Category Archives: Social Issues
If I see one more posting on my Facebook page of a painting or photograph of Barack Obama in a blue, gray, tan or no suit all looking like an ad out of Gentleman’s Quarterly, I might “phrow up.”
That venue, GQ, would be appropriate. Obama is seen by his fans as the Very Model of a Gentleman. He is dignified, well-spoken, well-dressed, well-mannered, good-looking and neither more nor less intelligent than a gentleman should be. In other words, he is not Donald Trump.
Never mind what kind of president Obama actually was: his capitulation to Wall Street even before he took office and his abandonment of millions of stressed American home-owners, his ratcheting up of a war in Afghanistan even as he was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, his deportation of more than 2.5 million immigrants, his Tuesday drone strikes that killed nine bystanders for every alleged terrorist targeted, his neglect of African Americans, etc. He looked like a president. He spoke like one, better than anyone since John F. Kennedy. He was respected and even loved by other heads of state with the exception of Vladimir Putin. If being the leader of a great nation is about looks and eloquence, he can’t be beat.
Contrast that with the current occupant of the White House. Donald J. Trump is inarticulate to the point of idiocy, unsightly, mean (read his tweets), ignorant of even basic matters any minimally-informed citizen is aware of, vulgar, vain and egomaniacal to a degree someone less well-heeled might be institutionalized for. And that’s leaving out his appalling history of sexual predation (did I mention Obama’s squeaky-clean record on that account at least since his college days?).
How could anyone but someone who is delusional support, never mind be happy to have, someone like Donald Trump for president?
But, leaving aside that both Obama and Trump serve the interests of big money, the difference between them is mainly in style and personality.
Obama is in the mould of the charismatic politician writ large. He’s slicker and smoother than Clinton and Bush Senior, smarter than W and Reagan, but fundamentally the same, a political creature begat from and existing in a political environment. His morality is that of politics, not the world of trade and finance, though he served both. A politician like him may be corrupt, but he knows how to appear not to be and to stop short of behavior which might cost him his job.
Trump is a businessman. His morality is a businessman’s. That’s why he exposes himself so flagrantly to criticism and derision as a public official. In his world, the world of business, it is moral to bribe and return favor for favor. A businessman need not be acting cynically if he does a deal that, from an outsider’s point of view, involves threats and extortion, just as a politician can sincerely believe s/he is acting in the public interest if s/he engages in behavior that involves compromise, horse-trading, pork-barreling and daily lies to the public. The businessman justifies himself on the grounds of “that’s business,” the politician with “that’s how politics works.”
When I was a civil servant I was offered what amounted to an illegal gratuity on two occasions. In neither instance was the person offering the benefit (a free meal, a pair of shoes) aware that she or he was doing anything inappropriate. In the ordinary course of doing my job I had inadvertently made their own job or personal life a little easier. The proper etiquette in their eyes was to show appreciation, and in both cases it would have been out of their own pockets. What amounted to a crime under the law was to them the done, i.e. moral, thing. It would have been wrong, as they saw it, not to respond with a tangible token of their appreciation.
But business morality becomes problematic when it gets transferred to a political environment. Business, certainly big business, is feudal. The king reigns, everyone else takes orders. If he is king, he is by definition always right by the grace of God. Trump is used to that kind of environment and still thinks within it. He hires and fires as if he were sitting in his office in Trump Tower. He doesn’t feel any need to care about the good or bad impression he makes. His object is to win, make the deal, come out on top ahead of the competition. And winning is not just good, it justifies the winner (think war). Business people believe this as sincerely as any cleric does the validity of his or her faith. So do most heads of crime families.
But what Trump-haters I know actually object to is his personal style, not his policies, which are not all that different from the administration’s that preceded his. It’s his lack of “class”that infuriates them. He acts and talks like the sort of people they try avoid having for neighbors. They love Obama because he would not be an embarrassment at their dinner party, would in fact be the making of it. The atrocities and false promises Obama was guilty of don’t enter into the picture. Appearance is what matters. Trump is killing Americans by the thousands with his cuts to the social safety net and his failure to prepare for or deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s not his incompetence or even his lack of common decency that irks Trump-haters. It’s because he represents everything they find distasteful, especially about the lower classes.
