Are you a racist?
Anyone can feel free to answer this question any way it/she/he wishes; they wish. And that’s the problem. In this short essay, I aim first to do a little vocabulary house-keeping. Second, I try to trace three distinct origins of racism. I operate from thin authority. My main sources are sundry un-methodical readings, especially on slavery, spread over fifty years, and my amazingly clear recollection of lectures by my late teacher at Stanford, St. Clair Drake, in the sixties. (He was the author of Black Metropolis among other major contributions.) I also rely on equally vivid memories of casual conversations with that master storyteller. Here you have it. I am trying to plagiarize the pioneer St. Clair Drake. I believe the attempt would please him though possibly not the results.
Feel free to reject everything I say below. If nothing else, it might make you feel good. If you are one of the few liberals still reading me, be my guest and get exercised. Besides, I am an old white man! Why grant me any credence?
That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, in these days (2020) obsessed with racism, I never see or hear the basic ideas about racism set down below expressed in the media, in reviews or on-line although they are substantially more productive than what’s actually around. I mean that they help arrive at a clearer and richer understanding of racism.
If you find this brief essay even a little useful, think of sharing it. Thank you.
“Racism” is a poor word because today, it refers at once to thoughts, attitudes, feeling, and also to actions and policies. Among the latter, it concerns both individual actions and collective actions, and even policies. Some of the policies may be considered to be included in so-called “systemic racism” about which I wrote in my essay “Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take.”
The mishmash between what’s in the heads of people and what they actually do is regrettable on two grounds. First, the path from individual belief, individual thoughts, individual attitudes, on the one hand, to individual action, on the other is not straightforward. My beliefs are not always a great predictor of my actions because reality tends to interfere with pure intent.
Second, collective action and, a fortiori policies, rarely looks like the simple addition of individual actions. People act differently in the presence of others than they do alone. Groups (loosely defined) are capable of greater invention than are individuals. Individuals in a group both inspire and censor one another; they even complete one another’s thoughts; the ones often give the others courage to proceed further.
This piece is about racism, the understanding, the attitudes, the collection of beliefs which predispose individuals and groups to thinking of others as inferior and/or unlikable on the basis of some physical characteristics. As I said, racism so defined can be held individually or collectively. Thus, this essay is deliberately not about actions, program, failures to act inspired by racism, the attitude. That’s another topic others can write about.
Fear and loathing of the unknown
Many people seem to assume that racial prejudice is a natural condition that can be fought in simple ways. Others, on the contrary, see it as ineradicable. Perhaps it all depends on the source of racism. The word mean prejudgment about a person’s character and abilities based on persistent physical traits that are genetically transmitted. Thus, dislike of that other guy wearing a ridiculous blue hat does not count; neither does hostility toward one sex or the other (or the other?). I think both assumptions above – racism as natural and as ineradicable – are partly but only partly true. My teacher St. Clair Drake explained to me once, standing in the aisle of a Palo Alto bookstore, that there are three separate kinds of racial prejudice, of racism, with distinct sources.
The first kind of racism is rooted in fear of the unknown or of the unfamiliar. This is probably hard-wired; it’s human nature. It would be a good asset to have for the naked, fairly slow apes that we were for a long time. Unfamiliar creature? Move away; grab a rock. After all, those who look like you are usually not dangerous enemies; those who don’t, you don’t know and why take a risk?
Anecdote: A long time ago, I was acting the discreet tourist in a big Senegalese fishing village. I met a local guy about my age (then). We had tea together, talked about fishing. He asked me if I wanted to see his nearby house. We walked for about five minute to a round adobe construction covered in thatch. He motioned me inside where it was quite dark. A small child was taking a nap on a stack of blankets in the back. Sensing a presence, the toddler woke up, opened his eyes, and began screaming at the top of his lungs. The man picked him up and said very embarrassed. “I am sorry, my son has never seen a toubab before.” (“Toubab” is the local not unfriendly word for light skin people from elsewhere.)
Similarly, Jared Diamond recounts (and show corresponding pictures in his book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies. Viking: New York.) of how central New Guinea natives became disfigured by fear at their first sight of a white person. Some explained later that they thought they might be seeing ghosts.
The second distinctive form of racism simply comes from fear of the dark, rooted itself in dread of the night. It’s common to all people, including dark skinned people, of course. It’s easy to understand once you remember that beings who were clearly our direct ancestors, people whose genes are in our cells, lived in fear of the darkness night after night for several hundreds of thousands of years. Most of their fears were justified because the darkness concealed lions, leopards, hyenas, bears, tigers, saber-toothed cats, wolves, wild dogs, and other predators, themselves with no fear of humans. The fact that the darkness of night also encouraged speculation about other hostile beings -varied spirits – that did not really exist does not diminish the impact of this incomplete zoological list.
