(More) Second Thoughts about the Confederate Flag

[Note: After a long hiatus – overwhelmed by recent events both public and private – I return to this blog with an adaptation of two pieces published last month in Salon. – NB]

Speaking in Boston just days before the South surrendered at the end of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass warned that the North’s victory would not mean that that war had truly ended: “That enmity will not die out in a year, will not die out in an age,” he predicted.

As a former southerner himself, Douglass knew just how deeply invested the South was in its  slave-holding culture. He declared:

“I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers.”

Six years later, in 1871, Douglass wrote that,  “A rebellion is upon our hands to-day far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.” He was speaking of the rising wave of mob violence and terrorism directed against African Americans all across the region. Like a “pestilence,” Douglass observed, “this last form of the rebellion – covert, insidious, secret, striking in the darkness of night, while assuming spotless robes of loyalty in the day – is far more difficult to deal with than an open foe.”

Has the age of “enmity” finally ended? Has the “malignant spirit” finally died away? Has the “pestilence” finally abated?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The hateful actions of Dylann Roof remind of us of that. So do the white supremacist websites Roof found appealing. So do the many Confederate flags displayed all across the South — and beyond —  emblazoning T-shirts, affixed to car bumpers, and worn as lapel pins in business suits.

Douglass’s words remid us that the “heritage” these flags stand for was a bloody war initiated by the South. Those Southerners who fired the first shots to attack U.S. troops at Fort Sumter – just a mile or two from the church where Roof gunned down nine black worshippers – aimed not only to “defend” slavery, but to promote slavery’s spread across the nation, especially in the West.  The defeat of the South was the defeat of the slavery system.

That defeat is still mourned by many sympathizers with the Confederate cause across the nation, who have somehow forgotten that the Lost Cause was the cause of slavery. To them, the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol, a symbol that honors the Confederate dead and preserves the memory of their gallantry and fighting spirit.

They believe that on their own front porch, or on their own car bumper, it has nothing to do with the South’s long history of racial oppression – nothing to do with slavery, the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror, and then Jim Crow segregation laws.

That’s wrong. You can’t pluck out the thread of that history without unraveling the whole flag.

I know many Americans, in the North and the South, who believe that the Civil War “was not about slavery.” That’s also wrong. Anyone who doubts me should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article in The Atlantic, in which he quotes many Southern leaders of the time explicitly saying that they were fighting the war to defend slavery:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/

If Frederick Douglass were alive today, he would also ask all white Americans to reflect on the message this flag sends – inadvertently or not — to their black fellow citizens.

And he would probably say that all Americans who are truly opposed to the “malignant spirit” of racism should search their souls and ask if this symbol really does represent all that is best about the South and its heritage, including its belief in honor and courtesy.

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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.)

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.