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 Answer to the Crisis in Democracy Is More Democracy

    The filibuster has never been a friend of civil rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Or when Klansman and Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo said:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • You, Me, and Every Word We Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • More Scalias and Thomases Please

    Democrats have nothing to fear from filibuster reform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Why Black Folks Tend to Shout

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

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

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

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

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

    Zimmerman has a somewhat different version of events:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Case of Renisha McBride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here is a preview of what you will likely hear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Yeah, Alec Baldwin Is a Bigot

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dead on. 

  • This Is How You Lose Her

    The end of the NFL begins with the young

    Hall of Famer Mike Webster. George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Given Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, given Tony Dorsett and Brett Favre, and given that these men were the heroes to the kind of parents who would have once put their kids in Pop Warner, this can't be surprising:

    According to data provided to "Outside the Lines," Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

    Pop Warner officials said they believe several factors played a role in the decline, including the trend of youngsters focusing on one sport. But the organization's chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, cited concerns about head injuries as "the No. 1 cause."

    "Unless we deal with these truths, we're not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport," said Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon whose 10-year-old son, Clint, plays Pop Warner outside Chicago. "We need to get it right."

    I think that point about truths is exactly right. The NFL has a long history of lying about head injury, its effects and its connection to football. There's really no reason for any parent to listen to anything the NFL says on the subject:

    2010-In a display of seriousness over player safety, Steelers linebacker James Harrison is fined $75,000 for his hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in an October game. Somewhat undercutting this display, the NFL sells pictures of the hit on its website.

    This includes the idea that the effects of head injury can be dealt with teaching tackling technique--as though Mike Webster did not happen.

    But the truth may not be enough, because what if the truth is that not remembering your daughter's childhood is a built-in risk of playing pro football? In my ideal world, the NFL would acknowledge that and then structure its compensation around the incredible risk each players takes when he puts on a uniform. 

  • Richard Cohen in Context

    Some people are defending his abysmal column. Their argument is not very good.

    There are a few people defending Richard Cohen's abysmal column today as though it were the victim of a giant reading-comprehension fail. I think this piece by J. Bryan Lowder offers the gist of the argument:

    But before I get to that, though, let’s break down what Cohen actually wrote. The offending paragraph is embedded in a longer segment about the mindless, reactionary social conservatism of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats and how nasty their insurgence was for a more moderate Democratic Party back in the 1948 election. Cohen calls the similarities to contemporary tea-partying Iowans “ominous,” and warily eyes the trenchant, anti-modern (and politically costly) attitude that can emerge when a group of people perceive their “way of life under attack and they [fear] its loss.” Now, it’s true that he doesn’t condemn this faction as forcefully as he might, but my takeaway from the piece as a whole was that Cohen is none too pleased with what their ascendancy bodes for mainstream conservatism.

    Of course, a few highly ambiguous phrases (that probably should have been edited out) in the “gag” sentence make this reading harder, but let’s try. “Conventional” is the most unfortunate word choice, with its connotations of “common sense,” “widely shared,” or “unremarkable”; as many critics have already pointed out, studies show that disapproval of miscegenation is none of those things today. But recall that Cohen has been describing a limited, if still very much extant, mindset that (he at least wants us to believe) is not his own; in that worldview, dislike of interracial marriage is very much conventional, as is dislike of former lesbians—these are literally the conventions of that social group.

    This is not a very good defense. I read the entire column. I saw the preceding grafs where Cohen offers a rough history of the Dixiecrats and segregationists wing of America. And then I read this:

    Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

    The problem here isn't that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn't actually racist, but "conventional" or "culturally conservative." Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn't racism, then there is no racism. 

    Context can not improve this. "Context" is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to "a hostile work environment." It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The PianistAnd it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post's publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.

    Richard Cohen's unfortunate career is the proper context to understand his column today and the wide outrage that's greeted it. We are being told that Cohen finds it "hurtful" to be called racist. I am sorry that people on the Internet have hurt Richard Cohen's feelings. I find it "hurtful" that Cohen endorses the police profiling my son. I find it eternally "hurtful" that the police, following that same logic, killed one of my friends. I find it hurtful to tell my students that, even in this modern age, vending horse-shit is still an esteemed and lucrative profession.

