Posted on January 14th, 2013 2 comments
Practitioners of the behavioral sciences will be pleased to know that an official blessing has come down from on high announcing that believers in the existence of human nature are no longer to be considered fascists and racists. Writing for Daily Kos, one Erasmussimo announced the long-expected change in orthodox dogma as follows:
In the 70s and 80s, a strict intolerance for the racist abuse of science mushroomed into something entirely different: an ideological rejection of the notion that genetics played any role in human behavior. This school of thought was so dominant that many scientists were frightened away from any research remotely related to such matters.
But you can’t deny reality. As one scientist wrote, “Evolution didn’t stop at the neck.” Human mental evolution was strongly influenced by selection pressures, which manifested themselves in human behavior. Genetics really does influence behavior, but it took a while for scientists to re-assert that basic principle. Two scientists, Cosmides and Tooby, began an extremely rigorous program of experiments that demonstrated beyond question that there were oddities of human cognition that could not be explained by any environmental factors. They christened their field of research “evolutionary psychology”. For many years they attracted considerable opprobrium, but their research was flawless and now evolutionary psychology is a respected field of research.
Au contraire, my dear Erasmussimo! The reality that “Evolution doesn’t stop at the neck,” was denied quite successfully by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists alike for a period of several decades, and was the prevailing orthodoxy, not only in the 70′s and 80′s, but in the 50′s and 60′s as well, in spite of that denial being palpably ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old. Indeed, our unfortunate Erasmussimo seems to have compounded his mistake by completely swallowing the Pinker “big bang” myth of evolutionary psychology, according to which the field sprang forth in all its glory from the mind of E. O. Wilson, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. For example,
The eminent scientist E.O.Wilson was the world’s leading authority on the behavior of ants when, in the 1970s, he proposed that evolutionary selection pressures acted on behavior as well as the body, leading to genetic factors in behavior. His work with ants demonstrated the basic concept beyond question, but when he extended his ideas to humans, he triggered a shitstorm of outrage, and was treated quite badly. Wilson’s work was impeccable, but because it was distantly analogous to the racist IQ claims, his ideas (which he termed “sociobiology”) were lumped together with that odious ideology.
As I’ve pointed out before, Pinker’s “big bang” fairy tale can be easily debunked by anyone who takes the trouble to read Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968. A manifesto of the Blank Slaters, the last I looked it was available on Amazon for a mere 46 cents. It documents the fact that there were several thinkers who insisted on the existence of innate human nature long before Wilson, including Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, and that they also had the honor of being denounced as fascists and racists by the politically pure. According to the testimony of the Blank Slaters themselves, however, by far the most prominent among them was not Lorenz but Robert Ardrey, a “mere playwright.” That fact goes far to explain Pinker’s fabrication, which spares the sensitivities and gravitas of his academic tribe. Read Ardrey’s books, along with those of Lorenz and several others who were challenging the prevailing orthodoxy during the 60′s, and it will become abundantly clear that, as far as the overriding theme of innate human nature is concerned, Sociobiology was anything but original.
Be that as it may, it’s still gratifying to know that the authors of the recent stream of books about innate human behavior are not under any immediate threat of falling under the interdict of the secular morality police. Alas, we gather that not all fields of inquiry have been so fortunate from the title of Erasmussimo’s epistle: Racism has a New Name: HBD. For the unitiated, the acronym HBD stands for Human BioDiversity, described by one of its practitioners as follows:
Human biodiversity is an acknowledgment that humans differ from each other in various ways because of our different genotypes. Differences include, but are not limited to, physical appearance, athletic ability, personality, and cognitive abilities.
