July 22, 2007
A Fourth of July Washington Post–syndicated column by W’s former speechwriter and the author of his Second Inaugural, Michael Gerson, struck so many Republican, neoconservative, and not least of all Evangelical themes that his words should be archived as illustrating self-induced illusion. The column is decorated (or at least it was in the New York Post) with a picture of Martin Luther King, who is quoted to the effect that the US stands for a “universal right” to equality. According to Gerson, who cites the left-liberal journalist Nicholas Lemann, our government reneged on its founding purpose not only by protecting racial slavery but also by not pushing hard enough during Reconstruction. But we can apparently redeem ourselves, by making democracy available to the entire planet—a project we are led to believe both the black electorate, created by the occupying Union army in the conquered Southern states after 1865, and Martin Luther King would have welcomed. All of these victims of prejudice knew that our Declaration of Independence, or more particularly its “all men are created equal” phrase, defines our moral character as a nation. Gerson begins his column by quoting Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison on the evils of American slavery. Until we had banned that evil and begun to move down the road toward full racial equality: “the land of the free was actually a prison house for millions of its inhabitants.”
In reading Gerson’s comments, it seemed to me that his moral zeal might render him impervious to any factual demonstration of his errors. Like other Evangelicals, whose Christianity now consists of reaching out to aggrieved minorities and spreading democracy by force of arms, Gerson, like his former boss and longtime admirer, is such a true believer that one might be wasting one’s energy by offering a point-by-point refutation of some of his positions. But since he is a man of undoubted influence and inasmuch as most young Republicans and Evangelicals of my acquaintance sound very much like him, it may be worth the effort to pinpoint his mistakes. First off, the Declaration has no legal or normative status for the American government. It is the Constitution that carries this authority; and, as Barry Shain convincingly shows in The Myth of American Individualism, both the Bible and John Calvin’s Institutes might have been studied more extensively and with greater interest in early, Protestant America than most other documents. Although Lincoln did appeal to the equality theme in the Declaration, in trying to bestow on his suppression of the South’s attempted secession a high moral purpose, the highlighted phrase is a small part of a much longer document. It takes up a few lines of space compared to the listing of the “trail of abuses and usurpations” invoked to justify the thirteen colonies’ separation from the English motherland. Prominent among these enumerated abuses are having “excited domestic insurrections amongst us” and having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Would Gerson like to explain how these references to the evil of inciting slave revolts and to the ferocity of Indian savages could be made to fit his customized, selective reading of the Declaration? This may be a good idea before we further pursue Gerson’s plan for a world democratic crusade, as he suggested in his text for W’s Second Inaugural, on the basis of a few deconstructed passages taken from the pen of Thomas Jefferson.
Nor need one be a fan of the Southern guerilla bands which tried to keep newly enfranchised black voters from the polls to recognize the folly of Reconstruction. If the Reconstruction Republicans were concerned about racial harmony in the South, they did everything they could to prevent it from occurring. Stripping whites of their citizenship and often property for having participated in the “rebellion against the Union” while transferring the franchise to former black slaves, who would vote with instruction from an occupying army, was a sure recipe for racial strife. The victorious Union would have done better to resettle freed blacks on land in the West, a suggestions that reformed Republicans, including former Abolitionists, suggested throughout the Reconstruction era. But that would have defeated the real purpose of the “black Republican” occupation, which was to create a perpetual Republican majority in a permanently controlled and vanquished South. By 1877 this plan had failed because the winning side would no longer tolerate the occupation and because Republican plutocrats, who were exploiting the South, had alienated Republican Mugwamp reformers like Henry Adams and Carl Schurz. Gerson’s interpretation of Reconstruction is derived from questionable leftist historiography, a fact that should not surprise us. His narrative is driven by often misplaced white guilt, coupled with an aggressive stance toward countries that do not fit his vision of Progress.
His picture of Martin Luther King further illustrates the tenor of his piece, combining anti-racist sentimentality with misrepresentation of his subject. The man he reverentially refers to as “the Reverend” and whom he quotes extensively on “America divided against itself,” and on our fight to recognize our “creed of ‘amazing universalism,’” was far from a traditional Christian, according to such sympathetic biographers as David Garrow and Michael Long. Moreover, unlike those who favor the propagation of American universalism by force, King was an outspoken enemy of the American war in Vietnam, which he unmistakably denounced in a famous speech at Riverside Cathedral in New York on April 4, 1967. In this oration King presented the “corrupt” side, which the US government was backing in Vietnam, as being far less admirable than the patriots who were leagued against us, of whom “at most 25% were Communists.” Worst of all, “we were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in South East Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” In an unfriendly but thorough debunking of the “myths of Martin Luther King” on www.lewrockwell.com (July 18, 2003), Marcus Epstein documents the dishonest way in which King has been reconstructed as a black saint in the neoconservative and Evangelical press. What is most striking in this case is the utter impenetrability of the propagandists to any demonstration that they are falsifying the record.
