A while ago, I wrote about a particular non sequitur that was popularized by Tim Matheson’s famous courtroom speech in Animal House. I called it the Otter Conflation. (One YouTube video of the speech calls it, more simply, “The Otter Defense.”) It’s a kind of straw man argument, in which the defense takes an accusation against a specific instance, and attempts to transfer it, without any intermediate steps, to the entire class of things that the specific instance falls into.
The example I used at the time was a letter from DeVry, Inc., trying to defend the abuses of for-profit colleges (emphasis added):
Over the past two years, Washington has been ground zero in a prolonged and contentious conversation about private-sector higher education. Investigations and hearings by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions into questionable practices at a handful of private-sector institutions have been the talk of the town when it comes to higher education. Frustration directed at higher education is understandable.
It gives you vertigo just reading it. Anyway, the Conflation is back, this time in one of the responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article at the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” The response is by Rachel Lu, at The Federalist, who writes,
[Coates] takes us on an extended tour of black history, with the goal of establishing three things. First, racism was a very, very bad thing which did grave injustice to large numbers of black Americans. Second, America’s current prosperity was to a great extent made possible by slavery and other forms of exploitation. Third, black Americans today are struggling in a myriad of ways, and this is a fairly direct consequence of the injustices they have suffered.
This is a fair summary of Coates’ research. Lu even agrees–grudgingly–with part of his historical argument:
Progressives don’t deserve to be given a pass for their ill-conceived policies, but it’s still valuable for conservatives to remember that racism is still relevant to the economic and cultural struggles of black Americans today.
And it’s still relevant to the economic and cultural situation of white Americans today, too, but Lu explicitly rejects that part of the argument. How? Cue the Conflation:
First and most importantly, it’s just not the case that thriving democracies require a foundation in slavery and oppression.
This may very well be true in some instances–Switzerland, maybe–but it’s a complete dodge. Coates writes about the U.S., not “thriving democracies” as a genus. Lu then compounds the error by writing:
In fact, comparing the economic and political fortunes of countries or regions that relied heavily on slavery (such as Brazil) to regions that didn’t (such as Great Britain or the American north), one could quite plausibly make the argument that slavery is economically disadvantageous over the longer term.
Actually, England profited quite nicely from slavery. Liverpool, for instance, grew rich from it. According to the web site for the International Slavery Museum,
Liverpool was a major slaving port and its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century. The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade which laid the foundations for the port’s future growth.
English merchants also grew wealthy from their sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, while textile mills in England and other “thriving democracies” in Europe were so dependent on cotton from American slave states that the Confederacy tried to leverage its economic influence to gain international support in the Civil War. And later, of course, England would use slavery and oppression in places like China, India, and large swathes of Africa.
I’m not sure what Lu means by the “American north.” If it’s the Union, then she’s wrong again. According to James McPherson, in his book Battle Cry of Freedom,
The states that grew cotton kept less than 5 percent of it at home for manufacture into cloth. They exported 70 percent of it abroad and the remainder to northern mills, where the value added by manufacture equaled the price that raw cotton brought the South…Some 15 or 20 percent of the price of raw cotton went to “factors”…Most of these factors represented northern or British companies.
If one is going to use rhetorical sleight of hand to distract attention, one should at least get the history right.
In the Animal House speech, most of the fun was watching Otter pull off his massive act of bullshitting, when he, everyone else in the room, and everyone in the audience, knew that almost all the charges against Delta House were, in fact, correct.