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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

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