"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Multicultural Lovers–Meghan Markle, The Queen Of England, And The Neutering Demands Of Race

The recent wedding of Meghan Markle to Harry, Prince of England was certainly a milestone.  Only a generation ago, the Royal Family would never even considered an American (shades of Wallace Simpson) let alone a woman of mixed race.  The Queen is old enough to remember her troubles with Africans; and although her advisers suggested that she apologize to all Kenyans for British ‘abuse’ during the long and bloody struggle against the Mau Mau, she did so reluctantly.  Her world was colonial empire, tutelage if not patriarchy of the colored races of Africa and Asia, and a profound belief in and absolute respect and admiration for British rule.  If it hadn’t been for the British,  East Africa would have never have developed.  From the forest to Westminster in a scant few decades was the accomplishment of British rule, less satisfactory and complete as that in Asia, but significant nevertheless.

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For decades after the British successes in East Africa, West Africa languished as the white man’s grave.  Democratic justice, civil service, and physical infrastructure lagged far behind Kenya, Tanzania, and especially South Africa.  What are now Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Liberia barely moved forward since colonial times.  In fact, according to many observers, they have regressed. 
Independence and home rule only enabled the dictatorship of African autocrats – big men who had debts to pay to family, tribe, and region and profited from a surprisingly tolerant ex-colonial power.

Winston Churchill, hero of WWII, champion of British sovereignty, and apologist for continued colonial rule, insisted that the lessons of Western democracy, established in Ancient Greece, ratified by philosophy and revolution, were universal.  African nations would do well to acquiesce to European rule for a time, he said, until the roots of progressive liberalism took root; but the demands for African independence, encouraged by Roosevelt and his geopolitically naïve nation, were respected; and British and other colonial power rule dismantled.  The results of this precipitous leap to autonomy are seen today.  Big men still rule Africa, poverty rates remain intolerable, crime and civil unrest persist; and the continent, free for almost as long as Asian colonies, regresses while India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia record double digit increases in GDP.

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The Queen, now well into her nineties, and a child of Empire, cannot be but discouraged by the current state of affairs.  British sovereignty should never have pulled back ‘East of Suez’ let alone from the desperately disadvantaged countries of Africa.  British rule was of course good for Britain, but there could be no denying its positive influence on its colonies.  By the time Britain left India in 1947, it had left behind a modern physical infrastructure, an efficient civil service, a rule of law, and a set of moral and ethical principles unchanged for over 2000 years.

The Queen has presided over a radical and remarkable transformation of Britain itself.  There was no way that divestiture of its colonies could mean insulation from their refugees.  Africans quickly took stock of the venal, self-centered, and arrogant leaders who took over former British colonies and fled while the fleeing was good.  Britain was understanding, tolerant, and ethical in its treatment of those who wanted to leave the tyranny that had replaced English liberalism; and for a while, members of the British Commonwealth were admitted without question to the UK.  In short order Britain became multicultural and diverse.  Fortunately, immigrants from their former colonies had not been radicalized like French Algerians, and assimilation was a rather easy affair. Bangladeshi Muslims were of a very different order than Salafi-indoctrinated immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.

Britain had always had a very productive colonial relationship with both the Union and the Confederacy in the United States.  Money and influence were to be had in both, and sides were hard to take during the Civil War.  Britain knew, however, that slavery could not last, that they outlawed it in its Caribbean colonies, and that only thanks to very productive and mutually beneficial trade with the American South, did it not take sides against the Union.  The most sophisticated observers of the American scene agreed with Thomas Jefferson that although slavery was an unfortunate institution, its repeal would result in more civic chaos than ever imagined.  Jefferson in the early 19th century tried to design a program to either return freed slaves to Africa or to third party countries in the Caribbean and Europe.  He knew that freed slaves – in 1865 still African, unschooled in the ways of the West, still animist and in many ways primitive – would be a disruptive influence on white, stable, Western America.

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So Elizabeth II is no stranger to racial geopolitics either in America or the UK; but given her age, her family, and her family’s almost 1000 year history, she cannot but have qualms about the state of race relations in Britain and America.  She cannot help but have at least a residual feeling of superiority to Africans and questions about their descendants. She of all people has a right to wonder how Britain so miserably failed in its colonial enterprise; and equally wonder what it is about African culture, society, and history that has contributed to this developmental delay.

