Thomas Jefferson: U.S. better off without him?

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – July 4, 1826]

  • Much overrated: deeds trump words.
  • His few fine words didn’t stall two centuries of racism. Even gave the nation false comfort.
  • Deeds fell far short, especially condoning, facilitating slavery growth in US.
  • Leading the early D-R Party he never understood the role of government in modern liberal democracy.
  • Blindly promoted individual rights above the democratic collective good.
  • An archaic out of touch utopian. No hero for modern liberal democracy.

 FEATURED: An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796; Maryland Historical Society

SUMMARY

  • Based on the facts – deeds not words – Jefferson is much overrated.
  • What difference did he really make?
  • There is a case for his country having been better off without him: his fine words did not budge the US from its racist road – even gave false comfort – and his deeds fell far short.
  • A few fine words [in the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom] did not prevent -were contradicted by – two centuries of racism in the US, emergence of mass slavery, a dreadful Civil War, and another century of racial violence thereafter, including “re-enslavement” and lynching.
  • Perhaps the “fine words” even distracted, gave the nation false comfort, that at least their heart was in the right place.
  • His words are drowned by hypocritical, irrational, narrow-minded deeds.
  • Slavery above all blots his name:
    • a/ He held reactionary racist views on blacks as a people [2]. This was in step with most in his times. But he was meant to be a leader, and he was also well behind many other founding figures like G Washington, Benjamin Franklin [to an extent], Benjamin Rush, and John Adams.
    • b/ He owned many slaves, mistreated some, freed hardly any and used them to help fund his extravagant self indulgent lifestyle at Monticello;
    • c/ But above all for his nation, as a leading politician he not only failed to recognise and act on the danger of growing slavery to the Union, but helped grow the problem, hence enjoys a clear partial culpability for the eventual calamitous denoument, the Civil War.
    • During his active adult period [c50 years, 1770-1820] he tolerated, helped facilitate growth in slave numbers from c 650k to over 1.5m by 1821 [and slave states from 8 to 12]. In 1820 he even supported the spread of slavery west to Missouri.
    • His professed [early] dislike for slavery seems more about the eventual problems it posed for whites than concern for the stricken.
  • In various government roles Jefferson, for all his “learning” – and along with his Democratic-Republican Party colleagues –showed little practical understanding of government and economic policy in an effective modern industrialising liberal democracy, the need for strong central government [including a central bank and supervision of the private economy], for rational trade policy, the role of industry and commerce, hence of companies and business people.
  • He was blinded by an irrational residual fear of matters British [like it or not the mother of liberal democracy], and a utopian fantasy of an economy built on [white] “yeoman farmers”.
  • As President for two terms [1801-09] he was largely ineffectual, not a natural collegial leader, achieved the important fortuitous Louisiana Purchase [which anyone in his job would have done], but messed foreign trade [like the 1807 Embargo Act], and, contrary to fondness for liberty, bristled at media criticism.
  • On a personal level, his indulgent obsession with building his own Disneyworld at Monticello, to accommodate his social life and books and wine, was quite at odds with modern liberal values, financed as it was by a significant endowment of slaves, the residue of which, numbering around 130 “negroes”, was sold on his death [along with the dream house] to pay off debts.

 

  • Why then is Jefferson still so popular? Thus he came third after Washington and Lincoln in a 2014 poll. For the same general reason that Americans don’t face their history honestly.
  • In the main the US and its conventional historians celebrate – cling to – a comforting myth of the US as a Light of Liberty, despite its egregious, blatant failure in race relations, long and costly.
  • As part of this myth Jefferson is feted mainly for his few fine words in the Declaration of Independence, standing pure and frank, by contrast with the slavery compromised Constitution. His performance as President was mediocre and his attitude and behaviour re slavery was deplorable.
  • So his popularity helps reveal an insecure country, moulding national heroes to their liking, oblivious to the facts in a self-deluding feel-good quasi-religious fashion.
  • This failure to be open and honest clouds appreciation of what the US nation has done for the cause of modern liberal freedom, particularly in two world wars, then in squaring off against the post WW2 Communist dictatorships, first the Soviet Union and now China.
  • And it tarnishes the ongoing US appeal today as a global example of liberal democracy.

 

Racism compromised US for near two centuries after founding. 

Among the comparative national journeys to modern liberal democracy that of the US is remarkable for not just being tainted by racism but stained by it from the start, violently for near two centuries, despite beginning in the late 18th C with a blank slate, unlike the European nations.

Slaves were imported during the British colonial times [c290k], numbers growing fast in 18th C so the small new nation in the 1780s, after eventually winning its freedom from Great Britain, started with c580k slaves, comprising about 20% of the population.

Moral qualms with slavery were clearly on the radar at the time of founding, the cause of abolition being alive in Europe and the Colonies, and known by the Founders.

But the issue was allowed to compromise the new nation from the start, the new Constitution [ratified by 1789] accommodating the slave favouring colonies for the sake of a Union, and contradicting the 1776 Declaration of Independence.

Twelve of the first eighteen American presidents owned slaves”.

Then thanks to sudden confluence of unforeseen factors the cotton gin, territorial expansion [especially the 1803 Louisiana Purchase], the 1812 War, and the European cotton boom – and especially, crucially, to ongoing accommodation, facilitation by the Federal Governmentslave numbers soon exploded so by early in the 19th C the issue at founding had de facto become a runaway problem, realistically to be solved only either by the slave South seceding, or the North fighting.

The fight finally came in 1860, a great cost, but it still didn’t solve the problem, racism remaining virulent, the blacks “re-enslaved” for near another century.

 

… and the country’s mainstream historians cannot look the matter in the eye? 

By and large the US persists in not acknowledging its history, honestly, its protracted costly failure in race relations.

Mainstream US historians by and large still cling to a myth about the birth of the US, the New World winning “liberty” from the “tyrannical” Old World Britain, its constitutional monarchy of Westminster and George III, so throwing off antiquated oppression, embracing the new European Enlightenment to become a Light of Liberty.

There is a near constant stream of books paying homage to this myth, books about the “Revolutionary War”, the War of Independence and its main characters.

In addressing the founding most historians acknowledge the compromises to facilitate slavery, because they’re too obvious to ignore, but then, trying to keep alive the Light of Liberty myth, they excuse this compromise on two main counts:

a/ it allowed the Colonies to overcome differences and achieve a Union, a united country.

b/ the documents gave future politicians the “words” by which to eventually end slavery, “planted the seed of abolition”, like the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and [per Sean Wilentz] the Constitution resisting the notion of “men” as “property”.

Some take comfort even in Jefferson’s draft for the Declaration of Independence where he blames George III for foisting slavery on the Colonies! Which slavery he helped himself to.

They then take comfort that Lincoln indeed did finally [1862] “emancipate” the slaves.

But this is disingenuous beyond belief.

The “emancipation” came over 75 years after founding, after the slave count climbed near 7 times to around an improbable 4 million, and after the Civil War, costing say 700k lives, and all this without defusing the problem, before near another century of “re-enslavement”: Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, segregation, lynching.

So this is a story firstly of obvious failure by the founders and all senior politicians in the new republic, especially in the early years, before the problem mushroomed.

And it’s a story today of ongoing self-delusion, dancing around the bleeding obvious, like the story of the Emperor With No Clothes.

This failure to be open and honest has implications:

a/ It clouds appreciation of what the nation has indeed done for the cause of modern liberal freedom, particularly in two world wars, then in squaring off against the Communist dictatorships, first the Soviet Union and now China;

and b/ tarnishes the US appeal today as an example, inspiring exemplar, of liberal democracy.

 

… with a recent conspicuous exception: Robert Parkinson [3] argues race was a key driver of achieving “common cause” in the war of independence. 

