I've been thinking about what Tom Cotton told our Frank Lockwood last month when he was bad-mouthing The New York Times' 1619 Project that aims to "reframe American history" around slavery and the contributions of African Americans.
Specifically. Cotton introduced legislation to prevent federal funds from being used to teach a curriculum based on the project in public schools.
He made a rhetorical mistake when he said the founders saw "slavery as a necessary evil," which was not the same thing as him saying he thinks slavery was a "necessary evil." I'm sure he would never say that. And there is plenty of support for the statement I believe he was making. People knew slavery was morally indefensible in the 18th century, the ancient Egyptians probably knew it was indefensible. But people then, just like people today, do a lot of things they know aren't right because they are expedient.
Playing gotcha with Cotton over this quote is a venial sin, considering he knows the game, and weaponizing out-of-context words and phrases is hardly a tactic he is above. But it's still not the right thing to do.
Just because he sometimes indulges in hyperbole and willful mischaracterizations doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge that in this case he didn't do anything other than tell the truth in a way that might be unhelpful to any political future he imagines beyond Arkansas.
We might have more of a problem with Cotton calling the 1619 Project "left-wing propaganda," though I understand that as political rhetoric aimed at reassuring what he sees as his base: white Americans who feel no guilt over the treatment of Black Americans in the New World because they have never owned slaves and liked Michael Jackson's music until he turned out to be a pedophile.
I would agree that the 1619 Project is revisionist history. But I can't think of any part of American history that needs to be revised more than vague notions about Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, the War of Northern Aggression, the Jim Crow era and Black Lives Matter that a lot of Americans carry around in their heads.
Americans don't have a good track record of confronting uncomfortable truths about their past (or, for that matter, their present). We're lazy about learning; we would rather believe we know stuff because we're smart. People on TV say a lot things; those you think are true make you feel righteous, and those you think are lies suggest you're not the world's best and brightest.
That's why it takes something like HBO's "Watchmen" to inform most people of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Or HBO's John Oliver to introduce us, on his "Last Week Tonight" program, to the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, where the duly elected government of the largest city in North Carolina was violently overthrown by a group of white supremacists armed with, among other things, a Gatling gun.
They may have killed as many as 300 Black people and issued their own "White Declaration of Independence," which began:
Believing that the Constitution of the United States contemplated a government to be carried on by an enlightened people; believing that its framers did not anticipate the enfranchisement of an ignorant population of African origin, and believing that those men of the state of North Carolina who joined in framing the union did not contemplate for their descendants' subjection to an inferior race.
We the undersigned citizens of the city of Wilmington and county of New Hanover do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.
This occurred a week after Furnifold McLendel Simmons, former congressman, future senator and de facto boss of North Carolina's Democratic party for more than 30 years, published a "Patriotic and Able Address" in the pages of the Raleigh News & Observer that contained the following line:
North Carolina is a WHITE MAN'S State, and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever again dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.
Simmons was the sort of guy who was in power when all these statues of Confederate heroes started going up. They were part of an organized campaign to intimidate and suppress Black voters. And yes, he was a Democrat, because that's the party that most loudly argued for white supremacy then.
But, for all you Dinesh D'Souza fans out there, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern states became more reliably Republican in presidential politics, while Northeastern states became more reliably Democratic.
And starting with Richard Nixon, the GOP began making overtly racist as well as dog whistle appeals to white voters. Cue up the famous Lee Atwater "Southern Strategy" recording, which, like Cotton's unfortunate characterization of slavery as a necessary evil, isn't quite as bad as some people want it to sound.
Atwater uses the "n-word" repeatedly. But he's deconstructing the strategy for Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University, who would go on to use the interview, without attaching Atwater's name to it, in his 1984 book "The Two-Party South." Atwater is basically helping a scholar understand Republican campaign strategy, not arguing for the morality of that strategy.
It is problematic that Atwater was also the chief architect of that strategy, and I don't know whether applying it cynically (Atwater was not a racist; he just understood that racist appeals were effective in winning elections) makes that any better. Near the end of life, Atwater regretted doing a lot of things he did to win elections.
Tom Cotton knows slavery is a moral wrong and a losing issue. And he's right to suggest that the founding fathers acted expediently (and therefore immorally) in not addressing the clear and present evil that is America's original sin. So what do we do now?
It would be nice if we could grant each other the chance to be nuanced and precise in our arguments, to acknowledge that the world is gray and a large and diverse nation has many competing interests to balance.
Popular history is commissioned by the powerful, but if the founders were right, that power proceeds from the people. And the people will change, though it might be wishful to think we will evolve.
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