Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Fables of Identity, European and American

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/17/06 at 10:21 PM

Judging by a remark in the final paragraph, I wrote “Beyond Oppositional Trickeration” sometime during the O. J. Simpson trial and published it in Gravity within a month or two before “Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drummology.” The tone is conversational, a bit hip, but without the Lord Buckley embroidery of “Fore Play.” As I recall “whiteness” was being discovered at the time and, though I never read any of the books resultant upon that discovery, I certainly read articles and interviews. Could hardly miss them, they were thicker than snow at the North Pole. The influence of those ideas is obvious.

Were I to develop these ideas more formally, I would devote considerable effort to delivering on this informal observation, which I make early on: we must orient ourselves to that whole range of experience we have access to beyond our immediate family and neighborhood. What I had and have in mind is that, to the extent that we are aware of human history, we must situate ourselves within it in some role that gives us some place in history. By identifying with some ethnic, religious, or national group, we make contact with history through the role that group has played in history.

One can argue that such identifications are ideological formations, that they organize history and culture into patterns owing more to stance and desire than to fact, but such unmasking does not in itself eliminate the need for such identities. Nor does it provide alternative means for satisfying that need. Perhaps we should devote some effort to understanding just why human brains and groups and humans need such fictions. But that’s rather more than I attempted in this piece and certainly more than I am now prepared to undertake.

This piece offers sketches of whiteness and blackness and how their opposition is more than mere opposition. There is a psycho-cultural dynamics at work that is rather independent of reasoned argument. For what it is worth, when I wrote this piece, I had no intimation that, a decade later, America would trick itself into fighting a nebulous “war” on terrorism, and thereby wage a real and hopeless war in Iraq. But the mechanism of “oppositional trickeration” I describe is what drives that nebulous war.

Beyond Oppositional Trickeration:
American Identity in the 21st Century

A Just-So Story

White folks weren’t always white. By this I don’t mean only that, like everyone else’s, white folks’ ancestors were from the African continent. That is true, but we don’t really know what that signifies colorwise.

The fact is, we don’t know what colors the original humans were. All we know about them is what we can deduce from some bones, pot shards, flaked stone tools and weapons, remains of fires and other assorted bits and pieces of stuff. None of this speaks to the issue of color. Those originals might have been mocha java, hazelnut, lion tawny, watermelon pink, eggplant purple, lilac lavender, tulip red or speckled striped blued and tattooed. Who knows. I’d like to think that, in fact, their color was like Satchel Paige’s age:

What color would you be if you didn’t know what color you was? That’s what color I am.

And this brings us back to the question of white folks. There was a time when they were the same color as the rest of humanity, no color and all colors. They changed all that during their Renaissance, a word which, you may recall, means rebirth. They rebirthed themselves and came out Christian, European, and white.

This essay is about identity, about how Europeans created their collective identity, and how African America responded in kind. Needless to say it’s about time for us to move beyond the pale and into the multi-hued savanna of new civilizations.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: In this essay I follow a ubiquitous, if not universal, convention of talking about black and white, African American and European American, and so forth, as though these terms have simple and obvious meanings, as though they designate homogeneous and mutually impervious groups. I know better than that and so do you, so please, don’t start dogging either one of us on that score until you get far enough into this piece to see where it’s going.

Home & Identity

Who and what we think we are, our identity, starts at home and in the neighborhood. We are the children of our parents, the grandchildren of their parents, we are brothers & sisters to our siblings, and them to us; we are parents of our children & grandparents of theirs, aunts & uncles to the children of our siblings, and cousins to the children of our parents’ siblings. We are friends or enemies to those who live near us, and to those who live near them. These relatives and neighbors are the people we relate to. We share meals with them, sleep under the same roof with them, play on the streets or lawns or fields or vacant lots with them, work with them to keep the neighborhood safe and clean. We quarrel with them and make up as well. They are involved in our lives, we in theirs. All these relationships we have with them, in blood and in acquaintance, in amity and enmity, that variegated web is our identity.

Or, more precisely, that’s where our identity begins. And, for some people, that’s about all there is to it.  People living in primitive cultures don’t do much traveling, or, if they do, the travel tends to be confined to established routes. Children don’t go to school, where they might meet up with children from other neighborhoods. Adults don’t have jobs in the sense that adults in our culture do. Young girls grow up to become women and do whatever it is that women do in that culture and young boys become men and do men’s things. Neither enters into a work world that brings them a set of social relationships beyond those of family and neighborhood. Many people in more advanced cultures lead similarly circumscribed lives. Lots of people in many times and places have lived very circumscribed lives and their sense of identity is similarly circumscribed.

At heart we too are like that. We live in a world made by the people we know and interact with. However, we do go to schools which widen our world beyond our immediate neighborhood and later on we take jobs and thereby gain a wider circle of acquaintance. Some of us may serve in the military, and that too broadens our experience. Beyond this direct experience there is the world we come to know though the mass media, TV, magazines, newspapers, radio, and through education. This broader experiential reach requires changes in our identity. For we must orient ourselves to that whole range of experience we have access to beyond our immediate family and neighborhood.

These broadening institutions and media were poorly developed when the European peoples began to pull themselves out of the Dark Ages. At that time those peoples lived very local, very circumscribed lives. What we need to understand is just how those very provincial people came to think of themselves as European, as white. Where did they get the experience which forced such identification on them?

Oppositional Trickeration: Europe Invents Itself

The European Dark Ages were, as the name implies, dark. Over-extension and internal sloth coupled with complacency led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. With the major exception of Moorish Spain, most of the European tribes had reverted to barbarism. Few people had any identity beyond their local village or town. No one thought of themselves as French or Italian or German or Swiss or English and so forth, for those polities didn’t exist, not even in the imagination of ambitious aristocrats. No one thought of themselves as European. Europe was just a name on a map and not many could afford to own a map or had any use for one.

However, many people did think of themselves as Christian. While those various tribespeople didn’t simply give up on their own religious beliefs, a good many of them did become Christian and manage some compromise between Christianity and their beliefs in Faeries and Norns and such pagan creatures. As John Hale notes in his account, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, threads of Christianity crisscrossed the continent and formed the basis of the 1st identification which linked people beyond the 5 or 10 square miles which defined their daily routines. As the decades ticked off these various peoples began to think of themselves as Christendom.

Christianity is deeply imbued with oppositional spirit. The ancient Hebrews were nomads and captives. They had no homeland to which they could attach an identity. Instead, they took their identity from a jealous god who forbad that they put other gods before him, who promised to lead them, his chosen people, to a new land. Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, with the holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, tossing the money-changers out of the temple and urging resistance against those leaders who urged compliance with the Romans. Christianity is a religion of resistance, of opposition.

Thus it was inevitable that European Christians, especially the nobility, saw themselves in opposition to the infidels, primarily the Islamic peoples who held sway in Spain and around the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea. Christian peoples of Europe traded with these folks, warred with them, were more than a bit taken aback at the superiority of Islamic civilization to their own, and managed to recover some of the ancient Greek and Roman past through contact with these more civilized folk. Out of this rich range of contacts and interactions came the so-called Renaissance, the rebirth of ancient learning on European soil. These peoples began to forge new states, god-fearing Christian ones. Then came the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Christendom was now irrevocably shattered. European peoples then found it easier to think of their difference from others as matter of being European rather than being Christian. Protestants and Catholics may have had grave doubts about one another’s Christianity, but they were sure that they were European.

As we continue on, we need to keep these two things in mind:

1. These various European civilizations had hybrid cultures, drawing on accomplishments of a wide range of peoples in Africa and Asia in addition to various indigenous European cultures.

2. The concept of Europe is inherently oppositional. Part of the point of being European is that one is not a savage, barbarian, infidel, one is not dark-skinned. One is white.

Europeans used their navigational and naval technology to travel to the ends of the earth, where their military technology helped them subdue the peoples they encountered. Wherever they went they worked hard at maintaining a sense of difference from other peoples. And not only of difference, but of moral superiority. However much they were fascinated by and desired the spices of India, the silks of China, however much they admired the noble savages of the New World, they insisted on difference-from and superiority-to. Europeans invented their whiteness to justify their imperial activities.

The fact that these people, for the most part, were able to succeed in this far-flung enterprise suggests that their sense of superiority was no mere ethnocentric illusion. Their technology, on the whole, was superior to that of other civilizations, and their methods of social organization more effective in large-scale economic and military enterprises. But, whatever justification it may have had, their sense of superiority had destructive underpinnings. As sociologist Talcott Parsons noted in his classic 1947 article on “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” Europeans project many of their aggressive impulses onto other peoples so that, in attempting to dominate those peoples, they are, in a psychological sense, attempting to attain mastery over themselves. By defining “European-ness” in opposition to other cultural identities in which they secretly hid part of themselves, Europeans yoked themselves to the never-ending task of conquering other peoples. Because the European psyche evades responsibility for some its own actions by hiding those impulses in others it cannot find satisfaction for its desires. No matter how thoroughly it may dominate others, that domination brings no final satisfaction because it rests on a debilitating denial and fabrication. 