First Parkinson notes that the complaining Colonists were actually not that badly off! They “were “the least taxed, most socially mobile, highest landowning, arguably most prosperous people in the western world.” [RP].“

So for the “Patriot leaders” developing a “common cause” to inspire and motivate the rebels against the “tyrannical” mother country – “the absolute Tyranny” of “the present King of Great Britain” – was not straightforward.

Parkinson “firmly rejects Whig ideology as the driving force of the Revolution”, rather that the common cause “became as much about fear and outrage as the defense of inalienable rights” [RP] “, with the “fear” centred on the “proxy groups”, ie chiefly blacks and native Americans [“merciless Indian savages”].

The Hessian [“German”] mercenaries fighting for Britain were later largely excused through being white, and assimilable, as some were.

Parkinson: “To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.”.

So “The base [racist] sentiments they [the leaders] promoted for “political expediency” survived the fighting, and the “narrative” that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated “white” and “citizen”—“lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come.” [RP]

 

Jefferson a popular past President…

In the US Jefferson has long been feted as one of the most important founding fathers, particularly for writing most of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, then serving two terms as President [1801-09] after serving under Presidents Washington [Sec’y of State] and Adams [VP].

His popularity was cemented by the Jefferson Memorial being erected during WW2, 1939-43, close by those for Washington and Lincoln in central Washington, at FDR’s instigation, inspired by a book on TJ by a friend.

He still remains very popular among past Presidents [like 3rd with 74% after G. Washington, 89% and A. Lincoln, 85%, in an early 2012 poll], despite his slavery associations denting his reputation in recent times, at least among those who care to look.

Thus he has attracted an accordingly vast historiography, perhaps crowned by 6 volumes from Dumas Malone, 1948–1981.

 

….  but the US was better off without him

But Jefferson is a paradox.

He was a bright well educated and informed man late 18th C man – hugely well read apparently – who rightly saw value in individual liberty, expressed through consensual republican government, free from oppressive and privileged monarchical aristocracy.

But despite a series of hands on roles [“…no other member of the founding generation served in public life so long and in so many different capacities as he, at almost every level of government …”, Gordon Wood] he was fixated by a Golden Age like vision of agrarian decentralisation, had little understanding of the workings of a modern industrialising economy, particularly as a politician implementing policy in government.

Also, above all he was an old fashioned racist, who subscribed to “scientific” racism which regarded blacks as inferior.

And he was a practicing racist who – notwithstanding some qualms – ran slaves all his adult life and facilitated significant growth of slavery on his watch, which 34 years after his death ripped the nation apart.

He straddled two worlds, looking ahead, but as an archaic conflicted racist.

All up there is a strong case that the US would have been better off without Thomas Jefferson, that if he had not existed the country may have fared better than it did.

This applies particularly both through his through his actions as politician, also writer and Virginia rancher, and even through his famous words in the 1776 Declaration of Independence,

 

Why his popularity? Because he features large in the American Light of Liberty myth, saying more about an insecure nation than the man.

But if the country mightn’t have missed him, or even been better off without him, why is he so popular?

In obvious defiance of his deeds Jefferson remains popular mainly because he along with George Washington is the backbone of the myth of the US as a Light of Liberty.

Thus: “Jefferson is not just a spokesman for democracy and equality. He personified the American Enlightenment and set forth the progressive promise of America’s future.” [Gordon Wood]

But why Jefferson?

Much of the reason is simply the Declaration of Independence? The few fine words. Because they ring pure and unsullied with hope and justice.

While the Constitution from about 10 years later, the working founding guidelines for the new country, was by contrast sullied, in accommodating the slave states.

So it reveals how insecure countries – in a self-deluding feel-good quasi-religious fashion – mould national heroes to their liking, oblivious to the facts.

 

Better off without him? Fine words gave false comfort?

Yes, he wrote a lot [he liked writing] and left some good words, famous as the principal author of heady words in the mid 1776 Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

His draft included these famous words on equality, and then words blaming George III for his role in facilitating / promoting slavery! The latter was omitted by the Committee, to Jefferson’s displeasure, though he was likely thinking more about the whites than blacks!

Yes he favored democracy, separation of Church and State [Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom], republicanism, and individual rights.

Notice he contributed nothing to writing the Constitution, in mid 1780s [ratified 1788], while away as “Minister to France”.

 

What of the famous “eloquent” words on equality in the Declaration of Independence?

Well first up they made no difference! Thus equality was to apply only to European sourced white people and racism would profoundly compromise the US for near two centuries after the founding, especially treatment of imported African slaves and also indigenous people.

But maybe his words even hurt his blessed land, made the matter worse? Maybe they gave the US a degree of false comfort, or at least the significant proportion who had some qualms about the new country’s relationship with slavery? That at least their intentions were right, their heart in the right place.

Others [cf Gordon Wood] cite more dewy eyed rhetoric from “the eve of his death in 1826”: “May the American experiment in democracy, he said, “be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”

But again the words are empty without action to match, and embarrassingly empty when paired with his “action” and American “action” during and beyond his lifetime.

 

Better off without him? Deeds. Little idea of sound economic policy.

a/ In Government [as Sec’y of State to G. Washington, then as VP to J. Adams] Jefferson never understood the vital role for strong central government in an effective liberal democracy, how democracy works in practice, to which John Adams and Alexander Hamilton [the Federalists] added far more, particularly regarding economics, eg the role of financial institutions, overseen by a national bank.

Likewise he never understood the role for commerce and industry in the new country, disliked companies and merchants, remained entranced instead with a fanciful, unrealistic / unworkable utopian notion of US as land of “yeoman farmers”.

The writings of Adam Smith – a true Enlightenment pioneer, the founder of modern market economics and as relevant today as he ever was – were available then.

So he “rejected as excessive the powers vested in the national government by the Federalists.

 

He is rightly saluted for supporting Republicanism – not hard – and for wanting the Church out of the cabinet room,

He and James Madison also opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, fearing Federal power over the states and which protest “appalled” Washington.

b/ he showed irrational antagonism to Britain post-independence, blinded by his animus against the old country, is monarchical aristocracy, and did not appreciate the benefits of constructive ongoing trade.

And on the other hand remained keenly pro French.

1795 [out of office] he opposed the Jay Treaty with Britain, ““designed by Hamilton, aimed to reduce tensions and increase trade.”

 

c/ the Louisiana Purchase 1803, achieved during his first term as President, was pivotal in US territorial expansion, but it was an obvious transaction, taking advantage of the supremely deluded Napoleon, and anyone on duty then would have done it.

 

e/ Did his second term achieve much? His pointless trade embargo, the boycott of British goods, 1806-08, caused much economic harm at home, confirmed his failure to understand sound economic policy.

 

e/ His huge failure and blind spot was slavery, particularly in condoning it and not recognizing the grave danger the growing problem posed for the Union.

 

Better off without him? Especially re slavery. 

Re Jefferson and slavery we need to understand his views, his words. And his actions.

His views on slavery are regarded as comparatively “liberal” for his times.

He saw slavery as regrettable, and even ventured [prophetically] that it would likely end badly one day.

But as a firm racist, like most then, a “white suprematist” – regarding blacks as an inferior race [“the real distinctions which nature has made;”] – he regretted slavery mainly for its impact on whites not blacks.

And blamed George III for sending them over!

Meanwhile, in practice he benefited as a slave owner, and second, he accommodated its growth in the newly independent US.

… his slaves: important assets.

Jefferson was an important slave owner. They were an important component of his assets, especially later to help fund his Monticello home and estate.

He was conscious of their value. Historian Henry Wienack notes that 1792 a letter from TJ to GW describes the revelation to TJ about how profitable were “negroes”, breeding them! Return of 4% pa. in another letter, to a friend in need, suggesting he “should have been invested in negroes.” He advises “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which.. bring a silent profit of 5-10%.. by the increase in their value.” “

Meanwhile, while in France, c 1789, he commenced a relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings [1], then aged about 16, fathered a number of children, though he never had the honesty to acknowledge this activity.

