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Saturday, August 13, 2016

josh marshall, national character, and where our wisdom comes from

I’m very familiar with the kind of barfly thumbnail sketch that sums up whole peoples. It is a hard vice to suppress. I do it. The English this, the French that. In the last couple days, one of those sketches, this one of the knout-lovin’ Russians, was twitted by Josh Marshall, a Clintonite liberal. He was attacked for it, and instead of saying I’m just tweating, he dug in and defended himself as a deep cultural observer of the Russians.
My Dad used to do the same thing, although I think he had more excuse, having grown up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Syracuse NY in the 30s and 40s, when folk wisdom about different national characters was unquestioned.
The Marshall twitterstorm reminded me of something I wrote in the early Bush era. Here it is.

Hume, Huxley, and war

The importance of distance should never be under-estimated. Heidegger, whose defense of Nazi-ism is well known, is continually being rediscovered (surprise) as the rotten bug under the rug of continental philosophy; that Derrida relies so much upon his work has been discussed in the terms one would usually reserve for talking about hiring Typhoid Mary to cook the cutlets in some local dinner. Yet who cares that David Hume, the surely one of the roots of English philosophy and its rather sterile offshoot, analytic philosophy, had, shall we say, rather dim views about blacks during a period in which the trade in black flesh (and the attendant destruction of African culture) was at its height? LI was pondering this while reading, yesterday, Thomas Huxley’s excellent Victorian study of Hume. Huxley himself is rather impatient with the “nonsense” that is usually ground out about race and national character. We like Huxley for that. We like Huxley for his reasons for embracing Darwinism. And more than that - we actually like Hume. But we have to admit that Hume admitted to the inroads of prejudice in spite of his philosophical degree zero, his wariness in the presence of generalizations. Here is what Hume has to say about race:

"I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation.... Such a uniform and constant difference [between the negroes and the whites] could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.... In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly."

This was from his essays, which Huxley justly celebrates. On the whole, Hume’s essays are under-appreciated today, except by libertarians and fans of Adam Smith. That’s because, before Adam Smith, Hume put into theoretical language a lot of what we now consider the foundations of classical political economy.

It is hard to swallow apercu like the above, however. One’s inclination is to think that such thoughts have no influence, really, on, say, Hume’s epistemology. Perhaps this says something about the success of analytic philosophy in convincing its constituency that philosophy consists of isolated areas of focus - epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc. - which are logically separated from each other. Really, though, I think it is that we – or at least “we” whites - are far enough away from the slave trade, as opposed to the Holocaust, not to feel it in the skin, like some old war wound. But it is an old war wound, nonetheless. A hole in the side of the world.

Analytic philosophers -- and, even more, the incompetent commentators on philosophy in the popular press -- are much more eager to discuss the influence of Heidegger’s Nazi-ism on his ontology than they are to bracket it, and discuss the ontology alone. We are being a little unfair: Hume never claimed that his epistemology was interwoven with his racism, as Heidegger claimed that his encounter with Seyn was interwoven with Hitler. Still, frankly owning up to a belief in black inferiority, especially during a time when Scottish merchants were making a pretty penny in selling blacks on the theory of that inferiority, should raise some questions about Mr. Hume. However, I doubt they ever will.

The tremendous influence of this contempt for a ‘lower’ race has never, really, been traced to its most extreme ends in all the branches of our history.   But when we hear casual remarks about the war of civilizations, and about ‘reforming’ the Islamic world, we have to wonder whether the speakers have any acquaintance with western civilization, besides driving in its huge cars and admiring its overpasses and malls. We live on a very thin crust of liberalism. It is about forty years old – a little younger than me. That the inheritors of the most vigorous opponents of the liberal mindset - the people who opposed civil rights for blacks, women, and the working class for the better part of American history, those who defended lynch law, laws to break up unions, and opposed giving women legal equality with men -  now casually claim this as their heritage and their sanction for making war on the benighted has to be an irony worthy of one of Hardy’s poems. No, ‘we’ are enmeshed in the dark ignorance in the belly of the beast still. It takes centuries to get through Moloch.   

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