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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Spinning Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates has carved out a controversial corner for himself in this election cycle.  He quickly got on the bad side of many progressives when he questioned the Bern's bonafides.  The cries echoed through the halls:  "Why aren't you going after Clinton?!"  Ironically, if Coates has shown bias at all, it is against Hillary.

Yes, Coates jumped on Bernie's sharp "no" in response to the reparations question, and rightly so.  Coates' argument was about what it means to be "the candidate of the radical left."  Nobody would identify Clinton as a radical.  It goes without saying that Clinton is not going to stake out a radical position on reparations.  The question is, why won't Bernie?  The more challenging question to Bernie's supporters is, do you want to support somebody who claims to be a radical, but who does not seem to understand what is arguably the most important moral question the nation has faced in its entire history?

If Bernie had shown more compassion and understanding, acknowledging the importance of reparations but explaining why he believes it cannot be a priority at the current moment, he would still have disappointed many progressives, but the backlash would not nearly have been as sharp.  At least when Clinton talks about reparations, she doesn't sound tone-deaf.  She sounds like what we expect her to be:  a tactful politician.  Bernie disappointed people because he didn't sound like what he is supposed to be:  a representative of the radical left.

Coates' conclusion is not that Bernie is only posing.  He doesn't conclude that Sanders is a phony.  He concludes that the radical left isn't what it should be.  It isn't free of racism.  It does not squarely confront the differences between white and black poverty.  Coates is saying that if you're on the radical left, Bernie is your man, but if you think that means Bernie represents what the radical left should be--if you think this means Bernie is going to stand up squarely against white supremacy--then you are mistaken.  Coates is indicting the left more than he's picking on Bernie Sanders, and his argument is fair and charitable.  Coates is practically endorsing Sanders, but yes, he is also criticizing him for falling short.  Bernie's supporters couldn't get past the critical stuff, though, and so they accused Coates of being biased in favor of Hillary.  I guess if you don't unequivocally Feel The Bern, then you're on the wrong side of things.  (The extremism is supposed to be part of the charm, right?)

In his follow up on the Sanders issue, Coates showed where he stands.  His bias against Clinton is extreme.

First, Coates claims that Hillary Clinton would not call herself "left-wing" or a "liberal." Why would he say that? Hillary has called herself a "progressive." She was ranked the eleventh most liberal Senator in Congress. There is no doubt in my mind that she would embrace the terms "liberal" and "left-wing." (You can say the terms don't rightly apply to her, and we can discuss that, if you want, but it is entirely beside the point.)

Second, Coates wrongly implies that the 1994 anti-crime bill can be held against Hillary Clinton, but not Bernie Sanders. He calls out Hillary Clinton for echoing the "superpredator" myth when she was First Lady in 1994.  While that would indirectly implicate her in the passing of the bill, Bernie Sanders is directly implicated because he voted for that bill.  There is no excuse for Coates's failure to mention that.  Coates' failure is even more profound, however: The fact is that Hillary's "superpredator" remark cannot be used to indirectly implicate her in the passing of the 1994 bill, because she made the comment in 1996!

Third, Coates observes that there is nothing "as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform," implying that there is something as damaging in the Clinton platform. That is simply false. Clinton has made criminal justice reform a key part of her campaign, and has called for an end to mass incarceration.

Fourth, Clinton has consistently done a much better job of pointing out that racial inequality is not just a part or a symptom of economic inequality. Clinton has referred to slavery as America's "original sin." She is much more sensitive to the historical and practical issues.

In sum, Coates entirely misrepresented both Clinton and Sanders in a way that is meant to shame Clinton and over-inflate Bernie's image.

If that wasn't bad enough, Coates issued another attack on Clinton in yet another recent article, accusing her of parroting the Dunning School when she said that Lincoln would probably have enabled a better postbellum reconstruction than Andrew Johnson.  Coates' interpretation of Clinton's comment is extremely uncharitable, though that hasn't stopped several left-leaning pundits from repeating it.  (For a detailed defense of Clinton's comment in historical context, see my previous post.)

