Sunday, December 30, 2007

A usable past for a society increasingly aware of its multiracial character

Op-Ed Contributor Forgotten Step Toward Freedom By ERIC FONER NYT: December 30, 2007 WE Americans live in a society awash in historical celebrations. The last few years have witnessed commemorations of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase (2003) and the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II (2005). Looming on the horizon are the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (2009) and the sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the Civil War (2011). But one significant milestone has gone strangely unnoticed: the 200th anniversary of Jan. 1, 1808, when the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited.
This neglect stands in striking contrast to the many scholarly and public events in Britain that marked the 2007 bicentennial of that country’s banning of the slave trade. There were historical conferences, museum exhibits, even a high-budget film, “Amazing Grace,” about William Wilberforce, the leader of the parliamentary crusade that resulted in abolition.
What explains this divergence? Throughout the 1780s, the horrors of the Middle Passage were widely publicized on both sides of the Atlantic and by 1792 the British Parliament stood on the verge of banning the trade. But when war broke out with revolutionary France, the idea was shelved. Final prohibition came in 1807 and it proved a major step toward the abolition of slavery in the empire.
The British campaign against the African slave trade not only launched the modern concern for human rights as an international principle, but today offers a usable past for a society increasingly aware of its multiracial character. It remains a historic chapter of which Britons of all origins can be proud.
In the United States, however, slavery not only survived the end of the African trade but embarked on an era of unprecedented expansion. Americans have had to look elsewhere for memories that ameliorate our racial discontents, which helps explain our recent focus on the 19th-century Underground Railroad as an example (widely commemorated and often exaggerated) of blacks and whites working together in a common cause.
Nonetheless, the abolition of the slave trade to the United States is well worth remembering. Only a small fraction (perhaps 5 percent) of the estimated 11 million Africans brought to the New World in the four centuries of the slave trade were destined for the area that became the United States. But in the Colonial era, Southern planters regularly purchased imported slaves, and merchants in New York and New England profited handsomely from the trade.
The American Revolution threw the slave trade and slavery itself into crisis. In the run-up to war, Congress banned the importation of slaves as part of a broader nonimportation policy. During the War of Independence, tens of thousands of slaves escaped to British lines. Many accompanied the British out of the country when peace arrived.
Inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, most of the newly independent American states banned the slave trade. But importation resumed to South Carolina and Georgia, which had been occupied by the British during the war and lost the largest number of slaves.
The slave trade was a major source of disagreement at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. South Carolina’s delegates were determined to protect slavery, and they had a powerful impact on the final document. They originated the three-fifths clause (giving the South extra representation in Congress by counting part of its slave population) and threatened disunion if the slave trade were banned, as other states demanded.
The result was a compromise barring Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808. Some Anti-Federalists, as opponents of ratification were called, cited the slave trade clause as a reason why the Constitution should be rejected, claiming it brought shame upon the new nation.
The outbreak of the slave revolution in Haiti in the early 1790s sent shock waves of fear throughout the American South and led to new state laws barring the importation of slaves. But in 1803, as cotton cultivation spread, South Carolina reopened the trade. The Legislature of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory also allowed the importation of slaves. From 1803 to 1808, between 75,000 and 100,000 Africans entered the United States.
By this time, the international slave trade was widely recognized as a crime against humanity. In 1807, Congress prohibited the importation of slaves from abroad, to take effect the next New Year’s Day, the first date allowed by the Constitution.
For years thereafter, free African-Americans celebrated Jan. 1 as an alternative to July 4, when, in their view, patriotic orators hypocritically proclaimed the slave-owning United States a land of liberty.
It is easy to understand, however, why the trade’s abolition appears so anticlimactic. Banning American participation in the slave trade did not end the shipment of Africans to the Western Hemisphere. Some three million more slaves were brought to Brazil and Spanish America before the trade finally ended. With Southerners dominating the federal government for most of the period before the Civil War, enforcement was lax and the smuggling of slaves into the United States continued.
Those who hoped that ending American participation in the slave trade would weaken or destroy slavery were acutely disappointed. In the United States, unlike the West Indies, the slave population grew by natural increase. This was not because American owners were especially humane, but because most of the South lies outside the tropical environment where diseases like yellow fever and malaria exacted a huge toll on whites and blacks alike.
As slavery expanded into the Deep South, a flourishing internal slave trade replaced importation from Africa. Between 1808 and 1860, the economies of older states like Virginia came increasingly to rely on the sale of slaves to the cotton fields of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. But demand far outstripped supply, and the price of slaves rose inexorably, placing ownership outside the reach of poorer Southerners.
Let us imagine that the African slave trade had continued in a legal and open manner well into the 19th century. It is plausible to assume that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans would have been brought into the country.
This most likely would have resulted in the “democratization” of slavery as prices fell and more and more whites could afford to purchase slaves, along with a further increase in Southern political power thanks to the Constitution’s three-fifths clause. These were the very reasons advanced by South Carolina’s political leaders when they tried, unsuccessfully, to reopen the African slave trade in the 1850s.
More slaves would also have meant heightened fear of revolt and ever more stringent controls on the slave population. It would have reinforced Southerners’ demands to annex to the United States areas suitable for plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Central America. Had the importation of slaves continued unchecked, the United States could well have become the hemispheric slave-based empire of which many Southerners dreamed.
Jan. 1, 1808, is worth commemorating not only for what it directly accomplished, but for helping to save the United States from a history even more terrible than the Civil War that eventually rid our country of slavery. Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The whole notion of men and women being “complementary but equal” is hypocritical

