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It Isn't Entirely Unfortunate Rhetoric

Monday, February 20, 2017 12:34
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(Before It's News)

Elesha Coffman


As part of my research on Margaret Mead, I've been reading a stunning book with the totally 1971 title A Rap on Race. The book is the transcript of a series of conversations between Mead and James Baldwin, touching on race, religion, politics, culture, and more. In honor of the new movie I Am Not Your Negro, the audio has been posted on YouTube. The blog “Brain Pickings” features several sets of quotations, including this one on religion. I'm finding it equally thrilling and disturbing how current the conversation sounds, with its warnings about urban violence, the collapse of a sense of community, the perils of unchecked consumption, and persistent tensions surrounding immigration. Here's a portion that reminded me of Ross Douthat's Feb. 4 New York Times column, in which Douthat wondered how those who praise the Great White Men of U.S. history and those who seek to bury them might ever share a vision of America.

Mead: Well we still think … have the sort of notion, as expressed in Felicia Hemans' poem, “Ay, call it holy ground,  The soil where first they trod! They have left unstained what there they found–Freedom to worship God.”

Baldwin: That is very unfortunate rhetoric.

Mead: It isn't entirely unfortunate rhetoric. When Kruschev came to this country, somebody thought up a radio program of books we would like to send him so he could understand the United States. I picked this poem to show how people in the United States associate religion with freedom. That's what they associate it with; that's what they talk about all through middle America: “Right to go to my church and nobody is going to stop me!” The Russians associate religion totally with oppression. It is a very different picture and it got pickled in these early days when there were so many religious refugees of one sort or another. So this is part of our image of what is American, yours and mine, because our ancestors came here together. We share a notion of a kind of people that formed the ideals of this country and the ideals against which we have always been measuring the country and finding it faulty. But the ideals were here. I mean, Jefferson did postulate ideas of democracy that one could follow.

Baldwin: Yes, but he also owned slaves.

Mead: Sure he did. But he set down statements on the basis of which one could fight for the vote for everybody in this country. The fact that he owned slaves is one thing. The principles he laid down are something else. You can call it rhetoric, but I don't believe you really believe these things are just rhetoric. They made it possible for us to go further and have better dreams. But you see, we have now an enormous amount of people in this country who didn't come here to dream. They didn't have dreams, except just security for their children. And these are the people that we call the silent majority and they are terribly frightened.

Baldwin: Yes, their fear frightens me.

Mead: They are terribly easy to frighten, and their fear is frightening. Though all fear is frightening, and certainly all groups that are frightened are frightening.

Baldwin: Because it may be that their fear will precipitate the kind of social chaos which no society can really survive. This fear can result in a kind of convulsion of apathy.

Mead: I don't think that there is so much apathy. I think there is an enormous lack of knowledge of what to do about anything. There is an enormous sense of frustration, and people feel so strongly in this country that you ought to be able to fix at once anything that goes wrong. Press a button and something happens. Then they try to manage our political system or our economic system in the same way.

I must not be the only person who finds this book valuable, because the current prices for used copies on Amazon are astronomical. It was once a mass-market paperback (my library copy was published by Laurel, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell, copyright J.B. Lippincott 1971, printed 1992; I quoted from p. 143-145). I think it's time for a new edition.

A Group Blog on American Religious History and Culture


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