Sunday, February 23, 2014

Whiteness and Self-Evident Truth: Historical Reflections on Reason, and Race in Classical Liberalism

It is hard to argue with the basic logic of Dr. Martin Luther King's statement, quoted above, that all Americans should expect to enjoy the unalienable rights and privileges spelled out in the nation's founding documents. Indeed, most of the social justice struggles of the last half century have been grounded in the assumption that the goal of oppressed groups ought to be to gain unfettered access to those rights. It is widely believed that if the liberal principles of the American Revolution were fully realized, our society would at last be racially just. It is also widely believed that we have already achieved this goal, and, according to many, that we've gone too far. But I digress. The purpose of this post is to present the argument that, contrary to the lofty rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, the "all" of the liberal project was never intended to be taken that literally, and indeed, the logic of exclusion is woven into its very fabric.    

I should emphasize right up front that this blog is about Classical Liberalismnot the contemporary liberalism of Democratic politics. Classical Liberalism is the political philosophy that informed the American and French revolutions. It is the intellectual foundation for representative democracy, as well as freedom of expression, religion, and the press. It is rooted in the basic premise that individuals are born free and independent, and that they join with others to form governments only to ensure that their God-given freedoms are preserved. The Declaration of Independence contains this famous and succinct articulation of Classical Liberalism:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

This philosophy remains a touchstone for both conservative and liberal politics.

The contradiction entailed by wealthy slave-owners justifying their democratic revolution by appealing to  "rights of man" is obvious enough to have a name - the paradox of libertyIt is routinely admitted that the American revolutionaries failed to live up to their own ideals, yet we still celebrate them for their visionary aspirations. Certain critics, though, suggest that there was no deep contradiction in the minds of the revolutionaries since the phrase "all men are created equal" was only meant to refer to property owning white men like themselves. If this theory is correct, we'd need only reinterpret the phrase as including all humans. We'd still have to fix our institutions to reflect that, but, since almost everyone agrees with that meaning, it wouldn't be that difficult. If this tactic were adequate, we'd have gotten to the promised land long ago. History, however, doesn't support this conclusion. After all, the founders openly conceded the paradox.

A more cogent critique accepts the revolutionaries' liberalism at face value, and locates the problem within liberalism itself. Critics in this camp note that liberal theory can never fulfill its universalist
promise because, beyond the discrepancy between the idea of liberty and the reality of slavery, there is actually a fatal contradiction within liberalism itself. Although every person is supposedly born equal and endowed with rights that cannot be taken away, personhood is defined in an implicitly conditional way. Specifically, for the liberal philosophers, being a full person depended on the possession of reason, which, though posited as a universal endowment, was construed in a highly gendered and culture-specific way.

Because of the fundamental contradiction within liberal theory, scholars of Critical Race Theory, such as Charles Mills and David Theo Goldberg, doubt that genuine racial justice can ever be achieved by appeals to an unreconstructed liberalism. This post is a contribution to that reconstruction, beginning with a deconstruction of the linchpin of liberal theory, reason.

The Official History of Reason

The peculiarly Western concept of reason was born out of the reflections of classical Greek philosophers. Reason, as the ancients defined it, was the highest expression of human nature. But it was not merely a matter of individual human cognition. They understood the cosmos as a unified, purposeful, and divinely ordered whole, and reason, or logos, was its primary ordering principle. Human reason was an expression of the participation of the human soul or psyche in the structure of the cosmos.

The possession of reason was, for the ancients, what separates man[1] from the other animals. It was also what separates man's higher (human) nature from his lower (animal) nature. Reason was thus set up in opposition to the emotions and appetites, and tasked with controlling them. For Plato, reason must rule over the passions and appetites as a king rules over the masses of peasants and slaves.

At the dawn of the modern era, the development of reason was closely associated with the new cosmology of the Scientific Revolution. Philosophers and proto-scientists of the 17th century, such as Galileo and Rene Descartes, were keenly interested in finding a method by which one can gain direct, reliable knowledge of the universe, independent of scripture and traditional authority. They proposed a method of careful observation and measurement, coupled with mathematics. It may sound mundane and obvious, but it was quite radical at the time. Remember that Galileo caught the attention of the Inquisition for privileging scientific over scriptural knowledge.

To make sense out of their theory of knowledge modern philosophers proposed a new cosmology, which redefined nature as a realm governed strictly by universal laws of motion. Where the ancients' cosmos was an organic whole into which human consciousness was intimately woven, the moderns' universe was like a mechanical clock, entirely devoid of consciousness, will, and intrinsic meaning. Set in motion at the beginning of time, the universe runs by itself, governed only by the laws of mechanics.

Since the new cosmology left no room in the physical world for consciousness or meaning, it became necessary to posit a distinct, immaterial realm for the mind. Descartes proposed that the rational mind occupies its own plane of existence, separate from and independent of the physical world. For Descartes, mind is pure disembodied reason. It may still become clouded by the passions and appetites of the body, but the scientific method enables such distortions to be eliminated, allowing reason to contemplate nature dispassionately. Thus, men no longer needed to rely on scriptural or traditional authority for knowledge of the natural world, since such knowledge could be obtained directly by way of observation, rational analysis, and experimental verification.

In this way, Descartes and other modern philosophers transformed reason from what it was for the ancients - primarily a guide to wise action in human affairs - into an instrument for the prediction and control of the natural world. The extraction of reason from nature represented its ultimate triumph. It became the sole locus of consciousness, meaning, and will in the world, and promised to free man from the darkness and superstition of the past and usher in a new age of human power over the Earth.

The Intertwining of Reason and Racism

I have described the genealogy of modern reason as if its emergence was simply a product of European philosophers struggling to free themselves from the hegemony of the Church in order to advance human knowledge. Indeed, this is the dominant narrative. However, to understand the contours of modern reason fully, we need to consider the political context in which they were formed. Nothing in 17th and 18th century Europe can be understood apart from the rise of colonialism and capitalism. These historical processes engendered conflicts, not only among the various European powers, but also among social classes and, most crucially, between colonizers and the non-European peoples they were attempting to conquer. Reason did far more than secure intellectual freedom for philosophers and scientists; it became deeply implicated in a race-based ranking of humans.

From the mid-15th century onward, European explorers were sailing around the globe, looking for new trade routes and gold. In the process, they came upon a wide variety of peoples, almost none of whom were Christian. The Europeans initially responded to the diversity of religious beliefs and practices they encountered with simple religious chauvinism. Confident in the universal significance of Christ, they convinced themselves that they must spread the Gospel by any means necessary. They also decided that God would want them to claim these newly "discovered" lands in His name. The Church, in fact, supported the dispossession as well as the enslavement of non-Christian peoples.

