The Abject Righteousness of the Civil Rights Movement

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!

-Langston Hughes, “Let American be America Again,” 1935

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Recently I’ve been reflecting about citizenship, and all its connotations, in uncomfortable registers. I’ve been motivated by how to prepare for the 2018 midterms, including which candidates to support and how to get involved, and also newly conscious of how Trump’s election and governance have scrambled my understanding of American politics and history. I’m hardly alone in this. It feels like every week there is a new confusion on the left about what is going on right now, and why it’s happening, in order to at least begin to decide whether to care about it.

One haute example of this is the debate between Francis Fukuyama’s and Louis Menand’s philosophies of history. Fukuyama’s idealism proposes that history is predestined “given current trends,” while Menand instead suggests it is defined more by shuffling, disagreements, and unpredictable coalitions. We’ve seen Obama himself appear to waffle about this, first by echoing the call that the arc of the moral universe, while long, does in fact bend towards justice, and later by suggesting, post-Trump, that history “zigs and zags”.

From long reflection, I have come to believe the phenomenon of Trump hinges predominantly on race, and I will explore this topic in future posts. For now, I’d like to prepare those substantive reflections—and also expand on the themes of earlier writings on this blog and elsewhere—by briefly commenting on what seems to make American history tick or flow in certain directions, and how this organizes my sense of what should be done. It’s easy for conversations like this to descend into navel-gazing or airy abstractions, and indeed there’s a bravura in even trying to do it that I suspect makes most commentators avoid it on principle.

Let me say up front that, echoing a recent Facebook post by my friend Nicholas Mulder, if you assign any significance or weight to the daily news, you need a philosophy of history. Whether you think events are stochastic or statistically predictive, or if grand narratives are even possible, is implicitly at stake if you are inclined to groan while reading the Huffington Post or to tweet #metoo.

In America there’s always been this conflict between the “We” and the “I.” It’s seared into our cultural makeup that America is both a collective work-in-progress and a vehicle for personal freedom. Here I mobilize it in a more specific, political sense: a profound and abiding disagreement over how republican politics should operate in this country, and how decisions should be made. The debate is between epistocracy (i.e. that those who know best and are most qualified should rule) and democracy proper. Both themes are present in the Declaration of Independence, famously contrasting a deliberative “we” against the failures of the English King George III. Yet we know from history that proto-Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams favored administrative power and a centralized financial system, while remaining skeptical of the “common man” and putting down Shay’s Rebellion. Though we mythologize the country’s founding as a democratic revolution, this tension between independence and interdependence remained, seared into the Constitution and justified in The Federalist Papers.

Let me say provocatively (because I cannot hope to fully elaborate the point here) that this conflict between the “We” and the “I” is shot all the way through American political history, that we seem to have been living in a great Age of Identity since the social protests of the 60s and 70s, and that there are now signs of a reborn “We” in the forms of protest and resistance following Trump’s election. Again, this is still early days, and we will need a complete diagnosis of this past age in order to learn how to move forward, which neither I nor anyone else can now provide. But I have already found the “We” and the “I” useful for schematizing past upheavals.

Allow me to elaborate on this stance with reference to the Civil Rights Movement. I recently finished watching the documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which traces the movement from Brown vs. Board of Education to Harold Washington’s election as the first black mayor of Chicago in 1983. I was alerted to it by a passing mention in an essay that claimed viewing it was necessary for one’s civic education to be complete (!).

