Thursday, June 12, 2014


In the world of online arguments, this one is pretty tame. It centers around a basic question: Were government laws and regulations that supported racial segregation enacted over the active objections of a white population that, left to its own devices, would have preferred to be more welcoming and inclusive?

Hazel Bryan - typical American teenager or government stooge? You decide!
On the surface, it's about unity and the wickedness of government - the idea that what kept Americans apart was not a desire on the part of some to segregate themselves from others, but evil government bureaucrats who, power-mad, sought to drive a wedge between the segments of an unwilling, but hapless, populace for their own nefarious purposes.

At the deepest level, it's about the idea that a workable ethical order can emerge from an unregulated free-market society; the idea that morality is universal enough that no true moral wrong, such as segregation, can ever become popular enough to be a problem without someone actively violating the non-aggression principle.

But sandwiched in between them is the idea that all people are basically good - as we understand "good" today. It's a hard idea to swallow - Oprah Winfrey was so incredulous that Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford could actually have become friends after the events of 1957 (captured in the iconic photograph) that both women described her as rude; Eckford going so far as to say that Ms. Winfrey had gone out of her way to be hateful.
Reconciliation and redemption were usually Oprah’s things, but it soon became evident that here was one happy ending that was too much even for Oprah. Something about it, and them, seemed to offend her, and once on the air, she didn’t conceal her distaste for them. The famous picture flashed on the screen. “When we come back, how this shocking image of racism sparked a friendship, if you can believe that, 40 years later,” she teased.
Oprah Disses a Civil-Rights Icon
But if there is a group of people who feel that the whites of Little Rock, Arkansas, were hateful bigots then, and must still be hateful bigots now, there is also a group of people who feel that they were the innocent victims of unresponsive government, both then and now.

Both groups are resistant to the idea of change, the idea that people, when they learn new information or come to understand things differently, can alter the way they see the world around them and the way they interact with it. People are either good or bad, and that's the end of it.

In the particular (gentle) argument that I waded into, government is always bad, and "the people" always good. It's a simple, neat and tidy narrative that bolsters the argument that if we could just do away with "the State," then everything would automagically work itself out.

But the photograph becomes a stumbling block. Can you look at that, and really say that the segregation of Little Rock's schools had been forced on everyone there, against their wishes? If so, where were the protests when the policies were enacted? When did the police put down peaceful demonstrations in the name of making the nation safe for a hateful agenda that only those people in office wanted to see fulfilled?

TEA Party types and small-government crusaders feel maligned when it's pointed out that there is often a nostalgia among older male WASPs for the 1950s, when Whites' place of privilege and cultural dominance wasn't simply a social construct, it was often coded into law. And for non-Whites, women, non-Christians, gays, et cetera, it was NOT a good time to be an American. We look down on that time now, perhaps too much so. Our need to see the things that we've left behind as deliberate acts of Evil may have lead us to cast people of that time as more villainous than they really deserve. And the defensiveness that this creates leads to a whitewashing of history, the idea that the people who lived at that time who benefited from those policies were in no way responsible foe their enactment.

I don't know if it's realistic to expect that one day, they will be forgiven. After all, we still seem to enjoy kicking the ancient Romans for not being like us today, and are quick to attribute their actions to bloodlust, debauchery or whatever other vices come to mind. But if we can't talk about the past without moral baggage, that baggage will stay with us far into the future.

No comments: