Equality not Achieved at Last – It Happened Today, February 25, 2017

On February 25 of 1870 Hiram Revels became the first black member of the United States Congress as, of all things, a Republican Senator from Mississippi. It was a great achievement, and also a dead end.

Revels himself thoroughly deserved to be a Senator, in a positive sense. As an individual, he was not merely intelligent but wise, principled and reasonable, and an advocate of generosity in putting the Civil War behind Americans. And as a member of a long-oppressed race, he belonged in the Senate as part of a long-overdue extension of full citizenship to blacks including unfettered participation in the political community.

Nor is the problem that he was not democratically elected. Mississippi was at the time occupied by federal troops, who dictated election results dramatically at odds with the wishes of the locals. Or rather, the white locals. Mississippi was a die-hard white supremacist pro-Confederate state in a region where it was hard to stand out in that regard. And it is problematic to say that it is justified in dictating election results by force because the majority is wrong on an important issue, even a vital moral one. But whites were not a majority in Mississippi in those days.

In fact Mississippi was a majority black state from well before the Civil War into the 1930s. So the result of full, fair, free adult suffrage would have been the election of large numbers of blacks at every level, and the indignant rejection of segregation and race hate. That a bitter white minority would control Mississippi politics in the absence of armed outsiders was horribly unjust and federal troops were right to intervene even if the result was not precisely what would have happened in a genuinely free and fair election in which blacks were neither disenfranchised outright or terrorized into not voting.

So here’s the problem. Slavery had such a negative impact on the literacy, prosperity and social organization of blacks in Mississippi that in the absence of external force they were not going to prevail at the polls or anywhere else despite being a majority until the hearts of whites were changed. And the federal government, and voters in the American north, were not prepared to continue policing Mississippi elections until that happened. By 1877, following the corrupt bargain that secured Rutherford B. Hayes a single term as president by falsifying election results in three southern states, the North pulled out and left southern blacks at the mercy of their white neighbours.

Given this reality, the result of a punitive, in-your-face Reconstruction was further to entrench race hatred and make anything vaguely resembling an open mind on the subject seem treasonous to those who, once federal troops left, would be in charge for the foreseeable future. And that is what happened.

Revels himself warned against this approach, including a very pointed letter to President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, after he had left the Senate to become the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College. In that letter he exaggerated the willingness of white Mississippians to let go of “the bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife”. But he did warn that punitive Reconstruction was calculated to keep it alive.

What, then, should have been done? No conceivable Reconstruction policy would have brought a quick end to bigotry in white hearts or key political institutions of Mississippi and its neighbours, not even a generous one. Under the actual circumstances, there was a long legal battle against seating Revels in the Senate based on all sorts of arguments including that the awful 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision meant he was not a citizen before ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and thus did not meet the nine-year-citizenship requirement.

Republicans answered with all sorts of arguments of their own, from the narrowly legal to hey we won the war. And by straight party vote, Revels was seated. It seems the right thing to do even knowing the sorry long-term outcome. And I greatly admire Revels himself for speaking so wisely about reconciliation. But he was seated at gunpoint and as soon as white voters in Mississippi and other southern states were left to their own devices, they were able to oust blacks from Congress and local legislatures using the same device and did so.

So what would you have done? Not to seat Hiram Revels and his various black colleagues in Southern legislatures in the 1870s would have been to be complicit in injustice. But to seat them, deepening white bitterness, and then leave, did neither southern blacks nor southern whites any good.

Clearly the only solution was to stay until hearts were changed. But that solution is deeply ahistorical. In fact between 1901 and 1929 there was not a single black in Congress. And I don’t just mean in the South. (They began to be reelected in the New Deal, and this time as Democrats from northern cities.)

There’s the core of the problem. Northerners may have disliked, even despised, slavery and then former slave-owners. But they did not love the slaves or ex-slaves. They did not put blacks into southern legislatures to help blacks but to hurt whites. And it ended up hurting everyone.

So if you’d been there in 1870, with modern attitudes, the only policy you could conceivably have supported without reservation would have been for northerners to insist on genuine protection of civil rights in the south. Not just for a season to annoy defeated Confederates but for as long as it took out of genuine commitment to equality for blacks and compassion for the closed minds of most white southerners. And there’s no way you could have found anything like sufficient support for this plan.

It is because of dilemmas like this one that I am convinced that, in our own day, we should take what we can get when it seems to constitute genuine progress toward a worthy goal. But we should never be afraid to speak up, charitably if we can manage it, in defence of radical goals when all so-called practical, prudent and moderate courses point clearly toward dishonourable disaster. As they surprisingly often do, and did in 1870 in the American South.