The episodes are filled with moments so harrowing that I sometimes broke out in a sweat from anxiety, and spent long minutes on my phone as scenes passed by on my laptop that I was too embarrassed to consider head-on. John F. Kennedy, audibly embarrassed, on the phone with the governor of Mississippi, pleading that a single black student needed to be admitted to Ole Miss or else the National Guard would need to be deployed. Young white women explaining to a reporter their own shifting beliefs about whether blacks are racially inferior or just uneducated, as in the background the Little Rock Nine pass down the sidewalk into school. An older white woman in Cicero, Illinois, possibly Italian or Polish but who looked exactly like my mother, confiding to an interviewer that “of course it’s fine for Negroes to live here, but the question is, are they Negroes or ****ers?” The Detroit conflagration as block after block of the city was swallowed up in racial fury. Faculty at Howard University explaining to students why courses in black identity (what would later be known as African-American Studies) were counter to the mission of Historically Black Colleges. New York Jews discovering their inner whiteness as they raged against blacks and “black consciousness” allies over community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn. Robert F. Kennedy talking softly to a dirt-poor family in the Black Belt about the importance of learning to read, and tentatively stroking the face of the youngest boy as he walks away. The literal drowning of Resurrection City from downpours on the National Mall, extinguishing the Poor People’s Campaign. A woman crying fifteen years later as she describes singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” under a full moon as RFK’s hearse drove past the Lincoln Memorial. A middle-aged Asian woman shoved into the back of a police van, trying to get out the tune to “We Shall Overcome” and plaintively holding the van door open so she remains visible to the TV cameras. A reporter gagging out of moral sickness as, just behind him, the Attica prison revolt was doused in gas, calling out to his cameraman to cut the feed as the mic can only pick up the sound of bones being broken. White Bostonians overturning police cars and attacking horses while screaming racial slurs I’d never heard before, protesting the forced desegregation of public schools.

And yet, there were moments of unimaginable heroism. The decision of Emmett Till’s mother to have an open coffin at her son’s funeral so that thousands of blacks in Chicago could see “what they did to my baby” when he spoke up to a white woman in Mississippi, was lynched, and stuffed at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. Members of SNCC training for hours at a time and days on end as their own members, white and black, assaulted and beat them as training for the real abuse of sit-ins at lunch counters. The mayor of Nashville vaporizing his own political base by answering the persistent queries of a civil rights worker that while as a public official he swore to uphold all laws including segregation, as a man he could not defend its practice. An uncut three minute sequence of marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seeing what was about to happen, yet continuing straight into a charging horse-mounted policeman’s baton. Fannie Lou Hamer ignored at the 1964 DNC for having the gall to ask if Mississippi’s closed society was in fact America. Stokely Carmichael inventing, on the spot, the phrase “black power” during the March Against Fear, defying the philosophy and temperament of Martin Luther King, Jr. even as they marched step by step. Cassius Clay, a couple years before becoming Muhammad Ali, insisting over and over that he is “already beautiful” as a sports announcer questions whether he “looks good enough for the cameras yet.” The spontaneous gelling of black consciousness as, for the first time in Howard University’s history, the elected homecoming queen would sport an afro.

In other words it was thirty years of history, well-told and ill-gotten.

I find some of its lessons difficult to absorb. I had never before seen Martin Luther King, Jr.’s achievements as a product of failure, but his own moral arc was defined by personal trauma and strategic blunders that stymied the movement repeatedly. It was out of such blunders—which to him felt less like setbacks than like a totalizing morass of major depression—that King became the moral force we have mythologized. The central example came in the form of Laurie Pritchett, chief of police in Albany, Georgia, who broke the SCLC’s naïve attempt to overwhelm Southern jails. Pritchett figured out how to fight nonviolence with nonviolence by coordinating with other sheriffs to keep his own jails from overflowing. King retreated to lick his wounds for weeks at his home, focusing thereafter on more specific, symbolic victories like Selma and Montgomery (Howard Zinn was part of the Albany movement and to this day views this pivot as a major, tragic blunder). Watching “I Have A Dream” after seeing King be broken made me hear, for the first time, the desperation, despair, and raw deferment in that speech of any near-term expectation of recognition and dignity. What got me wasn’t that King was defeated—it was that he was confused. History was not moving in the inexorable direction inaugurated by the big “We” of the Freedom Riders, SNCC, and SCLC.

It was this conflict between King and Pritchett that oddly reminded me most of our current political moment, in which Cory Booker refers to his own release of confidential Kavanaugh documents as “civil disobedience”, and some on the left advocate the exclusion of Trump supporters from restaurants and boutiques. At the time, King was realizing that the great moral authority of one “We” was running up against, and gummed up by, the indignation and recalcitrance and brute effectiveness of a counter-mobilized “We”. So he became willfully symbolic, shifting into the King of the history books, and alienating many of his more radical adherents in the process.

