This Is What They Do (Part Two)
We all know the expression of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, commonly misattributed to Voltaire himself, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Believers in modern liberty are wont to see this sensibility, elevated to the status of a principle, as a guarantor of the free speech so essential to classical liberalism. It is no such guarantor. For in order for this sentiment to represent a core principle of liberty, it must be universalized. That is, your willingness to defend my right to express ideas you despise is only worth as much as my willingness to do the same for you. If I reject that premise, then your willingness to defend my speech “to the death” will likely, in the end, take on a very different significance.
Republican senator Tom Cotton was recently debating the merits of the so-called “1619 project curriculum,” under which proposal public schools would officially begin teaching that the real founding of the United States of America should be dated to the year the first slaves were brought to North America from Africa — in other words, all children should be taught that the institution of African slavery was the essence of the American founding, i.e., that America is racial oppression. In his criticism of the proposal, Cotton cited the idea, implicit in the work of some founders, and famously adopted as a mantra by Abraham Lincoln, that the U.S. founding was so designed as to set the institution of slavery on a path to its eventual obsolescence, due to its fundamental irreconcilability with the founding premises of the republic.
In the context of making this case, Cotton used the term “necessary evil” to describe the founders’ position on slavery at the time of independence. Worse yet, he did not clearly explain in precisely what sense the evil of slavery was judged “necessary.” I presume he meant, if he meant anything specific, that certain founders realized they could not achieve a republic of united but independent states without allowing those states with slavery to keep the institution provisionally, as a condition of retaining their partnership. In other words, he was presumably not saying that slavery itself was necessary in the sense of being essential to the principles of the republic, but rather necessary as a practical pill the founders were forced to swallow to achieve agreement under the circumstances — circumstances, one must recall, that were relatively dire and dangerous, and therefore required immediate agreement, imperfect though the conditions of agreement might be.
Needless to say, for his awkward or underexplained phrase, “necessary evil,” Cotton has come under fire from Democrats and other communists, who love to play these rhetorical “How dare you!” games.
Hakeem Jeffries of the House of Representatives declared:
Slavery was not a necessary evil. It was a crime against humanity — anchored in kidnap, rape, torture, lynching as the systemic oppression and enslavement of people of African descent century after century after century and we’re still living with its legacy today.
Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Merkley growled:
“Necessary evil” suggests slavery was worth it. Millions of white people achieved prosperity, so it’s ok millions of Black people were bought, sold, raped, whipped? Let me be clear, slavery was not necessary in any context—& absolute evil in every context.
(Why do “Black people” warrant capitalization of their race, while “white people” do not? Just asking.)
Let us leave aside the misrepresentations and convenient omissions in Senator Merkley’s comments, and the typical Marxist “systemic oppression” jargon from Representative Jeffries. The point I wish to make about all this is the following: Aside from Cotton’s poor explanation, and the Democrats’ deliberately hyperventilating distortion of his intentions, I cannot help noting that it is awfully rich for progressives to attack a man for (allegedly) insinuating that slavery was a necessary evil in the founding of a new form of republic, when progressivism itself is a “political philosophy” that, for a hundred and fifty years, has routinely and systematically rationalized and justified murder, imprisonment, or public ostracism for all who do not accept its premises and demands.
The “necessary evil” argument — the real one, offered directly and without any misrepresentation or ambiguity — has been used by progressives the world over, from politicians to journalists to academics to entertainers to activists to public school teachers, to explain away, diminish, and normalize: forced famines; mass executions; ancestral purity tests; confiscated property; the criminalization of alternative political views; the crushing of freedom of religion and association; the violent destruction of historical buildings and monuments; the banning of books, films, and public speakers judged to be enemies of “the People,” “the movement,” “the Party,” or “social justice”; and in general the enslavement, re-educational indoctrination, and universal demoralization of entire populations.
And this “necessary evil” defense of the various manifestations of hell on Earth (in the name of “equality” and “justice,” of course) has been offered, not by the fringe elements of progressivism, or by isolated politicians, but by the heroes, deep thinkers, leading revolutionaries, and public mouthpieces of the progressive movement: By Karl Marx, of course. By John Dewey. By Che Guevara. By Mao Tse-tung. By Leon Trotsky. By The New York Times.
Tom Cotton may have misspoken, or spoken without the proper qualifications, when he suggested slavery was a necessary evil.
Progressives are speaking very clearly and unqualifiedly when they rationalize every form of oppression and degradation as a necessary evil of their so-called revolution. Evil, justified on grounds of supposed necessity, is not a special case or awkward historical account for progressives. It is simply what they do.