Those who have sullied themselves by lusting after such forbidden knowledge need not complain that they were unaware that they were inviting excommunication. The anathema from Kos was preceded by numerous rumblings from lesser lights among the secular clergy. See for example, The Perversity of Human Biodiversity, a.k.a. “Scientific” Racism, the Steve Sailer Sucks blog (Steve Sailer is an arch-wizard of HBD, who, BTW, had the effrontery to sass back), the archive for the Human Biodiversity (HBD) Category at the Unamusement Park, etc. In spite of this, apparently not all of them are in immediate danger of secular hellfire. Kos is merciful. As Erasmussimo puts it,
However, riding on the coattails of this respectable (evolutionary psychology) work is the HBD movement, populated mostly by eager amateurs rather than professional scientists. The HBD movement covers a broad range of ideas, from the genuinely scientific to the nakedly racist. At the scientific end of the range we have people like HBD Chick, who aggregate lots of evidence on matters anthropological and genetic as they relate to human behavior. At the other extreme we have Steve Sailor (sic), a conservative who promulgates racist ideas.
And how are we to distinguish who in the HBD movement are dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards), as opposed to those who are granted a respite to get their minds right? As Erasmussimo explains, by their fruit shall ye know them:
There’s an easy way to differentiate the scientific side of HBD from the racist side: fixation on IQ. These people love to wring the IQ data for every ounce of scientific justification they can find for their racism. They analyze IQ scores by race, religion, gender, national origin, and lots of other factors; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them hasn’t calculated the correlation coefficient of IQ score with aversion to broccoli. They triumphantly trumpet the results that support their prejudices and quietly ignore results that undermine their prejudices, such as the finding that national IQ scores are correlated with GDP per capita.
Paradoxically, at least for those unschooled in the holy mysteries, Erasmussimo leaves open the hypothetical possibility that these racists may actually be right:
Finally, I caution the reader to subordinate personal preference for scientific objectivity in this question. I fervently believe that “All men are created equal”, but I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that some men are born with lesser cognitive talents than others. If solid evidence arises that blacks are cognitively less capable than whites, then I shall accept the hypothesis and move on to asking how we reconcile scientific conclusions with political theory. So far, however, the evidence I have seen is completely inadequate to support the hypothesis.
It may not appear immediately obvious how such evidence, in the wildly implausible event that it exists, is to be forthcoming given that anyone who dares to investigate the matter is to be automatically denounced as a racist. However, it’s not that difficult to understand. Voltaire explained it in Candide, where, alluding to the judicial murder of Admiral Byng by the English, he wrote, “There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”
Posted on July 31st, 2012 2 comments
Well, actually that’s only technically true. Any potential Obama voter who can afford the fare and tell a red state from a blue state becomes an honorary U.S. citizen as soon as they set foot on these shores. They can vote as often as they like, as long as they don’t do it all in the same precinct. Still, I had to chuckle when I glanced at the website of Der Spiegel this morning. They are so in the tank for Obama they make MSNBC look like the soul of objective journalism. Here are the stories I found in a quick glance through:
Headline: Candidate Embarrassing Byline: Stiff as a board, clueless, artificial. Republican Presidential candidate exposed many of his weaknesses on his European tour.
Headline: Romney Enrages Palestinians (have they ever not been enraged?) Byline: Romney campaigns on his foreign tour – and arouses the Palestinians against him in the process.
Headline: Romney’s Blundering Tour through Europe Byline: The U.S. candidate for President booked a week of blunders and slip-ups in Europe. Things just aren’t going right for the Republican.
Headline: Stepping in it On Tour Byline: The Palestinians accuse him of racism, the British are cross, and Polands Solidarnosc doesn’t like him.
Headline: Romney Advisor Curses Reporters in Warsaw Byline: There’s no end to the criticism directed at Romney’s foreign tour – now one of his advisors lost his cool.
And mind you, that’s just what I saw in a quick glance on a single day. Actually, it’s a huge improvement. Back in the last years of the Clinton and first years of the Bush Administrations, Der Spiegel’s website was so full of vile, quasi-racist anti-American rants that it was often difficult to wade through it all and find any news about Germany. They only gave it up when a few people across the pond started to notice, and the editors realized they were putting all those prestigious international prizes for “objective journalism” in jeopardy. They still occasionally throw out some red meat to the Amerika haters, but only enough to keep them on life support.
