Uncommon Sense: I am Not Your Negro


I have come to see James Baldwin as one of the greatest American writers. His writing flows perfectly from soft and thoughtful to adamantine; it’s hard for me to describe it because I don’t play at that level and I never will.

To read James Baldwin is to wonder where such a voice came from. You should do your own research, there, and not rely on mine but let me say one thing about him: he personally, by his very existence and writing, demolishes racists’ preconceptions. The fundamental tenets of racism depend on the idea that there is something inheritable about people – something that predetermines their class, abilities, and destiny. Baldwin just didn’t play that game. He was a man that American society of his time would deem predisposed to being an ignorant thug, instead he delivered social commentary, wrapped in barbs and wit, and did it so smoothly and articulately that it’s easy to mistake it for some kind of beat poetry. One minute he’s droll, the next he makes Malcolm X seem gentle in comparison. He goes into the deep south, where his friends were delivered severe beatings, and does it with urbane style and flair that would make James Bond envious – and, in his private books, writes with naked honesty, “I was terrified.”

Baldwin’s great friends and sparring partners: Malcolm X, Medger Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. – they were all gunned down; they threatened the establishment too much. What’s odd to me is that Baldwin not only survived, he landed some of the most ferocious blows against the system, and his words are largely buried and unheard, now. If you pick up something by Baldwin, or listen to one of his speeches, you can’t help but think “that’s quotable,” or “wow, that’s good.” Over and over. I watched I Am Not Your Negro three times back to back on my flight to Sao Paolo, and I ended up with 27 notes that there was something particularly interesting at such-and-such a time. I said he was one of America’s greatest writers – and I’ll stand by that – but he was an amazing orator as well. In his famous debate against establishment fluffer William Buckley Jr. Baldwin destroyed him before he opened his mouth. I do not say that lightly – he sucked all of the oxygen out of Buckley’s arguments before they were made. Buckley, slouching in his chair, looked and sounded every bit the wanna-be patrician jackass – and, for all his airs, he was no mean opponent.

The film version of I Am Not Your Negro is narrated beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, Jr. Jackson’s delivery is so good that, if you’re like me and considered him over-rated, you’ll change your mind. The words flow like ice and honey, unstopping and relentless, but somehow just short of anger. It sent shivers down my spine when I realized what it was: a performance right in line with many of Baldwin’s, taking his argument right to the point where white shame would bring white embarrassment lashing back at him. And he smiles as he delivers it, because he knows exactly what he’s doing. Jackson’s voice-over is not a typical documentary, “then, James Baldwin did this, and then he did that” – he’s reading from a 36-page fragment of an autobiographical book that Baldwin was working on, but he never finished. So I Am Not Your Negro is a sort of autobiographical documentary and spoken word performance, rolled together.

I have no idea how the film came to be decorated with so many amazing photographs and such brilliant footage. The editing is dynamic and subtle, the black and white film is punchy and crisp, it’s all fine art quality and it’s the naked, grinning skull of America sticking through the thin veneer of civilization. There are some photographic masterpieces that I’ve never encountered before, that pop up where you don’t expect them. I can’t write well enough to really describe it properly; that is the best I can do.

Every American should watch I Am Not Your Negro. It’s that good.

But what happened to Baldwin? He seems to have disappeared, though the conversation he participated in was one that (sadly) is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Baldwin was perhaps too honest. In the second part of The Fire Next Time he writes about meeting Elijah Mohammed, the current leader of the nation of islam, and ruminates at length about that organization. He hasn’t got much good to say about christianity, at all, but he seems to waffle a bit about the NOI.  There were many factors, there, including personal solidarity for Malcolm X, and an attitude that “christianity has not been good for black people, so if they need a religion, islam might be a good alternative.” Baldwin seems to want to reject the whole mess of religions as a pile of decaying lies, but he can’t – too many of his readers in those days still took those dead issues seriously.

Baldwin’s attitude on race, combined with his attitude on religion, was certain to make him unpopular. So, perhaps it doesn’t matter. He said what he had to say. And, how he said it:

The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them. You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male’s sexual security); who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night white soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands

It boggles my mind that today’s secular humanists are listening to lesser powers like Pinker and Harris – or even Hitchens, when Baldwin was by far their superior in quality and delivery of thought.

While I was in Chicago last summer, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad invited me to have dinner at his home. This is a stately mansion on Chicago’s South Side, and it is the headquarters of the Nation of Islam movement. I had not gone to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad – he was not in my thoughts at all – but the moment I received the invitation, it occurred to me that I ought to have expected it. In a way, I owe the invitation to the incredible, abysmal, and really cowardly obtuseness of white liberals. Whether in private debate or in public, any attempt I made to explain how the Black Muslim movement came about, and how it has achieved such force, was met with a blankness that revealed the little connection that the liberals’ attitudes have with their perceptions or their lives, or even their knowledge – revealed, in fact, that they could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim but had no sense of him as a man. When Malcolm X, who is considered the movement’s second-in-command, and heir apparent, points out that the cry of “violence” was not raised, for example, when the Israelis fought to regain Israel, and, indeed, is raised only when black men indicate that they will fight for their rights, he is speaking the truth. The conquests of England, every single one of them bloody, are part of what Americans have in mind when they speak of England’s glory. In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks, and the only way to defeat Malcolm’s point is to concede it and then ask oneself why this is so.
New Yorker Magazine “Letter From a Region In My Mind.” By James Baldwin

It is interesting that the white liberals who backed the civil rights movement, only backed the non-violent frontman Martin Luther King, Jr. Attitudes toward Malcolm X were more complicated. There was palpable discomfort. And, there should have been. When I read Malcolm X, I thought he was largely correct in his politics, but fell for one religious con as an alternative to the mainstream, official, con. That was, perhaps, a con too far. Baldwin had to deal with the problem of actually meeting Elijah Mohammed, sitting across from him, looking him in the eye – the nation of islam was a powerful force at the time and was capable of violence, as Malcolm X discovered. I still wonder about that: the prevailing implication is that Farrakahn had something to do with Malcolm X’ death, but perhaps that was a head-feint and it was actually the FBI. My generation is expected to believe that Medger Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr’s murders were unconnected – in spite of the FBI’s trying to kill them in other ways. Baldwin does not dwell on this; the dead men were his friends.

Let me describe/transcribe a bit of how I Am Not Your Negro is cut together and edited: (@55:00)

(Shot opens with Robert Kennedy speaking) Kennedy: Negroes are continuously making progress here in this country. Progress in many areas is not as fast as it should be, but they are making progress and will continue to make progress. There’s no reason that in the near – in the forseeable – future, a negro could be President of the United States.
(Cut to Baldwin, from his debate at the Oxford Union): Baldwin: I remember, for example, when the ex-Attorney General, Mr Robert Kennedy, said that it was conceivable that in forty years, in America, we might have a negro president. And that sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard, and did not hear and possibly will never hear the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn with which the statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday. And now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for four hundred years and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.

Baldwin’s got that trick, which is so important, of structuring his speaking so that there are little zones that repeat earlier zones. That drives home the point, helps it sink into our memory, and increases the likelihood we will believe it. For a writer and speaker of Baldwin’s caliber that sort of thing comes naturally. Baldwin’s point is inescapable but the director drives it home with the juxtaposition of Kennedy’s honking “Boston Brahmin” arrogance and Baldwin’s clear and dry delivery. That little moment in the film can lead you into a wilderness of exploring the notion of “sounding white” when speaking. Any racists who may feel that black people don’t speak well are forced to confront the fact that Kennedy’s accent is stronger. Baldwin’s little dropping of “the man in the Harlem barber shop” reminds us that Kennedy’s respected because he’s the descendant of rich immigrants and not ‘immigrants’ that were enslaved and picked cotton.

Where Baldwin’s rhetoric really comes to life is when he’s delivering it live.

I’m amazed Buckley had a career after that.------ divider ------

I am a pretty non-fan of Samuel L. Jackson but I am re-assessing my opinion.

“William F. Buckley is what an uneducated person thinks a smart patrician sounds like.” To me, he sounds like the smarmiest of assholes. This is not the post for hating on Buckley; perhaps someday I’ll write one of those. But let’s just say this: when Buckley threatened to punch Noam Chomsky in the face on live TV, his career should have ended. In a sense, Buckley was the proto-Trump; he could get away with things like that because his followers wished they could be nasty authoritarians, like him.

