Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Philosophical Anachrony

"Anachrony" is a literary term for narrating events in a plot in a different order than they actually occurred, but I'm appropriating it for this philosophical phenomenon. That is, judging or evaluating historical figures by current standards. This happens all the time, of course, and it's chiefly due to ignorance rather than malice, but it has the same misleading effect either way. But when it's used to mislead deliberately, it's especially perverse.

You see it all the time in movies, where Elizabeth I makes some feminist assertion, or in The Patriot, where Revolutionary era South Carolinian Mel Gibson exhibits eerie racial sensitivity that's a hundred years and/or 500 miles out of place. But all that is fiction. Where it gets really counterproductive is when we judge Martin Luther, or Vlad the Impaler, or everybody's favorite, Abe Lincoln, by modern standards and decide that they're misogynists or bigots or "haters" or something.

I just discovered the blog of "Cranky Notions," and I'm looking forward to reading through it, because there I found probably the best critique I've ever seen of philosophical anachrony.  It's a long post, and I'll only quote the first part here, because I want you to go THERE and read the rest. Enjoy, and be enlightened:

Race in America: A conflict of visions, most of them false


Real History
I’m quite the secessionist, but I’m sick of hearing that Lincoln was a ‘racist’.

I am also tired of hearing that Lincoln was an anti-racist.

The first has become something of a trope in Neo-Confederate circles, otherwise doing some admirable revisionist history. See, among others, gripes like this from Tom DiLorenzo.

The second view seems to be shared by just about everybody else, or at least it predominates among mainline conservatives and liberals. In the case of the former, see the recent Lincoln hagiography from Official Conservatism’s Rich Lowry. For the liberals, there’s the hit-pieces of Michael Lind in Salon.

Before elaborating, I want to say that its fairly obvious Lincoln was a ‘racist’. That’s what positions like this are dubbed today:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

For anybody defending the South’s prerogative to secede, however, this is a particularly puerile line of inquiry, and a strategic dead-end.

Firstly, I am loathe to call towering figures in history racists, homophobes, or moral failures if they did not adhere to a post-1960′s worldview on matters of race or homosexuality. Its arrogant, and its sinister. Follow this through and you will end up demonizing everybody from John Locke to Voltaire, and from America’s Founding Fathers to the French Revolutionaries. You will end up repudiating all of human accomplishment up until 1968 or so. Which I figure is what some people want.

Secondly, Lincoln’s views would have been shared by the bulk of his secessionist counterparts to the same or to an even fiercer extent. Crying racism is a knife that cuts both ways. At best you can say Lincoln was no better than his enemies, if you accept conventional views that such positions are wrong.

Finally, Lincoln’s worldview was one very much in the American grain and in the tradition of the Founding Fathers. I would go so far as to say many of his ideas were perfectly sensible for his time and place. To understand this, we need to understand what Lincoln’s long term goals on the Negro Question actually were, and honestly address the place of race in the American project.

There were heated debates on the issue of slavery prior to the War Between the States, but they did not focus on the merits of complete abolitionism, which was very much a minority position. The issue was slavery’s expansion into Missouri after 1818 and into the new western territories after the Mexican-American War. The ideal for most residents of the Northern states, including Lincoln, was to keep not just slavery out of these territories, but all blacks. This was not unlike the situation in many Northern states at the time, which under the Black Codes required blacks seeking to enter to post enormous bonds, or forbade their assembly, or forbade them from residing at all. Lincoln’s home state of Illinois possessed all of these laws (black settlement eventually being banned entirely in 1853). He demonstrated absolutely no opposition to them in his many years in Illinois politics or during his Presidency.

That’s because, like all of the Founders, Lincoln did not believe in miscegenation or the equality of the races. Like many, he believed the best long-term solution to the race question was to free blacks (thus avoiding a slave revolt) and promptly get them out of the country. This idea, popular throughout the North, was backed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison even proposed that all public lands be sold off to pay for the forcible removal of the black population, as well as a constitutional amendment to establish a colonization office to be run by the President. Madison would eventually head the American Colonization Society, advocating the shipment of blacks to Africa or the Caribbean. Other prominent figures who served as officers of the society were Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Francis Scott Key, Winfield Scott, John Marshall, and Roger Taney. James Monroe worked so tirelessly for the cause that the capitol city of Liberia is named Monrovia.

A few years back at a Young Americans for Freedom event a typically deluded activist for Official Conservatism tried to tell me that Lincoln was such an enlightened politician that he was the first President to invite a black delegation to the White House. He certainly was, on August 14th of 1862, when he urged that black delegation to leave the country. In the midst of the war, he appointed the Rev. James Mitchell Commissioner of Emigration to work on this problem, and argued that blacks should be forcibly removed from the United States before Congress. Yet many people, conservative and liberal, still spread this myth of the black delegation to prove that Lincoln was not a racist.

Colonization faced many difficulties. The primary reason for its failure may be that Americans became too reliant on black labor. Theodore Roosevelt would go so far as to curse Southerners for importing blacks and keeping them in the country, to the point where their descendants, he lamented, “can neither be killed nor driven away”. It reminds me of an Afrikaner who told me, bitterly, that most whites in South Africa would rather die in their beds than make them. Their position on the continent of Africa is precarious. Perhaps this is a fate some feared could be in store for whites on the American continent. Benjamin Franklin himself said that “the number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small…. I could wish their numbers were increased… why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America?” The Zionist pioneers realized the importance of Jews becoming as economically independent as possible. Kibbutzim often forbade the use of non-Jewish labor even when such a policy raised enormous difficulties. For a new nation seeking to establish itself in a hostile environment, the long-term success of the project may very well require the sacrificing comfort in the short-term.

The words of Franklin and others give lie to the notion that America is, uniquely, a universal nation built on an idea. This claim would have shocked John Jay, who wrote in the Federalist Papers that 

“Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs”.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the plug! I plan to do another post related to philosophical anachrony very soon, addressing the claims of feminism, a subject I have been most interested in recently:

    http://crankynotions.com/2013/06/19/are-women-the-privileged-sex/

    ReplyDelete