Of Historical Illusions and Vain Predictions

Without venturing a guess about how and when the current election will end, I note in passing that predictions about its aftermath are all over the map.  They range all the way from a panacea of globalism to a dystopia of one party tyranny. Since there is an oracle for virtually every possible scenario, a few of them are bound to utter prophecies that more or less approximate what will actually happen. History attests to the fact that this can generally be attributed to good luck. Today’s lucky prophets tend to press their luck and expose themselves as charlatans the next time they venture to read the tea leaves.

Of course, the vast majority of predictions turn out to be dead wrong. Often, they can be dated according to the ideological fashions that happened to be in vogue at the time they were made. Consider, for example, the confident predictions of one Brooks Adams, published in an article entitled The New Industrial Revolution in the January, 1901 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Adams was an eminent political scientist and historian of the day, and a great-grandson of President John Adams. Wikipedia has a blurb about him. Evolution was all the rage in those days and, like many other social Darwinists of his day, Adams apparently sought to apply the great man’s theory without ever bothering to read what he wrote. Among other things, he imagined that “natural selection” took place at the level of modern nation states, causing “lesser” states to perish, and “higher” ones to replace them.

Adams’ deductions were suitably cloaked in “scientific” mumbo-jumbo such as the following:

The law regulating human development may possibly be formulated somewhat as follows: Nature favors those organisms which, for the time being, operate cheapest; but organisms are wasteful which, relatively, lack energy. An organism may fail in energy either because it is deficient in mass, or because it has been imperfectly endowed with energetic material. In either case the result is the same: organisms which, compared with others, are wanting in energy are wasteful, and, being wasteful, nature rejects them. Applying this law to recent social phenomena, certain deductions may be made which are not without interest regarding the past, and may be worthy of consideration in view of the future. An inquiry of this kind must begin with Europe, which until lately has been the focus of activity.

According to Adams, efficient means of transportation were a critical source of this “energy.” Europe had led the way into the “first” industrial revolution because, “…before railroads, its physical formation lent itself in a supreme degree to cheap transportation by water.” However, an even more abundant source of “energy” had appeared with the introduction of modern rail systems. Adams noted that, “…the introduction of the railroad permitted the consolidation of larger and more energetic masses than had theretofore existed.”

Germany had been the first European state to complete a consolidated rail system between 1866 and 1870, leading to, “…the downfall of France and the transfer to Berlin of a large treasure, in the shape of a war indemnity.” The United States could only build such a system by massive borrowing abroad, resulting in debts that seemed impossible to repay. According to Adams,

Perhaps no people ever faced such an emergency and paid, without recourse to war. America triumphed through her inventive and administrative genius. Brought to a white head under compression, the industrial system of the Union suddenly fused into a homogeneous mass. One day, without warning, the gigantic mechanism operated, and two hemispheres vibrated with the shock. In March, 1897, the vast consolidation of mines, foundries, railroads, and steamship companies, centralized at Pittsburg, began producing steel rails at $18 the ton, and at a bound America bestrode the world. She had won her great wager with Fate; society lay helpless at her feet; she could flood the markets of a small, decentralized, and half-exhausted peninsula with incalculable wealth.

Suddenly, Europe faced an existential threat:

The end seems only a question of time. Europe is doomed not only to buy her raw material abroad, but to pay the cost of transport. And Europe knew this instinctively in March, 1897, and nerved herself for resistance. Her best hope, next to a victorious war, lay in imitating America, and in organizing a system of transportation which would open up the East.

And what was meant by “opening up the East?” Nothing less than carving up China and divvying it up among the European states after the fashion of Poland. Adams continues,

Carnegie achieved the new industrial revolution in March, 1897. Within a twelvemonth the rival nations had emptied themselves upon the shore of the Yellow Sea. In November Germany seized Kiao-chau, a month later the Russians occupied Port Arthur, and the following April the English appropriated Wei-hai-wei; but the fact to remember is that just 400 miles inland, due west of Kiao-chau, lies Tszechau, the centre, according to Richthofen, of the richest coal and iron deposits in existence… A convulsion in China has long been anticipated as the signal for a division of the empire by an agreement of the Powers, somewhat as Poland was apportioned a century ago.

However, Europe had been foiled in its attempt to expand eastward. Russia’s trans-Siberian railroad could not supply the necessary “energy,” as later became painfully clear in the Russo-Japanese War, and the United States had blocked the alternative route by sea by seizing the Philippines. Thus,

…while caging Europeans within their narrow peninsula, she is slowly suffocating them with her surplus. Any animal cornered and threatened will strike at the foe; much more, proud, energetic, and powerful nations. Nevertheless, war is an eventuality which each can ponder for himself.

Adams was hardly unique in suggesting the possibility of a pan-European war against the United States at the time, either here or in Europe. He did suggest something close to the alternative that was finally tried many years later, after two devastating World Wars:

Obviously, great economies may be effected by concentration. Disarmament, more or less complete; the absorption of small states, like Holland, Belgium, Denmark, and the like; the redistribution of the Austrian Empire; the adoption of an international railroad system, with uniform coinage and banking; and, above all, the massing of industries upon the American model, may enable Europe to force down prices indefinitely, and possibly turn the balance of trade.

Meanwhile, however, things looked a great deal more apocalyptic:

Americans must recognize that this is war to the death, – a struggle no longer against single nations, but against a continent. There is no room in the economy of the world for two centers of wealth and empire. One organism, in the end, will destroy the other. The weaker must succumb… In the stern struggle for life, affections, traditions and beliefs are as naught. Every innovation is resisted by some portion of every population; but resistance to innovation indicates, in the eye of nature, senility, and senility is doomed to be discarded. When a whole nation becomes senile, like the Chinese, it perishes. That nation thrives best which is most flexible, and which has the fewest prejudices to hamper adaptation…Should America be destined to prevail, in the struggle for empire which lies before her, those men will rule over her who can best administer masses vaster than anything now existing in the world, and the laws and institutions of our country will take the shape best adapted to the needs of the mighty engines which such men shall control.

Such was the illusion of reality in the mind of a proud social Darwinist a bit over a century ago. To say the least, the 20th century resulted in an “attitude adjustment” regarding the future of mankind. China no longer seems quite so close to “perishing,” and Pittsburg is no longer the epicenter of the “New Industrial Revolution.” We have a different perception of reality today, but who is to say that our versions, and our confident predictions about the future, aren’t even more befogged than those of Adams? If anything is true, it is that our species tends to vastly overestimate its own intelligence. It is also true that, then as now, individuals survive or they don’t. That is the real question of “to be or not to be” facing each of us, regardless of the nature of the societies we happen to live in.

I note in passing that the issue of the Atlantic Monthly linked above has some articles about the ordeal of Whites in the South during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War that portray a somewhat different version of their plight than that taught in universities today. One of them was written by future President Woodrow Wilson.

The Atlantic Monthly Ponders: Where Will It End?

Today we are witnessing extreme examples of moral nihilism. By moral nihilism I mean the concoction of novel “moral laws” in rapid succession, combined with the expection and demand that everyone else respect and obey these new “laws.” Moral nihilism is often associated with moral subjectivity. The opposite is the case. The current chaos in our cities is a direct manifestation of objective morality. It requires the assumption that one is acting on behalf of some objective “good,” existing independently of anyone’s mere opinion. It is an illusion spawned by the very power of our moral emotions, and one that we must shed if we are ever to make anything that can be accurately described as “moral progress.” Absent objective morality, the very notion of judging people who lived centuries ago by the moral fashions prevailing today becomes absurd.

The fundamental lie of objective morality is commonly used to justify all kinds of ancillary lies. Indeed, the illusion often promotes a sincere belief that the lies are true. One of the best antidotes is historical source material, taken straight up rather than filtered by some academic historian to fit a preferred narrative. I found a good example bearing on our current situation in the pages of the December, 1857 issue of the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Where Will It End?” (To see the article, click on the link that appears when you click on the first link).

The “it” referred to was slavery, and the question was to be emphatically answered in a few years. Among the lies that this article demolishes, along thousands of other articles like it that appeared in contemporary books, newspapers, and magazines, is the argument, beloved of Marxists, Confederate Heritage zealots, and 19th century British aristocrats alike, that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. By all means, read the whole thing, and you’ll see what I mean. However, its value hardly ends there. Let’s take a look at some of the more striking excerpts. The first explodes the leftist narrative that the country was built on the backs of slaves:

When the eyes of the thoughtful inquirer turn from the general prospect of the national greatness and strength, to the geographical divisions of the country… He beholds the Southern region, embracing within its circuit three hundred thousand more square miles than the domain of the North, dowered with a soil incomparably more fertile, watered by mighty rivers fit to float the argosies of the world, placed nearer the sun and canopied by more propitious skies, with every element of prosperity and wealth showered upon it with Nature’s fullest and most unwithdrawing hand, and sees that, notwithstanding all this, the share of public wealth and strength drawn thence is almost inappreciable, by the side of what is poured into the common stock by the strenuous sterility of the North. With every opportunity and means that Nature can supply for commerce, with navigable rivers searching its remotest corners, with admirable harbors in which the navies of the world might ride, with the chief articles of export for its staple productions, it still depends upon its Northern partner to fetch and carry all that it produces, and the little that it consumes. Possessed of all the raw materials of manufactures and the arts, its inhabitants look to the North for everything they need from the cradle to the coffin. Essentially agricultural in its constitution, with every blessing Nature can bestow upon it, the gross value of all its productions is less by millions than that of the simple grass of the field gathered into northern barns. With all the means and materials of wealth, the South is poor. With every advantage for gathering strength and self-reliance, it is weak and dependent. Why this difference between the two?

