Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Time Is Overripe By Now

An old friend of mine posted the image above on Facebook.  (Later she also posted a picture of Obama with Bill Clinton linked to one of those advertisements where if you donate a pittance to the Obama campaign, your name will be entered in a lottery to attend an event where both Great Men will be present.)

At first I was suspicious, as I've learned to be with words of the wise posted on the Internet, but the quotation turned out to be genuine.  Too bad, though, because first of all, not everybody thinks of liberals in those terms.  The Right, obviously, but also some supposed beneficiaries of liberal virtue.  I've quoted before this excerpt from one of Langston Hughes's "Simple" stories, "Liberals Need a Mascot":
"Just what is a liberal?" asked Simple.

"Well, as nearly as I can tell, a liberal is a nice man who acts decently toward people, talks democratically, and often is democratic in his personal life, but does not stand up very well in action when some social issue like Jim Crow comes up."

"Like my boss," said Simple, "who is always telling me he believes in equal rights and I am the most intelligent Negro he ever saw -- and I deserve a better job. I say, 'Why don't you give it to me, then?' And he says, 'Unfortunately, I don't have one for you.'

"'But ever so often you hire new white men that ain't had the experience of me and I have to tell them what to do, though they are over me. How come that?'

"'Well,' he says, 'the time just ain't ripe.' Is that what a liberal is?" asked Simple.

"That's just about what a liberal is," I said ...
That was published in 1949.

Second, Hughes's description of a liberal fits John Kennedy's practice as President.  He escalated US involvement in Vietnam, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over Cuba, and severely disappointed Civil Rights activists who'd put their hope in him as a champion of racial equality in America.  (And doesn't that "looks ahead and not behind" remind you of someone today?)  You can call Kennedy lots of things, but "liberal" isn't one of them unless you're using Langston Hughes's criterion.

I've also quoted Martin Luther King Jr. before (via) on Kennedy as a Civil Rights icon, and I might as well quote him again:
No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn't voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.
Of the ten titles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, probably only the one concerning public accomodations -- the most bitterly contested section -- has been meaningfully enforced and implemented. Most of the other sections have been deliberately ignored.
I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.
I pointed out some of these things to my friend; her reply was "I'm proud to be a liberal!"  I'm not sure I see what there is to be proud of, but to each her own.  But I see this as part of a larger problem.  It's not so much that political labels are meaningless, though it sometimes seems so.  When large numbers of Americans think of politicians like JFK, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama as liberals, something is wrong.  Obama knows better: he's said that in Europe he'd be considered a conservative, and that was early in his term, before he'd shown just how far he was willing to follow and extend Bush-era policies.  Even "centrist" is far too generous for him.  If American liberals are willing to claim such men as one of them, then they should revise their mission statement.