"surely the most disastrous president’s column ever written"
February 22, 2013 8:08 AM   Subscribe

In the winter edition of Emory Magazine, Emory President James Wagner wrote a column about compromise, and cited the Three Fifths Compromise as a positive example. The column has since been amended with a clarification, which precedes the column in italics. The Emory Wheel and Inside Higher Ed have both written overviews about the controversy. On Wednesday, the Emory Faculty voted to censure the President.

(An extensive list of media coverage and commentary on Wagner's column is available here.)

On Tuesday, The Emory Wheel also published four separate opinion pieces about the controversy:
BSA: Wagner, There is Still Work to Be Done
Problems in Wagner’s Article
Flawed Discourse by Wagner
Faculty Letter to President Wagner

HuffPost Live hosted a 30 minute panel discussion about the controversy.

Social media has been on the attack, on twitter (Fake Emory University, James Wagner (also fake), Dean Robin Forman (fake again)), a Tumblr that offers apologies (At Emory: We Are Sorry), and Scumbag James Wagner is now a meme.

Wagner's column closely follows an incident from last December, when a student group posted a video where they made a joke about lynching affirmative action students.

Emory has also been engaged in debate on campus since a major department reorganization and downsizing was announced last September, "EMORY SHUTS DOWN DEPARTMENTS". The protests against those changes have noted how they will specifically impact minorities at Emory ("Factsheet on Race and the Emory Cuts" (PDF) and "Cuts Disproportionately Hurts Faculty of Color"). The Emory Wheel has a five page archive of their coverage about those department changes.
posted by crocodiletsunami (62 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
A friend of mine is an Emory Alum, a political junkie and a writer who cut his teeth for Emory's humor magazine the Spoke.

I have to tell him about this because he would have a fucking field day weighing in with opinions.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:11 AM on February 22, 2013


"the rich tools of compromise"

I can see what he did there.
posted by chavenet at 8:13 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


cited the Three Fifths Compromise as a positive example

Wow. Just wow.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:14 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this seems like one of those "racism of obliviousness" moments, where had he pointed out in the original column that the 3/5ths compromise was a repugnant betrayal of the ideals professed (while still in keeping with the mores of the time) that led fairly inexorably to the Civil War, he probably wouldn't have taken near the amount of flak for it.
posted by klangklangston at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This stings:
A university by its inclusiveness insists on holding opposing views in nonviolent dialogue long enough for common aspirations to be identified and for compromise to be engaged—compromise not understood as defeat, but as a tool for more noble achievement. The constitutional compromise about slavery, for instance, facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like the quote from Aaron Brady, PhD student in African American studies at Berkeley:

"I expected the president of Emory University to be something other than offensively stupid, and I guess I still do: no one who can write that essay should be the president of a university. But what I’m really saying, when I say that, is that I expect a university to be a place where authority is derived from knowledge and engagement, where intellectual rigor is part of the air one breathes, the atmosphere of the place, in the water. And maybe that expectation shows that I’m the one who’s out of touch. The job of a university president, today, is not to be an intellectual leader but to be a manager and a fundraiser, the CEO of a corporation which just happens to be a university. And because the job is to ensure the continuity of the institution, no matter what, it makes a certain kind of sense that the 3/5ths compromise would appeal to him as an idea."

posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:18 AM on February 22, 2013 [66 favorites]


Slave states want to count slaves as population but not give them votes,
Opposed states want to count only free population,
Slaves themselves are not consulted

seems like a model of political compromise to me.
posted by cotterpin at 8:20 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's The Spoke's take. I am sorry that J Wagging is not actually a thing.

In just the past twelve hours, thousands of young adults from around the world have posted videos of themselves “J Wagging” on YouTube. This fad involves video subjects dressing up as a wealthy, white, school administrator and throwing monopoly dollars into the air while they spout intentionally ignorant statements.
posted by chavenet at 8:22 AM on February 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Great quote, airing nerdy laundry, and that was my reaction when this hit Facebook: the author is not a scholar, he's an administrator. The gap between those categories is stronger in some administrators than others.
posted by BrashTech at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


what i don't get is there are many examples of compromise in the constitution that would have served just as well for an example

but, no, he had to go and pick that one
posted by pyramid termite at 8:27 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've always kind of hated the "slaves used to be counted as 3/5 of person" thing as evidence of racism because of course it was the slavery proponents who wanted slaves to be counted as whole people. Slavery probably would have ended sooner if slaves hadn't been counted at all.

