Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility

“Now to be clear, I do believe that every person should play a proactive role in their own success, health, and overall well-being. The part that bothers me is that many people seem to think that black people cannot do this and exercise our right as American citizens to express displeasure with policy and practices. I would argue that being civically engaged is apart of taking personal responsibility. However, according to many right wing pundits—and increasingly people within our own community—any black person who requests a government action is asking for “free stuff” or trying to keep from taking care of our own business.”
Black People and The Burden Of “Personal Responsibility”, carrefourblog

We need to move past this false dichotomy.

More importantly, we need to move beyond the false accusation against poor minorities. I suspect that the average poor minority works harder and is forced to take more personal responsibility than is the average white, especially the average middle-to-upper class white who tends to make these kinds of judgments from the position of white privilege.

Also, minorities promoting social justice are among the most hardworking people around. That is no easy struggle to be involved in. Black leaders and black parents embrace the ideals of personal responsibility and hard work. They talk about it in speeches and sermons, but the best of them understand this in the context of a centuries-old structural racism. That latter part gets lost in translation when the more privileged take up this judgment, including blacks in privileged positions like Cosby.

Blacks worker harder to accomplish less than whites on a daily basis. If such ideals could solve the problems of structural racism in how it impacts individuals, structural racism would have ended a long time ago. We all need to take both personal and shared responsibility for the problems of structural racism. It can’t be solved alone by the victims of racial oppression and prejudice. However, working together, we can all be part of the solution.

* * * *

http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/08/obama-speech-mlk-personal-responsibility

Lot of talk about holding black men responsible for their actions(rightly so) but what about holding white men accountable for theirs?

http://revcom.us/a/138/CD_personal_responsibility-en.html

In saying this, I am not trying to deny or gloss over the fact that a lot of Black people are into some bad shit. Youth are killing each other, and people desperate to survive are preying on each other. Too many Black men are into the male supremacy that is rife in this society, and too many Black women combine U.S. society’s “look out for #1” ethos with accepting its outlook on women’s place. Black people do need to get out of all this shit. They need to move from being victimized by this system to fighting to get rid of this system. They, along with basic masses of all nationalities and people from other backgrounds too, need to come forward as emancipators of humanity.

But lectures about personal responsibility won’t help make that happen. This will stand in the way of people getting what’s the real source of the problems they face, and what’s the real way to get out from under them. People don’t see any way out and can begin to think it’s because they’re fucked up. And it is a fact: Black people, as a people, are not going to “make it” under this system. The only real hope for the masses in their millions is carving out a radically different future thru revolution and changing themselves as they fight to bring a whole new world into being.

http://www.eisenhowerfoundation.org/docs/Austin%20FOCUS%20pdf.pdf

There is scant empirical evidence that demonstrates a lack of work ethic among black men. To be officially counted as unemployed, onehas to be actively pursuing a job. The black maleunemployment rate is typically about twice thewhite unemployment rate. In 2007, 9.1 percent ofblack males were officially unemployed; yet, only4.2 percent of white males were unemployed. Onecan be certain that thereare many more black mendesiring work than arecurrently employed in thisjob market.

http://www.npr.org/2011/09/15/140428359/making-it-in-the-u-s-more-than-just-hard-work

“It’s funny, the American dream is sort of steeped in this myth of work hard, be self-sufficient and push yourself forward, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that kind of thing. But much of the wealth in this country was not built on that, in no way, fashion or form,” Williams says.

http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Perspectives_1/article_7867.shtml

“The foundation of American White supremacy sits tenuously on a rickety base of lies and deceptions about how Whites gained their wealth and status. A century and a half after slavery the median wealth of White families is $100,000; for Black families, it’s $5,000. The belief that Whites achieved this 20-1 wealth advantage by HARD WORK is an absurd and a historical fantasy.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/opinion/sunday/when-whites-just-dont-get-it-part-4.html

Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.

Whites often don’t realize that slavery didn’t truly end until long after the Civil War. Douglas Blackmon won a Pulitzer Prize for his devastating history, “Slavery by Another Name,” that recounted how U.S. Steel and other American corporations used black slave labor well into the 20th century, through “convict leasing.” Blacks would be arrested for made-up offenses such as “vagrancy” and then would be leased to companies as slave laborers.

[ . . . . ]

WE all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We’re in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start — a facet of white privilege — and pretend that the competition is now fair?

Of course not. If we whites are ahead in the relay race of life, shouldn’t we acknowledge that we got this lead in part by generations of oppression? Aren’t we big enough to make amends by trying to spread opportunity, by providing disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids?

Can’t we at least acknowledge that in the case of race, William Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/03/what-white-people-dont-see-watching-basketball.html

Yeah, he’s black. Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think anybody wants to suppress the story of an undersize, pudgy engineering nerd who made himself into a gritty, overachieving captain on a Big Ten champion team and who is also black. I bet the national media would love a story like that. I suspect they just don’t see it.

The gulf in physical talent between Novak and other players was glaring. Now, look at Morgan, with his gigantic biceps. If you don’t know him and you are using a simple heuristic, you probably think he’s a pretty good athletic talent, even if if is a little short. You don’t think about the fact that he gained that muscle after intense weight training. (Announcers never mention it.) And so one player is surrounded by a narrative of hustle, smarts, and toughness, and another player with the exact same qualities is not.

The situation is far better than it was three or four decades ago, when announcers would liken the skills of black players to animals. Today, they have some awareness of racial stereotyping. What’s left, I think, is far more characteristic of how racial bias typically works. Bad intent does not come into play. White people simply have certain preconceptions, and preconceptions make you see the things you expect to see and miss the things you don’t.

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/22/poor_black_people_dont_work_lessons_of_a_former_dope_dealer/

The fact is that I can travel through east Baltimore or any urban inner city (BLACK) neighborhood for under 10 minutes and introduce you to the hardest-working Americans in our country. I know a guy that guts houses for $50 a day, a rack of uncertified tax preparers, too many single moms with triple jobs, some freelance freelancers, infinite party promoters, squeegee kids, basement caterers, back-alley auto mechanics, dudes of all ages selling bottled water and a collection of Mr. Fix Its, all living in a two-block radius. We are all American dream chasing, all trying to start our own business, all working our asses off.

Legal or illegal, the inner cities of America are our nation’s hotbed of side hustles. Even people like me with college degrees need multiple streams of revenue to survive, and I gained that work ethic from living in the inner city. Seeing my grandma work 10-hour shifts showed me I could do the same.

There are a million grinding grandmas like mine, and Darnell Baylor isn’t the only person who gets paid for 40 hours a week but works 80. Every person I know is on his schedule and gained that work ethic from the inner city. If Duncan were exposed to a different way of life, he’d probably be running a Fortune 500 company.
Lenny and Loraine didn’t beg for drugs, they performed for them. And Lenny continued to work hard years after his crack addiction faded. The Candy and Cigarette lady should be celebrated for her innovation. And I’d bet that even if the cops rushed and ended her industry, work ethic and creativity would lead to her creating a new one.

She still works hard but will be only judged for not following traditional rules, which is unfortunate because there are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society. To me that poses a bigger question. Why employment inequality for African-Americans is always identified as laziness?

Hire us.

http://www.timwise.org/2013/08/whats-the-matter-with-white-people-a-modest-call-for-personal-responsibility/

But even if we ignore the unfairness of racial profiling, not to mention its blatantly unconstitutional nature given that whole Equal Protection Clause thing, sitting smack dab in the middle of the 14th Amendment — and even if we momentarily put aside the evidence that profiling is not justified by crime data, and can actually be counterproductive — several points have been overlooked by those who think they have either the moral or factual basis to lecture black folks about so-called pathologies in the black community. And they are points worth noting, because they indicate that not only are the Negrophobic critics of black America largely wrong about black folks (few of whom they actually know) and black communities (few of which they have ever actually spent time in), but even more interestingly, they appear to be ignoring a number of data points suggesting serious cultural rot in the white community, to which they might wish to turn their attention. Especially seeing as how they love to inveigh about “personal responsibility.” What better way for white people to take personal responsibility, after all, than to stop hectoring blacks and perhaps begin to clean up our own behavioral back yards?

http://www.leftinalabama.com/diary/4291/personal-responsibility-is-not-just-for-black-folks

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying black folks shouldn’t take “personal responsibility” whatever that means, I’m saying black folks aren’t the ONLY ones who need to take some “personal” responsibility. And we certainly don’t have to be told the same thing over and over again like we are stoopid or children, or both. I don’t condone what Reverend Jesse Jackson was caught on tape saying about President Obama talking down to black folks but I understand.

Why are black folks the only ones being told they need to “take personal responsibility” for their actions? Black folks aren’t responsible for creating the current mess we find our country in. Why are black folks the only ones told they “need to stop making excuses and blaming others for their problems”. I don’t hear anyone telling democrats to stop making excuses for being whimps. I don’t hear anyone telling republicans to stop making excuses for being obstructionist. I don’t hear anyone (well almost) telling President Obama to stop making excuses.

http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/reject-obamas-personal-responsibility-snake-oil

Yet Obama had the gall to attempt selling these Morehouse men the following economic snake-oil. “You’re graduating into an improving job market,” he claimed. “You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it.” Many of these African men do not have control over events within the labor market. There are entrenched racist, gendered and class-related employment barriers that are resistant to personal effort and responsibility on the part of these prospective racialized, despised and stereotyped jobseekers.

