A Slave Narrative, and More

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12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.

Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.

This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”

Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.

Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.

In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.

I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.

12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.


Editor's Note: Review of "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen (no — not the blue-eyed blond of Great Escape fame). Plan B Productions, 2013, 135 minutes.



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Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics

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Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.




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Race Doesn’t Exist

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The Trayvon Martin shooting has resulted in predictably absurd conclusions and ridiculous behavior. On first impression, the circus that gathered around the Sanford, Florida, site of the killing (featuring race-baiting clowns like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton) looks and sounds a lot of a scene from the satiric Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jackson sputtered that “blacks are under attack,” adding that “targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business. . . . No justice, no peace.”

This cynical circus is so predictable because it’s based on a false premise. Not that the shooting didn’t take place; George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The false premise is that the shooting was race-related.

It’s false because there’s no such thing as race.

What we call “race” is a social construct invented hundreds of years ago by slave traders and colonial powers. It’s been kept around because it suits lazy people and statist governments looking for cheap ways to categorize individuals.

It’s time that reasonable people abandon this slothful shortcut.

I make the argument about the falseness of race in detail in my book Libertarian Nation (if you have a Kindle, you can “borrow” the book from Amazon for free). Much as I hate to interfere with commerce that channels some money my way, here’s the gist of the argument.

The pigment of your skin and acidity of your hair don’t have much to do with your personal identity. And they don’t make you similar to or different from anyone else.

Race is a social construct. And an old one. The idea that people can be categorized into supposedly objective — or, more recently, “scientific” — groups has been around for as long as human civilization. It’s always been subject manipulation, usually by the state. And its categories are always shifting, usually according to the political needs of the people running the state.

The libertarian notion of a colorblind society is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

So, contemporary notions of race are more . . . contemporary . . . than most people realize. Skin color wasn’t the controlling characteristic of race until the end of the 16th century; and then it had something to do with slavery and something to do with the birth of colonialism. The states that stood to profit from the import of cheap materials and slave labor began a 500-year campaign to convince the world that Africans with dark brown skin were a different class of humans than Europeans with lighter brown or pink skin. The Portuguese and Dutch were especially dedicated to the concept. They defined “race” to suit their needs; but popular culture seems to have forgotten their roles in promoting the fiction.

All people are a mix of genetic traits. This fact raises various questions — and the dread of both hardcore racists who lament “mongrelization” and race-obsessed multiculturalists (who, intellectual brothers of the racists, are heavily invested in the notion of distinct racial identities).

What’s the relationship between genes and race?

Most anthropologists and biologists agree that race is a fuzzy concept. By various estimates, 20 to 30% of the genes in the average “black” American come from light-skinned European stock. As Time magazine has noted: “science has no agreed-upon definition of ‘race’: however you slice up the population, the categories look pretty arbitrary.” And, in a similar vein, the Chicago Tribune reported:

In a 1998 “Statement on ‘Race’,” the American Anthropological Association concluded that ordinary notions of race have little value for biological research in part because of the relatively minor genetic differences among racial groups.

And, the anthropologists might have added, the broad genetic variation that exists within racial groups. In the New Statesman magazine, the often-quoted science writer Steven Rose pointed out:

. . . the idea that there is a genetically meaningful African “race” is nonsense. There is wide cultural and genetic diversity amongst African populations from south to north, from Ethiopians to Nigerians. There are, for example probably genetic as well as environmental reasons why Ethiopians make good marathon runners whereas Nigerians on the whole do not.

The normally statist British newspaper The Guardian has stumbled to the same conclusion:

Other scientists point out that our species is so young — Homo sapiens emerged from its African homeland only 100,000 years ago — that it simply has not had time to evolve any significant differences in intellectual capacity as its various groups of people have spread round the globe and settled in different regions. Only the most superficial differences — notably skin colour — separate the world’s different population groupings. Underneath that skin, people are remarkably alike.

So, the libertarian notion of a colorblind society (often dismissed by statists as an unrealistic ideal) is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

These advocates have more influence over mainstream media and popular culture than they should. People like Jackson, Sharpton, and Derrick Bell have devoted their lives to a fiction. That must leave them with a hollow feeling, in their solitary moments or when they look themselves in the mirror.

