A friend sent me the link to a story on NPR about Juan Williams’ new book condemning what Williams perceives as the stuck irrelevance of entrenched African American leadership and calling for a new leadership paradigm. “Have you thought about blogging on” this book? “It would be good,” she wrote, “to see what you have to say.”
My first reaction? A particle of anxiety dislodged itself from my brain and rolled onto my desk. “Oh, yeah,” the particle said. “How about wearing a “kick me” sign instead?”
I stared it down. Controversy-wise, I’m a card-carrying counter-phobic, so It’s hard to admit that in some colonized corner of my brain sits reluctance to tackle such a controversial subject. I locate it right at the intersection of my own cowardice and a social phenomenon: the armoring of such issues in a coat of hot-button symbolism thick enough to be nearly impenetrable. I grew up in a culture that cautioned against “airing dirty laundry”–criticizing other Jews in gentiles’ hearing–and African American friends have told me their training was the same. If you are taught that oppression inoculates against criticism, it can take heroic effort to call out people whose identity is entangled with a history of oppressions, even your own.
I was thinking (as was Williams) of Bill Cosby’s highly hyperbolic, impolitic and somewhat incoherent comments to the NAACP’s May, 2004, 50th anniversary celebration of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and of the firestorm that followed. Cosby delivered a bootstraps sermon, calling on Black people to mobilize will and discipline in their own interests and cease blaming others for their misery.
Whenever a critic preaches for self-determination and against a grounding a culture in victimhood, it touches a nerve. People respond strongly to a rousing call to stand up for oneself; at the same time, they fear it will obscure the realities of oppression, implying that those on the losing end of society’s arrangements deserve to be there. Even the left was divided: Cornel West defended Cosby for loving people enough to tell them the truth; Michael Eric Dyson condemned him as elitist, for failing to comprehend the complex difficulties of living in poverty amidst plenty, for being blinded by his own power and privilege.
But in truth, I needn’t have hesitated. Because even though Williams’ analysis is completely framed and embedded in a specifically African American context, I couldn’t find a single point in the excerpt I read that didn’t apply to leaders of every color, creed and gender.
While making clear there are exceptions to the rule, Williams charges leaders with evading essential issues in favor of headline-grabbing irrelevancies. He indicts them for caring more about the own positions than about speaking truth. He challenges them for perpetually fighting old battles, rather than speaking to current conditions and future prospects. He chides them for failing to condemn destructive behaviors because they fear offending and attracting criticism. He takes them to task for avoiding the sort of visionary, inspirational rhetoric that once mobilized people in their own interests, for neglecting the power of self-determination in favor of a “tired rant” about oppressors’ power.
It’s one extremely dicey thing to preach against the politics of victimization to people whose history is marred with structural discrimination, with the pain of being baselessly despised. And quite another when that stance has become ubiquitous, completely unmoored from historical fact. What strikes me about Williams’ analysis is how it applies even to the once-robust and almost entirely white right wing.
Once it seemed the right could chug along forever by stoking its engines with the fuel of victimization: real Americans, the right’s message went, need to take back their country from diabolical left-wing elites who have locked Christian values out of the marketplace of ideas. The majority is oppressed, they said, by a godless minority. (I once met a theoretician of the right who confessed that his faction’s ascendancy began when they decided to borrow this winning strategy from sixties civil rights activists.) Now, I can’t say the message ever seemed remotely accurate to me, but it did work on its intended audience for an amazingly long time. Yet today, even in parts of the right, people seem tired of that same old song.
Good leadership inspires, helps create focal points within the body politic and helps people recognize possibility in each other. This country’s current gap in leadership takes precisely the shape Juan Williams has given it within the specific world of African American power and possibility. The remedy is the same too: from brave individuals of any description, what I want to see and hear is inspiring talk of possibility if we act in our common interests. I want to hear leaders stand up and exhort us to stop giving our power away to those we fear, mistrust or find unworthy. I want to hear from leaders who aren’t afraid to point out ways we as a people are acting to undermine the peace, health, justice and prosperity we desire.
I hope that by singling out African American leaders for his critique, Williams (and the response to his writing) will not obscure the sad truths of leadership in this country across the board. I would not want the specificity of his critique to mask its general application. I like thinking about what could happen to this country if we wrenched our attention from old agendas and banded together in a truth-telling chorus.