…. did not free them

His treatment of his own slaves was below par even by his times.

He ran a tough regime at Monticello, cf reports from Farm Book re whipping. Slave James Hubbard was flogged 1811, caught and returned after escaping.

Also he freed virtually none of his own slaves, even on his death. Instead 130 were sold to help pay debts.

Jefferson fell behind G Washington. Thus as HW notes: “In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will.”

In a similar vein Jefferson rejected the gesture of his Polish friend from the Revolutionary War, Thaddeus Kos­ciuszko [arrived Colonies 1776], who on his death in 1817 “left a substantial fortune to Jefferson.. to free Jefferson’s slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own.” Jefferson ignored it.

As Dr. Samuel Johnson noted, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?

… racist views.

Jefferson had clear racist views of blacks, regarded blacks as racially inferior, “like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people”. [Ambrose].

Hence he was firmly opposed to black and white living together, had great aversion” to miscegenation, could not remotely envisage a multiracial society.

… in practice: opposed emancipation.

So in practice he was strongly opposed to emancipation of blacks, because they could live alongside whites, and also because he feared slave rebellion.

He expressed unhappiness with slavery, recognised its moral failure, so had some sympathy for enslaved blacks, but he would only tolerate emancipation [eg raised in 1779] if it meant freed blacks being relocated, like through “colonisation”, which was logistically impossible, given the sheer numbers.

… in practice: facilitated expansion of slavery.

He supported banning more imports of slaves, eg 1778 he helped achieve Virginia ban on imports, then 1807 as President he stopped US imports.

But not domestic trading, and the action only enhanced the value of the existing large slave population.

Across a long career rather than doing anything towards ending slavery inside the US, he facilitated expansion.

His support for slavery – or at least lack of opposition – seemed to grow later, beyond say 1784, especially as the slave numbers grew, alongside the cotton boom and the territorial expansion (especially the 1804 Louisiana Purchase) which helped the US feed the cotton boom.

As numbers grew emancipation became even more unrealistic, fears of slave rebellion grew [fed by the successful rebellion in Haiti], and also the risk of upsetting the Union increased.  

Then as late as 1820 he supported slavery’s extension to Missouri. He said, “We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other”.

So in essence he was part of a team which handballed the problem on, with disastrous consequences 40-50 years later.

 

Tolerated violence on French Revolution

Re 1787 Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts [against the Government], Jefferson famously wrote, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

In France during the Revolution Jefferson tolerated the violence in the name of freedom, eg in his well-known January 1793 “Adam and Eve” letter to William Short, following the September 1792 massacres.

 

Projects: Monticello, Uni of Virginia.

Meanwhile he savoured his indulgent opulent lifestyle, centred on Monticello, after earlier having luxuriated for about 5 years [early 1785-1789, 32-37] in Paris.

He pursued what seems an indulgent obsession building his Dream Home at Monticello [33 rooms and still going], the architecture borrowing from the beloved antiquity of Classical Greece and Rome, and funded importantly by slaves [his family’s plus his wife’s], and a lot of debt.

So he “.. used slaves as collateral for a very large loan he had taken out in 1796 from a Dutch banking house in order to rebuild Monticello..” [HW].

His later “pet project” University of Virginia was just to accommodate spoiled children of slave running planters.

For someone so involved in politics he was a shy, reserved man, shunned public speaking, so the only speeches in two Presidential terms were his two Inaugural Addresses.

 

The man: too bright for his own good? And not a nice man. 

Yes he was “bright”, educated, a voracious appetite for knowledge.

He liked to write, was not a natural speaker, a work the tables man. In government too.

And was self-confident.

But ultimately he was insecure? “Inauthentic”.

Like thought he was good at chess, till he got beat in Paris, and gave it up.

Like he never saw through the reality of him supremely embodying hypocritic inconsistency.

This applied on the macro stage, in Washington.

And it applied especially on the micro, back at Monticello, his archaic racist attitudes extending to his relationship with mulatto Sally Hemmings, by whom he fathered 6 children, not one but 6.

Thus he never treated her as the de facto wife she was, or the consequent children as his.

 

Notes:

1/ Hemmings, mulatto half sister to Jefferson’s late wife, Martha Wayles, arrived at Jefferson’s Paris household 1787, later had 6 children by him after returning from Paris, born 1795-1808, of which 4 survived to adulthood.

2/ “Notes on the State of Virginia[1781, publ. 1785]: “the blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind…

They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. .. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”

3/ Common Cause: Creating Race and Class in the American Revolution, Robert G. Parkinson, 2016

 

LIFE – summary

Born 1743, well off family, well educated, trained law and practised.

1768 Into Virginia politics.

1775 [June] – Sep 1776, at Continental Congress, committee [with B Franklin and J Adams]. Asked by JA to prepare first draft Decln of Ind.

1779 [June] – June 1781 Governor of Virginia.

1782-84 Delegate at Continental Congress [Congress of the Confederation].

1785 [May] – Sep. 1789, Minister in France, Paris.

1790 [March]- Dec 1793 Secretary of State under President G. Washington.

1797 [March] – March 1801, VP under John Adams

1801-09 President.

 

 

 

Birds of Passage – pathological Modernity meets Tradition’s honor code

 

Birds of Passage / (Pájaros de verano) – a film that keeps giving.

A gripping, “richly textured” case study of Modernity swallowing Tradition.

Spotlights impact on a resourceful traditional people in Colombia.

But of pathological Modernity, a criminal mutation.

Then the violence is propelled to almost Monty Pythonesque extremes by the tribal honor code.

 

The nub…

  • This is a superb nuanced film exploring perhaps the single greatest socio-political issue of our times [no not climate change]: Modernity swallowing Tradition.
  • But it’s a jaundiced take because here Modernity arrives in late 1960s Colombia as violent criminal drug trafficking to feed US demand, precisely an example of how not to “modernize”.
  • Then ironically the violence – triggered by volatile young men – is propelled relentlessly by the Wayuu people’s “payback” honor code till it consumes them, to a mindless extent that borders on Monty Python, like the Holy Grail’s [1975] famous Black Knight.

The pedantic nub…

  • Modernity and Tradition are inherently incompatible, inconsistent, contradictory, utterly. The rise, emergence of Modernity will swallow, swamp Tradition.
  • Birds of Passage [Pájaros de verano] is a case study on aspects of the collision of Modernity with Tradition, for which the old European story of Dr Faustus was an allegory, adapting the religious foundation of Christianity. Thus Satan offers Man Knowledge but in return for his soul [ie abandoning religious fairy stories].
  • Later [1818] the same allegory was transposed improbably by the young Mary Wollstonecraft into In the updated Faustian bargain, from Modernity through freedom we gain Knowledge, technology, thence prosperity, health and longevity.
  • But we lose forever the ageless predictable certainties of Tradition [Old Identity Values, compounded especially of religion and hierarchical group authority.
  • So for most people it meant no vote or beach holidays, poverty, violence and a short life, but also no comforting religious arm chair, no beer and skittles in the life thereafter.
  • However, at the heart of Modernity is competitive freedom, by individuals and groups, so – crucially important for an optimum collective outcome – this freedom must be constrained by considerations of others, meaning “responsible” freedom, achieved through firm liberal transparent, democratic institutions, property rights, rule of law, and, above all, overseen by strong government.
  • Precisely what we see advertised by deadly Iraq street protest by frustrated youth, September 2019.
  • In Frankenstein the Doc [Victor] doesn’t take responsibility for his creation, allow him to be fully human, so the frustrated “Monster” takes murderous revenge.
  • Similarly in this film Modernity arrives pathologically, arrives from the skies as criminal “irresponsible” freedom, with sadly catastrophic consequences for the traditional tribal family.
  • However the film shows both sides, how then the violence which eventually consumes the subject Wayuu people is triggered [as usual?] by volatile short-fused men, but is then propelled relentlessly to a destructive climax by the ethnic group’s eye for an eye honor code, a payback system common among indigenous peoples across the globe.
  • The final mindless cataclysm – when Anibal spends his last reserves on “help” from Medellin – recalls the darkly comic Black Knight in Monty Python’s 1975 Holy Grail.

