I wrote this last summer and forgot to post it. Here it is now:
How big a difference do racist origins make to the present moral status of an institution?
For Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, it seems to depend on politics.
Carson condemns Planned Parenthood on the basis of the racist views of its founder, Margaret Sanger:
“Well, maybe I’m not objective when it comes to Planned Parenthood. But you know, I know who Margaret Sanger is, and I know that she believed in eugenics, and that she was not particularly enamored with black people. … I think people should go back and read about Margaret Sanger, who founded this place – a woman who Hillary Clinton by the way says she admires.”
Indeed, Sanger had racist views. But Carson seems a bit inconsistent and selective when he turns around and praises the Founding Fathers as “courageous men of principle and faith,” and quotes Thomas Jefferson and James Madison favourably.
Surely Carson is aware that Jefferson, Madison, and many other Founders owned, bought, and sold black people as slaves; that Jefferson regarded blacks as “in reason much inferior” to whites, and “in imagination … dull, tasteless, and anomalous”; and that Madison held that “the physical peculiarities of those held in bondage … preclude their incorporation with the white population.”
If Planned Parenthood is evil because it was founded by a racist, why doesn’t being founded by a passel of racists make the United States evil? I have a hard time seeing how Carson can have it both ways.
Someone might reasonably say that Jefferson and Madison get a free pass because they did their work in the eighteenth century, but Sanger did hers in the twentieth: we ought to be more lenient on someone from the relatively distant past, but stricter with someone closer in time.
I don’t know about Madison, but in the case of Jefferson, the best case for Jefferson’s culpability on racism that I’ve seen is Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Slavery: ‘Treason Against the Hopes of the World’ ” in Peter Onuf ed., Jeffersonian Legacies. I don’t see how anyone could get through Finkelman’s essay and insist that Jefferson’s error was innocent, or a matter of unavoidable ignorance. So even if someone accepted a version of the preceding argument, it wouldn’t help much.
Anyway, considering the fact that the contemporary Republican Party was in a real sense “founded by”–or based on–the so-called “Southern Strategy,” the Founders’ racism is probably the least of Carson’s problems.
Incidentally, weren’t the early (nineteenth century) founders of the civil rights movement sexists? That’s why African American men were enfranchised in the nineteenth century, but women weren’t until the twentieth. If Frederick Douglass was a sexist ca. 1869, does that mean that the civil rights movement should have been branded as sexist in 1969 or that the NAACP is a sexist organization today?
To take this a step further. The moral status of the United States is fundamentally linked to the moral views of the founders. There is no avoiding that. Whereas the moral status of abortion has little to do the moral views of Margaret Sanger. It is quite easy to avoid that. Hence, playing the race card in the latter is not only easily dismissed it also–in the case of Carson’s faux outrage– lends to easy application of the Carson legitimized standard vis a vis the former. In this sense, contrary to a “vanishing” race card, the Carson gambit actually serves to fairly deal the thing onto the playing table. In the idiom of an alternative game, one might say “checkmate.”
I’m in favor of restoring slavery but ony to enslave ethical nihilists, because they surely won’t complain at all.
We should put them under the care of Christian Masters, so that these christians could understand how wasteful is to support slaves.