Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Thomas J. Sugrue has written a hefty 700-page tome with the above title, reviewed by Alan Wolfe of Boston College (“Uncommon Ground”, November 9,).

Sugrue has undertaken – and at great and useful length – to expand awareness of the black civil rights movement.

He first points out that he wants to focus especially on the Northern civil rights movement. This is fresh and valuable. Though perhaps not for the reasons he wishes.

It has to be said right off that at the time, the ‘civil rights’ movement had been largely understood in the country to pertain to what Sugrue is calling the Southern civil rights movement. And he limns clearly that for a number of ‘activists’ the signing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were simply the end of – as it were – ‘phase one’. OK. But that is not at all how the rest of the country understood it.

Further, the nation was looking for an opportunity to rest from the alarums (worthy though they were) of the exertions of the Southern civil rights struggle that ended in ’65. No doubt more than a few were hoping to get on with the ‘business’ of figuring out how the country was going to meet the changing situation in the world economy, where America’s postwar pre-eminence was coming under challenge, with much more challenge on the horizon.

Prior, I guess, to this past summer, the ‘correct’ response to that would have been to say that ‘civil rights’ is the country’s ‘business’. But at this point I believe that the present economic situation will of itself refute any ideas of defining metaphorically the nation’s ‘business’. It may yet be that the nation’s pre-eminence, its very economic viability, and its public maturity – the maturity of its citizenry, will all have been demonstrated to be seriously compromised by the exertions and impositions of the past decades of ‘rights revolution’, both the black and then the follow-on ‘revolutions’. (And I'm not hereby presuming that 'civil rights' and 'the rights revolutions' as currently construed were simply and wondrously about 'civil rights'; they were also other than that, and they were indeed revolutions, and those things are hugely fraught, and should never be undertaken without a reely reely lot of serious thought.)

Because if the ‘rights revolution’ was going to be implemented, then to ‘achieve’ so much in a very short time would not simply invite the frisky metaphor of ‘revolution’, but would require the all-too-real revolutionary imposition of ‘achievement’ by fiat, by elites, and by a congeries of academic authorities, media and government agencies all collaborating in that purpose. And that sort of thing never ends well.

The Southern movement – what is usually considered the ‘civil rights movement’ – was “The story of a freedom struggle … fundamentally a morality play, one that pits the forces of good (nonviolent protestors) against evil (segregationist politicians, brutal sheriffs, and rednecks). It is a story of suffering and redemption … Through protests and moral suasion – a call to conscience – activists reinvigorated the ‘American Creed’, a belief in the fundamental equality and humanity of all people that is supposedly enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.”

That “supposedly” sticks in the craw a bit: I sense beneath it the almost-sneering assumption that an incompletely fulfilled ideal is a false ideal – in which case every decent cause in the world, this world of incompleteness and even failure, is irrelevant if not feckless or even mendacious from the get-go. It is a conceit of all the following “social movements” of the Sixties and subsequently that they had to resort to a politics of end-run-around-careful-deliberation-to-reach-consensus because such democratic efforts were, by the mendacious unreality of their grounding ideal, misbegotten to begin with.

I’ve written before of the indispensable value of ‘ideals’ to Ground and to Trellis and to Boundary human activity. Absent any ‘higher review’ by ‘ideals’, anything might be justified – and that is a dark and bloody road humanity has been down before, and not so long ago.

The Northern civil rights movement that took the foreground in the mid-1960s, by contrast, involved “rioting, embracing a divisive identity politics, and sparking a white backlash against an alleged consensus in support of racial equality.”

He’s right there. On a couple of counts: there was a Northern version of “racism” (although I caution all of Us that the word is now so over-used and expansively defined as to be treacherous as a conceptual tool for aiding in understanding). It was far more societal, less a matter of clear-as-a-cancer-lump Jim Crow laws and in-your-face redneck lawman macho assertiveness. Far more subtle.

Of course, a disease or problem that subtly intertwined would prompt a competent physician to consider hack-and-cut ‘heroic’ surgery to be ill-advised: it probably wouldn’t ‘get’ all the bad tissue out, and the shock of it might well be lethal for the patient. But America is a place where ‘if one stick of dynamite works good, twenty sticks will work twenty times as good and as fast” – which is a recipe for catastrophe whether you’re doing some excavation on the farm or seeking to effect deep society-wide change. But it was the Sixties. And the Democrats needed to restore some electoral heft reely reely fast, in light of the intensifying mess in Vietnam and now the Southern Democrats bolting for the Republicans (via their own home-grown third-party ‘new Confederacy’ sort of stuff).