As is easy to observe, the association dark= bad is practically universal. Many languages have an expression equivalent to: “the forces of darkness.” I doubt that any (but I can’t prove it, right now) says, “the forces of lightness” to designate something sinister. Same observation with “black magic,” and disappearing into a “black hole.” Similarly, nearly everywhere, uneducated people, and some of their educated betters, express some degree of hostility – mixed with contempt, for those, in their midst or nearby, who are darker than themselves. This is common among African Americans, for example. (Yes, I know, it may have other sources among them, specifically.)
This negative attitude is especially evident in the Indian subcontinent. On a lazy day, thirty years ago in Mumbai, I read several pages of conjugal want ads in a major newspaper. I noticed that 90% of the ads for would-be brides mentioned skin color in parallel with education and mastery of the domestic arts. (The men’s didn’t.) A common description was “wheatish,” which, I was told by Indian relatives, means not quite white but pretty close. (You can’t lie too shamelessly about skin tone because, if all goes well, your daughter will meet the other side in person; you need wiggle room.) In fact, the association between skin color and likability runs so deep in India that the same Sanskrit word, “varna,” designates both caste and color (meaning skin complexion). And, of course, there is a reason why children everywhere turn off the light to tell scary stories.
In a similar vein, the ancient Chinese seem to have believed that aristocrats were made from yellow soil while commoners were made from ordinary brown mud. (Cited by Harari, Yuval N. – 2015 – in: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Harper: New York.)
Some would argue that these examples represent ancestral fears mostly left behind by civilized, urban (same thing) people. My own limited examples, both personal and from observation is that it’s not so. It seems to me that fear of the dark is the first or second page of the book of which our daily street-lit, TV illuminated bravado is the cover. Allow a couple of total power stoppages (as Californians experienced recently) and it’s right there, drilling into our vulnerable minds.
Both of these two first kinds of negative feelings about that which is dark can be minimized, the first through experience and education: No, that pale man will not hurt you. He might even give you candy, or a metal ax. The second source of distaste of darkness has simply been moved to a kind of secondary relevance by the fact that today, most people live most of the time in places where some form of artificial lightning is commonplace. It persists nevertheless where it is shored up by a vast and sturdy institutional scaffolding as with the caste system of largely Hindu India. And it may be always present somewhere in the back of our minds but mostly, we don’t have a chance to find out.
The third source of hostility toward and contempt for a dark appearance is both more difficult to understand and harder to eliminate or even to tamp down. Explaining it requires a significant detour. Bear with me, please.
The origins of useful racism
Suppose you believe in a God who demands unambiguously that you love your “neighbor,” that is, every human being, including those who are not of your tribe, even those you don’t know at all. Suppose further that you are strongly inclined toward a political philosophy that considers all human beings, or at least some large subcategory of them, as fundamentally equal, or at least equal in rights. Or imagine rather that you are indifferent to one or both ideas but that you live among neighbors 90% of whom profess one, and 80% both beliefs. They manifest and celebrate these beliefs in numerous and frequent public exercises, such as church services, elections, and civic meetings where important decisions are launched.
Now a second effort of imagination is required. Suppose also that you or your ancestors came to America from the British Isles, perhaps in the 1600s, perhaps later. You have somehow acquired a nice piece of fertile land, directly from the Crown or from a landed proprietor, or by small incremental purchases. You grow tobacco, or indigo, or rice, or (later) cotton. Fortune does not yet smile on you because you confront a seemingly intractable labor problem. Almost everyone else around you owns land and thus is not eager to work for anyone else. Just about your only recourse is temporarily un-free young men who arrive periodically from old Britain, indentured servants (sometimes also called “apprentices”). Many of them are somewhat alien because they are Irish , although most of them speak English, or some English. Moreover, a good many are sickly when they land. Even the comparatively healthy young men do not adjust well to the hot climate. They have little resistance to local tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Most don’t last in the fields. You often think they are not worth the trouble. In addition, by contract or by custom, you have to set them free after seven years. With land being so attainable, few wish to stick around and earn a wage from you .
One day you hear that somewhere, not too far, new, different kinds of workers are available that are able to work long days in the heat and under the sun and who don’t succumb easily to disease. You take a trip to find out. The newcomers are chained together. They are a strange dark color, darker than any man you have seen, English, Irish, or Indian. Aside from this, they look really good as field hands go. They are muscular, youngish men in the flower of health. (They are all survivors of the terrible Atlantic passage and, before that, of some sort of long walk on the continent of Africa to the embarkation point at Goree, Senegal, or such. Only the strong and healthy survived such ordeals, as a rule.) There are a few women of the same hue with them, mostly also young.
Those people are from Africa, you are told. They are for outright sale. You gamble on buying two of them to find out more. You carry them to your farmstead and soon put them to work. After some confusion because they don’t understand any English, you and your other servants show them what to do. You are soon dazzled by their physical prowess. You calculate that one of them easily accomplishes the tasks of two of your indentured Irish apprentices. As soon as you can afford it, you go and buy three more Africans.
