jimsleeper.com » Racial Conspiracy Mongers, Right and Left

Racial Conspiracy Mongers, Right and Left

By Jim Sleeper – April 5, 2010, TPMCafe

The New Republic recently published (unwittingly, no doubt) a right-wing alarm about a curse that’s supposedly been cast on African-Americans and all of us by the leftist-activist professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, who supposedly tried to bring down capitalism by flooding the welfare rolls in the 1960s.

TNR’s purveyor of this long-exhausted half-truth is John McWhorter, a young black linguist-turned-conservative racial bargainer who casts Piven and Cloward among the crackpots he’d love to erase from memory: “Rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda [as Piven and Cloward] had such power over the lives of the innocent….., helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.”

Such power? Wow! McWhorter is certainly on-message with recent thunderings about Piven and Cloward by Glenn Beck and by the right-radical provocateur David Horowitz, who is everyone’s source on the horrors perpetrated by these two. But there’s a wrinkle: Horowitz’s source on Piven and Cloward is me, in The Closest of Strangers, Chapter 3, “The Politics of Polarization.” I know this because Horowitz told me so. And thereby hang a tale and a sobering lesson.

Piven, Cloward and much of the left in those years were in thrall to an ideology about racism and capitalism that carried an immense burden of truth. But it nevertheless needed the deconstruction I provided in my Chapter 3 and on pp 159-162, drawing on my own immersion in inner-city Brooklyn in the 1980s. In 1990, soon after my reckoning was published, Horowitz, whom I did not know, called to tell me that he loved the book and had a black in-law, who could testify to its profound truth.

Easing myself off the phone with a polite “Thanks, but no thanks,” I saw the danger of racial truth-telling in polarized times. After some vilification from the Piven-oriented left and some sloppy wet kissing from neo-cons, I began to understand how George Orwell felt when he tried to tell the London left what was really going on in the anti-fascist struggle in Spain and was promptly accused of giving aid and comfort to Franco and Hitler.

A lot of leftist ideology cast blacks as the cats paws of revolutionary change in a society that, after all, had consigned them to a “reserve army of the unemployed.” But Piven and Cloward’s call for a racialized “politics of turmoil” held no real solutions for an already-unjust and often-hypocritical American civic culture. It certainly offered no deliverance to a socialist agenda by relying on a politics of racial paroxysm.

But neither were Piven and Cloward and their ilk the malevolent conspirators they’re now being made out to be. And they certainly weren’t the main reasons why the liberal capitalist welfare state, such as it was, did as much damage as it often did do.

My book makes all this clear, I think. There are some deep, formative, moralistic, ideological and tragic reasons why some on the left still don’t get it and cling to racialist solutions. They dismiss Obama’s racial successes, which relied on understandings and strategies I’d commended back in the early 1990s, when everyone was scoffing at them, except for some piously hypocritical conservatives who loved preaching black “moderation” for reasons of their own.

Of course, Obama’s successes (such as they are), let alone his 2008 election victory, are maddening racist losers. But the demise of segregation drove other such losers to flail at liberals and to bomb black churches in the 1960s. But that wasn’t a reason for those who were winning, however painfully and slowly, to behave just like the losers. And it isn’t a reason now.

Anyone who wants to consider these arguments more seriously than one can in a blog post should read the book or at least this TPM column from the 2008 campaign, in which I assess what both well-meaning progressives and black conservatives such as Shelby Steele and McWhorter are missing.

I rather admired Steele’s The Content of Our Character, published in 1990 just before The Closest of Strangers, and my book I quoted observations of his that were and remain profoundly right. In TPM, I sketch where he’s gone wrong. Life is like that, folks.

I rather admired McWhorter’s Losing the Race, too, in a review for The Washington Monthly in 2000. But I cautioned McWhorter there and then against becoming the conservative-movement water-carrier that he is, at least in his facile New Republic piece, where he also dismisses the Brazilian radical educator of the 1960s and early 1970s, Paolo Freire, who (unlike Piven and Cloward) has been one of my inspirations (as I once had occasion to explain by quoting Freire in a pained meditation on my encounters with poverty, race, and a rich congressman in Brooklyn).

The frightening effects of conspiracy mongering about the Piven and Cloward should give McWhorter pause. Those effects are described in The Nation by Richard Kim, who also disproves any Piven-Cloward conspiracy by noting (as McWhorter did, too, but not in their defense) that The Nation itself published their manifesto for revolutionary welfare reform quite openly in 1966.

But Kim’s account also seems to me to carry an almost-eager anticipation of still worse from the right — hoping, perhaps. that such eruptions will vindicate progressive virtue and wake everyone up. It’s almost as if each side is now feeling a temptation to egg the other on.

To which I say, Beware the prospect of unmasking the Evil Others. Yes, they’re out there. But just as George Kennan was right to urge containment of the Soviets rather than a desperate rollback, we keepers of the American civic-republican faith and flame had better develop new ways to stand strong without lashing out histrionically and widening William Butler Yeats’ gyre.

LATE NOTE: A fragment from this column was quoted to Piven on NPR’s New York Station, WNYC, by show host Brian Lehrer, the morning after I posted it. Here’s the link. In response to the column, Piven did her old-left dodge, calling me a “wobbler” between “the liberal left and the conservative right.” She’ll never understand that, as a civic-republican, I am occasionally scathing of both left and right, not because I think that both sides are equally bad but because Piven’s left plays inexorably into the hands of the more-powerful right, again and again. They do it every time, and they know not what they do.

Here is a comment from someone who does know. It was posted on the WNYC site by “Jimmy of Staten Island,” one of the New York City boroughs where many “Archie Bunkers” live. Jimmy iisn’t fodder for the Tea Party movement, but neither will he ever be reached by people who think as Piven does or who write him off as a racist or “enabler” of racists.

We tend to forget, by the way, that the welfare-rights histrionics that Piven and Cloward touted as a “politics of turmoil” had a lot of “Tea Party”-like behavior in it.

Jimmy from Staten Island:

“Still a Democrat, still Union, but Lord Almighty, folks like Ms. Piven do little but alienate the folks in my local, and weaken their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

“Her ‘strategy’ to cause rifts within the voting blocs that make up Municipal Democratic Parties, obstensibly to force LBJ’s hand, did nothing but bring about Nixon-Reagan, and the long-term kneecapping of the greater, national Democratic party.

“To still spout that ‘rights’ without ‘responsibilities’ is ‘humiliating’ is just sad, and does nothing to retain a cohesive Democratic majority.”

I rest my case — against Piven & Co. for being so hapless, but, even more, against Beck, Horowitz, and McWhorter for trying to make political hay out of her and others holding “such power over the lives of innocents.” Only hypocritical conservatives and liberal racists would fall for phony indignation like that.