Things That Did Not Cause the Collapse of Society: A List

This week, a county school board in my area took a bold step in the direction of diversity, equity, inclusion, and frankly, justice. You may have heard the news.

Those opposed to this action have offered a variety of disconnected reasons that this was the wrong thing to do. They range from claims that the action will ruin our children (it won’t) or usurp parental rights (no more than other public education actions) to claims that the action will somehow interfere with their religious freedom (to discriminate). (Here’s just one example of hyperbolic reaction.)

I would bet money that privately, people also are thinking that it is another step in the downfall of society, another inch closer to the end of the world.

People opposed to social change–let’s call them conservatives–have argued for literally hundreds of years that steps taken to improve a pluralistic society and advance social justice will lead to the collapse of civilization. Which we know now is absurd. But conservatives still use that argument today anyway.

So I thought I would make a list off the top of my head of some of the things that over the years did not in fact cause social collapse (approximately in reverse chronological order):

  • the legalization of same-sex marriage
  • equal funding for women’s education
  • affirmative action
  • allowing women to enroll in historically men’s schools
  • access to contraceptives
  • the legalization of interracial marriages
  • the integration of public schools
  • the integration of the Army and Navy
  • giving women the right to vote
  • giving Blacks the right to vote
  • ending race-based enslavement of other people
  • removing the Church as an arm of the State
  • not doffing one’s hat or bowing to one’s “betters”
  • the scientific method

What does lead to a breakdown in social cohesion? Here a few things:

  • police brutality and a militarized State (ongoing)
  • lies and misinformation (ongoing)
  • environmental degradation (ongoing)
  • income inequality and entrenched poverty (ongoing)
  • unequal access to educational or economic opportunity (probably ongoing)

As usual, I am thinking of America as I write this. I realize that many other countries are at different stages of their journey toward a modern society and I wish them the best.

America can and ought to be better than we often are. I’m constantly amazed and saddened by how many Americans want to turn back the clock and erase so much of the hard-won progress that has been made over the centuries. At the same time, I understand that those people whose identity is threatened the most are the ones who will scream the loudest.

Which raises the question of who would create their identity around maintaining injustice and inequality? Think about it.

I, for one, think that regression to some imagined former “greatness” at the expense of general social improvement would be mistake.

P.S. It is good to remember that one’s personal opinions about how things “ought to be,” no matter how strongly held or deeply felt, are not “truths” that cannot be challenged. They are only opinions and can be heeded or dismissed as circumstances warrant.

Music of Hope and Change

In the summer of 1988 I went to see Steve Winwood in concert, and his opening act was Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, they were a South African group formed during the final years of apartheid, but their music seems as relevant today as ever.

I don’t remember much about their performance other than liking what I heard and saw. Years later, I picked up a CD of their greatest hits and each time I listen to it, I find more to like.

Their sound is fairly typical of African rock and roll of the era, with the distinctive guitar tone, steady drum rhythms, and chanting vocals. For comparison, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has a similar feel.

Here’s the thing: Clegg was a white South African and say what you will about the “white savior” problem in the arts, but his work shows a profound sensitivity to the issues of apartheid. In the songs that I know, the band sings of a pan-African unity, the heartbreaks of racial injustice, and the resiliency of the African people.

One song in particular jumped out at me as I listened to my CD last week. “Asimbonanga” is a slower tempo song with a lot of Zulu lyrics. But it becomes clear upon repeated listening that they’re singing about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robbin Island, and also about the many South Africans who suffered and died from the systemic racism in that country. At the end of the song, Clegg recites a few names–Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. He is “saying their names,” reminding us that these were people who dedicated their lives, literally, to ending systemic racial oppression. “Asimbonanga” translates as “we have not seen him.”

Johnny Clegg may not have understood apartheid in the same way a black South African would, but he nonetheless risked a lot. According to Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds….”

My ticket to see Nelson Mandela, June 30, 1990.

Under the system, it was illegal for blacks and whites to mingle, and the band risked attracting the attention of law enforcement every time they performed in South Africa. Despite the risk, the band was undeterred in its goals. The band was advocating radical change.

Two years after I saw Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made a triumphant tour of America, and my mother, my girlfriend (now wife), and I went to see Mandela live at a large rally in Oakland, California. Even considering the depth of my own white privilege, I understood that the decades of hard work by artists, journalists, and ordinary people had at last yielded results.

I can only hope for the same here in America.