Monday, June 18, 2012

Diane McWhorter on "Reason-Blind Tribalism": Catholic Applications

Diane McWhorter's Pulitzer-winning book Carry Me Home (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001) is, along with Taylor Branch's trilogy about the life of Dr. King, one of the most powerful books I've read about the Civil Rights movement in the American South.  I found McWhorter's book particularly riveting because the sociological world it sketches--affluent Birmingham of the 1950s and 1960s--appears not to have been dissimilar from the world in which I grew up in central and south Arkansas in the same period.  McWhorter's grandfather was a lawyer, as was my father.

McWhorter's painstaking (and painful) research into the roots of the terrorist activity that occurred in Birmingham during the Civil Rights struggle, including the bombing of an African-American church in 1963 in which a number of children were killed, led her to the ineluctable and rather shocking conclusion that the people among whom she grew up--Birmingham's social elite--were intimately connected to the Birmingham bombings.  In the world in which she came of age as in my world, a polite fiction constantly maintained that "we" weren't like "them," the working-class and poor whites who inflicted misery on people of color.

We were good.  Our racism was moderate, in contrast to the vocally expressed and decisively acted-out racism of whites we considered beneath us.  Left to us, things wouldn't get out of hand, since we knew how to treat African Americans in a way that both safeguarded their dignity and gently reminded them of their place.  As my father constantly reminded my brothers and me when we were growing up, "they"--in this case, people of color and not working-class white folks--were childlike and susceptible to tender feelings.  Like children.  And so we needed to be careful to remember the feelings of the "children" placed in our paternalistic care, as the ordained rulers of our social world.

And then along came the Civil Rights struggle, and the mythic mask of benignity rather quickly fell from our faces.  As I've told readers of this blog before, in the mid-1960s I had the shattering experience of having my father tell me, when I asked him why he had closeted himself with a group of white men in a barber shop as he campaigned for a judge's seat, that he was promising potential voters who happened to belong to the Klan that he'd make decisions they'd like if he were elected.

And McWhorter's epiphany occurred as she unravelled the complex threads leading to the Birmingham church bombing and came to the conclusion that, plausibly, her own father and his country-club set were involved in the bombing, though at a safe and remote distance, one that allowed them to deny any responsibility for the violence that the conventional script attributed to déclassé whites.  As the African-American friends I began to make in my final two years of high school, when our school was finally integrated, were fond of saying, "Some people like to throw rocks but hide their hands."

Those people were my people.

Growing up in such a world definitively dispels one's illusions that the movers and shakers of society (or the leaders of its institutions, including its religious institutions) are necessarily nice, enlightened, and intent on seeing everyone in the social world they dominate well cared-for and able to enjoy the full gamut of human rights.  It also shatters the illusion that with education and breeding automatically come humane wisdom and broad understanding.  

It rather decisively undercuts the belief that any given society or the world at large is inexorably marching towards utopia.  It alerts one to the probability that it is precisely those with most power and privilege--and, not uncommonly, education--within a given society who are the most likely to blow the whistle as progressive changes threaten.  And to keep those changes at bay, since they threaten the hegemony of those on top . . . . 

Because the insights McWhorter shares in Carry Me Home so closely parallel ones I have had, like McWhorter, to derive from my experiences growing up during the Civil Rights period in the South, I'm inclined to read with great interest anything she writes.  And so I was delighted to see her piece in yesterday's New York Times entitled "The Strange Career of Juan Crow."  McWhorter skewers her native state's recent draconian anti-immigrant legislation.   

Here's a sentence that leaps out at me:

The pride of the Crimson Tide fan is just the relatively fun side of the state’s reason-blind tribalism, the same hard-wiring that produced its other recent superlative, the "toughest in the nation" immigration law that made criminal suspects of an entire class of human beings — and turned those who tolerated their presence into felon accessories.

Along with these two:

Since Alabama has no foreign border and a Latino population of less than 4 percent, the main purpose of H.B. 56 seems to be the id-gratification of tribal dominance and its easy political dividends. A bill co-sponsor, State Senator Scott Beason, was frank about his motive: "when their children grow up and get the chance to vote, they vote for Democrats."

