Melissa Harris-Perry’s Apology: Criticism as the “Soul of Democracy”

Paul Waldman has written an excellent piece on Melissa Harris-Perry‘s exemplary apology following her show’s misstep with the photo of the Romney family.

I would add this brief addendum: Ms. Harris-Perry’s response stands in a long tradition of African-American respect for criticism. Herewith three examples:

Melissa Harris-Perry: “I am genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”

W.E.B. Du Bois: “Earnest and honest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, – criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led, – this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern democracy.”

Malcolm X: “I think all of us should be critics of each other. Whenever you can’t stand criticism you can’t grow.”

(There’s more on this tradition of African-American respect for criticism in my book, The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy.)

Regarding the ASA Boycott: An Open Letter to President Biddy Martin of Amherst College

Dear President Martin,

I am saddened but not surprised by the statement you have made (which I append below) condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Amherst College has a long history of invoking “academic freedom” whenever peace and freedom movements threaten to disrupt the status quo.

When I attended Amherst back in the early 1970s, students responded to president Nixon’s intensification and expansion of the war against Vietnam and Cambodia by insisting that the College halt “business as usual” and consider the ways in which it was complicit in the war effort. Using words strikingly like yours, the institution’s first response to these students’ calls was to claim that they threatened “academic freedom.”

In those years too, African-American students demanded that the College halt “business as usual” and face the ways its curriculum and community were perverted by racism. Using language remarkably like yours, the institution’s first response was to claim that these students were irresponsibly jeopardizing the College’s “academic freedom.”

As soon became clear, however, these students and their social movements did not curtail “academic freedom.” They broadened it.

Thanks to these students’ efforts, we have now have a Five-College Program in Peace and World Security Studies that focuses on exactly the issues the College’s conventional curriculum in the early 1970s omitted and occluded.

Thanks to these students’ willingness to put “academic freedom” at risk, students at Amherst today routinely study hundreds of African-American artists, thinkers, writers, and activists whose work was missing from Amherst’s curriculum in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Doubtless you know this history well. You graduated from college just one year after I did. This is the history of our lifetime.

Yet not a hint of this history finds expression in your boilerplate condemnation of the ASA’s resolution. It saddens me to see you seemingly suppressing your own historical perspective in obedience to the dictates of an institutional role you are compelled to perform.

As scholars of history, the ASA’s members are well aware of these dynamics. They know how difficult it is for individuals to resist absorption by the institutions that employ them. They also know that the primary mission of most academic institutions, including Amherst College, is self-perpetuation not defense of meaningful academic freedom. Indeed, it was to protect the real freedom of individuals that the ASA carefully chose to boycott institutions, not individuals, and refrained from insisting that its own individual members participate in the boycott. That the importance of this distinction is lost on you reflects how completely you, in this moment, have been absorbed by the institution you represent.

Moreover, it is just here, when we see a person disappearing into an institution, that we see the disappearance of meaningful academic freedom. For your statement makes no effort to explain why you think that “such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange.” (If you would like to see what a genuine discussion of this matter looks like, I refer you to this one in the on-line journal Crooked Timber: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/12/26/does-the-asa-boycott-violate-academic-freedom-how/). The presumption here is that your audience should be satisfied with your claims and not seek for the reasons behind them. Is it necessary to explain why such a presumption by an academic leader poses a grave threat to meaningful academic freedom?

“Progress,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “does not roll in on wheels of inevitability. “ To move forward, we must act. Yet with actions come risks – in this case, the risk that bringing pressure to bear on Israel’s policies will curtail more academic freedom than it promotes.

The real challenge we face, then, is to define and assess that risk, not merely invoke it.  It is to weigh that risk against the risk of continuing inaction on this issue, instead of pretending that continuing inaction has no costs to Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans.

Your bland statement makes no attempt to engage in such balanced risk assessment. Like the “moderates” whom King judged to be his most insidious foes, you present yourself as standing to one side, in a perfect world on which no urgent issues impinge, thinking and speaking in a vacuum. Is this what you want to train today’s Amherst students to do? Is this the kind of “thinking” you want to model for them? Is such “thinking” the core enterprise of what you call “academic freedom?”

