269. "Let's Build Bridges Instead of Widening the Chasm" Philadelphia Inquirer, (June 18, 1995).
Hot-headed feminists, militant blacks, Act-Up gays and “Iron John” white males need a first-rate marriage counselor. In a marriage, the counselor would explain, one makes a basic decision: either to break it up or to fight to recast it. If you choose to stay you must learn to fight with one hand tied behind your back. There are clear rules of engagement that allow one to advance one’s interests and values without dissolving the union.
Speaking to those who challenge the status quo, the counselor might argue: Leave aside for a moment what is morally right - whether or not reverse discrimination is just, equality of results (as distinct from that of opportunities) is fair, and how many points past oppression buys. Think pragmatically; you are driving the other partner raving mad.
The white male backlash was a major factor in the sea change that swept in the 1995 Congress. One of its first acts was to zero-out public funds for minority and gender-based caucuses. Slashing programs of special interests to these Americans followed.
From California a new initiative is spreading like wildfire; it will prohibit the use of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as criteria for any government allocation.
Next comes a fight over abortion rights and the Presidency. In short, much of what has been achieved over the last decades is being endangered.
There are those, from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to Shelby Steele, who argue that America will get out of this corner only if we stop all identity politics and treat one another as individuals rather than as members of one group or another. The American way, they stress, is to treat individuals not according to who they are or where they came from, but according to what they have achieved and where they are headed.
I beg to differ. I join with those who point out that acting as a group provides political backing and psychological hand-holding, especially needed by the disadvantaged members of society.
What is required is a new kind of group politics: advancing what one considers right while keeping one eye on maintaining the community of which we all are members.
To do so one must fight without demonizing the other side, pushing all the emotional buttons one can find, and hitting below the belt. To state that all men are “fascist pigs” or “potential rapists” out to humiliate and exploit women; that all whites are racists, one can tell by their white skin; or that Jews are slave traders may give one a temporary high but does not make for a good, within-community-bounds, fight.
It is also certain to mobilize the opposition to the hilt and thus to inhibit, rather than enhance, progress. To hound the president of a college who actively championed minorities for 30 years because of three terrible misspoken words is to tell every white male “forget it, whatever you do will not buy you the kind of license we accord to our members everyday.”
To repeatedly argue that The Man cannot understand us because he has never been in pour place, is to say: “No sense in trying, you insensitive clod.” To argue that whatever white males did for social justice is woefully insufficient at best and was done out of selfish motives to begin with, is tantamount to waving red flags in the face of a herd of charging bulls.
Turning to the white male partners, our marriage counselor will seek to ensure that they will not misconstrue a more civil tone, a less confrontational approach, a willingness to appreciate progress, even to strike some compromises - as signs of weakness, let alone willingness to perpetuate the status quo. Indeed, white males must be dissuaded from using their sense of being wronged and a renewed spirit of community as justifications to stop reexamining the injustices built into our society and participating in finding ways to overcome them.
They should remember that the ugly past leaves many of today’s minorities and women hurt and suspicious. They should use an inter-racial and inter-gender cease-fire to resolve differences rather than hide from them.
More open and honest dialogue across the trenches is a fine place to begin building bridges. White males should stop patronizing the other sides by nodding politely in seeming agreement when confronted, while they seethe inside. And minority activists and feminists can find ways to convey their points rather than mainly vent their anger, however justified.
They all may join in the national conversation on diversity and identity just launched by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH calls for a series of meetings rather than a one-time shouting match, and may use facilitators to ensure that the various parties will hear one another rather than reinforce the mutual prejudices.
Even more promising is for all sides to engage in more endeavors in which they share a common goal while continuing their inter-group struggles.
Above all, we cannot wait for the marriage counselor. Each of us is to remember that we are members of multi-layered communities: those of our own particular group and the more encompassing community of communities, the society at large. We all ought to learn how to modify the ties that bind us without severing them, and how one refrains from exploiting the call to maintain a union to oppose those accommodations that are just and overdue.