MAXWELL:  Misunderstood on “understanding’

10/29/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During an interview shortly before his death in 1994, historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, whose parents were influential progressives, was asked why he apparently had turned against liberalism.

“My father is puzzled by my attacks on liberalism,” Lasch said. ” “Why are you so hard on liberals, and why do they seem to take the brunt of your attack?’ Having been raised as a liberal, I appreciate what is valuable in the liberal tradition, which seemed to me at one time to offer the best hope of a decent kind of politics, and for that very reason liberalism strikes me as more worthy of engagement and criticism than other traditions.

“If I seem to spend a lot of time attacking liberalism and the left, that should be taken more as a mark of respect than one of dismissal. You don’t bother to argue positions that aren’t worth arguing with.”

Lasch’s comments sum up my purpose in writing a recent column titled Sick of white liberals’ “understanding.’ Because the column brought an outpouring of anger, disbelief and even pain, I am writing a follow-up. Mind you, this is not a mea culpa but an explanation.

I, too, was reared in a liberal environment, where to use the word “conservative” was to risk a whack to the keister. My family, friends and teachers never questioned the tenets of liberalism. As a result, in 1963, I went away to college already a blind disciple of Camelot and the New Frontier.

Like Lasch, I believed _ and still believe _ that liberalism offered the “best hope of a decent kind of politics.” I believe also that liberal ideals still offer the best chance for large numbers of blacks to achieve the American Dream.

I know that I, along with other ethnic minorities, owe a huge debt to liberals. Without affirmative action, for example, I could not have attended the University of Chicago. Without affirmative action, I could not have taught at Northern Illinois University or at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And I am certain that the desire for more ethnic diversity on the editorial board played a role in my being hired by the liberal St. Petersburg Times.

I know, too, that the G.I. Bill, Pell Grants, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are invaluable liberal contributions. And here in Florida, most of our best social programs, such as Healthy Start, came from progressive governors.

The column in question in no way discounts the significance of these programs or mocks the viability of liberal ideals. It does, however, challenge white liberals’ naive belief that they “understand” black folk. Perhaps much of the confusion over the thesis of the column came from my failure to define how I used the term “understand.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary offers two definitions pertinent to our discussion. One states that to “understand” is “to know thoroughly; grasp or perceive clearly and fully the nature, character, functioning” of the object. The other states that to “understand” is “to have a sympathetic rapport with” with the object. My point is that white liberals can never “know thoroughly” or “grasp or perceive clearly and fully” the plight of blacks. At best, they can have “sympathetic rapport with” the black condition.

Such rapport, because it is based on emotion and intuition rather than on conscious reasoning, is superficial. And, of course, it is dangerous because it leads white liberals to rationalize the self-destructive deeds and misdeeds of blacks. It makes white liberals see blacks as victims who need handouts and pats on the head. Unwittingly, such “understanding” also makes white liberals feel superior to blacks, which, invariably, leads to condescension.

Moreover, I agree with Lasch’s observation that many American liberals tend to “regard themselves as a civilized minority, an enlightened elite in a society dominated by rednecks and other “anti-intellectuals.’ ” They also see themselves as the “therapeutic caretakers of a country that is . . . deeply sick” _ with African-Americans as regular patients.

I will accept the advice of a letter writer and distinguish between “liberals who have compassion and think” and “the pseudo-liberals who only have compassion.” Indeed, I am wary of the latter, those who merely have “sympathetic rapport,” who do not employ conscious reasoning when reacting to black people and their problems.

Again, I challenge liberals because I appreciate what is valuable in the liberal tradition. But given the failure of so many areas of that tradition _ especially the paternalistic treatment of blacks _ liberals need to examine their philosophy. And while they are at it, they should cultivate the capacity to handle criticism.