October 2007 Archives

Two critics

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First the sublime:

On the flowering of classical-music blogs, though it is true about so many other things, many of them not rhyming with "Ron Paul":

Those who see the dawning of a new golden age should bear in mind the "Snakes on a Plane" rule: things invariably appear more important on the Internet than they are in the real world.

-- Alex Ross, in The New Yorker (10/22/2007)


Now the ridiculous:

A protege of Dr. Dre's who spent part of his youth in Detroit, [Eminem] had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted - a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace.

-- Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker (10/22/2007)
Here is a man going out of his way to tell you that he finds the obvious to be fascinating.  A fascinating inversion!  What on earth could be fascinating about something so ordinary?  And savor the rest of that sentence:  "that many blacks have encountered in the workplace."  The days are gone when you'd tack on something like that as a result of a query from Mr. Shawn, concerned that the reader might not be familiar with the problem.  No, I feel like Mr. Frere-Jones is one drink away from telling me that you know, just because Diahann Carroll got her own show doesn't mean that racism's a settled question in this country.

This is a person who's decided he's up to the task of explaining that it's okay to dislike the Arcade Fire and Pavement because they didn't listen to enough of what the radio stations used to call race music.  (You're not going to hear any mention of Stephin Merritt, but you knew that.)

This is a person who name-checks the Decemberists and then, not long after, cries, "Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience - to entertain?"  God in heaven.  You can say any number of bad things about the Decemberists (or the Arcade Fire, for that matter), but if you think they're not trying to reach out to and entertain an audience, you're dumber than I've already alleged you to be.

Just as a rule of thumb:  if your entire corpus of public works is deracinated and etiolated (and no, liking Kanye West does not suffice), you probably should reconsider the wisdom of publicly attacking people for for being too white. 

And for God's sake, you shouldn't close your argument like this:

Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake.  If you've forgotten where the term comes from, look it up.  There's a reason the lights were off.
Or to put it in the terms of one of Frere-Jones's heroes:  "White girls they're pretty funny/sometimes they drive me mad/black girls just want get fucked all night."

Inconvenient truths

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I don't know what motivated him to do this - I suspect it's that nobody's paid attention to him in a while - but a few days ago Michael Medved got it into his head that it was time to set the record straight about the history of slavery in the United States. 

A movie reviewer who has built a career as a right-wing pundit by crusading for decency, Medved is about as qualified to write about the history of slavery as he is to pilot the Space Shuttle.  The result (found here) is comedy gold. 

Come with me and we'll take a little trip through what he's calling six "inconvenient truths" about slavery.

1. SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION. 

This first section exposes us to the Medved method, which is to assemble a loose set of unrelated facts and organize them so that they're all pointing in the same direction without giving too much thought to their deeper implications. 

For instance, he's exceptionally pleased to have found a tribe in South America that not only enslaved its captives but ate them.  Well boy howdy, that's something we can hang our hat on:  "America:  We Didn't Eat Our Slaves!"  There's also some great back-of-the-envelope math here (we'll see more of this when he gets into economics), proving that the Islamic world is worse than America because they enslaved more Africans than we did.  Which is true, if you don't count children born into slavery among the enslaved, and though it did, as he admits, take them more than a thousand years to accomplish this.

The question he doesn't trouble to ask himself (though David Brion Davis, whom he name-checks, does), is:  was there anything distinctly different about the American institution of slavery?  And, why, yes, yes there is, and it's the core of a problem that Medved spends the whole piece tiptoeing around:  the basis of American slavery was race.

The Greeks and Romans enslaved people they defeated in war.  Their justification for slavery was, as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly put it, that there are men with guns, and men who dig.  Growing up Corinthian during the Peloponessian War meant you had a pretty good chance of ending up a slave yourself.  (The Greeks, whose wars involved a little more commitment than ours do, didn't have a word like "chickenhawk.")  But when slaves bore children, those children weren't enemies captured in a war, they were children born in Rome or Athens.  And as such, they were free to become citizens.

Not so in America.  Our justification for keeping African slaves wasn't that we beat them in a war:  it was that we thought black people weren't fully human. 

Since they weren't fully human, their children weren't fully human either.  Slavery may be a "timeless norm," as Medved blithely puts it.  But enslaving people because they were subhuman, that was new and different.

It had lots of implications that didn't exist in the Greek or Roman versions of the institution, too.  Romans didn't consider their slaves to be livestock.  They didn't try to cross different strains to get better field hands.  They didn't breed slaves for sale.  The Greeks didn't have words like "mulatto" or "quadroon," either.  They didn't need to figure out what race a person belonged to in order to determine what rights the person had.