 If you had any doubts about Coates' loyalties, you can put them to rest. Coates is willing to spin left, right, up and down to make Clinton look as bad as the devil.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reflections on Clinton's comment on Reconstruction

If you don't know what Hillary Clinton said about Lincoln and Reconstruction at the Town Hall meeting in Iowa, here's one of the more measured commentaries.  Hillary's gotten a lot of heat for her comment, and understandably so, since she was suggesting that the United States was too quick to give freed slaves the vote.  However, following Ta-Nehisi Coates' lead, some critics are unfairly associating Hillary's comments with the Dunning school, which views Reconstruction as a corrupt and unjust system of violence against the White South. The similarity between Hillary's comment and the Dunning school is entirely superficial.  Hillary was making a case for the political expediency of forgiveness, and she was aligning herself with one of the most beloved presidents in American History.

Let's start with some historical context.  Many extremely prominent abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, did not want to extend the franchise to freed slaves. Lincoln's own plan for Reconstruction would not have given the vast majority of freed slaves the vote. The most charitable interpretation of history is that Lincoln had the long-term goal of universal suffrage in view, but believed that it was impossible in the short-term. At best, he thought the franchise should be immediately extended to freed slaves who passed some educational requirement, the sort of requirement that would notoriously be (mis)applied in the Jim Crow era. Instead of Lincoln's plan, we got something very different: Radical Reconstruction guaranteed the franchise to all freedmen--with the unfortunate loophole which still denies the right to convicts--and this was enforced by a federal occupation of Southern States.

 Let that sink in: After they were defeated and economically devastated, the Southern States were occupied territories. Progressives today are well aware of the dangers that come with political occupation. It should not be controversial for a liberal to claim that the occupation of the South had a counter-productive effect on the reunification of the nation. So why is it controversial? Because in this case, the occupation was necessary to guarantee the franchise to southern freedmen. Liberties extended to the freedmen were taken away from the Southern Democrats.

 So where does that leave Clinton? When Hillary aligns herself with Lincoln's attitude towards Reconstruction, she is making a number of controversial political claims. The first is that painful compromises on crucial issues are sometimes the best way to ensure a long-term victory. This is the relevant point she wants to drive home to distinguish herself from Bernie Sanders. The second point is that Lincoln was right: The franchise was extended to freed slaves too quickly, and too forcefully, in the postbellum South. She says that if the victorious North had taken a softer stance on enfranchisement, then everybody would have been much better off. We can't say there would have been no racist violence and oppression against freed slaves and their children, but it is possible that the road to recovery, justice and universal suffrage would have been smoother and more successful.  And she says a big reason we did not have a better postbellum reconstruction is that we lost Lincoln's leadership too quickly.

Clinton was talking about forgiveness--not for slavery, but for the Civil War.  If she thought the South had fought a just war for a righteous cause, she would not speak of forgiveness, for there would be nothing to forgive.  She is acknowledging that the Civil War was fought for ignoble purposes.  She does not claim punishment was unjust.  She only claims that punishment was not politically expedient.  Note also that this is not about punishment for slavery.  Though Hillary still has not supported reparations for slavery, she has not ruled them out, either; and in any case, reparations would have to be faced squarely by the nation as a whole, and not just by the South.

Let's look at the big picture.  Reconstruction had noble aims, but it was a disaster. The North lacked the vision and determination to sustain a long-term plan.  Unity was never restored. Equality was never achieved. To this day, reconstruction is still needed.  We can't blame that on the Radical Republicans, but can wonder how much better America might have been, and might be today, if things were done differently.

I expect Clinton would agree with the following: Reconstruction was justified. It was not corrupt. However, it was not executed with prudence. It led to more division, not less. It did help establish pillars for African-American communities in the South, but these gains did not produce unity for the nation or equality for the oppressed. If Lincoln hadn't been killed, he might have been able to work with Congress to produce a better plan for Reconstruction, one which required more compromise, but which had a better chance for long-term success.

Is Clinton right? I honestly don't know, but her comment does not show ignorance of basic history. It does not show her being on the wrong side of civil rights principles. What it shows is her aligning herself directly with one of the most respected and appreciated Presidents in US history, and on a question which to this day remains controversial.