Despite the early and lasting importance of Christianity to the colonial project, it ultimately proved inadequate as a justification for the subjugation of non-European peoples. For one thing, it is a basic tenet of Christianity that anyone can convert and be saved, which, if taken literally, would have produced a serious moral crisis. It did, in fact, for at least one member of the clergy, Bartolom√© de las Casas. De las Casas had the moral clarity to recognize the absurdity of appealing to Christianity to justify slavery and slaughter. His writings, which were widely read, engendered much self-reflection and consternation. These pangs of conscience did not slow the colonial project, of course, but they did undermine the reliance on Christian moral superiority to justify it.[2]

Some time later, leading European thinkers began to write about man's natural rights. In response to the moral inconsistency of the Church and various abuses of power by the aristocracy, these philosophers of the Enlightenment began to argue that all persons have fundamental rights to liberty and self-government.[3] This of course risked creating an even more explicit contradiction between real world practices and professed values. How could the new liberal philosophy be reconciled with the atrocities underway in the colonies? This contradiction was resolved by racism, which deployed the concept of reason to support the natural rights of (property owning) Europeans, while allowing those very rights to be denied to non-Europeans whenever it was convenient.

From its first delineation in antiquity, reason had been put to political and ideological purposes. Plato's theory of human nature already implicitly ranked people according to their capacity for reason. It placed philosophers at the top, and peasants, slaves, and women - since they were supposedly ruled by their passions and appetites - nearer the bottom. Christianity, meanwhile, always gave unequivocal primacy to the spiritual over corporeal and material. Descartes blended the two, and, although he did not address class and gender explicitly, his philosophy clearly elevated discarnate rationality to a metaphysical plane above the physical realm, thereby inscribing the prevailing social hierarchy into his cosmology. The continuity between Platonic, Christian, and Cartesian metaphysics enabled a smooth transition to a secular rationale for European domination. Moreover, the norms of reason, more so than those of Christianity, could be tailored to reflect the agenda of the powerful.

The role of reason in the hierarchical conception of human nature provided vital scaffolding for the construction of racism. Enlightenment philosophers saw their discourse on universal natural rights as a repudiation of the old hierarchies, but many of them also understood that those rights could not really be extended to everyone equally. The solution, it turned out, was readily available. They needed only to affirm that being endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and property [4] was intricately connected to being endowed with reason. Then, anyone considered deficient in reason could also be considered less than a full person, and therefore not entitled the natural rights guaranteed to all men.[5]

The final piece of the new ranking system was the concept of race itself. Race developed gradually, between the 16th and 18th centuries, as a way to categorize and rank humans. Carl Linnaeus, who is famous for developing the classification and naming system that we still use for plants and animals, also produced the first "scientific" racial classification, dividing up humanity into four main groups: Homo Sapiens Europaeus (European), Homo Sapiens Asiaticus (Asian), Homo Sapiens Americanus (American Native) and Homo Sapiens Afer (African). He went beyond mere physical description, ascribing different psychological temperaments to each of the groups, naturally attributing the most positive qualities, including those associated with reason, to Europeans. This should come as no surprise, since the stereotypes on which he based his classifications reflected the views of settlers and slaveholders, precisely the people who benefited from denying full personhood to non-Europeans. The connection between whiteness and reason (i.e. intelligence) has remained central to scientific racism to this day

Racism helped to address the contradiction at the heart of the Enlightenment, while replacing Christianity as a rationale for the colonial subjugation of non-Europeans. Claiming that the possession of reason gave all men equal rights to liberty and self-government, Enlightenment philosophers sought to overturn the unjust power relations to which their social class was subjected. They made effective and clever use of reason to formulate a revolutionary theory of the human nature that delegitimized the power and privilege of the aristocracy and, at the same time, defined non-European people as less than fully human.

The Social and Political History of Reason and Racism

Thus far, we have seen how European philosophy developed its conception of reason into a basis for intellectual and social liberation, and, at the same time, into a rationale for colonialism. The link Linnaeus and other classifiers asserted between race and reason was about categorizing the existing ideology. The ideology itself arose in the context of the colonial project by those who had a direct stake in the land and labor of non-Europeans. In this section, we examine the social-political context surrounding the construction of whiteness and the ways in which reasonable and unreasonable came to reflect the interests and values of those with social and political power. In particular, we consider John Locke's political philosophy, which he developed against a backdrop of ongoing conflicts between colonizers and Native North Americans. Understanding Locke's influence is crucial since his philosophy has been, and continues to be, used by those who seek to deprive non-European peoples of their collective integrity, self-determination, and land.[6]

John Locke was among the most influential of the modern political philosophers. Among his many contributions, he is remembered as the father of Classical Liberalism and as the intellectual Godfather of the American Revolution. Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), served as a sort of instruction manual for Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots as they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke's political philosophy was based on natural law. According to this "law of reason," there is a set of universal natural rights, which are revealed to an individual by the light of reason. For Locke, though, there is one natural right that precedes and is a prerequisite for the others, and which is the main factor motivating men to form governments - the right to own and control private property. His entire political theory can be seen as an extension of his theory of property. The logic entailed by Locke's theory proved to be quite useful to those defending European appropriation of the land of indigenous people. Indeed, the same logic continues to be used to justify the privatization of common property in the name of commerce, whether land or water or the electromagnetic spectrum.

Locke's emphasis on property may seem bizarre until we realize that, for Locke, the primary form of property is one's own physical body. The right to own and control one's body, which is self-evident to reason, is the starting point for all other natural rights. From there it inevitably follows that, as the owner of his body, a man must also own his labor and, by extension, the fruits of his labor. If an individual wandering about on the commons (land that is owned by no one in particular) picks an apple from a tree or kills a deer in the forest, these naturally become his property because they have acquired substantial additional value as a result of his body and his efforts. 

This logic extends to the land. According to Locke, land starts out as the common property of all men, but has little value in its natural state. Eventually some industrious soul comes along who is willing to work the land, and, like the apple and the deer, the land becomes his property because his labor gives it value. Once gained, the owner's property rights are not permanent, but rather depend on him continuing to make the land productive[7]. Reason dictates that if he lets his land "lie waste," it should return to the commons. (One doesn't have to do the work the land himself, by the way. In a very telling passage, Locke counts, as his property, "the turfs my servant has cut").

While, from the perspective of the colonizers, Locke's ideas can be seen as liberatory and egalitarian, they had nothing positive to offer Native people or to the Africans brought to America in chains. Indeed, his theory made it easier for the colonizers to justify dispossession of the former and enslavement of the latter. The principles of private ownership, productivity, and progress articulated by Locke constituted an absolute negation of the values and worldview of many indigenous peoples. Thus, not only did Locke implicitly define Indian land as available for appropriation, by representing his culture- and class-specific point of view as self-evident to reason, he deftly consigned any opposing worldview to unreason.

Lockean natural law thus justified not only depriving native peoples of their property rights, but their liberty as well. Although Locke claimed that liberty is a natural right, he reserved the exercise of that right for those who possess reason. With respect to children, for example, Locke wrote: "he that is not come to the use of his reason, cannot be said to be under this law." It follows that the same logic applies to anyone judged deficient in reason. In other words, if one is not subject to natural law, one cannot claim sovereign ownership of one's body or of one's labor. Indeed, it was not uncommon for slave masters to argue that their slaves benefited from the loss of their liberty, since they were not equipped to handle it. It is no coincidence that the early American writings routinely referred to Indians and Africans as childlike.

I want to make clear that my discussion of Locke's theory should not be read as an indictment of Locke as a person. Whether or not he meant for his philosophy to server as a justification for genocide and slavery in the colonies, seems to me largely academic. Indeed, I think we gain more insight into the way liberal ideology functions if we assume that Locke's intent was genuinely egalitarian. The point is that, regardless of anyone's conscious intentions, the "law of reason" embedded in liberalism reflects the material interests and social values of those in the property owning class who have benefited (and continue to benefit) from the subjugation of people deemed deficient in reason. This also explains why it has proven so influential.


While reason may not have created racism, it has provided ingenious ideological support for the development and durability of global white supremacist capitalism. In my view, this makes liberalism highly suspect as a foundation for a social justice struggle. Yet, if we cannot appeal to the egalitarian ideals of liberalism to support the demand for social justice, what's the alternative? First of all, let me be clear that I am not actually denigrating reason. I am (I hope) making good use of it in my writing. The point is that what is presented as reasonable must always be viewed critically. It has long been established by science and philosophy, for example, that Descartes was wrong. There is no such thing as pure, disinterested, a-historical reason. Reason is always embodied, and always shaped by the complex historical, social, and class situation of the body that expresses it.

Nor am I also suggesting that we ought to jettison the principles of liberty and equality. After all, these ideas have obviously inspired a great deal of social progress. I am simply calling for a deep understanding of their intellectual origins. If we adopt the mantle of liberalism uncritically, without a full awareness of its complex and bloody history, and of who it was intended to liberate, we risk remaining prisoners of its limitations. We may, for example, imagine that institutions designed to maintain white supremacy can easily be reformed to produce racial equity. This may lead us to overlook the fact that Native Americans attempted to abide by liberalism and its standards of reason, signing treaties and taking their grievances to court, only to see their land, their culture, and their children forcibly taken from them again and again. And black folks endured physical beatings and worse to bring an end to legalized racial segregation, only to be targeted by a racist drug war and to end up, on average, economically worse off than they were in 1960. To consider liberalism in terms of its true origins is to understand that these setbacks are not anomalies. They are just more confirmation that liberalism's promise of universal liberty and justice was never really intended for everybody.

[1] A note on gender pronouns. I am using masculine gender pronouns throughout this essay to be consistent with the writers I am discussing. They used "he," "his," "man," "men," etc., not because it was convenient, but because, by and large, they really were only talking about male humans. 
[2] In some cases, the writings of de la Casas merely offered Protestants in America a chance to view their marginally less cruel treatment of Indians as proof of their moral superiority to Catholics. See Lepore, J. (1998). The name of war : King Philip's War and the origins of American identity. New York, Knopf.                
[3] I have discussed elsewhere the internal political motivations for the assertion of natural rights and self government. To this could be added the class struggles that precipitated the end of feudalism and the gender-based struggles that accompanied the rise of capitalism.
[4] Yes, Jefferson took this and substituted happiness for property in the Declaration of Independence. Still, the Constitution, in preserving slavery, left no doubt that property rights would not only trump happiness, but life and liberty as well.  
[5] Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
[6] There is some academic debate about whether this was his intention. Given what actually happened, I would call that question academic.
[7] Locke, John, (1689). Two Treatises of GovernmentSection 28. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Whiteness and Sustainability: Reflecting on Race, Class, and Green Living

Is the movement for environmental sustainability a white, middleclass phenomenon? I imagine that many of us have heard this allegation, and, unfortunately, with the exception of the environmental justice movement, it seems to be, for the most part, accurate. Yet many in the movement respond to this observation with perplexity. The typical attitude can be summed up in questions like: "Why don't these people (working class people, people of color, low income people) recognize the urgency of the ecological crisis?" and "How can we reach them?" We've been asking these questions for four decades and gotten no satisfactory answers. Perhaps the time has come to ask new questions. Rather than asking why they don't get it, maybe we need to think deeply about what we (white middleclass people) are not getting. I think a good way to start would be by exploring how the agenda and worldview of the ecology movement is shaped by unacknowledged race and class privilege, such that it has simply not been able to make itself relevant to people from other race and class backgrounds.

The reason privilege is such a potent source of unquestioned beliefs is that it is itself quite stealth, at least to those who possess it. Indeed, it is in the very nature of privilege to remain unnoticed by those who benefit from it, while it is almost always blatantly obvious to everyone else. This is the result of a psychological process called cognitive dissonance, whereby the brain essentially rewires itself so as to not perceive aspects of the world that present painful contradictions or challenge one's sense of identity. In the context of privilege, this means that we structure our experience of the world so that our social advantages seem natural and/or deserved. Another result is that those who are clearly struggling may be seen as somehow different or deficient. A useful example of this sort of post hoc rationalization is physical ability.[1] Physical access is obviously far easier for those of us who possess physical abilities that have been coded as "normal." After all, who among us thinks about our physical ability as an unearned privilege? Yet that is exactly what it is. Our built environments have mostly been constructed by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people. That we have mostly missed this fact, of course, does not by itself make us bad people. It just makes us human.  

Similar to able-bodied privilege, race and class privilege are unearned and they are built into the structures and institutions of our society. Moreover, cognitive dissonance operates in the same way, ensuring that those of us possessing privilege experience a reality radically different from those who do not. The social consequences of this disconnect are enormous, and include the makeup of the ecology movement and the particular race and class-based perspective that shapes its agenda.  

One example of the race/class perspective of environmentalism is its traditional concern for preservation. Going back at least to John Muir, advocates of environmental protection have been motivated largely by their veneration for the wild, especially for the beauty of so-called untouched wilderness and for the majesty of large charismatic mammals. Even appeals to scientifically legitimate concerns such as biodiversity and ecosystem integrity often tap into these deeper emotional currents, which are rooted in a Romantic or aesthetic attitude, and which are more typical of city dwellers who conceive their relationship to the natural world in terms of leisure outdoor activities. People who depend on nature for their livelihood as well, as those trapped in inner-city settings lacking access to wild spaces, are understandably unmoved by the Romantic appeals of traditional preservationism.  

We also need to recognize the ways in which so-called green consumption, as a response to ecological
concerns, is bound up with race and class privilege. There is certainly no question that those with resources ought to make ecologically responsible consumer choices. The problem is with casting what amounts to luxury consumption in moral terms. Unfortunately, certain forms of consumption, such as buying local, driving a hybrid, or even voluntary simplicity, are often conferred moral weight, despite the fact that the ability to make such choices relies on the systemic unearned privileges that go with being white and middleclass in the U.S.

In the spirit of this examination and with apologies to Peggy McIntosh, I have assembled a partial and provisional list of specific race and class privilege that seem to be taken for granted in the culture of white middleclass environmentalism or sustainability.

