By Ryan Tibbens
(Order information available at the bottom.)
The novel, which follows a white tweenager and black man as they run away from abuse and oppression down the Mississippi River, is not only anti-slavery, but anti-racist as well, an uncommon position in the 1880s. Many modern Americans fail to realize that even most abolitionists held intensely racist beliefs. However, Mark Twain was not among them. After being asked about black students entering prestigious universities in 1885, Twain had this to say: "I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it." Twain went on to pay the full tuition and costs at Yale Law School for Warner T. McGuinn, one of the first black students at the school and later a lawyer praised by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others. The point here is that the novel is not a promotion of slavery or racism; instead, it is biting satire of all the worst parts of American culture (in Twain's eyes) -- racism, slavery, abusive parents, alcoholism, blind nationalism, religious revival movements, bawdy entertainment, con men, and stupid, ignorant, gullible, and mean people of all kinds. Unfortunately, people have always misunderstood the book. After its initial publication, it was criticized as "indecent" and "shameful" because of its humor, its use of a child narrator, its use of dialect, and even its anti-racist message. By the second half of the 20th century, people began to object to the book's inclusion of the dreaded "n-word." However, even that criticism was not always genuine or fair. Many people who objected to the book's message of racial equality and inclusion used the racial slur as an excuse to remove the novel from schools. More recently, people offer sincere objections to the book's racial slurs. One professor, Dr. Alan Gribben, recently revised and republished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through a company called NewSouth Publishing; in his text, he replaces every instance of the word "nigger" with the word "slave." Gribben claims to have made the change to reduce teachers' and students' discomfort with the text and class discussions; however, it renders the book colorblind. Gribben's edits put modern readers' focus on slavery, which had been illegal for nearly two decades when Twain published the novel, rather than race, which is the real core of the book. Consider that Twain writes and publishes this book in 1884 but sets it in the 1830s or 1840s. Why? Because a story with a race-related moral would be better understood by his audience if put in the context of slavery. When we replace racial terms with slavery terms, we confuse the issues. We forget that the vast majority of slaves in world history have not been black and that the vast majority of black people who have ever lived have not been slaves. Surely Twain opposed slavery, but the slavery issue was mostly settled at the time of publication. This is a book about (and against) racism. People's objections to Twain's use of the n-word are fine on the surface, except that the book is among the most anti-racist books of its era, perhaps any era; the language is more symptomatic of time period and realism than intent. That is not to say that readers' concerns, objections, and feelings aren't legitimate -- they are. Revered history professor Sterling Stuckey says, "In my judgment, 'Huck Finn' is one of the most devastating attacks on racism ever written.'' As intelligent, culturally-literate Americans, we must deal with a tough question -- should we ever be asked to experience discomfort on our journey to enlightenment?
Enlightenment is at the heart of this great novel. In perhaps the plot's most important moment, young Huck grapples with society's ethics, his own morals, racism, slavery, and his loyalty to his friend Jim, a runaway slave. When faced with a decision between leaving Jim to be re-enslaved far from home, returning him to his 'rightful' owner and be re-enslaved, or defying all his school, church, and social learning by working to free Jim from his new captivity and continue to help him find freedom -- a decision between doing the 'right thing' according to society or the 'right thing' according to his heart -- Huck declares, "All right then, I'll go to hell." Huck may not have achieved true enlightenment just yet, but he makes a choice that he never regrets and that shapes his future acts -- he will always do what is right, regardless of what society says.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a leading candidate for the title of 'Great American Novel.' It incorporates important elements of our national ethos: rugged individualism, naturalism and realism, complicated history, racism, slavery, coming of age, and -- above all -- the ongoing struggle between personal morals and social ethics. Because of the book's language, fewer and fewer teachers use this book, often deciding that "it just isn't worth the trouble anymore," but growth is rarely easy, progress requires a struggle, and art thrives on challenges. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though not perfect, is special, is purposeful, is thoughtful, is moral, decent, and a must-read for any person desiring better understandings of morality, racism, or American culture.
This book deserves an A+ for its literary innovations, cultural significance, and educational offerings.
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ORDER INFO: The first book link above (McDougal Littell Literary Connections) is recommended because it the copy that Mr. Tibbens has and that the school offers. Class discussions and lectures will include book references and page numbers from that edition; it is available for purchase via the link AND for free borrowing from the school book room. The Bantam (2nd above) and Dover (3rd above) editions are of similar cost and quality, though the Bantam version has slightly larger margins for annotating. The Norton (4th above) is a nicer binding and includes analytical and informative support texts, but it does cost a bit more. The 5th book is a reprinting of the original text, including illustrations and other extras from early printings. Any original, unabridged edition of the book is acceptable for class use. Ebooks and audiobooks are widely available (often for free/cheap), but they make annotations extremely difficult, so they are not recommended unless paired with a traditional hard copy. Contact the teacher with questions.
Just for fun...
Introduction and Review by Ryan Tibbens
(Order information available at the bottom of the review.)