Kennedys: Because I was a kid when the Kennedys were murdered, I got a big dose of the plaudits and lamentations for them. The conspiracy theories around their murders, and the huge awareness of the role that John Kennedy might have played if he had survived, made them seem much better than they were. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned more about the Kennedys – frankly, they bore more than a superficial resemblance to the Trumps. Baldwin is courteous enough not to mention that daddy Joe Kennedy bought the presidential election and there was a tremendous amount of corruption swirling around that family. Joe was in charge of the Securities Exchange Commission because he was the biggest gangster on Wall St and knew where all the bodies were buried. The Kennedys were a horrible bunch, as Howard Zinn points out in some of his speeches. Looking back at them through the mist of laudatory death-offerings and “American Camelot” they seem like they were much better than they were.

James Baldwin – was he “intersectionality”?: [nbc]

Comments

  1. says

    “I have come to see James Baldwin as one of the greatest American writers. His writing flows perfectly from soft and thoughtful to adamantine; it’s hard for me to describe it because I don’t play at that level and I never will.”

    Same. Fucked up I never heard of him before that documentary came out. I certainly wasn’t taught about him in school – and it looks like this is still largely the case:

    “I think he’s not taught as much anymore on the high school level because he’s incendiary and, for some, inflammatory,” said Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director in the Office of Community Outreach and Education at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Paradoxically, the belief that the country is somehow postracial, Mr. Blint said, has shut down some discussions about race. “Think about how impoverished our racial conversations are now,” he said.

    Educators also cite poor reading habits, censorship and Baldwin’s absence from the list of works suggested for Common Core standards as reasons his works are not studied regularly. And since the late ’70s and early ’80s, as school districts have scrambled for more diverse subject matter in the classroom, Baldwin has had to share space with a new crop of black writers, especially women: Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Over the years, some parents and schools have also challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence and profanity in Baldwin’s work. Sex — interracial and intraracial, gay and straight — is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns.”

    I guess it actually makes perfect sense that he’s not widely taught. All we really need to know about are MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech; the existence of Malcolm X as a scary, violent Muslim; Rosa Parks; maybe Frederick Douglass; and, most importantly, that slavery/Jim Crow was bad, but we’re indeed post-racial now and shouldn’t have to feel guilty about it.

  2. says

    I Have Forgiven Jesus@#1:
    a new crop of black writers, especially women: Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with those writers, or MLK Jr., but it’s pretty much impossible not to notice that America shys away from black authors who are less accommodating of the system. For example Manchild In The Promised Land and The Invisible Man or Autobiography of Malcolm X were replaced by Roots – a book which, for all that it confronted slavery, did so weakly. Maya Angelou’s writing is so beautiful, it’s maybe a bit easier to swallow. Slowly but inexorably, the American narrative whitewashed angry black voices out of the political sphere. And, I have to admit, it’s much more comforting to listen to MLK than Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael. Notice how the black voices that made white America uncomfortable seemed to wind up with bullets in them?

    Even Howard Zinn is not part of the educational palette these days. I go around giving out copies of A People’s History to young people, and they’re amazed: “Why don’t they teach this stuff in school?” Good question. Very good question.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    RFK: There’s no reason that in the near – in the forseeable – future, a negro could be President of the United States.

    Seems a “not” got dropped along the way there. (Also: foreseeable)

    … Kennedy’s respected because he’s the descendant of rich immigrants …

    The first generation of Kennedys in the US (of that branch) had no more money than did other potato-famine refugees; though successful in later generations, they weren’t really rich until Joseph Sr.’s bootlegging adventures during Prohibition.

    And yes, Baldwin never ceases to amaze, and I Am Not Your Negro is a brilliant testimony to his talents.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Thanks so much for letting me know about this documentary and for the link to the Buckley debate. Although I have long been an admirer of Baldwin, I had not seen either and am looking forward to doing so. I agree that it is shameful that Baldwin (like Paul Robeson) is so little recognized these days.

    One minor point. Buckley did threaten to punch Gore Vidal in the face on live TV but I don’t recall him doing so with Noam Chomsky, although Chomsky did brutally expose Buckley’s ignorance and apologetics for fascism and American imperialism during a different encounter on Buckley’s show Firing Line.

