Friday, May 30, 2014

Final payments?

Noah Millman engages in a thoughtful examination from a conservative point of view of Ta-Nehisi Coates's call for reparations, which is the cover story of this month's issue of The Atlantic. I also read Coates's article and was impressed by his eloquence and depth of research in making his case. He certainly articulated one point very well: you don't kick someone and then expect him to be whole and healthy the moment you stop kicking him and walk away. Agreed. Millman agrees with Coates that reparations are morally just.

Here are my questions about the whole matter:

1. Does race exist? I seem to see an awful lot of articles from liberal spokesmen saying race is a social fiction with no basis in biology. Is that true or isn't it? If it is true, then just who would we be making reparations to?

2. Should we make the matter more definite by offering reparations only to those who can document their descent from slaves? Or to all blacks now living? For that matter, with the rise of inter-racial marriage, would people be eligible whose racial makeup is now black only to a small degree?

3. Is there or is there not a complex of poor mental and emotional management that aggravates poverty--or, as some call it, "a cultural pathology of poverty"? As far as I can recall, Coates mentions the issue only once in his entire article, and only to wave it away. Really? No one has any difficulty about invoking the Deliverance image of a certain type of white, or of talking about "trailer park" or referring to benighted sections of Appalachia where a large part of the population is addicted to oxycontin. Few people, for that matter, seem to mind candid discussions of alcoholism, incest, and spousal abuse among Native American populations. Are blacks exempt from such discussions, when considering black poverty?

4. Considering the checkered history of lottery winners and what often happens to them after their windfall (speaking of West Virginia, remember the case of businessman Jack Whitaker, who won the $314 million lottery in 2002 leading, in part to his own granddaughter's death of an overdose at 16, two years later), what expectation should we have, if we paid out a lump sum to each member of a particular population, as to how much things would change? The author of this article raises a similar point.

5. Granted that slavery is unique in American history, so was what we did to the Native Americans. The same list of questions applies.

6. And, while the injustice is not unique, there is, as I mentioned above, Appalachia, a region exploited for generations by coal and other polluting industries, leaving a legacy of birth defects, premature deaths, poisoned rivers, poverty, addiction, etc. Night Comes to the Cumberlands documents the misery of this part of the country. Should the government require all businesses who have ever done business there, or their legatees, to make reparations? If so, to whom? Those who live there now? Those who have moved away?

To do justice to Coates, his strongest concrete recommendation is simply that Congress pass a bill calling for the concerted study of the question, and one can hardly disagree with that (while noting the tendency of some politicians to effectively bury a problem while pledging to "study" it). In any case, should the bill be passed, the questions above are certainly among the ones that I would wish to have studied, and answered.

© Michael Huggins, 2014. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Speculation and revelation

This occurred to me last night as I read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: The virtues of intellectualism are virtues only in the absence of revelation.

Intellectualism is the pursuit of ideas for their own sake, but only in the service of the presupposition that, since the truth is not already known and may, perhaps, never be known by all with final certainty, we must continue to search for it, grope for it, chip away at it, with the continuing desire that more and more it may be revealed, so that we may transmit it and, in the very search, become more adept in that activity that gives humanity its unique dignity--the life of the mind.

But if, on the other hand, the real truth were that a Supernatural Entity stood perfectly ready to reveal Itself to all serious seekers, speculation and conjecture, no matter how well-intended, no matter how subtle or on what firm conceptual foundations, would be superfluous. We would not need to speculate on what was revealed to us already. We might, indeed, seek to refine our understanding of that revelation only in refining our practice of more immediate and efficient submission to the truth revealed, but not only would there be no need to speculate on what the truth "might" be, the very speculative and critical habit of mind would be counter-productive.

If there is really revelation, then our only attitude should be "You, O Supreme One, have spoken; we hear and obey. We ask only that you clear away any obstacles to our understanding that we may obey more quickly and fully."

In other words, the attitude that ought, in the values of the author of Genesis, to have been true of Adam and Eve.

If, on the other hand, there is no true revelation from "above"--or if it is generally acknowledged by any person of sense that such a revelation, even if it existed, would be impossible, either to discern at all, or at least to distinguish from the various fallible impulses of our minds, then the disinterested pursuit, and critical examination, of ideas, must, indeed, be the highest activity of the human mind.

But there is a paradox here. If there were a God, He must have created the human mind, as He must have created everything else, for its highest use (by "highest," I mean "the greatest exercise of its most distinctive qualities")--e.g., speculative, critical thought.

But if there were a God, and He was willing to disclose Himself and His aims clearly to mankind, it must also be true that speculative, critical thought had become superfluous--in respect of the truths revealed, anyway--so that He must be in the position of having created an instrument, the human mind, for which the exercise of its highest faculties was unnecessary--rather like crafting a Stradivarius violin, but only in the expectation that it need be used for nothing more intricate than to perform "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

© Michael Huggins, 2014. All rights reserved.