That "reason-blind tribalism" that goes hand in hand with "the id-gratification of tribal dominance and its easy political dividends": is anyone listening?  To be specific, are the U.S. Catholic bishops, their powerful centrist allies and mouthpieces in the media and academy, and the working-class voters in swing states those two groups want to use as tools in the coming election--in an absolutely tribal way--to overturn the current administration: are any of these folks listening?

Reason-blind tribalism appeals to the basest human instincts, McWhorter is telling us.  It gratifies the id by providing us the fatuous, unfounded, easy illusion that we and our group are good and those we target are bad.  It yields facile short-term political dividends.

But it accomplishes these goals always at a horrendous price.  Precisely because it does eschew reason and appeals to the basest of human instincts, to things like racism and to anti-intellectual reflex impulses that define part of the world, our tribe, as us and the rest of the world as less than us, other than us, outside our tribe.  To be combatted and vanquished, kept in the place we consign to everyone who is non-tribe.  

Or as a last resort, to be destroyed outright.

It is patently clear to me that one of the prices the U.S. Catholic bishops and their cultured, educated centrist defenders are willing to pay for victory in the coming elections is to pander to the racism of many working-class Catholics in swing states, racism that has always run beneath the surface in many Catholic communities and is now right out in the open with an African-American family occupying the White House.

Racism is on full public display all over again among my people of the South, too, among the evangelicals with whom the U.S. bishops have made common cause in opposing the current administration.  A Tea Party leader in my state of Arkansas has just resigned after royally embarrassing herself and her cronies when she made a racist joke to open a recent Tea Party rally--and the joke made the rounds of the internet and media.  

I recently dropped my membership in an online family history discussion group when a member of the group felt at perfect liberty to use the group's email list to share with the entire group a racist "joke" about the president, one which suggested that the president is anti-Catholic, to boot, though I would imagine about 99% of those sharing genealogical information in this group are evangelical Protestants.  When another group member protested this misuse of a genealogical discussion group's list and the group moderator defended the man who made the "joke," I dropped my membership along with the person mounting the protest.  

Only to receive, a few days later, another racially charged email communication from a distant cousin who is a member of yet another family history discussion group . . . . This one purports to be a picture of "them" sitting in a Social Security office in an unnamed American city.  "They" are, the caption tells us, freeloaders asking for disability insurance. "They" are all young.  "We" are hard-working, upstanding, retired white citizens from whom "they" are stealing.  They're taking away our Social Security benefits under the current African-American president!

In the very center of the photograph is an African-American man.  Behind him, many of the faces of the "freeloaders" are brown.

I have spent much of the past few months critiquing the resurgent tribalism of many members of the American Catholic academic and media elites on whom the U.S. bishops depend to get out their message that Catholic religious freedom is under siege by the Obama administration.  My critique and that of others who have written in recent months to critique this tribalism have made hardly a dent in it.  Catholic tribalism is now powerfully resurgent--along with powerfully resurgent racism--in many sectors of American Catholicism, under the pastoral leadership of the current bishops.

And as John Atcheson notes, what may well be the dismal outcome of our current inability to critique ourselves and our tribalism is this: a return to a world of pre-Enlightenment darkness in which "myths, magical thinking, and self-delusion" trump reason, science, or any form of religion open to honest dialogue with reason and science among the men who rule us.  

We're already more than halfway there, as Katha Pollitt points out, since not only do 46% of American citizens believe that God created the world in a single instant less than 10,000 years ago, but 46% of college-educated Americans espouse creationism.  And when we make our way to the final bottom, to the cultural, economic, and political nadir to which we're rapidly descending with the gleeful complicity of many of our religious leaders, will those who have precipitated us to the bottom of the dark hole admit any responsibility for what they've done, I wonder?

Or perhaps more to the point, will those many college-educated Catholic centrists who walk happily and mindlessly lockstep with their tribal leaders in their current religious liberty war admit how little their good educations and elite social status equipped them to understand the destruction they willingly set into motion in the year of our Lord 2012?  In the name of God, it goes without saying.

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