Kaepernick’s Du Bois Medal: How Fitting

I don’t know whether any recipients of this year’s W. E. B. Du Bois Medal, to be awarded tonight at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, care to qualify their admiration of the medal’s namesake. Probably not. And that’s understandable, given his many notable accomplishments over the course of 95 years. 

The least likely to demur, I’ll bet, is “athlete and activist” Colin Kaepernick. A man who has a tee shirt adorned with photos of Fidel Castro chatting with Malcolm (“By any means necessary”) X probably has no reservations about getting a Du Bois Medal, certainly not any more than that “Un-American” scholar and civil rights activist had about his 1959 International Lenin Prize

The Castro regime may have been responsible for murdering anywhere from 35,000 to 141,000 souls (with a median of 73,000), but the enormity of Joseph Stalin’s reign exceeded Fidel’s by orders of magnitude: its unit of measure is “tens of millions.”

The breadth of Stalin’s mass murder, rivaled in the last century only by Hitler’s and Mao’s, could have been ascertained in 1953 by any competent researcher like Du Bois. Yet that was the year Du Bois penned a defense of Stalinism in the form of a eulogy upon the passing of Koba the Dread.  

“Joseph Stalin,” Du Bois wrote, “was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature.”

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“By any means necessary”: pragmatism on stilts

Malcolm X’s contribution to the erosion of American political rhetorical standards lives on, most recently in President Trump’s speech at a rally in Tennessee. But at least he was characterizing the expediency of his enemies.

In 1963 Communist-sympathizer Jean-Paul Sartre penned the words that in English become “by any means necessary.”

Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Ernesto Che Guevara, 1960, Cuba



Their African-American popularizer employed it to everlasting effect the following year. (He was assassinated the next.)

Conflating the necessary with the sufficient, it’s literally nonsense. “Any” doesn’t go with “necessary.”

There is, for example, more than one way to get to Times Square from Grand Central. One can walk a few blocks; or hop on the westbound M42 bus; or take the subway, either the shuttle (one stop) or the No. 7 (two). Each of them will do, but none of them is necessary.

The seductive power of the phrase overrides logic. “By the one means necessary” or “by any means sufficient” lacks punch.What the hackneyed phrase’s users mean is: “What I want is imperative, and whatever achieves it is permissible.” “Whatever it takes,” or “The end justifies the means,” which evacuates “justifies” of meaning.

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