Derrick Bell may have been the saddest of the bunch. He was intelligent enough and well-trained enough that he should have been able to see through the fiction. Instead, he spent his life popularizing Critical Race Theory — which is the intellectual rationalization of a false premise.

The critical document that stands in contradiction to the ultimately bankrupt rationalizations of the Critical Race Theorists and base manipulations of the race hustlers is Martin Luther King’s rightly immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. To the point:

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. …We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. …Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That speech drew its undeniable moral force, in part, from its recognition of the falseness of the concept of race. The triviality of the color of a person’s skin.

(Take a few minutes to read — or reread — that speech. Would any left-wing speaker today use the metaphor of a bounced check to criticize failed promise? It’s so…bourgeois.)

A side note: I’ve always thought there were two Kings, the libertarian defender of individual dignity who fought for fair treatment and delivered the August 1963 speech and the less-inspiring socialist who muddled through the last years of his life.

Compared to King’s image of free individuals treating one another with mutual respect, the current discussion of race is insect-like. The mainstream media tries to turn Trayvon Martin’s shooting into clicks and readers and ratings. The pathetic New York Times concocts the term “white Hispanic” to emphasize that Martin’s shooter was, er, something different from black.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes.

Not everyone is so small. Former NAACP leader C.L. Bryant accused the likes of Jackson and Sharpton of “exploiting” the Martin shooting. “His family should be outraged at the fact that they’re using this child as the bait to inflame racial passions,” Bryant told The Daily Caller. He said that “race hustlers” were acting like “buzzards circling the carcass” of the teen.

Race doesn’t exist. Population ancestry influences the patterns of an individual’s genotypical and phenotypical traits (what people commonly think of as “racial” appearance and characteristics) but single variables — for example, skin color — do not. It may seem counterintuitive, but skin color is actually a poor indicator of race.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes. No one who loves liberty should buy into the fiction.




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Mudblood

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In the August 2010 issue of Liberty I wrote an essay about racism. But that article was largely theoretical. Now I would like to share my personal experiences about the topic.

To do so I must first disclose my own racial identity. I am what might be called a mutt or a mulatto, although I prefer the term “mudblood,” which is the Harry Potter name for wizards who come from Muggle bloodlines. My mother is a white American woman of Russian Jewish lineage, and my father is a Muslim man with brown skin who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. My parents were married at the time of my birth but later divorced. My childhood religious and cultural education was a mixture of Judaism and Islam, although I never felt completely comfortable among either Jews or Muslims and as an adult I have abandoned organized religion. I have light brown skin but I am sometimes able to “pass for white.”

For my reader’s education let me mention that Bangladesh is a country with a population of mostly Muslim brown-skinned people located on the Indian subcontinent. (I doubt that I need to explain where Russian Jews come from.) What insight into race relations do I have as one of the world’s few part-Bangladeshi-Muslim, part-Russian-Jewish people?

The amazing thing about knowing Jews and Muslims is how distorted and out of touch with reality are the stereotypes and preconceived notions that some people have about members of other racial groups. Let me discuss the Bangladeshi stereotype first.

What most Americans know about Bangladesh, if anything, is that we are Muslims. Many Americans believe that most Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists who oppress women and support terrorism. My experience is that Bangladeshi Muslims are all different kinds of people, each with an individual identity. A minority of Bangladeshis are deeply religious, Islamic conservative fundamentalists. Some Bangladeshis are modern-liberal or leftist Muslims. However, I have found that most of the Bangladeshis whom I know are religious but not fanatical. I strongly believe that most Bangladeshis do not sympathize with or support Islamic terrorists. In fact, Bangladesh has something right now that the United States has never had, a female head of government.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it?

On the other hand, what can I say about Jews? Aside from a general enjoyment of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup and the other festive ornaments of Yiddish culture, the Jews whom I have known each have different individual personalities with traits that could not be predicted on the basis of knowing that they are Jews. I do not believe that most Jews are unusually smart or that most Jews are greedy, although the argument can be made that Jewish culture places a high value upon learning and intelligence and is conducive to a successful career as a lawyer. I recall with a certain fondness the Jewish custom of Hanukkah gelt, which is children's chocolate wrapped up to look like gold coins. I also recall pressure to study Hebrew and read Jewish books, but it is a stretch to find some special meaning in those customs. I regard “smart” and “greedy” as compliments, but I have known Jews who are neither. Yet some people have bizarre stereotypical pictures of Jews, as if all were identical.