Note this is not an attempt to vilify King but an occasion to ask why Gerson, who is a self-identified Evangelical and a lifelong Republican, rushes to embrace figures and authorities who theologically and politically would seem light years away from him. The answer, put most simply, is that Republican and more generally movement, Republican spokesmen, are addicted to self-flagellating white guilt. Never mind that Republicans voted in much larger numbers than Democrats for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that it was a Republican president Richard Nixon who in the Philadelphia Plan began the practice of government-mandated set asides for minorities. As late as 1952 the Democratic candidate for Vice President, John J. Sparkman, an Alabama senator, was an explicit segregationist, unlike Eisenhower’s vice-presidential candidate Nixon, who was an outspoken opponent of segregation. In 1956 Sparkman, together with nineteen other senators most of them Democrats, signed the Southern Manifesto, opposing racial integration in public places. Moreover, for about eighty years most blacks, including King’s parents, were Republicans, and as late as the 1950s most of them voted for Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for president. If blacks have now come to hate the Republican Party and even to identify it with the Klan, that would seem to be their problem—and not the fault of Republican or conservative “racists.” This misperception would hardly require the kind of soul-searching and often self-recrimination in which the Republicans and establishment conservatives have engaged in for decades.
In the 1980s Jack Kemp, the New York Congressman who perpetually ran for the presidency from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, taunted his fellow-Republicans by asking them “where were you when others were riding Freedom Buses?” The answer Republicans might have given to Kemp, who bombed out when he pursued the black vote as Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996, is that they been busy, for better or worse, passing civil rights legislation instead of becoming would-be celebrities, by grandstanding as Freedom Riders before the ever-waiting cameras. Unlike many Democrats, congressional members of Kemp’s party had overwhelmingly supported the legislation that black leaders then professed to advocate. Unfortunately Republicans, together with self-identified “conservatives,” are still struggling to get over their own hang-up, when it comes to race, anti-Semitism, and a whole range of fashionable taboos. Whether it was W crawling to the funeral of Coretta King, where he was treated as a pariah, after having removed Confederate paraphernalia from the Texas state house as governor, or Michigan Republican leaders refusing to support a referendum that passed, which removed racial preferences from public institutions, one can count on the GOP to be hypersensitive. And it will do so without having the slightest chance of turning around black voters. Indeed ever since Republicans have embarked on the course of applying rigorous sensitivity tests to their conduct, their appeal to black voters has either diminished or stayed at around 8 to 10 %.
The conservative movement over the last twenty years, as I painstakingly demonstrate in my new book, has become as obsessive as W and his Evangelical speechwriter in trying to apologize for racist outbursts that a preceding generation of more legitimate right-wingers had supposedly committed. But what these movement conservatives deplore was hardly ever as horrible as they imagine. Unlike Democrats, NR conservatives in the sixties were not prone to talk up the merits of enforced segregation and those who, like Frank Meyer and WF Buckley, distrusted the civil rights movement, provided generally sensible reasons. They feared that civil rights leaders, like MLK, were not reliable anti-Communists, and like the political realist diplomat, George Kennan,, NR’s editors, including my close friend Will Herberg, harbored concerns that the victory of these leaders would result in a vast expansion of governmental social engineering and the weakening of constitutional restraints on the federal administration. Everything these figures dreaded has come to pass; and special rights and protections have been extended to an ever expanding array of victims, most recently the transgendered; if movement conservatives are happy with the results of this anti-discrimination campaign, this does not mean that those who were not were either Nazi ogres or fear mongers.
One of the most truly bizarre manifestations of this concern on the right (quite broadly understood) came in the report of an interview on NR Online (February 15, 2005) with Condoleezza Rice by NR editor Richard Lowry. While this report rarely rises above being a puff piece about the war in Iraq and about our first black female Secretary-of-State, Lowry provides a remarkable meditation about how much of the globe was still like the American South before it was opened to progressive change. The new secretary-of-state was apparently bringing the civil rights victories from Birmingham, Alabama to the Middle East. If Lowry’s sophomoric bêtise was aimed at getting American blacks on board for the war, it failed miserably, given the pitifully low percentage of blacks who support either W or Gerson’s war to spread democracy. But the purpose of these would-be deep thoughts was in all probability muddier. The comparison drawn between the ill-conceived war and government social engineering in the American South was meant to remind us of an ongoing expiation. It was intended to underline how sensitive NR had become, lest we confuse it with an earlier incarnation of the same fortnightly. Movement conservatism is still addicted to white guilt, and Mr. Gerson could well be the poster boy for the 12-step group which somebody ought to start to help wean people off this toxic drug. The basements of Evangelical churches might serve as suitable meeting rooms. A nice name might be Self-Haters Anonymous.