A confession of ignorance
I'm not a regular reader of the Washington Post, so I was totally unaware of Richard Cohen until just yesterday. Cohen writes a column on the Post's Op-Ed page and by coincidence I heard about two of his columns within the space of a few hours.
First, the one everybody heard about yesterday. It was about Republican prospects, and particularly Chris Christie's prospects, in the 2016 presidential election. How will someone like Christie, with his personality and allegedly moderate views, in his attempt to get the votes of the Tea Party base of the Republican Party?
You can read the whole column if you want, but here's the money quote:
People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)
Yes, that's exactly what he said. Cohen claims that this does not represent his own personal views, and that he doesn't have to repress his gag reflex when contemplating mixed-race marriages, but he describes the holders of that gag reflex as "people with conventional views"; in other words, the norm, the mainstream of American thought.
And that's not all. I also came across, via Matt Yglesias's Twitter feed, Cohen's column about his experience watching the new movie Twelve Years a Slave. I haven't seen it yet but it's on my list.
It appears to have had a real impact on Cohen and his thinking on slavery, which I suppose is a good thing.
Here's what he says about how it affected his thinking on slavery:
"... slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.
Steve McQueen’s stunning movie “12 Years a Slave” is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people — fellow Americans, after all — and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a lie and she never — and this I remember clearly being told — had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death."
And he goes further. For instance, he draws an explicit contrast between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind. To be fair, he does call Gone with the Wind "irrevocably silly and utterly tasteless", but what does he call Uncle Tom's Cabin? he says "Uncle Tom's Cabin was a lie."
The word most of us would choose is a novel--you know, a story that somebody made up--but in Cohen's view it is Harriet Beecher Stowe, not Margaret Mitchell, who is the liar. I would also challenge Cohen's evaluation of Gone with the Wind: it isn't silly, it is pro-slavery, pro-Confederate propaganda, and judging by the tenacity of the Lost Cause mythology, highly effective at that job.
Cohen eventually comes around to a recognition that slavery was not as nice as it is portrayed in Gone with the Wind, but did he really need to get to age seventy-two to find that out?
And more importantly, does the Washington Post really need somebody with such profound moral blindness writing on its pages?