Monthly Archives: March 2010

Glenn Beck’s Che revisionism-revisionism

[I don’t know why I give a shit…]

I am tempted to call Glenn Beck’s style of argument “anecdotal” in the worst sense. He habitually infers very broad trends from particulars numbering close to zero. But he combines this with a penchant for simply making shit up.

For instance, a five-minute random sampling of his show (conducted by myself in the spirit of Al Franken vs. Ann Coulter’s book) yielded the charge that “American public schools” are promoting “earth worship.” Beck’s sole evidence is a single poster hung in one of the nation’s 100,000 public schools urging students to “pledge allegiance to the earth.” Of course, this is hardly the action of “public schools.” But even if every teacher in every school made those posters, it still wouldn’t amount to “earth worship.” While to worship something is to pledge allegiance to it, the reverse is simply not the case. And it is doubtful that Beck considers the morning Pledge to constitute a call to worship of the flag or Republic.

Often, this anecdotal-plus approach occurs in layers. Beck’s views on Che Guevara are a great example. He uses a false interpretation of one of Che’s statements to discredit “Che the man,” and from Che the man to discredit very “socialism” itself. (Not to mention equating this “socialism” with anything Obama is doing.)

He combines this in turn with “bad idealism,” according to which human mind-states count more in political discourse than actual, material outcomes. Again, with Beck this is not just your garden variety bad idealism but manages to be more perverse with the addition of counterfactuality: In his assessments of Obama, for instance, not only is he overconcerned with the President’s “thoughts and feelings” about things, but he thinks these mind-states matter even when they cannot find expression in action at all. It is always about what Obama “wants to do” or how he “would remake the country if he got his way.”

* * *

But onto Beck’s analysis of Che, as given on his Jan. 22 “expose” of communist historical figures.

He spends most time trying to establish that Che was an anti-black racist. The evidence is the following quote, which Beck (or his guest) actually gets wrong. As quoted by Che’s biographer:

The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on frivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.

Here we have a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black people; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvanistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, prior to even the relative “progress” of “separate but equal” in the states.

Beck supplies the quote, and nothing else. From this alone he argues for Che’s racism. He summarizes the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”

Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?

We can dick around over the severity of the statement. The point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:

In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:

Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.

In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was talking about that issue.

Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)

Che with his Congolese army

Che also led the integration of Cuban schools years before Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is, to my knowledge, still living, and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)

* * *

The broader point speaks to that hyper-idealism of Beck’s: Not only is a diary entry not “Che,” but Che is not “the Cuban Revolution.” However Che “felt” about anything, the Cuban revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in a historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s actions.

The greatest literacy bump in history occurred after the Revolution. Illiteracy went from nearly a quarter of the population to less than four percent in under a year. This mostly affected Cubans of color.

The Revolution instituted an immediate 50 percent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.

Just as a youthful, renounced diary scribble is not “Che,” neither is Che, nor the Cuban Revolution, “socialism.” To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load Beck wants them to. Social science/activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.

* * *

Predictably, Beck’s other bear is the “Che killed a bunch of people” modality. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution. In any case, Che did run a prison for a brief time, and some people were tried and executed there. Unless Beck is against the death penalty in every case whatsoever, he must give us more. He must critique the trials themselves, the evidence used and soforth. Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode. Justifiably or not, however, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.”

Glenn Beck’s Che revisionism-revisionism

[I don’t know why I give a shit…]

I am tempted to call Glenn Beck’s style of argument “anecdotal” in the worst sense. He habitually infers very broad trends from particulars numbering close to zero. But he combines this with a penchant for simply making shit up.

For instance, a five-minute random sampling of his show (conducted by myself in the spirit of Al Franken vs. Ann Coulter’s book) yielding the charge that “American public schools” are promoting “earth worship.” Beck’s sole evidence is a single poster hung in one of the nation’s 100,000 public schools urging students to “pledge allegiance to the earth.” Of course, this is hardly the action of “public schools.” But even if every teacher in every school made those posters, it still wouldn’t amount to “earth worship.” While to worship something is to pledge allegiance to it, the reverse is simply not the case. And it is doubtful that Beck considers the morning Pledge to constitute a call to worship of the flag or Republic.

