I often say that “prejudice becomes its own logic.” Forty years ago, when reporters finally got the nerve to raise the issue with the Regan administration that a great deal of what he said in his public speeches was comprised primarily of balloon juice, his administration coined the too precious response that the president had simply “mis-spoke.” Which boiled down to, “tell any lie you want in public and in private some aid will wave it off as some kind of oratory stumble.”
Forty years later, we have Trump aid, Kellyanne Conway with a new phrase. When confronted with Trump’s outrageous lies, she says that he is offering “alternative facts.”
Now, admittedly, that phrase was so insulting to the media that it was only used once but you know that it is an assumption that lives on in the minds of many Americans. It falls under the heading of, “My uninformed opinion is just as good as your well researched conclusions formed through critical thinking.”
It is not a uniquely American problem, as I will get to, nor is it a novel modern issue. For instance, the white European settlers who came to the Americas quickly concluded that the natives who had saved them from starvation and introduced them to indigenous crops were savages whose lives could be dispatched at whim.
However, no one less than our brilliant founding father, Ben Franklin noted that while many white folks decided to go live with the Indians, it was rare for an Indian to decide to live around white folks.
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.”
You might think that a factual observation like that might have begun to challenge the prejudice that settlers had towards Native Americans, but open warfare continued for another century and prejudice around native reservations remains to this day. All of which makes me wonder, “who are the savages?”
Of course, we have talked a lot about the early white American practice of enslaving Africans, but it should be noted, that while it was a common practice there were whites, even in the earliest days, who objected to slavery on moral grounds.
Ben Franklin was a slave owner himself, but he brought the young and impoverished journalist, Thomas Paine, to America and shortly thereafter, Paine published an anonymous article condemning slavery, before the Revolutionary War began. This is longish but worth hearing.
Thomas Paine said:
Our Traders in MEN (an unnatural commodity!) must know the wickedness of the SLAVE-TRADE, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own hearts: and such as shun and stifle all these, willfully sacrifice Conscience, and the character of integrity to that golden idol.
The Managers the Trade themselves, and others testify, that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting Kings to sell subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another, in order to catch prisoners. By such wicked and inhuman ways the English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly; of which thirty thousand are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year; besides all that are slain in the unnatural ways excited to take them. So much innocent blood have the managers and supporters of this inhuman trade to answer for to the common Lord of all!
The logic of the moral nightmare that was African slavery was known, published, and broadly discussed before our nation was founded, and yet, our first president, George Washington had more than 300 slaves at Mt. Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson had more than 600 at Monticello.
In fact, a dozen of our first presidents were slave owners, including Ulysses Grant who led the Union armies during the Civil War. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Polk, Tyler, Johnson, and Grant were all, at least at one time, slave owners.
If you are seeing a nauseatingly redundant theme in that set of photographs, spoiler alert, there are no surprises in the next hundred years of photos.
Abolitionist ideology was more than available to all of these great, intelligent, and powerful people, all of whom committed what you have heard me call, “application bias.” That is, “it may be generally true, but it doesn’t apply to me.” Or, “well, you have your opinion and I have mine.” Prejudice, as I have said, has its own logic.
Most western countries ended slavery at the ballot box through civil reparations and moral decision making. The USA did it at the point of a bayonet with the deadliest, per capita, war of our history.
It was obvious to anyone who cared to think about it that slavery was wrong, but it took a bloody civil war to make the change.
What has been talked about less often was that as the African slave trade was dying off, the old slave ships simply went east and became what were known as “Coolie” ships, bringing captured Asian labor to the new world.
As we were being forced to awaken to the cruel and morally intolerable enslavement of Africans, Asians were introduced as a new racial group who didn’t speak English and could be treated like farm animals. In fact, the term “Shanghaied” came into being as these ship captains often told people in poor rural areas that they had lucrative jobs waiting for them in Shanghai, only to find themselves years later in slave camps in America building our railroad system.
Though Lincoln officially outlawed the coolie trade at about the same time as African slaves were liberated, still, history shows that 9 out of 10 laborers who built our trans-continental railroad system were Asians.
Prejudice is, as I have said, its own logic. It defies reason, evidence, education, and information. We pass from the 19th century into the 20th and encounter the explosion of anti-Semitic prejudice, not just in Germany but throughout Russia, Europe, and to no small degree in America.
While the Holocaust is the macro “big” picture of that era, I want to bring this conversation down to just one person who was a major player in the war that brought the holocaust to an end.
