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Juneteenth/Father's Day Double Wrap
And Bloomsday to boot
The conjunction of Juneteenth and Father’s Day this year got me thinking about slavery apologetics, specifically the various “positive good” arguments that became prominent in the American South from the 1830s onward. These arguments were generally framed in terms of paternalism. Far from being an evil, whether necessary or unnecessary, slavery was a positive good because it put the relationship between worker and owner on a human basis rather than a transactional one. While in a system of free labor workers could be maximally exploited (since they were contracted only for their labor), under slavery the owner had both an interest and an obligation to his slaves that would result in better, more humane treatment. Just as an owner would take better care of his homestead than a renter, a master would take better care of his slaves than an employer of free labor—and, just as one’s home was a kind of extension of oneself, slaves, unlike free laborers, were a kind of extension of one’s family.
I’m not recounting this line of reasoning to justify it, not am I ignoring the importance to the argument of the racist conviction that people of African origin were incapable of living in ordered liberty and thrived only when placed under the authority of superior races. But this racist contention was common before the “positive good” arguments gained currency. Defenders of slavery as a necessary evil, and even many who saw it as a moral horror that needed to be extirpated, generally also saw Africans as inherently inferior, and White dominion as natural, but they nonetheless understood slavery to be a form of violence that was only sustained by further violence. The “positive good” apologists effectively denied this, and the analogy of the master to a kind of father, with the slaves his children, was essential to this denial.
What I wondered, about people who claimed to believe this, is not what they thought of African people (that’s obvious), but what they thought of fatherhood.
I know fathers haven’t always thought this way, still don’t always think this way, but I don’t know how to understand fatherhood, or parenthood more generally, except in terms of nurturance, of willing the good of another. If I think of my son as fundamentally just a way of projecting myself into space and time, of continuing to propagate my name and my personality, I’m doing him a disservice, keeping him from becoming himself. To be a good father, I have to take on faith that they will come in due course if I do my actual job well, which is to create an environment where my son will be able to become his own self, not merely an extension of me.
That doesn’t mean that to be a good father I have to affirm whatever he believes or give him whatever he wants. It doesn't even mean that, to be a good father, I have to manifest classically maternal virtues. One could perfectly well believe that one’s child needs discipline, toughness, law. That they need to be kept on the straight and narrow, and that sparing the rod will only spoil them. One could believe that the fate of their immortal soul depends on accepting a particular religion, or that their ability to survive financially depends on their abandoning their dreams. I’m not saying that authoritarian fathers or controlling fathers can’t be genuinely trying to will the good of their children, even if I, personally, wouldn’t parent the way they do, and might suspect that their approach could well backfire. All I’m saying is that to be a father, is, fundamentally, to be focused on the child’s good, whatever you might think is the best way to achieve that good.
Is it possible to imagine any master thinking of slaves in that fashion? Thinking, not merely, “these poor dumb brutes are lucky to have me to take care of them rather than having to fend for themselves” but “in the final analysis, I am here for them; they are not here for me?” To ask the question is to answer it. Even if you buy into the racist notion of some kind of inherent inferiority, the analogy still fails. Suppose you had a child who had serious cognitive or behavioral disabilities. You might well say: this child needs more supervision. You wouldn’t say: this child should be enslaved. Most especially, even if you had trouble managing their misbehavior, you wouldn’t sell them down the river. How, then, was this defense of slavery ever persuasive?
Mind you, I’m perfectly ready to buy that to some extent they were never truly believed, and, even more so, that to the extent they were believed it was largely motivated reasoning, a matter of needing to believe something that could justify what you were going to do anyway. But for them to have been at all persuasive, even on the basis of motivated reasoning, the people who believed it must have held to a very different conception of fatherhood than I do, or than most people I know do. And this defense of slavery must have reinforced that conception, reinforced the notion not only of a master as a father, but equally or more so the notion of a father as a master.
I think that’s worth noting. And it’s what I mused about on Sunday.
One Hundred Years of Solipsism?