In effect King gambled that his “We” would scale better and win a war of attrition against Southern anachronism. He refused to take any actions and lead any protests that were not permitted to proceed by federal authorities and judges, including the crowning jewel of Selma, finally extinguishing the Jim Crow South by outing it as politically unworkable and contrary to the American experiment–that it was in fact an “I” pretending to be a “We”. Yet, his movement ran aground when it went north to confront the quieter, more restrained, more economical, and ultimately more pernicious racism of redlining.

Like today, there seems to have been a strategically unworkable, yet changing relationship between political tactics and moral compasses, whose plate tectonics could not be refastened by the hands of men while the ground shifted beneath them.

During the Civil Rights Era both sides unequivocally claimed the moral high ground. Both were convinced of their own righteousness. However I slowly realized, episode by episode, that the movement’s defining feature was not this righteousness but its insistence on democracy as a radically moral and potentially self-destructive commitment to personal autonomy. As the movement ate itself alive, as the SCLC and SNCC eroded and splintered into the Black Panthers against the institutionalists, its true irreverence came to the surface. Why should I fight so hard to be considered part of America? Why can’t I myself be America? What is this paltry “America” that whites think they own? Don’t ask for their permission to free the slave that’s inside you, do it yourself. The rise of black epistemology was, in this sense, a declaration of independence from the old-form civil rights movement, just as the Founders’ was from King George III. The “We” that King helped birth was bleeding out into multitudes of “I’s”. It’s not surprising why, when asked what they most remember about the year 1968, O.J. Simpson’s teammates have cited their winning the Heisman Trophy.

Still, in the process, the movement rewrote the moral calculus by which anyone in this country could take up the mantle of citizenship. We remain stuck today in the molds of resentment and civic pride first cast at that time.

Today I think that mold, particularly for whites, has become brittle and unworkable. In future posts I will explore what this means for being a citizen in the Trump era, and possibly after.

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Untimely Ragtime?

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Partly out of nostalgia and partly out of moral yearning, I recently picked up and finished Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform. I had wanted to move beyond foggy clichés of the Progressive Era I picked up from high school AP history: America getting its act together after the Gilded Age, recognizing the social problems of urbanization and income inequality, Tammany Hall, national parks, muckrakers, etc. Only after finishing the book did I recall other, more private associations I’d forged during my adolescence: a sixth grade book report on Teddy Roosevelt, whose principled self-reinvention from sickly invalid child to strapping warrior now strikes me as a Caucasian beta-release of Malcolm X; my love for The Music Man, whose soundtrack I spent the last month of seventh grade falling asleep to on the top floor of my family’s farmhouse; raw associations between Woodrow Wilson and my mother, both college presidents who rechanneled a youthful idealistic streak into a self-assured, WASP-y stoicism; a recent embrace of old-school pragmatism in Dewey’s philosophy and institutional reforms. For me, the Progressive Era was the American chapter of American history, when the country finally began to consider what the right parts of itself could do about the wrong parts, and thereby define its genius for the rest of the world.

Hofstadter’s summary was interesting on its own terms. I was struck by his dark presentation of the period as stridently hypocritical. This is remarkable, since his narrative is exclusively domestic (with little mention of America’s imperial adventures) and deeply negligent of the African-American experience (Hofstadter writes admirably of Jefferson’s yeoman autonomy, given his relatively small number of slaves). His broader theses, grouped within the American canon of “consensus history”, frame the Progressive Era as continuous with earlier political-economic struggles, fought over the same values and core concerns that animated the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, that forged the Era of Good Feelings, that tragically hiccuped during the Civil War, and that gorged themselves during the Gilded Age.