ned said, on December 28th, 2007 at 6:58 pm Dear Ali,
Perchance that this might be useful to this topic, I offer a mystical understanding of the male-female symbolism, the original dualism, as you insightfully put it, below. I believe this dualistic perception of man and woman as eternally separate is intimately connected to the perceived duality between Creator and creation as well. This is part of an essay I’m working on regarding the subject of gender and spirituality.
“The male and female represent an extended parable for the Divine and human life. In this instance, the masculine principle is the moving, approaching, desiring, penetrating, adventuresome divine impulse, which woos and seeks to unite with us in the realm of the feminine principle as willing, conscious beings, but will not enter without a complete and unreserved invitations, which is submission and reception, welcoming, and on both sides of course is Delight.
For those who by complete surrender receive the divine Presence intimately, there is a seed implanted, which in some spiritual traditions is called the Word, which must be nurtured, and must grow, and take on equally the qualities of (as it were) both parents meaning, in this case, the Absolute and the particular, the Divine and the human. This is a process which takes time, just like gestation, which is a living parable for it. And what is brought forth in the fullness of time, the product of Love in both its adventurous and receptive modes, and of ongoing suffering during the time of silence and waiting has all the possibilities in it of new life and energy for the salvation of the world.
Ultimately what emerges in this cosmic romance is the realization that it is nondual — that there is no divide between man and woman, Spirit and matter, Creator and creation.”
The crucial point here is that actually what the metaphor means is that *both* men and women (at the human and relative level) are to take a “feminine” position with respect to the Divine — and *both* will rise to their “manhood” through this relationship with the Divine. The metaphor is so beautiful, but look at the havoc it has caused in every religion and in every age because people took it literally! I always maintain that religious literalists are in fact materialists. They can only see physical thoughtforms, and not see the Reality pointed to by them — hence their spiritual poverty and moral hypocrisies.
The reason I bring this up is that I recently read “The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought” by Prof. Sachiko Murata which tries to justify the inferiority of women using precisely this sort of traditionalist cosmological reasoning, seeing man and woman as eternally opposed polarities of the universe. Murata quotes Sufi mystics like Ibn al-Arabi and Imam Ghazali to make her point. As a non-Muslim (but nevertheless as a spiritual aspirant), my personal understanding of this issue may not hold much water for an Islamic audience, but I found this book dry and mental, and found that Prof. Murata was just reading Ibn al-Arabi and the others in a purely intellectual way without ever touching the mystical core of what they were talking about. In other words, the book was too much head, and not enough heart (which was ironic because she was actually trying to show that the intellect is masculine and the soul is feminine, thus leading me to question *her* femininity ;-) ).
There was another book I read that reinterpreted the entire treatment of gender in the Quran in a Sufi way. All references to “woman” were interpreted as meaning the body, and all references to “man” were interpreted as meaning the soul, on a deeper esoteric level. This corresponds exactly to the Vedantic conception of the Purusha (soul) and Prakriti (nature, matter), and similar conceptions in other religions. This book was “Women in the Holy Quran: A Sufi Perspective” by Lynn Wilcox. What Wilcox was trying to get across, and what I’m suggesting from an esoteric perspective, is that both men *and* women belong to the realm of Prakitri. It is only delusion that leads men to think that they are intrinsically superior to women. The close we get to the Absolute, the more all these egoic distinctions start to blur and eventually disappear. My understanding is that everything is equal in the Absolute, the distinctions are all relative.
ned said, on December 28th, 2007 at 7:15 pm
One additional point I want to make is that the whole notion of men and women being “complementary but equal”, an assertion that traditionalists of virtually every religion often make (again using this cosmological reasoning), is hypocritical for many reasons. One is that in practice this sort of “benevolent patriarchy” always means that men get positions of leadership, value and meaning, whereas women are always relegated to the more boring or less intellectually challenging work. It amplifies the differences between men and women where what is in fact needed is for the man to develop more of his yin side and for the woman to develop more of her yang side. The whole thing is circular — it’s as if they are saying, men and women are eternally completely separate and different, because, well, we say so, and we’ll do everything we can to prevent anyone else from exploring other possibilities. It’s just so entrapping and spiritually toxic and doesn’t allow us to grow as human beings.
Referring to Prof. Murata’s book, I actually found her comparisons of Islam to Taoism pretty unconvincing — I mean I found it pretty unconvincing that she was talking about Taoism at all. She relied mainly on the I Ching, a text that is just as Confucian as it is Taoistic. The Tao te Ching on the other hand contains statements like the following:

“Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine: and become a watershed to the world. If you embrace the world, the Tao will never leave you and you become as a little child.” (Ch. 28)

So in the end Prof. Murata relies much more on Confucian notions of a divinely-ordained social hierarchy rather than the free-floating abandon and anarchism of Lao-tzu. And we don’t even need to talk about how much such rigid notions of gender have hurt people who are strictly speaking neither physically male nor physically female. As far as traditionalists are concerned, such people don’t even exist (or don’t deserve to).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Benefit from countless transactions among millions of strangers

Given interdependence of each on others, many, probably most, of whom we are unlikely ever to know, it is well that we can benefit from their actions without it being necessary for the happy bonds of ‘mutual love and affection’ to exist among us.
We only ever know a few of our relatives; cousins twice removed are usually strangers of whom we may know nothing at all. Our circle of friends is also limited, and while our acquaintances are a larger set of people, they are still dwarfed in numbers by the billions on the planet (even the millions in our respective countries’ or even those who live in the same town).
When Smith was teaching his classes, using materials that appeared in Wealth of Nations 17 years later, he focused on this factor in human life and explained how people could be in complex exchange links many intersections long and could still benefit from countless transactions among millions of strangers with whom feelings of ‘mutual love and affection’ were not realistic nor necessary. The key was the 'mercenary exchange of good offices' (TMS), or market-based exchanges, as elaborated in Wealth Of Nations.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Perversions are an essential way in which the human mind and psyche rebel against and seek to evade reality