On the other hand, 150 years have passed since slavery was abolished in America, and many American blacks have joined the middle class. Women like the Queen's daughter-in-law are perfect examples of the success of liberal democracy. Meghan is highly-educated, talented, principled, and intelligent.  Under any other circumstance, she would be welcomed into the royal family without question.  Yet because the issue of race has been deliberately and inevitably introduced into the equation, it cannot be ignored.  Meghan herself, a child of the multicultural generation, a believer in the importance if not primacy of the signifiers of race, gender, and ethnicity, has made it clear that she wants to join the family not just as a unique, desirable individual, but as a black woman.

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She is happy to be judged according to her racial profile.  She has willingly subsumed her own, unique, personal identity within the context of race.  Since race-gender-ethnicity is at the heart of a politically progressive ethos, being black in America confers an automatic membership.  While she has spoken out in favor of only some progressive causes, one can conclude nothing about the rest; but given the cultural ethos in America and the demands on black men and women to conform to and participate in a progressive racial and political agenda, one may assume a certain conditioning.

If this assumption is correct, she could no sooner be sympathetic to Israel than she could to the Mississippi grandees of the antebellum South.  She might have reservations about full support to the police or the armed forces in racial matters. She might even suspect multinational British corporations for their investment policies. Meghan's public, progressive stance on race, gender, and ethnicity, however cloaked in humanitarian globalism, is still highly political. If there is one truly revolutionary change in the palace, it is this very obvious political agenda.

Worst of all, like many black people, her own own, unique, and very personal identity has at least in part been co-opted and neutered.

Who knows how the dynamics of race and generation influenced Harry in his choice for a bride. He must know that his marriage to Meghan Markle is not incidental – an expression of cultural zeitgeist, expected in a time of inclusivity – but purposeful. Not only is Markle an American, but a divorcee and black – a combination that itself makes a political statement. 

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This is all well and good.  Britain is no longer culturally homogeneous, and unlike the monarchy of kings past, today's sovereign rule must include all British subjects. The acknowledgement of this new heterogeneity and a willingness to serve it is politically necessary.  Harry knows well that the British crown has come increasingly under attack for its isolation and elitism.  From that perspective, marriage to Meghan Markle is an undisputed good thing.

Yet, by raising race to such a public level in the marriage and by including the signifiers of a racial upbringing of which the bride had little part - black preachers, black gospel choirs, and references to American civil rights leaders - it sends the wrong message. Once again black people are being asked to wear the same mantel, enlisted willingly or unwillingly in a common legacy.  Black first, they are told;  individualism, enterprise, and soul second. This may be temporarily comforting - black Britons now have a voice in the palace - but the bargain is Faustian. 

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No one asked to represent, speak for, or promote the interests of one’s color, national origin, or religion can ever be free or unique.  Characterizing someone first and foremost by race, gender, and ethnicity puts them into an inescapable box.  Meghan will never be asked about her moral principles, her faith, her personal aspirations, or her philosophy.  Her humor must always be circumscribed and correct; her affections politically mediated; her aspirations heady, given her titled position, but predictable.  Because she is who she is – black, American, and a woman – it is inevitable that she will be co-opted and used.

A close American friend and colleague had had numerous affairs with foreign women, some in passing but many quite serious.  He had been very much in love with a Danish doctor, considered moving to Buenos Aires with an Argentinian artist, and had a two decade affair with a Pakistani Parsi biologist among others.  He had never once considered race or national origin in either his choice of women or their promise.  Their attractiveness, allure, and excitement had nothing to do with where they were from or what language they spoke but who they were – strong, playful, seductive, insightful, vulnerable, brilliant, or beautiful.  While some, almost stereotypical aspects of their culture, added to the mix – African forwardness, Asian deference, and Eastern European intrigue – they never occluded the truth. 

Usha’s muhajir history, her family’s forced emigration from India to Pakistan, their economic enterprise similar to the Birlas and Tatas of the country they left were incidental to her humor, her sexual inventiveness, her revealing honesty, and her unquestioning affection.

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The lovers of my colleague never thought twice about such things.  They took transnational affairs as a matter of course.  A sexual liaison with a Saudi, Brazilian, or Laotian was expected if improbable.  The zeitgeist was permeable cultural borders, not multiculturalism.  My colleague in turn never considered anything but female sexual response.  The fundamental, hardwired, but unique biological imperatives of sexuality were hard enough to figure out let alone distracting complications of race or national origin.

Which is to say that Harry and Meghan might have a normal, demanding, difficult but ultimately satisfying personal relationship, but the socio-political overlays are too obvious; the scenarios too precisely and predictably written.  Perhaps this is the real legacy of the throne, part of patronage and rule.  Its what they inherited.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Who Am I? Individualism And The False Promises Of Social Identity

In not so many years past, the question ‘Who am I?’ was easily answered – a being created by God, endowed with an immortal soul, and placed on earth to serve Him and to attain a place by him in the next world. There were no complicating issues, no sidetracks, and no dead ends.  Our origins were simple, our lives only temporary and meaningless except as preparations for immortality.  We may be born socially unequal, but before the eyes of God we are equal, all to be judged according to His grace.

