A recent article in the New Yorker talks about a book comparing the caste system of India (thought dead, surprisingly resilient) with the color line in America (idem). The reviewer at one point mentions some suggestions for the future that unexpectedly brought out my latent inner cynic.
Although Wilkerson considers herself more a diagnostician than a clinician, she advances, toward the end of the book, two ideas for toppling the American caste system. She’d like to see a public accounting of the American past modelled on postwar Germany, which paid restitution to Holocaust survivors, made displaying the swastika a crime, and erected memorials to victims. But her greater faith lies in what she calls “radical empathy.” She has described her work as a moral “mission”: “to change the country, the world, one heart at a time.” And she concludes her book by celebrating individuals like Albert Einstein, who came to the U.S. shortly before the Nazis took power, empathized with Blacks facing discrimination, and began advocating for their rights.
Good. We could all use more Einsteins (not just geniuses, but people hungering for justice). But what were the conditions of Germany’s astonishing change of heart? A mass movement of reflection, perhaps, carried out by the Germans in autonomous fashion (maybe after reading the collected works of the Frankfurt School)? No. The citizens of both Germanys were forced to turn their backs on a newly shameful past, make amends, tear down monuments, rewrite their schoolbooks, and rehabilitate victims, only because they had been defeated in a war and were occupied by the former enemy powers. And Einstein was able to play the role he did because he had a mighty foreign country to flee to. (We should all be so lucky.)
That’s a pretty important difference for those seeking lessons from history for our present condition. No nation, I would venture, gives up on its homicidal BS out of the goodness of its own heart. The United States is still a superpower, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Nobody can boss it around, though anybody can bribe it. At most, our present antagonists (the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans, and Nadiristanians) will keep us in place, debilitated by our inner conflicts, but not waste their time defeating and occupying us; and even if they did, it wouldn’t be in order to proclaim a new moral order, because our being perpetually on the brink of civil war serves them quite well.
So the only hope of dominating the dominators comes from the majority that I hope exists and can be maintained. I wouldn’t be an American if I weren’t unrealistically optimistic. Let us achieve the conversion on our own. The implications are two: one is that the means are going to have to be a bit heavier this time (we can’t afford a repetition of Obama’s mistake of not prosecuting the authors of the Iraq war) and the other is that the people of good will can’t let the wicked divide them.
Time to go back to 1945, create the United Nations anew, and this time not let the Cold War and its provincial power struggles distract us from the task of ensuring the common good of all inhabitants of this earth.
Okay, I’ve said my piece. Now go ahead and whack me for being insufficiently radical by the standards of whatever book you like to wave in processions.