Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

W. E. B DuBois On The Exportation Of Domestic Pathology

In ‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington And Others’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, Bedford St. Martins, 1997, pp. 68) W. E. B. DuBois writes:

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

DuBois was, as might be expected from such a perspicuous thinker, onto something here. Just as wars fought overseas invariably come back home to roost, to corrupt and fester domestic realities by injecting into them the same militarism on display elsewhere–witness the policing on display in Ferguson and the awesome militarization soldiers in the War on Drugs are able to employ, so too, are domestic pathologies sooner or later exported overseas. Especially if the political power in question is capable of projecting itself to the furthest reaches of the world. It seeks and finds expression elsewhere; it has the means to do so; its motivating principles and ideologies lend it problematic form.

As DuBois notes, a nation capable of oppressing its own domestic ‘other,’ will have little compunction in translating that contempt into even more murderous form in its foreign policies. Especially if it sees that same ‘other’ present elsewhere. If indigenous people are exterminated at home, their extermination elsewhere will be of little consequence (it comes as little surprise that US foreign policy in Latin American has consistently propped up regimes who have enacted brutal programs of suppression of directed at their indigenous peoples); if people of color and women are denied rights at home, their enslavement elsewhere will matter little if required as a cornerstone of international relations (the long tolerance of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the propping up of dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere pay adequate testimony to this claim). Indeed, the increased ‘otherness’ of the peoples in distant lands may lend the foreign policy an especially brutal and indifferent edge.

It should be small wonder then that the rest of the world looks on with some nervousness at developments in seemingly domestic political matters in the American domain; an America more enlightened in its treatment of citizens at home has taken the first step–no matter how halting and tentative–in extending similar treatment to others who are the subjects of its policies elsewhere.

DuBois knew ‘colored Americans’ would not find respite elsewhere; sooner or later, they would have to fight a power that would soon find them in their new homes. Better to begin that battle now, here.

The Civil War, The Emancipation Proclamation, And The Slow ‘Disintegration’

In his revisionist history of the Reconstruction A Short History of Reconstruction (Harper and Row, New York, 1990, pp.2) Eric Foner writes:

[T]the [Emancipation] Proclamation  only confirmed what was  happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Even in the  heart of the Confederacy, the conflict undermined the South’s “peculiar institution.” The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters’ wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of “demoralized” and “insubordinate” behavior multiplied throughout the South.

The transformation among the South’s slaves that Foner makes note of is a fascinating one. It is a process during and through which the formerly enslaved, oppressed, and controlled comes to realize the older shackles do not hold any more–and begin to act, drawing upon and utilizing, the new-found freedom that is now dramatically visible and manifest. For long after the shackles have been removed, after the overseer has left, after the whip has been put down, the enslaved continues to fear the older control, the always exercised restraint. He has come to internalize these controls, to enact them for himself with great efficiency. He has, as it were, become his own slave master. He anticipates the lashing even when the lash can no longer be raised and lowered.

But one day, the slave realizes the physical acts and tools that have restrained his freedom and punished him when he resisted their controls can no longer act.  In their place are only idle threats, puppets who seek to dominate by borrowing the power of others. Power is gone; only its pale shadow remains. The slave cowers under this shadow for a while, but its insubstantiality is all too easily realized; it can be thrown off, shrugged off. The spell is broken. There is disbelief, a reluctance to admit the nightmare is over. Realization and awakening can take their own time to crystallize, to make real former fantasies. But become real they do.

Sometimes the formerly subjugated rise up suddenly and violently. Sometimes their frustrated energies and ambitions, so long repressed, can only seek, and find, explosive release. Those they turn on can find this anger terrifying and pitiless; they, used to cowering and timidity, find the new insubordination and insolence frightening in its lack of regard for older niceties and norms.

As the Union’s Armies approached then, two fronts advanced: one from the ‘outside,’ one from within. The military front promised defeat of one kind, the crumbling domestic one yet another. The verities it uprooted, the older securities it made fantastic, made it a more threatening and ultimately frightening one.  Even if those realizing it took their time about it.