Hinduism has perhaps the most explicit statement of this reality.  Not only do human beings have no inherent value, but the world itself is illusion, without value, and without promise.  There is no rationale for existence nor uniqueness of being.  We will continue to be reborn into a meaningless, illusory life until we finally understand and join the nature of God.

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The caste system, so harshly criticized in the West, is designed to limit irrelevant choice and ambition allowing each person to focus on his only, unique purpose – spiritual evolution.  Within this system the individual is irrelevant.  The concept of individuality itself is fictitious.  There is no value in individual existence. What we do, who we marry, or where we live has no inherent significance.  Individual choice is a chimera, a subset of an illusory world. 

All religions espouse the same idea – we are nothing but divinely created beings whose only purpose is to fulfill a divine destiny.  They all vary in their expression of faith.  Some place a higher value on obedience to God and God’s laws; others focus on salvation; and still others on acceptance, moderation, and ritual; but all are consistent in their conviction that life if anything is only preparatory, never to be trusted, and a means to a spiritual end.

Such faith of course, while universal in principle, is irregularly applied.  Modern society has been completely reconfigured.  While faith may remain, it has become pro forma, little more than a spiritual template to frame human activity.  More importantly and especially within Protestant fundamentalism, an individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not only encouraged and possible, but common.  Individual salvation may depend on God’s grace, but an expression of faith and love, demonstrating individual worthiness and preparation, can create the right environment for spiritual recognition.

Such fundamentalism has its roots in the Reformation when Martin Luther rejected the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Pope, the clerics, and its laws. No longer would Christianity be a religion dominated by a patriarchal hierarchy, confining individuals within its rules and regulations governing matters spiritual.  Luther cut out the middle man, encouraged an individual, passionate, intimate, and direct communication with Our Lord.  Protestantism, especially at its most fundamental, has retained this sense of individual worth and enterprise. This religious individualism was a perfect match for the ambitious secular individualism of the New World.  While God chose whom to save, wealth, land, status, and property suggested who they were.

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In the early days of the new Republic God was never far nor removed.  For decades, despite the history of European religious oppression, there was little separation between church and state.  The church was the center of secular life responsible for civil order, education, and spiritual guidance.  The individual within the context of Christianity and the new nation was still supreme, but the church was felt necessary to rein in and control excessive secular ambitions as well as minister to the faithful. 

By the time of the Robber Barons and laissez-faire capitalism in the early Twentieth Century, all pretense to moderation and uniform respect of religious law and tradition disappeared.  It might be difficult for a rich man to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, but it was worth the risk.

Although the Unites States in the 20th century was judged to be among the most religious in the world, it was a specious conclusion.  While the vast majority of Americans observed religious rituals, expressed their faith in God, went to church, and prayed regularly, they were moving farther and farther from the principles of Christianity enunciated by the Church and codified in the Council of Nicaea. 

Philosophy and theology were becoming increasingly disassociated from the practice of religion.  Fewer and fewer Christians understood or even sought to understand the subtleties expressed in John 1:1-5, logos, and the very nature of God.  The mystery of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, good and evil, and especially the unique and subtle relationship between man and God, were largely lost in favor of absolutism, charismatic faith, and individualism.

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The Catholic Church – as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam – provided the foundation for moral action.  In fact, the religious authority of the Church ensured its moral authority.  As Dostoevsky suggested in The Brothers Karamazov, it might be more prudent to subsume the State within the Church and not the other way around; for what better way to keep civil order than through moral authority and the threat of divine punishment?  Yet today’s society has increasingly abandoned such notions and has considered the Church – any church – as confining, authoritarian, and restrictive of individual potential.   It is one thing to set a moral standard, another to enforce it arbitrarily.

In an era of multiculturalism, arbitrariness is the sin – a sign of an outdated authoritarianism, elitism, and racial and ethnic superiority.  There is no such thing as a singular moral standard no more than one way of worship.  All religions are equal, morality is temporal and relative, and the only validation of life is personal expression.  The world has become distinctly Nietzschean.

It is one thing to value the individual – all religions have placed salvation in the hands of the individual – but another thing altogether to revise the nature of individualism.  The focus on race, gender, and ethnicity and the insistence that individuals define themselves first and foremost by these criteria have distorted the essential moral and spiritual nature of being.  However one chose to find God or spiritual enlightenment, and whatever the religious template one followed, the enterprise was profoundly personal and passionate. 

