The first High Noon guest of the new year is John Wood, Jr. Wood is a national ambassador for Braver Angels. He’s also a former congressional candidate, a musician, and a writer, speaker, and thinker. John and Inez talk about finding a balance between a constrained vision of human nature and the possibility of genuine reconciliation despite America’s very real racial divisions.
Woods and Stepman have an honest conversation about the unique struggles, as well as the unique contributions, of black citizens to the United States, and whether any barriers to continued advancement are truly racial or more closely tracking class. They also discuss the fading role of religion in binding together the diverse peoples of America, and the relationship between oppression and great art.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. John Wood junior is our guest this week. He’s a national ambassador for Braver Angels. Used to be Better Angels, but now I think we need to be brave in order to have the kind of conversations that they have over there at Braver Angels. He is also a former congressional candidate. He’s a musician, he’s a general writer, thinker, speaker. And how I became familiar with John’s work is I once did one of his Braver Angels events. And so I kind of became familiar with the organization. And then I heard him speak at a Manhattan Institute event where he had the unenviable job of following up on Glenn Loury’s talk that he gives about black patriotism. He’s given it in a variety of venues, but he gave it at the Manhattan Institute.
And I think everyone who listened to this podcast for longer knows that this definitely qualifies as a kind of anti-woke podcast. I am an anti-woke person. But John is really the first person who really managed to give me, if not actual sympathy, but at least more of an understanding about how some people might find this ideology, to really fall in line with how they’d experienced the world. It gave me a little bit more of an insight into how people, with whom I vociferously disagree, think. So, I’m really happy to have you on the podcast, John. Welcome to High Noon.
Thank you so much. I just love the introduction to this show, your opener. It sets the mood so well. But thank you, Inez. It’s really great to be here with you.
So, I just want to start out by asking you a little bit about how you grew up because I know that intersectional is sort of a buzzword now in our discourse. But you truly qualify as intersectional in the deepest sense. You really grew up with such a variety of influences around you, whether that’s geographic or racial or cultural, class-based. You’ve really grew up at the intersection of all of these different American strands of life. So, could you just tell us a little bit about how you grew up and how you came to the place that you find yourself today?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, it is true. My background is sort of hyper intersectional just in the technical sense that I’ve got a lot of different, I guess, streams of American identity and cultures crisscrossing and producing meat. So, I’m biracial, some people like the term, some people don’t, I guess. But that’s not too unique in and of itself except that a lot of multiracial, biracial folks, let’s say you’re black and you’re white, have parents who maybe have different races, but still come from the same sort of socio-economic or political or cultural background. That’s very much not quite the case with me. So, my mother is a Liberal black Democrat from inner-city Los Angeles, was born in 1963, grew up in, not totally destitute circumstances, but from a much more modest background and with a lot of relatives who were much more hard up living inner-city life, inner-city, sort of poverty, so on and so forth.
My father is a white man from Tennessee born in 1950, who was raised in great wealth after moving from the south to Los Angeles. My grandfather owned the biggest independent record label in America. It was called Dot Records back in the late 50s into the early 1960s. My father is a Republican, conservative, Trump supporter. And was very much the traditionalist in our household growing up. He wasn’t a Republican back then. He was more of a community Democrat and he was somebody who as time went along, felt that the democratic party left him behind. But even though for the most part, he didn’t grow up in the south. He’s always been a southerner by roots. And he raised me with a great deal of nostalgia for the volunteer state. I grew up with stories Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett and Elmo and so on and so forth.
And I had all of that swirling about in my upbringing. And I tell people that I had three native environments growing up. On the one hand on weekends would visit my, some of my mother’s relatives in south-central Los Angeles. I’d jump on the bus with my uncle who was only a couple years older than I was more a cousin or sibling, but got used to sort of traveling around south-central Los Angeles, got used to the idea that there are certain streets we didn’t want to get off on, certain neighborhoods we didn’t want to walk down if we had the wrong colored shoelaces on because we might not come out the other side of them. Got used to seeing life on that sort of side of the tracks. Then on holidays, we’d go and visit my father’s parents, my grandparents, who at that time lived in La Jolla California, which is an affluent coastal community in San Diego.
They lived in a multimillion-dollar house with the view of the ocean, a few blocks down the street from Mitt Romney’s house. The one with the car elevator that they used to talk about in 2012. But then from day to day, I grew up in multicultural, middle-class, suburban Culver City, California in LA. Going to what I understand is the fourth most diverse school district in America. And so my kids, my friends growing up when I was a kid were Korean, and Jewish, and Indian, and Pakistani, and black, and Latino and so forth. And so I didn’t travel a lot geographically as a kid, but social economically I was all over the map and didn’t quite appreciate how maybe uncommon that breadth of cultural experience was for a young person until I got a bit older. But yeah, so that’s a bit of background in terms of how I came up anyway from a cultural vantage point.
I mean, it makes sense to me that coming from that diverse, genuinely diverse, background that would inspire you to do what you have done with Braver Angels, which is really … Because I think often or too often when we talk about reaching across the aisle or having these discussions, actually what it tends to be is a dumb down or milk toast, or sort of turn down the passion dial on what people actually believe. So, I find in a lot of these conversations, people are even if unintentionally being a little bit dishonest about what they believe because they’re trying to be nice about it and not to offend other people and that discourse I don’t have a lot of use for, because I don’t think it is actually coming from a place of honesty.
