Re-posted following the great server crash. Originally posted by Nicholas Gruen on Sunday, May 27, 2007
When I read the first paragraph of Noel Pearson’s latest op ed my heart sank.
I have watched with awe how the progressive lobby turned al-Qaeda recruit David Hicks into a relentless, irrecusable and finally triumphant national cause from Taliban terrorist to Nelson Mandela of Guantanamo Bay.
These remarkably ill chosen words reminded me of Charlie Perkins occasional lapses into anti-Asian racism and IIRC vile asides about Jews. For the record Pearsons point is ridiculous and shows that hes mixing in some bad company. Of course a campaign like the campaign for David Hicks to be subjected to the rigours and protection of the rule of law would acquire some of the aspects he attributes to it. But thats the inevitable product of the fact that a successful political campaign whomever it begins with, will take on a broad church of supporters and will have to convey its message in the clichés that are demanded or invented by the media in the same way that Australia Post charges you for stamps before it will ship your letter.
But this is by way of an (unapologetic) aside.
Pearsons op ed was a condensation of an essay he published in the Griffith Review and I thought it a pretty strange jumble of ideas after the initial opening faux pas. I think I saw some reference to Pearsons essay on the blogosphere with someone saying, in the light of Guy Rundles attack on it in Crikey! about which I might say a little more on Troppo later that until his full essay was up on the web we couldnt really decide for ourselves.
Well as no-doubt someone has already told Ozplogistan the essay is up on the net. And I am here to tell you with due health warning about my occasional lapses into peremptory (but rarely regretted) enthusiasm that it is magnificent. A masterpiece.
It is a bit long winded and could have been edited back by maybe 20%. And perhaps one of my reasons for thinking it so good is that Ive not read the literature quoted in it, and so it all comes at me in a rush of what seems like very powerful ideas. But there you go, its a great essay. Its long and I didnt even find it a particularly easy read, but I found it quite gripping.
Over the fold Ive tried to write a bit of a survey of what I thought was so good about it together with a few comments of my own. There are substantial slabs of text so you may wish to go read Pearson direct. But its around 18,000 words long so you might like to taste my potted summary and commentary over the fold.
Firstly, despite some awkwardness and longwindedness Pearson has a powerful way with words. This passage is a good illustration of all these claims.
Obamas great talent is that of Bill Clinton: a keen public moral compass that can provide persuasive direction through the dialectical thickets of modern conundrums, and a nearpeerless capacity for summoning the better angels of our natures even as the GOPs Lee Atwater and Karl Rove brought American (and therefore the world that follows) electoral politics to new pitiless nadirs, where devils are casually conjured from the body politic in pursuit of power. I am reminded of Robert Hughes early rebuke of what would become the neoconservative versus (by then old) New Left culture wars of the 1990s when he wrote in Culture of Complaint (Harvill, 1992): Against this ghastly background, so remote from American experience since the Civil War, we now have our own conservatives promising a culture war, while ignorant radicals orate about separatism. They cannot know what demons they are frivolously invoking. If they did, they would fall silent in shame. But alas, the mutating lexicon of American political campaigning since Pat Buchanan first gave expression to wedge politics by advising ichard Nixon, If we tear the country in half, we can pick up the bigger half has not paused for shame. America is riven.
Pearson begins by musing on Obama. Hes not saying, but hes hoping and doing his bit to articulate how it might happen, if it does happen, that Obama achieves something great. If he were to do so, Pearson argues, he would do so within some synthesis of a rights based and a responsibility based conception of how the lot of those at the bottom of society might be bettered.
Doing so he sketches the contributions of two late nineteenth/early twentieth century black leaders Booker T Washington standing for the responsibility based approach and W.E.B Dubois representing the more modern rights based approach.
The essay has some real zingers in it Ill quote some below some real aphorisms worthy of becoming quotes. But one of my two favourite ones is this his recipe for political greatness (I cant help liking the co-incidence of Pearsons political heroes or those he quotes and mine – Lincoln and Churchill). This (I suggest) is his dialectical message to Obama.
The highest ideals in the affairs of humans on Earth are realised when leadership strives to secure them through close attention to reality
Ill outline some of the best of Pearsons arguments to a substantial extent with quotes from his essay below.
He quotes the ex-slave and black emancipist Booker T Washingtons prescient comment.
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands.
