Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Reflections on Charlottesville

By Lewis Gordon

The following text is a revised transcript of a talk Lewis Gordon gave to the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) as part of their Interventions program. The talk was given on August 19, 2017 and was titled “Fighting Fascism in the United States: GCAS Honorary President, Lewis Gordon speaks on Charlottesville.”

Today, as you know, all across the country there are people who are doing varieties of protests. My daughter Sulu Gordon is in Boston right now in the counter protest. Before I get into what I’d like to say, I have to say something about Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in the terrorist attack on August 12th in Charlottesville. First my condolences to her parents. Second, as some of you may know, I tweeted my outrage at the fact that the President of the United States referred to this woman as an abstraction. We already know the controversy surrounding his mishandling of those events, but the thing we must also note is that that this wasn’t a mistake on his part; it was a deliberate response.

There’s a quote from Malcolm X that says ‘a man who stands for nothing will fall for anything’. It’s a very important message to understand in the battle against fascism because this not a time where you can sit down and say you can’t take a side. This is a moment in history, as it was in the past, where people must stand for something. And this is one of those rare cases where what you stand for genuinely has a correct side on this issue. One of the reasons we know this is because we have witnessed, both in response to the elections last year and in events across the globe, people protesting a rising fascism. We’ve also seen millions of women who marched not only in Washington DC but also across the globe in response to President Trump’s election. There were men who joined those women, and as we know there were people opposed to their protesting, but despite the hundreds of millions of people who were willing to articulate their opposition, no one was killed.

One of the messages we have learned is that it takes a whole lot of energy, a whole lot of commitment, and a whole lot of love to build things, but you only need a few Schmucks to tear things down. And we can see the radical difference that happens when you get approximately 500 of these individuals to march on a town like Charlottesville. We see it in the damage they caused and in the fact that death ensued. One of the mistakes we’ve been making has been to focus so much on Trump that we fail to see that he’s part of a larger mechanism of disenfranchisement, disempowerment, and human degradation. Those so-called Republicans around him, the members of his cabinet, also bear responsibility for these events. We should bear in mind the extent to which we focus on him and fail to see the larger picture of how others are involved. That failure makes us even more vulnerable to their machinations.

One of the ways in which we can protect ourselves is to remember the adage that the devil’s best defense is to convince you that he doesn’t exist. The fact of the matter is that in January many of us predicted what would unfold, and empirical data from subsequent events demonstrate that we were not being hyperbolic. We have to ask ourselves what we should do. What is our role as thinking people? As citizens (and when I say “citizens” I don’t mean citizens of the United States but global citizens) asking this question is a responsibility borne across the world. I don’t see this as a uniquely U.S. problem, because as we know these fascist tides are unfolding in Europe and, contrary to what many people may think, they’re also unfolding on the continents of Africa, Asia, and South America. It’s important to have informational resources as you engage others on these issues. And when I say engage others I don’t only mean talk. I mean what we do in terms of institutional building, in terms of what we do when we get out on the streets, because the fact of the matter is that there are certain responses that are no longer tenable. I’ve seen some well-intentioned people say that the best response to these issues is to not show up, to show that these fascist protests and their antics are ultimately silly, to take the fang and other teeth out of them. That is part of an old-school naïveté and a very Liberal understanding of how political reality works. It is necessary to point out the fundamental error there.

The fundamental error is seeing these issues as essentially moral. In other words, we need to get to the vital political dimensions of what’s at work. Dealing with political issues means one has to deal with the concept of power, not as a personalized phenomenon but as a social one, as something that’s out there in the world with real consequences over life-and-death. To do this we need to get rid of false symmetries. For example, if you look at the journalistic coverage leading up to Charlottesville, during it, and after it, you notice a peculiar use of the term “racial tensions.” The term implies that there are two people equally facing off each other with a form of intensity that could be resolved if they could simply hug or kiss the other. It presumes a variety of individualistic notions that hide the politics and the institutions of power that cultivate inequalities. It’s a very stupid expression, and it’s stupid precisely because it not only hides much of what’s going on but also actually presupposes that both sides stand on an equal playing field. We have to understand not only the history of racism but also the present reality of racism, and how the system of racism is often connected to things that we don’t often think as racist; for instance, the way global capitalism has empirically stacked a lot of decks in favor of certain groups by producing vulnerability in other groups. In such a face-off there isn’t equality; there is an imbalance already at work.