The question Democrats face today is, does the United States need somebody like Lincoln, who was willing to make compromises for the sake of long-term success, or does the United States need somebody like Bernie Sanders, who relies on intransigence?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Luke Skywalker and Rey: Comparing Character Arcs

My second viewing of The Force Awakens only reinforced my admiration.  I'm very impressed by Rey as a character, and so I want to respond to the prevalent criticism that she does not have a satisfying character arc.  I think she stands up better than many people think.  To prove it, let's compare her arc to Luke's in the original Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope.  Luke and Rey each have two inner conflicts dealing with the themes of loyalty and trust, but in Rey's case, the conflicts converge and are developed in a more dramatic and I think satisfying way.

At the start of Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke wants to be loyal to his aunt and uncle, but also wants to follow his own dreams.  This is his first inner conflict.  His dreams are somewhat vague at first: He wants to get off Tatooine, join the academy, be heroic, etc.  When Ben Kenobi tells him his father was a Jedi Knight killed by Darth Vader, his motivation becomes more focused: He wants to join Kenobi and the rebellion, and become a Jedi Knight like his father. When he is finally free to follow this path, Luke faces another internal conflict: to let go of his senses and trust his feelings and the force.

Here is a breakdown of how this all plays out in relation to Luke's choices.

In Act 1, Luke chooses . . .

  • to help his uncle take care of droids.
  • To remove R2-D2's restraining bolt, because he thinks it is limiting the droid's ability to function (he wants to see the rest of the message from Leia)
  • to give in to his uncle's command to remain on Tatooine another year, even though he is anxious to leave.
  • to chase after R2-D2 after the droid escapes, because Luke doesn't want to disappoint his uncle.
  • to reject Kenobi's offer to join him, because his uncle wants him to stay on Tatooine.
  • to race home and see if his aunt and uncle are okay after he realizes that stormtroopers are looking for the droids.
When Luke removes R2-D2's restraining bolt, we see how excited he is at the prospect of adventure.  This is the only time he comes close to being untrue to his uncle and it is what allows his entire adventure to begin.  Apart from this act, his loyalty to his uncle always wins out, making him rather whiny and anxious during this part of the film. Act 1 ends when Luke's aunt and uncle are dead and he no longer has any reason to stay on Tatooine. His internal conflict is thereby resolved. He is now free to follow his dreams:  Join Kenobi, train to become a Jedi Knight and defeat Vader.  This motivation carries him through the rest of the film.

In Act 2, Luke chooses . . .
  • to join the rebellion
  • to train to become a Jedi Knight
  • to rescue Princess Leia
The second internal conflict is set up when Luke begins training: Luke must learn to trust his feelings and the force.  This is not much of a conflict, however.  It only takes a brief verbal interaction with Kenobi before Luke is expertly blocking laser beams while blindfolded. He insists that he felt "something," even though Han Solo is skeptical.  It's a first step--he's no Jedi Knight yet.  The rescue of Leia is Luke's first trial, but it does not require overcoming any internal obstacles.  It is all external conflict, a typical "save the damsel in distress" scenario, and Luke's struggle with trusting the force is not even addressed.

In Act 3, Luke chooses . . .
  • to attack the Death Star
  • to rely on the force
When Luke chooses to use the force at the end of the film, it is not the result of a significant struggle.  His inner conflict is resolved and the Death Star is destroyed at the culmination of an exciting action sequence, but Luke does not go through any internal struggle here.  He hears (or "hears", depending on how you want to look at it) Kenobi's voice telling him to use the force, and he does it.

Let's look at this a bit more critically.  Luke's Act 1 inner conflict is resolved at the end of Act 1, which makes him a less engaging character as we enter Act 2.  Additionally, he does not choose to resolve that conflict: It ends when stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle.  If it were up to him, he'd spend the next year whining about how his uncle won't let him follow his dreams.  Furthermore, his motivation to follow in his father's footsteps is primarily established through exposition, not action.  Luke's motivation intensifies through dramatic action in Act 2, when he witnesses Kenobi's death, but his motivation has already been established at this point.  Act 2 sets up a new internal conflict for Luke--trusting the force--but this is given very thin development, without any significant internal obstacles.