In ancient Greece, as in modern Great Britain, manual labor was incompatible with gentility. No Greek who worked with his hands, even if he was the sculptor Phidias, could be considered a gentleman. Likewise, no member of the gentry in England wants their child to marry someone in “trade” (though many have, for the money). A similar snobbery is at work with Trump-haters, though they seem unconscious of it.
My Trump-hater friends’ willingness to embrace Joe Biden, knowing or caring nothing about what he has stood for or is likely to do as president, is the measure of how far they are willing to go to rid themselves of the orange buffoon. To do that they seem willing to suspend not just their judgment but their rationality. I too would like to see the back of Trump, but not to replace him with whatever is at hand and guarantee more of the same with different optics. I’d rather a slob who does the right thing than a gentleman who doesn’t have a clue to what the right thing is or care. Alas, I’m not going to get either.
“All men are dogs.” More than one woman has said that to me over the years. They did so matter-of-factly, almost as a confidence, as if I were somehow not a member of the male sex or were being given the benefit of the doubt as an exception.
At first, I thought by “dogs” they meant low-lifes, bastards. When I realized they meant that when it came to women men cared only about sex I confess I was shocked. For one thing, I guess I had supposed males were better at concealing the deeper intentions beneath their wining and dining and witty conversation. I felt a sense of shame as a man at those words, just as I feel a sense of guilt because I’m “white” and privileged at the expense of those who are not, even if I do nothing overtly to claim that privilege.
Since the first accusations were made against the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the idea that “all men are dogs” seems all but taken for granted, no longer a statement made only among good friends of opposite sexes. A flood of accusations against not just celebrities and politicians but against sports figures, physicians and just about anyone else has been let loose. And those, of course, are just the malefactors in public life. By what factor do you multiply their number to come up with a figure that matches that of those equally guilty among our neighbors and other ordinary males?
For some reason the behavior of Bill Clinton and more recently the indictment of Bill Cosby and all the news stories over the years about frat-party gang rapes, prominent athletes’ sexual assaults and other newsworthy sexual misconduct did not cause a break in the dam of pent-up feminine anger that the accounts of Weinstein’s behavior has. All of a sudden it’s as if every woman alive has a personal reason to assert that “all men are dogs,” except what they are revealing is far worse than what my female friends seemed to be saying when they used those words. And, indeed, just about every woman does have a story to tell of sexual abuse ranging from being groped on public transportation to date rape, if not something worse.
Are all us men really Harvey Weinsteins but just don’t have the power or the opportunity to do what he did? That’s what’s being asserted by some women. If they’re right, if Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss academic who teaches at Oxford University and speaks regularly in public forums as a voice of moderate Islam, a family man – as unthinkable as a rapist as Bill Cosby had seemed back in his days as “America’s father” – if the likes of Ramadan and Cosby turn out to be sexual criminals, is it not perhaps true that all men are indeed dogs – mad dogs?
But if an entire sex is psychopathic does the word have any meaning? If we men are all mad canines, or most of us, is not madness the norm and hence by definition not aberrant?
I have always maintained that Bill Clinton’s behavior as asserted by his accusers over the decades was pathological. The fact that he, like Cosby and Ramadan and the nice pediatrician or clergyman we would no more suspect of being a child molester than we would our own father, comes across as charming, bright and sincere makes it hard to imagine him forcing himself on a woman. But isn’t this where the sexual abuser and the confidence man merge? They both have to gain some measure of trust in order to place their victims in a vulnerable position. You have to have confidence in someone, especially a stranger, before you turn over your life savings to them for safe keeping. You also need to trust someone, or at least want to trust him, before you go to their hotel room, private yacht, examining room, Oval Office or rectory alone and defenseless. Anyone who tricks another human being into placing that kind of trust in him and then robs, rapes or murders her lacks an essential moral sense. Such a person does not feel and think as a normal person feels and thinks.