Posted on July 3rd, 2012 No comments
Perhaps it would be better to say “one of the other holocausts” instead of “the other holocaust.” There have, after all, been many. However, the one that Jews of eastern and central Europe suffered during and immediately after World War I was probably more costly in terms of lives and suffering than any other save the Nazi inferno. Accounts of it may be found in numerous sources. The following are taken from the memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French ambassador to Russia during the war (my translation from the German version). The first is from the entry of March 1, 1915:
The Jews of Poland and Lithuania have suffered terrible persecution since the beginning of the war. During the month of August (1914) they were forced to leave the zone near the border as quickly as possible. After a short time, these mandatory expulsions, carried out with excessive haste an cruelty, were applied further east with each passing day. Eventually, the entire Israelite population from Grodno, Lomza, Plozk, Kutno, Lodz, Pietrokov, Kielce, Radom, and Lublin was forced into the interior of the country in the direction of Podolia and Volhynia. Everywhere the expulsions were accompanied by acts of violence and plunder, carried out under the approving gaze of the authorities. One could see hundreds of thousands of unfortunates, driven aimlessly through the snow, driven on like cattle by bands of cossacks, in extreme want, abandoned in train stations, open fields, and the outskirts of cities, dying of hunger, exhaustion, and cold. And to improve their morale, everywhere they went these miserable people encountered the same feelings of hatred and rejection, the same accusations of expionage and treason. Never in all its painful history has Israel suffered a more tragic expulsion. And yet, there are 200,000 Jewish soldiers fighting bravely in the ranks of the Russian army!
and, from the entry of August 5, 1915,
With every retreat of the Russian army, the police continue the expulsion of Jews. Wherever it occurs, the expulsions are carried out with the usual excessive haste, as mindless as they are cruel. Those affected are informed at the last minute; they have neither time nor opportunity to take anything along. They are hurriedly packed into train cars; they are forced onto the road like herds of cattle; they are informed of their destination, which is then changed 20 times along the way. And wherever the order is given for them to leave a city, the orthodox population descends on the ghetto and plunders it. Forced back in the direction of Podolia, Volhynia, Bessarabia, and the Ukraine, they are given over to terrible suffering. The total number of the expelled has reached 800,000.
These expulsions were accompanied by bloody pogroms, lasting through the Civil War years, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in cold blood. Descriptions of those carried out in the Odessa area may be found, for example, in Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days.
In the years immediately following World War II, as hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews continued to wander about Europe, it seemed obvious to President Truman and many other leaders on this side of the iron curtain that the best solution to the problem was the creation of a Jewish State. There they would have at least a fighting chance of defending themselves against the holocausts of the future. It is interesting to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the founding of the state of Israel really was a good idea after all. However, while the existence of human moral emotions certainly cannot be ignored in answering that question, they should certainly not be consulted to arrive at that answer.
Consider, for example, the contortions of the ”progressive” ideologues as they chased the chimera of “the Good” as applied to the state of Israel. In the beginning, the Jews were the “good guys,” as seen, for example, in films like “Exodus.” Now, after demonstrating on several occasions that they are quite capable of defending themselves, they have become the “bad guys,” a much more familiar role for the Jews, who have always had the misfortune of being a “natural” outgroup wherever the diaspora has taken them. They are accused of favoring “apartheid,” in spite of Israel’s large Arab population, and the decimation of Jewish minorities in many of the states of north Africa and the Middle East. They are the ones guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” even as genuine ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is accepted without a murmur. They are accused of atrocities against civilians, even as their enemies deliberately fire thousands of rockets at civilian population centers, and so on, and so on.
All this demonstrates once again, as have a virtually infinite number of similar experiments throughout human history, that decisions of this sort should not be based on morality. The reason for this seems abundantly obvious. The moral emotions from which all moral systems are ultimately derived evolved at a time when entities such as the state of Israel, or anything else resembling a modern state, for that matter, simply did not exist. On what, then, should they be based, if we exclude the wonderfully satisfying but grossly destructive and unreliable moral emotions? Why, the human ability to reason, by default. It is, admittedly, a very weak reed to lean on, but it’s the only one we really have.
