Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
"White Privilege": Not a Term Generations of Hardworking Immigrants Would Understand
A new term has emerged as an energized, and very youthful, civil rights movement has sought to focus attention upon what it perceives as widespread racism in today's American society. That term is "white privilege."
There is a very aggressive policing of language now under way. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley was interrupted by protestors when the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate said "all lives matter" at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix in mid-July. He later apologized. "That was a mistake on my part, and I meant no disrespect," he said on "This Week In Blackness," a digital show. Several dozen demonstrators interrupted O'Malley's talk big shouting "Black Lives Matter," which has become a rallying cry in the wake of recent shootings of black men by police officers.
At the Phoenix meeting, O'Malley responded, "Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter." This was unacceptable to the protestors, who also shouted down Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of O'Malley's Democratic rivals. "Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity," Sanders declared. "But if you don't want me to be here, that's OK. I don't want to outscream people."
A great deal of attention is being paid to the new book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic. The 176-page book is addressed to his 14-year-old son and the subject is what it is like to be black in America today.
In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body - it is heritage. "White America" is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.
Coates said that if he were king, he would let criminals out of prison, "And, by the way, I include violent criminals in that." He writes in his book that he watched the smoldering towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 with a cold heart. He felt that the police and firefighters who died "were menaces of nature, they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could - with no justification - shatter my body."
Racism is a blemish on our society. Older black observers, who lived through the years of segregation, recognize how far we have come. Ellis Close wrote a book, The Rage of a Privileged Class, in 1993 in which he argued that many successful black Americans "were seething about what they saw as the nation's broken promise of equal opportunity." More recently, Close wrote in Newsweek:
Now, Barack Obama sits in the highest office in the land and a series of high-powered African-Americans have soared to the uppermost realms of their professions. The idea of a glass ceiling is almost laughable. Serious thinkers are searching for a new vocabulary to explain an America where skin color is an unreliable marker of status . . .
The history of the world, sadly, shows us people at war with one another over questions of race, religion and ethnicity. Today, radical Islamists are killing people because they are of another religion. In Israel there are efforts to define the state as legally "Jewish," thereby making its 20 percent non-Jewish population less than full citizens. Russia has invaded and absorbed Ukraine to absorb its ethnic Russian population. When Britain left India, millions of Muslims were forced to leave Hindu-majority India to form Pakistan - at the cost of an untold number of lives. We have seen Armenians slaughtered by Turks and have witnessed genocide in Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Burundi.
Those who glibly call America a "racist" society are not comparing it to anyplace in the real world, either historically or at the present time. They are comparing it to perfection and here, of course, we fail, as would any collection of human beings. But our collection of human beings includes men and women of every race and nation. And the notion of "white privilege" seems not to understand the reality of the immigrant experience. Most of today's "white" Americans are descendants of those immigrants, who often suffered great prejudice and many indignities which they overcame through perseverance and hard work. They hardly considered themselves beneficiaries of "white privilege."
Consider the experience of Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Between 1840 and 1924, 35 million immigrants arrived, many of them illiterate, and most unable to speak English. People who are now described as "white Europeans," were viewed quite differently in the past. A century ago, the Irish were considered by many to be a separate and inferior race. As Mike Wallace and Edwin Burrows write:
Just as the English had long characterized their neighboring islanders more harshly than they had Africans, plenty of Anglo New Yorkers routinely used adjectives like "low-browed," "savage," "bestial," "wild" and "simian" to describe the Irish Catholic "race."
Thomas Nast, the leading political cartoonist from the 1870s to the 1890s portrayed Irishmen almost as monkeys and drew Catholic bishops' hats as sharks' jaws. Andrew Greeley described the Irishman in American cartoons:
By the mid-19th century, he was a gorilla, stovepipe hat on his head, a shamrock in his lapel, a vast jug of liquor in one hand and a large club in the other. His face was a mask of simian brutality and stupidity.
Italian immigrants, largely illiterate peasants from southern Italy and Sicily who had no experience of urban life, were a visually distinctive group, viewed by many as belonging to another race. "Swarthy" was a term often used to describe them and, as Richard Alba notes, "To the eyes of Americans they bore other physical signs of degradation such as low foreheads." Leonard Dinnerstein and David Reimers write that in addition to using epithets such as "wop," "dago," and "guinea," Americans referred to Italians as "the Chinese of Europe." Many Americans doubted that Italians were "white." In the American South, Italians were often segregated like blacks and were classified as yet another race - "between." Eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans in 1891and five Italians were lynched in Tallulah, Louisiana in 1899.
