The Debatable Land #1: No More Heroes
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The New Puritans: Jefferson Must Fall
Of course they would, in the end, come for Thomas Jefferson. How could it be otherwise, for Jefferson was a slave-owner and a sinner and this, in 2021, trumps his role as a founder of the United States. A statue of Jefferson has been removed from city hall in New York and this, I wager, will not be the last time Jefferson is judged by the standards of today and found hideously, even irredeemably, wanting.
If this seems presumptuous it is also in keeping with the spirit of the moment. I hold to the view that it is wholly reasonable to reconsider monuments erected in previous eras but also to the once uncontroversial view that a statue of Thomas Jefferson is rather more likely to be honouring his part in the creation of the United States - extraordinary, even by the standards of his time - than celebrating his character or his support for slavery. Which of these is the bigger, more significant thing? Answer that and you have an answer to the question of whether Jefferson must fall or not. Even in 2021.
A kind of mania is sweeping the United States, however, in which one too simple view of history is being swept aside by another too simple - and too convenient - version of America’s story. If this were simply a tussle between historians it might be of mere academic relevance but is, instead, a fight to own America’s past - and hence its future too. As such, it spills into everything and especially into politics.
For it has become axiomatic in certain progressive circles that “white supremacy” and the American voters’ desire to cling to, or resurrect, some kind of white supremacist society is the answer to every difficult question and the root cause of every intractable problem. And for sure, few sane folk doubt either the historic reality of America’s fatal sins or the legacy of that moral turpitude today. America’s justice system really is, as an architectural matter, structurally racist. Public policy often does have a disproportionately serious impact on minority communities. Republican-led redistricting schemes and voter-ID laws really are a way of suppressing or minimising the impact of the African-American vote. All this and much else besides is a matter of cold, pitiless, truth.
Nations are built on stories and stories have a mythic quality which, from time to time, bear reappraisal. It is hardly news the American revolution was - at best - a thing only half-done. The reality of slavery and the compromises forced by it for a century saw to that. The American idea was not a universal one, no matter how fine Jefferson’s words might have been.
But to note that does not necessarily mean one must endorse without equivocation the idea, popularised by the New York Times’s 1619 Project, that the true founding of the United States took place in that year when the first ship carrying slaves crossed from Africa to the north American continent. Or rather, one may accept that this is undoubtedly part of the American tragedy without thinking it must define everything that has happened in the past 400 years.
That is now apparently a controversial notion. When the NYT launched the 1619 Project it was part of what the paper’s editor Dean Baquet dubbed a new determination to use “all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years”. At a staff meeting, one journalist offered a revealing glimpse into what that might mean: “I’m wondering to what extent that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? […] I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting…”
Well, even if you allow all this may be good history, it is liable to make for dull journalism and, in another field, very bad politics. The Democratic party, right now, appears to view every setback, every defeat, as a reassertion of white supremacy. When Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia earlier this month (a state Joe Biden won comfortably only a year ago) too many progressives reached for the simplest explanation. As the activist Amy Siskind (half a million followers on Twitter) put it: “Non-College white women gave it to Youngkin - and the reason is simple: racism - they don’t want progress”. It must be lovely to live in such a simple world.
It turns out some things are binary. You are either an anti-racist or you are a racist and if you vote for the Republican party there is little doubt which you are. (Black and Latino Americans who vote Republican are inconvenient but easily ascribed false-consciousness). The writer Ibram Kendi, one of the most influential priests of this worldview, asserts: “The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right's unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American's drive for a 'race-neutral' one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is 'reverse discrimination.”
Bracing stuff but, just to be clear, what he means is that “The language of color-blindness - like the language of ‘not-racist’ - is a mask to hide racism”. As such, race can never be discounted or disregarded. It is everywhere and it is everything.
Perhaps it is, but the danger is that this way of thinking leads Democrats into treacherous waters. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests far too many American liberals at least flirted with asinine notions such as “defund the police” or “abolish immigration controls”. They did so on the basis the police - and border enforcement - are axiomatically racist. Well, the application of policing in America may indeed often be racist but it turns out - surprise! - that black communities do not want to abolish policing, they want better policing.
