Sunday, February 17, 2013

The worst possible example

The Washington pundit class is in love with the idea of bipartisanship and compromise for their own sake. That is, they don't really care what actual laws are passed or policies adopted as long as they represent bipartisanship. If you were going to argue for this, you would probably look for good examples from the past of both sides giving a little to move forward on an important issue. But, what if you were looking for a bad example? What if you wanted an example of compromise that brought shame on the American form of government? What would be your choice as the worst possible example of compromise and bipartisanship in American history? It might be this one:
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—"to form a more perfect union"—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together. 
Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.
James Wagner, the President of Emory University in Atlanta, wrote those words in an editorial entitled "As American as … Compromise" for the university's alumni magazine. I'm not sure when the winter issue of Emory Magazine began hitting people's mailboxes, it could have been months ago because no one ever reads these Letter from the President columns. But it began getting attention yesterday, including attention from the Black Student Alliance.

For those who aren't sure what he's talking about, this is what is usually called the "Three-Fifths Compromise" in the US Constitution. The Constitution requires the federal government to take a census every ten years and to use the census numbers to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. Each state is told how many seats they get and the states draw their own congressional districts according to their own processes. That sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Well it wasn't. The Southern states had, within their boundaries, a huge number of people who were not allowed to vote, who weren't really citizens, African slaves. The Northern states had a much larger population of real citizens than the South. The Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention assumed that the main divisions in the new congress would be regional and wanted more power for their region. They demanded that slaves be counted in the apportioning of House seats, giving them more power in Congress and in the Electoral College. Northern delegated argued that the apportioning of House seats should reflect the number of voters in each state. Eventually, a compromise was reached allowing the Southern states to claim three-fifths of the number of slaves in each state for the purpose of apportioning of House seats. Wagner was holding up one of the most shameful examples of compromise in American history as a shining example of doing things right.

There is one popular misconception about the "Three-Fifths Compromise" and that is that it implied that African slaves were three-fifths of a person. This is often brought up as a grave injustice against the ancestors of African-Americans. That would have been an improvement of their lot or, at least, a concession that they were entitled to a certain amount of human dignity. Prior to the Civil War, slaves were not people at all; they were property; they were zero-fifths of a person. The only concessions that African slaves were even marginally human was their forced conversion to Christianity and the fact that laws were eventually passed making it illegal to kill a slave without first conducting a sham trial.

I imagine that when President Wagner arrives in his office Tuesday morning he will find several unpleasant message waiting for him including requests for interviews from local and even national media. Someone from the University's press office is probably already spoiling his three-day weekend. What will happen next is that he will issue a standard non-apology apology. He's sorry IF anyone took offense. He won't admit he was wrong to say it; he's just sorry he created a shit-storm. He'll call it a "misstatement," meaning his argument is valid, he just chose a bad example.

So, what was his point? It's hard to tell because, even without that horrifying example, its a really badly written column. He starts out saying some "distinguished public servant," speaking on a forum last Fall, mentioned political polarization, the Constitution, and compromise. He them pulls out the three-fifth compromise as a shining example that we should try to emulate. Then he mentions the fiscal debate. He's halfway through the column now. This, he says is just like trying to consider different view points in a university. Then something about teaching liberal arts classes at a research university. Maybe he's arguing for creationism in the biology classes. It's impossible to tell what compromise he's talking about.

I cannot imagine anyone defending this mess except those who think every word in the constitution was dictated by God and white supremacists (just to be clear, I'm not saying the two are the same). In any case, It's not going to be fun to be James Wagner for the next week or so. He'll be lucky to get out of this with his job.

Update: And he's already issued the non-apology apology: " Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me."

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