Monday, December 19, 2011

Replying to Critics of My RTD Piece on Theodore Roosevelt

Over the weekend, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an opinion piece I wrote with the headline, "Why does Obama channel racist TR?"  It ran in six columns across the top of the Op/Ed page on Saturday, accompanied by a photo of Teddy Roosevelt.

In the article, I take note of President Barack Obama's recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, a small town that had been the location of an earlier speech (in 1910) by former President Theodore Roosevelt, in which he introduced the phrase "a square deal" as the theme of his upcoming campaign to regain the presidency.

Roosevelt split the Republican party in 1912, forming the Bull Moose party as a vehicle for his planned return to office, while the GOP nominated the incumbent, Roosevelt's hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft.  The divide between factions of the Republican party led to the election of Woodrow Wilson.

The key paragraph in my Times-Dispatch piece was this:
The sad fact is, Theodore Roosevelt was an unabashed racist who celebrated genocide. He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner who glorified war and facilitated the Japanese conquest of Korea. He was a eugenicist who thought only fit people (as he, or the government, defined them) should be able to reproduce.
My point in bringing this up was that it is strange that the country's first African-American president would want to wear the mantle of a man who, according to most accounts (and his own words), held non-white races and non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups in contempt.

For my article, I drew on the works of scholars like Thomas J. Dyer, author of Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race. (The fact that a book with a title like that exists should be an indication of Roosevelt's problematic views.) Another historian I cited was Nancy Carnevale, who cited Roosevelt's disdainful views of immigrants from southern Europe in her book, A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945.

Even the Miller Center at the University of Virginia noted that Roosevelt
did little to preserve black suffrage in the South as those states increasingly disenfranchised blacks. He believed that African Americans as a race were inferior to whites
I also quoted directly from Roosevelt's own writings.

Although I have written articles for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the past (for instance, "Third Party Resurgence Seems Unlikely," published on August 7, and "America Could Use a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge," published on July 4, 2010), none has received the kind of reaction that this one has.

There were comments left on the Times-Dispatch web site (and propagated through Facebook) and I also received several emails, some critical, some congratulatory, in reply to my piece.

What follows are replies to most of the comments I received, either directly or through the RTD web site.  If you haven't read the original article yet, it may be helpful to do so before tackling the responses.

One of the emails and one of the commenters took me to task for misrepresenting how Texas came to be part of the United States.

The email correspondent wrote:
Not to make a big issue, but Texas was not 'annexed' by the USA. Texas was an independent nation in 1936 and joined the Union later.
Similarly, a published comment stated:
Texas was a republic, a separate country, from 1836 to 1845. The United States annexed Texas in 1845. Do your homework!
I did, of course, do my homework before mentioning "the annexation of Texas and other territories formerly belonging to Mexico" in my article.

In fact, the United States annexed Texas in 1845. The governing law passed by the U.S. Congress to join Texas to the United States, passed March 1, 1845, was entitled "Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States." The controlling legislation from the Republic of Texas, passed in convention on July 4, 1845, was called the "Ordinance of Annexation." (The texts of both those laws can be found on the web site of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.)

Another email came from a self-described "retired history teacher."  Given the lapses in grammar, spelling, and punctuation in the message, I print the text in full (first paragraph omitted here but shown later in this post):
Obama our nation's first Black president is trying to say that Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican, who was " progressive" and willing to move forward instead of being like the Republicans today who only move backward or not move at all. It is not about race? Its about vision of the future.

Teddy Roosevelt preached against greed of big business and worked hard to break up monopolies.

No where in your article do you mention that. If Obama understands that, why can't you?

In order for him to be re-elected our country will have to get over the race issue. Too much anti-Obama is about race. For this southern white male, and retired history teacher who supports Obama and will vote for his again no matter who the Republican is. If you think about it, it may be that your article; why would this Republican newspaper use it? To tell everyone not to forget that Obama is Black. You did it for them. Thanks alot.
Other writers (e.g., Jim Powell and Gene Healy) have addressed Roosevelt's domestic policies with regard to business and economics; that wasn't the point of my article, and that's why I did not "mention that."  I chose to write about a different topic.

What I find most odd about this emailer's complaint, however, is that he seems to imply that my article decrying racism had a hidden racist message. If so, he finds more irony in what I wrote than what I found in Barack Obama's wish to emulate a racist politician.