And I don’t think that that’s really productive. If you’re not getting what people really think, then you’re not really advancing anything. So, I’ve always chosen, as Dennis Prager says, “Clarity over agreement.” But I think one of the things that makes the way that you are able to cross into these different space unique, is that you are doing it from a perspective of really trying to get at the truth. But really to understand how other people could conceivably be trying to get at that same truth and come away with radically different premises or how have radically different premises from how they see the world.
Do you want to give maybe the slightly shorter version of the response that you gave to Glenn Loury when he was laying out this case that, to me, is a conservative and what literally brought a tear to my eye about the case for patriotism, even for black Americans who have, I think, inarguably been left out of a lot of the things that made America great for many, many, many decades, centuries. So, he made this great case for patriotism in black America. And you gave a kind of, not a rebuttal, but an appeal for understanding of why perhaps some people might not feel that kind of patriotism about their country. Do you want to maybe lay out some of the case that you made?
Yeah. By all means. So, yeah. Glenn laid out his case for black patriotism. A case that I think I would make as well. And it’s one that taps into the reality of the fact that if you look across the broad arc of American experience and American project, that with respect to the typical sort of black experience in America begins with slavery is one that evolves over the course of time into one that graduates from emancipation to a fuller realization of equality under the law, into a society in which it is evident and clear to any and everybody, or at least ought to be, that an African American, a person of color, any person of any race in American society, but certainly black people, can achieve the very heights of success in American society. From the presidency of the United States to being represented among the ranks of millionaires and billionaires and elite artists and celebrities.
And that the genuine struggle through oppression, through inequality across the arc of American history has not prevented us from coming closer and closer to living up to the values that were articulated in the declaration of independence, that all men are created equal, that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights.
And that it is those values that truly characterize the fundamental character of American society. And that we can see expressed in the larger trajectory of African Americans in the context of American life, towards full equality and a present reality in which if you live life in the right way, if you are disciplined, if you work hard, if you have the commitment to family values that allow you to support those nearest to you and take responsibility for yourself, your family and your community, there’s no cap on what you can do in American life. I mean, Glenn has his own way of making this case. But he makes the case and he makes it well. It’s an overview that I agree with. Now, at the same time, my remarks were calibrated, as you said, to trying to illuminate how it is that, that portrayal of the black American experience ultimately does not necessarily emerge as persuasive in the context of the actual experiences of many African Americans in this country to this day, for reasons that are both historical and contemporaneous.
And so let me try and layout the case succinctly. It is true that over the course of American history, you have all of these triumphs and accomplishments towards greater quality, greater realization of the American dream, which make the United States of 2021 much different than the United States of 1860. Or of 1619, let’s say, prior to the formation of the United States. And yet what you have to take into account when we look at the experience of, let’s say the median or that large portion of African Americans who fall below sort of some median line in the American experience, is the fact that over the course of history, when we look back over time, we have an experience that we’re trailing behind us as African Americans.
So many of us that, yes, goes to slavery, goes to Jim Crow segregation, and clan terrorism in the south, and so forth. But that even coming out of the Civil Rights Movement opens up into an experience of black American life, just over the last 50 years or so, that for millions of black Americans, really for arguably, I would say a solid third of African Americans who have some deep and consequential relationship to poverty, to lack of social mobility have found themselves in this vantage point of being a part of a black underclass that has existed as a, either a majority or a significant minority of the whole black population from the advent of slavery all the way up to the present day. And so let’s start with the Civil Rights Movement. When you look at the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, they are real and they are meaningful, but Martin Luther King Jr, who is my great role model in American moral activism, was a leader who came from the south who was in most of his career directly addressing the problems of Jim Crow segregation in the south.
At a time when the majority of African Americans in American life were already living outside of the south in urban communities that were not affected by Jim Crow segregation anyway. Where the right to vote was something that yes, had been depressed through much of American history. But by the time of the Voting Rights Act had been relatively more secured. And yet who were suffering in tremendous poverty. And so when the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights had passed, nothing materially changed. For the millions of African Americans who remained in poverty, who remained segregated by virtue of redlining and federal government housing policies in slum communities and ghetto communities that were under service dealing with failing school districts, lack of economic opportunity. The country celebrated this triumph over the explicit Jim Crow racism that existed in the south. But after the death of Martin Luther king Jr, and the passage of those Acts life did not materially change for the majority of African Americans, except in as much as economic opportunities continue to deteriorate and disappear.
You had manufacturing jobs, which had been the primary vocational lane for many people trying to make it in the black middle class and the black working class disappear overseas. You had immigration, which subverted black economic opportunities in the agricultural and the service sector. Then you had the influx of crack cocaine in a moment where the welfare estate had succeeded, you may say the great society, in eliminating starvation, but had also put African Americans in a situation to where they had very little in the way of economic opportunity, but access to a subsistence income that basically provided something of a capital base for the transforming of this drug substance, this illicit substance, into a commercial product that suddenly financed the explosion of the underground drug-dealing industry, which in turn leads us into the phenomenon of mass incarceration, the police state response.
