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.