Signifying Monkeys, Donald Trump, and Trickster Gods

December 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Signifying Monkeys, Donald Trump, and Trickster Gods
Copyright©2017 by Wilson J. Moses

I was just an ignorant black boy on Detroit’s East Side, when I got to know the real life counterpart of the Signifying Monkey, an expert at playing the dozens, the master of “lyin’and signifyin.” Leotis Stubbs is not his real name. I am not going to reveal his real name, because he may still be alive, and if he is, Leotis is still dangerous. But to say that someone is dangerous is not to say that he is invariably in a position to inflict cosmic harm.   There are many priests pimps and politicians like Leotis bobbing in the sea of humanity. Once in a while one of them, like an Idi Amin or an Adolph Hitler may obtain power, and then everyone is surprised to learn that some apparent buffoon, some person completely lacking in gravitas and decorum, is able to con the people, and put his evil schemes into effect.  Leotis had a genius for presenting “alternative facts;” he simply was not born with the racial and economic advantages that Donald Trump enjoyed.

Leotis quit school at sixteen, but he was smarter than most of the kids I knew, whether white or black.   Although in my circles on Detroit’s East side, almost none of the boys—white of black— went on to college. I might add that three of the black boys in my neighborhood did graduate from Harvard Law School, but that is another story for another time.   Unlike me, those destined for Harvard Law did not spend much time roaming the streets with the likes of Leotis Stubbs, which I did at the age of thirteen—when I wasn’t reading Dante or listening to Mozart.   The nuns who had me singing litanies to the sancta Dei genetrix in Catholic school did not believe that a person like Leotis could exist, and certainly not that he could be a genius. But the con man is always a genius. That is something my parents wanted me to know, and that was why they gave me the freedom (and even forced me) to roam the streets—from Rouge River to the frontiers of Grosse point; from Canadian side of Belle Isle to Six Mile Road. I covered it all on foot or on my bicycle. But I digress!

Elijah Muhammad dealt with the malicious and chaos inflicting personality in his myth of Yakub. The folklore of African Americans dealt with him as the Signifying Monkey. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, he is the character of Rinehart (Reynard). Many people foolishly or naively deny the very existence of a demonic figure like Yakub, the person of extraordinary genius with an evil heart. But such an Evil Monkey currently resides in the White House.

The Signifying Monkey is not to be confused with Brer Rabbit (or Anansi) for the following reason. He represents a far different manifestation of the trickster. Brer Rabbit is a “survivor,” who uses his wits to get the better of powerful enemies, who wish him ill. Signifying Monkey is a malicious imp, who uses his wits to harm others, due only to his evil nature. Brer Rabbit acts defensively when he is assaulted. Signifying Monkey initiates sadism without provocation.

At this point I must address the concept of the “Trickster God,” who outsmarts himself, as in Ben Johnson’s Renaissance drama, The Devil is an Ass. Prometheus of the Greeks, and Loki of the Germans, and Eshu Elegbara of the Yoruba, and Coyote of the American Indians are among the universal manifestations of the Trickster God or Demigod, and it is important to note that the Trickster God can have both benevolent and vicious personae.   So too does Signifying Monkey in his various appearances assume many faces.

Skip Gates and Rudy Ray Moore, by reducing the myth of Signifying Monkey only to the dimension that resembles the sympathetic figure of Brer Rabbit (Anansi) and ignoring his more maleficent manifestations, cognates of Mephistopheles and Yakub, have robbed the myth of its variegated and important dimensions.

Skip and Rudy view the Signifying Monkey as a “survivor” who resists of the Lion’s abuse of power inequality, using his wits to maneuver the Lion into a confrontation with the Elephant in which the Elephant becomes the Monkey’s unwitting tool of retribution, by battering and humiliating the Lion.   Thus the Monkey becomes the hero of a tale in which the clever victim gains agency through the use of his brains.