And suddenly over the course of these decades, black Americans who had gone from slavery to Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan and redlining, and so on and so forth, who received no tangible benefit from the Civil Rights Movement now find themselves without economic opportunities, still in many cases, locked into ghettos and urban slums. But now with the additional plagues of drug pandemics, incarceration rates spiking across the 70s, across the 80s, and across the 90s. And you get to a point to where you see the incarcerated community balloon up to a population of a million strong, you see that a third of African Americans are living in poverty.
You step back and you realize your average, well, perhaps not average, but something close to, again, a solid third of African Americans can look over this entire arc of the American experience and basically say to themselves that at no point have I seen the American dream materialize for me because so much of my experience has been defined by poverty, by violence and by an American narrative that is judging the black experience, according to the success of Oprah Winfrey, when what it is she’s done has nothing to do with the real opportunity that’s available to me living in inner-city Chicago, living in Detroit, living in south-central Los Angeles and parts of the rural south.
That’s been the story for so many black Americans. Now, it’s also true, there’s a black middle class that became empowered after the Civil Rights Movement. That through affirmative action programs were brought into corporations, brought into university campuses that was welcomed into Hollywood and the ranks of the professional sports leagues and so forth. But that part of the black community is quite a bit smaller than this other part that I’m talking about. But it’s the most visible part of the black community to most white Americans. And so I think that’s where the disconnect comes in. And I realized that for myself at a certain point, because I had a black experience growing up, which was colored by nothing but opportunity really. But my wife’s experience, she grew up with the Jordan Downs projects and Watts was starkly different from my own.
And at a certain point, I just started to realize that, you know what I mean, I’ve got nothing to complain about in terms of how America has treated me as a black man. But my black American experience is not necessarily 100% typical. And so when we look at the anti-racist urgency to just completely remake American life, yes, there’s a lot of cynical misreading of history. I think that that’s potentially fair to say. There is a lot of intersection with perhaps leftist, socialist ideologies and kind of social projects that seek to sort of coup some of that history. You might say to make the case for the agendas that people are pushing in the academies and in different parts of the political landscape. But if you push all that away for just a moment, there is this real history of suffering and deprivation and marginalization in the black experience in particular, which is widespread.
And that goes from before the founding of the country all the way up until now in a way that has to be appreciated when you look at the way that many black people responded in the aftermath of, let’s say the killing of George Floyd and so forth. If we don’t understand not just that history, but that contemporary reality we’ll never understand why it is appeals to patriotism fall flat for people who feel that the American dream has never actually shown up in the context of their own experience. That’s not as concise as I should have made it. But that’s basically the case that I made.
It strikes me for the second time listening to you make this case, that it sounds quite similar to the way that a lot of Trump voters, for example, in the rust belt, they perhaps would not attach this to America as a whole. But the disillusionment with the institutions, the feeling that the game has been rigged against them, and that the promise of opportunity in America has been taken from them. It strikes me how similar that kind of disillusionment really is. How much of this do you think is more attached to class or economics than it is to race and how much of it is unique to race?
It’s a great question. Because there is a necessary, I think, distinction to be made between class and race in terms of what’s really operating. Especially at this present moment when it comes to the experiences of not just poor black people, but poor white people and others in America. And yet in the black context when you just take it in the stream of how people actually experience things and how history connects one episode to the next, it can be a bit harder to differentiate it. So, I would say that yes, on a fundamental level, especially in 2021, this is sort of more of a class problem than a race problem. And anybody who is interested in diving deeper into that sort of an analysis, I think would be well advised to read a book called The declining significance of race by a scholar named William Julius Wilson, which I think was published in the early 80s.
And in that book, William Julius Wilson makes the argument that up until about the time of the high point of the Civil Rights Movement, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that black marginalization America was primarily a function of racial oppression. But after that became more a function of class and economic status. And he makes that case by saying that one, racial oppression has always been motivated in American history in large part. Not just by social ideas of racial superiority, or inferiority, or cultural conflicts, or what have you. But by economic interests. And he goes through this long history, which talks about many things, but one of the main things he focuses in on is the labor movement. The fact that African Americans unable to access higher education or even primary and secondary education for most of our history were also locked up by segregation in the labor unions that would’ve provided opportunities for them to have achieved skilled and unskilled occupations.
And that was something that shifted as labor policies began to allow for the integration of the unions and then was accelerated as affirmative action motivated universities and corporations alike, to proactively go into black communities, opening up opportunities and recruiting people. And so those things, in addition to what happened to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, sort of created a landscape in which you had an emerging black middle class, as I said a moment ago. And that black middle class gained from those changes. However, you had another series of things that happened wherein through Redlining, through again, I mentioned sort of federal housing policies that basically created a situation in which the FHA at these various programs were building white only, and black only housing projects, black only housing projects tend to be located in urban centers that people came to one because they weren’t able to move into integrated suburbs because of redlining and policies that prohibited private sellers from selling to African Americans as a consequence, or as a condition of buying certain properties.
So, these housing projects are the only places black Americans have to go. But they’re also coming to these places because of industrialization factories, so on and so forth. But as you cross into the 1970s, these major factories in inner cities wind up collapsing or otherwise shipping their stations of production into suburban areas and so forth. Meaning job opportunities are leaving. At the same time higher education, college degrees become necessary to moving up the ranks in corporations. And so as America’s economy becomes more corporatized, you have affirmative action sort of selecting educated black people to rise in the ranks. But this happens at the same time that again, through outsourcing, through immigration, through the leaving of industrial opportunities away from inner-city centers. You have black Americans who’ve bought [inaudible 00:26:56] see the jobs leaving even as they’re coming. So, you’re going from the 50s and into 1960s and into the 70s. You’ve got some black Americans who are finding themselves, climbing the opportunity in our corporations and higher levels of society.
