Wednesday, February 27, 2013

PBS' The Abolitionists: A Flawed Experience by WB ReevesFollow PBS' The Abolitionists: A Flawed Experience

American Experience's latest series: The Abolitionists has much to recommend it. Unfortunately it also propagates the popular myth that American Abolitionism is synonymous with the career of William Lloyd Garrison.

I hate to be critical of such a clearly heartfelt and high quality series as "The Abolitionists" but given the series begins with a profound misstatement of historical fact, I don't feel I have any choice. The first installment of the series contains the following(drawn from the program transcript):
"Narrator: The only voices advocating the abolition of slavery were black. Their frustration was growing, and some of them were becoming more militant, but no one in power was listening. As of yet, no white Americans could imagine turning millions of dollars worth of slaves into millions of black compatriots. But scattered around the country, a few lonely souls were convinced that slavery was a crime against God and man. And in Boston, one of them was coming to understand that God intended he do something about it. William Lloyd Garrison felt that he was destined to do great things, but he had no idea how to get there. In 1828 he was 22 years old, newly arrived in the city from his hometown of Newburyport. Garrison's father, a seaman and a drunk, had abandoned the family when Garrison was two years old. Plunged into poverty, Garrison's mother left her children for years on end as she looked for work. But in their time together, she managed to drum a fierce Christian conscience into her son."
The first sentence is at best misleading since Anthony Benezet, a French immigrant to America, published his pamphlet: "Observations on the Inslaving [sic], Importing and Purchasing of Negroes" in 1759. Later in the same episode the following claim is made:
"Narrator: In 1833, two years after William Lloyd Garrison launched The Liberator, abolitionists from all over the North gathered for the first time. They could feel the strength of their growing numbers -- the time had come to unify their far-flung groups into one national anti-slavery society."
Again this is misleading. In the context of the prior narration it suggest that Abolition, in terms of anything beyond purely local organization, post dated Garrison's publication of The Liberator. There is an overall impression given that Garrison's activity marked the emergence of organized Abolition in the US. This is simply false.
 In addition to the activities above, Anthony Bezenet founded the "Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage." The society was later reorganized as the the "Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery" (PAS), the world's first antislavery society and the first Quaker anti-slavery society. Benjamin Franklin became Honorary President of the Society in 1787. Both Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush were members.

Moreover, the first meeting of the "American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and Improving the Condition of the African Race", gathering together Delegates from the Abolition Societies established in different parts of the United States, occurred 1794. This is over 30 years prior to the event cited in first episode's narration.

It is unfortunate that "The Abolitionists", for all its merits, propagates the myth that Abolitionism in the United States began with the activities of Garrison and his generation. It's even worse luck that it suggests that Garrison's was the first white voice calling for abolition.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Circular Firing Squad

In the last few weeks there have been a couple of diaries that have excited a great deal of heated debate on DailyKos. So much so that Kos felt obliged to post a diary on the subject. Roughly speaking, the division of opinion seems to be between those who believe that there should be no criticism of the Obama Administration, at least for the duration of the Presidential Campaign and those who take the opposite view. I won't describe the two sides as factions because I don't see them as either large enough nor programatically coherent enough to justify such a label. But it does seem that there is enough of a core constituency on both sides to justify describing them as cliques.

In this context, as one might expect, we've seen an escalating spiral of hostility and paranoia on both sides. Hyperbole, over reaction and suspicion of motives have been the order of the day, none of which, as Kos has pointed out, serve the mission of this site. I think we would all do well to take a deep breath and get back to the basics of what DKos is.

DKos is a site and community dedicated to a strategy of electoral politics via the Democratic Party. In considering the significance of this point there is a truism of electoral politics that everyone should be keep in mind: It doesn't matter why someone gives you their vote, so long as they give you their vote.
Why is this important? Because by definition it excludes the kind ideological purity that some on both sides seem to hanker after. People vote for widely varying reasons. Any viable electoral strategy can't be based on refusing to recognize this fact. You can't win if you reject either those who are lockstep groupies or those who will hold their noses while voting. An effective electoral coalition must embrace both of these extremes and everything in between.

In concrete terms relating to DKos the two poles of opinion could be described as those who believe in electoral politics exclusively and those who consider electoral politics as one tactic among many and not necessarily the most important one. Obviously these divergent views may reflect differences in ultimate goals. However, such differences are irrelevant to the purpose of this site: electing more and better Democrats. Come November it will not matter whether a vote is cast for Obama because the voters think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread or because they think that he is only marginally better than the alternative. What will matter is that they vote.

Given the above, its my own view that both extremes in this current round of squabbling are in the wrong. For those who imagine that they are upholding the mission of DKos by calling for squelching criticism of the President and the Administration, even to the absurd extreme of censoring satirical cartoons and , in at least one instance, attacking one of the admins as being part of the problem, I must point out that if successful you will only succeed in alienating those voters who do not accept such strictures.

