not so much

On January 25, Joe Biden tweeted that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” The. I texted a friend, “Because we’ve fixed all the problems Martin Luther King was concerned about?”

When the #MeToo movement was dominating public attention, I remember hearing Christian commentators say that if you‘re a preacher and you’re not preaching about #MeToo you’re failing your congregation. Later, or maybe before, it was the border crisis that was the obligatory homiletic topic. Those same commentators are now equally insistent about preaching on George Floyd and systemic racism — and yet, as far as I know, neither systemic sexism nor government-sponsored xenophobia have been conquered.

I’m reminded of a motif in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. From time to time in the book some character comments that “Time passes” — to which some other character replies, “That’s how it goes. But not so much.” This is the correct reply: Not so much.

A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at a university on difference and civility — it wasn’t this talk but it was on similar themes — and in the Q&A afterwards I got some pushback against my reliance on examples from the Civil Rights Movement and the broader history of American racial politics. The people pushing back thought I should’ve been talking about … topics of more recent attention. I replied with two points. First, I said, I grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights era and what happened there and then has left a permanent mark on me. I didn’t end up making it my academic speciality to work on such matters, but I have written about them off and on my entire career, and expect that I will continue to do so. Second, I said, I don’t believe matters of race are any less fraught in America 2018 than they were in America 1968.

Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.

If three months ago you were primarily focused on addressing sexism in the workplace, it seems to me that you ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to keep thinking about and working on that now, when everyone else is talking about police brutality. If your passionate concern is the lack of health care in poor communities, here or abroad, I think you should feel free to stick with that, even if it means not joining in protests against police racism. If you’ve turned your farm into a shelter for abused or neglected animals, and caring for them doesn’t leave you time to get on social media with today’s approved hashtags, bless you. You’re doing the Lord’s work.

As for me, I will probably continue to do what I’ve done most of my life, which is to think and pray and sometimes write about racism — even when Twitter and the media that are governed by Twitter have moved on, as assuredly they will, to some new topic about which they will insist that everyone state the correct opinion. Neither novelty nor unanimity is a social good.

Here’s Auden:

Anywhere you like, somewhere
on broad-chested life-giving Earth,

anywhere between her thirstlands
and undrinkable Ocean,

the crowd stands perfectly still,
its eyes (which seem one) and its mouths

(which seem infinitely many)
expressionless, perfectly blank.

The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)
a boxing match, a train wreck,

a battleship being launched,
does not wonder (as everyone wonders)

who will win, what flag she will fly,
how many will be burned alive,

is never distracted
(as everyone is always distracted)

by a barking dog, a smell of fish,
a mosquito on a bald head:

the crowd sees only one thing
(which only the crowd can see)

an epiphany of that
which does whatever is done.

Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,

(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes

and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.