  • Richard Cohen on Black-White Marriage

    I'm not racist. I just don't recognize my country.

    Here's a fairly amazing paragraph from Richard Cohen's latest:

    Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

    Right. I'm not racist. I just don't recognize my country. Also, the sight of you, and your used-to-be-lesbian black wife, and your brown children make me sick to my stomach. It's not like I want to lynch you or anything. 

  • Delineating Evil

    A few months ago, when I was digging into some Eric Hobsbawm, I got into a debate with some members of the Horde over how to view Hobsawm's adherence to communism. I defended Hobsbawm's allegedly reflective outlook against many who saw him essentially indulging in a European version of Lost Cause-ism. I want to say that I was dead wrong and my interlocutors were right.  In that wrongness, I think is an important lesson. 

    I understood, say, the Soviet bloc under a general rubric of "bad" or "evil" or "not good." This is insufficient for one who endeavors to be a thinking person. To be human is to be detailed and individual, and thus to see inhumanity  you must not submit to the temptation of seeing people's oppressions as an undifferentiated muck of pain.  Part of the job of writers, historian, artists and intellectuals is not allow evil to become inhuman, amorphous and globulous, to make sure that we don't get lazy, that the contours of particular evils are delineated and precise.

    I should have known better than to do this because one of my pet peeves is the way the black struggle in American gets lumped into the broader "People of Color/Women/Poor/Gay etc" gumbo. Activism sometimes necessitates a melding of interests. But I am not an activist. I'm not sure what I am. But I am sure of what I want--to see clearly, that is to say  without self-serving apology or self-flattering caveat or self-justifying analogy.

    The following paragraphs from Tony Judt reminded me of this. Here is evil perceived clearly and communicated directly:

    The scale of the punishment meted out to the citizens of the USSR and Eastern Europe in the decade following World War Two was monumental—and, outside the Soviet Union itself, utterly unprecedented. Trials were but the visible tip of an archipelago of repression: prison, exile, forced labor battalions. In 1952, at the height of the second Stalinist terror, 1.7 million prisoners were held in Soviet labor camps, a further 800,000 in labor colonies, and 2,753,000 in ‘special settlements’. The ‘normal’ Gulag sentence was 25 years, typically followed (in the case of survivors) by exile to Siberia or Soviet Central Asia.
    In Bulgaria, from an industrial workforce of just under half a million, two persons out of nine were slave laborers. In Czechoslovakia it is estimated that there were 100,000 political prisoners in a population of 13 million in the early 1950s, a figure that does not include the many tens of thousands working as forced laborers in everything but name in the country’s mines. ‘Administrative liquidations’, in which men and women who disappeared into prison were quietly shot without publicity or trial, were another form of punishment. A victim’s family might wait a year or more before learning that he or she had ‘disappeared’. Three months later the person was then legally presumed dead, though with no further official acknowledgement or confirmation. At the height of the terror in Czechoslovakia some thirty to forty such announcements would appear in the local press every day. Tens of thousands disappeared this way; many hundreds of thousands more were deprived of their privileges, apartments, jobs. 

    More »

  • Richie Incognito's Accidental Racism: An Apologia

    Richie Incognito did not choose to employ the most incendiary slur in the American lexicon, so much as he was caught.


    Former NFL player Nathan Jackson makes a full-throated defense of Richie Incognito over at New York. It's worth focusing on Jackson's notion that Richie Incognito was well within his rights to call a black man a half-nigger:

    Through the TV screen, Richie Incognito looks like the big jerk. But we don’t understand the context, intent, or perception of the joking that goes on in that locker room, or whether it was perceived as joking in the first place. The voice-mail in question sure sounds like a joke, albeit a bad one: It allegedly involves Incognito using the N-word and offering to poop in the dude’s mouth.