Even as someone who did not vote in favor of the ASA resolution, I stand with those who ask: why are US academic institutions like Amherst College so quick to defend “academic freedom” in this case without ever having condemned the many restrictions the state of Israel has imposed on the academic freedom of Palestinians and of its own citizens? Your position painfully reminds me of the many college and university presidents of the 1960s, who were very quick to deplore student protests and very slow to admit that systemic research relationships with the Defense Department had their own stultifying effects on academic freedom. Instead of merely issuing terse declarative statements on the inviolability of academic freedom, why not use the ASA boycott as an opportunity for a campus-wide discussion of how to balance such freedom with the ethical demands of global citizenship?

At this moment, Amherst College students past and present – perhaps especially those of my generation — can only wonder what you take “academic freedom” to be, exactly why you think the ASA’s boycott jeopardizes it, and what alternative steps you believe Amherst College can legitimately take to ensure the academic freedom of Palestinians and Israelis. Will you address such important questions today? Or will you wait until you’ve stepped down from the presidency of the College and reclaimed a more meaningful freedom than the one you now defend?

Sincerely,

Nick Bromell (Class of 1972)

Addendum: President Biddy Martin’s Letter

Dear Members of the Amherst Community,

I join my colleague presidents in the American Association of Universities (AAU) and many among liberal arts colleges who oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that was recently passed by a majority of the American Studies Association (ASA) members, as well as by two other academic associations.

Amherst College is not an institutional member of the ASA nor is our Department of American Studies. Individual members of the association on our campus are obviously free to vote as they wish. On behalf of the College, I express opposition to this academic boycott for several related reasons. Such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect. They prohibit potential collaborations among the very institutions whose purpose is to promote critical thought and the free exchange of ideas. In their public statement, the members of the executive committee of the AAU emphasize what I consider to be the most compelling reason to oppose the boycott: “[Academic freedom] is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations.” Indeed, it is the very definition of academic freedom that freedom of inquiry should not be constrained by political pressures. In its explanation of the importance of academic freedom and tenure, the American Association of University Professors has emphasized, throughout its history,that its benefits go well beyond the protection of individual scholars and academic institutions. Perhaps its most important benefit is to the society that depends for its own well-being on freedom of thought and exchange and those institutions whose mission it is to promote them. I call on the community to consider for us all the far-reaching implications of political gestures that limit or have the potential to limit the pursuit and exchange of ideas.

“It’s Inequality, Stupid.” Let’s Point Hillary toward Economic Populism

There’s an eerie silence at the center of recent clamorous speculation over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects. No one is asking what she actually stands for. What positions she takes. What she  wants to achieve.

This silence is hardly an accident. The news and opinion machinery now in high gear has been designed to keep substantive matters off the table.  As long as people are obsessed with the “will she/won’t she” question, they can be distracted from wondering what Hillary actually would do if she were president.

The fantasies of voters are best projected onto a blank screen. Hillary’s handlers are going to keep her as blank as possible for as long as possible.

What progressive media must do, then, is ignore the purely speculative question of Hillary ‘s presidential future and focus instead on the substantive question of Hillary’s concrete political commitments. Above all, they should hammer on whether Hillary will work hard to reduce wealth and income inequality – nationally and globally.

Like it or not, Hillary is now the weathervane atop the Democratic Party.  If she can be pointed toward more populist economics, most of the Party and its apparatus will follow her. See David Freedlander’s very interesting piece in The Daily Beast on the fight over economic populism now being waged within the Party.

Now is the time. Hillary is much more vulnerable to pressure from progressives now — while Joe Biden and  Elizabeth Warren are still imaginable alternatives.

So let’s all reach out to Hillary  and let her know:  “It’s Inequality!”

The Origins of the 1969 Conservative Plan to “Save America” by Promoting “Wealth Tolerance”

I read the other day that the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the poorest 140 million.This seems like a good moment to remind people about  the cabal of conservatives who in 1969 dubbed themselves “The Famous Five” and created “The Plan” that would lead to the conservative ascendency of the past four decades. Herewith a link to a piece I wrote a few years ago about this little-known history. I still have the papers referred to in this essay, and I suppose that one day I’ll get around to publishing a book on this topic.  Meanwhile, here are some fragments of the amazing story:

http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_14/new_economics/bromell.html

Why Blue States Should Surrender to the Tea Party and the Red States – Now!