In an older, and almost forgotten version of the myth, the Monkey is simply a person with an evil heart who takes sadistic delight in stirring up trouble between the Lion and the Elephant and whose only investment in the outcome is that one or the other will be defeated and humiliated. — As a footnote, I shall also remark that in the wild, a lone elephant is fairly defenseless against the adult male lion, because male lions will usually attack elephants in sibling pairs, and never frontally. In the normal course of things, a zebra can be more dangerous to a lion than an elephant is, but the African American mythology is not based on any factual knowledge of African zoology.

Just as in Greek mythology, Prometheus prefigures both a Satanic destructive force and a Christlike tutelary force, so too in African American folklore Signifying Monkey can sometimes manifest himself be a diabolical chaotic force, and sometimes as an equalizer, who symbolizes retribution, redemption and equilibrium—“preserver and destroyer.”

Donald Trump is no less a Signifying Monkey than Leotis Stubbs.   He is a con man, a trickster god, with a destructive genius. To opposing elements in society he may represent either the chaotic/destructive forces or the redemptive/restorative forces in the universe.   To me he is a demonic figure, like Yakub, but to many he represents a different component of the demonic. He is an avenging angel, a populist force of justice and retribution.   The signifying monkey may be banished to the treetops, or he can symbolically descend from the branches, and he can also symbolically rise from the roots. To some he can symbolize a force that defies the “establishment,” and at the same time be a manifestation of the power of an “alternative establishment,” that infuses chaos and pathology into the sap of the grass roots.

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Thomas Jefferson, A Modern Prometheus

December 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Attached is the 400 word abstract for Wilson J. Moses’ latest book manuscript Thomas Jefferson, A Modern Prometheus: Bearer of Light and Trickster God.   Just click the link to view the PDF file.

  Jefferson Abstract 400 words Apr 26 2017 Modern Prometheus


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A Semi-open Letter to Two Clever Lads From Harvard Law School

August 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Paris, August 8, 2015

The figures in this New York Times article are pretty crude, and The Times is not authoritative, but IF their figures are even roughly accurate, we are in deep trouble.  There are going to be a lot of elderly people in economic distress before long.  I am afraid that while the New York Times article offers a useful analysis, it offers no meaningful response to the impending crisis.  And if the present administration has a solution, neither Barry Obama nor Eric Holder ever made a serious effort to enact it.   Social Democratic theorist, Cornell West offers no practicable solution — only mean-sprited carping, although I suppose his negativism does strike a chord.   Since Lyndon Johnson, who had at least one eye open, every subsequent government has had its head in the sand, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter’s.

Another point: – I think it is almost likely that Social Security will be modified beyond recognition, before it sees its 100th anniversary.  Medicare will be abolished, and Obamacare costs will skyrocket due to insurance company monopolies.  What this means is that masses of people will be without adequate income and lacking medical insurance by the time I reach ninety.

The person who has unencumbered net assets of 4 or 5 million dollars may feel secure, until banks and mutual funds start collapsing.  And how secure can anyone be when organized gangs start kidnapping people and demanding ransoms?  This sort of crime is already rampant in Mexico and Brazil.  With a real social and economic breakdown, even poor people could be extorted out of their meager Social Security income, presuming that they have any such income.

The social contract, referred to by the  French and Germans as “Solidarity,” never existed in America, except perhaps in the dreams of Thomas Paine.   In America rights come from God, not from the social contract.  At least that is what Thomas Jefferson thought, as he reclined on his pillows, and Sally Hemings poured him another glass of imported French wine from his $30,000 wine cellar.