That said, obviously, if you're not talking about slavery don't use slavery as an example.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:29 AM on February 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Related: It seems history moves slowly.

sigh.
posted by Fizz at 8:31 AM on February 22, 2013


When I heard about this, my first thought was disbelief that no one who read the article before it went to print made the suggestion that maybe as the president of an elite private, very white university in the deep south should not bring up slavery in this manner lest there be a PR disaster. I mean, this was a totally avoidable controversy. Anyone with any sense could have known this was going to happen. James Wagner's an idiot and so are his advisors.
posted by dortmunder at 8:32 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. And this is coming from one of the breed of University Administrators who have less and less time for the Humanities.

"Those who close History departments will be doomed to repeat them" is the moral, I guess.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


I love that an administrator who was sloppy, not racist (and apologized profusely), still warranted a "30 minute panel discussion" by the likes of Huffington Post. Wait what does love mean again.
posted by deern the headlice at 8:34 AM on February 22, 2013


Prior racial controversies at Emory:

Jewish dental students were failed out by faculty on purpose.

Emory built on slavery, and no apology. But eventually, a "regret".
posted by surplus at 8:35 AM on February 22, 2013


James Wagner's an idiot and so are his advisors.

Or it could be like the three different universities where I've worked, in that everyone is afraid to tell him he's an idiot, because of what has happened to others who dared. Or hates him and wants to see him go down.

The only thing worse than academia is the administration side of academia. You get all of the posturing and preening and almost none of the actual ability to draw on a deep knowledge of something. Nearly all of my worst work stories come from that world.
posted by emjaybee at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Great quote, airing nerdy laundry, and that was my reaction when this hit Facebook: the author is not a scholar, he's an administrator. The gap between those categories is stronger in some administrators than others.

Is it better when the managerial class keeps their mouths shut about what they actually think? Unfortunately, that seems like the outcome of this sort of controversy. What's kind of amazing is that Wagner digs himself in deeper (in the italics added after the original controversy,) as if he's actually trying to conduct an intellectual debate about his boneheaded racist ideas... he's trying to be a scholar:
We see these truths in hindsight. In retrospect we can fairly ask ourselves, would we have voted for the Constitution—for a new nation, for “a more perfect union”—if it meant including the three fifths compromise? Or would we have voted no—that is, voted not to undertake what I hope we see as a noble experiment, however flawed and imperfect it has been?
But he's not able to use any of the sophisticated arguments you can use to avoid admitting that the deep flaws in the founding of the U.S. still live with us because, like many administrators, he's neither terribly well-educated (regardless of the degrees he may hold) nor (and more importantly) aware of the limits of his own understanding. And you can get away with a lot more talking about "how the west was won" without triggering the GRAR alarms.

But, yeah, I guess the point of PR is obscure the fact that the people who run the show are dumb-asses. Sometimes the screen lifts and you see the quality of the people who have risen to the top.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:42 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh, boy, I can't wait for the inevitable tsunami of "Dear God, what are you thinking, Emory?" press releases from other university presidents.


Still waiting.






Still waiting.
posted by erniepan at 8:53 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, we passed the Republican's health care law. We left the bulk of their tax cuts in place. We HAVE compromised.
posted by thelonius at 8:57 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, Wagner is a scholar, just not a historian - he's an electrical engineer by training. This seems like a corollary to the Salem hypothesis or something.
posted by kickingthecrap at 8:59 AM on February 22, 2013


I liked We Are Respectable Negroes' take on this:
Here is the painful reality that many of those in the out-group, the less than privileged, the Other, the marginalized, and the like have not yet figured out: James Wagner does not care about you. His comments on slavery were not a personal dig, stab, or barb. Black folks, our legacy, personhood, and the like are quite simply not choices on the cognitive decision tree of men like him.
[...]
I will double down. The real damage done by colorblind and institutional racism in the post civil rights era is that seemingly race neutral decisions about policy and related matters are done with a calculi which ignores how said decisions will impact the life chances of people of color.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:07 AM on February 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


he's an electrical engineer by training...

ah, EE... the border collies of engineering: smart enough to get yourself into trouble but not smart enough to realize that you're only a dog (unless you're Paul Dirac.)

