Thursday, November 1, 2012

Founding Myths: a view from below


Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. The water in the New York subways and the destruction in New Jersey is hard to imagine – more with the coming climate change – and so many people dispossessed or huddled, without electricity. The courage and frailty of each person comes to the fore (this spring, the fires raged 3 kilometers from my house, didn’t race up the mountain only because of a change in the wind's direction). It is good that people are slowly recovering. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone.


Returning from two weeks in Palestine, I was interviewed last Friday by the Marc Steiner show at WEAA (public radio) in Baltimore. Marc was joined by Lester Spence, a political scientist from Johns Hopkins and author of Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. They interviewed me as part of the fundraising effort at WEAA and used Black Patriots and Loyalists; Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence, as one of their gifts for a contribution. I was deeply honored. For the interview, listen here.

For more information about Black Patriots and Loyalists, see here.


Marc read my book straight-up as a person interested in American history and a lifelong anti-racist. His initial interview with me – here – was a conversation about the substance of the book as an international depiction of slave revolt starting in the 1750s in the Caribbean, brought to London and Boston in the 1760s by sailors who had been coerced - impressed - by the Crown and identified with slaves, shaping the American Revolution on both sides, and extending into Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, Saint Domingue (the slave uprising there created Haiti), Venezuela, Jamaica and the American Civil War. So did Lester, for whom the book reminded him of W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction, a century ago, which rightly cast black fighters as central to the Civil War. Through their courage and sacrifice, black soldiers forced some of the elite to see the merits in emancipation. I am an admirer of Dubois and it is right to think that Black Patriots and Loyaliats, after a century, does for the American Revolution and gradual emancipation in the North what Dubois did for the Civil War.

These are natural ways of reading the book freed from conventional paradigms which suggests, for instance, in the New York Times for July 4th, that there were a few more Crispus Attuckses than have been thought (see "For the DAR a new chapter" here) or with many historians, that the story of blacks in the revolution is somehow separate to the main account, just one account among others (even the great historian Gary Nash entitles an important book The Forgotten Fifth in 2006).

In contrast, Black Patriots and Loyalists sees the fight against slavery as the culmination of the American fight for freedom. It avers that independence to be coherent must culminate in emancipation, and that to the extent that the constitution enshrines slavery – see here – the constitution stands against what is greatest about the American Revolution. For as the New Jersey Quaker David Cooper said of freedom, what is a three penny tax on tea compared to the enslavement of a human being for her whole life?

Further, the fight for emancipation dominated in the American Revolution down to the fact that most of the dead on both sides at the decisive battle of Yorktown, according to the diary of Private Georg Daniel Flohr who walked around the field, were “Mohren” (Moors). I have yet to meet the person who was taught this fact in school...


I had spoken with Marc just before I left for Palestine two weeks ago, and he asked me to connect the stories of the Palestinians and blacks. I did. But one might want to consider both in the light of Socrates’ story in the Republic of the founding lie – the “noble” lie (gennaion pseudos) – that goes into the creation of every regime. The city in speech in the Republic is a hierarchical regime, with guardians at the top and farmers and artisans at the bottom. The tale, Socrates says’ is a sort of Phoenician one, an old, sly and deceptive story of how they are raised out of the earth with the metals, gold and silver for nobility, bronze for ordinariness, mixed in their souls.

Though this regime seems very hierarchical, however, there is no slavery; women participate among the guardians. In this respect, the regime has some important moral qualities. But its basic hierarchy is sanctified by a lie for a - supposed - common purpose. And Plato and Socrates knew that such a lie betrayed human equality. Consider Socrates’s questioning of a slave who could prove an advanced theorem of Greek geometry in the Meno. The point of this is that the slave was in no way different in capacity from the free. Both had knowledge which they had lost and could recover through questioning (aletheia, the word for truth in Greek, means not going into the river of forgetfulness, the Lethe, at the border of Hades or in Heidegger’s phrase, not-forgetting).

Some foundings realize, to an extent, a common good. But of course, those alleged to have bronze in their souls might feel differently about the regime. Socrates here does not ask.

Note, however, that the dialogue with the slave in Meno suggests that he might have. The founding myth in the Republic must be taken in the context that the city in speech is in part a satire, that it is the warrior Glaucon’s city and not a city for philosophers. But that understanding does not alter the political significance - the significance as the Laws, Machiavelli or Rousseau might suggest for a legislator - of such myths.


Black Patriots and Loyalists reveals that the story of the American founders, particularly as retold in the increasingly racist United States post-Revolution and then again, post-Civil War in the Jim Crow era, is unattractive and profoundly false. The founders did fight for a bill of rights, most of which are commendable, and some of them – like Ben Franklin or John Laurens or Tom Paine or James Wilson – were abolitionists. But the constitution is also a grim slave-owners’ document. See here.

How did blacks look at the the new union? How did poor whites, sailors and artisans, and farmers look at it? How did Captain Daniel Shays, who courageously left his farm to fight for Washington and America on the promise that banks would not take it when he came back feel about it? Captain Shays had to lead a rebellion in 1787, the Shays Rebellion, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, against the villainy of the new regime, its betrayal of revolutianry soldiers. The Federalist Papers bizarrely invoke the Shays rebellion 11 times as what the authors were trying to put down…

Black Patriots and Loyalists explodes this founding myth. It looks at the revolution, as much as possible, through the words and eyes of ordinary people who fought for freedom.


