We're working on a commission for a client. As part of the design, the client wants to have a branch with both fruits and flowers on it. We've pointed out that this doesn't happen in real life. No plant of the type the client wants depicted bears both fruits and flowers at the same time. You occasionally see fruit and flowers of the same type in medieval Christian paintings and the still lifes by Dutch Old Masters where it was a recognized shorthand for Paradise. It conveyed to the viewer that the scene was Ideal and Mythical, not part of the humdrum Real world.
I kept thinking about those Mythical scenes of Paradise as I read the essays on the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's death and What Went Wrong. There were so many bitter denunciations of the tree for not bearing fruits and flowers at the same time.
On the one hand is my friend Natalie's post which lauds Dr. King's achievements and bitterly accuses modern African-American leaders of practicing racism by speaking out against economic injustice. I'm sorry Natalie, but addressing economic injustice is why Dr. King was in Memphis in the first part. The Memphis sanitation worker's strike was to be the opening move of Phase 2 in Dr. King's civil rights movement, the phase that concentrated on the very fight against economic injustices you denounce modern African-American leaders for taking up.
On the other hand is Cavalor Epthith's post which lauds Dr. King's achievements and spins out a scenario where Dr. King, if he had not been assassinated in 1968, would have become President in 1976 and led to an age of peace and prosperity where all the Liberal goals would have been fulfilled and Republicans would have become a despised fringe party. I'm sorry Cavalor, but there simply wasn't a broad enough base of support for Liberal ideas in the 1960s to push that through. In 1963 my adopted mother stood up and cheered when she heard that Kennedy had been assassinated on the radio, a story that she proudly told to people who agreed with her even back then. In 1965 the Southern Baptist Convention, the most liberal church in America after the Unitarian Universalists and a stalwart supporter of individual rights and keeping prayer out of public schools, ended it's youth program teaching children the importance of Liberal ideas and letting each individual make up his or her own mind about God and politics -- a decision which inevitably led to a young generation being reared with no understanding Liberal ideas voting for the Conservative takeover of 1979. During the 1930s the largest families in America were poor, white Southerners who couldn't find work in the South during the Great Depression and scattered throughout the nation so that by the late 1960s approximately 25% of white Americans outside the South had at least one grandparent from the South, so that the almost universal portrayal of Southern whites as ignorant hicks created a widespread slow-building backlash (a phenomenon we're sure to see repeated if the next generation decides to come down against the two current biggest breeders, Mormons and Hispanics.) And as Naomi Wolfe pointed out, there was no way all those attempts to bring the rest of America up to parity with white males could sit well with those white males who were less savy and who got Left Behind.
But all this bitter finger-pointing is right about one thing. Something has gone badly wrong. The tree of racial equality bears few fruits or flowers, but a lot of cankers.
Would things have been better if Dr. King had lived? Probably. But our image of the man who marched for freedom would have to include a man who also spoke up for higher wages.
Would things have been better if Kennedy had lived? Probably. But the unavoidable cultural turbulence of the 1960s would still have resulted in the resentment and the perceived loss of priviledge among lower class whites which inevitably fuels the bonfires of the Savonarolas of this world. And if he had brought home all those troops in the mid-1960s, how would America have handled such an influx of angry young men who would not have learned how to say "Sir, no sir"?
Things might well have been better, but they would not have been Ideal. The tree would still not have born fruits and flowers at the same time.
But maybe that is What Went Wrong. Maybe we were trying so hard for some Ideal we lost sight of the Real world, full of people honorable, despicable, and every shade in between, most just trying to get by. If that is the case, turning around and bashing other people over the head with our Ideals is only going to make things worse in the long run.
Ideals are wonderful when they inspire us, but let us not get so lost in our vision of an Ideal world we can't deal with all the Real people we have to share the planet with.