MONDAY, APRIL 26, 2021
"You can't handle the truth:" We've been struck by two major thoughts in the past week or two.
Our first thought would be this:
Dr. King is over.
Our second thought would be this:
Across the board, at times like these, our species can't handle the truth.
Starting tomorrow, we'll be focusing on the second of those ideas. For today, as a bit of a preview, let's quickly breeze through both.
Dr. King is over
When we say that Dr. King is over, we're thinking of the viewpoints and values he expressed in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.
The book was published in 1958. It was Dr. King's account of the Montgomery bus boycott—of events which occurred when Dr. King was 26 and 27 years old.
In our view, the book is surprising, sometimes startling, right from its first page on. Consider Dr. King's reaction to the firebombing of his house in January 1956.
Dr. King had just turned 27. The event occurred in the dark of night. Coretta Scott King was inside the house with the couple's infant daughter.
Dr. King was rushed to the scene from a community meeting. By the time he arrived at his home, community members had gathered outside. Some of them were armed.
"By this time the crowd outside was getting out of hand," Dr. King writes in Stride Toward Freedom. As he describes what he did and said, Dr. King gives voice to the values and the beliefs which would disqualify him from serious consideration today:
KING (page 137): In this atmosphere I walked out to the porch and asked the crowd to come to order. In less than a moment there was complete silence. Quietly I told them that I was all right and that my wife and baby were all right. “Now let’s not become panicky,” I continued. “If you have weapons, take them home. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ ” I then urged them to leave peacefully. “We must love our white brothers,” I said, “no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo through the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember,” I ended, “if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.”
Embarrassing but true.
Throughout the book, Dr. King describes and affirms an outlook he refers to as "the love ethic of Jesus." As he continues his account of that night, he even expresses something resembling pity for the city officials who, as he directly says, had helped establish the atmosphere which produced that violent act:
KING (page 138): I could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”
I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectful and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural traditional under which they have grown—a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more than 90 years of segregation—teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.
Dr. King was the son of a minister. Thinking of the city commissioners, he marveled at, in effect, their lack of "good home training."
We're most struck by this observation:
Even their churches and their ministers had taught them to think in the way they did! So said this son of a minster, as he again expressed the need to avoid the feelings he described as "corroding anger."
Dr. King came close to expressing pity for those badly misled people. Today, those values and views are over. You could never get on CNN expressing such values today.
Today, the prevailing values in Our Town are derived from "an eye for an eye," not from Dr. King's preferred "love ethic." That doesn't mean that our values are "wrong." But having said that, consider:
In 2015, some families in Charleston reacted to the massacre there by expressing this "love ethic," Our Town's assistant and associate professors reacted by telling us to pay no attention to these embarrassing country cousins. of theirs.
In the current climate, Dr. King's preferred love ethic would mainly serve to make him seem like someone's dotty grandfather. Our instincts are different today:
We want to lock up the 19-year veteran police officer—but also the rookie cops who were in their first week on the job.
In the case of the fatal shooting at Wendy's, we want to lock up the police officer who shot and killed the late Rayshard Brooks (as Brooks fired a stolen Taser at him). But we also want to lock up the second officer—the one who got sucker-punched by Brooks and had his Taser stolen, but never fired his gun.
When that second indictment was handed down by an apparently corrupt D.A. who was desperately running for re-election, we couldn't be told about his apparent corruption, or about the possible way it may have affected his charging decision.
(In the end, he was defeated by Fani Willis, the current D.A., in a massive landslide with Willis winning 73% of the vote.)
Manslaughter charges no longer suffice. We seek ways to charge people with murder. Cable stars hold out hope that it can be done.
Examples like these go on and on. They're related to our second recent thought, the one about handling the truth.
"You can't handle the truth"
Full disclosure! We've tried to watch A Few Good Men, but we've never been able to get through it. In large part, we've tried to watch it because we have friends who love the film, but also because it features a widely-quoted line:
"You can't handle the truth."
In 2005, the American Film Institute listed the hundred "Top Quotes" from every American film ever made. In roughly one hundred years of American films, that quotation from A Few Good Men ranked #29.
As best we can tell, A Few Good Men is designed to assure us the people that we can handle the truth. The angry, dissembling Jack Nicholson character is the one who goes down in the end. The characters who stood up for the truth are the ones who prevail.
We actually can handle the truth! In a rational world, that viewpoint about Our Town would also be over. Consider:
In recent years, one extremely surprising fact has become quite clear. First in the conservative world, then within the Trumpist world, many people have been having a hard time handling the truth.
We'd start with the astonishing number of people who were willing to say that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. We'd move on to the astonishing number of people who have been convinced that some sort of major scam sent Joe Biden to the White House.
It has become surprisingly clear—in many ways, members of the conservative and Trumpist worlds can't currently handle the truth. In the past few weeks, though, we'd have to say this:
The inability to handle the truth has also come for Our Town. In our view, this fact has been clear for years.
Is Our Town able to handle the truth? We'll be asking that question all week.
It will be extremely hard to find time to discuss all the relevant failures. In our view, that's how clear it has become that Our Town, at the present time, also can't handle the truth.
Once again, we'll be honest enough to state a key disclaimer:
These analyses are coming to us from major anthropologists. These scholars say that, at times of tribal division and stress, our highly fallible human brains aren't wired to handle the truth.
It's tribal Storyline all the way down! Or so these top scholars insist.
It isn't just the Trumpists, these despondent experts now say. According to these leading savants, the inability to handle the truth now rules the streets of Our Town!
We'll admit that this claim seems absurd on its face. But could this claim really be true?
Tomorrow: Two trips to the New York Times