Those who are involved in neo-fascist behavior are individuals with institutional resources, governing power, and much more behind them. How much so? We already know that a lot of those individuals in Charlottesville were marching with full knowledge of the history of the participation of police officers in white supremacist groups. In parts of the country and the world, such participation would go all the way up to prosecutors. We already know how structured violence is linked into these group at institutional levels—it’s been written about for more than 100 years. You’ll find it in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, in Ida B. Wells’s work, in Richard Wright’s writings, and you also find it in actual FBI testimonies and reports. This is not a case of paranoia or hyperbole, these are basic facts.

The other thing that we have to bear in mind with this kind of ‘symmetrical tensions’ discourse is that it so centers the individuals involved that we treat it as a moral issue, such that if we could just get individuals to see both sides, we could respond to the situation in a morally appropriate way. When we see something like Charlottesville, this is not about individual morality. This is about political responsibility and global responsibility, because it’s not only a question of how the federal government, the state government, and the municipality function. It’s also a question of how countries across the globe can respond to these events. Not only when they happen in Charlottesville, but whether they happen in Boston, Mississippi, Stockholm, or Manchester. In other words, we’re talking about a global condemnation of people who are trying to block the path of democracy, emancipation, and dignity.

We also need to get rid of other kinds of problematic conceptions and symmetries. Another one is—and that I have to say I don’t have a popular position on this, but there’s a reason why I’m going to argue it—the privilege discourse, which I’m against. A lot of people when they look at Charlottesville say, “This is what white privilege looks like.” There are people who want us to keep using the words “white privilege.” The reason is it confounds and distorts the issue. Privileges are actually good things. If you have earned the right to be an attorney by fulfilling some educational criteria, you’ve earned the privilege of having certain things conferred on you. Privileges, however, do not pertain to murder, mayhem, hate, racism, etc. It’s not a privilege to build those things. If someone were to say it was a privilege to be able to rape someone or massacre someone, that just makes no sense; it’s oxymoronic. The fact of the matter is what fascists and those with neo-Nazis sympathies are fighting for is what I call license. License is when you have the institutional authority to do whatever you want to other groups of human beings. These people know of conditions where, historically, they could drag people through the street, whip them, tear them apart, take pictures of themselves doing this, and go home without being held accountable. James Alex Fields Jr., the alleged murderer of Heather Heyer, was, for a moment as he saw the fervor of these events, able to drive into a group of individuals. He knew that there is a system that, by virtue of his being white and by virtue of his belonging to white supremacist hate groups, would treat him as fairly as possible despite the very evidential fact of his misguided perceptions. Simply put, if there were a group of black people behaving in that way, even around a legitimate issue such as voter disenfranchisement, the FBI and the police would have had a very different response. So what we’re talking about is license, and this license is manifested in the President of the United States, who can gloat not only about how he can manhandle the bodies of women but also about the possibility of shooting someone in the middle of Manhattan. He emboldens these groups precisely because what they would like to have invested in the world is their deluded sense that by virtue of their membership into whiteness they can have a license to commit mayhem and harm.

Related to this deluded worldview is the issue of anti-Semitism. Part of this I cannot develop here, but the short version is that Jews have a complicated relationship with white supremacy. Jews are not historically white people, but at times white supremacy has offered a form of lore to certain Jewish populations, particularly those among neoconservatives who imagine that they belong in white supremacist networks. The logic they’ve developed over the years is part of what has informed these kinds of activities, and part of it is a Catch-22 that has been created for white Jews. White Jews, according to white supremacists, are not white enough because they think that black people are too stupid to be politically able to transform their conditions. There must be a kind of “white mediator,” and for white supremacists it must be white Jews. That’s how their anti-Semitism has manifested itself. It’s done so not only in the United States, but also in South Africa, in countries of Europe, and in many parts of the world. Among some black populations there is a view that white Jews, by not being white enough, function as a liberal mediator, and again what happens is that there is an idea of a displaced middle that is going to betray both ends. These ideologies link white Jews to the category of capital and foster a kind of resentment. Put simply, it is correct to look at the phenomenon of Charlottesville as linked not only to the question of global fascism and neo-Nazi behavior but also with anti-Semitism. Now before I go further I should say that I am one of the critics of the notion of “anti-Semitism” because I see anti-Semitism as a form of racism. There are people who like to look at Jews exclusively in religious terms, but the issue is a lot more complicated than many people might imagine. For a Jew hating Nazi, a Jewish individual is not a product of religion but is instead a member of a race.

