Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 March 2021

Black is Beautiful: Beautiful Minds


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Why are almost all the pols I most admire Black? I’m a white geezer, an academic and thinker by trade. I was raised on Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Caesar, Locke, Kant, Jefferson, Franklin and Rawls—all white men. So as I survey the moral wreckage of the great nation I was born into over 75 years ago, why are the people who most excite my hope of restoring it Black?

Have I fallen victim to reverse prejudice? to the inveterate American favor for the underdog? I don’t think so. This essay explores why.

Let’s start with the simplest observation. As we approach the “magic” year of 2043, when every identifiable ethnic group will be a minority in our country, what do we see? We see one of our two great political parties relentlessly nurturing the morally bankrupt and practically subversive ideas of white supremacy and white grievance.

These ideas are two sides of the same coin. Both are part and parcel of a “master race” ideology that we once lost half a million of our own, and that the world suffered over 50 million premature deaths, to expunge from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. So at the level of fundamental moral values, isn’t nurturing white supremacy and white grievance treason?

It get worse. Leading Republicans now seem to have no other strategy, no other goal, than this “divide and conquer” philosophy.

As a group, Republicans have lost or abandoned every one of the themes that their party traditionally nurtured—especially the notions of Abolition and racial justice that gave it real birth with Lincoln. Even the notion of “small government” has become a charade. Today’s “Grand Old Party” uses the federal government’s awesome power systematically to prefer one race and one religion over others. In a nation whose rank and file are a true “rainbow,” it gave us a phalanx of nearly-all-white (and relentlessly mediocre) top leaders.

And as government gets smaller and smaller, what takes its place? Governance by corporations and the oligarchs who run them, which mostly finance today’s Republican party.

You may or may not believe that pushing for this division and this outcome is a practical goal of espionage and subversion by the likes of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Il. But it’s actually happening. As men like the Demagogue, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan and others relentlessly push these subversive ideas, aren’t they traitors to our nation’s most basic values?

Who now opposes these subversive ideas most openly, bravely, consistently and effectively? Not surprisingly, it’s Black politicians. They know they have the most to lose from the United States succumbing to the national psychosis of a “master race.” From personal and inherited experience, they understand how dangerous that psychosis is.

Listen to Karen Bass. Listen to her half-plus hour interview with pundit Jonathan Capehart. The most impressive thing about her is not her status as a one-time candidate for the vice-presidential nominee whom Joe Biden did not pick. It’s her mind and her close contact with reality.

Without a trace of bitterness or anger, Bass describes our current national dilemma. We purport to be a democracy, and many of us still think we are. But our still-powerful opposition party is devoting nearly all of its energy to making it hard for everyone in our “democracy” to vote. Its members want to limit the franchise. Some are quite honest and open about their hope for excluding specific groups of citizens. Their goal is just to stay in power and better serve the oligarchs who finance their expensive and increasingly delusional media campaigns.

Whatever energy the GOP has left over from making it hard to vote, it devotes to deluding itself and its supporters. It blocks the majority’s initiatives and then tars the majority for doing nothing. It stresses vapid abstractions like “small government,” “socialism” (which has never had a real foothold in our nation), “states rights,” and “cancel culture.” At the same time, it ignores practical problems like health insurance, vaccine disparities, crumbling infrastructure, a vanishing industrial and scientific base, crushing student debt, and inadequate pay for what is becoming a serf-like lower middle class.

Bass gets it. She see’s what is happening with the moral clarity and precision of a savant. She describes it all in simple, neutral words, not as an abomination (which it surely is) but as a practical problem to be solved. She describes suppressed voter turnout as an engineer who had designed a Jeep would describe the failure of its engine. That’s precisely what letting everyone vote is: the engine or our—or any—democracy.

Sometimes we forget who we are. Our Founders were neither demagogues nor moral philosophers. They were unabashed and open social engineers. Read our Constitution and the Federalist Papers, and what you see most often is not abstract philosophizing, but simple cause and effect. If we don’t have checks and balances, our Founders wrote, then deep flaws in human nature will overcome us, and we will fail.

It really was that simple. Our Founders sought to design a durable system to be better than any of us individually. They sought to improve our human condition by engineering a better society, and a better set of rules, resistant to human selfishness and other flaws. They sadly failed to foresee the success of Ronald Reagan, who would use his tremendous personal charm, two centuries later, to beguile us into making selfishness a national norm.

In their day, our Founders had gigantic practical problems. They wanted a divorce from their British overlords. To get it, they had to fight human history’s then most powerful empire (in the West). To fight successfully, they had to meld all thirteen Colonies together into a durable new nation. To do that, they had to combine two completely different colonial cultures—the North’s free, industrial and equal one with the South’s aristocratic, agrarian and oppressive one based on slavery.

