Every society will produce it’s share of misfits and crazy people. No society should be judged by them. But when a pattern emerges, we ignore it at our peril. And when powerful people embrace them, it’s a crisis.
We need to tarry over the specifics only briefly. Cliven Bundy, the favorite of the Tea Party/armed militia/Sean Hannity wing of American society, a-wonders whether black folk were better off in slavery; Donald Sterling, everybody’s pariah, insists that he alone provides the essentials of life to blacks in his control, food, clothes, houses and cars, but doesn’t want them around. Various Republicans compare gun limits, abortion and federal spending to slavery. Enough already.
There is a certain nostalgia for slavery that is incomprehensible to most of us. Bundy’s observations are primitive, old-style racism which permeate a lot of the extreme right. Donald Sterling’s awful comments about who should attend Clippers games and who gets photographed with who are bad enough. But his attitude toward the black folks in his employ is even more revealing. Sterling isn’t Simon LeGree, a vicious overseer armed with whips and guns enjoying the brutalizing of his fellow humans. He (like Thomas Jefferson) sees the world much in the way of the benevolent slaveholder, doing the right thing by his property. But their indiscriminate use of slavery metaphors leads us into dangerous waters.
Things go really off track when these fringe ideas migrate and become acceptable rhetoric. Today the Republican Party is where crazy meets mainstream. George Will compares Obamacare to the Fugitive Slave Act. Mike Huckabee thinks the abortion debate ended when the 13th Amendment passed. Metaphors about how federal spending enslaves us are just an extension. Rep. Louie Gohmert thinks that “wild, lavish spending” is the moral equivalent of slavery. Wow.
There are cogent arguments to be made against Obamacare, abortion and federal spending. All may be very bad things, but they are not slavery. Why can’t they be opposed without reference to an organized system of murder, rape and exploitation?
Slavery, and a few other historical moments, stand separate from other events. Its use in the back-and-forth of daily political wars is far more damaging than is appreciated. States rights, the Confederacy, and Jim Crow laws seem less offensive. Hundreds of years of institutional murder and rape and evil are trivialized. The degradation of history and language in the service of political argument is a profound mistake and a profound danger. America will survive Sterling and Bundy and similars. It will be harder to survive the embrace of their vocabulary by mainstream leaders.
First published by HUFF POST on May 1, 2014.