The American version of slavery is especially arresting because it fixed African captives and their descendants as less than human in the eyes of the law at the very same historical moment that we were founding a new nation based on universal human rights.  Those are the two central facts of our nation's history.  The American idea is founded on ideals of liberty secured by men who considered non-white people to be subhuman. 

This doesn't mean that you should therefore hate America.  Far from it.  But if you don't understand this central truth, your love for this country is like the love of a wife who tries not to think about what her husband does when he's drunk.

2. SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS. 

Medved is delighted to find that in all the time that the US was a going concern, slavery was legal for 89 years and not for 142.  See?  We win!  We're not bad anymore!

(Here is more of Medved's facility with numbers:  the century and a half before 1789 doesn't count, because we weren't America yet.  So we get a pass on that.  He hasn't really thought this through, either.  Let's suppose we let him keep his thumb on the scale.  How bad could the world of Islam really be if it took them ten centuries to take more slaves than we did in 89 years?)

He also notes that "slavery had been outlawed in most states decades before the Civil War." This should give you an idea of his qualifications:  he doesn't know that this isn't true, and he doesn't know why it isn't true.

Slavery had been outlawed in exactly half the states until exactly one decade before the Civil War.  The balance between slave and free states was, for instance, the basis of the Missouri Compromise in 1820:  Missouri got admitted as a slave state at the same instant that Maine was admitted as a free state, keeping the Senate balanced between pro- and anti-slavery votes.  The only way California got admitted as a free state in 1850 was that the new state sent one pro- and one anti-slavery Senator to Congress.  It wasn't until 1858, when Minnesota was admitted as a free state and Kansas's admission as a slave state was blocked, that the balance tipped.  Not coincidentally, secession followed two years later.

But that's just ignorance.  Let's move on to cant.

The cant is in that bit about the "tiny percentage."  America can't be held responsible for slavery today, Medved is arguing, because so few of us are descended from slaveowners. 

Look, pal, your nation's history is your nation's history.  Suck it up.  You'd heap scorn on anyone who said that modern America doesn't get to bask in the glory of Washington and Jefferson because so few modern Americans are descended from them.  If you're going to lecture people about morality and honesty, the least you can do is be moral and honest.  Which brings us to:

3. THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT. 

Here the argument takes a decidedly loopy turn.  What makes America great?  "We're not genocidal, given the proper incentives!"  Well, I do feel better about my country now.

Medved is weirdly happy to report that, unlike the short-sighted Nazis, who worked their slaves to death, America had the good sense to keep them healthy enough to breed.  This strikes me as a remarkable thing to find worth celebrating. 

And, as is so often the case, Medved hasn't really thought through the implications of the "inconvenient truth" that cheers him so.  For instance, the same economic motivation that kept slaveowners from indiscriminately working their property to death also led captains of slave ships to throw sick slaves overboard and then try to collect on their insurance.  That's the sort of thing that happens when you think human beings are fungible.

4. IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES.

Ultimately, sure.  In the long haul, producing raw materials isn't going to make as much money as producing finished goods.

But that doesn't mean that the US didn't become a wealthy nation through the abuse of slave labor.  The US became wealthy because of the development of its roads, its canals, its ports, and its manufacturies, without which it could neither have produced the goods it exported to the world nor gotten them to market.  That development is the basis of all American wealth before about 1875.

What paid for that development was the great influx of foreign capital during the late 18th and early 19th century.  Overwhelmingly, that capital came from the exportation of cotton, tobacco, indigo, sugar, and rice. 

And guess how we raised all those great cash crops?

5. WHILE AMERICA DESERVES NO UNIQUE BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY, THE UNITED STATES MERITS SPECIAL CREDIT FOR ITS RAPID ABOLITION.

Well, bully for us. 

There's so much wrong in this particular piece of his argument that it's hard to know where to start.  His characterization of the Civil War as being one between Confederate soldiers, "very few of whom owned slaves," and Union soldiers and sailors "proudly risk[ing] their lives for the emancipation cause" is probably a good one.

Medved's trying to craft a bold new narrative for the Civil War:  one in which neither side was defending slavery.  This leads him to say, with a straight face, that 364,000 Americans - "the stunning equivalent of five million deaths as a percentage of today's population" - died in the service of freeing the slaves.

No, seriously.  That's his argument.  The Civil War was a war to end slavery, he says, and we should stand in awe of the number of Americans who died. 

Well, I for one do stand in awe of the number of Americans who died in the Civil War.  But I recognize that one half of them went to their deaths for the principle that a bunch of politicians in Washington had no right to tell Georgia whether or not it was allowed to keep its Negroes in chains, and the other half of them went to their deaths for the principle that they weren't going to let their country be split in two by the slave power.