Our Founders had to solve this second problem—national unity—in order to solve the first. Otherwise the Brits would have used their globe-spanning armadas, their superbly educated Crown and aristocracy, and their well-paid and well-trained Hessian mercenaries, to prevail. They would have picked our divided colonies apart and made short work of them. So despite social systems as wildly different as you might imagine, our thirteen original colonies had to stick together to free themselves from the Brits.

Thus the necessities of our Revolution, and its reprise in 1812, gave birth to a chimera. We became a marvel of social engineering grafted onto a ghastly compromise between freedom and slavery. We were a grotesque mix of superbly educated white men, freed from want and from toil by the forced labor of black slaves, with the slaves themselves. We kept them in abject misery and ignorance by the crudest of violence, as by laws prohibiting anyone from teaching them to read and write.

Fast-forward two and a half centuries. Slavery is gone. The nation our Founders engineered has endured two severe tests by fire. We had our Civil War. Even in the age of nuclear weapons—and after the last century’s terrible wars—that War is still the single most deadly and devastating conflict in our own history. With the help of Russia in its Soviet guise (which took most of the beating), we later beat the two most powerful military tyrannies in human history. Then we made them our allies, sheparded them to democracy, and led the rise of a prosperous, science-based global society of rules and free markets.

All this happened because of our still-incomplete belief in Jefferson’s credo: that all of us humans are created equal.

But the sordid compromises of our Birth still plague us. Our Senate is grossly malapportioned— so much so that a majority of our people command a mere 18% of its votes. If this were not bad enough, the filibuster has morphed into a routine and permanent tool of minority rule. And our House, willy nilly, has adopted Senate-like rules that require a majority of the majority to advance any piece of legislation, so that 26% of the whole body can gum up the works.

Add to this the Electoral College, which has given us five presidents “elected” by a minority of the popular vote, two in our new century alone. Then add plagues of gerrymandering and voter suppression, which our Supreme Court has, respectively, refused to address and (in Shelby County v. Holder) actually advanced. What we have today may be the most singularly undemocratic “democracy” in human history.

Who today understands all this best? Who knows better and sees more clearly than the people whose ancestors struggled for four centuries to realize Jefferson’s deceptively simple and then-deceptive credo? Who has better kept the faith with that credo for the four centuries since first their ancestors were dragged here in chains?

The laws that once forbade their ancestors’ education are gone. The civil rights acts of the sixties have had their effect. Descendants of slaves are now well educated, as are descendants of recent African immigrants like President Obama. They understand precisely how our nation has fallen from true democracy, and what we must do to fix it. And they have the most powerful motivation to do so.

Karen Bass is far from alone. Stacey Abrams is busy building democracy from the ground up. So are Helen Butler and Abrams’ protege Nsé Ufot. Watch Abrams’ remarkable Amazon documentary All In: the Fight for Democracy. She talks just like Bass—like an engineer trained and ready to fix a broken machine. Not a word of lies, abstract ideology or cant escapes her mouth. She is all about pragmatism, realism, practical solutions and “telling it like it is.”

Then there are the men. Among the most notable are Hakeem Jeffries and Ritchie Torres in the House, Reverend Rafael Warnock and Cory Booker in the Senate, and Jaime Harrison, now at the helm of the Democratic National Committee. These are powerful, practical people, some trained in our best Ivy-league schools, and some (like Torres and Harrison) having risen like rockets from abject poverty. They have avoided (or suppressed) the bitterness and anger that their heritage and life histories would justify. Like our Founders, they are now working hard and cleverly for all of us, toward a more perfect union.

Just listen to them. Listen to Jonathan Capehart’s podcast interviews with Torres and Warnock. Watch Jaime Harrison’s 2020 debate (summarized by me here), in which he crushed Lindsey Graham like the slimy bug that he is.

I challenge any sane person, after listening to that debate, to tell me with a straight face that Harrison is not the better man. He’s better on every dimension of human talent: not just humility, empathy and compassion, but clarity, practicality, intelligence, relevant knowledge and, yes, manhood. It’s not manhood to double down on what you know is a lie just because it plays to your personal ambition and you have no other ideas.

So today my impression is overwhelming. As I look at our nation as a whole, the politicians who impress me most are Black.

Of course there are good, effective white pols, too. They include President Biden, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and many others. (My favorite Senate progressive is Sherrod Brown of Ohio.) But to me they seem old, tired, bent from the struggle. They have fought so long on so many fronts that they don’t seem fully to recognize what’s now at stake: the survival of democracy in our nation. In contrast, the fresh Black faces seem more insightful, committed, effective, and hopeful, maybe just because they are a lot younger.

The Black pols I admire are forceful without being aggressive. They don’t shy away from necessary conflict in the name of an elusive “bipartisanship” that mostly means the little guy loses and supremacists win. They call out injustice without whining.