Pearson goes on quoting Washington. His central metaphor was both literary and instantly folkloric:
A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, Water, water; we die of thirst! The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, Cast down your bucket where you are. The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: Cast down your bucket where you are Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions
He then sketches out the tale of the early respect and cooperation between Washington and Dubois and their later, perhaps inevitable estrangement as the politics of Dubois program, particularly with his black constituents drew him into antagonism with Washingtons compromises. The point of the story?
[I]t is critical to understand how close they were, despite their fundamental differences. Dubois had congratulated Washington on his Atlanta compromise speech, which set out the accommodationist framework. Early in Duboiss career, they were engaged in a courtship that included the possibility of him joining Washington at Tuskeegee. In the first cordial decade of their relationship they corresponded on legal strategies, planned conferences and sought ways to use each other to the advantage of each. The history of their relationship tells us that DuBois understood and appreciated Washingtons strategy and did not wholly disapprove. He knew the context and the limitations of black advancement as much as Washington. It is also now much better known that Washington devoted significant time, money and effort to surreptitiously fighting the race system behind the scenes through backdoor lobbying, law suits and editorials, including financial assistance to DuBois who was well aware of Washingtons private opposition to the Jim Crow system, but also Washingtons unwillingness to risk his influence through public agitation. DuBois was a much more balanced and generous commentator and critic of Washington than many others who shared his view that discrimination had to be confronted.
The point of this? Heres Pearson:
I can make no judgement as to this history; there is much evidence to support the modern black despisers of Washington and his faith that the white America which welcomedhis Atlanta Compromise would open the doors to participation. White America simply did not deliver on the bargain. There was little black progress until after the Second World War when government social redistribution efforts started registeing progress amongst blacks. I only wish to posit some of my own convictions about those aspects of Washingtons philosophical conviction that were right a the time he expressed them, and I believe are still right today. In his famous address Washington had two compelling lines, the first of which was: It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.
For a downtrodden people Washingtons preference for improvement was a policy relevant to every black person (No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem ). I dont think Washington disagreed that the black community would need its Talented Tenth to succeed. I think what he disagreed with was deprecation of the more humble learning and achievement. He declared: Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way. The excellent pig slop dispenser would one day have a child in Harvard. His second compelling line was: Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities. This is a psychological point about how a people might deal with grievances of the past and the present, including the injuries sustained from racism. The best insurance is to become socially and economically strong by capitalising on opportunities..
Pearson then outlines the views of Shelby Steele who published a book called White Guilt in 2006. Im not sure that I agree with all the analysis here, but Im entirely happy with the upshot. He begins citing the Steele book with a very revealing question.
Steele opens his book with reflections on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and President Clintons infamous denial. . . . Steele was surprised when he realised not only might [Clinton] survive his entire term but also that his survival spoke volumes about the moral criterion for holding power in the United States. If similar behaviour had been made public in the 1950s, it would almost certainly have resulted in the resignation or removal of a president. Steele then asked himself what would have happened if President Clinton had been accused of using the word nigger as President Eisenhower was rumoured to have done. Would the same relativism protect Clinton? No way. In America today, there is no moral relativism about race. No sophisticated public sentiment recasts racism as a personal choice or a quirk of character. Instead, America is unwavering in its stance on racism Eisenhowers flippant use of the word nigger would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton.
Im not entirely sure that as a matter of fact the example sticks. Though perhaps it would have done if Clinton had been shown clearly to be actively hostile to blacks (the word can be used in many ways). Still the point being made I think is spot on. We are not into any kind of moral relativism when it comes to racism. I recall talking to a school mistress about bullying and, in an effort to try to dramatise the situation I mooted the idea of the kind of zero tolerance towards bullying as would be shown towards overt racist abuse of the two young aboriginal girls who had recently been flown into the school from the outback. The point was instantly understood.
Heres Pearson explaining Steeles thesis:
For Steele, white guilt is a product of the vacuum of moral authority that comes from knowing that ones people are associated with racism Whites and, he asserts, American institutions must acknowledge historical racism to atone for it. In acknowledging it, however, they lose moral authority over matters of social justice and become morally and, one could argue, politically vulnerable. To overcome this vulnerability, white Americans have embraced a social morality, designed to rebuild moral authority by simultaneously acknowledging past racial injustices while separating themselves from thse injustices. Steele calls this dissociation.
Where white guilt forces white Americans to acknowledge historical injustices, social morality may absolve them of it, restoring authority and democratic bona fides. With authority restored, power relations may continue as before. Critically, Steele argues, social morality is not a dissident point of view urged by reformers; it is the establishment morality in America. It defines propriety so that even those who harbour racist views must conform to a code of decency that defines those views as shameful.
But Steele does not limit his analysis to white America. He expands his argument to assess the effects of white guilt on the freedoms tangible or otherwise of black Americans. In a critique of the black consciousness which challenged traditional American authority, Steele draws a connection between increasingly militant messages of black power and burgeoning manifestations of white guilt. For a generation of black leaders, racism existed within this context in a society suffering a lack of moral authority. The new black leaders (adopting a neoMarxian structural analysis) redefined racism as systemic and sociological. Racism was larger than individual acts, and defined social and political events and decisions. . . .
Steeles thesis contends that racism became valuable to the people who had suffered it because it makes the moral authority of whites and the legitimacy of American institutions contingent on proving a negative: that they are not racist. The power of white guilt is that it functions in the same way as racism as a stigma. White Americans and American institutions are stigmatised as racist until they prove otherwise. What began as an almost petulant alienation from traditional authority, Steele asserts, has now evolved into a sophisticated manipulation to elicit an increasing sense of obligation. In a perversion of civil rightsera aspirations, racism is no longer a barrier to individual black Americans, but one of the factors contributing to the assurance of their rights.
Pushing the argument one step further, Steele unpacks the effects of the interplay between black consciousness and white guilt. Black consciousness, he argues, led many black Americans to talk themselves out of the personal freedom won by civil rights activism, for the sole (and unworthy) purpose of triggering white obligation. In a reactionary drift, race became seen as more important than individuality, the primary determinant of a persons ability to advance. Ones identity became primarily that of the group (race) rather than that of an individual, one of whose characteristics was colour. In this way, identity played a destructive role in the advancement of black Americans.
Few who live in liberal democracies today would contest the idea that freedom is crucial to a decent life. A related although perhaps more frequently debated assertion is that only by being responsible for ones life can one assume agency for it. Agency, Steele believes, is what makes us fully human. With the rise and rise of black consciousness, however, the idea that black Americans must take personal responsibility to get ahead was subverted by the idea that responsibility wasa tool of oppression and white America was responsible for black American advancement.
The first step in that argument that responsibility was a tool of oppression in the age of racism is not without historical justification. Steeles father, born in the American South in 1900, had plenty of responsibility the same responsibilities as whites but not much possibility. He could not join the union, and therefore had to raise a family on a lower wage. Steele calls this a crucible, an absurd bind that denies one the opportunities to meet adequately the burden of responsibility one must carry. Thus, Steele continues, a heavy and often futile responsibility was the primary experience of racial oppression this Sisyphean struggle with responsibility was the condition of oppression itself into which all the other indignities discrimination intimidation, humiliation were absorbed.
When his peers raised their consciousness and embraced the neoMarxian theories of institutionalised racism, Steele argues they began to think of responsibility as something that made blacks complicit in their own repression. Paradoxically, this historically justified insight started influencing black American ideology at the same time as discrimination and oppresson were rapidly and formally being removed from the society.
The realisation that white America had a diminished moral authority to tell black Americans to be responsible led many black and white to conclude that white America was obliged to demonstrate its reformation by taking on the burden of responsibility for black Americans. White America as in President Johnsons Great Society and the introduction of affirmative action policies by the American college system thus assumed considerable responsibility for improving the socioeconomic status of blacks. Underpinning this was the unspoken assumption rooted in Americas history of racial injustice that it was morally wrong (or unnecessary) for blacks to bear full responsibility for their own advancement.
Pearson quotes Steele nailing his argument thus:
Right after the 60s civilrights victories came what I believe to be the greatest miscalculation in black American history. Others had oppressed us, but this was to be the first fall to come by our own hand. We allowed ourselves to see a greater power in Americas liability for our oppression than we saw in ourselves. Thus, we were faithless with ourselves just when we had given ourselves reason to have such faith. We couldnt have made a worse mistake. We have not been the same since.
Pearson then outlines the parallels and some of the differences running between Australian and American history of the civil rights period and beyond. I think he does the job in a fairly balanced way here are some sample paragraphs.
There is a strong tradition of denial in Australia. . . . These people deny that racism in Australia against the countrys Indigenous peoples is a serious problem. Keith Windschuttles refutation of massacres and violence on the frontiers, and Pauline Hansons galvanising resentments against alleged preferences to Aboriginal people (and other racial minorities) are just the most egregious representatives of a wide constituency which adopts a position of denial. Denial is a strong word. It is only a general characterisation of a spectrum of views amongst nonIndigenous Australians which range from David Irving-style ideological denialism to those who acknowledge the depredations suffered by Indigenous people through history and the racism in our society, but who minimise its nature and extent (we shouldnt dwell on the past). Many join this constituency because of political and cultural affiliations with the political right.
