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|Introduction: What Does it Mean to be an American?||1|
|1||The Moral Obligations of Living in a Democratic Society||5|
|2||The Ethics of Polarization in the United States and the World||13|
|3||Virtually Democratic: Twenty Essentials for the Citizen in a Network Society||29|
|4||The Crime of Innocence||51|
|5||The Crisis of Values in America: Its Manipulation by the Right and its Invisibility to the Left||65|
|6||Race at the End of History||81|
|7||Latina/o Identity Politics||93|
|8||Becoming Citizens, Becoming Hispanics||113|
|9||Contagious Word: Paranoia and "Homosexuality" in the Military||133|
|Index of Names||165|
The Moral Obligations of Living
in a Democratic Society
* * *
One of the fundamental questions of our day is whether the tradition of struggle can be preserved and expanded. I refer to the struggle for decency and dignity, the struggle for freedom and democracy.
In Tradition and Individual Talent 1919, T. S. Eliot claims that tradition is not something you inherit -- if you want it, you must sacrifice for it. In other words, tradition must be fought for.
We live at the end of a century of unprecedented brutality and barbarity, a period when more than two hundred million fellow human beings have been murdered in the name of some pernicious ideology. Nazism was at the heart of a so-called civilized Europe. Stalinism was at the core of a so-called emancipatory Soviet Union. European colonialism and imperialism in Africa, South America, and Asia have left palpable and lasting scars on fellow human beings. Patriarchal subordination of sisters of all colors and all regions and all countries is evident. The devaluation and degradation of gay brothers and lesbian sisters across race, region, and class, as well as the marginalization of the disabled and physically challenged.
What kind of species are we? What leads us to think that the tradition of struggle for decency and dignity can be preserved into the twenty-first century? Or will it be the case that we shall witness in the twenty-first century the unleashing of new, unnameable and indescribable forms of agony and anguish? At the moment, we are right to fear the emergence of ancient tribalisms that are revitalized under the aegis of an uncontested global capitalism, a movement accompanied by the "gangsterization" of community, nation, and the globe.
What attracts me to the Black-Jewish dialogue is the potential that is inherent to our respective traditions of struggle. It has nothing to do with skin pigmentation per se, nor with ethnicity in the abstract. Rather, it is because these two communities have developed a set of responses to combat the fundamental problem of evil.
The problem of evil refers to working out a response to undeserved suffering, unmerited pain, and unjustified harm. It is impossible to talk about Jews or Blacks, symbolically or literally, without discussing the problem of evil because these groups have been consistently devalued and subjugated, if not downright hated and despised. Indeed, the history of that treatment raises very alien dilemmas for America.
Henry James was correct when he declared America to be a "hotel civilization." In fact, this is the reason James left the country; he experienced American society as being too bland and culturally impoverished. At the turn of the twentieth century, America did not want to deal with the problem of evil, let alone the tragic and the comic -- it was too preoccupied with the melodramatic and the sentimental.
A hotel -- the fusion of a home and a market -- is such a wonderful metaphor for America. The warmth, security, and motherhood of the home exists, as does that patriarchal tilt that burdens sisters of all colors, to caretake men who must forage in the marketplace. The men go forth into a heartless world, in a quest for mobility, liquidity, and profit-making. This fusion of home and market has its own distinct ethos: privatistic, individualistic, tribalistic, ethnic-centered, racially subscribed, distrustful of the nation-state, distrustful of bureaucracy, and marginalizing of public interest and the common good.
It is no coincidence then, that the best of the Jewish and Black traditions has consistently infused a sense of the tragic and the comic in order to expand the precious traditions of their struggle. In my own case, I began to struggle with the problem of evil by grappling with the absurd, the absurd in America and the absurd as America. I did not have to read a book by Jean-Paul Sartre or see a play by Samuel Beckett to understand what the absurd was. I had a black body in a civilization deeply shaped by white supremacist perceptions, sensibilities, and institutional practices. When something as irrational and arbitrary as skin pigmentation is the benchmark of measuring one's humanity, then that state of affairs is totally absurd.
What is distinctive about this precious experiment in democracy called America is that it has always been inextricably interwoven with white supremacy and its legacy. Although some scholars call it an irony, I call it a hypocrisy. John J. Chapman described it accurately when he concluded that white supremacy was like a serpent wrapped around the legs of the table upon which the Declaration of Independence was signed by the founding fathers. It haunted America then and nearly 220 years later it still does. The challenge for America today is whether it will continue to deny, evade, and avoid various forms of evil in its midst.
