Roger L. Simon

"Acting Out" on all sides

Most op-eds are as ephemeral as the wind…. or should I say hot air?… and would be better used as fodder for disposable diapers, but something tells me John McWhorter’s piece in tomorrow’s WaPo – Burned, Baby, Burned – will be something more, the opening statement in a serious dialogue. At least I hope it will be, although I fear the likes of some once-great singers will accuse McWhorter of racism when it is they who are projecting their own racist feelings. McWhorter writes out of compassion for black and white – and he doesn’t see the problem as simple.

The subject is the turn taken by some portions of the Civil Rights Movement at the point of the 1965 Watts Riots and where this has led us. I pick up McWhorter at what I take to be the heart of his argument:

In general, black America had been “fed up” for centuries before 1965. A useful black history must identify a different factor that sparked the events in Watts and across the land. This factor was a new mood. Only in the 1960s did a significant number of blacks start treating rebellion for its own sake — rebellion as performance, with no plan of action behind it — as political activism.

This did not come from nowhere, to be sure — and where it came from was whites. In the ’60s, it became a hallmark of moral sophistication among whites to reject establishment mores, culminating in the counterculture movement. The movement was based initially on laudable intentions: Few today could condemn young, informed whites for rising up against political censorship, racism and later the Vietnam War, or a newly concerned white ruling class for turning its attention to poverty and its disproportionate impact on black people.

But political rebellion always leaves in its wake people who are moved more by the sheer theatrics of acting up than by the actual goals of the protest. At the University of California at Berkeley in 1964, for example, the Free Speech Movement rose up against indefensible suppression of students’ speaking truth to power. But on the same campus the following year, a new bunch started the “Filthy Speech Movement,” based on emblazoning curse words on placards and watching the suits squirm. It was rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

That kind of unintentional by-product of genuine activism hit black America between the eyes. Seasoned black civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph — who had made real, if gradual, progress in the struggle — watched as younger sorts shunned their brass-tacks lobbying and rhetorical persuasion in favor of high-profile altercations, preferably involving getting arrested on television. In 1963, Rustin told the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that “the ability to go to jail should not be substituted for an overall social reform program.” But Rustin’s speech didn’t go over too well with SNCC that night, and three years later, the group edged out undramatic but proactive John Lewis as its leader in favor of rabble-rousing polemicist Stokely Carmichael. Acting out was now the main point.

Well, I’m not sure it was entirely the main point. But it was certainly an important one – and continues with us to this day in many guises.