Friday, December 21, 2012

Moving Abe

An occasional one-off with a semi-celeb on Twitter is what passes for a brush with celebrity for me. So, Chicago-based rapper and political activist (as well as would-be alderman) Rhymefest has tended to have a contentious interaction with the Occupy Movement. Unlike another Chicago-based rapper who's worked with Kanye, Lupe Fiasco, he sees the Occupiers as wasting time and space better used for direct political action.

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Rhymefest disregards the overriding lessons of the Emancipators and the Civil Rights Era as being out of time. Fine. But then tell me that Occupy hasn't helped to shape the discourse of American politics - tell me that the Tea Party movement also hasn't done so. Tell me that right now this whole Fiscal Cliff nonsense isn't largely directed by the rhetoric of one sort of radical, non-pragmatic paradigm or another.

He's a hostage!
Well, actually...
Tell me that the post-Sandy Hook imagination of the American populace isn't directed by one form of radicalism (the No-Restrictions-Ever-on-Guns NRA and their stand-ins) and the rest of us aren't trying to feebly talk about sensible gun control measures.

Imagine if a large, national peace movement were actually put in place some twelve years ago - rather than a late-to-the-game anti-GOP posturing. How would the conversation about war and violence be engaged now?

Politicians, as historian Howard Zinn points out in his must-read work - including the Zinn Reader - do not lead - they follow. As much as Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery, he had to garner popular opinion in order to get to the office of president in the first place. And before that happened, the popular perception of slavery as being a largely harmless and beneficial financial institution had to be challenged.

So, the slave narratives. So, Douglass, and Garrison, and Sojourner Truth, and Beecher Stowe. These figures and their heroic, bristling words waged a war for the hearts and souls and minds of men and women.

The reformer is careless of numbers, disregards popularity, and deals only with ideas, conscience, and common sense... He neither expects nor is overanxious for immediate success. The politician dwells in an everlasting now... His office is not to instruct public opinion but to represent it.
- Wendell Phillips
The institution of slavery was peculiar to the South. It was an issue that, as a force of evil, was only understood to a small minority of the white population. Yet all were responsible for its continuation even as it was cloaked through being race-based and therefore imperceptible to the White mind as - as a deliberate matter of dividing and conquering - it was out of the sight and experience of the Whites of the North, and out of the personal physical and psychic reality of the majority of White Southerner. The South and the North needed the issue of slavery to be pushed in the open and come to a volatile head - otherwise it would have stayed hidden. Not that slavery itself wasn't a constant threat to the very Southern "way of life" that Southern elites were trying to maintain at all, unbelievable costs. But slavery may never have ended if its death knolls weren't forced through abolitionism (which, again, isn't the same as saying that abolitionists "caused" the secession. But, regardless, they had a hand in forcing the Southern elites to take a form of action, and they opened the way for Lincoln to sign both the Emancipation Proclamation and then the 13th Amendment)

That possibility would not have been the case were it not for the rebellious acts of the slaves themselves opening up the remote possibility of a way out - opening up the imagination of White Americans in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries to the radical reality that Black slaves were not property but people. I contend that slavery would have been much more profitable and therefore more desirable to the entire US if the slaves hadn't acted out in various ways against the bitter institution of slavery

All true Reformers are incendiaries. But it is the hearts, brains and souls of their fellow-men which they set on fire, and in so doing they perform the function appropriated to them in the wise order of Providence.
- James Russel Lowell
It wasn't Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was the actions of the slaves which energized the abolitionists who powered the imagination and moral compass of the United States which brought the conflict to a crucible. This crucible was important, for it meant that the slave-holding elite of the South believed that reparations with an abolitionist-leaning North were now impossible, ergo, they had to go on and make their own country and go so far as to start a war with their free neighbors to the North (Southern Apology Myths withstanding).

In all ages, it has been first the radical, and only later the moderate, who has held out a hand to [those] knocked to the ground by the social order.
The moderate, whose sensitive ears are offended by the wild language of the radical, needs to consider the necessary division of labor in a world full of evil, a division in which agitators for reform play an indispensable role.
- Howard Zinn

To use biblical imagery, when the reformer is the voice of the prophet, we have Moses confronting Pharaoh  "Let my people go." Or we have a newly liberated people, who are slightly more liberated, but then codified back into serfdom through Solomon. In the meantime, we have  Moses, Joshua, Saul, and David - each of whom represents the law, each tightening the screws on their people. Each inching just a bit closer, in their kingly duties, to the role of Pharaoh over Hebrew slaves - though this time, the Hebrew ruler was enslaving his own as well as neighbors - despite the warnings against doing such in the Mosaic law.

Then there's the Samuels and the Nathans. The prophets who spoke to and against, who checked, who lacked fear in the face of the terrifying, who dared speak against the thieving, murderous ways of the kings against common sense.

We need more Samuels and fewer would-be Solomons. We don't need our Garrisons to turn into Lincolns. We need Occupiers to continue to Occupy the American imagination, not pragmatically bow to the whims of a fickle populace.

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