They don’t get lost or deluded by a “relentless march of vapid abstractions.” (David Brooks’ phrase, describing the writing of failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.) Instead, they talk constantly about real things that matter to real people. They talk about health insurance, living wages, affordable higher education, rational and effective policing, systemic bias, our crumbling infrastructure, parental leave, day care for kids of working parents, systemic economic inequality, and the real consequences of all these things for real people’s lives.

Then there are those who may not be such polished speakers, but whose wisdom and good judgment behind the scenes have kept us whole. I will go to my grave believing that Jim Clyburn—more than any other American but Joe Biden himself—goaded the Dems to elect the best (and possibly the only) challenger who could retire the Demagogue and save our democracy.

Do I think that Black people are intrinsically superior? Of course not. Such a thought would just mirror white supremacy, as anyone who’s studied the history of South Africa knows. Even while still incomplete and tentative, our national rejection of that psychosis has drawn to our shores the best people, from every corner of the globe and from every ethnic group.

But something notable and inspiring is happening today. As older white leaders succumb to the tedium of incessant partisan conflict and legislative gridlock and retire from public life, Black leaders are beginning to stand up and stand out. Their intelligence, tenacity and sheer common sense, tempered in the fire of racism for four centuries, is becoming more and more self-evident. They now represent the best of America.

So as Rep. Bass said in her most interview with Capehart, the “stars are aligned” for a new beginning. A combination of past progress and widespread, recent reaction to grotesque injustice has made further progress possible. And the best people to lead the progress appear to be those who have the most to gain from success and the most to suffer from failure. They have four centuries of pain, not to mention relentless trial and error, to guide them.

Our nation suffers from multiple congenital defects in structure. Virtually all of them stem from the dismal compromise of our Founding, the one between slavery and freedom. That is the source of our enduring legacy of racism, bigotry and systemic malign neglect of minority communities. It was our struck seed.

If we wish to continue as one of the world’s remaining real democracies, let alone lead them, we must fix this, and soon. We can if we have the will. It will take measures as hard as amending the Constitution and as simple as a majority vote in the Senate to abolish or downsize the filibuster. But we can do it.

When Barack Obama made his historic keynote speech in 2004, he said, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America.” [set the timer at 13:18] That famous observation implicitly recognized the deep division among us, eleven years before the Demagogue rode his elevator down into the inferno of white supremacy and hate.

What President Obama didn’t say then was how our congenital structural defects foreordained our division. What he didn’t describe is how undemocratic societies, like eighteenth-century France or twentieth-century Russia, could find no fix to deep division but violent and bloody revolution or civil war. What he also didn’t say is that the only leaders ever to repair deep division peacefully, without violence, were men of color: Mahatma Gandhi, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

Yes, Representative Bass, the stars are now aligned for fixing our congenital defects. And the stars are now aligned for Black pols to lead. They have the fire in their bellies and the inherited experience of four centuries to guide them. And having only recently risen to positions of national leadership, they have youth and stamina in abundance. But in order for their beautiful minds to help us fix what ails us, everyone must be able to vote, including all their supporters.

Readers of this blog know how much I yearn for a big bill to fix our infrastructure, bringing good manufacturing and building jobs back onshore. I was so sure such a bill was so important that I hoped and half predicted, four years ago, that our Demagogue would promote and sign one.

But we can’t seem to do anything important, ever, unless everyone can vote. As two academics proved with careful research in 2014—before the Demagogue’s advent in politics—we have become an oligarchy, not a democracy. What our “business interests” want gets done. What our people want languishes, including universal health care, family leave, reductions in crushing college debt, rebuilding infrastructure, and curbing our plague of senseless gun violence. Restricting the franchise will only exacerbate these trends and take us down the road of ancient Rome.

All that will change if and when H.R.1 and its counterpart S.1—the bills to make it easy for everyone to vote—become law. The stars are indeed aligned to make that happen, and for Black pols with beautiful minds to make it happen.

Nothing else matters as much. The great philosopher of our Founding, Thomas Jefferson, wrote his credo of equality but freed only a handful of his own slaves—his mistress Sally Hemings and their mutual children. The rest were sold after his death to pay off the debts he had incurred to sate, among other things, his love of good French wine and good books.

From that awful day of contradiction, hypocrisy, and gross inequality, our national fate has always turned on the credo that Jefferson penned but never observed in his lifetime. Either we will honor it and become the democracy to which we have always aspired; or we will fail and vanish from the annals of history, and China will own our new century.

If we win, our recovery—both from the pandemic and from our division—will gather speed. And beautiful Black minds will have been key factors in saving us all from senseless division and decline.

For at this critical inflection point in our history, with the Demagogue and eager coddlers of white supremacists waiting in the wings, our Black pols are not just part of us. They are the best of us. They are relentlessly and cleverly striving to effectuate the promise that once made us uniquely blessed among nations and can again. As their prompt and empathetic response to recent anti-Asian violence demonstrated, they really do care about all of us.

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