How does this compare to Rey's arc in The Force Awakens?

In Act 1, Rey chooses . . .
  • to scavenge in order to survive on Jakku
  • to rescue a lost droid
  • to befriend said droid
  • to protect the droid from traders
  • to help Finn and the droid escape stormtroopers
While Luke's adventure begins with a feeling of excitement for adventure and heroism as he removes R2-D2's restraining bolt, Rey's adventure begins with a feeling of compassion for a lost droid.  (It's worth noting that at this point in the film, Finn's story has already established that there is no place for compassion in the First Order.)  Rey is staying on Jakku out of loyalty to her family, because that is where they left her to wait for their return, even though she is unhappy and dreaming of a better life elsewhere. Her feelings of compassion drive her off Jakku, but her inner conflict is not resolved: She still does not want to betray her family; she wants to return to Jakku.

In Act 2, Rey chooses . . .
  • to recruit Han Solo in BB-8's mission
  • to help Han Solo and Finn escape Han's enemies
  • to reject Han's job offer
  • to plead with Finn to get him to help BB-8 and the resistance
  • to reject the call of Luke's lightsaber
  • to fight Kylo Ren
Rey's choices reflect her conflicting motivations:  Her loyalty to her family is drawing her back to Jakku, even though her compassion for BB-8 is drawing her towards the resistance.  When she finds Luke's lightsaber, however, she faces a new internal conflict: trusting the force.  This conflict builds on the first, because trusting the force requires trusting her feelings and letting go of her desire to stay on Jakku.  She feels that there is nothing left for her on Jakku, but she cannot believe it.  She feels the force (and her compassion) pulling her towards a new path, but she cannot trust it, so she runs away in fear.  She doesn't stand a chance against Kylo Ren at this point, and he easily uses the force to paralyze her.

In Act 3 + Epilogue, Rey chooses . . .
  • to escape Kylo Ren's control using the force
  • to fight Kylo Ren again, this time using Luke's lightsaber and the force
  • to find Luke Skywalker and return his lightsaber
Luke Skywalker first uses the force in an otherwise useless scene in which nothing is directly at stake.  In contrast, Rey first discovers she can use the force when she is under great duress, and she uses it to protect herself (and the entire resistance) from Kylo Ren.  It's a stunning scene which turns an all-too-common victim narrative on its head.  Where Luke passes a typical hero's trial (saving the damsel in distress), Rey faces a twist on a typical female victim narrative: Mind rape. However, this victim narrative is turned on its head.  First, Rey successfully stops Kylo Ren from having his way with her. (He does violate her, but he doesn't get the information he wants).  More profoundly, she violates him in return, stealing and revealing his deepest fear.  Later, when she beats him in a contest to see who can pull Luke's lightsaber from the snow, we are thrilled, but not shocked, because we've already seen evidence that Rey is at least as powerful as Kylo Ren.  She knows it, too.  She is no longer afraid.  By taking up Luke's lightsaber and using the force against her foe, both of Rey's internal conflicts are resolved. She's not going back to Jakku.  She trusts the force and her feelings and she is following the Skywalker path.

At the end of the fight, after Kylo Ren is defeated, Rey is confronted with a choice: She could kill him or she could show mercy.  We know she has a strong capacity for compassion, but her wrath might be a significant obstacle.  And Kylo Ren has earned her wrath.  We've seen it all unfold through action, not exposition.  Will she be ruled by hate or compassion?  Alas, the choice is stolen from her as the planet is torn apart, but the seeds for a new internal conflict are there for the next film.

In the film's epilogue, Rey takes her first step forward on her new path: taking the lightsaber to Luke.  He doesn't accept it, at least not right away. Is it now hers?  That's another question for the next installment, but however it is answered, the film has completed a compelling arc.  Rey finally trusts the force and is no longer torn between family loyalty and compassion.  She doesn't know who her family is or what happened to them, but she has made her choice all the same.