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Owning The Declaration of Independence – Jefferson’s Pursuit of Property and Power

January 29, 2015 1 comment

Jefferson’s Ownership of the Declaration of Independence

His Pursuit of Property and Power

By Wilson J. Moses, Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jefferson’s possessiveness regarding the Declaration of Independence was no mere matter of intellectual pride; it involved material gain. He consistently derived financial and political advantages by staking a claim to its authorship. Steven Hochman says that, “While Jefferson often failed to pay his debts on time, creditors rarely complained. Generally a warm letter would be sent to him as from Leonard and Bayard in 1822, granting more time “to the author of the Declaration of Independence.”[1] Hochman’s statement reveals a generousity of spirit, but in fact, Jefferson, did not simply postpone payment on his debts; he never paid them. He left a financial burden to his heirs that was not lifted until 1878. But even Jefferson’s prideful heirs did not bear the brunt of the suffering caused by his financial genius, which was a gift for constructing air castles, somewhat different, but no less magnificent than those of Charles Ponzi and Bernard Madoff.   The chief moral difference is that Ponzi’s and Madoff’s victims were culpable partners in their own destruction. The victims of Jefferson’s financial irrresposibility were the slaves who constituted the bulk of his capital, and whose families and communities had to be liquidated at the time of his death.

Jefferson’s greatest marks of entrepreneurial genius were thus proven by his economic and his political exploitation of the Declaration of Indepencence. Never in modern history has any politician pulled off a more impressive coup. His singular reputation as a philosopher of the enlightenment rests entirely on his ownership of the preamble to that document, which consists of a few glib pontifications that he later repudiated, both in word and in deed.   Jefferson used words alone to establish himself as the creator of the Republic, without ever fighting in the revolution, and while making only the most half-hearted attempt as wartime governor of Virginia. He was absent from the country while the Constitution was being framed, and he returned just in time to continually undermine George Washington’s administration. His greatest accomplishment was heeding Madison’s advice to purchase Louisiana, in pragmatic violation of his own abstract ideological princples.

That his life contradicted in the most eggregious manner the egalitarian and libertarian ideas of the Declaration has become a boring cliche. It is less commonly acknowledged that he verbally repudiated the Declaration’s ideals both in print and in private letters. And yet, he was brilliantly capable of marketing himself as the author of the Declaration’s eternal verities. These self-evident truths had a use-value to a clever trickster who could borrow money on the basis of their sentimental appeal, but its platitudes had no application to the child laborers in Monticello’s “dark satanic mills.”

[1] Steven Harold Hochman, “Thomas Jefferson: A Personal Financial Biography” (Ph. D. dissertation, U. of Virginia, 1987). I wish to thank Henry Wiencek for providing a copy of this page.

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Robert Reich, Glenn Ford, and others

Berlin, May 22, 2014

Editorial by Wilson J. Moses

Yes, Robert Reich is a white liberal, a classification that can evoke skepticism among those African Americans who have opinions on the public ideologies of public intellectuals.  Reich served as Secretary of Labor under Clinton, then published his memoir under the revealing title, Locked in the Cabinet.  He has been called “the conscience of the Clinton administration,” if indeed that administration can be said to have possessed a conscience.  He has refrained from ad hominem attacks, and even in the attached article you will see that he employs the euphemism, “America’s big U-turn,” rather than referring specifically to either Reagan or Clinton personally.

I am more inclined to his position than to that of Glenn Ford, whose video is also attached.   Ford’s statements are honest, and intellectually sustainable, but impractical, because pure socialism, is just as contrary to human nature as pure capitalism.  Neither has ever existed and neither ever will exist.

We can achieve the more regulated capitalism that Reich and Paul Krugman suggest.    The mixed economy that was first enacted by Otto von Bismarck from purely cynical motives, and copied by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration is the only practical way to go.  Both Bismarck and FDR worked with the ultimate cynical objective of “saving the day for capitalism,” and both were successful.  But those were different times, because in those times there existed large and somewhat organized labor movements, as well as a union movement, and considerable pressure from dissatisfied labor groups on the left.  The election of Obama has had the function of diverting the attention of many discontented whites away from their labor problems by hoisting the banner of white supremacy.  The same tendency is obvious in France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries.  This cunning ability of the white master class is reminiscent of the American situation of 1860, when poor whites ignored the advice of Hinton Rowan Helper, and followed their white masters into a rebellion, and Kamikaze charges, such as the one led by Pickett at the battle of Gettysburg.  White “free soilers” like Helper, (yes, he was essentially a free soiler) showed more intelligence, despite the fact that Helper and the free soilers were just as racist as the white labor combinations that kept black workers out of the nascent labor movement, often employing violence to do so.  Only a portion of white racists were alert enough in 1860 to be anti-slavery, despite their white supremacist passions.  

