As we close out Black History Month, and my two efforts to say something worthy of the subject ended up in the e-trash, I was thinking about giving Nina Simone the final word on the month here on my blog. A question struck me; has anyone covered “Mississippi Goddam?” Would anyone dare?
“Are white South African or Mississippi sharecropper, or Mississippi sheriff, or a Frenchman driven out of Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality which compels them to, for example, in the case of the French exile from Algeria, to offend French reasons from having ruled Algeria. The Mississippi or Alabama sheriff, who really does believe, when he’s facing a Negro boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity.”
God damn that James Baldwin!
He was right about far too many things.
He was right about them in 1965, and speaking as he was in 1965, he is just as right about them today, damn it anyhow. It’s enough to make a white guy raised on stories of progress feel all somehow!
This Baldwinization of Lovecraft effectively transforms the literary themes of a known racist into a meditation on the nature of racism in American history. You can see Lovecraft in the monsters. You can see Baldwin in the protagonists.
Lest one miss the connection to Baldwin’s speech in 1965, one has only to think about a few more of his words;
“We talk about integration in America as though it was some great new conundrum. The problem in America is that we’ve been integrated for a very long time. Put me next to any African and you will see what I mean. My grandmother was not a rapist.”
Now just think about the plot-line for the male lead in Lovecraft country, a back man (Atticus Freeman – played by Jonathan Majors) turns out to be an heir of a rich white explorer. Far from being a blessing, this proves to be a terrible curse.
Lovecraft Country, is James Baldwin’s critique of American racism transformed into a horror story. Just how much of a transformation that took is another question. It should come as no surprise to find Jordan Peele listed as one of the show’s producers. It wouldn’t be the first time, he mapped the patterns of racism directly onto a horror story and left some of us more than a little disturbed at how easy and obvious the connection turned out to be. It’s also fitting that Lovecraft, in particular, would be the vehicle for this narrative, not just because of the delicious irony, but because so much of Lovecraftian horror resides in the prospect of insanity. In Lovecraft, this horror is about the encounter with horrors such as C’thulhu, in the consequence of knowing one day a monstrous God will destroy everything and there is nothing we can do about it. In Baldwin, this insanity the consequences of racism. It is about the perception of whites threatened by those challenging racism, and about the impact of racism itself on the minds of white people struggling to rationalize our own privilege. As Baldwin suggests, white privilege leads us to think of those who challenge it as insane, and yet that same same privilege cannot skew the reality of those who benefit from it. Racism, as Baldwin describes it, does merely enable one segment of society to oppress another; it twists the minds of each into a distorted of reality.
“I suggest that what has happened to white Southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there because Sheriff Clark in Selma, Alabama, cannot be considered – you know, no one can be dismissed as a total monster. I’m sure he loves his wife, his children. I’m sure, you know, he likes to get drunk. You know, after all, one’s got to assume he is visibly a man like me. But he doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts, for example. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”
You can see the psychological impact of racism all over Lovecraft country. The horrors faced by the central characters in this story are consistently brought to them by white people. For their own part, the world of the white characters in this series appears to be quite insane.
But of course!
How could the white characters in this world not prove insane. They are on the back end of the cattle prod, so to speak, and that, as Baldwin warns us, has its own hazards.
This same theme, the psychological effect of racism, also plays out in yet another contemporary series, The Good Lord Bird. Ostensibly a story about John Brown, the series turns into a meditation on the insanity of slavery, and in particular of its effect on those who benefit from it. There are few well-grounded characters in this story. Most of them are slaves. Even Frederick Douglas comes across as a man spoiled by privilege, one whose sense of reality is distorted by his own fame as an abolitionist, and whose commitments to the abolition of slavery are compromised by that very fame. To say nothing of John Brown himself! As he is portrayed in this series, Brown is an absolute lunatic. We love him, of course, at least in the end, but there is little question about his sanity. He doesn’t have it. No. To find a sensible character in this story, one has to look with the characters held in bondage. The slaves in this story are the only characters with the good sense to look after themselves. The rest are either too busy defending slavery and exploiting it or spiraling into ever more crazy schemes for opposing it. For those held in bondage, slavery in the Good Lord Bird is a force which keeps subjected to it well grounded; it is a force which sends those free of it into ever more bizarre flights of fancy.
The Good Lord Bird follows the story of an adolescent boy, Henry Shackleford (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson). Henry is labeled a girl by John Brown himself and Christened with a new nickname, ‘Onion’. When Brown proves incapable of correction, Henry simply accepts his new identity and thus becomes ‘Onion’ for the rest of the series. Henry knows who he is of course, but this is what it takes to get along in a world driven mad by people high on the privilege of freedom denied to others.
There is something especially interesting about the insanity of Brown and Douglas in the Good Lord Bird. It is as though the series producers believe you would have to be a little crazy to cut so far against the grain of the society in which you live, to seek to act effectively in opposition to slavery, to actually do what it takes to end it. Brown is typically regarded as something of a lunatic or a fanatic in history. (As I recall, this was one of the gripes mentioned by James Loewen in Lies My Teachers Told Me.) But how does one oppose an institution as powerful as slavery without becoming a lunatic or a fanatic. You can mumble, “oh that’s wrong,” or speak of some day overcoming the institution, but systemic oppression is not so fragile as to be threatened by expressions of passive regret. To actually confront the institution is to wage war against so many other things right along with it, even to risk bringing about harm to many people. That would of course include friends, and family, and even those one might seek to help in the end. You’d have to be a little crazy to want to do such a thing. Ethan Hawke is a lot crazy as John Brown in this series, and (for some of us anyway) it is a truly lovable performance.
James Baldwin reminds us that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a man confronting slavery treated as a crazy person, not at the time, not the history books, and not now on screen.
Damn that Baldwin!
His ghost is writing scripts for cable television.
But of course Baldwin wrote one other script with his speech back in Cambridge. He wrote the script for his debate opponent. You see, Baldwin was there in Cambridge on that day in 1965 to debate William F. Buckley, Jr. The topic for the debate was the proposition; “The American dream is at the expense of the negro.” Baldwin was to take the affirmative and Buckley was there to oppose it.
Two things are particularly striking about this debate: the absolute brilliance of Baldwin’s own speech, and the utterly pathetic response that Buckley makes to it.
It’s worth noting that two separate publications haunt the debate. (See, I haven’t given up the horror references.)
The first of these writings was an article published in 1957 by William F, Buckley entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” In this publication, Buckley, argued in defense of segregation, suggesting that white southerners needed to maintain segregated institutions and reserve power to whites until such a time as African-Americans (‘negroes’ in Buckley’s article) would prove worthy of it. Now some have suggested Buckley had changed his mind by 1965, but at least in this debate the difference is little more than a courteous veneer. Buckley was always capable of being courteous (though Gore Vidal might have thought otherwise); he was always capable of putting a polite face on his life-log defense of elitism and privilege. The second of these publications was book Baldwin had published in in 1963, The Fire Next Time, which is said to contain a warning that violence could well be the result of continued injustice. Buckley would have described it as a threat. Buckley’s article is the reason he was invited to debate Baldwin. Baldwin’s book is the key to Buckley’s response.
That and Baldwin’s tip that opposing racism must seem like insanity to those whose identity is tied to it.
It’s worth noting that Baldwin makes a point of personalizing the issue of race in his own speech. He claims that he built the infrastructure of the American south, that he himself is the subject of discrimination and racist policies. In effect he makes of himself an indexical icon (as my old professor would have put it), through which to contemplate all of the implications of racism. This offends Buckley a great (as it often seems to offend many today to hear that racism has a negative impact on persons of color). So, Buckley’s first move is to deny it. He suggests that he is going to treat Baldwin as though he were white, and that he will do so, because Baldwin’s race is irrelevant to the matter at hand. He does this in order to deny Baldwin the protections afforded to him as a public speaker making use of a negro identity.
And thus, Buckley’s own speech begins in a world where in Baldwin’s race is irrelevant to the topic of racism; a world in which being black is a privilege, one to which Baldwin is not actually entitled.
But that’s not insane is it?
(Of course it is.)
It gets worse from there!
Buckley does not defend segregation here, nor racism. Instead he dissembles his way through the topic, describing segregation as a ‘dastardly situation’, mocking the excessive concern about racism in American Universities, and suggesting in the end that it is negroes themselves that have failed to advance themselves as a people. In Buckley’s narrative, Segregation appears to be a ghost in the machine, a presence over which no-one takes responsibility, except as it seems, those oppressed by it. If only those gosh-darned negroes and their rotten liberal friends could just get over the whole thing and get on with their lives! As Buckley would have it, the only reason racism is still with us, is because it lives in the efforts of those actively opposing it. You can hear people saying similar things, today of course. It’s just a little more jarring to see someone saying this in the very era in which buses were burned, bombs, were set off, and children spat upon while going to school, all over the topic of racism. …but wait! Dammit! It’s just as jarring to hear it in the era when cops put a knee to man’s neck in broad daylight and on camera, when the Republican Party actively works to deny African-Americans the right to vote, and when white supremacists openly mix their own flags and symbols with those of mainstream American politics.
That Baldwin guy just keeps getting righter and righterer!
It’s almost like he’s had some personal experiences with racism or something.
And what about this segregation anyway!?! Buckley’s vision of segregation is a monster worthy of Lovecraft country, one which somehow appears to the majority of us only in hindsight, but which haunts the lives of those afflicted with it. One must think those who complain of racism terribly insane to be afflicted by a demon that exists only in their own politics! Buckley certainly seems to think so. Those telling us “liberalism is a mental illness” today surely do, but of course the brunt of their criticism falls less on liberals than on those in need of remediation. We get insulted; they get to go on living with the with the demon folks like Buckley and his modern descendants will neither claim as their own nor confront in any meaningful way. Buckley did a lot to set ‘conservative’ politics on this course through his publication, National Review. That his vapid waffling response to racism could be considered intellectualism, as it has for so many calling themselves ‘conservative’ has always been a mystery to me. Buckley, never really had anything to say about anything, but he could sure as Hell take more words to say nothing than most any other public figure in modern history. Most particularly, he had nothing meaningful to say about racism or segregation in response to Baldwin.
Buckley concludes his meandering speech by warning Baldwin and those who sympathize with him of an apocalyptic scenario worthy of modern horror films. If, Buckley suggests, folks such as Baldwin insist that the American dream itself is antithetical to the justice which they seek, then he and others who love their country will be forced to fight over it, “on the beaches,” so to speak. Oddly enough, they would be doing so, even for for the benefit of the negro himself, as Buckley would have us believe.
Thus, Buckley ends his speech by imagining, not how segregation might be ended, but how the call for it threatens everything he loves, and how the defense of segregation under the pretense of basic patriotism is in the end, all for the benefit of those oppressed by it.
As beautiful as Baldwin’s speech was, Buckley’s own efforts are sickening.
What’s worse! This debate hasn’t moved a whole Hell of a lot since 1965. In this Debate, Baldwin struggled not to impress the audience with the notion that racism is wrong, but to get people to give a damn about it, to act meaningfully against it. For his part, Buckley struggles to hide it, and to hide the degree to which racism was always central to the world he defended throughout his life. Buckley has a lot in common with an awful lot of people today.
Small wonder that the script for this debate can still be found on your cable television networks.
Those present voted 544 to 164 in favor of Baldwin as the winner of the debate. For his part Buckley, bragged that he “didn’t give them a goddamned inch,” or something to that effect.
What’s a “Motte and Bailey doctrine?” The term was coined by Nicholas Shackel. It describes a position in which somebody defines a term in narrow and well-defined terms in contexts of likely dispute and/or rigorous scrutiny, only to adopt a much broader and less rigorous approach to the same topic in practice (e.g. when speaking to a very friendly audience). The language comes from a medieval system of defense in which a tower (usually built on a mound) is surrounded by a stretch of desirable land. The tower on its mound (i.e. the Motte) is where the people of the community go for defense when attacked. The bailey is where people actually live and make their living. So, the concept here is really one of equivocation wherein people employ a strict definition of their stance when pressed only to get sloppy with it whenever opportunity tempts them to less than precise applications.
Is “white privilege” a Motte and Bailey doctrine?
Well it certainly can be.
What’s the Motte version of “white privilege?”
As I understand it, the rigorous approach to “white privilege” is defined something like this; It is a range of unearned benefits conferred upon those perceived as white. [Alternatively, it is the lack of unearned debits conferred on countless underprivileged peoples as a result of their own (non-white) identity.] To say that this pattern has parallels to gender, sexual orientation, and range of other indices of social stratification is obvious.
What makes this the motte, as far as I see it anyway, is the lack of any direct assertions about the significance of this privilege relative to other issues. A white guy may have less to fear from the police during a traffic stop, for example, but he might still have grown up poor. He might still face discrimination if he speaks with a distinct regional accent. He could possess a disability, grow up with abusive parents, etc. Conversely, someone from an underprivileged minority group might still be wealthy, might still be connected, might still enjoy a range of benefits not available to all whites. In other words, the Motte version of this concept recognizes that white privilege does not automatically amount to getting the upper hand all across the board of social stratification. It is a ascribed status benefit enjoyed by white people. How that benefit stacks up against other such status benefits and detriments is another question.
What’s the bailey?
Well just ask critics of the concept!
