John Hindsight Kerry and the Politics of Inequality

I was just reading Bertrand Bronson's essay "Johnson Agonistes" which puts Johnson first in contest with the leading men of his youth and then in contest with himself. He emerges as a man of radical spirit yet with a belief in the unquestioned sovereignty of the state, viz. authoritarianism. In respect of this Bronson rightly compares him to modern socialists, but suggests we not make too much of hypothetical party alliances.

In Samuel Johnson we have a man who could say that the contest between the French and British in the French and Indian Wars was "only the quarrel of two robbers for the spoils of a passenger," and that "no honest man can heartily wish success to either party," in sympathy with the Native Americans, yet say that "a talking blackamoor were better than a white creature who adds nothing to life." It's virtually impossible to approach the giants of the past without meeting contradictions such as these, without facing racism here and enlightenment there.

(To Johnson's credit, though, he railed against slavery and appealed to the natural equality of all men, which makes the above quote all the more difficult to take. Bronson notes that he once toasted a group of Oxford dons saying, "Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.")

In the case of Voltaire, for example, (whom Johnson judged a 'rascal' on par with Rousseau) the statements are far worse, as I recently pointed out to a commenter bearing his name. Voltaire wrote several times on his belief that whites were superior to blacks, in perhaps the most disturbing of which statements he extended the comparison saying, "just as blacks to monkeys."

And yet Voltaire, who could not see the humanity of some, is seen as great humanist. Perhaps he was, and Johnson too, and the only words we can add are a paraphrase and emendment of a quip attributed to Themistocles, who might rival Johnson in self confidence. Told that he was a great man because he was an Athenian, he replied that he may not have been great had he come from Larissa (his interlocutor's home), but neither would the interlocutor be great in Athens.

Voltaire and Johnson were great men even in a time and culture which directed the majority toward racial intolerance, and their greatness should suggest that today they would be great by our standards, that the faults of their time would be replaced by our own, faults which the centuries will make plain of us as they have made plain of Johnson and Voltaire.

My purpose for this post was not to discuss racism among intellectuals of the past, but rather to cite one of Johnson's more humane moments against a major issue in Kerry's campaign:

It has been urged, that charity, like other virtues, may be improperly and unseasonably exerted; that, while we are relieving Frenchman, there remain many Englishmen unrelieved; that, while we lavish pity on our enemies, we forget the misery of our friends.

Granted this argument all it can prove, and what is the conclusion? -- That to relieve the French is a good action, but that a better may be conceived. This is all the result, and this is all very little. To do the best can seldom be the lot of man: it is sufficient if, when opportunities are presented, he is ready to do good. How little virtue could be practised, if beneficence were to wait always for the most proper objects, and the noblest occasions; occasions that may never happen, and objects that may bever be found.

The opponents of this charity must allow it to be good and will not easily prove it not to be the best. That charity is best, of which the consequences are most extensive; the relief of enemies has a tendency to unite mankind in fraternal affection, to soften the acrimony of adverse nations, and dispose them to peace and amity; in the mean time, it alleviates captivity, and takes away something from the miseries of war. The rage of war, however mitigated, will always fill the world with calamity and horrour; let it not, then, be unnecessarily extended; let animosity and hostility cease together; and no man be longer deemed an enemy, than while his sword is drawn against us.

John Kerry, as is often true of the Democrats, wants to use the good done by others (here by the Bush presidency) to point out what might have been better. And his most reprehensible claim is that Bush is doing wrong by giving schools and police officers to Iraq while they're needed here. This appeals to an ugly 'us-vs.-them' sentiment as well as playing the politics of 'the good is not good enough.' His acceptance speech at the Democratic convention could have been more direct had he said simply, "I will do what the President is doing, but I will do it better."

The paradox of Kerry's purported umbrella over minorities with his isolationist rhetoric that uses aid given to Iraqi's to highlight the President's supposedly misguided loyalties is irreconcilable.

I was talking with a friend yesterday, a radio DJ whose station has virtually dissolved over internal censorship, and we remembered our days as young undergraduates editing a college literary magazine. One student wrote a piece dedicated to Lenny Bruce, which was composed of a series of slurs and expletives. His purpose was, in the tradition of Bruce, to say that these are only words and if you treat them as words without mystical properties to harm, they will cease to do harm. Of the words (there must have been dozens) the faculty advisors objected only to a slur against blacks while leaving alone every slur against jews and others. My friend and I fought them on the principal first that the magazine doesn't promote censorship, and second that one racial slur is equal to another, that should one stand, so should the rest.

Their argument was, unbelievably, that black students would be more likely to complain than Jewish students, and that black students would respond too emotionally to understand the point of the piece. We prevailed, and there was no uproar because we were right and the professors were wrong: we knew that all students, regardless of race, were capable of seeing a piece in a literary magazine for what it was, that all students, regardless of race, could understand the context and the message.

The facutly advisors were leftist academics of the highest stripe and to them their duty was apparently to protect minorities from things they couldn't understand. It was probably at about this time that I began to see what I might conveniently call the white Democratic base for what it really is: the party of the white man's burden, that is to say the party that believes non-whites need whites to help and protect them, and all too often they pick and choose to which minority they'll give their 'help' in terms of political capital.

I was convinced for a long time that most white Democrats were well-meaning racists, and it was finally confirmed after the last presidential election in a brief conversation I had with a man who lived and breathed the Great Society. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a hero to my acquaintance, though he was quick to temper stories of LBJ's heroism on social fronts like civil rights with anecdotes about LBJ's obsession with his own penis or his predilection for holding meetings while on the toilet. To this acolyte such stories served to humanize Johnson in quite the opposite way that character flaws distance us from an otherwise impressive Samuel Johnson. When Gore lost the election my acquaintance grew angry, yet unlike those who trumpet the unfounded claim of an election stolen by Republicans, he blamed two other groups, in his words: "ignorant blacks and senile jews who can't figure out how to use a simple ballot."

This was the same man who told me on several occasions that it didn't matter whether people voted Democrat for the right reasons, or whether people were voting Democrat out of habit. All that mattered was that as many people as possible vote Democrat because the Democrats know what's best.

I'm not prepared to throw my old acquaintance to the fire for being a racist and an anti-semite (although he didn't seem to realize it) anymore than I am ready to throw Rasselas or Candide to the fire. Perhaps in time he'll come around, and I know he had his moments. But I am prepared to take the mantle of compassion and social conscience away from a party of hypocrisy. And it is hypocrisy when John Kerry continues to use the charity afforded one group in need as a blight upon his opponent and a promise that his own brand of charity is better.

posted by Dennis on 08.15.04 at 02:28 PM


Yet another extremely interesting post. This old LBJ Democrat sounds like quite a character. I'm glad to somebody in that party still honest enough to blame the voters who couldn't figure out how to punch a ballot, instead of whining for four long years about the evil, un-democratic Supreme Court and Constitution. Good for him.

As to the subject of the prejudices of great men of the past, I must admit that my favorite essayist, G. K. Chesterton, as brilliant and passionate a democrat (small "d") as you will ever read, was given to using the "n"-word on occasion and was also prone to anti-Semitism. Friedrich Nietzsche said a few things about women that I don't quite agree with, and Ayn Rand said some things about homosexuals that I agree with even less. We all have our prejudices, our bigotries, our blind spots. I know I do. Someday perhaps abortion will be looked upon the way we today look upon slavery.

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