But, it’s constantly asserted, it’s all about power, by which is meant the ability to exert one’s will on another’s. I don’t deny that, but does that mean virtually all men, all human beings for that matter, will act in a similarly despicable fashion as have the rogues gallery of sexual monsters who have been outed in the last few months? Make me a CEO or head producer or dermatologist or clergyman and I immediately turn into a potential sexual predator? I don’t think so. I think these men, and perhaps some women as well, are sickos to start with. Ambition drives them to positions of power, and that’s when they get their chance to act on their inclinations. But not every German could be turned into a camp guard in a concentration camp, and some members of the SS were excused from the killing of civilians because they could not bring themselves to do so.
Many people can be brought to act in certain situations as they would not otherwise do, but only a minority are capable of truly atrocious behavior. Many of the perpetrators we have been hearing about belong in the first group, fewer to the second. It’s a good idea to distinguish between the two without excusing those who are guilty of less heinous offenses while identifying those who are deranged people masquerading as normal. Not all dogs are the same. Not all dogs are even dogs.
It seems to boil down to this:
One side says, we have a constitutional right, a guaranteed freedom to own firearms. The occasional mass killings that occur are the regrettable price we pay for that freedom.
The other side says, I have a right to privacy, freedom from unconstitutional government surveillance. If that means we are less secure as a result, that is the price we pay for that freedom.
Trade-offs. If you want freedom, you must endure a certain degree of risk. Benjamin Franklin said those who relinquish their freedoms for the sake of greater security will have neither. One side quotes Franklin, the other cites the necessity for prudence, that this is a world more dangerous than Franklin ever dreamed of.
Freedom versus security is not a conflict resolvable by argument. It’s a matter of preference. No other nation I know of asserts as much freedom as does America in our constitution. The British, from whom we claim much of our law and political tradition, certainly does not. You dare not say or publish there what you may here without second thought. In many continental nations you may not deny certain aspects of history. Some of us think such restrictions are excessive, that, in our own case, pulling down statues of Confederate Civil War heroes goes too far. Others say those public displays are an insult to the very reasons that war was fought at such great cost to the nation.
Liberal or Conservative, we tailor our opinions about freedom to our own experiences. I would think some residents of Sandy Hook where so many schoolchildren were slain by a teenager armed with assault weapons might now favor more gun control than they did previously. And if a large-scale terrorist attack like 9/11 were to occur again, plenty of those who refuse to accept the government’s maintaining records of our telephone conversations and online activity would also see things differently.
Asserting freedoms is easy when it’s just a matter of mouthing a political bias. It’s another matter after we’ve watched what can happen as a result of those freedoms. Not to mention the difficulty involved in obtaining the facts with regard to the risks involved. Over the last ten years on average there have been about 56 deaths each year in the US from lawn mower accidents. 29 people died as the result of gun-wielding toddlers. 2 died as a result of Islamic terrorism. But the deadly lawn mower and bloodthirsty toddler don’t get much airtime on the evening news. We pick and choose our monsters, or rather they are chosen for us.
The gun lobby resists attempts to screen potential gun buyers more effectively, a reasonable policy it would seem for at least reducing the number of victims to insane gun owners. But any abridgment of a freedom, they would argue, is an assault on the freedom in principle. Others maintain that any intrusion into our private lives by the government unless sanctioned as necessary by a well-informed judge strikes at the heart of the Fourth Amendment.
Are both sides right? Is neither? Is the issue even resolvable, or is it a perennial source of contention that we must endure as a consequence of the constitution we have and the way we interpret it? The pendulum of freedom seems to swing one way, then the other. The period just before and after we entered the first world war was surely a low ebb for political freedom in this country, when any expression of disagreement with the president’s war propaganda could land you in jail. Other times the interpretation of our constitutional rights was at high tide and seemed permanently guaranteed.
The Supreme Court guarantees racial apartheid in one generation, denounces it in another. In every case the court takes up it’s supposedly the constitution that decides the matter, not the justices’ personal preferences. But members of the Supreme Court are not just men and women, they are political animals. And even if that doesn’t translate into obvious ideological bias, each has her or his own ideas of right and wrong and what’s in the nation’s best interest (or in some cases, his or her own). No definitive, permanent agreed constitution is possible given the fact of human nature, just inevitable argument about what a written document means and how literally it should be taken. Even the oldest religions have altered the content and interpretation of their dogmas over the centuries as the result of changing circumstances and personnel.