Just yesterday there was a very important piece at American Thinker by psychiatrist Stephen Rittenberg, entitled Liberalism, Jihadism and Perversion. He points out the difficulty of "diagnosing" the barbaric jihadis -- as if they are Western psychopaths, when they are actually just craven conformists in the context of their own culture:
"It is the intense pleasure derived from religiously sanctioned murderous lust that makes the jihadis so dangerous. The degree of narcissism matters little; these are not people who can be 'treated' by shoring up their narcissism, and bolstering their self esteem. It is our very civilized, therapeutic culture that makes us flinch from taking the necessary measures needed to deal with such foes. In truth, it may be our own narcissism -- the need to reassure ourselves of our superior civilized nature -- that causes us to obsess about whether necessary measures for waging war, like water boarding, and Guantanamo constitute 'torture'."
Thus -- and this is a critical point -- there is actually an implicit dynamic between the bloodthirsty psychopaths of Islam and the narcissistic enablers of the left, and that is perversion. And what is perversion? Importantly, sexual acting out is not synonymous with perversion, but an effect of something much deeper. As Rittenberg explains, perversions are not just "sexual" in the more narrow behavioral sense of the term. Rather, they embody the idea
"that erotic pleasure [can] be intensified by the discharge of aggressive wishes, including the inflicting of, and submitting to, pain up to the point of death."
Rittenberg refers to the theories of Chasseguet-Smirgel, who
"found that perversions are an essential way in which the human mind and psyche rebel against and seek to evade reality,"
including the reality of male-female differences:
"The intolerance and fear of such differences can result in the practices of Wahabbi Islam, wherein women are so feared that they must be hidden and brutalized like beasts of the field. Muslim men's terror of women is undoubtedly accompanied by a high incidence of hidden (not so hidden when they travel to the Riviera) perverse sexuality."
This is true as far as it goes, but the question is, how do people -- and whole cultures -- end up this way? That is a question psychoanalysis in itself is unequipped to answer, since it is essentially a clinical practice that focuses on adult individuals as opposed to field study into, say, Muslim childrearing practices. This is what deMause's research attempts to do -- to link the kind of gross perversion we see in the Islamic world to concrete childrearing practices.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Such sweeping can be even more dangerous than anger itself

This post is a reflection on anger. Our society, with its continuous inability to stop and reflect, could actually be called an angry society. Nowhere else would “road rage” be the absolutely appalling phenomenon that it is. Also, the glamorization of violence in some of our youth can only be understood as a self-righteous defense of anger. Likewise, only our society continuously asks us to take courses in anger management; as if anger were a question of economics and not of understanding. Even more striking, our antidote to anger is a certain kind of permanent angry humor that avoids the issue itself, but allegedly gives us a temporary respite. On the contrary, reflective moderation is the necessary antipode to anger.
What is unique about anger is that if I were angry writing about it, I would hardly be able to write it. Of course, we think we could, but anger in its real and cruder form does away with reflection. Just remember the last time you “lost” it. Don’t you remember even kicking inanimate things as if somehow THEY had done you something! Odd indeed. Being angry is being unable to articulate. This is true not only when you yourself become angry and find yourself screaming to the top of your lungs’ possibilities, and at the same time throwing your arms all over the place (specially if you are Latino!). It is also true if you yourself are confronted by anger and remain in a dangerous form of paralyzed silence whose alleged defense is to “take in” the anger and quietly retreat into itself later on. That escape into submissive silence does not help either in understanding the phenomenon of anger, but likewise actually generates in the passive individual an angry posture towards him/herself. Freud has taught us much on this.
Both outward-tending anger and inward-tending anger reduce articulation to its bare minimum. This is, in part, the reason why there is much health to be found in the capacity for articulation, primarily in articulating what is darkest in us as human beings. But the darkest is the most difficult to access. As a matter of fact, speaking about anger and violence is the kind of topic which some in society seem to think is best swept under the rug. But such sweeping can be even more dangerous than anger itself.
When anger does appear, specially politically, it spills its darkness quickly over the whole community as a wildfire incapable of seeing the origins of its perversions. The Balkans are suddenly caught in this dynamic; Rwanda is suddenly caught up in this dynamic, Jews in WWII are suddenly caught up in this dynamic. Or closer to home. Today December 6th we celebrate almost 2 decades since the death of 14 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique at the hand of one angry young man in Montreal. I was living in Montreal at the time and so am unable to forget this infamous event. here Others will remember others; just now people who live in Omaha have their very own tragic case. Even today the issue of anger and violence towards women by many angry men in the private sphere still remains a topic which we find hard to articulate, find hard to recognize and confront in our anger-ridden society.
Why is it so hard to articulate anger? As I said before, precisely because when angry there is no articulation to be done. We all sense this once the anger passes; we look back and can hardly even recognize ourselves! “That was not really me,” we are told by those who live in anger. When you throw the object you can hardly believe you just couldn’t stop yourself. Likewise, it is difficult to articulate because the angry make us afraid for very important reasons, namely, our very emotional and mental security. But not articulating anger should make us even more afraid as anger —unless modified, redirected, or re-articulated— has a prolonged life of its own. We all have some examples of this persistence. I have seen many in my life (specially of the results in those who do not have the tools to confront the angry and therefore interiorize this outwardly generated self-hatred), but I will take up only two; one personal, one philosophical. (more…)

