Friday, June 10, 2011

People are People

Guillaume Raynal, a philosophe and propagandist for the French Revolution, once wrote that African slaves "are tyrannized, mutilated, burnt, and put to death, and yet we listen to these accounts cooly and without emotion.  The torments of a people to whom we owe our luxuries, can never reach our hearts."  I find his observation a rather enlightened viewpoint, especially for the period.  It evinces a key insight about the human condition, about human nature, and it certainly has application today.  I dare say that we Americans, like the rest of the world, tend to look away from oppression when it benefits our economy or way of life.  I'm not a liberal nut job saying this, it's just a basic fact about people.  Where lefties have it right is the notion that we Americans live high on the hog at the expense of other poor saps in impoverished nations  located mostly south of the equator.  Where they go wrong, however, is the tendentious claim—borne of exaggeration, propaganda, and animosity—that America plays a singular role in this kind of exploitation, not to mention the inability on their part to portray everything we do, or at least the government, in the darkest of tones without any variations of grey.

Is Raynal's statement a sad testimony on humans' self-professed "humanity"?  I suppose so, but don't shoot me for I'm just the messenger, albeit a messenger who agrees with the message.  T. S. Eliot, in prefatory remarks on the philosopher Pascal, once wrote: "The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith; and when the ordinary man calls himself a skeptic or unbeliever, that is ordinarily a simple pose, cloaking a disinclination to think anything out to conclusion."  Eliot was addressing those people who fancy themselves thinkers when in fact they have little time for thinking.  I would say that mutatis mutandis the same charge could be levied at those numerous people who see themselves as deeply concerned about the suffering of others when in fact their real interest is their own self and their family.

As a side note, Raynal's statement can give us an important lesson about making moral judgments on past societies.  While it is important not to impose our value judgments on the past from a retrospective view centuries later, at the same time if you can find “voices crying in the wilderness,” or at least a few voices that expressed opposition or criticism or misgivings about the evils of the day—exploitation, slavery, mass slaughter, etc.—then there’s some allowance for a bit of moral judgment.  It then becomes evident that people made decisions in spite of moral objections expressed by some of their contemporaries. For instance, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves.  Historians and educated people understand that slavery was a common practice, especially in a place like Virginia, before we so readily condemn this way of life. At the same time, John Adams did not own slaves and thought it morally reprehensible. Jefferson never freed his slaves, if memory serves. Washington, it appears, always had a moral compunction about it, and freed his slaves upon his death (but not his wife Martha’s slaves, for he couldn’t do this legally).  Yes, we need to be mindful of the “Zeitgeist,” or spirit of the age; we ought to take into consideration what was within the realm of the thinkable and what was culturally acceptable at that time.  But there's still room for some moral assessment of our forebears.  If you hear someone talk about the "good ole days," laugh in their face.  It was just as bad in the days of yore as it is today, and actually worse.