/joke
posted by ennui.bz at 9:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Leaving aside the colossal PR blunder aspect of this, the question he raises (implicitly in the original piece and explicitly in the later preface) is a real and valid one: if you'd had a vote back then would you have been willing to accept this compromise or not? Would you have sided with the slave-states in insisting that slaves be counted as "full" people in apportioning representatives? Or would you have insisted that slaves not be counted as people at all? Or would you simply have said that it was inconceivable that you would form a nation that in any part condoned the practice of slavery (even if you knew that that meant abandoning the entire "American" project?)?

These seem to me to be difficult and interesting questions.
posted by yoink at 9:28 AM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've always kind of hated the "slaves used to be counted as 3/5 of person" thing as evidence of racism because of course it was the slavery proponents who wanted slaves to be counted as whole people.

True, except that whole people also have the vote. The slave-holding states wanted them to count as whole people in the specific application of deciding how many representatives, for whom they could not vote, the enslaved population's numbers provided to advance the interests of their owners. That's an important distinction, I think.

In that light, the willingness of the free states to reach that compromise seems comfortably racist enough to me to count as evidence the the late 18th century was a pretty lousy time to be black in the US, even if one was living in a free state.
posted by running order squabble fest at 9:35 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, the lesson people are taking away from this is that such stupidity should be expected from anyone who does not have a Ph.D in the humanities? I don't buy it. I get that professors are unhappy with the way universities are run today, but you don't actually need a deep knowledge of history or society to see the problem with his column.
posted by Area Man at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


In that light, the willingness of the free states to reach that compromise seems comfortably racist enough to me to count as evidence the the late 18th century was a pretty lousy time to be black in the US, even if one was living in a free state.

Imagine yourself a confirmed abolitionist living in the C18th. You loathe the institution of slavery with every fiber of your being. Now...you have a choice on whether to vote in favor of the proposed consitution, including the 3/5ths compromise, or against it. Which way do you vote, and why? Do you think that slavery is likely to come to an end sooner if the slave-holding south is left as a separate nation or group of nations, or if it is incorporated into a larger federation, much of which is opposed to the institution of slavery?

I don't see this as an easy choice to make and I think smug "aren't we so much more enlightened than those jerks" self-congratulation is a poor basis for historical analysis.
posted by yoink at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


These seem to me to be difficult and interesting questions.

Sure, there are serious questions that we could dig out here, questions which actual historians have all kinds of interesting debates about. But the president is having none of that: in his wisdom, Wagner seems to think — just like any C-plus freshman essay on the subject — that the debate is settled by the self-evidently good outcome of the founding of the Republic: that the "higher calling" of "our light" could excuse pretty much any injustice. Despite his attempt to wriggle off the hook by asserting that he was arguing "The ends do not in themselves justify any means necessary to achieve them," and despite his closing paragraph's false suggestion that he really meant just to open a rich debate on a complex question, the idiotic thrust of his actual argument is clear — Slavery was worth it BECAUSE AMERICA. (And the next step in his logic is equally clear: just as my scrapping Emory's humanities programs is a justified compromise, because I too am following the light of a higher purpose. The Jesus Camp language is not accidental, it's part of a very G.W. Bushesque program of self-justification.)

You're buying much too far into his exculpatory after-the-fact rationalizing by pretending that a serious historical discussion of the politics of the Founders' compromise is anything like what he was doing.
posted by RogerB at 9:53 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


True, except that whole people also have the vote. The slave-holding states wanted them to count as whole people in the specific application of deciding how many representatives, for whom they could not vote, the enslaved population's numbers provided to advance the interests of their owners. That's an important distinction, I think.

In 1789, it was not true that "whole people have the vote." Women were whole people (for the purposes of determining representation in Congress), but did not have the vote; non-property owners were whole people but did not have the vote. There's not really much connection (in 1789) between being counted for purposes of representation and actually being able to vote.

