The Corruption and Irrelevance of Today’s Civil-Rights Leadership

From Shelby Steele:

The verdict that declared George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin was a traumatic event for America’s civil-rights establishment, and for many black elites across the media, government and academia. When you have grown used to American institutions being so intimidated by the prospect of black wrath that they invent mushy ideas like “diversity” and “inclusiveness” simply to escape that wrath, then the crisp reading of the law that the Zimmerman jury displayed comes as a shock.

On television in recent weeks you could see black leaders from every background congealing into a chorus of umbrage and complaint. But they weren’t so much outraged at a horrible injustice as they were affronted by the disregard of their own authority. The jury effectively said to them, “You won’t call the tune here. We will work within the law.”

Today’s black leadership pretty much lives off the fumes of moral authority that linger from its glory days in the 1950s and ’60s. The Zimmerman verdict lets us see this and feel a little embarrassed for them. Consider the pathos of a leadership that once transformed the nation now lusting for the conviction of the contrite and mortified George Zimmerman, as if a stint in prison for him would somehow assure more peace and security for black teenagers everywhere. This, despite the fact that nearly one black teenager a day is shot dead on the South Side of Chicago—to name only one city—by another black teenager.

This would not be the first time that a movement begun in profound moral clarity, and that achieved greatness, waned away into a parody of itself—not because it was wrong but because it was successful. Today’s civil-rights leaders have missed the obvious: The success of their forbearers in achieving social transformation denied to them the heroism that was inescapable for a Martin Luther King Jr. or a James Farmer or a Nelson Mandela. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton cannot write a timeless letter to us from a Birmingham jail or walk, as John Lewis did in 1965, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., into a maelstrom of police dogs and billy clubs. That America is no longer here (which is not to say that every trace of it is gone).

The Revs. Jackson and Sharpton have been consigned to a hard fate: They can never be more than redundancies, echoes of the great men they emulate because America has changed. Hard to be a King or Mandela today when your monstrous enemy is no more than the cherubic George Zimmerman.

Why did the civil-rights leadership use its greatly depleted moral authority to support Trayvon Martin? This young man was, after all, no Rosa Parks—a figure of indisputable human dignity set upon by the rank evil of white supremacy. Trayvon threw the first punch and then continued pummeling the much smaller Zimmerman. Yes, Trayvon was a kid, but he was also something of a menace. The larger tragedy is that his death will come to very little. There was no important principle or coherent protest implied in that first nose-breaking punch. It was just dumb bravado, a tough-guy punch.

The civil-rights leadership rallied to Trayvon’s cause (and not to the cause of those hundreds of black kids slain in America’s inner cities this very year) to keep alive a certain cultural “truth” that is the sole source of the leadership’s dwindling power. Put bluntly, this leadership rather easily tolerates black kids killing other black kids. But it cannot abide a white person (and Mr. Zimmerman, with his Hispanic background, was pushed into a white identity by the media over his objections) getting away with killing a black person without undermining the leadership’s very reason for being.

The purpose of today’s civil-rights establishment is not to seek justice, but to seek power for blacks in American life based on the presumption that they are still, in a thousand subtle ways, victimized by white racism. This idea of victimization is an example of what I call a “poetic truth.” Like poetic license, it bends the actual truth in order to put forward a larger and more essential truth—one that, of course, serves one’s cause. Poetic truths succeed by casting themselves as perfectly obvious: “America is a racist nation”; “the immigration debate is driven by racism”; “Zimmerman racially stereotyped Trayvon.” And we say, “Yes, of course,” lest we seem to be racist. Poetic truths work by moral intimidation, not reason.

In the Zimmerman/Martin case the civil-rights establishment is fighting for the poetic truth that white animus toward blacks is still such that a black teenager—Skittles and ice tea in hand—can be shot dead simply for walking home. But actually this establishment is fighting to maintain its authority to wield poetic truth—the authority to tell the larger society how it must think about blacks, how it must respond to them, what it owes them and, then, to brook no argument.

The Zimmerman/Martin tragedy has been explosive because it triggered a fight over authority. Who gets to say what things mean—the supporters of George Zimmerman, who say he acted in self-defense, or the civil-rights establishment that says he profiled and murdered a black child? Here we are. And where is the authority to resolve this? The six-person Florida jury, looking carefully at the evidence, decided that Mr. Zimmerman pulled the trigger in self-defense and not in a fury of racial hatred.

And here, precisely at the point of this verdict, is where all of America begins to see this hollowed-out civil-rights establishment slip into pathos. Almost everyone saw this verdict coming. It is impossible to see how this jury could have applied the actual law to this body of evidence and come up with a different conclusion. The civil-rights establishment’s mistake was to get ahead of itself, to be seduced by its own poetic truth even when there was no evidence to support it. And even now its leaders call for a Justice Department investigation, and they long for civil lawsuits to be filed—hoping against hope that some leaf of actual racial victimization will be turned over for all to see. This is how a once-great social movement looks when it becomes infested with obsolescence.

