- Hamas’ Gaza-last strategy Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
- “Race/Ethnicity, Religious Involvement, and Domestic Violence” (pdf) Christopher Ellison, et al, VAW
- Love in the ruins of the sexual revolution Josh Herring, Law & Liberty
- The logistical state Chris Shaw, Libertarian Ideal
- Foucault, Max Weber, and Hayek Eric Schliesser, Digressions & Impressions
- It’s been a bad week in America Andrew J Cohen, Prosocial Libertarians
- Summer 2008 redux? David Glasner, Uneasy Money
- Meanwhile, in Iraq…
- “To the extent that states figure into national histories, they often appear as one-dimensional foils for national state-builders or vehicles for parochialism and bigotry.” (pdf)
- How black America fell out of love with Africa Alden Young, Noema
- The contradictions of classical liberalism Gene Callahan, Modern Age
- Revisiting the collapse of the Soviet Union Christopher Caldwell, American Affairs
How This Paris Boy Became an American Scholar (Plus a Disquisition on Language Learning)
Here is another escapist story. If the autobiographical genre annoys you, I don’t blame you and don’t read this story.
First of all, don’t wince or grimace. I just said “scholar,” not “eminent scholar,” nor “famous scholar,” not even “respected scholar.” It’s just a descriptive term; the word describes much of what I did for a living. Period.
I grew up on the unglamorous east side of Paris where visitors never go, or didn’t then. My family’s apartment was in a government subsidized project. It was really a project but a good one, well built, well maintained, with central heating and full bathrooms, but no elevators. Graffiti had not been invented yet. I shared a room with two brothers. There was only enough space for one small desk, an important detail in my story.
My family was not poor but it definitely wasn’t rich. Everyone was unimaginably poor in the forties and fifties by the standard of 2022 anyway but, fortunately, we didn’t know what 2022 would be like. France was in a period of economic expansion for much of the time I was growing up. We could almost feel the tide that was going to raise our boats too. We did not have phone service but we never went hungry; we had good medical care. (I did realize though until the French Navy clothed me that I had been cold every winter of my childhood and youth. It was normal.)
And then, there were the schools. It seems to me, seventy years later, that the elementary schools did a more than adequate job. I am guessing that almost all of us came out reading, writing and doing a little more than basic math (including trigonometry). Elementary education was adequate and more for people who were going, in their vast majority, to rise but modestly in the social scale of the time. I seem to recall that half my fellow students quit school at fourteen to become apprentices. The rest -including my three sibling – went on to a variety of schools, many of them more or less vocational. Not me.
When I was twelve, a miracle happened in my family. I passed an exam that got me accepted in a respected, prestigious academic school in central Paris (Lycée Condorcet). It was a combined junior high and high school It’s hard to explain to Americans but it was a public school; there was no tuition. It was a feeder school for the best French universities. Many famous people were alumni. Few children from my part of Paris made it there. (In fact, I never met one in six years.)
As you might guess, there was a social class aspect to this respectability although it was a free public school. I would guess that as many as two thirds of the students there came from bourgeois families, as conventionally defined. Their parents were top managers in big corporations, attorneys for same, or they owned one, or they were doctors, and high-level engineers. (I know quite a bit about those bourgeois kids because around age 14, I began going to parties at their apartments where I discovered wall-to-wall carpeting.) There was even a sprinkling of foreign kids whose parents were diplomats. Some of the bourgeois kids came from private elementary schools; many more came from public schools that were just better then mine that, perhaps, maintained higher standards. Their home environment was probably more propitious to studying in ways that I still don’t understand well. After all my own home environment favored and rewarded studying hard and getting good grades and even “prizes” at the end of the year.* (But maybe, they each had their own desk where they could stack up their books.)
So, at twelve, I had pretty much the run of Paris by subway because the school was far from where I lived. It was good for my maturation. Classes began at 8:30 five days a week, they ended at 11:30 then, began again at 1 to finish at 4:30 four days a week . We had lunch at school. On Wednesday, or Thursday, there was no class at all. There was school on Saturday but only in the morning. On full school days, I chose to stay after class at study hall until 6 or 6:30. That added up to eight hours or more inside the walls of the school, a long time for a young boy.
The study hall was a large single room with ten rows of desks. It served without distinction students from age 12 to 18. You could do pretty much what you wanted in study hall except that you were not allowed to make noise because it might disturb others who were actually studying. So, no talking allowed. For three, or maybe four years, study hall was nearly always proctored by the same man. He was apparently qualified to teach English but he was not part of the faculty. In that elite school, it was not enough to be formally and practically qualified, you had to carry prestige or, at least, the seed of prestige in your attaché case. I think most or all of my instructors had achieved a scholarly degree pretty close to a PhD (“l’aggréegation”). My Spanish professor did not have one but he was a ranking Spanish Republican refugee. My first math instructor possessed that degree and he was also a well published author of fiction. My second geography professor was an expert on American science fiction. And so on.
The study hall proctor was the nicest of men whose function put him in a difficult position: Sometimes, he had to discipline students. As far as I now, he had only one punishment. He made you copy the three main forms of English irregular verbs: “go, went, gone.” How many verbs you had to copy depended on the depravity of your transgression: twenty verbs, fifty verbs, uncommonly, one hundred verbs. After so many hours at school and, perhaps, I was hungry, had low blood sugar, I did not maintain the silence discipline very well. In the course of several years, I must have copied five times three hundred irregular English verbs. Somehow, I did not mind. A part of my brain was smarter than I. (Happens all the time if you pay attention.)
After my second year in that good school, my general performance began to slip. I am not sure exactly how it started but I became gradually disengaged from several disciplines. I often cut the corresponding classes. As befits an elite institution, my school operated on the basis of a loose, ill-defined honor system. It was such that my parents were never made aware of my delinquency. And, no, puberty did not particularly trouble me except for the fact that it took me a while to figure out whether girls liked boys who looked a lot like them or rather, hairy rough types with broad shoulders and even some acne. In those years, there were events and developments in my nuclear family that bothered me and distracted me and these may have played a role in my long and slow fall from academic grace. It started with math which became too difficult for me and on which I just gave up. Then, physics and then, chemistry also dropped off my radar. No one said anything, in part because I was earning the equivalent of straight As in French, later in Spanish and, of course, in English. I was also doing quite well in History and in Geography. I was thus an excellent student to half the instructors; that was good enough for the other half.
Things went from bad to worse. It did not help that when I was seventeen, I had a hot hot girlfriend. She had many assets. One of those was that both her parents weren’t home one day of the week. That was a day when physics and chemistry were scheduled. Of course, I cut school on that day! What would you have me do? In those times, there was a high school graduation exam that also served as an admission ticket to most universities. The exam was then difficult and deliberately selective. I went to take the exam like a sheep to the slaughter. I failed, of course but with excellent grades in History, in French, in Spanish and… in English. I repeated a senior class in high school with the same predictable outcome. In the France of then, it was like social death. I had not been apprenticed to a pork butcher, or attended a graphics high school like my older brother and my younger brother. I had nothing. I was no one.
By some concourse of circumstances right out of a reverse morality tale, about the same time, I received a scholarship to spend one year in high school in California. It was a merit scholarship. I hightailed it to the US. There, I did quite well. I spoke English badly but I understood everything. If I had not been blinded by the humility surprisingly common among young men, I would have noticed that I wrote English better than many of my American classmates. In California, I noticed with interest the wonderful American institution of the community college where just about anyone can go in and the good ones come out to transfer to a real university. So, yes, in case you are counting, I spent three years total as a senior in high school. Nothing to brag about, really!
Fast forward: I am twenty-one and about to be released from the French Navy into which I had been drafted. I have no skills, no particular revealed talent, no diploma, no nothing. I apply for a visa to go and study in a California junior college near where I had spent a year. Long story short: At the community college, I discover I am a late bloomer. I do well, better than well, in fact. I win a full tuition scholarship to Stanford where I transfer as a junior. I do well there too. After graduating in four years flat, I go back to France for a year to work in a very good job, in urban planning. There, I decide I want to study some more. I apply to graduate school, also at Stanford. I get accepted with full tuition fellowship and a stipend.
I performed well in graduate school also, in large part because I could write well. I earned a PhD. A fairly normal and quite respectable academic career followed. (Go ahead, Google me.) The fact that I wrote well and easily had everything to do with the good course of my academic research. My writing made me attractive to others with research skills far superior to mine. They recruited me eagerly throughout. I became a member of star research teams without striving, or even trying. I was very productive with the other guys. I might not have been otherwise. Hard to tell: I only have one single authored scholarly article. It has had a very long shelf life but still, that’s only one.