  5. says

    “Even Howard Zinn is not part of the educational palette these days.”

    Some would argue against this! I’m actually just about finished with a blog about this very topic that I hope to post on Monday.

  6. Roj Blake says

    Growing up in a vaguely left wing Australian household in the 60’s, and being educated in a white conforming High School, I had heard of Baldwin as part of the US civil rights movement, but was unaware he had such a body of written work. I too, look forward to watching the doco and reading some of what he wrote.

    It is a stain on our humanity that we celebrate those who killed “For King and Country” but neglect the memories of those who sacrificed so much so others could live better, freer lives. True heroes are made on the streets of their nations, not in wars in foreign lands.

    My lack of knowledge of others you mention was also a shame. “The banana Boat Song” was popular in our household, but it was many, many years later that I learned of Harry Belafonte’s political activism. And Paul Robeson was just another name from the past until I heard this song.

    Thanks for the lesson, Marcus.

  7. James Hammond says

    Amazing indeed that Buckley was ever taken seriously after this debate. His argument seems to have boiled down to:

    1. A rising tide is lifting all boats. Black people sound ungrateful.
    2. What would you have us do, make it harder for white people in order to compensate?
    3. The problem is so very complicated and will take time to fix.
    4. It’s all black people’s fault anyway for being lazy and not becoming doctors.
    5. If it comes to confrontation, we will go to war against black Americans, for their own good.

    My rebuttal to the last point would be: “Ever has the Master said to the Slave just before applying the lash, ‘This is for your own good.'”

  8. Mano Singham says

    It was interesting that Baldwin got a rousing standing ovation while he audience clapped but remained seated after Buckley spoke.

  9. says

    I watched that debate yesterday. I watched the movie today. I wondered about whether I want to write anything about my impression of them. The problem is that I really don’t want to think about American history (and while typing a blog comment, you are forced to think about whatever it is that you are writing about).

    In general, I perceive history as interesting. I’m not uncomfortable even when learning about the worst events in human history (like, for example, the holocaust or the Gulag camps). American history, however, is the exception. I really don’t want to think about American history. It’s suffocating. It ruins my mood, makes me depressed, and extinguishes any rays of hope I might have left for the humanity.

    While studying in Germany, I took some courses about its history. This is how German professors handled the nasty parts like the Holocaust: it happened, it was awful, we are learning about these events, because this part of history is important to know about, and we must make sure that nothing similar ever happens again. Compare that with American history, where people don’t even want to admit that what their ancestors did to Native Americans was a fucking genocide. All American history is just a blatant attempt to sugarcoat and excuse atrocities. Mass murderers are portrayed as heroes,* tax evaders, smugglers and slave owners are portrayed as paragons of honesty (who hasn’t heard that sickening story of the cherry tree?), slavery was necessary and good for the slaves, Native Americans were never mistreated and massacred… Oh, and America is the greatest country on the planet.**

    All these attempts to hide the real facts and sugarcoat atrocities are just disgusting. People could at least admit that their ancestors made some really bad mistakes, and they should stop worshipping murderers as heroes. The next step would be ensuring that all those minority groups who were abused in the past (people of color, women, LGBTQ people) finally receive equal treatment.

    Anyway, the movie was very well made. I totally agree with your assessment of it. Unfortunately, it was also depressing as hell.

    Regarding the James Baldwin debate, here are my impressions:

    First impression as the camera shows the crowd that gathered to watch the debate: a room full of white men, very few white women, very few black men, no black women—ouch!

    The first proposition speech (David Heycock): it was actually really good. I liked it.

    The first opposition speech (Jeremy Burford): a huge disappointment. The guy started with saying that mistreatment of black people has hindered the American Dream, and it would have been more advanced if there had been equality for everybody. That’s actually a smart thing to say. The motion “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” is ridiculously hard to argue against—it’s a fact, it’s just true. And how do you argue against facts in a debate? If I had to argue for the opposition side in this debate, I’d be quite unhappy, because it’s hard to argue against facts.

