greatest proponents of such certainty, of Utopia, of exceptionalism, of soloutionism, of Stalinism, of Bibles, of Qurans, of great civilization, and complete theories, are so often themselves engineers on the road to barbarism. What Judt wants us to see is the tenuousness of human creations, and thus the tenuousness of the West, itself. Having concluded that Europe (though not its Eastern half) has finally, in fits and starts, come to grapple with the Holocaust, he grows skeptical:

    Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorialisation incomplete. Its inherent implausibility—the sheer difficulty of conceiving of it in calm retrospect—opens the door to diminution and even denial. Impossible to remember as it truly was, it is inherently vulnerable to being remembered as it wasn’t. Against this challenge memory itself is helpless

    But memory is constantly invoked. When Nicolae Ceauşescu's henchmen begin to turn on him, they condemn him in predictable terms: 

    Romania is and remains a European country. . . . You have begun to change the geography of the rural areas, but you cannot move Romania into Africa.

    But Romania, is, indeed, in Africa--the Africa of European imagination, the Africa which justified slavery, which brims with rape, murder and cannibalism. All of Europe lives in that imagined, projected Africa. In a little over a decade, in the middle of the civilized continent, 14 million people were killed.  

    From Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands:

    No matter which technology was used, the killing was personal. People who starved were observed, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seen through the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains, and then rushed into the gas chambers. They lost their possessions and then their clothes and then, if they were women, their hair. Each one of them died a different death, since each one of them had lived a different life.

    Snyder quotes the poet Anna Ahkmotova addressing the legions of the dead--"I'd like to call you all by name."

    I don't think there's anything original in the blood of Europe that allows for this kind of human misery. And  I don't think there's anything in the blood that allows for Pont Neuf, either. Nations seem to require myth. Romania's governing history is filled with big men, autocrats and despots. But the European super-nation has long needed to believe itself above the world, above native America, above Asia, and particularly above Africa. The truth is more disconcerting: The dark continent has never been South of the Sahara, but South of Minsk and East of Aachen in the jungles of the European soul. 

    That the enemy is us, is never easy to take. Yesterday, Confederates routinely accused Northerners of attempting to reduce them to slavery. Today, men who convene with Confederate flags at the White House, accuse the president of racism. Yesterday, the civilized man accuses you of barbarism, while practicing sophisticated human sacrifice to the God Of Nations, while reducing his lordly estate to a house of the dead. The homophobe accuses you of sexual immorality and damns you to hell, while preaching a gospel which would make wives of children. 

    I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does. 

    I'm also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can't guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don't know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality. And I now feel myself more historian than journalist.  

    "History contributes to the disenchantment of the world," writes Judt.

    ...most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive—which is why it is not always politically prudent to wield the past as a moral cudgel with which to beat and berate a people for its past sins.  But history does need to be learned—and periodically re-learned. In a popular Soviet-era joke, a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing’.  So it does—and not only in totalitarian societies. 

     
    All the same, the rigorous investigation and interrogation of Europe’s competing pasts—and the place occupied by those pasts in Europeans’ collective sense of themselves—has been one of the unsung achievements and sources of European unity in recent decades. It is, however, an achievement that will surely lapse unless ceaselessly renewed. Europe’s barbarous recent history, the dark ‘other’ against which post-war Europe was laboriously constructed, is already beyond recall for young Europeans. 

    Within a generation the memorials and museums will be gathering dust—visited, like the battlefields of the Western Front today, only by aficionados and relatives. If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us. The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past.  If Europeans are to maintain this vital link—if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose—then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.

    Happy New Year all.

  • Why I'm Against 'Daddy Days'

    Don't give dudes special credit for things they're supposed to do anyway.

