Saturday, November 29, 2008

No Guts, No Glory

I came across this at Alas, a quote from a gentleman who blogs at Instapundit, or Instaputz as some have termed him. Behold, Glenn Reynolds:

I feel a little sorry for Martin Luther King — his enormous accomplishments got less attention than they deserved because of the cult of Malcolm X, and now he’s being eclipsed by Barack Obama. Though I suppose he’d be perfectly okay with that.
Uh huh...

Jeff Fecke proceeds his own takedown:

Now, we can go on and on about the utter stupidity of Reynolds pretending that W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are now totally unimportant thanks to Obama’s victory; indeed, we can go further and note how insane it is that Reynolds would think Du Bois, Douglas, King, Malcolm X, Tubman, and the several million other African-Americans who worked for equality through our nation’s long and bitter racial history would see Obama’s victory as anything other than a positive outcome of their work.

I do agree with Jeff, although, I thought to take it one step further...

Reynolds' perspective makes sense when you account for the fact that a good deal of people who are recipients of social privilege tend to quest for nothing more than personal gain, or for the hero-worship that we tend to bestow on figures who represent fundamental social progress (See Betty Friedan and her repudiation of the feminist movement because she did not get enough attention). Even their participation in social justice is for the recognition they will get for what they do, so there is little understanding of someone who does something for the benefit of more than just themselves, of someone who knows that they may never see the end result of the work that they do, but they do it regardless because someone needs to lay the bricks so that the next generation can move forward a little further.

I would argue that some people can't see any reason to be a visible activist besides the "glory," which is a symptom of the tendency to white-wash history and try to show it without full context.

If all you can remember of the civil rights movement is the so-called "glory" that came with being Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then there are some serious gaps in your knowledge and understanding.

Granted, it was pointed out to me that the very nature of history and historical recollection is about selective editing, and therefore has gaps by definition. I don't entirely agree. I think it is possible to be honest about history to a point. We can never escape our own perspective, and objectivity is especially difficult in the arena of social movements and trends, but we are still able, and obligated, I think, to be as honest as possible when looking back.

The American practice of making shining and pure paragons of virtue out of our historical figures has been key in helping to promote the blindness of the privileged classes in this country. We forget that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, we forget that Helen Keller was a radical feminist and socialist, we forget that Woodrow Wilson was a racist SOB...etc. We want our heroes to be moral exemplars, and forget that they were only human. It only serves to obscure the historical context and reality not only of these people, but of our own time. If we cannot honestly look at the past as something more complex than simplistic children's stories, then how can we create comprehensive solutions for the present?

I would also argue that this heroification leads to the "glory" perspective, these people did the things they did to be heroes, to get the spotlight...and it distances us from our own abilities to affect change in our world. Most "heroes" were and are ordinary people doing what they see as needing to be done at the time. I'm pretty sure Harriet Tubman wasn't risking her life for attention sake, or for recognition of her "great accomplishments". Some have the chance to come in at a time when they can get a lot of attention, some are largely ignored until decades, sometimes centuries after their deaths. When the people who pushed for change are regarded as exemplars of society, "special" if you will, then we assimilate the idea that we can change nothing because we are just "normal" people, and forget that the world is changed by normal people who choose to make a stand.

I have always wanted to be one of those people who change the world. My aunt (who was more like my big sister growing up) has always said that I have an over-developed sense of justice, and a need to fix things that strike me as wrong just because they are wrong. When I was young, I not only wanted to be one of those activists we always read about, I wanted to be the Special kind, the ones that stand in front of crowds and cause a national uproar when they are arrested...I thrived on stories of heroes, and I wanted to be one. Not a comic book or cartoon hero, but a real live historical hero.
As I got older, I realized that being that public recognizable hero is only possible when the groundwork is laid, and that I couldn't just wait for the groundwork to come to me. So I started volunteering, writing, speaking, making a stand in my small high-school student way. After a few years of this, it hit me that I may never be that hero the way I initially envisioned it, but that I had a hand in making possible for one of those heroes to come forward. I am fine with putting a few bricks in the road so that the next group coming behind me can go just a bit further than I did.

When I see my twelve-year old sister taking apart the bullshit of the world designed to break her spirit and put her in her "place", and dismissing it like an annoying fly, I feel like a cape-wearing, swishy-haired, bona-fide super hero.

And that is enough for me :D

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:58 AM

    Well said.

    There's a tendency to forget that there wouldn't have been a MLK without the millions of "ordinary" folks who were proud to be a part of the protests, without any possibility of recognition (and plenty of possibility of real physical injury).