    Of course, no one but ESPN’s Adam Schefter takes the mouth-defecation threats seriously. I mean, imagine the logistics there. But that Incognito called Martin a half-N-word is worth discussing. Out in society, the word nigger still excites and appalls, and a white man who is unlucky enough to utter it, even in jest, is forever labeled a racist. But inside an NFL locker room, the meaning of the word has washed out. There are white men who are so close to their black brothers that their lexicon is identical, and they communicate with the same phrases, jokes, and nicknames.

    Some in the media were quick to label Incognito a racist, but some of his black teammates defended him. Every NFL locker room is full of proud black men who have a keen eye for the intentions of their white peers. If Richie Incognito said the N-word in a malicious way, those teammates would have taken care of the problem.

    The thinking here is unfortunate. If I am found on camera inveighing against  "hook-nosed Jews," to call myself "unlucky" would be deflection and self-serving understatement. The word "unlucky" presumes that virtually all adult white men can be found, at some point, in full-on Michael Richards-mode and those of us who would shame them for it are the real culprits.

    This is accidental racism, which is to say white innocence, at its finest. Richie Incognito did not choose to employ the most incendiary slur in the American lexicon, so much as he was caught by some peeping Tom (who happened to be the victim.) Riley Cooper didn't physically threaten a black security guard with a phrase that has accompanied some of the worst acts of terrorism in our country's history; some rude voyeur videoed Cooper relieving himself in public. 

    It's that same white innocence that allows for Jackson's claim of brotherhood and his invocation of "proud black men." We have heard a lot about the peculiar context of the locker-room. I think we should remember the peculiar context in which the locker-room exists. The locker-room is a workplace controlled--almost entirely--by white people. In this sense we are all in locker-rooms, workplaces with different rules, but with white control remaining constant. I see no reason why the NFL should be immune to the basic laws of American gravity. On the contrary, players, like all workers, have interests--among them, securing food for their families and loved ones. Players, not unlike workers, do this by subverting individual interests in favor of the interests of their employers. 

    I highly doubt that the invocation of "nigger" has "washed out" of NFL locker-rooms. More likely, it is that players simply can't afford to be bothered fighting over it. This is not so different than any other work-place. White people relying on black people to be their conscience will very often be disappointed. We come to work to put dinner on the table. Charging me with taking my work-time to list the reasons why calling me a "half-nigger" might not be a very good idea is the magic that transforms your ignorance into my burden.

    The limits of using work-place friendships to analyze something that happened outside of the workplace, are evident in Jackson's notion that "nigger" is the ultimate statement of fraternity. White people who actually spend time around black people--not black individuals whom they know from work, but black people with their families, in their communities, with their parents--will quickly notice that using "nigger" actually isn't a barometer of closeness. I'm black and I don't call even some of my best friends nigger. They, unlike me, are offended by it. Black humans, like most humans, are different from each other. But to grasp this, you must have to have relationships with black humans that go beyond your job. 

    That is why black players defending Incognito is irrelevant. Those players are free to invite Richie Incognito to call their voicemails and threaten their lives, and threaten their mothers, and threaten to shit in their mouths, and call them half-niggers, and when it all becomes public hold a press conference in which they laud Incognito as the second coming of Lincoln.

    But Martin doesn't have to live by their standards. Arguing that he should because, like, these other black dudes I work with it said it was fine, is myopia.

  • The Coldest War

    I want to thank everyone who's been commenting in these threads about Tony Judt's Postwar and Tom Segev's The Seventh Million. These are always the best threads for me, because they are areas where I am just learning. The willingness of you guys to engage in debate and conversation, to actually attempt to compare and contrast Stalin's evil from Hitler's, to try to specifically delineate conquest from colonialism is major.

    I'm not in a history department. And more than most journalists, my orientation is toward history.  People often ask me how much work it takes to moderate. Funny enough they never ask what I get out of it. It's knowledge, of course. Rae knowledge. Evidently, I must read Bloodlands next. So it goes.

    Here's something else. Mucking around the internet and looking at some site dealing in Russian history, I stumbled upon the Red Army Choir. Here the are doing "Song of The Volga Boatmen." It's beautiful. I'm getting vision of Robeson. 

  • The Coldest War

    Joseph Stalin (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • How to Be One of the Guys

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

    AP / Lynne Sladky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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