As is the case with so much else about democracy, it’s the worst of political systems — except for all the others. At least, it could be the best if we truly participated and could make our voices heard. Loss of representation by our elected bodies for what the majorities of the population want is the true crisis of our time. Assaults on our constitutional liberties are just instances of what such loss of representation can mean.
My latest at Eclectica.org.
Terrorism is a reality, if by “terrorism” we mean an act of violence directed at civilians for a political, social or religious purpose to free one’s land of an oppressive or occupying power, to intimidate or drive away an unwelcome minority, to expel an objectionable religious group.
But terrorism is a tactic, not a goal, and certainly not something that exists on its own. It’s the means by which people with a grievance who don’t have the wherewithal to wage outright war can engage its enemy in a violent way. It’s also the choice of governments when they want to intimidate and demoralize a weak adversary. An F-15 is as much an instrument of terror as is a suicide bomber’s belt of explosives.
Terrorism or “terror,” though, has in the last few decades become more than just a word designating a particular kind of violence. It has taken on a much bigger, substantive meaning, just as “evil” came to mean something that exists on it own like a nation-state or an army. We now take up arms against terrorism in much the same way some people believe they are fighting “evil.” It’s our modern equivalent of the Devil or his agents.
There used to be a phenomenon that was seen and treated in much the same way we deal with terrorism today. It was called witchcraft. From the early fifteen to the mid-seventeenth centuries a large number of women – almost always women – inspired fear in the population of Europe. They were believed to be dealing in matters of the occult, had in fact signed a pact with the Devil and consorted with him regularly, sometimes in mass orgies. Almost anyone could find herself accused of witchcraft for unauthorized healing (such women had preserved a knowledge of beneficial herbs from pre-Christian days), for putting a curse on a neighbor or a neighbor’s child, even for being too ugly…or too pretty.
Kill them all, was the response of the authorities, especially the religious ones, Catholic and Protestant alike, the usual punishment being burning at the stake. A similar response is advocated today for all terrorists by politicians of every stripe and carried out by both liberal and conservative heads of state both here in the US and abroad.
No one knows how many women were killed simply for providing bella donna to ease the pain of someone in pain or for incurring the ire of a jealous neighbor. Such was the fear people had of witchcraft that they allowed the authorities the most extreme measures to deal with it, forgoing what today we would consider any right of due process should they be similarly accused, never mind freedom from religious persecution. Anyone could be denounced as a witch, and no doubt objecting to harsh measures taken against women so designated could make you liable to the same charge. Bishops bragged about how many women they had executed in one day – sometimes hundreds.
This was a fever that went on for two centuries in both northern and southern Europe as well as in the American colonies, Salem, Massachusetts being the most notorious. Ironically, it died out in Spain under the Inquisition before it did in the north, probably because they already had so many heretics and other malefactors to deal with. When it ended, it did so remarkably swiftly in the mid-seventeen hundreds, more or less at the same time the beginnings of modern science was being born. It continues today, though, in many parts of the world – India and Africa, to name two. A woman there can be denounced for having caused the death of someone’s child or other relative through occult means or for just about any other ill fortune that visits someone in her village. And the result is the same: a horrible death, though these days carried out by neighbors rather than by an established religion.
We like to think we have progressed beyond a mentality that believes an ordinary-looking woman can ride a broom at night to have a rendezvous with the Prince of Darkness. But human nature has been remarkably consistent throughout recorded history. Before we cheer on the next drone strike or look the other way when a Muslim neighbor is hauled off to prison without benefit of the law we believe will protect us from such treatment, we should think again. To rephrase words spoken with remorse after the last great witch hunt of our civilization, the Nazi era: If we say nothing when they come for Muslims or undocumented immigrants and torture and imprison them without a public outcry, the witch-hunters may end up coming for us as well.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has come and gone. The “I have a dream” speech was played and replayed as if it were on an MP3 player’s endless loop setting. The more adventurous media aired some of his other, more ecumenical orations in opposition to the Vietnam war or the evils of unleashed capitalism. To the best of my knowledge, no miracles were attributed to Dr. King, but his birthday was celebrated in a fashion very much like that of a Christian saint.
I suspect this kind of memorial would displease him greatly. If he was half the man we make him out to be he would be appalled that the result of his life’s work has come to focus so much on him instead of on what he stood and died for. No doubt he had his weaknesses, possibly even one for public adulation, but he cared too much about the goals he had for his nation to want any serious distraction from them in the way of personality cult or hagiography.
But personality, real and imagined, rather than what they said and did, is what we prefer to focus on in our great social and religious figures. How much of Christianity is devoted to worship of the man – or god-man – Jesus rather than to his words? The itinerant rabbi who may or may not have believed he was the Messiah but preached a precious, perennial message of hope and love with deep Jewish roots going back to the prophet Isaiah was turned into a Greek deity through whom and only through whom we must seek to save ourselves from eternal hellfire. Protestants believe they can achieve this by a deep act of faith accepting a still-living Jesus as their personal savior. Roman Catholics believe they can only do so by obeying the precepts and availing themselves of the sacraments of what they consider the one true church.
There seems to be no cognitive dissonance for either Protestants or Catholics to have a deep and abiding faith in this Jesus and then go and behave in ways that would surely have appalled him. Catholic soldiers can receive what they believe to be the flesh of God into their bodies and then slaughter men, women and children not just with impunity but with divine approbation. Protestants, themselves no slouches when it comes to slaughter, can tease out of the gospels assurance that their material prosperity is promised, indeed guaranteed, by those same gospels.
It’s as if we would rather have the vessel than the contents, rather the man or superman constructed out of our own personal desires and imaginations than deal with the truths he espoused and the imperatives that flow from them. Jesus knew enough about human nature to predict we would react this way when he said that few in any generation would hear his message. Dr. King was perhaps more hopeful, or at least he spoke and acted as if he was, insisting we could find justice in this life if we wanted to. But the message was not the man in either King’s or in Jesus’s case. The message is neither enhanced nor diminished by the virtues or foibles of the messenger, though it’s only human nature to see it as being so. And the message is certainly not identical with the man or woman him/herself, especially when a cult of the person results in distraction from the content of the message.
It does not take a divinity or even a saint to speak truth – if Einstein had been a total reprobate, a moral slug, instead of the compassionate man he was, would his Theory of Relativity be less valid? – but it does take an open mind and an open heart to hear that truth and something more as well to act on it.
But language does not simply write and think for me, it also dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. —Victor Klemperer
That language does our thinking for us is an idea that’s at least 300 years old. But it’s no less true today than it ever was. Of course, what it means is that the words we use to think with already contain the conclusions for the concepts we believe we are examining objectively. We are in effect hemmed in by the fence of the vocabulary which is also the range of our possible ideas, unless we are able and choose to “think outside the box.”
Even a casual reading of authors of other eras than our own, especially of those we don’t place among the great contributers to Western thought, reveals how hidebound they were by the received ideas of their time. Sometimes their naivety is amusing. Our typical reaction to them is, Thank God we have gotten beyond such simplistic notions.
Only, we haven’t. Our own thinking is just as constrained as theirs was, perhaps more so thanks to the influence of mass media. In America we believe we have absolute freedom to think about anything we want in any way we like and then to express those thoughts as publicly as we wish. And that’s true, but we rarely do think anything outside the framework our media and our educations invisibly draw for us. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about race or gay rights or any other issue, but we, most of us, accept the concepts of “race” and “gay” unthinkingly. Even those of us who want to go beyond the confines imposed by those words find it next to impossible to do so and still go on referring to “mixed race” or “bi-racial” children, even if we know the word race has no valid meaning and is entirely a creation of social and economic forces….
My latest in Eclectica:
“We have to stop pretending we live in a post-racial society. We have to start talking about race again—not class—as the determining factor in the lives of both white and non-white Americans. Otherwise, we’re just kidding ourselves.”
