“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

One of my favorite speeches, period, is Frederick Douglass'Fourth of July address to an audience of New York abolitionists, who came to hear about America's greatness, but received a denunciation of its depravity, and a call to honor its founding ideals. Even now, 162 years later, it's electrifying:

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY.

Zack Snyder's "Orgasm Death Gimmick"


Zack Snyder differs from Burroughs, Noe and Passolini in so far as his depictions of the transgressive, the anti-social and the fetishistic are presented in an entirely sympathetic light. Not only does Snyder fail to condemn Leonidas or Rorschach, he actually builds films around them that make them look like deeply moral and heroic men. Snyder’s orgasm death gimmick is not deployed as a form of social criticism, it is deployed in order to pander to audiences with seemingly no higher artistic desire than to entertain and amuse. Zack Snyder makes films that make us feel good about the absolute worst in us.

I've never given this much thought to Zack Snyder or his films, but maybe I should? [Adds "Zack Snyder Marathon" to calendar]

"Sharing in the riches of its benefits"

On the recommendation of a friend, I'm reading For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, the latest book from legal scholar Randall Kennedy. As a defense of affirmative action, it's more than adequate. But it stands stronger as a call for clear-eyed thinking, and specifically, a call for affirmative action supporters to acknowledge the costs, weaknesses, and failures of the policy, even as they defend it.

I'll have more to say when I finish. For now, I wanted to highlight a passage that should sound familiar if you read The Case for Reparations from Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic:

It is not unfair to enlist, to some extent, all Americans in that large, complex, and costly effort, including those who have had no hand in perpetrating racial wrongs. Membership in a polity entails contributing to the alleviation of its woes, just as it means sharing in the riches of its benefits. Americans who had nothing to do with the terrible injustice the United States government imposed on people of Japanese ancestry during World War II were required nonetheless, and rightly so, to contribute toward paying reparations to rectify the wrong done by the society in which they enjoy membership.

And here's the related passage from Coates:

The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

They both point to the same idea: Citizenship isn't free, and the benefits of living in a (largely) peaceful, prosperous nation like the United States aren't without their costs and sacrifices. To demand the psychic and material benefits of American citizenship while disavowing its costs and obligations isn't just untenable—a recipe for disaster, sooner or later—it's dishonest.

"Where are you really from?"

Without fail, once a week, someone asks me where I'm from.

"Hey, where are you from?"


"No, I mean, where are you really from?"

Sometimes they'll clarify with a "from Africa," and every time I'll say, "My family has been here for a long time, no one is from Africa." It's never not annoying, and sometimes—when there's an undertone of "you don't belong here"—it's racist. But most of the time, it's just annoying.

John Roberts' Traps

Jeffrey Toobin kind of goes H.A.M on the Roberts Court's use of "narrow" decisions to set the stage for right-wing revolutions:

The template here is the court’s voting-rights jurisprudence. In the 2009 case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, the court upheld a challenge to an application of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice Roberts’s decision was “narrow,” and it even drew the votes of the court’s more liberal members. Four years later, though, Roberts used the Northwest Austin precedent as a wedge to destroy both Section 4 and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, as well as much of its effectiveness, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. The liberals who signed on to the Northwest Austin decision howled that they’d been betrayed. But it was too late.

Did Barack Obama fail Black America?

I'm not sure I agree with the premise, but Randall Kennedy gives a good explanation of Obama's popularity with African Americans:

First, Obama has delivered on what most blacks most craved: a serious, competent, dignified male politician who identifies as black, is married to a black woman, is free of any associations understood as anti-black and is simultaneously attractive to enough whites and others to prevail electorally. It is difficult to exaggerate African-Americans’ frustration with the stereotype of black male irresponsibility or their yearning for a dramatic counter-image. Obama is the antithesis of The Black Man as Failure. That alone buys him a lot of gratitude.

American Priests

Jacob Bacharach is absolutely right about the role/status/position of the Supreme Court in American life:

[H]as ever any cryptomasonic gaggle of semi-intellectuals in the history of human society ever labored so conspicuously to cloak their inevitable arrival at their own obvious a priori conclusions in an evidentiary process? Again, you wanna talk religion? How about the belief that nine concurrent lifetime Popes operating under a principle of practical infallibility that makes the claims of the actual Vatican seem positively modest by comparison are going to utilize some marvelous hybrid of inductive and deductive reasoning to protect the holy principles of democracy, whatever those are. Of course this was going to be the outcome.

Hillary Clinton Doesn't Need Liberals

My latest column at Slate is on the source of Hillary Clinton's astounding strength as a potential presidential candidate:

Which brings us back to the present. Yes, Hillary Clinton benefits from her new popularity with liberals, but her strength comes from her position with black voters, who seem committed to a Clinton candidacy. And as long as that’s true, Hillary Clinton can’t lose the 2016 Democratic primary, period.

Libertarian's Racial Blindspot

My friend Jonathan Blanks speaks truth:

Too often, libertarians have asked me in private conversation about what's best described as "respectability politics." That is, because of the dress or language or behavior of young black men particularly that the ire of police is directed their way and therefore results in the myriad criminal justice disparities. But here you have a black female college professor refusing to show ID--as any good libertarian would--and getting thrown to the ground and arrested. How many times does this sort of thing happen to black people before libertarians recognize that maybe her race may have played a role? It's journalism--you're supposed to stick to the facts and keep speculation down, I know. But the fact is black people have a long history in this country of being singled out and abused by people in power, and to my knowledge, there's been no magical moment when that has stopped being true.