I'm not here to argue that the 18th Century wasn't a terrible time to be black in America or that Northern states weren't racist, but for someone who wanted to draft a Constitution that limited the power of the slave states (and thus the spread and acceptance of slavery) then the 3/5 compromise is a "better" choice than counting slaves as "whole" people.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:54 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't see this as an easy choice to make and I think smug "aren't we so much more enlightened than those jerks" self-congratulation is a poor basis for historical analysis.

And has his article actually been historical analysis about what the best choice might have been (which would be really interesting) -- let's imagine that the best choice really was the 3/5th compromise and that the article came to that conclusion using facts and evidence and stuff -- there wouldn't have been half the response to this, an editorial saying "compromise is awesome! here's an example of its awesomeness!"
posted by jeather at 9:57 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yoink, I agree that the "how would you have voted on this compromise" question is an interesting intellectual exercise. However, the separate question is whether it is an interesting enough exercise sufficient to outdo the controversy that would be generated by speaking positively of it to an audience that is generally not expecting such a nuanced topic of discussion.

I'd propose that no, it really, really isn't. And I'm one who agrees with you on the topic being a fascinating intellectual exercise as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:58 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Had Wagner actually been advancing yoink's argument, or asking yoink's question I'd be all on his side. But he didn't.

He's not saying, or even considering, really, anything on the order of "The compromise was a good thing because it ensured the ultimate demise of slavery in North America: by welding North and South together it made it certain that freedom or slavery would eventually rule over the whole, and precluded any permanent coexistence of a free nation and a slave nation. So, as awful as it may seem to us today, this compromise is noble in retrospect." He's not so nuanced. He's saying it was good just on the strength of creating a single nation.

Wagner is just oblivious to the actual subject matter of the compromise.
posted by tyllwin at 10:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


the idiotic thrust of his actual argument is clear — Slavery was worth it BECAUSE AMERICA

Oh what utter B.S. The 3/5ths compromise was not about "will we or won't we have slavery" it was about how slavery would affect representation. Had the question of whether or not to abolish slavery been on the table the slave states would never have even entered a discussion.
posted by yoink at 10:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Wagner seems to think — just like any C-plus freshman essay on the subject — that the debate is settled by the self-evidently good outcome of the founding of the Republic"

In conclusion, America is a land of contrasts.
posted by klangklangston at 10:12 AM on February 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


I think it's kind of ridiculous to discuss the process by which the Constitution took form without mentioning anywhere that both the reason these disparate states wanted to form a common government and the reason they wanted that government to be such a forward-looking social experiment had quite a bit to do with English exploitation and oppression. These documents weren't drafted in a nice quiet university library as a theoretical exercise. People were going to die over those words.

Had the magnitude of the forces arrayed against them not forced them into alignment it's very unlikely any unified government would ever have been formed of both slave and non-slave states.
posted by localroger at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2013


In that light, the willingness of the free states to reach that compromise seems comfortably racist enough to me to count as evidence the the late 18th century was a pretty lousy time to be black in the US, even if one was living in a free state.

I'm sure this wasn't intended to be sarcastic but I think it has to be one the biggest understatements of all time (or at least the past 400 years or so).

"the rich tools of compromise"

I can see what he did there.


Yeah, when I saw that I really had to wonder whether the guy was just trolling the readers. Why even bring this stuff up now? Oh yeah, because we now have a Black president (who ironically isn't descended from three-fifths of a person) who the wingnuts whine about not being willing to compromise (read: be a good little slave and do whatever they want). I can't imagine a worse way to try to make a case for both sides to be willing to give a little when the foundation of the compromise is evil.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:17 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


And has his article actually been historical analysis about what the best choice might have been (which would be really interesting) -- let's imagine that the best choice really was the 3/5th compromise and that the article came to that conclusion using facts and evidence and stuff -- there wouldn't have been half the response to this, an editorial saying "compromise is awesome! here's an example of its awesomeness!"