At this point the mechanisms of European identity have gone beyond the simple oppositionality inherent in the Judeo/Christian tradition. Now oppositionality has become psychological trickeration. The European rebirthing enterprise required tremendous emotional repression. Some poured their repressed emotional energy into work-I’m reminded of Max Weber’s classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism-while others turned their repressed emotional energies against people of other nations and, above all, of other races. Europeans came to punish others for their own sins. Imperial domination and economic exploitation become intertwined with the need for self-control and discipline, a confusion documented in great detail in Peter Gay’s The Cultivation of Hatred. For the white man, taming “brutal savages” became a defense against the brutality of the savage elements in his own heart.

The weakness of this oppositional psychology becomes evident in a recent statement made by Mario Cuomo, ex-governor of New York, in The New York Times Magazine (March 19, 1995):

The Second World War was the last time that this country believed in anything profoundly, any great single cause. What was it? They were evil; we were good. That was Tojo, that was that S.O.B. Hitler, that was Mussolini, that bum. They struck at us in the middle of the night, those sneaks. We are good, they are bad. Let’s all get together, we said, and we creamed them. We started from way behind. We found strength in this common commitment, this commonality, community, family, the idea of coming together was best served in my lifetime in the Second World War.

This is an extraordinary statement by an astute politician, uttered with no apparent sense of irony. What kind of dissension afflicts this American family if it can find deep unity only in battle with an external enemy? What happens to that unity when the enemy is defeated or simply collapses?

The mechanisms of oppositional trickeration became intensified in the United States of America where advanced ideals of democracy and universality came into conflict with chattel slavery, and with the cultures of African peoples. The enslaved black population served many Americans as an “internal” enemy against which they could unite. Blacks also served as a standard of comparison against which “whiteness” could be defined and elaborated.

Made in America

In Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, Toni Morrison is led

to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence-one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness.

That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans. While literature is not the whole of a culture, it is not a trivial bit of decoration on the national cake. Literature has historically proved to be one of the means through which a people forges a national identity.

Racial matters have certainly been important in American literature. Early on we have James Fennimore Cooper’s fascination with Native Americans. In the middle of the 19th century Harriet Beecher Stowe would write a book which was second in sales only to the Bible; that book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That book was so influential that Abraham Lincoln referred to her as the woman who started the Civil War. Characters and scenes from the book became a central part of popular culture and they were played over and over again in the minstrel shows and later on in early movies. Late in the century Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would move to center stage in the national consciousness. Coming into the 20th century movies and radio become important entertainment vehicles and race figures deeply in those media. Is it any accident that the first major feature-length movie was a racist myth about the white South, The Birth of A Nation? Is it any accident that people would schedule their day around a radio show in which a pair of white men imitating black men named Amos and Andy? It is not simply a matter of literature; it is the whole culture. Whatever else has had the attention of the White American Mind, that Mind has always been concerned with matters of color.

For some reason it was easier to define white identity in opposition to black identity than to define an identity independently of color. Part of the reason, no doubt, is to be found in the diversity of the white immigrant population, a diversity which increased considerably in this century as large numbers of people migrated from southern and eastern Europe. Whatever differences they may have had with one another, whatever problems more established Americans may have had with them, they were all white, as in NOT black, NOT slaves or the descendants of slaves. Deeper even than this, though, is the emotional trickery inherent in the deepest forms of racism, those which go beyond ignorant prejudice to active hatred.  In this regard white Americans were more “fortunate” than the various European peoples, who either hated one another, which they did quite well, or hated the native peoples of far flung and distant colonies, a rather abstract hatred, one not so abundant in its cruel satisfactions as hating African slaves who were under your thumb.

Of course, the flip side of this emotional trickeration was the opportunity to learn from these Africans and their descendants. The culture of Britain was only weakly influenced by the cultures of India, the crown jewel in the British Empire. The French did not take the impress of those peoples they colonized in Africa. But America was deeply impressed with and by the cultures of those Africans they enslaved. In America we had the widespread and intimate CULTURAL cross breeding of peoples from Europe and from Africa (as well as, of course, Native Americans, and Asians as well).

