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.

I encourage readers to leave comments by using the widget below, clicking on the phrase “post a comment.”

1 comment:

Diggitt said...

I certainly wish we could come up with words to describe the well-meaning people on all sides of this issue, other than liberals. Because I am unashamedly, unabashedly liberal and proud of it, and I have never held the belief that you're attributing to liberals here.

Where do you get the idea that liberals have no empathy with blue collar workers? If liberals don't, then are you suggesting that conservatives do? Or if not, then who is the opposite of these empathy-free liberals? And is part of the blue-collar/liberal dichotomy you're suggesting mean that blue-collar workers (or anyone who would let their daughters marry into their families) cannot be liberal?

From the other of your postings that I have read, this one clunks like a broken bell. I don't believe you mean what it sounds like you're saying.