In these times that try men’s souls, I call on all Blue State citizens to surrender to the Tea Party.

I likewise call on all progressive Democrats in the Blue States and on their representatives in Congress to lay down their arms.  To meet with the Tea Party at Appomattox and accede to their demands immediately. Agree to cut federal taxes. Agree to cut federal spending. Agree to Starve the Beast!

Then go home and quietly raise Blue State state taxes to make up the difference. And spend that state tax money at home, in the Blue States.

Within a few months, the rattlesnakes of the Red States  will come crawling back and beg us to raise federal taxes again. In doing so, they’ll be begging to be readmitted to the United States of America.

For the fact is that the great majority of the Red States are helplessly dependent on the federal tax dollars they drain — yes, like Zombies —  from the throats of the Blue States. Even as they rail against federal taxes and the federal government, they benefit from these far more than their neighbors in the Blue States. Without the flow of Blue State dollars into their Red State coffers, they would have to raise their own state taxes to stratospheric levels – and then watch as a  stampede of businesses and upper-income citizens fled for the Blue States.

Consider:

All of the 6 wealthiest states that give the most tax dollars to poorer states are Blue.

Of the remaining 19 wealthy states that give more tax dollars than they take, 13 are Blue.

Of the 31 poorer states that take more federal tax dollars than they give, 2/3s  are Red.

All of these claims substantiated here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_taxation_and_spending_by_state

Consider:

Of the 135 politicians (Congressmen, Senators, Governors, etc.) affiliated with the Tea Party: 75 are from “taker” states, 40 are from “giver” states. That is, “takers” outnumber “givers” nearly 2-1.

Of the 49 Congressmen in the Tea Party Caucus of the 112th-113th Congress: 24 come from 7 “giver” states and 25 from 14 “taker” states. (What somewhat softens these numbers is the very high proportion of Tea Party members from Texas, a “giver” state.)

These claims are substantiated here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_politicians_affiliated_with_the_Tea_Party_movement

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_Party_Caucus#Members.2C_112th_and_113th_Congresses

So, what if the Blue State “givers” agreed with the Red State “takers” to reduce federal taxes and basically stopped giving their federal tax dollars to the Red States?

Well … one awful consequence would be that the poorest citizens of those Red states would suffer terribly. But would they then make common cause with each other – across racial lines – as racial animosities melted away in recognition of a common plight? It’s hard to say.

One thing is sure. Right now many Red State politicians get to have things both ways: they can loudly fight for lower taxes while quietly benefitting from their disproportionate share of federal tax disbursements. Would they continue to shrill against “Big Government” if the flow of Blue State dollars fertilizing their economies slowed to a trickle and dried up?

What we’re seeing here is a fiscal equivalent of the notorious 3/5ths clause of the Constitution. That, too, allowed many southern (now Red) states to have it both ways: to count their slaves populations for purposes of proportional representation in Congress but to deny those very slaves citizenship, enfranchisement, and even personhood.

The fact that the Red States depend on a revenue flow of Blue State dollars may also explain one of those mysteries Republicans never want to talk about: why since 1980, the federal budget deficit soars when a Republican is president and dips when a Democrat is in office. (Obama is the exception because he inherited a recession and the War in Iraq from Bush.)

This claim is substantiated here:

http://zfacts.com/p/318.html

Republican politicians love to talk to talk. Shout the shout, I should say. But they know that if they actually walked the walk, their constituencies would suddenly find themselves with no money to pave roads, no money to build schools and sidewalks, no money to run county hospitals, no money to build enormous new sports stadiums, and the list goes on and on ….

Maybe it’s time for Democrats and progressives in the Blue States to call them out – by surrendering to them.

Ted Cruz Is Today’s Mario Savio!

Hang  your heads radical progressives! The Republican insurgency that has just achieved a second shutdown of the U.S. government should embarrass every self-styled radical  on our side of the political spectrum.

Ted Cruz and his confederates have radicalized their party to a degree that the left has not ever come close to. Imagine, if you can:

– Bernie Sanders and a handful of other Congressmen bringing down the government because their demands for a radically progressive income tax have not been met.

– the Black Congressional Caucus and its allies bringing business as usual to a halt because their demands for equality of educational opportunity have been ignored.