What does this have to do with my French high school study hall proctor, you might ask at this point? Well, it does; bear with me. Remember that nearly all of my scholarly career took place in a language other than my native tongue. As an immigrant in polyglot and multicultural California, I became well aware of the struggles of diverse categories of immigrants to operate in a foreign language: English. A teacher for thirty years, I also witnessed at close range the struggle of hundreds of US-born college students to learn languages other than English, mostly Spanish and French. I also saw several of my fellow professors try and fail. As a matter of fact, other than teachers of modern languages, I only ever met one (1) Anglo reared in the US who had mastered a foreign language. (The language instructors I encountered were all competent.)
I had many occasions to ask myself: What do the students who fail to learn a language (beyond knowing how to ask for more beer), the monolingual Mexican immigrants who earn half of what they otherwise would, and my few colleagues who tried in vain, have in common? The answer came to me a little at a time and then, it became blindingly clear: They failed to clamber over the wall of irregular verbs conjugations. It’s simple: Those who do go on to learn everything else; who who don’t just give up, mostly forever.
But now, a digression. I am completely convinced that, contrary to an idea that is very widespread in the USA, living in the country of the language one studies is not a necessary precondition to learning it nor is it a miracle cure for monolingualism. If it were, immigrants would learn quickly the
language of the country where they live. In fact, few if any learn it without formal schooling. And, I hate to tell you, college parents, but your children’s expensive “study abroad” stays almost never bear that particular kind of fruit. (they may be useful in other respects.) Your children never come back “fluent in _____,” whatever “fluent” means. How do I know? I interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds of them (over thirty years) in the weeks and months following their return. None of them could ever say, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have gone.” None! (“Si j’avais su que cela allait être comme ça, je n’y serais pas allé.” “Si hubiera sabido que hubiera sido asi, no hubiera ido.”) None!
The main, all-important reason people fail to learn a foreign language is that they give up when the time comes to master more than handful of irregular verbs, or even earlier. Here are two natural and fully representative examples; you may notice that they are about verbs everyone uses in everyday life:
Spanish: Verb to go: Ir
Present: Yo voy
El va (You formal address: Usted va)
Vosotros vais (You, plural)
Ellos van (Ustedes van)
Simple past: Yo fuí
El fue (Usted fue) Watch the spelling!
Ellos fueron (Usted fueron)
French: Verb to be: Être
Present Je suis
Well, you get the idea!
In summary: There is no articulate sentence without a verb. Verbs have to be conjugated, person by person (I, you, he). In European languages, there are tenses to indicate timing (I am, I was, I will be). If you don’t control both person and tense you can often still communicate but it will be at the level of a five-year-old: “I go yesterday.” That is neither encouraging nor rewarding for adults. It’s also quite limiting.
Now, in my dotage, I think back at my early life. If my study hall proctor in Paris had been a less mild man, he would have imposed a less fruitful punishment; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been more disciplined, he wouldn’t have had occasion to punish me the way he did; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If I had been worse, he would have had me expelled from study hall; I wouldn’t be an American scholar. If the boys room in our small apartment in Paris had been larger, I might have had my own desk; I would then probably not have attended study hall; I wouldn’t then be an American scholar. Go figure!
Sometimes though, I can’t help but feel some regret. I am pretty sure I would have made a really good pork butcher. I think I would have been an inspired designer of esoteric pâtés, for example. That’s if my parents had not blindly pushed me toward a classical education. That’s if that study hall proctor had not meddled in my destiny!
© Jacques Delacroix 2022
* In the 1940s, at the end of each school year, the best students in each class of 30-40, were ranked. Those best students, perhaps 1st to 6, st –received a prize in a formal ceremony everyone else hated. The prizes were well chosen books. Books were still expensive then. Once, I received the French translation of Gulliver’s Travels. (Just bragging.)
A Bloody Hawaiian Paradise
I have been away from this blog because I was busy with politics on Facebook (my bad). Also, I have been struggling to produce a new book. It’s a collection of stories:”Astonishing Women.” Wish me luck. Below is another story not in that collection. It’s an escapist story, of course. Don’t we need one, right now?
I am moving idly on the surface looking for I don’t know what. I am in the ocean, at the bottom of a cliff close to my house near Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. At that time, I have under my belt (weight belt, of course) ten years of intense diving in the cold, murky waters of California, and a little less in the warm, clear waters of Mexico. Here is an important detail: I am a free diver; I go down holding my breath. Scuba (based compressed air tanks) is kind of wimpy and it involves too much equipment that will distract you from your real goal. The real goal is catching something good to eat, of course. I don’t want to sound like I am bragging but OK, I don’t really care so, here goes: I have become such a proficient spear fisherman that I rely entirely on a sling, a long, light aluminum handle with a steel trident at one end and a strong rubber loop at the other. It’s a far cry from a spear gun. The sling requires that you get real close to the prey.
On that day, I am just exploring. I am new to Hawaii and the spot I have chosen is not promising by conventional standards. It’s just close to the house I am renting. There is plenty of sea life in the fairly opaque water but nothing to get excited about. I notice a surfer in the water. I can tell from afar that he is a brown skinned native Hawaiian. Soon, he is gliding by me shouting something. I did not catch what he said but I guessed that he was yelling at me to get the f… out of his way. He told me later, on land, that he had come by to re-assure me, to tell me that there was a big shark in the water nearby but that he had talked to the shark and asked him to leave me alone. He also said he knew I would be fine because his family had the same shark as a clan totem, and thus, he had influence. When he told me all this, I don’t know if he was in earnest or he he was putting me on. I have to admit that with the constant flux and re-flux of naive continentals, haoles, on his island, the temptation must have been great. Whatever the case, I forgive him and the fact is that I was not bothered by any shark.
I swim away in another direction and soon find myself in a patch of clear water where I can see the bottom. I dive down to explore some scree of fallen rocks, the kind of formation that provides hiding places for sea creatures. Sure enough, on the third dive, I make it to the bottom and look under a rock where a large gray pointy mouth with beady eyes on both sides faces me. It’s so big that at first, I don’t recognize what it is. And yes, I know, I am beginning to sound like a typical fisherman; so be it! Back on the surface, I catch my breath and my train of thought and I realize there is a conger eel in that hole, a big one. I have caught conger in France before but the size of that tropical specimen has thrown me off. I arm the rubber band on my spear, drop down head first and shoot the fish right in the mouth. It convulses wildly but, in the process gets out of its hole. I swim up vigorously holding the spear straight up with the eel writhing wildly on it. Fortunately, the water depth is modest and the shore close. I land on a grassy edge of the water and there, I am afraid, put the poor conger out of its misery with a large rock.
More fish story: The largest conger eels ever caught according to Google weighed 300lbs; it was taken by net. Mine wasn’t even close to that because I was able to half-carry it, half-drag it up the cliff to where my pick-up truck was parked. I observed that it was a little longer than I was tall, maybe six feet. I guessed that its weight may have approximated mine, 180 lbs at the time, or perhaps less. Anyway, I drive the few minutes to my house. I had just rented it a couple of days before. A newcomer to Hawaii, I had resisted the temptation of the small, expensive condos lining the lagoon that borders the south face of the small city of Hilo. I am on a teaching sting, not well paid enough for such luxury and anyway, my adventurer’s heart has told me there must be more interesting housing arrangements. Guided by a local young man, a student, I ended up renting a big house in a plantation village ten miles from downtown. My house had been used to shelter cane cutters in the days when there were still many cane cutters. Then, the sugar industry quickly mechanized and the houses became useless almost overnight. An adventurous Filipino immigrant had bought one as a rental. My new home has six bedrooms arranged along a central corridor, a big kitchen, and a toilet. The shower is in a separate hut outside. My house is one of twelve or so disposed around an oval dirt path surrounding a grassy area where kids play baseball.
