Richard Cohen and the Invisible Power

For Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, there's a certain sweetness in highlighting ingratitude during a time when most Americans are giving thanks. Cohen opened Thanksgiving week with an essay defending Michelle Obama's claim that prior to her husband's nomination for president, there was little to be proud of here in America. "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country," said the current First Lady back in 2008.

In his essay ("Michelle Was Right About Her Country"), Cohen wants to raise the awareness of those who might assume that America has adequately atoned for its racist past.

For example, when Michelle Obama was a student at Princeton, says Cohen, her "blackness" became an issue. In her senior thesis, Mrs. Obama wrote that she felt "more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before." But wasn't it Michelle's "blackness" that opened the doors for her to Princeton and Harvard (and closed the doors to the dreams of more qualified white and Asian applicants)? Isn't "diversity" supposed to make students more aware of their skin color? In short, absent blackness, it's very unlikely Michelle Obama would be America's First Lady today. 

Indeed, during the 2008 presidential campaign, former Democrat vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro claimed that Barack Obama's "blackness" was a valuable asset -- something he should be thankful for, in other words:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman [of any color], he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.

At a Florida fundraiser during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama used his "blackness" in ingenious ways in order to scare up additional votes. Candidate Obama told his audience that Republicans were "going to try to make you afraid of me -- he's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?"

To James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal, Obama "implicitly ascribes to the GOP the view that voters are prejudiced against blacks, then calls on voters to prove they are not by voting for Obama. The fear of GOP racism also provides black voters an extra motive to get to the polls." In other words, says Taranto, Obama's blackness was creatively used "to take advantage of white guilt and black fear." 

For Richard Cohen, however, Michelle Obama was still right about her country. America, says Cohen, was once an "apartheid nation," and woe to anyone who goes "blank" on the country's sordid history:

Why do politicians such as Palin and commentators such as Glenn Beck insist that African-Americans go blank on their own history -- as blank as apparently Palin and Beck themselves are? Why must they insist that blacks join them in embracing a repellent history that once caused America to go to war with itself?

The philosopher Eric Hoffer also wondered about the inability of many black Americans to embrace the magnitude and meaning of the American Civil War. In his essay "Black Studies," Hoffer offers a useful comparison between 1860s America and 1860s Africa. In Africa, Arab merchants were selling seventy thousand slaves a year at the Zanzibar slave market. "The Arabs," says Hoffer, "looted ivory, grain and cattle, made slaves of the able-bodied natives, burned villages and wantonly killed those who did not escape into the bush." Arab slave routes could be traced "by the vultures and hyenas feeding on putrefying corpses."

Indeed, explorer David Livingston, says Hoffer, "was haunted in his last days by the horrors" of the Arab slave trade. Calling the slave merchants "the open sore of the world," Livingston wrote late diary entries telling of images "so nauseous that I always strive to drive them from memory. But the slaving scenes come back unbidden and make me start up at dead of night horrified by their vividness."

While the "depredations of the Arabs were gathering momentum" in 1860s Africa, over in America, says Hoffer, "hundreds of thousands of American soldiers died or were maimed to abolish Negro slavery." For Hoffer, the paradox is that "many black Americans feel a greater affinity with the descendents of Arab slavers than with Americans whose forefathers fought one of the bloodiest civil wars in history to set the Negro free."

And yet, says Hoffer, we are not allowed to take pride in or feel grateful for these monumental displays of moral rectitude. Of the Civil Rights legislation during the 1960s, Hoffer says:

Nowhere in the world at present and at no time in the past has an underprivileged minority experienced such spectacular changes in its fortunes as did some twenty million Negroes in America during the 1960s.  Yet we are not allowed to take pride in this unprecedented achievement.  Negro spokesmen seem to believe that the Negro's cause will be advanced not by praising but by shaming America; that a proud, confident America would resist racial integration.

Hoffer had a good idea of what was driving this strange paradox -- he called it "the invisible power." According to Hoffer, a safely ensconced army of adversary intellectuals in academia and in the media gleefully occupies itself with "discrediting and besmirching" society in order to undermine "the faith of its potential defenders." Says Hoffer:

Nowhere at present is there such a measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America, and the savage denigration is undoubtedly undermining the faith of its potential defenders. ... The adversary intellectual savors power not by building or wrecking but by discomfiting and denigrating, and by rubbing the noses of the majority in dirt.

Hoffer argues, in other words, that much of the social justice legislation to emerge from the 1960s, rather than enhancing America, actually made "the body politic less healthy" than before: "The tensions are higher, the grievances sharper, the hopes dimmer." The reason for this, according to Hoffer, is that "too many of the people who were carrying out the civil rights and poverty programs did not wish America well." 

For Hoffer, then, the adversary intellectual is actually very little interested in what makes for black success in America and very much interested in his own more selfish agendas. During the civil rights era, for example:

[T]hose in charge were less interested in healing and conciliating the weak than in aggravating their illness and sharpening their grievances.  Thus, by a perverted dialectic, our wholehearted effort to right wrongs was shown to be proof not of our concern for righteousness but of our own present and past incurable wrongness.

The adversary intellectual's "invisible power," says Hoffer, is a kind of ethos "which imposes its edicts on politicians, civil servants, judges, 'concerned' business leaders, editors, publishers, teachers, students, reporters, broadcasters and literary and artistic coteries across the land." The demands of the invisible power include a heavy dose of denigration and pessimism about America and a tendency to "go blank" on gratitude and pride.

Having attended several of the current First Lady's stump speeches during the 2008 election, New Yorker writer Lauren Collins summed up Mrs. Obama's introductory take on American life:

[Michelle] Obama begins with a broad assessment of life in America in 2008, and life is not good: we're a divided country, we're a country that is 'just downright mean,' we are 'guided by fear,' we're a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents.

In other words, heavy on the cynicism and light on the gratitude.

Unlike the First Lady, former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who was himself in the front ranks of the '60s and '70s "invisible power," later recoiled against his earlier defamation of America only after living abroad for six years in the communist world:

Now, when I had a chance to go and live in communist countries this individualism came into conflict with the state apparatus, and that's when I recoiled against it. But when I was here I was looking at Marxism-Leninism as a weapon, as a tool, to fight against the status quo, and you know, it's just a quality of human beings that when they are trying to tear something down they don't pay enough attention.

Cleaver understood, like most of us, that no one should be "sugar-coating anything that's wrong over here," but one should also be eternally grateful for the promise America holds for freedom and individual opportunity. On the other hand, says Cleaver, "The left [has become] so ideologically attached to anti-Americanism and pro-communism and Third Worldism that I believe we have a problem on our hands."

The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume knew about adversary intellectuals like Richard Cohen. Hume said there was a certain tendency among intellectuals to go blank on the more beneficent qualities in human nature:

And what a malignant philosophy must it be that will not allow to humanity and friendship the same privileges which are undisputably granted to the darker passions of enmity and resentment.

Does Richard Cohen wish America well? Will he grant the humanity and friendship in America's past the same privilege he grants to enmity and resentment? Whatever the case, Eric Hoffer has a warning for America's army of thankless intellectuals: "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

As Eldridge Cleaver learned overseas, gratitude seems to be a condition of freedom, optimism, individual achievement, and prosperity. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is merely a recipe for servility and helplessness.

How sweet it is to hate one's native land,
And eagerly await its annihilation.
  - Vladimir Percherin
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