Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Maybe God wants Ray Nagin to shut up.

If you haven't heard, the always-outspoken New Orleans mayor has been blustering in recent days about what "God wants" for America and NOLA. Echoing Pat Robertson and others who presume to have the ear of The Big Guy, Nagin announced--in a masterstroke of timing, on MLK Day--that God sent Hurricane Katrina in retribution for the United States' moral drift, as a not-so-gentle reminder of the Great Flood. "Surely God is mad at America," said Nagin. "He sent us hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country." There was a political component to (Democrat) Nagin's speech, as he listed among the country's sins our "presence in Iraq under false pretenses." But for our purposes, the most important aspect of the mayor's remarks was his sense of what God intends for a rebuilt New Orleans to look like. "This will be a chocolate city at the end of the day," said Nagin, amid hooting and laughter from the crowd. "This city will be a majority African-American city." He added, "It's the way God wants it to be."

I've sometimes been accused of overstating the influence of self-help and its underpinnings--this, supposedly, in a self-serving effort on my part to stretch the relevance (and thus buyer appeal) of SHAM. But really, statements like Nagin's are the chickens come home to roost of a late 1960s effort among black leaders, including to some degree Dr. King, to sell the idea that "black is beautiful!" The assumption was that blacks--children in particular--had been put-upon for so long, and suffered from such low self-esteem, that they needed to be elevated in this manner. It's a classic social overcorrection of the type that is visible, not coincidentally, in the self-help movement's shift from Victimization ("you're helpless") to Empowerment ("you're omnipotent!")

Black is not beautiful. It isn't ugly, either. It just is. The labels "beautiful" and "ugly" should be reserved only for individuals (if that, which is a separate discussion having to do with free will vs. determinism); in any case, such labels should never be identified with race or ethnicity, because then you run into problems like what we have here with Mayor Nagin, who appears to feel that a "chocolate city" is somehow better or more desirable than a milk-white city, or a medium-tan city, or any random combination thereof. (And just so you know, this logic doesn't only apply to discussions of "minorities of color." I am of Italian heritage, and when I was quite young, my father would try to boost my ethnic pride by telling me all these stories about DiMaggio and DaVinci and such. Even as a youngster, I remember thinking, But Dad, if I want to take credit for DiMaggio and DaVinci, don't I also have to take the blame for Capone and Luciano? Better to be judged on one's own merits, I think.) This strikes me as a subtle but serious problem in latter-day society, because people who are made to feel worthy by fiat are less likely to work hard to earn their sense of worth. Not to belabor an already much-discussed topic, but we see the dangers of this in self-esteem-based education, which was supposed to empower kids to flourish wildly, but instead succeeded only in giving them an inflated sense of achievement about third-rate work. In the end, self-esteem-based education reinforced the bad at the expense of the good.

We'll leave discussions of the socially divisive elements of Nagin's speech to the political columnists and right-wing bloggers, who I'm sure will be all over it. The bottom line here is that pride--in anything--should be accrued, not merely conferred. I don't know if that's how God wants it, but I'm pretty sure it's what works best in a society that prizes superior achievement and genuine self-worth.

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