There's not much point selecting--as an example of the need for difficult and painful compromise--one which everybody feels entirely happy about, is there? He's not saying "compromise is awesome! Here's an example of its awesomeness!" He's saying it's necessary and difficult. I don't disagree that it was a gross PR blunder to write this piece, because he should have realized it would get read by people who have a very sketchy grasp of US history and who think that the 3/5ths thing had something to do with treating individual slaves as "three fifths of a person" and so on. But within the world of US constitutional history the 3/5ths compromise is a rather famous example of a painful but necessary compromise to allow a greater good to move forward.
posted by yoink at 10:19 AM on February 22, 2013


I think the three-fifths compromise serves as visceral evidence of racism in our constitution -- despite the irony Bulgaroktonos notes -- because it's so bloodlessly actuarial. It's as though King Solomon proposed to cut the baby in half, and the supplicants started quibbling about percentages.
posted by jhc at 10:32 AM on February 22, 2013 [14 favorites]


I used to live in Decatur, just a few miles from the Emory campus. Some of my neighbors called the obnoxious students Emorrhoids.
posted by workerant at 10:33 AM on February 22, 2013


I don't see this as an easy choice to make and I think smug "aren't we so much more enlightened than those jerks" self-congratulation is a poor basis for historical analysis.

Dude - if you keep this cilvil, you just look like a threadsitter with a curious boner for antebellum hypotheticals.

Getting fighty in your defence of your right to congratulate yourself for facing the problems confronted by the Founders with a clear, analytical eye, with only the benefit of 220+ years of distance and no skin in the game whatsoever to help you, feels like an odd hill to plant your flag on.

In 1789, it was not true that "whole people have the vote." Women were whole people (for the purposes of determining representation in Congress), but did not have the vote; non-property owners were whole people but did not have the vote.

Absolutely - I'm happy to acknowledge that there were other classes of people who were also disenfranchised in the late 18th century. I mean, we are all agreed that the fourteenth, fifteenth and nineteenth amendments are on the whole pretty good things, right? And that the Dorr rebellion had a reasonable complaint at its heart? I'm just pointing out that the construction of the concept of "whole people" here is intrinsically suspect.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:46 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah, because we now have a Black president (who ironically isn't descended from three-fifths of a person)

The balance of opinion among genealogists seems to be that that he is though, and from the first identifiable specifically American, as opposed to Caribbean, black slave to boot-- but on his white mother's side rather than his Kenyan father's.
posted by jamjam at 10:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


He chose a compromise that illustrated the difficulty of coming to an agreeable midpoint between two sides that seem to have no shades of gray between them. And he could say that the Quakers won, because it wasn't 50%, it was 60%.

He's doomed because he didn't suspect that it was an electrified third rail of identity politics, and I think this is being used as the beard for another issue, by the faculty, who are rather evenly divided on some unpopular changes made to the curriculum last semester.

I don't think this is about what it is purported to be about. Even the vote for censure appears to have passed by slim margins, if I understand the article correctly.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:48 AM on February 22, 2013


Oh what utter B.S. The 3/5ths compromise was not about "will we or won't we have slavery" it was about how slavery would affect representation. Had the question of whether or not to abolish slavery been on the table the slave states would never have even entered a discussion.

You missed RogerB's point. But you seem happier to argue about the 3/5ths compromise itself and not the effects of it being used in a "everybody compromise!" piece written by an academic administrator some hundreds of years later.

Whether or not the 3/5ths compromise was a "good" thing is neither here nor there in this context. Is it the best example to use when discussing the value of compromise in this context - a context in which the university in question is a university in the South? Doesn't look like it.
posted by rtha at 10:59 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would say that the 3/5ths compromise is an example where political obstinacy would have been better than compromise-at-all costs.
posted by dhens at 11:10 AM on February 22, 2013


There's not much point selecting--as an example of the need for difficult and painful compromise--one which everybody feels entirely happy about, is there?

No, but this was a terrible, terrible choice of example to use. He's writing about compromise being a particularly necessary and particular American virtue (which one can argue about, but whatever) -- but there is only ONE example of a difficult compromise that was possible to use? If indeed this is the case (which I doubt), then compromise isn't an American virtue at all, so he could have used any example that wasn't quite so charged now. If there are in fact other examples of difficult compromises that had positive results in the US, he could have used one of those.

