Evasive Passive: Grand Prize

Here at the Nitpicker Grammarians and Style Sheet Hardliners (Amalgamated) Union, we had been thinking of “Mistakes were made” as the classic expression of the type, but that traditional favorite now has to move over for the cognitive-epistemic variety enunciated recently by Marjorie Taylor Greene: “I was allowed to believe lies.” Allowed by whom? — not by yourself, surely, for that would be admitting agency and responsibility… But hold on: aren’t you the gatekeeper of your own brain? (In whatever sense a “you” exists.) Or did the Rothschild lasers get in there and start fooling with your neurons? The progress of human discourse toward its final state of grayish slush has taken a great step. Or should I say, a great step has been taken?


School of the Ages

Dreamt last night that I received a package from my erstwhile neighbor Jeannie Bloom. In it were hundreds of sheets of foolscap covered with intricate sketches in fine-point black ink: characters from Shakespeare, the Bible, Dostoevsky, and so forth, linked in an unending procession of conversation. They were beautifully free and loose in their execution, characters individuated by gesture though not by face. I somehow understood that these were to have been a fresco painted on miles of wall, Harold’s unfinished life work. Rest well, Harold.


Cognitive racism

The other day I was asked to review a manuscript that cited (as an authority) Hajime Nakamura’s Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples–a book I hadn’t thought about for forty years or so. From it you learn that Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Tibetans, etc., can’t think logically or metaphysically the way Europeans can. Already as a curious twenty-year-old, I recoiled from it as from a bad smell.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been called Ways of Speaking of Eastern Peoples.

“You’re not a fish, so how do you know how the fish feel?”

“You’re not me, so how do you know I’m not a fish?”


Die Strahlen der Sonne

… vertreiben die Nacht. Everyone who’s read Freud knows how precarious “Vertreibung” is. But here we are, at last.

You’ll have to supply the green helicopter and Javanka from your imagination. The potbellied liar and the Ice Queen are provided, though.



My favorite hangout in Paris and an observation about politics that Jean-Pierre Faye made long ago have the same name: “horseshoe.”

I haven’t taken surveys but I’m not convinced the seating of clients in this hemicycle reflects any particular ideological landscape.

But I would add in supplement to Faye’s observation that an appetite for violent overthrow may be the main thing that unites the supposedly opposite ends of the horseshoe.


For everything there is a season

The failed lynching (that’s what we should call it, by the way, not a “protest,” a “riot” or even a “coup”) at the Capitol the other day brought out a lot of soul-searching among my media-posting friends. One friend’s hot take began:

This country was founded on violence. It rules through violence. It projects its influence abroad through violence. How can we be shocked when a faction of the country turns violent if it doesn’t get its way? 

The main difference between this violence and the violence of the past months is who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at. 

I can’t in good conscience say this is wholly wrong, but it is certainly unseasonable. I happen to know this person well enough to be able to frame his remarks as a general expression of despair about the state of things in this country, an intended reckoning for our many collective crimes, starting with chattel slavery and its endless echoes. But let’s hold back from slapping an intentional frame around the words, and imagine them spoken by someone else– say the cosplayer in the buffalo suit, or a PR flack on Fox News. “This country was founded on violence” — so what are you complaining about? Wasn’t the Boston Tea Party a case of breaking and entering and property destruction carried out by costumed thugs? If this country is founded on violence, and its fundamentally vicious system can’t be repaired, then why make these “fine people” carry the blame for a momentary expression of these structural conditions? — And so on. The overarching claim nullifies the particular scandal that is this event.

Rhetorically, this is a big misstep. If you want the failed lynching to serve as an occasion for sermonizing the public, you need to frame it as a specific instance of horror, unprecedented since the institution of universal suffrage and civil-rights guarantees, that must not be repeated. You can’t say it’s business as usual. Otherwise we are stuck with the writer’s halfway conclusion, that the only noteworthy thing about this chaos is “who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at.”

No. Once you begin to personalize the event, we’re stuck with a bad set of alternatives. So breaking into a public building with the intent to kill people and take hostages is okay if it’s done by people of whom I generally approve, against people of whom I generally disapprove? If there is to be a law, it has to be articulated impersonally. Whoever does X, commits a crime. Did they do X? Okay then, they committed a crime, and from that point of view it doesn’t matter in the name of what they did it. There may be extenuating circumstances, but let’s have them, too, articulated in an objective and impersonal fashion, rather than as a personal exemption for supporters of favored causes.

“Violence” is such a broad term that it is useless for thinking with. Broken windows on Michigan Avenue, a fistfight in a hallway, a cop beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, an improvised gallows set up on the National Mall, these are all arguably instances of violence, but they ought each to be investigated, deplored, punished and thought about in specific ways. And don’t get me started on the structural violence of deprivation, fear, ignorance, disease, inequality and shortened lives, which is violence too but is too often accepted as the way of the world.

So we need to separate out the particular factors that make this the scandal that it is, and not endorse any narrative that makes it business as usual (or, worse, a pattern for future events). And push hard, with the law, on the people who did it and the ones who egged them on.

About law, by the way, I see the “main difference” between the January 6 lynch mob and the BLM protesters across the country as bearing on the law. The BLM folks were demanding that law be obeyed. It should be uncontroversial to any observer that the laws of the land carry more authority than the momentary impulse of any scared policeman with a gun. Whereas the January 6 thugs were rebelling against the law, against a huge body of settled law that preserves us from, precisely, the state of lawlessness. If you want a contrast, that’s where to find it.

My friend’s reflection continued.

My sympathies were with the BLM protesters and are against today’s yahoos, but both have to be considered illegitimate (non-state-sanctioned) violence. 

Oh, wait, today’s violence was incited by our current president! The duly elected leader of our cult of violence.

How are we supposed to process this?