– a cadre of Congressmen concerned about global warning shutting down the federal government until meaningful climate-change legislation has been passed and signed into law.

Why are these scenarios so hard to imagine?  Why, indeed, are they so …. laughable?

All week long, these words kept echoing in my mind:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

But now it’s not Mario Savio speaking them – it’s Ted Cruz. And that squishy sound in the background? That House Republicans throwing their bodies on the gears…

Seriously: Aren’t we ashamed that there’s no radical wing of the Democratic Party pushing everyone leftward as forcefully at the Tea Party has pushed Republicans to the right?

What riles me is that almost no one is even asking this question.  Instead, we  join the holy choir of sanctimonious censuring. In our tones I hear my grandmother’s voice when she complained about “those dirty hippies with long hair. Why can’t they shave and get a job!”

Now it’s –

“Those nasty old Tea Party Republicans! They’re so narrow-minded they won’t compromise! How mean of them to hold the government ‘hostage’ as a way to block legislation that has been enacted and signed into law! That’s so unfair!”

These are good points. Fair points. But they’re debaters’ points. I can’t speak them any more. They sitteth in my mouth like unto soggy breakfast cereal.

Meanwhile, the other side is breathing fire and brimstone.

Sure, we should keep trying to corral the Tea Party back inside the fences of conventional politics marked by reason and compromise.

But we should also identify weak Democratic candidates in strongly Democratic Congressional districts, mobilize our radical troops to vote in those primaries, and push those candidates to the left – hard.

“But we can’t do it without the Koch brothers!” I hear someone say.

They’d sure like you to believe that, wouldn’t they?

Democracy’s Dignity Deficit

I am starting to think that US democracy has a dignity deficit. We talk endlessly about freedom, we talk a lot about equality, but we almost never talk about dignity.  Why not?

The answer  has a lot to do with the way we imagine the meaning of “equality.” But before I explain why, I want to spend a moment establishing the premise – that democracy has a great deal to do with dignity whether we talk about it or not.

If we imagine a democracy functioning effectively, don’t we assume that its citizens will have dignity? Conversely, if we try to imagine a democracy in which most citizens lack a sense of dignity, don’t we immediately feel a self-contradiction?  Why should all persons be free and equal if they are not all worth something? Why would each of us care about our own personal freedom and equality  if we did not feel that we – each of us – had value? Conversely, if we took a deeply cynical view of humans and human nature, wouldn’t we be indifferent to the matter of how people are governed?

So, if democracy is bound up with the idea of dignity (as I think it is) why do we hardly ever talk about it?

Why Not Dignity?

Why Not Dignity?

The answer is that we take dignity for granted. And the main reason we do so is that we suppose it comes along automatically with freedom and equality – but especially, I would argue, with equality. For we can imagine a free people refusing to concede each other’s dignity. But it’s much harder to imagine a people who have agreed to see themselves as equal not agreeing also to consider themselves being equal in dignity.

Equality seems to entail dignity. But for that very reason we are tempted to assume that equality guarantees dignity. And that’s a mistake.

Many marriage vows are imbued with the belief that marriage has a lot to do with love. But we know (after a while) that those vows don’t guarantee love. Likewise (a subtler analogy here), most of us imagine that “justice” also means “fairness.” But in actual practice, justice is not always fair. And as legal philosophers know, some systems of justice are much more explicitly and deliberately concerned with fairness than others.

So if you want your marriage to nurture and be nurtured by love, you have to work to make it do so. If you want a just system of justice to produce fairness, you have to work to make it do so.

And if we – “we the people” —  really want democratic equality to produce democratic dignity, we have to do something. But what?

The answer will have everything to do with what we take  “equality” and “dignity” to mean. And that’s a long conversation. But for the moment it’s fair to say that we should simply talk more about dignity when we talk about democracy. Look at the contemporary political scene: isn’t one of our main problems that we frame policy issues exclusively in terms of freedom and equality? What if the debates over health care were explicitly about citizens’ and patients’ dignity? What if the debates over Voter ID laws were not just about  equality and freedom, but about the ways such laws jeopardize citizens’ dignity? What if the debates over wealth inequality hinged not just on the tension between equality and freedom but on an agreed commitment to value each others’ dignity?

Personally, I think this is a word progressives in general, and the Democratic Party in particular,  need to grab hold of and “own” – now.

Meanwhile, we should at least spend some time thinking about dignity and its relation to equality in democracy. I’ll take these matter up in later blog postings, and  any thoughts and comments you might have would be most welcome. (See “Leave a Comment” below.)

Best to Forget King’s “Dream” Speech?

On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, it is time to recognize that the activists, artists, and common citizens who demanded fairness for black Americans were also creating democracy for all Americans. The meaning of their struggle lives not in the past, but in the present.

Of course, as we commemorate that hot summer afternoon of August 28, 1963, we can’t help seeing the March as an old faded photograph and hearing the speech as a crackly old recording. These moments are past.  We remember them and memorialize them. They happened then, and we live now.

But if this is all we do, we are failing the vision of democracy King and many other African American activists have shared. For them, the past must be remembered but also overcome. For Americans too often assume that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution settled our political problems long ago. All we have to do now is sit back and let these documents fulfill their promise.

But as King pointed out, “Progress does not roll in on wheels of inevitability.” Democracy demands continuous action in the present.

This is why Frederick Douglass spoke often of “the ever-present now” and even claimed that “we have to do with the past only as it is of use to the present.” This is why James Baldwin wrote that, “The time is always now,” and why King himself exhorted Americans to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”

The Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to overturn the crucial section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 perfectly exemplifies the harm a mistaken emphasis on the past can do. While the majority’s reasoning seemed to criticize the law for being outdated, it actually did the opposite. It complacently praised past accomplishments and overlooked deep threats to equality in the present.

The Court observed that in 1965, the white voter registration rate in southern states was around 69 percent, the black rate only 19 percent. By 2004, the gap had shrunk to about 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks by 2004.

“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Chief Justice Roberts concluded. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”

On this basis, he drew the further conclusion that the past has solved our present problems.  Section 4’s work is over and done with. We don’t need it anymore.

But this reasoning ignores the fact that after 1965 Congress had to invoke Section 4 repeatedly to ensure that minority voting rights continued to be honored. It ignores too that Republican-dominated state legislatures are at this moment passing new laws to widen the gap that the Act’s continuing enforcement had narrowed.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg carefully documented these points.

It’s no wonder, then, that Douglass and King were so wary of the past.

This is why the best way to honor King’s great speech is not to remember it but to act on it. Indeed, his familiar words pull us so powerfully into the past that we might do better to forget about it – to recall a different speech delivered that very afternoon. John Lewis’s.

Today a Congressman, then a young civil rights activist, Lewis declared: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation.  Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.  We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution.”

I think King would agree that the best way to honor August 28, 1963 is to understand democracy as he and Lewis did:  it is always uncompleted, and we must continue to act on its behalf. Now.

July 12: Waiting for the Verdict

As we wait for the verdict in the Zimmerman case to be announced, I find myself hefting the weight of that word “wait” once again. It has such a long and heavy history in the lives and thoughts of black Americans. It keeps coming back like a bad spirit or a zombie. Wait. Wait. Wait. Will it ever go away?

The most famous words about waiting are Dr. King’s. Familiar as they are, they’re worth remembering today:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has been advertised on television, and see tears welling in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing unconscious bitterness toward white people; ….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued by inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Reading these words again today, waiting for a verdict that is sure to disappoint, can anyone not see the ghost of Trayvon Martin walking through them? Trayvon as a six-year-old boy being schooled about white folks by his parents? Trayvon as a teenager feeling clouds of bitter understanding – W.T.F?!? — forming in his mind? Trayvon in his last moments on the night of February 26, 2012, living as always at tiptoe and never knowing quite what to expect next: like, who is this creepy-ass cracker following me?

Once again we see the old claim of acting in self-defense put forward with the bland “innocence” that so enraged James Baldwin – whites’ denial of the fact that white racism has created the spectral, hooded blackness against which Zimmerman felt he had to “defend” himself.

Until the word “intent” recognizes that white racism shapes whites’ actions and attitudes in ways they are not conscious of – but are nonetheless accountable for – black Americans will go on waiting for justice. Until the word “malice” is understood to include racist fear among its meanings, many black Americans will go through life at tiptoe, fearful because they are feared. Until racism itself can be put on trial, we will all go on waiting — waiting for the verdict that finally puts an end to our waiting.