    Anyway, what Burford said at the beginning of his speech was a smart strategy. I would argue this approximately as followed: I’d start by giving my own definition for what the “American Dream” is (after all, the term is pretty vague and has various possible interpretations). I’d pick a definition that’s beneficial for my argument, namely that the American Dream is about equality of opportunities, prosperity, good living conditions for the working class. Next I’d argue that having a group of people who are permanently stuck in poverty and denied equal rights is harmful for the society as a whole. Not only does it create racial tension and violent conflicts, but the presence of very cheap labor also has another drawback—it might be beneficial for the richest 1% consisting of capitalists and factory owners, but it hurts the rest of the society and its economy. Thus achieving the American Dream would have been easier if black people weren’t mistreated.

    But that’s not what Jeremy Burford said. He didn’t even attempt to somehow prove his claim that mistreating black people has hindered the society from achieving the American Dream. Instead, he went on to say that there are a few black millionaires (so what?), and that white British workers earn as much as black American workers (how is this even relevant?).

    James Baldwin’s speech: amazing. He’s really good at this.

    William F. Buckley’s speech: a huge WTF. If the first opposition speech was bad and warranted facepalming, then this one was several magnitudes worse. Buckley made sounds that resembled human language, but there were no arguments anywhere in his speech. When you dissect his speech in order to summarize his arguments, it turns out that there simply are none. It’s all just noise.

    William F. Buckley is what an uneducated person thinks a smart patrician sounds like… In a sense, Buckley was the proto-Trump

    I agree. He might sound smart, but only as long as the listeners don’t pay close attention to what he actually says, because, well, he just made noise, he didn’t really say anything that could potentially make sense.

    And, yes, his manner of speaking really reminds me of Trump. And the crazy thing is that Trump is even worse than Buckley.


    *In my opinion, the term “war hero” is an oxymoron, unless, of course, you are talking about doctors who work in war zones.
    **Many people seem to love their countries and be patriotic. I’m fine with that. However, Americans occasionally go ever further than that by claiming that their country is objectively the best country on the planet, and that all non Americans also must agree that the USA is, indeed, the best country. That’s sickening, considering how awful the USA is in certain aspects.

  10. John Morales says

    leva, interesting opinion. Impressive you went to such lengths.

    But:

    In my opinion, the term “war hero” is an oxymoron, unless, of course, you are talking about doctors who work in war zones.

    Um, ‘oxymoron’ refers to conjoined contradictory terms (e.g. “loud silence”), and war and heroism are not contradictory (as your example about doctors indicates). So the basis for your belief must be other than the literal meaning of ‘oxymoron’.

    So, your opinion seems unwarranted to me, and you make no attempt to justify it.

    Worse, you’ve essentially asserted that, unless one is a doctor, one cannot possibly be a war hero.

    Also, American Exceptionalism is a thing that’s been around for ages. Always there in the background, and quite explanatory for otherwise perplexing phenomena.

  11. John Morales says

    PS (bored):

    Anyway, what Burford said at the beginning of his speech was a smart strategy. I would argue this approximately as followed: I’d start by giving my own definition for what the “American Dream” is (after all, the term is pretty vague and has various possible interpretations). I’d pick a definition that’s beneficial for my argument, namely that the American Dream is about equality of opportunities, prosperity, good living conditions for the working class.

    Whenceupon your opponent could note you’d given your own definition for what the “American Dream” is (after all, the term is pretty vague and has various possible interpretations), and pointed out that you’d picked a definition that’s beneficial for your argument.

    (Not an optimal strategy for you againt a competent opponent, I’d’ve thought, but then I too think the opponents were less than adequately competent, and I acknowledge tailoring your response to your opponent’s competence is a valid strategy)

  12. John Morales says

    re the ‘American Dream’: your definition is actually pretty good, and hard to dispute.

    My synopsis: Anyone can make it to the top, social/financial success is proportional to ability. opportunity is equal to all Americans. In short, that America is a meritocracy.

    (Heh. Reality smites that pretty damn fucking hard, though it is full of exceptions that prove the rule)

  13. says

    John Morales @#10

    The purpose of wars is to kill other people, subjugate them, loot their valuables. Heroism is about helping other people, saving their lives. I see a contradiction here. The term “war hero” is generally used when referring to somebody in the army who has killed people. I don’t see killing other people as heroic. Regarding doctors who risk their lives in order to treat wounded soldiers: they save human lives, and that’s definitely a good thing. Unfortunately, the existence of doctors who treat wounded soldiers also contributes to the war effort. Contributing to the war effort is a bad thing.