Here is my list so far. Please feel free to suggest other privileges that I missed:

  1. I can, if I wish, purchase fresh local produce at my neighborhood farmer’s market. 
  2. I have the means to access organic produce and other environmentally friendly products at local coops, and other eco-conscious merchants. 
  3. I can, if I wish reduce my carbon footprint by driving a hybrid vehicle.
  4. I can choose to live in a neighborhood where many local services are accessible by walking or bicycling. 
  5. Because I have had access to an abundance of consumer products all my life, I am able to derive both material and moral satisfaction from choosing a simplicity based lifestyle.
  6. I can imagine that the consequences of environmental destruction constitute a threat of future calamity rather than an ongoing disaster.
  7. I can choose to live in a neighborhood where I feel close to nature and wildlife. 
  8. I can choose to take advantage of incentives provided by my workplace to carpool or take public transit.
  9. I have access to wild places, where I may deepen my appreciation for the natural world and its diversity of life forms.
  10. When I cannot get to wild places, I can enjoy parks and other pockets of natural beauty in my neighborhood.
  11. If I spend time in wild places, I will encounter people who look like me, and I can count on feeling welcome there.
  12. I am able to appreciate spending time in wild places because outdoor activities have always been accessible to me and my kin.
  13. Wild places do not provoke cultural memories that associate the woods with the torture and killing of people who look like me.
  14. I can take a nap in a public park without it being assumed that I might be homeless.
  15. I can spend time in the deserts of the Southwest without anyone asking to see my papers.
  16. My sense of intimacy with the land does not entail spending all day in the hot sun picking strawberries or tending someone else’s lawn.
  17. I can work in my own yard or garden without people assuming I am the gardener.
  18. I can choose to spend time outdoors only when the weather is agreeable.
  19. Because the satisfaction of my basic needs is buffered from the vicissitudes of nature, such as storms, droughts and bad harvests, I can approach the natural world in predominantly aesthetic or spiritual terms.
  20. I can enjoy National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, imagining them as intact wildernesses because their establishment did not involve the forcible removal of my ancestors.
  21. I can take part in Native American ceremonies and adorn myself with their cultural artifacts without considering the struggles of actual Native Americans to preserve their culture in the face of genocide and forced assimilation.
  22. I can take part in Native American ceremonies and adorn myself with their cultural artifacts without considering how Native Americans may feel upon seeing their culture appropriated (and often profited on) by non-native people.
  23. I can take part in Native American ceremonies and adorn myself with their cultural artifacts without considering how Native Americans continue to be oppressed and impoverished and have their culture imperiled by U.S. policies.
  24. I can adopt an uncompromising attitude about the protection of ecosystems & wild land habitat without worrying that my own livelihood will be threatened or that I will be unable to access the products I use in my daily life.
  25. I can choose to blame the whole human species for the ecological crisis, rather than looking at how my lifestyle depends not only on ecological destruction, but also on inter-human violence, exploitation, and oppression.
  26. Because my children attend a relatively safe school, are not suffering from asthma due to poor local air quality, and are not harassed by the police or surrounded by gang culture, I have the emotional space to feel agony over the imminent loss of iconic species such as polar bears, African lions, and dolphins.
  27. For the most part, I do not have to concern myself with the impacts of the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on illegal immigration, or the right-wing war on the social safetynet because none of these action directly target me or people who look or live like me, leaving me time and energy to focus on ecology.
  28. I have time and energy to think abstractly about ecology because my lifestyle is supported by a vast and semi-invisible labor force.
  29. I can choose to focus my energies on causes that appeal to me, and I prefer ecology because nature is beautiful and the wildlife does not express anger toward me or cause me to feel guilty about the crimes of my ancestors.
  30. I can work on environmental issues and feel good about myself for my good intentions rather than feeling guilt and shame for stuff that feels beyond my control.  
  31. Unlike much of the human family, I can believe that ecological destruction is separate from and more urgent than racism, sexism, or other forms of ‘merely’ human oppression
  32. My decisions about which issues to focus on have no direct or immediate impact on my physical well being.

[1] I owe this example to Reverend Deborah Johnson. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Whiteness and Corporate Social Responsibility in China

There's been a good deal of discussion in the corporate media lately about the harsh and often unsafe working conditions in Chinese factories. It turns out that the folks who assemble those shiny gadgets that dominate the American consumer landscape - the smart phones, tablets, laptops, and such - lead less than shiny lives. They routinely work six day weeks, ten to twelve hour days, and spend much of that time standing or sitting on backless stools. They are sometimes forced to work double shifts or given corporal punishment for minor infractions. And they live in overcrowded dorm rooms, with as many as twenty people sharing three rooms.

A recent episode of PRI's This American Life featured monologist Mike Daisy describing some extremely disturbing things he learned from talking directly to Chinese factories workers about their treatment. A few of weeks later, as part of their iEconomy series, the New York Times published an exposé detailing similar safety problems and labor abuses. Although the fact that most electronics products are manufactured in China by exploited workers could not have been a big surprise to anyone who's been paying attention, this story received a flood of attention. The reason for this, I'm guessing, has a great deal to do with what these factories were making, for these were not just any factories. These were the factories where the Apple Ipad is assembled.

Apple's most brilliantly realized product may in fact be its brand image. It is seen as different from other companies, as holding itself to a higher standard, as somehow embodying antiestablishment, countercultural values. These stories, however, threaten to cast the company as just another corporate miscreant, willing to think differently about product innovation maybe, but sticking with tradition when it comes to labor exploitation. This contradiction creates a sort of cognitive dissonance for many Apple fans, engendering the sort of moral shock that animates Mike Daisy's This American Life story.

The ensuing conversation has, predictably, taken shape as a debate about corporate social responsibility and whether Apple is ultimately good or bad for Chinese workers. Critics of Apple, like Mike Daisy, point to the harsh working conditions in the factories and the meagerness of Apple's efforts to improve them, especially compared to the resources they put into ensuring product quality and brand image. According to these critics, Apple has a responsibility to ensure that working conditions among it suppliers meet internationally accepted standards. Their position is not really that Apple is bad for workers, just that they are not nearly as good as they ought to be.

Meanwhile, some supporters of the status quo argue that Apple is good for Chinese workers because, they claim, what China is going through is a necessary and inevitable phase of industrial development. These commentators suggest that the sweatshop phase of development is itself beneficial because it lifts people out of poverty, gives them an alternative to village life, and improves the status of women. They even suggest that working conditions are bound to improve, as employers are forced to compete for workers. The critics reject, meanwhile, the notion that brutal exploitation is necessary or inevitable and insist that everyone, everywhere, is entitled to the basic protections that workers in developed countries take for granted. 

While these debates tend to be focused on how workers are treated and the degree to which corporations should be held responsible for working conditions in their supply chains, one obvious issue rarely comes up in the corporate media. That is the question of workers' ability to determine their own working conditions through collective bargaining. Although it occasionally merits a passing mention, as just one right among others, collective bargaining is rarely acknowledged as the fundamental right that made all the others possible.

Organized labor has always been the only effective counterbalance to the power of corporations. Perhaps this is one of the reasons labor history is unfailingly marginalized by the corporate media. At the same time, of course, our collective memory is being steadily degraded by corporate funded think tanks constantly working to turn the labor movement into a historical footnote. The fact remains, however, that the labor protections taken for granted in developed countries did not originate from corporate good will or from a competition for workers. And they certainly did not develop out of some deterministic progression to the next stage of social evolution (an ironically Marxist notion for a capitalist to hold). They were hard won through a difficult and often bloody struggle by workers to organize and make demands.

There is another subtle but insidious factor helping out in the effort to downplay the significance of organized labor for the Chinese workers' struggle. That factor is racism, which should come as no surprise, since labor control is the original reason for racism. Consider the way in which the issue is typically framed. As I said, rather than discussing the reasons why workers' are denied the right genuinely to affect their own circumstances, most critics focus on the responsibility of corporations and U.S. consumers to insist on better treatment. When we cast the labor rights debate as a debate about corporate and consumer social responsibility, Chinese workers end up in the role of helpless victims.

