Monday, May 18, 2009

CIVIL RIGHTS WRONGS

Richard Thompson Ford offers some interesting, if painfully cautious, thoughts.

The gist of it is that “if we really want to fix inequality, it’s time for a new approach”.

So you can see why he’s painfully careful, picking his way like a rider taking a horse along a narrow, cliff-cut road that’s only a few feet wide and has a 500-foot drop on the other side. While acknowledging that racial inequality still exists, he thinks We need to move beyond the old civil-rights approach: “We should be more circumspect in blaming racism, and hidden racists, for problems with more subtle causes”.

From his lips to God’s ear.

But you can’t get a big mass-movement started, you can’t get a whole bunch of people interested, by discussing subtle causes and nuances and assorted complicated dynamics. For a mass-movement that’s going to provide some political clout and punch, you need big, simple, cartoon-quality images and ‘symbols’. Whether or not they really exist, well … refined sensibilities don’t get a lot done in this world, do they?

Fifty and more years ago, Ford rightly notes, there were such clear and vivid realities: the Southrons, in a previous incarnation as out-and-out racists, displayed for the cameras and the world the ugly underside of the American experience. Putting an end to such vivid and overt race-based violence was a good thing for the government to do.

Putting an end to ‘racial inequality’, and even more to ‘racism’, however … now that was a much taller order. And much more complicated. You couldn’t just send in a super-posse of US Marshals and the 101st Airborne to put an end to that sort of thing. The government was going to have to get into people’s minds and hearts, into their thoughts and feelings, and that was going to mean taking government to a whole new level.*

Ford goes on immediately to say that We “must be more ambitious in directly confronting the decline of inner city neighborhoods”. Well, OK. But it’s been forty Biblical years that We’ve been having this problem on the front burner and if it just keeps getting worse, then “ambitious” just barely reaches the urgency with which such a ‘confronting’ needs to be carried out.

Worse, when it started there were not only a larger number of stable black families, but the whole national ethos was supportive of the ‘family’, and of the matrix of habits, mind-sets, heart-sets, and even virtues that grounded the family commitment and the participation of the family in the wider society. All that’s gone now, and it was the following ‘civil rights revolution’ – gender feminism’s revolution against ‘patriarchy’, marriage, ‘males’ generally, and even ‘heterosexuality’ – that both invited the government into even more adventurous forays into the minds and hearts and hearths of the citizenry and also ‘deconstructed’ the entire matrix, the entire ethos, that supported a stable, involved citizenry. Oy.

Much of the ‘decline of inner cities’ now has to be ascribed to fatherless families, single-parent mothers (often very young themselves) who have been ‘liberated’ into desperately needing a job (or at least a paycheck).

“Ambitious”, to repeat, hardly reaches the level of urgency in all this. A mental ‘drive’ through the American ethos now will resemble nothing so much as Allied troops driving their jeeps through the rubble-strewn passageways between the rubble-piles that once had been German streets and cities. Did We not notice?

He impressively tackles what has developed now in terms of criminal justice and imprisonment: criminal law and imprisonment is seen, it would appear, as “a new Jim Crow”. That sounds a bit too much as if some folks are now thinking that ‘racism’ has retrenched and taken a new form, as an arbitrarily erected and enforced effort to discriminate racially.

But Ford acknowledges that as great as the racial disparities are in the numbers of whites and blacks incarcerated, “they can’t be blamed on the kind of deliberate bigotry that once fueled Jim Crow laws”. He’s right.

“Instead”, he continues, “they are the largely the result of the lack of opportunities for lawful employment”.

Well, that’s certainly part of it. But why, after these forty Biblical years and dozens if not hundreds of billions of dollars, is there such a lack of opportunity? His characterization is one that has been around as a standard ‘explanation’ for decades.

Of course, the changing international economic situation didn’t help – the abandonment of the ‘Detroit Consensus’ and the embrace of ‘creatively destructive’ neoliberalism.

In fact, it is one of the cruel ironies of American history that the Civil Rights movement succeeded in establishing itself in 1965 (with the passage of the Voting Rights Act), just as America’s postwar economic supremacy was coming to an end. And then within a few years, feminism, especially in its ‘revolutionary’ gender-feminist variant, launched an all-out sustained assault on the fundaments of American society and culture – precisely the job-providing society and culture that the Civil Rights movement was hoping to open up to blacks.

