Saturday, June 7, 2014

Promises, Promises

"Yet [Ta-Nehisi Coates’] mistake does not excuse anyone from contending with the reverberating question that haunts American life even as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment: How will a country built on both freedom and slavery, on both human equality and racial subordination, make good on its promise of opportunity for all its people?"
David Frum "The Elusive Specificity of Reparations"
Even if we can somehow manage to reconcile the idea of a nation built on both "freedom and slavery" and "human equality and racial subordination," the expectation that the United States will ever manage to "make good on its promise of opportunity for all its people" is hopelessly naïve. Not because the United States is an evil place, or the citizenry is committed to not making it happen, but because of a simple fact - opportunity for all people in the United States is simply an unrealistic goal, and the United States, for all its desire to be seen as an exceptional nation, is not SO exceptional that it can manage to pull off the impossible.

Slavery and racial subordination were not the results of some malicious force that wormed its way into the people of the United States and corrupted them. Instead, they were the results of the simple fact that opportunities always come at a cost to someone. And unless that cost is universally negligible, people are going to look for ways to shift those costs onto other people, and that will result in reduced opportunities for the people who wind up bearing those costs. It's the issue that we currently have with affirmative action in education. Aggrieved whites feel that they are the ones bearing the costs of improved opportunities for non-whites, and that this results in unfair costs to them, as they deserve of those opportunities. It's the common mark of a culture of scarcity.

The hope that the United States will someday manage to do away with the culture of scarcity is an old one, but it's unlikely ever to be realized. While it's fashionable to blame advertising for people always wanting more than they have, the simple fact of the matter is that it's extraordinarily difficult for people to get themselves to a state where they truly feel that they have "enough," especially when they understand themselves to be in competition with others. And as long as there is a sense that there isn't "enough," people will begrudge one another the things that they have, and, therefore, they will balk at paying them the price that freedom and human equality demand.

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