This has nothing to do with whether or not the 3/5ths compromise was a good one (though I think that even if every historian in the world thinks so, this hasn't exactly trickled down to other people, to whom the editorial was addressed -- you want to choose something that people agree that was a "difficult but necessary compomise").
posted by jeather at 11:13 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't disagree that it was a gross PR blunder to write this piece, because he should have realized it would get read by people who have a very sketchy grasp of US history and who think that the 3/5ths thing had something to do with treating individual slaves as "three fifths of a person" and so on. But within the world of US constitutional history the 3/5ths compromise is a rather famous example of a painful but necessary compromise to allow a greater good to move forward.

Can you agree, therefore, that because this particular compromise was going to be read by people with a sketchy grasp of history, that him not having taken the time to think of some other example of a "painful but necessary compromise" was a really dumb move (at best)?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:17 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]




Whether or not the 3/5ths compromise was a "good" thing is neither here nor there in this context.

I've already said, several times, that this was a PR blunder. I'm saying that it's not, substantively, either support for slavery or a foolish premise for a piece about the necessity of entertaining difficult and even wrenching compromises in any political process.

I would say that the 3/5ths compromise is an example where political obstinacy would have been better than compromise-at-all costs.

So you would have held out for slaves being not counted as people at all in apportioning representation? Or do you mean that you would not have been willing to create a federated state that included slave-holding states at all? And how do you imagine the subsequent history of the slaveholding states if the non-slave states had refused to compromise in one or other of these cases?
posted by yoink at 11:20 AM on February 22, 2013


Can you agree, therefore, that because this particular compromise was going to be read by people with a sketchy grasp of history, that him not having taken the time to think of some other example of a "painful but necessary compromise" was a really dumb move (at best)?

Gosh, if only in my very first post in this thread I'd remembered to call this "a colossal PR blunder."

Oh, wait...
posted by yoink at 11:22 AM on February 22, 2013


Gosh, if only in my very first post in this thread I'd remembered to call this "a colossal PR blunder."

Which you then went on to discuss as if the topic of this conversation were the actual compromise itself.

If you want to do an FPP about the Three-Fifths Compromise itself, that'd actually be kinda nifty (and I am saying that sincerely). This is not that conversation, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:24 AM on February 22, 2013


Wowwww, he even managed to lap Larry Summers on this one.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:36 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Which you then went on to discuss as if the topic of this conversation were the actual compromise itself.

Presumably, there can be more than one thing in the situation worth discussing.
posted by Jahaza at 11:39 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


*shrug* Have it your way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:40 AM on February 22, 2013


If you want to do an FPP about the Three-Fifths Compromise itself, that'd actually be kinda nifty (and I am saying that sincerely). This is not that conversation, though.

The FPP is about the President's column and the response to it--I am discussing the subject of that column and arguing that despite the fact that it was clearly a colossal PR blunder, the argument the column makes is actually (for anyone reasonably well informed about the history involved) a perfectly reasonable one: a fact that sheds an interesting light, itself, on the nature of the controversy surrounding the column. You may not, personally, wish to pursue that angle, but I cannot see how it is not centrally relevant to the FPP.
posted by yoink at 11:40 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, let me take another crack at my point here.

It's true that the three-fifths compromise didn't mean slaves were considered three-fifths of a person under the Constitution. They were considered zero-fifths of a person, 100% non-people, in the sense of not being independent agents with natural rights -- as you can see from the Fugitive Slave Clause, for example. The Constitution preserved the states' right to treat human beings as property and demand their return if they fled to a state that did not.

So the core compromise here -- the core devil's bargain -- is that the free states obtained a Union, in exchange for excluding slaves entirely from its benefits, and agreeing to assist in maintaining their slavery. The three-fifths compromise, hotly contested as it was, was just an implementation detail: slave states wanted to get representation on the basis of 100% of their non-people, and free states wanted the slave states to get representation on the basis of 0% of their non-people, so they split the difference at counting 60% of the non-people. Being on one side of that compromise is no better than the other.
posted by jhc at 11:41 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's probably worth noting what Wagner actually said, incidentally, at this point, which was:
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.
Emphasis mine.

and, later:
A university by its inclusiveness insists on holding opposing views in nonviolent dialogue long enough for common aspirations to be identified and for compromise to be engaged—compromise not understood as defeat, but as a tool for more noble achievement. The constitutional compromise about slavery, for instance, facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.
Emphasis, again, mine.