I got to know Roberta Harris (not her real name) through the man who occupied the house next door to hers, two of a row of half-dozen narrow half-lot fake-clapboard two-storey homes across the street from the apartment building where I and my wife live. Half a lot in this case amounts to no more than 15 or 20 feet, barely enough for a small living room and entrance hallway in the front half of the first floor, with a long dining room and kitchen behind. Upstairs, which I never visited, were two long narrow bedrooms and bath. In this limited space Roberta lived with her second husband and at least two, perhaps three, grown children. She had previously owned a substantial brick building on the same block consisting of two full-size apartments in which she had raised a total of six offspring, two of whom had died before I met her. That was when she was still employed as an administrator at a local high-rise residence for senior citizens. At the point we became friends, she was retired and confined to a wheelchair after losing a leg to diabetes, but she still enjoyed a good deal of respect from her days as the “mayor of 17th Street.”
Her next-door neighbor, Don Shoon, (not his real name) was a bachelor who had bought his own house back in the early 1970s for $8,000 when a brownstone in nearby Park Slope could still be had for under $50,000 (they sell for as much as $3 million today). He lived in it with his widowed mother until her death in the 1980s. When I met him in the early 1990s, Don was in his mid-50s, a few years younger than Roberta, a short, round, bald, toothless man with a physical appearance totally at odds with his courtly Brooklyn manners (Brooklyn’s the only place I’ve lived where men formally address women as “my dear,” though it sometimes takes “foreigners” a while to realize they are not being familiar) and a supreme confidence in his ability to charm the socks off any female he chose. His formal education had ended 40 years earlier when he was expelled from Brooklyn Automotive for gang activities. He then went to work as a stock boy for a Manhattan publishing house and had recently retired on the promise of a lump-sum pension check. He was “white,” vehemently so, an open admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. Roberta was decidedly not white, an émigrée from the Deep South where she had lived through the last decades of segregation, a woman for whom racism of the kind Don flirted with (partly for dramatic effect, I came to suspect) was more than something to experience via Hollywood or TV.
Two more unlikely friends would be hard to imagine. Yet, there they were, just he and his dog in his little doll house of a home and Roberta, her house literally attached to his, still responsible for two grown sons, one an unemployed man in his mid-20s who had spent time unsuccessfully in the Marines and his younger half-brother, one of two children by her second husband, who was attending a local two-year college…. Read the rest of the article.
“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” -Isaiah, as quoted by Frederick Douglass
On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Rochester Hall, New York. Douglass, of course is himself the preeminent abolitionist, a man who escaped slavery and went on to champion not just the cause of freedom for American slaves but for all people, including the near-slaves of Ireland who received him with great warmth.
The first part of his speech (the full text is available here and is well worth reading to the end) is restrained, even apologetic in tone, though he carefully maintains a wording that places him as an outsider to the festive observances
of the 4th of July. Later in the speech he makes up for his earlier diffidence with a thundering indictment of the American nation, the most famous passage from which is:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
That was then, we might say, this is now. Things have changed.
They have indeed. There was a Civil War in the offing that would cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, most of them what we call “white,” who as the war progressed believed they were fighting as much against slavery as against the secession of the Southern states from the Union.
After the North’s victory in that war there was a period of Reconstruction, barely a decade, during which the former slaves enjoyed something like freedom. But then the North withdrew and left the South again to its own devices which promptly included a new system of social and economic repression of the freed slaves that was almost as beneficial to their former masters as was chattel slavery. That was the beginning as well of Jim Crow, the de facto apartheid system under which Southerners of African ancestry lived until the latter part of the 20th century.
What kind of speech would Frederick Douglass make today if he could come back and give one? Early on in the talk he gave in Rochester he speaks of the youthfulness of the American nation, how it is easier for a young nation to make changes than it is for one that has been doing things the same way for many centuries. He lauds the Founding Fathers for the principles they espoused: love of liberty, putting country before self, bravery. He calls upon America to make good use of those virtues and end the abominable practice of slavery, though it’s clear by his words that he sees a nation whose citizens would rather celebrate the greatness of their ancestors once a year than emulate that greatness in the present.
The last time I checked there was still no major museum to the atrocity of American slavery or the genocide of the American Indian. Our righteous emotions are reserved for foreign travesties committed by foreigners, not by God-fearing Americans. Our sins go unacknowledged, our glories loudly celebrated.
But there is a school of thought that would say Douglass was too generous in his depiction of the motives of the revolutionaries of 1776. The scholar Gerald Horne is one such. Professor Horne’s research (The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States) argues the American Revolution was fought in large part to avoid the abolition of slavery toward which Britain was moving. The end of slavery would have meant a major economic adjustment for the colonies. The fact that slavery was in fact expanded after independence, just as it had been expanded earlier after it was deregulated by the British crown, taking it out of the hands of the King and placing it in those of the entrepreneurial class, makes this argument seem all the more plausible.
A similar argument has been made by other historians who maintain that the British when they made treaties with the Indians did so more or less in good faith, while the colonists never intended to honor those treaties and waged a revolutionary war largely to free themselves from the restraints placed upon them by the crown from pushing Indian tribes further and further west, in the process destroying their civilizations, not to mention the slaughters that occurred when they resisted displacement.
Those two motives — removal of restraint by the mother country on further westward expansion and forestalling Britain’s declaring slavery illegal — seem to me sufficient in themselves to explain the Revolution without bringing in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Among the long list of grievances brought against the crown in the Declaration is the following:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
It takes a certain cheek to write words like that after the way Europeans had treated the indigenous peoples for the previous two centuries.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out the colonists had fought against the French settlers in America in the so-called French and Indian War, 1754-1763, the American version of the Seven Years War in Europe. During this war some of the Indians who fought on the French side did indeed torture and massacre British captives, something Mr. Jefferson & Co. chose not to forget. But the outcome of the war was that France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, and French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (including New Orleans) was ceded to its ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Britain. This opened up vast new territories which the colonists saw as their manifest destiny to populate with their kind, the indigenous people on that land being mere obstructions to that God-given purpose.
There is no mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence and only a political one in the later Constitution which allowed the South to count 3/5’s of its slave population as citizens for the purpose of gaining more representation in Congress than they would otherwise have been entitled to. The very silence of the Founders on
the subject of slavery in their official documents, though, speaks loudly. A nation economically dependent on a system of chattel slavery was an embarrassment to everything those high-minded men claimed to stand for in their fine words about all men being created equal. And, as Douglass points out, then and in his own day there was no question but that the master class knew the humans they owned and worked like animals were human beings. In the early days of settlement as well they recognized the native people’s humanity, depended on their knowledge and know-how for their own very existence. Later, when the settlers had the upper hand and had demoralized the Indians they regarded those peoples with contempt.
There’s nothing uniquely American about our refusal to face up to our national disgraces, the results of which continue to plague tens of millions of our fellow citizens as well as the descendants of those indigenous peoples we exiled and slaughtered. Turkey has yet to acknowledge its genocide of the million Armenians slaughtered in 1919. Japan refuses to take responsibility for their own massacres in China and elsewhere. The Allied Powers of the second world war prefer not to talk about the fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities, which caused more civilian deaths than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If hypocrisy is an indication of a bad conscience, we have a bad conscience of epic proportions. There’s no reason why we could not celebrate the independence of this nation without leaving out the moral and practical work which, more than two centuries later, still needs to be attended to. A true celebration of the Fourth would include a bill of grievances that is still outstanding, starting with a factual account of how our nation was cobbled together out of the land of other peoples, and not just Indians. One third of the United States was taken by force from Mexico, though to what extent Mexico itself had a legitimate right to “own” that land I’ll leave to a Mexican to determine. The consequences of several long centuries of slavery and then the slightly more subtle forms of repression and abuse that followed must also be dealt with if we are ever to be morally whole as Frederick Douglass hoped we would be.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. We will celebrate the 4th as we always do, with fireworks and hot dogs, no more thinking of the nation’s unfinished business than a child does. We have in effect decided we have done enough. We have other fish to fry — “terrorists” to kill or torture, foreign “enemies” to contain or punish.
