The Black Political Philosopher in American Civilization
My Racially Charged Introduction to the History of Political Philosophy
My Junior year at Harvard College, I took two courses in consecutive semesters in the history of political philosophy with a professor who I viewed 'epitomized Harvard' like no other, Harvey Mansfield.
At that time, I identified as black. Since my father is white & my mother is black, during my primary & secondary school years, I actually identified as 'interracial'. But when I arrived at Harvard, I met black people unlike I had met before, from all over the world, from the best schools in the world, and I was interested in getting to know them better. I had primarily gone to public schools in Philadelphia, and had been raised in a working class environment. The Harvard blacks were very different, & since the terms of camaraderie appeared to be 'identifying as black', I decided to give it a try. I even went as far as getting involved in the Black Student Association (BSA), and one year sat on the board.
I mention this, because these two classes that I took with Harvey Mansfield were probably the 'whitest' classes I took at Harvard, which is to say that while these courses were fairly large lecture courses, everyone there, except for me, was white. And this was not accidental.
Mansfield had a 'bad reputation', because every year, without fail, he would make a highly publicized 'politically incorrect' public statement about some hot button issue. One year he made a statement about homosexuals, which today, might actually get him arrested. But the 'whiteness' of Mansfield's classes was attributable to statements he made about black students. And let me tell you: the black student leaders would tell all the blacks he was racist before one even got a chance to meet him.
Harvey Mansfield claimed that grade inflation at Harvard College was largely a result of the Affirmative Action programs that had brought a huge influx of black students into the University in the late 1960s. That many of these black students did not have the necessary academic skills to compete, according to the standards of Harvard College at that time, and so in the Social Sciences and Humanities, the faculty had created 'grade inflation', to make it easier for these allegedly unqualified black students to compete academically.
Personally, I had no idea whether any of this was true or false, but Mansfield was in a position to witness the sources of grade inflation at Harvard. He had been there forever. Moreover, I really did not care, because I did not view myself as an 'Affirmative Action admission', and neither did the other black students at Harvard. They would actually say to me: “You're not like us. You are not here on Affirmative Action”. The black students who believed that they were at Harvard primarily owing to Affirmative Action policies were really angry, including the Black Students Association president.
There were two ironies here in this Harvard College campus conflict. First, this BSA President, who was railing against Harvey Mansfield and calling him a 'racist', undoubtedly, held more deep seated racial hatred & bigotry against white people, especially Jewish people, than Harvey Mansfield held against black people, if he held any. Which honestly, I'm not convinced he does. That BSA President is today an American 'Civil Rights leader'.
Black Harvard, when I was there, was largely controlled by upper bourgeois NYC blacks. I believe this describes all the BSA Presidents when I was there, and these folks from my vantage point had real deep seated racial resentments, not just towards white people, but towards Jews in particular. I remember showing this BSA President a used book I bought about Malcolm X, written by Peter Goldman, and this person flew into a rage, and went on an Anti-Semitic rant about Jews controlling black history, etc.
This person was not atypical among these black New Yorkers who ran black Harvard. They really resented and hated Jewish people. You could not even mention the words “Jews” or “Jewish people” in private to these people without them flying into a rage, and going on an Anti-Semitic rant of one form or another. The funny thing is that when we were having our 'black-Jewish' dialogues with Harvard Jewish student leaders, they feigned camaraderie with these people. I came to realize that there was a good reason why these folks were 'black leaders': they were very effectively able to present one face and voice to their black constituency, and a wholly different face & voice to 'white leaders', including 'Jewish leaders'. Especially 'Jewish leaders'. Given the fact that my father was Jewish, I was forced to break camaraderie with these people, some of whom occupy black political & academic leadership positions today.
The second irony is that these black Harvard student leaders who rejected Harvey Mansfield and his classes, could really have benefited from his courses. Moreover, I think that their effectiveness as black political & academic leaders today could have benefited.
Could There be a Black John Rawls?
In graduate school, at University of Chicago, I thought about Mansfield and the great Anglo-American political philosopher John Rawls. I thought to myself: “Could someone who is not white, especially, someone who is black (or like me) ever become a 'Harvey Mansfield'? Or more importantly, could they become a 'John Rawls'? Could there be a black John Rawls in America?”
I came to think that the biggest obstacle to there being a 'black John Rawls' was not 'white racism', but in fact other black scholars & intellectuals. I say that because when I was at Chicago, there was only one black Professor in the department, & this guy viewed me as a grave threat to 'black freedom' as soon as I arrived. I say that because that is what he told all the black students, who were dependent on him for their careers. In turn, these black students told the white students behind me back that I was a mixed-up self-hating interracial person, and that I had no protection from them. That the white students were free to treat me with contempt. And that they should.
