Frank Rich wrote an Op-Ed in ‘The New York Times’ on for the 4th of July.
What caught my eye was the last paragraph: he quotes (as “smug”) Chief Justice Roberts’s recent comment that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”.
Rich and Roberts are both wrassling with a truly difficult – frakkulously difficult – problem; one that has bethumped Us as society and polity since the inception of (what I would call) the Second Phase of the Civil Rights Era that began in about 1966.
The First Era you will recall as the one dominated by Martin Luther King and his vision of simultaneously conducting (and instigating, to some extent) “direct non-violent action” while also casting the entire movement as a Call to all Americans to achieve a new level of genuine national fulfillment, united around this project of eradicating racial-injustice; it was specifically focused on the Jim Crow South and it pretty much required the Federal government to exercise a level of intervention that it had only previously exercised on the basis of its war-and-civil-insurrection powers in the years of the Civil War and the decade immediately thereafter, when Federal troops occupied the South during the Reconstruction Era (ended in 1876 when national party political strategy required the mollifying of Southern voters).
The First Era, in a sense, sought a continuation of that hugely unfinished Federal project, abandoned far too soon; and after watching Southern police and pols trying violently to defend Jim Crow by beating up black demonstrators (and white Freedom Riders), a national consensus pretty much existed that the Feds had to go back down there and finish the job … it was sort of an Open File left from the Civil War, although the File was a century old by the early 1960s.
But once the procedural corrections were made that cleared away the operational political blocks that Jim Crow had erected to continue the repression of Southern blacks – and this was accomplished in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 respectively – the country came to a huge crossroads.
In the intervening century – especially in the period from the 1890s to the 1950s – large theories and experiences had come into existence:
First, sociologists and political scientists, in conjunction with the large-visioned psychology of groups and societies – had developed much more subtle theories as to how ‘reality’ was ‘constructed’ in self-fulfilling (and often self-serving) ways by ‘majority views’.
Second, the emotional malleability of ‘crowds’ and the manipulation of public opinion had developed from the more or less neutral observations of Gustav LeBon in the mid-1890s, through the consumerist advertising theories of Edward Bernays, and the truly vast (and monstrous) government-controlled manipulations of public discourse and opinion effected by the Leninist-Stalinist and Maoist versions of Communism and the diabolically clever government machinations of Hitler and Goebbels.
And third, in the US certain academics were becoming infatuated with a newly imported French Literary Theory that considered the reader, and not the writer, as the arbiter of the meaning of any ‘text’ (over here, the great gambit involved envisioning that all of reality – and especially public reality – was nothing but a ‘text’ and it was up to the current ‘readers’ (especially those vanguard elites who knew how to ‘read the text’ because they ‘got it’) to interpret the text and then get the government to impose their views on the population, who had suddenly been demoted from being The People to being the ‘benighted masses’ who just didn’t get it and who needed those who did get it to make them – like confused cattle – take the Correct path).
All of this was in the dense and agitated – and legitimately excited – air of the mid-1960s.
Along with the myrmidons of the Boomer in their gushy Youth, either happily basking in an eternal Summer of Love, unbothered by sobriety, maturity, or the need to make a living or provide for posterity and families or else eagerly seeking to apply the wisdom of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the doddering, fuddy-duddy United States and its boring democratic ethos where nothing truly exciting or interesting ever seemed to happen and everything took too much time.
Yes, Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court Opinion of the mid-1950s – had urged ‘all deliberate speed’ in desegregating schools, but the Jim Crow folks simply used ‘deliberate’ as an excuse for not-desegregating at all. So clearly then ‘deliberate’ was a baaaad thing since baaaad people could use it to keep things from ‘changing’, and ‘change’ was the Great and Good Thing.
Trust the Boomers to draw the wrong lessons – but booze-and-drug fueled midnight bull sessions don’t require logic or prudence; you want to go for what ‘your gut’ tells you (your brain being kind of in neutral due to the drugs or drinks). Worrying about ‘consequences’ is just a form of ducking the ‘change’. Ah, those were the days!
So, getting back toward Rich and Roberts, the Feds faced a massive problem after July, 1965. The ‘experts’ were telling them that there were a whole lotta ways to Deconstruct Jim Crow and Reconstruct Southern society: the government would have to ‘go deep’ as it were and start aggressively and vigorously changing the entire complex matrix of Jim Crow laws – even on the local level – and THEN get into changing the habits of thinking and feeling, of mind and heart, of the Southerners themselves.
It’s sort of like a modern van Helsing ticking off ALL of the possible ploys that a trapped vampire might use and ALL the places that a vampire might hide in: not enough to plan on a tough hour or two with a stake and some garlic and holy water. No, to clean out all of Transylvania, you were going to need government-level fearless vampire-killing. (Alas, this whole approach, in the foreign adventures field, was coming a cropper in Vietnam but to notice that would have been ‘insensitive’ and – as always in the matter of Boomer practice – thinking too much.)
But the Second Phase, after 1965, now hyper-agitated by the view that the entire country (and populace) was ‘racist’ and had to be Deconstructed (the French Theory term) and Reconstructed (the Civil War era term) – and on just the same level of intrusive intensity as the Jim Crow South.
In addition to questions of ‘prudence’ and ‘workability’ there was the question as to just how much of an Operation like this could be mounted by the Federal Government that was specifically ‘limited’. Surely, a government Operation like this was going to require a government hell-and-gone from the one envisioned in 1787. And not just in terms of size and complexity, but in terms of the very scope and nature of its authority, power, and role within the overall American ‘thing’.