One wants to scream at all those outraged at the Zimmerman verdict: Where is your outrage over the collapse of the black family? Today’s civil-rights leaders swat at mosquitoes like Zimmerman when they have gorillas on their back. Seventy-three percent of all black children are born without fathers married to their mothers. And you want to bring the nation to a standstill over George Zimmerman?

There are vast career opportunities, money and political power to be gleaned from the specter of Mr. Zimmerman as a racial profiler/murderer; but there is only hard and selfless work to be done in tackling an illegitimacy rate that threatens to consign blacks to something like permanent inferiority. If there is anything good to be drawn from the Zimmerman/Martin tragedy, it is only the further revelation of the corruption and irrelevance of today’s civil-rights leadership.

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Words of Wisdom

From Thomas Sowell:

“We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.”
— F. A. Hayek

“Many respectable writers agree that if a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant, he may stand his ground, and that, if he kills him, he has not exceeded the bounds of lawful self-defense. That has been the decision of this court.”
— Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Brown v. United States, 1921

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
— John Adams

“A human group transforms itself into a crowd when it suddenly responds to a suggestion rather than to reasoning, to an image rather than an idea, to an affirmation rather than to proof, to the repetition of a phrase rather than to arguments, to prestige rather than to competence.”
— Jean-François Revel

“The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie.”
— J. A. Schumpeter

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
— T. S. Eliot

“The study of human institutions is always a search for the most tolerable imperfections.”
— Richard A. Epstein

“There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief.”
— Edmund Burke

“We do not live in the past, but the past in us.”
— U. B. Phillips

“It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”
— James Madison

“A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.”
— Milton Friedman

“ . . . leniency toward criminals contrasted starkly with severity toward the law-abiding citizen’s right to defend himself or herself.”
— Joyce Lee Malcolm

“A government with all this mass of favours to give or to withhold, however free in name, wields a power of bribery scarcely surpassed by an avowed autocracy, rendering it master of the elections in almost any circumstances but those of rare and extraordinary public excitement.”
— John Stuart Mill

“Criticism is easy; achievement is more difficult.”
— Winston Churchill

“Everybody has asked the question . . . ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!”
— Frederick Douglass

“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”
— Paul Johnson

“It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”
— Calvin Coolidge

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In Michigan, Reality is Unconstitutional

From Mark Steyn:

By the time Detroit declared bankruptcy, Americans were so inured to the throbbing dirge of Motown’s Greatest Hits — 40 percent of its streetlamps don’t work; 210 of its 317 public parks have been permanently closed; it takes an hour for police to respond to a 9-1-1 call; only a third of its ambulances are driveable; one-third of the city has been abandoned; the local realtor offers houses on sale for a buck and still finds no takers; etc., etc. — Americans were so inured that the formal confirmation of a great city’s downfall was greeted with little more than a fatalistic shrug.

But it shouldn’t be. To achieve this level of devastation, you usually have to be invaded by a foreign power. In the War of 1812, when Detroit was taken by a remarkably small number of British troops without a shot being fired, Michigan’s Governor Hull was said to have been panicked into surrender after drinking heavily. Two centuries later, after an almighty 50-year bender, the city surrendered to itself. The tunnel from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit, Michigan, is now a border between the First World and the Third World — or, if you prefer, the developed world and the post-developed world. To any American time-transported from the mid 20th century, the city’s implosion would be literally incredible: Were he to compare photographs of today’s Hiroshima with today’s Detroit, he would assume Japan won the Second World War after nuking Michigan. Detroit was the industrial powerhouse of America, the “arsenal of democracy,” and in 1960 the city with the highest per capita income in the land. Half a century on, Detroit’s population has fallen by two-thirds, and in terms of “per capita income,” many of the shrunken pool of capita have no income at all beyond EBT cards. The recent HBO series Hung recorded the adventures of a financially struggling Detroit school basketball coach forced to moonlight as a gigolo. It would be heartening to think the rest of the bloated public-sector work force, whose unsustainable pensions and benefits have brought Detroit to its present sorry state (and account for $9 billion of its $11 billion in unsecured loans), could be persuaded to follow its protagonist and branch out into the private sector, but this would probably be more gigolos than the market could bear, even allowing for an uptick in tourism from Windsor.

So, late on Friday, some genius jurist struck down the bankruptcy filing. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina declared Detroit’s bankruptcy “unconstitutional” because, according to the Detroit Free Press, “the Michigan Constitution prohibits actions that will lessen the pension benefits of public employees.” Which means that, in Michigan, reality is unconstitutional.

So a bankrupt ruin unable to declare bankruptcy is now back to selling off its few remaining valuables, as I learned from a Detroit News story headlined “Howdy Doody May Test Limits of Protecting Detroit Assets.” For those of you under 40 — okay, under 80 — Howdy Doody is the beloved American children’s puppet, in western garb with a beaming smile and 48 freckles, one for every state, which gives you some idea of when his heyday was. The Howdy Doody Show ended its run on September 24, 1960, which would have made sense for Detroit, too. The city’s Institute of Arts paid $300,000 for the original Howdy Doody puppet — or about the cost of 300,000 three-bedroom homes. Don’t get too excited — you can’t go to Detroit and see him on display; he’s in storage. He’s in some warehouse lying down doing nothing all day long, like so many other $300,000 city employees. Instead of selling him off, maybe they should get him moonlighting as a gigolo and sell it to HBO as Hungy Doody (“When you’re looking for the real wood”). What else is left to sell? The City of Windsor has already offered to buy the Detroit half of the Detroit/Windsor tunnel, perhaps to wall it up.

With bankruptcy temporarily struck down, we’re told that “innovation hubs” and “enterprise zones” are the answer. Seriously? In my book After America, I observe that the physical decay of Detroit — the vacant and derelict lots for block after block after block — is as nothing compared to the decay of the city’s human capital. Forty-seven percent of adults are functionally illiterate, which is about the same rate as the Central African Republic, which at least has the excuse that it was ruled throughout the Seventies by a cannibal emperor. Why would any genuine innovator open a business in a Detroit “innovation hub”? Whom would you employ? The illiterates include a recent president of the school board, Otis Mathis, which doesn’t bode well for the potential work force a decade hence.

Given their respective starting points, one has to conclude that Detroit’s Democratic party makes a far more comprehensive wrecking crew than Emperor Bokassa ever did. No bombs, no invasions, no civil war, just “liberal” “progressive” politics day in, day out. Americans sigh and say, “Oh, well, Detroit’s an ‘outlier.’” It’s an outlier only in the sense that it happened here first. The same malign alliance between a corrupt political class, rapacious public-sector unions, and an ever more swollen army of welfare dependents has been adopted in the formally Golden State of California, and in large part by the Obama administration, whose priorities — “health” “care” “reform,” “immigration” “reform” — are determined by the same elite/union/dependency axis. As one droll tweeter put it, “If Obama had a city, it would look like Detroit.”

After the Battle of Saratoga, Adam Smith famously told a friend despondent that the revolting colonials were going to be the ruin of Britain, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” — and in a great city, too. If your inheritance includes the fruits of visionaries like Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge brothers, you can coast for a long time, and then decline incrementally, and then less incrementally, and then catastrophically, until what’s left is, as the city’s bankruptcy petition puts it, “structurally unsound and in danger of collapse.” There is a great deal of ruin in advanced societies, but even in Detroit it took only six decades.

“Structurally unsound and in danger of collapse”: Hold that thought. Like Detroit, America has unfunded liabilities, to the tune of $220 trillion, according to the economist Laurence Kotlikoff. Like Detroit, it’s cosseting the government class and expanding the dependency class, to the point where its bipartisan “immigration reform” actively recruits 50–60 million low-skilled chain migrants. Like Detroit, America’s governing institutions are increasingly the corrupt enforcers of a one-party state — the IRS and Eric Holder’s amusingly misnamed Department of Justice being only the most obvious examples. Like Detroit, America is bifurcating into the class of “community organizers” and the unfortunate denizens of the communities so organized.

The one good thing that could come out of bankruptcy is if those public-sector pensions are cut and government workers forced to learn what happens when, as National Review’s Kevin Williamson puts it, a parasite outgrows its host. But, pending an appeal, that’s “unconstitutional,” no matter how dead the host is. Beyond that, Detroit needs urgently both to make it non-insane for talented people to live in the city, and to cease subjecting its present population to a public “education” system that’s little more than unionized child abuse. Otherwise, Windsor, Ontario, might as well annex it for a War of 1812 theme park — except if General Brock and the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles had done to Detroit what the Democratic party did they’d be on trial for war crimes at The Hague.

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BigGovernmentCare

From Daniel Henninger:

Mark July 3, 2013, as the day Big Government finally imploded.

July 3 was the quiet afternoon that a deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy announced in a blog post that the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate would be delayed one year. Something about the “complexity of the requirements.” The Fourth’s fireworks couldn’t hold a candle to the sound of the U.S. government finally hitting the wall.

Since at least 1789, America’s conservatives and liberals have argued about the proper role of government. Home library shelves across the land splinter and creak beneath the weight of books arguing the case for individual liberty or for government-led social justice. World Wrestling smackdowns are nothing compared with Hayek vs. Rawls.

Maybe we have been listening to the wrong experts. Philosophers and pundits aren’t going to tell us anything new about government. The one-year rollover of ObamaCare because of its “complexity” suggests it’s time to call in the physicists, the people who study black holes and death stars. That’s what the federal government looks like after expanding ever outward for the past 224 years.

Even if you are a liberal and support the goals of the Affordable Care Act, there has to be an emerging sense that maybe the law’s theorists missed a signal from life outside the castle walls. While they troweled brick after brick into a 2,000-page law, the rest of the world was reshaping itself into smaller, more nimble units whose defining metaphor is the 140-character Twitter message.

Laughably, Barack Obama tried this week to align himself with the new age in a speech calling yet again for “smarter” government. It requires whatever lies on the far side of chutzpah to say this after passing a 1930s-style law that is both incomprehensible and simply won’t work. ObamaCare is turning into pure gravity. Nothing moves.

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