The problem was not only that I had been a student of Harvey Mansfield, and was now a Junior Fellow with the Olin Center, but also that this lone black professor had nothing to do with my admission. All the other black students were there as a result of him, but I wasn't. And he viewed 'my knowledge' as a threat that he could not control. It was like he viewed himself as my white slave master, and I was an over curious Negro slave on his plantation. He had a 'black political boss' mentality.
The Black Political Philosopher in American Civilization
There's a bigger lesson here than the racial bigotry & anti-semitism among black spokespersons and intellectuals, or whether these people believe in the principle of the freedom of speech. I'm not sure that a black person (or someone like me) can really become John Rawls, or that trying to become 'the next John Rawls' is even a desirable objective. John Rawls represents an Anglo-American tradition, which I appreciate, but my association with this tradition is very different than John Rawls or Harvey Mansfield.
There are prominent Afro-Americans with PhDs in philosophy who try to mix the European traditions of philosophy with Afro-American oral & written traditions, most notably, Cornel West. West is one type of 'black political philosopher', but as a student of Harvey Mansfield, and ultimately, Leo Strauss, I have long looked for some more 'ancient tradition' of black political philosophy in Western Civilization, and I have finally found it: Aesop's Fables.
According to tradition, Aesop was an extraordinarily brilliant Egyptian slave of a Greek Master, who through his cleverness acquired his freedom, and in time, his reputation for sagacity grew so highly, that he became an advisor to statesmen. Booker T. Washington was a student of Aesop's Fables, in one form or another. If someone asked me today who was the greatest black political philosopher in European history, I would not hesitate to reply: Aesop. Moreover, if they asked me who was the greatest black American political philosopher, I would also not hesitate, Booker T. Washington, the 'American Aesop'.
Like Karl Marx, Aesop's political teaching centers around 'class conflict', but in direct opposition to Marx, Aesop's teaching seeks to resolve 'class conflicts' to promote stability, while Marx's teaching seeks to exacerbate 'class conflicts' in order to promote Revolution. Aesop belongs to the early years of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophical tradition, but there is something exotic about his work, and one suspects this is owing to his Egyptian origin. He communicates his political philosophy through fables, mostly where the characters are animals in human situations.
Booker T. Washington is the 'American Aesop', and I believe he viewed himself this way. W. E. B. Du Bois is the Afro-American Karl Marx, and I also believe he viewed himself this way. These are two opposing models for black progress and leadership that have existed historically, and represent two distinct black Parties. This black two-Party system, one with its origins in Booker, and the other in Du Bois, was strongest in the 1950s. In 1956, some 40% of blacks voted to re-elect Ike, and some 60% voted for a change in Adlai Stevenson.
The 1950s was really the last time, and perhaps the only time, that the Afro-American demos really took control of their destiny. The Party of Booker and the Party of Du Bois, put aside their differences, in order to work together towards a specific and concrete goal, and in 1964-65, they secured the Civil Rights legislation they sought. They changed America forever.
The MLK led Southern movement was a black Revolution in the American South. This wasn't a black Marxist-Leninist Revolution. That is to say, it wasn't a 'Du Boisian' Revolution. MLK used the most passive methods possible. Though Revolution is not Booker's style, if Booker T. ever did lead a Revolution in the American South, I think it would look a lot like what MLK did. If Du Bois led a Revolution, it would not look like MLK. It would look more like the Black Panthers.
And that is sort of what happened in the late 1960s in the black American North and West: the Du Boisian Revolution. The Party of Du Bois took over the black Revolution and established a black one-Party system, just like Du Bois' heroes: Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. This has lasted nearly 60 years and there is some question about whether this Party of Du Bois has been effective enough in promoting black progress to justify a black one-Party political dictatorship. Because a black one-Party system means that the black demos really does not have a choice in the destiny of the black 'nation within a nation', nor even in the definition of their own black identities. All of this is simply determined by fiat by this new black Mandarin class that has taken over since the Revolution. People like Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's fine for some, but others would like a choice.
Moreover, I think history shows that when the black elites gives the black demos more choice in their own destiny that they can do great things. What great things have been done by this Party of Du Bois in the last 50 years. I can't think of one.
Il Trovatore (Aristarchus Patrinos)
~1900 words ; August 19, 2020