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Archive for the ‘Art and Literature’ Category

Us, the Unnoticed

This is from Bernardo Soares’s (or Fernando Pessoa’s, as you like)[1] Book of Disquiet, text 24. In the context of the book, the passage is contextually even more striking because it contains only the second time (after dozens of pages) that anything appears in the text that was said by another human voice besides the narrator’s. And the first that what someone else said is actually breaks through, or alters Soares’s train of thought.

Today, feeling almost physically ill because of that age-old anxiety which sometimes wells up, I ate and drank rather less than usual in the first-floor dining room of the restaurant responsible for perpetuating my existence. And as I was leaving, the waiter, having note that the bottle of wine was still half full, turned to me and said: So long, Senhor Soares, and I hope you feel better.

The trumpet blast of this simple phrase relieved my soul like a sudden wind clearing the sky of clouds. And I realized something I had never really thought about: with these café and restaurant waiters, with barbers and with the delivery boys on street corners I enjoy a natural, spontaneous rapport that I can’t say I have with those I supposedly know more intimately.

Camaraderie has its subtleties.

Some govern the world, others are the world. Between an American millionaire, a Caesar or Napoleon, or Lenin, and the Socialist leader of a small town, there’s a difference in quantity but not of quality. Below them there’s us, the unnoticed: the reckless playwright William Shakespeare, John Milton the schoolteacher, Dante Alighieri the tramp, the delivery boy who ran an errand for me yesterday, the barber who tells me jokes, and the waiter who just now demonstrated his camaraderie by wishing me well, after noticing I’d drunk only half the wine.

— Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet text 24 (pp. 27-28)
New York: Penguin. trans. Richard Zenith.

  1. [1] Pessoa wrote almost all of his mature literary work under a number of heteronyms, that is, signatures that represented not only an alternate name, but actually a complex set of interacting characters that Pessoa invented and set into the Portuguese literary scene of his day.

Friday’s Reading: one on post-WWII bohemian-anarchism, one on early anarcho-capitalism, and some mutualist portraits

I spent most of the day booked with a consulting client and doing some house-cleaning, which was much-needed anyway but especially so in light of an impending family visit from Michigan and from Maine. Still, I had the time to catch up on some things I’ve been meaning to read. It all turned out to be PDFs I’d accumulated, but now that I have a Kindle (thanks to a Christmas present) it’s actually no longer excruciating for me to sit around reading PDFs. In any case:

  • I got the chance to read The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy (!), Mildred Edie Brady’s shocking exposé of the emerging Northern California counter-culture — of 1947. (The article went into the April 1947 issue of Harpers. (Suggested by Jesse Walker.)

    This is, roughly, the intellectual and artistic milieu that the Beats would eventually emerge from, and monopolize in the public consciousness; but that particular coffeeklatsch was still 10 years away from their public breakthrough, and in 1947 there was a lot more attention on Henry Miller, California surrealism, and the occasional cameo by Man Ray and Kenneth Rexroth. I should say that the article is not as stupidly alarmist as the title that some editor no doubt inflicted on it; maybe the whole thing would have read like more of an awful calumny when the story was published, on the eve of the Great Sexual Backlash, when sexualism was something more hotly contested than it now is.

    Anyway the sex part in the article has to do with the author’s obsession with the bohemian mens’ obsession with Wilhelm Reich. The anarchy part refers, by turns, either to an artistic radical indifference to State and social authority; or, at times, to genuine intellectual anarchism. Anyway, I don’t know that the article will offer you any really deep insights, but it’s fun, and a nice time-piece, and also a rare glimpse (even if distinctly from the outside) of the anarchist/bohemian milieu, such as it was, in the now-rarely-discussed, now-mostly-forgotten years just after World War II. It also told me little about, but gave me the titles of, a number of new little publications to chase down. Anyway. Here’s some of the interesting, and some of the ugly, on the part of the subjects:

    Pacifica Views was openly anarchist and its influence was enhanced by the sympathetic representation of the [Conscientious Objector’s] position in the community. Its editor, George B. Reeves, successfully accomplished this not only through the magazine itself but also in the Human Events pamphlet Men Against the State. Even in Pacifica Views, however, the anarchism-sexualism tie was aired by several weeks’ discussion of Wilhelm Reich’s thesis and the magazine’s political position was embellished with a sure come-on for the young—sexual freedom for the adolescent and the deep political significance that lies in developing a healthy sexuality among the masses of the people who are endemically neurotic and sexually sick.

    ANARCHISM is, of course, nothing new to the West. There have been in both Seattle and San Francisco small anarchist groups ever since the first World War and before, and remnants of them have persisted. Some are hangovers from the days of the Wobblies. Others are made up of first and second generation European immigrants—like the San Francisco group, the Libertarians, which is largely Italian. All during the thirties these small groups existed without benefit of attention from young intellectuals who in those days were most apt to be thumping their typewriters on behalf of the United Front.

    Not long after December 7, 1941, however, the poet Kenneth Rexroth left the ranks of the Communists in San Francisco and turned both anarchist and pacifist. Around him, as around Miller, there collected a group of young intellectuals and writers who met weekly in self-education sessions, reading the journals of the English anarchists, studying the old-line anarchist philosophers like Kropotkin, and leavening the politics liberally with psychoanalytic interpretations from Reich. It was and is, however, a decidedly literary group in which politics is all but submerged by art, where poems, not polemics, are written, and where D. H. Lawrence outshines Bakunin—Lawrence the philosopher, of Fantasia and the Unconscious rather than Lawrence the novelist.

    Nevertheless, the anarchism of this group is taken seriously enough to call forth tokens to the political as well as the sexual; and at meetings of the Libertarians, today, you will be apt to find young intellectuals sprinkled among the moustachioed papas and bosomed mamas [sic! Really? —R.G.] who, until recently, had no such high-toned co-operation. In this particular group around Rexroth, the Henry Miller kind of anarchism is held to be irresponsible, for Miller goes so far on the lonely individualistic trail as to sneer at even anarchist organization.

    To the outside observer, however, the differences between the Miller adherents and the Rexroth followers are more than outweighed by their similarities. They both reject rationalism, espouse mysticism, and belong to the select few who are orgastically potent. And they both share in another attitude that sets them sharply apart from the bohemians of the twenties. They prefer their women subdued—verbally and intellectually.

    No budding Edna St. Vincent Millay or caustic Dorothy Parker appears at their parties. If the girls want to get along they learn, pretty generally, to keep their mouths shut, to play the role of the quiet and yielding vessel through which man finds the cosmos. Although there are a few women writers found now and then in Circle [a prominent literary magazine from the San Francisco scene] — Anais Nin is a favorite and Maude Phelps Hutchins (wife of Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago) has appeared—the accepted view of both the wome nand the men seems to be that woman steps out of her cosmic destiny when the goal of her endeavor shifts beyond bed and board. This doesn’t mean that the women are economically dependent, however. Most of the girls hold down jobs. But the job is significant only in that it contributes to a more satisfactory board.

    — Mildred Edie Brady (1947), The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy, Harper’s (April 1947).

    Well, nobody could say that revolooshunerry chauvinism is some kind of new problem in the scene; Manarchy abides.

  • I also finished off Jarret Wollstein’s Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization (1969), one of the first documents (to my knowledge) to advocate self-described, self-identified anarcho-capitalism. Wollstein was a dissident Objectivist (less dissident and more uniformly Objectivist-influenced than, say, Roy Childs). It’s been suggested that Wollstein was the first to coin the phrase anarcho-capitalism. I don’t know if that’s right or not, but in any case here’s some of his reasons for employing the term; in this one he mentions it as a term already floating around the circles he’s a part of.