When you have no firsthand knowledge of something it is easy to have a two-dimensional understanding of it. If I have any insight to offer it is that no two people are the same, and racial or ethnic generalizations have no relation whatsoever to how any real human being behaves. There is a notorious academic argument that if you were forced to form a basketball team to win money it would be logical to include no one but African-Americans. I suspect that athletic talent varies widely among blacks, and the idea in question is a thinly disguised excuse for racism. It is plausible to think that bigotry and racial hatred begin innocently enough as a crude cognitive technique of relying on racial generalizations for the purpose of understanding people. But this evolves into racism as the natural result of thinking about humans in terms of groups rather than individuals. I believe that racial stereotypes have no predictive accuracy.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it? One likely reason is that if race blindness were prevalent then the people who purport to speak for oppressed racial minority groups, the leaders of the racial special interests, would have no power. Unlike some libertarians, I have always believed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a hero and that the civil rights movement was a good thing. But I believe this only because in the Jim Crow South, blacks were second-class citizens who were not legally equal to whites. Segregation was the result of racist laws as well as the actions of racist owners controlling their private property. In my opinion, the civil rights movement was a success. Blacks achieved legal equality. There are still parts of America where racism is common, and I have been told that some data suggest that certain areas of the United States have noticeable numbers of white racist police officers. But the use of the machinery of government to enforce racist laws has disappeared in the United States, and this precisely is the victory of the civil rights movement.

Now, in the post-civil rights era, socialist blacks such as Al Sharpton and Cornel West have hijacked the civil rights movement and preach to the members of racial minorities that we remain locked in a racial war against the white supremacist conservative Republicans. They claim that the Democratic Party with its modern liberalism is the only place where we can find refuge and protection from the evils of the white racists. The desired protection takes the form of special programs to favor non-whites, or certain non-whites. This is an Orwellian nightmare — like saying that racial equality is our ideal but non-whites should be more equal than whites.

It is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not their race.

It is probably true that there are more pro-white racists in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, but I think that the American Right is a racially diverse group of people. Most conservatives, and the vast majority of libertarians, are good people who oppose racism. Only a small but vocal minority on the Right are Nazis or Klansmen who give the Right a bad name. It is worth noting that at various times in American history the Democratic Party was associated with the racist South and the Republican Party with the slave-freeing North. It is merely another absurd stereotype to say that the “average” right-winger is a white racist.

It is clear that racism and racial stereotypes have their philosophical basis in the doctrine that people are defined by their memberships in groups. If there is any hope of ending the blight of racism, it will come by taking an individualist approach. We libertarians are the world’s best advocates for individualism, and it is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not which race they are members of. I think that individualism will ultimately produce more diversity than state-sponsored affirmative action, because individualism attacks the root cause of racism, whereas affirmative action merely treats the external symptoms.

My friends in high school used to tell me that I should bomb my own car, and there have been many times when I got the sense from some Jews that they didn’t like me because I was Muslim, and received the same feeling from Muslims who did not like my being Jewish. I have never been beaten up as a result of racism (although my father has, and my maternal ancestors endured the Russian pogroms), but my entire life I have felt abnormal because it was not easy for me to fit into a traditional established role as a member of a specific race. I cannot be “a Jew” or “a Muslim” or “a white person” or “a dark-skinned person,” although I can be on the receiving end of discrimination against all of those categories. But it is still possible for me to be “an individual.” And being an individual is what each member of every different race on the planet has in common. It is what unites us and brings us together.

It’s liberating to be a mudblood, and it’s comforting to think that there are libertarians out there in the world who believe in individualism and represent the possibility that the human race will one day outgrow the abomination of racism.




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Ron Paul at the Iowa Marker

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In Iowa, Ron Paul came in third. Four years earlier, he had come in fifth, with 10% of the party vote. Now he has more than doubled his support, to 21.5%. His new total suggests he has established libertarians as a significant faction within the Republican Party.