Frankly, I envy Hofstadter’s naïve confidence in this continuity; the book was written before neo-Marxism and the broader New Left made it impossible to imagine this kind of national narrative as something other than power paying tribute to itself. We are now in a moment where that confidence, shaken from its coziness and tempered with a heavy dose of humility, is sorely needed. Hofstadter was writing at a time when our national identity was not seriously in question, which empowered him to trace the profound moral transformations and compromises that were indeed happening in all their maddening capaciousness. He helps show that any javelin worth throwing requires reaching farther back than you can see.

Moreover, Hofstadter makes moral judgments of all the dominant players (including William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) to the point of declaring that the dominant personality trait of the period was class hypocrisy. But it was a strategic hypocrisy, as the nation wanted its leaders to tell it something that was impossible: its ideals could be reconciled with the modern trappings of urban infrastructure without compromising their integrity. It was possible, we were told, to preserve our virginal, natural integrity even as the land was made publicly available for sightseeing and recreation. This is why, consumed with fear of socialism and anarchism and swarthy immigrants, we kept voting Harold Hill’s into office. Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!

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Indeed, what most troubled me was the uncanny parallels between the Age of Reform and the Age of Trump, which increasingly feels like America finally abandoning the elite consensus politics of the Cold War in favor of the more elemental appeal of the huckster. As pundits and elite opinion-makers now grapple with Trump’s significance, Progressive thinkers and representatives likewise grappled with our sense of lost innocence. I was hoping to find answers to today’s challenges, not historical ironies, but the list of analogs is overwhelming:

-A popular second-term President finds his administration mired in scandal, environmental crises, and corporate corruption, climaxing with an economic recession of unprecedented magnitude. His party is thereafter taken over by populists, signaling the end of a Gilded Age defined by growing income inequality and political impassivity.

-A younger generation of upwardly mobile “status revolutionaries” vows to overthrow the political system, but is split between nativist populism and progressive institutional adaptation. Leaders of these movements share an obsession with fighting graft and reforming the voting process, which was widely perceived as rigged or corrupt.

-Populists and progressives hate each other. The former are seen as ignorant xenophobic country bumpkins, the latter as self-righteous snobs foolishly opening the door to revolutionary social forces. Both are in fact rooted in older American political traditions (respectively, Jacksonian-Jeffersonian democracy and the New England town hall) and both enjoy a vitality that survived major upheavals: global war, market instability, immigration tensions.

-Progressives tend to pat themselves on the pack for their economic dynamism, belief in social progress, and moral purpose, and sometimes explicitly equate these factors. Populists view these stances as hypocritical or self-contradictory, but are themselves split between left-wing social democracy and right-wing white nationalism.

-Progressive support for free trade is matched by populist obsession with tariffs and trade wars with other countries in order to protect American workers. There is a sustained, unresolved debate over the cultural costs of the former and the economic costs of the latter.

-It is simultaneously a golden age and dark age of journalism: newspapers are crudely politicized, serving as mouthpieces for powerful interests and indirectly responsible for starting wars, but a new generation of muckrakers invent genres of storytelling and investigation using new media tools to reveal hitherto unacknowledged aspects of daily American life for public appraisal, laying the groundwork for social reform.

-Women rise up in unprecedented numbers to visibly challenge the patriarchal status quo. They win new rights and recognition, partly due to widespread frustration with the utterly corrosive spirit of national politics and the desire to civilize it with female comeliness and compassion.

Tthe most important political struggles are not partisan, but institutional: reformers want to rewrite the rules of politics and representation, climaxing in a series of constitutional amendments.

-Racism plays a key political role, but primarily through new immigrant waves that gel uncomfortably with the WASP culture of the Northeast and Midwest; a reckoning with the legacy of slavery is instead sublimated into nostalgia for the South as a realer, lost version of what America once was. A handful of black public intellectuals rise to prominence, but largely work on the periphery of the political conversation.

-New socio-technical infrastructures allow unprecedented numbers of people to simultaneously feel intimately connected to each other yet utterly anonymous and alone. This acts as a moral catalyst for the politicization of privacy, and while socialists and anarchists attempt to challenge the hegemony of market society, the center of political gravity moves toward developing standards of fairness by which the government can challenge big business without being totally antagonistic.

