This has been one of those times where I got into a bit of a logjam with blog posts. I recently started a new semester of graduate school, which gave me less spare time, but there were two things I wanted to write on. Then the horrific, racially motivated church shooting in Charleston happened. So I realized I needed to comment on that. Hence, this blog post will focus on the TPP and the Charleston church shooting (and show how they’re connected), and my next blog post will be about the new homophobic laws signed in North Carolina and, more surprisingly, Michigan.
I’m in the unusual position of being a libertarian leaning fiscal conservative with a dislike of free trade. I believe it’s a terrible idea to incentivize businesses to outsource and lay off American workers, but even more importantly, respect for human rights needs to be a nonnegotiable criteria for all potential trade partners. I generally believe we’re a lot better off now than we were in the 1980s, but I’m a bit nostalgic for the mood that prevailed in politics in 1986 when it came to trading with South Africa. In a rather rare moment of altruism, the U.S. government imposed strong sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa, a longtime Cold War ally and trade partner, because of its atrocious human rights. And it wasn’t just liberal Democrats like Barney Frank, Ron Dellums, Ted Kennedy, and Alan Cranston and diehard liberal Republicans like Lowell Weicker, David Durenberger, Robert Stafford, and Hamilton Fish IV who favored sanctions. Republicans who were or would become quite conservative, such as Richard Lugar, Mitch McConnell, and Newt Gingrich also did the right thing, and the majority of Republican Senators voted to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over Ronald Reagan’s veto. So did old guard Dixiecrats like Robert Byrd, John Stennis, Ernest Hollings, and Russell Long, who didn’t think much differently from Afrikaner Nationalist Party bigwigs but realized that blacks were now a major Democratic Party constituency. It was the first time in the twentieth century that a foreign policy bill had ever been enacted over a presidential veto.
This altruism (mixed with some realpolitik) had rarely if ever prevailed in the government before, and it may not prevail now. A provision was axed from the TPP trade agreement which would have disqualified countries from participation if they failed to adequately work against human trafficking. So if the TPP passes, a country that fails to enforce laws against slavery can still trade goods with the United States. This controversy highlights both the progress we’ve made and the inadequacy of that progress. On the one hand, there’s certainly a bipartisan consensus that slavery is not only wrong but should be illegal. President Obama, despite his misguided support for the TPP, would sincerely disagree with the Millard Fillmore quote, “God knows that I detest Slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution.” (The very fact that a strongly opponent of slavery, let alone a black man, was nominated by the party for president, would have shocked and outraged most Democrats at the time of the Civil War, and that in and of itself represents at least some progress.) I truly think Paul Ryan, another TPP warrior, would too. There’s still a too-large minority of Americans who make comments condoning slavery, as evidenced by Jon Hubbard’s “blessing in disguise” statement and the people who defended him, but there’s an antislavery consensus in American politics that has not always existed. Nonetheless, despite the fact that this December will mark the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are still struggling to get the federal government to place a commitment to utterly eradicating slavery worldwide above a desire for profit. I can’t help but feel that the titans of the abolitionist movement, like Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Sojourner Truth, William Nell, Samuel Joseph May, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lydia Maria Child would be disappointed that after all this time, we still let money influence our policies on slavery.
As for the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting by the racist terrorist Dylann Roof, we also see both the progress that has been made and the serious progress that remains to be made. While the church has its roots in the antebellum era, having once been preached at by a man named Denmark Vesey who attempted an 1822 slave revolt, the attack reminds me the most of the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing. It does show some progress that, while police in Alabama and even the FBI showed little interest in apprehending the vermin involved in the 1963 terrorist attack, Roof was quickly found and arrested. Yet we are reminded that Roof is symptomatic of a larger attitude that is still widespread in South Carolina and other parts of the country by the fact that the Confederate Flag–the logo of which was on his license plate–still hangs at the state capitol. Indeed, it had been set up in such a way that it could not even be lowered at half mast. Meanwhile, many of the political candidates decrying the attack have records of making racist statements. Lindsey Graham, for instance, not only still refuses to outright endorse proposals for South Carolina to remove the flag from government property but also said “white men in male-only clubs” would be some of the primary beneficiaries of his presidency. Mike Huckabee suggested people who objected to the flag being flown in South Carolina should shove the pole up their buttocks and wished for President Obama to be more like Jesse Helms while also harping on his Kenyan heritage. And it’s not just Southern candidates. Donald Trump tried to blame President Obama for the Baltimore Riots by virtue of the president and the rioters both being black. Rick Santorum could not categorically deny making a statement implying all welfare recipients were black. (OK, in fairness, Santorum was born in the South, so you could categorize him as a Northern or Southern candidate.) And who could forget Rand Paul (represents a border state, born in Pittsburgh) saying a business owner should be allowed to discriminate against black people? And in no way am I implying that all Republicans are racist or that all racists are Republicans. I’ve heard an active Democrat defend slavery, and potential presidential candidate Jim Webb has a strong affinity for all things Confederate. Heck, the party had an ex KKK member as President pro tempore until he died five years ago. But the point is that some of the public figures who are rightfully condemning the shooting are also part of the problem when it comes to modern day racism. I am reminded of J. William Fulbright, the segregationist who denounced the Birmingham Church Bombing on the floor of the Senate without acknowledging the similarities between his own worldview and that of the bombers. It’s problematic not to acknowledge progress. But it’s also deadly to use it as an excuse to ignore the problems we still have.