Jewish World Review August 30, 2013/ 24 Elul, 5773
Degrading the dream
By Rich Lowry
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Every mass movement in America, the philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, becomes a racket in the end.
And he hadn’t even witnessed the full course of the civil rights movement. If the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a time for taking stock, the score is clear. The Dream was a glorious triumph, changing America forever and making it more just. The contemporary civil rights movement, partly as a consequence, is an intellectually exhausted disgrace.
It is the victim of its own success. No longer confronted by a system of American apartheid and incapable of simply saying, “We won,” it subsists largely on imagined slights and manufactured controversies unrelated to the welfare of real people.
Somewhere along the line, the movement took on all the moral majesty of an effort to extort contributions from corporations, a favorite tactic of Jesse Jackson. The Congressional Black Caucus, for its part, is a sponge for business money, making it “a fund-raising juggernaut,” in the words of a New York Times report.
The difference between the movement now and then is the difference between confronting grave injustices and coming up with excuses for your latest press release; the difference between connecting to the nation’s profoundest ideals and reflexively agitating for more government activism; the difference between a calling and a career.
As Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity notes, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Sharpton is the personification of the Karl Marx line that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Great challenges call for great men; frivolous times call for late-afternoon cable TV hosts who are fodder for “Saturday Night Live” parodies.
King did his work under clear and present physical threat. In Montgomery, Ala., in 1957, he had a bad feeling one night while staying at the parsonage in his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and insisted on leaving. A few hours later, a bomb exploded outside on the street corner.
He gave his famous Mountaintop speech in 1968, the night before his assassination after flying from Atlanta to Memphis on a plane delayed because of a bomb threat.
He operated under the ever-watchful eye of an FBI that managed to flagrantly violate civil liberties before the advent of the National Security Agency surveillance program. In 1964, it sent King a “suicide letter” evidently intended to compel him to end his own life.
King had a well-developed moral philosophy, based on a profound engagement with the biblical prophets and Reinhold Niebuhr. He believed that “unearned suffering is redemptive” and rejected a facile optimism that comes so easily to Americans, as he wrote: “Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency, man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice.”
He wasn’t merely glib, but truly eloquent, a practiced Baptist preacher who wedded the cadences of the Bible to the nation’s founding ideals under the unbearable pressure of historic events.
Then there’s Sharpton, whose career is a long catalog of the ridiculous and outrageous in pursuit of newspaper clips and cable TV appearances.
Sharpton is a Christian minister who refuses to this day to apologize to the man he defamed by falsely accusing him of raping a woman. He is the peacemaker who in the midst of anti-Jewish riots issued the inspiring call, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” He is the paragon of civil rights who denounced a Jewish businessman in Harlem as a “white interloper.”
If there were genuinely something consequential at stake, as in the fight against segregation of the mid-20th century, it would be a disaster for the country that Al Sharpton is so prominent.
But that fight is won, no matter how loath King’s self-appointed heirs are to admit it. At his speech at the Mall, Sharpton said Jim Crow has been vanquished, but now the struggle must go on against James Crow Jr., ESQ. The old Jim Crow knocked down protesters with high-pressure fire hoses; the new Jim Crow asks everyone to bring a photo ID when they vote. The apple has fallen very far from the tree.
In his own speech, President Barack Obama tried to reach rhetorical liftoff at the end by citing people serving the community or otherwise demonstrating kindness or regard for others and declaimed that they “are marching,” just like those marchers in 1963. This is a strained metaphor in the service of a deep misunderstanding. These people aren’t marching; they are living admirable lives in a society where the civil rights marches of yore are no longer necessary. Surely that’s the point.
What the contemporary civil rights establishment can’t bring itself to acknowledge is that cultural breakdown has more to do with the struggles of blacks than any officially sanctioned discrimination. To his credit, Obama says as much at times. It is one of the reasons that Jesse Jackson in 2008 thought he was “talking down to people,” and mused on an open mic about performing an anatomically sensitive operation on the presidential candidate.
But the left doesn’t want to hear it. When commentator George Will noted how disastrous it is that 72 percent of black children are born out of wedlock on “This Week” last weekend, MSNBC went to battle stations. Host Ed Schultz convened a panel on Will’s comment that inevitably concluded, in the words of one guest, “he needs to meet black people that are not working for him.”
Fifty years ago, a movement using self-sacrificing tactics of tremendous courage fought and defeated racism in the streets and in the halls of power. Today, its successors use the charge of racism to try to shut down all argument and deflect uncomfortable conversations. They aren’t a testament to the legacy of a great movement so much as to its degeneration.
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