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 Allure of Swift Justice

    The Taliban and the politics of force

    Steve Coll's New Yorker piece on the hunt for Mullah Omar is behind a paywall, but I'd urge you to pick it up. It's always easy to understand why we consider a force like the Taliban "evil," but the less explored question is how "evil" comes to power. Of course when you start answering that question even the term "evil" somehow becomes inadequate. 


    In the Taliban's case, what Coll shows is a force that rose on its image of legitimacy. The Talibs were able to brutally enforce the law in places where anarchy reigned. Once they rose to power, the Taliban rode that image by staging gruesome spectacles of alleged criminals being subject to violence. In her lecture series, Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems.

    From the perspective of the people, a known dictatorship with obvious bright lines is often preferable to utter chaos. The ability to erect those bright lines and to enforce them harshly and swiftly  aided the Taliban's rise, and even now according to Coll's reporting, it sends people to their courts to adjudicate disputes. 

    When you read something like this, you start to understand the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a democracy, I have serious critiques of the criminal justice system in this country. But getting most people to buy into a system that presumes innocence, that accepts that many more people will remain free, having committed crimes, than those who will be wrongly jailed or even executed, is no small feat.
  • The NFL Playoffs So Far

    Vernon Davis is an emotional football player

    Some quick thoughts:


    1.) I really think Tom Coughlin deserves much, much respect. Here in New York, it feels like his job status is a regular issue. I don't really know why.

    2.) Watching Vernon Davis crying after catching that pass, was eerily reminiscent of watching Terrell Owens do the same thing all those years ago. I love watching football players cry after plays like that. I'll never do anything as hard as get smashed by 245-pound linebacker while trying to hold on to a football. 

    But I know a little (just a little) about putting your heart and body into something and seeing it come out beautiful. I got that (for the first time) as a west African drummer when I was 16. All kids should experience it. 

    3.) Tom Brady is most unchristian. 
  • Because There Is No Racism

    Fallows rightly flags Newt Gingrich continued labeling of Obama as  "the food stamp president" as a doq-whistle and gets this from a reader:


    You cited as a "dog whistle" Newt Gingrich's comment that Obama is "the food stamp President". By calling that a dog whistle you are dog whistling to your own constituencies about how terrible and racist those evil Republicans are.

    Fallows responds:

    ...Newt Gingrich knows exactly what he is doing when he calls Obama the "food stamp" president, just as Ronald Reagan knew exactly what he was doing when talking about "welfare Cadillacs." There are lots of other ways to make the point about economic hard times -- entirely apart from which person and which policies are to blame for today's mammoth joblessness, and apart from the fact that Congress sets food stamp policies. You could call him the "pink slip president," the "foreclosure president," the "Walmart president," the "Wall Street president," the "Citibank president," the "bailout president," or any of a dozen other images that convey distress. You decide to go with "the food stamp president," and you're doing it on purpose. 

     If Joe Lieberman had been elected, I would be wary of attacks on his economic policy that called him "the cunning, tight-fisted president." If Henry Cisneros had or Ken Salazar does, I would notice arguments about ineffectiveness phrased as "the mañana administration." If Gary Locke were in office, then "the Manchurian candidate" jokes that had been used on John Huntsman would have a different edge. And so on.

    I think this is the point. There are a great many ways to attack Obama's economic policies and priorities. People as diverse as Mitt Romney and Tavis Smiley do it all the time. The notion that Gingrich is somehow unaware of that "food stamp president" has racial connotations, that he is being on the level when he says the black community should not be satisfied with food stamps, requires an extension of supernatural generosity. 

    I mean, it certainly is true that somewhere in Obama's America, black kids are beating up little white kids. And I am sure a lot of black people really do have a high opinion of fried chicken. If you want to be right, there's always a way to get you there. But honesty is different.
  • Supersizing 'The Great Gatsby'

    What does story have anything to gain from the 3D treatment?




    As I've said before, I think filming The Great Gatsby in 3-D is a pretty bad idea, though this is interesting: 


    It might also supply what has been missing in the Oscar season -- the heat of a film that decisively breaks a barrier, like "Gone With the Wind," the first all-color best picture, or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," perhaps the first Oscar winner to be anchored in its make-up and fantasy effects. 

    "The 'special effect' in this movie is seeing fine actors in the prime of their acting careers tearing each other apart," Mr. Luhrmann explained in a telephone interview this week. He spoke of using 3-D not to create thrilling vistas or coming-at-you threats, but rather to find a new intimacy in film. 