    It's worth checking out Liza Mundy's piece in the magazine on paternity leave and policy. It's a fairly enthusiastic endorsement, arguing that leave isn't just good for fathers but good all around. Here's Mundy on the successes of "Daddy Days" internationally:

    Some countries began recalibrating, shortening leave for women and offering “neutral leave” that could be taken by either parent—but which became de facto maternity leave. So policy makers decided to make men an offer they would feel ashamed to refuse. Norway, Iceland, Germany, Finland, and several other countries offered a variety of incentives to nudge men to take leave. Some countries offered them more money, which helped men feel that they were financially supporting their families even when they were at home. Many also adopted a “use it or lose it” approach, granting each family a total amount of leave, a certain portion of which could be used only by fathers. The brilliance of “daddy days,” as this solution came to be known, is that, rather than feeling stigmatized for taking time off from their jobs, many men now feel stigmatized if they don’t. 

    I confess to some bit of philosophical, and personal, distance from the piece rooted in my odd upbringing. My dad stayed home with me. He cooked. My mother was, for significant periods of my childhood, the main breadwinner. This does not mean I lived in a family without gender roles. I'd bet money that my mother still put down most of the hours, in terms of housework. But it did mean that my model of fatherhood was a little different. Moreover, because there were so few fathers in my neighborhood, this was one of the few models of fathering I regularly saw.

    When my son was born, I stayed at home. And for most of our relationship, my wife made more money than me. (Can't make them Benjis writin' articles, yo.) I cook. I don't think any of this has much to do with being particularly enlightened nor progressive, nor feminist. As with my dad, I'm sure if you tallied the housework hours, I'd—until recently—lose. There's nothing to crow about in that "recently," either. My wife went back to school (a luxury). We can afford to bring people in to clean when we need to. Effectively, any change in housework hours is really a change in class ranks. 

    The change has been significant, if unwieldy. Our first year in New York we lived off of roughly $30,000. I was 25 and contributed roughly $1,000 to that sum. Our son was one. I had no prospects as a writer. My wife had a definable skill, which was in demand. Cooking and taking care of the boy were about all I brought to the relationship. If I couldn't do that, why was I there? Taking care of a kid is what you're supposed to do when you're a father.

    I felt a lot of things in those days—lonely, broke, sometimes frustrated. But what I didn't feel in my allegedly hyper-macho black community was stigmatized. And I don't think my dad felt that way either. If anything, I felt like I got a lot more credit than I deserved. I'd put the boy in the stroller, head down Flatbush, and a cheering section would damn near break out. The only people I felt stigmatized by were old black women, who were certain I was about to either direct the stroller into a cloud of influenza or the path of an oncoming train.

    So rather than hear about the stigma men feel in terms of taking care of kids, I'd like for men to think more about the stigma that women feel when they're trying to build a career and a family. And then measure whatever angst they're feeling against the real systemic forces that devalue the labor of women. I think that's what's at the root of much of this: When some people do certain work we cheer. When others do it we yawn. I appreciated the hosannas when I was strolling down Flatbush, but I doubt the female electrician walking down the same street got the same treatment.

    This is obviously not a case against parental leave, so much as its a beef with the idea of "paternity leave." I always worry when we have to couch our language so that people with power don't get their feelings hurt. So you feel stigmatized for a few years. We're all very sorry, and hope for the day when you don't. (Though with that ugly Baby Bjorn on, son, you should be stigmatized. Not hood at all, my dude.) But the fact that we even have to use the phrase "Daddy Days," that we must have branding for men, says a lot about whose work we value and whose we don't.

  • Jean Grae for Christmas

    A Merry Christmas to the Horde and a special tip: Friend of this blog Jean Grae will be premiering her show "Life With Jeannie" on jeangrae.com tonight. Most of you know Jean for the lyrics (if you don't you should) but she's also has a wicked sense of humor. Somewhere in the vaults there is a tape of me interviewing her, and attempting to keep up with her on the jokes. Didn't work. Watch the promo below. (With friend of the blog, Wyatt Cenac.) Then watch the show tonight.

  • Our God-Given Constitutional Right to a Television Show

    Words mean what God says they mean. How do you know what God says? Ask us.

