I hate-read The Federalist, which is a website for the right wing in America. And every few days over at that publication, they put out a piece whose only purpose is to make white people feel good about themselves. They rail against people who want to attack the Confederate flag. They say Ta-Nehisi Coates is overrated. The point of these articles is to soothe the kind of people who see the culture slipping away from them.
I pointed this out on a comment thread. Sometimes I just have to pick a fight with these folks. I'm not proud of it. Anyway, a fellow mammal known as "An Observer" responded. His argument was that white liberals are all just playing at having a conscience. We're moral posers.
I've seen the way you people act. You get points for one-upping each other on how much crap you can talk about white people. Do you think we believe that you really believe that?
It's not a completely crazy observation, right? How serious, really, are we liberals about making things fair in America? Is our guilt an act?
I told AO that he was missing something (I'm assuming he's a he. Also, I'm also assuming he's straight, white, and has a couple of blue blazers in his closet). I told AO that liberals admit to the ugly side of American history - white American history - because we want to fix things.
First he rattled off a list of the achievements of white American culture that make them awesome:
We gave loads of other people running water, electricity, modern medicine, literacy and a life expectancy beyond thirty-five years. We are the best thing that ever happened to them. We gave them buses to ride, toilets to use, and a water fountains to drink from. Nobody ever thanks us, but that's fine.
I responded that you couldn't just call the advancements of modern western culture something "we" gave "other people." (Including people of color in this country too, remember. We were talking about white folks.) The Enlightenment and everything after, particularly in the Americas, was founded on slave labor and on the suffering of Native American population. That's not a politically correct platitude; it's a fact of history. Here's what I wrote:
[S]lavery in America came with colonial exploitation of Africa. And it occurred at the same time the native population of America was almost completely wiped out by disease epidemics upon first encountering Europeans. So, you have this event that injects a massive amount of capital into European society at the same time that it completely disrupts and degrades African and American societies. Also, there were armies of cheap labor to do things like create the agricultural system.
And now you think your part of the human family got ahead, because you're just so much smarter and more hard-working than everyone else.
You claim to celebrate your history, but you haven't thought very deeply about it.
No, I didn't think any of this would go over very well. But honestly, I didn't think the conversation would reach the level of insanity it did. Because then AO started arguing that African Americans owe white people a debt for stealing their ancestors away and putting them in chains:
And if we hadn't enslaved them, then they wouldn't be here to enjoy all this nice stuff. No matter how you look at it, no serious person can deny that black people today are a lot better off because we enslaved their ancestors. So they're welcome.
And then eventually he actually started writing that slavery was not only a benefit for descendants of the slaves... but for the slaves themselves:
They got houses or cabins with food, and someone to draw water for them. Most of them were healthier than Africans at the time, and economically, they were better compensated than white workers.
AO had more to say:
We gave them an all-expenses-paid trip to America. If we hadn't, they'd still be hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers.
An all-expenses-paid trip. The Middle Passage.
It went on like this for some time. And at some point I wrote that what he was arguing - that white people did a favor to black people by coercing them with lethal force, and that it was good for white people to have dominated the world - that this made him a textbook white supremacist. He didn't care what terms I used, he replied. It didn't make him less correct.
He didn't care whether I called him a white supremacist.
The argument broke up as I was pointing out that the history of slave rebellions and revolts seemed to indicate that the actual enslaved Africans disagreed with his theory. He didn't think those rebellions and revolts were very numerous or significant. And I still didn't get any solid evidence that slaves got better medical care and food than free people back in their homeland.
I learned a few things:
I need some new hobbies. That's probably the big lesson here.
But the second lesson is important for all of us. And it is this: People like to justify their actions and the actions of their tribe, their folk. They will go to great lengths to do this and to defend their right to do it. Political movements, particularly the American conservative movement, count on it. And it leads to some pretty dark places.
I'm okay with white liberal guilt. I've seen what you can become without it.
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