Freedom Over Me

The various African peoples who were forced to come to the Americas underwent a process of identity formation similar to that undergone by Europeans & Americans as they discovered themselves to be white. The original slaves were not generic Africans. They were women and men of the Akan, Ga, Bantu, Fon, Wolof, Mandingo, Yoruba, Bakongo, Igbo peoples and many others. Only in America did they come to see themselves as Africans.

Imagine that you are a first generation slave back in the early nineteenth century, born in Africa, whipped and beaten in transit, and worked in the fields of the New World. Being of philosophical mind you tried to make sense of your situation. You knew your name, and longed to hear it spoken by another of your people, someone calling you to a feast, a ceremony, perhaps a day in the fields or on a hunt, or just a friendly evening conversation. But Africa was fading fast, and with it the sound of your natal tongue, for you had no fellow tribesmen on the plantation. The other Africans all spoke strange tongues; African tongues, not European tongues, but still, strange. You also knew the name by which your owner and master called you, an even stranger tongue. This was a name you wanted to escape, it was not you, but it was being forced into you, even being whipped into your skin. So, who are you? Which name is real? How will you name your children?

And who, in this New World, are your people? What is the name of your new tribe? In Africa your people were independent and proud, a heritage generations deep, a heritage you could hear recounted by the griot. Here you would have to be your own griot. But what is a griot without a people? To accept this new land, these new people, you would have to accept your servitude. If you were an American, then you were a slave, hardly human, merely an Aristotelian featherless biped. To be a tribesman of America was thus hateful. That identity would deprive you of all human dignity and eliminate all hope for the future.

You struggled to remain an African, to create a new African identity in this strange white world, to wear America as camouflage to protect you, however ineffectually, from your master’s capricious whims and wants. But how would you protect your children? How would you give them African souls, teach them that their home was elsewhere, that America was just a shroud?

Thus, through a process described by Sterling Stuckey in his study, Slave Culture:  Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, the many different peoples of Africa discovered themselves to be Africans, as in NOT white, NOT of the Master’s race. Their need to survive in a situation of common oppression overcame whatever differences and antipathies their peoples may have had on the African continent. African Americans created a potent American subculture built around elements of African expressive and social practice transported transmuted transformed and transubstantiated into the New World.

Unfortunately, an element of oppositional trickeration persists in some versions of African-American identity. The fact that African-Americans have been and continue to be the objects of racist bigotry does not justify nor extenuate black racism and anti-Semitism. And all too often Black Pride is created in part by putting a negative sign in front of the attitudes, practices, and accomplishments of self-styled Whiteness. As Cornel West notes in Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times:

. . . if you are concerned about the degradation of things African by Europeans, then you don’t simply want to degrade non-African things in order to make Africans look good. That would be imitating the worst of European civilization. If you are concerned about promoting mature forms of self-love and self-regard, it means that we have to come up with way [sic] of promoting self-love and self-regard without putting down others. And I think we have paradigms for that. Jazz is one paradigm. . . . you see Charlie Parker didn’t have to worry about whether he thought his music was linked to Africa, linked to monuments or linked to Europe. He just played his music and people listened. Because it was building on a tradition that didn’t put whiteness on a pedestal, nor did it put whiteness in the gutter. He actually believed that white people were simply human beings like everybody else. You see, for oppressed people that is hard to admit. Because the propensity is to demonize or deify. If you have a narrow assimilationist position, then you deify. . . . the flip side is to put whiteness in the gutter . . .

As necessary as it is, the move toward a free and unfettered identity such as West calls for is more difficult in the implementing than in the suggesting. As long as white racism persists, blacks have no choice but to dig into the African mine to carve out new realms of black identity, a process Nelson George has discussed in his brief account of African-American popular music in the 20th century, The Death of Rhythm & Blues. Like Tar Baby, oppositional trickeration is a sticky creature who ensnares all who contact it, willfully or by accident.

The only way out of this quagmire is for both blacks and whites to help one another to end the creation of identity through oppositional trickeration. While I do not know how we are going to get there, I am sure that that is where we must go if we wish a better world for future generations. The world of oppositional trickeration cannot ever be one of peace.

What Can America Become?

The question of American identity presents a choice:

Do we attempt to struggle on as the Western Division of Western Civilization (with Europe as the Eastern Division), or do we move decisively into a new cultural era, one in which Western Civilization recedes into history and leaves its finest achievements to the common good of human kind in consort with the finest achievements of other peoples?

It is clear that the majority sentiment is in favor of struggling on with “the West,” if only because the possibility of pushing the West into the dustbin of history has not been clearly articulated. It’s high time that we begin articulating that alternative, not as a fundamentally aggressive or destructive act, but as a creative act.

For that majority sentiment is hopelessly misplaced. During the 1950s America was indeed the leader of Western civilization. Prosperity reigned, and so did Senator Joe McCarthy. America rebuilt Europe and engaged the Soviets in a Cold War. And Rosa Parks and Elvis Presley stepped into this triumphant oppositional trickeration and set forces in motion which would upset these best laid plans of mice and men. The Civil Rights movement once again called America to account for its racism. Rock and roll, like ragtime, blues, and jazz before, once again allowed some African magic to touch the souls of whites. From this came the counter-cultural chaos of the 60s only to be followed by the economic comeuppance of the 70s. The Arabs upped the price of oil and Japan took over a large part of the automobile market.

Since then the pride and joy of the West has been dazed and confused, looking for a role to play in a world which will no longer be dominated by Europe and its ex-colonies. On these grounds alone an American continuation of the Western Dream has become implausible. To this we must add that, in point of ACTUAL PRACTICE if not IDEALISTIC PRINCIPLE, America-as-a-Western nation has not been kind to its Citizens of Color. It is time to move on. It is time to create a new national mythology, one in which the claims of African Americans and Native Americans and Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans are honored along with those of European Americans. For only in the context of such a mythology can we move beyond hyphenated identities.

On this we must be absolutely clear. For it has often been argued in debates about multiculturalism that only the West has been able to create societies tolerant of dissent, that the very existence of such multicultural debates is a testimony to the strength of Western institutions. Yes, America’s toleration of dissent has given more scope to oppositional voices than perhaps any other nation on earth. But, that is not good enough. Those ideals were founded in the European Enlightenment with its valorization of Reason. If human life were governed entirely by such Reason, racism would have disappeared long ago. The tragic fact of the matter is that the evils of oppositional trickeration have gone hand in hand with the pursuit of reason. They belong to the same culture, the same social mechanisms. It is time to count our winnings and our losses and move on to a new game.

America is an unprecedented experiment in cross-cultural pollination. Our history is rich with material for such a mythology and, of course, many have begun the work of creating it. Just how, for example, will we rethink the herohood of Christopher Columbus? His voyage to America required imagination, courage, discipline and tenacity. It was an extraordinary achievement with extraordinary consequences. One of those extraordinary consequences was the decimation of Native Americans and the creation of an arena for enslaving African peoples. If America is to embrace all its peoples, then it must come to terms with such divided legacies. To do that it must come to terms with the tragic and liberating complexities of human nature.

Perhaps the complexity of this diverse legacy is behind our current fascination with the trial of OJ Simpson. How is it that one man can be a great athlete, a winning and affable celebrity, a mediocre actor, and an abusive husband, both a symbol of human excellence and an example of human frailty? Which of those is the “real” OJ? The answer, of course, is that all of them are real. When we live in a culture in which it is a simple and routine matter to accept such division within ourselves, when we live in a society where an OJ Simpson can be tried with the privacy and dignity such a grave event requires, then we will have escaped the limitations of the Western imagination. Then we will be in a new world. We aren’t there yet. The question remains:  Is that where we are headed, or are we going to lapse back into the worst barbarities of oppositional trickeration?


Tim Burke has a piece that’s relevant to one of the themes of this article. He notes that “divide and conquer” was a valuable strategy of colonialist rule, albeit one that England and France stumbled into rather than as the result of conscious strategic calculation and war craft. Burke notes:

The feedback loop of British and French administrative policy in their empires led to the elaboration and ossification of colonial subjects into separate “tribes” and related forms of legalistic and political identity, which has been a lasting source of suffering and difficulty in the world. The feedback loop of the current American policy could lead to a quite different result: incentives for the reinforced creation of a united “Islamofascism” from many smaller, more heterogenous groups and political regimes which at the outset of the process had quite distinct interests and objectives. Even more minimally, our announced policy now provides considerable incentive to those groups to improve their sharing of intelligence and resources and to coordinate their actions.

If our primary objective in Iraq were oil, as some claim, then why would we follow a strategy that makes it more, rather than less, difficult for us to secure it? Perhaps the war really is ideological, not in the announced cause of spreading democracy is the Middle East, but in the cause of providing America, at least part of it, with a convenient enemy on which to focus “free-floating aggression.” Why the need for these scapegoats?

