On Civility

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The fall semester has kicked off and the annual tide of speakers now washes over our communities. Not surprisingly, colleges and universities are revisiting last year’s unresolved arguments about whether white supremacist speech deserves equal space and protection. Already, in the aftermath of the bloody white supremacist actions in Charlottesville, Texas A & M has cancelled a “White Lives Matter” event scheduled for early September. A “Free Speech Week” was taking shape in Berkeley, but then it all fell apart, a victim of giant egos with little capacity for event planning. A steady drumbeat of op-eds maintains that college minds are closed, that liberalism is a cult presided over by the professoriate, and that civility is endangered.

In so many ways, of course, the argument over whether racism is protected speech has already been won. Hate speech legislation is stalled. Newspapers feature deeply conservative voices on their opinion pages. There is a white supremacist in the White House. Universities may strive for balance and inclusion, and tens of thousands of talks sponsored by student groups of all shapes and sizes go off without a hitch every year, but the general mood is grim. There will be a lot of right wing anguish about the supposedly closed minds of college campuses, and a lot of pressure to follow President Trump’s threat to withhold federal dollars to those institutions that cannot – or will not – protect conservative ideas and alt-right words. Wild-eyed racist rallies masquerading as “speech” will go on somewhere. And university presidents will continue to idealize the free and fair exchange of ideas, gesturing to an idyllic past, when conversations were civil, nuanced, and more constructive.

Institutions should remember, though, that they exist to foster new ideas and better understandings, and not to preserve a space for broken-down theories disproved long ago with awful, bloody consequences. They should acknowledge, as well, that mindfulness, civility, and respect are more closely aligned with oft-celebrated concepts like diversity and inclusion than they are with the most bare-knuckle expressions of free speech. And there should be a genuflection to the simple truth that not all ideas are equal, and that when civility is deployed to mediate a dispute between ideas of unequal value, nothing good can come of it.

It was the “Roaring 1920s,” and the African American writer, organizer, and public intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois was at the peak of his authority, presiding over the NAACP’s authoritative Crisis magazine, orchestrating the Harlem Renaissance, and scornfully assaulting Jim Crow. His elegiac poem, “Credo,” hung in black parlors around the nation, and his column on race-relations was required reading in many black middle-class homes. But he was also witnessing yet another downturn in American race-relations. Efforts to pass an anti-lynching bill in Congress had failed, and civil rights organizations had been buffeted left and right during the “Red Scare” of 1919 – the same year that Chicago had been bloodied by a massive, white-led race riot. This was the decade in which the Ku Klux Klan was reborn as a nationwide, middle-class phenomenon, and in which the nation continued to rely on rape and murder, segregation and disenfranchisement to keep white supremacy afloat.

Du Bois decided to confront one of the chief architects of white supremacy head-on, initiating a set of debates with journalist-cum-racial scientist Lothrop Stoddard. A determined champion of racial justice, he wanted to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy, to bring the full force of his mind and his wit to bear upon and to hollow out and humiliate an avatar of white racism. But it was no simple matter, in those days, for a black man to debate a white man on stage. The event would have been legally impossible in some states, dangerous or socially imprudent in others. And then, of course, you needed the right sort of white person to debate. Someone hungry for fame. And someone, of course, deeply, darkly, even wildly racist.

No one writer was more associated with the decade’s racial positions than Stoddard, a skillful, prolific sensationalist. Popularizing the work of the eugenicist crowd, his first major blockbuster was the dystopic barnburner of 1920, The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy. Like his armchair scientist mentor, Madison Grant – author of the no-less-grim bestseller of 1916, The Passing of the Great Race – Stoddard excelled at predictions of terrible racial doom looming just around the corner. The white race, he argued in 1920, wasn’t fecund enough, at least when compared to the darker races of Asia, the Near East, and Africa. It was losing ground genetically. As the darker-skinned denizens of those regions of the world gained access to technology and civilization, Stoddard continued, they seemed certain to overtake whites. A strict adherence to segregation – locally and globally – was the all too obvious solution.

This was all standard racist boilerplate, but the book was well-timed and struck a nerve. No fool, Stoddard sensed that he had a tailwind and generated a quick follow-up: 1922’s The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man, a book that so potently argued for the segregation and sterilization of “the unfit” (and especially immigrants into white nations) that it was quick translated into German, and played a key intellectual role in shaping the Nazi Holocaust.

