Tue 8 Dec, 2009
Tags: Abolition, Civil War sesquicentennial, Harry Reid, Health and health care, Legislation, Slavery, U.S. Senate
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been taking heat since yesterday for his remarks on the Senate floor comparing the opponents of health care reform to those who opposed ending slavery.
As I’ll explain below, I believe the criticism over Reid’s remarks is misplaced at best, and political gamesmanship at worst. However, I also think his comment was not merely impolitic, but an unfortunate contribution to our overheated political climate and, more importantly, mischaracterizes our nation’s history on slavery and race.
I am saddened at Reid’s perpetration of a damaging historical myth about our nation’s involvement in slavery, and as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, I believe it is imperative that we combat such false narratives about our nation’s past.
Here is what Senator Reid said on the Senate floor yesterday, comparing the opponents of health care reform to those who opposed emancipation, suffrage for women and civil rights for black citizens:
Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all Senate Republicans can come up with is: ‘Slow down, stop everything and start over.’ If you think you’ve heard these same excuses before, you’re right.
When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, some dug in their heels and said, ‘slow down.’ When women spoke up for the right to speak up — when they demanded the vote — some insisted that they simply stop. When this body was on the verge of guaranteeing equal civil rights to all citizens, regardless of the color of their skin, some senators resorted to the same filibuster threats that we hear today.
History is repeating itself before our eyes. There are now those who don’t think this is the right time to reform health care. But in reality, for many who feel that way, there will never be a good time to reform health care.
It was certainly unfortunate that Reid chose to compare the debate over health care reform to the ending of slavery in this country, but that’s hardly the end of the matter.
Reid’s remarks were unnecessarily inflammatory
For one thing, slavery remains a highly inflammatory topic in our political discourse. I wish that our society had long since moved past the point where slavery festers like an open wound, and in which race remains such an unresolved topic that the mere mention of slavery or its abolition causes people to race to extreme, and often unsupportable, positions on all sides. The last twenty-four hours, however, amply demonstrate that we have not yet reached this stage in our progress over race.
As a result, it is probably never advisable to use the topic of slavery in order to make a political analogy. In my mind, this is a topic in U.S. politics akin to “fascism” or “socialism.” These are terms which are used, along with names like “Nazi,” “Hitler,” or “Stalin” to refer unreflectively to the worst imaginable policies. As a result, these terms are routinely thrown around with little or no understanding of what they actually mean, and with no consideration for whether the charges actually hold up, even as analogies.
These days, for instance, the prime example of this usage comes courtesy of opponents of President Obama’s positions on issues like taxes and even health care reform. In the grand scheme of things, Obama’s positions on these issues differ only marginally from those of other Democrats and scarcely more from those of mainstream Republicans. Therefore, referring to his policies as “fascist” or “socialist” doesn’t simply make no sense in terms of what those concepts actually mean; even as an analogy to great evil or oppression, these terms are nonsensical when applied to such minor policy differences as slightly different tax rates or packages of health reforms.
Reid’s remarks were unnecessarily clumsy
Senator Reid also managed to choose a remarkably clumsy way in which to articulate his point.
Reid appears to have been arguing that health care reform has become so necessary and accepted, as a moral or practical matter, that his opponents in the Senate are no longer able to articulate their desire to prevent reform altogether. Instead, they are forced to resort to obstructionism: arguing over trivialities, manufacturing meaningless objections, and throwing up delays and roadblocks at every turn.
Now, Senator Reid may have a point. Certainly, he can’t be castigated as beyond the political pale for offering such claims. He may well believe that health care reform has become the kind of moral or practical imperative in our age that emancipation, suffrage, and civil rights were in earlier eras. He obviously does believe that the obstructionism he described is what actually occurred during our national debates over emancipation, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, and this was the point of his comparison.
Reid was not suggesting that the opponents of health care reform are morally equivalent to slave traders or those who believe that it was a mistake to give women the vote. However, it is easy to see why some people honestly interpret the majority leader’s remarks as making comparisons between his opponents and such villains as Senator James D’Wolf of Rhode Island, the leading slave-trader in American history.
Reid’s remarks are being exploited by his opponents
It is also easy to see why Reid’s political opponents believe they can get away with pretending that they believe he was making comparisons to such vile practices, and use that confusion to score political points. Reid’s misjudgment contributed to this firestorm, but that doesn’t mean that he said anything that justifies pretending that he said anything worse than he did.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, has called on Reid to apologize, going so far as to say not only that Reid’s remarks were “offensive” (which is arguably true, at least if the listener doesn’t understand what Reid was saying), but also that his comments were “absurd” (which they were not) and that they that political stress has caused the majority leader to “lose his ability to reason” (which is also not true, at least on the evidence of these comments).