How many times has a white guy told you he grew up in a trailer park or a crowded shack in response to comments about white privilege, or otherwise commented on countless travails of her or his early life in an effort to demonstrate that he or she did not have it easy? These arguments wouldn’t work against the motte version of this concept. They only work if ‘white privilege’ clearly entails an easier life for all white people, or at least the vast majority of them. As the possibility that other indices of social stratification would come into play is already built into the motte-version of ‘white privilege,’ all of these arguments fall well short of disproving that concept.
They really do.
So, why aren’t these points just straw man arguments?
They aren’t straw man arguments, because proponents of white privilege don’t always stay in the motte. Sometimes, those employing the notion really do seem to think (or at least say) that whites are uniformly better off. I have personally been told in no uncertain terms that I have had an easier life than they have because I am white, and I have certainly heard the sweeping comparisons from others invoking the notion of white privilege. Additionally, the practice of dismissing anything a white person says on the subject of race, racial privilege, or other social justice themes by reminding us that we speak from a position of privilege tends at least to erase the narrow definitions of the motte and nudge us all closer to a broad generalization about the overall status of white people relative to on-whites. Sometimes, people using this concept really do seem to be painting a simple picture of privilege that squashes a number of other measures of privilege and oppression under the weight of race. All-too-often the notion of white privilege, defined narrowly when scrutiny is likely, becomes in practice a categorical assumption that all white people have it better than all any-other-kinda people.
So, if it is tempting to dismiss the critics of white privilege for attacking a straw man, that temptation must be tempered by the awareness that at least some proponents of the notion actually embody that straw man, at least when they are on a roll.
And here is where the whole metaphor begins to fail us. Do people shift back and forth between strict and loose definitions of ‘white privilege.’ Yes, they do. They also do this with debates about the existence (and nature) of God, support for law and order, use of terms like ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism,” or the love of rock and roll.
Wiggle room happens!
While we might want to encourage people to stick to a single definition of the key terms they use (or even to hold opponents in a debate responsible for doing so whether they want to or not), it is somewhat of a distortion to suggest that this is unusual. It is also a distortion to suggest that it takes the form of two clearly defined variations. Often the slippage is more subtle than that.
And of course it doesn’t help that nobody seems to trust anybody enough to anybody enough to grant them the benefit of the doubt on this topic. To hear some people talk, the very notion of white privilege will bring about the downfall of America, taking Europe with us, and fairly clipping the wings of half the angels in heaven. They can’t even address the motte version of the concept, and they certainly won’t concede it. Others will assume the only reason for expressing skepticism on this concept is a clear dedication (Whether conscious or not) to the support of white privilege. The principle of charity, long advocated by introductory logic teachers all across the land, just isn’t welcome in social justice debates of the modern world. When we acknowledge doubt at all, we tend not to give the other guy the benefit of it, and since nobody is getting any of this benefit themselves, we are that much more stingy about giving it to others.
Dammit all anyhow!
…and of course one of the benefits some of us do enjoy here is the privilege of experiencing this as a largely theoretical subject. For some folks the problem is a lot more urgent than others.
In this case, in particular, the middle ground is critical, not because all things moderate are great and wonderful, but because there is a critical question here, one that falls squarely on the boundaries between the motte and the bailey of this particular notion.
Relative to other indices of ascribed social status, just how important is ‘white privilege?” In the life of any given person, or the prospect for a positive outcome in any critical situation, just how likely is white privilege to make the difference? I can well understand that a black man might enjoy the secondary benefits of wealth or that a white man might face discrimination for being poor, but how does wealth (or the display of it) really stack up in comparison to race?
In attempting to answer this question, we do so haunted by the specter of confirmation bias.
White folks like myself typically underestimate the pervasiveness of our privilege. This was once brought home to me quite vividly when driving with my gal, Moni, in the passenger seat. Seeing a police officer race up beside us on the highway only to motion at me to slow down, she was shocked to see how easily I got away with driving over the speed limit. (In my defense, I wasn’t going that fast. Honest!) This is an event she now commemorates by taking pictures of me ‘criming while white’ whenever she gets the chance. Of course, I haven’t always gotten a break from cops in such situations, but after talking to her, I have come to realize that my own ideas about how a traffic stop is likely to go vary considerably with her own, and yes, I do put the difference down to race.
Of course, some in the social justice camp may be a little too quick too assume that racial identity has made the difference in this or that situation, but of course, not all biases are equal. If I was to bet on this, I would put my money on the likelihood that those of us enjoying white privilege miss its effect in our lives far more than those who lack this privilege see it when it isn’t there. In any event, the answer to how much weight white privilege gets in comparison to other indices of social status is going to be heavily skewed by the impact of this very phenonomenon (along with other all the other variables that skew the way that humans experience and treat each other).
The notion of ‘white privilege’ isn’t sufficiently robust without accounting for its relative weight. If we just say, “yes, that’s a benefit, one of many,” then all we are doing is acknowledging that race is one of many things that could trigger prejudice, and that when this happens white people are likely to benefit from the effect of that prejudice.
That takes ‘meh’ all the way to 5!
Simply saying that whiteness is just one index of unearned privilege among many others invites us all to shrug our shoulders and go back to whatever else we were doing. Perhaps we will notice when it matters; perhaps we will not. That position is not just a motte; it’s a meh. We can do better than that.
If on the other hand, we say that white privilege trumps all other considerations in all imaginable contexts, then, well, that just isn’t true. There are at least some contexts in which class, regional dialect, age, health, sexual orientation, personal connections, or any range of considerations could trump race. That white privilege skews the likelihood of positive privilege in some of these areas (e.g. class) more likely is certainly true, but at least some of the time, being white may not matter as being something else.
Some of the time.
In the end, the concept of ‘white privilege’ isn’t significant until we assign it some weight relative to other things that can skew the way that people treat one another.
As I write this, I am envisioning a much-needed trip through the relevant statistical research, but for now I mean to wrap this up by simply framing the position that most sense to me. It is the notion that white privilege, at least in the modern United States, is the most critical index of social status, at least when you account for both the likelihood that it will come up and the impact it will have. There may be less-severe sources of social bias which are more prevalent, and there may be less common sources of bias with more substantial impact when they do occur, but in the long run, white privilege is more likely to make a difference in a critical situation than class, region, age, etc. Do I believe this? Yes, though I am quite open to reconsideration and/or modification of the position.
So where does this leave us, or me at any rate?
