Bloom Briefing 1: State Executions, Toni Morrison, Obama's Legacy, Montaigne, MLK Day
Happy Martin Luther King Day and welcome to the first edition of The Bloom Briefing. I'm writing weekly roundups of my perspective on the interesting things I've read that week. All content will be political. Feel free to share with your friends or family if you like. Please respond and engage with me. I'm eager to hear why you think I'm right or (more interestingly) wrong. I hope you enjoy!
Dylann Roof Will Be Executed
If there is anyone who deserves the death penalty, it is Dylann Roof. His goal was to create a race war, and, thankfully, regardless of his punishment, he failed spectacularly. Rather than become incandescent with rage, some of the family members of the victims have publicly forgiven him, while others have been outspoken against his execution. Such humane, principled, and empathetic reactions are a testament to the power of grace in the face of pure evil.
But does anyone deserve the death penalty? The ACLU has a published a cogent case against it. This case relies on three “fundamental concerns.” First, that the death penalty is applied inequitably – that poor and minority defendants are more likely to be executed; second, that it has no public safety benefit (it’s not functional as a deterrent); and third, that innocent people are often executed.
Roof’s execution is almost a perfect counterexample to point one. The death penalty is disproportionately applied to cases with black defendants and white victims, whereas Roof is a white defendant and the victims are black. We are likely not concerned about point two in this case. Roof’s execution is not supposed to be a deterrent; it’s supposed to be retributive. And finally, we need not be concerned about point three, as there is no doubt about Roof’s guilt.
There is, however, another potentially compelling case against the death penalty. That is that when the state executes someone, all of us execute someone. Are we okay with that? This raises more questions than answers. If there were broad consensus that Roof deserved to be executed but no one was willing to push the button to inject him, would you be willing to do so? Is a blanket case against the death penalty for the various reasons outlined by the ACLU more compelling if we also advocate against Roof’s execution as well? What would it say if the state defends its white employees (police officers) who take the lives of innocent black children, executes black defendants for crimes they may or may not have committed (death penalty problems above), but won’t execute a white man for a heinous act of violence against a group of black churchgoers?
The questions I find myself asking mostly lead to a belief that Roof should be executed. Cases in which execution is considered should be treated with utmost circumspection. Execution should never be the default. We should ask ourselves again and again and again in every instance whether or not we are okay with execution. We should question ourselves if we are. But there may be some instances in which execution is the only form of punishment commensurate with the crime. If there are such cases, Roof’s would certainly be one.
Toni Morrison on How We Got Trump
There are a multitude of explanations for why and how Trump won the presidential election. Dave Roberts at Vox taxonomized a number of the reasons at the end of November. I recommend that piece if you are simply curious to see the many different explanations in one place. I want to call your attention to one explanation in particular.
We all know that Trump won white voters and lost every other constituency. This has led to allegations from conservatives that the “coastal liberal media elite” is out of touch with the white working class, and hand-wringing from the “coastal liberal media elite” about why so many of our white brothers and sisters could support such a depraved racist. Leave it to Toni Morrison to demonstrate more empathy than anyone else while simultaneously understanding this phenomenon better than anyone else.
"It may be hard to feel pity for the men who are making these bizarre sacrifices in the name of white power and supremacy. Personal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others—especially to black people—they are willing to risk contempt, and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren’t so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause."
There are so many explanations for what motivates people to racial animus, but this resonates strongly. “They are willing to risk contempt, and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong.” We, the well-educated elite, often believe that our moral opprobrium will be enough to dissuade morally reprehensible behavior in others. But when people believe that their social status is threatened, morality becomes secondary to the preservation of that status, i.e., survival.
150 years after the end of slavery, 50 years after the end of Jim Crow, and amidst the perseverance of racial inequality in myriad forms (access to healthcare, education, jobs, wealth, housing, voting, etc.), some whites feel their very existence threatened by the notion of racial equality. They feel this terror enough to shoot black churchgoers just to prove a point. Our founding creed—that we created a country that believes that all men are created equal—is also our founding myth.