I have not yet met any of the adults in the settlement but like everywhere, children have the run of outside and of much of inside. As soon as I park in front of my house, a swarm of kids surrounds my truck. When they spot the big conger eel in the back, there are many shouts, most in their dialect I do not understand. Two ten-year-old run to another house all excited. Shortly afterwards, an old lady comes out of the same house carrying a hatchet. She crosses the grass to my truck and without a word, without even looking at me, opens the back-gate and instructs several children to carry the big fish next to a log stump nearby. When this is done she proceeds to hack the fish, my fish, into a dozen or so chunks. The chunk she leaves for me is plenty enough. The kids all run home carrying big pieces of my big fish in recycled vegetable plastic bags the old lady has brought along. I am so stupefied, I have no idea what to say. Yet, since I am already somewhat of a social scientist at the time, I recognize that I have witnessed a demo of what Karl Marx has called “primitive communism.” OK, I know, I know, there isn’t much to this story so far but wait, I am going somewhere with it.
The conger eel’s flesh is dense and a little flaky. It tastes very good. It’s reminiscent of lobster if you don’t overcook it. I eat a big piece parboiled for dinner, hot, with rice. I have more, cold, with pineapple from the backyard, for lunch the next day. (I had to resort to pineapple because I couldn’t remember how to prepare from scratch the mayonnaise the cold conger was entitled to by French right.)
The next day is a Friday. Around six, two men in their late twenties knock at my door. One is the normal mixed brownish color common on the Big Island. The other has flaming blond hair and green eyes. (He is a descendant of the many Portuguese imported from the Azores to cut cane, after the Chinese and the Japanese and before the current Filipino immigration. Detour on Hawaii’s demographic history: The island’s planters kept bringing in people from different parts of the world for the arduous job of cutting cane. Every group’s children snubbed the cane fields and the planter had to try again with another group.) Both guys say hello. One begins talking to me in a dialect I do not understand well. At any rate, I gather that they have come to invite me to go hunting the next day. They will pick me up at 5 am sharp. I know it’s “sharp” because the guy keeps hitting his wristwatch with his index finger. I do not know anything about hunting in Hawaii but I am game pretty much for any game.
In the morning, I am up and waiting with my first cup of coffee and a piece of bread inside of me. I am wearing strong shoes and a thick shirt, with jeans. I am holding the shotgun I have brought to Hawaii on the off-chance I will be able to hunt birds with my gifted Labrador. A big SUV rolls by and stops. The guy from the day before comes out. He barely says “Hi”, and mentions to me to return the shotgun inside the house. He hands me instead a nice, visibly well oiled rifle. He spends all of two minutes making sure that I know how to load and unload the gun and how to put on the safety. We get into the car where two other guys are waiting, including Blondie. They all say “Hi.” We take off toward the top of the volcano. Twenty minutes later, I still don’t know what I am going hunting for. So, I ask and it turns out one of the others speaks standard English. “Goat” he says, “feral goat.” I am a man of immense culture so, I remember that “feral” designates animals once domesticated that have returned to the wild. But, “goats”? To me, they are kind of nice animals living near a farm from which one gets goat cheese. I am perplexed but I say nothing.
After thirty minutes or so, we stop and get out. There are two dogs with us. We walk and stop, walk and stop in the foothills that line the volcano. Few words are exchanged. The dogs, nose to the ground, seem to be searching in vain. Then one guy swears softly. We are on the edge of a sort of shallow valley. The hill on its other side is one large meadow. There, right there, on that the side, is a herd of ten or twelve goats. There is more muttering from which I gather that the animals are too far to shoot and that there is no way to approach them without being seen, heard, or smelled. The others begin to turn away with more swearing. I don’t know the rules so, I tell myself, “Why not?” I stop, click a shell into the barrel, shoulder, aim at a white goat, easily the most visible, and shoot. The animal goes down, the others flee uphill.
The other guys turn back and more swearing erupts, loud swearing, this time. We all run across the little valley to go up and retrieve the white goat. What can I say? Beginner’s luck, probably but still, I am in good health, I have perfect vision, I am steady on my feet, I don’t get excited easily, I know enough to press the trigger slowly and steadily. (Believe it or not, I had a bit of training, in the French Navy, of all places.) I was good in California at taking down ducks and geese in flight with a shotgun. So, there is a chance I am a good rifle shot who does not yet know it. And, in case you are wondering: My companions are not spiteful; they seem glad to not have to go home empty-handed. It seems they hunt for the larder rather than for the glory. My goat is good and dead with a bullet through the chest. In twenty minutes, my buddies have gutted, dressed and quartered the animal and apportioned it to the plastic garbage bags they have brought along. I ask for the pelt but they tell me it has too much lice.
Back at the village, I receive my share, more than enough for me alone. For lack of more culinary knowledge, I barbecue it the next day. I am a Paris boy, after all; where would I have learned to cook goat meat? I wouldn’t even know people ate goat if I were not such an eclectic reader. Anyway, several children invite themselves and bring their own Coke. The meat is pretty good, tough but tasty, kind of gamy. Afterwards, I have to nap in my hammock outside, overwhelmed as one can be after gorging on large quantities of animal protein.
Life goes on; I teach my classes during the week but the next Friday, the same guys come to invite me to hunt. This time, I ask point-blank what we are going for. My brain is getting used to the Hawaiian dialect but I can’t believe the answer: Tomorrow, we are going for feral sheep. Part of me is a little worried at this mention of yet another farm animal. What is it going to be the next time around, feral donkey? We drive to another part of the volcano early the next morning. Long story short: We kill two small brown sheep. The second is downed by two shots. I am pretty sure mine was the first shot but I don’t make an issue of it (obviously!) This time, I get a whole hind leg. I invite two of my university acquaintances from the mainland – fellow haoles – to join me the next day. I bake the meat the way I would any leg of lamb. It smells strongly but it has more fat than the goat did. I enjoy myself. My guests less so. They are a little too effete for the experience, it seems. They think of meat as coming wrapped in cellophane. It doesn’t matter; we have plenty of beer and they brought dessert. They are at least intrigued.
The next weekend, two older men invite me to go fishing with them. They tell me they can lend me a rod but that I am welcome to try to spear fish in their area. We leave the village at a decent hour in their four-wheel drive, go a short distance on a dirt road near the shore and then, straight cross-country. I have never done this before. We ride over big boulders and muddy areas at the speed of a man’s pace. It’s uncomfortable and worrisome but the old dudes obviously know what they are doing. Finally, we stop in a clearing on the edge of a low cliff. The men lay out their gear while I put on my light wetsuit. Once in the extremely clear water, holding my thin spear, the thought strikes me that probably no one ever has dived in this spot, never, ever! It’s a warm feeling. There are plenty of fish around, including giant multicolored parrot fish with protruding rabbit teeth, that must taste awful but also several species I know to be edible. A part of my brain tells me this is a time for exploring, not for bagging ordinary fish. I go up and down looking under rock formations when I am down. (Remember that I am free diving, diving on my own air.) After an hour, I have caught three nice sized spiny lobsters (with small claws, langoustes, langostas.) They are difficult to see in the penumbra under rocks because, unlike the reddish California and Caribbean lobsters’, their carapace is dark blue and yellow mottled.
I am also bringing back a cowrie the size of my fist. It’s sitting on my desk as I write. It’s not different from one you would find in any good curios shop yet, it almost cost me my life (another story). The old guys have caught by hook and line all the fish they wanted. We drive home slowly. They give me some fish, I give each a lobster. They protest energetically, which suggests that lobster is not often on Hawaiians’ menus. I eat the third lobster by myself, like the pig I am!
Speaking of diet, at the time, I am diving several times a week. Sometimes, I even spear fish between classes. Actually, I bring home a lot of fish that I usually share in the village. Having been reared in surprisingly cold and rainy Paris, I enjoy a lot tropical living. The water where I dive is often warm and clear. I love picking a banana off my own tree every morning before breakfast, and the super-ripe pineapples the landlord sends my way every other day. I collect easily four or five kilos of ripe wild guavas whenever I want just stopping my car on the side of the road on my way to work. Everything is expensive in Hawaii but I don’t buy much, just gasoline to go to work and to explore the island a bit, also rice, bread and beer, and coffee. (The locally grown coffee – Kona – is the best in the world, I think. Of course, I can’t afford it.) I eat mostly fish and wild meat, and the occasional small lobster, with a little rice and fresh fruits from around the village. I am in the best shape in my life.