Simply put, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the most important books written in American history. Widely regarded as the best American slave narrative, it was written by Frederick Douglass at the age of 27, just a few years after gaining his freedom. Like most slave narratives, it includes testimonials and introductions by prominent white abolitionists to lend ethos to the author, but upon reading, modern audiences can scarcely imagine that Douglass needed a boost in credibility. His narrative structure is sound, imagery is vivid, diction is impeccable. His appeals to human decency and justice are cries we can't unhear. An early review in William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper proclaimed, “It will leave a mark upon this age which the busy finger of time will deepen at every touch. It will generate a public sentiment in this nation, in the presence of which our pro-slavery laws and constitutions shall be like chaff in the presence of fire. It contains the spark which will kindle up the smouldering [sic] embers of freedom in a million souls, and light up our whole continent with the flames of liberty."
Frequently cited as an inspiration by civil rights champions and politicians, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass also functions well in modern English and social studies classrooms. Its historical significance and status as a trusted primary source are impressive, but Douglass's style and advanced, sometimes intimidating, vocabulary provide students opportunities to study rhetoric, syntax, diction, style, and more. Douglass's writings have been cited on the Advanced Placement English Language & Composition exam no fewer than three times and offer an opportunity to become more comfortable with older non-fiction, which is traditionally the most challenging multiple choice reading passage on that exam.
For use in my AP English Language & Composition classes, students focus on (and annotate) the author's rhetoric and style, and they give special attention to content related to education and personal freedom. Douglass's exquisite writing makes the first task easy; his candor eases the second as well. In Chapter VI, Douglass writes that his master once said if he was taught to read, "'there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.' These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both."
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is fully deserving of a 5/5 rating. And weighing in at less than 100 pages, even the busiest student can make time to read and annotate it well in just a couple weeks.
For book order purposes, I recommend the Dover Thrift edition because it is accurate, complete, and cheap. The print and margins are somewhat small, so annotations can sometimes be tricky for students who write too much or have large handwriting, but the monetary trade-off usually makes it worthwhile. The other $5-7 versions available on Amazon.com are of varying quality, many having printing errors, binding problems, small margins, or missing prefaces/introductions. Therefore, I personally recommend the cheaper Dover Thrift (which I use) or the Penguin Classic edition, which includes other Douglass writings and speeches. The full text is widely available online, free of charge, but few students have ever submitted quality annotations in an Ebook or from a .pdf. Proceed with caution. Still, it is an option. The book is also available at most major book stores. If you have questions about obtaining a copy, let us know.
ReadThinkWriteSpeak and the ClassCast Podcast are Amazon affiliates. As such, they receive a small portion of any purchases made after clicking links on this page. All proceeds are reinvested into this website, the podcast, or classroom/school supplies for the author/s and students.
By Ryan Tibbens
Disclaimer -- This article took over a month to right, not for lack of ideas or research, but for lack of a conclusion. This ClassCast segment -- in which Jessica Berg and Ryan Tibbens discuss the US Soccer pay gap, women's sports, and more -- helps to explain the delay and some of the nuances (hopefully) addressed in this article: https://youtu.be/rf0xd68U0RI. Consider this ClassCast clip a companion to the essay below.
Let's get this out of the way: I support the US Women's National Soccer team and their fight for better compensation. If I had to guess, you probably do too. There are already TENS OF THOUSANDS of articles on that subject (really, just Google "US Women's Soccer Pay"), many of which, particularly in light of the women's 4th World Cup Championship, are overwhelmingly in favor of the women's pay demands. However, this is not one of those essays. Everyone on the planet has beaten me to it, including Uncle Snoop.
Besides, the concern about pay (Why is there a pay difference between male and female athletes who play the same sports?) isn't even the most interesting question. Most writers and pundits ask about pay, then dive into the nuances of wage scales, advertising revenues, attendance figures, winning percentages, civil rights, common decency, and the rest. They're right. Researched, reasoned argument is the only way to understand the basic question and make a fair decision. Unfortunately, their results are often misleading or incomplete because those people did not address the full dilemma. The most interesting question in this US Soccer situation is about structure: Why do we maintain separate men's and women's teams in the first place?
Your answer to this question becomes the foundation for your argument about equitable pay.
1) This essay focuses upon asking questions more than answering them. The ultimate goal is to arrive at an ethical, just answer that can be applied across similar disciplines. I'm certain other people will offer better answers than I can.
2) I am an upper-middle class, white, male teacher who played multiple sports and coached co-ed and girls' sports.
3) I have a daughter and a son, both of whom I hope compete in athletics some day. They deserve access to the same opportunities and experiences.
This is my problem: Questions beget questions. I can't begin to ask, and certainly can't answer, the question about sexual division of sports if I don't first understand the purpose of sport.
Remember that sport is, by definition, competition intended for recreation and/or entertainment. In an evolutionary sense, participation in athletics provides people opportunities to prove their physical and genetic fitness, but they are luxuries -- few people waste time on games when their next meal or shelter are uncertain. Plus, sports are fun. Most are fun to play recreationally AND fun to play more seriously, when practice and process become essential. In fact, most people play sports, or at least started playing, because they love the games; they are fun. This is no trivial matter. US Courts have repeatedly ruled on issues of equal access for people of various demographics and abilities in the arena of sport.
In Justice, philosophy professor Michael Sandel breaks down a sports controversy (the PGA and Casey Martin's request for a cart due to disability) by starting with the purpose of sport. Even though the Court sided with Martin, Justice Antonin Scalia dissented with words that ring on in every sports equity argument because he actually considered the purpose of sport.
