At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

My Grandmother and Moral Philosophy

posted by Jack Kerwick

The notion that moral conduct is primarily a matter of “obeying” rules or principles alleged to be universal in scope has figured prominently throughout the modern era.  The moral point of view, according to this line of thought, requires the strictest impartiality.  This idea has been expressed in a variety of idioms, the most dominant of which is the doctrine of “natural” or “human rights.”  Morality, from this perspective, chiefly consists in “respecting” or “protecting” peoples’ “rights.”

In spite of the prevalence of this universal conception of morality, there is an older tradition that has, remarkably, managed to survive to date.  On this older account, morality isn’t about obeying abstract universal principles. Rather, it is about becoming a virtuous person. 

Virtues are not principles to which all rational beings have access.  They are character dispositions that are acquired over time through habit.  And since they are habits, this means that, unlike the knowledge of universal principles, knowledge of virtue cannot be sandwiched between the covers of a textbook or otherwise transmitted through propositions.  Knowledge of virtue can only come through the imitation of a virtuous person.

A virtue-centered approach to morality is, then, the antithesis of a principles-oriented account.  If the latter regards morality as something universal and impartial, the former holds it to be concrete and partial.  We learn about morality, not by being taught about “rights” or “natural law” or “the Form of the Good” or anything else of the kind; rather, we learn about morality through those “little platoons”—our families, churches, and local communities—to which Edmund Burke famously alluded.   

It is against the backdrop of this continuing conflict of moral visions that I find myself thinking about my grandmother, Ferrera Wieser. 

On Friday, March 9, while surrounded by her family, my grandmother—my Nonna, as her grandchildren affectionately referred to her—died at the age of 88.

Born Ferrara Veronica Squarcia, Nonna was the second youngest of six children born to Christofero and Barbara Squarcia, Italian immigrants who made America—and little Lambertville, New Jersey—their new home during the second decade of the twentieth century. 

I would spend hours and hours as I grew older speaking to my grandfather about his youth.  The ease with which he recalled his childhood memories was rivaled only by that with which he relayed them.  “Pop Pop” would get a visible glimmer in his eye as he catapulted me to 1930’sNew York City, where he was born and reared.  With his wife, Nonna, things were, unfortunately, otherwise.  She couldn’t recollect all that much, but the few stories that she did share were enough bring into focus a reasonably coherent impression of her childhood: it was good.

Nonna and her siblings were exceptionally close and they were all devoted to their parents.  Her family’s home was located on a hill—“Cottage Hill”—that led away from town.  In those days, long before television and well before it would become commonplace for every American family to own a car, Nonna and her family would entertain themselves by way of singing songs and playing games.  At Christmastime, they would trek out into the woods to cut down a tree, and on Christmas morning, each sibling could anticipate receiving, among one or maybe two other things, a piece of fruit. 

But all was not fun and games in the Squarcia household.

My great grandfather was a shoe repairman. His shop was in the hub of town, about a thirty minute walk from his home.  As I said, the Squarcias had no car, and so my grandmother, as a very young girl, would sometimes be entrusted with delivering her father his lunch. In addition to this responsibility (and who knows how many others), it was also left to her to cap the bottles into which her father would pour his homemade beer.

When she entered grade school, apparently from a heightened self-consciousness regarding her Italian name, she identified herself, not asFerrara, but as “Mary.”  The name stuck and until this day, most people who know her know her as Mary.

In 1946, she married my grandfather, Frank Wieser.  They would build a life together that would include five children, eight grandchildren, and, eventually, three great- grandchildren.  Sadly, Pop Pop wouldn’t live to meet his great-grandchildren. In 2007, after 61 years of marriage with Nonna, he passed away.

My grandparents lived but five blocks away from my parents’ home.  Thus, along with my siblings and, for that matter, all of my cousins, I essentially grew up in their house. It was nothing fancy, this house of theirs, and it took them nearly twenty years to acquire it.  Being of modest size, my grandparents’ house was typical of the residences of their lower middle class neighborhood.  But it was theirs.  It was the first and last house that they would ever own, for they remained within its walls for the rest of their lives. It is there that they would supply their family with a rich fund of memories.

Family was everything for Nonna (and Pop Pop too, of course).  It wasn’t just every holiday and birthday that we celebrated at their home.  When I was growing up, every weekend—Saturday and Sunday—may as well have been a holiday weekend, for my entire family would gather at my grandparents’ where we would eat—“Mangia!” (“Eat!”) Nonna would order—and the adults would play cards.

Through the family’s struggles and hardships, my grandparents were the glue that would preserve its integrity.

And preserve it they did.

Nonna was not in the least bit politically oriented.  My aunt may have dragged her off on a couple of occasions to vote, but as far as knowledge of current events is concerned, my grandmother had not a speck of it.  She didn’t know what was going on in the world and she didn’t care to know.  What this means is that unlike so many of our contemporaries, she most certainly did not measure her moral standing according to the positions that she took on the political issues of the day.  Nonna had no such positions.

