Archive for August, 2013

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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Modern Language Notes

August 17, 2013 Leave a comment

Paris, Sun Aug 17, 2013

In a typical French sentence, 50% of the letters are not pronounced, and the other 50% are unpronounceable.  I have met people who can read French at a higher level than most native speakers, but who cannot make themselves understood in a restaurant.  This situation simply does not occur in German where writing, spelling, and pronunciation are fairly rational.

How well one is able to converse in French depends on whom one is addressing.   I had no difficulty negotiating a few matters entirely in French at the Air France office recently.   But  in a bookstore the following Saturday, August 10, I could not communicate with the young girl at the cash register, at all.   With others on the staff, who were older and better educated, I had no problem communicating in French, or even making one or two playful pleasantries.  In a recent conversation with an arrogant man of Algerian background, I felt that he was deliberately making his French as slangy and incomprehensible as he could, forcing me to speak English, so he could have the satisfaction of looking down his nose at me.  I have noted Anglicized Pakistanis in London behaving in similar manner.  Being forced to switch to English is one of the most humiliating experiences I know.  

Younger people in speaking their own languages are sometimes afraid of sounding affected or “pseudo-intellectual,” and will often avoid expressing themselves formally, because they are very self-conscious about possibly sounding “unnatural.”   A high school graduate from Senegal or Martinique is sometimes easier to understand, because educated “colonials” often speak a more elevated French than their continental European counterparts, the Franco-français.

There are several levels of any language:  For the sake of simplicity, I would list three:

1. Formal and/or literary, where words are painstakingly defined, with respect to their numerous meanings, and where qualifying clauses are frequent — appropriate for courtrooms, classrooms, good journalism, and those business affairs where precise or nuanced articulation is necessary.

2. Vernacular or colloquial, for daily conversation within families, or between persons who are “on the same wave-length,” and where a wink or a nod might suffice to clarify a more subtle meaning.

3. Folksy and/or slangy, useful for situations where words may be one-dimensional, and meanings are direct and often blunt, or when people need only to communicate cultural predispositions or emotional reactions.

I have learned that when a native speaker is addressing a foreigner, the best way for the native speaker to communicate is to adopt the formality of a college classroom. The more colloquial, familiar, or vernacular one becomes, the more difficulty the speaker of Turkish or Mandarin may have understanding.  

For example, if a friendly flight attendant asks, “Where are you off to today?”  She might be misunderstood, even by an American, due to her use of a friendly idiomatic expression.  She is likely to be more easily understood if she asks more formally, “What is your final destination?” 

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