In my opinion, Reich and Krugman offer an alternative to Obama, better than that offered by Glenn Ford and Cornel West, although I do not object to the presentation of facts presented by Ford and West.   I simply do not believe that there is any chance of creating the sort of social democracy that they envision.  Furthermore, I don’t think anything is gained by presenting Obama, as they do, as the enemy of the people.  Obama represents capitalist interests, to be sure, and he is guilty of a certain “cynicism.”  Of course, we would all like to see people like Barry Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in positions where they could undo the damage done by Reagan and Clinton. We cannot guarantee that either of them would do any better than Obama.   In any case, as long as Obama is in the White House, a large portion of the American electorate will be willing to cut off their collective nose to spite their collective face.  

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Booker T is like Obama, Du Bois like T. S. Eliot

August 18, 2013 Leave a comment

I presume that all knowledgable readers will agree with historian John H. Bracey’s opinion that both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were doing their best at addressing the politics of that period of black disfranchisement that Rayford Logan called “the nadir,” and that they behaved heroically in a grim and terrifying moment in history.  Fair enough and I agree.  Even the dean of Marxist historians, Eric Foner, in his Give Me Liberty, allows that Washington’s undeniable support in the black community “arose from a widespread sense that in the world of the late nineteenth century, frontal assaults on white power were impossible and that blacks should concentrate on building up their segregated communities.”

This trite-but-true doctrine, that both leaders were doing their best with the limited means available to them has been made repeatedly, and indeed tediously, but it must be added that Booker T had an agenda more practical, and more laden with implicit political compromise than that of Du Bois.  Booker T. Washington’s historical task was the precursor of Barrack Obama’s, and fraught with the same pitfalls.  Washington’s responsibility was not with the creation of a literary, artistic or intellectual tradition, and neither is Barrack Obama’s.

Du Bois’s project was as undoubtedly political as T. S. Eliot’s, but as did Eliot’s, his ambitions included an additional layer that neither Booker T Washington, in his day, nor Barack Obama in his, have had the luxury of addressing.  Du Bois assumed an agenda in the realm of abstract artistic and intellectual endeavor, a merger of folkish values with elite literary and intellectual ideals.  This involved a concept of the interdependability of high and low culture, and of peasant and proletarian culture which would serve as the roots and nourishment of the talented tenth, who would be both leaders of and servants to the masses.  For this conception of the interaction of high and low culture, he was indebted to Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Germany’s pioneering cultural linguists, but Du Bois was an independent trail-blazer in his own right, and probably more comparable to Richard Wagner as a literary theorist, and innovator in the arts.

Du Bois, between 1896 and 1934, resembled Tony Morrison and Cornel West, in that he merged, and simultaneously represented folk traditions to fashion an elite literary and “high-cultural” agenda.  His concerns as a writer and intellectual leader, were luxuries that few political leaders believe they can afford.  Like Alexander Crummell, Du Bois felt that abstract intellectual activity was an important aspect of black civilization.  Booker T. Washington, who has notably been called, “builder of a civilization,” in an important early biography by Emmet J. Scott and Lyman Beecher Stowe, saw “civilization” as necessarily founded on Yankee Protestantism and industrial education.  Crummell certainly never denied these two building blocks, nor in any practical sense, did Du Bois, but they also saw the immediate necessity of non-material ideals.  In all fairness, Booker T Washington was not a pure materialist, either.  He admitted that what Crummell called “Civilization” and what Du Bois called the “civilizing message,” must go hand in hand with what Washington called “Character Building,” and what Crummell called, “Character, the Great Thing.”