For those on the other side who seemed to be obsessed with painting the President and the Administration in the darkest possible colors, I have to ask exactly what purpose you think is being served? I do not think that the President should be immune to criticism but do you believe that his failings are such that it makes no difference whether it is he or Mitt Romney that occupies the White House? If the answer to that question is yes, then you owe it to this community as well as yourself to say so and to accept whatever consequences follow. If the answer is no, then your criticism ought to reflect that fact. Anything less than this is nothing more than an exercise in cynical manipulation.

Since I've taken it upon myself to criticize others, I'm obliged to follow my own advice and make full disclosure. I am of the camp that views voting as a matter of tactics. I supported President Obama in 2008 not because I thought that his election, or the election of any single individual for that matter, would usher in the sort of wholesale structural change that we so desperately need. I supported him because I saw his election as a necessary incremental step towards defeating and reversing the reactionary course of our politics. I didn't believe and do not believe that an electoral strategy alone is sufficient for this purpose. Neither do I believe that abandoning electoral politics provides a viable alternative. I support a combined strategy of electoral politics and mass direct action. Consequently, I will be supporting both President Obama's re-election and autonomous movements such as Occupy. I do so because I believe both serve the strategic interest of progressive, democratic change. Where either diverge from serving this goal, both deserve and should receive criticism.

Having said all this, it should be no surprise that my last words are for those here whose support for President Obama is such that they would throttle the free exchange of opinion in a misguided attempt to consolidate the Democratic base. I can't think of anything more likely to demoralize turnout in the fall than such heavy handed enforcement of conformity. You don't win close elections, and this one will be close, by scorning voters who do not share every jot and tittle of your own views. 

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Obama: Fear of a Black Messiah

Another GOP meme I find intriguing is that of "Obama as black Messiah". It was, after all, J. Edgar Hoover's fear of a "black Messiah" that drove the FBI's covert campaign against Martin Luther King.

The implication now as then seems to be that only those in the grip of religious mania or delusion could follow the leadership of a African American.

Obama and Experience

It’s amusing, when presented with the GOP meme of Obama’s lack of “experience”, to reflect that Abraham Lincoln had even less experience in elective office prior to becoming President. Of course, I suspect that many present day “Republicans” wouldn’t have voted for Lincoln either

Saturday, September 29, 2007

GLenn Greenwald: Fight fire with Fire

Glen Greenwald is absolutely right on this. Of course the devil is, as always, in the details.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Protesting Democrats: The Radical Option

There has been a continuing tension on the Democratic side of the political divide over the efficacy of mass protest. Many have expressed the view that such activities are a waste of time and resources, even counter productive. Recent events in Jena, LA have led some to reconsider this position. Some now, rather grudgingly, admit that national mobilizations may make sense in certain cases but only as a media tool rather than as part of an overall political strategy. I believe this revised view shares with its predecessor a fundamentally flawed political perception at odds with democratic values.

Frankly, I think the attitude that one takes toward mass protest is a significant dividing line between progressive political activists and those who imagine themselves to be such but who are actually a variety of political technocrat.

You can see this in the thrust of their complaints. Mass protest are indicted because they can't be shown to have an immediate impact on policy. They are scorned because their results cannot be tabulated and quantified. They are events that take place outside of the formal political structures and serve no institutional purpose. Indeed, mass protests are by nature anti-institutional.

Of course such criticism can only be definitive if one takes the position that institutional means are complete and sufficient in themselves to effect necessary political change. An effective progressive political activism cannot be limited to such a narrow field of activity. At least not if such "progressivism" embraces a democratic character.

Democratic politics, like democracy itself, cannot be reduced to electoral activity alone. Elections do not define democracy nor do institutions define a democratic society. Rather, elections and political institutions are defined by the democratic character of the society that produces them. Those who imagine that one can have a Democratic society without the inconvenience of an aroused and mobilized citizenry, willing to operate outside of existing structures, don't grasp the essential principles of democracy: the empowering of the otherwise powerless and the negation of accumulated privilege and power in the hands of a favored few.

Mass protest is at least as much about its effect on those who participate as it is about the impact on institutions or elected officials. Perhaps moreso. When such protests are broad and inclusive, they have an energizing and emancipatory effect on those participating, if for no other reason than that they break through the sense of isolation and irrelevance inculcated by the dominant institutional narratives.

Such a sense of empowerment, where present, is infectious. It is carried by participants back into their communities and transmitted to their friends and neighbors. In short, mass protest is a necessary building block toward the creation of a mass movement.

It's worth recalling that there has never been a fundamental reordering of political or social relations in US history that was not accompanied by such a movement. Nor did such movements evaporate with the election of candidates nominally committed to their goals. They remained active and watchful to insure that such commitment amounted to more than electoral rhetoric.

It's also worthwhile to recognize that longstanding institutions, whatever their presumed democratic impulse, are always biased towards maintaining the status quo. Institutions always favor established modes, forms and relationships of power. This being the case, they cannot, by themselves, be effective tools for challenging the ruling narrative or consensus.