How do I know this?  Because, as David Cross put it in another context, they fucking said so

You have to be monumentally ignorant of the Civil War to assert that the Union was moved to war by abolitionism.  Even at the dawn of the Civil War, the idea that slavery should be abolished because it was wrong was a crazy fringe movement.  Abolitionists occupied about the same place in the political spectrum of 1860 that PETA does today. 

Unionists didn't hate slavery because it was morally wrong.  They hated it because it provided unfair competition.  The whole basis of the Free Soil movement, for instance, was that the decent American yeoman farmer working his land didn't stand a chance against the powerful men south of the Mason-Dixon Line with their armies of slaves.

When Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, with great reluctance, in 1863, what spurred him to action was not the moral imperative of abolition, but the economic necessity of total war.  Lincoln set the slaves free for exactly the same reason that Grant, one year later, let Sherman burn everything in his path in the march to Savannah.

But okay, let's put that behind us.  Let's move on to an even more impressive demonstration of Medved's acuity.  This is good enough to quote in full:

Moreover, the economic cost of liberation remained almost unimaginable. In nearly all other nations, the government paid some form of compensation to slave-owners at the time of emancipation, but Southern slave-owners received no reimbursement of any kind when they lost an estimated $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars (about $70 billion in today’s dollars) of what [David Brion] Davis describes as a “hitherto legally accepted form of property.”
That's right.  The almost unimaginable cost of liberation.  Let us just savor that for a moment.  Let us, to use Joan Didion's turn of phrase, enter into the argument on its own spooky level.  Wow.  $70 billion eliminated with the stroke of a pen.  That does sound like an enormous cost for the nation to bear.

Okay, back to reality.  Here's some more math that Medved hasn't bothered to do.  If you're going to assert that the economic cost of emancipating a million slaves is $70 billion, you are also asserting that the economic benefit of giving a million people their freedom is:  $0.  This is certainly the way slaveholders looked at the balance sheet.  Apparently Medved does too.

6. THERE IS NO REASON TO BELIEVE THAT TODAY’S AFRICAN-AMERICANS WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF THEIR ANCESTORS HAD REMAINED BEHIND IN AFRICA.

For someone who claims to be a crusader for decency, Medved sure has some weird ideas about morality. 

I mean, seriously.  Let us suppose, for instance, that someone swept up Medved and all of his living relatives deemed useful enough, threw them in a cargo hold with hundreds of other people, and let them spend a couple of months living in their own filth, during which time a quarter of them sickened and died.  When he arrived at the destination, we'd take his surviving kids away from him and sell them.  If he had a daughter of the right age, we'd clean her up nicely, because they always fetch a good price.  His wife might luck out and get sold as a domestic.  Medved's best hope would probably to be a field hand on a cotton plantation, where he'd be much likelier to survive than if he got stuck growing sugar or rice.  But that wouldn't be up to him.

So, thousands of miles away from everyone he's ever known and everything he's ever owned, stripped away from his people and his language and his family, Medved would then spend the rest of his days doing back-breaking work.  Eventually, at the end of his days, he might learn to stop thinking about who bought his daughter and wondering if any of the new quadroon girls his owner just came back from New Orleans with were his grandchildren

The thing is, this is all okay.  Because one of those quadroon girls is going to have a grandchild of her own someday.  And that grandchild might go to college.

Just so that we're clear on what a beastly and immoral assertion this "inconvenient truth" is.

This "inconvenient truth" carries the odor that permeates Medved's whole argument.  He doesn't want to face up to this, but everything he's saying here derives, one way or another from a central idea:  black folks are just like you and me, only worse. 

Breeding them and selling their children:  hardly worth mentioning.  Writing their fundamental inhumanity into the Constitution:  not worth our notice.  Setting them free:  a big economic negative for the poor slaveowners, but what are you going to do?  And look at what a dog's breakfast they made of Africa.

We knew going in that Medved wasn't qualified to write about the history of slavery.  What this piece reveals is that he's also not qualified to write about decency.
I finally decided that Drupal, fine though it may be, required me to care a little too much about its innards.  So I'm gradually porting everything over to Movable Type, which is something less of a pain to manage and update.  We'll just see.

About Robert Rossney

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rbr_transparent.jpgI'm fortyish, smartish, funnyish, living in San Francisco with two aggressively shedding cats, a couple hundred board games, and too many books.

I've been developing software professionally since the Ford administration. At the moment, I divide my professional time between clients, refactoring a legacy system that I had no hand in creating and developing futuristic add-ons to a venerable case-management system for courts.

Of course what I'd really like to do is direct.

If you like the self-portrait, there are a lot of better examples of the genre here , which is where I got the idea.

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