I have zero admiration for Ben Carson, but even Ben Carson deserves better than the criticisms that have been made of his first speech as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Ben Carson’s first full week as secretary of Housing and Urban Development got off to a rough start on Monday after he described African slaves as “immigrants” during his first speech to hundreds of assembled department employees. The remark, which came as part of a 40-minute address on the theme of America as “a land of dreams and opportunity,” was met with swift outrage online.
Mr. Carson turned his attention to slavery after describing photographs of poor immigrants displayed at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration. These new arrivals worked long hours, six or seven days a week, with little pay, he said. And before them, there were slaves.
“That’s what America is about, a land of dreams and opportunity,’’ he said. “There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
Carson’s remarks elicited widespread “outrage” for his supposed failure to observe the fact that immigrants migrate by choice to a country of their choice, whereas slaves are seized by force, transported by force, and sold involuntarily into forced labor. The implication of the criticism would appear to be either that Carson was unaware of the distinction between voluntary migration and the forced nature of slavery, or that he was aware of it, but minimized the distinction so as to make slavery seem less bad than it really is. Unfortunately, both criticisms are absurd, as is the outrage itself.
First of all, as Carson himself correctly noted, dictionary definitions of “immigrant” do not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary means of migration to a foreign country, but subsume both. The first definition of “immigrant” that comes up in a Google search defines an immigrant as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” There is no reference in the definition, whether implicit or explicit, to voluntariness or involuntariness. As far as the definition is concerned, slaves can be immigrants. It may be unusual to refer to slaves as immigrants, but an unusual use is not wrong simply because it’s unusual, not if it falls squarely within a dictionary definition for the term. “Immigrant” contrasts with “traveler” and “native-born person,” not with “slave.”
In any case, some of Carson’s most prominent critics managed to concede this very point in the act of criticizing him–treating him like an idiot while sounding, themselves, a lot like idiots. Here is Whoopi Goldberg, via Twitter:
Ben Carson..please read or watch Roots, most immigrants come here VOLUNTARILY,cant’t really say the same about the slaves..they were stolen.
Goldberg’s assertion that “most immigrants come here VOLUNTARILY” is consistent with the claim that some came/come involuntarily. But the claim that some immigrants came/come involuntarily is consistent with Carson’s claim that slaves were immigrants who came involuntarily. Goldberg’s “criticism” therefore makes no sense: there’s no such thing as a criticism that asserts a claim that’s perfectly consistent with the claim being criticized.
Goldberg’s snarky prescription to Carson “to read or watch Roots” implies that Carson is literally ignorant of the fact that African slaves were brought to North America involuntarily. But his explicit reference to “slave ships” makes that presupposition extremely unlikely. It seems much more likely that Goldberg (and many others like her) saw an opportunity to take a cheap pot shot at Carson, unquestionably an easy target, and found a cheap way to do it. Alas, it’s bad enough to take a cheap shot at an easy target, but worse when the cheap shot misses.
While we’re on the subject of history, however, it’s worth pointing out that Roots is a work of fiction. So not only does Goldberg’s criticism make no logical sense, it makes no historical sense, either. If a person is genuinely ignorant of history, or in the grip of myths about it, it makes no historical sense to encourage him to read or watch a work of fiction, even historical fiction. Fiction lays out the imaginative workings of the author’s imagination, not the facts of history. It doesn’t tell us what really happened, and doesn’t remedy the ignorance of someone unaware of what happened.
It makes far more sense to encourage a historically-ignorant person to read a work of historiography on the relevant subject. Why, then, did Goldberg not suggest a work of historiography to read? One possibility is that she hasn’t read one. But a person who hasn’t read any historiography on slavery probably shouldn’t be getting on her high horse when it comes to historical knowledge of slavery. Another possibility is that she has read one. But in that case, she should have suggested that Carson read the historiography on slavery that she herself has read–in other words, the historiography that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the slave trade involved a series of involuntary transactions. Either way, her labored attempt at cleverness ends up looking kind of stupid.
Slaves aside, there are at least two significant classes of involuntary immigrants who aren’t slaves. By definition, a child under the age of consent cannot consent to his or her parents’ decision to immigrate. But when parents decide to immigrate from one country to another, they typically take their children with them–with or without the childrens’ permission or consent. A child taken in this fashion from one country to another may not be a slave, but is still taken involuntarily and is still an immigrant. So that’s one species of “involuntary immigrant who’s not a slave.” Another example: a refugee who is literally forced from one country to another without having a choice about leaving his home country or fleeing to the next country. A forced migrant or refugee has by definition been transferred to the second country in an involuntary fashion, but is still an immigrant without being a slave. So that’s another species of “involuntary immigrant who’s not a slave.”