Posted on June 9th, 2012 No comments
An interesting hypothesis recently turned up in a paper entitled “Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace,” published on the website of the Social Science Research Network. According to the authors,
In this article, we examine a heretofore neglected pocket of resistance to the gender revolution in the workplace: married male employees who have stay-at-home wives. We develop and empirically test the theoretical argument suggesting that such organizational members, compared to male employees in modern marriages, are more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are harmful to women in the workplace.
An interesting piece of ideologically loaded academic jargon, that. It would seem that a large segment of the male population is “resisting” a “revolution” in a way that is “harmful.” More specifically,
…we found that employed husbands in traditional and neo-traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion. We believe that the results of these studies are important to understanding the stalled gender revolution as well as to theorizing about the effects of marriage structures in the workplace and, more pragmatically, effectively targeting efforts aimed at enhancing gender equality in work organizations.
On the face of it, this appears to be a statement of “is” rather than a statement of “ought.” In other words, if the authors are correct, they have simply stated facts, not necessarily loaded with an accompanying moral judgment. I think most readers of the paper will agree that the moral judgment is certainly there, but let’s ignore that for the moment. Is proposing such hypotheses, and then presenting data to support them “good” or “not good?” Well, as readers of my blog are aware, while I do have a distinct weakness for making moral judgments myself, I don’t flatter myself that I have any objective basis for doing so. I can, however, point out that there is a consensus in some human societies that similar statements about various groups regarding characteristics over which they have no control, such as race, gender, ethnicity, etc., are considered evil. For example, academic papers presenting data, no matter how convincing, that certain races are more intelligent than others, or that certain ethnic groups are more greedy or lazy than others, or even that some subclass of females are similarly “harmful,” would likely be greeted with a storm of protest. This begs the question of why such discrimination applied to men is OK. It would seem that what we have here is a classic double standard.
Numerous similar double standards exist in modern societies, often due to the long resistance to recognizing commonalities in human behavior, or “human nature.” Classification of other human beings into ingroups and outgroups, or what was once referred to as the Amity/Enmity Complex, is one such commonality. It is the ultimate cause of many of the negative consequences we associate with various forms of discrimination. However, because we have refused to recognize that ultimate cause, it has been necessary for us to separately identify each negative outcome of that behavior after a long, slow learning process, instead of immediately recognizing the psychological basis of them all. For example, anti-Semitism was not considered a serious moral fault until the discovery of mounds of corpses in the Nazi death camps. Racism was similarly acceptable until the social evils arising from it were clearly recognized. It would seem, based on the evidence of this paper, that sexism directed at men has not yet been recognized as another of the undesirable manifestations of ingroup/outgroup discrimination.
Should it be? The authors assure us that no such negative consequences are intended. For example,
Therefore, we do not intend to, nor are we pointing a finger at those whom we have claimed constitute a pocket of resistance to the gender revolution. Some may be characterized as “benevolent sexists” (e.g., Glick & Fiske, 1996) and others may be neither benevolent nor hostile sexists. We do not want to label, we also do not want to ignore a real problem. Clearly, organizations should not seek to control the marital status of their male employees, for example, by means of selection. To do so would be unjust, likely illegal, and perhaps, bad business.
No, organizations should not seek to manipulate people’s non-work lives; but we, as organizational scholars, should seek to understand better how the byproduct of those non-work lives can be accommodated in the workplace.
It has a familiar ring to it doesn’t it? “I’m not prejudiced. Some of my best friends are black!” Whether the authors are prejudiced against a subgroup of men because of a trait over which many of them have no control is neither here nor there. It is simply a fact that to make statements such as,
We have found that employed husbands in traditional and neo-traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.
…employed husbands embedded in traditional (wife not employed) and neo-traditional (wife employed part-time) marriages compared to those embedded in more modern ones (wife employed full-time) are more likely to exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors harmful to women in the workplace.
