Passion For Overcoming Injustice Has Seized Americans Once Again

By Walter Moss

History News Network

June 15 2008

Mr. Moss is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. His
most recent books are A History of Russia. 2 vols. (2d ed., 2003-2005)
and An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces
(2008), both works published by Anthem Press (London).

Much passion and intolerance have been displayed so far this election
year. Given that the two leading Democratic candidates were often
identified as "a black man and a white woman," it is perhaps not
surprising that we have witnessed racist and sexist attitudes and
remarks. We have also observed religious intolerance as people
have stated that they would not vote for a Mormon (Mitt Romney), or
who opposed Barack Obama because they mistakenly believed he was a
Muslim. As Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times on the day of the
last Democratic primaries, "the Clinton and Obama partisans spent
months fighting bitterly on the toxic terrain of misogyny, racism
and religion." In recent past presidential campaigns intolerance has
also been exhibited on both sides of the "cultural wars," pitting
conservatives against those labeled "progressives," and may again
intensify as we get nearer to the November election. The recent book
Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart maintains
that we are increasingly isolating ourselves from those who think
differently than us and suggests it is contributing to increasing
narrow-mindedness. Tolerance or intolerance toward other nations,
people, and cultures may also affect how people judge the foreign
policy debate that has already begun between John McCain and Obama.

The twentieth century provided many examples of the terribly
destructive effects of racism and intolerance toward other peoples,
nations, and cultures. We need only recall the imperialism of the
century, the passionate nationalism that helped cause World War I
and the Armenian genocide, the racism and nationalism of Hitler that
helped lead to World War II and the Holocaust, and the senseless
slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in the 1990s ethnic
conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda. In his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh
(1997), Salman Rushdie captures the folly of extreme intolerance that
sometimes occurred in his native India: "In Punjab, Assam, Kashmir,
Meerut–in Delhi, in Calcutta–from time to time they slit their
neighbors’ throats. . . . They killed you for being circumcised and
they killed you because your foreskins had been left on. Long hair
got you murdered and haircuts too; light skin flayed dark skin and
if you spoke the wrong language you could lose your twisted tongue."

Although we often associate such bigotry with ignorance, the most
educated people can also be intolerant. And passionate advocates of
just causes like overcoming discrimination can also sometimes cross
the line and become intolerant of those thought to be blocking
the way to equality. Many of us admire passionate crusaders for
equal rights like Martin Luther King Jr., and I am proud to have
participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s that he did
so much to champion. Also admirable are the efforts of so many of
Hillary Clinton’s older supporters who battled for decades in support
of greater women’s rights. Without the passionate crusading of people
like King and advocates of equal rights for women the emergence
of Obama and Clinton as the two leading Democratic candidates
would hardly have been possible. But two individuals inspired by
King and passionate advocates of equal rights and opportunities for
African Americans, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rev. Michael Pfleger,
crossed over on occasion into intolerant terrain during the Democratic
primaries. Their behavior compelled Obama, who ran as a candidate who
could unite people, to criticize their behavior and cease attending the
church where Wright had been a pastor and Pfleger had given a sermon.

During the past century others acted in inspirational ways to overcome
other types of injustice. Before World War I many people became
socialists because of their passion to overcome the great economic
and social injustices of the time. One example was Carl Sandburg,
who later won Pulitzer prizes for both history (his multi-volume
Lincoln biography) and poetry. Before WWI, however, he became an
organizer for the Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin, campaigned for
Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and in 1910 became
the personal secretary of the Social Democratic mayor of Milwaukee,
Ernie Seidel. In a 1908 essay "You and Your Job," he wrote, "I say
that a system such as the capitalist system, putting such obstacles
as starvation, underfeeding, overwork, bad housing, and perpetual
uncertainty of work in the lives of human beings, is a pitiless,
ignorant, blind, reckless, cruel mockery of a system." And he declared,
"One reason I’m a Socialist is because the socialists were the first
to fight to abolish child labor, and today the Socialist party is
the only one that has dared to declare in its platform that it is
unalterably opposed to child labor, and that it will do all in its
power to remove all conditions that make it possible for human beings
anywhere to be underfed and overworked . . . . The true Socialist
. . . sees a war going on between two classes, the capitalist class
and the working class."

Carried too far, however, such passion could foster a climate of
intolerance that dehumanized those thought guilty of perpetrating
injustice. Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot all argued that the
class-based societies their communism replaced were responsible for
all sorts of evils, including many that caused countless suffering and
early deaths from such causes as poverty and malnutrition. Confident
that their Marxist vision presented the key to a better future,
the most extreme communist leaders mentioned above encouraged their
followers to be ruthless toward the upper classes. During the Russian
civil war of 1918-1920 merely looking like a burzhui (a term of abuse
for the bourgeoisie) could get you shot. Fashionable clothing, glasses,
clean fingernails, and uncalloused hands, all might get you killed.

Like the passion for overcoming class injustices, that for overcoming
gender discrimination has also sometimes crossed the line and lead to
intolerance of those thought to be perpetrating such unfairness. One
person making such a charge was Doris Lessing, whose early novels,
especially The Golden Notebook (1962), were praised by many
feminists. However, in 2001 she said, "I find myself increasingly
shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men that is now
so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed." In her 2002
novel, The Sweetest Dream, set mainly in England during the 1960s,
she was critical not only of communists but also of feminists whose
passions sometimes led them to an intolerance of their own. She wrote
that "some people have come to think that our . . . greatest need is
to have something or somebody to hate. For decades the upper classes,
the middle class, had fulfilled this useful function earning (in
communist countries) death, torture, and imprisonment . . . . But
now this creed showed signs of wearing thin. The new enemy, men,
was even more useful, since it encompassed half the human race. From
one end of the world to the other, women were sitting in judgment on
men." Although her words were criticized by many feminists as being
harsh and unfair, there was no doubt that in gender politics, like in
other types of identity politics, the danger of passion engendering
some intolerance of its own existed.

In his recent book Identity and Violence (2006), the Nobel-Prize
winning economist Amartya Sen takes a global approach to the
relationship of identity, politics, and intolerance. He observes
how people have often identified with "the illusion of a unique and
choiceless identity" such as nationality, race, or class and insists
that a good deal of this past century’s violence flowed from this
illusion. He adds that "the art of constructing hatred takes the form
of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity
that drowns other affiliations and in a conveniently bellicose form
can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may
normally have." As a way of overcoming various types of bigotry, he
recommends the realization that people possess multiple identities and
that it is simplistic and dangerous to put them in little confining
categorical boxes marked by race, religion, gender, class, or some
other one-dimensional category. When his Identity and Violence was
published in 2006, he was a professor at Harvard, but he was also
(in his own words) an "Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with
Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist,
a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer
in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a
defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle,
from a Hindu background."

Some observers of the current U. S. political scene question
whether Obama can successfully foster the type of national unity
he advocates between "white and black, Latino and Asian, rich
and poor, young and old," male and female. Exist polls during the
primaries indicated that he might even have a tough time uniting
Democrats. Many Clinton supporters said they would not support Obama
and vice versa. Immediately after the final primaries on June 3,
some commentators asked whether the various groups that had earlier
supported Clinton would support Obama in the general election or be
like the disgruntled Clinton supporter at the May 31 meeting of the
Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee in Washington,
D. C. who yelled "McCain in 08." Whether or not Obama can be elected
and succeed in being the uniter he hopes to be remains to be seen,
but the history of the past century indicates the tragic consequences
of allowing political divisiveness and identity politics to spill over
into intolerance. Certainly, a good deal of Obama’s appeal is the hope
he represents, whether well-founded or not, that people can overcome
ethnic, racial, class, gender, and other differences and resentments,
and work together for the common good.

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