    He referred particularly to a climactic scene in which Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan (played by Joel Edgerton), confronts Mr. DiCaprio's Gatsby in a suite at the Plaza hotel, all in three dimensions. "How do you make it feel like you're inside the room?" he asked.

    I think this starts in the right place. Whereas much of Hollywood's big-budget work is plot-centric, Gatsby's plot is thin, its love story banal (that's the point,) and its magic rather subtle. It works marvelously on the level of character, and acting would have to be key. So I think Luhrmann has it right when he says the special effect is the actors.

    What scares me is the sense that I get from a lot of Hollywood directors that more is necessarily "more." There are all kinds of ways to make us "feel" that we're in the room--and more detail and verisimilitude doesn't always equal greater "feeling." I think Fitzgerald very much makes us feel like we're in the room:

    There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. 

    On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before. 

    Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York--every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb. 


    At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another. 

    By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived--no thin five-piece affair but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. 

    The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names. The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. 

    The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath--already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with triumph glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light. 

     Suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray's understudy from the "Follies." 

    The party has begun.

    I have never seen this party, but I am there. I don't need need a naked literalism to make me feel it. The point here is not that The Great Gatsby couldn't be adapted into a great film, but I'm skeptical that 3-D, that "more," is an essential tool in making that happen.

    My sense is that that Gatsby would do much better as an art-house flick, than as a major studio star vehicle. It seems to lend itself more to the style of Copie Conformie, which I absolutely adore. Gatsby isn't an epic. It's a small story. It's glory is its ruthless efficiency, its economy, its unsentimentality. You just don't tend to see those qualities in big Hollywood films.

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  • Into the Canon: Democracy in America

    For reasons important to my fiction, it was good to read this defense of localism from De Tocqueville which, I imagine, has often warmed the hearts of conservatives. Please forgive the lengthy quote:


    Centralization easily succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue and forget the deity it represents. 

    Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides skillfully for the details of the social police; represses small disorders and petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy regularity in the conduct of affairs which the heads of the administration are wont to call good order and public tranquillity; 49 in short, it excels in prevention, but not in action. 

    Its force deserts it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the co-operation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed. Even while the centralized power, in its despair, invokes the assistance of the citizens, it says to them: "You shall act just as I please, as much as I please, and in the direction which I please. You are to take charge of the details without aspiring to guide the system; you are to work in darkness; and afterwards you may judge my work by its results." 

    These are not the conditions on which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted. 


    It is undeniable that the want of those uniform regulations which control the conduct of every inhabitant of France is not infrequently felt in the United States. Gross instances of social indifference and neglect are to be met with; and from time to time disgraceful blemishes are seen, in complete contrast with the surrounding civilization. Useful undertakings which cannot succeed without perpetual attention and rigorous exactitude are frequently abandoned; for in America, as well as in other countries, the people proceed by sudden impulses and momentary exertions. 

    The European, accustomed to find a functionary always at hand to interfere with all he undertakes, reconciles himself with difficulty to the complex mechanism of the administration of the townships. In general it may be affirmed that the lesser details of the police, which render life easy and comfortable, are neglected in America, but that the essential guarantees of man in society are as strong there as elsewhere. In America the power that conducts the administration is far less regular, less enlightened, and less skillful, but a hundredfold greater than in Europe. In no country in the world do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal. I know of no people who have established schools so numerous and efficacious, places of public worship better suited to the wants of the inhabitants, or roads kept in better repair. 

    Uniformity or permanence of design, the minute arrangement of details,50 and the perfection of administrative system must not be sought for in the United States; what we find there is the presence of a power which, if it is somewhat wild, is at least robust, and an existence checkered with accidents, indeed, but full of animation and effort. 

    Granting, for an instant, that the villages and counties of the United States would be more usefully governed by a central au authority which they had never seen than by functionaries taken from among them; admitting, for the sake of argument, that there would be more security in America, and the resources of society would be better employed there, if the whole administration centered in a single arm--still the political advantages which the Americans derive from their decentralized system would induce me to prefer it to the contrary plan. 

    It profits me but little, after all, that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life, and if it so monopolizes movement and life that when it languishes everything languishes around it, that when it sleeps everything must sleep, and that when it dies the state itself must perish. There are countries in Europe where the native considers himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the spot which he inhabits. 