Sandel writes, "Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed. In a spirited dissent, he rejected the notion that the Court could determine the essential nature of golf. His point was not simply that judges lack the authority or competence to decide the question. He challenged the Aristotelian premise underlying the Court’s opinion—that it is possible to reason about the telos, or essential nature of a game:
Sandel continues, "Since the rules of golf 'are (as in all games) entirely arbitrary,' Scalia wrote, there is no basis for critically assessing the rules laid down by the PGA. If the fans don’t like them, 'they can withdraw their patronage.' But no one can say that this or that rule is irrelevant to the skills that golf is meant to test."
If we understand that sport is, fundamentally, about recreation and entertainment, our thinking becomes more clear. Recreation implies that the participants are having fun, perhaps even playing in their spare time. Entertainment implies that the spectators are having fun. When it comes to large venues and televised games, entertainment can't be argued. And while some athletes play purely for money, most acknowledge that love for the game lives on. Through this lens, it seems that we have the problem backward -- the men are overpaid rather than the women underpaid. If this is simply for recreation, for "sport," then we can reasonably assume that most of the athletes would still participate, even if paid less. Considering the US Women's National Soccer team's roster, participation, success, AND pay complaints, we already have proof that skilled people will play the game for less. So maybe the men should make less?
For some, that solves the problem: we end the pay gap by reducing the men's pay. Most people don't love that, though. They want equality up, not down. They might point out that US Soccer, Nike, FIFA, and a few dozen other companies profit off these athletes' labor and images. They say that the athletes deserve a cut. This isn't just about fun. And that seems reasonable too. Big man Dr. Shaquille O'Neal (great basketball player, big personality, and savvy businessman who now holds a doctorate in education) understood the conflict between money and purity of the game early in his career when he joked: "I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok." After several successful seasons in the NBA, Shaq went back and finished his bachelors degree (and later his doctorate); at graduation, he told the crowd, "Now I can go and get a real job."
Unfortunately, we've reverted to the pay argument without resolving the root question. And that is dangerous because, based on viewership and financials, the women might be arguing from a position of weakness. Based purely on global viewership and profitability, women's soccer (even among great teams) is undeniably losing to men's. Even when raw numbers are meant to show women's soccer to be more lucrative, they don't take into account how many extra games women played to generate the advertising and attendance revenue. Regardless of data interpretation, none of these questions, about pay and sponsorship and the rest, can reasonably be solved if we don't first answer why the sexes are separated in sport.
I was blindsided by this question a couple of months ago. At that time, I wrote a short article about Castor Semenya and her fight with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. I ended that article by saying, "More [...] coming soon." But I never followed up because shortly after writing the article, two issues changed by thinking and my questions. I haven't forgotten the follow-up; I just haven't figured it out yet.
Here's why. First, Castor Semenya is intersex. To my knowledge, none of the major news or sports outlets covering the CAS/IAAF included details about Semenya's biology in their initial reporting. Based on those incomplete reports, masses of people (and I) were outraged that a woman with natural gifts would be handicapped or excluded, but that wasn't exactly the situation. While she demonstrates external characteristics of a female human, Semenya is 46XY, meaning that chromosomally, she is male. Her testosterone levels are in the typical male range and well above the normal female range. Also, many 46XY women have testes, often internal in place of ovaries, which boosts testosterone levels. The CAS's ruling about testosterone levels and participation do not apply to chromosomally normal women because no 'normal' woman has ever achieved a testosterone level high enough to break their threshold without significant performance-enhancing drugs. So Semenya has a choice: take a birth control pill (or comparable medicine) to lower her testosterone and compete as a woman, enter men's races, or race at events not regulated by CAS/IAAF. Suddenly the issue of "handicapping" a natural talent doesn't seem to fit the situation. And if the organization's ruling seems unfair, then perhaps it is because male and female athletes shouldn't be separated anyway.
That's the second reason I never revisited or concluded my Semenya piece: I ran into the question about sexual division of sports. It's not that the concept had never crossed my mind before. I've coached coed varsity golf teams as well as girl's JV softball and recreation events. But when responding to a friend's post about the Semenya decision, a well-meaning SJW challenged my position by questioning the sexual divisions. It soon became obvious that this man had never played nor coached competitive athletics and knew little about sport. I was ready to write off his concerns. But with only a little reflection, I realized that he had a point -- if we believe in the equality of the sexes, then why separate them at all?
Something I now try to teach in my rhetoric and argument classes is about premises and why to reject them. Too often we get tangled up in arguments that don't feel right, that don't allow us to fully answer or to explain the nuances of our answers. That is often because we've accepted someone else's premise. The argument about equal pay is built upon many, many assumptions, including that men and women should be paid equal wages for equal work and that sports should be segregated by sex. But I'm not sure either of those are fair here, and probably for the same reason.