But while they are, those black people who are already poor stay poor. Because you don’t have local economic opportunities, you don’t have a pathway towards getting into college. Because everybody’s not going to benefit from affirmative action. Everybody’s not going to get a scholarship. And if your local school district is already at the bottom of the barrel, which so many of these were and are, then that’s not going to give you a pathway towards getting out of where you live. And so if you are poor and black going into the 70s, you stayed poor and black. And your children would be poor. And that poverty would be a part of what defines their black experience going into the 80s and the 90s, and even the two thousands until now, for so many. Because these basic dynamics that have capped social mobility in American life have not changed.
Now, those dynamics exist for those poor white people too. And so that’s what makes this a class problem that in many respects is universal across color lines and we should treat it that way. But even in saying that, it is important to remember the fact that this mass incarceration phenomenon, this relationship between the police and the African-American community that gets set a flame anew, through the advent of heroin and crack cocaine. And in particular, that also is coming on the heels of a history that’s only five minutes older than that, of racially motivated violence between law enforcement and black Americans, yes, in the south and in rural areas. But also in cities as well, where police were … And I could point to my own Los Angeles in places where within living memory.
I mean, I can talk to people in Watts and South LA, who remember that if you tried to move your family west across Crenshaw Boulevard, you couldn’t do it because of Redlining. And if you try to move your family east into south gate and Linwood across the Alameda corridor, you get beat by the police if you just stepped foot into some of these communities. And there was no official Jim Crow, but nobody thought twice about the fact that this was the way the LAPD operated within those years. Well even as larger social attitudes shift a bit, these phenomenons are stitched right next to each other in what black people are experiencing. So, it’s not as if there’s some magic line that you cross, particularly as you’re looking backwards in the black memory that says that, okay, this is the moment when racism disappeared, but classism or class immobility became worse.
It’s very hard to disentangle these things in terms of how people have actually lived that out. I mean, I certainly believe that law enforcement, which is far less racist now than it’s ever in the history of American life. And there’s a conversation we had about the nuances of that. Because there are a lot of nuances there for better and for worse. But if the point here is for us to understand where many black people are coming from, then we have to understand the racial backdrop to the class dynamic, even if we were going to speak as intelligently and effectively, as we might be able to speak to what I think is a fair description of black and white marginalization in America today as being more primarily a function of class than anything else in the present moment. So, I agree with that distinction, but the history still matters.
When you talk about it as one continuous experiment or experience rather, and being hard to disentangle some things. One of the breaks that I see in terms of some of the critiques is, obviously going back to Frederick Douglas, but even the more, I would say the sharper and something closer to what you’re saying, critiques, let’s say, Langston Hughes, “It was never America for me.” Which is kind of what I’m hearing you say. It still seems like there was something that we had in common and that was the agreement that the American system had produced something remarkable worth wanting to buy into. And that’s what I fear. And I guess coming back to your work with Braver Angels, where I fear that that good-faith conversation about how we can become a more perfect union truly has broken down because you have now people, not just on the fringes, but in mainstream discourse writing at the New York times and working at the highest echelons of the democratic party who don’t believe there’s anything worthwhile to buy into, to participate in.
Even if you think about that, “it was never America for me,” there’s that unspoken in that poem. But I think very real acknowledgment that there is something great about the promise of America. There is something wonderful about the American dream, the opportunities that were provided. And the critique is it is painful that America has not been for black Americans or at least for many black Americans. What it has been, not only to people whose families have been here forever but to immigrants all over the world who have been able to come here and access that American dream. I wonder how we can have productive and good faith dialogue when we don’t even have the baseline of America is a good place, just that there is something good in the American experiment, what America’s striving for. And that what we need to do is try to add more people and make sure that more people have that experience in America, as opposed to critiquing the foundations of what has built this wonderful experience for so many people and peoples in America.
Right. Yeah. Well, indeed. And even Nikole Hannah-Jones, I think, would not say that the words of the Declaration of Independence are bad. I think what she would say is that they’re a lie in so far as they were born out of hypocrisy. And that it is America’s hypocrisy and failure to live up to these words. And the fact that Thomas Jefferson himself was a slave owner and so forth that are more definitive of the American project itself than is the idealism that she purports to put forward in her founding documents and in the rhetoric of so many of us up until now.
Can I just briefly push back on you? I’m not sure that’s how, at least that is not my understanding of how she sees it. And certainly, that’s not the understanding of say some of the seminal writing in the critical race theory branch. You have critiques of liberalism qua liberalism, not just hypocrisy of failing to live up to that standard in the Declaration of Independence. But that kind of neutral standard itself will always result in disparity and oppression. And that, that standard itself must be blown up in order to provide opportunity for people of color let’s say in America. I don’t know that I agree that Nikole Hannah-Jones would say that we were hypocritical in not upholding that promise for all Americans.