Israel's founding myth is “a land without people for a people without land.” But Palestine wasn’t such a land. It was only the place that Jews were allowed to settle by Europe and American after the genocide in Europe. The new Israeli regime was built on the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people, the Palestinians. Hence, there are 6.6 million Palestinian refugees, many in Jordan and Lebanon (the Shatila and Sabra camps were the site of Sharon’s massacre), and 400,000 displaced persons in Israel/the Occupied Territories. According to the UN, this the largest number of refugees from any state.

Once it was first established, the state of Israel could have tried to make a settlement with the Palestinians and the Arab states. Such a settlement would have done wonders for Israel's acceptance in the Middle East.

Instead, it occupied much of Jordan (the West Bank) after 1967, and has a larger territory in which people continue to be displaced. In the Occupied Territories, the new conquerors with big weapons rule that the people who live there are “permanent residents.” In East Jerusalem, I met Ramzi, a Palestinian actor who has studied in Barcelona and played Martin Luther King. This spring he will be forced to leave.

The "permanent residents" must be there all the time, cannot go get knowledge or will be forced out, have to pass through check points to go to work or school, are surveilled from the cameras in the Wall, and are fired on repeatedly, with tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and stench bombs when they protest nonviolently to recover the olive trees that the Wall bisects or that settlers attack and burn.

A settler’s son can throw urine bombs or feces or rocks down on the old market in Hebron (now a ghost town). The Israeli "Defense" Forces do not arrest them because they are in the Territories, they say, to protect the illegal settlers.

But if a settler’s son or a settler happens to be arrested, they go to civilian courts and must see a judge within 24 hours.

In Nabih Saleh, Budrus and Beilin, the IDF comes to people’s houses and rousts teenagers at 2 AM. They take them to jail in the military court system and often torture them. The prisoner has to be given an appearance in court only after 8 days. And the torture often continues. I heard Gabi Lasky, an heroic Jewish attorney who fights on these cases, speak of this, as did others.

But it is all visible to the naked eye. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

If Palestinians are human beings and have human rights, then the state of Israel is viciously depriving them of those rights and in a calculated way, striving for yet another transfer, seeking to make Palestinians disappear from east Jerusalem (the population of Palestinians has declined there from 300,000 in 1967 to 200,000 now) and the rest of the Territories.

The Netanyahu government is also pushing for war with Iran. This is strengthened by the electoral alliance, abandoning the last shade of "liberalism," with Lieberman. See here. With profound connections to the United States, Netanyahu has intervened to push for a Romney Presidency and aggression. There is, in fact, a profound dance between reaction in Israel and the neocons in the United States, down to personnel like Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Meyrav and David Wurmser, all advisors to Netanyahu in 1996 who authored a plan to alter the Middle East by war and conquest: "A Clean Break: Securing the Realm." See here. That lapsed when Netanyahu left office, but these advisors then emigrated to the U.S. and counseled Cheney, accompanied by Straussians in and around the government. The Bush administration adopted their plan in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with a colonialist or settler point of view characterized by an idealization of the worst in Israel. Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and Avram Shulsky are examples; a non-Straussian neo-con, Charles Krauthammer is perhaps the loudest about the wonders of pith helmets....*

This is the opposite of Israel's declaration of independence promising equal treatment to all, regardless of race or origin.

Bombing Iran would harm, as Israeli intelligence and military officers have said, ordinary Israelis. One former Mossad official spoke out on Obama's courage, in an election year, in avoiding this pressure (it will nonetheless take a movement from below, even with Obama, to make a difference). The kind of capitalism Netanyahu wants has priced most ordinary Israelis out of the market for housing – hence, the large housing demonstrations of a year ago in the summer. One might even think that Captain Shays needs to make an appearance in Israel, as Occupy has in the United States.


America and Israel are both settler states, with a huge lie as the founding myth. Each can be extenuated to an extent – America was the first, very limited democracy, Israel was a response to the Holocaust and a democracy for Jewish citizens. But the crimes of racism in both cases are real, and continue to poison each. And the interaction of both is dangerous to the health of the planet. Further large scale war in the Middle East would have dark consequences domestically for Palestinians and most/sane Israelis and Americans; over time, it might well spin out of control and threaten the existence of Israel which has nuclear weapons....


Thoreau once spoke, in Civil Disobedience, of the need for each person of conscience, in circumstances where majorities adopt evils like slavery and the conquest of Mexico, to become a majority of one. So it is today, for me, about Palestinians and the fate of a democratic regime, one which upholds the rights of each person, in Israel and Palestine.

*In 1957, Leo Strauss wrote a striking and mainly commendable letter to the National Review, criticizing its anti-semitism toward Jews and toward Israel. In it, he spoke of "the nearness of Biblical antiquity" among some of the settlers and how this might be endearing to "a conservative." Strauss was for this kind of resolution for what he called the "theological-politial predicament," one in which most people like the settler David Wilder, with his tzitzis and Glock, or the murderer Rabbi Baruch Goldstein from New Jersey and Brooklyn cling to "Judea and Samaria," manipulated by a "wise" legislator. These fanatics are the worst of the settlers, and as the recent Haaretz survey, reported by Gideon Levy, suggests, the most careless of human life (probably including those of other Jews whom they don't seem to like much). See here.

What Israel has become - comparable to the Bush-Cheney or a potential Romney regime with white Evangelical support - reveals a lot about Strauss as a would-be legislator.

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