Often, this anecdotal-plus approach occurs in layers. Beck’s views on Che Guevara are a great example. He uses a false interpretation of one of Che’s statements to discredit “Che the man,” and from Che the man to discredit very “socialism” itself. (Not to mention equating this “socialism” with anything Obama is doing.)

He combines this in turn with “bad idealism,” according to which human mind-states count more in political discourse than actual, material outcomes. Again, with Beck this is not just your garden variety bad idealism but manages to be more perverse with the addition of counterfactuality: In his assessments of Obama, for instance, not only is he overconcerned with the President’s “thoughts and feelings” about things, but he thinks these mind-states matter even when they cannot find expression in action at all. It is always about what Obama “wants to do” or how he “would remake the country if he got his way.”

But onto Beck’s analysis of Che, as given on his Jan. 22 “expose” of communist historical figures. He spends most time trying to establish that Che was an anti-black racist. The evidence is the following quote, which Beck (or his guest) actually gets wrong. As quoted by Che’s biographer:

“The black is indolent and fanciful, he spends his money on fivolity and drink; the European comes from a tradition of working and saving which follows him to this corner of American and drives him to get a head, even independently, of his own individual aspirations.”

Here we have a young man’s single, private impression on seeing black people for the first time. Note that these are particular black people; there is no evidence Che would extrapolate from his localized experience in a Caracas slum to “the black race” in a general sense. As a diary entry, it was a thought which happened to be written down, unfiltered, unedited, unintended for publication. While chauvanistic, naive and snooty in a vein typical of the writer’s upper-class Argentine background, the quote is not particularly nasty. (As with Barbara Bush’s observation that the Superdome was a vacation for the Katrina refugees, it isn’t clear the speaker has bad feelings toward his subject.) It was written—for fuck’s sake—in 1952, prior to even the relative “progress” of “separate but equal” in the states.

Beck supplies the quote, and nothing else. From this alone he argues for Che’s racism. He summarizes the man as “a racist”—not “an ex-racist,” not “a man capable of bad ideas about race.”

Is that enough, though? Is the quote (is any quote?) so bad that there is absolutely nothing the speaker might have conceivably gone on to think or say or do in his remaining years which might have atoned for or mitigated it? Is there nothing else that matters—that could matter?

We can dick around over the severity of the statement. The point is that, whatever it means, Che changed his fucking mind. We know that he went on to condemn racism explicitly, privately and publicly, and in terms far less ambiguous than the above “affirmation.” He went on to lead one of the most effectively “unracist” lives in history:

In his 1964 address to the UN, Che railed against color segregation in the American south, which persisted despite the recent passage of the Voting Rights Act. Arguing the federal government hadn’t done enough to restrain the KKK:

“Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin, those who let the murderers of blacks remain free—protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men…How can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?… The time will come when this assembly will acquire greater maturity and demand of the United States government guarantees for the life of the Blacks and Latin Americans who live in that country, most of them U.S. citizens by origin or adoption.”

In the same speech, Che called slain Congolese president Patrice Lumumba a “hero” for resisting the white Belgian colonists; lauded the black singer Paul Robeson, who brought the Negro Spiritual into American pop culture and who was persecuted by American intelligence for socialist ties; and condemned South African apartheid when nobody in the West was talking about that issue.

Following the military success of the Cuban revolution, Che aided the African independence struggle in the Congo. He led an all-black contingent of a dozen Cuban soldiers and native Congolese against the colonial forces, requiring him to shoot at white South African mercenaries. Later, Che met with leaders of Mozambique’s independence struggle, offering similar help to the black FRELIMO army (which was declined). (Of course, as Cuba’s own population is largely black, Che’s assistance to that revolution falls in the same category as the above.)