Well, I think that the critique there with respect to liberalism would be that liberalism as a system of norms that purports to be a neutral kind of framework for operating in society, and even for operating intellectually, in fact, is something that is a masquerade for a real social program that is meant to perpetuate the racial, the white supremacism, that in fact was always the point behind the American project. So, I agree with you. I agree with you on that. And when I said what I said, I’m pointing specifically to the phrases that all men are born equal with certain inalienable rights. I think that Nikole Hannah-Jones would not take issue with those particular words from Thomas Jefferson as being moral statements. But I think that she would say that they were in a sense sort of I mean, what would you say, distractions or decoys obscuring the fact that this larger program that comes behind it. The Liberal program, if you will, is actually something that presents itself with high-minded humanism, but is meant to solidify and keep institutionalized white supremacy.
So, I think that’s what I think I’m saying here. And so we can look at the critique of liberalism for a second and I think pull some interesting context from it because there are a number of things that are happening here. Let’s jump over to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ of the world. And actually just more broadly speaking, sort of the black middle class, the black, the educated, the intelligence of black America and how it interacts with the academic left and so on and so forth here. Because on the one hand, I think that if you look back over this history that I’ve recounted you can see that there’s a serious way in which the institutional language of American society is distorted at many points to say that, okay we are all made equal. But then you move to the Supreme court and you have this idea of separate but equal.
Which says that, okay, well, legalistically, we can separate the races, but still have them be equal. But the way it actually plays out, in reality, is that people are separated into geographic areas, or we don’t have as much opportunity as everyone else that’s subjected to all the manipulations and terrorism that I just mentioned. And so you look at that and you say, well, wait a second, that’s hypocrisy. Then you have this, so there’s legitimate pain and that kind of background of experience. Then you have this other thing that’s happened where I think that you’ve got a lot of African Americans who’ve achieved social mobility in recent decades.
And who for most of American history, black people have had to sort of, when they have found their way into higher reaches of American society fit into institutional cultures that have been predominated by white people where there’s certain norms established in terms of how we speak, how we conduct ourselves so on and so forth. None of that is objectively bad or anything like that. But now you have a moment where particularly downstream the Black Power Movement, this idea that, yes, black is beautiful, so on and so forth. And I want to celebrate my natural hair. I want to be able to express the black dialect and the way I grew up with it and so forth. You have people wanting to show up in different settings and have them reflect the black culture that they feel has been sort of smothered and pushed down through most of American history.
And so there are basically what I’m saying is middle class and upper/middle-class problems, cultural frictions that are taking place within boards rooms, within universities that wind up translating in some cases to the language of microaggressions, the language of privilege, so on and so forth. And really what a lot of that is, is not to minimize it, but a lot of that is people who are just finding themselves, coming from different places culturally. And because these cultural frictions do take place generically against this larger backdrop of racial oppression, the two are equated. And suddenly if a boardroom policy says that I can’t show up to work with cornrows in my hair or braids or something because that’s against kind of company etiquette or some sort of dress code or something like that, then all of a sudden this clearly ties into the history of a country where I couldn’t have gone into a whites-only restroom, or I couldn’t have gotten a loan from a bank because I’m black. It’s another thing you’re putting on me as a marker of oppression because I’m black.
One thing I’d like to do is disentangle these two things because they’re not the same. While on the other hand, still mentioning it to say that when you look at the critique of liberalism, just top-down and just American institutional society as being defined in every nook and cranny by racial oppression. That’s part of the honest place where some of that is coming from. I mean, there’s the cynical part of it, which is there’s money to be made and followers to be gained by just always pointing to racism. And Booker T. Washington pointed this out generations ago that there are some black people who would never want the race problem to disappear because if it did, they’d be out of a job. That’s perennially true. But this is the kind of thing that makes this sticky and complicated because I can see what some of these folks are seeing when they say that the Liberal project itself is tainted, I guess, by racism through and through.
Because really, they’re just kind of, to a certain degree they’re just equating it with institutional cultures that were not, that for much of their history were actively pushing black people out. And then even when they tried to bring black people in, and this is where you get an Ibram Kendi saying that you’re a racist if you want to push black people out in terms of segregation. But you’re also racist if you want to culturally improve black people and so on and so forth. Then he gives you these different versions of it, where you might say, for some people, it’s like, well how do you win in either direction? But this is where this comes from. All of these different kinds of ways in which black people feel they don’t fit in. That I think has to be understood while also allowing for us to be able to say that, but at the end of the day, even while it is important for us to figure out how to understand and interact with each other culturally, we still have to fight for the value.
We still have to fight for the foundations of the society that genuinely does at least strive to prize merit and character over any other sort of preexisting condition of cultural or ethnic or class identity, ultimately. That we want to move towards a society where people are able to move up through the ranks and the basis of the value that they contribute back to society. And we can have all sorts of conversations about how we make recompense for prior injustices and for how we run our corporations and how we run our institutions to be more inclusive, to be more sensitive, and so forth. But we can’t allow ourselves to get to a place to where identity on its own becomes the thing that is the only sort of capital or coin by which we can advance in society or make decisions as to how we run our society.
That sort of attitude is never going to translate towards a country that is able to maximize freedom and opportunity for everybody. So, we’ve got to be able to do both of these things at the same time. And it is hard to do that because it’s hard to even see where any legitimacy at all comes from in some of these social grievances that people have. Unless you start to get a bit of a peek into just all of the, not just the rivers of oppression, but the tiny little rivulets of social isolation that are traveling through cultural memory right up to the point in which girl sitting next to you in a university classroom, who’s there on an impressive scholarship, refuses to stand for the pledge of allegiance or refuses to salute the flag, because she still in her own mind is having to connect the little marks of social differentiation that she’s experiencing day by day with the stories that her mother has told her and her grandmother and her grandfather has told her, and the things and horrors that she’s read about in history books and so on and so forth.