I bring that up because it’s very crucial to understand the next symmetry I’m very critical of. It’s no accident that the fascists chose a college town. These individuals, for the past 40 years, have been targeting universities. One of the reasons is that if they could undermine the important role of the professoriate, of dealing with evidence, fact, truth, and reality, then what emerge are the delusions of investments in opinion. It creates a false symmetry between the student and the teacher at the point of meeting. It also promotes new indoctrinating services, including commercial entities such as Fox News and other right-wing commercial networks of information—or rather misinformation—across the country and across the globe. When people hear this, they at first may be a little hesitant, at least until they begin to realize that one of the techniques, which is the exact technique the president used, is this stupid notion of “balance.” Balance can be an issue about opinion. But there is no balance in facts. Facts either are or they are not. Reality smacks you in the face. The truth is that there is a woman who last Friday was alive and she is now under the ground. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. It’s a fact that that the woman’s murder is a consequence of certain ideological positions that were functions of indoctrination.

Universities were the actual target of these groups because there is a form of commodification and colonization that is attempting to stratify universities whose fundamental responsibility is to truth and furthering knowledge. What we have is a situation in which individuals function in effect like classic sleeper cells. Many people may not have studied these groups, but I’ve been studying them for more than 30 years and can tell you that all the mechanisms we talk about with Al-Qaeda are also in these groups, with the big difference that they are able to function openly in some parts of the United States such as Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. But they’re also in sleeper cells across the country, in government and the police force, among other places. What enables them to function the way they do, and for us to not call them out the way we do, is the false symmetry of this both-sides discourse.

Some people have been correctly saying that there is no correct side to neo-Nazis, fascism, and racism. One of the things I’d like to say very quickly around the symmetry issue is we’re going to have to admit that there is no symmetrical logic between the right and the left. The right has a completely different project from the left. What right-wingism is about starts off with an innocent sounding premise, which is conservatism. Conservatism originally begins with a desire to conserve, so it links to tradition. But we must also remember something that has been analyzed very well by the Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset. He said that the turn to the right, the turn to conservatism, is often connected to a conception of law that ultimately asks you a very simple and straightforward question. And Ortega Y Gasset says it beautifully: ‘What are you willing to give up for your individual sense of security?’ I am proud of my daughter and many of my colleagues because they are not willing to give up freedom, liberty, and dignity, which is why they go out on the streets, why they speak their mind, and why they defend these issues publicly. If you say you’re willing to give those things up, you’re on your road to fascism. The slide to fascism is the direction neoconservatism began to move in many institutions. For instance, among the organizers of Charlottesville was an individual who had degrees from the University of Chicago, from Duke, from many of the elite corridors of the country.

When we undermine the professional, ethical, and political responsibility of the professoriate to speak truth we open our doors to being put on a level playing field with the views of sociopaths. There are individuals and think tanks that have engaged in an organized effort to undermine the very healthy functioning of the professoriate. And it’s for a very straightforward reason: excellent education cultivates dissent. Citizenship and conceptions of democracy require peoples’ ability to dissent on the basis of evidence. In other words, education’s role is to train, to learn, and to cultivate a thinking mind that is attuned to reality, multidimensionality, fact, and truth. What we’re dealing with now is an effort which began in in a very crazy reactionary response to the idea of civil disorder and which has operated for more than 40 years to produce the contemporary situation.

This brings up the very crucial element of what it means to be global. It means understanding that this problem is not only Charlottesville’s problem or the United States’ problem; rather, it’s a global problem. And it’s a global problem because we live in a world in which there’s been an ascent of plutocrats, of kleptocrats, and of ongoing nihilism around governing and politics. It is bizarre that we can have such clear cases of people right now running governing institutions, that are clearly beholden to corporate entities such as Exxon and others, to whom they will return after their term in office. We are witnessing the global coup d’état of the market, which is setting up a conception of globalism committed to the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of large portions of our planet.

We should also recall that people are also paying attention to these global changes. We live in a growing world of seven billion people, a world of information and global technologies. That people across the globe can speak instantaneously is a testament to this. We’re living in a world right now in which knowing how to reorganize ourselves requires a better understanding of what it means to be global. Global is different from international. International is where you can have separate nationalistic enterprises looking at each other. Global is where we recognize that connectedness. What’s important is the very fact that, globally, people can see the tragedy of what the Charlottesville situation represents. Supremacist groups imagine that the world is metaphorically and literary black and white. Within that framework they think that if they can cultivate a sufficient amount of disruption, they can force whites to choose the side to which they supposedly belong. It is a message, ultimately, of forced loyalties. This means that though there are instances of persuasion or instances of individual changes of views, what they’re counting on is a structural and political imposition upon other groups of people.

If one is going to resist these people, if one is going to fight against these issues, and if we’re going to change them, our responses must be political. We can have our motivations; we can say, “That ain’t right; that’s not what we’re down with.” But we need to build coalitions and institutions that will reorganize power so that those individuals become irrelevant. I often put the issue this way: the issue for me is not that there are immoral people in the world; the issue is that there are immoral people who have power. If we can get the fascists off of us, and if we can set conditions in which their behavior is contained or rendered inert, we can create relationships through which to build a better condition for our species. And for that, we need to confront the issue of species arrogance. The moment we understand our interconnectedness and our responsibility for the planet, we will understand that if we continue sticking holes in this ship at sea we call the planet earth, we’re going to sink together.

 

Lewis Gordon is is Professor of Philosophy at UCONN-Storrs in the United States; European Union Visiting Chair in Philosophy at Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France; Honorary President and Core Professor at the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and Chairman of the Anna Julia Cooper, Frantz Fanon, Nicolás Guillén, and Claudia Jones awards committees of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. His research and theoretical work are in the areas of Africana philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology, social and political philosophy, philosophy of human sciences, life sciences, and physics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, postcolonial thought, theories of race and racism, and philosophy of education. Among his recent publications is Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Reflections on Charlottesville

  1. Practically all citizens of hierarchical societies become unwittingly conditioned in favour of their own, so are inclined to see others as rivals or a threat. However, by attempting to view our prejudices more objectively it soon become clear no race, religion or nationality has a monopoly of truth or virtue over its rivals, each of which should be regarded as one among many. In times of cross-cultural conflict and war, leaders who are given too much power become more concerned about preserving their own positions than those of anyone else’s with clarion calls such as “forward men, I’m behind you”.
    ‘Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs not to do or die. Into the valley of death road the six-hundred.’ Those who believe they are ‘right’ do not survive, only those who are ‘left’. Citizens of a more balanced, egalitarian World unite.

  2. A stupid, confused, and misguided white kid drives a car into a crowd of protestors, one person is killed, and this regrettable incident brings cries of ‘white terrorism!’ ‘nazism!’ and ‘fascism!” etc. from the privileged liberal college professors and the so-called liberal media. And no real investigation of what was behind it…

    Meanwhile, US bombers drop hundreds of tons of bombs (white phosphorus, cluster-bombs, depleted uranium munitions etc.) on Syrian and Iraqi cities, resulting in ten thousands of civilian casualties among innocent human beings held as (quote) human shields by the Islamic State. And this is presented by the so-called liberal college professors and the liberal media as “liberating Mosul/Raqqa/Deir Ez-Zor etc from terrorism.”

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Whatever the factors behind the Charlottesville incident, I do not believe there is any serious danger of a fascist takeover in the US. The anti-fa rhetoric of “white terrorism” is simply hype to distract attention from the ongoing terrorism waged against the Muslim populations of the Middle East by the US war on terror, which, after fifteen years of failing to stop terrorism—actually, terrorism has exponentially increased—has now singled out ISIS as “a disease,” “a cancer” (per former President Obama’s Nazi metaphor), and as the great ‘evil’ to be eradicated: that is, as subhuman things that can be exterminated, along with their families, neighbors, and hostages, without the slightest regard for human life, and without the slightest belief that anything is being accomplished by this mass murder. And there is not the slightest whimper of protest from the so-called liberal college professors and so-called liberal media against this continuing war-crime, carried out under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism.’

    Further: As a citizen of the glorious state of Idaho (see above), I also do not believe that there is a serious danger of white supremacist takeover here. Yes, there are many people who have very limited experience of black people, and some people with strange religious ideas that are struggling to understand people different than them when on Christian missions to the outside world. But ‘Nazis’? ‘fascists?’ ‘racists?’ ‘Anti-Semites?’ I don’t think so. On the contrary, I can testify that when growing up (or trying to…) in American public schools here, I was targeted from my first school days as a blond-haired, blue-eyed male of German-American ancestry for [‘anti-fa’?!?] discrimination as painful and hateful as anything experienced by anybody in the US.

    And I continue to suffer from that stereotyped discrimination, despite the fact that I have been outspoken in favor of civil rights, I have advocated on behalf of the homeless, and I have protested US wars from Vietnam and Central America to the Persian Gulf and the US war on terror. But I would have to say that I’ve also seen discrimination, not just from white people, but from black, brown, red, and green people, showing me that prejudice bigotry discrimination and hatred are not black or white, but come from all directions. And it takes all sides to stop them from spreading, which can’t be accomplished by spreading allegations of ‘nazism!’ ‘fascism!’ and ‘racism!’ without the slightest knowledge of, or contact with, the people you are smearing with those allegations. Like myself, maybe…

    The problem with allegations of ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white racism’ is that they identify a stereotyped group as being ‘racists!’ ‘nazis!’ ‘white supremacists!’ etc. on an equally prejudical, bigoted, and, yes, racist basis as that of those groups they are directed against, and therefore simply perpetuate and escalate the racism they supposedly oppose. Calling white people ‘blue-eyed devils’ (Malcolm X) is just as racist as calling black people by the n-word, or as labelling all Black Muslims as Muslim terrorists. And hatred of white people by black people, however jusified by the past history of slavery and oppression, still perpetuates the cycle of hatred and violence, and is still hatred, whatever its spurious justification.

    And if we really want to talk about fascism or racism in the US of A, maybe we should talk about the Western European genocide against Native Americans, who were the first stereotyped group to be accused of terrorism, and still continue to suffer from attempts to assimilate or exterminate them by the prison, military, and educational systems to this day. But, somehow, discussion of ‘racism!’ in the US always comes out black and white, ignoring, for example, the pervasive Islamophobia that continues to perpetuate the US war on terror.

    If you so-called anti-fas or anti-racist advocates really want to stop fascism or racism, maybe you should try engaging with the steretyoped groups you oppose as human beings, instead of directing hatred and violence against them. And then maybe together we could work to correct the built-in systemic and institutional factors that perpetuate inequlity and injustice within the US system, which are the real problem behind these allegations of ‘white supremacy’ ‘fascism’ ‘nazism’ etc.

    But in the meanwhile, the US war on terror will go right on indiscriminately killing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of innocent people in the Muslim world, And after fifteen years, I still haven’t heard a whimper of protest from the so-called liberal college professors and the so-called liberal media that was seriously attemting to stop the killing.

    On the contrary, I really suspect that the US war on terror was, in fact, started by those same so-called liberal groups, and is currently being perpetuated by them, behind the delusionary smoke screen of accusations of ‘fascism!’ ‘nazism!’ and ‘white supremacy!’ And I’ll believe that the so-called liberal college professors and the so-called liberal media really want to stop the killing when I finally hear them speak out against it.

    But, after fifteen years waiting, I won’t hold my breath…

    • Well said, Eric!
      How many people round the world become conditioned by the cultural practices they are exposed to, and encouraged, perhaps even brain-washed, by authorities to believe in? This contrived way of polarising people round the world probably had its origins in the concept of a divine creator and the subsequent formation of various religious beliefs – Judo-Christianity perhaps having eventually become the most powerful and influential.
      Evidence can be seen in quotations, such as ‘Every perfect gift is from above’ [James 1:17], or ‘Father, into they hands I commend my spirit’ [John 391:15] or ‘Happy is the man who fears the Lord, who is only too willing to follow his orders’ [Psalm 112:1] and so on.
      Commitment to these ideas suggests entering into a kind of contractual master-slave relationship, that involved authorisation and control on the part of the master and sublimation and obedience on the past of the slave. Although they appear to have originated in the Middle East, they began to spread, at first by zealous evangelists throughout Europe, for example ‘Go ye into the world and preach the gospel to every creature’ [Luke 16:15], in the fifteenth century this master-slave relationship became more exploitative in pursuit of power and influence when Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Dutch colonialism began to spread throughout the world. [P207: ‘The Rise of the Mutant Ego’] No wonder there’s been a backlash ever since.

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