Friday, July 31, 2009

unpleasant incident

In those days they shall say no more, the fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children's teeth are set on edge.

-- Jeremiah 31:29 (KJV)


On July 16 a great public intellectual and an anti-racist policeman found themselves trapped in roles they had studiously avoided. I don’t imagine that this encounter will figure prominently in either man’s scrapbook.

I don’t know all the facts, so I’m going to zip my lip about details, as my president should have done. Since there is no recording of the incident, I will never know what was the immediate spark that blew this thing up, and caused the arrest of a distinguished black man, in or near his own home, on a charge that was self-referential – since any “disorderly conduct” arose from the encounter itself.

Anyone who has sat on a jury knows that the facts of a real encounter are squishier than facts in a crime drama. On TV, we see and hear what happened, and there is only one version to consider. But in real life even neutral witnesses may without perjury depict incompatible events at the same time and place.

Therefore I’m not going to say who’s at fault. It’s easy to see why either of them might have lost control, for the situation accused each of precisely what their lives had stood against. Henry Louis Gates is not a ghetto petty criminal but a genial voyager through abandoned history, singer of a previously lost voice in America’s great fugue. James Crowley is not a racial profiler but an educator who stands against such failures of imagination. Both have laid foundation stones of America’s better future. But as it is difficult for white folks to understand the pain of a black man who is always suspected of being a thief, it is also difficult for black folks to understand the pain of a white man who is always suspected of hateful designs. The harder a person works to disprove such expectations, the harder those expectations are to bear.

Both men had good reason to be where they were, doing what they were doing. Then one or both of them went “too far,” carried away by ancient anger and intimate pain. Henry Louis Gates wasn’t planning to play the part of Angry Black Man. James Crowley wasn’t planning to play the part of Rogue Racist Cop. But the situation was precarious, and it didn’t take much to push them over the edge of civility into nasty currents of racial conflict.

Then the President tried to calm things down, and fell in the muck himself. To say the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” was to throw gasoline on the fire, adding anthems of class warfare to those of racial conflict. Now it was two Harvard guys impeaching the intelligence of blue-collar public servants. That the man of No Drama could slip so farcically shows how hard it is, even for the world’s most powerful person, to speak of such matters without lapsing into slogans and ideologies of the past.

This was a very unpleasant incident. Unpleasant for the participants, who have both been offended at a deep level of personal identity. Unpleasant for observers, who are sick of this kind of thing happening. Or sick of this kind of thing appearing to have happened. Or sick of this kind of thing being assumed to have happened. For what is this kind of thing? Can we keep our eyes, our ears, in the present moment?

There are some who, as America heals herself, stand to lose their power. I cannot call them a party, because they work separately and are scattered across the usual fractures – rich and poor, Right and Left, colorless and of color. When wounds begin to close, such people are unnerved, and throw ideology in our eyes. These are the people who want to keep our teeth on edge, because our parents ate sour grapes.

Each of us must set the stage for virtue. We must listen and we must speak (for speaking is the test of our listening). We must speak the truth that is in front of us. We must accept correction but no shame for speaking. Racial reconciliation began as a big idea, but it will end, if it ends, as I and Thou, over and over again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

no essence

-- Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.

-- Hemingway: Yes. They have more money.


In this apocryphal literary takedown, Fitzgerald (like his Daisy-struck narrator Nick Carraway) implies that wealthy people are, in the ancient sense, our betters. There is a reason, he says, why they have wealth and the rest of us do not: we regular people don’t have the essence – we don’t have wealth because we’re not “different” in the way that rich people are. To which Hemingway pishes: there is no essence. If you had their bucks, you’d be just like them, and greenhorns from Minnesota would speculate about your essence. The secret is, there is no secret.

The liberation theologians say that the poor are different from you and me – and they are our betters. Is there a theological Hemingway to say, “Yes. They are different. They have less money? Pish -- there’s no virtuous essence of poverty. If the poor had our bucks and our privileges, they’d be just like us, for good and ill. The secret is, there is no secret. Except that the poor are praying, hoping, breaking backs and hearts and sometimes laws, to leave their poverty behind. If they escape, that’s when they will sing laments for their loss of virtue, and sentimental intellectuals will take them seriously.

I shall not indict the next Supreme Court Justice on a charge of practicing theology. But the densely parsed remark from which she has now distanced herself illustrates both the provenance and the limit of liberation theology, indicating the places where it naturally arises and where it terminates itself. To show how in secular language she has invoked a god of the oppressed, I must do some exegesis of my own.

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

We should note, in order to discount it, a subjunctive veil of qualifiers. She “would hope” that the sagacious Latina would reach good conclusions, but does not claim to know that she will. The special sagaciousness will not always be evident; only if one observes the Latina for some time will we see “more often than not” her wisdom manifest. The judge is careful not to compare all people of Hispanic culture with all Anglos, or all women with all men. She compares only subsets -- “wise” Hispanic women with Anglo men “who [haven’t] lived that life.” Her language implies that there are foolish Latinas, and that there are Anglo men who have lived the life.