There are two important things to understand about this constituency. First, most of them are defensive about their own identity and heritage. The accusation that they are racist and their colonial heritage is a catalogue of shame and immoral villainy and they should therefore feel guilt for racism and history makes them defensive. If race and history are raised in such a sharply accusatory and unbalanced way, then people who may otherwise be prepared to acknowledge and take responsibility for the truth end up joining the hardcore ideologues. There is some truth in the proposition that political correctness has had this effect. There is also truth in the proposition that the political right has deliberately and wilfully galvanised this defensiveness bymischaracterising the progressive position as being about guilt, rather than what former Prime Minister Paul Keating referred to as open hearts in his landmark 1992 Redfern speech. This has provided great fodder for the right in their prosecution of the culture wars.
The denialists also keenly understand how debilitating it is to adopt the mentality and outlook of victimhood. It is easy for them to say that victimhood is worthless, as it grows out of their ideological contempt for interventionist social policy that seeks to ameliorate the impact of the maret even on the most vulnerable, but this does not make them wrong. Those on the cultural and political right are therefore more correct than their opponents in recognising the folly of the impat of policy that turns people into victims.
Pearson then gets stuck into the morally vain though again with a fair bit of attention to fleshing out what he means and softening an ugly expression.
If these are the two white positions he objects to, he seems to prefer the former not because he is more sympathetic to the right than the left. His greater liking for the right I suggest be understood in a specific historical context – about which more below. For him aboriginal responsibility is by far the most urgent order of the day.
The optimal position for whites to adopt is neither denialism or moral vanity but the more balanced position of acceptance.
Meanwhile black positions are those of separatism which he believes is usually the sign of moral frivolity in Australia, and the largest aboriginal constituency is victimhood. Victimhood has been a disaster.
Yes, individuals and groups in our society are victimised in a variety of ways. But it is a terrible thing to encourage victims to adopt a mentality and outlook of victimhood, to see themselves as victims. To adopt this mentality is fatal because it concedes defeat, and it can also literally kill. Victims do not take responsibility for what they eat and drink, for their health and mental wellbeing; their families become dysfunctional and their children are damaged even before they are born. The worst indulgence is to take away the one power victims need to survive, to defy victimisation. To say: Yes, I have suffered victimisation but Im not giving in by becoming a victim!
For me the highlight of the essay from which I quoted the aphorism about leadership and reality above is called The Radical Centre in Policy and Leadership.
I liked its headquote which Pearson got from his reading of Rugby books hes a rugby fanatic. I came back to it having read the section so Ill quote it at the end of this summary.
Pearson gives real (if necessarily still elusive) content to this slogan Radical Centre. What does it mean? Well its very Aristotelian. One thing is never good on its own. He quotes ten poles of policy making which Ill quote shortly. But the one he focuses on is order and freedom and the obvious point that the two things are in necessary tension with each other. Complete order is the antithesis of freedom, but without order there is no freedom.
But if we want black neighbourhoods to enjoy freedom, we need to ask the question: What is it about advantaged neighbourhoods that guarantees freedom for their denizens? The answer is: They have social order. If we dont take the hard policy decisions to increase social order where it is weak because we fear that black involvement inthe criminal justice system will increase, then we will never solve the egregious (and, in the case of my home state of Queensland, increasing) overrepresentation of black people in prison. Not until we have socially ordered neighbourhoods.
Here is Pearson in full flight immediately after this paragraph.
The radical centre may be defined as the intense resolution of the tensions between opposing principles (in this example, the principles are freedom and social order) a resolution that produces the synthesis of optimum policy. The radical centre is not to be found in simply splitting the difference between the stark and weak tensions from either side of popularly conceived discourse, but rather where the dialectical tension is most intense and the policy positions much closer and more carefully calibrated than most people imagine. . . .
First, it is intellectually difficult to analyse and identify the correct (radically centrist) policy because commanding ideologies hold sway and limit the capacity of people to abandon wrong policies and search for better ones. But even where the right policies have been identified and adopted, their implementation is susceptible to distortion. The correct policy can easily turn sour because of incompetent implementation, because the calibration is lost: if a police force does not understand the aim of restoring social order to crimeridden communities and that racism and sharp practice must not be tolerated, policy will degenerate into abuse and victimisation. Even when optimal policies are competently implemented, one must be mindful of the dynamic nature of social, political and economic currents. A progressive measure at one time can produce regressive results later. Policy must take account of the effluxion of time and the stage of historical development.
