Eugene Robinson Live

Mar 11, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome. You have arrived, of course, at our weekly conversation about Life As We Know It. Lots going on, como siempre. Today's column, which might be at home in the "obscure but important" file, notes the little-discussed fact that the new provisional government of Ukraine includes, at very high levels, several unabashed ultra-nationalists and neofascists. This doesn't include the new president or prime minister, but it does impose on them the burden of steering Ukraine toward democratic pluralism and away from the anti-Semitic ethnic chauvinism that the neofascists (including a deputy prime minister and the defense minister, among others) would love to impose. Whew. Closer to home, we've just witnessed the annual spectacle that is CPAC; the verdict seems to be that Rand Paul did well, Chris Christie did okay and Ted Cruz not so much. But Cruz killed, I mean killed, at the Gridiron dinner Saturday night, according to attendees. What a piece of work that guy is. Much, much closer to home, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is in a world of hurt following the disclosures, or allegations, made yesterday in court by Jeff Thompson, who funded a whole illegal "shadow campaign" for the mayor during his successful 2010 run. "Lies," says Gray. We shall see. Let's get started.

Mr. Robinson,  I am a long time reader of your column and chats and appreciate your good work. I just read your Friday column on the Oscar win for "12 Years a Slave." I agree with you that the picture is an important milestone for our country coming to terms with slavery. I have a question about the line, "It's Time to Come to Terms with Slavery." What does this look like to you? Certainly, it would mean that Africian American men don't have to walk around scared of being shot and it would mean that we are all given the opportunity to become whatever we strive to be in this world, but I guess that feels like it is not enough. Slavery is a part of the American story, but how does our country come to terms with it?

My strongly held view is that coming to terms with slavery means knowing it thoroughly -- knowing what really happened. We think we know it all, but we don't. Scholars are doing groundbreaking research about various aspects of the slave trade, the economics of bondage, the many slave rebellions that have never been written about, etc. First, let's know what happened. Only then can we really process it.

Slavery is a shameful mark not only for the US, but for all mankind throughout human history everywhere. Americans (South, Central, and North) enslaved Western Africans, India enslaved eastern Africans, Africans enslaved Africans, Asians enslaved Asians, pre-Columbian Indians enslaved pre-Columbian Indians, etc. Millions are still slaves today. In fact, the Ottoman Empire/Turks enslaved so many white eastern Europeans (Slavs) that the word "slave" derives from it. Maybe Slavs should petition that word to be abolished because it demeans them.

It is true that slavery is not confined to the African-American experience. It's also true that the chattel slavery practiced here was particularly distinctive and dehumanizing. I'll leave Ottoman history to the Turks if we can just study our own history here.

I fully believe Senator Feinstein. How does she explain the obvious double standard she has? Congress has constitutional rights but not US citizens?

You're referring to today's reports that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is shocked, as she should be, at learning that the CIA apparently snooped into the Senate Intelligence Committee's computers. I admit that given Feinstein's nonchalance at electronic surveillance of ordinary citizens, I felt a bit of schadenfreude.

After looking at the comments section for your "My Brother's Keeper" column last week, I noticed a lot of people claiming that you are racist for mentioning race in a column. Do you think Republicans have been successful in removing race from the national political discussion by yelling "race card" anytime race is mentioned? Also, I've always wondered why it seems that 9 out of 10 times there's a racist remark or joke made, it's from a Republican. Have there been any studies to estimate the level of racism by party affiliation?

I'm totally used to those catcalls at this point. If you write a column, you develop a pretty thick skin. I do think the "race card" allegation makes some people reluctant to talk about race, but the rest of of push on. As for your association of party identification with racist orientation, I think it's wrong to say Republicans are racist and Democrats aren't. It is true, however, that the GOP in the Nixon years made an open appeal to Southern whites who opposed racial integration.

Suppose the Democrats lose the House and the Senate, but win the Presidency (and thus the right of veto). Under this scenario do you think America will survive as a democratic nation? I feel strongly that the suppression of the vote by Red states, and the Supreme court's gutting of the Voter's rights act are going to significantly impact this upcoming election and thus elections for generations to come. Please talk me down, Sir. A concerned Canadian

Oh, you hot-blooded Canadians! The country will survive divided government, if necessary, although gridlock means many lost opportunities. Attempts at voter suppression don't always work; the GOP effort in Ohio, for example, spurred African Americans to vote in higher percentages than whites in 2012. There will be another census in 2020, followed by another round of redistricting and a chance to undo some of the gerrymandering -- assuming Democrats take state elections seriously. Come in off the ledge.