Soon, your neighbors are imitating you. All the dark skinned servants are snapped up as fast as they are landed. Prices rise. Those people are costly but still well worth the investment because of their superior productivity. Farmers plant new crops, labor intensive, high yield crops – -such as cotton – that they would not have dared investing in with the old kind of labor. To make the new labor even more attractive, you and your neighbors quickly figure that it’s also capital because it can be made to be self-reproducing. The black female servants can both work part of the time and make children who are themselves servants that belong to you by right. (This actually took some time to work out legally.)
Instrumental severity and cruelty
You are now becoming rich, amassing both tools and utensils and more land. All is still not completely rosy on your plantation though. One problem is that not all of your new African servants are docile. Some are warriors who were captured on the battlefield in Africa and they are not resigned to their subjection. A few rebel or try to run away. Mostly, they fail but their doomed attempts become the stuff of legend among other black servants thus feeding a chronic spirit of rebelliousness. Even in the second and third generation away from Africa, some black servants are born restive or sullen. And insubordination is contagious. At any rate, there are enough free white workers in your vicinity for some astute observers among your African servants to realize that they and their companions are treated comparatively badly, that a better fate is possible. Soon, there are even free black people around to whom they unavoidably compare themselves. (This fact deserves a full essay in its own right.)
To make a complex issue simple: Severity is necessary to keep your workforce at work. Such severity sometimes involves brutal public punishment for repeat offenders, such as whippings. There is a belief about that mere severity undermines the usefulness of the workforce without snuffing out its rebelliousness. Downright cruelty is sometimes necessary, the more public, the better. Public punishment is useful to encourage more timid souls to keep towing the line.
And then, there is the issue of escape. After the second generation, black slaves are relatively at home where they work. Your physical environment is also their home where some think they can fend for themselves. The wilderness is not very far. The slaves also know somehow that relatively close by are areas where slavery is prohibited or not actively enforced by authorities. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that at any time, some slaves, a few slaves, will attempt escape. Each escape is a serious economic matter because, aside from providing labor, each slave constitutes live capital. Most owners have only a few slaves. A single escape constitutes for them a significant form of impoverishment. Slaves have to be terrorized into not even wanting to escape.
Soon, it’s well understood that slaves are best kept in a state of more or less constant terror. It’s so well understood that local government will hang your expensive slave for rebellion whether you like it or not.
In brief, whatever their natural inclination, whatever their personal preference, slave owners have to be systematically cruel. And, it’s helpful for them to also possess a reputation for cruelty. This reputation has to be maintained and re-inforced periodically by sensationally brutal action. One big problem arises from such a policy of obligatory and vigilant viciousness: It’s in stark contradiction with both your religious and your political ideas that proclaim that one must love others and that all humans are at least potentially equal (before God, if nowhere else). And if you don’t hold deeply such beliefs yourself, you live among people who do, or who profess to. And, by a strange twist of fate, the richest, best educated, probably the most influential strata of your society are also those most committed to those ideals. (They are the class that would eventually produce George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.)
The personal psychological tension between the actual and highly visible brutal treatment of black slaves and prevailing moral values is technically a form of dissonance.” It’s also a social tension; it expresses itself collectively. Those actively involved in mistreating slaves are numerous. In vast regions of the English colonies, and later, of the United States, the contrast between action and beliefs is thus highly visible to everyone, obvious to many who are not themselves actively involved. It becomes increasingly difficult over time to dismiss slavery as a private economic affair because, more and more, political entities make laws actively supporting slavery. There are soon laws about sheltering fugitives, laws regulating the punishment of rebellious slaves, laws about slave marriage and, laws restricting the freeing of slaves, (“manumission”). Slavery thus soon enters the public arena. There are even laws to control the behavior of free blacks, those who merely used to be slaves.
Race as legal status
Special rules governing free blacks constitute an important step because, for the first time it replaces legal status (“slave,” chattel”), with race (dark skin, certain facial features, African ancestry). So, with the advent of legislation supporting slavery, an important symbolic boundary is crossed. The laws don’t concern only those defined by their legal condition of chattel property but also others, defined mostly or largely by their physical appearance and by their putative ancestry in Africa. At this point, every white subject, then every white citizen has become a participant in a struggle that depends on frankly racial categories by virtue of his belonging to the polity. Soon the social racial category “white” comes to stand for the legal status “free person,” “non-slave.”
Then, at this juncture, potentially every white adult becomes a party to the enforcement of slavery. For almost all of them, this participation, however passive, is in stark contradiction with both religious and political values. But ordinary human beings can only live with so much personal duplicity. Some whites will reject black slavery, in part or in whole. Accordingly, it’s notable that abolitionists always existed and were vocal in their opposition to slavery in the English colonies, and then in the United States, even in the deepest South. Their numbers and visibility never flagged until the Civil War.
