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Emerson was one of the first intellectuals to reject the insipid life of the American pragmatist

 

 

 

 Heroic Minds: All the Great Ones Have Been Anti-Imperialist

By Jonathan Scott

To you

Who are foam on the sea

And not the sea—

What of the jagged rocks,

And the waves themselves,

And the force of the mounting waters?

You are

But foam on the sea,

You rich ones—

Not the sea.

—Langston Hughes, “Mounting Waters” (1925)

One of the most persistent obsessions among American intellectuals has been the formation of a national identity consciously and deliberately opposed to the European kind. This explains the startling fact that the real giants of American literature and culture have been all militantly anti-imperialist, from Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Melville, and Twain, down to DuBois, Langston Hughes, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky.

In my view, the coming collapse of the U.S. empire will likely produce a new intellectual environment in which their writings are reread closely and studied free of the old anticommunist, pro-imperialist bourgeois blindspot, what Hughes called “foam on the sea.” The present task is to prepare in advance this new curriculum.

In the case of Chomsky, for instance, his recent books are bestsellers but his most interesting texts – On Power and Ideology, Turning the Tide, and The Fateful Triangle – are much older works and the ones that continue to have the most explanatory power precisely because they were written at least twenty years ahead of their time, before all the fake French theory mania.

The same can be said of Said’s work. Notice that the carefully structured unity of his magisterial Palestine trilogy – Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam – has been in the U.S. academy totally dismantled by the so-called “poststructuralists,” so that they might better co-opt his thought and then sell it under a new name to the highest university bidder. While no U.S. academic in the humanities can get away with not having read Orientalism, The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam are forgotten texts, despite their obvious relevance in the aftermath of 9/11.

Similar observations can be made of the work of Du Bois and Hughes. In the age of “multiculturalism” and “postcolonialism,” and under the hegemony of the corporate college textbook industry, their twin bodies of work have been grossly fragmented and whitewashed to such an extent that few remember it was Du Bois who invented, more than seventy years ago, both “postcolonial” and “whiteness” studies (the latter in his masterpiece Black Reconstruction and the former in Color and Democracy). They also forget that it was Hughes who, during the height of the anticommunist witch-hunts, gave Americans their first taste of resistant and political multiculturalism, through his immensely popular “Simple” newspaper column.

This new curriculum might start with Emerson, whose personal motto was “Make your own Bible,” a concept he introduced at Harvard in 1837. His famous speech there did not go over well with the Harvard authorities, which in response banned Emerson from campus for the next thirty years. Emerson’s parting words:

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the             American free-man is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant. See already the tragic consequence. The mind of the country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. There is no work for any but the decorous and the complaisant. Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with these, but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, some of them suicides.

Emerson was one of the first intellectuals to reject the insipid life of the American pragmatist. “The so-called ‘practical men’ sneer at speculative men,” he wrote, “as if, because they speculate or see, they could do nothing… Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble to thought is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.”

From this Emersonian point of departure, the new post-imperial American curriculum comes into view. First, the foundation of American literature is the African American antislavery narratives and poems. Amiri Baraka has put it persuasively:

Beside this body of strong, dramatic, incisive, democratic literature, where is the literature of the slavemasters and mistresses? Find it and compare it with the slave narratives and say which has a clearer, more honest, and ultimately more artistically powerful perception of American reality... Yes, there are William Gilmore Simms, John Pendleton Kennedy, Augustus B. Longstreet, and George Washington Harris, touted as outstanding writers of the white, slave South. But their writing is unreadable, even though overt racists like Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarians prated about the slave South as a ‘gracious culture despite its defects.’ Those defects consisted in the main of millions of black slaves, whose life expectancy at maturity by the beginning of the nineteenth century in the deep South was seven years.

An objection might be made that the classic African American antislavery texts have been already “integrated” into the curriculum. Yet this is the very problem, for it needs to be the other way around: a “reintegration” (Langston Hughes’s term) of European American literature into the much older and more aesthetically advanced African American tradition. The latecomers to the American national tradition are not Harriet Jacobs, Francis Harper, and George Moses Horton but rather Cather, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Toni Morrison’s under-read theory of American literature, Playing in the Dark, makes this point convincingly, namely that much of Euro-American fiction is filled with such astonishing gaps in logic that without critical recourse to what she terms the originary “Africanist presence” in American society this literature would never make any sense.

This brings up a different objection: the dead white male argument. The middle-class aspirants who came up with it, the notion that we should stop reading all the dead white male writers, are clearly working for the blundering imperial establishment, since a thoughtful rereading of Whitman, Emerson, Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al. arms the student with a critique of white male supremacy far more powerful than any manufactured by the “cultural theory” industry. The dead white males should be reread precisely because they objectified themselves all the time, laying bare all the enduring structures of contradictory thinking that got us to the point we’re at today. And they should be reread next to the founding authors of American literature, who are African American.

Although generally unspeakable in discussions of U.S. education reform, the three-month summer vacation has to be abolished in order to make any meaningful progress towards an alternative national curriculum. This intellectually indefensible waste of precious educational time and resources has been always favored by U.S. ruling elites, because it supplies businesses with a cheap supply of disposable labor power during the touristy summer season. That U.S. education policy makers have never challenged the idiocy of this long vacation from learning condemns them as a class of professionals. In no other society are students sent away from school for three straight months. Oddly, it’s quite rare to hear anyone mention the “vacation” when pointing out the horrendous academic performance levels of most American students.

These three months are essential for implementing the new curriculum for obvious reasons: this is when the new curriculum can be hashed out and experimented with by all the teachers. This kind of experimenting with the new national curriculum will require a new national funding system, since all schools will remain open twelve months of the year, meaning they will need a lot more money to function. With the end of the empire, this will be easy. Just reverse the current federal budget priorities, that is, from 40 percent for the military and 1 percent for public education to the other way around, abolishing in the process the immoral system of racial apartheid (i.e. the property tax funding system) inherited from the days of Jim Crow. Convert all the military bases into teacher training schools and all the soldiers into future teachers.

The European style of education is still rigidly class based, and so this new American national education curriculum has a strong chance of producing citizens far superior intellectually and morally to their European counterparts. This was Emerson’s vision and also the reason for Melville’s great despair, since the opportunity had been squandered in Melville’s day by the rise of the American empire. But the empire is now decaying, and as it falls the great anti-imperialist American intellectuals regain their stature as original theorists of a post-imperialist American society.

Rereading these American thinkers one is struck by their fixation on the landscape or geography. In breaking with the old British ruling-class pastoral aesthetic, writers like Melville and DuBois did not sublimate nature but rather showed its dialectical relationship to labor power, the working-class transformation of the land. Under the monstrous rule of the plantation bourgeoisie, this transformation was for Du Bois a catastrophic deformity and for Melville a completely sterile reality devoid of any human essence. It drove Melville to Palestine, where he authored beneath its barren mountains his last work Clarel. DuBois died in the savannahs of Ghana.

There is a close connection between the capitalist decimation of the American landscape and the lack of any geographical consciousness on the part of most Americans. Academic studies consistently show that American students have no concept of geography; many cannot even find the United States on a world map.

Thus the second component of the new national education curriculum is geography, and it follows directly from the first: the African American antislavery narratives and poems. Both are “loaded with life,” as Emerson would say, because they “yield that peculiar fruit from which each man was created to bear,” because they “embrace the common,” as “every step downward is a step upward.”

Under two centuries of the Empire, Emerson’s proposals for building an equalitarian American national culture have been dismissed as random musings of a hopeless idealist, which was to be expected. The question today is how to begin gathering from underneath all the wreckage of the fast falling U.S. empire the main ideas we need to organize this totally unreconstructed national American curriculum, all these “jagged rocks, and the waves themselves, and the force of the mounting waters.”

This kind of proposal for an American national education curriculum can be crystallized into two major components, as suggested above: the antislavery narratives and poems and geography. The first component is especially felicitous because it also involves music appreciation, drama, and dance. Where there has been music appreciation in the public schools, the African American work songs, the blues, the spirituals, and jazz have not been the objects of analysis, despite the fact that black music is the base of all American tropes, styles, and traditions, and that an enormous body of musicology is already available that systematically demonstrates this thesis. Instead students have been taught European “classical” music where they have been taught music at all.

In terms of the antislavery narratives, the art of narrative writing is the best entrance into English composition and the focused study of good prose writing. Instead of beginning with comma splices and paragraphing, or the micro-level of writing, students can read closely these narratives and study their rhetorical techniques and literary styles, the full shape of the writing. What better way for those on the path to literacy to master reading and writing by studying writers who undertook themselves a very similar journey?

Moreover, writers like Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass were also historians. In short, the new American curriculum begins not with pre-existing partitions (for example, between literature and history, or music and poetry) but rather with “heroic minds” whose work intervened directly in other fields, such as sociology, philosophy, political economy, labor history, and rhetoric.

Geography has been the site of a great deal of fascinating new research. The old Rand world maps have been exposed as a transparent ideological attempt to fix indelibly in the minds of young American students an imputed irreversible U.S. centrality. There are now easily available for teachers much more accurate world maps, ones in which the U.S. is objectively represented. Yet the advances at the university level have not made their way down to the ground level of K-12 public school education.

Hence the geographical component is not simply about studying maps; it is about the ideological way maps have been constructed. Teachers in training will have much more to do than mastering a methodology for teaching geography. They will learn about world history as they learn about geography, in particular about the history of the western hemisphere. In this area, there is an abundance of intellectually dynamic projects, for example, the Native American names of plains, rivers, mountains, lakes, and valleys. What did “Michigan” mean in the language of American Indians of the Great Lakes? Like the antislavery narratives and poems, this kind of inquiry opens up into other academic subjects, such as the genocidal history of Anglo-American colonialism and its relation to language.

A critical distinction to make is between the “rainbow curriculum” and that of an equalitarian (or socialist) American national education program. The latter is not about “sensitivity training,” political correctness, or “inclusivity”; it is about the moral and intellectual development of young people. In trying to be “revolutionary,” the American multiculturalists have had the opposite effect, provoking unguardedly a powerful right-wing offensive against all relativisms that’s taken down with it the entire class project of a national education curriculum for all working Americans.       

As the American Right is now collapsing along with its late imperial disaster in Iraq, the time is ripe for giving the empty rhetoric of “education” a concrete content and the highest political priority. All the Democrats angling for office in 2008, as well as those elected a few months ago, should be forced to take a stand on a federally-funded national education program and the rapid conversion of the military industrial complex that it requires. They should also be asked how they would teach if they were in the classroom. Instantly we will know “whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.”

Source: Black Agenda Report

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Responses

Jonathan Scott's essay is of great interest, since it focuses primarily on education and curriculum. On these he makes interesting points, though he's far too hopeful on where we are politically. What troubles me is that I suspect that his suggestions spin off from too many optimistic assumptions about the corporate control of America society with its right wing supporters (Republicans and Democrats), their control of American laws and the legislative process, and the direction of America’s policies at home and abroad.

Jonathan seems to think because the Democrats have won back the Congress that we have somehow come closer to a socialist Utopia and that all sectors of society are ripe for liberal, if not radical, reform. Of course, I think that is so much wishful thinking. 

In my view, the Right is not dead, but rather remassing its forces and the conservative voter is only waiting for another moment to assert himself for cheap gas and high profits on his 401K, which means the Arabs are going to be further reduced to the niggers he points them out to be in his piece, The Niggerization of Palestine  and has occurred with neocolonialism throughout the continent of Africa. The West (and now China and India) have just seize the resources of African peoples for their own nation-states and for their own corporations, leaving the peoples of these lands with crumbs. It is to that level that America is gonna level the people of Iraq.

That means the Overall Plan is still to seize the resources of the Middle East by any means necessary. That program seems to be all steam ahead. For as many Americans think we have a right to these resources for we know how to make the best use of them. We build SUVs, gas-guzzling ones, and we like it like that. We don't build palaces for heads of states; we’re not into that kind of oriental waste.

So, no, we are not in a post-colonial world, in which imperialist wars will be shunned by the American people. When it comes to Middle East politics, we are now at a new beginning, anew 21st century vision! The only question in the minds of conservatives is how to win and keep the American electorate complacent or preoccupied, which amounts to about the same.

We will continue for sometime spending our resources on guns as we have always done rather than educating our people. We don't want them too educated. We are always in need of fodder. And he who has the most guns will have the most power—by hook or crook. The only matter that is in question is the will. And George Bush is not lacking in will and he or she who carries the Democratic Banner in 2008 will be just as anxious as the Republican candidate to secure corporate control of Middle Eastern oil. And the more American deaths there are, the more anxious they will be. There will be no Vietnam withdrawal, this go around. We will stay the course!

Neither mountains, nor deserts, nor  murderous savages will stop us. —Rudy

*   *   *   *   *

Thanks, Rudy, for your comments on my new article.

To me it's not a matter of being optimistic or pessimistic but rather seeing things clearly. Of course the pro-imperialists will keep trying to destroy the planet and everyone who opposes their quest for more profits, but their Iraq disaster has shown the limits of what they can do, something the American people have already realized.

My point in the article is that there has never been a better time to propose socialist alternatives, especially in education policy. There is a huge hole in the education discourse that the left needs to fill. This hole is the proposal to convert the military into a vast national education apparatus.

My view is that most Americans are already socialists. I'm not a utopian. Socialism is nothing other than a relationship between people based on usefulness not exchange. Every day you will find people acting like socialists, from their families to education and all types of healthcare work. And the true desire of most people is to do something in life that matters, that has meaning and purpose.

We have been so mentally damaged by capitalism that we have no idea what socialism is, despite the fact that we often live according to its principles. Jonathan

*   *   *   *   *

One of the myths seems to be that Iraq has been and is a "disaster." It is oft-repeated by the Left. I am not sure exactly what is meant by its use. I know that the impact of Katrina on New Orleans, especially its poor, was a disaster. But as foreign wars go, Iraq has been fairly a safe U.S. war -- with its 3000 dead, probably less than a 1,000 a year. Clearly, there is no economic disaster. Most Americans seem fairly economically secure and comfortable. Except for the change in political parties in Congress, conservatives still seem in control of the government. And America's political and military sway throughout the world seems unabated.

Yes, we are in need of clarity. But for one who lived through the Vietnam era and the ethnic, gender, and cultural revolutions, I know that the rhetoric of the Left is too often self-delusional, which I suspect is the case with the present anti-war rhetoric. From my measure the U.S. could remain on a war-footing with the Middle East for decades and it would not of itself be a national disaster in the practical terms in which we have learned to live as American citizens. Certainly, things in need of repair will go unattended. But those kinds of things have been going on for decades without the war. Those kinds of social disintegrations were institutionalized during the Clinton administration snd with the full consent of Democrats (black and white; liberal and conservative).

So again I ask Where is it that Iraq is a disaster. It seems that American policy with regard to the Middle East, especially toward Iraq, has made great strides in seizing political and military control of the region. The only question is whether the US can maintain and secure its gains. It seems that the odds are against the resistance. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on the US and its allies to seize the oil fields and undermine Arab militancy. —Rudy

*   *   *   *   *

rudy: it's a disaster for such obvious reasons, even high-ranking generals say so. the u.s. military has been unable to hold down even one neighborhood in baghdad. all the arab world sees this. the disaster is that now the very worst religious elements in the region have gained an upperhand, they are more popular than ever. i see this every day in my own community. the disaster is that the u.s. war in iraq has brought to power forces that are antidemocratic and ultra-religious. it doesn't matter that they call themselves islamic, they could call themselves anything. the fact is that the whole region is regressing back to pre-modern clan warfare. it's very likely that u.s. elites will soon find themselves out of the picture in the middle east, so no i don't think this war benefitted the big oil companies. they made huge short-term profits, but in the long term they will lose everything. it's just a matter of time. Jon

*   *   *   *   *

Did you hear the recent news that the Iraqi Parliament is on the verge of signing over sweetheart deals to the major Euro-American oil corporations? The price of gas here is falling as a result. Did you also hear also that 20,000 more troops will be sent to Baghdad to wage war on Sadr's group to secure neighborhoods, that they will no longer be turning neighborhoods over to the Iraqi Army? Iraqi elites are making their compromises with the New World order. They are securing their rule and their future wealth.

As far as the radical Islamic groups gaining popular influence is rather meaningless in practical military terms. As we can see with the recent Palestinian election, it has only meant more suffering for the masses.

Of course, I'd like for progressive forces to win. The people to receive justice. So I pray that your vision of the future is on the mark and that I am entirely wrong about what will occur in the immediate future. —Rudy

Jonathan Scott is Assistant Professor of English at Al-Quds University in Abu Dees, the West Bank, and the author of Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes . jonascott15@aol.com

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011
 

Fiction

#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign.  The Economy

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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