BOOK REVIEW: The Black Count by Tom Reiss

This is a fabulous  non-fiction narrative that rivals many of the best novels ever written.  Even the fact that it made the New York Times bestseller list and also won the Pulitzer Prize hardly does it justice.  Tom Reiss obviously spent many months, even years, doing very original research on at least two continents and as many languages.  But let’s begin at the beginning

If you have ever read the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and you liked it, or like me, loved it, Reiss’ book is a must-read for you.  Dumas also wrote The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, as well as dozens of other fiction and non-fiction books and articles.  The Count of Monte Cristo is a story of revenge; the story of a man imprisoned for life on unknown charges as the result of a conspiracy of three enemies he didn’t know he had.  He is condemned to a medieval prison, whose castle walls are several feet thick.  He makes a daring and miraculous escape aided by another prisoner, an aging abbe, who reveals to him the location of great treasure.  The hero becomes fabulously wealthy and the rest of the book is about how he wreaks revenge on those who had condemned and then forgotten him.  The Hollywood movie version in my opinion ruined the story by changing the ending.

What I didn’t know is that the author of these sagas, Alexandre Dumas, was a mulatto, and his father, Alex Dumas was a very dark black man from the island of Haiti who intermarried with a white French woman.  Through the real story of this man, Reiss takes us on a global panoramic tour of the institution of slavery itself, with many surprises along the way.

Slavery of course, has been around since the beginning of man’s recorded history, and obviously predated that history.  All acquisition of property and power throughout the ages was through conquest, and the victor took all, including the vanquished as slaves.  Slavery was not racially tinged until the 18th century.  Before then, anyone anywhere was at risk of becoming a slave if a predator group won the battle.  For example, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he made slaves of the Egyptians, but he also imported lots of white slaves from what are now eastern European nations populated by ethnic Slavs, which is where we got the word slave.  Christians during this time period thought slavery was fine as long as the slaves weren’t other Christians.  So making slaves of non-Christians and especially the Moors, was acceptable.    In time these ethnic Slavs, who became known as Mamelukes,  revolted against their Egyptian masters, and the Egyptians became their slaves–until Napoleon came along and drove off the Mamelukes. Read more..

In the western hemisphere, there were large population centers located among the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Incas.  One of the Incan cities had a larger population at the time than the European city of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Each of these south and central American civilizations had slave populations themselves.   When the Spanish conquistadors invaded they absorbed the existing slave populations and also made slaves of the former masters.   Those  who didn’t die of the white man’s diseases were turned into slaves and were sent to die in brutal, murderous silver and gold mines.  None of this was race related.

When other imperial explorers reached the islands of the Caribbean, they didn’t find precious metals as they had hoped, but instead found sugar cane, which they learned how to refine into sugar.  The sugar capital of the world became the island of Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue.  Growing sugar cane was labor intensive, and unlike in central and south America, there were no large concentrations of population that could easily be enslaved.  The African slave trade in the 18th century was largely concentrated around the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue.  There were few African women imported to Saint Domingue, and the men were treated so brutally they died quickly of starvation and beatings.  This rapid turnover further exacerbated the labor shortage, requiring more and more slaves.

Reiss traces how the imperial expansion into the western hemisphere took place concurrent with the philosophical movement of The Enlightenment with its special emphasis on liberty and individual rights.  The French were the first to attempt to come to grips with the contradictions between slavery and liberty.  The French were intrigued by the American experiment and the principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and of course our revolution only came to a successful conclusion due to the assistance of the French navy.  As a matter of fact, the French involvement in our revolution drove their nation into bankruptcy, and precipitated food riots and their own Revolution.  The French Revolution championed the rights of man at the same time that it engaged in a Reign of Terror against its own citizens, sending thousands of innocent people to the guillotine.

The French resolved the slavery/liberty debate at first by declaring that any black man who made it to the shores of France proper was a free man, and the French sort of washed their hands, Pontius Pilate-like,  of what happened in the slave-holding colonies such as Saint Domingue.  Activists pressed the issue however, and within a short time freedom was being promised to slaves in the colonial territories, which of course enraged the plantation owners, who withdrew their support from the French Revolution.   This facilitated Napoleon’s rise to power, culminating in his naming himself emperor of France and ending the centuries-old monarchy.

Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre, came to France as a young man and entered the military, and quickly distinguished himself.  For a while he actually outranked Napoleon, but in time came to report to him.  He was captured in what is today Italy, and spent several short years in a medieval prison, held without charges.  His prison experience broke his spirit and his health.  Napoleon meanwhile, in an effort to placate the very wealthy plantation owners of the French Caribbean colonies, rescinded many of the freedoms that the Revolution had instituted for blacks.

After many years of valiant service to the Revolution in which he devoutly believed, Alex Dumas found himself without a pension, without a home, and with no means of support.    Napoleon, who knew him well and personally, ignored his requests and his lieutenants ignored the requests and pleas of his widow after Alex died, still fairly young and impoverished.

This is broad brushing this delightful narrative, which holds many insights you’re not going to find in a history book.  Reiss approaches his topic without bias or political correctness, and what I came away with was that the lot of the common man of any race, color, or origin from time immemorial has been to serve as the cannon fodder of the ruling class of every nation, and that the golden rule prevailed:  he who had the gold ruled.

Reiss is quick to point out many of history’s ironies:

Napoleon and Alex Dumas fought against the Spanish in southern Italy.  This is the same Spain that was colonizing the central and southern Americas.  And that is how the South American tomato made it’s way to southern Italy, which of course made it famous. or was it the tomato that made Italian cuisine famous?

The French continued to refer to black and mixed race people in France as “Americans”, in America members of its Congress would not permit blacks into their presence except to serve refreshments or sweep up. Says Reiss: “But having enjoyed prestige as “Americans” during the[French] Revolution, black and mixed-race soldiers now found themselves denigrated as “Africans.”

The French helped us achieve the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and were also the first to give blacks freedom, at a time when  General George Washington said he didn’t think Virginians were ready for that step yet.   French  General Lafayette of Yorktown fame had to flee for his  life from his own Revolution.  He was captured by the Prussians and spent the next five years in prison.  His friend George Washington was powerless to help him because Prussia [parts of what is now Germany] and Austria at the time refused to recognize the new United States.

