Thursday, April 3, 2014

History has no "The End"

I'm old enough to remember when - just before a movie rolled the credits - you'd see a big "The End" splashed across the screen. You don't see that much anymore, but the sentiment persists...the story ends when the credits roll.

Today I'm thinking about how real life isn't like that - there is never a "The End." What happens today is always affected by what happened yesterday. And much of what happens tomorrow will depend on what we do today.

And yet, perhaps because of the movies (or more likely a whole host of things), we tend to persist in thinking that real life is like a story that ends at some point and then a new movie starts - with a totally unrelated plot.

In politics this leads us to evaluate winners and losers based on a singular event at one point in time. That's how the Republicans can fool so many people by suggesting that poverty rose under President Obama without mentioning that he inherited the Great Recession from his predecessor. But no, George W. Bush didn't single-handedly create the recession during his presidency either. The seeds of that were planted by previous administrations/legislatures and he merely watered the them to fruition.

This is also how someone like Rep. Paul Ryan can look at what is happening in inner cities and lay the blame solely on an existing "culture" without taking into account the impact of centuries of policies that created it. That's part of what Ta-Nehisi Coates was attempting to correct with this:
The notion that black America's long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant's-eye view of history. It takes no note of the fact that in 1860, most of this country's exports were derived from the forced labor of the people it was "allied" with. It takes no note of this country electing senators who, on the Senate floor, openly advocated domestic terrorism. It takes no note of what it means for a country to tolerate the majority of the people living in a state like Mississippi being denied the right to vote. It takes no note of what it means to exclude black people from the housing programs, from the GI Bills, that built the American middle class. Effectively it takes no serious note of African-American history, and thus no serious note of American history.
The question Chait is addressing in the back-and-forth he's having with Coates that prompted this comes down to: if history is one long chain of events rather than a movie with a "The End" at some point, how do we measure whether or not we're making progress?

An interesting frame on that question would be to ask whether or not the election of the first Black president has advanced or impeded progress towards addressing the issue of racism in this country. While some folks tried to claim in 2008 that it signaled a "post-racial America," the truth is that we've seen an outbreak of virulent racism over the last 6 years that can feel like a return of the last century rather than a door to the future.

In that sense, Chait is proposing a question that I think is important and will not likely be answered by simply referring to Malcolm X's quote about "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress." Unfortunately history isn't like medicine. There is not going to be a singular point in time when we pull out the knife and heal the wound...The End. Instead, I would propose that we can move faster or slower on a trajectory that brings healing.

It has been my contention for years now that the election of President Obama and the rapidly changing demographics in this country have lanced the wound that had been festering in this country since the end of the Civil Rights movement. To be a bit graphic, we are in the process of releasing the puss that gathered under the skin as a result. The racist faction in America is coming out of the woodwork. But the truth is - they were just in hiding all along. If that analysis is correct, we're in a period of backlash to progress and the future depends on how we handle that today.

To adequately address the challenges we face, history must be recognized and honored. Listen to the words Rev. Gordon Stewart wrote about that on the day back in January 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated.
They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy... and hope... that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.
To deny Rev. Stewart the sense of progress he felt that day is to deny him his joy - and yes, the release of the deep grief he had stuffed away. And yet there is no "The End" in his joy. He sees the struggle continuing in his hope that this generation can take us where his did not. His tears were the tears of progress in an ongoing struggle.


  1. For some reason, this website link was at the end of this post.
    I get the feeling that you didn't put it there.

    1. Its an advertisement. Different ads show up for different people. Your online activity influences what shows up. I recently searched for a couch online so all I see are furniture store ads.


Does McConnell Actually Care About Winning Back a Senate Majority?

Several years ago, David Roberts suggested that the GOP had become the post-truth party.  They talk about cutting the deficit even as they ...