Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Nothing New Under The Sun, No. 6,384,202

What must we do? We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaint, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong -- this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty, and we must follow it. I know the ears of the American people have become very sensitive to ... complaint of late and profess to dislike whining. Let that worry none. No nation on earth ever complained and whined so much as this nation has, and we propose to follow the example.
--W. E. B. DuBois, "The Niagara Movement," Voice of the Negro 2 (September 1905), 621; quoted by Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror (Stanford, 2007), 177. (A pretty good book itself, by the way.)

I should probably explain (O, briefly!) why I like this quotation, to avoid its being misunderstood. It's good to be reminded that Americans have always wanted the downtrodden to shut up. I think it was sometime in the 1960s that I began to hear whites saying that they were tired of hearing The Negro complain all the time. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, this gripe might be accompanied by, "They've got their rights, what do they have to complain about?" Even as an adolescent, I knew this was crap. The passage of those laws didn't in itself give anyone rights; only enforcement could do that, and enforcement was slow and inadequate.

That was also around the time I read Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age, about his experiences as a substitute teacher in an inner-city Boston school. It made me realize very forcefully how easy it was for whites to want to put all these unpleasant thoughts out of their minds. Black people too were no doubt tired of the conditions in which they lived, but they couldn't make those conditions go away by changing the TV channel. (Ever heard the old joke about the guy who'd read so much about the harmful effects of smoking and drinking that he decided to give up reading?) Even worse, the children stuck in substandard schools would never get back the time they'd wasted there, even if American society tried very hard to mend its ways and provide good schools to all its children. And of course, that wasn't going to happen.

So, as DuBois said, the remedy is to make noise, to complain, to whine and bitch and gripe -- and call mainstream America on its hypocrisy and dishonesty for not wanting to listen. This principle generalizes nicely beyond questions of race. And seeing DuBois's words from a century ago is helpful, because those of us who want to complain can see that the mainstream has been evading its responsibilities in very familiar terms all along.