But, soon and with regrets, I am preparing to leave. I actually want to stay in Hawaii for at least one year but my doctoral dissertation is stuck and there is a nasty divorce coming over the horizon. I just have to return to California where I have lived for most of fifteen years. I have a plane ticket for a Wednesday. On my last Friday in the village, my buddies show up to invite me to go hog hunting. Of course, it’s feral hog! The wild boar of Asia and Europe does note exist in the Pacific. The Polynesians who first settled the Hawaiians islands brought small domesticated pigs on their giant canoes. They must have fed them coconut flesh and fish leftovers on the long journey from Tahiti. Some pigs escaped and established themselves happily in the Hawaiian fruit-rich bush. There, they grew in size and grew and grew and they have never stopped growing. Now, they tend to be huge.
We leave earlier in the morning than usual, when it’s still dark. Today is different. No one hands me a rifle so, I go back inside and grab my shotgun. “Don’t take it,” one guy says. There are three SUVs this time. Astoundingly, in each one are a man or two and six or seven dogs of all kinds and sizes. There is even a large, blond French poodle. I recognize only two dogs from around the village. We drive to another area of the volcano, one covered by old lava and exposed to weather so it’s almost forested. As soon as we stop, the dogs are let out. I notice vaguely that still, no one is carrying a firearm. I am puzzled, but it’s my place to observe and learn, not to question. Within a few minutes, a dog gives voice and the whole pack leaves off barking and running in the same direction except two that seem too busy to sniff the ground to join in. All the men follow the pack. Fortunately, we are running almost all downhill on the uneven ground.
In a short while, the dogs sound louder and we join them in a sort of natural circus. They have a pig trapped there against a lava wall. It’s a big black beast with a huge head. The dogs keep it harried so it does not pay the several of us men much attention. Our leader pulls a long knife off his belt and hands it to me. “Are you out of your mind?” I shout. He shrugs lightly and walks forward, kneeing the dogs out of his way. He steps straight to the hog and cuts its throat in a single swift gesture. The blood spurts; the dogs surge forward to get a taste. I catch my breath and examine the animal. I am transfixed by the double set of curved teeth jutting out of its mouth, like in the movies. The guys let the dogs lick the fresh blood for a while then, they kick them out of the way to begin doing what needs to be done. In less than a half hour, the beast is gutted, skinned and butchered; the meat is neatly divided into five black plastic garbage bags for each of us to carry up the hill. When we get back to the cars, the dogs that had stayed behind are nowhere to be seen. We just abandon them as we hustle the other dogs back into the vehicles.
Back in the village, I get my largely unearned share in the form of what looks like a big roast. My hunting buddies have noticed my interest in the set of curved teeth and they sort of know I am leaving. So, they hand me today’s trophy in the form of a lower jaw with four curved fangs still in. I still have to ask them about the mysterious thing appeared out of nowhere, a ready-made hunting dogs pack, although I have already half guessed. It turns out that whenever they want to go hunting for hog, the preceding Friday night, the guys visit their buddies who are in charge of the dog pound. Now, it’s a special dog pound. It does not hold stray dogs captured on the streets. Nobody cares about stray dogs in Hawaii. (It’s America but also the Third World, then.) Instead, the municipal/county pound houses dozens of dogs at one time that are in quarantine while their owners prepare to join them from somewhere or other on the mainland. (My own Labrador had spent two months there, I believe, at great expense to me. Somehow, she got pregnant there. Another story.) So, as it happens, the inventive islanders have developed a system whereas impounded dogs can be paroled for a weekend. The hunters pay a small fee and take charge of however many dogs they can transport. The hunters return the dogs on Monday morning. The pound supervisors get an income supplement; the hunters have an instant pack they couldn’t possible support; the dogs no doubt enjoy the vacation. How about the owners who are paying through the nose for their dogs’ maintenance? Well, what they don’t know can’t hurt them. There is still the small matter of the dogs who got lost on the volcano. Well, they must be declared dead of cardiac arrest. Their owners will get another pet and recover eventually.
Back home, I rub whatever I have on the roast, including Coke in addition to salt and pepper and I place it the oven at moderate heat. Then I roll up my sleeves and consider the big pig jaw. Now, remember, I am a Paris boy. Not much prepares me for the task. I quickly figure out nonetheless that pliers are not the way to go because they might break the trophies. I figure that bone is softer than ivory so, I decide to boil the whole jaw. It stinks to high heaven but the jaw does seem to soften a little. I let it boil for ten hours, all windows open. My landlord is an amiable guy and tolerant. Plus, he says he is sorry to lose me. He would like me to come back. I eat the pig roast with a lady neighbor who brings cooked sweet potatoes. The roast is tough but tasty. The neighbor goes home with half of the remaining half, for her nephew, she says. The next morning, I repeat the stinky jaw softening operation for another five or six hours. Passers-by smile knowingly: haoles!
The Monday preceding the Wednesday when I am flying to California, I eye an old couple walking up the path toward my house. Somehow, they seem dressed up. I am puzzled, of course, but I go back inside. In minutes, there is a knock at my door. I open and the old Asian couple says good morning while bowing deeply, Japanese-style. (More than half of the population of Hawaii is of Japanese origin; at the time, some are even immigrants from before World War II.) I bid the old couple in, sit them down and ask them if they want coffee; they assent. They are silent while I boil the water and prepares the coffee. I have never met those people although I am not surprised they are neighbors. “I am Mr Yamoto,” says the old guy, “and this is my wife, Mrs Yamoto. We speak for the Japanese in Papaiku.” -Silence – “We heard that you are leaving, maybe. If it is true, we hope you will change your mind. If you do not, we hope you will return soon. You see, among us, we need sashimi all the time, for Christmas, for weddings, for birthday parties, for almost all occasions. The past couple of years, with the new big hotels opening downtown, we have not been able to get all the fresh fish we want. With all your spearfishing and all, we were hoping you could become our regular sashimi provider. We think it’s an honor but we would pay you well too.” I am instantly flattered like I have seldom been but also instantly saddened. I confirm that I am going back to California, unfortunately.
Then, the old lady pipes in with a voice I barely hear, “If you come back, we will make sure you are elected to [ ].” The last word eludes me but I get the drift. The Big Island has an exotic political system, a mixture of straight California political science design and of exotic Third World additions. The latter include a plethora of tiny elective positions that bring the incumbent some social honor and sometimes also a small stipend. I have gathered that it’s common for the factions to stand a haole for such elections as a convenient way to avoid direct clashes between the different ethnic groups. (I think the Japanese-Americans could probably win all the elections if they wanted to; they are careful not to.) I promise to write if and when I plan to come back. The old people get up to leave with contrite smiles.
On Tuesday morning, finally, I manage to pry all curved hog teeth from the softened jaw. I celebrate silently while I pack them carefully in plastic. Then, I go dig a hole in the backyard for the jaw. (Won’t 22nd century anthropologists be puzzled when they find the remains?) I have time to pack and take a long last swim in the warm Pacific. In the evening, some of my university colleagues give me a skeptical going-away party. They are skeptical because they don’t really believe I am leaving this job and this liefstyle for good. Half of them half think I will be back for the next semester. My boss is miffed because he had recruited me personally. He will have to recruit all over again. Sorry. On Wednesday, I am lucky to the end. As my plane lifts off, it’s raining heavily over Hilo which saves me from strong regrets at having to leave.
Reel forward eight months. I am now living in Indiana where I have obtained a tenure-track position. Indiana wasn’t my first choice, being so far from any sea. But the university there has promised to help me solve a serious problem I have with the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. (It will, eventually, yet another story.) In California, back from Hawaii, I had found lodgings in a converted wood water tank. (Would I make this up?) It belonged to an old black lady who treated me like her white pet. (Not complaining, here; could do worse.) Soon after arriving, I had looked for someone with drill bits small and hard enough to pierce my hog teeth. Then, I did the obvious and got a dentist to drill four neat holes in four minutes in return for an abalone dinner. Contrary to what you might think, I did not hang the trophies on a thin gold chain; I am too well-bred for this. Instead I threaded a fine, ordinary string through them and tied a square knot in the back to close the loop. As I was finishing my thesis, I allowed myself a handful of parties in town. Against my manly tanned chest, the necklace seemed to make an impression on some of the women, an animal impression, if I dare say so. Well, I had to leave for a real job. I don’t even remember what I lived off during those few months without a job.
