Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.


The Reckoning

Last week, after more than a year of procrastinating, I finally brought myself to read “The Case for Reparations,” the epic feature story by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic.

I was aware of the piece almost from the moment it went to press—this provocative argument about what black Americans are owed by white Americans here in the second decade of the 21st century—but somehow I kept putting it off.

I’d like to think that this was merely an act of laziness.  I am a slow, easily-distracted reader, and Coates’ story runs 16,000 words—ten times longer than anything I’ve ever written here.  Even for someone with all the time in the world, that’s an awful lot to digest—especially for such a weighty, depressing subject.

In any case, I certainly didn’t think I was afraid of—or would be surprised by—what Coates (or anyone) might say on the matter of reparations.  As a reasonably-educated, mildly intelligent white liberal, I am in no immediate danger of overlooking the fact that what white Americans did to black Americans from the early 17th century until 1865 constituted one of the greatest injustices in all of human history—a crime that has yet to be fully rectified, either in word or in deed.

But of course I was wrong.  I was wrong, first, about the extent to which slavery’s tentacles extended beyond the institution’s formal cessation via the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  But most of all, I was wrong in my assumption—shared by virtually every white person in America—that the call for formal reparations is primarily, if not exclusively, about slavery itself.

Not in the least.  Among all of our country’s race-based crimes, the trade, ownership, exploitation and torture of some 10 million-plus human beings was certainly the worst of it, but it wasn’t all of it, and it wasn’t the end of it.

As Coates has exhaustively documented, black people, as a group, have been subject to offenses by their government—in our lifetimes—that can concretely and incontrovertibly be defined as theft—that is, the malicious and deliberate taking of money and property, done through a system that simply did not view African-Americans as equal citizens and, as such, offered them no meaningful legal protection or means of redress.  If any would-be victim tried to fight back, the state’s weapon of choice was terrorism.

In no area of life were these practices more rampant than in housing.  Following the travails of a handful of individuals—some of them still alive today—Coates shows how the practice of “redlining” created a society after World War II in which black people were segregated from white people by design.  Even in major northern cities—Chicago being the most notorious—black people were systemically denied the low-rate mortgages and lines of credit that white Americans would come to regard as a birthright and a ticket to the American dream in the second half of the 20th century.  That’s to say nothing of the outright lying and thievery that real estate sharks would exercise against their black customers who, by circumstance, had no other option.  The consequences of this system remain with us to this day, most strikingly in the country’s wealth gap.  (A 2011 study estimated that the average white family has nearly 16 times as much total wealth as the average black family.)

Housing discrimination is probably the least-known, least-understood component of America’s history of institutional racism, and that is what makes Coates’ illumination of it so valuable.  Up to now, I’m sure I had some vague notion that, with housing—as with everything else—black people have been given a raw deal by their government.  With Coates’ narrative, I now have a much clearer idea of exactly what that raw deal entailed, how deliberate and unjust it was, and—here we approach the main point—how it left white America with a debt that it has every obligation to pay.

Having digested “The Case for Reparations,” paired with everything I thought I already knew on this subject, I now find it impossible not to take the idea seriously.  In point of fact, America has not squared itself with its past.  Slavery and Jim Crow were not just something that happened a long time ago that we can forget all about.  White Americans and black Americans today are not operating on a level playing field, and each of us is not blameless for the perpetuation of an inequitable society.

Certainly, many Americans feel just the opposite about some, if not all, of these points.  They think institutional racism is a relic of a bygone era, that blacks and whites have long been treated as equal under the law and that no further action is needed to rectify the sins of the past.

My hunch is that none of these people has read Coates’ article—or any other piece that has made similar arguments—and that if they did, they would be far less cavalier in their claim that everything is just fine.

It is seductive to think that white people absolved themselves of any guilt about racism with the 13th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s and the election of Barack Obama.  In reality, it is absurd.

Imagine, if you will, that some bully stole your lunch money every day from kindergarten through 12th grade—beating the living daylights out of you whenever you resisted—and that you went hungry as a result.  Then, the day after graduating high school, the bully approaches you, says he feels bad about being such a jerk and asks, “Now we’re even, right?”  Then, when you lodge a complaint to the superintendent about those 12 years of abuse and exploitation, the superintendent says, “Yeah, we told him to do that, ‘cause we needed the cash.  But no hard feelings.”  Finally, you appeal to the full school board for a refund of all the money that was stolen from you, and they respond, “Let’s not get carried away.  Shouldn’t you just be happy the beatings have stopped?”

