Monday, July 23, 2007
Myron Magnet of City Journal has written a lengthy, but very perceptive article on what I think of as the death spiral of America's black culture, a phenomenon he correctly indicates as being not merely political (i.e., reinforced by the welfare state), but also cultural.
Does all this matter? Well, we all see the world through the spectacles of our culture and subgroup; we depend on belief and prejudice to understand our experience; we slip into the manners and rituals of our culture as a way of knowing who we are and how we should behave. Imagine yourself one of the vulnerable kids that rap sings about, born in a project to an uneducated, teen single mother, possibly put into foster care, surrounded by gangs and gangstas, attending an unruly school that teaches -- if it teaches anything -- that you are a victimized minority in an unjust country that doesn't want you to rise, and that you should nevertheless have high self-esteem because you are fine just as you are. No one gives you a book that opens up the world of possibility beyond your cramped existence. Meanwhile, through the headphones that you always wear pulses the beat of rap, driving out thought and underscoring the message of anger, hatred of the oppressor policeman, and resentful entitlement that the lyrics convey. You go home and watch rap videos on BET. You dress like a gangsta, talk like a gangsta, behave like a gangsta.In other words, if black youths once had to face a life of persecution as sacrificial victims to white racism, black youths must now face an ordeal that is even harder in a spiritual sense: a life of debilitation due to thorough indoctrination with altruism and as recipients of altruistic sacrifice. Both aspects of such an upbringing make one scorn the attitudes and action necessary for a fully human existence.
I am currently reading Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality 1890-2000, by Adam Fairclough, on whose cover this image of a civil rights demonstration appears. Most of the men in the line are wearing placards that read, "I am a man."
If one thing has struck me in my reading so far, it has been that despite generations of mistreatment, inequality before the law, and the small (but real) mortal danger posed by lynching, the spirit of black Americans was never broken.
It is this spirit which makes this picture so moving: These men are confronting injustice, meeting it eye to eye, and asking only to be treated as equals.
And, alas, it is this spirit which seems to be broken today as one reads the article, especially as one reads about the abject poverty in spirit exemplified by so much of rap music and gangsta culture, which Magnet sees as both symptoms and reinforcing factors of this cultural decline.
What I would have liked to see more of in this analysis is an explicit naming of the ultimate villain in the misfortunes suffered by black Americans throughout history: The morality of altruism, which was used to justify their slavery in the first place (e.g., George Fitzhugh: "[S]ome were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them, and the riding does them good.") and is now used both to excuse underachievement and to justify massive welfare programs and proposals for "reparations". Only when this villain is named does the shift in black culture really make sense: Whereas the black man was once fighting altruism, he has now accepted it, having apparently been duped by his becoming a recipient of sacrifice rather than the sacrificed. Sadly, neither position is enviable.
While it is easy to see how slavery and second-class citizenship are harmful, it is not as obvious why learned attitudes of entitlement and the so-called "social safety net" are perhaps even more harmful. As the data brought up by this article (as well as its references to Theodore Dalrymple, who has studied the British underclass) should illustrate, these cultural and political forces conspire, as I have discussed before, to permit the black underclass to "escape the ultimate consequences of their chronic dereliction". In other words, the natural incentives for rational self-interest are removed from the equation during one's formative years in such milieux.
The loftier benefits of civilization praised by this article, the courage of countless otherwise ordinary men during the civil rights era, and even rule of law came into existence because men whose minds were focused on the purpose of living their lives saw these things as worthy of obtaining for themselves. To sever the very basic mental association between one's own effort and one's ability to live a life proper to man thus endangers his life -- whether that danger is posed by slavery itself or by a lifetime of essentially having scorn for self-improvement beaten into one's head.
Ayn Rand's famous protagonist, John Galt, once said, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." Although this oath is a rejection of the morality of altruism (and its political consequence, collectivism), its last clause is also, and more deeply, an identification of the fact that it is not possible to live as a man -- by attempting to live as a parasite. This is part of what the more "dystopian" aspects of that novel were meant to show, and that is what is playing out right now in black America.
The liberation of black Americans will remain incomplete until reason and egoism replace whim and altruism as major components of their culture.