‘What Did You Do? What Did You Say?’

The passing of civil rights icon John Lewis comes at a time when America is confronting some of the most dramatic social unrest since the 1960s, when, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., he spearheaded the push for racial equality.

Any attempt to encapsulate Lewis’s contribution to democracy  — to “summarize” what he meant to a country which is still struggling to live up to the ideals espoused by founders who did not always exemplify the virtues they championed — will fall woefully short. His life and work must speak for themselves. And they do. Loudly.

Although the pandemic has taken much from the world and exacted a heavy human toll on the country Lewis fought (and bled) for, the silver lining may be a mass awakening to the fact that an inegalitarian society, rife with division and defined by inequities of all sorts, is inherently fragile and thereby more vulnerable to exogenous shocks.

America has all the trappings of a democracy, but for millions, the democratic promise remained unfulfilled by 2016. That, despite eight years of objectively competent leadership by a man whose very presence in the Oval Office represented an evolutionary leap forward for a country which, not so long ago in the grand scheme of history, countenanced one of modernity’s most abhorrent institutions (slavery).

Over the past three years, America has taken a turn for the autocratic, but that metamorphosis too remains unfinished. While autocratic governance is profoundly undemocratic, authoritarian regimes do not always preside over inegalitarian societies (even if those who wield power de facto control vast amounts of wealth). Depending on the nature of a given crisis, autocrats and authoritarian regimes can be highly effective at restoring order, even if the methods are unsavory.

America has become something of a hybrid — a democracy with an increasingly autocratic executive, a largely ineffective legislature, and an inefficient bureaucracy, all beholden, in one way or another, to a corporate sector which, efforts to reform itself notwithstanding, cannot help but subjugate all other concerns to the pursuit of profits.

This system has shown itself to be almost totally incapable of responding to the pandemic.

The economic and physical toll of the virus is borne disproportionately by the poor and by people of color, whose suddenly worsened plight will be made more unbearable still by a system which has evolved over time to perpetuate disadvantages and exponentially amplify privilege.

The legislature is hamstrung by a laundry list of factors, not least of which are allegiance to special interests, clientelism, partisan rancor, misguided perceptions of public finance, and a generalized inability to conceptualize of itself as an employee of the body politic.

The executive (in its current incarnation) is a would-be autocrat, lacking the clout, respect, military buy-in, and generalized wherewithal to exercise control.

The corporate oligarchy suddenly recognizes the need to reform itself, but only because recent protests suggest the masses have reached their breaking point with inequality and are prepared to express that in the streets if necessary.

But corporate America itself admits of egregious inequality. The staid, stodgy bastions of the business class are paying the usual (and largely useless) lip service to fixing capitalism and righting societal wrongs, but nobody believes it. And even if you wanted to suggest that corporate America could be part of the solution, the corporate community as a whole is increasingly irrelevant in the face of a half-dozen demigods. What the likes of Nike, JPMorgan, and Coca-Cola do (or don’t do) matters little when a handful of almost omnipotent figures (Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, and whatever you want to call the braintrust at the helm of Google) are taking turns fomenting the revolution, profiting from the pandemic, and picking sides when it comes to currying favor with or enraging the autocrat.

The social unrest which, at one point or another, touched nearly every major metropolitan area in America over the past two months, represents a collective, simultaneous awakening to the fact that the system isn’t working for virtually anyone anymore.

Many people will tell you they don’t believe in coincidences. I do. And by the same token, I don’t believe in “fate”.

No higher power dictated that George Floyd should perish during a pandemic, so that Americans could finally connect the dots between the myriad types of inequality which plague the system.

It was not preordained that the height of corporate greed and D.C. dysfunction should coincide with the country’s first real brush with autocratic rule so that voters would realize just how close to failure the American experiment really is.

But even as the confluence of discrete events is everywhere and always a coincidence by definition, when taken together, they form the arc of history. And this is a pivotal moment in American history.

Late last year, in a speech during Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings, John Lewis said,

When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’… We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.

Polls suggest that between 15 million and 26 million people in the US participated in demonstrations over the past two months.

As The New York Times writes, “these figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history, according to interviews with scholars and crowd-counting experts”.

Header image: John Lewis, third from left, with Martin Luther King Jr. as they begin 
the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in March 1965. 
Photographer: William Lovelace

10 comments on “‘What Did You Do? What Did You Say?’

  1. “Fate” is laziness. So is tradition. “Dreams” can be self fulfilling prophesies. People that realize their dreams know full well the work involved. Floyd went Global, he became a part of Kings Dream for a people and a Nation. The tradition of white deniability had a mirror shoved in its face because of Floyd. I assume Mr. Floyd had simpler ambitions, dreams, hopes.
    John Lewis was always interesting. His family has much to be proud of.

