Clay Risen has a new book out, “A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination”; it is reviewed in ‘The Boston Globe’ by Daniel Akst on January 18th, 2009.
It’s an interesting take on things, dealing with “the pernicious long-lasting consequences of the riots that followed MLK’s murder”.
Well, certainly yes and yet no.
Dr. King’s murder was an abomination. I still can’t stop thinking that J. Edgar Hoover had something to do with it; if nothing else, there would be no thorough investigation. (If so, that same dynamic would have been in play two months later when RFK, Hoover’s nemesis, was assassinated.)
It’s courageous to start talking about the consequences of the riots of that era. For quite some time the shrewdly camouflaged and highly effective ‘blaming the victim’ ploy suppressed all discussion along such lines. But if there’s any good news at all these days, perhaps it’s that some of the old Political Correctness (that insidious, monstrous Leninist invention) has started to wear away.
And by placing the MLK riots at the core of things, Risen nicely pre-empts any ‘hurtfulness’ that might stem from any inference that the black riots were gratuitous or even irrational, without any immediate cause, and in view of long-term black interests, horribly counter-productive, and doing the cause of American blacks great harm. And doing the American polity great harm as well, but let me not get ahead of myself.
In the Post ‘Sweet Land of Liberty’ from last November 26th, I had commented on Thomas J. Sugrue’s book “Uncommon Ground”. Sugrue’s thesis is that there was a first and Southern phase of the Civil Rights movement and then a second and Northern phase. The latter has received almost no consideration, Sugrue says, and he is right.
But it’s even more complicated than that. Whenever We think of the ‘Civil Rights Struggle’ We imagine the long lines of those nicely-dressed Southern black youths (and the even more numerous black adults), facing, along with an impressive number of white ‘Freedom Riders’ the assorted slings and arrows of the assorted Southern law enforcement agencies, such as they were at that time. It was very much the film and photograph images of those brave souls, and as contrasted to the chimpery of the Southern police and a disconcerting number of Southern citizens, that – I strongly sense – convinced Americans that this sort of thing had to stop or be stopped right now.
But that was the Southern phase. After the signing of the Voting Rights Act in July ’65, and mostly unimagined by the electorate, the ‘struggle’ moved North (into what Sugrue calls its second phase). This was the world of the Northern urban black population (I think it would be condescending to call it a ‘community’, nice as that sounds). And Sugrue points out that it was a whole different kettle of fish.
This, in Risen’s approach, is the vision that exploded onto the nation’s screens and into its consciousness in April of 1968 when the city of Washington, D.C. was pretty much attacked from within. Nobody who had reached the age of reason by ’68, recalling manned, sand-bagged machine gun emplacements on the steps of the Capitol and armed patrols of combat vehicles on Pennsylvania Avenue, can forget that; more recent breezy assertions of Unitary Executive powers and ‘sweeping powers of detention’ and ‘Northern Command’ can’t but stir up awareness of what a country looks like when the military starts driving around the streets. What this country looked like when that happened.
It was a shock to the majority of non-black Americans, who had been carrying about in their heads images of the Freedom Marches and sit-ins of the early part of the decade, and that marvelous moment on the Mall in August of 1963, to see what appeared to be a different black population altogether, and in many ways, as Sugrue enumerates, it was.
Risen does some enumerating of his own. “It disrupted the momentum of the civil rights movement and undermined white support for it; it hollowed out cities and accelerated the flight of urban whites to the suburbs; and it enabled the coalescence of a powerful new political force opposed to government initiatives on behalf of society’s less fortunate”.
He’s right. Although it also indicates that ‘racism’ as the all-purpose cause of those phenomena was never sufficient or wholly accurate. Fear of having a city explode like that around you; concern that any further “initiatives” (nicely and so vaguely put) would actually spark more such explosions; perhaps even a lingering suspicion now that the Southerners, so vigorously and soundly trounced by the Federal Government, a Federalized National Guard, and the US Army itself, might have had a very prudent reason for ‘keeping the lid on’ all those years … these are not the thoughts of visceral, hate-besotted racists. They may themselves be incomplete, but there was a great deal of legitimate concern.
And there is the darker fact that the riots in the black urban settings did not start with the MLK assassination riots of April 1968. They had been going on for three years by then. The first of the Sixties’ ‘black riots’ or, if you prefer, ‘inner city riots’ was – stunningly – just a few days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Bill into law, in July 1965. Following that catastrophe, LBJ was unable to get even a paltry $60 million for housing assistance out of Congress. It marked the end of his ability to achieve anything more for ‘civil rights’ through the standard political processes. It was surely the end of the ‘classic’, first, Southern phase of ‘civil rights’.
That, no doubt, helped fuel the ‘Northern’ black infatuation with ‘revolution’ and ‘Black Power’, with ‘rage’ and the gun and the bomb and the riot, although MLK was starting to see his leadership and his nonviolent, American-ideal-regeneration model of civil-rights be nibbled away by the ‘urban’ and ‘revolutionary’ approaches even at that early date.
It was a terrible synergy: the sense that somehow – after the riots – ‘democratic process’ wasn’t going to be able to accomplish much more for blacks in quick, large, easy steps; the infatuation with ‘revolution’ and revolutionary methods that by definition was hostile to and wholly incompatible with, democratic process; and the concomitant urge away from ‘integration’ (ah, that takes me back) and toward ‘separatism’ – which later went to college and emerged as ‘identity’, and spread like toxic kudzu throughout the American polity.
The Democratic Party, as noted, was desperate for reliable voter constituencies. Whatever its constituencies ‘came up with’ became the ‘policy’, but prettified and rendered almost ‘inevitable’ by the combined dynamics of Political Correctness and advocacy ‘packaging’, assisted by supportive ‘scholarship’ and friendly media looking, increasingly, for reliable ‘consumers’ of media product that makes them ‘feel good about themselves’.
It’s not hard to imagine why Risen preferred to focus on the MLK riots: that choice provided at least an implicit semblance of ‘justification’ for the violence, although not quite for the jaw-dropping orgy of urban black violence that destroyed its own home turf, a sort of comprehensive infrastructure-suicide.
From watching those earlier riots of ‘65-‘67 on TV – and in color by the mid-Sixties – it can hardly be surprising that many Americans wondered just what the frak was wrong that at the moment of such a stunning success, and hardly ‘symbolic’ but rather quite palpable, the response would be so self-destructive and self-defeating. There can be little doubt that Political Correctness had as one of its first tasks the suppression of any discussion of this profound dissonance, this utterly disconcerting fact and whatever connection it might have to ‘civil rights’ and ‘black rights’ and the general capacity for stability among urban blacks, if not – though an inappropriately arrived-at conclusion - American blacks in general.
Probably, the hyper-emphasis on black ‘rage’, generalized, so often backward-looking, and apparently unappeasable, was part of this technique and strategy of the distraction and suppression of public discourse. (And this gambit would become a tool for all of the follow-on Identities, the Second Wave of Feminism not least among them.)
The Democrats, alas, having written off the white vote of the South, couldn’t afford any such public discussion. Their urgent need to maintain electoral viability required them to simply apply more pressure to ‘nurture’ what they had decided would be their replacement constituency. That decision was to have powerfully negative (and hardly unpredictable) consequences for democratic process and the democratic ethos: what came to be known as Political Correctness was applied here, and for the same reasons that it was applied in Russia after Lenin took power: to prevent the ignorant but still uncontrolled masses from wasting time discussing (and disagreeing with) what the vanguard elite of the Party had already determined was to be the national policy.
To their dismay, when applying this beyond the South in that second, Northern phase, the Dems began to alienate white Northern voters as well (the Republicans watching the whole thing, taking copious notes). This resulted in the Party swinging wildly in search of yet more replacement constituencies, and adopting ‘women’ – not in the sense of all American females, but ‘women’ as represented by the cadres of Second Wave Feminism, not a few who aped the Soviet – or at least East German – approach themselves. So that by 1972, when the Democrats gushed and brayed – almost incomprehensibly – that they were “the Party of women”, on top of being clearly perceived as the Party that somehow was still trying to enforce its ‘visions’ and ‘dreams’ in regard to matters racial … well, that just layered a new Political Correctness on top of the older, 1965-8 version.
For while the Southern, first phase was cast – and not simply through the efforts of Dr. King but by its many participants – as a hearkening back to the American ideal, the second, Northern phase was tinged with the elitist assertions of European experience: revolution and overthrow, ‘A-power vs. B-power’, elites and vanguards, those who ‘get it’ and those who are the lumps who ‘just don’t get it’.
The Second Wave Feminists, of course, never had an equivalent to the Southern Civil Rights first phase, the call to the great American ideal; they went straight to ‘the revolution’, much as their now-horrified political enablers tried though with no small success to put a happy-face on it: it was justice, it was rights, it was equality, it was something you just had to ‘get’, it was progress, it was good, it was what it was, it was here so get used to it, it was not to be looked at critically because that would simply be re-victimizing the ‘victims’.
And so, huge and wrenching changes were force-pumped into society, with no thought as to consequences – intended or unintended, easily forseeable or subtly veiled – small or large. Kinda like the Iraq war and all its pomps and all its works. So this baaad methodology ‘migrates’ from one area of national affairs to others.
