Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Getting out of Egypt (a slightly late MLK Day post)

Twelve years ago I wrote at my own blog about Martin Luther King’s 1957 sermon in Montgomery, Alabama. Sparked by Ghana’s independence from the British Empire it discusses, in part, why the civil rights movement made so many people, even if those who weren’t racists, uncomfortable:

“Those people who tell you today that there is more tension in Montgomery than there has ever been are telling you right. Whenever you get out of Egypt, you always confront a little tension, you always confront a little temporary setback. If you didn’t confront that you’d never get out. You must remember that, that the tensionless period that we like to think of was the period when the Negro was complacently adjusted to segregation, discrimination, insult and exploitation. And the period of tension is the period when the Negro has decided to rise up and break aloose from that. And this is the peace that we are seeking. Not an old negative obnoxious peace, which is merely the absence of tension, but a positive lasting peace, which is the presence of brotherhood and justice. And it is never brought about without this temporary period of tension.”

I think this nails a feeling many people have, because many decent people are conflict-averse (I certainly am). Not just in their personal lives — they don’t like it in society either. Don’t all these marches and protests and lunch-counter sit-ins make things worse? Inflame segregationists? Can’t we all just get along? Why do civil rights activists (and feminists, gay rights activists, etc.) have to be so divisive?

In other worlds, can’t the Israelites just live with being slaves and go on making bricks? Do they have to challenge Pharaoh? It’s a raw deal for the Israelites, but it kept Egypt comfortable and free of tension for everyone else. Calling down plagues on the kingdom, how unreasonable! Why couldn’t Moses have negotiated and compromised instead of demanding “Let my people go!”

I see the same sentiment in newspaper articles that talk about how politics today is just too divisive. Why can’t elected officials be reasonable and strike a deal? Remember when Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan would hang out and share a beer after work? Why not just stop all the posturing and work out a reasonable policy?

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes compromise is reasonable. If one party wants $9 trillion in defense spending and the other party wants $8 trillion, splitting the difference won’t be a catastrophe. Debating whether the top tax rate should be 37 or 47 percent and settling on 42 (an arbitrary example, not based on real rates) may be acceptable to everyone. Unfortunately there’s a sense this kind of political horse-trading works for everything. It doesn’t.

Take feminism. Misogynists say men should have all the power, feminists say men and women should have equal power, ergo the fair thing is to split the difference: women should have some power but obviously not extreme position? That’s the extreme position and extremists are always bad. Compromise and centrism are the way to go.

This framing ignores that both sexes having equal rights and equal power is the compromise position. The opposite extreme to “men have all the power” is “women have all the power”; equality falls between them. We can (and do) debate what equality looks like but there shouldn’t be any debate among decent people that it’s the desired endgame. To paraphrase Bishop Desmond Tutu, if you insist on centrism when dealing with injustice, you’re siding with the oppressor: “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Centrism, however, remains a recurring ideal in pop culture. Star Trek‘s well-known third season episode, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” involves Bele and Lokai, two aliens who seem identical to the Enterprise crew, one half black and one half white. To the aliens themselves, the difference — one is black on the right side, the other on the left — is an absolute racial marker; how can anyone think they’re the same? Wow, doesn’t that show how absurd racism is?The real point of the episode, however, is that the mouse is just as much a problem as the elephant. Bele’s people kept Lokai’s as slaves, then penned them up in segregated ghettos; Lokai and his militant faction fought against this. Clearly they’re morally identical, both obsessed with fighting over illusory racial differences.

Sorry, I do not think being enslaved and segregated is the same as fighting against slavery and segregation (I discuss this in more detail at my own blog).

I see a similar dynamic at work in fiction such as Dave (1993), which assumes if you just put a regular American (Kevin Kline) in charge instead of those politicians, government could focus on doing its best for the people instead of all that divisive posturing and showboating.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of bullshit in politics, and a thousand special interests who want things done their way, even if it’s a bad way. But there are also fundamental differences about what this country is supposed to be. People disagree on whether women should have the right to vote, gays have the right to marry and interracial couples have the right to exist. I’m an absolute yes on all those things but I’m under no delusion that the people who disagree with me know, deep down, that I’m right. They’re committed to their positions, wrong though they are. A movie where Dave passed an abortion-rights bill — or a complete federal ban — would play very differently than the one we’ve got (which, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy).

The fear of tension and the desire for peace and centrism invariably support the status quo, no matter how unjust. A number of anti-Communist dramas, such as 1951’s I Was a Communist for the FBI portray the civil rights movement as a communist-backed campaign (a popular belief back in the day) to set Americans against each other; don’t black Americans see we need to be united against the international communist conspiracy? Segregation, blocking blacks from voting, lynching — there’s no suggestion any of that is divisive or hurts American unity. Accepting the peace that’s “the absence of tension” leaves male dominance and white dominance in place; challenging the system, stirring things up, is suspect because it’s so unsettling, so uncompromising, so … extreme.

It’s still the right way to go. As Frederick Douglass once said, “if there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”


      1. JHL

        First, hard agree on all your points. A very well articulated essay.

        Second, when I was a kid the two KC UHF channels filled the weekend hours with old movies. But certainly nothing with even a hint of politics. We also got those A&C “Meet” movies along with the rest of the A&C films, Laurel and Hardy, the Hope and Crosby “Road to” movies, Elvis movies, Kaiju films, and 50’s science fiction disaster flicks (that always seemed to include giant insects).

  1. Brad

    There was an Australian show Persons of Interest. The premise was that a person of interest was shown their ASIO (the Aussie version of the NSA) file. One of the people was an Aboriginal rights activist. The report made a point that he was a Communist. He just laughed and said the Communist Party were the only people who would let them use their printers for free.

    The point would be that sometimes we can overstate the dangers of the changes.

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