"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
One of the many letters responding to my Salon News column about black racism and denial was from an angry Chicago reader named Alice Huber, who introduced herself as an African-American woman married to a white man.
According to Huber, I was indeed a “bigot,” as columnist Jack White had labeled me, slanderously, in Time magazine. Moreover, I was “the worst kind.” I had earned the sobriquet “racist” by suggesting that blacks might no longer be “oppressed” as a group in America, by questioning whether white racism was the immediate or principal cause of problems afflicting black youth like violence and educational failure.
Almost as damning in Huber’s mind was my claim to solidarity in the struggle for equal rights. “Horowitz says he earned the right to talk to blacks ‘honestly,’” Huber wrote, “because of the ’60s. Personally, I don’t care how many marches he went to, how much money he dropped in a civil rights bucket, how many times he sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with guest celebrities; Horowitz is not black, and he has no right to tell me or any other person of color how to pursue issues pertaining to our communities.”
This attitude is not original with Huber but will be familiar to anyone who has engaged black Americans over issues of race in recent decades. “If you don’t walk in my shoes, you can’t feel my pain.” The conclusion that is supposed to follow from this observation is usually presented as self-evident: “If you can’t feel my pain, you can’t tell me how I should deal with it.”
This was indeed the text of many a political sermon when objections were raised to the “Million Man March” because it was organized and led by the blatant anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
“Don’t tell us what leaders to choose or what marches to join,” was the response of many otherwise sensible black commentators. It was a “black thing.” A matter of community pride. “We’re not listening when white people tell us what to do anymore — we’re not letting you choose our leaders.”
Indeed, marching behind an unpalatable figure like Farrakhan was seen in and of itself as a way of emphasizing black independence.
A similar attitude was apparent during the O.J. Simpson affair, when black leaders showed not the slightest embarrassment at the fact that African-American communities all over the nation, in a demonstration of striking insensitivity, cheered Simpson’s acquittal.
Imagine the reaction of black leaders if white communities had cheered the release of a white defendant accused of murdering his black wife and a black stranger, particularly if the white defendant was confronted by overwhelming circumstantial and DNA evidence, and had a record of beating his black spouse prior to her death.
A triumphal response to the acquittal in such a case would have been taken as evidence of racism. But in the Simpson affair the response of the African-American community was: We don’t care what you think or what you feel. We know what we feel and that is all that matters. If our response is insensitive, so what? We are going to be the judges of what is right or wrong for us, and no one — least of all any white — is going to tell us how to behave.
Imagine if the colors had been reversed!
This cold-hearted calculus is a central theme of what is now generously described as “black separatism.” It is an attitude that is already widespread in the African-American community, and is apparently on the rise.
A recent poll by the NAACP found that over 40 percent of blacks and 50 percent of whites now accept the doctrine of racially separate but equal. This is not terribly surprising, given that most of the “liberal” institutions in our culture have given their blessing to the idea. Whites have their own segregationist impulses, of course, but the license that the black leadership has given to separatism among the educated classes has had a real impact.
Perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of inattention, whites have been willing to go along with what the African-American community wants in these matters, without regard to their own standards of what is appropriate, moral or good.
So, if blacks want to march behind a kook like Farrakhan, fine. If they want racially segregated graduations and racially segregated dormitories and racially specific curricula in our schools, fine. If they want to bring back the segregationist standard of “separate but equal” anywhere in our national life, that must be all right as well.
As we divide along racial lines and increasingly surrender the ability to speak with a communal voice, however, we are losing something far more profound, and that is the fundamental idea of what it means to be American. This is the idea that all men — regardless of race, color or creed — are created equal, and are equal before the community’s law.
The founders did not say “white” men. The modifiers “black” and “white” do not appear in the Constitution. The founders did not say “all Americans are created equal” or all Christians or all Europeans. They said “all” without qualification.
(The fact that they used the common generic term “men” obviously did not mean just the male gender either. The Constitution not only does not specifically exclude women from its Bill of Rights, it does not use the words “male” or “female” at all.)
Not only is the concept of separatism antithetical to the American idea, it undermines the moral ideal that has helped liberate blacks from their former state of oppression. If the white majority could not feel blacks’ pain, they would not have responded as they did to the injustices their ancestors inflicted, which brought many whites inherited material advantages.
It is, of course, not just whites who cannot feel blacks’ pain in the sense implied in the statements above. The fact is, if we are going to be epistemologically precise, nobody can feel anybody else’s pain but their own. This paradox is a timeless theme of Western philosophy going back to Descartes, who believed that the only reality that is certain is the interior knowledge we have of our own feelings and thoughts.
Cogito ergo sum.
But this solipsistic viewpoint, and the relativist perspective that follows, would — if taken to its logical extreme — mean the end of any real possibility that a multiethnic or multicultural society like ours could triumph over the essential anarchy that is the human condition.
How can any morality exist if you have to actually be in another’s shoes to feel their pain? How can we know that slavery is wrong, if we have not been slaves? That discrimination is wrong if we have not been discriminated against?
How can we feel compelled to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, if there is no commonality between us? Yet the very idea of that kinship in our common humanity is what motivated Wilberforce and other Christians to end the slave trade that blacks and Arabs had started. How could they (or we) know or feel that an injustice had been done to others if those others are so alien that we cannot identify with them?
Or take this a step further: How can blacks presume to tell whites what is right or wrong for them — which is after all what the entire civil rights discourse has been about in this country — if being different disqualifies anyone from making such statements? How can blacks appeal to the conscience of whites in seeking to be treated as equals, if the very concept of common humanity that underpins the principle of equality is rejected by them?
The bottom line is this: How can blacks expect justice from whites, if whites cannot expect it from blacks? If one group cannot imagine what it is like to be the other, what is it that they are appealing to in each other when they ask for justice and respect?
“There, but for the grace of God, go I,” is the fundamental ethical intuition. If we cannot imagine ourselves in the place of another, what sympathy can we have for them? What kinship can we feel? How can we regard them as brothers and sisters under the skin?
We can’t. And that is the problem that those who employ the separatist argument must confront.
There is admittedly at least a kernel of truth in the separatist complaint. Life experiences are different and differences can be important. Existential differences undoubtedly form the basis of many intellectual disagreements, and provide the ground of our pluralistic identity. But the basis of our American identity is an injunction to accept these differences in order to overcome them: e pluribus unum. Out of many cultures and many ethnicities, one.
If I show care for you, I probably have the capacity to empathize with your experience and understand who you are. It is your ability to recognize this, and to listen to me as a friend (as well as my ability to listen to you) that forms the basis of our ability to coexist with each other in a democratic framework. If you ignore me and my concerns, on the other hand, you invite a similar response from me.
Taking this a step further, if you show hostility to me I probably am not going to care as much about you as I may have, and I might even be tempted to reciprocate that feeling of hostility. A significant amount of the hostility anyone experiences is often self-induced. The hostility that black separatism projects toward non-blacks is, not surprisingly, a proximate cause of the lack of sympathy that is often returned.
In recent decades, there has been a palpable decline in the sympathy that other Americans feel for the agendas of the civil rights movement. It should be evident that this is directly related to the growth of separatist feelings and ideas in the African-American community, and the perversion of the communal civil rights movement into separatist agendas.
The civil-rights movement Martin Luther King Jr. led was based on the old ethics and the old integrationist philosophy. It was supported by 90 percent majorities in the Congress and the overwhelming majority of the white population.
The same cannot be said for the “civil rights” policies of the current African-American leadership. Racial preferences, which are considered the sine qua non of a civil rights loyalty these days, are rejected by almost as large majorities among non-African-Americans as had supported the original civil rights agenda proposed by King.
Recognizing this fact, African-Americans have to ask themselves whether this is the result of racist attitudes on the part of whites or whether it is a failure of their own leadership to articulate worthy agendas.
If Alice Huber and Jack White want to call someone as committed to civil rights issues as I am a “racist” because I disagree with their assessment of some racial grievances, they must bear responsibility for the decreasing power of the term itself. In fact, the term “racism” has lost a great deal of its sting in recent decades through its abusive use by separatist demagogues.
If White, a prime offender in these matters, had written his slander for the Village Voice or the Amsterdam News, no one would have paid any attention or cared. The reason is that those institutions have so abused the term, by applying it frivolously to political opponents, that few people find their rhetoric credible anymore. It is only the authority of Time that gives White’s slanders their weight. If Time continues to publish racial rants like his, its own credibility will diminish.
Drawing inspiration from the separatist ideas of Malcolm X, the present leaders of the African-American community have squandered the moral capital that Martin Luther King Jr. accumulated, and thereby undermined the civil rights cause they claim to support.
Ask yourself which current African-American civil rights leader has any significant respect among communities that are not black or politically leftist? Certainly not Kweisi Mfume, Julian Bond or Jesse Jackson, whose moral authority among most Americans remains virtually nil.
Under this kind of “leadership” the African-American community is in danger of isolating itself and reviving its own segregation, a somber thought indeed. That is a lesson to ponder, and not only for Alice Huber and Jack White.
David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.More David Horowitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)