    The greatest changes are effected there without his concurrence, and (unless chance may have apprised him of the event ) without his knowledge; nay, more, the condition of his village, the police of his street, the repairs of the church or the parsonage, do not concern him; for he looks upon all these things as unconnected with himself and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the government. He has only a life interest in these possessions, without the spirit of ownership or any ideas of improvement. 

    This want of interest in his own affairs goes so far that if his own safety or that of his children is at last endangered, instead of trying to avert the peril, he will fold his arms and wait till the whole nation comes to his aid. This man who has so completely sacrificed his own free will does not, more than any other person, love obedience; he cowers, it is true, before the pettiest officer, but he braves the law with the spirit of a conquered foe as soon as its superior force is withdrawn; he perpetually oscillates between servitude and license.

    This is about the most eloquent defense of "State's Rights" that I've ever read. You can see how, crudely rendered, this thinking becomes a "Ya'll Yankees stirrin up the good nigras" defense of segregation--"gross instances of social indifference and neglect," to put it euphemistically. But the fact that an ideology can be used as a tool to defend base prejudices, or as a mask for bigotry, does not, in and of itself, doom the ideology. 

    I want to observe that a Ron Paul-style localism has often been used as a cloak for white supremacy. But it also seems to be the same ideology that takes one to community schooling, or community policing. If you read William Stuntz book The Collapse of Criminal Justice, you see a very Tocquevillian\localist critique. The problem, in Stuntz view, is that the enforcers of the law are too distant from those subject to the law--"The greatest changes are affected without his concurrence." The young black male in Harlem is thus, when confronted by the cops, a stranger in his own country.

    And of course you see this same thinking in conservative talk of an ownership society. Conservatives can correct me, but the basic theory seems to be that a society of stakeholders, citizens with skin in the game, will ultimately prove to be wise stewards, since they actually have something at stake. I think about Jack Kemp and tenant ownership of public housing. There is also the critique of health-care reform, and indeed, the entire welfare state--the fear of the vigilant authority protecting the tranquility of your pleasures, and making itself "absolute master" of your life and liberty.

    I think it's important to remember the age in which Tocqueville is writing. The Napoleanic Code is in effect (I think) by now. There are very few actual functioning democracies in the world. When Tocqueville attacks the "absolute master," he is not simply addressing a federal government, but the absolutism of Louis XIV and monarchy itself.

    Finally, a quick note on coversating. We are, in the main, liberals here. I don't think we lack for places to expound on the evils of conservatism--some of them on this very blog. But I think it's important to allow the text to breathe, to not see it, purely, as ammo, or fodder to explain why Romney is the Antichrist. 

    Again, let the text breathe. 

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  • 'The Whitest Man in America'

    Lee Siegel dubs Mitt Romney:


    Pundits have already begun the endless debate over whether Mr. Romney's wealth and religion are hindrances or assets. But there has yet to be any discussion over the one quality that has subtly fueled his candidacy thus far and could well put him over the top in the fall: his race. The simple, impolitely stated fact is that Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory. 

    Of course, I'm not talking about a strict count of melanin density. I'm referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America's first black president. It is a whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America.

    In this way, Mr. Romney's Mormonism may end up being a critical advantage. Evangelicals might wring their hands over the prospect of a Mormon president, but there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. 

    But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God's plans for earth.

    I think there might be an interesting point to be made about the specific kind of "Leave It to Beaver" whiteness embodied by Romney and his family (emphasis on "might"). But this feels like an headline in search of piece. The notion that Mormons imagine their religion as "for whites"--and more so than other whites--is basically an act of mind-reading.

    We often think of personal qualities, or personal faults, as representing something about the collective. I don't know. I think Mitt Romney is just really awkward--whether he's yelling "who let the dogs out" or whether he's giving that fake laugh at some Perry jab. 

    I'm not really sure why Romney is whiter than Ron Paul or John McCain. Maybe our the Ivory Horde can explain?
  • Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

    Exploring the roots of Western philosophy

    I finished up Middlemarch two days ago, and had a good debate about it on Twitter. Ultimately I found the book shockingly ambitious and ultimately disappointing. Those two notions are connected, and I'll have more on that later.