    The writer Josh Barro has compiled a heart-warming collection of affectionate and supportive notes sent by loving Christians hoping to save him from his sinful and murderous ways. Barro's writings on Phil Robertson provoked this joyous outpouring of excellent news.

    Feel the love:

    Here's what I know, after having read your column: you're an ignorant, hateful, hate-filled, ill-informed, bigoted, racist heterophobic bully.

    Just to be sure, let me repeat that for you: you're an ignorant, hateful, hate-filled, ill-informed, bigoted, racist, heterophobic bully.

    Just like the executives at A&E. Just like Bull Connor. Just like Al Sharpton. Just like Barack Hussein Obama. Just like Adolph Hitler.

    I like when people repeat things. The rest of these jubilant tidings run the gamut from accusations of treason to physical threats. It warms my heart to see gay men singled out for this particular specimen of affection, because no one needs more love and affection than America's gays and lesbians.

    We must love them when they are "full of murder, envy, strife, hatred." We must love them though they "are insolent, arrogant, God-haters." We must love them when "they are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless." And we should especially love them when they strive to "invent new ways of doing evil."

    Surely our love shall be questioned by Marxists and Muslims. We should respond by noting that we "would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different," that "We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity." and that "We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other." We, the true followers of God, know that our love should be hot as fire, and bountiful as the flood which might carry the sinners into the earliest possible grave.

    We will be called bigots for saying this. But we know that it is the unloving Secular-Shinto-Marxist-Islamo-Kenyan-Liberal-Fascist-Socialists who are the real bigots. We are but the bearers of traditional values and Judeo-Christian heritage, which means we need never be truthful, curious, nor particularly well-informed.

    Words mean what God says they mean. How do you know what God says? Ask us. Here is what God says: God says we are right. God says we are love. God says that no one may criticize us without criticizing America. God says we are America. God says we should be on TV.

  • Phil Robertson's America

    The Duck Dynasty star's warped vision of civil-rights history feeds his warped view of today's gay-rights struggle.

    The Milwaukee Journal, January 27, 1935

    I've yet to take in an episode of Duck Dynasty. I hear it's a fine show, anchored by a humorous and good-natured family of proud Americans. I try to be good natured, and I have been told that I can appreciate a good joke. I am also a proud American. With so much in common, it seems natural that I take some interest in the views of my brethren on the history of the only country any of us can ever truly call home:

    I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field .... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! ... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

    That is Robertson responding to a reporter's question about life in Louisiana, before the civil-rights movement. I am sure Robertson did see plenty of black people who were singing and happy. And I am also sure that very few black people approached Robertson to complain about "doggone white people." 

    I have some idea why:

    The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche.

    Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl ...

    Arrested Oct. 10, 1933, in the slaying days earlier of Anna Mae LaRose, a 15-year-old girl who was his friend, Moore was pulled from the parish jail in Napoleonville the next night by an angry mob of 50 to 200 armed and unmasked people who had the prison keys.

    Some accounts say the lynchers were unknown and from out of town, as far away as New Orleans, while others say the mob was known to authorities. A coroner’s jury, impaneled by then-parish Coroner Dr. T.B. Pugh, said Moore “met death by a mob of unknown persons,” according to news accounts.

    After being hauled from the jail, Moore was brought to the field where LaRose’s body was found, according to an Oct. 14, 1933, account in the black-owned New Orleans newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly. With a rope around his neck and clothes stripped to his waist, the teen was then marched, while being beaten, from the murder scene to the bridge and subjected to a branding iron whenever he fell.

    Hanging from his body, a sign offered the final indignity: “Niggers Let This Be An Example. Do-Not-Touch-In 24 Hr. Mean it.”

    As white people reviewed the scene on the bridge and black residents were warned to stay away, Moore’s body remained within sight of a school and the venerable St. Philomena Catholic Church, its spire above the fray.

    One should not be lulled into thinking that the murder of Freddie Moore was out of the ordinary in Louisiana. Between 1882 and 1936, only Georgia, Texas and Mississippi saw more black people lynched. For part of that period four of Louisiana's parishes led the nation for counties with the most lynchings.

