There is a pattern in American culture, a dialectic between “moderation” and “extremism”, that repeats itself in many unexpected areas. At the moment, the Democratic party is sponsoring, or involuntarily becoming, a ground for the debate between how far our political demands should go, once we have decided to call ourselves “progressives”. The terms of this debate are similar to the debate about African-American politics that was staged long ago by W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. In a long essay about Dubois that appeared in 2011 in the NYRB, Kwame Anthony Appiah provided a useful corrective to the idea that we can straightforwardly identify extremes -as for instance using Dubois as a marker of the most extreme position regarding African-American politics. In fact, Dubois represented a more moderate idea of the American “promise” than Frederick Douglas:
“The third of Du Bois’s core ideas is a claim about what the main political issue was that faced black America. Du Bois believed for much of his life, according to Gooding-Williams [author of In the Shadow of Dubois], that it was the social exclusion of African-Americans. And he thought that there was work to be done by both blacks and whites on this “Negro problem,” since, Gooding-Williams writes, “in his view, the problem had two causes. The first was racial prejudice. The second was the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.
There is a very different vision of the Negro problem, which Gooding-Williams [ finds sketched out in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In this account, the problem is not black exclusion but white supremacy. The young Du Bois saw the social exclusion of the Negro as an anomalous betrayal of the basic ideals of the American republic; Douglass, more radically, regarded the oppression of black people as a “central and defining feature” of American life, as part of all its major institutions. And oppression, for him, is not about exclusion but about domination. It means keeping blacks not out but down. The solution then can’t be mere integration, the end of exclusion; rather, it requires the reimagination of American citizenship as a citizenship of racial equals, or what Gooding-Williams approvingly calls a “revolutionary refounding of the American polity.”
It is a good idea to keep the debate about the whole program of creating a progressive America – or more bluntly, a democratic socialist one – aligned with these past debates, since they break up the semantic blocks that tend to become routine assumptions when the debaters break out the plates and hurl them at each others heads. Obama was more often compared to Booker T. Washington than W.E.B. Dubois, but there is more of Dubois in his policies, or non-policies, than seems obvious at first glance.
Appiah, following Gooding-Williams, sees the influence of the German school of sociology on Dubois, and, especially, on the idea of Souls of Black Folks, where that collective soul is the equivalent of a Herderian Geist. He doesn’t mention Herder’s most famous, or at least influential, follower in the U.S. – Boas. The Boas who encouraged Zona Hurston to collect folk tales and the Mexican revolutionaries to establish museums of anthropology. Geist is in question when we replay, endlessly, the notion of identity vs. class, with the latter representing the social mechanism that creates a culture out of material interest, and the former being the bodily and cultural mechanism that produces mass mimicry, with all its parts: role models, the importance of entertainment as a vector of social transformation, etc.
Dubois was, as Appiah notes, ideally democratic, considering that the governed have a perfect right and responsibility to speak out to the governors; but he was also a proponent of the talented tenth, seeing the other 9/10s as poor, ill educated, ill informed, etc. This is a surprisingly common characteristic not only of the right, but of the left – hence the moral panic about false news, with its implication that the establishment media only engages in fact based reporting as opposed to fringe groups that trade around absurd stories of HRC connected pizza parlor pedophile gangs. In this opposition we simply forget the absurd stories, traded as truth, about Iraq having loads of WMD that the NYT and the WAPO were content to trade in as Bush took us to war. We forget the idiocy of the media during the course of that war, and before – as for instance in the idea that only black proles would believe that the CIA collaborated with drug dealers as it was high mindedly overthrowing democracies we didn’t like in Central America, and the like.
No, it is all the ignorant unwashed.
I’ve not gone into the substance of the struggle for the “soul” of the Democratic party, since what I want to point out is the form. Read Appiah’s essay if you can get ahold of it. It’s here. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/12/22/battling-du-bois/