Second, there was indeed a “backlash”. But again, I caution against a too-easy wielding of this word as a conceptual tool. It lumps together i) I hate (x)-iggers, ii) I’m not sure this is a good idea, iii) I don’t want to change or see my neighborhood change, iv) I don’t’ think this solution is going to work even if they mean well, v) can I get some more information about this whole plan? And vi) can we talk more about all this and make sure we’ve got it all straight before we start trying this? And vii) this is a good idea, but let’s go easy and slow so as not to stampede everybody.

‘Revolutions’ don’t have the patience for the democratic process, don’t believe they can wait, don’t believe they have to wait, and are often run by visionary or ‘committed’ souls who figure that if it’s done Big and Quick, then it’ll all be over before folks can get riled up and – anyway – folks don’t deserve peace and quiet any longer after all that’s happened.

And this is a recipe for all sorts of “mischief”, in the quaint Founding-generation understatement.
The same is true and has to be considered when reading “white denial became defensiveness”, and for the same reasons. It might have been i) guilt at what was done and being done to black folks, but it might also have been ii) a horse-sense that the ‘bridge’ over which the public stage-coach is supposed to go at the gallop is not sturdy enough for the plan. Surely, after 35 years of school-integration, say, reading about the state of schools doesn’t indicate that bussing has ‘worked’ in any sober sense of the word. Now there may be many reasons for that, but it is highly inadvisable to just up and figure that if a plan hasn’t worked after three-plus decades and huge amounts of public treasure and uproar, then the failure is merely and utterly and totally due to ‘racism’.

(Let Us not here be side-tracked by the eerie similarities to the ‘justifications’ for continuing in Vietnam and Iraq: it has worked, it is working, and if we stay longer it will finally work).

Sugrue most perspicaciously and usefully points out that the Northern civil rights movement was not about ‘morality’; it was about “rights”. This is a hugely valuable insight: I think it explains the difference in tone and in substance between the ‘first’ 1960s (up to about July 10, 1965) and the ‘second’ 1960s (apotheosized in 1968). The ‘morality’ (of that ‘American Creed’) underlying the Southern movement, led by Martin Luther King, simultaneously invited all Americans of goodwill to a reaffirming project to establish the highest ideals of that Creed and also invited all to a participation in what has to be considered the spiritual life of any who are committed to Justice and Right. King cast the movement as a powerfully unitive spiritual experience, open to all Americans and indeed all humans “so conceived and so dedicated”. Powerful stuff – and powerfully positive for all (except the truly Klan-minded).

The Northern movement didn’t go that way at all. There were questions of separatism – that ‘whites’ didn’t belong in a ‘black’ movement; of ‘black power’ that didn’t invite general participation but rather demanded ‘respect’ from whitey or else; of demands for sweeping societal and structural changes rather than the removal of laws clearly unconstitutional; of immediate action satisfactory to the few rather than the building of consensus among the many.

And of vast relevance to Us today is Sugrue’s marvelous little discussion of FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights”, enunciated in 1944. Whereas the original “first” Bill of Rights was ‘negative’, and limited the government as to what it could do to citizens, FDR committed an expanded government to doing more for citizens: enforcing “positive” rights to “a useful and remunerative job, to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation, to a decent home, to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”. Sugrue goes on to sum up: “the twin pillars of these newly enumerated rights as President Roosevelt defined them were ‘equality’ and ‘security’. This became, he caps it, the basis of the “rights revolution”.

Well. The book suddenly veers toward a text on constitutional policy and American political affairs. And that surely is a valid and necessary project. It’s a splendid array of promises and goals. It echoes Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson as well as looks forward to LBJ (in 1944 making his way up the political ladder).

Far more than the ‘New Deal’ of 1932, this almost-forgotten Second Bill of Rights limns and bodes the great changes in government’s role. It deserved a lot more public discussion than it has ever gotten, in schools or in public discourse.