Steele also accused Reid of playing the “race card.” While Reid is certainly stumbling blindly across the minefield that is race in this country in evoking the slavery comparison lightly, it is hard for me to believe that he assumed the public would hear about his floor remarks, take his reasoning about political maneuvering out of context, and misinterpret him as invoking slavery to demonize his opponents.
On the other hand, Steele surely knew what effect his invocation of the “race card” metaphor would have on his listeners.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn (Okla.), meanwhile, called Reid’s comparison “beneath the dignity of the Senate,” while Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) called the comparison “outlandish.”
I understand that there may be those who have misunderstood what Reid was saying, or who properly grasped his comparison but thought that it was ill-considered or could be open to misinterpretation by others.
This does not, however, justify these comments by fellow senators, nor these: “extremely offensive” (Orrin Hatch and “no place for language like that” (Kay Bailey Hutchison).
How have non-politicians reacted to Reid’s comments? Some have recognized that, whatever the wisdom of the majority leader’s remarks, this is nothing more than a “manufactured controversy.” Others, however, have simply repeated these out-of-proportion political attacks, or have resorted to such hyperbolic charges as “the most contentious comment ever made in the Senate.”
The historical truth
What I find most troubling about Senator Reid’s remarks—and this will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog—is that his understanding of the history of slavery in this nation is deeply flawed.
Reid’s comments clearly indicate that at some point in time, he believes the proponents of slavery in this country were no longer able to openly argue against a moral consensus in favor of ending slavery, but instead were forced to offer excuses and delaying tactics as their only means of preserving the status quo. In other words, to quote Reid:
‘Slow down, it’s too early. Let’s wait. Things aren’t bad enough.’
This belief reflects one of our most enduring national myths about slavery: that the Civil War broke out because the righteous North had seen the light and was convinced that slavery was immoral, while southern slave owners and their nefarious allies were forced to delay the inevitable by any means necessary.
In fact, however, this is nothing more than a national myth which arose following the Civil War, as part of a broader effort (partly intentional and partly unconscious) to recast slavery as a moral struggle between North and South, one which justified the long years of bitter struggle and terrible loss, as well as the northern occupation of the South during Reconstruction.
In fact, abolitionist sentiment was an unpopular view throughout the country in the decades leading up to the Civil War. There were abolitionists writing and speaking out in the North, of course, and many of them are now justly famous. However, they were considered dangerous radicals. By the 1830s and 1840s, there were periodic abolitionist rallies in major northern cities, but there were also pro-slavery riots and murders in those same cities.
In fact, even as the Civil War broke out, abolitionism was still a minority political viewpoint throughout the nation. In 1861, for instance, the U.S. Congress was able to pass (and Abraham Lincoln endorsed) a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery forever. The amendment, which was part of a last-ditch effort to compromise on slavery and avert civil war, was never ratified by the states because of the outbreak of war.
In fact, even in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s Republican Party lost control of Congress in the midterm election of 1862 because of the unpopularity in the Union of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Moreover, well into the conflict, the residents of such a northern stronghold as New York City were still opposed to ending slavery after the war. Thus, President Lincoln was forced to defend his proposal for emancipation in a letter to the New York Tribune in 1862 by arguing not that abolition was morally necessary, but that it must be accepted for practical reasons:
What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.
In the following year, 1863, the most infamous draft riot occurred over four days on the streets of New York City. While the mobs were unhappy with the inequities of the conscription system, they were also furious that they might have to compete for jobs, after the war, with emancipated southern slaves. As a result, the rioters targeted the homes and businesses of free blacks in the city, and black men, women, and children were lynched in the streets of New York. The rioting only ended after the 7th N.Y. Regiment was recalled from Gettysburg to establish order.
In fact, even after years of war between Union and Confederate forces, abolitionism was still struggling to achieve acceptance by a bare majority in the Union North. In 1864, the Union-controlled Congress, without representation from the southern states, defeated a plan to emancipate the slaves after the war.
It wasn’t until January 1865 that Lincoln was able to persuade the U.S. House of Representatives to vote again and barely pass—by just two votes—what became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery in the United States.
In short, there was no moral consensus outside of the slave-owning South in favor of ending slavery. Slavery was integral to the economy of the North (and the West), and it took a long, bitter, and bloody civil war to convince a majority of those outside the South that slavery was a institution best abolished by the United States.