I must say I loved this definition. It made me think of a lot of the things Im interested in in economics and how for those proposing new ways of putting together old patterns, misunderstanding is almost inevitable as people reach for categories with which they can comprehend by simplifying and characterising what youre saying in terms of some political spectrum or framework with which theyre familiar.
Heres the purple patch in which the aphorism I quoted early on in this summary appears. Its much more analytical and powerful than Whitlams Certainly the impotent are pure. I love it.
We are prisoners of our metaphors: by thinking of realism/pragmatism and idealism as opposite ends of a twodimensional plane, we see leaders inclining to one side or the other. The naïve and indignant yaw towards ideals and get nowhere, but their souls remain pure. The coldeyed and impatient pride themselves in their lack of romance and emotional foolishness: pragmatism and a remorseless Kissingeresque grasp of power make winning and survival the main prize every time. Those who harbour ideals but who need to work within the parameters of real power (as opposed to simply cloaking lazy capitulation under the easy mantle of righteous impotence) end up splitting the difference somewhere between ideals and reality. This is called compromise. And it is all too often of a low denominator.
I prefer a pyramid metaphor of leadership, with one side being realism and the other idealism, and the quality of leadership dependent on how closely the two sides are brought together. The apex of leadership is the point where the two sides meet. The highest ideals in the affairs of humans on Earth are realised when leadership strives to secure them through close attention to reality. Lofty idealism without pragmatism is worthless. What is pragmatism without ideals? At best it is management, but not leadership.
As one rises above the low denominator compromise, it takes skill, creativity, strategy, careful calculation as well as bold judgement, prudence and risk, intelligent analysis, insight, perseverance as well as preparedness to alter course, belief and humility, great competence and an ability to make good from mistakes to bring ideals closer to reality. One must be hardheaded in order to never let go of ideals.
Idealism and realism in leadership do not constitute a zerosum game. This is not about securing a false compromise. It need not be a simple tradeoff where one splits the difference. The best leadership occurs at the point of highest tension between ideals and reality. This is the radical centre. If the idealism is weaker than the realism, then optimum leadership cannot be achieved. And vice versa. The radical centre is achieved when both are strong.
Taking the obvious example, he cites Lincoln pledging that he had no purpose to interfere with slavery in his first inaugural and ended up as the result of changing circumstances leading the country to empancipation. As Pearson says The journey is not Lincolns alone: leaders are not gods.
Pearson suggests that
There are at least ten classic dialectical tensions in human policy: idealism vs realism, rights vs responsibilities, social order vs liberty, individual vs community, efficiency vs equality, structure vs behaviour, opportunity vs choice, unity vs diversity, nature vs man, and peace vs war.
Those are the highlights of the essay for me. I think its a marvellous and subtle exploration of a bunch of issues of compelling importance, and yet one measure of its power is that I kept thinking of other things to which Pearsons approach could apply. One of the things that comes out of it is a frustration with being characterised in a particular way.
The final section of the essay contains plea for personal understanding arguing that his championing of responsibilities should not be taken as some repudiation of the importance of rights as of course it routinely is in the polarities that are politics.
Only the primary leaders of a whole society can triangulate, to use the crude practical terminology of Clintons adviser Dick Morris in Behind the Oval Office (Renaissance, 1999), during his most effective third way period from midterm disaster at the hands of the Newt Gingrichs Republican revolution in 1994 to reelection against the odds in 1996 to move players to a radical centre on vital issues such as welfare reform. People with lesser vantage can only advance one side of a dialectical tension.
I and my associates in Cape York Peninsula decided to champion the Indigenous responsibility agenda, because this was the most underdeveloped area in the then Australian discourse. The sideeffect of our decision is that we are perceived to represent only the principle of responsibility; in a political and societal sense, we are largely limited to this role, despite our continued work and ongoing practical achievements in securing rights for our people.
And heres the promised quote from Mark Ella
When a team is running in attack, the key player is not the player with the ball but the player off the ball that is, the player he will pass it to. He is the one under pressure to be in the best possible position to receive the ball The player running in support has to decide whether to go inside or outside, whether to run close or wide and when to call for the ball. Furthermore, before he calls for the ball, the player running in support has to manoeuvre himself into a position from which he will be able to do something constructive with the ball once he receives it.