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.

Why We Believe: The Power of Utopia! Part I

About ten years ago I was asked to give a speech about the power of cults, largely because I had been raised almost from infancy as a Jehovah’s Witness, a religious organization often associated in the public’s mind with cultism.  Some of the hallmarks of cultism are a need for certainty, a conviction that you have absolute truth and are the final authority on that truth, and repression of dissent.  Some cults exercise a physical control of their members, but most of them exert a psychological control.  A true believer is someone who no longer needs coercion or physical restraint, but who now acts as if those restraints are still in place.  I can best compare it to training a guard dog; you use a choke collar with such consistency that eventually you remove the choke collar from the neck of the dog and he is so conditioned that he continues to act as if the choke collar is still there.  When, in my thirties I left this organization, I was eager to embrace a society of intellectually free people, and I was excited about the prospect of associating with others with open, inquiring minds.  I was astonished to find so much more of what I had just abandoned, only worse:  People who were born into freedom, and yet who both abused and despised it.  Read more..

Cults are all about utopias.  Everyone on this planet is unhappy about something.  Everyone has a problem that they would like to go away, everyone knows someone else who has what they want, or more of it.  Everyone believes their life could be much better, if only . . . You fill in the blank.  Cults gain adherents by claiming to have found the ultimate truth, the only solution, the compelling argument, The Way.  Sacrifices will have to be made, but that is a small price to pay, isn’t it, if you look at it unselfishly?  Quite usefully, cults  provide a devil, or scapegoat, on which to project blame for whatever our particular grievances are (Management, Jews, Foreigners, The Other Religion, The Rich, The Other Political Party)  We have enshrined in our Declaration of Independence our right to the pursuit of happiness; utopians promise the reality of happiness and fulfillment, not the illusion of its pursuit.  Whatever freedoms you may enjoy at the moment, you can be sure that utopians will require that you sacrifice some of them in exchange for their promise of better tomorrows.  Why do people believe them, often in the face of considerable evidence that their claims are a fraud and have repeatedly failed before?

Charismatic leaders cash in on the conditioning you have already experienced; you have absorbed a basic philosophical premise, from your schools, your church, your family, your books, media, movies, songs, everything that comes at you during all your conscious hours, that the only acceptable, moral purpose of your life is–others.  Not you, but others.  Your ultimate value in life is not your life, but everyone’s life except yours.  This is the moral ideal of most cultures on this planet.  The appropriate expression of this ideal is submissionEvery other life form on this planet seeks, by instinct, its own survival.  But our culture teaches us that, as humans,  our moral ideal is to promote the survival of others over our own.  Since this is an unnatural standard, and one that runs counter to our own nature as man, it becomes a standard we cannot live up to, and therefore a standard that induces guilt.  Whoever controls and manipulates our guilt load controls us.  They can now remove the choke collar from our neck, and we will faithfully follow them as surely as if there is a gun at our back.  We will go even further; we will give them what Ayn Rand called ‘the sanction of the victim.’  We have anointed our new Masters.    Once they have obtained our tacit acceptance of the premise that our life is not our highest value, and that our highest purpose is to serve others, it only remains for someone else to decide what the exact form our sacrifice, or service, should take.  When our sacrifice is in the name of God, our payoff is in the Hereafter; when our sacrifice is to Society, our payoff will be just around the next corner, after we have eliminated poverty, restored the ozone layer, reversed global warming, stabilized international trade, protected jobs, revived failed businesses, won the war on drugs, and soaked the rich.  But there is one thing about all sacrifice–it is always later.  So the first prerequisite for a succesful cult mentality is a pervasive culture of self-sacrifice.  This sets the stage for the first charismatic politician, dictator, ayatollah, or  power luster that fortune favors.

The second pre-requisite for loss of freedom to a cult is a CRISIS of sufficient magnitude to scare us out of our wits, and that wrongly leads us to believe restoring stability would be worth a “temporary” loss of some freedoms. Once these freedoms are gone, it is almost impossible to get them all back.  Why is this?  When it comes to freedom, history is not on our side.  As a matter of fact, freedom as an individual right is a very recent development.

During all of the ages of man, there have been two classes of people:  the producers and the expropriators.  Whether the producers were serfs tilling the soil, or forgers of iron or bronze, or men toiling on the pyramids, they were slaves who worked to eke out an existence, to survive, and for the benefit of their Masters, who controlled them with the sword, torture, and death.  Sometimes it was a hostile relationship, and sometimes a symbiotic relationship.  Empires rose and fell by the use of force, and the major difference between the rulers of men was the degree of autonomy they permitted their subjects.  Some of the vanquished were slaughtered, others were placed in chains, some became vassals and achieved a state of semi-freedom in exchange for paying tribute, or a tax on their “freedom”.  Man’s natural state was that of a slave, and only might made right.  Some form of slavery was characteristic of almost all civilizations throughout history.  Until, that is, the philosophical period that came to be known as The Enlightenment. 

For the first time a case was made that the natural state of a man was that of freedom, and that this freedom was his by right, not by permission.  Yes, he could still be enslaved by force, but his jailers were violating his moral rights in doing so.  Man’s highest value was his life, and it was proper and moral for him to seek his survival and his happiness.  The lower animals survived by instinct, but man survived by the use of his mind, and the use of that mind came to be his work and his means of survival.  Therefore, to rob a man of his product, to rob him of the fruits of his use of his mind, was in fact to rob him of his right to life.  Therefore, property, obtained as the product of his mind, was also his right, as a corollary to his right to life itself.  Thus, the right to independent thought (intellectual freedom) and property rights (economic freedom) came to be associated together for the first time in history.  How interesting that these two freedoms tend to disappear together as well when people are enslaved.  Since man survives by the use of his rational mind, it is not possible to separate the two freedoms; it is not possible to have one without the other.  There is no freedom without economic freedom. 

So when Thomas Jefferson wrote that man had the ‘inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, he was not writing the obvious; he was making a radical departure from the orthodoxy of all of human political history.  He was stating that man did not obtain life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by permission, but by inalienable right!  This was not a group right, because a group right would have implied that his life or freedom could have been denied him by the group; no, an inalienable right was an individual right.  In this way Jefferson was championing the rights of the smallest minority in the world–and the most maligned–the individual human being.  No other person, clique, group, political party, thug, ruffian, dictator, junta, or voting bloc, could morally deprive him of his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Jefferson and the other founding fathers had another daunting task on their hands:  If wealth is to be created by innovation, invention, and production, and the values so produced freely traded, and not expropriated by military conquest, then what is the proper moral role of government in the lives of men?  Since property  derives from the application of our minds to natural resources, the only other way to acquire property is to plunder it from those who produced it.  If plunder is easier than work, men will resort to plunder, according to Frederic Bastiat, the author of the delightful treatise La Loi.  To prevent them from doing this, we give government a monopoly on the use of force.  Government is there to protect our property from plunder by foreigners and also from plunder by domestic thieves and ruffians.  But who is to protect us from our own government, if they get it into their head to plunder us? Our only protection could be Rule by Law, so that even our enemies have to abide by this law. 

Our Constitution was specifically designed to protect us from our own government, because from time immemorial the law itself has been used as the tool with which to plunder, or expropriate property from the masses.  When the law is politicized, bent to the will of the group in power, and when that group is replaced by another group, the new group simply uses the power of legislation to turn the tables on their former tormentors.  Under a rule of law, it should make no difference what the political opinions are of a potential jurist; he would have no means to bend or change the law to his ideals.  When the rule of law deteriorates into the rule by people, a civilization has attained the first step on the road to tyranny.  There is nothing to stop anyone who wants what you have.  It is theirs for the taking, because they use the law to seize it!  This degradation of the rule of law is well advanced in our society.  As we gradually migrate from a rule by law to a rule by people,  a higher premium is placed on the political opinions of candidate jurists, because the limitations and restraints placed on legislators by the Constitution are under attack by judicial activists, who believe that any small loss of freedom is more than compensated for by the compelling social benefits of their proposed new legislation.   What happens when the seemingly good intentions of the legislators turns out to be not quite so well-intentioned after all?  Even granting these lawmakers the benefit of a benevolent doubt, do they understand that in weakening the Constitution, they have weakened the Rule of Law and moved an entire nation closer to Rule by People, where any and all of us are sitting ducks for the first gang with the opportunity to capitalize on it?  The problem with all utopians is that in their vision of the world, they themselves will be pulling the levers of power.  It never occurs to them that someone else might be the beneficiary of the damage they did to our system, and that they might end up being among the victims.

We have experienced a prolonged erosion of respect for the rule of law, and a concomitant politicization of the legal process in America.  Add to that a culture that incessantly promotes the spirit of altruism, i.e. that only a life lived in the service of others is moral and worth living.  We are in the middle of the greatest global financial meltdown in history.  We have created a culture of entitlement, which means the right to confiscate and enjoy the product of other men’s labor, without compensation.  A government produces nothing; it can only seize and redistribute.  When it provides anything, any service, for nothing, it has made a slave of someone else.  That someone else is the producer.  When politicians extol the benefits they are giving us in exchange for keeping them in power, they are trading in stolen goods.  For anyone else, that is a felony.  For government it is a privilege.  If the victims of this expropriation have the temerity to complain, they are selfish and anti-social.  This is the corrupted morality of our mixed economy, and it is this anti-life morality that has rendered conservatism helpless.  Unable or unwilling to defend capitalism on moral grounds; which is nothing more than economic freedom, freedom to produce, trade, and keep the product of your trade; the conservatives hope to compete with the neo-socialists by trying to out-do them in the expropriation department by advocating “compassionate capitalism”.  What does that mean, that we’ll say “Thank you” when we expropriate the product of your mind and work??  By what definition is it compassion to expropriate, by force, the product of one man’s effort in order to distribute it to another?  And what makes government a better judge of the worthiness of the recipient’s need than the producer of the values being expropriated?  The implied answer:  The government will be “unselfish” distributing the producers goods, whereas the producer will likely be more “selfish” and may want to keep his earnings.  By what morality does a man need to feel guilty about wanting to keep what he has earned? Is this the thought pattern of a free society, or the thought pattern inherited from the endless ages of the producer as the slave so that the privileged classes can seize the product of his labor?  And yet this is what a philosophy of altruism has produced:  submission, bowed heads, and mindless obedience.  We are just as conditioned as the dog after the choke collar has been removed.  We know our place, we go along in order to get along.  Once we have experienced the power of a choke collar, we don’t actually have to be threatened with it anymore to secure our compliance.

Our free system has been weakened by the relentless assault of bad philosophy.  Freedom is lost when public attitudes change, when people cry Foul when someone picks their pocket, but think nothing of picking the next man’s.  The stage is set.  Now enter any gang of politicians with initiatives,  the worth of which they are absolutely convinced (remember–cults are identified by a need for certainty with the cult leader as the final authority), and their attempted expropriations are framed in the context of service to humanity, but which regrettably involves the confiscation of property.  Their presentations are  couched in terms of the highest moral ideals, so much so that any opponents should feel compelled to apologize for their lack of compassion and crass selfishness, and be shamed into silence!  “Big government is here to help!” It is in this incremental manner that liberty is lost.  As philosopher David Hume once said:  “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”  When the public arbiters of what private property we are allowed to keep are done with their economic coercion, the loss of intellectual liberty is not far behind.  In no time at all our attitudes, opinions, and values are monitored, and a system of rewards and punishments tells us what is acceptable and what isn’t.  This process is also at an advanced stage in this country, but that is the subject of another article.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America comments on ‘the new servitude’:  ” . . . It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd.  The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting.  Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd.”

There are soft cults, such as the situation described by de Tocqueville above, and there are hard cults, such as Stalin’s attempt at utopia, or Hitler’s brand of national socialism.  The difference between soft and hard cults is often one of incrementalism, of time and opportunity; there is always someone whose view of the world is so compelling, so incisive, and well, so right, to them at least, that it justifies the use of force against others, until of course, those others come to their senses.  And if they don’t? . . . . well, sacrifices have to be made.  Nine foxes and one chicken just voted on what to have for dinner.  The chicken lost.  It lacked vision. The funny thing is, when the foxes came for it, the chicken didn’t run, it didn’t resist.  It knew its glory was in serving the needs of the others.

Thanks for listening.  Leave a comment.  John Bechtel, Greenville, SC