Splintering

Michael Metzger

An African-American friend recently told me he felt we don’t have categories to adequately describe what’s happening in the streets. He’s right. Here’s why.

Long before George Floyd, many blacks didn’t relate to much of the black experience in America. To see why, read Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. Eugene Robinson says Black America has splintered into four subgroups – elites, mainstream, emergent, underclass.

Barack Obama represents elites. The emergent community is mixed-race families and immigrants. The middle class represents the mainstream majority of black Americans. The growing underclass concentrated in the inner cities is what Robinson calls the Abandoned. Divided by economics and culture, these four groups have little in common and little reason to identify with one another. So they’re splintering.

So is the white population. Read Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. America’s white population is splintering between white elites and the white mainstream. Read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and you’ll discover there’s also a white underclass. Many have become the Abandoned, like the black underclass.

Many Abandoned have become the Angry. This stretches back to the 1950s. To see why, read Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He describes how Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater’s conspiracy theories (“catnip for cranks”) created “an arena of uncommonly angry minds.”

The arena’s getting larger. I do un­der­stand the anger and dis­trust of the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity given the his­tory in this coun­try. For most of our his­tory, many of our in­sti­tu­tions were ex­plicitly racist. We see this in our dismal inner-city schools and public housing, monopolies epitomizing institutional racism. Or look at our 70-year-old failed war on drugs has brought intractable violence to poor neighborhoods and is used to justify so many police searches.

But human anger does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). So angry people are unlikely to produce righteous solutions. Jonathan Haidt knows why. His book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, echoes Solomon’s warning: “Do not be excessively righteous, why would you run yourself?” (Eccl. 7:16). Excessively righteous minds are ruinous because they splinter people into polarities. You’re the oppressor, I’m the victim.

Haidt believes that coming together requires a sociocentric model. It places the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals. We don’t need the individualistic model that places individuals at the center of society. But that’s the dominant one today.

Haidt, a liberal, recognizes this. He says the individualistic model dominates liberalism. And “while liberalism has done much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity, it tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital.”

Individualism dominates conservatives as well. They “do a better job of preserving moral capital, but often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”[1]

Herbert Schlossberg says individualism dominates American Christianity. Like Haidt, he roots this in the Enlightenment. To see this, read Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture. The title comes from Hosea 8:4: the Israelites made “idols for their own destruction.” Schlossberg lists six idols based in the Enlightenment and presently splintering the church. He feels they will ultimately bring God’s judgment upon us.

Few American Christians recognize this because idols blind us (Isa.44:9). Most of us are blind to God’s judgment, evident in how Western Christianity has been in a slow but steady decline over the last 200 years. This afflicts all American churches, liberal and conservative.

Two final books. I hear a few Christians say social media is a force for good for what’s happening in the streets. Read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He feared a future when the truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevant information. Then read T. S. Eliot’s The Rock. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

We don’t need more news. We need less news. We need better news. Without it, we’re blind to the many causes of systemic racism. We splinter into sub-groups. Healing will be difficult – but it requires all of us, white and black, to begin reading better books.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2003), 343.

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4 thoughts on “Splintering”

  1. Mike I love you but…the brevity of a blog may be costing you clarity, or my Pooh-sized brain can’t connect like yours. I have problems with this: 1.) You state that anger is coming from the underclass. I disagree. Somebodies from the upper class(es) of one of your descriptions is funded and managed to exploit the underclasses in an effort to drive a ton of fake news into circulation, enough to disrupt not only things that need to change but things that provide lawful stability – and when that happens, change doesn’t happen as it should – it happens without lawful justice. Anecdotal evidence: Lowell MA has a high percentage of black and brown citizens, with lower income, but an unusually high number of service veterans and therefore an extraordinarily high number of Junior ROTC participants in the state’s second largest high school. Lowell is not seeing off the charts radical activity like certain parts of Boston. Let’s just say the adults are in charge and they’re not going to be manipulated by outside agitation. You do a dis-service to the hard working low income population when you attribute radical behavior to them. It’s a smart bet that radical agitation comes from elites with an agenda to use people. 2.) You start throwing labels around about the Enlightenment and individualism without explaining yourself. Then you make an unqualified judgment by calling certain kinds of people blind – fact is Mike you could be blind – but I’m never going to accuse you of that, it wouldn’t be fair of me, I’m not qualified to say that. The statement “I was blind” is the only fair statement that can be made about blindness. 3.) Then you say “Western Christianity has been in a slow but steady decline over the last 200 years. This afflicts all American churches, liberal and conservative.” Bro, who are you to make such a judgment? 200 not 100? 200 not 300? Did you mean Western civilization or Christian faith or Christian leadership or what? I think I know and meet and commune with saints whom Jesus would have produced in 33 AD and they’re displaced by 2,000 years. To choose to make statements like this suggests you know the reasons for your statement and that you have the silver bullet for the salvation of Western Christianity. That’s over-reach my friend and I don’t think Paul or Peter or James or Jude would dare to presume the knowledge of the church like you are doing. I think you gotta scale back.

  2. Those problems I have with your blog being what they are, you are at least trying to address current issues. You say that we see in­sti­tu­tions that are “ex­plicitly racist” in our “dismal inner-city schools and public housing, monopolies epitomizing institutional racism. Or look at our 70-year-old failed war on drugs has brought intractable violence to poor neighborhoods and is used to justify so many police searches.” You have mentioned, with modesty, that do a lot of things to participate in efforts to improve these things. Please don’t stop. But it defies logic to use the words “institutional racism” – it labels a nameless faceless entity that lifts the blame off anyone in particular and gives you no intellectual traction except to join a fray to blame somebody but certainly not yourself, and how dare you accuse or blame a parent of an unruly kid in a dismal inner city school or the black or brown owner of housing or the black or brown resident in housing making life miserable for black or brown co-residents. If I end up homeless should I blame institutional classism or some nebulous entity? About the only sentence where you began to lean into a solution was this: ” [place] the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals.” That’s all you said but you didn’t explain yourself at all. My last gripe – remember I still love you! – is this: I see long, long essays from white people explaining their heart on these matters and honestly, it’s my impression that they’re unfolding a long, long court-statement that reads “I’m guilty because I’m white – but I have a conscious – see from my many words?” Please. You are innocent until proven guilty. If that’s evidence of my individualism then fine, I grant individuals the right to confess and repair their relationships – but that’s all they can do: they’re individuals – not nameless faceless entities whom I can blame because I’m too gutless to own my own individual sins. If any celebrity black or brown person in this agitated time has named their own sin I must not be listening because I have yet to hear one confession. But hey I’m an individualist, I pay attention to those kinds of things.

  3. Mike,
    Thanks for the post. I’m going to turn off the news and go read a book. I hope your other commenters do the same.

  4. Excellent commentary; thanks. [Un]fortunately, your many great references have just vastly increased my summer reading list. Maybe I should be happy so many events have been cancelled so I will have time to read a few more of these!

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