And in addition now to the matter of race itself, there entered the concerns of those who were made greatly uneasy by the ‘revolutionary’ consequences of this or that ‘initiative’; that even without considering the ‘content’ of this or that individual government ‘initiative’, the simple fact of so many ‘initiatives’, all at once, interacting in positive or negative ways without serious oversight or critical assessment, was enough cause for grave concern. Gerald Ford burbled in 1976 that one of the ‘great’ things about America was that it could entertain many revolutions all at once. Not hardly. It’s like having committees of self-serving doctors assigning what amounts to be dozens of drugs to the same patient, with no thought as to the individual drug’s effects or to the cumulative effects of all of the drugs interacting and acting upon the same patient.
Congress, which might have been presumed to provide some sort of comprehensive overall assessment and supervision, turned itself into Santa Claus to the interests groups, corporate or advocate. Until it became so addicted to PAC money and so fearful of examining the consequences of its pandering binge that it refused to do any serious and responsible work at all.
Lots of ‘symbolism’, photo-ops, and spin though. After all, you can't afford to actually let The People examine your changes, because it could quickly become obvious that those changes aren't really working so well at all. So you have to show that they look like they are working, and hope that after a while folks will get used to them like old furniture - the Israelis call it 'establishing facts on the ground'. It's shrewd, intelligent, and manipulative - thus hell-and-gone from open, honest, democratic process. It's a plague bacillus to the polity.
What a frakking hash. Congress wasn’t ‘duped’ or ‘blind-sided’ by 9-11 and the Bush push for ‘sweeping powers’; by that time Congress was so used to giving in to whatever pressure was brought upon it that pols voted for the Patriot Act without even bothering to read it. Nor, when Bush insisted upon ‘immediate’ passage of the massive Bill, did they demand at least a few days to do so. Let somebody else take the hit for slowing things down. The buck no longer stopped at Congress – and there went the core of the Constitutional vision of how the government would operate. Hasta la vista.
Generations of kids are grown up now, unaware of such complexities, and far too many of them now insufficiently schooled in the vital citizen skills of deliberation and critical thought to really understand.
Let me be clear: I am not speaking here in the accents of Nestor, about ‘times’ that have ‘changed’, pure and simple. Something, some things, went very very wrong back then, and as an indicator that ‘things’ are still not working right in Our polity I offer the two terms of the Bush Administration whereby a sleazy witless unripe not only was considered acceptable Presidential material but was elected (as the term is understood now), and was then elected (ditto) again.
And add the plight of the urban blacks, made so much worse by the Second Wave Feminists’ ‘deconstruction’ of family and fatherhood as part of their strategy for supplanting the ‘male’ with the ‘female’ as a source of societal and cultural identity. The two ‘revolutions’ – the Black Power and the Feminist – began to interact, in ways not only harmful to each other’s purported constituencies, but to American society and polity as well. A situation that has not ‘receded into history’ in the ensuing three or four decades. Not hardly.
We are sinking. As a Republic, We hit a rock on the starboard side in 1948 when the National Security State decided it had to instill enough fear in Us to power the Cold War; but then the Left simultaneously thrust the Ship of State against even more jagged rocks on the port side, and began to undermine democratic process in the service of ‘revolution’ (revolutions-plural).
And nobody could stop this vicious feedback loop because, according to Political Correctness, it didn’t exist. Everything the Democrats were doing was for ‘liberation’ and everything the Republicans were doing was for law, order, and enrichment, so nobody was doing anything wrong. Except the other Party. And the ‘necessary enemies’ raised up to fuel the next ‘initiative’ … ‘men’ and so forth.
Nor can it be realistically imagined that the ensconced elites of the Left are going to let go of the power that has, in great part because of their forty years of effort, been drained from The People and hoarded (and then squandered) in the dark, marbled alcoves of the Beltway.
We need to become The People. Again, I’m not implying that there was some ‘wonderful’ time in American experience when the citizenry functioned perfectly in that task. The ‘destiny’ of Our present generations is to write an entirely new chapter to the history of the American concept of The People. This hugely expanded government, this greatly unbalanced constitutional contraption, requires not less of The People but far more. It requires more Peopling, not less.
And President Obama is going to need that help, if he is ever to avoid the fate of becoming just another one of the Beltway banditti or the first black Jimmy Carter (whose services to the country since he left the Presidency have been exemplary, it has to be noted).
And if We are to avoid the fate of looking like those peoples of Europe of a century or 70 years ago, in those old newsreels, staring blankly into the camera.
Or, worse, cheering madly as the Leader’s motorcade goes by.