Thursday, June 07, 2007

A HOPELESS RIOT

Barack Obama gave an address at the Hampton University Annual Ministers’ Conference on June 5.

I’m not going to go into it exhaustively but one thing caught my attention. He speaks of the 15th anniversary of the Los Angles riots and reports that he remembers “the sense of despair and powerlessness” that fueled it. That same sense of hopelessness surrounds many communities today, he goes on to say.

It occurred to me that the most significant riot, then and now, was the Watts rioting of 1965. It took place – as mentioned in recent Posts – within days of the triumph of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act of 1965 into law. The long and arduous struggle to fulfill the promises made to America’s blacks finally bore fruit a century later. In that stupendous Moment of July 1965 the country (minus the Southrons) experienced the successful conclusion of a refreshed struggle for black civil rights that had been building throughout World War Two (then less than two decades before) and most vividly in the decade of TV coverage between Rosa Parks’s refusal to go to the back of the bus and LBJ’s signing of the Act.

That ‘Moment’ in 1965 had to be – both in the short term and the long term perspective – one of the most hopeful in American history. All Americans could rejoice in the Act and black Americans could now contemplate a future far richer than any previous generation of blacks in the country. And yet within days Watts erupted in the most violent and sustained riots in modern American history. And that outbreak was followed a series of urban riots (distinct from antiwar protests) that surpassed in duration and intensity anything ever seen here, lasting through the ‘long, hot summers’ of ’65, ’66, ’67, and (arguably) into ’68.

The LA riots of 1992 failed to surpass the Watts riots in the sense that Americans had seen this type of thing before. But the two (sets of) riots were similar in that each took place at what was a Moment of great hope: in ’65 for ‘the negro’ and for America, and in ’92 for America and the world. When we look at that Moment in 1992 it seems weirdly counterintuitive: decades and dozens of billions had been spent in special programs and practices domestically, and just months before the riots the USSR itself had fallen without war – yielding a horizon of almost inconceivable progress and prosperity for America and world.

The L.A. police of the day certainly behaved in an unlovely fashion, and on national TV, but then Rodney King was – in the event – a rather unlovely gent himself, although nothing justifies lusty police indulgence in sidewalk ‘justice’.

I don’t pretend to have any or ‘the’ answer as to what caused any of these riots. But the list of causes most surely has to involve something(s) besides ‘hopelessness’. Or instead of it.

Certainly, the timing of the Watts riots not only raises large questions as to causation but also generated its own consequences that extended far beyond matters of ‘race relations’ and ‘black issues’. Coming as they did almost instantly after the passage of the Act – such a huge risk for the Democrats as a Party – the riots had at least two vast effects.

First, politically, they frightened the Democrats so terribly that the Party desperately sought votes en bloc. This led to the Party’s addle-headed embrace of any and every ‘Identity-revolution’’ that appeared; and since the PR elements of each Identity’s Advocacy began to deploy the Israeli schematic outlined in the previous Post, then the Democrats effectively welcomed the vampire of a very un-democratic, indeed anti-democratic, process and praxis in through the door, over and over again (contributing hugely to what Al Gore now terms “the strangeness of our national discourse”). And also politically, the Democrats embraced Israel as much as an enticement to domestic votes as to counter Soviet influence in the oil-rich Middle East.

Second, the Democrats accepted the utterly unshakable but also utterly unsayable commitment not only to the State of Israel (and without a Treaty to publicly formalize things) but to the unspoken proposition that ANYthing that State did in the pursuit of its interests was both justifiable and good. This seemed innocuous and ‘symbolic’ enough for a short while at the beginning, especially since Israel was at the time both ‘powerless’ and a ‘victim’ (or heir to the Victimery) of the Holocaust. But by the time of the USS Liberty incident and into the inevitable Palestinian push-back and Israeli counter-push-back of the early 1970s this stance had pretty much married the U.S. to … not a corpse certainly, but to a rather rambunctious, self-willed and not-altogether nice Israeli tomboy.

And in 1991, with the long dreamed-of and hoped-for dissolution of the USSR, with the half-century-long threat of atomic war thus dissolved, the USA was constrained to see itself through the eyes of its ‘ally’: as a nation ‘surrounded’ by the probability of ‘immediate destruction’, the only response to which would be the assertive cultivation of its role as Sole Hyperpower in foreign affairs and as a wary, suspicious potential victim of obstructive, distracting treasonous dissent in its domestic affairs. And perhaps as the pre-emptive aggressor who would secure the best assets of a dwindling world resource, and protect its smaller ‘allies’, and ‘make the world safe for democracy’ all in one slam-dunk, bravura performance.

It is certainly curious to go back to the 1960s and review the laudable, hallmark American Jewish concern for minorities and its concomitant and understandable support for a reduction in the ‘Christian’ presence in the public sphere (not only in Christianity’s acidly queasy fundamentalist mutation but even the mainline-church variant). And then to observe the Israeli lobby’s robust but theologically illogical embrace of the Neocons’ Fundamentalist allies in the 1990s. Politics makes strange religion.