Che also led the integration of Cuban schools years before Brown v. Board of Education. Finally, at risk of playing the “some of my best friends are black” card, Che’s most constant companion during the revolution (and consequently his personal bodyguard) was Harry “Pombo” Villegas, who was, like almost all the men in the units Che led, a black Afro-Cuban. Pombo is, to my knowledge, still living, and has in his memoirs attested to Che’s anti-racist credentials. (In this assessment, he joins black leaders like Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Stokely Carmichael.)

***

The broader point speaks to that hyper-idealism of Beck’s: Not only is a diary entry not “Che,” but Che is not “the Cuban Revolution.” However Che “felt” about anything, the Cuban revolution effected real, tangible progress on race in a historical sense—no small thanks to Che’s actions. The greatest literacy bump in history occurred after the Revolution, affecting mostly people of color.

The Cuban Revolution instituted an immediate 50 percent reduction in rents and subsequently granted tenants full ownership of these houses. As a result, more blacks per capita own their homes in Cuba than in any country in the world.[1] Lourdes Casal (“The Position of Blacks in Brazilian and Cuba Society”, Minority Rights Group Report No. 7, pp. 11-27)

Cuba’s revolution is well known internationally for its aggressively anti-racist foreign policy. Most impressive was Cuba’s role in the helping end the racist South African apartheid regime. From late 1975 to 1988, 300,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers participated in the war in Angola, routing the invading South African armed forces, thereby hammering a final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Angolan textbooks will forever teach this episode to elementary school children.

Neither is Che, nor the Cuban Revolution, “socialism.” To this end, who gives a shit what Che thought, or even did? Those things are an interesting historical aside, but they don’t bear the load Beck wants them to. Social science/activism isn’t religion; condemning the prophet has no power to indict the theory, or anyone else’s practice of the theory.

Finally, Beck repeats the whole “Che killed a bunch of people” schtick. In truth, nobody has sound figures on how many “loyalists” died in the Cuban Revolution. In any case, Che did run a prison, and people were tried and executed there. Unless Beck is against the death penalty in every case whatsoever, he must give us more. He must critique the trials themselves, the evidence and soforth. Needless to say, none of this business amounts to “Che killing people.” Note also the death penalty was largely applied, and summarily so, as a humane preventative to the locals’ mobbing the prisoners—their former brutalizers—limb from limb. This is acknowledged by the most unsympathetic historians of the episode.

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The worst argument against reparations for slavery (and a qualification on arguments in its favor)

It is argued that contemporary whites—the ostensible “reparators” for black slavery—were “not there,” didn’t hold or trade slaves or otherwise commit the associated wrongs, thus it would be unjust to hold them accountable for another’s crimes.

The argument fails in supposing the only way to be responsible for something is to be “at fault.” Human experience is replete with counterexamples: There is, for one, a sense that a parent should pay when his child’s baseball breaks a window. One could, of course, answer that this “responsibility” amounts to merely a useful legal fiction, just a scheme for ensuring windows get paid for in view of the likelihood that the average child is penniless. But a person of this view shouldn’t be opposed to some other arbitrary scheme, whereby, say, the victim of the broken window, or the nearest adult to his left, or sharing his initials or taste is television comedies, is legally responsible for the window. Instead, we have some sense that the legal arrangement reflects, or ratifies, some real, underlying norm that would remain in effect with or without the law’s recognition.

There is the further sense that a person can be responsible when nobody is at fault: The baseball player might not have been able to prevent the ball from hitting the glass. Maybe no one could have. The child remains “at fault” in some sense—a causal and (again) legal one—but not in the moral sense invoked by those opponents of reparations. Strictly speaking, no real “fault” has occurred. But a responsibility remains.

Finally, there is the sense that persons sometimes have a responsibility to act in some way when sheer dumb luck places them between another person, or persons, and some undesirable outcome. An island castaway with survival skills may be morally responsible to step up and lead the group, whether or not he wishes to; and someone at an intersection of railroad crossings may be responsible to throw the switch that diverts the crosswise passenger trains from colliding. In such cases there is no implication that either person, or any person, is “at fault” for the shipwreck or the train mix up.