    2.4 Naming A Free Society

    To name the social system of a free society is not as nominal a task as at first it may appear to be. It is not only the existence of complete social freedom which is absent from today’s world, but also the idea of such freedom. There is, in truth, probably no word in the English language which properly denotes and connotes the concept of the social system of a free society.

    A number of persons who have recognized the fallacies in the advocacy of not just this or that government, but who have also recognized the inherent contradiction in government itself (such as Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess) have decided that since archy means rule, or the presence of government — which they are against — they will designate their sociological position as anarchy — no rule, or the total absence of government. This decision is unfortunate, to say the least, since it embodies several epistemological fallacies. Firstly, the term anarchy is a negative one; to say that one is for anarchy is only to say that one is against government. It is not to say what are the positive social forms which one advocates. This may be perfectly fine if one, in fact, advocates no positive social forms. However, if one advocates freedom and its economic expression laissez-faire capitalism, the designation anarchy or anarchism, of itself, will hardly suffice. Secondly, anarchy merely means no rule not no coercion. It is perfectly possible to have an anarchist society with coercion initiated by random individuals and robber gangs. So long as these persons do not claim legal sanction or create formal and enduring institutions, one would have a very coercive anarchist society. Further, it is possible for there to be an anarchist society in which no force was initiated, although due to the personal irrationality and mysticism of its occupants, no rational person would want to live in it. For example, imagine a society occupied exclusively by non-violent schizophrenics, or equivalently, by Zen Buddhists. [sic. Really? —RG]

    Less important, but also significant, is the fact that the term anarchy, in present usage, has come to mean not only no rule but also has come to imply social chaos and senseless violence. This is a corruption of the original meaning of the term, but nevertheless it makes the word anarchy an impediment rather than an implement to communicating the concept of a free society. When one wishes to defend in principle and implement in reality a free society, it is irrational to deliberately choose a term which one knows will alienate, at the outset, persons with whom one eventually intends to deal.

    Another term has been suggested by Robert LeFevre, advocate of the free market and founder of Ramparts College [sic—RG] in California. Mr. LeFevre rejects the term anarchy primarily because of its past close association with collectivism and, recognizing the fallacy of limited government, proposes in its stead the word autarchy, meaning self-rule. Again this term suffers several epistemological faults. It fails to state how one should rule oneself, and in fact says nothing about the nature of social order.

    Next we have the term voluntarism, also advocated by many proponents of the term anarchism. This expression is superior to the term anarchy in that it does exclude coercion from its subsumed concept of social order. It is therefore acceptable for this communicative purpose. However, several necessary differentia in the valid concept of a free society are still lacking. Conceivably one could have a voluntary collectivist society (at least for a while), in which individuals voluntarily become slaves, as well as a voluntary individualist society, in which the individual is his [sic —RG] own master. Consequently, this term is not fully satisfactory.

    A phrase in increasingly popular use which I advocate as the best presently available specification of the socio-economic position of persons advocating a society of consistent rational freedom is anarcho-capitalism. Here the prefix anarcho indicates the lack of coercive government, and the word capitalism indicates the positive presence of free trade based upon respect for man’s [sic] rights. This term is not ideal: the prefix anarcho has negative semantic value, and the term capitalism is intimately associated with the present American statist mixed economy. However, it would seem to be the best term which we now have, and consequently we will use it (and in more limited contexts voluntarism) in the remainder of this essay.

    — Jarret B. Wollstein (1969), Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization. Society for Rational Individualism. 21-22.

    A bit further down there’s also some material on strategy. After rejecting retreatism, and purely theoretical education, Wollstein advocates counter-institutions. Sort of….

    4.1 Alternatives to Government Institutions

    How often have you presented a brilliantly stated, logically air-tight thesis to a collectivist only to have him [sic] say, That’s fine in theory, but in practice it wouldn’t work. THis of course is an absurdity, but it is next to impossible to convince most collectivists of this fact by purely forensic ability. Clearly, if we are to convince the great majority of American intellectuals, something more than logical theorizing is necessary.

    What I propose is the actual creation of alternatives to government institutions — initially schools, post offices, fire departments and charity; later, roads, police, courts and armed forces. Libertarians recognize that government services are hopelessly obsolete and inherently economically unsound. With the present system it is patently impossible to assess the costs of education and police investigations at all. Rather than trying to politically convince two hundred million Americans that this is so on the basis of rational economic theory, libertarians should instead demonstrate the fact by actually creating the far superior institutions of a free society. Fire departments, schools and post offices should immediately be set up by men and women who understand the free market and who are competent as businessmen [sic].

    One way to do this would be for rational businessmen [sic] to cooperate with libertarian students and theorists in order to establish such enterprises as franchise operations, using all of the skills of modern industry. Simultaneously, libertarians should act politically to free the market to facilitate these enterprises; meanwhile theoreticians should attempt to infiltrate the mass media, or start their own popular magazines and telecommunications facilities to emphasize to the American people that these institutions are working far better than their governmental equivalents; and then to explain why they are doing so. Such a dramatic demonstration of the efficacy of the free market might well accomplish what mere talk alone is unable to do: free America.

    How can the men and women of America fail to understand the value of freedom in all areas of human enterprise when private post offices, roads and police are actually providing far better services than government is capable of delivering?

    — Jarret B. Wollstein (1969), Society Without Coercion: A New Concept of Social Organization. Society for Rational Individualism. 40.

  • Finally, I got a start on Dear Tucker: The Letters from John Henry Mackay to Benjamin R. Tucker, which run from 1905 to 1933 (ed. and trans. by Hubert Kennedy, 2002). I haven’t gotten deep enough in for any interesting pull-quotes from the text. But I did come across these rad portraits of Clarence Lee Swartz (a frequent contributor to Liberty and author of What Is Mutualism?) and Steven T. Byington (another frequent Liberty correspondent, founder of Liberty’s Anarchist Letter Writing Corps, and the translator of Stirner). Both photos are from the Labadie Collection.

    Clarence Lee Swartz (1868-1936)

    Steven T. Byington (1869-1957)

Now online: Full text of two more issues of MOTHER EARTH — Vol. VI., No. 11 (January, 1912) and Vol. VII., No. 12 (February, 1913)

Three months ago, I happily announced that the complete text of the November 1914 issue of Mother Earth had been made available at the Fair Use Repository. To-day, I’m pleased to follow up that announcement — with the announcement that the Fair Use Repository now features the complete text of three issues of Mother Earth. The two issues recently made available are:

Mother Earth, Vol. VI., No. 11 (January, 1912)

This issue is mainly occupied with the arts and revolution. It leads off with Blaming the Fester, a poem by Rebekah E. Raney. The New Year is a fundraising appeal on the occasion of Christmastime and the New Year, while Observation and Comments includes short reports on current events — delays in the publication of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, the trial of the bosses who’d locked workers into the the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, strikes and conspiracy trials around the country, Big Bill Haywood’s feud with the Socialist Party of America, and more.

Paul Orleneff offers a celebratory review (unsigned, but probably written by Emma Goldman) of the actor’s performances in New York. A Review of the Year, by Harry Kelly, and the continuation of a serialized article by Voltairine de Cleyre on The Mexican Revolution, discuss revolutions and uprisings flaring up throughout the world in 1911. In The Right to Live M. B. argues that political rights are empty without workers’ material control over the means of their own survival (the organization of society in a manner to insure to each the material basis of life and make it as self-evident as breathing). Max Baginski reviews the Autobiography of Richard Wagner, taking it as evidence of the old commonplace that one can be a great artist and yet small as a man, and concluding that The suffocating dependence of artistic production upon wealth and patronage should cause the true artist–who is not content to produce mere market ware–to turn relentlessly rebel against the existing standards, to become a communist. … The dream that Wagner once dreamed in Art and Revolution will some day be realized by the people,–nor will they need the aid of philosopher or king. The issue concludes with a continuation of the serialized article Economy as Viewed by An Anarchist by C. L. James, on the historical emergence of the bourgeois system and its connections with past forms of economic hierarchy, as well as with the subjection of women.

