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Wednesday, May 26, 2010  

The Choice and the Echo, Again

Conor Friedersdorf weighs in again on Goldwater, the Civil Rights Act, and the 1964 presidential election:

I strongly contest the assertion that by lionizing Mr. Goldwater, conservatives are automatically implying that a strict constructionist defense of institutional racism, or opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, is a celebratory moment in their history.

I’ve known a lot of people who see Barry Goldwater as an icon, and
all of them disagree with his position on race circa 1964 — indeed, they are uniformly glad that Goldwater himself eventually repudiated that position. (emphasis original)

Friedersdorf distinguishes between Goldwater as an iconic man of principle and as an iconic politician, rejecting the latter and saying that he would have voted against Goldwater on civil rights grounds in 1964. I don't know how persuasive that is, even to his fellow conservatives--few of whom say that Goldwater deservedly lost or who distinguish between his ideological principles and his quixotic/appalling and disastrous presidential campaign. But at the same time it's fair for Friedersdorf to point out that conservatives nowadays don't agree with Goldwater's position on the 1964 Act, much less lionize him on that basis.

Still, a one-time write-down of Goldwater's bad views (and those of the conservative movement of his time) doesn't quite clear the account. After all, conservatives didn't stop opposing efforts to reduce racial inequality after 1964 and 1965. Ronald Reagan opposed open housing laws in 1966. I doubt the Fair Housing Act attracted much Movement support in 1968. Indeed, Orrin Hatch tried to weaken it in 1980. When Reagan was president, he did away with executive-branch programs designed to identify and remedy the effects of official discrimination. His Justice Department didn't think discrimination was much of a problem. He and his congressional allies opposed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for crying out loud. Programs designed to expand the access of black and Latino Americans to higher education, civil service, and the professions have met with unremitting hostility on the right. Even the courts have become, under the supervision of Reagan and Bush II appointees, very skeptical of the goals that fired the judicial and legislative revolution in race relations between 1954 and 1968. American schools are re-segregating and the Roberts Court has made it virtually impossible for local authorities to do anything about that.

Now there are perfectly defensible and "race neutral" reasons for all of this, just as there were for opposing the '64 and '65 Acts. But it adds up to a seamless garment of opposition to securing meaningful equality between the races. And not only that, but when the supposed civil rights or racial dignity of white people are at stake, there is always a flurry of movement conservative voices defending them. The phantasm of anti-white racism terrifies National Review and every other movement organ I know of, whereas the original article is hardly ever visible to them. When a gargoyle like Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond passes from the scene, National Review is always the first out of the box to explain that they were really in favor of civil rights, just opposed to "a particular vision of them"--meaning, I suppose, any vision not defined, limited, and supervised by conservative whites.

All of this is a straightforward consequence of having chosen to cast out the few brave lingering black Republicans back in 1964 (seriously, I am going to keep linking to that until y'all read it). Maybe Friedersdorf is right that Goldwater's views were more about "Western naivete" about race than about racism, and maybe he's right in some sense that "motivation matters." That is, it matters to us white folks who are anxious to loose and to bind the racial sins of our fellow white folks. But that is not a power we possess. Motivations matter to us, but probably not to someone who had to bring a dangerous pregnancy to term at home because the hospital wouldn't serve her, or who who saw their neighborhoods destroyed for lack of credit, or who had to sleep by the side of the road because hotels were closed to them. And if those people and those experiences were really real to us white folks, we would stop all of this temporizing and excuse-making, because for once it's not freaking about us. People of color are not furniture for the moral drama of white America.

It's hard to exaggerate how difficult this has been for us white Americans to internalize. On the right, you can't have an area studies department or a de-bigoting of language or an executive or judicial nomination without calls of affirmative action, political correctness, quotas, white guilt, and the like--as if people of color only ever attain anything on the basis of white sufferance or as a consequence of successfully mau-mauing us. Pat Buchanan even thinks Barack Obama's whole presidency is a sort of affirmative action. On the left, this takes the subtler form of patronizing calls for a "maturing" of black politics that you saw now and again during the 2008 campaign, as if it were black America and not white America that had been resistant to a plausible black candidate for president all these years.

No, no, no--a thousand times no to all of this. Our political and media elite do not well reflect this fact yet, which is why people like Pat Buchanan continue to get paid to say the things he says, but non-white Americans are actually and effectually full, true, and equal citizens. They have interests and constituencies and claims on representation and participation which they have in virtue of this fact and not because we are guilty about white America's history of exclusion and violence. To reject them from your coalition--as the conservative movement has effectively and continually done since 1964--is to celebrate a defective version of America. Nothing less. No excuses, no one-off mulligans for historical error.

I appreciate that Friedersdorf and some others have been willing to start talking straight about this. But it takes a lot more than hindsight to undo the damage of 1964 and all of that.

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