“Who has been handing out these permission slips?” asks a writer of our acquaintance. He wants to know who determined that it is alright again to tell racist jokes in polite society, or to publish columns suggesting, none too gingerly, that Jews have excessive influence in American life. Who indeed?
The question eludes easy answer, the villains are hard to locate. But it does seem that there are Americans, including pundits, who think they got permission from somewhere or somebody to say and do things that most of us have for a long time thought forbidden. Of course, who does the forbidding is as elusive as who does the permitting. When it comes to manners and mores, it seems that attitudes reach a “critical mass” at which point it is generally understood that, to use a quaint phrase, certain things simply aren’t done. Civilization depends upon obedience to the unenforceable. The difference between barbarians and those within the civilizational circle is that the former have to have the rules explained to them, or enforced against them. All children, for example, are by nature little barbarians. Civility does not come naturally.
Before getting to permissions issued for racism and anti-Semitism, a measure of clarity is needed on the unnatural nature of civility itself.
Discussing Dr. Johnson’s lexical labors, Boswell wrote: “He would not admit civilization but only civility. With great deference to him, I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity than civility.” As almost always. Dr. Johnson’s intuition was entirely correct. Like Boswell, we may be inclined to think that civilization is the more substantive thing. It’s there, after all, right in the history books. Creek civilization, Roman civilization, maybe even American civilization. You can put dates on a civilization, you can chronicle it, calculate its ups and downs, and count its numbers. Not so with civility. It is not a thing but a way of being. It is the way of being opposed to barbarity. It is the virtue of which civilization is the product.
One definition of civility is “deference to the social order befitting a citizen.” But Webster’s Third International pronounces that definition “obsolete.” The current definition of civility, we are instructed, is “bare observance of the forms of accepted social behavior or adequate perfunctory politeness.” Dr. Johnson would not have agreed, and the difference is a measure of how far we have declined from the wisdom of Dr. Johnson. When barbarians are writing dictionaries, it is little wonder that civility becomes a pejorative. And little wonder that those who relish feisty public discourse dismiss appeals to civility as an intolerable cramping of their style. Far from being a virtue, civility is viewed as a soft, timorous, tepid, and altogether wimpish trait that real men eschew lest their manhood be brought into question.
The Latin civilitas means the science and habits of politics. It is the basic prerequisite for living together in a humane social order. It is a disposition of respect and generosity toward others. It is what liberality used to mean before it became associated with liberalism turned nasty. Civility is what prevents us from being beastly to one another, which is to say it is what prevents us from becoming beasts. In short, it is deference to the social order befitting a citizen. Fortunately, and contrary to Webster’s Third, such civility is not yet obsolete. It is under severe strains.
Of course civility, never being natural, is always under strain. It is not nostalgia for an allegedly unstrained past that leads us to think that the attack on civility has escalated in recent years. Somebody does seem to be handing out permission slips for the violation of protocols, taboos, interdictions, and unenforceable rules that once seemed more secure. When we say “in recent years,” we refer, perhaps predictably, to what turned out to be in many respects a moral slum of a decade, the 1960s. It began then, but it was to get worse. Sundry liberationisms were aggressions by the natural against the artificial and, therefore, presumably oppressive constrictions of ordered community.
The attack on communities of civility was led by legions. The celebrity corps of societal chic declined membership in the earthly civitas altogether, preferring to trip through the heavenly cities of pharmaceutical bliss. Then there is that most basic community, the family. The “good family man”(remember the phrase?) was replaced by the swinger, or at least by the searcher demanding fulfillment of his right to sexual satisfaction. Many who passed as leaders of minorities gave up on the communal aspiration to equality and specialized in intimidation and the politics of resentment. Homosexual activists became increasingly brutal in defense of the right to be effete. And radical feminists were astonishingly successful in proving that they really are not ladies. In reaction to all this and more, some supposed champions of traditional values have abundantly demonstrated that they have slight respect for the tradition of civility. In the current Kulturkampf it seems that all combatants are in possession of permission slips, and the rules of war, never mind propriety, have been effectively suspended.
Nevertheless, there are some permissions that have not yet been granted, or at least not beyond the point of retrieval. Among them are racism and anti-Semitism. There are troubling signs, however, that some citizens have picked up a rumor that these interdictions, too, are no longer in force. We all have a deep stake in relieving them of that illusion.
Racism and anti-Semitism are notoriously hard to define, and both terms have been further debased by reckless abuse. A person is not a racist or anti-Semite because be tends to have problems with blacks or Jews. All of us like some people more than others, and it is a delusion of a debilitated liberalism to think that we encounter individuals entirely without reference to the groups and communities of which they are part. We cannot be a society that cherishes “roots” and celebrates displays of group pride and, at the same time, insist upon the public pretense that our differences make no difference. Before the law, our differences should make no difference, but, fortunately, only a small part of life is ruled by the law. Genuine pluralism is not pretending that our differences make no difference. Genuine pluralism is dealing with our differences within the bonds of civility.
There are other things that racism and anti-Semitism are not. It is not racism for whites, along with many blacks, to worry out loud about a black underclass that has severed its connections with the larger society, has lost the institutions of work and family, has resigned itself to a future of crime and dependency, and is cruelly deceived by a civil rights leadership that blames such misery on white racism. Nor is it anti-Semitism to argue in public that Israel has a disproportionate influence on American foreign policy, that American Jews are wrong to support that disproportionate influence, that Jews and Jewish organizations should show more respect for Christian beliefs and institutions, and that those who make these arguments should not be charged with being anti-Semitic. Without embracing these propositions, one can agree that they are all eminently debatable, and can be debated within the bonds of civility. Which is to say. they should be debated with care.
