It’s wise to be wary of claims that if so-and-so in history were alive today, he’d ally with such-and-such a political cause, or to do the inverse and say that a contemporary figure would have fit this or that role in history. The circumstances that make us who we are are too complex, including both our own experiences and aspects of our personalities as well as the specific play of political issues in our time.
Would Theodore Roosevelt call himself a “progressive” if he’d been born in 1958 instead of 1858? Well, how would his life have differed? Conservatives like to say that John F. Kennedy would be a moderate Republican, today, but how contingent were his policy beliefs on their benefit to his party or their time? I’ve never found a way to decide what qualities and decisions should be considered either innate or absolute for people plucked from one era and plugged into another.
Even at the level of political philosophy. There’s no doubt that some racists once cynically advocated for federalism in order to preserve slavery or segregation. To flip the politics, liberals’ espousal of civil liberties, like free speech, seems to find conspicuous exceptions when they are in control.
In the complex way in which people come to conclusions, such decisions are a combination of genuine principle, actual biases, and some (perhaps subconscious) practical calculation of what principles serve one’s biases.
The safest ground for speculation seems to be people’s temperaments and general approaches to life. If a person’s most defining quality is an attraction to power, then his or her views would be circumstantial. An overt white supremacist wouldn’t do well in 2014 Rhode Island, but neither would a person with the views of a 2014 Rhode Island liberal gain much ground in the antebellum South.
The same reasoning applies to those whose defining quality is a desire to be morally superior — that is, on “the right side of history.”
I’d suggest, for example, that the real heirs of past oppressors are not the people who might share specific policy ideas with them or who are other than the Others whom the oppressors oppressed.
Rather, the heirs of the oppressors are people who are temperamentally inclined to hold themselves above opposing groups and who construct their personal narratives according to moral judgments in order to dehumanize and exclude… like Steve Ahlquist.
Ahlquist would surely object that the folks he’s attacking at that link, who rally and argue against amnesty and the accommodation of illegal immigrants, are literally exclusionist, but that’s incidental. Every policy that actually does anything excludes somebody or something. The substance is important, and if you scratch the surface, Ahlquist’s assertions about Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement (RIILE) constitute a case study in logical fallacies.
He looks to the Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, and its criticism of national groups allied with RIILE to make an argument from authority. In brief, we must believe SPLC as an expert voice, and it characterizes those national groups as “hate groups”; therefore, our neighbors in RIILE must be driven by racial animus.
In reality, the SPLC is a progressive hatchet organization whose work has inspired at least one terroristic shooting. So, even if we accept Ahlquist’s guilt by association reasoning, linking RIILE with other groups, the presentation of SPLC as an authority (rather than a group that, in another setting, might have perpetuated anti-ethnic propaganda) does not advance his argument. This is why Ahlquist has to lament the “veiled racism” of our fellow Rhode Islanders; his presumption is that he can see through the veil, taking the role of the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes, in order to insist that the jeans and button-down shirt that everybody else can see really are not there.
These then, are the people in Rhode Island who lack compassion, are ruled by fear and susceptible to nonsensical conspiracy theory. These are the people who see a humanitarian crisis and respond with thinly veiled racism, stupidity and xenophobia. These are, without a doubt, the very worst people Rhode Island has to offer, and I find solace in the fact that they are not only small in spirit, but small in number and small in support.
If you’re able, divest yourself of emotional investment in either side of the political debate and view that paragraph objectively. On the thin gruel of his logical fallacies, Ahlquist insists that these Rhode Islanders with whom he disagrees are:
- not only misapplying their compassion, but completely devoid of it, as if inhuman
- overwhelmed with fear and lies
- primal in their racism, intellectually deformed, and fearful of fellow human beings as of a foreign species
The key point, here, isn’t exactly that Ahlquist’s rhetoric finds an eerie echo in the works of other propagandists who have targeted different minorities throughout history, but that he arrives there through tribal thinking that affirms his own sense of moral superiority. These are the evil Other, whereas he is a moral exemplar.
I don’t know if such proclivities are innate to the extent that a Steve Ahlquist transplanted to those other historical periods would have been among the oppressors. I don’t know if the zealotry with which he seeks to use government to impose his atheism as the one true religion means that he would have been equally zealous in persecuting religious minorities when some other worldview held the reins of power.
Still, it seems to me that his habit of labeling his political opposition as contemptibly subhuman ought to be viewed with a wary eye even among those who share his specific policy conclusions as applied in our own time and place.
Of the following two issues related to Rhode Island’s public schools, which one is a greater concern?