OpEd Review: Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance

By Charles Seguin

Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance by Kwame Anthony Appiah

If you’re like me, you already have more summer reading goals than you can possibly finish. Therefore I’m recommending a fairly short OpEd: “Stonewall and the Myth of Self-Deliverance” by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah argues that popular accounts of social change and liberation tend to overemphasize movements of oppressed people. Appiah does not dismiss such movements – they have clearly been important. He argues, however, that the narrative of self-deliverance has come to crowd out other important explanations of social and political change such as altruism from powerful outsiders. Movements of marginalized people need, as Appiah notes, “the help of other people who recognize the struggle for equality as a moral one, universally binding,” and that, “[o]nly those who need no rescuing can pick and choose among their rescuers.”

This is the reason I’m recommending Appiah’s OpEd instead of a book on movements: if you’re reading Mobilizing Ideas, you’ve probably read plenty of accounts of movements and protest, but the long, miserable histories of enduring powerlessness often fall outside the “social movements” category. Histories where attempts at liberation, no matter how valiant, were sporadic, and also violently, mercilessly, and near totally crushed. These histories are the norm, but you can forget that if you read too much about movements. For example, you’re probably familiar with the viral graphic timeline depicting the history of African Americans in the United States as 339 years of slavery, 89 years of segregation, and then a short post-segregation period ending in the present. In the social movements literature there more written about the relatively short period between 1945 and 1970 that witnessed the end of de jure segregation than it has about the long centuries of oppression before it or the various ways de facto segregation and other forms of repression like mass incarceration reasserted themselves in its wake.

It’s often necessary to focus on movements with some minimal degree of success, otherwise there would be very little for us to study. Moreover, if your interest is in movements, it often makes sense to focus on movement actors, rather than outside actors. We also have to be careful, however, that a focus on movements doesn’t lead, as Appiah put it, to a “myth of self-deliverance.” So go read Appiah’s piece, and then maybe pick up a book on a long miserable history of repression.

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