Verb! That’s What’s Happening (We’re All Racists Now)

John O’Sullivan’s first law is that groups that aren’t specifically right-wing tend to become left-wing over time. I believe this because the process is pretty easy to understand and see as it happens. The Right by its very nature as conservatives is reactionary — acting to stop some sort of social change. the kind of small-l liberalism that lies behind great social movements begins in order to address some perceived hole or injustice in the current social structure. There is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it’s the finest tradition of “liberalism” that they are about liberty — freeing other human beings from the yoke of oppression.

That brings us to “Verb! (That’s What’s Happening)” and the sad decay of a once powerful and important word in our language — racism. The Schoolhouse Rock videos were very much products of their time and watching them can be instructive on some of the zeitgeist of the era. The surface meaning of the video is obvious, of course — it’s a grammar lesson for children about the “action words” in a sentence. A closer look at the video reveals it to be much more. Consider that this is the only video in the series with a black protagonist. A young African-American boy spending the day at the movies watching his hero “Verb,” a black superhero who performs all sorts of exciting actions such as climbing a mountain and flying through the air. Consider the one scene though, in which Verb hits a baseball over the back field fence for a home run. Can you watch that scene as a strong black man faces down a Neanderthal looking white pitcher and strikes the ball as the singer cries “What? He hit it?” and not think of the pained cries of more than a few white racists watching Jackie Robinson play ball?

Anyone who claims to be a small-l” liberal can hardly be proud of one of America’s greatest sins — the legacy of slavery. If “all men are created equal” after all, how did we justify keeping some of them in bondage for 400 years? Of all the ethnic groups that make up America, only African-Americans did not come here voluntarily. While there are very few in America that can’t claim some kind of discrimination, no one save perhaps Native Americans holds a candle to the long, painful journey of blacks toward true equality in American society.

“Verb (that’s what’s happening)” captures a delicate moment in that journey when the spirit of Martin Luther King still reigned and the last barriers of official racism were still being broken. It was a time when attention had moved from the obvious hurdles of racist legal barriers to the more intractable problems of economic issues and social justice. And that’s where it seems to me that it all started going horribly wrong. Verb was aiming us toward a place where we could be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character — or to put it in Schoolhouse Rock terms, by the verbs we lived by, not by what nouns we were or what adjectives were used to describe us. Instead we find ourselves in a future where no legal barriers at all stand between anyone and the achievement of their dreams and we’re more racially polarized than ever.

This is, I believe, because of O’Sullivan’s first law. The reason that these organizations become more and more leftist is because as the initial injustices the movement was formed to fight are torn down, the bureaucracy and organizations remain and go in search of new enemies to fight that will justify their continued existence. Loathe to give up the power ceded them by the community they once represented, they attack new problems with the same tactics and must come up with more and more convoluted reasons to explain their failure to produce any concrete results.

As time marches on, old-school liberals find their movements getting hijacked by younger leftists with no memory of real struggles against social injustice and who are instead looking to co-opt the moral righteousness and zeal of the movement in order to impose their top-down control philosophy. That’s why very few Communists these days will call themselves Communists. Instead they choose to implement drastic collectivist economic reform under the guise of environmentalism. For blacks in America during the time of “Verb,” the American government that unleashed the dogs and the fire hoses on people who had the temerity to do radical stuff like try to vote and go to school in the neighborhood where they lived was still the stuff of living memory. The government was the enemy and the legal barriers it erected needed to be torn down.

Something happened on the way to the modern era, though. Affirmative Action, once perceived as a temporary program to expiate past injustices somehow became a permanent feature of the American landscape and an intractable part of the psyche. The US government, once the enemy, now became Uncle Sugar, the dispenser of all sorts of taxpayer-funded goodies — the denial of which was taken as de facto evidence of “institutional racism” and attacked with the same zeal as Jim Crow and segregation. The segment of the American population that suffered the most at the hands of the US government was now being encouraged to live their lives completely dependent on the largesse of that same government. Didn’t someone once say something about the government big enough to give you everything also being big enough to take it away?

It was with this understanding that I was both delighted and appalled by the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. At the time though, any number of liberal friends at the time asked me “how I was taking it,” as if I was going to break down because “my guy” lost. Looking back on it now, I’m wondering if they expected me to be upset not because my guy lost but because the black guy won. What I tried to explain at the time was that I was in full agreement with those who hailed his election as a watershed moment for this country. The historic importance of America’s first black President cannot be understated and I’m glad that that highest, hardest barrier for blacks has at last been broken. What I also tried to explain is that Obama is not just a symbol, he’s also the President with a country to govern. The flip side of his reaching that height is I and the rest of the country would now judge him under the same criteria as all our white Presidents. He would measure up to the office or he would not and I hoped that his skin color would have little difference in how he was viewed.

To say that that was naive is understatement. A mere nine months later we find ourselves in a contentious health care debate in which all criticism of and resistance to Obama is labeled “racist” by his supporters. The charge is nonsense, of course, but merely leveling it utilizes all the historical freight of that 400 year climb out of slavery and forces the accused to vigorously defend him or herself against it. It forces you to deny being a racist, at which point they respond with “yes, you are” and the goal of the accusation has been achieved. We’re now talking about race instead of the substance of the original argument. Opposition silenced.

Here’s the thing, though. This charge ultimately can’t work. As I was told innumerable times in college “sensitivity seminars,” it’s impossible for minorities to be racist (as opposed to bigoted) because racism requires power. Well when an African-American is President, another is Attorney General and a woman is Secretary of State and your party controls the White House and has a 60 vote majority in Congress, isn’t that the very definition of power? It’s really tough to claim victim status when “The Man” has been reduced to a speed bump in Congress and tea party town hall protests. In fact, it’s starting to look like you’re “The Man.”

