Sunday, September 13, 2009

Absence of Logic

When I was in college, I was required to take a course called "Logic."

I was a teenager from a small town (well, it was small, at the time — it is larger now) in Arkansas. I didn't realize that logic was something that was studied in a class. I thought it was something that was applied as a result of accumulated life experiences, something along the line of "if you go out in the rain and you don't wear a raincoat or use an umbrella, you will get wet."

There is a certain amount of truth in that, but I discovered that there is more to it, a lot more. As the class progressed, and even in the years since I took that class, I came to regard it as the study of the application of absolutes. I know I'm oversimplifying here, but within all the talk of validity and fallacies and empiricism, it still came down to things like this:
  • All A are B.

  • All B are C.

  • If all A are B and all B are C, then all A are C.
The truth of that conclusion depends on the values that are given to A, B and C. For example, if A represents turkeys and B represents birds and C represents the ability to fly, we can argue, logically, that
  • all turkeys are birds, which is true, and

  • all birds can fly, which is not true, then

  • all turkeys can fly, which definitely is not true.
Anyway, I've been thinking about logic today after reading Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times.

Dowd was one of the first to climb aboard the Barack Obama bandwagon. I remember, in 2006, the year before Obama announced his candidacy (when everyone, it seemed, assumed Hillary Clinton would be the 2008 Democratic nominee), Dowd covered an Obama speaking engagement and, with an open microphone nearby, made a comment about the size of his ears. Obama told her that he had been sensitive about the size of his ears since his childhood, when other kids teased him. Dowd replied that she was trying to "toughen you up."

It seems to me that Dowd needed some toughening up as well. But, apparently, she didn't get it because, today, she suggests that racism is at the heart of Obama's problems with enacting his agenda.

"I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer ... had much to do with race. I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids," she writes. "But [Joe] Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president ... convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it."

Dowd concedes that she reached this conclusion based on a word that was never uttered when Wilson shouted "You lie!" during Obama's speech to Congress.

"[F]air or not," she writes, "what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!"

From that, she determined that racism — gasp! — did not disappear when Obama was elected last November.

My goodness, what will she debunk in her next column — the myth of Santa Claus' existence, perhaps?

Well, in fairness to Dowd, a lot of people seemed to think that the election signaled the end of racism in America. I don't know what was behind this logic. Was it because of Obama's gift for public speaking? Was it because he possessed an easy and reassuring smile, an athletic build, a nonthreatening manner? I don't know. But I never bought into the utopian notion. And, now, many people seem to be disappointed that the "post–racial America" has not emerged.

Why is that?

I grew up in the South. I lived through a period of phenomenal change in racial attitudes. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the South of today is different, more enlightened — in many ways — than the South of my childhood so I know that change is possible. When I was growing up, I knew that, one day, it would come to pass that a black man could run for president and the color of his skin would not be a factor.

(And, in fact, Obama's race was rarely mentioned in the general election campaign, but that had a lot to do with the economic meltdown.)

But never for a minute did I believe that the first black president (or the first female president) would be able to overcome generations of apprehension and distrust. It will take a series of such leaders, each building on and expanding the work of those who came before, to accomplish that.

Jackie Robinson would have been quick to tell you that the first of anything is precisely that — the first. Not necessarily the best or the most influential. When Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, he made it possible for others to achieve great things. He made it possible for first Hank Aaron and then Barry Bonds to become the all–time leader in home runs.

When Hattie McDaniel broke the color barrier at the Oscars by winning best supporting actress for her performance as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," she made it possible for other talented black actresses — Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Alfre Woodard, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey — and black actors — Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Paul Winfield, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Don Cheadle, Howard Rollins and Cuba Gooding Jr. — to be nominated.

In the years after McDaniel won her Oscar, most black nominees did not win. But, eventually, some of them did.

Obama is a trailblazer, the first black president. Whether he wins a second term, whether the candidates in his party can succeed without him at the top of the ticket in the midterm elections are the kinds of challenges every first–term president must face. Obama's task is complicated by both the severity of the problems he inherited and the fact that everything he does is evaluated under a different microscope than the one that was used for his predecessors.

Perhaps that was the main lesson I learned when I was growing up — that laws may be changed by a single legislative roll call and the stroke of a pen, but changing attitudes takes time. In some cases, it takes a lot of time.

To believe otherwise simply defies logic.

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