I reckon us (me), somewhere in the transition from motte to bailey. I am grumble when I see the easy assumption that white people just have it better than others. I grumble more when I talk to white people who can’t even grasp the possibility that their whiteness might have given them an edge in life, at least some of the time. I reckon, the most appropriate thing to do here is to think of this in terms of priorities. As far as social ills go, this is at (or damned near) the top of the hierarchy. It isn’t the be-all and end-all of social justice, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anything more critical to address than racial disparities. That’s not a blank check written for anyone who wants to cash in on the claim to fighting for social justice. A certain amount of mere noise attaches itself to every signal, and shameless opportunists find their way into every cause. Still, I do think this problem is real, and I want more folks who enjoy white privilege would take the notion seriously.
It occurs to me that I may have just taken ‘meh’ all the way to 6, but it really does seem to me that the issue only gets interesting when you start asking how important white privilege is relative to other sources of social status. In suggesting that white privilege is more important than other variables, I am certainly picking a fight with anyone who seeks to deny that white privilege exists altogether, and also with those who see it as just one variable drowning in a see of other claims on our social conscience. To say that any other variables of social status could even be weighed against race and white privilege in any manner puts me at odds with quite a few of the proponents of the notion. I may have staked out a position on the middle ground, but in this instance, I doubt this will prove convenient.
I remember him leading the chant of “lock her up” during the 2016 election. I remember him pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
Well, charges were just dropped against Michael Flynn.
They were dropped because Michael Flynn is innocent until properly proven guilty.
Do you remember George Zimmerman?
He was the man supposedly acting as neighborhood watch when he took a gun and went in search of Trayvon Martin, because Trayvon looked like was up to no good. I remember George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the subsequent trial. I remember countless right wingers lecturing the rest of us about how George Zimmerman was innocent until proven guilty. Many of those same people now tell us stories about how that thug Trayvon attacked Zimmerman without provocation, forcing Zimmerman to shoot him in self-defense.
That’s the story they tell. A story in which Trayvon stands charged, convicted, and executed without a trial.
Because George Zimmernan is innocent until proven guilty!
Do you remember Brett Kavanaugh?
Of course you do.
We are all reminded of Kavanaugh every time the well-stacked right wing Supreme Court delivers a decision. Kavanaugh sits on that court, because he was innocent until proven guilty.
Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford is of course a lying scumbag who made up accusations against Kavanaugh as part of a liberal plot to keep him off the Supreme Court, so I’m told at any rate. She didn’t prove her case in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and the reason is obvious to those now happy to have him on the court.
Christine Blasey Ford is guilty because Brett Kavanaugh is innocent until proven guilty.
Do you remember Sandra Bland? She died in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department in Waller County Texas. Nobody was charged, because folks at the Waller County Sheriff’s Department are innocent until proven guilty. How about Timothy Loehmann? He’s the police officer who shot Tamir Rice? He was never prosecuted either, because Timothy Loehmann is innocent until proven guilty. Do you remember Daniel Pantaleo? He’s the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death over loose cigar sales. He wasn’t prosecuted either. Because Daniel Pantaleo is innocent until proven guilty. Do you remember Michael Slager? Okay, that fucker is just guilty! But do you remember Freddie Gray? He died over a pocket knife. All the officers involved in his case were innocent until proven guilty. Yes, they were!
How about Philip Brailsford? He shot and killed Daniel Shaver in a Hotel in Arizona. Brailsford was innocent until proven guilty.
Now we have the case of Ahmaud Arbery. Oh, don’t worry. he’s not accused of anything. He was just jogging. A black man, out jogging! That’s definitely not a cime. But apparently, a couple white men (Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael) decided that Ahmaud might have been a burglar, so they tracked him down and confronted him with a gun. Now there is some reason to believe Arbery might have been the aggressor at the point he was shot. …twice? What he was doing at that moment we will never know, but I reckon he might have meant to defend himself from two crazy white men with a gun. Such considerations won’t matter in the long run, because the McMichaels are entitled to a fair trial, and such speculation will not be relevant in a fair trial.
The McMichaels are both innocent until proven guilty*.
So what has me thinking with my keyboard again after such a long absence from the blog? It’s the latest dust-up over Candace Owens’ comments on Hitler. Owens was recently called to testify as a witness for congressional hearings on the topic of hate crimes by white nationalists. Expressing contempt over the decision to bring her in for such testimony, Ted Lieu opted to play ‘the first 30 seconds’ of comments she once made on the subject of Adolf Hitler. He then moved on to ask another witness about the significance of those comments, leaving Owens without a chance to respond and the rest of us without much sense for the context in which her comments had originally been made. Given the chance to respond shortly thereafter, Owens charged asserted that Lieu had assumed African Americans wouldn’t look into the matter further, suggesting she had been taken out of context.
…and the fight was quickly farmed out to various social media platforms.
Such is modern politics!
First let me say that this was not one of Lieu’s finer moments. It’s hard to get past the sense that he left out critical information about the context of Owen’s remarks or the sense of unfairness that goes with attacking someone in their own presence without giving them a chance to respond. I can think of all sorts of reasons why he might have chosen to do this, and yes, I want to support his efforts here, but this falls short of certain minimum standards that ought to guide someone’s conduct. Lieu can do better than this. He normally does.
That said, I can certainly empathize with Lieu’s unflattering take on Owens’ credibility. She is not an expert in politics, crime, or anything else coming up in that hearing. It’s tough to say just how we came to the point where Candace Owens counts as having something important to say at a congressional hearing on racially motivated hate crimes.
Answering that question was actually the first thing Owens herself addressed at the hearings. Why was she there? She told us. Her answer just wasn’t all that helpful. What Owens said was that she has herself been the target of racially motivated hate crimes. She said this in order to establish a personal connection to the issue, then went on to talk about anything but that very issue. The rest of Owens’ opening remarks were spent reminding us that words like ‘racism’ meant something in the context of segregation in the old Democratic South while the real threats to African-Americans today come from Democratic policies purportedly aimed at helping them. In short, Owens was there to minimize the significance of racially motivated hate crimes against minorities and shift the discussion to something that might embarrass the Democrats.
You can see all of this for yourself in the video from C-SPAN presented below. Owens’ opening statement begins at around 47:40 and ends at 53:42. Lieu’s remarks begin at around 2:33:14 and end at 2:38:27. Owens reply occurs between 2:38:50 and 2: 40:38.
Much of the subsequent discussion has focused on the question of whether or not Lieu misrepresented Owens in suggesting that she had tried to legitimize Hitler. For her own part, Owens told the committee that she had done no such thing, that she had in fact been trying to suggest that Hitler wasn’t really a nationalist. “A nationalist,” Owens, tells us, “would not kill their own people.”
So what did Owens actually say at the event in question? Her comments can be found here from around 38:45 to around 40:55.
So, did Lieu misrepresent Owens?
Only if we allow the context to swallow the text entirely, and even then, only if we don’t think very hard about that context itself.
What do I mean?
