Voices from the Grave
The Rebirth of Freedom--Or of Fascism?
In the middle of the next decade, in 1976, we will celebrate the 200 th anniversary of independence. There has never been so much doubt whether on that birthday the United States will still be free. The next decade may see a resurgence of fascism in many countries, as the pendulum swings from the permissive to the repressive. A healthy society requires a balance of freedom with order, and of social change with stability. Everywhere in the world this balance has become more difficult to achieve, as population explodes and life becomes more complex. This breeds violence and frustration, as it does when too many animals are pushed into one cage. Hence the snarling and the quarreling. In our country, on top of the universal problems of pollution, urban sprawl and youthful alienation, we are beginning to harvest in a spreading black revolt the bitter fruit of a century of slavery and another century of humiliation. We cannot cope with these interlocking problems unless in the next few years we can raise sharply the level of political understanding and social sympathy and convince the well-to-do majority of the need to forego private luxury in order to wipe out public squalor. Over the past few years a series of high-level commissions of inquiry has tried to further this task of public education.
The latest is the commission on violence appointed 18 months ago after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Its final report says again what so many earlier reports have said—that the way to eradicate crime and violence is to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination. The Commission included men as conservative as Senator Hruska, Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana and Cardinal Cooke of New York, military vicar of the U.S. Armed Forces. “As a first step” they called for a reversal of the priorities which have given the military establishment first call on the national resources. Yet even as the report was issued the tides were moving in the opposite direction. Not a single direct word of comment or even thanks came from Mr. Nixon when the report was presented to him The chairman, Dr Milton Eisenhower, could announce only that the President had “authorized” him to say he was “gravely concerned” and would “study it with care. The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents contains four separate speeches and interviews given by Mr. Nixon that week on football, but not one word about the violence report! The Commission proposed that the government increase welfare expenditures by about $20 billion, partly from a “peace dividend” of reduced military expenditure after Vietnam, partly from increased tax revenues as the Gross National Product grows. But Mr. Nixon had already shown at a press conference a few days earlier how foreign such calculations are to his basic thinking.
A reporter asked the President’s comment on the statement that there didn’t seem to be much prospect of a peace dividend after Vietnam, but that this rich country could provide all the funds necessary “for the very big problems at home” any time it was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices so “we might very well do it now and get on with the job.” Mr. Nixon did not dispute the statement that the end of the Vietnam war would not release substantial funds for domestic needs—a significant key to his own planning. Nor did he deny that we had ample wealth to meet domestic problems. He took a very different tack, one that seemed to foreclose hope. He said federal, state and local taxes already take 25 to 27 percent of the nation’s total income (30 percent is the usual estimate), and that to take more would mean that the nation would lose “its character of a free enterprise economy.” This was saying that the maintenance of the “free enterprise system” takes precedence even over social problems that may tear the country apart. He implied that if necessary poverty must go on so that profit can thrive. This is vintage Republicanism. It is also the somber diagnosis of Marxist-Leninist fatalism. No radical has said anything more subversive than Mr. Nixon’s few unfeeling words.
All this runs directly contrary to the best advice of the violence commission and its predecessors. The so-called Southern strategy, which has led wags here to call the Nixon White House, Uncle Strom’s Cabin, is more than Southern. It aims to mobilize the smug against the concerned, the unthinking wealthy against the despairing poor, bewildered middle age against idealistic youth, and bigoted whites against desperate blacks. This strategy may indeed put Wallace out of the running in 1972, as it is intended to do, and let Nixon ride triumphantly back into power on an undivided Know Nothing vote. But the cost in social turmoil will be high, and the price may make the U.S. in 1976 a police state like South Africa. Here as there the price of racial repression must prove to be everybody’s freedom.
Seen through the eyes of the blacks, the events of the year end are sinister. The effort to get rid of the 1965 Voting Act and to slow down school desegregation looks like a second post-Reconstruction era, an attempt to solidify white supremacy again in the South. Law-and-order seems to translate itself in this Administration only into black repression. In New York City a U.S. Attorney who has been vigorously prosecuting white-collar crime is under White House pressure to get out just as his investigations touch financial interests involved in Saigon black marketing and the Mafia’s Swiss bank operations. Crime in the banks arouse no such passion as crime in the streets. Worst of all is the trigger-happy lawlessness of the police themselves as demonstrated in the Black Panther killings in Chicago and the shoot-out in Los Angeles. These have stirred terrible fears.
The Black Panther raids have sent seismic tremors through a black community which has hitherto had little sympathy with this revolutionary fringe. It is amazing how many blacks are obsessed with what happened to the Jews in Germany. They fear—however horrible this may sound to decent whites—a similar fate. They see the Black Panther affair in a long perspective. For two centuries, under slavery and after, the militant has been the special target of harassment and killing. In the ghettoes today too many policemen treat suspected militants with a hatred they rarely show drug peddlers or pimps. The Chicago killings look like the climax in a series of “search and destroy” operations signed to wipe out the Panthers, and as a first step—however wildly exaggerated that may sound—toward genocide should blacks insist on their rights. If this fear of a bloody confrontation and a Nazi-style “final solution” be paranoia it is up to the white community to dispel it. For these fears are a menace to our common future. Normal politics will no longer do.
Normal politics is Southern strategy. Normal politics is the new tax bill which both parties compete to give tax relief when we quire a sharp increase in taxing and spending. We need a campaign of public education, reaching into every town and village, carrying to town meetings across the country the findings and the recommendations of the Kerner commission and the Eisenhower violence commission and all the other sober counsels of recent years. We need to convert a benighted into an enlightened majority. We need a small army of youthful Thomas Jeffersons to bring home again the lessons of freedom and of social change as the framer of the Declaration so well understood them. We need a mobilization to make us realize that whatever our differences we are trapped together, breathing the same air, drinking the same water, walking the same streets. The rich could buy no finer luxury than to pay the cost of keeping them clean and safe. To wipe out poverty and racism would be to make America really secure. But to get the kind of planning and spending required we need a revolution in public understanding. No other revolution will work, for it is the comfortable majority itself which must be converted. To bring that about is the truest challenge of the seventies, a task worthy of our finest youth.
From “Polemics and Prophesy, 1967-1970,” pp. 459-63.