Mother Earth, Vol. VII., No. 12 (February, 1913)

The February 1913 issue has a few things to say about the State and a lot to say about the union struggle, Syndicalism, and government repression of striking workers. The issue leads off with To Our Friends, an appeal for readers to help widen the circulation of the journal, followed by another monthly instalment of short reports in Observations and Comments — including remarks on the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the futility of appeals to the law, the advantages of direct action, new strike arbitration laws in New Zealand (among the first such labor laws in the world), the legal repression of Anarchists in the U.S., police scandals in Denver, and the incorporation of the Rockefeller fund.

James Montgomery’s The Black Hundreds of Plutocracy and Government discusses the use of private security forces, with tacit or explicit government approval, to inflict large-scale violence on striking workers. The New Idol, a translation of an excerpt from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, declares the State the coldest of all cold monsters. Theodor Johnson’s Help Save These Comrades! reports on the case of a group of striking Swedish dock workers, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for a bomb plot, and calls for international solidarity to get their sentences commuted. Making a Strike a Crime government’s assault on the rights to picket and speak freely, with the imprisonment of dozens of peaceful picketers and speakers in Little Falls, New York during a textile mill strike. Intolerance in the Union comments on growing regimentation and bureaucratic control within conservative trade unions and reprints a letter from a comrade discussing his objections to a corrupt bargain made by his union’s labor bosses, which resulted in his being persecuted by the labor bosses and expelled from the union. Syndicalism: Its Theory and Practice concludes a long article by Emma Goldman on state-free Syndicalist organizing, with a discussion of Syndicalism’s characteristic methods — Direct Action, Sabotage, and the General Strike. The issue concludes with Anarchist writer and teacher Bayard Boyesen’s review of Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, and with an announcement of dates for Emma Goldman’s lecture tour through the Midwest.

Onward

These issues complete a set of three reprinted issues of Mother Earth that I picked up from a table at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. I’d very much like to make available more of Mother Earth’s print run online. A number of partial and complete issues — mostly earlier issues — are currently available from The Anarchy Archives, and a fair amount is available for browsing in Google Books. But I’d like to liberate the latter from the Google Books’s inaccurate automatic markup, often capricious behavior, and hypertext-unfriendly environment. And in any case, there are a lot of gaps to fill in. If you have any suggestions on issues to prioritize, or good lines on copies to be transcribed, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact me with the details.

Read, cite, and enjoy!

Over My Shoulder #46: On Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand). From Richard Kostelanetz, Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian (2008)

Here’s the rules.

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

And here’s the quote. This is from a section of profiles in Richard Kostelanetz’s Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. This was home reading from earlier this week.

A radical from his professional beginnings to his premature end (on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52), Zappa won the respect of some, but not all, of his colleagues in both pop and highbrow composition. Indeed, his popular music had as many enemies as ans, but because of the loyalty of the latter he survived. Admirers of his extended serious compositions included the French music mogul Pierre Boulez. Zappa was once invited to give the keynote address to the American Society of University Composers; the 1995 meeting of the American Musicological Society included an extended paper on Zappa’s work. My own opinion (as someone who has written more about classical music than pop) is that the best of his music appeared before 1973, as many of his later concerts and records disintegrated into extended vamping jams in the tradition of pointless jazz.

Though Zappa was often a vulgar pop musician, he could be courageously critical of pop music vulgarity, at times functioning as an acerbic critic of the music business and eventually of world politics. It was not for nothing that his dissonant records were particularly treasured by Eastern European dissidents. Having influenced the man who became president of a new Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, he thought about running for the American presidency, and might have done so, had he not been hit with terminal cancer.

He was present in some form or another for a quarter-century, if not as a performer, then as a record producer, sometimes as a cultural commentator. In contrast to other pop stars, he did not lapse into silence or absence; he did not, for instance, let putatively savvy managers ration the release of long-awaited albums. Indeed, in a courageous twist, he took several bootleg recordings of his own music, improved them technically, and released them under his own label. Nobody else involved in rock music, very much a business for the short-lived, could produce so much and such richly continuous cultural resonance.

Printed on the cover to his first album, Freak Out (1966), is an extraordinary list of These People Have Contributed Materially in Many Ways to Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them. With 162 names, the list reflects Zappa’s precious intelligence, polyartistic literacy, intellectual integrity, and various ambitions. Among the names are the writers James Joyce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bram Stoker, and Theodore Sturgeon; the highbrow composers Arnold Schoenberg [by then dead only fifteen years], Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Leo Ornstein, Alois Haba, Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Roger Huntington Sessions, Vincent Persichetti, Mauricio Kagel; the music historian John Tasker Howard; the blues singers Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, and Willie Mae Thornton; the record producers Tom Wilson and Phil Spector; the jazz improvisers Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus; the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein [but not the Beatles], the off-shore disk-jockey Wolfman Jack, the perverse painters Salvador Dalí and Yves Tinguy; the pop singers Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Tiny Tim; the sexologist Eberhard Kronhausen; the earlier rock singers Elvis Presley and Johnny Otis; the Italian-American martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti; the comedian Lenny Bruce; he oversized actors Sonny Tufts and John Wayne, all of whom indicate not only that Zappa knew what he was doing professionally but that he also could credit the sources of his learning. Though Zappa could be an ironist, all of these acknowledgments were apparently serious (even Wayne and Tufts, whom I take to represent strong performers who could stand out from any group). While Zappa’s formal education ended at a local junior college, mine included college and then graduate school. Nonetheless, as a self-conscious intellectual born in the same year as Zappa (1940), I would have identified many of the same names on my short list at the time.

Even at a time when record albums (not to mention performing groups) began to have outrageous names, Zappa should still be credited with some of the most inventive coinages, beginning with the name of his group, but also including Freak Out, Absolutely Free, The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All, Joe’s Garbage Acts, Baby Snakes, Jazz from Hell, Freaks & Motherfu*%!!@#, ’Tis the Season To Be Jelly, Piquantique, Electric Aunt Jemima, Our Man in Nirvana, The Yellow Shark, etc. If inventive titling isn’t a measure of literary talent, I don’t know what is.

It seems curious in retrospect that a man who apparently had no loyal friends outside his family, who surrounded himself with paid retainers, who terminated most of his professional relationships with firings and law suits, hould still have an audience. Unlike most culture heroes who create the impression, however artificial, of someone you’d like beside you, Zappa was someone that most of us would sooner watch than know (or want to know). It is common to attribute his continuing success to his appeal to different audiences, some appreciative of his musical inventions, others of his taste for obscenity.

My sense is that his advanced pop has continuously attracted sophisticated teenagers who, even as they move beyond him, retain an affection for his work. Immediately after his death, the Columbia University radio station, WKCR, presented a marathon of his work, its regular disk-jockeys for jazz and avant-garde music speaking knowledgeably about his work. Many announcers at many other university radio stations elsewhere must have done likewise in December 1993. In this respect of influencing bright youth who grow up (e.g., the sort who become public radio disk-jockeys), he reminds me of the writer-philosopher Ayn Rand, whose commercial potential was likewise surprising. Just as her eccentric work has survived her death, so will Zappa’s.

What should not be forgotten is that Zappa lived dangerously, doing professionally what had not been done before and others would not do after him, at a time and in a country where such adventurousness was possible, even as he was continually warning that such possibility should never be taken for granted. For all the continuing admiration of his example, there has been no one like him since.

— Richard Kostelanetz (1997/2008), Frank Zappa (and Ayn Rand), Toward Secession: 156 More Political Essays From a Fairly Orthodox Anarchist-Libertarian. 300-302.