Friend, let’s pause and repair this helicopter in mid-air. You really shouldn’t follow the previous point and make the difference between the two gangs a matter of your “sympathies,” as if it rested on taste or preference, Coke or Pepsi, Pat Boone or Sid Vicious. That just makes any attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice a hollow farce, because, as you’re admitting, it’s all the same and it’s just a Humpty-Dumpty matter of who’s sitting in the judgment seat. Don’t give up so fast, I say.

Then the closing remarks, which may be meant ironically (poor choice of rhetorical figure in a time of crisis; irony is meant to create doubt, whereas what’s required here is a shot of good old unanimous certainty), shore up the legitimacy of Trump’s summons to violence, first by calling him “duly elected” and then by dissolving his particularity in the everlasting national wave of violence. A reminder: he may have been elected by a majority of Electoral College votes in 2016 (we’ll take complaints about the College another time), and his predecessor quite honorably accepted the outcome (though he, and I, and millions of other Americans weren’t happy about it), but in early 2021 he was the outgoing, defeated president, legally required to honor the will of the people and nonetheless attempting to overwhelm Congress with chaos, suspend the law, and reinstall himself as president-for-life. Nothing about that is qualifiable with the adverb “duly.”

“How are we supposed to process this?” I’ve given some hints above. The world is full of wicked people, friend. Most people will do whatever you let them get away with. Thomas Hobbes thought tyranny was better than chaos. But there are better alternatives. Imperfect though it is, a clearly stated system of laws, provision for trials based on evidence and judged by people held to a standard of impartiality, a democratic right to peaceable expression through balloting and other means, and a reasonable expectation that criminals will be brought to justice, all this is what we have, for the moment, in this country, and it’s really not something you want to throw away, even for the space of an emotional utterance to your social-media circle. We came close to having all that taken away on January 6. Who knows what would have happened if the most determined and expert members of the mob had succeeded in, say, hanging Mike Pence, shooting Nancy Pelosi, taking other Congresspeople hostage, and doing further things they declared their intent to do? Let me tell you how we are supposed to process this: as an invasion of our democracy by enemy powers who must be captured (technically: arrested) and put away (observing their right to a fair and speedy trial, etc.). Not so hard after all when you put aside the crude alternatives of “America good / America bad.”

The above-mentioned liberties are, I know, more theoretical than practical at present. But the only way forward is to defend them rigorously and make them practical for everybody. Don’t give up on a good principle just because it was poorly executed. If you had only my piano playing to go on, you would think J. S. Bach was the worst composer who ever lived. But he wasn’t.


Figure You’re in the Mood?

All animals having the rational faculty are encouraged to get russelling and shine their fregean shoes, no contradictories to the contrary, and peano attention to the ~sayers. Loosen your gödel, break out the Leibniz-Keks for World Logic Day! Special appearances by Barbara Felapton and the Holy Modal Predicators! It’s two weeks into the future, like certain sea battles I could name, and iff you are not petrified by the thought (n.b. nullus homo est lapis, id est, omnis homo est non-lapis), come celebrate on January 14.


Blog Lag

I haven’t been writing much on this blog for quite some time. I’m sorry about that. Here are some of the reasons.

Printculture began as a kind of conversation among five or six people. Some knew each other, some didn’t. Eric, I think, was the one friend common to us all. Our postings, in the form of little essays and reflections, were offered the way people contribute to a conversation: sharing a piece of knowledge, riffing on something someone had said, making a joke. At the back of it all was a feeling that conversation was intrinsically rewarding and that this conversation in particular was rewarding enough to hang it up for the public to see.

I still live for conversation but I’m increasingly disappointed in it. The people I know often seem deaf to one another. Their curiosity about the world has yielded to confirmation bias. They deliver identity monologues, infotainment, talking points, questions with an already known answer. Even the people I like and agree with are melting into their mission statements. All this is perfectly adapted to social media, where we are perpetually curating our personal brands. If those are the terms, I lack the desire to participate.

Reading the news, as I’ve been doing forty times a day for the last few years (the nervous pulling of phone from pocket having replaced the newspaper at the breakfast table), doesn’t make it seem that rational persuasion has much of a future, or that such persuasion as I have to offer has much of an audience.

I like solving intellectual puzzles. How to better understand history and nature? How to confront the unexpected? How to make it possible for more people to live long, free, and perhaps happy lives? I don’t like comic books, beauty pageants, name-calling, blame, or trolling. The interests that make those things vital to the cultural life of this moment in my country leave me cold. Thus there is less and less to say to people in general. (I am always up for a chat about Tangut script or the authenticity of poems ascribed to Su Dongpo.)

But I continue to renew hosting agreements and SSL certificates in the hope that something will bring me back.

(The above was written after an eight-month break from social media. Try it yourself: when you log on again the quality of communication, in contrast with the most banal words exchanged on the street or at the cash register, will jar you.)



Elections: the dog who wouldn’t go! Coda: what do we do with millions on millions of brainwashed people who are likely going to be told to subvert the government? Biden says they’re “good people who want answers.” That’s like saying that the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf were good people who only wanted theological certainty. God had plans for them.


Mightier than the smallest child

For months, I’ve been seeing ads for the Mightier unpleasant-parental-experience-killer. And that’s just how it’s marketed: it allegedly reduces children’s symptoms of negative and angry emotions that would disturb parents. (1) What if these emotions and outbursts are completely justified, and the kids are being trained to suppress themselves? (2) What happens when kids compare notes and figure all this out — that it’s an attempt to control them using biofeedback technology?

