Jesse_Washington_hanging

A reader dissents:

It is hard to know where to respond to TNC. His essays and rebuttal were powerful in so many ways, talking about the values and strengths of African Americans, white American hypocrisy, the way pathology becomes the dominant narrative over the factual evidence of strong values. Yet traps abound. Words like any angry, gloomy, unbalanced come to mind, but he is entitled to his gloom and anger, and who says balance in history or journalism is somehow more accurate. What is a balanced story on slavery, tobacco, or creationism for that matter?

Yet something is off. His claim to the “unvarnished truth” gives away the game for me. It is very hard to respond when someone lays sole claim to the Truth. For all the complexity and nuance in his writing, at moments he sounds like a college freshman after his first consciousness raising social history class quoting and listing his favorite authors. I don’t quibble with his facts or even many of his conclusions. I find the cleansing of our history and the triumphal happy talk despicable at best. By laying claim to the Truth, however, he’s not offering an interpretation to debate but rather challenging readers to decide which side they are on. Oddly in such vulnerable essays, he wraps his arguments in a security blanket: I know the Truth – if you disagree that exposes the real you. He may dislike Ryan, but he’s really mad at progressives.

To challenge his interpretation feels like being a fraternity brother pointing to all his community service and high GPA to justify his drunkenness and general harm to the quality of life of other students. His subtext is that challenges makes one an apologist. Just look at you. How cautious you were in your last response to his essays!

Andrew, if you had grown up in this county, you would have had this experience at university in black-white encounter session and maybe have been less shaken. So I was surprised how much he put you off you guard. Look, I liked and agreed with so many of his points, and he made me think about issues in a new way. But his framing is the kind of bullshit you wouldn’t have put up with from anybody else – but he now has you “needing to re-visit a huge amount of my previous convictions and understandings.” Wow. I’m looking forward to your recanting the Reagan years in the Deep Dish next!

Lord knows we need more civility and receptiveness to other views in our politics, but cautiousness and a false politeness is poison for discussions of this import. Otherwise everyone starts posturing and pulling their punches. I loved the way he showed the continuities for elements of racist thought and practice through the time, but calling American a White Supremacy is bullshit. The word tilts the debate. Our world is categorically different from 50, 100 years ago, despite all the real problems and remaining racism. This is more than some insipid argument about “progress.” Our capacity for change – and for good and ill – is astounding. We are a great country in the Greek sense of the hero with great flaws. His important points on the politics of “pathology” get weakened by his posturing. He hates blaming culture (which he underappreciates), but he sure likes historical determinism (which his oversells).

If someone made the same kinds of factual arguments about the Catholic Church’s manifold sins and wickednesses over the millennia culminating with the recent child molestation scandals, and then said that history defines the core of your religion, you would say no, that’s not right, even while acknowledging all the sordid facts. You might talk about meaning of the Eucharist to you, the transcendence of faith in your life made possible by the Church and its history. There’s a broader, also legitimate perspective that’s lacking. A writer of TNC’s thoughtfulness and insight deserves stronger engagement from you to enrichen the debate. I’m looking for you to get back on the horse.

As I said, I’m not done.

(Photo: the lynching of Jesse Washington. Taken by Fred Gildersleeve on May 15, 1916.)