This tendency to see the predicament of Chinese workers as something that companies like Apple or their customers can solve by insisting on improved working conditions is simply another instance of white savior complex. This attitude, like its colonial antecedent white man's burden, is a form of paternalism rooted in a tendency to view colonial others as somehow less than fully human. The sine-qua-non of the white supremacist imagination is that only white people are seen as individuals who exist for their own sake, and possess their own intentions, aspirations, and dignity. The rights of workers to organize may be getting short shrift in this debate, in part, because of a difficulty among white liberals to imagine Chinese workers' capacity to determine for themselves their own best interests.  

Well meaning white liberals cannot advance the cause of human liberation as long as we imagine that we have a special responsibility to intervene in the suffering of poor victims in far off places. The problem is not only that this strategy is ineffective; more often than not, it reinforces the very structures of oppression that are the true source of the suffering. The emphasis on corporate social responsibility, for example, accepts and even endorses the unchecked power of the corporation. These white savior strategies thus distract attention from the deeper structural issue. By concentrating on ostensibly bad actors, we are able to avoid looking at our own complicity in the neocolonial, neoliberal institutions of global capitalism, the very existence of which depends on an unending supply of exploitable labor.   

 Barry Deutsch / CC BY 3.0 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reflections on Community and Spirituality

I found myself in a church service recently, where I had gone to hear a sermon given by my friend Nichola Torbett, founding director of Seminary of the Street. I'm glad I went, since the sermon was as brilliant. Sitting through the service, however, I noticed in myself a longing for the sense of community that the congregants seemed to enjoy. Although the church was exceedingly warm and welcoming to us non-regulars, I felt unable fully to take comfort in their acceptance. The problem is that I'm a not a Christian believer, which means that the full experience of Christian community must remain out of reach, no matter how much kinship I may feel with particular Christians. 

Moreover, it's difficult, in the church setting, to remain stealthy about one's lack of belief because of that unambiguous moment of truth called Communion, when the congregants are called on to testify to and literally embody their faith. Whatever one may think of this ritual, it works well to establish who the genuine Christians are. Yet, "communion" moments are by no means exclusive to Christianity. They are a standard element of group psychology, which usually manifest as subtle pressure to show that one shares the group's worldview. In my own circles, which tend to include many "spiritual but not religious" types, there is often a moment when someone says something about past lives or "indigo children," and I immediately feel like an outsider, a spy for the skeptic police. I become conscious only of my intellectual resistance and, as a result, the prospect of staying fully connected with these comrades feels like a threat to my integrity (or is it just the integrity of my identity?).

As I ponder this situation, I wonder if my inability to believe and the alienation it fosters might somehow be products of the dominant culture, a sort of ruling class "strategy" evolved to keep the population isolated and fragmented. I realize this may sound outrageous, since, after all, religious belief is supposed to benefit the ruling class. The conventional view, at least on the political left, is that religion is an opiate of the masses,” keeping people passive by placating us with ultimate meaning and the confidence that our oppression and suffering in this life will be redeemed in the next.

It is certainly true that, for some populations, religious faith functions to rationalize suffering and justify inequity. But that’s a topic for another blog. Here I want to focus on another kind of faith, the kind that represents a threat to powerful interests because of its capacity to unite and empower the oppressed. This is the faith that got Jesus and Martin killed, along with who knows how many other spiritual revolutionaries. And I want to consider the possibility that, as a gay man, my capacity for this sort of faith was part of the price I paid for my individual liberation. I’m wondering, in other words, if I’ve gained my sense of liberation by identifying (however unconsciously) with my whiteness. Racial solidarity most definitely is a ruling class strategy.  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that whiteness is somehow antithetical to faith. That is obviously false. Whiteness is not a fixed category with a specific ideology. As I’ve argued consistently on this blog, it is a value system; a worldview; a cosmology. As Thandeka explains in Learning to be White, the acquisition of white identity often involves learning to deny or repress sensual, embodied feelings (and often to project them onto racialized others) in order to be seen as suitably self-possessed and rational by white culture. Children are praised and rewarded for valued qualities, such as emotional restraint, self-control, and competitiveness, and they are penalized for such devalued qualities as spontaneity, vulnerability, and emotional expressiveness. Is it just a coincidence that these latter qualities are precisely those that make genuine communal life possible?

For me, the path to whiteness was clear and wide, having woken up with much of it already behind me. I grew up in a working class town at a time when groups of European immigrants were still struggling to claim white identity. My racial status was secure enough, but, being gay, I found that I still fell far short of the patriarchal (not to mention puritanical) standards of whiteness, for they cannot abide any deviation from its strictly proscribed sexual norms. I dealt with this predicament in some of the same ways as other white, middle class, gay men: I developed those of my qualities that are esteemed by the dominant culture – careerism, the appearance of social conformity, and, of course, good grooming – while avoiding the messy complications of embodied existence by overdeveloping my critical intellect. 

So I came to identify very strongly with my critical stance, and my faith was one of its numerous casualties. According to the story I typically tell myself, my critical outlook first undermined my belief in God, which was fairly strong in my youth, and then proceeded to render all intimations of cosmic purpose and meaning untenable to me. The last vestiges of my faith were finally swept away once I began to think about whiteness and to see the ways in which dominant conceptions of the divine coincide with white middle class privilege.

What I have not reflected on until now is how my critical stance also serves white middle class privilege. As I said, one of its main consequences is that it keeps me from feeling deeply connecting into the communities I move in. Maybe it's not my faith or lack of it that I should be focused on, but the satisfaction and rewards I get from remaining separate. Perhaps I’m simply addicted to alienation, to my identity as an isolated individual. Indeed, it is this identity that allows me to feel that I'm in control of my circumstances, that I'm responsible only for my own private choices. As an individual in an individualistic society, I get to imagine myself as free from social obligations and communal accountability. Alienation serves individualism, and individualism, by casting relationships as voluntary and/or transactional, supports and promotes the group interests of middle class white men like myself (see Whiteness and the Utility of the Colorblind Paradigm). 

The impulse to remain separate is obviously problematic, but individualism may also undermine spirituality in less direct ways. I've participated in a variety of spiritually oriented classes and workshops, from which I have definitely learned and grown as a person. I've noticed, however, that, due to their focus on personal transformation, many of them seem to have been designed to produce some sort of big insight or "peak experience." These experiences, though often valuable, are likely to be unstable and unsustainable. For me, the peak experience has usually been the feeling of group bonding that often happens among the participants. It is beautiful, in its way, and yet I can't help but wonder if this is actually just a sort of spiritual buzz.

In the safe container of a weekend workshop, the dictates of the dominant culture are temporarily suspended. Participants are permitted to show vulnerability and express genuine feelings, which makes it possible for us to connect in a way that seems to satisfy our longing for community. However, because these experiences are bracketed from normal life, it is possible to enjoy them without actually having to risking the real world benefits of individualism. I can bond with a group in a weekend workshop without questioning my white middle class privileges, and more importantly, without becoming accountable to anyone. Not surprisingly, this communal buzz eventually dissipates, and the seemingly insatiable longing for connection and community returns. This creates something like an addiction cycle. 

