The arc of Ameircan politics I

Recently a pretty far right conservative tried to convince me that the Republican Party had done more for the civil rights of ethnic minorities and specificall Blacks than had the Democrats. One must remember to hold one’s lower jaw up to one’s upper jaw to avoid looking stupid. But it’s hard. How do they, the conservatives, have the gall to make such statements?

They cite specific instances where some Republican president or legislative effort did benefit minorities: Nixon pushed affirmative action, someone else did something else. Then you have the hidden benefits: one might argue that keeping Blacks segregated was really of way of strengthening them, giving them a solid community base upon which to build their society until they were ready to integrate.

I’m making all this up. That’s part of the problem. When you get into specfics, it turns out you have to be a bit of a specialist in order to counter the arguments advanced by others. Just what was it some liberal congressman said about Blacks in 1965 as he was voting for the Voting Rights Act and did that reveal the hypocrisy of liberals? And so on.

But it can be useful to stop sifting events and persons and manoeuvres and just look back over one’s 68 years and think about them. What stands out? The voices who now decry affirmative action as reverse racism are the same voices who, 40 years ago were saying it was unamerican to “force” a business owner to do business with someone they didn’t want to associate with. We all knew that was a cover for White businessmen to exclude Blacks.

How did we know that? Because we knew the businessmen; they were our relatives and friends. We grew up with them. We worked with them. We knew American racism intimately. And we knew that the Democratic Party had been dragged kicking and screaming into the civil rights era, losing a lot of members along the way. We knew from personal experience as well as from a flow of reports from professional observers and academics that the Republican Party grew precisely out of the resentments of those who complained about how wrong it was to let Blacks work and live where they wanted to. The very notion that a Black might have the same rights as a White offended these people. The Republican Party opened its arms to them.

That’s just one example. We can talk about defense, health care, the legal and penal system, the voting and electoral machinery, mental illness, education, homosexuality, religion, on and on and on. All these issues saw a complex but discernible trend for those identified as conservative to defend a particular vision of this country and society. Those on the liberal side were not usally reacting so much as pushing forward, trying to realize a different vision for the country.

Activism is OK for citizens; judges aren’t supposed to be but cannot help but be to some degree. What we need to recognize is that one person’s activism is another person’s interpretation. If a judge finds in favor of moneyed interests, those who oppose the moneyed interests may say the judge was moved by his membership in and ties to the class of moneyed people. Should a judge decide in favor of a person representing a despised group, say homosexuals, he is labeled an activist prompted by a vision of America outside the mainstream. In both cases, those judgments may be accurate or may not be. It is simply a fact that judicial decisions are complicated by many factors.

Looking at the whole process from a distance, we can see a general broadening of who participates in the society. Today, I attended a graduation from a mass-amarket university. As an idealist regarding the university, I wanted to stick my nose up in the air a little, a ridiculous posture for someone who graduated from a land grant college (AzSU). As I looked around, it hit me how many of the family members attending, like us, the graduation of their loved one, came from the working class, the immigrant class, in other words, people who did not ordinarily get into college 30 or 40 years ago.

My own matriculation was frowned upon by some. I remember one professor remarking to another one, “I wish these students would decide whether they want to work or to study.” I knew he came from a well-off family, he was elderly and this was in 1966 or so. In his day, historians were largely Southern gentlemen of leisure since one needed independent support to survive on a professor’s salary. (It would be good to see a study of such matters; if anyone knows of any I would like to see them) That colored the way history was written, as we saw in the reaction to the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings affair.

The said professor was a language scholar, a philologist. There was little need for those in mid-century America. In fact, we didn’t need many college instructors at all. The GI Bill allowed colleges like mine to grow into universities (mine became one in 1957). Again, this needs documentation, like a Wikipedia article. By the time we reach the next century, millions of college certified workers are needed in every sphere of activity.

And this is the reason for the growth of what I call “fly-by-night” colleges – disparaging and unfairly so. But I want to gag when I hear from both students and instructors, how education is carried out there. But I must keep in mind, that the good professor thought the same of me 45 years ago when he made that comment. What the hell was I, a working class kid who graduated from a mass public school in a backwater like Phoenix doing trying to study Germanic philology? I had no background for that.

That was true. I didn’t. But I remembered all those GIs and sailors who spent WW II and after reading paperbacks and enrolling in history and anthropology courses, trying to unravel the world they had experienced. And this was what lent strength to their vision of America, be it liberal or conservative or a mixture: rather than having their life handed to them as a member of an educated class destined for leadership, they had dragged through life seeing events, people and manoeuvres from an entirely different perspective. Just now I heard one of those converts from the left to the right, Tammy Bruce, talk about being a conservative lesbian pro-choice feminist……… what? Now that brings with it a different vision for America. We call Pat Robertson and her conservatives, so what does conservative mean?

Intellectually that is a challenge, a fun one. Nevertheless, it forces us to look at just what it is that people are striving for, and that is what I call their vision for the country. That is what is exciting: we are creating our visions as we go. At one time, in the professor’s time, that vision was handed to us as a member of a certain class: the leadership class, working class, immigrants, the great middle class, farmers, businessmen, intellectuals, and so on. We literally inherited that vision.

But the Depression and the Second World War, preceded by industrialization, immigration, and mass culture, dramatically reduced the impact of set ways of seeing the world. Movies and mass market books and magazines opened up people’s minds. Better job opportunities and more education permitted movement – manoeuvres. We enlarged our circle of associates – people. And we saw things for ourselves through travel and the media – events.

This leads me to my death blow to conservatism: the society – our own and the global society – has grown too large and too complex to resist change. Wise conservatism cautions against radical change, against change too fast to allow people and institutions to adjust, and against senseless change – sheer novelty. The trick is to gauge if the conservative drag on change is in the service of caution or in the service of self-interest. Most of what I see is in the service of self-interest. True conservatie intellectuals are hard to find but interesting when they are found.

My next rant……… I mean, blog entry, will be on what I call conservatism.

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