Over My Shoulder #44: on Roe v. Wade, governmental “victories,” and the ennervation of the Women’s Liberation Movement. From Sonia Johnson, Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution

Here’s the rules. Except, note that I have changed them significantly, and plan to keep this new version from here on out. Check it:

  1. At the top of the post, make a list of the books you’ve read all or part of, in print, over the course of the past week, at least as far as you can remember them. (These should be books that you’ve actually read as a part of your normal life, and not just something that you picked up to read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Pick one of those books from the list, and pick out a quote of one or more paragraphs, to post underneath the list.

  3. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, which should be more a matter of context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than they are a matter of discussing the material.

  4. Quoting a passage absolutely does not entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the books:

Here’s the quote. This is taken from Chapter 1, Who’s Afraid of the Supreme Court? from Sonia Johnson’s Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution.

Often when I say that laws are not worth warm spit in patriarchy, those women who are frightened by the revolutionary implications of that statement often counter with the argument that Roe v. Wade is incontrovertible evidence that women can go through men and their system to win freedom. I reply that, unfortunately, Roe v. Wade is incontrovertible evidence not of freedom but instead of one of the most blatant co-optations, or re-enslavements, of women by patriarchy in history. I go on to tell them how I think Roe v. Wade saved and continues to serve patriarchy.

I wasn’t a feminist at the beginning of the second wave of feminism in this country in the late 60s and early 70s, but I have talked with hundreds of women who were. From them and from the literature written then, I can almost feel the incredible excitement of the Movement in those days. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, very legitimate and healthful anger, women were fairly bursting with energy and enthusiasm. Euphoria and elation might best describe the general atmosphere. It was a very heady time. Every woman I have spoken to who was an active feminist then looks back at that time with nostalgia: Those were the halcyon days, the Golden Age.

There were many reasons for that feeling, but chief among them, it seems to me, was that liberation seemed not only possible, but imminent. In addition, many feminists had a basic understanding of women’s enslavement that has since been lost in a general way: that women are men’s colonized lands; that just as the English colonized — a racist euphemism for conquered — Nigeria and India, for instance, men have colonized women. The English declared themselves owners of these countries, and their people, made all the laws that governed them, and pocketed the profits themselves. Britannia ruled by plundering and raping the colonials and their lands.

The Indians, the Nigerians, the other colonized peoples of the world (and colonization takes firmest hold in the feelings and perceptions of a people) tried to make the usurpers’ system work for them. They struggled to get laws passed that would give them more leeway, and they managed in some instances to infiltrate low- and even middle-level government echelons and to attain a few managerial and supervisory jobs in the industrial/corporate world. A token handful got into the educational institutions reserved for the masters. Some of them regarded these inroads as progress.

But enough of them eventually realized that it did not matter what else they seemed to achieve, if they did not have home rule, they could never be free. They came to the understanding that freedom was simply not possible for them—ever—in the colonial system. Freedom means owning themselves, owning their own lands, using their resources for their own enrichment, making their own laws. The revolution began with their feelings and perceptions of themselves as people who not only should but could govern themselves.

Women were the first owned, the first ruled people in every race and class and nation, the first slaves, the first colonized people, the first occupied countries. Many thousands of years ago men took our bodies as their lands as they felt befitted their naturally superior, god-like selves and our lowly, animalistic natures. Since this takeover, they have made all the laws that governed our lands, and have harvested us—our labor, our children, our sexuality, our emotional, spiritual, and cultural richness, our resources of intelligence, passion, devotion—for their own purposes and aggrandizement. These have been men’s most profitable cash crops.

. . . The burgeoning women’s health movement of the early 70s was evidence of women’s awareness of our physical colonization and of our realization that no matter what else we did, no matter how many laws we got men to pass, no matter how many low-echelon government and corporate positions we won, like the Nigerians and the Indians and all other colonized peoples, unless we had home rule, everything else we did to try to free ourselves was meaningless.

So we were saying howdy to our cervixes for the first time in our lives, our own and our friends’. We may have been the 17th person to see them and the first 16 may have been men, but finally we were meeting them face to face. In doing so, we realized that it didn’t take a man’s eye to see a woman’s cervix, it didn’t take an American-Medical-Association, male-trained mind to diagnose the health of our reproductive organs or to treat them. We were shocked to remember how natural it had seemed to go to male gynecologists, and realized that, in fact, men’s being gynecologists was perverted, gross, and sick and that our accepting them as experts on our bodies—when they had never had so much as one period in their lives, never experienced one moment of pre-menstrual psychic clarity, never had one birth pain, never suckled one child — was evidence of our ferocious internalized colonization. It began to appear as obscene to us as it truly is.

As obvious as this may seem now, it hadn’t been obvious for a very long time.

So in learning to examine our own sexual organs, to diagnose and treat our own cervical and vaginal ailments, to do simple abortions, to deliver babies, and in beginning to think seriously about developing our own safe, effective, natural contraceptives and getting the word out, women were moving out of colonization, out of slavery. We were taking back and learning to govern our own countries.

In those days, the movement was called The Women’s Liberation Movement, and that, in fact, was what it was. Women were breaking the contract that exists between all oppressed people and their oppressors, in our case our agreement to allow men to own us and to exploit us as their resources. Though we agreed to it under the severest duress imaginable, in order, we thought, to survive, we nevertheless agreed.

Those who do not understand how the thirst for home rule among women at the beginning of the second wave of our Movement in this century rocked the foundations of patriarchy worldwide simply do not understand the necessity of women’s slavery to every level of men’s global system. Perhaps even many of the women at that time did not fully understand the revolutionary nature of what they were about. But in establishing a new order in which women owned our own bodies and were not men’s property, they were destroying the very foundation of patriarchy. Since any power-over paradigm is totally dependent upon those on the bottom agreeing to stay there, men’s world organization was in grave peril. If women would not be slaves, men could not be masters.

The men who control the world are not intelligent, as is evident to even the most casual observer, but they are crafty, particularly about maintaining privilege through control. Over their thousands of years of tyranny, they have acquired a near-perfect understanding of the psychology of the oppressed—if not consciously, then viscerally. They knew precisely what to do when women began refusing to honor the old contract, and I am absolutely convinced that their move was conscious, plotted, and deliberate.

They sent an emissary after the women as they were moving out of the old mind into a free world. Hurrying after us, he shouted, Hey, girls! Wait up a minute! Listen! You don’t need to go to all this trouble. We already know how to do all the things you’re having to learn. We know your bodies and what is good for you better than you do. Trying to learn what we already know will take too much of your time and energy away from all your other important issues.

Then he used men’s most successful lie, the hook we had always taken in the past because men are our children, and we need to believe they value us, that we can trust them. You know we love you and want your movement to succeed, he crooned. So do you know what we’re prepared to do for you? If you’ll come back, we’ll let you have legalized abortion!

How could we refuse such a generous, loving offer? We had listened to men’s voices and trusted them for so long—in the face of massive evidence that they had never been trustworthy, had had so little practice in hearing and trusting our own, that we lost our tenuous bearings in the new world and turned around and walked right back into our jail cell. We allowed them to reduce liberation to an issue. We forgot that anybody that can let you, owns you.

So the men let us have legalized abortion. Some women protest that women won the right to it, forgetting that the legal system is set up to keep patriarchy intact, which means to keep women enslaved, and that men own the law. They will never use it to free us. As Audre Lorde states clearly, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. [Audre Lorde, essay by that name in Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press: Freedom, CA 1984, p. 110.]

You know how pityingly we have looked at the benighted woman who says, I don’t need the Women’s Movement. My husband lets me do anything I want. But our pity has been hypocritical: Roe v. Wade, the glory of the movement, is exactly the same sad phenomenon — our husband the state letting us, and our feeling grateful for it. But, of course, like a husband the men let us not because it is good for us but because it is necessary for them. It keeps us colonized, our bodies state property and our destinies in their hands, and it rivets our attention on them.

