Monday, April 28, 2008

Either/or in the Peaceable Kingdom

Via a link in the comments, I stumbled into this discussion, which makes an excellent point about what we "Boomers" (I guess I should now say "old-timers") used to call the "generation gap":

there’s a downside to being post-Cold War too. Specifically, "newer" liberals have a lot of blind spots for the dog-whistle politics associated with these old scars.

Two of the recent Obama controversies illustrate the point well. Personally, I think younger people were a bit baffled about why the Jeremiah Wright controversy had such strong legs. I mean, they knew what the newspapers said, but they couldn’t feel the controversy in their bones the way Baby Boomers probably could.

That’s because Jeremiah Wright brings out old scars from battles we never fought. While it’s hard today to truly understand the intoxicating idealism of the civil rights era, it’s also hard to truly understand just how bitterly venomous the white backlash to these developments was.
Let me just stop here and point out: my father is still alive. He was barely old enough to fight in World War II, and as it happens he didn't; he wasn't finished with his training before the war ended. But he's still alive, a living member of the "Builder" generation, some sociologists call it. Rev. Wright and I are, very roughly, members of the "Baby Boom" generation. The author of this post, at 31, is "Generation X", I guess, or is it "Y"? And there are people younger than him, but of voting age, who probably consider themselves not a member of
his generation at all.

This is the first time in human history we have had such a spread of generations alive at one time, such a wildly differing set of "formative experiences" to contend with. My father grew up with World War II and radio; for me, it was 3 broadcast networks and Vietnam; for my daughter, it's cable TV (we hardly ever watch the networks), the Internet, and "Iraq." We don't even call it a war, an invasion, a pre-emptive strike. It's just: "Iraq."

And in between there was Gulf War I, and yuppies, and the Internet Bubble, and....

"Who are you," the Who sang to my generation. "Who, who, are you?"

Yes, those of us who remember 1968 and 1972 still see American politics through those lenses. We also remember 1973, when Nixon resigned. We remember the Watergate generation of politicians, the reforms and "liberal politics" that reached even into Texas, for one bright, shining moment. All history to a 31 year old, and about as relevant and memorable as WWII is to me. In fact, I'm sick to death of World War II, and wish everyone would quit defining our foreign policy in terms of "appeasement" and "battling evil." There has been no Hitler since Hitler, unless you count Joe "Steel" or Pol Pot or any of the other characters we couldn't be bothered to fight after the defeat of Nazi Germany. But World War II lead directly to the Cold War (thank you, Harry Truman, for giving us the National Security state we know and love today!) led directly to Ronald Reagan led directly to our involvement in Afghanistan led directly to 9/11 led directly to the "Global War on Terror."

And here we are today; as mired in history as that mosquito in amber in "Jurassic Park," and feeling about as fictional about our times. But these aren't just "old scars from battles we never fought." It wasn't but ten years ago I first learned that blacks are still followed through stores by suspicious clerks and wary security guards. It wasn't ten years ago I noticed that whenever the police in the county seat of St. Louis County had a car pulled over, the drive was always African American. Trinity United Church of Christ is still offering help to blacks on the south side of Chicago because discrimination and racism and the legacy of America's "hidden wound" still persist. No doubt it's true that younger generations don't feel this "in their bones," but as all the talk about the white rural voters of Pennsylvania (and now North Carolina) shows (and are there no rural voters in Iowa? New Hampshire? Texas?), that doesn't mean the situation is just the product of the memories of those over 65. The conclusion publius draws is:

The big lesson here is don’t ignore the perspective of older Americans. There’s a reason why Obama is getting killed among Democrats over 65.
Well, maybe; but "older Americans" doesn't begin at 65, and Barack Obama' candidacy doesn't mean there is no racism or prejudice or lingering wounds among even my daughter's generation. Culture simply does not work in discrete beads, even if we preach American culture that way (am I a child of the '60's, or the '70's, or the '80's? I've never been sure myself.).

But that's the problem: that we proclaim the "either/or" of experience, and yours is not mine, so while I "respect" yours, I protect mine. It's rather like the difference between tolerance and respect: tolerance is a minimal stance, an agreement that I'll leave you to your benighted foolishness and errant ideologies. Respect is something of a different order altogether; it requires I consider your perspective, your point of view, your experience, and not just accept the fact that it will be around for sometime to come, pestering me and providing an obstacle to my advance of the peaceable kingdom (that most American of American ideals).

This is not just a political problem, either; it is a cultural, a sociological, even a spiritual, one. I quickly found in church that congregations were divided not just along racial lines (it is still the most segregated hour in America) but along generational lines as well. A congregation dominated by people of my father's generation don't want to hear the preaching I was taught in seminary (which is much like the preaching of Rev. Jeremiah Wright). The generations closest to my age were more receptive, but they could not (and should not) quiet the voices of their parents' generation (silencing each other through sheer numbers is not what the church is for; or at least, it shouldn't be). Younger generations were more receptive still, but they were given no consideration at all. It is the exact opposite of the "real world," where Miley Cyrus now dominates a cultural conversation once dominated by Britney Spears (until she became too old); a conversation that, at the same time, excludes me entirely (even as my daughter prefers my generations music to most of her own; it would be like me listening to Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller when I was in high school, ignoring Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad and the Beatles). My parents' generation are left to their slice of the cultural pie, but they are relegated to the "over 65" contingent, one we must tolerate but also have to learn to ignore, or work around (such being the general tenor of advice to Obama: if you can't win 'em, find a way around 'em). Again, the necessary lesson of politics, but not the necessary, or even best, lesson of life.

We are on the way, however, to doing this: to establishing an either/or based on politics and political commentary. Cokie Roberts this morning on NPR declared again that Obama had "problems" with Jeremiah Wright because the subject "dominated" his interview on Fox News. I didn't see the interview, but clearly the subject dominated because, like the last debate, the questions were being asked by reporters with an agenda, not by citizens with questions. This point was lost on Ms. Roberts, who wants to keep the pot boiling, the better to prove she's still riding the cresting wave of the latest national conversation. Either you are concerned about Jeremiah Wright, or you aren't; and if you aren't, then you are blindly supporting Obama and closing your eyes to reality. So, once again, the either/or is neither; it is no choice at all. We excel at creating the false dichotomy, the better to prove ourselves right when everybody's wrong.

Kierkegaard called it the concept of irony, and pointed out it began with Socrates, who questioned everything, who established an either/or but destroyed all options of alternatives, so there really was no either/or at all, nor a both/and: there was simply the ironic stance which dissolves everything. Of course, in the peaceable kingdom, we will each of us stand alone, having willed the world around us to change, while never having to face change ourselves.

Having watched Rev. Wright on the Moyers' interview, and now having heard him speak again in clips from his NAACP speech on NPR this morning, my sympathies are even more with Rev. Wright.

Like me, he has a "preaching voice" and he has a "conversational voice" (like many other pastors I could name, too). And the one is strong and even, clipped from context, strident; while the other is mild, calm, even reassuring. I've been known, myself, to work up to a point with vigor and urgency, even stridency (though I don't preach in they style of Rev. Wright); clip that from the rest of the sermon, I might sound a bit harsh.

But the conversation on race will, of necessity, be a harsh one.

"I am not divisive," Wright said. "Tell him the word is 'descriptive' — I described the conditions in this country. Conditions divide, not my descriptions."
But much easier, always, to blame the messenger for the unpleasantness of the message.

This is not new. I was teaching Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this morning, and noting that the rebuttal of the last paragraphs, where Swift actually presents his own opinions about how to solve the problems of 18th century Ireland, proposals his narrator rejects as unworkable, those paragraphs present proposals that would require the effort of all concerned, Irish and British alike, to implement. They would, in short, require real change on behalf of everyone: change not just of economic habits but of personal, even spiritual, practices, too. Obviously it is far easier to ask someone else to change, so that I don't have to. The basic thrust of the "modest proposal" is that others sacrifice (literally) so that I can reap only the benefits (the entire proposal is an argument any free-market enthusiast would find hard not to embrace as a solution to poverty). Wright's message, of course, is quite the opposite: if the system is going to change, we have to identify it as what it is (as Swift did), and change individuals in it, not the system itself. The machine is not the problem; the designers of the machine, the reliance on the machine, is.

"I come from a religious tradition that did not hold slaves but preached against slavery and worked to end slavery," Wright said. "I come from a religious tradition that fought against lynching, like the NAACP; fought against discrimination, like the NAACP."
And those racial scars are still a legacy of America, one passed on to our children along with the benefits of American democracy, along with the wealth and power of this country that makes the lives of even the poorest among us almost beyond the comprehension of the truly destitute in the world. The level of poverty in India staggered even Martin Luther King, Jr. when he visited there. But the fight against lynching wasn't won because lynching is not widespread and public anymore; the fight against discrimination didn't end because discrimination has gone so far underground now we don't even recognize it when we attribute it to "rural voters" and those "over 65."

That "peaceable kingdom" is going to take a lot more effort to work through our differences, rather than just work in spite of them.

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