Trayvon, Shelbe Steele, The Civil-Rights Movement, Democracy, And Social Capital

Not that our society has ever been perfect at developing social capital, but I think we need to reflect on where we are going. I started thinking about this yesterday after reading the editorial “The Decline of the Civil-Rights Establishment.” Shelbe Steele, author of the book “White Guilt,” argues that black leaders “weren’t outraged by the injustice of the Zimmerman verdict, but by the disregard of their own authority.” Steele states in his article, “When you have grown used to American institutions being so intimidated by the prospect of black wrath that they invent mushy ideas like diversity and inclusiveness simply to escape the wrath, then the crisp reading of the law that the Zimmerman jury displayed comes as a shock.” In this article Steele is not complimentary to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. He states, “Why did the civil-rights leadership use its greatly depleted moral authority to support Trayvon Martin?” He answers his question with this comment, “The civil-rights leadership rallied to Trayvon’s cause (and not to the cause of those hundreds of balck kids slain in America’s inner cities this very year) to keep alive a certain cultural truth that is the sole source of the leadership’s dwindling power.” He states that this leadership can tolerate black on black violence, but they cannot tolerate the loss of a racist America. Steele’s implication is that the old civil rights movement needs to maintain racism to keep its power and position in society.

I do not feel that I have the right to say if Steele is right or not, but I can say that our nation is changing. Some of the changes are good, but some I think we need to be concerned with.

Niall Ferguson discusses what he calls the “Great Degeneration,” by describing the downfall of Western social systems. In his book he discusses Democracy, Capitalism, the Rule of Law, and lastly Social Capital. The last topic is where I want to focus.

At one point in time our nation was a nation of joiners. We joined community groups to make a difference. We rallied around causes, and we joined organizations that were attempting to make a difference in society, and we gave. Today those organizations have dwindling:

  • Attendance at public meetings, such as town halls and school affairs, down 35%
  • Service organizations – down 42%
  • Service on a social committee – down 39%
  • Average membership rate for thirty-two national chapter based associations – down almost 50%
  • Member ship rates for bowling leagues – down 73% (from the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam)

We still give money, Billions of dollars go to various charities, but our physical participation is diminishing.

Theda Skocpol, in a 2003 study entitled “Diminished Democracy,” argued that organizations like the Elks, the Moose, the Rotarians, and the Lions – “which did so much to bring together Americans of different income groups and classes – are in decline in the United States.” Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, argues “that the breakdown of both religious and secular associational life in working-class communities is one of the key drivers of social immobility and widening inequality in the United States today.” Both of these individuals are attempting to demonstrate the changing involvement of people in social causes.

As I have been writing I have to stop and think where am I going with this?

My discussion has taken me from Trayvon Martin, to the civil-rights movement, to the Lions club. What is my point? It is easy to give an afternoon to walk in a protest, but it is completely different to commit to a life long goal. We are becoming a nation that is dependent upon government to make things right, instead of getting involved in our communities and making a difference. I think this is problematic.

Maybe Steele is wrong, maybe Sharpton and Jackson are thinking about our changing society and are fearful of relying on government to keep things in check? I don’t know. But one thing I do know the more we move away from public dialog and civic participation, allowing politicians to make law that supposedly creates a civil society, the more freedom we give up.

A vibrant Democracy is one that the people are engaged and involved. Alexis de Tocheville, in his book Democracy in America, described the America he observed in the early 1800’s. He describes a group of people “who have taken advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.” He continued, “The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it.” This social authority is our political leaders.

By relying on big government to create laws, rather than collectively creating social capital, we are abdicating the “collective power of individuals,” and giving it to dysfunctional politicians.

This should concern us all!

And that is my thought for the day!


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