Was the Democratic Party in LBJ’s time so thoroughly rattled by the almost unthinking and certainly unpredicted violence of the Watts riots that it desperately forged (unofficially) a pact of steel with the State of Israel that has locked it (and Us) into the Middle East even unto the toils and turmoils of the present day?

Did Watts play a role in that?

In order to understand our present foreign policy, and in order to understand how Our politics and society ‘work’ nowadays, as well as to grasp the dynamics of the black community with the larger national society, We need to look carefully and think things through. These matters are too important to be left to self-serving platitudes.

Which is not in any way to minimize the ongoing development of the African-American community within the national community. But Accuracy and Truth – as We have learned in Iraq – is utterly essential to success in the affairs of this world. It was not lost on the French that the famous ‘Theory’ of the 1950s, quickly expatriated until adopted by the Advocacies over here, was a creature of literature departments, not of science departments and not of the ‘real world’. The presumption that there is nothing that cannot be ‘changed’ by changing the perceiver’s perception – that everything important and vital in an individual’s and a nation’s existence can be changed because it’s all in our head and we can change that – has been hugely oversold.

Imposing upon Us a crash-immersion in Theory was a second powerful source of the Political Correctness that has rendered Us now so immature as a People. It had to be a ‘crash course’ because the Democrats were desperate for votes, revolutions are always impatient (as a matter of self-preservation), and nobody was really sure if the ‘solutions’ being implemented were really rationally and logically connected to the probability of a successful outcome. No kicking of tires could be permitted. If they told you that on a car lot you’d walk away forthwith. But it works differently, they would like Us to believe, on a ‘national’ level; everything’s on the level … if you just hold your head the right way. Yes, and didn’t all those Five-Year Tractor Plans and Seven-Year Cement Plans work gloriously?

But thirdly, Watts gripped the freshly-beating heart of America and almost stopped it. If something that had been so good and so long brooded into existence, at great cost in sweat and tears and blood, could evince so instantaneous and violent a reaction, then what had We done wrong or failed to take into account?

We didn’t ask that question then; We didn’t ask it on that afternoon of the Mission-Accomplished soap opera, when the first ‘post combat’ American deaths were reported – as if by inadvertence – on the inside pages. We ignored Reality and thus passed up Our chance to influence it; and now it’s mutated under the power of other forces acting upon it unchecked, and We must face what We would rather not.

This is a Moment of Truth. Let Us enter into it with at least the same amount of energy that We sent our soldiers to enter into Iraq. We and the world shall be the better for it.

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4 Comments:

Blogger David said...

The key to the development of human rights doctrine is self-conscious cultivation of the capacity for empathy which really entered imaginative literature only in the literary run-up to the French Revolution (and, thus, the Declaration of the Rights of Man).

I've found the best vehicle for understanding the mood of the black community in 1965 is literature. Most useful in this regard is a humble murder mystery "Little Scarlet" by Walter Mosley (Little Brown, 2004) which is set in Watts just as that insurgency was in its putative 'final throes'.

Mosley is working on the screenplay for a movie of the same name due out in 2008. It will be hard to beat Denzel as Easy Rawlins and Don Cheadle as his violent alter-ego, 'Mouse' but I wish Mosley well. He captures the moment admirably.

5:08 AM  
Blogger publion said...

I’m wide open to expanding understanding of the Watts riots, and I am a firm believer in the ‘larger Truth’ accessible only in literature. If you want to expand your insight, I’d be glad to put it up as a free-standing Post so that it isn’t just ‘hidden’ in the Comment section.

And in terms of the timing of the Watts riot I am especially perplexed. Certainly it appears counterintuitive – days after the success of the Act – but even the use of that word ‘counterintuitive’ contains many assumptions. I think that whatever the explanation of the causes (and I don’t know if a ‘full’ explanation is possible), still the consequences of Watts – for the black community and for the cause of civil rights and for the revolutions and for the nation itself were on balance very bad.

It set the black community on the path of Acting-Out and Outrage as a successful gambit for ‘furthering’ the civil rights agenda. Indeed, ‘civil rights’ died in Watts and was replaced by the bureaucratic government engorgement program called ‘affirmative racism’ (candidly so named until the more Orwellian and deleterious ‘affirmative action’ was suddenly announced and imposed). And when that blended in with the Victimiste gambit then starting to flow strongly into American praxis … well, the horses were out the wrong end of the gate at the bell.

The follow-on Advocacies then began to deploy the Israeli gambit, having – however – to make a deal with the devil to inflate their causes and founding ‘outrages’ in order to pretend to the same ‘given-ness’ of moral and political authority accorded to The Holocaust and to slavery (and this was true for the feminists as for the even more tenuously authoritative follow-ons).

