Saturday, May 22, 2010

Musings on History as it Is and as it Was

Rand Paul was in trouble this week. He touched on the sacrosanct 1964 Civil Rights Act and mentioned it was less than perfect. For three news cycles he was vilified as a wide-eyed idealist out of touch with reality, or as a closet racist. No amount of denial mattered. The hole he had dug kept getting deeper...until he did the only thing left and shut up. Now he is a silent racist, I guess.

What Rand came to appreciate is that history comes in two parts: Is and Was. The "Is" part clobbered him his week. "Was" could have defended him, but it was no where to be found. My experience is that "Was" always shows up a little late, but in a tux. "Is" is always johnny-on-the-spot with hair-on-fire.

Sorry, dear reader, if I've lost you. Let me try again.

A question was posed to me by a fellow on the How could I defend the sanctity of property rights, as a libertarian, if a black person came to town and no one would give him a meal or a hotel room? Wouldn't the 1964 Civil Rights Act be necessary to save the black man from starvation or the elements? (In other words, Mr. Libertarian Fancy Pants, I challenge you to apply your principles consistently and commit social and poltical hari kari for the amusement of all). I nearly took the bait and responded by putting my head in that noose, but then I read the question again...and I sought more information.

The office a couple of doors from mine is occupied by a most interesting person. He is a tall thin man of about seventy years who speaks with the slow drawl of a life-long Mississippian. He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, though that doesn't prevent him from taking sides in a political fight, sometimes for one and sometimes for the other. As a Jew, he was taught by his father to treat all persons equally because, his father said, "when they're done with the blacks, they'll come for the Jews."

Who better to ask about conditions in the pre-1964 South? So I layed out the question as it had been posed to me and watched him as he leaned back and wound-up his story-telling machine.

" first job out of college was selling shoes in Jackson, Mississippi. I will tell you that growing up in Vicksburg, I never saw an act of blatant racism. I'm sure there was some, but I never saw it. Blacks and whites worked together, lived together. Hell, two black women raised me, and if I did something I wasn't supposed to, they whupped me, too. But I won't mislead you...there were separate drinking fountains and restrooms, and I'm sure blacks couldn't sit in the front of many restaurants. There was probably no trouble because blacks 'knew their place,'" I caught a little wince in his face as he finished his sentence.

"In Jackson, just out of college, the owner of the shoe store I worked in was a terrible racist. He was so bad that he didn't allow his black customers to sit down. They had to buy the shoes standing up and take them home to try them on. When I saw that, I asked myself if I could even work for an asshole like that. But there was a manager in that store who would keep watch for the owner, and when the coast was clear, he'd have the black customers step into the stockroom where they could try on the shoes without being seen. Word got out in the black community and the black customers would come in when that manager was on duty."

He continued. "My own father owned a clothing store and he sold expensive clothes. Many of our customers bought on the layaway plan. Every week they'd come in a make a payment, and I'd remember the black women coming in and pulling cash out of their brassieres or their hose to put down on those clothes. If they couldn't make a payment, they'd stop in and say, 'sorry, Mr. B, but my husband got laid off from the mill this week and I can't pay you, but I promise I'll be back as soon as he gets a job.' My dad would hold the goods, unless the situation got abusive, and wait for them to pay. They usually did. I remember him showing me the card file where all of the layaway accounts were kept, and him telling me 'look here, our worst accounts are white, with not one colored customer in that stack.' I never forgot it."

I relayed to him how my father did not meet a black person until he was drafted into the army in World War II. Whatever his experience was there, he had nothing but derogatory comments to make about blacks, yet one night at about 10:00 there was a knock on our door. Two black men were asking for a lift into town, as their car had broken down a couple of miles up the road. My dad put on his coat and drove them fifteen miles into the nearest town. We all stayed up until he returned. After all, these were BLACK people and outside of my dad's army stories the only thing we knew about blacks was that Bill Cosby was funny, but the rest of blacks were burning down Detroit, Cleveland, and LA (this was the 1960's). When my dad returned, he said 'those were two of the nicest n*****rs I ever met.'

I told my friend that my own convictions were formed by reading "Black Like Me" in high school, and forever after that my father and I were at loggerheads concerning race. Nevertheless, my friend told me that even within families, there was no consistent approach to race. Heck, I replied, even within a single person there's no consistent approach.

And, I said, as a Northerner I was taught that there was blatant racism everywhere in the South. Whites against blacks. No middle ground. This whole discussion about Rand, the Civil Rights Act, and the South is based on stereotypes. The reality was much more nuanced, and much more humane, even if it had elements of terrible bigotry.

I went back to my desk and drafted my response to my questioner.

"It is said that extreme cases make bad law, meaning that the law cannot be written to right every possible wrong. To do so would create solutions that are worse than the sin. Is your scenario possible? Yes. Is your scenario probable? No. It didn't happen that way in the past and there is no reason to believe it would in the future."

"Is" gets right to the point and says before 1964 whites were racists and blacks were oppressed victims. "Was" isn't so kind as to wrap it all up in a single sentence and instead likes to start by pulling out an old cigar, leaning back in a chair, and musing..." 1955 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a town of sixteen thousand or so, I remember...."


  1. I don't see your story as a musing on racsim and civil rights over the last 50 years. It's about freedom. I think that most people at some point in their lives are surprised to discover that they do not have the freedoms they thought they did. Freedom of speech, of action, even of thought, is inhibited by society at large. This is especially so with middle-aged white males who have thus far lived their lives with the illusion that they actually have total freedom.
    I don't think it's bad that Rand Paul recanted his position on the civil rights act, I think it's sad that he had to do it.

  2. Hey, Stephan, good to hear from you! I appreciate that you keep up with my pitiful blog.

    I don't think Rand had to recant. History is on his side, as is simple justice. However, he did a poor job explaining why the CRA overreached an otherwise perfectly legitimate goal (eliminating institutional racism by eliminating the remnant of Jim Crow laws). His father, while being interviewed the next day, was able to explain convincingly in a couple of sentences why freedom for all means respecting the property rights of people that disgust you. That's the difference between a person with 35 years in the public eye and another with just about 1 year. Hopefully he gets better at it.

    I was hoping my story would illuminate the difference between what we think we know of history (most of which is simplified to the point of stereotypes and stick figures) and what actually happened in the past. When we misunderstand the past, we project forward with a false assumptions that lead us to false solutions. The question posed to me on the was akin to "so, do you still beat your wife?"

  3. When you say Rand didn't have to recant, I think you may be falling into the same trap I often do, perceiving those around you to be as you are.
    Whenever I think of the world at large, I can't help but imagine them all as devilishly handsome, mid-forties, conservative-yet-open-minded, middle income, educated, white males - just like me. Said a different way, if someone I don't know makes a comment on my blog, in my minds eye, I see him as I see myself, and I confer upon him my knowledge, opinions and values.
    But the reality is that most people are shallow morons. You and I see the sense and the logic in Rand's statements. Failing that, we can still respect both sides of the viewpoint, but the majority can't. And that's why I say Rand had to recant...
    ...not because of the "you" and "me"s, but because of the moronic "everyone else"s. And there are far more of them than us.