Greetings from the road. I’ve been chivvying little girls around the globe for a few weeks, which interferes with keeping up one’s CT duties. So our text today is taken from one of the few literary works I’ve had a chance to read with real discernment, at leisure. The August issue of the Delta inflight magazine!
The article in question is a celebration of the 50th anniversery of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech”. A number of prominent Atlantans reflect on its significance, generally and personally. (Hey, you can read it online. Who knew? Who ever links to articles in inflight magazines?)
It’s the sort of feel-good, unlikely-to-offend fare you expect from an inflight magazine. But the fact that MLK, his legacy and most famous speech, are fodder for such fare is noteworthy. In 1963, who would have expected that, a mere 50 years on, MLK would be not just a moral hero to many, but a non-polarizing, nominal hero to nearly all. Democrats love him, of course. And Republicans – although they may vote against MLK day and try to chip away at his pedestal every couple of years – are really more interested in making out, rhetorically, how they, not Democrats, are the true heirs to his legacy and philosophy (which has been so cruelly betrayed by the Democrats). As Orwell said about Dickens: MLK is a figure well worth stealing.
So my question for you today is: Why isn’t MLK personally subject to the sort of angry backlash you would expect – given what he did and said? Social justice and all that. Them’s fighting words! Why isn’t ‘the civil rights struggle’ kind of like ‘feminism’: a thing you are allowed to hate on publicly? Let’s narrow it to a point. From Kasim Reed, mayor of Atlanta: “Once you decide that vestiges of racism are wrong and inappropriate, there has to be a legal framework for how those changes come to life.”
How did Americans collectively decide/publicly resolve at some point after 1963 that this really high moral and legal bar is the bar we have to clear? I mean: Americans are still not sure how they even feel about the Reconstruction period. (The Civil War was awesome, obviously. Glory all around. But I’m not holding my breath, waiting for a Spielberg film about Reconstruction. If Tarantino is brave, he’ll make a sequel: Django Unreconstructed. But I don’t think he’d know what to say, really.)
No racism. How did this proposition acquire the unarguable, morally axiomatic status it now enjoys? It’s so vague and so demanding, particularly in America. Whatever induced us to agree to submit to such a heavy yoke of virtue? I’m not complaining, and I’m not suggesting that if only the likes of MLK had wisely and moderately asked for less, there would be less ‘the only racism in American today is Charlie Rangel calling us crackers and we can’t use the n-word’ boo-hoo nonsense. It’s a better world we live in, if the racists are compelled to live public moral lives consisting exclusively of anti-racist pretzel logic. I think ‘no racism’ has been a very salutary moral ratchet, in Peter Singer’s sense.
But it’s remarkable, all the same, that ‘no racism’ has such moral bite. It’s so obvious to us, now, that ‘don’t be racist’ is a categorical imperative. How did it get that way? In our public morality? In our personal moral self-conceptions?
Now obviously my question is nonsense. There wasn’t ‘some point’ at which this happened. There never is. (Give me some credit for not being a huge idiot about the nature of history and human life and psychology. Or rather: believe what you like. But still pretend you don’t believe the absolute worst about me, just for thread purposes.)
And obviously moral attitudes are not blandly homogeneous, cross country, any more than moral shifts are sharply and cleanly punctuated. (To mix Gibson and Faulkner. History is still here, it’s just not evenly distributed.) And we must distinguish between public and private norms and attitudes and expressions of such. And obviously there isn’t any simple cause for such a complex effect. MLK’s speech, for example, wasn’t some sort of magic bullet that cured us all.
Why didn’t America settle on a more moderate proposition, like: a little racism is only natural, but dogs and firehoses are not ok. Or: every race gets to think it’s superior. You can take the boy out of the tribe but you can’t take the tribe out of the boy. Something like that. No. We went for: no racism.
Who has written well about this superficially morally simple but obviously complex historical question: how did racism come to be considered totally unacceptable, at first publicly and increasingly even in private? (Did LBJ think racism was categorically wrong, even as a private sentiment, even as he championed the Civil Rights Act?) I can think of about a dozen obvious candidates for major causes. Let me just list a few quickly, and you can tear them down and add your own.
1. The liberal mass media rammed it down our throats. If they’d had blogs back then, racism would still be acceptable.
2. Northerners did it. ‘No racism’ got axiomatized before it became clear that it wasn’t basically just a horrible, isolated thing you saw happening in the South, on the news.
3. Conservatism did it by adopting a particular rhetoric of reaction. You give ground dramatically on one point, in hopes of holding the line very strongly a few steps back – lest the retreat turn into total route. You want to be able to stop affirmative action and so forth, so you need to concede the ‘no racism’ point, explicitly and categorically; then you argue that, perversely, affirmative action is racist. ‘No racism’ becomes a major premise in everyone’s arguments, no matter what they are arguing for.
4. The optimism of the liberal 1950’s paved the way. The liberal consensus. The future looked so bright that ambitious moral stuff seemed not so difficult. (Plus, you don’t want the Soviets to have such an easy target, complaining about moral failures of capitalism.)
5. The radicalism of the 1960’s did it. Overton Window shifted by dirty hippies and commies.
6. It’s a Shining City On A Hill thing, and Americans are natural born suckers for that.
7. A few moral heroes like MLK were just really, really persuasive, so people changed their minds. Also, he was a martyr, and it’s harder to hate on martyrs. (See also: Bobby Kennedy.)
8. Blame Nixon! He devised the Southern Strategy, making for steady, subterranean erosion of MLK’s dream, long-term. But his stock fell so low that, for a period of years – and they were key years, in which attitudes were shifting – conservatism didn’t have the moral wherewithal to mount a frontal assault on the the MLK social justice line. (See 3, above.) By the time Reagan showed up, ‘no racism’ was an axiom, so no turning back for conservatives.
9. It wasn’t just the domestic civil rights situation. In the 60’s and 70’s Americans were also becoming more conscious of the Holocaust, as an event in its own right. (Yes, they knew about W.W. II before the 70’s. I’m not saying that.) Consciousness-raising about the horrors of that, combined with images on the nightly news, rendered white Americans incapable of publicly espousing white tribalism as a political justification or excuse for anything.
10. Weirdly enough, it’s a case of people being won over by argument. Racism is just arbitrary and bad, and really all it took was a bunch of people articulating the pretty simple and compelling argument for this conclusion.
I’m sure I could think of two more, to make it a dozen, but ten is a fine and traditional number for lists. I honestly don’t know what I think about my candidates. I don’t think any of them are wrong but I really have no confidence in assigning relative weights.
None of this is to say that “Sweet Home Alabama” was never actually a song – because how could it have been? – or that the Dukes of Hazzard didn’t have that painted on the hood of their car. Just so we’re clear on that.
That’s probably enough to get comments going.