After assessing these factors, I have tried to derive lessons from that time period for the present moment:

-Populism and progressivism were each defined by self-contradictions that helped galvanize their appeal but limited their success geographically and institutionally. Their greatest accomplishments usually arose from collaborations between the two (e.g. trustbusting) or the willingness to extend political enfranchisement to a previously marginalized group (women, immigrants).

-It seems likely that the Progressive Era, and the zeitgeist we have now entered, are the “default” political setting of America: economically dynamic but morally rambunctious, culturally diverse but anxious for a common ethnic denominator, entrepreneurial but capable of collective social action, modernizing yet questioning the way technology ties us together. Trump’s presidency may be disturbing in large part because of how staid and artificially static our ideological divisions have remained since the Cold War, while his appeal forces us to confront the unfinished work of reform undertaken over a century ago regarding America’s key divisions: white vs. black, rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor. This is what America does when it is not distracted by foreign wars or debilitating recessions.

-We are now finally moving away from the form of liberalism that was captured and ossified in the New Deal, in favor of one that turns itself back on the institutions that for so long harbored its contradictions. The culture of university life, itself a product of the Progressive Era, is now under sustained political assault and may be economically unsustainable; unions, the pipe dream of socialist labor organizers, are almost dead; cities are once again the object of unprecedented economic growth and, at least from many populists, cultural scorn.

-The New Deal was historically unique. The country was reacting to unprecedented existential threats both foreign and domestic, and we cannot realistically expect Trump to be replaced by some comparable move toward red-meat social liberalism. The work to be done during the Progressive Era was actually much harder than the New Deal’s ad hoc commitments: to discover, in the emergent social forms and patterns of a new century, an emergent expression of democracy more true to our original blueprint than the timber of that time could provide.

-Barring outstanding figures, the Age of Reform was not a story of good guys vs. bad guys. The price paid by the Progressives for their idealism and social gospel was an unfiltered utopianism and unreflective sanctimony that could devolve into imperialism, state-sponsored eugenics, and unworkable international agreements like the League of Nations. The Populists are easier to vilify, but their isolationism and disdain for elites served an effective counterweight to Europe (which was working very hard to destroy itself), and their commitment to good-old-fashioned agrarianism put an intimidating future in context with an imagined past. Nations need stories, and while the Populists failed at making America great again, they at least articulated a vision of greatness that reformists, working from scratch, had to match in order to be taken seriously. To conduct their experiments, the Progressives needed a null hypothesis.

The Soothing Horror of the American Civil War

2ee58f52a3212c966ab5c8703acb04b3But often conflict first.

About a year ago I developed a fascination with the First World War. Not so much the military aspect, which I had explored thoroughly, if naively, as a child, but its politics. I was struck by how it seemed to be at the root of so many conflicts facing the world today: it was the beginning of America’s reluctant engagement with the world as a global power and its conception of a liberal international order, the origin of the alienation of Russia from the West and the center of gravity of China’s Century of Humiliation, it saw the birth of the modern Middle East and The West’s dysfunctional connection with it, and was the beginning of the end of Europe’s central role in world affairs. In many ways we are today still reckoning with its aftermath.

But more recently I realized that on the contrary it was also arguably the beginning of a cover-up of one of the primary issues we now face: America’s internal struggles and divisions. External enemies in the form of first the Kaiser’s and then Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and more recently Islamic Terrorism have allowed, or more probably compelled, us to forget the conflicted nature of our soul which animated so much of our earlier history and which has never really gone away.

I remember a discussion with my grandmother on the eve of Trump’s election. She told me, to my surprise, that even though she’d lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and the Cold War and the 1960’s and 9/11, she’d never been more afraid for the country than she is now.

“I wasn’t really worried then, because we were always united. Now we’re so divided, it’s never been like this.”