So, here's the thing, or at least a thing. This is not the process of a lib'rul elite taking potshots at a man in the late 18th century not having our subtle and sophisticated grasp of concepts of racial equality. He is not saying this in the late 18th century. He is saying it in the early 21st century, eleven score years and change later.

As such, it is not ludicrous to expect him to have some sense, and to communicate that sense, that as well as the "two sides" - the groups of white dudes arguing about congressional representation - there was another "side", which is to say the large number of people who were not invited to the table, and who did not get to express an opinion at the time, or for some considerable time afterwards, about how much of a person they were. The higher aspirations of these people also existed. They had their own sights, and their own sense of what might make a more perfect union.

One can certainly professor up here, and murmur "Oh, but it's a fascinating intellectual conundrum, isn't it? You know, historically speaking. Would we have done any better?".

However, if one is representing a body within a community, and if one is going to have to write a disclaimer longer than the original piece, and certainly if one is going to find oneself in the improbable position of having to disclaim support for slavery, it seems wise to find a different historical example.

And this is not just a "PR blunder" because it might be read by people "who have a very sketchy grasp of US history". It's a blunder because it might be read, as indeed it was, by people.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:42 AM on February 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


I've already said, several times, that this was a PR blunder.

Okay? But then you jumped on RogerB for a thing he wasn't actually arguing, so maybe you can argue with people who are also actually arguing about that thing.
posted by rtha at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2013


"As such, it is not ludicrous to expect him to have some sense, and to communicate that sense, that as well as the "two sides" - the groups of white dudes arguing about congressional representation - there was another "side", which is to say the large number of people who were not invited to the table, and who did not get to express an opinion at the time, or for some considerable time afterwards, about how much of a person they were."

"One side believed that blacks weren't people and could be owned, the other side believed that blacks weren't people and couldn't be owned. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle."
posted by klangklangston at 12:13 PM on February 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Context for those who aren't sitting walking distance from where all of this is going on:
It is 5.4 miles from Emory to Ebenezer Baptist Church

Here in Atlanta it is impossible to escape the constant overbearing weight of history and how we are all intertwined forever in the residue of love and hate and ambition and money and poverty and complicated family ties because of decisions like the 3/5ths compromise. Even from his fancy Presidential Mansion, I can't believe Wagner can't feel it, too.

Maybe, before he leaves on his golden parachute, he'll visit some of the amazing local Civil Rights sites and actually experience this city that he has apparently only been inhabiting.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:43 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've already said, several times, that this was a PR blunder.

I honestly think that calling this a PR blunder trivializes the impact of the shady thinking that underpins this guy's essay and trivializes what many commenters here and in the reaction pieces are saying.

This essay did not appear first in an academic journal, and then was rudely ripped out of its scholarly context and excerpted in the Daily Mail to generate outrage and page hits. It appeared in the university magazine, meant to be accessible to a wide variety of readers (and potential donors).

And of all the possible comparisons he could use to make his banal points about contemporary political gridlock (generously padded with lofty-sounding, but trite and empty phrases about the spirit of the academy), this guy chooses one that carries incredible historical weight and whose effects are still being felt by black Americans today. This isn't two tokes/beers in at 2am in the freshman dorm oh let's think deep philosophical thoughts. The 3/5ths compromise is directly connected to actual people's actual day-to-day lives still being fucked up right now.

Negative audience response was 100% predictable, and either this never occurred to him, or he simply did not care. Either way, this isn't a failure of saying the wrong thing aloud, or of saying it to a supposedly ignorant audience who somehow misunderstood his point.

No, I got his point just fine; this is a rotten from the leaves right on down to the roots level fail of a type that a lot of us know and have known all too well.
posted by skye.dancer at 9:08 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was all prepared to think this was taken out of context and the analogy was used in support of some more nuanced argument. But it was not. That is weird and just.... Weird.
posted by bq at 9:37 AM on February 23, 2013


this is a rotten from the leaves right on down to the roots level fail of a type that a lot of us know and have known all too well.

So just to be clear, what you are saying is that the Board of Trustees is about to give that man a substantial raise.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:16 PM on February 23, 2013


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