 

  • The film pays revisiting, works on many levels, has been carefully crafted in every respect, the nuanced story apparently drawing on real life Colombia across a generation from the late 1960s, the story structured Homer style to fit a traditional song, the sustained powerful acting, the complimentary music, the speaks for itself scenery.

 

The take…

Many and various.

  • Be careful starting wars? Thus remember August 1914.
  • Lock up your madmen!
  • Say “No to Communism!”? Or beware “capitalism”? Yes, here we get closer to the story. Though the film of course has nothing to do with authentic “capitalism”.
  • So ultimately, at the highest level, Pájaros de verano is a film about one story from the mighty canvas of Tradition meeting Modernity, with competitive individual freedom, here – in a north Colombian coastal desert – timeless tribal life colliding with a pathological Modernity that arrives from the skies as perverted criminal behaviour caused by a failure elsewhere [USA], ie government failure to restrain exercise of freedom for the collective good.
  • So the film is a gripping, “richly textured” case study from the single greatest socio-political issue of our times, of recent centuries: of Modernity meeting Tradition, where the individual is tightly constrained by the rules of the group, compounded especially of religion and tribal politics, hierarchical group authority.
  • Interesting is that the sequence of violence is triggered by volatile individuals [Moisies and Leonidas] going off script, but is then propelled relentlessly, mindlessly to a frightful climax by the traditional eye for an eye / payback honor code, common across the globe among traditional societies, ef the Mafia and in PNG.

 

  • Modernity at heart is about the liberation of the individual, about freedom to create, explore, innovate, to indulge the imagination.
  • At the heart of this freedom, in turn, is competition, as it is at the heart of much of the natural living world.
  • But – hugely important – to achieve the optimum collective social outcome this freedom must be exercised “responsibly”, reflect the social context, thus recognize mutually agreed, negotiated constraints.
  • In “Western” liberal democracy this is achieved through an effective democratic process, human rights, property rights, rule of law, but, above all, anchored by strong government.
  • The Mediaeval European Faustian story is an outstanding allegory for Modernity – the modern world, the modern liberal order – in posing the fateful bargain: accept Modernity and we gain freedom to indulge our individual ambition, curiosity, imagination, freedom to explore, create, innovate. So we gain knowledge, hence health and prosperity [dentists, leisure and truffles], and this for the multitude, on an historically unparalleled scale.
  • But in return we give up Tradition, the timeless predictable certainties. Yes we keep souvenirs, memories, mementoes, reminders, but the traditional authority system dissolves.

 

The rhyming, references…

Yes it has an Homeric feel, the epic tale sung by the blind herder, the blind Song Man bookending the film, the tale told as a traditional Wayuu song, in five jayeechi, cantos.

If there is family, there is respect; if there is respect there is honor; if there is honor, there is the word; if there is the word, then there is peace”.

So it refers too to timeless themes explored by old Greek tragedy, cataclysmic intra tribal warfare triggered by random madmen actions, like Sarajevo in August 1914.

And yes the film recalls the American crime movies, the Godfather? The tribal criminal behaviour of the Mafia.

 

Aspects…

The Wayuu are an indigenous ethnic group, a traditional people, numbering over 400,000, in the area of La Guijara Desert, in Colombia and Venezuela, the group knitted by ritual, ancestor beliefs the haruspicatory communications of birds, all the workings of ”cultural memory”, like funerary rites, saluting ancestors, the cleaning and re-interment of bones.

Veracity. Is the film true to life? Or is history adapted here?

 

The tale…

A tribe or people, the Wayuu [1], inhabit a patch of desert in NE Colombian, La Guajira Desert, poking into the Atlantic, beside Venezuela to the east.

They meet criminal ambition when one of their own, “corrupted” by contact with Outside World [like the alijunas [literally “the one who damages”], outsiders in Colombia], one Rapayet [introduced by uncle [or his father’s cousin?] Peregrino, a “word messenger”, a palabrero] returns, in 1968.

He arrives at the coming out [the chichamaya ritual] for Zaida, daughter of matriarchal Ursula [protector of the well off Pushainas clan, keeper of traditions, like listening to the divinatory messaging of the birds].

He pins the girl, painted and enrobed, after she doth entrance him, dancing the yonna [the Angry Chook].

The well meaning but ill informed R offends the W honor code, “offers [Z] a tuma necklace, which is a disrespectful and inappropriate gesture met with scorn..”.

The wary U, suspicious of ambitious men contaminated by the OW, discourages him by setting the dowry bar high.

But that only impels R to try harder, working with his random “nowhere man” close mate, the reckless decadent Moises. After a chance cross with dope smoking US Peace Corps youth they move up from coffee trading to marijuana trafficking.

But they need supply, so approach the cold all-business Anibal [R’s uncle? Or U’s cousin?}, at his secluded ranch in foothills nearby, who agrees to co-operate, at a price.

Business becomes good, but wild man M kills a couple Americans arrived by small plane to fetch produce, after learning the Americans are dealing elsewhere too.

This upsets A. M reoffends and R is forced to kill him, his old mate.

Much later the second unstable madman is Leonidas, son of R and Z. He insults A’s daughter at the ranch and A demands apology, submission. L reluctantly agrees but his hormones get the better and now he assaults her by the pool.

Oh dear. Now it’s WAR. A starts by killing Peregrino, the WM, when he arrives in a desperate effort to avoid cataclysm.

Killing a WM is very bad form and U musters her forces, makes a big hit on A.

But A and his right hand man survive, and A spends his stashed last savings on “Help” from Medellin, who arrive and raze U’s improbable desert family compound, funded by R.

A tracks down R and kills him. L is someplace else, hiding in a woman’s hut.

R and Z daughter Indira is the only apparent survivor, and film ends as she buys a few goats off the Homeric Song Man, also a farmer.

Earlier we see U’s mother, an old lady, walking along dead train track, straight towards the sea.

 

The bright but noxious Martin Heidegger

The bright but noxious Martin Heidegger.

  • Heidegger’s hands on incisive philosophy in Being and Time works fine by itself.
  • But, contemplating Dasein he transposed it into a loathing of liberal modernity.
  • And practical support for a virulently racist, murderous, Anti-Semitic dictatorship.
  • Ironically, if he only listened, his thought speaks well in coping with modernity.

The MAN……

Martin Heidegger [1889-1976] was raised in small town conservative rural Germany and never left.

He hated cities, and technology, and liberal modernity. The whole shooting match, which he [correctly] blamed on – and never forgave them for it – the Anglo-Saxons, aided by the Jews, those ever “rootless” agents of modernity.

Though there’s a twist. The “Anglo-Saxons” far back hailed from where? Yes they escaped the main arena for a peripheral moated retreat and that made all the difference.

There they could fashion their own portentous edifice with some protection from marauding kings and priests.

In his unfinished Being and Time [1927] Heidegger sketched an appealing cut through philosophy.

No man is an island, all inhabit an inescapable social context;

Disregard mundane distraction, the “chatter”. Remember to live, think for yourself, to be free;

Find authenticity through facing “being-towards-death”.

But Heidegger then crossed from the world of ideas to contemporary politics, apparently passing Dasein through some historicist prism [which may have referred back to Hegel?] and thus transposing his philosophy into a noxious political platform.

So he became gripped by an animus towards liberal modernity through his primal affection for traditional connectedness, his nationalistic “Rootedness-in-soil” [Bodenstandgigkeit], which was also a keystone for fascist Germany’s visceral, virulent nationalism, which Heidegger duly signed up for.