I am becoming convinced that spirituality as an individual path (as distinct from an individual practice) is actually a contradiction. Not only does individualism produce and perpetuate unjust and violent social relations, it may be fundamentally incompatible with genuine spirituality. The latter may simply be impossible in the absence of sustainable human connection and community. Where does that leave me with my hypercritical attitude, my addiction to individualism, and my longing for genuine community? Well, at the moment, I am participating in a number of ongoing groups, and although it is often a struggle, I am not allowing myself to disengage. I have come to recognize that cultivating genuine community is the true essence of my spirituality. I guess for now I just need to keep showing up and doing my best simply to stay engaged, which may be the most demanding a spiritual practice I can think of.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

David Brooks and the "Right" Inequality

In his recent  op-ed about the Occupy Movement, New York Times columnist David Brooks draws on a tactic long favored by the 1% and their apologists - locate a potential conflict within the 99% and use it to sabotage the possibility for solidarity. Amusingly, he begins this exercise in "divide and conquer" with an irony-free grumble about our society being polarizing.  

The point of contention he identifies is between what he calls “Blue Inequality” and “Red Inequality,” He argues that the Occupy Movement is focusing on the wrong one. While Brooks concedes that in big coastal cities like New York, LA, and San Francisco, the excessive wealth and influence of the 1% is increasingly conspicuous, this Blue Inequality is getting too much attention from both occupiers and the media. Red Inequality, the inequality between those with and those without college degrees, is widespread in cities like Scranton, Des Moines, and Fresno (he might have just said the “real America”) and should really be getting the more attention.

Brooks explanation for the occupiers’ lack of attention to Red Inequality sounds familiar. To paraphrase, perhaps unfairly, the reasons include the narcissism of urban media, class resentment, and the antipathy of hippies for yuppies. That’s my interpretation. Here’s what he says:
That’s because the protesters and media people who cover them tend to live in or near the big cities, where the top 1 percent is so evident. That’s because the liberal arts majors like to express their disdain for the shallow business and finance majors who make all the money. That’s because it is easier to talk about the inequality of stock options than it is to talk about inequalities of family structure, child rearing patterns and educational attainment. That’s because many people are wedded to the notion that our problems are caused by an oppressive privileged class that perpetually keeps its boot stomped on the neck of the common man.
Ah, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as turning your opponents into Straw Men by accusing them of exaggeration and oversimplification.

Red Inequality is more important than Blue Inequality, Brooks says, because it is decimating the social fabric of the bottom 50%. These people are not only making less money, they are also experiencing lower rates of marriage, higher rates of divorce, and greater numbers of children born outside of marriage. And these trends are perpetuating themselves intergenerationally, leading to legacies of social stagnation and a tragic squandering of human capital.

Well, he is exactly right about the plight of what he calls the bottom 50%, but his analysis of causality is hopelessly muddled by his conservative ideological commitments. And while his division of the world into Red and Blue is tried and true Republican political strategy, it has little to do with real world economics. I can’t say what Brooks sees when he looks at the world, but from here it looks distinctly like the fabric of U.S. society has been ravaged by precisely the policies advocated by Brooks’ ideological co-travelers (and implemented by both political parties, of course).

Is it possible that Brooks really can’t that both income inequality and the deteriorating social fabric are related to the radical restructuring of the U.S. economy since the 1970s? Could he be unaware that decades of cuts in state funding have caused the price of a college education to skyrocket? Or that weak labor-law enforcement along with the industry deregulation and trade liberalization has produced 30 years of wage stagnation? Or that fighting endless wars has put an enormous burden on military families (who almost always come from the 99%) Or that the war on drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of low-income men of color? Or that the unavailability of affordable healthcare puts millions of marginal workers one serious illness or injury away from homelessness. Or that lack of access to healthy food and disproportionate exposure to toxic air pollution means that chronic health problems are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods? Or that the foreclosure crisis and the economic collapse, created by the reckless speculation and predatory lending practices of the 1%, has disproportionately impacted precisely the folks Brooks says Occupy is ignoring?

Maybe Brooks’ center-right worldview renders him unable or unwilling to hear what the Occupy Movement is actually saying, which is that the issues are the same in San Francisco and Scranton. While incomes at the very top are exploding, many are lucky just to keep up. Health care and retirement benefits are being cut, the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, home values have collapsed, and those fortunate enough to attend college are graduating with crippling debt and lousy job prospects. The 99% suffer, while the 1% who drove the economy off a cliff get bailed out and make a killing. These are foreseeable consequences of structural inequality run amok. Extreme inequality is not a fetish; it is the malignancy at the heart of our economic and political institutions.

Of course the rhetoric of the 1% and the 99% is simplistic. That's the nature of political speech. Regardless, in terms of how the system works, the 1% vs. 99% metaphor is at least more fitting than the old story of a “middle class” where each generation is able, with hard work, to move up the ladder. There was a time when that story approached reality (for white folks, at least) but no more. Contemporary American workers are embattled. Children have less and less reason to expect they will do better than their parents, and it is no longer just Brooks’ bottom 50% who are losing ground. Sure, it might be more accurate to talk about the .1% and the 80%, but not only would that be less compelling, it would miss the point. The 99% is not a scientific measure; it is a call for solidarity against the creeping feudalism of “too big to fail” Capitalism.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Whiteness and the Enduring Mythology of the American Frontier

Popular historical nonfiction can be a great thing. It can enrich our understanding of the past and bring its events and characters alive in a way textbooks typically do not. Usually such books are written by professional scholars, and we have good reason to trust the soundness of the research and the relative impartiality of the approach. If the writer is an amateur, however, the situation is not so straightforward. History, like any academic field, is complex, and entails an understanding of prevailing methodologies and a deep familiarity with consensus knowledge. If a writer is not a professional historian, and particularly if she or he engages in original research[i], readers need to be highly circumspect.

It would be helpful if, in these circumstances, readers could rely on book reviews to alert them to potential problems. Unfortunately, literary critics are typically no better equipped than the general public to assess the scholarly merits of historical research. A case in point is the failure of the entire literary world to recognize the problems with Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. I found this book deeply troubling, and perhaps the most troubling aspect of it is the warm reception it has received from the literary establishment. This is not to excuse Mr. Gwynne for his mistakes and blind spots, but he is only one person, and no book is the product of a solitary individual. This book was edited and released by a major publisher, reviewed widely, and ultimately nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Yet, I am not aware of a single professional reviewer [ii] who voiced concern about the book’s ultimately Eurocentric take on “how the west was won.” The real lesson here concerns how easily the dominant (white supremacist) culture reverts to its old colonizer mindset.

Besides entertaining and informing, Empire of the Summer Moon is an attempt to bring balance to our understanding of frontier history. Beginning with the reference to “Empire” in the title, this retelling of events seems designed to counter the notion that Indigenous Americans were simply passive and innocent victims of the territorial ambitions and racist policies of the U.S. government. And indeed Gwynne's description of the four decade conflict between settlers and Comanches on the Texas frontier offers ample support for a more nuanced perspective. Far from simple victims of U.S. aggression, the Comanches were formidable military opponents. Unfortunately, while Gwynne’s portrait does remind us of the tenacity and resourcefulness of Native American resistance, it is far less successful in reminding us of their humanity.

