Sunday, August 25, 2013

Compassion and Ideology

Pat Buchanan commented recently that “whites are the only group that you can discriminate against legally in America now.” The conservative media took their opportunity to thumb their collective noses at the liberal elites. The liberal media took the opportunity to flaunt their talent for withering snarkery. This story was just another example of the froth of the 24-hour soundbyte news cycle, hear today, gone tomorrow, leaving a largely unnoticed residue of animosity. 

The story resonated with me because the problem of the white male has been on my mind lately. My work gives me the opportunity to visit residents of correctional facilities and listen to them, and the experience, I suspect, will stay with me for the rest of my life. Prisoners are not what you might expect. They are not angry or rebellious on the whole. They don’t drag tin plates across the bars of their cells. They march in single file, their heads down, in slow and measured paces, and if you look them in the eyes you can see what defeat looks like. Their egos have been torn down and nothing’s been built to replace them. 

Riding Several Horses But Pleasing No One
If you listen to certain feminists, specifically the ones bred in the hothouse environment of small liberal arts colleges, you might be led to believe that as long as your skin is white and you have a penis, you possess something called “privilege.” The families of these feminists manage to cover the $40,000 per year tuition. When these feminists grew up, there were books in their homes. Maybe even a piano. They were chauffeured from soccer practice to African dance lessons. They’ve visited foreign countries. Regardless of all these seeming advantages, all women lack the privilege that all men possess. 

There are signs that white males are being left behind by society. The economic calamity of 2007 has been referred to as a “mancession” because the wave of unemployment hit men especially hard. Just think of Detroit: a once booming manufacturing hub, being torn down little by little, and nothing is going to be built to fill the empty spaces. 

I’m suggesting that feminism is an ideology. As an ideology, you can put it alongside conservatism, liberalism, communism, antisemitism, white supremacy, black nationalism and any of a number of assorted “isms.” What all ideologies share in common is a commitment to a set of core ideas. Some of these ideas are absolute and unquestioned. Other ideas are open to minor tweaks and updates.The solutions they offer are always the same, even though the problems are ever-changing.

Another thing that ideologies share in common is a foil.  If it weren’t for capitalists, Karl Marx wouldn’t have had much to say. If it weren’t for white privilege, the feminism of the 2010’s would lose its ballast and drift off into the stratosphere. Conservatism would wither if it weren’t for the mythical Welfare Queen and black boys in Chicago. There would be no liberalism without the myth of a sentient being known as “society” which lurks at the outskirts and devours the weaker members of society. 

In reflecting on the possibility of evading ideology and its pitfalls, I’ve come to the conclusion that compassion is the best answer. Compassion is that which makes us pause for those who have fallen behind, and try to help them. Compassion does not make distinctions based on skin color or gender or infirmity or the ideological purity of the recipient. Most importantly, compassion unites rather than divides. 

Compassion is an invitation. It is offered to every human being, but there are some who decline. They opt instead to send jobs overseas and complain about the cost of unemployment benefits. They live in mansions and rob the poor. They poison the water that they don’t have to drink and the food they don’t need to eat. These harpies have always been with us, since the beginning of history, and they’ve always been the origin of inequality.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Political Fable Concerning America

August 8, 1848 is an important date in American history, although you won’t see much about it in history books. In the aftermath of war with Mexico, Congress was crafting and debating over legislation to address the management of the United States’ new territorial acquisitions. Congressman David Wilmot saw this as an opportunity. He wrote what is known today as the “Wilmot Proviso” to include in the pending legislation. If adopted, the proviso would have banned slavery in the new territories.

David Wilmot
David Wilmot was a good Whig. Like other members of this political party, he was an adamant foe of slavery. He believed, with Horace Greeley, that “‘Our country right or wrong’ is an evil motto--what if your country be in the wrong? It will only compound her injury. I wish to serve the republic with an honest and fearless criticism.” 

However, opposing slavery, in the 1840’s, was tantamount to political suicide. A block of Southern States controlled by oligarchic plantation owners was steadfast in opposing any new limitations on slavery. 

The Wilmot Proviso would figure in the 1848 presidential election. The majority of Whigs were inclined to support a popular war hero by the name of Zachary Taylor, on the basis that he was electable. Whigs like Henry Clay, David Wilmot, and Horace Greeley cared less about electability than they doing the right thing. Greeley did not mince words regarding slavery: “. . . while the Right of Suffrage is conceded to thousands notoriously ignorant, vicious and drunken. . . a Constitutional denial to Black men, as such, of Political Rights freely secured to White men, is monstrously unjust and irrational.” And he was equally outspoken in defending the extension of suffrage to women. 