I never once heard my grandmother speak of “rights,” whether “natural,” “human,” or otherwise.  In fact, for that matter, notwithstanding few exceptions, Nonna scarcely spoke about morality at all.

She lived it.

And she lived it well, without any sense of self-consciousness, and certainly not in a manner that would suggest that she was trying to “apply” principles to specific situations.

No one is ever just a person. Each of us is someone’s child. Most of us have friends, siblings, and colleagues.  Some of us are spouses, parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents.  Each persona that we assume comes with obligations and virtues that are peculiar to it.  It is by way of discharging these duties and fostering these excellences that we become the people, the moral agents, who we are.

Nonna masterfully played out each of the roles into which life cast her.  No one who knew her would even dare to suggest otherwise.

St. Francis of Assisiis said to have admonished his disciples to preach the Gospel—and, when necessary, to use words.  When it came to virtue, Nonna was short on words but long on action.  The difference, though, between the disciples of Saint Francis, on the one hand, and Nonna, on the other, is that while the former intended to instruct others, Nonna acted as if she no more intended to teach others in the way of virtue than rain intends to moisten the Earth.  Her virtue was her nature.

The passing of my grandmother marks the passing of an era.  Our family will miss her more than words can express.  She was among the finest human beings that we ever could have known.  Yet we can thank God that we had her with us, and had her with us for as long as we did. 

Rest in peace Nonna (September 13, 1923-March 9, 2012).   

Originally published at The New American 








Alex Haley’s Fraudulent Roots

posted by Jack Kerwick

This is the 35th anniversary of the ground breaking television miniseries, Roots.  Based on Alex Haley’s wildly successful novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the epic miniseries starred an ensemble cast—several members of which recently visited with Oprah Winfrey on her new network (OWN) to commemorate this occasion.

This is worth commenting upon only because, for as provocative and entertaining as both book and movie undoubtedly are—I read the book twice and watched the miniseries numerous times—Roots, the author’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, is a work of fiction through and through.  To listen to Oprah and the actors with whom she was accompanied, one could be forgiven for regarding this as news.

In fact, to describe Roots merely as “fiction” is to treat Haley with more charity than he deserves.  In at least three critical respects, Haley was downright dishonest.

Haley and the History of Slavery

Black commentator Stanley Crouch doesn’t mince words when it comes to Alex Haley.  Haley, Crouch insists, was a “ruthless hustler” and “one of the biggest damn liars this country has ever seen.”  Crouch likens Haley to Tawana Brawley, the young black woman who infamously lied about being raped and humiliated by a white police officer.  Like the lie concocted by Brawley and abetted by the likes of Al Sharpton, Haley’s story is also a “hoax” that beautifully illustrates “how history and tragic fact can be pillaged by an individual willing to exploit whatever the naïve might consider sacred.” 

Crouch explains: “Haley came on the scene when Negroes were becoming obsessed with their African ancestry and were having overwrought reactions to a tale of slavery that always, conveniently, left out the crucial role of the cooperative and profiting Africans.” 

Black thinker Thomas Sowell, who has written prolifically on race and slavery, makes the same point as Crouch—even if not quite as bluntly.  Regarding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Sowell remarks that Roots “presented some crucially false pictures of what had actually happened—false pictures that continue to dominate thinking today.”

For instance, “Roots has a white man leading a slave raid in West Africa, where the hero, Kunta Kinte [supposedly, Haley’s ancestor] was captured, looking bewildered at the chains put on him as he was led away in bondage.”  Moreover, even “the village elders” likewise appeared perplexed by the sight of these “white men” who were “carrying their people away.”  In glaring contrast to this depiction, Sowell correctly asserts, the location from which Kunta Kinte was taken—West Africa—had been “a center of slave trading before the first white man arrived there—and slavery continues in parts of it to this very moment.”  He adds: “Africans sold vast numbers of other Africans to Europeans.  But they hardly let Europeans go running around in their territory, catching people willy-nilly” (emphasis added). 

According to Sowell, Roots did more harm than good in fueling “the gross misconception that slavery was about white people enslaving black people.” In reality, “the tragedy of slavery was of a far greater magnitude than that.”  Slavery knew no racial boundaries.  “People of every race and color were both slaves and enslavers, for thousands of years, all around the world.”  Sowell likens slavery to cancer in that it transcends time and place.  He concludes: “If reparations were to be paid for slavery, everybody on this planet would owe everybody else.” 

Hayley was, to put it mildly, a “historical revisionist” when it came to the issue of slavery.  But this in and of itself certainly doesn’t warrant the verdict, issued in no uncertain terms by Stanley Crouch, that Hayley was a “ruthless hustler.” After all, Hayley’s “historical revisionism” on this score is very much a function of the leftist moral imagination that came to dominate the post-1960’s intelligentsia.  Rather, if Hayley could be said to be guilty of nothing more than subscription to an intellectually and ethically shallow political-moral vision, it would not be difficult to issue him a pardon.

