Does knowledge matter?
I was having a discussion about that question with a friend. He isn’t an anti-intellectual, but he is one of those post-Enlightenment New Agey liberals who mistrusts rationality. To give you an idea of the type of guy he is, he didn’t cite evidence for his argument, but instead cited a lyric to a song. To give you a further hint, my dear friend in support of his view referred to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant… don’t even get me started on Haidt.
I, on the other hand, am a fierce defender of truth. Damn it, just give me some red-blooded truth and give it to me raw. It was only my friendship that made me hold my tongue in that discussion. I will never understand any person, whether conservative or liberal, who thinks truth doesn’t matter or who will devalue it in any way.
Truth. Not just information, not just knowledge, but all of that and the insight, the wisdom that goes with it. Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth that enflames the senses, pierces the heart and sets the mind ablaze.
Truth isn’t some tiny detail. Truth is reality itself. We breathe truth for if you try to stop breathing, I swear to God, you quickly will know it. Now, that is the force of truth. It ain’t no intellectual game. We have to start getting serious about this reality we all share.
The force of truth can at times hit you like a brick wall. I personally love that sensation. It means I’m awake and still alive. My face smacks up against something that doesn’t move and I start to suspect that there might be something fundamental in front of me. So I reach out into the dark, find a switch, turn it on… and well damn there is a wall right there. What kind of fool tries to walk through a wall? A fool walking in the darkness of ignorance, I tell ya.
But truth is usually more subtle than that. It creeps up on us. Little bits of info piling up, a comment here and an example there, an observation here and an insight there. Then before ya know it, a new understanding begins to dawn. Usually, though, something finally brings it all together.
I’ll give you two examples, one of each variety: a face-smacking wall and a slow dawning.
The first example is my having learned about sundown towns.
That bit of truth came at me from an angle. I was reading about regional cultures when the author, David Hackett Fischer, made a comment another author’s work (Sundown Towns). So, good truth-seeker that I am, I bought that other book and began reading it. That other author, James W. Loewen, was talking about my particular region. He even mentioned a town I live right next to. Once upon a time, that town had a bunch of black families… and then shortly later all the blacks disappeared. Where did they go? This happened a thousand times over, all across the North.
I knew racism existed in the North, including systemic racism, but I didn’t have a clue that it was so pervasive. I just figured Iowa was naturally a white place where blacks didn’t live in the past. I figured blacks had little interest in living here, until recently that is. I assumed blacks simply went to the big cities because that was where the jobs were. I assumed most blacks wanted to live with blacks in black neighborhoods and ditto for whites with whites, as that has been the basic order of the society I’ve grown up in.
It never occurred to me that after the Civil War large numbers of blacks moved all over this freaking country in every state and in every town, rural and urban, North and South, East and West… but that they soon found they weren’t welcome in many of these places, not welcome in particular neighborhoods or in some cases entire states. Only after this great migration did they all head to the big cities seeking safety in numbers.
I was ignorant of this piece of history. Plain and simple, I was ignorant. Worse still, my white privilege allowed me to remain ignorant for so long. My white skin color and my white Midwestern heritage corresponds with the dominant white culture. Just because I’ve had black friends doesn’t change this condition. My only excuse is that I was ‘educated’ to be ignorant in this way. Sad but true. Ignorance must be learned… and so ignorance must be unlearned.
Reading Loewen’s book on the topic was an educational experience, a brick wall that bluntly forced me to reassess what I thought I knew.
The second example has to do with affirmative action and white privilege.
Over the years, I’ve come across mentions of the relationship of racism to the Populist and Progressive Eras.
For example, I came across the intriguing fact that the KKK supported universal public schooling and the banning of child labor. The reason they took this position was because kids, black and white, were competing for the same jobs that KKK members wanted for themselves. So, if you got the kids out of the factories, you had to justify it by sending them somewhere and public schools made for a good way of keeping the kids occupied, and as any good KKK member knows you particularly want to keep those black kids occupied or else they’ll cause trouble.
Another example I’ve learned about in the past is that black farmers didn’t get the same funding that white farmers received. This was done intentionally, of course. It is no big secret at this point. Just another data point in a long history of racism.
