Yesterday, my husband pulled out one of my favorite albums from youth, Bob Dylan’s Slow Train. Like Dylan, sometimes I feel so “low down and disgusted” because I don’t know what’s happening to people around me. It’s rather incredible how many things have changed both internally and externally since I was sixteen, but it may not be so incredible how many things have remained the same. When I first heard Dylan’s line “The enemy I see wears the cloak of decency” I knew intimately what he meant. Young people tend to; that’s why they rebel against decency. They understand that there’s too often hypocrisy hiding underneath, and if not hypocrisy, then complacency. Decent people may not say one thing and do the opposite, but they are too often content to do nothing at all.
And, honestly, although I try to be a neutral party until I can make a rational judgement, I know it’s foolish to trust people according to their outer appearance or their nice words. So I, like many others, pit my desire for neutrality against my essential lack of trust. What will people do when they get down to the nitty-gritty — not what will they philosophically or theoretically do, or have the intention of doing — but what will they actually do? Right action begins with right thoughts, of course, but right thoughts don’t always translate into right action. And then, there are those odd people who dwell on anger and even hatred and who do what is right in the moment without right thoughts because of a deeper encoded layer of honor.
What I’m trying to say is this: talk is cheap, even when it springs from devout contemplation of rightness in the conscious mind.
This post was originally inspired by the odd convergence of one of my favorite Dylan songs and an article a friend posted on Facebook: I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People. This friend admonished others to just read it [presumably in spite of the title]; that the article is good right up to the end. So I did. It’s a classic nonfiction memoir, in which the author writes from her experience and the experience of family members and reflects on her current reality. The title gives a good hint at what the article is primarily about: the unknown intentions of people who appear to be “good”.
It would be a simple thing for many of us white people to have a negative reaction to the author’s words. In fact, I could see the reactionary tone in some of the comments. White people can’t win either way! Or, conversely, the gag-inducing humble (sorry, but it does make me gag when people pretend to grovel): How can we be better white people? My takeaway was a little different, however. I came away thinking about Dylan’s song and how “the enemy I see is cloaked in decency.” It’s not that white people can’t win for trying; it’s that our mainstream society is blanketed in decency and proper progressive talk points. And who can say what is lying underneath it? There are no clear dividing lines in decent neighborhoods filled with decent people.
Dylan, in his song, was acting out the part of the visionary, or the seer who can peer through the cloak of deception. But that isn’t a role we all play because it isn’t an easy one. It takes precious time, which most of us don’t have a lot of, and a willingness to face the truth, no matter how ugly.
There is probably more to be said, but I don’t know that I can today. I think I should let this rest until tomorrow at the earliest. There are parts of the recent debacles of justice that really bother me. And they have everything to do with the cloak of decency.