The old mantra on the American right used to be that “conservatives have ideas”. I think even when that might have been said by conservatives with some degree of authentic confidence, it wasn’t always a statement about ideas, it was a belief that American conservatism was unafraid of dealing with and describing the world as it actually is. The contrast was to a view that thinkers on the left believed that they needed to represent the world as they wanted it to be, that representation was an instrumental tool for remaking social consciousness and thus social reality.
So, for example, in the 1970s and early 1980s, a conservative of a certain sort could argue against desegregation through busing not just on formal legal grounds, but on the grounds that busing advocates misunderstood the morally complex, organically historical landscape of racial consciousness, residential choices, community formation, and so on. Or conservatives could argue that liberals did not understand the moral nature of some foreign governments, and so on. This is one way in which writers like V.S. Naipaul came to be read as ‘conservative’, through a declared commitment to seeing the world with harsh clarity, without a self-censoring need to overlook unwanted truths and facts.
That rhetoric still ghosts around some self-declared conservatism, but it’s nothing but a bad joke most of the time now. There is a lot of Kool-Aid under the bridge.
On the other hand, the didacticism of liberal imagination does still linger in some well-meaning projects. This may be worth remembering in the months to come if Obama is elected. Obama himself mostly has been very clear about the need to think clearly about the complex, organic, historically produced character of American racial and social identity. However, some of the conventional ways authorities manage and arbitrate identity in civic institutions is still about as subtle as a ten-ton weight dropped on the head.
Exhibit A: Mr. Lincoln’s Way, a children’s book I read with my daughter recently.
The basic premise of the story is that a well-liked African-American school principal has to deal with a recalcitrant racist bully, one “Mean Gene”. The principal is convinced that the bully is basically a good kid.
Sure enough, in relatively short order he has determined that the boy:
a) Has an angry racist father whom he has recently come to live with after formerly being raised by his kindly non-racist grandfather whom he would much prefer to live with.
b) Really likes and knows a lot about birds.
The author is a bit delicate about the home situation, but I read the story as suggesting some kind of custody issues in a broken home. By the end of the story, the principal has somehow managed to get the boy back with his grandfather through off-stage social-services ledgerdemain. The principal has also tamed the boy’s racism and bullying by involving him in a project to attract birds to the school’s new atrium through extensive re-landscaping. (If nothing else, I was impressed by the principal’s ability to freely spend tons of money on this project, although he and Mean Gene do almost all of the manual labor themselves.)
At 48 pages, this is a concentrated dose of genuinely well-meaning but annoying liberal didacticism, and as good an example as any of how counterproductive the approach can be, whether aimed at children or adults.
Who is this book aimed at? Is it bullies and racists? In what communities might you find a lone child expressing racist sentiments which are viewed with disdain and anger by all other students and community members?” Because that’s about the only racist bully who might pick up this book and say, “Wow, that’s kind of like my situation”. Pretty much everywhere else, racism openly expressed is going to come from a social group, and align with some portion or fraction of the surrounding community.
Add to that the proposition in the story that inside a racist bully lies a sensitive person who can be liberated from racism through the expression of his hidden cultural or artistic passion. This is a classic sentimental trope in moralistic liberal narratives, where inner talents or desires create the possibility of secular salvation. Again, I doubt a child who was commonly given to racist expression in school is going to read this and think, “Yes, that’s it: all I’ve ever wanted is to do interior decoratiing!”
The audience is not the racist protagonist, but the child (and parent) who want to be anti-racist. The narrative is tailor-made to flatter them and suggest simple, comforting avenues of social action. Racism in the story is interpersonal sin and without social force. The cause goes no deeper than a bad parent, who is ultimately put in check by a government official quietly managing the problem family’s affairs so that the child lives happily ever after. The racist child is restored to harmony with his community through the development of his individual talents and sensitivity.
A lot of this aligns with what Hazel Carby once called Official Multiculturalism, which is less an ideological product of liberal politics and more a managerial dogma adopted for ease of use by civic and cultural institutions. Ideas about race which are more subtly interwoven into everyday life, or which align with social formations, aren’t tractable to didactic projects, and they can’t be overcome simply by discovering a hidden vocation for pressing flowers or playing lacrosse.
I can hear already the protest that this is a book for young children, and thus, the message needs to be simplified. Good children’s literature, even work that has a legitimate aim to moral instruction or reinforcement of positive behavior, doesn’t have to be simple in the situations it describes or the emotions it allows to its protagonists. The language has to be age-appropriate, and the circumstances need to feel real and immediate to young readers.
Eight-year olds are working through all sorts of interesting, complicated ethical questions about friendship and sociality: they don’t live in a world of simple resolutions any more than adults do. My daughter has been asking about what to do if a friend of hers says something mean to another person, or what it means when one group of friends tries to exclude another group from playing. She has a friend her age who is (to adult ears) brutally matter-of-fact about how she describes the circumstances of her adoption. The variety of family circumstances and family cultures are becoming far more visible to kids her age as they begin to spend more time playing independently at other households. Racism, if and when it appears in their world, is nothing like Mean Gene and Mr. Lincoln.
Kids are as alert as adults to the more uncomfortable possibilities: that some people are simply cruel or bad or broken, that some people that we regard as doing wrong see that wrongness instead as a kindness or necessity, that some pain comes from messy misunderstandings that can’t be fixed with wise advice or a generous word.
Nor is there anything wrong with some of the messages the book wants to convey about how people, even as children, can rise towards fulfillment or happiness. But if you want an example of how rich the idea of finding a haven from family and circumstance through fantasy can be, look at A Bridge to Terebithia. My wife suggested that the message of the book is that you don’t have to believe what your family believes, that if what your father or mother says makes you embarassed or you know it’s wrong, you don’t have to repeat it. Sure, and again, there’s a lot of good work in children’s literature, even short and pictorial work, that gets that message across, but usually with much more awareness of how sly and subversive that idea really is.
Thinking our way to a new civic language about community and transformation, pluralism and connection, change and stability, is a good job for everyone to undertake in the years ahead: it is precisely one of the tasks that political leaders and authorities, whomever they might be, cannot do for us.