Miscegenation , or racial intermarriage, was common until it too was outlawed.  Haiti, the sugar capital of the world and probably the richest island on the planet, experienced the first successful major slave rebellion. The slaves fought 80,000 of Napoleon’s troops to a standstill; the French left, the plantations closed, and today Haiti is quite possibly the poorest island on the planet.  Today Haiti has experienced something of a brain drain as their best and brightest have abandoned her to seek their fortunes in the United States and elsewhere.

New post-revolutionary France decided to deflect attention away from their internal problems by invading most of their neighbors, which is how Napoleon and Alex Dumas came to know each other and fight almost literally side by side.  As always, the government attempted to finance their wars with debt, in the form of bonds backed by property–that had been seized from the Church.  These bonds were on pieces of paper called assignats, which were used as money,  and of course they printed more assignats than there was real estate collateral, which resulted in devaluing the assignats and creating massive inflation.  Eventually the floor under the assignats gave out–literally.  At the Paris printing house someone piled up too much of the worthless paper in one place and the floor of the building collapsed under the weight.  Their real-estate secured bonds were worthless.  Nothing familiar here, is there?

Reiss peppers his story with personal vignettes such as this description of one French revolutionary:  “. . . his main character flaw was that of so many French revolutionaries: a zeal for human rights so self-righteous that it translated into intolerance for the actual human beings around him.”  I’ve often thought the same of the purported champions of the war on poverty; their concerns are usually self-serving and they wouldn’t want to get too up close and personal with real poverty.  They preach humanity but don’t like poor people moving into their neighborhood.

Reiss weaves a wonderful and complex tapestry of events that spans the globe and leads to even more questions.  Life is never quite what it appears to be, and the more it seems to change the more it stays the same.  If you have strong opinions about modern race relations in the U.S., read Reiss’ book for a more global perspective.  Without our Constitution and limited government, there is nothing left but the governments guns, the moneyed powers behind the throne, and the ragtag mob.  Without individual freedom that cannot be voted away by any block of voters of any color for any reason, there is no freedom except by permission, and that is not freedom at all.

For author Alexandre Dumas, his novel The Count of Monte Cristo was the fantasy version of his father’s life.  Indeed part of the story begins in an obscure little village in Haiti (Saint Domingue) near the border with the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo) called Monte Cristo.

Many parts of this biography of Alex Dumas, and his legendary fictional counterpart, the Count of Monte Cristo, read like a Kafkaesque novel.    Until we figure out a way to change human DNA, the possibility of a return to this world should never be dismissed lightly.  Liberty is and always will  be under siege.

10 Rules: How Closed Minds Become Closed Borders

It is my intention to provide my readers with a very valuable and unique service.  I am a voracious reader and it is my special talent to distill complex subjects down to their simplest parts and principles (if indeed such principles exist).  Much of what is written, past and present, is intentionally obfuscated for political purposes or dishonest gain, whether of the material, intellectual, or emotional varieties.  It is designed to misinform or mislead.  Even when the ideas are simply muddle-headed rather than intentionally disingenuous, there is rarely an understanding of where those ideas originated, or historical consequences of their application.   These observations are particularly applicable to political discussions, but are not uncommon in virtually any serious discourse.

I am driven to know what is.  I grew up in an intellectually closed society, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I left that religious organization in mid-life only to find a whole smorgasbord of other closed societies, whether religious, philosophical, political, or social.  There is a vehemence and even fierceness of advocacy that inhibits civil conversation and betrays intolerance of different life experiences and conclusions.  What is most remarkable about all of these is that either side in any of these debates would passionately agree with my observations herewith stated, but only find them applicable to the attitudes and behavior of those with an opposing viewpoint!

As the polemicists outshout each other in the vain belief that raising the volume of their cranky bombast is the key to recruiting you to the cause or the sale, regard for evidence, logic, scientific method, clarity, and other calm pursuits are left behind like abandoned children.   Defense of our own position usually trumps all other considerations without any awareness whatsoever of the road by which we arrived at our convictions.  My most important takeaway from my own life-altering experience  is that I am the bouncer and doorman to my own mind, and I have sole discretion over what is permitted to enter.  I am the final arbiter of what I accept, because I become what I ingest intellectually.   This is a personal responsibility that I cannot delegate to any other person, institution, or authority. In my opinion, every one of my readers shares this same responsibility for themselves, for the same reasons and with the same rewards. Bitterness and anger about years wasted in misguided belief and defiance of reality are efforts to transfer responsibility for our own past choices onto others, but in every case it was we who negligently invited strangers, in the form of ideas, into our mind unidentified and unchallenged.  Even when we absorb faulty premises in our age of innocence, responsibility to identify and correct these later in life cannot be avoided with impunity.

I frequently include book reviews on this blog, on a broad range of subjects.  All of these book reviews are at least somewhat positive in nature, because I do not waste my readers time on books that are in my opinion without at least some important redeeming values.  I am neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, and these days, once you get past the rhetoric, it can be said their distinctions are often without differences.  I have no ideology except the value of the individual human being. Each of us is a minority of one.  Regardless of the comfort we find in each other, there is no collective brain.  Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” What we think determines what we become.

I want to share some rules of the road from my personal experience.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to eat everything on my plate at meal times.  It was axiomatic that to waste food was wrong, even though our young minds rarely grasped the contradiction in the fact that we didn’t overload the plate with all that food, the grown-ups did.  How could we possibly know that for the rest of our lives other BIG PEOPLE would be filling up our intellectual plates with the impassioned ideas, ephemeral notions, and absolute certainties they insisted we must ingest because it is “good for us.”  As in childhood, we trust the source, the same one we associated with survival itself.

Rule #1 :   The purpose of all propaganda is to become your “trusted source.” Read more..

Everyone, it seems, has the strongest notions of what is best for us, beginning with our immediate families and extending to all the institutions of our culture.  What is accepted and practiced in one generation may be repudiated by future generations.  The philosophy that someone else knows what is best for us is nothing more than delegating to strangers what gets put on our plate.  It makes no difference whether this authority figure or expert comes in the guise of clergy, government, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, media talking heads or television and movie script writers; all of them provide us with generous helpings of their opinions and rules and they expect us to eat it, even if it gives us heartburn.  They do not like to be ignored, and most of them are happy, if given the opportunity, to harness the coercive power of the state to enforce what they know is, if not for our own good, at least for the good of the greatest number.  After all, Daddy knows best.