  2. The “dream” is very very difficult to achieve.

    Even in the country with the national slogan, “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” ( i do not know how to add the appropriate accents), they struggle with implementation.

  3. Thank you for introducing these concepts to some who may not otherwise encounter them on Fox News.

    Not to sound hysterical, but we are at a desperate juncture in our history. We seem incredibly vulnerable to a political scenario similar to Germany in the 30’s. We already have our “charismatic” leader; our grievances (real or imagined), and our Brownshirts (armed to the teeth). We also have a daily source of official-sounding propaganda, presenting a warped view of the world to those already held in thrall by our president.

    Those of us not driven by right-wing conspiracies tend to rely on our institutions and our police to maintain peace and order. With the police increasingly under fire by those opposed to Trump, I’m beginning to wonder. In a future confrontation, which side they will be on?

    • I don’t think you need to wonder… see Portland. Local officials and citizens did not request and have asked the federal agents to leave but they remain at the request of law enforcement. This is being threatened in other cities by Trump. Unmarked cars and unnamed agents collecting persons off the streets at will without charge… looks a lot like a trial run to start disappearing US citizens in the US. Welcome to Autocracy.

  4. This is a wonderful post, thought provoking yet somber and even moving. We say rest in peace to a formidable American as it becomes clearer by the day the American experiment is indeed fragile, whatever progress we have made we owe in large part to individuals like Lewis.

  5. I’m thinking that our “charismatic leader” will soon be voted out. And we will miss John Lewis.

  6. The United States in the 1930s had its share of Nazi admirers, a strong anti-communist streak, and was in danger of failing. It was not a foregone conclusion that the US would eventually enter a war allied with Soviet Russia against Nazi Germany. The US at times in the 1930s was in danger of failing outright. Yet from the brink of failure, the US progressed through an incredibly eventful decade and a half to emerge after world war II as an immense economic and military power, with tremendous opportunities for many Americans. Though America was still racially divided, the events of the 1930s and 1940s set the stage for the incomplete, though significant advancements that occurred through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s continuing to today. Fast forward a few years, not that long ago, to 2008, with the US embroiled in divisive wars, a divisive president Bush, and a rapidly failing economic system. It took a combination of circumstances to propel an outsider like Obama into the presidency, along with a Democratic majority (though fragile) in Congress. It can be said that the election of Obama led directly to the election of Trump–the anti-Obama. Uncouth vs urbane, instinctive vs thoughtful, narrow in frame of view vs expansive. But America continues on a changing demographic path that appears inexorable. Significant changes to the political and economic framework were bound to happen over time, regardless. But the see-saw from Bush to Obama, then from Obama to Trump, and the realization, as H discusses, that the US is at a crossroads and on the verge of failure, could very well propel us to a monumental and hopeful change starting this November. The Trump presidency of 2017-2021 could, in 50 years, be seen as the last gasp of the white nationalist core of American history. The transition will not be smooth, but out of 2020’s turmoil could well come a better America that fulfills the original promise for more than just the wealthy white landowners who drove the original American revolution. As for the power of the leading American capitalists Zuckerberg, Bezos, Gates, Buffet, etc: We had powerful capitalists in the late 1800s who were reigned in when their power became too absolute, when the people of America had nothing left to lose, and they rose up in opposing the concentration of wealth and power. We’re at that point today–though it is a more globalist, complicated world, and the terms of the debate are not so simply capitalist vs unions or capitalist vs socialist. Many of the richest now understand that their power and wealth is dependent on the continued functioning of the state. The understand that they need to sacrifice some of their wealth and power so as not to risk losing all of it in a destructive revolution or a failed American state. Those that don’t understand this (e.g. Bezos and Zuckerberg) will resist, but one can envision many scenarios in which their power will be truncated.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful post. We just need to get past November; fix Citizen’s United; eliminate gerrymandering and our current primary system (which encourage extremism); eliminate the electoral college; adjust each state’s allocation of senators so that population plays more of a roll; and deport anyone who refuses to wear a mask to protect others

  7. When people keep electing the same senators and congressmen time after time but expect things to change because they elect a different president shows an ignorance in basic civics education. I guess civics isn’t taught anymore. Change begins in the local government, the city and county councils, then filters up. The people that run the country figured this out years ago, they funded their people in the local elections, state elections and later the national elections which is why we are where we are today. The people than own the USA do not hold political office, it is beneath them, they phone in their orders on how the country is to be run from the Hamptons or Palm Beach..depends on the weather.

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