The author doesn’t leave us guessing. The answer is slavery. Far from being the economic dynamo on the back of which the evil whites stood to build their empire, it hobbled and impoverished them for the benefit of a few. In his words,

The key of the enigma is to be found in the constitution of human nature. A man in fetters cannot do the task-work that one whose limbs are unshackled looks upon as a pastime… Hence the difference so often noticed between tracts lying side by side, separated only by a river or an imaginary line; on one side of which, thrift and comfort and gathering wealth, growing villages, smiling farms, convenient habitations, school-houses and churches make the landscape beautiful; while on the other, slovenly husbandry, dilapidated mansions, sordid huts, perilous wastes, horrible roads, the rare spire, and rarer village school betray all the nakedness of the land. It is the magic of motive that calls forth all this wealth and beauty to bless the most sterile soil stirred by willing and intelligent labor; while the reversing of that spell scatters squalor and poverty and misery over lands endowed by Nature with the highest fertility, spreading their leprous infection from the laborer to his lord.

In the next passage we find a denunciation of slavery similar to those penned by a myriad other authors in the decades leading up to the Civil War:

That the denial of his natural and civil rights to the laborer who sows and reaps the harvests of the Southern country should be avenged upon his enslaver in the scanty yielding of the earth, and in the unthrift, the vices, and the wretchedness which are the only crops that spring spontaneously from soil blasted by slavery is nothing strange. It is only the statement of the truism in moral and in political economy, that true prosperity can never grow up from wrong and wickedness.

There is a striking similarity among virtually all of these authors; they are all white. Similar denunciations of slavery in the literature of any other race or culture are virtually nonexistent in comparison. We don’t know when or where the first incidence of human slavery occurred, but we do know who put a stop to it, and they happened to have white skin. Absent the battle waged by whites against slavery, first with the pen and then with the sword, the chances that slavery would be considered anything but a benign social institution today are vanishingly small. This fact alone exposes the gross racism of today’s pious social justice warriors.

The article also exposes the racism inherent in the claim that all whites are born tainted with the original sin of slavery. As the author points out,

The entire sum of all who have any direct connection with slavery, as owners or hirers, is less than three hundred and fifty thousand, – not half as many as the inhabitants of the single city of New York.

The white population of the country at the time the article was written was about 25 million. Slave owners and hirers made up little more than one percent of the total, especially when one deducts women and children from the total. As the author points out, the remaining white population of the South was impoverished by slavery, not enriched by it. He notes that the increasing desperation of the slave oligarchy is driven in part by growing signs of resistance among poor whites:

It rages, for its time is short. And its rage is the fiercer because of the symptoms of rebellion against its despotism which it discerns among the white men of the South, who from poverty or from principle have no share in its sway. When we speak of the South as distinguished from the North by elements of inherent hostility, we speak only of the governing faction, and not of the millions of nominally free men who are scarcely less its thralls than the black slaves themselves… That such a tyranny should excite an antagonistic spirit of resistance is inevitable from the constitution of man and the character of God. The sporadic cases of protest and of resistance to the slaveholding aristocracy, which lift themselves occasionally above the dead level of the surrounding despotism, are representative cases… The unity of interest of the non-slaveholders of the South with the people of the Free States is perfect, and it must one day combine them in a unity of action.

Just as many of us have underestimated the recently demonstrated willingness of many of our fellow citizens to grovel and humiliate themselves for such sins as telling the truth and mildly challenging leftist dogmas, the author underestimated the willingness of southern whiles to fight for the oligarchs who impoverished them. The Civil War demonstrated the southern oligarchy’s ability use their nearly unchallenged control of the social media of their day to influence and manipulate the behavior and opinions of the population. The techniques they used will sound eerily familiar to 21st century readers:

There must be intelligence enough among the non-slaveholding whites to see the difference there is between themselves and persons of the same condition in the Free States. Why have they no free schools?… Why are they hindered from taking such newspapers as they please? Why are they subjected to censorship of the press, which dictates to them what they may or may not read, and which punishes booksellers with exile and ruin for keeping for sale what they want to buy? Why must Northern publishers expurgate and emasculate the literature of the world before it is permitted to reach them?… The slaveholders, having the wealth, and nearly all the education that the South can boast of, employ these mighty instruments of power to create the public sentiment and to control the public affairs of their region, so as best to secure their own supremacy. No word of dissent to the institutions under which they live, no syllable of dissatisfaction, even, with any of the excesses they stimulate, can be breathed in safety. A Christian minister in Tennessee relates an act of fiendish cruelty inflicted upon a slave by one of the members of his church, and he is forced to leave his charge, if not to fly the country. Another in South Carolina presumes to express in conversation his disapprobation of the murderous assault of Brooks on Senator Sumner, and his pastoral relations are broken up on the instant, as if he had been guilty of gross crime or flagrant heresy. Professor Hedrick, in North Carolina, ventures to utter a preference for the Northern candidate in the last presidential campaign, and he is summarily ejected from his chair, and virtually banished from his native State. Mr. Underwood of Virginia dares to attend the convention of the party he preferred, and he is forbidden to return to his home on pain of death. The blackness of darkness and the stillness of death are thus forced to brood over that land which God formed so fair, and made to be so happy.

Do you notice any similarity between the tactics of 19th century slave owners and 21st century social justice warriors? You should! Source literature is a wonderful thing. It transports you to a different world where you can watch the narratives that pass for “history” pop like soap bubbles before you eyes. The author concludes,

Thus the ideal of a true republic, of a government of laws made and executed by the people of which bards have sung and prophets dreamed, and for which martyrs have suffered and heroes died, may yet be possible to us, and the great experiment of this Western World be indeed a Model, instead of a Warning to the nations.

It was whites who first raised a moral challenge to slavery, and finally put an end to it. Their reward has been blanket condemnation as a race for the sins of a tiny minority. No, dear author, your hopes were vain. The monuments to the martyrs and heroes you refer to are being defaced and pulled down as I write this. We did not become a Model for others. We certainly became a Warning.

Artifacts of a Historical Scavenger Hunt

Today we suffer from a sort of historical myopia due to our obsession with social media. In our struggle to stay abreast of what’s happening in the here and now, we neglect the past. Instead of going back and examining the source material for ourselves, we leave it to others to interpret it for us. These interpretations are commonly bowdlerized to fit a preferred narrative. It’s a shame, because the past holds a rich mine of material relevant to the present. Pick up and old book, or an old magazine, and you’ll often find that they bring the reality of today into sharper focus. Nuggets of insight will pop up in the strangest places, often in articles that ostensibly have nothing to do with the insight in question.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the October, 1842 issue of the Edinburgh Review, one of the dominant British journals of literature and politics in the first half of the 19th century. It came from an article about the recently published autobiography of one M. Berryer, a prominent lawyer and eyewitness of some of the worst atrocities of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. In one of the opening paragraphs of his review, the anonymous author offers the following general comments about human nature:

Few men know the fluctuating nature of their own character; – how much it has varied from ten years to ten years, or even on the recurrence of similar events. Few men attempt to distinguish between the original predispositions and the accidental influences which, sometimes controlling and sometimes aggravating one another, together formed at any particular epoch their character for the time being. Still fewer attempt to estimate the relative force of each; and fewer still would succeed in such an attempt.

Amazing, really! That passage might have been lifted from an introduction to a book about the latest advances in Genome Wide Association Studies. It demonstrates that people were perfectly well aware of the existence of “original predispositions” almost 200 years ago. This brief passage shows more insight into the nuances of the entanglement of “nature” and “nurture” in our species than the vast majority of the tomes of psychology, sociology, and anthropology published during the hegemony of the Blank Slate. It puts in sharp relief the extent to which we managed to dumb ourselves down in the service of ideologically motivated truisms. To read it is to wonder at our success in willfully blinding ourselves to the truth in an area as potentially critical to our survival as self-understanding.