The devil, of course, would be in the details – but that’s par for the course in this world and should have come as a surprise to no one; but it was the Sixties! Sugrue is right to note that “such expansive notions of rights came into conflict with more traditional understandings.” I have no doubt they did, nor that they would – anybody could see that just by looking at the list of thorny questions: “Did a black’s right to a decent house trump the property rights of whites to sell to whom they chose? Did the right to a decent, remunerative job override the employer’s prerogative, long recognized in American law, to hire and fire at will [or for good cause]? Was there a right to welfare? Was there a right to equal education? Were rights restricted to the lifting of negative restraints on an individual’s freedom – or were they to be expanded to include equality of results … ?”

These are monster questions. And it’s an indication of how improperly their ‘answers’ were handled that even now it feels and no doubt appears somewhat ‘incorrect’ merely to be asking them. Good for Sugrue that he has done so.

But he is at no risk of losing his union card because he includes them only to then say that “black activists and their white allies kept them there [i.e. in the center of national political debate].” Which isn’t quite so. Through the imposition of Political Correctness – a phrase borrowed from the Leninst-Stalinist playbook – a stunningly illogical and immature rhetorical sleight of hand was introduced into and imposed upon national discourse: if you disagree with ‘us’, then you must be ‘our’ enemy and one of the bad people. And that evil spawn then leaped from its cage and ran amok. Like a backfire ineptly set to slow the actual wildfire, it leapt its setters’ bounds and plans, and spread all over the place. As We have since seen.

Nor was there overmuch political debate, since any politician who objected publicly or disagreed or simply demurred was certain to become the target of an agitprop demonstration, greedily gobbled up by the increasingly-immature news cameras and ‘press’ – a politician came quickly to see that while he couldn’t solve the problems to general satisfaction, he could lose his career in an afternoon. [The fact that politicians can even be said to have ‘careers’ is another issue that deserves a book all its own.]

But there can be no doubt that what was now developing was a huge change – and a decent respect for the opinions of the citizenry, and a constitutional respect for that stage of the process, should have dictated a broad and deep phase of public deliberation, including education and suasion by all concerned.

Such was not to be. An ‘identity’ was formed as a base for creating a politics. And the method chosen for achieving the goals was not ‘advocacy’ in the sense of a concerned individual or individuals trying to inform and persuade others among the citizenry. Instead, ‘Advocacy’ became a deliberate and sustained effort to manipulate public opinion (‘symbolism’ and telegenic moments of ‘outrage’ or ‘pride’ became major elements in political calculation and in ‘news’) and – wherever possible – outright direct subornation of politicians. It was something ‘revolutionary’ alright, no doubt about it.

Thus it is being too too nice when Sugrue allows one ‘advocate’ to declare that ‘identity politics’ was just a way of ‘speaking out’. That is theoretically true of all politics – an individual or small band of individuals speaks out to the other citizens to inform and persuade. But Identity Politics in capital letters is big-business itself, and a manipulative, kinda shady business it is. And if anybody wishes to point out that the forces of opposition were also kinda shady, I won’t completely disagree – but to saddle the American polity now with both ‘sides’ behaving in a shady and manipulative fashion … surely some bad things could have been expected to follow from that.

And he quotes a historian to the effect that what is needed is “the history of a ‘long civil rights movement’ that … was continuously and ferociously contested, and in the 1970s inspired a ‘movement of movements’ that defied any narrative of collapse’.”

So much in this plaint. If it was ferociously contested, then unless the dynamics of national life be cast purely in terms of a Manichaean ‘good versus evil’, there must have been a wide and deep doubt as to some aspect or other of the ‘war’.

And if on top of the black civil rights movements (admittedly huge and fraught) there then arose – as there did – in the 1970s a "movement of movements" (what I have always called the 'Revolutions of the Identities'), then the stresses put upon the communal discourse in this country must have been (and were) immense, dangerously and perhaps lethally so. Surely, Our present sad state of political discourse – so easily blamed on ‘Bush’ and on ‘the Republicans’ (and not improperly) – had far deeper roots in recent American history.