Multiply that by several million, and you begin to understand just how hollow it sounds to say that the United States owes nothing further to its black citizens and that slavery and racial inequality ended on the same day in 1865.

It’s a cruel paradox:  The crimes that whites have committed against blacks are so all-encompassing, so long-lasting—so evil—that they could not possibly be rectified in full, and this has somehow led us to conclude that we needn’t rectify them at all.

(To be clear:  There is a massive difference between atoning for a sin and merely resolving not to commit it anymore.)

It may seem a stretch to assert that each of us is personally culpable for this national moral failure.  That is, until we reflect—for instance—on the gazillion times we’ve called ourselves “proud to be American.”  Or on the myriad ways we lionize people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who each owned hundreds of slaves and didn’t lift a finger to give them a better life.  Or the fact that we nominate presidential candidates who make a point of “not apologizing for America,” insisting that there is nothing to apologize for.

Oh, really?

We all know Edmund Burke’s observation, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  In that spirit, it stands to reason that every time any of us fails to notice the crimes that have been committed by our government, in our name, we are indeed guilty of doing nothing to stop evil from ruling the day.

To say you are “proud” to live in a country with our dismal record on civil rights means you are either a) spectacularly ignorant, or b) extraordinarily selective about which aspects of America you choose to recognize.

To say the United States doesn’t owe anyone an apology—well, that just makes you an idiot.

I say this as someone who regularly harps on about how incredibly awesome the United States is, as far as world superpowers go.  We are the country that popularized such revolutionary ideas as self-government, free expression, trial by jury and the all-you-can-eat buffet.  At its best, the United States represents the highest ideals of human achievement, and I am as thrilled as ever that I wasn’t born anywhere else.

At the same time, however, I am not a naïve, jingoistic nincompoop.  I know unconscionable hypocrisy when I see it, and I can hold two opposing ideas in my head at the same time—as, apparently, can the nation as a whole.

Our country’s greatness does not make up for our country’s crimes—not any more than Bill Cosby’s comedy makes up for his apparently bottomless capacity to drug and rape young women.

The white population of America cannot systemically rob and murder the black population of America for 350 years and then expect absolution by saying, “Sorry about that—won’t happen again.”

Something more needs to be done.  Sooner or later, it will.

It’s anybody’s guess what form this “something” will ultimately take.  In his article, Coates alerts us to a House bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, which would create a commission to study the issue and sort all of this out.  That would surely be better than nothing.

Over the years, numerous calculations have been done to estimate the total monetary amount that black people have been deprived—directly and indirectly—as a result of slavery and other forms of white supremacy.  Adjusted for inflation, some of these estimates are roughly equal to our country’s annual GDP.  To be honest, I’m not sure whether such a figure is too much or too little, but it’s certainly high enough to give us a moment’s pause.

Many say that any real discussion about reparations would be pointlessly divisive, perhaps only exasperating racial tensions at a time when that particular hornet’s nest needn’t be poked any more than it already has.  That may well be true, although we certainly have no evidence for it, seeing as the discussion has never truly been attempted.

Considering how racial tensions tend to occur whether we invite them or not—or, to be specific, whenever certain white people behave terribly—I wonder if such fears are overblown, and whether the result might be just the opposite.

Were the Congress to undertake an objective, honest accounting of the costs of white supremacy on black (and white) America, it would—for one thing—have the effect of informing our fair citizenry of just how bad the damage has been.  It would provide a context for our current racial unrest in a manner that no single event ever could.  It would force white people to confront their prejudices and assumptions about what black people are owed by their government and—dare I say—engender a modicum of empathy that might lead us to treat each other just a little bit better.

The End of Comedy

Should today’s comedians tailor their material for people with no sense of humor?

Obviously the answer is no.  But you’d never know it from the past few weeks, in which far too many humorless rubes have had far too much say—and sway—over what cheeky, intelligent comics are allowed to say.

Increasingly, we are becoming a society in which every public statement—be it serious or in jest—must be understood by the dumbest, most literal-minded person in the room, and in which irony and sophistication are punished and looked upon with scorn.

It’s a form of cultural suicide.  Shame on us for doing so little to stop it.

We could look just about anywhere for examples, but at this moment, we might as well begin with Trevor Noah.

