Ladies and gentlemen, it’s now time for a little lesson on using examples from history to write about contemporary politics. There are only three rules: 1) you know what was like the Holocaust? The Holocaust; 2) you know what was like slavery? Slavery; and 3) seriously: stay far, far away from the Holocaust and slavery.
There. We’re done. Simple, right? Wrong.
Those three nursery rhymes were not simple enough for Emory University President James Wagner, who has a Ph.D from Johns Hopkins but still somehow managed to say something no one should probably say ever. Last week, Wagner wrote a column for the Emory University Magazine about how both sides have to compromise to move the country forward In his piece, Wagners included a passage praising the Three-Fifths Compromise. And he ends up making a brilliant point about compromise in politics – just not the one he intended to make.
Remember that the Three-Fifths Compromise settled the differences between northern White men and southern White men by deciding that southern enslaved Blacks would count as 3/5 of a person for census purposes, inflating the population of southern states and depriving millions of Blacks from voting representation. Because there aren’t other things to write about, like maybe how the university has 7% Black students and is in a city with a 54% Black population.
Here is the passage, which I am not making up:
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…[the Three-Fifths Compromise] was one of the pragmatic half-victories that led to the solidifying of the United States.
James Wagner is a White man. Apparently, James Wagner was completely fine with the past “solidifying” of the United States through winning “pragmatic half-victories” for White men by legally enshrining the inhumanity of Black men and women. Compromise between two political positions assumes that both of those political positions are rooted in rationality and make the same foundational assumptions about who they affect. If someone literally isn’t going to be a human any more, “compromising” and saying they’re slightly more than half a human doesn’t particularly help.
The James Wagners of the world aren’t affected by compromises like these when they happen. These “pragmatic” and “tough” compromises are never particularly tough for the people who praise political compromise to high heaven, as an end goal rather than a goal of process.