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With government in charge…

In my latest National Post column I satirize people’s ongoing faith in government’s compassionate efficiency despite all their experience with its actual performance.


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Wish I’d said that – February 22, 2017

“[H.G. Wells] seems to believe that men who have begun anyhow, and come from anywhere, and believe or disbelieve anything, will by some process of pooling impressions arrive at an agreement at the end… I cannot see how this is really consistent with any rational process of thought at all… people who differ at the beginning still differ at the end…’”

G.K Chesterton in G.K.’s Weekly June 22, 1928, quoted by Dale Ahlquist in Gilbert Magazine Vol. 20 #2 (Nov.-Dec. 2016)



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A Pen Filled With Vitriol… and Blood – It Happened Today, February 21, 2017

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.” It is, I must admit, a brilliant opening line. With that line the Communist Manifesto opened on February 21 of 1848. And the world was never the same again. In, most people must surely now admit, mostly bad or even horrible ways.

Radicalism is, I suppose, inevitable, an intellectual or even psychological disposition that has always been with us and always will be. And it will always be impatient, convinced that good will is all you really need, and therefore also convinced that its opponents must be evil, an attitude which rapidly passes through insolence into abuse. But Marxism seems to have been a singularly poisonous and attractive form of radicalism, a perilous combination.

Marx himself long enjoyed a reputation as a deep thinker that sometimes attaches to the voluminously impenetrable. Marx was not, in fact, a great analytic economist, although his theories had a certain plausibility when conventional economics believed in the labour theory of value that they could not retain to the educated mind after the marginalist revolution of the early 20th century. But he was also attractive to the usual suspects, especially of the more dangerous sort, because his supposed erudition was basically just the lead weight in the glove of his rhetoric.

Marx always was a fine rhetorician even if Kapital is all but impenetrable. I’ve always cherished Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase that “the cold metal of economic theory is in Marx’s pages immersed in such a wealth of steaming phrases as to acquire a temperature not naturally its own.”

Especially in the Communist Manifesto, full of ringing phrases like “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” that are exceptionally clear as well as polemical.

Among these is one that I consider highly perceptive, partly because Marshall Berman used it as the title of an unsettling book about modernity. It is that under what Marx called capitalism but might better be dubbed “modernization,” a disorienting process of constant change occurs in which “All that is solid melts into air”. Including your formerly brilliant cutting edge smartphone, which three years later is an embarrassing brick. But a few insights do not make a philosopher or an economist.

Nor do a few good phrases make a good man. Including his castigation of “the idiocy of rural life”. Oddly the famous “Religion is the opium of the masses” is not from the Communist Manifesto but from the posthumously published “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” whose title gives a fair idea of Marx’s general prose style despite his gift for turning a phrase when he wanted. And that quotation, in full, is not as rude as Marx often is: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. But Marx was, as a rule, abusive, in debate and in his personal life and I do not think it can be disregarded in considering his theories and their appeal.

Space precludes getting into all the details here but he was a mean, selfish, thuggish hypocrite, and his doctrines not accidentally often appealed to thoroughly unpleasant people. Moreover they were materialist, which necessarily denies human dignity (whether it is true or not is of course not determined by its attractiveness). And Marx and Engels’ theory of class struggle, in ways that to borrow a Bolshevik phrase are no accident, absolutely denied the possibility of rational debate, declaring all opposition to Communism to be at once viciously self-interested and impenetrably obtuse, thus leaving a speedy resort to violence the only course. In that sense, for all its elaborate theoretical framework, Marxism was at bottom radically relativist and nihilistic regarding the very possibility of objective truth.

Despite its failings, or perhaps because of them, far too many adolescent revolutionaries of all ages adhered to it for far too long for the thrill of giving reputable society, and staid socialists, a poke in the eye, without looking carefully at the implications of its doctrines. And perhaps that, too, is an enduring characteristic of radicalism. But if so, it is another reason to avoid it.

A spectre did indeed haunt Europe for more than a century after the Communist Manifesto first appeared. And it turned out to be even worse under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot among others, than its most vociferous critics warned, in part because its most vocal and determined adherents were so careless about what they advocated. It remains hugely popular on the intellectual left, even trendy.

Do such people never learn?


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Tax and spend, never mend

In my latest National Post column I lament the latest New Brunswick budget continuing down the boringly disastrous path of deficits today for affordable free money the day after tomorrow… or after the next election… or never.


