Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Escaping Slavery” Mr. Blow says the idea that progress toward racial harmony would or should be steady and continuous is fraying.  Mr. Nocera has sent us “Over the Cliff and Back.”  A new year. A new Congress. Could we get some new results out of our lawmakers in Washington?  No, Mr. Nocera.  This has been another example of SASQ.  Ms. Collins has “The 2013 Pop Quiz.”  It’s time to test your New Year’s knowledge. People, there is to be no Googling to look for the right answer!  (I got 5 out of 8 correct.)  Here’s Mr. Blow:

America has slavery on the brain these days.

There were the recent releases of the movies “Lincoln” (which I found enlightening and enjoyable) and “Django Unchained” (which I found a profound love story with an orgy of excesses and muddled moralities). I guess my preferences reflect my penchant for subtlety. Sometimes a little bit of an unsettling thing goes a long way, and a lot goes too far. Aside from its gratuitous goriness, “Django Unchained” reportedly used the N-word more than 100 times. “Lincoln” used it only a handful. I don’t know exactly where my threshold is, but I think it’s well shy of the century mark.

And there was this week the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in this country’s archives.

All of this has caused me to think deeply about the long shadow of slavery, the legacy of that most grievous enterprise and the ways in which that poison tree continues to bear fruit.

To be sure, America has moved light-years forward from the days of slavery. But the idea that progress toward racial harmony would or should be steady and continuous is fraying. And the pillars of the institution — the fundamental devaluation of dark skin and strained justifications for the unconscionable — have proved surprisingly resilient.

For instance, in October, The Arkansas Times reported that Jon Hubbard, a Republican state representative, wrote in a 2009 self-published book that “the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise.” His misguided point was that for all the horrors of slavery, blacks were better off in America than in Africa.

This was a prevailing, wrongheaded, ethically empty justification for American slavery when it was legal.

Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856: “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.”

And in a famous 1837 speech on the Senate floor, John C. Calhoun declared: “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.”

Lee was later appointed commander in chief of the armies of the South, and Calhoun had been vice president and became secretary of state. But in November, Hubbard lost his seat; I guess that’s progress.

Still, the persistence of such a ridiculous argument does not sit well with me. And we should all be unsettled by the tendency of some people to romanticize and empathize with the Confederacy.

A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2011 found that most Southern whites think it’s appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders, the only demographic to believe that.

A CNN poll also released that month found that nearly 4 in 10 white Southerners sympathize more with the Confederacy than with the Union.

What is perhaps more problematic is that negative attitudes about blacks are increasing. According to an October survey by The Associated Press: “In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election.”

Not progress.

In fact, it feels as though slavery as an analogy has become subversively chic. Herman Cain, running as a Republican presidential candidate, built an entire campaign around this not-so-coded language, saying that he had left “the Democrat plantation,” calling blacks “brainwashed” and arguing, “I don’t believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way.”

As the best-selling author Michelle Alexander pointed out in her sensational 2010 book “The New Jim Crow,” various factors, including the methodical mass incarceration of black men, has led to the disintegration of the black family, the disenfranchisement of millions of people, and a new and very real era of American oppression.

As Alexander confirmed to me Friday: “Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Definitely not progress.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

On Thursday, the Capitol was full of happy people. The trauma of the 112th Congress — which ended 36 hours after yet another frenzied round of kick-the-financial-can — was starting to lift. It was a new day. Hope sprang eternal.

The new Congress was being sworn in. The 14 new senators and 84 new members of Congress walked around the Capitol in a giddy daze. Everywhere you looked, you saw family and friends and supporters who had come to Washington to celebrate their victory. They couldn’t stop smiling.

In the Speaker’s Lobby, where reporters buttonhole members of Congress as they make their way to the House floor, I spoke to Ann McLane Kuster, a new Democratic congresswoman from New Hampshire. “What makes you think the new Congress will function any better than the previous one?” I asked. “The voters have instructed us to solve problems,” she replied firmly.

Tom Rice, a new Republican congressman from South Carolina, said, “I would like to try to push the country forward.” But you didn’t have to drill down very far to learn that Rice’s definition of moving the country forward was very different from Kuster’s. Rice favors a balanced budget amendment; Kuster wants higher taxes for the wealthy.

I bumped into Hawaii’s new senator, Brian Schatz, who replaced the late Daniel Inouye toward the end of the last Congressional session. “The fiscal-cliff vote shows that it is possible to have a bipartisan vote,” he actually said.

If only.

What the fiscal cliff vote showed, in fact, is just how rudderless and polarized Washington has become. The only way Congress could end the last debt-ceiling crisis was by creating a cliff so steep — with its combination of tax increases and deep spending cuts — that both parties would be forced to find an acceptable middle ground.

Instead, they punted again. Though President Obama got a watered-down version of his tax hikes for the wealthy, the spending cuts were pushed off into the future, infuriating many Republicans. Because Republicans will no longer negotiate with Obama, he had to outsource the negotiations to his vice president, Joe Biden. Speaker John Boehner was humiliated by his own party, of which two-thirds voted against the deal in the House. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, quickly promised a new fight over the next debt-ceiling vote.

That’s less than two months away. After which, we’ll hit the fiscal cliff — again. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action, and expecting a different result. By that measure, Congress has lost its mind.

“Where is the leadership?” asked Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, echoing the sentiment of much of the country. Schultz had been trying for months to rouse the country into thinking hard about why our political system has run aground. “We can’t do this too many more times,” he said, referring to crises like the fiscal cliff. “We are sapping the country’s spirit. Our political system is broken.” He blamed, among other things, the practice of gerrymandering and the big money flowing into campaigns.