Men and women are different. On average, men are taller, stronger, and faster; they have more lean skeletal muscle, denser bones, and more aggressive behaviors. If we accept those differences, then the sexual division of athletics makes sense. And perhaps we should. At the youth, high school, and even collegiate levels, participants often learn a variety of personal and life skills while building fitness, confidence, and friendships. If men and women competed together, it is likely that few young women would make varsity teams. Consider that "Just in the single year 2017, Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Tori Bowie's 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 was beaten 15,000 times by men and boys. (Yes, that’s the right number of zeros.) The same is true of Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Allyson Felix’s 400 meters lifetime best of 49.26. Just in the single year 2017, men and boys around the world outperformed her more than 15,000 times." But what about in professional sports? As professionals, participants should be elite, the best of the best. If the men are that much better, faster, stronger, why do we maintain women's leagues and tournaments?
US Women's Soccer star Megan Rapinoe said, “I think we’re done with: Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same? Yada yada," adding, “We — all players, every player at this World Cup — put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more, to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.” But if we reject the premise that women should play separate from men, we have to ask -- is that true? Was it the most incredible show? Could someone play better? Again, I don't mean to be an ass -- I support the women's cause and believe they deserve a raise. But is equal pay really fair?
Another premise worthy of examination is that of collective bargaining. The men bargained hard for individual bonuses; they took greater risks in exchange for more aggressive pay scales. If a man makes the general roster but isn't dressed and on the field for a game, he receives no money. Women get paid for each game simply for being on the roster. Some of the pay differences are the result of different priorities and bargaining strategies. Which brings us back to a concerning premise -- whether men and women play together or not, why should they negotiate separately? They do the same job for the same company with the generally the same requirements. They are all elite athletes in their categories and they all equally represent the organization and United States. If we reject the premise of separate contract negotiations, then the pay disparity dissolves.
So it seems we've arrived at a conclusion, which is not really a conclusion at all. It is a series of questions that US Soccer, FIFA, the athletes, and the fans must all consider. What is the purpose of the sport? Why do men and women play separately? Why do men and women negotiate their contracts separately? I'm inclined to respond "for entertainment," "because it allows women to compete and enjoy too," and "because no one is thinking clearly."
So here's the solution. From now on, have all men's and women's players negotiate together. Players should be signing essentially the same contracts; they should be entitled to the same percentages of profits from jersey and merchandise sales, ticket sales, and TV advertising sales. If we base all this purely on physical might, then the men deserve most of the money. If we base it on previous labor agreements, then the men deserve most of the money. But if we acknowledge that the players on both teams support greater equality, then simply group them together as common employees for negotiation purposes. I'm still undecided on the sexual separation of professional sports. I'm still undecided on the entertainment-to-dollar value of professional sports. But I'm fully decided on this -- if the men and women work together in their contract negotiations, the pay gap will disappear, the equity and justice will increase, the conflict will dissolve, and the incentive for young men and women to compete will increase.
UPDATE: In this OPEN LETTER, US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro explains the collective bargaining differences between the men's and women's teams as well as the varied (and sometimes better) compensation the women receive. The conclusions above, regarding the premises of segregated sports and, more importantly, segregated bargaining, remain intact. But this statement is worth reading.
~~Don't forget to check out this segment from the ClassCast podcast, Episode 003~~
Compiled by Ryan Tibbens
On this Juneteenth, 2019, the United States House of Representatives held hearings on reparations for slavery. This is not a new idea, but new voices made themselves heard and breathed life into an otherwise stale debate. This article serves as a brief, basic introduction to the new debate; it includes two video clips from today's congressional testimonies, an excerpt from a best-selling modern philosophy book, and a video of the book's author teaching class. Additionally, this article includes a new feature: reader surveys. There is one survey in the beginning; use it to indicate your beliefs now. The other survey is at the end of the article; use it to indicate your beliefs after considering the compiles sources.
Before launching into the sources, remember this: you can't reasonably claim pride in your community's past achievements if you won't also accept shame for the past failures.
Source #1) An argument in favor of reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Source #2) An argument against reparations by Coleman Hughes.
Source #3a) An excerpt from Michael J. Sandel's Justice, in which he discusses loyalty, community, and individuality. (Full text available here.)
~~ WHAT DO WE OWE ONE ANOTHER? / DILEMMAS OF LOYALTY ~~
It’s never easy to say, “I’m sorry.” But saying so in public, on behalf of one’s nation, can be especially difficult. Recent decades have brought a spate of anguished arguments over public apologies for historic injustices.
-- Apologies and Reparations --
Much of the fraught politics of apology involves historic wrongs committed during World War II. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars in reparations for the Holocaust, in the form of payments to individual survivors and to the state of Israel. Over the years, German political leaders have offered statements of apology, accepting responsibility for the Nazi past in varying degrees. In a speech to the Bundestag in 1951 , German chancellor Konrad Adenauer claimed that “the overwhelming majority of the German people abominated the crimes committed against the Jews and did not participate in them.” But he acknowledged that “unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity.” In 2000, German president Johannes Rau apologized for the Holocaust in a speech to the Israeli Knesset, asking “forgiveness for what Germans have done.”
Japan has been more reluctant to apologize for its wartime atrocities. During the 1930s and ’40s, tens of thousands of Korean and other Asian women and girls were forced into brothels and abused as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers. Since the 1990s, Japan has faced growing international pressure for a formal apology and restitution to the so-called “comfort women.” In the 1990s, a private fund offered payments to the victims, and Japanese leaders made limited apologies. But as recently as 2007, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe insisted that the Japanese military was not responsible for coercing the women into sexual slavery. The U.S. Congress responded by passing a resolution urging the Japanese government to formally acknowledge and apologize for its military’s role in enslaving the comfort women.