    That is because governance in Phil Robertson's Louisiana was premised on terrorism. As late as 1890, the majority of people in Louisiana were black. As late as 1902, they still lived under threat of slavery through debt peonage and the convict-lease system. Virtually all of them were pilfered of their vote and their tax dollars. Plunder and second slavery were enforced by violence, as when the besiegers of Colfax massacred 50 black freedmen with rifles and cannon and tossed their bodies into a river. Even today the Colfax Massacre is honored in Louisiana as the rightful "end of carpetbag misrule." 

    The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about "white people" to a man like Robertson. Ignorance is no great sin and one can forgive the good-natured white person for not knowing how all that cannibal sausage was truly made. But having been presented with a set of facts, Robertson's response is to cite "welfare" and "entitlement" as the true culprits.

    The belief that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship is a persistent strain of thought in this country. This belief reflects the inability to cope with an America that is, at least rhetorically, committed to equality. One can clearly see the line from this kind of thinking to a rejection of the civil-rights movement of our age: 

    Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” [Robertson] says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

    This is not just ignorance; it is a willful retreat into myth. And we must have the intellectual courage and moral strength to follow the myth through. If swindlers, goat-fuckers, and gay men are really all the same—disinherited from the kingdom of God—why not treat them the same? How does one argue that a man who is disfavored by the Discerner of All Things, should not be shamed, should not jeered, should not be stoned, should not be lynched in the street?

    Further retreat into the inanity of loving the sinner but hating the sin—a standard that would clean The Wise Helmsman himself—will not do. Actual history shows that humans are not so discriminating. Black people were once thought to be sinners. We were rewarded with a species of love that bore an odd resemblance to hate. One need not be oversensitive to be concerned about Phil Robertson's thoughts on gay sex. One simply need be a student of American history. 

  • Nicolae Ceauşescu: 'Nimbus of Victory,' Megalomaniacal Tyrant, Friend of America

    National Archives

    One of the more depressing aspects of last week's appraisals of Mandela was how it revealed a depressing willingness to ignore world history, in general, and American history particularly. The constant harping on Mandela's alliance with communists, ignores this country's alliance with everyone from Louis XVI to Josef Stalin. This would not even be worth mentioning were it not for some peculiar need for some to present America as a beacon of democracy ever untrammeled by statecraft and politics. 

    One need not look past living memory to find our partnerships in conflict with our stated ideals:

    This morning the people of the United States are honored by having as our guest a great leader of a great country. President Ceausescu comes here from Romania with his wife, Elena, and it is a great personal pleasure for me on behalf of our country to welcome them...

    There are differences, obviously, between the United States and Romania, in our political system and also in our military alliances. But the factors which bind us together are much more profound and of much greater benefit to our countries. We share common beliefs. We believe in strong national sovereignty. We believe in preserving the independence of our nations and also of our people. We believe in the importance of honoring territorial integrity throughout the world. We believe in equality among nations in bilateral dealings, one with another, and also in international councils. We believe in the right of every country to be free from interference in its own internal affairs by another country. And we believe that world peace can come—which we both devoutly hope to see—through mutual respect, even among those who have some differences between us.

    Our goals are also the same, to have a just system of economics and politics, to let the people of the world share in growth, in peace, in personal freedom, and in the benefits to be derived from the proper utilization of natural resources.

    We believe in enhancing human rights. We believe that we should enhance, as independent nations, the freedom of our own people. 

    That is president Jimmy Carter greeting Romania's communist president Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1978. Again Tony Judt paints the picture of what Ceauşescu's belief in "enhancing human rights" actually looked like:

    In 1966, to increase the population—a traditional ‘Romanianist’ obsession—he prohibited abortion for women under forty with fewer than four children (in 1986 the age barrier was raised to forty-five). In 1984 the minimum marriage age for women was reduced to fifteen. Compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age were introduced to prevent abortions, which were permitted, if at all, only in the presence of a Party representative. Doctors in districts with a declining birth rate had their salaries cut.

    The population did not increase, but the death rate from abortions far exceeded that of any other European country: as the only available form of birth control, illegal abortions were widely performed, often under the most appalling and dangerous conditions. Over the ensuing twenty-three years the 1966 law resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women. The real infant mortality rate was so high that after 1985 births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week—the apotheosis of Communist control of knowledge. By the time Ceauşescu was overthrown the death rate of new-born babies was twenty-five per thousand and there were upward of 100,000 institutionalized children.

    One gets some sense of Ceauşescu's reign by looking at the names awarded him--"The Architect," "The Creed-Shaper," "The Wise Helmsman," "The Tallest Mast," The Nimbus of Victory," "The Sun Of The Son." If Nicolae Ceauşescu hadn't been a totalitarian, he surely would have been an MC.

    But Ceauşescu's reign did not discomfit a nation pledged to anticommunism, freedom and democracy:

    ...eight months after imprisoning the strike leaders in the Jiu Valley (and murdering their leaders) the Romanian dictator was visiting the United States as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. By taking his distance from Moscow—we have seen how Romania abstained from the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia—Ceauşescu bought himself freedom of maneuver and even foreign acclaim, particularly in the early stages of the ‘new’ Cold War of the 1980s. Because the Romanian leader was happy to criticize the Russians (and send his gymnasts to the Los Angeles Olympics), Americans and others kept quiet about his domestic crimes. Romanians, however, paid a terrible price for Ceauşescu’s privileged status. 

    As you can see from the picture, Carter's decision to receive "The Wise Helmsman" says very little about Carter, individually, and a great deal about American policy, and a great deal more about the nature of states. I love my country. I just wish we could cultivate a broad sense of ourselves wary of sanctimony.

    A quick word on Tony Judt. I'm nearing the end of Postwar. This has been a great read. It's just a few steps below Battle Cry of Freedom in my pantheon. I'd add that I greatly appreciate those who read this with me, and were able to contextualize and correct some of the information. This was particularly helpful in Eastern Europe. 

     

  • The Gangs of Chicago

    Just a gangsta, I suppose. (Photo by Author)

    I spent last week trooping through North Lawndale, on the West Side of Chicago, with the Atlantic's video team. We spent much of Friday with some positive folks over at the Better Boys Foundation (BBF) in K-Town. Then we went outside to get some sense of the neighborhood. I've spent a lot of time in North Lawndale over the past year. It is one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. It is also achingly beautiful. Wide boulevards cut through the neighborhood, the old Sears building looms in the distance, and the great greystones mark many of the blocks. If you stand at the corner of Springfield and Ogden, as I have, right next to the Lawndale Christian Health Center across from Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, you can see the great wealth of Chicago, indeed the great wealth of America, looming over all those who long toiled to make it so.

    That Friday, it snowed all day and we walked the blocks, Sam, Kasia, Paul and me, with our guides, running mostly on the odd joy one gets imbibes from the kind of exploration that should be what journalism is about. Towards the end of the afternoon we were standing on a corner shooting one of our hosts. Kids were walking home. We were standing on a street designated as a route for Chicago's Safe Passage program. Volunteers, bundled like scientists of the arctic, stood across the way, nodding as children passed.

    The afternoon was quiet. The street-lights were just beginning to flirt. There was no sun. A group of older boys, with no books, came aimlessly down the street. Our host called one of them over and hassled him for not having stopped by BBF recently. BBF is a fortress in a section of this long warred upon section of the city. Kids can go to BBF to read, make beats, make video or play table-top hockey. The conversation between our host and the kid was familiar to me. It was the way men addressed me, as a child, when they were trying to save my life. Aimlessness is the direct path to oblivion for black boys. Occupy the child till somewhere around 25, till he passes out of his hot years, and you may see him actually become something.

    Catercorner to the volunteers of Safe Passage, two cops sat in an SUV, snug and warm. Our video team was shooting the conversation between our host and the kid. One of the cops rolled down his window and yelled, "Excuse me you need to take your cameras off this corner. It's Safe Passage."

    I didn't know anything about Safe Passage and the law. If the program prohibits video footage on a public street, I haven't been able to document any record of it. But it is police, after all, which is to say humans empowered by the state with the right to mete out violence as he sees fit. We backed up a bit. Our host kept talking. The cops yelled out again. "You need to move, bud. This is Safe Passage."  At this point our host yelled back and contentious back and forth began. Things calmed down when one of our cameramen walked down the street with our host to get a few different shots. 

    A few months ago, on one of my other trips to Chicago, I was at a dinner with a group of wonks. The wonks were upset that the community, and its appointed represenatives, would not support mandatory minimums for gun charges. I--shamefully I now think--agreed with them. It's not simply that I now think I was wrong, it's that I forgot my role. I mean no disrespect to my hosts. But whenever reformers convene for a nice dinner and good wine, a writer should never allow himself to get too comfortable.  

    One of my friends, who grew up on the South Side, and was the only other black male at the table, was the only one who disagreed. His distrust of the justice system was too high.

    Perhaps this is why:

    During his more than 30 years behind bars, Stanley Wrice insisted he was innocent, that Chicago police had beat him until he confessed to a rape he didn't commit. On Wednesday, he walked out of an Illinois prison a free man, thanks to a judge's order that served as a reminder that one of the darkest chapters in the city's history is far from over...

    Wrice, who was sentenced to 100 years behind bars for a 1982 sexual assault, is among more than two dozen inmates — most of them black men — who have alleged they were tortured by officers under the command of disgraced former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge in a scandal that gave the nation's third-largest city a reputation as haven for rogue cops and helped lead to the clearing of Illinois' death row. Some of the prisoners have been freed; some are still behind bars, hoping to get the kind of hearing that Wrice got that eventually led to his freedom.

    The scandal of Jon Burge, which will trouble Chicago police for many years to come, is the worst of something many black folks feels when interacting with police in any city. Police address us with aggression, and their default setting is escalation. De-escalation is for black civilians.

    When the officer wanted us to move, there was a very easy way to handle the situation. You step our your car. You introduce yourself. You ask questions about what we're doing. If we are breaking the law, you ask us to move. If we are not breaking the law and simply making your life hard, we are likely to move anyway. You are the power.

    The cop did not speak to us as though he were human. He spoke to us like a gangster, like he was protecting his block. He was solving no crime. He was protecting no lives. He was holding down his corner. He didn't even bother with a change of uniform. An occupied SUV, parked at an intersection, announces its masters intentions.

    It was only a second day there, and our first real one out on the street. It only took that short period to run into trouble. I was worried about the expensive equipment. But it was the conventions of community that protected us. People would walk up and ask us what we were doing. I would tell them we were shooting the neighborhood, or had just finished interviewing some elder--Mr. Ross, Mrs. Witherspoon--and they would smile. "So Mr. Ross is famous, huh?"

    No such social lubricant exists for the police.  If you are young and black and live in North Lawndale, if you live in Harlem, if you live in any place where people with power think young black boys aren't being stopped and frisked enough, then what happened to us is not a single stand-out incident. It is who the police are. Indeed they are likely a good deal worse. 

    What people who have never lived in these neighborhoods must get, is that, like the crooks, killers, and gangs, the police are another violent force that must be negotiated and dealt with. But unlike the gangs, the violence of the police is the violence of the state, and thus unaccountable to North Lawndale. That people who represent North Lawndale laugh at the idea of handing over more tools of incarceration to law enforcement is unsurprising.

    As we were finishing up, the officer who yelled at us got out the car and asked for the driver of our vehicle. It wasn't me. 

    "I happened to notice your sticker is expired," the officer said, handing a ticket to Kasia.

    "It's a rental," she replied.

    "Well give it to them," he told her walking away. "They'll know what to do with it."

    The cop got back in his heated car. On the other corner, Safe Passage stood there, awaiting children, huddling in the cold. 

  • 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.

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