Odds & Ends

Midge Decter on what is special about America’s place in history and in the world (and I think we forget at our peril the ways in which this country is exceptional):

So what is now to be our role in the world? To begin with, it must be said that to no other nation can such words be applied. Usually, after all, nations are not arrangements entered into but developments that happen. They are the results of nature, accidents of geography, the movement and spread of language, wars and hatreds and rivalries and the settlement of rivalries. But boasting, we too often forget, what has turned out to be the oldest continuously surviving form of popular government on earth, the United States was a nation invented — by, let us ever be on our knees in gratitude, a group of men of political genius, whom a benign providence happened to place upon the eastern shores of a vast and rich and empty continent.

Aside from the fact that it would take nearly a century and an almost unimaginably bloody civil war to keep their invention whole — we remain beneficiaries of what they devised for us there in Philadelphia nearly 234 years ago.

Much has certainly changed in the American nation during all these years — most notably, perhaps, the variety of the ethnic makeup of its population — and much promises to continue changing — yet the system under which we are governed would still be recognizable, I maintain, to the Founders.

Now, other countries do not have “roles.” They may wish to conquer, to placate or to dominate, but they do not set out to create, democratize and defend virtually a whole continent’s worth of dependent democracies, as we did in Western Europe (and as we also did in Japan) at the end of World War II.

Nor do they for no purpose of state, for instance, call upon their citizens for little or no gain to themselves to travel to far-off wretched communities and teach their people how to build infirmaries and schools and to grow better crops with which to feed themselves. It has been said by some that spreading democracy was for us a merely practical matter, because democracies do not go to war against one another, but that hardly exhausts the subject of the role we have been playing in the world.

Ron Radosh on a recent reunion of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee):

The keynote speech was given by Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at the same site where SNCC began as a coordinating group for the growing sit-in movement exemplified by the famous Woolworth counter sit-in, where a few black students demanded to be served. They’re calm demeanor and steadfastness exposed the nation to the reality of segregation. Holder, as Hayden could not refrain from noting, is now “under fire from the right” for trying to rebuild “the Justice Department’s civil rights division.” As for Obama, Holder told the SNCC veterans, “There is a straight line from those lunch counter sit-ins to the Oval Office today.”

The purpose of the event was not simply to reminisce, but to “rekindle the spirit of 1960 and build on SNCC’s achievements,” Holder added. “There is still marching to be done.” (On this issue, I will soon write on Abigail Thernstrom’s new book, Voting Rights — and Wrongs, in which she shows how far removed we are from the issues of that era.)

Undoubtedly, SNCC at the start played a major and courageous role in registering black voters in the South, as well as participating in sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, at which now Congressmen John Lewis was savagely beaten in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1961. The problem with glorifying SNCC’s entire history, however, is that the organization departed from its early position of working to establish what they called a “beloved community” based on non-violence and interracial harmony, a goal they shared with Martin Luther King, Jr., and adopted the Nation of Islam’s brand of black nationalism, separatism, and the advocacy of violence to achieve its stated ends — or as Malcolm X famously argued, “by any means necessary.”

Hayden acknowledges the problem, quoting a historian named Peniel Joseph, who spoke at the conference. Hayden writes:

SNCC became “a blip in the dominant [civil rights] narrative,” according to 37-year-old Tufts historian Peniel Joseph, who attended the conference. Historicizing SNCC is extremely important, he said, though there is a danger that “glorifying” the early SNCC implies that a “bad SNCC” developed after 1966 with the rise of Black Power, calls for self-defense and revolutionary internationalism. Those apparent extremes should not be discredited, Joseph said, but contextualized in the failed social response of the US government; the escalation of the Vietnam War at the same time as the Selma, Alabama, march; and the employment of counterintelligence programs by the FBI. (Emphasis in bold, mine.)

Joseph’s logic should be familiar. It is the same argument once used by Stalinists to justify the terror of the Soviet regime under Stalin. As they said, “American encirclement of the Soviet Union, meant to destroy socialism, forced the Bolsheviks to take harsh actions in response to the West’s opposition and counter-revolutionary policies.” It is the logic of Bill Ayers in his memoir on the Weather Underground, when he argues that their militancy and bombings were a response to the evil and bombings of the United States, whose policies drove them to take extreme action. This form of putting things into context can be used to explain and justify almost anything.

And a scene from “Eat the Document” (well, why not?) recently uploaded to YouTube.

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