Horace Greeley, idealist and neck-beard innovator
Taylor had been made a hero by the Mexican War, and the more principled Whigs had despised the War with Mexico. Taylor equivocated on the issue of slavery. But the more pragmatic Whigs understood that war heroes are always popular with voters.  

In a telling political cartoon, we see the 1848 election depicted as a cart drawn by two horses: one straining uphill toward the presidency, the other pulling downward toward irrelevance. Taylor was pulling toward the top while Horace Greeley, a moral compass for Whigs, was pulling in the other direction. And there is David Wilmot, lodging a stone under the wheel of the cart to block its assent.
Taylor: “Do slack up a little there, Horace, till we get over a check that someone has put before the wheel.”

Greeley: “It's of no use to talk to me, for Mr. Clay says he would rather be right than be President, and that is the policy I am adopting now.” 

What is most telling of all, however, is what is shown in the cart. There were three issues on which Zachary Taylor and Horace Greeley agreed: banks, tariffs, and internal improvements. 

The Tariff Question

As stated by Greeley, the Whigs’ tariff policy was thus: “impose higher rates of duty on those Foreign Products which come in competition in our markets with the products of our Home Industry, with lower duties  ... on [products] which do not ... compete with the products of our own labor.” In this, Greeley and the Whigs he represented rightly understood the meaning of Adam Smith. 

Many workers in the North faced competition from low-priced foreign goods. However, in the South, the oligarchs resisted the idea of paying higher prices for foreign goods. They also worried that higher tariffs on their foreign trading partners would leave them with less money to spend on Southern cotton. This was an unabashedly self-interested position on the part of the oligarchs.
But as for the common people living in the South, it was true that the prosperity of the North did not reach them, and a great many lived in poverty. Now, the common people might have recognized that the Southern oligarchs were the real source of their poverty, but their provincial worldview didn’t allow them to see it.   

At the end of the day, Southern leaders successfully pressed the argument that “what is good for the South is good for the North.” The Southern states produced cloth and raw materials that northern ships carried overseas. The self-interested position prevailed over the moral position. 

Internal Improvements

The Whigs were strong advocates for granting federal money for interstate roads, irrigation systems, railroads, and other projects that would facilitate trade between the states. To ease interstate trade was to aid both sellers of goods and buyers of goods. It was an investment in American prosperity. Why not raise tariffs on foreign imports and support the growth of American industry? But here too the Southern states resisted. The population of the Southern states was widely and sparsely settled; investment in public projects would never benefit the South as much – dollar for dollar – as it would the North. And even as they claimed, “what is good for the South is good for the North,” Southern leaders saw the North as a bitter rival.


Whigs advocated for a National Bank. To be very clear on this point, they sought to nationalize – to take out of private hands – the banking system. The alternative is what we see today: A Federal Reserve that is governed by private financiers. Our Federal Reserve allows people like Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase to sit among the board members, even though he is among the arch-criminals that drove millions of Americans into poverty or near-poverty. 

Now, some people take a very dim view of nationalizing industries, and prefer the idea of privatization. However, if the goal is to create institutions such as banks which serve the public interest, the question of public versus private ownership is secondary to the question of whether one trusts the government. If the government is corrupt, it will place money into the hands of corrupt private interests (crony capitalism). If the government is corrupt, it will stuff public agencies with do-nothing overpaid friends of politicians. Either way, the public interest suffers. So really, if we are apply these Whig lessons to current times, the matter of corruption must come first.


But rather than dwell on what might have been, I will keep this short, and observe that the self-interest of oligarchs continues to prevail over the public interest. We no longer abide the institution of slavery, but we abide unprecedented levels of unemployment, well-trained professionals working as janitors, and the daily abuse of Mexican and Chinese workers. Our infrastructure crumbles around us. Our once-great cities go bankrupt, and our leaders remain indifferent to our cries for relief.  By allowing themselves to be seduced by the self-interested arguments of Southern slave-mongers, Americans of the 1840s made a Faustian Bargain, and the moral stain has never been entirely obliterated.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mr. Rangel and the Politics of Race

There is a school of thought which maintains that it is simply impossible for white people to be the victims of racism, because only members of racial / ethnic minorities can ever be considered victims. This view is so confidently held by educated liberals that they need no prompting to respond derisively and condescendingly to anyone who is white and claims to have been a victim of racist attitudes at one time or another. 