The notion that all immigrants from Europe were regarded as white Europeans and accepted without prejudice - upon which notions of "white privilege" are based - is an artifact of 1990s "multiculturalism" with no historical basis. Life was difficult and challenging. By 1910, there were 540,000 Eastern European Jews living in 1.5 square miles on the lower East Side of Manhattan. There were 730 people per acre, possibly the highest density on earth. They lived in five- or six- story tenement houses, sleeping three or more to a room with most rooms opening only to narrow airshafts. These grim conditions were highlighted in Jacob Riis's book, How the Other Half Lives.
But despite all of this, America was different and unique, a society in which, no matter your origin, you could go as far as your ability would take you. As a young man growing up in Manhattan, author Mario Puzo was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded that, "For a thousand years in Italy, no one in our family was even able to read." But in America, everything was possible - in a single generation.
It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her own dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself, and looking back she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her. . . . What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries . . . whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn't get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany, Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. America has been beloved not only by Native Americans but by men and women of every race and nation who have yearned for freedom. For all its failings, America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in history. Those who think "white privilege" explains reality know little of America and the world.
America is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his Letters From An American Farmer, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."
Looking at our complex history and recognizing only its shortcomings - and comparing America only to perfection, not to other real places in the world, may lead Ta-Nehisi Coates and other young people in the "Black Lives Matter" movement to believe that "white privilege" is, somehow, an explanation for a reality that is multi-faceted. The millions of immigrants who suffered the travails of displacement and discrimination would not recognize the term as representing the experience they and their descendants have had.
The Sin of Contemporaneity: Cleansing History by Applying Today's Standards to Our Ancestors
It is good that the Confederate battle flag has been removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. It properly belongs in a museum. Robert E. Lee himself would agree. After surrendering in 1865, he sought to bring the country together. He urged his fellow Confederates to furl their flags. He left instructions that the Confederate flag not be displayed at his funeral. In fact, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he was going against Jefferson Davis' order to fight on. "It's over," Lee declared.
What we are witnessing now, however, is a wholesale assault upon our history. The Founding Fathers have been targeted. It has been suggested that the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial are inappropriate, since they celebrate men who owned slaves. CNN commentator Don Lemon suggested that we "rethink" any homage to Jefferson. Even in states where slavery was outlawed at an early date, state flags are under attack, because of their depiction of Native Americans. Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham said the Massachusetts flag "is no Confederate flag, but . . . still pretty awful." The Memphis City Council voted to dig up the bodies of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife from their public grave. The rebel flag-clad General Lee automobile from "The Dukes of Hazard" has been removed from memorabilia shops and the show itself removed from re-runs. The Washington National Cathedral is considering breaking its own windows because they contain Confederate flag imagery which was meant to be conciliatory. Louis Farrakhan has demanded that the American flag itself be hauled down. Speaking at a Washington church he declared:
I don't know what the fight is about over the Confederate flag. We've caught as much hell under the American flag as under the Confederate flag.
It's time for all of us to take a deep breath. Those who seek to erase our history sound a bit like the Taliban and ISIS, who are busy destroying historic structures all over the Middle East if they predate the rise of Islam. History is what it is, a mixed bag of mankind's strengths and weaknesses, of extraordinary achievements and the most horrible depredations. To judge the men and women of past eras by today's standards is to be guilty of what the respected Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called the "sin of contemporaneity." In the case of those who refer to slavery as our "original sin," a look at history is instructive.
Sadly, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Rather than some American uniqueness in practicing slavery, the fact is that when the Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal every place in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was a strenuous objection to slavery and that the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
Slavery played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people in the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, which could befall anyone at any time. It has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture - it existed among nomadic pastoralists of Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests "foreign."
The British historian of classical slavery, Moses I. Finley, writes:
The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression - most obviously Athens - were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.