I should add that there is something completely stupid about parents buying magic boxes that are going to enable them to control their children. Those kids are going to figure out how the boxes work and route around them. The last such brilliant idea was called Circle, which paid startup cash for an endorsement from Disney. Circle was supposed to monitor and parcel out children’s Internet use no matter what device they connected from. It even had a battery in case kids tried to pull the cord out of the wall. Fortunately for kids, the website told exactly how it worked — a hacker trick where the box-in-the-middle pretends to be the way out to the Internet. This hacker trick (ARP cache poisoning) was such a scourge years ago that there are thousands of web pages telling exactly how to defeat it. Now the kids can monitor their parents’ Internet use through the admin app, which will lead to some interesting conversations around the dinner table. “Mommy, how can you say we don’t have enough money to get me a new iPad when you spent $2,600 this month on a purse from 1stdibs.com?” “Dad, I hope you’re enjoying those educational videos of Balinese dancers on XXXoticdancrs.com. Is ‘Wendy Whoppers’ a Balinese name?” That white Circle box will be out with the e-waste in the morning.



I have been reading a surprisingly good book by Sam Rosenfeld, The Polarizers. A phrase from it explains precisely how Biden won the nomination: “non-ideological patronage organizations.” In short, these are organizations that can deliver bloc votes, originally ethnic, now religious, or civil society. The DNC cultivated churches and neighborhood organizations for decades, gracing them with $1,000 there, $5,000 here. Then it was time to call in the chips, and these areas all miraculously turned out for Biden. There was no air left in the room for Sanders, Warren, or anyone else. It was retail politics at its rock-bottom — no adroit trickery — and it worked. Now we’ve got someone two answers away from Trump on the cognitive function test, and we’re going to have to work that much harder to dig ourselves out.


So call me hysterical

I’m one of those so-called “real Americans” (family here since the late 1600s, etc.). (I take strong objection to the term “real” in this context, but let that alone for now.) But by marriage, friendship, and profession I am tightly linked to a lot of survivors of authoritarianism, and I’m inclined to believe this open letter over the “oh come on, it will blow over” school of clueless optimists to which I, by habit and inclination, would otherwise belong.


D’var Torah

For the past couple of months, I have been praying with a minyan. A minyan is a quorum of at least ten Jewish men and women who get together every weekday to pray one or more of the day’s three services. Having at least ten means that certain prayers can be recited, most notably the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. In a way, we’re all doing this for the mourners, who need the minyan to fulfill the commandment; they now have help. But the minyan helps me, too. I have family and friends who are sick, and there are prayers I can recite to their benefit. I have seven on my list, from my brother, who is working hard to recover from a serious stroke, to a little, smiling, energetic girl — think Shirley Temple — who has a line sticking out of her dress that will accept 15 months of chemo.

The weekday afternoon and evening services are all business; the first one starts at 6 and ends at 6:15; the second one goes from then until 6:30. Only the basics, recited at a speed that would cause the Federal Express Guy to break a sweat. In between, someone will give a D’var Torah, a little observation on the weekly Torah portion, this one known by its first words as Ki Tetzei. I tried for the first time on Thursday night, and here is what I came up with:

Hi, Minyan!

Today I read the late Rabbi Steinsaltz’s essay on Ki Tetzei. As usual, it was far more erudite and eloquent than I could ever hope to be. But it raised an interesting point. Rabbi Steinsaltz notes Ki Tetzei consists of a bunch of mitzvot that are in no particular order, from scaring off a mother bird so you can take its chicks, to stoning your disobedient son. The first shows tenderness; the latter shows mercilessness. Rabbi Steinsaltz describes how he tried several hermeneutic strategies, all of which are found in the Talmud, to figure out the order of the mitzvot in Ki Tetzei. None of them worked, including examining the context of individual words next to other and the context of individual mitzvot alongside another. These methods ordinarily are very productive, but not here. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s conclusion is that “the Torah that can be understood is not the real Torah.”

But then the question is, “What happens if you inject this kind of doubt into the system?” How do we know what is the real Torah, what is an allegory, and what is simply incomprehensible? If we can understand it, how can it be the real Torah? “Lo tirtzach” [Thou shalt not kill], comprehensible or incomprehensible? That’s pretty heady. Let’s go back to the literal level. Ki Tetzei, to me, is as about as comprehensible as Torah can get. It is an instruction manual for a hyper-patriarchal desert society, and as all of us know, instruction manuals are not always in the best order. Moshe, in addition to being our teacher, also had to be a technical writer. He had to get information from his Subject Matter Expert, HaShem, and turn it into something that the Israelites could use. He had a serious deadline – the day of his death. And so he did the best he could, completing the chapters that he could, as clearly as he could. What Rabbi Steinsaltz sees as a serious epistemological gap might be just a production problem, and you never blame the Subject Matter Expert for a production problem.

The product shipped, and by now, there are now 100,000 minutely inscribed copies in the world, all of them containing the original version of Ki Tetzei. Hashem says in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 4:2, “You shall not add to that which I command you and you shall not subtract from it, to keep the commandments of the Lord your God…” No revision is possible, and Moshe knew it. But by the time of the Olam Ha’Ba [the post-messianic age], we will in no sense be the society Devarim assumed, and its literal instructions will be as useful to us as the manual for an Atari 2600. All its literality will pass into allegory and its allegory into anagogy. What is “Thou shalt not kill” when there is no longer the idea of killing? So, Rabbi Steinsaltz is right after all. Allegory as a starting place and anagogy as a stopping place are not today accessible to even our most profound mystics.  Yet they will be the context in which Ki Tetzei will be understood.


Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.

A month ago, with the additional deaths from coronavirus well over 100,000, our resident narcissist had to talk about national priorities.

“So showerheads — you take a shower, the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. So what do you do? You just stand there longer or you take a shower longer? Because my hair — I don’t know about you, but it has to be perfect. Perfect,” Trump said from the White House grounds in July.

Never forget it.


Dominating the Dominators

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about a book comparing the caste system of India (thought dead, surprisingly resilient) with the color line in America (idem). The reviewer at one point mentions some suggestions for the future that unexpectedly brought out my latent inner cynic.