So the men let us have legalized abortion, and almost instantly the energy drained from the movement, like air from a punctured balloon. Instead of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we became simply the Women’s Movement, because liberation is antithetical to letting men, depending upon men to, make the laws that govern our lands. For the last 15 years we have been nailed to the system by Roe v. Wade, our mighty energy and hope and love channeled into begging men in dozens of state and national bodies not to pare away cent by cent the truly miserable allowance they promised us for abortions for poor women.

If we hadn’t trusted them again, if we had kept on going in the direction we were headed, with the same time and money and energy we have since expended on groveling, we could by this time have had a woman on every block in every city and town who is an expert on contraceptives, women’s health, birthing, and abortion. We could have educated the women of this country in countless creative ways about their bodies and their right to rule them. We would have learned how to govern ourselves, discovering a whole new way for women—and therefore everyone—to be human.

And, significantly, a Bork could have been appointed to every seat of the Supreme Court, men could have been spewing laws aimed at controlling our bodies out of every legal orifice, and all their flailing and sputtering would simply be irrelevant. Having removed ourselves from their jurisdiction, we would have settled the question of abortion and birth control, of women’s individual freedom, blessedly and for ages to come. When the Nigerians and Indians got ready to rule themselves, the English had no choice but to go home. Tyranny is a contract. Both parties have to stick to it.

But in the early 70s women hadn’t had time to complete the necessary internal revolution in how we thought and felt about ourselves that was necessary for us to be free. Evidence of this is that we took as models for our movement the movements that had preceded ours, all of which were reformist because they involved men. Since our own internal, authentic women’s voices were still very weak and difficult to hear and when heard still without sufficient authority, we didn’t take seriously enough the fact that women and men are in wildly different relationships to the system. We didn’t realize that since the entire global system of laws and governments is set up with the primary purpose of keeping women of every color and class enslaved by men of their own color and class, and often by other men as well, talking about civil rights for women was oxymoronic. We had still to learn how colossally brainwashed we are by patriarchy to do in the name of freedom precisely those things that will further enslave us.

Roe v. Wade was very smart politics for the men; now, regardless of what party is in power or who is on the Supreme Court, the groundwork has been laid. The hopes of thousands of dedicated feminists are bound firmly once more to the husband-state. And we are all a dozen years further away from trusting women and finding a lasting non-male-approval-based solution to the problem of our physical and emotional colonization.

It is time for us to remember that no one can free us but ourselves. Time not to try to get the men to do it for us — which reinforces their illusion of godhood and ours of wormhood and perpetuates the deadly power-over model of reality—but to do it ourselves. Time for thousands of us to learn to perform abortions and to do all that needs to be done for one another in so many neighborhoods throughout the country that our liberation cannot be stopped. Time to manage our own bodies, heal our own bodies, own our own bodies. It is time for home rule.

This is how I want women to spend our prodigious intelligence and energy.

Obviously, Roe v. Wade doesn’t stand alone; it simply models patriarchy’s subversive tactics most clearly. Almost all segments of our Movement have suffered such co-optation. Many women who have been active in the shelter movement for years, for instance, have pointed out to me the similarities in strategy and effect between Roe v. Wade and government funding for shelters.

To obtain funding for shelters in the first place, women must tone down their feminism and conform to male officials’ standards and expectations. To keep the money, the women who work in the shelters as well as those who come there for help are required to do masses of paper work, the purpose of which seems to be to keep women from helping and receiving help. In some areas, when women are in crisis and call a shelter, before their feelings and needs can even be addressed they must be asked a dozen questions and informed at length about the conditions under which the shelter will accept them (they can have no weapons, for instance). Many women simply hang up in total frustration and anger. In other instances, funders won’t allow discussions of racism or homophobia or of battering among Lesbians. They also often control who is hired. Funders regularly split women’s organizations apart by clouding the issues of who is going to define the group, what their work is, what their analysis is, and even what the issue is.

In addition, nearly every funder’s prerequisites are designed to keep women powerless, thinking and behaving as victims. One state, for example, requires shelters to use only professional counselors, specifically prohibiting peer counseling. Peer counseling, I am told by women with much experience, is the only counseling that has yet been seen to have any significant effect upon battered women.

Because of the scope and depth of the subversion of our purposes by funders, local and national, many shelter workers agree with Suzanne Pharr who concluded her brave speech at the 1987 National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference in Los Angeles with these words: From my experience, my strongest urge is to say, DO ANYTHING—BEG, BORROW, STEAL—BUT DON’T TAKE GOVERNMENT FUNDING!

— Sonia Johnson (1989). Wildfire: Igniting the She/Volution. Albuquerque: Wildfire Books. 19–31.

See also:

Truth in Fiction, by David Lewis

This is from David Lewis’s Philosophical Papers, Volume I (1983):

C. Fiction in the Service of Truth

There are some who value fiction mostly as a means for the discovery of truth, or for the communication of truth. Truth in Fiction had nothing to say about fiction as a means to truth. But the topics can indeed be connected.

Most simply, there may be an understanding between the author and his readers to the effect that what is true in his fiction, on general questions if not on particulars, is not to depart from what he takes to be the truth. (Indeed, such an understanding might extend to particular matters as well. Imagine a scandalous political exposé, by an insider, with characters called Nicksen, Hague, Wagoner, Bondsman, ….) Then the audience, if they know that the author is well informed, could learn the truth by figuring out what is true in his fictions. Further, the author might discover some truth in the course of trying to keep his side of the bargain.–Doubtless this is not quite what people have in mind when they speak of the cognitive value of literature! Let us find something a bit loftier for them to mean.

Fiction might serve as a means for discovery of modal truth. I find it very hard to tell whether there could possibly be such a thing as a dignified beggar. If there could be, a story could prove it. The author of a story in which it is true that there is a dignified beggar would both discover and demonstrate that there does exist such a possibility. An actor or a painter might accomplish the same. Here the fiction serves the same purpose as an example in philosophy, though it will not work unless the story of the dignified beggar is more fully worked out than our usual examples. Conversely, note that the philosophical example is just a concise bit of fiction.

More importantly, fiction can offer us contingent truths about this world. It cannot take the place of nonfictional evidence, to be sure. But sometimes evidence is not lacking. We who have lived in the world for a while have plenty of evidence, but we may not have learned as much from it as we could have done. This evidence bears on a certain proposition. If only that proposition is formulated, straightaway it will be apparent that we have very good evidence for it. If not, we will continue not to know it. Here, fiction can help us. If we are given a fiction such that the proposition is obviously true in it, we are led to ask: and is it also true simpliciter? And sometimes, when we have plenty of unappreciated evidence, to ask the question is to know the answer. Then the author of the fiction has made a discovery, and he gives his readers the means to make that same discovery for themselves.

Sometimes the proposition learned may be one that we could formulate, once we have it in mind, without reference to the fiction that drew our attention to it. Not so in general. Sometimes reference to a fiction is the only way we have, in practice if not in principle, to formulate the truths that the fiction has called to our attention. A schlemiel is someone such that what is true of him strikingly resembles what is true in a certain fiction of a certain character therein, Schlemiel by name. Temporarily or permanently, first for those who know the story and then for others (like myself) who don’t, the word schlemiel is indispensible in stating various truths.

So fiction can indeed serve truth. But we must beware, for also it can spread error. (1) Whatever understandings to the contrary might prevail, what is true in an author’s fiction might not be true, either because the author is mistaken or because he wishes to deceive those who rely on the supposed understanding. (2) Under the method of union, several things might be true together in a fiction, but not really compossible. Then the fiction might persuade us of a modal falsehood, leading us to believe in a possibility that doesn’t really exist. (3) If we have plenty of misleading evidence stored up, there may well be falsehoods that need only be stated to be believed.