So, that’s the treacherous terrain that we’re walking on. In a moment when more black people are ascending through some of these, through the institutions of our society than it’s ever been the case before. That’s just the nature of the terrain, the nature of the project, in some sense of defending liberalism in 2021 that I think we will be well advised to take to heart.
What you’re saying, both gives me more understanding into where some folks are coming from, but also in a weird way makes me more pessimistic that it’s ever going to be resolved. Because the idea of sort of cultural memory within families, giving you a particular perspective on things that perhaps even to the point of misunderstanding the people around you. First of all, cultural clash in terms of institutions is not new, every immigrant group has faced, it’s just not the exact same particularities, but every immigrant group has faced it. And usually by the second or third generation that you have people with feet in both worlds who are able to go along in sort of mainstream American culture or corporate culture and also in their home culture. And eventually everything kind of melts together in this American melting pot.
But it doesn’t give me a lot of hope, because I guess I think that even in my own experience in terms of the stories that are told in my family, which are very different, they don’t have anything to do with America. My parents are immigrants, but it’s very, very difficult and it takes a very long time to strain out that perspective that comes from, and much of it’s very valuable. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a barrier to your own advancement. It doesn’t mean that you don’t develop cultural habits that are out of place in terms of responding to people as though, I don’t know, for perhaps … This is not even really particularly my background, but folks who came through Ellis Island, whether they’re Irish escaping from British, Russian or whether they were Jews escaping from pogroms and Russia and Ukraine.
A lot of those cultural behaviors then became detrimental and had to be overcome in America, because they don’t yield the same results. They yield results that are actually actively detrimental to people when they act as though they are living in Ukraine with the threat of pogroms over their head all the time. So, I guess it simultaneously makes me a little more skeptical that we can actually move forward in any way if these kind of cultural hurts are maintained through family culture. It makes it really difficult to imagine how in the quasi near term, we can actually come to any kind of understanding about this project. And that’s really what the American project demands of us. It’s not that we can’t bump along as different strains of the American whole. But the American project really does demand of us that we commit to because we are so diverse, because we come from so many different backgrounds, so many different places, so many different experiences, and we don’t have that like France has.
We don’t have, first of all, an ethnic core in this country in any substantial sense. We never did really, because despite the way that we talk about white people today. We really didn’t have the same kind of ethnic core that France or Germany had. So, we need our civic religion, because it’s what we had in common with each other. That’s what worries me so much about perhaps even an understandable reluctance to adhere to that patriotic conception of the promise of America is that unlike, I think in France or some other places America really desperately needs that for us to be able to live alongside each other, it seems to me.
Right. Look, it’s a fully understandable thing to be worried, potentially pessimistic about. Because I’m not sure any other country has ever, I mean, I’d have to think about it. But I mean, did Rome have a phase like this. Rome never got to be a Liberal democracy and so forth. It had all sorts of different cultures underneath its empire, but it maintained some stability over the time that it did through force and enough of the laissez-faire kind of approach to governance that just basically allowed people to hash it out between themselves, as they all recognize the power of the Roman authority. America’s not supposed to be that way. We’re supposed to have an investment in the idea that we have a right to speak freely. That there’s an opportunity for us to exchange ideas, that ultimately we are individuals who are individuals first and that our allegiance is to a set of ideals.
And yet none of that can ever truly, or at least wholly nullify and shouldn’t necessarily wholly nullify our deep cultural attachments and our historic and cultural memory, not for black people or southerners or anybody else, I think. But here’s where the hope comes in. I believe that while the Civil Rights Movement and the Nonviolent Movement did not fix everything that was institutionally or culturally wrong with America. I believe that the moral message of Martin Luther King Jr not to mention the work of Bayard Rustin and Septima Clark, and John Lewis, the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement and their allies Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and some of the others, so many different colors, genuinely did succeed in moving the heart of Americans, black and white, north and south, rich and poor in a way that made it possible for a person like me to even be born into the world. I mean I’m the son and grandson of white southerners just as I’m the son and grandson of inner-city, African Americans. And I can tell you that there was resistance to interracial marriage.
In my family, there were old attitudes that were challenged by that. But by the time I got old enough everybody who, my grandparents loved me and loved my brother more than anything in the world. The nonviolent movement was based on a spiritual premise. And it’s the absence of a spiritual premise for the democratic experiment and the Liberal project that I think is really the thing that we’re suffering under today. Martin Luther King Jr was greatly inspired by Gandhi. But he referred to the spirit of nonviolence, especially in the early days of the movement as being Christian Love as being the substance of what Christ exemplified in his life and in his death on the cross. King operated under the belief that love is the spiritual value that could effect profound social change. That love and goodwill requires us to speak to the best in one another while having the patience and the endurance to endure the vitriol and hatred from the other side long enough for us to be able to affect the change in the way that other people think and in the way that other people feel.
