Deep Thought: On Dis-'Owning' the Libs, and Other Conundra
People habitually spoke, in those days, of 'the sisterhood of reforms' and it was in as bad taste for a poor man to have but one hobby in his head as for a rich man to keep but one horse in his stable. Mesmerism was studied; gifted persons gave private sittings for the reading of character through handwriting; phrenology and physiology were ranked together; Alcott preached what Carlyle called a 'potato gospel'; Graham denounced bolted flour; Edward Palmer wrote tracts against money.
– Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Life of Margaret Fuller
The time the writer was talking about was the period of intense reform movements in the US in the 1830s and 1840s. Everybody, it seems, was on fire for new ideas, particularly around Boston. They had a thousand ideas for making the world a better place to live in. They could get pretty dogmatic about it. Sound familiar? The 1844 election will sound familiar, too: wait for the November Create project, and I'll tell you about it.
I found that Higginson quote in the book The Story of the Hutchinsons (Tribe of Jesse), by John Hutchinson, 1896. The Hutchinsons were an amazing family from New Hampshire: the first pop singing group in America, the first protest singers, too. Jesse Hutchinson raised, as he said, 'four quartets': 16 kids. They all sang. They claimed the acoustics in their farmhouse were so good because they couldn't afford furniture, which would have absorbed the sound. They sang close harmony. They performed folk songs, dramatic songs (very popular back then, like 'The Maniac' and 'Woodman, Spare That Tree'), and sentimental songs. They also sang politically tinged songs that nearly started riots.
The Hutchinsons were front and centre for the big reform doings of their day. Their causes were abolition, women's rights, and temperance, by which they meant 'stop drinking alcohol'. They sang at Brook Farm, which was a high-class hippie commune which included hippies who are on the Required Reading List, like Nathaniel Hawthorne. (I'm not making this up.) Imagine Woodstock with these guys on the stage.
One writer of the day called them 'Puritan Bohemians'.
The Hutchinsons were like Peter Seeger and other protest singers of the 1960s. They were there when the crowd protested the incarceration of George Latimer, the escaped slave who was locked up in jail in Boston and threatened with deportation to Virginia – until some Baptists raised enough money to buy his freedom. There was wild rejoicing at this victory for social justice.
A crowd was in readiness to greet us. While cogitating over plans of action, a man came through the aisle of the chapel, and mounting the platform, shouted out to the crowd, 'He's free! he's free!' I can never forget the expression of joy on the face of every citizen present.
The Hutchinsons had further acquaintance with Mr George Latimer, who lived in Massachusetts the rest of his life, and worked at his own business.
In safety we crossed the ice to the opposite bank. In my sleigh was Latimer, the recently manumitted slave, whom we had taken in charge under the auspices of the anti-slavery committee.
Hey, wait. The point of the story he told here was that the horses upset the sleigh and they all got thrown into the snow, and were late for a gig. But notice the way he describes George Latimer. He's less a person to them than a cause, we feel. This is not how he describes Boston 'worthies' like Lowell Mason, even though Mason was pretty snooty to them when they first met. Oh, but Lowell Mason was an important man.
I like the Hutchinsons, on the whole. They seem to have been a fun-loving family, and their hatred for slavery was genuine. They even went to England with Frederick Douglass (he had to ride steerage on the boat). I'm not trying to criticise them. I'm trying to make a point here. It is absolutely possible to have all the right opinions, to be completely 'woke', and still miss the point about what it's all about. It's also possible to be 'liberal' and be a racist, and not realise it. 'I'm not conceited. Conceit is a fault, and I don't have any,' was a popular saying among kids when I was one.
Two of the Hutchinson boys had a grocery store in Lynn, Massachusetts. They were neighbours and friends of Frederick Douglass, one of the towering figures of that or any other time. If you had one Black friend, you'd want it to be Frederick Douglass, because he was a superstar, a household name. Frederick Douglass' autobiography should be a must-read for everyone on this planet. Douglass was an amazing man, and very kind. But he was honest enough to point out this kind of unconscious bias in people.
One of Fredrick Douglass' anecdotes was about some church ladies talking about their dreams and visions of heaven. One young woman said she'd had the most glorious vision of the life to come. An elderly lady asked her if she had seen any Black people there. She looked surprised.
'Oh! I didn't go into the kitchen!'
Lord help us. Douglass said, 'Yet people in general will say they like colored men as well as any other, but in their proper place! They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision.' That's systemic racism. And that was the 'nice' people.
There were a lot of convinced abolitionists in the US in the 1840s. They felt very righteous. But it was possible to be against slavery for any and all of the following reasons:
- It was bad for white people (1): Slavery as an economic system allowed a rich 2% to own just about everything, and run the policy of the US. Opponents called it 'slaveocracy'. Compare it to the runaway profits of multinationals with factories in other countries.
- It was bad for white people (2): Slavery involved other white men in executive jobs for the slaveholders. This tempted them into complicity and cruel behaviour. (Think concentration camp guards.) This endangered the immortal souls of white people.
- It was bad for white people (3): Slavery degraded the high and noble nature of the American Republic, which should be a beacon for all the lesser nations. How could missionaries reach the Persons Sitting in Darkness when they were committing this crime against humanity?
- It was bad for Black people (1): Those slaveholders were mistreating them. No good person could approve of that.
- It was bad for Black people (2): The slaveholders often refused to let their slaves learn to read, or go to church. This was obviously bad.
- It was bad for Black people (3): Slavery was keeping people from Africa from becoming civilised. Like, well, us.
You see? It was possible to be an ardent abolitionist and still be racist. You might feel that the freed slaves should all go back to Africa. There was a whole organisation for doing that. Telling them that African Americans had built the place, so they had as much right to it as anybody else, was a non-starter with these people. You might feel that, yes, the slaves should be freed, and educated a bit so they could become paid servants to the white people. I could go on, but I'm getting seasick from the 'logic'.
'Oh, we're better than that now,' I hear you say. Seriously? Have you looked on social media lately? 'Oh, Americans are so backward,' I hear in my mind's ear. Let me tell you a story.
'Back in the 1980s, which wasn't that long ago, I worked and studied in Cologne, (West) Germany. Okay, maybe it was that long ago. Anyway, my friend Omer from Zaire dropped by the apartment one day, as he was wont to do, for coffee and conversation. He brought along a couple of friends from Sub-Saharan Africa, I don't remember what country. Nice people. They were visiting Cologne, but they studied in Tuebingen. I commiserated. I lived for a year in Munich, and I do not like southern Germany very much. They told me this story.
One day, they were out enjoying a ramble in the countryside, something all students liked to do except for my lazy friend Chuck the theologian, who always brought the Frankfurter Allgemeine along. The Africans' hike took them through the main street of a village. An elderly man saw the two (very good-looking, well-behaved, likeable) young men – and burst into tears. The students ran up to the man, concerned and respectful of the elderly as they were.
'Grandfather, what's wrong?'
'The world is ending!'
Confusion. 'But why? The Americans moved the rockets away.'
'The saying goes, "When the Black Man walks the street, the end is near!"'
'We're better now,' you say. Prove it. Be better. And don't rely on joining a club to do it. Don't just tick all the boxes. Dis-own 'liberalism' and 'conservatism'. Care about your neighbour, and figure out what it's all about.