The Champion — Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic on the legacy of African-American politics.
Last week The New Yorker ran a lengthy profile of Barack Obama, by David Remnick, in which you can hear the president’s opinions on everything from marijuana legalization to war to racism. Obama is as thoughtful as ever, and I expect that admiration for his thoughtfulness will grow as the ages pile upon us. I have tried to get my head around what he represents. Two years ago, I would have said that whatever America’s roots in white supremacy, the election of a black president is a real thing, worthy of celebration, a sign of actual progress. I would have pointed out that you should not expect a black head of state in any other Western country any time soon, and that this stands as singular accolade in the long American democratic tradition. Today, I’m less certain about national accolades. I’m not really sure that a writer—whose whole task is the attempt to see clearly—can afford such attachments.
More interesting to me is why this happened. If you begin from the proposition that African-Americans are fundamentally American, in a way that the Afro-French are not; and that America is, itself, a black country in a way that the other European countries are not, Barack Obama’s election strikes you somewhat differently. African-American politics is literally as old as American politics, as old as Crispus Attucks shot down for his nascent country. One of the earliest and bloodiest proving grounds for “Western” democratic ideals was Gettysburg. The line that saved the Union, that ensured that “government of the people, for the people, by the people, shall not perish from this earth” was marked by the house of the black farmer Abraham Brian. On that Brian property lived the great Mag Palm, currently lost to our memory, who fought off man-catchers determined to reduce her to peonage.
The first African-American to be nominated for president was Frederick Douglass, a biracial black man of exceptional gifts who dreamed of his estranged father as surely as the present occupant of the White House, perhaps even in this day, dreams of his. The last black Southerner to serve in Congress, before this country assented to the desecration of its own Constitution, was George Henry White, who did not leave in despair but in awesome prophecy:
This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people—full of potential force.
And come again, we have.
All Together wit Pete Seeger — Emily Greenhouse remembers the impact he had on her family.
After the Second World War, my grandparents married and moved to Long Island, and my grandfather opened a dry-cleaning shop. On his delivery route, he would look for customers who received the right kind of magazines and then slip fliers underneath their doors: Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, the March on Washington, Ban the Bomb, Stop the War in Vietnam. That’s how my grandparents made new friends. They were meetings people—Grace Paley people, union people. They brought a baby in a stroller to the Rosenbergs’ funeral. Some winters before my grandfather died, he joined in a protest against the Iraq War, in Washington, D.C. After standing for four hours in fifteen-degree weather, he came down with pneumonia. I thought this was heroic, but for him it was normal. He was a Seeger man: he would not be moved or deterred.
The sad morning we learned that Seeger was gone, I spoke to Rob Rosenthal, a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University, and his son, Sam, who recently edited the book “Pete Seeger: In His Own Words.” They met Seeger when he replied to an ad that the elder Rosenthal had placed in the Nation. “He was never pessimistic,” Rosenthal said. “He always thought that humans would get it together.” He added: “When you look at the grand movements of the twentieth century, he was involved in them all (the women’s movement most peripherally). We may think now, ‘Wow, we’re so messed up.’ But he travelled through the South in the thirties, he saw the Hudson cleaned up—a huge, huge thing. He was realistic about how difficult all this was.”
Seeger got in at the ground level—on the union movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the environmentalist movement—and spoke directly to those there. Gabriel Winant, a scholar of labor history, described how Seeger, with a song like “Miner’s Lifeguard,” showed coal miners that they were like sailors—widely perceived as the original modern workers—even if their work was out of the boss’s view. And that, like the sailors, the miners were stronger together.
Sam Rosenthal told me that it was hard to imagine Seeger’s perspective. “He didn’t feel the weight of history the way we did,” he said. “It was staggering to hear him talk about certain things—going to this huge historic march, hanging out with Guthrie or Lead Belly. In the next breath, he would start talking about his neighbor down the road who grew tomatoes.”
It’s Debatable — Sean McElwee and Abigail Salvatore in Salon argue that scientists shouldn’t debate Creationists.
Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be debating creationism on Feb. 4, and it’s a bad idea for both scientists and Christians. Ham’s young-earth creationism represents the distinct tendency of American Christian fundamentalists to reject science and use their religion to defend economic ideas, environmental degradation and anti-science extremism. But these views aren’t actually inherent in Christianity — they’ve been imposed on the biblical text by politically motivated and theologically inept readers. The solution is not anti-theism but better theological and scientific awareness.
The vast majority of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are evangelicals, followers of an offshoot of Protestantism. Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.
Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” perfectly summarizes the American distaste for intellectualism and how egalitarian sentiments became intertwined with religion. He and Walter Lippmann point to the first wave of opposition to Darwinian evolution theory, led by William Jennings Bryan, as the quintessential example of the convergence of anti-intellectualism, the egalitarian spirit and religion. Bryan worried about the conflation of Darwinian evolution theory and capitalist economics that allowed elites to declare themselves superior to lower classes. He felt that the teaching of evolution challenged popular democracy: “What right have the evolutionists — a relatively small percentage of the population — to teach at public expense a so-called scientific interpretation of the Bible when orthodox Christians are not permitted to teach an orthodox interpretation of the Bible?” He notes further, “The one beauty of the word of God, is that it does not take an expert to understand it.”
This American distrust of experts isn’t confined to religion. It explains the popularity of books like “Wrong” by David Freedman (a book that purports to show “why experts are wrong”) that take those snobbish “experts” down a peg. The delightfully cynical H.L. Mencken writes,
The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple. Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.
Thus, an American need not understand economics to challenge Keynes, nor possess a PhD to question climate change, nor to have read Darwin to declare his entire book a fraud. One need not read journals, for Gladwell suffices, and Jenny McCarthy’s personal anecdotes trump the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences.
Doonesbury — Keeping it real.