|Jul/Aug 2016 Salon|
Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona
But language does not simply write and think for me, it also dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. —Victor Klemperer
That language does our thinking for us is an idea that's at least 300 years old. But it's no less true today than it ever was. Of course, what it means is that the words we use to think with already contain the conclusions for the concepts we believe we are examining objectively. We are in effect hemmed in by the fence of the vocabulary which is also the range of our possible ideas, unless we are able and choose to "think outside the box."
Even a casual reading of authors of other eras than our own, especially of those we don't place among the great contributers to Western thought, reveals how hidebound they were by the received ideas of their time. Sometimes their naivety is amusing. Our typical reaction to them is, Thank God we have gotten beyond such simplistic notions.
Only, we haven't. Our own thinking is just as constrained as theirs was, perhaps more so thanks to the influence of mass media. In America we believe we have absolute freedom to think about anything we want in any way we like and then to express those thoughts as publicly as we wish. And that's true, but we rarely do think anything outside the framework our media and our educations invisibly draw for us. We can talk ourselves blue in the face about race or gay rights or any other issue, but we, most of us, accept the concepts of "race" and "gay" unthinkingly. Even those of us who want to go beyond the confines imposed by those words find it next to impossible to do so and still go on referring to "mixed race" or "bi-racial" children, even if we know the word race has no valid meaning and is entirely a creation of social and economic forces.
I suspect I've just struck a note for the first time in this essay that causes many of my fellow citizens to balk: Of course we condemn racism and believe all people to be equal. But what's wrong with referring to the children of parents of obviously African and non-African descent as "bi-racial"? And doesn't objecting to the use of the word "gay" infer a prejudice against the group referred to? They call themselves gay, after all. They are gay, for pete's sake.
A list of other such received ideas would include: black, white, democracy, terrorism, lynching, liberal, conservative, Latino, Asian, free market, capitalism—just to name a few. Each of them is freighted with preconceived, predigested content that we think we understand. They are in fact as meaningless and yet as potent as anything the Bolsheviks came up with to indoctrinate their own population.
Right after the second world war, Victor Klemperer published a book on the language of the Third Reich that he had been taking notes for all through the years of the Nazi regime. The book forms an illustrative template by which we could also examine the way language is used and manipulated in our own society. Much of the Nazi vocabulary, Klemperer maintains, was derived from American advertising—the superlative, for instance. Everything was the greatest ever or the biggest. The Wehrmacht was fighting "fanatically," a word that would never have been used to describe a military action before the Nazis took power.
The new Nazi vocabulary seeped into private speech by osmosis, until even Jews were using it. A recent import organisierien became universal, where a more common expression would have sufficed previously. A mechanic who fixed Klemperer's car congratulates himself by saying, "I think I organized that pretty well." It comes to the point that no one even notices they have adopted the Nazi lexicon and hence the Nazi way of thinking. It became as natural for non-Aryans to use the word "Aryan" as a marker of distinction between the so-called master race and the untermenschen as it was for the SS to do so.
When we examine the history of the words and concepts we accept so unthinkingly in an historical context, everything is turned on its head. Take "white/black," for instance, just one of our most pervasive and deeply embedded notions that everyone thinks they understand.
"Black" means having some African ancestry. Traditionally, since the 19th century and especially since the start of Jim Crow at the end of that century, we have meant by that "one drop." But Frank Sweet in his book on the legal history of race in the United States makes the case that 30 percent of the "white" population of the US is actually at least one-eighth of African ancestry. This is because thousands of very light-skinned males of African descent have been able year after year for the last couple hundred years to enter and be accepted by "white" society and hence to intermarry.
I figure the percentage in the South of whites with African ancestry must be much higher, probably 50 percent. An incident that occurred at the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the South after former slaves had been eliminated from participation in civic affairs provides some substance for this claim. A member of the South Carolina Assembly rose one day in the chamber and proposed a bill that would require each member of that body to prove he had no African ancestry. Before his proposal could be discussed, fellow members of that body asked to speak to the assemblyman outside the chamber. There they informed him that if his bill were to pass and be enforced, no member of the assembly would be able to maintain his seat.
