Friday, November 13, 2009


Macolm Gladwell has an article in the August ‘New Yorker’ magazine and it raises some interesting stuff.

Using the character of Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (film made from the book, 1962, Gregory Peck as Southern small-town lawyer representing black man accused of raping a white female) Gladwell wants to look at “the limits of Southern liberalism”.

It’s hard to recall that there was such a beast once roaming the American scene, but there was. The Southern progressive and populist liberal existed in the pre-1960 era; s/he was of the ‘decent Christian’ opinion that both races were created equal and there was absolutely no reason for mistreating black folk.

The trouble, Gladwell observes, is that – being Southerners – the Southern progressive and populist liberal was first and foremost an intensely “local” sort of person, committed to the peace and quiet and order and decency of their small, local venues where everybody knew everybody else. Being all squished together on a small boat (not to say a lifeboat) the good Southern progressive and populist liberal was inherently wary of any amount or type of movement that would rock the boat that the whole town was on.

They networked, did their very decent and upright best, sought to give good example (often courageous) in their own lives, while never forgetting that too much change would overturn the entire craft. In a way, they had a rather hearts and minds approach to the problem of racial inequality that was all around them: do good things, give good example, always be respectful and decent, and work to change and improve in ways that would not overturn the entire craft – which, to their mind, would be culturally and humanly suicidal as well as self-defeating. What use if ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ if you’ve overturned the fragile craft of ‘society’ which is the vessel that everybody needs to navigate the watery chaos of history and events?

An interesting question – and never fully liberated, much less answered.

Gladwell notes that the problem with their approach was the pervasiveness and insidiousness of Jim Crow – not simply the laws, but the heart-set and mind-set which, like a miasm, was in the very air that the members of that society – young and old – breathed in, constantly and from the beginning of their lives (folks didn’t move around so much back then).

To get at such a deep level of awareness, of consciousness even, much stronger medicine would be needed. The good intentions of the “Jim Crow liberals” weren’t going to be enough.

It was for that reason that liberals began to become – in terms of postwar racial issues – Big Government types: they couldn’t see how the slow and gentle approach of such decent folks as happened to reside in a locality could reliably produce any sort of equality large enough or quickly enough.

Stronger measures would be required. ‘Surgery’ – and ‘heroic’ surgery, as the docs like to say – would be required, and lots of it. The gentle lifestyle medicines of the Southern progressive populist liberal was too little and its effects would take too long, such as they might be.

And so the ‘civil rights’ liberalism of the race-age (before gender, orientation, disability, or the five official government ‘races’ – a much simpler time indeed) became a Big Government matter. The ‘Great’ in LBJ’s Great Society wasn’t simply a moral evaluation; it was a flag that a great amount of government was going to be required.

You can see here some of the most significant challenges residing in the entire American effort to resolve the race issue: local good intentions applied in such a way as not to rip apart the entire fabric of the local society vs. Washington-mandated and enforced large-scale and immediate and profound changes.

You can see the upsides and downsides of both sides, I think, and much more clearly than they are usually seen nowadays.

Then you add that the government not only exhorted, but issued Regulations and exerted its huge and multivalent authority and power through regulatory leverage and fiscal leverage, but even through the criminal law and law enforcement.

Now once you’ve started to turn this vast and hefty panoply of powers loose on a small local society, things are going to get broken. Yes, the general Jim Crow ethos will be ripped out, but in so ripping out those tares, then the wheat of a decent and stable social ethos also gets ripped away.

It’s always been something of a Tares-and-Wheat problem: to what extent should a society (local or national) allow the tares to wither away, and to what extent should overwhelming force be quickly applied to rip them out – regardless of how much wheat is ripped up and the essential soil with it?

Not an easy problem and I pretend no easy answer here, but this was the monstrous challenge facing the country and the government back then in the late 1950s.

Gladwell notes that in the rush to ‘solve’ the problem ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’ Southern voices were drowned out as the impatient forcefulness of the Big Government ‘liberals’ ignited the most extreme of the Jim Crow die-hards (interestingly, he notes that Bull Connor – the Birmingham police chief who turned police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators) – had enjoyed a poor reputation, being considered a race-extremist and ‘not a gentleman’ … until the destruction of ‘the center’ of Southern politics sucked him and his ilk from the margins to the center of events and public influence.