I'm truly embarassed that they share the same gender with me

See here. I'm truly embarassed that they share the same gender with me. For a full discussion of their intellectual and moral bankruptcy, you can check out this earlier post or this one.

Some degree of optimistic self-deception is critical for success

Knowledge@Wharton: In your chapter, "The Dangerous and Necessary Art of Self-Deception," you write that some degree of optimistic self-deception is critical for success, and that "depressive realists," with their more accurate view of the world, fall behind. What advice would you give to a board choosing a CEO? Is it better to have an optimistic self-deceiver or a depressive realist?
Cowen: For a CEO, I'd tend to go for the realist, because at the leadership level, the costs of hubris are very high. The problem with realists is they can get depressed and feel they are not going anywhere, but this is less likely to happen to CEOs, because they are in charge.
In the lower rungs of the company, however, I would favor overly optimistic people, those who are motivated by the idea that they always have a chance of being promoted or earning more money. The higher up you are, the more I would prefer realism. A president who won't listen can be pretty disastrous. But a senator who doesn't listen -- maybe it's not ideal, but there are checks and balances, and if the optimism gets the senator to work harder, then that is the compensation.
By the way here is a recent Indian review of Inner Economist, from Mint.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

I am not arguing for a monocausal theory (like the so-called “vulgar-marxist” one that would reduce everything to an ultimate economic “base”)