How to reduce tension between beliefs and deeds
There are three main paths out of this personal moral predicament. They offer different degrees of resistance. The first path is to renounce one’s beliefs, those that are in contradiction to the treatment of one’s slaves. A slave owner could adjust by becoming indifferent to the Christian message, or skeptical of democratic aspiration, or both. No belief in the fraternity of Man or in any sort of equality between persons? Problem solved. This may be relatively feasible for an individual alone. In this case, though the individuals concerned, the slave owners, and their slave drivers, exist within a social matrix that re-inforces frequently, possibly daily the dual religious command to treat others decently and the political view that all men are more or less equal. Churches, political organizations, charity concerns, and gentlemen’s club stand in the way. To renounce both sets of beliefs – however attractive this might be from an individual standpoint – would turn one into a social pariah. Aside from the personal unpleasantness of such condition, it would surely have adverse economic repercussions.
The second way to free oneself from the tension associated with the contrast between humane beliefs, on the one hand, and harsh behavior, on the other hand, is simply to desist from the latter. Southern American chronicles show that a surprisingly large numbers of slave owners chose that path at any one time. Some tried more compassionate slave driving, with varying degrees of economic success. Others – who left major traces, for documentary reasons – took the more radical step of simply freeing some of their slaves when they could, or when it was convenient. Sometimes, they freed all of their slaves, usually at their death, through their wills, for example. The freeing of slaves – manumission – was so common that the rising number of free blacks was perceived as a social problem in much of the South. Several states actually tried to eliminate the problem by passing legislation forbidding the practice.
Of course, the fact that so many engaged in such an uneconomic practice demonstrates in itself the validity of the idea that the incompatibility between moral convictions and slave driving behavior generated strong tensions. One should not take this evidence too far however because there may have been several reasons to free slaves, not all rooted in this tension. (I address this issue briefly in “Systemic Racism….”)
The easy way out
The third way to reduce the same tension, the most extreme and possibly the least costly took two steps. Step one consisted in recognizing consciously this incompatibility; step two was to begin mentally to separate the black slaves from humanity. This would work because all your bothersome beliefs – religious and political – applied explicitly to other human beings. The less human the objects of your bad treatment the less the treatment contravened your beliefs. After all, while it may be good business to treat farm animals well, there is not much moral judgment involved there. In fact, not immediately but not long after the first Africans landed in the English colonies of North America, there began a collective endeavor aiming at their conceptual de-humanization. It was strongly a collective project addressing ordinary people including many who had no contacts with black slaves or with free blacks. It involved the universities and intellectual milieus in general with a vengeance (more on this latter).
Some churches also lent a hand by placing the sanction of the Bible in the service of the general idea that God himself wanted slaves to submit absolutely to the authority of their masters. To begin with, there was always to story of Noah’s three sons. The disrespectful one, Ham, cursed by Noah, was said to be the father of the black race, on the thin ground that his name means something like “burnt.” However, it’s notable that the tension never disappeared because other churches, even in the Deep South, continued their opposition to slavery on religious grounds. The Quakers, for example, seldom relented.
Their unusual appearance and the fact that the white colonists could not initially understand their non-European languages (plural) was instrumental in the collective denial of full humanity to black slaves. In fact, the arriving slaves themselves often did not understand one another. This is but one step from believing that they did not actually possess the power of speech. Later, as the proportion of America-born slaves increased, they developed what is known technically as a creole language to communicate with one another. That was recognizably a form of English but probably not understood by whites unless they tried hard. Most had few reasons to try at all. Language was not the only factor contributing to the ease with which whites, troubled by their ethical beliefs, denied full humanity to black slaves. Paradoxically, the degrading conditions in which the slaves were held must also have contributed to the impression of their sub-humanity.
The effort to deny full humanity to people of African descent continued for two centuries. As the Enlightenment reached American shores, the focus shifted from Scriptures to Science (pseudo science, sometimes but not always). Explorers’ first reports from sub-tropical Africa seemed to confirmed the soundness of the view that black Africans were not completely human: There were no real cities there, little by way of written literature, no search for knowledge recognizable as science, seemingly no schools. What art conscious visitors reported on did not seem sufficiently realistic to count as art by 18th and 19th century standards. I think that no one really paid attention to the plentiful African artistic creativity– this unmixed expression of humanity if there ever was one – until the early 1900s. Instead, African art was dismissed as crude stammering in the service of inarticulate superstitions.
The effort to harness science in service of the proposition of African un-humanity easily outlasted the Civil War and even the emancipation of slaves in North America. After he published the Origins of the Species in 1859, Darwin spent much of the balance of his life – curiously allied with Christians – in combating the widespread idea that there had been more than one creation of humanoids, possibly, one for each race. The point most strongly argued by those holding to this view was that Africans could not possibly be the brothers, or other close relatives, of the triumphant Anglo-Saxons. The viewpoint was not limited to the semi-educated by any means. The great naturalist Louis Agassiz himself believed that the races of men were pretty much species. In support, he presented the imaginary fact that the mating of different races – like mating between horses and donkeys – seldom produced fertile offspring. (All recounted in: Desmonds, Adrian, and James Moore. 2009. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. Hougton: NY.)