This brings us to the grittier side of mass protest. The implicit threat of mass defection by the citizenry from the cramped norms of established politics. The repudiation of the legitimacy such norms and the resort to a politics at war with established institutions of power both political and social.

No doubt stating the possibility of such a radicalization so baldly will upset and discomfit a significant number of people. However, the radical possibility is intrinsic to any meaningful notion of democracy. Even today, there is nothing more radical than the notion that individuals, lacking wealth, privilege or influence, nevertheless have a right to a say in the political, social and economic decisions that govern their lives. Particularly so when we consider that in the United States today, there are those occupying the public pulpits who argue openly and without apology that the wealthy should have the dominant voice in our affairs while the non-wealthy should have little or none.

There is a reason that the right to public protest was written into our Constitution and it wasn't because the framers thought that such protest should substitute for elections or would serve an institutional purpose. To the contrary. The right to protest was so enshrined specifically because it stood separate from and was antagonistic to institutional power.

The framers weren't starry eyed idealists when it came to political institutions anymore than they were on social and economic questions. They understood that even the best designed of such institutions were prone to ossification and decay. They were equally aware of the dangers posed by the accumulation of concentrated power and privilege within such structures. The only effective counterbalance they saw to these dynamics was an active citizenry capable of mobilizing itself independent from the established political order. Neither were they ignorant of the threat to the established order implicit in such activism. While they may not have been eager to embrace such an overturn, they certainly didn't shrink from it.

<>When the few succeed in dominating the many by reducing democratic processes to sterile exercises in Kabuki or empty ceremony, it is time to raise the prospect of re-writing the social contract. This cannot be done without a mass movement engaged in mass action. To reject this is to condemn oneself to the role of sycophant or bit player on the political stage.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Right Wing Amerika Haters and Patriotism

When Dinesh D'Souza came out with his attack on contemporary "Liberal" US culture awhile back, the Conservative triage got to work to distance themselves from his backhanded apologia for "anti-americanism." Nevertheless, those familiar with the turbid undercurrents of American reaction were well aware that he was simply giving vent to a submerged hostility for modern American life unremarkable on the Right. Now, as if to re-emphasize the point comes Kathleen Parker to pick up the torch dropped from D'Souza's faltering hands.

Again,. this antipathy for the United States as it actually exists is neither a new or particularly remarkable phenomenon on the Right. Despite their penchant for pseudo-patriotic boiler plate, it's clear that many on the Right actively despise much of US culture, both political and social.

This poses an interesting question. Exactly what is this "America" of which the Right Wing speaks so loquaciously? Should the Left be engaged in a bidding war over who can wave the flag most often or shout "patriotic" cliches the loudest?

Before you praise or condemn something, you first need an accurate perception of what it is. Given this, the real criteria isn't the frequency of "praise" but its content.

It's easy to say "I love the flag!" repeatedly but occaisionally, it's necessary to note that the flag has been flying 24/7 for more than a year and looks like a tattered, washed out rag. Perhaps it ought to be replaced?

Likewise, its easy for some to aggressively assert their love for "America", without really articulating what this "America" that they love so much actually is. Not rarely, it turns out that the image of "America" they love is one that excludes large swathes of their fellow Americans whom they detest.

On the other hand, there are those whose love for America is bound up with the realization that America is nothing if it isn't the myriad and diverse peoples who occupy its territory. This conception of America doesn't lend itself to the hypnotic mantra of USA, USA, USA, or to a monochromatic narrative of American history as a preordained, linear, triumphal progress. This because a nation so diverse in substance must, of necessity, possess a history no less diverse. Such diversity entails conflict and contradiction.

Those in the former category do not love "America" as it actually exists. They love a mythic conception of America that suits their prejudices. Such a love requires no investigation into the actual realities of American life and history. Rather, it actively militates against such inquiry, since it would challenge the the cherished image worshipped by its adherents. A worship which is, in the final analysis, self worship.

Those inhabiting the latter category are certainly not saints. They don't possess any fewer vices, flaws or human failings. However, what they do possess is a fundamentally different outlook and frame of reference. Their America is, by definition, external to themselves and composed as much by those differing from them as those like them. Its dynamic drives them away from simpleminded sloganeering towards investigation of and consultation with, the actualities of American life and history.

As everyone ought to know, that life and history is as filled with failed promise and tragedy as it is with promises redeemed and triumph. For those whose affection for America is an affection for its people, this presents no more of an obstacle than loving one's family despite their flaws.

For those whose love for America amounts to nothing more than a love for their self image, such candor is unbearable and therefore treasonous.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Marty hath murdered sleep.

Eric Alterman has a fine dissection of Marty Peretz's role in the destruction of The New Republic and the reasons for it posted up at The American Prospect. Prepare for the inevitable cries of "self-hating Jew" and "anti-Semitism", yadda-yadda-yadda.