Although Wilkerson considers herself more a diagnostician than a clinician, she advances, toward the end of the book, two ideas for toppling the American caste system. She’d like to see a public accounting of the American past modelled on postwar Germany, which paid restitution to Holocaust survivors, made displaying the swastika a crime, and erected memorials to victims. But her greater faith lies in what she calls “radical empathy.” She has described her work as a moral “mission”: “to change the country, the world, one heart at a time.” And she concludes her book by celebrating individuals like Albert Einstein, who came to the U.S. shortly before the Nazis took power, empathized with Blacks facing discrimination, and began advocating for their rights. 

Good. We could all use more Einsteins (not just geniuses, but people hungering for justice). But what were the conditions of Germany’s astonishing change of heart? A mass movement of reflection, perhaps, carried out by the Germans in autonomous fashion (maybe after reading the collected works of the Frankfurt School)? No. The citizens of both Germanys were forced to turn their backs on a newly shameful past, make amends, tear down monuments, rewrite their schoolbooks, and rehabilitate victims, only because they had been defeated in a war and were occupied by the former enemy powers. And Einstein was able to play the role he did because he had a mighty foreign country to flee to. (We should all be so lucky.)

That’s a pretty important difference for those seeking lessons from history for our present condition. No nation, I would venture, gives up on its homicidal BS out of the goodness of its own heart. The United States is still a superpower, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Nobody can boss it around, though anybody can bribe it. At most, our present antagonists (the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans, and Nadiristanians) will keep us in place, debilitated by our inner conflicts, but not waste their time defeating and occupying us; and even if they did, it wouldn’t be in order to proclaim a new moral order, because our being perpetually on the brink of civil war serves them quite well.

So the only hope of dominating the dominators comes from the majority that I hope exists and can be maintained. I wouldn’t be an American if I weren’t unrealistically optimistic. Let us achieve the conversion on our own. The implications are two: one is that the means are going to have to be a bit heavier this time (we can’t afford a repetition of Obama’s mistake of not prosecuting the authors of the Iraq war) and the other is that the people of good will can’t let the wicked divide them.

Time to go back to 1945, create the United Nations anew, and this time not let the Cold War and its provincial power struggles distract us from the task of ensuring the common good of all inhabitants of this earth.

Okay, I’ve said my piece. Now go ahead and whack me for being insufficiently radical by the standards of whatever book you like to wave in processions.


Translated from Édouard Glissant

From: Edouard Glissant, Faulkner, Mississippi (Paris: Stock, 1996); translation and annotation by HS

At the time when Faulkner began to write, autobiographies of former slaves who had escaped from their condition and won, through education, the right to judge the system and those who had benefited from it, began to appear.[1]

Associations formed in the early twentieth century had sought out and recorded the memories of the last ex-slaves still alive. In the 1930s and 40s appeared Native Son [1940] and Black Boy [1945], two works by Richard Wright which depicted the true condition of the blacks. Naturally, nowhere in these texts is there to be found the slightest communion or solidarity, even hidden or disguised, between former slaves and former masters, despite the recognized fact that many house slaves (but never field slaves) followed their masters and helped them during the Civil War. Richard Wright’s refusal is total. There is no ascesis or sublimation, and not the first sign of forgiveness.

Faulkner must have read these works. It does not appear that he was disturbed or influenced by them. He may have agreed that the call to rebellion by black people was self-evident, but decided at the same time that it was not for him to take it up. And to consider everything, we know his contradictory opinions on the subject, including his declaration in favor of the integration of the schools or in favor of inscribing the names of black soldiers (though on a “distinct” list) on the monuments to the dead of World Wars I and II, which won him an uncomfortable standing in the town of Oxford toward the end of his life.

Faulkner is no civil-rights advocate or social reformer… He is not blind toward the inequities of the South, even if he is unwilling to let an outsider point them out. In this he is characteristically American: while the citizens of the USA can be ferocious in the critical analysis of their own society, a feature that is not found among all peoples, these very same lucid analysts are unable, or at least not very willing, to hear a foreigner expound their misdeeds. 

Faulkner cannot break away from his caste or from his country, the South. He says of Albert Camus: “We shared the same anguish.” What anguish was that? Certainly not the angst that haunts an existentialist thinker, but the anguish of having a vision of justice and yet being unable to speak it out (even at the price of separating justice from truth) since to do so would be to take sides against your own people.

There is another reason for Faulkner’s “suspending judgment” about the South. He needs the ambiguity of unveiling as a spring for the tragedy that he is developing. A certified declaration of the “badness” of the South would have interrupted once and for all the process of unveiling that takes place in his work. It is in and through the mysterious (or at any rate unspoken) articulation of gradual unveiling that the possible first crime reveals itself as damnation, that sin inaugurates tragedy….

For these reasons Faulkner treats his black characters without pity, describing them, as he does with all the people he puts into his work, brutally, with no stylistic understatement, sometimes in a very stereotypical way, with the respect that he thinks they deserve, that is, with merciless impartiality. 

Stereotypes… It is true that here and again Faulkner says (or has one of his characters say) that a white person will never understand the Negro. One never hears the symmetrical opposite… that “Negroes will never be able to understand the whites.” As if only the whites were possessed with the need to understand. “Negroes,” then, whatever you make of it. Stereotypical profiles, and invisible because they sink into a mass. Was this a case of respecting the opacity of the other, or the seed of a system of apartheid? A free depth of identity or a careless lack of interest? It depends on who in the work is talking.

            (pp. 90-93)

[1] Glissant’s chronology is radically foreshortened. A fuller account would include consideration of, e.g.: Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901), W E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Anyone who read English could learn about the experiences and feelings of enslaved people. The WPA slave narrative project began in 1936.


Repost from 2008. “Another Yelp for Liberty”

It’s a repost, but ya know what? Things haven’t changed. They’ve only regressed. So here’s my Fourth of July offering.

Another Yelp for Liberty

Category: Politics

2008-07-01 20:10:09

Haun Saussy

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”[1] Thus, in 1775, before the founding of the Republic and even before its unilateral declaration of independence, Dr. Samuel Johnson pinched a nerve of American identity—perhaps the nerve of American identity. It is certainly my nerve. 