For whatever reason, I didn’t quite fully and coherently think about this in a larger context. It didn’t quite come together, beyond knowing about the general history of racism. I knew many of the details and incidents. And I knew the individual pieces might fit together in various ways. But it took someone else to clearly connect the dots before I saw the picture it formed.
The person in question is another author, Ira Katznelson, and the guilty book is When Affirmative Action Was White. It isn’t a matter of the original intention of many progressive reforms. Racism was rampant, but most people weren’t overtly thinking in terms of racism. Even so, racism was able to trump other concerns by co-opting the policies that were implemented. It became white affirmative action by default. The wording of progressive reform didn’t state it as white affirmative action, but that was the result successfully implemented by the racists in power who wished to maintain their grip on power. Progressivism was just a convenient front for old racial injustices. This is how Jim Crow was rooted in the New Deal.
Framing white privilege as affirmative action helped me to see the profound impact that it has had. It wasn’t just racist policies in the South or even isolated racist incidents in the North. It was a systematic strategy that was nationwide, even if the strongest impetus was in the Jim Crow South. With this new framing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.
Ignorance is a strange thing. We can’t know we are ignorant for we are ignorant of our being ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know that there is something we could know, until something forces us to begin to know and then the comfy sweater of our ignorance begins to unravel.
Ignorance upon ignorance, generation after generation. All of this ignorance, individual and collective, took a long while to be learned. It took our entire history, in fact. And so it will take a very long time to unlearn. We should see others in this more forgiving light, especially older generations. But a forgiving attitude can be a hard thing to hold onto when the stakes are so high. Culpability must be accepted, even if the blame game isn’t helpful.
In this regard, my parents are typical of their generation… or I should say they are typical of white Americans of their generation… a generation, by the way, that was born and raised when Jim Crow laws were at their height and were well into adulthood when the Voting Rights Act was passed. If anything, they should personally know of the effects of racism better than I know it for they saw it when it was truly powerful as a blatant political force. But they don’t know what they don’t want to know, don’t know what offers them no personal benefit to know. No surprise to that normal human response toward uncomfortable truths.
My mom doesn’t see white privilege at all, even though she obviously benefited from it. My dad’s thinking is a bit more nuanced. But all my dad can offer, when his good fortune is pointed out, is that God must have been looking out for him. I guess God disproportionately looks out for whites and in particular middle class white males. It never occurs to him to consider the possibility that he is no more worthy of divine intervention than all the poor minorities. I’ve heard that Jesus message is specifically about helping the least among us, but I guess that doesn’t apply to issues like racial oppression and prejudice. God, after all, is a conservative, maybe even a right-winger. There are even rumors that God is white.
Joking aside, my parents are as much the product of their environments as I am of mine. They simply believe what they were raised to believe, speak what they were taught to know. It is their truth, even if it isn’t objective fact. I don’t wish to deny my parents’ sense of truth in their pride in having worked hard or even that God has looked kindly upon them. Those are their truths. But a personal truth becomes an untruth when uprooted from the larger truth of our shared reality. The trick is to begin with the truths you know and from there expand your vision. Attacking someone’s truth, however, creates fear and doesn’t encourage them to expand their vision.
I can feel righteous at times, but it’s hard to maintain righteousness. We are all ignorant to varying degrees and in various ways. Still, I want to be righteous about truth and righteous for the right reasons. It really does matter. For that reason, I want people to see the truth, be it a brick wall to their face or a dawning of the light.
More than anything, I respect not just truth but a passionate zeal for truth. We can’t let ignorance get us down, not even our own. We have to be brutally honest, especially with ourselves. Words must not be minced.
Now, here is the kind of thing that inspires me, that gets my juices going. Tim Wise is a truth-teller about racism, if there ever was one. Listening to him speak, I had to restrain myself from yelling out loud ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. Maybe it isn’t the eloquence of an MLK speech, but it sure does hit the spot. All the MSM BS makes me downright hungry for a healthy heaping plateful of simple straightforward meat-and-potatoes truth-telling.