Opinion

What Tom Cotton's 'necessary evil' comment says about America

Does the GOP see human beings as a means to an end rather than inherently valuable?

Sometimes the culture wars are a distraction from the problems facing America. Sometimes they illuminate the underlying causes of those problems. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has offered an example of the latter phenomenon.

Last week, Cotton introduced a bill to prohibit federal funds from being used in schools to teach "The 1619 Project," which posits that slavery was embedded in the country's very foundation. Over the weekend, the senator explained his thinking to the Arkansas Democrat, a newspaper in his home state: "We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can't understand our country," Cotton conceded. But, he added: "As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction."

It is breathtaking in the year 2020 to hear a United States senator use the term "necessary evil" to describe slavery. But it is important to note that Cotton's comments came in a context: Millions of Americans are waiting on Congress to pass another economic relief package, lest they lose their homes and ability to feed their families. But Senate Republicans haven't taken action yet — in part because some of them worry that unemployment benefits are too generous.

There is a direct link between Cotton's comments and this execrable present state of affairs.

Let us back up, first, and examine what he said more closely. Rather ominously, Cotton's comments echoed America's original enslavers, who justified themselves by saying slavery was needed to build the south's economy — and to maintain white supremacy. Cotton, however, seemed to argue on Sunday that he meant only to refer to the Founders' views that the actual process of making a union — that is, bringing the states together under the Constitution to form the United States — required northern states to compromise in order to bring southern slave states into the fold. (Twitter pundits spent Sunday parsing Cotton's grammar to understand his statement.)

Even viewed in that light, Cotton's statement is troubling, because it endorses the notion that the lives, bodies, and freedom of Black slaves were an acceptable down payment to build this country. The idea is abhorrent — and, for many Americans, was abhorrent at the time the time of the founding.

The antifederalists rejected the idea that it was worth accommodating slavery in order to achieve the union. Some recognized America's leaders wouldn't be willing to endure the evil they deemed necessary to inflict on others. "Where is the man, who under the influence of sober dispassionate reasoning, and not void of natural affection, can lay his hand upon his heart and say, I am willing my sons and my daughters should be torn from me and doomed to perpetual slavery?" a trio wrote for a Massachusetts newspaper in 1788. "We presume that man is not to be found amongst us: And yet we think the consequence is fairly drawn, that this is what every man ought to be able to say, who voted for this constitution."

There are some necessary evils in the world. Life can be messy. But all too often — and certainly in the case of slavery — such evils are a burden to be suffered by minorities, the poor, and other disadvantaged people, while a privileged few derive the benefits. Whenever the term "necessary evil" is used, it should be questioned: Necessary to whom? Evil for whom? And for what purpose? Is the evil truly justified, or merely convenient?

These questions are pertinent now. One reason the next round of stimulus is still in limbo is that some Republicans are opposed to extending the extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance that Congress originally approved to help Americans get through the pandemic. Republicans haven't deployed the term "necessary evil," but they are making the case it is more important to get people back to work than to pay to let them stay home.

"The original unemployment benefits actually paid people to stay home and actually a lot of people got more money staying at home than they would going back to work," White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said over the weekend. "So the president has been very clear, our Republican senators have been very clear, we're not going to extend that provision."

If the aim is to take care of Americans during the pandemic, then the solution is relatively easy: keep giving them money. If Republicans won't do so, it is worth asking why not. To ensure that existing businesses continue to have a cheap labor supply? To reduce unemployment rates to goose President Trump's election prospects? Why is it necessary to force Americans back to work? And is it truly worth the cost of endangering their health and safety — or is it just convenient for a few people at the top of the heap?

Low-wage work in a pandemic is certainly not the same thing as chattel slavery. Modern-day Americans still have a choice, technically, about whether to work or not. But a similar justification undergirds the viewpoints of elites in both cases: Humans are a means to an end — a better economy, efficient production, beating another country at war — instead of having value in and of themselves.

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