In his recent inaugural address, President Barack Obama spoke about several injustices long-ensconced in American society. Most of the examples he gave were linked to a specific place — Stonewall, Selma, Newtown — but each also contained the seeds of a lesson far more common and generalizable.
Like many who have taken up the editorialist’s pen, my entry into this profession was couched in a rebuke of similarly unjust conditions in my own hometown. With the benefit of long observation, I now regard these problems as having that same broader relevance. Because injustice can find its way into all levels of government, these smaller vignettes often hold larger lessons.
For years, I have cataloged the troubled careers of three members of the Pine Bluff city council. Across their whole tenure, their votes have broken consistently along racial lines. Whatever moral crusade may have initiated this pattern, its continuation has devolved into a clownish self-parody devoid of ethical substance. What was once a beacon against systematic discrimination has become a corrupt charade of retaliation.
As I’ve struggled to understand this poison, three sage admonitions given by Friedrich Nietzsche have helped. The first of these is pretty well known: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he become a monster.”
My three notable aldermen have perpetuated distrust and division so long they no longer need a real foe. They have become their own Minotaur. Unfortunately, they have also dragged my hometown down into the labyrinth with them.
While predicating their acts upon noble goals of equality, diversity and justice, their results tend toward retribution, racist gerrymander and blanket absolution for mercurial vindictiveness.
This harkens Nietzsche’s second point: “How good bad music and bad reason sound when one marches against an enemy.”
Their stated intent is always laudable. The inevitable outcomes rarely are. This makes it all-too easy to dismiss them. Their self-righteous faux struggle gives the intolerant all the reasons they need to embrace bigotry.
These facts lead to Nietzsche’s third observation: “Sometimes one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.”
By that meter, this unholy triumvirate has inspired more “faith” than Billy Graham. They have certainly sustained my attention.
Sadly though, there are many who take their machinations at face value. The more naïve would have us believe that this second course of civic perversion is somehow legitimated by the first. Therein lie the most perilous waters for anyone who would dare rip back the curtain on politicians such as these.
Oddly enough, former President Bill Clinton’s recent remarks on the national gun control debate speak to an important aspect of this more local fight: “Do not patronize the passionate supporters of your opponents by looking down your nose at them. A lot of these people live in a world very different from the world lived in by the people proposing these things; I know because I come from this world.”
Clinton was speaking about the divide between rural and urban America, but his ideas are equally applicable to the chasm between black and white America.
As a white man I can claim very little understanding of what it is to be black. I have, however, lived most of my life in a community that is predominantly black. I am old enough to remember the persistence of segregated custom long after its formal abolishment.
I have also stood witness while the local — largely white — landed gentry sucked the marrow from the bones of a largely black underclass. That white gentry, now having moved to more hospitable environs, was supplanted by a rising black upper-class who learned well the brutal techniques of exploitation and elitism. From that ascending stratum, my representatives have come.
Their pattern is common across human history: one petty tyrant topples another and immediately sets about persecuting all who came before. The greatest irony in the predictable cascade of revenge is that it only serves to set the second tyrant up for toppling by a third. Blinded by the narcissistic luxury of short-term success, the second act never believes the third stands in the wings — with its own songs, banners and false morality.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org