Cheap Laughs: A Weekly Review of the NY Times

Mark Nuckols
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Posted: Mar 20, 2015 5:00 PM
Cheap Laughs: A Weekly Review of the NY Times

The op-ed editors of the New York Times love antebellum slavery. It’s been a full century and a half since the abolition of slavery, but for the Times it’s as if the 13th Amendment was passed only last week. And the history of slavery is ever useful for illustrating the morally superiority of the liberal readers of the Times.

It’s not enough to condemn slavery in antebellum America as a terrible thing in our nation’s distant past. No, slavery in America was the most horrific thing ever in human history and we still are obliged to do penance for the sins of our great-great-great-great grandfathers. Well, and if great-great-great-great grandpa wasn’t a slave owner, as is true of 99% of Americans, that’s no excuse, you’re still guilty, unless you’re a liberal ready to condemn your country as irredeemably racist and uniquely evil.

Edward Ball is one of the 1% whose ancestors were slave owners, and in Slavery’s Enduring Resonance he manages to draw a clear line from Nazi Germany to the Tea Party.

Ball begins by telling the story of how Union troops came to one of his family’s rice plantations and announced the liberation of the slaves. Across the Old South, the Union troops surely would have been deeply moved by both the miserable conditions the slaves endured and their joy at receiving their long awaited freedom. It is a unique scene in history, but perhaps it can be compared to the joy of the serfs in Russia when they heard the Tsar’s proclamation abolishing serfdom.

But Ball employs a much darker historical parallel.“I imagine these scenes were similar to ones at the end of World War II in Europe, when American and Soviet armies arrived at the gates of the German camps in Central and Eastern Europe.”

There is no question that the slaves were victims of an abominable system. They were deprived of liberty and virtually all legal rights. They were driven to work brutally long hours in harsh conditions, badly fed and clothed, and subject to cruel punishments for even the most minor infractions of their masters’ regime.

But it is a morally and intellectually obscene to compare American slavery to Nazi death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau. When Allied troops arrived at the Nazi’s concentration camps, they found piles of human corpses and a massive infrastructure of gas chambers and crematoria designed for efficient industrial scale mass murder, and a handful of pitiably emaciated survivors the Nazis hadn’t yet managed to kill.

But it’s not enough for Ball to compare American slavery to the Nazi’s mass murder of millions of innocent people. He also directly compares modern America to antebellum slavery.

“In place of laws that prohibited black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti-tax fanatics to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop-and-search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.”

Apparently Ball thinks efforts to promote school choice for children and to demand more accountability of public school teachers is no different from the old Slave Codes that forbid teaching slaves to read. And stop-and-search policing, that is, making our cities safer by constitutionally proper stops based on probable cause, is no different from horseback patrols chasing runaway slaves with barking dogs and horse whips.

And having compared our police to slave patrols, Ball then claims “I do not mean to suggest that police forces of today are like slave patrols.”

If you take Ball’s arguments at face value, it is not hard to conclude that what he really wants to say is that school choice and stop-and-search are not really different from the institution of slavery, and that slavery was no different from Nazism, and that conservatives are therefore really no different from the Nazis. And in doing so, he trivializes the immense crimes of the Hitler regime and demeans the memory of its victims.

No one disputes that slavery was an awful and despicable institution, and that the slaves suffered terribly. Americans fought a great and bloody civil war to abolish this sinful practice from our soil. And slavery’s legacy did long linger in Jim Crow laws, segregation and racial discrimination. But we should be able to soberly and honestly assess that legacy without hysterical comparisons to truly incomparable evils such as the Nazis’ death camps, and without demonizing political opponents as being as morally no different from slaveholders.

Unfortunately, that kind of intellectual sobriety and moral honesty is perpetually in short supply at the Times.