A Political Statement
Earlier today, in a comment I put on the internet, I wrote, “I’d tell you the details but I’m trying to keep it short. Not my strong point.” To which someone replied, “You would tell us the details but you won’t. ok. Your response is a bunch of blah blah blah nonsense. You must live in CO and are evidently stoned as your babblings say nothing……” I took that as an invitation to elaborate, so I did. It was rather long and it occurred to me that I might as well make a post of it.
I grew up in a highly left of center environment. My own parents were very moderate, but many of my friends parents and my teachers were on the left. I went to a small liberal arts college of the sort conservatives make fun of. At that point, most of my political views were things that could be described as received ideas rather than ideas that I had developed on my own. Basically, I had been taught and believed the basic left wing view that I mentioned above about the oppressors and the oppressed. The best summary of this view I’ve read was in The New York Review of Books, it was a quote from Corey Robin:
Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have
marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and
other hierarchical institutions. They have gathered under different
banners—the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism—and shouted
different slogans: freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution. In
virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them, violently
and nonviolently, legally and illegally, overtly and covertly…. Despite
the very real differences between them, workers in a factory are like
secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a
plantation—even wives in a marriage—in that they live and labor in
conditions of unequal power.
The reviewer, Mark Lilla, calls it “history as WPA mural.” That’s a funny quip, but that’s the history I was taught.
The first chink in the armor came when I was reading an article about a West African immigrant in France who was arrested for mutilating his daughter’s genitals. Was the French government oppressing him because it was an evil colonial power trying to ban the practices of other cultures, or was the father a big bad patriarchal oppressor. The leftist view of the world didn’t give me the intellectual tools to understand this.
Well, that was in France and didn’t concern me, so I more or less forgot it, at least for a time.
Then, browsing in a bookstore, I picked up “The Wealth of Nations.” I can only describe it as revelatory. Most of my friends at that time were some flavor of socialist and the notion that capitalism was inherently evil was taken for granted. Still, I found Smith’s arguments very convincing and this kept me from ever advocating a socialist economy. Of course, that alone put me to the right end of the spectrum among my social cohort. I was far from alone there, but still I was at one end, especially when you consider about a year or two later I’d be hanging out in the East Village in New York with anarchists living in squats. (I never lived in a squat myself. I’m much to fond of hot and cold running water.)
Okay, so now I’m in my early twenties, hanging out with some far left radicals, I still sort of believe the “history as WPA mural”, but I don’t think a socialist economy will help alleviate economic injustices because full fledged socialism doesn’t work well.
Then we have a lot of racial tensions in New York. This is the era of “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” The rise of Al Sharpton. Tawana Brawley. Howard Beach. Bensonhurst. Crown Heights.
As these fights were raging, I was reading. David Hume. John Rawls. John Locke. Immanuel Kant. John Stuart Mill. There was no rhyme or reason, just curiosity. Then Crown Heights. That was the moment that my WPA mural came falling down.
The Crown Heights riots followed a series of incidents in a neighborhood that had a large number of African Americans and a large number of Hassidic Jews. A Jewish man ran over with his car, and killed, a young black boy. During the riots that followed, a young Jewish man was beaten, stabbed and died. Another man, mistaken for being Jewish, was shot and killed. A black friend who had grown up in Harlem came over to my place. I remember he was crying and said, “My people. Why are they doing this?” My response was, “They’re not your people. Just because you have the same skin color doesn’t mean they’re your people.”
Prior to this, I had struggled myself with my own ethnic identity. This moment for me confirmed a feeling I’d been having regarding myself for some time at that point, that the individual was ultimately more important than the group to which he or she belongs.
In many ways, I may have been constitutionally predisposed to embrace individualism being the sort of person who never quite fit in. I’ve often said that I identified with the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, always asking uncomfortable questions. Adults described me as having an “artistic temperament” which I understood was not a compliment. Furthermore, as my own ethnic identity was ambiguous, I had no natural “tribal” group. In situations in which people split up into ethnic groups I would often find myself standing alone. If I was lucky, I would find myself in a group of other people without larger groups, with the one Chinese kid in school, the Puerto Rican kid, the Afro-Caribbean, the Malaysian, the black kid adopted by white parents, and we’d have our own little group of people with no group. I solved this ethnic identity problem by concluding that there was only one race, the human race, and that race or ethnicity was mostly a curiosity and not necessary to an individual’s well being.
Until that night, that had been my own internal solution to my personal problem, but, that evening, with my friend up crying all night – it would get so late that he would wind up falling asleep on my living room floor – I began to realize the wider, one could say political, implications of what had previously been my own personal solution. Simply put, the individual was the most basic level of society. Groups could be broken down and divided into groups, but the person, the human being, was the indivisible unit of society.
I must apologize if my reasoning seems unsophisticated and naive. I was developing my ideas for my own personal use and not as a Ph.D. thesis. Indeed, I have never discussed them at this length. I have always wanted to study political science so that I could share ideas in a more coherent manner, but have not yet done so. I would say that my ideas about individualism owe most to John Stuart Mill. Of course, since Locke’s beliefs about individuals is the basis of our own system of government and echos of his ideas can be heard clearly in the Declaration of Independence, shadows of his ideas were certainly in my mind before I actually studied his ideas. I found Locke to be exceedingly congenial. That is not, I suppose, a good argument to defend his position against other, but I was only trying to make sense of the world for myself. The ideas of Locke that I liked concerned his emphasis on human rationality, on reason, on empiricism, the idea that legitimate government arises from the consent of the governed, the separation of church and state, and the limits of government.
Around this same time I read the Federalist Papers and began to appreciate more fully the liberal foundations of our own system of government.
Yet, the world had long since advanced from the time of the Enlightenment, many of those advances were depicted in the now degraded WPA mural. One of the great criticisms of liberalism from the left was its inability to address the very struggles depicted in the hypothetical mural. I had told my friend that he had did not belong to the same “people” as the rioters in Crown Heights. Today, Janet Napolitano would probably see that as a “microaggression.” In fact, it is a political statement and Janet Napolitano and I apparently subscribe to different political philosophies.
The word individual is derived from the word indivisible. By definition, a group can be divided, but an individual cannot. Groups do exist, but they are divisible and malleable. They are not inherent in ourselves, but are defined by our relationship to other people. So, what does it mean that my friend thought of blacks as “his people” and saw the people rioting in Crown Heights as belonging to that group. It is only tangentially related to skin color since he would not consider Australian Aborigines who may be equally as dark as “his people.” Meanwhile, “his people” would certainly include some very light skinned people. “His people” has its roots in a common history, people who were brought to North America and the Caribbean as forced labor, mostly from West Africa and mostly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ask anyone who has been called a “coconut” as a child and it is evident that group is easily divisible. The existence of the group is contingent on a particular set of circumstances. Their ancestors in West Africa probably did not see themselves as a unified group. When confronted with a shared difficulty like racial bias, it makes sense for the individuals to unite to combat that difficulty. Groups are not inherently negative, they can certainly have utility, but it is important to remember that they are contingent, malleable and divisible.
Liberalism is what provides the moral reasoning to oppose racism. Racial divisions are inherently collectivist ideas which consider the group to which a person is assigned to be defining and limiting characteristic of that individual. Those of us who are steeped in Western individualism are naturally horrified by the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, the Jewish man who was killed during the riots. We do not view it as justice to kill one person as a collective punishment for a group to which he belongs, nor do we see the group as being responsible for the actions of one member.
Furthermore, individualism is the only way different groups can cohabit the same polity with some reasonable degree of harmony. In a multi-ethnic society, without individualism, we would have a variation of Hobbes’ vision of each against all, although instead of being each person against all it would be each group against all other groups.
Individualism is the core of liberalism and comes with attendant freedoms. The most essential is the freedom of conscience, which leads directly to freedom of speech.
Another core component of liberalism is autonomy.
It’s getting late and I should wrap this up although it is far from adequate, then again, writing a political manifesto off the cuff is not something I am asked to do everyday.
Looking at the dates of the events I mentioned in the first part of this comment, I see that this process took a longer period of time than I realized, about a decade that spanned the period from my late teens to my late twenties. Soon, I married and moved to Canada. By that point, many of my ideas were well in place.
For most of my adult life, I was an independent, not registered with either political party. Around the year 2000, I felt, as many people do, politically powerless. I decided to register with a political party so I could participate more actively. The “culture wars” were picking up a head of steam at this time and the Republican Party was taking a huge lurch towards the right. In the past, I had voted for Democrats more frequently than Republicans, although I never saw myself as a party person and tried to evaluate each candidate individually. Still, aligning myself with the Democrats seemed like an easy decision. At that point in time there were still some people in the Democratic Party that called themselves conservative Democrats and I felt near the center of the Democratic Party.
Since that time, the Democrats have shed their more conservative members, which occurred a couple of election cycles ago. I didn’t particularly mind that much since I didn’t see it as an ideological issue at the time. Many of those conservative Democrats were accused of being more concerned about the well being of corporate donors than their constituents. However, that put me in a conservative position relative to the rest of the party.
Within the past year or two, however, the radicals have come to the forefront and some people who seemed to be liberals have revealed themselves to be steeped in radical ideology. Conservatives might not recall that at the beginning of President Obama’s tenure, attacks from within the party came principally from the left. The incident that comes to mind which most sums up that period is when Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs referred to critics as “the professional left.”
“The White House, constantly under fire from expected enemies on the right, has been frustrated by nightly attacks on cable news shows catering to the left, where Obama and top lieutenants like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been excoriated for abandoning the public option in healthcare reform; for not moving faster to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay; and for failing, so far, to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.” Source.
Perhaps I have not been paying attention, but I’m not entirely clear on what has occurred to prompt this leftward shift. Has Obama always been radical and just pretended to be more centrist in order to get elected and, now, no longer facing an election he can finally do what he wants? Have left wing activists, like Occupy Wall Street, pushed him to the left?
If it was only Obama, I would not be too worried. However, listening to the presumptive nominee, the entire Democratic Party seems to have taken a great big leap away from the liberal principals on which this country was founded to a more radical position, leaving me a person without a party.
I will read this later.
Have a pleasant weekend
Thanks. You, too.
I finally finished the post. Well written.
I am yet to read Smith, I will, but read Mencken’s The men vs the man an interesting book.
My brother in law is fond of Mencken. He’s sometimes called “the sage of Baltimore.” Mencken, not my brother in law, though b-i-l is pretty smart, too. I should send him your way. He likes debates.
Mencken is/ was good. He had his own faults like everyone else, but a brilliant fellow all the same.
I meant to add, I’m about to put up a post with a quote from Smith.
You know I will read it.
Hope you had a good weekend.
Restful. I still have a cough, but otherwise I feel better. It was just a cold, but a bad one, so I’ve been trying to take it easy.
I’m counting on you to leave a comment. 🙂
I ask myself always when you ever sleep :).
Irregularly, but soundly. I’m nearly impossible to wake up.
I sleep regularly, almost going to bed same time daily, but I sleep like a log!
Thank you a well written and thoughtful piece.
Your vision is evidently coloured by your surroundings and early life. I don’t find that surprising. Americans have an intense preoccupation with racial identity. In my 37 years it’s the only time and place where I’ve been questioned in that regard. “So are you French or Spanish? That’s not the same as being ‘white’ is it?”
As a 10 year old that’s not really a question one knows how to answer 🙂
As for Obama- he’s barely to the right of David Cameron- who’s a Tory.
Our fascination with racial identity has gotten stronger in recent years, or so it seems to me. Strangely, it seems to be coming from the left. It makes it all rather awkward. I don’t know if you’ve read anything about the microaggressions and safe spaces, but what you’re allowed to do these days without offending people seems to be based on your race. It’s really crazy. I’m trying to figure out if I’m allowed to do everything or nothing. Anyway, the Europeans are nice. They don’t mind if other people “appropriate” their culture.
As far as the Spanish/White thing goes, I find that funny. I’m pretty sure they’re not thinking of the Moorish conquest. I remember a friend had a boss from Spain and when the census came around he and his wife, who was also Spanish, got in a huge argument about whether or not they were “Hispanic.” Generally, they thought they were “European,” but there was something about the wording that equated Hispanic with Spanish speaking and that’s what prompted the argument. The Portuguese must really have a tough time explaining that they live nowhere near the Amazon.
I think it’s a lack of historical knowledge. When I was in college I did take one intro-level class on Latin American history. I like to think I already had a vague concept regarding Spanish exploration and conquest, however I did learn a lot about the nineteenth century independence movements.
Oh – really funny – once I saw one of those annual Columbus Day posts about how awful Columbus was. One of the comments had a sarcastic “go USA” written. I was going to reply and point out that the USA didn’t even exist, that Columbus was an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag, but I didn’t because I didn’t feel like a fight. The left aggravates me. They reject the “mainstream” history as a bunch of jingoistic lies, but they don’t have much knowledge either. I did write a comment about Bartolomé de las Casas to see if it registered with anyone, as a non-confrontational way of seeing if they had any real knowledge or were just echoing received ideas. As far as I could discern, none of the people who were patting themselves on the back about being wiser than other Americans knew what I was talking about. (I’m going to put money on the probability that you do.)
I confess, I’m very fond of the French attitude. They never, ever ask me about my ethnicity. But I can’t entirely agree with you about Europeans more generally. I first encountered racism directed at me personally in Europe where I’ve been mistaken for Turkish – not fun, btw. England is uncomfortable. France is great. Italy’s no problem. I’ve never been to Spain. A bigoted German mistaking you for Turkish – very, very scary, and I mean in a way that I was afraid for my safety.
By the way, I have a French name and Mexicans have told me about how they don’t really like the French – and yes I do know why. Do you ever get that from Mexicans?
I’ve had multiple Spanish speakers not from Spain describe Spanish accents as “adorable.” The first time I went to France I was traveling with a Puerto Rican/American woman who had a fling with a Spaniard while we were there. I’ve known very, very few Spaniards overall.
When you say that you’re Spanish and French, is your family from the region of the Pyrenees? However, I’ve noticed that you don’t say “Basque”, so I assume you are not that. All the Basque people I’ve met have been pretty specific about that. (In high school we had an exchange student. On her first day in school I walked up to her meaning to be friendly. I think I said something like, “I heard you’re Spanish.” She said, “No.” I said, “So where are you from?” She said, “I’m Basque.” One of those awkward moments. I’ve had similar exchanges with Quebecois and also with people who are Breton.) Or are different sides of your family from totally different regions?