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

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Toppling Statues - It's Never Been About Race

“I’m inclined to reserve all judgments”, says Nick Carraway in the opening lines of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and true to his word, he is generous with regard to Daisy, Jordan, and Gatsby, all deeply flawed characters but whose good sides– Daisy’s beauty, charm, energy, and social grace; Gatsby’s sense of romance, optimism, and hope; and Jordan’s directness and forthrightness – far outweigh the bad.  Nick takes them all for what they are, not for what they are not, enjoys them, delights in them; but is not shy in admitting their faults.  Jordan is the most dishonest person Nick has ever met; Gatsby has hopelessly bourgeois tastes, has made his money suspiciously, and has never been honest about himself or his past; and Daisy is shamelessly selfish and manipulative.

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Yet Nick loves them all.  “You’re worth more than the lot of them”, Nick shouts to Gatsby when he sees that Gatsby’s so-called friends have abandoned him, his generosity, and his home without a second though as more indicting rumors about his past surface. Nick sticks by him till the end, for Gatsby is a man worth notice and friendship.  He may have had shady dealings with Meyer Wolfsheim, exaggerated his personal history, and done questionable things to rise to wealth if not prominence; but his fundamentally good, moral, and principled nature is worth it all.

Nick, of course, cannot be entirely consistent.  There are no two sides to Tom Buchanan, an arrogant, mean, brutal, and totally immoral man; and Nick watches with shame as he abuses Daisy, Myrtle, and Wilson.  He cannot forgive Daisy for abandoning Gatsby and not speaking up for her role in the death of Myrtle and for having given up her supposed love for Gatsby for a man of her own class and breeding as ugly and unredeemable character as Tom is.  Being the objective, distant, non-judgmental observer has its limits.

Yet Fitzgerald’s point is clear and repeated in the short stories that form the Gatsby-cluster.  Dexter Green loves Judy Jones despite her insincerity, her superficiality, and her social deviousness.  She like Daisy is irresistible, beautiful, energetic, and a living symbol of something out of reach.  Judy, Daisy, and Gatsby are cut from the same Fitzgerald cloth – desirable, hopelessly flawed characters who have the power to influence and destroy. 

Tolstoy was famous for his nihilism, his sense of determinism, and randomness.  Napoleon lost the Battle of Borodino not because of any one strategic error but because of the accumulated effect of so many seemingly insignificant but important events in the past.  Had Napoleon’s valet not forgotten to bring the General’s gum boots (an oversight because he was obsessed with his wife’s infidelity caused in part and in turn by her own dissatisfaction with her valet husband’s attention paid only to his patron), Napoleon would not have caught cold, felt feverish and rheumy on the morning of battle, and would not have had the foggy brain of congested man.

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If individual events are nothing more than the result of an accumulated history, then individuals themselves are no more than a randomly selected composite of parents, ancestors, and influences.  There would be no point in forming moral judgments, for morality itself is relative.

Herein lies the dramatic difference between progressive and conservative political philosophies.  Conservatives are advocates of Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Darwin and Kierkegaard.  Absolute morality is a fiction.  Given human nature, natural selection, and the essential randomness of the universe, there can be no such thing as progress, Utopia, or ‘positive’ change.  Things simply are what they are, and that change is determined by the dynamics of countervailing forces, dialectic, and survival of the fittest.  

Progressives deny all this; and despite the record of millennia of history which demonstrate that human nature, human beings, and human society have not changed one iota since the first human settlements, insist that there is such a thing as a better world and the path to it is unmistakably clear.  There is nothing random about racism, they say, or slavery.  It is an absolute evil, a fundamental evil which unless it is excised will infect like a virus. 

These social advocates disregard the history of slavery itself, an institution as old as human settlements and still practiced one way or other in much of the developing world – and some would say, at the hands of capitalist overseers.  They disregard biology, physiology, genetics, and social history when promoting the ‘gender spectrum’.  The dismiss and derogate individual enterprise even though buying and selling, trading, and bartering through private markets have been a feature of human society since its beginnings.

The two fundamental philosophical aspects of history are at present in serious conflict.  Toppling statues is not about race, racism, or slavery but about historical revisionism, Utopianism, and progressive myopia.   It is also about Puritanical purity – anyone who has committed an act deemed to be wrong, immoral, or unjust according to contemporary, partisan views, is by consequence and nature all wrong, immoral, and unjust.  Neither do these social ‘reformers’  understand the nature of history, its relativity and amorality; nor can they possibly accept – as Fitzgerald has – that few people are either all bad or all good; and that in the recognition of that complexity, that irrefutable personal integrity, no matter how conflicted, few should be discarded.

It is understandable, therefore, that social anarchists want the head of Thomas Jefferson – America’s third president, diplomat, scholar, political philosopher, principle author of the Declaration of Independence and influential contributing author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – condemned for an act (owning slaves) that was legal, permitted, and acceptable; and against which he argued? Or Washington, Hamilton, and Madison for the same reasons?  Are not the achievements and contributions of these men more than worth an act – slavery – which was historically conditioned? Andrew Jackson, President of the United States and uniquely responsible for key victories against the British in the War of 1812 should be honored for that alone as should Ulysses S Grant for his Union victories in the Civil War. 

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By the same myopic historical revisionism and Puritanical arrogance, the greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a great, courageous man; but also a Lothario who cheated on his wife and was even more of a sexual wastrel than JFK should be dismissed from history. Yet did their questionable sexual judgment disqualify both men from leadership or high public office? Hardly.

Many women immediately disqualified Bill Clinton from any further political consideration after he had sex with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. If he cheated on his wife, they said, he will most certainly cheat on us. Yet the Bill Clinton years look good in the light of recent White House debacles.

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites, but their work was notable.  Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”. Are we to burn their books? Consign them to the trash heaps of literary history?

If the issue of the day were anti-Semitism and not racism, social anarchists would be burning their books.

The point is first to accept important figures for the best that they were, not the worst – i.e. why they are revered as great statesmen, writers and thinkers; not what they did in their off time; and secondly to accept them as indicators of history – i.e. notable for achievements that were important or noteworthy to American history. 

Yes Robert E Lee was a Confederate general who led the secessionist fight against the Union; but tearing down his statue will not erase the pernicious influence of the slavery for which the South fought – that is still painfully obvious in inner cities throughout America – it will expunge any memory of why and how the war was fought.  Statues of Jefferson Davis do not glorify slavery, but are indicators of the nature of the conflict between the states and should not be ignored.  Before long if all such statues and images are removed, we will have no idea what slavery actually was, how it functioned, and why it became the Cause Célèbre of the Secession.

Such anti-historical revisionism knows no bounds.  Statues of Jesus Christ which picture him as white should be torn down because they are thinly-veiled expressions of white supremacy.  Wall Street should be occupied and defiled because of credit swaps and Enron. There is nothing, once one starts looking, that doesn’t offend someone.  The problem is that the progressive Left has conflated all its grievances about race, gender, ethnicity, and capitalism; has chosen to ignore the course of history; to forget achievements while revealing wrongs; and a juggernaut is difficult to stop, particularly since craven supporters of the anarchist agenda have jumped on it.

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