Du Bois and Stoddard began their surprising fellowship in 1925, at a panel organized by Will Durant of the Labor Temple School. Two years later, the black Brahmin offered a comment on Stoddard’s debate with the African American philosopher, Alain Locke, conducted in the pages of The Forum. A radio debate followed, and found the two men courteously exchanging drafts of their remarks before the event. And then, to cap off the relationship, a big public debate was scheduled for the Chicago Coliseum in 1929.

Stoddard was a publicity hound, an early version of those carnival barkers presently provoking the American campus into fits. He was a big personality with a gift for taking a paper-thin idea, lacing it with fearful paranoia, and stretching it until almost everyone could understand the immediate, personal stakes. He had eagerly and steadfastly popularized some of the past century’s most noxious, deadly, and consequential ideas about race. He surely believed that he could best Du Bois in debate, and by doing so embody white supremacy in the flesh.

Still, both men were from Harvard and both from New England, with all the relevant regional and class-inflected prejudices. Both were accomplished writers, well-known in thinking-person’s magazines as leading intellects. Madison Grant, writing confidentially to Stoddard, argued that it was “a shameful thing” to have educated “the Negro,” but on some level – despite all of his work to shore up the racial hierarchy – Stoddard must not have completely agreed. To even be willing to debate Du Bois, Stoddard had to concede a certain degree of equality. At the very least, equal time on stage or in print or at the microphone.

The 1929 debate was held before a racially mixed audience organized by the newly established, nonpartisan think-tank, the Chicago Forum Council. Du Bois privately confessed that he wasn’t sure that Stoddard would show up, but when he did, the Council’s director, Fred Moore, reminded that audience that Stoddard had shown “courage” in agreeing to present his “unpopular point of view,” a fairly astonishing reminder, given that white supremacy was still as popular as apple pie. The event went off without a hitch, and the notes indicate that the audience gave both speakers equal applause. There were no angry interruptions. No clamorous shouts from the crowd. Not even, as best as we can tell, when Du Bois daringly told Stoddard that it was one thing to theorize white world supremacy and quite another to win it, to hold back that “rising tide” from swamping the boat and seizing the globe. Other crowd-pleasers have the feel of payback: “Who in the hell,” Du Bois asked incredulously at one point, disputing one of the baseline fears of residential segregation, “said we want to marry your daughters?” Stoddard didn’t, even then, storm off the stage.

The event might well be the first public black/white debate of truly opposing positions, modeling an elite practice of gentlemanly courtesy that seems foreign to our present, where flamethrowers abound and courtesy seems nearly extinguished.

Tellingly, it left a permanent imprint on the memory of Lothrop Stoddard, who could never quite shake the sensation of having been bested by – or even equaled by – a black man in a free and fair exchange of ideas in front of a mixed public. Writing to me in 2000, Stoddard’s son noted that Du Bois had earned his father’s sincere respect; no small feat, I suppose, when one considers Stoddard’s longstanding, rock-solid faith in white supremacy. If we were looking for an antipode to the toxic, scorched-earth “Free Speech Week” proposed in Berkeley, we might celebrate this peculiar fellowship as a nostalgic reminder of a day when people could actually debate, actually listen and learn, and not merely spout off a pre-determined position in support of a soon-to-be-published screed. And to commiserate, inevitably, about the decline of civility.

I see this differently, though. The debates matter much more, I think, because they should serve as a reminder that Du Bois was right and Stoddard was wrong. Apocalyptically wrong. We should know this not because the Crisis editor “won” the debate with his cleverness and his gift for metaphor, nor even because Stoddard agreed to participate and therefore ceded some minor sort of equality. We should know this because Stoddard’s ideas played a role in shoring up Jim Crow, in enabling white world supremacy and the expansion of settler colonialism, and in justifying the deaths of six million Jews in Europe. We should know that Du Bois was right because to say anything else would be to endorse hell-on earth, to sanction eliminationist ideas and policies.

More importantly, this “debate” is not a past practice we should seek to recover. We should not want to frame any such clash of opinions in such a way that people are forced to even-handedly and courteously petition to the crowd for their right to exist. Nor should we be eager to applaud, as Fred Moore did, the “courage” of white supremacists to offer their own deeply disturbing opinions. We should hear this story and think, with horror, of the obscene false equivalency at the heart of this confrontation – the bizarre premise that there are two sides equally deserving our attention. We should think it a travesty that a man of Du Bois’s erudition and intellect should have to prove that his race deserved to survive.

No one, again, should have to argue for the very right to exist in civil terms.

And yet, of course, we are where we are.

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