We were led to consider this group by a question posed by Chugh and Brief (2008) in their attempt to suggest a research agenda for the study of diversity in organizations. They stated, “We wonder whether a domestic traditionalist can also be an organizational egalitarian?” (p. 332). The answer we posit is “no.”
will, inevitably, promote discrimination against men, regardless of the author’s protestations of their good intentions. Is the social good of promoting gender equity in the workplace worth the social cost of promoting discrimination? I think not. The author’s are extremely hazy about how their conclusions are to be usefully applied. For example,
We believe that the results of these studies are important to understanding the stalled gender revolution as well as to theorizing about the effects of marriage structures in the workplace and, more pragmatically, effectively targeting efforts aimed at enhancing gender equality in work organizations.
One wonders what “targeting efforts aimed at enhancing gender equality in work organizations” could possibly consist of if it didn’t somehow imply condemnation of men in “traditional” marriages. Are we to believe that there is really no better way to promote gender equality than by denouncing a large subgroup of men, whether implicitly, and, as the Germans say, “through the flower,” or not? The promotion of new forms of sexism seems a counterintuitive way to promote gender equality.
Posted on January 13th, 2011 2 comments
Behavioral scientists of the old school would call the Amity/Enmity Complex a “just so story.” In other words, it’s a universal phenomenon, observable in countless instances in both humans and other animals, inexplicable other than as a manifestation of an innate behavioral trait, but something that they find inconvenient for ideological reasons and therefore choose to deny and ignore. To justify this seemingly irrational denial of the obvious, they demand a standard of proof that such traits exist immeasurably stronger than that they apply to “proved scientific facts,” by which they mean far flimsier hypotheses that happen to have the virtue of agreeing with a preferred narrative.
Briefly put, the Amity/Enmity Complex refers to our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups, favoring the former and hating and despising the latter. As the great anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith put it, “Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.” Today the Complex is commonly referred to as in-group/out-group behavior, but I see no need to conform to the constantly shifting nuances of jargon in the behavioral sciences.
China’s Great Cultural Revolution was a great tragedy. It was also a perfect illustration of the Complex in action. In 1966 the bored old man who happened to run China at the time decided that the Chinese Communist Party and society at large were permeated by a “bourgeois spirit,” and that what the country needed was more revolutionary spirit. He decided to shake things up a bit. What happened next is summed up in Wikipedia as follows:
On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CPC passed its “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (also known as “the 16 Points”). This decision defined the GPCR as “a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country, a deeper and more extensive stage”:
“Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”
The decision thus took the already existing student movement and elevated it to the level of a nationwide mass campaign, calling on not only students but also “the masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cadres” to carry out the task of “transforming the superstructure” by writing big-character posters and holding “great debates.”
In the intervening years many eyewitnesses have published vignettes of what happened next including Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, and China’s Son by Da Chen. One of the most interesting is Born Red, a fine piece of writing by Gao Yuan. It is a case study in how new in-group/out-group relationships emerged in the supposedly “classless” society that was established in the wake of the Communist victory, how easy it was to inflame them against each other, how seemingly insignificant and incomprehensible differences between them were magnified until they assumed earthshaking importance in the minds of the opposing factions, how loyalty to the in-group inspired acts of fearless bravado, “heroism,” and even martyrdom, and, in the end, how all the resulting chaos and mayhem were finally stopped and society returned to “normal.” In short, the Revolution was an experiment in human psychology on a massive scale, demonstrating the manifestation of an ancient and innate human behavioral trait in a world far different from the one in which it evolved.