Perhaps most prominent among the ideologies that required an imaginary version of human beings rather than the real thing was and remains socialism. By reading old books one can gain an appreciation of how familiar “Marxist” ideas had become long before Marx became a household name. Consider, for example, the following passages from “Sybil,” published in 1845 by Benjamin Disraeli. Most remember him as a British Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, but he was also an outstanding and prolific novelist. Sybil, the heroine of the novel, is the daughter of a leader of the proletariat, and speaks of him as follows:

When I heard my father speak the other night, my heart glowed with emotion; my eyes were suffused with tears; I was proud to be his daughter; and I gloried in a race of forefathers who belonged to the oppressed, and not to the oppressors.

According the Devilsdust, one of Disraeli’s working-class characters,

We’ll clean out the Savings Banks; the Benefits and Burials will shell out; I am treasurer of the Ancient Shepherds ( a trade union), and we passed a resolution yesterday unanimously, that we would devote all our funds to the sustenance of Labour in this its last and triumphant struggle against Capital.

Later Devilsdust is recorded as saying of Stephen Morley, a labor journalist who might have served as a prototype for Lenin,

…if ever the great revolution were to occur, by which the rights of labour were to be recognized, though bolder spirits and brawnier arms might consummate the change, there was only one head among them that would be capable, when they had gained their power, to guide it for the public weal…, and that was Morley.

In short, the idea of class struggle culminating in a proletarian revolution was already well developed before Marx wrote “Das Kapital.” What he added was a “scientific” theory distilled from Hegelian philosophy according to which the revolution was inevitable, and the proletariat would emerge victorious and establish a worker’s paradise by the force of historical “laws.” The conviction that one was fighting for the Good, and must inevitably win the fight, served as a powerful intoxicant for already radicalized fanatics, and, as we now know, would culminate in a nightmare.

Perhaps most prominent among the public intellectuals who sought to warn us of the perils of listening to the Marxist siren song was Herbert Spencer. For his trouble, he was vilified as a “social Darwinist” and forgotten. That’s ironic, because Spencer was never a Darwinist to begin with. His ideas about evolution were much more Lamarckian in character. His brilliant critique of socialism, however, was based on insights about human nature that are seldom equaled among modern scholars. It turned out to be a prophecy of uncanny accuracy about the reality of Communism. Consider, for example, the following passages, written in the introduction to a collection of essays published in 1891 entitled “A Plea for Liberty.” The first refers to an earlier summary of some of the more prominent features of the innate human behavior denied by Blank Slaters, then and now.

The traits thus shown must be operative in any new social organization, and the question to be asked is – What will result from their operation when they are relieved from all restraints? At present the separate bodies of men displaying them are in the midst of a society partially passive, partially antagonistic; are subject to the criticisms and reprobations of an independent press; and are under the control of law, enforced by police. If in these circumstances these bodies habitually take courses which override individual freedom, what will happen when, instead of being only scattered parts of the community, governed by their separate sets of regulators, they constitute the whole community, governed by a consolidated system of such regulators; when functionaries of all orders, including those who officer the press, form parts of the regulative organization; and when the law is both enacted and administered by this regulative organization? The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until, eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

Astonishing, no? If your education about the reality of Communism doesn’t extend beyond what’s taught in the public school system, by all means read Orwell’s “1984,” or, better yet, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, one of the most brilliant political writers of the 20th century. If that’s not enough to impress you, check this out:

Misery has necessarily to be borne by a constitution out of harmony with its conditions; and a constitution inherited from primitive men is out of harmony with conditions imposed on existing men.

These seemingly obvious facts, that we possess innate behavioral traits, and they evolved in conditions radically different from the ones we live in now, are seemingly beyond the grasp of virtually every prominent public intellectual today. They speak of morality, community, and politics as if these salient facts didn’t exist. We continue this type of self-imposed obscurantism at our peril.

The above historical artifacts all bear on the reality of the here and now, characterized by the hegemony of equalist dogmas. Equalism started out benignly enough, as a reaction to the gross exploitation and abuse of a majority of the population by an elite distinguished by nothing but the accident of birth. It has now morphed into a monster that demands that we all pretend we believe things that are palpably untrue on pain of censorship, social ostracism, and loss of employment and educational opportunity.  From the first item cited above we can see that the interplay of innate human nature with experience and learning was a matter of common knowledge to an anonymous book reviewer more than a century and a half ago. Even children have a rudimentary familiarity with human nature and have acted based on that knowledge for millennia before that. It is all the more astounding that the Blank Slate orthodoxy required denial of the very existence of human nature for upwards of half a century, and virtually every academic and professional “expert” in the behavioral sciences meekly went along. This orthodoxy was eventually destroyed by its own absurdity, strikingly portrayed to a wondering lay public in a series of books by a man named Robert Ardrey. Now Ardrey is remembered, if at all, as a bete noire with which to terrify young associate professors. Today the Blank Slate is well on the way to making a comeback. Now, however, instead of making themselves laughing stocks by denying the existence of human nature, its resurgent clergy merely see to it that no research is done in anything of real relevance to the human condition.

As for Communism, we can count ourselves lucky that we’ve been there, done that, along with “democratic” socialism, national socialism, and a grab bag of other versions. These repeated failures have at least slowed our progress towards stumbling off the same cliff yet again.  Of course, they haven’t stopped equalist ideologues from claiming that the only reason socialism has been such an abject failure to date is because it hasn’t been “done right,” or that previous versions weren’t “real socialism.” Fasten your seatbelts.

Meanwhile, I suggest that you take the time occasionally to read old things; novels, magazines, newspapers, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll find that the self-imposed stupidity and politically correct piety of modern societies aren’t inevitable. There have been other times and other cultures in which people could speak their minds a great deal more freely than under the secular Puritanism that prevails today. The fact that the culture we live in today is a “natural” outcome for our species doesn’t mean you are obligated to either accept it or refrain from fighting to change it.

Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex

Sir Arthur Keith was the first to formulate a coherent theoretical explanation for the dual nature of human morality; our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different versions of morality pertaining to each. As he put it,

A tribesman’s sympathies lie within the compass of his own tribe; beyond his tribe, begin his antipathies; he discriminates in favor of his own tribe and against all others. This means also that the tribesman has two rules of behavior, one towards those of his group and another to the members of other groups. He has a dual code of morality: a code of “amity” for his fellows; a code of indifference, verging into “enmity,” towards members of other groups or tribe.

According to Keith, this aspect of our behavior played a critical role in our evolution:

I shall seek to prove… that obedience to the dual code is an essential factor in group evolution. Without it there could have been no human evolution.

We are all still tribesmen today. We just have a vastly expanded set of criteria for deciding who belongs to our “tribe,” and who doesn’t. Of course, given the radically different environment we live in today, it can hardly be assumed that the behavior in question will enhance the odds of our survival as it did in the distant past. Indeed, various versions of the behavior have been deemed harmful, and therefore “evil,” including racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. All are manifestations of the same basic behavior. Human beings are typically found justifying their own irrational hatred by claiming that the “other” is guilty of one of these “officially recognized” forms of irrational hatred. Unaware of the underlying behavior, they are incapable of recognizing that they are just as “tribal” as those they attack. Continue reading “Procopius and the Amity/Enmity Complex”

Why the Blank Slate? Let Max Eastman Explain

In my opinion, science, broadly construed, is the best “way of knowing” we have.  However, it is not infallible, is never “settled,” cannot “say” anything, and can be perverted and corrupted for any number of reasons.  The Blank Slate affair was probably the worst instance of the latter in history.  It involved the complete disruption of the behavioral sciences for a period of more than half a century in order to prop up the absurd lie that there is no such thing as human nature.  It’s grip on the behavioral sciences hasn’t been completely broken to this day.  It’s stunning when you think about it.  Whole branches of the sciences were derailed to support a claim that must seem ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child.  Why?  How could such a thing have happened?  At least part of the answer was supplied by Max Eastman in an article that appeared in the June 1941 issue of The Reader’s Digest.  It was entitled, Socialism Doesn’t Jibe with Human Nature.

Who was Max Eastman?  Well, he was quite a notable socialist himself in his younger days.  He edited a radical magazine called The Masses from 1913 until it was suppressed in 1918 for its antiwar content.  In 1922 he traveled to the Soviet Union, and stayed to witness the reality of Communism for nearly two years, becoming friends with a number of Bolshevik worthies, including Trotsky.  Evidently he saw some things that weren’t quite as ideal as he had imagined.  He became increasingly critical of the Stalin regime, and eventually of socialism itself.  In 1941 he became a roving editor for the anti-Communist Reader’s Digest, and the above article appeared shortly thereafter.

In it, Eastman reviewed the history of socialism from it’s modest beginnings in Robert Owen’s utopian village of New Harmony through a host of similar abortive experiments to the teachings of Karl Marx, and finally to the realization of Marx’s dream in the greatest experiment of them all; the Bolshevik state in Russia.  He noted that all the earlier experiments had failed miserably but, in his words, “The results were not better than Robert Owen’s but a million times worse.”  The outcome of Lenin’s great experiment was,

Officialdom gone mad, officialdom erected into a new and merciless exploiting class which literally wages war on its own people; the “slavery, horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation” so far outdone that men look back to them as to a picnic on a holiday; bureaucrats everywhere, and behind the bureaucrats the GPU; death for those who dare protest; death for theft – even of a piece of candy; and this sadistic penalty extended by a special law to children twelve years old!  People who still insist that this is a New Harmony are for the most part dolts or mental cowards.  To honest men with courage to face facts it is clear that Lenin’s experiment, like Robert Owen’s, failed.

