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Jewish World Review
Feb. 20, 2009
/ 26 Shevat 5769
Nothing cowardly about good manners
Some nice white folks ought to invite Eric Holder home to supper. He's feeling neglected, though it's not quite clear why he would want to nibble on Russian caviar and sip French champagne, the routine fare of white folks, with "cowards."
The new attorney general delivered an astonishing speech at the Justice Department this week to get a lot off his chest. Who knew this man, who lives in a million-dollar mansion, was so miserable?
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot," he said, "in things racial, we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." Americans, he said, "simply do not talk enough with each other about race."
This is breaking news for most of us. Black and white, we don't talk about anything else.
But Mr. Holder wants to homogenize us, like sweet milk. He sees the attorney general's mission as to complete the work of Abraham Lincoln: "We in this room must do more - and we in this room bear a special responsibility. Through its work and through its example, this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must and will lead the nation to the 'new birth of freedom' so long ago promised by our greatest president."
That's pretty heavy lifting for a mere attorney general, heavy lifting regarded before now as the work of mere presidents. What does he mean? Must Michael Steele take a Klansman to lunch to avoid indictment? Does Rush Limbaugh have to join the congregation of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?
Most of the attention given to his speech - it even merited a couple of obscure paragraphs on an inside page of The Washington Post - concentrates on Mr. Holder's vile description of Americans as "cowards," but a reading of the transcript reveals considerably more. He concedes some good things - the dismantling of segregation, the election of a black president by an overwhelmingly white electorate (he didn't mention two black Republican secretaries of state appointed by a white Southern president).
He grudgingly concedes that the typical American workplace has become one of easy camaraderie, of unforced mingling at lunchtime, where "we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race." But by instinct and learned behavior Americans understand that "certain subjects are off limits and to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."
What Mr. Holder imagines is cowardly is actually good manners. If two friends, one black and one white, are lunching amiably together why would either one of them want to spoil the occasion by launching into a blubbery confession or a scolding lecture on race of the sort that Mr. Holder inflicts on captive audiences at the Justice Department? Is he scolding white folks for past and present sins, or rebuking the likes of Jesse and Al for preaching intolerance of whites? He should be too busy boiling water at "the new birth of freedom" to be hectoring helpless employees to applaud in the appropriate places.
This "new birth of freedom" threatens to spoil everybody's weekends: "On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed 50 years ago." This sounds suspiciously like the complaint that "11 o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week."
The solution, presumably, is for everybody to worship together in a way to please the attorney general. Shall we have an Episcopal service? Pentecostal? Must Baptists sprinkle, or Methodists dunk? Must Tiger Woods play a round of Sunday golf with Dick Cheney? Do I get to spend Saturday at the beach with Halle Berry?
Self-righteous calls for "a national conversation on race" are actually calls for "a national confession" of somebody else's sin. What we actually need is to move on. We've already moved far from the bad old days when color counted more than character, and anyone who wants evidence need only look around.
America had much to atone for and America has delivered. No other country in history has turned itself inside out to make amends, even dispatching the Army to Little Rock and Oxford and Tuscaloosa. Nobody deserves particular thanks for doing the right thing, just as nobody deserves thanks for being good to his mother. But the work of Americans he reviles as "cowards" is something that Mr. Holder, who says he is a student of American history, ought to know about.
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