And the government itself a) embarked on the Orwellian adventure of pandering to every ripple of the Identities while simultaneously imposing a Political Correctness that stifled any questioning as to the advisability of the government’s programmes and – indeed – comment on the fact that it was pandering in the first place (as is of course widely known, the government was not ‘pandering’, it was merely being ‘sensitive and responsive’).

But worse, b) the government not only got into the habit of telling the most bald-faced untruths in public to the public (it was doing that about Vietnam), but also beginning to subvert both the media (that took a few decades more) and undermine the public’s ability to keep its eye on the Truth (much as few sidewalk passers-by can muster the attention to follow the key card in three-card monte).

Worse, I think the American public – watching Watts – lost its Civil-Rights Era hope (perhaps naïve) that the ‘black’ problem would be finally resolved in a more or less straight line of ascending progress. And I think that disillusionment, even more than the acid viciousness of the defeated (or so it seemed at the time) Southrons, was even more debilitating than the disillusionment that followed World War Two: hardly had the ink dried on the Japanese surrender before we were ‘at cold war’ with the same Russkies whom our boys had hugged when they had met at the Elbe only a few months ago.

I think 1965 was as constitutive for today’s America as 1919 was for the world up to 1989 and 1991.

We must work with that. And We must work beyond it as best as can be managed.

7:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

You are right. The violence was constitutive of a new reality but an urban riot is not a political 'gambit' by a monolithic constituency in considered response to a piece of Congressional legislation. This is the language of the drawing room and ivory tower.

The urban riots did have an effect on the socio-political climate. Prior to them, in most states, black men could not look white women in the eye or address them unless spoken to in the presence of a white male. A new day was dawning and the riots were a big part of that. Take an afternoon with 'Little Scarlet' and watch Easy Rawlins negotiate the changes to get my drift :~))

There *was* an undeniable 'givenness' and moral authority to the claims of certain of what you call the 'follow-on advocacies'. I have in mind Cesar Chavez and the Chicano farm workers union who did stoop labor dawn to dusk in the 20th century for slave wages on land once owned by their ancestors who had settled there more than a century before the Pilgrims landed.

Not to mention continent-wide genocide of native americans now languishing on toxic dump reservations whose claims against BIA for 170 years of mismanagement of their own assets held 'in trust' run to the billions.

These are some 'emergencies' which waited centuries for Americans to form their consciences and respond. This process reaches into all areas of American life and is still going on.

We are, for example, the only developed country without universal health care because racism is still blocking the way to action on behalf of the commonweal.

4:57 PM  
Blogger publion said...

An excellent opportunity to delve a little deeper.

I don’t think the Watts riot itself was a ‘political gambit’; I think the reason it is (and should have been then) a cause for grave concern and wide public discourse was precisely because it was not a ‘gambit’, i.e. planned as a media show to garner public attention or intimidate opponents or dissenters or the public and the media for political purposes. We recall all those on-call ‘riots’ and ‘demonstrations’ of the 20th century in all those many places.

Rather, it was the entire idea of ‘acting out’ (as opposed to the soul-nourishing ‘demonstrating’ and ‘non-violent resistance’ and ‘civil disobedience’ of the classic civil rights era of the ‘50s and early ‘60s) … I think of the Watts riot as opening up a vacuum and creating a sense of possibility for persons (and they were many indeed) who felt that MLK’s approach was ineffective and timid and wanted action that ranged from grandstanding to the ‘more forceful’ to out and out revolutionary.

That still doesn’t explain the ‘causes’ behind the Watts riot itself, although we can’t forget that in ’65 there were surely many in the black community who could recall the various riots of the ‘30s and the ‘40s.

But I’m especially grateful for the gravid point you make concerning such movements (and accomplishments) as those of Chavez and the assorted ‘Native American’ efforts. I don’t see those at all as ‘follow-on advocacies’; instead, I see them as examples of the best of the efforts of the era of the 1880s-1930s: organized action to right a palpable economic injustice.

The ‘Advocacies’ as I use the term refers to the Theory-based gambits that first appeared in the later ‘60s with the feminists (although the Plan was later adopted in greater or lesser extent by the older Black and Native American organizers as their efforts extended into the 1970s and beyond).

The content of these ‘Advocacies’, Theory-based as noted, consequently were based on far less palpable and material ‘issues’, not the ‘economic’ injustices of earlier eras.

In process these new Advocacies sought neither to educate nor to persuade, but rather to inflame passion and to preclude reasoning and to control public discourse (a temptation that arose with such possible manipulation of the mass electronic media of the ‘60s and beyond) in such a way that their programme could be imposed widely and strongly ‘first’, creating ‘facts on the ground’, on the assumption that ANYthing can be changed if you just force it on people long enough (We recall LBJ’s Hitler- based advice to MLK in January of 1965. Whether even as early as January ’65 LBJ had perhaps gleaned the Hitler insight from contacts with Israeli thinkers and diplomats, or whether he had gleaned the insight from American sources, is a tantalizing question.)

6:03 AM  

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