I look forward to the day when Obama will tell it like it is to ruling-class white men, that there’s no longer time for excuses for their promotion of institutional white supremacy (and other forms of oppression). Furthermore, I would like to see the display of intestinal fortitude on the part of the president in declaring to largely white graduating classes that they should not blame immigrants for taking away “their” jobs, social assistance or welfare recipients as the reason for high taxes or the capital gains tax as an impediment to job creation.

http://www.theroot.com/blogs/journalisms/2013/05/obamas_2013_morehouse_speech_whats_his_personal_responsibility_to_blacks.html

“His commencement address would have been more helpful if he affirmed those young leaders and then challenged them to use their skills to become vigorous and relentless fighters against racism, classism, sexism, economic and political exploitation. The dirty little ‘secret’ of his very own presidency is that he is the ultimate example of how constrained Black achievement really can be, if it is not accompanied by a vigorous fight against structural and institutional racism. . . .”

http://www.commondreams.org/news/2013/05/22/obamas-under-fire-personal-responsibility-finger-wagging-black-audiences

…”It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing.”

“Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.”

“Either way, the result is tragic.”

http://www.mediaite.com/tv/toure-corrects-obama-structural-racism-not-personal-responsibility-to-blame-for-black-issues/

“But when the president speaks to the black community, there’s often a dive into the politics of personal responsibility,” he continued. “I cringe at that, as if effort and excuses have been the problem.”

“No,” Touré asserted. “It’s been structural racism.”

“The accumulated impact of historic discrimination and the advantages of white privilege and the systems perpetuate all that,” he continued. “Going into personal responsibility suggests you can make it if you try, and he knows it’s more complex than that.”

“I want our president this president, to tell America to tear down the American Berlin Wall that keeps black men separated from opportunity,” Touré concluded. “That sort of big brother-in-chief would get us closer to the mountain top.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/to-critics-obamas-scolding-tone-with-black-audiences-is-getting-old/2013/05/20/4b267352-c191-11e2-bfdb-3886a561c1ff_story.html

Leola Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Media and Cultural Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., said the Obamas’ speeches “are actually not aimed at black people.”

“They’re actually for white people, liberals especially,” she said. Liberal bloggers were brimming with praise for Obama after the Morehouse speech. “It’s the legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and that whole group of white liberals who want to say it’s not just about structural problems that black people aren’t doing well, it’s about their own values.”

Kevin Powell, an activist based in New York who travels the country encouraging black men to take responsibility for their lives, said he has no problem with Obama challenging the black community, but . . .

“You also have to challenge the system, just as you challenge the people. It’s not an either/or,” said Powell, president and founder of BK Nation, an organization focused on education and civic engagement.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/working-hard-but-for-what/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/whose-work-counts-who-gets-counted/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/racism-without-racists-victimization-silence/

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Liberty has been on my mind, because of a book I’m reading, Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. I’m in the middle of the book at present. I wrote some preliminary thoughts in response. One thing is clear at this point. He has an atypical view of “liberty” (Kindle Locations 433-436):

There is something incredibly profound about this insight that liberty implies limitation and not just protection or privilege. This restrictive side of liberty is often overlooked, because the word “liberty” itself tends to be associated with the word “freedom.” Yet “liberty,” as is now evident, implies something more complex. It refers to both freedom and restriction, or, to put it another way, liberty refers to the freedoms that are made possible by living together under restrictions.

This is the second book by him that I’ve read. The earlier book is Liberty In America’s Founding Moment. I haven’t finished that book either, but I’ve been going back to it from time to time. In that book, he had his academic hat on. He was originally a religious studies professor, which gives him a grounding in dealing with historical texts and contexts.

His newer book feels more personal, although the notes in the back of the book show how thorough is his thought process. He says that Beyond Liberty Alone is a book he worked on for a long time. It is part of his own development as an individual, specifically in his career. The story of how he left academia is telling (Howard’s End by Jonathan Mahler):

A few days before Howard Eilberg-Schwartz was scheduled to launch the Jewish studies program at San Franisco State University, he was persuaded by the school’s director of human resources to attend an all-day seminar for select faculty members, students, and local Jewish leaders. It was to be Eilberg-Schwartz’s introduction to the school’s Jewish community, and, understandably, he was nervous. As part of the program, participants were asked to respond to a series of provocative questions by moving to a designated area of the room. When the question “How central is Israel to Judaism?” was posed, he self-consciously took a spot among the smallish group that answered “Not terribly.” And when attendees were asked if they thought the statement “Zionism is racism” was anti-semitic, Eilberg-Schwartz — who sees the movement to create a Jewish state within the broad context of European colonialism — shuffled over toward the corner designated “No.” This time he stood virtually alone.

“I remember people coming up to me afterwards and saying how disappointed they were that I had been named head of Jewish studies,” Eilberg-Schwartz realls now, more than two years later. “That’s when I knew i wasn’t in sync with the local Jewish community. From that moment on, I was branded.”

Indeed, that fateful morning in the summer of 1994 would set the stage for a year of conflict between Eilberg-Schwartz and the local Jewish community, one that would culminate in his preipitious departure from the university — and academia altogether — in the fall of 1995.

This offers some insight why liberty is a personal issue to him. He obviously is an advocate of liberty of conscience and liberty of free speech. He was willing to stand up for what he considered right, despite the very real costs.

I’ve interacted with Schwartz some this past year, including a recent discussion on his Facebook page. I was following his blog for quite a while and would comment there. I had forgotten that he was an author and that I owned one of his books, as I own more books than my memory can keep track of. He reminded me that I had written a comment to an Amazon review of his first book on liberty, a comment that I didn’t remember, as I leave more comments than my memory can keep track of. (There are many issues with my memory.)

It is an enjoyable experience to read a book while also interacting with the author. I did that while reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, as he has an interesting blog as well. Corey Robin is one of the many authors that complement Schwartz’s writings. It is Robin who can help explain why the political right has its limited view of liberty, whereas Schwartz in his new book dissects that limited view and offers an alternative.

The alternative view presented by Schwartz has to do with a balance of values, a balance of rights and responsibilities. He is making an argument grounded both in common sense and in the nuanced understanding of the founding generation of American thinkers and leaders. He demonstrates how shallow and downright dysfunctional is the view of liberty on the right side of the spectrum, what he calls the liberty-first position. That right-wing view has come to prominence in recent decades, but it fails on many accounts, including its lack of principled application. More importantly, in their ideological dogmatism, liberty-first advocates ignore basic facts of human nature and human society.

In reading Beyond Liberty Alone, I became curious about what the author might have to say about the commons. As I had the Kindle version, I did a search for the term and found some references to it. He only directly speaks of the commons in one paragraph and a note to that paragraph. Here is the relevant part of the paragraph (Kindle Locations 4190-4193):

The way to address this problem is to seriously treat the ocean, water, air, and wildlife as property in common, in the sense that we are all tenants in common. Tenants in common does not mean it is a free -for-all, which is the supposition of the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” 45 There can be ownership in common and regulations about the use of the commons.

And here is the note (Kindle Locations 5579-5585):

45 . I take this to be one of the original points of Garrett James Hardin in his original essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and one point I agree with. In my reading of Hardin’s original essay, his point is that the commons becomes a tragedy only if it is not regulated and that regulation is needed to protect it. One example he gives is the national parks, which are owned in common (public property) but must be regulated to protect them. His point is that without regulation, things cannot be owned in common successfully. It is beyond the present context to discuss the extensive subsequent scholarship and popular discussion of whether the commons always ends in tragedy or not, and I do not agree with some of Hardin’s subsequent moral conclusions, such as his moral conclusions about preventing immigration in his metaphor of “Living on a Lifeboat.”

Even though his direct mention of the “commons” is limited to this, he writes extensively about that which is held in common and that which offers common usage and benefit. The word “common” comes up a lot in the text. Much of this talk is about social capital, although he doesn’t use that term at all. He does talk about externalities quite a bit, which is about the cost to the commons or the costs held in common, although in reality it is usually the poor and minorities who bear the brunt of those costs.

Schwartz makes a strong argument for the commons, not just as natural resources, but as the entire inheritance of the human species. He makes it clear how much society invests in every individual and how this implies a responsibility of the individual toward society. It is overwhelming all that we take for granted. Everyone of us is the product of immense resources and opportunities given to us. We earned and deserved none of it, except as our shared inheritance in having been born.

In thinking of the commons, my mind always wanders to Thomas Paine. He came of age during the time when the land enclosure movement was having a major impact in England. It was the ending of the last vestiges of feudalism and in its wake it left a mass population of landless peasants. A peasant without the commons to live on is a very desperate person. The population of the unemployed and homeless grew as the commons were privatized or, from the perspective of the commoners, stolen.

