Domesticating Radicals

In response to Mohammad Ali’s death last week, there was an outpouring of grief and adulation for the great man.  Not only was Ali a great athlete, but he great philanthropist and humanitarian.  He was a champion of civil rights and free speech.  At great cost to his career and reputation, he stood firmly on principle in his opposition to an unjust war.  He was known for his smile and his friendships with even the hard-to-love Howard Cossell.

In today’s Sunday Globe, Steven Kinzer, a terrific foreign policy analyst, objected to this one-sided portrait of the great Mohammad Ali: “Don’t mythologize Ali’s rage.”  Kinzer notes how the commemorations have taken the edge off, turning Ali into a kind, grandfatherly, and patriotic soul.  In fact, he was a fierce advocate of social transformation.  He was angry at US racism and the US war against Vietnam, which he objected to on general moral and race-based grounds: killing people of color and drafting disproportionate numbers of African Americans to do so.  I remember that well.

Kinzer then argues that the softening of Ali’s image is nothing new.  Our culture, powerfully abetted by our media, declaws all kinds of radicals.  Think of Father Daniel Berrigan and John Brown. “Activists of earlier generations have suffered the same fate.  Radicals from Thoreau to Paul Robeson to Malcolm X now appear on US postage stamps.  Mark Twain is remembered as a folksy humorist partly because his vivid denunciations of American intervention are absent from most anthologies.”

During their own time, these men—in fact, almost anyone who wanted to change our society—were  generally reviled, termed irresponsible, unpatriotic, revolutionary, un-American.  And there were reasons to revile them.  These were passionate people with passionate points of view, many of which were offensive to a great variety of people, even to those who appreciated the advocacy which made them famous.  In this sense, domesticating them not only robs them of the activities we value but also of their complexity.

The media are not alone in transforming fire-breathing radicals into kindly patriots.  Historians do a pretty good job of this, and the clearest product of their efforts is the generation of men who led the American Revolution.  I would be willing to bet that at least ninety percent of people do not even think that the “revolution” part of that phrase means what the dictionary tells it means: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.”  The synonyms Google offers are: “rebellion, revolt, insurrection, mutiny, uprising, rioting, insurgence, seizure of power…”  These are not polite words; applied to any contemporary activities, they would almost surely be condemned by the great, great majority of Americans.

The “gentlemen” who led this revolution were no doubt thoughtful and principled.  They stood for many of the same principles we hold “to be self evident.”  But the differences between them and us are multifold: first and foremost, they were willing to die for these principles, and many explicitly acknowledged that commitment; second, they were bringing a new order into being, trying to shed autocracy for democracy.  They were change agents.  In our attachment, we stand for the status quo, even, I might add, if the actual status quo does not live up to those principles.

It has become a cliché to say that history is written through the eyes of the present.  We might add that it is written to advocate for a particular ideological position in the present, whether it is states rights or federalism, for instance.  So, in fact, we don’t always domesticate historical heroes.  Sometimes, as in the case of John Brown, we play up their violence as a lesson to contemporaries who even think that insurgency is a good idea.  Bottom line, though, consciously and unconsciously, historians distort what they report, either to prove a point or because they are so imbued with contemporary values and viewpoints, that they lack perspective.

Maybe the most glaring instance of historical distortion is the one imposed on judicial decision making by the “Constitutional Originalists.”  Led by Justice Scalia, the Originalists treat the Constitution the way religious fundamentalists treat the bible—as literal truth.  Then they contend that they know the intention of those who authored the Constitution and of the other Founding Fathers.  Really?  How do they know those intentions.  Serious historians have been struggling to understand these intentions for centuries.  They have also disagreed in countless ways.  If they are to be taken at their word, then we simply have to conclude that the Originalists are poor historians, ignorant and obviously biased.

But to avoid being a literalist myself and getting into an argument about what the Founders’ intentions really were, I would like to emphasize the more important point.  The authors were practical revolutionaries, dedicated to change, flexibility, adaptability.  They would never prescribe, in exact terms, how generations hundreds of years hence, should conduct their affairs.  Rather, as Jefferson often argued, each generation must make its own decisions.  It is totally ridiculous to use them in the service of a fundamentalist style conservatism.

Then, too, we might remove the halo from our Founders.  As great a service as they performed, they also solidified the institution of slavery in American society.  They famously “compromised,” trading slavery to induce the South to join the Union.  The importance of the Union has gotten a free pass in our historical telling.  What, we may ask, was so holy about all getting together.  Maybe two nations would have been a successful way to go.  And, as an aside, wouldn’t the whole Progressive urge in America have been better realized without the South?

Finally, I want to add a word about ordinary people like me.  We are like the historians.  We often join in the process of disarming ourselves.  We make fun of ourselves, of our youth, of the fire and passion that made it so engaging, so much fun.  Part of this has to do with perspective—sometimes called wisdom—gained over the years.  But part of it has to do with not making too many waves.  We grow vulnerable with age, and we love to be loved.  By joining in the stories of misbegotten youth, we remove our own claws.  That’s a good thing—sometimes—but sometimes we should keep the fire going.

 

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4 thoughts on “Domesticating Radicals”

  1. Barry,

    You comments on the leaders of the American revolution remind me of recent commentary on the popular Hamilton on broadway: that rap captures the true spirit and language of the revolution…in a sense it is a way, in your words, “…to keep the fire going.”

    Bill

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    1. Thanks for your comment Bill. Since people tend to live so much longer and to outlive much of their formal work, there should be time to keep the fire burning brightly and for us to help.

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  2. Hi Barry,
    I have not been able to keep up with your prodigious outpouring of ideas, but the Founding Fathers Tag sparked my interest. For years I have been reading “popular history” books and by this time I have reached the point where I now consider our Founders to be Confounders. Were they really idealists or rather acting out of self-interest. George Washington kept his slaves until his death, and was upset about having agents in England advance funds for his crops and supply shoddy merchandise in return. Then the land he was promised as payment for service during the French and Indian War was denied to him when the English made truce terms with the Indians. And how sharply did Ben Franklin feel the pain of humiliation at his examination in Parliament. Were the representatives from the northern states upset about restrictions on domestic manufacture and overseas trade. And did Washington’s army at Valley Forge only number a little over 1,000 soldiers. Yes, the Founders really did risk their lives, but for what reason. I ask this not as a commentary, but as a request for your knowledge of these events.
    Mohammad Ali also confounds me. After receiving my draft notice, I thought about leaving for Canada or consulting one of my uncles who was doing draft counseling. In the end, I thought that the only two moral choices were going into the army or accepting a prison sentence. The final logic was that none of the members in my family refused service in WWII, and did I have the right to declare the Vietnam War to be immoral. Whether or not this was a decision of self-interest still puzzles me today. As for Mohammad Ali, as best as I remember, he said ” I ain’t got nothing against them Congs” and accepted the jail alternative.
    As I have mentioned previously, your blog is marvelously though provoking.
    Mitch

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    1. Mitch, I am beginning to think of you as the co-author of the blog. As to the Founding Fathers, there is so much written about them; and the general views shift with generations. Jefferson is now less revered because of his attachment to slavery. Hamilton is a little ascendant.

      I would say that people always act in part based on self-interest. The Constitution was built on that premise and the desire to balance various self-interested constituencies. The question for me is not whether there is self interest but how much it is leavened by principles that extend beyond self interest.

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