This is no certain thing. We will know when Paul retires, and the faction is led by someone else, perhaps his son. In either case, it is not a majority faction, and Paul is not going to be nominated.

Every time I write this, some Paul supporter rises in challenge: “Who gave you a crystal ball?” (My momma did.) When they are done hollering at me, they can holler at Intrade. As I write, on the morning after the Iowa caucuses, the gamblers on the news-prediction web page put odds of Paul’s nomination at between 2 and 2.4%, which is lower than the odds for Jon Huntsman.

In December 2011, Paul’s odds peaked at above 9%, about at the level he peaked four years earlier, in December 2007, regarding the nomination in 2008. After the Iowa caucuses then, and the New Hampshire primary, Paul’s quote fell to 1%. He is likely on the same trajectory now.

What has happened? Paul has been attacked. This was entirely predictable, and it is not just because the mainstream media is against him, though it is. The frontrunner is always attacked.

For months the national press had ignored Paul, treating him, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, like “an eccentric uncle.” Then it changed. In the last half of December anti-Paul columns appeared by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (Dec. 16), James Kirchick in the New Republic (Dec. 22), Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 22), former New York mayor Ed Koch on NewsMax.com (Dec. 29), Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (Dec. 30), and the editorial board of the New York Times (Dec. 27).

“Who gave you a crystal ball?” My momma did.

Much of this was a regurgitation of the story about the anti-black and anti-gay tone in Paul’s newsletters of the early 1990s. Kirchick had used these to accuse Paul of “hate” in The New Republic in January 2008, and the press corps knew about them. Wrote Shikha Dalmia of Reason, Dec. 25, 2011: “It seems no one wanted to bring them up again until Paul gained so much traction that ignoring them would have been a serious dereliction of duty.”

For some it seemed that way. Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head. They had dumped on Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Cain. They had just been trashing Newt. Then, in mid-December, Paul was leading in the Iowa polls, with 23–28% among a field of seven, and he still had a clean shirt.

Then came Kirchick, fanning the “hate” issue again; many Paul supporters, seeing their man as the least hateful of the lot, were inclined to dismiss it as more mainstream media bias. Some of it was, but in a presidential race a candidate cannot ignore charges like this.

And Kirchick had a new take on it. His piece was titled, “Why Don’t Libertarians Care About Ron Paul’s Bigoted Newsletters?” In it, he said Paul’s supporters “don’t base their support on the Congressman’s years-long record of supporting racism, homophobia,” etc. The problem with libertarians, he said, is that they shut these considerations from their minds, letting the free market trump “all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity.”

If they cared about these things, Kirchick argued, libertarians would have been supporting the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who “can boast executive experience and doesn’t have the racist and conspiratorial baggage.”

The public didn’t know Johnson. They knew Paul. He had run twice before. He had written bestselling books. He had built up a base of fans. He had mailing lists of donors for his “money bombs,” and an organization that in Iowa was stronger than any other Republican’s. He had a US senator to campaign for him: his son.

Others, who detested Paul, saw a chance to chuck the garbage from an open window onto Paul’s head.

He also has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses the Des Moines Register poll found that voters ranked Paul as the least ego-driven candidate. Andrew Sullivan writes of Paul’s “decency.” Dalmia writes of his “remarkable ability to generate goodwill.” Paul is more radical than Johnson. This makes him easier to attack, but also more appealing to the hardcore.

 The Republican leadership couldn’t stand either Johnson or Paul. For Paul, it didn’t matter; he had built his own party. Johnson hadn’t. At the end of 2011 he was so sore at the Republican leadership that he joined the Libertarian Party.

Back to Kirchick: he exaggerates, but he has a point. Paul’s fans liked him so much they were willing to overlook a bad thing on his record.

How bad was it? To Kirchick, as with many liberals, racism is the most important issue there is. If you’re touched by it, you’re dead. If you care about it, but you care about other things more, that’s not good enough. You’re still dead. Any denials are assumed to be false and (especially if they are against you anyway) any mea culpa from you istoo small.

The real issue is not what Paul was then. It is what he is now. You have to judge.

