Thursday, December 25, 2008

Permanence, Change, and the Civil Rights Movement

Much as I tend to enjoy the blogging of Andrew Keen, I was very glad to see that Book TV chose to use this day to provide me with an escape from Keen's recent indulgence in what I can only call "second-rate reading." This has included yesterday's reaction to Fareed Zakaria's recent palaver in Newsweek about Barack Obama as the savior of capitalism and today's attack on Thomas Friedman's laptop metaphor in The New York Times, with a swipe at Malcolm Gladwell's "fascinatingly obvious" Outliers thrown in for good measure. I used to sympathize with Harlan Ellison, who felt that we read was more important than what we read; but he used to make that point before the Internet had opened so many reading possibilities for us. These days I feel that life is too short to waste on rubbish; and, while I do not always agree with their editorial decisions, I find both The New York Review and Book TV to be rather good at helping me steer clear of the sort of rubbish that shows up all to often in Newsweek and The New York Times.

This morning I watched a Book TV video that was recorded last May at the Sunflower County Public Library in Indianola, Mississippi, which had hosted Chris Myers Asch to talk about his book, The Senator & the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland & Fannie Lou Hamer. This was a case in which the audience was as interesting as the author, since both Eastland and Hamer were from Sunflower County and have descendants who are working in the County. However, even more important was the way in which Asch framed the conservative thinking of the segregationists for whom Eastland became a major champion in the Senate, particularly when he became Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Asch's critical point was his decision to view Eastland more as a planter than as a politician. From this point of view, plantation life embodied "the natural order of things." As Anthony Giddens would have put it in his more elaborate terminology of social theory, plantation life legitimized a structure of domination, which determined who got to exercise authority over whom and how that authority was exercised. From this point of view, the civil rights movement was less about whether blacks should have the same rights as whites (or, for that matter, whether the abolition of slavery had been a great mistake) and more about how it had challenged that "natural order." The underlying struggle, in the words of Kenneth Burke, was the "challenge of change" imposed by the civil rights movement on the assumed permanence that Eastland and other segregationists were determined to maintain.

Needless to say, the scope of such opposition to permanence by change extends far beyond the history of the civil rights movement. Political conservatism is basically grounded on the virtues of permanence, whether or not that permanence is justified by rhetorical invocations of "natural order." Change is perceived as dangerous; and, to the extent that it entails a volatility that undermines the predictability of "life as we know it," it is dangerous. On the other hand, as Isaiah Berlin would work out for himself about a quarter of a century after the material in Burke's Permanence and Change first appeared, "permanence" is just another word for "stasis;" and stasis is fundamentally opposed to the dynamics of life itself and the social interactions that establish our very humanity (an insight developed by another of Berlin's predecessors, George Herbert Mead, who, in turn, had been preceded by Karl Marx, whose influence is clear in both Burke and Berlin).

I make these points because, as we approach Inauguration Day, it is important to recognize that change is far too complex a matter to be reduced to an election-winning buzz word. My guess is that Obama appreciates this, as he appreciates why the stability of permanence is so important to all of us. What we need is a subtle negotiation of a course between permanence and change; and I fear that the subtlety of that course is too much for consideration by the likes of journalistic hacks like Zakaria and Friedman.

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