At the time of its cultural peak, Athens may have had 115,000 slaves to 43,000 citizens. The same is true of ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one which accepted the legitimacy of slavery. The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (XXV: 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever. By classical standards, the treatment of slaves called for in the Bible was humane. In Exodus (XXI: 20-21) it states that if a master blinded his slave or knocked out one of his teeth, the slave was to go free. There is no departure from this approach to slavery in the New Testament. In a number of places, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation. St. Peter urges slaves to obey even unjust orders of their masters.
Slavery was a continuous reality throughout the entire history which preceded the American Revolution. In England, ten percent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday Book (A.D. 1086) were slaves, and they could be put to death with impunity by their owners. During the Viking age, Norse merchant sailors sold Russian slaves in Constantinople. Venice grew to prosperity and power as a slave-trading republic, which took its human cargo from the Byzantine Empire. Portugal imported large numbers of African slaves from 1444 on. By the middle of the 16th century, Lisbon had more black residents than white.
Slavery was not a European invention, but was universal. Throughout the Middle Ages, black Africans sold slaves to other Africans and to Moslem traders who also brought slaves to Asia. Among the Aztecs, a man who could not pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor. In China, poor families who could not feed all of their children often sold some as slaves. As the Founding Fathers looked through history, they saw slavery as an accepted institution.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men in the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it, and pressed vigorously to do so. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery.
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal:
The infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it. . . . Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. . . . Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.
The provision finally adopted read:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight.
This clause was widely viewed by opponents of slavery as an important first step toward abolition. The delay of 20 years was considered the price ten of the states were willing to pay in order to assure that the original union would include the three states of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Even in those states there was sympathy for an end to slavery, but they wanted additional time to phase out their economic dependence on it.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature, at the age of 25, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." In his draft of a constitution for Virginia he provided that all slaves would be emancipated in that state by 1800, and that any child born in Virginia after 1801 would be born free. This, however, was not adopted.
In his autobiography, Jefferson declared, "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." In 1784 when an effort was unsuccessfully made to exclude slavery from the Northwest Territory, Jefferson was one of its leading supporters. Finally, with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, slavery was indeed excluded from these territories - a further step along the path to the final elimination of slavery, and a clear indication of the view of slavery which predominated among the framers of the Constitution.
American history is flawed, as is any human enterprise. Yet those who now call for the removal of statues and monuments commemorating our past are measuring our history against perfection, not against other real places. What other societies in 1787 - or any date in history prior to that time, would these critics find more free and equitable than the one established by the Constitution? Where else was religious freedom with no religious test for public office in 1787? Compared to perfection, our ancestors are found wanting. Compared to other real places in the world, they were clearly ahead of their time, advancing the frontiers of freedom.
If we judge the past by the standards of today, must we stop reading Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aristophanes, Dante and Chaucer? Will we soon hear calls to demolish the Acropolis and the Coliseum, as we do to remove memorials to Jefferson and statues of Robert E. Lee? Must we abandon the Bible because it lacks modern sensibility. Where will it end? As theologian Elton Trueblood said, "contemporaneity" is indeed a sin. We would do well to avoid its embrace.
Remembering a Time When Our Leaders Risked Their Lives and Fortunes for What They Believed
Prior to the American Revolution, when Patrick Henry's famous declaration of "Give me liberty or give me death" was made at a church in Richmond, Virginia, his words had real meaning. Indeed, by advocating revolution against England, the most powerful nation in the world at the time, with the world's largest army and navy, the Founding Fathers were risking everything. If the revolution failed, which seemed likely to many, they would have lost their property - and their lives.
George Washington's home at Mt. Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's at Monticello, James Madison's at Montpelier - all would have been confiscated by the victorious British, had the war been lost. At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, only one third of the population of the thirteen colonies supported breaking away from the British Empire. Those who supported independence put their lives on the line.
In his book American Creation, historian Joseph Ellis writes:
The revolutionary generation won the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era, against all odds, defeating the most powerful army and navy in the world. . . . The British philosopher and essayist Alfred North Whitehead observed that there have been only two instances in the history of Western civilization when the political leaders of an emerging nation behaved as well as anyone could reasonably expect. The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus and the second was America's revolutionary generation. . . . The late eighteenth century was the most politically creative era in American history. They were, in effect, always on their best behavior because they knew we would be watching, an idea we should find endearing because it makes us complicitous in their greatness.
The Founding Fathers did not consult the colonial equivalent of pollsters to find out what people would like to hear. Instead, they developed ideas about how a government should be run and how freedom could be established in an environment of order and law. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of The Federalist Papers, an undertaking to convince Americans to support the Constitution of 1787.