That nerve has been painfully twisted in me for the last several years, not least by the revelations of systematic, planned torture and degradation in the prisons of Iraq, performed by the army that entered that country in order to “liberate” it. It is hard to look at those pictures, to read the reports, and imagine Iraqis taking seriously our claims to be bringers of freedom. The pictures, the policy they make visible and the cover-up intended to keep them from becoming public knowledge paint us as hypocrites, people who preach large and glorious principles but do selfish and brutal things. Dr. Johnson put his finger on the eternally sensitive question of whether we are who we claim to be. 

What does liberty have to do with the United States in middle 2008? Other values are associated with the United States, to be sure, by Americans and by others. It is the home of military power, of great wealth, of opportunity, of “freedom of choice” (as interpreted for consumerist purposes), of technological progress, of unregulated markets, of expanding frontiers. I don’t think any of these define the United States as having a moral mission; while good things in themselves, perhaps, they are defective as ethical ends. They are interests rather than principles. Which of them would come first, if we had to choose? Now that we are being maintained in a constant state of emergency through threats of terrorist action, amplified by government and media reminders, I think we have to consider the choices we do make, and resist the wrong ones. 

Ever since the morning of September eleventh, 2001, one version of that choice has been circulated and found persuasive by many of my countrymen. I was listening to the radio at around 8:00 on that shocking day (11:00 New York time), and already, as the towers were coming down, you could hear a government expert telling the public that some of the freedoms we had come to take for granted would have to be restricted in the interests of security. Exactly what freedoms this meant was not clear, but I suspected (correctly, as it proved) that the basic civil rights of habeas corpus, due process, the freedom from search without warrant, and protection against self-incrimination would be taken as applying selectively to different groups in the population. Americans in general were extraordinarily restrained in the expression of their anger and horror: a few people who “looked Middle Eastern” (often Sikhs, with their prominent turbans) were beaten or killed in the streets, and though any such violence is scandalous and inexcusable among a civilized and pluralistic people, the restraint of citizens contrasts strongly with the activism of government, which has expanded its powers of investigation and detention well beyond the limits fixed by the Bill of Rights, using the threat of terrorism as a mugger uses a gun to persuade Americans that the erosion of their constitutional freedoms does not matter. While trade-offs between security and freedom were much talked about, freedom was not the only value being put on the block. Prominent center-liberal magazines such as the Atlantic ran articles proposing scenarios in which torture could be justified.[2] The situations scrupulously constructed by ethicists (a ticking time bomb, lives of many civilians at risk, one terrorist captive whose refusal to speak holds up the investigation) may have made literate Americans think twice about their rejection of torture as an information-gathering method, but as we have seen, once taken to the field of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantí¡namo Bay, the license to make free with the bodies and minds of prisoners, even in the absence of any identifiable intelligence motive, has been interpreted quite broadly. At the same time, the idea of “empire” has been made to sound respectable, with Iraq a test case for an empire of freedom under American tutelage.[3] The contradiction between subjugating people and setting them free is a little too bald for dialectical mediation; in any case, when we say “empire” we are not just talking about taking charge of a chaotic situation in order to create conditions for freedom. Empire means ruling others as subject peoples, not citizens, and doing it in a durable fashion. It means becoming “drivers of negroes.” Does anyone remember “the free world” that we were supposed to be leading? Just as in the case of torture and civil rights, an important piece of the American identity has become negotiable, an option, a mere interest to be downgraded when other interests are paramount. Let us hope the aberration will soon be over. 

For many years, critiques of “the West” have centered on its “universalism”—the unearned privilege Western speakers claim for their own ideals, which they treat as intrinsically superior to the ideals of other peoples. But in the case I am talking about, it is rather the failure of universalism that causes problems. As Confucius put it so long ago, “what you yourself do not want, you must not push upon others”; or as John Rawls put it, “justice as fairness” begins when the members of society “contract into” the laws governing not others, but themselves.[4] A law made by an authority that is not subject to the law does not pass this common-sense test of fairness. Similarly, hypocrisy invalidates ethical claims because it presents as universal a rule that the hypocrite does not apply to himself. So, for example, the American government claims to represent and support “the rule of law,” even international law, while excepting itself and particularly its soldiers from the International Criminal Court. What is in evidence here is not universalism, but fake universalism exploited for the advantage of a few. The difference is worth marking.

Post-September 11, the verdict of hypocrisy can be moderated in at least one respect: if Americans have given up their own civil rights and protections so willingly, their consent to the non-observation of these rights and protections in the case of others can be construed as fair dealing, submission to the same law to govern self and other. But in fact the abandonment of civil rights has not occurred publicly, would be a scandal if applied across the board, and so does not pass the ethical test of fairness. Arrest a “normal” American (white, Christian, prosperous, law-abiding, etc.) at random, hold him without trial for a year or two, and see if he’ll claim to be protected by the Constitution: I think this experiment has a foregone conclusion. But most such “normal” Americans have yet to learn that the laws passed in the wake of September 11 put few limits on the executive branch’s privilege to suspend civil rights, and that this applies to them. “That sort of thing won’t happen to me”: this certainty is where the rot sets in, for it divides the ethical community into rulers and ruled. Freedom without equality is privilege. “Liberty” then becomes a hollow word ready for cynical exploitation: some people have it, and think they can keep it even while denying it to others. In practice, then, there is still a hypocritical mismatch between the law we endorse and the law we endure. Nor do I expect this gap to shrink. Either the standard will continue to dip, as justice is progressively replaced by brute force, or Americans will remember what the Bill of Rights was all about and demand their old protections back. Maybe, if we are not to be “drivers of negroes,” we will demand these rights for all citizens, even all people. 

