Friday, January 17, 2014

Is My Face Red?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column was published yesterday: "The Great Inequality Debate, and the Reemergence of Distribution as a Respectable Subject of Discussion."  In the column, I argue (surprise!) that the renewed concern with inequality among Democratic politicians is a very good thing.  I also discuss how academic economists (and economistic policy analysts) played an essential role in dismissing the subject of inequality from polite discussion for the past generation.

I will offer some more thoughts along those lines in a Dorf on Law post this coming Monday.  However, I just arrived in Australia after a 36-hour travel marathon, and I need to sleep.  Even so, I cannot resist sharing part of a piece of hate mail that I received from a reader after my Verdict column was published.  It is just too fascinatingly bizarre not to share.

As I note in passing in my column, one of the increasingly common moves on the right in the U.S. is to red-bait anyone who argues in favor of income redistribution.  At this point, simply being in favor of a progressive tax system makes one a card-carrying member of the Communist party, it seems.  Not everyone on the right does this, of course, but it is depressingly common.

I have certainly been red-baited before, and when that happens, I take it as a sign of the critic's desperation.  The email in question, however, sets a new standard, going far beyond merely suggesting that I am a secret collectivist.  I will spare my readers the bizarre lead-in, because it is simply incoherent.  But the writer's punch line is that "history has amply demonstrated" that arguments like mine have been
... the foundation of atrocities from slavery to the Killing Fields to the Inquisition to the Holocaust.  And your notion of distributed justice rests on nothing different or better than the notions productive of those injustices. Your only retort can be, “perhaps – but my intentions are better”. That may be, but your intentions are no guarantee of less atrocious outcome."
I love this job.

45 comments:

Howard Wasserman said...

Who knew the Holocaust was about redistribution of wealth and eliminating income inequality? I guess the Nazis got lots of artwork and stuff.

Shag from Brookline said...

Neil, you did not identify the sender of the red baiting email. While I don't think it was NYTimes columnist David Brooks, his column today might have helped spark the email. I am awaiting Paul Krugman's and /or Joseph Stiglitz,s (and perhaps your) comments on Brooks.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

In any case, there are, and have been, all sorts of C/communists and Marxists, not a few worthy of our admiration and emulation, for instance, Communists in Alabama during the Great Depression (see Robin D.G. Kelley’s book). Whatever the long-documented shortcomings, liabilities, or nonsense propagated by the American Communist Party, individual Party members like Dorothy Healey were able exemplify what is best in the Left tradition. Or consider South Africa during the struggle against apartheid: it’s highly likely that Nelson Mandela was one, but there are numerous studies, including wonderful biographies of remarkable SACP members like Bram Fischer or Alan Wieder’s recent work on Ruth First and Joe Slovo, that demonstrate the courage, integrity, and moral virtues of individual Communists and the importance of the role of the Party in victory over the apartheid regime. Look too at the Indian state of Kerala, where Communists in power are responsible for comparatively impressive accomplishments (within India and globally as well) in education and socio-economic development, in significant enhancements in the welfare and well-being of its residents.

In Palestine, beginning in 1969, Communist Party members were singularly responsible for the construction of a robust civil society, as the Palestine Communist Party “set out to build small nonmilitary institutions based on the conviction that local governance and the organizing of civilian community entities were necessary preparations for independence.” As Elizabeth King notes, “The formation of thousands of committees and groups into networks of popular mobilization—a direct result of the conditions of occupation—had the effect of creating a civil society. Innumerable voluntary associations—professional associations, student and faculty unions, and women’s committees—evolved to fill voids created by military occupation, as well as to oppose it.” And while not prompted by a moral commitment to the principle of nonviolence, it was the Communists who spoke out against armed struggle and advocated nonviolent methods of opposition in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including not only the building of civil society, but relying on a variety of its well-known methods of civil resistance. In Israel, the Communist Party (Maki, although not the earlier party with that name), has much to recommend it, as does the “broad Leftist movement” Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), founded by the Party. Democrats and Liberals who are reflexively dismissive of anything classified as “C/communist” might even learn a thing or two about principles and methods of participatory democracy from Communists: see Michelle Williams’ The Roots of Participatory Democracy: Democratic Communists in South Africa and Kerala, India (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Look closely at the life and artistry of Paul Robeson, or the life and works of the “cricketing Marxist” C.L.R. James (an exquisite exemplar of what I’ve elsewhere defined as ‘Marxist spirituality’), and proudly wave a red flag! Examine with Cedric J. Robinson in Black Marxism (Zed Press, 1983) the “Black radical tradition” that arose among those in the “periphery,” that is, in the colonial territories and the colored peoples in the metropolitan centers of capital, and take ownership of the virtues and values of “being Red!”

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

The above is merely representative, thus far from exhaustive (in part owing to the limits of my research). In short, there are times and places when one could rightfully and proudly be a card-carrying member of a Communist Party or identify with the far Left end of the political spectrum. An integral part of my own worldview involves belief in what has been called “humane Marxism,” one which assumes no monopoly on the truth, has shed the mantle of messianism and is committed, with Lenin, to the perfection of the mind through the critical assimilation of principal facts and “the knowledge of all the treasures created mankind.” It means one can be a Communist or Marxist in a manner uniquely one’s own, committed to moral autonomy, and responding to the exigencies and struggles of our time and place, refusing to fight the battles of yesteryear. As one of my former teachers reminds us, individual Marxists today “need not carry the blame for historical atrocities” committed in the name of Marxism (as Christians today are not accountable for the Inquisition).

Shag from Brookline said...

Paul Krugman has a comment on Brooks at PK's NYTimes blog.

Shag from Brookline said...

Paul Krugman has another post at his NYTimes blog with more detail than his earlier post; this time he does not mention David Brooks directly, but ....

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Evin Terna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Evin Terna said...

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