Much depends however on the meaning of the phrase living that life, and even more on the reference of “that.” The reference tends to float because no other life is mentioned as the term of comparison. One could – by supplying two words not spoken – understand “that” to mean “that [kind of]” life, a life rich in experiences. And yet, in the social context of her comparison, it seems unlikely that a “white male” will have the experience of a poor immigrant. He will have experiences, and they may be rich ones, but those will be experiences of the dominant racial group, and of a community that feels itself to be not immigrant but native. “That life” means therefore not a class of lives which might include the lives of certain white males, but the specific life of the “wise Latina,” and there are no white males who have led it. When the Latina is on her game therefore, her wisdom will produce conclusions better than those of any white male.

Liberation theology is not liberal theology. It is rather a powerful criticism of liberal theology, deriving its power from assumptions that it shares with liberalism. The claims of authoritarian orthodoxy – biblical literalism, for instance – have no traction with liberals because they deny the appeal to reason and reasonableness that is liberalism’s deepest ground. But “the founders of liberation theology . . . departed from liberal theology while taking for granted their training in liberal methods and theories” (Gary Dorrien).* Liberals cannot lightly dismiss a theology that reads scripture critically and judges the church by standards of justice, insisting that love of God means loving “the least of these members of my family,” and that loving them means freeing them from the oppressive forces that make them “least.” Liberation theology adheres to the Lukan rather than the Matthean Beatitudes: “Congratulations, you poor” but “Damn you rich” (Lk 6:20,24 [Annotated Scholars' Version]).

Both liberal and liberation theologies interpret the Kingdom as Justice, but they come to justice from opposite directions. Liberals say that people of color, women, gays and other marginalized people should be freed from their oppression because of the Enlightenment’s Universal Moral Law. Kant’s Categorical Imperative says no one is to be used as the means for someone else’s end, and therefore the poor must be liberated because they are just the same as you and me. Liberationists say that oppressed peoples must be freed because they are different from you and me, and better because of their oppression.

Congratulations to the poor, but damn you rich. And here’s where liberationists sometimes offend us liberals. We are children of Enlightenment: we are rationalistic, and educated. Because we are educated, we tend to be affluent. We believe in General Principles. But the poor are not educated or affluent. General Principles don’t seem to prevail in their lives. Liberationists believe in Special Blessings.

Your General Principles, says the liberationist, have left my community in structural poverty. To Hell with them; and to Hell with your lukewarm, rational commitment. Until we see your passionate engagement in our struggle for liberation, you are irrelevant to us. Don’t tell us that God is Dead; don’t whine to us about how hard it is for you to believe anything. Your social location is godless because God left it. If you really want to find God, come here, where we are. If you want to learn about the Love of God, learn how we exchange that love in our worship, our songs, our prayers. If you want to know what scripture means, let us teach you. God is not dispassionate; God is not engaged in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. God has located truth and meaning. God has chosen, and scripture says He chose us. “Congratulations, you poor! Damn you rich!”

So a black mother who raises her kids on the wages of domestic service knows how things truly are, while Anglo-Saxon white male power-brokers, who stifle her prospects and limit the opportunities of her children, are fundamentally deceived. The Latinas of the housing project are “wise,” while interrogating white men who lived where God was not, and pretend that their social location is the seat of normalcy and law, cannot match that wisdom despite their diplomas.

There is for certain a wisdom, an intimacy with reality, that comes from having been up against the system. Rich white men used to boast about how hard things were “when I was your age,” and claim that because of the obstacles they overcame they knew what was good for you. For several days in the presence of Judge Sotomayor, such people insisted that personal experience could never have any bearing on the law. They are hoist on their own petard.

Her overinterpreted epigram is, in reality, an expression of soft liberationism – a kind of merciful cheerleading for communities now emerging from their limits. Such language has for generations saved lives, and now points the way toward participation. She herself becomes powerful now in a way that no Latina has done before.

As she takes her seat of power, she becomes no longer a liberationist but a liberal. She will be an interpreter and a maker of the law. She will ensure that the circumstances of Latina life are considered in the making of law; but she cannot claim that Latinas should weigh more than others in the scales of justice. It is appropriate that she should pledge, as she did several times last week, to “follow the law,” in faith that law is the best protection for all of us, Latina and gringa, black and white, male and female. She has changed her location. That’s liberation, and it’s the end of liberationism.

*“American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity,” Cross Currents, Vol. LV, No. 4 (Winter, 2005-6)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

stone eyes

French philosophers had been able to admire Mao and his works because they did not have to live in China at the time.

-- Alexander McCall Smith, 44 Scotland Street


Ideology, theology and sex, are pleasurable and necessary activities, but lethal if not kept within their proper limits.