This impoverished population flooded into London. Food riots followed. So did the early organizing of labor unions, which happened around the time Paine was in London. The lower classes became concentrated in numbers never before seen and London was where all the action was. The poor weren’t just desperate, for they were also feeling optimistic about new opportunities. Even though they were banned from the universities, the poor took what spare money they had and hired lecturers to teach them about various subjects. Paine joined in this new movement of education and it would set him on his path. He got a taste for the power of learning, the potential in reading and writing.

Paine knew about the commons and what the loss of the commons meant for most people. You can hear the echoes of the commons in some of his later writings. In “Agrarian Justice”, Paine gives a good definition of the commons:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

He further on emphasizes the significance of public land being made private:

I have already established the principle, namely, that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property, by its inseparable connection with cultivation, and with what is called civilized life, has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.

The argument Paine makes is for a land tax that would have funded an early version of Social Security. The privatizing of land was a direct causal factor for impoverishing those forced into a landless condition. The public should be compensated for what was taken from the public:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

This is the basic framework also being used by Schwartz to make his own argument. The difference is that Schwartz has a wider focus on what is held in common, but in essence he is carrying forward Paine’s vision of America. However, he doesn’t mention Paine at all in his most recent book and only makes brief mentions of Paine in his other book on liberty. In neither book does he mention “Agrarian Justice”. So, it seems that Schwartz came to this view independent of Paine’s writings.

When thinking of Paine, I then also think of John Dickinson. Both were raised with Quaker influence, although neither became Quakers. Still, they each maintained close ties to Quakers, specifically in Pennsylvania. Dickinson had ties to the Quaker elite and Paine had ties to the radical Free Quakers. They shared a commitment to Quaker-influenced abolitionism (Dickinson having gone so far as to free the slaves he inherited). Most interestingly, these two great thinkers were also the greatest and most inspiring of the revolutionary pamphleteers. Their Quaker-tinged visions helped shape two separate traditions of political philosophy, Federalism and Anti-Federalism, Dickinson and Paine respectively. These were two major voices in the early debates about liberty and rights.

Schwartz does have a fair amount to say about Dickinson. The main purpose that Dickinson serves is as a foil to Thomas Jefferson. Throughout Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Dickinson is brought up mostly in reference to Jefferson, as they had two competing views of rights (Kindle Locations 3954-3967):

To summarize, we have seen that within a year of Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Dickinson offer their congressional colleagues two different versions of American rights. Neither of these versions of rights is what would be called a classical natural rights theory, like that adopted by the First Continental Congress and put forward by thinkers like James Wilson. Jefferson is still avoiding natural rights language and putting emphasis on the emigration of the ancestors as a justification for American rights. When he does allude to a broader conception of rights, which is buried in the body of his essay, he alludes to the “sacred deposit” provided by God and makes no allusion to reason or rights of nature. Dickinson’s language moves much closer to the natural rights tradition, though he evokes the religious and theological subtradition that places emphasis on God’s role in founding liberty. But Dickinson also appeals to common sense and reverence for the creator as justifications and foundation for liberty. It is arguable that Congress preferred Dickinson’s version not simply because it toned down the view of the colonies as “independent” entities, but also because it provided a broader justification of rights than did Jefferson’s, one closer to the Bill of Rights for which they had already fought so hard to achieve consensus in September 1774.

In any case, the point here is that while others were appealing to a classic version of a natural rights philosophy, Jefferson himself had not abandoned his argument based on emigration. Once again, Jefferson’s view was essentially rejected. Instead, the Congress endorsed a quasi-religious statement of rights, influenced by the natural rights thinking to be sure, but not quite Lockean in the way that some American writers including the First Congress would have articulated it.

It should be noted that Jefferson and Paine were close friends and political allies. They influenced each other’s thinking on many issues. To speak of the ideas of one is to speak of the ideas of the other. So, even though Schwartz speaks so little of Paine, he indirectly invokes Paine every time he mentions Jefferson. For example, the emigration view of rights fits into arguments Paine made. As he wrote in “Common Sense,” it was simply “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent.”

As such, the contrasts and conflicts between Dickinson and Jefferson were also those between Dickinson and Paine. More specifically, this is also about the Quaker elite that governed Pennsylvania and those who sought to challenge that power. But this was also about the Quakers larger history and the traditions that developed from that.

Schwartz, in Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, dedicates an entire section of several pages to Dickinson’s views, “John Dickinson and the Avoidance of Natural Rights Arguments”. I want to tackle this section because there is a context missing that would add greatly to the analysis.

That missing context is of the Quakers. In neither book does he mention the Quakers. He also makes no mention of the Middle Colonies, at least not in those terms. The Middle Colonies had a different place and played a different role in the colonial scheme of the British territory in America, different that is from New England and the South, as I previously explained (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty):

The Middle Colonies in general were what held together British Power on this side of the pond. This is why, during the French and Indian War, the British government spent so much money and effort defending the Middle Colonies. It is maybe understandable that those up in New England didn’t appreciate why they were paying higher taxes for the defense of the colonies when their region was never the focal point of that defense. Those New Englanders couldn’t appreciate that the defense of the Middle Colonies was the defense of all the colonies. They also couldn’t appreciate what it felt like to be in the Middle Colonies which had been the target of foreign empires.

Those in the Middle Colonies fully appreciated this which is why they were so reluctant to revolt. Plus, the Middle Colonies were filled with non-Englishmen who had no history with the British government and monarchy, no history of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Even the Englishmen of the Middle Colonies who did have such history nonetheless had a very different view of it. I speak of the Quakers who had in some ways been given the greatest freedom for self-governance. The Monarchy was at times a better friend to the Quakers than their fellow colonial elites ever had been.

This is the world that Dickinson was born into. It was also the place that Paine. like Franklin before him, would adopt as his home. To understand Pennsylvania is to understand Dickinson and to understand why he came into conflict with the likes of Paine (and Franklin). The Quakers always found themselves in a precarious position, both back in England and in the colonies. Having experienced persecution and oppression as religious dissenters, they came to highly prize security and moderation, which they saw as the foundation of any genuine freedom.

I point to the word ‘freedom’ in contradistinction to ‘liberty’, the latter being the focus of Schwartz’s writings. This is important, as I noted in another post of mine (The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation):

There were many contested understandings for all these terms. Liberty, in particular, always was a vague term with its origins in Roman slave society. As I’ve mentioned before, Jefferson’s Virginia was shaped by the Cavalier heritage of Roman values. The Declaration and the Constitution refer to liberty and freedom, often seemingly interchangeably, sometimes using freedom as the opposite of enslaved which is the Roman conception of liberty. Quite uniquely, the Articles use freedom as a touchstone while never mentioning liberty even once. That demonstrates a major difference, the Declaration having been written by a slave-owning, liberty-loving aristocrat from Cavalier Virginia and the Articles having been written by a Quaker-raised Pennsylvanian who freed the slaves he inherited.

As far as I know, Schwartz does not explore the origins of these terms. He discusses Dickinson without pointing out that word ‘liberty’ was not included in the Articles, the original constitution. That seems like a key detail to my mind. It signifies the importance of Quakerism to Dickinson. It was freedom, not liberty, that was the core value to be defended. The argument Schwartz makes, in Beyond Liberty Alone, by broadening liberty to include responsibility is actually more resonant with the Quaker worldview of freedom. It is interesting that he comes to this understanding, despite his primary focus on Jefferson.

In the specific section on Dickinson, Schwartz writes (Liberty In America’s Founding Moment, Kindle Locations 2352-2355),

Is it everywhere assumed or is Dickinson hedging his bets and avoiding the question of government’s origin and the validity of the social contract? That seems possible especially given Dickinson’s appeal to the ideas of philosopher David Hume in the above citation. Hume was a critic of Lockean natural rights theory and argued that Locke’s natural rights arguments were as much a political ideology as the divine right theory that justified kingship.

This is where knowing Dickinson’s Quaker background would have offered insight. Dickinson didn’t need Hume’s writings to be critical of natural rights. Quaker tradition itself was based on a mistrust of natural rights, and so this probably is the more fundamental influence. Hume’s ideas simply corresponded with the worldview Dickinson was raised in. Also, Hume’s criticisms of natural rights allowed for a non-religious formulation of that aspect of the Quaker tradition. Quakers had no use of Lockean social contracts and so that wasn’t an issue for Dickinson. Quaker constitutionalism was based on the belief in a personal relationship to God, a divine spark that existed within (see a fuller discussion in my post The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation, in which I note that the historian Joseph Ellis also seems unaware of the Quaker position). A constitution was, as Quaker-influenced Paine described, “a compact between God and man” (from a footnote to Observations on the Declaration of Rights).

Let me continue with some more of Schwartz commentary from the section on Dickinson (Kindle Locations 2369-2384):

The only time that Dickinson offers a justification of colonial rights is when he quotes the resolves of the Stamp Act Congress, which he had earlier drafted but which avoided the use of natural rights. Quoting the third resolve of the Stamp Act Congress, and referring to these resolves as the “American Bill of Rights,” this is as close as Dickinson gets to offering a philosophical basis of liberty.

