Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for August 22nd, 2017

My last post provoked some thoughtful and passionate criticism which I have deeply appreciated.

So this postscript is a response to those critics and a clarification.

I maintain that respecting human rights, properly understood, is indispensable for a just and decent society. Human rights implies that no one is authorized to define the circle of those who are entitled to them and who is not. Protecting the rights of those whom we dislike intensely and whose beliefs we abhor also acts as a brake on our usual tendency to put ourselves at the centre of things.

These rights are rarely absolute. In many countries, the right to freedom of speech is curtailed by laws pertaining to slander/libel, the verbal humiliation of vulnerable persons and communities, and incitements to violence. I have supported this in previous Blog posts. And it surely goes without saying that the brandishing of weapons in public by pseudo-militias has nothing to do with human rights and should have been addressed by courts and political leaders a long time ago.

The principal target of my last post was the hypocrisy/one-sidedness of much mainstream-media rhetoric about “equality” and “diversity”.

Last Wednesday, the New York Times carried a tweet from Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the U.S Army: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Really? The army had separate black and white units well into the 1950s, with black units always led by white officers.

White supremacist and far-right groups in the US exist on the social margins and are relatively “soft” targets for the media. But the influence of racism is far more pervasive. A black or Hispanic teen caught with drugs on a street corner in an American city is thrown in jail and carries the stigma of being called a “felon” for the rest of his life- severely restricting his educational and job prospects. No such fate befalls the rich white kid smoking dope in the local college or high school. The entire criminal justice system, with its endemic racism, needs to be overhauled. And what about the hiring practices of elite universities, the non-registration of many black voters, mortgage discrimination, lack of access to healthcare and other sources of social exclusion?

Attempts to write “revisionist” histories of the American Civil War (histories denying that slavery was the principal cause of the war) have been around for a long time. But so have other versions of “revisionist” history. I alluded to Thomas Jefferson in my post to illustrate how selective and distracting are the calls to demolish “racist” memorials. During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861 the Presidents of the United States were Southerners- and all of them slaveholders. The only Presidents to be re-elected were slaveholders. And in 1860, without a single electoral vote from the South, Lincoln won the Presidency on a platform of containing the future expansion of slavery, not abolishing it.

While slavery may have been confined to the South, white racism was visible everywhere in pre-Civil War America- so much so that the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison declared, “The prejudices of the North are stronger than those of the South.” And these continued well beyond the end of the war.

Jefferson himself was a hypocrite. He owned over 600 slaves at one time, despite writing about the equality of humans in the Declaration of Independence. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. He hid his affair with his enslaved house maid by whom he fathered at least six children and shunned all financial responsibility for them. He also advocated the idea of forced repatriation of blacks to Africa, arguing that it was far preferable to the mixing of races in the USA. As for his presidential orders regarding the harsh treatment of native Indian Americans, this too never appears in American popular histories.

And I mentioned Darwin because there is a long history of “scientific racism”, encouraged by Darwin’s The Descent of Man which influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century government policies. This is rarely mentioned in undergraduate history-of-science courses.

As for the majority of the Asian religions, they do not subscribe to belief in the basic equality of human persons. Many in the West forget that this concept was introduced into European thought via the Bible, even though its implementation in politics and social policy was hampered by a complex combination of factors, including widespread illiteracy, clerical betrayal, the co-option of the church by political interests, and lack of technological development.

India and China are still among the most racist societies on earth. In my experience, Indians, Sri Lankans, Chinese and Koreans in the US are more often dismissive, even at times contemptuous, of African-Americans than most whites. Can I say this in “politically correct” circles? Much of this is due to ignorance of American history, but also the worldviews they have imbibed from their families and subcultures. Further, many devout Hindus and Buddhists believe that people born in poverty or with disabilities are simply reaping the outworking of their karma from a previous life.

Are we to outlaw such beliefs? Demand that people who hold them be expelled from universities or sacked from their jobs?

If we did so, the consequences are most likely to be that we turn such people into martyrs for their cause, whether it is religious or political. It nurtures feelings of resentment, even of conspiracy. It is what stokes the flames of violence.

Isn’t it better to meet lies with facts, poor arguments with better arguments, insults with civility, and false narratives with counter-narratives?


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