How did We miss that? Historians of this era will rightly believe that such complex oppositions should have been as clear as a bell to Us.

Nor can it be ignored, though Ford doesn’t raise it, that the Civil Rights era and movement was comprised of two verrrry different phases: the conventionally envisioned ‘Southern’ phase, symbolized by Martin Luther King’s nonviolence and his call for all Americans to unite in a rebirth of national integrity and virtue, and then the politely un-imagined ‘revolutionary’ phase of post’65, with the Black Power agitation, the black demand for racial separatism, and the assault on – if not rejection of – American values. (Before the gender-feminists went and 'deconstructed' them.)

Interestingly, when Ford reaches for positive civil rights imagery in his concluding paragraphs, he only mentions the Freedom Rides and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, both elements of the golden first phase.

The “civil rights focus on bigotry is attractive, even when it’s a poor fit [as an answer to the question and a solution to the problem] because it seems to offer a shortcut to consensus”. Just so. Nor can it be ignored that finding ‘bigotry’ behind every tree, and in every heart, opened up a new arena of paranoia, now racially based, that surpassed the destructive anti-communist paranoia of the late’teens and the 1950s. (And now layer over all that the gender-feminist sexual paranoia, wherein every act of relationship was either ‘harassment’ or ‘rape’ and every male was certifiably a potential rapist waiting to pounce … it is a frakking wonder the country hadn’t imploded by 2000).

But, as Ford indicates, it was easy to swathe everything in the golden cloak of that truly marvelous and awesomely impressive first-phase of the Civil Rights Movement, with genuine and clear good folks, equally vivid bad folks, and even some real heroes. And even the government came off looking good toward the end. For quite a few years, Americans heard ‘civil rights movement’ and simply figured ‘OK, it must be good then’.

But when that ‘wore off’, it was far too simplistic and inaccurate to write off skepticism and hesitation as nothing but willful and ornery ‘backlash’. After 1965 things got hugely more complex, there were numerous variables in a constantly dynamic and shifting national situation, and much of what the government (in the Dems’ desperate bid for ‘black loyalty’ at the polls, and then the Nixonian Republicans’ rival bid for it) was fixing to do would have given any sane drinker pause.

But ‘revolutions’ and careful calculation of consequences don’t blend well. And neither do glorious ‘rescues’- quick, successful, and with no bad consequences – which is the pose that the government was hoping to strike. **

So now ‘racism’ is no longer the only, nor even the main, problem. Nor is the natural hesitation any group of humans would feel toward major change any longer the main problem. After four decades of government action on an unprecedented scale, and unremitting indications that things are not getting better, there is more than enough legitimate doubt, uncertainty, and just plain tire-kicking skepticism among the citizenry.

Nor, as I say in the first Note below, is it a wise solution to simply replace the citizenry with folks who don’t recall any time when the government was held to some standard of efficacy in its actions, and thereby ‘erase the history’. This is a uniquely American variant on Stalin’s old scam of simply uprooting entire populations and moving them to the farthest reaches of the Russian landmass, where their ‘memories’ and obstructions would no longer trouble his ‘visions’ and plans.

Nor is it wise to ‘airbrush’ the history books, which is a tactic far more widely spread today than is often noticed, thus ‘erasing the history’ by keeping the young ignorant.

Ford has courageously raised a complicated set of questions. It remains to be seen whether We have reached that point, described by one Roman historian, where “we can tolerate neither the disease nor the remedy”.

Interesting times indeed.

NOTES

*Of course the other prong of that operation was to have government re-introduce race-discrimination, but ‘for a good cause’, in the form of ‘affirmative action’. Which promptly went and threw ‘equality before the law’ into a state of imbalance from which it has never recovered. Even more insidiously, or ‘subtly’, it threw out any confidence that the citizenry were each and all ‘equal before the government’, a not quite Constitutional principle the absence of which has had profound effects on Our politics. And one of the more insidious solutions to that problem has been to increase the number of citizens and voters who either don’t remember a time when there was such a confidence among the general body of the citizenry, or have never had an experience of a government where such a confidence would even be conceivable; if you can’t fix what has been broken, fill the room with folks who never knew the machine when it worked properly.

**Although with the exception of the 19th century fireman-into-the-burning-building type of rescue, most professional rescue-scene commanders have trained and equipped themselves to take careful stock in planning rescue operations, on the acute presumption that a hasty rescue attempt could most likely cause more harm than good.

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