The Amity/Enmity Complex describes the interplay of in-groups and out-groups and, of course, Communism has always had its own idiosyncratic out-group. It is the bourgeoisie, technically the private owners of the social means of production, but a term that has often been expanded to include peasants with slightly more land or slightly more productive and affluent than their neighbors, workers who were somewhat better off than average, people whose houses were larger than a certain size, or anyone else with some kind of a real or imagined privilege. So it was that, when the Great Cultural Revolution was launched, it began with the posting of innumerable “dazibao,” or “big character posters,” attacking the “bourgeoisie.” It couldn’t be just a vague, general bourgeoisie. Individuals were needed. The party helped things along with its suggestion that the “criticism” start with “reactionary bourgeois academic authorities.” Thus, teachers and school administrators were among the first victims of the dazibao smears. They were associated with a host of evil traits that have been associated with out-groups since the dawn of time. For example, they were “impure” and “dirty,” by virtue of “bourgeois” parents, grandparents or other associations. They were the essence of evil by virtue of their opposition to the embodiment of good, in the person of Mao and his “revolutionary line.” They were guilty by virtue of association with evil incarnate in the person of Chiang Kai Shek and his Guomintang Party. All these charges were usually baseless slander, but the “revolutionary masses” of students made them stick. After all, in-groups must have out-groups, even if it’s necessary to invent them out of whole cloth.
Eventually, the in-groups began to turn their wrath against each other. Nothing was easier than to convince themselves that the “others,” too, were “dirty,” “impure,” and “evil” distorters of the pure revolutionary line of Mao, just like the school authorities. They began to “struggle” against each other. Starting with dazibao, the means of “struggle” became ever more violent and destructive, escalating to fists, spears and slingshots with crude armor, homemade grenades, and, eventually firearms. Captured opponents, people who had formerly been friends, schoolmates and neighbors, were beaten, viciously tortured, maimed, and occasionally killed. The author tells of one young girl who, on the point of being captured by the “enemy,” committed suicide by throwing herself from an upper story window rather than be “defiled” by contact with the out-group. Anyone who failed to take part in these sanguinary and seemingly senseless battles, or who sought to “desert,” became the target of all the opprobrium traditionally heaped on “traitors.”
And so it continued until Mao, finally tiring of the sport or deciding his political goal of consolidating power had been accomplished, called the whole thing off in 1969. The active phase of the revolution sputtered on for a while, ending for good only with the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. Their mortal deity having passed from the scene, the contending factions forgot all the reasons for their mutual hatred that had formerly seemed of such earth shattering importance. Disavowed by the powers that had called them into existence, and having no legitimacy but that conferred by a man who was now dead, the in-groups collapsed, and their members disbanded and went back to their “normal” lives. In the epilogue, the author, who had emigrated to America in the meantime, recounts how he went back to visit some of his former enemies and torturers. All acted as if the whole thing had been a bad dream.
We have all seen it happen over and over and over again, across nations, cultures, tribes and societies of all stripes. We have seen the incarnations of the Complex in the form of racism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, and countless other “isms.” The details change, but the fundamental nature of the behavior is always the same. Isn’t it time to recognize the fact that our five thousand years of recorded history of the same phenomenon over and over again wasn’t just a coincidence? If there is any reason for optimism about the Chinese experience, it is that it was neither inevitable that the Complex become active and virulent as it did, nor was it impossible to suppress and control once people with the necessary authority finally realized how destructive it had become. If that experience is any guide, surely we are intelligent enough to control an innate behavioral trait that exists because it promoted our survival at some point in the distant past, but has now become the most likely source of our potential self-destruction. We cannot, however, effectively control it until we recognize it for what it is, accept its existence, and stop covering our eyes, stopping up our ears, and shouting “just so story” because the Amity/Enmity Complex doesn’t fit in the “nice” world of our fond imaginations. It’s time to end the denial. We’ve graduated far beyond dazibao and slingshots to nuclear weapons. It has become much too dangerous to refuse to understand ourselves in the name of preserving a world that never was.
Posted on September 12th, 2010 No comments
Works of history reflect not only the times they purport to describe, but also the times in which they were written, and the nature of the people who write them. Seen in that light, the authors who wrote during the so-called “Dark Ages” were a great deal more interesting and entertaining than their counterparts today. You’ll have to look long and hard for a contemporary work that has anything to compare with Procopius‘ touching firsthand account of a boy abandoned by his mother in a country swarming with hostile invaders or his vignettes of the wild barbarians serving under his general Belisarius in the so-called “Roman” army, Bede’s wonderful story of Pope Gregory’s encounter with the Angle slave boys, or Gregory of Tours’ chatty, gossipy accounts of the doings of Queens Brunhilda and Fredegund in his “History of the Franks.” Pick up a typical history today and what you’ll find is a morality play written by some hidebound ideologue who has never heard of confirmation bias, and whose apparent reason for writing is to make sure you can distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Journalists are the worst offenders. Their shallow bowdlerizations of the lives of the people they write about to make sure they fit neatly in the “saint” or “sinner” slots are painful to read.