Yet matters are far worse than this.

Haley and Plagiarism

As Philip Nobile writes, Haley was a “literary rogue,” an “impostor” whose “prose was so inept that he required ghosts [ghost writers] throughout his career.” Upon reading Haley’s posthumously released private papers and interviewing one of his original editors for Roots, Nobile was able to determine that the latter’s real author was Murray Fisher, Haley’s editor from his time at Playboy.  Fisher was also, incidentally, white.

This piece of deception, however, is part and parcel of a much larger web of the same.

At least Fisher consented to write Roots.  Harry Courlander did not.     

In the late 1960’s, Harry Courlander—a white man—composed The African, a fictional work about a young African boy who is captured, made to endure the horrors of the mid-Atlantic passage, and eventually sold into slavery in America.  In 1978 he sued Haley for plagiarism.  Upon expressing regret that at least 81 passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Courlander’s novel and recast in Roots, and upon the Judge’s unambiguous finding that Haley was guilty of plagiarism, Haley agreed to an out of court settlement whereby he would pay Courlander $650,000 (roughly 2 million dollars in today’s terms).   

In his pre-trial memorandum, Courlander argued that had Haley not copied from his novel, “Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could written Roots without The African [.]”  Roots, Courlander continues, “copied [from The African] language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.”

An English professor from Columbia University, Michael Wood, submitted an Expert Witness Report to the court.  His comparative analysis of the two novels thoroughly substantiated Courlander’s allegations.  “The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and television dramatization of Roots,” he declared, “is clear and irrefutable.” The plagiarism, Wood insisted, “is significant and extensive [.]” Whether it is “copied” or “modified,” The African is “always” “consulted” by the author of Roots.  The “essential elements” of Courlander’s work—“phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and plot”—constitute “the life” of Roots.

Judge Robert J. Ward concluded: “Copying there was, period.”  Years later, Ward came forth in an interview with the BBC and admitted that Haley “had perpetrated a hoax on the public.” 

Although during the trial Haley swore that he personally had never read The African, that “the life” of Courlander’s book had found its way into Roots courtesy of careless research assistants who failed to document their material, a “minorities’ studies” professor, Joseph Brucac from Skidmore College, signed a sworn affidavit in which he noted that he and Haley had indeed discussed The African at least five years prior to the publication of Roots. In fact, Brucac even lent Haley his own copy of it.

Haley and his Roots

His plagiarism aside, as professional genealogists Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills have demonstrated beyond a doubt, Haley’s claims to the contrary aside, there is no formal documentation to corroborate “the oral tradition” regarding his family history.  Moreover, the very documentation to which he refers—“plantation records, wills, census records”—repudiates this tradition.  The Mills are to the point: “In truth, those same plantation records, wills, and censuses cited by Mr. Haley not only fail to document his story, but they contradict each and every pre-Civil War statement of Afro-American lineage in Roots” (emphases original)!

Haley claims that his great-great-great-great grandfather, Kunta Kinte, arrived inAnnapolis,Marylandupon the slave ship, the Lord Ligonier, in September of 1767.  There he was purchased by John Waller of Spotsylvania County,Virginia, who gave him the name “Toby.” 

But Haley can know for sure that Kunta Kinte is Toby if and only if he is correct regarding the date of Kunta’s arrival in America.  As the Mills assert, “this determination of date of arrival is crucial to the establishment of Kinte’s American identity” (emphasis original).  The problem, for Haley, is that he pre-selected this date.  Precisely the same documentation upon which he relies to establish that his ancestor and the Waller slave Toby are one and the same person actually proves that this is impossible. “Had Mr. Hayley not chosen arbitrarily to limit his research to only those records filed after the arrival of the ship that he had already ‘identified’ upon questionable premises, had his research indeed been as exhaustive as assumed, he would have discovered that this Waller slave Toby appeared in six separate documents of record over a period of four years preceding the arrival of the Lord Ligonier” (emphasis original).   

In short: “Toby Waller was not Kunta Kinte.”     

The slave Toby belonged to the Wallers, but there is no record as to when, or even if, he was purchased.  It appears that, against Haley’s account, he first belonged to Dr. William Waller and was then conveyed to his brother John.  Sometime later, Toby once more became the property of William.  It would also seem that Toby Waller died between five and ten years prior to the birth of “Kizzy,” the woman who Haley says Kunta Kinte fathered.

As to the person with whom Kunta is supposed to have fathered Kizzy—Haley identifies her as “Bell”—there is no record.  There is an “Isbell” who belonged to the father of John and William Waller.  Yet she never belonged to either of his two sons.  Thus, she could not have been married to Toby. 

Neither are there any documents in existence that confirm anything that Haley has to say about the woman who he describes as his great-great-great grandmother—Kizzy.

According to Haley, compliments of William Waller’s niece and Kizzy’s childhood friend, “Missy Anne,” Kizzy was literate.  When her childhood sweetheart “Noah” planned to escape from the Waller plantation, Kizzy armed him with a traveling pass on which she forged Missy Anne’s name.  Noah was caught, tortured into confessing the source of the traveling pass, and sold. Kizzy then too was sold to Tom Lea, of North Carolina. 

The problem here is that there are no records to substantiate any of this.  What we can determine is that there is no way that Anne Waller and the Kizzy about whom Haley speaks could have been childhood friends, for Waller was already a grown woman in her twenties by the time that Kizzy was supposed to have been born. 

The Mills state that “there remains the inarguable conclusion that the 182 pages and thirty-nine chapters in which theVirginialives of Haley’s ‘ancestors’ are chronicled have no basis in fact.  Neither of the two relationships that are crucial to his pedigree (the identity of Kizzy as daughter of Kinte alias Toby, and the relationship of Bell as wife of Kinte and mother of Kizzy) can be established by even the weakest genealogical evidence.”

If “theVirginia chapters of his saga” fail abysmally to “represent a documented ancestry for” Haley “or for the descendants of the white family alleged to have owned his family,” the North Carolina chapters beginning with Kizzy’s arrival at the property of Tom Lea is just as abysmal in these regards.  Not only is Tom Lea—who is allegedly Haley’s ancestor by virtue of his rape of Kizzy—not the poor white trash that Haley depicts him as; there is zero evidence that he ever owned a slave name “Kizzy.”

It isn’t just radical inconsistencies in Haley’s antebellum ancestry with which he has to reckon.  There are all sorts of questions that his claims on the part of his post-Civil War ancestry raise as well.   As the Mills say, “not only the authenticity of Roots evidence is called into question by the total absence of documentation for any alleged event, individual, or relationship, but doubt also falls upon the very essence of family life portrayed in Roots” (emphasis added).

There is one final point.  Roots climaxes with Haley discovering the village from which his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was supposed to have been captured.  Supposedly, a griot from the village of Juffure—Fofana—confirmed the account of Kinte’s abduction that Haley had grown up hearing about from his aunts.

Professor Donald R. Wright, “a specialist in African pre-history with extensive experience in the collection of Gambian oral traditions,” visited Juffure twice.  What he discovered was that Fofana was a fake.  Fofana “showed no inclination to recite long (or short) genealogies of any families.”  When it came to Kunta Kinte, though, “he was eager…to speak [.]”  Kinte, Wright continues, “was the only individual about whom Fofana provided any specific information.”

There is a reason for this.  In advance of his exchange with Fofana, Haley relayed to Gambian officials the account of Kunta Kinte’s capture that had supposedly been transmitted to him by his relatives.  He told them as well that it was confirmation of this account that he sought.  Seeing the potentially boundless profits to be reaped from tourism and the like, the officials insured that Haley would hear what he wanted to hear. 

The second time Professor Wright visited Juffure he did not seek out Fofana by name.  Rather, he sought out “the person best versed in the history of the village and its families.” Wright was taken to listen to four people.  Fofana’s name was never even mentioned.   


Alex Haley’s Roots is undeniably as epic a television drama as it is a book.  Yet this does nothing to change the fact that neither version conveys fact.  Nor does it alter the sad truth that Haley was a fraud.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 









Reflections on Ilana Mercer’s “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa”

posted by Jack Kerwick
Although theory and practice are indeed mutually distinct domains, their distinctness should never be taken for exclusiveness. Theory is as distinct from practice as is the spider from its web or the bird from its nest. Moreover, just as the web arises from the spider and the nest from the bird, so too is theory born from reflection on practice. This can be seen for the truth that it is whether we are attending to contemporary political works spun from more commonplace imaginations or the philosophical masterpieces of the Western tradition. 
Some of these latter, like Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan, labor hard to conceal their indebtedness to the contingencies of place and time. They at least appear to have more or less emancipated themselves from the circumstantial concerns that provoked them. Others, like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, are much less reserved about revealing the impulse driving their pursuits.
It is within this later vein that Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa is squarely located.
The neglect with which this book has been treated is as sore as it is tragic. 
South Africa is the place that Mercer called home for a good part of her life (she has also lived in Israel). She came of age under the rule of the white Afrikaner minority—“apartheid”—and witnessed up close and quite personally its passage into the annals of history. While there is no love loss between Mercer and apartheid—at no time does she hesitate to convict it of injustice—it isn’t apartheid that drove her to leave many of her relatives and friends behind so that she could emigrate to America.
No, Mercer’s flight from her old homeland is part and parcel of a virtual exodus of South Africans. And for this abrupt turn of events the African National Congress deserves all of the thanks.
The question of identity is the question: what makes any given thing the same thing at one time as it is at another time? In his Politics, Aristotle seeks to secure the criterion by which the identity of a political association can be established. Upon considering some proposals—territorial limits, “the stock” of the residents, etc.—he concludes that a political association is the same association at one juncture as at another if and only if its constitution remains the same. The constitution of a political association refers to the kind of government that defines it. 
By Aristotle’s standard, then, post-apartheid South Africa is most definitely not the same political association as its apartheid-era predecessor. However, whether we accept Aristotle’s definition or not, as Mercer makes abundantly—painfully—clear, whatever continuity may be said to have existed at one time between the Old South Africa and the New is no longer legible.
Cannibal is a provocative account of the depths to which South Africa has degenerated under the rule of the African National Congress. Like the gifted writer that she is, Mercer enlists every syllable in the service of catapulting the reader into the world of the New South Africa, a country within which, courtesy of the corruption that pervades the ANC, unimaginably barbaric criminality has become an intractable feature of everyday life. The issue of crime has a particularly personal dimension for Mercer, for several members of her own family have been brutalized. 
South Africa’s criminals act with a ruthlessness and an abandonment that would make even the most hardened residents of high crime areas in America blush. Whether it is the gang raping of young girls, the torturing of home owners who had the misfortune of awaking in the middle of the night to discover intruders on their property, or the forcible confiscation of the farm lands that South Africa’s most industrious and productive residents have spent their lives cultivating, crime in post-apartheid South Africa knows no bounds in either the frequency with which it occurs or the blood that it leaves in its wake.
Mercer spends an entire chapter identifying—and dismantling—the litany of conventional excuses that have been devised to explain away post-apartheid misery: “racism,” “post-colonialism,” “exploitation,” and the like. With the greatest of ease she obliterates them. It is here that her pen becomes the machete with which she slashes away at the nonsense that passes for deep thought among the Western intelligentsia.
Neither, however, does Mercer countenance any reductionist biological accounts of black-white differences. Such an approach is problematic for more than one reason, but especially because it would, ultimately, amount to but one more “root-cause.” Mercer doesn’t say this. For that matter, I haven’t heard any one else say it either. But a biologically-centered theory of human conduct, like those emphatically non-biological approaches that Mercer effortlessly puts out to pasture, is a species of precisely that hegemonic power with which Mercer struggles throughout her captivating work.
This “power” is what others have called “rationalism,” by far and away the dominant intellectual disposition of the modern West.  
Rationalism comes in many degrees, but, at the very least, what all forms of modern rationalism seem to share in common is a penchant for the abstract and universal over the concrete and particular. To put it differently, the concepts of tradition, culture, and custom figure minimally, if at all, in the thought of the rationalist. Such concepts bespeak a provinciality that is anathema to the rationalist mind, a mind that prefers to dwell among ideas—rational nature, human nature, natural rights, natural law, laws of history, human rights, Democracy, state of nature, principles, ideals—of another type altogether. 
Doctrines of innate inferiority no less than doctrines of “racism” and other fashionable “root causes” accounts of black rule in South Africa are alike functions of rationalism, for while they differ in degree, they are of one kind in relegating cultural considerations to the periphery (if there!). 
Mercer knows this. That which we now know as modern conservatism actually originated as a response to the rationalistic excesses of the Enlightenment. David Hume and, particularly, Edmund Burke, were among its most distinguished of representatives. In reading Cannibal it is hard not to see in its author the shades of her illustrious predecessors. Like these theorists from times past, Mercer compels her readers to recognize that the dislodging of moral ideals from the complex of historically and culturally-specific traditions that give them color promises calamitous consequences for all involved.
At the same time, however, Mercer—a self-identified “paleo-libertarian”—refuses to abandon rationalist talk of “natural rights.” 
That there is conflict between, on the one hand, Mercer’s affirmation of natural rights, and, on the other, the primacy that she ascribes to culture or tradition, is obvious. It is even possible that this tension in her text between the universal and the particular may be insuperable. But, ultimately, whatever criticism falls on Mercer for this must be qualified by the consideration that if there are tensions in Cannibal between these themes—and there undoubtedly are—it is only because, from the inception of Western philosophy some 2600 years ago, the same tensions have constituted the Western Mind itself. 
Permanence and flux, nature and convention, the universal and the particular—it was from a longing to discern the connection between the members of each of these dualisms that Western philosophy was born. To this day, the inquiry continues. 
Mercer’s commitment to natural rights reflects what the reader must recognize as a laudable attempt to preserve some sense of permanence undergirding the identity-extinguishing change that has engulfed her beloved South Africa since the abolition of apartheid. Her insistence upon the culturally-centered (culturally constituted?) nature of morality reconciles her—and us—to the fact that it is in vain, to say nothing of great agony, that we suppress or ignore the staggering variety of human customs in favor of a monolithic moral plan within the jurisdiction of which all human beings can be made to fall.
Mercer’s thought is distended between universal natural rights and particular cultural traditions, it is true. Yet as is the case with so many works of genius, this tension is as much one of Cannibal’s strengths as it is a weakness, for from it there springs an energy that is notable for its sense of urgency. 
Like Burke before her, Mercer, it is clear, is on a mission. Burke was consumed with the conflagration of the French Revolution that he believed threatened to tear European civilization asunder. Far from obscuring his ethical vision, I believe that much of the passion that informed it stemmed from a conflict in Burke’s consciousness between a recognition of both the universal demands of morality and the partiality that we owe to “the little platoons”—our local attachments—from which we derive our individual identities. This, though, is precisely the same war that rages within Mercer, and as it aided Burke in his contest with the evil of the French radicals, so too does it aid Mercer in her contest with the wickedness of the African National Congress and its supporters.
Cannibal is a woefully underappreciated book. A not inconsiderable number of otherwise astute reviewers seemed to have missed its main significance. This work is not primarily about “diversity,” “democracy,” “egalitarianism,” or “collectivism.” And it is certainly not about any conflicts within the Jewish community (Mercer is herself a Jew who remarks upon the role that South African Jews, including her father, played as critics of apartheid, as well as the role that Israel assumed as a stalwart ally of the Old South Africa). Cannibal isn’t even a book about inter-racial conflict.
Ultimately, as I read it, Cannibal is a brilliantly executed reenactment of the great Western drama, an epic contest between the universal and the particular, permanence and flux, nature, history, and convention. To the roster of the most colorful cast of characters that have, at various times, assumed center stage in this grand pageant we can now add the name of Ilana Mercer. 
Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa should be on the shelves of every thoughtful American. But conservatives especially need to attend to this book, for it is as intelligently, eloquently, and forcefully articulated a case against shaping political policy prescriptions according to universal abstractions as any that our generation has yet to produce.  

Ilana Mercer’s “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa”: A Review

posted by Jack Kerwick

Ilana Mercer’s, Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa, is an unusual book. 

Yet it is unusual in the best sense of the word.

At once autobiographical and political; philosophical, historical, and practical; controversial and commonsensical, Cannibal succeeds in weaving into a seamless whole a number of distinct modes of thought.  This is no mean feat.  In fact, its author richly deserves to be congratulated for scoring an achievement of the highest order, for in the hands of less adept thinkers this ensemble of voices would have fast degenerated into a cacophony.  By the grace of Mercer’s pen, in stark contrast, it is transformed into a symphony.

Mercer is a former resident ofSouth Africa.  She is intimately familiar with her native homeland in both its apartheid and post-apartheid manifestations.  Yet it is precisely because she is all too well aware of the latter that she is now one of its legions of emigrants.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from Mercer’s flight from South Africa to the United States that she had ever been any sort of champion of apartheid.  Not only has she never supported these (or, for that matter, any) racially-themed institutional arrangements; with its affirmation of “natural rights” and “individualism,” Mercer’s “paleo-libertarianism”—a variant of the classical liberal tradition—positively precludes any such sympathy.

Still, as she amply demonstrates, not by any social indicia does “the New South Africa” even remotely approximate the old as far as quality of life is concerned.  As is more often than not the case with revolutionary-like innovations, the transition from apartheid to democracy has visited upon the residents of South Africa—especially its white residents, the Afrikaners—all manner of evil that, ostensibly, were not envisioned by those legions of Westerners for whom “change” of any kind can only be a benefit.

For one, far from being “the post-racial” idyll to which the abolition of apartheid was supposed to lead, the ruling African National Congress—the party of Nelson Mandella—is no less “committed” to “restructuring society around race” than was their “apartheid-era Afrikaners.”  There is, however, one critical difference between South Africa under majority black rule and South Africaunder minority-white rule: “more people,” Mercer informs us, “are murdered in one week under African rule than died under the detention of the Afrikaner government over the course of roughly four decades.”

Mercer’s verdict upon the New South Africa is blunt and decisive: “Dubbed the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ for its multiculturalism, South Africais now, more than before, a ‘Rambo Nation’” (emphases added).

Indeed.  The first chapter of Cannibal is a gripping—and grisly—account of the scourge that crime has become in post-apartheid South Africa.  While her discussion is not utterly devoid of numbers, Mercer refuses to reduce the victims of barbarism to statistics. Her eschewal of abstractions in favor of concrete details, however ghastly they may be, is both admirable and effective. Mercer’s treatment of this subject compels the reader to reckon with the stone cold fact that the thousands of white farmers who have been brutalized since the end of apartheid, like those who have mercilessly preyed upon them, are flesh-and-blood human beings. 

Mercer relays the heart wrenching episode of the Williams family. After the Williams lost their twelve-year-old daughter Emily as she stumbled upon an armed robbery in progress at a friend’s house while traveling to school, her parents decided that their country had become an intolerable place to remain.  They have since relocated to the United Kingdom.

The reader is also introduced to people like Rene Burger, a young and promising medical student who was kidnapped and gang-raped at knife-point by three degenerates at a “well-patrolled” hospital where she was taking classes, and Sheldon Cohen, who died in front of his young son after being gunned down by three predators.

Mercer identifies others—including a not inconsiderable number of her own relatives—who have suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of South African thugs.  She also definitively establishes that to no slight measure, this crime epidemic is motivated by an animus toward whites, a deep seated racial hatred that is both encouraged and, particularly in the case of the legions of white Afrikaner farmers who have been forced from their lands, sanctioned by the African National Congress.                 

In keeping with the subtitle of her book, Mercer is at pains to spare her adopted country—America—from the destructive folly that engulfed her native homeland.  The judgment of one reviewer to the contrary aside, I do not believe that it is essentially the perils of “diversity” against which Mercer warns her American compatriots.  It is true that in drawing parallels between the New South Africa and trends in the United States, the author goes to great lengths to signal to the citizens of the latter that from the union of massive Third World immigration and a system of racial preferences as comprehensive as ours, nothing short of self-destruction will spring. 

However, as I read her, Mercer is more concerned with reminding us that such “political abstractions” as “democracy” are nothing more or less than conceptual devices, ideals that we have distilled from our own culturally and historically-specific traditions.  In other words, political institutions are not inanimate objects that can be moved about at will; rather, they are long-settled, if never perfected, habits or customs that have been centuries in the making. 

Thus, it isn’t just so-called “affirmative action” and Third World immigration at home over which Mercer sounds the alarm.  She is at least as concerned over the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” that is now the reigning orthodoxy that informsAmerica’s view, not just of herself, but of her role vis-à-vis the world.  Actually, it is with a remarkable degree of clarity and concision that Mercer reveals the inextricable intellectual link between America’s domestic prescriptions and her foreign policy.  This link, she convincingly argues, is the fiction—“nonsense on stilts,” as Jeremy Bentham would have said—that America is a “proposition nation,” the only country in all of human history to have been founded upon a bloodless, lifeless, abstraction. 

It is hard not to be impressed with Mercer’s skill at preserving the integrity of the thread that unites her analysis of the flawed metaphysical underpinnings of contemporary American orthodoxy with the nit and grit of the everyday reality of South Africa.  Not only is a discussion of “American exceptionalism” germane to any critique of democratic South Africa; considering that the United States figured prominently among the nations of the world in agitating for a shift from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, no critique of the New South Africa would be complete without an examination of the prevailing ideology of “American exceptionalism.”

With its view of America as the one and only country on all of the planet to have been erected upon a “principle” or “ideal”—a proposition—the logic of the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” leads inexorably to the conclusion that other countries too can be made, with sufficient time and pressure, to transcend the contingencies of time and place from which they have derived their identities. In other words, since America, the “proposition nation,” is supposed to be a “democracy,” it is America that is supposed to remake the rest of the world in the image of Democracy. 

Mercer astutely, and forcefully, identifies this not just as a fiction, but a particularly invidious fiction at that, for “American exceptionalism” has had disastrous effects for Americans, South Africans, Middle Easterners, and, for that matter, anyone else upon whom it has been imposed.

This book is immensely important.  It is just as engaging.  However, for all of its virtues, it is not immune to criticism.

Throughout the pages of Cannibal, there is a discernible tension between, on the one hand, the thrust of Mercer’s main argument and, on the other, some not insignificant nods that she makes in the opposite direction.  This tension never finds resolution. 

Mercer meticulously, even flawlessly, substantiates her thesis that the New South Africa is as corrupt as it is oppressive.  Yet her relentless critique of the innumerable ways in which the ruling African National Congress has ruined her beloved country is underwritten by an equally scathing critique of the philosophy that informs these ruinous policies.  Although she never calls it by name, this philosophy is what others have called “Rationalism.”

Rationalism is an intellectual disposition with a pedigree stretching back at least as far as Plato. But beginning in the modern era, during the Enlightenment especially, it assumed a robustness that its ancient and medieval counterparts never could have anticipated.  Although it admits of variations, what unites most expressions of modern Rationalism is the conviction that Reason supplies moral “principles” or “ideals” to which all people at all times have access.  From this perspective, the morality that Reason establishes is as comprehensive and universal as is Reason itself.

Wherever and whenever one utopian scheme or another has been tried, this rationalistic conception of Reason and morality, whether overtly or covertly, to some degree or another, has attended it.  Of this, Mercer shows a keen awareness, for her critique pivots upon the West’s folly of supposing that non-Western peoples can, at will, organize their societies around the same “political abstractions” to which the West has grown accustomed. 

At the same time, however, Mercer’s commitment to “paleo-libertarianism” leads her to invoke “natural rights.”    

It is between her denunciations of Rationalism and her affirmation of “natural rights” that the conflict exists, for as conservative theorists from David Hume and Edmund Burke onward have noted, the popular doctrine of “natural rights” is the product of the Rationalist mind. 

“Natural rights” are supposed to be rights that all people have just by virtue of their humanity alone.  What Mercer and other adherents of the classical liberal tradition refer to as “natural rights” their contemporaries of other political persuasions—and in some instances, libertarians themselves—call “human rights,” and their predecessors described as “the Rights of Man.”  Propositions affirming such “rights” are invariably treated as if they were axiomatic, and “the rights” themselves as if they were dispensations from either nature or God.

I see at least two objections to Mercer’s inclusion of “natural rights” talk in Cannibal.

First, the notion of “natural rights” undergirds the fashionable—and, as Mercer brilliantly demonstrates, fundamentally wrong-headed—idea that democratically arranged institutions alone secure liberty and justice.  It is, if you will, the Mother of all contemporary “political abstractions.”  As Burke said, against “natural rights” or, as he put it, “the Rights of Man,” “there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament, and no compromise: any thing withheld from their full demand is so much fraud and injustice.” 

Between abstract, universal “natural rights” and concrete, particular cultural traditions there can only be an adversarial relationship.

Secondly, Mercer needn’t reject “natural rights” in order to see her argument through.  But neither does she need to affirm them.  Her case in Cannibal doesn’t depend upon her saying anything at all about them.  We would do ourselves a good turn here to turn once more to Burke.

Burke did not deny what he termed “the real rights of man.”  Yet he believed that when attending to the arrangements of civil society, such talk of abstractions that are supposed to exist in advance of civilization are entirely superfluous.  In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke wrote: “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect” (emphasis added).  In politics, it is “the civil social man, and no other”—i.e. not man in some “natural state”—with whom we must concern ourselves. “If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention,”—and not something that is held to transcend all convention—“must be its law” (emphasis added). 

These criticisms that I offer arise not from any distaste on my part with Cannibal.  To the contrary, they are the function of my affection for it.  And the allusions to Burke—“the patron saint of modern conservatism”—are apt for more than one reason.  

Not only does Mercer, like Burke, emphasize the importance of the cultural pre-requisites of a flourishing political order over rationalistic, universalistic abstractions; like Burke, Mercer succeeds in intertwining the personal, the political, and the philosophical into one compelling argument. 

Yet there is one final reason to call on Burke while assessing Mercer’s Cannibal. 

Burke had famously said that the only thing that was necessary for evil to triumph was for good men to do nothing.  Though Mercer is not a man, sadly, she is in much greater supply of that “manly virtue” that Burke prized than are many—even most—male writers today.  Burke unabashedly identified the wickedness of the French Revolutionaries for what it was.  Similarly, Mercer courageously, indignantly, exposes the evil that is the African National Congress and its collaborators.  In fact, her book may perhaps have been more aptly entitled, Reflections on the Revolution in South Africa.

It is tragic that Ilana Mercer was all but compelled to leave the country that for much of her life was her home.  YetSouth Africa’s loss isAmerica’s gain.  As her work makes obvious for all with eyes to see, the richness of Mercer’s intellect is as impressive as the soundness of her character.

Into the Cannibal’s Pot is mandatory reading for all who care about truth, justice, and liberty.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American    




Previous Posts

Leading Atheist Philosopher Concludes: There IS A God
The Christian world just celebrated the Easter holiday, the Resurrection of Jesus, the God-Man, from the dead. Yet there are many people who either don’t believe in God or, if they do, certainly don’t believe that the Supreme Being assumed flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. At the same

posted 9:47:19am Apr. 21, 2014 | read full post »

If I Am a Moral Relativist, So is God
Evidently, I am a moral relativist. In a recent article, I applauded a colleague for adapting to our school stage a play—Songs for a New World.  This play, I contended, marked a quite radical departure from the standard Politically Correct line insofar as it resoundingly affirmed “the morali

posted 9:23:32pm Apr. 17, 2014 | read full post »

Affirming Individuality: Reflections on "Songs for a New World"
Legions of Americans have, rightly, written off the entertainment and academic industries (yes, the latter is a colossal industry) as the culture’s two largest bastions of leftist ideology. Sometimes, however, and when we least expect it, the prevailing “Politically Correct” (PC) orthodoxy

posted 5:59:05pm Apr. 15, 2014 | read full post »

Pope Francis: A Socialist By Any Other Name
Pope Francis is once again insisting that he is not a communist, that his abiding concern for “the poor” is grounded in the Gospel of Christ, not the ideology of Marx, Engels, or any other communist. Back in 2010, while still a Cardinal, he felt the need to do the same. Why? It may very

posted 8:48:27pm Apr. 08, 2014 | read full post »

Pope Francis: As Clever a Politician as They Come
Much to the disappointment of this Catholic, Pope Francis balked on a golden opportunity to convey to the world just how fundamentally, how vehemently, the vision of the Church differs from that of President Obama when the two met a couple of weeks back. Why?  Can it be that Francis is the fello

posted 9:30:34pm Apr. 04, 2014 | read full post »

Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.