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Racism, atrocity and the eternal return of the same


I was raised by white parents in the suburbs in the South in the 60s, when apartheid was beginning to crack. These facts in the background – both the apartheid that made enormous room for white people like my folks in the post-war years and the crumbling of apartheid that allowed Northern businesses to move into the south as it became a more normal part of the country – benefited me. What does it mean then if, as in that moment that Nietzsche scripted in The Gay Science, I “affirm” myself within the universe of eternal returns? It means that I am confronted with the problem of what to do about the injustices, the atrocities, in which I am existentially implicated. I, an old white guy, cannot pretend that I am not part of the universal jelly – my tongue, my way of looking, my taste, my money, my food, all of it is unsegregated, cultural and economic appropriation out my bungus.

My strategy is one of critical affirmation, if that makes any sense. This is not just an individual problem, it is a social problem. A just social order has to be one that has a view of its past, or it will not be a social order at all.

So do I opt for self-condemnation? Do I apologize for Jim Crow? Or do I go beyond these moments in the Eternal Return of R.G.?

This problem keeps coming out of the cracks and biting us. The neolib managers at the end of the neolib era are helpless as these past atrocities are either affirmed by the racist or scoured by the "woke".

In a sense, this is the kind of problem faced by Leibniz’s God. On the one hand, his perfection requires that he affirm himself perfectly, but on the other hand, the creation is full of atrocities, and the devil is abroad. To understand how to bridge this moral conundrum, Leibniz revamped the metaphysical discourse on possibility that had been built by the ancients and the medievals. He thought, in other word, that the greatest possible good was built into every appearance of evil, the paradigm case being, of course, the exercise of free will. In order to shake this out, so to speak, Leibnitz developed a cosmology of com-possibles, with the Good Lord operating as a divine sorting machine, extracting from each endless series of com-possibles the best possible world.

Such a God is a cold-eyed beast.

Voltaire of course saw that atrocity – war, slavery, cruelty on the most personal as well as on the highest social level – could not be overtaken or abolished by any possible future. Voltaire, who had been beaten by thugs hired by an aristocrat to teach him a lesson when he was young, always remembered those blows. Out of them, he built his own version of the Enlightenment. But he never thought that this justified the blows.

This enlightenment view comes close to claiming that atrocity and virtue could be radically separated. The problem with this view is that this radical separation turns regret into vindicativeness, thus increasing the likelihood of future atrocity.

This is from the first chapter of the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"—in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.

He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"—in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.

The world does not know that we must all come to an end here;—but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.”

Max Mueller’s translation is all too Christian, but I have always taken these verses seriously. The thought of past abuse and its transformation into a fucked up emotional docket that one enacts – this I have seen in my life. This, I think, everybody has seen. And yet here’s the thing: there is no suggestion here that we could do something beyond ceasing our own hatred. That we can turn on those who abuse, rob, defeat, and kill. Or even – the social conditions that make it an advantage to abuse, rob, defeat and kill.

In Voltaire’s satire at its most pointed, civilization becomes a generally systematized brutality, interspersed with a few minuets. This might well be how he saw Frederick the Great’s Germany – Voltaire had a catbird for that performance.

Yet the great atrocity in Candide is a non-human event: the Lisbon earthquake. This projection upon nature of the human, all too human source of pain is something that was spotlighted by Rousseau, who sensibly wrote that the lesson of the Lisbon earthquake isn’t a cosmic lesson about the evil of nature – which is Voltaire’s own Leibnitzianism - but a practical lesson about city planning.

This is what Voltaire wrote about the earthquake in a letter to a friend:

“This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds-- where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps, half, dying undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath debris from which it was impossible to extricate them, families all over Europe reduced to beggary, and the fortunes of a hundred merchants -- Swiss, like yourself -- swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say -- especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike. I believe it is our mountains which save us from earthquakes.”

Voltaire went on to write a poem about the earthquake, which generated the response from Rousseau. It is rare that Rousseau gets to play the role of the calm reasoner, but in this case, he did. Rousseau’s letter to Voltaire takes him up on his cosmic despair and the comfortable lifestyle that allows it.

“Have patience, man," Pope and Leibnitz tell me, "your woes are a necessary effect of your nature and of the constitution of the universe. The eternal and beneficent Being who governs the universe wished to protect you. Of all the possible plans, he chose that combining the minimum evil and the maximum good. If it is necessary to say the same thing more bluntly, God has done no better for mankind because (He) can do no better."

Now what does your poem tell me? "Suffer forever unfortunate one. If a God created you, He is doubtlessly all powerful and could have prevented all your woes. Don't ever hope that your woes will end, because you would never know why you exist, if it is not to suffer and die...."

I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man.... Moreover ... the majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work. Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock. But many obstinately remained . . . to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money? . .”

I’m with Rousseau. In other words, the movement in Voltaire, between disbelieving that we could build a world in which we regret nothing to believing that we could only build, if we were fortunate, tiny nests in which regret was held at bay – is an altogether too unambitious Enlightenment.

History is a wash, but I got mine – that is no righteous attitude.