It would seem the world produced a great many dolts and mental cowards in the years leading up to 1941.  In the 30’s Communism was all the rage among intellectuals, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As Malcolm Muggeridge put it in his book, The Thirties, at the beginning of the decade it was rare to find a university professor who was a Marxist, but at the end of the decade it was rare to find one who wasn’t.  If you won’t take Muggeridge’s word for it, just look at the articles in U.S. intellectual journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury during, say, the year 1934.  Many of them may be found online.  These were all very influential magazines in the 30’s, and at times during the decade they all took the line that capitalism was dead, and it was now merely a question of finding a suitable flavor of socialism to replace it.  If you prefer reality portrayed in fiction, read the guileless accounts of the pervasiveness of Communism among the intellectual elites of the 1930’s in the superb novels of Mary McCarthy, herself a leftist radical.

Eastman was too intelligent to swallow the “common sense” socialist remedies of the news stand journals.  He had witnessed the reality of Communism firsthand, and had followed its descent into the hellish bloodbath of the Stalinist purges and mass murder by torture and starvation in the Gulag system.  He knew that socialism had failed everywhere else it had been tried as well.  He also knew the reason why.  Allow me to quote him at length:

Why did the monumental efforts of these three great men (Owen, Marx and Lenin, ed.) and tens of millions of their followers, consecrated to the cause of human happiness – why did they so miserably fail? They failed because they had no science of human nature, and no place in their science for the common sense knowledge of it.

In October 1917, after the news came that Kerensky’s government had fallen, Lenin, who had been in hiding, appeared at a meeting of the Workers and Soldiers’ Soviet of Petrograd.  He mounted the rostrum and, when the long wild happy shouts of greeting had died down, remarked: “We will now proceed to the construction of a socialist society.” He said this as simply as though he were proposing to put up a new cowbarn.  But in all his life he had never asked himself the equally simple question: “How is this newfangled contraption going to fit in with the instinctive tendencies of the animals it was made for?”

Lenin actually knew less about the science of man, after a hundred years, than Robert Owen did.  Owen had described human nature, fairly well for an amateur, as “a compound of animal propensities, intellectual faculties and moral qualities.”  He had written into the preamble of the constitution of New Harmony that “man’s character… is the result of his formation, his location, and of the circumstances within which he exists.”

It seems incredible, but Karl Marx, with all his talk about making socialism “scientific,” took a step back from this elementary notion. He dropped out the factor of man’s hereditary nature altogether.  He dropped out man altogether, so far as he might present an obstacle to social change.  “The individual,” he said, “has no real existence outside the milieu in which he lives.” By which he meant: Change the milieu, change the social relations, and man will change as much as you like.  That is all Marx ever said on the primary question.  And Lenin said nothing.

That is why they failed.  They were amateurs – and worse than amateurs, mystics – in the subject most essential to their success.

To begin with, man is the most plastic and adaptable of animals.  He truly can be changed by his environment, and even by himself, to a unique degree, and that makes extreme ideas of progress reasonable.  On the other hand, he inherits a set of emotional impulses or instincts which, although they can be trained in various ways in the individual, cannot be eradicated from the race.  And no matter how much they may be repressed or redirected by training, they reappear in the original form – as sure as a hedgehop puts out spines – in every baby that is born.

Amazing, considering these words were written in 1941.  Eastman had a naïve faith that science would remedy the situation, and that, as our knowledge of human behavior advanced, mankind would see the truth.  In fact, by 1941, those who didn’t want to hear the inconvenient truth that the various versions of paradise on earth they were busily concocting for the rest of us were foredoomed to failure already had the behavioral sciences well in hand.  They made sure that “science said” what they wanted it to say.  The result was the Blank Slate, a scientific debacle that brought humanity’s efforts to gain self-understanding to a screeching halt for more than half a century, and one that continues to haunt us even now.  Their agenda was simple – if human nature stood in the way of heaven on earth, abolish human nature!  And that’s precisely what they did.  It wasn’t the first time that ideological myths have trumped the truth, and it certainly won’t be the last, but the Blank Slate may well go down in history as the deadliest myth of all.

I note in passing that the Blank Slate was the child of the “progressive Left,” the same people who today preen themselves on their great respect for “science.”  In fact, all the flat earthers, space alien conspiracy nuts, and anti-Darwin religious fanatics combined have never pulled off anything as damaging to the advance of scientific knowledge as the Blank Slate debacle.  It’s worth keeping in mind the next time someone tries to regale you with fairy tales about what “science says.”

On the Grey Lady’s Fractured History of Indian Slavery in New Mexico

Writers of history have been suspect in every age. The ancients used to criticize each other for distorting the facts in favor of some country or political faction.  Somewhere in the journals of Boswell, the great biographer of Dr. Johnson, he mentions an acquaintance who refused to read any history, discounting it all as a pack of lies for similar reasons.  Things have certainly not improved in this day of political correctness.  The stuff that passes for “history” coming out of such bastions of “progressive” thought as academia, the media, and the entertainment industry can lay a fair claim to being more distorted and falsified than anything ever heard of by the likes of Tacitus, Procopius, or Gregory of Tours.  Anyone who takes it at face value without inspecting the relevant source material for himself is more likely to become a mule bearing an ideological narrative than a font of truth.

A rather grotesque confirmation of the above recently turned up in the pages of the New York Times. Entitled, Indian Slavery Once Thrived in New Mexico. Latinos Are Finding Family Ties to It, it was a typical example of identity group grievance fobbed off as “history.” The article begins by introducing us to a Mr. Trujillo:

Mr. Trujillo is one of many Latinos who are finding ancestral connections to a flourishing slave trade on the blood-soaked frontier now known as the American Southwest. Their captive forebears were Native Americans — slaves frequently known as Genízaros (pronounced heh-NEE-sah-ros) who were sold to Hispanic families when the region was under Spanish control from the 16th to 19th centuries. Many Indian slaves remained in bondage when Mexico and later the United States governed New Mexico.

There is nothing factually inaccurate about the above, nor, for that matter, about the following paragraph:

The trade then evolved to include not just Hispanic traffickers but horse-mounted Comanche and Ute warriors, who raided the settlements of Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, Pawnee and other peoples. They took captives, many of them children plucked from their homes, and sold them at auctions in village plazas.

Such paragraphs aren’t outright lies. Rather, they are examples of that now familiar practice of modern journalists, cherry-picking the truth to fit a narrative. Reading on, we find more subtle examples of the same, such as,

Seeking to strengthen the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 after learning of propertied New Mexicans owning hundreds and perhaps thousands of Indian slaves, mainly Navajo women and children. But scholars say the measure, which specifically targeted New Mexico, did little for many slaves in the territory.

What this paragraph hides is the fact that the vast majority of slaves own by the “Ricos,” wealthy Mexicans who owned the lion’s share of the land, not only in New Mexico, but in what is now Mexico proper, were not Indians, but other Mexicans. As several contemporary observers have noted, Mexican peons were slaves in all but name. Vast numbers of them were hopelessly in debt to the large land owners and, according to Mexican law, they were forbidden to leave the land until the highly unlikely event that the debts were repaid. In what follows, we leave mere cherry-picking behind, and encounter statements that can be better characterized as outright lies. For example,

Revelations about how Indian enslavement was a defining feature of colonial New Mexico can be unsettling for some in the state, where the authorities have often tried to perpetuate a narrative of relatively peaceful coexistence between Hispanics, Indians and Anglos, as non-Hispanic whites are generally called here.

Of course, this begs the question of exactly which “authorities” have ever made such ludicrous claims.  None are named, probably because there never were any.  More importantly, however, the claim that “Indian enslavement was a defining feature of colonial New Mexico” is a bald-faced lie on the face of it.  You might say that precisely the opposite was true.  Mexicans were in terror of the Indians, and had been for many years before the Peonage Act of 1867.  By the time of the Mexican War, the Indians had completely cowed the Mexican population, not only of New Mexico, but of Mexico proper extending south at least as far as the city of Zacatecas, hundreds of miles from the current border.  In effect, they were enslaved by the Indians more or less as the Helots of old were enslaved by the ancient Spartans.  In other words, the Indians didn’t go to the trouble of capturing the Mexicans.  Instead, they merely raided them in their villages and haciendas, running off their livestock, stealing their food, and taking whatever else happened to strike their fancy, including a good many scalps.  The Mexicans were helpless to stop this onslaught, thanks in part to the enlightened policy of their government which forbade them to “keep and bear arms.”  This was actually the “defining feature” of the old Southwest. It is dismissed as a “mere bagatelle” in a brief paragraph of the article as follows:

Pointing to the breadth of the Southwest’s slave trade, some historians have also documented how Hispanic settlers were captured and enslaved by Native American traffickers, and sometimes went on to embrace the cultures of their Comanche, Pueblo or Navajo masters.