Noting that many voters think “defund the police” an idea as absurd as it is dangerous is of course problematic. The idea Democratic politicians might pay some attention to what voters actually think is, naturally, now considered “white appeasement”. Yes, really. As a recent essay in the Washington Post argued: “The idea of White appeasement is certainly not new, even if it is often not acknowledged directly or referred to with a pejorative such as ‘appeasement’ — the term ‘electability’ is often invoked instead, obscuring that the swing voters at issue are almost all White.” But as Jonathan Chait notes, the reality is that the Democratic party’s most moderate voters are actually disproportionately black and latino.
When race becomes everything, however, race constricts much more than it liberates. Everyone is assigned a lane and no-one may leave it.
“We the pure of heart and mind” is a poor way of going about the business of winning elections, however. It is not immediately obvious that calling half the American electorate racist is really going to help persuade them to endorse Democratic candidates.
In the end, though, this is a kind of Woke Calvinism in which the elect pour scorn on their less fortunate, less enlightened, less godly neighbours. There is no possibility of redemption here, no means by which forgiveness may be obtained. You are in or you are out and there is nothing you may do to alter your position. Those with the light of god upon them are in the category of the blessed; everyone else is in miserable, sinful, darkness. No good works may change any of this and it is pointless to pretend they may and doubly pointless to try. The only difference between the godless is a few of them acknowledge their heresy openly while the rest, the majority, cannot conceive the depths of their own iniquity.
This is a pitiless business, right enough, and one familiar enough from our own history we may recognise elements of its rebirth elsewhere. The damned are the damned and that’s all there is to it save to note their damnation is also a means by which we may be glorified. Our self-esteem is pampered by their wickedness.
And in the case of Thomas Jefferson there is, unavoidably, a pungent whiff of arrogance; an intimation that in this moment, in this place, humanity reached a measure of perfection permitting it to pass withering judgement, shorn of nuance, on all previous generations. If these assertions were accompanied by an appreciation we too shall likely one day be judged - and found wanting - by future generations it would be one thing and a more palatable thing at that. But there is no such appreciation and how could there be when the unco’ guid sweep history - in all its imperfections and complexity - away in the name of progress and kindness and decency and humanity?
I love an outlier and this Pew Survey makes me want to visit South Korea.
Also: much respect to Italy for insisting that family is business and business is family. As for Britain, it’s good to see this remains a land of hobby-men (and hobby-women too). Still, British people’s comparative indifference to work and wealth may go some way towards explaining this country’s persistent productivity problem…
On which note: “The UK has a long history of regional disparities in income and productivity. In 1901, income per worker was 30% above the UK average in London, and 12% above in the South East. It was 14% below the UK average in Yorkshire and 15% below in Wales. According to ONS figures for 2017, income per hour worked is now 33% above the UK average in London, and 8% above in the South East. It is 15% below the UK average in Yorkshire and 16% below in Wales.” That’s from a report issued by the Industrial Strategy Council last year.
Only one part of the UK has seen its productivity, relative to other parts of the realm, change. In 1901 Scotland was one of the three least productive UK regions; in 2017 it was the third most productive. That is not because of north sea oil per se (oil being an offshore activity not counted in regional statistics) but, rather, because of the onshore industry created to facilitate and maximise north sea output. That in turn leaves one to wonder how any “transition” - “just” or not - from fossil fuels to an energy future based on renewable industries can be achieved without also significantly diminishing Scottish productivity. (I suspect the growth in financial services, especially in Edinburgh, also played a significant role in enhancing Scottish productivity but this is left unmentioned by the ISC report.)
Relatedly: my Times column this week looked at the political risks run by Nicola Sturgeon now she has decided to oppose the development of the Cambo field off Shetland. A lot of SNP folk in the north-east think this madness. But then Ms Sturgeon is a creature of the centre-left central belt, not the centre-right north-east.
