Penn Cage’s Liberalism?

Blood is a hell of a lot thicker than sympathy.

~From The Quiet Game, Greg Iles

Is this what liberalism looks like? Is it a public championing of a cause, but a quiet willingness to retreat if need be? Maybe it is. I don’t know. I’ve often wondered about white people who can so easily explain the struggles of minorities in this country without ever having to experience it themselves. Even when their arguments make sense, I’m left with questions: Are they truly concerned about what justice looks like? How dedicated are they really to the fight against racism and related evils? Does their whiteness automatically grant them distance they will gladly take advantage of when given the chance?

I had questions about Penn Cage when I read the Natchez Burning Trilogy. While his father seemed to consistently risk his life to help his black patients—not that his relationships with black people weren’t complicated—Penn Cage seemed a little less devoted to the cause. He saw problems, maybe even wanted the truth, but if he could save his father without bringing that truth to light, he would. It was only his father’s actions that forced him further into these pursuits that would finally uncover these black Mississippians’ stories.

In The Quiet Game, he made it clear that this unsolved murder of a black man meant nothing to him. If he could liberate his father, that was all that mattered. Now, I certainly don’t expect people to cease being human. I can understand family being your first priority, maybe even your only priority. However, the visual is a little perplexing when, only a few chapters earlier, Penn outlines the reasons Black Americans and Native Americans—although he repeatedly calls them Indians even when challenged—are caught in a never-ending loop of oppression. His argument, with which I vehemently agree is that once you shatter a people’s culture, take them from their land or take their land from them, the process of recovery is virtually impossible. Why then, when faced with the widow and mother of a black man who was murdered and his case buried, is Penn Cage’s almost immediate response to disconnect from any need to pursue justice?

Maybe liberalism isn’t a true lifestyle or philosophy, but simply a public performance that disregards private complications and contradictions. Personally, I’d rather those contradictions take center stage. Maybe if people are honest about what they think and feel, we will have better conversations and finally experience true change.

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