And, if there are Americans who are unaware that President Obama is African-American and need my reminder... well, those people shouldn't be voting in the first place. Ignorance has no place in the voting booth.

Another email correspondent writes:
This morning I read your piece on Teddy Roosevelt. It was an interesting read. Near the end you referenced two quotes from letters Roosevelt wrote, one to Charles Davenport and another to an unnamed recipient. It's my opinion that neither of these quotes supports your argument that Roosevelt was a racist as he not once makes mention of race as a factor in his breeding philosophy. You offer no additional support for how these quotes demonstrate TR's rascist views.
To a certain extent, this point is valid. The quotations about Roosevelt as a eugenicist to not, in themselves, prove he was a racist. But what I was trying to do by citing them is to prove he was a eugenicist, and eugenics was largely (but not entirely) based upon racist beliefs. Prominent eugenicists like Margaret Sanger were not shy at all about expressing the racist (mostly anti-black) roots of their aims.

In that regard, a third correspondent, unaware (I believe) of the others, wrote this:
A year or so ago, I read the book "The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley, which detailed much of what Roosevelt believed and stood for, his speeches and his actions. He was truly a bully and his beliefs concerning Eugenics, interracial marriages and his encouragement to Japan to become the dominant force in the Pacific were horrifying. By the time I finished the book, I have been wondering how we could blast his face off Mt. Rushmore without damaging any of the remaining three.
One of the commenters on the newspaper's web site seems not to have read the article I wrote because he assets:
TR was no racist. In fact, his views on race unusually progressive just like his politics in general. He believed all people should be treaty like human beings. As for his war record, there was none. In fact, he won a Nobel Peace Prize. Your reading of American history is flawed and biased. He was a patriot.
My high school debate coach taught that "he who asserts must prove." I provided evidence for my contentions, but the commenter does no more than gainsay my argument. This is not argument at all, just contradiction. The fact that I mention the dubious circumstances under which Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize apparently slipped this commenter's grasp altogether.

Other correspondents and commenters rationalize Roosevelt's racist attitudes by suggesting that he was a man of his time or that he was no different than other public figures before or since.

Said one, in an email with the subject line "Your RTD Blog on TR" (has the line between blogging and newspaper opinion-writing become that porous?):
All heroes have feet of clay………………… Grow up………………………. Martin Luther King was a huge racist and adulterer…………………. Why don’t you ponder that for a while.
And another:
The same column could be written about Abraham Lincoln by harping on his placing preservation of the Union above freeing the slaves.

And the same has been said many times of Ronald Reagan, and that is far more relevant to today's political discourse.
And this one, which arrived in my email box after I began composing this blog post:
Mr Roosevelt was a product of his times; employing the teachings of evolution and carrying them out in his beliefs! Evolution teaches that life came from a simpler life form to a more larger and stronger life form. That only the strong survive and the weak fail to continue. Obama simply has no clue about the historical facts of the presidents he desires to emulate and should perform more research before he comapres himself to one of the characters of history.
Finally, the "retired history teacher" cited above began his email to me with this:
By our standards today every white male would have been racist in Rossevelt's time. By that same standard today every Black male would be racist towards whites.
I actually reject that thought. While the turn of the 20th century was no picnic when it comes to race relations -- the reprehensible Virginia state constitution of 1902 is evidence of that -- there were, in fact, principled individuals who believed fully that "all men are created equal" and who worked hard to achieve racial harmony in the face of great odds.

This was the time, remember, when groups like the NAACP had their beginnings. It was also the time, to be sure, of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which inspired a resurgence of the KKK in the North as well as the South, and the time during which Woodrow Wilson ordered the re-segregation of public facilities in Washington, D.C.

Had it not been for those early pioneers in civic activism, law, and the humanities who fought against racism, jingoism, and eugenics, the accomplishments of the later "civil rights era" of the 1950s and '60s would have been that much harder to achieve. Were it true that "every white male" was racist toward blacks and "every Black male" was racist toward whites in 1900 and the years that followed, the civil rights movement could never have reached the launch stage.

Progress requires a core group of people of good faith who are also kind, thoughtful, fair-minded, and intelligent.  That people like Roosevelt and Wilson lacked those qualities is a good reason for us today to reassess their political legacies.

I am looking forward to any letters to the editor that appear in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in reply to my article. Once they are published, I will post links as an update, below.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anytime you speak or write in public, you may receive verbal attacks. I did some stand-up comedy, and the verbal attacks were always on jokes that I thought were not in anyway offensive.