    Doctors who risk their lives in order to treat injured civilians? Yep, finally we have some real heroes. Pacifists who serve jail time because of opposing the war? Yep, also heroes. But calling these people “war heroes” is sort of weird. “Heroes of peace” would make more sense when talking about such people.

    @#11

    Whenceupon your opponent could note you’d given your own definition for what the “American Dream” is

    Yes, of course.

    Not an optimal strategy for you against a competent opponent. . . tailoring your response to your opponent’s competence is a valid strategy

    In debate tournaments people try to pick motions that are fair to debaters who end up having to argue for each side, namely it is possible to find good arguments both for and against the motion. If it is very easy to argue for one side and very hard to argue for the other side, then what you have is an unfair motion. In debate tournaments we try to avoid such unfair motions.

    However, in public debates unfair motions are very frequent. The motion “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” is a perfect example for an unfair debate topic. Arguing for the proposition is easy. Arguing for the opposition is near impossible. Whenever I, as a debater, got stuck having to argue for the hard position in an unfair debate, I wasn’t trying to tailor my arguments to my estimated intelligence level of the opponents. Instead, knowing in advance that I cannot possibly win the debate, I tried to make my speech as good as I possibly can. Yes, as you already pointed out, redefining some term so as to suit my argument is a problem. But it’s still better than saying “slavery was beneficial for the black people,” “it’s their own fault for being lazy and not pursuing well paying careers,” or “racism and discrimination doesn’t exist, look, there are a couple of black millionaires out there.”

  14. John Morales says

    leva,

    The purpose of wars is to kill other people, subjugate them, loot their valuables.

    Mmm. That’s one purpose, I can’t deny. But look at Afghanistan.

    (Also, given that is the purported purpose of the aggressor in a war, concomitantly the purpose of the non-aggressor would to avoid being killed, subjugated or having their valuables looted. Which is the converse of what you have just claimed)

    Whenever I, as a debater, got stuck having to argue for the hard position in an unfair debate, I wasn’t trying to tailor my arguments to my estimated intelligence level of the opponents. Instead, knowing in advance that I cannot possibly win the debate, I tried to make my speech as good as I possibly can.

    But why bother with that, except as an exercise for pride and/or personal satisfaction?

    (Me, if I couldn’t argue for the winning side, I would pass the opportunity. Deliberately losing does not appeal, no matter how good a show I might put up)

    The motion “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” is a perfect example for an unfair debate topic. Arguing for the proposition is easy. Arguing for the opposition is near impossible.

    Indeed.

  15. says

    Ieva:
    The motion “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” is a perfect example for an unfair debate topic. Arguing for the proposition is easy. Arguing for the opposition is near impossible.

    I agree. I think the strategy I’d employ is to try to parse it apart – “is it solely or even primarily at the expense of the American Negro? Well, no, it was more at the expense of the Native Americans…” OOps that’s not a very good position, either.

    Perhaps a less silly way to slice it would be that the American Dream is at the expense of the workers – that it is a false ideal held forth by capitalists (yes, and slave owners and imperialists). That is, actually, true, so I could argue that position with gusto. As someone said, “the history of slavery in the US is the history of labor” – slave labor, braceros, Chinese, Irish, Ukrainian, Jews fleeing Europe – they all were grist for the American Dream: “jump for the brass ring” and sometimes it’s not jerked just out of reach of your fingers. The black people had it the worst, definitely. But the American Dream is a fantasy held by lots of people, a very few of which made it out of the labor trap they were imported into. [And, those that did, seem to often get converted, magically, to The Establishment, i.e.: Carnegie, Frick, Trump, etc]

  16. says

    @#14

    Also, given that is the purported purpose of the aggressor in a war, concomitantly the purpose of the non-aggressor would to avoid being killed, subjugated or having their valuables looted.

    When you start learning history, you are bound to notice an interesting pattern—in every single war each of the sides always claimed that they are the good guys, that they are doing the right thing, and that god is on their side. Once the war was over and it was time to write history books, the winners (who were the ones who got to write the books) said that justice has triumphed and the good side has won.