A stand-up comedian by trade, Noah was unknown to most Americans until the fateful moment two weeks ago when he was given the job of a lifetime:  Successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Naturally, this announcement led Daily Show viewers to plumb the Internet for clues about who the heck Trevor Noah is.  As it turns out, he is an uncommonly deft and sneakily subversive 31-year-old from South Africa who found great success in his country of birth—in radio, television and onstage—before wafting over to the United States in 2011.

He is also an extremely active presence on Twitter.  Since joining in 2009, he has issued nearly 9,000 tweets in all.  (That’s roughly four per day, in case you didn’t want to do the math.)

Like the rest of us, Noah tweets pretty much every half-clever thought that pops into his head, and because he tells jokes for a living, the entirety of his Twitter output covers an awful lot of ground.

By itself, this fact is not especially interesting—and certainly not “newsworthy”—but then the world made a horrifying discovery from which it has not yet recovered:  Some of those 9,000 tweets were politically incorrect.

The horror.

I confess that I have not personally read all six years’ worth of brain droppings from an entertainer who’s been culturally relevant for 15 days.  However, many people apparently have, because within hours of Noah’s hire, they produced the aforementioned damning tweets, about which two facts stand out:  First, none of them is less than three years old.  And second, you can count them on the fingers of one hand.

What is their content, you ask?  Which 140-character quips are so horrible—so appallingly beyond the pale—that their existence is germane to us several years after the fact, and are possibly grounds for dismissal for the man who quipped them?

They were, in no particular order:  A putdown of Nazi Germany.  A mild critique of Israel.  An observation about the scarcity of white women with curves.  And a musing about the value of alcohol for women with a few too many curves.

And.  That’s.  About.  It.

At this juncture, we could go further into depth, if we were so inclined.  We could follow the lead of Noah’s critics, attempting to connect a handful of disparate tweets to the inner workings of Noah’s soul.

Or we could choose option B:  Grow up, get a life and stop throwing a tantrum every time someone says something that makes us uncomfortable.

I’ll keep it simple:  If a biracial comedian’s cracks about white women are too much for you to handle, then you have no business watching Comedy Central.  If you cannot stomach the notion of an émigré from South Africa having a critical view of Israel—a country that tacitly supported the former’s apartheid government until the bitter end—then you’d better steer clear of any newspaper or magazine that crosses your desk, because it just might give you a heart attack.

Sorry to break the news, but one of the consequences of living in a country with freedom of speech is that people will occasionally speak freely, and you might not agree with all of them.

Or, in this case, even understand what they’re saying.

My fear, you see, is not just that free expression itself is under attack, but that a great deal of this offense-taking is based on misapprehensions.  That smart people cannot say anything in public without worrying how their words might be interpreted by idiots.

Case in point:  Note the stupidity surrounding Bill Maher’s recent throwaway gag about how Zayn Malik, the now-ex-member of One Direction, bears a passing resemblance to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Juvenile, yes.  But the logic could not have been more obvious:  Person A looks like Person B, end of joke.  It’s funny (or not) because one is evil while the other is an innocuous pop star, and that’s what irony is all about.

No one could possibly have understood the joke in any other way.  And so, of course, everyone did.

OK, not everyone.  But there were enough complaints about Maher “comparing” Malik to Tsarnaev—paired with the fact that Malik is Muslim, which no one outside the One Direction fan club would have known—for this to become a news story in many major publications.  For a solid few days, an HBO talk show host was compelled to explain the comedic concept of implying that one famous person looks a little bit like another famous person.

Has America really become that intellectually infantile?  Is this the level to which our public discourse has plunged?  How long will our best and brightest continue to shoulder this burden before everyone else finally wises up?

Certainly, it’s not a new phenomenon that an entire culture can get dragged down by its lowest-hanging fruit—our so-called “bad apples.”  Just look at how a handful of corrupt, racist cops have single-handedly tarnished the image of their entire profession, even as 90-something percent of their colleagues are doing their jobs exactly as they should.

But it’s even trickier when it comes to the militant enforcement of political correctness, because unlike killing unarmed black people, being offended by a joke as a result of your own ignorance is not against the law.  As my eighth grade history teacher said, “In this country, you’re allowed to be stupid.”

And it’s not just about jokes.  The tendency to lazily misinterpret a sophisticated public statement has consequences for our political leaders, too.  And, indeed, for the very language we speak.

I am reminded, for instance, of candidate Mitt Romney touting his family’s support for civil rights by saying, “I saw my father march with Martin Luther King.”  George Romney was, indeed, a strong ally of the Civil Rights Movement, consistently supporting Dr. King’s efforts and even leading a Michigan march (as the state’s governor) to protest the police brutality in Selma, Alabama in 1965. However, according to newspaper reports, Romney and Dr. King never literally appeared at the same event on the same day.  This led the media to tar Mitt Romney as a liar for implying that they had.

In one sense, the media were right to call Romney out for saying something that was technically untrue.  However, considering the full context of Romney’s statement—namely, the fact that his father was a champion of black civil rights, despite being a white Republican—we can accept the words “march with” as a rhetorical device in service to a broader truth, rather than as a bald-faced fabrication.

Except that we don’t accept such things anymore, because we’re too busy setting mousetraps for our public servants to get caught in.  Thanks to the wonders of the interwebs, we live in an age in which every statement is maniacally fact-checked and a politician can’t get away with anything.

For the most part, this is a good thing, because it means that true deceptions get exposed within minutes of being uttered and our leaders are kept relatively honest.

However, this instinct toward righteous, ruthless truth-seeking can be taken too far, leading us to take down politicians for transcendently silly reasons, and possibly dissuading future leaders from ever entering the arena.

So long as our public figures have reason to worry that everything they say will be taken literally—including words and phrases that are self-evidently figurative—they will have no choice but to dumb down their oratory and rhetoric until all the poetic flourishes are gone—and, with it, any hint of inspiration or linguistic flair.

That’s how our future is looking, so you’d better prepare yourself.  At long last, we are fulfilling the prophesy of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who remarked one week after 9/11, “It’s the end of the age of irony.”

It took 13 years, but we’ve finally achieved a culture in which no one is allowed to be funny.

That is, unless one of two things happens:  Either the dolts who can’t take a joke suddenly acquire the powers of subtlety, or the rest of us stop giving them the time of day.  I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty good idea about which of those scenarios is more likely to occur in our lifetime.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that stupidity cannot be eradicated.  It can only be marginalized, ridiculed and ultimately ignored.

The Forgotten Dreamer

This week, as the United States observes the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, President Barack Obama is leading the nation in honoring one of the march’s most important figures, if not the most important of all.

This honoree is a man who fought all his life to ensure that the promise of equality for all Americans would not be a mere dream.  Who knew from personal experience the horrors of prejudice and injustice, yet refused to be intimidated into keeping his unpopular and sometimes dangerous views to himself.

He was an indispensable leader throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Without him, the march we commemorate on Wednesday would hardly have been possible.

I speak, of course, of Bayard Rustin.

Fifty years out, one of the more unfortunate legacies of the March on Washington is the notion that it was all about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That on a muggy August afternoon in 1963, several hundred thousand supporters of racial equality spontaneously assembled at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear Dr. King declare, “I have a dream.”

In this “official” narrative, people such as Bayard Rustin have for decades been almost entirely left out.  I certainly don’t remember his name popping up in my high school history textbook.  There is no national holiday celebrating his birthday, nor are there streets bearing his name that cut across Harlem or Chicago’s South Side.  He is, if not an invisible man, an unjustly overlooked man.

Perhaps that is finally changing.  Rustin, who died in 1987, is among this year’s recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  As well, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., currently boasts an exhibit about the March on Washington that pays scrupulous attention to the many men and women, beyond Dr. King, who were instrumental in bringing the idea of a mass demonstration to fruition.

Rustin’s role was as follows:  Having previously organized one of the earliest “Freedom Rides” to protest bus segregation laws throughout the South, he was put in charge of drafting the program, recruiting activists and other marchers, coordinating the buses and trains to transport them all to Washington, and hiring marshals and traffic directors to ensure everything ran smoothly.  All of these things he did more or less single-handedly.

In short:  While the March on Washington owes its sterling reputation to Martin Luther King, it owes its very existence to Bayard Rustin.

My question:  Why do you need me to tell you this?  Why has such an essential character spent most of the last half-century being expunged from the history books?

The likeliest explanation for this is threefold:  Rustin was a socialist.  He was a draft dodger.  And he was gay.

None of these would-be revelations was a secret at the time.  He had been arrested and jailed in 1953 for engaging in “sex perversion,” i.e. consensual sex with another man.  A lifelong pacifist, he had refused to serve in World War II.  As for his political affiliations, he was a member of the Socialist Party of America for much of his adult life, becoming its chairman in 1972.

