Thursday, February 05, 2009

ASSERT THE SELF

Anthony Lewis reviews the book “King’s Dream” by Eric Sundquist.

In the immediately previous Post I distinguished between ‘dream’ and ‘vision’. The former is much akin to ‘daydream’, a gauzy, feel-good fantasy. The latter is a more complex and – frankly – grown-up affair, with the sense of what-might-be or even what-should-be tempered and refined by the sense of what is possible and by a commitment to the never-simple, never-easy task of getting things to take shape in this world.

A couple of points from Lewis’s piece.

He quotes MLK: “The only weapon that we have is the weapon of protest”. And MLK was thinking of non-violent protest, it goes without saying.

This is a good point that King makes. He had a clear grievance, one that had been in the foreground of American consciousness since before the Revolution, that had been the subject of the Civil War, that had been brought back into national consciousness during World War 2 after the dulled decades of Jim Crow and after Truman desegregated the Armed Services in 1948. Presuming on the fundamental intelligence as well as decency of the American citizenry, King’s thinking was that if the heinous anomaly of Jim Crow were simply brought to the attention of the American citizenry, then before too long they would decide that Crow had to go, and the government would take the necessary steps. Thus to the Glorious ’65 (or at least til the second week of July in that year).

But after that, ‘protest’, non-violent but clear and compelling because the content of its cause was clear and compelling, was no longer going to work. The second or Northern phase of ‘civil rights’ had taken a radically different course from King’s first or Southern phase: racial separatism, not national unity and integration, became an objective. And so did a form of race- revolution, to which urban rioting and crime – intentionally or not – lent dark implications of accuracy. And objectives and agendas like that were not going to engage the goodwill of the main body of the citizenry; indeed, to see all the riots going on, and the assorted doings of Black Power and its ‘revolution’, was probably going to kick up a lot of opposition. And not just an opposition based on ‘racism’, but opposition based on skepticism, doubt, and anxiety as to the possible consequences of such ‘revolution’.

After 1965, King’s leadership began to fade along with his strategy. The Democrats, having already lost the South, now saw themselves in the politically awful position of starting to ‘lose the North’. But they could not ‘go back’ on their ‘commitment to civil rights’, even though the second phase was much more a ‘revolutionary’ movement – in method even more than in content – than it was a simple redress of civil-rights. Their ‘liberation’ had somehow suddenly turned into the support of something else altogether (and can you say ‘Iraq’?).

The Second Wave feminists – claiming (with dubious justification) to represent all ‘women’, who were in Betty Friedan’s imagery ‘concentration camp inmates’ in the American home and family – were ready with their board in the water as that surf rose. Combining the mantles of ‘Holocaust victims’ and ‘civil rights’, they put forth demands (abortion on demand and the end of Marriage being just the two most eye-catching – or heart-stopping) that by no means could achieve quick and wide acceptance in any society or culture on earth. Their further contribution to Our present situation was to call any doubt, hesitation, or skepticism “backlash” and refuse to engage in any discussion with the doubters, hesitate-rs, and skeptics. Neat trick, if rather regressive and immature as a process of thought.

So things went from the rather simple and ‘pure’ protest of King’s strategy to the whole panoplium of manipulation and propaganda bequeathed by the unholy Goebbels and resurrected in the Sixties by his unlikely acolyte, the Israeli government.

King is also quoted for a 1967 insight that now seems as if it came from a denizen of another planet: “The Negro will only be truly free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive self-hood his own emancipation proclamation”.
This, I would say, is a superb insight applicable to every human being, regardless of external characteristics, since all participate in one and the same human be-ing, and in one and the same human nature. One must, I would say, become Master and Commander of oneself. And this is especially true in a democracy, even if one only has the ‘lowly’ title of “Citizen”.

That was not at all the insight of the age back in the late-Sixties and since then. It ran contrary to Identity and to the Victimhood upon which Identity rested: you are a victim, oppressed by forces beyond yourself, and that makes you specially-entitled and you should assert your demands by supporting whatever it is that we, your elite self-appointed advocates, demand as ‘good’ for you, while we, your elite self-appointed advocates ‘do whatever it takes’ and ‘by any means necessary’ to get what we/you want.