    So, yeah, I don’t buy this argument—there are no good guys in a war.

    There can be various possible scenarios:

    1) Both countries want a war, because each one believes that they can win and get some land, gold, and slaves from the other country. There is no good side.

    2) An aggressor attempts to invade another country. If the aggressor is stronger and bound to win the war, then it is better for the other country to just surrender—this way the death toll they suffer will be a lot smaller. Never mind property damage and civilian casualties. There are always options for nonviolent protests, diplomacy, civil disobedience.
    Of course, it is also possible for the aggressor to be the one with a weaker army. When the aggressor loses a war, generally the winning side does not abstain from utilizing their victory as an opportunity to take some valuables from the loser. So even in the attacked side seemed like the good guys at first, later they often commit some atrocities that results in me losing any sympathy for them.

    Moreover, participating in a war requires murdering innocent people. Even if there are no civilian casualties (not that I have ever heard about there being no civilian casualties in a war), some of the soldiers you killed were innocent people too. In countries with obligatory conscription, a significant portion of soldiers never wanted to go to war in the first place. Such soldiers are innocent victims who never deserved to be killed. First they were abused by their own country that forcefully sent them to the battlefield, afterwards they got killed by the opposing army. They never deserved any of that.

    But why bother with that, except as an exercise for pride and/or personal satisfaction?

    (Me, if I couldn’t argue for the winning side, I would pass the opportunity. Deliberately losing does not appeal, no matter how good a show I might put up)

    Debating is my hobby. I perceive it as a fun way how to spend my free time. By the way, if I cared about my personal pride, I’d never agree to defend the problematic side in a public debate.

    Then there’s also the question of what “losing” means in a debate. I have adjudicated plenty of debates in tournaments, and often it isn’t even possible to clearly say who won. When debaters on both sides are approximately equally good, adjudicators tend to disagree about who ought to be chosen as the winner. Thus for me debating isn’t always about winning (sometimes it is hard to determine who won in a debate), on some occasions it’s about making a good speech instead. Of course, I do like winning in debate tournaments, and, if possible, that’s what I try to do whenever I’m competing. But I see a huge difference between debate tournaments (competitions where each debater is trying to win) and public debates. There’s more to public debates than just personal victory for one of the debaters. Public debates aren’t competitions where each debater tries to score points for themselves. The purpose of public debates is to educate (and probably also entertain) the spectators.

  17. says

    Marcus @#15

    Perhaps a less silly way to slice it would be that the American Dream is at the expense of the workers – that it is a false ideal held forth by capitalists (yes, and slave owners and imperialists). That is, actually, true, so I could argue that position with gusto. As someone said, “the history of slavery in the US is the history of labor” – slave labor, braceros, Chinese, Irish, Ukrainian, Jews fleeing Europe – they all were grist for the American Dream: “jump for the brass ring” and sometimes it’s not jerked just out of reach of your fingers. The black people had it the worst, definitely. But the American Dream is a fantasy held by lots of people, a very few of which made it out of the labor trap they were imported into.

    Yes, I had exactly the same idea too. Actually, that was the very first thing I though about, because, well, that’s a position I can agree with. However, there’s a reason why I didn’t write this one in my comment. Here’s how this debate could play out:

    Proposition: White people have abused slaves and enjoyed a life of luxury at the expense of black people.
    Opposition: Yes, that’s completely true. And it wasn’t just black people. Capitalists (all of whom were rich, white men) exploited also poor white workers, immigrants, and various other ethnic groups.
    Proposition: Both of us seem to agree. What exactly are we arguing about?
    Opposition: Nothing. Why don’t we end this debate, and go get some drinks in the local pub instead.

    In order to have a debate, you need both sides to disagree about something. What I proposed would make a debate at least somewhat possible:

    Proposition: White people have abused slaves and enjoyed a life of luxury at the expense of black people. White people had a good life, simultaneously black people suffered.
    Opposition: The lives of white people weren’t as good as you claim. All the members of this society suffered because of racism and discrimination. If racism hadn’t existed, both white and black people would have been better off.

    Arguing about whether white people (white members of the working class rather than just the wealthy who benefited from having access to cheap labor) would have had better or worse lives without slave labor is a very lame debate, but at least there is something that resembles a debate.

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