Complexity and Summer Reading

Complexity & Summer Reading

As I try to grapple with the intricacies of the financial crisis, evaluate Obama’s regulatory plans, understand energy and pipeline plots in Central Asia, grasp the interconnectedness of our environmental problems, chart the machinations of imperial plotting, take the measure of the juggernaut that is industrialized agriculture – I could go on – it strikes me that one of the great problems for ordinary people, not to mention the left, is how to take the measure of problems of such magnitude and complexity. I try hard to stay informed and I have more leisure to do so than most people, but I have become weary and dispirited from my efforts. The grand appeal of mythologies like the ‘market is self-adjusting’ is that it removes the necessity to think about anything hard while it is made to apply to almost anything.

Lenin responded to the complexity and abstraction of the workings of big capital by calling for a set of ‘professional’ revolutionaries who would have the time, energy, and discipline to both decode its workings and strategize successfully against it. The problem was/is real but alas, his disciplined Bolsheviks proved incapable of responding to the demands of running a modern state resulting in Stalinism and bureaucracy before the system finally collapsed. The party system did not produce people who thought creatively or for themselves. The Soviet system not only betrayed democratic values, engaged in crude nationalistic power politics; in the name of productivity it proved at least the equal of capitalism in promoting environmental disaster.

Perhaps the only way forward is to foreswear professional expertise, the scientific affair with bigness and speed, and remember that we as a community need to take care of each other and clean up after ourselves. There is no mechanism that is self-adjusting that will relieve us of the necessity to think hard and act with wisdom. The fantasy that there is a technological fix for our problems is seductive because it pretends that social transformation is unnecessary and the need for exhausting, caring and thoughtful labor can be transcended. Science and technology will not disappear and can be useful tools for human liberation, but not as substitutes for human solidarity. Community needs to be created and renewed in intentional, labor-intensive practice.

This perspective does not obviate the need for critical analysis and political accountability; human scale and basic ethics have to be the core context for our analysis and political activity; otherwise we will be captured by the complexities of power and detoured by inaccessible utopias or impotent reform.

What is disappointing about Obama so far is his inability to break out of the twin straitjackets of the Clinton/Bush regimes – the ‘market’ metaphysic and the ‘war on terror’ imperative – despite the obvious crisis in both frameworks. He continues to consult the smart financiers and generals who have created or compounded our mess. The market – however lubricated by empty promises from the private insurance industry — does not produce the equity necessary for effective and accessible health care. Downplaying torture and making Afghanistan (+Pakistan) his war do nothing to fulfill his promise to change “the mind set” that produced the Iraq war.

Summer Reading

Perhaps my sense of being overwhelmed by big complexities leads me to devote my summer reading to what can only be termed “family values” reads:
(1) Annette Gordon-Reeds’ Pulitzer Prize winning The Hemingses of Virginia – her fascinating attempt to recover the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s lesser known family.
(2) Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century – the rise of a powerful Saudi family in the age of energy and its prodigal son who sought a larger canvas for his story.

I intend to immerse myself in 18th and 20th century family values. So far I am 200+ pages into Gordon-Reed and I am not disappointed. She uses the psychodramatic microcosm of the family of a revolutionary celebrity to lay bare the human workings of an inhumane system. I am not well-read in the historiography of revolutionary America or the life of Thomas Jefferson, and only a little better informed on 18th century Atlantic slavery, so I cannot be sure of what’s new to historians, just what strikes me. When Gordon-Reed routinely refers to Sarah (better known as Sally) Hemings (Tom’s unmarried partner for 38 years and mother of 7 of his children, 5 of whom survived childhood) as the (half-) sister of Martha Wayles Jefferson (Tom’s marriage partner for 10 years and mother of 6 of his children, only 2 of whom reached adulthood), my sense of family is expanded and so is my understanding of the intricacies and intimacies of the American system of slavery, as well as the private melodrama of the apostle of revolution. The denial, first of the reality and then of the significance of these relationships, speaks volumes about the way Americans have not come to terms with the meaning of slavery for our, society, culture and morals.

That one of the protagonists of this epic narrative — as historian David Blight suggests in his blurb — of Shakespearean proportion is the iconic American tribune of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” not only places the account beyond irony, but allows us to examine in detail the strange interplay between American-style idealism, white supremacy, and the constrained struggles for self-determination of the excluded that uniquely frame the larger American story. What was the reaction on the Jefferson plantations to Lord Dunmore’s promise to free those who would fight with the British in the Revolution? How did Martha’s enslaved relatives respond to her dying in 1782, as well as to Tom’s resulting disorientation? How did the Hemings family navigate the opportunities permitted and limitations imposed by their life with Jefferson? What did the master and enslaved make of Enlightenment, pre-Revolutionary Paris during Tom’s tenure as US ambassador in the 1780s? Often the written record is thin; much must be extrapolated from Tom’s account books, but Gordon-Reed’s informed speculations help orient us to the Hemings perspective in ways that open new doors to our understanding of the slavery experience. While the experience of the relatively privileged enslaved Hemings only conveys to us perhaps the most benign expression of the slave system, it is nonetheless, or perhaps more convincingly, an eye-opening window on its core hypocrisies.

She has also much to teach about Jefferson’s limited perspective as a slaveholding upholder of liberty and its price for those privileged to be under his control. Here Gordon–Reed puzzles over the meaning of Tom’s absenting the Hemings women from field labor:

Everything he wrote about women suggests that for Jefferson biology was destiny. Their defined roles vis-à-vis males and children were the reasons that the home was the most suitable place for them. Where did that leave the enslaved women at Monticello who were not members of the Hemings family?

The issue as in so many areas of Jefferson’s views on race was that certain truths had to be overridden (rationalized) when they bumped up against an extreme self-interest that did not rest comfortably with the implications of those truths. …White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self-interest, not sincere belief, is the signature feature of the doctrine. It finds its greatest expression, and most devastating effect, in the determination to state, live by, and act on the basis of ideas one knows are untrue when doing so will yield important benefits and privileges that one does not care to relinquish.

Jefferson’s special treatment of the Hemings women allowed him to think of himself as a “good” and “kind” master. By exempting them from labor in the fields, he set them apart from the other black women who tended and harvested his tobacco and wheat, putting them into a social and, no doubt, psychological limbo-for the women themselves and the white men around them. The great irony is that in doing this he also cut them off from the traditions of their African foremothers. …In the vast majority of the West African communities, from which most slaves in North America were brought, agricultural work was women’s work to a substantial degree. To the African mind, there was nothing unfeminine about this.” (pp. 118-19)

In these short paragraphs, she not only sums up the history of whites and white supremacy in our country, she also critiques western impositions of women and femininity.

More as I continue to read.


One Response to “Complexity and Summer Reading”

  1. LarryKoen Says:

    Garry Wills’ “NEGRO PRESIDENT” provides a valuable perspective on Jefferson. The title refers to an epithet thrown at him, because his election, like that of the other southern presidents elected before the Civil War, required the census tally of African-Americans barred from the franchise, but Constitutionally counted as 3/5 of a man for the purposes of Congressional representation.

    Jefferson withdrew recognition from revolutionary Haiti, which his predecessor Adams had granted, and allied with France in its treatment of its former colony. Unlike Washington, who undertook the onerous financial requirements involved in manumitting his slaves (they were to be provided for so as not to be a burden on the state), Jefferson incurred enormous debts requiring the sale of his slaves after his death.

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