Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, March 9, 2019 4:41 pm

At long last, David Brooks starts to get it

I almost never have anything good to say about the New York Times’s David Brooks, nor should I. His whole career is built on a foundational dishonesty: He believes and says that liberals and conservatives in America are equally to blame for all our problems and that only wise moderates (such as himself, of course) can lead the country forward constructively. And because he’s a rich white guy who writes for The New York Times, people figure, well, he must know what he’s talking about. Because they wouldn’t give that job to a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, would they?

In point of fact they did, and were it not for the relentless pursuit of the blogger Driftglass, many fewer people would know about it.

Frankly, wedded as he appears to his own grift, I’d long since given up hope that Brooks was capable of learning anything, even something so simple and obvious that a lot of his intellectual and moral betters intuited it in middle school. And yet he has: In a column posted March 7, he acknowledges that, five years after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s groundbreaking, Polk Award-winning essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” the meaning of the words in Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address appears finally to have permeated his mental block. Lincoln said:

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Much to my surprise, and very much to his credit, Brooks grapples with these words long and hard enough to arrive at some very solid conclusions:

There are a few thoughts packed into that sentence. First, there is a natural moral order to the universe. There is a way things are supposed to be — more important than economic wealth or even a person’s life.

Second, moral actions are connected to each other. If somebody tears at the moral order by drawing blood through the lash of slavery, then that wrong will have to be paid for by the blood of the sword. History has meaning. It’s not just random events.

Third, sin is anything that assaults the moral order. Slavery doesn’t merely cause pain and suffering to the slave. It is a corruption that infects the whole society. It is a collective debt that will have to be paid.

Fourth, sin travels down society through the centuries. Lincoln was saying that sometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed.

He goes on to acknowledge that while people of many backgrounds have suffered during the history of the English colonies and then the United States, the suffering of African slaves, Native Americans and their descendants has been uniquely awful, with uniquely awful consequences:

Slavery and the continuing pattern of discrimination aren’t only an attempt to steal labor; they are an attempt to cover over a person’s soul, a whole people’s soul.

That injury shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.

He endorses Coates’s understanding of what we need and why we need it. As Coates wrote:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

Brooks concludes:

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

Do not presume that I think for one minute that this column lets Brooks off the hook.

We are “a nation coming apart at the seams” precisely because of the kinds of policies and politicians Brooks has promoted, supported, and served as an apologist for — often with staggering levels of contextual and/or intellectual dishonesty — for more than two decades. Brooks acknowledges and repents for none of that here, almost certainly because he has yet to begin the hard work of critical self-examination. (I would suggest he started by reading Driftglass, but that’s just me.) And his column offers no evidence whatever to prove that he ever will.

But, like the blind men and the elephant in the old story, he has, by touch more than sight, begun to grasp some of the contours of a problem, and a moral necessity, that he has up until now never rightly understood. As I said earlier, a lot of people not necessarily any smarter than he began to intuit those things at a much earlier age. But, frankly, that he has begun to do so now is more than that of which I ever had thought him capable, so I owe him credit where due.

Do I think this will change anything in the near term? I do not. The people in position to begin any sort of serious discussion of reparations in the policy sphere oppose reparation and consider The New York Times and its writers enemies of the people.

But Brooks’s unaccountable popularity as a “moderate” means that maybe more Americans will reconsider the idea of reparations who otherwise might not have done so. It’s a small candle amidst a lot of cursed darkness right now, but I’ll take it.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014 11:26 am

Please do me a favor: Read “The Case for Reparations”

You don’t owe me a favor, but I’m asking for one anyway: Go read the essay “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

(Yeah, I’m late to it. I was on vacation. Sue me.)

I concede right up front that this isn’t a simple request. Consequently, as you’re about to see, this is the longest “y’all go read this” post in this blog’s 12-year history.

Likewise, “The Case for Reparations” is a long article — 15,000 words or so. And it deals, obviously, with race, a subject that makes most people uncomfortable and, in the U.S., should discomfit everybody.

But there are some other things you should know.

First, the title is a little misleading — perhaps deliberately so — in that most people probably think that “reparations” means cash payments to make up for black people’s having been slaves. In point of fact, Coates does not call for any such thing, let alone specify an amount, an eligibility standard for individuals, or a distribution mechanism. (This fact, should you see the article discussed elsewhere, will be an easy way to tell which commenters have read the article and which have not.)

Second, even if one brings to the article a broader understanding of “reparations,” one should know that Coates, who is black, has only the vaguest idea of what reparations of any kind might look like, that he sees the concept as too complex to be defined by any individual. Moreover, he opposed the idea in principle himself until only a couple of years ago. Even today, he thinks, for example, that affirmative action doesn’t really address the needs created by the circumstances he describes.

Third, the article is less an argument for some form of reparations — though it is that — than it is a piece of historical investigative journalism that explains the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. Coates’s work, as he himself points out, is not entirely original and builds on the work of professional historians. Unless you’re in academia, you’ve probably never heard of many of those he credits. But Coates adds original reporting to the research of his sources to create a plain-English piece of journalism that would be a shoo-in for a National Magazine Award even if it weren’t advocating a thing.

And let me emphasize again his subject: the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. This piece isn’t just about slavery, and another way to separate those commenters who have read the piece from those who have not will be that the extent to which a commenter dwells on slavery likely will be in inverse proportion to the likelihood that that commenter has read the article.

The article does several important things. Primarily, it outlines the economic case for some form of restitution for black Americans. But in explaining the basis for that restitution, it also points out how utterly inconsequential arguments about “pathological culture” (my words, not his) as a cause for the woes of black Americans are in this context, like arguing the merits of a rezoning case when the sun is about to explode. And it shows in striking granularity how some ordinary people lived long lives in an era of supposed equality and fairness while still being robbed blind — not just by slavery, not just by private corporations, but also by their own government even as that government claimed to be working for fairness and equality of opportunity.

To call this article a home run would be to grossly understate its significance. Some home runs barely clear the fence. A few reach the upper deck of stadium seats. This one won’t fall back to Earth for years.

So go read it. I’m not asking you to do anything about its subject, not least because I myself have no idea, at this point, what should be done. But just read it and think about it and ask yourself what should be done. The article suggests one starting point, one that wouldn’t result in the transfer of a single dime from anyone to anyone. But every thinking American ought to think about this.

It’s been said in many places by many people that slavery is America’s original sin. That’s true, but it’s only part of the truth, in that the original sin actually encompasses more than slavery. Americans who truly want this country to be what it told the world almost 240 years ago that it wanted to be must grapple with this original sin and how we go about expiating it. I cannot think of a better place to start than this article.

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