Zoom, baby, zoom
The House of Commons remains a place of rich entertainment.
For those lucky enough not to know, the 77th Brigade is the British Army’s not-so-secret unit dedicated to “special influence methods” and it has become an article of faith in the nuttier parts of the Scottish independence movement that, rather than countering Russian trolls and other agents of online mischief, the 77th Brigade is chiefly concerned with undermining the campaign for Scotland’s liberation. Kenny MacAskill, who once served as justice secretary in the Scottish government (think on that!), is now an Alba MP and a paid-up member of the zoomerati. He is far from alone.
The plangent thing here is the manner in which those who believe in this nonsense need it to be true. It’s a kind of validation that also serves to elevate the cause. We also serve who only Tweet. Frightening as psy-ops and dirty tricks might be, it’s not nearly as terrifying as the humdrum truth: these people ain’t worth it. And this is the quiet secret lurking, unacknowledged, deep within the independence movement more generally: it isn’t actually all that important. It is not a matter of life and death; it is an option, not a necessity. However welcome independence might be (your mileage may vary), if it doesn’t happen no-one will be hurt, most things will be no worse than they were before, and life - god help us - will trundle along much as it always has.
Relatedly: the SNP is holding its annual conference this weekend and this means certain rituals must be renewed. Chief of these, the announcement of a new push for a second independence referendum. Like the equinoxes, these fresh pushes come twice a year every year. But they are just for show, for there is no road to a referendum right now and so this is a sham conference for a gullible party. This, and more thoughts on this tedious pantomime, at The Spectator.
After a century of independence Ireland is more like England than it was before it became an independent country. Discuss.
Hoots! Jings! Help Ma Boab!
This monstrosity is out today.
The mills of change grind slowly but they do sometimes grind. Here’s an example: a girls gaelic football team from Derry travel to Belfast to watch the Northern Ireland women’s soccer team play against Austria. This would not have been possible a generation ago and even if it had been possible it wouldn’t have been likely. A reminder - albeit on a tiny scale - that Northern Ireland’s various competing and overlapping identities are much more nuanced - and much more interesting - than the Catholic/Protestant or British/Irish dichotomies would have you believe.
Germany wants to make its playgrounds more dangerous. Insurance companies agree this is a good idea. (I think it is too.)
The Culture Wars have always been with us. In the 18th century, belief in the paranormal was a Tory thing and consequently much disdained by Whigs.
Andrew O’Hagan on Joan Eardley. Pretty much self-recommending but there you go.
The trouble with Robert Fisk. This time, the view from Syria. “Problematic”, in the modern argot. I still cannot understand how it is possible to live in Beirut for more than 30 years and never learn how to speak Arabic. That is the least of the problems with Fisk’s journalism but it surely contributed to those difficulties.
How do you persuade a tiger to accept a covid jab?
“A Totally Objective Ranking of Every UK Local Authority Logo”. Wonderfully daft. (Also, the Scottish Borders are hard done by at 225.)
Be very suspicious of anyone who appears to know everything about China. Actually, be suspicious of anyone who is abundantly confident that what they say about China is the sole and obvious truth. James Fallows - the kind of China hand who’d demur at being called a China hand - has a good list of questions we should keep in mind when thinking about China. Of course it’s complicated!
Simon Barnes on blue whales. We slaughtered 99 percent of the blue whale population but, nearly 40 years on from the international moratorium on whaling, a recovery is slowly, and in spite of many difficulties, underway. There may be around 10,000 blue whales now and perhaps even more than that. (Other species, such as the humpback, are thriving even to the extent some populations are close to pre-hunting levels. Things can change and sometimes they can get better.
Brexit as betrayal of Thatcherism. David Gauke is enjoying himself.
Robots impersonate The Rolling Stones, hinting at the possibility The Stones will still be “touring” in the year 2067.
That’s all! See you next week. Do please hit some of the buttons below…. :-)