King himself, in his ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ in 1963 had confessed his frustration with ‘liberals’ who were more concerned for ‘order’ than for ‘justice’ and were urging him to tone-down his demonstrations and ‘be patient’. No, said King, ‘justice’ has to take precedence over ‘order’ – especially when that ‘order’ is unjust.
It would be hard to disagree with him.
But he was writing for a pre-Boomer, American adult audience, and he was trying to get established precisely the objectives enshrined in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that would soon be passed into law.
The post-1965 situation was much different: ‘adults’ had kinda disappeared, unless they were – in a queasy similarity to Chinese Party officials – marching in support of the Young (whom Mao had declared to have the real spirit of the Revolution). The Youth had gotten it into their heads that the world was more fluid than solid, that anybody who couldn’t embrace ‘change’ like a 19-year-old could was just ‘old’ and ‘lazy’, and that ‘consequences’ were just another way of saying No to the foaming torrent of creative freshness that would lead to Summertime for Everybody (they were generous, in their Youth – the Boomers were).
King himself had started to develop into even wider areas of concern: that Vietnam was an unjust war and that it would certainly sap national energies much needed to effect genuine justice domestically; that the ‘violence’ and the impatience of the young Black Panthers and the separatism of the Black Muslims of the era were going to fracture, rather than unite, Americans; and while he didn’t come out (as best I know) and say that ‘order’ was also vitally important and necessary in a nation and in a civilization, he was concerned that things were spinning out of control (including the control of the Young, who didn’t see ‘controlling events’ as a worthwhile use of their time and energies in the first place).
Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom! – as Mao had said – and the Garden would shape itself. Having not paid enough attention in high school (so much other interesting stuff to do, maybe down at Bikini Beach!) the Boomers hadn’t realized that vegetation, left to itself without trellis or tillage and given adequate light and water, tends to the Jungle more than the Garden (which requires sustained and careful and patient and prudent and knowledgeable adult skill if it is to flourish).
And King was pushed aside – both by LBJ (who was looking for a little payback of his favors in the form of King supporting LBJ’s war as LBJ had supported King’s civil-right campaign) and by younger and more impatient blacks.
So what began to develop – initially under the moniker of ‘affirmative racism’ until the government PR flaks realized that the phrase was toooooo truthful – was a comprehensive Federal campaign to use regulatory and civil and criminal law to Deconstruct and then Reconstruct the entire country, which was now considered as racist as the Jim Crow South.
(And you can imagine what happened in the very early 1970s when the far-more organized radical-feminists came along to run the same game plan although for their own purposes: that the entire country was ‘sexist’ which was even worse than ‘racist’ and involved now not the entire white population but the entire male population and required even more aggressive and invasive government action to Deconstruct and Reconstruct Everything Tainted With Patriarchy – which they also imagined included, not to put too fine a point on it, Everything.
And not just Everything American: race slavery was a particularly vicious North American affair, developed in the earliest days of European arrival in the New World – but Family and dual-gender parental dyads splitting up the chores according to each gender’s gifts and predispositions was pretty much the way the entire human species had arranged itself since the beginning of humanity’s history … so the Feds were being seduced (perhaps like Custer, or Napoleon on his march into Russia) into a much more profoundly complex and much more hugely questionable Deconstruction/Reconstruction project.)
The concept of affirmative action - which nobody can really deny is a discrimination based on race – made its quiet appearance in the mid-1960s, with all its attendant profound difficulties (Should the government discriminate at all on the basis of race? If you focus on ‘outcomes’ won’t you wind up undermining objective assessments of individuals? If you do that, won’t you actually be undermining the very individuals you are trying to help? What will happen to the perception that the government is legitimate because it is fair? How will everybody else in the country react to this favoritism?)
In regard to that last question, I note here that the Beltway’s solution was to include most of the country, by the late 1970s, as beneficiaries – for one or another reason – of such ‘preferential discrimination’: the various Identities that blossomed like Mao’s Hundred Flowers now constitute between 2/3s and 3/4s of the population – just about everybody except those White, Working-Class Males who ran the patriarchal and oppressive Industrial Culture … the Culture is gone now. Along with – who knew? – the genuine national wealth.
So Roberts has a point: logically speaking, the best way to stop X is to stop doing X. And he needn’t be (I don’t know enough about him to know for sure) a mere shill for wealth and corporate (and white and male) power to make this assertion. The preferential-discrimination theory has more than enough deeply troubling questions and truly alarming potential consequences built into it.
And at this point the Feds have hooked sooooo many folks on this thing …
Although the Feds have also lost all the Wealth that was necessary to fund it (you could take all of Bill Gates’s fortune tomorrow, and it will disappear into the low-reservoir of entitlement monies with hardly a bubble – and tomorrow you’d have to find another Gates, and the day after, and the day after …).
Rich avoids taking his chosen path all the way to the precipice, which – conceptually and historically – is just a sentence or two up ahead.
Instead he takes a final trumping bipartisan swipe at the “delusional” nature of both Roberts and LBJ.
And thus can wrap up with a Big Finish: “America is still very much a work in progress”.
Ach ja! The brave words of the 1960s, though they were ringing with queasy hollowness in the 1970s, and then with brassy sheen in the 1980s, and then with smugly arrogant assurance in the 1990s, and then in quicker succession with violent and self-justifying arrogance in the early 00s, and then with a pathetic nostalgic sentimentality as the last of the herd of the Bubbles collapsed.
The buffalo are gone, the bubbles are gone.
This generation has a rendezvous with Destiny – and it has nobody to blame but … (fill in the blank).