College professors with their relentless political correctness come in a close second. Victor Davis Hanson just penned a vignette of the tribe that seems a tad overcritical, but probably gets their abject fear at being considered “illiberal” and politically heretical by their colleagues about right. However, unlike journalists, most of them have a deeper knowledge of the subjects they write about than one finds in a typical newspaper article. As a result, they can occasionally be very useful as “sources of the sources.” Take, for example, Daniel Walker Howe’s “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” In it one finds the usual heroes and villains, all chosen according to the most up-to-date political standards. However, Howe has a deep knowledge of the intellectual, literary and religious trends of the period he writes about, and mentions a great many of the people who played a significant role in shaping those trends at the time, but are mostly forgotten today. Since most of them wrote well before the 1922 copyright threshold, it’s not necessary to rely on Howe’s ideologically filtered picture to learn who they were and what made them tick. You can let them tell their own story, because much of what they wrote can be found among the invaluable collection at Google Books.
Consider, for example the issue of slavery. Opposition to the South’s “peculiar institution” was crystalizing during the period Howe describes, and he mentions a number of people, mostly forgotten today, who had witnessed the reality of slavery firsthand, and wrote about what they had seen. They included Fanny Kemble, a British actress who married a southern gentleman while visiting the United States. When he subsequently inherited a plantation in Georgia with many slaves, she insisted on accompanying him there, and wrote an account of her experiences. On one occasion she asked a young woman about her reasons for running away:
She told it very simply, and it was most pathetic. She had not finished her task one day, when she said she felt ill, and unable to do so, and had been severely flogged by Driver Bran, in whose ” gang” she then was. The next day, in spite of this encouragement to labor, she had again been unable to complete her appointed work; and Bran having told her that he’d tie her up and flog her if she did not get it done, she had left the field and run into the swamp. ” Tie you up, Louisa!” said I; ” what is that ?” She then described to me that they were fastened up by their wrists to a beam or a branch of a tree, their feet barely touching the ground, so as to allow them no purchase for resistance or evasion of the lash, their clothes turned over their heads, and their backs scored with a leather thong, either by the driver himself, or, if he pleases to inflict their punishment by deputy, any of the men he may choose to summon to the office; it might be father, brother, husband, or lover, if the overseer so ordered it.
Accounts of beatings like this, a daily occurrence on large plantations, are pervasive in the source material of the time, the descriptions have much in common, and it’s clear they weren’t all made up by abolitionist demagogues. It is unlikely the slaves could have been driven to work without them. Kemble’s book also has several interesting descriptions of the demoralizing effect that slavery had on the white population. For example:
On our drive we passed occasionally a tattered man or woman, whose yellow mud complexion, straight features, and singularly sinister countenance bespoke an entirely different race from the negro population in the midst of which they lived. These are the so-called pine-landers of Georgia, I suppose the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth—filthy, lazy, ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages, without one of the nobler attributes which have been found occasionally allied to the vices of savage nature. They own no slaves, for they are almost without exception abjectly poor; they will not work, for that, as they conceive, would reduce them to an equality with the abhorred negroes; they squat, and steal, and starve, on the outskirts of this lowest of all civilized societies, and their countenances bear witness to the squalor of their condition and the utter degradation of their natures. To the crime of slavery, though they have no profitable part or lot in itj they are fiercely accessory, because it is the barrier that divides the black and white races, at the foot of which they lie wallowing in unspeakable degradation, but immensely proud of the base freedom which still separates them from the lash-driven tillers of tho soil.