“The loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes”—though Dr. Johnson’s formulation of the American flaw was no doubt meant as a soundbite, an accusation of absurdity for instant, indignant consumption, it invites a more patient interpretation. Like many of my ancestors, the Continental Congress proclaimed liberty for themselves but did not bestow it on those they controlled; they rejected empire above them but saw no objection to setting up an empire of their own, with power given to a dominant people over a subservient people. Dr. Johnson’s critique amounts to saying: although they yelp for liberty, they are nonetheless drivers of negroes. They demand something for themselves that they deny to others. They were inconsistent; they had no true principles, only a self-interested charade of high-sounding words. Suppose, per absurdum, that the rebels spoke sincerely: “It has been proposed, that the slaves should be set free, an act, which, surely, the lovers of liberty cannot but commend. If they are furnished with firearms for defence, and utensils for husbandry, and settled in some simple form of government within the country, they may be more grateful and honest than their masters.” 

But what if Dr. Johnson was wrong in assuming that a true principle, a universally binding maxim, was at stake? What if the American rebels of 1775, far from proclaiming an intrinsic human right to liberty and self-government (Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration was a year in the future), were pushing a more factual claim, to the effect that their domination over others conferred on them a lordly status incompatible with servitude to the British Crown, or any other external power? In that case, the situation would need to be revised to read: because they have become drivers of negroes, they yelp for liberty. My freedom is not an abstract principle or a rule to be demonstrated in universal practice, but a victory I gain through struggle with another, who must lose if I am to win. This Hegelian-sounding account yields a darker reading of American history, to be sure, in which Southern history gives the truth of which progressive, Unionist history only offers a mythicized variant. Liberty is a zero-sum game in this interpretation. There is only so much liberty to go around, and those who can possess it, do, if possible without ceding any particle of it to outsiders (the British) or inferiors (the slaves). This reading makes the early Americans out to be non-hypocritical, but devoid of any other moral grandeur or persuasiveness. 

The Hegelian reading is buttressed by the awkward use, in American rebel documents, of the imagery of slavery. The colonist, forced to pay taxes to the Crown but deprived of representation in Parliament, represents himself as a slave in order to justify rebellion against that enslaved status. But the metaphorical representation is doubled by actual slaves (on whom colonists had paid taxes!) whose rebellion is not here justified or even envisioned. The rub between the two contexts of “slavery” leads to a Johnsonian sense of the hypocrisy of the colonists’ self-description (if they were really slaves, what status would their slaves hold? If one set of slaves is to be liberated, what of the other set?). The metaphor is denounced as false and empty by its literal meaning. Once you look at the actual slaves, you no longer believe in the metaphorical enslavement. But the same rub, read differently, would also show the emergence of an idea of freedom in the fact of the enslavement of the other: in so far as my slave is not free, I know what it is to be free; insofar as my slave provides a factual basis for my knowledge of unfreedom, I have the imaginative freedom to declare, through metaphor, that I am what I am not: namely, an unwilling slave of the Crown. 

The American understanding of sovereignty, likewise, saws back and forth between these two understandings of freedom. To be a sovereign people, as the colonists desired to be, is to admit no higher authority than “Nature and Nature’s God” over oneself. In the days of the frontier, this absence of higher authority was literal enough: it was possible to move out into areas where one made the law by hand, knife and rifle. The Hobbesian conditions of the frontier gradually yielded to societies ordered by law, compacts freely entered into by those who had the power of entering into such agreements (of course, these societies never encompassed the entire human population of the frontier areas). Authority, in this version of frontier history, could always emerge from below, rather than being imposed from above or enforced by rivalrous neighbors. That is an American exception, however imaginary. A set of rebel populations in Europe or Asia, for example, would have had to contend with the surrounding monarchies on all sides: the liberty of each would have to be won at the cost of another person or state, there was no moving out into the “empty” territory (of course never empty in reality). 

In a more closely-knit world, American sovereignty bumps up against that of its neighbors. International compacts, the law of the sea, United Nations resolutions, arms control agreements, environmental conditions, and so on show that the program of unrestrained self-government is an impossible ideal. And yet Americans seem unprepared to view this reality realistically. American troops can never be put under foreign command, we hear; agreements that cramp our freedom to act are ipso facto null and void; treaties last only so long as the underlying interests that prompted their signing do; allies are welcome so long as they agree with all our plans and don’t get in the way. This impatience with international law and cooperation takes quasi-religious form. To give up that precious sovereign right of absolute freedom of action would amount to forsaking the American soul. In a strange way, what is supposed to be true of each American as an individual—that he or she is always in principle free —is also claimed for the United States as a collectivity. Moreover, it is simply not done to imagine or speak of an end to American world dominance. Former President Bill Clinton raised a storm of criticism in 2003 by alluding to a future time when the United States might be unable to tell the rest of the world what to do, when we might need allies, when we might even have to listen to their wishes. This sort of talk is virtually precluded in the United States today (though I know that in China, where the idea of a coming “Asian century” is an immense blank check on which many interests draw, it is a topic of lively speculation). But American sovereignty cannot be an absolute value, at least for the international ethicist, because it does not translate into a universal, the recognition of a parallel sovereignty for every non-American citizen or state. Rather than try to handle this practical and logical difficulty, Americans, since the age of Wilson, have opted for isolationism or unilateralism. Those choices do not put before our eyes the incompatibility between our sovereignty and that of others. They allow us to yelp for our own liberty and forget about our slave-driving behavior.

The issue about freedom is whether it is the sort of thing that can be extended indefinitely, or is a finite quantity such that if I have more of it, others have less. Dr. Johnson’s denunciation of American rebels as hypocrites assumes that liberty ought to be the sort of thing that can be multiplied without loss: if they want liberty for themselves, they ought to want it for others. Liberty is not the same sort of thing as oil, say: it would be absurd to say, if they want oil for themselves, they ought to want it for others. Americans would be vicious, but not logically self-contradictory, in wanting all the oil in the world for themselves and seeing no benefit in sharing it around. A Hegelian understanding of freedom as something that is taken or conquered from the other makes freedom out to be like oil, and frees the selfish American from taint of hypocrisy: it would be, rather, self-contradictory to want oil or freedom for both you and me. 

Policies like those the United States has pursued in recent years, seeking to cast off any restrictions on American freedom of action; the denial of Geneva Convention assurances to captured “combatants” (both soldiers and civilians); even more vividly, the photographs of torture and abuse: all these make freedom a finite substance like oil. They confirm that the American is free because—insofar as—the person he or she is torturing is not free. The American is wealthy because—insofar as—the person he or she is exploiting is not rich. The American is healthy because—insofar as—there are other people not benefiting from new medicines but serving as trial subjects in medical experiments. And so forth. At the end of the road: the American has rights because others do not. This account of freedom, fortune, health and security is utterly damaging to the American moral mission. In fact it deprives the United States of any semblance of a moral mission, for it only invites non-Americans to collaborate in their own enslavement, perhaps with the incentive of milder treatment for good behavior. This is not a message that will win us any friends worth having. It is the message of empire. And it is worth while trying to prove, through action and discourse, that it is wrong (in the sense of “erroneous”), that freedom given to one is not taken away from another. Let us sneer with Dr. Johnson at American hypocrisy, only let us, as we do so, hold Americans up to a standard of fairness and consistency that preserves a distinction between what exists and what is right, between selfish interests and universal obligations. Concretely, let us hope in the near future for an American administration that sees the difference. 

Having thought at length about Dr. Johnson’s sharp remark, I then went to see the context in which he made it (a pamphlet called Taxation No Tyranny). I found it enveloped in an argument that I had not been expecting. Given a common-sense understanding of the ways in which terms like “freedom,” “slavery,” “ought,” “right” and so forth are used, the bite of the remark is self-evident, and that is why it is usually quoted all alone. But the detailed context relates also to the problem that concerns me, the problem of empire and autonomy. 

Johnson is particularly irritated by the language of unlimited sovereignty, spoken in the name of individuals or of collectivities that suddenly aspire to be self-governing. “The Americans are telling one another, what, if we may judge from their noisy triumph, they have but lately discovered, and what yet is a very important truth: ‘That they are entitled to life, liberty, and property; and that they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever a right to dispose of either without their consent.’” Recognizing no limits to their own entitlements, the colonists, inspired by “principles… wild, indefinite, and obscure,” have spread “the madness of independence… from colony to colony, till order is lost, and government despised; and all is filled with misrule, uproar, violence, and confusion.” But if they only stopped to think about it, they would know that this claim of pre-existing, unrestricted freedom is “false. We virtually and implicitly allow the institutions of any government, of which we enjoy the benefit, and solicit the protection.” So, Johnson holds, the Americans benefit from English laws and English arms, and should see themselves as under an obligation to England. They are wrong to want liberty for themselves. “He who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what he leaves in Europe. He, perhaps, had a right to vote for a knight or a burgess; by crossing the Atlantick, he has not nullified his right; but… by his own choice he has left a country, where he had a vote and little property, for another, where he has great property, but no vote.” Those sacred and immemorial rights of Englishmen obtained only for those who stayed in England: why? What but the dead hand of custom allows members of Parliament to be elected for Birmingham, but none for Boston?

The answer is that colonies, for Johnson, are not political but legal-commercial entities. “An English colony is a number of persons, to whom the king grants a charter, permitting them to settle in some distant country, and enabling them to constitute a corporation enjoying such powers as the charter grants…. To their charters the colonies owe, like other corporations, their political existence.”[5] When the colonists came to America they abandoned their rights as subjects of the Crown and became servants of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the East India Company, and the like. Perhaps today we would say that they became “civilian contractors.” They no longer existed in direct relation to King and Parliament and for that very reason lacked some part of the legal status of subject, for example the right of parliamentary representation. “Great property, but no vote.” The colonial enterprises prefigure the privatization of public space which we are now experiencing in our cities, in our communication technologies, in the shrinking “public domain.” If Parliament levied taxes on the colonists, and the colonists took that badly, they had only to cease being colonists, by breaking their relation to the corporations by which they were governed and seeking return passage to England. To follow Johnson’s larger story of the history of colonization in the Americas, the answer to those transatlantic yelps for liberty is most accurately put thus: They shouldn’t want it for themselves and they shouldn’t want it for others. The true and proper understanding of affairs is this: the colonists are not free, but live under contract. The terms of their contract permit them to own slaves. Only a misunderstanding of the contract between the colony and the mother country creates the rub between the American yelps for liberty and the suppression of the liberty of other persons existing in the Americas. If Americans would only forgo their ambitious dreams of sovereignty, the logical flaw in their self-description would vanish: they would see themselves correctly as contracted personnel employing other personnel, and stop objecting to their own status. That too is the voice of empire, of commercial empire. 

A strange menace uttered by the Pennsylvania legislature provokes Johnson’s most memorable remark. 

The Philadelphian congress has taken care to inform us, that they are resisting the demands of parliament, as well for our sakes as their own…. “Our ministers,” they say, “are our enemies, and if they should carry the point of taxation, may, with the same army [paid for by American taxes], enslave us. It may be said, we will not pay them; but remember,” say the western sages, “the taxes from America, and we may add, the men, and particularly the Roman catholicks of this vast continent [debarred from voting or standing in parliamentary elections], will then be in the power of your enemies. Nor have you any reason to expect, that, after making slaves of us, many of us will refuse to assist in reducing you to the same abject state…. Do not treat this as chimerical. Know, that in less than half a century, the quitrents reserved to the crown, from the numberless grants of this vast continent, will pour large streams of wealth into the royal coffers. If to this be added the power of taxing America, at pleasure, the crown will possess more treasure than may be necessary to purchase the remains of liberty in your island.” 