III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that No Tax‡ be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”13

We have no way of knowing in these letters how Dickinson grounded “the essential freedom of a people” and “undoubted right of Englishmen.” Only on one occasion (Letter Seven) does Dickinson quote Locke: “If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. ‘There is nothing which’ we ‘can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—what property have’ we ‘in that, which another may, by right, take, when he pleases, to himself?’”14 This quote from Locke is apropos. Locke here is talking about the duty of people to support government with taxes. Locke makes clear in this passage that paying taxes must be with their consent, as defined by the vote of the majority. While Dickinson brings Locke’s authority to bear in supporting the idea that there should be “no taxation without consent,” he does not invoke Locke’s notions of social contract or natural rights.

At least at one point Dickinson seems to assume a very different source of colonial rights than his colleagues. Specifically, he assumes that the rights of the colonies were granted by Great Britain in exchange for the benefits that the colonies brought the mother country. Strikingly, Dickinson includes the right of property as a privilege conferred by Great Britain on the colonies, rather than an inherent right.

Schwartz struggles here to pinpoint exactly where Dickinson is coming from. He is able to discern bits and pieces from Dickinson’s words, but the motivating vision behind those words eludes him. Further on, Schwartz does show he realizes the importance of the religious angle, even though not specifically in the context of Quakerism (Kindle Locations 2390-2394):

It is striking that the colonial right to property is here described not as a natural right, but as a “recompense” or payback from Great Britain to America for the benefits that accrued to the mother country. The colonies’ rights were the result of a trade or contract. No one arguing strictly from natural rights directly would ground the American right of property this way. Moreover, the religious overtones in Dickinson’s essays, though not frequent, are obvious here when he invokes scripture rather than Locke or reason to prove his point.

He then clarifies the importance of religion (Kindle Locations 2399-2405):

Quoting the New Testament, Dickinson appeals to freedom as a grant from God. The absence of natural rights language or at least a fully articulated rights theory in Dickinson would seem consistent with his ongoing commitment that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. Dickinson rejects any talk of the colonies as “independent states” which are part of a larger federated empire. “But if once we are separated from our mother country, what new form of government shall we adopt, or where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce, we must bleed at every vein.”18 Dickinson, as is well known, would later refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing in July 1776 that there was still some hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Great Britain.

Schwartz is touching upon so much here, but he can’t quite bring it together. The Quakerism piece is missing. All of this makes sense, though, when that Quaker piece is put into place. To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant of a collective people as a community. It is not a piece of paper or the words on them. To be separated from their mother country was quite the challenge to that worldview. The community needed to be redefined and the covenant needed to take new form.

Jane E. Calvert, in Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, details what this means for Dickinson and how this differs from Jefferson (Kindle Locations 9708-9742):

For Dickinson, a polity must be and, in the case of America, was constituted otherwise than merely on paper. And his understanding of how man entered political society was largely the same as the way most Americans understood it, but with subtle differences in process and emphases. While most political thinkers of the day agreed that joining society, forming a union, was “primarily a matter of reason,”13 Dickinson believed that to unite was to obey a divine command, a “sacred law.”14 Like Locke, he held that society was first occasioned “by the command of our Creator.”15 God, said Dickinson, “designed men for society, because otherwise they cannot be happy.”16 But more than that, God “demands that we should seek for happiness in his way, and not our own,” which meant joining one another on specific terms and with a particular mode of engagement.17 Moreover, reason was not man’s primary impetus for joining; the “common sense of mankind,” Dickinson explained, merely “agrees.”18 This original constitution ordained by God was prior to and independent of any written documents codifying that union. “[T]hose corner stones of liberty,” he wrote, “were not obtained by a bill of rights, or any other records, and have not been made and cannot be preserved by them.”19 Rather, ten years before Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” Dickinson asserted that “Rights are created in us by the decrees of Providence.”20

On the surface, Jefferson and Dickinson seem to agree, but as we have seen from our earlier discussion, Quaker thinkers did not usually speak of natural rights. While many thinkers of all persuasions, including Penn and Dickinson on occasion, conflated the languages of rights and referred interchangeably to natural or God-given rights, for Quakers, who more often spoke in terms of providence, there was ultimately a difference. If the divine and the natural were the same (an idea many Quakers rejected outright), they were much more closely related in Quaker thought than in Jefferson’s, with nature not overshadowing divinity. Dickinson clearly did not subscribe to the deist theology of other Founders. He explained that “[w]e claim [rights] from a higher source, from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth…They are born within us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives.”21 Because they came from God rather than nature, man, or his history of established institutions, “rights must be preserved by soundness of sense and honesty of heart. Compared with these, what are a bill of rights, or any characters drawn upon parchment, those frail rememberances?”22 If this seems to us an overly fine distinction, that Dickinson made it was in keeping with Quaker thinking about rights. Such subtleties caused contemporary and historical criticism that his work consisted of “fine-spun theories and hair-splitting distinctions”23 and that he had the “Vice of Refining too much.”24 But if his thought has been misunderstood, it is because his critics did not care to understand these distinctions or the complex theories and arrangement to which they gave rise. It is mainly this difference between the natural or human and the divine that distinguished the Quaker theory of government and their process of legal discernment from others.

From my perspective, this additional insight strengthens the case Schwartz is making.

The Quakers, more than any other early Americans, embodied the balance between rights and responsibilities, between freedom and obligation. Schwartz wants to place the emphasis on the social reality. Quaker constitutionalism could have given him an alternative view to throw light on what it means to have rights in a community. Also, to return to Paine, the pamphlet “Agrarian Justice” could have given Schwartz a stronger foundation in American tradition for a progressive understanding of the commons.

When put together, all of these pieces form a greater vision of what America has been and could be. Schwartz’s writings are part of a larger conversation. No single voice can capture every aspect and nuance. What matters is the broadening of debate. It is an exciting time to add one’s voice to the chorus, even if at times it sounds more like cacophany, something the founders could sympathize with.

The historical context is important for a deeper understanding. Even so, any given fact and detail isn’t what matters most. Studying such things should serve the purpose of helping to see what was hidden, to remember what has been forgotten, to revive the senses that became numb. The disappearance of the commons is a profound loss. It isn’t just the loss of public land and their resources. As Schwartz makes clear, it is a loss of shared identity and meaning, loss of a unifying set of values. We are made small as our vision of rights narrows. We are made weaker.

When we lose the knowledge of what we lost, we lose the knowledge that something is lost. That is not a good place for a people to find themselves. It is to be lost without a map. Fortunately, those who came before us left markers for the path we are on and the paths we might take.

Beyond Liberty Alone

Liberty and responsibility can’t be separated. There is no dependence without interdependence. There are no individuals outside of community and society.

This is why a people who can’t be trusted with collective governance can neither be trusted with self-governance. Eliminating big government wouldn’t solve the problem. Corruption and oppression often is even worse with small governments. This is the failure of the libertarian fantasy.

More importantly, those who would take away from others the right and freedom of self-governance are those who lack the moral capacity for good governance. They shouldn’t be allowed to govern anyone, not even themselves. This speaks to the problem of ruling elites, whether in big or small government, whether local or centralized power.

Too often people who speak of liberty speak only for their own liberty while hoping to deny the liberty of others. This inconsistency shows that they don’t even respect the principle of liberty. It is just empty rhetoric and so dangerous rhetoric. We should fear those who use talk of liberty in order to undermine any real possibility of a free society.

The problem, as always, is the lack of functioning democracy. The balance of liberty and responsibility is democracy’s defining feature. If that doesn’t exist, there is no free society and hence no free individuals. Either everyone is free or no one is free.

“Instead of thinking of liberty as a set of natural or individual rights that must be protected no matter what, this other tradition also sees liberty as including a set of obligations, duties, sacrifices, and responsibilities that come into being as members of social communities and as human beings. Liberty in this view means living justly as part of and within a social community and as a responsible member of the human species.”
~ Howard Schwartz, Beyond Liberty Alone, Kindle Locations 395-397

Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

One of the best books I read this past year is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. The book covers the type of data HBDers (human biodiversity advocates) and other hereditarians tend to ignore. Kenneally shows how powerful is environment in shaping thought, perception, and behavior.

What really intrigued me is how persistent patterns can be once set into place. Old patterns get disrupted by violence such as colonialism and mass trauma such as slavery. In the place of the old, something new takes form. But this process isn’t always violent. In some cases, technological innovation can change an entire society.

This is true for as simple of a technology as a plow. Just imagine what impact a more complex technology like computers and the internet will have on society in the coming generations and centuries. Also, over this past century or so, we saw a greater change to agriculture than maybe has been seen in all of civilization. Agricultural is becoming industrialized and technologized.

What new social system is being created? How long will it take to become established as a new stable order?

We live in a time of change and we can’t see the end of it. We are like the people who lived during the time when the use of plows first began to spread. All that we know, as all that they knew, is that we are amidst change. This inevitably creates fear and anxiety. It is a crisis that has the potential of being more transformative than a world war. It is a force that will be both destructive and creative, but either way it is unpredictable.

* * * *

The Invisible History of the Human Race:
How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
by Christine Kenneally
Kindle Locations 2445-2489

Catastrophic events like the plague or slavery are not the only ones that echo down the generations . Widespread and deeply held beliefs can be traced to apparently benign events too, like the invention of technology. In the 1970s the Danish economist Ester Boserup argued that the invention of the plow transformed the way men and women viewed themselves. Boserup’s idea was that because the device changed how farming communities labored, it also changed how people thought about labor itself and about who should be responsible for it.

The main farming technology that existed when the plow was introduced was shifting cultivation. Using a plow takes a lot of upper-body strength and manual power, whereas shifting cultivation relies on handheld tools like hoes and does not require as much strength. As communities took up the plow, it was most effectively used by stronger individuals , and these were most often men. In societies that used shifting cultivation, both men and women used the technology . Of course, the plow was invented not to exclude women but to make cultivation faster and easier in areas where crops like wheat, barley, and teff were grown over large, flat tracts of land in deep soil. Communities living where sorghum and millet grew best— typically in rocky soil— continued to use the hoe. Boserup believed that after the plow forced specialization of labor, with men in the field and women remaining in the home, people formed the belief— after the fact— that this arrangement was how it should be and that women were best suited to home life.

Boserup made a solid historical argument, but no one had tried to measure whether beliefs about innate differences between men and women across the world could really be mapped according to whether their ancestors had used the plow. Nathan Nunn read Boserup’s ideas in graduate school, and ten years later he and some colleagues decided to test them.

Once again Nunn searched for ways to measure the Old World against the new. He and his colleagues divided societies up according to whether they used the plow or shifting cultivation . They gathered current data about male and female lives, including how much women in different societies worked in public versus how much they worked in the home, how often they owned companies, and the degree to which they participated in politics. They also measured public attitudes by comparing responses to statements in the World Value Survey like “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than a woman.”

Nunn found that if you asked an individual whose ancestors grew wheat about his beliefs regarding women’s place, it was much more likely that his notion of gender equality would be weaker than that of someone whose ancestors had grown sorghum or millet. Where the plow was used there was greater gender inequality and women were less common in the workforce. This was true even in contemporary societies in which most of the subjects would never even have seen a plow, much less used one, and in societies where plows today are fully mechanized to the point that a child of either gender would be capable of operating one.

Similar research in the cultural inheritance of psychology has explored the difference between cultures in the West and the East. Many studies have found evidence for more individualistic, analytic ways of thought in the West and more interdependent and holistic conceptions of the self and cooperation in the East. But in 2014 a team of psychologists investigated these differences in populations within China based on whether the culture in question traditionally grew wheat or rice. Comparing cultures within China rather than between the East and West enabled the researchers to remove many confounding factors, like religion and language.

Participants underwent a series of tests in which they paired two of three pictures. In previous studies the way a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot were paired differed according to whether the subject was from the West or the East . The Eastern subjects tended to pair the rabbit with a carrot, which was thought to be the more holistic, relational solution. The Western subjects paired the dog and the rabbit, which is more analytic because the animals belong in the same category. In another test subjects drew pictures of themselves and their friends. Previous studies had shown that westerners drew themselves larger than their friends . Another test surveyed how likely people were to privilege friends over strangers; typically Eastern cultures score higher on this measure.

In all the tests the researchers found that, independent of a community’s wealth or its exposure to pathogens or to other cultures, the people whose ancestors grew rice were much more relational in their thinking than the people whose ancestors were wheat growers. Other measures pointed at differences between the two groups. For example , people from a wheat-growing culture divorced significantly more often than people from a rice-growing culture, a pattern that echoes the difference in divorce rates between the West and the East. The findings were true for people who live in rice and wheat communities today regardless of their occupation; even when subjects had nothing to do with the production of crops, they still inherited the cultural predispositions of their farming forebears.

The differences between the cultures are attributed to the different demands of the two kinds of agriculture. Rice farming depends on complicated irrigation and the cooperation of farmers around the use of water. It also requires twice the amount of labor that is necessary for wheat, so rice-growing communities often stagger the planting of crops in order that all their members can help with the harvest. Wheat farming, by contrast, doesn’t need complicated irrigation or systems of cooperation among growers.

The implication of these studies is that the way we see the world and act in it—whether the end result is gender inequality or trusting strangers— is significantly shaped by internal beliefs and norms that have been passed down in families and small communities . It seems that these norms are even taken with an individual when he moves to another country. But how might history have such a powerful impact on families, even when they have moved away from the place where that history, whatever it was, took place?

Society: Precarious or Persistent?

I sometimes think of society as precarious. It can seem easier to destroy something than to create a new thing or to re-create what was lost. It’s natural to take things for granted, until they are gone. Wisdom is learning to appreciate what you have while you have it.

There is value to this perspective, as it expresses the precautionary principle. This includes a wariness about messing with that which we don’t understand… and there is very little in this world we understand as well as maybe we should. We ought to appreciate what we inherit from the generations before us. We don’t know what went into making what we have possible.

Still, I’m not sure this is always the best way to think about it.

Many aspects of society can be as tough to kill as weeds. Use enough harsh chemicals, though, and weeds can be killed, but even then weeds have a way of popping back up. Cultures are like weeds. They persist against amazing odds. We are all living evidence for this being the case, descendants of survivors upon survivors, the products of many millennia of social advance.

In nature, a bare patch of earth rarely remains bare for long, even if doused with weed-killer. You can kill one thing and then something else will take its place. The best way to keep a weed from growing there is to plant other things that make it less hospitable. It’s as much about what a person wants to grow as about what a person doesn’t want to grow.

This is an apt metaphor for the project of imperialism and colonialism. Westerners perceived Africa and the Americas as places of wilderness. They need to be tamed, and that involved farming. The native plants typically were seen as weeds. Europeans couldn’t even recognize some of the agrarian practices of the indigenous for it didn’t fit their idea of farms. They just saw weeds. So, they destroyed what they couldn’t appreciate. As far as they were concerned, it was unused land to be taken and cultivated, which is to say made civilized.

Most of them weren’t going around wantonly destroying everything in sight. They were trying to create something in what to them was a new land and, in the case of the disease impact in the Americas, a seemingly uninhabited land in many cases. Much of the destruction of other societies was incidental from their perspective, although there was plenty of systematic destruction as well. However, my point is that all of this happened in the context of what was seen as “creative destruction”. It was part of a paternalistic project of ‘civilizing’ the world.

In this project, not all was destroyed. Plenty of indigenous people remain in existence and have retained, to varying degrees, their traditional cultures. Still, those who weren’t destroyed had their entire worlds turned upside down.

An example I was thinking about comes from Christine Kenneally’s recent book, The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally.

The areas of Africa where many slaves were taken were originally high functioning societies. They had developed economies and established governments. This meant they had at least basic levels of a culture of trust to make all this possible. It was probably the developed social system and infrastructure that made the slave trade attractive in those places. These Africans were desirable slavves for the very reason that they came from highly developed societies. They had knowledge and skills that the European enslavers lacked.

This where my original thought comes in. From one perspective, it was simply the destruction of a once stable society built on a culture of trust. From another perspective, a new social order was created to take place of the old.

The slave trade obviously created an atmosphere of fear, conflict, and desperation. It eroded trust, turning village against village, neighbor against neighbor, and even families against their own kin. Yet the slave trade was also the foundation of something new, imperialism and colonialism. The agents of this new order didn’t annihilate all of African society. What they did was conquer these societies and then the empires divied up the spoils. In this process, new societies were built on top of the old and so the countries we know today took form.

If these ancient African cultures were genuinely precarious societies, then we would have expected different results. It was the rock-solid substratum that made this transition to colonial rule possible. Even the development of cultures of distrust was a sign of a functioning society in defensive mode. These societies weren’t destroyed. They were defending themselves from destruction under difficult conditions. These societies persisted amidst change by adapting to change.

It is impossible to make a value judgment of this persistence. A culture of distrust may be less than optimal, but it makes perfect sense in these situations. These people have had to fight for their survival. They aren’t going to be taken for fools. Considering the world is still ruled by their former colonizers, they have every right to move forward with trepidation. They would be crazy to do otherwise.

In comparison, I was thinking of societies known for their strong cultures of trust. Those that come to mind are Scandinavia, Germany, and Japan. These societies are also known for their xenophobia. They may have strong trust for insiders, but this is paired with strong distrust of outsiders. So, there is some nuance to what we mean when we speak of cultures of trust. Anyway, it is true that cultures of trust tend to lead to high economic development and wealth. But, as with the examples of Germany and Japan, the xenophobic side of the equation can also lead to mass destruction and violent oppression that impacts people far outside of their national borders.

As for cultures of distrust, they tend to primarily keep their distrust contained within their own boundaries. Few of the former colonies have become empires colonizing other societies. The United States is one of the few exceptions, probably because the native population was so severely decimated and made a minority in their own land. It also should be noted that the U.S. measures fairly high as a culture of trust. I suspect it requires a strong culture of trust to make for an effective empire, and so it oddly may require a culture of trust among the occuppiers in order to create cultures of distrust in the occupied and formerly occupied societies. That is sad to think about.

Cultures tend to persist, even when some people would rather they not. Claiming societies to be precarious, in many cases, could be considered wishful thinking. Social orders must serve one purpose before all others, that is self-perpetuation.

