Thursday, September 09, 2004


Those wacky abolitionists

I just finished reading a roundtable discussion in the August issue of Harper's on the future of progressive politics in America. "The Democratic Party at the moment presents no message that can be heard as even a mild objection to the Republican program of privatization, extravagant military spending, tax cuts for the rich, welfare cuts for the poor," begins the lede, in the magazine's typically trenchant but somewhat hyperbolic fashion. To talk about how the progressive agenda "might return to the nation's political arena, Harper's Magazine invited five notable progressive thinkers"--Ron D. Daniels, Eric Foner, Ralph Nader, Kevin Phillips, and Frances Fox Piven--"to sit down together and consider the problem."

The forum contains some insightful quips. I think Kevin Phillips is probably right, for instance, that "Democrats have been anesthetized by campaign contributions. ... Their neediness cripples them." I also like what Frances Fox Piven says: "Our rhetorical task is far easier than that of the Republicans. ... We should talk about reclaiming democracy by reducing corporate power and reducing inequality, especially the inequalities that affect working people and poor people." You mean our rhetorical task would be easier if we actually talked more about democracy and equality? Consider this sobering fact. According to Google, John Kerry's official campaign website contains 564 hits for the word equality and 4,500 hits for the word democracy. Liberty gets 1,530. Poverty gets 1,980. How many hits does "security" get? Let's see ... 13,800. And "military"? 10,900.

There were also points made in the forum which gave me pause. I have always been a somewhat reluctant subscriber to Harper's, because it often takes a thoughtless posture towards religion. It wears its anti-clericalism on its sleeve, the same one it wipes its nose on. I appreciate Harper's because it provides carefully argued but highly opinionated pieces. But its contempt for religion is highly opinionated without being carefully argued.

Lewis Lapham, for instance, opines in the forum that what holds conservative "factions together--the Christian and neoconservative right, the racists and the homophobes--is their common tendency to believe in such a thing as absolute truth, the bright transcendent line between good and evil, right and wrong. The religious rather than the secular habit of mind." Elsewhere, he notes that "the reactionary right isn't afflicted with the disease of cognitive dissonance," apparently evidence of its non-secular "habit of mind." As though it is impossible for those of us who are religious to come down with a case of "cognitive dissonance," as if the line between good and evil is always "bright" for us! I guess it's the Brights who get to do all the doubting--except when it comes to drawing the one between progressive and reactionary, or between naturalism and supernaturalism.

The forum also has typically caricatured portraits of crazy Christians. "If moderate Republicans have one thing besides Iraq that makes them want to vote against Bush," says Kevin Phillips, "it's all these fundamentalists coming out of the woodwork from Armpit, Alabama. It's this biblical worldview in which Baghdad is the new Babylon. The average Presbyterian Republican in suburbia thinks those people are wackos." Ah, yes, now I remember the reason why I subscribe to Harper's: to see people with whom I already disagree called "wackos."

But this is a guilty pleasure. Ultimately, the "wackos" thing bothers me. When I see smart people calling other people "wackos," I'm worried. If all the smart people are busy calling people "wackos," who is going to have the respect and patience required to actually talk with those people? In the same forum, Ralph Nader complains that the progressive message is missing "emotional content, in the best sense of the phrase. One of the reasons is that liberals aren't good haters. Whereas the agents and apostles of the right, they really are haters." So when we call you "apostles" of the right "wackos," it's because we love you.

A final thing catches my eye about the forum. Several times, the contributors point to the abolitionist movement as a model for progressive movements today. As in this comment from Piven:
The left has a communication problem. [Cf. the calling people "wackos" thing.] The right has multiple modes of communication. They have enormous influence with the corporate media; they have their think tanks, which have evolved into propaganda machines; and they also have the social movements of the right--God, gays, and guns. All the left has are its social movements. But they have tremendous communicative power. Think of the abolitionists, the labor movement, the civil rights movement. These kinds of movements get a lot of people on the street. They disrupt things. And that attracts a lot of attention.
I don't necessarily have a problem with finding role models in past social movements. As I've said before, one reason I am drawn to the abolitionists is because I think there is much in their social vision that is worth recovering. But Harper's-style progressives seem to easily forget that abolitionists were also held together by what Lapham calls the "religious habit of mind."