In this Philadelphian nightmare, the history of English liberty from Magna Charta to circa 1825 will be a mere six-hundred-year interlude in a long-term strategy of royal power-grabbing. The rents of America, levied on a people without political representation (the many Roman Catholics being, as far as anyone could see, a permanently disenfranchised group of passive taxpayers), will serve to consolidate a royal power irresponsible to parliament and able to “purchase” (with mercenary troops, presumably) “the remains of liberty” in England. It is to scoff at this prospect that Johnson lets fly his most memorable arrow: “We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” 

My dear British readers, how do you feel today about the diminution of your own liberties? In 2008, many British subjects no doubt feel that a government they had no part in electing, heedless of parliament and ready to “purchase… liberty” wherever it can, indeed overwhelmed the traditional structures of protest, advice and consent housed in their Parliament. (Blair’s cabinet with its “sexed-up dossiers” was just an instrument of the ex-colonials’ will.) This is what empires do. Johnson was wrong to scoff at the Philadelphian menace, however accurately he laid bare the nerve that links the idealism and the baseness of American practices of freedom. In the bargain, he discovered the Special Relationship,—though he thought it was a long way from reality.


[1] Samuel Johnson, Taxation no Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress (1775), in The Works of Samuel Johnson (Troy, New York: Pafraets, 1913), 14:93-144, also available at http://www.samueljohnson.com/tnt.html
[2] Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” Atlantic Monthly 292:3 (October 2003), 51-76.
[3] Michael Ignatieff, “The American Empire (Get Used To It),” The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003. 
[4] For 自所不欲, see Analects 12.2, 15.24; on “contracting in,” see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 13. 
[5] Johnson, Taxation no Tyranny. “Corporation” is not to be taken entirely in its modern sense. Guilds, university colleges, certain cities, and charitable foundations were “corporations” just as were the East India Company and other corporations founded for profit. See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69; reprinted, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 1:455-473. “Of Corporations” is there the last chapter in Book I, “Of the Rights of Persons.” 


Translation as Exploration of Language

The other day my friend Mel Chin asked me: how do you say ‘Black Lives Matter” in Chinese? It was late, I had had a drink, and just did what comes naturally to me: I consulted my inner sense of the Chinese language, and wrote him back:


see as important / black people’s / lives

which you could abbreviate, and still have it be recognizable, as 重黑命 (~BLM). I thought to myself that it wasn’t a translation that would automatically make sense to any Chinese speaker, since the primary meaning of hei/黑/black in political discourse is “dark, suspicious, corrupt”; but Chinese-speakers in the U.S. who saw that formula, on a T-shirt for example, would quickly understand what it was meant to say. 黑命 might, in some possible world, mean “ill-gotten lives,” but what would that be? 黑金, however, “black cash,” is instantly recognizable as a big political problem: payoffs, kickbacks, graft, the usual stuff. Giving a positive sense to “Black” in Chinese will take some work. There aren’t all that many people of African descent in the Chinese-speaking world, so getting people to notice the meaning of blackness in the U.S. sense is still a work in progress there. I liked that my Chinese version came out as an imperative: that seemed to me an integral part of the “matter” in the English, as when we say that something “matters” we are saying “this must matter, you must take it as something that matters.”

When I woke up the next day I realized that I had been over-hasty. In doing literary translation I can just consult my inner sense of the language and if necessary ask others what they think, but something like a political slogan depends very much on what people out there are saying and how they fill in the implicit blanks. So I went to some Chinese newspapers (I’m sorry to admit this, but if it’s about Chinese I am a lot more likely to be reading stories of shape-shifting monks from the Taiping yulan than the daily news), noticed that reporters were discussing 黑命貴 (hei ming gui, or “Black Lives Are Precious”), copied, pasted, and sent. I also liked the echo of the name of a certain guy who liked to bullfight, drink rum, and write about his adventures — a not totally inappropriate connotation for those brave enough to march against heavily-armed police, as was happening just then in my neighborhood.

So I’d replaced my inner Sprachgefühl with the vox pop., or so I thought, until I asked a few friends and learned that the way the slogan has been spun in certain Chinese media is repellent to my understanding of the movement. “Hei ming gui,” while unobjectionable on its face, has the effect of trivializing the claim. “Gui,” of course, also connotes expensive (like handbags and stuff). Worse yet, the slogan is spun as meaning that non-black lives are not precious, which is exactly the way the folks nostalgic for problem-free white supremacy take it: if one group’s lives are valued, so goes their attitude, then another group’s lives are devalued.

That was definitely not the point Mel was trying to make in circulating a Chinese version of the slogan. So back to consulting a range of better-informed friends. The translations they suggested (some their own, some repeated from others) had a range of tone and implication as well. 黑命攸關 (hei ming you guan) was one: “It’s a matter of black lives.” Or: “It comes down to black lives.” But this you guan is just a touch literary, less so than the homophonous 黑命有關 (“it’s about black lives”). Either way leaves the relation between “black” and “lifespan” (ming meaning the duration of a life as opposed to sheng, which connotes the life force) unclear, something the reader has to work out; and wherever there is such suspense, there’s a possibility of misunderstanding, which I didn’t want. The suggestion that one friend made, 黑人的命也是命 (heiren de ming ye shi ming, “black people’s lives are lives too”), guards against the accusation of “privileging” one group’s suffering, but has the disadvantage of being a bit long for T-shirts, bumper-stickers, or marching shouts.

In the end, Mel went with the alternative that combined recognizability with brevity, as best suits the medium.

What this shows about translation is stuff I always-already knew, but didn’t have in mind: that when you frame your thoughts in any language you are addressing somebody who has their own ideas about what you are likely to say, and you may need to guard against a pre-existing meaning or challenge a stereotype in order to get said what you need said. A relational model of meaning, as we say in the trade, means that you’re always answering a question you didn’t expect.