Citizenship, Belonging, and the Experiences of Amero-Africans in West Africa: An Analysis of William Innes’ Early History of Liberia

Rev. Dr. William Innes of Edinburgh

In 1831 and again in 1833, Waugh and Innes of Edinburgh published a history of Liberia by ‘Minister of the Gospel’ William Innes.[1]

In his Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa, Innes describes the founding, structure, and struggles of this West African colony, founded in the early 1820’s as a haven for free and previously enslaved people of African descent and for ‘recaptives’[2] rescued from the newly illegal transatlantic slave trade.[3] Innes was an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, an ‘independent’-minded Presbyterian and then Baptist minister, one-time chaplain of Stirling Castle, missionary, bookseller, and author of over two dozen books and other publications, mostly on religious topics. The titles of his publications, such as Reasons for Separating from the Church of Scotland (Dundee, 1804), Christianity, the Only Effectual Support Under the Afflictions of Life (Edinburgh, 1810), Domestic Religion, or an Exposition of the Precepts of Christianity Regarding the Duties of Domestic Life (Edinburgh, 1822), and Instructions for Young Enquirers (Edinburgh, translated into Gaelic 1827) indicate why this otherwise mostly theological writer decided to write a history of a colony.[4] As we shall see, this reform-minded man viewed Liberia as a worthy project within the larger goal of uplifting lives as well as souls.

Although Innes’ account includes some discussion of the hardships faced by the colonists trying to build a community in and wrest a living from this unfamiliar and somewhat hostile territory, he presents a generally positive view of the experience and prospects of the Liberian colonization project. Indeed, Innes seems anxious to convince his readers that the colony could not only exist and thrive, but that it should. As we shall see, Liberia is, to Innes, a project of community-building in line with ordered nature and with American beliefs in democracy, self-sufficiency, and the sense of social harmony necessary for a united and healthy political community. In interrogating this text, then, we are led to ask: how are ideas about citizenship and belonging implied and described in Innes’ history of Liberia, how do they relate to the lived experiences of Amero-Africans in the United States and Liberia, and how are these ideas challenged?

Innes commences his history with a discussion of the historical conditions in which this colonization movement arose. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in November of 1816 as a benevolent institution dedicated to the long-conceived but as yet unsystematic scheme of colonizing black inhabitants of the United States to Africa, the continent of their ancestral origin.[5] As Innes and many others saw it, including many abolitionists and proslavery advocates alike,[6] black people could never live peacefully side by side with white Americans. Innes writes that all black persons are ‘branded by their colour as an inferior caste.’[7] He argues that so long as they live as an ‘inferior’ class within the general community of free persons, both black and white will suffer the ill effects of living in a mixed-race society, made up as it is of people with necessarily disparate natures and irreconcilable interests.[8] So long as people of African descent live within the mainstream white American community, the majority of the former will remain ‘idle, ignorant, vicious’ as a result of their disfavor, and cites as an example of this that ‘in many cases the free negroes are a great annoyance to the community, often living by pilfering the property of their neighbors.’[9] Therefore, Innes explains, the only way that people of African descent can create communities to which they naturally belong is to form them separately from white communities, and the best place to do so is by establishing their own communities in the continent of their ancestor’s origin. In doing so, they can enjoy the rights and privileges of citizens with others who share their place in the racial hierarchy. [10] In his majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court 1856 decision in the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford case, which exacerbated the divisive political issues of slavery and race that helped spark the United States’ Civil War,[11] Chief Justice Roger Taney agrees with Innes’ theory of natural racial separation. He likewise believes that human beings are manifestly and naturally separated into inferior and superior races that cannot form a united political community.[12] Ideas such as Innes’ and Taney’s permeated political debate and policy in the United States for decades to come, widely disenfranchising black Americans and relegating them to second-class citizenship throughout the nation.

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Yet the colonization scheme as described above is a manifestation of paradoxical ideas about belonging and citizenship rather than a straightforward, across the board rejection of the rights or abilities of black persons to enjoy political power, despite Taney’s assertions to the contrary. According to Innes, Taney, many in the ACS, the U.S. government, and so many Americans, people of African origin who were brought to American shores to labor, to raise crops and buildings and in every other way contribute to the economy and to the material well-being of United States citizens nevertheless do not belong within the political community nor could ever be citizens themselves. Yet advocates of colonization such as Innes believed that people of African descent were or could become citizens in Africa even if they were not born there. This was and continued to be believed by many of African descent as well. W.E.B. DuBois, African-American historian, racial theorist, and proponent of the pan-Africanist ‘vision’[13] of Africa as the natural homeland for all people of African descent, describes Africa as ‘fatherland,’ and ‘motherland.’ DuBois concedes that he has only a ‘tenuous’ connection to Africa ‘in culture and race’, like most people colonized to Africa in Innes’ time. African scholar M.B. Akpan points out that Amero-Africans (acculturated Americans of African descent who settled in Africa) who went to Liberia were vastly different from native Africans in about as many ways as they could be, in dress, language, religion, taste in food, clothing, housing, art, and so on.[14] Yet some, like DuBois, perceived themselves as bound to Africa by an essential ‘kinship.’[15] For Innes and others, this kinship is entirely racially based; for DuBois and many pan-Africanists, ‘the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and the insult; and this heritage binds [us] together…’[16]

Innes and proponents of Amero-African colonization, Taney and other racial hierarchists, and pan-Africanists like Dubois share a belief that there is something about a common African descent and shared experiences, however combined with ethnic descent and acculturation from elsewhere, which creates a natural community. Such natural communities, in turn, create opportunities for citizenship that cannot be enjoyed at all, or at least not fully, in any other context. These ideas are in tension throughout Innes’ account of how West African colonies came to be and the way they persisted despite significant challenges and hardships. These challenges arose within the colonies themselves and from conflicts between colonists and the ecology, and between colonists and their native African neighbors. Innes’ account of the difficulties faced by the Liberian colonists differs significantly in many respects from later scholarship and from other contemporary accounts. In Innes’ account, these difficulties are relatively minor compared to the benefits the colonists enjoyed as citizens of a new community to which they rightly belonged.[17] The contrast between Innes’ account and other contemporary accounts backed up by later scholarship[18] imply that Innes’ driving concern to use Liberia as a positive example of how racially-based communities are formed biased his very favorable presentation of the colony.

Regarding their prospects for acceptance and inclusion within the mainstream American social and political community, Innes describes his perception of the state in which non-enslaved people of African descent find themselves:

…[T]roughout the non-slaveholding states, the negroes form a distinct race, branded by their color as an inferior caste; regarded with a species of loathing when thought of as companions, and for ever shut out from the privileges of the white men by whom they are surrounded. Be it prejudice, or founded on reason, the feeling of dislike mutually exists… .No matter what may be their industry and sobriety; no matter what their attainments in science, or their character for morality, they can never hope to pass the broad line of demarcation, or assume a station of equality with the other members of the community.[19]

Frederick Douglass ca. 1847-52, Samuel Miller, American 1822-1882, Art Institute of Chicago, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Racial hierarchists like Taney share the ‘species of loathing’ which Innes describes. Today, Innes’ and Taney’s descriptions of race relations are difficult to read, especially Taney’s. For one, they conflict with contemporary thoughts and sensibilities about race which are, in the main, orders of magnitude more optimistic about the likelihood that people of various races and ethnicities can meaningfully share and participate in communities as social and political equals. For another, they don’t ring true, especially in Taney’s harsh Dred Scott account of the social and political issues of race in America. After all, there were many mixed-race communities in which black Americans lived relatively safely and peacefully alongside their white neighbors even given the national tensions over issues of race. Leading black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass settled in one such community, New Bedford, Massachusetts, following his escape from slavery in Maryland in 1838.[20] Taney’s opinion reads very much like a partisan political document and presents a wholly dismal picture of both the capabilities and prospects of people of African descent.[21] Innes’ commentary, on the other hand, presents a more mixed though still racially hierarchical view. On the one hand, he implies in the selection above and makes clearer elsewhere that he believes people of African descent are fully capable of ‘industry and sobriety,’ of morality, of worthy and admirable attainments, of being ‘provident’ and ‘respectable,’ of conducting ‘affairs of empire,’ and so on.[22] Yet Innes does not believe they are capable of this, on the whole, so long as they live in communities among their white racial ‘superiors.’[23] Removal from white society and colonization with others of their own racial heritage, then, is the answer.

Yet all the qualities that Innes enumerates as making people belong within communities and which he characterizes as those of good citizens, he already ascribes to Americans of African descent. We can see this most clearly in the passages in Innes’ history where he describes the contrast between Amero-African colonizers and the beneficial and ‘civilizing’ influence that they exert on their native Africans neighbors. In matters of language, religion, dress, morality, ability, education, and so on, they are in turn, deems Innes, superior to their native African neighbors and the latter, recognizing this, wish to emulate them.[24] We can also recognize Innes’ conflicting views in the terms he chooses to refer to the Amero-African colonists and the native African peoples in their territorial conflicts. When describing the participants and victims of battles, Innes refers to Amero-Africans and their native African allies in such terms as ‘woman’, ‘men,’ ‘persons,’ ‘mother’, ‘the people’, and so on. By contrast, Innes refers to native Africans primarily by terms such as ‘barbarian,’ ‘savage’, ‘enemy’, and ‘wretches’, characterized by ‘moral deformity.’[25] This implies that for Innes, civilization can depend on culture, virtues, religious beliefs, and modes of comportment rather than race. The very qualities that make people belong to a community and become good citizens can and are often held by Amero-Africans whatever side of the Atlantic. As we can see in the selection above, Innes concedes this even as he explains why black people cannot belong within American white communities. He allows that black individuals can and do ‘rise above their degraded brethren’ and exhibit such good-citizenship qualities as ‘character for morality’ and ‘industry and sobriety,’ capable of ‘mak[ing] attainments in science’ and so forth.[26] Innes, then, presents two very distinct conceptions of belonging, citizenship, and race which are, if not in direct conflict, at least in tension with one another.

Clipping from The African Repository and Colonial Journal, V. XIII 1837, describing the efforts of William Johnson to settle his former slaves in Liberia, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Innes resolves these conflicting ideas about race and belonging to his own satisfaction through his appeal to divine approval. Innes, as a ‘Minister of the Gospel,’[27] looks for and finds signs of God’s will that the Liberian colony survive. He argues that God must approve of removing black people to Liberia because the preservation of Liberian colonies is unlikely otherwise given the obstacles they faced, which in turn shows divine approbation of this racial separation.[28] The idea of divine arrangement of peoples into natural types and nations which pervades Innes’ history resembles such racially hierarchical theories as Taney’s. However, Innes’ view of racial ordering displays more divine benevolence for the black race even as it is extremely patriarchal. Innes perceives a divine will that all people of African descent be redeemed through their separate political and religious institutions. This will best be brought about first by separating the races into naturally sympathetic racially divided communities, and then locating those communities in places where they can spread the gospel of Christ to others of the same race who have not yet received it through the establishment of colonies. The colonizers were then placed in a position to help bring about the divine will in the world such as providing a Christian example to their African neighbors[29] and helping to end the ‘evil’ and ‘dreadful malady’ of the slave trade.[30]

Yet Innes’ overall sunny take on the lived experience of the Liberian colonists contrasts with contemporary and later accounts of the Liberian experiment. Douglass, for example, is skeptical of the glowing accounts of the colony’s success as well as of its prospects of helping to end the slave trade; he questions the motives and therefore the accuracy of those offering glowing accounts of the colonization effort’s success.[31] Innes’ account is one which invites such skepticism. He considers the ‘signal preservation’ of the colony a sign of God’s approval but does not consider the severe hardships that he chooses to cite such as supply shortages, attacks from neighboring tribes, difficulties raising crops, the fact that they had to wrest the colony’s land concession from Dei ‘King Peter’ at gunpoint, and the high rates of disease and death as signs of God’s disapproval.[32] Innes seems to minimize the hardships in Liberia as he follows every mention of them with an immediate qualification or comparison, such as citing the early American colonies’ struggles or remarking that the Liberian colonies could have suffered worse.[33] He goes so far as to dismiss symptoms of illness as mere climatic adjustment reactions of healthy bodies, though he does admit that many died.[34] According to historian Claude Andrew Clegg, however, the colonists often suffered extremely high rates of hunger, disease, privation, and mortality.[35] Clegg also cites many examples of the colonists’ difficulties, including the telling example of Emily Hooper, a young colonist who, after an extraordinarily difficult and expensive effort on her father’s part to obtain her freedom and fund her journey to Liberia, decided to return to slavery rather than further suffer the hardships of the colony. This episode was a great embarrassment to the ACS.[36]

In addition to the evidence of hardship and mortality in many reports, accounts like Innes’ are roundly challenged by argument and even ridicule. One particularly scornful and influential critic of the colonization scheme was Douglass. Indeed, except for the fact that he actually refers to [news]paper accounts in his ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color’ address delivered in Rochester, New York in 1851, it would be reasonable to assume that Douglass was referring to Innes’ history when he observed: ‘Papers that never speak of colored men in this country but to abuse and slander them, speak in the most flattering terms of …Liberia.’[37] To Douglass, arguments such as those offered by Innes and American statesman Henry Clay, who recommend the removal of black people from American society due to idleness, lawlessness, and other perceived flaws invite a counter-question: ‘Suppose we should admit… that we are degraded and dissolute, as a class; are there no other degraded and dissolute people?… Who talks of their expatriation?’ to which he answers: ‘No one.’[38] Douglass also mocks the idea that colonization movement will weaken slavery as an institution. It’s the presence of free black people in slave states that help weaken slavery by demonstrating to the enslaved that there is another way they can live in America. Removing free black people to Africa, argues Douglass, removes this constant and substantial threat to slaveholders’ desire to rule unchallenged over a docile, resigned slave population.[39]

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

Throughout his early history of Liberia, Innes wavers but does not stray far from his theme of Liberia as a natural home for Americans of African descent. His explanations for how and why Amero-Africans, acculturated to the United States in language, morals, religion, dress, and overall ways of life nevertheless belong in a land which most have never seen are not, as we have seen, entirely consistent. Why Amero-Africans can only successfully gain a sense of belonging and engage as citizens in a place where they are outsiders in every way except skin color is also not satisfactorily explained; indeed, Innis presents Liberia as if it were the only alternative to black Americans continuing to live in a state of political and social exclusion and oppression in mainstream white American society. Innes offers the ‘signal preservation’ of the Liberian colony as proof of its value to God and humankind as well as of its eventual success, but glosses over any consideration that the terrible hardships and dangers that the colonists had to face were evidence to the contrary. Others such as Douglass, however, perceive the flaws in the explanations and evidence that Innes offers, and presents both counterevidence and counterarguments that helped undermine support for the colonization project over the decades of its existence.[40]

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Bibliography

Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973): 217-36.

Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition. Accessed 20 March 2018 at http://frederickdouglass.infoset.io/

Douglass, Frederick, and John W. Blassingame. The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series 1, Speeches, Debates and Interviews; John W. Blassingame, Editor. Vol.1, 1841-46. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1979.

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975.

Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923.

Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974.

Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833. Accessed 20 March 2018 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044051050987

Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H Van Evrie, and Samuel A Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Accessed 21 March 21, 2018 at https://www.loc.gov/item/17001543/

West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

[1] Innes, William. Liberia: Or, The Early History & Signal Preservation of the American Colony of Free Negroes on the Coast of Africa. Waugh & Innes; M. Ogle, etc., 1833, frontispiece

[2] Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. 2004 p. 37

[3] Staudenraus, P. J. The African Colonization Movement, 1816-1865. London: Oxford University Press, 1961 p. 51

[4] ‘William Innes’ in Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: The Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, Vol. IV: Synods of Argyll, and of Perth and Stirling. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1923 pp. 325-326

[5] West, Richard. Back to Africa: A History of Sierra Leone and Liberia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971 p. 93

[6] Clegg p. 3-4, Staudenraus pp. 2-7

[7] Ibid. p 102

[8] Innes pp. iv-v, 101-103

[9] Ibid. p. iv

[10] Ibid. pp. 102, 106-107

[11] Clegg pp. 174, 195-196

[12] United States Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, John H. Van Evrie, and Samuel A. Cartwright. The Dred Scott decision: opinion of Chief Justice Taney. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1860 pp. 18-19

[13] Geiss, Imanuel. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974 p. 5

[14] Akpan, M. B. “Black Imperialism: Americo-Liberian Rule over the African Peoples of Liberia, 1841–1964.” Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue Canadienne Des études Africaines 7, no. 2 (1973) p. 219

[15] Du Bois, W. E. B., and Herbert Aptheker. Dusk of Dawn. 1975 pp. 116

[16] Ibid. p. 117

[17] Innes pp. 87-89

[18] Clegg pp. 226-229

[19] Ibid. p. 102

[20] Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1996 pp. 353ff

[21] Taney pp. 17-18

[22] Innes pp. 77, 86-87, 91

[23] Ibid. pp. 101-102, 176

[24] Innes p. 83, 86-89

[25] Ibid. pp. 57-65

[26] Ibid. p 102

[27] Ibid., frontispiece

[28] Ibid. pp. vi-vii, 37-38, 62, 64, 72, 91

[29] Ibid., pp. 112-115

[30] Ibid., pp. 9-10, 108-112

[31] ‘Persecution on Account of Faith, Persecution on Account of Color: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 26 January 1851,’ North Star, 30 January 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, pp. 300-302

[32] Innes, pp. v-vi, 16-21, 38-39, 93-95, 101, 108-111; Clegg, p. 37; West pp. 114-115

[33] Innes., pp. 91-92

[34] Ibid., p. 93

[35] Clegg, see descriptions and figures in chapter 7 of The Price of Liberty, ‘To Live and Die in Liberia,’ pp. 201-248

[36] Ibid., pp. 187-188

[37] Douglass, ‘Persecution,’ p. 302

[38] ‘Henry Clay and Colonization Cant, Sophistry, and Falsehood: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 2 February 1851, North Star, 6 February 1851, in Douglass, Frederick, and John R. McKivigan (project director). Frederick Douglass Papers: Digital Edition, p. 323

[39] Ibid., p. 322

[40] Staudenraus, pp. 249-250

O.P. Recommends: Bettany Hughes At 5×15 – Socrates And The Good Life

One of my favorite historians, broadcasters, and speakers, Bettany Hughes, gives a wonderful talk here on Socrates. Enjoy!

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!

History, Philosophy, and Political Hope, by Richard Eldridge

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsPolitics in general is all about how to develop, sustain, and revise institutions, practices, and policies that bind individuals together productively and that point toward more fulfilling individual and joint futures for them. Debates about how best to do this are natural. Should the US become yet more aggressively libertarian-individualist, or should a substantial social compact that enforces terms of fair cooperation via significant redistribution be instituted? Should the UK embrace European social democratic values and relations, or should it stand on its Anglo-Saxon distinctiveness?

These important questions are increasingly addressed, however, in the absence of significant, articulate knowledge of political ideals that historically have informed political life. As a result, debates about these questions are typically shriller and less productive than they could and should be. Various forms of nativism and populism supplant more considered deliberations, for good enough reasons, as individuals and subpopulations come to be and to feel disenfranchised from political and economic business-as-usual. In a 15 May 2016 New York Times opinion piece, the economic historian Michael Lind reports that “A 2016 Presidential Election Survey by the RAND Corporation revealed that the single factor that best predicted voter support for Donald Trump among likely Republican voters was not income, education, race, gender or attitudes toward Muslim or illegal immigration, but agreement with the statement ‘people like me don’t have any say.’” Globalization and the degradations of the powerful are increasing political and economic disenfranchisement throughout the industrialized world. Disenchantment then produces anger, for good reasons. Presciently, and echoing Plato’s criticisms of democracy (though not his proposals to abolish it), the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested in 1997 in Achieving Our Country that

members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers–themselves desperately afraid of being downsized–are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for–someone willing to assure them that once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

The demand for an outlet for resentment and anger is being exploited by so-called anti-system politicians and parties, including Trump and Sanders in the US, Marie LePen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, Beppo Grillo in Italy, and the Syriza Party in Greece. Whether from the left or the right, the watchword is “tear it down,” not “build it up.”

One way to begin to reverse these developments and to enrich political debates is to consider detailed accounts of political-ideals-as-lived that have been articulated and argued for by major philosophers who are sensitive to the values all at once of individualism, responsibility, political equality, economic security, rich joint meaningful life, and ongoing critical thought, as commitments to these values have been lived out against the backgrounds of religious and philosophical traditions. Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin are two thinkers of exactly this kind. Each of them eloquently asked and answered the question, “What may we hope for?,” and each of them answered it by taking seriously both political ideals and available historical possibilities that might be seized. Working through their partly complementary, partly opposed ideas about the historical achievement of value within joint political life might help us to develop richer images of political maturity and help us toward more productive public political debate. As Michael Lind concluded his essay, “If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy, the answer is not less democracy…, but more.” Reading Kant and Benjamin together and subjecting their accounts to reflective comparison and criticism can help us to cultivate a more genuine, informed, reflective democracy and, thus, to give life and depth to political hope.

~ Originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World, on June 26th, 2016

~ Richard Eldridge is Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of Philosophy at Swarthmore College. He has held visiting appointments at Essex, Stanford, Bremen, Erfurt, Freiburg, Brooklyn, and Sydney. He is the author of 5 books and over 100 articles in aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of literature, and Romanticism and Idealism. He has edited 4 volumes, including The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, and he is the Series Editor of Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature. (Bio credit: OUP Blog)

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!

Review: In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015

When I returned to college a few years ago to follow my heart’s desire and study philosophy, one of my ethics professors opened the first class session with this question: ‘Why are you here?’ It was not meant as that ubiquitous and difficult-to-answer metaphysical question which would be the topic of so many future course discussions (difficult because it’s not well-formed, many of us would object, being too nebulous). He meant, why where we there in his class, and why were we attending college at all?

I was sitting there, aglow with satisfaction at having resumed my pursuit of a higher education after spending so many years working for others, then struggling to keep my own small business afloat in the 2008 recession era. I was feeling that the daily tasks of my working life were taking up an inordinate amount of time while failing to satisfy my curiosity about the world, so I reduced the size of my business (I’m happy to report it continues to thrive to this day) and returned to school.

In answer to my ethics professor’s question, a few hands went up. ‘To get a good job?…’ one student offered, hesitatingly. ‘I want to get rich! That’s what we’re all here for, really’ said another, with bravado. Others chimed in in assent, with a few objecting that while that’s really what they were here for, too, that’s not the only reason. While some lip service was paid to the intrinsic value of education, the instrumental view of college, as a means to the end of achieving wealth and status, won out in that particular discussion.

In the idealistic mood I was in, I was disappointed. I was here because I was sick to death of the struggle to get ahead, and was thrilled at the prospect of pouring most of my energy into learning and thinking; making money was now relegated to the periphery of my life, and good riddance. For awhile, at least, I would be thrifty and work enough to pay the bills and save a little for emergencies, and that was it.

Why open this review with an anecdote? I’m inspired to to do by Zakaria himself, who opens his excellent little book with his own story: how he, like his brother, came to America and received a liberal education, and what it did for him. In fact, his book is all about what education can do to make each individual’s life a much richer one, in every sense of the word. When I say ‘little book’, I only mean it’s not long, just six chapters and less than 200 pages. It’s really a very big book when it comes to the ideas he explores and the wealth of information and evidence he supplies in support of his arguments. I’ve long admired Zakaria’s ability to express important ideas clearly, succinctly, and with personality, and with this book, he accomplishes all of these to the highest degree.

A liberal education, as Zakaria describes it, is not only generous in its rewards; it’s liberating. It frees the mind narrowed by a lack knowledge and experience, of deeply exploring other points of view. It expands and strengthens the mind as it becomes more elastic, ever ready to take in more information and process it in light of what you’ve learned so far. The more art and culture you take in, the more developed your aesthetic tastes become, and the more you’re able to appreciate. The more you’re practiced in critical thinking, the better able you are to take in new ideas and explore them for quality and for beauty, for strengths and weaknesses. When done right, a liberal education should not make you a ‘know-it-all’; it should make you more open, more ready and able to constantly learn more as you go through life, and more keenly aware of how little anyone can really know about this fantastically rich, complicated, and endlessly fascinating universe we find ourselves in.

A liberal education also makes you a better citizen. You learn about important and influential political theories, and critiquing them logically as well as comparing how they fare throughout history, you learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to judge what might work best in the future. You learn about those who made a big difference in the world, how you can make a difference too, and why you should try to do so. It’s also a quintessentially American innovation: by the people, of the people, and for the people. It’s a great equalizer, open to anyone (or at least intended to be) who has the basic skills and the desire to learn, no matter what socioeconomic class they come from. It presents the best ideas from all over the world for the students to critique and compare on their own merits, though instructors who themselves came from all manner of backgrounds.
Zakaria compares liberal education to skills-based training, which is now winning favor in public and political discourse as the more practical way to help people improve their lives. Many politicians are decrying public education as too ephemeral and calling for more public money to be spent on job training, if spent on education at all. Even President Obama, in favor of free junior college for qualified applicants, recently took a crack at a humanities major. While agreeing that skills-based training is very important, Zakaria explains why it’s not only not enough for a democracy, it’s not enough for a nation that wants to stay innovative and competitive. A person whose talents are honed and locked into one narrow set of skills may be very good at one particular job, but when changes in technology and in the market render that job obsolete, that person’s training is no longer relevant, and they’re left poorly equipped to pursue other options. Consider an entire population educated and trained this narrowly, and you see the problem. As Zakaria points out, a liberal education, which focuses on instilling a broad base of knowledge and generally applicable critical thinking skills, does much more to help people become more informed, flexible, and equipped to take in new information and apply it in new ways.

When I reconsider that ethics class discussion in light of Zakaria’s book, I realize we were talking past each other. There’s no reason to choose between the instrumental side and the intrinsic value of college. A liberal education, which as undergrads we were all pursuing, helps us accomplish all of our goals in a way few other social institutions can, and can be essential for helping us become the best human beings we can be.

Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: David Morris on the ‘Volunteer’ Army and the History and Science of PTSD

In this fascinating podcast, former Marine infantry officer David Morris explains to host Indre Viskontas what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) really is: a little bit medical diagnosis, and a whole lot moral/political argument. To understand PTSD, we need to consider not only why some suffer from PTSD and why others don’t, but what war means to us as a society.

Besides being fascinated by what I learned about the science and history of PTSD specifically (as I hope you will by listening to the podcast!) I was particularly struck by what Morris’s remarks on the institution of our modern ‘volunteer’ army (starting at about 19.17). He points out how our nations’s leaders, along with most Americans, are almost entirely removed from the consequences of the wars we start since the de facto end of conscription in the 1970’s.

It seems that allowing all soldiers the choice to enlist, rather than forcing them to do so, is the only fair and just way to go about fighting a war, right? Seems shameful, undemocratic, even downright un-American, to force people to kill who don’t believe in killing.

Yet Morris makes this excellent point: rather than allowing us to ‘choose for ourselves’, which sounds democratic, the volunteer army system allows us to vote in favor of war, or stay at home and do little or nothing to stop it, while avoiding most of the burden and all of the danger.

So we start wars, or allow them to be started in our name, at little or no cost to most of us. As a nation, we all too often rush into war with too little consideration of the long-term consequences, or little understanding of the underlying cultural and historical causes of the turmoil in the first place (hmm, can we think of any modern wars that belong in that category?). Meanwhile, the President who calls for declaring war, the Congress who votes in its favor, we who vote these leaders to office, and the rest of us who do little or nothing about any of it, can rest easy knowing we don’t have to pay the costs. We don’t have to be soldiers, or to send our friends and loved ones off to do the fighting, unless we want to. We can shout our opinions to the heavens, take a righteous stand on one side or another, and forget about it the next day.

So the ‘volunteer’ army of paid soldiers bear the burden, face the danger, take the bullets and suffer the pain, while the most of the rest of us go about our relatively wealthy, secure, and comfortable lives, forgetting there’s a war on at all. How is this democratic? How is it any more fair or just to let the entire burden and danger of our war fall on the tiny percentage of Americans who enlist, and on their loved ones?

Morris offers what I think is a very good solution: if we do go to war, every able adult must be eligible for drafting into public service: we can choose to join the armed forces, or we can choose to dedicate hours working for the public good, at a non-profit, or with the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or other public works project. That way, we can require each other to become full participatory citizens once again, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. If we truly believe that all killing is wrong, or that this particular war we’re engaged in is unjust, we won’t be forced to betray our principles, but neither will we be able to escape our civic duty to involve ourselves in the all-important matter of war and peace. And our leaders will be encouraged to make more responsible decisions about the wars they vote for, knowing once again that whatever they decide, they and their own families and friends will have to bear the burden too.

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Sources and Inspiration: 

Morris, David J. ‘The History and Science of PTSD’. Inquiring Minds podcast #73, Feb … 2015
https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/73-david-j-morris-the-history-and-science-of-ptsd

Wikipedia contributors. “Conscription in the United States.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_the_United_States

The Wisdom of Crowds: How Voting Produces a Better Society

It’s easy to feel discouraged in the United States of America sometimes.

Recently, I was chatting with someone who suggested that a meritocracy might be better than the democracy (of sorts) which we have now. A democratic republic, rather, and a degraded one: our government seems more dysfunctional than ever, overrun with ideologues and pawns of a few moneyed interests, and hyperbole and unreason holds sway over public discourse. A meritocracy, where rulers are selected based only on their qualifications, be it education, political experience, or business acumen, might prove a welcome change.
Meritocracy is, pretty much, just a theoretical form of government. I expect everyone believes it would be best to have wise and qualified leaders (if we must have any at all), and most think it’s good to try to put such people in office. No government exists whose constitution specifically requires that only the smartest people rule. But imagine a real meritocracy, with strict laws in place to ensure that only the most able, most knowledgeable leaders are appointed. Perhaps public officials would be selected by undergoing a series of tests, or elected by a panel of experts in relevant fields of knowledge. Wouldn’t this increase the chance that no dummies, however slick, charming, or pandering, would be allowed to hijack the government and, through their incompetence, ruin it for everyone else?
Not all that long ago, this sounded pretty good to me. When I returned to college awhile back and studied political philosophy, I was very much in the mood for it, or something like it. Like just about everyone else, it felt that I was constantly slapping my forehead (as I still do) over the ludicrous statements and bad laws our politicians were cranking out. Wouldn’t it be much better if they all had to take IQ tests, plus general knowledge tests in political and legal theory, history, English, rhetoric, and the rules of basic courtesy before they were allowed to run for office? (I’m willing to bet that no politicians who call for ‘citizenship tests’ for voters also call for ‘leadership tests’ for themselves.) Like you, dear readers, I have a deep respect for learning, and would be thrilled to see more of it make its way into our government and into our political discourse, let alone into our (to my mind) overly-materialist culture.

Yet through the years, the more widely I read, and the more I listen to politicians, scholars, and other influential people discuss and debate any given topic in any given field of expertise, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone exists, however brilliant, who could know or understand enough about any subject to craft public policy on their own. No one mind can hold all the relevant knowledge that should be brought to bear in crafting a good law. It’s not just technical knowledge that’s the problem: an expert in a field could, at least theoretically, access enough of that sort of knowledge on their own, from their colleagues, their library, and the Internet, though it still seems unrealistic that one person could put it all together in a reasonable time frame. The far bigger problem is that no one person could escape their own biases sufficiently to craft laws that are just for everyone.

All societies are made up of people with different personalities, different points of view, different belief systems, different circumstances of life. Each, therefore, has different interests and different responsibilities, and have different rights they hold most dear. It’s not possible for any one mind to fully understand how the rights, responsibilities, and interests of all interact and conflict. Not only that: a wise leader must effectively predict the entire chain of events that might result from enforcement of the law, or system of laws. We might say well, of course, no one knows all these things. So what we need in order to create an effective meritocracy is many leaders, not one or just a few. Between them all, a governing body of a large number of experts should be able to work out these problems as least as well as the public at large, and probably better.
But here we run into problem of numbers. Aside from the inevitable clashes of ego, think of how many ‘meritocrats’ it would take to adequately take all of the relevant knowledge, all the possible outcomes, all the values and interests of all of its citizens into account while crafting legislation. Is it likely that any one group, so unrepresentative as they are of the general population, could create a society in which the rights and interests of all of society, rich and poor, educated and otherwise, men, women, and children, laboring and not, of all races, are fairly and equally represented? Could they do this even in theory, given the facts of human psychology? Almost everyone, almost all of the time, automatically favors their own interests and those of their peers over those of other groups, and it makes sense that they should. For one thing, they understand why their own interests are as they are, because they arise from their own particular life experience. For another, everyone is prone to availability bias: people form beliefs and make decisions based on examples they themselves can readily call to mind. Therefore, we are intellectually hostage, so to speak, to whatever set of information and experience we are privy to. However much we try to expand our knowledge of the world, we are always limited. These, and myriad other quirks of human psychology, make it inevitable that no one human being on their own, or a relatively small group of human beings, could make sufficiently fair, impartial, and fully informed decisions on policies that effect everyone.

Let’s consider pre-Revolutionary France for an extreme example of how a meritocratic but short-sighted few, ruling over a non-participatory citizenry, can bring about societal collapse. France, like other European societies at the time, was ruled by a heritable meritocracy of a monarch and an aristocracy, and an appointed clergy, who all had the wealth and leisure, unavailable to most people, to afford an education. These ruled a populace which they kept in strict subjection, for the people’s own good, of course. Yet these meritocrats could not put themselves into the sabots (wooden clogs of the peasantry) of the majority of the people. (The Estates General, made up of representatives from various classes, advised the king, but had little power to begin with, and it decreased over time; the Third Estate, made up of the poorest members of  French society, had the least power, and the burden of taxation fell almost entirely on them.) As they saw it, the classes of society were properly kept in their place to fulfill their respective roles, and to undermine this structure would be to undermine the delicate balance of a functioning society. They were proven wrong: the intolerable condition of their lives caused the laboring classes to revolt and overthrow their rulers. While the monarch, the aristocracy, and the clergy considered themselves best suited for rule, they lacked the knowledge, the insight available only through the experience of what it takes to make the life of a laboring person not only bearable enough forestall rebellion, but satisfying and remunerative enough to encourage more productivity. They lacked the epistemic humility that wise people have. If the ruling elites were more informed, say, by the input of the people they ruled over, perhaps they could have thought of ways to harness human energy and facilitate creativity as market societies would later do. But since they shut themselves off from the input of the majority of the population, their policies were ill-informed and short-sighted, and their society eventually collapsed. This was the fate of so many undemocratic societies, that it seems most likely to be the fate of all.

‘But wait a minute!’ you may object. Why would we expect better results in a democracy, when it’s at least as likely and probably more, that the average person’s vote is based on just as narrow, less-than-fully-informed self-interest as that of the aforementioned meritocrats?

 
In a democratic system, individual voters don’t have to be fully informed about everything for their votes to be valuable. Since the vote crowd-sources knowledge from the entire population, each person, even if voting out of narrow self-interest, informs society of the things they know most about. Our votes tell each other what we want, and indicate why. By the way people vote, we discover what individuals have learned from their own life experiences, from the work they do, their area of study or expertise, their family and peer groups, and the demands of the environment in which they live. We learn what people believe, what their interests are, how far they’re willing to go to help each other out, and where they want the line drawn to protect themselves. We learn how much people know (and how much they don’t), what values they hold, and what kind of leaders they admire.

So it’s not that the average voter must be wise or fair for their vote to count, though it’s better that they are, since this speeds up the process of creating a better government. What matters most is that society as a whole is well informed. A society can only become knowledgeable enough to create a government that’s well-functioning, impartial, and more conducive to the flourishing of all of its constituents, by this crowd-sourcing of information. Since no one mind, or no few minds, can hold enough information or understand enough points of view to do what’s best for everyone, it’s everyone who must provide the necessary knowledge.

This utilitarian argument, by the way, is not meant to replace moral arguments in favor of democracy: that proper respect for the moral equality of all persons entails the right to vote, or that it’s incumbent on all good citizens to fulfill their social obligations through political participation, and so on. I offer it as one of many excellent reasons to prefer a democratic system of government over any other: not only because it’s morally enlightened, it’s also the most practical. Democracy is best because it works best, and the evidence of history bears this out. In modern democratic societies, for example, war is relatively rare, since the transfer of power from one leader to the next is peaceful. Generally, the burdens of war disproportionately fall on the majority of society while a relative few reap the benefits; very few wars in history were revolutions that benefited the majority the most. For those of us dismayed at how many wars we still wage nowadays, compare the state of the world today with the history of Europe : nearly every time a ruler or rulers died, by fair means or foul, either a war would break out to decide who should rule next, or the new ruler(s) would embark on a war of conquest to prove their supremacy, or the favored religion of the new ruler(s) was forcibly, and bloodily, imposed. Most of Europe was at war most of the time, century after century, until their monarchies, aristocracies, and theocracies were replaced with modern, democratic, and largely secular governments. Modern democratic societies, while sometimes at war with other countries, aren’t at war with each other, and there are far fewer wars overall as a result.

Let’s consider a modern example of how not voting not only leads to more oppression, but to well-intentioned yet bad policy resulting from self-imposed ignorance: the disenfranchisement of convicts. Those convicted of serious crimes are punished with the loss of some of their civil rights, at least for awhile, and this often includes the right to vote. While I understand the deterrent effect of many types of punishment, including the loss of some rights and privileges, the loss of the vote does little good in this respect. Each individual prisoner loses little when they lose the vote, but society loses a lot: as we punish criminals by taking away their right to vote, we undermine our society by making it that much less informed.

As we are only significantly realizing now, our criminal justice system is not only rife with mistakes, but with affronts to human dignity and assaults on human rights. For example, we’re discovering that our ‘common-sense’ reliance on eyewitness testimony and police interrogation techniques has led to an unacceptable rate of false convictions. We’re finally discovering that our ‘tried-and-true’ methods of police interrogation and psychological questioning routinely generate false testimony and false confessions. This includes 20%-25% of exonerations for serious crimes based on DNA evidence (an alarming rate, since relevant DNA evidence is available only in a substantial minority of cases). There are a wealth of examples of people convicted because of the brain’s ability to create false memories, especially if an authority figure or medical ‘professional’ induces them, or because eyewitnesses misunderstand or misremember what they saw. Consider the rash of cases in the 1980’s and 1990’s where scores of childcare workers were falsely convicted of ritualistic child rape and torture. Or the Norfolk, Virgina murder/rape case, in which four grown military men (who had passed mental- and bodily-health tests to join the Navy) were coerced into giving contradictory confessions. The list of problems with our justice system does not end there, not by a long shot: there’s our long history of junk forensic science, prison overcrowding, official indifference to prison rape, solitary confinement-induced mental illness, and law-enforcement policies which generate higher recidivism rates and help turn petty criminals into hardened, violent ones through over-punishment.

Yet if those convicted of crimes had been informing the rest of us, through their votes, of their inside knowledge of the criminal justice system, the sooner we could have had the opportunity to recognize and correct these errors. It took centuries for policy makers and researchers and scientists to discover how prevalent, and how serious, these problems are, or to care enough to find out. Of course, it’s important to be tough on crime, and all members of a society have the right and responsibility to protect themselves and their loved ones. But this interest in self-protection must be balanced against the interests of those who have suffered the ill effects of over-zealous, ‘tough-on-crime’ policies. Every time an innocent person is convicted of a crime, the guilty one remains free to commit more, and every policy that encourages the abuse of prisoners and raises incarceration and recidivism rates, the more injustice we commit, the more criminality we foster, and the more taxes we pay.

None of this is to say that merit doesn’t matter, of course it does. In modern democratic societies, we not only vote directly for specific laws and taxes, we vote for representatives, specialists whose job it is to be better informed on the issues than the average person, or have expert advisers, or have achieved a higher level of education. A democratic republic such as ours can be seen as a type of meritocracy, since the idea is that the people, as a whole, elect representatives based on their merits as well as on the likelihood that they will best represent their constituents’ interests. But even so, the fact that they are voted in by all of the people still ensures that the whole range of interests are represented, and the widest possible range of knowledge is brought to bear.

To return to the degraded state of the United States’ democratic republic: the problem isn’t so much that uninformed voters are dragging the country down, though I think they, too, can impede progress. The bigger problem is that the votes of most people count less than ever, in this era where buying power makes right, and where the interests and values of the majority of people are not adequately represented. For example, we have a problem under-regulation, where powerful financial interests have over-ridden the interests of most of the population. These few financial interests, who have grown to such gargantuan proportions that they hold most of the nation’s capital in their (virtual) vaults, gamble with it freely for the sake their own personal gain, to the detriment of the nation’s economy, and of the world’s.We also have a problem with over-regulation, where special interests of a powerful few successfully hijack government, through financial enticements and pressure on elected officials, for the express purpose of crushing their competition. Here, again, the interests of most of the people are trumped by the outsize influence of a moneyed few.

Here’s my two cents on the matter: VOTE! You matter! Your interests, your input matter! Don’t just throw your hands up in the air, sigh, stay home, and play into the hands of those who have, in recent years, been throwing up roadblocks to keep certain people from the polls, disproportionately effecting the poor, those disabled by age or illness, and otherwise disadvantaged people. After all, do you think it’s likely that such an effort would be made by those in power if voting doesn’t matter? Think about it.

Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration:

Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/magazine/19Norfolk-t.html

Childress, Sarah. ‘Why Voter ID Laws Aren’t Really About Fraud’. Oct 20, 2014. Frontline.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/government-elections-politics/why-voter-id-laws-arent-...

‘Day-care sex-abuse hysteria’. (2014, December 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-care_sex-abuse_hysteria

‘Estates General (France)’. (2014, October 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estates_General_%28France%29

Fontevecchia, Agustino. ‘As New York City Crushes the Food Truck Business, Mexicue Pushes a New Model’. Forbes. May 23rd, 2014. ‘http://www.forbes.com/sites/afontevecchia/2014/05/23/...

Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012
http://www.ted.com/talks/scott_fraser_the_problem_with_eyewitness_testimony

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2011.
https://books.google.com/books?id=ZuKTvERuPG8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=thinking...

Lightman, David. ‘Wall Street crisis is culmination of 28 years of deregulation’. McClatchyDC. Sept 15th, 2008. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2008/09/15/52559/wall-street-crisis-is-culmination.html

Loftus, Elizabeth. “The Fiction of Memory” TED talk. June 2013.
http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory?

‘Meritocracy’. Wikipedia, The Free EncyclopediaJan 8, 2015.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meritocracy

Mills, Steve and Maurice Possley. ‘Man Executed on Disproved Forensics’. Chicago Tribune, Dec 9th, 2004. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0412090169dec09-story.html#page=1

Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of tje American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.
https://www.how2ask.nl/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/10/Perillo-Kassin-The-Lie-The-Bluff

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History, Vol II: From the 1400’s. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009 https://books.google.com/books?id=7SIKAAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Perry,

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011 https://books.google.com/books?id=J7ATQb6LZX0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor