Experience We Have Not Yet Had

January 14, 1995|By HAL PIPER

After the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948, the great pundit Walter Lippmann distinguished the work of ''seers and saints'' from that of ''legislators, rulers and statesmen.''

He devised a simple spatial metaphor. Statesmen were oriented ''horizontally. . . . They act in the present, with men as they are, with the knowledge they possess, with what they can now understand, with the mixture of their passions and desires and instincts. . . .

''The insight of the seers, on the contrary, is vertical: They deal, however wide their appeal, with each person potentially, as he might be transformed, renewed and regenerated. And because they appeal to experience men have not yet had, with things that are not at hand and are out of their immediate reach, with the invisible and the unattained, they speak and act, as Gandhi did, obscurely, appealing to the imagination by symbolic evocation and subtle example.''

Martin Luther King, whose memory Americans are celebrating this weekend, was inspired by Gandhi, and perhaps Lippmann's horizontal-vertical metaphor is a good way of understanding King, as well.

King's early career was ''vertical.'' The civil-rights movement's broad appeal was not to political reform but to moral transformation. King opened the possibility of our becoming better than we are. He called upon us to be ''renewed and regenerated.''

It was astonishing how the country responded. Yes, a part of America responded with police dogs and fire hoses, but many more -- many more -- responded with eager hearts. We confessed our sins of racism. We rededicated ourselves to the ''self-evident truth'' expressed in our Declaration of Independence: ''That all men are created equal.''

Some, especially the young, went South to fight Jim Crow hand-to- hand by registering black voters. Some, including the old, linked arms, black and white, and sat-in at lunch counters and amusement parks in their own cities. Some went to jail. As King modestly said, if the law disallows black and white to be brothers, then we must be outlaws and our proper place must be in jail.

But, as e.e. cummings said, ''The hardest fight a man has to fight is to live in a world where every single day someone is trying to make you someone you do not want to be.''

Somebody or some forces began to try to make Martin Luther King a statesman instead of a saint, to have principled positions on the Vietnam war, on the exploitation of garbage collectors, and so on. What good are pie-in-the-sky ideas of human virtue, after all, if they can't be translated into solid, practical gains in human welfare here, in this world?

But these are, in Lippmann's terms, ''horizontal'' considerations. Maybe wages should be raised, or maybe raising wages would lead to more automation, eliminating jobs. Maybe the Vietnam War is immoral, or maybe abandoning Asia to communism is immoral. We all have opinions, often passionately held, but they are opinions, not self-evident morality.

King was losing popularity by the time of his death. But he was not murdered for going ''horizontal.'' The assassin, James Earl Ray, had no particular political ax to grind. He was simply a hater, a man who could not accept King's challenge to rise above his racism.

So powerful was King's ''vertical'' indictment of racist America that it may have set back the fight against racism. At least one might infer that from an observation by Shelby Steele in last week's Newsweek.

The weakness of social policy in the last quarter-century, Mr. Steele suggests, is that it proceeds from the ''crippling shame'' American liberals felt when their eyes were opened to the national disgrace of racial exploitation. Stripped of moral authority, policy makers reacted defensively, granting deference to minority groups as a means of expiating the burden of shame. Mr. Steele thinks these policies have helped neither blacks nor whites.

But things are changing. When Jesse Jackson famously remarked that it dismayed him to worry about whether the footsteps behind him might be those of a black criminal, it signaled a new era of racial truth-telling: not that blacks are more crime-prone, but that we must face the fact that existing social policies, for whatever reasons, are not promoting black welfare.

This is the first step toward a ''horizontal'' view of the problem -- acting ''in the present,'' dealing with ''men as they are.'' Lippman said both vertical and horizontal visions are necessary: ''For it is necessary to govern mankind, and it is necessary to transform men.''

D8 Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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