Other apology controversies involve historic injustices to indigenous peoples. In Australia, debate has raged in recent years over the government’s obligation to the aboriginal people. From the 1910s to the early 1970s, aboriginal children of mixed race were forcibly separated from their mothers and placed in white foster homes or settlement camps. (In most of these cases, the mothers were aborigines and the fathers white.) The policy sought to assimilate the children to white society and speed the disappearance of aboriginal culture. The government-sanctioned kidnappings are portrayed in Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), a movie that tells the story of three young girls who, in 1931, escape from a settlement camp and set out on a 1 ,200-mile journey to return to their mothers.
In 1997, an Australian human rights commission documented the cruelties inflicted on the “stolen generation” of aborigines, and recommended an annual day of national apology. John Howard, the prime minister at the time, opposed an official apology. The apology question became a contentious issue in Australian politics. In 2008, newly elected prime minister Kevin Rudd issued an official apology to the aboriginal people. Although he did not offer individual compensation, he promised measures to overcome the social and economic disadvantages suffered by Australia’s indigenous population.
In the United States, debates over public apologies and reparations have also gained prominence in recent decades. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology to Japanese Americans for their confinement in internment camps on the West Coast during World War II. In addition to an apology, the legislation provided compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps, and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. In 1993, Congress apologized for a more distant historic wrong — the overthrow, a century earlier, of the independent kingdom of Hawaii.
Perhaps the biggest looming apology question in the United States involves the legacy of slavery. The Civil War promise of “forty acres and a mule” for freed slaves never came to be. In the 1990s, the movement for black reparations gained new attention. Every year since 1989, Congressman John Conyers has proposed legislation to create a commission to study reparations for African Americans. although the reparations idea has won support from many African American organizations and civil rights groups, it has not caught on with the general public. Polls show that while a majority of African Americans favor reparations, only 4 percent of whites do.
Although the reparations movement may have stalled, recent years have brought a wave of official apologies. In 2007, Virginia, which had been the largest slaveholding state, became the first to apologize for slavery. A number of other states, including Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Florida, followed. And in 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing to African Americans for slavery and for the Jim Crow era of racial segregation that extended into the mid-twentieth century.
Should nations apologize for historic wrongs? To answer this question, we need to think through some hard questions about collective responsibility and the claims of community.
The main justifications for public apologies are to honor the memory of those who have suffered injustice at the hands (or in the name) of the political community, to recognize the persisting effects of injustice on victims and their descendants, and to atone for the wrongs committed by those who inflicted the injustice or failed to prevent it. As public gestures, official apologies can help bind up the wounds of the past and provide a basis for moral and political reconciliation. Reparations and other forms of
financial restitution can be justified on similar grounds, as tangible expressions of apology and atonement. They can also help alleviate the effects of the injustice on the victims or their heirs.
Whether these considerations are strong enough to justify an apology depends on the circumstances. In some cases, attempts to bring about public apologies or reparations may do more harm than good by inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, entrenching a sense of victimhood, or generating resentment. Opponents of public apologies often voice worries such as these. Whether, all things considered, an act of apology or restitution is more likely to heal or damage a political community is a complex matter of political judgment. The answer will vary from case to case.
-- Should We Atone for the Sins of our Predecessors? --
But I would like to focus on another argument often raised by opponents of apologies for historic injustices — a principled argument that does not depend on the contingencies of the situation. This is the argument that people in the present generation should not — in fact, cannot — apologize for wrongs committed by previous generations. To apologize for an injustice is, after all, to take some responsibility for it. You can’t apologize for something you didn’t do. So, how can you apologize for something that was done before you were born?
John Howard, the Australian prime minister, gave this reason for rejecting an official apology to the aborigines: “I do not believe that the current generation of Australians should formally apologize and accept responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation.”
A similar argument was made in the U.S. debate over reparations for slavery. Henry Hyde, a Republican congressman, criticized the idea of reparations on these grounds: “I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did [own slaves] generations before I was born.” Walter E. Williams, an African American economist who opposes reparations, voiced a similar view: “If the government got the money from the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, that’d be great. But the government has to take the money from citizens, and there are no citizens alive today who were responsible for slavery.”
Taxing today’s citizens to pay reparations for a past wrong may seem to raise a special problem. But the same issue arises in debates over apologies that involve no financial compensation.
With apologies, it’s the thought that counts. The thought at stake is the acknowledgment of responsibility. Anyone can deplore an injustice. But only someone who is somehow implicated in the injustice can apologize for it. Critics of apologies correctly grasp the moral stakes. And they reject the
idea that the current generation can be morally responsible for the sins of their forebears.
When the New Jersey state legislature debated the apology question in 2008, a Republican assemblyman asked, “Who living today is guilty of slaveholding and thus capable of apologizing for the offense?” The obvious answer, he thought, was no one: “Today’s residents of New Jersey, even those
who can trace their ancestry back to . . . slaveholders, bear no collective guilt or responsibility for unjust events in which they personally played no role.”
As the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote an apology for slavery and segregation, a Republican critic of the measure compared it to apologizing for deeds carried out by your “great-great-great-grandfather.”
-- Moral Individualism --
The principled objection to official apologies is not easy to dismiss. It rests on the notion that we are responsible only for what we ourselves do, not for the actions of other people, or for events beyond our control. We are not answerable for the sins of our parents or our grandparents or, for that matter, our compatriots.
But this puts the matter negatively. The principled objection to official apologies carries weight because it draws on a powerful and attractive moral idea. We might call it the idea of “moral individualism.” The doctrine of moral individualism does not assume that people are selfish. It is rather a
claim about what it means to be free. For the moral individualist, to be free is to be subject only to obligations I voluntarily incur; whatever I owe others, I owe by virtue of some act of consent — a choice or a promise or an agreement I have made, be it tacit or explicit.
The notion that my responsibilities are limited to the ones I take upon myself is a liberating one. It assumes that we are, as moral agents, free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. Not custom or tradition or inherited status, but the free
choice of each individual is the source of the only moral obligations that constrain us.
You can see how this vision of freedom leaves little room for collective responsibility, or for a duty to bear the moral burden of historic injustices perpetrated by our predecessors. If I promised my grandfather to pay his debts or apologize for his sins, that would be one thing. My duty to carry out the recompense would be an obligation founded on consent, not an obligation arising from a collective identity extending across generations. Absent some such promise, the moral individualist can make no sense of a responsibility to atone for the sins of my predecessors. The sins, after all, were theirs, not mine.
If the moral individualist vision of freedom is right, then the critics of official apologies have a point; we bear no moral burden for the wrongs of our predecessors. But far more than apologies and collective responsibility are at stake. The individualist view of freedom figures in many of the theories of justice most familiar in contemporary politics. If that conception of freedom is flawed, as I believe it is, then we need to rethink some of the fundamental features of our public life.
As we have seen, the notions of consent and free choice loom large, not only in contemporary politics, but also in modern theories of justice. Let’s look back and see how various notions of choice and consent have come to inform our present-day assumptions.
An early version of the choosing self comes to us from John Locke. He argued that legitimate government must be based on consent. Why? Because we are free and independent beings, not subject to paternal authority or the divine right of kings. Since we are “by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”
[Sandel continues by making connections to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls.]
Source 3b) A recording of Michael Sandel teaching his "Justice" course at Harvard, this segment addresses many of the topics and texts mentioned above in 'Source 3a.' This is the most popular course in the history of Harvard University and is fully available online for free at JusticeHarvard.org as well as his Harvard webpage and YouTube. Both the book Justice and the class are strongly recommended.
By Ryan Tibbens
Kyle Kashuv is everywhere this week. Everywhere except Harvard, that is.
You see, Kashuv survived the Parkland school shooting and went on to become a conservative activist and rising star in Turning Point USA, a conservative political group (believed by many to be a white nationalist organization). His was a singular but confident voice that did not blame the NRA nor call for greater gun control after the shooting. He earned excellent grades (weighted GPA of 5.345, unweighted GPA of 3.9), graduated second in his class, and scored 1550 on his SAT and was admitted into Harvard University.
And then, in May 2020, a former friend revealed racist, derogatory, and generally dim-witted comments and messages written by Kashuv in private message groups. It turns out that, in addition to being an excellent student and conservative political activist, Kashuv is (was?) a racist and a douche bag. When that information went public, Harvard re-evaluated his acceptance and revoked it. After a series of letters, emails, and messages back and forth, the school indicated that the decision was final.
Predictably, a media frenzy ensued. Many people applauded the decision; after all, there should be no place for that kind of racism in modern America. Many others condemned the decision; of course, everyone makes mistakes, and people can learn and improve and apologize. And apologize he did. Nearly every media outlet in the country offered its take on the situation: The Atlantic, NPR, Breitbart, Vox, even Education Week in addition to the Times, Post, Tribune, and the rest. Here we are now.
Everyone sees this as a matter of progress, of just deserts, of political correctness, or of censorship. The debate is all about should and shouldn't, good and bad, right and wrong, left and right, new and old.
But maybe the real debate should be Harvard itself, not just Kashuv's college plans. Harvard is a private institution (despite massive government subsidies), so it has more freedom in establishing admissions criteria than do most public schools. To all the conservatives who think this is horrible, terrible, the end of free speech, etc. -- how is this different than the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple? Those who championed the free market and the private business's right to choose should be applauding Harvard. Then again, those who decried the baker for not serving everyone equally might need to reassess their views on Kashuv's rejection. Kashuv committed no crime, engaged in no violence; in fact, his stupidity was generally limited to private conversations in which friends were trying to be outrageous, meaning no one would ever have known if someone didn't leak the info. We can argue all day about the friend's motives or moral imperatives or whatever, but that, like Kashuv himself, isn't the source of the current conflict.
The problem is Harvard. Once a small, Puritan school, Harvard is one of the wealthiest and most powerful educational institutions on the planet. It is the oldest college in the United States and issues one of the most desirable degrees anywhere. Harvard influences every major industry, every branch of government. Though it shed its Puritan ties long ago, Harvard seems determined to enforce some nebulous modern morality. The school recently fired Ronald Sullivan, "the first black faculty dean to preside over a dorm at Harvard" and a world-class defense attorney, because of his role as attorney to disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Yet Harvard once held slaves, supported Apartheid in South Africa, excluded female students, and engaged in a wide variety of questionable investment, admissions, and research practices. Just recently, the school was sued for using racial quotas to limit Asian-American admissions; this was not the first time the school had used demographics to sway admissions. In the 1970s, students began "divestment" movements to force the university to cut financial ties with oppressors, abusers, and political ne'er-do-wells: apartheid, tobacco companies, Sudanese genocide, fossil fuels, and more. The Harvard Management Company repeatedly refused to divest, stating that "operating expenses must not be subject to financially unrealistic strictures or carping by the unsophisticated or by special interest groups." Does the university stand by that language today? Are finances steering their decisions in these intensely public debates?
But now Harvard has revoked an admission offer because a student used racial slurs and offensive language in private messages when he was 16. Kashuv survived the Parkland shooting and claims that the event forced him to reassess his values and goals; he claims to be an entirely different person than the teen who made the terrible, racist jokes two years previously; he has admitted to his mistakes and apologized. What is Harvard saying by revoking the admission offer? Is Harvard suddenly affected by some higher morality? Is use of the 'n-word' literally unforgivable? Is the rejection politically motivated? While the motives, aside from some vague morality, are unclear, one thing is certain -- this is not about academics. David Hogg, another survivor of the Parkland shooting, will be attending Harvard next fall despite his 1270 SAT score (the bottom 25% of those admitted had an average SAT score of 1460 out of 1600; Kashuv scored 1550). If one of the most academically selective institutions in the world is allowing academics take a backseat to personal behaviors or ideologies in the admissions process, then Harvard has created its own new problem. Cancel Culture has reached the most elite institutions, and now we, as Americans, need to figure out how to proceed -- Can people be forgiven? Can (or should) we tolerate non-violent bigotry? (See this related article from Read.Think.Write.Speak.)
Here's the solution. It's easy. Harvard should publish its guidelines for morality the same way they release average GPAs and SAT scores. As a private institution, Harvard has the right to decline any student who doesn't fit their criteria and mission, but to help applicants and avoid future problems like this, the university should state clearly what is or is not acceptable behavior. Directly and indirectly, Harvard influences much of American life, and if the school seeks to affect our national morality, maybe they could do everyone a favor and just say what they believe (and what they think everyone else should believe too).
By Chloe Abbott
Once again, it's June, and we have plunged into Pride Month. For a solid 30 days, we can expect parades, rainbow-colored everything, and a general feeling that "wow, things have gotten so much better." To many, this month will be a refreshing celebration of what it means to be gay and trans. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may be the origin of Pride as a protest, Pride is now a triumphant march, waving the rainbow flag as a trophy, not a war flag.
I go to D.C. Capital Pride every year, which takes place in Dupont Circle, a historically gay community that was once ravaged by crime and the AIDS epidemic with very little police or public health intervention to assist. Now, every year at Pride, not only do police guard the parade itself, but they march at the head of the parade, throwing beads and dancing just like the rest of the revelers. That alone looks like progress. The people who once would not protect the community now participate in as well as protect that community. To a non-LGBT person, this is the ultimate triumph for LGBT people: “Look, a whole month in your honor! Pride is a huge event in so many places for so many people! Gay marriage is legal as well, meaning so many couples can legally tie the knot! This is what progress looks like.”
I’m not launching into a tirade about how conditions around the country are inconsistent for gay people (but they are, as the Bible Belt alone still sports a distinctly homophobic and transphobic attitude, not to mention the homophobia around the country in other religious groups and amongst many minority communities). This isn’t much of a talking point, as any non-LGBT person who sees progress also knows that, of course, there are still going to be people struggling. That’s why we still have not just Pride, but charities and homeless shelters specifically for young gay and trans people. Saying plenty of gay people still have it difficult isn’t a shock, I would hope. Even more so, I would hope it is no shock to say that trans people are still at square one in terms of public acceptance. I think many people’s real reactions are of confusion: What is the LGBT community? How long is the acronym, and how many terms are there? What does it mean to be trans? What pronouns do I need to remember, or is it even worth my time? Is it against my religion or not? What is it that these people do? Even a truly good supporter of the gay and trans community likely has confusion and questions that they are too afraid to ask for fear of being labeled homophobic/transphobic. This is an unacceptable state for our allies to live in, and if our allies are confused, then just imagine how moderates feel.
The overwhelming response when someone says or tweets a homophobic/transphobic idea is to tell this person to apologize and “educate themselves.” This key point, of “educating themselves,” is a problem for me. People who tweet homophobic ideas probably feel like they have educated themselves and are staring down at a weird, unexplainable social phenomenon with no logic to its motives. I think that people who “educate themselves” without knowing the proper resources or communities will find the worst sources possible and not understand the difference. It’s entirely idealistic to expect that someone who does not know better should have the tools in their back pocket to know better, but just doesn’t use them. Sure, plenty of people may revel in their own ignorance, purely enjoying trolling people, but more often than not, the moderate audience who does not understand LGBT politics does not understand LGBT politics. Telling anyone to “educate themselves” does nothing to actually guarantee that they will learn anything. All it guarantees is a defensive response and a shutdown to actual information out of frustration and further perceived victimhood: “I can’t say anything these days without a mob coming after me.”
Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s not a mob! It’s expecting accountability!” I argue that the other side does not know what your definition of accountability is. There is an information gap between LGBT people who want the general public to know their terminology, know what acceptable behavior is, and know how to have a respectful conversation about it, and the general public who doesn’t understand the terminology or what acceptable behavior is, and therefore cannot have a respectful conversation about it without some background.
The tricky thing is, background is hard to find from the sources we want. Looking up LGBT topics on YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, or Tumblr gets you a lot of misinformation from both sides of the discussion. If you simply look up the word “transgender” on YouTube, you get some decent looking videos, but more common are videos of “DESTROYING trans arguments” and odd debates of “Are there more than two genders? Trying to find middle ground.” There are no definitive answers to be found with search results like these. Someone who wants to educate themselves will only be more confused when your results range from Stephen Colbert interviewing the man who lifted the transgender ban in the military to Ben Shapiro “destroying transgenderism and pro-abortion arguments.” There is nothing to steer a confused person in the right direction, and the most dangerous videos often have the catchiest titles. Even worse is that YouTube’s algorithm will keep recommending similar kinds of videos with increasingly radical opinions. By asking someone to educate themselves without giving them any foundational information, you are sending them off to chase a rabbit hole and, if they don’t know any better, plunge deep into it.
So maybe Tumblr is a better bet? After all, a lot of young gay people found their community on Tumblr. Tumblr led the way for the first generation of young gay and trans people to feel more comfortable open and out in a society changing its mind. Emboldened youth spread the gospel of tolerance and gay rights to me and many others in the early days of popular social media, and it has become a site known for liberal politics and lots of LGBT users. The problem is that Tumblr has been horribly wrong about a lot of LGBT issues. Not because anyone was stupid, but because the leaders of this new generation of gay kids were actual children: children who did not understand the vast history behind gay and trans people, rather just understood their own experiences.
Most people’s impression of Tumblr politics is that a bunch of people believe there are hundreds of genders and orientations, and that anything can be oppression if you play victim enough. This has unfortunately been pasted onto liberal politics as a whole, with “Did you just assume my gender?” as a strawman liberal argument to be mocked. I can’t completely lie and say this reputation of Tumblr alone wasn’t at one point relevant, but it is a fallacious argument because, again, it was the logic of children who very quickly realized that most trans people do not get offend that quickly or that aggressively. The rapid adding of letters to the acronym LGBT was a result of young gay people trying to combine both the concept of inclusion in liberal ideology and the concept of fulfilling a role that being a young person instills in you. “Bisexual doesn’t fit me, because I’m an individual with specific tastes!” When you’re pubescent and desperate to find your role, you create your own to feel special. This is not the pattern of adult LGBT people and never has been. Adult LGBT people have always understood that they are individuals, even under whatever labels fit their orientation or gender. I remember having a lot of conflict over who I was as a gay person because of how I felt forced into specific representations of gayness and gender. I grew out of this conflict as I grew out of young teenhood, much like anyone else with any other identity confusion in late-middle and early-high school. The fact that non-LGBT people’s general understanding of gay culture is that of puberty and middle school is deeply troubling to me.
There is no blame to be assigned because you cannot hold middle schoolers accountable for disrupting the messages of a long-oppressed minority or for seeming juvenile. In fact, if anything, blame should be put on anyone who pointed to this era of young teenagers and proclaimed this was the new wave of dumb liberal ideas to watch out for. But maybe they didn’t know the difference because, when online, anonymity makes it difficult to tell who’s an adult and who is a child. Instead, we must address the consequences head on. LGBT people are not here to get rid of gender. That would be dumb, and very few people believe in this, just like any other extreme ideology. They are not here to get rid of straight people, either, or masculinity, or femininity, or privacy in bathrooms. If your impression of a gay or trans person is someone who aggressively hates straight people and demands special privileges, ask yourself, “Does this sound like adult behavior, or like a middle schooler who just learned what a protest is?” If it sounds like a middle schooler, then you should second guess your assumption, because it likely is the work of a middle schooler, and they’ll likely improve their outlooks. There are people who haven’t, but they become, and remain, the strawmen for a movement that largely does not share their views.
So. What can we say this pride month to help the general public better understand gay and trans people? The answer is to actually respond to people. When someone says something objectively wrong, or ignorant, or makes a mistake, be direct, polite, and speak without condescension. Accept that you are not going to change people’s minds with one Twitter thread; just plant the seed so that they know where to begin if they so choose to pursue real answers. We need to get comfortable with engaging people who hold troubling opinions or say troubling things. Public perception of gay and trans people needs to become more mature to combat a juvenile understanding of what we want. We don’t just want our Pride festivals and RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye, and we certainly do not want to talk about Caitlyn Jenner (unless you want to hear why we do not care for her). We want gay people to be able to adopt children and not be seen as a fashionable entertainment commodity, trans people to be understood and safe from assault. Remember that the majority of America is moderate and interested enough to ask questions, but maybe not enough to seek good answers. Instead of demanding them to seek answers (“Educate yourself!”), maybe we should offer up our knowledge and experience and history as the insight that they don’t know, but that they really, really need.
Because no one else