Friday, July 14, 2006

Lord deliver us from self-help? (Psalm 2)

Yesterday, we set the stage for a discussion of Al Sharpton and his National Conference and Revival for Social Justice. By the end of that post, we'd made our way back to the leaders' decision to attack large black churches for fomenting a spirit of "self-help" among their parisioners.

A critical distinction is needed here. The self-help that Al Sharpton and friends savaged at their June convention is not the brand of self-help that we critique in this blog. In fact, it's the exact opposite: It is real self-help. This probably calls for a clarification about the use of the term. As I explain in SHAM, self-help did not begin its life as a synonym for psycho-babble. The phrase actually has a long and distinguished tradition of usage in connection with far more reputable practices, notably in the realm of law. Legal self-help refers to a variety of situation-specific remedies that are available to a complainant directly (i.e. without involving lawyers or courts). This is a deeply entrenched facet of American jurisprudence that--in marked contrast to what we usually discuss in SHAMblog--has always been about action, not words. Included in this class of remedies are any number of formal, step-by-step procedures designed to bring about lawful satisfaction for the individual, on his own. They enjoy full courtroom standing, should they later be challenged by those on the receiving end. America's most familiar legal instruments often contain so-called self-help clauses. Depending on the state in which you live, your auto loan may stipulate your banker's right to simply come out and retrieve your car the minute you fall behind on payments. He does not need a sheriff or a warrant to do this; he simply gets in your car and drives away. That is legal self-help. Legitimate mental-health professionals also use the term self-help to describe steps taken by those with mental and emotional illnesses to lead richer, more independent lives.

What has got Sharpton and like-minded leaders so upset, then, is that black America, increasingly, is resorting to real self-help: specific and effective action, driven by personal need, to achieve individual goals. A growing number of black Americans have--literally--helped themselves. Either they've done this on their own, without social programs and other assistance, or they've gotten to the point where they no longer require the assistance to get by. Either way, they're self-sufficient now. Beyond that, they've assimilated. In most phases of life, they have become Americans--period--rather than black Americans. (And isn't that the realization of Dr. King's vision of men being judged by the "content of their character" rather than the color of their skin?) But for that, the likes of Sharpton and Jackson, instead of praising them, accuse them of betrayal. With no apparent sense of irony, the leadership at that Dallas conference was chastising successful blacks and their churches for throwing the commonly available excuses out the window and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps; better that they remain mired in victimization-based dogma (the kind of self-help this blog does attack). So: Why would black leaders want their followers to forsake genuine self-help (which is all about personal choice and initiative and life-changing behavior) for the artificial kind (which is about talk and hand-wringing and finger-pointing, followed by more of the same)?

Isn't it obvious? As prosperity inexorably crosses racial lines, such that 60s-style demagoguery becomes more and more outdated, black leaders have been suffering a slow but steady attrition of power. They're not as relevant as they once were...and they don't like it. (Part of the reason they don't like it--taking things one step further--is that they're losing some of the considerable sway they once held in political circles.) The traditional black leader wants blacks to continue to view life as being rigged against them; to continue to abdicate responsibility for all that goes wrong, and surrender their destiny to someone else. Specifically, TO HIM.

(Note to Messrs. Sharpton, Jackson, et al: Remember: "God helps those who help themselves.")


Cosmic Connie said...

I hope everyone who has accused you of being too negative in your blog will read these last two posts, Steve. You have actually highlighted some positive developments in our culture: the real progress blacks have made via genuine self-help. First the disclaimer: I realize that, being white, I am speaking from the vantage point of someone who has not experienced the slings and arrows of everyday racism. People don’t lock their car doors or get defensive when they see me walking by; they don’t cross the street to avoid crossing my path. There is still plenty of racism and inequality in our society, and I won’t even try to pretend there isn’t. I think Hurricane Katrina exposed the racism that still simmers beneath the surface in our culture; we all remember the exaggerated or downright false news reports about the behavior of some of the black residents of New Orleans, not to mention those ludicrous urban legends. (I am still getting emails from people citing that ridiculous story of the N.O. resident who confused “churches” with the fried-chicken chain.)

But these examples are reflections of attitudes, not economic realities, and attitudes do take time to change.

Unfortunately, people such as Sharpton and Jackson just exacerbate the problem, IMO. They stir up anger among some blacks, while the absurdity of some of their remarks fuels the flames of white racism, which in turn sets off black racists…and it just goes on and on and on.

I think you’re right when you speculate that these black leaders’ disgruntlement with the megachurches is a power issue. Sharpton, Jackson et al. are truly becoming irrelevant, but they’re not about to go out without fighting. (And, I suppose, the idea of fighting oppression still has a certain romantic appeal. When you’ve devoted decades to that fight, giving it up might seem kind of anticlimactic.) The sad thing is that these guys don’t have to be irrelevant; they could, in fact, change with the times, and become a real inspiration for a new generation. They could perhaps devote their energy and influence to seriously addressing some of the real problems that remain, such as the dropout and teen pregnancy rates among black youths, and the disproportionate number of young black men in the US prison population.

Maybe they should take a cue from someone such as Bill Cosby, who has had repeatedly encouraged black people to take more personal responsibility. Jackson has said he’s been saying the same thing since 1976, but if that is so, somehow his message has come out differently. And Sharpton has tried to neutralize Cosby’s remarks by saying that we still mustn’t forget the evil that the “general community” (read: whites) have done to the black community.

Well, I think I’ll get off my soapbox and go watch “Crash” again...

Rodger Johnson said...

Says Frederick Douglas,"I didn't know I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I wanted."

Those black Americans who have risen from poverty, educated themselves -- have realized what Douglas realized -- and did something about it, as Douglas did.

At some point we must square with habits or circumstances that enslave us. Then we must choose. That will be determined by what we value, believe to be true, and our particular mood.

Sometimes enough is enough!

Excellent post.