Interestingly, he immediately moves to choke off the implications of what he has just discussed. He challenges, he states outright, “the tired clichés of recent books that fixate on the 1960s as the fundamental turning point in the history of race in modern America. Many prominent analysts of race relations argue that the ideal of a color-blind society met its demise in the destructive 1960s. The nonviolent vision of Martin Luther King gave way to the angry rhetoric of Malcolm X. Blacks wanted too much, too fast. Whites recoiled at the angry militancy of black power. When the cities exploded in race riots, the ‘silent majority’ gave up all hope of racial reconciliation. In the aftermath of the bloody summers of the late 1960s, minorities and their well-intentioned liberal supporters embraced a pernicious identity politics that deepened America’s racial divide and destroyed the integrationist dream of a land where character, not skin color, mattered most. This story is powerful for its simplicity. It has been influential in shaping national politics. It is also terribly incomplete.”


It seems to me that the ‘story’ is not so much a tired cliché, but a perennial and accurate assessment. It would stand to reason that ‘radicalism’ and ‘revolutionary’ agendas were going to create more than a little push-back, whatever their specific agenda might be. The explosion of the cities indicated either that something was out of control or that something was part of the agenda that created hugely uncontrollable political dynamics – and that says something greatly disturbing about those who made the agenda and those who supported it.

Such broad agendas – and demands – could not be implemented ‘fast’ without doing great damage to the process of deliberation, debate, and building consensus that should have been clear from the outset. After forty years the government is less color-blind than ever before; indeed, under assorted banners such as multiculturalism and diversity, government 'distinctions' - if you will - have been erected into a Plan that is Good. The concept of ‘character’ was ‘deconstructed’ by a subsequent Identity and its movement [see below]. And Sugrue himself, after his long indictment of the ‘story’, accuses it not of being wrong, but only of being ‘incomplete’.

In other words, the ship is heading for the rocks, a certain command philosophy has been guiding the ship all this time, but Sugrue doesn’t call it ‘wrong’, just ‘incomplete’: Let’s not focus on the rocks, let’s talk about how nuanced and complex the philosophy is. It is either quintessentially American or quintessentially ‘academic’ that it is presumed that the great ship will not soon hit the rocks with all the attendant destruction.

The historian quoted is looking to ‘control the narrative’, which is spin control – and whence did Atwater and Karl Rove ever discover that American politics would offer richly manured fields for their own fetid crops? There is a truth to it: different passers-by, blind, may each ‘construct’ a different elephant as they try to understand it with their hands – the sharp tusks, the long sinuous trunk, the huge ears, the monstrous legs, the mountainous flanks, the thin wisp-like tail. But the elephant is there, independent of their efforts. What We see here is the beginning of a disconnection with reality, and a dependence on symbol and appearance and story and ‘perception’ and ‘spin’. Thus did Our substance trickle away.

And after all this, We have to put this all into context – a context that Sugrue alludes to as ‘a movement of movements’. The black civil rights revolution – and it called itself that – not only posed the problems that a revolutionary content and process would pose to a democratic politics, but it also broke the path upon which the feminists of the Second Wave would march. Within a couple of years of 1968, there was another full-blown ‘revolution’ blazing, and this one not basing itself on a few measly centuries of oppression, but on millennia of premeditated, malicious oppression, spanning continents and epochs, dwarfing any previous historical conspiracy: ‘men’ and their ‘patriarchy’.

And this new revolution – far from simply demanding action on the basis of its grievances – deployed copious philosophies not only in support of its own agenda, but to destroy the coherence and integralness of American society – that host of patriarchal oppression.

And within those few short years, the same liberalism that decried lynching as barbaric was touting abortion as liberation.

No wonder those large swaths of citizens not initiated into the mysteries were both puzzled and cautious.

And still are, decades later. For which they are blamed as being divisive and obstructive and oppressive and just-don’t-get-it Lumpenvolk.

Sugrue has done a great service in this book. It may not reveal precisely what he wants it to reveal, may not lead all of its readers precisely where he wants them to be led – but that’s democracy for you.

What’s left of everything now is anybody’s guess. Maybe this whole chapter of American history will stand merely as a warning for some other Republic yet to come, that may arise to carry on the Founding vision: Here’s some serious mistakes to avoid.

But I think there’s still time and still enough in The People to hope that We can simultaneously work for a fuller realization of the American ideal while working together to bind up the nation’s deep wounds and steer Our ship away from the rocks. Or, at least, ease her off the rocks, and limp along until We have effected repairs. The common experience of pumping out and repairing the damage will do Us all some good.

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