So his was a hands on practical loathing of democracy and liberal modernity.

No mistake where he stood. “..  in the wake of the postwar Allied Tribunal at Nuremberg, Heidegger writes that the “thoughtlessness” of the Western powers “exceeds by many thousand degrees the irresponsible, dreadful trade with which Hitler raged around Europe.” “ 

“…We also find repeated claims about German exceptionalism and greatness…  beyond mere chauvinism..eg Heidegger claims “only the German can say and poetize being in a new, originary way.“… What emerges .. is a vision of Germany’s vocation as the only possible hope for “saving the West.” ..the loss of the war… the extermination camps.. none of these ..alter Heidegger’s faith in the chosen status of the Germans to save the West from an apocalyptic collapse. “ [C. Bambach].

Thus was anti-semitism integral to his views [“the residue of a rural Messkirchian Weltanschauung] such that he at least indirectly supported the mass murder of the Jews.

So he saw Jews as “rootless agents of modernity”, facilitators of the nightmare which consumed them, through “modernity’s” attack on righteous illiberal Germany, and even through the technology of their extirpation.

He wrote: “One of the most secret forms of the gigantic, and perhaps the oldest, is the tenacious skillfulness in calculating, hustling, and intermingling through which the worldlessness of Jewry is grounded.” [Open Culture].

Thus Heidegger wrote, “the question concerning the role of world Jewry is not a racial question, but a metaphysical one“.  [S. Earle].

And this sits within “a schema of Western history as destinal errancy”, ie within “his overall interpretation of a modernity whose “essence is directed toward the unleashing of the entire globe’s machination.” “. [C. Bambach].

Meanwhile he did his bit through ”denunciations of his [Jewish] colleagues and students”.

So of course it was “racial”.

 

THOUGHT………

His 1927 magnum opus “Being and Time” concerns the “fundamental concept of ontology”, being, starts with recognising the primal importance of understanding Da-sein [“there-being”], Being-There, Existence.

He arrived here via Husserl’s work on phenomenology [3].

This is essential as a basis for living “authentic” lives, and indeed for all subsequent contemplation, whether of tonight’s dinner menu or career choice or the meaning of life.

For him this bedrock matter had been dodged by all since the Greek Pre Socratics. Hence his Destruktion of this prior thought, to prepare soil for him.

Essentially Being is Time. So Being is approached through grasping time.

His thought can be conveyed through the Dasein Care Structure:

1/ Facticity. – the given. Our lot. Our dealt hand.

We are tossed, thrown into life, with givens, no choice but to deal with this Thrownness [Gwerfenheit].

A primary given is that all being is connected, we and world are one, are interdependent.

So the human individual is not a solitary subject, rather subject and object are not separate, as they are in language.

So every experience comes with a social context, cannot be separated.

We are never neutral, detached observers. We are in and of the world but never neutrally.

2/ Fallenness [Fehlbarkheit] – succumbing to distraction, the “chatter”.

Here, Being-in-the-world [In der Welt sein], we forget to notice we are alive, to face the ‘mystery of existence’. We forget to be free.

We fall, eye off the ball, distracted by chatter[Das Gerede].

We suffer from “diseases of the soul”, Forgetfulness of Being [Seinsvergessenheit].

But we sometimes become aware of this psychic pathology, meet a call to pause and think, are jolted into odd moments of clarity, of “conscience”, when we notice the “uncanny strangeness of everything” / Unheimlich die Fremdheit von allen” , the seltsamalles [‘strange all’].

Like when struck by trauma or illness, or strange encounters with others.

Some connect this odd sense of calling with religion where people sense they are “called” by a deity, eg Paul, Augustine, Luther, Hank Williams.

But for Heidegger the call is not from God, it’s “me talking to me”, waking up / aufwachen, a call to rise above the “chatter” and face mortality.

But then, crucially for MH, fatefully, he leaves the ivory tower and relates, applies his thought to contemporary history, thus sees modernity [Western liberal values, including democracy] as epitomising Fallenness, as inauthentic [Unecht], including through unleashing technology, brought by Prometheus from the gods.

3/ Existentiality / Projection. (Entwurf) / Freedom [Freiheit] – find the door now [Finde jetzt die Tur].

We need to pursue our “deeper potentials”, become hands on to pursue our potentiality-for- being (Seinkönnen, literally “could be”), to find Authenticity [Eigentlichtkeit[].

The time to do so is now. Be alive now.

Find freedom [Freiheit] through “projection” (Entwurf), throwing off.

Triggered by ‘anxiety’ / angst [different to fear, which has a specific subject] which can become a window on the ‘authentic’ self.

The project is to unite the subjective and objective, and especially through confronting mortality, death, finitude, Das Nicht.

So ironically this “being-towards-death” / Sein-zum-Tode, this engaging death, is liberating.

[Note: Heidegger stresses importance of the individual’s death. Some object this is “both false and morally pernicious”, rather that death comes into our world through the deaths of others”.]

But the seeking is like taking a torch into a dark room, so the visible “objective” is only a small part of what’s in the room.

Understanding of being (Seinsverständnis) proceeds “by referring to particular beings”, seeking aletheia [unconcealment / discovery, idea from Greek Pre-Socratic, Parmenides] through the Hermeneutic Circle, repeated passes.

Temporality [philosophical nature of time] for Heidegger was “the unity of the three dimensions of future, past and present”.

Thus we bring to now – to the “the moment of vision” (Augenblick)both our having-been-ness” (Gewesenheit) and our being-towards-death / Sein-zum-Tode.

He left unfinished his mulling of temporality.

 

Given Heidegger’s pathological distaste for modernity it’s darkly ironic that his simple messages from Being and Time are certainly apposite in coping with the exigencies of modernity, not least the relentless change and the “chatter”.

 

LIFE……

Born in small rural conservative Messkirch in Baden Wurttemberg. Son of church sexton. Jesuit seminary. “Short and sinewy”, skied.

Studied theology at Freiburg [1909], then philosophy [1911], cf Husserl. Served last year WW1. Professor at Marburg 1923-28, there developed his Being ideas, in his lectures, starting with Aristotle, published in 1927 Being and Time [437 pp] to help his 1928 return to Freiburg, to replace Husserl there, where he stayed rest of his working life.

Late 1930s he published his second main work, Contributions to Philosophy [1936-37].

Rector of University at Freiburg 1933, joined NSWP [Nazis]. Rector till 1934, but stayed in the Nazi Party till 1945.

His Nazi relations were a problem. He was “not only a member of the Nazi Party, but “enthusiastic” about participating… wanted to position himself as the philosopher of the Party, but the highly abstract nature of his work and the opposition of A Rosenberg..  limited Heidegger’s role” (Richard Evans].

After WW2 he was “denazified” by the French and allowed to resume teaching, was granted emeritus status and then taught regularly from 1951 until 1958, and by invitation until 1967.

 

NOTES:

1/ Being and Time. 1927, ie age 38. Comprises lengthy two-part introduction, followed by Division One, the “Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Dasein,” and Division Two, “Dasein and Temporality.”

This is part one of an intended two parts. “It was meant to have two parts, each of which was supposed to be divided into three divisions.”

His interest in subject triggered by Franz Brentano’s “Meaning of Being etc according to Aristotle.” [1862].

 

2/ His Black Notebooks, 1931-41 were finally published in 2014, containing ” expressions of anti-semitic sentiments..  re-evaluation of Heidegger’s relation to Nazism”.. eg Donatella di Cesare: ” ..”metaphysical anti-Semitism” and antipathy toward Jews.. central to Heidegger’s philosophical work“. He “considered Jewish people to be agents of modernity disfiguring the spirit of Western civilization.. held the Holocaust as.. logical result of the Jewish acceleration of technology, and thus blamed the Jewish genocide on its victims.“.

See also Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny (eds.), Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Responses to Anti-Semitism, Columbia University Press, 2017, reviewed by Charles Bambach, University of Texas at Dallas, in Notre Dame Phil. Reviews, 19 Feb 2018

 

3/ Phenomenologystudies conscious experience / structures of consciousness.. as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. …

The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. ….

This field of philosophy is then to be distinguished from, and related to, the other main fields of philosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (the study of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (the study of right and wrong action), etc.” [Stanford Encyc. of Philosophy].

Many identities, but one world.

 

The answer to Racism? Yes “Un-racism”: a primary loyalty to universal liberal values not to any subset identity.

  

FEATURED: Norman Lewis, 1965, Unknown (March on Washington), 1965 Oil on fibreboard, private

12

Zora Neale Hurston, c1940

 

Ah “racism”?!

A ubiquitous issue within the contemporary zeitgeist, triggering a stream of fervent opinion [Eg Note 1.], much of it aggrieved and confrontational.

Yes it’s obviously a rotten business, through history, and in countless jurisdictions.

But racism and the West? How does the “West” face it now?

And how should “non-West”, “colored” people all, cope, react?

 

The West’s report card

Yes a rotten business, the West and slavery, especially of course the Atlantic Slave Trade and the wide extent of slave employing plantations in the Americas, in South and North America and the Caribbean.

Yes we are talking industrial scale slavery, over 10m shipped west to captive servitude [and perhaps a million who died en route?], a massive money-making “business” through applying Western competitive ingenuity, labor and capital to building an economy, with blacks as a key labor input.

Starting in the 16th C, soon after the fateful Spanish sanctioned landing by Columbus, from c1600 it became big time and yes – in an extraordinary, mind boggling final dark hurrah – it continued well into the 19th C in the newly independent US, on a staggering scale, the slave population erupting from c600k [about 20% of total population] at independence in the 1780s to near 4m by 1860 when the North finally decided to fight, to keep the Union. But even that frightful war – apparently “won” by the slave-emancipating North – didn’t address the problem, the injustice. The racist South resurged, condoned by the North, and another century of racial oppression and violence beckoned.

And yes for most involved in slavery, directly and indirectly, it was built on racist notions of blacks, either inherently / genetically, as a separate inferior human species, or, in a softer patronising take, as primitive but salvageable, capable in time, with care and instruction, of being “civilised”.

Thus the latter understanding [encapsulated by Kipling’s phrase, c1900, the White Man’s Burden] informed most European imperialism, also in Africa and Asia.

Britain was more deeply involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade, and in slave plantations in the Americas than many realise, especially after c 1700, through the 13 Colonies until they broke free but also through Caribbean territories, which they did not emancipate till 1838.

However the issue has pervaded, dogged, informed this unique nation of the USA to this day, obviously because of the report card but also because the ruling mainstream has long dragged its heels in facing the country’s past honestly.

So, while admitting to regretful errors, much of the deeply patriotic mainstream still clings doggedly to a rose coloured picture of a nation epitomising, defined mainly by idealistic precious notions of liberty and freedom, underplaying the extent to which these heady ideals were brutally compromised, contradicted by near two centuries of its domestic history.

Yes it sacrificed some ‘best and brightest’ in two world wars centred on Europe, helping to bring obvious illiberal tyranny to heel. Then after WW2 it had to take responsibility withstanding a Soviet Russia which helped itself to “liberated” East Europe, and a Maoist China which backed N Korea in a war against the South.

But all the while, till well after WW2, its domestic treatment of blacks remained shameful.

The matter is important not just within US borders but because the US, for better or worse, remains the leading “Western” nation, behoving it to set an example.

Among other Western nations the issue is important too in Australia and Canada, in both instances, like the US, where incoming European settlers interacted with long resident indigenous or “First Nation” peoples.

 

How should the racially abused “colored” people respond now?

Above all the “afflicted” groups must face the wider truths, beyond the West’s report card.

 

A / Face the wider truth….. acknowledge the emergence of modern liberal values in the West.

First the “afflicted” groups must face the ironic if confronting reality that the same West which gorged on slavery in the Americas [and which also misbehaved “racistly” on a significant scale in Africa and Asia] also gave the world the universalist “modern liberal order”, “Western” values, a system of thought and practice which has proved historically unparalleled in delivering prosperity and meaningful freedoms to its people.

Also these values when expressed authentically are utterly “anti-racist”, are racially neutral or blind, do not formally recognise any races.

They’re called “Western” because they arose in the West [mainly from England, but with clear relevant ancestry which goes back to Classical Greece], but are now “Western”, not just Western, because the practical application of the ideas has spread beyond the original West, especially to parts of Asia, and the Americas beyond US and Canada, if less so to Africa and the Mid East.

This has happened to the extent that the “Western” liberal model – of government regulated freedom / democracy / rule of law – is now widely accepted among all major global institutions, and is opposed only by obvious illiberal antagonists like China, Russia and Iran etc.

Though of course China, c 1980, in seeking to reform, to recover from the disastrous Maoist regime, turned to “Western” economic practice, allowing private property and markets, and with great success. Though it has stayed with domestic political repression.

So the open eyed, meritocratic, competitive energy which uncovered, adumbrated universal ideas of freedom, tolerance and individual rights, and practices of democracy and rule of law, also expressed as buoyant economic growth, in rising productive agriculture, in burgeoning education, cities and industry, and then [in flagrant contradiction of its “modern” values] also expressed as large scale offshore predatory “imperialist” economic activity, including slavery, ie in a return to traditional values.

This is understandably bitter nourishment for many feeling aggrieved by illiberal Western behaviour, ie that the “answer” to racism comes from the same Western “culture” which indulged it so keenly, on such a scale.

 

B/ ….. and the non-West’s report card.

Second, it means facing that traditionally near all non-Western cultures, including black peoples in Africa, were also often / usually “racist” in their domestic and foreign affairs, many also resorting to slavery.

Indeed of course it was other African people who rounded up the slaves which the Western countries like Spain and Britain bought and on sold in the Americas.

The difference with the West is that the latter’s pronounced post 16th C Renaissance economic success enabled it to practice “racist” economic activity on a far greater – and geographically wider – scale.

Talking conditions in today’s world we should remember that two major countries – China and Russia – remain staunchly committed to traditional non-Western values, both illiberal dictatorships, both obvious opponents of the liberal “Western” global order in their public opinions and their antagonistic behaviour.

In this antagonism they are joined by some Islamist dictatorships, like Iran.

All these countries reject liberal democracy, run oppressive domestic regimes with no meaningful freedom of expression, democracy and rule of law.

Finally although many European countries indulged in “empires”, more or less, and with mixed results, or worse, in many / most cases the independent countries born from subsequently released colonies have performed badly – sometimes very badly – in terms of economic and political outcomes, prosperity and freedom.

 

C/ ….. avoid particular “identity” overriding the “universal”.

Third, by far the best approach today for descendants of “racism”, or even those directly hurt by it, is to internalise the wider truth, including the relevance of universalist liberal values, and act accordingly.

So this indeed means – adopting Mt Kendi’s syntax – being an “anti-racist”, or “unracist”, in that one’s primary loyalty [identity] should not be to any “race” or other traditional identity – defined broadly, as any racial or ethnic or national or religious or even gender entity, which we can box up as Old Identity Values [OIV] – but rather to all fellow humankind and to liberal universalist values, to the modern liberal values [MLV] which underwrite this loyalty.

So above all this means living essentially in the present not the past, so particularly it means rising above, avoiding any primary life informing notion as a victim or descendant of victims, by not harbouring a primary affiliation with a perceived aggrieved group.

Ironically choosing to live primarily by loyalty to a traditional identity [like race] is by its nature “racist”, being based on loyalty to some subset identity above overarching humankind.

Some black US cultural figures seem to understand, have understood this matter, like writer Zora Neale Hurston [1] [1891-1960] and painter Norman Lewis [2] [1909-79].

Both [among many others?] were observers, “victims”, of racial injustice – could hardly fail to be given their chronology – and both reflected this harsh reality in some of their work, but evidently both also saw themselves as exemplars of humankind first, ahead of “black” or any other affiliation.

This “universalist” approach does not deny the validity or worth of assorted identities or loyalties defined by ethnic, nationalistic religious or gender or other associations, rather suggests that none of these identities has special rights, including a right to impose itself – one way or another – on any other.

 

Notes:

1/ Fighting Racism Even, and Especially, Where We Don’t Realize It Exists, by Jeffrey C. Stewart, NY Times, Aug. 20, 2019. [Review of HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST, Ibram X. Kendi, 305 pp. One World].

Excerpts:

“For Kendi, the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, there are no nonracists; there are only racists — people who allow racist ideas to proliferate without opposition — and antiracists, those who expose and eradicate such ideas wherever they encounter them.”

AND…

“Sometimes the logic of antiracism threatens to erase some of the nuances of African-American history. Kendi quotes the 19th-century African-American thinker Alexander Crummell, who declared that the genius of black people in America was their gift at assimilating American — read white American — culture. Kendi rightly notes that such statements can advance the dominant culture’s demand that black people mimic white people in order to be recognized as equally human.

This assimilationist discourse, as wielded by such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, who criticized both black working-class culture and the racism that deprived black communities of opportunities and respect, or C. Delores Tucker, an activist who denigrated rappers as threatening the moral foundation of black communities implies we are not good enough on our own, but must constantly emulate white people in order to be accepted.

But, buried within a racialized assimilationist rhetoric, Crummell might have been voicing an important truth: that the African-American mastery and transformation of Anglo-American culture — its language, behaviors, values and arts — is one of the greatest accomplishments in world history. Spirituals arose because enslaved Africans assimilated English hymns and made them their own. Assimilating, in this sense, is a verb, a choice, not a bow to the superiority of another culture.”

 

2/ Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a powerful writer, but also in her younger adult life worked with important pioneering “anti-racist” German born Frank Boas [1858-1942] at Columbia University in NY, who led a pathbreaking rejection of the idea of inherent / genetic variation in the capabilities of different races or ethnic groups, thus challenging a long and pronounced, entrenched tradition of scientific racism, including eugenics, reflected both in mass slavery and the Nazi extermination program.

 

3/ Painter Norman Lewis in his works left some powerful polemical swipes at racism, US white supremacism, racial violence [including lynching, in his lifetime], particularly c1960 as the Civil Rights movement gathered momentum, but from his writings clearly he wished to be recognised as a painter first and as a black painter somewhere after that.

Much of his later work [from the mid 1940s] was abstract or quasi-abstract [thus he is recognised as part of the post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionist movement, if far less famous than Pollock and Rothko] and perhaps his shift to abstraction was a reaction to coping with race prejudice.

 

 

 

Bizarre servings by Professor Losurdo

At least “western imperial universalism” gave the world liberal modernity!

Bizarre servings by Professor Losurdo.

 

  • Blames WW1 on the Anglo-Saxon “imperialist universalists”?!
  • So Germany was the hapless victim of the crusading democrats.
  • The bright but bumpkin Martin Heidegger, contemplating Das Nicht, transposed his useful philosophy into practical support for a virulently racist, murderous, Anti-Semitic dictatorship.

 

What bizarre March 2014 commentary [2] by Professor Losurdo, teaming up with Herr Heidegger and sinking the boot into Anglo Saxon “imperial universalism”.

First he tries to share the blame for Hitler and Nazism with the US because that country harboured fellow travellers like Henry Ford. Well for that matter so did Britain and France and Netherlands and the Nordic countries.

Next the hapless Napoleon III of France is fingered for “waging war” against Prussia in 1870 in the name of “democracy”. Well it is pretty rich to talk of France then as anything like a democracy. And for that war most historians instead blame a certain wily chap in Prussia cum Germany.

But third, his imagination goes wild in blaming the “entente powers” [France and the dreaded Anglo-Saxons, ie Britain and the US] for the 1914-18 war [also known as World War 1], again waged by them in the name of “democracy”.

This is preposterous.

WW1 would not have happened but for belligerent reactionary anti-democratic Germany backing the hapless Austro-Hungarian Empire in their mindless, suicidal gambit to confront and discipline rebellious Serbia.

But no the Professor sees poor old Germany instead as a victim of the Anglo-Saxon “imperial universalism” of Britain, also France, also known as “universal interventionism”, which apparently then “explains the aggressive, reactionary anti-universalism in Germany..

So in a logical sleight of hand Germany becomes the victim not the instigator?!

Finally, fourth, in his last sentence is the eye -watering nonsensical, statement that while Germany’s “aggressive, reactionary anti-universalism [has] much to answer… it does not in any way absolve western imperial universalism of its own responsibility and crimes.

Well Professor, at least Britain and the Anglo-Saxon push gave the world liberal modernity, modern liberal values, “western …universalism”! Yes these forces of darkness gave the world full franchise representative democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, including meaningful free speech.

Yes there were major “crimes”, not least the Atlantic slave trade, in which much of Europe was complicit, but especially Spain and Portugal, then Britain and its American [13] Colonies.

Racism also led the US into its calamitous self-inflicted Civil War [which still didn’t solve the problem] and various European countries into unseemly imperial intervention in Africa and Asia.

But the blunt reality is that it was traditional, reactionary, illiberal anti-democratic behaviour – in awe of a mix of old identity values [OIV] like, compounded of race and place and religion – which triggered the maelstrom of 20th C violence, like the “aggressive, reactionary“ Germanic axis occasioning appalling violence in two world wars, a tragic corollary of which was the Russian Revolution, spawning a second totalitarian dictatorship, and a third if the second helped bring forth the Maoist dictatorship.

 

Meanwhile the tragedy of the bright but narrow minded philosopher Martin Heidegger [subject of the Professor’s article] is that he transposed his perfectly sensible philosophical scheme [ie open your eyes, no man is an island, try thinking for yourself] into a practical loathing of modernity on the one hand, ie a loathing of Anglo Saxon liberal democracy [and also the prosperity enabling technological take off it triggered], and on the other into support for the visceral murderous racist nationalism of his country Germany

So accordingly he displayed a principled commitment to anti-Semitism, disliking Jews especially as “rootless agents of modernity.

 

Note: 1/ Domenico Losurdo is professor of philosophy at the University of Urbino, Italy. He is the author of many books in Italian, German, French and Spanish. In English he has published Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns and Heidegger and the Ideology of War. His latest book is Liberalism: A Counter-History (Verso Books)

Note: 2/ Heidegger’s black notebooks aren’t that surprising: Scholars already knew the German philosopher signed up to the Nazi party. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be learned from his thinking. Domenico Losurdo, Guardian, Thu 20 Mar 2014

 

 

The “Western” liberal model is here to stay.

The “Western” liberal model is here to stay.

Like Newton’s Laws

The triumph of [Western] universalism has come just when Western power is collapsing

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University.

This is a big call by an ‘eminent’ economist:

  • basically calling an end to “Western” liberal democracy, to the modern liberal project.
  • and a resurgence in non-US/European loyalty to Old Identity Values.

He’s either right or wrong.

Very likely the latter for the simple reason that the “Western” model works. It delivers.

It’s only called “Western” because that’s where it emerged, for whatever reason.

But it’s no more “Western” than Newtons Laws.

It is universally relevant as the demonstrated optimum model for economic and political outcomes.

  

Modern Liberal Values

[FEATURED]

Paul Klee [1879-1940], 1932, Ad Parnassum, tempera on linen, 100 x 126cm, Kunstmuseum Bern

Old Identity Values:      

p1

Anonymous, c975, Letter by an angel to one of the Seven Churches [Revelations], Beatus de la Seu d’Urgell

 

 First, am sorry to read of Norman Stone’s death. What refreshingly interesting and entertaining – if also uneven and flawed – historian he was.

Lord Skidelsky’s scepticism about collective efforts to mathematicise the discipline of economics morphs into – or is seen as a subset of? – “the West.. [viewing].. itself as the bearer of the universal civilization, with the non-West no more than a lagging cultural indicator… [but this].. triumph of universalism has come just when Western power is collapsing….

“Collapsing”? That’s ridiculous, self evident hyperbole.

Broadly speaking the core Western liberal democracies comprise N America [minus Mexico], Europe and Australia / NZ, all subscribing more or less to a liberal international rules based order, and also sharing a common cultural background.

Secondly is a group of important countries [like India, Japan, some other Asian countries [even Indonesia] and some South American countries (some more than others)], all with different non-European cultural backdrops but each with a demonstrated meaningful [if varying] commitment to the liberal economic order.

Per contra, obvious opponents of the “Western” model, and its main protagonists, are China, Russia and Iran, plus a miscellany of smaller states.

In considering the “West’s” longer term outlook we should never forget – despite all the apparent “problems” – the simple single powerful reason for the West’s success: it works. Delivers.

Economically and politically.

And why? Simple. Freedom.

The model harnesses the competitive ambitions and capabilities of its citizens through rules and institutions underwriting government supervised responsible freedom.

The model is called “Western” but only because for whatever historic reasons, it emerged there.

And yes it does have universal relevance as an emphatically demonstrated optimum model for delivering economic and political outcomes [including expression of individual freedom].

But the West has no more proprietorial claim or attachment to it than it does over Newton’s Laws.

Looking ahead, the genie is unbottled and now – end of the day – the “Western” model, revealed practically as the supreme model for economic and political outcomes, will not go away.

The various authoritarian regimes defining themselves by one strand or other of the Old World, Old Identity Values, will persist, because some people fall for the glib promises and because the rulers exploit gullibility, and because they pay enough security services supporters from state coffers.

But fundamentally they will underperform economically.

Despite their belligerent bluster Russia and Iran are both inherently weak, indulging in military chest beating their weak economies can hardly afford.

China is more interesting.

After the murderous Maoist shambles it finally recognised the economic potential of the Western model and c1980 consequently undertook a policy volte face, but only for the economy, keeping a firm lid on politics.

So far the turnaround in the Chinese economy has proved very successful, but given the resolute clamp on political freedoms [intensified under Xi], spilling over to the economy, it’s far from clear China’s future will be calm.

Longer term education is likely to chip away at – though never eradicate – remaining loyalty to Old Identity Values.

Cultural differences will remain, and be celebrated in their own way, but in countries more or less practicing the “Western” model they will not, by and large, be incorporated in legislated policies.

 

ATTACHED

Fall of the Economists’ Empire, Jul 22, 2019, Project Syndicate, Robert Skidelsky.

The goal of economics is to replace the particular languages that obstruct the discovery of general laws with the universal language of mathematics. This is the apotheosis of a Western conceit that can no longer be sustained by Western power.

LONDON – The historian Norman Stone, who died in June, always insisted that history students learn foreign languages. Language gives access to a people’s culture, and culture to its history. Its history tells us how it sees itself and others. Knowledge of languages should thus be an essential component of a historian’s technical equipment. It is the key to understanding the past and future of international relations.1

But this belief in the fundamental importance of knowing particular languages has faded, even among historians. All social sciences, to a greater or lesser degree, start with a yearning for a universal language, into which they can fit such particulars as suit their view of things. Their model of knowledge thus aspires to the precision and generality of the natural sciences. Once we understand human behavior in terms of some universal and – crucially – ahistorical principle, we can aspire to control (and of course improve) it.

No social science has succumbed to this temptation more than economics.

Its favored universal language is mathematics. Its models of human behavior are built not on close observation, but on hypotheses that, if not quite plucked from the air, are unconsciously plucked from economists’ intellectual and political environments. These then form the premises of logical reasoning of the type, “All sheep are white, therefore the next sheep I meet will be white.” In economics: “All humans are rational utility maximizers. Therefore, in any situation, they will act in such a way as to maximize their utility.” This method gives economics a unique predictive power, especially as the utilities can all be expressed and manipulated quantitatively. It makes economics, in Paul Samuelson’s words, the “queen of the social sciences.”

In principle, economists don’t deny the need to test their conclusions. At this point, history, one might have thought, would be particularly useful. Is it really the case that all sheep are white, in every place and clime? But most economists disdain the “evidence” of history, regarding it as little better than anecdotage. They approach history by one route: econometrics. At best, the past is a field for statistical inquiry.

The economist Robert Solow offers a devastating critique of the identification of economic history with econometrics, or “history blind” as he calls it:

The best and brightest in the profession proceed as if economics is the physics of society. There is a single universally valid model. It only needs to be applied. You could drop a modern economist from a time machine … at any time, in any place, along with his or her personal computer; he or she could set up in business without even bothering to ask what time and which place.”

In short, much of the historical modeling economists do assumes that people in the past had essentially the same values and motives as we do today. The Nobel laureate economist Robert Lucas carries this approach to its logical conclusion: “the construction of a mechanical, artificial world, populated by … interacting robots …, that is capable of exhibiting behavior the gross features of which resemble those of the actual world.”

The goal of economics is to replace the particular languages that obstruct the discovery of general laws with the universal language of mathematics. Elon Musk takes Lucas’s interacting robots one step further, with his ambition to link the human brain directly to the world (which includes other human brains). Our thoughts will be directly socialized without the intermediation of any language. When you think “door, open!” it does. Whereas economists dream of putting God in their models, the robotic utopians dream of reversing the fall of man by creating godlike humans.

To be clear, this is the apotheosis of a Western conceit. The West still views itself as the bearer of universal civilization, with the non-West no more than a lagging cultural indicator. In the West itself, the authority of economics has diminished, but this hasn’t dented the West’s propensity to export its civilization. “Good economics” has been partly replaced by a commitment to universal human rights as the means to save the world from itself, but the purpose is the same: to lecture everyone else on their shortcomings.

Here, we encounter a paradox. The triumph of [Western] universalism has come just when Western power is collapsing.

And it was that power which made Western thought seem universal in the first place.

Conquest, not missionaries, spread Christianity around the world.

The same is true of Western social science and Western values in general.

The non-West bought into the Western model of progress, especially economic progress, because it wanted to free itself from Western tutelage. This still gives economics (a Western invention) its edge.

It’s a kind of white man’s magic.

But without the power and authority behind the magic, its appeal is bound to fade.

The non-West will still want to emulate the West’s success, but will pursue it by its own means.

The University of Chicago and MIT will give way to universities in China or India, and the non-West will choose which Western values to embrace.

Yet the world needs something universal to give us a sense of shared humanity.

The big challenge – to use that overworked word – is to develop what the philosopher Thomas Nagel called a “view from nowhere” that transcends both cultural fetishism and scientism, and does not force us to choose between them.

This is a task for philosophy, not economics.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, he began his political career in the Labour party, became the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs in the House of Lords, and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party for his opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999

Adventure of Modern Liberal Values [MLV] ( cont’d.) – the Art Seen

The Adventure of Modern Liberal Values [MLV] ( continued)

– the Art Seen

 

Contemporary Art – funded by the global explosion in Annual Leave and Disposable Income.

Ah well, all this time and money.

So the story of most Contemporary “ART” is NOT SAYING SOMETHING but “look at me” entertaining distraction.

The sillier the better.

Like poke microphones into the soil and listen to the earthworms sleeping.

Or thermometers and feel the heat from Satan toasting deserving sinners.

Paint your self portrait in balloons, bigger the better.

So take your mind off mundane monotony.

From Jeff Koons down.

Or is that up?

As Cole Porter warned us all, Anything Goes”