Civil Rights: A Most Righteous Hangover – by Ashok Panikkar

How Outrageous Successes of the Civil Rights Movement Weakened Minorities
and Destroyed Liberal Society  

The Nineteen Sixties promised a new chapter in US history, with the election of a young charismatic President, John F. Kennedy. However, the perfect storm of the Vietnam War, multiple assassinations (JFK, RFK, MLK, MX), the Cuban missile crisis, and continued segregation in the South, turned it into an extremely turbulent decade. Taken together, the failures of the Reconstruction (1865–77), Brown v Board of Education (1954), and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, shattered America’s self-image as “The City Upon A Hill”, destroyed faith in the political system, and forced the nation to question its foundational assumptions.  

Stepping into this historic moment, the Civil Rights Movement chalked up a list of impressive victories including desegregation of interstate travel, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965- ensuring that everyone, regardless of race, gender, color, or ethnicity, was granted equal rights. Additionally, the Johnson administration introduced Affirmative Action policies that provided opportunities and preferences to African Americans and women in hiring, higher education, and the awarding of government contracts. The Civil Rights Movement was the single most successful non-violent movement in history (other than, possibly, Gandhi’s movement for Indian Independence).

Coming of age in the India of the Seventies, my own aesthetics, philosophy, and politics were formed by the soaring rhetoric of MLK, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ginsberg, and the unbridled chutzpah of James Simon Kunen’s Strawberry Statement. It took me a few more decades to question some of the assumptions of that era. The American Civil Rights Movement set the tone for protest movements around the world, allowing marginalized groups to hope that coordinated protest and civil disobedience could transform their lives. People started believing that if only they asserted themselves (“stand up and be counted,” “speak truth to power”), “the establishment” would be vanquished, and “oppressive paradigms” destroyed. Globalization popularized Western lifestyles, ideals, and values, fueling the growth of multi-national companies and international NGOs. Flush with funds these organizations increased their lobbying, created a culture of activism, and radicalized people, especially the youth.   

Over just a few decades, the nature of democratic politics and the relationships between stakeholders changed. Most importantly, the language and tactics of protest, resistance, and revolution shattered the tenuous agreement between the governing classes and ordinary people in democracies. Where once different groups were seen as co-creators who accepted that progress in society required complex dialogue, debate and negotiation, now they became antagonists fighting for control of resources- and the soul of the nation. Life in democracies now became an unending war between the proponents of (“oppressive”) continuity and (“revolutionary”) change, setting conservatives against liberals, and progressives against everyone else. 

This article is not in praise of the Civil Rights Movement—its exceptional success is praise enough. My concern is the (dangerous) lessons we have absorbed from the movement. Just as no good deed goes unpunished, every success sows the seeds for a catastrophic failure. The bigger the success, the more devastating the subsequent collapse. 

Conditions for American Transformation

Mythologizing this era has prevented us from (a) reflecting upon deeper reasons for its success, (b) inquiring into its impact on democratic politics, and (c) recognizing how it weakened the foundations of Western society. My yearslong study and work on democracy and intergroup conflict have helped me recognize just how easily the Civil Rights Movement could have fizzled out—or even triggered a civil war. That it succeeded to the extent it did was, I now believe, because of a set of wholly propitious conditions:

  • Black Migration. The migration of Black people to the North, during and after WW1, for work and to escape the racism of the South, created a talented cadre of black politicians who could fight for their interests. 
  • Non-violent Leadership. The non-violent approach of great leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made the movement seem less threatening to the white population than it might have otherwise been. 
  • Mass Media. Television brought the injustices perpetuated on African Americans into every living room, tarnishing American self-image as a beacon of democracy. In addition, moral and strategic compulsions forced US leaders to give equal rights to minorities.  
  • Economic and Military Hegemony. Americans assumed that the size of their economic pie would increase infinitely, and their military would remain unchallenged. This allowed elites to share freedoms, rights and prosperity without sacrificing their own share.    
  • White Confidence: White people and their values drove the economy, military, morality, and culture. Framing of civil rights as ‘good versus evil’, forced them to acknowledge their own hypocrisy and start living up to their own values.

Fortune Favors the Bold (Until it Doesn’t)

This is not to suggest that without aggressive protest the Civil Rights movement would have been as successful, or that dominant groups would have willingly conceded ground. Historically, power struggles are a zero-sum game, where losers sacrifice not just power but often their lives. Unusually the American elite ruled a nation that had been established as a democratic republic, and their self-image was inseparable from a moral system that epitomized the values of the Transformational Triad (Protestant Reformation, European Enlightenment, and The Industrial Revolution): equality, liberty, justice, and tolerance. The protests and legal, political battles of this movement took place in a domestic and global context where the Western elite were uniquely secure. This gave them confidence (albeit under duress) to release their grip on power. 

They soon realized that living up to their best values wouldn’t put their power and privilege at risk. 

Even so, the Movement, while well-intentioned and successful in the main, wasn’t sustainable. The fight to extend voting and welfare rights, and end segregation had been inspired by the inequalities and deprivations in an era of unparalleled American prosperity. The post war prosperity was possible because of America’s expanding economy and global manufacturing dominance. As wages increased to cope with inflation, they started losing out to low wage countries, forcing them to seek out cheaper labor- first within the country and then outside in Mexico, China and elsewhere. The diminishing of American military, economic, political, social, and cultural confidence has made it (a) difficult for the state to acquiesce to civil society’s increasing demands, and (b) even less likely that the elite would agree to surrender any more privileges.  

Oblivious to changing conditions aggressive activists and civil society have continued to push for radical change—economic, political, social, and cultural. Instead of developing creative strategies that would be appropriate to the changed climate, they seem to have persuaded themselves that old tactics, pursued even more vigorously, would ensure that “the arc of history” would bend towards justice.   

Here are some reasons why this aggressive approach to ‘social’ justice should be of concern to all who have a vested interest in human rights and freedoms. 

  1. The rhetoric of “struggle,” sets up minorities with false expectations of what is possible- leading them to ignore smaller, more sustainable gains. 
  2. When minorities normalize protest as the primary vehicle for progress and change, dominant groups no longer see dialogue, negotiation, or even democracy as useful. 
  3. Antagonizing the dominant group is unwise since their support is vital for minorities to thrive or even survive. Moreover, it decreases social cohesion, which in turn jeopardizes the safety of the weak and the marginalized.  
  4. Mass movements gain followers by raising passions, flattening complex issues, and polarizing society. An emotionally charged environment makes it difficult for people to exercise reason and dialogue- which are vital for democratic survival.  
  5. When dominant groups create mass movements, minorities are threatened and silenced. When minority-driven movements cause civic upheaval, the dominant group is persuaded that democracy is too messy and not worth the investment. 
  6. When enemies of open societies (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia etc.), support Western NGOs, fund marches in Western cities and provide talking points for emotionally driven protestors, democracies are destabilized. 
  7. Authoritarian nations rule by fear and don’t tolerate dissent, only confident and trusting societies allow it. Management of dissent in democracies takes up enormous resources which might have been better used elsewhere (education, health, infrastructure, defense). 

In the recent past political campaigns and civic movements such as BLM, MeToo, Defund-Police, and the Pro-Palestine movements have been unwittingly manipulated by those wishing to destabilize western democracies. Democratic states and civil societies are engaged in a constant struggle to balance progress and justice with the need for societal harmony and national security.  The mythologizing of the Civil Rights Movement makes it very difficult for liberals and progressives to accept limits to the tactics of protest and resistance. So persuaded are they about the moral righteousness of their cause(s), that seem determined to push ahead with their almost mystical belief in ‘overturning’ the establishment and radically ‘transforming’ paradigms. A deeper appreciation of history (and knowledge of how systems work) might still temper their enthusiasm. Revolution is fun but for the cleanup at the end.      

Ashok Panikkar

4 thoughts on “Civil Rights: A Most Righteous Hangover – by Ashok Panikkar”

  1. This complex and in some places incoherent argument fails to recognize the impact that the failures of the American political system and its government had on the demise of the politics that made the civil rights movement possible. The system/government part of society simply could not shoot straight in the 60s and 70s. The most dramatic failure was in Vietnam which was a shattering defeat for the nation, not simply for the military. Had we not lost that war the trajectory of the next decades would have been quite different. But with the loss of the war came loss of confidence in ourselves as a people capable of doing great things.

    1. Thank you for reading my piece and for taking the time to comment on it, John.

      To begin with, it would help if you could tell me which parts of my argument are incomprehensible. I apologize for any lack of clarity and will try to make it easier to understand, if possible.

      Reading your comment, I’m wondering if we might be looking at two different things:
      1. You may be focused on the dysfunction of the American government and society in the 60s and 70s and the loss of the Vietnam war- which as you rightly say resulted in a loss of national confidence.
      It so happens that I agree with you on this and believe, as you do, that if the US had not lost the war the next few decades would have been different.

      2. I am, however, focusing on something a little different:
      (a) America’s overwhelming power and prosperity (relative to the rest of the world)- after WW2- despite the internal dysfunction, and losses in Vietnam and Korea.
      (b) The confidence of the American ruling and dominant classes who (when confronted from below with demands for equality, and a greater share in the nation’s prosperity and power) were in a unique position to concede some of them. They were able to do because of two reasons:
      (i) The national pie (despite the dysfunction) was evidently getting bigger and sharing it with the others would not affect their prosperity.
      (ii) They were proud of the nation’s founding principles and liberal democracy. This allowed them to, when challenged (by people like MLK) attempt to live up to its ideals and values.

      Again, it is my case that both (1&2) are true. Notwithstanding the debacle of the Vietnam war, the conditions that I speak of in #2, allowed for the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s to succeed.

      The main thesis of my article is that these conditions no longer exist. The US is no longer as prosperous and powerful, and the nation’s dominant groups are no longer confident of retaining their own status and privileges, leave alone share it with others. This means that the 21st century version of the Civil Rights Movement, which is driven by concerns of Social Justice and Diversity, Equity, Equity is bound to fail.

      Thanks again,

  2. Thank you, Julian.

    The corruption is all encompassing right now- and I see no levers that we can move to shift the system. Alas, I am also not sure that I have any ‘chemotherapy’ for this disease. My efforts are but a feeble attempt to alert those who love their open and free societies that we have very little time to change our course. The first solution is to stop doing the things that are killing us- medicines can come later.

  3. A thoughtful man’s journey inevitably will take him down unexpected paths. Ashok’s keen insights about western democracy’s demise, naturally find hostile resistance, so much so that he may end up totally cancelled by the now corrupted system he once championed and cherished. The very nature of the chronic symptoms he vigorously describes in this and his other articles, as democracy’s cancer, are immune from the chemotherapy he is attempting to administer.

    Like a voice in the wilderness, this courageous prophet of democracy, has sounded the alarm. Will the truth in his voice penetrate the unhinged relativism and intoxicating self-righteousness blinding the progressive system?

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