Note: The book excerpted above is an abridgement of Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (Harper Perennial, New York, 2014).

Tocqueville On Slaves, House Of Cards, And Miami

In his classic Democracy in America, in the section “Situation Of The Black Population In The United States, And Dangers With Which Its Presence Threatens The Whites”, Alexis Tocqueville wrote:

[I]n a certain portion of the territory of the United States…the legal barrier which separated the two races is tending to fall away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country; slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary. Whosoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the negroes are no longer slaves, they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites….the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known….In the South, where slavery still exists, the negroes are less carefully kept apart; they sometimes share the labor and the recreations of the whites; the whites consent to intermix with them to a certain extent, and although the legislation treats them more harshly, the habits of the people are more tolerant and compassionate. In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure.

This passage on segregation and the power structures that create and sustain it inspire the following indirectly related observations:

1.  In House of Cards Francis Underwood is shown loving the finger-licking good ribs at Freddy’s BBQ, a down-home Southern joint owned by Freddy Hayes. The Wikipedia entry for the character describes him as “One of Frank’s only true friends and confidants who he turns to for a fun talk.” One of the reasons, of course, that Freddy, a black man from the South, is such a ‘true friend’ to Francis, is that besides his facility with ribs, he knows his place; he knows the line not to be crossed. In the North the “negroes” Tocqueville observed did not know their place.

2. Where segregation is visible and manifest by a variety of social mechanisms it can soon become self-imposed.  My first trip to Miami in 1990 was made in the company of a Haitian friend. We drove down, visited a Cuban friend of ours, and checked out some of the local attractions, including its white sanded beaches. A short while after we had hit the waves and stretched out for a little sunning–not that we, black and brown–needed any, my friend got up, gathered his belongings and said he wanted a change of scene, a “better spot.” He seemed uncomfortable. I was a little puzzled; our spot seemed perfect. But I accompanied him as he left. We walked on for about ten minutes or so,  and then parked ourselves in a locale that did not seem too different from the one we had left. I remained puzzled. But not for too long. When I looked around, I noticed there were more black people around us. Indeed, a few minutes later, when I walked back to our car to retrieve some food and drink to bring back to our blanket, I could look down on the beach below me and saw distinct swathes of black, brown, and white. The population of Miami had, on this beach, with varying degrees of consciousness about their actions, sorted themselves into distinct bands on its sands. They knew where and around whom they wanted to be; they knew who would want to be around them; they all knew their place.

CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.

Reading ‘Roots’ in Sickbay

My reading of Alex Haley‘s Roots was feverish. Literally and figuratively, I suppose, for not only did I finish it in a little over two days, but I did so while running a body temperature above 98.4 F. The circumstances of my reading–the location, my physical condition–played no insignificant part in my reaction to the book: overwhelmed in more ways than one.

I was fourteen years old then, attending a boarding school tucked away on a hillside in the Indian Himalayas. Our daily schedule, starting at 530 AM rising, followed by physical drills, breakfast, classes, lunch, sports periods, prep (study periods), and then ‘lights out,’ left little time for unstructured activity except for weekends (and even those didn’t exactly leave us alone to our devices). In these circumstances, a minor illness wasn’t the worst thing possible; rumor had it the matron was kindly, the sickbay beds were comfortable, there was no waking at unearthly hours, and best of all, the food was supposed to be edible.

So the chills, the shakes, the elevated temperature, the bodyaches, which visited me one afternoon weren’t exactly unwelcome visitors. I had been in boarding school for little over a year and had never climbed the steps to its infirmary facilities. Now was the time. As I told my classmates I was heading for a checkup, confident of admission (the matron was an expert at rejecting the fakers that occasionally showed up hoping for a reprieve from prefects and classes), a young lad spoke up, ‘Take a book with you in case you get admitted.’ He was right. I needed supplies.

I headed to the library and picked out Roots. I had had my eye on it for a while, but had been daunted by its size. But now I would I have ample time. Book tucked away under my arm, I climbed the stairs, asked to see the matron, and a few minutes later, was being led to my bed in the upper ward. From my window, I could see Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, its glistening snow-capped summit mocking my bedridden state.