When a Valentine’s Day card asks “Will you be mine?” the reader knows this is a move in a game of metaphors. Actual possession is not permitted, morally or legally. Where people own people, there is always violence.

“God’s Will” points to what we cannot control and would lose our souls grasping for. Those who think God’s Will is a graspable thing usually think that they themselves have grasped it, and that you must get out of their way because all is permitted to them.

“The People” personifies something larger than persons, in whose name states have been founded. But when persons impersonate The People, we should prepare to see the gutters running red.

If we don’t keep our big ideas confined they will eat our souls for lunch. Big ideas don’t listen or look; they already have the gospel. Big ideas have ears of tin. Big ideas have eyes of stone. Eyes without irises, like ancient statuary.

Some firefighters in New Haven competed for promotion, but too many of a certain group succeeded on the test. So the whole thing was scrapped.

“Diversity” is the Big Idea here. There are plenty of reasons – legal, moral and pragmatic why an enterprise should want to “look like” the public it serves. If the Fire Department of New Haven isn’t getting the officer corps they want, if they aren’t creating a leadership that looks like their public, then they should change the way they form their officer corps. Perhaps a different kind of test. Perhaps a different kind of tutoring. Perhaps no written test at all. A fire department, like a bicycle shop or a corporation, should learn from its mistakes. But what they did first was disqualify the winners, and that’s not the same thing.

The whole affair is so drowned in ideology that no pundit noticed the difference between proactive and retroactive rule-changing. The Right shouted, “If you people of color can’t pass a test, tough luck!” The Left shouted, “If you’re white and you succeed, you don’t deserve it!” We cannot found the future on either notion, for they both are obnoxious. It was left to a regular person, in a modest letter to the editor of the New York Times, to see the leap of logic. “The test may or not be flawed,” said Fred Biamonte of Branford, Connecticut (July 1), “Shouldn’t the fairness of any test be determined before [not after, my italics] using it as part of a selection process?”

If the test – like the shameful “literacy tests” of the old South – is not a fair one, or if the winners cheated to succeed, then the result is bogus and should be suspended – and the malefactors should be punished. But these were not the arguments before the Court. The controlling Big Idea was that results alone can prove the test invalid, the winners unworthy. But if we knew what the results ought to be, why did we bother with a test at all? Since we already knew who the good old boys were, perhaps we should have just declared them. That’s how they used to do these things. It would have been more honest.

Here’s what liberal ideology said to a now notorious population. “Come,” we said, Compete for promotion, and these are the rules; but you’d better not do too well, or it’ll prove you don’t deserve it.

Serves you right! says a voice of indeterminate ethnicity. Now you know what it’s like always to be suspect, always treated like a criminal everywhere you go! Danny Glover in a three-piece suit can’t get a taxi, and now you white folks who passed a test are getting the bum’s rush. Turn and turn about. It’s justice. Get used to it! says the chameleon voice, who is sometimes, by the way, Caucasian and radical.

Reprisal has a logic of its own. It has happened, and will continue to happen. A colleague of mine longs for the day when her son can go into a shop and not be followed by the store detective. I meanwhile -- fair-haired, blue-eyed and midwestern moonfaced as I am -- travel the city subways under the eyes of security inspectors who never make me open my bag. I am assumed to be safe, while others are not. And if I were repeatedly searched in public, it would not begin to pay back the score.

Reprisal has its logic -- but where does that logic lead us, and when? How do we pay the balance due for centuries of terror and insult, violence and suspicion? There’s not sufficient time left in my span of life, or perhaps in history, to pay it. All we can do is go forward in a better way. Criminals must be exposed and charged, and we must punish them if we can: but although many bear responsibility, few are criminals. The past is done, and always disappointing. The future, starting now, is all the solace we can offer. But starting now is not the same as starting yesterday. Starting yesterday distracts us from the duty of today.

I’m not a firefighter. So why do I care what happens to them? It’s not a matter of “empathy,” as Justice Ginsburg suggested. Liberals are not renowned for empathy with blue-collar white folks. In the Happy Days that now fade from living memory, a New York aristocrat bonded with those who were trying to climb out of degradation and, with help from his wife, won loyalty across the lines of race. Since then, we've been split off. Framed, we say. No fair. But we are guilty of being frameable. We must dismantle this thing from the inside.

It’s just this: we’re going to have to live now with people whom we treated like thieves. The work of reconciliation is not logical, is not a big idea. It's I and Thou, time and time again. Sooner or later, that's what it has to come to. What is the future of the word “Diversity” among New Haven firefighters? We, who from our social location inflict the price of ideology on them, with our ears of tin and eyes of stone, we have no right to be shocked, shocked at their suspicion. We must paint the irises in. We must see as we are seen. Figuring out how to live with each other now is hard work. Micah had it right. Peace doesn't come when I take your vine and fig tree. Peace comes when each sits under a tree he knows to be his own, and no one makes us afraid. This might take a while.