Demonization on both sides, appeals not simply to emotions but to passions, the confusing of issues so that they congealed into molten masses of ‘excuse’ or ‘justification’ … abetted by a media that started off meaning well but increasingly became addicted to melodrama: here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys, they fight, and the good will win.

The influence of the ‘local’ was overwhelmed by the power of the ‘national’; a ‘uniformity’ – intended to be liberal and enriching – replaced the uneven moral diversity of regions and communities. That was the intention, anyway.

But events began to take on a life of their own; We lost control, as the nuclear engineers might say, of the reaction.

In the relatively simple schematics of the 1960s Southern race challenge, you can see what seems only a skeleton of what the country then went on to face in the later Sixties and Seventies: because where the Jim Crow and racial equality challenges were clearly more than enough for a country to put onto its plate and try to successfully digest, almost immediately the ‘race’ issue was followed by the ‘gender’ issue (which was followed by the orientation issue and fill-in-the-blank and fill-in-the-blank and fill-in-the-blank).

And all the problems inherent in the 1950s racial equality conundrum were then spread to each of the newly hatching follow-on ‘equality’ revolutions.

And intensified exponentially. The second, Northern, urban phase of the civil-rights movement – which had already begun to displace Martin Luther King’s spiritual and national-unity approach as early as 1966, was fueled by the ‘revolutionary’ mindset; Mao – that murderous loon – became the Great Model and his Little Red Book became to some a bible. Determined cadres, not decent citizens, would now run the revolutionary ball to victory. And that victory would be made to come swiftly and thoroughly, no matter how many eggs had to be broken to make the omlette. That was the plan anyway.

And the feminist plaint raised an even more profound ground that was contested: not simply the political rights of women (won with the vote in 1920) but the profound change of societal arrangements that – by the feminists’ own admission – had been around as long as ‘patriarchy’, which is to say since the dawn of human history.

You might have imagined that such a breath-taking ‘change’, altering arrangements devised by the species at its inception, would have to be undertaken carefully and with a whole lot of deep and careful thought. But no. ‘Revolution’ didn’t work that way, and it was actually not a sign of recklessness if not imbecility and hubris that such huge changes were to be implemented immediately by that Big Government. In fact, merely the fact that you were taking on such a monster program was touted as per se a sign of creativity and vision on a stunningly impressive scale.

And so, on and on, one ‘revolution’ after another.

It can be no surprise that American politics has become so unbalanced now. The experience of local governance, the sense that the ‘average citizens’ know best how to change their own polity, the awareness that no matter how much you may want to fix or improve your boat, it’s still on the water and full of ‘souls’ so you can’t just be taking an axe to the offending timbers … all those essential pre-requisites for a democratic politics and polity were cast aside and literally deconstructed.

I hold no brief for racism nor for political inequality.

But you don’t have to look around much now to see that some vital national elements have been lost and now the whole thing is lurching queasily from one side to another, or pulled from both sides simultaneously (which is a dynamic that cannot but weaken a vessel’s hull).

This is not a plea to turn back the clock. But much damage has been done – even for the best of intentions if not with much serious thought – to very vital and essential elements and even the foundations of the polity.

To read Gladwell is not simply to recall the repugnant practices of Jim Crow. It is to get a sense of a nation of citizens – all fallible humans, but there’s no way to get around that quickly and easily – living and ordering their lives together.

Nowadays, in ways even more thorough and profound than in the ‘conformist’ days of the 1950s, Americans have become ‘conformist’ in the most awful way: going along with what is imposed upon them because they haven’t got the ability or even any longer the vision to order their own affairs. And that Big Government, once imagined to be the fell instrument of the corporations, and for a Moment in Time the instrument of a more just and equitable Deal for Americans, has become something worse than a Government – it has become a Parent and a Shepherd, for helpless and befuddled and bethump’t little sheep that cannot find their way or even themselves.

This cannot end well. And the damage may not ever be fully repaired. But the article is worth a lot of thought.

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