If you add the number of unconsenting child-immigrants to the number of involuntary migrant/refugees forced from one country to another (subtracting the children counted twice because they fall under both headings), you get a pretty large figure, probably one in the millions or tens of millions. So it can’t be claimed that non-slave involuntary immigration is a minor or trivial phenomenon. Huge numbers of immigrants are immigrants by subjection to someone else’s decision (e.g., children) or by force majeure (e.g., refugees), rather than by free choice. There are, in short, lots and lots of involuntary immigrants in the world who are not slaves. It’s kind of hard to miss them. And both are counter-examples to the idea that immigration is by definition a voluntary phenomenon.
Incidentally, if you happen to think that my first counter-example–child-immigrants–is somehow morally insignificant (because childrens’ wishes don’t count for much), consider the case of the somewhat older child who is rooted in one country, then torn from those familiar surroundings by her parents and more or less dragged to an entirely new country, whether for good reasons or bad.
We tend to feel some empathy for the American child who has to move from one town to the next, or one state to the next, on the grounds that she’s torn from relatively familiar surroundings and required to face entirely new ones disruptive of normal childhood development–a new neighborhood, new school, new friends, etc. Kids who move a lot suffer for it, psychologically speaking, at least as a matter of statistically significant correlation. And it’s not hard to see why. Anyone who’s had to move a lot, even in adulthood, knows how disruptive it is.
If that situation elicits empathy, you’d think that the situation of child-immigrants would elicit more empathy, since such children face not just a new neighborhood, school, and friends, but all of that plus a new country, customs, and language (along with the travails of the move itself). Evidently, however, the Empathy Police doesn’t regard any of this as worth taking seriously: much more important to score rhetorical points against Ben Carson than to consider what it’s like to be a child-immigrant. My point, of course, is not that child-immigration is a phenomenon morally on par with slavery. My point is simply that child-immigration is a morally and psychologically significant phenomenon, a fact that seems lost on people eager to signal to us that slavery was really, really wrong, and equally eager to “prove” that their political opponents would deny that.
I guess it would be both caviling and piling on to note that indentured servants weren’t precisely slaves, but were both immigrants and brought involuntarily to these shores. But it would still be true and still count against Carson’s critics.
The truth is, it’s Carson’s critics who have been insensitive to the plight of immigrants, not Carson who’s been insensitive to the plight of slaves. It’s absurdly implausible to suppose that Carson (even Carson) is ignorant of the involuntary nature of the slave trade. Nor is there any evidence out there to suggest that he was. It’s not at all implausible to suppose that Carson’s critics are ignorant of the nature of involuntary immigration. The evidence consists of their outraged insistence that immigration is, by definition, a matter of choice. It isn’t.
Yes, the Trump Administration sucks. Yes, his cabinet choices suck. Yes, Ben Carson sucks, too. The problem is, the criticisms being made of Carson’s speech suck even more than Trump and Carson themselves do. It takes a grotesque sort of effort and skill to get me to sympathize with members of the Trump Administration, but sometimes Trump’s liberal critics manage to achieve the near-impossible.
You’d think by now that American liberals might have learned that Twitter is the wrong medium for political debate, that grandstanding is a waste of time and political capital, and that “gotcha” approaches to political discourse are self-defeating–but no: the learning curve has proven as steep after the election as before. Every day brings the latest liberal attempt to beat Trump’s deplorables at the Clever Derby, to show how stupid they are, to catch them out in obvious mistakes that any idiot could avoid–and every day brings ignominious failure followed by half-chastened bewilderment. “How could such idiots have taken hold of the presidency and of the government?” people wonder. Answer: Possibly because they aren’t idiots, and because the attempt to prove that they are is foredoomed to failure. If only our news media (and social media) outlets had focused more on Trump’s intelligent supporters, and less on his stupid ones, we might have learned this lesson by now.
A suggestion for our liberals: it could be that the only road out of the Trump Presidency is the high road of moral principle–not a matter of showing how clever we are, or how stupid they are, but of identifying the principles that distinguish liberalism from Trumpism, and out-doing Trump’s supporters in our adherence to those principles. As a start, we might want to consider the possibility that liberalism involves an ethics of discourse. We might also want to consider the possibility that this ethics implies that it isn’t possible to conduct rational political discourse 140 ungrammatical and unpunctuated characters at a time. It could even be that the first step toward overthrowing the political tyranny of Trump is to overthrow the discursive tyranny of Twitter. And it might be that the second and closely-related step is to recover a form of political discourse that exhibits more respect for logic, grammar, and conceptual precision than most of our discourse currently exhibits. Even more amazingly still: it could be that we have to take both steps at once. Just a thought.
Postscript. Well, I got Whoopi Goldberg and Ava DuVernay in there, so why balk at Samuel L. Jackson’s idiot contribution to this discussion? I find it frankly amazing that people can applaud this shit, take it seriously, or even regard it as superior to Carson’s speech. This is just outright idiocy masquerading as bien pensant liberalism.