I’ve never been comfortable following the “party line.” Whenever a belief is held uncritically and one is made to feel embarrassed for not sharing the belief, I become suspicious of it, perhaps because of a rebellious streak in my nature. And I am reminded of Mark Twain’s advice, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority,” or let’s say on the side of received wisdom, “it is time to pause and reflect.”

Notwithstanding the received wisdom on the subject, there are many white people who are under the impression that they’ve been on the receiving end of racist attitudes: 

A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found 44% of Americans surveyed identify discrimination against whites as being just as big [sic] as bigotry aimed at blacks and other minorities. The poll found 61% of those identifying with the Tea Party held that view, as did 56% of Republicans and 57% of white evangelicals (source).
Admittedly, these particular poll results are a bit ridiculous, because whites cannot claim to have suffered racial discrimination to the same extent as blacks. It is monstrous to ignore African Americans’ long history of being enslaved and marginalized in America. But, just as it is risky to hold a belief uncritically, it is risky to reject a belief uncritically. 

Let us suppose that white Americans do in fact experience something which feels like oppression or at least feels like marginalization. Maybe it is not a matter of race at all, and the mistake is that these marginalized whites have falsely attributed the problem to race. 

When Frederick Law Olmsted toured the Southern states during the antebellum period, he noticed that white men believed that they were denied things to which people feel entitled: the opportunity to work, the opportunity to rise up from poverty, the opportunity to be heard by their elected political leaders. Olmsted concluded that poor white men had been damaged – economically, politically, and morally – by the institution of slavery.

What we know of antebellum America is this: plantation owners were wealthy aristocrats who controlled state governments. They fought bitterly to maintain the institution of slavery because it was to their financial advantage to have lower labor costs than their competitors abroad. They were loyalists to King George III during the War of Independence. Perhaps they ought to have been treated like the traitors that they were, but as often happens in history, after a revolution has occurred, there is a sudden urgent desire to settle differences and make a fresh start. 

I suggest that today, the vast majority of Americans white and black have been marginalized by a small clique of oligarchs. And I will suggest that many Americans fail to recognize this. Whenever holders of great wealth come under harsh scrutiny, there is a reflex action which brings to mind Communism, and most people have decided that they are anti-Communists (and with good reason). Whenever social class is proposed as a plague on this country, many people will cling the more tightly to the nostalgic view of America as a class-free society. 

When wealth and class have been excluded from consideration, this leaves people in search of an explanation.  Poor whites compete against blacks for low-wage jobs, and this may lead to a sense of racial animosity. Families and networks of friends that consist solely of whites will talk among themselves, and agree to look out for one another. This may quickly evolve into a sentiment of “us versus them.” This tribal, parochial attitude ensures that the great masses of marginalized Americans will continue to blame one another, rather than look up and see that they are under the heel of modern day plantation owners whose plantations are hidden out of sight in places like Mexico, China and Cambodia, where conditions are not so very different from the conditions experienced by African slaves in America. 

So, when I read that Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has declared that members of the Tea Party are the same “crackers” who opposed the civil rights movement, I read this as an indication that white people are in fact the victims of racism. But it is a manufactured racism. I suggest that Charlie Rangel, even if he is an African American, is deceitful when pretends to be a member of an oppressed minority and seeks to stir up partisan animosity. Below, I quote from the Wall Street Journal:

Earlier this month [Mr. Rangel], the Chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee ‘amended’ his 2007 financial disclosure form—to the tune of more than a half-million dollars in previously unreported assets and income. That number may be as high as $780,000, because Congress's ethics rules only require the Members to report their finances within broad ranges. This voyage of personal financial discovery brings Mr. Rangel's net worth for 2007 to somewhere between $1.028 million and $2.495 million, while his previous statement came in at $516,015 and $1.316 million (source).
So yes, Mr. Rangel is a one percenter. His unearned income comes from investments he makes with J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Oppenheimer and BlackRock. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, it is a blatant conflict of interest for him to be doing business with any of these Wall Street malefactors, but then, members of Congress write the rules by which they govern themselves.