The core of my message here is that we should be as concerned about what we are creating as what we are destroying. The example of Africa is an example of that. A similar example is what happened to the Ottoman Empire. In both cases, they were divided up by the conquering nations and artificial boundaries were created that inevitably led to conflict. This formed the basis for all the problems that have continued in the Middle East and the Arab world extending into North Africa.

That world of conflict didn’t just happened. It was intentionally created. The powers that be wanted the local people to be divided against themselves. It made it easier to rule over them or to otherwise take advantage of them, such as in procuring/stealing their natural resources.

We Americans inherited that colonial mess, as we are part of it. America has never known any other world, for we were born out of the same oppression as the African and Middle Eastern countries. Now, the U.S. has taken the role of the British Empire, the former ruler now made a partner to and subsidiary of American global power. In this role, we assassinate democratically-elected leaders, foment coup d’etats, arm rebel groups, invade and occupy countries, bomb entire regions into oblivion, etc.

The U.S. military can topple a leader like Saddam Hussein and destroy the social order he created that created secular stability, but the U.S. can’t rebuild what it destroyed. Anyway, that isn’t the point. The U.S. never cared about rebuilding anything. It was always about creating something entirely new. Yet the Iraqi people and their society persists, even in a state of turmoil.

The old persists as it is transformed.

What exactly persists in these times of change? Which threads can be traced into the past and which threads will continue to unwind into the future? What is being woven from these threads? What will be inherited by the following generations?

Black Families: “Broken” and “Weak”

“I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”
 ~ Steven Steinberg, quoting a black friend

Many of my unconscious assumptions have been challenged over the years. One example of this are the mental habits I’ve had when hearing the frame of “broken families”. Part of me has always known that there are many kinds of family structures and social networks, but that part of my mind was unintentionally divided from the part of my mind that normally deals with ideas such as “broken families”.

I hadn’t previously been forced to become aware of this bias I had, partly because of a lack of knowledge. Books I’ve read in recent years have both given me new information and new contexts in which to think. In the past, I took the idea of “broken families” at face value without fully interrogating the assumptions behind it. I was just being a typical American in thinking this way.

As my views have shifted, I’ve become more self-questioning. I don’t just want to understand others. This is personal to me. This is about the society I’m a part of. My family ties to America go back to that first Virginia colony and that particular family line began with a slave owner. That puts my identity as an American in perspective. It also puts my views on the American family in perspective.

I am who I am because of who my ancestors were. There is a continuous link between their lives and my own. Unlike the descendants of the slaves owned by that ancestor of mine, my genealogy on that family line is well established. My ancestor, all those centuries ago, brought his own family to the New World and along with them he tore away Africans from their families. In that, the seed of American culture was planted.

My parents, white of course, both came from families where there was much fighting and in my mother’s family also abuse. My paternal grandparents divorced when my father was in high school. Neither of my parents’ families were ideal nuclear families and my father’s family ended up as a “broken family”. Interestingly, my maternal grandmother had an absentee father (her maiden name was Peebles, the same as that early Virginia plantation owner). Her father disappeared one day, never to be heard from again.

But I’m not sure how my parents’ would label their families. They both are conservatives with strong family values and both would criticize blacks for their supposed weak and broken families. They have remained married, my dad having avoided his own family’s curse of single parenthood. They take this as proof that no one can blame previous generations for their own ‘failures’.

However, the difference is that my parents grew up white in relatively well off communities at a time when this country offered immense opportunities, especially for white people. The family problems they grew up with were less problematic because they weren’t compounded by endless social problems and racism. That makes a big difference. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad explained in The Condemnation of Blackness (pp. 6-7):

“One of the strongest claims this book makes is that statistical comparisons between the Foreign-born and the Negro were foundational to the emergence of distinctive modern discourses on race and crime. For all the ways in which poor Irish immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century were labeled members of the dangerous classes, criminalized by Anglo -Saxon police, and over-incarcerated in the nation’s failing prisons, Progressive era social scientists used statistics and sociology to create a pathway for their redemption and rehabilitation. 27 A generation before the Chicago School of Sociology systematically destroyed the immigrant house of pathology built by social Darwinists and eugenicists, Progressive era social scientists were innovating environmental theories of crime and delinquency while using crime statistics to demonstrate the assimilability of the Irish, the Italian, and the Jew by explicit contrast to the Negro. 28 White progressives often discounted crime statistics or disregarded them altogether in favor of humanizing European immigrants, as in much of Jane Addams’s writings. 29 In one of the first academic textbooks on crime, Charles R. Henderson, a pioneering University of Chicago social scientist, declared that “the evil [of immigrant crime] is not so great as statistics carelessly interpreted might prove.” He explained that age and sex ratios— too many young males— skewed the data. But where the “Negro factor” is concerned, Henderson continued, “racial inheritance, physical and mental inferiority , barbarian and slave ancestry and culture ,” were among the “most serious factors in crime statistics.””

As this shows, there are deeper issue of cultural assumptions. It isn’t just about failure of some ideal family standard, but how that ideal came about and is used as a basis of judgment. We should think much more carefully, with greater self-awareness and less self-righteousness. Conservatives are partly right in pointing out the importance of family. Where conservatives fail is in their lack of understanding about what family, in all its forms, signifies. It is never just about families.

* * * *

Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales
by Keith Cartwright
p. 70

Adding racist insult to the nation’s pathological history of racist injury, the Moynihan Report (1965) labeled the black family “a pathological `matriarchy”‘ that had fallen into a “deterioration” explainable by “the rampant sexual debauchery among the black population, by the instability and violence of black men, and by the pathological dominance of black women” (Hirsch 142-43). Issued at a time when heroes like Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. (along with women like Selma’s Marie Foster and Amelia Boynton), were taking to Southern streets and spilling their blood there, the Moynihan Report’s maligning of the black family avoided America’s core pathologies. As might be expected, its critical focus upon an alleged “black matriarchy” energized black nationalist efforts to restore the father to his “proper” familial location.

* * * *

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty
by Stephen Steinberg
Kindle Locations 59-74

Far from having a chilling effect on researching and thinking about culture in relationship to poverty, the debate over the Moynihan report spawned a canon of critical scholarship. For the first time, scholars came to terms with the economic underpinnings of the nuclear family, which tends to unravel whenever male breadwinners are unemployed for long periods of time, as was true of white families during the Depression.

No longer was the nuclear family, with its patriarchal foundations, the unquestioned societal norm. The blatantly tendentious language that pervaded the Moynihan report — “broken homes” and “illegitimate births ” — was purged from the professional lexicon. More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”

Yet even Moynihan’s harshest critics did not deny the manifest troubles in black families. Nor did they deny that the culture of poor people is often markedly at variance with the cultural norms and practices in more privileged sectors of society. How could it be otherwise? The key point of contention was whether, under conditions of prolonged poverty, those cultural adaptations “assume a life of their own” and are passed down from parents to children through normal processes of cultural transmission. In other words, the imbroglio over the Moynihan report was never about whether culture matters, but about whether culture is or ever could be an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.

* * * *

When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
by Ira Katznelson
Kindle Locations 409-439

Lyndon B. Johnson gave a famous speech at Howard University where he discussed the Negro problem. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who helped write that speech and provided the information that was cited. In that speech, Johnson asked about the widening gulf between whites and blacks. He put this in context of the also widening gulf between minority of middle class blacks and the majority in the black working class who were becoming a permanent underclass (or rather had never stopped being a permanent underclass, despite the mid-century economic growth of most Americans).

Why were so many blacks unable to escape the permanent underclass that had been sustained by systemic and institutional racism for centuries? Of course, Johnson didn’t phrase the question that way, because then the question would have answered itself. Instead, he assumed the old racial order had ended and therefore something else must be sustaining the continued inequality. One of the explainations he gave is as follows:

With the identification of this growing gap between black and white Americans, the president advanced an uncommonly analytical explanation for a political address. “We are not completely sure,” he confessed, “why this is.” But among the “complex and subtle” causes, he singled out two for special mention. “First, Negroes are trapped —as many whites are trapped— in inherited, gateless poverty.” Such poverty is deeper and more distinctive. “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” The differences, he hastened to explain, “are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice , and present prejudice.” Unlike blacks, the white poor, many of whom had escaped its shackles, “did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome , and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded—these others —because of race or color— a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.”

The second cause, embedded in the first, he identified as “the breakdown of the Negro family structure,” which he attributed to “centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man.” Here, of course, the president echoed the findings and arguments published just two months earlier in Moynihan’s controversial Department of Labor report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. A self-perpetuat ing “tangle of pathology ,” marked by “the deterioration of the Negro family” and produced by “three centuries of injustice,” it had argued, blocked black mobility. For this reason, Moynihan advocated that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.” 26

Neither of these arguments can be dismissed . The barriers to black advancement indeed were more pervasive and deep as a result of the country’s long history of racial oppression. No doubt, too, families with one adult tended to be more poor than those with two. Still, these explanations were insufficient. Other possibilities were ignored. A radical decline in agricultural employment in the South and the start of deindustrialization in the North combined to limit opportunities at the bottom of the economic structure. Lags in skill training, more limited access to higher education, and persistent private discrimination by employers, banks, landlords, and other suppliers of economic opportunity also blocked black mobility. 27 Even the most successful fraction of black America—professionals, small business people, white-collar workers in public life, and industrialized workers in union jobs— faced new stresses. The end of Jim Crow, migration northward, and the start of desegregation in education wore away their insulated niches, and left them with fewer assets and greater insecurities than their white counterparts. 28

Yet even more important , and entirely absent from the president’s account, was the set of causes that will be highlighted in more detail in the chapters below: how the wide array of significant and far -reaching public policies that were shaped and administered during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were crafted and administered in a deeply discriminatory manner. This was no accident. Still an era of legal segregation in seventeen American states and Washington, D.C., the southern wing of the Democratic Party was in a position to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation , the GI Bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called “the southern way of life.”

Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope

I came across this nugget of inconvenient truth:

“Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

“One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.”

This is from The New York Times. It is Part 4 of a series by Nicholas Kristoff, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It”.

It brought back to mind a few similar examples of this type of historical effect. A short while ago, an intriguing book was published that included this topic. It is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. I learned of the book from a book review by David Dobbs, also in The New York Times. I have since read it and I must admit it is one of the best books I’ve read recently, right up there with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I appreciated what the author accomplished for similar reasons as with Alexander’s book, telling data in support of keen insight.

The data is overwhelming. The way Kenneally brings it all together makes you feel the full weight of history. Institutions and social orders, cultures and social capital, injustices and traumas, they can and often do persist over centuries. This what people mean when they speak of oppression. They don’t just mean a single generation who loses opportunities of betterment. It’s not just about individuals, but entire societies. It continues to impact the descendants for as long as the social conditions sustain it. This is the moral obligation we face. The actions we take now will echo into the distant future. We choose whether to continue systems and cultures of oppression or to end them. Every generation makes that choice, century after century.

The past is never just past. This is particularly true with trauma. It is hard to forget large-scale atrocities that leave deep imprints. Societies can be forever changed. Kenneally mentions an anthropologist who, during the 1990s, stayed with an African tribe in an area that had high rates of enslavement. The memory of slavery was still apart of their experience. Many of them could point to the homes of people who lost family members to slavery. And sometimes they could even name the people who had sold them into slavery, sometimes members of the same family committed the act (“Almost 20 percent of slaves had been betrayed by people to whom they were close.” Kindle Location 2304). These people couldn’t forget.

There are many enduring effects to this. One of these is easier to think about. It is the resulting economic problems. This relates to the example I began with. Areas that experienced slavery and the slave trade in centuries past still have problems with underdevelopment, poverty, and inequality. Some might dismiss this as simply being a continuation of what came before, that these places always were bad off. That is a too convenient excuse and also false (Kindle Locations 2295-2302):

“In order to find a connection between slavery and modern economies, Nunn asked if the differences in economic well-being today could be explained by differences that existed before the slave trade. Were the countries that were already poor the same countries that were more engaged in the slave trade? In fact, Nunn found the opposite : Regions that lost the most people to slavery had once been among the best-developed economies and best-organized states on the continent, with central governments, national currencies, and established trade networks. It was the states that were least developed and had higher degrees of violence and hostility at the time of the slave trade that were better able to repel slavers and not suffer the long-term effects of the trade.

“Could the relationship between modern poverty and historical slavery be explained by the subsequent effects of colonialism or by the natural resources possessed by a country? Nunn found that although those factors appeared to have an effect, neither was as powerful. It was slavery that mattered, and it mattered greatly.”

Another enduring effect connects to that. As has been observed by many, economic development along with wealth and equality seem to be intrinsic qualities of a culture of trust (see Fukuyama’s Trust). Kenneally writes (Kindle Locations 2327-2352):

They began with the intuition that trust could be a channel through which slavery still affects modern economies. But their goal was to find evidence for it. Of course, trust is a crucial part of any economy: Societies must have some degree of trust in order to be able to trade. At the most basic level, if people don’t trust one another, they are less willing to take a chance in business, whether it involves a simple exchange of goods or a complicated contract. But no one in economics had ever tried to measure the relationships among history, trust, and the economy before. After all, trust was an element of culture, and “culture” was a vague, fuzzy concept. Nunn and Wantchekon defined it as simply as they could: Culture, for their purposes, was the rules of thumb people used to make decisions. Do I trust this person ? Do I distrust him? People from different cultures use different rules of thumb to make such determinations.

If trust is absent, a well functioning society becomes impossible. Some would argue that absence of trust can only be blamed on the local population, not outside forces, but the fact that these once were well functioning societies gives the lie to that claim. The point of causation is most clearly attributed to slavery itself. as shown in the author’s analysis (continuing from above):

“Building on Nunn’s finding that the countries that lost more of their populations to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the poorest today, Nunn and Wantchekon examined the Afrobarometer, a survey project that measures public attitudes to different aspects of African daily life, like democracy, employment, and the future of citizenship. It is comparable to a Gallup poll, and it includes seventeen countries. The researchers found that overall, people tended to have more trust in those who were closer to them— for example, friends over government officials. This was a universal pattern. But it was also the case that the groups that were most exposed to the slave trade over one hundred years ago were also the groups with the lowest levels of trust today. Modern Africans whose ancestors lost the most people to slavers distrusted not just their local government and other members of their ethnicity but also relatives and neighbors much more than Africans whose ancestors were not as exposed to the slave trade.

“Did the slave trade give rise to a culture of mistrust that was passed down from the slave era even to individuals who live in the same places today? There are good reasons to believe that it might have. For those who witnessed the ways an innocent bystander might be swept up by or somehow betrayed into the slave trade, it would have made more sense to distrust people, as a general rule. People who automatically distrusted others were probably more likely to do well, or at least to not be enslaved . Wariness would also have been a smart strategy to teach the next generation.

“There’s another way this terrible correlation could be interpreted: Perhaps the slave trade made people not less trusting but less trustworthy. Perhaps people weren’t trusted in countries like Benin because they didn’t deserve to be trusted. After all, chiefs turned on their own people, and families sent some of their own literally down the river. Was a culture of betrayal passed down as well as a culture of distrust? This could partially be the case. Nunn’s analysis reveals that ethnic groups and local governments in the regions that were most affected by the slave trade in the past are also least trusted today. People whose ancestors were more affected by the slave trade were more likely to report that they did not approve of their local councilors, who were corrupt and did not listen to constituents. As Nunn explained , it’s quite likely that this is an accurate assessment of the local councils in these areas. Nevertheless, when they controlled for this effect, there was still a significant amount of distrust in countries most affected by the slave trade— regardless of whether the object of trust was truly worthy.”

A culture of trust is easier to destroy than to re-create. Once trauma becomes society-wide dysfunction, healing those shared wounds will be a slow process. The reason for this is that it hits people at the most personal level, their social identities and relationships (Kindle Locations 2430-2444):

“It seemed that both families and social institutions matter but that the former is more powerful. The data suggested that a region might develop its own culture of distrust and that it could affect people who moved into that area, even if their ancestors had not been exposed to the historical event that destroyed trust in the first place. But if someone’s ancestors had significant exposure to the slave trade, then even if he moved away from the area where he was born to an area where there was no general culture of mistrust, he was still less likely to be trusting. Indeed, Nunn and Wantchekon found evidence that the inheritance of distrust within a family was twice as powerful as the distrust that is passed down in a community.

“This accords well with our personal intuitions about families: The people who raise us shape us, intentionally or unintentionally. The people who raise us were likewise shaped by the people who raised them, and so on. Similarly, the way we treat other people, even our offspring, is shaped by the way we were shaped. This is not to say that our peers don’t affect our attitudes, nor does it mean that the society in which we choose to live doesn’t contribute as well. Obviously, the older we get, the more we develop the ability to shape ourselves. Family history doesn’t necessarily determine who we become, but this body of work suggests that the effect of a family may be so powerful that it can be replicated down through many generations, over and over through hundreds of years. It’s no wonder that so many people choose to study the distant histories of their families to understand how they work today . If genealogists believe there isn’t enough in their daily lives or their culture that sufficiently explains who they are— either to others or to themselves— it may be because they are right.

“In fact, the legacy of a family may be so powerful that it will not only last over extraordinary periods of time but extend over great distances as well.”

In regards to slavery in the United States, this last insight may point to an even further problem.

Africans who weren’t enslaved lost family members and had their functioning societies destroyed, but they maintained their family structures and cultural traditions. This did offer a pathway of transmission for trauma. At the same time, it also offered a certain kind of social stability. These people remember who they are and where they came from. They don’t suffer historical amnesia, as do many Americans. Trauma remembered allows for the opportunity of healing.

African-Americans, on the other hand, didn’t just lose their freedom. They lost everything. They lost their communities, traditions, and every other aspect of their social identities. Once enslaved and brought to America, they sought to rebuild the social bonds that had been lost. However, the slave system and the racial order that was built on it continually destroyed those social bonds or at the very least made it a challenge to maintain them over the generations. Slave families were regularly separated and this enforced instability continued for centuries, for longer than African-Americans have known freedom. They weren’t allowed the extended kinship ties that were traditional in Africa nor were they even allowed to develop dependable nuclear families.

