Ferguson and the liberal future

I took a break from blogging and — knowing I wouldn’t want get back to writing immediately — prepared several evergreen posts to run this week. (I’ll write about a couple of things I found in Toronto next week.) Which is one reason you’ve not see me comment on Ferguson (or Gaza or ISIS) here

But since I tend not to write about current political affairs anyway, I was inclined to keep my own counsel about the killing of Mike Brown and the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri once I returned. What more could I say that many others had said? The (putative) Left was active in social media and print. And often said with a manic parroting, as if to counter and perhaps overwhelm the (putative) Right. I only went to show that Twitter and Facebook — one space-limited; the other limited by algorithm — is poorly suited for the needed discourse. It seems too much like shouting or sniping.

I figured the truth — or a reasonable likeness — would appear in time, and it was the autopsy reports and the appalling behavior of law enforcement and elected officials that signaled that Michael Brown’s death was irregular, unnecessary and suspicious. And that his death unlocked suppressed fear, hardship and resentment among black residents in the city; similar feelings and experiences among others (particularly other black Americans) elsewhere; and heightened concerns about the false-militarization of police forces.

I’m writing this in a particularly cool and formal voice, because I think that’s more respectful, and respect is important. Respect to the dead and the communities can remain even when respect to structures of authority are in tatters. While I expect we will learn more about Michael Brown’s death, I’m not optimistic that his case will have an adequately just outcome. A cool and measured tone, too, because that’s the typical liberal position of discourse. We’re not radicals, but that’s no boast.

American politics have tacked so far to the Right in the last three or four decades that liberals and the liberalish have been cast in the role of the Far Left, a position we neither deserve or can maintain. It seems to me the true Far — or perhaps more aptly, Deep — Left bases its politics out of the experience of deep, usually communal, suffering. Liberals, so far as I’ve seen, are usually separated from this experience by a generation or two. And we can admire the passion of the Deep Left, envious of its moral immediacy, and compelled by the sense of rightness it brings — but we cannot share it’s feeling. It’s out of our experience. (Though some with experiences may also want to hide it. Hidden addiction. Hidden violence. Hidden poverty. Hidden illness. That’s a matter for another time.)

But for most of us in liberal circles, the cares and concerns will be different. Those who need to survive will care about different things than those who have the room to improve.Improvement being that hallmark of religious and political liberalism. But the drive to improve can be burdensome, and if you’re trying to keep body and soul together, improvement is an unaffordable luxury.

The Ferguson affair is a challenge to the liberal experiment. Can we bear to feel helpless? Can we be, and not improve, when appropriate? Can we — should we — be liberal: a moderate, moderating force? Can we bear to say no to those to our Left when we’re bidden to go too far?

Lord, help us. But help the people of Ferguson first; the focus should be on them.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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