But Booker T was primarily focused on confronting the realities of administering and economically sustaining a bricks and mortar institution, just as Barack Obama clearly has his own bricks and mortar concerns.   Everyone knows, there is a difference between an institution such as the government of the United States of America, and the Tuskegee Machine.   The similarities exist only in that both involve practical politics and economics on the national and international stages, although the relative sizes and impacts are oceans apart.

Du Bois, in addition to being “Propagandist of the Negro Protest,” had a literary and “high-cultural” agenda, and literary art meant little to BTW, who did not care about writing a book like Darkwater.   In fact, it obviously meant little to him that his major works were all secretly ghostwritten.   For Du Bois, composing a poem like “The Riddle of the Sphinx” was a matter inseparable from his personality, and affecting the depths of his soul, just as such a matter was fundamental to Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, and T. S. Eliot.  And Du Bois can bear comparison to any of these authors, according to my literary methodology, on which I shall not elaborate, due to a lack of any observable demand.

If Du Bois were to come back, I don’t know if he would be capable of doing what Obama is doing, while I think Booker T would be able to handle the task, at least as well.

Bettye Collier-Thomas, Darlene Clark Hine, and others have made the indisputable point, that the debate was not the central concern of African Americans during the Nadir.  Black women, for example worked heroically at the grass-roots level of institution building, a point that is undeniable.  In the city of Detroit, I have a sister, named Miriam, who devoted many years to working at the grass roots level as a community organizer, a teacher, and a character builder.   But I am afraid Detroit’s problems are beyond the efforts of grass roots workers, alone.  They are of macro-economic proportions.  They cannot be solved by the NAACP, the NACW, or the NCNW, or by the Churches.   Such organizations are not capable of addressing the problems of interfacing the Japanese auto industry, or vying with computer production in China, or determining the relationship between the dollar and the Euro.

They can “Go tell Michelle” anything they wish, but grass-roots groups have little useful to say to her, respecting national or international politics or economics.  Like Condolleeza Rice, Michelle is better educated, and better informed than most of her gushing admirers.

Booker T was, alas, not able to build a rival to MIT, but he grasped the importance of making such an attempt.  Marcus Garvey was not able to build another Ford Motor Company, but he understood the problem!   By the time he wrote Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois had finally come around to the Booker/Garvey position on institution building.

Du Bois, although an able social scientist, was always primarily a humanist, a man of letters, committed to projects in the arts and sciences that exceeded the limits of the immediately practical.  Where Washington would have directed a gifted young mathmatician to become an atomic scientist or an aerospace engineer, Du Bois might have encouraged that same young person to pursue the luxury of a career in quantum theory, astrophysics or analytic philosophy.

Black Americans today, with or without the leadership of President Obama encounter a set of material and intellectual challenges that exceed the immediately practical.  I don’t know if the solution to the collapse of the black metropolis of Detroit is to be found in Black Institutional Nationalism, whether in the moderate form of the Tuskegee philosophy or in the more radical forms of the UNIA or Dusk of Dawn.  I don’t see that Black Nationalism is presently viable, without taking into account the macroeconomics of the current world situation in banking, commerce, industry, and communications.  Obama is trying to manipulate these factors, but his chances of success are obviously limited, just as were the chances of BTW.

Ken Hamilton, an avid supporter and financial backer of President Obama, has recently completed a manuscript on Booker T. Washington.  I have not seen the book, but over many years Professor Hamilton has shared with me, via numerous emails and primary documents concerning and quoting BTW, his belief that character building and industrial reorganization are at least part of the solution to the problems symbolized by a city like Detroit.   I don’t know if industrial Detroit can be rebuilt as a Black Nation in accord with Mr. Muhammad’s fantasy, or Booker T’s dream, but I doubt whether grass-roots community organization by black women’s groups, or intellectual and literary-intellectual activity are likely to make much of a difference in the neo-colonial situation of a city like Detroit.