Let me begin with a brief overview of the book and what I take to be its main themes. The book traces the history of the Comanche nation from its beginnings as a simple hunter-gatherer society in the high country of present day Wyoming, to its military dominance of the southern plains, culminating in its protracted war with, and final defeat by, a rapidly expanding U.S. empire. Woven through this narrative are the fates of two key characters, Cynthia Ann Parker and her half-Comanche son Quanah. Cynthia Ann was the daughter of white settlers, kidnapped from their farm on the Texas frontier during a Comanche raid in 1836. She adapted completely to Comanche life and, with her Comanche husband Peta Nocona, bore several children, including Quanah. She was eventually captured by the U.S. cavalry and, along with her young daughter, forcibly returned to her white family. Quanah, who was 12 at the time of his mother’s capture, remained with his Comanche band, eventually becoming a notorious war chief. He continued to lead raids on the frontier and hunt buffalo on the plains as long as that way of life remained viable. After finally surrendering to the U.S. Cavalry in 1875, at the age of 28, Quanah began to make his way, quite “successfully,” in the white man’s world (i.e. earning money and accumulating property), while keeping one foot planted on the reservation and encouraging his fellow Comanches to follow his lead.  

Old Fashioned Indian-Hating

Indian-hating has a long and rich pedigree in Anglo-American thought [iii]. I use the phrase to refer specifically to the ambivalence at the heart of Anglo-America’s attitudes toward North America’s indigenous people. First, of course, there is the stock racist stereotype of Indians as possessing a unique capacity for violence purportedly absent among the more “civilized” English and other Europeans. This attitude is epitomized in the Declaration of Independence, with its reference to “merciless Indian savages.”[iv] Second, there is the Romantic notion of the Indian as a paradigm of independence and dignity. This view, exemplified by Rousseau’s “Noble Savage,” is generally recognized as a product of European anxieties and aspirations. In the figure of the Noble Savage, the European projects the natural vitality and independence he fears he may have traded for the stability and comfort of civilization. I include both contempt and flattery under the label “Indian-hating” because both attitudes dehumanize the real, flesh and blood people behind the projections. Both attitudes are on display in this book.   

On one hand, Gwynne claims that the Comanche male enjoyed a “peculiarly American sort of freedom.” Although he may believe he is offering a neutral report on the absence of “onerous social institutions” in Comanche society, his tone evokes a familiar stereotype. And when he writes, without a trace of irony, that “the Comanche male was … gloriously, astoundingly free,” or remarks that “much was made of the noble and free life of the American Savage,” he signals no awareness that he is rehearsing timeworn racist mythology. I realize that Gwynne is setting up a contrast with the hard life of Comanche women, especially captive women like Rachel Plummer, but literary license is not a license to add insult to historic injury. Incidentally, we should not overlook how frequently the hard life of women in peripheral societies has been used as a rationale for colonial domination.   

The main qualities for which Gwynne flatters the Comanches is their horsemanship and military prowess. Citing the admiration of a contemporary observer who described the Comanches as “the finest light cavalry in the world,” Gwynne declares that they were “geniuses at anything to do with horses.” After describing the Comanches’ talent for handling, training, and even stealing horses, he describes the “sheer military superiority” their expertise gave them over their first European opponents. In recounting the clumsy efforts of the Spanish to push into Comanche territory, Gwynne asserts that, in carrying out the San Saba Massacre, the Comanches lured the Spanish Empire into “its greatest military defeat in the New World.” I support giving the Comanches their due, but given all the battles the Spanish fought in the Americas, it seems a stretch to call the loss of 52 men the “worst [defeat] inflicted on the Spanish in the New World.” In the Battle of Ayacucho, by contrast, the Spanish suffered 2500 casualties and lost control of the South America. 

Along with flattering Comanches for their independence, nobility, and proficiency as warriors, the book indulges plenty of negative stereotypes, which, to make matters worse, are often directed at "Indians" in general. For example, Gwynne declares that “American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them.” The frequency and intensity of warfare before and after Europeans arrived is not even relevant. Even if it could be shown that every Native American group fought frequent wars with its neighbors, which is doubtful, “American Indians were warlike by nature” is not a claim about history; it is a claim about racial essence.

Moreover, besides being a fallacy, treating “Indian” as a racial category can result in oddly counterintuitive reasoning. For example, Gwynne states at one point that the Lipan Apaches, “could always be counted on to betray their old tormentors [the Comanches], to sniff them out and go running to the [white] authorities.” Huh? By what logic is the forming of an alliance against a long-established enemy judged a betrayal? The only way this bizarre reasoning makes any sense is if you’re expecting actual material enmity to be superceded by racial solidarity. 

By the way, the phrase “running to the authorities” conveys a contempt that pervades the book’s treatment of the Apaches and Tonkawas. Unlike the Comanches, who are at least admired for their warriorhood, the Apaches and Tonkawas are largely portrayed as weak and pitiable. It is probably no coincidence that these were the very people on whose expertise the militias were forced to depend in their pursuit of the Comanches. Militiamen may have felt the need to compensate for their own dependence by reassuring themselves of their racial superiority. Since Gwynne apparently recognizes the racism of his sources, noting one leader’s assessment of Indians as subhuman, it is unclear why he either echoes their sentiments, as he does with the above, or simply allows their mocking remarks to stand without comment. One example of the latter is where he quotes a militia captain from one difficult expedition reporting with undisguised disdain that “some of the horses froze to death … and the Indians, loath to see so much good meat go to waste, ate the flesh.” Passages like these, which are peppered throughout the book, left me feeling like I was expected to share the Indian-haters’ view of their native allies as lesser beings. 

Meanwhile, while the Comanches are not treated with the outright derision directed at Apaches and Tonkawas, neither are they represented as possessing the intellectual capacity of white people. Gwynne writes, for example, that “the Comanches had a limited vocabulary to describe most things – a trait common to primitive peoples.” He is primarily setting up a contrast with their horse-related vocabulary, but the result is that he reinforces a myth colonizer societies have long used to justify their dominance.[v] Elsewhere, in discussing how polygamy and women captives provided the labor to support the Comanches’ trade in Buffalo hides, he states that “these changes were perhaps more instinctive than deliberate.” Since the author presents no evidence to support this contention, it strikes me as a rather gratuitous denial of Comanche agency.

Another way the book implies that the Comanches do not quite measure up to Anglo-European standards concerns their worldview, though the author seems somewhat conflicted in this regard. On the one hand, he describes them as “primitive,” “low barbarians,” who are “immersed in an elemental world that never quite left the Stone Age – a world of ceaseless toil, hunger, constant war, and early death.” From this description, it sounds like the Comanches needed civilization to remedy their hopeless backwardness. On the other hand, the Comanches’ world was one of “pure magic … an intensely alive place where nature and divinity became one.” And the story he tells about Cynthia Ann Parker’s refusal to accept “civilization” also contradicts his more Hobbesian depiction of Comanche life. Rather than reflecting on this inconsistency, however, Gwynne ends up falling back on an archetype of prelapsarian innocence, sometimes writing about Comanche society as if it was an exotic relic uncorrupted by modernity. He describes how it was being “polluted by the white invaders,” noting that one deserted Comanche camp “was littered with … white men’s goods, evidence of the deep cultural contamination” (italic mine). This view of Comanche culture as either pure or polluted reflects the aspect of colonizer mentality that assesses the value of a culture based on its authenticity and integrity, on its being unsullied by colonial influences. This represents yet another way of erasing the agency of colonized people.  

Whiteness: the View from Somewhere

The issues I have been discussing are only symptoms of a more fundamental problem, which is a direct consequence of the author’s methodology. The most persistent weakness in this book is the ease with which it slips into the perspective of the frontiersman. Despite being written in the 21st century, little of the book, it seems to me, would ruffle the sensibilities of a 19th century pioneer. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but the explanation for this seems straightforward. Gwynne spells it out in his Bibliographical Note: “as I hope will be apparent to the reader, much of this book was constructed using a large number of firsthand accounts from the era.” Original research of this kind is best handled by professionals who are trained to take into account the biases and limitations of their sources. This is precisely what Gwynne seems to miss. He treats his culturally bound, ideologically motivated informants, virtually all of whom represented the Anglo point of view, as if they were impartial witnesses. At the same time, by giving us such a vivid window into the mind of the 19th century settler, Gwynne has actually done us a valuable service. His book offers us a chance to observe the cosmology of whiteness at one of its key formative moments.  

Nowhere is the author’s over-reliance on the settler perspective more evident that in the way he celebrates the character of settlers and “Indian fighters.” The vanguard of western expansion, he tells us, “was not federal troops, but simple farmers imbued with a fierce Calvinist work ethic, steely optimism, and a cold-eyed aggressiveness that made them refuse to yield even in the face of extreme danger.” These were “the sort of righteous, hard-nosed, up-country folk who lived in dirt-floored, mud-chinked cabins, played ancient tunes on the fiddle, took their Kentucky rifles with them into the fields, and dragged the rest of American civilization westward along with them. … They, more than columns of dusty bluecoats, are what conquered the Indians.” Why so? Because the Texans were “tougher, meaner, almost impossible to discourage, willing to take absurd risks to secure themselves a plot of dirt, and temperamentally well-suited to the remorseless destruction of native tribes.” Wow! Those people sound like genocidal sociopaths to me, but the author’s tone conveys an unmistakable note of admiration for their grit and determination. The Comanches must have also had grit and determination, but we are never invited to consider it.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t the “hapless” farmers who did the real dirty work of killing Indians. It was the Texas Rangers, who, according to Gwynne, were “young, reckless, single men with a taste for wide open spaces, danger, and raw adventure … They were sharp-eyed, audacious, and fearless twenty-four-year-olds with little sense of their own mortality and a distinct taste for combat. … They were highly motivated to track Indians and kill them and happily did it without pay or reward. Comanches, of course, had never seen anything like this breed of men.” It is difficult to imagine this sort of glorified language being used to describe anyone whose objective was to murder as many white people as possible. Indeed, when it comes to Comanche exploits, Gwynne finds it “impossible” to read about them, “without making moral judgments.”

Even when the author ascribes ostensibly negative attributes, such as “mean” and “remorseless,” to Indian fighters his tone betrays a certain admiration, especially compared to his descriptions of “Indians” as “hostile” and “savage.”[vi] Moreover, when it comes to the genocidal actions of the Texans, Gwynne seems mostly impressed by their optimism. The only Comanche to whom Gwynne attributes optimism is Quanah, who also happens to have been half white. Of course, with the advantage of hindsight, it is obvious that the white settlers had more reason to be optimistic about the future than the Comanches. Given the demographics of white settlement, the spread of European diseases, and the distribution of technology and power in the 19th century, the ultimate outcome of the “Indian Wars” was perhaps predictable. Political/economic predictability, however, is not at all the same thing as racial destiny. 

Yet, the extent to which Gwynne blurs the distinction between the predictable and the predestined comes uncomfortably close to nostalgia for Manifest Destiny. Consider, for example, how the book frames “getting rid of the Comanches” as a perfectly natural and reasonable goal for the Anglos. Gwynne condemns the federal government’s “incompetence, stupidity and willful political blindness” for their failure to mount a “concerted effort to pursue the [Comanches] into their dark heartland, to destroy them.” Meanwhile, the violence of ongoing Comanche raiding, according to Gwynne, eventually “exhausted the last of the white man’s patience, and ruined forever the arguments of the peace advocates and pro-Indian humanitarians.” After one particularly brutal season of raiding, “whatever sympathy the horse tribes may once have inspired was gone.” For Gwynne, apparently, it was not that the Texans were simply facing resistance from a people who refused to accept the theft of their land and the obliteration of their culture; rather, the Texans were patiently and foolishly trying to negotiate with “irremediably hostile Indians.” Notice, also, how the references to the “patience” and “sympathy” of the colonizers imply that it was the Comanches who were ultimately to blame for their fate.

Finally, Gwynne seems to take on the colonizer perspective when framing the larger meaning of the frontier. Particularly revealing is his description of Comanche territory as “undiscovered,” “untouched,” and “the edge of the known universe.” The implication is obvious and familiar – that only the gaze of the white man constitutes discovery, and that only white man’s knowledge counts as knowledge. In addition, Gwynne refers repeatedly to the “advance of western civilization,” which the Comanches were “holding up.” He writes, for example, that, in the 1860s, “the frontier rolled  backward … canceling two decades of western progress.” Again, one could get the impression that the spread of Anglo-European culture on this continent was preordained.

A Systemic Failure

Needless to say, I found this book deeply disturbing. But let me reiterate that, though my criticisms are directed at the author, the most troubling aspect of this book is how it has been received. I understand how difficult it is, as a solitary writer, to be aware of one’s blind spots. But this book must have been read by dozens of intelligent, educated, and literate people on its journey from draft manuscript to Pulitzer Prize finalist. Did no one along the way notice its limitations? How is that possible? Was there no one among the editors, critics, and Pulitzer committee members who could provide a Native American perspective, or at least recognize its utter absence? Was there no one with expertise in scholarly practice who could call attention to the problems of methodology and voice? In my view, responsibility for this book reaches well beyond S. C. Gwynne. This book is one more product of a system that continues to rely almost exclusively on the voices and perspectives of white people (mostly straight white men), while remaining all but unaccountable to the rest of society.

There is something those of us who are white can do to disrupt this process. We can notice when non-dominant voices and perspectives have not been included in conversations where they have a stake, and simply speak up. I don’t believe most people want to produce one-sided histories or to make decisions based on partial perspectives. But most of us have been badly mis-educated and we need to help each other.

[i] For the uninitiated, original research is research that relies on materials from the historical period in question, such as diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and official documents. While these are the richest sources of historical knowledge, they are also potentially the most misleading, particularly if the researcher lacks a deep understanding of the larger historical context.
[ii] There are a few user reviews on that do recognize this problem. 
[iii] Melville coined the phrase “The Metaphysics of Indian-hating” in his last novel The Confidence Man.
[iv]He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
[v] On Native American vocabulary, see Bright, W. (1994). "Native North American Languages" in D. Champagne (Ed.), Native America : portrait of the peoples (pp. 397-439). Detroit: Visible Ink Press. 
[vi] While it is true that Gwynne uses the word “savage” in describing behaviors on all sides, he only uses the word as a noun for indigenous people.