Monday, April 26, 2010

Applying a classic political idea to a current controversy

Every so often on the Internet, someone uses a well-known historical incident or classic argument well enough to shed light on what was interesting about the original situation or controversy, better perhaps (perhaps!?) than the usual textbook explanation. Or a blog post will open up a subject worthy of wider thought (again).

Thus in a frankly partisan but hardly outrageous piece at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum says: Don't ignore the Tea Party's toxic take on history.
Here's an excerpt:

Most people with a basic grounding in history find Tea Party ignorance something to laugh about, certainly not something to take seriously. But I would argue that history demonstrates that historical ignorance is dangerous and that it can have tragic consequences, however laughable it may initially seem. And thus the media, liberals, and others are misguided in laughing it off. And educated conservatives are irresponsible in staying silent in the face of these distortions.

The muddled Tea Party version of history is more than wrong and fraudulent. It's offensive. Calling Obama a tyrant, a communist, or a fascist is deeply offensive to all the real victims of tyranny, the real victims of communism and fascism. The tens of millions murdered. It trivializes such suffering inexcusably for the T.P.ers to claim that they are suffering from similar oppression because they might have their taxes raised or be subject to demonic "federal regulation."

Rosenbaum goes on to discuss the "stab in the back" myth that helped bring Hitler to power. Some people will cry foul. What I thought about, however, was not about whether Rosenbaum got it exactly right, factually or rhetorically, but about how inadequate history education generally is. You would think, given the emphasis on American history in the USA, that the Tea Party types would have a reasonable understanding of that history. But all too many seem to be modern Know-Nothings (part of American history that deserves more attention).

But maybe it's not a matter of education, as it is a matter of historical opportunism. Grab for the doctrine of Nullification (look it up) if it suits your needs, psychic or tactical, and forget about consistency.

Brad DeLong, an economist who clearly believes economics is or can be a philosophical pursuit, often reflects on what history has to say on a given issue, recently applied a classic thinker's arguments to whether the United States should pay historical reparations to the descendants of slavery. I think that this is a wholly impractical idea, and I've never been all that impressed with the 18th century liberal/conservative (he's called both) Edmund Burke. His positions on the issues of the day were all too often perfectly calculated to defend the interests of himself or his patrons. But he occasionally had a striking insight, as in his prediction of the rise of Napoleon.

Brad makes interesting use of a famous Burkean notion, that society is a contract across the generations, not just among the living. Definitely some problems with that, the devil being in the details. But this post shows the idea deserves to be taken seriously.

I reject the quitclaim deed [Henry Louis Gates -- see the original post] offers: just because there were people with skin of another color on another continent who aided and conspired with my ancestors in their crimes does not mean that I am quits of all obligations as I sit here still enjoying the fruits of their crimes.

This is the reason that when--back in 2003--Andrew Sullivan called me a:

classic example of the arrogant liberal. He supports affirmative action and believes that individuals in 2003 bear a direct responsibility for those people who enacted slavery and made life a living hell for many black Americans in decades and centuries past...

I rejected Sullivan's critique. He was simply wrong. I was not and am not an arrogant liberal on these issues. Instead, the arguments that convince me (and that lead me to reject the quitclaim that Henry Louis Gates offers) are not liberal but conservative ones--Burkean ones, to be exact:

A liberal sees society as a result of a social contract implicitly made between all of us alive today: we agree to live by rules and laws that we then have a chance to rethink, remake, and reform. It's important that this social contract be fair to us. From this perspective, the questions "Why should recent Korean immigrants bear any responsibility for repairing the damage left by the marks of slavery and Jim Crow?" and "Why should African-Americans find their own capabilities and potential accomplishments still limited by the marks of slavery and Jim Crow?" are both very good ones. (Somehow Andrew Sullivan only asks the first, and never thinks to ask the second. But thinking about why would take us far afield.)

I begin from a different point, from the observations that we Americans alive today are all the recipients of an extraordinary and unmerited gift, an inheritance of institutions, principles, and organizations that is without peer anywhere on the world today and that is of inestimable value. We aren't independent liberal individuals making a social contract in the rational light of Enlightenment Reason. Instead, we are heirs who have received an enormous inheritance from our predecessors. As Burke wrote, we:

claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity--as an estate specially belonging to the people.

It's not a contract, or if it is a contract it is not one just between those alive today. Again, as Burke puts it, if you are to think of a social contract you have to recognize that it is not:

a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.... It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

But estates that are inherited come not only with assets, they also come encumbered with debts. If we are to be Americans--if we are to take up the wonderul unmerited gift, accept the marvelous entailed inheritance that is offered to us--we must take up not just the benefits and advantages, but also the debts that America owes from its past actions as well. To do otherwise--to ignore the debts while grabbing the goodies with both hands--is to show that we are not the true heirs of Benjamin Franklin and company. And chief among the debts that America owes from its past actions is the obligation to erase the marks left by slavery and Jim Crow....On many issues I am an arrogant liberal. But not this one. On this issue, I'm an arrogant conservative.

Worth reading and thinking about.

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