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Jefferson’s Science and the Science of Temporizing

August 17, 2013 Leave a comment

Jefferson ultimately found the Voltaire conjecture that mountains had once been under the seas unsatisfactory, for it appeared indemonstrable. He did not reject it any more than he rejected other unproven theories. Whether the deposit of shell fossils was the result of volcanic uplifts, or of ancient deluges, or of both was a matter that he could not resolve. He resorted to sarcasm cloaked in terms of theology. “How many millions of years it has cost Vulcan or Neptune to produce what the fiat of the Creator would effect by a single act of will, is too idle to be worth a single hour of any man’s life,” he wrote in the year of his demise. Was Jefferson in the end neither a Vulcanist nor a Neptunist, but a Creationist? Or was he simply demonstrating in his eighty-third year that he remained a temporizing ironist.

By temperament, he was far too inquisitive to consider any reasonable speculation a complete waste of time. By temperament he was also skeptical, and he possessed a continuing love of sarcasm until the final months of his life. But his skepticism and sarcasm masked his persistent theological creationism. For whether he invoked the Creator literally, or as a metaphor for Nature, he always relied on preconceptions about what constituted natural law. His position on the shell fossils is a good illustration of how Jefferson’s scientific mind functioned. Postponement of judgment in the absence of evidence was an idea that he understood. His position on the fossils allows us to witness his careful postponement of judgment for more than forty years—from the age of forty until three months before his death.

In the fifty years between 1786 and 1826 Jefferson’s theologically dependent scientific framework did not evolve. He wrote, to Charles Thompson. Paris, December 17, 1786, dismissing the brilliant and painstaking work of John Whitehurst, An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778). Whitehurst, a self educated man of humble origins, was a vastly superior scientist to Jefferson, both in terms of his methods and his technical accomplishments. Eventually elected to the Royal Society, he came from the artisan class that Jefferson despised, a mere maker of watches and compasses. But his competency in these realms was also superior to Jefferson’s. Whitehurst’s theory, which was based on scrupulous collection of data, far beyond Jefferson’s patience, was prophetic. His nascent thesis, that the Earth had undergone vast changes over the course of history, has stood the test of time. Jefferson’s response to Whitehurst was not to challenge his method or his evidence, but to engage in theological babble:

“I give one answer to all these theorists. That is as follows. They all suppose the earth a created existence. They must suppose a creator then; and that he possessed power and wisdom to a great degree. As he intended the earth for the habitation of animals and vegetables, is it reasonable to suppose, he made two jobs of his creation, that he first made a chaotic lump and set it into rotatory motion, and then waited the millions of ages necessary to form itself? That when it had done this, he stepped in a second time, to create the animals and plants which were to inhabit it? As the hand of a creator is to be called in, it may as well be called in at one stage of the process as another. We may as well suppose he created the earth at once, nearly in the state in which we see it, fit for the preservation of the beings he placed on it.”

The ideas Jefferson expressed to John P. Emmett, May 2, 1826 were similarly superstitious. Although by the 1780s, not only Whitehurst, but also James Hutton, were advancing theories of a changing geological universe. These were on the road to acceptance, with the rising influence of Charles Lyell, seven years after Jefferson’s death. But Jefferson rejected on theological grounds, both the emerging and ultimately dominant concepts of geological evolution and biological evolution. He died a few years too early either to accept or reject the contemporary theories that eventually stood the test of time. He discomfort with scientific speculation, revealed not only his theism, but a temperamental disposition that was not unknown in his politics — caution and temporizing. Elsewhere in the Notes he exercised this same prudence and on matters he considered momentarily unsolvable, he postponed judgment.

Jefferson’s notorious postponement of scientific judgment with respect to human equality occurs in every edition of the Notes. He could not prove it, but he argued systematically for the inequality of Sub-Saharan Africans with respect to the rest of the human race. He advanced it “as a suspicion only,” that black people of African origin “are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.”

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