Now in our modern-day, in our modern politics, people on the left and people on the right have no time for that, because they feel like we should be entitled to the other side recognizing the fact that we are right because we are right. And therefore we shouldn’t have to go through the painstaking work of loving our enemies and dealing with the fact that they’re going to be ignorant. They’re going to be hateful. They’re going to be contemptuous. They’re going to try and hurt us. They’re going to wrong us. And yet we should love them anyway, long enough for us to be able to understand where they’re coming from so we can speak to them in a way that can move them and build coalitions for change by operating in that way. But that is precisely what Dr. King did. In a secular society and in a religious society wherein so much of Christian religious activity in my view has now started to revolve around your prosperity gospel and the politicization of the church and so on and so forth.
The idea that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, gentleness, et cetera. And the conservative traditions that are focused in on prudence, on temperance, on self-control, the teachings of Russell Kirk, the examples of Edmond Burke, John Adams, of the idea that society such as ours can only exist if it’s based on a religious foundation. But in that chiefly, because religion should emphasize the need for virtue in character. It’s not about us having the sharpest debates. It’s not about us having the facts and so forth. It’s really, facts are important of course. I’m not downplaying that. But the answer to our current impasse is summoning the resources of character that make us strong enough to be able to hear where people are coming from, in their pain, in their frustration, to forgive them for their sins, even while we yield no ground in speaking the truth. But finding a way to speak truth with love in a way to where we can reach the human conscience because you know what?
If human nature is not available to being changed, if human nature is not available, is not itself malleable in a way to where it responds to goodwill. If human beings once touched by contempt can never step back from it, then there is no hope for democracy because there was never any hope for humanity. Once we find ourselves in a bitter place, we just stay there. And yet that’s not the story of humanity at the end of the day. I mean, yes, it’s the story of many, many, many, many, many, many human beings. And we can refer to genocides and Holocausts and collectivist oppression. And I see Stalin on your bookshelf. I see Hitler. I see all of that and I acknowledge all of that history. But I think that if you don’t mind me getting a little more religious, I think that guided by the Holy Spirit or however you might want to translate that in secular terminology.
I think that if we can deemphasize just a little bit the idea that having the best arguments is how you reach people and lift up a little bit more, the idea that honestly, and effectively understanding people and signaling your goodwill to them if we can lift up the idea that goodwill is ultimately the way that you reach people and that we should layer our arguments on top of that. If we just try that as a move it. Let’s just try that. Let’s just lean into that a bit. Then we can follow in the example of Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi, and for that matter, goodness gracious, Roger Williams and Billy Graham and others and bringing out the best in our opponents. It’s going to take that spiritual power to save democracy.
And so much of the Liberal project has been aimed, and I’m a bit of a critic of liberalism myself, even small L liberalism has been aimed at pushing out the transcendent basis of human relationships, because as much as I too am here fighting to preserve the foundations of Liberal democracy, true conservative, classical conservatism resists even some of the assumptions of that Liberal tradition in as much as it stems from a starting point that says that mere reason is sufficient for man to govern himself. But without tapping into the deeper spiritual nature of the human creature, even if you’re not religious in a super pious kind of way. I’m not necessarily, kind of am, kind of not.
Then we have sacrificed the tools by which we can cut through contempt. So, that’s where we have to find our hope. And maybe this is a moment that will force us a little bit to reacquaint ourselves with the modes of being in society that allow us to tap into the spiritual power of love and goodwill and virtue, that can allow us to transcend divisions that otherwise are likely to remain intractable until we face the full repercussions of unguided wrath. And so that’s what I’m hoping.
So, I mean, I agree with you that I think until recently religion was another common ground in America. We were not nearly as religiously diverse as we were ethnically. This was a Protestant Christian country for a long time, overwhelmingly. And it was a tolerant Protestant Christian country towards Jews and Muslims and Catholics, actually less to Catholics than to the former two, for a long time. But it strikes me again that it’s very, very difficult to recover. I was actually reading, you mentioned Billy Graham, I was reading some of his talks or speeches or sermons that he would give. And it struck me how much he was talking to a Christian country that had fallen away or is backslid, but not to a non-religious country. I’m an atheist myself as I’ve said multiple times on this podcast, but it really struck me, the audience he was talking to was a very different one.
So, even if they weren’t, as you call it pious or observant Christians, he was calling them to be more that way on a basis, a common basis of religious faith and common … So, I guess maybe that’s where I worry that we won’t be able to have these conversations for very much longer because there obviously does come a point where people can no longer, as you say, step back from contempt. And that tends to be when really bad things happen. And I really do think our discourse is so overwhelmingly contentious, and I don’t see the common basis for us to then step back from it. Because perhaps there in the decline of religion or, but simultaneously a decline of a kind of commitment to the American idea that we discussed before. I think those two tracks were really the two pillars that held up such a diverse groups of peoples that all came together in America.
But I wanted to ask you one more question about culture specifically, because one of the things that we were talking about was feeling “foreign”, not literally foreign in some of these spaces that had previously excluded black Americans. But of course, they weren’t foreign. They might have been excluded those spaces, but what people from other countries … I mean, half of what people from other countries think of as American culture very directly comes from black America. Just picking music. You’re a musician, right? The uniquely American art forms in terms in, within music, mostly come from or at least have their roots in black America. I know there’s a whole history of whether or not people got credit and money for that. But it’s undeniable that American culture itself, even sort of generic mainstream American culture has taken an enormous amount, perhaps even a disproportionate amount of its sort of commonality from the contributions of black Americans.
I wonder how much … There’s this Bill Burr bit that he does, where he was talking about some … He’s obviously he’s making it into a joke, but he’s talking to his black wife about, there’s a documentary about Elvis and she’s said, he’s not [inaudible 01:02:06] appropriation. And they have this back and forth and he says, “Well, why isn’t it cultural appropriation?” It’s obviously a joke, right? Why isn’t cultural appropriation when you fly on a plane? And he says, “I know, I know. Because if black people had the same opportunities as white people, they also would’ve created the plane.” And the end of the joke, not to go on too long here is he’s like, “But then you might not have created the music.”
I wonder if there’s some truth to the idea that oppression and suffering, certainly not a new idea, produces great art and a great cultural product. And whether that itself can become a way of romanticizing your identity as somebody who is oppressed, in whatever form, and whether that itself can be a barrier, whether individually, or if we think about groups of people, whether that can be that sort of romanization of your position. And I don’t think this is at all unique to black people in America. It definitely is part of my background too, the romanization of sort of always being the person who overcomes this and produces something beautiful as a result of that suffering. I mean, how do we balance, and I think this is a very universal question, how do we balance honoring our past, our family past, our culture and the beautiful things that sometimes come out of that while not becoming self-destructive, whether it’s individuals or as citizens?
Right. Yeah. Yeah. Well, music was, I think, a tremendous part of what moved sort of the Civil Rights Moving and provided the backdrop for the cultural shifts in a positive way that happened. I mean, it can cut both ways. If you eliminate the suffering of lives, you don’t have the blues. You don’t really have country music. At least not so much of what’s powerful in country music. And yeah, music can cause us to sort of religiously, and other things, religiously relive the episodes of pain and oppression in our individual and group collective lives. But music is also a bridge by which we can find transcendent connections with one another. Jazz music is, it’s an art form that has brought people together from across every cultural, sort of young racial certainly starting point.
I mean, it’s most explicitly arises out of black tradition in American life. But my father is a white jazz pianist. I should have said that up top. And he’s a conservative-leaning individual from the south who was loved black culture from the very beginning of life. My grandfather, who would not have been directly immersed in black life, nevertheless, sort of started off pioneering this very crossover phenomenon of black music in the mainstream of American music that you kind of, I think alluded to a little bit when you said some people didn’t even get paid. My father was a white record industry executive who did make sure black artists got paid and so forth. Put all that aside, it’s just to say that we need these transcendent vehicles towards connections.
Now, it can’t just be about debate. It’s not even just about conversation. Music, culture art should bring us together. Even as art should also be a vehicle for our being able to communicate our pains and our sufferings so we can be understood. It serves all of these functions. And so I think that as John Kennedy said, I mean artists are naturally sensitive to the injustices of society or should be. But there’s a role for the artist in democracy. And I think that that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that, that pain, the pain wasn’t a good thing, it’s a good thing that it produced the music because that too is part of what we ought to have in our toolkit now for social healing. But I guess the one thing I would say too, is that we’re not going to escape the consequences of the course that we’re already on.
Inez, there’s nothing I can say, that’s going to say that’s going to point a clear path towards our having some version of an American future where somehow or other everybody just drops their arms from the campuses to the school board and the Congress and the culture wars and so on and so forth. Violence has been, and political violence even, it’s been a part of American life just one generation to the next. I mean, it’s flared up more conspicuously in some eras than others. But people used to get beat on the floor of the Senate. That’s part of what set the stage for the civil war in the 60s, was riddled with political assassinations. It’s amazing we don’t have more of that stuff these days. And yet I am confident that ultimately those among us who are willing to love our neighbors and love our enemies.
And you don’t have to be a religious person to do that. And Dr. King said that there are non-believers in the non-violent movement who nevertheless believed that there was power and love and goodwill to affect change in human beings even if they didn’t believe in the religious architecture that King did in articulating that position. I think that we will succeed in preserving the core of Liberal democracy and making progress in our ability to understand each other so as to live with each other across the differences in our cultural expressions and our understandings of history. So that we may preserve American democracy for the next generation and so that America can continue to be and in some ways become perhaps an even greater moral example to the rest of the world. I have faith and I have confidence that the American project will endure to see that mountaintop.
We just have to travel through the valley that we’re in right now. And even that gives us an opportunity, you and me and everybody listening, to be a part of the work of preserving that and advancing that. That can make us feel good about how we spend our lives as we look over our shoulders 10 or 20 years from now when you and I do our 30th podcast about how we came out of it okay. So, that’s my belief.
It’s certainly a nice image on top of that mountain that you’re painting for us. And I hope it comes to pass. Look, great awakenings are very much a part of American history and have definitely changed the country. Maybe you’ve convinced me, perhaps we should think about the Civil Rights era as a type of great awakening within our past. But John Wood junior, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. Where can people find more of your work and participate in what you’re trying to do here?
Well, you can learn more about Braver Angels and become a member if you’re interested in this project at braverangels.org. You can find me on Twitter, @JohnRWoodJr. And of course, I’m host of the John Wood Jr. Show as well as co-host of the Braver Angels podcast. And you can find each of those on YouTube and most of the places where you would get your podcast. And so very happy, very honored to be here with you, Inez. I really appreciate your time.
Well, thank you. And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.