He’s right. The incentives to put country over party have vanished. Elected officials who cross party leaders get stripped of their committee assignments — as happened to four Republican legislators this week who were not viewed as “team players.” The combination of gerrymandered districts and a primary system that empowers a small coterie of party hard-liners has meant that representatives and senators who don’t toe the party line getting booted out of office. Mickey Edwards, the former congressman from Oklahoma, has written a book, “The Parties Versus The People,” in which he proposes that we move to an open primary system, where all candidates, of every persuasion, run — with the top two finishers facing off in the general election. That would help loosen the grip party extremists now have on their representatives.

Thursday night, after I got home, I had a phone conversation with Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican who first won election in 2010 by campaigning as a modern-day fiscal conservative. That is to say, he believed, as he told me, “that we have a spending problem not a revenue problem.”

But after he got to Congress, he dug deeper, and came to what he calls “a data-driven, analytic conclusion.” Namely: spending cuts alone could not eliminate the deficit. The country needed more tax revenue as well. He showed his data to everyone he could on his side of the aisle. The nodded politely and continued to insist on not raising taxes. Rigell did not revert back, however. “We have to have the courage to critique and refine our own platform,” he said. “That isn’t weakness. It is intellectual honesty.”

I asked him if he had been punished by leadership for his courageous views. “No,” he said.

Give them time, I thought.

Ms. Collin’s 2013 pop quiz is next:

1 Michele Bachmann announced she had introduced the first bill of the 113th Congress, a proposal to:

  • A) Revisit her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.
  • B) Repeal Obamacare.
  • C) Require the media to explain that when she says people should be “armed,” she means “armed with knowledge.”
  • D) Rename the National Institutes of Health in honor of any one of the “hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.”

2 John Boehner began the new year by staving off a right-wing rebellion and getting re-elected to his awful job as speaker of the House. Which of these recent John Boehner statements was in his first address to the new Congress?

  • A) “Listen, I was born with a glass half full.”
  • B) “Ifs and ands and buts are like candy and nuts. If that were the case, every day would be Christmas.”
  • C) “We meet again at democracy’s great port of call.”
  • D) “We got some of the smartest people in the country who serve here, and some of the dumbest.”

3 Over in the Senate, the No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, celebrated by announcing that:

  • A) “Now that I think about it, we really did go overboard on that filibuster thing.”
  • B) “It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country.”
  • C) It was time to “stop obsessing about Obamacare.”
  • D) He was really sorry he once compared gay marriage to having a neighbor who “marries a box turtle.”

4 One of the stars of the action-packed new year’s week in Congress was Vice President Joe Biden, who seemed to be everywhere. However Biden did NOT:

  • A) Say he sold a fiscal-cliff-ending deal to suspicious Senate Democrats by telling them: “This is Joe Biden, and I’m your buddy.”
  • B) Confuse the husband of an incoming senator during a swearing-in picture-taking by telling him, “Spread your legs. You’re going to be frisked.”
  • C) Tell Mitch McConnell he looked like a “cute little old hoot owl.”
  • D) Greet a muscular soldier with: “If you need any help on your pecs, let me know.”

5 The biggest special election in the new year will be the one for the Senate in Massachusetts, presuming that John Kerry leaves to become secretary of state. Scott Brown could wind up running for the Senate four times in five years! Brown has already:

  • A) Announced that his truck now has 300,000 miles on it.
  • B) Questioned whether the Democratic favorite, Representative Edward Markey, actually lives in Massachusetts.
  • C) Told reporters that he was a Republican “only when it comes to money.”
  • D) Signed up to do a repeat of his 1982 Cosmo nude photo as “America’s Sexiest Middle-Aged Man.”

6 In a dramatic end-of-the-year sports moment, boxer Juan Manuel Marquez knocked down his longtime rival Manny Pacquiao. Just before the match, Pacquiao was visited in his dressing room by a prominent Republican who said:

  • A) “Hi Manny, I’m Rick Santorum, and I want to tell you about a plot against our families by the United Nations. Also, I can do 50 push-ups.”
  • B) “Hi Manny, I’m Herman Cain. Do you enjoy pizza?”
  • C) “Hi Manny, I’m Newt Gingrich and this is my current wife, Callista.”
  • D) “Hi Manny. I’m Mitt Romney. I ran for president. I lost.”

7 Coming soon in the new year! “Warm Bodies,” a Romeo-and-Juliet romance about the forbidden love between a teenage girl and a handsome young zombie. Zombies are so in! Which of the following was NOT among their achievements in 2012:

  • A) Starred in a campaign ad created by Nancy Pelosi’s opponent, depicting the House minority leader as the head of a zombie army.
  • B) Featured prominently in all the Mayan end-of-the-world speculation.
  • C) Raised the profile of the Kansas Anti-Zombie Militia, whose spokesman told The Kansas City Star this week that a zombie invasion “is more possible than people think.”
  • D) Figured in Rod Blagojevich’s “at-least-I’m-not-a-zombie” conviction appeal.

8 And there’s an upcoming reality TV series about:

  • A) An 85-year-old former governor of Louisiana and his 34-year-old wife, who he met as a pen pal while he was serving a prison term for bribery and extortion.
  • B) Those people in Kansas who are preparing for a zombie invasion.
  • C) The adventures of outgoing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s return to the private sector. In the first episode, Geithner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel take a road trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
  • D) Joe Biden just being Joe Biden.

Scroll down for the answers.




















1 – B, 2 – C, 3 – B, 4 – C, 5 – B, 6 – D, 7 – D, 8 – A


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