Frederick Douglass on the Constitution

Frederick Douglass Ambrotype, 1856 by an unknown photographer, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsEarly on his career as an abolitionist speaker and activist, Frederick Douglass is a dedicated Garrisonian: anti-violence, anti-voting, anti-Union, and anti-Constitution.

In the early 1840’s, Douglass joins a revitalized abolitionist movement largely shaped by the views of William Lloyd Garrison. Since the early 1930’s, Garrison espouses a particular set of moral and political beliefs, radical for his time, which he promotes in his influential anti-slavery paper The Liberator. He believes in total non-violence, violence being a tactic of the slaveowners and their corrupt government protectors, not of good God-fearing people who have moral truth on their side. He believes that since voting implies that a government that legalizes slavery is legitimate, true abolitionists must abstain. He believes that the continued Union of the States, Abraham Lincoln’s sacred cause, was not only impossible, but undesirable: it involved the North, directly and indirectly, in the evil of slavery. Since the South was hell-bent on preserving that unnatural and therefore illegal institution, the South should go, and good riddance. And all of these are tied to Garrison’s view of the Constitution: it’s an ultimately pro-slavery, anti-human rights document, and therefore not worthy of obedience or respect.

For many years, Douglass fully agrees with Garrison. But over time, as a result of his conversations and debates with abolitionists who interpret the Constitution differently, and of his own study, experience, and thought in the first four years of publishing his own paper The North Star, Douglass changes his mind. By the early 1850’s, the abolitionist par excellence had come to disagree with Garrison, father of American radical abolitionism, and to agree with Lincoln, proponent of preserving the Union at all costs and of the gradual phasing out of slavery.

So how does Douglass come to make what seems such a counterintuitive change in his views on the Constitution and on the role of violence, voting, and the Union in bringing an end to slavery?

Some of the reasons for Douglass’ evolution are pragmatic; his pragmatist side becomes more pronounced with time and experience (more on this in another piece). For one, he comes to believe that violence is not only unavoidable at times, but sometimes necessary (more on this in another piece as well).

Douglass also becomes convinced that abstaining from politics is just suicide by degrees for the abolitionist movement, since it cedes political power to slaveowners and their supporters. Abstaining from voting in protest, as Garrison calls for, actually works against the project of obtaining greater political rights for black people. (As with celebrity comedian-guru Russell Brand’s anti-voting campaign today; the idea of abstaining from the vote in protest is neither new nor, in my opinion, any more effective now than it was then.) As Douglass points out, however motivated some people are to do the right thing by their fellow citizens, there will always be plenty of others motivated by greed, moral laziness in going along with the status quo, and the drive for power and domination over others. Political clout, gained through voting in those who represent their views, is one of the very few ways in which black people can finally obtain and protect their equal legal rights. And not only that: voting is one of the most practical yet powerful ways black people can demonstrate their full citizenship to those who might be inclined to doubt it. Other than getting an education and fighting in the war for emancipation, Douglass argues that it’s the most important way to undermine ugly stereotypes, prevalent in his day, of black people as lazy, uninformed, and fit only to have their lives run by others. (These stereotypes are, by the way, so ugly that it’s painful just to write them down, but confronting the ugliness head-on drives home the dire necessity of getting rid of them once and for all.)Constitution of the United States, first page of the original, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But voting’s not enough to ensure that black people obtain the political power necessary to enhance and preserve their rights. For the abolitionist revolution to succeed, the Union must be preserved at all costs, and in the process, it must be recreated as the unified, true haven of freedom it’s meant to be. Douglass believes it’s the responsibility of the free states to liberate the enslaved people of the Southern states, and to extend and enforce guarantees of human rights for all inhabitants of all states.

Why? Because the Preamble of the Constitution tells us that’s what it’s for.

But how does Douglass justify this interpretation when it’s still a matter of such contention that he’s watching his country tear itself in two over it?

To understand the Constitution, it can help somewhat to consider the history that led to its creation and the ideas and intentions of those who wrote it; but to fully understand its true meaning and purpose, Douglass believes, we must always interpret all of its parts in the context of its preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’

The preamble is the key to any valid interpretation of the Constitution because it tells us, in plain, direct, and eloquent language, why the Constitution is written, who it’s written for, and who is bound to obey it. Any interpretation inconsistent with the Preamble reveals that either the Constitution itself is illogical, inconsistent and therefore invalid, or it shows that it’s the interpreter’s reasoning that’s illogical, inconsistent and therefore failing in understanding. Garrisonians agree with the first; Douglass agrees with the second.

So what to do with such parts of the Constitution as the three-fifths clause, which reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which  may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons‘?. (Art. I, Sec. 2, Cl 3.)

Doesn’t it imply that all those bound to service, which in Douglass’ time almost exclusively applies to black slaves, only count as three-fifths-person, and ergo, are not fully human? While Douglass grants that this clause is deeply problematic, he no longer agrees that it’s actually an endorsement of slavery.

There are two cases which can be argued when it comes to the effects of the three fifths clause: that it gives extra 3/5th’s representative powers to slaveowners, or that it takes away 2/5th’s; that point’s debatable. As Douglass points out, the clause actually appears to be a concession of a point that slaveowners didn’t really want to make but felt forced to if they wanted to increase their political power: that slaves are persons. If they’re not, it would make no more sense to include them at all for purposes of representation than it would to include cows, chickens, or farm implements. But even this grudging concession of personhood is conceivably debatable.

But while the effects of the three fifth clause may help indicate what use it’s been used for, they don’t tell us what it really means or what its true purpose is. So how do we successfully go about determining its meaning?

How about original intent? Since the expressed beliefs and opinions of the Constitution’s authors vary so widely on the matter of slavery, this won’t help us to decide the matter either. Douglass bases his original interpretation of the Constitution as a pro-slavery document on the basis of intent, but as we’ve seen, he changes his mind.

Well, then, how about strict constructionism? This won’t help us either. The terms used are so broad that it’s hard to tell what they literally and finally mean, or to prove outside of the historical context that they refer to the American brand of slavery at all. The three fifths clause never says anything about permanent bondage or race-based slavery. (In fact, the phrase ‘term of years’ seems to imply that there’s a beginning and end to the servitude in question that’s determined by something other than birth and death, but it doesn’t exclude the latter.)

So which interpretation of the three-fifths clause is most consistent with the preamble? Not the idea that those bound to service are anything other than persons or citizens, since the right to representation is only accorded to citizens, which, in turn, are necessarily persons. Nor is the idea that those bound to service are part-person or part-citizen: there’s nothing in the language of the clause nor of the rest of the Constitution that recognizes there’s such things as part-persons or part-citizens. Douglass points out that ‘…the Constitution knows of only two classes [of people]: Firstly, citizens, and secondly, aliens’. Constitutionally, all persons born in the United States are citizens by definition, and all others aliens; of course. the latter are still persons. So the ‘three-fifths’ clause can’t be referring to the completeness of individual persons; as we can see by the language itself, it specifically applies to the total number of persons for the purpose of apportionment only.

Free Stephens, Henry Louis 1824-1882 artist, Public Domain via Library of CongressIt’s clear, then, what the three-fifths clause says about persons and implies about citizens, but what does it really say about slavery?

In a word, nothing. At least, not directly. As Douglass reminds us, the word ‘slave’ and its derivatives never appear in the Constitution at all. It does mention people ‘bound to service for a term of years’ but as we’ve already considered, this is unspecific, never mentions race, nor implies that bondage to servitude is ever anything other than limited.

There is one reading of the three fifths clause that I think is most consistent with the Preamble and with Douglass’ view of proper Constitutional interpretation. Given that the Constitution is concerned with Union, and Justice, and Tranquility, and the common defense, and the general Welfare, and Liberty, the three-fifths compromise was the best the founders could do at the time, given the intransigence of the slaveowners coupled with the young country’s need for their inclusion in the Union, to make the country large and strong enough to bring as much liberty as possible to as many people as possible. Bringing an end to slavery, Douglass believes, is the next necessary step for accomplishing the goals laid out in the Preamble as well as in the Declaration of Independence: to finally stamp out that liberty-destroying institution which had so undermined the general welfare, strength, and tranquility of the Union from its very beginning.

To return to the twin issues of personhood and citizenship in Douglass’ America: in a speech in 1854, Douglass says ‘In the State of New York where I live, I am a citizen and legal voter, and may therefore be presumed to be a citizen of the United States’. Just three short years later, in the infamous Scott vs. Sandford, a.k.a. the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Douglass and all his fellow black people are not citizens at all. While Douglass explains  in his speech’… [the]  Constitution knows no man by the color of his skin’, the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 upended decades of common practice and legal precedent since the founding of the nation, where free black people throughout the United States had enjoyed legal, if not social, equality. However, as Douglass correctly observes, skin color is never mentioned in the Constitution as a precondition for citizenship, only place of birth and status of naturalization.

According to his biographer Philip Foner, Douglass becomes the most advanced and most informed thinker in Constitutional law, and the political and legal theory that informs it, than any of his fellow prominent abolitionists. Douglass believes, in the end, that the Garrisonian abolitionists are making the same mistake as the slaveowners: they fail to interpret the Constitution rightly, on its own terms and as a unified legal document unparalleled and unprecedented in its full establishment of human liberty. From the Garrisonians onward, those of us who likewise interpret the Constitution as protecting the rights of some without protecting others, or who likewise fail to understand its true significance, its true potential, and its true power to bring the blessings of liberty to all, just don’t get the Constitution.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for ideas and culture

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies, with notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Landmark Cases: Scott vs. Sandford (The Dred Scott Decision), A C-Span Original TV Series, 2015  http://landmarkcases.c-span.org/Case/2/Scott-V-Sandford

O.P. Recommends: Landmark Cases / Injustices, Two Great Works on the Supreme Court

This last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been packing in a lot more learning about the Supreme Court, and is it ever fascinating.

It began when I stumbled on Landmark Cases last month, a C-Span series about 12 Supreme Court cases chosen because they had a dramatic impact on the legal landscape in United States history, and because they likewise had a significant impact on the Court itself, as precedent and on its perceived legitimacy, for good or ill. It can be found as a video series online, but I’ve been listening to the podcast version.
http://landmarkcases.c-span.org/

As I was listening, the discussions reminded me of a book I had heard about a little while ago but had forgotten to read, a book about the Supreme Court’s worst failures, terrible decisions that undermined its legitimacy and had a negative impact on the lives of people for years to come. It’s called Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, by Ian Millhiser. So, I went and picked it up, and just as with the Landmark Cases Series, I’ve been finding it difficult to tear myself away.

Both the Landmark Cases series and Injustices reveal that though sometimes the Supreme Court has been the bulwark against congressional, state, and individual encroachments of freedom, it has also too often betrayed the public trust. While we remember and celebrate such cases as Brown vs. Board of EducationGriswold v. Connecticut, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which brought the blessings of liberty to more of the American people than ever before, we sometimes forget how extensive the history of freedom-crushing Supreme Court decisions really is. The Dred Scott case, Lochner vs. New York, Korematsu vs. United States, and Citizens United v. FEC, for example, allowed employers to exploit desperate workers by cornering the market, fixing wages, and creating terrible working conditions with health-destroying long hours; permitted the government to imprison innocent citizens and allow the looting of their property based on no other consideration than race; and enabled the wealthy few to effectively buy up elections. Millhiser’s view of the Supreme Court’s historical tendency to value states and property rights over civil rights and the public interest is summarized here: ‘If American government truly derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, then [the] agenda [of the hardline conservatives] that is so often and so soundly rejected at the polls must not be implemented by one unelected branch of government when there is no constitutional basis to do so.’ (pp 184-85).

The Supreme Court’s conservative justices, joined at times by their otherwise more liberal-minded colleagues, all too often decided their cases according to the view that the Constitution only prescribes and limits federal action, and was not intended to do likewise with state or individual action. But as many other Supreme Court justices observed, especially in its civil rights phase throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, this reading of the Constitution renders it impotent (FDR’s terminology in his second inaugural address) to extend the protections of the Bill of Rights to citizens in almost all arenas of life.

After all, most of one’s life is not spent interacting directly with the federal government or its institutions, but in homes, shops, public squares, workplaces, and so on. If the state, or an employer, or a county sheriff, or a bus driver, or a neighbor, or any other non-federal institution or person uses their liberty to oppress another individual, then the latter can’t actually enjoy the freedoms that the Bill of Rights guarantees*. And surely the founders of our nation didn’t intend the Bill of Rights, demanded as a condition of the Constitution’s passage, to be powerless to protect individual freedoms in most circumstances. This is the principle which drives the more liberal Supreme Court Justices, Millhiser, and commentators on the Landmark Cases series to agree that strict constructionist, hyper-conservative, elitist, and commerce-centric justices have historically imposed opinions on the public that do not serve their interests as idealized in the Bill of Rights, and allowed the the powerful and wealthy few to claim the right to do as they like while trampling the liberties of everyone else. Since the Constitution derives its legitimacy from ‘we the people’, then we the people, in our institutions and as individuals, should be likewise bound by the Bill of Rights.

At times, I think that Milhiser champions too strongly the general principle that unelected judges should get out of the way and allow elected representatives to legislate as their constituents demand. After all, as so many of Milhiser’s examples indicate, legislators historically have been all too happy, too often, to make laws that favor some while trampling the rights of others. The potential value of an unelected judiciary to balance the power of an elected legislature is, I think, revealed more clearly in the Landmark Cases discussions. After all, the will of the majority often runs contrary to the national project laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to protect and promote the rights of everyone, especially those in the minority who need protection the most. However, as author Jeffrey Toobin points out in his endorsement of the book, Millhiser’s book does an excellent job of balancing the good history of good Supreme Court jurisprudence with the bad.

Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*For more on the distinction between liberty and freedom, please see my essay Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Landmark Cases: A C-Span Original TV Series, 2015
http://landmarkcases.c-span.org

Millhider, Ian. Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. New York: Nation Books, 2015.

“One Third of a Nation”: FDR’s Second Inaugural Address, published at History Matters website. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5105/

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson, Jan 16th 2016

I’m ple6759b-amy2band2bjeffersonased to announce that the 33rd episode of the podcast is a super special one, as it’s Ordinary Philosophy’s first interview, and my distinguished guest is Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author, and creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show and blog.

I’m a long time listener of the show; in fact, I believe I’ve listened to just about every single episode, many of them more than once, and relied on Clay’s work to inform my own, especially in the two Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series I did following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

I highly, highly recommend you give the Thomas Jefferson Hour a listen, you can find it at www.jeffersonhour.com, along with many other resources on the life and ideas of Jefferson, and Clay’s other work in the humanities.

You can find the accounts of my two series on Jefferson, as part of the Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, here and here.

I interview Clay here in character as Thomas Jefferson, as he does on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, discussing various issues as Jefferson himself might have viewed them, informed by Clay’s extensive scholarship on his life and expressed views.

I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did!

You can also subscribe to the Ordinary Philosophy and Thomas Jefferson Hour podcasts on iTunes.

*Thank you, Shane and David, for your help and technical support

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Why We Need Citizen Philosophers

Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655I am a citizen philosopher, and very likely, so are you.

So what is citizen philosophy, why is it a useful concept, and what is its role in the world?

Let’s begin by considering what we mean by philosophy, generally speaking. For a long time, philosophy has been considered an almost exclusively academic pursuit, so highly specialized that only a very few experts can properly be called philosophers. As Eric Schwitzgebel points out, this is a relatively new development. In the Western world, it traces its origins to classical Greece; each region of the world has its own history of philosophy or its analogue, from Egypt to China to the Americas. As with all fields of inquiry, philosophy has branched out and specialized until much of it would be barely comprehensible to its first practitioners. Indeed, almost all fields of inquiry we know today started out as a branch of philosophy: mathematics, logic, science, medicine, theology, you name it.

But Philosophy, or ‘love of wisdom’, began in the home, the workplace, the market square, and the street corner with curious, intelligent people who, newly enjoying the luxury of free time accorded by advances in food-acquisition technologies, began to ponder on the whys and hows of the natural world and of the human experience. These people weren’t originally chosen or designated by some authority as the ‘thinkers’ as opposed to everyone else, the ‘doers’; instead, philosophy originated, grew, and specialized organically. We, as a species, began to ask and answer ever more complex questions about how to best live in the world as members of societies, what’s going on within our own minds and why, what are our roles in the universe, and what it all means… including the question ‘what is meaning?’. Over time, certain individuals came to be recognized as particularly adept at asking and answering these important questions, and came to be considered specialists and authorities in their fields of inquiry. But philosophy, broadly construed, remained a pursuit of many more people than that.Panthéon, Temple of Reason, Paris, France, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Philosophy has been demystified by re-entering popular culture, to a significant extent. There’s an ever-growing audience for popular philosophy books, articles, magazines, podcasts, and blogs. The term itself has also been re-broadened, so to speak. ‘Philosophy’ has taken on many new shades of meaning as it’s used to refer to a particular view of life, or aesthetic taste, or set of aspirations, or working theory of knowledge, or organization method, or substitution for the loaded term ‘spiritual’ …even a brand of skin care products (this one disgusts me somewhat, as it offends my aesthetic taste and sense of the ‘sacred’ by capitalizing on public respect for one of my most beloved, to me non-commodifiable things). Some of its newfound popularity is the result of advancing secularization accompanied by the desire to retain transcendence and meaning; some is the result of our newly data-centric lives brought to us by the word wide web, creating the need to make sense of the deluge of new information available to us; some is the result of the blending, annexing, and clashing of cultures in a world now widely and intimately connected through advanced media technologies and ease of travel, creating the need to find ways of communicating and living together in a world of new complexities. It’s all happening so fast that each of us is experiencing the urgency to make sense of it all right away, in a way that is practicable in our own communities and subcultures, and in a way each of us can understand and readily communicate.

In short, philosophy is enjoying a comeback in the public square. What I’m calling citizen philosophers are those who ask and answer questions there, about the nature of the universe and how to make sense of our experiences of it, who are not necessarily engaged in professional or academic philosophy. While citizen philosophers tend to spend a significant amount of time engaged in such inquiry and are motivated to educate themselves widely and systematically, many find academic philosophy too arcane and obscure to help the rest of us navigate our increasingly complex lives.

I, for one, love academic philosophy. I am continuously in awe of the work these men and women do, devoting their lives to hard study, to asking the most challenging questions, and to deep examination of the most nuanced and complex problems. This body of work is breathtaking in its scope, beautiful in the elegance of its arguments and solutions, satisfying in its wit and cleverness, fascinating in its intensive scholarship, and indispensable in its ability to help us figure out why and how to make a better world. I find it highly enjoyable and fulfilling, as well as challenging and frustrating, to grasp and wrangle with the work of academic philosophers. To be sure, academic philosophy has had its share of what David Hume calls sophistry and illusion, fit only to be consigned to the flames, and what Harry Frankfort more succinctly calls ‘bullshit’. But philosophy is not alone in this: science has had its phrenology and eugenics, medicine its humours and bloodletting, theology its justification for slavery and pogroms, and so on. Like these other disciplines, academic philosophy has some wonderfully effective built-in self-correctors, and continues to be an essential, I think preeminent, field of inquiry.

Marketplace in Duisburg by Theodor Weber, 1850, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsBut many of the most important and interesting questions don’t come down on us from on high, so to speak, originating from academia and revealed, as if a sort of holy writ, to the rest of us. In fact, most of the questions and problems we all wrangle with still originate in the public square, in the home, workplace, classroom, hospital, church, courtroom, political assembly, and so on. They bubble up from the challenges and uncertainties of our daily lives, are filtered through conversation and the arts, are swept up in social, legal, and political movements and institutions, and carried into the pool of academic philosophy, where they are further clarified and distilled in treatises, lectures, books, and so on.

And these questions don’t only originate with the public at large, we offer our first answers there. The answers range from fragmentary to nuanced, from intuitive to considered, from repetitions of received wisdom to original, from off-the-cuff to well-informed, by people from all walks of life with their own areas of expertise and unique capabilities of understanding born of particular experience. These citizen philosophers are on the first line of discovery and inquiry, and so called because they don’t participate in this process as a profession, but as a matter of personal interest and as a member of society at large, not subject to the demands and constraints of academic philosophy. Of course, the category of citizen philosopher does not exclude academic philosophers, because of course they, too, participate in the same process of question-creation and question-answering in the course of their everyday lives, separate from their academic pursuits.

It’s the very lack of the demands and constraints of academic philosophy that gives citizen philosophy an important role to play in public life. The world as it is offers so many varieties of human experience, so many ways of seeing the world, so many challenges that academic philosophers, like the rest of us, never have the opportunity to confront directly. Yet the scope of academic philosophy, at least potentially, is as broad as the possibilities of human (even, perhaps nonhuman?) experience. So how can it be that academic philosophers can possibly access enough information to ask and answer all the important questions that could be addressed? It may be, if academic philosophers were endowed with immense powers of comprehension and imagination that would enable them to take all the information available in the world, to truly understand what it’s like to be a coal miner in China, a cardiologist experiencing a heart attack firsthand, a one and a half year old who just created their first sentence, a person with frontal lobe epilepsy experiencing a supernatural vision, or a terrorist who became so after their entire family was killed by a bomb, and then conceive of all of the social, epistemic, metaphysical, political, and every other sort of question that may arise from these experience. (À la the mythical Mary in Frank Jackson’s black and white room.) But of course, this is impossible, as even the most intelligent and informed human mind has its limits. Sometimes, raw data is the fodder of academic philosophical inquiry. But most often, it’s the questions, moral precepts, stories, works of art, aphorisms, dogmas, memories, narratives, and all other products of the human mind, already having undergone a first round of questioning and examination, that academic philosophers take up as topics of inquiry. Group discussion in the camps of Nirman (cropped), by Abhijeet Safai, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I, for one, am glad to see philosophy ever more present in the public square. That’s because I perceive philosophy as the great quest for understanding that academic and citizen philosophers all engage in, and as I see it, each gives something of immeasurable and irreplaceable value to the other. We need only recall some philosophical forays that have failed, from hairsplitting quibbles of scholasticism to navelgazing-verging-on-masturbatory obscurantisms of postmodernism, to recognize that academic philosophy benefits enormously by maintaining a robust discourse with the broader human community of activists, artists, reporters, bloggers, protesters, discussion groups, and of all others who care enough to question.  The discipline and expertise of academic philosophers, and the broader set of experiences, challenges, and opportunities for new questions and unique ways of understanding of the larger community of citizen philosophers each serve to keep the other more honest, more challenged, and more informed, in the great world conversation we’re all having.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Fareed Zakaria on What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration

Singapore, Satay stalls along Boon Tat Street next to Telok Ayer Market by Allie Caulfield, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn thinking recently about the nature of government and its proper roles, I recalled this Fareed Zakaria piece about Singapore’s engineered diversity.

In it, Zakaria praises Singapore’s efforts to reduce racial and religious bigotry by increasing the diversity of its neighborhoods. The government’s tactics to achieve this would be intolerably intrusive to most Americans, and indeed to the citizens of most modern democratic nations. When it comes to race and class, the Singaporean law favors the government’s interest in providing an environment where citizens are brought up in familiarity with people who are different than they are, and therefore less subject to the harmful effects of bigotry, over the rights of individuals to freely choose where to live.

So can Singaporeans be considered more free than Americans when it comes to race and class? What does it mean to be free, in this sense? We struggle here in the United States from the ugly effects of entrenched bigotries, ancient and new, long after we considered it okay to sanction them by law: we live in self-segregated neighborhoods where racial minorities and the less wealthy enjoy a far lower level of health and personal safety, religious minorities (at this moment in our history, especially Muslims, although Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and others have had their turns) are subject to the suspicion and hatred born largely of ignorance, and social mobility is extremely slow. But we can choose to live, at least on paper, wherever we want. Does that really make us more free?

And if we generally agree, as a society, that we believe the end of bigotry is a worthy moral goal, is it right and proper for the government to be the arbiter of that goal? Is morality a governmental concern at all? Or is it the government’s role to keep out while citizens wrangle with important moral questions, interfering only to protect its citizens from bodily harm?

Along with Zakaria, I find much to admire in Singapore’s goal, and its tactics do appear to help foster social cohesion and reduce conflict. Would Americans would ever ‘go for’ anything like that, if our conflicts of race, class, and religion continue to set us against one another? I doubt it. But I don’t think we should kid ourselves that it makes us any more truly free.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Source and inspiration:

Zakaria, Fareed. ‘What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration’. The Washington Post, June 25, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/from-singapore-lessons-in-harmony-and-diversity/2015/06/25/86fcbfa2-1b72-11e5-93b7-5eddc056ad8a_story.html

Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, image Public Domain

In his lifetime and to this day, Frederick Douglass is a hero to the religious and non-religious,to believers and skeptics alike, each claiming him as a champion and exemplar of their values. Why the discrepancy? In his speeches, letters, and published work, Douglass reveals himself as both believer and doubter, a man of deep Christian faith who experiences a great deal of religious skepticism throughout his life.

Douglass is a self-professed believer in God and a Christian, yet he’s a vocal critic of most Christian denominations of his day, especially those of the United States. As a young man, Douglass struggles with religious doubts as he observes, time after time, that the most pious slaveowners are the most cruel. His master Thomas Auld, Edward Covey the slave-breaker, Reverend Daniel Weedon and the neighboring Hamiltons in Baltimore, among others, routinely and mercilessly whipped and abused their slaves, often to the point of great injury and near death, all justifying their behavior through Bible passages. In his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass writes: ‘…The religion of the south…is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes…. Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard …being the slave of a religious slaveholder, the greatest that could befall me’ (159). In fact, he discovers to his surprise that the most decent master he ever had, William Freeman, was the only one without religion.

In his early days as an abolitionist activist and speaker, his accounts of his youthful doubts occasioned by his bad experiences with religious people cause many to accuse him of irreligion. But over time, he makes it clear that’s not religion itself he hates, it’s what he considers ‘false religion’. And no religion is as false as that which endorses slavery, which, first and foremost in Douglass’s time, was the Christian denominations of the American south.

But Douglass’s condemnation of American Christianity only begins with the southern churches; it by no means ends there. He calls on his fellow black people to leave any church, shaking the dust off their feet as they go, if their pastors or fellow parishioners subject them to indignity or unequal treatment. If anyone is segregated into balconies or back rows, or required to wait to receive communion after other colors or classes of parishioners, or their pastors preach against resistance to slavery, or the church in any other way indicates that black people are not deserving of the exact same respect, in degree and kind, as fellow children of God, then their church is revealed as just another peddler of false, corrupted religion. And all of these betrayals of the true Christianity, as Douglass perceives it, were as nearly pervasive in the northern churches as in the south.

Douglass believes that these practices, disrespectful of certain of God’s children, are not only unjust; they’re blasphemous because they’re direct attacks on the goodness and true nature of God. That’s because Douglass perceives the true God as not only ‘the God of Israel, Isaac, and Jacob’, but more broadly, the God of the oppressed. He sees this theme, this common thread, linking the plundered and oppressed desert tribes of Biblical Canaan (not mentioning that they did some plundering of their own) to those in his day who are suffering, reviled, and denied their natural rights: black people, women, the Irish, the abolitionists. Time and time again, Douglass relies on his interpretation of God as the God of the oppressed to show how the fugitive, the disenfranchised, the famine-starved left to die by their own governments, the righteous, reviled, and steadfast opposer of slavery and defender of the downtrodden, are actually those closest to him, are those who understand and share in his true nature.

But Douglass’s faith also appears at least as naturally derived as it is scripturally revealed. That’s because Douglass uses nature as a litmus test to reveal the truth and integrity of religion. Since by nature all people need and take joy in food and drink, physical and spiritual comfort, love, and beauty whatever their color, sex, or place of origin, and all people suffer alike from cold, hunger, thirst, cruelty, and neglect, and all people are just as capable of improvement through education and moral edification, then all people share the same nature, possess the same dignity, and have the same rights. Scripture may appear to allow for bigotry, unequal treatment, and bad behavior and even require it, but nature is observable and incontestable. So, if an interpretation of scripture seems to allow or require one to treat any of their fellow human beings as less than equally beloved, equally valuable children of the one God, that interpretation is certainly wrong since it violates the natural God-authored order of things.

In the end, Douglass relies on Jesus himself to tell us how to recognize true faith in true religion: ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them’ (Matthew 7:20). It’s not whether or not one professes belief in a religion, or can quote passages of scripture or the work of theologians, that reveals the worth and nature of faith. Douglass believes that true religion (which for Douglass, is true Christianity), always reveals itself by how well its adherents defend and promote justice and the equal dignity of all human persons. Conversely, if a religion commands or even permits injustice, it must be false. Where you find kindness and justice, there you find faith, and nowhere else.

It’s not the outward form or classification which indicates the true tree of religion to Douglass, it’s the sweetness and wholesomeness revealed in the fruit of true faith.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

*Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Self-Soothing by Way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History, by Clay Jenkinson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at his Memorial in Washington D.C., photo 2015 by Amy Cools My beloved mentor in the humanities, Everett C. Albers, taught me the most important of all lessons: “Judgement is easy, understanding is hard.”

You probably have been following the recent spasm of righteousness on some of our college campuses. Some students wish to erase all traces of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, because he was a racist who undid what little integration his predecessors had managed in the federal government; because he was a sexist, who actively worked against women’s suffrage. Some students wish to have statues of Thomas Jefferson removed from the campus of the University of Missouri, because he was a racist, a slaveholder, and a sexual predator (if you read the Sally Hemings story in the darkest possible way). Some students at Oxford University wish to erase all traces of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, because he was a racist and an imperialist.

And so on.

It is true, by our standards as exemplars of perfect enlightenment, these men were all racists and indeed apartheidists. I have a close connection with two of them: Jefferson, whom I have been studying for thirty years, and Rhodes, whose scholarship I freely accepted back in 1976, and under whose financial legacy I studied for four wonderful years at Oxford University. I know the life and achievement of Woodrow Wilson less well, but I have read a handful of books about him over the years.

I regard this growing trend of purification rituals as wrong-headed and misguided for a number of reasons. I’ll list them as briefly as possible.

1. What will they say of us? Sometimes I try to anticipate what the righteous ones of the future will say about us? I met a petrochemical engineer a number of years ago. We talked for several hours about oil as a miracle carbon. I asked her what the epitaph of Western Civilization would be. She said. “They burned oil.” This morning I’m wearing shoes, socks, boxers, trousers, and a shirt, not one item of which was made in the United States. If I could trade each item of clothing back to the factory of its manufacture, I doubt that I would sleep well tonight. I’m with Jesus, John 8:7, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

2. The whole man theory. As Jefferson wisely explained to his daughter Martha (see above), every human being is a mixed bag: enlightenment and blind prejudice, generosity and narcissism, benevolence and malevolence, good day and bad day, clarity and blind spot, outstanding in some ways, deplorable in others. Think of Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Benito Mussolini, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, for example. In selecting our culture heroes, we have to assess the whole life and the entire achievement.

Jefferson was a racist and a slaveholder. These factors should weigh heavily in any rational assessment of his life and character. But we must also place in the balance his magnificent labors as a benefactor of humankind: decimal coinage, the rectangular survey grid system, separation of church and state, the University of Virginia, the organizational principle of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, the design for the Capitol at Richmond, VA, fundamental work in paleontology, the Declaration of Independence, and the software of the American dream.

For all of his faults–and they do not begin and end with slavery–is Jefferson, in the final analysis, a benefactor or a degrader of humankind? On balance, how shall we evaluate him? Looking at his whole 83 years, his mass of writings, his range of practical achievements, his acts of greatness and his weakest moments, how shall we finally assess him?

3. Hamlet’s view. When the aging courtier Polonius tells Hamlet he will treat the visiting theater group “according to their desert,” Hamlet responds passionately: “God’s bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping.” — Precisely. Where does this erasure of the past, more reminiscent of Stalin’s USSR and Orwell’s 1984 than of an enlightened democracy, end exactly? George Washington was a slaveholder. Lincoln had race views that would get him razed from Mount Rushmore by the narrowly righteous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said remarkably ugly things about African-Americans when black men got the vote but white women did not in the wake of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer. Theodore Roosevelt was at times a warmonger. His views on American Indians are so dark at times that one hates even to read them in a scholarly arena. John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, (where does this list end?) broke their marriage vows. Martin Luther King was a womanizer and he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush evaded military service during the Vietnam War. Presidents Obama, Clinton, and GW Bush smoked dope. JFK dropped acid in the White House!

The only political figure I know who seems to have passed the righteous test in full purity is Jimmy Carter. That alone should give us pause. Where does this wave of righteous expurgation end?

4. ‘Tis better to wrestle than erase. My mentor Ev Albers believed that the duty of the humanities scholar is to examine and explore, to try to put any text or historical act or individual in its context, to try to understand how things shook out as they did and not otherwise. The duty of the humanist is to explore the past for its complexity, richness, unresolvedness, nuance, paradox, and problematic nature, and not to engage in the lazy enterprise of making glib judgments. Judgement is easy, understanding difficult. It does no good to portray Jefferson as a lover of liberty who unfortunately was born into a world of slavery, but who treated his slaves well and tried to change the world of Virginia and the United States to the extent that he could; and equally it does no good to portray Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite who talked the language of liberty and equality, but who was quite content to breed slaves for the marketplace, and who dismissed African-Americans as physically and mentally inferior. One could make either argument plausibly enough, for there is a huge and not always consistent body of evidence in Jefferson writings and actions.

But surely we gain more by wrestling with the paradoxes in Jefferson’s life, illuminating, clarifying, teasing out nuance, attempting to understand his own (changing) thinking about race and slavery, his own strategy for preserving his reputation as an apostle of liberty while buying and selling human beings, who, as he freely acknowledged, “did him no injury.” After spending thirty years thinking and writing about Jefferson, I am not at all sure I understand his relationship to race and slavery. I’m not done trying. But I refuse simply to condemn him before I fully understand him.

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable complexities of our heritage. Jefferson’s greatest biographers have said that the contradictions and unresolved principles in his life (1743-1826) are also the contradictions and unresolved issues in the American experiment. To understand ourselves, we must try to understand him. To judge him in a simplistic and self-satisfying way, means that we are short-circuiting our attempts to understand ourselves.

It would be insane, I think, to refuse to name an elementary school Martin Luther King, Jr., because he broke his marriage vows, or plagiarized his dissertation. It would be equally insane to remove Jefferson’s statue from the campus of the University of Virginia or the University of Missouri or William & Mary. Much better to use the “offending” icons as a text to discuss, debate, wrestle with, maybe even throw eggs at on occasion. But to remove those statues because Jefferson has disappointed us, US!, is to lose an opportunity for a very serious conversation about the dynamics that produced the America of 2016.

The Culture of Outrage represents a very dreary path in our pursuit of happiness and justice. In my view, on the whole, all things considered, Thomas Jefferson (as well as Woodrow Wilson, though I’m not quite as sure about Cecil Rhodes) must be seen as a net benefactor of humankind. But I would not remove a statue of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, or for that matter Pitchfork Ben Tillman from its pedestal. Better to deliberate and debate, perhaps at the top of our lungs, than to erase that which we think we have transcended.

– Clay S. Jenkinson is the author, educator, and scholar who created The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and is a sought-after historical impersonator, speaker, and media commentator, providing a deep but playful context to today’s events. (Bio credit: The Thomas Jefferson Hour, edited by A.C.) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit http://jeffersonhour.com/

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Further Reading:

» American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis
» Thomas Jefferson: America’s Paradoxical Patriot, by Alf Mapp, Jr.