At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Forgotten Black Conservative: Another Look at George S. Schuyler

posted by Jack Kerwick

In my previous article, I wrote about George S. Schuyler, a great conservative who also happened to have been black. Since his death in 1977, he has, unfortunately, been forgotten.  It is with an eye toward rectifying this situation that I write about him.

That Schuyler could lay legitimate claim to the conservative tradition is born out by a few things, namely, his belief in the tradition or culturally-constituted character of human life; his rejection of rapid and revolutionary change; and his anti-utopianism.  Though each of these ideas is conceptually distinct, in conservative thought they tend to be intertwined.

Schuyler witnessed the proliferation of a number of “Back toAfrica” movements.  The adherents of such movements wished to see American blacks take up residence in the continent from whence their ancestors were taken.  As far as Schuyler was concerned, this was a utopian dream of the worst sort.   The reason for this was simple: American blacks, by virtue of inheriting the same cultural traditions as their white counterparts, share substantially more in common with the latter than they share with non-American blacks. 

Schuyler explains that while “their training and education would undoubtedly be helpful to the backward and newly-emergent states” throughout the non-Western world, “barriers of language and culture” guarantee that black Americans “would not be accepted today anywhere on earth[.]”  With respect to the black American’s relationship vis-à-vis Africa specifically, he writes:

“Soil depletion, desiccation and the most general impoverishment and ignorance of quarreling ethnic groups indigenous to theDark Continentmake it most unappealing to people whose standard of living is in general superior to that of Europeans, to say nothing of Africans.” 

Simply put, “American Negroes” have “nothing whatever in common with even the most advanced Africans [.]”

It will doubtless surprise many a contemporary reader, black and white, to learn that Schuyler also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This legislation he viewed as another species of utopia, for like all utopian schemes, its designs could be implemented only at the cost of depriving us of much that we already enjoyed—in this case, our liberties as Americans.     

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Schuyler believed, would be but the latest effort “to speed social change by law [.]”  This, in turn, implies that “it is possible to make people better by force,” an idea that has “been the cause of much misery and injustice throughout the ages.”  A relatively young country likeAmerica, overcome as it is by delusions of grandeur regarding its own character and always tempted to succumb to the “passion for novelty,” is particularly disposed to suppose that rapid change can be induced through the creation of law.  But, as Schuyler accentuates, this is nothing more or less than a sign of “political immaturity.” 

“It is axiomatic,” Schuyler confidently asserts, “that it takes lots of time to change social mores, especially with regard to such hardy perennials as religion, race and nationality, to say nothing of social classes.”  In order for legislation to be effective, it needs to be buttressed by custom.  Unless legislation accommodates the community’s sensibilities—unless it seems to be a reflection or function of its customs—its enforcement will be that much “more difficult and expensive” and the government will be that much “less popular.”     

Schuyler was under no illusions concerning the treatment to which black Americans had historically been subjected by the white majority.  This treatment has been “morally wrong, nonsensical, unfair, un-Christian and cruelly unjust [.]”  Still, there a few considerations that he insisted we bear in mind.

First, Americawas “dealing better” in its quest for racial equality than any other multi-racial society on the face of the planet.  Schuyler wrote that while “it was all well and good to expect more ofAmerica than any other country,” we mustn’t ever lose sight of the fact that what “was an American problem was also a global one from which no country was free.” 

Second, since blacks’ emancipation in 1865, there have been changes inAmerica that, however slow the rate at which they’ve transpired, have nevertheless “been marked.”  Yet “civil rights laws, state or federal, have had little to do with it.”  What civil rights laws were passed throughout the decades “have been enforced and accepted only when the dominant majority acquiesced, and have generally lain dormant in the law books.”  To state it succinctly, it has been “custom,” not law, that “has dictated the pace of compliance” with the law. 

The final and most important consideration that Schuyler invoked when attending to the Civil Rights bill of 1964, his “principal case” against it, pertains to the constitutional liberty that it imperils.  As he said, this bill promised to be “another encroachment by the central government on the federalized structure of our society….”  Schuyler continued:

“Under such a law, the individual everywhere is told what he must do and what he cannot do, regardless of the laws and ordinances his state or community.”  As should be obvious, this legal arrangement is “a blow at the very basis of American society which is founded on state sovereignty and individual liberty and preference.” 

That Schuyler possessed an abiding understanding of and appreciation for tradition, recognized destructive utopian fantasies when he saw them, and detected—and valued—the secret (“the federalized structure of our society”) of our American liberties prove that he was a great conservative. 

These characteristics also prove that he was a great American.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 





Rethinking the Relationship Between Art and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

To the voluminous body of evidence that the television and film industries are comprised of doctrinaire leftists determined to promote their political program via these media, we can now add Ben Shapiro’s recently released Prime Time Propaganda.  This work is at once too long and too predictable, it is true.  But in spite of its vices, it would be unfair to begrudge Shapiro the commendation for the service that he supplies, namely, a much needed reminder of the variety of typically subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which Hollywood routinely attempts to invite sympathy from consumers for causes that they would otherwise reject.

My intention here, however, is not to review Shapiro’s book.  Rather, I wish to say a couple of things about the relationship between art and politics that he, among legions of others, addresses. 

The first thing of which to take note is that while those on the right incessantly (and understandably) bemoan the injection of leftist “politics” into the arts, it is really leftist morality that is the object of their disdain.  “Politics” is a term loaded with negative connotations.  This explains why politicians charge their rivals with “playing politics,” or why we complain that this situation or that is “all political.”  “Politics” has gotten a bad rap, I believe, but that is grist for another mill.  The point here is that while it is a much easier sell to accuse one’s opponents of politicizing matters than to accuse them of moralizing them, political causes are moral causes.

Second, since it is leftist morality of which those on the right want to divest the arts, it is unclear exactly what it is they are saying.  To put it another way, they appear to be simultaneously advocating two mutually contradictory positions: the arts should and should not promote morality.  Nationally syndicated radio talk show host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham is about as perfect an illustration of this tendency as any of which I am aware.  The title of her book, Shut Up and Sing, readily reveals her call for a morally-neutral art world.  At the same time, though, Ingraham also urgesHollywood to provide consumers with products that embody “family-friendly” messaging—i.e. “traditional” or “conservative” morality.

The relationship between art and morality has always been a subject of interest for philosophers.   That the arts contribute powerfully to the formation of character is a proposition that few could coherently deny.  It is precisely our recognition of this fact that motivates parents to regulate the images that their children ingest, and both parents and non-parents alike to repudiate those parents who fail in this regard.  Similarly doubtless is that for as long as they have existed, artists have sought to advance their conceptions of morality through their work.  At no time has this been truer than today.

Yet to concede all of this should not be confused with conceding that art and morality are one and the same.  It seems to me that if “art” is a concept with any intelligibility whatsoever—and we all appear to be in agreement that is—then we have no choice but to acknowledge the illegitimacy of reducing art to morality.  Art and morality are indeed distinct activities; neither should be measured in terms of the other.   

The moral philosopher or the ethicist and the philosopher of art or the aesthetician center attention upon fundamentally different kinds of objects.  The moral philosopher examines the concepts that constitute morality: “ought,” “right,” “wrong,” “duty,” “obligation,” “virtue,” “vice,” “happiness,” “pleasure,” “pain,” etc..  The philosopher of art, in contrast, focuses on such concepts as “beauty,” “mimesis,” “emotion,” “representation,” “symmetry,” and “expression.” 

Of moral agents and their actions it is proper—it is expected—that we should express approval or disapproval.  More specifically, agents and their actions are to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished.  Artworks, on the other hand, considered solely as artworks, elicit no such responses.  Artworks are neither “right” nor “wrong,” and the artist is neither “virtuous” nor “vicious.”  Far from inviting endorsement or reproach, an artwork provokes what we may call contemplative enjoyment. 

The response to an artwork is enjoyment because, like all other forms of enjoyment, an observer’s relationship to an artwork is an activity, not a momentary emotion.  Enjoyment is not synonymous with pleasure. Enjoyment can be and not infrequently is derived from activities that are productive of pleasure and pain alike.  “No pain, no gain,” an expression with which weightlifters have long been familiar, is a standing testament to this truth, for in spite of the cost in pain that the activity of weightlifting incurs, the weightlifter persists because he enjoys it.  And what is true of weightlifting is no less true of all manner of activity, from sports to music, writing to teaching, parenting to marriage. 

Yet the enjoyment that an artwork produces, unlike that to be had from the pursuit of these other objects, is also contemplative, for an artwork is uniquely situated to arrest our daily activity just long enough for us to reflect upon something that is beyond the world of wanting and getting, truth and falsity, right and wrong.  A fine artwork accepts nothing less than the observer’s undivided attention.  It is not, however, ungrateful, for in exchange for the abandonment of all other considerations—considerations of right and wrong, say, or scientific or historical accuracy—it promises its own unique enjoyment.

Anyone calling into question this (admittedly sketchy) theory of art would do himself a good turn to consider our reaction to, say, The Godfather.  Although this story has, with all of the justice in the world, been criticized for its romantic depiction of organized crime, that it is a stellar artwork is all but beyond dispute.  That Mafioso aren’t “really” as educated, articulate, or successful at eluding capture as Michael Corleone is neither here nor there as far the merits of The Godfather as an artwork are concerned.  What makes The Godfather an artwork is its potential to provoke contemplative enjoyment in those who behold it.  And what makes it a masterpiece is that it has succeeded in not only actualizing this potentiality, but in doing so excellently. 

There is much more that can and should be said on this subject.  Since “the politicization of art” has been and remains an issue for those on both sides of the political divide, my objective here was simply to encourage more thought on the nature of art and its relationship to morality.  It was toward this end that I offered this preliminary analysis of art.            

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

Rethinking the Relationship between History and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

Those on the conventional right incessantly lament the ignorance of history from which younger generations of Americans suffer.  While it is true that Americans appear to know frighteningly little about their country’s past, perhaps this has something to do with the abuse to which the concept of history has been subjected.    

The very concept of “history” is in an abysmal condition of neglect.  For this, partisans from across the political spectrum are to blame. Much more frequently than not, when those on both the right and the left advocate the teaching of “history,” it isn’t a distinct, autonomous line of inquiry or discipline to which they want people exposed; rather, what they champion is the promotion of their respective political-moral visions under the guise of “history.”  That this is so is readily born out by the titles of some of the more popular contemporary “history” books: A People’s History of America; The Last Best Hope; The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History; A Patriot’s History of The United States, etc.

In other words, “history” has been reduced to morality.  Those on the left exploit the name of “history” in order to impress upon audiences their notion of an Americaconceived in corruption.  Thus, “history” texts authored by leftists invariably accentuate those passages of our national life that fit most readily into the template of “racism” and “sexism” that they seek to impose upon them.  In contrast, those authored by rightists, while not devoid of all references to some of America’s more oppressive chapters, tend to romanticize our country.  Among the most salient ways in which they seek to obtain this end is by stressing what is commonly called “American Exceptionalism,” the concept that the United States stands alone among the nations of the world in being the only country that has ever been founded upon, not “the accidents of history,” but a universal, self-evident moral truth: the truth that all human beings are possessed of God-given “unalienable rights.” 

But if history is a distinct discipline, then it is as illegitimate to import moral judgments into it as it is illegitimate to import aesthetic judgments into, say, the study of biology.  Just as the marine biologist looks upon the ocean, not as God’s creation or an artwork, but as the environment that nurtures the organisms on which he sets his sights, so the genuine historian is concerned with informing us of what happened in the past—not what should have happened.  For example, it is proper for the moralist to characterize slavery as “reprehensible” or “evil”; the mode of the historian, on the other hand, is devoid of all such normative terms.

Biographies of, say, Abraham Lincoln, that heap either praise or scorn upon our sixteenth president, although they may be truthful, are not historical.  Lincoln may very well have been among the wisest of men as Harry Jaffa and legions of others insist, or he may have been a deceitful tyrant, as Thomas DiLorenzo and a not insignificant minority of scholars contend.  What we must grasp is that this is a debate that lies outside the province of the historian.  

If we are in the right in regarding history as a distinct field of inquiry, then it is improper for us at the same time to enlist it in the service of either present or future moral ends.  Most “historians” today actually exploit the past for the sake of advancing a moral or political agenda of one sort or another.  Now, there is nothing illicit about the activity of drawing upon the past in order to illuminate present circumstances; indeed, it is both necessary and desirable that we do as much.  The point, however, is that whatever else we may say of this engagement of mining the past for present reward, we must not say that it is historical. 

Because a person’s very identity is constituted by the events that he’s experienced, it is inevitable that we shall be forever recalling episodes from our pasts.  Yet only if we are determined to divest the concept of history of all meaning will we then conclude from this that each of us is a historian.  If everyone is a historian, then no one is.  Similarly, the examples of virtuous characters from our civilization’s past promise to impart much in the way of moral instruction.  Unless, though, we want to regard “history” texts along exactly the same lines as we tend to regard children’s stories—as sources of moral education and entertainment—we must grant that searching the past for even noble present purposes like the inculcation of excellence is most definitely not an historical enterprise. 

No, as Michael Oakeshott observed, it isn’t the historian’s interest in the past that distinguishes him as the figure that he is; it is his interest in the past for its own sake that makes him a historian. 

The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that objectivity was a fiction.  Every living organism, he argued, was fundamentally motivated by what he called “the will to power,” the impulse to satiate its needs and desires by dominating its surroundings.  The human being differs from all other living things only insofar as his intelligence is concerned, for humans seek to exploit and subjugate one another not just through brute force, but through what we may call rational coercion. No person will come right out and tell others that he needs for them to believe as he does; this simply would go no distance toward attaining the sought after objective.  Rather, he will do what, according to Nietzsche, philosophers have been doing for as long as they have been around: he will avoid all self-references and appeal only to such “objective” criteria as Reason, Truth, Natural Law, God, and so forth.

Now, there is much over which to quarrel with Nietzsche.  But his thought is not without its share of insights.  There can be no denying that far too frequently the beliefs that we profess are informed by motives that haven’t anything to do with the search for truth.  Neither can we deny that just as frequently we attempt to hide these motives, from both ourselves and others, by cloaking them with the language of objectivity. 

The appeal to “history,” I hope the reader now recognizes, is but another way that ideologues of one sort or another have done this.       

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 


A Forgotten Black Conservative: A Closer Look at George S. Schuyler

posted by Jack Kerwick

Over the years, the John Birch Society—the organization of which The New American is an organ—has been besmirched by its ideological rivals for all  manner of evil, most prominently of which is the sin of “racism.”  More specifically, given that its membership has always been and remains predominantly white, it is “white racism” with which it has been charged.

However, it is difficult to see how this charge can be made to fit once it is recognized that as far back as the 1960’s, one of the most notable black writers in the country—George S. Schuyler—became a member of JBS.  Actually, Schuyler was among the most astute, courageous, wittiest, and impassioned writers, black, white, or other. 

Of course, that Schuyler was a conservative and a member of JBS is not recognized by many because, regretfully, Schuyler himself is no longer remembered. 

Born in 1895 inRhode Island, Schuyler spent his formative years inSyracuse,New York.  He served in World War I and, upon being discharged, moved toHarlemwhere he spent the rest of his days until his death in 1977.  Yet during this time, Schuyler enjoyed quite an eventful existence.

Throughout the decade of the 1920’s, he became associated with that circle of artists that history would recall as “the Harlem Renaissance.”  During this same period, interestingly enough, Schuyler also joined the Socialist Party.  However, in his autobiography, Black and Conservative, Schuyler admits that it was from a craving for intellectual stimulation, and not an affinity for socialism, that initially drew him to this organization.  But even though it was only a relatively short while before he became disenchanted with the ideas of his associates, apparently his time as a member was not for naught, for from this juncture onward, Schuyler became an ardent enemy of all things that so much as remotely smelled of communism.  To the end of combating “the red threat,” he employed his skills as a writer for such publications as H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury and The Pittsburg Courier, the largest black newspaper publication inAmerica of which Schuyler was editor from 1922 until 1964. 

The title of Schuyler’s autobiography, Black and Conservative (1966), is indeed a fitting description, for Schuyler was a conservative. That there were differences of various sorts between the races he never would have dreamt to deny.  But these differences, he insisted, had nothing to do with nature; they were cultural.  To put this point another way, like any good conservative, Schuyler underscored the monumental role that tradition plays in constituting identity.  And in order to show that it was culture or tradition that accounts for differences between black and white Americans, he drew attention to their similarities—likenesses that ordinarily escape casual observers of both races.

For example, Schuyler repudiated the notion that there was something that can aptly be termed “the Harlem Renaissance”—if it is said to center around a distinctively black art.  He wrote: “Negro art there has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness.”  Slave songs, “the blues,” jazz, and “the Charleston” are alike the creations of blacks, but, as Schuyler notes, they originated with Southern blacks and, as such, are “foreign to Northern Negroes, West Indian Negroes, and African Negroes.  In short, they are as “expressive or characteristic of the Negro race” as “the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders or the Dalmatian peasantry are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race.”

Within the context ofAmerica, so-called “Negro art” is in reality Eurocentric.  As Schuyler put it, “the Aframerican [sic] is merely a lampblacked [sic] Anglo-Saxon.”  He was not short on substantiation for this claim.

“The dean of the Aframerican literati is W.E.B. Du Bois, a product of Harvard and German universities; the foremost Aframerican sculptor is Meta Warwick Fuller, a graduate of leading American art schools and former student of Rodin; while the most noted Aframerican painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is dean of painters inParisand has been decorated by the French Government.” 

That black American artists are more akin to their white counterparts than either blacks and whites tend to realize is unsurprising once we consider that “the Aframerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white American.”  For instance, “in the homes of the black and white Americans of the same cultural and economic level one finds similar furniture, literature, and conversation.”  Schuyler asks: “How, then, can the black American be expected to produce art and literature dissimilar to that of the white American?”

What Schuyler believes is true of the black American artist he is convinced is no less true of black Americans generally: their dispositions, tastes, and sensibilities are the products, not of a uniquely “black nature,” but the Eurocentric or Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions in which they were nurtured.  Conservatives, forever mindful of the tradition or culturally constituted character of individual identity, have always regarded the radically individualistic notion of the “self-made man” as a fiction: no one can literally lift himself up by his own bootstraps, for every person is dependent, often in ways of which he is unaware, upon the assistance of others.  Doubtless, Schuyler is of a piece with other conservative thinkers on this score.  But he goes a step beyond this to rebuke the related idea that racial groups can shed the cultural traditions within which their distinguishing features were formed. 

From Schuyler’s discussion of racial issues, conservatives of all races can learn much about their own intellectual tradition.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American   

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