Commentary Magazine


Topic: civil rights

The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

It may not be intended as such, but this is, in reality, a stern rebuke to the leftist tendency to hijack the black struggle and tether African Americans to their preferred policy aims. The left does this with regard to women and other minorities as well–the old joke about the New York Times reporting the apocalypse: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. But the struggle of African Americans was and is different; the left’s insistence that the issue of the day–climate change, inequality, environmental regulations–can or should be reduced to a “black issue” is precisely the act of ignoring African Americans’ history in the service of white liberals’ power.

Coates’s essay also highlights the tendency of well-intentioned liberal initiatives that end up exacerbating black economic dislocation and discrimination instead of alleviating it. For example, Coates discusses residential segregation, redlining, block busting, federally blessed “restrictive covenants,” and other methods of housing discrimination whose effects are still felt especially in or near major cities. This made them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the housing bubble. Here’s Coates:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself.

The government’s involvement in efforts to sell mortgages to uncreditworthy black potential homeowners in such areas was supposed to be the antidote to redlining, a major historical correction. But in many cases lenders were pressured by the government to ignore the creditworthiness of minority applicants, and the result is something like: Housing Bubble Ends, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Aside from a cautionary tale about government intervention in the marketplace, this geographic isolation would also seem to argue for ways not only to help improve minority neighborhoods but also to get kids from those neighborhoods into better schools. The current government monopoly on such education, supported by the unions and Democrats at the highest levels including President Obama, guarantees the promulgation of an effective segregation and the breathing of life into a particularly insidious legacy of the Jim Crow era that the Great Migration could have, but did not, undo.

And that brings us back to the issue of reparations (to close the “wealth gap,” as Coates says) and the reason Coates wants to have this “national reckoning.” He writes:

A nation outlives its generations…. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

Should the slaveholding of the Founders be as relevant as their political ideas in understanding the founding philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s identity? Coates seems to think so; later he writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” adding: “And so we must imagine a new country.”

Which opinions of the Founders must we carry as an addendum to the Constitution? Slavery was a violation of our founding principles. But the case for abolition was not just a moral one; it was also an economic one. This is what Acemoglu and Robinson show, and it’s what the historian David Brion Davis notes in his latest book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. He writes of Connecticut abolitionist Leonard Bacon’s argument that slavery was a long-term strain on the American economy:

Even apart from the desire for racial homogeneity, most American commentators shared this republican conviction that slavery subverted the nation’s prospects for balanced economic growth and prosperity, at least in the longer term.

Bacon wasn’t claiming that the institution of slavery didn’t provide economic benefits to those who practiced it, of course. But he, like many of his age, understood slavery as a betrayal of the American system, not just a moral failing. It was a bug, not a feature.

So yes, a tremendous amount of wealth was built up in America from the subjugation and plunder of black slaves. But to argue that the American identity and the country’s conception of self is not separate at all from its history, to argue that the idea of America is inseparable from the idea of racism and oppression, requires its own selective reading of America’s past and produces a false rendering of the American project.

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The New Israel Fund—Civil Rights or Political Warfare: An Exchange

Editor’s note: In her March 28 post “An Alternative Model for Pro-Israel Liberals,” Evelyn Gordon compared the work of philanthropist Robert Price to that of the New Israel Fund and J Street. The New Israel Fund’s Naomi Paiss has written in defense of her group. Evelyn Gordon’s response follows.

In the latest paternalistic attack on pro-Israel progressives, Evelyn Gordon attempted to save liberals from themselves. By equating the New Israel Fund and J Street with disloyalty to Israel, she resurrects a disproven canard now only used by those with an ultra-nationalist political agenda. Her depiction of the New Israel Fund (NIF) and our grantees is particularly scathing. And wrong.

The New Israel Fund has always prided itself on being a cutting-edge organization. We gave Israel’s first rape crisis centers their seed money, we were the only organization outside of Israel to support the 2011 social justice protests, and our partners have been instrumental in shaping Israel’s human-rights law and policy.  We were also the first funders of Arab civil society in Israel. 

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Editor’s note: In her March 28 post “An Alternative Model for Pro-Israel Liberals,” Evelyn Gordon compared the work of philanthropist Robert Price to that of the New Israel Fund and J Street. The New Israel Fund’s Naomi Paiss has written in defense of her group. Evelyn Gordon’s response follows.

In the latest paternalistic attack on pro-Israel progressives, Evelyn Gordon attempted to save liberals from themselves. By equating the New Israel Fund and J Street with disloyalty to Israel, she resurrects a disproven canard now only used by those with an ultra-nationalist political agenda. Her depiction of the New Israel Fund (NIF) and our grantees is particularly scathing. And wrong.

The New Israel Fund has always prided itself on being a cutting-edge organization. We gave Israel’s first rape crisis centers their seed money, we were the only organization outside of Israel to support the 2011 social justice protests, and our partners have been instrumental in shaping Israel’s human-rights law and policy.  We were also the first funders of Arab civil society in Israel. 

Our support in the Arab sector has always been multi-faceted. We fund employment and empowerment opportunities for Arab youth at-risk around the country. We work to redress unequal funding to Arab schools and communities. We fight for greater Arab representation on public bodies and committees. And no one does more for Arab and Bedouin women, on issues ranging from polygamy and honor killings to drastically increasing their ability to become leaders in their communities. A glance at our website and list of just our current grantees could have spared COMMENTARY the embarrassment of running a column so contrary to fact.

And, yes, we proudly fund groups like Adalah and Mossawa who engage in critical work on behalf of the Palestinian Israeli communities they serve, using strategies of litigation and community organizing.

Gordon’s depiction of Adalah as undermining Israel and exacerbating anti-Arab discrimination is simply ludicrous. Funding Adalah means that Palestinian Israelis have a voice in the Israeli courts. In 2011, Adalah won a precedent-setting case on behalf of the Palestinian Israeli Zubeidat family, whose application to move into the town of Rakefet was rejected on the basis that they were “socially unsuitable” to live in the town. Last year, another Adalah petition resulted in the cancellation of 51 demolition orders in the unrecognized Negev Bedouin village of Alsira. Although unrecognized, Alsira has been in existence since before the founding of Israel. If carried out, the demolition would have left more than 400 homeless.  

Adalah’s work often benefits other marginalized groups, including achieving a victory a few years ago permitting Israelis—all Israelis—receiving social welfare benefits to own cars, thereby enlarging their employment opportunities.

In the U.S., groups working to promote and protect minority rights are lauded. Just look at the NAACP, La Raza, or for that matter, the ADL. Some factions in Israel, however, have been keen to vilify not only the specific work of groups working for minority rights, but the mere right of such groups to exist.

Israelis, though, are keenly aware of the issues facing minority populations. In a recently published report on racism in Israel, an astounding 95 percent of Israelis expressed concern about racism in the country. And only a little over 10 percent felt the government response was adequate. 

Minority rights for the Arab community often come hand in hand with progress for other marginalized sectors. The big-tent Coalition Against Racism is one group gaining traction in the efforts to make Israel more inclusive. A broad partnership spanning the Israeli spectrum, the group is made up of organizations representing Palestinian Israelis, Mizrachim, Ethiopians, Russians, the Reform movement, the social justice movement, and more. The coalition is an unprecedented endeavor. Rarely in Israel do such disparate groups come together to discuss and formulate joint solutions to make Israel a more just and equal society for everyone. The NIF-supported coalition, who just visited the U.S. to an enthusiastic reception by American Jewish groups, is an amazing model that represents the best of Israel.

We at the New Israel Fund believe in a broad-based and integrated approach to changing Israeli society. And that is exactly why it is so critical to support the civil society groups engaged in our work on the ground, and why our fundraising has increased every year while that of other Jewish organizations is stagnant or declining. American Jews do have a heartfelt investment in the liberal values of democracy, equality, and social justice. Their investment in NIF means they understand that the activists and organizations we support are working for a better Israel.  

Naomi Paiss is the Vice President for Public Affairs at the New Israel Fund

Evelyn Gordon replies:

Naomi Paiss argues that NIF supports a wide spectrum of activity in Israel, citing the fund’s list of current grantees to prove this point. This list indeed includes many unexceptionable organizations–groups that, even if I disagree with them, genuinely strive to improve Israel according to their own lights. And if funding them were all NIF did, neither I nor most other Israelis would have any problem with its operations.

But these innocuous grantees don’t change the fact that NIF also funds many organizations actively engaged in political warfare against Israel. Thus every donation to NIF that isn’t earmarked for a specific organization ends up funding anti-Israel political warfare.

To take just one example, numerous NIF-funded organizations contributed to the infamous Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of “war crimes” during its 2009 war in Gaza and recommended indicting it in the International Criminal Court. Many of these groups remain NIF grantees to this day, including Adalah, Breaking the Silence, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and Physicians for Human Rights. The Goldstone Report’s anti-Israel slurs have been so discredited that even its lead author has repudiated it. The commission’s mandate was thus to arrive at a predetermined verdict—or in other words, to conduct political warfare against Israel rather than honestly to investigate the facts. Consequently, the organizations that submitted anti-Israel allegations to it knowingly contributed to this warfare. Yet the NIF apparently has no problem with its grantees engaging in such activity.

Nor was the Goldstone Report an aberration: Many NIF grantees routinely spend more time and effort libeling Israel overseas than trying to reform it at home. Take, for instance, Breaking the Silence, whose stated mission is “to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories” by disseminating “testimony” from former soldiers about alleged crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces. But most Israelis know BTS’s claims of widespread abuse are false. Moreover, BTS refuses to divulge details that would enable the IDF to investigate its allegations and (if warranted) prosecute the perpetrators–something that would actually benefit the country by helping to squelch any abuses that do occur. For both reasons, the organization has found little traction at home.

So instead, BTS began taking its “testimony” on tour to college campuses throughout the U.S.–places that are already hotbeds of anti-Israel activity, and where there’s no ready supply of IDF veterans to refute its allegations. Smearing the IDF to American college students does nothing to change the army’s behavior, but it does erode Israel’s support overseas. In short, it’s simply anti-Israel political warfare.

This brings us to Ms. Paiss’s second main argument: that even the grantees I consider problematic also do much laudable work, and therefore deserve support. Here, my response is the same as it was with respect to supporting NIF itself: If these organizations confined themselves to, say, bringing anti-discrimination lawsuits, I’d have no problem with NIF supporting them. But Adalah, ACRI, Bimkom, BTS, PCATI, and many other NIF grantees also spend a lot of time and money on anti-Israel political warfare. Thus by funding these organizations, NIF is funding that warfare–and that’s true even if the grant is earmarked for other purposes, since money is fungible.

Adalah, whose activities Ms. Paiss defends at great length, is an excellent example: In addition to its submissions to Goldstone, it has urged other countries to refer Israel to the ICC, to “re-evaluate their relationship with Israel” and to end “normal relations” with it. It co-authored a report that accuses Israel of being “a colonial enterprise which implements a system of apartheid.” It drafted and still promotes a “democratic constitution” that would eradicate the Jewish state by mandating a “right of return” for millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, end Israel’s role as a safe haven for Jews worldwide by abolishing the Law of Return, grant Arab parties a de facto veto over all legislation, and more. All this, incidentally, would seem to violate two of the NIF’s own funding guidelines: Adalah “Works to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel” via projects like its “democratic constitution,” and “Employ[s] racist or derogatory language” by hurling slanders like “apartheid” at Israel. And the same goes for many other NIF grantees (NGO Monitor has an excellent summary here; clicking on its links provides additional detail). 

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Pete Seeger and the Judgment of History

How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

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How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

It should be understood that his youthful infatuation with Stalinism was neither superficial nor a passing fancy. To his shame, he toured the country singing protest songs from 1939 to 1941. But he was not protesting the Nazis nor did he support those fighting them. Rather, he was part of the CP campaign conducted at Moscow’s behest that sought to combat any effort to involve the United States in World War Two. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had made the Soviets Germany’s ally until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought them into the war. Seeger remained a party member until the 1950s and even long after he abandoned it, he continued to refer to himself as a communist with a small “c” rather than an upper-case one.

To many liberals as well as the stalwarts of the old left, this is nothing for which he should apologize. Liberal revisionism has transformed the vicious Communism of this era from an anti-American and anti-democratic conspiracy into a romantic expression of support for human rights. As such, Seeger and many of his comrades were able to bask in the applause of subsequent generations rather than having to atone for having been a proud apologist for one of the worst criminals in history as well as for the mass murder and anti-Semitism that was integral to Soviet communism. While isolationists like Charles Lindberg and other apologists for Hitler never lived down that association, Stalinists like Seeger had a rough time in the 1950s but were ultimately honored for their disgraceful behavior.

That is infuriating, and for many conservatives like Pajama Media’s Ed Driscoll, unforgivable. The honors showered on the elderly Seeger serve only to deepen the bitterness of those who not unreasonably believe the adamant refusal to tell the truth about this chapter of Seeger’s life—both in the news media and in documentary films about him—undermines our ability to take a full measure of the man, and is an insult to all those who take seriously the eternal struggle against the enemies of freedom.

And yet there is more to Seeger than these two inconsistent narratives. As historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of the singer as well as an indispensable chronicler of Communism, movingly wrote in 2007 in the New York Sun, Seeger had, by the end of his life, finally understood the magnitude of some of his earlier errors. As Radosh wrote, Seeger admitted that he was wrong never to have protested Stalin’s tyranny and atoned in part by belatedly writing a song denouncing the gulag.

Ultimately, as with all artists of every stripe, history will judge Seeger more for the quality of his music than his politics. As Paul Berman wrote today in the New Republic, songs like If I Had a Hammer or Where Have All the Flowers Gone, not to mention We Shall Overcome, will deserve to be sung a hundred years from now no matter what Seeger believed about communism. His legacy is far messier than most of the tributes will admit. But to listen to his vintage recordings or those of the groundbreaking folk group “The Weavers” to which he lent his tenor voice and banjo is to hear a great artist and a genuine voice of American culture. It is that Pete Seeger, and the not the sanitized liberal icon or the Stalinist front man, who will be remembered.

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Are You Sure There’s No Voter Fraud?

As I wrote earlier this month, the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to sue to stop Texas’s voter ID law has little to do with an attempt to prevent actual discrimination. The outcry from the administration on the voter ID issue as well as the manufactured outrage about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding but modifying the Voting Rights Act is predicated on the false idea that these measures are a new version of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Given the night-and-day difference between the world of Jim Crow that drew Americans to the 1963 March on Washington and the America of 2013, this is an obvious effort to both revive flagging interest in civil-rights organizations and to brand President Obama’s critics as racists. But opponents of voter ID do have one seemingly rational argument: the problem that voter ID laws seek to solve—preserving the integrity of the vote—is imaginary. To that end, they have told us ad nauseum that voter fraud does not exist in the United States.

The assumption that voter fraud is nonexistent requires us to not only ignore most of American political history; it also obligates us to forget everything we know about human nature. Given that photo ID is now required for virtually every sort of transaction or service, most Americans rightly see it as a commonsense measure. But discussions about shady elections don’t require us to explore the distant past. Examples abound in our own day that place the desire to tighten up new rules that more or less allow anyone to show up on Election Day without proof of their identity or having previously registered, or to vote early or get an absentee ballot in a different context than Holder’s specious arguments about Jim Crow. One such comes from the bankrupt city of Detroit, where the August 6 primary is still unresolved due to the fact that more than 20,000 write-in votes are currently in dispute and may or may not be counted depending on the decisions of the courts. Fraud has not yet been proved and may not be directly related to false identity, but this latest instance of electoral hijinks illustrates what happens when results are called into question by shady practices.

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As I wrote earlier this month, the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to sue to stop Texas’s voter ID law has little to do with an attempt to prevent actual discrimination. The outcry from the administration on the voter ID issue as well as the manufactured outrage about the Supreme Court’s decision upholding but modifying the Voting Rights Act is predicated on the false idea that these measures are a new version of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Given the night-and-day difference between the world of Jim Crow that drew Americans to the 1963 March on Washington and the America of 2013, this is an obvious effort to both revive flagging interest in civil-rights organizations and to brand President Obama’s critics as racists. But opponents of voter ID do have one seemingly rational argument: the problem that voter ID laws seek to solve—preserving the integrity of the vote—is imaginary. To that end, they have told us ad nauseum that voter fraud does not exist in the United States.

The assumption that voter fraud is nonexistent requires us to not only ignore most of American political history; it also obligates us to forget everything we know about human nature. Given that photo ID is now required for virtually every sort of transaction or service, most Americans rightly see it as a commonsense measure. But discussions about shady elections don’t require us to explore the distant past. Examples abound in our own day that place the desire to tighten up new rules that more or less allow anyone to show up on Election Day without proof of their identity or having previously registered, or to vote early or get an absentee ballot in a different context than Holder’s specious arguments about Jim Crow. One such comes from the bankrupt city of Detroit, where the August 6 primary is still unresolved due to the fact that more than 20,000 write-in votes are currently in dispute and may or may not be counted depending on the decisions of the courts. Fraud has not yet been proved and may not be directly related to false identity, but this latest instance of electoral hijinks illustrates what happens when results are called into question by shady practices.

The struggle to be the top official in an insolvent city whose government has been taken over the state is not the most compelling political fight of the year. But regardless of the office’s value, those who voted deserve to have their ballots counted. Indeed, though few if any Americans are denied the right to vote today the way many were prevented from going to the polls under Jim Crow, a crooked election is, in effect, one that denies the franchise to everyone.

Regardless of whether those who showed up to cast write-ins did so legally or of the political motivations of those who threw those ballots out due to technicalities, the nationwide drive to police elections is based in fact, not prejudice. In an era when safeguards against fraud have been thrown out willy-nilly in order to make it easier to vote via early voting, liberal granting of absentee ballots, and same-day registration, it has become almost impossible to guarantee the integrity of the results. To think that politicians and parties do not try to take advantage of this situation is hopelessly naïve. Reforming this situation requires states to make sure that those who vote are who they say they are and that regulations that prevent safeguards from being put in place are re-written to ensure the integrity of the process.

No matter who gets the dubious honor of running Detroit, voters there have a right to know their votes are counted and not being cancelled out by fraud of any kind. The same is true in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and every other state that has attempted to deal with this mess. Instead of crying racism, those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that voting rights are protected should be seeking to uphold the obligation of the state to stop cheating. 

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