Those three main roads to racism are unequal in their persistence. Dislike for strangers tends to disappear of its own accord. Either the frightening contact ceases or it is repeated. In the first case, dislike turns irrelevant and accordingly becomes blurred. In the second case, repeated experience will often demonstrate that the strangers are not dangerous and the negative feelings subside of their own accord. If the strangers turn out to be dangerous overall, it seems to me that negative feelings toward them does not constitute racism. This, in spite of the fact that the negativity may occasionally be unfair to specific, individual strangers.
Racial prejudice anchored in atavistic fear of the night may persist in the depth of one’s mind but it too, does not survive experience well. Exposed to the fact that dark people are not especially threatening, many will let the link between darkness and fear or distaste subside in their minds. For this reason, it seems to me that the great American experiment in racial integration of the past sixty years was largely successful. Many more white Americans today personally know African Americans than was the case in 1960, for example. The black man whose desk is next to yours, the black woman who attends the same gym as you week after week, the black restaurant goers at you favored eating place, all lose their aura of dangerousness through habituation. Habituation works both ways though. The continued over-representation of black men in violent crimes must necessarily perpetuates in the minds of all (including African Americans) the association between danger and a dark complexion.
The road to racism based on the reduction of the tension between behavior and beliefs via conceptual de-humanization of the victims has proved especially tenacious. Views of people of African descent, but also of other people of color, as less than fully human persist or re-merge frequently because they have proved useful. This approach may have saved the important part of the American economy based on slavery until war freed the slaves without removing the de-humanizing. As many leftists claim (usually without evidence) this was important to the latter fast development of the American economy because cotton production in the South was at its highest in the years right preceding the Civil War. In the next phase the view of black Americans as less than human served well to justify segregation for the next hundred years. It was thus instrumental in protecting poor whites from wage competition with even poorer African Americans.
In the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the opinion that Africans – and other people of color – were not quite human also strengthened the European colonial enterprise in many places. (The de-humanization of colonial people was not inevitable though. The French justification of colonialism – “France’s civilizing mission” – is incompatible with this view. It treated the annexed people instead as immature, as infantile, rather than as subhuman.)
This third road to racism tends to last because it’s a collective response to a difficult situation that soon builds its own supporting institutions. For a long time, in America and in the West, in general, it received some assistance from the new, post-religious ideology, science. Above all, it’s of continuing usefulness in a variety of situations. This explanation reverses the naive, unexamined explanation of much racism: That people act in cruel ways toward others who are unlike them because they are racist. It claims, rather that they become racist in order to continue acting in cruel ways toward others, contrary to their own pre-existing beliefs that enjoin them to treat others with respect. If this perspective is correct, we should find that racism is the more widespread and the more tenacious the more egalitarian and the more charitable the dominant culture where it emerges.
Jack Curtis is back as our guest, and with a thoughtful vengeance:
It is no coincidence that Reformed Judeo-Christian culture has led the explosion of human progress in recent centuries; it both set up the church as society’s and government’s visible conscience, and by reversing sovereignty from king to people, freed incalculable individual effort into the more productive directions celebrated by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations. The first provided a foundation for the reduced corruption and enhanced public trust that advance economic progress; the second accelerated human achievement. Tales of extraordinary human accomplishment have always centered upon motivated individuals, ordered serfdom has never been considered very productive and slavery, least of all. This is a reality typically brushed off by those selling the idea that alterations of government structure can be used to alter innate human behavior. The idea however, remains an enduring political swindle enshrined among public educators naturally interested in producing complaisant citizens for their employer.
I was hanging out in my daughter’s room the other day and noticed a new picture of her on the wall. My daughter is nearly 3 now, but that photo showed to me a person who will someday be a young girl, a woman, a daughter-in-law, a college student, a worker, and, if all goes accordingly, a grandmother or at least a sassy old lady who plays too much bingo down at the local Methodist church.
A little later on that same night, after the kids were tucked in and sleeping and I was on this damned computer doing NOL stuff, I thought about liberty and what it might mean to my daughter, and also about how the meaning of liberty has changed over time in my own mind.
For starters, “liberty” is kind of a corny term now. It’s becoming archaic. “Freedom” has started to become a corny word, too. (Its cause is not helped by American politicians using the term “freedom” to describe Washington’s overseas ambitions.)
Knowing what I know now about the libertarian movement in the United States, I don’t think I will introduce my daughter to the formal movement. No summer seminars, no Reason subscription, no Ayn Rand moment where I hand her Atlas Shrugged and tell her how much that book has changed my life.
I think a better avenue for discovering her freedom will be to encourage her to go to the best college she can get in to (sorry Rick), figure out a way to be grateful for employment, and read plenty of literature and science fiction.
The formal libertarian atmosphere probably won’t be around in the same way it was for us. Will it be more decentralized or more centralized? I don’t know how academic it will be, either. I hope it’s somewhat academic, with more of an emphasis on history and culture rather than economics and philosophy. The think tanks and foundations will still be around. They’ll still be dirty and they’ll still better than the alternatives. We had FEE and IHS. FEE has already fallen off the map. IHS might still be around, but it will have plenty of competition.
What if my daughter discovers my notes on liberty? Will she be proud? Will she giggle? Or worse: Will she be embarrassed? Will she become a libertarian if she stumbles across my writings? It’s too early to say. That photo, though, of a little human being smiling back at me in black-and-white, was profound. She is my daughter, sure, but she is someone different than me. She is her own self.
- The stoic grief of the Gold Star Mothers John McKay, American Conservative
- “My body, my choice” Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
- “Frontier” history has gotten much better, no thanks to David McCullough Rebecca Onion, Slate
- The loss of a symbol of civilization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
Christmas, as I hope everybody (at least in the West) still knows is Jesus’ birthday. I don’t want to spend too much time here talking about how it is very unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25, and how this date was probably just chosen at some point in the late Ancient times/Early Medieval times to Christianize European pagans. The Bible never specifies when Jesus was born (although it does offer some hints), and so, some very devout Christians over history (Puritans, for example) thought that we should not even celebrate Christmas. The gospel according to John doesn’t even talk about Jesus’ birth. In it, Jesus simply appears as a grown man. The same thing happens in Mark’s gospel. Matthew and Luke give accounts of Jesus’ birth, with Luke being more detailed. So, ½ of our gospels don’t seem to be very interested in Jesus’ life before he was about 30 years old. Someone has said (and I think somewhat appropriately) that the gospels are accounts of Jesus passion (his death and resurrection) with long introductions.
But anyways! I don’t think that celebrating Christmas is bad, not at all! I believe it is a good occasion to remember Jesus, the founder of Western civilization. May we like it or not, the West is profoundly linked to Christianity. Christianism begin as little more than a small and persecuted Jewish sect, but eventually became the main religion in Europe (and northern Africa, and the Near East), and from there to the World. Some might say (and I think that sadly they might be right) that today Europe lives in a post-Christian era, but we should not forget that someday in the past to be European and to be Christian were basically synonyms. And I also believe that we, professing Christians or not, should be thankful to Christianity in a number of ways. I am very convinced that it was thanks to Christianity, especially after the Reformation, that we have many of the things that we, as liberty-lovers, are thankful for, such as science, capitalism and lots of individual liberty.
Of course, from the human perspective, the link between Christianism and West is merely accidental. I myself, as a Brazilian, am not sure if I classify as a Westerner. Maybe I am from the far West? It is very clear that for many decades now Christianism is moving to the global south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, and I hope not to be forgetting anyone. And I think that is just beautiful! I don’t believe that there is one essential Christian culture. Instead, I believe that culture is an essential human phenomenon and that Christianism can give a new birth to cultures, just as it does to individuals, bringing forward what they have best and leaving behind the bad stuff.
Sadly, the very places where Christianism is growing the most today are usually also the places where Christians suffer more persecution. Although we tend to connect the first few centuries of Christianism with martyrdom, with people being crucified, thrown to the beasts and the like, the fact is that the 20th century had more martyrs than any other century before. It is also sad for me that most people, including Christians and liberty-lovers, tend to ignore this. In the last few weeks, I heard of at least two churches being closed in China, with all members being taken to jail. I wish that people who care about freedom paid more attention to this. I also wish that people who care about Human Rights did the same. Some people are worried about gay couples not getting wedding cakes from Christian bakers, but they don’t seem to have the same concern about Chinese Christians being thrown in jail just because they are Christians.
Speaking of which, I want to be very honest and say that Marxism (or post-Marxism, or cultural Marxism) can easily become a religion. Marx is a prophet, The Capital is a holy book, the proletariat (or any oppressed minority, for the modern left) is both Messiah and holy people, a future communist utopia is Heaven. I believe that it was a Catholic apologist who said that “the problem with not believing in God is that we start to believe in any dumb thing – including in ourselves”. The problem with Marxism as a religion is the same problem I see with every other religion apart from Biblical Christianity: it is performance driven. It is about what you do. And as so, it can create a slippery slope in your heart. You become self-righteous and judgmental (in a bad way) of people outside your faith-group or even people inside your faith-group who you consider not holy enough. Of course, Christians are not exempt from this either, but I believe we have the right medicine for this.
As much as I believe that the New Left is one of the greatest problems in the West today and that several forms of totalitarianism are one of the main problems elsewhere, I don’t believe that libertarianism or conservatism are in themselves the solution. I became a libertarian (or a conservative-libertarian) because I am first a Christian. My first question was “what the Bible has to say about politics and economics”? I believe that somewhere in the libertarian camp we have the best answer for that. I believe the Bible teaches that very small and simple governments and market freedom are the answer. However, I would say that this is just partly the answer.
The way that I see it, the conflict between the left and the right is very much a conflict between Rousseau and Locke, or a conflict between two kinds of freedom. For Rousseau, you are only free when you are your true inner self. If necessary, the community can make an intervention to force you to become who you truly are. For Locke, you are free when you can make your own choices, regardless if they look good for others. As libertarians like to say, a crime without a victim is not a crime.
I believe this is also a basic conflict between modern western culture and more tradition culture – the conflict between collectivism and individualism. My answer as a Christian (and a libertarian) is that we should not force people to be Christians. That would, at best, produce external conformity – which is actually really bad. My understanding is that, as long as they are not predictably and willfully hurting others, people should be let free to do whatever they want. And I do mean whatever. On the other hand, I don’t think that this is good – or as good as it can be. Ironically, I believe that Rousseau is onto something important: you are only truly free when you are who you are really supposed to be.
One great irony or paradox in Christianism is that you are only truly free when you are a slave to God. Understanding 1st-century slavery helps to get the analogy better. God bought us for a price. We belong to him. However, God is not satisfied with having us as slaves. Instead, he adopts us as sons. That is the (I believe) famous parable of the prodigal son: a son abandons his father and loses all his money. He comes back hoping to become a slave in his father’s house. His father takes him back as a son. So, Jesus gives us a new identity as sons of God. And I do mean sons, and not sons and daughters or children. In the 1st century daughters had no inheritance, but in Christ, we all share of it. So that is our true identity if we walk after Christ. And that is when we are truly free.
I don’t want to force anybody to be Christian. I believe that one of the greatest mistakes in Christian history was exactly that: to force people to become Christian. As I said, religion can easily create a slippery slope in the heart, and Christianism is not necessarily an exception. But while other religions are about what we do, Christianism in its essence has at least the potential to be what has been done for us. And that is truly humbling. And I believe this has important political implications: we pray for all. We hope for the best. We trust in God. We respect others.
So Merry Christmas to all! I hope that this is a time for remembering the birthday boy, and what he did, especially on the cross. And that we can all work for a world freer, where people can become Christians – if they choose so.
Is polarization a threat to democracy and what is the liberal position on this?
As I pointed out in Degrees of Freedom, most liberals have a preference for democracy. Modern-day democracy – with universal suffrage, a representative parliament, and elected officials – has been developed over the course of the twentieth century. The idea has its roots in antiquity, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, and several forms for shared political decision-making in Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England. Democracy is not a liberal “invention,” but the term ‘liberal democracy’ has taken firm root. This is true because modern democracy is based on liberal ideas, such as the principle of “one man, one vote,” protection of the classical rights of man, peaceful change of political leadership, and other rules that characterize the constitutional state.
Remarkably, the majority of liberals embraced the idea of democracy only late in the nineteenth century. They also saw dangers of majority decision making to individual liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in Democracy in America. Still, to liberals democracy is better than alternatives, such as autocracy or absolute monarchy. This is not unlike Sir Winston Churchill’s quip “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Yet there is a bit more to it for liberals. It is has proven to be a method that provides a decent, if imperfect, guarantee for the protection of individual freedom and the peaceful change of government.
Of course there is ample room for discussion inside and beyond academia about numerous different issues, such as the proper rules of democracy, different forms of democracy, the role of constitutions in democracy, whether referenda are a threat or a useful addition to representative democratic government, the roles of parties, party systems, and political leaders, et cetera. These are not the topic here.
In the context of the election of President Trump, but also before that, both inside and outside the US, there is a wide debate on the alleged polarization in society. By this is meant the hardening of standpoints of (often) two large opposing groups in society, who do not want to cooperate to solve the issues of the day, but instead do everything they can to oppose the other side. Consensus seeking is a swear word for those polarized groups, and a sign of weakness.
There appears less consensus on a number of issues now than in the past. Yet this is a questionable assumption. In the US it has been going on for a long time now, certainly in the ethical and immaterial area, think about abortion, the role of the church in society, or freedom of speech of radical groups. Yet most (Western) societies have been polarized in the past along other lines, like the socialist-liberal divide, the liberalization of societies in the 1960s and 1970s, or more recent debates about Islam and integration. Current commentators claim something radically different is going on today. But I doubt it, it seems just a lack of historical awareness on their side. I can’t wait for some decent academic research into this, including historical comparisons.
As a side note: a different but far more problematic example of polarization is gerrymandering (changing the borders of legislative districts to favour a certain party). This has been going on for decades and can be seen as using legal procedures to rob people not of their actual voting rights, but of their meaningful voting rights. Curiously, this does not figure prominently in the current debates…
The (classical) liberal position on polarization is simple. Fighting for, or opposing a certain viewpoint, is just a matter of individual right to free speech. This also includes using law and legislation, existing procedures, et cetera. The most important thing is that in the act of polarizing there cannot be a threat to another person’s individual liberty, including the classical rights to life, free speech, and free association, among others. Of course, not all is black and white, but on the whole, if these rules are respected I fail to see how polarization is threat to democracy, or why polarization cannot be aligned with liberalism.
India of 1947 had battled decades of colonialism to embrace self-rule. Whatever divisions seeped through party ranks, coalesced – and how beautifully – to fight for the right the people to a democracy. Having a common enemy helped. Compounded by the ability of the political leaders of that time to weave magic through words, connecting the plights of the millions to the queen-ship of one propelled movements across the breadth of the Indian subcontinent. While much has been said of the academic prowess as well as the oratory skills of the Founders, it was their ability to connect across barriers of identity that ultimately pushed the wheel. How dearly they protected their freedom of speech, expression and press is perhaps telling of the importance they assigned to being connected with those they had chosen to represent. How is it then that a deeply flawed election system and disjointed lines of public communication yielded one of the biggest civil disobedience movements the world had ever seen?
In terms of representation and reach, India 2018 is better abled than India 1947. And yet, it fell upon the unelected shoulders of four men and one woman to correct a deeply violent, colonial and bigoted law. The right to sexual identity was granted by five cis heterosexual individuals; the ones in need of representation reduced to being mere petitioners. India celebrated breaking off one more shackle, the Judiciary reveled in being the harbinger of liberal values to the Indian legal system yet one more time and the Parliament, as always, stayed mum. It is not that either of the institutions have embraced staunch anti/pro liberal positions. The Indian judiciary has its share of misogynists much like the Parliament. Misogyny is not illegal. But what is illegal is the Parliament’s distance from her electorate. Even if one were to contend that a majority of India does not support homosexuality, the increasing momentum of the movement should have propelled an informed debate within and without the Parliament. Instead, the government chose to not object to the petitions filed in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality as if that is the extent of the responsibility they owe to the LGBTQ community of the country. The distance between a judicial decriminalization of homosexuality and one done through a legislative device is the distance between a populist democracy and a representative one. The counter-majoritarian difficulty seems almost trivial when democratic institutions lose their representative character.
The biggest reason behind the rising legitimacy of an essentially non-democratic institution as the Judiciary is not a power grab by the Supreme Court judges. Howsoever activist they might get, the requirement of giving a reasoned decision tempers their emotions. The Indian Parliament, on the other hand, has come to rely on this increasing politicization of the judiciary to avoid political battles that might require concessions from their mostly unreasoned manifestos. The result is a lack of deliberation that is disturbingly dismal for a democracy as huge as India. The requirements of representation have come to be restricted to a periodical holding of elections. Members of Parliament are neither Burkean agents nor Pateman’s representatives. They are a political class unto themselves working towards a steady demise of the largest democracy in the world.
Interesting map, for a few reasons. The United States is in green, which means there are “no special safety risks” to worry about. What I take this to mean is that as long as you stay out of, say, North Sacramento, or East Austin, when the sun goes down you’ll be safe.
The “pay attention, safety risks” label makes quite a big jump in my conceptual understanding of this map. What this warning means is that if you are particularly stupid, you won’t end up getting mugged and losing your wallet (like you would in green areas), you will instead end up losing your life or being kidnapped for ransom (or slavery).
This is quite a big jump, but it makes perfect sense, especially if you think about the jump in terms of inequality and, more abstractly, freedom.
Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.
Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.
As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:
“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”
If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.
My latest Tuesday column over at RealClearHistory takes aim at the history of marijuana in the United States. I’ve got a 600 word limit, but hopefully I packed in plenty of info. Here’s an excerpt:
During the much-loathed Prohibition era (1920-33), marijuana was targeted along with alcohol and other substances deemed immoral by bootleggers and Baptists. Unlike alcohol, which was re-legalized in 1933, marijuana ended up in a legal limbo that continues to this day. The legal, political, economic, and cultural battles surrounding marijuana use in the United States have helped shape three generations of lawyers, businesspeople, activists, academics, and medical professionals. Thanks to the questions posed by marijuana prohibition, rigorous and creative arguments in favor of the drug’s legalization have contributed to a better understanding of our federal system of government, of Judeo-Christian morality, and non-Western ethical systems (pot-smoking “Buddhists” are practically cliche today), of the human body and especially the brain, of global trading networks throughout history, and of intercultural exchange and communication. Freedom still defines us as a society. Freedom binds Americans together. Freedom drives our conversations and our institutional actors. This may be difficult to remember as the news cycle grows ever more sensational, but this quiet, humble truth still remains.
Please, read the rest.