Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Atticus Finch and Stokely Carmichael

We cling to our myths for comfort against the harshness of reality. The Liberal creed, in particular, suffers from too large an embrace of hopeful untruths. There is the belief that decency and compassion, even if just singular expressions, can right all of society's ills without any structural change to accompany it. This, unfortunately, is myth, which needs to be debunked. Malcolm Gladwell is a recent debunker.

Gladwell aims at the hearts and minds of New Yorker readers. For many, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the best books we read as kids and the movie, with Gregory Peck in the starring role, was one of the few to match the book in its intensity and fascinating story. Gladwell compares the hero of the book to the true to life Governor of Alabama, James Folsom, whom Gladwell argues acted to soften the injustice from Jim Crow, but not to eradicate it. (The text at the link somewhat challenges Gladwell's description by asserting that Folsom did try for true reform but failed miserably because what he wanted was unpopular with others who were in power.) That, I believe, is where Gladwell might be critiqued. He may be a bit unfair to the Atticus Finch character in his analysis, particularly by ignoring the character Calipurnia, who though only a housekeeper served to provide moral balance and practical ethical training to the Finch children, given that their mother had died long before. It wasn't just that Finch defended a Black man in court, Tom Robinson. He also entrusted his family to Cal, a black woman.

Gladwell wants Finch to go further, to tear down the evils of the racist society that was the backbone of Maycombe Alabama in the Depression era South. But Finch clings to the strictures imposed by society. He doesn't fight them. Instead, he tries to achieve normalcy within them.

What Gladwell seems to want can be found in this speech by Stokely Carmichael from 1966 on Black Power. It is fascinating to listen to (and read along with the text) both for what it says about those times and as a reflection on the present. In college I took a seminar intended for Political Science Majors on radical political groups. We read Eric Hoffer. My term paper was on SNCC. The benefit of such an education can seem elusive. In this case it caused me to search for SNCC to relearn its history, maybe to get a different perspective about it.

In this speech Carmichael is reasoned, articulate, and at least to my sensibilities not radical at all. He says our institutions have failed and they promote racism and white domination, both at home and abroad. He calls for different institutions so we can interact with each other as human beings. Gladwell would concur.

Black Power scared the Bejusus out of many people at the time. Perhaps that is partly the explanation for why Dr. King got lionized. SNCC and its more radical leaders are largely forgotten today. With almost fifty years of hindsight, that appears to be a mistake. If we are to abandon our myths, I agree that Gladwell is probably right on that score, we need to see the full picture. Carmichael's speech came after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They were not nearly sufficient. More than two score years later, we have not yet reached a happy equilibrium regarding race, perhaps because fear for physical safety is still an issue, perhaps because the human condition requires us to focus on relative deprivation to generate our own esteem.

If we are to go forward we need to look backward. But we need to look at enough to know where we really stand. It is not sufficient to debunk our heroes. We need to examine our villains too and then not just from fiction. Perhaps they were unjustly sentenced.

Throughout the speech Carmichael uses the word "move" to refer to making progress, where others to would use "change" and ask the question how do we produce meaningful change. The first step is to recognize it is needed.

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