The Corner


Miscasting an Argument About Gratitude

Rep Ilhan Omar speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, July 15, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

At New York magazine, Eric Levitz responds to my response to David French on the topic of immigrants and gratitude. But, rather than take on what I argued, which was in reaction to a fairly specific argument made by David, Levitz shifts to what he wants me to have argued, which is that Ilhan Omar should never talk about race. To achieve this, Levitz adds a bunch of explanatory clauses that are taken wholly from his imagination, and then alternates between suggesting that I (a) don’t know about America’s history of racial inequality, and (b) that I do know about it, but that I’m indifferent, neither of which is true.

As it happens, I — an immigrant myself — am fully aware of America’s checkered history, and have written a great deal about it. For a few samples, you can look here, here, and here. This is representative:

That the Founders fought their war anyway was admirable. That the leading voices of their era had the presence of mind to hijack the American revolution and to codify a set of radical principles into a national charter was even more so. Indeed, we might today learn a great deal from a political culture that, per Burke, preferred to detect “ill principle” not by “actual grievance” but instead to “judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle” and to “augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” And yet our celebration of their fortitude is rendered as folly if we forget that, for all that the rebels went through, they were not facing down evil in its purest form.

That task would fall to other Americans — many of whom would pay a terrible price for their rebellions. Eventually, after a century-long struggle and a series of yo-yoing attempts, the twin horrors of slavery and segregation would indeed fall to posterity — but only after they had presented challenges that eclipsed those that were posed during the Revolution. The two eras are essentially incomparable. The crime of the British in America was to deny British conceptions of good government to a people who had become accustomed to it, and to do so capriciously. The crime of white supremacy in the South was, in the words of Ida B. Wells, to “cut off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distribute portions” of any person whom the majority disliked, and to do so in many cases as a matter of established public policy. When Paul Revere warned that “the regulars are coming,” he was alerting his neighbors against an invading force to which more than half the country felt it belonged; when a teenaged Rosa Parks conceded that she wanted to see her grandfather “kill a Ku-Kluxer,” she was fighting for her very survival.

So is this:

For most of America’s story, an entire class of people was, as a matter of course, enslaved, beaten, lynched, subjected to the most egregious miscarriages of justice, and excluded either explicitly or practically from the body politic. We prefer today to reserve the word “tyranny” for its original target, King George III, or to apply it to foreign despots. But what other characterization can be reasonably applied to the governments that, ignoring the words of the Declaration of Independence, enacted and enforced the Fugitive Slave Act? How else can we see the men who crushed Reconstruction? How might we view the recalcitrant American South in the early 20th century? “It” did “happen here.”

As for Levitz’s second argument — which is that, as a result of my indifference, I don’t want anyone else to talk about race, and/or that I believe it is ungrateful for immigrants to do so — that, too, is wrong. Indeed, my objection to Beto O’Rourke’s words (which Levitz rather euphemizes) is not that they address the history of race in America per se, but that they give new immigrants to America a false impression of what it is like now, and in so doing make things worse for a group that should, by rights, be more favorable to America than most. As is the case with far too many contemporary progressives, O’Rourke has a bad habit of casting the Founding in terms that would have been more familiar to Alexander Stephens than to Abraham Lincoln or to Frederick Douglass — that is, of asserting that “racial inequality was fundamental to our nation’s founding” (as Levitz himself puts it), rather than casting it as a pervasive stain that contradicted the beautiful, radical, and ultimately emancipatory ideas that were introduced in the era’s most famous documents.

Rather underhandedly, Levitz asks, “If Cooke regards the public airing of [Beto’s] sentiment as an invitation to ‘cultural suicide,’ one must ask whose culture he wishes to preserve.” Well, I’ll tell him: Lincoln’s, as expressed in his 1859 letter to Henry L. Pierce:

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.

One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.

And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard–the miners, and sappers–of returning despotism.

We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

I would contrast this approach with that of O’Rourke, who told his crowd of newcomers that “this country was founded on white supremacy,” and then vastly overstated the scale of the remaining problems while downplaying the progress that has been made. It is fine, of course, if Levitz disagrees with me on this. Perhaps he thinks that the current state of race relations in America is worse than I do? Perhaps he disagrees with me about the Founding? Perhaps he thinks that we make more progress by telling new arrivals to America that our institutions are still mostly stained, rather than by selling them on the virtues of the system as designed? Whatever his view, however, it would be nice if he’d refrain from pretending that I am entirely blind to the debate.

As for Ilhan Omar — a woman who was saved by America, accepted as a citizen, and then elected to Congress, but who remains disappointed by America on a scale that does not comport with the opportunities she has been afforded — well, I have broadly the same problem with her as I do with Beto O’Rourke. As I argued in my response to David, I think that immigrants of all stripes have a certain duty to look for the good in the places that taken them in or saved their lives. And, across the board, I see Omar as doing precisely the opposite. It is telling that, in the Washington Post profile of Omar, the very first anecdote on offer shows her telling a story about “American racism, cruelty and injustice” that is flatly untrue, and that, in fact, seems to have been cribbed from Les Miserables — a book about early nineteenth century France. Her rhetoric tends that way in general; on economics, on foreign policy, on Israel, on immigration, on our constitutional order. And she’s wrong.

Later in his essay, Levitz himself concedes that “Omar’s critiques of the U.S. are certainly radical and not always tactful” — but then, as if to change the subject before this concession lands, he adds, “But the same is true of Trump’s,” before implying that I am annoyed by one and not the other because “Omar’s critique challenges America’s racial innocence, while Trump’s does not.” Were I on board with Trump’s criticisms of the United States, this might be a useful digression (albeit an odd one given that I was writing about immigrants). But I am not on board with Trump’s criticisms. I do not think that we are in the midst of “American carnage,” that we are being “screwed” by foreign nations, or that the “Flight 93” mentality is useful — all of which I have said. Who, I wonder, does Levitz believe he is writing about?

I’m not sure it can be me, given that Levitz ends up making a broad argument in favor of dissent — “the cause of [Omar’s] disappointment,” he writes, “is the discrepancy between her country’s egalitarian ideals and its inequitable realities” — that I have made at length. Perhaps this is why Levitz seeks to make an argument about gratitude and attitude about race instead. As I wrote, I believe that immigrants such as myself ought to be extremely grateful to be in America, and that we have a certain obligation to adopt and cherish its creed, its ideals, and its Constitution. I also believe that Omar and O’Rourke and co. are wildly off in their estimation of that discrepancy, and that conveying that error to newcomers is a sin. I do not need, or expect, Eric Levitz to agree with me. My own colleague, David French, does not, which is where this debate started. But it would be good, at least, to be debated on the ground I actually occupied.

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