In recent months I’ve come under a surprising amount of fire from the right for my commitment to civil liberties. I can write all day long about the value of the Bill of Rights as the indispensable component of the American social compact, but I’ve got a more selfish reason to preserve free speech and the marketplace of ideas: I might be wrong, and I need access to the truth.
I don’t want to trust the wisdom of my crowd or the assumptions of my own virtue. I’ve long pondered these remarkably honest words from Ta-Nehisi Coates, written almost nine years ago:
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t have and then ask, “Why?”
This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking “Why?” The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying — give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can’t be surmounted by an advice column.
Coates’s words apply not only to race, of course. Though Coates is openly atheist, he’s discussing a truth that a Christian should embrace—that we are not noble. We are shot-through with sin. When everyone around us is right, we deserve little credit for conforming. When everyone around us is wrong, we’re also likely to fail.
On this day, 155 years ago, the army of my ancestors folded its flags and stacked its arms. The tidal pull of tribalism carried away the men who gave me their name. Their legacy—and the legacy of every generation that has been caught up in the sweep of history in ways that harm us still today—should cause us all to pause.
When the crowd says yes, consider the option of no. When the crowd says go, discern whether we should stop.
— Paul Howard (@pauldhoward) April 27, 2020
I will take comments on this submitted by email only to KSHarmon[at]mindspring[dot]com.