Why Donald Trump is wrong about American history and liberals are wrong about the West

Trump needs to be told the truth about Robert E Lee – and self-flagellating lefties need to understand that not every bit of violence in the developing world happens because of those countries' colonialist pasts

Slavoj Zizek
Tuesday 05 September 2017 11:41 BST
Trump seems to not properly understand the history of the American War of Independence
Trump seems to not properly understand the history of the American War of Independence (AFP/Getty Images)

After the tragic events in the US following proposals to remove the statues of General Robert E Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army in the Civil War, Donald Trump claimed that as George Washington was also a slave-owner, the two can be equated.

There is a figure of Southern gentleman popular even in “progressive” literature. Recall Horace from Lillian Hellmann’s Little Fixes, a benevolent patriarch with a weak heart who is horrified by his wife’s plans for the brutal capitalist exploitation of their property. Look at Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird who, as it is revealed in the sequel, also had a racist streak. Confederacy was not about slavery but about protecting a local “way of life” from the brutal capitalist onslaught. These left-liberal iconic figures of conservative bucolic-patriarchal anti-capitalism sincerely help Southern black people when they are oppressed and falsely accused, but their sympathy stops when people of colour begin not only to fight but also to question the actual freedom provided by the Northern liberal establishment.

But Robert E Lee was not even such a gentleman. There are no reports that he had any inner qualms about slavery. Furthermore, even among slave owners, there was a division between those who, when they were re-selling their slaves, took care that families with children remained together, and those who didn’t bother, happy to separate families – Lee was among this second much harsher group. He may well have appeared to be a gentleman with good manners, but he nonetheless dealt brutally with slaves – as difficult as it may be to accept, the two can go together.

A true white gentleman was shot by Robert E Lee: John Brown, one of the key political figures in the history of US, the fervently Christian abolitionist who came closest to introducing the radical emancipatory, egalitarian logic into the US political landscape. As Margaret Washington put it, he made it very clear that he saw no difference between whites and blacks, and “he didn't make this clear by saying it, he made it clear by what he did” – this is how a true gentleman talks and acts, if the term “gentleman” could be given an emancipatory dimension.

His consequential egalitarianism led him to become engaged in the armed struggle against slavery: in 1859, he tried to arm slaves and thus create a violent rebellion against the South; the revolt was suppressed and Brown was taken to jail by a federal force led by none other than Robert E Lee. After being found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection, Brown was hanged on 2nd December. Even today, long since slavery was abolished, Brown is the dividing figure in the American collective memory: his only statue which stands on an obscure location in the Quindaro neighbourhood of Kansas City (the original town of Quindaro was a major stop on the Underground Railway) is often vandalised.

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All great American founding myths should be re-analysed: there is another dark side to the War of Independence. The “heroes of Alamo” were also defending slave ownership. This other side is portrayed in a 1999 film: Lance Hool’s One Man's Hero, which tells the story of Jon Riley and the Saint Patrick's Battalion, a group of Irish Catholic immigrants who deserted from the mostly Protestant US Army to the Catholic Mexican side during the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848 and fought heroically to defend the Republic of Mexico from the US aggression.

At the movie's end, while working in a stone quarry for military prisoners, Riley is told by his former US commander that he has been freed, to which he responds, "I have always been free."

The point is not just to debunk War of Independence as a fake: there undoubtedly is an emancipatory dimension in the works of Jefferson and Paine, among others. In spite of being a slave owner, Jefferson is an important link in the chain of modern emancipatory struggles, and the struggle for abolition of slavery was basically the continuation of Jefferson’s work.

Jefferson is not the same as Robert E Lee, and the inconsistencies in his position just demonstrate how the American Revolution is an unfinished project (as Habermas would have put it). In some senses, its true conclusion, its second act, was the civil war; in other ways it wasn’t over until 1960, with the realisation of the black right to vote; yet for many, as the persistence of the Confederacy myth demonstrates, it is not yet over even today.

Similarly, although Immanuel Kant’s views are racist, he nonetheless contributed to the process which led to contemporary emancipatory struggles – to put it pointedly, there is no Marxism and no socialism without Kant.

This is the point that Trump missed when he put the “respect” for Lee in line with the respect for American tradition and said: "This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? [...] George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? ... You're changing history, you're changing culture."

As Jamil Khader pointed out, in his reactions to Charlottesville killing, Trump did not betray only multiculturalism but also and above all the emancipatory legacy of universalism. Identity politics focuses on the right of each (ethnic, religious, sexual) group to be able to fully assert its particular identity – the much more difficult and radical task is to enable each group the full access to universality.

Was Malcolm X not following this very insight when he adopted X as his family name? The point of choosing X as his family name and thereby signalling that the slave traders who brought the enslaved Africans from their homeland brutally deprived them of their family and ethnic roots, of their entire cultural life-world, was not to mobilise the blacks to fight for the return to some primordial African roots, but precisely to seize the opening provided by X, an unknown new (lack of) identity engendered by the very process of slavery which made the African roots forever lost. The idea is that this X which deprives black people of their particular tradition offers a unique chance to redefine and reinvent themselves, to freely form a new identity much more universal than white people’s professed universality. (As is well known, Malcolm X found this new identity in the universalism of Islam.)

The big task of the Western Left is to leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-blame which is the inverted form of clinging to one’s superiority: the idea that natural disasters and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes.The West is caught in the typical superego predicament: the more it confesses its crimes, the more it is made to feel culpable.

If the West’s continuous self-flagellation for the developing world’s evils functions as a desperate attempt to reassert our superiority, the true reason why the developing world hates and rejects the West is not its colonising past and its continuing effects, but the self-critical spirit which the West displayed in renouncing this past, with the implicit call to others to practice the same self-critical approach.

The liberal reduction of the developing world’s populations to a passive victim deprives them of any agency, and fails to see how the Middle East is in no way just passive victims of European and American neo-colonial machinations.

Their different courses of action are not just reactions, they are different forms of active engagement in their predicament: expansive and aggressive push towards Islamisation (financing mosques in foreign countries, for example) and open warfare against the West are ways of actively engaging in a situation with a well-defined goal.

The Western legacy is effectively not just that of (post)colonial imperialist domination, but also that of the self-critical examination of the violence and exploitation that the West brought to the developing world. The French colonised Haiti, but the French Revolution also provided the ideological foundation to the rebellion which liberated the slaves and established the independent Haiti; the process of decolonisation was set in motion when the colonised nations demanded for themselves the same rights that the West took for itself.

In short, one should never forget that the West provided the very standards by means of which it (as well as its critics) measures its criminal past.

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