If the world were a more just place, on anyone’s short list of those who were crucial to winning World War II, Alan Turing, a British mathematician, would be listed with Einstein and Oppenheimer, but even though he was the one who broke the German enigma code and set up the necessary math and engineering for the invention of the computer, Turing was ignored in most historical accounts because he was a homosexual.
And, in fact, in 1952, he was put on trial in Great Britain under the charge of being a homosexual. It may well be that we would not have won World War II without his genius. Hitler may have succeeded in global domination. However, this brilliant hero was put on trial by our British cousins for being gay and he was given a choice, either go to prison or accept chemical castration through medication. What he chose instead was suicide.
This was not ancient Athens condemning Socrates to death. This was not even 18th century France sending Voltaire into exile. This is mid 20th Century England, within the memory of many of you, condemning one of history’s greatest geniuses for the crime of being gay. It took the United Kingdom just over 55 years to apologize for that miscarriage of justice in 2009. . . . waiting until everyone involved was dead.
Still, right up into recent history, we have only gradually granted legal marriage status to same sex marriages, starting in 2000 in the Netherlands, 2003 in Belgium, 2005 in Canada and Spain, South Africa in 2006, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland in 2008, 2009 and 2010, England in 2013 and the USA finally arrived at sanity in 2015.
Prejudice Becomes Its Own Logic
Prejudice dies slowly. It resists reason and ethical debate. Which is why some people still listen to blow-hards like Rush Limbaugh complaining that gay marriage might undermine the spiritual sanctity of any one of his four marriages. That is some hard core, undiluted hypocrisy right there. Taking moral advice from Rush Limbaugh is like taking medical advice from Donald Trump .
And though we have made progress, we should not confuse progress with success. We would say that the genocide against Native Americans is buried in history but let me tell you something about my visit to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota where, it doesn’t look like that prejudice has died.
And yes, we ended slavery, integrated schools, and even elected a Black president but don’t kid yourself, racial prejudice against Black and brown people in America is anything but over, and, in fact, I fear that our prison population may ethically rival 19th century slavery for its injustice and cruelty.
Anti-Semitism is better but certainly not over. Gay rights have come a long way but the prejudice has not ended or we wouldn’t have so many people in prominent pulpits and elected officials who are still pretending to be straight, Mike Pence, but who am I to speculate about that?
Prejudice often lives side by side with burgeoning acceptance and change. My daughter’s peer group never missed an installment of RuPaul’s drag race but at the same time, of the nearly thirty transgender Americans who were murdered last year, most were Trans Deaths Are Real Deaths
">black trans women.
The Human Rights Commission lists six more killed in the first three months of this year, mostly during our coronavirus lockdown.
Prejudice survives on two things: the fear of people who are different from straight white cisgendered people, as if any one of us gets to define normal and insist that everyone be like us…and ignorance, the refusal to learn, grow, and understand that being Native American, Black, Latinx, Jewish, Gay or Trans is not a reason for fear or hatred or, for that matter, any of your business.
I’m kind of waiting for the day when I can buy a rubber stamp that just says, “none-ya-business” and when I see a form that asks for my race, I just stamp it.
And when it asks for my gender, once again, I can say,
It's no secret, its just none of your business.
It not that my race or gender is difficult to spot. It is not that I am hiding something or keeping a secret, it isn’t even that I have anything to apologize for in my race and gender other than the outrageous moral blindness found in my peer group which includes the first 43 presidents of the United States. . . don’t think about that too long.
We had an old joke when I was a philosophy major in college. A philosopher and his wife go to the hospital to have their first child. After the wife gives birth, she looks up at her husband and asks, “Is it a boy or a girl?” And the philosopher answers “Yes.” Which was hilarious to those of us in the 1970’s who believed gender was a binary universe so far as our prejudices go, now, the philosopher would need to update that response to , “Yes, or no, or maybe, of some of both, or it depends.” But in many such matters, what you need to accept is, just keep calm and remember that it is none of your business.
Hating trans people for being trans makes no more sense than hating blacks for being black, Asians for being Asian, Jews for being Jewish, or hating gay people for being gay.
And remember, no matter how far we have come, no matter how much prejudice we have defeated, expelled, erased, or put to bed, we all still have some work to do, as this sign outside of a snow-covered Swedish coffee shop illustrates:
Because they welcome all colors, all sexes, all orientations, all religions, all cultures, all abilities, all ages, all sizes, except the Danish.
So, we have our work cut out for us.