Page Two: Kings of Mean
The worst legacy of this administration is the terrible behavior it fostered in its citizens
– Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" (emphasis mine)
"Ladies and gentlemen ... the president of the United States."
"Fella Americans [sputters out, coughing]."
"He's been sick."
– Frank Zappa, "Plastic People"
Last week this column was about the sheer, unembarrassed atavism of the current administration. Under its leadership, there has been a triumphant embrace and open parading of attitudes that had come to be considered unacceptable in any public discourse. Racism; sexism; religious intolerance; unpatriotic, overly militant "patriotism"; and the kind of hostility on the part of some Americans toward others that was more reminiscent of the Red Raids of the 1920s and the paranoid hostility of the McCarthy era than anything since the latter. This is not to argue that American attitudes had so profoundly changed but that the overall public discourse had become more moderate. If one wants to argue that this was a hypocritical construct – to say that what one thought, rather than what one felt, was right – I vigorously disagree. The feelings being suppressed were of the most bigoted, socially unhealthy, and politically destructive sort; the language was reaching toward the light. There was a reasonable sense that the gut would follow the mind, that base instinct would eventually yield to cherished principles. The Bush years gave a red light to the latter and more than a green light to the former, actively celebrating its return to prominence in American political discussion.
Accompanying this reactionary miscasting of the country's social and political problems has been a calculated, semantic assault. Political/social words have come to mean the opposite of their long-established uses. This has been especially true of progressive words – the vocabulary whose purpose was to bring daily American life more in line with the ambitions of the Declaration of Independence. The prideful glee with which some right-wing political and religious conservatives are combining both of those comes across as pure, cynical nastiness.
When, in a January 2005 ruling, the United States Supreme Court allowed the University of Michigan to use the most mild affirmative-action standards in considering applications for admission, this publication received (as did so many publications across the country) letters bitterly decrying the decision as the final nail in the coffin of Martin Luther King's dream. Although there are minority politicians, community leaders, professionals, and citizens who are against affirmative action for any number of reasons, most of these letters, I suspect, did not come from seasoned veterans of a deep civil rights commitment, with long histories of activism.
Rather, they mostly seemed to come from those opposed to affirmative action who were grabbing the opportunity to use bland generalizations, combined with Martin Luther King's words, to assault continuing efforts toward genuinely colorblind civil rights. As I wrote last week and have written before, there are so many who don't trust government to do anything, especially massive social engineering projects, who claim civil rights legislation as the exception. Those who are enraged by the social safety net, as well as any massive government efforts to have an impact on social arrangements, declaring them failures before they have begun, will without embarrassment champion this exception. They will claim that racism disappeared and full equality for all was immediately achieved in the mid-Sixties, after the most important civil rights legislation was passed. This is blatant nonsense, and even to say that it is questionable that any of these speakers really believe this is to give them a lot more than just the benefit of the doubt.
What Martin Luther King Jr. said was "I have a dream." Not "I have a vision" or "Let me give you this prophecy" or even "We demand ...". A dream is usually not very specific, especially when it comes to time. A dream doesn't end because of one judicial decision or because of more than 100 years of state-sanctioned oppression. A dream lives on, often gaining in strength and glowing more brightly when its cause suffers setbacks.
King had a dream; we all know what a dream is: a wish, a hope, an imagined place. Segregation ruled, and Jim Crow was the standard social condition of the South for 100 years, but that didn't drown dreams. Civil rights workers were murdered, blacks attempting to vote were intimidated, and school boards did everything they could think of to block integration, but the dream lived.
A dream can't be killed; a dream doesn't die. A dream is strengthened by every victory, but defeats don't drench it, either, as they are expected.
This was a dream that flew above blood and death, bigotry and oppression, screams in the night and constant, gut-wrenching poverty. Those who bemoaned the death of the dream after the most marginal of affirmative-action allowances was passed didn't really believe in the dream. They couldn't have. They were pretending. The dream doesn't just survive hatred but was built specifically because of it.
Wasn't this dream nurtured by certain men and women for generations back? Wasn't it specifically laid out in the Declaration of Independence? Isn't the dream ideally expressed as "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?
It is important that these rights are "self-evident" and that they are also "unalienable."
Those who shared the dream worked to end slavery, to advance public education, to earn women and minorities the right to vote. They organized mistreated workers into labor unions, fought against bigoted anti-immigrant legislation, stood up to systemic oppression, and, in every case, they lost many battles, were beaten and killed, and were defeated in the courts and on legislative floors before they achieved even the smallest victories.
They didn't stop! They kept moving forward: in marches through communities that didn't care for them, in cities where they were attacked by police with clubs and wielding fire hoses. They watched their friends, their children, and themselves be severely beaten and sometimes killed. They didn't stop dreaming. Those with this dream saw their churches burned and four young girls in Birmingham, Ala., murdered. They saw the massacre of women and children in Ludlow and the wholesale jailing of labor organizers, but their dreaming slowed not at all.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the dream, but it was not his alone. It belonged to generations of Americans who dreamed of a better, more just world. Their dreams didn't die; they were not turned back in their demand for fealty to the ideas of the Declaration. The dream survived centuries of slavery and decades of segregation, expanding in scope, with always more dreamers joining the ranks. Oppression strengthened the dream. Generations owed the generations before them for their enduring belief in this dream.
The dreamer himself, the one who spoke it, was murdered in Memphis, but the dream lived.
The only ones who would be ready to declare this dream dead were those who never had it. Welcome to Bush's America, where those who don't dream claim to be dreamers, where those who don't believe claim to be believers, where those who do not love or even respect the ideals and ideas this country has been built upon claim to be its truest patriots.
Their argument, of course, is that affirmative action is racist. The scenario is that more than two centuries of slavery and another hundred years of segregation, which is institutionalized oppression, are minor irritants that blacks should get over. After all, many of them say, "My family never owned slaves, so my hands are clean." They go on that maybe now blacks have minor grievances – but look how carried away they get with marches, speeches, demands, and demonstrations. The argument is advanced that they should accept the immediate, universal equality that followed the passage of civil rights legislation and not demand special, privileged treatment.
These "visionaries" don't exactly practice what they preach. Consider that when many whites feel that they have been discriminated against because of race, they join "militias," take to wearing Nazi uniforms, practicing with weapons, and playing soldier in the woods. They read The Turner Diaries and dream of the day minorities, liberals, progressives, and feminists, as well as any and everyone else who disagrees with them, will be hanging from lamp posts across the nation and the United States will finally be free to be the nation it is supposed to be. Which, unfortunately, is not the nation described and created by our founding fathers in the Declaration and Constitution, as well as all the following generations who championed those ideals.
Read the first quote at the beginning of this column. In it, Raymond Chandler is talking about the hard-boiled detective, but its meaning is greater and more universal.
If in order to fight meanness we become mean, then all is lost.
Beginning on 9/11, this country has followed an agenda set by those 19 terrorists. When one force lets another force set the agenda, all is over before it has begun. I'm still at a loss to imagine what has happened since that would not give them the greatest pleasure, especially in knowing how completely they achieved their aims.
The worst heritage of this truly terrible, destructive, incompetent, and failed administration will be its embrace of meanness in the wake of 9/11. Not just meanness toward our enemies and toward terrorists, not just toward our friends and allies, but the meanness that one group of Americans was encouraged to display toward other Americans.