Monday, June 18, 2018

How Democracies Die, Racism, and How The NBA Gives Us Hope

Even with all that's going on, I'm still startled that on our pediatrics SOAPM listserve, immigrants and children of immigrants are fearful, even though they are here legally, but they are still afraid that they will be rounded up. I understand the nervousness of immigrants, but I'd say, if you're legal, you're safe, no if's and's or buts.  It's not Nazi Germany and it won't be.  It's certainly a more than nasty episode, but still, their nervousness is an index of how serious our Trump insurgency problem is.

I read an excellent book, How Democracies Die:  The authors detail the death of democracies in some other countries, like Peru, and the steps taken by the dictators in achieving non-democratic power, which are exactly the steps that Trump is trying to take.  They point out how norms are so important, because not everything can be detailed in law, and how important it is that contenders in the political fray respect the legitimacy of opponents, rather than viewing them as enemies of the state. They summarize their guidelines in the words “forbearance” – don't do something just because it is not legally forbidden, but rather respect tradition and reasonableness of the way things have been done – and “respect.” Political opponents are not the enemies of the state. These are very good and important observations.

But what particularly caught my attention was a just a sentence or two. What they said in a very short space was this: as a rule, no ethnic group voluntarily gives up power. Just a small sentence or two, just a small observation in a longer book, but to me, glowing and pulsating like a thumb jammed in a car door.

Of course, I thought, of course. Of course. I have been wrestling with this myself. I have realized the severe lifelong deficiency of my understanding of the pervasiveness and devastation of racism. While in fact there it was staring me in the face: what has led America to continue to be glued together, to respect the norms of democracy and to respect others as opponents and not enemies? To a certain extent, as America was predominantly white, what both parties could agree on was that Blacks should remain oppressed. Even in Roosevelt's America, when the President had the the task of delivering a decent life to the working class, he had to give obeisance to southern senators, as in exempting agricultural workers – Blacks in the South – from labor laws. In very stark terms, part of the basic deal that kept American democracy together was an agreement to let racism thrive.

And of course, as an American, I've been part of that. Case in point: when I was 19 years old I wrote a paper for my freshman English class that I thought was wonderful (and still do.) The title was Mr. Basketball, or Why I Hate Bob Cousy. It was a seminal paper in that, amazingly, now, over 50 years later, my friends and I are still discussing and arguing over its premise, which is that Bob Cousy was severely overrated. This is important for basketball fans! There is an amazing amount of assumptions and detail and statistics and history for us to chew on, and spit out on occasion.

Maybe I was right; I actually think I was, but it's debatable. But some years ago I reflected on my exploration of why Cousy was so overestimated. I thought then that Cousy, a rather short guard for the National Basketball Association's Boston Celtics, was glorified precisely because he was short, and fans could identify with him, David against Goliath. I think he himself made that very point. I thought that the fans' identification with him clouded their appreciation of the real excellence of bigger and better and more effective and less showboaty players. But here's what I realized as I reflected: at the time, in 1960, it never crossed my mind to think the important thought that Cousy was white, and that the league was just then becoming increasingly Black. Talk about opportunities for identification. Whiteness might trump shortness.

In other words, while I was a nice Jewish liberal boy who would go on to become a doctor, in 1960, I was oblivious to racism except in its most obvious forms. Since then, even though I have done good things and thought good things and certainly done my bit for racial justice personally, I have had my eyes opened gradually and progressively to the depth and severity and lethality of racism in America. It was only recently that I realized that even my Black physician friends have experienced being pulled over by police, and followed around stores by security, for the obvious reason. I had no idea.

I could have been more racially conscious at the time I wrote my great paper, since it was written in the midst of the civil rights movement's beginning, and predated civil rights legislation by just a couple of years. But it predated by eight years Nixon's adoption of the Southern Strategy, by 12 years Nixon's use of Donald Segretti's dirty electoral tricks, and it predated by 28 years the Willie Horton ads that propelled George Bush to the 41st Presidency. Political and social movements take time, and so does social understanding.

And now we are engaged in another civil political war that will test whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated to democracy, can long endure. Ethnic groups do not easily give up dominance. When faced with a choice between ethnic dominance and democracy, what does one choose? From this point of view it is not surprising that a dominant group would turn to voter suppression (time honored in the South), to electoral tricks such as gerrymandering, to the infusion of large amounts of money to capture cleverly local and state governments just below the radar. It is not surprising that the Other will be demonized, that possession of weapons will be lionized, that mutual respect and norms and expectations and decency will be jettisoned by agents of the historically dominant faction. It just makes sense. Hypocrisies will be revealed. The contradictions of the ideology of democracy and the actuality of its enactment will become evident.

So, scales have been lifted. But I have to say, as outrageous as the Trump Administration the ICE brown shirts and the would-be thug friends of the President are, as scary as this can be to those most vulnerable, as best as I can see, we are not present at the destruction; rather, we are present at the inflection. Democracy will not die here. At heart, we are indeed a decent nation. Many have lost their way. Christians are having their faith tested – do their sympathies lie with the murdered church people of Charleston who forgive their racist murderer, or the bigotry of Franklin Graham? In the end, I'll put my money on decency.

Could it happen here? I guess it could. But it won't. There's too much to live for, there's too much good in the people, there's too much good history and there's too much good memory in being proud of who we are. There's too much music and sports and literature and food and drink and fun and love and racial mixture, and acceptance. It's all here. There's too much basketball, and football and the South and the prejudiced and those out of the mainstream will just have to catch up. We are not dying as a nation, we just have a fever.

In the end, we will go the way of the NBA, which learned to accept not only African Americans, but to glory in them, to bring in foreigners Black, white, and Asian, from all corners, women as coaches, and to glory in them, too. It is a glorious history, and I'm sure it will not stop here. It just can't.

As goes the NBA, so goes the nation.

Budd Shenkin

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