Monday, March 6, 2017

This is the Future Americans Have

William F. Buckley, Jr.
William F. Buckley, Jr., founded the magazine National Review in 1955, a time when conservatism seemed in disarray following World War II. Though a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, was in the White House, he was a committed centrist who brought conservative legislators to heel and openly disdained Joseph McCarthy. Vestigial conservatism still survived, but the side lacked what later Republicans considered a “movement.”

In his magazine’s inaugural op-ed, entitled “Our Mission Statement,” Buckley wrote that his brand of conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” The image of an ideological purist, attempting, by sheer force of personality, to stop history happening, conjures images of somebody trying to shout down a river, or perhaps an oncoming train. Whatever your prefered metaphor, the fact remains: that person must either get with the movement, or get killed.

I couldn’t help remembering Buckley’s strange, retrogressive philosophy last week. If you follow Blue Facebook, you already know the seriocomic outrage explosion that happened when a hard-right-wing shill posted the following tweet:

For conservatives, the outrage here seems clear: a world where minority religions and alternative sexual identities feel no compunction in public is a marker of social decline. Progressives, by contrast, noted two people with very different cultural expectations sharing public transit peaceably, which they considered a triumph. Exactly what anybody takes from this encounter depends on what they brought into it.

My oldest friend asked, over the weekend: “Please explain to me what's so bad about this picture?” He intended the question for the self-professed conservatives among his friends, but as a former conservative myself, I think I’m qualified to answer: they find this picture objectionable because it represents change. The America they grew up in, an America defined by homogeneity and unified values, is sundering into different ethical codes.

But as a former conservative myself, I’m also qualified to say this explanation is moonshine. It relies upon something rhetoricians call the Fallacy of Composition, the mistaken assumption that the whole resembles its visible parts. Presumably the pseudonymous tweeter offended by Muslims and transvestites sharing public transit grew up, like me, in an economically and racially uniform suburb. And, unlike me, that tweeter never questioned that reality.

America’s historical lack of homogeneity has been extensively documented. For mass audiences, authors like Howard Zinn and James Loewen have combed the primary sources to create readable accounts of America’s racially, religiously, socially diverse Mulligan stew. Escaped African slaves settled among Native Americans in the territory that’s now the United States a generation before whites did, according to Loewen. Diversity is history’s rule, not an innovation.

For me, becoming aware that the standardized blandness of my childhood didn’t really represent America, forced me to evaluate, and finally change, my political views. But I suspect this tweeter didn’t perceive diversity as something he (she?) became aware of, but as something new, forcing itself onto society’s existing frame. If, like me, this tweeter knew only other white, or slightly off-white, faces on the school bus, diversity on public transit may seem new.

The photo as it originally appeared, posted on Instagram

To anyone who perceives all change as decline, all history as something we must stand athwart, yelling Stop, then evolution from the white uniformity of childhood to today’s vast, multi-hued complexity becomes something to resist. Childhood’s whiteness was fixed and comprehensible. The world outside childhood, which requires constant reconsideration as its color wheel constantly evolves, forbids citizens to rest on their haunches. Some people find this threatening.

Diversity’s inherent threats have been common philosophy at least as long as there has been a United States. George Washington, in his farewell address, urged Americans to not be divided by politics or geography. But this same Washington, as President, prosecuted Indian wars in the Ohio River valley and mustered the militia against frontier tax protesters, to create a unity he knew didn’t really exist. Even then, diversity needed quashed.

The superficial irony of this controversy is that the political forces who would force Muslims, transsexuals, and other non-conformists into isolation, simultaneously believe Libertarian economics would free society’s innovators to create beneficent change. So they want to select society’s outcomes based on their preconceptions. When President Obama funneled money to clean-energy research, Rex Tillerson condemned “picking winners.” But who’s really picking winners here?

This isn’t the future liberals want. It’s the present Americans have. How we respond defines who we as Americans are. Will we stop history, roll back development to some utopian childhood that only existed under controlled circumstances, and pretend the last fifty years didn’t happen? I certainly hope not.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I had a funny experience with this meme, having first seen the photo presented in a positive light, and perceiving it as such. Learning that it was originally circulated as evidence of the degeneration of American culture was a vivid illustration of the varying spectacles we use to understand the world.