One commentator who tried to think this through is Andrew Sullivan. He had supported Paul for the Republican nomination, but said he would vote for Obama in November. He liked Paul’s stand on foreign war and executive power. To Sullivan, Paul was “the best medicine for the GOP, not the best president.” After Sullivan argued for this, some readers attacked him on the matter of Paul’s newsletters, and he reconsidered. On Dec. 24, he wrote:

“I sat down and re-read some of the Ron Paul newsletters last night. I don’t think he wrote them; I don’t think they represent who he is; I do not believe the man is a racist, although seeing into men’s souls is not something any of us is very good at.”

He has a personal aura, a Gandhian quality, different from that of any of the Republicans.

There are good reasons for believing Paul is no racist. Paul’s associates — even Eric Dondero, who became his political enemy — say he is not a racist. Paul has written a bunch of books, but never a racist book. He has engaged in numerous political campaigns, but never a racist campaign. He is deeply interested in economic and political ideas, but not ideas about race. And he is not an angry person, as so many racists seem to be.

If Paul is not a racist, then what do the newsletters say about him?

The story of the newsletters was told by Julian Sanchez in Reason four years ago. In 1988 Paul had given up his seat in Congress to run for president on the Libertarian Party. After he lost, he went back to his medical practice. But he had a valuable mailing list, and he kept a side business in newsletters. To produce these letters he had several people working for him. Lew Rockwell was one. Another was Murray Rothbard. Both were right-anarchists, radical free-marketeers. At that time, they had a theory, the “paleo” strategy, that libertarians should market their philosophy to the populist Right. For Rothbard, this wasn’t the first strategy of alliance; in the 1960s he had allied with the New Left. As communism crashed, he proclaimed an alliance with the “paleoconservatives,” which ranged from Patrick Buchanan to lowbrow populists. The Ron Paul newsletters were his vehicle; the nastiness towards black welfare recipients, Martin Luther King, gay AIDS patients, etc., was part of a calculated tone.

Exactly who wrote the stuff is unclear. Rockwell is blamed most often, but he says he mainly wrote promotional copy. Rockwell now runs the libertarian website LewRockwell.com, which can be nasty to pro-war Republicans and the “beltway libertarians” at the Cato Institute, but does not market racism. Rockwell is not interested in race. When the newsletter issue came up four years ago, his contributor Karen DeCoster made the same point about him that others have made about Paul: the newsletters didn’t sound like him. She wrote, “Those excerpts making light of immigrants/blacks etc. are way too snappy and attempt to be way too humorous to have been written by Lew . . . His personality is exactly the opposite.”

Rothbard died in 1995. He could be a snappy writer, and he loved to indulge in polemics. But writing like a redneck would have been striking a pose: he was a Jew raised in the Bronx and had a doctorate in economics from Columbia University.

The critics piling on Paul won’t accept his statement that he doesn’t know who wrote the offending copy. I don’t believe it either, but I accept it, and I respect Paul for not naming names. Why does anyone need to know? It was Paul’s newsletter. He is responsible for it, and the stain is on him.

The crucial question is what kind of a stain it is. Does it mean Paul judges people by their race and that one race is to be favored over another? Based on the rest of his life, particularly the last 15 years, you have to say no. It does suggest some other things, though, starting with the Kirchickian notion that libertarians just don’t care about this stuff. Politically it suggests tone-deafness and poor judgment.

The newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That’s not racism, but it’s not what most Americans look for in a president, either. Then again, Ron Paul is not going to be president. The reason to support him is not that he can win, but that the Republicans, who are America’s nationalist party, need to be reoriented away from war, executive power, deficit spending, money creation and debt toward a more peaceful, constitutional and financially sustainable vision — and the only person who has had any success in doing this is Ron Paul.

Wrote Sullivan: “I stand by all the things I wrote about Paul’s views, his refreshing candor, his happy temperament, his support for minorities, and his vital work to undo the war on drugs and the military-industrial complex. I don’t think he’s a racist; in fact, I think he’s one of the least racially aware politicians I’ve come across in a long while.”

And Shikha Dalmia: “I have never met Paul. But everyone I know who has likes him. They can’t believe that he is capable of harboring the kind of vile sentiments expressed in the newsletters. He seems just too mild and innocuous and decent and well meaning.”

He does. Maybe it’s a pose, but I don’t think so. I think the newsletters of 20 years ago were a pose. The Paul of today is who he says he is.

That he has racked up 21.5% of Republican caucus votes after challenging some of the ruling ideas of the party, means he has achieved something, and not only for himself, and not only for 2012.




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Playing the Race Card

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Whenever President Obama gets in trouble the leftists love to play the race card and accuse his enemies of hating him because he is black. Jimmy Carter, among others, is guilty of this, and other leftists regularly accuse Tea Party patriots of being racists. So let’s see whether this theory withstands logical scrutiny.

People say that racism is about “hate” and “bigotry.” These, however, are mere empty slogans. If you look at history, you can discern a central motive that generally explains racism. Here I will draw upon the theory of social biology, which seeks to explain human social structures, e.g. marriage, by reference to each organism’s drive to maximize the spread of its genetic material. A race is a collection of humans who evolved in roughly the same geographic area and are therefore related to one another more closely than to members of other races. Members of racial groups use racism to promote the survival of their DNA at the expense of other genetic blends.

If this theory of racism is correct, then the solution to racism is for humans to stop thinking like animals, who only care about the survival of their DNA, if that, and to start thinking like human beings, who care about individual happiness and fulfilling one’s potential as a reasoning mind. If people were to do this, then interracial marriage would become far more common, and 500 years from now everyone would be a member of the same global race, which would end racism for good.

Now let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the ideas in a person’s mind come from his or her thoughts and decisions and not from DNA. Then, if we concede that a “culture” consists not only of art, music, and food, but also (and most importantly) of ideas and concepts and the style of thinking that they embody, it will become evident that culture has no direct relationship to DNA. If that is so, then a race and a culture can be associated only by accident, and there is no causal relationship such that, for instance, black DNA causes black culture.

A racial culture is chosen by the members of a race, and it is not an expression of their DNA, although the culture that parents teach to their children can have a strong impact on the culture of the next generation. These observations underscore Thomas Sowell’s brilliant argument that members of oppressed racial minority groups might best be served by reforming their culture on the model of, say, Jewish culture, which has shown itself capable of overcoming oppression and achieving affluence.

So at last we come to the great fraud of racial leftism: the argument that if you oppose an idea that is thought to be implicit in, for instance, black culture, you are therefore a racist. From here all the modern-liberals need to do is argue that leftism and Marxism are intrinsically tied to black culture, and they can make an argument, quite logical within the context of their faulty premises, that everyone who opposes the Obama agenda is an anti-black racist.  This is the trick that Obama, whom some regard as the Ace of Hearts, has up his sleeve.  You can expect him to lay it on thick by accusing the Tea Party and Republicans of being white supremacists during the 2012 election campaign.

But as Ayn Rand said, “Check your premises.” Yes, there may be groups of bigoted whites in the deep South who vote Republican and also like white DNA more than black DNA (although even to suggest this is to engage in discriminatory stereotyping). Nobody knows how Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry really feels about blacks, although I am confident that Ron Paul is not a racist. But what in the world do white racists in the South have to do with economic theory? If you do not accept any causal link between racial DNA and cultural ideas, and if you reject the absurd and insulting notion that socialism favors dark-skinned people (see my essay on racism in Liberty, August 2010), then this racist argument is nonsense. Pull out the premises that form the foundation of the argument, and Obama’s house of cards collapses.




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"The Help" Deserves the Buzz

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The Help is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often-demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.

During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the Deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing "the help" — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the "queen bee" whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as The Women and Mean Girls, and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.

In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to "the help" for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth's maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.

As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly.

Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply "wants to be a writer." She doesn't have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of "writer" as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, "Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.

In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier "black actress." As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.

Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her — Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her "white trash" background. Celia doesn't know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer's large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.

Having read the book, I wasn't pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film — her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.

Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn't fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly's insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, "for the prevention of disease." This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. "Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss," she muses. "When do we change from loving them to hating them?" Aibileen observes the same dilemma: "I want to stop that moment coming — and it come in ever white child's life — when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."

Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the "separate but equal" policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen's bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2x4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.

However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood?

Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism "has to be carefully taught." But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth's little girl, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." She says nothing about little Mae Mobley's appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.

As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don't take a short cut this time. Read The Help first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Help," directed by Tate Taylor. Dreamworks, 2011, 137 minutes.



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