Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Strange Fruit

The Senate vote on the resolution to apologize for blocking anti-lynching legislation has me wondering: what is "mere philosophy"?

The pictures from "Without Sanctuary" are, unfortunately, no longer available on the Web. But what was most disturbing about those pictures was not the subject matter: it was the casual way they were passed around, across America, as postcards. People even posed for pictures, and companies would gladly turn these personal photos into cards suitable for mailing home to family and friends, who apparently gratefully received them. And we look at this now and ask: "How could this happen?" And that's when I ask: what is "mere philosophy"?

Something changed, finally, in American culture. Something said "This should not be." And perhaps in revulsion at what we were, we shunned what we had done, covered it up, buried it so we could ignore it. How many people growing up in Oklahoma, for example, learn about the Tulsa race riot of 1921? But how did such things happen, why were they tolerated, and why aren't they tolerated now?

Because of Lyndon Johnson? Because of Civil Rights Laws? Because of the Voting Rights Act? all of those laws and LBJ's mastery of the legislative process were crucial, no doubt; as was Brown v. Board of Education. But from what impulse did those changes spring? Revulsion with lynching, with race riots, with racism? Probably. And where did that revulsion come from? Mere philosophy? LBJ was moved by the experiences of his childhood, but those experiences gave rise to ideas; it was ideas he acted on, not mere experience.

Philosophy and theology are not reducible to originating causes; and they are not reducible to marginalia, either, to the mere explanations after the fact of what people do. If the universe operates on principles of cause and effect, then there is a cause that effects a change of heart, that effects even revulsion at cruelty and no longer accepts it as a necessary concomitant of "civil order." Lynching was celebrated in this country; and then it was reviled. Because of impersonal historical forces, the inexorable workings of Hegel's thesis against antithesis? That is mere philosophy, intellectual rationalization after the fact about events philosophy doesn't wish to grasp. But what caused the change? Why did people decide lynching was not to be celebrated? What resonated to turn people against inhuman treatment and begin to regard the victims as humans?

Not just religious conviction; not just tradition or church teachings or compassion. Something more fundamental than that. Something like "mere philosophy." Something like "mere theology."

The universe is not moving rapidly towards justice. But it does not move at all unless our ideas move us.

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