Monday, February 9, 2009

The Big Picture: The Moral Clarity of John Lewis

I watched the John Lewis clip last night that The Strike mentioned yesterday (link above). What a fascinating and moving event. It was the definition of "Real World", about a million times more real than Morning Joe, or than almost anything I've ever seen on television in my entire life. It was so real that it felt surreal to be watching it on TV, if that makes any sense.

I definitely have more respect for that ex-Klansman than I do for the always-politically-correct, super-smug and proud centrists (as Krugman calls them so mockingly). The ex-Klansman wasn't too articulate or eloquent, but he was speaking from his heart. It was so real, the opposite of staged or scripted. The Klansman wasn’t made for TV, and perhaps most importantly, even though he had trouble articulating himself, the anchor let him continue without constantly interrupting him. It was just so inspiring to see how even the most prejudiced people can change in fundamental ways. And John Lewis was so inspiring. It’s hard to imagine somebody more admirable. He has the highest moral clarity of anyone living today. What a great man to be able to forgive without reservation and show so much empathy.

Of course it's pretty outrageous that nobody has ever apologized to him before - instead people like John McCain are still calling HIM racist and inflammatory!!! (at least they cry in their campaign bus afterwards...) John Lewis is the big leader on the "moving me to tears" front in the last few months - those clips of him overcome by emotion on Election Day, especially him in Ebezer Baptist Church, and then footage of him on Inauguration Weekend, and then an amazing short piece by David Remnick in the New Yorker about how much Obama's Inauguration meant to him, which includes the anecodte that Obama signed an inauguration photo to Lewis with, “Because of You…”

This clip should be seen by everyone, especially in history classes, as an antidote to cynicism and apathy as well as prejudice, and to show how politics and history are the opposite of abstract, the opposite of "stuff that happened in the past to old white guys and don't matter to me". It shows how the country can fundamentally change, and the power of the Civil Rights Movement to make that change not through anger, but through love, always keeping the moral high ground, keeping your ideals and working tirelessly for change, but never lashing out in anger. It also makes it all the more outrageous that Lewis was forced out as head of SNCC in 1966 because the black power advocates said he was too soft, wasn't radical enough, didn't fight back - even though almost all those advocates hadn't even been there for the years of incredibly hard and dangerous work. But those ideologues talked a bigger game than Lewis. Of course the organization fell apart when they took over, but they can keep on saying how righteous they were.

I think that comparison between Lewis and the black power self-styled radicals says a lot: it's easy and it makes you feel good to use rhetoric to show how much more radical you are than all the "sell-outs" who came before, but it's a lot harder to back that up with tireless action to improve people's lives, each and every day. It says something about Obama too: I initially supported John Edwards because I liked the way Edwards went after business and conservatives, but we've come to realize that he was phony in many ways, it was a pose to prove how liberal he was. Hillary Clinton too liked to say that she, unlike Obama, was tough enough to take on the Right. But her history proved that when push came to shove, she gave in on the most important issues. Barack Obama, in contrast, doesn't crow about shifting the country to the left, undoing the Reagan Era, and restoring democracy at the expense of big corporations. He just goes out and does it, and has done it his whole life. I've learned to examine the record of someone's life, and not be swept up by the cheap thrill of demogoguery.

1 comment:

  1. It's a great lesson for all of us, several lessons really as you described it. People really are what they do, not what they say. Words are cheap, in many cases. The former Klansman's words, however, are not cheap at all. He gave a lot of himself in the way he apologized publicly to John Lewis.Lewis has stood for what he believed was right for a very long time, living the life of his beliefs. He deserves Obama's and all of our appreciation.
    Live your beliefs, it will feel right now and later.