In his biography, Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow notes that:
He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state - including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a custom service, and a coast guard - and justifying them in some of America's most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.
Hamilton, a careful reader of the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume, quoted his view that in framing a government "every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end in all his actions but private interests." The task of government, he believed, was not to stop selfish striving - a hopeless task - but to harness it to public good. In starting to outline the contours of his own vision of government, Hamilton was spurred by Hume's dark vision of human nature, which corresponded to his own. From the "First Philippic" of Demosthenes, he plucked a passage that summed up his conception of a leader as someone who would not pander to popular whims. "As a general marches at the head of his troops," so should wise political leaders
. . . march at the head of affairs, insomuch that they ought not to wait the event to know what measures to take, but the measures which they have taken out to produce the event.
The Founding Fathers - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Hamilton, Franklin and the others - were an extraordinary group of men, truly representing a golden age in our history. The creation of the new American government clearly required both Republicans and Federalists, both a Jefferson and a Hamilton, both those jealous for individual freedom and those concerned that such freedom could only exist and be maintained within an orderly society ruled by law. In a society of only a few million people, we produced leaders who have stood the test of time. Such a generation has never again been seen, on these shores or elsewhere.
These men did not hire ghostwriters for The Federalist Papers. Their words and their thoughts were their own. They did not hire consultants and pollsters to tell them what their views should be on the issues of the day. They often took highly unpopular positions and did their best to convince their colleagues and the public at large of their merits. They risked their lives and everything they owned to declare independence, and knew very well that the possibility of losing everything was very real.
The contrast between the Founding Fathers and those engaged in public life at the present time could not be greater. In the colonial period, our leaders risked their fortunes for the principle of independence. Today, men and women make their fortunes through their participation in politics.
Hillary Clinton, for example, reported that she earned $10.2 million from 45 speeches in 2014, her first full year out of office. Of that, almost $4.6 million came from clients who did lobbying to shape policies on issues as varied as taxes, trade, financial regulation and health care. Later, we learned that the Clinton Foundation had received as much as $26.4 million in previously undisclosed payments from major corporations, universities, foreign sources, and other groups. The money was paid as "fees" for speeches for Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton.
There can be little doubt that this money was given to the Clintons because of her candidacy for president and her ability to provide assistance to those contributing. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the money-tracking Center for Responsive Politics, states:
It's big money. They're spending it because they have far greater sums riding on those decisions that they're trying to shape. Every man, or woman in the street thought Hillary Clinton would run again.
Even those who are sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton's candidacy, such as liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, have expressed dismay: "Again with the speeches. The gross excessiveness of it all, vacuuming up six-figure checks well past the point of rational need or political seemliness. . . ."
But Hillary Clinton is hardly alone. Norman R. Braman, a Florida billionaire who has long bolstered the career and personal finances of Sen. Marc Rubio (R-FL), is reported ready to invest $10 million or more for the Senator's presidential candidacy. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has auditioned possible Republican candidates who seek his support. Endorsement of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, including his rejection of a two-state solution, is a requirement. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appeared, he made the mistake of referring to the West Bank as "occupied territory" (which, of course, it is under International law, as well as U.S. policy, under both Republicans and Democrats). Christie quickly apologized for his "mistake." Jeb Bush also sought Adelson's support and turned his back on long-time Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James Baker to get it. Baker, in a recent talk to J Street, was critical of Israel's rejection of the two-state solution, which was unacceptable to Adelson.
Beyond this, many candidates don't seem to know where they stand on the issues - except when their pollsters tell them what is necessary to win in Iowa or South Carolina or New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton once was a supporter of the trade pact being considered in the Congress. Now, she refuses to take a position - or even take questions from the press. Scott Walker was first hot and then cold on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Marco Rubio was in and then out on offsetting increased military spending with other cuts. And what exactly is his current position on immigration? Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is sure of one thing: his opposition to gambling on the Internet. This, of course, is a crusade of Sheldon Adelson, who wants no competition for his gambling casinos. He seems to favor competition and free enterprise in every commercial undertaking but his own.
The contrast between the political leaders of America's golden age and those we observe today could not be starker. No one today is risking his life, property, or honor for anything. The state of our government reflects this fact all too well. *