My doctoral dissertation is in the can finally, not gloriously but not ignominiously either. I drove from California to Indiana in the same old pick-up truck, the truck of the conger eel. My smart Labrador went with me, of course. I hauled a small trailer across country with my five sticks of furniture. I began teaching almost before I could find my bearings. I found a place to live easily, a little out of town. The cost of living is low here. The local people are pleasant and polite. Still, the divorce has now rolled over unto my side of the horizon. I am saddened and alone. One evening, instead of driving straight home, I stop at Papa Bear’s for a drink. I meet someone who buys me a drink just because I am new in town; I reciprocate, of course. Several of his friends join us because it’s past six pm. One of the friends is pretty girl with a flared skirt. I happen to be wearing my hog tusks necklace that evening. (May have been premeditation; I don’t put it past me.) The new girl shows an interest in it and I tell her half the story. Of course, she thinks of Hawaii as impossibly exotic. She beams at me.
We have several more drinks. Then, I realize that everyone has left except the girl. She and I get even more drinks and we become cozy, thigh against thigh on our bar stools, with little kisses on the neck. The girl is in her early or mid-twenties. I can tell from her speech that she is not a student, or faculty member, but a local girl. Soon, I tell her it’s time for me to go home to feed my dog. I don’t exactly invite her but I explain to her how to reach my little duplex near the lake. The Hoosier girl makes it there right after me. (Yes, we drove drunk a lot in those days. The figures show that we also died a lot.) I am barely getting out of my clothes; I am hanging the hog tusks necklace on its nail in the bedroom when she comes through the door.
I don’t want to go into details because I sincerely hope this story is going to make it to Family Story Hour. Let’s just say we do what healthy young people will do when they are a little lonely and a little needy, and more than a little liquored up. We stop long enough to feed my dog, after all, and to make sandwiches for ourselves. She leaves early in the morning because she has to go home to prepare for work. We have exchanged neither vows, of course, nor phone numbers but it’s a small town and I have told her in what academic department I work at the university; and she knows where I live, obviously. She also knows the scar high on my left thigh. I wake up with a hangover, naturally. I get up for a remedial cup of coffee. Then, I take a shower, hot, cold, hot. When I re-enter my room to put on my clothes, I vaguely detect that something is a little bit off. Then, it hits me: The tusks necklace is not hanging from its nail above the bed. I look inside the bed and turn back the sheets. I look under the bed. Nothing! I have to face the obvious: The girl with the flared skirt has stolen my necklace.
The Hawaiian hog tusks have become a trophy for the second time. This time, the winner earned it fair and square (unlike me with the original win), if you know what I mean. In any event, I never bumped into the girl again, not at Papa Bear’s, not in any other bar, not at the small downtown, not on campus perchance. Her evil deed done, she has vanished into thin air. I recovered from the loss in the end. Nowadays, there is even a good spot in my heart where I think of her. I imagine that there is a sweet young girl in southern Indiana who received a baroque, primitive necklace made of curved animal teeth from her grandmother who was smiling warmly and knowingly as she handed it to her.
© Jacques Delacroix 2022
From the comments: Kinship networks and U.S. politicians
So kinship necessarily expands the utility and probability of shared interests measurably, a path of study likely threatening to politicians … It might be fun to see a kinship matrix for current U.S. politicians ..?
Police Killings and Race: Afterthoughts
The verdict on former officer Chauvin seems extreme to me. I think manslaughter would have been enough. Of course, it’s possible that I don’t understand the legal subtleties. Also, I did not receive all the information the jurors had access to. Also, I didn’t have to make up my mind under the pressure of fearing to trigger a riot in my own city.
As usual, I react to what did not happen. In the sad Floyd case, a bell weather for a new anti-racist movement in the US, the prosecution did not allege anything of a racial nature. Let me say this again: for some reason, the prosecutor did not claim that the victim’s race played a part in his death. Strange abstention because such a claim would have almost automatically brought to bear the enormous weight and power of the Federal Government. (The Feds are explicitly in charge of dealing with suspected violations of civil rights.)
Personally, I think we have a general problem of police brutality in this country. I mean that American cops are entirely too prompt to shoot. I also believe this is largely a result of permissive training on the matter. American police doctrine gives cops too much leeway about when to shoot a suspect. It does not do enough to support alternatives, including less than lethal means of incapacitation. Here is a small piece of supporting evidence: An American is about ten times more likely to be killed by the police than a French person. One can try to claim that French criminals and French suspects are ten times less dangerous than their American counterparts. Read this aloud and think it through. (Of course, there is always the possibility that your average French suspect, with his funny beret and a baguette tucked under his arm, is in a bad position to shoot at police at all.)
As for the widespread claim that American police killings of civilians are racially motivated, a proof of racism- systemic or otherwise – this case has simply not been made. Here are a handful of relevant numbers: In the USA, a black person interacting with the police has no greater chance of being killed than a white person. A black person interacting with a black police officer has the same chance of being killed as one interacting with a white officer. It’s true that a black person, on the average is more likely to be interacting with police than a white person. If racism plays a role in the killing of black people by police, that is where it is lodged. Police, white and black, are more likely to stop blacks than whites. Can you guess any reason why? Can the reason be other than racism? Below is a link to a wider essay on the topic:
Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take
Awareness of Racism and Singing to the Choir
In the past few months, I have been exposed to more works by African Americans and to more documents about the black condition in America than usual. So far, I haven’t learned anything really new, perhaps because I am a sociologist by trade with an interest in slavery going back fifty years. All the same, I appreciate the refresher. This is a good point to warn that I am at odds with many of my fellow conservatives about the debt, if any the US, owes in connection with slavery and in connection with Jim Crow. (See: Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take; and also, my shorter: The Great American Racial Awakening: A Conservative Approach (Part One).) I also insist that mine – insisting on the recognition of some sort of debt – is the true conservative position. This position in no way entails accepting passively everything the woke movement is telling us about current racism in America.
Recently, I watched almost all of the good PBS documentary “Driving while Black.” The first part illustrates well, with both many historical documents and the memories of older people, how African Americans used to travel with the help of special guidebooks designed to ensure they did not inadvertently find themselves in hostile territory. It was worse than traveling in a foreign country whose language you don’t know, it seems. (I did this myself in Croatia, in 1962, before mass tourism spread far and wide some knowledge of English.) It was a concerted collective effort to escape the consequences of explicit deliberate racist policies (as well as of widespread racist sentiment).
Then, the emphasis of the documentary shifts to the creation of the Interstate Freeway system. The narration comments on the fact that the development of the freeways involved the clearing out, the destruction of many local black communities, including their many Mom-and-Pop businesses. I am guessing there is no doubt it did. But the commentator keeps the topic closed as if the last had been said thus giving the impression that black communities were targeted for destruction out of racial prejudice (in thematic continuity with the first part of the documentary). Some may have been so targeted, or even all, but there is another explanation that makes racial prejudice a superfluous explanation.
One of the considerable, but variable costs of public way construction (roads and railways) is the expropriation of the land on which the public way is to stand. In many cases – that, I think, have rational technical explanations – the land to be expropriated is occupied by structures with commercial value. It’s common practice, and I would argue, good practice, to try as much as is possible to find a path that minimizes the cost of the relevant expropriations. (In the US, in the past 80 years, public pathways have been financed by the taxpayers. As a taxpayer, I wouldn’t want planners to deviate from this practice.) An unintended consequence of this rational practice is that black-owned and black-leased building are over-represented among those destroyed on the occasion of freeway building. No racism has to be involved though it may be.
This is just a prominent instance of a general, diffuse problem: Authors, journalists, politicians impute authoritatively a racist cause to inferior black outcomes where racism may or may not be involved. There is often not even a pretense of causal analysis, not even of merely mental analysis. The simply plausible magically becomes reality. Yet, it’s true that African Americans, more often than whites, often end up with the some of the worst jobs, some the worst commercial services, and as of lately (2021), even with some of the worst health outcomes.
It should be obvious that any of the above, and many other noxious outcomes, may be the pure products of mere poverty or of inferior education, or of both. African Americans are, in fact, poorer than average. So, before claiming that racism, or a systemically racist policy is at work, it would be logical to figure out if the bad outcomes may not be entirely explained by poverty. Saying the same thing in a different way: If whites in similar economic circumstances experience the same bad outcomes, or worse ones, the racial explanations are superfluous. Incidentally, racism could still be at work but it would appear much less self-evident to the general sympathetic public. It would happen like this: African Americans have the same high rate of diabetes as whites at the same education and economic level but, for the latter, diabetes is a product of poverty and ignorance, and for African Americans, it comes from poverty, ignorance, plus something else. See how credible such a statement would be. Or this: Poor whites lag in vaccinations because they also tend to be uneducated but equally poor and equally uneducated African Americans lag in vaccinations because of the racist treatment to which they are subjected.