This past week not only saw the conjunction of Father’s Day and Juneteenth but also Bloomsday, the literary holiday celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place on June 16th, 1904. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the book, but I haven’t noticed all that much fuss being made (though there is an exhibit at the Morgan Library I want to check out). Joyceana has to some extent gone out, I think, in part because his book asks to be celebrated in a way that we don’t so commonly celebrate texts anymore. It was an attempt, in a sense, to create a secular scripture, with Bloomsday as its secular festival, and that’s a more quixotic ambition at a time when the kind of literacy Joyce presumed upon is in sharp decline with the idea of communal ritual in decline along with it.
Joyce is sometimes knocked for being a kind of solipsist, creating a private language that he expected other people to learn so as to understand him, and I understand that criticism but I don’t agree with it at all. Yes, Ulysses is deliberately obscure in a host of ways, and Joyce clearly enjoyed the idea that scholars would have to busy themselves for generations just trying to figure out precisely what he was up to here or here. Parts of it are nearly unreadable (and the best thing to do, if you are reading the book and come to those parts, is just to keep reading). But it is also an emphatically peopled book, and diversely so in the sense that, reading it, you believe you are encountering other minds. That’s not how a true solipsist does it.
Or, if it is, then it is solipsism at a much higher level than I dare criticize, the solipsism of creation as such. After all, we are all solipsists in the sense that we can’t get out from inside our skulls. There’s a famous bit from the Scylla and Charybdis chapter of Ulysses that I love to quote which addresses this directly, by way both of the relationship between Shakespeare’s life and his art and by way of the relationship between fathers and sons. (This is part of Stephen Daedalus’s disquisition in the library on the true meaning of Hamlet.) Here’s the bit:
He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible. Maeterlinck says: If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves. The playwright who wrote the folio of this world and wrote it badly (He gave us light first and the sun two days later), the lord of things as they are whom the most Roman of catholics call dio boia, hangman god, is doubtless all in all in all of us, ostler and butcher, and would be bawd and cuckold too but that in the economy of heaven, foretold by Hamlet, there are no more marriages, glorified man, an androgynous angel, being a wife unto himself.
Always meeting ourselves—and yet also meeting robbers, ghosts and giants, wives, widows and brothers-in-love. We have them in us because they are out there, and they are out there because we have them in us. I’m not going to try to unpack the whole bit—there’s too much—but the suggestion that this is somehow true for God as well, despite His divine solipsism in lacking a consort, makes this not only about being a writer, a creator of worlds out of oneself that also mean creating a self out of the world, but about being a father in the grandest most mythical sense.
I’ve written about this before, also with reference to Joyce (in the hundredth anniversary year of Leopold Bloom’s wanderings across Dublin, as it happens), but I don’t think I’m through with it yet.
It’s been an unusually long time since my last wrap, for which I apologize, and only three pieces to be wrapped:
My thoughts on Chesa Boudin’s defeat in the recall election in San Francisco, why he might have lost when another progressive prosecutor, Larry Krasner, triumphed in Philadelphia, and whether there are lessons in both for advocates of criminal justice reform.
Apropos of the alarming assassination attempt against Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh, I asked whether we ought to revisit structural reform of the Court to reduce the risk that a successful assassin could change history.
In response to the very silly Blake Lemoine “the chatbot is alive!” story, I discussed why the Turing test isn’t useful for identifying whether a machine that was built to seem sentient actually is.
The World Elsewhere
Nothing new of mine out there—pieces are coming down the pike but nothing has come out—but I wanted to highlight my old editor at The Week Bonnie Kristian’s first piece in The New York Times titled “Are We Sure America Is Not at War in Ukraine?” It’s a very good question to be asking, and I think if anything she understates her own case.
She’s completely correct that if Russia or China armed our enemies in Iraq or Afghanistan as we are doing to Russia in Ukraine, we might well think it amounted to entering those wars against us—but we might still have hesitated to declare that fact lest it oblige us to escalate to a superpower conflict. But if Russia or China had publicly committed to an American defeat in Iraq or Afghanistan to the degree that the United States has committed to a Ukrainian victory against the Russian invaders, that would have raised the stakes considerably all on its own.
The United States is far more exposed from the perspective of war aims in Ukraine than we were in say, Yemen, where we also committed support to the Saudi war effort. That puts us in a significantly more complicated position should this turn into a longer war of attrition, as was always fairly likely and looks increasingly like what will happen.