Everything is based on core premises, and unfortunately these are usually absorbed unconsciously from the Influential People of our childhood and adolescence, parents, teachers, news media, friends, and church.

Rule #2:  At a tender age we are neither equipped nor qualified to evaluate  conceptual content, and we know little or nothing about possible  alternatives. 

Content becomes indelibly associated with the persons and institutions of authority that deliver it.  Because of this early childhood association between content and source, we begin to develop class distinctions based on these associations.  We are more inclined to trust and believe those who dress like we do, worship as we do, get educated where we do, and who earn their living as we do.  At the most mundane level it is often said that the best place for a young man to pick up a date is at a church wedding, because he benefits by association with the joy of the occasion and the trust placed in that institution by its members. A “no” response in a different context might become a “yes” at the wedding.

Rule #3:  As children, content becomes truth when it is delivered by those on whom we depend to survive.

Once imbibed, these childhood-acquired core premises become unchallengeable, eternal truths, the template against which all new information is evaluated.  We quickly learn to block dissonance, any new information that makes us uncomfortable.  As we build the rest of our lives around these core premises, our emotional investment in them becomes such that a challenge to their veracity becomes a challenge to our identity.  There is a crushing need to shut down, shut out, and utterly annihilate such threats, and this need is all the more powerful and insidious because it is experienced subconsciously, as in dis-ease.  We experience anxiety without knowing the cause. 

When you experience something that disturbs you, it may or may not mean it is bad for you.  A bad taste in your mouth may mean a poison mushroom, or it may only mean conflict with the taste of the previous mouthful, in which case you need to cleanse your palate before proceeding.  A mouthful of lemon juice may cure you of scurvy, but it could be intensely unpleasant right after eating a sweet.  Likewise you may have been led to believe that very wise people are looking out for your welfare, and this goes down pleasantly, like a sugar cookie.  You might have had great faith in the honest intentions and competence of Bernie Madoff in handling your life savings, or you may currently be planning an extended retirement on Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist, and it tastes sweet.

Rule #4:  What feels safe and tastes good may be the prelude to the financial equivalent of a diabetic coma.

In every case, we always trusted the source.  The doorman to our mind was sound asleep.  There were red flags about what we believed, but we chose to ignore them.

That’s why I write about labels.  I sit down to lunch with people of all stripes and within minutes I can hear, and feel, the palpable hatred as my temporary companions launch into diatribes about those who think differently than they do.  The emotional intensity and intransigence derives from the speaker’s sense of certainty.  A mere label such as the name of a political party, or particular belief or non-belief excites the passions and invites the derision of the group at the table.  To belong is to share in the laughter.  The opposite is equally true and commonplace; the willingness to blithely accept nonsense if it comes from a trusted source.  We will defend what we have already emotionally invested in.

Rule #5:  It is possible to have a lifetime investment in something that is indefensible by any rational standard.  

How long have we known, and has our government refused to acknowledge, that our Social Security is history’s largest Ponzi scheme ever?

I used to finish reading any book I had started.  Like cleaning my plate at dinner, I felt compelled to finish what I had started.  I don’t always do this anymore.  Life is too short.  I always seek to identify as quickly as possible  authors’ basic premises, and even if I disagree with them, I may continue reading if only because I enjoy the writing style or because an author occasionally drops in a redeeming original thought or new twist on something.  I no longer waste my time filling my mind with garbage, but there is a balance between that and closing one’s mind.  Periodically I have to remind myself to re-evaluate my own core premises to see if they still withstand close scrutiny.  The final questions are always, Who says so? Why?  Based on what?  I am always on the alert for the hidden agenda, the sugar-coated dodge.

If some distinguished authority figure makes claims that appear improbable and  unsubstantiated by the facts as you know them, assuming they know more than you is one possibility.  Another possibility is that they have reasons to be less than truthful on this occasion.

If their explanations more accurately resemble circumlocutions, going round and round in circles and making no particular sense, you could assume that their explanation is too deep for your comprehension, given their special training, or you could also entertain the possibility that their non-answer is because they really don’t have an answer but won’t admit it publicly.

How do you spot obfuscations, disinformation, and hidden agendas?    For starters, unless you’ve taken a serious course in statistics, distrust all statistics.  Most are not scientifically sound and are intentionally manipulated for uninformed public consumption.  I could say there are a thousand ways to do this, but that would not be a scientifically sound statistic.  So we’ll move on.  In commercial matters, follow the money.  In political and institutional matters, follow the power.  Look past the easy answers.  Look past the obvious beneficiaries of a particular group action.  The secondary beneficiary is always the real beneficiary.  The primary beneficiaries receive very diffused benefits.  They are the poster children of the much ballyhooed political action; the orphans, the poor, the children, the unemployed, the elderly, the American middle class, the racial minorities.   The secondary beneficiary receives very consolidated power;  the power to bestow or withhold.   Daddy isn’t interested in your growing up.  Daddy needs you to need him.  Daddy needs to be in control of permissions, punishments and perks.

Rule #6:  If someone is selling invisible clothes, let them run around naked.  

It is better to be underwhelmed by the titles and decorations and positions of power of the so-called experts.  Who even remembers yesteryear’s Nobel prize winners and Treasury Secretaries or Fed Chairmen?  If anyone makes claims that to your mind seem like the Emperor’s invisible clothes, let them wear them.  Plan your personal life and make your financial choices around your own perceptions, not theirs.  They will usually have agendas you will never know about, and disincentives to provide full disclosure or tell the unvarnished truth.  Do they really know better than you how to direct your life?  Most American households’ finances are looking better than the governments, perhaps for no other reason than we can’t print money like the government  does.  We have been acting to correct our balance sheets, to start saving and stop borrowing.  Does that sound like what they have been doing?  Do they care about you, or are they far more concerned about polishing their credentials to the largest blocks of voters?  This goes for anyone who is offering you advice on any subject.  Would you look to the Dalai Lama for guidance on improving your sex life, knowing he is a celibate monk?