David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is filled with interesting and provocative ideas. Graeber wants to ally the discipline of anthropology with the anarchist currents that have shown up, most recently, in the anti-globalization movement. Each, he says, has a lot to offer the other...
Graeber is far more interesting when he writes about what anthropology can offer anarchism: a wider range of both social theory and observation of social practices than is available in orthodox Western theory and philosophy alone. Graeber discusses Marcel Mauss’ theory of the gift as an alternative to orthodox economic assumptions about the centrality of markets and “exchange”, and Pierre Clastres’ arguments about societies that explicitly sought to avoid the formation of a State. He cites numerous anthropological examples of social formations that have not taken on the form of State authority, or that have existed in the interstices of States and that have “autonomized” themselves or exempted themselves from its control. He suggests ways that we can dispense with the myth of “revolution” as some ultimate and complete rupture with the past, without thereby resigning ourselves to what hardcore Marxists used to disparage as mere “reformism.” And, paralleling arguments that I am more familiar with in other fields (given my limited knowledge of anthropology), he critiques the common assumption that “modernity” itself represents a radical break from all the rest of human history. And I haven’t even scratched the surface here of the wide range of Graeber’s historical examples and theoretical suggestions.
Graeber’s ideas are rich and wide-ranging; he pushes us to expand the boundaries of what we admit to be possible, or even thinkable. It’s very much the exhilarating spirit of May 1968: be realistic, demand the impossible; though Graeber rightly does not couch his exhortations in the form of an appeal to return to the 1960s, or to any other mythologized past of radical political hope. There is, thankfully, no nostalgia, and no call to order, or reverencing of past political models, in this book.
The main problem I have with Graeber’s argument is this. Graeber’s emphasis on the State as the enemy misconstrues, I believe, the role of the “market,” and of concentrations of capital. Like many other anarchists, Graeber is all too ready to see “free market” capitalism, commodification and consumption, and the wage system itself — all of which he denounces — as being adjuncts and epiphenomena of State power. This seems to me to be exactly wrong. While capitalist markets, the wage system, the private ownership of the means of production, the ever-increasing “branding” and commodification and corporate appropriation of all forms of human creativity and activity, and so on, of course could not sustain themselves without relying upon State power, and more generally without exerting and monopolizing power in the political realm, this does not make them functions of State power. It does not follow that State power comes first, either pragmatically or ideologically. Rather the reverse. Marxist political economy, and Foucaultian analytics of power, different as they are from one another, both view State power as an effect and an instrument of social, political, technological, and economic power relations, rather than as the source, or the most basic component, of those relations.
I am not arguing for a monocausal theory (like the so-called “vulgar-marxist” one that would reduce everything to an ultimate economic “base”); and I don’t think that Graeber, in his focus on the State, is monocausally reductionist either. (He mentions, among other things, the differences between the State as an ideal, and the actual ways that peoples’ lives are controlled and constrained, and points out that these two need not correspond). But I do think the difference in emphasis is crucial. For one thing, Graeber’s overestimation of the importance of the State leads him to underestimate other (non-state) impediments to freedom. How successful can “self-organization” be, today, in the absence of any economic resources? Graeber adopts the Italian autonomists’ ideas about “exodus” and “engaged withdrawal” from “capitalism and the liberal state” (60ff), but he ignores, again, the autonomists’ grounding in political economy. There are a lot of things worse than the “liberal state.” So-called “free enterprise,” for one thing. The dismantling of the welfare state in the US and other Western countries over the last quarter-century has not led to more opportunities for self-organization and empowerment, but less. States have increasingly withdrawn from what Manuel Castells calls the “black holes of informational capitalism,” but the people unfortunate enough to be stuck in those black holes are still subject to the terror of the “free market,” and what Marxists used to call “the international division of labor.”
When Graeber really lost me, though, was with his praise of decision-making through “consensus,” instead of compulsion. Me, I don’t see much of a difference between having to obey hateful and stupid orders issued by clueless assholes (the Leninist model as well as the State and corporate one), and having to sit in meetings for hours on end while the same clueless assholes make endless objections and qualifications that all have to be worked through before the meeting can come to an end. It’s torture either way, and I’m not convinced that the one method is even any more “democratic” than the other. Anarchist “consensus” is just another way of enforcing conformity and group solidarity, by wearing people down until they are browbeaten into agreement; it’s every bit as stifling and oppressive as military hierarchies and fraternity initiations and the “discipline” of the “free market” are. Empirically, different mixtures of these procedures might be more or less oppressive, less or more democratic, in particular instances; there are cases where the looser form of self-determination that Graeber praises might be welcome in comparison to the alternatives. But let’s not kid ourselves that decision-making through “consensus” somehow eliminates inequalities of power, or that it expands human freedom, or that it’s a desirable social ideal. This entry was posted on Thursday, August 5th, 2004 at 9:10 pm and is filed under Books, Politics. RSS 2.0 feed.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

One of the reasons fewer women marry is because of the ideological success of feminism

Therefore, it should not surprise us that the Democrat party is the anti-marriage party, since the more people marry, the worse things are for them. To put it another way, their electoral success is directly tied to the weakening and/or destruction of the family as we know it. But I would guess that for most people -- and I don't need a study to prove this -- the greatest source of their happiness -- not to mention, mental stability -- is their family. Thus, the Democrats must again be the party of unhappiness and mental illness if they are to be a party at all.
One of the reasons fewer women marry is because of the ideological success of feminism, which has brainwashed women into believing that there are no intrinsic differences between men and women, and that a women certainly does not require a man or children to find fulfillment and to be happy. Thus, to the extent that a woman does possess a higher archetype of femininity, or that she requires loving relationship with a good man in order to find fulfillment, she will have a void that cannot be named and therefore addressed.
True, some women are no doubt happier droning away at some meaningless job than they are in being married and raising children, but it's not as many as feminists would have you think. Mrs. G. for example, thought she was happy as a career woman, but it turned out she wasn't -- that it was just a compensation for a choice she had been brainwashed not to make. 7:40 AM