Why Rag and Bone was praising Café Colonial: they were preparing to take over their old space. It’s not their fault. But this is the way we do things now. Lip service is all that’s necessary. Charity can take the place of fairness, opportunity. We want as a nation to do good, but only on our own terms. The last thing on earth we want to do is take the long view. In a world where precious few nations can or will, we must.
Instead, we dither, play semantic games. Take refuge in symbols. Make clichés out of what should be our priorities. Even Civil Rights — the 1963 March on Washington — has become a mutable symbol of being American, like the flag. Something we wave without having to inform ourselves of its history. Something that makes us feel good about ourselves for reasons we can’t entirely remember. A young yoga teacher I once took a class from suggested we mark the anniversary of the “I have a Dream” speech by committing to reach for our own dreams. He meant well, but the suggestion was profoundly depressing. That march, and that speech weren’t about self-actualization. They were about dreaming on behalf of others: taking risks on behalf of others who need help.
But the yoga teacher’s view seems to be prevalent. That was how Glenn Beck saw it, anyway, when he decided it was appropriate to mark the 47th anniversary of the march by gathering his followers on the mall to “Restore Honor.” Although the march ended up peaceful, it might have gone in a different direction had Beck not had Dr. King’s niece Alveda on his television show. According to an account in the Times by Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize winning civil rights historian, Alveda, who is against abortion rights and gay marriage, showed Beck the 10 point “pledge of nonviolence” signed by civil rights demonstrators which inspired Beck to take a closer look at King and to describe him, not, as he had previously, as a dangerous socialist but as one of a list of Americans who have been willing to risk all for the American experiment in self government. Of course Beck was not inspired enough to see that his own politics and those of his followers are hell bent on torpedoing that experiment any time it dares to offer to better the lives of average people, putting him directly at odds with King. But then it was really more about Glenn than about Martin.
There was another March on Washington recently, which to its credit seemed to have been intended to redress the painful incongruity of Beck’s — Daily Show host John Stewart’s. It garnered, according to CBS News, more than twice as many supporters as Beck’s did, though it’s worth noting, not quite as many as King’s. The goal of the march seemed to be to comment on the bitter tone the Beckers have injected into American politics, which has all but silenced the hopeful rhetoric that characterized President Obama’s election two years ago.
I think this was a worthy goal, but somehow, amid the humorous signs and the anarchic feel, the unintended result was to lampoon caring about the direction of the country, especially in the wake of the election that followed. And one was left, in hindsight of course, with a profound sense of missed opportunity. The feeling, which I think is typical among liberals (among whom I count myself), is that the nation’s problems could be solved if only the Beckers would listen to reason or weren’t so stupid. While I find it profoundly difficult to understand how so many people could vote so vociferously against their own interest — against health care, against repealing irresponsible tax breaks, against regulating the big banks whose malfeasance took us into this mess — it may be that the counterintuitive notion that the government needs to spend the country out of our second worst depression is something that needs explaining. That may seem a daunting task, but there’s always the historical example. Maybe we could get one of FDR’s descendants to go on Beck’s show to talk to him about challenging Big Oil. Or about monetary policy. Or about John Maynard Keynes. It might even make itself into an easy to swallow slogan: Keynes: Think Different. Heaven — or somebody — help us.