It's easy to say you would have acted better than a slave master if you had lived in the antebellum South; or escaped poverty if you grew up in an inner city in more modern times. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have, and then ask "Why?"
We had a lot of fun with this on Twitter last night:
The President's speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
I am not a poor black kid.
I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn't mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn't mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don't believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn't care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you're severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
When I read this piece I was immediately called back, as I so often am, to my days at Howard and the courses I took looking at slavery. Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members, etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, "I couldn't been no slave. They'd a had to kill me!" I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, "Why didn't the slaves rebel?" More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.
What all these responses have in common is a benevolent, and surely unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn't a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation that offends our modern morals. In the case of the observer of slavery, it is the chaining and marketing of human flesh. In the case of Mr. Marks, it's the astonishingly high levels of black poverty.
It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings -- to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, or if we were slave masters, our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.
Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, and we are, on the whole, mediocre.
That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook--but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson.
It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?"
Some weeks ago I met a student who was specializing in economy and theater. She said that what she loved about both fields was that she had to presume a kind of rationality in studying her actors. She had to surrender herself--her sense of what she would like to think she would do--and think more of what she might actually do given all the perils of the character's environs. It would not be enough to consider slavery, for instance, when claiming "If I was a slave I'd rebel." One would have to consider, for instance, family left behind to bear the wrath of those one would seek to rebel against. In other words, one would have to assume that for the vast majority of slaves rebellion made no sense. And then instead of declaration ("I would do..."), one would be forced into a question ("Why wouldn't I?").
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?"
This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking "Why?" The fact that we -- and I mean all of us, black and white -- are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying -- give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can't be surmounted by an advice column.
Let us not be hypothetical here. I am somewhat acquainted with a poor black kid from West Philly, and have been privileged to grapple with some of the details of his life. When he was six he came home from school and found his entire life out on the sidewalk. Eviction. He says he saw some of his stuff and immediately reversed direction out of utter humiliation. He spent the next couple of weeks living on a truck with his father, his aunt and brother. Everyday they'd search the trash for scrap to take to the yard for money. His father abused everyone in the family. He last saw his father alive when he was 9. At 17, convinced he would die if he stayed in Philly,he dropped out of high school and lied his way into a war.
You will forgive me if I've written in these pages of my father with a kind of awe. It is not merely the fact of being my father, but having acquainted myself with his childhood conditions, I shudder to think of what might have become of me.
The answers are out there. But they will not improve your self-esteem.
Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.
It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.
Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment? An editorial from United Press International explained, “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Was it anti-Washington rage? A Loyola University pollster argued, “There were the voters who liked Duke, those who hated J. Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington.”
In a presidency defined by its unpredictability, one of the few constants is the president’s eagerness to attack black people for failing to show deference.
When, in a game last Sunday in Mexico City versus the New England Patriots, the Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch chose to sit during the “Star Spangled-Banner,” and then stood during the Mexican National Anthem, the idea of the multiverse—multiple realities and infinite branching probabilities—suddenly seemed inadequate. As soon as the cameras focused on Lynch, this plane of existence narrowed to a single undeniable probability: that President Donald Trump was going to tweet about it sometime soon.
Trump happily obliged fate. On Monday morning at 6:25am, in the block of time reserved for blasting people and things he’s seen on cable news that he doesn’t like, the president tweeted that “next time [the] NFL should suspend him for remainder of season.” Utilizing the extra 140 extra characters Twitter recently bestowed, Trump was also able to imply that Lynch was a factor in the the NFL’s sinking ratings. With that, Lynch became just the latest in a line of outspoken black people that Trump has attacked. It’s kind of a thing for him.
After laboring for years to close the gender gap, GOP strategists are suddenly facing a gender chasm.
It turns out those pink kitty-cat hats weren’t just for show after all.
Among its many electrifying aspects, the early Trump era has had a politically galvanizing effect on women. They are organizing in the streets and on social media, running for office in record numbers, training to enter future races, and volunteering on campaigns. And on November 7, they flocked to the polls to officially have their voices heard.
What they had to say more or less boiled down to: Things around here have got to change. Now. Which has many folks in the Republican Party reaching for the Xanax.
By now, you’ve likely heard some of the Election Day stats and stories. In Virginia, women went from holding 17 seats in the House of Delegates to holding 27. Winners include Danica Roem, who became the state’s first transgender delegate-elect by beating an incumbent who bragged of being the state’s “chief homophobe.” In the gubernatorial contest, women favored Democrat Ralph Northam by 22 points—5 points more than Hillary Clinton’s margin among them last fall. Particularly concerning for Republicans: Fifty-eight percent of white college-educated women went for Northam vs. only 50 percent for Hillary.
The post-Weinstein moment isn’t a war on sex. It’s a long-overdue revolution.
One of the principal pleasures of Mad Men, on rich display beginning with the pilot episode, was looking at all of the crazy things people used to be able to do in offices: smoke, drink, and—if they were male—grope and corner and sexually humiliate the women, who could either put up with it or quit.
It’s just about impossible to imagine someone lighting a cigarette in today’s hyper-sanitized workplace; anyone with liquor on his or her breath at midday is usually targeted as a massive loser or frog-marched to human resources. But to look at the shocking and ever-growing list of prominent men recently and credibly accused of acts ranging from sexual harassment to violent rape is to realize that abhorrent treatment of women is alive and well in many American workplaces.