We can start by looking at aspects of the message that appear to support the claim that Owens was defending Hitler. Here it is!
But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.
Owens’ and her own defenders have reassured us that these remarks were made in an effort to distinguish Hitler’s actions from those of a proper nationalist. On one level, this is fair enough. That clearly is Owens’ main point, and her remarks are in fact consistent with that point.W should not lose sight of the larger goal of Owens’ remarks even as we ask ourselves why she chose to pursue them using the particular set of claims she did on that day.
The problem is that point isn’t inconsistent with a defense of Hitler, half-assed though it may have been. The odd description of Hitler as someone who might have “just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well” does suggest a sympathetic understanding of Hitler’s motives at least insofar as they applied to Germany. Adding to that, the sense that Hitler’s actions only become a problem when he goes global and you have a point that does more than distinguish Hitler’s politics from those of an idealized nationalism; you end up with a point that suggests his internal policies were in themselves just fine, that his politics becomes a problem at precisely the when when those politics cross the border. While we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Owens is indeed trying to distinguish Hitler from nationalism as she would have it understood, her actual argument leaves plenty of reason to believe that she is in fact sympathetic to aspects of Hitler’s agenda.
Simply put, Owens’ speaks approvingly of Hitler’s domestic agenda, condemning him only when his ambitions cross the border. In subsequent remarks, she may have acknowledged his murderous actions, but in the immediate context of her remarks at the time, Owens shows no awareness of anything worth condemning in Hitler’s domestic policies? Does she think his crimes began on the other side of the border? Does Owens think Hitler did nothing wrong inside of Germany?
In effect, Owens was praising Hitler with faint damn.
All of this brings us to a much larger point; why was Owens trying to distinguish nationalism from the actions of Adolf Hitler in the first place? The simple answer is because that is something key parties in right wing politics want to do at this point in history. Owens is not the only person pushing the idea that nationalism isn’t always a terrible thing. Charlie Kirk’s own comments in that clip push that very theme. It’s a talking point that someone in right wing circles has clearly seen fit to push onto the public stage and the folks at the event in question were hitting their marks quite nicely on this talking point.
The goal in this agenda is of course to distinguish nationalist politics from the horrors of the Nazi regime and leave us with a reassuring notion that nationalists just want secure borders and lower crime rates in the nations wherein they live, etc. They aren’t, we are supposed to believe, the kind of folks to exterminate 11 million people. No, that was just the Nazis, and they were actually globalists not real nationalists. Real nationalists, true nationalists, would never do that!
The problem of course is that this is utter bullshit, and the reason it’s bullshit is exactly the reason for the hearing Owens had come to troll. Nationalist movements always bring with them a degree of violence, xenophobia, and terrorism, and that means people get hurt at the border. It means they get hurt on the other side of the border. It means they get hurt well inside the border.
…and, yes, nationalists do kill their own people. Hell, they do it all the time!
Also, oh yes, nationalists always seem to have global ambitions as well. You can see this, not only in Hitler’s own plans, but also in Trump’s many ties to Russia, to Saudia Arabia, and to countless other international entities. Hell, you can even see it in Owens and Kirk going to England to help promote nationalist politics across the pond. If what makes a nationalist is a politics that stops at the borders, then Hitler may not be a true nationalist, ok, but then neither is Owens, neither is Kirk, and neither is the Manchurian Cheeto.
Few movements have ever gone global quite like the wave of nationalism presently sweeping the (ahem!) globe and drawing shameless opportunists like Owens into the picture. Her efforts to distinguish the politics of Nazi Germany from the kind of nationalism she herself promotes is little other than a parlor trick. She is telling us to ignore the genocidal maniac behind the curtain even as we look right at him. For that matter, she is also asking us to ignore the countless nationalists who dragged Europe into World War I, because frankly Nazis aren’t the only nationalists to leave a body count behind them. There is a reason ‘nationalism’ has been a dirty word in politics for some time, and that reason isn’t something Owens has even begun to address with her half-assed efforts to address the issue. She may not want us to think there is any connection between nationalism and crime, but her efforts to distract us from that connection are the very problem with her remarks on this subject.
In short, Owens’ own agenda is in fact a lot closer to that of Hitler than she wants us to believe. That’s why her critique of the man falls well short of anything a thoughtful person would produce, even on the spur of the moment.
Should we pay attention to the context of Owen’s comments?
You know what might have worked? For me anyway. If a report had been made in the wake of a comprehensive immigration review, or just a comprehensive review of border security. If that report had included the unlikely recommendation that a wall be stretched across the entire border, or (more likely) if such a review had recommended renovations to existing stretches of wall, or even adding more wall in selected locations. Hell, I could imagine a wall helping to prevent accidental deaths among other things. I know there are people who advocate completely open borders, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t think the vast majority of modern liberals take such a view either. If such a report had come out, and Donald Trump had said he wanted to implement the changes recommended in that report, that might have worked. A lot depends on the details, but I could see myself supporting such measures.
But that is not what happened.
What happened was the semi-conscious anal fistula that currently occupies the White House came down that damned escalator and gave a shout out to all the white supremacists in the nation. He made a point to tell them he was on their side. It’s a point he has come back to time and time again. Whenever that flaming wank-maggot needs to feel a little better about himself, he stirs the racist pot by coming back to immigration and hitting that subject with a bigger dumber hammer.
Donald Trump didn’t advocate immigration reform. He hasn’t restricted his attacks on immigrants to those who come here illegally, and he certainly hasn’t made any effort to ensure that his policies will actually help, even to curtail illegal immigration, which was on the decline before he took office to begin with. He hasn’t even made responsible use of the resources already at his disposal His brinksmanship on the issue has included the demonization of all immigrants (including legal immigrants and genuine refugees), the demonization of Muslims in general, the orchestrated kidnapping of children, active promotion of immigrant caravans (only to use those very caravans to trigger riots at the border).
There are legitimate concerns about immigration, and about border security. If you think those concerns have anything to do with Donald Trump’s approach to the subject, then I have a degree from Trump University to sell you.
So here we are, waiting for Trump’s big speech at the border. He will do what he always does, which is to speak power to truth and wait for the engines of bigotry to make his malicious fairy tales into an accomplished fact. The deplorables will do what they always do which is to try and read more reasonable themes into his bullshit on the one hand, and then use his claims to press the the boundaries of bigotry on the other. If Trump supporters have their way, the utter bullshit that is every word seeping from the mouth of this festering bloodfart will one day pass for truth.
It isn’t. It never will be.
As sure as the sun rises this coming speech will be lies piled on top of more lies. We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t turn out to be the modern American version of the Reichstag Fire Decree.
I thought I’d share this little gem currently on display in the Anchorage Museum. It’s called “The End of Everything” by Thomas Chung. I’m sorry, the photo-quality is really crap. Just thought the content was worth sharing despite that. Anyway, here is what Chung has to say about it:
“The painting explores why we may, at times, dehumanize others. It reflects our current political times, which are brewing with hatred and conflict. The cowboy character riding the bomb represents the male American ideal, while the cherubs represent the many living forms of bigotry from the past and present. The graffiti on the polar bear comes from posters repeatedly disseminated around the University of Alakas Anchorage’s campus this year by white supremacists as part of a larger campaign.”
There are moments (mostly the innocent ones) in Black Klansman where the movie seems to be telling us something about the 70s. There are other moments (as in references to “America First” or allusions to the Trump administration) when the movie is clearly telling us something about today. Most of the time, however, the movie seems to be telling us about both at the same time. What’s missing from this movie is the period in between, a good three or four decades, depending on how you count them, when many of us might have thought race relations were getting better. Perhaps that thought was never more than naiveté, a mere fantasy, but if so the fantasy was certainly a part of the world erased in this film. I’d like to think Spike Lee is wrong to erase those years in this film, but he isn’t.
That erasure, it seems, is precisely the point.
The hope of those intervening years between the end of segregation in America and the present rise of white nationaism is in fact well well represented in Black Klansman. It’s repreented by Ron Stalworth (played by John David Washington), the central character in Black Klansman, a story inspired by events in the career of a real life police officer. We meet Stalworth as he becomes the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. It’s a step forward, some might have said back in the day. “Selling out” might be how others would have put it. Stalworth lives in the tension between these two ways of looking at his career, one which envisions police authority as consistent, at least in theory with the possibility or racial justice, and one which sees it as an explicit tool of white supremacy. For his own part, Stalworth is clearly trying to make the former outlook work, but he’s torn from all sides, both by racism within the police force and by those who see police as an essentially racist institution.
To hear him talk, Stalworth could pass for white, which probably says as much about those in the movie (and those of us watching it) who think he sounds white as it does about the man himself. Whatever the reason, this feature of Stalworth’s character has an obvious utility; it will enable him to pass, at least on the phone. Stalworth is also willing to cut his fro if the Police Chief wants him to, but no, that’s not necessary, The Chief likes it. At the same time, Stalworth fights a never ending battle against the casual racism of his fellow officers. What to do about the overt bigots whose racism is far from casual, he isn’t sure, at least not at the outset of the film. Stalworth is picking his battles. Fair enough! But is the trade-off equitable? One gets the impression no-one is quite happy with the arrangement, least of all Stalworth himself.
It’s this awkward effort to find an acceptable accommodation between social justice and institutions which have historically enforced racism that makes Stalworth a great symbol for the intervening years between the seventies and the modern era. He is a back man trying to make America work. for his own people along with the rest of us. Some might consider that a fools errand, but Stalworth lived in an era when it seemed almost possible.
The Police Chief takes Stalworth’s discomfort up a notch by asking him to go undercover to attend a speech by Stokely Carmichael so he can keep track of the radical students who sponsored the event. There Carmichael is known by his new name of Kwame Ture. Ture speaks of police abuse, even the murder of African-Americans. He also urges his audience to prepare for violent revolution. Stalworth is surprised to find that he likes Ture’s speech, and the fact that he likes the speech is a big problem. It’s a problem because Stalwort is there to spy on the man and the black radicals listening to him. From the snadpoint of the police department, he’s not supposed to like the speech at all. From the standpoint of the student radicals, he isn’t supposed to be there at all, at least not for the reasons he has come.
…and certainly not wearing a mic.
It doesn’t help matters that Stalworth knows people in his own police department guilty of the very racism Ture was talking about. It also doesn’t help that he is falling rapidly in love with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), President of the Black Student Union. She is arguably the main subject of his investigation, and she herself certainly would not approve of his undercover work. It REALLY doesn’t help that she was pulled over by racist police officers after the speech and sexually assaulted during the stop, confirming everything Ture said in his speech while underscoring Stalworth’s inability to do anything about it.
So, how is he going to explain Ture’s promotion of revolution to the Police Chief? How will he explain his role in the police department to the love interest who sees police as the enemy? It’s a problem.
All of this comes before Stalworth’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan.
If there is any ray of hope to found in these initial scenes, it comes in the form of a night spent dancing in the wake of Ture’s presentation. Whatever Ture’s rhetoric, the radicals who brought him were content to spend the evening peacefully enjoying themselves on the dance floor. This gives Stalworth an angle, so to speak. He decides that these radicals are just talking about the violent revolution. They aren’t actually planning to kill anybody. It’s not the easiest message to sell. The Police Chief doesn’t buy it any more than Patrice and her companions buy the notion that police are meant to serve the community.
If there is a way to make police-work consistent with racial justice, Stalworth hasn’t found it when the larger plot kicks off, when Stalworth stumbles upon the opportunity to open up an investigation into the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). If the black radicals he’d been investigating at the start of this film weren’t really violent, the Klansman certainly were, at least enough of them to pose a threat. Of course this investigation is the real focus on the film. It’s also where the film departs most from the actual events of the real events in question. The real investigation led to the transfer of Klansmen within the military away from sensitive security positions; the movie investigation leads to a real crime.
What interests me about the story most is the larger racial politics of the film itself, and of the society it comments upon. One gets the impression Stalworth isn’t in the most tenable position to begin with. He knows very well the laws he is charged with enforcing hurt his own people, and he also knows anyone seeking to change that poses a real threat to the institutions he represents. Stalworth is caught in the middle of many forces he cannot controle; he has set himself up for a life-time of pushing back in all directions. The main plot seems almost to rescue him from the ambivalence of his position at the outset of the film.
…which brings us back to the political history of the film. Its final moments aren’t about the tricky life Stalworth has set up for himself so much as the rise of violent white nationalism with the advent of the Trump administration. Here Spike Lee drops the fictional story-line entirely and shows us real footage of real white nationalists at work today. It’s a fitting shift, of course. Like the Klan in this story, Trump’s America has fallen on the nation like a great big old boot stomp on the many conflicts that used to plague our politics, conflicts that now seem subtle by comparison. Like the Klansmen in this film, the present administration and its supporters aren’t really all that interested in figuring out the details of social justice; they are happy to promote a clear and obvious vision of white supremacy. If the crime Stalworth thwarts in this move is fictional, the threats posed by a political regime wedded to the likes of the Klan is real. If justice eludes us, the present regime certainly ought to inject a degree of clarity into political questions of our own day.
If it isn’t entirely clear how we should handle racism in police practice, the sort of problem Stalworth is dealing with at the beginning of this film, it ought to be very clear that the present President couldn’t care less. Neither could those who support him. If it isn’t entirely clear how the rest of us should live together, it ought to be very clear that a good number of Americans no longer mean to do so at all, and that they have help at the highest levels, help they are using to undermine every means at our disposal for forking out any equitable solutions to the nations problems. The nation as a whole seems ripped away, like Stalworth, from the tricky problems about racial justice. What we have now is a problem much like that he faced in this film; how to stop those consciously working to ensure no such answers will ever be found.
I’m often amused at the things that people say in defense of Donald Trump and his supporters. Okay, I’m as likely to be outraged as I am amused, and often I manage to be both, but for the moment, let’s concentrate on the amusing part.
Plenty of time to be outraged later. We get new reasons with each passing moment of the Orange Reich!
One of the most amusing twists in the defending-Donald game has always been the angle many deplorables took on the Serge Kovaleski incident. This would be the disabled reporter that Donald Trump once mocked at one of his rallies. Trump supporters have long since settled on a standard line of defense against this criticism. They will say that Trump’s decision to effect the speech and physical demeanor of a disabled person is actually a common bit that he runs on lots of people. They can even provide evidence for this in the form of several video clips in which Donald Trump mocks a variety of people in a similar way. So, the argument runs that Trump was not really mocking Kovaleski for being handicapped, because he actually mocks lots of people (including those who don’t appear to be handicapped) by pretending that they are handicapped.
…which would of course make him as juvenile as he is cruel.
This whole line of reasoning is a REALLY fascinating defense of Trump, because it amounts to the claim that Donald Trump actually makes fun of disabled people all the time. How this is supposed to prove he wasn’t mocking the particular individual, Serge Kovaleski, for being disabled is beyond me, though perhaps the notion here is that Donald Trump wasn’t consciously making fun of Serge for being disabled, because Donald Trump wouldn’t have been happy to mock him in the same way whether he was disabled or not.
It’s a particularly damning defense.
Seriously, how pathetic is that? That the best thing you can think to say about a man is that he wasn’t making fun of a particular disabled person, because he actually does that all the time.
…also, there is the whole matter of Donald telling us we should see the man before embarking on the whole charade. A reasonable person might take that as an indication that the coming display was a bit more than a coincidence, that it was perhaps meant to illustrate something about his actual demeanor of the person in question. A reasonable person might take it that way.
Not a deplorable.
But anyway, I really do think the most amusing thing about this really is the notion that it’s somehow better if this is a standard act in Trump’s bag of tricks. Of course this is also one of the most sad things about Trump and the politics of trumpetry; the normalization of things that ought to be outrageous. This particular defense doesn’t just ask us to let the whole thing go, it asks us to think of it as a normal thing, an acceptable mode of public engagement for a major politician.
…and thus the movement to make America great again serves in practice to make it a more pathetic place.
The nation recently got a whole new dose of that pathetic quality from Roseanne Barr, who, as we all know by now, recently chose to mock an advisor from the Obama administration in racist terms. Valerie Jarrett had her time in the cross-hairs of right wing hacks quite some time ago, and apparently, she is still a favorite target abuse among those whose pornography consists of mocking all things connected to Obama. At any rate, Roseanne chose to suggest that Jarrett was the product of a union between the Planet of the Apes and the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is of course a lot wrong with Roseanne’s joke, but the thing that most seem to have focused on was the racist imagery. The equation of African-Americans with apes has long been one of the major themes of racism, and that theme flourished in political-pornography aimed at the Obama family. Given Jarrett’s own African-American ancestry, it’s not hard to see where Roseanne was going with this.
We all know the fall-out by now. Barr’s show has been cancelled. She apologized. She also made excuses, and she now seems to believe she’s been mistreated. And so on…
One of the more pathetic angles in this already pathetic story is the effort to equate Roseanne’s behavior with that of various left-wing personalities. Much like the right wing response to the Kovaleski incident, those attempting to defend Roseanne show little but their own lack of concern with the very themes in question.
Several have tried pointing to Cathy Griffin, asking why the left didn’t condemn her for posing with a fake severed head. Why doesn’t this work? Among other things, because a lot of people on the left really did condemn Griffin’s gag. Right wingers keep pretending this isn’t so, but it is.
Then of course, there are a variety of people (among them Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, and Joy Behar) who have said horribly mean things about Donald Trump over the years. Bill Maher, in particular, has been singled out, because he has apparently compared Donald Trump to an Orangutan. No matter how you slice this, it still comes up as pathetic whataboutism, but what’s particularly pathetic about this argument is that it misses the point. Calling someone an orangutan is rude, but calling an African-American woman an ape carries specific racist overtones. Does that seem like a double standard? Perhaps it does if you just ignore the entire history of racism. At the end the day, this argument proves little except that Roseanne’s defenders (who are at this point essentially Trump’s defenders) do not see racism as a problem. To them, Roseanne’s gaff was simply rudeness, nothing more.
Now add Samantha Bee into this mix. What did she do? She called Ivanka Trump a ‘c*nt’. This is at least a little bit more of a concern insofar as that particular term is perhaps the most derogatory insult you can use in American English, and that fact alone suggests use of the term may not be the most helpful thing someone can do if they care about the status of women in American society. Still, does it rise to the level of toxicity one finds in racial stereotypes equating African-Americans with apes? No. Not even close. Once again, the argument proves very little, other than that those fielding it don’t really have a problem with racist imagery at all. To them, this is a battle over rudeness, which is why the efforts they keep making to field a charge of hypocrisy against those on the left focus on rudeness more than social justice. They keep trying to accuse the left of violating its own principles, but they consistently mistake what those princples happen to be.
Of course this is just another example of the meta-hypocrisy shuffle. The right wing is fielding the charge of hypocrisy in order to cover up their own hypocrisy. While we debate whether or not any particular comic can say this or that rude thing, Trump’s defenders celebrate him for that very quality.
…but perhaps, this is fitting after all.
The king (and that is what Trump is to his supporters, not a President, a king) is entitled to certain privileges. Perhaps being able to insult people as he sees fit is, in the mind of the deplorables, simply one of the great privileges to which a man of his stature is entitled. What makes Donald Trump great in their eyes is precisely what would make anyone else terrible.
There are many reasons to reject the kind of rhetoric, not the least of them being the obvious foibles of what aboutism, or false equivalence, or the tu quoque fallacy, or any number of idiotic twists in this hollow game. Yet, the most disturbing thing about these arguments would remain just how little appreciation those making these arguments seem to show for the toxic impact of racism in America. Each of these defenses shows us mainly that those making them do NOT see racism as a serious problem.
…which is why I say this is a damning defense of Roseanne.
Of course the real question here is who will be damned by it? Those making these arguments reveal their own racism in making them, but if they succeed in transforming the issue into one of mere rudeness, then the public at large loses. If these idiots succeed, then we damn ourselves to a world in which Roseanne’s joke is just another form of edgy comedy.