By Bill Benzon on 09/18/06 at 07:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: thanks for another excellent essay.  You close you comment with the question, “Why the need for these scapegoats?” I’m sure you’re familiar with Rene Girard, but I still think his analysis of scapegoating is brilliant.  (And an informal poll last year among anthropologists led me to believe that much of Girard’s thought has held up over the years.)

Basically, Girard sees the scapegoat as a symbolic victim that helps a community elide its own internal contradictions and conflicts.  I’ve been reading Euripides of late, because of Anne Carson’s powerful new translations in *Grief Lessons*.  All over those plays we see the fear of violence as contamination.  Girard sees this fear in terms of vengeance: you kill my brother, so I have to kill your brother, and then you rape my sister, so I rape your mother, and so on, and there’s no end to reciprocal violence.  So we both agree that the *real* enemy is those funny looking people over the hill.

Toni Morrison is our strongest contemporary philosopher of scapegoating and sacrifice, which is why her novels are so perverse.  She stares in horror at sacrifice but is realistic enough to see the impossibility of over eradicating it.

By on 09/18/06 at 11:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Lit. bidness relies on all sorts of unspoken assumptions about characters, national and/or ethnic “spirit,” and human psychology in general.  Characters are usually hypostatized and then made to apply to some handy group or class: for traditionalists, Hamlet represents some noble yet troubled conscience; for marxists, he’s an emblem of eurocentric tyranny.  Neither are correct: Hamlet does not strictly denote anything psychological; “he” (the Hamlet-idea which humans contruct while reading) is really equivalent to a Perseus or Superman or Bilbo Baggins, tho’ perhaps a bit more fleshed out.

The tendency to hypostatize literary character, is I assert, fundamentally idealistic if not theological, and for the most part unjustified: the reader--even skilled reader--gives a character-idea derived from a literary work concrete existence and then treats something conceptual and metaphorical (and metaphors have no real force as truth statements) as if it were real.

Hypostasis is quite common among political writers as well as lit. people; political journalists routinely hypostatize the thinking processes of millions of people. Most scribes and pundits don’t care for anyone interrupting their chants with some questions regarding verification, plausibility, proof; columnists and bloggers generally are content to make all sorts of generalizations about how American consumers think or the sort of mental states of both conservatives or liberals. It’s like a type of conceptual intoxication, brought on by lots of social science or literary theory. But such pep rally speech or writing is preferred by both far right and leftist bloggers: once “by any means necessary” has been decided upon, vague generalizations, loaded language, and lies (or half-truths such as most literature relies on)--may be as effective as argumentation relying upon evidence and data.

By on 09/18/06 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank goodness you, at least, are free from this intoxicated need to emit repetitive generalizations!

By John Holbo on 09/18/06 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“intoxicated need”

A need that is intoxicated? That’s generalization, and even a bit more vaporous and insubstantial than, like, the synthetic a priori, or your usual 20 paragraphs of gas.

By on 09/18/06 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<s>At least be a decent Valve moderator-cleric: do your part to uphold dogma (whether shakespeare or idealist windbags or the sophomoric fallacies of sistah Toni Morrison) and delete it, J. Edgar Holbo.</s>

Typography edited by J. Edgar Benzon.

By on 09/18/06 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’Colour’ here is used to mean, as it universally is, ‘skin colour’.  I’ve often wondered why skin gets so prioritised in our ideological pseudo-racial thinking.  This may sound stupidly naive, but given the fact that (a) most of our skin is covered over most of the time, and not visible, and that (b) this enormously vague descriptor ‘black skin’ relates to an enormous range of colours, some of them remarkably pale.  It’s possible for somebody who self-identifies as ‘black’ to be any number of degrees of skin colour palerthan an Anglo who’s been on holiday in the tropics.  Didn’t the very slipperiness of the concept ‘colored’ feed into a widespread cultural anxiety about ‘passing’ in the apartheid (sorry: segregationist) US past?

Me, I’ve always been struck by hair colour.  I can’t claim to be ‘colour-blind’ (skin-colour-blind), of course; and as a middle class English white guy I shudder to think how far buried ideologies of ‘race’ inform my non-conscious thought; but hair colour strikes me much more forcefully than skin colour.  Or is that just me?

I say this not altogether randomly or abstractly.  The varieties of hair in eg Europe are archaeological indicators of ‘racial’ interaction from long ago.  Why have they been so completely erased from popuar consciousness nowadays? (for how many taxi drivers refuse to stop to pick up brunettes?  How many brunettes get pulled over by the police whilst driving etc?) where skin has stuck so massively in the cultural craw?  Is there a positive lesson to be learned there?

This is of only glancing relevance to your excellent post, Bill.

By Adam Roberts on 09/18/06 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Europeans used their navigational and naval technology to travel to the ends of the earth, where their military technology helped them subdue the peoples they encountered. Wherever they went they worked hard at maintaining a sense of difference from other peoples. And not only of difference, but of moral superiority. However much they were fascinated by and desired the spices of India, the silks of China, however much they admired the noble savages of the New World, they insisted on difference-from and superiority-to. Europeans invented their whiteness to justify their imperial activities.”

Ack. This sort of obvious, hack-PC folderol would hardly pass muster in Western Civ. 101 at Bonehead JC. Generalization: C’est Benzon. And it’s not merely generalization, but a type of superficial moralism a bit beneath the average Sally Struthers’ advertisement. It’s sort of akin to like a pep rally speech offered before the Big Game, most likely done to get in good with the stalin-lites who run the lit. publishing racket.

By on 09/18/06 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s sort of akin to like a pep rally speech offered before the Big Game . .

That’s about right.

. . . most likely done to get in good with the stalin-lites who run the lit. publishing racket.

They passed on me long ago.

By Bill Benzon on 09/18/06 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, on “colour,” Capt. Beefheart used to say “we’re all colored, otherwise we couldn’t see each other.”

There are West Indians of dark bluish-brown hue who, when in the continental USofA, whether to visit or migrate, think of themselves as white in contrast to the “black” African-Americans. They also hold themselves superior to them.

These days, I hear rumours that Europeans contain an admixture of Neanderthal blood. Don’t know about the hair thing. Wonder what kind of hair the Neanderthal’s had? Hair is a HUGE issue for African Americans.

By Bill Benzon on 09/18/06 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are West Indians of dark bluish-brown hue who, when in the continental USofA, whether to visit or migrate, think of themselves as white in contrast to the “black” African-Americans. They also hold themselves superior to them.

A tad sweeping?  (All of them hold themselves superior to all Africans? Really?)

These days, I hear rumours that Europeans contain an admixture of Neanderthal blood. Don’t know about the hair thing. Wonder what kind of hair the Neanderthal’s had? Hair is a HUGE issue for African Americans.

Hair, clearly, is a big issue for anyone who has it.  I used to live in Balham, which is a porition of South London with a large population of Londoners of Afro-Caribbean origin.  One day, without really thinking about it, I wandered into an ‘Afro’ barber.  The lady working there didn’t turn me away, but clearly had little or no experience of working with my sort of hair: wispy, babylike, flyaway blond strands.  She went over my head with the buzzers and left me looking like I was holding my right hand on a van der graaf generator.

But this isn’t my point.  ‘Hair’ (like facial features, or gait, or ‘size of feet’) has been invoked as a racial marker, of course it has.  But the profile of hair-colour-related prejudice in Europe is very low, compared to the profile of skin-colour-related prejudice.  There are ‘blonde jokes’ (the joke is that blondes are stupid...) There’s a certain residual prejudice against redheads, maybe (’they used to drown red-headed babies at birth ...’) But it’s all amazingly low level stuff.  It’s really hard to imagine a job interview panel, say, surreptitiously ruling out people for a job on grounds of hair colour alone.  Is there a lesson to be learned here?

By Adam Roberts on 09/18/06 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, hair still signifies race.  You rarely find a black American in business or politics with dreads, with corn rows, with an Afro, with a weave.  Within the African-American community, hair signifies class.  In the American mainstream, hair (and shade of blackness) signifies “our kind of black person” versus “the wrong kind of black person.” (Again, Toni Morrison’s *Paradise* does a fine job of showing the types of cultural exclusion based on skin shade and hair style.)

(As far as job interviews go, I wouldn’t be surprised if businesses showed a marked reluctance to hire a black guy with a huge Afro.)

The arts/culture field is probably the only middle/upper class area where black folk can wear dreads or Afros. 

Now, this might be different in the UK, given the influx of black folks from the Caribbean. 

Chesterton: your comments about Toni Morrison simply reveal you to be [ignorant and-or lacking in judgment].  Write something like *Sula* or *Song of Solomon* or *Beloved* or *Paradise* and then open your ... mouth ....

Bowdlerization by J. Edgar Benzon.

By on 09/18/06 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All of them hold themselves superior to all Africans?

No, just to African-Americans. And my informants tell me the feeling of superiority is fairly general on both counts. The matter of prejudice within the African-American and related communities of America and the Caribbean is a complicated mess.

Don’t know what to make of the hair thing. But hair can or at least has been more readily styled than skin color. It is often and easily dyed, and length is variable, as well as degree of curl etc. There are hair issues, but they are more about suitability for this or that job role than they are about a person’s essence. Perhaps this is due to our propensity to style our hair in various ways, with styles changing with fashion.

By Bill Benzon on 09/18/06 at 03:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill and Luther: what you both say is very true (in contrast to ‘William Lane Chesterton’, with whom I don’t agree).  I’m not sure I’m expressing myself very well.  Large Afro-wearing man in interview suffers negativity where polite, besuited, short-haired African American suffers less: yes.  But how often does a white man or woman look around their circle of white acquaintances and find themselves judging them on the basis of hair colour? Imagine this: a white woman is waiting for a lift; the door opens and inside is white man who has black hair; the woman decides not to get into the lift ... although she would have gotten in had her potential passenger had had yellow or red hair.  But that’s stupid, no?  That doesn’t ring true.

I feel a bit dafy barking away at this; it’s supposed to be a thought-experiment, but it’s more than a little artificial.  And yes Bill is right that hair is much more malleable than skin; or more precisely that people barely notice if you dye your hair, where if you do a Michael Jackson on your black skin then it makes everyone think you’re a loony.

By Adam Roberts on 09/18/06 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, in case it isn’t obvious to all and sundry, William Lane Chesterton is the once-and-future Troll of Sorrow. This is too bad for us and, I would imagine, for him. Would you want to be trapped inside the Troll of Sorrow? I, for one, would not. Dear troll, you may consider this a final warning. If you persist in just writing the same damn things we’ve already heard from you a hundred times, you’ll be banned once again. If you actually want to join the conversation, you’ll find something new and more thoughtful to contribute. Otherwise, I would suggest just starting your own blog somewhere, where you can put us all to shame with your verificationism.

By John Holbo on 09/18/06 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Skin colour, in my experience, is an increasingly less common basis for aspersion and prejudice (in my corner of London, the once frequent complaints directed at ‘blacks’ are all but dead). What skin colour provides for some, if not many, however, is a simple register from which to presume regional, national, even religious identities. The complaints I hear nowadays are more along the lines of ‘bloody Somalians/Muslims/Kosovans/Bangladeshis/Americans’ etc.
It’s a problematic development for the liberally minded as the old racism as predicated upon skin colour always had an ignorant whiff of Victorian cod-biological anthropology about it, whereas the modern citizen’s comparative sophistication in identifying his/her neighbours (largely owing to large-scale and complex migration of late) is a great deal less easy to write off (by which I mean, only a fool would suggest people of the same/similar skin colour share anything but physical traits on that basis, whereas, only the most committed Guardian reader doesn’t arrive at a Somalian Muslim or a Semitic Jew without some kind of preconceived notion).

By on 09/19/06 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

wow dis really helped me NOT

By on 09/24/07 at 05:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a slippery slope; a maze; this race stuff. The concept of “Race”, itself, is racist… no way to get around it. It’s only the human love of hierarchy that turns that into an enduring problem; well, that and something else I allude to at the end of my comment.

Can anyone very different from “us” be equal? Still, such good-faith efforts to *understand*, (thinking, also, of Mr. Benson’s very good “Mo’ Better Blues” essay) go a long way towards de-militarizing the discussion, which so readily breaks out into bloody rhetorical war.

Re: skin color: the reaction to hair texture/ skin color is visceral, mostly unconscious, and will subtly dictate the terms of interaction, like a phantom George Wallace on one’s shoulder (we can only hope that a tiny Toni Morrison is on the other). No discussion like this becomes genuinely frank, or factual, without lots and lots of gritty soul-searching among the commenters.

In Berlin I see the curious phenomenon of Friendly Racism: how many good Germans, marching to anti-skinhead rallies (and taking black-skinned lovers, from time to time), don’t, for a moment, doubt that Euro-Germans are genetically better at abstract thought, while the black-skinned are known to be preternaturally gifted with the animal vitalities? They’ve ingested this attitude with mother’s milk as surely as the sons and daughters of the antebellum South ingested theirs (even when the breasts were black).

It’s a species liability (like male adolescent, hormone-driven homicidal fun) that probably started off as an advantage, back when fearing/killing the Other was the key to success on the hominid field of battle: we descended, remember, from the winners of those race and species wars.

Is there any real cure for Racism, short of gene therapy? I kind of doubt it.

By Steven Augustine on 01/29/08 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: