A Random Upper-Middle-Class White Guy Writes About MLK

So, OK, my employer made me burn off some vacation days before the end of the fiscal year, in the form of a cap on the number of PTO hours that can be carried over from FY14 into FY15, which boundary has shifted by 3 months due to our recent change of ownership. Much lower down, my management intimated that due to certain software-release and testing milestone dates, no significant block of time off in February or March would be approved. But thanks to an unrelated M&A a few years back (a spectacularly problematic one, destined to be a business-school case study for decades to come), we now get the MLK holiday off. I decided to take the whole week and head southwest in search of sunlight. After a swing through New Mexico, I am spending a few days at Crow’s Nest, a 10-minute hike from the 6+ acres I own near Bloys Camp. It’s my first visit in four years.

Mitre Peak (1887m/6190’) as seen from my lot
Mitre Peak (1887m/6190’) as seen from my lot

This is what I would write if somebody made me enter one of those hoary MLK essay contests that middle- or high-school students get sucked into. The entries that I’ve read over the years have seemed pretty unimaginative, but it’s hardly realistic to expect much historical perspective from a teenager. The tone I’m aiming for here is, of course, originality combined with some mildly discomfiting assertions, while avoiding stereotypical politics. The structure is a simple three-parter: past, present, and (near) future.

Some years back, I suggested that the MLK holiday be devoted to the study of game theory, and quoted from Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation by way of illustrating just how appallingly robust and generally self-reinforcing racial prejudices are. Indeed it is not easy to think of another instance in human history of the kind of legal and attitudinal changes that swept the US in the 1950s and 60s. How did King et al overcome the obstacles?

Plenty of people would credit divine favor, and being what I am, it would hardly be appropriate for me to say they’re entirely wrong. I’m reminded of the joke, though, where the punchline is God telling a man that in response to his pleas for rescue from a flood, He had sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. Maybe we had an unusual confluence of such assets. Postwar rapid growth in material prosperity, which promoted an “abundance mentality,” and the increasing prominence of what Strauss and Howe call an Adaptive generation, concerned with process and fairness, would be two of them. Less pleasantly, nearly zero immigration might be another. Coincidentally, immigration is going to come up again in the near-future section below.

(My parents, both very much of the Silent Generation, marched after Dr King was killed. The march was an entirely peaceful event – by candlelight – black and white people together, in the small Rust Belt town where we were then living, well out of the way of the burning cities of 1968.)

Turning to our present situation, and at the risk of sounding like I’m merely reverting to my liberal upbringing, American society cannot be properly understood without attention to its inequities. Here someone is sure to quote “free people are not equal, and equal people are not free,” and I do not for a moment advocate the kind of superficial equality of decapitated achievement so devastatingly critiqued by CS Lewis in Screwtape Proposes A Toast. A certain kind of social scientist is known for putting forth a model of hierarchical vs egalitarian and communitarian vs individualist in which we’re all supposed to be either egalitarian-communitarian or hierarchical-individualist, but I’m egalitarian-individualist, and (eg) Marxist regimes which have proclaimed themselves to be communitarian have notoriously been the most hierarchical.
Sociopolitical Quadrants(diagram)

Quoting myself from a while back: “I strongly believe these inequities to be an emergent property of the overall system, an artifact of culture and especially generational temperament rather than anything readily meliorated by the proper legislation. The Silent Generation (birth years 1925-42) was deeply concerned with equality. The first wave of the baby boomers (’43-’51) was somewhat less so, the last-wave boomers (’52-’60, which includes me) much less so, and the Gen Xers (’61-’81) scarcely at all. [All dates from Strauss and Howe, and note that these are cultural, not demographic, generations, thus the departure from the usual ’46-’64 definition for the boomers.]”

The new industries created over the last few decades are STEM-intensive in a way that exacerbates the natural tendency for wealth to follow a power law; the exponent α of the probability density function increases. Not to go all postmodernist on my readers, but this may be as much a result of generational temperaments as the physical/mathematical laws – of, eg, integrated circuit manufacture or high-speed trading – involved; a few become wealthy while most struggle. And it applies just as much to publicly-funded organizations, which is why a majority of the very richest counties in the US are now in the DC metro area. (Speaking from a local-KC perspective, I can state with great confidence that if the richest place in Missouri was Jefferson City, or the richest place in Kansas was Topeka, we would know that something had gone horribly wrong.)

Present-day conventional liberals are prone to ignoring our Versailles-on-the-Potomac and framing the discussion as being about “privilege.” Extracting the kernel of truth from that silliness, we might do well to consider it in purely economic terms, and ask ourselves: what is the marginal cost of being other than white and male in American society, and how can we reduce that marginal cost without making it a merely zero- (or even negative-) sum game? This is not an easy problem, but if Strauss and Howe are right, what is already being called the Homeland generation (next Adaptives; currently age ~10 and under) may substantively address it in the 2030s and 40s.

The future I want to bring up, though, is a lot closer than that.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the acts and words of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”

– January 27, 1965, Dinkler Plaza Hotel, Atlanta

Among my recent barrage of predictions for the next few years was: “An incident analogous to the MS St Louis, but with victims of the collapse of Venezuela, the ISIS genocide of Yazidis, or some similar situation … [n]otwithstanding the obvious danger to refugees’ lives, allowing them into the country will be enormously unpopular. Many of those turned away from the US will die violently in the next few years.”

In the weeks since composing that post, I have become even more convinced of the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster on our southern border, stemming from a confluence of the collapse of Venezuela, narcotics Prohibition, and other factors affecting the Caribbean Rim, especially the relative ease of international travel. If even one-tenth of the population of Central America were to decide that emigrating northward is the solution, we will have four million people knocking on our door. The point here is not merely the risks themselves, but the provenance of our response. It will not come from extremists, conspiracy theorists, or obvious racists. It will come from the “children of light,” ordinary, otherwise decent – indeed, often self-identifying “pro-life” – but too-anxious Americans suffering moral failure, and it will be the shame of future generations.

23 thoughts on “A Random Upper-Middle-Class White Guy Writes About MLK”

  1. I’m told Marfa is a real interesting place. Some sort of artists colony.
    See any thematic parallels with the upcoming rising artists generation?

  2. From your earlier thread re: China “I believe and predict that China will break up under various stresses, including nontrivial linguistic differences,”

    I was in a huge Chinese restaurant in Los Angles last Saturday. I mentioned to the Chinese friend who invited me that I should have stayed with the Mandarin class my daughter and I began 20 years ago. He said he does not speak Mandarin and, besides, most of the people in the restaurant were speaking something else, probably Shanghainese.

    This is Monterey Park and the restaurant held about 600 people. I have not visited China but my daughter has several times. We haven’t talked about that. I know the government was pushing Mandarin and was surprised to hear that such a large American group was speaking Wu.

  3. Interesting view from there. How deep do you have drill there for water? Or are you on municipal water?

  4. ” How did King et al overcome the obstacles?”

    I think there was a reservoir of good feeling toward blacks among most whites, especially in the north. I don’t know about in the south, aside from the authorities which were clearly racist, but in Chicago, I was a teenager and knew quite a few blacks socially. My friend and I used to spend every Friday night in a black owned tavern on the south side of Chicago. We were only 18 but my friend had worked as a helper on a beer truck that summer and had gotten to know the owner, Ella Mae Reed. We were the only white faces in there, everyone was drinking beer (for a quarter) and we played bumper pool for hours. My friend and I got to be very good at bumper pool and, after a while, never lost a game.

    Here we were, winning beers from black guys who were drinking and we never saw any evidence of anger or hostility.

    Many years later, I was considering moving to Florida to practice and the surgeon who was recruiting me had a party to introduce me to the medical community. He had a bumper pool table in his screened porch and my skills quickly returned as I played some of the local docs. After I ran the table a few times, they decided to do something else and I never did go to practice in that community, not because of that but it was interesting.

    I think King tapped a reservoir of good will with his tactics and people like me responded. I was annoyed when he got into the Vietnam War controversy but, in general, he found many whites ready to accept his bona fides. That well has been poisoned by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and by Obama and Holder. There are still leftists who ignore the provocations of Sharpton, et al, but many whites are angry and will no longer grant the blacks the benefit of the doubt.

    These people don’t understand what they have lost. They live in a leftist bubble. Bad times are coming. It will not be pleasant for the fools.

    “What’s happening in Ferguson?” one of my white roommates asked. “I heard some kid got shot or something like that.”

    The words clamored in my ears. How could he not know? Weren’t his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds flooded with opinions and hashtags? I’m sure he meant nothing by his statement. We’re all ill-informed from time to time. But as I stood there, awkwardly not saying a word — while hundreds of words ran through my head — it was a reminder of how much I would have to suppress in order to get along with my white male roommates in our tiny four-bedroom apartment. This place I would call my home for a year.

    What a shame ! Tiny four bedroom ?

  5. Non-violent being effective because:

    Both the temper and the method of non-violence yield another very important advantage in social conflict. They rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society. This is the most important of all the imponderables in a social struggle. It is the one which gives an entrenched and dominate group the clearest and the least justified advantage over those who are attacking the status quo. The latter are placed in the category of enemies of public order, of criminals and inciters to violence and the neutral community is invariably arrayed against them. The temper and the method of non-violence destroys the plausibility of this moral conceit of the entrenched interests . . .

    Non-violent coercion and resistance, in short, is a type of coercion which offers the largest opportunities for a harmonious relationship with the moral and rational factors in social life. It does not destroy the process of a moral and rational adjustment of interest to interest completely during the course of resistance . . .

    This means that non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors . . .

    The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy. It is hopeless for the Negro race to expect complete emancipation from the menial social and economic position into which the white man has forced him, merely by trusting in the moral sense of the white race. It is equally hopeless to attempt emancipation through violent rebellion.

  6. Hitler once commented on Gandhi, suggesting a dose of machine gun fire would solve the problem promptly. Gandhi was fortunate in his enemies. So was King.

  7. MLK was one of the outstanding American leaders of my lifetime, I suspect, head and shoulders above most of the sundry crooks who populate Washington DC. Moreover, his cause was noble. How sad that it has turned out badly in many ways. That’s one of the troubles with noble causes: at the time nobody can know how they will turn out.

  8. From your earlier thread re: China “I believe and predict that China will break up under various stresses, including nontrivial linguistic differences,”

    China has been living with those nontrivial linguistic differences for thousands of years, so I doubt they would be much of a factor in any possible future breakup.

  9. It will come from the “children of light,” ordinary, otherwise decent – indeed, often self-identifying “pro-life” – but too-anxious Americans suffering moral failure, and it will be the shame of future generations.

    I’m sorry what?

    Is there no limit to what the United States is expected to do for foreigners, everywhere?

    So it isn’t enough that the US has provided a home for millions of poor Mexicans and Central Americans, relieving pressure on their home countries while also enriching them via the money they send back- now we must accept yet millions more, and provide them a home too? And free medical care, of course at great expense. In return we’ll get people who will soon vote themselves yet more tax money, and condemn me as a racist when I want to keep the money I earn.

    No thank you. I say we let them solve their own problems, and use the trillion-dollar US military to defend the US border, for a change.

    We can’t save the world, and we’ll bankrupt ourselves trying.

    Time to stop.

  10. Mr. Manifold,

    If you want to stop being one of the silent children of Light, let us do something about our own manifest evils of the present and within our span of control, perhaps one could begin with:





    *Law, especially Family Law

    Or perhaps to begin with Basics…

    *Mendacity and Dissembling stemming from a deep seated racial animus towards All Other Groups rooted in aboriginal codes carried down from the past, deeply entrenched in custom, breeding, blood and sacralized by religion. Resulting in embedded Malice towards All, and true Goodwill towards none.

    In Short: Clean one’s own Household first.

  11. “Gandhi was fortunate in his enemies. So was King.”

    Well, yes and no. In terms of the success of King’s movement and message and strategy, yes. He did ultimately have to pay with his life, however.

  12. “American society cannot be properly understood without attention to its inequities” says the Author.

    You’ll never understand America or any other society, especially a truly cosmopolitan one.

    You will understand only how to critique America and it’s culture, while remaining silent and one of the default children of darkness and not of light, while paying no attention to your own society’s inequities.

    Mind you to view any man, any creature not quite a man, or any group of people or nation only through it’s inequities is not only uselessly undermining and destructive but in utter error. None of us pass muster if we must perfect our imperfections or be damned.

    Of course such a high bar might be..profitable…if that High Bar was the famous step #2 of Underpants Gnomes Plan:

    1] Steal Underpants

    2] ?

    3] Profit.

  13. Gurray – The whole Fort Davis Mountain area is very scenic, mountain and alto-plano landscapes. The McDonald Observatory, one of the leading astronomical observatories in the world, is located in that area. The area has one of the darkest skies in the US.

  14. “I think there was a reservoir of good feeling toward blacks among most whites, especially in the north. ”

    Jay, I remember, circa aprox. 1960, my dad telling me his views re. people of color. “They bleed red and are people just like you and me.” He referred back to his military service, a WWII south pacific marine vet. Fast forward to 1965, fighting between my brother, a 12 year old, and some black kids who wanted his candy after he refused to hand it over. The school administration suspended both him and the black kids. After much appeal and argument we moved out of that school district.

    This incident seems emblematic to me. I’d suggest that until urban black folks make themselves functioning 1st-worlders and not childlike wards (special cases, if you will) of the state there’s not much chance of that “good feeling” returning.

  15. “That’s one of the troubles with noble causes: at the time nobody can know how they will turn out.”

    “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

    ― Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

    “He did ultimately have to pay with his life, however.”

    I suspect he felt it was worth it. He did get his revolution accomplished. Sadly, his heirs were too much like Jesse Jackson. The French Revolution is reproduced every century. Beginning with high hopes and ending in the gutter.

  16. America is still home to many who have the desire to make a better life for themselves and their families, without the yoke of “owing” somebody in government.

  17. Grurray – It will be interesting to see what kind of retirement (and other) communities form out there as work becomes ever less location-dependent. Lots of turnover in the immediate neighborhood of my property as the Silent Generation passes on and, generally speaking, their kids aren’t well-enough off to keep their retirement homes. See Jim’s comment about the main economic activity in the Davis Mountains, which is UT-funded astronomical research.

    Michael Hiteshew – Being west of the 100th meridian, yes, water is a big deal. A few years ago one of my neighbors organized a small water corporation to which we all contributed to drill a well. I got a break by hosting the storage tank. The project was a bit of a nail-biter insofar as the driller we hired was to go to 400’; at 360’ he reported that the hole was still dry and asked if we wanted to continue. We told him yes, and at 390’ he hit water. We had calculated that the minimum acceptable flow rate would be 12 gallons per minute. We got 100 gallons per minute. The value of my property probably doubled that day.

  18. MLK rewrote the Constitution by destroying state’s rights. He centralized power in Washington DC and the Regulatory agencies that replace existing laws created by legislatures with law created by interest groups using Regulations. Sadly, like FDR, Wilson and JFK – MLT is worshipped as a god only by the enlightened few.

  19. Time for those files to be unsealed. Very unseemly for a Christian minister to have a past shrouded in secrecy.

  20. “MLK rewrote the Constitution by destroying state’s rights.”

    Certainly that was the result. Unfortunately, he was fighting local and state governments who were at least equally responsible for that result. Remember, Republicans introduced around 200 anti-lynching bills in Congress. In the 1920s, when Harding begged them to pass one, William Borah, a “Progressive” Republican sided with the southern Democrats and blocked it.

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