There was something prophetic about what she said, given what’s happened since our conversation. But of course in a larger sense, it’s not true. We’ve been divided, and it’s been far worse. Not just “Cowboys and Indians”, not just national and ethnic conflicts between America and Mexico, not just Whiskey Rebellions and deadly duels. The most destructive, and arguably the central, conflict of our history was totally internal: The American Civil War. Our modern struggle with ourselves may be less an aberration and more a return to form.

And so I’ve found myself reaching for another bygone era of war in order to reconcile myself with current events. In particular, the antics of the Trump administration these past few weeks seemed to push me to a boiling point, which I found I was only able to dissipate by binge watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on Netflix. It’s been cathartic.

The documentary conveys the horrors of slavery, the conflict that ended it, and the fog of war, panic, anger and confusion that permeated the era, in a way that’s almost paradoxically soothing in the sense of contextualizing our current problems and making them seem trifling in comparison. In being reminded of this history, our current discord seems both less surprising and less insurmountable. The truth is that this is part of who we are, and so while inescapable it’s also something we’ve fought with before and have learned to work through, even if at great cost.

There were a number of smaller lessons.

One aspect of the documentary I find interesting is its focus on the confusion about the meaning of the war during its early years. All were horrified by the crisis that was occurring, and as Lincoln later said “All knew that [slavery] was, somehow,” on some level, “the cause of the war”. But there was no clear consensus on whether or not it was more or less also about states’ rights, or the overzealousness and violence of Northern abolitionists, or some other problem.

And so arguably it was not the military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, but the political victory of emancipation in 1862, which was the turning point of the war. With emancipation, Lincoln was able to set the terms of the war in a way that made it simultaneously just, grounded in reality, and (all importantly) winnable. He won the battle for a consensus on what the war was really about, and won it in such a way that the outcome of the conflict was practically assured and purposeful.

There is a parallel here with our own time, and a lesson.

The documentary quotes Herman Melville as calling the fanatic John Brown “the meteor of the war.” Our own crisis was sparked by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. Just like in 1861, although we are quite sure we are experiencing an existential crisis as a nation of some sort, and we have some vague idea that it involves a reckoning with our history of racism and sexism, but also perhaps economic inequality, and rapid societal changes, and the smugness of liberal coastal elites, and neoliberalism, and various other things, we haven’t settled this. We’re still debating it and on some level we’re still confused. Certain in our horror, perplexed by how and why it’s happened, we’re stuck.

The lesson is that decisively answering the question must be the first step in resolving the crisis. The nature of our current problems must be understood, or perhaps simply decided upon. We have to ascertain, resolve, and build consensus around the meaning of our problems in a way that is truthful but also makes the conflict winnable and meaningful.

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Another aspect is the nature of Presidential leadership. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, in an important sense, really was the “first rate second rate man” he was mocked as in his time. But this may also have been what made him great. Arguably a “first rate” man (or woman) cannot be a truly great leader of a democracy, especially in a time of genuine crisis, because a “first rate” man has too much moral certainty and can believe too much in his own abilities. Lincoln had to feel things out, to negotiate personalities that were bigger than his, had to make mistakes and learn from them, and it was precisely these qualities that ensured his eventual successes in leading a conflicted democracy through its greatest crisis. It’s ironic in light of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent deification of Lincoln (which is nevertheless excellent), and the impact it apparently had on both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s conception of what might be called the “philosopher king” chief executive. I’m proud of the presidential tenure of the genuinely first rate first rate man Barack Obama, but going forward we may be wise to look for a humbler, more small d-democratic, leader, who can negotiate the complexities of our time with humility and flexibility more than raw talent and carefully honed technocratic skill.

There were other lessons from the documentary, which I’m still chewing on. The war itself may be, like our history, something too big to ever fully be reckoned with in a final way.

After all, to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, it was this violent forge of Civil War where so much of modern America, and therefore of the whole modern world, was born.

The painful hopeful secret of American society is that the whole nation is and always has been a wild, sometimes violent, laboratory of democracy, one whose results and conclusions impact the whole world around it. America must, and can, solve its own domestic problems before it can play its role in guiding the world through the current era of international crisis. For better and for worse, this is who we are.