I stayed in sickbay for the next two days, free of the onerous schedule that my classmates were being subjected to, a few flights below me. But despite the ‘company’ of a few seniors in the same ward as me, I was isolated. There was no schoolwork to do and little conversation was possible. (Needless to say, there was no television.) So I read.

Haley’s book was my first sustained encounter with slavery narratives. I was unprepared for the descriptions of the brutal shipping of slaves across oceans, the backbreaking, cruel, and relentless plantation life, and the utter dehumanization of those that fueled the economic engines of the American South. There were times when I struggled with the dialects but I could never stop reading, so utterly absorbed did I become in this tale from so far away, one that would become a member of that group of cultural productions that changed my view of the US forever. (I’ve blogged on those here, here, and here.)

I was physically weak, and at times, my eyes would water and my head hurt from the persistence of my reading, but it seemed like a small price to pay for entering the world that Haley had depicted for me in his opus. From the time I rose, through breakfast, lunch and dinner–in bed–I kept Roots handy, and never stopped turning its pages.

My fever broke; the body aches receded; the matron took my temperature, bade me open my mouth wide and say ‘Aaah’, and satisfied that I was on the mend, discharged me. I walked back down to the mundane routines I had left behind. When I entered my dormitory, I was greeted with some sniggers at having pulled off a successful ‘escape.’

I had escaped all right; if only those boys knew what I had  ‘seen’ and ‘heard’. And felt.

Note: I knew little of the plagiarism and questionable genealogy controversies associated with Roots, and would only learn of them much later when I had moved to the US.

Thomas Jefferson: Creepy, or Redeemed by the Declaration of Independence?

The Thomas Jefferson nightmare is on us again. Was the Mother of All Founding Fathers a dastardly racist, and perhaps worse, a hypocrite to boot? Paul Finkelman has an Op-Ed in The New York Times that makes that case: at the time he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson owned 175 slaves; over the next fifty years he did not free all his slaves, not even after his death; he opposed private manumission and public emancipation; he punished slaves by selling them away from families and friends; he suggested expelling the offspring of mixed-race unions from Virginia; and in many writings, spoke disparagingly of slaves’ mental and moral qualities.

David Post over at The Volokh Conspiracy has a rejoinder that suggests the correct response to the Finkleman Op-Ed should be a resounding, and I quote ‘So what? So what?  Really – so what?’ because–as part of his evidence for this claim–Post notes that Lincoln cites Jefferson as the true inspiration for anti-slavery and abolition platforms in 1858:

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society….All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression. [italics in Post’s article]

and then goes on to say:

Even if Jefferson had done nothing more than pen those words and get them inserted into the foundational document for the new country— and he did plenty more, see my paper here — declaring that principle to be a self-evident truth and at the foundation of any legitimate government was an act of political courage, not cowardice or hypocrisy, at a time when slavery was at the heart of the way of life and an economy across vast swaths of colonial America.

If I’ve understood Post correctly, his claim–in this post at least, for I have not fully read the paper he links to above to make a longer case for Jefferson–is that Jefferson’s declaration of universal equality of man, made in the abstract, supersedes or at least ameliorates his slave-owning record. This kind of defense of the sordid personal side of a public figure is not unknown: the figure in question deserves our tolerance for the public record outweighs the personal lacunae.

The problem here, of course, is that Jefferson’s slavery record is not a mere personal peccadillo, and it is not in indirect conflict with his public record. Rather it is a straightforwardly direct repudiation of his publicly avowed political claims. Imagine, for instance, someone trying to get George W. Bush off the hook for his illegal war in Iraq and his violations of civil rights at home by pointing to his various speeches, at home and abroad, where he waxes eloquent about freedom and democracy. The invocation of Lincoln, I think, does even less work. As Ann Bartow pointed out, in a comment on Post’s Facebook page, ‘[I]t is likely that Lincoln was using Jefferson strategically. Selling the idea that black men were “men” was perhaps less threatening if you could tie someone like Jefferson to the idea.’

I’m afraid it isn’t so easy to wash out the blot of slavery. The ‘damned spot’ sticks.