–David Lewis, Truth in Fiction (1978), in Philosophical Papers, Volume I (1983), pp. 278–279.

Fabians, Progressives, and Eugenics

This is from the fifth chapter, Eugenic Solutions, in Diane Paul’s summary history, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present.

Eugenics did enjoy support from some socialists, most notably members of the Fabian Society, who rejected laissez-faire in favor of a planned economy and establishment of a National Minimum–a guaranteed level of health, education, wages, and employment. Founded in 1900, the society was committed to reform from above rather than revolution from below. While the Fabians condemned capitalism, their ideal was a scientifically planned society that would empower experts rather than workers. The Fabians envisioned a nation managed by people much like themselves: middle-class, professionals, such as doctors, scientists, teachers, and social workers. The society also attracted a number of important literary figures, including George Bernard Shaw, who believed that there is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilisation, and H. G. Wells, who argued for the sterilization of failures on the grounds that the way of Nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born (Wells 1905, 60; Shaw 1905, 74). Plays like Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) and novels like Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) probably did more than any academic studies to popularize the concept of selective breeding.

Fabian socialism and eugenics shared the conviction that laissez-faire was a bankrupt philosophy that should be replaced by planning based on social needs. The geneticist Lancelot Hogben noted: Negative eugenics is simply the adoption of a national minimum of parenthood, and extension of the principle of national minima familiarized in the writings of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It is thus essentially en rapport with the social theory of the collectivist movement (1931, 210). Sidney Webb himself enthusiastically endorsed the claim: No consistent eugenist can be a Laisser Faire individualist unless he throws up the game in despair. He must interfere, interfere, interfere! (1910–11, 237).

Fabians were often nationalist and imperialist, though few went as far as Wells, who bluntly asserted that there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it (quoted in Trombley 1988, 32; see also Coren 1993, 65–67). But they vacillated in their attitudes toward the poor, viewing them sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with contempt. The tension between two images of the poor–as exploited and as unfit–was reflected in the Fabian political program, which promoted eugenics simultaneously with measures for improved health, education, and welfare (Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, 37).

Fabians tried to resolve this tension by strongly distinguishing the prudent working class from its residuum. They were as alarmed as conservatives at the purported fecundity of the lower classes. Thus the Fabian theorist Harold Laski (who worked briefly in Karl Pearson’s laboratory) warned that the unfit were outbreeding the fit and that society must learn to regard the production of a weakling as a crime against itself if it were not to commit race suicide (1910, 25–34; see also Kramnick and Sheerman, 1993, 30–48). Many others agreed. Laski’s alarmist view was echoed by Eden Paul: Unless the socialist is a eugenicist as well, the socialist state will speedily perish from racial degradation (1917, 139), while Wells asserted that we cannot go on giving you health, freedom, enlargement, limitless wealth, if all our gifts to you are to be swamped by an indiscriminate torrent of progeny (1922, xvi).

However, there was often a large disparity between the Fabians’ extreme rhetoric and their milder policy proposals, which rarely extended beyond segregation. Very few (other than Wells) supported coercive sterilization. Thus Havelock Ellis invoked terrifying images: When we are able to control the stream at its source we are able to some extent to prevent the contamination of that stream by filth, and ensure that its muddy floods shall not sweep away the results of our laborious work on the banks. But he repeatedly rejected coercive sterilization (Ellis 1914, 15–16, 30). In Ellis’s view, eugenics would be effective only if developed from a broader sense of social responsibility. Harold Laski had argued that any action with national consequences may be regulated by the state and urged that the unfit be prevented from breeding. But when it came to public policy, he asked only that the state influence the climate of public opinion. In the end, Laski would counter the threat of race suicide with education. In Britain, that was the best eugenicists could do.

Their inability to pass laws may lead us to dismiss the British eugenicists’ importance. But legislation is not the only–or perhaps even the best–measure of success. The eugenicists were extremely effective in popularizing a new Galtonian vocabulary. Whole sections of British society now took for granted that talent and character were inborn and fixed. Edgar Schuster and Ethel Elderton of the Galton Laboratory remarked, At the time of the first publication of Mr. Galton’s Hereditary Genius, in 1869, the belief in the hereditary nature of inborn natural ability was held by very few; but so great has been the influence of that and other works that at the present time it would be almost impossible to find an educated person to dispute it (1907, 1). This assumption had consequences far beyond programs of eugenical selection. It shaped policy in respect to medicine, law, and education.

In the United States, eugenicists did enjoy some legislative triumphs, although even here the greatest impact was probably ideological. As many scholars have noted, eugenics was congruent with the scientific and reformist spirit of the Progressive Era, a period of vast economic and social change between the collapse of Reconstruction and the start of the First World War (Allen 1989; Freeden 1979; Pickens 1968). When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States was an agricultural country, which imported most of its technology. By the end of the century, its industrial output had tripled, with steel production exceeding the combined output of Britain and Germany (Painter 1987, xvii). The United States was now a major exporter of industrial equipment and consumer goods. Business and industry became highly consolidated, as small-scale competition gave way to a new system of corporate capitalism in which most sectors of the economy were dominated by a few giant firms. At the same time, the population became increasingly urban. In 1880, about a quarter of Americans lived in cities; by 1900, the figure was 40 percent. These cities now filled with immigrants from Europe and poor migrants from the rural South while middle-class residents moved to new streetcar suburbs.

The wealth so visibly created was very unequally distributed. At the turn of the century, the average workweek was about 60 hours, and the conditions in mines, mills, and factories were wretched; industrial discipline was harsh, and the work was exhausting and often dangerous. Widespread unemployment accompanied frequent and sometimes prolonged depressions. Signs of social disorder were everywhere: in strikes and walkouts that often ended in violence, in highly visible urban slums, in municipal corruption, in rising rates of crime, prostitution, alcoholism, and infectious diseases, in overcrowded prisons, and in asylums for the insane and feebleminded. The middle class demanded reforms that would both relieve distress and restore a stable social order. They called for factory inspection, child labor laws, a shortened workday, community clinics, probation and parole, a federal income tax, workmen’s compensation, the direct election of U.S. senators, prohibition. And eugenics.

The Progressive reforms involved a vast expansion in governmental authority. Whether Democrat or Republican, the Progressives shared a faith in the virtues of planning and the benevolence of the state. Their bywords were organization, cooperation, systematic planning, efficiency, and social control. Julia Lathrop, Hull House resident and later chief of the Children’s Bureau, summarized their credo: The success of our future civilization lies in government adding to their responsibility and taking on work which people have not hitherto been willing to entrust to them (quoted in Rothman 1980, 6). That work would be the province of disinterested experts.

To the Progressives, science provided a model of impartial expertise. Moreover, science, being disinterested, could provide unity to a society that seemed to be culturally disintegrating. Above all, science could supply the tools to manage humans and their environment efficiently (Tobey 1971, 12–19). Science could also address the root causes of social problems and not just their symptoms, like the state, it was assumed to be wholly benevolent. The Progressive attitude was expressed by Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin:

We know enough about agriculture so that the agricultural production of the country could be doubled if the knowledge were applied. We know enough about disease so that if the knowledge were utilized, infectious and contagious diseases would be substantially destroyed in the United States within a score of years; we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation. (quoted in Haller 1985, 76)

Van Hise was also active in the conservation movement, as were a number of prominent eugenicists such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Madison Grant, and Charles Goethe. Both movements emphasized the need for planning and the welfare of future generations. Progressives, like Fabians (whom they resembled in many respects), vacillated between sympathy and contempt for the poor, supporting measures both to ameliorate their plight and to prevent them from breeding. Like the Fabians also, they tried to resolve the tension by distinguishing workers from what in America were called the defective or dangerous classes (those in Britain called the social residuum).

–Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (1995), pp. 75–78.