When, then, does the criticism of blacks become racism and of Jews become anti-Semitism? Expect no indisputable answer here. It has to do in large part with tone and context and perceived intention. There is an almost aesthetic dimension to it—“I know it when I hear it.” We should not be surprised by that, for there is a stronger connection between the aesthetic and moral than is usually thought. Evil can disguise itself in the form of beauty, but the form of ugliness is almost always a sure giveaway. Racism and anti-Semitism also come into play when people employ the familiar language of racists and anti-Semites, especially when it is employed by people who, we have every reason to believe, know the history of such language. These evils are also in play when the claim to being candid thinly veils the teaching of contempt. They are powerfully in play when the appeal is for “us” to do something about an alien “them.”
“Blacks are a drag on American society.” “Jews have too much influence in American public life.” Times are changing. Somebody is giving out permission slips allowing these and similar sentiments in our public discourse. These statements, if not indisputably racist and anti-Semitic, are deeply suspect, to say the least. What is the intention that informs such statements? If one accepts them as true, what follows? How, for instance, should people go about reducing the “too much” influence of Jews? One relatively innocent-sounding answer is to say that non-Jews should do a better job of exercising public influence. In the past, that was not the main answer given by people who worried out loud about the influence of Jews. That is a past that we must keep ever present to our minds. That Jews and Judaism are socially conspicuous is nothing new. The reasons for that are maddeningly various, and certainly not untouched by the mystery of divine election. That the conspicuousness of Jews and Judaism constitutes a problem that is to be somehow remedied, however, is an opinion peculiar to anti-Semites.
As for the statement about blacks, it and its variants are increasingly encountered in public discourse. About Jews people complain about “too much,” about blacks they complain about “too many.” Planned Parenthood, for instance, is much exercised about drags on our society, especially welfare drags. It advances the argument, variously phrased, that the answer to black poverty is to reduce, through abortion and other measures of population control, the number of black people, or at least of black poor people. And again there is the problem of a superannuated black leadership that has turned the cause of civil rights into quotaized schemes of racial preference, mocking the noble dream of a society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The radical posturings of such professional black leaders have become a drag, and a cause of anger among those Americans who still pay them any mind.
Very recently, some attention has been given more reflective black thinkers who make the case that schemes of racial preference disserve the dignity of blacks and invite the hostility of whites. Those who make that case are few in number, however, and they are viciously derided, especially by black academics, many of whom owe their positions to the schemes in question. Black thinkers who have disenthralled themselves from the orthodoxy of collective anger and racial preference have, to date, received slight support from the leaders of what is unquestionably the most important institution in black America, the church. Clergy in the most impacted communities of the underclass are in the best position to know the human devastation that has been wrought. Unless they help all of us to think anew about race relations in America, there is no end in sight to the deepening of black despair and the hardening of white indifference. In fact, indifference (as in “benign neglect”) will begin to look good as a growing number of politicians, and not only in places such as Louisiana, begin to harvest public resentment against the incessant claims of a black leadership that refuses to face up to the calamity for which it is in significant part responsible.
The civil interdictions against racism and anti-Semitism had everything to do with tragic histories. Two words tell the story: Slavery and Holocaust. Blacks for more than a hundred years and Jews for forty-five years were perceived as the victims par excellence. They were owed. They were owed sympathy and respect and, in the case of blacks, assistance. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said of great human evils, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.” However vaguely and incoherently, it was understood that we as a society, we as a civilization, were implicated in the great evils of slavery and the Holocaust. It is the nature of history, however, that it moves on, and even great evils recede into an ever more distant past. Victim status falls victim to the corrosions of time. Less and less does the invocation of Auschwitz silence criticism of Israeli policies; less and less do slave ships seem to have any plausible connection with cocaine babies in Bedford Stuyvesant.
Time is not the only corrosive of victim status. For victimhood to have social force, victims must be relatively few. In the last quarter century, the victimization industry has mushroomed and almost all Americans belong to a certified category of the massively wronged—Hispanics, American Indians, women, homosexuals, children, the elderly, and, perhaps inevitably, even white males. All have gotten a raw deal and demand reparations, entitlements, and that strange invention of this strangest of all centuries, governmental compassion. The trivializing of victimhood results in a society in which there is nobody to blame except everybody. It is a society of endless whining, recrimination, and cultivated discontent. We are very close to becoming such a society. If there is a discernible mood shift in public life today. it is that a growing number of Americans are saying. Enough already.
That mood shift could turn vicious. With respect to the original victims, blacks and Jews, we already witness the public peddling of permission slips to speak the previously unspeakable. It seems almost certain that the immunities of victim status cannot be revived. That may not be so bad. Victimhood, guilt, and even—keeping in mind Rabbi Heschel’s distinction—responsibility for great evil are fragile foundations for civility. Civility is securely grounded not in the memory of great evil but in the aspiration to common good. We dare not forget that we are capable of great evil, but the “we” that dare not forget that includes all of us. It includes those who understand themselves to be victims. Civilitas assumes devotion to the civitas, and nobody is exempt from the obligations of decency required if that community is to continue.
Certain protocols and interdictions must be kept in place if the artifact of civilization, so radically dependent upon obedience to the unenforceable, is to survive and, beyond survival, to thrive. It is not guilt but historical experience that compels us to recognize the peculiar importance of the strictures against racism and anti-Semitism. In addition to their inherent repugnance, these are indulgences that have demonstrated a capacity to undo the civil order. They are not alone of course. As is all too evident in American society, there are many ways to destroy the fabric of public decency. But the still new thing is the testing of the taboos against racism and anti-Semitism. We have touched on some of the reasons for this change, but reasons are not justifications. This flirtation with the previously forbidden may be no more than a passing phase. None of us can know. Each of us can refuse to give permission.