It’s always been odd to me, seeing how the history of American slavery makes some of my fellow white people uncomfortable. You can see their discomfort in the various ways folks try to minimize the significance of slavery. Sometimes, it’s enough to put slavery in the past, to grant that it was an horrible crime, but to imagine that crime taking place so far in the remote past and so completely resolved with the official end of slavery in that remote past as to be completely free of any political implications today. It’s a bit like the gambit, folks often play with the history of Indian-white relations – all the horrors of the past can be acknowledged, at least in the abstract, so long as you can contain their significance within the history books (and preferably kept well away from any of the more recent chapters). At other times, folks seem to come up with more elaborate schemes to pare down the topic of slavery until it fits into their personal comfort zones.
When I was in college, this kind of pop-racism generally took the form of an argument that Africans started slavery. They did it too, maybe even first, so the argument would go, and of course there was (and is) an element of truth to these claims, but it’s a truth poorly served by its rhetorical packaging. It would be fair to say that slavery existed in Africa (as it did Europe, and indeed most of the world) prior to the founding of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Just how much those prior-forms of slavery explain the booming industry that would come is another question. All too often I used to hear people pushing this narrative and think they wanted far too much from the point than it would bear. What they wanted was a kind of absolution, a story that diminished the responsibility of Euro-American peoples for the tragedy of the slave trade. At the very least, they wanted to share the blame with some other groups.
And I always wondered why some of these people seemed to feel personally implicated in the matter? What do you get out of this, I would find myself asking? How does it help you if this story goes to the discredit of someone else’s ancestors? The answer, I think, is (predictably enough) racism. For those who see the world through the lens of race, the disgrace of their ancestors is a disgrace to them personally, and a case against the moral character of their own kind is a direct personal attack. I think this is also the key to common refrains about ‘white guilt’ and ‘liberal guilt’. I’ve never seen liberal politics as an expression of personal shame, but I do think some of our critics are incapable of seeing liberal politics in any other terms. Such people cannot right the wrongs of the past or work to overcome inequalities in the present; they must instead demolish their own consciousness of those wrongs and rationalize any inequalities they see in the present. It’s the just world hypothesis at work in a racist mind.
In recent years, the pop-racist response to the history of American slavery seems to have evolved a bit. The latest trend seems to be countering stories about the enslavement of Africans with those about the enslavement of Irish men and women, but I should say the trend isn’t even that focused. Time and again you can see people show up with stories about Irish slavery in response to contemporary concerns about African-Americans. Write a blog post or tweet a quick message about police abuse of African-Americans in the present-day and somebody may well just show up to tell you about the history of Irish slavery. It’s as if the prospect of Irish slavery isn’t just a stock answer to any questions about the enslavement of Africans; some folks find it useful as an answer to questions about literally any injustice experienced by African-Americans today. Once again, there is a grain of truth to the narrative, and once again, those producing it clearly want more from the story than the facts of the matter will furnish them.
What proponents of the Irish slavery narratives are talking about is the practice of sending Irish men and women to the Americas under terms imposing temporary servitude upon them. Most of these were indentured servants who agreed to a term of service in exchange for passage, but at least some were prisoners whose terms of service were imposed upon them as a means of punishment.
Okay, so we know all this.
There was a time when perfectly liberal college professors were happy to spell out the horrible conditions of indentured servitude, along with the abuse of Irish in this and other contexts. I used to work with a professor who made quite a point to ensure students learned just how terribly indentured servants could be treated. None of this was part of a racist agenda, and none of it was leveraged against the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Far from fielding a rationale for minimizing the horrors of that slave trade, this was like the opening chapter of a long sequence on the horrors of the full slave trade that would come. Acknowledging both horrors (and many others) used to work just fine.
But that was then, this is now.
What is new? On the surface, what is new here is the use of the word ‘slavery’ to describe what was done to the Irish, but here as always the devil resides in the details. No, I am not linking to any of this literature, but proponents of the Irish slave narrative have worked hard to embellish every embelishible point; inflating numbers, adding stories about the defilement of white women forced to breed with African men, and of course complaining that liberals have hidden the trials of the Irish while pushing the trans-Atlantic narrative in order to keep African-Americans at the forefront of identity politics. With support from racist corners of the internet, some maintain the Irish story is greater in all respects. Who would deny it? Only a liberal, right?
Okay, I deny it.
More importantly, so do vast majority of historians doing work on the subject. Scholars have questioned many of the details put forward in the Irish slave narrative, but the central theme seems to be this, that at its heart, the Irish story really is a story about indentured servitude. Indentured servitude was by no means a benign institution, but it simply isn’t comparable to the chattel slavery associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Most simply would not use the term ‘slavery’ at all to describe indentured servitude, even when it is imposed as a criminal sanction. And of course a good deal of the push-back of these narratives consists of efforts to unmask the clearly racist agendas of key proponents. This isn’t just a mistake, it’s a mistake a lot of committed white racists want people to make.
…which leaves me feeling all somehow.
I’m happy as Hell to see the comparison between indentured servitude and the trans-Atlantic slave trade shredded, and then shredded again. What does somewhat concern me is the equation of ‘slavery’ with the specific form of chattel slavery that took place in the trans-Atlantic trade. Simply put, we do commonly use the word ‘slavery’ in contexts that do not compare in the numbers or the horrors of that specific history. History books often speak of slaves in ancient civilizations many of which fell into that status through financial ruin, or debt. The literature on Indian-white relations is full of stories of ‘slaves’ captured and trade about through raiding practices, and of course the Spanish systems of the encomienda were never described as slavery. When in 1850 California passed a law enabling others to press California Natives into forced labor, that law was actually written up as if it were meant to protect those very Natives. And of course the system of debt peonage found in the post-war south (among many other places) could in practice pass for slavery.
Hell, that was often the point!
…to say nothing of the use of prison systems for purposes of reducing free blacks to forced laborers under the pretext of punishment for crimes, real or imagined.
The subject of slavery has always been broader than the specific history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We should not allow malicious people to equate every instance of forced labor with the scale of atrocity behind that trade, but neither should we restrict our own use of the word ‘slavery’ to that very trade. Abusive labor practices shade easily into forced labor, and once that threshold is crossed, real atrocities become much easier.
What specifically doesn’t work about Irish slave narratives is the direct comparison with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It doesn’t match the scale of atrocity in that trade, either in numbers, or in the quality of treatment for the majority of those involved. This doesn’t mean that indentured servants, Irish or otherwise, were treated well, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people captured or pressed into forced labor in other times and places shouldn’t be a concern. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t let people use the suffering of their own ancestors as a means of diverting attention from that of others.