Over My Shoulder #29: James Baldwin on race in Europe and America, whiteness, and African-American identity, from Stranger in the Village

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from Stranger in the Village, the closing essay in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955). Baldwin has been discussing the time that he spent writing in a tiny Swiss town, which he was the first Black person ever to visit, and thence the difference in the race question in Europe and America.

When one considers the history of the Negro in America it is of the greatest importance to recognize that the moral beliefs of a person, or a people, are never really as tenuous as life—which is not moral—very often causes them to appear; these create for them a frame of reference and a necessary hope, the hope being that when life has done its worst they will be enabled to rise above themselves and triumph over life. Life would scarcely be bearable if this hope did not exist. Again, even when the worst has been said, to betray a belief is not by any means to have put oneself beyond its power; the betrayal of a belief is not the same thing as ceasing to believe. If this were not so there would be no moral standards in the world at all. Yet one must also recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous—dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say. And dangerous in this respect: that confronted with the impossibility of remaining faithful to one’s beliefs, and the equal impossibility of becoming free of them, one can be driven to the most inhuman excesses. The ideas on which American beliefs are based are not, though Americans often seem to think so, ideas which originated in America. They came out of Europe. And the establishment of democracy on the American continent was scarcely as radical a break with the past as was the necessity, which Americans faced, of broadening this concept to include black men.

This was, literally, a hard necessity. It was impossible, for one thing, for Americans to abandon their beliefs, not only because these beliefs alone seemed able to justify the sacrifices they had endured and the blood they had spilled, but also because these beliefs afforded them their only bulwark against a moral chaos as absolute as the physical chaos of the continent in which Americans found themselves, these beliefs threatened an idea which, whether or not one likes to think so, is the very warp and woof of the heritage of the West, the idea of white supremacy.

Americans have made themselves notorious by the shrillness and the brutality with which they have insisted on this idea, but they did not invent it; and it has escaped the world’s notice that those very excesses of which Americans have been guilty imply a certain, unprecedented uneasiness over the idea’s life and power, if not, indeed, the idea’s validity. The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the only one that matters; all previous civilizations are simply contributions to our own) and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one o themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelmingly undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.

At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans—lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession—either to come to terms with this necessity, or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once. The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men.

In this long battle, a battle by no means finished, the unforseeable effects of which will be felt by many future generations, the white man’s motive was the protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity. And despite the terrorization which the Negro in America endured and endures sporadically until today, despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of his status in his country, the battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him—the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the fact that the challenge he represented was inescapable. He is perhaps the only black man in the world whose relationship to white men is more terrible, more subtle, and more meaningful than the relationship of bitter possessed to uncertain possessor. His survival depended, and his development depends, on his ability to turn his peculiar status in the Western world to his own advantage and, it may be, to the very great advantage of that world. It remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance, and a voice.

The cathedral at Chartres, I have said, says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that, this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.

Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world-which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white-owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us-very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will—that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

—James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village (1953), in Notes of a Native Son (1955), pp. 171-175

Over My Shoulder #27: on Southern chivalry, from James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This one is unusual for my Over My Shoulder quotes, in that it comes from a novel, whereas all my previous quotations came from works of nonfiction. Specifically, this is from The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson. It seemed particularly appropriate in light of the recent battle over how best to write the introductory paragraph for WikiPedia: Robert E. Lee.

It was over before I realized that time had elapsed. Before I could make myself believe that what I saw was really happening, I was looking at a scorched post, a smoldering fire, blackened bones, charred fragments sifting down through coils of chain; and the smell of burnt flesh—human flesh—was in my nostrils.

I walked a short distance away and sat down in order to clear my dazed mind. A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive. My heart turned bitter within me. I could understand why Negroes are led to sympathize with even their worst criminals and to protect them when possible. By all the impulses of normal human nature they can and should do nothing less.

Whenever I hear protests from the South that it should be left alone to deal with the Negro question, my thoughts go back to that scene of brutality and savagery. I do not see how a people that can find in its conscience any excuse whatever for slowly burning to death a human being, or for tolerating such an act, can be entrusted with the salvation of a race. Of course, there are in the South men of liberal thought who do not approve lynching, but I wonder how long they will endure the limits which are placed upon free speech. They still cower and tremble before Southern opinion. Even so late as the recent Atlanta riot those men who were brave enough to speak a word in behalf of justice and humanity felt called upon, by way of apology, to preface what they said with a glowing rhetorical tribute to the Anglo-Saxon’s superiority and to refer to the great and impassable gulf between the races fixed by the Creator at the foundation of the world. The question of the relative qualities of the two races is still an open one. The reference to the great gulf loses force in the face of the fact that there are in this country perhaps three or four million people with the blood of both races in their veins; but I fail to see the pertinency of either statement subsequent to the beating and murdering of scores of innocent people in the streets of a civilized and Christian city.

The Southern whites are in many respects a great people. Looked at from a certain point of view, they are picturesque. If one will put oneself in a romantic frame of mind, one can admire their notions of chivalry and bravery and justice. In this same frame of mind an intelligent man can go to the theatre and applaud the impossible hero, who with his single sword slays everybody in the play except the equally impossible heroine. So can an ordinary peace-loving man sit by a comfortable fire and read with enjoyment of the bloody deeds of pirates and the fierce brutality of Vikings. This is the way in which we gratify the old, underlying animal instincts and passions; but we should shudder with horror at the mere idea of such practices being realities in this day of enlightened and humanitarianized thought. The Southern whites are not yet living quite in the present age; many of their general ideas hark back to a former century, some of them to the Dark Ages. In the light of other days they are sometimes magnificent. Today they are often cruel and ludicrous.

—James Weldon Johnson (1912), The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, ISBN 0-14-018402-3, pp. 136–138.

What’s in a name? or: Over My Shoulder #23: from Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995)

This doubles as this week’s Over My Shoulder. Sort of, because I’m tossing out one of the rules for this week. Normally, here’s how it goes:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

This week, I’m ignoring rule 2, because I happen to be working on a paper and it’ll be useful to sketch some notes down for it while I’m here. In any case, here’s the quote. This is from Chapter 10, A Libertarian Politics, in Chris Sciabarra’s 1995 study, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I read this in the student center at Wayne State in Detroit, right after (of all things) touring a great little exhibit on the centenniel of the Industrial Workers of the World, hosted at the Reuther Labor Library. Here, Sciabarra is discussing Ayn Rand’s defense of the free market, and her deliberate use of the name capitalism to describe what she was defending:

Rand’s defense of capitalism is similar in form to her defense of selfishness. In fact, Rand titled her collection of essays in social theory, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, for much the same reasons that she titled her collection of essays on morality, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Both capitalism and selfishness have had such a negative conceptual history that Rand needed to reclaim these concepts and to recast them in a new and nondualistic framework. Branden remarks that he had told Rand of his preference for the word libertarianism as an alternative to capitalism, since the latter term had been coined by anticapitalists. For Branden, libertarianism signified a broader, philosophical characterization and addressed the issues of social, political and economic freedom (Branden 1978, 60). But Rand refused to renounce the concept of capitalism, just as she rejected any attempt to couch her ethos of rational selfishness in more neutral terms.

In addition to such nominal problems, Rand was faced with the fact that her defense of capitalism differed considerably from other theoretical justifications. Rand’s approach is not Weberian; she did not view capitalism as an expression of the Protestant work ethic. Nor did she view capitalism as compatible with Roman Catholicism, or any other form of religion. Though she accepted the empirical and theoretical arguments of Austrian-school economists who see the market as the most efficient and productive mechanism in history, she refused to defend capitalism on purely utilitarian grounds. And while Rand celebrates the record of economic growth under Western capitalism, she believes that the historical reality diverged radically from a pure, unadulterated laissez-faire system. While the nineteenth-century United States best approximated this system, its progress was severely undermined by massive government intervention in the areas of finance and banking, and in the bolstering of monopolies through land grants and industrial privileges. Marx himself had viewed this nineteenth-century system as only an approximation of full capitalism, since it was adulterated and amalgamated with survivals of former economic conditions (Capital 3:175). For Rand, as for most Marxists, this mixed system reached its twentieth-century climax in the neofascist and corporativist policies of the U.S. welfare-warfare state.