This was then supported by the Israeli precedent that it is possible to be so ‘victimized’ that you are entitled to ‘do whatever it takes’ and ‘by any means necessary’ to prevent further victimization. Although, as the theory came to be elaborated, since you were a victim yourself to begin with, then you were not morally capable of doing ‘evil’, so whatever you did was ‘good’ by definition since nothing you did could ever be ‘oppressive’. (There was a time not long ago in this country when a freshman Introduction to Philosophy student could have demolished such conceptual cowplop on one side of a sheet of paper. The solution to that was to get rid of Introduction to Philosophy, if not the whole Department. Nowadays, Freshpersons are otherwise ‘educated’. ) (Funny too, that the old ‘master race’ excuse for doing whatever you wanted to do was replaced in the Sixties by the ‘victim race’ excuse, later expanded to include ‘gender’ as well.)

This was then adopted by the Identity and Victim Advocacies, who were given benefit of intelligentsia by such as Hahvahd’s John Rawls, who asserted (without ever being able to explain how it was justified) that not even constitutional rights should be allowed to stand in the way of ‘justice’ for the oppressed (and can you say ‘Iraq’ and ‘torture’?).

The philosophical key here is the definition, the freight, of “self-hood”. What is the ‘self’ that one must assert? What constitutes it? The usual ‘education’ nowadays is a simple Potato-head game of slapping onto the blank blob the specifics of such Identity and Victimization and Oppression as the individual can lay claim to; and if there are two or more that any single individual can ‘claim’, why so much the better.

But the human self has been seen as much more than that. Has been seen as participating in a human nature common to all humans (and we are, for all our dark and bloody faults, a marvelous species). What is the range or spectrum of humanness? Its lower end? Its higher end? What constitutes progress toward an ‘authentic’ or ‘genuine’ fulfillment of one’s humanness or human nature? What constitutes a failure or a betrayal of that potential?

Thence to such questions as What does each human being owe to other such marvelously-natured human beings? What are the implications of living on a planet as a member of such a marvelously-natured species? For oneself? For one’s ‘approach’ and ‘attitude’ and ‘stance’ toward the rest of one’s species-mates?

Thence to What would a government look like, how would a government behave, that was founded by such a species, sufficiently aware of its marvelous nature and potential, and the responsibilities that went along with it?

When you mortgage your house and consign yourself to a day-job beyond the age of 70 in order to send your kids to college, don’t expect them to come back having learned how to handle any of the above. As in so much else now, your dollars don’t buy such stuff – which is a modern version of the old saw ‘you can’t get there from here’. Not anymore, anyway.

Lastly, King left Us a powerful warning: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably tied up with our destiny. And their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone”.

I would classify this splendid wisdom with Lincoln’s “to achieve a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” as one of the most forgotten – ignored, even – pieces of advice in American history. (Washington’s advice to be a Model and not an Agent of liberty and freedom around the world is a respectable second.)

But King was himself being outshouted by the Black Power stuff. And can you imagine how this advice (with the relevant changes) would go down in a Second-Wave-Convention? Substitute ‘female’ for “Negro” and ‘male’ for “white” and see how far from any such ideal the Second Wave Feminist (self-appointed as “the women’s movement”) had plotted its course.

After a few beers, it’s possible to imagine that the ultimate vision of Second Wave Feminism is something like a “Xena” dampdream: the men merely as sperm-slaves, the artistes formerly known as ‘mannish lesbians’ providing the auto repair, emergency services and soldiery; the ‘rest’ of the women living happy and contented and free from oppression or evil in any form; the cash to buy the nice autos and keep this continent-sized desert paradise solvent would flow in from … wherever … whatever. That sort of thing. Surely it’s not too much of a stretch; not when NOW’s executive vice president could say “Promoting marriage as a goal in and of itself is misguided”. Oy.

How the Democratic Party or any government can keep faith with such agendas while trying to discharge its constitutional responsibilities to all the citizens, and under the supervision of The People, is … something you might want to think about. Because We are much worse off than We were 8 or 40 years ago: not only does so much remain to be done, but so much has already been damaged (if not wrecked).

That is the fierce urgency of now.

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