To gain an impression of what was really going on, let’s look at some of the source material.  Some of the best was penned by a young British officer by the name of George F. Ruxton.  Ruxton was definitely one of the most entertaining of the many British travel writers of the 19th century, and packed an amazing amount of adventure into a few years before his tragic death due to illness at the age of 28.  His Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains is a classic and a must read for anyone interested in the history of the region.  It also happens to be free online at Google Books.  Ruxton landed at Vera Cruz in 1846, and traveled the length of Mexico, passing into what is now New Mexico later that year, even as the Mexican War was raging.  He actually landed just before the return of Santa Anna through the same port, and his book includes a very unflattering portrait of the Mexican leader.

Ruxton certainly had no high opinion of the Mexicans in general, for that matter, and if they had been “oppressors” of the Indians, he certainly wouldn’t have failed to notice it.  A gang of them had attempted to kill him at one point, and at another a Mexican he had hired to help him on the trail tried to shoot him in the back and rob him.  Fortunately, he missed.  Ruxton began witnessing what was really going on in northern Mexico and New Mexico as he passed through the city of Zacatecas. In his words,

From this point the “novedades” poured upon us daily: “Los Indios, los Indios!” was the theme of every conversation. Thus early (it was a very early Indian season this year and the last) they had made their appearance in the immediate vicinity of Durango, killing the paisanos, and laying waste the haciendas and ranchos; and it was supposed they would penetrate even farther into the interior. What a “cosa de Mejico” is this fact! Five hundred savages depopulating a soi-disant civilized country, and with impunity!

As Ruxton continued north, the devastation and depopulation of the land by the Indians became a constant theme. For example, on leaving the little town of Zaina,

To Sombrerete, distance thirty-four miles. The country wilder, with less fertile soil, and entirely depopulated as much from fear of Indians as from its natural unproductiveness.

Of his journey from the village of El Gallo to the mining town of Mapimi he writes,

I had resolved to pass through this part of the country, although far off the beaten track, in order to visit El Real de Mapimi, a little town, near a sierra which is said to be very rich in ore; and also for the purpose of traveling through a tract of country laid waste by the Comanches, and but little known, and which is designated, par excellence, “los desiertos de la frontera” – the deserts of the frontier; not so much from its sterility, as on its having been abandoned by its inhabitants, from the fear of the perpetual Indian attacks, as it lay in their direct route to the interior.

Here is what Ruxton has to say about “the Mexicans,” the identity group guilty, according to the NYT, of oppressing the poor, downtrodden Indians:

The population is divided into but two classes – the high and the low: there is no intermediate rank to connect the two extremes, and consequently the hiatus between them is deep and strongly marked. The relation subsisting between the peasantry and the wealthy haciendados or landowners is a species of serfdom little better than slavery itself. Money in advance of wages is generally lent to the peon or labourer, who is by law bound to serve the lender, if required, until such time as the debt is repaid; and as care is taken that this shall never happen, the debtor remains a bondsman to the day of his death… Law or justice hardly exists in name even, and the ignorant peasantry, under the priestly thralldom which holds them in physical as well as moral bondage, have neither the energy nor courage to stand up for the amelioration of their condition, or the enjoyment of that liberty, which it is the theoretical boast of republican governments their system so largely deals in, but which, in reality, is a practical falsehood and delusion.

In another passage, Ruxton describes an instance of exploitation of Mexicans by the Indians that is almost a mirror image of the enslavement of the Helots by the Spartans.  To his surprise, he noticed a Mexican village, existing far to the north, in territory completely controlled by the Ute tribe of Indians.  He was finally enlightened about the situation by one of the Utes:

Rio Colorado is the last and most northern settlement of Mexico, and is distant from Vera Cruz 2000 miles.  It contains perhaps fifteen families, or a population of fifty souls, including one or two Yuta Indians, by sufferance of whom the New Mexicans have settled this valley, thus ensuring to the politic savages a supply of corn or cattle without the necessity of undertaking a raid on Taos or Santa Fé whenever they require a remount.  This was the reason given me by a Yuta for allowing the encroachment on their territory.

No state of society can be more wretched or degrading than the social and moral condition of the inhabitants of New Mexico, but in this remote settlement anything I had formerly imagined to be the ne plus ultra of misery fell far short of the reality, such is the degradation of the people of the Rio Colorado.  Growing a bare sufficiency for their own support, they hold the little land they cultivate and their wretched hovels on sufferance from the barbarous Yutas, who actually tolerate their presence in their country for the sole purpose of having at their command a stock of grain and a herd of mules and horses which they make no scruple of helping themselves to whenever they require a remount or a supply of farinaceous food.  Moreover when a war expedition against a hostile tribe has failed and no scalps have been secured to ensure the returning warriors a welcome to their village, the Rio Colorado is a kind of game preserve where the Yutas have a certainty of filling their bag if their other covers draw blank. Here they can always depend upon procuring a few brace of Mexican scalps when such trophies are required for a war dance or other festivity without danger to themselves, and merely for the trouble of fetching them.

There are many other eyewitness accounts that corroborate Ruxton.  For example, from Heroes and Incidents of the Mexican War by a Missouri veteran by the name of Isaac George, also available free on Google Books,

Since 1835 the Indians had encroached upon the frontier of Mexico and laid waste many flourishing settlements, waging predatory warfare and leading women and children into captivity.  In fact the whole of Mexico was a frontier.  An elevated Table Plain extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the foot of the Cordilleras, intersecting by innumerable ranges of mountains, and clustering isolated and conical-shaped peaks, which were infested by bands of savages and still fiercer Mexican banditti.  No effort of the Mexican government had been able to suppress and oust these ruthless invaders of the country.

George accompanied the incredible expedition of Alexander William Doniphan, perhaps the greatest hero of their country most Americans have never heard of.  Doniphan led 900 Missourians on a march through thousands of miles of hostile country that brings to mind the march of Xenophon’s ten thousand.  In the process a portion of Doniphan’s little command beat more than twice their number at Brazito, north of El Paso, and the 900 defeated more than four times their number at the Battle of the Sacramento River just north of Chihuahua.  On page 128 of George’s book there is a copy of a letter from the Mexican head of the Department of Parras to Lieutenant John Reed and his men, who served with Doniphan, thanking them for risking their lives to defeat a band of marauding Comanches and rescue 18 Mexican captives who were being led into slavery, recovering much livestock and other property in the process.  Josiah Gregg, another soldier who was with the US Army in northern Mexico, also commented on the result of Indian raiding:

…the whole country from New Mexico to the borders of Durango is almost entirely depopulated. The haciendas and ranchos have been mostly abandoned, and the people chiefly confined to the towns and cities.

So much for the New York Times fairy tale about “oppression” of the Indians by the Mexicans.  One would think that if the “progressives” who write such yarns really cared as much about “human flourishing” as they claim, they would have elevated President Polk to the status of a folk hero.  After all, he led us into the Mexican War.  The result of that conflict was an end to the Indian depredations, as had been predicted by Ruxton, the freeing of the Mexican peasants from slavery at the hands of the rich latifundistas, and the rapid advance of the American Southwest to the flourishing condition it enjoys today.  Don’t hold your breath, though.  Liberation doesn’t count if it comes at the hands of people with white skin.  Read any “history” of the old Southwest coming out of academia, or helpfully submitted to Wikipedia, and then consult the source material for yourselves.  You’ll find an abundance of similar lies, all served up to vilify some “evil” identity group and mourn the “oppression” of another.  If you want to learn anything approaching the truth, you’d better get used to digging through the source material for yourself.

Alexander Willian Doniphan

A Few Hints from Philip Hone on the Cause of the Civil War


But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who was Philip Hone?  Well, he was born in 1780, died in 1851, and lived in New York City.  He was the son of a German immigrant who became wealthy in the auction business.  He was active in the Whig Party, and even claimed he supplied it with its name.  However, his real gift to posterity was a very entertaining and informative diary covering the years from 1828 until his death.

Do you have trouble remembering even the names of all those Presidents who were in office between Monroe and Lincoln, not to mention anything they actually did or stood for?  Philip Hone can help you out.  He knew some of them personally and had much to say about them, both good and bad.  He was as much in awe about the railroad, steamship and telegraph as we are about jet travel and the Internet.  He gives us an insiders look at the economy and culture of New York in the early 19th century, as well as vignettes of some its most distinguished visitors.  He also confirmed what most people other than Marxist historians and southern elementary school teachers have known all along; the Civil War was about slavery.

It’s odd, really, that so many people are capable of denying something so obvious.  The northerners who lived through the events in question thought the Civil War was about slavery.  The southerners alive at the time thought it was about slavery.  Foreign observers were in virtually unanimous agreement that it was about slavery.  Source literature confirming it is available in abundance.  It doesn’t matter.  As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, ideological narratives, no matter how ludicrous, can trump historical facts with ease.  So it is with slavery and the Civil War.

I know I’m not likely to open closed minds, but as my own humble contribution to historical integrity, I will help Mr. Hone spread the word.  There are many allusions to the slavery question in his diary.  In the entry for November 17, 1837, we learn that passions were already running high nearly a quarter of a century before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter:

The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world.  Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices.  A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union.  Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri.  An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.

In the entry for October 22, 1939, Hone set down his thoughts on the famous “Amistead” incident:

There is great excitement in relation to the arrest of two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the revolted slaves who were taken on board the “Amistead,” and are now in prison in Connecticut.  This outrageous proceeding is the work of the abolitionists, who, in their officious zeal, have obtained affidavits from the wretched Africans, who, ignorant of our language, probably knew not what they were swearing about.  These affidavits, charging their owners with assault and battery, were made the grounds of this arrest, and the Spaniards are in prison.  Writs of habeas corpus have been issued, and the subject is now submitted to the judges, who, it is hoped, will see reason to discharge the men who escaped so narrowly from the conspiracy in which the lives of other white men were sacrificed.  The fanatics are working day and night to make this bad matter worse; under the specious cloak of an abstract opposition to slavery, they are blowing up a flame which may destroy the Union, and light up a civil war between men who have no interest so strong as to belong to a brotherhood of patriots.

Hone disliked slavery, but disliked the abolitionists even more.  To him they represented a gratuitous threat to the Union.  Speaking of the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for President on December 9, 1839, he writes,

The accursed question (slavery, ed.) is destined to mix up with all national questions, and in the end to alter the essential features of our government, if not to cause a separation of the States and a dissolution of the Union.  The opposition to Mr. Clay from this quarter is so strong, that even if nominated he could not (in the opinion of a majority of the convention) have been elected, and it was perhaps good policy to take (William Henry) Harrison, who may succeed if the friends of Mr. Clay exercise that magnanimity which it appears they could not calculate upon from a portion, at least, of the friends of his rivals.

Speaking of the famous battle over the right to petition Congress against slavery in 1842, we learn that the South wasn’t the only source of agitation for disunion.  Indeed, it came from none other than a former Yankee President as well – John Quincy Adams:

The House of Representatives presents every day a scene of violence, personal abuse, and vulgar crimination, almost as bad as those which disgraced the National Assembly of France in the early stages of the “Reign of Terror.”  Mr. Adams, with the most provoking pertinacity, continues to present petitions intended to irritate the Southern members, and by language and manner equally calculated to disgust his friends and exasperate his enemies, and does something every day to alienate the respect which all are disposed to render to his consummate learning and admirable talents… Among other insane movements of the ex-President, he has presented a petition praying for a repeal of the Union, because the petitioners are deprived of the privilege of agitating the terrible question of slavery; and their right to bring forward a proposition so monstrous, and his to be their organ of communication with the Congress of the nation, is enforced with the indomitable obstinacy which marks all his conduct of late.

As Hone’s life nears its end, references to the “accursed question” become more frequent.  The entries for 1850 include the following:

The great South Carolina senator (John C. Calhoun, ed.) died in Washington, on Sunday morning, March 31, of a disease of the heart… the South has lost her champion; slavery, its defender; and nullification and (we are compelled to say) disunion, their apologists.

The dreadful question of slavery which has cast an inextinguishable brand of discord between the North and the South of this hitherto happy land, has taken a tangible and definite shape on the question of the admission of the new State of California into the Union with the Constitution of her own framing and adoption.  The flame is no longer smothered; the fanatics of the North and the disunionists of the South have made a gulf so deep that no friendly foot can pass it; enmity so fierce that reason cannot allay it; unconquerable, sectional jealousy, and the most bitter personal hostility.  A dissolution of the Union, which until now it was treason to think of, much more to utter, is the subject of the daily harangues of the factionists in both Houses of Congress.  Compromise is at an end.

When will all this end?  I see no remedy!  If California is admitted with the prohibition of slavery which themselves have adopted, or if the national district is freed by the action of Congress from the traffic in human flesh, the South stands ready to retire from the Union, and bloody wars will be the fatal consequence.  White men will cut each others throats, and servile insurrections will render the fertile fields of the South a deserted monument to the madness of man.

One can find more or less the same sentiments in literally thousands of source documents.  The Civil War was fought over slavery.  I know that learned history professors, Confederate heritage zealots, and southern school teachers will continue to gasp out their denials even if they’re buried beneath a dump truck full of diaries.  I can only offer the humble, and probably futile suggestion, that they return to the real world.

Aside from his comments on the slavery issue, Hone’s diary is a trove of observations and anecdotes about a great number of other happenings of both historical and personal interest.  For example, for those interested in comparing the news media then and now,

There is little dependence upon newspapers as a record of facts, any more than in their political dogmas or confessions of faith.  If they do not lie from dishonest motives, their avidity to have something new and in advance of others leads them to take up everything that comes to hand without proper examination, adopting frequently the slightly grounded impressions of their informers for grave truths, setting upon them the stamp of authenticity, and sending them upon the wings of the wind to fill the ears and eyes of the extensive American family of the gullibles.

Hone was convinced that early instances of election fraud proved that universal suffrage would not work, or at least not in big cities;

The affair is an unpleasant one… It discloses a disgusting scene of villainy in the conduct of our elections, and proves that universal suffrage will not do for great cities.  It proves also the necessity for a registry law, which is a Whig measure, and has been violently opposed by the very men who are now so sensitive on the subject of illegal voting, when it works against them.

The astute author has some good words to say about my own alma mater:

In the list of noble young fellows whose gallant conduct, indomitable bravery, and military accomplishments in the Mexican war redound to the glory of West Point, their military alma-mater, there are several New York boys, sons of our friends and associates, who, if they ever get back, will come to their homes covered with glory, jewels in our city’s treasury, the pride of their parents and the children of the Republic.  These are the fruits of a West Point education.  Shame on the malignant demagogues who have labored to overthrow such an institution!

Hear, hear!  When it came to sports, they didn’t believe in half measures in those days:

The amusement of prize-fighting, the disgrace of which was formerly confined to England, to the grief and mortification of the moral and respectable part of her subjects, and the disgust of travelers from other countries, has become one of the fashionable abominations of our loafer-ridden city…  One of those infamous meetings took place yesterday on the bank of the North river in Westchester, the particulars of which are given at length in that precious sheet (The New York Herald, ed.) and others of a similar character.  Two men, named Lilly and McCoy, thumped and battered each other for the gratification of a brutal gang of spectators, until the latter, after one hundred and nineteen rounds, fell dead in the ring, and the other ruffian was smuggled away and made his escape from the hands of insulted justice.

As they say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing.  You’ll find much similar material as seen from a somewhat different perspective than you’re likely to find in your average high school history book.

On the “Evil” of Colonialism

There are few better demonstrations of the fact that the term Homo sapiens is an oxymoron then the results of our species’ attempts to “interpret” the innate emotional responses that are the source of all the gaudy manifestations of human morality.  Moral emotions exist.  Evolution by natural selection is the reason for their existence.  If they did not exist, there would be no morality as we know it.  In other words, the only reason for the illusion that Good and Evil are objects, things-in-themselves that don’t depend on any mind, human or otherwise, for their existence, is the fact that, over some period of time, that illusion made it more likely that the genes responsible for spawning it would survive and reproduce.  Recently it has been amply demonstrated that, over a different period of time, under different conditions, the very same emotions spawned by the very same genes can accomplish precisely the opposite.  In other words, they can promote their own destruction.  Mother Nature, it would seem, has a fondness for playing practical jokes.

The elevation of colonialism in some circles to the status of Mother of all Evils is a case in point.  It has long been the “root cause” of choice for all sorts of ills.  Prominent among them lately has been Islamic terrorism, as may be seen here, here, here and here.  Even prominent politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, and we find them engaged in the ludicrous pursuit of explaining to Islamic terrorists, who have been educated in madrassas and know the Quran by heart, that they are not “real Moslems.”  It must actually be quite frustrating for the terrorists, who have insisted all along that they are acting on behalf of and according to the dictates of their religion.  It also begs the question of how, if Islam is a “religion of peace,” all of north Africa, much of the Middle East outside of Arabia, Turkey, significant parts of Europe, Iran, etc., formerly parts of the Christian Roman Empire or the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, ever became Moslem.  Of course, it was accomplished by military force, and the ensuing colonization of these countries resulted in the destruction of the “indigenous” cultures and traditions that were overrun.  Interestingly, we seldom find this Moslem version of colonialism treated as a form of immorality.  Apparently we are to assume that there is a statute of limitations on the application of the relevant moral principles.

Be that as it may, in bygone days colonialism was often also invoked as the “root cause” for the promiscuous massacres of the Communists, and is the “root cause” of choice for the ills, real or imagined, of all sorts of minorities as well.  I have long maintained that Good and Evil have no objective existence.  However, whether one agrees with that assertion or not, it seems only reasonable that the terms at least be defined in a way that is consistent with their evolutionary roots.  In that case, the notion that colonialism was evil becomes absurd.  It is yet another example of a morality inversion, characterized by the whimsical tendency of human moral emotions to stand on their heads in response to sufficiently drastic changes to the external environment.

What were the actual results of colonialism?  We will limit our examination to white colonialism, as colonialism by other ethnic groups, although of frequent occurrence in the past, is not generally held to be such an “evil.”  Rather, colonialism as practiced by other than whites is deemed a mere expression of “culture.”  It would therefore be “racist” to consider it evil.  In the first place, then, white colonialism has led to a vast expansion in the area of the planet inhabited primarily by whites.  They are now the dominant ethnic groups on whole continents that they never knew existed little over half a century ago.  This must certainly be considered good if we are to define the Good consistently with the “root causes” of morality itself.  Interestingly, colonialism was also good in this way for other ethnic groups.  Sub-Saharan blacks, for example, now have a prominent presence over wide territories that they never would have seen in the absence of the white practice of carrying slaves to their colonies.  It is unlikely that, if faced with the choice, blacks would trade a world that never experienced white colonialism with the more “evil” world we actually inhabit.

Even if one chooses to divorce morality entirely from its evolutionary roots, and assume that Good and Evil are independent entities floating about in the luminiferous aether with no biological strings attached whatsoever, it is not entirely obvious that white colonialism was an unmitigated evil.  Indeed, if we are to accept the modern secular humanist take on objective morality, as outlined, for example, in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, it would seem that the opposite is the case.  According to this version of morality, “human flourishing” is the summum bonum.  I would maintain that a vastly greater number of humans are flourishing today because of white colonialism than would otherwise be the case.  Thanks to white colonialism, the continents on which its impact was greatest now support much larger populations of healthier people who live for longer times on average, and are less likely to die violent deaths than if it had not occurred.  This, of course, is not necessarily true of every race involved.  The aborigines of Tasmania, for example, were entirely wiped out, and there has probably been a significant decline in the population of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America.  However, the opposite has been the case in Africa and India.  In any case, if we are to believe the ideological shibboleths that often emanate from the same ideological precincts that gave rise to the latest versions of morality based on “human flourishing,” all these distinctions by race don’t matter, because race is a mere social construct.

I often wonder what makes modern secular Puritans imagine that they will be judged any differently by future generations than they are in the habit of judging the generations of the past.  After all, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain, France, and the other major colonialist countries did not imagine that they were being deliberately immoral during the heyday of colonialism.  On what basis is it justified to judge others out of the context of their time?  No one has ever come up with a rational answer to that question, for the very good reason that no such basis is possible.

The proponents of colonialism left behind a great many books on the subject.  Typically, they perceived colonialism as a benign pursuit that benefited the colonial peoples as much as the colonizers.  There is an interesting chapter on the subject in Volume XII (The Latest Age) of the Cambridge Modern History (Chapter XX, The European Colonies), first published in 1910.  In reading it, one finds no hint of evidence that the author of the chapter, a university professor who no doubt considered himself enlightened according to the standards of the time, perceived colonialism as other than a benign force, and an expression of the energy and economic growth of the colonizing countries.  Some typical passages include,

The few years under present consideration form a brief period in this long process (of European colonization since the 15th century).  Yet they have seen an awakened interest in colonization and an extension of the field of enterprise which give them a unique significance.  The comparative tranquility of domestic and foreign affairs in most countries of Europe has favoured a great outburst of colonizing energy, for which the growth of population and industry has provided the principal motive.  The growth of population has swollen the stream of emigration; the expansion of industry has increased the desire to control sources of supply for raw materials and markets for finished products.  A rapid improvement in means of communication and transport has facilitated intercourse between distant parts of the world.  A vast store of accumulated wealth in old countries has been available for investment in the new.

In other words, colonization was considered a manifestation of social progress.  The rights of indigenous peoples were not simply ignored as is so often claimed today.  It was commonly believed, and not without reason, that they, too, benefited from colonization.  Epidemic diseases were controlled, pervasive intertribal warfare and the slave trade were ended, and the brutal mistreatment of women was discouraged.  On the other hand, the abuse of native populations was also recognized.  Quoting again from a section of the book dealing with the Belgian Congo, the author writes,

Its history would be a fine tale of European energy applied to the development of a tropical country, had not the work been marred by a cruel spirit of exploitation gaining the upper hand.  The first ten years of its existence were a period of great activity, during which a marvelous change came over the land.  Splendid pioneering work was done.  Experienced missionaries and travelers explored the great streams.  The drink traffic, the slave trade, and cannibalism, were much diminished.  The ancient Arab dominion in Central Africa was overthrown after a hard and costly struggle (1890-3).  Routes of communication were opened, and railway building commenced…

But it was by its treatment of the native peoples that the Congo State attained that evil eminence which accumulating proof shows it to have well deserved.  The system of administration lent itself to abuses.  Large powers were devolved upon men not always adequately paid or capable of bearing their responsibilities.  The supervision of their activities in the interior was impossible from places so distant as Boma and Brussels.  The native was wronged by the disregard of his system of land ownership and of the tribal rights to hunt and gather produce in certain areas, as well as by a system of compulsory labor in the collection of produce on behalf of the State, enforced by barbarous punishments and responsible for continual and devastating warfare… Finally, the Belgian Parliament taking up the question, the Congo State was in 1908 transferred to Belgium, and its rulers have thus become responsible to the public opinion of a nation.

Except, perhaps, during the most active periods of European competition for colonies during the last half of the 19th century, eventual independence was recognized not merely as an ideal but as practically inevitable.  In the last paragraph of the chapter the author writes,

(Great Britain’s) colonial policy has been inspired by an understanding and a wise recognition of facts.  Settlers in new countries form societies; such societies, as their strength grows, desire the control of their own life; common interests draw contiguous societies together, and union creates and fosters the sense of nationality.  Perceiving the course of this development, the mother country has continually readjusted the ties that bound her to her colonies, so that they might be appropriate to the stage of growth which each colony had reached.  Wherever possible, she has conceded to them the full control of their own affairs; and she has encouraged contiguous colonies to unite, so that in dimensions, resources, population, and economic strength, the indispensable material foundations of a self-governing state could be formed.

The author closes with sentiments that are likely to shock modern university professors out of their wits:

Slowly the British empire is shaping itself into a league of Anglo-Saxon peoples, holding under its sway vast tropical dependencies as well as many small communities of mixed race.  Strong bonds of common loyalty, race, and history, as well as the need of cooperation for defense, unite the white peoples.  But the course of progress has carried the empire to an unfamiliar point in political development.  Loose and elastic in its structure, it may well take a new shape under the influence of external pressure, political and economic.

In other words, the author did not share the modern penchant among the “Anglo-Saxons” for committing ethnic suicide.  In our own day, of course, while it is still perfectly acceptable for every other ethnic group on the planet to speak in a similar fashion, it has become a great sin for whites to do so.  Far be it for me to challenge this development on moral grounds, for the simple reason that there are no moral grounds one way or the other.  Similarly, this post is in no way intended to morally condone or serve as a form of moral apologetics for colonialism.  There exists no objective basis for morally judging colonialism, or anything else, for that matter.  I merely point out that the moral standards relating to colonialism have evolved over time.  Beyond that, one might add that colonialism accomplished ends in harmony with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral emotions to begin with, whereas the manipulation of those emotions to condemn colonialism on illusory moral grounds accomplishes precisely the opposite.  That is not at all the same thing as claiming that colonialism was Good, and anti-colonialism is evil.  It is merely stating a fact.

One can certainly choose to oppose, and even actively fight against, colonialism, or anything else to which one happens to have an aversion.  I merely suggest that, before one does so, one have a reasonably accurate understanding of the emotions that are the cause of the aversion, and why they exist.  Moral emotions seem to point to objective things, Good and Evil, that are perceived as real, but aren’t.  I don’t wish to imply that no one should ever act.  I merely suggest that, before they do, they should understand the illusion.

On the “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” of World War I

More than a century has now come and gone since the start of World War I.  Numerous books and articles have been published to mark the centennial, often differing sharply with each other in their interpretations of the events and personalities concerned.  My personal favorite is The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark.  I’ve been reading quite a bit of the source material myself lately.  As I speak German, these have included memoirs of many of the key players on the German side.  In reading his book, I noticed that Clark was very familiar with everything I’d read.   I also noticed that everything I’ve read was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the material he quoted in detail.  Clark also generally refrains from categorizing every historical personality as either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.”  I avoid reading histories written by journalists, because so few of them manage to avoid this moralistic pigeonholing.   It’s much easier to understand historical events if, as Clark puts it in his introduction, one “remains alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described… carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible, futures.”

Not everyone agrees with Clark.  Even a century later there are others, even among professional historians, who remain obsessed with the question of “war guilt.”  For example, John C. G. Röhl, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex, recently published a life of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which he insisted that Germany’s last Kaiser managed to concoct World War I almost single-handedly.  I’ve also seen several articles, such as this one that appeared on the conservative Australian Quadrant website, that are still harping about “German militarism” as if the war had ended yesterday.  If the Quadrant author is to be believed, the “ideological and cultural pathologies” of Wilhelmine Germany were direct forerunners of Nazism.

I doubt it.  Germany could certainly have broken the chain of events that led to war.  So could Austria-Hungary, and so could Russia.  The question of who, among these three, not to mention the other belligerents, was really the chief culprit was hardly as obvious in the days immediately preceding the clash of arms as the historians of the victorious powers so often asserted when it was over.  Writing two days after Russia had begun her “partial” mobilization in response to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Lord Bertie, at the time British ambassador in France, wrote in his diary,

It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians.  Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke (which they did, ed.) they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained.  Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretension that she is, by right, the protectress of all Slavs?  What rubbish!  And she will expect, if she adhere to her present attitude, France and England to support her in arms.

A day later he wrote,

I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it.  The Military party in Germany may think the present moment more favourable for Germany than it is likely to be later, when the reforms in the Russian Army will have been carried out and the strategic railways, converging on the Russo-German frontier, will have been constructed, but I cannot think that the German Emperor and his Government desire war.  I do not believe that they were accessories before the fact to the terms of the Austrian Note to Servia.  If, however, the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, was is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia.

In fact, that’s exactly how it looked to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.  As he noted in his memoirs, it was clear that if Germany fulfilled her treaty obligations to defend Austria against a Russian attack, it would certainly bring France into the war.  The Germans knew they would be facing a two front war, and reacted accordingly.  He also confirmed Bertie’s surmise about the conflict between the German civil and military officials in the days leading up to war.  In his words,

The foreign office… was so hypnotized by the idea of “peace at any price,” that it completely ruled out war as a possible element of Entente policy, and was therefore unable to correctly assess the signs that war was possible.  Therein lies yet another proof of Germany’s desire to preserve the peace.  This attitude of the foreign office gave rise to certain contradictions between it and the General Staff and the Admiralty, who gave warning as their duty required, and advised preparations for defense.  These difference persisted for some time.  The Army could never forget the fact that it was the fault of the foreign office that they had been surprised.  And the diplomats were piqued that war had come in spite of their efforts.

The memoirs of the Kaiser and some of the other key players in the war and the events leading up to it are often dismissed with a wave of the hand as mere justifications after the fact.  In fact, while self-justification is a typical motive, memoirs can’t simply be invented out of whole cloth, and invariably reveal a great deal about the character of the authors, regardless of how they choose to construe the facts.  Wilhelm was no angel.  He was paranoid, a narcissist, became an anti-Semite, especially after the war, and had an unfortunate penchant for bombast and bluster.  However, he was not the rabid warmonger portrayed by Röhl and many others, either.

Perhaps the most damaging indictment of Germany was written by her ambassador in Great Britain before the war, Prince Karl Lichnowsky.  His assessment, currently available under the title, The Guilt of Germany for the War of German Aggression, pointed out the folly of Germany’s crash naval building program in alienating England.  He saw the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as a man dedicated to preserving the peace, and an honest broker in his dealings with Germany and the other European powers.  Grey had suggested a conference of the powers, similar to the one that had preserved the peace of Europe during another spat over the Balkans a couple of years earlier, as a way to avoid war.  Lichnowsky considered Germany’s decision to refuse this offer suicidal, and a major contributing factor to the onset of war.  His assessment of Grey and British policy in general was probably a great deal more accurate than that of the Kaiser and the German foreign office.  Their paranoia about the supposed perfidious, anti-German intrigues of England’s King Edward VII and his foreign secretary is evident in the Kaiser’s as well as several other memoirs.  However, in spite of that, one cannot simply ignore the reply of von Jagow, German foreign secretary at the time, which is also included in the volume referred to above.  According to Jagow,

We could not agree to the English proposal of a conference of Ambassadors, for it would doubtless have led to a serious diplomatic defeat.  For Italy, too, (Germany’s ally at the time in the Triple Alliance with Austria, ed.) was pro-Serb and, with her Balkan interests, stood rather opposed to Austria… The best and only feasible way of escape was a localization of the conflict and an understanding between Vienna and Petrograd.  We worked toward that end with all our energy.

In retrospect, this “way of escape” may have appeared a great deal more “feasible,” in view of the fact that the actual alternative turned out to be Germany’s crushing defeat in the World War, but that outcome did not yet seem inevitable.  In fact, Germany did seek to localize the conflict, as is evident from the source material.  As for the German naval building program, I doubt that its aim was really to outstrip or seriously threaten British domination of the seas.  Again, one cannot simply dismiss what has been written about the subject on the German side.  According to the one man most often associated with the program, Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany’s battle fleet was necessary in order to protect her coast against a combination of France and Russia or any other two naval powers other than Great Britain.  She never aimed at more than an 8 to 5 ratio of naval power in favor of England, and would have been satisfied with 3 to 2.  There is no credible evidence that Tirpitz or the Kaiser aimed at anything beyond this.

There is a great deal of additional material in Tirpitz’ memoirs of interest to students of events leading up to the outbreak of war.  For example, he could not understand why Germany had not simply mobilized in response to the Russian mobilization, and left the moral odium of an actual declaration of war to its enemies.  In his words,

Did not (German Chancellor, ed.) Bethmann really consider the enormous disadvantages which were created for us by our not leaving the act of declaration of war to the enemy?… my feelings revolted at our having to assume the odium of the attacking party in the face of the world, on account of the jurists of the Foreign Office, although we could not at all intend to march into Russia, and although we were in reality the attacked party.  I therefore asked the Chancellor, as the meeting broke up, why the declaration of war had to coincide with our mobilization?  The Chancellor replied that this was necessary because the army would immediately send troops over the frontier.  The reply astonished me, because at the most it could only be a question of patrols.  But through these days Bethmann was so agitated and overstrained that it was impossible to speak with him.  I can still hear him as he repeatedly stressed the absolute necessity of the declaration of war, with his arms uplifted, and consequently cut short all further discussion.  When I asked Moltke afterwards the actual relation between the crossing of the frontier and our declaration of war, he denied any intention of sending troops over the frontier forthwith.  He also told me that he attached no value to the declaration of war from his own point of view.

Thus the riddle, why we declared war first, remains unsolved for me.  It is to be assumed that we did it out of formal legal consciousness.  The Russians began the war without any declaration, but we believed that we could not defend ourselves without such a statement.  Outside Germany there is no appreciation for such ideas.

That’s for sure!  In retrospect, it’s hard to find fault with his reasoning.  Unfortunately, I can’t write a complete history of the start of World War I in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that I agree with Clark that the notion that it was all Germany’s fault, with Kaiser Wilhelm the “bad guy” extraordinaire, is nonsense.  There was plenty of blame to go around.  What’s the point?  I suppose that I tend to be dubious of the value of morality tales posing as history.  In reality, there are no good guys and bad guys.  The terms “good” and “bad” are artifacts of the human tendency to attribute objectivity to moral judgments.  In fact, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, but are better understood as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals.  I read history to gain an understanding of why things happened the way they did, and what motivated individuals to act the way they did.  That information is often lost in works that seek to portray certain individuals as “good,” and others as “bad.”  Understanding of real human beings and the complexity of human motivations and behavior are sacrificed when one seeks to create a collection of wooden puppets that all fit neatly in one of these two moral pigeonholes.


What Made the “blank slate” the Blank Slate?

The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history.  For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature.  So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day.  What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century?  After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle.  A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.

Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced.  Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.”  In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”  The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them.  For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man.  Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally.  Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally.  The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but.  They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason.  As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin.  For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,

The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing.  A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison.  Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience.  “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.”  This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.

Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself.  Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they.  This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.

In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely.  That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists.  They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter.  Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them.  And for a long time, it worked.

By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin.  Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials.  Interested readers are encouraged to check the index.  As Pinker puts it,

So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”

Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it.  For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,

We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984.  What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior?  As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.”  Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:

Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies.  As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.

All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.

The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said:  “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy.  The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.”  He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”  What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends.  As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.

Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist.  Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance.  As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday.  Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:

The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.

The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism.  To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded.  To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.

Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.

Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:

More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported.  E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others.  Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith.  It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.

This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate.  They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well.  There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.”  Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters.  By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.

It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight.  We possess the means of committing suicide as a species.  Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander.  In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues.  Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology.  Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all.  For example, again quoting from Lewontin:

Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances.  If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin.  What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate.  I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real.  Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.

It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice.  Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”