Rand argued that the underlying reason for this failure to achieve systemic purity was moral and cultural. Capitalism as a social system was an implicit by-product of an Aristotelian philosophical base, one that celebrated the rational, the secular, and the egoistic. And yet capitalism was historically distorted because the cultures within which it evolved had not fully emerged from the influence of mysticism, altruism, and collectivism. Rand saw capitalism and altruism as philosophical opposites that could not co-exist in the same man or in the same society. The modern age was fractured by an inner contradiction because it tried to combine the concept of eudaemonic man with the notion that human beings were sacrificial animals. It was for this reason that Rand was extremely apprehensive about the introduction of capitalist markets into primitive cultures. She argued that capitalism required a predominantly rational and secular orientation, and that industrialization could not be grafted onto superstitious irrationality without massive distortion in the evolving structure of production. Though the United States achieved the greatest progress because it was the most secular Western country, it too had preserved significant elements of altruism and collectivism in its cultural base. And it was paying the price.

Curiously, Rand spoke in terms of a cultural and philosophical base. This view differs considerably from the Marxist formulation, which sees culture and philosophy as components of a social superstructure, a by-product of a material base. These opposed characterizations have disparate consequences for both the theory of history and the nature of social revolution; however, what must be explored at this stage is Rand’s understanding of capitalism as an unknown ideal. In Rand’s view, the nature of capitalism is so inherently radical that its historical, philosophical, and cultural implications have yet to be fully comprehended. Rand unabashedly proclaims that Objectivists are radicals for capitalism … fighting for that philosophical base which capitalism did not have and without which it was doomed to perish. Once again, Rand’s project is geared toward articulation. She aimed to articulate those premises which underlie the daily practices and institutions of a historically emergent but not yet fully realized social system.

Following her literary methods, Rand seems to have extracted and emphasized those principles which, she believed, distinguish capitalist society from all previous social formations. She began with the real concrete circumstances of the historically mixed system, breaking down its complexity into mental units. She constituted her vision of capitalism on the basis of such abstraction, having isolated and identified those precepts which are essential to its systemic nature. In this way, she eliminated the accidental and the contingent in order to focus instead on the philosophical ideals of the capitalist revolution. Such a revolution was incomplete because its principles had never been fully articulated and implemented. Rand viewed her own project as the first successful attempt to articulate the moral nature of the capitalist system, ideally understood, thus making possible its historical fulfillment.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995), pp. 283–285.

A lot of left-libertarians have rightly stressed that terms such as capitalism and socialism, as they are commonly used, are systematically ambiguous; often they are used to name two different systems that are mutually exclusive of each other ([state socialism and anarchistic socialism][], on the one hand, or the free market and political patronage for big business, on the other). Roderick Long recently made a persuasive argument that both capitalism and socialism, as the terms are commonly used, are best regarded as anti-concepts, and more specifically as package deals of concepts that do not actually go together, which have been used by statists on both the Left and the Right to systematically blur the distinction between neo-mercantilism and the free market. Left statists say they oppose the chimera, and right-statists say they support it, but what libertarians need to recognize, first and foremost, is that the system they are allegedly fighting over is chimerical, and that the words they are using embody false presuppositions about the meaning and the nature of free markets.

I think that’s quite right, and that it’s very important. Nevertheless, we mustn’t be misled into thinking that just because socialism and capitalism as commonly used are anti-conceptual package-deals, that we ought to abstain from both terms on an equal footing, or to take a pox on both your houses attitude towards the institutions, symbols, traditions, and other socio-cultural trappings associated with either identification. In some dialectical contexts the best thing to do with an anti-concept is just to expose it as nothing more than so much Newspeak, to abandon using it, and to exhort others to follow your example. But sometimes the thing to do is just to urge your conversation partners to use language more precisely, and to teach them by example, by choosing one of the senses of capitalism or socialism to use clearly and consistently. And I think that Ayn Rand’s deliberately provocative use of capitalism is instructive here on the principle, even though I think she’s wrong on the application, and that the reasons for the misapplication have to do with deeper problems in her own economic thought. Those problems don’t have to do with defending a free market in the means of production and distribution — I’m all for that, but given the historical example of self-described socialist free marketeers such as Benjamin Tucker, that doesn’t settle the issue between describing yourself as a socialist, describing yourself as a capitalist, or describing yourself as something else again.

Rand deliberately worked to reclaim the word capitalism for the unknown ideal of the completely free market, rather than the known reality of the predatory, neomercantilist mixed economy, in which all actually existing free markets are embedded, confined, limited, and distorted. Sciabarra explains her decision in terms of an intellectual process of isolating the essential features that distinguished societies called capitalist from earlier and later forms of social organization. It’s an apt description as far as it goes, but the connection between the intellectual process and Rand’s aesthetic and affectional imagination needs to be fleshed out in order to fully explain her decision. Rand knew perfectly well that the historical data underdetermined the question of whether predation or voluntary cooperation was essential to the capitalistic form of society: the rise of the societies we call capitalist involved the liberation of many people and of the markets in many commodities; it also involved the escalation of many forms of predatory state patronage and the invention of new ones (it meant, for example, considerably more freedom in agriculture or textiles; it also meant considerably more government intervention in banking, land use, and transportation infrastructure). You could describe the picture by identifying the growth in freedom as the capitalist stuff, with the new levels of predation as anti-capitalist deviations from capitalism marring its productive development. But you could just as easily describe it by identifying the growth in predation as the capitalist stuff, with the growth in freedom as a countervailing, non-capitalist or anti-capitalist development, which the capitalist stuff had an antagonistic, or often parasitic, relationship to. So which description should you choose? I think the best explanation why Rand chose the first picture instead of the second one has to do with what she would have identified with her sense of life — the degree to which her aesthetic and affectional imagination were engaged on behalf of actually existing capitalists, as she understood them, in the known reality of the mixed economy: that is, her view of the grand bourgeoisie — big industrialists, business-owners, money-men, the top tier of entrepreneurial inventors, and ultimately the wealthy broadly — as the heroic prime movers in business, and thus as the world’s motor, driving the production of the material means of survival and human flourishing. (See, for example, Atlas Shrugged or America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.) Though she’d no doubt fume at the description, one way of putting it is that she made her choices about what language to reclaim and what language to abandon on the basis of class solidarity. I have no quarrel with Rand’s procedure; but rather only with the particular class she chooses to stand in solidarity with. If Rand is right that the capitalist is the chief victim of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is well-drawn, it makes perfect sense for her to reclaim the word capitalism for the free market as against political patronage. If, on the other hand, the bosses are the chief beneficiaries of the predatory state, and if the picture she draws of the archetypical capitalist is ill-drawn — if the archetypical boss is a busybodying mediocrity, a cunning predator, or a petulant grafter, and if their role in the workplace is a drag on the productive labor on the shop floor rather than the animating force behind it as Rand claims — then it makes perfect sense to locate the essence of capitalism elsewhere from where Rand locates it, and to treat capitalism as a term of criticism for political patronage as against the free market.

This may help serve as some explanation for why Rand is willing to identify with the term capitalism and even to invest the symbol of a government fiat currency with near-religious significance, while fully recognizing the predatory nature of the state-business nexus; it may also help to explain how, in spite of really detesting the stupidity and the atrocities perpetrated in the name of socialism, I can be so fond of old union songs, and how I can fly a red flag over my soap box while I preach the free market.

Further reading: