Posts tagged George Washington

Wednesday Lazy Linking

  • Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Were Anti-Slavery. Chuck Baldwin (2010-01-11). This article has perhaps the highest ratio of simple falsehoods to true statements in any article I have ever read. The man barely even pauses for a half-truth. But I look for the best in people, so let me just say that Baldwin says one thing I absolutely agree with: "Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson ... were the spiritual soul mates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson." Well, yeah. (If you haven't read my stuff on Lee before, cf. 1, 2, etc.) (Linked Monday 2010-01-11.)

What’s really wrong with relativism?

Over in the comments on GT 2006-04-09: Freedom Movement Celebrity Deathmatch, Jeremy (of Social Memory Complex) asks the following question, referring back to an exchange I had with Lady Aster (1, 2), and an exchange that Jeremy and I had at his blog (1 et seq.):

In your reply to Aster you spoke of the danger of relativism. Is it possible for you to expand on this concept? Can you be more descriptive and perhaps specific about the danger you see in a relativist view of the morality? Or perhaps you have written about this elsewhere and can direct me to your existing writing. I only ask because we’ve recently discussed this and I’m interested in your argument here.

I initially posted this reply as a very long comment; after thinking about it, I decided that it would be of general enough interest, even though it’s a fairly sketchy overview, to make it a post of its own.

Jeremy, I think that the best reply partly depends on what sort of dangers you’re interested in.

I have philosophical reasons for believing that moral relativism is theoretically flawed. If relativism is intended to be a description of the logic behind people’s actual use of moral terms, then it’s not an accurate description; it’s not really a theory of morality at all, but rather a theory of something else — etiquette, taste, or, in its crudest forms, conventional wisdom or personal pleasure. If, on the other hand, it’s intended to be a normative theory about the criteria that people ought to use in making certain kinds of judgments — by, say, abandoning the morality-game’s requirements for certain kinds of consistency across differences of culture or personal psychology, and adopting some other, relativistic set of requirements — then I think that that theory is undermotivated, false, and, at least in most versions, logically incoherent. If it’s intended as a meta-ethical theory, which takes for granted the rules of the morality-game as they are, and doesn’t specifically counsel abandoning those rules, but which claims that those rules either don’t express factual claims at all, or else express factual claims that presuppose something false, then what you’ve got is not really relativism exactly, but either non-cognitivism or an error theory (respectively). I have my own logical and philosophical problems with each of those, which we can discuss at more length if you want.

I also have reasons for thinking that relativism is a moral danger, in the sense that I believe that, under many circumstances, indulging in relativistic argument is in fact a moral vice, and that it tends to encourage other kinds of moral vice. Basically because on any form of relativism (cultural relativism, agent relativism, speaker relativism, etc.) you necessarily, in order to remain a relativist, must fail to hold some people to moral standards that it’s appropriate to hold them to, and to hold some other people to moral standards that it’s inappropriate to hold them to. It amounts to either excuse-making or bigotry, depending on the case. (For example, consider the very common, implicitly culturally-relativist claim that contemporary writers shouldn’t judge George Washington harshly for enslaving hundreds of his fellow human beings if most of his contemporaries, or at least most of the minority faction of his contemporaries whose opinions he cared about — the white and propertied ones — believed that slavery was O.K. and if Washington’s methods weren’t especially harsh by their standards. I don’t think there is any possible way to make this kind of claim without, thereby, expressing a really massive callousness toward the well-being, dignity, and rights of the hundreds of people that George Washington enslaved. Not only do I regard it as being philosophically mistaken, but the callousness itself is wrong. And if you live the kind of life that that kind of immorality accords with, well, that’s a problem with your life, not a problem with morality.)

I also have reasons for thinking that libertarians should regard relativism in general, and relativism about the duty to respect other people’s rights in particular, as a political danger. If justice is thought of as something that’s less than universally and categorically binding, which individual people or cultures of people can take or leave as it pleases them, then I don’t think it is very surprising that what will soon follow is a whole host of reasons or excuses for leaving it in favor of some putative benefit to be got through coercion. Politically speaking, I’m not just interested in theories which proclaim my reasons for not beating, burning, and bombing innocent people; I wouldn’t do that anyway, and just about nobody would support me or make excuses on my behalf if I did. I’m much more concerned with theories which proclaim George W. Bush’s or Dick Cheney’s reasons for not beating, burning, and bombing innocent people, because the problem in this case is precisely those who don’t believe that they have any personal reason not to do that.

Of course, I could instead adopt a moral theory on which it’s O.K. for them to act like that, but also O.K. for me to try to resist them, and a sociological theory which predicts that if I stick to my values and they convert to similar values, it’ll lead to a better outcome for the both of us than if we each stick to our values, or if I convert to Bush’s and Cheney’s. (Maybe that’s what Max Stirner believed.)

But, again, in addition to the theoretical and the moral problems that I’ve already mentioned, I also think that this kind of theory is unlikely to get you much political traction, because it underplays your dialectical hand. (I think that binding moral claims are really much stronger, rhetorically and dialectically, than most people seem to believe they are. Lots of people very often rule out a stark moral arguments—say against slavery, or imprisoning nonviolent drug users, or forced pregnancy, or the war on Iraq—in favor of some much more complicated technical argument, or a pseudo-conciliatory hand-wringing argument, because they dismiss the moral argument as somehow impractical, even though it would be perfectly convincing to them, and even though they would find complicated or hand-wringing argument confusing, unfocused, or worse, if they were the ones listening to the argument. The problem in these cases is often not with the moral argument but rather with the arguer underestimating her audience.) I also think that these kind of approaches very often involve a mistake about the best target for your argument; sometimes it makes sense to try to persuade aggressors to stop being aggressive by argument, but it’s much more often the case that the smarter goal would be to try to convince other victims of aggression to resist, or at least stop collaborating with, the aggressor, and stark moral arguments against the legitimacy of the aggression are very often going to be the most effective way to inspire comrades and shame collaborators.

But, setting aside political strategy, I think the most important reasons are the moral and logical ones. The fact that relativism and relativistic arguments are dangerous to the political prospects for liberty, if that is a fact, is just a secondary reason to more strongly dislike it. The primary reason to oppose it is that the position is false, the arguments are fallacious, and the vision of human life and moral discourse that it presents — one in which people are just so many bigots and partisans, divided in our basically irreconcilable values by personal temperament or, worse, cultural or parochial loyalties, whose normative discourse consists of battering their own preferences against other people, to whom those preferences are ultimately alien, in the hope that their opponents will eventually be remade in their own image and their own preferences will triumph, through means explicitly other than rational conviction, which of course has been ruled out from the get-go by the relativist premise — is a narrow and mean and miserable thing compared to the vision on which we are, each of us, fellow citizens of a cosmopolis of all rational creatures, open to each other’s reasons and concerns, and in both amenable to, and hopefully guided by, reason, when it comes to the things that are most important to each of our individual lives. The highest form of flourishing is one in which I neither regard myself as made for the use of others, nor regard others as made for my own use, but rather see my taste and idiosyncratic projects, other people’s taste and idiosyncratic projects, and the common tastes and projects which we may agree to cultivate cooperatively, as all existing within the scope of shared and universally intelligible norms of respect, consent, humanity, and rational discourse. Relativism often advances itself as if it promoted that form of flourishing, under the veneer of a phony tolerance, but in fact to the extent that it attacks the sharedness and universal intelligibility of those norms, it is attacking that form of flourishing, and attempting to claim that tolerance means my right to make you tolerate whatever I want you to (or vice versa), since (after all) the relativistic version of tolerance can in principle include tolerance of absolutely any value, including values for coercion, aggression, parasitism, and sadism.

I should note before I conclude that I don’t think that the argument of Aster’s which I was originally responding to is at all guilty of relativism. I think that’s a danger implicit in the kind of language she recommends, but there are other, related dangers of authoritarianism which are implicit in the kind of language that she criticizes; whichever kind of language you choose, there’s dialectical work to be done in making clear what you want to make clear while avoiding the error that the language might suggest in careless hands. And if she does at some point fall into a relativistic error about the status of rights — which as far as I know she doesn’t, and which I certainly don’t mean to attribute to her —then I’m quite certain, based on what she’s written here and elsewhere, that it’s not for some of the reasons (e.g. underestimating her audience or confusion about the appropriate audience) that I discuss here. I think all forms of relativism involve at least some of these confusions, but only some forms involve all of them.

Anyway, I hope this helps somewhat in explaining, but I think that I probably haven’t covered what you wanted me to cover in the detail that you wanted. But I think there are a lot of different points to cover, and to cover any given point more deeply and more illustratively, I’d need to know a bit more about what specific kind of dangers, and in what context of discourse, you’re interested in my views on. A conversation that I’d be happy to have in comments, for those that are interested.

Further reading:

The Humane Slave-driver

Up top of a good post from AllyWorks on some of the idiot arguments favored by slavery apologists, there’s an excellent quote from Eric Miller at blackprof.com (2006-03-04), on something that I’ve been concerned about for a while now:

Similarly, slavery- and segregation-denial seeks to create a counter-myth of America, one that reconstructs the South, the Klan, and the Confederate flags as the culture-blind symbols of a distinct region with its own traditions. Slavery- and segregation-denial is an attempt to rewrite history in a manner that minimizes whites’ active or passive participation in the state-sponsored violence that lasted well into the 1960s (some would say much later).

Such a critique makes clear that in celebrating the heroes or symbols of the Confederacy or a variety of other institutions, without acknowledging their racism and the violence that they perpetrated, promoted, or permitted, Justice Parker and his ilk are intent on denying or minimizing acts of extreme violence or genocide.

— Eric Miller, blackprof.com (2006-03-04): Slavery Denial

One popular form of slavery denial is the to single out some historical slave-driver or another, whom we are supposed to like for some other reasons — such as George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or Robert E. Lee — and to praise them for their inerringly humane treatment of their slaves (or at least, their public advocacy of humane treatment for slaves). For example, here’s the National Park Service on what they teach the young students at the Arlington plantation site, in commemoration of the fiefdom of the Custises and the Lees:

The Custis and Lee families provided their slaves with a rudimentary education, spending money, and specialized medical care. Complex relations between owner and slave are also examined. For her slave Selina Gray, Mary Custis Lee arranged an elaborate wedding ceremony, which was conducted by an Episcopal priest in the same room where Mrs. Lee herself had been married. As students attempt to reconcile the inherently exploitive nature of slavery with examples of humane treatment that existed at Arlington, they begin to realize that some of the questions raised during the program have no answers.

— Karen Byrne, National Park Service: The Power of Place: Using Historic Structures to Teach Children About Slavery

Here’s how Lee himself indignantly replied to charges that he had Wesley Norris, Mary Norris, and their cousin George lashed, and their lacerated backs rubbed with brine, after they tried to leave and were recaptured in Maryland:

… this slander … There is not a word of truth in it. … No servant, soldier, or citizen that was ever employed by me can with truth charge me with bad treatment.

— Robert E. Lee to E. S. Quirk, Lexington, March 1, 1866, Virginia Historical Society (reprinted in Fellman 2000).

painting: George Washington driving his slaves

Master George, humanely farming

And here’s what WikiPedia made of George Washington’s views on slavery a few days ago. They’re referring to his public advocacy of violent punishments for slaves that were less harsh and unrestrained, less stingy provisions for slaves’ food and shelter, and work-loads for field slaves that were lighter, than what some of his fellow slave-driving whites advocated:

Historians’ perceptions of Washington’s stand on slavery tend to be mixed. Although he advocated humane treatment of his slaves, according to an eyewitness, his slaves lived in miserable huts, and were often poorly clothed, according to plantation records.

— Washington and slavery, at WikiPedia: George Washington (revision as of 20:23, 18 March 2006)

The problem with this kind of talk is, of course, that the only way to treat slaves humanely is to stop enslaving them. No matter how restrained or unrestrained the punishments used, no matter how aloof or how domineering the style of slave-driving that the slaver adopts, no matter how bountiful or how meagre the rations or the medical care or the opportunities for education, slavery requires physically confining people against their will, forcing them to work without their consent, taking for yourself the profits that they earned by their own sweat and blood, asserting authority over their lives and livelihoods, and using intimidation and physical violence to compel, restrain, or punish those who defy your dictates. That’s what the word slavery means; it means kidnapping, robbery, assault, and tyranny.

Lee, and Washington, and Jefferson, all had it within their power to stop enslaving their slaves. They could be manumitted; and even before they were formally manumitted there was nothing at all to stop slavers from treating them as free farmers, with a right to work on their own tasks according to their own schedule, and free to come and go as they please. It’s an option that they mostly didn’t avail themselves of: Lee avoided doing that for as long as he could legally get away with it. Washington avoided it for his whole life, only offering freedom to his slaves in his will after both his death and Martha’s. Jefferson couldn’t even bring himself to have his will provide for it after his death. Any claim that these men advocated humane treatment of slaves is nothing more and nothing less than a sentimental lie, based on some particularly noxious forms of Moonlight-and-Magnolias nostalgia.

Here’s George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language:

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable.

— George Orwell (1946): Politics and the English Language

I can think of a long list of phrases that merit a co-ordinated jeering campaign, and humane treatment of slaves is as good a candidate as any for the top of the list. It deserves public, explicit contempt; where we see it, we ought to ridicule it, or — depending on the format — excise it.

