This book has done more to keep me going than anything else I know. In the verdict of one friend who read it, the book "takes away any excuse you can find for not doing something."
Her argument proceeds by looking at the "ethic of control" that guides the assumptions of white middle-class people, whether on the left or the right side of the political spectrum. In the second section of the book, she examines various works of African-American fiction as a source for a contrasting "ethic of risk" that upholds the worth of struggle in the face of probable defeat. This section is also a great introduction to several African-American authors; I've become particularly fond of Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People as a result. In the final section, she spells out the theological implications of the ethic of risk, deepening the rejection of divine omnipotence one finds among many contemporary theologians. According to her radical formulation, it is best to think of God as an adverb, rather than as a noun. God, for Welch, is not a supreme being, but a quality of life that emerges from and sustains struggles for justice. Although this final section makes this book a work of theological ethics, I have found that non-religious people have reacted as enthusiastically to it as have those with religious commitments.
One of the most important aspects of Welch's work is her diagnosis of the "ethic of control - the assumption that effective action is unambiguous, unilateral, and decisive." Unfortunately, she presented this diagnosis more compellingly in the first edition of her book. In the revised edition, she opens the book on a much more abstract level. She wants to make her points more relevant to the political crises of the 1990s, rather than those of the 1980s, but the revisions end up diluting the force of her argument. In the first edition, Welch analyses the ethical assumptions of the general public as revealed by forty years' worth of public opinion polls, the policymakers who shaped American nuclear weapons policy, and peace activists. She finds a pervasive ethic of control, rooted in the assumption that action is "the ability to attain, without substantial modification, desired results," among all these groups. In the case of peace activists, she notes how partial victories - such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was a step in the right direction, though it did not eliminate nuclear weapons entirely - were often as demoralizing as outright defeats. Furthermore, the relative privilege afforded white middle-class folks gives them/us the "out" of the ideology of "cultured despair," in which the impossibility of universal justice becomes a rationale for retreating to building a good life for oneself and one's family. She cites The New Republic as a particularly good example of the cultured despair that prides itself on the depth of its analysis as much as on the sophistication of its paralysis.
Welch turns to African-American fiction because it embodies a moral tradition in which "action begins where much middle-class thought stops. The horizon of action is recognition that we cannot imagine how we will win" (45). An important lesson she draws from this is that "responsible action does not mean the certain achievement of desired ends but [...] the creation of the conditions of possibility for desired changes." The timeliness of an ethic of action in a context where we cannot imagine victory should be apparent to anyone remotely concerned with defining "winning" as establishing peace in the Middle East, or reversing the trends leading to Global Warming.
The patience and long-term vision Welch describes has nothing to do with legislative incrementalism: the moral vision of the African-American literature she analyzes comes out of action where access to the representative systems of democracy was largely denied. This is not primarily a politics of party-building, either inside a party or finding third parties. This is about a kind of tenacity to look for opportunities for the common good in a situation where the cards are stacked against one. I first wrote another version of this diary in July of 2006, in the midst of the Bush presidency before the Democrats retook Congress. At the time, I noted that getting a Democratic majority would be the beginning, not the end, of the hard work of creating a just society. And now we are seeing just how hard that work really is. But, we cannot allow our frustration with "moral victories" to translate into cynicism or burn-out. Rather, partial victories and outright defeats call for more imagination, and more attention to the "beloved community," the humane resources we share and galvanize us to further action.
I have no clue what the best way forward is at this point. My sense of impotence at this point is real. I am as frustrated with calls for incrementalism as I am with calls to repeat the debacle of 2000. There is wisdom, and there is folly, in both approaches. But that sense of cluelessness, of impotence, of powerlessness is not a reason for inaction and retreating to the despair that I delude myself into thinking I can afford. It must be, for all of us, a goad to come up with visions we haven't imagined yet, and a demand to listen harder to those we disagree with for whatever wisdom they might bring to the moment at hand. Because we can't afford to throw in the towel now. Nor would we do the various countries we might imagine immigrating to any good if we arrived with a sense of entitlement that they represent our dreams of what progress should look like. Our neighbors, and our personal survival, may depend on one more effort to set something - but not everything - right.
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