In the end it’s the same.  Money is power.  But government is money plus guns.  By guns I mean the police power of the state.  With guns you can seize other people’s money.  If you get enough people behind you, even in a democracy you can decide whose money you will take, and how much of it.  This is REAL power, and this is why groups will spend a billion dollars to secure a position of power that pays only half a million.  The most expensive seats are reserved for those who hold court, who trade in favors and gifts, and who choose the winners and the losers.  These people are not producers; they are looters who talk as if they understand production.

All ideas have a history, and if you follow the thread of an idea back far enough, there are always surprises.  Every opinion, belief, and conviction—indeed every certainty, was arrived at in a certain historical and social context, and made perfect sense to those persons in their place and time, and was almost invariably the partial result of emotional turmoil in the author’s personal life.  In other words, intellectuals, philosophers, clergymen, or brick layers, we are all made of the same dirt.  Ideas all began with real people and every single one of them had problems, issues, and emotional dilemmas.  Some of them were morons.

Rule #7:  Many of the world’s greatest thinkers would be in therapy today.

Ideological sparks at the intersection of the right time and the right population periodically ignited the imagination of masses.   New truths became eternal truths that have often reversed themselves, sometimes over and over again, everyone so preoccupied with the minutiae of their daily routines they fail to notice the intellectual roundabout on which they have traveled for decades or centuries.    The grand ideas  have all come and gone, or splintered and evolved in almost unrecognizable ways, becoming innumerable dogmas and orthodoxies,  and today they make compelling narrative for the history or philosophy buff.  Those who take the time to look more closely are sobered by the awareness that in every time period of history there were those who were willing and eager to kill or enslave those who disagreed with them.    Our current democratic society provides some cultural and legal protections against this, but a basic meanness still often lurks beneath the surface of many human believers.  I hear it in conversations at lunch.

Rule #8:  There’s a troll under many a believer’s bridge.

When belief devoid of thought is extolled as a virtue, doubt becomes suspect, opposing opinions are demonized, dissenters are criminalized, and definitions of the enemy are crystalized.  Hatred is born and mob action is galvanized.  Ascendant mobs become the state. Other groups see opportunities to advance their respective causes by hitchhiking on the coattails of the rising group, with the idea that they will address their important differences after they achieve a more favorable situation in the power structure.   The state attempts to co-opt and harness culturally powerful forces (the most powerful of which is religion) and then moves to consolidate its power by weakening, neutering,  and eliminating competing groups.  There are no enduring loyalties, just the shifting sands of temporarily overlapping interests.

This is why I champion individual rights in my writing.  The individual is the smallest group in the world.  Protect individual rights and you protect the world.  Democracies are the competition and conflict between groups, but history is replete with the horrors perpetrated by one group (even elected ones) on other groups.  Great evil has been done repeatedly in the name of God or in the name of Society.  Even in a so-called free society there is nothing more fear-inspiring than observing an impassioned closed mind reflected in the eyes of another human being, so certain of his ideas in fact, that he will gladly sacrifice your life to prove it.  On their own, they are dangerous and capable of atrocities; organized into groups with their hands on the levers of power (duly elected or not), no one is safe.  Not even the members of their group.  Every group has its purges.

There IS a problem with championing individual rights.  It puts responsibility on the individual.  There is uncertainty, and results are neither equal nor guaranteed.  What is guaranteed is that no group can by itself or backed by the power of the state, make you do or be what you do not believe in.  And you can’t do that to anyone else either.  Not everyone is comfortable with that.

Individual rights are inalienable, meaning you were born with them and do not acquire them by permission from others–no one and no group can morally take them from you, even when those others are infused with certainty about their better idea.   They may seize your property and take your life by force, but they can never do so morally.  Individual rights mean the right to pursue your own life and happiness as your highest values, and you are free to seek and perform work that sustains those values.  This includes buying and selling from whomever you choose, to your own benefit.  Individual rights means essentially the separation of church and state and the separation of economic activity and state.

Individual rights mean the government is there to protect  individual rights of all, and no one is there to serve the government.  Individual rights in practice, of necessity mean small government because there just isn’t that much the government needs to do.  No modern state, including western democracies, will ever pay more than lip service to government based on the sovereignty of the individual because all governments derive their power from the purse, which includes both confiscatory taxation and gross interference with free trade of its citizens.  The power of government is in granting permissions.  That’s where the money is.

Rule #9:  The government’s favorite childhood game is “Mother, May I?”

You can recognize individual rights in action when your government fears to transgress against its citizens.  

Group rights, on the other hand, are acquired by permission from a majority of others in society, and those permissions can be revoked.  The herd sometimes gives little or no notice of intent to stampede.  The primacy of group rights derives from the belief that your highest value as an individual  is not yourself but your contribution to society as a whole.  Individuals can  expect to be sacrificed to the group when the group calls for it. Every single favor demanded of  government by a group always implies a request for the police power of the state to be used against someone else  who doesn’t want to do the group’s  bidding.  Otherwise, if the group could achieve its ends on a voluntary basis, arrived at through negotiation, documented and signed by the parties, why would they need to involve the state?  Groups only need the state to club minority interests into submission.   I use the word minority here in the very literal sense of anyone who does not have sufficient votes to protect their interests. Group rights are the inevitable political legacy of those obsessed with the certainty of their beliefs, so much so that in their minds the ends justify their means.  Sooner or later the means include the confiscation of human life and property by the state–for the benefit of the greater good, of course.  Group rights degrade into group warfare and lead to an indefinitely expanding state, with eventually the state dwarfing all other groups.

Group rights lead to totalitarianism, which is sanctioned and even welcomed by the public in the name of efficiency.  When the cacophony of bitterly opposed groups gets too rancorous and the machinery of the state grinds down, someone with the necessary stage presence steps forward and suggests temporary consolidation of power to get through the political impasse.  We all know the rest of that story.

You can tell group rights in action when citizens fear their government.

So what is my point?  Am I advocating political activism in favor of limited government and individual rights?  Not really.  You can, of course, if you want to.  All I am encouraging is to become aware of what is happening around you, and to be aware of the ideas behind the events.  Keep your finger on the pulse of the politics in your community, your state, your nation.  Be more careful what you believe in, and scrutinize documentation with a critical eye.  In almost every location it is possible to exercise a great deal of personal freedom as long as you don’t make too much fanfare about it.  Love your life, keep your mind open and your passport current, and

Rule #10:   Know where the border is.

Closed minds eventually become closed borders.

 

Where Do I Belong?

I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I left that church many, many years ago, but not before I had learned the power of a label. For anyone outside the church, being a JW was associated with the visual of an unwelcome someone knocking at your door, usually on a Sunday morning. Or an association was made with those JW’s who refused blood transfusions and got a lot of unwanted press about it. But very few people really knew anything else about us. Our label was a form of shorthand for the few things anyone knew about us, or most likely, ever wanted to know. Our label was sufficient for others on occasion to be mean to us, especially as children. We knew we were outsiders.

When I left Jehovah’s Witnesses, I lost my lifetime label.  I was now faced with the onerous task of figuring out who I was.  My label had defined my identity up to that point in my life.  I didn’t know anything else.  (For more of this story, go here.)

When Self-Labeling Becomes Self-Destructive

We also label ourselves, sometimes to our own harm. We may develop a certain self-image and then we will live either up to it or down to it. If we see ourselves as a loser,  poor,  fat, sexy, brainy,  pretty, or superior, we often tend to behave in a way that conforms to our self-label, either owning it or over-compensating for it. Labels have power. When we adopt negative labels, we become co-conspirators in our own destruction.

If you want to try an interesting exercise with self-labeling, try to make a summary statement of your own identity in one or two sentences.  Be generous with yourself, but make sure it will pass the snicker test of your best friend or spouse.  Emphasize your core values, what you stand for, what matters, so that someone who just meets you could quickly evaluate whether they would welcome further interaction with you; your signature statement.  This exercise may be more challenging than you expect yet everyone you meet subconsciously performs this exercise and reaches conclusions about you within minutes.  Try doing it for yourself!  It is very difficult to project who you really are if you are confused about the subject yourself. Read more..

Socio-Economic Radar

When we find ourselves among kindred spirits we tend to feel safe and welcome, and when among strangers we turn up the voltage on our social radar, scanning the group for our probable status, the likelihood of acceptance or rejection should these people learn more about us.

When we meet someone new, we ask them what they do for a living. This may be nothing more than an opening line in an attempted conversation, or we may be looking for a label, a shortcut to identify as quickly as possible where this person will most likely fit in our socio-economic hierarchy, so that we can better judge how to interact with him or her. We size them up: are they powerful or weak, rich or poor, well-educated or dropped out of school in fifth grade, doctor or drug dealer, above us or below us, smarter or dumber than us, incredibly attractive or flawed in some important way, a safe companion or a threat to me or my marriage, a benefactor or a competitor for resources?

Sometimes we create the label, and often we buy into pre-existing labels.  Someone who graduated in the bottom 5% of his Harvard class (5% do!) trumps another who graduated summa cum laude from Podunk Community College.  (The person who graduated in the bottom 5% will conceal this—if s/he is even aware of it; the person who graduated with honors may be sure to mention it.)  Someone who showed up in a late model Mercedes outshines the family in a ten-year-old station wagon.   We all bear price tags.  We buff our price tags on the way to our class reunions.  Without our price tags it is very difficult to make snap judgments about others.  I live in North Dakota where there are a lot of very wealthy landowners who confound the labeling process by living in old farm houses.  In the summer they are easily confused with the rednecks because both groups drive dusty pick-up trucks.

The social meaning of a label changes with context. In most places in America, to state publicly that you are an atheist will elicit some type of social opprobrium, the assumption being that an atheist could not be a moral person and therefore is suspect. An atheist may be shunned, or become the object of extended kindness from those who are sure he can be won back to sanity. An atheist in America could never be elected to high office.  The label would defeat him.  Conversely, in many parts of Europe, confessions of atheism would more likely be met with “. . . and your point is???”

“Acceptance Speech”

We may attempt to acquire a label by parroting certain phrases that we think will accelerate our acceptance into a group. We can say inane things like “I’m all for limited government”, whatever that means. That phrase is devoid of meaning because its currency has been, first hijacked, and second, devalued. It is the sort of politically correct thing that can be said at a any party with a reasonable expectation that there will be knowing nods of assent at the shared wisdom. It is a label valued for its emptiness and safety; something each can put their own spin on. Everyone believes in limited government as long as they don’t touch our own particular cherished benefits.

Labels as Closure

Adopting a label can be a form of closure, so that we don’t have to think about a person or topic anymore. Using a previous example, we could justify our cutting off contact with a former friend by using a label, such as “he’s an atheist anyway” or “I can’t believe he’s become a rabid liberal” or “she’s so selfish” or “I’m done with him—he’s gone conservative “. . . We use these labels in much the same way that we would invoke the label “sexual offender”– to end the conversation or close the book on a possible relationship. Once the label has been pronounced, it becomes a judicial sentence, and no further thought or conflict need be entertained.  Everyone to the barricades!

Labels Evolve

We also use labels in a constant effort to determine if we are “normal”. Much of life occurs in a continuum. We live in a world of gray, and we attempt black and white to clarify our sense of identity.  For most of us life refuses to be so tidy. A silly example is our bizarre effort in this country to find the perfect word to describe black people. When I was growing up, first they were Negroes, which was an all-encompassing term. That term was actually the most scientifically correct label, in the same way that Caucasian is. Then we called them colored, which was rather colloquial but acceptable to everyone it seemed. I don’t know who decided they should be called blacks. I suspect that change came from the militant segment of the colored population, when black became an emblem of rebellion against the white man’s aggression, black power type of thing. Black was adopted as an extreme non-white label.  But that’s just a guess.  Where I grew up the most notable characteristic of some in the neighborhood was not their blackness, any more than my defining characteristic was my whiteness.  In our innocence, we saw each other as individuals with personal names and personalities.

I think the label “black” was the black man’s choice as a statement of pride, not a pejorative foisted on him by whites. Then blacks became African-Americans, although most of them had never been anywhere near Africa and maybe had no desire to go there either, at least not to stay. So they emphasized their ethnicity and roots, and indeed there was a bestselling book by that exact name, Roots, by Alex Haley, published in 1976 and aired on television the next year.

Now we are back to “people of color”. Again I am guessing, but perhaps this is an attempt to be more inclusive of many black people who are not all that black. Once again we are back on one of life’s continuums. I know I would rather be referred to as white than Caucasian only because my phylogenetic nomenclature sounds a little pompous and overdone for ordinary conversation.  I am sure blacks must feel the same about being called Negroes.  “People of color?”  I don’t know, will whites become “People without color?”  There is black and there is white, but what do you do when the majority of the population doesn’t really belong to either extreme end of the racial continuum? What will we call each other when we finally realize that our blood all runs red?  How will be label ourselves? And in some cases, how will we know who to hate? How will I know where I fit, if I belong, if I am accepted, if I am normal?  No one wants to be a loner in search of their lost tribe.

Labels and Xenophobia

We cherish our labels because it helps us figure out who we are, a sense of identity that is largely formed through feedback from our community. That community, and therefore our identity, can come as an accident of our birth, or by adoption. We can live our entire life more or less on auto-pilot by the simple expedient of accepting the heritage, and labels, of our forebears. We can be fiercely loyal to our group or faction, religion or political affiliation, and even give our lives to those who neither know nor particularly care about us, except as a means to their ends. And we could hate our neighbor living across the street, who might be the only guy on our block who would pick us up off the street when we fell down. We can miss a lot by limiting ourselves to labels. That is what xenophobia is all about.

Fear of Assimilation

Some folk’s attachment to labels is so intense that their greatest fear is of potential assimilation of their group into another, perhaps larger group. If enough black and white people intermarry, how will we know who is black and who is white anymore? And then who will we have to hate, or to blame our wretchedness on? That is why everywhere in the world, there are very strong taboos about intermarriage between races and ethnicities. Assimilation is the enemy for many, because it dilutes the sense of group identity. And it is always good to have an opposing group, an enemy, a Great Satan, on whom to blame whatever we don’t like about our life or what we see as being wrong with the world. This is also why people everywhere are encouraged to keep a distance from those outside the group, because we can hate or fear them as a group, but when we meet individuals we often form friendships and bonds. That can weaken the cohesiveness of the tribe. Who could forget the Capulets and Montagues?

Survival Advantages to Tribal Identity

Humans are very tribal, and we all draw strength from being “among our own.” We draw comfort from our brand identity. Some tribes, such as the Jews, have apparently drawn great survival advantages from resisting assimilation. When I dated a Jewish girl and we went to Jewish parties, everyone wanted to know right away if I was Jewish or not. They needed to “place” me on their cultural map. They were very welcoming and kind and I knew that I was accepted–on the margins. To be fully accepted I would have had to convert. Otherwise, a goy is still a goy. Some Jews, especially Reform, do intermarry, but overall the tribal or ethnic integrity is considered very important to them. Many of them fear assimilation as a threat to their identity.

Other tribes quite literally died out, became extinct, because of a failure to assimilate. The Vikings who settled in Greenland died out, probably in the 14th century, but the Eskimos survive to this day. Perhaps if the two ethnic groups had intermarried, there would still be Viking blood in the far North. The opposite of assimilation is often war, so perhaps the Eskimos wiped out the Vikings. We don’t know.

Survival Advantages to Mongrelization

When a cross-bred dog loses some of the distinctive characteristics of its forebears, it becomes harder to identify.  It’s size, coloration, and behavior may be different.  We are no longer sure what to expect.  We either don’t know what to call it, or we invent a new breed.  We have label confusion.  Intensive in-breeding, such as what was done to create chocolate labs sometimes produces unanticipated genetic weaknesses.  The same thing happens with too much inbreeding among humans; hence the near universal taboos on incest. Genetic diversity often brings strength and resilience.

America, the melting pot of the world, went on to empire.

The same can be said of the evolution of language itself.  English is a mongrel language; it has borrowed remorselessly and unconscionably from most other languages it has come in contact with.  It has assimilated.  Partly as a result of this, it has become the dominant global language of business and air travel.  There are more people in China learning English than the entire population of the United Kingdom.

Assimilation can convey survival advantages through genetic diversification and intellectual and cultural cross-pollination.  Mutts can be healthier.  Class distinctions and undue emphasis on pedigrees can lead to extinction.  Labels can weaken us.

The Exceptional Individual

At the end of the day, our labels are our instrument for branding ourselves and everyone else, our accounting for differences and similarities. Our heritage may be of the utmost importance to us, or we may be citizens of the world, finding common cause with humanity everywhere. History seems to suggest that belonging to groups strengthens our survivability, but vast populations of groups have repeatedly been victimized and enslaved by their own group leaders. Group identity comes at a price.  It is not always as safe as it appears.

It also seems the world is moved forward periodically by extraordinary individuals, who dare to step away from the group and challenge the status quo, usually at great personal risk. Their courage and originality does not mean necessarily that they were blessed with happy, fulfilled lives. In many cases they paid an awesome price for their uniqueness. We may be grateful to them for their contributions, but make very different choices for ourselves.  Well, enough rambling for one day. I’ve got to get back to my group . . .

Why Voltaire?

If you have been following this blogsite, you are aware that it is in a state of renovation under the theme of The New Voltaire.  The revised graphics and other technical goodies are coming.  But much more importantly, I would like to address the question, why Voltaire?

Growing up, Voltaire was one of my heroes.  He still is.  His real name was Francois Arouet.  Voltaire was his pen name.  He had a very strict religious upbringing.  So did I.  He eventually left the church, and became its outspoken critic.  So have I.  He was a writer, a dramatist, playwright; he wrote biographies, histories, books on science.  While my meager offerings pale in comparison with the productivity of this 18th century prodigy, I also am a writer, including non-fiction books, literary economic commentary, and on matters of financial, historical, social, and political interest for today’s non-aligned and non-ideological seekers.

Most of what Voltaire wrote was banned during his lifetime, and therefore he often wrote anonymously.  I also write some things anonymously, as a ghost writer for others whose names adorn my work as the “authors” of record.  In my case, I do this not as protection from a coercive State (at least not yet), but as an artist whose work is commissioned and paid for by my clients.  In other words, it’s called making a living.

Voltaire evidently did not subscribe to the Platonic split of humans into an upper and lower self, a spiritual and material self, and he saw no reason to eschew the material comforts in life.  He was neither stoic nor monastic in search of his higher self.  He held no highbrow distinctions between the sciences, the arts, and the world of business and trade, and he applied himself equally assiduously and successfully to all of them.  This aspect of his character resonates with me, because all my life I have been a writer, but for 35 of those adult years I was a businessman for the simple reason that it provided for my financial needs and aspirations less tentatively than a writing career might have.  Or so I thought. Read more..

Voltaire wrote 56 plays, as well as countless other stories, novels, epic poetry, and what we would today call scientific “white papers”, book reviews, and over 20,000 letters.   But that didn’t prevent him from becoming a successful investor, bond, commodity, and currency trader, and becoming a millionaire by the time he was 40.  With his books banned, he relied on his business income for his lifestyle.

He was a champion of individual freedom, was imprisoned twice in the infamous Paris prison, La Bastille, and both the government of France and the Church were the targets of his rapier wit and excoriation.  He was beaten in the streets by hired thugs while an aristocrat watched from his coach.  He knew the importance of having cash on hand and living close to the border in the event that a hasty exit became necessary.  Voltaire lived in a time and place where the rule of law was arbitrary and capricious and its implementation often viciously politically motivated by those whose primary preoccupation was with the extension of their privilege and power over the masses.  So many laws were being made that virtually anyone could be construed as guilty, and their property could be confiscated by the State, and their life made forfeit.  Interestingly, the finances of the State were in such chaos, that in 1764 a law was passed forbidding publication of any criticisms of the finances of the State.  My oh my, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Much of what Voltaire wrote was set in the context of countries other than his native France, making it somewhat more difficult for his censors to claim that he was criticizing his own government.  Most of what he wrote was published and distributed outside of France for the same reason.

Last but not least, I am forever impressed with Voltaire’s taste in women.  He met Emilie, the Marquise du Chatelet,  in 1733, and eventually moved into the Chateau de Cirey owned by the Marquise’s husband, the Marquis du Chatelet.  Emilie’s marriage to the Marquis was one of convenience, and husband and wife led separate lives and each took lovers.  The Marquis was a military man, and a hunter, whereas Emilie was a genius in her own right, an intellectual worthy of the term.  By the age of twelve she could read, write, and speak fluent German, Latin, and Greek (bear in mind that her mother tongue was French) and she continued on to take private lessons in geometry, algebra, calculus, and physics; she spent her fifteen years with Voltaire studying mathematics, the sciences, philosophy, and metaphysics.  Like Voltaire, she was no ascetic seeking absolution or approval by a life of self-denial; she loved her extensive wardrobe, shoes, and diamonds, sang opera and performed as an amateur actress.  With no taste for gossip and small talk, she had few female friends and intimidated most men.  She met her match in Voltaire, and they were together until she died.

Voltaire was one of the intellectual giants of history, one of the few who defied the orthodoxy of his time and moved the world forward.  Voltaire was a contributor to the Encyclopedie, one of the primary French philosophical contributions to the Enlightenment.  He stood head and shoulders with his contemporaries, John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton.  He was a major intellectual influence on the founding fathers of the great American political experiment, the creation of a republic, the first of its kind in the world,  that championed individual rights as inalienable, and therefore not granted by the State. 

Voltaire’s father disapproved of his son’s choice of vocation; he kept telling him he couldn’t earn a living as a writer.

In today’s world where the omnipotent State is on the march as never before and liberty is perpetually in retreat, the voice of Voltaire needs to be heard, revived, and amplified.  This call needs to be taken up by anyone with a voice, a keyboard, and most of all, a good mind and the courage to use it.  But like Voltaire, do not live just to save the world; learn to love your own life and live in this world.  Keep your sense of humor, keep some cash on hand and remember where the border is.

Labels and Ultimate Truth (Part 3)

Our country was founded more than anything else on the premise of basic individual freedoms, including freedom  of religion, which also had to include freedom from religion, for those so inclined.  Most of those who came to this country were fleeing religious persecution; they were refugees from the moral certainty of their persecutors.  As American educator and historian Arthur Schlesinger stated:  “Those who are convinced they have a monopoly on The Truth  always feel that they are only saving the world when they slaughter the heretics.”  Read more..

Believer is a label.  So is the word heretic.  One indicates belonging and conformity.  The other describes a non-conformist, a deviant from some orthodoxy.  The word heretic has persisted in infamy throughout history, the cause of some of the worst crimes of man against his fellow man.  Groups get very upset when someone deviates from ultimate truth.  In every instance throughout history, the oppressors believed that in their case circumstances justified their behavior.

Among our early forebears, it took almost no time at all for the oppressed to become the oppressors.  Let’s revisit a bit of Americana we may have forgotten.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed by a business that was strongly influenced by Puritan theologians.  About 20,000 folks from England emigrated to this central part of what we now call New England.  In short order the Puritans came to blows with the local Indians because they did not understand their culture.  The leaders of the colony had to pass an examination about their religious beliefs before they could take office.  (Anything sound remotely familiar here, folks?)

One member of their community, a guy named Roger Williams, was banished (excommunicated) on the grounds of sedition and heresy (non-conformity), and the religion-dominated General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accused Roger of “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.”  In the dead of winter, the sheriff came to pick up Roger (the Church using the police powers of the State).  Roger escaped by hiking through a blizzard 105 miles to an Indian tribe where he was given refuge.  Imagine!  A Christian given refuge by the heathens from his fellow Christians.  Roger and a few of his buddies obtained land from the Indians and called their tiny settlement Providence.  The very next year they decided that in their settlement, government would be restricted to “civil things.”  Unknown to them, they had established the first settlement in modern history with religious liberty and separation of church and state.

But wait.  The story gets even better (and worse).  About four years later the first law was passed to make slavery legal in the English colonies.  And no, it wasn’t in the South.  It was the very same religion-dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony that had made Roger Williams run for his life.  Eleven years after their infamous law was passed, Roger Williams and a colleague spearheaded the passing of a law banning slavery in their new province of Rhode Island.  The pernicious influence of the Massachusetts Bay colony prevailed however, and Roger Williams’s law was ignored and became a dead document.  Seventeen years after his death Newport, Rhode Island entered the African slave trade and remained the leading slave trading center all the way up to the American Revolution.

In one case, persecution was theology motivated, in the other case it was economically motivated.  It never really matters.  When a group wants  something, they will always find the means to justify it.  When a group succeeds in uniting with the police power of the State, minorities will suffer.  Labels are a big part of the propaganda campaigns in advance of misdeeds by isolating the target, portraying them as a threat to the greater community, an instrument of Satan or a danger to society.

Labels become a higher priority in an adversarial or judgmental context.  We know someone or something should be condemned, if only we can get the label right.  What exactly is an atheist?  Indeed, what is a believer?  In what kind of god or God?  Do you believe in an anthropomorphic God, one with human-like characteristics?  Is your God male or female?  Or do you believe in a more ancient model, a pantheistic god, a god who cannot be separated from the universe, that God and the Universe are one and the same?  Or do you subscribe to an Eastern model of God, an infinite force that is everywhere at once?  Or do you simply not know, but in talking about “God” infer something beyond human reference?  There is a continuum between your literalist, fundamentalist believer at one extreme who believes in a personal God who hears and answers every prayer and another believer at the opposite extreme who believes in God as some manifestation of quantum  physics, some indefinable energy field or force stripped of human characteristics–or believers not at all, at least not in any traditional sense.  All of the world’s belief systems fit on that continuum somewhere.  And the vast majority of them have mystical components to their spiritual lives that include good and bad spirits and ultimate rewards.  Even many atheists have churches and services, rituals, liturgies and prayers.

How complicated life can be, when all we want is your basic “us versus them” so it can be clear who has truth and who is sadly in error.  Continuums of any kind have no place in our group orthodoxy, because they introduce uncertainty and ambiguity.  It is the insistence on certainty and final truth that makes any group dangerous to their fellow travelers, whether they are believers of the religious or secular stripe.  Let any group of such believers get their hands on unchallenged power of the State, and we can be sure that whatever is left of the Constitution would be eviscerated overnight.  The primary differences in our political parties today is only which parts of our lives they most want to control.  They have no interest in the individual.  Control of groups is the source of their power.  The laws that are passed and enforced by the State’s monopoly on power are nothing more than the codification of the cultural beliefs of the majority.  As always, behavior considered deviant by that group will be punished.  You are either in or in trouble.

When we feel compelled to impose our sense of superiority or moral rightness on those around us, it is humbling to reflect that it was the Christian world that plunged us into warfare that eliminated 100 million of us during the 20th century.  America is the most religious Christian nation on earth, and we have soldiers in over 170 countries, doing what exactly, other than maintaining our military-industrial complex and doing what empires do?

Bertrand Russell once said:   “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing.  What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.”  Every group believes their group will be different.  As a matter of fact, they’re certain of it!

The only sure  protection in any society is to enshrine and protect the rights of the individual. Otherwise life is like entering a prison where the only safety lies in quickly being accepted and protected by members of one group from the predations of opposing groups.  The government, as the warden of our society, has little interest in the individual, because what can one person offer the warden that he cannot get in greater abundance from the group?  Is it any wonder then that our Constitution has been under assault almost from the day it was written?

 

Gender Identity as a Label (Part 4)

It is beyond me why gay marriage is the subject of serious national debate.  It is controversy over a group right.  There would be no reason for government to be involved in this debate if we understood individual rights.  Leave people alone and let them do what they want to do.  In the last twenty years there has been a 1000 percent growth in the number of cohabiting heterosexual couples who have chosen not to seek state recognition of their relationship.  They see no particular benefit to involving the government in their bedroom.  Of those others who did get married, almost half of them seek ways to get out of it.  Every benefit the state can provide by licensing marriage can also be achieved through contract.  I think the worst thing that can happen to the gay community is to get what they are pushing for—greater involvement of the state in their private affairs!  Sometimes group thinking leads us to places we regret when we get there.

 If the gays are looking for enhanced legitimacy through state recognition, the results will be threefold:  1) a group that approves of them, with or without the state; 2) a group that disapproves of them, with or without the state; and 3) those that have no opinion about other people’s sex lives because they are too busy living their own.  I don’t think you have to solve everyone else’s problem in order to solve your own.  But then I think slavery would have eventually disappeared without sacrificing 700,000 soldiers in the Civil War. Read more..

At one point in my life I had occasion to ask a therapist friend of mine if she had an opinion about what determines the sexual orientation of a male.  She told me all boys in a normal upbringing are in love with their mothers.  Unlike girls, however, boys have to separate from their mothers.  At about ten or twelve years of age boys begin to compete with their fathers for the affections of their mother.  This is a competition the boy needs to lose, because when he does, he will begin to imitate his father (or male figure in the household) and this is when he begins to develop his male gender behaviors.

I do not know if this is still considered clinically correct.  I gave it no further thought until my son got to that age, and his class at school began to discuss homosexuality.  Over the next few months my son peppered me with questions about how he could tell if he was gay or not, and I didn’t really know what to tell him.  I tried out several theories on him, but they didn’t satisfy him because he kept asking.  One day we were in a tearing hurry running through a major airport because we were late to meet someone at Baggage Claim, and my son asked me for the umpteenth time how he could tell if he was gay.  In total exasperation, I stopped dead in my tracks, looked at him, and said “Jonathan, I don’t know, okay?  Maybe if you see some guy and you get this overwhelming urge to f_ _ k him in the a _ _, you know you’re gay.”  No offense is intended to my gay readers, but that is what I said.  And for whatever reason, it was the answer that satisfied my son.  He busted out laughing (maybe at his dad rather than the answer) and that was the end of it.

During that period of time when the issue was not resolved, I spent some time pondering my son’s question.  I really didn’t know how to answer him.  And I probably still don’t.  But I do believe that gender identity is also on a continuum, and that everyone, both male and female, is somewhere on that continuum between very heterosexual and very homosexual at the extremes.  It’s not a black or white issue for many men and women.  My son’s question was an honest one, and he didn’t need to be bludgeoned with an answer.  With no preconceived notions about gender identity, his question was a totally innocent one, having no cause to find himself at either extreme end of a gender continuum of say, 1 to 10.  This particular journey of self-discovery was just beginning for him.  There was no need to urge him to engage in stereotypical macho behaviors to convince himself or some audience of his masculinity or to make him feel guilty about honest inquiry.   I saw my son as an individual, not a potential member of some class of society.