The problem here is that by using the charge, they debase a once very powerful word. By treating people who feel disenfranchised as though they’re Bull Connor, it makes them angry and resentful of an accusation that they know has no basis in fact. Ultimately it makes them discount the word entirely. As one wag at the 9/12 March on Washington put it “No matter what’s on this sign, you’ll call it racist.” And by doing so, the accusers remove the ability to call real racists what they are. If you’re putting people who are terrified of an exploding national debt on the same moral plane as a Southern plantation owner circa 1859, I’ve got to ask whose moral compass is out of alignment.

Worse, it betrays the promise represented by “Verb.” “A Verb expresses action, a verb tells it like it is,” it says in the song. Listen to the video again and hear a definite cry for individual accomplishment, for people to do something, not to be acted upon like one of those quiescent nouns. “I don’t know my own power!” The song states at one point and that’s often very true. How sad then to give away that power to those who would use the power of government to control your lives.

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9 responses

23 09 2009
Tune in to the Lars Larsen Show tonight « The Angry Bear (ALPHA)

[…] Rock essay series. If you haven’t had a chance to check them out yet, take a look at Verb, that’s what’s happening which is all about racism and the tea parties and The Great American Melting Pot, which discusses […]

4 10 2009
Dave

I too am a conservative, however, I do not believe the race card was drawn in this debate. The instigator, Carter, does not in my opinion represent anything other than his own beliefs. The president clearly was not interested in this tactic, and I believe clearly opposed it. Now to suggest that the government has gotten us into a “health care mess” is silly. First of all, the health care mess is largely caused by out of control insurance companies who have increased rates about 300% in ten years, and are predicted by top CEOs of American companies to add another 300% in the next ten years. Yes, there are some underlying causes, including excessive jury rewards in lawsuits, but the fact remains that no other commodity in our country (including oil) has seen a 300% increase in this time frame. We have seen fraud in the energy industry (Enron), the financial industry, the credit industry, and even the “Religion” industry, but many Americans seem to think that the health care industry is somehow exempt, and that they are receiving an excellent product that the government can only screw up by their efforts. I am glad these same folks weren’t around when we finally decided to regulate corporations and end child labor and other corporate excesses. In physics it is well known that any unregulated system will tend to fly out of control, we have just seen that lesson in the economy, and either have, or will shortly in health care if nothing is done.

6 10 2009
IronchefOklahoma

Thanks for reminding me again of the Verb Schoolhouse Rock. It remains my favorite. I’d never thought to view the baseball scene as illustrating racism. Thank God we’ve come so far as a nation from those days.

Dave, you’re a bit incoherent, and most “conservatives” don’t plagarize from Huffington Post. If you truly believe that the idea that “the government has gotten us into a “health care mess” is silly”, you might want to check out this article from the Atlantic, where it’s pretty well documented that, well, the government got us into this mess.

24 11 2009
Jim

Not sure who is crying that every criticism of the President is a racist attack. This is not to say that there hasn’t been some pretty racist stuff said about the president. And any suggestion that racism is not part of some of the opposition to this President is absurd.

You also need to go back and check your definition of racism. When you do you will realize that power is not a prerequisite for one to be a racist.

24 11 2009
delsyn

As I pointed out in the article, the definition of “racism” I was using was one that was given me by LEFTISTS in college sensitivity seminars — that racism is an organized system by which one race maintains power at the expense of another and that by that definition blacks in America cannot be racist because blacks have no power. It’s not something I actually accept. In fact i think it’s nonsense. But by that definition, which again is one that was used by leftists, Obama and his supporters can at last be racists.

Hoorah for equality.

As for the dictionary definition:
rac·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm also -ˌshi-\
Function: noun
Date: 1933
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination

Take a look at definition 1 and tell me which side is actually racists. (hint: It’s not the one that practices identity politics and claims that someone’s not “authentically black” or “a real woman” unless they embrace liberal politics)

10 12 2009
Bryan

I am not a racist and will not agree with any of the obama care he has tried to push on us. I do not care what color he is or what politics he has. He is wrong.

3 01 2010
Carl Anderson

To quote: “Of all the ethnic groups that make up America, only African-Americans did not come here voluntarily.” This has been a favored argument of the individuals of African descent, but it conveniently forgets the individuals from the debtor prisons in England, who came to this country as indentured servants (unpaid labor). While admittedly there was not a formal market for this individuals, as there was for the individuals who were sold to traders by their countrymen, the bondage of the these individuals was worse by the very hidden nature of their existence.

3 01 2010
delsyn

Actually Carl indentured servants were not technically “slaves,” they were servants of the state paying off legally incurred debts to society. That’s not to reduce the horrendous nature of indentured servitude or the injustice of such laws, merely to point out that according to the laws of the time, indentured servants hadn’t been taken out of their lives and violently pressed into service as African blacks had — they had already technically forfeited their liberty by falling into debt in Europe.

8 01 2010
James O Conner

Obama and crew want to call all Americans racist. Mathews at MSNBC says Alinksy was a Hero of his, Obama is putting Marxists in power all over America and there is even an online game called ‘2011 Obama’s Coup Fails’ that explains in detail in a satire filled game that any politico would love exactly what is going on. I think this country is in trouble and now even my Liberal friends are waking up to this fact. Especially when you think of the executive order passed last week by Obama giving Inter-Pol the scariest powers you can imagine even over our Constitution. America it is time to wake up faster. Google that game and see what I mean by reading the history- timeline.

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