Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A bad history lesson

The title pretty much said it all -- "A Speech Worthy of Booker T. Washington."

That was the name of a piece by Jonah Goldberg that was published last week in National Review Online concerning a speech that a Dr. Ben Carson, who is African-American, delivered at a recent National Prayer Breakfast. Goldberg likened the contrast to Carson and President Obama, who of course attended, to Washington, who worked and lived in the South; and W.E.B. Du Bois, who lived North.

"Washington believed that blacks should emphasize education and self-advancement and worry about integration later," Goldberg wrote, while "Du Bois favored a civil-rights-first strategy combined with reliance on technocrats, including what he called the 'talented tenth,' or the best African-Americans."

But if Goldberg were to consult any non-conservative African-Americans, especially in the South, he might understand why Du Bois eventually won out.

Because, at first, they actually did take Washington's advice. Even in the midst of Jim Crow, or perhaps because of it, the black community in the South, especially in urban areas, did indeed build its own infrastructure, with businesses and educational institutions and especially churches that defined the black experience in those days. Most Southern cities actually had their share of black millionaires.

Yet Goldberg and other conservatives consistently fail to note that African-Americans in those days weren't permitted to vote or otherwise participate in public life and that their lives might even be in danger if they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let's not forget why we saw the "Great Migration" from the South to Northern cities about 100 years ago. (It's why I live in Pittsburgh and not Virginia or North Carolina, where my ancestors came from.)

This is why Washington barely registers a footnote in contemporary black history -- he was seen as an "accommodationist" or "sellout," someone who maintained his own authority but failed to bring others to the table.

And, indirectly, it was Du Bois that actually helped to break down Southern segregation; he spearheaded the "Niagara Movement," which gave birth to the NAACP -- an organization that is still despised by many on the political right but whose membership generally comprised that day's black bourgeoisie. Although Martin Luther King Jr., who occasionally quoted Washington, provided the moral and spiritual muscle behind the civil-rights movement, the NAACP, driven functionally underground in several Southern states, provided the legal muscle. (Also recall that King received his master's and doctoral degrees from Northern institutions.)

Goldberg also fails to appreciate that African-Americans, even those in the North who didn't experience the political roadblocks of their Southern cousins, also need something to vote for, and Obama eventually became that reason. He may not like Obama's liberalism but doesn't recognize that by its very nature his conservatism is highly offensive to much of that community.

I would be remiss if I didn't challenge Goldberg's comment that Dr. Carson "inveighed against a culture of victimology and dependency," the context likening that to liberalism. Thing is, modern conservatism has from the start complained about being victimized by the likes of "evil liberals" and hostile media, among others, many of its apologists always bellyaching that they don't get respect while simultaneously trashing everyone in sight who doesn't agree with them. And I'd be willing to bet that, as a conservative writer, Goldberg is himself on "welfare" from rich conservatives who pay him a mint to serve as their propagandist. Did you know that, in its nearly-60-year existence, National Review has never made a dime of profit? (Indeed, the only conservative medium that to my knowledge is in the black is the Fox News Channel.)

It seems that Goldberg is trying to tell people that African-Americans need to choose between political empowerment and cultural integrity; however, if he understood the history of the civil-rights movement he would see that both were in play. For example, at the time of the Montgomery bus protest Rosa Parks was not the first choice for someone to rally around; the original symbol was a 15-year-old girl who had been abused by a driver -- until the community learned that she had gotten pregnant out of wedlock to a married man. Besides, maintaining "cultural integrity" in the post-Civil-War, pre-civil-rights South didn't mean that folks would eventually give you a chance as a human being.

This is why Dr. Carson's remarks simply didn't resonate in the black community. It's one thing to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," but try doing that without any boots. And "getting boots" sometimes means political action, the last thing some folks want.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Seeking validation

"They're not sure that what they believe is true at all. If it were I'd be no threat to them."

Those words came from the late atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair in an interview with conservative journalist Cal Thomas, who asked her why so many Christians hated her and which he quoted in the 1999 book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" that he wrote with the Rev. Ed Dobson. She, of course, has long been vilified for, among other things, having prayer removed from public schools. (Which is unfair, since what was actually banned was only sectarian -- in this case, Protestant-based -- prayer exercises conducted by agents of the state -- that is, teachers and principals. And the Supreme Court decision at the time was quite popular.)

But O'Hair's statement speaks to a larger point: It seems that we Christians, far from simply trying to engage the greater culture, have been seeking validation from the culture. Which is something we should never do or have ever done because, when that happens, we end up being swallowed up by it.

Christian "culture warriors," including Thomas at times, have long lamented the loss of a Christian consensus as to what's right and wrong, what's true and false. However, in the process -- and especially beginning in the late-1970s, with the rise of the "religious right" -- we neglected to include our own personal and corporate character, not realizing that part of today's opposition to "Christian values" has to do with the way some of us act in the public square.

I first heard that in early 1980, from the pulpit of a suburban Atlanta church; the pastor was consistently preaching against "secular humanism" and punctuated his rant with the phrase from Hebrews, "for our God is a consuming fire." Later on, and not by just that pastor, that list of targets was expanded to include abortionists, homosexuals, the American Civil Liberties Union, the national Democratic Party, Bill Clinton ... the list went on.

So what does this have to do with validation? Well, if you feel the need to force your values down everyone's throat, perhaps you don't really believe that it will win out in the end. It results from what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance," where folks with a strong commitment to a specific worldview encounter evidence that suggest that they just might be wrong and not only dismiss it outright but go to war against it.

This basically describes the conservative movement and much of the Republican Party today. In the wake of electoral losses they have suffered over the last two decades you might hear some of their apologists say, "If we can get back to Ronald Reagan ..., " with scholar Dinesh D'Souza insisting that he had "the winning agenda." Times were different then, however, and besides, they have never faced that the electorate voted for not so much what Reagan stood for but for Reagan himself.

Which is why they hated Clinton so much -- they saw, correctly in my view, that he threatened to undo everything they had worked for. Suddenly personal insults, gossip and innuendo, condemned in Scripture, became part and parcel of Christian political discourse, and the hypocrisy wasn't lost on a lot of non-believers, who began turning against them. (Then again, they still exhibit denial, blaming their loss in last year's general election on the media and other outside forces, never considering the reality that people simply aren't buying what they're selling.)

To me, this points to several things: 1) A practical atheism, a lack of trust in God that He will preserve His people in the midst of tribulation; 2) Self-absorption, in that life revolves around you and you alone and thus the lack of consideration of others, especially those that don't agree; and 3) Idolatry, in that His Kingdom isn't the supreme value.

I am not saying that Christians shouldn't be active or argue for our values in public life. I am saying, however, that we need to rethink our entanglements with non-believers who will cherry-pick what they want to curry favor with us lest we be perceived as just another interest group. Moreover, we also need to act with a certain humility, understanding that if the world doesn't get it, well, it didn't get the LORD Jesus either. He never sought validation from the powers of the world, and neither should we.