The fiction of white purity in the South was at this time still new enough that even its proponents recognized it as just that: a fiction. So-called whites and blacks had been mixing for hundreds of years, and not just by the master-slave rapes we hear so much about. Free blacks and whites fell in love just like other people. Louisiana had an entire class of its population acknowledged as what today we call mixed race, amounting to a "race" of their own. There were untold different ways for whites and blacks to come together besides brute force, one of them being the practice of poor white women, surely the most marginalized and undervalued members of the population of any color, to prostitute themselves to male slaves who snuck away from their plantations at night to cohabit with them.
This means our first "black" president could have been Thomas Jefferson, but almost surely it's been one of the Southerners or even Northerners who were elected after the middle of the 19th century. More to the point, it means that our notion of whiteness is a fantasy, just as it was when it was dreamed up in the 17th century to win over the European indentured servants who had been rebelling with their African counterparts against their masters. This was achieved by giving the newly-minted "whites" freedom and land of their own if they agreed to act as a police force to protect the masters from the newly-minted "blacks." Poor whites have continued to perform that function as dupes of their white betters right up to the present.
Also counterintuitive because upsetting to the idea of white/black that we all think we understand axiomatically is the fact that the present-day notion of blackness did not arise in the South but was a Northern import. People of African descent were always more shunned in the North than they were in the South where the contingencies of daily life brought them into personal contact and the reality of "race mixture" was unavoidable. Segregation was created and enforced in the North before it was in the South. Mid-century, Frederick Douglass could not ride in a "white" car when traveling on a train in abolitionist Massachusetts, but it wasn't until the late decades of the century that a law was passed forbidding such co-mingling in the South. The editor of a major newspaper there naively mocked the law when it was passed, saying, "What will we have next, segregated parks and restaurants, segregated water fountains?" The "one-drop" rule, utterly unenforceable in the historically mixed South, was a Northern idea that suited the Southern whites of the Jim Crow era when they were creating the fantasy of a distinct white and black population for the purpose of controlling and exploiting that large percentage of the people they could identify as of slave descent.
This is not much different from the way the Nazis, and before them racial theorists of the the mid-19th century onward, went about creating the races of Jews, Slavs, gypsies/Roma, and other non-"Aryans." We erroneously conflate modern antisemitism with the animus Christian Europe felt against religious Jews prior to the 19th century. But as any number of modern scholars, from Hannah Arendt to Patrick Wolfe, point out, this is bad historiography propagated by Jews and non-Jews alike. Prior to c. 1850, Jews were sometimes persecuted for their religion but never as a separate race. A Jew was always able to convert to Christianity and enjoy full civil rights in most cases. But after the theories of de Gobineau and other propagators of the idea of different biological races became respectable and then popular, a Jew or anyone else no longer had the choice of opting out of their new racial identity, just as our fellow Americans of African descent have no way of not being "black."
Hitler may have lost the war, but the Nazi notions of race live on, partly because they precede Nazism by the better part of a century and are as ingrained in our thinking as they are in our vocabulary. Similarly, the Cold War with its intense propaganda on both sides has turned the words "capitalism" and "socialism" into quasi-religious and as such fighting words. Most recently, over the past 30 or 40 years, "terrorism," now called simply "terror," has become a catchword to include almost any violent act we are appalled by, especially if it is perpetrated by someone we can identify as Muslim, but excludes the state terrorist violence we and our allies practice as well as acts of non-Muslims such as the shooter in the South Carolina church massacre.
Our educational system from kindergarten through post-graduate school, along with all our mass media, reinforce these preconceived ideas. So do members and organizations who purport to represent the very groups who have been or still are the victims of those ideas. Few "blacks" do not believe in the concept of race. It's a rare man or woman who will claim they are not a Jew or a black if the rule of having a Jewish mother makes you a Jew or having a single African ancestor applies. Meanwhile, how many of the rest of us know that "whiteness" as attached to anyone not of British descent only includes us in an honorary way and is as much an invention as was the black/white categorization? It took the Irish 100 years to be accepted as "white," for instance, and all the other non-"Anglo-Saxons," while white in the generic sense, i.e., non-"black," were considered distinct races and as such biologically and thus socially inferior to their Anglo-Saxon fellow citizens. It was 20th-century racism which legally excluded people of African descent from most civil and economic rights in the North, partly for the purpose of delineating the white-black distinction, that created my "whiteness"—and very likely your own—in order to ensure our full loyalty to the nation. Before that we were Micks, Dagos, Hunkies, Kikes, Krauts—not just social inferiors but biologically lesser breeds that Evolution chose not to elevate to the high ground it did the British.
This wasn't just the thinking of some knuckle-dragging, ill-educated folk on the margins of society. The Eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which promoted the protection and purification of the best American stock, was the adoptive position of our most progressive minds, everyone from Margaret Sanger to Theodore Roosevelt, even including W.E.B. Du Bois and his NAACP. They and the highly regarded scientists who promoted Eugenics as an official government policy were responsible for the Immigration Act of 1924 which restricted new immigrants to strict quotas based on the census of the 1890s. Meanwhile, 60,000 people, almost all poor, were forcibly sterilized. There were even plans proposed for the installation of gas chambers to do the job more effectively. The Nazis had only to copy all of this to set up their own death machine.
I know of no other way to get out of and then go beyond the ignorance we are all awash in thanks to the thought-control we are subjected to in this culture than to deliberately seek alternatives to that propaganda. With a mind toward this, I offer the following brief reading list. It's purely the result of my serendipitous discoveries, one book leading to another. But all of the authors are competent scholars, and any one of them provides a version of our collective past that I find to be at the same time both disturbing and refreshing.
Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois: The definitive work on the subject and what followed by possibly the greatest scholar of the 20th century. Granular and exhaustive, it also manages to incorporate a world view and vision that is the mark of the very best minds. Also, a prime example that a first-rate work of scholarship can be the product of someone who expresses himself masterfully and in a thoroughly engaging way.
The Invention of the White Race (Volumes I & II), by Theodore W. Allen: The seminal work on the subject, as exhaustive as Du Bois's in its treatment. Well worth your time. The comparison with the oppression of the Irish for the better part of a millennium is fascinating, the point being to show that a policy based on racism doesn't require color or any other physical characteristic on the part of the oppressed to set them apart "racially" from the oppressor.
The Origin of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt: Along with Du Bois, among the most readable of authors who are in the first ranks of scholarship. This is a thorough examination of the Nazi and Bolshevik regimes, so alike in all but their ideological premises (race, for the Nazis; historical necessity for the Bolsheviks). It stands much of the commonly accepted versions of their histories on their heads. Example: Rather than seeing the Germans as Aryans par excellence, Hitler saw a large percentage of them as untermenschen and fully intended to exterminate them after their usefulness in wiping out the Slavs and other inferior races was no longer required. The only true Aryans he recognized among the German people were members of his SS, which were selected entirely on the basis of their appearance.
Legal History of the Color Line, by Frank W. Sweet: Again, an exhaustive (not to be confused with "exhausting") treatment of the subject's minutiae that makes for a cumulative experience for the reader that stays with her/him long after the details have faded from memory. Sweet is my source for the assertion that 30 percent of "white" America is actually "black."
Working Toward Whiteness, by David R. Roediger: How we all (unless we are "black") became white, at least honorifically. Marred by occasional academicese but more than compensated for by content, especially the account of how "white/black" was created in the 17th century for purely pragmatic reasons but then took on a disastrous life of its own.
Whiteness of a Different Color, by Matthew Frye Jacobson: Complementary to Roediger's book but from a different perspective.
Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, by Patrick Wolfe: A British-Australian who takes a global perspective on the subject, including the aborigines of his second nationality. Can be too clever by half at times, but the good stuff is very insightful. His take on the American Indian and Black experience is given with the fresh eye of someone not beholden to the verbal shibboleths of the indoctrinated American. A pity he passed away suddenly this past winter.
The Strange Career of Jim Crow, by C. Vann Woodward: A classic. Relatively brief and only covers the history up to the mid-20th century, but a rewarding read nonetheless.
Language of the Third Reich, by Victor Klemperer: Drawn from notes he kept in his more famous diaries (I Shall Bear Witness, Diaries of the Third Reich, 1933-1939 & 1940-1945). A non-academic treatment of a subject he endured first-hand by a solid scholarly mind. Eminently readable.