Exploring this kind of issue, the relative weight of self evident factors in determining bad outcomes is comparatively easy. Such quest would rely on fairly available public data and on methods (multivariate analysis with econometric evaluation) that were already not new when I was pursuing a doctorate in the 1970s. There must be hundreds of sociologists and of economists equipped to conduct this kind of research in the USA. I am following multiple media in a haphazard manner, it’s true, though with a conservative bias, from the Wall Street Journal to internet trash. I do this every day for hours. Yet, I never bump into the fruits of such reasonably principled research. Of course, Stanford and Hoover Institution black economist Thomas Sowell has conducted just such analysis for many years but he is never cited by anyone to the left of dead center. Instead, his existence is sometimes acknowledged as that of beloved but slightly screwy old uncle who may even have passed on. In my book, the seeming absence in the public arena of reasoning guided or influenced by such obvious research should be enough to make one suspicious. I think this stream of public reasoning is being suppressed. (Please, go ahead and show me that it’s abundantly represented, via any media, contrary to my impression.)
Technical note: I hate to break the hearts of my possible liberal – and even progressive – readers but the following is correct: If proper analysis demonstrated that income level, level of wealth, and educational status together are not sufficient to account for inferior black outcomes, that would not be enough to pin the blame on racism, be it of a personal or systemic nature. This is another issue that’s being kept in the dark as far as I know.
The end of the documentary, “Driving While Black,” mentions briefly the possibility that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also destroyed thriving black communities. It did so by suddenly giving black shoppers attractive alternatives such as (then) Safeway. I am not sure how I would bet about this right now, as I write, but it’s possible to imagine that the Civil Rights Act was more destructive in this respect than the construction of the Interstate Freeway system. The documentary had the opportunity to raise the question. It did not. This good document would have gained immeasurably in intellectual credibility if it had. My impression is that currently, there are few critics of any race that would have the intestinal fortitude to do so. (Again, please, show me that my impression is wrong.)
I am concurrently reading a novel by a prolific African American author: The Son of Mr. Suleman, by Eric Jerome Dikey. First, it’s delightful novel and I enjoy every minute of it. The writing is effervescent even if it often verges on being in a language I don’t quite understand. (For me, it’s a bit like reading Portuguese, a language I have not studied but that is close enough to my own native French and to the Spanish that I have studied that I can usually make it out.) The reading is also a bit jarring for one strange, specific reason. The novel accomplishes with ease what good novels do: through action, dialogues, monologues, and disquisitions, they transport the reader into a world that he would otherwise likely not discover. In this case, the hero is a vigorous black man in his thirties plying his ill-defined trade in the second-rate academic venues of Memphis, Tennessee. Except for the academic setting, this is pretty far from this California old white man’s experience.
The jarring starts in the first few pages with a Trumpdetestation statement that appears utterly unrelated to anything beginning in the story. Thereafter, every so many pages, appears a politically, cliched affirmation about racism that ads nothing to the story. It’s as if the author felt like – or had been ordered to – assert with an imposed frequency, his membership in the mainstream of conventional African American struggle against racism. These interruptions are all the more ludicrous because, again, the normal course of the novel does a talented job of describing racism from the inside, so to speak. Bizarrely, the hero is being periodically sexually exploited by a rich, powerful, attractive, white, and, you guessed it, blonde woman. And, as one might almost expect, the hero blames his troubles mainly on racism. But the fact that he is an adjunct professor would be enough to explain his misery. Let me explain for my overseas readers: That’s a category of university faculty members who carry full course loads but are slated to never get tenure. (Yes, in American universities, tenure, “titularisation” is neither automatic nor a function of years taught. It’s competitive. It’s an “up-or-out” process. A teacher who does not win tenure has to find a job somewhere else.) In the last school were I taught, there were dozens of such adjunct personnel. They were all white. At any rate, in spite of all this, I warmly recommend this book.
At this point in the year, I am pleased to have been exposed to material on race relations that would normally not have been on my menu; nevertheless, I am struck by the many failures to take advantage of the situation to gain intellectual heft with other than whining and guilt-devoured white liberals. I suspect there is a convergent attempt, a cultural movement of the left, to remain vague in order to avoid revealing or admitting the obvious: that the past 60 years have seen enormous progress toward racial equality and justice in America. There was a chance to sing to other than the choir and it’s being largely wasted.
The Great American Racial Awakening (Part Three): “It Wasn’t Me!” and Something to be Done.
American society, American whites, non-black minorities, and even some African Americans, have not fully absorbed the fact that American slavery was a long story of atrocities. It was also an endeavor of mass rape, as the light skin color of many African Americans demonstrates. (It was rape by definition; human “property” does not have the ability to give consent.) Soon after the abolition of slavery, incapacitating legally defined inferior treatment of black Americans descended on much of the country. In the South – the historical home of slavery – extra-judicial murder was frequent enough to keep many blacks timid and in partial subjection; sometimes, the resort to intimidation rose to mass murder. Incidentally, this forgetfulness is why I am glad that National Geographic, first, and Pres. Biden second, recently chose to showcase the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Whatever the latter’s real motivation, that may be the first good thing he did.
Of course, the question should arise, must arise, of responsibility regarding both slavery and segregation. This for two reasons. First, long lasting acts of inhumanity should not go un-described lest ignorance do harm in the next generations. Second, the treatment of African Americans was, for centuries so spectacularly at variance with long standing Anglo-American tradition that some sort of explanation is required. But there can be no explanation, of course without a recognition of who the actors were, of their identification. In fact, there are voices among the pushers of Wokeness claiming that all whites are guilty by definition. (I choose my words with here care.) “It wasn’t me; I wasn’t even here,” reply many white conservatives. Below is an examination of the white case I know best, mine,
I am immigrant. I landed in the US as an adult for good in 1963. It was too late to contribute much to racial segregation. If one of my approximately 30 family antecedents since 1865 had made it to American shores before me, I think the news would have reached me through family lore. So, I am almost certainly innocent on the account of aiding segregation, including trans-generationally innocent. Slavery is another issue.
Assessing my antecedents’ possible contributions to slavery is more dicey because of the greater remoteness in time but, especially, because of the multiplicity of family lines one would have to follow. (I think that to arrive even at 1800, one would have to research up to 64 linkages.) It seems that both sides of my family going back to my great-great-grandparents at least come from eastern and northern France, hundreds of mile from the western coast slaving ports. This does not exclude the possibility that one young man or other among those who sired me found his way there and signed up for a slaving voyage or two without leaving a record worthy of notice. There is also no obvious record of anyone with my last name, or my mother’s maiden name being a slave owner in America. This leaves open the possibility that some of the other branches with different surnames reached here and held slaves. As they say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Still, on the whole, my antecedents are less likely to have profited from slavery than many, many people of coastal African descent, for example. Late into the 19th century, for example, the economy of the west African kingdom of Benin was centered on slave trading, including feeding the remaining cross-Atlantic trade. It would be surprising if some descendants of American slaves or some recent Nigerian immigrants were not also descendants of Benin slavers. Also, take the Kenyan Obamas, for example, with their Arabized first names… (“Barack” means “blessed,” in Arabic, a pious way to say “luck,” or “lucky;” and the aunt the president would not acknowledge was named “Zeituna,” Arabic for “Olive.” No olives grow in Kenya, I am sure. So, why “Olive”?) How did these names happen given that they are not Muslims? Could it be that the older Obamas were involved with the Arab slave traders of Africa’s east coast (who plied their trade much longer than anyone based in America)?
This mindless genealogical excursion is coming to an end, finally. There was a point to it though. It is this: It’s easy enough for many, possibly for most white Americans to argue that they should not be held to account either for slavery or for racial segregation because they were not here, in America, when those happened. What’s more, it’s likely that none of their ancestors were. The immigrant (legal, I hope) who landed yesterday from Russia certainly can make that claim, same as I do. It seems to me that the claim is largely irrelevant. In fact, and thinking realistically and cynically, if we looked for culpability through blood lines, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the average African American of today is more related to slave owners of the past than is the average white American. (This speculation is based on the pretty good assumption that most of today’s white Americans trace all their American ancestry to post-1863 immigration.)
Thus my point here is not that American conservatives should wallow forever in useless guilt (like a liberal wimpette) because of some supposed culpability based on race. Neither do I think that they should help feed – by supporting this claim – a sense of impunity among black criminals preying mostly on innocent African Americans. Nor do I suggest that my fellow conservatives should yield to any of the endless, diffuse race-based blackmails filling our media today (in 2021). My point rather is that we, Americans, including, and especially American conservatives, should fix what we can. I explain the ethical reason why we must do so below.
Yesterday’s immigrant, and I, and most Americans probably, live, exist, some thrive, in part thanks to the existence of a federal state that guarantees our safety from exterior threats. It’s the same federal state that makes possible a certain peacefulness, a degree of predictability of daily life without which we couldn’t even contemplate the pursuit of happiness. The fact that it does so with a heavy hand and at a high cost that I often deplore, does not change the basic fact that it does. If your libertarian beliefs make it difficult to think of this, look at Nigeria for the past ten years and at Mexico during its current elections (June 2021). However, the same federal state, in a straight historical line again, the very same federal state, engaged without discontinuity, in slave catching for fifty or one hundred years. It went on until the very eve of the Civil War. I don’t mean that the Federal Government went hunting for slaves in Africa but that it cooperated in returning runaway slaves to their owners. The practice was thunderously re-affirmed as late as 1857 in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision. For all, we know, slavery as a regional economic system might have collapsed early if the long boundary between free and slave states had been one great big open door devoid of federal interference.
It seems to me that there is no way to affirm honestly: Yes, I am appreciative for the benefits I derive from the Federal Government but I am in no way responsible for any of its past actions. Rather, I think, the following conservative principle must prevail:
The Federal Government is my servant; I am responsible to repair what my servant damaged.
I hasten to say that I don’t know how to compensate anyone for the great physical and emotional damage slavery and then, segregation inflicted on their ancestors. I confess this while noting that financial compensation for pain and suffering stands right in the middle of the mainstream of Anglo-American legal tradition. I want to focus instead on something more tangible: income.
Money often comes down through the generations. It also often fails to so come down, it’s true. This is a complicated matter. What is sure is that if the ancestor has not money, the descendant will not inherit his money. If the ancestor has no money to transmit because he is lazy, a drunkard, a whore-monger, or even simply handicapped, it’s not really any of my business as a citizen of this federal state. If, on the other hand, the descendant inherits nothing because of something my servant did to his ancestor, it’s clearly my responsibility to try and do something about it.
An unresolved concrete matter from both slavery and segregation is one of unpaid wages, and of income that could not be realized in part because of the actions of the Federal Government. I mean, my Federal Government, yesterday’s immigrant’s Federal Government, and also my Hispanic neighbors’ Federal Government. I think we all owe some compensation to our fellow citizens who have slave ancestors. (I am also ignoring here the possibility that segregation adversely affected black immigrants, people with no US slave background, because, I think, there were hardly any until recently. In general, I am skeptical of immigrants’ claims, as I indicated earlier.)
Forty-five years ago, economists Fogel and Engerman showed in Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery that slavery could fairly rigorously be subjected to conventional quantitative economic analysis, including if memory is correct, that of wage equivalencies. (The fact that the book soon became controversial only means to me that many readers don’t know how to read figures, or don’t care to.) It shouldn’t be beyond the power of modern economists to give us a rough estimate of the wages slaves would have been paid if they had not been slaves. The figure might seem surprisingly low, incidentally, because slaves were housed and fed, after a fashion, and housing and food constituted the two main recurring expenses of unskilled free workers.
Whatever the case may be, Americans in general, or just conservatives, could announce an overall amount of wages owed to slaves and, separately, of potential income black citizens lost to segregation, both augmented by accumulated interest. Proposals for discharging this collective debt should be submitted to broad public discussion. Ideally, personally, I would prefer a single payment or partial payments spread over how long it would take all made to those contemporary citizens who can show slave ancestry in the US. Since I have no illusion that any method of direct payment to individuals would have any chance of being accepted because of ambient puritanism, my fallback position would be educational/ training grants awarded to any descendant of slaves upon reaching legal maturity. I like this solution because there is good evidence that education is a reliable income and wealth multiplier. Enhanced education/training thus creates -however slight – the possibility that American society might leave that particular portion of a more general problem behind forever. Help with down payment on real estate would also probably be favored by many and for the same reason. (It seems that owning a house is the main mean of saving for most Americans.) There are many other possibilities.
Ideally, the funds for this historical compensation would come from a voluntary levy, from a subscription (a method for financing public goods not tried often enough in my view). African Americans with slave ancestors and ancestors hurt by segregation number no more than 45 million. My back-of-the envelop suggests that if everyone else reserved 1 % of his income for slavery and segregation reparation that particular debt might be extinguished in less than a lifetime. (Just a general idea; my calculations are not to be trusted literally, of course) Failing a voluntary levy, a new dedicated federal tax could accomplish the same end, of course.
Do I hope that this kind of limited compensation to the descendants of slaves could be managed in a fair, organized, decent way? Not really. I think though that it could put a damper on the present liberal temptation to replay the whole long, disastrous War on Poverty of Pres. Johnson. It would point to another way to deal with a festering wound. In any case, the inability to describe how a mission ought to be conducted should never stop us from admitting openly, even announcing, that the mission is necessary. The main virtue of this proposal would be to free to some extent those who contribute from the moral servitude resulting form our having servitude imposed on others with the help of our servant, the federal state. Acting in good faith toward other individuals is its own reward. It may even inspire others.
Beyond this, I think the Woke culture is going to collapse soon under the weight of its own ridiculousness. In the meantime, it will have ruined the careers of a few important people, including highly visible liberals who did not have sufficient alertness to duck in good time and to offer proof of their virtuousness without being asked. Even academia will regain its senses eventually though it will take some time because it’s so well protected from reality. I am betting that what will be left of this (2020-2021) societal frisson of righteousness will be the empty and therefore poisonous word “equity.” It will no doubt be used and used again until it ends exhibited in the pantheon where the Left keeps the equally empty and equally poisonous terms: the “rich,” and “fair share.” We may not prevent this but we, conservatives can keep the voice of sanity alive.
I conclude by affirming to my possibly scandalized conservative friends that nothing in this three-part essay alters my view of the broader American political context of today (2021). Pres. Biden’s administration is the worst in my long lifetime. Like everything that dampens economic growth, its policies will turn out to be especially noxious for African Americans. And liberals and progressives will blame our “selfishness,” of course.
The Great American Racial Awakening (Part Two): “Get over it!”
For most of my fifty-plus years living in this country, I have thought that white Americans have not digested the facts of slavery beyond the most basic level. I think they have avoided emoting about them and also about the much nearer-in-time ninety years of segregation in some of the country, at least. (Reading the memoirs of traveling black Jazz musicians led me to believe that segregation was not just in the South. They tell how on arriving in a new town anywhere in the country, the first thing they did was inquire about lodging accepting blacks if arrangements had done been made in advance.)
It’s hard to tell what liberals know and feel about the country’s racial history broadly defined. First, since most of them vote Democrat, they have an internal conflict of interest that must stand in the way of both clarity of mind and of sincerity of expression. Historically, their party is the party of unfailing support for slavery and then, it morphed into the party of racial segregation. I don’t know how you deal with this on an individual level. Second, I find it personally hard to tell what really moves liberals because many are the kind of people who tear up at the violent spectacle of three puppies wrestling in their containment basket.
I am pretty familiar however with my fellow conservatives’ expressed views of the whole matter. (Of course, I don’t know what they feel their hearts of hearts.) Three responses keep coming up. The first is a reference to the hundreds of thousand dead of the Civil War, implying it was payment enough for the evils of slavery. No, I am sorry, the Civil War only stopped the evil of slavery. It did not make up for it. It did not stop the transmission of its perverse effects through the generations. I does not help that some conservatives include the Confederate dead who gave their lives in defense of slavery even if it was not always clear to them.
The second common response is a nonchalant: “Get over it; it was long time ago.” That’s not a reasonable response, I believe, as a conservative, specifically. I think many good things, and many bad things, come down through families, even from ancestors way back. My own narrow experience tells me that it’s so. My paternal grandfather was killed in WWI, in 1916, exactly, twenty-six years before I was born. That’s more than one hundred years ago. My mother was thus brought up in an all-female family. Had that not been the case, she would have raised her own children differently, I think. Note that I don’t say, “better” because, I don’t know. It’s just that she would have been a different person herself, a different woman. Again, I am only trying to make the point that family experiences reach far forward in time.
I knew my maternal grandmother well. Though there were merrier aspects to her personality (as I recount in my book, I Used to be French…..) she was a mostly silent presence for all the time I knew her. I don’t know that she may have a had a wealth of experience, or simply stories, she would otherwise have shared with me. I was brought up without a grandfather. (There was an other one but alcoholism had made him dysfunctional.) Had I had a grandpa, I am certain I would have been a different man, a nicer one. Incidentally, I only came to realize this clearly when I became a grandfather myself, a very distinctive and nurturing role. If the repercussions of the simple and common fact of not having a grandfather can be carried across a hundred-plus years, I tell myself, imagine the cumulative, tenacious effect of having had all slave predecessors for hundreds years. In my book, it’s not that consequences of slavery might live on today among African Americans, it’s that they surely do. It seems to me that this is hardly open for discussion. (Though w you should feel free to argue with me on this point.)
Another detour is in order here. I am only discussing the burden of the majority of black Americans who do have slave ancestors. The implied moral calculus is not relevant to the large and growing minority of black Americans who are immigrants and children of immigrants. (The fact that their numbers are increasing fast, in itself, speaks volumes.) Don’t like it here for whatever reason? Go back to Jamaica; go back to Nigeria; go back to Haiti. This calculus also does not concern the invented category “Hispanics.” Except for the special case of Puerto Ricans, they are also practically all immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They have no right to complain just because heir parents or other ancestors had the good sense to cross the border, often at great cost and at great risk, so they could enjoy a standard of living and a freedom vastly superior to those they left behind. In most cases, such American Hispanics are entitled to citizenship in their ancestral land or, they can regain it easily. Even Puerto Ricans, whose country the US annexed without consultation, have the latitude to go home where they are unlikely to be exposed to racism. All those so-called minorities can thus easily avoid current alleged white American racism and, to the extent that they carry a special burden, it’s because of choices their own antecedents made. It seems to me none has any right to blame America nor to expect favored treatment on this account.
Expecting the descendants of slaves to “get over it,” is not reasonable, as I said. The likelihood is quite high that the adverse consequences of slavery have followed their ancestors, their parents through the years like a pig moving through a python. There is not particular ground to believe that these negative effects must automatically become diluted over time. This assessment is possible (and, I think, only fair) irrespective of whether we know what to to about it. Recognizing that a problem exists does not require that one know its solution.
In the next and last installments of this three-part essay, I will look at resolutions after introducing the third common attitude of conservatives: “It wasn’t me.”
The Great American Racial Awakening: A Conservative Approach (Part One)
When the so-called progressive forces opened America wide to everything black after the police murder of George Floyd, I feared the worst. I thought I would be daily embarrassed by an endless parade of black affirmative action wonders. I was thinking of mediocre or frankly bad African American actors, would-be pundits, pseudo-intellectuals, and demagogues promoted solely because of their race in an act of mendacious collective contrition. (And it’s true that the Democratic Party, the current home of “progressives,” has a lot to be contrite about, going back to its foundation.) I had learned that fear from thirty years in academia, of course, as well as from the continuing demonstration of lack of acumen of the media in staging again and again Al (“Honest”) Sharpton and the seemingly immortal Reverend Jackson.
Here, a detour is in order. What I saw in academia was not the admission, or hiring or promotion of wholly incompetent individuals because of their race (except one time). What I witnessed instead was the fact that people who were qualified overall, were given a solid bump up because of their race. In the last academic hiring in which I was involved, for example, the favored job candidate was more than qualified, rather overqualified for my department, in fact. At 28, she was hired at the same salary I had achieved after twenty years. She was black, of course. Not good for race relations! End of detour.
To my great and pleasant surprise, this obvious orgy of promotion of the embarrassingly incompetent but racially endowed is not most of what happened in the past year. Instead, I began seeing more black faces and hearing more black voices in the English language media I normally follow. This happened without any loss of average quality. In the inside “culture and lifestyle” pages of my daily Wall Street Journal, for example, plays and movies by black authors and directors were reviewed instead of the usual whites’. I found nothing shameful there; in fact, it was a little bit refreshing. Whether this speaks to the quality of black culture producers or to the ordinary mediocrity of the WSJ inside pages, I am not sure. My point is that the descent into the intolerable I had feared and expected did not happen.
On the other hand, and as might be expected, National Public Radio crawled forward and backward to be ahead of the game and to do more for black authors, and black everything, and black everywhere, than anyone else. But in doing so, NPR fulfills all my usual expectation rather than my specific post-Floyd killing expectations. NPR is often unbearable because of its piousness, both sincere and contrived. And, I am well informed about this because I listen to NPR every weekend, have for years. First, it’s good for my moral character, like a cold shower upon getting up in the morning. Second, I want to be well informed about my enemies’ thinking and NPR gives me this in the most concentrated, efficient form possible. In addition, I frankly like a few of its weekly narrative offerings, such as “How I Built It” and the “Moth Radio Hour.”
To my mind, the Great American Racial Awakening is all pretty superficial. I think (I intuit) that few deep transformations will afflict it. My mind says, “Don’t panic!”
My optimism is rooted in the belief that the more grotesques forms of the new consciousness are going to be sloughed off naturally. For example, I am betting what within a short time, a combination of state actions, school board reactions, and quiet teachers’ rejections is going to push into oblivion the delirious statement that mathematics is “racist.” “Critical Race Theory,” that the schools are supposedly forced to teach, does not worry me much because no one knows what it is, not even those who are cramming it down our throats. (Perhaps two dozens academics really know what it is. They don’t matter.) I think it’s only a fancy word standing for a certain brand of historical revisionism. It seems to me it’s an attempt to make Americans re-focus and look at their history from a different angle. I will address this re-focusing in my next installment. I will do it explicitly as a conservative.
Immigration in the Time of Joe Biden: What to Do (Part 2 of 11)
Does America Need Immigrants?
By way of honest introduction, let me say that I think American society needs immigrants. I also think it will draw them either through an orderly process or through a disorderly one. Two big reasons US society needs immigrants. (There are other reasons.) First we have chronically unmet labor needs. As I write, more than a year into the pandemic, the unemployment rate of 6.2 is unusually high (not very high) as compared to mean unemployment for the past 70 years. Yet, many jobs are going unfilled according to newspapers, national and local, and to other media, including Fox News, repeatedly. I know the overgenerous subsidization of unemployment during COVID plays a role in the lack of responsiveness to job offers. I don’t think it explains everything, especially toward the top of the income structure and also toward the bottom where many just don’t qualify for benefits.
The second reason American society needs immigrants is that it is aging fast. It’s aging fast enough to threaten the future viability of such essential social programs as Social Security and Medicare unless we have an unprecedented rise in per worker productivity (which is not out of the question given fast technical progress, and a greater acceptance of artificial intelligence and of robotization). The bad news is that the current mean number of children per US woman (including permanent immigrants with a superior fertility) is only 1.7. That’s much below the generally recognized replacement rate of 2.1. If current trends continue, we will be seeing dwindling numbers of physically active younger people struggling to support a growing population of old people. (Current trends do not have to continue, I know.) I realize that there are solutions to this problem other than immigration including making many or all work latter into their lives, or even earlier. Still immigration looks like the quickest solution. In the short term, its concreteness, its immediacy, makes this solution pretty much irresistible. One more reason to think it through.
[Editor’s note: this is Part 2 of an 11-part essay. You can read Part 1 here, or read the essay in its entirety here.]
- The red pill for philosophers and scientists Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
- “Lived experience” and the Word of God Brendan O’Neill, spiked!
- The immigrant’s vote of confidence in America John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
- How the world gave up on the stateless Udi Greenberg, New Republic
- The miseducation of America’s elites Bari Weiss, City Journal
- Fear, loathing, and surrealism in Russia Emina Melonic, Law & Liberty
- Cancelling Adam Smith Brian Micklethwait, Samizdata
- Artificial Intelligence and humanity Kazuo Ishiguro (interview), Wired
- What did John Calvin think about economics? Steven Wedgeworth, Calvinist International
- The ethnocultural borderlands of early Maoist China Benno Weiner, Age of Revolutions
- Burning books Akram Aylisli (interview), Los Angeles Review of Books
- Ivy League English departments and low culture Mark Bauerlein, Modern Age
- “But Maliki was supported both by Iran and by the United States.” John Jenkins, New Statesman