“We’ll deal with it later” just isn’t cutting it.
It is not every day that a political writer condemns a single word, much less a three-letter, monosyllabic word. But, amazingly, the National Review‘s Kevin D. Williamson recently vilified the word “now,” which he calls the “the eternal cry of the infantile.” He reminds his readers that “now” is “the least conservative word in the English language” and then criticizes the seemingly benign title of Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! for perpetuating the devastating “now” phenomenon afoot. In so doing, Williamson extends a long line of fervid “anti-now” National Review authors like William F. Buckley, who proudly asserted that his magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
First of all, for such a marked worldview, National Review writers are surprisingly hesitant to apply their doctrine across the board. Although Williamson broadly admits that people on his side are not totally immune to the “now” pathology, National Review writers have rarely been ones to castigate vigilant “End Abortion Now!” protestors for failing to consider the possible adverse consequences of ending abortion so quickly. Nor do they often criticize the trigger-happy war criminals who impetuously launched a miserably planned war in Iraq. And when Williamson boldly declares that the United States should “abolish the corporate tax”— that is, “put it at 0.00 percent”— he forgets to mention that he must be advocating a gradual implementation of that change.
But more important than the National Review‘s demonstrable inconsistencies is the fact that the anti-“now” standard was silly from the outset, almost too silly for me to believe that Williamson actually accepts it categorically. In the real world, who wouldn’t immediately implement a necessary and moral solution to an ongoing problem? As people of all political affiliations should agree, to delay much needed change is to endorse a flawed status quo.
While bashing President Obama for adopting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now” ethic, Williamson doesn’t tell us what he thinks of King and the “equality now” fanatics whom the National Review‘s writers and followers bitterly condemned in the 1950s and 1960s. At the top of the Lincoln Memorial, to the chagrin of many so-called “conservatives,” King famously affirmed the need “to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
In the 1950s, as decisions like Brown v. Board desegregated American society, the crusade against “Integration Now” was well underway. The National Review, when it supported integration at all, was far more partial to integration later—integration in a few years perhaps, or twenty, or a hundred. National Review editorialists blithely contended in 1957 that white racism might not be defensible forever but was appropriate “for the time being” because white people were “the advanced race” at that point. In 1965, the National Review‘s Will Herberg followed that up with a searing condemnation of King’s “rabble-rousing demagoguery.” Playing the thoughtful moderate, Herberg granted that King’s devoutly integrationist followers had the “best intentions” but were nonetheless teaching “anarchy and chaos by word and deed” and were “the guilty ones” in the violence unfolding in places like Los Angeles.
Again, Herberg was no klansman. He was a Jewish theologian who claimed to respect King’s desired ends but nonetheless rejected the civil rights protestors’ agitation for immediate change. In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King thoughtfully urged skepticism towards this “moderate” type who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”
General imperviousness to “progress now” also defined President Reagan’s relationship with apartheid South Africa. In its constructive engagement with the terroristic government of PW Botha, an unrepentant human rights violator and apologist for apartheid, the Reagan administration subordinated the issue of segregation in order for members of the oppressive apartheid apparatus to feel ‘comfortable’ with the United States amidst the Cold War. “Let this be the new beginning of mutual trust and confidence between the United States and South Africa,” Secretary of State Alexander Haig boldly announced in 1981, “old friends… who are getting together again.” With support flowing from the National Review, President Reagan vetoed sanctions against apartheid South Africa in 1986 and saw his veto overturned by Congress, placing the American president squarely on the wrong side of history.
“Not now” endured as a dependable mantra for those acquiescing to a whole host of human rights abuses in the 1990s as well. Whether it was the ongoing Indonesian slaughter in East Timor, or the American support for rivaling parties in the Congo, or the US government’s material aid for the Turkish government’s onslaught against innocent Kurds, or the Bahraini government’s horrific repression of its Shiite population, there were always those in our country who casually stood by as the clock ticked, day after day, agreeing that American support for tyranny was “bad” but simply not bad enough to address right now. As a result, the Indonesian military used American-supplied weaponry to kill thousands of innocent people in East Timor by the time the Indonesian occupation ended; the Turks summarily extirpated entire Kurdish communities with American support; the Bahraini government brutalized innocent Shiites with the casual nod of the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations; and the death toll in the Congo increased rapidly and has skyrocketed into the millions since the 1990s. “Not now,” so many pundits insinuated, “We’ll deal with it later.”
Of course, for people being tortured and murdered right now, promises of change “later” mean literally nothing. If your ship is sinking on a Monday, a rescue boat arriving on Saturday is useless to you. We should demand change right now because problems exist right now.
There is no dearth of social ills demanding and allowing for immediate and free individual action. Those of us with blood well-suited for it can donate blood to reduce present shortages. We can sign up to be organ donors today, even if our organs will not be used for awhile. We can donate our time, energy, and skills to those who require tutoring, shelter, or help moving. We can check in on family and friends and cheer up the despondent with a joke. And we can learn about religious fanaticism, militarization, climate change, and other large-scale social ailments that require the thoughtful concern, consideration, and action of people right now. As Hillel the Elder asked: if not now, when?
Photo credit: Mark Faviell/flickr