history, politics, race

The Wallace Clarification

The news these days is the sort that inspires a lot of confusion, and when there’s confusion, there is no shortage of arm-waving, all-of-a-sudden experts buzzing around. You know what I mean: the street-corner authority: the pedestrian who sees a house on fire or a car accident, and then when anyone asks, “Hey, what’s going on?”, he’s the one who answers like he knows it all.

Every political talk show, dinner party chatter, phone call home makes at least glancing reference to the Economic Crisis. Inevitably, someone says, “You know, I still just don’t get.” And inevitably one person will say, “Well, here’s how it happened.” If you’re really lucky, you’ll be at dinner and two or three people will all vie for the resident expert crown and they’ll get into it full force. Pretty soon, your nice dinner has been hijacked by Hank and Neel and Ben, and and the best resolution is the simplest. More wine!

Before September 2008, the casual authority opined on terrorism or global warming, possibly both. Before 2001, they waxed on the New Economy (and the Dot-Com Bubble). Or, if you were really lucky, the perennial favorite: quantum physics. Possibly all of those. In the novel Making History, Stephen Fry alluded to the armchair experts who could recite ego-stroking theories they’d memorized from pop physics books. In the novel White Noise, Don DeLillo includes a scene in which a family begins to talk about theoretical physics and pretty much gets it all wrong:

Steffie said in a small voice, “How cold is space?”

We all waited once more. Then Heinrich said, “It depends on how high you go. The higher you go, the colder it gets.”

“Wait a minute,” Babette said. “The higher you go, the closer you get to the sun. So the warmer it gets.”

“What makes you think the sun is high?”

“How can the sun be low? You have to look up to see the sun.”

“What about at night?” he said.

“It’s on the other side of the earth. But people still look up.”

“The whole point of Sir Albert Einstein,” he said, “is how can the sun be up if you’re standing on the sun?”

I wonder what Sir Albert would make of the state of today’s world.

There’s a smaller tempest of interpretation occurring in the politics of the day in regard to some comments of Congressman John Lewis, in which he brought up the specter of George Wallace and the McCain-Palin rallies.

I have to confess, comically, that I was very confused about George Wallace when I was younger. I’d heard that he was a terrible racist. But then the only George Wallace I’d ever seen was the black comedian, who I thought was hilarious, and is currently playing the Flamingo in Vegas. And so when you’re hearing about these guys, starting in junior high or so, it all gets a little mixed up.

But it turns out that I’m not the only one confused about George Wallace. Luckily, we have Russ Rymer, a great journalist of race in America (and, quite often, of science).

On Friday, Russ published an op-ed in the Times with his explanation of the George Wallace comparison. It’s fun to read, and informative, and, at the climax, cinematic. Up front, Russ’s clarification: “The context of Mr. Lewis’s critique is not as has been presented: a saint of the civil rights movement likening a decorated war hero to an infamous racist. Rather, it was a collegial (if rough) caution from one brother to another, about a third, politicians all.”

I don’t want to steal Russ’s thunder, so take a look.


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