In any discussion about race matters it is vital to situate yourself in a tradition, in a larger narrative that links the past to the present. When we think of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ida Buelle, Wells Barnett, A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, Ella Baker, James Baldwin, and so many nameless and anonymous ones, we cannot but be moved by their standards of vision and courage. They are wind at one's back.
The recovery of a tradition always begins at the existential level, with the experience of what it is to be human under a specific set of circumstances and conditions. It is very difficult to engage in a candid and frank critical discussion about race by assuming it is going to be a rational exchange. Race must be addressed in a form that can deal with its complexity and irrationality.
Perhaps no one understood the existential dimension of being human and African in America better than W. E. B. Du Bois. He recognized the absurd in American society and realized that being Black in America is to be a problem. Du Bois asserted that race in this country is the fetishization of a problem, black bodies in white space. He understood what it meant to be cast as part of a problem people rather than people with problems. Once the humanity of a people is problematized, they are called into question perennially. Their beauty is attacked: wrong hips, lips, noses, skin texture, skin pigmentation, and hair texture. Black intelligence is always guilty before proven innocent in the court of the life of the mind; The Bell Curve is just a manifestation of the cycle. Perhaps the gravest injustice is the image of the welfare queen. Looking at the history of black women in America, on the plantation taking care of white children in white households, how is it possible that they could become the symbol of laziness? All of the foregoing are signs of a humanity that has been problematized.
Du Bois also underscored that to be part of a problem people is to be viewed as part of an undifferentiated blob, a monolithic block. Problem people become indistinguishable and interchangeable, which means that only one of them has to be asked to find out what all the rest of them think.
It is rare in human history, of course, that the notion of individuality and the civic are coupled so that a democratic project is generated. For most of history ordinary people have been viewed as "weeds and rain drops," as part of a mob, a rabble, all of which are ways of constituting them as an undifferentiated mob. Even the Greeks, despite their glorious yet truncated democratic experiment, would only apply the tragic to the elite. Ordinary people were limited to the idyllic and the comic, the assumption being that their lives were less complex and one-dimensional.
A democratic sensibility undeniably cuts against the grain of history. Most of human history is the history of elites, of kings, queens, princes, prelates, magistrates, potentates, knights, earls, and squires, all of whom subordinated and exploited everyday people.
This is why it becomes vital to talk about prevailing forms of oligarchy and plutocracy, and to some degree "pigmentocracy," in America. One percent of the population owns 48 percent of the total net financial wealth. The top 10 percent owns 86 percent of the wealth, while the top 20 percent owns 94 percent of the wealth. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the our population is experiencing stagnating and declining wages.
Corporations speak glibly about downsizing -- bureaucratic language that simply means you do not have a job even though we have the highest profits we have had since 1948. And yet 25 percent of all of America's children live in poverty, and 42 percent of young brown brothers and sisters live in poverty, and 51 percent of young black brothers and sisters live in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. These sets of conditions are immoral.
When I examine the present state of American democracy, I believe we are living in one of the most terrifying moments in the history of this nation. We are experiencing a lethal and unprecedented linkage of relative economic decline i.e., working class wage stagnation, cultural decay, and political lethargy. No democracy can survive with a middle class so insecure that it is willing to accept any authoritarian option in order to provide some sense of normalcy and security in their lives. It also opens the door for significant segments of that middle class to scapegoat those who are most vulnerable.
It is past time that we consider in our public discourse the civic responsibilities of corporations. There must be prescribed forms of public accountability for institutions that have a disproportionate amount of wealth, power, and influence. This is not a matter of demonizing corporations, but an issue of democratic survival.
We are all in the same boat, on the same turbulent sea. The boat has a huge leak in it and in the end, we go up and down together. A corporate executive recently said to me, "We are not in the same boat. We're global." His response suggests why it is vital to inquire when corporate commercial interests must be subordinate to the public interest.
Democracy always raises the fundamental question: What is the role of the most disadvantaged in relation to the public interest? It is similar in some ways to the biblical question: What are you to do with the least of these? If we do not want to live in a democracy, we are not obliged to raise that question. In fact, the aristocracy does not address that question at all. Chekhov wrote in a play, "The Czar's police, they don't give a damn about raising that question. That's not the kind of society they are." But within a democratic society that question must be continually raised and pushed.
The conversation matters because the preservation of democracy is threatened by real economic decline. While it is not identical to moral and cultural decay, it is inseparable from it. Even though the pocketbook is important, many Americans are concerned more about the low quality of their lives, the constant fear of violent assault and cruel insult, the mean spiritedness and cold heartedness of social life, and the inability to experience deep levels of intimacy. These are the signs of a culturally decadent civilization.
By "decadent" I mean the relative erosion of systems of nurturing and caring, which affects each of us, but which has an especially devastating impact on young people. Any civilization that is unable to sustain its networks of caring and nurturing will generate enough anger and aggression to make communication near impossible. The result is a society in which we do not even respect each other enough to listen to each other. Dialogue is the lifeblood of democracy and is predicated on certain bonds of trust and respect. At this moment of cultural decay, it is difficult to find places where those ties of sympathy may be nurtured.
The roots of democracy are fundamentally grounded in mutual respect, personal responsibility, and social accountability. Yet democracy is also about giving each person a dignified voice in the decision-making processes in those institutions that guide and regulate their lives. These deeply moral suppositions have a certain spiritual dimension. John Dewey and Josiah Royce, among others, identified a spirituality of genuine questioning and dialogical exchange that allows us to transcend our egocentric predicaments. Spirituality requires an experience of something bigger than our individual selves that binds us to a community. It could be in an authoritarian bind, of course, which is why the kind of spiritual and moral awakening that is necessary for a democracy to function is based on a sense of the public -- a sense of what it is to be a citizen among citizens.
Nurturing spirituality is so difficult today because we are bombarded by a market culture that evolves around buying and selling, promoting and advertising. The market tries to convince us that we are really alive only when we are addicted to stimulation and titillation. Given the fact that so much of American culture revolves around sexual foreplay and orgiastic intensity, for many people the good life might mean being hooked up to an orgasm machine and being perennially titillated.
The ultimate logic of a market culture is the gangsterization of culture: I want power now. I want pleasure now. I want property now. Your property. Give it to me.
Young black people call their block a "hood" now. I grew up in a neighborhood; it is a big difference. A neighborhood was a place not only for the nuclear family, but also included aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, rabbis and priests, deacons and pastors, Little League coaches and dance teachers -- all of whom served as a backdrop for socializing young people. This backdrop provided children with a sense of what it is to be human, with all its decency, integrity, and compassion. When those values are practiced, a neighborhood emerges.
Unfortunately, neighborhoods often took shape in my boyhood under patriarchal and homophobic conditions, and that history must be called into question. Still, we must recover its flow of nonmarket values and nonmarket activity.
These days we cannot even talk about love the way James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. did. Nobody wants to hear that syrupy, mushy stuff. James Baldwin, however, said love is the most dangerous discourse in the world. It is daring and difficult because it makes you vulnerable, but if you experience it, it is the peak of human existence.
In our own time it is becoming extremely difficult for nonmarket values to gain a foothold. Parenting is a nonmarket activity; so much sacrifice and service goes into it without any assurance that the providers will get anything back. Mercy, justice; they are nonmarket. Care, service; nonmarket. Solidarity, fidelity; nonmarket. Sweetness and kindness and gentleness. All nonmarket.
Tragically, nonmarket values are relatively scarce, which is one of the reasons why it is so tough to mobilize and organize people in our society around just about any cause. It is hard to convince people that there are alternative options for which they ought to sacrifice. Ultimately, there can be no democratic tradition without nonmarket values.
In the last decade we have witnessed within popular culture wonderful innovation in forms of hip hop and rap. Compare that phenomenon to the 1960s when the Black Panther Party emerged and note the big difference between the two movements. One has to do with sacrifice, paying the price, dealing with the consequences as you bring power and pressure to bear on the prevailing status quo. The other has to do with marketing black rage. One movement had forty-seven local branches across the nation, the other sells millions of albums and CDs. The comparison is not a matter of patronizing this generation. Frankly, it is a critique of each us who has to deal with this market culture and through market mechanisms try to preserve some nonmarket values.
What then are we to do? There is no overnight solution or panacea, of course. We need to begin with something profoundly unAmerican, namely, recalling a sense of history, a very deep, tragic, and comic sense of history, a historical sensibility linked to empathy. Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.
Hope has nothing to do with optimism. I am in no way optimistic about America, nor am I optimistic about the plight of the human species on this globe. There is simply not enough evidence that allows me to infer that things are going to get better. That has been the perennial state and condition of not simply black people in America, but all self-conscious human beings who are sensitive to the forms of evil around them. We can be prisoners of hope even as we call optimism into question.
To be part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle in the present moment that keeps the best of the past alive. To engage in that struggle means that one is always willing to acknowledge that there is no triumph around the corner, but that you persist because you believe it is right and just and moral. As T. S. Eliot said, "Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business."
We are not going to save each other, ourselves, America, or the world. But we certainly can leave it a little bit better. As my grandmother used to say, "If the Kingdom of God is within you, then everywhere you go, you ought to leave a little Heaven behind."