Why havn't you written about the present day slaves held by tribes in the Congo? It's still going on. Also, what about the Black plantation owners in the South prior to the Civil War who had slaves? Do you think maybe it's possible that slavery existed eons ago? e.g. Sumeria Persian Empire, Roman, Grecian. 

I don't live in the Congo, nor am I a descendant (to my knowledge) of ancestors who were held in bondage in the Congo. My ancestors were held in bondage here. Please name a "black plantation owner" who owned slaves. I won't hold my breath. There were some blacks who "owned" small numbers of slaves, but in many instances these were freemen who "purchased" relatives because that was the only way to free them. Slavery that existed thousands of years ago may be an academic matter. Slavery that existed 150 years ago, and was followed by a century of Jim Crow segregation and repression, is personal.

Mr. Robinson, the GOP like to portray Mr. Obama as weak on defense; the latest salvo based on the Ukraine crisis. Have you seen the GOP offer any viable alternatives to Obama's cautious approach, which squares with polls on the issue?

I have heard no alternatives, viable or otherwise. This is really a pretty shameful display by GOP politicians, if you ask me. They seem to be saying they think President Obama should have been more bellicose. But the exact same thing happened -- in the former Soviet republic of Georgia -- under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the most bellicose president and vice president in recent memory. No one should condone what Vladimir Putin is doing. But no one should pretend there was a way to prevent him from doing it.

Gene, The reality is its far more likely members of the Senate Intel Committee committed a serious crime by mishandling classified info than the CIA. The CIA may have erred in the way it investigated the matter, but its had a right to investigate. Also the fact that congress usually removes itself from laws and may have given the CIA an exemption to do "whatever" is required to protect their information has a taste of irony.

I disagree. Surely you're not suggesting that unelected bureaucrats in a federal agency -- a secret federal agency, no less -- should have the right to spy on our constitutionally elected Congress, are you? Especially since what the CIA seems to be trying to do is cover its own behind for excesses committed in the war on terror.

I see the WP saw fit to publish Condoleeza Rice's thoughts on Ukraine. Why would the thoughts of someone who screwed up so royally be of interest, or considered likely to add anything useful to the conversation? I have seen published thoughts of Dick Cheney, William Kristol, and others as well. They are of course entitled to their thoughts, and they have the right to offer them, but why would any news outlet decide to accept these opinions, except in the humour section? I'm not talking about their political perspective here; a conservative perspective is as valuable as any other, but why not go for an informed perspective from someone who has been successful in the arena, instead of going to those who have demonstated how not to proceed?

Sec'y Rice is a very smart woman who made some extremely big mistakes, in my view. She does know a lot about Russia, so I think it's worthwhile hearing what she has to say. I admit I was amused at her conclusion that Ukraine was a "wake-up call." Apparently, her bedside alarm failed during the Georgia invasion on her watch. (Maybe, as in the Seinfeld episode, the volume was inadvertently turned all the way down.)

As for Cheney and Kristol, I agree. Have they said a single thing that makes any sense?

I no longer feel we should run to the defense of the Ukraine in this matter. Unless I'm mistaken the idea is to have a stable Europe. But if Europe is so dependent on Russia's oil that it doesn't want to intervene, then why should we care so much?

Our major interest is that Ukraine is a sovereign country with internationally recognized borders, and no one should be able to pluck off the Crimean Peninsula like a ripe fig. But you're right that the European powers are taking a much more cautious attitude toward sanctions. The oil and gas are a big part of it, but another factor is that Europeans simply can't turn their backs on Russia. It's too big.

William Ellison, He held 60 slaves at his death and more than 1,000 acres of land.

The one exception -- from South Carolina, of course -- who proves the rule. 

How bad is it that to get attention on the event that will probably affect the United States the most for years to come, one of its legal bodies has to pull a stunt like this? And this will probably only result in a one minute blurb on tonight's network news and a few jokes by late night comedians!

Pretty bad. Realistically, there isn't going to be meaningful action from this Congress. The main event will come when the EPA issues its planned rules regulating carbon emissions from power plants. 

What are some good movies about the massacre and marginalizing of this country's indigenous people? Or the late 19th century Chinese migration into the West? I haven't seen "12 Years A Slave" but I hope it opens doors for lots of different parts of the American experience too.

I'e seen "12 Years" twice and it's a powerful film. We need these other stories, too, because they are -- simply put -- the American story.


And that's my story for today, folks. I'm out of time. Thanks so much for dropping by, and I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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