Lena Dunham’s defense of a Girls writer accused of sexual assault highlights how frequently allegations from women of color are dismissed.
As America’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault continues, the conversation around “believe women” and #MeToo, inevitably, also becomes more complicated and fractured—in particular when it comes to society’s decisions aboutwhich allegations are taken seriously, and which should be subject to deeper scrutiny.
Last Friday, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-showrunners for the series Girls, issued a statement defending Murray Miller, a friend and writer on the show, against allegations that he had sexually assaulted the actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17. (Miller has denied the allegations.) “During every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe … that this is the case with Murray Miller,” they wrote in a statement. “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.” After a wave of criticism that her statement was in direct opposition to the feminist beliefs she espouses, Dunham issued another statement apologizing for her remarks; it acknowledged that, regardless of her closeness to the situation, she had used her considerable influence to unduly put “our thumb on the scale.”
“Well, you’re just special. You’re American,” remarked my colleague, smirking from across the coffee table. My other Finnish coworkers, from the school in Helsinki where I teach, nodded in agreement. They had just finished critiquing one of my habits, and they could see that I was on the defensive.
I threw my hands up and snapped, “You’re accusing me of being too friendly? Is that really such a bad thing?”
“Well, when I greet a colleague, I keep track,” she retorted, “so I don’t greet them again during the day!” Another chimed in, “That’s the same for me, too!”
Unbelievable, I thought. According to them, I’m too generous with my hellos.
When I told them I would do my best to greet them just once every day, they told me not to change my ways. They said they understood me. But the thing is, now that I’ve viewed myself from their perspective, I’m not sure I want to remain the same. Change isn’t a bad thing. And since moving to Finland two years ago, I’ve kicked a few bad American habits.
An environmental lawyer says the sale could pose a major conflict of interest.
In September, Bill Snape and his family took the 90-minute drive from their home near Washington, D.C., to the grounds of Shenandoah National Park. It was a trip they had made many times before, but this time Snape was taking it to check out a rumor. He had heard that something unusual was on sale at Skyland Lodge, a hotel on the park’s premises.
At the gift shop of the lodge, Snape found what he was looking for: multiple cases of Trump wine, produced at the Trump family’s nearby winery.
“At first, it just annoyed me. And then I thought, what is the law?” he told me on Wednesday. Snape is a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy organization.
Snape worries that the sale poses a major conflict of interest and may even violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause. “Emoluments means advantage. You cannot use your public office for your personal advantage,” he said.
Six in 10 Americans say they dread the topic coming up, but better to embrace the challenge than try to stave off the inevitable.
Of all the Thanksgiving anxieties—bad traffic, overcooked turkey, undercooked turkey, the aunt who tries to get creative with some gourmet cranberry relish when all you want is the familiar canned variety, dammit, her increasingly intoxicated and querulous husband, and so on—no fear seems to equal that of getting sucked into a political conversation.
Six in 10 Americans in a new NPR/PBS NewsHour poll said they dread political talk at the Thanksgiving table. Four in 10 say Trump is the most likely spark for a dinner-time fight, six times the nearest rival, according to SurveyMonkey. Journalists churn out piping hot “how to avoid political arguments with your family” takes this time of year like so many pumpkin pies. In 2012, Jon Lovett wrote a handy guide in these pages. (TL;DR change the subject shamelessly.) A year later, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote a guide to how to argue if you must (TL;DR don’t be a jerk) but cautioned, “On Thanksgiving, it's usually best if you don't talk politics. The subject tends to aggravate people, and it's very unlikely that anyone's mind will be changed. So don't do it.”
How the Nobel Prize–winning economist James M. Buchanan shaped today’s antigovernment politics
If you read the same newspapers and watch the same cable shows I do, you can be forgiven for not knowing that the most populous region in America, by far, is the South. Nearly four in 10 Americans live there, roughly 122 million people, by the latest official estimate. And the number is climbing. For that reason alone, the South deserves more attention than it seems to be getting in political discussion today.
But there is another reason: The South is the cradle of modern conservatism. This, too, may come as a surprise, so entrenched is the origin myth of the far-westerners Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan as leaders of a Sun Belt realignment and forerunners of today’s polarizing GOP. But each of those politicians had his own “southern strategy,” playing to white backlash against the civil-rights revolution—“hunting where the ducks are,” as Goldwater explained—though it was encrypted in the states’-rights ideology that has been vital to southern politics since the days of John C. Calhoun.
The FCC is poised to dismantle common carriage for broadband and wireless providers. That’s bad, but the internet itself is worse.
In a new video advocating for network neutrality—a name for regulating internet providers like public utilities—the American Civil Liberties Union declares that “giant internet companies shouldn’t have the power to mess with what we read, watch, and explore online.” The ACLU is referring to broadband and wireless carriers like Comcast and AT&T, who would have the power to throttle, charge for, or even block access to services, websites, or other online resources if the Obama-era rules are rolled back.
Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced the agency’s plans to do precisely that. The plan will likely pass along party lines at the next FCC meeting December 14.