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The Countermobilization Myth and the Fear of Political Conflict


“Behind all the glamour and idealism of the Kennedy administration, Nick Bryant would have us see something else in “The Bystander”: the calculating, often quite cynical, political mind of John F. Kennedy. Bryant convincingly argues that Kennedy placed style above substance, symbolism over real achievement in the realm of civil rights. President Kennedy’s stance, as described by Bryant, was simple: Be patient and don’t cause any trouble that might embarrass me in the media. Kennedy wanted to be popular, and so he carefully navigated between the demands of African Americans seeking the end of Jim Crow and white segregationists defending the status quo.

Balanced between civil rights protesters in the streets and the powerful, segregationist Southern Caucus in Congress, Kennedy chose a policy of “gradualism” that cloaked complete inaction. Activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to Kennedy’s gradualism by organizing protests to provoke the inherent violence of Jim Crow. Time and time again, Kennedy responded by asking these civil right activists to stop protesting, to work behind the scenes. Yet activists like King soon learned that the proverbial squeaky wheel gets the grease, so they kept forcing Kennedy to act.”

Chuck Leddy, on Nick Bryant’s The Bystander

I have a new article up at TAP on the strange contrarian (or is it now conventional?) wisdom that losing in the New York courts is actually a good thing for gay rights.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now and will continue as I work on my manuscript, and one of the puzzling things about this argument is the extent to which it’s embraced by progressives. I can understand why conservatives would want to pretend that they wouldn’t really object if legislatures enacted policies to which they’re vociferously opposed. Unprincipled invocations of ‘judicial activism” have become what unprincipled invocations of “states’ rights” used to be: a way to dodge issues you’d prefer not to engage on the merits, and which can be quickly abandoned where the Fugitive Slave Act or Tennessee Valley Authority or Bush v. Gore or Kelo v. New London are concerned. It’s an effective rhetorical bluff. But why do many liberals take them seriously? I think Roy’s recent comments about Glenn Reynolds provide us with a good guide to people (like Reynolds) who are likely to buy this stuff:

What Rosen takes for libertarianism in the Perfesser’s case is just laziness. He’s an educated Babbitt who thinks everything will work out because it’s worked out for him. That’s why he loves the idea of robots and gadgets and web toys that will save the world while he sits on his ass. That’s why he was so juiced about the “Cedar Revolution,” with its cell phone photos of protest babes — and so bummed when Israel wound up bombing Lebanon anyway. That’s the real source of the “triumphalism” that bothers Rosen — not science, but its opposite: an unshakable faith in one’s own obliviousness.

See, to generalize there are two kinds of groups who oppose progressive social change. First, you have outright reactionaries. Then you have people–JFK liberals, let’s call them–who wish the world was a better place, and nominally support reform…as long as it doesn’t affect them in any way, and they don’t have to do anything, or make any difficult political choices. Where the latter group is concerned, opposition to social change is not on the merits, but based on the fact that opponents of the status quo are going too fast and not doing things in the right way (and it turns out that there never is a right way.)

Passive-aggressive assurances that one is sympathetic to the general aims of progressives but can’t we just maintain our collegiality and wait for noblesse oblige to kick in have been heard whenever some exclusion from basic rights has been challenged by collective activism: labor rights, women’s rights, rights for African-Americans. Essentially, they like to retroactively forget about the conflict and struggle that was necessary to generate change, and pretend that society just sort of came to generously respect people’s rights after painstaking Oxford Debating Society deliberation and perhaps some spontaneous generosity. The struggle for civil rights is all “I have a dream” while the Scottsboro Boys and Little Rock and Dynamite Hill and Selma get written out of the picture–you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you know! Proponents of the countermobilization myth like to think that political changes just sort of happena, that there’s a natural, unidirectional progress that will inevitably push things in the right direction if the victims of injustice will just be quiet and not press rights claims too loudly until each and every state in the union is no longer offended by what courts in other states might do. But there’s nothing natural or inevitable about social change; it’s the result of conflicts, many of which involve largely incommensurable positions, and these changes will be strongly opposed by the people threatened by them no matter which institution goes first.

And in the meantime, gays and lesbians in New York remain denied one of society’s most fundamental rights for no good reason. Call me crazy, but if it was “middle-aged pundits” or “Southern Law Professors” who were being arbitrarily excluded from the rights and privileges of marriage, suddenly the problem would become more urgent, and developing too-clever-by-half contrarian theories would become less important…

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