Fault Line

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Liberation, part 2

One approach (mentioned in part 1) is to blame the poor and the un- and under-employed for their misfortune. The problem is a "crisis of values." The other approach puts the emphasis on social forces and conditions. This side argues that, “Tens of millions of people don’t suffer a collapse in values for no reason” (Krugman). A social safety net, increased minimum wage, programs of job creation and job training – these things are ways that all of us together can pull up the bootstraps of those at the bottom. That way of being lifted is at least physically possible. On this side, the issue actually is a crisis of opportunity, rather than a crisis of values.

This is our political situation – this is our main political fault line. It is a fault line in the sense of a crack in the firmament of “we, the people.” It is also a fault line in the sense of a dividing line over whose fault it is.

Something’s wrong, so whose fault is it? Is it the immigrant’s fault? Is it the Chinese? Is it our government? Is it ourselves? Candidates and op-ed journalists and political essayists marshal arguments about where the blame goes. Or, rather, some of the candidates do. Others marshal no arguments. They just blame, providing no supportive evidence or reasoning.

Sensible people appreciate Emersonian self-reliance, grit and determination, focus and hard-work. Sensible people also appreciate that some kinds of help can be disempowering, can be co-dependent, can create or encourage dependency. As the great community organizer, Saul Alinsky, said, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Never!”

At the same time, sensible people also know that collective action can create more opportunity for people who have little.

Beyond that, we get stuck. We disagree about how much blame to place where. How much is society’s responsibility to create opportunity and how much is the individual’s responsibility to find and seize what opportunities are already there? At that point, our differing political opinions take us in different directions. Is there a way to get past that?

Before I answer that question, let me illustrate the issue in a slightly different way. It’s an old issue, and it’s one with which both the historically privileged and the historically less privileged wrestle.

I was on the faculty of Fisk University before I went into ministry. It’s a historically black university, and they used to have a tradition of the annual W.E.B DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington debate. DuBois, born 1868, was an advocate of various governmental reforms to address and ameliorate the condition of blacks in this country. He co-founded the NAACP in 1909 as an organization to advocate for such reforms. (Another of the co-founders, incidentally, was the white Unitarian minister, John Haynes Holmes). Washington, born 1856, put the emphasis on African Americans working hard, going to school, getting the training they would need to get ahead.

At Fisk, every year for many years, long after DuBois and Washington had died, a public debate would be presented with one upperclassman representing the W.E.B. DuBois position and another representing the Booker T. Washington position.

By the time I arrived they were no longer holding this debate as a public event for the student body to attend, but there was a class that I taught most semesters that included readings from both DuBois and Washington. Those classroom discussions, in their own way, continued the tradition.

Students generally quickly saw that the two approaches were not mutually exclusive. They recognized that government action and self-help were both good ideas. At that point, I would say, “Right. So to which one would you give more emphasis? Right now, what is more needed: more energy into federal, state, and local action to address inequality – or more energy into guiding and encouraging young African Americans how to improve themselves?”

Opinions were divided. Sometimes one of the more thoughtful students would observe that there was a chicken and egg problem here. Neither strategy can get very far without a boost from the other. On the one hand, we’d be more powerful advocates if we develop our own skills and respect. On the other hand, more of us would get the self-improvement training we need if there were certain policy changes. I had some wise students.

What they were sensing is that the debate comes down to where the fault is, who is to blame, and that debate is very hard to resolve – and we’re left stuck.

It is in the context of that issue that we reflect today on liberation. Does liberation come from yourself? Or does it come from your situation? What are the chains that constrain you from a more full, joyful, peaceful, loving life? Did the chains come from you – habits of thought, attitude, or behavior? Or were the chains imposed?

Do you have a role to play in other people’s liberation?

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Liberation"
See also
Part 1: Politics and Blame
Part 3: The Proper Beginning

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