Toni Morrison is a victim of this founding mythology, yet she has offered the most resonant understanding of those who seek to preserve it. She is a national treasure.
The Obama-Jeremiah Wright Scandal Today
Many of us would likely not know about Reverend Jeremiah Wright if it were not for ABC News trying to question a black presidential candidate’s patriotism. They broadcast excerpts of his sermons, creating much ado about nothing, but the remarks represent a valuable perspective on American politics. The most divisive remarks are below:
"God Bless America. No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent."
Jamelle Bouie has written a nuanced take on Obama’s relationship to this strain of black political theory that “condemns America for its treatment of black and brown people, for the genocide of natives and the enslavement of Africans, for internment and displacement. In Wright’s eyes,” Bouie writes, “America was sinful, and until it atoned for those sins, God would deny His blessings.”
Whether Obama agrees with Wright or not, we will never know, but Bouie takes him at his word, and all of his public statements indicate disagreement, as they would have to for Obama to be a public figure with any appeal to white America. (This is ridiculous, but it is true.) Bouie, however, makes the case that Obama’s insistence on looking at the “better angels of his opponents” has left him vulnerable to the complete “undoing of his legacy.”
The irony, of course, is clear. Obama could not have achieved one-tenth of what he did without the beliefs that he has. That those beliefs should lead to the unraveling of his legacy is a fable of near-biblical moral messaging. Our greatest strengths will also be our downfall. Obama is human after all.
Bouie’s take, of course, is contingent upon a belief that Obama’s legacy will be unraveled. If, like me, you’re closer to Obama’s perspective than Wright’s, you believe that progress can be continued. Maybe, as Obama recedes into the background, his message to believe “not in [his] ability to bring about change—but in [ours],” will finally be taken to heart. Mass activism begins the day after the inauguration. Will it safeguard the progress of the Obama administration or succumb to the oppression of a new tyrannical administration? Only time will tell. All we can do is saddle up and be willing to go to the barricades when the opportunity arises.
Montaigne as Guide for 21st-Century Polarized Politics
Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker has (rather unfavorably) reviewed a new biography of Montaigne by Philippe Desan, but the discussion of Montaigne merits your time. Montaigne is considered by some to be the founder of liberalism. A member of the aspiring aristocracy of Bordeaux in the late 16th and early 17th-centuries, Montaigne chronicled the many absurdities of a life lived amidst the religious wars of his time. With Protestants and Catholics engaged in constant feud, Montaigne’s writings emerge from a polarized milieu that make them particularly applicable for our own time.
Upon first sight, it’s clear that unlike many philosophers, Montaigne does not purport to have a unified theory of the world. Instead he recognizes that individuals, institutions, beliefs, ideas, and thus life, at its essence, are inherently self-contradictory. In contrast to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s suggestion that it is the mark “of a first-rate intelligence to be able to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” Montaigne believes that it is simply the nature of the human being to retain two opposed ideas at the same time. “Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.”
The self-contradictory nature of individuals (Gopnik calls this ‘doubleness’) means that we ought to avoid entreaties towards ideological purity. Not only are such views specious, their consequences are a one-way street towards extremism. Ideological purists will tell you that all people who support X or all people who believe Y are not just wrong, but evil. In a world where ideology is preeminent, right and wrong are not merely matters of utility, but of moral judgment as well.
In these troublesome times, adopting a healthy skepticism towards ideological purists, above all towards those purists with whom we are most likely to agree, is the best means of walking back the slow creep of polarization.
Because it is Martin Luther King Day
Letter From a Birmingham Jail is, without question, one of the greatest works of persuasive writing. I leave you with this line, which seems apropos of our current situation:
"I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history the majestic word of the Declaration of Independence, we were here ...If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands ..."