In these ways, the scope of moral responsibility exceeds the scope of “fault.” The reparations opponent must give us more.

* * *

But the problem runs deeper. For it is arguable that nobody is ever strictly “at fault” for anything at all—that is, that “fault” is a pretty sketchy concept in the end. The point is “philosophical” and like many such points, counterintuitive. (Thankfully, this doesn’t make it false.)

Common sense tells us that when we hold another responsible, the self at “fault” is the same entity as the self which committed the transgression; anything else would be unfair. However, as the Buddhists and process philosophers show, this identification cannot be made. Those things which give the self its character—that make it the self that it is—are in a state of restless change. One’s field of experience or mind-state alters from moment to moment.[1] It follows that a new self replaces its predecessor with each change. “Me” at time t is not the same as “me” at time t+1. I do not get sick; rather, a new, sick self succeeds a healthy one.[2] What common sense thinks of as the self—for example, what we call “John”—is an abstraction from the processive “chain” of one-instantaneous-John-after- another.[3]

Thus, it does no good to plead that modern whites “weren’t there” for slavery. Nobody who is ever responsible for anything “was there” either. Accountability is always “for another’s crimes.” The transgressing self, by metaphysical necessity, never sticks around long enough for sentencing.

It does not follow from this that nobody is ever responsible—any more than it follows from the common sense view that no parents are ever responsible for their children’s actions. (It does follow that our metaethics is due for a reconception.[4])

* * *

All the above being said, I suspect that reparations concedes too much to bourgeois procedural justice: Slavery stole something that belonged to black slaves, and contemporary blacks, as their ostensible heirs, are owed what was due them from the white heirs of slaveowners.[5] In my view, such things as “natural rights” to property (in one’s labor or anything else) simply don’t exist, and thinking of them as existing is one of many ideological girders of capitalism.

I do support a radical redistribution of wealth in favor of American blacks; I would support a distributional outcome which is more generous than what most reparations proponents envision. But I support this because blacks need it, not because their or their ancestors’ property rights were violated.

At the same time, I understand the strategic value of speaking to “power”—in this case, bourgeois power—in its own language, of demanding that it be consistent with its own rules, even if these rules are not our own. In this way, Marxists use the theory of worker exploitation to show that capitalism is unjust according to its own laws of “equal exchange.” However, while Marxists are quite open that the goal is not merely a more consistent system of “equal exchange,” I don’t see a parallel qualification emerging much from the reparations camp. This could be because that camp, unlike the Marxist one, includes bourgeois-minded persons—but still.

Finally, I am compelled to solidarize with those black comrades who are directly affected by the debate and who in my experience are largely wedded to the reparations framework. By no means am I prepared to break common cause with the program. But I have my ‘druthers.

* * *

[Postscript: I just read a transcript where Chris Matthews accuses Al Sharpton of “wanting us to pay reparations because we happen to be white.” This is like saying we wanted O.J. to go to jail because he happened to wear Bruno Magli shoes.]

Notes

[1] This is not to identify the self with a “field of experience” or “mind-state”; only to say that if these things change, so does the self.

[2] Even this simplifies, as both the healthy and the sick selves are composed respectively of many sick and healthy, momentary selves.

[3] Social intercourse is possible because each “John” closely resembles its predecessors; they are not “the same,” but are similar enough for identification in practice.

[4] At the least, holding people responsible becomes (or becomes consistently) a matter of managing behavior rather than punishment. It is about treating present selves in such a way that later selves are influenced in a certain direction. This could include treating them as if they are “at fault” for the behaviors of earlier ones; but this would be merely a corrective device, a useful fiction.

[5] Granted, there are other arguments for reparations. But these are either (a) less coherent; (b) reducible (I argue) to a bourgeois property rights schema in the end; or (c) simply not the ones I’m talking about here.