No religion has denied the existence of unique character or soul; but only sought to align them with the divine.  Today, the trappings of individuality have replaced the foundations.  Once a person defines himself first as black, gay, Latino or any other variation of these signifiers, his real and unique value becomes less important and less vital.  If one assumes, as devout Hindus do, that life’s only purpose is divine; or even as amoral, atheistic Nietzsche assumed that all life is without purpose, then one’s special, uniquely configured individuality is paramount. 

Nietzsche’s Übermensch has no color, no race, no gender, no ethnicity.  A Christian soul has no attributes other than ineffable and divinely inspired. Accepting the false promises of ascribed value can only be distracting and a diversion from far more important concerns. 

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Not only does the mantra of race-gender-ethnicity divert attention from more spiritual and philosophical reflection; but serves to deny individual secular will.  While we may all exist primarily within the context of God, we are also secular beings.  Our self-actualization as such has nothing to do with race, gender, or ethnicity but only with our character, our intelligence, and our will.  Self-realization by any other standards is a chimera.

In a socially unregulated society (no caste or class system and despite social and economic disparities an equal opportunity country) it is harder to maintain or even recognize one’s natural, innate personal integrity than in traditional Hindu India; but important nonetheless.  Anything other than an encouragement of innate, personal, natural character is an imposition offering false promises.

Friday, May 18, 2018

‘The Reader’–Can There Be Added Dimensions To Evil? And Can Anyone Be Truly Moral?

‘The Reader’, a movie starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, is a story about an Auschwitz prison guard who, rather than open the doors to the barn where transit Jewish prisoners were kept on their way to the concentration camp, let hundreds of them die in a consuming fire.  The Winslet character, Hannah Schmitz,  does not deny what she did, but states that to have opened the doors would have been a dereliction of duty, for she and the other guards had been charged with the transport of the prisoners no more no less.

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Schmitz, like all the other Nazis on trial at Nuremberg, said that she was only following orders; and that although she knew the final destination of the Jews under her responsibility were to be executed, she could not be held accountable for that finality, only her immediate actions.  The Nazis might be guilty and even morally repugnant; but she, sharing neither their mission nor philosophy and only a simple tram-conductor promoted to camp guard could not share the blame. Guilt is neither black nor white, but shaded by context, condition, and circumstance.

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Had she simply carried out her duties, accompanying the soon-to-die Jews to the ovens and assuring security, she might have been exempted from trial.  If there was any category of innocence, it surely was that of functionary.  Yet by her deliberate, considered, and unequivocal refusal to open the doors, she became a Nazi as reprehensible as Goering or Goebbels.

What are we to make of her conviction?  In the movie she is portrayed as an uneducated, apolitical, working class woman who accepted employment as a camp guard as a better-paying promotion, a chance to better herself and to move up within the German civil service.  While she could not have formally authorized the order to keep the doors locked – her illiteracy made it impossible – and should have been spared the long sentence she received as a member of a complicit group but not its leader, she certainly had a moral responsibility to free the prisoners from a certain and horrible death.

Did she deserve the long prison sentence meted out?  Was she legally guilty as charged? And, more importantly, was she morally responsible?

Suppose that Schmitz, while not a member of the Party, sympathized with the Nazis.  Jews incinerated in the burning barn was only an unplanned, serendipitous, and cost-saving anticipation of the Final Solution.  If, in her mind, Jews were to be exterminated without moral consequences, then what was the crime in letting them die before arrival at Auschwitz?

Suppose that she was neither a Party member nor a sympathizer, but a good German civil servant and citizen who understood the rules and authority of the State.  Following orders in a highly disciplined, authoritarian regime in a very obedient, respectful society, was normal and appropriate.  No one demanded moral loyalty, only official obedience.

Suppose that she was ‘an ordinary German’, one with neither partisanship nor philosophical understanding, without any particular animus or hatred for the Jews, but one who was dutiful, respectful, and obedient; whose orders were to control the prisoners and to prevent escape.  Was that enough to exonerate her from the burning?

In other words, how much morality can we expect from the led, the followers, the economically and socially powerless?  To have refused orders, explicit or implicit; to have risked one’s fragile career or even life, would have been indeed heroic.  Yet was such heroism even possible?   Neither Hannah Schmitz, her colleagues, nor the German people could possibly be held to a higher morality, one whose execution would mean certain death.  Most Germans, and most people, would have kept the doors shut.

Is lack of heroism a crime?

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has written extensively about the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Nazi Holocaust.  They could not have been totally ignorant of Hitler’s plan, he argues, and despite the powerful machinery of the State could have rebuffed the Fuhrer when they first realized his intents and might have been able stop him.

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Once the complicit acceptance of Hitler and his grand designs became widespread if not universal, the incorporation of Nazi ideals within the normal life of German citizens became easy.  Not only did Germans no longer question Hitler or even think of revolt, they accepted him.  The environment enabled them to sleep easily.

Do such ordinary Germans deserve the opprobrium of Goldhagen?  Don’t we all fall prey to overwhelming majority opinion, cultural ethos, and peer pressure? Yet his contention that if ordinary Germans willingly, if complaisantly, joined the enabling environment, they were as guilty as those who perpetrated the atrocities of the State.  Difficult or not, Goldhagen contends, everyone has a moral responsibility to assess and admit the nature of the environment he wishes to enter, to take the consequences of entering, and suffer the opprobrium and physical risk of staying out.

‘The Reader’ adds an unwanted take to the argument.  How could an illiterate, unschooled woman of limited intelligence and ability possibly be convicted within the same context as Himmler or Eichmann? Are there not exonerating conditions, even within a Holocaust?

To judge Hannah Schmitz is to judge all of us.  Regardless of political affiliation, sentiment, or cultural conditioning,  do we not all have a moral responsibility to do right?  To assume so is to assume a universal understanding of right.  Condemning hundreds of people to a horrific death has no justifying interpretations.  There can be no doubt, no reflection, or no arriere pensee. Wrong is wrong.

Another movie, ‘The Lives of Others’, tells the story of life under the autocratic Communist East German regime under which everyone informed on everyone else.   The State was all-powerful, all-consuming, and in complete control. It took little persuasion or incentive to recruit informers.  Informing was a way of life.  Morals and ethics were dismissed in the struggle for survival.  The value of family was inestimable, beyond calculation. Why should one expect heroism from ‘ordinary Germans’?

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One easily concludes that the Holocaust was evil – not simply a familiar expression of autocratic power, but a deliberate, politically unnecessary act of human treason.  Genghis Khan, responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths on his way to geopolitical hegemony is given  free pass as was Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin.  At least these dictators had  purpose.  Hitler could have won a war of European conquest without the annihilation of the Jews.  He is considered  evil because his slaughter could not be explained in geopolitical terms.

Can there possibly be any innocence under a regime of evil? Are there any exonerating or plausible excuses for the behavior of Hannah Schmitz?

Of course there can.  There are few heroes, and to condemn ‘ordinary’ Germans, Americans, or anyone else for failure to step up is wrong.  Universal and categorical condemnation of complicit Germans is to consign millions to an immoral Hell.  Are those who live peaceable lives under Hamas or Israel accountable for Middle East violence and death? Moreover does one has to prove one’s moral credentials to be absolved of guilt or complicity. Those Hamas supporters who stay at home, away from the border protests are either quiet supporters, actively complicit, or neutral; but must be calculated in the final moral accounting of the violence. Israelis, Iranians, North Koreans cannot be excluded from the calculus; but what values to ascribe to them?

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It is very easy and convenient to conclude quickly on matters of morality; but the truth is far more complex.  The rush to include even the most marginally implicate in an atmosphere of condemnation and political correctness is understandable but dangerous. Such judgments dispense far too easily with human weakness.  If we – morally wobbly and never sure but never dismissive – err on the wrong side of history, are we forever condemned?  While there may indeed be a spectrum of evil – and the dereliction of Hannah Schmitz certainly falls within critical range – should condemnation be universal, or should comparative judgment rule?

One hopes to never be in such a critical moral crisis because despite the stories of heroism and courage, few people are up to the mark.  Complaisance, submission, and complicity are the rule and not the exception.

America has become a very moralistic and doctrinaire society,  Shades of gray have been blackened in or whited out.  One must be on one side or the other.  Such polarity demands more of ordinary citizens than they were prepared for.  No one told then that they would ever have to put their principles on the line or their life for them.  Such choice is painful, unnecessary and unfair.

This does not mean that the categorically moral demote all others to an amoral, flabby center.  It only means that they should not expect martyrs.

Hannah Schmitz was not a bad person or a particularly immoral one.  She was just as human, frail, and indecisive as the rest of humanity; incapable of moral choice because her limited intelligence, narrow upbringing, and conservative codes of behavior never even allowed for he possibility.  She should not be judged.  Nor should any of the rest of us, accused of far less heinous crimes.