If families are a major factor in passing on culture, what happens when a culture of oppression has been forced onto an entire people such that the foundations of family are undermined? African-Americans adapted to this challenge. Once free, they created new social bonds that could help them face the nearly insurmountable odds set against them. After slavery, the ruling white society continued to send black men off to other forms of unfreedom, from prisons to chain gangs. Their communities were ghettoized and racialized social control kept them trapped in poverty. So, they turned to the people around them and developed extended social networks (see Carol Stack’s All Our Kin; also see The Myth of Weak and Broken Black Families).

This source of strength, within their inheritance of injustice and oppression, is not to be dismissed. These communities still struggle against the legacy of slavery. Bigotry still lives on and racial bias remains institutionalized. Yet these people aren’t mere victims to be pitied. Just imagine what they might accomplish if they were ever allowed to heal from centuries of shared trauma.

Part of the reason so many African-Americans left the South was because they hoped to leave behind the very oppressive social orders that had kept them down for so long. If not for the mass exodus to the northern states, the civil rights movement may never have happened. They had to escape the persistent culture of poverty and inequality. By changing their environments, they were able to begin to see new possibilities and organize around new visions. Now many of their descendants are returning to the South for jobs and cheaper housing. This could in turn transform that old Southern society built on slavery, and so transform all of American society that has been complicit in the continuing racial order.

I’m not sure what specific hopes this offers, but there is a potential there. Some things persist over centuries while other things become transformed. Positive changes only ever happen when entire systems are shifted toward a new balance. One thing that seems clear to me is that this country is in the middle of a shift, whatever that might entail. Remembering the past lights the path toward a different future. That future will be determined by the choices we make now. What kind of world will we leave for the generations that follow after us?

Every Freedom Comes At A Cost of Freedom

We like to think we are a free people in a free society. But our freedoms are social and political freedoms.

They are freedoms of the system we find ourselves in. We didn’t freely choose to be born into the system. We signed no social contract. There is no escape from the system itself. Our freedom is only how we play the game, not whether we play. We didn’t write the rules,  and yet we must obey them.

That is what society is. We do not exist in a state of nature. Natural rights and natural liberty is what someone has who lives alone on a desert island. They are free in a way few people could ever imagine. Most people in that situation, though, would gladly sacrifice the freedom of their isolation for the costs of being a member of society.

Society makes dependents of us all, for good or ill. This is increasingly true as civilization develops.

Even as late as the Great Depression, people still could support themselves through subsistence farming/gardening and living off the land. There was still a lot of land freely open to hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. Restrictions were few and the population was smaller.

That is no longer the case.

Those on the right like to complain about all the minorities and poor who are dependent on the system. But that is unfair. They were made dependent, as we’ve all been made dependent. This is to say, at this point, we are all interdependent. That is what society means.

No one is self-made in our society. Those born into privilege, whether class or race privilege, are the least self-made of us all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Only those disconnected from and clueless about their own dependent state can talk bullshit about being self-made and rant about libertarian rhetoric.

Civilization brings many benefits. But it comes at great costs. Those who benefit the most are those at the top of society. And those who pay most of the costs are those on the bottom of society.

The predicament of modern civilization wasn’t lost on the American revolutionaries, most especially the founders. Living in the colonies, they found themselves on the edge of modern civilization. Founders like Thomas Jefferson could see in the Native Americans the past of his own people, the English, who were once a free tribal people. Many took inspiration from the Native Americans because it reminded them where they came from and reminded them that other alternatives existed.

Native Americans not only had more freedom than the colonists had, but also less inequality. Thomas Paine recognized that the two went hand in hand, and that they were based on the lack of privately owned land. To privatize the Commons was to destroy the ancient right to the Commons (as described in the English Charter of the Forest, although going back to Northern European common law) and so was to sacrifice one of the most basic freedoms.

There was a reason the colonists were obsessed with the rights of Englishmen. They were ancient rights, often having preceded the British Empire and even preceded the establishment of an English monarchy by the Norman Conquest. It was what all of English and Anglo-American society was built on.

The land enclosure movement shredded the social contract and upended the entire social order. It was the most brazen act of theft in English history. It was theft from the many to profit the few. In England, it meant theft from the working class (making them into landless peasants). Similarly, in the colonies, it meant theft from the Native Americans (accompanied with genocide, ethnic cleansing, and reservations that made them wards/prisoners of the state). In both cases, that theft has yet to be compensated. The descendents of the robbers still profit from that theft. The injustice goes on, generation after generation. The theft didn’t happen just once, but is an ongoing process. The theft wasn’t justified then and remains unjustified.

Paine accepted that the loss of the Commons was maybe inevitable. But he didn’t think the act of theft was inevitable. He demanded the public be compensated, and that compensation should be for every generation. It was morally wrong to impose theft of the Commons onto future generations by privatizing land without compensating those future generations for what was taken from them before they were born.

It wasn’t just about compensating wealth as if it were just an economic transaction. No, it was more about offsetting the loss of freedoms with the gain of other freedoms, and it was about how forcing sacrifice onto people who didn’t choose it morally demanded society accept the social responsibility this entails. When people are forced into a state of dependence by the ruling elite of a society, the ruling elite and their descendent beneficiaries lose all rights to complain about those people being in a state of dependence.

In losing the Commons, people lost their independence. They were made dependents against their will, forced into laboring for others or else forced into unemployed poverty. That is the price of civilization. The fair and just thing would be to ensure that the costs and benefits of that act are evenly shared by all.

“Kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies.”

“Kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies.”
~ bumper sticker

“Since we saw this sticker on a car parked on a busy street in a densely urban area, clearly the intent here was to warn passersby to be on their guard against kids who don’t hunt, fish, and trap, since those are the likely muggers. So, when you’re walking through the city streets, seek children carrying rifles, fishing rods, and steel-toothed spring-loaded traps, and stay close to those children.”
~ The Kids Are to Blame, the stoneslide corrective

It is a humorous bumper sticker, when you give it a bit of thought. But it wasn’t intended to be humorous. It’s entirely unself-conscious in its inane logic.

I saw this bumper sticker the other day. My immediate response was to be dismissive. The argument falls apart. It is not meant to be thought about. It is a declaration of belief.

That is the key point. I suspect that even the owner of the vehicle realized that the statement isn’t true. The person probably isn’t stupid. Likely just an average person. It simply expresses what they wish was true. It isn’t just a statement of belief, but also a narrative. It is fiction and requires suspension of disbelief. It is a comforting lie, an idle fantasy.

I was thinking along these lines because of some research I came across earlier this year. The basic conclusion was that a lot of political polarization is superficial. It is cheerleading, a declaration of one’s group affiliation. But if there is money on the line incentivizing accurate information, it turns out most Americans disagree a lot less. They know what is true while pretending to believe all kinds of crazy shit.

This is human nature. It isn’t even that people are lying about what they know. It’s just that the brain compartmentalizes thinking. People honestly don’t normally notice the discrepancies between what they want to believe is true and what they know is true. It’s not deception and it isn’t stupidity. The human mind has its own priorities. Many of these priorities are social, rather than rational, the former typically trumping the latter, unless some tangible gain is offered to reverse the order of priority.

We all do this. And we all are oblivious to it. Self-awareness is no easy task.

If You Think Democracy Is Bad, You Should See Libertarianism

I differ from mainstream liberals in having some libertarian inclinations. I don’t think I’m extraordinarily unusual in this. I live in a liberal town and know other liberals that think more like me.

The reason I’m so inclined is simple. I like democracy. It appears that democracy has failed on the large-scale. The only successful examples of democracy are on the small-scale. Hence, libertarianism of a leftist variety.

That said, I wouldn’t identify as a libertarian. Not because I don’t like the label. I couldn’t care less about the label. The real point for me is the principles I hold. In principle, I’m indifferent to the argument of big versus small government. I suspect big government might be a necessary evil.

For example, there is good reason few minorities are libertarians. Colonial African slaves had to choose between Britain and America. It was no easy choice. Few of them were thinking about grand changes. They were simply seeking the best hope available to them. If they chose to fight on one side or the other, it was a very personal decision. They were more fighting for their individual freedom than they were fighting for some ideal of a free society.

It was very concrete and direct. They just wanted to be able to live their own lives and be left alone. That is freedom in the most basic sense.

Since that era, their descendents have continuouslly fought for ever greater freedoms. Yet most of the battles continued to be for very basic freedoms. And most of the battles have been fought at the local level. But almost every victory they had at the local level was reversed by local whites, almost everything they built at the local level was destroyed by local whites.

Conservatives complain about what they see as minorities love of big government. It’s not that they love big government. It’s just that they’ve learned from hard-fought experience that the only lasting change for the good they’ve gained has come from forcing change at the level of big governmment and so forcing local small governments to comply.

Black history demonstrates the failure of libertarianism. An even greater failure than democracy.

Libertarian rhetoric is a white privilege and also a class privilege. There is a reason most libertarians are wealthier whites. They already have their basic rights and freedoms protected, more than anyone else in society.

Minorities aren’t stupid. They see this privilege for what it is.