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Monday, February 04, 2008

"Middleclassness," Martin Luther King, and the Obama Campaign

A couple of weeks ago, Rod Dreher, Caleb Stegall, a couple of other nonconformist conservatives and myself were carrying on an e-mail conversation about Barack Obama and the Afrocentric Christian church he attends, Trinity United Church of Christ, led for the past thirty-five years by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, an unapologetic and evangelical black nationalist. The question was, given that so much of Obama's appeal lays in, as I mentioned before, this inchoate sense that he's speaking an admittedly progressive language which is nonetheless more communal, multiracial, and republican than what one gets from typical liberals (and which thus is therefore somewhat more appealing to certain cultural conservatives than anything they're likely to hear from a Clinton), does his membership in and endorsement of a church which is certainly somewhat exclusionary, or even racist (Louis Farrakhan has had a relationship with Wright that stretches back to the 1980s, and was recently honored as a "giant of the African American religious experience" by a magazine published by Wright's daughter), put a lie to everything Obama supposedly represents? How should those concerned about conserving our common culture think about a presidential candidate comfortable with a church which makes racialist appeals to economic and cultural sovereignty, and associates with racists who do the same?

Well, I had an idea for a post while we were talking about all this, perhaps not coincidentally right around Martin Luther King's Day. I never finished the post though, and kind of let the issue slide. But now Noah Millman's thoughts--brought to my attention by Rod--have brought me back around to thinking about this, and I want to finish up my post before it loses all relevance entirely.

First of all, the racism charge. I don't make any apologies for Farrakhan, and the many times times he's been caught making antisemitic statements over the years; he's been schooled in, and has never separated himself from, a paranoid, weird, even hateful worldview. But associating with Farrakhan, and praising the kind of self-reliance, pride, and community-building his preaching invokes, does not make you a member of the Nation of Islam, or even necessarily an advocate of it. I was in Washington DC during the Million Man March, way back in 1995, and sure, there was a lot of dubious and even borderline contemptuous rhetoric heard that day, from Farrahkan and all the rest. But frankly, I found the whole thing—-complete outsider and foreigner to their collective project that I was—-rather inspiring just the same. The anger of the speakers that day was mixed with positive messages about responsibility and dignity, about remembering all that which their ancestors and progenitors had accomplished, and about conserving and building up that which remained of those accomplishments. As Noah notes in his description of the arguably "exclusivist" (even racist) elements in some Jewish talk, and as Alan Ehrenhalt noted years ago in his defense of the localist, communitarian priorities which held together neighborhoods in 1950s Chicago, many such positive arguments practially depend upon a certain amount of exclusion, of collective self-identification and unity. This isn't an excuse for racism (and it should be noted that Obama has rejected his church's association with Farrakhan and some of his more outrageous statements), but for myself at least, if the point of the message is one of identity, community, and dignity, then I figure I can handle of little bit of non-violent racism along the way. (And hey, if it comes from a guy capable of getting sampled on a Wynton Marsalis recording....well, so much the better.)

Second, and perhaps more challengingly to conservatives, there is Rev. Wright's assessment of "middleclassness" as an aspiration that draws black men and women, really the whole black family and community, into a socio-economic trap, and thus as something to be avoided. Granted that there's more than a whiff of liberation theology and Marxism about this, and progressive as Obama may be on certain issues, he really doesn't come off, policy-wise anyway, as anything other that a smart, conventional liberal. But that just means that, rather than suspecting Obama of being some sort of secret Africal-American communist sleeper agent, one might choose instead to ponder the context in which a black pastor, speaking to a mostly poor and lower-middle-class black Christian audience (with a few hanger-ons like the Obamas), trying to build up black solidarity in a Christian way in the midst of a materialistic, not particularly egalitarian or Christian society, would be led to attack "middleclassness." Obama himself reads it as a straightforward liberal Christian message straight out of the Gospels: a reminder to stay close to the less fortunate amongst your community, and to remember that "to whom much is given, much is required." It most certainly is that; but it is something more to. Read the church's "Black Value System" that Rev. Wright and TUCC uses, and see how he connects the disavowal of middleclassness to a disavowal of the meritocratic (and thus always at least potentially elitist and nonparticipatory and undemocratic) values which hold sway in a capitalist state like our, a state determined above all to discover the most talented individuals out there, and enable (and encourage) them to professionally and socially make lifestyle choices so as to seal themselves off from the rest of their community. This is Christopher Lasch all the way, as Rod has already noted. Quoting Caleb here:

It is important to keep in mind that “middleclass” in this sense primarily denominates an upwardly mobile class (and the victim/ressentment classes it leaves behind) that has a deeply ingrained mental servitude to a hyper-materialism that is one part crude Marxism (oppressor/oppressed) and one part crude capitalism (irrational belief in the end of scarcity and dependence on increasingly destabilizing cycles of creative destruction)--Christopher Lasch described this class very well. “Middleclass” in this sense does not mean stable, localist, traditional communities.

That pretty much nails it; in responding positively to Wright's warning against middle-class mores, Obama was responding to upward-and-onward meritocracy that creates too-often self-justifying gaps between our differences as individuals, rather than a community in which all individuals, bound by something other than the race to keep up with the Joneses, can feel some solidarity. And this distinction is important: please note that there is nothing here which would prevent those concerned about racial justice from embracing middle-class ethics and practices, at least in the sense "middle-class" was once understood, back before deregulation and globalization and cheap oil gave us what Edward Luttwak has properly called "turbo-capitalism"; it is not as though being authentic to one's race or ethnicity or community permanently sets one apart from any system of economic responsibility and success. Granted, there have been rabble-rousers who have claimed this...but Martin Luther King--who, it goes without saying, was no slouch at community-building and seeking unity through religion and work and self-identification either--would have had little patience which such thinking, as (once again) Lasch explained well, in The True and Only Heaven:

The movement achieved its greatest success wherever it could build on a solid foundation of indigenous institutions and on the middle-class ethic of thrift and responsibility that made them work. Recognizing the importance of an institutional infrastructure in the struggle to achieve dignity and independence, King urged the black community to organize cooperative credit unions, finance companies, and grocery stores. Boycotts of segregated businesses, he pointed out, not only undermined segregation but encouraged Negro enterprise, bringing “economic self-help and autonomy" to the “local community.” He preached the dignity of labor and the need to achieve “painstaking excellence” in the performance even of the humblest tasks. He reminded his followers that too many black people lived beyond their means, spent their money on “frivolities,” failed to maintain high standards of personal cleanliness, drank to excess, and made themselves objectionable by “loud and boisterous” behavior. "We must not let the fact that we are the victims of injustice lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives." If he had been accused of upholding petty-bourgeois values, King would probably have taken the accusation as a compliment....[A] more important difference between [the relative levels of success in the civil rights movement in] the North and the South lay in the demoralized, impoverished condition of the black community in cities like Chicago, which could not support a movement that relied so heavily on a self-sustaining network of black institutions, a solidly rooted petty-bourgeois culture, and the pervasive influence of the church. The movement sought to give black people a new dignity by making them active participants in the struggle against injustice, but it could succeed unless the materials of self-respect had already been to some extent achieved. As he toured the Northern ghettos after the first wave of riots, in 1965, King was staggered by the desperate poverty he found, but he was even more discouraged by the absence of institutions that would sustain the black community's morale (pgs. 394-395, 398-399).

There's so much more than could be unpacked in this story, of course. In some ways Martin Luther King, with his embrace of middle-class self-sufficiency, and Jeremiah Wright's rejection of so-called "middle-class" meritocracy, are both insufficient solutions (and don't get me started on Malcom X). King in time turned to greater federal intervention and social democracy, while Wright has come to embrace a level of racial defensiveness and contention that King would have never accepted. Obama, to be certain, won't be either one of them--though one could hope that he is inspired by the best, most traditional and civic and egalitarian elements of both. As more and more of us are discovering, Obama is an interesting case, someone both caught up by and carrying ideas and possibilities that may well be, at least in some small way, something new and needed in America today, something that can incorporate occasional imperfections and harshness in the expression of that which can actually build something worth participating in. Who knows whether he'd be able to carry it all the way through the general election, even assuming he gets that far, much less whether it would actually mean anything on the level of policy. But at the very least, there's more going on in the words of Obama, Rev. Wright, and the whole history of the black struggle behind them both, than simple racist exclusion. To think that is to fail to think through the long history they are a part of entirely; it is to fail to take King and all those who fought and thought and marched with him with the seriousness they deserve.

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