The American empire, like all others, will fall eventually, and not all it stood for will be seen as hypocrisy and violence. Wouldn’t it be nice if before that day of judgment arrives we could add to the list of things we did well the setting right of the outstanding moral obligations bequeathed to us by those same sons of the revolution we make so much of on this July 4th? We are only a century and a half older than we were when Douglass held out the hope that a nation as young as the United States could still mend its ways.
Or are we like the drunk who would rather have another drink to forget what he hasn’t the will to face and overcome? Perhaps we are not young after all, not high-minded, and perhaps never were. Someone said a hypocrite is salvageable because he at least acknowledges virtue even though he chooses vice. Beneath our self-inflicted national amnesia there is a broad reservoir of decency in our people not shared by most of its elected officials and other elite. If that decency were to be mobilized and expressed, not even the powers-that-be could resist it and we could claim in good faith and with a clear conscience to be the nation we like to believe ourselves to be.
Easily the most accessed post on this blog over the past year has been “BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)!” Most of the hits have come by way of Google, enough so that the link there to this blog posting shows up on the first or second search page, depending on what wording you use. I suspect these searches are students trolling for material to use in term papers. Even so, if they actually read the posting they may be exposed to a different take on the novel, expressed as mock outrage: that Huckleberry Finn should be banned not because it’s use of an offensive word but because it preaches moral and social sedition. And, who knows? They might actually start thinking for themselves.
I wrote this piece before the new edition of the novel came out in which the word “nigger” has been changed to “slave.” The N-word, as it is now known, is problematic and certainly controversial. But one thing it is not is out of use. I hear it spoken all the time, and not just spoken by African Americans. White kids refer to each other as “nigger,” with no offense or even racial reference intended. African Americans refer to each other using the word in a benign, even affectionate way. I’ve even heard one person use it to refer to his automobile: “The nigger wouldn’t start!” And, of course, and all too frequently, people use it as an insult or as a slur.
The difference between those who take offense at its use and those who use the word freely and without any offense intended seems largely to be one of generation. Two African American friends of mine of a certain age both bristle at the reference to the word, while their children’s generation use it blithely as if it meant nothing more objectionable than “guy” or “dude.”
But the point of my article is that getting into a wax about the N-word misses the real social and political bombs in Huckleberry Finn: Huck’s deliberate and well-thought-out choice to violate his conscience and help the slave Jim escape, thus willingly damning himself to hell by doing what he clearly recognizes is the wrong decision; and an episode in the novel that denigrates the character of the army, any army. Unless I am the first person to notice these two flagrant assaults on traditional morality, the fuss about the N-word can almost seem like an attempt to divert attention away from more serious issues within the book.
But I am neither original nor are the folk upset with the use of the N-word in the book that thoughtful. Objecting to the N-word is an easy way to look and feel morally upright without having to spend precious time or calories (the brain uses 30% of what we eat) on anything more than recycling someone else’s thoughts. Never mind what I said above about the contradictory ways the word is expressed and received by people in the same family. What about the way it was used in the South during the antebellum period in which the novel is set? What did it mean to the people who spoke it then in that place? Could Twain have used some other word without sacrificing verisimilitude? Was he too dense or too uncaring to do so?
There are lots of things wrong with this novel plot-wise and in other ways. Great novels of the past are rife with faults, largely caused by authors’ laziness, bad taste and carelessness, as V.S. Pritchett points out in his essay on Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Those books are nevertheless great works of art. More recent novels by comparison, well-crafted and meticulously edited, are flawless as literary artifacts but rarely rise above the mediocre as literature. I suspect Twain gave serious thought to what he was doing when he let Huck Finn and the other characters speak the words real people used. About that he was not careless or lazy. Nor was he tasteless. And banning words, like banning books, is not a good idea. Nor is it effective except to make readers, especially young readers — those delicate souls the banners are trying to protect — eager to look up the naughty word for themselves.
Meanwhile, I suggest you read or reread the novel (it wasn’t until my third reading that I saw the bombshells I mentioned above, so color me dim), in the original. And, then, “discuss.”
(For my thoughts on the issue of African American exclusion from the economic and social mainstream of American life — largely due to policies put in place by so-called liberal 20th-century administrations — I invite you to have a look at: https://thewriterstreehut.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/hands-up-why-we-all-cant-breathe/