    But next up in my pursuit of an invisible degree from the university without walls is De Tocqueville's Democracy In America. I don't want to say too much, for now, but this graff in the introduction struck me:

    From the time when the exercise of the intellect became the source of strength and of wealth, it is impossible not to consider every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea as a germ of power placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the grace of wit, the glow of imagination, the depth of thought, and all the gifts which are bestowed by Providence with an equal hand, turned to the advantage of the democracy; and even when they were in the possession of its adversaries they still served its cause by throwing into relief the natural greatness of man; its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge, and literature became an arsenal where the poorest and the weakest could always find weapons to their hand.
    The modernism evinced here, and the sense of inevitable progress, is an obvious target. And yet so much of this calls back to both Malcolm and Douglass's resolve to educate himself, to that old African-American sense that there is covert and belligerent about the life of an autodidact, that to be ignorant is to do the work of one's enemies. 

    Tocqueville quotes the Puritans motives for enforcing public education:

    Whereas," says the law, "Satan, the enemy of mankind, finds his strongest weapons in the ignorance of men, and whereas it is important that the wisdom of our fathers shall not remain buried in their tombs, and whereas the education of children is one of the prime concerns of the state, with the aid of the Lord...."
    That reasoning is very, very familiar.
  • The Greatest Fix You'll Ever Read

    Our own Cynic, beautifully channels, Faukner:


    Why isn't there, for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, an instant when it's still not yet four-thirty on that April morning in 1861, the batteries are in position opposite Fort Sumter, the guns are laid and ready, furled flags are already loosened to break out and Edmund Ruffin himself with his long, stringy white hair and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up waiting for Beauregard to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Stephens and Toombs look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Morality and self-respect and progress and development. Maybe this time they won't fire the shot that doomed the South to a century of reactionary backwardness?
  • A Quick Follow-Up on Howard Zinn

    We're piling up the attacks on Zinn in the last thread. I just want to say that I feel really conflicted reading all of this, and felt the same responding to his argument. I think I said this at the time that he died, but Howard Zinn really did "knock me on my ass." I had never heard of the railroad strikes in the late 19th century. I didn't know about southern populism. I was 19 years old, and I really thought that the only people who'd suffered anything were African-Americans and Indians. 


    Howard Zinn complicated the world for me. 

    I hadn't recalled his take on the Civil War, but seeing that just made me really, really sad--like watching your father embarrass himself, or something. Or maybe it's me, I'm worried about. The various "progressive" notions that the Civil War was about "more than slavery," or that it was really just a power-grab by Northern capitalist, or that it was about "agrarianism," or that it shouldn't have been fought at all are all the sorts of things that, once, I would have nodded my head in agreement with. It is not at all rare for intelligent people, here in progressive New York, to see me reading a book about the War and decide to engage me about "black Confederates" or the "other" causes of the War.

    These people are not Lost Causers. They are usually even more liberal than me. Before I dipped into this I had a vague sense that the War was about slavery. Nothing prepared me for how much it was about slavery--and explicitly about slavery. Nothing prepared me for how much the Confederates agitated for War. Nothing prepared for how much money there was in slavery.

    It is not a pleasant place to live. It divides me from people who I consider to be intellectual ancestors--and not just over this. For if we find their thinking simplistic and overly general here, why not the same with the populists? With the railroad strikes? What else was simplified? 

    I don't know. Perhaps the think to say is that I am happy I was knocked on my ass, to be thankful for that, and move forward.
  • Peyton and the Jets

    Will the embattled Jets take a shot at landing the legendary Colt?

    With Gang Green's locker-room in turmoil, Mike Lupica looks at the move that has everyone playing fantasy GM:


    ...if he is healthy, and he is available, the Jets would be nuts not to go after him with everything they have, whether this same play worked out with Brett Favre once or not. Peyton Manning, if healthy, is a better quarterback than Favre ever was. And we found out this season that he is as valuable as any quarterback has ever been in the history of the sport. If you are going to dream, dream big. 

    The Jets can say how committed they are to Mark Sanchez, that they are in it with Sanchez for the long haul, that they drafted him because they thought he was a Super Bowl quarterback and they still think he is a Super Bowl quarterback. Rex Ryan in particular has been pretty vocal about all that. But you would be amazed at how fast things will change for the big guy if he thinks Sanchez might get him fired. 

  • Civil War Counterfactuals



    Broadsnark, looking at my piece on the Civil War, and my thoughts on Ron Paul, gives us this from Howard Zinn:


    You can't deny that the civil war is fought and slavery is ended. But even while not forgetting that - that is very, very important - it is worthwhile at least looking at the other side of the balance sheet. 600,000 dead in the civil war...in a population of 30 million...600,000 today would mean we fought a civil war in which 5 million people died. What if we want to end racial segregation, or maybe even slavery? Should we fight a war in which 5 million people died in order to end slavery? Of course, we want slavery to end. But is this the only way it could have been done, with a war that takes 600,000 lives? 