Kemble’s work was published in Great Britain in 1863, and did much to discourage British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. Theodore Weld was co-author of a compendium entitled, “American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. It includes numerous similar eyewitness accounts. For example:
There was a slave on the plantation named Ben, a waiting man. I occupied a room in the same hut, and had frequent conversations with him. Ben was a kind-hearted man, and, I believe, a Christian ; he would always ask a blessing before he sat down to eat, and was in the constant practice of praying morning and night.— One day when I was at the hut, Ben was sent for to go to the house. Ben sighed deeply and went. He soon returned with a girl about seventeen years of age, whom one of Mr. Swan’s daughters had ordered him to flog. He brought her into the room where I was, and told her to stand there while he went into the next room : I heard him groan again as he went. While there I heard his voice, and he was engaged in prayer. After a few minutes he returned with a large cowhide, and stood before the girl, without saying a word. I concluded he wished me to leave the hut, which I did ; and immediately after I heard the girl scream. At every blow she would shriek, ” Do, Ben ! oh do, Ben!” This is a common expression of the slaves to the person whipping them : ” Do, Massa !” or, ” Do, Missus!”
After she had gone, I asked Ben what she was whipped for : he told me she had done something to displease her young missus ; and in boxing her ears, and otherwise beating her, she had scratched her finger by a pin in the girl’s dress, for which she sent her to be flogged. I asked him if he stripped her before flogging; he said, yes ; he did not like to do this, but was obliged to: he said he was once ordered to whip a woman, which he did without stripping her : on her return to the house, her mistress examined her back; and not seeing any marks, he was sent for, and asked why he had not whipped her : he replied that he had; she said she saw no marks, and asked him if he had made her pull her clothes off; he said, No. She then told him, that when he whipped any more of the women, he must make them strip off their clothes, as well as the men, and flog them on their bare backs, or he should be flogged himself.
Ben often appeared very gloomy and sad: I have frequently heard him, when in his room, mourning over his condition, and exclaim, ” Poor African slave ! Poor African slave!” Whipping was so common an occurrence on this plantation, that it would be too great a repetition to state the many and severe floggings I have seen inflicted on the slaves. They were flogged for not performing their tasks, for being careless, slow, or not in time, for going to the fire to warm, &c. &c.; and it often seemed as if occasions were sought as an excuse for punishing them.
The only clean, well organized and thoroughly administered institutions which I have seen in the South are the Slave Depositories, if I may so call them. That in Charleston is a large, airy building, with ample court-yard and well ventilated rooms. Every part is kept scrupulously clean; everything is well adapted to its purpose; every officer is active and energetic; its tread-mill and its whipping post are the ne plus ultra of their kind. Into this place are brought for safe keeping and for board the gangs of slaves which are to be sold in the market. To it also a master may send his slaves to be boarded merely, or to be conf1ned and whipped, or punished by solitary confinement. They pay 18 cents per day for board and the privilege of the tread-mill,and 25 cents extra for each whipping. The gangs for sale and the mere boarders are not punished however, nor even confined, except at night. On the contrary, they are incited to walk about in the courtyards ; they are well fed, they lodge in large, airy, clean rooms, and are daily promenaded in clean clothes to take the air, even out into the country. ” They are happy,” says the slave-holder, and he says but the truth; they are happier, urges he, than the free blacks of the North or than the negro in Africa — and it may be too true; but in this he speaks his own condemnation and shows the brutalizing effects of a system which can make a human being content in such utter degradation.
It seems to me that firsthand accounts like this are a great deal more effective in explaining what slavery was and why a great war was fought to end it than any book of history written a century and a half later could ever be. Of course, slavery and the fight against it wasn’t the only thing going on in the period Howe describes. Read his book, and you will turn up any number of thinkers who can tell you a great deal more about the times they lived in and the things that mattered to them then any modern history. Thanks to the Internet, you can find many of their works on line, and let them tell their own story.
Posted on August 29th, 2010 No comments
UPDATE: More of the “If you don’t agree with me and you have white skin you’re a racist” narrative from the NYT.