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Castro came and stayed – It Happened Today, February 16, 2017

In what seems truly a bygone era, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba on February 16 of 1959. Yes, 58 years ago. And a Castro is still in power in this ghastly real-life Autumn of the Patriarch.

I could say a lot of things about Fidel Castro without getting to anything nice. Like how revealing it is that he would have switched jobs repeatedly while still being the guy you got shot for disobeying. And how typical it is of a regime that for all its yapping about true democracy had no legitimacy that it became dynastic like North Korea. (Mind you his own daughter, from one of his many infidelities, fled the island prison in disguise in 1993 and his own sister opposed him from American exile.) But never mind him.

What I want to do on this dismal anniversary is insult all the leftists who placed such high hopes on him to begin with and then somehow insisted despite everything that he really was a good man and a liberator. Anybody can make a mistake. Even the New York Times in originally hailing him as “the Robin Hood of the Caribbean”. But to persist in one, to speak of democracy and human rights and peace in a sanctimonious tone while siding with this seedy brutal villain and denying repeatedly that he was a Communist, or in case he was denying that it mattered if he was one, surely indicates grave defects in judgement.

Especially as it is a habit of the left, from Stalin through Castro to Mugabe and beyond; as Jay Nordlinger memorably put it in National Review back in 1994, “Like an adolescent girl on holiday, the radical Left is always falling in love with some unsuitable foreigner…”

To do it and learn nothing is to double down on nasty folly. Why have so many done it, and not just on the radical left, including our own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

For that matter, why are there still Che T-shirts?



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Fame you wouldn’t want – It Happened Today, February 15, 2017

There are a lot of ways to get into the history books. But here’s one you wouldn’t want. On February 15 of 1933, Giuseppe Zangara tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin Roosevelt. Had he succeeded, it would have been the first time anyone was elected president and then died before taking office.

It didn’t happen then, and it hasn’t happened since, something I refrain from mentioning between any election and inauguration lest I should be suspected of trying to jinx the president-elect. As a matter of fact, no one has ever died between being nominated by a major party and the election either. Leaving aside violence, you’d think simply by the odds it would have happened to somebody. (Democratic lion Stephen A. Douglas, one of Lincoln’s opponents in the 4-way 1860 election, did die suddenly less than three months after his victorious rival was inaugurated.)

As for getting into the history books anyway, a dismal footnote to Zangara’s failed attempt is that in the process, standing on a wobbly folding chair and fighting a crowd trying to subdue him, he managed to shoot four other people including Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who died of his wounds on March 6, two days after Roosevelt’s inauguration. So Cermak becomes “Who was that guy shot by mistake next to FDR?”

Meanwhile Zangara was executed in “Old Sparky,” the Florida State Prison’s electric chair, on March 20, justice being swifter in those days. (For what it’s worth, the judge who sentenced him to death called for a complete handgun ban.) And in the process Zangara did make a sort of history.

You see, the rules said prisoners could not share a cell prior to execution but as someone else was awaiting capital punishment he obliged them to expand the “death cell” into the now proverbial “Death Row”. It’s not exactly what you put down as your ambition in your high school yearbook. But it beats being the guy assassinated by mistake while the real target wasn’t becoming the first ever president-elect not to make it to Inauguration Day.


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When Polk met lens – It Happened Today, February 14, 2017

Ah, the wonders of the steam age. Including that on February 14 back in 1849, James Knox Polk became the first sitting president of the United States to have his photograph taken.

If you’re wondering why he was in office on that date, it’s because prior to the New Deal with its air of constant crisis there was a four-month period between an election and the swearing in of the new president.

Oh, you didn’t mean it that way? You were wondering why somebody called James Polk was ever President? And in his defence I should note first that Polk was elected in 1844 in something of an upset, both as Democratic nominee and then as president, on the pledge to serve only a single term. So he did not run in 1848. (He then enjoyed the shortest retirement of any president, dying of cholera on June 15, 1849.)

Can I say anything else nice about him? Well, he was also elected in part on his pledge to annex Texas which he did, and the United States has generally been better for it. And historians generally credit him with having been a very successful president for having managed to garner support for and pass virtually everything on his agenda. On the other hand, like every other president between roughly John Tyler and James Buchanan, he stands indicted of having failed to halt the drift into bloody civil war.

As for his photo, it’s a somewhat grim affair. But in addition to the expectation that statesmen would look vaguely statesmanlike back then, there was the need to sit very still while primitive film gradually absorbed your image.

It’s a long way from the modern selfie. But in some sense the journey began with Polk.

As I said, the wonders of the steam age.


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