For example, consider my revision of the WikiPedia article on George Washington:

Revision as of 20:23, 18 March 2006

Historians’ perceptions of Washington’s stand on slavery tend to be mixed. Although he advocated humane treatment of his slaves, according to an eyewitness, his slaves lived in miserable huts, and were often poorly clothed, according to plantation records. …

Revision as of 21:32, 18 March 2006

Historians’ perceptions of Washington’s stand on slavery tend to be mixed. He publicly advocated milder punishments and lighter workloads for slaves than some of his slaveholding contemporaries, but according to an eyewitness, his slaves lived in “miserable” huts, and were often poorly clothed, according to plantation records.

— WikiPedia: George Washington, differences between revision 44400066 and revision 44408684

My revision excises the morally bankrupt, slavery-denying myth of humane treatment, and replaces it with a short, unvarnished description that simply spells out the specific practices Washington advocated. Now let’s watch as this change becomes a matter of controversy, and as a couple of other editors object to the use of neutral description over a sentimental, evaluative summary — on Neutral Point of View grounds, no less! Watch as these editors express alarm at how my edits make the sentence 9 words more verbose — and then propose an even longer compromise sentence to replace it, just so that they can make sure that the word humane is still used somewhere to describe Washington’s treatment of his slaves. What does the word humane contribute that’s so important to preserve? (I think I know the answer — but if I’m right about that, then it’s contributing something that’s not part of the purpose of WikiPedia.)

Pushing an agenda? You’re damn right I am. The agenda is giving an unvarnished, objective account of slavery, and the sort of treatment that Washington in particular advocated. That’s WikiPedia’s job; repeating sentimental lies is not.

Nor should it be.

Further reading:

Republican virtue (or: the Man who would be King)

Back around Presidents’ Day, David Boaz sent a communique out from Planet CATO in praise of George Washington, consisting mainly of a panegyric on G.W.’s lived example of republican virtue. We begin with the headline The Man Who Would Not Be King and move on through some of the favorite tropes of nationalist nostalgia for the Old Republic:

George Washington was the man who established the American republic. He led the revolutionary army against the British Empire, he served as the first president, and most importantly he stepped down from power.

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington—Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

From his republican values Washington derived his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself. The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice — at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.

— David Boaz (2006-02-20): The Man Who Would Not Be King

And what did Washington do when, out of his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself, he stepped down and returned home? Here’s the way Boaz puts it:

painting: George Washington driving his slaves

Master George, farming

What values did Washington’s character express? He was a farmer, a businessman, an enthusiast for commerce. As a man of the Enlightenment, he was deeply interested in scientific farming. His letters on running Mount Vernon are longer than letters on running the government. (Of course, in 1795 more people worked at Mount Vernon than in the entire executive branch of the federal government.)

Ah, yes, his farming, with his numerous workers at Mount Vernon.

You see, the thing about Washington is that while he was busy Not Being a King by returning to farm at Mount Vernon, he was personally claiming the authority to rule as Lord and Master over several hundred of his fellow human-beings, held as chattel slaves, with more absolute and invasive authority over his subjects than any Bonaparte ever even dreamed of exercising over the common men and women of France. As the landed lord of one of Virginia’s largest slave-plantations he demanded absolute control over their conduct, took every last penny earned by their labor, and reserved the right to exercise almost any physical brutality that he saw fit to inflict in order to punish or deter challenges to his authority. (And that is, note, not a matter of whether or not he actually acted unusually harshly towards any given slave; it’s part and parcel of what being a grand Virginia slave-lord meant.) The Man Who Would Not Be King arrogantly claimed for himself rights and prerogatives that merely political tyrants would have trembled to assert, solely on the basis of his money and his position within the racial aristocracy of the American South.

Washington was certainly an interesting character; studying his life may even have some things to teach us. But sentimental lies have nothing to teach us at all, and the ridiculous notion that Washington, the slave-driver of hundreds, abhorred tyranny or arbitrary power is nothing more or less than a sentimental lie. He may very well have abhorred the idea of ruling over fellow white people; he may very well have disliked crowns and robes as a point of fashion; but he had no problem maintaining absolute tyranny over hundreds of blacks, spanning his life from the age of 11 until his death. And if you think that’s good enough to count as exemplifying republican virtue, as abhorring kingship, or as retiring from a seat of power to a private life, then you need to think a lot harder.

Further reading:

A Thought for Presidents’ Day

Today, about 100 people braved temperatures just above freezing to stand for peace at Toomer’s Corners in Auburn.

In honor of the event, here’s a thought for Presidents’ Day: What would the other George W. do?

Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.

—President George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796