For example, here is William Lloyd Garrison in one of his letters:
But the mere abolition of slavery is not the reconciliation of the world to God, or of man to his brother man; though there can never be such reconciliation without it. I want to see ... Jesus, the Messiah, as the only King and Ruler on earth--the establishment of his kingdom to the subversion of all others--the prostration of all national barriers, castes, and boundaries--the mingling of the whole human race, 'like kindred drops into one'--the forgiveness of enemies, without any resort to brute force, even after the example of Christ--the overthrow of all military and naval power, by the substitution of spiritual for carnal weapons--the adoption of a common language, to the suppression of the Babel dialects which now divide and curse mankind. Such ... I hope to see ... before this mortal shall have put on immortality. It will produce a mighty sensation throughout the earth, and be more terrible to tyranny and misrule than 'an army with banners.' Seizing upon it by faith, and yearning to behold it as a reality, I am constrained to exclaim, 'How long, dear Savior, oh how long / Shall that bright hour delay? / Fly swifter round, ye wheels of time, / And bring the welcome day!'
I imagine the "average Presbyterian Republican in suburbia" would think of Garrison as a "wacko," too. Of course, Garrison, despite his wacky "religious habit of mind," did not recoil from criticizing Christianity. Later in the same letter, he said, "Let the truth be told, though the whole of Christendom be thereby convicted of infidelity." (Those were the kinds of things that got him in trouble with the religious powers-that-were.) But then how should we categorize Garrison? As a disruptive progressive, a la Piven, or as a reactionary wacko, a la Lapham and Phillips?

If we are going to use the abolitionists to draw historical lessons about the present, then at least one of the conclusions we have to draw is that a "religious habit of mind" is not inconsistent with the kinds of progressive movements that "get a lot of people on the street [to] disrupt things." Garrison's religious mind was clearly very disruptive. In fact, however theologically and biblically suspect the Armpit preacher's eschatology might be (and let me make very clear that the new Babylon is not Baghdad), Garrison's social vision was clearly based on eschatology.

But his eschatology was not of the pie-in-the-sky variety. He yearned to see the kingdom of Christ coming before "this mortal shall have put on immortality," to behold it as a reality in the here and now. His belief was that since "the reconciliation of the world to God" was coming, we might as well get about the job of reconciling with each other now. His was not the small eschatology of the Armpit fundamentalist; rather, he said, This is Who We Shall Be, so This is Who We Must Be. "Why should we be fiends," he once wrote his brother, "when we may become angels?" I know, I know ... What a "wacko"!

But my point here is not to defend those wacky abolitionists as either progressive or not. My main point (which I've also made elsewhere) is that attempts to find heroes among the abolitionists usually falter on the irreducible complexity of the past. As the Harper's forum shows, when we attempt to pick out exemplary forbears, we tend to ignore the things about them that we find distasteful. We tend to avoid cognitive dissonance--even those of us who have a "secular habit of mind." And instead of really learning from or listening to their stories, we imagine (to paraphrase Peter Novick) that we can talk to the dead by prefacing their answers with our questions. Perhaps we would be better served by looking at their own questions, seeing how they answered them, and then looking again at our questions and our answers.

UPDATE: Another progressive appropriates the abolitionists: this time it's Howard Zinn. A little known fact about Zinn, whom I had the pleasure to see speaking in Boston this past spring, is that one of his earliest published academic pieces was an essay on the abolitionists, in which I believe he compared abolitionists and Freedom Riders.

UPDATE: There is a good review of Harper's and its mercurial editor at Slate. It argues, persuasively, that the magazine "has grown increasingly pompous and predictable in recent years," although not for the same reasons that I give here.

Collective Improvisation:

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