Monday, April 25, 2016

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Harriet Tubman is going to be on the front of the US $20 bill, with the slaveowner Andrew Jackson bumped to the back, and it's been mildly entertaining to watch the hooting and fist-pumping in the Intertubes as various parties try to spin the news as a triumph for their respective teams.  I keep wanting to dismiss it as a merely symbolic gesture, but I remind myself that symbols matter.  Roy Edroso covered rightblogger reactions in his latest Village Voice column, and retweeted the above meme on Twitter.

So far I haven't seen any evidence that Tubman ever said anything about the Second Amendment, which isn't surprising since the Second Amendment wasn't a big point of contention in her day.  For a slave, however, let alone a runaway who kept returning to the South to help other slaves escape, to own a gun would have been more disputed; to this day, the right of free African-Americans to keep and bear arms is difficult for white conservatives to affirm.  Since Tubman was an outlaw, I doubt she worried too much about the Constitutional issue.

A Libertarian writer at Reason was so eager to claim Tubman for his team that he overreached a bit: "she didn't advocate violence in the mode of John Brown, whose goal of ending slavery she shared."  In fact, Tubman and Brown admired each other, and Tubman supported his plan to attack Harper's Ferry.  The evidence is messy, but it seems that Tubman was down with violence in Brown's "mode."  (Forbes knew better.)  So would this discredit her in Nick Gillespie's eyes after all?

He continues:
A year ago, when Tubman's name was first floated as a possible figure for a new $20 bill, a number of anti-capitalist commenters observed that Tubman of all people shouldn't be on money because, by their reckoning, slavery is the essence of capitalism. As Damon Root noted at the time, this is not just ahistorical in the extreme, it flies in the face of the explicit thought of leading former slaves. I haven't been able to locate specific quotes from Tubman on the question of wage labor, but there's no doubt she believed in self-ownership, which is the actual basis for capitalism. Where today's leftists want to celebrate Tubman for "subverting" capitalism by effectively stealing her own self, Root argues that's just dumb.
Talk about ahistorical!  Tubman wasn't a Lockean social-contract philosopher but a religious nut, and I put it that crassly because her charismatic religiosity made her conteporary white allies uncomfortable, and still bothers some of her modern chroniclers.  The "actual basis for capitalism" could be debated forever, and has been, but like so many others Gillespie confuses free markets with capitalism.  They're not the same thing, and are probably incompatible with one another.  At least some of the American founders were suspicious of corporations, and Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 9 end), who can hardly be dismissed as an opponent of free markets, wrote "Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people."

I'm also skeptical of Gillespie's claim about former slaves' attitudes to wage labor, which is probably oversimple.  The former slave Frederick Douglass, for example, "initially declared, 'now I am my own master', upon taking a paying job. But later in life, he concluded to the contrary, 'experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.'"  I doubt that former slaves spoke with one voice on the subject, but "wage slavery" is a nineteenth-century concept, not an ahistorical idea imposed on the past by modern radicals.

It might also be worth pointing out that Tubman spent many years trying to get a government pension, as a war widow and as a former spy for the Union, without success until 2003.  Whatever her economic views were, she was by Libertarian standards a moocher and parasite.

Roy Edroso, however, is not exactly disinterested either.   In his Voice column he writes of one rightblogger:
Also, he said one academic study had trouble pinning down details of Tubman’s life, which Some Guy took to mean that “most of [Tubman's] deeds were excessively exaggerated or completely made up.”
As it happens, it's not just "one academic study" that wrestled with establishing the facts of Tubman's life.  I suppose we could debate whether Kate Larson's biography of Tubman counts as an academic study, but let's not; Larson is a historian with a Ph.D., so she's an academic and I wouldn't be surprised if her 2003 book was the study Some Guy had in mind.  Larson had to dig through a lot of legend and folklore in her research, and she upset some of Tubman's fans by her conclusions.  Which doesn't mean she rejected Tubman's status as an American heroine, nor do I.  But Edroso is so busy mocking his right-wing sitting ducks that he can't consider the possibility that one of them might be working with a fact or two.  Larson did not conclude that "most" of Tubman's reported deeds were "completely made up," but she did find a lot of exaggeration and fabrication.  The reality of Tubman's life, as far as we can reconstruct it now, is admirable enough; there's no need to puff her up with fantasy.