I read “A Modest Proposal” and its long thread of comments on “The Burning Platform” website last week. I found the essay to be the usual wish-list of reforms of the neo-libertarian “Leave Us Alone” brigade, redolent of the stale and self-referential air of the college bull-session, without even a hint of a plan to enact any of its recommendations. Nothing surprising there: practical politics are routinely disdained by many neo-libertarians, the better to be immune from the criticism that would come from having to take responsibility for ever actually doing something. It is far easier and much more pleasant to compose lists and call other Americans “sheeple” for not agreeing to them.
Jim Quinn’s recommendations touched on energy, education, foreign affairs, the constitution, term-limits, immigration and other issues. But one thing was striking about the proposal itself and the multitude of comments that followed it; there was a subject which it and they didn’t address at all. An invisible concern.
A writer and a group of men who obsessively and endlessly voice their complaints about their own oppression by the Fed, the IRS and the government – so much so that they want those oppressors overthrown, abolished or radically altered – failed to take the slightest cognizance of that group of Americans whose 400-year history defines oppression in the United States: black Americans.
On The Burning Platform it seems that there is no particular “black problem” in America, except perhaps for the problem of affirmative action. Laws were passed back in the Sixties, the neo-libertarians of TBP seem to say; Civil Rights and Voting Rights. Jim Crow is gone and segregation, too. We’re not prejudiced anymore. We promise. Honest. It’s time for you blacks to get over it, to move on and to join with us in limiting the state.
At best this is a pitiful failure of the imagination. At worst it is the very epitome of the ideology of white skin privilege. Think about it: A segment of society which chafes mightily at every encroachment upon its own freedom and autonomy by the government is oddly oblivious to or cannot understand the centuries-old concerns of another group of Americans for whom society was always the oppressor and government was the liberator.
On these pages, day after day and month after month, the problems of black Americans do not register. Like Ralph Ellison’s protagonist they are the “Invisible Men.” And don’t tell me it’s because TBP is primarily fixed on economic matters. I’ve been a member here long enough to know that no subject is off-limits in Jim Quinn’s Wild West. Anything goes.
Such blindness is politically crippling, too. Last year I challenged the many advocates of third parties on these pages to tell me when they were going to start organizing in Camden, in East St. Louis, or in Harlem, rather than in the already conservative middle-class cities and towns of Middle America. Missionaries, I pointed out then, go where the potential converts are. I said this for a reason: only a broad-based political movement, which can speak to all Americans who are oppressed by our soft despots, will succeed in moving, as opposed to dividing, the country. Solidarity is the key.
If neo-libertarians have nothing to say to black Americans other than “here’s your vote” and “here’s your voucher;” if they refuse to acknowledge that the memory of Jim Crow and “whites only” is still present and strong in the personal histories of hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen; if they do not take into account that millions of black folks may fear them much more than those blacks fear the federal government that the neo-libs scorn; if the neo-libertarians do all these things then they are admitting that they speak only for their own group, and thus are marginalizing their own cause, as well as being obnoxious and stupid.
If you have nothing to say to say to black Americans, don’t be surprised when they turn to others who do, and to other prescriptions, even if those prescriptions are for snake-oil.
And if you do not take into account the unique individual and group history of the person you are addressing, that person will never listen to you. That axiom is true when you talk to your children. It is true when you approach your clients and customers. It is true when you want to appeal to your fellow Americans.
Don’t misunderstand me: this is not to say that we should elevate or kneel to the wrongs of the past, or indulge in the guilt-ridden condescension that is so common among liberals. What it does mean is that we should frankly and openly acknowledge the past as a sign of genuine respect.
Shelby Steele said that “Conservatism offers minorities the one thing they can never get from liberalism – human, rather than racial, dignity.” But in order to offer it, we have to demonstrate the respect that will allow our message to be heard. That should not be difficult: isn’t the story of blacks in this country worthy of tremendous respect?
Conservatives and neo-libertarians have ceded this field for too long, and we have the doleful results that prove our neglect. We illustrate a terrible paradox – a political philosophy with exactly the right medicine for what ails our most beleaguered fellow citizens, being outsold in the market by patent-medicine hucksters because we won’t advertise intelligently to those needy citizen/customers. That is a state of affairs that is bad for us, worse for black Americans and worst for the United States.
“A Modest Proposal” and its commentary illustrate this sad state of affairs by ignoring 13% of our population. Jonathan Swift’s original “Modest Proposal” sought to solve the “Irish problem” of his time by urging the eating of Irish children to make the problem go away. For Jim Quinn, it would seem to be enough for blacks and their unique problems to simply disappear. His proposal for reforming America certainly doesn’t see them, or think it needs to.