    There are countries in other parts of the world and in the Western hemisphere that did away with slavery and without a bloody war, all over Latin America and the West Indies. It is worth thinking about. It is not that we want to retain slavery. No. We do want to end slavery. But again, we have to let our imaginations go. Is it possible that slavery might have been ended some other way? Maybe it would have taken longer. This is a very important factor. If you want to avoid horrendous violence and accomplish something, you may have to wait longer. The nice thing about violence, it is fast. You want to accomplish something fast, violence will do it. 

    I tried to source this quote, but I couldn't. With that in mind, I don't think it would be fair for me to engage. With that said, I found Zinn making a similar, if slightly more nuanced, argument in a talk called "The Three Holy Wars"

    So, the Civil War and its aftermath, you know, have to be looked at in a longer perspective. And yes, the question needs to be asked also: yeah, is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don't know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it's very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.

    Well, that doesn't prove that it could have been ended, and, you know, every situation is different, but it makes you think. If you begin to think, "Oh, the only way it could have been done is with a bloody civil war," maybe not. I mean, maybe it would have taken longer. You know, maybe there could have been slave rebellions which hammered away at the Southern slave structure, hammered away at them in a war of attrition, not a big bloody mass war, but a war of attrition and guerrilla warfare, and John Brown-type raids. 

    Remember John Brown, who wanted to organize raids and a slave rebellion? Yeah, a little guerrilla action, not totally peaceful, no. But not massive slaughter. Well, John Brown was executed by the state of Virginia and the national government. He was executed in 1859 for wanting to lead slave revolts. And the next year, the government goes to war in a war that cost 600,000 lives and then, presumably, as people came to believe, to end slavery. There's a kind of tragic irony in that juxtaposition of facts. So it's worth thinking about, about the Civil War, and not to simply say, "Well, Civil War ended slavery, therefore whatever the human cost was, it was worth it." It's worth rethinking.

    I really wish Zinn had pushed through, instead of simply posing questions. I wish he had made a case for Lincoln responding in some other way, after the Confederacy launched a war with the explicit aim of raising an empire that would protect and expand slavery. I really wish he'd taken a hard up the Haitian Revolution, which did not have a bloody "civil" war--but suffered a bloody war, nonetheless. I wish he'd tried to explain why these other places did not have Civil War, instead of retreating to the notion that we somehow just chose it.

    I wish he would have tackled Lincoln's long record of advocating for paid emancipation as well as colonization, and the sordid results of those efforts. I wish he'd looked at the history of paid emancipation efforts in the South, and grappled with their repeated failure. I wish he'd tried to explain why, if Lincoln couldn't get Delaware to peacefully give up slavery in 1863, why he would have been able to convince South Carolina in 1860. I wish he'd grapple with the ethical dilemma of telling someone like Frederick Douglass that four million blacks should continue to live in a state of perpetual violence, in hopes of forestalling violence for the rest of the country.

    I am not being sarcastic here. There may well be a case. But too often I find that this argument is based in high-minded generalizations, and not in the tiny, hard facts of history. The history of emancipation attempts in Delaware and the South never come up. No one looks at how Sojourner Truth's son was sold into slavery in Alabama, after New York went with gradual emancipation. Instead we just get "war is bad." But some of us were already at war.

    What most saddens me about this argument is the sense that Abraham Lincoln, who repeatedly advocated for peaceful means to end slavery, many of which were opposed by African-Americans (and rightfully so,) is somehow cast as a kind of war-monger. To put this in perspective, consider that Abraham Lincoln had to come to Washington on a secret train for fear that he would be killed. When he got there, he said this upon his inauguration:

    We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

    He was answered, a month later, when Confederates fired on federal property. The next five year took a toll on Lincoln which I can scarcely imagine. His wife was bipolar. His son died from typhoid fever. And Lincoln, himself, was murdered by an unrepentant white supremacist.

    There's something distasteful, and cynical, about asking why Lincoln couldn't prevent a war, that was thrust upon him a month after he became President. Of course we could flip the question and ask why slaveholders elected to expand their war against black people to the entire country. But we already know the answer. The truth is so very terrible.

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