For these reasons, many within the Civil Rights Movement fought to prevent Rustin from playing such a leading role, including for the March on Washington.  No less than Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, admonished Rustin to keep strictly behind the scenes, lest Wilkins and others be forced to answer for Rustin’s background during what was, after all, a rather delicate operation on the “winning hearts and minds” front.

And so we have one of the great ironies of the 1960s:  A central figure in the fight for the rights of minority groups has been very nearly absent in the popular mind because he was a member of one too many minority groups.

It is useful to remember, in this celebratory week, that history is never as simple or as morally clear as we would prefer it to be.  Like all the civil rights battles therein, it is a messy, complicated business whose participants are neither saints nor devils.

My hope, in light of Bayard Rustin finally getting his due, is that we make a greater effort to render our country’s most colorful episodes in a realistic, rather than idealistic, light.  That we treat our heroes and villains as if they existed in all three dimensions, not as proverbial cardboard cutouts.  That we forgo our usual national tendency never to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

After all, oftentimes the truth can make for a mighty good yarn as well.

‘Makers’ and Shakers

One of the more entertaining evenings during my time in college was when Phyllis Schlafly came to town.

After delivering the anti-feminist stump speech she has honed for the past four decades—“Feminism is incompatible with happiness” was a particularly memorable turn of phrase—the conservative icon of the 1970s gender wars subjected herself to a Q&A session with an audience that was, shall we say, less than sympathetic toward her traditional views about the role of women in American life.

In an illuminating exchange, a young woman expressed an interest in starting a family and having a full-time career simultaneously, to which Schlafly, looking slightly taken aback, responded, “I’m not trying to stop you!”

Schlafly, now 88, is a rare dissenting voice in an extensive and thoroughly engaging documentary called Makers: Women Who Make America, which premiered on PBS last week and is currently viewable on the network’s website.

The project, which neatly coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, charts the last half-century of the women’s rights movement in the United States, told largely by the women who led it.

By design, Makers is not especially critical of the material it so entertainingly presents, treating the greatest hits in the struggle for gender equality more or less as the whole country now views Selma and Montgomery vis-à-vis the fight for racial equality, with reverence and deference.

Yet the presence in the film of people like Schlafly is paramount, because it underlines a fundamental irony and paradox at the core of the whole story of feminism—a point that must be included to make the narrative complete and that Makers, to its credit, does indeed address in its final act.

The contention of the anti-feminist forces, both now and when they successfully squelched the so-called “Equal Rights Amendment” in the late 1970s, is that the women’s movement is bad for women.  That it turns women into victims rather than heroines, thereby only perpetuating the stereotype that the world’s female half is weaker-willed and thinner-skinned than its male counterparts—a proposition that, to be sure, Schlafly and company’s efforts thoroughly rebuke.

Never mind what men think.  In today’s America, there are scores of women who adamantly refuse to self-identify as feminists.  They view the word itself as antiquated and counterproductive—a relic of a generation to which they no longer (or never did) relate.

They do not wish to be viewed or judged on the basis of their gender any more than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wished his children to be judged on the basis of their skin color.

The paradox, then, is that one of the great achievements of feminists’ push for women’s empowerment is to have empowered women to reject feminism.

I am put in mind of a useful anecdote by Andrew Sullivan from the early days of the gay marriage fight.  Chided by a fellow homo who professed abject uninterest in ever getting married—in his view, the institution was strictly for straight people—Sullivan replied that gay people “can’t reject marriage […] we are beneath even the choice.”

“The goal of the [gay rights] movement,” Sullivan elucidated on another occasion, “is not to allow everyone the freedom to be gay so much as it is to allow everyone the freedom to be themselves.”

That is the bottom line of feminism in the context of today’s society:  The most difficult work has been done, and the results are so overwhelmingly positive that women today have the luxury not to feel obligated to keep the fight going.  Or even to agree on what the objectives of the fight now are.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins very amusingly recalled in 2009 that when she observed that Sarah Palin counted as “an heir to the women’s movement” as much as anyone else, Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem groaned, “If that’s true, I’m shooting myself right now.”

Of Palin, Collins went on to say, “I think she’s a woman who, as far as I can tell, has never been constrained by her gender.”  To the extent this is true, Steinem has no right to grumble, for she must surely realize that the fight for equality that she so bravely aided is meaningless unless it enables its descendants to chart their own course in whatever way they see fit, even if it means rejecting some of the values for which their forebears originally fought.

Is that not the purpose of empowerment in the first place?